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Migrant Lives

Immigration International: Rohingya Stranded, Mediterranean Tomb, U.S. Border

Libyan coastguard boat carrying illegal migrants on May 3
Libyan coastguard boat carrying illegal migrants on May 3
Patrick Randall

PARIS — Up to 8,000 Rohingya, a long-persecuted Burmese minority, are still reportedly stranded on rickety boats in deplorable and perilous conditions, weeks after being abandoned by human traffickers in the Andaman Sea.

Denied safe passage on the shores of countries in the region, the plight of this Muslim ethnic group is however just one of the planet's many humanitarian disasters swirling around the issue of migration right now.

Refugees and would-be immigrants fleeing violence and poverty are making headlines on every continent. It's a world map of human misery that political leaders appear ill-equipped to resolve: 4 million Syrians who fled to neighboring countries; 550,000 South Sudanese taking refuge in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda or Sudan; a rising death toll in dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean by people escaping conflict in the Middle East and Africa; a human trafficking route that extends from Central America through Mexico to the United States.

Here's a glance at some of the flashpoints, and the coverage in the global media.

Rohingya rejected

  • Often described as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities,” the Rohingya are effectively a stateless Muslim ethnic group repeatedly forced to flee persecution from Burmese Buddhists.
  • Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have turned away the refugee boats, though the Philippines now appears ready to welcome at least some Rohingya.
  • A regional meeting on the crisis has been set for May 29 in Bangkok, though observers note the situation remains extremely urgent.

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Source: The Bangkok Post, May 18, 2015

The ongoing disaster in the Southeast Asian Andaman Sea remains confused, in part because Bangladeshi migrants escaping poverty are also believed to be among the boat people, The Jakarta Post reports. This has led to violent clashes onboard between both communities, as conditions worsened. Survivors who reached Indonesia’s northern Aceh province described real “massacres” and “horrific scenes” involving “knives, machetes and iron bars,” the AFP reports. Witnesses say at least 100 people were killed and that “those who wanted to survive had to jump into the sea.”

Thai Deputy Secretary General for Security Issues Panitan Wattanayagorn said “it was up to the U.S. to take “real action” to address the problem,” the Bangkok Post reports.

Syrian exodus

  • Some 4 million Syrian refugees have now taken refuge in its neighboring countries.
  • 6.5 million have been internally displaced since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in March 2011.
  • According to UNHCR figures, Turkey has received a record 1,760,000 asylum seekers while Lebanon has taken in 1,180,000, Jordan 627,000 and Iraq 248,000.

In addition to being the deadliest conflict in recent years, the Syrian civil war has also had disastrous effects on its neighbors.

In Jordan, for instance, the number of unemployed people has increased from 14.5% prior to the Syrian crisis in 2011 to 22.1% today, the Saudi Gazette reports. Economist Zayyan Zawaneh told The Jordan Times that “the increase in unemployment rates will affect the country’s social fabric.”

In Turkey, the arrival of Syrian refugees into tough living conditions across the country’s 22 refugee camps and large western cities have had similar effects. According to a report by the Washington Institute, about 83% of the registered Syrian refugees (up to 150,000 refugees have now allegedly illegally extended their stay) are concentrated in the five southern provinces of Turkey, Gaziantep, Hatay, Kilis, Mardin, and Sanliurf. The Washington Institute report says that “the refugee presence in these five provinces is altering their ethnic and sectarian balance. For instance, Kilis’s Arab population — previously less than 1% — has increased to 51%."

The Mediterranean graveyard

  • About 1,200 people drowned in the Mediterranean between April 13 and 20, setting off widespread coverage and questions across Europe.
  • The refugees were mainly from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan regions; the key landing points from those departing from North Africa are in Italy and the small island nation of Malta.
  • Greece and Spain are also first destinations, though often immigrants ultimately hope to arrive farther north in Europe.

A series of migrant boats capsizing in the Mediterranean in April brought the Mediterranean crisis to a whole new level of horror and shed light on the European Union’s inability to handle the humanitarian disaster.

Corriere della Serahas compared the crisis to 9/11 and wondered if Europe had to wait for an event of that scale to really start taking measures. "After the Sept. 11 attacks, our perceptions changed forever. North America, which for years had armed the terrorists, became a victim of its own policies. Now, Lampedusa is a double shipwreck for Europe, which favored and fed the dictators and inequalities that produce the massive flights of desperate dreamers to the seas.”

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"The shame of Europe" — Source: Il Messaggero, April 20, 2015

This month, a series of measures were announced by European authorities to prevent human traffickers in Libya from operating and to handle the arrival of migrant boats. The EU announced Monday it was establishing an operation called “EUNAFVOR Med,” which, according to Le Monde, will “involve deploying European army warships and surveillance aircraft off the Libyan coast, which has become a major trafficking platform.” The EU will also reinforce Frontex, the agency in charge of watch and rescue operations on Europe’s exterior borders.

Concerns have already been raised concerning the militarization of the migrant crisis issue, triggering fears it would lead to more deaths. Libya's ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told the BBC his country was strongly opposed to the operation. “The Libyan government has not been consulted by the European Union. They have left us in the dark about what their intentions are, what kind of military actions they are going to take in our territorial waters, so that is very worrying.”

The agreement reached by the EU ministers is less about humanitarian concern, and more a manifestation of “increasing political panic,” as The Economist puts it. “Governments know their voters want conflicting things. They do not want the moral shame of seeing pictures on their televisions throughout the summer of thousands of desperate people pleading to be rescued from sinking hulks, or the bodies of the drowned washing up on European beaches," the London-based weekly writes. "But the sour anti-immigrant mood in much of Europe means there is little enthusiasm for allowing the same people a legal path to settlement.”

Solutions are also being searched for on the other side of the Mediterranean, reports the Tunis-based daily La Presse de Tunisie. Italian and Tunisian Presidents Sergio Mattarella and Béji Caïd Essebsi met this week in Tunis, with the fate of Tunisian victims in the Mediterranean migrant crisis at the center of the talks.

South Sudan civil war feeds migration

  • Since the start of the South Sudanese Civil War, in December 2013, an estimated 547,000 refugees have fled to neighboring countries.
  • Ethiopia has taken in more than 200,000 migrants, Sudan and Ethiopia have each received up to 150,000 refugees and Kenya almost 46,000, according to the UNHCR. Between 10,000 and 50,000 people are believed to have been killed in the conflict.

In late April, the South Sudanese army launched a major offensive in the north of the country, in an attempt to regain a strategic enclave held by rebels. But according to Jeune Afrique, the lives of at least 650,000 people are threatened. The clashes prevent humanitarian aid to access a population that has already been significantly affected by the war.

France 24 describes the humanitarian situation as “catastrophic,” since aid agencies such as the UN were forced to leave the region earlier in May due to the intensity of the fight. “Rapes, kidnapping, massacres and fires are frequent and are added to the clashes between the forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those of his rival, former Vice President Riek Machar.”

Border of the Americas

  • Illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border has been an issue for decades. But more and more of the arrivals are coming from countries other than Mexico.
  • Although the number of illegal immigrants on U.S. soil was decreasing at the end of the 2000s, it did not stop Barack Obama from spending $18 billion in 2012. USA Today reports that immigration enforcement spending accounts for “more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.”

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Photo: Toksave/GFDL

Historically, Mexicans represented the majority of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. But this week, U.S. Border Patrol released figures showing that for the first time, there are now more Central Americans migrating to the U.S. than Mexicans. For instance, Honduran daily Tiempo reports that “of the 256,393 migrants in McAllen, Texas, 75% originated from Central America.”

This is not only affecting the U.S., but also Mexico itself, through which illegal immigrants from Central America travel. “The Frontera Sur plan Mexico’s Southern Border Strategy is a disaster regarding human rights, observers say. The government is basically giving visas and work permits to a small group of migrants at the border who already have papers, but rejecting thousands of illegal migrants, who then have to find always more dangerous roads to get to the U.S.,” La Opinion writes. This brings migrants to resort to extreme measures, such as what the Los-Angeles-based Spanish-language daily describes as the “Death train.” In this train that crosses Mexico from South to North; “migrants suffer all kinds of abuse committed by the mafia; from theft to sexual harassment and even kidnapping or murder.”

Climate change refugees

As solutions are barely been worked on for refugee or immigration crisis, others are emerging. Just before the Rohingya boat people crisis came to light, deadly earthquakes struck Nepal and left millions homeless, potentially triggering a new wave of migration. Before that, hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians were fleeing into their neighboring countries. As sea levels rise, droughts become tougher and storms stronger, “climate refugees” are set to emerge massively in the future and the list of crises is not expected to get shorter.

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