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News Deeply is a New-York-based online journalism platform. In addition to its flagship site, Syria Deeply founded in 2012 by Lara Setrakian and Azeo Fables to cover the Syrian Civil War, the company operates single-issue websites such Refugees Deeply and Women's Advancement Deeply.
Syrian refugees in the Zaatari camp near Mafraq, Jordan
Sarah Deardorff Miller

Exit Strategy? Why Scaling Back Refugee Aid Is So Tricky

Aid groups have plenty of protocols for scaling up humanitarian responses to crises. Less clear is when or how they should phase down — and eventually out.

The New YorkDeclaration and the Global Compact on Refugees have focused the world's attention on large-scale, protracted refugee situations. They emphasize responsibility sharing and the greater involvement of development actors at earlier stages of refugee situations.

Headlines and political rhetoric tend to focus on how to scale up humanitarian responses to current emergencies. International NGOs and UN actors generally have protocols and procedures, checklists and specialized teams to establish offices, move in supplies and create working relationships with governments, non-state actors, additional organizations, civil society groups and others.

Oddly enough, however, little thought is given to how an organization will eventually exit once the emergency is over. Exit strategies are theoretically in place from early on, and the assumption used to be that the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) would "phase out on completion of return" of refugees to their home countries.

But this is no longer the reality. Return is increasingly elusive. The realities of protracted crises, bureaucratic organizations, mission creep, donor preferences and genuine ongoing humanitarian need mean international organizations struggle to determine when and how to hand over activities to national authorities and development actors.

Phasing down currently tends to happen on an ad hoc basis. There is no neon flashing sign showing when it is time to leave. Moreover, the question of when and how to phase down is not just a technicality. It is at the heart of humanitarian work: It speaks to the definition of humanitarian work, responsibility sharing, the relief-development gap, and when a protracted situation has "ended."

In the field, there is a lack of clarity and planning on how and when to exit. In fact, there are few resources available on phasing-down strategies, and many are outdated. A recent UNHCR evaluation on phase-down activities in southern Africa from 2012 to 2016 highlights this clearly, and raises important questions for organizations working in protracted refugee situations.

First, there is a lack of clarity over the basic vocabularyof phasing down. For example, the report on phasing down in Botswana, Angola and Namibia mentions everything from "handing over," "phasing down," "transitioning," "disengaging" and "exiting" to "closing." These terms have vastly different connotations to staff, partners and refugees. They can mean anything from shrinking a presence, to leaving entirely but still funding activities, to completely severing all ties.

Second, the report highlights a range of criteria that could go into deciding when it is time to phase down. How does an organization know when to leave? Should it happen only when protection concerns have ended (i.e. refugees have returned home or found another durable solution)? Or should it relate to the host government's ability to offer protection? If a host country is wealthy, should it not be expected to take the lead in offering protection and assistance?

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey – Photo: Voice of America News

In theory, UNHCR is always working toward building state capacity to protect and assist refugees. In reality, most host governments want UNHCR to foot the bill and do the work of refugee protection, while the host government maintains control over refugee affairs.

Should the decision to phase down relate to funding and other competing emergencies? For example, if a new crisis emerges elsewhere and funds are limited, should that warrant pulling resources away from a protracted situation? Or should it relate to numbers instead? How many refugees need to be present to justify an organizational presence? Do new regional strategies with regional offices mean that a country presence is no longer needed? Does the entrance of more development actors into refugee spaces mean that humanitarian actors should leave sooner? Or could political strategy determine the phasing down? If a host country is hostile to the point where an aid group cannot operate, could it be wise to leave in protest?

Third, the report highlights the importance of who should be involved in making the decision to phase down. While closing operations in a country is a decision that should come from headquarters, input from field staff and refugees is essential. At the same time, staff working in the field could hardly be expected to seek an end to programs that would put them out of work; nor could refugees be expected to seek an end to protection and assistance programs that benefit them. How, then, should full input from the field take place?

There is also a need for clear procedures and plans on phasing down. An organization such as UNHCR must be meticulous about how and when it informs staff, the host government, partners and refugees about plans to phase down. Indeed, a rushed or botched pullout that angers the authorities could jeopardize other ongoing humanitarian projects, or may threaten future re-entry to the country should another emergency occur.

The shift from war to peace is neither easy nor clear.

Similarly, an organization must hedge its bets in deciding to leave. To go through the arduous process of phasing down — dismantling the entire aid infrastructure and severing some relationships — if there is a possibility that another influx may happen in the future, may not be worth it to an organization.

As some NGOs have found, it may be worthwhile maintaining a small in-country presence. This was certainly true in the Balkans, where UNHCR established a major presence in the 1990s; it tried to phase down over the years, but then had to scale back up with new arrivals in 2015. The evaluation also points to Angola as a case where UNHCR began scaling down, only to have to scale back up soon thereafter when new violence broke out in the Democratic Republic of Congo and refugees arrived.

Additional capacity-building is also needed before host governments can take the baton. Specialized teams may need to be brought in to properly archive office equipment, close out accounts and settle bills, and help staff complete their tasks. In essence, responsible phasing down requires "scaling up" before "scaling down."

To be fair, UNHCR does require "exit strategies' and it provides some guidance on phasing down. It is not something taken lightly, and the question is hardly new. As the High Commissioner stated in 1995: "…the shift from war to peace is neither easy nor clear. In some cases open conflict is replaced by lingering security; in others it might erupt into renewed violence – endangering prospects for repatriation and creating risks of fresh outflows. In almost every repatriation operation, UNHCR's immediate challenge is to ensure the minimum conditions of safety and economic and social well-being for those who are returning. The longer-term challenge is to ensure that others will carry on when we leave or phase down."

Spoken nearly 25 years ago, these words still resonate. The continued development of clearer guidance and benchmarks for when and how to phase down — and whether they should be uniform across the globe, or context-specific — is still needed.

Refugees taking part in a yoga class in Amman
Marta Vidal

In Jordan, A Safe Space For Refugee Fathers

A group in East Amman gives men from Syria and other conflict zones an opportunity to open up and talk through the many ways they struggle.

AMMAN — Each week, a group of 15 or so refugee men meet at a community center in East Amman and sit in a circle. They laugh and cry together while sharing stories they always divide into two phases: before and after the war began.

War and protracted exile have stripped them of their traditional roles and identities as protectors and financial providers for their families. This group is a safe space in which they get to be vulnerable. They realize they're not alone — but most importantly, it's a chance to be heard.

One longtime member, Salem,* fled Syria in 2013. When he settled in Amman, he hoped to find opportunities to start a new life. Instead, his concerns about safety were replaced with worry about not being able to find a job to support his family in Jordan.

"I feel so sad and guilty because I can't do anything for my family. I'm responsible for them, but I have no money to take my wife to the doctor, or to buy the expensive medicine she needs," he says, looking down at the floor. "My daughter just finished high school, and she wants to go to university to study pharmacy. But education is so expensive in Jordan. I can't afford it."

Humanitarian aid organizations tend to focus their resources on the populations they consider most vulnerable, such as refugee women and children. So, programs like this one, which targets men, are rare.

But male refugees can be vulnerable, too. Years after reaching safety, many men suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health conditions can worsen if patients continue to live in precarious conditions, whether in formal camps or informal urban settings, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Financial difficulties and family stress take a particularly heavy toll.

"I feel so sad and guilty because I can't do anything for my family."

Jordan, with more than 750,000 registered refugees, has one of the largest refugee populations of any country. Most are from Syria. Very few are able to find legal work, despite Jordan's attempts to give Syrian refugees greater access to the labor market. Many can only find work under the table or must rely on aid organizations for their every need.

The loss of employment and financial autonomy can be especially distressing for refugee fathers, who often feel as if they've failed their families.

"As a father, the lack of opportunities is terrible. There is no future here for my child," says Nour, a refugee from Iraq and the father of a 2-year-old boy.

Men are vulnerable too

Humanitarian aid organizations tend to follow predominant gender stereotypes when determining how to distribute their resources in emergency settings. They typically view men as more capable of coping with hardship.

Perceptions of female and child vulnerability are widespread and rarely questioned, according to Lewis Turner, a senior researcher at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute.

"These assumptions are part of a broader gender binary that associates men with power and women with weakness," Turner says. "Humanitarian organizations are influenced by gender stereotypes that expect men to project independence and autonomy. But also by racialized assumptions about Arab masculinity that can lead to Arab men being seen as threatening."

Turner's research explores how the humanitarian sector works with refugee men. While conducting interviews with humanitarian workers in Jordan, he realized that refugee men are largely overlooked.

"It often didn't occur to them to think about men," he says.

A gendered approach to aid often leaves refugee men isolated Mohammad Abu Ghosh/Xinhua/ZUMA

But they are frequently rendered vulnerable by their circumstances. Refugee men in Jordan are more likely than women to be unregistered and are therefore often less able to access humanitarian services. Unable to secure work permits, refugee men working informally are exposed to greater risk of arrest and deportation. Jordanian officials may also force them back to refugee camps if they're caught working illegally, virtually blocking their access to the labor market.

"Work is usually seen as a source of refugee men's independence, but it can also expose them to serious threats, dangerous situations or terrible working conditions," Turner says.

This gendered approach to assessing vulnerability affects refugee men's access to humanitarian services. Most psychosocial support programs and community activities target women and children, resulting in a gap in service provision.

"Grants are mostly for women and kids," says Judy Oldfield-Wilson, director of communications at the Collateral Repair Project (CRP), a nonprofit organization that runs the weekly community groups with refugee men in East Amman. Donors tend to focus on women and children because they garner more sympathy, she says.

"Work used to be a big part of the men's identities, but it's something they lost," Oldfield-Wilson says. "Women have their identities as wives and mothers, but men don't have the same roles to fall back on."

A place to be heard

Several nonprofits in Jordan are starting to offer activities and psychosocial support for men, too. CRP started its weekly support group after women complained their husbands were restless and depressed. It's called Diwaniya, the Arabic word for the reception area in Middle Eastern homes where men traditionally entertain their guests.

Some men express feelings of survivor's guilt.

"We designed it for people to say things that come from their hearts, not their heads," says CRP's deputy director, Samer Kurdi, a Jordanian painter who became the group's facilitator.

Every week the men are asked to discuss a different question that explores issues related to their identities and feelings of guilt, sadness or frustration. For example, sometimes the men express feelings of survivor's guilt at having escaped Syria or Iraq when war claimed the lives of so many others.

"We've had amazing moments with men crying. I sometimes had to fight back tears," he says. The group helps men realize that others are experiencing similar problems and makes them feel less isolated.

The stigma against mental health conditions is one of the most common reasons why refugee men don't seek help or treatment. CRP offers other activities, such as a mind-body medicine program, to fight that stigma.

Diwaniya brings together men from different countries and backgrounds. Many used to own stores and businesses in Syria or Iraq. Some hold academic degrees. Others used to be farmers. But in Jordan, all face similar effects of displacement and the suffocating lack of prospects. "We can't find work, so we don't know how to spend our free time," says Kareem, who used to be a school director in Iraq.

Kareem and Salem met in 2015, when they both started attending. Kareem is from Iraq and Salem from Syria. Both are in their early 60s. They bonded over the meetings and quickly became best friends.

Salem's wife reminds him about the weekly meeting the day before, and he walks for an hour to get there. The scheduled appointment gives him something to look forward to in his otherwise unoccupied week. "In the group, people listen to me, and that's very important," Salem says. "It's so hard to find places where we are actually heard." Kareem nods in agreement. "When someone talks, everybody listens," he says. "I have many problems, but the group gives me energy to continue."

*Some names have been changed.

A Rohingya refugee looking over Cox's Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh
Migrant Lives

Rohingya Refugees Lost Between Languages In Bangladesh

Caught between a host country trying to hinder their integration and a home country holding back their return, Rohingya children find themselves in linguistic limbo.

COX'S BAZAR — When Mohammed Reyas works on his math classwork, his mind splits among multiple languages.

The 11-year-old, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, starts counting in Burmese: "Tit, hnit, thone." He then switches to Bangla: "Char, panch, chhoy." Then Rohingya: "Hant, anchtho, no." Finally, he finishes in English: "Ten, eleven, twelve."

It's been a year and a half since Mohammed fled with his family from their home in Buthidaung in Myanmar's Rakhine state to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. There, he studies in a makeshift learning center perched on a steep hill in the world's biggest refugee camp.

In class, he learns in English and Burmese, the latter the official language of Myanmar. At home with his family and friends, he speaks Rohingya, a spoken language used by Rohingya people that has no written form. He has also picked up Bangla words and phrases from Bangladeshi locals and aid workers in the camp.

This mix of languages is normal for young Rohingya refugees. But language has become a political battleground. It is a means of assimilating but also a source of exclusion for Rohingya people on both sides of the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The Bangladeshi government bans Rohingya refugees from learning the local language as part of its reluctance to allow their long-term integration. Meanwhile, the Rohingya believe they will someday return home to Myanmar, so parents want their children to learn Burmese. Some feel that raising their children with Bangla as the dominant language might further alienate them from the Rakhine and Burmese population once they return home. In the meantime, not knowing Bangla results in marginalization in Bangladesh, their host community.

"The advantage of learning Burmese is that it would provide an opportunity for Rohingya children to reintegrate into the education system in Myanmar in the future. It is their national language," says Karen Reidy, spokesperson for UNICEF, which runs 1,800 learning centers in the camps covering 155,000 children.

A "lost generation"

More than 1 million Rohingya refugees are living in Bangladesh, a figure that includes nearly half a million children. They have been called a "lost generation." A report by Save the Children last year estimated that more than 70% of Rohingya children in Bangladesh are not in school. Those who do have access to education attend sessions for about two hours per day, at grade levels far below their age.

Mohammed's 9-year-old sister, Yasmin, has also been exposed to multiple languages since they arrived in Bangladesh: "Minglaba" (a greeting in Burmese), she says. Then, in English, "Hi, how are you?"

Her instructor, Najim Ullah, a 22-year-old Rohingya refugee, teaches students the alphabet, rhymes and how to write sentences in Burmese.

"We will not be here for long," Ullah says. "They need to know Burmese when we return home."

Why do the Rohingya need to learn Bangla? Their language is Burmese.

But the Rohingya may not return to Myanmar anytime soon — and there is a chance they never will. In November, a plan put forward by Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya fell apart when no one agreed to a return because of continued hostility in Myanmar.

Twice in the past, in the late 1970s and early 1990s, there was a mass outflow of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh, and Bangladesh resisted any attempt toward their integration. Despite the harsh conditions and Bangladesh's pressure on the Rohingya to return home, many from the previous refugee waves opted to stay there.

That's why parents, aid workers and the children themselves wonder whether learning Burmese will serve young Rohingya in the future.

Rohingya refugee children are exposed to multiple languages — Photo: KM Asad/ZUMA

The Bangladeshi government attempts to prevent Rohingya integration in numerous ways. It prohibits formal schooling for Rohingya refugees and has recently cracked down on their attempts to study in Bangladeshi schools. And last year, it circulated a notification forbidding Bangla from being taught in the camps.

"Our policy is to provide informal education. Why do the Rohingya need to learn Bangla? Their language is Burmese," says Abul Kalam, chief of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission in Bangladesh. "They are here temporarily. The government is negotiating their repatriation strategy."

Mixing and matching

A study by Translators without Borders conducted in the camps last year found Rohingya is the language the refugees understand and prefer. Since Rohingya lacks a universally accepted script, Burmese is the preferred language for written communication. Interestingly, after Rohingya and Chittagonian (the local dialect of Cox's Bazar), spoken Bangla is understood at higher rates than spoken Burmese and English — likely because the spoken form of Bangla is closer to Rohingya.

"We have a chaotic situation in the camps. Burmese and English are being taught, but the mode of teaching is a mix of Chittagonian, Bangla and Rohingya," said A.K. Rahim, a sociolinguistic researcher with Translators Without Borders in Cox's Bazar, when he explained the study's findings at the Dhaka Lit Fest in November.

"There are cognitive dissonance issues among the children, simply because they are being bombarded with so many different languages that are not standardized in any way," he added. "There is no way to foresee what is their academic educational future, so they don't know which language to choose."

It helped me build a future.

It's common to hear of Rohingya people learning Bangla at night among themselves in the camps. A news report suggests Rohingya children are learning Bangla in secret from private tutors, themselves refugees who had fled the earlier waves of violence and managed to study in Bangladeshi schools.

"They all want to learn Bangla. I have seen young Rohingya children read and write Bangla, though not openly," says Ziaul Islam, a professor at the University of Chittagong, who researched the state of education in the camps last year. "They have the right to a better education, whether they stay back or return."

Zahid,* a Rohingya refugee in his late 20s, arrived with his family at the Kutupalong camp in the early 1990s. He was born in Bangladesh and studied in a Bangladeshi school by faking his identity papers and identifying himself as Bangladeshi. He speaks English and Bangla, apart from his native language, Rohingya.

"It helped me build a future," he says. He works with an aid agency and moonlights as a fixer and translator for international aid groups and journalists.

With both Bangla and Burmese being so politicized and not native to the Rohingya people, one recommendation by education experts and researchers is to develop a curriculum in English and include a component of mother-tongue education at the primary level.

Nasir Uddin, an anthropology professor at the University of Chittagong and a longtime researcher on Rohingya refugees, says, "Since this problem will not be solved anytime soon, we need to involve the Rohingya people and ask them what education they need for their future, instead of deciding for them."

*Some names of refugees have been changed in order to protect their safety.

Man standing at the U.S - Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico
Migrant Lives
Anne Dutton, Isaac Bloch

Before The Wall: Why Trump's Border Policy Is Already So Cruel

Asylum seekers who lawfully attempt to enter the U.S. are being forced to wait in Mexico — or made to leave after gaining entry — even after demonstrating they have a credible fear of returning home.

TIJUANA — Every morning the border city of Tijuana, Mexico, a stream of commuters flows into the San Ysidro port of entry to cross into the United States. Nearby, in the open air of an adjacent plaza, crowds of asylum seekers patiently arrange themselves in line. This contrast is striking: Both groups hope to enter the United States, but for the people who have come to request international protection, the journey is plagued with uncertainty.

Lately, that uncertainty is by design. Despite the Trump administration's insistence that asylum seekers enter the United States legally, it has rolled out a series of policies at the border that make it nearly impossible for them to do so. And it's created a kind of purgatory for people who are trying to play by the rules. Many asylum seekers can't come in legally; if they try, this administration doesn't always let them stay, despite the harms they'd face in Mexico or in their home countries.

Waiting and waiting

While volunteering at the border this winter, we observed that asylum seekers are no longer allowed to approach the U.S. port of entry. Instead, they're told they must first request a number from what is known as "the list" and wait, often for weeks, until it's their turn. This "list" is ostensibly necessary because of limited processing capacity — though these capacity issues haven't previously caused problems, and rates of asylum claims have not significantly increased in recent years. This unofficial, sometimes arbitrary practice is called "metering," and U.S. border officials have increased it in recent months.

For those fleeing persecution and torture, the list can have life-or-death consequences. Many of the asylum seekers in the plaza have fled horrific gender-based or gang violence. The risk that their persecutors will find them during the delay is real, particularly for Mexicans and those targeted by transnational criminal organizations. Even for those who haven't been tracked down by their persecutors, migrants in Tijuana face significant discriminationand are targets for organized crime. Women and young migrants are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, sexual violence, extortion and forced gang recruitment.

After providing their name and identity documents, asylum seekers receive a number, which marks their place on the list of those waiting to present themselves at the border. Although it's unclear who created the list, one of the most disturbing aspects is that neither the U.S. nor the Mexican government takes responsibility for the queue. Instead, a few asylum seekers are tasked with managing the list and recording the information of their fellow asylum seekers. The disclaimer of responsibility by U.S. and Mexican governments for the list appears intended to reduce their accountability, though legal challenges are pending.


Asylum seekers shelter in Tijuana, Mexico — Photo: Vito Di Stefano/ ZUMA

Sitting ducks

Over the course of two weeks in Tijuana, we observed the daily routines of the plaza. As new names are recorded, those who received their numbers weeks before wait to see if today is the day they will finally be called. Some buy smoothies and tacos at nearby stands, seamlessly fitting into the early rush hour. Eventually, the list managers begin calling numbers based on information they've received from Mexican and U.S. officials.

The arrangement lacks any semblance of confidentiality: Full names are announced in public, and the list itself is maintained in a composition-style notebook. Given the nature of asylum claims and the reach of organized crime, this public announcement of those who intend to seek asylum carries significant risk.

Some of those selected for entry begin to write the phone numbers of U.S. contacts on their arms in permanent marker, anticipating that border patrol will confiscate their documents and phones. We also saw mothers rolling up their children's sleeves to write their own names and phone numbers on their children's bare arms, due to the ongoing threat of family separation. After a brief wait, the group is taken into the custody of the U.S. government, and detained.

While we were in Tijuana, the Trump administration began to implement its latest effort to restrict asylum, the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as "Remain in Mexico." Under this new policy, the U.S. government claims the authority to return migrants to Mexico to await their U.S. court dates — returning them to the vulnerability that characterizes most people's wait in Tijuana.

Disregarding the rules

This new policy violates domestic and international law. Last week, our organization — the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies — joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center in filing a legal challenge to the legality of the MPP in the U.S. federal court. But until the court issues a decision, the unlawful returns continue, with significant human costs.

For example, while in Tijuana we spoke with one man — "Daniel" — who was among the first to be subjected to the MPP. Daniel* fled his home country in Central America after a powerful gang attempted to extort a close relative, who was murdered when he refused to pay; the gang then began threatening Daniel and his family.

After waiting through the list and presenting himself at the port of entry, Daniel was allowed to enter the United States. Officials woke him in the middle of his first night in U.S. custody and said it was time for an interview. The conversation was brief — a few minutes — during which he shared his fear of returning to Central America and answered some basic demographic questions. Then Daniel was sent back to his cell. Later that day, U.S. officials returned him to Tijuana.

The interviewer never asked if Daniel was afraid to go back to Mexico or if he had any medical conditions — both factors that are supposed to exempt people from being sent to Mexico. Nevertheless, the interviewer wrote that Daniel stated he had no illness or fear of staying in Mexico. When we translated a written copy of the interview back to him, Daniel was shocked. He emphatically stated that he feared the gang members would locate and kill him in Mexico. He also said he suffers from a serious illness, readily giving the name of the underlying bacterial infection.

The MPP is just the latest in the line of actions taken by the Trump administration to profoundly restrict lawful immigration. And in the past few weeks, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have also begun questioning journalists and lawyers who work along the border. For lawyers, this could have serious implications for the privacy of their asylum-seeking clients.

Each of Trump's policies — from imposing capacity limits at the ports of entry to increasing arbitrary detention to attempting to alter substantive asylum standards — is unlawful and cruel. Together, these measures erode a fundamental right that has been affirmed by domestic and international law for decades: Refugees should not be returned to harm. We must recognize the humanity of those fleeing for their lives, and adhere to a fair system for evaluating asylum claims.

African asylum seekers in Israel's Negev desert
Steven Davidson

For African Asylum Seekers, No Way Out Of Israel

An Israeli law enacted in mid-2017 amounts to a de facto salary cut for African asylum seekers, plunging the community into a financial crisis.

JERUSALEM - In May 2017, Israel effectively cut one-fifth of asylum seekers" wages, hoping people such as Eden Tasfamariam would leave the country.

This single mother and asylum seeker from Eritrea fled to Israel almost 10 years ago with her children. She did so after the Eritrean government imprisoned them as retribution when her then husband, a conscripted soldier who had been imprisoned for arguing with a superior, fled the country. Under surveillance and fearing for their lives, they left Eritrea shortly after their release.

But in Israel, they've found a hostile government that views asylum seekers like Tasfamariam as economic migrants, officially refers to them as "infiltrators' and grants them few rights. Their dire financial straits have been worsened by Israel's "Deposit Law," which has plunged their whole community into an unprecedented financial crisis. Designed to push asylum seekers to leave, the law forces those who employ migrants to deposit 20% of their salaries into an escrow account that can only be accessed at a bank in Ben Gurion Airport as they depart Israel.

Many, including Tasfamariam, have nowhere else to go, and their harsh memories from home compel them to stay put.

We didn't come here for the money.

"There is no future here, but nobody will leave because of the 20%," said Tasfamariam, who serves as director of the Eritrean Women's Center in Tel Aviv. "It's better to die here in Israel. Even if they took 50% of our money, nobody will leave. We didn't come here for the money. We came here to save our lives."

Israel hosts roughly 34,000 asylum seekers, many of whom entered through the Sinai land border beginning in 2005, after escaping military conscription amounting to slave labor in Eritrea and genocide and war in Sudan. Though Israel is a signatory of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, it grants almost no asylum requests; as of June 2018, it had granted refugee status to only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese. Another 1,400 people have "humanitarian status," a level of protection a step below refugee status that allows them to drive, travel and work. All other asylum seekers are on "conditional release" visas they must renew every two to six months. Concentrated in south Tel Aviv, they have no safety net, no tax relief, cannot access social services or public healthcare, and mainly work near-minimum-wage jobs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has implemented various efforts to keep or force them out of Israel. His government completed a 150-mile (245km) barrier across the country's southern border in 2013. Last year he attempted to deport all asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda against their will — a plan he was forced to abandon when he was unable to find a country willing to take them amid an international backlash.

"After the failure to expel infiltrators, this deposit law is the only legal tool we have today to encourage infiltrators to leave voluntarily," Yoav Kish, a member of the Knesset, Israel's lawmaking body, has said.

Israel grants almost no asylum requests.

The already impoverished community is now struggling to survive. Asylum seekers find themselves unable to pay for basic necessities. The Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF) reported a 33% increase in the number of people asking for food aid in the year after the law's implementation. ASSAF has also seen a massive rise in mental health issues, drug abuse and domestic violence cases among families feeling the financial strain. Some desperate women are turning to prostitution, ASSAF and community members said.

Adam, an asylum seeker from Darfur who wished not to disclose his last name, said he asks friends for loans because he can't pay all his bills.

"I feel very ashamed," said Adam, who is falling deeper into debt. "I know something is not right."

The Knesset also requires employers to deposit an extra 16% into an asylum seeker employee's pension fund — discouraging them from employing asylum seekers at all. Community members estimate that 15–20% of asylum seekers lost their jobs after the deposit law's passage.

To compensate, asylum seekers are working up to 16 hours per day. Like many others, Adam's roommate began working off the books, picking up a job in construction after the law was passed. Exposed to dangerous working conditions, the man injured his leg on site. Without insurance or access to public healthcare, his only treatment option required thousands of shekels he didn't have. He still can't walk normally months later.

Eritrean asylum seekers at Levinsky park Tel Aviv — Photo: Rudychaimg

Tasfamariam said single mothers suffer in particular because they can't work such long hours. They have to pick up their children from kindergarten or from unsafe, illegal "baby warehouses" that are often their only childcare option.

Amid the turmoil, Tasfamariam's husband left her. As she explained, more men are abandoning their wives and children because they struggle to care for themselves — let alone a family — with the 20% pay cut. She now sometimes works from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. six or seven days per week to get by.

A single mother may make 3,500 shekels ($960) a month after the deposit, Tasfamariam said. Monthly rent may cost 2,500–3000 shekels, and daycare approximately 1,000 shekels.

"What about food? Clothes? Healthcare? There's no money for any of it," she said.

These regulations are completely blind to human life.

Evictions have skyrocketed, as well. "To be a vulnerable Eritrean single mother, your living standards are probably you living in the corner of someone's living room with your children," said Adi Drori-Avraham, ASSAF's public awareness and advocacy coordinator. Mothers report that hosts sometimes demand housekeeping services or even sex, she said.

A recent amendment dropped the required deposit to 6% for certain vulnerable groups, including women and human trafficking victims. But even that rate is untenable, according to asylum seekers and advocates. In the case of human trafficking victims — many of whom were kidnapped, tortured and raped in the Sinai Peninsula on their way to Israel — by changing the rate, they would be disclosing their traumatic past to the depositor: their employer. Due to bureaucratic hurdles, human trafficking victims have yet to see their rates reduced months later, according to the workers' rights organization Kav LaOved (KLO) and members of the community, and no one eligible has recouped the extra 14% previously deposited.

"These regulations, how they're being enacted, are completely blind to human life and experience," Drori-Avraham said.

Despite its devastating impact, the deposit law is failing to compel asylum seekers to leave in significant numbers as intended. Most who had the financial means or family sponsorships to find asylum elsewhere have already left.

Much of the population still in Israel are the most vulnerable: "single mothers, torture victims, people with disabilities," Drori-Avraham said. "The children, they've never been anywhere else. They were born here. What are you going to do with them?"

The prospect of obtaining deposit money upon departure has proven illusory for many people as well. If they change jobs or their company goes out of business, people often lose the deposit money. There has been little enforcement by the Ministry of Interior to ensure employers are properly depositing money, according to KLO. The group found that half the time, employers were depositing only part of the amounts they owed into people's accounts, and for a quarter of the accounts no money at all. Employers sometimes make deposits into the wrong bank accounts or pocket the money themselves. Unable to personally monitor these accounts, departing asylum seekers sometimes go to the airport only to learn there is no money waiting for them as promised.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior did not respond to Refugees Deeply's requests for comment, though it has previously admitted enforcement has been lacking. KLO has joined other organizations in seeking to overturn the deposit law and awaits a decision from the Israeli Supreme Court.

Tasfamariam, for her part, has languished since 2015 as she awaits a decision on her family's asylum application to Canada. Sometimes, her youngest daughter — born in Israel and still without any legal status — asks: "When will we go to Canada?"

She turns to her 5-year-old girl. "Maybe next week we will go."

In the streets of Port of Spain, Trinidad
Aviva Shwayder

Caribbean Nations Must Open Arms To Displaced Venezuelans

While many displaced Venezuelans are crossing over into Colombia or Brazil, others head offshore, to nearby Caribbean island nations, which have been less than welcoming.


Mateo* has earned refugee status in Trinidad and Tobago, but he still doesn't have the legal right to work. And yet work he does — seven days a week, 12 hours a day at a local supermarket. "Every day is like a game of Russian roulette," the former journalist from Venezuela explained. "The police could arrest me at any time."

So far, after two years of working under the table, he has not been caught. He is one of the lucky ones.

For asylum seekers in the twin-island nation, located just 11 km from the coast of Venezuela, fear of the police and immigration officers is widespread. To date, at least 40,000 Venezuelans have fled here. And since Venezuelans often have expired passports or no documents at all, many cross the country's porous border through unofficial routes, usually on fishing boats.

Without legislation on refugees and asylum claims, the government's Immigration Act determines the fate of asylum seekers — and it treats them no differently from unauthorized immigrants. Consequently, even registering as an asylum seeker with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is insufficient legal protection for displaced Venezuelans on the island.

Detained and deported

In April 2018, Trinidad and Tobago deported 82 Venezuelans — some of whom were registered asylum seekers with UNHCR — in flagrant violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, to which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory. When deported, Venezuelans return to a country rife with political oppression, an economy in free fall, and severe food and medicine shortages. Needless to say, the situation back home is dire.

In November 2018, I was part of a Refugees International team in Trinidad and Tobago that met with Diego and Antonio, two of the 82 deported Venezuelans. Later they fled back to Trinidad and Tobago and re-registered for asylum.

At least 40,000 Venezuelans have fled here.

When they first arrived on the island in March 2018, Diego had malaria. Luckily, the men quickly found Living Water Community, the primary NGO providing aid for asylum seekers on the island. The organization helped them register for asylum and pay their rent and, ultimately, sent Diego to the hospital to seek treatment.

But one day, when Antonio was visiting Diego, the hospital staff called the immigration authorities. Despite the two men presenting their UNHCR papers, the immigration officials told them the documentation "didn't matter and made no difference." Diego and Antonio were then escorted to the island's immigrant detention center.

Police in Port of Spain, Trinidad — Photo: Jim Wyss/Miami Herald/TNS/ZUMA

In the context of the 3 million Venezuelans who have been displaced by the crisis, a figure of more than 40,000 in Trinidad and Tobago might not sound significant. But the islands have a population of just 1.3 million, so are hosting more Venezuelans per capita than most other countries. Considering the country's close historic ties with Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago has afforded few rights and protections to the displaced. The same goes for other island nations in the Caribbean.

Even with refugee status, Venezuelans are afforded only three rights in Trinidad and Tobago: the right to not be deported, freedom of movement and family reunification. With the UN projecting that the number of Venezuelans in need of protection will grow this year to nearly 3.6 million, the island cannot ignore its responsibility to respond to the crisis on its doorstep.

Dire conditions

On the ground, we heard from many who had been in the detention system that conditions there are grave and that there is overcrowding. Detainees have reported suffering or witnessing beatings at the hands of detention guards. They have limited access to health care. Others reported that they can access natural sunlight for only 15 minutes twice a week.

Currently, there's no oversight or accountability by outside observers, including UNHCR. Some people are kept in detention for months on end, and some are even transferred to the island's maximum-security prison or women's prison. As one asylum seeker told us, "They may call it a detention center, but it's a jail, too."

Ultimately, Diego and Antonio were forced to choose between signing a "voluntary" deportation order, or being "put in prison for a very, very long time," said Diego. They chose deportation. Other former detainees reported receiving similar offers to sign voluntary deportation orders. Those who refused deportation had to pay a security bond of TT$2,100 (about $300) and relinquish their passports. They were also placed under an order of supervision, which requires asylum seekers to report to the authorities once a week or month after release.

Back in Trinidad and Tobago just a month after they were deported, Diego and Antonio now live in a two-bedroom home with 12 other family members and are afraid to go outside.

They may call it a detention center, but it's a jail, too.

"Trinidadian police turned up to the house with guns," they told us the day before we met them. "They asked for our passports. We showed our asylum-seeker cards and asked them to call UNHCR. Thanks to UNHCR, the police did not take us away."

For asylum seekers in Trinidad and Tobago, the status quo is unacceptable. The government must take steps to live up to its commitments under international law and respect the rights and dignity of asylum seekers. They can do so by utilizing alternatives to detention, investing in systematic sensitization on asylum claims for police and immigration officials and improving conditions in and allowing external access to the detention center.

As one Venezuelan woman told me, "We only want a normal life. We want to feel human and be treated with respect." They deserve no less.

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Refugees waiting at the border in Gaziantep, Turkey
Izza Leghtas, Jessica Thea*

Not Only Syrians: Turkey Must Welcome All Asylum Seekers

As Turkey takes sole responsibility from UNHCR for processing the asylum claims of Afghans and other non-Syrians, it must register them and allow them to access their basic rights.


KAYSERI — On a cold day in the Turkish city of Kayseri last November, we sat in the living room of two young men, Mustafa, aged 18, and Hafiz, 23, as they told us about their life since they arrived in Turkey. For single Afghan men such as them, seeking refuge in Turkey has always been a challenging affair. But in recent months, it has become all but impossible. Dozens of Afghan men and boys described to us how the Turkish authorities now refuse to register them as asylum seekers. Nor will the authorities issue them a "kimlik" — the Turkish identity card that gives refugees access to healthcare, education and work permits.

Of the four Afghan men living in the apartment, only Mustafa had a kimlik, and he obtained it only after he was badly injured in a road accident. At the hospital, he said, "For two hours I was just lying there … Because I didn't have a kimlik, they didn't give me proper treatment, just a temporary fix." He bled through his stitches almost immediately and, after leaving the hospital, approached the authorities, covered in blood. Seeing his condition, an official issued his kimlik the same day.

"Sometimes we joke, ‘if you want a kimlik, you should have an accident,"" Hafiz said.

Turkey currently hosts the largest population of refugees in the world — nearly 4 million, including 170,000 Afghans who fled either violence in Afghanistan or the lack of opportunities and protection for Afghans in Iran.

In September, the sole responsibility for registering and processing the asylum claims of Afghans and other non-Syrians was transferred from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to the Turkish government. It came amid a surge in new Afghan arrivals in 2018. Under the new system, many Afghans, especially single men, have been unable to access even the most basic rights because of the obstacles they face in obtaining identity cards.

The Turkish government has an important opportunity to introduce adjustments that will make a world of difference for these Afghans.

Afghans in Turkey have endured difficulties for a long time. They have suffered from a lack of freedom of movement, extremely limited access to legal work and a humanitarian response that focuses mostly on Syrians. But the new system has been a new bureaucratic nightmare. In Istanbul, Kayseri and Erzurum, dozens of men told us that when they approached the Turkish authorities in charge of registering new asylum applicants, the response they received was, "We don't register single men."

During this initial stage of implementing its new responsibilities, the Turkish government has an important opportunity to introduce adjustments that will make a world of difference for these Afghans. Registering all asylum seekers, whether they are single or with a family, and issuing them with identity cards will help unlock their potential and ensure their access to their most basic rights.

The European Union has a responsibility here, too. Because it agreed to give Turkey 6 billion euros ($6.9 billion) to implement the E.U.-Turkey "Statement" — a deal forged in 2016 to deter irregular movements by sea to Greece and improve services for refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey — the E.U. must ensure its funds are reaching Afghans and other non-Syrians. And even if UNHCR is not in charge anymore, it must still carry out its mandate by being accessible to refugees in the cities where they live and providing protection to those who need it.

Kayseri — Photo: Turan kaya

Afghan families and single men told us that a kimlik is also essential for housing in Turkey, as landlords will not accept tenants without one. Mustafa told us that the difficulties of renting a home as a foreigner, and as a single man, are multiplied for those without kimliks. It was only when he obtained his that he was able to rent the apartment for him and his three friends under his name.

Education is a major priority for many of the Afghans we met. While in theory children can be admitted to schools even if they haven't completed the registration process, families and young men and boys we met told us that Turkish schools did not accept those without kimliks. For Hafiz, his inability to continue his studies was one of the biggest struggles since his arrival in Turkey. "I graduated from high school, one of the top students in my class," he told us as his eyes filled with tears. "Here I have nothing, I'm doing nothing. I am completely depressed. I tried in Iran to study, but it was not possible. And here, I have no kimlik, no papers … I see no future."

The fear of being arrested and deported was palpable.

This refusal to register Afghans leaves them particularly vulnerable to deportation. Last spring, the Turkish government detained and returned about 17,000 Afghans to Afghanistan. While the Turkish authorities claimed they were voluntary, Refugees International and others have reported that returnees were in fact misled or coerced into signing forms. We heard story after story of friends or cousins who had been forcefully sent back to Afghanistan. Hafiz and Mustafa told us of a friend who was arrested and deported from Erzurum just one month earlier. They hadn't heard from him since. In this context, the fear of being arrested and deported was palpable, and many people we spoke to were too scared to meet us in public places in the city center.

The challenges Turkey faces in hosting close to 4 million refugees are undeniable, and the pressure on Turkey's infrastructure and social systems is very real. However, the new system for Afghans and other non-Syrian refugees is simply not sustainable.

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Tailor Peter Koang and his sewing machine in Nyal
Migrant Lives
Sam Mednik

In South Sudan, A Tailor's Tales Of Fleeing War — Over And Over

Peter Koang has been displaced three times since the war in South Sudan began. Each time, he managed to salvage his sewing machine, which now brings him a rare bit of stability at a time of fragile peace.

NYAL — Tracing his worn fingers over a rundown sewing machine, Peter Koang steadied a piece of fabric under the needle. He pressed his foot to the pedal as a skirt began to take shape.

"This is all I have left," the 47-year-old tailor said of the device.

When South Sudan's civil war broke out five years ago, the father of 10 lost everything he owned during repeated attacks by government forces on his hometown of Leer in Unity State, in the country's north. Koang was once a prominent businessman in his community: In addition to working as a tailor, he owned two shops in town. But in the war's first two years, Koang said, soldiers burned down his house, demolished his shops and stole his cattle, an important source of wealth and livelihood for villagers there.

But there was one thing Koang wouldn't let them destroy, he said. His sewing machine.

"This is too important to me," he said. "It sustains my family."

Today, Koang shelters in the opposition-held town of Nyal in Unity State. He opened a small shop in the town center and has made a name for himself as one of the most talented tailors. Koang makes blouses for women, shirts for children and suits for men from the host community while also serving the increasing number of displaced people who are still pouring in. They travel for days by foot and canoe through marshes and swamps to reach Nyal.

Half a decade of fighting in war-torn South Sudan has killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions, creating one of the world's fastest-growing refugee crises and Africa's biggest human exodus since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. More than 4 million people have been forced to leave their homes, according to the United Nations. While more than 2 million have sought refuge across the border in neighboring countries, including Uganda and Kenya, nearly 2 million more remain internally displaced — the majority of them, like Koang, having lost most of their belongings. Many have survived mass murders and rapes.

Nyal has been relatively calm in the two years Koang has lived there. Running his shop has allowed him to generate enough income to provide for his family and send his children to school.

He estimated that, together with one other tailor, he has clothed at least 300 displaced people in two years.

They didn't spare anybody.

As one of South Sudan's last opposition-held territories, Nyal and its surrounding small islands — patches of fertile land nestled in swampy waters — have become a makeshift refuge for people fleeing brutality throughout the country. The war erupted in 2013, originally a power struggle between the current president, Salva Kiir, his former deputy Riek Machar, and other factions. A power-sharing agreement between Kiir, Machar and rebel groups signed on Sept. 12 is the latest attempt at peace.

But the peace remains fragile amid continued attacks. Unity State still experiences fighting, including a surge of sexual violence. Earlier this month, 125 women and girls were raped and beaten in a 10-day period while walking to a food distribution center, according to aid group Doctors Without Borders. More than 200 civilians were killed in a particularly horrific round of attacks between April and May, including 35 children, according to a U.N. report.

On a visit to Nyal in August, Refugees Deeply spoke with families displaced by fighting in Unity State. They live crowded into small huts mixed within the host community, sharing accommodation with friends, relatives and strangers.

Many, like Nyabieli Gai, said they'll return home only if the government removes its troops from their areas. The 50-year-old grandmother was displaced from Mayendit in May and now shelters in Nyal.

Seated in the yard outside her hut, Gai flailed her arms, explaining how she watched government soldiers gang-rape women and abduct children.

"They didn't spare anybody," she said. She and her granddaughter fled together to a nearby island, where they survived on water lilies for three months before making the four-day journey to the mainland of Nyal, Gai said.

Peter Maboz, a community leader who lives on nearby Raath island, said he's heard countless terrible stories from people who have escaped to the island throughout the conflict.

"I feel sad because these are my people," Maboz said, adding that he's waiting for the day when all of the displaced people will be able to return to their homes.

The peace remains fragile amid continued attacks.

Koang's family has been displaced three times since the war began. Whenever they heard rumors of pending attacks, Koang would dig a hole in the ground and hide his sewing machine inside or conceal it in a nearby swamp, protected in a plastic bag. After each bout of violence, he retrieved the machine and carried it to the next settlement, where thousands of displaced people sought refuge from the fighting. There, he'd make clothes for people who'd lost theirs during the clashes.

"It was a very busy time. We had to support people who were naked and give them underwear," Koang said of himself and his fellow tailor.

September's power-sharing deal follows a failed agreement made in 2015, which ended with Machar, the former vice-president, fleeing the country on foot. The latest deal is complex. It involves an eight-month pre-transitional period when opposition and government forces will become one national army, to be followed by a three-year transitional period culminating in elections. Machar has been allowed to return and serve as first vice-president.

The United Stastes, the UK and Norway — the "troika" that helped South Sudan gain independence in 2011 — expressed concern over the agreement, saying it wasn't realistic or sustainable.

"The Troika is committed to peace in South Sudan," they said in a statement. "But in order to be convinced of the parties' commitment, we will need to see a significant change in their approach."

Oxfam has called on South Sudan's government to put its people at the center of its peace process.

"Millions are in need of assistance and it's going to take years for people to rebuild their lives," said Nicolo" Di Marzo, the organization's deputy country director in South Sudan. "That's why peace has to be sustainable, so that people can farm without fearing attack, can rebuild their livelihoods, and so that women and men can meaningfully participate in rebuilding their country."

While some displaced South Sudanese say they want to be hopeful, most remain skeptical.

"We've been told there's no longer fighting, but we are doubting. The biggest problem is that Kiir doesn't trust Machar," said Laurice Loin, captain of the opposition military for Panyijiar County, where Nyal town is located. He said he won't recall his men from the battlefield until government forces remove theirs.

Meanwhile, civilians across the country are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Koang tries to focus on making clothes. His fabric arrives by boat from South Sudan's capital of Juba. though because of the war it takes anywhere from four weeks to three months to reach him.

Tending to the growing number of customers entering his shop, Koang said he's thankful for his sewing machine, his lifeline.

"It's transformed my life," he said. "It's helped educate my kids, and it's helped people during the war. I'll never go anywhere without it."