Dispatches is a fortnightly e-mail bulletin of the JRS International Office. It features refugee news briefings and project updates from our people in the field.

  Sudan: overwhelming vote in favour of southern independence

Peaceful election process marks another step towards future stability, Juba, Sudan

To sit back complacently and expect oil revenue to simply develop the country, as if by the waving of a magic wand, would not only be disappointing, but a disastrous mistake.  

Juba, 27 January 2010 – According to sources reported by Voice of America, more than 90 percent of Southern Sudanese have voted in favour of independence.

Although international monitors had expressed worries about the 2010 elections, the first ever in the country, the referendum has been hailed by all as free and fair.

"Many other African nations would do well to emulate Southern Sudan in terms of its electoral standards", said JRS Project Director in Lobone, Richard O'Dwyer SJ.

"I returned to Lobone the second week of January. There was not a hint of panic or complaint to be found. People here were voting as if it was second nature and a lifelong habit", continued Fr O'Dwyer.

"When one realises that Southern Sudan is one of the poorest and least developed places in the world, I feel a great deal of admiration for the manner in which both registration for and the referendum itself has been conducted", added Fr O'Dwyer.

Another promising sign for the future was the apology by Sudan's President Omar Al Bashir, who visited Southern Sudan a week before the referendum; few could have anticipated his turnaround. The Sudanese President said he would be the first to accept an independent Southern Sudan.

Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Fr O'Dwyer recognised the dire need for good governance and significant investment in the autonomous region. The investment of public resources, particularly in terms of basic infrastructure, water, and electricity, as well as the establishment of schools, clinics, hospitals, phone networks, etc, must be considered a main priority.

Furthermore, the full and proper training of men and women in the public administration, teaching, medicine, law and every recognised trade and profession needs to be put into immediate effect.

"To sit back complacently and expect oil revenue to simply develop the country, as if by the waving of a magic wand, would not only be disappointing, but a disastrous mistake", said the Jesuit priest.

A vigorous civil society

In the days leading up to the referendum many groups organised events and initiatives to help promote tolerance and ensure a peaceful environment.

One such initiative, 101 Days of Prayer for a Peaceful Referendum, was organised by JRS partners Solidarity with Southern Sudan, Catholic Relief Services and the Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference. Due to his experience in the field of peace education, JRS Southern Sudan Education Coordinator, Francis Biryaho, was invited to join the main working group to identify contributors and daily themes.

A central component of the initiative was a prayer book, Reflections for 101 Days of Prayer Towards a Peaceful Referendum in Sudan: Change Your Heart Change the World, which included reflections from the organisers and other civil society groups, including Dr Biryaho who wrote two articles: A Reflection on Justice and Peace and Peace and Development.

The initiative began on 21 September 2010, International Day of Peace, and ended on 1 January, Catholic World Day of Peace.

Australia: report criticises lack of safety measures for border surveillance

A boat laden with refugees is driven onto rocks at Christmas Island on 15 December 2010. Forty-eight asylum seekers have died after heavy waves smashed their timber boat onto rocks, throwing people into stormy seas. (Network 7 via Reuters TV, Reuters)

"Any people-smuggling operation is a tragedy waiting to happen… The bottom line is no vessel, let alone a vessel heavily laden with civilians, should have been out there."  

Sydney, 24 January 2010 – After finding the authorities had no advance warning of the arrival of boats of migrants and refugees in distress, an internal customs investigation has recommended the installation of land-based radar at Australia's remote Christmas Island.

The report was undertaken after a boat crashed into the island's cliffs last December. Refugees are believed to have desperately phoned police for help before the accident.

According to reports, the boat left Indonesia carrying approximately 90 Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish refugees. Forty-eight are known to have died in the accident as women and children were thrown into the seas screaming for assistance. Rescuers subsequently pulled 41 survivors from the water.

The boat was first spotted about 600 metres offshore, approximately an hour before the accident. Despite aerial surveillance and an intensive intelligence operation in Indonesia – a key transit point for Australia-bound refugees – the report said border authorities appeared to have no prior warning of the ship.

The report recommended the trial of a land-based radar system at Christmas Island, known as the smuggling corridor from Indonesia. In light of the current number of irregular maritime arrivals, it also proposed that resource levels allocated to border patrol be reviewed.

Focus on people

More than 6,300 asylum seekers, predominantly from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka, made their way to Australia by boat last year – the highest number on record.

Speaking immediately after the tragedy, JRS Australia Director, Fr Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ, stated this incident demonstrated that people would rather risk death aboard a boat than face persecution in their home countries.

"Any people-smuggling operation is a tragedy waiting to happen… The bottom line is no vessel, let alone a vessel heavily laden with civilians, should have been out there", said Australia's Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

Human rights organisations have consistently said that the focus needs to be on saving lives and providing protection to people. In the long run, this may include strengthening asylum procedures in countries in the region; however, it should never include preventing refugees from reaching safety.

Moreover, JRS has consistently urged governments to ensure the lives of people are put before border security.

Thailand: Ahmadi asylum seekers trapped in detention

Dr Iftikhar, OBE and Consul General of the Pacific Island of Tuvalu, leads an international delegation from the Amadiyya community to raise awareness on the plight of Ahmadis in Pakistan


Bangkok, 18 January 2011 – Ahmadi asylum seekers from Pakistan have suffered tremendously. Religious persecution in their country has driven them from their homes, family, and careers to a place that offers little in the way of protection. Despite facing arrest and detention they never lose their dignity and resilience.

"Life is hard for us here in Bangkok, but we have one another. Our community is strong and we suffer together", explained a community worker who managed to avoid the recent arrests of Ahmadis in Bangkok.

The Ahmadis are a Muslim minority group. They are considered heretical by orthodox Muslims in Pakistan and have been declared non-Muslims by the state because they do not believe that Mohammed was the final prophet sent to guide mankind. A number of laws have been passed that make it a criminal offence for Ahmadis to profess, practice and preach their faith.

"Life in Pakistan for the Ahmadis has become a living hell. Hundreds have been murdered just because of their faith. Posters that claim 'Ahmadis deserve to be killed' are put on walls to incite public hatred towards them", said Dr Iftikhar, OBE and Consul General of the Pacific Island of Tuvalu, on a visit to raise awareness of the plight of Ahmadis in Pakistan.

Over the past three years, nearly 456 Ahmadis have arrived in Bangkok in search of protection. But on 14 December 2010, at 6:30 am, Thai immigration officers raided the homes of 86 Ahmadi asylum seekers and refugees. Scared and disorientated, the group, which included many women and children, was forced into police vans and driven to Bangkok's immigration detention centre, where they were processed and sent to court for violating Thailand's strict immigration policy.  

Urban refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand without a valid visa – regardless of whether or not they are documented by UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] – are considered "illegal entrants" by the authorities.

Facing persecution at home and arrest and indefinite detention in Thailand, the Ahmadis are without solutions.

"Only people living this life can know what we are going through", said an asylum seeker who is now back in Pakistan after being arrested and detained.

Dr Iftkhar Ayaz had a simple message to share – the Ahmadis are peaceful people facing persecution and should be offered international protection under the various human rights treaties and conventions.

"These people have come here to escape injustice, cruelty and the threat to their lives", said Dr Iftikhar Ayaz on his mission to Thailand.

Conditions in detention

A month after the arrests, 54 Ahmadis are still being detained while the others have returned to Pakistan. Immediately after the arrests, up to 150 women were sharing one cell. With no room for everyone to lie down, the women took turns sleeping while children jostled for space at the entrance to the dirty communal toilets.

"Those Ahmadis who have gone home have not done so because they wanted to or because they think it is safe. The conditions in IDCs [immigration detention centres] are so terrible many felt they would rather take the risk of returning to Pakistan", said the community worker.

Some of those arrested were recognised as refugees, but the majority were still in the process of becoming recognised by UNHCR. One asylum seeker had been waiting for nearly a year, after having his interview postponed eight times. Acutely aware that without status he would spend months in detention under difficult conditions, he decided to risk his safety and return to Pakistan.

International protection

Dr Iftikhar Ayaz is urging governments such as Thailand and the international community to show compassion and offer Ahmadis temporary protection until long-term solutions can be found.

"The issue of Ahmadis leaving Pakistan is an issue of human rights", said Dr Iftikhar Ayaz.

"Despite not being a signatory they [Thailand] have tolerated the presence of UNHCR. If they have allowed this organisation to stay then they should respect the rules of the [refugee] convention", he added.

While the Ahmadis wait desperately for UNHCR to recognise them as refugees and facilitate their resettlement to a third country they are forced to live in fear and uncertainty.

"What is important is that those who flee [Pakistan] are provided refuge by the international community and treated with respect and dignity. Thailand is currently president of the UN Human Rights Council and has a great responsibility to observe the UNHCR conventions and charters," continued Dr Iftikhar Ayaz.

Oliver White, Regional Communications and Advocacy Officer

Sri Lanka: government urged to demonstrate commitment to the truth

Diocese urges the government to meet the immediate needs of displaced persons, Mannar, Sri Lanka (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)

More than 20 months after the end of the war, the submission expressed concern that there is still no comprehensive housing scheme in Mannar district.  

Rome, 28 January 2011 – In its submission to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the Catholic Diocese of Mannar has urged the government to demonstrate public commitment to the objective truth regarding the events that took place during the decades of conflict. The diocese described this commitment as indispensable in any attempts at reconciliation.

The submission stressed the significance of uncovering the truth concerning international human rights and humanitarian law violations. The document, signed by Rt Rev Dr Rayappu Joseph, the Catholic Bishop of Mannar, the Very Rev Fr Victor Sosai, Vicar General of Diocese of Mannar, and Rev Fr Xavier Croos, Representative of the Priests Forum of Mannar, also highlighted the need for clarification regarding the fate of the 146,679 Vanni citizens unaccounted for since the end of the war.

While recognising the importance of the LLRC as a move towards reconciliation, the submission authors expressed disappointment that previous Commissions of Inquiry had failed to establish the truth about human rights violations and extrajudicial killings; for example, the attack on the Pesalai Catholic Church where civilians were taking refuge and the disappearance of Fr Jim Brown, both in 2006.

Speaking about the LLRC visit to Mannar, it was noted that three days was an insufficient amount of time for a town of tens of thousands of people affected by three decades of war. It is crucial for any serious effort towards reconciliation to go back into our history beyond February 2002, the submission continued.

Immediate concerns

More than 20 months after the end of the war, the submission expressed concern that there is still no comprehensive housing scheme in Mannar district. Most displaced persons, it read, still have no housing, while others are living in makeshift and temporary houses. The document criticised the state's spending limits of approximately 2,150 euro placed per house as inadequate.

The document also scorned the lack of assistance provided to resettled persons in need to build livelihoods: fishing, farming, shops. In contrast it highlighted the negative effects of the large number of businesses run by the military and southerners which has had a negative affect on local well being.

In addition, the submission also highlighted the lack of access to basic services and goods: water, nutritious food – including milk foods for children – and inadequate education, healthcare and transport facilities.

Europe: Court ruling prevents transfer of asylum seekers to unsafe states

Greek refugee determination procedures and reception practices unsafe for asylum seekers

This judgement is very important because it will prohibit EU member states from transferring asylum seekers to countries with known deficiencies in their asylum standards, and poor detention and living conditions.  

Brussels, 21 January 2011 – The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Belgium and Greece have each violated the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR).

According to the ruling in the case of MSS versus Belgium and Greece, the asylum seeker (MSS) should not have been transferred back to Greece. The case concerns an Afghan national who entered the EU via Greece, and then applied for asylum in Belgium.

MSS was transferred back to Greece under the Dublin Regulation; this regulation determines the state responsible for examining an asylum application by an individual who has entered more than one of the participating states (EU, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland).

The state in which the asylum seeker first arrives is normally considered responsible for his or her application. However, this judgment limits how the regulation can be applied.

The Court ruled that Belgium was in violation of Article 3 for having exposed the applicant to: risks linked to deficiencies in the Greek asylum procedure, and poor detention and living conditions. Furthermore, the lack of an effective remedy against the Dublin transfer order was considered by the court to be a violation of Article 13.

"This judgement is very important because it will prohibit EU member states from transferring asylum seekers to countries with known deficiencies in their asylum standards, and poor detention and living conditions. Greece is in violation today, but in the near future Italy might be in the spotlight", said JRS Europe Advocacy Officer, Philip Amaral, adding that JRS Belgium staff had visited MSS in 2009 while he was detained in the country.

"Consequently EU states will have to apply the available exceptions in the Dublin Regulation to prevent the transfer of asylum seekers to unsafe states like Greece. The judgement is also significant because EU states must now seriously consider granting applicants an opportunity to contest their transfer through the courts – something which doesn't exist in much of the European Union, such as in Germany", added Mr Amaral.

Greece also sanctioned

Upon arrival in Greece, MSS was detained without explanation, lived homeless in the streets and was not granted access to the asylum procedure.

The Court ruled that Greece was in violation of Article 3 (prohibition of degrading treatment or punishment), because of poor detention and living conditions in the country, and Article 13 (right to effective remedy) due to its deficient asylum procedures.

Dominican Republic: JRS condemns trafficking of Haitian children

Haitian children at increased risk of traffickers since earthquake last year, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

It is presumed that high percentages of these street children are in fact victims of trafficking.  

Santo Domingo, 24 January 2011 – A large number of Haitian street children in the Dominican capital are not, as previously presumed, displaced victims of last year's earthquake, but rather victims of child trafficking.

According to the preliminary findings of a report by the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Dominican Republic, many children brought to the country are forced to work against their will.

The despair and trauma created by the 12-January earthquake in Haiti has contributed to the already existing vulnerability of the population, thus benefiting human trafficking networks on both sides of the border, the report said.

Both Haitian and Dominican authorities were accused of complicity in many cases of smuggling and human trafficking. JRS called for action to end this practice and urged that those responsible be held accountable for these crimes.

The report highlights that among the many causes of trafficking, is the tendency of Haitian parents living in the Dominican Republic to mistakenly trust traffickers to bring their children into the country. Moreover, the report encouraged human rights organisations to establish strategic alliances with the authorities in order to monitor trafficking-related activities.

The children, the report continues, are brought into the country to work as beggars, street vendors, prostitutes, drug dealers, shoeshine boys, domestic servants in Haitian and Dominican families, and as cheap labour on building sites and farms.

Preliminary findings suggest that this is the alarming situation for many young Haitians brought to tourist zones, such as Puerto Plata, and used as escorts in bars and discos.

Northern border areas

Based on information collected from NGOs in border areas in northern Haiti like Cap-Haitian and Wanament, it is presumed that high percentages of these street children are in fact victims of trafficking.

According to another study carried out by JRS in Wanament in 2009, the owners of the discos and bars in question pay the traffickers a fixed amount for young Haitians.

More troubling is the fact that many of the minors reported being sexually abused on the journey from Haiti to the Dominican Republic. The preliminary findings state that trafficking has increased since the 12-January 2010 earthquake.

According to the report, since February 2010, the Juanistas Sisters in Wanament have assisted in 67 cases of trafficked persons: 55 children, eight women and four men. The Haitian police estimate that infants sell for approximately 400 euro for adoption and 40,000 euro for organs.

Ethiopia: urban refugees learn about issues affecting women in developing countries

JRS activities in urban centres, building communities and strengthening their capacities to help themselves, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)


Addis Ababa, 27 January 2011 – As part of its mandate to empower refugees through the provision of non-formal education, this year's JRS annual trip focused on raising awareness of obstetric fistula (or vaginal fistula), a disease affecting women in developing countries. Obstetric fistula is commonly caused during child birth, as well as sexual violence, particularly gang rape.

The fistula usually develops when prolonged labour presses the unborn child so tightly in the birth canal that blood flow is cut off to the surrounding tissues, thus causing them to rot away. Another significant cause of obstetric fistula is sexual abuse/ rape, especially within conflict/post-conflict areas.

Towards the end of last year, 85 refugees visited a rehabilitation and reintegration centre for fistula victims near the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The refugees were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, countries which have known conflict in recent years.

"Sexual violence is not only a major cause of forced displacement among refugee women, but is also a significant problem women encounter both during flight from their home countries, as well as upon arrival in their new host communities", JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer, Angelika Mendes, said.

"These trips are part of JRS projects in Ethiopia as teams seek to build awareness about human rights to help refugees protect themselves, their families and the societies they live in", added Ms Mendes.

Understanding the importance of respecting women's rights

During the trip to the Desta Mender centre, about 15km west of Addis, refugees learned about the causes and consequences of fistulas. The centre mainly accommodates young girls forced to marry and give birth at a premature age. Since they had no access to an obstetrician they developed fistulas.

"Once the girls' husbands, families or friends learn about the fistulas, they reject and abandon them. Our centre also facilitates income generating activities to help the women become economically independent", the vice director of the centre, Ms Zuriyash Belay, explained

Refugees had a chance to learn about the various activities offered at the centre, including poultry and vegetable farming, and midwifery training. The centre also offers adult literacy courses.

"Today, I came to know the consequence of early marriage and the suffering of our sisters. We have to stand against the culture of early marriage," said a refugee from Eritrea.

"We now see the extreme need to protect women from dehumanising acts and to stand for their rights," said another refugee. "We will make sure that we will protect women's rights every day. To protect women means to protect society," he added.

All the refugees who participated in the trip have completed JRS-certificated courses in English, computer and IT skills at the Refugee Community Centre in Addis.

International: JRS message on Migrants and Refugee Day

JRS centre bringing Iraqi Muslims and Christians together in peace, Aleppo, Syria (Peter Bellies SJ/JRS)

There is so much good in the world; but it is often ignored because love and humanitarian service are not calculable in terms of money.  

Rome, 28 January 2011 – On the occasion of the 97th World Day of Migrants and Refugees on 16 January, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) welcomed the Pope's message: one human family.

In an interview with Vatican Radio, JRS International Director, Peter Balleis SJ, described the key message of Pope Benedict XVI as a high ideal.

Recalling an example of this put into practice, Fr Balleis spoke of an Iraqi refugee, who after a short time working in the JRS centre in Aleppo in Syria, told him: 'I never thought we would be together again'. She was referring to Muslims and Christians, he said.

They are together in Aleppo where they take courses, such as computer training and English. They are like a family. This is a practical example of what can be done to break down barriers and help build this human family as envisioned by Pope Benedict XVI, continued Fr Balleis.

Hundreds of thousands of people die migrating, an issue most of us tend to ignore. How can this be turned into something positive? Fr Balleis asked.

In tragedy and disasters there is a common suffering experienced by all victims. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of disaster, we must put our energy and efforts into something constructive and positive. Out of suffering comes unity.

People who survive disaster situations are able to contribute to the construction of a new human family: one that is multiethnic, intercultural, and multi-religious. Refugees are key agents in building one human family. They have lost everything.

Everyday JRS staff experience the beauty that out of suffering and disaster, there can be something positive.

Fr Balleis highlighted the importance of dialogue. Rather than solely engaging in a high level of theological discourse, there is a dire need for a practical form of dialogue.

When people deliver aid in an intercultural situation, believers and non-believers work side by side. It is in disaster situations like these when humanity is threatened that the human family unites and is shaped as one.

Causes of migration

There is so much good in the world; but it is often ignored because love and humanitarian service are not calculable in terms of money. This system, which is built on neo-liberalism is the cause of many of our problems; the issue of refugees is also economic.

Migration for some means business. Consequently, smuggling becomes profit, war is fuelled by selfish motives, resources are lost, and all money goes to exploitation and criminal activities. To tackle this issue of forced migration, we need to rethink the way we structure our economic system, to re-evaluate the relationship of labour and capital.

The Catholic Church – which brings people together across nations, ethnic groups, etc – needs to take a lead role in reaching out to the world and help to unite it as one human family.

  JRS DISPATCHES is sent from the International Office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Borgo Santo Spirito 4, 00193 Rome, Italy. Tel: +39-06 68977468; Fax: +39-06 6897 7461; Email: dispatches@jrs.net; JRS online: http://www.jrs.net; Publisher: Peter Balleis SJ; Editor: James Stapleton; Translation: Carles Casals (Spanish), Edith Castel (French), Simonetta Russo (Italian).

JRS Dispatches No. 293
Editor: James Stapleton