(Ethnic Media Services) — For generations, millions of Americans whose roots lie in the Middle East and North Africa — MENA — have essentially become invisible people because the Census Bureau has denied requests for their own racial category.
Says Julian Do, Contributing Writer on 26 May 2020, explaining how MENA leaders say without Census data they are invisible and disenfranchised. It is to be noted that in 2016, nearly 1.2 million immigrants from the MENA region lived in the United States, accounting for roughly 3 percent of the country’s approximately 44 million immigrants. And as elaborated on in a previous article, many Arab Americans say the undercount is even more pronounced for them.
“Legally, in America, I’m classified as white,” says Dr. Hamoud Salhi, associate dean of the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, CSU-Dominguez Hills. “I was born in Algeria, which is part of Africa, so technically I could declare myself as African American, but I can’t.”
Palestinian-American Loubna Qutami, a President’s postdoctoral fellow at U.C. Berkeley specializing in ethnic studies, says that since MENA doesn’t have a classification of its own, it legally falls under the white category.
MENA populations have their own specific needs for health care, education, language assistance, and civil rights protection, but they have no way to advocate for themselves because numerically they are folded into the category of white Americans.
To change this, Dr. Salhi, Dr. Qutami, and other MENA leaders have been mobilizing their communities to participate in the 2020 census, encouraging people to write in their ethnicity. They spoke with other experts and activists on a May 13 two-hour video conference organized by Ethnic Media Services on the historical, linguistic and political challenges that make the MENA population among the hardest to count in California.
Geographically, MENA populations live on three continents — from the border of Afghanistan south to the tip of Africa — and in 22 nations in the Middle East alone, with numerous subgroups such as Kurds, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians.
“North Africa is actually a concept that the French gave to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, which they colonized,” says Dr. Salhi. The neighboring countries of Egypt and Libya were added later.
Because of their shared Arabic language and Islamic religion, people in the United States from North Africa were lumped together with people of the Middle East to form the MENA acronym.
For decades, the Census Bureau has turned down requests to add MENA to the official category of races, currently white, black or African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian American and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.
The result, says Dr. Qutami, artificially props up the white population count, which has been in decline, while suppressing the count of MENA residents who don’t identify themselves as white. According to the 2015 Census Bureau’s “National Content Test – Race and Ethnicity Report, “As expected, the percent reporting as White is significantly lower with the inclusion of a distinct MENA category when compared to treatments with no MENA category.”
California mirrors the challenge to the MENA population of geographic size and diversity, says Emilio Vaca, deputy director of the state’s Complete Count Committee, which directs census outreach. The Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey reported that 11 million of California’s 40 million residents, about 27 percent, are immigrants.
“That’s equivalent to the entire state of Georgia,” Vaca emphasized. At home, most of those immigrants speak one or more of 200 languages other than English.
Homayra Yusufi, from the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, broke down the face of diversity in just one San Diego neighborhood that her organization serves: “We have 45 different national origins — from MENA, Asia and Latin America — who speak more than 100 languages in the 6.5-mile City Heights district, a distinct community of refugees and immigrants.” Educating and motivating these groups to participate in the census is a way to engage them in the civic life of the wider city.
Historical necessity — what specific immigrant groups have done to survive — also plays a role in the MENA undercount. Up until the mid-20th century, only whites could own property, and only “free white immigrants” could become American citizens.
To survive and advance, Middle Eastern immigrants successfully petitioned the federal courts to be allowed to identify themselves as white in 1920. North African immigrants, as members of the MENA population, got pulled along and found themselves legally classified as white as well.
The discriminatory policy for citizenship and property ownership favoring whites-only ended with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. But even then, MENA communities found it difficult to raise funds and mobilize calls for action to address their needs. They didn’t know where their fellow compatriots were located and couldn’t raise official numbers to request funds and resources.
“We were helpless. In many instances, we had to generate our own data,” says Dr. Qutami.
Over the years, the Census Bureau has never clearly answered why they’ve refused to include the MENA classification, despite concluding, in a 2017 report, that “the inclusion of a MENA category helps MENA Respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities.”
The bureau again turned down the 2018 request for the 2020 census. Karen Battle, chief of the bureau’s population division, announced in a public meeting on census preparations that “We do feel that more research and testing is needed.”
MENA advocates believe filling out the 2020 census is the only way to avoid another undercount. Without doing this, Yusui says, “our communities will continue to be invisible and left in the margins because data really matters.”
Gaining services customized to MENA’s needs is only part of what’s at stake. So, too, argues Yusufi, is building power. MENA populations then can elect individuals “who reflect the needs of our communities and hold lawmakers accountable” when they stigmatize MENA communities.
Kathay Feng of the nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause emphasized that participation in the census is the first step to representation. In America, resources and rights are accorded by representation based on the number of residents at all levels, from the state down to the municipality, in proportion to the total population.
“Everyone is counted, regardless of immigration status or whether they are registered voters or not,” Feng said, “because all residents pay taxes in one way or another, and most immigrants would eventually become citizens in the long run.”
Every 10 years, immediately after the decennial census submits population data, electoral districts are redrawn. In California, which has been at the forefront of redistricting reforms, the old practice of allowing legislators to draw district lines based on which populations are sure to vote them back into office — known as gerrymandering — was replaced in 2009 by independently selected commissioners. Nine other states have followed California’s lead.
But, Feng emphasized, to be effective and to ensure their voices are heard, residents have to be engaged at the local level. And this year, there is a danger that anti-immigrant forces will restrict the residents who count in redistricting to voters only.
“In the city of El Cajon, San Diego, we faced a lot of discrimination, especially when the Syrian refugees arrived. Our children got bullied in school but the schools didn’t want to adopt any bullying policy because we don’t have representation,” said Dilkhwaz Ahmed, executive director of License to Freedom. “Representation is very important to us as a Kurdish community, as refugees, and as immigrants.”
Emilio Vaca is optimistic that California can meet the undercount challenge: “As of May 11, California has a self-response rate of 59.6 percent, which is above the national average of 58 percent.” This is all the more impressive, Vaca noted, given how the pandemic has affected outreach.
Many of the speakers on the call testified to the ongoing efforts to shift to virtual outreach and “drive by” caravans and taking the census to where the people are.
“We had a food bank event for the Middle Eastern and Muslim community in south Sacramento that attracted more than 2,000 families who came by cars, and we actually engaged with them about the census in every single car,” said Basim Elkarra, executive director of CAIR in Sacramento. “Many were recent refugees.”
The 2020 census form doesn’t include the MENA racial category, but Question 9 allows respondents to write in “MENA” and their specific ethnicities such as Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian or Kurd.
Being visible in the 2020 census, the speakers agreed, will lay the foundation for the next few MENA generations to build on what this generation has started.
This article originally published in the May 25, 2020 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.
Amnesty International published MENA: Renewed wave of mass uprisings met with brutality and repression during ‘year of defiance’ on 18 February 2020. A year has now passed since Masses of Algerians surged through the capital and all other towns and villages throughout the country. It is as though nothing has happened insofar as the ruling elites are concerned. The current situation not only in this particular but all countries of the MENA is however as follows:
- Report reviews human rights in 19 MENA states during 2019
- Wave of protests across Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon demonstrates reinvigorated faith in people power
- 500+ killed in Iraq and over 300 in Iran in brutal crackdowns on protests
- Relentless clampdown on peaceful critics and human rights defenders
- At least 136 prisoners of conscience detained in 12 countries for online speech
Governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) displayed a chilling determination to crush protests with ruthless force and trample over the rights of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to call for social justice and political reform during 2019, said Amnesty International today, publishing its annual report on the human rights situation in the region.
Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Review of 2019 describes how instead of listening to protesters’ grievances, governments have once again resorted to relentless repression to silence peaceful critics both on the streets and online. In Iraq and Iran alone, the authorities’ use of lethal force led to hundreds of deaths in protests; in Lebanon police used unlawful and excessive force to disperse protests; and in Algeria the authorities used mass arrests and prosecutions to crack down on protesters. Across the region, governments have arrested and prosecuted activists for comments posted online, as activists turned to social media channels to express their dissent.2019 was a year of defiance in MENA. It also was a year that showed that hope was still alive – and that despite the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the catastrophic human rights decline in Egypt – people’s faith in the collective power to mobilize for change was revived Heba Morayef
“In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Director for MENA.
“2019 was a year of defiance in MENA. It also was a year that showed that hope was still alive – and that despite the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the catastrophic human rights decline in Egypt – people’s faith in the collective power to mobilize for change was revived.”
The protests across MENA mirrored demonstrators taking to the streets to demand their rights from Hong Kong to Chile. In Sudan, mass protests were met with brutal crackdowns by security forces and eventually ended with a negotiated political agreement with associations who had led the protests.
Crackdown on protests on the streets
Across the MENA region authorities employed a range of tactics to repress the wave of protests – arbitrarily arresting thousands of protesters across the region and in some cases resorting to excessive or even lethal force. In Iraq and Iran alone hundreds were killed as security forces fired live ammunition at demonstrators and thousands more were injured.In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments Heba Morayef
In Iraq where at least 500 died in demonstrations in 2019, protesters showed tremendous resilience, defying live ammunition, deadly sniper attacks and military tear gas grenades deployed at short range causing gruesome injuries.
In Iran, credible reports indicated that security forces killed over 300 people and injured thousands within just four days between 15 and 18 November to quell protests initially sparked by a rise in fuel prices. Thousands were also arrested and many subjected to enforced disappearance and torture.
In September, Palestinian women in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories took to the streets to protest against gender-based violence and Israel’s military occupation. Israeli forces also killed dozens of Palestinians during demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank.
“The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for MENA. “Meanwhile, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel’s policy of using excessive, including lethal, force against demonstrators there continued unabated.” The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent Philip Luther
In Algeria, where mass protests led to the fall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years in power, authorities sought to quash protests through mass arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of peaceful demonstrators.
While the mass protests in Lebanon since October, which led to the resignation of the government, began largely peacefully, on a number of occasions protests were met with unlawful and excessive force and security forces failed to intervene effectively to protect peaceful demonstrators from attacks by supporters of rival political groups.
In Egypt, a rare outbreak of protests in September which took the authorities by surprise was met with mass arbitrary arrests with more than 4,000 detained.
“Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully,” said Heba Morayef.
“Instead of launching deadly crackdowns and resorting to measures such as excessive use of force, torture, or arbitrary mass arrests and prosecutions, authorities should listen to and address demands for social and economic justice as well as political rights.”
Repression of dissent online
As well as lashing out against peaceful protesters on the streets, throughout 2019 governments across the region continued to crack down on people exercising their rights to freedom of expression online. Journalists, bloggers and activists who posted statements or videos deemed critical of the authorities on social media faced arrest, interrogation and prosecutions. Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully Heba Morayef
According to Amnesty International’s figures, individuals were detained as prisoners of conscience in 12 countries in the region and 136 people were arrested solely for their peaceful expression online. Authorities also abused their powers to stop people accessing or sharing information online. During protests in Iran, the authorities implemented a near-total internet shutdown to stop people sharing videos and photos of security forces unlawfully killing and injuring protesters. In Egypt, authorities disrupted online messaging applications in an attempt to thwart further protests. Egyptian and Palestinian authorities also resorted to censoring websites including news websites. In Iran social media apps including Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube remained blocked.
Some governments also use more sophisticated techniques of online surveillance to target human rights defenders. Amnesty’s research highlighted how two Moroccan human rights defenders were targeted using spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO Group. The same company’s spyware had previously been used to target activists in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as an Amnesty International staff member.
More broadly, Amnesty International recorded 367 human rights defenders subjected to detention (240 arbitrarily detained in Iran alone) and 118 prosecuted in 2019 – the true numbers are likely to be higher.
“The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders,” said Philip Luther.
Signs of hope
Despite ongoing and widespread impunity across MENA, some small but historic steps were taken towards accountability for longstanding human rights violations. The announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that war crimes had been committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and that an investigation should be opened as soon as the ICC’s territorial jurisdiction has been confirmed offered a crucial opportunity to end decades of impunity. The ICC indicated that the investigation could cover Israel’s killing of protesters in Gaza. The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders Philip Luther
Similarly, in Tunisia the Truth and Dignity Commission published its final report and 78 trials started before criminal courts offering a rare chance for security forces to be held accountable for past abuses.
The limited advances in women’s rights, won after years of campaigning by local women’s rights movements, were outweighed by the continuing repression of women’s rights defenders, particularly in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a broader failure to eliminate widespread discrimination against women. Saudi Arabia introduced long-overdue reforms to its male guardianship system, but these were overshadowed by the fact that five women human rights defenders remained unjustly detained for their activism throughout 2019. Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights Heba Morayef
A number of Gulf states also announced reforms to improve protection for migrant workers including promises from Qatar to abolish its kafala (sponsorship system) and improve migrants’ access to justice. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates also signalled plans to reform the kafala system. However, migrant workers continue to face widespread exploitation and abuse across the region.
“Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights. Instead of ordering serious violations and crimes to stay in power, governments should ensure the political rights needed to allow people to express their socio-economic demands and to hold their governments to account,” said Heba Morayef.
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An article of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) posted on July 24, 2018 elaborates on the phenomenon of desperate populations migration across the Mediterranean Sea. These are desperate for a multitude of reasons that are all linked to unsurmountable situations in the countries of origin. Dynamics of migration across the Mediterranean a year ago, touched on these reasons but only from a European perspective. In any case, going by the map below, the situation as described in this article has certainly not improved; to the contrary it has gone worse to say the least.
The picture above is of Xinhua’s “People take to streets across America to protest Trump’s immigration policy” that could eventually mark a certain difference between the two worlds.
Geneva – IOM, the UN Migration Agency, reports that 53,269 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea through 22 July 2018. That total compares to 110,603 at this time last year, and 244,722 at this time in 2016.
Arrivals to Spain (see chart below) this month have overtaken those to Italy. To date just over 36 per cent of all Mediterranean irregular migrants have come via the Western Mediterranean route, whose irregular migration volume has more than tripled those registered at this time last year.
Arrivals to Italy are nearly identical, but still trail Spain by just over 1,600 arrivals. Greece counts about 29 per cent of all arrivals. Significantly, Greece’s arrivals thus far in 2018 are running almost 5,000 ahead of last year’s totals on this date, an increase of better than 50 per cent. Arrivals to Italy, on the other hand, are down over 80 per cent compared to 2017 data.
IOM Rome’s Flavio Di Giacomo reported Thursday (19 July) that the number (3,136) of irregular migrant arrivals to Italy by sea in June this year was the lowest recorded by Italian authorities since 2014 (see chart below).
Nonetheless in the month of June the Central Mediterranean route linking Italy to North Africa recorded the highest number of June deaths along this channel in the past four years. In June 2018, some 564 migrants were reported drowned or missing in the waters between North Africa and Sicily. That compares with 529 in 2017, with 388 in 2016, five in 2015 and 314 in 2014. Through 18 July, 153 additional fatalities have been recorded on this route.
OM’s Missing Migrants Project has documented the deaths of 1,492 men, women and children seeking to cross the Mediterranean in 2018 – more than half of those deaths since 1 June.
Most recently IOM’s Missing Migrants Project has documented the deaths of a woman and a man whose remains were recovered in Tajoura and Garabulli, Libya on 19 July. MMP also recorded a tragedy on the Turkey-Greece border, where a woman and her three children drowned in the Evros/Meriç river on 19 July. They were crossing the river with another five people in an attempt to reach Greece when their boat capsized. The bodies of the 36-year-old Turkish woman and her one-year-old son were recovered on 20 July on the Turkish side of the river, while a search and rescue operation is still underway to locate the remains of her two other children, aged 5 and 7.
IOM Libya’s Christine Petré on Monday (23 July) reported that over the weekend, 156 migrants were returned to Libyan soil by the Libyan Coast Guard. On Saturday (21 July), 40 migrants (31 men, eight women, one child) were returned to Libyan shore after having embarked on a rubber boat in Zuwara. The migrants received IOM’s emergency assistance including food, water and health care including pregnancy check-ups for two women. One of the women was in critical condition and received first aid before being transferred to a nearby hospital. The migrants came from Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt and Syria. Following humanitarian assistance, each was transferred to Tajoura detention centre.
On Sunday (22 July), 116 migrants (111 men, five women) who left Libya on a rubber boat in Garaboli received IOM’s emergency assistance including food, water, health care and protection screenings after being intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard. Most of the migrants – from Sudan, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Egypt and Gambia – suffered from headaches, muscle pain and scabies. Those migrants also were transferred to Tajoura detention centre.
So far this year, 12,136 migrants have been returned to Libyan shore, Petré said.
IOM Madrid’s Ana Dodevska reported Monday that total arrivals at sea in 2018 have reached 19,586 men, women and children, irregular migrants who have been rescued in Western Mediterranean waters through 22 July, with nearly 1,000 arriving over the weekend. With this month’s figures Spain is the Mediterranean’s most-sought destination for irregular migrants traveling by sea, surpassing Italy and Greece.
Additionally, 3,125 migrants have attempted to enter Spain irregularly via the country’s African enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, according to Spanish authorities.
As remarkable as Spain’s rise in irregular migration activity has been through 2018, even more important is its recent surge. Over the year’s first five months, a total of 8,150 men, women and children were rescued in Spanish waters after leaving Africa – an average of 54 per day. In the 52 days since May 31, a total of 11,436 have arrived – or just under 220 migrants per day (see chart below).
IOM Athens’ Christine Nikolaidou said Monday that IOM has learned from the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) of at least three incidents requiring search and rescue operations between 19 and 22 July off the islands of Lesvos, Samos, and Chios. The HCG rescued a total of 87 migrants and transferred them to those islands. At least 245 landed on those same islands without intervention – plus 79 more on Kos, Megisti and Oinouses – bringing to 411 the total arrivals during those four days.
Through 22 July, the total number of sea arrivals to Greek territory since January 1 is 15,351.
April remains the busiest month for irregular migration by land and sea to Greece, with a total of 7,009 men, women and children arriving. February was the lowest with 1,610 (see charts below).
IOM’s Kristina Uzelac reported that almost 13,000 irregular migrants have been registered in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania between January and the second week of July 2018. Of those, some 70 per cent have been apprehended by the Bosnian police, a total of 9,035 as of 15 July 2018. One third of all migrants registered were from Pakistan (33 per cent). Syrian nationals represent the second largest nationality group (16 per cent) followed by migrants from Afghanistan (12 per cent), the Islamic Republic of Iran (12 per cent) and Iraq (9 per cent).
Considering the limited capacity of official reception centres in the country (120 in Asylum and 100 in the Closed Reception centre), majority of migrants must stay in alternative shelters, mainly in the north-western part of the country, near the border with Croatia. IOM mobile teams have assisted more than 1,600 individuals with transportation, legal counsel, interpreter services, and medical referrals.
Reported arrivals to Albania are stable with estimated 38 to 40 apprehensions on entry into the country on a weekly basis. As of 14 July, authorities in Albania registered 1,305 irregular migrants on entry to the country and another 651 who were intercepted exiting the country to Montenegro.
Registered migrants are predominantly Syrian, Pakistani and Iraqi. Since 1 January, an estimated 2,283 irregular migrants have entered Montenegro, mainly from Albania. Almost half of all migrants were of Syrian origin (44 per cent). Pakistani nationals were the second largest group comprising 18 per cent of the overall arrivals, followed by Algerian (11 per cent) and Iraqi (7 per cent) nationals.
According to available data, irregular entries to Croatia and Slovenia also have increased between January and June 2018 when compared with the same period in 2017. In Croatia, Border Police reported 2,552 irregular entries this year, a 97 per cent increase compared to 1,297 reported in the same period last year and 11 per cent more than the total of 2,292 reported for the whole 2017.
Data from Slovenian Ministry of Interior indicate a four-fold increase in irregular entries between the second quarter of 2017 and 2018. At the end of June 2018, there were 3,266 registered irregular entries versus 748 reported at the end of June 2018 (1,930 reported in the whole of 2017). Available nationality breakdown indicates that the majority of intercepted migrants in both countries are from Pakistan, Algeria, Turkey, Syrian Arab Republic and Afghanistan.
According to available data from the official website of the Croatian Ministry of Interior, there were at least 13 incidents related to migrant smuggling in the past two months. The Croatian police arrested 21 people under suspicion of human smuggling. Arrested individuals were from Austria, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Syrian Arab Republic, Pakistan, Iraq, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, proving the international character of the smuggling networks operating in the region.
Worldwide, IOM’s Missing Migrants Project has documented the deaths of 2,255 people while migrating in 2018 (see chart below).
Besides the Mediterranean region, MMP reported that in the Horn of Africa, at least five people drowned in the Gulf of Aden when the boat in which they were travelling with 160 people capsized off the coast of Yemen on 19 July. The remains of two women and one man were retrieved in Al Shoghayrat, Shabwa Governorate, Yemen, while according to survivors’ testimonies, two men remain missing.
On the US-Mexico border, three people died recently while trying to cross into the United States. According to the Mexican Consulate in Eagle Pass, the remains of a 40-year-old man, of unknown identity, were found in a ranch near Carrizo Springs, Texas on 19 July. The day after, Mexican civil protection authorities recovered the body of a young man from the Río Bravo/Grande, near the second international bridge in Piedras Negras, Coahuila. On 21 July, after receiving a distress call, US Border Patrol officers found the body of a 34-year-old Guatemalan man who had died of dehydration in a ranch near Hebbronville, Texas.
In Mexico, a young migrant was killed by a freight train on 19 July. He was severely injured after falling from the top of the train in which he was travelling north to the US border, and died at the hospital in Saltillo, Coahuila a few hours later.
Missing Migrants Project data are compiled by IOM staff but come from a variety of sources, some of which are unofficial. To learn more about how data on migrants’ deaths and disappearances are collected, click here.
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Here is a story written by Christin Roby @robyreports and published by Devex on 28 August 2017 that is a good recollection of what is happening in the outer edges of the MENA region. In fact, it is in the Sahel region that borders the south of all the North African countries (see map below) from as it were the Atlantic coast to its Indian counterpart coast. The narrated events in this particular story happened to have all occurred in what is called Azawad since time immemorial by the North African Berber populations. These populations are known throughout North Africa as Blue Men or Tuaregs for their nomadic roaming notably in the south-eastern limits of the Sahara. Azawad is the country to be but never made it to go it alone beyond that April day of 2012. Read more in the republished here story of Christen Roby.
MOPTI, Mali — Two separate attacks on U.N. peacekeeping bases in Mali earlier this month have escalated security concerns for NGOs and international organizations in the country’s northern and central regions. The already-volatile area has seen a rise in incidents against NGOs in recent months, and analysts fear local extremist groups may be forming in the country’s central and southern regions in response to limited governance.
The insecurity is wreaking double havoc: It has increased humanitarian needs, as public services deteriorate and livelihoods are compromised. Meanwhile, aid organizations are struggling to operate and address those needs given the complex safety risks.
“In this insecurity and fighting, you have elements who simply don’t respect humanitarian organizations and, in fact, they openly target humanitarian organizations,” John Ging, director of operations for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Devex. “The influence we have and our ability to negotiate respect for and security for our operation in an environment in central and northern Mali has limitations,” he said.
The attacks on U.N. peacekeepers on August 14 took place in Timbuktu, in Mali’s north, and Douenza, in the central region. In the former case, armed assailants targeted the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali’s headquarters, leaving six dead. One peacekeepers and a Malian soldier died in the second incident.
For aid organizations, the primary threats include thefts, carjacking and kidnappings. In a reminder of the risks, militants released a video of hostages abducted as early as 2011 just ahead of a visit to Mali by French President Emmanuel Macron in early July. Though one of the hostages, South African Stephen McGown, was released a few weeks later, the incident rattled the aid community. Relief groups have developed personalized security protocols to cope with ever-present risks. Security experts also urge the development community to work with and through local partners at all stages of programming and implementation to mitigate risks and build trust.
A backdrop of insecurity
Mali has maintained a high-security risk profile since 2003, when Algeria’s militant Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat fled across into the country’s northern region. The country today is home to overlapping conflicts, including between roaming pastoralists and farmers, as well as jihadists groups.
Military efforts to establish security have so far had mixed results. Government military forces and working with the U.N. Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in Mali and the French-led Barkhane forces, which have been present in-country since 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Though Islamic militant groups have had no territorial control since the French operation, Vincent Rouget, West Africa analyst at the global risk consultancy firm Control Risks, said they have “proven very mobile, very agile and very capable of evading surveillance and conducting attacks increasingly outside of their stronghold in the desert north.”
The crumbling security situation in this landlocked country may pose a threat to neighbouring countries, experts told Devex. The countries making up the Sahel region — Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad — launched the G5 Sahel Joint Force earlier this summer to combat Islamist militants. Even with large financial support from the European Union, from France and from each country making up the force, Rouget believes that the deployment of more forces will not necessarily be an effective solution to this problem. He said the approach, in some cases, could even exacerbate tensions and lead to more discontent with the presence of expatriates.
The deteriorating security situation is having a devastating impact on the local population, said Ging. “People are really exposed to very dangerous, volatile and difficult situations … and that feeds directly into the escalation in their need and dependency on humanitarian support because they are negatively impacted in their own capacity to cope,” he said.
During his visit to the Mopti region in April, Ging found that nearly 300 schools were closed, more than double the amount closed last year. Across the greater central and northern Mali, 507 schools were closed out of 2300 schools total.
Providing desperately needed humanitarian support has also proved a daunting task, often obstructed by the highly uncertain situation, Ging told Devex.
Security risks now extend across the central region of Mali, impacting even the traditionally stable towns of Sevare and Segou. The lack of government presence in these areas has provided fertile ground for Islamic militants and radical discourse to take hold, Rouget explained.
Militants in this area tend to be decentralized, he said. While operating under the Al Qaeda umbrella, they work independently from one another, making them more difficult to root out. Rouget described them as local cells fighting against the state.
Experts working in the Mopti region are divided over whether these groups have specific targets, or whether the insecurity is more generalized. A UNOCHA representative in Mali argued that attacks happen to all types of people, not just aid workers. Whereas, an office manager for an aid relief agency told Devex that the U.N. and NGOs are singled out.
Rouget sees militants targeting those they consider “crusaders,” or Western nationals and those working with them, including French soldiers, U.N. peacekeepers, Malian military and gendarmerie and NGOs. In order to gain local support, these groups usually attempt to avoid Muslim casualties, he said. Attacks are often highly targeted, avoiding large scale suicide bombings employed by other jihadist groups such as Boko Haram, for example.
According to the Mali chapter of the International NGO Safety Organisation, incidents against NGOs are on track to be double compared to last year. As of June 2017, the country saw 98 incidents compared to a total of 114 NGO incidents in 2016.
Tomas Musik, INSO section director responsible for operations in Mali, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, accounts this significant increase in overall security incidents to a rise in criminality.
“This rise is due in part to the political context which remains unabated between pro-government security forces and opposition groups, which you could qualify as the radical jihadi groups,” Musik said.
Carjackings are particularly common, usually impacting NGOs and aid workers, as they tend to be the ones using vehicles. “There is some targeting which is not related to an NGO mandate or lack of acceptance from the community, but which is rather due to lack of exposure and the fact that NGOs remain present very extensively in the field and compared to presence of government or private sector,” he said.
Keeping aid workers safe
To increase aid worker safety, experts recommend international organizations work more closely with local populations. No white expatriates currently work in Mali’s central region.
“Humanitarian organizations work very much at the basis of community acceptance, so a central part of how humanitarian organizations enhance their own security is direct engagement with community leaders: Seeking support and respect from them for the humanitarian activities whether it’s the staff, the locations, or the movement of supplies,” Ging told Devex.
Musik stressed the importance of delivering quality work and assistance to communities, involving the local populations to define needs and targeted response plans, and making sure that the community feels represented.
“Groups must have a really sound understanding of geography because the threat varies hugely across regions and across localities,” Rouget added. He said it is critical to understand if an imminent threat exists, or if an area only experiences sporadic attacks. For single visits, he said, it is important to consider details such as choice of hotels and restaurants, as well as where one spends time outside the office, since many large attacks in Mali have occurred during weekends.
“As an organization, what you can do is provide your staff who are deployed [in unstable zones] with training and get them properly equipped to face hostile environments, and also more broadly to try to instill a culture of security awareness, which is not necessarily easy to do with NGOs and humanitarian aid workers but really make staff aware of the threat level and make sure they don’t take unnecessary risks,” Rouget urged.
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About the author
Christin Roby is a West Africa correspondent for Devex based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire where she covers global development trends, health, technology and policy-related topics. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms, and earned an MSJ in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.