It’s Time To Globalise Compassion, Says Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi

Africa, Child Labour, Conferences, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations

Child Labour

“I have been talking to leaders of rich countries to address the problem of post-pandemic economic meltdown. We have to work for social protection for marginalised people in low-income countries and focus on children, education, health, and protection. That is not a big investment compared to what we are going to lose – a whole generation.” – Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi

Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi addresses the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour. Despite setbacks, he is optimistic that child labour can be abolished. Credit: Cecilia Russell/IPS

Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi addresses the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour. Despite setbacks, he is optimistic that child labour can be abolished. Credit: Cecilia Russell/IPS

Durban, May 16 2022 (IPS) – A mere 35 billion US dollars per annum – equivalent to 10 days of military spending – would ensure all children in all countries benefit from social protection, Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi told the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour.

He said this was a small price to pay considering the catastrophic consequences of the increase in child labour since 2016, after several years of decline in child labour numbers.

An estimated 160 000 million kids are child labourers, and unless there is a drastic reversal, another 9 million are expected to join their ranks.

Satyarthi was among a distinguished group of panellists on setting global priorities for eliminating child labour. The panel included International Labour Organisation(ILO) DG Guy Ryder, South African Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi, James Quincey, CEO of Coca Cola,  Alliance 8.7 chairperson Anousheh Karver and European Union Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen.

The panel discussed child labour in the context of decent work deficits and youth employment. It identified pressing global challenges and priorities for the international community.

Satyarthi said the 35 million US dollars was far from a big ask. Nor was the 22 billion US dollars needed to ensure education for all children. He said this was the equivalent of what people in the US spent on tobacco over six days.

Satyarthi said it was a travesty that the G7, the world’s wealthiest countries, had never debated child labour – something he intends to change.

The panellists attributed the increase in child labour to several factors, including lack of political will, lack of interest from rich countries and embedded cultural and economic factors.

Asked how he remained optimistic in light of the dismal picture of growing child labour rates. Satyarthi told IPS that having been in the trenches for 40 years, he had seen and been happy to see a decline in child labour until 2016 – when the problem began escalating again.

“I strongly believe in freedom of human beings. The world will slowly move towards a more compassionate society, sometimes faster, sometimes slower,” he said.

Satyarthi, together with organisations like the ILO, succeeded in putting the issue of child labour on the international agenda. Through his foundation in collaboration with other NGOs, he got the world to take note of this hidden scourge.

He is convinced that child labour will be eliminated despite the recent setbacks.

“I am hopeful because there was no ILO programme when I started 40 years ago. Child labour was not recognised as a problem, but slowly, it is being realised that it’s wrong and evil – even a crime. So, 40 years isn’t a big tenure in the history of human beings. This scourge has been there for centuries.”

Yet he recognises the need for urgency to roll back the escalation of child labour.

“The next ten years are even more important because now we have the means, we have power, technology, and we know the solution. The only thing we need is a strong political will but also social will,” Satyarthi said. “We have to speed it up and bring back the hope. Bring back the optimism. The issue is a priority, and that’s why we are calling on markets to globalise compassion. There are many things to divide us, but there’s one thing we all agree on: the well-being of our children.”

Satyarthi said to meet the SDG deadline of 2025, he and other Nobel laureates and world leaders are pushing hard to ensure that child labour starts declining again.

“We as a group of Nobel laureates and world leaders are working on two fronts. One is a fair share for children on budgetary allocations and policies,” he said.

The group engaged with governments to ensure that children received a fair share of the budget and resources.

Then they are pushing governments on social protection, which he believes in demystifying.

“We have seen in different countries, social protection – helping through school feeding schemes, employment programmes and conditional grant programmes to ensure that children can go to school, with proven success in bringing down child labour.”

The Nobel laureate knocked on the doors of the leaders of wealthy nations.

“I have been talking to leaders of rich countries to address the problem of post-pandemic economic meltdown. We have to work for social protection for marginalised people in low-income countries and focus on children, education, health, and protection. That is not a big investment compared to what we are going to lose – a whole generation.”

Satyarthi said he was heartened by the response to their efforts to motivate governments and the private sector to join the fight against child labour.

“I have been optimistic to say many of the governments and EU leaders are not only listening – they are talking about it. Yesterday only, I was so happy that President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke very explicitly on this issue, and almost everyone was talking about this issue. But it took several months, several years to get there.”

And Satyarthi is not going to stop soon. With the Laureates and Leaders For Children project, he and fellow laureates are determined the world sits up and finds the will to ensure every child can experience a childhood.

IPS UN Bureau Report

This is part of a series of stories published by IPS during the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour in Durban. 


Call to Freedom for Millions of Children Trapped in Child Labour as Global Conference to Comes to Africa

Child Labour, Conferences, Education, Featured, Global, Headlines, Humanitarian Emergencies, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations


A child beneficiary holding a drawing portraying domestic violence, at the Centre for Youth Empowerment and Civic Education, Lilongwe, Malawi which partnered with the ILO/IPEC to support the national action plan aimed at combating child labour. Credit: Marcel Crozet/ILO

A child beneficiary holding a drawing portraying domestic violence, at the Centre for Youth Empowerment and Civic Education, Lilongwe, Malawi which partnered with the ILO/IPEC to support the national action plan aimed at combating child labour. Credit: Marcel Crozet/ILO

Nairobi, May 13 2022 (IPS) – Children washing clothes in rivers, begging on the streets, hawking, walking for kilometres in search of water and firewood, their tiny hands competing with older, experienced hands to pick coffee or tea, or as child soldiers are familiar sights in Africa and Asia.

Child rights experts at Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation reiterate that tolerance and normalisation of working children, many of whom work in hazardous conditions and circumstances, and apathy has stalled progress towards the elimination of child labour.

Further warnings include more children in labour across the sub-Saharan Africa region than the rest of the world combined. The continent now falls far behind the collective commitment to end all forms of child labour by 2025.

The International Labour Organization estimates more than 160 million children are in child labour globally.

How to achieve the Sustainable Development Target 8.7 and the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour that focuses on its elimination by 2025 will be the subject of the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour to be held in Durban, South Africa, from May 15 to 20, 2022.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to open the conference. He will share the stage with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) chairperson and President of the Republic of Malawi Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, and Argentina President Alberto Ángel Fernández Pérez (virtual).

“There are multiple drivers of child labour in Africa, and many of them are interconnected,” Minoru Ogasawara, Chief Technical Advisor for the Accelerating action for the elimination of child labour in supply chains in Africa (ACCEL Africa) at the International Labour Organization (ILO) tells IPS.

He speaks of the high prevalence of children working in agriculture, closely linked to poverty and family survival strategies.

Rapid population growth, Ogasawara says, has placed significant pressure on public budgets to maintain or increase the level of services required to fight child labour, such as education and social protection.

“Hence the call to substantially increase funding through official development assistance (ODA), national budgets and contributions from the private sector targeting child labour and its root causes,” he observes.

UNICEF says approximately 12 percent of children aged 5 to 14 years are involved in child labour – at the cost of their childhood, education, and future.

Of the 160 million child labourers worldwide, more than half are in sub-Saharan Africa, and 53 million are not in school – amounting to 28 % aged five to 11 and another 35 % aged 12 to 14, according to the most recent child labour global estimates by UNICEF and ILO.

Against this grim backdrop, keynote speakers Nobel Peace Laureates Kailash Satyarthi and Leymah Gbowee and former Prime Minister of Sweden Stefan Löfven will address the conference, which is expected to put into perspective how and why children still suffer some of the worst, most severe forms of child labour such as bonded labour, domestic servitude, child soldiers, drug trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.

Satyarthi has been at the forefront of mobilising global support to this effect.

“I am working in collaboration with a number of other Nobel Laureates and world leaders. We are demanding the setting up of an international social protection mechanism. During the pandemic, we calculated that $53 billion annually could ensure social protection for all children in all low-income countries, as well as pregnant women too,” Satyarthi emphasises.

“Increased social protection, access to free quality education, health care, decent job opportunities for adults, and basic services together create an enabling environment that reduces household vulnerability to child labour,” Ogasawara stresses.

He points to an urgent need to introduce and or rapidly expand social security and other social protection measures suitable for the informal economy, such as cash transfers, school feeding, subsidies for direct education costs, and health care coverage.

The need for a school-to-work transition and to “target children from poor households, increase access to education while reducing the need to combine school with work among children below the minimum working age” should be highlighted.

In the absence of these social protection safety nets, the  International Labour Organization says it is estimated that an additional 9 million children are at risk of child labour by the end of this year and a possible further increase of 46 million child labourers.

In this context, the fifth global conference presents an opportunity to assess progress made towards achieving the goals of SDG Target 8.7, discuss good practices implemented by different actors around the world and identify gaps and urgent measures needed to accelerate the elimination of both child labour and forced labour.

The timing is crucial, says the ILO, as there are only three years left to achieve the goal of the elimination of all child labour by 2025 and only eight years towards the elimination of forced labour by 2030, as established by the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 8.7.

The conference will also see the active participation of young survivor-advocates from India and Africa. They will share their first-person accounts and lived experiences in sync with the core theme of the discussion.

The conference will also take place within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, amid fears and concerns that ending child labour became less significant on the international agenda as the world coped with the impact of the pandemic. This could reverse the many gains accrued in the fight against child labour, forced labour and child trafficking.

This is the first of a series of stories which IPS will be publishing during the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour from May 15 to 20, 2022.

IPS UN Bureau Report


In Sri Lanka, Things Fall Apart

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, TerraViva United Nations


The protestors’ main rallying slogan is ‘GotaGoHome’

LONDON, May 4 2022 (IPS) – When I ended last month’s column hoping that April would not prove to be hapless Sri Lanka’s ‘cruellest month’ (in the words TS Eliot), I hardly anticipated the current turn of events.

In April, the country was to celebrate several ethno-religious festivals. The biggest among them was the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, celebrated by Sri Lanka’s majority community and its main minority. It was also the Muslim month of Ramadan and Easter, commemorated by the Christians.

For over one-and-a-half years Sri Lanka had been grappling with a fast-failing economy. The dwindling of foreign reserves and the consequent shortages of food, medicines, fuel, gas and kerosene for cooking were more recently compounded by power cuts, at times as long as 12hoursper day, bringing manufacturing industries to a standstill and forcing businesses to close down early.

With the country struggling to avert bankruptcy and an unprecedented rise in inflation and spiralling commodity prices, many working-class families, daily wage earners and farmers were facing penury and starvation.

Against this dire background Sri Lanka’s 22 million people were anxiously preparing for the April festivities, wondering whether there would be anything to celebrate.

Then it happened.

On March 31 the residents of Mirihana, a middle- class town on the outskirts of Colombo, held a candle-light protest to highlight the daily power cuts that disrupted their family activities. The protest, initially by women, attracted passers-by and huge crowds from neighbourhood towns and residential areas as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa lived in Mirihana in his private residence.

Swelling crowds shouting slogans later clashed with police firing tear gas and water cannons to break up the demonstration, but many of the protestors held their ground till the next day.

The Mirihana protest has sparked the island-wide conflagration that now has the once all-powerful Rajapaksa family-run government teetering on the wall like Humpty Dumpty awaiting a splintering fall. It will remain an important landmark in this uprising, which some have called, rather erroneously, Sri Lanka’s ‘Arab Spring’.

Mirihana began the assault against the Rajapaksa fiefdom that once seemed impregnable. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is president. Brother Mahinda, who served two terms as president, is currently prime minister. Another brother, Basil, a dual citizen with US citizenship and a home in Los Angeles, was until last month finance minister, and the eldest brother Chamal holds the post ofirrigation minister and state minister of security. Mahinda’s eldest son Namal, whom his father sees as heir apparent, was sports and youth affairs minister, among other portfolios.

It appears that the prime minister suspects he is going to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency

Together, the family reportedly controlled 72 per cent of government resources, free to use as they deemed fit, even to farm off to their acolytes and business friends in the way of government contracts and import monopolies, even during the Covid pandemic.

Today, however, that fortress of power and privilege appears as exposed as France’s Maginot Line, set to crumble against a German Blitzkrieg.

All the Rajapaksas, except Prime Minister Mahinda, lost their positions last month when President Gotabaya suddenly dissolved the cabinet in a desperate attempt to quell the mounting outrage against him. It seemed a weak moral sidestep, for the protesters’ cry was not only against the president but against the entire Rajapaksa family, which they claimed had dipped their hands into the country’s assets for personal gain.

Mirihana lit the fuse for the enormous protest that flared up at Colombo’s beach-front Galle Face Green, right opposite the Presidential Secretariat from where political power radiated. It was this that breached the Rajapaksa citadel.

Economists urged the government seek IMF assistance

At the time of writing, this protest – which shows signs of unifying the country’s multiracial, multi-religious society and has drawn crowds of all ages and a wide cross-section of the Sri Lankan community, including the professional classes – has entered its 17thcontinuous day, with hundreds of protesters camped there day and night despite the heat and rain.

Yet it is no Arab Spring. It is an orderly, non-violent protest, mainly of youth of all shades, with an inventive genius to keep themselves and their cause alive.

Never in Sri Lanka’s 74 years of post-independence history has the country seen anything like this, even though anti-government protests are nothing new to the country, which has seen Leftist political parties and associated trade unions functioning even under British colonial rule.

The main rallying slogan is ‘GotaGoHome’, telling Gotabaya to return to his home – also in Los Angeles –though he relinquished his US citizenship to be eligible to contest the presidential election in November 2019.

Built round that slogan are a myriad other satirical comments in song, verse, caricatures, cartoons and videos, the creative work of the protesters deriding the Rajapaksas, some demanding they return the country’s supposedly stolen assets and otherwise accumulated wealth in tax havens.

Although the protesters are now demanding that the whole Rajapaksa family pack their bags and quit, the main target quite rightly is President Gotabaya. It was his military arrogance – having played a role in the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) in 2009, under the leadership of his president brother Mahinda – and his ignorance of politics and governance, and over-reliance on incompetent advisers that started the economic rot.

With a group of retired and serving military men appointed to key civilian positions and a coterie of so-called intellectuals and businessmen as advisers, he plunged head-first into economic policy decisions.

Within a few days of assuming office, he had slashed VAT from 15 per cent to 8per cent and abolished some other taxes that cost the state a whopping 28 per cent in revenue. It led the Central Bank to print money feverishly to meet budgetary commitments, causing inflation.

Also disastrous was the overnight decision to ban chemical fertilisers that drove farmers to burn effigies of ministers and demonstrate on the streets, demanding restitution of their fertiliser needs or face food insecurity in the months ahead, forcing a once adamant president to retract.

While economists had foreseen the impending danger in depleting foreign reserves and international debt repayments this year, and hence urged the government seek IMF assistance, the president clung steadfastly to the advice of the Central Bank Governor and the Treasury Secretary, among others, who dismissed the idea for more than one year even ignoring cabinet support for IMF help.

In a belated gesture, President Gotabaya sacked the two officials immediately after replacing his cabinet with younger, untested MPs. He sent his new finance minister to Washington to plead with the IMF for immediate relief.

The president is hoping for political concessions he has agreed to – including returning to parliament and the prime minister powers that he usurped on coming to office through the 20thconstitutional amendment. He has now agreed to form an interim All Party government.

But one sees a growing rift in the once close-knit family. Names proposed by Prime Minister Mahinda for the new cabinet were ignored by his brother, causing the prime minister to boycott the swearing-in of the new ministers.

If the president opts for an interim government, it means he has decided to stay put but call for the prime minister’s resignation. It would appear that the prime minister suspects he is going to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

In an interview the other day, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa insisted that he will not resign and any reconstituted government must be under his leadership. In the meantime, he has been trying to whip up support against his ouster by canvassing MPs to muster the required 113 votes.

How the protesting public will react to all these political manipulations will depend on what is on offer. Right now, they are determined to continue until President Gotabaya surrenders, which seems unlikely.

Source: Asian Affairs, London

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London.

IPS UN Bureau


In Sri Lanka, Rajapaksas on the Ropes

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, TerraViva United Nations


There were widespread reports over the weekend of hundreds of demonstrators demanding the resignation of the family-run Rajapaksa government. Credit: Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

LONDON, Apr 4 2022 (IPS) – With the economy in freefall and basics such as food and fuel in dangerously short supply, there is mounting public anger against a failing and desperate government in Sri Lanka.

‘O tempora, O mores,’ said the Roman orator Cicero in a plaintive cry, denouncing the political and social norms of Rome in 70 BC.

Unlike the Romans, the people of Sri Lanka have not left it to politicians or orators to berate what they perceive as their rudderless rulers. They have taken on the task themselves, going into the streets to decry their government in words more telling and malignant than any Cicero might have employed.

They watch as their once ‘Resplendent Isle’ hurtles downhill while confused rulers try desperately to halt its economic and social collapse.

Never in the history of modern Sri Lanka have its citizens queued up for hours to purchase one or two cylinders of cooking gas or a few litres of petrol or kerosene, while a wide range of other shortages continue to plague the country.

If in Ukraine civilians are dying because of the indiscriminate and inconsiderate shelling and bombing by Russian forces, in Sri Lanka they are dying on their feet, some having waited for pre-dawn hours for gas or kerosene to cook what little food they could muster to feed hungry families.

As I write this in late March, reports are pouring in of four people from different parts of the country dying within 48 hours. That is not surprising at a time when the Covid pandemic still persists.

But these four died while waiting in gas or petrol queues, three of then possibly of exhaustion after standing for many hours, and the fourth of stab wounds during an altercation at a filling station.

Today, history is being made. But it is not in the manner the country’s rulers –the powerful Rajapaksa family from Sri Lanka’s south, whose political antecedents go back to the 1930s–ever expected.

Today, the wheel of political fortune has inexorably turned.

It was over a decade ago that two of the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda and Gotabaya, were hailed as national heroes for their roles in defeating the dreaded Tamil Tiger separatists in May 2009, after a war that lasted nearly three decades.

Mahinda was then Sri Lanka’s president and Gotabaya his defence secretary.

In April 2019, a couple of days after jihadist terrorists suicide-bombed three churches and three luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, killing some 270 locals and foreigners and wounding another 500, Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his presidential ambitions.

Politically untested, the former military officer promised enhanced national security, peace, political stability, economic recovery and preservation of Sri Lanka’s 2500-year Buddhist heritage.

In November that year he won the presidential election with 6.9 million votes and in August 2020 Mahinda Rajapaksa led the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) to victory at the parliamentary election with a near two-thirds majority.

But today, the wheel of political fortune has inexorably turned. Last month in a Gallup-style opinion poll conducted by a local think tank, Veritḗ Research found that only 10 per cent of those queried said they approved of the current government.

Rudderless Rulers

Such is public antipathy that long queues of people spending hours to buy a packet or two of powdered milk booed the president as he passed by.

Some days later busloads of women, led by a former MP whose politician father was shot dead by a rival, who was convicted of murder, sentenced to death but then pardoned by President Gotabaya last year and given a state job, demonstrated outside the president’s private residence.

Teachers, health workers and other trade union-led employees have gone on strike at various times. Farmers have taken to the streets, protesting against the overnight ban last May of chemical fertiliser that saw some rice fields and other agricultural land abandoned and export-earning tea and rubber plantations affected.

Over the past months effigies of the Agriculture Minister have been burnt and posters of the Rajapaksas (four of the brothers are cabinet ministers and so is Mahinda’s eldest son) have been torn or otherwise defaced in blatant displays of public anger and lack of faith in a government that has failed to provide uninterrupted supplies of basics such as electricity, gas, petrol and kerosene, and essential foods and medicines.

It has been said that even the dead have no peace. Some crematoriums have stopped functioning unless they can be certain of continuous electricity.

Outages lasting several hours have often brought factories to a halt. Thermal power stations and other power providers cannot operate continuously for lack of fuel and coal.

Fast depleting foreign reserves have forced the government to slash imports of food, fuel, diesel and gas, compelling many restaurants, bakeries and wayside eateries, as well as other enterprises, to close or restrict their business.

Meanwhile, prices of food and domestic essentials and transport costs have skyrocketed, driving many families, particularly daily wage earners, into penury and starvation.

With foreign reserves at the end of February down to a perilous US$ 2.3 billion and some $7 billion in sovereign debt and loan repayments due this year – including a $1 billion repayment in July – the Rajapaksas turned from their traditional friend and ally China, which that has extended financial help over the years, to neighbouring nations.

A currency swap was arranged with Bangladesh, and last month Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa flew to New Delhi for meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, urging help to rescue Colombo from its foreign exchange crisis.

Never in the history of modern Sri Lanka have its citizens queued for hours to buy fuel

New Delhi extended a $1 billion credit facility to enable the purchase of food, medicines and other essentials. This brought Indian assistance this year to $1.4 billion, which included a $400 million currency swap, besides another half a billion-dollar line of credit for essential fuel imports, and the deferring of a $500 million loan and.

Meanwhile China is considering another $2.5 billion in fresh assistance, China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka stated while turning down the deferment of a loan.

Even as Sri Lanka turns to Asia’s two leading powers, both vying for larger footprints in Sri Lanka, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, Colombo has finally turned to the IMF for belated assistance due to internal dissension in the ruling coalition.

President Rajapaksa recently sacked two ministers from minor coalition partners for criticising government policy and attacking Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who has dual Sri Lankan-US citizenship, for bending backwards to satisfy American interests.

Some other state ministers have resigned or been removed as internal squabbles begin to take a toll on stability in the 11-party coalition.

With the economy in tatters and mounting public wrath against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with calls of ‘Gota Go Home’, he summoned an all-party conference late last month in the hope of showing a friendly face and seeking solutions to the country’s economic catastrophe.

While some minority Tamil parties which had long sought a meeting with the president and some other parties attended, two of the leading opposition parties, which recently launched anti-government demonstrations, boycotted the conference.

It started on a sour note, with many-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe putting the Governor of the Central Bank Nivard Cabraal in his place for unwanted political remarks, for which President Rajapaksa apologised to Mr Wickremesinghe.

To the average Sri Lankan who has witnessed such conferences over the years, including ones to bring racial peace to a divided country, they are an exercise in political waffling and time-wasting.

With Sri Lanka’s biggest national celebration, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, in mid-April, the working and middle-class families now struggling to survive wonder whether there will be anything to celebrate. Even if families can get together for the traditional meals, will they be able to cook them for lack of gas and kerosene?

Will this April be the cruellest month?

Source: Asian Affairs, London

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media, including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently, he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

IPS UN Bureau


A Tale of Two Refugee Crises

Civil Society, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Global, Headlines, Humanitarian Emergencies, Migration & Refugees, TerraViva United Nations


Families carry their belongings through the Zosin border crossing in Poland after fleeing Ukraine. Credit: UNHCR/Chris Melzer

GENEVA, Mar 7 2022 (IPS) Russia’s brutal and devastating invasion of Ukraine has triggered the largest and fastest refugee movement in Europe since World War II. After only a single week, more than one million people had already fled the country.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) initially predicted that as many as four million people would flee; the UN now thinks that some 10 million will eventually be displaced.

While the EU calls this the largest humanitarian crisis that Europe has witnessed in “many, many years,” it is important to remember that it was not so long ago that the continent faced another critical humanitarian challenge, the 2015 refugee “crisis” spurred by the conflict in Syria.

But the starkly different responses that Europe has directed at these two situations—in addition to its draconian response to ongoing African migration across the Mediterranean—provide a cautionary lesson for those hoping for a more humane, generous Europe.

These differences also help explain why some of those fleeing Ukraine—in particular, nationals from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—are not receiving the same generous treatment as the citizens of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s neighbours have thus far responded with an outpouring of public and political support for the refugees. Political leaders have said publicly that refugees from Ukraine are welcome and countries have been preparing to receive refugees on their borders with teams of volunteers handing out food, water, clothing, and medicines.

Slovakia and Poland have said that refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine will be allowed to enter their countries even without passports, or other valid travel documents; other EU countries, such as Ireland, have announced the immediate lifting of visa requirements for people coming from Ukraine.

Across Europe, free public transport and phone communication is being provided for Ukrainian refugees. On 3 March, the EU voted to activate the Temporary Protection Directive, introduced in the 1990’s to manage large-scale refugee movements during the Balkans crisis.

Under this scheme, refugees from Ukraine will be offered up to three years temporary protection in EU countries, without having to apply for asylum, with rights to a residence permit and access to education, housing, and the labour market.

The EU also proposed simplifying border controls and entry conditions for people fleeing Ukraine. Ukrainian refugees can travel for 90 days visa-free throughout EU countries, and many have been moving on from neighbouring countries to join family and friends in other EU countries. Throughout Europe, the public and politicians are mobilizing to show solidarity and support for those fleeing Ukraine.

This is how the international refugee protection regime should work, especially in times of crisis: countries keep their borders open to those fleeing wars and conflict; unnecessary identity and security checks are avoided; those fleeing warfare are not penalized for arriving without valid identity and travel documents; detention measures are not used; refugees are able to freely join family members in other countries; communities and their leaders welcome refugees with generosity and solidarity.

But we know that this is not how the international protection regime has always operated in Europe, particularly in those same countries that are now welcoming refugees from Ukraine.

Public discourse in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania is often tainted by racist and xenophobic rhetoric about refugees and migrants, in particular those from Middle Eastern and African countries, and they have adopted hostile policies like border push-backs and draconian detention measures.

A case in point is Hungary: The country has refused to admit refugees from non-EU countries since the 2015 “refugee crisis.” Prime Minister Victor Orbán has described non-European refugees as “Muslim invaders” and migrants as “a poison,” claiming that Hungary should not accept refugees from different cultures and religions to “preserve its cultural and ethnic homogeneity.”

In May 2020, The European Court of Justice found that Hungary’s arbitrary detention of asylum seekers in transit zones on its border with Serbia was illegal.

Hungary was not alone in its harsh response to the 2015 “crisis.” In their book Immigration Detention in the European Union: In the Shadow of the “Crisis” (Springer 2020), Global Detention Project (GDP) researchers detailed the evolution of the detention systems of all EU Members States before, during, and after the 2015 refugee crisis.

Among their key findings: During the years leading up to 2015, migration-related detention had largely plateaued across the EU, but refugee pressures spurred important increases in detention regimes across the entire region, which remained in place long after the “crisis” had subsided.

Fuelling these increases was anti-migrant rhetoric that spread from Brussels across the entire continent, abetted by EU-wide migration directives that allowed for lengthy detention periods. Then-European Council President Donald Tusk argued at that time that all arriving refugees could be detained for up to 18 months, in line with the limits in EU directives, while their claims were processed.

More recently, in late 2021, the terrible treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, most of them from Iraq and Afghanistan, trapped on Belarus’s borders with Poland and Lithuania sparked outrage across Europe. Belarus was accused of weaponizing the plight of these people, luring them to Belarus in order to travel on to EU countries as retaliation against EU sanctions.

Polish border guards were brutal in their treatment of these refugees and migrants, many of whom sustained serious injuries from Polish and Belarussian border guards. Thousands were left stranded in the forests between the two countries in deplorable conditions with no food, shelter, blankets, or medicines: at least 19 migrants died in the freezing winter temperatures.

In response to this situation, Poland sent soldiers to its border, erected razor-wire fencing, and started the construction of a 186-kilometre wall to prevent asylum seekers entering from Belarus. It also adopted legislation that would allow it to expel anyone who irregularly crossed its border and banned their re-entry.

Even before the stand-off between Poland and Belarus, refugees in Poland did not receive a warm welcome. Very few asylum seekers were granted refugee status (in 2020 out of 2,803 applications, only 161 were granted refugee status) and large numbers of refugees and migrants were detained: a total of 1,675 migrants and asylum seekers were in detention in January 2022, compared to just 122 people during all of 2020.

With this recent history as backdrop, the double standards and racism inherent in Europe’s refugee responses are glaring. There are no calls from Brussels today to detain refugees fleeing Ukraine for up to 18 months.

Why? Because, as Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said recently about people from Ukraine: “These are not the refugees we are used to. … These people are Europeans. … These people are intelligent, they are educated people. … This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”

Similarly, Hungary’s Orban has said that every refugee coming from Ukraine will be “welcomed by friends in Hungary,” adding that one doesn’t have to be a “rocket scientist” to see the difference between “masses arriving from Muslim regions in hope of a better life in Europe” and helping Ukrainian refugees who have come to Hungary because of the war.

Sadly, these double standards have reared in the response to non-Ukrainians fleeing the war in Ukraine. There are a growing number of accounts of students and migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who have faced racist treatment, obstruction, and violence trying to flee Ukraine.

Many described being prevented from boarding trains and buses in Ukrainian towns while priority was given to Ukrainian nationals; others described being aggressively pulled aside and stopped by Ukrainian border guards when trying to cross into neighbouring countries.

There are also accounts of Polish authorities taking aside African students and refusing them entry into Poland, although the Polish Ambassador to the UN told a General Assembly meeting on 28 February that assertions of race or religion-based discrimination at Poland’s border were “a complete lie and a terrible insult to us.”

He asserted that “nationals of all countries who suffered from Russian aggression or whose life is at risk can seek shelter in my country.” According to the Ambassador, people from 125 different nationalities have been admitted into Poland from Ukraine.

Several African leaders have strongly criticized the discrimination on the borders of Ukraine, saying everyone has the same right to cross international borders to flee conflict and seek safety.

The African Union stated that “reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach of international law,” and called for all countries to “show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity.”

Similar messages were shared by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who said in a Tweet: “I am grateful for the compassion, generosity and solidarity of Ukraine’s neighbours who are taking in those seeking safety. It is important that this solidarity is extended without any discrimination based on race, religion or ethnicity,” and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who stressed that “it is crucial that receiving countries continue to welcome all those fleeing conflict and insecurity—irrespective of nationality and race.”

The Ukraine refugee crisis presents Europe with not only an important opportunity to demonstrate its generosity, humanitarian values, and commitment to the international refugee protection regime; it is also a critical moment of reflection: Can the peoples of Europe overcome their widespread racism and animosity and embrace the universalist spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention?

As Article 3 of the Convention holds, all member states “shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.”

Rachael Reilly and Michael Flynn are based at the Global Detention Project in Geneva.


A Clash of Alms

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Religion, TerraViva United Nations


Sri Lankan Buddhist monks at the UN General Assembly session commemorating Vesak. Credit: Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations

LONDON, Feb 3 2022 (IPS) – Driven by unprecedented hardship to pass round the begging bowl, Sri Lanka has become the centre of a tussle between Asia’s two superpowers.

There was a time in Asia’s predominantly Buddhist countries when saffron-robed monks walked from house to house in the mornings, standing outside in silence as lay people served up freshly cooked food into their ‘alms bowls’. The food was then taken to the temples, where it was shared among the monks.

That religious tradition has now largely given to other ways of serving alms to monks.

Today, governments and their aggrandising acolytes have converted this respected and virtuous tradition into one of begging richer nations to rescue them from economic deprivation, brought on largely by failed promises and disjointed and ill-conceived foreign and national policies.

This ‘begging bowl’ mentality in search of ‘alms’ is more likely to succeed if a nation is strategically-located in an area of big power contestation. Sri Lanka is just that, situated in the Indian Ocean and only a few nautical miles from the vital international sea lanes carrying goods from West to East and vice versa.

The country’s economy has been caught in a real bind. Buffeted by the Covid pandemic on the one hand and, on the other, ego-inflating economic and fiscal policies introduced by the new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa shortly before the country was pounded by the pandemic, Sri Lanka now has to beg or borrow to keep its head above water.

By December, Sri Lanka’s parlous foreign reserves situation had dropped to a perilous $1.2 billion – enough for three weeks of imports. The foreign debt obligation of $500 million that needed to be met last month was only the beginning. Another $1 billion is due in July. The total pay-off in 2022 will amount to some $7 billion.

Meanwhile the pandemic has virtually killed tourism, one of the country’s main foreign exchange earners, driving the hospitality industry into free-fall. If this was not bad enough, the Central Bank’s attempts to put a tight squeeze on incoming foreign currency led the country’s migrant labour remittances to drop drastically as overseas workers turned to the black market to earn real value for their money sent to families at home.

But nothing has had such widespread political repercussions as the government’s ill-advised policy of banning overnight chemical fertilisers last May, ahead of the country’s main agricultural season between October and April.

Its over-ambitious agenda of trying to turn Sri Lanka into the world’s first totally ‘green agriculture’ was laudable enough, but was botched when the sudden ban on chemical fertilisers and other agrochemicals – used by farmers for the last 50 years or so – left rice farming and other cultivations in disarray and farmers inevitably confused.

The government’s agenda of trying to turn Sri Lanka into the world’s first totally ‘green agriculture’ was botched.

While agricultural scientists and other experts warned of an impending food scarcity due to failed harvests and sparsely cultivated fields, the government ignored the warnings, sacking heads of the Agriculture Ministry and removing its qualified agricultural experts for spreading doom and gloom.

Against this backdrop of confused governance, probable food shortages due to poor harvests and slashing of imports and even essential medicines for lack of foreign currency, growing public unrest has seen even farmers take to the streets.

Consequently, a once-buoyant government confident of public popularity, especially among the Sinhala-Buddhist voters and the rural community, began to look beyond its faithful ally and ‘all weather’ friend China for ‘alms’ to pull it out of the morass.

China has already planted a large footprint in Sri Lanka, with massive infrastructure projects such as sea and airports in strategic areas, which allowed a monitoring of international sea lanes to make neighbouring India worry.

A major Chinese presence in Sri Lanka could endanger India’s security at a time when China continues to militarily pressurise India in the Himalayas.

From the early 1950s Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, and China had established close ties. Despite threats of sanctions by the US, Colombo sold natural rubber to China – then involved in the Korean War –in exchange for rice, marking the beginning of the long standing ‘Rubber-Rice Pact’.

As long as China’s immediate concern was the Pacific theatre, where the US and its allies remained dominant, and China faced territorial disputes in the South China sea and elsewhere, India was not overly concerned with China-Sri Lanka bilateral ties.

But as soon as China began to expand into the Indian Ocean, challenging what India considered its sphere of influence, New Delhi’s concerns multiplied considerably, as did its disquiet over China’s growing influence over Colombo.

The 70th anniversary of that Sino-Ceylon agreement, which cemented bilateral relations at a time when the People’s Republic of China was not even a member of the UN, was commemorated last month when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Colombo in early January during an influence-building visit to Africa, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

This is the third high level visit by a Chinese official in little over a year, beginning with former foreign minister and Politburo member Yang Jiechi in October 2020, and followed last April by Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe, a visible signal to India and US-led ‘Quad’ countries the importance that China attaches to its relations with Sri Lanka.

But Sri Lanka’s struggle against dwindling reserves, the need for foreign investment and expansion of trade relations at a time of economic hardship has shown the Rajapaksa regime that reliance on China alone will not suffice.

A more balanced foreign policy and an equidistant relationship between Asia’s two superpowers cannot remain at the level of diplomatic rhetoric. It is an imperative, given Sri Lanka’s geographical location in close proximity to India and the historical, cultural and ethnic ties with it huge neighbour.

Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Beijing, Dr Palitha Kohona, said recently that Colombo should not depend on China forever – a valid piece of advice Colombo should seriously consider.

India also cannot ignore that, security-wise, Sri Lanka lies in India’s underbelly, whose vulnerability was exposed during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. So a major Chinese presence in Sri Lanka could endanger India’s own security at a time when China continues to militarily pressurise India in the Himalayas.

Last December Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s hurried visit to New Delhi, even as his maiden budget was still being debated in parliament, was indicative of Sri Lanka’s anxiety to seek India’s economic and financial assistance, without depending solely on Beijing.

That visit led to the two countries agreeing on ‘four pillars’ of cooperation in the short term, including emergency support of a $1 billion line of credit for importing food and medicines and a currency swap to bolster Colombo’s dwindling foreign reserves.

Other assistance included investment in an oil tank farm for oil storage in northeastern Trincomalee, close to the vital natural harbour that served the British well during the Second World War.

An Indian company, the Adani Group, has already won a stake in the Colombo port, where it will engage in developing the western terminal while the Chinese build the eastern wing.

Meanwhile, Colombo is having talks with China for a new loan besides the $500 million loan and a $1.5 billion currency swap.

While the two major Indian Ocean powers tussle for supremacy in this vital maritime region, Sri Lanka is beginning to understand that it sometimes pays to dip one’s oars in troubled waters.

Source: Asian Affairs, a current affairs magazine.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London