The Sound of Silence – an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi

Dear Aung San Suu Kyi,

You once famously said: “The true measure of justice of a system is the amount of protection it guarantees to the weakest“. Wise words indeed. Society has a responsibility to not only provide for its citizens but address social, economical and political inequality. So, bearing that in mind, I’d like to know why the Rohingya people are not included in your political system and sphere of beliefs – in the values of democracy you stand for and which you fought for so long to hope to make a reality in Myanmar.

Of course, one of the few things you are rumoured to have said is for foreign governments to stop referring to this group of people as “Rohingya”. Yet I’m afraid the issue is more serious than simple semantics… As you are more than aware, the Rohingya face social, economical, religious and political discrimination. They are not only denied citizenship – despite their long history and residence in Myanmar – but are subject to repeated racist/Islamophobic attacks by your own citizens including extremist “Buddhists” and worse of all subject to rape, torture and murder at the hands of your father’s military – an army you are apparently quite “fond” of.

The Rohingya have been referred to as “the world’s most persecuted refugees in the world” – a people subjected to genocide whom nobody seems willing to help. I’m quoting here the renowned international human rights organisation Amnesty International – an NGO which fought for your freedom and upholds the values you claim to believe in and stand for. Here you feature on their website in an article entitled: “15 inspiring human rights quotes” with the following words of peace:

Peace does not just mean putting an end to violence or war, but to all other factors that threaten peace, such as discrimination, such as inequality, poverty.

You’re a renounced figure of justice, peace and democracy worldwide. You’ve received many honours including the Nobel Peace Prize, Sakharov Prize, Rafto Prize, Jawaharlal Nehru Award, Order of Australia, US Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You were also an honorary member of Nelson Mandela’s Elders. But now I ask you, what was this for? For what purpose? How can you sit back and remain silent when an entire group of people are being massacred?

I hate to cry “racism”or “Islamophobia” but what else is there? You’ve been challenged about this before and the result was a combination of rather astonishing angry backlash or vague excuses and often utter silence. One shocking incident was when you made an off-air comment about BBC Today presenter Mishal Husain following your interview together in which she asked you to condemn anti-Islamic sentiment. You apparently lost your temper, later stating: “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim”. What a sad precedent this set…The Dalai Lama, the holy figure of Buddhism (a peaceful faith which you claim to belong to and shape your life by) has also called on you to address the issue – yet nothing…. You instead blame the reality of violence and “a climate of fear” on both sides (Muslims/Buddhists) with which you apparently “do not want to take sides“,  in addition to the fact that Myanmar is a slow growing democracy. However, the fact remains that the Rohingya community are overwhelmingly affected and this is your responsibility.

Firstly, it is up to you as a leader and politician to help build social harmony amongst groups and to condemn Islamophobic hate speech and hate crime in Myanmar. Extremist “Buddhist monks” are no better than ISIS/extremist jihadi preachers. Extremism is a human disease. It belongs to no religion. Any violence committed by any group is an atrocity. Yet sadly, secondly: we have moved beyond the shunning of Rohingya businesses and the lack of citizenship for this poor stateless group but to rape, torture, murder…and ultimately to genocide. Now is not the time to stay silent. It’s too late. You are already implicit.

Implicit is a strong word but at this stage you have blood on your hands. How can anyone, least of all yourself stand by and fail to even simply condemn such actions?! Do you not value these people or are you simply struck by fear? Fear has never held you back before. In your own book Freedom from Fear, you said:

Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.

Years of activism in the name of democracy and 15 years of house arrest…for what I ask? One Noble Peace Prize… for what outcome, for what legacy? Regardless of faith, ethnicity, skin colour, whatever it may be – we are all human. The Rohingya people – of YOUR country – deserve equality, freedom, democracy. They deserve life, family, religious freedom, freedom from sexual violence, freedom from poverty and economic and social discrimination. They deserve life, their dignity and above all they deserve you to remain true to your word and walk back from the path of silent hypocrisy you currently stand upon. They deserve you to recognise them as their social, religious, cultural and ethnic equal. They are your brothers and sisters who want to live a life a peace – a word you claim to stand for but of which no trace remains. Instead of peace lie the cries of the raped, the tortured and the grieving widows and family of those massacred at the hand of your government’s army.

It’s all over the media: how can a Noble Peace Prize winner stay silent? Your initial lack of action allowed such hatred to grow and your current silence implicates you as you fail to stop military violence. Protests are now taking place. So, I ask you: when you look in the mirror, when you lie in bed, when you wake up and when you pray – do you think of them…?

Your sister in humanity,

Elizabeth

Credits:

Feature image: European Parliament (CC)

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‘In Our World, You’re Either Born With the Right Passport or Not’

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A few weeks ago, French President François Hollande announced the “Calais Jungle” refugee camp would be dismantled, leaving thousands of destitute refugees, including unaccompanied minors, in northern France with nowhere to go. Although many have since been able to submit an asylum claim, it still remains that for months on end these refugees from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea relied on the help of small-scale NGOs and the public, with no assistance from the French government.

Amélie Jacques, a famous French blogger who grew up in Paris and Rome, has lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and now resides in Soweto, South Africa. Following the tense situation with refugees in Calais, in a short essay on her blog “Ubuntu” she voiced her concerns about the French government’s harsh policies limiting refugees’ entrance into the country. She also contrasted how easy it is for her to travel with a French passport with how difficult it is for people from other countries: 

No matter whether they’re refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, if they’re fleeing war, persecution, or simply looking for a better future … all migrants should be able to come to France and to elsewhere in Europe. There’s no moral reasoning not to allow people to come and live in another country.

My country refuses visa and asylum claims submitted by men, women, and families who come in search of peace, work, and so on, yet nobody’s ever stopped me from crossing the border to go on a family holiday, to study abroad, or even to work. Each time I travel, there are a few formalities — a bit of paperwork, exchanging or paying a few euros, and last of all getting a vaccination — and then it’s off and away! I’ve been able to come and stay for several weeks — up to several years — in England, the United States, Italy, Burkina Faso, Iran, and now South Africa…

What’s this prejudice and inequality based on? French people are no more worthy of rights than other men and women. More than rights, these are privileges. What’s more, such privileges are based on where you’re born because in our world, you’re either born with the right passport or not. Such inequality of rights is devoid of all morality. We either take a step down on the ladder of privilege and confine each person to the country where they were born, or we allow every human being the right to migrate and move out of their own land.

France has long been a nation of immigration with debates surrounding assimilation and secular identity, in particular concerning migrants from former colonial nations such the Maghreb region of Algeria, Morocco and North Africa. However, in the light of the recent refugee crisis, France’s response has been rather poor, unlike its European neighbour Germany.

The French government originally committed to welcoming refugees from Syria, but in practice is not a main recipient of refugees from Syria. The UK and France have in fact been locked in a battle of wills in an attempt to pass off responsibility for welcoming refugees. France maintains that these refugees want to reach the UK, whilst the UK government neither wants to fully open its doors.

As a whole, Europe remains divided on the issue of resettling refugees from war-torn countries, and some members of the European Union continue to express hostility to the idea.

Credits:

This article was first published via Global Voices (08/11/2016)

Images: Kevin Walsh, feature image – CC BY-SA 4.0

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Welcoming child refugees means listening to them

img_20160917_125813The plight of child refugees in Europe has been an ongoing issue, in particular since the Syrian crisis spiked in the last few years. Last spring, following pressure from civil society and charitable organisations, politicians voted on the Dubs Amendment, announcing it would be accepting 3,000 child refugees from overseas. Just a few weeks ago, according to figures from Safe Passage UK, there were over 1,000 unaccompanied child refugees living in makeshift refugee camps across the Channel in northern France, including the infamous “Jungle” in Calais – aptly named due to the unregulated mass of makeshift tents and complete lack of regulation, assistance from international aid organisations, sanitation facilities or infrastructure.

Here, thousands of refugees fleeing war, poverty and human rights abuses from all over the world including Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria lay in wait to start a new life. In the Jungle in particular, there were around 387 children legally entitled to come to the UK under the Dublin Convention due to the UK residency of their family members. Some tried to start their own journeys to their families – including a 14 year old boy from Afghanistan who this September was killed on a French motorway whilst trying to reach the UK.

Until this point, the only progress being made was for those children referred on the Safe Passage UK programme, a project set up by the organisation Citizens UK to establish safe legal routes to the UK for unaccompanied child refugees and vulnerable adults in Europe. However, after announcing it would be building a wall to block access from across the channel, the UK government responded to the French government’s decision to dismantle the camp in Calais by beginning to process the safe transfer of unaccompanied minors with families in the UK. This could not have come at a more crucial time. These children could simply have disappeared off the radar. According to Europol, there are already over 10,000 “disappeared” refugee children within Europe. The risks these children face are devastating, as they remain vulnerable to such human rights abuses as child labour, sexual exploitation (rape, child marriage, prostitution) and both radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations offering both economic sustenance and a sense of belonging. In light of this, on the 16th October, the first group of children were transferred to the UK. According to Citizens UK, 200 children have now arrived. However, this represents just a small percentage of the children seeking refuge in both France and across Europe. Following the official clearance of the Jungle on 26th October, there were a reported 1,500 unaccompanied child refugees left in the area where the camp once stood, resulting in a subsequent process led by the French authorities to transfer these children out of the area. In such context, it is more essential than ever that adequate preparation and procedures are put in place to both bring and welcome refugee children.

Here in the UK, where these children begin the long process of re-building their lives, we need to guarantee that we do our best to ensure their well-being and social inclusion so they can lead happy, healthy lives in all senses: socially, economically, culturally, emotionally, and physiologically. Ensuring these children’s wellbeing involves more than providing refuge in a safe space, protected from the physical harm of active conflict. It is fundamental that children are safeguarded against all types of harm, including the risk of trafficking and radicalisation.

Above all, to successfully safeguard this vulnerable group of children and help them integrate into British society we must listen to their stories, their views, their opinions and their needs – first of all as children and secondly as refugees.

Child to Child – participation and safeguarding

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Hearing All Voices – Child to Child (London)

As one of the leading international NGOs on children’s participation, Child to Child believes in teaching essential skills and providing safe, inclusive spaces to enable children to give their views, voice their needs, and fully participate within society as active, engaged citizens. Since 2011, Child to Child has been running its project Hearing All Voices in London, working with disadvantaged young people in secondary schools and FE colleges and teaching staff to create an environment where students are listened to, taken seriously and supported to take social action. This project has been immensely successful in terms of both staff and student outcomes. The tools and outcomes of this project – testimony to the value and need for child participation – are something we can build on.

UK government policy, including education, health and social care needs to ensure that refugee children have the means to participate, in order to be safeguarded from harm. If we are to ensure that child refugees lead happy, healthy, integrated lives in which both the traumatic experiences of the past are addressed and their cultural, religious and social identities can also flourish, then let us learn from them rather than excluding them from decision-making processes. If we truly want to welcome this group of vulnerable children and guarantee their wellbeing, then let them participate and let us listen.

Credits:

This article was first published by Child to Child on 02/11/2016 (c)

Feature image copyright: Max Bryan (2016) (c)

Additional blog imagery: Elizabeth Arif-Fear