“These people are risking their lives in the Mediterranean – we must not forget them” – Welcoming refugees along the Andalusian coast

With so much in the media about migrants and refugees, it’s more important than ever to listen to real stories – stories of those who’ve lived through their very own refugee journey and also those of the people who are on the ground followig the difficult journeys vulnerable refugees and migrants face each and every day in their work.

With this is mind, let me introduce you to Jesús – a professional photographer working in Malaga (southern Spain) documenting the arrival of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean. Here’s his story.

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Hi, my name is Jesús and I’m a press journalist based in Malaga (Spain). In my day-to-day work I focus on a variety of different local, national and international issues. One of the many areas I cover is immigration and in Malaga in particular this involves documenting the influx of refugees/migrants arriving in small rubber dinghies. Most people who arrive here have usually travelled from Morocco and this topic continues to gain ongoing media attention as more and more boats are arriving.

On a personal level, I’m passionate about photographing these vulnerable people and documenting their lives because I want to make sure that society doesn’t forget that there are people out there constantly risking their lives in Mediterranean waters. It’s more important than ever to show people the reality of what’s going on so that anti-migrant and anti-refugee abuse can stop – both on a political and governmental level.

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In southern Spain, migrants and refugees arrive via the Alboran Sea which is right next to the coast of Malaga, Granada and Almeria on the Andalusian coastline. Over the last few months, there’s been a constant stream of dinghies arriving here in Malaga. Sources say that the number is more than double the amount than those in 2016.

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Normally people travel in inflatable boats (called “toys”) in terrible, degrading conditions, risking their lives in the process. Once their boats are spotted in the Alboran Sea, the Maritime Rescue boats pick them up and take them to the port in Malaga (or other nearby locations in areas such as Motril or Barbate).

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People usually arrive safely, except for a select few who require urgent medical assistance from the Red Cross. This could include minors, pregnant women or people with either hypothermia or showin signs of other illnesses. Whilst the Maritime Rescue team help new arrivals enter the port, Red Cross staff are responsible for offering humanitarian aid including medical assistance and food inside the port itself in a marquee set up by the Red Cross. This marquee is constantly guarded by local, national police and the Civil Guard.

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New arrivals requiring urgent medical attention leave the port and are taken by ambulance to the nearest medical facility. Malaga port is not adequately equipped to offer appropriate medical care, unlike areas such as Motril for example. A lot of people have complained about that and thankfully, they’ve now agreed to set up a space to be able to deal with those people arriving, rather than simply using an open-air space in the port. However, despite the agreed plans, nothing has yet been built.

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Every time a dingy arrives into the port, the complex police procedures start. Police forces are on the ground watching over new arrivals in case a fight breaks out or things turns sour. Working as a member of the press alongside the police is difficult. Sometimes they block us from taking photos of people arriving or of covering potentially “compromising situations” such as when someone is being taken away in a police escort – as if they’d committed some sort of crime.

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At this point, once the Red Cross have finished their work, lawyers from the College of Lawyers in Malaga are on hand to offer legal assistance and deal with possible asylum and refugee claims etc. Finally, all the migrants/refugees are taken to the police station or what is referred to as “detention centres for foreigners”.

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Having experienced the arrival of refugees/migrants on our coast, one thing I have to say that it’s never easy to be there. It’s even harder to take their photos. These are tough, difficult moments in people’s lives, especially when minors are involved. You see how these vulnerable men, women and children are moved to the port to spend the night out in the cold or humid sea air and you get a glimpse of just how truly terrible it is to be travelling in these rubber dinghies, crammed in together, suffering for many long hours at sea. Perhaps the worst moment of their life is when their dinghy is lost at sea and becomes untraceable. In the worst cases, it sinks in the Mediterranean waters with no help from anyone because the rescue forces haven’t (yet) reached them. It’s moments like these that make you feel angry, outraged and powerless.

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Despite such tragedy, Spanish society is still talking about the issue as some sort of “mass immigration crisis”. People have so much prejudice, despite knowing nothing about the lives of these people and their reasons for leaving their homeland. Sometimes I think that if we were to hear people’s own stories directly from them – rather than through the media – and listen to everything that was and is happening to them then people’s opinions would change. However, sometimes I just think that society will just carry on being racist and xenophobic. We’re dealing with a moral issue here – people’s lack of respect for and interest in repeated human rights violations against migrant and refugee populations, simply for what they see as a minor “inconvenience” for our government’s administration.

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Perhaps one of the biggest things I’ve discovered through my work and in my personal life as a volunteer and human rights activist, is how thankful these people are when they first step onto “Spanish soil”. These people have lived through such immense hardships and faced many more to arrive here and yet almost each and every person who arrives will look at you with such thanks, kindness and sincerity. If you look into their eyes and then look into ours, you’ll see the difference.

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It is this that helps in some way to tear down stereotypes and prejudices. It is this that helps us to always see these people as humans, just like any other person endowed with rights. We should recognise that all migrants and refugees must be respected and treated in the best way possible. This lesson is especially true for my current government and the European Union – the main abusers of the human rights of these vulnerable human beings.

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jesus bio.jpgJesús Mérida, 24 years old, is a freelance press photographer based in Malaga (Spain).

He works with the local newspaper Málaga Hoy and the press agency ASNERP, as well as Amnesty International (Malaga).

Jesús’ professional and personal interests are focused around social and human rights issues both locally, nationally and internationally.

Credits and ackowledgments

Text and photography: Jesús Mérida (c) (all rights reserved)
Translation: Elizabeth Arif-Fear (original Spanish text can be viewed here)

Thank you Jesús for sharing your inspiring story and photography and for all the amazing work you do!

Follow Jesús on Twitter @JesusMerida_

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Hey Mr President: Here’s 10 shameful human rights issues you need to get work on…

Dear President Trump,

I’m not an American citizen nor am I of American heritage (I do have Italian-American family mind!) BUT in any case,  I think it’s safe to say that your presidency affects every one of us worldwide. As global citizens, in an increasingly connected and globalised,  world we should be looking out for our brothers and sisters, advocating for human rights and denouncing both threats towards and violations against human freedoms and human rights worldwide.

Long since the start of your presidential campaign, you’ve gathered a lot of media attention. I myself, never expected you to take over office but well – this is theoretically your democratic right. The American people spoke! Out of ignorance, fear and hatred I may add BUT that time has passed. Now you’re ready to settle into the White House and are starting to take on your presidential duties. In light of this, I’d like to remind you of some core human rights abuses which the US needs to address. You state you are the “land of the free” after all… a land which is on show to the entire world…

  1. Abuse of the right to a fair trial: At the end of 2015, Amnesty International recorded a total number of 107 detainees at Guantánamo – most being held without charges having being pressed. These men lie in wait, without hope, facing torture and humiliation. If you believe these men (or anyone else) have committed criminal acts, then take them to trial whilst respecting their right to legal representation and a FAIR trial.
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  2. Abuse of the right to freedom of expression and permissibility of hate speech: Freedom of expression is an important right but that doesn’t mean that citizens should be able to spout inflammatory obscene, hate speech and harass other members of the public. Permissible exceptions to the First Amendment include: “incitement, defamation, fraud, child pornography, obscenity, fighting words and threats”. Well, take a look at some of these gentlemen in the videi below harassing Muslims on the streets and ask yourself, is this acceptable? Freedom of expression is one thing, hate speech and hate crimes are another….

3. Threats to religious freedomYou claimed in December 2015 that you will uphold the right to freedom of religion, when you stated:

“Religious liberty is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is our first liberty and provides the most important protection in that it protects our right of conscience.”

I would however like to compare that to the comments you made regarding Muslims entering the US and American mosques and draw your attention to the fact that since you became elected, there has been a sharp rise in the number of Islamophobic incidents. American Muslims, Jews – every rational person – is counting on you to respect their right to freedom of belief…

4. Denial of the right to adequate health careThere are a series of critical abuses and  health care issues which need addressing:

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An insurance based health care system often leaves citizens unable to receive medical assistance

Lack of a national health care system: Former  President Barack Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on 23rd March (2010). As a result, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that roughly 32 million extra people will have health insurance by 2019 after the law is fully implemented. 32 million people will however remain uninsured. This is simply not good enough – every human has the right to emotional and physical wellbeing and to access adequate health care.

Abuse of mentally ill prisoners: Mentally ill prisoners have been beaten, pepper sprayed, shocked, burnt and have sometimes even died in custody. Staff training, resources, greater knowledge and awareness is crucially needed to address such inhuman treatment and provide the necessary level of care required. Further information can be found in the Human Rights Watch report – I urge you to watch this video (although I found it very distressing – simply because the reality is just that shocking): https://youtu.be/OCaKethFbEg.

Inadequate medical care for transgender women in custody: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) introduced a new policy in June 2015 to provide transgender women in immigration detention with certain protections. However, despite this new policy, transgender women in ICE custody still receive inadequate medical care, as well as reporting sexual and verbal harassment whilst in detention.

Inadequate maternal health care: In a report published by the WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank (1990-2008), the USA is ranked 50th in the world for maternal mortality. In fact, the issue of maternal health has long been a concern for Amnesty International. In 2013, the maternal mortality rate was 17.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, with “significant racial disparities” among different racial groups – very concerning indeed. Native American and Alaska Native women who are raped for example, are faced with continuous lack of access to medical care including examinations and emergency contraception. African-American women are also almost four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their white American sisters. I found a range of shocking information via “U.S. Public Health Emergencies: Maternal Mortality and Gun Violence” and Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 report.

5. Abuse of the right to privacy: The US government continues to spy on its citizens by urging major US mobile phone and internet companies to loosen the security measures of their systems so the government can spy more easily on its citizens during criminal investigations. In May 2015, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression called on all countries (including the US) to respect citizens’ right to privacy and “refrain from weakening encryption and other online security measures” due to the fact that human rights defenders and activists across the world rely on the security of such tools and weakening encryption and other online security measures poses a danger to citizens own security. According to Human Rights Watch, although Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in June 2015 which limits the government’s ability to collect phone records and detailed new measures for greater transparency and oversight of NSA surveillance, the law does not restrict surveillance by the government justified to undertake “mass violations of people outside US borders”. Human Rights Watch also highlight how the law does not look at several modern surveillance means from malware to the interception of of all mobile phone calls in any given country. Very worrying indeed…

6. Use of torture, inhuman and degrading punishment and treatment:

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Protesters dressed as Guantánamo detainees

Back in January 2016, former President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for minors in federal prisons. OK – one change, but there is still a long way to go. Having already documented the abuse of mentally ill inmates, the torture of prisoners in Guantánamo is also no secret; including sexual assault, sleep deprivation, mock executions, being forced to watch other inmates being tortured – and the list goes on… Mr President, I’d also like to draw your attention to this comment you made regarding the waterboarding of prisoners/detainees:

“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I would approve more than that. It works… and if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us“.

Torture is inhuman, inhumane and in any case Mr President – it doesn’t work! “Evidence” and “confessions” extracted under torture are not reliable. We are living in the 21st century, where are you…?!

7. Use of police violence and arbitrary arrest: Following on from point number six, another tragic issue that has been featured a lot in the media recently is the abuse of black Americans by the police – even resulting in their death. We’re not talking about one-off incidents here, we’re talking about recurring patterns of violence, inequality and a culture of racism and abuse. Please don’t deny this. Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 US review records 43 deaths at the hands of police Tasers (across 25 states), reaching a total of at least 670 Taser-related deaths since 2001 (as of 2016). Just in case you think these people were a threat, most were unarmed and appeared to post no threat of death or serious injury when the Taser was used. It is estimated that the number of people who have been killed by law enforcement officials ranges from around 458 to 1,000+ people each year. This is however an estimate as the authorities did not track the exact number of people killed… How convenient… As we all know (and as backed up in the Amnesty report), black males are disproportionately affected by police killings…

8. Discrimination/inequality based on gender, “race”, colour, culture and sexual orientation:

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Black American men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than their white brothers

This is such a big point – where do I start? I’ve already touched on several inequalities including treatment in maternal health care and the use of excessive police force towards black males, so let’s also talk about the fact that African-American males are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned than their white male counterparts for drug offenses committed at “comparable rates”  – according to Human Rights Watch who state that: “African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, but make up 29 percent of all drug arrests. Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men.”

There is so much discrimination it’s difficult to even squish it into one post…but here’s one more documented by Human Rights Watch: “At time of writing, 28 states do not have laws banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, while three states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation but not on gender identity.” Everyone has the right to work free from discrimination. This just isn’t good enough!

And whilst we’re at it, women don’t just face inequality in the workplace but sexual violence crossing socio-cultural ethnic groups at disproportionate levels. Native American and Alaska Native women not only face inadequate levels of health care but are also dis proportionally affected by sexual violence. They are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped then other women in America. Such issues need to be addressed Mr President.

9. Detention of migrant and asylum-seeking childrenI’m quite frankly shocked and worried by your attitude towards migrants, asylum seekers and refugees… We’re all human and we all deserve the right to a peaceful, stable life free from torture, persecution and war and a decent standard of living. What’s worse is that the US detains asylum seeking women and – wait for it – CHILDREN. The USA has the largest detention immigration system in the world, including a huge amount of asylum-seeking mothers and children from Central America. Such treatment has a devastating psychological impact on these mothers and children. In June 2016, the government announced it would be limiting the practice of detaining mothers and children long-term for those who pass the first stage of the asylum-seeking process. According to Human Rights Watch, in July 2015, a federal judge ruled that the State’s family detention policy “violated a 1997 settlement on the detention of migrant children“. Policy has improved as those appearing to make a “legitimate” asylum claim are released within weeks but family detention still continues. Mr President – such children should never be detained and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers must never be detained for simply seeking protection and US residency.

10. Use of corporal punishment in schools – including against disabled children19 US states still use corporal punishment in schools. Even more shocking is the fact that disabled children are disproportionately affected by such behaviour. Corporal punishment is – as I believe – wrong. Add to this the fact that such punishment will greater affect disabled children’s physical and psychological conditions, this is just completely unacceptable. Across the globe, 124 countries have criminalised such physical punishment in State schools. So why is the USA  – the so-called land of “freedom, equality” etc. – so far behind Mr Trump…?

So, there we have it. There are so many social, cultural, political, economic and human rights issues in the USA which need addressing Mr President, but here’s 10 to get you started. Why not show toady’s protesters something positive? Why not prove us wrong? It’s up to you…

Key information sources:

Amnesty International: United States of America 2015/2016

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2016: United States, Events of 2015

Image credits:

Donkey Hotey, Waywuwei, Justin Norman, Ben