Occupy This

16 10 2011

To steal from Network, Americans are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

The #Occupy movement, which began as #OccupyWallStreet, a protest against bankers, bailouts and corporate greed.

In my tiny mind, Americans have every right to be angry. They might be angry enough to consign Barack Obama to a one-term presidency – unthinkable a few years ago. The left is angry, the right is angry and the Tea Party is the small government, small tax version of the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Christian base for this decade

A few fast facts on why I think Americans are mad:

The economy: No wonder President Obama is playing golf with President Clinton. The baseline in American politics is the economy, stupid. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ latest release (7 October), seasonally adjusted unemployment in September 2011 was 9.1 per cent. That’s a 0.5 per cent improvement on September 2010. Breaking that down:

  • 14 million Americans are registered unemployed
  • Of that number, the long-term unemployed (people out of work for more than 27 weeks) make up more than 44 per cent, or 6.2 million)
  • 24 per cent of teenagers (16-19 year olds) are unemployed
  • 16 per cent of blacks are unemployed (c.f. with 8 per cent unemployment among whites; 11.3 per cent for Hispanics and 7.8 per cent for Asians)
  • The annual 2010 unemployment rate of ‘Gulf War II’ veterans (i.e. military personnel who have served post September 2001) is 11.5 per cent
Delving slightly deeper, while the labor force and employment figures lifted, the civilian labor force participation rate (64.2 per cent) and employment:population ratio (58.3 per cent) remain fairly static. Disturbingly, 9.3 million Americans are classed as involuntary part-time workers (i.e. their hours have been cut or they’re unable to find full-time work). In August 2011, the number was 8.8 million – an additional 444,000 people in one month. Those ‘marginally attached to the workforce’ – some 2.5 million Americans who have sought work in the last year, but not in the last four weeks, are not counted as unemployed. There are 1 million ‘discouraged’ American workers. These are the defeated and demoralised. They believe they cannot get a job, so they’ve given up. Average hourly earnings? $23.12. Average weekly earnings? $793.02.
‘Failed’ stimulus: President Obama signed The Recovery Act on 7 February 2009. The total package of $787 billion was increased to $840 billion in 2011. I bracketed ‘failed’ because it’s open to interpretation. There is certainly a perception that while some of the leading indicators have resulted in an improvement in certain sectors of the economy and regions, in my view, this is counterbalanced by one of the saddest statistics I think I’ve ever come across: $8 billion additional spend on food stamps to feed 38 million hungry Americans. (Reuters)
Dysfunctional government: the White House is caught in a pincer movement. President Obama has come out swinging at Congress recently, most notably on his jobs bill. He’s moving to Candidate Obama, criss-crossing the country selling a Bill which has no chance of passing. These people who were willing to play brinkmanship with the country’s credit card. It is pathetic.
The cost of foreign policy: President Obama got Osama bin Laden. Terrific. It doesn’t change the economic and human costs of the country’s operations in Pakistan and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the key findings of a recent report from the Eisenhower Research Project based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies:
  • The U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will cost between $3.2 and $4 trillion, including medical care and disability for current and future war veterans. This figure does not include substantial probable future interest on war-related debt.
  • More than 31,000 people in uniform and military contractors have died, including the Iraqi and Afghan security forces and other military forces allied with the United States.
  • By a very conservative estimate, 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by all parties to these conflicts.
  • The wars have created more than 7.8 million refugees among Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis.
  • Pentagon bills account for half of the budgetary costs incurred and are a fraction of the full economic cost of the wars.
  • Because the war has been financed almost entirely by borrowing, $185 billion in interest has already been paid on war spending, and another $1 trillion could accrue in interest alone through 2020.
  • Federal obligations to care for past and future veterans of these wars will likely total between $600-$950 billion. This number is not included in most analyses of the costs of war and will not peak until mid-century.
That’s just war. Don’t start me on the President’s broken promise to close Guantánamo Bay; conduct of extra-judicial killings and the disconnect between endorsement of the Arab Spring where it’s easy (Libya, for example) and wilful disregard for others (such as the Shi`a of  Bahrain).
The 99 per cent: Campaign finance reform; the disparity between tax breaks for the super-wealthy and the middle-class; corporate bailouts; out-of-control student debt it’s the beginning of a national conversation Americans haven’t engaged in for a long time.
So … it was with a general sense of irritation that I heard about the #OccupyPickAnAustralianCity protests that took place yesterday, for one reason: the great Australian propensity for whingeing. If whingeing was an Olympic sport, it would be, ‘GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!’ for Australia. I whinge, I hear others whinge and I read about people whingeing on a daily basis. It’s healthy to vent, to verbalise frustrations, irritations and feelings that systems, services and other people are failing us; but when you conflate whingeing into the #Occupy movement, you cheapen it. Yes, I am fully aware that Australia was only one of 78 countries to hold protests yesterday. I would also contend that people in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece have legitimate fears and grievances against prevailing economic conditions and systemic corruption. Australia? Not so much. While many on the ‘left’ view Tony Abbott as the Nabob of No, the Occupiers of Australia are playing his game of fear and loathing:
The economy: 5.2 per cent unemployment in September 2011. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Measures of Australia’s Progress 2011 report shows, pretty much everything (barring productivity) has improved since 2000. Including unemployment. The bad news? That increase applies to threatened animal species due to climate change. The average weekly income per full-time employed adult is $1,305. The average hourly income is between $29.70 and$33.10 (the disparity? Female wages c.f. men) (Source: ABS)
‘Failed’ stimulus: I’m leaving this one to George Megalogenis
Dysfunctional government: I am not a cheerleader for the current Government, but I am thankful that there are some quality people in our Parliament. Not naming names, but as close to the bone it has come on major issues – especially in the last few weeks – it is functional. I may not like the politics, the policies, the poor communication and quality of political discourse, but it continues to roll on.
The cost of foreign policy: Defence estimates an approximate $6 billion spend in Afghanistan to 2014. Iraq Mk II, approximately $2.3 billion. To me, the irreparable damage is in civilian deaths, leaving Australian citizens in Gitmo, irregular migration flows (UN-speak for refugees), international reputation and pathetic policy reactions to the problems we helped cause. That said, I don’t think we’ve been breaking arms embargoes, killing people willy-nilly or uneven in our condemnation for despots the world over.
The 99 per cent: according to a new release into household wealth from the ABS, the top 20 per cent of Australian households have seen their average net wealth increase by 15 per cent to $2.2 million since 2005/06, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of total household wealth. The bottom 20 per cent’s average net wealth grew by only 4 per cent. They account for approximately 1 per cent of total household wealth. That leaves almost 30 per cent of Australian households with an average net wealth of $720,000, up 14 per cent since 2005/06 – almost on par with the richest in the land and 10 per cent ahead of the poor. I contend that there is no ’99 per cent’ in Australia. Of course there is disparity in wealth; but the two major assets of Australian households (property – $520-540,000; superannuation – $60-154,000) put ‘average’ Australia within striking distance of the top 20 per cent. This is not the case in the US. It never has been and never will be.
I hope this stirs some pots & kettles. It stirred mine.
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Notes from Geneva: Middle East & North Africa

23 06 2011

Annual Consultation with NGOs: 2009

Middle East & North Africa Bureau

The vast majority of refugees in the MENA region are in urban areas, where ensuring their protection remains a challenge for UNHCR and its partners. Against this background, the focus of the MENA regional session will be on the protection of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR in an urban context. The discussion will be geared towards identifying ways and means to maintain and further develop the protection space in the region.

Moderator: Zina Khoury, Jordan River Foundation

50 per cent of all refugees are in an urban context. 25 per cent of refugees are in the MENA region (more if you include the Palestinians under UNWRA).  The region is faced with political turmoil and security issues that make refugee protection more difficult. On top of this the vast number of refugees are hosted by developing countries, however all key players – host countries, UNHCR and NGO’s share the responsibility of urban refugees in this region.

Mr Radhouane Nouicer, Director – MENA Bureau

Key focus of UNHCR is to secure a safe space for refugees in this region, to develop and expand the humanitarian space.

You are talking about a region that is hosting millions of refugees; talking about a geopolitical and economic strain of hosting the largest numbers of refugees on earth. Refugees must be respected, not threatened with refoulement. How do we regard the situation? There is no political ideal. We hope the security and day-to-day situation will help refugees to return home.

There is a good, sound level of assistance in Syria and Jordan, but it is not preventing return. It is the security and social conditions in Iraq. We won’t encourage return unless it is dignified. That’s why we are not encouraging return, the conditions don’t allow it, but if asked, we will help.

  • Region is looking to build comprehensive protection mechanisms including in the areas of asylum developments, access to safety, border protection and rights once in a new country.
  • UNHCR is carrying prime responsibility for registrations and seeking of solutions.
  • Syria,JordanandYemen are hosting the majority of the refugees in the region who are originating from Iraq.
  • Urban refugee situations are costly, complicated and labour intensive for UNHCR in this region
  • UNHCR has few memoranda of understandings with States and lack comprehensive legal frameworks to work within, the majority of times they are working on an ad hoc arrangement with States.
  • The protracted situations in the region are placing undue constraints on States and creating negative attitudes of host communities. Integration is not an option and hence resettlement is the only option.
  • Access for UNHCR has become more difficult for UNHCR in some protracted instances.
  • Push back strategies of States receiving mixed flows of migrants and refugees is of great concern for UNHCR. As is new border control mechanisms that fail to allow a fair assessment of claims. International responsibilities are not being adhered to.
  • Statelessness continues to be a challenge in the region because of historical and political factors of the region.
  • Improvements have been made in same national legislation frameworks to improve asylum access (Syria,Morocco & Libya)
  • MENA Bureau wanting to work more closely with all organizations via increased dialogue, open transparency and State relationships to improve capacity building & refugee registration.
  • Progress made with SGBV especially inIraqandYemenbut more needs to be done for comprehensive AGDM mainstreaming and to bring the concerns to the centre of all operations.
  • Two key initiatives being undertaken by the bureau 1) Sensitization of Human Rights 2) A research study on statelessness commissioned and to be used as an advocacy tool to promote changes to legislation to reduce the incidents of statelessness.

Questions from the floor:

  • What will be the impact of the US military withdrawal from Iraq, what are UNHCR doing to monitor the situation and what impact with it have on UNHCR operations?

UNHCR Response: the situation in Iraq is due to 30 years of oppression and tyranny, not just the war. There are huge social re-structuring required. The strategy for Iraq is a) Priority given to establishing and maintaining asylum space in asylum countries and then providing assistance to those host countries b) Attention to returnees by preparing ground for safe and orderly return by helping the government to focus its attention to the problem of returning refugees by helping them to realize that this is in national interest c) Resettlement remains at the same pace because many will not be able to go home as their links have been cut. d) Refugees inside Iraq receive as much attention and protection. With regard to how UNHCR is monitoring the situation and impact their operations, they will take their orders from New York with regard to staff security.

  • How many Iraq refugees have been resettled? And how are the UNHCR helping the IDPS that are living in horrible conditions?

UNHCR Response: 75,000 Iraqis have been submitted for re-settlement, only 50 per cent have been resettled – this slow pace is a big concern.  The IDP’s are living in worse conditions and the same question should be directed to the Iraqi government.

Comment from Andrew Harper (Head, UNHCR Iraq Support Unit)

Strategy to improve Human Rights in Iraq; working with communities, working with NGO’s, more analysis on where they are from and where they want to go, more staff in Iraq and developing a more tailored approach to the activity

The security situation in Iraq is very difficult, creating a more challenging environment for UNHCR to fulfill its mandate. The ability to move around is restricted because of security concerns. There will be a vacuum, manouevering prior to the 2010 elections. The whole, displaced territory needs to adopt the UN as a whole; look at holistic measures and other players including the World Bank, IMF, European funding, for a much improved picture.

Red Cross / Crescent, Syria: That plan is perfect, but the reality is the global financial crisis will cut budgets. What is the UNHCR’s plan to fulfil its policy aims, especially for Iraqis?

UNHCR response: At the conclusion of our programme evaluation with Iraqi refugees in the urban context, we have a lot to learn regarding the engagement of the population; while we have helped the protection space situation, it is far from satisfactory; UNHCR officers rose to the challenge of identifying refugees; used mobile registration; surveys (IPSIS); working engagement with multiple actors more than used to; increased partnerships with national NGOs, so it’s not just an international competition. What is our service delivery in urban settings? We use cash, ATMs and other technologies; we resort to state services rather than duplicate. We have lots to show from two years of solid engagement. We bring to the table experience – MENA tested these new approaches when the book was not yet written sand there was a policy vacuum.

Red Cross / Crescent, Syria: How is cooperation between governments and UNHCR? There are 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, 800,000 in Jordan and a further 1.5 million IDPs. They are not refugees. They are our guests. How does UNHCR see the situation after the US withdrawal? What will Iraqis get? In Syria, services are good, they won’t give them up. How will you encourage return from Syria and Jordan? The problem in Yemen is they are not integrated and there are no services other than UNWRA, but there is no assistance for many. I believe you should train Palestinian staff.

Response from M. Nouicier:

Both 2007 and 2008 started slowly, but we fully funded our Iraqi programmes. We have shown results and people still understand that many millions are suffering. The budget for Iraq is $271 million. Iraqi government contributes $28 million; US commits 60 per cent of the total.





Notes from Geneva: International Protection

23 06 2011

UNHCR Standing Committee meeting, 2009

Introduction: Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller

The Global Needs Assessment (GNA) process has highlighted protection gaps and provided the opportunity to strengthen responses. Program design and monitoring will benefit. The Results Framework will provide the opportunity for comparative analysis & global consistency.

UNHCR is not the principle protection provider and can never be effective substitute for the exercise by States of their proper responsibilities.  UNHCR’s continued focus however is the building of effective national asylum systems through improved registration arrangements, expertise in refugee status determination or working to sensitise national legislative frameworks to age, gender and diversity considerations.

UNHCR’s protection mandate is delivered through protection staff with expertise and knowledge in a range of areas from refugee status determination, age/gender and diversity programming, Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) cluster co-ordination or protection capacity building.  Recent review of programs highlighted too few protection staff with low levels of knowledge and high turnover (due to temporary placements) which negatively impacts protection measures.

The GNA process illustrated the realisation by all offices of the implications flowing from UNHCR’s growing responsibility for Stateless populations.  The needs of Stateless persons feature more prominently in the plans than ever before. Some offices have found it difficult to move beyond advocacy and technical advice on statelessness issues to actual protection responses – this will be addressed through GNA planning and prioritization processes for mainstreaming of this population.

IDP’s are solidly integrated into planning, in the way of greater analysis of IDP needs, protection via documentation, land issues and other solutions.  Not all offices had sufficient budget to accommodate the needs of IDPs.  Further resources are needed to address the expanded IDP responsibilities of the offices, the GNA this has highlighted this as a key priority.

The offices have on-going dilemma of allocating the finite (and insufficient) resources between the competing protection objectives of all peoples of concern.  The GNA will highlight more protection measure gaps and act as an advocacy tool to secure more funds – if not, things will not get done.

Introduction: Director of the Department of International Protection Services, George Okoth-Obbo

  • South and South West Asia, Middle East and Horn of Africa need special attention.
  • Humanitarian Space shrinking due to the changing nature of armed conflict, restrictions on access, attacks on staff, use of the sovereignty argument by States and side effects of failed peacekeeping efforts. 260 humanitarian aid workers killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in 2008
  • Staff security becoming greater priority for UNHCR
  • Access to asylum for asylum seekers has become more difficult because of interception, detention and restrictive procedures which is a growing concern for UNHCR
  • Need to transfer policies to practice.
  • UNHCR leads 15 of the 22 IASC protection cluster operations 
  • Goal of UNHCR to strengthen 1951 Convention, despite progress there is insufficient engagement by states, there remains a restrictive Refugee Status Determination system and national security is given priority over refugee protection.
  • Stressed the importance of the Conclusion on Protracted Situations and the hope that the wording could be agreed by ExComm, as durable solutions, international solidarity and burden sharing were critical for the issue.
  • Acknowledgement of the growing complexities of root causes of displacement – such as environmental, population growth, declining resources, inequality of access to resources, ecological damage, climate change, urbanisation, armed conflict, extreme deprivation
  • The legal implications of implications of displacement driven by forces other than persecution, human rights violation and war have yet to be seriously assessed
  • Whatever the cause of displacement the international protection process and response to provide asylum needs to be flexible to accommodate the varying needs and strengthen in areas where it is weak.  

Protecting Persons of Concern in Emergencies a particular focus of UNHCR – an overview

  • Afghanistan and Pakistan have over 4.7m people of concern, intensified conflict and restricted access has created further disastrous situations
  • Iraq witnessed greater security & co-ordination with the Government to create conditions for voluntary return and sustainable re-integration of refugees and IDPs. However, is still a fragile situation with over 4.3m displaced internally and in Jordan and Syria
  • Darfur continues to host over 3m refugees & IDPs, the forced departure of 16 NGO’s threatening the international community’s ability to respond
  • The Somalian situation continues to remain volatile with 1.3m IDPs and over 500,000 refugees hosted by neighbouring countries 
  • The Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo remain extremely volatile and are witness to SGBV and recruitment of children by armed groups
  • Sri Lanka’s cease fire allowed humanitarian forces in and seen 280,000 IDPs registered
  • Columbia has 3m IDPs and 300,000 in refugee like situations in neighbouring countries

Response from Australian Government Delegation:

  • Recognition of the complexity and frequency of global population flows, exacerbated by the global economic downturn, climate change and conflict induced IDP and protracted refugee situations.
  • Reference to the new situations of displacement (Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia) and improved security situation in Iraq
  • Requested that UNHCR clearly articulates its priorities for action for the various persons of concern
  • Increased focus on protracted refugee situations announced by Australian Government and an on-going commitment to provide durable solutions through a new 4yr re-settlement planning framework
  • Australia welcoming 13,750 people under its Humanitarian Program for 2009-2010, an increase of 250 places on 2008/9 (7,750 under the special humanitarian program and 6,000 under refugee component)
  • Increased the target for the resettlement of women at risk and their dependents under the re-settlement program from 10.5% to 12%.
  • Urge Nepal and Bhutan to work together to facilitate a return to Bhutan for those refugees who wish to take up this option
  • Congratulates Japan on the launch of a pilot resettlement program
  • Commends Indonesia for working co-operatively with UNHCR to build a strong framework to ensure protection and minimise irregular movements
  • Australia will continue to provide resettlement palces for those referred by UNHCR and will continue to fund projects to stablilise displaced populations, support sustainable return and build protection capacity in the region.
  • Pleased by the agreement reached at the 3rd Ministerial conference of the Bali Process to use an ad hoc group process to mitigate increased irregular population flows and the impact on victims
  • Australian Government announced its complementary protection model to give effect to Australia’s non-refoulment obligations within its protection visa framework.




Notes from Geneva: Kenyan Government & NGO views.

23 06 2011

Kenyan delegation, UNHCR Standing Committee meeting, 2009

  • Agreed with the Asst High Commissioner that dependence by governments on UNHCR makes governments passive partners. UNHCR should feel emboldened to challenge governments where they fail
  • Dadaab is the litmus test for camps – now hosting 300,000 displaced persons – capacity is 90,000
  • Committed to The Netherlands request to make land available to ease overcrowding
  • Inability of UNHCR to protect is an indictment on UNHCR – the ‘worst’ places for displaced persons have the largest populations – naming and shaming discourages governments from doing more.
  • Called on UNHCR to investigate root causes of risks – instigated by host communities or mixed migration flows where there is a lack, or complete absence of screening facilities – should be mandatory
  • Levelling risk at host countries is now a cause for complaint – “no longer passive” – as recent UNHCR / Kenyan Govt standoff at Kakuma last month demonstrated, situation could have been avoided
  • More displaced people from Mogadishu travelling 170 km to camps. In Kenya, there has been an increase in outflows; however, in Dadaab, the main concern remains tremendous overcrowding and congestion.

UNHCR Annual Consultation with NGOs – Africa Bureau

 Africa represents 50 per cent of UNHCR’s global activities.

Comment from the floor: refugees’ voices are being silenced in Kakuma. Refugees started a newspaper, UNHCR became concerned. A human rights lawyer has said the newspaper could go on under the right to freedom of association, however, UNHCR interfered and refused to provide a letter of support to the refugees as the Kenyan Govt had demanded. This is one way of ensuring refugees’ voices are heard, and bring awareness to the conditions in the camp.

Question from the floor (Kenyan NGO): I would like to raise the issue of the closure of the Kenyan Government closing its border with Somalia. Mogadishu is on fire; what is the intention of the Kenyan office; I understand the difficulties with the government but Mogadishu is not safe for anyone.

Response: Menghesha Kebede (UNHCR – Officer in Charge of Africa Bureau)

One issue, which is a collective challenge, is ensuring refugee voices are heard. I have heard about the situations in Namibia and Kakuma. While I fully support the NGO stance, there is one principle that should be followed regarding information disseminated by refugees – it must have refugees at the heart. It should reflect conditions but be for the use of the camp committee which can use this important feedback to improve its plans. I understand these communications have news value, but it should firstly form the basis for programme planning. I don’t agree that it can’t be used for raising awareness, but it should inform programmes. Information disseminated outside should follow the principle of agreeing to avoid challenges with governments – local laws need to be respected. If external people are going into camps, that information should report internally. We will press on, but we must respect the civilian nature of refugee camps given political concerns. I support the full dissemination of information by refugees for refugees.

 The situation in Somalia is very concerning. Despite Kenya’s decision to close the border, it remains porous, with 57,000 new arrivals at Dadaab. If the border was open at designated points, screening could be done; if armed elements are coming in, we could report them from the office and approach the Kenyan Government – and probably try and resolve the issue.

In Dadaab, there are three major issues – the Kenyan Government, the local community, and land. More than 280,000 are crammed into a camp that was built for 90,000 people. It is not conducive to protecting public health, sanitation etc. UNHCR has taken the protection discussion to the highest levels – the High Commissioner has met with the President; this was followed with discussions with the Prime Minister and two missions. One positive is that 2,000 hectares has been set aside for a new camp. We remain hopeful that we can improve the situation but we need NGO support. We are encouraging voluntary relocation from Dadaab to Kakuma, but we are feeling the pinch from the local community, which perceives that too much attention is paid to refugees at the expense of the host community – and after 19 years, the impact of environmental degradation, destruction of trees, and effects on water supplies are devastating. It’s appropriate, we appreciate that as far as resources are concerned, the situation is unfair and more needs to be done, so in July we are starting an integrated project over two years for both refugees and the host community. ExComm and donors will tell us to stay within our mandate and budget, to focus on life saving needs, but these needs are not being met.