Author Archives: minorityrights

Europe: Minorities are protected, but by whom?

alexAlexandra Veloy, MRG’s Fundraising Intern, muses on the shifting patterns of minority rights protection in Europe.

On 3rd September, an event entitled ‘Citizenship, Minority Rights and Justice’ took place at the University of Sussex. The event was part of a series of workshops organised by the Sussex European Institute, New Europeans and the Sussex Centre for Responsibilities, Rights and the Law, to discuss current issues affecting minorities in Europe.

The workshop was divided into two sessions. The first, ‘Minority Rights and European Integration Debates’, explored integration in Europe and its effect on the respect of minority rights. This session analysed, for example, the recent and very polemic decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) SAS v. France (also known as the ‘burqa ban case’,), where the ECtHR upheld the ‘burqa ban’ in France since it concluded that the applicant’s rights had not been violated. According to Dr Stephanie Berry, from the University of Sussex, the ECtHR failed to uphold the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) by applying an assimilationist approach; the decision targeted Muslims due to a lack of neutrality, in comparison to other cases such as in Lautsi and others v. Italy (or the ‘crucifix case’), where the Court concluded that a cross on a classroom wall is a ‘passive’ religious symbol, contrary to the burqa, which is an ‘active’ one, therefore potentially disrupting the ‘living together’ principle.

A Muslim woman defies the burqa ban in France. Credit: Islamicus

A Muslim woman defies the burqa ban in France. Credit: Islamicus/CC

This session focused mainly on the implications of the ECtHR decisions for future integration debates, but also featured an analysis of what integration means within the European Union (EU) and how it affects minorities. The EU has a list of Common Basic Principles to make integration work. Integration is presented as a two-way approach of mutual accommodation. However, this integration often ignores the needs of national minorities; for example, Common Basic Principle 4 reads as follows: ‘Basic knowledge of the host society’s language, history, and institutions is indispensable to integration; enabling immigrants to acquire this basic knowledge is essential to successful integration.’ According to Dr Alexandra Xanthaki, from Brunel University, this somehow ignores the existence of minority languages in the host country, and overall the principles seem to be more of a one-way approach. This means that in some cases, integration becomes assimilation, which should not be the case.

The second session, ‘Which Minorities and which Rights?’, sought to explore the scope of minority rights protection inside and outside the EU. Firstly, the discussion touched upon the lack of a minority protection system within the EU. It is true that Article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights establishes the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of belonging to an ethnic minority, as well as on the grounds of nationality, among others. But how is that ensured? As well as establishing a founding value, there needs to be a mechanism to offer protection to minorities.

Ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars

Ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. Credit: Victoria Kupchinetsky/CC

This session also included the problems arising from border shifting; such is the case for minorities in Crimea, who now fall under different legislation after the referendum in March. Ukraine has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages of the Council of Europe. However, Russia has not, which means that the protection that minorities such as the Crimean Tatars were entitled to under Ukrainian legislation no longer applies. A similar situation is happening in Transnistria which, although not internationally recognised as an independent state since it is supposed to be part of Moldova, has different government and legislation. The Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities of the Council of Europe stated that it could not analyse the situation of minorities in the region due to shifting powers and borders. As the region is not effectively controlled by the Moldovan Government, the monitoring of the implementation of the Convention cannot take place.

Overall, this was a very interesting and intense workshop, where discussions were encouraged and experts shared their views in a very welcoming and open environment. New problems arise from the political developments in Europe and minorities need to be duly protected. Europe is meant to provide a hospitable environment where different cultures are welcomed to flourish. Furthermore, the so-called EU founding values are ‘respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities’. But still, Europe in a broader sense should protect minorities effectively and the ECtHR should continue to play a key role by being a mechanism that individuals can trust and use for the protection of their rights.

“The Endorois decision” – Four years on, the Endorois still await action by the Government of Kenya

RebeccaRebecca Marlin is currently the Legal Fellow at Minority Rights Group International (MRG) in London. She earned her B.A. from Wellesley College and her J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. During her time at MRG she will be working extensively with the Endorois to achieve implementation of the 2010 African Commission decision granting them rights to Lake Bogoria.

For the Endorois of Kenya’s Lake Bogoria, the process of reclaiming their land from the government of Kenya has been one step forwards and two steps back. In 2003, MRG and partner organisation Centre for Minority Rights Development (CEMIRIDE), acting on behalf of the Endorois Welfare Council, went before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to demand that the Kenyan government recognise the rights of the Endorois to Lake Bogoria.

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Lake Bogoria is of great cultural significance to the Endorois. Copyright MRG

The Endorois had inhabited Lake Bogoria for over 300 years before being evicted by the government in the 1970s. In 2010, the Endorois won the landmark case Centre for Minority Rights Development and Minority Rights Group International (on behalf of Endorois Welfare Council) v Kenya. The land rights aspects of this groundbreaking decision have been discussed on this blog here and some of the regional implications here.

A pattern of empty promises emerges

Immediately following the Commission’s ruling in February 2010, the government of Kenya welcomed the decision, promising to begin implementation. A large celebration of the decision was held at Lake Bogoria; the Minister of Lands was in attendance and the momentous occasion was broadcast on television nationally. Kenya’s progressive National Land Policy had been enacted only a few months prior to the ruling and, with a forward-thinking new Constitution in the drafting stages, it seemed the decision might soon be translated into restitution of land, compensation, and benefit-sharing for the Endorois.

However, in May 2010, a report on implementation due to be submitted by the government of Kenya to the African Commission failed to arrive. Throughout 2010 and 2011, the government of Kenya failed to take any significant action on the recommendations. One MP openly challenged the Minister of Lands in Parliament about this delay in January 2011; the official response from the Minister was that he would not be able to take any action until he received an official sealed copy of the 2010 decision – despite the fact that the decision had been officially adopted and published one year earlier. A sealed copy was thereafter delivered to the Minister, but this did little to improve the situation.

When pressed on the matter, the government continues to affirm that it supports the decision and is taking steps to carry out the Commission’s recommendations. Yet, steps taken by the government indicate the exact opposite and new legislation on Lake Bogoria threatens to further separate the Endorois from their land.

For instance, the rushed-through Kenya Wildlife Bill was published in 2011 without consultation with the Endorois. This law requires payment of entrance fees for anyone entering Lake Bogoria and criminalises any activities that might endanger wildlife in the area, leaving no exception for the religious and cultural practices of the people indigenous to the land. In early 2014 the Endorois engaged in peaceful protests against the government’s parcelling out of some Endorois land to non-Endorois, and were met with beatings and arrests.

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This hotel, which was built on Endorois traditional land, accommodates the influx of tourists who travel to this region. Copyright MRG

The Endorois cause suffered another severe blow in 2011 when they learned that UNESCO had included Lake Bogoria on the World Heritage List, a designation which would greatly affect the Endorois’ rights to the land. The Endorois had not been consulted at all, and it was in fact the Kenyan Government’s Wildlife Service (KWS) that had urged UNESCO to include Lake Bogoria. Followingcomplaints by the Endorois, the African Commission expressed its concern in aresolution calling on the government of Kenya and the World Heritage Committee to revise its policies to include participation by indigenous peoples through their own representatives.

Nearly three years later, in May 2014, representatives from KWS, the Baringo County Council, the Kenyan Commission to UNESCO, and the Endorois Welfare Council convened to sign a memorandum of understanding that recognized Lake Bogoria as Endorois ancestral land and required Endorois inclusion in management of the land. As a result, the World Heritage Committee reviewed the status of Lake Bogoria and issued a State of Conservation report in July 2014, requiring the government of Kenya to report on conservation by 1 February 2015, and urging it to include the Endorois in management and benefit-sharing.

In an effort to push the government of Kenya to comply with the 2010 decision and implement its recommendations, the African Commission held an implementation hearing in April 2013, at which the Government was called on to redress its earlier failures to present the Commission with a roadmap to implementation. The hearing was followed by a meeting of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) in Nairobi in September 2013. Forty-five delegates attended, including nineteen members of the Endorois community, nineteen members of Kenyan organisations, and seven international representatives, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Not a single delegate from the Kenyan government could be troubled to respond to the invitation or appear at the meeting, held only blocks from their offices in Nairobi.

Following the hearing and the WGIP meeting, the African Commission took note of the total absence of the Kenyan government from meetings devoted to the situation of the Endorois, as well as its failure to act in assessing compensation, sharing benefits or providing restitution of the land. In November 2013, the African Commission issued a resolution calling on the government of Kenya to take concrete steps towards implementation and to immediately file a comprehensive report on implementation with the Commission.

The Endorois community with MRG staff in Kenya

The Endorois community with MRG staff in Kenya. Copyright MRG

What’s next for the Endorois?

Though faced with considerable hurdles, the Endorois continue to push for implementation. The Endorois Welfare Council (EWC) has composed an action plan which involves lobbying the national government, maintaining a presence in Parliament through various sympathetic MPs, and working with the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights. In May 2014, Kenya’s National Land Commission appointed a Taskforce on Historical Land Injustices which aims to identify, investigate, and remedy land grievances. The taskforce begins a national tour this month, and the EWC plans to meet with them.

In July 2014, the EWC reported that it had received an offer of 2 million Kenyan Shillings (approximately £13,760) from the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) as a result of a deal between KWS and industrial biotech company Novozymes. The payment will be distributed to targeted beneficiaries, particularly Endorois students. Novozymes has agreed to pay royalties to KWS in exchange for exploitation of the bioenzymes found in Lake Bogoria; it is good news that KWS has offered some share of the royalties to the Endorois, but an official and consistent royalty scheme remains to be devised and implemented.

These latest developments represent a tentative step towards implementation of the 2010 decision, but the fact remains that legislation and task forces are not enough: the government of Kenya must return Lake Bogoria to the Endorois and begin to compensate them for their losses.

‘Get out there and get it’ – Women and Leadership in Kenya

giuliaGiulia Di Mattia, Programme Officer at Minority Rights Group International, interviewed Jennipher Atieno, the new Minister for Education, Youth, Culture and Social Services for Kisumu County in Kenya, who has dedicated her life to empowering marginalised women.

Jennipher Atieno has worked for the protection of the rights of marginalised women in Kenya for over 20 years. She explains how minority women face double discrimination, both from cultural practices towards women within their own communities and as a member of a minority community. In her own words, ‘Women are discriminated against, in particular when it comes to property ownership. The men don’t consider the opinion of the women.’

Jennipher Atieno at the launch of our report 'Challenges at the intersection of gender and ethnic identity' in December 2012 in Nairobi, Kenya

Jennipher Atieno at the launch of our 2012 report ‘Challenges at the intersection of gender and ethnic identity’ in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: OPDP

She has recently been appointed as Minister for Education, Youth, Culture and Social Services for Kisumu County, Kenya. At MRG, we worked together with Jennipher under a recent MRG project (KGGP 2010-2013), when she was in her previous role as Executive Director of Women in the Fishing Industry Programme (WIFIP).

WIFIP works on education, health and economic empowerment of marginalised women. The KGGP project in particular raised awareness of human and minority rights and built the confidence of minority and indigenous peoples to advocate for their own rights in order to ensure their concerns were discussed at decision-making level. The KGGP included three minority and indigenous communities: the Endorois, the Ogiek and the Abasuba communities.

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Abusaba dancers perform at an installation of the new chief of the Suba Elders Development and Cultural Council, where women sit on the executive secretariat. Credit: OPDP

The Abasuba community is a minority and indigenous fishing community living near Lake Victoria in Kisumu and Homa Bay counties. WIFIP worked with the Abasuba people, carrying out trainings on women’s rights for the communities and organising leadership workshops for women, building the confidence and skills of women candidates in the run up to the 2013 elections. Under the project, WIFIP also contributed to publishing our report Challenges at the intersection of gender and ethnic identity in Kenya. Jennipher told MRG that her work with marginalised women has led her to her current position:

‘I just want to confirm that the work I have done over the years with women, youth and minority groups indeed influenced my way into the County Government, and particularly my appointment to the Ministry for Education/Youth/Culture and Social Services. This also includes the areas of Gender, Children, People with Disability and Sports. It therefore goes without saying that even KGGP had direct influence on my decision to join politics and my desire to be a greater voice representing the groups mentioned above.’

In her new position, her priorities are on improving the quality of early childhood and strengthening vocational and technical training, with a special focus on gender mainstreaming in areas of employment, and promoting leadership of women and people with disabilities in decision making positions.

Kisumu county is prioritising work with civil society to strengthen its presence within the community at grassroots level by creating an office responsible for working with non-governmental organisations. With the new county level system being established in Kenya, Jennipher says that minorities and indigenous peoples now have more access to the government to advocate for their rights, ‘They can walk into an office, these are people they know at a personal level.’

Jennipher Atieno with Suba women elders, taken by Laura Young during her field research for the report 'Challenges at the intersection of gender and ethnic identity in Kenya'

Jennipher Atieno with Suba women elders. Credit: Laura Young/MRG

Through her work with minorities, Jennipher has observed positive change: women have higher positions, more girls go to school and appreciate education, minority women are more aware of their rights and consequently more vocal. When she organised public activities, she witnessed an increase in women’s attendance and participation.

Jennipher’s advice to women considering a leadership career is to first and foremost receive an education and then, ‘Get out there and get it.’ She encourages women that have dropped out of school to go back and further improve their education level. She urges women to believe in their skills and know that they are just as capable as the men they work for.

Ethiopia’s ‘Master Plan’ – good for development, damaging for minorities

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Writing from our Africa Office in Kampala, MRG intern Biraanu Gammachu sheds light on the Ethiopian government’s unpopular national development project. 

Ethiopia paints two remarkable but contrasting images before the global eye. On one side we see an independent state, a cradle for human civilization. On the other, we see a state struggling to shrug off poverty, that disgraceful consequence of underdevelopment, poor governance and conflict.

The fall of Ethiopia’s socialist military regime in 1991 ushered in the leadership of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition party. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), leading the coalition, engineered Ethiopia’s 1995 Constitution, which charted the country into seven ethnically-divided regional states, two geographically defined regional states and two Provisional City Administrations (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa).

 

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For the first time, the Meles Zenawi regime officially introduced a multi-party democracy, ethnic federalism and a market economy in a move to curb a history of political, social and economic injustice in Ethiopia. But the reality is very different. Two decades down the road there are glaring facts that show that Zenawi’s vision has done more harm than good to the wider population of Ethiopia, while only benefitting the few in power. The institutionalisation of ethnic politics and ill-conceived ethnic federalism in Ethiopia has mainly served to weaken critical dissent against the state and secure TPLF’s indefinite grip on power.

Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, a poverty index informed by Amartya Sen’s capability approach, ranked Ethiopia the second poorest country in the world in 2014. However, relentless state-sponsored media has manipulated the public into believing there has been an economic boom, an advancement of social welfare and an improved political environment in Ethiopia since 1991. This stands in contrast to the country’s high unemployment, income disparity and political impasse. Though huge infrastructural developments are being witnessed, Ethiopia’s structure of governance continually reignites dormant conflicts between different socio-linguistic communities in the country, impairing cooperation and provoking mistrust among the population.

‘Addis Ababa under siege’

Addis Ababa is the country’s capital city, financial hub and main gateway to the outside world. ‘Shagar’ (the unofficial name for Addis Ababa) hosts the African Union headquarters and has increasingly attracted international summits.

Addis Ababa is encircled by predominantly ethnic Oromo-inhabited areas; Lagatafo, Sululta, Sabata, Holota and Dukam. For the minority communities in these areas surrounding Ethiopia’s capital, agriculture and rearing livestock is their primary economic activity. Their land is at the centre of their livelihoods, yet they do not have control over it.

Ethiopian farmers winnowing orange lentils. Credit: Bioversity International

Ethiopian farmers winnowing orange lentils. Credit: Bioversity International

In Ethiopia, land is the property of the state, and, alarmingly, people are losing their land to state-directed labour-intensive agriculture, land investment and state land grabbing. The farmers are often excluded from any business concerning their land in the name of ‘development’. The government brushes away the grave concerns of the local farmers, explaining that their actions are necessary for development.

Urbanisation and urban development are growing phenomena and Addis Ababa is no exception. Therefore, it is rational for the government of Ethiopia to develop a proper plan to address stakeholders’ political, economic, social, and environmental interests and thus to ensure sustainable urban development.

In 2011 Addis Ababa and Oromia Special Zone (areas surrounding Addis Ababa which fall under Oromia Regional State) established a joint Project Office to work on urban and development issues common to both Addis Ababa and Oromia Special Zone. The Project Office is led by a board of directors which includes ethnic Oromos such as Mr Kuma Demeksa (mayor of Addis Ababa at this time), Mr Abdulaziz Mohamed (deputy president of Oromia Regional State) and Mr Umer Hussein (head of the Oromia Special Zone). The Project Office did not carry out proper and appropriate consultations with stakeholders before urging the need to formulate an integrated development plan (known as The Master Plan).

Stakeholders from the government and international organisations held a meeting in June 2013 at Adama town and indicated ‘Ethiopia’s interest’ in centralising the country and integrating the economic and social activities of Addis Ababa with its surroundings (Oromia Special Zone) by subtly bypassing the 1995 constitution (which clearly demarcates Oromia from Addis Ababa and observes the ‘special interest of the state of Oromia with respect to supply of services or the utilization of resources or administrative matters’). After being recommended by regional officials and experts from the African Union and UN, the draft plan has only to be approved by the project board and the Addis Ababa City cabinet in order to become effective.

Determined to push its Master Plan forward, the government of Ethiopia claimed it would improve the socio-economic conditions of Addis Ababa and Oromia Special Zone residents. Like most plans which sound good on paper, this one promises ‘to ensure the placement and exercise of a proper industrial waste output management system, to acquire designated industrial zones, and to decongest and coordinate public services for the ever rising city population’.

In April this year, officials from Oromia Special Zone and Addis Ababa City Administration met for an open discussion on the proposed Master Plan in Adama town. The discussion centred on constitutionality and development ethics, and whether moral and ethical guidelines will enter into the Master Plan. However, there is much pressure from federal government to see the plan effectuated.

If implemented, the plan would incorporate Sululta, Bishoftu, Sabata Dukem, Holeta and Ambo, bringing 1.1 million hectares of land under Addis Ababa City Administration and thus endangering the livelihoods of tens of thousands of ethnic Oromo farmers who regard the plan as ‘illegitimate’ and ‘unconstitutional’. They fear that an expansion of Addis Ababa will erode Oromo-inhabited areas, compromising the social setup and diminishing Oromo identity. Proponents of this first view, therefore demand that the Master Plan uphold the constitution, which stipulates that the people of Ethiopia must be at the centre of their own development process, by facilitating free, prior and informed consent, as well as genuine consultation with and adequate compensation for Oromo whose agricultural land is to be consumed by the State.

The Ethnic Oromo Protest and its Achievement 

The discussion on the Master Plan at Adama town was partially reported on and broadcast by Oromia’s regional state-owned television station. Footage of a participant’s challenge to the ethical intentions of the plan was circulated on social media and kick-started a protest by Oromo students whose confidence in TPLF had already been damaged by its lack of transparency in its development project.

Protesters in Addis Ababa  demand TPLF to stop evicting Oromo farmers and grabbing their land, May 2014. Credit: Gadaa.com

Protesters in Addis Ababa demand TPLF to stop evicting Oromo farmers and grabbing their land, May 2014. Credit: Gadaa.com

The ethnic Oromo student protest, which mainly adopted ‘the constitutionalist perspective’, was quite peaceful at first, implicating TPLF for its neglect of development ethics in Ethiopia. However, over time it took a radical course as unclear leadership, ambiguous objectives and ethnic resentment sparked deadly protest.

The violence of the protest meant that Oromo students failed to win either the sympathy of fellow Ethiopians or international support. Ultimately, the peaceful protest which was sabotaged by the secessionists’ political extremism resulted in unnecessary loss of life and property, ethnic strife and the expulsion of Oromo students from various universities.

However, the failed protest taught ethnic Oromos an important lesson. It had clearly indicated the need for ethnic Oromos to refine and clarify their concerns and tailor their demands to Ethiopia’s social and political context. It demonstrated a huge gap in public knowledge of the regime in Ethiopia and its specific failures. It is part of a trial-and-error process whereby Oromo activists attempt to show a constructive attitude, non-violent behaviour and consideration of the wider national context, and to propose a framework of governance superior to the existing ethnocentric regime in Ethiopia.

Ethnic Oromo farmers in Addis Ababa are not the only minority group affected by Ethiopia’s centralised land policy, arbitrary ethnic federalism and unethical development projects across the country. Omo valley communities are threatened in the southern part of the country; there are unheard voices on land investments in Gambella; there is continued unlawful eviction of ethnic Amhars from southern, central and western parts of the country; and land and water grabs have a negative impact on pastoral communities.

What should the Government and Oromo activists do?

The government have all the necessary means and authority to circumvent the looming threats to minority groups in Ethiopia. Its intentions in developing the Master Plan may have been good, but the approach employed in the planning process definitely received a poor welcome from low-ranking OPDO officials, the larger middle-income Oromo population and Oromo university students. In the short-term, therefore, the government should address the ethical dimensions of the Plan by holding genuine consultations leading to informed consent and adequate compensation for evicted farmers.

The government must also apologise and take responsibility for its brutality during the protests where dozens of young Oromo university students were shot dead. The government must learn to bear the costs of being transparent rather than spending millions of taxpayers’ money in lobbying foreign firms to undermine dissenting voices in an attempt to legitimise its half-baked developmental undertakings.

In the long term, Ethiopian technocrats need to work to harmonise a current mismatch between national resource governance and awkward ethnic federalism. This area of conflict must be given proper attention sooner rather than later before it deteriorates beyond repair.

Except for a few powerful individuals, the population at large are the victims of poor governance in Ethiopia. Ethiopians themselves are better equipped to effect change than foreign embassies or institutions. Therefore, ethnic Oromo activists, especially in the Diaspora, should resolve polarising issues and animosity against particular social groups and should instead tackle the specific policy problems in Ethiopia while bringing issues forth in a national context. To this end, the ethnic Oromo activists must distance themselves from unhelpful attitudes of hate, resentment and vengeance. Equally, protesters must detach themselves from radical and anti-Ethiopia groups which only serve to damage solidarity between Ethiopians and to cause acts of inhumanity.

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The author can be reached at: biraanug@gmail.com or on Facebook at Biraanu Gammachu

Is integration “impossible” for Roma in France?

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As the 17-year-old Roma youth known only as Darius recovers from a vicious gang assault that shined a spotlight on France’s forced eviction policy last month, Isabelle Younane, MRG’s Communications Intern,  spoke with Roma rights activists, a Romanian MEP and the Vice President of the nation’s far-left party Front National, to get to the heart of the debate.

Louis Aliot, Front National (FN): ‘There’s no hatred!’

As much as Marine le Pen’s husband has deplored the June attack on Darius, he refuses to recognise the incident as a hate crime. ‘There’s no hatred!’ insisted Mr Aliot, ‘There’s only respect for the laws of the Republic and for public order.’ According to reports, Darius’ armed attackers beat up and burned his body before dissolving parts of his jaw with battery acid and dumping his body in a supermarket trolley. The teenager, a suspected thief, emerged from his coma last Wednesday.

Instead, Aliot claims that the incident flagged up a failure of the Hollande government to seize control of its own borders; ’We want to regain our sovereignty which has been stolen from the French people by the technocracy in Brussels,’ insisted Mr. Aliot. The FN maintains that the loosening of EU migration requirements and withdrawal from the Schengen agreement is the only solution to the marginalisation of Roma in France. This would enable forced evictions to be followed by permanent deportations.  But do we have to rid ourselves of Roma, I ask? Wouldn’t a policy of social insertion be more effective?

‘Integration is impossible in a country like France which is plagued by debt, the budget deficit, the crisis and mass unemployment!’ argues Aliot.  And supposing it were economically possible? ‘I don’t think [Roma] even ask themselves this question,’ dismissed the politician, ’They go wherever they think is socially the best and where they can reap the most benefits without any special requirements.’

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Roma communities protest in Paris. Credit: Philippe Le Royer

Draghici: ‘The Front National are morally responsible’

‘This is completely stupid,’ reacts Ligue de Droits de l’Homme (LDH) activist and board member of the European Association for the Defence of Human rights (AEDH), Philippe Goossens, to Mr. Aliot’s assertion that the Roma have no desire to integrate. ‘It is based on a misunderstanding of the situation. People living in slums are trying to integrate, they want better lives and a future for their children. But when you put people in a precarious situation, it is difficult.’

For the Romanian Member of the European Parliament, Damian Draghici, it is exactly Aliot’s attitude of dehumanisation that provokes hate speech and violence against the Roma. ‘The irresponsible speech that these politicians are disseminating is in profound contradiction with the European spirit, and it undermines the project of a united European Union, where freedom of movement is one of its fundamental principles,’ he claims. ‘The idea that Roma do not want to be integrated is a prejudice that it is not statistically sustained. A vast majority of Roma that have emigrated to other countries looking for a better life, are active citizens, that do honest work and contribute to the development of the communities to which they belong.’

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A Roma family in Val de Marne. Credit: Service photo, photothèque du Conseil Général du Val-de-Marne

Goossens: ‘Eviction has costs’

And besides, adds Goossens, it is not just integration and social support that costs the state money. ‘Eviction has costs – both social and financial.’ Since the beginning of this year, over 7,500 Roma have already been subject to forced eviction, while last year saw the eviction of 20,000 Roma, according to the Goossens. Erika Bodor, a European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) activist, shed light on the social costs; ‘Families are forced to sleep in the streets, often lose belongings or important documents and this is extremely detrimental to the psychological well-being of children.’

The ERRC supports Goossens’ claim that Roma seek social inclusion. According to Ms. Bodor, 59 per cent of 118 respondents stated that finding a job was their top priority, and 47 per cent said it was housing. A massive 39 per cent also said they came to France because they had family living there. It seems, therefore, that while Roma certainly desire to ‘reap the… benefits’ of a relatively stable European democracy, as Aliot claims, they also want to play a functional role in that democracy.

Goossens says that the policy of eviction – judged as illegal by the French High Commission for the Housing of Disadvantaged People (HCLPD) – needs to be accompanied by a programme of re-housing and social support; ‘We need to work with these people for six months to one year to make sure they are stable.’ Currently, he claims, only 10 per cent of evicted Roma are provided with any alternative housing solution. For Goossens, kicking them out onto the streets of France causes them to resort to crime, exacerbating an atmosphere of racial discrimination in the neighbourhoods in which Roma take shelter.

Roma communities are forced to live in slums like these in Lyon. Credit: Nicholas Nova

Roma communities are forced to live in slums like these in Lyon. Credit: Nicholas Nova

Bodor: ‘The goal is to not have slums’

Without a programme of re-housing and social support, Roma generally find themselves in the poorest neighbourhoods of France, which suffer from high levels of unemployment and so are inevitably hostile to newcomers. ‘In Marseille there is a strong division between the north and south parts of the city,’ says Ms. Bodor. ‘Roma settlements tend to be in the north, which is the poorest area of the city.’

The result of eviction, therefore, seems to be a stark and inescapable division between French citizens living in homes and Roma living in slums. This class division results in discrimination in all tiers of public life. Political authorities often block access to education for migrant Roma children living in slums in France,’ claims Ms. Bodor. ’Our research showed that only 47 per cent of respondents said that their children attend school.’ This figure is in spite of French law which states that education is obligatory for all children, French or foreign, from age six to 16. The majority of Roma parents whose children were not in school reported that they had been told by school authorities that there were no spaces available.

For Bodor and the ERRC, therefore, the source of discrimination against the Roma is their geographical marginalisation from the rest of society. ‘The goal is not to have slums in France and to assure that these EU citizens live in dignity and safety, with the opportunity to build a life for themselves and their children.’

Roma communities protest in Paris. Credit: Philippe Le Royer

Roma communities protest in Paris. Credit: Philippe Le Royer

Mile: ‘They share the same social needs’

‘Integration is impossible’ – a phrase recited by Louis Aliot, the rest of the FN, interior minister Manuel Valls and the conservative UMP party – perpetuates a cycle of anti-Roma feeling in France. Head of La Voix des Rroms, an online portal for Roma people in France, Saimir Mile, pointed out that ‘[Roma] settle in France for the same reasons as non-Roma people, with whom they share the same social needs.’ They are simply in search of a better life, free from the social discrimination they faced in their home countries.

The European Convention of Human Rights, to which France is party, demands that they have the right to work, to be housed and to be educated. Damian Draghici insists that the answer lies in cooperation across Europe, rather the continued expulsion of the Roma from place to place. ‘What is needed is a unified strategy that should start with the principle that Roma are a European minority, for whose social inclusion European policies are needed, as well as a common effort of all the European political decision makers.’ For him, and other Roma rights activists, the French government’s failure is not, as Mr. Aliot claims, their incompetency to shut off France’s borders, but rather it is their refusal to accommodate those who venture across.

Sexual violence a ‘normal thing’ in many countries at war

alexAlexandra Veloy, MRG’s Fundraising Intern, shares her experiences from the first Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

Two weeks ago, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict took place at the ExCel Centre in London. A summit that offered many options to learn about sexual violence issues around the globe: exhibitions, theatre and dancing performances, films screening, mock trials, and fringe events, with speakers from the leading NGOs, survivors of sexual violence and judges of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, amongst others. Overall, a great environment for dialogue, ideas, comments, sharing of best practice, awareness-raising for the general public and for decision-makers to include sexual violence in their agendas.

Aline and Lilliane came a long way from Democratic Republic of the Congo to attend the Summit. They were invited by MRG to share their experiences as Batwa women working for NGOs dedicated to women’s empowerment in North-Kivu. Batwa women have been a particularly vulnerable group in the many conflicts that have affected their country, where rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used as methods of war. Furthermore, on many occasions Batwa women have been abducted and forced to become sexual slaves for long periods of time.

Whilst accompanying Aline and Lilliane during the Summit events I realised how different our perspectives were. I was continually shocked by what I was hearing and outraged by the levels of sexual violence around the world (I was unaware of the extent this happens on a daily basis in so many countries), especially when Aline and Lilliane kept confirming all the information and adding details and numbers, as if it was a ‘normal thing’. Not that they accepted it, on the contrary; but they have to deal with it every day. Wandering around the exhibitions, they ran into many people from the DRC and other African countries who work in the same field, and discussed the necessity to raise awareness at a global level in order to solve the problem.

The Summit is a first step to putting this tricky issue on the world stage (even if only for a few days), aided of course by the presence of the UNHCR Special Envoy and celebrity Angelina Jolie, and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. But it has also brought together others such as US Secretary of State John Kerry, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda or Dr Denis Mukwege, all of them committed to putting an end to sexual violence in conflict.

Regardless of the people ‘starring’ in the event, it provided an opportunity for the international community to talk about the problems linked to sexual violence in conflict, such as ending impunity for the perpetrators, providing support for victims in order to remove the stigma brought by the abuse, and how to come up with effective solutions with the collaboration and commitment of the international community.

For this Summit, legal experts presented the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The Protocol is a tool aimed mainly at NGOs, lawyers and other people working with survivors of sexual violence. It seems like a good start, and is definitely a useful tool to fight impunity, but the problem of sexual abuse remains an all too common practice.

The catchphrase of the Summit was ‘Time to Act’. And it is indeed time to act; time for the international community to react and this Protocol is a start. In the words of Lilliane, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon with which we can fight this war against sexual violence.’

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Breaking the silence in Somalia

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Isabelle Younane, our Communications Intern, finds out how identity fuels discrimination in Somalia at an MRG storytelling event 

As visitors pressed themselves into the cramped back rows of the MRG tent in the ExCel centre, waiting for our Somali panelists to begin, I quickly realised that my role of kick-starting the question time had been made redundant. While I passed the microphone from straining hand to straining hand, trying to wrestle my sleeve from the grasps of eager Somali guests who insisted in not-so-hushed tones that it was their turn to speak next, I felt increasingly saddened. Here, in this side-event at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, perched on the edges of London and thousands of miles away from Somalia, was, for many, their chance to express how it feels to be treated as a second-class citizen in their own country. Why had no one listened to them sooner?

Hon. Bibi Khalif Mohamed, one of the few female MPs in Somalia and member of the Constitution Review Committee, told us the story of Habiba, a child from a minority clan in Somalia who found herself caught up in a civil war that raged across Somalia in the 1990s. Habiba’s father and brother were murdered, while her mother and aunt were raped by insurgents from the majority clan under the gaze of three-year-old Habiba as she hid beneath a mango tree. As their home was destroyed, Habiba and the remains of her family were admitted into an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp where they hoped to find relief from the surge of sectarian violence between majority and minority clans that had been fuelled by conflict. But as our storyteller revealed, they found no such refuge.

Hon. Bibi Khalif Mohamed tells the story of Habiba

Hon. Bibi Khalif Mohamed tells the story of Habiba

The audience members were required to wave a coloured card when they saw what they perceived to be discrimination – a seemingly straightforward task. A flurry of cards shot into the air when Habiba’s mother was raped and her father was killed. This was discrimination as we know it – sexual violence, murder and hate speech. But there was less certainty when Habiba reached the IDP camp and discrimination took a more insidious form. Being forced to the back of the food queue, receiving smaller portions than everyone else – was this discrimination too? As we learned from Habiba’s story, the act of doing nothing, too often practiced by the guards of IDP camps whose knowledge of Somali clans is insufficient, can also serve to facilitate discriminatory action in an environment that should offer protection.

‘But this is just the way it is,’ was the general consensus in the room. It is not that our Somali guests had accepted their fate of persecution, but rather they had despaired of any tenable solution. The civil unrest in Somalia stems from deep tribal divisions between Somali clans, notably Isaaq of the north, Ogadeni of the south and Hawiye of central Somalia – divisions that span generations. It became increasingly apparent that in Somalia, your tribe is considered inextricable from your identity, which means the victims envisage little hope of escape from threats of violence, sexual assault and even death.

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As one audience member pointed out, the tribal tensions are perpetuated by Somali diaspora, and parents who teach their children to treat minority clans with hostility. So inevitably, just as Habiba and her family suffered persecution in the IDP camp, Somali families who have fled Somalia in search of new lives abroad find that they cannot leave discrimination behind them. ‘If you meet another Somali,’ said one guest, ‘the first thing they ask you is “which clan do you belong to?” If you give the wrong answer, they insult you, threaten you, or simply walk away from you.’ But when victims of persecution living in London turn to the police for help, another guest explained, the authorities dismiss it as ‘an argument within our community’ – a Somali problem.

But hopefully the Global Summit went some way to dissolving this Western attitude that persecution of minority cultures is not our problem. As the representative from the Somali Women’s Development Organisation (IIDA) reminded us, this attitude is particularly damaging to Somali women, who are protected in Somalia neither by the militant groups and warlords whose loyalties are with majority clans, nor by Somali police who fail to provide effective justice or social support for victims of sexual assault. Our audience members and panellists emphasised that there is a black hole of responsibility for discrimination against minority groups, both in and out of Somalia. The international community can make a first step in countering this discrimination by ensuring that such violations of human rights are not met with impunity in our own country, and by empowering members of minority groups through education programmes and advocacy, both national and international. IIDA, the largest grassroots movement in Somalia,  has driven this empowerment at a local level in developing women-led support programmes, enabling female members of minority clans to help themselves. But they require the help of the international community to implement lasting change, particularly in the Diaspora.

As I learned from this event – and from the Global Summit in general – the effects of globalisation and immigration mean that the West can no longer sit back and allow the suffering of ethnic groups, particularly as some of their members now walk the streets of our egalitarian nation. Hopefully, this modest event was a first step in creating a dialogue between Somali victims and the international community about the reality of life as a minority in Somalia, and what we can do to help.