Rights in Crisis

  • We believe that the women, men and children who are affected by conflicts and disasters have a right to live in safety and dignity. Those most at risk – whether because of an earthquake, a drought or civil war – have a right to a life free from violence, and to have clean water, shelter and food. They also have the right to be heard and to take control of their own lives.

‘They left us in tents in the cold and rain and fear’ – the refugees abandoned on the Greek Islands

When war broke out in Syria in 2015, millions fled. Many risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe – and safety.

They were not alone. Refugees from other countries, driven from their homes due to conflict or persecution, also risked everything for a better life.

Greece, a country quickly overwhelmed as the number of people seeking asylum in Europe increased due to the outbreak of war in Syria in 2015, has since has harshened its stance on asylum as solidarity from member states in responding and sharing the responsibility waned. As a result, thousands of people have found themselves trapped in dangerously overcrowded camps on the Greek Islands of Lesvos, Kos, Samos and Chios.

They went through hell to get to safety. Now they find themselves in a new hell.

Vulnerable people including children, survivors of sexual violence and the elderly are detained without reason.

A child looks around the site of Moria camp, Lesvos, which was destroyed by fire in September 2020. Photo: Yousif Al Shewaili / Oxfam

"We don’t even have our basic rights as refugees. We are not free and we don’t know for how long [we will remain detained]. They are replacing our names with numbers, treating us as if were in prison, calling us by our numbers.”

-M. Elderly Syrian refugee under prolonged detention on Kos

Women don’t feel safe in the camps, especially at night.

Women and girls are scared to leave their tents at night, even to go use the toilets. Photo: Giorgos Moutafis/Oxfam

"Particularly us single women, [we feel] fear. At night it is dark and we cannot go to the toilet. We feel abandoned. [I would ask Europe] to close down the camp; to transfer people under a safe roof. To stop pushing people back to Turkey."

-R. Single woman asylum seeker on Lesvos

One in five people has attempted suicide.

A woman takes part in a protest. She wants to be transferred to mainland Greece or another European country. Photo: Yousif Al Shewaili/Oxfam

“Life here makes us feel despair. We don’t feel safe and feel mentally burdened by the conditions in which we live. We are waiting for Europe to display more responsibility; to honour human rights and the rights of refugees. We want a life in dignity and safety; for our families and our children.”

-M. Elderly Syrian father of two in Kos

In Samos, adults and children have been bitten by rats, scorpions and snakes.

Refugees in the camps are living in extremely poor and unsafe conditions. Photo: Giorgos Moutafis/Oxfam

“We were expecting… the EU to treat us humanly and show more interest because we come from Syria, where there is war. Here everything is different, they are not interested – they left us in tents in the cold and rain and fear.”

-D. Father on Chios

Children are missing out on an education and the opportunity for a better future.

A girl sits in a tent in the site of the former Moria camp. Photo: Giorgos Moutafis/Oxfam

“We have lived for too long in this camp. Unsanitary conditions are not suitable for my family and myself. We are very tired (mentally). We have health issues. My children cannot have a suitable life in this camp. We want a better life. I hope they [Europe] will not forget us Syrians that come from a war-torn country; that we will be granted asylum."

-H. Syrian family in Kos

Oxfam is calling on EU member states to act in solidarity and uphold and protect a person’s right to seek asylum and to have their application assessed in a fair and timely manner. In addition, it is urging member states to engage in genuine and fair responsibility sharing in relation to refugee relocation and resettlement commitments.

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The island nations battling the rising tide of climate change

Kiribati resident Maria Tekaie stands on the beach by a fallen palm tree, close by to where her family used to live. Parts of her village now lie underneath the ocean in the background. Photo: Ula Majewski/Oxfam

Hurricanes. Wildfires. Tornadoes. Flash floods. Cyclones.

These are some of the words or terms we usually associate with climate change.

The ferocity and intensity of these extreme weather events always get our attention – at least until the news coverage fades. But behind the dramatic headlines of major weather events, some communities have been left to deal with the long-term, insidious effects of climate change for years.

Although the unfolding disasters threatening these communities are as dangerous to lives and livelihoods as any sudden, one-off event, the seemingly glacial pace of these ticking timebombs means that such stories rarely get the attention they deserve.

This is just one of those stories.

In the central Pacific Ocean, the sprawling island nation of Kiribati is under siege from rising sea levels. Comprising 33 coral atolls (ringed islands which enclose a lagoon) and scattered across approximately 3.5 million square kilometres of ocean, the future of Kiribati is on a knife edge.

Most of its islands stand at just 1.8 metres above sea level. High tides lead to flooding which can contaminate the water supplies for weeks – even months. Another risk emerges when waves wash over the islands, destroying houses and crops, and inundating precious groundwater supplies with seawater. Groundwater contamination can cause illness, particularly among children. Infantile diarrhoea is believed to contribute to the high rate of infant mortality in Kiribati.

The residents of Kiribati are not the only people witnessing rising sea levels due to melting glaciers and ice sheets. The South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, where the land rises just a few metres above sea level, also finds itself trying to stave off an encroaching ocean.

It is not just the security of people’s homes, crops and already-scarce water resources that is on the line – Tuvalu’s very existence is under threat from climate change. The 11,000 people living on this tiny archipelago, which covers just 26 square kilometres, fear a loss of culture and of their ties to their land. They also fear for the future should they be forced to leave their ancestral home. Most of them do not want to migrate to seek new lives other countries.

To combat the rising tide, some communities have built flood walls or moved further inland to protect themselves. They collect rainwater and grow crops in between increasingly prolonged periods of drought. But even then, they cannot truly escape the impacts of climate change.

One of the many Pacific Islands facing an uncertain future. Photo: Ula Majewski/Oxfam

With the oceans continuing to absorb most of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases, sea temperatures continue to rise. In 2019, scientists warned that the world's oceans were warming at an alarming rate of five Hiroshima bombs of heat every second. This has a major impact on fish, one of the islanders’ main sources of food. Recent research has shown that as the oceans warm, the fish that people living close to the equator rely on, for both their survival and livelihood, are migrating towards the poles and cooler waters. In the short term, this means fewer fish. In the long term, it will result in heightened levels of food insecurity for these communities.

While it is important to recognise the magnitude of these problems, we cannot – and should not – lose hope. Adaptation measures such as mangrove planting have been successfully piloted in Kiribati and Tuvalu. Mangroves not only protect coasts from erosion, they provide vital ecosystems for marine life and mitigate climate change by acting as sinks for excess carbon in the atmosphere.

But there is much more to do. If we, as a global community, want to protect communities like the Pacific Islanders, we must decarbonise – but we must act fast. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is only half the battle; we must get to a point of negative emissions where we remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to stabilise global warming to within 1.5°C, the target committed to by signatories of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

This must be the decade when world leaders step up to protect our planet and its people. Otherwise, we all face an unimaginable future.

Oxfam works with communities around the world in the fight against climate change. We support people by providing them with training in climate-resilient farming, alternative income generation and adaptation measures. We build solar-powered water pumps in areas experiencing drought and work with communities like the Pacific Islanders to lobby governments to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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Covid-19, a dress rehearsal for the climate emergency

The Covid-19 crisis has created a new world. Old certainties are quickly becoming outdated, while new challenges and possibilities abound.

The response to the pandemic has forced us to reconsider what is essential to keeping economies and societies functioning to save lives. It offers us all an opportunity to rebuild a better, fairer and more sustainable world, one where we take the climate crisis seriously and do not jeopardise the lives of our children and future generations.

Building a More Sustainable World

Moves to address the climate crisis have been lacklustre at best and any sense of urgency to act seems to be pushed further back due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even in times of crisis, our leaders must not lose sight of their duty to uphold environmental protection, as in many ways this pandemic is a dress rehearsal for the climate emergency. Unlike Covid-19, the climate crisis is not an immediate threat to our lives here in Ireland. But we have already seen its effects, and in the longer term, it will pose a much greater threat to our existence. Indeed, for the people Oxfam works with, the climate crisis is not a future threat but something they experience every time extreme and unpredictable weather wreaks havoc on their lives and livelihoods. As with Covid-19, we cannot say we are safe unless we are all safe. Therefore, serious action on climate must be taken now. We must aim to meet our targets as a matter of urgency.

Desert locusts swarms destroyed farmland and livelihoods in 2019 and 2020. Photo: FAO/Sven Torfinn

Climate Crisis

The devastating impacts of climate change are having real consequences on people’s lives right now; from locust swarms devastating crops and increased food and water insecurity, to extreme weather events and bush fires destroying homes and livelihoods. Vulnerability to disaster and climate change matters because it perpetuates and deepens poverty and suffering.

To date, Ireland has been a laggard on climate action. The Programme for Government contains very positive commitments on climate, but the question is – will those commitments be honoured? Past governments have also pledged to reduce emissions but failed to do so.

As well as reducing emissions at home, richer countries like Ireland have committed to providing climate finance to ensure the countries most impacted by climate breakdown have adequate resources for life-saving adaptation measures. While the 2016 Programme for Government had an established target for climate finance supported by specific funds, the current programme instead commits to increasing the percentage of Official Development Assistance (ODA) being counted as climate finance, rather than committing to new or additional funding, as envisioned under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The commitment in the programme to double the percentage of ODA that counts as climate finance, without allocating additional funds, risks re-labelling existing aid as climate finance rather than committing to providing new finance to support climate action in the poorest countries. While there are many positives in the Programme for Government on climate action, the Government needs to do more if Ireland is to fulfil its obligations to provide much-needed finance to help poorer countries adapt to a changing climate – without diverting existing and essential ODA.

Oxfam installed a solar powered water pump in Ghana that allows women to farm vegetables during the dry season. Ireland needs impactful climate action that helps all people. Photo: Oxfam

One in two people struggle daily to survive

Fulfilling these commitments will help the global effort to prevent countries slipping into food insecurity due to climate-related impacts on agricultural production and food prices. One in two people already struggle daily to survive; this is likely to increase dramatically in the wake of Covid-19. Food security must be protected, while policies and programmes that promote climate-resilient agriculture must be implemented and supported.

Rahela trying to catch fish for her family as they have nothing to eat after cyclone Bulbul. Gabura, Shamnagar. Photo: FabehaMonir/Oxfam

Throwaway & Circular Economies

The Government’s new National Waste and Circular Economy Action Plan is also to be welcomed; however, the focus is mainly on packaging even though textiles have been identified as one of the waste streams with the highest untapped potential to implement circular practices.

According to Re-dress, 225,000 tonnes of textiles end up in Irish landfills every year – a huge waste of resources considering it would take 13 years to drink the water needed to make just one t-shirt and one pair of jeans. In a circular economy, these items would be reused or recycled instead of contributing to increased greenhouse gas emissions leeching out into our soil, water and air. Circularity not only benefits the environment and helps fight the climate crisis, it also creates innovative and sustainable economic opportunities.

Moving Forward

The time is now for Ireland to take a leadership role in promoting progressive change needed in the world. We must seize this moment to save lives and repair the systems that have made so many people vulnerable in the first place.

The choices made now will have profound implications for the future. They can lay the foundations for a more equal and sustainable world, or they can accelerate inequality and environmental destruction.

Together we can learn from this unprecedented crisis, and build a more human economy and a fairer world.

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Alone in the world, the children of Moria deserve a safe haven

A young boy sitting alongside the road at a makeshift camp. Photo Caption: Yousif Al Shewaili / Oxfam

"Welcome to Prison"

By Erin McKay, Campaigns and Advocacy Executive with Oxfam Ireland

These words, scrawled across a concrete wall at the entrance to the camp, greeted everyone who entered Moria. Moria was a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, a short distance across the sea from Turkey and served as a main transit route to Europe for people who are seeking asylum from persecution.

On a cold February day in 2018, my colleague and I passed these words as we wandered down the muddy and trash lined lanes of Moria. The camp was densely overcrowded with more than 11,000 people crammed into a space that was only ever meant to accommodate 3,000. We weaved in between makeshift tents cobbled together with tarp and duct tape; covered in the mud that plagued the camp in winter. Little faces poked out from the open flaps of these tents to wave at us as we walked by. We shuffled down a steep incline as water running from the trash heaps on the side of the road threatened to spill into our boots and arrived at a high chain link fence where the guards check our credentials and wave us in. This area, aptly called “the pen” is where unaccompanied minors – children who arrive in Europe without their family or a legal guardian – are held.

Inside this “pen”, a prison within a prison, there were children everywhere. On this winter day, most were not dressed for the cold and all were saturated in mud. I saw children caring for younger siblings, small children playing with trash and no adults in sight. Doctors I worked alongside in the camp would be called into "the pen" and the detention cells holding unaccompanied minors to respond to suicide attempts and self-harm injuries. Unimaginably, the children inside “the pen” are the lucky ones – they were able to prove their age. Other unaccompanied children, mostly teenage boys who do not have documents showing their status as minors, are left to fend for themselves on their own among the general population. These children are at high risk of exploitation and violence.

I left Moria two years ago, heartbroken and terrified. Scared for the young children trapped in unsafe, unhealthy and unfit conditions without their family or someone to care for them.

Children looking at what is left from the former Moria camp. Photo Caption: Yousif Al Shewaili / Oxfam

Moria was a prison and that prison burnt to the ground.

The camp, which was holding 13,000 people, 634 of whom were unaccompanied children, went up in flames on 8 September 2020. This came after a strict lockdown was imposed in response to the camps first recorded case of Covid-19. The competing tragedies of the spreading virus, fire and additional displacement are just the latest heartbreak in the lives of the people living in Moria. Even before the pandemic, the overcrowded conditions on this island were inhumane, unhygienic and unsafe.

The fire was a fully preventable tragedy and is the consequence of years of a misguided response from the EU and its member states to the arrival of people fleeing conflict and persecution. In March 2020, Ireland joined a coalition of the willing – EU member states that signed up to take a portion of the 1,600 unaccompanied minor children being held on the Greek Islands. This welcome initiative further illustrates Ireland’s long history as an island of refuge for the most vulnerable and in need of shelter. To date, Ireland has relocated eight children as a part of this coalition with the relocation of another four young people now in motion. In the wake of this tragedy and the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, we need to relocate the rest of the unaccompanied minors that we have committed to take and bring them safely to Ireland as soon as possible.

The unaccompanied minors at Moria have now fled twice: once from persecution and violence in their home countries and now from the burning camp. These children, alone in the world, are in need of a safe place now more than ever.

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Hearts have broken many times over Beirut but never like this

Communities, young and old, started sweeping the streets, and cleaning up the wreckage caused by the explosion in Beirut.

by Mayssam Zaaroura

For as long as I can remember, Beirut has occupied a part of my heart in a way like no other place on earth. On 4 August, that part shattered into a million tiny shards along with the explosion that levelled the port city. Sharp and painful, I bled as if with a million tiny cuts.

Countless Lebanese networks came alive in shock and horror with those of us trying to understand what happened as we searched frantically for family and friends thousands of kilometres away.

During this time, many of us kept sharing a common phrase – our hearts have broken many times over Beirut but never like this.

Explaining my love of Beirut is equal parts tricky and hard. Since leaving the city, I have spent my life thinking of how and when to return. I was born in Lebanon, left like millions of families, and couldn’t wait to return for a stretch of unforgettable and formative years.

My time there was long enough for me to live a full and rich career as a journalist and end it.

Long enough to find my little streets, shops, and cafes in Gemmayzeh that are now destroyed.

Long enough to build countless traditions with family, friends, and memories with my mom, like finding a hidden gem named Mayrig that served Armenian food. It is also now gone.

Long enough to fall in love, have my heart broken, and then healed.

Long enough to forge lifelong friendships.

Long enough to breathe in the Mediterranean Sea air and have it flow through my veins.

Long enough to live through a war, develop post-traumatic stress disorder, risk my life chasing stories while street bombs were being secretly set for Beirut’s activists and prominent voices, get broken down with anger and long enough to realise I had to leave.

And yet, it turns out it wasn’t long enough.

Lebanon is one of the few countries in the world where the number of diaspora Lebanese outnumber those living there. People of Lebanese origin – whether born there, of Lebanese ancestry, or even those with a tenuous link to the country and more specifically to Beirut – experience an inexplicable link to this country that transcends logic.

In a strange way, Beirut is etched into our psyche in a way that is mythical, magical, and almost whimsical. We all dream of returning one day, but it takes a certain kind of stamina and resilience to make it in Beirut. That’s what the city’s bones are made of – steel, stone and resilience.

Image: The author working as a journalist covering the 2006 war with Israel in which the south of Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut were levelled. Photo: Shawn Jackson

Edward Said, a Palestinian writer, once wrote of Beirut:

“These incomprehensibly brave people are too stubborn, too unwilling to start lives over again, too anchored in the city to leave… their mere survival, in ways we can neither trace nor reconstruct, seems miraculous.”

The magnitude of what has happened is hard to fathom. Not just the size and sheer force of the explosion. It’s also the longer-term impact on a country already struggling with the weight of a broken economy, severe inequalities and the COVID-19 pandemic that had already stretched the country’s resources and health systems to non-existent.

And yet, despite the struggles, the love for this city is something passed down from generation to generation. Whether it’s mornings listening with family to Fairouz and Majida el-Roumi waxing lyrical about the city, or the zaatar and labneh that we were fed throughout childhood, or the endless search for that smell of jasmine that just wafts over your shoulder when you least expect it. It’s rooted in you.

If heart tissue were made of memories, the strongest ones you would find holding it together are the ones that shimmer with memories of Beiruti gold.

Not the first time Beirut has been destroyed. The author as she covered the 2006 war with Israel in which the south of Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut were levelled. Photo: Shawn Jackson

It is as he sat in refuge, in this sanctuary city, that the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish wrote his book Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut 1982. As he desperately sipped his Beiruti coffee, and listened to the sounds of a city under siege, he wrote, “…we have nothing to lose, so long as Beirut is here and we’re here in Beirut.”

The richness of Beirut is seeded in its history. Revolutions have started in Beirut and feminists like May Ziadeh, Layla Baalbaki, and Laure Moghaizel have forged incredible gains for Arab women, lost them, kept pushing for more, and paved the way for women like my formidably feminist mother, and for me to continue the fight.

I spent year after year as a young girl, surrounded by my mother and aunts, listening to the same stories of how they travelled across the country, in the dead of night, during a brutal civil war, to deliver important strategic documents to fighters in the north. Those are the roots of my career fighting for women’s rights. It is where I forged my beliefs that women are not victims without agency, but strong, brave and heroic in times of greatest need.

I have no doubt that the women of Beirut – the nurses, the doctors, the firefighters, the soldiers, the mothers – will yet again rebuild this city and fight for justice for those who have suffered in this tragedy.

But that fight can sometimes be complicated. Despite being born in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother, I am of Palestinian origin, which makes me ineligible for citizenship. This is an injustice that Lebanese activists and organisations have been fighting for decades – the right for mothers to pass on their citizenship to their children. And yet to date, it’s something I am not able to pass on to my son.

Nevertheless, to me, like many, that piece of paper matters little. In my heart, I will always be Lebanese no matter what passports I hold. My son will always be a descendant of strong, proud, Phoenicians. And someday, I imagine, he will hold the same strident love for Beirut that I do.

He will visit his ancestors, listen to Fairouz sing her love for the city, eat zaatar and labneh and continue the endless search for that elusive scent of jasmine. He will walk through streets rebuilt for the hundredth time.

For they will be rebuilt. Make no mistake. Each time with more grandeur, and even more steel and resilience.

Because Lebanon, after all, is home to some of the oldest cities in the world and if there is another thing that the Lebanese are known for – apart from their stubborn spirit – is their endless love for their Beirut.

Mayssam Zaaroura was a former journalist in Lebanon and now is Oxfam Canada’s Women’s Rights Knowledge Specialist for Ending Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG).

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