From the Police Station Back to the Hellhole: System Failing India’s Domestic Violence Survivors

Government data indicates that 40 percent of all Indian women have experienced domestic violence, but activists believe the figure is closer to 84 percent. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Government data indicates that 40 percent of all Indian women have experienced domestic violence, but activists believe the figure is closer to 84 percent. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Shai Venkatraman
MUMBAI, Feb 27 2015 (IPS)

“One time my husband started slapping me hard on the face because I had not cooked the rice to his satisfaction,” Suruchi* told IPS. “He hit me so hard that my infant daughter fell from my arms to the ground.”

For 20 years 47-year-old Suruchi, a resident of India’s coastal megacity Mumbai, faced physical and verbal abuse within the walls of her home. Her husband would often lock her out of their apartment through the night and one day even tried to strangle her.

“I had hoped all along that by obeying [my husband] things would eventually get better. While recovering in hospital I understood […] that I owed it to myself and my children to walk out.” — a domestic violence survivor in Mumbai
“I never knew what would set him off – it could be talking to a neighbour or looking out of the window. I would get ready for work in the morning and he would suddenly announce that I had to stay home all day.”

Suruchi had no access to her earnings as she was expected to hand her salary over to her in-laws. “On the rare occasion that I spoke out, I would get beaten up.” Her parents sensed that she was unhappy but Suruchi never told them the full story.

She was just 20 when she got married, she told IPS, and the constant abuse has left a profound impact on her and her children, especially her son who is anxious and largely uncommunicative.

It was only after she suffered a nervous breakdown following an especially violent assault that she finally acted.

“I had hoped all along that by obeying him things would eventually get better. While recovering in hospital I understood that my attitude had fuelled the abuse and that I owed it to myself and my children to walk out.”

Today Suruchi has put the past behind her. She lives independently and is pursuing a degree in law. However, her story is all too common in millions of homes across India.

A 2006 government survey, the last time the state collected comprehensive household data, stated that 40 percent of Indian women faced domestic violence.

Considering that women comprise over 48 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion people, this means that hundreds of millions of people are living a nightmare in what is considered the world’s largest democracy.

However many experts believe that a 2003 survey conducted by a non-profit and supported by the Planning Commission of India that threw up a figure of 84 percent paints a more accurate picture.

“It tells us that many cases are going unreported,” says Rashmi Anand, a domestic violence survivor who runs a free legal aid and counseling service for victims in the capital, New Delhi, in collaboration with the police.

Interestingly, figures for domestic violence reported in crime statistics in many states are significantly higher than those that find their way into national-level databases.

An abundance of violence, too few solutions

In a 2013 study by the New Delhi-based think tank National Council for Applied Economic Research, over half of the married women surveyed said that they would be beaten up for going out of the house without permission (54 percent); not cooking properly (35 percent) and inadequate dowry payments (36 percent).

Indian law bans dowry, but the practice remains widespread.

Studies also indicate that economic and social gains have put women at far greater risk in a deeply patriarchal country like India.

A 2014 report in Population and Development Review, a peer reviewed journal, shows that women who are more educated than their husbands are at higher risk of domestic violence as men see in it a way to re-assert their power and control over their wives.

In 1983 domestic violence was recognised as a criminal offence under Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code. However only in 2005 was a separate civil law to deal with the specifics of domestic violence introduced.

Among other things, the law defines domestic violence and widens the scope to verbal, economic and emotional violence. It also takes into account a woman’s need for financial support and protects her from being thrown out of her home and provides for monetary relief and temporary custody of children.

Since it came into force, activists say there has been a gradual rise in the number of women seeking help.

“Earlier women would seek legal help only when they were thrown out of their marital homes”, says New Delhi-based lawyer C.P Nautiyal, who counsels victims of domestic violence.

“Most women believe that suffering verbal abuse or being slapped by their husbands is expected behaviour. Since the law came into being there is greater awareness regarding domestic violence.”

However, there is still considerable stigma attached to being divorced and this prevents many women from reaching out.

“Economically women in India have made great progress but not so much when it comes to personal growth,” says Anand. “The attitude remains skewed when it comes to relationships. A woman continues to be defined by marriage and this cuts across all classes.”

Veteran lawyer and women’s rights activist Flavia Agnes agrees.

“There is a lot of pressure to stay married,” she tells IPS. “I have found that even highly placed women don’t like to reveal that they are divorced or separated. It’s like being raped, they will hide it as much as possible.”

Experts say that it is women from under-educated or underprivileged backgrounds who are reaching out for help in greater numbers. “Those who come from the upper classes are generally more reluctant to walk out as they stand to lose social status or a certain lifestyle,” Agnes says.

However it is precisely those women who are reaching out in greater numbers that the system is failing the most.

Most keenly felt is the lack of adequate government-run shelters. Barring the southern state of Kerala where shelter homes for domestic violence victims have been set up across 12 districts, authorities in other states have been neglectful.

“I am constantly looking for places where I can send impoverished, battered women to stay,” says Anand. Of the five shelters for women in crisis in the capital New Delhi, only two are functional. Even these can accommodate just 30 women each, and not for more than a month.

“Women are kept like prisoners there,” Agnes tells IPS about the shelters. “They can’t leave, not even to go to their places of work. Children above seven cannot stay with their mothers. Only those who are utterly destitute and desperate consider staying there.”

Another critical need is for fast-track courts to ensure cases get heard rapidly. The Indian legal system is notoriously slow and cases drag on for years, even decades.

However tougher laws alone cannot stem the tide of domestic violence as long as attitudes stay rooted in patriarchy.

The last government study done in 2006, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), revealed that over 51 percent of Indian men didn’t think it wrong to assault their wives. More shockingly, 54 percent of the women themselves felt such violence was justified on certain grounds.

Activists say such biases are reflected every time a victim of domestic violence comes seeking help.

“We see it on the part of the police, NGOs, stakeholders and religious authorities,” points out Agnes. “The protection officer is supposed to collect evidence, file an order and take the victim to court. Instead the tactic is to tell her, ‘He slapped you a few times that’s all. Don’t make a big deal and sort it out’, and she is sent back to the hellhole.

“We have to stop this current approach of putting a Band-Aid on a gaping, bleeding wound [if we want] change to come about,” she stressed.

*Name changed upon request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Natural Disasters Cost Asia-Pacific 60 Billion Dollars, 6,000 Lives in 2014

By Josh Butler

Natural disasters in Asian and Pacific nations cost almost 60 billion dollars and killed 6,000 people in 2014.

There were 119 ‘disaster events’ recorded in the Asia-Pacific last year, including cyclones, storms, floods, landslides and earthquakes.

The most damaging single event was a river basin flood in India in September that killed 1,281 people and caused 16 billion dollars in damages, according to a report from the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

‘Disasters in Asia and the Pacific: 2014 Year in Review’ said the 6,050 people killed in Asia-Pacific natural disasters was well down on the 18,744 recorded in the region in 2013.

Almost 80 million people were affected by Asia-Pacific natural disasters last year, and a total of 59.6 billion dollars in economic loss was wreaked on the region.

Tropical Cyclone Hudhud caused 11 billion dollars in damage in India in October; the Ludian earthquake in China killed 617 and left six billion dollars in damage behind in August; landslides in Nepal killed 229; while 75 deaths and 5.2 billion dollars in damage resulted from Japanese tropical cyclones Lingling and Kajiki.

Floods, however, were the most damaging natural events, causing 3,559 deaths and 26.8 billion dollars in damage.

ESCAP warns that the Asia-Pacific was “found largely unprepared in its response to cross-border floods and landslides,” and urged countries to implement better response strategies in future.

“Such disasters, which may very well be on the rise because of climate change, require improved regional information exchanges and the joint coordination of operations for effective early warning and evacuations,” ESCAP said in a statement.

“[ESCAP] calls for strengthened regional cooperation to address cross-border disasters.”

The report makes several recommendations of more efficient early warning systems to give time for communities to prepare for, or flee from, impending natural disasters.

“One important lesson from 2014 is that end-to-end early warning systems save lives,” said Shamika Sirimanne, ESCAP Director of Information and Communications Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction.

“The successful preparation [for disasters] lies not only in the ability to predict the movement and intensity of storms, but also the capacity to engage and mobilize vulnerable communities in disaster preparedness.”

The Asia-Pacific endured 119 of the world’s natural disasters in 2014, more than half of the 226 recorded worldwide.

While figures are a decrease from 2013, where 155 natural disasters caused US$63billion and affected 85 billion people, ESCAP urged nations to craft better strategies to respond to such events.

The report made particular note of drought in the region. While drought in the Asia-Pacific killed only 180 people in 2014, and caused 18 million dollars in damage, it affected 31.5 million people – more than any other disaster type – and the report says this figure may even be underestimated.

ESCAP warned many Asia-Pacific nations do not have the information-gathering capacity to mitigate such drought events, leading to an inability to find extra water sources.

The report has called on nations to pay attention to “slow-onset disasters” like drought, noting that an ESCAP programme for monitoring drought conditions is currently being trialled in six countries.

The U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction will be held in Sendai, Japan from Mar. 14 to 18.

All-Out War in Libya Predicted without Further Peace Talks

By Josh Butler

Libya is teetering on the edge of all-out war, with a brutal stalemate and misery for civilians predicted unless a recent minor diplomatic breakthrough can be built upon.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organisation working to prevent and resolve conflict, warned Thursday of a “dramatic turning point” in the “deteriorating internal conflict,” with a descent into social radicalism predicted.

“The most likely medium-term prospect is not one side’s triumph, but that rival local warlords and radical groups will proliferate, what remains of state institutions will collapse… and hardship for ordinary Libyans will increase exponentially,” the ICG said in a report, ‘Libya: Getting Gevena Right.’

“Radical groups… will find fertile ground, while regional involvement – evidenced by retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes – will increase.”

The ICG called on parties to the conflict to continue negotiations commenced in Geneva in January, which ended with no resolution but a commitment to extend talks.

Claudia Gazzini, ICG’s Libya Senior Analyst, said any full-scale war would likely descend into stalemate.

“Libya is split between two sides claiming increasingly threadbare legitimacy, flirting with jihadi radicals and pursuing politics through militia war backed by foreign powers,” she said.

“[The] Tobruk and Tripoli authorities are equally matched, and cannot defeat each other. To save the country they must negotiate a national unity government.”

On Feb. 20, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon said “a political solution to the current crisis must be found quickly to restore peace and stability in the country and confront terrorism.”

The conflict in Libya – between the elected government of Libya, based in Tobruk, and forces aligned to its opposition party, based in Tripoli – has been ongoing since May 2014. ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant) forces entered the conflict in October, taking control of areas in eastern Libya.

Reliable numbers of casualties have not been released. A U.N. Support Mission In Libya (UNSMIL) report in December 2014 stated only that “hundreds” had been killed in preceding months, including 450 people in Benghazi and 100 people in western Libya.

The website, which claims to assemble death tolls from media reports, states 2,825 people were killed in Libya in 2014, and 380 have been killed in 2015.

UNSMIL said in December at least 215,000 people have been displaced due to the conflict.

In January, representatives of the fighting factions met in Geneva for two rounds of talks. ICG said it was the first time since September 2014 such negotiations had taken place, with talks focusing on what form a Libyan unity government would take.

The ICG urged the U.N. to push for further talks, as well as to ask “regional actors who contribute to the conflict by providing arms or other military or political support – notably Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates… to press their Libyan allies to negotiate in good faith in pursuit of a political settlement.”

Jean Marie Guehenno, president of ICG, said organising further negotiations was essential in staving off deterioration in the conflict.

“January’s UN achievement in bringing the Libyan sides together for national unity talks in Geneva offers a glimmer of hope. This breakthrough should encourage the UN Security Council to unite,” he said.

Sometimes a Single Tree Is More Effective than a Government

Every morning Raj Kumari Chaudhari offers prayers to this mango tree where she took shelter during the floods in 2014 in mid-west Nepal. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Every morning Raj Kumari Chaudhari offers prayers to this mango tree where she took shelter during the floods in 2014 in mid-west Nepal. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

By Mallika Aryal
BARDIYA, Nepal, Feb 26 2015 (IPS)

Every morning, Raj Kumari Chaudhari walks from her home to the other end of Padnaha village, located in the Bardiya district of mid-west Nepal, to a big mango tree to offer prayers.

The tree is majestic, its branches spreading as far as the eye can see. “This tree doesn’t bear fruit, but it saved my family from death,” she says. In her eyes, this single tree did more for her family at their time of need than the government of Nepal.

“We’re no strangers to rebuilding our lives […] but I hope my daughters won’t have to do it over and over again, like we did.” — Raj Kumari Chaudhari, a survivor of the floods that swept away her village in mid-West Nepal in August, 2014
On the night of Aug. 14, 2014, Chaudhari lost her home when a big flood washed her entire village away. Her husband grabbed their eldest daughter, while she carried her twins on her shoulders, and ran.

When they reached the other side of the village, they realized there was no escape. They climbed the nearest tree and took shelter. In a matter of minutes 11 other people from her village had climbed the tree.

“My six-month old baby was the youngest amongst us, I tied him with my shawl so he wouldn’t fall,” says Kalpana Gurung, 27.

Bardiya, one of three districts in mid-west Nepal, was the hardest hit by last year’s flood; the District Disaster Relief Committee of Bardiya says more than 93,000 people were affected.

The gushing waters killed 32 and 13 still remain missing. Almost 5,000 people were affected in Padnaha village where the Chaudhari family lived.

The year 2014 was considered the deadliest on record in Nepal in terms of natural disasters. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs 492 people were killed and over 37,000 households affected by disasters between April 2014 and February 2015.

Still, experts say, the government hasn’t formulated a long-term response for those like the Chaudhari family who survived these catastrophic events.

Raj Kumari and Hira Lal Chaudhari, their 11-year-old daughter, and their eight-year-old twins survived the August 2014 flood in mid-west Nepal by climbing a mango tree and waiting for the waters to recede. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Raj Kumari and Hira Lal Chaudhari, their 11-year-old daughter, and their eight-year-old twins survived the August 2014 flood in mid-west Nepal by climbing a mango tree and waiting for the waters to recede. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

It took the community of Padnaha five months to get their lives back together. Now 12 families have rebuilt their homes. “This entire village was like a desert after the floods,” Raj Kumari Chaudhari, one of the survivors recalls. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

It took the community of Padnaha five months to get their lives back together. Now 12 families have rebuilt their homes. “This entire village was like a desert after the floods,” Raj Kumari Chaudhari, one of the survivors, recalls. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

“The government has no direction, no plans for rehabilitating survivors – those who lost [their] lands essentially became stateless,” says Madhukar Upadhya, a watershed and landslide management expert.

After the 2008 flooding of the Koshi River in east Nepal the government established a disaster-training centre, the police force now has a disaster division and Nepal’s army has a disaster directorate. But the government’s focus is on rescue and relief, and not rehabilitation and resettlement, experts say.

Living on a knife’s edge in disaster-prone Nepal

Chaudhari’s family and the majority of her neighbours are from the Tharu community, indigenous to western Nepal. They are former ‘kamaiya’, meaning people affected by the oppressive system of bonded labour that was abolished by law only in 2002.

After being liberated, her family were evicted from their homes by their former masters and lived out in the open for years. Two years ago, the government finally resettled them in Padnaha.

“It took us a long time to build our homes, the kids were finally feeling settled, and then the floods washed away everything,” Chaudhari tells IPS.

After spending 24 hours on the tree branches, water swirling below, Chaudhari and her family were finally able to come down and rush to a school nearby. When the water level receded, they saw that everything had been washed away.

“We may have lost our homes and belongings, but unlike other survivors of floods and landslides, we still had our lands to come back to,” says 18-year old Sangita, another tree survivor.

With assistance in the form of raw materials from Save the Children, and Nepal’s 13-day Cash for Work programme that provided them 3.5 dollars a day for their labour, the community started to rebuild.

In a matter of a few days 12 households cleared away the debris and erected their huts.

Kalpana Gurung inspects her vegetable garden and hopes she will harvest enough green leafy vegetables for her family this spring. As a nursing mother, she is worried she won’t be able to provide enough nutrition to her nine-month-old baby. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Kalpana Gurung inspects her vegetable garden and hopes she will harvest enough green leafy vegetables for her family this spring. As a nursing mother, she is worried she won’t be able to provide enough nutrition to her nine-month-old baby. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Eleven-year-old Saraswati Chaudhari and her twin sisters Puja and Laxmi are ready for school. Activists say the government must formulate a comprehensive disaster management plan to safeguard families living in disaster-prone areas. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Eleven-year-old Saraswati Chaudhari and her twin sisters Puja and Laxmi are ready for school. Activists say the government must formulate a comprehensive disaster management plan to safeguard families living in disaster-prone areas. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Eighteen-year-old Sangita remembers the night when she woke up to water surrounding her bed. Pointing at the tree where she took shelter she says, “That tree over there saved my life, but I want to forget about that horrible night.” Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Eighteen-year-old Sangita remembers the night when she woke up to water surrounding her bed. Pointing at the tree where she took shelter she says, “That tree over there saved my life, but I want to forget about that horrible night.” Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Today, Chaudhari has planted some vegetables in the garden, an additional source of nutrition for her family. She is worried that what happened last year may happen again and she realizes now that she has to be prepared.

Climate experts say that the little model community is not sustainable – changes in weather patterns mean that every monsoon is likely to bring floods and even landslides to vulnerable regions of Nepal.

A study released last year by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) found that climate variability and extreme weather events costs the government of Nepal the equivalent of between 1.5 and two percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) each year.

Twelve massive floods over the last four decades have cost every single affected household, on average, the equivalent of 9,000 dollars.

Considering that the country’s average income per family was about 2,700 dollars in 2011, this represents a major burden, borne primarily by the poor – like the Chaudhari family – who live in disaster-prone areas.

Every year since 1983, floods in Nepal have caused an average of 283 deaths, destroyed over 8,000 houses and left close to 30,000 affected families to deal with the fallout of the disaster.

As Chaudhari gazes off into the distance towards their sacred mango tree she says, “We’re no strangers to rebuilding our lives […] but I hope my daughters won’t have to do it over and over again, like we did.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Human Rights in Asia and the Pacific: A “Regressive” Trend, Says Amnesty International

Protestors armed with bamboo sticks faced police in riot gear in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on May 4, 2013. Credit: Kajul Hazra/IPS

Protestors armed with bamboo sticks faced police in riot gear in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on May 4, 2013. Credit: Kajul Hazra/IPS

By Kanya D’Almeida

The cradle of some of the world’s most ancient civilizations, home to four out of the planet’s six billion people, and a battleground for the earth’s remaining resources, Asia and the Pacific are poised to play a defining role in international affairs in the coming decade.

But what does the future look like for those working behind the scenes in these rising economies, fighting to safeguard basic rights and ensure an equitable distribution of wealth and power in a region where 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day?

In its flagship annual report, the State of the World’s Human Rights, released Wednesday, Amnesty International (AI) slams the overall trend in the region as being “regressive”, pinpointing among other issues a poor track record on media freedom, rising violence against ethnic and religious minorities, and state repression of activists and civil society organisations.

The presence of armed groups and continuing conflict in countries like Pakistan, particularly in its northern tribal belt known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as well as in Myanmar and Thailand, constitute a major obstacle to millions of people trying to live normal lives.

Much of the region’s sprawling population is constantly on the move, with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) counting 3.5 million refugees, 1.9 million internally displaced people (IDPs), and 1.4 million stateless people, mostly hailing from Afghanistan and Myanmar.

UNHCR has documented a host of challenges facing these homeless, sometimes stateless, people in the Asia-Pacific region including sexual violence towards vulnerable women and girls and a lack of access to formal job markets pushing thousands into informal, bonded or other exploitative forms of labor.

Intolerance towards religious minorities remains a thorny issue in several countries in Asia; Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have allowed for the continued prosecution of Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis and Christians, while hard-line Buddhist nationalist groups in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka have operated with impunity, leading to attacks – sometimes deadly – on Muslim communities.

Meanwhile, ethnic Tibetans in China have encountered an iron fist in their efforts to practice their rights to freedom of assembly, speech, and political association. Since 2009, about 130 people have set themselves aflame in protest of the Chinese government’s authoritarian rule in the plateau.

A dark forecast for women and girls

Despite all the conventions ratified and millions of demonstrators in the streets, violence against women and girls continues unchecked across Asia and the Pacific, says the AI report.

In the Pacific island of Papua New Guinea, home to seven million people, an estimated 75 percent of women and girls experience some form of gender-based or domestic violence, largely due to the age-old practice of persecuting women in the predominantly rural country for practicing ‘sorcery’.

In the first six months of 2014, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission had recorded 4,154 cases of violence against women, according to the AI report, while India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported an average of 24,923 rapes per year.

A 2013 U.N. Women study involving 10,000 men throughout Asia and the Pacific found that nearly half of all respondents admitted to using physical or sexual abuse against a partner.

According to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), two out of every five girls in South Asia could wind up as child brides, with the highest prevalence in Bangladesh (66 percent), tailed closely by India (47 percent), Nepal (41 percent) and Afghanistan (39 percent).

“In East Asia and the Pacific,” the organisation said, “the prevalence of child marriage is 18 percent, with 9.2 million women aged 20-24 married as children in 2010.”

Holding the State accountable

Amnesty’s report presents a cross-section of government responses to activism, including in China – where rights defender Cao Shunli passed away in a hospital early last year after being refused proper medical treatment – and in North Korea, where “there appeared to be no independent civil society organisations, newspapers or political parties [and] North Koreans were liable to be searched by the authorities and could be punished for reading, watching or listening to foreign media materials.”

Imposition of martial law in Thailand saw the detention of several activists and the banning of gatherings of more than five people, while the re-introduction of “colonial-era sedition legislation” in Malaysia allowed the government to crack down on dissidents, AI says.

Citizens of both Myanmar and Sri Lanka faced a virtually zero-tolerance policy when it came to organised protest, with rights defenders and activists of all stripes detained, threatened, attacked or jailed.

Throughout the region media outlets had a bad year in 2014, with over 200 journalists jailed and at least a dozen murdered according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Amnesty’s report also found torture and other forms of ill treatment to be a continuing reality in the region, naming and shaming such countries as China, North Korea, the Philippines and Sri Lanka for their poor track record.

An earlier Amnesty International report, ‘Torture in 2014: 30 years of broken promises’, found that 23 Asia-Pacific states were still practicing torture, three decades after the U.N. adopted its 1984 Convention Against Torture.

The report found evidence of torture and ill treatment ranging “from North Korea’s brutal labour camps, to Australia’s offshore processing centres for asylum seekers or Japan’s death rows – where prisoners are kept in isolation, sometimes for decades.”

In Pakistan the army, state intelligence agencies and the police all stand accused of resorting to torture, while prisoners detained by both the policy and military in Thailand allege they have experienced torture and other forms of ill treatment while in custody.

In that same vein, governments’ continued reliance on the death penalty across Asia and the Pacific demonstrates a grave violation of rights at the most basic level.

Amnesty International reported that 500 people were at risk of execution in Pakistan, while China, Japan and Vietnam also carried on with the use of capital punishment.

Perhaps the only positive trend was a rise in youth activism across the region, which is home to 640 million people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the United Nations. The future of the region now lies with these young people, who will have to carve out the spaces in which to build a more tolerant, less violent society.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Better to Die at Sea, than Languish in Poverty

For most Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just a sad return journey home. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

For most Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just a sad return journey home. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

Weerasinghearachilage Ruwan Rangana had it all planed out last year in September: the big break that would change his life and those of his extended family had finally arrived.

The Sri Lankan youth in his early twenties was not too worried that the arrangement meant he had to make a clandestine journey in the middle of the night to a beach, board a two-decade-old trawler with dozens of others and be ready to spend up to three weeks on the high seas in a vessel designed to carry loads of fish.

“Besides trade and security, a large driver of the Australian government’s foreign policy is its single-minded focus on ensuring that all asylum seekers or refugees are processed at offshore facilities.” — Human Rights Watch
He and his fellow commuters prayed that the boat would not crack in two before it reached Australian waters, where they all expected to find a pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow.

Rangana told IPS that most of the roughly three-dozen people on board were leaving in search of better economic prospects, though members of the minority Tamil community are known to take the same journey to escape political persecution.

The boat ride was the relatively easy part. After reaching Australia, Rangana would have to seek asylum, land a job and secure an income, before beginning the process of bringing his family there to join him.

“At least, that was the plan,” said the young man who was a contract employee of the state-owned Ceylon Transport Board in the remote village of Angunakolapelessa in Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota District earning a monthly salary of 12,000 rupees (about 90 dollars) when he took the boat ride.

Half of the plan – the life-threatening part – worked. The other part – the life-changing one – did not.

Despite a leaking hull, the vessel did reach Australian waters, but was apprehended by the Australian Navy, newly emboldened by a policy to turn back boatloads of asylum seekers after fast-tracked processing at sea, sometimes reportedly involving no more than a single phone call with a border official.

By mid-September Rangana was back in Sri Lanka, at the southern port city of Galle where he and dozens of others who were handed over to Sri Lankan authorities were facing court action.

Thankfully he did not have to spend days inside a police cell or weeks in prison. He was bailed out on 5,000 rupees (about 45 dollars), a stiff sum for his family who barely make 40,000 rupees (about 300 dollars) a month.

Now he sits at home with no job and no savings – having sunk about 200,000 rupees (1,500 dollars) into his spot on the rickety fishing boat – and makes ends meet by doing odd jobs.

“Life is hard, but maybe I can get to Australia some day. I did get to the territorial waters; does that mean I have some kind of legal right to seek citizenship there?” he asks, oblivious to the tough policies of the Australian administration towards immigrants like himself.

Clamping down on ‘illegal’ entry

Since Australia launched Operation Sovereign Borders in September 2013 following the election of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, at least 15 boats have been turned back at sea, including the one on which Rangana was traveling, to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Last year only one boat reached Australia, according to the government.

The programme has resulted in a significant drop in the number of illegal maritime arrivals in Australia. Compared to the one boat that reached Australia in 2014, the 2012-2013 period saw 25,173 persons reaching the country safely.

In the 10 months prior to the controversial military programme, 281 unauthorized boats arrived with a total of 19,578 people on board, according to the Australian Department of Immigration.

Just this past week, Australian authorities interviewed four Sri Lankans at sea, and sent them back to the island. Officials claim that the new screening process saves lives and assures that Australian asylum policies are not abused.

“The Coalition government’s policies and resolve are stopping illegal boat arrivals and are restoring integrity to Australia’s borders and immigration programme. Anyone attempting to enter Australia illegally by sea will never be resettled in this country,” Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office said in a statement this week.

As of end-January, there were 2,298 persons in immigration detention facilities in Australia, of whom 8.1 percent were Sri Lankans.

The policy has been criticised by activists as well as rights groups, including by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“UNHCR’s position is that they (asylum seekers) must be swiftly and individually screened, in a process which they understand and in which they are able to explain their needs. Such screening is best carried out on land, given safety concerns and other limitations of doing so at sea,” the agency said in a statement earlier this month.

According to the international watchdog Human Rights Watch, “Besides trade and security, a large driver of the Australian government’s foreign policy is its single-minded focus on ensuring that all asylum seekers or refugees are processed at offshore facilities.

“The government has muted its criticism of authoritarian governments in Sri Lanka and Cambodia in recent years, apparently in hopes of winning the support of such governments for its refugee policies,” the rights group added in a statement released last month.

The end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil conflict and the election of a new, possibly more democratic government in January this year add to Canberra’s justification for turning away those who seek shelter within its borders.

In reality, the risk for asylum seekers is still high. Newly appointed Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told IPS that the government was yet to discuss any changes to accepting returnees. “They will face legal action; change in such a policy is not a priority right now,” he added.

Lawyers working with asylum seekers say their clients are unlikely to face extended jail terms, but could be slapped with fines of up to 100,000 rupees (750 dollars), still a lot of money for poor families.

Even if the legal process is swift, and those impounded are able to post bail, their reasons for wanting to leave remain the same.

Take the case of Kanan*, a young man from the war-torn northern town of Kilinochchi. He took a boat in August 2013 after paying a 750-dollar fee, agreeing to pay the remaining 6,750 dollars once he reached Australia.

He never even made it halfway. Six days into the journey, the boat broke down and was towed ashore by the Sri Lankan Navy.

He was fleeing poverty – his home district boasts unemployment rates over twice the national figure of four percent – and possible political persecution, not an unusual occurrence among the Tamil community both during and after Sri Lanka’s civil war.

He knows that very few have gotten to the Australian mainland and that even those whose cases have been deemed legitimate could end up in the Pacific islands of Nauru or Papua New Guinea.

But Kanan still hopes to give his ‘boat dream’ another try. “There is no hope here; even risking death [to reach Australia] is worth it,” says the unemployed youth.

*Name changed on request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Big Trouble in the Air in India

Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, which could prompt a five-fold increase in poisonous gases emitted by cars and trucks. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, which could prompt a five-fold increase in poisonous gases emitted by cars and trucks. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

Like many others of her age, 15-year-old Aastha Sharma, a Class 10 student at a private school in India’s capital, New Delhi, loves being outdoors, going for walks with her friends and enjoying an occasional ice-cream. But the young girl can’t indulge in any of these activities.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disorder likely caused by Delhi’s heavily polluted air, has severely cramped the girl’s lifestyle, confining her mostly to her home.

An estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India due to indoor and outdoor air pollution.
For the past three years, Sharma’s life has been a whirligig of doctors’ prescriptions, missed social outings and a restricted diet that does not include most of her favourite foods. Along with books and a lunchbox, she also packs a nebulizer in her satchel daily to ward off the wheezing attacks that she has now come to dread.

“I’m sick of the endless do’s and don’ts I have to follow. When will I be able to lead a free life?” the teen wonders.

Many other youngsters in Delhi are asking the very same question as they grapple with the effects of rampant air pollution in this city of 18 million, believed to be world’s most polluted.

Particulate matter: a deadly matter

Greenpeace India, an environmental NGO, recently released findings of its air quality monitoring survey highlighting how poor the air was inside five prominent schools in the capital.

“Air pollution levels inside Delhi’s schools are alarmingly high and children are consistently breathing bad air. The new government needs to acknowledge the severity of air pollution in the city,” said Aishwarya Madineni, a campaigner with Greenpeace.

Another study conducted in 2014, which monitored 11,628 school-going children from 36 schools in Delhi in different seasons, found that every third child in the city had reduced lung function because of particulate pollution.

In a report submitted last year to the Supreme Court, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority urged the apex court to order all schools in Delhi to shut down on days when air pollution levels posed a threat to public health.

Studies by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) point out that when children are exposed to particulate matter – a complex mixture of acids (nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles – of 2.5 micrometers, it can trigger a raft of deadly respiratory illnesses.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified particulate matter pollution as carcinogenic to humans in 2013 and designated it as a “leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”

“Apart from mucous membranes and nasal cavities, air pollution also severely irritates eyes and skin. Exposure to high levels of pollution can lead to serious health [issues] in the long run,” warns Dr. Abha Sood, a senior consultant oncologist at the New Delhi-based Max Hospital.

Mothers’ exposure to pollution for prolonged periods, adds the specialist, can lead to malformation of organs in newborns.

“[Particulate Matter] of less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM 10) is particularly insidious as it gets lodged deep inside the lungs and penetrates the bloodstream, heightening a person’s vulnerability to cancer and heart disease,” she explains.

A national crisis

India’s high levels of air pollution, ranked by the WHO as being among the worst in the world, are adversely impacting the life spans of its citizens, reducing most Indian lives by over three years, says a study by economists from the Universities of Chicago, Harvard and Yale.

Over half of India’s population – roughly 660 million people – live in areas where fine particulate matter pollution is above India’s standards for what is considered safe, said the study.

If India reverses this trend to meet its air standards, this demographic would gain about 3.2 years in their expected life spans, according to the study. In other words, cleaner air would save 2.1 billion life-years, it said.

Furthermore, India has the distinction of recording the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases, and more deaths from asthma than any other nation, according to the WHO. The health organisation also claims that India is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

An estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India due to indoor and outdoor air pollution, which also contributes to both chronic and acute heart disease, the leading cause of death in the country.

In a report submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority called for increasing the tax on diesel cars, and banning all private vehicles on high air pollution days.

The report also advised that cars older than 15 years be taken off the city’s roads and air purifiers installed at crowded markets; it also called for a crackdown on the burning of trash.

However, the implementation of these measures has been patchy at best, say health activists. Worse, vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, says a joint study by the Energy and Resources Institute at the University of California, San Diego, and the California Air Resources Board.

This could result in a health crisis – a three-fold increase in PM 2.5 levels and a five-fold increase in poisonous, highly reactive gases emitted by cars and trucks, the study predicted.

The economic cost of pollution is already proving to be a heavy burden for Asia’s third largest economy. A 2013 World Bank Report highlighted how pollution and other environmental challenges costs India 80 billion dollars a year, nearly six percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

About 23 percent of child mortality and 2.5 percent of all adult deaths in the country can be attributed to environmental degradation, the study further stated.

Coal-based power: adding fuel to the fire

Air pollution is now the fifth-leading cause of death in India. Between 2000 and 2010, the annual number of premature deaths linked to air pollution across India shot up six-fold to 620,000, according to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an advocacy group in New Delhi.

Another CSE study out this week has sounded alarm bells over air pollution, particularly from coal-based power plants. The two-year comprehensive environmental audit, conducted on 47 thermal power plants owned by the Centre, state governments and private players, has found that Indian thermal power plants were among the most inefficient in the world, on an average operating at 60 to 70 percent of their installed capacity.

The coal-based power plants were also found to have carbon dioxide emissions that were 14 percent higher than similar plants in China. Also, 76 percent of the plants were unable to meet the targets for ulitisation of ‘fly ash‘, imposed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

With the government showing little interest in formulating a cohesive action plan – involving all stakeholders – for tackling the many-headed hydra of air pollution, it looks like Sharma and her nebulizer will be inseparable for a while.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

South African Miners In Near Death Fire As Investors Eye Profits

By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

An early morning fire swept through the Kusasalethu gold mine, southwest of Johannesburg, trapping close to 500 workers on a Sunday shift.

The miners were more than 7,500 feet underground when the incident was reported. Three underground fires were reported in October last year and at least one two-week mine closure.

Prayers were said and all the men were pulled to safety after efforts taking 11 hours.

South Africa’s gold mines are the deepest in the world and were ranked as among the most dangerous during the apartheid era. The industry recorded over 100 deaths per year before 2013, according to the mines ministry.

Ironically, the near-disaster coincided with two major mining summits – called Indabas – though a huge difference separated the two. At one summit – called the Alternative Indaba – were actual miners, or those from mining-affected communities. At the other indaba, called Investing in African Mining, where tickets cost skyward of 23,000 rand (1,900 U.S. dollars), were corporate executives, government delegations and investors from over 2,300 international companies

The two mining indabas take place in Cape Town every February and are about 5 kms apart, but their stark differences suggest they could be taking place at opposite ends of the world,” observed Ann Crotty in Business Day Live, a South African publication.

Rebecca Davis of the Daily Maverick newspaper, who attended the alternative indaba, described the mood. “People were angry,” she wrote. “They were so angry, in fact, that the first address of the first day could not be completed without activists demanding the microphone, determined to have their say.“

At the summit opening, a march was organized with signs reading: “Please leave my land, I am using it for agriculture (I am a widow)”. “Stop polluting our water.” “Africa is not for sale!” “Our mineral resources, our future!” “It’s not development when the environment is being destroyed.” “No to tax dodging!”

Some 300 delegates signed in for the alternative indaba with representatives from 37 countries – making it the largest such gathering yet. Complaints ranged from poisoned air and water, the lack of jobs for locals, and the growing poverty since the mining companies arrived.

“They talk of monetary wealth, we talk of real wealth,” a community member was heard to say.

Social action groups confirmed some of the worst abuses of the mining companies. “We know of no case where a community is benefiting from mining,” said John Capel, head of the Bench Marks Foundation.

Southern African Resource Watch’s Georges Bokundu summed it up: “Mining copper, gold [and so on] has brought no development to DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). Only more conflict.”

Lawyer Gilbert Makore of the Zimbabwean Environmental Law Association, said: “Most communities have never seen an environmental impact assessment report”. Even if they are granted access to such a report, the language is often highly technical, and often in English only.“

Indaba attendees also challenged the well-worn narrative about so-called illegal miners or “zama-zama.” Apparently, “legitimate” mining activity can only be undertaken by European and North American mining corporations, they said. “It’s like when Europeans kill endangered animals they call it hunting, but when Africans do it they call it poaching,” added an audience member.

Meanwhile, Joseph Mathunjwa, head of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, said they will also call for a safety audit of Harmony Gold, owner of Kusasalethu, as the fire is not the first of its kind at the company’s operations.

The Hidden Billions Behind Economic Inequality in Africa

Street vendors in Africa reflect the income inequality that pervades the continent, much of it due to corruption. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

Street vendors in Africa reflect the income inequality that pervades the continent, much of it due to corruption. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Feb 21 2015 (IPS)

Reports this year of illicit moneys from African countries stashed in a Swiss bank – indicating that corruption lies behind much of the income inequality that affects the continent – have grabbed international news headlines.

Secret bank accounts in the HSBC’s Swiss private banking arm unearthed this year by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) were said to hold over 100 billion dollars, some of which came from Africa, including some of the poorest nations on the continent.

When these funds leave the region, they deny the very nations that need them most.

For example, at least 57 clients of the Swiss HSBC bank associated with Uganda were reported to be worth at least 159 million dollars. The World Bank has estimated that Uganda loses more than 174.5 million dollars in corruption annually.“Income inequality begins with our political leaders and corrupt wealthy business people who, more often than not, illicitly own the resources of the [African] continent” – Claris Madhuku, Platform for Youth Development, Zimbabwe

It is not a crime for Africans to have a Swiss bank account. But questions are now being raised by local tax offices as to whether the proper taxes were paid on the stashed amounts.

In South Africa, the head of the Revenue Service, Vlok Symington, said his office was analysing the information. “Early indications are that some of these account holders may have utilised their HSBC accounts to evade local and/or international tax obligations,” Symington was reported as saying by the South Africa Sunday Times.

“Income inequality begins with our political leaders and corrupt wealthy business people who, more often than not, illicitly own the resources of the continent,” Claris Madhuku, director of the Platform for Youth Development, a democracy lobby group in Zimbabwe, told IPS.

Diamonds, for example, which have made many traders wealthy, are often mined by the poorest of the poor, treated almost as slaves in war-torn African countries, despite the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which was established in 2003 to prevent the flow of these diamonds.

“It’s a case of greed and corruption,” thundered Zimbabwean independent political analyst, Ernst Mudzengi. “Africa has parasitic politicians who are primarily concerned with self-centred political power and economic gain as ordinary Africans remain at the periphery in poverty,” Mudzengi told IPS.

Development experts here attribute income inequalities to the continent’s lax anti-corruptions laws.

“African countries do not have sound anti-corruption laws and politicians and the rich amass too much power exceeding even the powers of the police here, leaving them with the liberty to accumulate wealth overnight by whatever means without being questioned,” Nadege Kabuga, an independent development expert in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, told IPS

“It’s shocking how huge banks such as HSBC have created a system for enormously profiteering at the expense of impoverished ordinary people, worse by assisting numerous millionaires from Africa in particular to evade tax payment, disadvantaging the already poor,” Zenzele Manzini, an independent economist based in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland, told IPS .

“Very often, government directors, ministers and their secretaries are the ones globetrotting on government businesses, awarding themselves huge allowances and the lower government workers remain stuck at the periphery with no extra benefits besides the meagre salaries they get monthly,” a top Zimbabwean government official in the Ministry of Labour, told IPS on the condition of anonymity, afraid of victimisation.

Writing for Financial Transparency Coalition, a global alliance of civil society organisations and governments working to address inequalities in the financial system, Koen Roovers, the coalition’s European Union (EU) Lead Advocate, asked the deeper question: “How do we prevent this in the first place?”

To catch fraud sooner rather than later, capacity in developing countries must be increased, Roovers said. “The scale of the challenge is significant: the UK-based charity Christian Aid has estimated that sub-Saharan Africa would need around 650,000 more tax officials to reach the world average.”

Rich states have promised help to poor countries to build the capacity they need, but these commitments have yet to be honoured.

Researchers at the U.S.-based Global Financial Integrity, a non-profit organisation working to curtail illicit financial flows, said developing nations have lost almost one trillion dollars through illicit channels.

Without clearly defined measures to curb income inequalities, economists say the African continent may be headed for the worst levels of poverty set to hit even harder at the already poor.

“Africa may keep facing perpetual poverty amid rising income inequalities because governments here have no institutions and expertise to identify and halt money laundering by corrupt wealthy individuals and politicians evading tax,” Zimbabwean independent economist, Kingston Nyakurukwa, told IPS.

According to Roovers, “criminals and their enablers are creative, so the only way to prevent future scandals is to shed light on what criminals and tax dodgers are trying to hide. This is why online registers of assets for all legal persons and arrangements are necessary and should be publicly available.

“If we turn a blind eye to these loopholes,” he added, “economic development for all will continue to be undermined by illicit actors looking to exploit them.”

Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris    

As Wars Heat Up, Rickety Flotillas Carry Asylum-Seekers to Their Graves

By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Feb 19 2015 (IPS)

(GIN) – In the Bible it was known as the “Great Sea”. The Romans called it “Mare Nostrum (Our Sea). Of late, the Mediterranean has been called nothing more than a migrants’ graveyard.

Some 3,000 asylum seekers are believed to have gone down to their deaths last year, swallowed up in the rough seas between Africa and Europe’s southern shores. On small rubber dinghies or on rickety wooden boats, refugees fleeing Syria, Libya and Yemen have joined many from Africa casting out upon treacherous waters hoping to reach the southernmost Italian island of Lampedusa and a possible route out of harm’s way.

Among the travelers are women, young children, the elderly. Traffickers are supplying the boats and then threatening rescuers who attempt to bring them ashore.

According to the Missing Migrants project of the International Organization for Migration, fatalities numbered 5,017 in 2014, up from 600 in 2013.

Law enforcement is only half the battle, warned IOM director William Lacy Swing. “We also need to create safe channels for desperate migrants seeking sanctuary,” he said, “for the asylum seekers fleeing Islamic fundamentalist terror, political oppression or vulnerable migrants being trafficked or otherwise abused.”

Last week, twenty-nine migrants died of hypothermia on the exposed decks of a small Italian naval vessel which had rescued them in rough seas from a boat adrift near Libya.

A full-scale search and rescue mission, known as Mare Nostrom, was shut down by the EU last year citing funding issues, to the dismay of humanitarian groups. Another initiative with a third of the funding called Triton was called “woefully inadequate” by the U.N.’s refugee agency which urged Europe to take a new approach.

The new director of the EU border cooperation agency, Frontex, comes from a law and order background. He fought against “illegal immigration,” implementing forced return decisions, combatting the employment of undocumented migrants, planning and running detention centers for returnees.

The crisis, which is rarely ‘trending’ on social media, made an impact on the new Pope who visited recently arrived migrants on Lampedusa during his first visit outside Rome.

He lambasted the rich world for its lack of concern for their suffering and inveighed against a “globalisation of indifference”. “We have become used to the suffering of others. It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t interest us. It’s not our business,” he said.

The Pope celebrated mass within sight of the so-called graveyard of wrecks, where fishing boats carrying migrants and asylum seekers end up after they drift ashore, their engines often having broken down at sea.

He asked for pardon “for those who are complacent and closed amid comforts which have deadened their hearts and forgiveness for those who by their decisions at the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies”.

If his message went unheard by European leaders, it prompted a response from Amnesty International which collected testimonies from the survivors of a convoy that left from Libya. Most of them were young men from West Africa.

“[At around 7pm on Feb. 8] the boat started to lose air and fill with water,” recalled a 24 year old man from Mali. “People began to fall into the sea. At each wave, two or three were taken away. The front part of the boat rose, so people on the back fell in the sea. At that point, only about 30 people remained on the boat. One side of the boat … stayed afloat …and [we clung to a rope as we had] water up to our belly.

“[Eventually] only four of us remained. We kept holding on, together, all night. It was raining. At sunrise, two slipped away. During the morning we saw a helicopter. There was a red shirt in the water; I shook it so they would see me. They threw a small inflatable boat, but I didn’t have the energy to reach it. So we stayed, holding on. Half an hour later, a cargo boat arrived. It threw a rope to get us onboard. It was about 3 in the afternoon [on Feb. 9].”

Lamin, also from Mali, was on board the other dinghy approached by a merchant vessel:

“We were 107. In the high seas, the waves were taking the boat up and down. Everyone was afraid. I saw three people falling in the water. No one could help. They tried to catch the boat but couldn’t. Then many others died, maybe for lack of food or water. I can’t count how many died. When a big, commercial boat came to rescue us, only seven of us were [left]. The rescuers threw a rope and got us onboard. During the rescue, [our] boat folded in two and went down, taking down all the bodies.”

According to survivor accounts, more than 300 people perished in that journey, Amnesty said. The migrants, many of whom were lightly clothed, were exposed to near-freezing temperatures, rain and even hail for up to two days as their boats were tossed about on waves of up to 10 feet in height.

Mayor Giusi Nicolini told Amnesty International: “When the dead arrive, one feels defeated. One wonders why nothing ever changes. Europe is completely absent – one does not need to be an expert in politics to understand that.”

Many of those rescued after last week’s tragedy are from Côte d’Ivoire (41 – including two children) followed by Mali (23, including a child), Senegal (nine), Guinea (seven), Gambia (two) and Niger (two). Ivorians also reportedly account for more than half of the confirmed fatalities among those rescued – 15 out of the 29, along with seven men from Mali, five Senegalese and one each from Guinea and Mauritania.

The Budapest meeting is one of eight regional gatherings to prepare for 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, which will take place in Istanbul. It will bring together European and other delegates, including those from Mediterranean states such as Malta, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Spain, where a rise in people-smuggling from the Middle East and North Africa has resulted in the deaths of close to 5,000 migrants since 2013, according IOM’s Missing Migrants Project.

“There is before us an urgent need. We know what to do,” Director General Swing said. “We simply must have the political courage to do it.”

“The migrants fleeing for safer lives are not criminals and deserve the same protections as everyone else,” said Swing. He called on partners and IOM member states to change the lens through which irregular migration – and the deaths that result from it – are seen.

“We need a global coalition of the willing to put an end to these deaths,” said Swing. “This will involve supporting migrants by offering alternatives, bringing closure to the numerous families who have lost loved ones and do not know where or how they died, and helping to stamp out the smugglers’ exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people you will find.”