November 2020

  • God and Water

    Image from France, Sameer Al-Doumy

    After years of travel from conflict zones like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and exhausted by life in makeshift camps in northern France, migrants board a small dingy to make the dangerous journey across the English Channel. With the white cliffs of Dover visible on a clear day, just 33 km separate the French from British shores, but the crossing is one of the world’s busiest and most dangerous. Still, more and more people are attempting the risky passage.

    2020 has been a record year; the number of migrants crossing the Channel has more than doubled to 8,000. In the past, migrants could hide in shipping containers or trucks bound for the UK, but the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced freight crossings, and asylum-seekers and migrants are forced to resort to more dangerous methods.

    Despite the danger, migrants feel they have little choice. After their settlement in Calais was demolished, law enforcement continues to raid and destroy smaller encampments, often employing physical violence. While asylum-seekers have the legal right to travel to the UK, having few viable options, migrants often turn to smugglers who put their passengers at risk in order to maximize profit, fueling corrupt criminal networks.

  • Desire for Knowledge 

    Image from Togo, Antonio Aragón Renuncio

    In a makeshift classroom at the Don Orione Center for Children with Disabilities in Bombouaka, a small village in northern Togo, sits Kodjo, a 14 year old in a wheelchair. As he does on most days, Kodjo helps one of his classmates with his homework before a football match in an act of kindness and solidarity.

    In Togo, 5-10% of children have a disability, and they are subjected to widespread stigmatization, routinely hidden and excluded from educational opportunities. Marginalized, they become adults with little means of independence. People with disabilities – especially children – are vulnerable and many become targets for physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Violence and even death at the hands of their caretakers often goes unreported.

    The stigma comes from a lack of education and understanding. Disability is often seen as proof of a curse or a sign of possession, and some conditions are feared to be contagious.

    Almost two-thirds of Togolese people live below the poverty line and resources for the disabled has not traditionally been a priority. Since 2016, however, the government has invested more into supporting people with disabilities, though significant challenges remain in ensuring that disabled people can exercise their full rights and freedoms.

  • Protest Has a Woman's Face

    Image from Belarus, Yauhen Yerchak

    When they witness individual protestors being dragged into vans, these women in Belarus link arms to resist being detained by unmarked, masked security forces. This happened during a wave of demonstrations against Alexander Lukashenko’s handling of the August 2020 election, including announcing that he had won a 6th term as President immediately after the polls closed. After the election, opposition members joined forces to challenge the results and hold the government accountable, creating the Coordination Council. The women had been marching in solidarity with the Council’s Maria Kolesnikova.

    Trying to stem the waves of protests, police have responded with an unprecedented wave of violence, including the arbitrary detention of more than 25,000 people. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that they had “witnessed thousands of arrests, hundreds of reports of torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence and the reported torture of children. The violent abduction of people [has occurred] in broad daylight by masked individuals, presumably on the basis of their peacefully expressed opinions.” The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, drew further attention to the fact “women human rights defenders are being particularly targeted” by the government’s crackdowns.

  • Suffocating Imprisonment

    Image from Philippines, Linus Escandor II

    Prisoners in the Philippines lie on top of each other in cramped, overcrowded cells. As of June 2020, the Philippine prison system is operating at 534% its official capacity, making it the most overcrowded prison system in the world.

    President Rodrigo Duterte won the 2016 election with a “tough on crime” platform, promising to crackdown on drugs and crime with harsh punishment for offenders. The crackdown has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings and has overloaded the country’s penal system. Many of those awaiting trial have been held in prison for longer than their prison sentences would have been, if found guilty.

    The Filipino justice system is plagued by inefficiencies and corruption. Overcrowding is so rampant that prisons rely on gangs to keep order, allowing more corruption to flourish within the system. The resultant failures have lethal results: in the national penitentiary, one out of every five detainees die each year due to overcrowding, disease, or violence. And that was before COVID-19.

    As the pandemic surges, prisons are a center for outbreaks and mass infection. Consequently, the Philippines Supreme Court ordered the release of more than 81,888 prisoners in order to “decongest the overcrowded jails.” Still, that likely leaves a prison population that is more than three times the official capacity.

  • Living Legacy

    Image from Ukraine, Antonio Aragón Renuncio

    Bogdančik, a 5-year-old boy with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) plays happily on his iPad while connected to the machine that allows him to breathe. Bogdančik is among the 377,589 children—and 1.5 million adult—“victims of Chernobyl” suffering from the effects of the 1986 meltdown at the nuclear plant. Born to mothers who themselves were only kids in 1986, the children suffer “a range of illnesses: respiratory, digestive, musculoskeletal, eye diseases, blood diseases, cancer, congenital malformations, genetic abnormalities, trauma.”

    Among children in the region, UNICEF found a 38% increase in malignant tumors, 43% increase in blood circulatory illnesses, and 63% increase in bone, muscle, and connective tissue system disorders. Since 1986, birth defects have increased by 200% and congenital birth deformities have increased by 250%. Doctors in the surrounding regions have discovered cancer, tumors, and abnormalities not found anywhere else in the world. And. Because many diseases caused by radiation exposure take a long time to appear, perhaps it isn’t surprising that health continues to deteriorate. Between 1995 and 2018, the rate of disability has more than doubled. The National Research Center for Radiation Medicine in Ukraine estimates five million people may have suffered due to the Chernobyl disaster, but given the difficulties in tracking the victims over more than 30 years, this undoubtedly underestimates the true, and on-going, human toll.

  • Resilient Hope

    Image from Nigeria, Emeke Obanor

    Fatimah, age 6, was born to a mother held in captivity by Boko Haram. After her mother was killed in a raid conducted by Nigerian armed forces, Fatimah was freed and reunited with her extended family. She enjoys looking at 'Archie' comics, hoping that one day she will go school to learn to read.

    Boko Haram is a terrorist group operating in northeastern Nigeria, which is predominately Muslim. Their goal is to create an Islamic caliphate. While they began as largely peaceful, in 2009 they began a reign of terror, killing thousands and displacing 2.3 million. Boko Haram has orchestrated dozens of bombings in public spaces, including law enforcement headquarters and UN buildings. Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of women and girls, forcing them into marriage servitude; in one event in 2014, the group kidnapped 276 girls from a school dormitory in Chibok. Having radicalized many of them, Boko Haram relies on young girls to carry out more than 70% of their suicide bombings.

    Governments in the region have managed to liberate many captives, but reintegration is difficult. Many are ostracized for their perceived complicity in the terrorism committed by Boko Haram. Others face challenges supporting themselves and their families, having lost years of work and educational opportunities, and having to face physical and mental health challenges.

    The United Nations special rapporteurs on human rights issues noted “there is an urgent and pressing need for effective measures to address stigma, ostracism and rejection of women and children associated with Boko Haram by their families and communities. Efforts at community cohesion, peacebuilding and reconciliation must start now and accelerate as people begin to return from displacement.”