By Valerie Plesch and Naila Inayat
In the bustling border town of Peshawar, Pakistan, the lines form early these days at this government office that processes residence permits.
That's because Afghan refugees now live in constant fear of officials separating them from their loved ones or deporting them to their war-torn native country that many no longer consider home.
“The government of Pakistan has already deported my husband and my eldest son to Afghanistan,” said Afghan refugee Laiba Zeb, 27, who waited in line for hours at the registration office with her other remaining children.
Zeb was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan. She’s never set foot in Afghanistan. And like many others waiting here, she doesn't want to go to her so-called home.
Last summer, Pakistan announced that more than 3 million Afghan refugees — some in the country since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 — needed to go home.
Since then, about 600,000 registered and undocumented Afghans refugees have been repatriated to an unstable nation where there are currently more than a million internally displaced Afghans. Rights groups and aid organizations have criticized Pakistan’s decision. Human Rights Watch has reported that the supposedly “voluntary” repatriation process is coercive and violates international law. The United Nations refugee agency warned that the mass forced return of Afghans could “develop into a major humanitarian crisis.”
More than 2 million registered and undocumented Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan, and Pakistan officials argue it’s become too expensive and too risky for them to stay.
“In recent terrorist attacks in Peshawar and Lahore, it has been established that Afghan refugees have been used as facilitators,” said Interior Minister of Pakistan Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan at an Islamabad press conference late last month. “The Pakistani nation has been hosting Afghan refugees for the last 30 years and has looked after them despite its own problems.”
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan have long crisscrossed the porous, mountainous frontier between the two countries to elude authorities. Pakistan has begun constructing fences along parts of the border and plans other measures to prevent illegal crossings. This month, the Pakistani government reopened the border with Afghanistan after sealing it last month following Taliban bombing attacks in the southern Pakistani city of Sehwan and other Pakistani cities.
Afghan refugees crossing the border face a grim future back in Afghanistan. Security has deteriorated amid the rise of ISIS in the country’s east and the increasing gains of the Taliban around the country. Meanwhile, unemployment stands at 40 percent.
“Many of them return to unemployment and destitution,” said Ahmad Shuja, an Afghan political analyst. “Many of the returnees become internally displaced because they cannot return to areas they left originally. This means that opportunities for education, reskilling and employment are extremely limited, as are any form of shelter and social or city services.”
For many younger refugees, especially those like Zeb who have never lived in Afghanistan, the adjustment is especially challenging. Some need to learn a new language, and many mourn leaving behind the lives they built in Pakistan — the only ones they know.
“Why are we being forced to leave the country where we were born, our kids were born?” Zeb asked. “Life will be complicated for us in Afghanistan. My husband had a decent electronics business here in Peshawar. Now we are unsure of our future in that country. No one cares about our ordeal.”
Ehsan Ullah, 28, is one of the luckier ones. Born and college-educated in Pakistan, he moved to Kabul with his family in September — the day after his father was released from jail after the Pakistani police seized him from a local mosque, detained him for one day, never explained the arrest and failed to inform his family.
"We were comfortable in Pakistan but the Pakistan government did not allow us to spend our lives any further in Pakistan, so that's why we came back," Ullah said. "I was born in Pakistan, [our family] spent 35 years in Pakistan. But it was becoming really uncertain for us ... my life was [becoming] worse than a refugee's life. So after giving 35 years and not being able to get identity papers and having the police create problem for us — this was really painful for us — so that's why on the very next day we came back. When we crossed the border, I felt so relaxed, for the first time in my life."
Because Ullah speaks English, he landed a teaching job at a private university in Kabul and a management position at a government-run bank. Though he must improve his Dari — one of Afghanistan’s two official languages — he feels fortunate.
"The Afghan refugees are really in a painful situation in Pakistan,” he said. “They don't have a chance. If they go back to Afghanistan, they don't have jobs. I am educated so that's why I got a job. Not everyone is educated.”
In Kabul, the Afghan government and aid organizations are working hard to reintegrate refugees but face a huge challenge, said Laurence Hart, who leads the UN’s International Organization for Migration in Afghanistan.
"We have to be careful not just to look at now, not just the flow of people coming back,” Hart said, “but how their host communities will actually manage to reintegrate and how to support them and also entice them to work with these returnees.”
On the eastern outskirts of Kabul, makeshift camps occupied by recently returned Afghan refugees from Pakistan have sprouted up beside the highway to Jalalabad to the east. The Afghan government doesn’t have the resources to accommodate them.
“It is something unexpected and, obviously if it's unexpected, the government, even the international organizations, are not ready,” said Edris Lutfi, who oversees refugees for Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. “They are trying to do everything with the resources, although limited, that they have.”
Many families in the settlement live in mud homes. Schools are nonexistent. Men usually earn a few dollars a week working in temporary manual labor — a big change from their lives in Pakistan where many ran successful small shops and other businesses.
Mohammad Rasul, in his early 60s, lives in the settlement. After living in Abbottabad in northeastern Pakistan for 25 years, he and his family returned around five months ago.
“We left Pakistan because the police and army were harassing and insulting us constantly,” said Rasul. “They were asking for money — if you didn’t give it to them, then they would forcefully put us in the jail. Then we had no option but to bribe them in order to get out of the jail.”
Pakistani police regularly raided his house at night.
“We would show them our refugees cards but they would not accept them, saying ‘We don’t recognize these cards, the cards are expired, you guys should leave Pakistan and go to your own country,’” Rasul recounted.
Back in Pakistan, Khadim Khan, a 22-year-old Afghan engineering student at the University of Engineering and Technology in Peshawar, is bitter about the situation.
“Suddenly the Pakistanis are calling the refugees terrorists, after carrying on the policy of ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’ now they have coined terms of ‘good Afghan’ and ‘bad Afghan,’” he said.
"Which terrorist activity have we the Afghan refugees been involved in? Has any refugee ever carried out a suicide attack?" he asked. “We are only paying the price of Pakistan’s own botched policies. It cannot curb extremism and the deportation is only being used as tool to settle issues with Afghanistan. There is no difference between Trump and the Pakistanis, in fact what they are doing to us is worse than [what] Trump [is doing].”
Pakistani law student Muhammad Hasnain, 23, says he’s uncomfortable with the Afghans in his country.
“The government is justified in its actions against the Afghan refugees,” said Hasnain, who lives in Islamabad. “The country has suffered a lot at their hands. We should send them back where they belong. In every country there are laws. Would anyone without proper documentation be allowed to stay in America?”
It's that sentiment from their neighbors that some Afghans say hurts the most.
Ullah, the private school teacher in Kabul, says that while he is sad to have left Pakistan, he is somewhat happy to be in Afghanistan. He does not want to be considered an Afghan refugee anymore.
"I consider myself as an Afghan citizen,” he said. "I don't want people to call me an Afghan refugee, I want people to call me Afghan … I am Afghan and I am proud to be Afghan. And I want to serve my country. We are rebuilding our country."
Published on PRI's website on March 30, 2017.
By MARTHA MENDOZA and JULHAS ALAM
Hazardous, heavily polluting tanneries, with workers as young as 14, supplied leather to companies that make shoes and handbags for a host of Western brands, a nonprofit group that investigates supply chains says.
The report by New York-based Transparentem, released to The Associated Press on Friday, didn't say leather from the tanneries ends up in American and European companies' products, only that the manufacturers of some of those goods receive it.
Some companies say they're certain the leather used to make their products was imported from outside Bangladesh, and the manufacturers concur. Still, in response to the report most brands had switched factories, banned Bangladesh leather or demanded improvements and audits.
The abuses alleged have long plagued Hazaribagh, a Dhaka neighborhood that's the hub of Bangladesh's leather industry with more than 150 tanneries. The air is noxious with an eye-stinging rotten-egg odor, and children play on small hills of rotting hide trimmings. The Buriganga River, a source of drinking water for 180,000 people, shimmers with poisons from tannery chemical runoff, as well as other human and industrial waste.
The $1 billion-a-year industry was ordered to shut down and move more than 15 years ago, but deadlines have passed without consequence and fines go unpaid. Last week, Bangladesh's High Court told authorities to stop supplying gas, water and electricity to the tanneries. Rawhide supplies have also been ordered halted.
And yet they're still in business, fueled by consumer demand for ever-more-stylish but low-priced wallets and boots.
Transparentem uses investigative journalism practices to tackle labor and environmental abuses, producing detailed reports that are privately shared with companies involved. The group gives companies time to respond before sharing its findings with investors, regulators, advocacy organizations or journalists.
Its confidential Hazaribagh report and accompanying video, shared late last year with about a dozen U.S. and European brands and companies, showed workers at five different tanneries bent double under the weight of soaking wet cow hides, shuffling past heavy machinery delivering heavy loads. Workers are seen whipping handheld razors through leather, tossing off loose trimmings. Barrels of chemicals lean against walls. The floor is wet, and some workers are barefoot.
Bangladesh law prohibits workers under 18, but some appeared to be teenagers. The report says that in 2015, a mother confirmed her child working in a tannery was 14. Footage from 2016 showed the child was still working there. On the video, a 17-year-old told the videographer his age. And there's 2016 footage of two workers agreeing that 15-year-olds are onsite.
Transparentem is not publishing its findings but showed the video to an AP reporter before sharing the report. It said the discretion was needed to protect its investigators and the workers, and that the research is ongoing.
The nonprofit said its Hazaribagh team tracked leather first-hand and with corporate reports from two tanneries, Apex Tannery Ltd. and Bay Tannery Ltd., to Bangladesh shoemakers Apex Footwear and Bay Footwear. Apex Tannery also sent leather to South Korean leather dealer White Industries, said the report. From White, Transparentem tracked leather to Simone Accessories, a South Korean handbag maker.
Using customs records and business documents, they found those factories make shoes and purses for Clarks, Coach, Kate Spade, Macy's, Michael Kors, Sears, Steven Madden and Timberland. Also included were Germany-based Deichmann, a shoe and sportswear chain, and two U.S. firms — Harbor Footwear Group and Genesco — which design and market shoes in even more brands.
No one followed a piece of leather produced by a child to a particular purse or shoe.
E. Benjamin Skinner, founder and principal of Transparentem, said the group investigates endemic problems within an industry, and looked into Apex and Bay because they are among the largest.
"We tell brands and retailers what they may not, but should, know about those with whom they do business. This gives them the opportunity to use their influence with their suppliers to address questionable activity and advance positive action," Skinner said.
The American and European brands that responded to queries from the AP stated their commitments to prevent labor abuse in manufacturing. But some brands, the Bangladeshi companies involved and industry officials disputed the report's findings.
"That NGO went to our buyers too," said Shahin Ahmed, chairman of the Bangladesh Tanners' Association. "They showed them some video clips of child workers who are engaged in manufacturing some byproducts. ... They are no way part of the main industry, I can challenge anybody."
Syed Nasim Manzur, managing director of Apex Footwear and a director at the Apex Tannery, calls Hazaribagh "an environmental disaster" and said they'll soon close their plant there. But he said the report is a "smear campaign," allegations of child labor are unsubstantiated, and Hazaribagh leather doesn't end up in exported products.
Manzur said Apex Footwear and Apex Tannery are separate entities, although they have some owners in common and are associated businesses. He said Apex Footwear has two separate shoe-making factories, one for local markets and another, across the street, for exports. The Hazaribagh leather goes only to the local factory, he said.
Bay Footwear technical adviser Rezaur Rahman, speaking for Bay Group, which includes their tannery, called Transparentem's findings "absolutely baseless."
"We worked with the International Labor Organization and trade unions. I don't understand how and where they found child workers in the industry," Rahman said. "We don't have any child workers."
Coach — whose website says their produce is "handcrafted from the finest American and European hides and textiles" — said they get no more than 1.5 percent of their leather from Hazaribagh and Kate Spade said they get just 1 percent. Both said they're stopping any purchases from Hazaribagh.
Michael Kors and Harbor Footwear said they were a few steps removed from the Hazaribagh tanneries, hadn't knowingly sourced leather there, and would make sure not to.
Clarks and Deichmann said they are certain no Hazaribagh leather ended up in their products.
Deichmann said Apex Footwear only makes their shoes with imported leather or hides processed at Apex Gazipur tannery that they've audited.
A Clarks spokesman said the company "is only responsible for the sourcing of materials in our own products and cannot control the sourcing of others."
Sears, Timberland, Macy's, Genesco and Steven Madden all said that while they weren't getting leather from the tanneries, they saw an opportunity to use their companies' leverage at the related factories to bring improvements, with some using threats, others offering auditors and support.
Attorneys representing Apex Footwear and Macy's, Steven Madden and Genesco signed an agreement last month that says Apex will verify that all tannery workers are adults using protective gear, and that independent auditors would oversee longer-term improvements.
Steve Park, sales director at White Industry Co., said the South Korean company stopped using raw materials from Bangladesh late last year after U.S. clients such as Coach, Michael Kors and Kate Spade informed them about environmental problems and child labor issues. Now they use American, Brazilian and Pakistani suppliers, he said.
Scott Nova at the Worker Rights Consortium in Washington, D.C., said a brand or retailer that is serious about protecting worker rights, and about honoring its public commitments to do so, would not do business with a factory that sources from suppliers that engage in dangerous and abusive practices.
"This principle applies, whether or not leather from the tanneries in question is being used in a brand's products," he said.
Global brands are drawn to manufacturing in Bangladesh by low wages, and leather shoes, belts and purses are top exports. But many Bangladeshi manufacturers depend on domestic tanneries for their leather, and 90 percent of those tanneries are in Hazaribagh.
Conditions in the neighborhood are deplorable. Chemicals and defecation run milky-white through open sewers, pouring untreated into the river, more of a waste pond than a waterway. Metal tarnishes quickly; electronics corrode.
Tannery workers live in small, hot, steel-walled rooms perched on precarious stilts above creeks of raw sewage and mounds of stinking scraps.
AP journalists were not allowed inside Apex and Bay's Hazaribagh tanneries, but workers walking out said no children were employed there now.
Reporters did find children working in smaller Hazaribagh tanneries not mentioned by Transparentem. The work is hazardous, with large equipment and little to none of the protective clothing, splash aprons, safety goggles and respirators mandatory at North American and European tanneries.
The AP team watched as a man tasted liquid from a drum that processes leather to test for salt levels.
"We would hope to avoid the harm that can be caused by the liquid when the body and the limbs are exposed to it," said another Hazaribagh leather tanner, Mohammed Harun, 52. "There are some powders and chemicals that infect us when inhaled."
He said they need boots, gloves and masks.
"If the owners provide us with these things, it will improve the situation," he said.
A British Medical Journal study published this week found that Bangladeshi tannery workers as young as 8 frequently have untreated rashes and infections, as well as asthma and other lung problems. Pure Earth — a nongovernmental organization that addresses industrial pollution — has put Hazaribagh on its Top 10 list of polluted places, along with Chernobyl. Similar problems exist at tannery clusters in the Philippines and India.
Human Rights Watch advocate Richard Pearhouse, who has reported on pollution and child labor at Hazaribagh tanneries, said none comply with national environmental laws or repeated court orders to move.
American shoppers can make a difference, he said.
"Consumers should be asking plenty of sharp questions on the shop floor about what retailers are doing to guarantee they are not sourcing leather from Hazaribagh's toxic tanneries," he said.
Published on AP's website on March 25, 2017.
By resolution 71/258, the General Assembly decided to convene in 2017 a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination. The Assembly encouraged all Member States to participate in the Conference and decided that it shall convene in New York, under the rules of procedure of the General Assembly unless otherwise agreed by the Conference, with the participation and contribution of international organizations and civil society representatives. The Conference will be held in New York from 27 to 31 March and from 15 June to 7 July. The Conference held a one-day organizational session in New York,on 16 February 2017.
The decision to convene the Conference followed from the recommendation of the open-ended working group on taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations, convened pursuant to resolution 70/33. The open-ended working group, chaired by Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi (Thailand), specified in its report that a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons would establish general prohibitions and obligations as well as a political commitment to achieve and maintain a nuclear-weapon-free world. The primary mandate of the open-ended working group was to address concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms that would need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.
Source: UN website
A Spanish court has opened the first criminal case abroad over alleged torture instigated by Syrian officials during the country's civil war. It will focus on key political and security figures of the Assad regime.
Spanish authorities are due to investigate nine Syrian officials over claims of torture and concerning the execution of a Syrian man four years ago, in what is the first criminal case against Syrian security forces accepted by a foreign court.
The case was brought by the deceased man's sister, a Spanish woman of Syrian origin, who says her brother disappeared after being illegally detained in 2013 in Damascus.
She learned of his death after finding a picture of his body in a trove of some 50,000 photographs smuggled out of Damascus by a forensic photographer who fled Syria.
One image of Alhaj Hamdo "shows clear signs of torture," according to the charge sheet against the accused - who include Syria's vice president, intelligence chief and air force intelligence chief.
Investigating magistrate Eloy Valesco ruled Spain did have the jurisdiction to launch the probe. Spanish law allows the prosecution of serious crimes in other countries if there is a Spanish victim - which Velasco said the deceased man's sister, Amal Hag Hamdo Anfalis, could be considered as being.
Velasco has called on Anfalis and the forensic photographer to testify in court in April. He said the alleged crimes could constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and forced disappearance.
At least 320,000 people have died since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Activists have tried to use European domestic courts to pursue justice for war crimes, given UN Security Council member Russia blocks the referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court.
Other cases have been filed in Germany and France, but have not yet been accepted by the courts, said lawyer Toby Cadman, who represents a London firm helping Anfalis.
This article was published on DW's website on March 28, 2017.
Human Rights Council decides to dispatch a fact-finding mission to Myanmar to establish facts on violations, especially in Rakhine State
Council Adopts 13 Resolutions, Extends Mandates on Iran, Myanmar, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, South Sudan, Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Torture and Migrants.
The Human Rights Council this morning adopted 13 resolutions, in which it decided to dispatch an independent, international fact-finding mission to establish the facts about alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces and abuses in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine State. The Council also extended the mandates of the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Iran, Myanmar, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and South Sudan for a further period of one year, and extended the mandates of the Special Rapporteurs on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and on the human rights of migrants for a period of three years.
Other resolutions concerned human rights and unilateral coercive measures, the right to work, birth registration, the rights of the child, regional arrangements for the promotion of human rights, and human rights and the environment.
The Council decided to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran for a further period of one year in a resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran, adopted by a vote of 22 in favour, 12 against and 13 abstentions. It requested the Special Rapporteur to submit a report on the implementation of the mandate to the Human Rights Council at its thirty-seventh session and to the General Assembly at its seventy-second session. It called upon the Government of Iran to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur and to permit access to visit the country, and to provide all information necessary to allow the fulfilment of the mandate.
In a resolution on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, adopted without a vote, the Council extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar for a further period of one year. It also decided to dispatch urgently an independent international fact-finding mission to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council to establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, and abuses, in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine State. It called upon the Government of Myanmar to continue efforts to eliminate statelessness and the systematic and institutionalized discrimination against members of ethnic, and religious minorities, including the root causes of discrimination, in particular relating to the Rohingya minority.
The Council decided to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur of the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for a period of one year in a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, adopted without a vote. The Council decided to strengthen, for a period of two years, the capacity of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, including its field-based structure in Seoul, to allow the implementation of relevant recommendations made by the group of independent experts on accountability in its report. It condemned in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations and other human rights abuses committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In a resolution on the situation of human rights in South Sudan, adopted without a vote, the Council decided to extend the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan for a period of one year. It condemned the ongoing violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law in South Sudan, and it demanded that all actors put a halt to all violations and abuses of human rights and all violations of international humanitarian law. It also urged the Government of South Sudan to appoint a special representative on sexual and gender-based violence.
In a resolution on human rights of migrants: mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, adopted without a vote as orally revised, the Council decided to extend for a period of three years the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants to examine ways and means to overcome the obstacles existing to the full and effective protection of the human rights of migrants, recognizing the particular vulnerability of women, children and those undocumented or in an irregular situation. The Council also extended mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression for a period of three years, in a resolution adopted without a vote. It requested the Special Rapporteur to submit an annual report to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly covering all activities relating to the mandate.
In a resolution on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment: mandate of the Special Rapporteur, adopted without a vote, the Council extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for a further period of three years to receive, examine and act on information from Governments, intergovernmental and civil society organizations, individuals and groups of individuals regarding issues and alleged cases concerning torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and to conduct country visits.
The Council also adopted a resolution on human rights and unilateral coercive measures, adopted by a vote of 32 in favour, 15 against and zero abstentions, in which it called upon all States to stop adopting, maintaining or implementing unilateral coercive measures not in accordance with international law, international humanitarian law, the Charter of the United Nations and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States.
The Council called upon States to put in place comprehensive policies and to take the legislative and administrative measures necessary for the full realization of the right to work for all, including women, in a resolution on the right to work, adopted without a vote. In a resolution on birth registration and the right of everyone to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, adopted without a vote, the Council called upon States to establish or strengthen existing institutions at all levels responsible for birth registration and consider the development of comprehensive civil registration systems.
In a resolution on the rights of the child: protection of the rights of the child in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted without a vote as orally revised, the Council called upon States to promote, protect, respect and fulfil the rights of the child and to mainstream them into all legislation, policies, programmes and budgets, as appropriate, aimed at implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals.
This press release was published on the OHCHR's website on March 24, 2017.
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and Head of United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Martin Kobler is gravely concerned at continued and persistent reports of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law being perpetrated across Libya . He calls on all parties to send a strong message that these acts are completely unacceptable and back these messages with credible investigations to identify and hold perpetrators of such crimes accountable.
“It is high time to put an end to the gross violations being committed across Libya. I remind all parties that those responsible for committing, ordering or failing to prevent these acts, including hostage-taking, torture, extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling and desecration of corpses when in a position to do so, are criminally liable, including in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC).”
Martin Kobler warned that continued fighting in residential areas continued to endanger the civilian population, in an environment already fraught with criminal and political kidnappings. Credible, effective and accountable security institutions are urgently required to end the deteriorating security situation.
“The human rights and security provisions within the Libya Political Agreement must be implemented. A framework exists to uphold human rights and the rule of law, what is required is the political will to implement it by all relevant stakeholders,” said the Special Representative.
This article was published on UNSMIL's website on March 23, 2017.
By César Muñoz
On March 22, Brazil’s representatives will have to explain at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights why the country maintains some of the most violent and inhumane prisons in Latin America, and why the government has let them fall into the hands of criminal organizations.
You’d expect Brazilian authorities to make regaining control of their prisons a top priority after the series of massacres that left more than 100 inmates dead just two months ago. Instead, state negligence, incompetence, or a lack of political will continue to let gangs use prison cells as recruiting grounds.
An October 2016 report by the Federal Prison Department said that the state government’s failure to provide adequate health, education, work, and legal services to inmates was strengthening the very gangs the prison system is supposed to help crush. The consequences for Brazil reach far beyond the prison walls.
In mid-February, we asked permission to visit the Penitenciária Agrícola de Monte Cristo, the largest prison in the northern state of Roraima, where gang members killed 10 inmates in October and another 33 in January. State authorities candidly shared details about life inside the prison, but refused to let us in, saying they could not ensure our safety. In truth, they can’t ensure anyone’s safety. Only the gangs can do that.
The crumbling Penitenciária Agrícola held 1,511 inmates in February. It was built for 750 but its real capacity could be as low as 300 because successive riots have caused the infrastructure to deteriorate, a judge overseeing the prison told us. Most of the prisoners spend 24 hours a day in overcrowded, fetid cells, with nothing to do.
Roraima’s statewide prison population has grown by 41 percent in the past 18 months, to 2,300. More than half have not been convicted of a crime, according to state data. Their average wait in prison for trial is more than a year, according to the National Council of Justice.
In January, the judge ordered that the 161 inmates held in a semi-open facility –which allows some of them to go out to work during the day– continue their sentences under house arrest after the prison director said that he was unable to ensure their security or the security of his personnel.
At Penitenciária Agrícola, since the October killings, guards have only entered the prison grounds twice a day, to bring food. They are protected by a squad of heavily armed military police officers. Any inmate who feels sick in between –or is attacked– may well die.
The two public defenders who represent convicted detainees in all of Roraima’s prisons have been unable to meet with their clients in Penitenciária Agrícola since October, one of them told us. As we have reported elsewhere in Brazil, lack of adequate legal representation means that some cases fall through the cracks, including one man who remained in a Roraima prison for a year after he was awarded parole in 2016.
So who’s in charge? Vicious gangs, who use the prison to recruit members by offering the protection that the state does not.
The Penitenciária Agrícola holds about 500 members of PCC, a prison gang originally from São Paulo, according to prison officials, who ask incoming detainees to declare their gang affiliation so that they can be housed with members of their own gang. Even those who say they belong to no gang are sent to cells with PCC members, allegedly for lack of space, according to prison officials. There, they are under pressure to join.
The 33 inmates who died in January did not belong to any gang. Members of PCC decapitated all of them as a show of force, prison officials told us.
None of this is exclusive to Roraima. Brazil has more than 622,000 people behind bars – 67 percent over capacity. Holding pretrial detainees with convicted criminals, hideous overcrowding, procedural delays, and gang rule within the cellblocks are common.
A new prison under construction – designed for fewer than 400 inmates – won’t solve the state’s problems. Neither Roraima, nor Brazil, will be able to build enough prisons to end overcrowding if there is no change in current incarceration policies.
Judicial and state authorities should make wider use of alternatives to prison, both for people awaiting trial and those convicted of non-violent offenses, and improve the justice system by ending unjustified delays and increasing the number of public defenders. Most of all, Brazil should abandon its retrograde “war on drugs” policy, which is filling prisons with people detained with small quantities of drugs. Brazil needs to decriminalize drug use.
The recent prison massacres showed the strength of Brazil´s prison gangs. Brazil’s federal and state governments need to demonstrate that they are stronger, and smarter, by overhauling judicial and incarceration systems that now serve no one well except the gangs. The safety of everyone – inside and outside the prison walls – depends on it.
This article was published on Human Rights Watch's website on March 22, 2017.
By Kristine Phillips
Tens of thousands of immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were forced to work for $1 day, or for nothing at all — a violation of federal anti-slavery laws — a lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit, filed in 2014 against one of the largest private prison companies in the country, reached class-action status this week after a federal judge’s ruling. That means the case could involve as many as 60,000 immigrants who have been detained.
It’s the first time a class-action lawsuit accusing a private U.S. prison company of forced labor has been allowed to move forward.
“That’s obviously a big deal; it’s recognizing the possibility that a government contractor could be engaging in forced labor,” said Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that represents low-wage workers, including undocumented immigrants. “Certification of the class is perhaps the only mechanism by which these vulnerable individuals who were dispersed across the country and across the world would ever be able to vindicate their rights.”
At the heart of the dispute is the Denver Contract Detention Facility, a 1,500-bed center in Aurora, Colo., owned and operated by GEO Group under a contract with ICE. The Florida-based corporation runs facilities to house immigrants who are awaiting their turn in court.
The lawsuit, filed against GEO Group on behalf of nine immigrants, initially sought more than $5 million in damages. Attorneys expect the damages to grow substantially given the case’s new class-action status.
The class-action ruling by U.S. District Judge John Kane means that as many as 60,000 current and former detainees at the detention facility in Aurora are now part of the lawsuit without having to actively join as plaintiffs, said Andrew Free, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The lead plaintiff in the case is a permanent resident of the U.S., and attorneys expect “a significant portion of the class will fit that bill,” Free said.
The original nine plaintiffs claim that detainees at the ICE facility are forced to work without pay — and that those who refuse to do so are threatened with solitary confinement.
Specifically, the lawsuit claims, six detainees are selected at random every day and are forced to clean the facility’s housing units. The lawsuit claims that the practice violates the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits modern-day slavery.
“Forced labor is a particular violation of the statute that we’ve alleged,” Free said. “Whether you’re calling it forced labor or slavery, the practical reality for the plaintiffs is much the same. You’re being compelled to work against your will under the threat of force or use of force.”
GEO Group also is accused of violating Colorado’s minimum wage laws by paying detainees $1 day instead of the state’s minimum wage of about $9 an hour. The company “unjustly enriched” itself through the cheap labor of detainees, the lawsuit says.
None of the original nine plaintiffs are still detained at the facility, DiSalvo said.
The class-action ruling by Kane, a senior judge in the U.S. District Court in Colorado, came at a critical time, DiSalvo said, noting President Trump’s pledge to deport 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants. Advocates say private prison companies that have government contracts stand to benefit significantly from the president’s hard-line policy of detaining and deporting a massive number of immigrants
“That means you need to round up and detain more people in order to determine whether they have the rights to stay in this country before you deport them,” DiSalvo said. “More people could be moving through, not just in the Aurora facility. More people could be subjected to GEO’s forced labor policy.”
Notably, the stocks of the two biggest private prison operators, Geo Group and CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America), have surged since Trump’s election. The companies donated a total of $500,000 to Trump’s inaugural festivities, USA Today reported. Since Trump took office, his administration has reversed the Obama administration’s policy to end the country’s reliance on private prisons.
GEO Group has strongly denied the lawsuit’s allegations and argued in court records that pay of $1 a day does not violate any laws.
“We intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez said in a statement. “The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government. Our facilities, including the Aurora, Colo. Facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments pursuant to the Federal Government’s national standards.”
Jennifer D. Elzea, acting press sectrary for ICE, said she couldn’t comment on the litigation because “ICE is not specifically a party in this suit.”
Under ICE’s Voluntary Work Program, detainees sign up to work and are paid $1 a day. The nationwide program, ICE says, “provides detainees opportunities to work and earn money while confined, subject to the number of work opportunities available and within the constraints of the safety, security and good order of the facility.”
Detainees work for up to eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, cleaning bathrooms, showers, toilets, windows, patient rooms and staff offices, waxing floors, and preparing and serving meals. ICE says detainees “shall be able to volunteer for work assignments but otherwise shall not be required to work, except to do personal housekeeping.”
Jacqueline Stevens, who runs Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinic, said the program does not meet the criteria for what qualifies as volunteer work under labor laws.
“Just slapping the word ‘volunteer’ in front of ‘work program’ doesn’t exempt the prison firm from paying legally mandated wages any more than McDonald’s can use ‘volunteer’ senior citizens and pay them Big Macs,” said Stevens, whose research about the volunteer work program prompted the lawsuit.
Prison labor, Stevens added, has two purposes: to punish prisoners after they’ve been convicted of a crime and to rehabilitate them.
Those don’t apply to immigrant detainees, she said.
“There’s no ostensible purpose to rehabilitate them,” Stevens said. “They’re just waiting for a court date in order to clarify their immigration status. Some don’t end up being deported.”
Free, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said there are alternatives to detaining immigrants while they wait for their day in court. That includes supervision programs and community monitoring.
“That’s much cheaper than spending double the current cost of detention,” Free said, adding that not incarcerating them would ensure they’re able to find attorneys and attend their immigration hearings. “The for-profit prisons are a policy choice against due process in immigration courts and against access to counsel and against positive outcomes to immigrants who have valid claims.”
In 2014, GEO Group filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in court records that Colorado’s minimum wage law does not apply to immigrant detainees.
“Detainees are not whom the minimum wage laws were intended to protect. The minimum wage law was enacted in Colorado to ensure wages are adequate to ‘supply the necessary cost of living and to maintain the health of workers so employed,'” the attorneys argued, quoting the state statute.
The company further argued that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act is inapplicable because the law is meant to prevent human trafficking of people for labor and/or sex. GEO Group, the attorneys wrote, “did not traffic Plaintiffs in the Aurora facility with the purpose of putting them to work.” They added that the detainees are in the custody of immigration officials.
In 2015, Kane, the federal judge, partially denied the motion to dismiss. Although he agreed with GEO Group that Colorado’s minimum wage law is inapplicable, he ruled that the other claims can stand.
“GEO’s argument was, ‘Even if we are forcing people to work under threat of solitary confinement, that would be allowed,'” DiSalvo said. “And the judge said, ‘No it wouldn’t be.'”
Kane granted class-action status a few days after the Justice Department directed the Bureau of Prisons to, again, use private prisons, a significant shift from the Obama-era policy of significantly reducing — and ultimately ending — their use.
In a one-paragraph memo last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the previous directive to the Bureau of Prisons to either reduce or decline to renew private-prison contracts as they came due, The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky reported.
“The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system,” Sessions wrote. “Therefore, I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach.”
The original directive from the Obama administration did not apply to immigration detainees.
This article was published on The Washington Post's website on March 5, 2017.
By Pedro Nicolaci da Costa
Older job seekers don't need data to tell them that it's a rough market out there, where businesses with increasingly short-run investment horizons favor lower costs over experience.
But if hard evidence can help them fight discrimination through the justice system, here’s some.
A report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found discernible and systematic patterns of age discrimination, particularly for women.
"We report on new evidence from a field experiment testing for discrimination in hiring against older workers near retirement age," said David Newmark, a professor at the University of California at Irvine and a visiting scholar at the San Francisco Fed. "The evidence points to such discrimination, particularly against older women."
Just how did the authors conduct this experiment? By sending simulated, plausible résumés to all kinds of positions around the country in what they say is the largest experiment of its kind.
"We specifically crafted variations on résumés that older workers actually present," the authors said. "We leveraged technology to conduct our study on a massive scale … sending triplets of otherwise identical young, middle-aged, and older fictitious applications to over 13,000 positions in 12 cities spread across 11 states, totaling more than 40,000 applicants — by far the largest scale audit or correspondence study to date."
The authors find the trend disturbing not just for its direct harm to the people involved but because of the extra strain placed on the Social Security system from workers forced to retire prematurely. And it gets worse with age.
"While both middle-aged and older applicants experience discrimination relative to younger applicants, older applicants—those near the age of retirement—experience more age discrimination," the authors said. This works directly against some conservative proposals for cutting Social Security, which would like to see the retirement age raised from 65.
"One major reform goal is to create stronger incentives for older individuals to stay in the workforce longer," the authors wrote.
This article was published on the World Economic Forum's website on March 16, 2017.