A Plan to Resolve one of Asia’s Longest Refugee Situations

MAE SOT, Thailand – The UN refugee agency field office in Mae Sot has been working for the last 15 years in nine refugee camps along Thailand’s western border.

These camps are home to 102,777 refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Iain Hall is senior field coordinator at UNHCR in Mae Sot. He’s been doing this work over the last 24 years.

“Refugees have a deep down heartfelt desire to go home. That’s what they want to do. They didn’t come here by choice and many lament, they’ve been in the camps many years, but they still may not feel confident to go home. But the confidence is growing, so because of that growing confidence in the situation back home that we will see large returns in 2017,” Hall said.

Way Lay, 31, sits at a coffee shop in Mae Sot, 72 kilometres from the refugee camp he lived in most of his adult life. He looks a bit uneasy when asked about the organized return of 71 refugees by UNHCR to Myanmar last October.

“The place where refugees return, the political situation is unstable. Human rights abuse keeps happening. The safety is not enough for them to return yet. As far as I know the government of Myanmar does not have a systematic plan for refugee return,” he said.

The UNHCR calls the organized return of these 71 refugees a “milestone.”

It goes on to state that it does not promote refugee return, it only facilitates, if a well-informed, voluntarily, decision has been made.

A safe and dignified return

Hall says the UNHCR will only help refugees if the agency is able to provide a safe and dignified return.

“Dignified, what we mean by that is they are welcome home, that they have full access to their rights as Myanmar citizens upon their return, access to education, access to health, access to documentation and to livelihoods,” Hall said.

Seventeen refugees were sent to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. Forty-eight refugees have returned to southeast Myanmar, where the majority of refugees in the camps originate. But six refugees have returned to Rakhine and Kachin, two states that have become active battlefields.

“If you are interested and you have a right, under Article 13 of the declaration of human rights: To return to one’s own country. Then let us know about it and we’ll see what we can do. We don’t automatically help because we do have concerns that need to be answered before we would support facilitated return,” Hall said.

This year, hundreds of refugees are waiting and tens of thousands could return if all goes according to plan. But it won’t become an exodus, Hall adds.

Debary Kunoo is a 22-year-old born and raised in Mae La refugee camp outside of Mae Sot. Her parents want to return to Myanmar, to restart their lives, but she’s had to tell them how unsafe it actually is.

“I think it is not the time for the refugees to return because there’s nothing in the country support the refugees there,” she said.

Democratic reforms in Myanmar

A ceasefire signed by the Myanmar army in 2015, and the election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, has led to a peaceful transition inside the country.

But according to Way Lay and Debary Kunoo, the reality along the border areas, where fighting continues, is much different from Yangon and Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital.

“The nationwide ceasefire agreement, for those who signed it has pretty much held. But there have been incidents all the same. Refugees look at those types of security incidents quite carefully. They left because of conflict and the last thing they want to do is return to a conflict situation,” Hall said.

Officials are saying the UNHCR plan will resolve one of Asia’s longest refugee situations. But with the continued fighting in Myanmar, a new refugee situation is being created as this one comes to an end.

Published online @PRX

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Uganda’s Urban Refugees on CBC Listen & The World This Weekend

KAMPALA, Uganda – As the violent conflict in South Sudan deepens, many people are fleeing to their next door neighbour. South Sudan is now the world’s fourth largest refugee situation behind Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, according to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.

Over 110,000 South Sudanese have sought refuge in Uganda this year — three-quarters of them, since fighting resumed in July. Uganda allows new arrivals to settle anywhere in the country, and the UN says it’s a model for Africa. This story premiered online at the new CBC Listen, and aired on CBC The World This Weekend Oct. 1, 2016.

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The South Sudanese Student Who Spent Her Summer Saving Refugees

Betty Asha left her home and studies behind to help nearly 2,300 people escape violence and cross the border into Uganda.

Betty Asha’s phone rings constantly. Each time she picks up, a voice on the other end asks for help, and each time, she springs into action.

Asha, 23, has become an unlikely hero in the conflict that has gripped South Sudan since July, when warring factions of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) clashed outside the presidential compound before celebrations to mark the fifth anniversary of independence.

When the fighting spread from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and reached her home city of Yei, close to the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Asha decided to act. Reports of targeted civilian killings had begun to surface, she said, perpetrated by both sides of the SPLM – those loyal to the president, Salva Kiir, from the Dinka tribe, and those supporting the former vice-president Riek Machar, from the Nuer tribe.

Receiving distress calls from friends and family in her village, Asha left behind her studies and small apartment in Kampala and travelled north to the border between Uganda and South Sudan.

For the next month, Asha worked to coordinate the safe evacuation of 2,296 refugees across the border, a figure confirmed by the Ugandan prime minister’s office and refugee agencies working in the area.

With the help of Chris Hurley, an American sponsor, she arranged four lorries and 10 motorbikes to make numerous trips transporting people.

In her first week on the border, Asha successfully brought 800 people from Pukuka village to safety in Uganda. Over the next three weeks, she helped a further 1,496 Yei residents reach refugee camps after word of her hasty evacuation plan spread.

“When they arrived at Oraba, I was there to pay the drivers. It was also my responsibility to feed everyone, to be with them and to see that everybody was safe,” Asha said. “I took them straight to the UN reception centre.”

Most of the South Sudanese refugees she helped are settled at Rhino camp near Arua, in north-west Uganda, including Asha’s mother and five siblings.

They are the latest of more than 88,000 South Sudanese refugees to seek asylum at the border since early July. UN field coordinator Jens Hesemann said: “I thought the number of refugees from South Sudan was going down, but it has spiked.”

Ugandan refugee laws grant new arrivals the freedom to live anywhere in the country, either in a refugee settlement or a town. The UN has described this policy as a “model for Africa”.

Hurley met Asha six years ago when he visited southern Sudan as part of a church trip from Tennessee. Missionaries have played a key, if controversial, role in Sudan since the 19th century. They helped form a large Christian minority there prior to the separation in 2011. Many believe that this contributed to the religious unrest that caused the two Sudanese civil wars.

Hurley supports Asha’s studies and paid for the evacuation of the 2,296 South Sudanese refugees. “It cost only $5.66 (£4.26) per person [to transport them to the border]. I spend more than that on lunch every day,” he said.

“I am still shocked by the sheer number of people Betty was able to rescue. She is proof that people can achieve greatness if they are only given the opportunity and support needed.”

Alemi Charles, 47, from Yei, was among those safely evacuated to Uganda. He lives with his wife and two children in Kampala.

“I received Betty’s phone number and called her to tell her I was in trouble,” he said. “Betty told me to board any vehicle leaving Yei for Oraba, at the border, and she will pay for transport. She really saved my life.”

Asha has since returned to Kampala and resumed her second year of university. She is sponsoring Viola, a 12-year-old South Sudanese refugee she helped evacuate from Pukuka. The two of them live together in a one-bedroom apartment.

“I want to make a difference in the lives of people from Pukuka,” Asha said. “I keep receiving calls from Pukuka and Yei. I want to go back and help more [people] get out of South Sudan safely. Yei used to be a peaceful town. Now it’s not.”

Asha’s phone rings once more, as it does constantly throughout the day. She answers it again.

Published online @TheGuardian

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South Sudan’s Young Reporters Independence Day Exhibit Displays True Promise

Rebecca Yar Achiek showing off one of her photos

Mingkaman Young Reporter, Rebecca Yar Achiek, proudly displays one of her photos at the Independence Day exhibit.

MINGKAMAN, South Sudan – To celebrate July 9, South Sudan’s fifth independence anniversary, Internews hosted a multimedia exhibit featuring photographs and audio produced by Mingkaman Young Reporters.

This is a group of youth from Mingkaman, Awerial County I had trained last January on the basics of photography and radio. The Mingkaman 100 FM journalism trainer, Tanya Birkbeck, asked a local women’s cooperative and the ACTED camp management agency if we could use their Site Two Community Centre, to hold the event.

July 7, the evening before I departed Juba, things took a turn for the worse. A shootout at a checkpoint between government soldiers and opposition forces, stationed in Juba as part of the August peace agreement, put all out war back on the table. The peace agreement was shelved.

An Internews driver took me, and two others, to the Juba airport the morning of July 8. He decided to drive past J1, South Sudan’s state house. Soldiers stepped out on to the road and ordered us to stop. They allowed us to leave after questioning, but I could see in their eyes they were preparing for the worst.

I arrived in Mingkaman later that morning to reunite with Tanya and the Mingkaman 100 FM team. In the afternoon, factional fighting broke out at state house, while both President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar were inside. Neither of them knew what was going on outside and admitted this in a joint press conference.

Juba turned into a war zone. Mingkaman 100 FM intern, Young Juma, was first to the radio studio Saturday morning, July 9, South Sudan’s independence day. Like most of us, he was unsure of what had happened the previous day in the capital.

Women notice someone they know at exhibit

A woman living in Site Two points to someone she knows featured in a photo on display at the exhibit.

The Mingkaman Young Reporters exhibit was set to begin in the afternoon, after Tanya helped Young Juma prepare a news report that would inform the public without the need for rumour or speculation. Calls for peace across South Sudan were immediately put on the air.

At Site Two Community Centre, Mingkaman Young Reporters arrived to see their photos on display and one brought family members and friends to show off her work.

Rebecca Yar Achiek, 19, was happy to see her two photos on display at the centre. She already knew these photos had been selected earlier this year to be included in the Juba Photo Contest, hosted by the University of Juba’s French Institute, but this was the first time they were on display in her community.

I selected 15 of the best photos taken by the Young Reporters last January. The theme of this exhibit was displaced women and children, as there were many portraits showing the beauty and strength of those living in Awerial County, a safe haven for those fleeing violence in neighbouring Jonglei state.

I played the role of museum curator and walked visitors around to view each photo and listen to the Young Reporters’ radio work, recorded in Site Two, one of Mingkaman’s largest settlements for displaced people.

Back at Mingkaman FM, Young Juma kept reporting responsibly. Local radio journalist, Deng Daniel, attended the exhibit and did a live report from Site Two Community Centre with Young Juma in-studio, a first for the station.

Achiek went on live to express her gratitude to Internews and called on Mingkaman youth to attend the community’s first-ever exhibit.

Dozens of young boys and girls, along with women, came to the Site Two Community Centre to see what was happening inside. One woman pointed at a photo and told me she knew the lady featured.

Adam and kids

Mingkaman children gather as I play the Young Reporters’ audio recordings from my laptop on to a speaker in the room (Courtesy of Tanya Birkbeck).

I was excited that local youth, seeing these photos and hearing the recordings for the first time in their lives, would go home to tell their friends, family and neighbours about the experience.

The Mingkaman Young Reporters multimedia exhibit was my way of giving back to a community where I invested so much of my time and energy. Mingkaman has no secondary school so many youth allowed to continue with studies must leave the community to do so.

Achiek wants to attend secondary school, but she faces societal pressure to be married. I could see the Young Reporters training was a creative outlet for her and the three other young women, and eight young men, who had attended.

Young Juma brought national news to Mingkaman FM listeners. Tanya and I were extremely proud about his performance. While Mingkaman FM staff stood by, Young Juma brought news of the Mingkaman Young Reporters exhibit to all in the community while keeping them up-to-date on events across the country.

None of us knew when the fighting would stop, but Mingkaman’s young reporters stood up and showed leadership during this uncertain time. They wouldn’t allow an outbreak of violence to interrupt their fifth anniversary celebration.

The only way forward for South Sudan is to invest in its youth. Those I worked with in Mingkaman want long lasting peace and security so they can receive education and build this new nation from the ground up. I think we should all support these courageous young men and women. They are the future of this country.

Mingkaman Young Reporters multimedia exhibit was done with the help of Internews’ The Radio Community, a network of radio stations bringing humanitarian information and news to communities around the country.

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Loreto Girls Journalism Club Reunite and Report from Rumbek on South Sudan’s Economy

RUMBEK, South Sudan – “The first time I heard there was fighting in my village, I felt sad. I wasn’t expecting this to happen,” said Christine Makuer Bol. “I’m trying my best to teach people not to do this again. I call myself Lady Peace to bring peace to South Sudan.”

Bol, 19, began writing and recording music in 2013 under the name Lady Peace. This was before South Sudan’s civil war began. For the past three years, she’s been singing to stop the spread of violence in her young nation.

For now, a fragile peace agreement is in place, but everyone is afraid the fighting could start again. Lady Peace is encouraging South Sudanese to forgive one another and move forward to build the country.

And she’s not just speaking out as a musician; she’s also an aspiring journalist.

“I want to be on radio and television so I can show South Sudanese girls anything is possible. This is why I joined Loreto journalism club,” she said.

The Loreto Secondary School girls formed a journalism club in 2014. It’s founder, Aruai Kedit, is no longer attending Loreto. Last December, her family forced her to leave school to marry a young man in the community.

Run by Catholic nuns from Ireland, Loreto has a rule that once a girl is married, she’s no longer allowed to return. Kedit’s parents were aware that by marrying her, she wouldn’t be able to continue her studies there.

Lady Peace with recorder 1

Lady Peace is a member of Loreto girls journalism club.

“It’s so hard to find a Dinka girl reaching 16 or 17 without being married. If your family is Dinka they will pressure your parents and ask why are you letting your daughter get old,” Aruai Kedit said in 2015 during a storytelling workshop hosted by Internews.

Lady Peace regrets seeing Kedit leave school for an arranged marriage and an uncertain future.

Media training for Loreto J-Club

The future of the Loreto Girls Journalism Club is uncertain. I went to Rumbek last October to spend some time with the club’s members, and found a group of energetic young women looking to learn about how to make change through media.

They spoke about the need for girls to receive an education in South Sudan, and the negative effects of early childhood marriage on young women. They also spoke out against inter-communal violence among Dinka clans in Rumbek.

I returned to Rumbek in July to find a group of girls no longer sure of how to continue the journalism club without Kedit’s organizing skills. They had not held any club meetings since the last time I was there.

Over the course of two days, I did workshops in basic journalism guidelines and interviewing skills. I played them Thembi’s Aids Diary, a powerful story about a young South African woman suffering from HIV/AIDS.

I hoped this would inspire them to share their own stories. A few of them had done so last year while I was with them, sharing and recording a mix of personal and traditional stories during the storytelling and introduction to radio workshops.

“I really want to be a journalist,” said Jamsina Manasseh in 2015. “All I want is society to see that this little girl from the village will be heard on the radio and seen on the television.”

Loreto girls interviewing women at Rumbek market

Loreto girls journalism club interviewing women at Rumbek market.

Jamsina assures me she still wants to be a journalist, but is now doubtful that it will happen. I reassured her that if you’re passionate about something, and strive toward it, it should always work out.

Loreto Girls ‘Report from Rumbek’

I knew I had to show the Loreto girls how fun reporting in the community can be.

On my last day at Loreto, the deputy principal and I arranged to take 18 girls from the journalism club to Rumbek market. In South Sudan, markets are the only true public space and forum for people to exchange news and information.

It’s also a place crawling with police and military carrying AK47 assault rifles. So we had to be extremely careful, given the explosive nature of violence in Rumbek.

Lady Peace and Jamsina led the group to interview many women traders at Rumbek market with a Zoom recorder donated by Internews to the Loreto journalism club.

“I haven’t been to the market in over one year,” Jamsina said. “I can’t believe these women are struggling so hard to sell with prices so high. Very few people are buying basic food items.”

Lady Peace spoke to a woman selling milk. “She told me not many people are able to afford it with the cost now three times what it was a few weeks ago. This situation in South Sudan is affecting everyone.”

A few members of the Loreto girls journalism club told me they want to do more reporting in the community. They hope to arrange more outings on weekends to interview Rumbek area residents. Stories they would like to focus on are how to stop local violence, and how to keep girls in school.

Internews supports Loreto Girls Journalism Club with training, resource materials such as books, and a Zoom H2N audio recorder to encourage these future leaders in South Sudan to use media, especially radio, to make change in their communities.

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Peace and Reconciliation in South Sudan begins on the Community Airwaves at 88.3 FM

2016-06-06 11.21.05

Singaita 88.3 FM’s new broadcast journalists outside of the radio studio in Kapoeta, South Sudan.

KAPOETA, South Sudan – Loka John sits down on a blue plastic chair in the Singaita 88.3 FM newsroom. The 23-year-old sets his notebook on the table in front of him and flips it open to an empty page. He scrawls a few notes with his pen.

The news meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. Monday morning. John pitches his story idea to the four other reporters, news manager, and journalism trainer.

“I attended a meeting yesterday led by the governor and deputy governor over the conflict near my boma [village] in Budi County,” John said.

Over the last month 56 people have been killed, and dozens of homes have been burnt to the ground, according to Community Development Support Service, a local organization working in the area.

Toposa and Didinga are the two main ethnic groups sharing this stretch of land, in South Sudan’s southeast, that extends from the town of Kapoeta all the way to the Kenyan border. In the Singaita radio newsroom, named after the seasonal river connecting these communities, both groups are represented.

All five Singaita FM reporters, two Didinga and three Toposa, sit around the table sharing phone numbers of local officials and residents to interview.

“We used to graze our [Didinga] cattle side-by-side and share water sources with Toposa,” John added.

Cattle raids are common in South Sudan, with one ethnic group or clan stealing cows from each other. This often leads to reprisal attacks, revenge killings, and sometimes kidnappings.

A history of conflict

South Sudan’s 20-month-long civil war and slow implementation of the August 2015 peace agreement (Agreement on the resolution of conflict in the Republic of South Sudan) by President Salva Kiir’s SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) and Riek Machar’s SPLA-In Opposition has led to a collapsing economy.

The transitional government of national unity, as stipulated in the peace agreement, is now trying to lead South Sudan back from the brink of failed state status, but fighting rages on in rural areas.

2016-06-14 12.03.45As the economy continues its downward spiral, young men still seek cattle to pay dowry, or bride price. Getting married is a tradition most young South Sudanese men feel the need to partake in, at any cost.

“It’s a part of our [Toposa] culture. If you haven’t raided cattle, it means you are not a man,” said Singaita FM reporter Lotiira Joseph. “After a successful raid, you receive a nickname from the color of the bulls stolen. This is tradition.”

Joseph, 26, goes on to say that he’s thankful his father sent him to a mission school as a boy when his uncle wanted him sent to a cattle camp, where South Sudanese boys learn to use weapons to protect cows.

“In school we learned the Bible. The ten commandments state thou shall not kill or steal,” he added.

In rural areas there is little to no access to education or economic opportunity. This leads young men to attempt to steal cattle, as livestock prices continue to skyrocket, rather than purchase it legitimately at the market.

“An increase in dowry causes these men to raid cattle. If there’s hunger or debt that needs to be paid, this also leads to violence. We need to stop this,” said Singaita FM reporter Mary Apoo.

“There is no difference between Didinga and Toposa in terms of culture. When young men want to get married they need cows!” she exclaimed.

Reconciliation on the radio

Mary, 25, picks up her Nokia phone to call Toposa and Didinga community leaders. She says by inviting them into Singaita FM to discuss the violence and the need for peace on-air, she’s acting the part of a mediator.

Mary Apoo interviewing Toposa women at Kapoeta market

Singaita FM reporter Mary Apoo interviewing Toposa women in Kapoeta town.

There is growing concern at the state level about the need to start a peace and reconciliation conference. According to officials, the aim will be to bring together Toposa and Didinga to discuss recent events and engage in a peaceful dialogue.

If peace and reconciliation works at a local level, it may be replicated on a national scale. Chapter five of the peace agreement calls for the establishment of a Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing within six months of the formation of the unity government.

As communities in the greater Eastern Equatoria region grapple with decades of conflict, a need to discuss accountability and provide justice to South Sudanese of all ethnic backgrounds must begin immediately.

John gathers his notebook, audio recorder and headphones. He leaves the newsroom to head out in to the community to report on the peace efforts for Singaita FM.

Singaita 88.3 FM broadcasts daily from Kapoeta South. It’s signal reaches parts of the surrounding Kapoeta East, North and Budi Counties, where cattle raids continue with impunity. Singaita FM is the newest member of Internews’ The Radio Community, a network of radio stations across South Sudan.

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Philippines 2016 Election Report CBC The World This Weekend

MANILA, Philippines – Thirty years since the People Power non-violent uprising that overthrew the corrupt regime of Ferdinand Marcos and martial law, Filipinos head to the polls.

The anti-establishment mayor of Davao city, Rodrigo Duterte, is favoured to win the presidential election, while Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is slated to be vice president.

Filipinos fear losing the democratic values they fought for in 1986 and return to strong man rule. Marcos has attempted to revise history to appeal to youth born after martial law. This story aired on CBC TWTW Sunday, May 8, 2016.

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#Thailand: Snapshots of #Chiangmai. @wanderermeow feeling empowered after learning about the work Empower Foundation does to advocate on behalf of sex workers in Thailand. She also did some excellent translation from Thai to English for this "farang [foreign]" journalist.
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