Fleeing Syria: Entire Towns Empty As Refugee Crisis Grows

Syrian refugee map

The UN is expecting up to one million Syrian refugees by mid 2013. Click to explore full map.

Faced with shelling and shortages of food, water and fuel, civilians have fled their homes, becoming refugees in neighboring countries or finding themselves internally displaced. Towns and villages across Latakia, Idlib, Hama and Dara’a governorates have been effectively emptied of their populations. Entire neighbourhoods in southern and eastern Damascus, Deir al-Zour and Aleppo have been razed. The downtown of Homs city has been devastated.
—Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. December 20, 2012.

The impact of Syria’s spiraling conflict can be increasingly seen in neighboring countries, as indiscriminate attacks are sending hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing from their homes across borders in search of safety and shelter. According to the latest update from the Independent International inquiry on Syria—released just hours ago—entire towns and villages have been emptied of their populations. The intensified fighting around Damascus and the mounting atrocities across the country are accompanied by increasing reports of sectarian violence. While we can’t predict the outcome of the conflict, one thing seems certain: the cycle of violence and displacement of civilians will go on for months. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

ACTION: Halt Forced Evictions in Georgia

A room containing a toilet has been allocated to be the main living area for an internally displaced family in Georgia.

This family is among about 5,000 people – out of 246,000 internally displaced persons – who have been forcibly evicted from their homes in Georgia since mid-June.

Amnesty International fears that more forced evictions are likely to take place in the near future.

Take action to tell Georgia’s president to stop forced evictions in Georgia and secure human rights for the displaced.

Georgian Government Must Secure Human Rights for its Displaced

Two years after the Georgian-Russian war, about 6 per cent of the population of Georgia (some 246,000 people) are displaced within the post-Soviet country. Most of the displaced, however, are not from the 2008 war. Instead, 220,000 left their homes during conflicts that took place in the early 90s. Amnesty International’s newest report, Georgia: In the Waiting Room, documents shortcomings in internally displaced persons’ (IDPs’) access to economic and social rights, as well as the deprivation and marginalization they still experience.

Back in 2008, Amnesty International USA’s Science for Human Rights Program documented destruction of property in the war through satellite imagery comparison reaching the following conclusion:

Not only do the images reveal significant damage in the region after the end of the major hostilities from the first two days of the conflict, but they support eyewitness accounts of arson attacks by South Ossetian forces, paramilitary groups and privately armed individuals against property owned by ethnic Georgians. The images support AI assessments that the majority of the damage in Tskhinvali was sustained prior to August 10, and that more than 100 civilian houses in Tskhinvali were hit by shelling during the initial Georgian bombardment.

Satellite image of the Georgian village of Tamarasheni, South Ossetia, taken on 19 August. The red dots represent all buildings sustaining damage (152 structures in total). © 2009 ImageSat. All Rights Reserved. Produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Abandoned and betrayed – why Haiti’s displaced people feel neglected by the state

By Chiara Liguori, Caribbean researcher for Amnesty International (Originally posted on Livewire)

Where is the state in Haiti? In the week we have spent here so far, we have been hearing this question again and again. Displaced people living in makeshift camps haven’t seen any improvement in their living conditions in the six months since the earthquake, and in some cases their situation has been deteriorating. They wonder if they still have authorities to address and if they will ever get any help. They feel abandoned and betrayed.

Dozens of people living in makeshift camps erected on private land are facing the threat of forced expulsion. © Amnesty International.

In most cases, the presence of the state is visible only through unpopular decisions. Since early April, the government announced the end of food distribution because it found that aid was creating dependency and blocking the national economy. Since then, more and more people have reported difficulties in acquiring adequate food. Reports of malnutrition are increasing and more and more girls are being forced into sexual exploitation in order to eat. Many parents face a hard choice between feeding their children or sending them to school.

The governmental decision to interrupt distribution of food aid has been widely publicized on radio. However, little or no information seems to have been available concerning state plans for relocation and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. Probably because a plan still does not exist. The large majority of displaced people continue to occupy public squares, football pitches and school yards without knowing if something (and what) is being prepared for them by the authorities.

What is clear to them is that their life will become even more dire if nothing is done. Dozens of people living in makeshift camps erected on private land are facing the threat of forced expulsion by the land owners, who are claiming back their land, or at least some form of compensation for loss of profit. In some cases, people have already been evicted or have fled following intimidation. A displaced woman confirmed: “The state needs to prepare a plan for people on private lands. If the state has no plan, people will end up in the streets once again.”


Pakistan Tops the List in Number of Newly Displaced

A new study by the United Nations has found that Pakistan has the highest number of newly internally displaced people (IDP). According to the report, in 2009, approximately 3 million people were newly displaced.

Of course, Pakistan isn’t the only country with such depressing statistics. Pakistan’s internally displaced are only 3 million of 27 million IDPs worldwide. The country with the most internally displaced people continues to be Sudan with nearly 5 million. But what these numbers really show us is that the victims of war and conflict are always civilians and that the callous disregard of human rights on the part of warring factions, both government and rebel forces, exacerbates this human rights crisis.

Recently, we launched an interactive website, Eyes on Pakistan, which helps to visualize the trends of the conflict in Pakistan. Many IDPs in Pakistan do not have access to organized camps and often rely on host communities and already existing slums for their safety. And despite their attempts to flee the fighting, displaced communities still come face to face with the conflict every day. In April, two suicide bombers killed 38 people and wounded another 65 at a center for the displaced. These human rights violations are then exacerbated by concerns for public health, mental health, and food supplies, not only for those displaced but also for the host communities.

In a more positive note, the UN report also notes that 2009 saw the largest number of returnees. While this may mean that people feel safe enough to return home, we’re left wondering what it is that they are returning to. Too often, their communities have been left in ruin. The returnees are left to rebuild their shattered homes and communities, with little help from their governments.

Amnesty Researchers On-the-Ground in Chad

Amnesty International researchers are currently on-the-ground in Chad investigating the growing numbers of refugees streaming across the border from Darfur.  Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty Canada, has been documenting the mission online.  Here is an excerpt from a podcast posted yesterday detailing the still desperate situation:

Darfuri refugee women and girls at Bredjing camp filling water containers.

Darfuri refugee women and girls at Bredjing camp filling water containers.

“They are there on their own.”

Those words have been haunting us all day.   We have now come further east from Abéché to Farchana.  Within perhaps a 30-40 kilometre semi-circle around Farchana there are 3 major refugee camps as well as 12 sites for displaced Chadians.  Farchana itself is not far from Chad’s border with Darfur.

Our intention today had been to travel to one of the sites for displaced Chadians in this region, Arkoum.  We want to make it to several IDP sites during our mission because we have certainly come to understand that their safety and well-being is extremely precarious.

It is a universal story.  Without any doubt refugees, including Darfuri refugees here in Chad, face considerable hardship, insecurity and violence.  The international community does, however, have a much clearer role and responsibility for their protection.  Not so with IDP’s, who remain, of course, citizens of the country, in this case Chad.  Here, as is so often the case around the world, Chadians displaced within their own country have only minimal protection.  Largely abandoned by their own government and not fully protected by the international community.  And of course, still very near to the terrible human rights violations that forced them from their homes in the first place.

It is so important that we get access to some of the sites, to see and hear first hand the challenges displaced Chadians face.   But while the refugee camps are all within fairly easy reach of the town of Farchana, our base, the sites for IDP’s are more remote and difficult to reach.  And because of growing security concerns in eastern Chad, in the wake of a rebel incursion far to the south of here in Goz Beida, the UN decided today to cancel plans for a convoy to Arkoum, which we would have been part of.  Instead we travelled to a nearby refugee camp, Bredjing, and spent the day working with Darfuri refugees.

A human rights monitor with the Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Rights in Chad who is usually based in Arkoum had intended to travel back out to the site with us today, but was obviously unable to do so.  His worry was palpable.  It was he who kept saying: “ils sont là; tous seuls” – they are there on their own.

It all comes down to security.  In the midst of insecurity, the full range of human rights teeters and collapses.  That of course has been the horrible reality in both eastern Chad and Darfur for the past five years.  Insecurity means killings and rape; homes destroyed and crops burned.  But it also means education, health, food and water supplies, and livelihoods are also turned inside out.

And it is still insecurity that reigns in eastern Chad.  When I was here with an Amnesty team in late 2006 the local population, thousands of whom had recently been chased from their homes in a brutal wave of attacks, felt completely abandoned.   The sad truth is that 2 ½ years later, even though international troops and police are now deployed here, displaced Chadians remain at terrible risk.

And whenever security concerns arise here, as they have again, they are the first to be cut off, the first to be abandoned.  In so many respects, the most vulnerable yet the least protected.  As our friend kept saying, they are on their own.  We must find a way to stand with them.

– Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada

To listen to the original podcast and read more about the mission to Chad, visit the Amnesty Canada Mission Blog.

How Did Sri Lanka End Up in this Crisis?

While an estimated 50,000 civilians are still trapped in Sri Lanka’s shrinking war zone, a diplomatic push for a humanitarian ceasefire by the British and French foreign ministers did not yield any success yet. For anyone who is interested in how Sri Lanka ended up at this point, IRIN today published a very detailed and useful chronology of the conflict:

1972: Velupillai Prabhakaran forms a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT).

1976: TNT changes its name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

1983, 23 July: LTTE attacks an army patrol in Jaffna, killing 13 soldiers and sparking anti-Tamil riots around the country, leaving several hundred dead.

1985, 8 July: Talks held between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE for the first time in Thimpu, Bhutan.

1987, 29 July: Indo-Sri Lanka pact signed between President JR Jayawardena and Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi. India deploys peace-keeping force to north and east Sri Lanka.

1990, 24 March: India withdraws troops due to clashes with the LTTE killing more than 1,200 Indian troops.

1990 June: LTTE kills hundreds of policemen in the east following breakdown of talks between the Tigers and the government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

1991, 21 May: Gandhi killed, allegedly by an LTTE suicide bomber.

1993, 1 May: Premadasa killed by LTTE suicide cadres during a May Day rally in Colombo.

1995, January: Government of Chandrika Kumaratunge and LTTE agree to talks.

1995, April: Talks fail after the Tigers blow up two navy vessels.

1995, 2 December: Jaffna, the northern cultural and political nerve centre of the Tamils, falls under Sri Lanka army control.

1996, 31 January: Suicide bomb attack on the Central Bank building in the heart of Colombo kills more than 100 and injures 1,400.

1996, 24 July: Alleged LTTE bomb blast in a railway station in Dehiwela, south of Colombo, kills 70.

1996, 18 July: Army camp overrun by the LTTE near the northeastern town of Mullaitivu. More than 1,000 troops killed.

1998, 25 January: Suicide bomb attack on Sri Lanka’s holiest Buddhist shrine, Dhaladha Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), in the central town of Kandy, kills 17 people.

1998, 26 September: Tigers overrun Kilinochchi army camp, killing more than 1,000 government soldiers.

1999, December: LTTE attempts to assassinate President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge; he survives.

2000, April: LTTE recaptures Elephant Pass, inflicting heavy damage on the Sri Lankan forces during the operation Unceasing Waves III.

2001, July: An LTTE suicide attack on Bandaranaike International airport kills 14.

2002, 22 February: Ceasefire agreement, brokered by Norway, signed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Prabhakaran.

2002, December: Government and LTTE agree to share power at peace talks in Norway.

2003 April: LTTE pulls out of talks after six rounds of negotiations, citing inadequate steps taken to rebuild war-hit areas.

2004, 3 March: LTTE eastern military head, Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna Amman, splits from the LTTE.

2005, 7 February: LTTE political head for the eastern Districts of Batticaloa and Ampara, E. Kousalyan, killed with three others in Batticaloa town.

2005, 12 August: Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar killed by suspected LTTE snipers in Colombo.

2005, 4 December: The LTTE commences claymore and grenade attacks targeting the Sri Lankan troops in the Jaffna peninsula.

2006, 15 June: More than 60 civilians killed in claymore mine attack allegedly by LTTE, targeting a civilian bus in Kebithigollewa, nearly 200km from Colombo.

2006, 20 July: LTTE closes the sluice gates at Mavilaru, south of the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee. Clashes erupt as army launches operations to gain control and succeeds.

2007, 5 January: Bomb attacks on public transport begin in Nittambuwa, about 20km east of Colombo, killing six people. Several bombs target public transport in the following months. The government blames the LTTE for the attacks.

2007, March: LTTE carries out its first air raid on Katunayake air base, about 20km north of Colombo. The Tigers also conduct an air attack on 29 April during the Cricket World Cup Final. The attack targets two fuel-storage facilities on the outskirts of Colombo. The Tigers carry out at least nine air attacks before 20 February 2009.

2007, 15 January: Military captures Vakarai, a coastal town in Batticaloa District in the Eastern province.

2007, 11 July: military captures Thoppigala, the last of the LTTE strongholds in the east after 13 years, thereby regaining the entire eastern province from the LTTE.

2007, 2 November: LTTE political wing leader SP Tamilselvan killed in an air raid by the Sri Lankan Air Force.

2008, 2 January: The government says it will withdraw from ceasefire agreement and does so on 14 January and intensifies attacks on the Tigers. The LTTE, however, states it will stick to the agreement.

2008, September: All international humanitarian agencies and their foreign staff operating in the LTTE-controlled Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts are ordered by the government to relocate to Vavuniya.

2009, 2 January: Government troops capture Kilinochchi, de-facto capital of the LTTE, after 10 years.

2009, 25 January: Mullaithivu town captured by government troops.

2009, 12 February: Government declares a 12km-long “no fire zone” (NFZ) along the Mullaitivu western coast and calls on civilians to move into it for their own safety.

2009, 20 February: The LTTE conducts a suicide air attack in Colombo.

2008 March: Sri Lankan troops launch operations to regain areas in the Vanni from the western flank. The number of civilians in the NFZ continues to grow.

2009, 14 April: LTTE says it is ready for negotiations, but the government refuses the offer, insisting it should lay down arms.

2009, 20 April: Thousands of civilians trapped in the NFZ cross into government-controlled areas where they are screened and placed in camps. Government gives LTTE 24 hours to surrender.

2009, 22 April: Former LTTE media coordinator Velayutham Dayanidhi, alias Daya Master, and the translator of former LTTE political wing head SP Tamilselvan, Kumar Pancharathnam, alias George, surrender to the military.

2009, 26 April: The LTTE declares a unilateral ceasefire as government forces surround an ever-shrinking NFZ. The government rejects the declaration, calling it a “joke”. The UN estimates 50,000 civilians remain trapped in the NFZ.

2009, 27 April: Facing with diplomatic pressure to declare a ceasefire, Sri Lanka says its military is no longer using heavy weaponry and aerial bombing against the remaining few hundred rebels still fighting in the NFZ.

2009, 28 April: With more than 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps in Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes urges that civilians who have been screened be given the chance to leave the camps and to rely on friends and family elsewhere.

(Trying to) block out the world

On Thursday, March 12th, Amnesty USA posted a new web action aimed at getting Sudan to reinstate the operations of 13 international humanitarian aid agencies that were kicked out of Sudan and 3 domestic agencies that were shut down after the International Criminal cort issued an arrst warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.  The action targets the UN Missions of the African Union and League of Arab States and the Sudanese Embassy in the U.S.  

On Friday, calls from activists started pouring in, all with the same complaint: their emails to all three targets were being returned as “undeliverable”.   It would seem that facing a deluge of emails, the targets blocked their accounts from receiving incoming messages. So, now, Amnesty is asking activists to fax messages to these three targets urging them to persuade Sudan to rescind its orders.

The very people who ought to be looking out for the victims of the conflict in Darfur are trying to block words from reaching them that urge the continuance of life-saving support for millions of vulnerable men, women, and children.  Just as Sudan would pull the plug on this life-support system, people who could persuade Sudanese authorities to reinstate these 16 key aid groups are plugging their ears to the world’s outrage and urgent plea for help.

Justice for Darfur

In the next few weeks, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is expected to hand down its decision about indicting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.  Organizations such as the African Union and the Arab League are lobbying the UN Security Council to implement Article 16 of the Rome Statute, which would suspend any deliberations on the case against Bashir for a year with the possibility of an annual renewal.


We need to be wary of using the possibility of International Criminal Court indictments as a carrot and stick in seeking to end the conflict in Darfur.  Deferring the case of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir sets up a catastrophic precedent whereby politics dictates the course of justice.  Amnesty International has advocated against such interference in the ICC from the court’s inception.


More importantly, we must not forget what Darfuris directly affected by nearly six years of state-sponsored terror want – justice.  Tens of thousands of Darfuris have signed petitions asking that the case against Bashir not be deferred.  We must listen to them.