Libyan authorities say they have raided a secret prison in a southeastern city used by human traffickers and freed at last 156 African migrants – including 15 women and five children.
The raid in the city of Kufra took place on February 16 after a migrant managed to escape a house-turned-prison last week and reported to authorities that he and other migrants were held and tortured by traffickers there, the Kufra security bureau said.
Security forces arrested at least six traffickers and referred them to prosecutors for further investigation on Sunday, it said.
The rescued migrants, who were from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, were taken to a shelter where they were given food, clothes and blankets.
The raid shows the perils that refugees and migrants face in conflict-stricken Libya, which has emerged as an integral transit point for African and Arab migrants fleeing war and poverty to Europe.
Libya descended into chaos following the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi. The country is split between an internationally recognised government based in the capital, Tripoli, and a rival administration in the country’s east.
Traffickers have exploited the chaos and often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous Mediterranean route.
Thousands have drowned along the way, while others have ended up detained in squalid smugglers’ pens or crowded detention centres.
ADDIS ABABA,- When migrant worker Lula flew home to Ethiopia after eight months in Saudi detention, she thought her ordeal was over.
But instead of returning to her family in Tigray, she found herself stranded in the capital, unable to contact her parents and daughter as fighting has cut off the northern region and raised fears of a humanitarian crisis.
Lula is one of dozens of migrants who returned from Saudi Arabia last week to find that internet and phone connections to Tigray have been suspended and roads and airports closed.
“I have tried to contact my family but the phone is not working,” 29-year-old Lula, who declined to publish her full name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Addis Ababa.
“It is concerning not to hear from them at this point.”
Two weeks of escalating conflict between federal forces and rebellious local rulers has killed hundreds and pushed 30,000 refugees into Sudan, leading the United Nations (U.N.) to warn on Tuesday of a “full-scale humanitarian crisis”.
It has called into question whether Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Africa’s youngest leader and last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, can hold his fractured nation together ahead of national elections next year.
More than 14,000 Ethiopians have returned from Saudi Arabia since March, according to the U.N. migration agency, IOM, where many like Lula were detained in camps that the U.N. described as overcrowded and unsanitary.
Every year, it is estimated that tens of thousands of Ethiopians travel irregularly to the Gulf in search of better paid work. Many end up exploited as maids or on building sites.
More than 80 out of about 260 migrants who flew home to Ethiopia after the conflict broke out had to stay in a hotel in Addis Ababa because they came from Tigray and had no relatives in the capital. This included about 20 minors.
Shimeles Belaso, a director at Ethiopia’s ministry of peace said that the stranded returnees will be transported to their respective towns and villages when the situation calms.
“There are now security issues … just letting them go there is troublesome and (they could) be troubled and endangered,” he said.
“Therefore, the Ethiopian government is handling them, covering all the necessary costs for them.”
Lula was relieved that she had a friend in Addis Ababa who was willing to take her in, providing some home comforts and a familiar face to help brush away her painful memories of prison in Saudi Arabia.
Her dream of working abroad fell flat this year when rebels in Yemen – through which she and scores of other migrants were travelling to Saudi Arabia – rounded them up, while shooting and calling them “coronavirus carriers” and took them to the border.
Lula was one of thousands of migrants who were held in Saudi detention centres, described by Human Rights Watch as squalid and abusive, before being repatriated to Ethiopia.
“There were illnesses, hunger, deaths,” Lula recalled.
“It is better to beg in your own country,” said Lula, who has twice made the dangerous journey to Saudi Arabia, adding that she would not return there illegally.
Kassahun Habtamu, assistant professor at the School of Psychology of Addis Ababa University, said that the conflict and ensuing communications blackout put returnees at risk of developing mental health problems.
“Their migration experience is a very big burden by itself,” said Kassahun, who has studied the mental health problems faced by Ethiopian returnees from the Middle East.
“And this conflict now … they don’t know what is happening to their family members, they can’t even tell them that they are back. So this is a double burden, and it is very, very stressful.”
For Lula, the only option now is to find work in Addis Ababa while waiting for the conflict to end.
“I’m worried not to find a job, to have no money,” she said, after days of fruitless searching in the capital. “If the roads were open and I could see my daughter, I would go today.”
New Delhi — Sr. Sujata Jena could not sleep after seeing a picture of a young girl with a heavy load on her head in a WhatsApp message. “Her stained face, wet with tears, haunted me,” the member of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary told Global Sisters Report.
The photo was being circulated to illustrate the plight of hundreds of thousands of people who hit India’s highways following a nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
As Jena saw on social media platforms pictures and videos from around India, the 38-year-old lawyer and nun set out to help migrants reach home. One video clip showed 10 workers crammed into a room in Kerala, a southwestern Indian state. The men said their employer had locked them up and that they desperately needed help to reach their villages in Odisha, more than 1,000 miles northeast.
As the lockdown confined her to her convent in the Odisha capital of Bhubaneswar, Jena on May 17 joined a social media network that helps the stranded migrants.
By June 24, more than 300 migrants, including the 10, stranded in southern Indian states reached their native villages in states such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal in eastern India, thanks to Jena’s efforts.
Jena is among hundreds of Catholic nuns who are on the front lines as the church reaches out to migrant laborers affected by the initial 21-day lockdown Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed on India’s 1.3 billion people from midnight of March 25 with only four hours’ notice.
The lockdown, considered the world’s largest and toughest attempt to contain the pandemic, has been extended five times with varying degrees of relaxation until July 31.
The lockdown suddenly rendered jobless millions of migrant laborers in cities.
“As they lost the job, they had no place to stay, no income and no security,” says Salesian Fr. Joe Mannath, national secretary of the Conference of Religious India, the association of men and women religious major superiors in the country.
As the lockdown halted India’s public transport system, migrant laborers in cities swarmed highways and roads within a few days. Most walked and some cycled to their native villages, hundreds of miles away.
Mannath says the fear of starvation and contracting the coronavirus led to a “chaotic exodus” of workers from cities.
Church groups are among those trying to help these workers.
On June 6, Caritas India, the Indian bishops’ aid agency, informed a webinar that the church reached more than 11 million people during the lockdown period, including many migrant workers.
Mannath, who coordinates India’s more than 130,000 religious, including nearly 100,000 women, claims the bulk of that service was carried out by the religious.
More than 1,500 people live in a tent city without running water or adequate sanitation at the border of Texas and Mexico, while they apply for asylum in the U.S. Coronavirus has arrived in the camp, a religious sister has said, which should call attention to the condition in which asylum seekers are living.
“These families are living in donated tents at the mercy of extreme weather. Here, the temperatures can rise above 100 degrees, and when it rains, the downpours knock down their only refuge and leave them in mud pits,”Sr. Norma Pimentel wrote in a July 5 op-ed for the Washington Post.
“Imagine living in such uncertainty, where even such basics as running water and a place to shower are nonexistent; where you have to depend on outside organizations for food, which you have to cook over a campfire. Like the prisons and nursing homes that have been breeding grounds for the virus in the United States, the camp is crowded with people who for now are not going anywhere.”
Pimentel, a sister of the Missionaries of Jesus, is director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, in Texas.
“Do not ignore the suffering occurring here,” she urged, explaining that the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, has more than 1,500 men, women, and children, in a make-shift tent city, as they wait for their applications for admittance to the United States to be processed.
The camp has been in existence since last summer, after the federal government initiated the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which allow U.S. officials to return undocumented migrants to Mexico pending adjudication of their claims for asylum.
Addressing the situation is more, not less urgent because of the coronavirus pandemic, she said, noting that the camp recorded its first positive case last week.
That the camp has remained free of coronavirus for so long was, she said, was “remarkable” and a testament to the dedication of volunteers working to serve the people enduring emotional and practical hardship.
While the one patient in the camp, a woman from the interior of Mexico, was quickly isolated and removed to a nearby medical center run by Doctors Without Borders, Pimentel said that the conditions make the camp a potential outbreak waiting to happen, and that because of the pandemic, the camp has become less safe.
Because of the pandemic, volunteer activity in the camp is limited to a small number, who are able to provide assistance with nourishment and some health care needs, Pimentel wrote.
“All this makes it even harder to keep the camps safe from the cartels and gangsters who continue to prey on these largely defenseless asylum seekers.”
The camp’s existence, said Pimentel, was the unnecessary consequence of the government’s asylum protocols, which itself fail to “address people with dignity.”
“We should not have people forced to wait for asylum — trying to find safety for themselves and their families — while camped outside in the elements for months at a time. It is contrary to our laws and the dictates of humanity.”
Pimentel said that “the story of these asylum seekers has faded from the front pages of U.S. newspapers and from television screens but the cruel and unfair situation continues.”
“It is time that we put an end to it, and to end the MPP policy. Until that happens, we will continue to help those who are defenseless, whose only real ‘crime’ is trying to seek protection for themselves and their families.”
The Trump administration has made several changes to asylum and immigration policy over the past 18 months, all of which have come under sustained criticism from the bishops of the United States.
In September 2019, after the Trump administration announced a rule limiting asylum eligibility to those who had already applied and been rejected for asylum in those countries passed through on their way to the U.S, Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, head of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, issued a strong critique of the change.
Vásquez said the rule “jeopardizes the safety of vulnerable individuals and families fleeing persecution and threatens family unity” and “undermines our nation’s tradition of being a global leader providing and being a catalyst for others to provide humanitarian protection to those in need.”
In November 2019, Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville of Washington, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, and Sean Callahan, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ international relief agency signed a joint statement on the Trump administration’s changes to asylum policy.
Administration policy “undermines U.S. moral leadership in protecting vulnerable populations and risks further destabilizing the region,” they said.
“To preserve and uphold the sacredness and dignity of all human life, we cannot turn our back on families and individuals in desperate need of help.”
“In light of the Gospel, let us always remember we are invited to embrace the foreigner and to take care of this human person.”
PANAJI, INDIA — Sr. Marie Lou Barboza was shocked to see the condition of a teenage girl one of her volunteers brought to her. The girl had burn marks on her body, and her unkempt hair was cut haphazardly. She would become hysterical when someone approached her. Barboza discovered that her condition was the result of maltreatment by her employer.
“That incident compelled us to begin our work among migrants,” the member of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary told Global Sisters Report earlier this year in an interview at the congregation’s apartment in Porvorim, just north of Panaji, in Goa state.
That incident was seven years ago when Barboza was working for the National Domestic Workers’ Movement in the west coast Indian state, the country’s tourism hub that draws thousands of laborers from other regions.
Barboza’s congregation, a partner of the workers movement, sent two sisters to Goa in 2011 to aid domestic workers. Barboza joined them two years later after working with the movement in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, and Tamil Nadu, a southern Indian state.
After meeting the mistreated girl, Barboza began visiting parishes and homes of migrant domestic workers in Goa. She went by herself to visit the slums, as her two elderly companions could not travel.
Later, two young nuns joined Barboza to work exclusively with about 1,600 migrants, mostly tribal women of various religions from states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha and Telangana. The nuns’ three-bedroom apartment has become the meeting place for the migrants, who work in different parts of Goa, a small state.
While migrant women work as domestic help and serve in restaurants, shops and roadside kiosks, the men build houses and roads or work as waiters and bakers.
Barboza, who is 67, says many migrants refuse to join the workers movement because of threats from employers, who dislike the job demands the activists are seeking.
“We send notices to employers if they pay unjust wages,” Barboza said as she took GSR to a slum of migrant workers in Saligao, 3.5 miles from the nuns’ residence.
The nun said the migrants want to maintain their self-respect. “They are not pleased if we take photographs” of them and their families.
A 12-hour day for the sister
The nun’s weekday routine begins at 6 a.m. when she sets out with her lunchbox to visit families in the slums to help them get food and medical aid. She returns to the convent at 6 p.m., exhausted.
“My heart goes out for the migrants. They struggle for their living. They are also forced to find new places to stay every two years,” she said as we moved from one family to another. Employers keep migrants on the move, fearing that, after two years, they can claim permanent residency on their property. In addition, when new tenants come, landlords can raise the room rents.
Sunday is the busiest day for the nuns because a string of workers come with their families to chitchat with the sisters and sometimes stay for a meal. “That is our life. We have committed to serve the poor, the migrants, the domestic servants, daily laborers,” Barboza explained.
Barboza got a call one night from another teenage girl, complaining about her employer trying to molest her when his wife was away to have her baby. “I called the man and asked him to bring the girl to our residence at once. He brought her and apologized for his misbehavior. He requested me to send the girl back to work for him, but I refused.”
But her decision brought another problem for the sisters, whose quarters are limited. She had to find a place for the girl to stay at night. “There are times when we have to provide accommodation and food to such people.”
Besides attending to such problems, the nuns visit the migrants’ houses, focus on the faith formation of the Catholics among them, and create awareness about their rights.
Pushback from employers and locals
Barboza says her involvement with the migrant workers was challenging in the beginning. “It was tough to get acceptance of our mission by the employers.”
Her troubles were not limited to employers alone. Even local people and government officers ridiculed her for spending time on behalf of the migrants. They warned that the migrants would bring more like them to Goa and create problems for locals.
“They told me to find locals as domestic workers and help them first. Then look after the migrants. I took the challenge and found many local domestic workers. The government officials were willing to help them, but the local maids were not enough to meet the demand,” she said.
She says even their parish priest could not understand their involvement with the migrants, until she took the girl who had burn marks to him so that he could pray over her to dispel her fear.
BARCELONA, – Spain must urgently protect thousands of women brought over from Morocco as essential workers to pick strawberries during the new coronavirus pandemic in abysmal conditions and without basic hygiene, a United Nations rapporteur said on Wednesday.
About 3,000 Moroccan women travel to Spain, which provides more than half of Europe’s fruit and vegetables, to harvest strawberries in southern Huelva province each year, despite decades of complaints of exploitation, unpaid wages and abuse.
“These workers have been deliberately put at risk during the pandemic,” said Olivier De Schutter, who became the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in March.
“Poor housing conditions, overcrowded settlements, poor access to water and sanitation … no ventilation of work spaces … absence of cleaning of any surfaces or objects – this is the most shocking,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
De Schutter said the situation amounted to forced labour, as the migrant women were coerced to work in unsafe conditions that violated international human rights standards and domestic laws.
A spokeswoman for the ministry of labour and social economy said that it was inspecting the working conditions of migrant agricultural workers across Spain, regardless of their country of origin.
“The Inspectorate of Labour and Social Security, an autonomous agency of the Ministry of Labour and Social Economy, has programmed a specific campaign for this year, as with previous years, to check working conditions,” she said.
“The Inspectorate applies the regulation for the protection of workers’ rights with the forcefulness that the situation requires in each case.”
GARDEN OF EUROPE
Morocco and Spain signed an agreement in 2001, granting women temporary visas to harvest fruit in Spain, promising much higher wages than they could earn at home in north Africa.
“Morocco is very much at fault for not diligently ensuring that the workers’ rights are met,” De Schutter said, adding that the strawberry pickers in Huelva were “just one example of a widespread phenomenon in Spain”.
Last year, 10 Moroccan women filed a lawsuit claiming they had been trafficked, assaulted and exploited while picking strawberries in Huelva. It has yet to reach a verdict.
Eight rights groups lodged an appeal with the U.N. last month, asking it to investigate the conditions for Moroccan migrants on Spanish farms working without gloves, masks or social distancing protections against COVID-19.
“Many consumers depend on Spain – it really is the garden of Europe – and yet a large proportion of our fruit and vegetables come from workers living in these substandard conditions,” said De Schutter, a Belgian legal scholar.
The women migrants – many of whom had left their children behind in Morocco – systematically did unpaid overtime, yet as seasonal workers were completely powerless, he said.
“These women are misinformed about what they can expect in Spain. Obviously they don’t speak Spanish and they are not able to stand up for their rights as they cannot form unions,” De Schutter said. “They are very vulnerable to being exploited.”
ARCHIVE PHOTO: A labourer works at a garment factory in Bangkok, Thailand, May 30, 2016. Picture taken May 30, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
BANGKOK, – More than 150 Burmese migrants who were illegally charged excessive recruitment fees to secure jobs at a Thai garment factory have won a rare compensation payout, company officials and human rights groups said on Friday.
Sheico Thailand, which makes wetsuits for outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, has made payments totalling more than $100,000 to about 170 Burmese workers, according to Finnwatch, a Finland-based watchdog group.
Between 2018 and 2019, the migrant workers had paid up to 18,500 baht ($559) in recruitment fees to agents and to Sheico in order to secure jobs at the factory, according to Thai charity Migrant Workers Rights Network.
Under Thai law, such fees – that cover visa costs, a health checkup and a work permit – are capped at 2,910 baht.
“We work closely with our suppliers to educate them on the human rights issues that recruitment fees can lead to and offer solutions to mitigate the risks of working with third party labour recruiters,” said Thuy Nguyen, a manager for California-based Patagonia, which confirmed compensation had been paid.
“We value Sheico’s commitment to meeting Patagonia’s migrant worker employment standards and capacity to continuously improve,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
Patagonia, which is known for its environmental activism, began work on eliminating recruitment fees within its supply chain in 2014 and has developed a set of standards for migrant workers hired by its suppliers.
Sheico, which has its headquarters in Taiwan, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Thailand has about 3 million registered migrant workers mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, but the United Nations estimates that at least 2 million more are working informally across the country.
There has been an increased effort to tackle excessive recruitment fees and debt bondage among migrants workers, as more industries and their consumers become aware of the problem.
In December, Cal-Comp Electronics, which supplies to tech giants such as HP Inc – said it would reimburse its workers in Thailand after a report found the Burmese migrants had to pay excessive recruitment fees.
Patagonia quickly identified abuses in the recruitment practices of its suppliers and took swift action to fix the problem, said Finnwatch researcher Anu Kultalahti.
“Patagonia’s response on this case was in many ways exemplary and provides a good model for other companies that face similar situations,” said Kultalahti.
“Such action requires countries to make human rights due diligence mandatory for companies. Voluntary measures have yielded unsatisfactory results, which is why Patagonia’s example is still so rare.”