|Santa gives gifts to a Christian family in Bethlehem|
With the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ often taken to be synonymous with ‘Jews’ and ‘Muslims’ in our media, it’s easy to forget that Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus, has been home to a large and vibrant Christian community, with its rich religious and spiritual traditions, since the founding of the faith.
Palestinian Christians are often the descendants of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world; and their diversity is clear with Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Copts, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Maronites and other Protestant denominations worshiping in Palestine alongside the Greek Orthodox majority.
However today it is thought that only 2.4% of the population of Palestine are Christian. This is not, as some commentators have attempted to argue, the result of Islamic Fundamentalism, or Christians being forced out of their homeland as a result of the pressures imposed on them by their Muslim neighbours. Rather, in many respects Palestine shines as the region’s beacon of harmony between Muslims and Christians.
The “Kafala” or “sponsorship” system is used to monitor the construction and domestic migrant workers in the Arab Gulf States as well as in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan. This system means that expatriate workers can only enter, work, and leave those countries with the assistance or explicit permission of their sponsor or employer, who is a local in the country. The employer (or “Kafile”) is responsible for their visa and legal status.
This Kafala system has been widely criticised for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussions, despite the legislations that are supposedly in place. Many migrant workers become, in effect, slaves. Frequency of movement, insufficient legislation and harmful practices, such as the Kafala system, have also contributed towards the establishment of the UAE as a destination for sex tourism.
While producing our preliminary research on the sex trafficking of Iraqi women and girls we came across the case of 16 year old Husn. Following her mother’s death, her father agreed to sell her for $6,000 to work as domestic worker for a family in Dubai for one year, believing she would be returned at the end of the contract. In fact, upon being taken to Dubai, Husn’s virginity was sold to a local man and she was imprisoned with 20 other young girls, all of whom were forced to engage in prostitution.
Husn’s case is heart-breaking, but it is not the only one. Upon arrival into the UAE, many vulnerable women and girls have their passports taken from them by those who have organised their passage, and face forced prostitution and bonded labour to repay their travel expenses. We have uncovered a shocking host of anecdotal evidence suggesting that in addition to migrants entering the GCC states legally, as many as half of all women illegally trafficked into Dubai are forced into prostitution. With no passport, and a justice system that favours the sponsor, those who manage to escape their captors are likely to face a prison sentence themselves and have even been referred to as ‘threats to national security’ by government officials.
The situation for many of the region’s domestic workers, construction workers and vulnerable migrants and refugees can often seem hopeless, but there is a way to move forward. Jordan is in many respects a beacon state for the protection of migrant workers, and can offer a model for change in the GCC states. Migrant domestic workers have the right to medical care, life insurance, improved working conditions including rest days and the guarantee of repatriation at the end of their contract. Once excluded from labour laws, Jordan’s migrant worker’s rights are to a much greater extent protected both by domestic legislation and by Jordan’s ratification of numerous international conventions. We must work with ministries, such as those of the UAE, to take the good from Jordan and encourage a monumental shift in the treatment of the UAE’s workers.
Each year on Human Rights Day, advocates for human rights across the world focus on one central theme. Today, our attentions turn to the rights of all to be included in the political life of their countries, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Recent times have been marked by individuals coming together in the pursuance of these rights across the MENA region. The uprisings that begun in Tunisia following the self-immolation of 26 year old Mohamed Bouazizi and which cascaded most notably to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria brought with them new hope of achieving a successful – if prolonged – transition towards democracy.
In the Gulf, these uprisings have been restricted for the most part to Bahrain. Demonstrations of discontent have been kept to a drastically smaller scale on the East Coast ‘Qatif’ region of Saudi Arabia and in Kuwait, which has seen some resurgence in anti-government protests, particularly in response to a ban on protests.
This weekend, as we were preparing to celebrate Human Rights Day 2012, HH Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, the Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister, addressed an audience at the Eighth International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Regional Security Summit. His Highness asserted that the Persian Gulf states ‘cannot tolerate instability’ that could lead to challenges to the Western-allied leaders from Kuwait to Oman. His comments echo calls by Gulf authorities to widen crackdowns on perceived opposition and seek to justify last year’s intervention in Bahrain, the Gulf’s main flashpoint, to quash the uprising of the kingdom’s Shiite-led majority.
It is now a little over a year since Bahrain issued a sweeping ban on all public gatherings and rallies; with the Interior Minister announcing that such gatherings are associated with violence, rioting and attacks on public and private property. He said that the ban would continue until “security is maintained” and suggested that one of his main concerns was the fact the rallies expressed opposition to the government and ruling family.
With the increasing tension in Bahrain, the unleashing of repression by the authorities, and incidents of violence on both sides of the divide, Bahrain is at a cross roads, and many fear that the Bahraini citizens are no closer to enjoying full and equal access to their political rights.
On Human Rights Day, our attention turns to some of the core freedoms outlined within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we urge the Kingdom of Bahrain to award these, the most basic and fundamental rights, to its people.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Growing up can be hard anywhere in the world, but growing up a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon can be even harder.
|Young girls in the Shatila camp, Beirut|
In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are denied fair and equal access to the state education system. With the cost of funding a child’s place in a private school being one of the highest in the region and Palestinian refugees being some of the most disadvantaged and deprived in the region, Palestinian children rely on UNRWA and non-profit organisations for the provision of both primary and secondary education.
Every child should be awarded the right to access an education that inspires and fully equips him or her to leave school as a young adult with the confidence and means to participate fully in social, economic, religious, cultural and political life.
Yet, for many of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees, more than two thirds of whom are living in severe poverty, the prospects they face can be less than inspiring. The employment restrictions to which they will be subjected when they grow up will leave many wholly dependent on UNRWA both as a main relief provider and main employer. Unemployment rates for refugees are therefore staggering. Consequently, many young people, despairing at their future prospects, perceive education to be irrelevant. Commitment to one’s own education is therefore very often low, whilst drop-out rates are high.
If young boys drop out from school they most often seek employment in the form of unskilled temporary manual labour in order to support their families. One third of the Palestinian workforce does enter into some form of vocational training which awards them marketable skills and the prospect of securing employment in the tertiary sector. For a small group, approximately 12%, this is obtained through formal education. However, for the majority this is delivered by non-profits or obtained on the job. Extensive studies and anecdotal evidence show that vocational training or university education can help refugees secure more, and better, jobs. We estimate that around half of young people aged 16 – 18 are presently enrolled in some form of vocational and technical training, however crude such training may be; while the demand is much higher.
While for many boys it is the socio-economic conditions he faces, and the feeling of obligation to work to support his family that sees him drop out at a young age; many girls fail to complete their education due to early marriage – and their average age at marriage has been decreasing in recent years. Troublingly, many young people have overall poor emotional well-being and engage in risky behaviours, with one young person out of four feeling unable to resist peer pressure. Great social pressure is exerted, particularly on girls, to correspond to specific models and peer and youth-adult relationships suffer from conflict, misunderstanding and miscommunication. Young people are also vulnerable to abuse, and victims are frequently blamed. With vivid memories of violence imposed on their families, and in the face of poor socio-economic prospects and ill health, conflict as well as physical and verbal aggression, is sadly widespread amongst young people in the camps. Worryingly, a quarter of young people approve of violence and domestic violence in certain circumstances; a finding which correlates to the high and increasing prevalence of violence against women and children.
With the violence permeating Syria displacing increasing numbers of Palestinian refugees once more and forcing them into illegal status in Lebanon; we can only ask when the world will begin to offer rights to those who are most in need.
by Sarah Barnes (Project Manager, SCEME)