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Progression, regression – at least it’s developing?

28 Nov

We wanted to draw attention to a couple of recent events in the struggle for equality. Good news and bad news, but either way it’s good to highlight the wins when they come to give context to any steps back that may happen in other areas. Just keeping on walking.

The beginning of the month saw the European Court of Justice issue a preliminary ruling on an EU Directive relating to minimum standards for the qualification and status of third-country nationals or Stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection. For those unfamiliar with this judicial process, national courts can refer questions of interpretation of EU law that come up in cases brought before them to the ECJ for clarification on the legal rule. The ECJ issues its judgement, which is binding, and then the national courts decide the case before them based on that interpretation. (That’s a very simplified version of the process…) So the ECJ was asked by the courts in the Netherlands a series of questions, including whether foreign nationals with a homosexual orientation form a particular social group for the purposes of the EU Directive in question and as such entitled to protection. The ECJ ruled they did. The Court held “it is common ground that a person’s sexual orientation is a characteristic so fundamental to his identity that he should not be forced to renounce it”. The existence of criminal laws in the countries were the claimants where nationals specifically targeting homosexuals further supported the finding that those persons must be regarded as forming part of a particular social group. The ECJ ruling is obviously not the final step in the process, but as the ECJ’s ruling is binding on all other EU Member States, it could have significant impact on the implementation of these standards across the EU.

At the end of the month, there’s been an important decision on discrimination based on sexual orientation in the UK. For all the news that the UK seems to be winding back to the 17th century in many respects, but particularly in relation to the protection of human rights protection, yesterday’s judgement by the Supreme Court came as somewhat of a relief to those still holding on to modern principles. A couple who ran a small private hotel refused to provide a homosexual couple a double bedroom. The hoteliers hold strong religious beliefs and have a policy that they only provide double bedrooms to “heterosexual married couples”. By an oversight, the guests were not informed of the policy. The majority held that the policy was direct discrimination and, even if it was indirect discrimination, was not justified. It is still within living memory that such acts would not be considered to be discrimination, so quite a fantastic progression in many respects. (Press release here, for those with scarce time.)

Final thing to draw to your attention – the Swedish riksdag (parliament) today signed into law legislation that would prohibit advertising of infant formula and require packets to be labelled indicating that breastfeeding has benefits (among other things). Not all political parties supported the legislation but the reasoning behind it is that it transposes (or incorporates into Swedish law) an EU Directive (2006/141/EC), which does set out these requirements and which EU Member States are therefore bound to incorporate into their domestic legal systems. Whilst this all clearly stems from very important concerns relating to the health interests of children, it does make you wonder whether such a heavy emphasis neglects the pressures faced by women in early motherhood and their genuine right to choose for themselves what’s best for their bodies and their child, rather than have it dictated to them by a government.  Legislating on biological “truths” as some of this has been presented, similar to legislation on historical “truths”, always feels a little uncomfortable. The general conclusion seems to be an overall feeling of discomfort.

Still, a couple of steps forward. Let’s hope we all can keep on walking.

A sign of age

17 Jul

From the first point I stepped into a formal office environment, I’ve always been keenly aware of my age. When people find out that oh so important number of years that you have lived on this earth, it doesn’t matter how much respect or confidence in your abilities they built up before hand. It can all be completely shattered with just one (relatively) little number. Suddenly your valued opinion flies out the window and it’s all they can do to not pass you a lollipop in the meeting room just to keep you quiet until the end of the day.

So I’ve always played the trick of avoiding telling as far as possible (much more difficult in Sweden than the UK), and appearing older to be taken seriously. Even today, after numerous years of professional experience and three academic qualifications under my belt, I get this. I’m currently working in a predominantly male world of 40-50 somethings. There gets a point when you are  tired of this attitude, want to be taken seriously because you’re a serious person with enough perspective of your own to be able to comment on an issue, with very different life experiences that can add to the discussion – in short, merit.

It’s at this point that I’ve come across people several years younger than myself in the office space, striving with those early struggles of trying to push themselves forward in a world dominated by older people. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror five years ago. They consider me one of these older types with a world of experience they’ve yet to attain, but I’m still battling with those above me to think of me as something more than just a young one that still has a lot to learn.

While I’ve felt quite proud of not getting overly freaked out about ageing and keeping my own increasing numbers in perspective, I must admit this weird limbo between the two worlds has got to me.

Another recent realisation of age was reading about the changes in political leanings in my home country. It was with a heavy heart – after reading about privatisation of the NHS and more talk about withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights – that I read that the younger generation in Britain today is becoming more and more conservative in its views. For me, this can be attributed in part to the attitude of a government that seems to have forgotten that a nation is built on its people. Too many fundamental things are being taken from the people – be it their privacy or their access to basic services or the sense that justice and the rule of law will prevail – in the interests of national security for almost everything, in an effort to save the physical land that is the country.

Sigh.

Perhaps I’m simply out of touch with my age group, but it makes me feel old now to feel a collective conscience and leaning towards an ideal above individualism. Perhaps it’s living in a country where the attitude towards work, home life, community and government is so tremendously different that people at home simply can’t understand how a Government can deliver on collective benefits, a national heath system and better working conditions generally.

It’s not a perfect system and they’ve got their own problems, but it’s still worth reflecting on why Sweden has ranked consistently high on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index. The sad thing is I don’t think this is out of reach for the UK. But in the current climate with such a defeatist attitude, it may well be a step out of reach.

Perhaps all these feelings about age are just another sign of the times.

No humanity here: the voices of asylum seeking children

23 Mar

There is no humanity here… that thing, I can promise you (Asylum seeking child in Norway)

I was lucky to go see Nowhere Home on Thursday night,  a documentary screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London this year. Lucky because of many things: I’ve always wanted to go to this festival but this is the first time I am in one of the cities it’s held. The documentary is fantastic, and I got to see the director, the Norwegian Margreth Olin, for a Q&A session afterwards.

The movie exposes the Norwegian treatment of asylum-seeking unaccompanied children.  Basically, unaccompanied children under 15 years receive similar treatment to those national children under the State’s custody and are under the responsibility of the Child Protection Agency.  However, children from the ages of 15 – 18 are under the responsibility of the Norwegian Immigration Directorate (UDI); a practice criticized by the Committee on the Rights of the Child,  along with the fact that children are not given effective protection by their guardians, that the asylum procedures take too long and that age determining procedures are indecent, culturally insensitive and generally unreliable.

If you are one of these children between 15 – 18, you will be allowed to stay in a reception center where you get a roof over your head and food. However, you have no access to education (except for the preparation they give you for the day of your return, according to Olin).  As an 18th birthday present you get a ticket back to your country of origin.

The painful stories of 20 children are portrayed in this film, most of them are from Afghanistan or Iraq, and some from different African countries. Three particular stories are developed more in-depth; one is the story of Hassan and Hussein from Afghanistan, two brothers who are left alone after their families were slaughtered. The youngest, Hussein, was stabbed the same day his family was murdered, he was only 11 years old. In Norway, he suffers from severe PTSD and his legs are paralysed. They are alone against the system.

Goli, an Iraqi Kurd who is returned to Kurdistan the day after he turned 18,  is another one of the main characters in this film.  After the murder of his dad, his mom married another man who physically abused him. He has countless scars in his body, some a gift from his stepfather, but the majority are self inflicted. He narrates with pride that he beat his stepfather: he hurts himself more that anyone could. He can’t control it, he states, he can’t control his acts. When the authorities call his family upon his return, they receive a clear threat that if they send him, his stepfather will kill him.

The hardest part of watching these children’s testimonies is identifying the one common trait between them: utter hopelessness. No dreams, no future. They live, as one of them said, awaiting the day they turn 18 and are sent back, in his words, to their deaths.

But Norway isn’t alone in this. The Swedish Migration Board leads the European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors (ERPUM), an EU project funded by the Return Fund – Community Actions. The Project partners are Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK. The projects make it possible to effectively and rapidly return rejected asylum-seeking children.  As the Platform’s website announces, it has established contacts and will cooperate with the governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the former has been described as UNICEF in 2010 as the “world’s most dangerous place to be a child”.

According to UNHCR, 17.700 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in 2011 in 69 countries. The majority of them from Somalia and Afghanistan, at least 12,000  are thought to enter the EU each year.  12,000 children! God forbid they will destroy the EU’s economy!

Living in the UK, I find myself constantly disappointed by the anti-immigration media coverage of refugee and migrant issues.  Disappointment is a understatement, I’m being polite.  Are refugees really a burden for these countries? The UK for example, is home to less than 2% of the world’s refugees, while 80% of the worlds refugees live in developing countries. However,  we are still constantly enlightened by The Daily Mail‘s brilliant reporting on the issue. This, however, is a matter for another blog post.

The documentary has some amazing reflections made by Olin and the children she interviewed. Some stayed with me and have been bouncing around my head for the last 24 hours:

What kind of humanity are we talking about, when we stop seeing the individual? What kind of societies are we living in, when we treat children from another nationality as criminals and less deserving than our own?

Hussein, one of the children interviewed, states in the beginning of the movie: ‘God divided happiness and sorrow, he gave some people sorrow and other people happiness. I am one of the people living in sorrow’. I wish I could think otherwise, but there is little in the treatment of asylum seekers in these countries that gives me that possibility.

Olin believes change might happen in Norway, her activism has had individual impact in some cases and hopefully will have a more general one impact on policy too. It is possible to make a difference.

She starts her movie by making viewers imagine Norwegian children swimming to shore from a boat, desperate and vulnerable, and then being rejected by authorities. Do we really need to do this to be able to demand the respect for these children’s human rights? It all seems to point at that fact that we do.

One of the powerful reflections one of these kids makes seems appropriate to end this. After knowing one of them was granted a leave to remain on human rights grounds, he says: They say he can stay because of human rights concerns. Does this mean I’m not human?  I wish I could explain what that means, legally, to him. I have been working with refugees and asylum seekers for some time, so as a lawyer, I know I could. But not as a person. That, I simply cannot do.

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