January 25, 2014

Swiss Spring for Syrian Refugees Passes

Switzerland facilitated family reunification for Syrians in September. So far, more than 1,100 Syrian refugees have benefited from the programme, while thousands are waiting at Swiss embassies in the region, hoping for a similar chance. Surprised by these numbers, Switzerland put an end to the programme.

Several European countries responded to an appeal by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees  (UNHCR) last summer to admit Syrian refugees. Switzerland announced it would accept 500 “especially vulnerable refugees” over three years.

Further, the country that hosts about 2,000 citizens of Syrian origin pledged to open its borders for their relatives. By the end of November, Swiss embassies in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan had granted 1,600 Syrians a three-month entry visa.

At least 1,100 of these have already travelled to Switzerland. A further 5,000 Syrians have applied for appointments at Swiss embassies to file similar visa requests.

Either Swiss authorities were surprised by these numbers, or considered their humanitarian action short-lived. Already in early November, they introduced bureaucratic hurdles: Swiss-based Syrians who had invited their relatives now needed to meet certain financial requirements.

“Looking at the size of an average Syrian family, these requirements constitute a killer criteria,” said Beat Meiner, secretary-general of the Swiss Refugee Council (SFH). “Few of the Swiss-based Syrians have enough money to clear these hurdles.”

Meiner’s warnings fell on deaf ears. Even worse, a month later Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga cancelled the family reunification programme entirely. “We assume that most of those Syrians who are entitled to apply for entry visas and face immediate distress have made use of our eased visa requirements,” she argued.

Ashti Amir, a Kurdish Syrian who fled to Switzerland for political reasons more than a decade ago and now runs the charity SyriAid, has a different perspective. Since September, he managed to get the families of one of his brothers and sisters to Switzerland. Amir told IPS that he still had two brothers and his parents back home in Aleppo and wanted to get them to Switzerland, too.

“Escaping from there and travelling to an embassy abroad is not only difficult, but very costly,” he said. Amir knows dozens of other compatriots who have relatives in danger in Syria whom they want to rescue.

Another sister of his as well as a sister-in-law are stranded in Istanbul with their families, waiting for an entry visa to Switzerland. They had applied for an appointment before Switzerland cancelled its reunification programme, and Amir is optimistic that they’ll finally be granted a visa.

“But if not: where should they go? Their long stay in Turkey has eaten up their savings.”

SFH’s Beat Meiner says that many Syrians have embarked on a dangerous trip to Swiss embassies in the Middle East, assuming they can successfully apply for an entry visa there. “Some of them are blocked now: they may neither come to Switzerland, nor return to Syria,” he says.

He’s convinced that Swiss humanitarian action could have been prolonged and that considerably more human lives could have been saved.

Besides that, Switzerland also hesitates to treat about 2,000 asylum requests by Syrians who had fled to the country individually rather than as families. Some of them have been waiting three to four years for a decision.

IPS met Ziad Ali and his family in central Switzerland. Originally from Malikiyah in the northeast of Syria, Ali moved to Damascus as a youth, where he earned his living as a taxi driver. “As a Kurd in Syria, you took any job you may get anywhere,” he says.

Before he fled the country, Ali worked in Idlib region as a gardener. He was arrested at a demonstration in
Qamishli and then tortured in a prison in Deir az-Zour in Syria.

After his release, escaping the country appeared to him the only option. His wife and their two children reached Switzerland in June 2011, while Ali followed in January 2012.

Ali says the fate of his sister and his father, who were arrested by the Syrian regime in 2011, is constantly on his mind. He hasn’t heard from them since then.

His daughter Fatima and his son Mohamed go to school locally and already speak better German than Kurdish. A year ago, their youngest brother Azad was born. The family lives in a barracks established for asylum-seekers, occupying three rooms.

Their asylum request is still in limbo, leaving the family in constant insecurity about their destiny.

Moreno Casasola, secretary-general of the refugee rights organisation Solidarité sans Frontières, says that asylum requests of Syrians are mostly put aside by the Federal Office for Migration. Like any other European country, Switzerland fears that answering asylum requests positively would attract even more Syrian refugees.

Federal Office for Migration spokesperson Michael Glauser acknowledges that asylum requests of Syrians aren’t treated with priority. He denies, however, any decision moratorium. Glauser asserts that Syrian asylum-seekers enjoy Switzerland’s protection – and for the moment haven’t been sent back to Syria.

Ziad Ali and his family, along with other Syrian asylum-seekers, have protested in front of the Federal Office for Migration in Bern, demanding a speedy decision on their request. Getting at least temporary official admission would give them a perspective for the next few years and facilitate hunting for a job.

Despite his desperation, Ziad Ali hopes for a positive outcome. He says he wouldn’t mind returning to Syria once the war has ended, if Kurds were treated fairly. “But the longer my children live here, the more difficult it would be for them to return.”

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service

January 24, 2014

Big Gap Surfaces in Davos

As self-appointed global leaders gather at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos and discuss ‘The Reshaping of the World’, a stone’s throw away non-governmental organisations named this year’s winners for their dreaded Public Eye Awards.

The jury chose the American textile giant Gap, while 95,000 online voters honoured the Russian energy company Gazprom.

“Sadly, there’s still a need for campaigns like ours that demand corporate accountability,” Silvie Lang said on behalf of the organisers, the Berne Declaration (BD), a Swiss NGO working for equitable North-South relations, and Greenpeace Switzerland.

“We are here to remind the corporate world and those hiding behind closed doors in Davos that the social and environmental consequences of their business activities affect not only people and the environment, but also the reputation of their company.”

Participating in the WEF is no option for the BD. “This kind of inclusion is far less effective than fundamental critique from outside,” its spokesperson Oliver Classen told IPS. “Davos is the global showcase for symbolic policy where arsonists dress up as firemen for a few days.”

This year, international NGOs proposed 15 nominees for the two shame awards, ranging from Glencore Xstrata and BASF as representatives of the extractive industry to pesticide producers and the U.S. garment company Gap. The latter was eventually chosen for the jury award.

On behalf of the jury, Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said: “We shame Gap for its monstrous and disingenuous business practices consisting of hindering legally-binding agreements to substantially ameliorate working conditions.”

Gap declined to show up and receive the award. Instead, Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity and Liana Foxvog of the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF) collected the prize.

Akter, a relentless grassroots activist, is herself a former child garment worker. “I sewed clothing for multinational corporations and made less than 10 dollars a month for 450 hours of work,” she said. Today, the minimum wage in Bangladesh is 68 dollars a month. “Due to inflation, it’s not much more than I used to earn,” Akter said.

Her main concern isn’t the low wages, however. “When workers speak up with concern about safety risks, they aren’t listened to.”

Three years ago, 29 workers were killed in a fire at one of Gap’s Bangladeshi supplier factories. After that, labour groups and unions negotiated with Gap to put an end to the constantly climbing death toll in the garment industry.

In all 1,129 Bangladeshi workers died in a deadly fire in a garments factory last year.
In a press statement, Gap stressed that it is a founding member of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety: “The Alliance is a serious and transparent, binding commitment on the part of its members to make urgent improvements to worker safety in Bangladesh.”

For Foxvog, the Alliance is “hardly more than a facelift.” She vowed to take the award directly to the Gap headquarters in San Francisco.

“We don’t want the companies to leave our country,” Akter said. “We want jobs, but they must be jobs with dignity. Global corporations must stop profiting off this low-road system.”

A third of the 280,000 people taking part in the online voting chose the energy giant Gazprom for the people’s award. That was not surprising, as the company had been in the spotlight for the past few months.

In September, Russian security forces arrested 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists during a protest against oil drilling at their offshore platform Prirazlomnaya. In December, Gazprom became the first company that started to drill oil in the Arctic.

According to Greenpeace, Prirazlomnaya is far from some ultra-modern drilling unit. The absence of a publicly available and convincing response plan for any oil spill in one of the world’s most extreme environments worries activists deeply.

Greenpeace argues that Gazprom’s reliance on traditional clean-up methods would simply not work under icy conditions.

IPS requested Gazprom to comment on receiving the anti-award for “irresponsible business conduct at the cost of people and the environment.” Gazprom spokesperson Sergey Kupriyanov did not elaborate on its response plan, but stressed that the company was fully committed to the highest ecological standards.

“Therefore we are quite puzzled by the decision of the Public Eye Awards jury which seems to be motivated by anything but ecological concerns,” Kupriyanov told IPS.

He said that the Prirazlomnaya platform had been specifically designed for operation in the most hostile climate. “The applied drilling techniques prevent subsurface water pollution and the mixing of drilling and production waste with sea water.

“Specially designed oil spill prevention and response plans ensure that the platform crew is well equipped for emergency situations,” Kupriyanov told IPS.

Greenpeace’s Naidoo said his organisation considered calling for a boycott of Gazprom and its partner Shell, who had last year received an anti-award in Davos. “Our peaceful protest in the Arctic raised a lot of awareness,” he told IPS. “About five million people have signed up for our Arctic campaign, while the best of it is yet to come.”

Using the shame award to raise further awareness may be easier for the organisations dealing with Gap, as its consumer base differs much from that of Gazprom. Nobody depends on Gap clothes, but many depend on Gazprom’s oil and gas.

Criticising the energy giant my fall on deaf ears. “Even Gazprom, Rosneft or Chevron aren’t completely immune from public pressure though,” argued Naidoo. He said that these companies had so far ignored one thing: “Relations and reputation are a capital which is just as important for success as conventional capital.”

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service

January 22, 2014

Elites Will ‘Consider Inequality’

With no acute crisis on the radar, this year’s Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) will move away from the response mode of the past years and “look for solutions for the really fundamental issues,” its founder Klaus Schwab said at the pre-meeting press conference.

“We cannot afford to allow the next era of globalisation to create as many risks and inequities as it does opportunities,” Schwab wrote in a blog post a few days earlier. “Today we face a situation where the number of potential flashpoints are many and are likely to grow.”

Even Schwab and his organisation have finally realised that globalisation has increased global inequality and that its consequences have not been managed and mitigated well on the global level.

According to Schwab, the WEF is the “biggest assembly of political, business and civil society leaders in the world.” For decades, he has been gathering the world’s richest and most powerful people and companies once a year in the mountain resort of Davos under the banner of “improving the state of the world”.

This year, the annual meeting beginning Wednesday takes place for the 44th time. Schwab welcomes around 2,500 participants, among them more than half of the CEOs of the 1,000 largest companies of the world, over 30 heads of state, and numerous leaders of international institutions.

A report published by the WEF has spoken of widening income disparities. The report states that increasing inequality impacts social stability within countries and threatens security on a global scale.

“It’s essential that we devise innovative solutions to the causes and consequences of a world becoming ever more unequal,” its authors wrote.

With a well-timed report, the renowned aid and development charity Oxfam International picked the issue up this week. According to Oxfam, the world’s richest 85 people own the wealth of half of the world’s population – a fact that the charity’s executive director Winnie Byanyima called staggering.

“We cannot hope to win the fight against poverty without tackling inequality,” she said. Oxfam locates the roots of the widening gap in fiscal deregulation, tax havens and secrecy, anti-competitive business practice, lower tax rates on high incomes and investments and cuts or underinvestment in public services for the majority.

According to Oxfam, the richest individuals and companies hide trillions of dollars in tax havens around the world. “In Africa”, the report says, “global corporations – particularly those in extractive industries – exploit their influence to avoid taxes and royalties, reducing the resources available to governments to fight poverty.”

Over the last years, tax avoidance has become a major focus of non-governmental organisations especially in countries like Switzerland, where some of the world’s biggest companies involved in raw materials mining and trade have their headquarters.

“Tax avoidance and harmful tax incentives are strongly linked with inequality,” said Martin Hojsik, tax campaign manager of ActionAid International, an international coalition fighting poverty across the globe.

“With a lack of revenue caused by tax dodging, developing countries in particular have very little resources to finance essential services like education and health care,” he told IPS.

ActionAid doesn’t participate at the WEF, which Hojsik calls a talking shop for elites in a fancy resort. “Real progress requires commitment from governments and processes that are inclusive of all stakeholders including people living in poverty,” he said.

Hojsik has no illusions about Davos: “This year, Deloitte, a company among other things advising companies how to avoid taxes when investing in Africa, is tweeting about income disparity on their #DeloitteDavosLife event, clearly showing some of the absurdity.”

Unlike ActionAid, Oxfam will take part at the global leaders’ meeting. The charity is asking participants to pledge to supporting progressive taxation, to making public all the investments in companies and trusts, to demanding a living wage in their companies and to challenging governments to use tax revenue to provide universal healthcare, education and social protection for citizens.

Oxfam’s effort is doomed to fail. A look at the WEF’s more than 260 sessions shows that hot potatoes like tax avoidance won’t be addressed. Even though there is a workshop specifically on the extractive industry, it aims only to discuss how the industry may drive growth in the future in the light of rising concerns over scarcity and environmental deprivation.

Hardly any of the workshops scheduled specifically address developing countries. There’s a session on the post-2015 development goals, however. It asks how a new spirit of solidarity, cooperation and mutual accountability may carry those goals from vision to action.

Peter Niggli, director of Alliance Sud, an alliance of the six biggest Swiss charities, isn’t attracted by such debates. Alliance Sud doesn’t go to Davos.

“We lobby at the Swiss government which makes more sense,” he told IPS. As a discussion forum, the WEF in Niggli’s opinion doesn’t have any influence at all on defining the post-2015 development agenda.

Niggli said that it is in any case not the WEF’s official programme with all the debates and workshops that draws businessmen and politicians, but the opportunity they have to meet others informally or set up new projects behind closed doors.

Surely it also isn’t the fake refugee camp the WEF has set up in Davos that draws the global elite. “We are simulating the experience of a Syrian refugee in a Jordanian refugee camp,” Schwab said. “It is so important that people can really imagine what it means to be a refugee.”

The United Nations Refugee Agency has appealed for 6.5 billion dollars for Syrian refugees. International donors have pledged 2.4 billion dollars so far. If the WEF is serious about “improving the state of the world”, its wealthy members could come up with the lacking sum.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service