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World Refugee Day

On World Refugee Day, 5 correspondents reveal what it’s like to cover the crisis

June 20 at 4:00 AM

World Refugee Day is observed each year on June 20.  On this day, refugee advocates urge people to focus on the plight of those who have been displaced by famine, war and oppression.

By the end of 2016, more than 65 million people worldwide were forced to leave their homes due to conflict and persecution, data published by the U.N. Refugee Agency reveals.  That’s an average of 28,300 people per day, almost 20 people every minute.

From Kenya to Greece, our correspondents have traveled far and wide to tell the stories of those fleeing devastation in search of safety.

We asked five correspondents to share their most memorable moment from their time covering the refugee crisis. Here are the stories of the people they won’t forget:

“As an editor, I think about who is going where, and why.” Tiffany Harness, Middle East editor

The young mother was crying, uncontrollably it seemed, as the rescue boat that had picked her up off the coast of Libya drifted in the sea.

She and more than 600 others had piled into a smuggling vessel that was probably overloaded, unseaworthy or both. When the boat capsized, most of those onboard were rescued. At least 30 were not, including the woman’s baby.

I will never know more about them than that.

The photo, taken last month by Chris McGrath of Getty Images, conveyed a heartbreakingly common story in a crisis marked by death and numbers. More than 5,000 migrants and refugees drowned last year in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach Europe. More than 1,600 have drowned in the same waters this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, a slower pace than last year but still horrifying.

And that is just a sliver of a global crisis, with the number of people uprooted from their homes in the tens of millions.

As an editor, I try to understand the data — I look for trends and patterns. I think about who is going where, and why, and how we can best tell those stories.

It is a topic that sets off heated discussions among nations, politicians and neighbors. Who should be labeled a refugee, who is an economic migrant? Should it make any difference? Who should pay to help them?

I do not know why I stared so long at the photo. I see many similar images almost every day. But as I looked at it, one question seemed more important than the rest, and unanswerable: Who is responsible for the death of this baby, tragically drowned at sea? 

Read the story.

“I came to better understand the painful hardships that erupt during a refugee’s flight to safety.” Anthony Faiola, Berlin bureau chief

When I first saw the Jinaid family, dawn was breaking outside a cheap flophouse for Syrian refugees in northern Greece. It was the spring of 2015, and we were on the Greek-Macedonian border trying to capture an important moment — the beginnings of a surge that would turn into Europe’s extraordinary refugee crisis. More than 1 million immigrants, most of them Syrians, would make a break for the wealthy nations of central Europe, the majority traveling via a snaking, dangerous path through the Balkans. Many of the migrants who risked the trip would end up brutalized by bandits and corrupt police. A few would die en route.

In the hotel foyer, I was chatting with a few young Syrian men who had been beaten and pushed back by Macedonian police when the Jinaids lumbered by. Their tired eyes and beaten-up gear said refugees. But their clean clothing and supreme unease screamed fish out of water: Like so many of the families who came after them, these were average middle-class folk thrust into a frightening unknown. I gently stopped them as they made for the door with their bags. Yes, said the family’s leader — Aleppo truck driver Ahmed Jinaid — they could spare five minutes for a chat.

They ended up giving me days — days in which I came to better understand the hardships and complex family emotions that erupt during a refugee’s flight to safety. Ahmed’s brother had escaped Syria and made it to Austria. Ahmed was taking his brother’s two children to their father. On their route to safety they faced miles of hiking by moonlight through bandit-filled forests, did jail time in Hungary, lost weight and became ill from endless walking and poor-quality food. They offered insight into one profound truth: Refugees are creatures of circumstance, not of choice.

Perhaps that is the single biggest point to remember on World Refugee Day.

Read the story. 

“I remember Asad brushing aside his hair and showing me the scar on his forehead.” James McAuley, Paris correspondent

When I think about Calais, I think mostly about the two of them.

We met on the day the infamous “Jungle” was demolished, near the long lines where refugees such as Siddiq and Asad were waiting to board buses to take them to “welcome centers” throughout France. The Jungle was the makeshift migrant camp outside Calais, where thousands — mostly from the Middle East and East Africa — waited as they sought to enter Britain, a short 20 miles across the English Channel. Some, such as Asad, learned the hard way that this was never going to be easy: The British, even before the Brexit vote, had strict regulations about who could enter the country, and French authorities did not hesitate to use force to ensure that those in Calais stayed in Calais.

I was there to understand this experience, talking to people such as Siddiq, 25, and Asad, 24, both from Afghanistan. They had met just a few months before and recounted to me what basically amounted to horror stories about trying to escape the camp and being apprehended by authorities. I remember Asad brushing aside his hair and showing me the scar on his forehead, a thick purple gash where stitches had recently been removed. What sticks with me most — more than Siddiq gesturing at the Jungle’s entrance and saying, “this is not life” — is that the two of them didn’t seem upset about the fact that they would not be able to enter Britain, after months of waiting. What bothered them was that the relevant authorities had told the two friends that they couldn’t be transferred out of Calais together.

On top of everything else, what was doubly painful for so many migrants and refugees I met in Calais was that whatever small semblances of normalcy they had been able to create — a friendship, a makeshift home, even a daily routine — were ultimately destroyed, just as their previous lives had been. No one understood this bitter transience better than the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, exiled from Nazi Germany for years. After the Jungle was shut down, I couldn’t stop thinking about this stanza from his poem “On the Term of Exile”: “Don’t worry about watering the flowers — / In fact, don’t plant them./ You will have gone back home before they bloom, / And who will want them?”

Read the story.

“On his phone, Rashid watched the world change. But he was still stuck in the camp.” Kevin Sieff, Africa bureau chief

I first met Mohammed Rashid in the days after President Trump’s travel ban had been introduced.

Rashid was 38. He had been a refugee since 14, when he fled Somalia’s devastating civil war. For seven years, he had been on the waiting list for resettlement in the United States, spending most of his life in one of the world’s largest refugee camps, called Dadaab, in northern Kenya.

Rashid’s life was confined to the camp, but with a smartphone and a Facebook account, his world had broadened. He could check on his friends in America, posing next to their cars and in their apartments. He could follow the president of the United States on Twitter, as Trump announced his plan to temporarily bar the entry of people from seven countries — including Somalia — and freeze the admission of refugees to the United States.

On the one hand, technology turned Rashid, stuck in his Dadaab hut, into someone conversant in global affairs and American idioms. On the other, it made the tragedy of his life that much more apparent to him. On his phone, Rashid watched the world change. But he was still stuck in the camp, his chances of leaving growing dimmer under Trump, whose ban was soon being challenged in the courts.

A few months after I first met him, that distance between Rashid and the life he wanted grew even wider. A flood swept through Dadaab, tearing through Rashid’s hut, where he lived with his wife and three children. He posted a blurry picture on Facebook of his family escaping in the middle of the night on a cart pulled by a donkey.

“My beloved family evacuating/fleeing by donkey carts. May Allah help us,” he wrote.

For two weeks they stayed with a friend until the waters receded. When they returned to their hut, it was largely destroyed. I visited him again in May, when he was debating what to do next.

He could try to raise money to rebuild the hut. But how much sense did it make to spend whatever he had on a temporary home that he was trying desperately to leave?

On his phone, he updated his Facebook status:

“You will either experience the pain of discipline or the pain of regret,” he wrote. “The choice is yours.”

Read the story.

“It was not the end of the world, but it was the end of a dream.” Pamela Constable, Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief

Several months ago, I met three Afghan men in Kabul who had just been deported from Germany. They were safe, unharmed and being provided with temporary shelter by the government, but their faces had the same dazed and exhausted look of failure. Like tens of thousands of their fellow Afghans — mostly young men, alone or single — who had attempted to flee their war-torn, impoverished country in the past several years, they fell somewhere between the murky official definitions of  “refugee” and “economic migrant.”

For a time, they had fared well in Germany, a wealthy and liberal country that welcomed needy foreigners from troubled lands and offered them generous assistance and benefits. They had been able to attend language classes, find temporary jobs and live without fear of harassment while awaiting the government’s final decision on their applications for permanent refugee status. By the time I met them last winter, in a clean but barren little bunk room in Kabul, two spoke Afghan Dari with a German accent.

Meanwhile, though, the flood of refugees from Syria and other countries began to overwhelm Europe, and even German generosity frayed under the pressure. The standards for refugee approval were enforced with new bureaucratic vigor, and the process of deciding who could stay was speeded up. Last winter, all three Afghans were unexpectedly informed that their applications had been rejected. They were taken to government centers to await a flight home, under guard.

When they landed in Kabul, they had nowhere to go, no jobs or savings, no close relatives waiting, and no possessions except those they carried. It was not the end of the world, but it was the end of a dream, and of a desperate, costly effort to flee from a country that had seemed to offer them no future. Now they were back.

Read the story.

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More on Backpage from the Washington Post

Here’s the link to the Washington Post article that first reported the shutdown of Backpage’s “adult” section. I’m not feeling the least bit sorry for poor Backpage. If they weren’t trafficking in children they might gain some sympathy for their outcry of censorship. They had become a venue for low level traffickers and pimps, advertising children who would be obviously underage on the streets. It was far too easy. This won’t stop the trafficking, but it might slow down the ones with lesser skills. One small step.

Backpage.com shuts down adult services ads after relentless pressure from authorities

January 10

Fighting accusations from members of Congress that it facilitated child sex trafficking, the classified advertising site Backpage.com abruptly closed its adult advertising section in the United States on Monday, saying years of government pressure left it no choice but to shutter its most popular and lucrative feature.

The decision came shortly after a Senate panel released a report alleging Backpage concealed criminal activity by removing words from ads that would have exposed child sex trafficking and prostitution. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is scheduled to hold a hearing on the report Tuesday morning. Backpage’s founders and executives will appear in the hearing but do not plan to testify, according to their attorneys.

In a related development Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lawsuit by three sex-trafficking victims who claimed Backpage promoted the sexual exploitation of minors.

Backpage said in a statement that scrutiny of the site by government officials has made it too costly to keep operating the adult section. The company rejected the subcommittee’s findings, saying the decision was the result of “unconstitutional government censorship.”

“For years, the legal system protecting freedom of speech prevailed,” Backpage said, “but new government tactics, including pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business with Backpage, have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content in the United States.”

Backpage has been the target of multiple lawsuits and investigations in recent years focusing on its adult ads, and its founders and executives are currently fighting money-laundering and pimping charges in California.

The ads for escorts, body-rubs and adult entertainment, many of them including revealing photos as part of the come-on, were an important source of revenue for Backpage, which operates like Craigslist, with users paying to advertise a range of goods and services. Advocates say such advertisements have improved safety for sex workers by allowing them to negotiate services online rather than in the streets. But the National Association of Attorneys General and other law enforcement officials have argued that Backpage and sites like it provide an outlet for people who seek to sexually exploit minors.

Backpage launched in 2004 and expanded significantly six years later when Craigslist shut down its adult advertising section under pressure from law enforcement and Congress. On Monday night, disclaimers appeared on Backpage’s adult section reading “CENSORED” in red letters and “the government has unconstitutionally censored this content.”

The federal Communications Decency Act provides immunity to website operators that publish third-party content online, but multiple lawsuits have argued that the 1996 law does not protect Backpage because the site contributes to illegal activity — claims Backpage has vigorously denied.

The Senate subcommittee raised similar concerns Monday. Its report alleged that Backpage knowingly hid child sex trafficking and prostitution by deleting incriminating terms from its ads before publication. The report found that the company used a feature that automatically scrubbed words such as “teenage,” “rape” and “young” from some ads, while manually removing terms from others.

The subcommittee also alleged that Backpage founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey still own financial stakes in the company, despite claiming that they sold their shares roughly two years ago.

The panel has been investigating Backpage since June 2015. Initially, the company refused to turn over subpoenaed documents, but a federal court ordered the company to comply with the probe last summer.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who spearheaded the investigation, said Backpage’s decision to close the adult section showed that it was “complicit” in online sex trafficking.

“Backpage’s response wasn’t to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site,” the senators said in a statement. “That’s not ‘censorship’ — it’s validation of our findings.”

Larkin and Lacey are scheduled to appear at Tuesday’s hearing, along with Backpage’s chief executive, chief of operations and general counsel. Several alleged “victims of Backpage’s practices” are also slated to appear, according to the subcommittee’s site. In a letter to the subcommittee, attorneys for Backpage said Larkin, Lacey and the others do not plan to testify, and compared the subcommittee’s probe to the anti-communist crusades of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

In a separate statement, Larkin and Lacey cited Backpage’s list of legal battles, saying courts in multiple states have sided with the site in litigation over its adult ads.

“Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it,” Larkin and Lacey said in a statement. “But the shut-down of Backpage’s adult classified advertising is an assault on the First Amendment. We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed Internet in the future.”

Backpage contends that its adult section has become a resource for law enforcement agencies and says the closing of its adult section will not reduce human trafficking. According to Backpage attorneys, local and federal authorities around the country have turned to the site for help tracking down people who have “impermissibly sought to use the internet as a platform to commit abhorrent crimes.” The site has long collaborated with law enforcement officers, the attorneys said, and has donated to Children of the Night, an organization whose mission is to rescue children from prostitution.

Children of the Night Founder and President Lois Lee called the site a “critical investigative tool” that has helped authorities arrest pimps and recover missing children.

“The ability to search for and track potentially exploited children on a website and have the website bend over backwards to help and cooperate with police the way Backpage did was totally unique,” Lee said in a statement. “It not only made law enforcement’s job easier, it made them much more effective at rescuing kids and convicting pimps.”

Along with Lee’s remarks, Backpage offered two pages of what it said were testimonials from law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, praising the site for assisting investigations. “I know your company is vilified nationally because it is an easy target,” read one testimonial, attributed to the Denver Police Department. “I have told numerous people that Backpage is law enforcement friendly and does not support human trafficking.”

In October, authorities raided the Backpage’s headquarters in Dallas and arrested Chief Executive Carl Ferrer on charges of pimping a minor and conspiracy, after an investigation by state attorneys general found that prostitution ads posted to the site involved sex-trafficking victims. Authorities also charged Larkin and Lacey with conspiracy to commit pimping. At the time, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris accused themof designing Backpage to be “the world’s top online brothel.”

A judge dismissed the charges in December, but Harris filed new charges shortly after, accusing the trio of money laundering and conspiracy to commit pimping, as the Los Angeles Times reported. Attorneys for the men say the charges are baseless.


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