Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Tech World is Coming for the Data of Migrants and Refugees, but Are Aid Agencies Part of the Problem?

Solution, or public relations cover up?
The World Food Program is running aid distribution for Syrian refugees on the blockchain. If you are a techno-geek, your reaction might be “great!” But if you’re a human rights lawyer, like me, your first question is likely to be “why?” Apparently, the blockchain can help avoid transaction fees because there is no middle man. But as we know, running a blockchain takes a lot of money, so it’s not clear the savings are real. Blockchain requires a large amount of energy and storage space to run, so without more information on exactly how much all this is costing, it’s not certain how much is really being saved. The fact that the private sector has yet to find a cost-effective, sustainable use for blockchain should give aid agencies pause.
But this raises a second, more important question. If using blockchain isn’t about saving money, is something more sinister going on?
People thought Facebook was free, but in actual fact, people using Facebook were paying far more than the equivalent of a $50 cash fee in valuable personal data they were handing over to the company. As we now know, this personal data was sold at an enormous mark up to all sorts of dubious actors.
So it’s well worth asking the question: is WFP is rolling out blockchain at a substantial, if invisible, cost to refugees, who are obligated to submit to iris scanners and the sharing of other intimate, personal, identifying information? WFP has relentlessly promoted this technology as “good for refugees” because it “saves time” and “promotes accountability.” It’s also creating a giant database of the irises of thousands of people, a database which appears to be partially under the control of a private company. How will this database be used?
In other blockchain news, UNHCR appears weirdly excited about creating a “digital identity,” perhaps on a blockchain, for all UNHCR registered refugees. UNHCR has enormous power over the lives of refugees, as in many parts of the world, it determines refugee status and hands out refugee ID cards. This power gives UNHCR a quasi-governmental function and it means that it is imperative to question any programs to alter the ways in which refugee cards are handed out or the ways in which refugee personal information is stored or used. For an organization that is filled with refugee lawyers who barely know how to use Excel, this sudden desire to create a giant database of refugees biometrics and personal information seems odd.
Given that blockchain doesn’t yet have a commercial application, the breathlessness of UNHCR public announcements on blockchain’s usefulness in particular seems even more odd, but maybe it’s less odd when you look at it from a public relations standpoint. Sure, blockchain has yet to prove useful in any way, unless you can call Bitcoin useful, but it sure sounds good. Blockchain, as we all know, is “decentralized,” which apparently allows individual people, say individual refugees, to maintain control of their own data. Blockchain takes some of the creepy out of a massive database of refugee eye scans, fingerprints, medical histories and persecution claims. But why create such a database in the first place? And does having it on a blockchain really protect refugee data?
All of this seems rather less odd when you see what’s been happening over at IOM, the International Organization for Migration, where biometrics is the word of the day. IOM has turned biometrics and border control into a global industry all its own. Under the soft patina of a light-blue UN halo, IOM has been quietly compiling a massive, global database of migrants to be shared with governments as part of a world-wide system of surveillance. If you’ve ever set food in a migrant camp, chances are, IOM has your fingerprints. And where ever you go in the future, IOM will be there, with a full record of every time you’ve tried to cross a border or been deported.
This sort of information is super useful to governments trying to sort out who is who among the flows of refugees and migrants coming into their countries. Now imagine if you could add to the data IOM is providing a complete run down of every time someone has claimed asylum in another country, complete with their entire refugee status determination history? Wouldn’t that make the process of identifying asylum-seekers much easier? Sure, the blockchain can assure refugees that their data hasn’t been altered, but isn’t the very fact that their data is being collected and shared in this centralized way, often without what any normal person would call their consent, a human rights problem of its own?

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Dear Central American Migrants: Beware the IOM Bribery Tent


Don’t Waive Your Rights
It’s hot and you’re scared. You’ve been travelling for months with your children as part of a migrant caravan to get to the United States. The organizers of the caravan told you it would be a free, safe, legal way to get your family to the US border, where you could claim asylum through the proper channels.
But now that you’re here, everyone is saying that there will be no asylum in the US after all. Rumors are spreading that you will have to wait in Mexico, maybe for years. People are saying that the caravan was a mistake, it’s too high profile and no one will get asylum because the US government has closed the border. Some of the other migrants are talking about going back and trying to get to the US by a different, quieter route. You hear that there is an organization called “IOM” that will pay you money, a lot of money, to go back. Maybe once you are home, you can use this money to pay a real smuggler to take you across the border.
Someone directs you towards the “IOM” tent. Inside, a kind woman tells you that there will be no asylum for anyone from the caravan. The US is not going to let you in and the Mexican government is not going to let you stay here. But if you sign this piece of paper, IOM will give you money and a free flight back to your country. And, even better, if you stay there for three months, you will get yet more money. The woman urges you not to sit here in Mexico watching your chances dwindle away. She tells you to make the smart choice. And then she holds out a piece of paper for you to sign. On this piece of paper is written a sum of money…
This morning I woke up to a WaPo article stating that the International Organization of Migration had set up one of their bribery tents, as I call them, in Mexico. The reporter seemed shocked that people might “choose to return” after traveling so far to claim asylum. She did not seem aware of the fact that money is changing hands.
IOM runs what they call their global “assisted voluntary return program,” which essentially bribes people into accepting deportation so that donor governments like the US and EU don’t have to do it. The problems with this program are well documented and stretch back years.
Yet key pieces of information about this program are not widely known. How much money are migrants being given? After being deported, how many actually stay long term, in their countries? Such information does not appear in IOM reports. Instead, heartwarming deportation stories fill IOM’s annual reports. Ok so fine, you might think, people are being paid to go back. So what.
But when you accept “voluntary return” through and IOM program, you may be waiving your right to make a future asylum claim. Is IOM making this risk clear to asylum-seekers at the US border?

Why Go Back?

What else would you call it?
As a spokesperson from IOM told WaPo;
“They make the decision (to return) for a variety of reasons,” said Ivonne Aguirre, a program coordinator with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is assisting migrants with returning home. “Some have sick relatives, some miss their families, some are surprised by the conditions here, which are not what they imagined.”
Notice she didn’t say anything about the money.
In actual fact, IOM bribes migrants to go back. It then pays them again if they stay in their home country for 3 months.
In Eastern Europe, I have met migrants who have been deported from Western Europe multiple times through this program, using the grant money to pay smugglers to take them back over and over again. They will keep trying because there is nothing for them at home and they have a job waiting for them in Germany or Sweden. This process is fueling a multi-billion dollar smuggling industry run by international criminal cartels.
This is my tax dollars at work. This is the “handle on migration” Hillary Clinton spoke of. Instead of using this money to fix climate change, we are paying millions to criminal smugglers, not to mention billions to a constellation of companies who produce retinal scanning equipment, border control guards, airplanes and ships, detention centers and a host of other commodities in the global migration management industry.
How much money do migrants get paid to go back? This is difficult information to get out of IOM, but in West Africa it’s $300 to get on the plane and possibly another $1,000 if you stay in your country for 3 months following your deportation. In Greece and Niger, IOM is just one cog in the wheel of a multi-million dollar interception, detention and deportation program used to stop people from reaching the EU. Obviously, these programs must look very attractive to the US government right about now. But note that IOM programs only account for a fraction of the true cost of deportation.
And how does IOM feel about all this? Well, they go to sleep every night on a huge, soft cushion of donor money. IOM’s budget is now close to $1 billion dollars. Now, much of IOM’s budget goes towards much needed humanitarian response programs, including assisting with refugee resettlement and return in cooperation with UNHCR. But that said, the budget for migrant deportation has jumped by $50 million to just under a whopping $250 million for 2018.

The Problem with Letting IOM Deport You

What does all this mean for Central American migrants as individual people facing tough decisions? Know that when you choose to take part in an IOM deportation process, your information is being logged with IOM and shared with governments. IOM has stepped up their cooperation with biometrics screening and you will probably be registered as part of “assisted return.” How will this information be used in the future?
Every person in the migrant caravan should be aware of the following:
In essence, by agreeing to voluntary return before you have had a chance to claim asylum, you may be waiving your right to asylum in the future. Asylum courts have in the past stated that voluntary return to your country of origin weakens an asylum claim. IOM may tell you this is a “myth,” but in truth, they have no control over the US asylum system. They cannot give you any guarantees about how return might affect your future asylum claim. Because of this, make no mistake, being deported by IOM could jeopardize any asylum claim you might try to make in the future no matter what IOM says.
Globally, it is not yet clear how the information IOM gathers on returnees will be used. In Europe, the EU is aggressively using fingerprints and facial recognition software to identify and remove repeat asylum-seekers, people’s whose claims have already been rejected. I am not sure how information on “assisted returns” will be used in first time asylum claims.
Maybe a smart journalist can go and uncover this information.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Dear Hillary and Barack, I don’t negotiate with terrorists and neither should you.


Maybe the problem is immigrant bears?

I’m not going to give a laundry list of the stupid stuff people have said in the two years of global hysteria since fascism began again to awaken and raise its ugly head.

***Update: Obama just told me that listening to Rush Limbaugh is "essential for democracy." No, it isn't.

We live in disorienting times, when core beliefs are being challenged by a seemingly never-ending tide of vile, well-funded nonsense and lies that threaten to overwhelm much of the progress we have collectively made as a species over the last 70 years. The global system of rights and freedoms is under assault in some of the wealthiest and freest countries in the world. Nuclear war is once again a very real possibility. People are at each other’s throats over how women should dress while California burns to the ground and no one appears to pay any notice. I get it. It’s scary times.
Global anti-immigrant populism has so far brought us such catastrophes as the Trump Presidency, Brexit, Indian nationalism, Bolsonaro, the Five Star Movement and whatever the hell is happening at Facebook. Given this, it can sometimes seem like desperate times call for desperate measures. And so pundits and politicians alike reach for the most obvious fix: stop immigration.
The latest to add her voice to this project of far-right appeasement is Hillary Clinton, who seems to have woken up yesterday to the fact that people hate immigrants, it’s not getting better, and it’s destroying the world. And not just in Europe and America. I’ve lived in a lot of countries, and people pretty much hate immigrants everywhere and it’s caused numerous wars from Burma to Ivory Coast.
The fact that fears of immigration drives far-right populism has led some of the great minds of today, like many great minds of yesteryear, to declare that immigration has become so “toxic” that it needs to be stopped before it destroys the world. People should stop moving around! Moving around is causing fascism! If we all stopped moving around, fascism would just go away — poof! Like David Bowie at the end of Labyrinth! “You have no power over me, Steve Bannon!” we would shout as he turned into smoke.
But there is no way to “stop immigration.” Immigration has been happening since the dawn of human history. And as long as there have been immigrants, there have been governments trying to stop those immigrants or control where they go. Numbers go down…and then they go back up again. And all the while, almost everything that is awesome comes from immigration. Pizza? Yeah, that was immigration. Meanwhile, there’s almost no evidence that immigration is bad for the economy and lots of evidence that immigration is good. It is not correlated to crime rates. It is not correlated to a loss of “identity,” whatever that even means. Just ask any New Yorker if pizza ruined their identity.
None of these facts matter, though, because people just do not like immigration, period. Peoples’ hatred of immigrants is in no way correlated to how many immigrants they’ve actually met. People who were themselves immigrants even hate *other* immigrants. It’s completely irrational. Given this total irrationality, it might seem like the only response to anti-immigrant feeling is to stop immigration. Kind of like when your three year old develops a sudden dislike for that weird mask you bought at the craft market. You can either try to argue with them, try to explain that the mask is a harmless piece of wood, but in the end, it’s probably easier to simply take the mask off the wall and put it in the closet.
Sadly, it’s not going to work. “Curbing migration,” as Hillary so charminglyput it in her Guardian essay entitled “What to do! How do we stop it! Someone, do something! Brexit aaaaggggghhhhh!!!!” is neither possible, nor will it prompt a rational response from the body politic. When people are behaving like irrational 3 year olds, they will continue to be afraid of the mask even when it is in the closet. The power of the mask to cause fear is much stronger than any methods you could ever take to decrease that fear. All you have to do is say “mask” and your toddler will again be reduced to tears.
Hence the core problem with appeasement as a solution to anything. We cannot reflexively choose our candidates or set our migration policy based on other peoples’ racism, no matter what Bernie says, even if those people are threatening to let the whole world burn down if they don’t get their way. I don’t negotiate with terrorists, and neither should you.

Monday, September 10, 2018

John Bolton may be the Best Thing that Ever Happened to the ICC



For those of us who have followed John Bolton's long, storied crusade against the United Nations, which he once called the "hopeless captive of Soviet manipulation and Third World radicalism" it should perhaps come as no surprise that now that he has been given perhaps his last chance at real power, he's set about destroying the ICC.

The ICC has long been a thorn in the side of Republicans, who seem convinced it is not an impartial, international court staffed by professional judges from all over the world, but rather an anti-US kangaroo court hell-bent on destroying the United States (and, of course, Israel). Bolton was behind the infamous "Hague Invasion Act," which left open the possibility of Special Forces invading the Netherlands to rescue CIA agents hauled up before the court. While most Americans have likely never heard of the court, it seems to keep Bolton up at night on a regular basis.

Now Bolton, who has always seemed pathologically incapable of understanding basic human psychology, seems to believe that a huge, showy war against the ICC (over the possible bringing of charges against US service people in the war in Afghanistan) is a great idea. He seems unaware that he is about to lift the ICC out of obscurity and thrust it to the front of the Resistance, just as Jeff Sessions plucked ICE from relative obscurity and dropped it like a bomb into the middle of the midterms.

Since the US is not a party to the Rome Statute creating the court, it has zero say over what the court does, and will have to resort to bullying other members into pulling out. Some of Bolton's genius ideas include leveling sanctions against witnesses or even judges involved in the court. Boy, is that going to be a good look. Cause nothing says "guilty" quite like bullying others into dropping support for a prosecutor that is investigating you. Just ask Donald Trump.

Apparently, the Pentagon is "concerned" that US persons might be at risk of prosecution by the court, which is looking into war crimes committed in Afghanistan. Really? Because if no Americans committed war crimes in Afghanistan, than the Pentagon should sleep well at night, right?

If you're interested in reading about the measured, legalistic investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan currently being brought about by Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and her team of seasoned international lawyers, you can do so here. And here's a summary of the career of lawyer Bensouda, the African woman who is daring to hold the US accountable for its actions, as countless European, African and Asian countries have already been held to account for crimes spanning World War II to the war in Darfur.

So good luck to John Bolton in his quest to discredit Ms. Bensouda and the ICC. The more he rants and raves, the more the US government looks like it has something to hide, the more famous the ICC becomes. The headlines are already making Bolton sound like an unhinged dictator, as though he needed any help with that, right along side the government of Myanmar, who have at least managed to avoid threatening violence against the ICC in response to a court referral about the genocide in Myanmar. Meanwhile, Duterte in the Philippines is also trying to withdraw his country from the ICC. What wonderful company Bolton keeps.

One wonders why all the fuss? If these countries have done nothing wrong, why not simply let the process go forward?

But in all seriousness, with so many governments attacking the ICC at once, it's worth doing everything to raise the profile of the court in the hopes that public opinion can be used to protect it. Forcing other member states to withdraw from the Rome Statute, which would also withdraw their funding, will be a primary goal for Bolton. So far, most states are holding firm, but public opinion will be key to keeping support up in member state countries.

Nancy Pelosi was recently on the cover of Time Magazine for the first time, long after Mitch McConnell, but better late than never. Who will be on the cover next, John Bolton...or Fatou Bensouda?

Update: Conservative columnist Marc Thiessen has now published an article claiming that the US should support a policy of amnesty for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity for reasons of political expediency.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Are Americans Prepared for Ethnic Cleansing in the United States?


Hannah Arendt called citizenship "the right to have rights," but it is also the right to be seen as a person by governments, the right to belong to a community, the right to exist in the eyes of the law. Denationalization is often used by governments to mark a particular group out as non-persons, sometimes in preparation for their removal or destruction. This process is often called "ethnic cleansing" or, when the intent is to destroy the group in question, genocide.

This week, the Washington Post published an article on the Trump administration's use of denationalization in the United States. In an op-ed in the Post, Eugene Washington decries the racism of the Trump administration's denationalization policies, including the confiscation of passports from Hispanic US citizens. Yet this move by the Trump administration goes beyond racism and into the dangerous territory of government-sponsored ethnic cleansing.

The term "ethnic cleansing" first gained popularity during the wars in the Balkans to describe a package of related actions by the government, including deportation, detention, rape and murder, to remove an unwanted ethnic group from the country. Many have questioned the use of the term ethnic cleansing in place of the term genocide. Ethnic cleansing, however, can employ both violent and non-violent means. Denaturalization, detention and deportation are examples of non-violent methods of ethnic cleansing, as are the forced, mass seizures of land, the creation of lists and registers of people, and the requirement that certain groups wear distinguishing badges or clothing or carry ID that states their ethnicity, race or religion.

Denationalization has often been part of ethnic cleansing campaigns around the world. The German government used denationalization as an early stage of its genocidal campaign against Jews. Statelessness has figured prominently in the Myanmar government's genocide against the Rohingya. In the Dominican Republic, black Dominicans of Haitian origin have been stripped of their citizenship to ease the way for their deportation.

It is important to take note of the Washington Post's story because denaturalization is qualitatively different from many other Trump administration policies on immigration. Prior US government policy focused on the removal of Hispanic immigrants. Trump administration policy is focused on the removal of Hispanics, full stop. As a country, we have now officially crossed the Rubicon. Ethnic cleansing is now the official policy of the US government.

As is typical of Trump, he attempted to deflect attention from his own policies and plands by falsely claiming that other people someplace else were doing the same thing. To me, his recent tweets about South African and "white genocide" signal a frightening preview of what Trump may have in store for us here in the United States.

The larger question we must ask ourselves is where this ethnic cleansing campaign is headed. The Trump administration likes to turn up the heat very slowly so it can be difficult to notice when important milestones are reached, but make no mistake, this WaPo article is a major turning point.

Will non-violent ethnic cleansing measures give way to a campaign of wide-spread violence? Will this violence use official government institutions, like border patrol, or unofficial militias? If so, what will be the response of the American people? What will be the response of the international community? Welcome to uncharted waters.




Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Who Decides Who is Rohingya?


A computer can’t create identity, only verify it.
Yesterday, the UN released a damning report alleging the government of Myanmar is guilty of genocide against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnicity living in the Rakhine state near the border with Bangladesh. The Rohingya have long been discriminated against and targeted for violence in Myanmar, which limits citizenship to certain ethnic groups. Huge numbers of Rohingya already live in exile, many recognized as refugees, in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. While the situation of the Rohingya has been bad for a long time, there is no doubt that things have gotten substantially worse since 2017.
The plight of the Rohingya evades solution. Despite multiple UNHCR attempts at resettlement, few countries wish to take Rohingya refugees. Many remember the Rohingya “boat people” crisis of 2015, as multiple countries refused entry to boats of stranded migrants, preferring to leave them to starve rather than risk creating a “pull factor” for more migrants.
The scale and duration of the suffering has given rise to a perennial feeling among human rights advocates that this simply cannot go on, that each fresh horror must be a breaking point that will lead to some sort of resolution. Desperate people often turn to inventive methods to at least provide some sort of solution. Enter: the Blockchain community.
What does blockchain have to do with the Rohingya?Because the Rohingya are stateless, those who have not been recognized as refugees in countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia have no ID, cannot access services even provided by the private sector, such as bank accounts or cell phone accounts, or even prove who they are to one another.
A bunch of startups, such as Humaniq, have begun exploring the idea that distributed ledger technology, often called blockchain, could help stateless people create their own, non-governmental registry that could serve as an ID and verification system. The Rohingya Project seeks to bring this technology to the Rohingya, setting up a group blockchain for all Rohingya people so they could, for example, transfer money or keep a record of their information. In some ways, the blockchain would serve as a quasi-government for otherwise stateless people.
Rohingya could use the blockchain to access some services that can be done by computers, like transferring and storing money, storing important personal information and creating a credit history. However, the problem with blockchain is that while it can store and verify someone’s identity, it cannot create that identity. An identity can only be created by people.
A ledger can record your identity, but it cannot create it.
One’s personal identity is the creation of multiple layers of connections with community, with family, with culture and with gender. These forms of identity are fluid, overlapping and changeable. It’s malleable and something over which you have a certain amount of control.
But your legal identity, your nationality, is given to you by others. It’s something over which you have almost no control. And human beings have long since decided that a legal identity can only be created by states. Only a government is vested with the ultimate authority to verify who you are as a matter of law. This function is part of the state’s sovereignty over every aspect of our lives. Ultimately, and despite the best efforts of internationalists and anarchists, we exist as legal persons with rights only because we are allowed to exist by governments. On paper, basic human rights are assured to everyone despite what a particular government may or may not think, but go and tell that to a stateless person. Make no mistake, you are a person only because your government says you are.
Checking to see if you are a person…
In a recent article in the online magazine Crypto-Disrupt about blockchain as a solution for the stateless Rohingya diaspora, David Cullinan makes a bleak admission about the limits of technology to solve problems created by the exclusive sovereignty of states over our lives. He writes that the Rohingya blockchain, which would allow access to some banking services, would be available to everyone who had “passed a test to verify that the person is genuine Rohingya.” What organization would design this test? How would it be administered? Would there be an appeals process for those denied access? Sure sounds to me a lot like the functions of a government ID agency.
As long as a verifiable identity gives rise to rights and access to valuable services, as long as it has a value, deciding who gets this valuable identity will require some sort of administrative body, some sort of government to pick the winners and losers, the ins and the outs. In short, a verifiable identity will always require a government. There’s no technological fix for that problem, unfortunately.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Venezuelans Living Abroad Can’t Get Their Passports Renewed. They Need a Humanitarian Status, Now.


Missing! Have you seen this booklet?
My Venezuelan friend sent me a text message the other day: “Can the UN help me get my passport renewed? Is there some kind of UN passport I can get? Mine expires at the end of the year and I can’t get a new one.”
In case you were wondering, no, the UN cannot help you get a passport. With the exception of the refugee travel document, passports are issued by states. UN staff members receive a light blue laisser-passer denoting their diplomatic status, but this document does not and cannot replace their passport. In the modern world of international travel, the passport occupies the place of a mythic, sacred object, a talisman of incredible power.
But why would my friend, a well-traveled and successful professional, be having trouble getting a passport?
Turns out the Venezuelan government has stopped issuing passports, or any documents for that matter, to anyone, abroad or in Venezuela. Oh, I’m sure if you know the right people, you can still get one. But most people are simply out of luck until the government decides to start doing its job again. Apparently, the Venezuelan government has signed legislation allowing expired passports to continue to be used for visa purposes, but it is unclear if such documents will be accepted by other countries. (The reasons for the sudden shortage of passports stem from the official claims of lack of paper and ink to rumors that the government wants to prevent people from leaving.) The Venezuelan government can sign whichever laws it wants, nothing can force, say, the government of the United States to put a visa in an expired passport.
In the meantime, other countries need to come up with a plan for any Venezuelans who are left stranded without documents.
Much of the news coverage of Venezuela and passports has focused on the mass exodus to neighboring countries, but the passport issue will effect Venezuelans living all over the world. It is problem for which all governments will have to find a solution. The Irish government is apparently already aware of the problem, but doesn’t seem to have come up with a solution yet.
The easiest solution would be to provide Venezuelans without documents a temporary humanitarian visa and travel document. But whatever the solution, governments should take steps to resolve this now, and not wait for large numbers of people to be left stranded without a solution.