Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Members of the Oromo diaspora line up to share their ideas for showing support for the student protests in Oromia. Photo credit: Big Z, facebook: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10104545944303110&set=a.10104545941633460.1073741836.13914917&type=1&theater
Members of the Oromo diaspora line up to share their ideas for showing support for the student protests in Oromia. Photo credit: Big Z, facebook.

The Oromo Community of Minnesota hall was packed yesterday afternoon. Twice we scooted our chairs forward to make room for the crowds at the back; our knees were pressed up against the backs of the chairs in front of us. And when community members took the microphone, we could hear a pin drop. People I spoke with said the turnout and show of unity were unprecedented. The Oromo diaspora in Minnesota was gathering together to develop strategies to show support for the student protests that have been breaking out over the past two weeks in their homeland.

Who are the Oromo people?
The Oromo people are near and dear to my heart. I learned about them first-hand when I taught social studies for English Language Learners at Minneapolis South High School. Most of my ELL students were newly arrived refugees from Ethiopia. But many bristled at being called “Ethiopians.” They identified themselves as Oromos, and their homeland was Oromia—the largest of nine federal states in Ethiopia.

The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and there are Oromos in northern Kenya and parts of Somalia as well. Oromos speak Oromiffa, or Afan Oromo, a Cushitic language that shares approximately 35% of its vocabulary with Somali. Approximately 47% of Oromos are Muslim, and a similar percentage are Christian. As a civics teacher, I was fascinated to learn that the Oromo people had a sophisticated traditional system of democratic governance called the Gadaa system.

The Oromo people have long faced persecution from the Ethiopian Government and in Ethiopian society. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to leave teaching and become a human rights lawyer was to try to play a role in stemming the systematic human rights abuses that had driven my refugee students away from their homelands. The Advocates for Human Rights highlighted some of the persecution that Oromos face in a stakeholder report for the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia, which takes place tomorrow in Geneva.

Oromo students are mobilizing for change in Oromia

Last month, the Ethiopian Government announced a controversial “Integrated Development Master Plan for Addis Ababa.” The Ethiopian capital, which Oromos call Finfinnee, is surrounded by the state of Oromia. The Master Plan would expand the territory of Addis Ababa, annexing thousands of hectares of Oromia’s fertile agricultural lands, and then selling or leasing them to commercial agricultural enterprises.

Oromo students sounded the alarm about the Master Plan, recognizing that it would displace Oromo farmers and leave them without a livelihood or access to their traditional lands.

Oromo students protesting in Burayu. Image courtesy of Gadaa.com. http://gadaa.com/oduu/25775/2014/05/02/breaking-news-oromoprotests-buraayyuu-oromiyaa/
Oromo students protesting in Burayu. Image courtesy of Gadaa.com.

Students have been staging protests at 12 universities in Oromia. Last week, federal special forces opened fire on what seems to have been a peaceful student demonstration at Ambo University. The government has confirmed 11 fatalities, but people on the ground say the toll is closer to 50. The Ethiopian government asserts that the protests have been led by “anti-peace forces.”

One Oromo diasporan based in London told me that his sister fled Meda Welabu University in Oromia on Sunday after military forces took control from the local police and then began beating students. She saw one student killed.

Students in several universities have been under lock-down, ordered confined to their dormitory rooms and not allowed to leave campus. There are reports that officers come through the dorms at night and arrest people. One female student leader is being kept incommunicado, raising concerns that she is being ill-treated. At transportation check-points, officials check passengers’ identification and detain people with student IDs. Students who have fled are not allowed back on campus.

Getting the word out: The power of remote monitoring
Ethiopia has one of the most restrictive governments in the world. There are no independent local media organizations. No Ethiopian non-governmental organizations work openly on controversial human rights issues, and international human rights groups have been expelled from the country.

In these circumstances, it’s nearly impossible to safely conduct human rights monitoring on the ground. Oromos in the diaspora have expressed frustration that major international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been silent about the protests.

Remote human rights monitoring is a critical tool for diaspora communities like the Oromo who want to show support for and solidarity with human rights defenders on the ground in their countries of origin. In 2009, The Advocates published a report based on a remote fact-finding project here in Minnesota called Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora. The report has been used for advocacy at the United Nations and in support of applications for asylum. In our new toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities, we expanded on the human rights monitoring we did with the Oromo diaspora to develop an entire chapter on remote monitoring strategies.

Oromo diaspora mobilizes to conduct remote monitoring
Over the past two weeks, the Oromo diaspora has mobilized to shine an international spotlight on the protests. Like many diaspora groups, Oromos outside of Ethiopia maintain contacts with friends and family “back home,” some of whom have been victims of police violence or have witnessed events. Through telephone calls, text messages, email, and social media, Oromos in the diaspora have their fingers on the pulse of the student protest movement in Oromia.

Oromos in Minnesota held a candlelight vigil to remember the Oromo protesters who were killed last week.
Oromos in Minnesota held a candlelight vigil to remember the Oromo protesters who were killed last week.

The Oromo diaspora has been buzzing on social media, quickly adopting the #OromoProtests hashtag to allow people around the world to follow and contribute to the remote monitoring process. People are posting photos of victims on twitter and uploading video of some of the demonstrations to YouTube. The Oromos I’ve talked to have also recommended following certain prominent Oromos on facebook and twitter who have the trust of Oromos on the ground and feed them breaking news. Ayantu Tibeso has compiled a list on facebook of ways that diasporans can support the Oromo protests and get involved in raising awareness. Paving Pathways includes an appendix on effective human rights advocacy using social media platforms, and the Oromo diaspora is deploying many of these tactics. I’ll be using one of my favorite social media strategies—live tweeting—during the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia tomorrow morning.

The Oromo diaspora also has more traditional media, including the newly launched Oromia Media Network, Oromo Voice Radio, as well as diaspora blogs and news websites like Gadaa.com, Ayyantuu News Online, and O-Pride. These media have helped consolidate information into useful posts, first-hand accounts, and broadcasts for people who are unable to keep up with the flurry of activity on twitter, facebook, and YouTube. And they have started a more systematic effort to verify reports of deaths and injuries, maintaining lists of victims and connecting photos with dates and locations.

The diaspora’s efforts are beginning to get traction with mainstream media, with some initial coverage from the BBC, Voice of America, Think Africa Press, and an editorial piece in Al Jazeera America. Human Rights Watch just published a statement. A Minnesota-based radio program called Reflections of New Minnesotans just released a podcast of a show it did with two members of the Oromo diaspora talking about recent developments in Oromia.

Oromo youths prepared a video showing photos and YouTube clips of the Oromo student protests and government crack-down.
Oromo youths prepared a video showing photos and YouTube clips of the Oromo student protests and government crack-down for the Oromo Community of Minnesota forum on Sunday.

Momentum is building, and Oromos in the diaspora are pressing mainstream media and human rights organizations to raise visibility on the issues. They’re planning protests around the world on Friday, May 9. But diasporans who want to pitch stories and lobby policymakers will need to undertake careful remote monitoring to find receptive audiences. With the restrictions on civil society in Ethiopia, reporters, lawmakers, human rights organizations outside of the country will need to work with the Oromo diaspora to verify sources and confirm reports coming out of Oromia.

This post is the first in a four-part series about human rights in Ethiopia. Part 2  highlights the May 6 Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations. Part 3 explores the Oromo diaspora’s strategies for showing solidarity with the Oromo students while pushing for human rights and holding perpetrators accountable for the violence against peaceful demonstrators. Part 4 tells the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family members on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and recaps the Ethiopian Government’s response to the UN review.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

More posts in this series:

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review

A Deeper Look at Asylum “Fraud”

Michele Garnett McKenzie
Michele Garnett McKenzie

Today, rather than considering whether American compassion is being taken advantage of by nefarious asylum seekers exploiting holes in our country’s immigration system, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee should ask whether our asylum system ensures that everyone who seeks asylum on our shores is met with a “strong asylum system that adjudicates cases in a fair and timely manner.”

The United States’ commitment to those who flee to our shores seeking protection from persecution on account of their beliefs or identities is at the core of who we are as Americans. This promise was formalized when the United States committed itself to the Refugee Convention and Protocol and, in turn, when it enacted the 1980 Refugee Act. That system allows people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group.

Keeping fraud out of the asylum system is essential to ensure that bona fide asylum seekers receive the protection they need. As Eleanor Acer, director of the Refugee Protection Program at Human Rights First, testified today, “A strong asylum and immigration system that adjudicates cases in a fair and timely manner and includes effective tools for fighting abuse, is essential both for ensuring the integrity of the U.S. immigration process as well as for protecting refugees from return to places of persecution. If individuals or groups are defrauding the asylum system, it hurts everyone, and steps should be taken to counter those abuses and punish the perpetrators. U.S. authorities have a range of effective tools to address abuses.”

But a strong, robust, and properly resourced asylum protection system combined with a reformed immigration system that grants opportunities to workers and timely reunites families – not more barriers to protection – is the answer to combatting fraud. There is a real need for Congress to direct more resources to our immigration court system, which now has just 249 judges nationwide.

While several witnesses at today’s hearing recounted cases of fraud, they offered no solutions beyond interdiction and detention – strategies that are designed not to protect refugees but instead to keep them from making their claims for protection in the first place.

We can see the failure of this deterrence approach. Today, asylum seekers are arbitrarily detained and jailed upon entry, penalizing and deterring them from seeking asylum in the United States. The system charged with adjudicating asylum claims is under-resourced, leaving some people waiting behind bars for weeks or months while immigration officials determine whether they have “credible fear” and will get a chance to ask for asylum in the United States or they will be summarily deported. Nonetheless, asylum seekers continue to ask for our protection.

The Advocates for Human Rights began working with asylum seekers soon after the Refugee Act took effect. In the three decades that followed, we have represented asylum seekers as they struggled to establish not only their claims for protection but their credibility. We see their tears – tears of pain as they recount the horrors they fled and of relief when they are granted asylum. They’re telling the truth.

By: Michele Garnett McKenziedirector of advocacy for The Advocates for Human Rights

The Right Thing to Do

iStock image1

by Deepinder Singh Mayell

“The time to fix our broken immigration system is now.”  President Obama made this statement on the Senate floor in May 2007.  Over five years later, “now” might be getting a little closer.  With a large Latino turnout being credited as a key part of President Obama’s re-election this November, immigration reform is poised to take center stage in the national spotlight in the coming years.  Of newcomers to the United States, the President stated, “it is the constant flow of immigrants that help make America what it is. […] To this day America reaps incredible economic rewards because we remain a magnet for the best and brightest from across the globe.”[1] Both parties are changing their tone and easing their anti-immigrant rhetoric and on June 15, 2012, President Obama signed a memo calling for deferred action for certain undocumented young people who came to the United States as children.

But despite the improvement in the political climate, it is important to note that immigrants have faced an increasingly hostile environment in the last several years and a policy of rampant enforcement that is alarming.   The policies regarding deportation and detention have resulted in the unfair punishment of thousands seeking a new life in the United States.

  • Since 2009, the average number of deportations per year is about 400,000 which is double the annual average during George W. Bush’s first term and thirty per cent more that the average when he left office.[2]
  • In 2011, Minnesota deported 3,215 individuals which is nearly a fifty per cent increase from 2006.[3]
  • In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants, including children, in over 250 facilities across the country, and currently maintains a daily capacity of 33,400 beds [4]
  • About half of all immigrants held in detention have no criminal record at all.[5]

These policies are also not consistent with international human rights law.[6] For example, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), non-citizens within the United States have the right to liberty and security of person, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, and are entitled to prompt review of their detention by an independent court.[7] The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants has reported that “the United States detention and deportation system for migrants lacks the kinds of safeguards that prevent certain deportation decisions and the detention of certain immigrants from being arbitrary within the ICCPR.”[8]

The conditions in detention facilities can be appalling and detainees have complained about grossly inadequate health care, physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, and discrimination.[9]  In addition, NGOs have reported the use of shackling, tasers, and solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes and the lack of proper medication, nutrition, and recreation.[10]  The immigrants The Advocates works with, people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries and hoping to gain asylum in the United States, are particularly vulnerable.  Asylum seekers are often victims of violence, sexual assault, and torture and being held in a prison-like setting can have significant long-term mental health consequences.

Although The Advocates’ asylum program does far better than the average in helping people obtain asylum, the asylum grant rate in our Immigration Court is one of the lowest in the country at seventeen percent, while the national average is sixty-one percent.[11] Persons seeking asylum often have to wait up to three years to have their cases decided by a judge.  Meanwhile, they cannot reunite with their families who they have often left behind when escaping the horrors of persecution and torture.

Recently, President Obama stated, “As long as I’m president, I will not give up on this issue, not only because it’s the right thing to do for our economy … not just because it’s the right thing to do for our security, but because it’s the right thing to do period.”[12] It is more important than ever, in this changing environment, for those who believe in positive immigration reform to push to define “the right thing to do.”  The Advocates for Human Rights has advocated locally and nationally to ensure the rights of thousands of immigrants and has stood against mandatory detention.  In the coming years, The Advocates will continue to push to change our immigration system so that it does not focus on punishment and imprisonment but instead secures dignity, fairness, and human rights for all.

What you can go to get involved:

Call your Congressperson to tell them it is time to create fair and humane immigration laws and procedures that reflect international norms of human rights.

Volunteer for The Advocates as pro bono counsel to represent low-income asylum seekers from Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The Advocates has been doing this work for almost thirty years and has mentor attorneys and resources to help you.  If you are an attorney or interpreter and would like to help on an asylum case please contact Sarah Brenes at sbrenes@advrights.org.

Donate to The Advocates to support the asylum program and the other work we do to help immigrants. These new Americans make valuable contributions to our communities and culture, are committed to our country, and have the same human rights as our immigrant ancestors did.

Join the Detention Watch Network!  The Advocates is a steering committee member of the Detention Watch Network which is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to educate the public and policy makers about the immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for humane reform so that all who come to our shores receive fair and humane treatment.  Click here to get involved: http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/

Deepinder Singh Mayell is the Director of the Refugee & Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

[2] Executive Office for Immigration Review, FY2011 Statistical Yearbook, February 2012

[6] See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, arts. 2, 7, 9, 10, 13, and 14.

[7] ICCPR, art. 9.

[8] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, ¶ 24 (2008).

[11] Executive Office for Immigration Review, FY2011 Statistical Year Book, February 2012

Change is good: Give to the Max Day

by Mary Scott

From my office at The Advocates for Human Rights, I see promising signs of change every day. I see the relief in the eyes of our successful asylum clients, who can now live in safety and freedom from persecution. In pictures, I see the smiling faces of Nepali schoolchildren who, years ago, did not have the opportunity to choose an education over physical labor. I see the reports indicating that new laws overseas are working to protect women from domestic violence. I also see signs of change that may be less obvious. One of those signs is the success of “Give to the Max Day.”

I belong to the generation of Americans that stopped buying stamps. Our checkbooks collect dust in the back of our closets’ highest shelves. I pay my bills online; I send emails or instant messages to my friends and family; I order products online with a credit card. My checkbook is outdated by at least two addresses. For the rest of the 20-somethings of my generation, and likely the generations to follow, charitable giving will not mean sending a check in the mail.

In 2009, GiveMN hosted the first ever “Give to the Max Day,” a virtual fundraising event to benefit small and mid-sized nonprofit organizations throughout the state of Minnesota. While users can give to their favorite organizations at any time using GiveMN, “Give to the Max Day” aims to raise as much money as possible in a 24-hour period. So, since 2009, one day every year, Minnesotans get online and give, and they turn out in great numbers. Last year, more than 47,000 donors raised over $13 million for Minnesota nonprofits.

As my peers in this generation, our children, and the generations to follow eventually become the new leaders of the philanthropic community, charitable giving will change. The success of “Give to the Max Day” is a promising sign that even as it changes, charitable giving will stay strong.

But giving online is more than just the “next big thing” in charitable giving. For small nonprofit organizations like The Advocates, online fundraisers like “Give to the Max Day” are a much-needed method of effective, low-cost outreach than can both garner support and raise awareness about our work. The cost of each dollar raised online is minimal compared to the costs of grant writing and direct mail. Although it may seem like an insignificant change, the amount saved per dollar by fundraising online means that The Advocates can put more of our resources directly into our work to promote and protect human rights. More resources means more positive change that brings us closer to The Advocates’ vision of a world in which every individual lives with dignity, freedom, justice, and peace.

So, please join me and thousands of others on “Give to the Max Day”, and take part in the future of charitable giving.

Mary Scott is the Development & Communications Assistant at The Advocates for Human Rights.