Tag Archives: Krasi Shapkarova

The Road to “United States of Europe” Is Rather Bumpy


For the past one month Ukraine has found itself at a crossroad and based on the plentiful accounts in the media, the country has only two choices in terms of direction—Europe or Russia—one of which should lead to prosperity and the other to further degradation. Since November 21, Independence Square in Kiev has been overtaken by protests against the current President, Viktor Yanukovich, and demands for his resignation abound. The protests are a consequence of the president’s failure to follow through with the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The deal could mark an important step toward European integration for Ukraine and the suspension of talks between Yanukovich and the EU under the alleged insistence of Russia highlights the biggest obstacle to a smooth process.

Image: BGNES

Image: BGNES

The protests have largely been peaceful, but on several occasions the situation escalated. On November 30, for example, witness reports confirmed beatings by riot police and prompted various human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), to voice outrage at the police brutality against civilians and journalists. HRW has subsequently demanded a thorough investigation, but while the ruling party acknowledged the complaints, it also dismissed them as unnecessary and as the means to cause panic and chaos. On December 8, the statue of Vladimir Lenin was toppled as protesters voiced their intention to eliminate Soviet influence from their country. Russian officials have reportedly expressed surprise over the attention the situation in Ukraine has attracted both domestically and internationally.

Most analysts appear to agree on two important characteristics of the recent events in Ukraine:

  • First, the increased tensions reflect the polarization between European and Russian economic pressures. Claims abound that President Yanukovich’s decision became a reality after significant push from the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, while Western leaders have threatened Ukraine with possible economic sanctions, a BBC report indicates that Yanukovich and Putin have reached an agreement that would lead to significant economic assistance from Russia. The bailout package is expected to pull the Ukrainian economy out of the gutters and “keep the country from bankruptcy next year”. Putin’s desire to alleviate the struggles of the Ukrainian economy is seen as a clear sign of his intention to keep Ukraine close and the European Union at a distance.
  • Second, the protests in Kiev are a perfect example of a generational rift: the younger generation tends to support the idea of a united Europe and a common European identity while the older generation insists on strong connections with Russia. Older generations, having lived though the impact of another union, the Soviet that is, seem a bit more skeptical as to the impact the EU could have and voice concerns that the independence of their nations is still in jeopardy. Conversely, the younger generation is fed up with the difficult economic situation in their native countries and see accession to the EU as an opportunity to move West and find better jobs.

Interestingly, the two most prominent characteristics of the developments in Ukraine correspond to the two ideals behind a united Europe—economic interdependence and a common identity. Economic integration was the major focus of the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community (EEC), precursors of the EU, with the idea that those bound by economic interests will not be concerned with waging a massive and murderous war against each other. For a while, Europe seemed to be on the way to a bright future marked by peace and economic interdependence.

Another, and a bit more problematic, theme accompanying the establishment and enlargement of the EU is the search for the so-called common European identity. A shared cluster of characteristics, distinct to Europeans, is expected to smooth and ease the ultimate integration of all European countries into a community living harmoniously. As Delanty points out, however, this concept of a common regional identity sprouted out of and has been sustained by separation rather than by integration and peace. It is also important to acknowledge Peter van Ham’s observation about the enigma of what exact values, beliefs, and shared hopes would constitute the roots of this budding European identity and the likelihood of such an identity to allow Europeans to feel socially connected on a larger than the commercial level. The intention is for a diverse group of nations to come together under the umbrella of Europeanness and exist and prosper as one body. Moreover, a certain ‘European Gemeinschaft’ is viewed as a necessary prerequisite for the successful enlargement of the EU. It is not clear, however, whether the European identity already exists and the path toward integration is meant to solidify that identity or if the integration itself is supposed to create and reinforce the so-called European identity. The ultimate hope is that an emphasis on a common identity, along with economic interdependence, would reinforce the unification of European states and turn Europe into a powerful actor on the global stage.

In the last two decades it has become painfully clear that with former communist republics seeking admission, the two EU pillars of economic stability and common European identity are threatened and a truce is unavoidable. The idea of a united and strong Europe might still just be that: an idea. In Ukraine, some emphasize, what stands out is “the imaginary Europe that has captured Ukrainians’ minds”. A common market and identity that can keep nations together can only work if a basic level of economic and social development already exists. The original member states relied on and acted out of a shared political and economic template that was not what the new members are familiar with. The economic disparities between the long-time Western members and the new Eastern members place a strain on the union and jeopardize the hopes for economic stability across Europe. Indeed, a discussion about European disintegration has become prominent, especially in the first decade of the 21st century. Support for the EU and its mission has fallen in several of the more powerful European states such as Britain and France.

No doubt the region referred to as Europe is comprised of significant cultural, political, economic, and religious diversity. To have these distinct areas join into a united supra-national organization will take effort, time, and most of all compromise. The economic differences are so enormous that the integration under a common market seems unlikely. Former communist nations have standards of living that are at least 40 percent lower than the standard of life in older members of the EU. Political differences are also significant and while the early accepted Baltic nations are working hard at developing stable democracies, many nations in the Central and Eastern region have found themselves in more repressing regimes than at the end of the Soviet era. Different economic standards ultimately result in distinct ways of life, diverse beliefs, and a color palette of worldviews that in turn create issues with the concept of a united Europe. While language diversity is respected in the union, the cultural and social history it is accompanied by has so far not faced a warm welcoming. In terms of geography, all EU countries technically belong under the umbrella of Europe, but in terms of culture and way of life, not all within the confines of the old continent feel European or are treated as such. While demanding respect for all members within a specific state, the older members of the EU have yet to show a similar practice toward EU citizens across the EU regardless of their country of origin.

Recent reports indicate that President Yanukovich and his government have agreed to resume talks about the deal with the EU, but considering the information provided above, it is clear that a smooth integration would likely not be a reality. Indeed, while an agreement with the EU would in the long run benefit the country, the protesters on the streets of Kiev should not expect an immediate improvement in terms of economic development. This has certainly been the case in Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007. It seems that the leaders and governments of developing nations seeking admission into the union know that aid is coming with the membership, and they also know that to a degree, they have to help themselves. And as Framer shrewdly observes, these leaders help themselves the same way political elites everywhere do it: by helping themselves “to whatever they can get their hands on”. While corruption prevails and EU aid disappears down mysterious alleyways and bank accounts, those who suffer the consequences are the common people who really do not care who is in control as long as they have a decent life and are able to provide for their families without having to leave the country and be underpaid, and hated and abused for being there and allowing themselves to be underpaid. So while an entry into the EU is viewed as the way out of economic depression and into prosperity and development, one cannot help but be haunted by the questions asked by Eduardo Galeano, “How many people prosper in prosperity?/How many people find their lives developed by development?”

Ultimately, what is crystal clear is that former communist nations in Europe will not be left alone—either by the EU or Russia. Both powers claim to advocate for the small sovereign nations to be allowed to exert their independence, but no one really lets them make the decision on their own. A country is left to choose between the influence of one big entity over another and who is to say what choice comes with more negative consequences. Considering the continued economic hardships, the high corruption levels, and the escalating mistreatment of immigrants in the West, it is no surprise that some in the newest EU members believe that one repressive and discriminatory regime has simply been replaced by another. Former communist nations are treated like immature younglings who need the guidance of an adult to mature and civilize. Whether that adult is the European Union or the former Soviet Union is truly irrelevant. Churchill may have believed that building “a kind of United States of Europe” is the future of a prosperous Europe, but after over sixty years of hard work and construction, the road to a united Europe still resembles more the Soviet era remnants dissecting Eastern Europe than a German autobahn. As a person who has been on both, I must admit, I am not a fan of either.

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The Plight of Domestic Workers as a Concern for Anti-Human Trafficking Activists


On November 6, 2013, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the John Hopkins University hosted the Protection Project Eighth Annual Symposium on the issue of trafficking in persons. The focus of this year’s symposium was the plight of domestic workers. In the course of four panel discussions, a plethora of experts shared basic statistics to illustrate the scope of the problem, highlighted particular aspects that place domestic workers in vulnerable situations, debated with whom the responsibility for addressing the problem lies, and offered suggestions and recommendations on what needs to be done.

Many would argue that human trafficking has in recent years, for better or worse, certainly become the issue du jour. News reports on the problem are now an everyday occurrence and the number of books, films, or TV shows addressing it have proliferated at a lightning speed. The common denominator in nearly all instances of attention, however, is the inevitable focus on sex trafficking. Although an estimated 53 million people are employed as domestic workers—over 80% of whom are women and young girls—trafficking of persons for the purpose of labour, specifically domestic work, rarely grabs the attention of the general public and therefore, as Tiffany Williams, an LGSW Campaign Coordinator at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, emphasized, the issue has for too long been ignored equally by media, students, activists, NGOs, and law enforcement agencies.

There are several reasons the often horrific situation of domestic workers has remained largely unnoticed and difficult to address.

  • Domestic workers live and work in private homes, behind closed doors, and any great harm done to them remains invisible. It is important to note that even without the issue of trafficking, the situation of domestic workers needs to be addressed as the particularities of their no ordinary work place increase their vulnerability to abuse and suffering.
  • Domestic workers are isolated. They are never off duty and therefore often have no social life. By becoming housecleaners and care takers in foreign lands, many women and young girls seemingly manage to contribute to those they left behind. At the same time, however, the same jobs that provide for their families also separate them from the ones they care most about. Feeling the pressure from home and being aware of their lack of rights, they quietly endure conditions far from ideal.
  • Domestic work has historically been used as a form of social subordination, of women in general and minority women in particular. As Neha Misra, a Senior Specialist on Migration and Human Trafficking at the Solidarity Center, emphasized, migrant workers have historically deliberately been excluded from labour laws, but the case of domestic workers is particularly ignored because the problems are hidden. Consequently, domestic workers are kept as non-actors, as people with no political power who could do little to incur change.
  • Domestic work has been and still is considered women’s work and as a result falls in the informal sector and is viewed as an industry of lesser respect. For example, Neha Misra indicated that 1 in 3 women in the Middle East and 1 in 4 women in Latin America are domestic workers. Domestic workers are regarded as non-persons who could easily become both sex and labour slaves.

Although at the symposium there seemed to be an agreement on the vulnerable position of domestic workers, a debate ensued when the aspect of responsibility was mentioned. Should origin or receiving countries bear the task of improving the situation of domestic workers?

Many of the panelists at the symposium exposed cultural aspects of certain receiving countries to depict the complexity of the issue. Indeed, the Middle East and the North African regions are with the highest demand for domestic workers and many of the states in those geographical areas are characterized as adhering to the kefala system. The kefala system reflects a form of sponsorship (guardianship) that requires domestic workers to become dependent on employers who are responsible for the workers’ visas and legal status. Such dependency places migrant labourers in vulnerable positions as employers often keep their passports and leave them with no option but to tolerate any abuse that accompanies their everyday existence.

While the states of the Persian Gulf are often attacked for the aforementioned kefala system that locks domestic workers in the control of employers, Neha Misra was quick to emphasize that the United States is not far behind with a similar system of work visas that tie workers to their employers even if the conditions are horrific. Tiffany Williams of the National Domestic Workers Alliance confirmed Ms. Misra’s statement and outlined employer-controlled visas (specifically in the United States) as an added layer of vulnerability for domestic workers.

Mr. Osama bin Abdullah Al-Absi, Chief Executive Officer of the Labour Market Regulatory Authority in the Kingdom of Bahrain, stressed that though the receiving countries are often charged with the responsibility to address and solve the problem, the problem does not really start when the domestic worker enters the destination country. He highlighted that often both the receiving family and the domestic worker endure irreversible damage when provided false information about each other by the middle men—the recruiting agencies in both receiving and origin countries. In response to an audience question, however, he pointed out that while the irreversible damage should certainly not be seen as equal, activists must not ignore one side of the equation.

The discussion on responsibility certainly highlighted that in order to comprehensively address the situation of domestic workers, instead of playing the blame game, both origin and destination countries must examine existing systems that repress domestic workers and implement changes that ensure domestic workers enjoy the same rights as other labourers.

An international attempt to recognize and address the plight of domestic workers is the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention (No 189). It was adopted in 2011 and entered into force on 5 September 2013.  The goal of the convention is to ensure decent work for domestic workers. The convention is historic because it is the first international framework that addresses domestic work and exposes the social and economic contributions of domestic workers. At the least, the convention outlines basic standards for working conditions of domestic laborers and offers provisions for private employment agencies.

C-189 has so far been ratified by ten countries: Bolivia, Germany, Guyana, Italy, Mauritus, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa, and Uruguay. It is important to note that even countries that have not ratified the convention have began to implement amendments to national legislature to address and incorporate the established international standards for domestic workers. For example, the United States has not ratified the convention and as one of the panelists bluntly indicated, “there is no chance in hell” that it will do so, but there have been promising actions by individual states, such as California, New York, and Hawaii, that have focused on establishing a domestic workers Bill of Rights.

ILO Convention 189, as well as the efforts at national and state levels, indicates that the plight of domestic workers will no longer be ignored. However, there is still much to be done in order for the problem to be properly addressed. At the international level, for example, a future goal would be to encourage more countries to ratify the convention and to make sure adequate institutions are put in place to implement the standards as outlined in C-189. The ultimate goal is to have the basic rights of domestic workers protected regardless of their origin or destination country. As Neha Misra argued, while existing bilateral agreements between origin and destination countries seem to address the issue, they ultimately do not work because the countries of origin are in a weak bargaining position and the receiving countries, if pressed, would simply move to another country of origin with less stricter laws.

At the state level Amy Mahoney of the International Organization for Migration emphasized the importance of focusing on reintegration efforts as well. Attempts to address the problem should not be concerned solely with what could be done before workers leave but also with what needs to be done when they come back. On that note, Tiffany Williams challenged the notion of victimhood, spoke about moving beyond survival, and underlined the value of survivors themselves “breaking the chain” and speaking for the millions of workers in the United States. I agree. Regarding domestic workers as victims implies that they are powerless, dependant, and unable to make it without support. We should instead see them as survivors—survivors who could adapt to the most inhospitable and dangerous environments, who could manage to grasp the value of life even when it is uncertain and painful, or maybe because it is uncertain and painful, and who are content to be alive. Worker-led mobilization efforts and survivor-led empowerment should therefore be integral to any state attempt to address the problem.

Lastly, at an individual level, the general population needs to realize that domestic work is work, often hazardous and undervalued, and the people who make sure the work is done deserve safe conditions, proper treatment, and most of all recognition. After all, the truth is that it is not the job itself that should be viewed as degrading; what reduces the status of domestic workers is the loss of independence and responsibility that has traditionally accompanied the work. To properly address the problem, therefore, the larger population needs to realize the importance and value of domestic workers who do “the work that makes all other work possible”.

Krasi Shapkarova is a recent graduate of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, with an MA in International Human Rights and concentration in forced labour and human trafficking. She is now based in the Washington D.C. area.

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Barriers to Women’s Representation


On January 11, 2013, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia announced that he is granting women a 20 percent quota on the Shura Council, the legislative body that advises the king on matters pertaining to the country. This decision translates into 30 women in the previously all-male body. This decree was seen as the first step, albeit a small one, toward the ultimate goal of women’s suffrage and guaranteed women’s rights. King Abdullah has further declared that during the next municipal elections in 2015, women will be able to vote as well as run for office. One of the current female members of the Shura Council recently challenged the existing ban on women drivers, and her action suggests that although moving at a glacial pace, a change in the right direction for women’s rights might be underway.

However, even if every country grants women the right to vote, barriers still exist that prevent women from being nominated, running for, and being elected to political office. With a few exceptions – primarily the Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland), Belgium, and the Netherlands – most states have a long road to cover before women could have an equal chance of being nominated and elected for political office, and particularly for a leadership position such as the President or Prime Minister.

Around the world, the numbers of women entering political elections and winning leadership positions are certainly at an all-time high. According to the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics, the percentage of women heads of state is 42% in Europe, 23% in the Americas, 19% in Sub Saharan Africa, 16% in Asia, and 5% in the Arab World. Despite the increased number of elected women during the last several decades, it is evident that there is still a huge gap in terms of women’s political representation between countries in which women have the opportunities to advance and countries that still present both formal and informal barriers to women’s empowerment and success in the realm of politics.

Different approaches are utilized to examine this persistent phenomenon in an attempt to determine the variables with the greatest impact. Three approaches seem to be the most popular: the institutional approach, the structural approach, and the political culture approach.

Proponents of the institutional approach argue that institutions determine and shape the way in which a certain phenomenon is played out. In the context of the gender gap in politics, that translates into the idea that political institutions restrict women’s access to leadership positions in politics. Two institutional factors often mentioned in studies on women’s representation are the type of electoral system and gender quotas. An interactive overview created by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) provides a summary of the various possible combinations between electoral systems and quotas. The table clearly indicates that depending both on the type of quota and the electoral system, the likelihood of women being nominated and elected for a political office ranges from very low to very high. Therefore, considering institutional factors, one can conclude that it is not the electoral system or the type of quota present that has an impact on women representation. Rather, it is the characteristics of both institutional factors, as well as the relationship between the two, that determine whether the political climate will be favorable to women.

Advocates of structural factors emphasize the impact of economic development in general, and modernization specifically, on the change in social structures and the resulting improvements in terms of health, education, and occupations for women. For example, in his analysis of several variables in the context of the European Union nations, Daniel Stockemer finds that aside from the type of electoral systems, the two other variables that have a significant impact on women’s representation are the number of women in professional positions and the overall number of years women have had the right to vote. However, considering the fact that women are far from bridging the gender gap in politics in many of the wealthiest and most economically developed nations in the world, structural factors seem to take a back seat to institutional and cultural factors. While structural factors seem to facilitate women’s empowerment, they do not account for the continued presence of barriers in terms of women’s representation.

In recent years, therefore, the focus of the study of women’s representation seems to have shifted toward an analysis from a political culture perspective. The argument is that a political culture that is more favorable to women in politics will create fewer obstacles to representation and consequently reduce the gender gap. Despite the increased interest in women’s rights and the concept of gender equality, deep-rooted traditional beliefs continue to present an obstacle to women’s interest to run for office or society’s tendency to vote for women in high political offices.

Two prominent scholars examining issues of gender, political culture, and representation are Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart. These two authors argue that institutional and structural explanations, while effective in certain respects, fail to account for differences across countries with similar characteristics or for differences across countries at the polar ends of the development spectrum. Instead, they place the emphasis on the impact of culture and highlight that egalitarian attitudes and belief in social equality are the possible explanations for the highest representation being in the Scandinavian nations while other developed nations, such as the United States, lag far behind. Further, they contend that cultural attitudes toward women and the female role could also be the explanation for why countries in the Arab world continue to rank at the bottom of any measurements of women empowerment or representation.

The scholars emphasize that in the context of the Muslim world, cultural influences are extremely important in the realm of politics and often hurt women’s chances for equal representation in leadership or otherwise positions. For example, less than 10% of parliamentarians in the Arab world are women and, even worse, there does not seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Norris and Inglehart contend that “the true clash of civilizations” is not any real difference in opinions toward democracy between Christianity and Islam; the actual divide, the authors argue, is along the lines of sex. Even if the majority of people in Arab nations seem to express willingness to a transition to democracy, persistent beliefs that men make better political leaders will continue to support the barriers to women’s representation. Simply encouraging transitions to democracies only in terms of fair elections and universal suffrage is not enough, Norris and Inglehart argue. The West, and specifically the United States, must do better in acknowledging the value of culture and allot resources to target human development. As they strongly conclude, “Culture has a lasting impact on how societies evolve. But culture does not have to be destiny”.

While it seems that proponents of the political culture approach have focused on the impact of culture in specific areas in the world, namely the Arab World and other restrictive in terms of women’s rights governments, it is of utmost importance to note the impact of culture and attitudes toward women in the developed Western world as well. While some nations, such as the Scandinavian countries, are leaders in respect to female political leadership, others, such the United States and France, are trailing behind. Even when women are in terms of law equal to men and have equal access to political offices, it is clear that beliefs about the nature of women, as not aggressive or rational enough to handle politics, impact the likelihood of women to be elected to higher political offices. In countries in which personal characteristics matter in a potential candidate, women tend to run for office in limited numbers if at all. The United States is a great example. It is clear that the representation in the media of female and male politicians is quite different. It has been argued that masculine characteristics are valued in the realm of politics and women either will not be elected because they are not aggressive enough or will be targeted for not acting as ‘proper’ women if they do behave in what is deemed a masculine manner.

Changing formal institutions, however costly and difficult it might be, is perhaps easier to imagine and implement than changing the informal institutions or the political culture of a state. The impact of personal characteristics and the influence of the traditional culture are hard to bypass and a paradigm shift is necessary for the beliefs and attitudes of those involved to change. More women in politics and a change in the treatment of these women – by other politicians, by the media, and most importantly by the general public – might result in an equal representation. If political culture is indeed what determines the likelihood of women running and being elected for office, then the road to addressing and targeting the barriers to such achievements will be hard to travel. If we take the Scandinavian countries as an example, it is well-documented that it took several decades for women to reach the level of high political representation in these countries. And even among these exemplary states, complete gender equality in politics has not yet been reached. I am not sure if women in other nations would like to wait decades before such equal representation is achieved.

Krasi Shapkarova is a recent graduate of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, with an MA in International Human Rights and concentration in forced labour and human trafficking. She is now based in the Washington D.C. area.

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Syria: The Refugee Aspect


On September 4, 2013, after a long summer holiday, the members of the Bulgarian National Assembly returned for the third plenary session of the year. They were welcomed by the anti-government protests that have occupied Sofia, the capital, for over 100 days. The demands of protesters for government resignation and their very existence for that matter received little to no attention. On that first day of work, the main issue addressed by Bulgarian politicians was the increasing number of Syrian refugees seeking assistance in Bulgaria.

While the rest of the world engages in heated debates over the likelihood, morality, feasibility, and possible outcomes of a military intervention in Syria; analyzes the characteristics and motives of all involved in the conflict; and actively seeks someone to blame for what is happening, the number of Syrian refugees scattered in neighboring countries has surpassed 2 million. The refugee aspect of the conflict in Syria has therefore become a major concern for the countries refugees flee to. Even in the face of national priorities that do not align with addressing a refugee influx, these countries cannot escape the direct impact of the conflict, in the form of Syrian men, women, and children whose lives have been shattered, and are inevitably forced to address the problem.

Bulgaria is one of these countries. It is not a neighbor of Syria, but it neighbors Turkey and such geography has contributed to an increased flow of refugees, specifically in the last several months. The Turkish population feels the strain of added responsibility to care for thousands of foreign people and tensions between refugees and locals increase. The situation is not better in another neighboring country, Lebanon. Resources are quickly exhausted and the desire to help those in need dissipates as scarce supplies are diverted to an international population. Some Syrian refugees realize that Turkey is not the refuge they seek and continue on to Bulgaria, perhaps with hopes for entry into the EU region. Every day, an average of about 50 to 70 Syrians cross the Turkish-Bulgarian border with hopes for a better life. The road to the supposed safe haven is accompanied by as much danger as the region they left, and often what they find at the end of the journey are good intentions and not many helpful practices by the governments of the receiving countries.

Refugees, by virtue of their condition, find themselves in a very vulnerable position: their own country is unsafe and host countries are unprepared and unwilling to accept them. The transition into a refugee status is not voluntary and unlike regular migrants, the ones forced to move are usually not prepared to leave the only homes they have known, often with no idea about their destination and the conditions they will face when they arrive. Severed from their roots, they are placed into a new environment and asked to fit in and live happily. The task proves challenging: although their home country is torn by internal conflicts that endanger their well-being, refugees are more likely to feel nostalgia and be plagued by fear that they might never see their native country again. The interviews with refugees in the Bulgarian refugee centres confirm that sentiment.

In a perfect world, refugees will receive the assistance they need so that their suffering is minimized. (Well, actually, in a perfect world, there would not be conflicts that necessitate concern for refugees, but that may be a bit too much to ask for.) Not surprisingly, however, refugees are often treated worse than voluntary immigrants and are lucky to receive even the bare minimum of services or assistance.

The political leaders of Bulgaria have clarified that the country will very likely not be able to offer proper assistance to the continued flow of refugees and talks about EU funds enter discussions. Reports from the refugee centres support the government’s worry that even though the flow to Bulgaria is not of the extent to other European countries, the increased numbers put a strain on the system. The current holding areas reveal that conditions are dire: overcrowded buildings, unsafe living environments, and lack of basic necessities. While a number of the arrivals are children, educational and recreational opportunities are limited. Some who have crossed the border through illegal means, often with the “help” of a trafficker, are left in detention centres with no hope for assistance until their case has been reviewed by the appropriate authorities. Using the internal protests and the refugee crisis to their advantage, the right-wing party seems to be the only actor to have a clear platform and a position: leaders demand the closing of borders and under claims of patriotism require focus on internal issues, not conflicts in other countries.

Addressing the refugee crisis, however, is vital and demands international engagement. In the absence of help from international players who are able to provide assistance, predatory players–like traffickers–step in to fill the void. After all, war brings business to those who prey on the vulnerable and desperate. Left with no protection, refugees become exposed to advances by a plethora of helpful traffickers.

A recent report by BTV NEWS indicates that the majority of refugees reaching the Bulgarian border are women and children. Some mention that they have paid anywhere from 400 to 2,000 EUROS to be brought from Istanbul to the Bulgarian border. Some experience greater violence than the one that pushed them to leave. Clearly, violence against women is not just prevalent during a time of conflict; it is an everyday occurrence even after women have supposedly escaped the war-torn region and are settled in refugee camps/centres and under the protection of host governments and an array of non-profit organizations.

Certainly, becoming a refugee places a person in a vulnerable position. However, refugee populations should not simply be dismissed as an unfortunate collateral damage for whom doing the basic minimum is sufficient (although sometimes even doing that minimum seems like an unbearable chore in the busy daily schedules of host countries). We should not assume that because they have survived the chaotic situation in Syria, they can certainly make it in the crammed environment of refugee camps. They probably could, and often do, but this does not mean that we should allow it to happen.

The suffering for refugees does not end when they leave the war-torn region; in fact, for many, the separation from their homeland marks the beginning of an arduous journey to unfamiliar and often unwelcoming new abodes. It is not a surprise that many dream of nothing more than to return to Syria. Ultimately, they endure the conditions in refugee areas not because they are times better than the current conditions in Syria, but because they hope for a chance to return to and rebuild their homes.

Krasi Shapkarova is a recent graduate of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, with an MA in International Human Rights and concentration in forced labour and human trafficking. She is now based in the Washington D.C. area.

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The Economics of Sex Trafficking: Johns Arrests


I have increasingly come across reports of Johns arrests–the customers using the services of girls and women in the sex industry–in monthly newsletters on human trafficking. Anyone familiar with the problem of sex trafficking and the controversial issue of targeting the women, not the men soliciting them for services, as criminals would view an increase in Johns arrests as great milestones. This is certainly a trend in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done before the situation is properly addressed.

While global awareness of the exploitation of young girls and women in the sex industry has increased, at the local level, those offering services are still more likely to be arrested than those who purchase the services. A lot of attention has been given to laws which punish traffickers and offer assistance to victims, as highlighted in a recent analysis released by the Polaris Project. However, the issues surrounding buyers has still not received enough attention in the policy sphere. Continue reading

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The Political Psychology of the Rise of Right-Wing Parties in Europe: Striking down Human Rights Ideals


On November 29, 2009, after a wide-spread campaign by the Schweizerische Volkspartei in Switzerland, a ban on minarets, the prayer towers of mosques, was voted into the Swiss constitution. Even though the government opposed the initiative, the constitutional amendment received 57.5% of the votes in a national referendum and the support of 22 of the 26 Swiss cantons. The reasoning behind the proposal and the ban is the idea that minarets are not needed to practice Islam, are instead simply symbols for fundamentalists, and therefore, the amendment did not violate the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Swiss constitution.

The above anecdote is not an isolated example and clearly indicates the increase in popularity of right-wing ideology in Europe, even in countries traditionally regarded as beacons of hope for the protection of human rights for all. Traditionally, researchers looked at demographic and social background characteristics to explain people’s likelihood to vote for a right-wing party and concluded that un-educated, younger males are more likely to vote for extreme organizations. However, the recent popularity of right-wing extremist agendas in developed democratic nations, known for their highly educated citizens, poses a serious problem for such a conclusion. Continue reading

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