The danger of “business as usual” with Moscow

Human rights researcher Tanya Lokshina tells how she was blackmailed over her pregnancy.

As Brussels prepares for the EU-Russia Summit on December 21, it’s worth recalling a recent UK Foreign Office statement indicating that all was “business as usual” in Russia, with the human rights situation given its perfunctory place.  But “business as usual” is the most counterproductive signal that can be sent by an EU member-state to Russia today.   

Last December Moscow was not buried in snow as it is now, but was rather drowning in slush. On 5 December a group of activists held a public gathering to protest violations during the parliamentary elections the day before.  They had anticipated a turnout of about 500. Instead, as many as 10,000 people showed up, shocking the organizers, the media, and the Kremlin.

That rally proved to be the beginning of massive public demonstrations in Russia’s capital, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest authoritarian rule and political stagnation. Surely, this voice of discontent was so strong the government could not possibly ignore it?

But although some electoral reforms followed early in 2012, the authorities only intensified harassment of their critics in the lead-up to the presidential elections in March and Vladimir Putin’s inauguration in May. They used punitive lawsuits and arbitrary detention, threats from state officials, and beatings to intimidate political and civic activists, and to interfere with independent news outlets.  After the inauguration, the parliament pushed through a raft of highly restrictive laws, tightening the screws on freedom of expression, association, and assembly and giving the government ample tools to prosecute peaceful dissent.

Working for the Human Rights Watch Russia Office, I could feel the repression tightening and realized it was unprecedented in contemporary Russian history. Some of the elements — especially the new treason legislation and the heightening anti-foreign hysteria –are frighteningly reminiscent of Soviet times.

Then one morning in September, I started to receive threatening text messages revolving around my advanced pregnancy and my unborn child.  I caught myself thinking: “Last year this would have been unthinkable — whoever’s doing this has lost all sense of limitations.”

In Russia a pregnant woman is still viewed as off-limits, and the idea that of threatening an unborn baby would disgust anyone. Still, the new laws and the aggressive rhetoric of the Kremlin apparently signaled to officials at all levels that anything goes when it comes to the campaign against international groups or “foreign agents” (even if they are Russian).  As a result, the climate in the country has become so hostile that blackmailing a human rights researcher over her pregnancy is an acceptable addition to the arsenal of tools used to hamper the work of advocacy organisations.

In seven short months, Russia feels like a different country.  A new and expanded definition of  treason — essentially criminalizing international advocacy -- requires foreign-funded human rights and advocacy groups to register and publicize themselves as “foreign agents” (in Russian this unambiguously is interpreted as “foreign spies”). Two large donors — USAID and UNICEF — have been kicked out. A group of demonstrators face mass riot charges that are, at the very least, disproportionate.  And two members of the Pussy Riot feminist punk band are serving serious prison sentences for a political stunt following  an absurd and unfair trial.

This is not how I want to see Russia. Hopefully, this is not how its international partners want to see it either. But governments that should care about developments in Russia seem to be passively watching the country slide over the abyss of repression.  They need to speak up to help end the Kremlin’s onslaught on civil society, making clear that infringing on basic rights in violation of international law has a cost globally.  You can’t be a member of the prestigious international clubs without strict adherence to the rules. 

Tanya Lokshina is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and deputy director of the Moscow office

Russian opposition supporters shout during a rally in central Moscow on 5 December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Tanya Lokshina is Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office. Having joined Human Rights Watch in January 2008, Lokshina authored reports on egregious rights abused in Chechnya and Ingushetia and co-authored a report on violations of international humanitarian law during the armed conflict in Georgia in the summer of 2008. Lokshina runs a column for the Russian current affairs website Polit.Ru. She is recipient of the 2006 Andrei Sakharov Award for Journalism as Civic Accomplishment.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".