The Soapbox: Haitian gangs, a prisoner’s hunger strike, Italy’s refusal of migrants

The Soapbox is a weekly column by WSN’s news desk analyzing major developments in world news and rounding up the stories we think are worth the read this week. Global consciousness for a global university.


Susan Behrends Valenzuela

The Soapbox is a weekly news column rounding up stories worth reading for a global university. (Staff Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Tori Morales, Deputy New Editor

In Haiti, a small concession from gangs leaves much to be desired

The leader of the Haitian gang federation G9 Family and Allies announced on Nov. 4 that he would end the blockade of a vital fuel facility. The blockade, which began in September, has weakened the country’s fuel supply and left hospitals struggling to treat the victims of an ongoing cholera outbreak.

Gang violence in Haiti has increased since the assassination of then-president Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, with a surge this summer culminating in G9’s takeover of the fuel facility in the capital of Port-au-Prince. The gang attempted to force Prime Minister Ariel Henry to resign, though he remains in power.

The G9 group, led by Jimmy Chérizier, comprises over a dozen gangs and claims to be fighting for a more equal Haiti. Chérizier, a former police officer, has been accused of committing numerous atrocities — including civillian massacre and mass rapes — dating back to his time serving in Haiti’s police force. His nickname, Barbecue, is alleged to come from his practice of setting people on fire, but he asserts that it comes from his mother, who was a fried chicken vendor.

In July, the United Nations released a report on the toll of gang violence in Port-au-Prince, including 934 deaths — a number that has most likely risen since then. On Oct. 21, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Chérizier, condemning his alleged human rights abuses and destabilization of the country. Severe food insecurity and a cholera outbreak that has killed over 130 people so far have worsened the humanitarian situation. 

According to the U.N., 4.7 million Haitians in the capital’s Cité Soleil neighborhood face acute hunger, with 19,000 experiencing “catastrophic” hunger. “Catastrophic” hunger is the most severe degree of hunger, and has never before been reported in Haiti. Malnutrition leaves individuals, especially children, more vulnerable to cholera, exacerbating the ongoing outbreak. With multiple mounting crises, the end of the fuel blockade is only a small step toward restoring normalcy in the battered nation. 

“There is one thing I am asking God: It is, ‘give us peace,’” Johnny Jean Batiste, a resident of Port-au-Prince, told NPR. “As a young man, I believe that things can change, because if things remain the same, that will be the end of my life.” 

In Egypt, a British detainee on hunger strike forced into medical care

An Egyptian British activist who has been on a hunger strike since April 2 began a water fast on Nov. 6 amid the ongoing COP27 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends the conference. Protesting his conditions and petitioning for his release, Alaa Abd el-Fattah was forced into medical care by Egyptian authorities on Nov. 10. The circumstances and nature of his treatment remain unclear.

El-Fattah was a leading pro-democracy figure during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, but was imprisoned in 2015 following a coup which put an authoritarian leader in power. He was briefly released on parole in 2019 but was arrested again six months later and has since remained in custody. Amnesty International alleges that prison guards have tortured el-Fattah during his detainment.

Having acquired British citizenship in mid-April through his mother, el-Fattah and his family hoped that dual citizenship would lead to his release. Egypt has previously allowed other imprisoned activists to renounce their citizenship and leave the country. Despite both the United Nations and Sunak pressuring Egypt to release el-Fattah, the Egyptian government has refused.

Now, el-Fattah’s family is calling on the prison to allow them to visit el-Fattah out of concern that he could die in medical custody. They have not heard from him since receiving a letter on Sunday, Nov. 6, announcing his intention to refuse water. 

On Nov. 7, el-Fattah’s sister, activist Sanaa Seif, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian pleading for Sunak to intervene and save her brother’s life.

“He’s not doing this now because he wants to die, but because it’s the only way he might get to live again,” Seif wrote. “He’s been in prison for all but one year of his son’s life for his writings about democracy and technology, and his anti-authoritarian stance. The whole world is watching what happens in Sharm el-Sheikh, where I write this from, and he is staking his life on a belief that the world will today stand with him.”

In Italy, a migrant ship refusal angers France

After two weeks at sea off the coast of Italy, hundreds of asylum seekers will finally be able to disembark in France on Nov. 11. The rescue boat Ocean Viking, where the 234 refugees were staying, was one of four vessels in the Mediterranean that picked up migrants in life-threatening danger.

The three other ships were eventually allowed to dock in Italy. Initially, the Italian government refused to allow healthy adult men to disembark, though this decision was reversed after international outcry and an announcement of a hunger strike by remaining passengers

All four ships were registered to either Germany or Norway, and the Italian interior minister had called on those nations to accept the passengers. Though France eventually took in the asylum seekers, it did so reluctantly and has since suspended a previously agreed-upon migrant deal with Italy that would have seen France accepting 3,500 refugees. 

Italy’s decision to refuse migrant ships is in line with the policies of new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who leads the fascist Brothers of Italy party. She has promised to introduce hardline anti-migrant measures, and once said that Italy should “repatriate migrants back to their countries and then sink the boats that rescued them.” 

In France, anti-immigrant sentiment has also fueled the rise of far-right parties who have been quick to condemn the country’s acceptance of the Ocean Viking. Marine Le Pen, a member of the National Rally who lost her third presidential bid this year, said that France was being “dramatically” soft on immigration. The so-called “migrant crisis” has raged throughout Europe for years, with increasing tensions between nations on the best way to handle arrivals, which have numbered over 150,000 this year.

“The legal obligation to rescue and to ensure the safety of life at sea is clear and unequivocal, irrespective of the circumstances that lead people to be in a situation of distress,” the European Commission wrote in a Nov. 9 statement. “The situation we are witnessing in the Mediterranean exposes yet again the urgent need for a singular, cohesive, migration and asylum policy.”

Contact Tori Morales at [email protected].