(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • New refugee framework “dead in the water” without more international support

    Uganda is one of the key testing grounds for a new approach to refugees that emerged from last year’s high-level summit in New York. That approach is supposed to be based on principles of international cooperation and responsibility-sharing among states, and yet Uganda has struggled to secure sufficient donor support to manage the arrival of nearly one million refugees from neighbouring South Sudan, let alone to implement the new model.

    The “Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework”, outlined in an annex to the New York Declaration, is to form the basis for a global compact on refugees due to be adopted by member states in 2018. One of the stated objectives of the CRRF is to ease pressure on host countries; another is to expand access to resettlement in third countries. But while Uganda continues to admit an average of 2,000 refugees a day, solidarity from the international community is lagging far behind the commitments made in New York.

    At a fundraising summit in Entebbe on 22 June, Uganda and the UN appealed for $2 billion to assist the country’s emergency response to the influx from South Sudan as well as to fund the longer-term, more sustainable response envisaged by the CRRF. But donor governments pledged only $352 million and while further pledges have been made in the past two weeks, the current total still falls far short of the $637 million the UN estimates is needed just to cover the emergency response in Uganda.

    The disappointing outcome of the summit has raised questions about the future of the CRRF and the global compact and how the new framework can be implemented in other countries with less progressive refugee policies than Uganda’s that attract even less funding.

    “Uganda is a shining example when it comes to hosting refugees,” pointed out Gabriella Waaijman, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s regional director for the Horn of Africa. “They are allowing refugees the right to work and freedom of movement, giving them land. These were all highlighted as key ingredients for the CRRF and the global compact for refugees.

    “All these agendas are being pushed by donors, and then there is an opportunity and a conducive environment, and this is the response,” she protested, referring to the outcome of summit. “This is not enough.”

    “Breaking point”

    Ahead of the summit, Uganda had been warning for months that the influx from South Sudan was pushing it to “breaking point”. A March statement made jointly by the Ugandan government and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, noted that “in the face of severe underfunding and the fastest-growing refugee emergency in the world, Uganda’s ability to realise a model that allows refugees to thrive now risks being jeopardised – and the future of the new comprehensive refugee response framework thrown into question.”

    Speaking to IRIN over the phone after the fundraising summit, Apollo Kazunga, Uganda’s commissioner for refugees, said the government remained committed to the CRRF, but that without more funding, it would not be able to implement many of the interventions that would have taken the response beyond an emergency one.

    Waaijman pointed out that even the emergency response is severely under-funded. The World Food Programme was forced to halve rations for 800,000 South Sudanese refugees starting in late May. Funding for water and sanitation is also lacking, and health and education services over-stretched.

    “If world leaders want to come to New York and say beautiful words, they create hope. But we can’t provide food and water based on hope. We need money and commitments,” Waaijman told IRIN.

    One source of hope for the CRRF is that its “whole-of-society” approach will generate new partnerships with development actors and, more importantly, new sources of funding. Last year, the World Bank approved $175 million in financing to support socio-economic development in refugee-hosting communities in the Horn of Africa, including $50 million to Uganda.

    The Bank has allocated a further $2 billion in grants and concessional loans over the next three years to finance projects in low-income countries hosting large numbers of refugees. According to a spokesperson with the World Bank, to qualify for the funding, “governments will need to provide a strategy that describes concrete steps towards long-term solutions that benefit refugees and host communities”.

    However, it’s early days for the Bank’s involvement in refugee responses and there are questions around whether a country that is hosting over 1.2 million refugees should have to borrow money to finance its response, however favourable the loan terms. Others wonder how willing the World Bank will be to engage in more precarious emergency settings.

    “We’re still very cautious of saying the World Bank can come in as the saviour of the financing gap, primarily because we have a big question around what level of risk tolerance they have in times of crisis,” said James Munn, director of humanitarian policy for the NRC. “They’re used to working in a bilateral way with governments, so how does that work where governments are fragile or not really working?”

    The World Bank’s spokesperson responded that the Bank is already active in countries affected by fragility and conflict and that allocation of resources to such countries is set to double.

    Low-hanging fruit

    Volker Türk, assistant high commissioner for protection at UNHCR, which has been tasked with leading the CRRF process, has described it as “a paradigm shift”. But in many ways, the framework represents an approach to refugee management that already existed in Uganda. Key elements of both the CRRF and Ugandan policy are the promotion of refugee self-reliance, establishing early links between humanitarian and development efforts, and making investments in national and local systems that benefit host communities as well as refugees.

    This means that many of the structures needed to implement the CRRF are already in place. Refugees are included in national development plans, and a programme aimed at bringing together a wider range of partners to develop durable solutions for refugees and host communities (ReHoPE) is in the works. Meanwhile, other countries that have volunteered to trial the CRRF, such as Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, are still in the process of reviewing and drafting laws recognising refugees’ right to work and access public services.

    With roll-out of the CRRF so far confined to countries in East Africa and Central America, it’s unclear how or if the framework can be implemented in states unwilling to change policies that confine refugees to camps and discourage integration with host populations.

    “Freedom of movement and freedom to engage in gainful livelihood activities is really, really key to the whole CRRF concept,” commented Lilu Thapa, country director for the Danish Refugee Council in Uganda and Tanzania. “In some countries where you have very strict camp settings, that might not be possible, and that’s my concern. I think the CRRF will need to be very carefully adapted to local situations.”

    ‘You host, I pay’?

    There’s evidence that some countries are willing to make reforms, possibly in the hope of attracting new funding. Kenya is not among the pilot countries, but the “Somali situation” is covered by the CRRF and may have played a role in the country’s new Refugee Bill, soon to become law. Refugees with certain skills will soon have the right to work and use land for business or farming. Kenya also appears to have retreated from its threat to close the Dadaab refugee camps by the end of May and repatriate all of the mainly Somali refugees living there.

    kakumacamp_3.jpg

    Benjamin Loyseau/UNHCR
    A Somali refugee family posing in front of their shop in Kakuma camp

    “There are a couple of positive developments in the region,” acknowledged Waaijman of the NRC. “But in terms of reciprocity of the CRRF process, I would have hoped to see more piloting in Europe. I think the UK and France have a lot to learn from Germany and Sweden, for example.

    “If the outcome of the CRRF and the compact is that we find some nice programmes in East Africa that we can then fund, then this CRRF is dead in the water,” she added. “The intent of the [New York] Summit was a more equitable distribution of responsibility-sharing. If the translation of that is, ‘You host, I pay’, then that cannot be right.”

    Mamadou Dian Balde, deputy director of a CRRF task team made up of 12 members, most of them drawn from UNHCR but also including representatives of the World Bank, the UN’s Development Programme, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, acknowledged concerns about the current limits of responsibility-sharing, but maintained that the CRRF is nevertheless a game-changer.

    “It’s about including refugees in their host communities from the start, and rallying sustained support to meet the needs of both groups. We did not have this unprecedented level of political support before the New York Declaration,” he told IRIN.

    “The [CRRF’s] four objectives include third-country solutions, and this is something where we need to do more,” he added. “The paradigm shift will take a bit of time. It will go beyond 2018.”

    ks/ag

    New refugee framework “dead in the water” without more international support
  • Seven must-read stories this World Refugee Day

    In recent years, it’s become an annual ritual on World Refugee Day for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to declare that levels of forced displacement have reached an “unprecedented high”.

    This year is no exception. As of the end of 2016, there were 65.6 million people worldwide forcibly displaced from their homes by war, violence, or persecution. That figure encompasses 40.3 million people displaced within their countries’ borders (IDPs) and 2.8 million asylum seekers, as well as 22.5 million refugees.

    While 2016 was another record year for forced displacement, the increase from 2015 was only 300,000. That may not sound like cause for celebration, but when you consider that the figure in 2015 jumped by 5.8 million from the previous year, it is something of an improvement.

    Just over half a million refugees returned home in 2016, more than double the number that did so in 2015. That also sounds like progress until you consider that most (384,000) returned to Afghanistan under severe pressure from reluctant host countries, Pakistan and Iran.

    Refugee resettlement also rose slightly in 2016, progress that we know has been reversed in 2017 by US President Donald Trump’s executive order capping the US intake at its lowest level in 10 years.  

    In 2016, just as in 2015, more than half of refugees (55 percent) came from just three countries, but South Sudan has replaced Somalia as one of those countries. Syria and Afghanistan remain in the top two spots.

    Contrary to public perceptions in the West, the vast majority of refugees (84 percent) are still being hosted in the developing world. The top three host countries at the end of 2016 were Turkey, Lebanon, and Pakistan (although Uganda is likely to enter the top three this year as it continues to absorb the majority of South Sudanese refugees).

    IRIN’s coverage of refugees and forced displacement is year-round and not dependent on how many boats arrive in Italy or Greece. Below is a selection of our 2017 work designed to highlight more recent developments and the wide range of issues facing refugees around the globe today:

    Fleeing a broken Venezuela – Well before tempers boiled over onto the streets with daily protests, Venezuelans were battling a severe economic crisis and spiralling rates of violent crime. In January, Magnus Boding Hansen documented the desperation – from the food shortages and constant insecurity to the crisis in the underfunded healthcare system. A film by Kamilia Lahrichi chronicled the situation from the point of view of two doctors so crippled by the lack of medicines and basic equipment that they struggle to make diagnoses, let alone provide treatment.  

    Blocked by Trump, unwanted by Kenya, Somali refugees face new crisis as famine looms – Among the biggest losers from President Trump’s much contested “travel ban” were refugees who had already been through a lengthy application and vetting process for resettlement to the United States. IRIN’s Africa Editor Obi Anyadike spoke to a Somali refugee and single mother in Nairobi’s working-class suburb of Eastleigh who had been poised to start a new life in Ohio with her daughter when Trump’s executive order put those plans on hold. Life for Somali refugees in Kenya has become ever more precarious as the government issues deadlines for their repatriation back to Somalia, a country on the brink of its second famine in six years.

    eastleigh3.jpg

    Somali refugees in Eastleigh, Nairobi
    Obi Anyadike/IRIN

    Closure of conflict camps test CAR reconciliation – Muslims and Christians have not lived together in significant numbers in Bangui since before Central African Republic’s bloody conflict broke out in 2013. But in February, the government started closing camps for the internally displaced in the capital even though it was unclear where residents would go. With their homes mostly destroyed and their safety far from secured, returnees told regular IRIN contributor Philip Kleinfeld they still lived in fear of armed groups and had received little or no money from the government to help rebuild their lives.

    Barefoot flight from Mosul – In early March, regular IRIN contributor Tom Westcott met some of the people fleeing west Mosul after three terrifying years living in so-called Islamic State’s last stronghold in Iraq. Hunger and falling mortars had finally driven thousands of families to risk their lives walking through the front lines of the Iraqi army’s offensive against IS. Several of the displaced told Westcott that IS had stormed their village and forced them to live in empty houses in Mosul so they could be used as “human shields” when the inevitable battle began.

    Jordan looks to turn refugee crisis into economic boom -  With financing from the international community and the World Bank, Jordan is trying a radically new approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. The Jordan Compact is an attempt to view refugees as “a development opportunity” rather than a burden and has been welcomed as a potential blueprint for other host countries looking to reduce their dependence on foreign aid. But reporting for IRIN, Sara Elizabeth Williams found that Jordan is struggling to translate this new approach into more jobs for Syrians, many of whom had not even come forward to apply for work permits. Distrust of the authorities is one factor, but also the nature and location of the jobs on offer at factories in Jordan’s Special Economic Zones.

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    Alisa Reznick/IRIN
    Mohammad Amr, 25, is one of only a handful of Syrians working at the Classic Fashion factory in the Al Hassan Industrial Complex in Amman

    Pushed out of Pakistan into worn-torn Afghanistan, refugees are told to be ‘patient’ – More than 600,000 Afghan refugees were pressured to return home from Pakistan last year, even as conflict in their home country intensified, against the backdrop of a collapsed economy. Pakistan paused its repatriation programme in December but resumed it in early April. Soon afterwards, IRIN contributor Ali Latifi reported on the Afghan government’s impossible task of trying to provide land and assistance to the large number of returnees, many of whom could not safely return to areas under Taliban control. In Pakistan, a campaign of harassment of the estimated one million Afghan refugees unable to register with the authorities has continued.

    Hardening European policies keep refugee children apart from their families – This collaboration from IRIN contributors in Berlin and Amman saw Holly Young meet two 15-year-old Syrian cousins who had travelled to Germany in 2014 while Sara Elizabeth Williams talked to the families they had left behind in Jordan. Germany is among several EU states to have adopted increasingly restrictive family reunion policies for refugees in recent years. After three years in Germany, the two cousins were no closer to being reunited with their parents and siblings. Refugee organisations point out that integration is a pipedream when refugees can’t even be joined by their spouses, children, or parents. These prolonged separations can also have profound negative consequences for the family members left behind. 

    (TOP PHOTO: Families fleeing fighting near Mosul arrive at an army checkpoint on the outskirts of Qayyarah. Ivor Prickett/UNHCR)

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    Seven must-read stories this World Refugee Day
  • So, your country isn't keen to resettle refugees. Are you?

    Last September, 193 member states attending the UN summit on refugees and migrants in New York committed to take in more refugees through resettlement and other legal avenues. Nine months later, and with more refugees than ever in need of resettlement – 1.2 million according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR – countries have actually reduced the number of places on offer by 43 percent. While a record 125,800 refugees were resettled in 2016, only 93,200 places are expected to be made available this year.

    Although UNHCR doesn’t assign blame to any one country, the reduction is undoubtedly the result of US President Donald Trump’s executive order capping refugee resettlement to the United States for fiscal year 2017 at 50,000, down from 85,000 the previous year. 

    While the United States has scaled back, Canada has taken the lead on a global initiative to use its private refugee sponsorship programme as the basis for promoting and supporting similar schemes in other countries.

    The Canadian model taps into the desire of many citizens to do more to assist refugees, even as their governments may be wary of establishing resettlement programmes or expanding existing ones. Private sponsorship allows groups of individuals to finance the resettlement of individual refugees, or often a refugee family. Besides making a financial commitment, sponsors provide practical and emotional support as the new arrivals settle into their new homes.

    Tens of thousands of individuals, community and church groups have brought more than 275,000 refugees to Canada since its sponsorship programme was launched in the late 1970s.

    Is it catching on?

    The Canadian government, together with UNHCR, the Open Society Foundations, the University of Ottawa and the Radcliffe Foundation, announced the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI) on the sidelines of the New York summit, and officially launched it in Ottawa last December. Since then, there have been few updates, but according to Jennifer Bond, a professor at the University of Ottawa who chairs the GRSI: “There’s a very high level of interest. We’re working with 10 to 12 countries spread all over the world.”

    But few of those countries have formally announced sponsorship programmes, let alone begun receiving refugees sponsored by individuals or community groups. Supporters of the initiative are taking the long view. They argue that, if done right, it has the potential to be transformative, for both the refugees and the communities that receive them.

    “Setting up a sponsorship programme is a multi-year effort,” commented Gregory Maniatis of the Open Society Foundation. “Canada has tens of thousands of sponsors waiting for refugees. But it took 40 years to get to that scale.”

    So far, only the United Kingdom has a community sponsorship scheme up and running – although only a handful of Syrian families have arrived since it was launched last July as part of the government’s commitment to resettle 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees by 2020.

    “The last year has been largely about making sure the thing actually works,” said Russell Rook of the Good Faith Partnership, one of several civil society groups partnering with the UK’s Home Office to design the scheme. “Now the goal is to grow at some pace.”

    Rook estimates that 150 to 200 community groups are at various stages of applying to become sponsors, a process that takes about nine months “from first interest to being accepted”.

    “The process is quite important,” he told IRIN. “As much as jumping through bureaucratic hoops, it’s about building knowledge and expertise.”

    How it’s working in the UK

    To be approved as a sponsor, groups must be registered as a charity or partnered with one. They must also have: the consent of their local authority, a detailed “resettlement plan” (as well as the relevant experience to execute it), and proof they have sufficient resources to support a family for one year and housing for two years.

    “Sponsorship is a significant undertaking and you should not underestimate the commitment and resilience your organisation will need to show,” cautions the Home Office’s guidance for prospective sponsors.

    Caritas Diocese of Salford, which was the second sponsorship group in the country to receive a refugee family, in November last year, submitted a 63-page resettlement plan. “You have to demonstrate you understand and are ready to deliver on all aspects of resettlement from health and welfare to accommodation and benefits,” explained Sean Ryan, national community sponsorship coordinator for Caritas. “You have to put a group together comprising of a combination of people who have relevant professional skills, plus willing volunteers.”

    Amongst the group in Salford were several teachers and healthcare workers, a social worker, and a chartered accountant. They attended a one-day workshop by the Home Office as well as training provided by the International Organization for Migration. A delegation from Canada also shared their experiences and appointed the group a mentor from a Mennonite church group in Ottawa that has sponsored refugees.

    “The Canadians have been brilliant,” said Ryan. “We’ve gone to them with questions a couple of times.”

    communitysponsorshipgroupairport.jpg

    Caritas
    Members of a community sponsorship group in Salford welcome a family of Syrian refugees at Manchester airport

    Variations on the Canadian model

    According to Bond of the GRSI, training modules are being developed that will draw on examples from Canada to guide countries setting up sponsorship programmes. “It’s not meant to be prescriptive, but to prompt them to think about things like: What kind of training is available to sponsors before the refugee arrives? What happens if you have troubles post-arrival? Who’s paying for what?” she explained. “We don’t assume there’s only one answer to these questions, but somebody needs to be thinking about them.”

    Ryan said the UK scheme differs from the Canadian one in that “it’s more of a partnership with government because when our families arrive, they can claim benefits from day one and they’re heavily supported by the state. So what we provide is additional.”

    Whereas Canadian sponsorship groups are required to raise around $20,000 to support a family of four for a year, the Home Office suggests that groups will need about £9,000 ($11,400) to sponsor a family.

    Although the UK system has fewer upfront costs, Gay Jacklin, who is part of an inter-church sponsorship group in Worthing, believes the Canadian model has a “simpler” application process and is concerned the Home Office’s exhaustive requirements may affect the scheme’s uptake.

    “I’d like to think it would catch on,” she told IRIN. “There are a lot of really good people up and down the country who want to make it work. But the high requirements may put some off.”

    Too many hurdles?

    Jacklin’s group began the process last summer and only welcomed their first refugee family to Worthing two weeks ago. After identifying experienced volunteers and community resources, raising funding, and drafting the resettlement plan, their application was eventually submitted in November. The Home Office then met with the group in January, after which they had to submit “more details than we were expecting”. A house that had been rented for the family sat empty from March until May while the group supplied additional information. In the meantime, said Jacklin, the family were in Lebanon, desperately awaiting resettlement.

    “There are so many more families in need,” she added. “I think the process is thorough and needs to be, but it feels like the thoroughness doesn’t take into account the fact there’s a crisis around the world.”

    Others, including the Home Office, argue the application requirements are necessary to ensure community groups are equipped to take responsibility for vulnerable refugees.

    “These groups have to provide anything a local authority would provide to the refugees, so I think it’s probably a good and right thing that it takes quite a while to make sure they can deliver all of that,” said Rook.

    For the small number of families that have arrived in the country through the programme (the Home Office declined to give precise numbers), the outcomes so far have been encouraging. “It has gone as close to the dream scenario as any of us could wish for,” said Ryan, noting that the family’s three children appeared “happy and settled”, that their mother was starting to communicate with them in English, and that the father recently landed a job as head chef at a Lebanese restaurant.

    “It’s about making them feel they belong in the community. That’s a healing process and you can see that from our family in their demeanour,” he told IRIN. “You broker connections for them wherever possible, as opposed to what’s typically happened, where, unless you already had family connections, you’re going to sink or swim.”

    Introducing Community Sponsorship in the UK

    Good Faith Partnership
    Introducing the UK's community sponsorship scheme

    Two-tier system or step in the right direction?

    Jacklin expressed discomfort with the idea of the community sponsorship programme as “the gold standard”, while most refugees who arrive in the UK as asylum seekers receive minimal support and struggle to integrate.

    “As Christians, we’d say that’s a justice and moral issue. We’re potentially part of the problem now that this one family is getting the gold standard, but we decided we had to start somewhere,” she said, adding that she was disappointed the government was not using the programme as an opportunity to increase its resettlement commitment.

    While sponsorship programmes are unlikely to significantly increase global resettlement levels any time soon, Jacklin and others take comfort from the idea that they have the potential to reduce fear and prejudice towards refugees at a grassroots level.

    Maniatis of the Open Society Foundation said the impact of sponsorship programmes shouldn’t be measured by the number of refugees resettled, but by their impact on public attitudes. “I’d argue that over time it’s very positive to build up a constituency that supports refugees,” he said.

    Bond pointed out that Canada’s sponsorship programme has created “a natural group of refugee advocates” who ensure the government is under continuous pressure to take in more refugees.

    “You end up with a fundamental shift, where the political pressure is to bring in more people.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A Syrian refugee family with some of the group of 38 Canadians from Ottawa who sponsored them and are supporting them for their first year in Canada. Credit: Brynna Leslie/IRIN)

    ks/ag

    So, your country isn't keen to resettle refugees. Are you?
  • Surveillance for good? Facebook tracks disaster victims

    In the wake of a disaster or even a sudden crisis like last weekend’s extremist attacks on London Bridge, the first place many of us turn for information and reassurance about the safety of our loved ones is social media. While cell phone towers can quickly become overwhelmed for voice calls, it’s often still possible to update your Facebook status or mark yourself as “safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature.

    But until now, that information has been of little use to those trying to respond. Other than using hashtags to trawl through thousands of individual Twitter and Facebook posts, there has been no way to use social media to rapidly form an accurate picture of where a disaster has hit, how many people have been affected, and where they are fleeing to.

    That could change with the launch on Wednesday of Facebook’s “disaster maps”.

    What are disaster maps?

    The initiative – awaiting its first live event – will use aggregated and anonymised Facebook user data to produce three different kinds of maps: where people are checking in as safe; where populations are before, during, and after a natural disaster; and where people are moving to in the hours after disaster strikes. The mapping relies largely on Facebook users on mobile devices who have their location settings turned on. Sample maps issued by Facebook show the movement of people away from forest fires and an earthquake, and the places they congregated. They can also show where people are compared to a normal day and, critically, can update in near real time.

    Maps based on the same concept have been produced from mobile phone company data by analyst FlowMinder. In Nepal, for example, the maps were able to provide clues as to where people dispersed after the 2015 earthquake. However, the sharing and processing of mobile phone data has not approached real time.

    According to Molly Jackman, a public policy research manager with Facebook, the new maps have been in development for the past year and are the outcome of extensive discussions with humanitarian organisations. “They helped us identify the data that would be most helpful for them,” said Jackman, speaking to IRIN over the phone from Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters. “A lot of the conversation started with Safety Check; at first they just asked us to aggregate that data. The challenge we quickly realised is that a lot of people may not be looking at their phones or checking in as safe. So we wanted to dig a layer deeper.”

    Dale Kunce, who heads up the American Red Cross’ use of technology and data during international disasters and was the focal point for the discussions with Facebook, explained that “if an earthquake happens at 2pm on a Tuesday, you want to know where is everybody an hour after that, and where are people typically at that time on a Tuesday? It’s using multiple pieces of data to help us understand the magnitude of disaster and the location of that disaster.”

    The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is one of just three “trusted organisations”, along with the World Food Programme and UNICEF, that Facebook will initially share the maps with. A statement released by Facebook on Wednesday notes that “over time, we intend to make it possible for additional organisations and governments to participate in this program.”

    New rules of engagement

    Patrick Meier, author of the book Digital Humanitarians, who was hired by Facebook to consult on the disaster maps project, described it as “a game-changer for the humanitarian sector” that’s been “a long time coming”.

    Meier said that apart from a few ad hoc projects, such as Google’s Person Finder and Airbnb’s disaster response tool, there had been little appetite in Silicon Valley for moving beyond traditional models of philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. Rather than applying their knowhow to help solve crisis response challenges, the tech giants have largely stuck to issuing grants, donating software and hardware, and encouraging employee giving, Meier said.

    But in late 2015, Meier received an email from Facebook requesting a meeting about the mapping concept. There was also a new-found willingness to reach out to humanitarians for advice, Meier said. Facebook invited a number of NGOs to a workshop at Menlo Park in August 2016 to brainstorm ideas for collaboration. “I can’t stress enough how important it’s been to talk to the humanitarian organisations and get their feedback,” said Jackman.

    In the not so distant past, both humanitarians and the private sector were wary about such partnerships. “There are reputational issues on both sides,” observed Andrej Verity, who leads information management projects at the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and co-founded the Digital Humanitarian Network.

    Speaking to IRIN ahead of the launch of disaster maps, he noted that concerns around humanitarian agencies’ ability to manage sensitive data securely have been a sticking point for the tech companies, while the humanitarian sector has struggled with the idea of a profit incentive underlying companies’ willingness to get involved in disaster response.

    In the case of Facebook, he added, “maybe they have enough money in the bank that they’re allowing a team to leverage the data they have to share some of that with responding entities. It buys a bit of loyalty and could be purely reputation-building.”

    Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg signalled the beginnings of a new approach to humanitarian response with his February post on “building global community” in which he noted that “the Facebook community is in a unique position to help prevent harm, assist during a crisis, or come together to rebuild afterwards”, and that he intended to direct more resources towards serving those needs.

    The disaster maps may well have value in terms of strengthening Facebook’s brand, but Meier said he had also observed “a genuine interest in making sure this has a measurable impact”.

    “I’m hoping that… it sends a bit of a signal to other Silicon Valley companies. I hope these companies realise they actually have an ethical responsibility,” he added. “They’re becoming like the new utilities of our time. When the power goes out… they have a responsibility to get the power back on.”

    Microsoft has already been through a process of rethinking its involvement in humanitarian action. Although it has long had a humanitarian action department, “it’s been inconsistent in terms of what we do and where we do it,” said Jane Meseck, senior director of global programmes at Microsoft Philanthropies.

    “We stepped back about a year and a half ago and decided to take stock and look at how we can engage and do more because we believe we have a very unique value we can bring to these situations and a moral responsibility,” she told IRIN.

    “I think both corporations and humanitarian organisations are becoming more knowledgeable about what each can bring to the table,” she added. “We can bring technology, and cash in some cases; we’re also strong on data security and privacy. We can bring that knowledge and expertise in ways that haven’t been tapped before.”

    “Bandwidth”

    For humanitarians, the main challenge now may be building the capacity and bandwidth – both in terms of internet connection and mental space – to incorporate newly available technologies and sources of data into their emergency responses.

    “Bandwidth is the biggest issue in the field,” said Verity of OCHA. “Humanitarians are working in challenging environments so it becomes a stretch to expect them to be interested in these discussions about data usage.”  

    He added that different tools are being tried in different places, often depending on the interest of the individuals heading up regional offices.

    Data from satellite imagery is playing an increasingly important role in helping humanitarian organisations map areas before and after a disaster. Silicon Valley start-up Planet Labs uses a constellation of small, inexpensive satellites to map the entire surface of the planet every day. The company’s rapid response team provides those images for free to more than 50 humanitarian organisations in low-bandwidth formats that field teams can easily process.

    Satellite imagery data has obvious value in the wake of a disaster, but it can also be used to track slow-onset crises like droughts, as well as displacement caused by conflicts. “I think the sector is just waking up to the possibilities here,” said Andrew Zolli, Planet Lab’s vice president for global impact initiatives. “It could have the same kind of impact as the smartphone revolution; it could be a huge multiplier of humanitarian response.”

    Combining datasets

    More powerful still is likely to be the combination of satellite imagery with other types of data, including Facebook user data.

    “No single type of data is a silver bullet,” noted Zolli. “The real value of these new systems… comes when you use them together.

    “So, when you have very high frequency satellite imagery and you can use the tools of social media to understand the needs and you put those two things together, you’re going to be able to do things at much greater speed and efficiency than we’ve done before.”

    Kunce, of the Red Cross, pointed out that satellite imagery is of little use when the weather is cloudy as it was for a week following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. There are also limitations to the use of social media data – not everyone has access to Facebook and even those that do may not have their location settings enabled or they may lose connectivity during a disaster.

    “We like to be data omnivores,” he told IRIN. In addition to the newly available Facebook data, “we have lots of other different kinds of datasets.”

    He gave the example of crowdsourced mapping – using online volunteers to add local detail to maps created with satellite imagery. After Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, more than 1,700 online volunteers edited a map to help guide the Red Cross’ relief efforts.

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    American Red Cross/Tracy Reines
    Following Typhoon Haiyan, Red Cross workers in the Philippines relied on digital maps, created with the help of online volunteers, to deliver targeted humanitarian aid

    He emphasised that it was too soon to describe Facebook’s disaster maps as “a game changer”.

    “I think there’s a lot of potential, but we haven’t yet used it for a disaster.”

    In a blog published on Wednesday, Meier also notes that the maps are “not a silver bullet”, but points out that they are powered by Facebook’s nearly two billion users and can be made available immediately and updated at 15-minute intervals.

    “This information is a public good that has potential to save lives,” he writes. “I sincerely hope that other Silicon Valley companies take note of these efforts and follow in Facebook’s footsteps.”

    ks/bp/ag

    Surveillance for good? Facebook tracks disaster victims
  • New UN chief faces uphill battle on conflict prevention

    UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is determined to make conflict prevention a priority during his tenure, but he’s likely to find it tough convincing member states to fund peace-building initiatives, even if it could save billions in humanitarian and peacekeeping spending down the road.

    Guterres took office at the beginning of this year with a rallying call to both his staff and member states to make 2017 “a year for peace”.

    “We spend far too much time and resources responding to crises rather than preventing them,” he told the Security Council just days after assuming his post. “We need a whole new approach.”

    Few would disagree with his analysis at a time when conflict-induced crises are proliferating way beyond the capacity, or willingness, of the international community to deal with them. Even as governments have steadily increased their aid budgets, the gap between needs and available funding continues to grow. And that gap is likely to widen further in the wake of significant cuts to US foreign aid being pursued by President Donald Trump’s administration.

    But given the funding crisis, Trump’s “America First” doctrine, and pervasive political and economic uncertainty in Europe, how does Guterres intend to turn his vision into reality?

    So far, the former Portuguese prime minister has been heavy on rhetoric but light on detail, although he has commissioned an internal review of the UN’s entire peace and security architecture, which is due to report back in June with recommendations for how these various departments and agencies could be restructured.

    As he awaits the findings, his “whole new approach” appears to boil down to providing leadership within the UN system in making early conflict prevention the priority, using his renowned diplomatic skills to work tirelessly for early mediation, and restructuring the UN’s peace and security architecture following the review.

    Starting from scratch?

    Clearly, preventing conflicts before they develop could save billions of dollars and countless lives. It’s also central to the UN’s mandate. The maintenance of peace and security is described as the organisation’s primary purpose in Article 1 of the UN Charter.

    And yet, three reviews of the UN’s peace operations completed in 2015 all concluded that the organisation was under-performing on conflict prevention and peacekeeping.

    The High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), appointed by former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, acknowledged that preventing conflict was often beyond the UN’s control, but found that a lack of strategic decision-making at the top levels of the organisation was leading to a failure to engage early enough to address emerging crises. It also found that responses were often ad hoc and disconnected from national and regional efforts.

    “One of the established principles of effective prevention is that there has to be a holistic strategy and you can’t deal with conflict from separate entry points,” commented Youssef Mahmoud, a senior adviser at the International Peace Institute who served as a member of the high-level panel.

    Guterres has been frank about the UN’s failings in this area. In his remarks to the Security Council, he stated that “while the causes of crises are deeply interlinked, the UN’s response remains fragmented”.

    Disjointed history

    Partly this is a lingering by-product of the way the UN was structured 70 years ago into three separate pillars: human rights, peace and security, and development. It means that work done by the UN’s development system still often fails to link up with that done by its political missions and peacekeeping operations.

    “We still do have a UN system that’s struggling to come together,” acknowledged Stephen Jackson, head of policy planning at the Department of Political Affairs, which plays a key role in the UN’s preventive diplomacy and mediation efforts.

    “We essentially have had peacekeeping operations, special political missions, and engagement by UN country teams on the ground. There are still obstacles we have to overcome to blending those three effectively,” he told IRIN, adding that the system also made it difficult to rapidly scale up or scale down responses.

    “For instance, in a transitional context, say Cote d’Ivoire, we’ve just recently gone from quite a large peacekeeping operation straight to engagement by the UN country team, so there’s no longer any political or security presence.”

    The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are part of an effort to achieve a more integrated approach, and Guterres and others have cited them as providing an existing framework for conflict prevention. “Peace, security, development and good governance are all in one document,” said Mahmoud. “One of the better ways of engaging in prevention, particularly early prevention, before the outbreak of violence, is to faithfully and fully implement all the SDGs.”

    Mergers?

    In a memorandum to Secretariat staff circulated during his first week in office, Guterres stated his intention to pursue “cultural, process and structural” reforms to improve the UN’s performance on peace and security. The memo set in motion several immediate actions aimed at reducing “structural disincentives” and “bureaucratic barriers”, including an order that the Departments of Political Affairs and Peacekeeping Operations move into shared offices “to facilitate more effective and integrated decision-making”.

    Several reviews have identified the DPA and DPKO’s overlapping mandates and competition between the two departments as contributing to the “fragmented” response that Guterres alluded to. But various other UN departments and agencies are also involved in conflict prevention, from the UN Development Programme to the UN Peacebuilding Fund and the Peacebuilding Commission.

    IRIN spoke to one observer close to the reform process who expects the internal review to recommend the DPA and the DPKO being dismantled and reassembled as entirely new departments.

    A number of other potential organigrams are in circulation. A recent report by the Centre on International Cooperation presents several of them, along with their various pros and cons, but notes that “without strong leadership and management that ensure departments work together, and member states’ support for new approaches, no organisational structure will deliver”.   

    Proactive diplomacy

    “Internal restructuring matters, of course, but as important is to introduce a stronger culture of preventing and identifying where and how the UN can make a difference,” said Richard Atwood, director of the International Crisis Group’s New York office.

    He gave the example of UNDP’s often cautious approach to engaging with governments when negative trends emerge and the fact that although the DPA plays a critical monitoring role, it has to work with other parts of the system to forge a response.

    Early indications are that Guterres could provide the kind of leadership needed to make those cultural shifts. He has set up and is chairing an executive committee that meets weekly and brings together all three UN pillars to discuss and take decisions on inter-departmental issues.

    He also seems determined to use his own “good offices” and political capital to engage in preventive diplomacy – an area not generally viewed as one of Ban’s strengths.

    Guterres has already done some behind-the-scenes work on South Sudan and Somalia and met with a number of Gulf state leaders. But there are limits to what even a reform-minded secretary-general can achieve in the face of shifting geopolitics and extreme funding uncertainty.

    Mohammed Al Deghaishim/UN
    Guterres met with Saudi Arabia's Minister of Defense, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, in February

    Where’s the money coming from?

    The HIPPO report identified unpredictable funding as one of the major impediments to the UN’s work on conflict monitoring and mediation, much of which is done by the DPA and financed by voluntary contributions from the member states.

    Jackson said there was “an overwhelming case” for addressing the lack of predictable funding for prevention. He explained that while peacekeeping missions are funded by obligatory, assessed contributions from member states, the vast majority of peacebuilding activity falls under the development system and is dependent on voluntary contributions.

    “Supposing you have a post-conflict peacekeeping mission and the mission begins to downsize. More and more of the challenge is expected to be taken up by the UN country team,” he told IRIN.

    Guterres is expected to make a case for regular budgetary resources to fund prevention work at a high-level meeting on peacebuilding and sustaining peace to be held during the General Assembly session later this year.

    It’s a tough time to be asking for more money, just as the Trump administration is threatening to slash funding for peacekeeping missions and humanitarian aid, but Guterres could argue that spending on prevention represents a major cost savings down the road.

    Because prevention activities are spread across multiple departments and agencies, no one IRIN contacted for this article would venture an estimate of how much the UN as a whole currently spends on conflict prevention, but they all said it was a fraction of the amount spent on responding to conflicts. For every dollar spent on prevention by the DPA, for example, one UN official estimated that $200 is spent on crisis management and humanitarian response.

    Addressing that imbalance is part of the rationale behind the UN’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF), set up in 2006, along with the Peacebuilding Support Office and the Peacebuilding Commission, to support post-conflict peace efforts.

    For Marc-André Franche, who heads up the PBF, “if you want to spend less in a fiscal environment where it’s tough to find funding for peacebuilding and humanitarian aid, we need to invest more in prevention”.

    But member states seem unconvinced. The PBF only managed to raise about half of the $300 million it requested to fund projects over the next three years at a pledging conference last September. The US offered up just $300,000, while most of the larger contributions came from Europe, Japan, and Canada.

    Part of the challenge is convincing member states that prevention works. “It’s very tough to prove something that hasn’t happened,” Franche pointed out, adding that efforts are under way to develop monitoring processes to track the differences that PBF grants make. Those grants currently fund 120 projects in 25 countries and range from supporting security-sector reforms in Guinea to improving services for victims of gender-based violence in Mali and strengthening the criminal justice system in Guatemala.   

    A recent review of several PBF projects by Britain's international development department, DFID, gave the Fund an A+ rating, describing it as an “essential part of the UN’s approach to peace and security… providing quick, flexible finance when fragile states need it most”.

    Most donors, however, are not set up to give the multi-year, unearmarked funds needed to intervene early and quickly, something Franche said had to change if the UN is to honour its mandate.

    “Last year, the UN spent $8 billion on peacekeeping. The world spent $28 billion on humanitarian aid and at least $12 billion was spent in Europe as a result of the refugee crisis… this is absolutely unsustainable.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Rebel fighters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North during a training exercise at their barracks in 2016. Alex Pritz/Documist for IRIN)

    ks/ag

    New UN chief faces uphill battle on conflict prevention
  • EXCLUSIVE: EU migrant policy in Africa built on incorrect Niger data

    The European Union has been touting a faulty figure for migration reduction through key transit country Niger as it looks to expand a policy of giving more development aid to African nations if they crack down on people smuggling and migrants, IRIN can exclusively reveal.

    When the International Organization for Migration released figures in early December showing a dramatic drop in the numbers of migrants transiting through northern Niger to reach Europe the previous month, EU officials seized on them as evidence that its strategy of partnering with African countries to curb irregular migration was working.

    On the back of EU funding specifically for the purpose, IOM has been monitoring the movements of migrants through Niger since February. Between then and the end of November 2016, the agency recorded more than 417,000 migrants transiting through northern Niger en route to Algeria and Libya, with movement peaking during the summer months.

    In November, IOM raised eyebrows when it reported that just 1,525 migrants had been recorded moving north towards the borders – a massive drop compared to 12,600 the month before.

    Days later, the figures had been included in a progress report on the Partnership Framework with Third Countries, an EU strategy for securing African countries’ cooperation in tackling irregular migration. A press release also cited them noting that “results in priority countries are taking shape, including first decreases in migratory flows”.

    Except the 1,525 was wrong. A “technical problem” with a database had produced the incorrect figure, according to Monica Chiriac, a spokeswoman for IOM’s Niger office. In fact, IOM had recorded nearly 11,500 migrants heading for the Libyan and Algerian borders in November, a figure that only represented a small drop compared to October.

    The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has been using the incorrect figure to promote the success of the bloc’s policies as it looks to sign agreements linking aid to migration controls with five African countries – Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, and Ethiopia.

    A deal, now signed with Niger, involves 610 million euros in development aid, some of which, according to the EU, is not tied to migration cooperation.

    Critics say the EU policies largely serve only to push migrants to take more difficult and dangerous routes. They are urging Brussels to propose more legal pathways for refugees and economic migrants.

    With arrivals to Italy via Libya and the Central Mediterranean remaining at high levels towards the end of last year, experts and even MEPs had expressed scepticism about the Niger figures. But the EU has continued to refer to them as it pushes ahead on similar cooperation deals.

    “There was indeed a mistake in the November report (technical problem with the database update which only reconciled later on). The numbers in the December report are the correct ones. The EU is aware and have since rectified,” Chiriac wrote in an emailed response to an IRIN query.

    However, no recent public statements or press releases from the EU have acknowledged the error.

    As recently as last Wednesday, the EU issued another press release citing developments in Niger as evidence the Partnership Framework is showing how “effective cooperation can have impact on the flows towards the Mediterranean”.

    And a joint communication to the European Parliament and the European Council the same day went further and was still quoting the incorrect figure.

    “The work taken forward with Niger under the Partnership Framework should be fully exploited to slow down flows through the southern Libyan border. The number of persons leaving Niger to attempt the dangerous crossing of the Sahara has fallen from over 70,000 in May 2016 to around 1,500 in November 31,” it said.

    “This successful model, which has been proven to reduce numbers, should be replicated with other regional partners, notably Mali, Chad, Egypt, Algeria and Sudan, as well as in other countries covered by the Khartoum and Rabat processes.”

    *In an email to IRIN, an EU spokesperson described the failure to use the correct, updated figure in recent publications as “regrettable” and added that “While we are looking into this internally, this does not change the fact that the Partnership Framework approach is yielding results and that the approach can impact the flows towards the Central Mediterranean.”

    *This explanation from the EU came after publication of the initial story and was added later

    ks/ag

     

    EXCLUSIVE: EU migrant policy in Africa built on incorrect Niger data
  • UPDATED*: Trump action derails global refugee resettlement efforts

    US President Donald Trump’s executive order, which went into effect on Friday afternoon, has suspended refugee resettlement to the United States for the next four months, blocked entry of Syrian nationals entirely until further notice, and reduced the country’s total refugee admissions for fiscal year 2017 by more than half.

    The actions of the new US administration represent a serious setback for efforts by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR – along with major international NGOs – to push wealthier states to take in more refugees at a time of record levels of global displacement.

    A statement responding to Trump’s order, released jointly on Saturday by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, points out that “the needs of refugees and migrants worldwide have never been greater and the US resettlement programme is one of the most important in the world”.

    UNHCR estimates that at least 1.2 million refugees are in need of resettlement. This means they’ve exhausted all other options – these people cannot return home for the foreseeable future and have no prospect of integrating in the country hosting them. But the number of refugees currently resettled to third countries represents a tiny fraction of that need. Between January and November 2016, just 115,000 refugees departed for resettlement countries.

    Last year, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon urged states to take in at least 10 percent of the total refugee population (equivalent to about two million people) through resettlement or other legal channels. But the 10-percent target didn’t make it into the final text of a declaration adopted by member states at a September summit in New York, and Trump’s executive order is likely to result in a downward trend in global resettlement numbers.

    Currently, around two thirds of the refugees referred for resettlement by UNHCR every year end up in the United States. In the 2016 fiscal year, the country resettled nearly 85,000 refugees and former president Barack Obama had recommended raising that figure to 110,000 in 2017.

    According to Trump’s executive order entitled “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States”, refugee resettlement to the United States this year will be capped at 50,000, around the same level as 10 years ago, when the demand was significantly lower.

    “Radical” departure

    Doris Meissner, who heads the US immigration programme at Washington DC-based think tank, the Migration Policy Institute, said the 50,000 figure was established by the Refugee Act of 1980 as a benchmark for admissions. The act authorises the president to exceed that figure based on humanitarian need. In fact, in that same year, the US admitted more than 200,000 refugees, mostly from Vietnam, and there was another spike in numbers during the early 1990s as a result of the conflict in the Balkans.

    Meissner described the executive order as a “radical” departure from the long-standing US record on refugee admissions and “a system of values that looks to protect people who are in deep need”.

    The 120-day suspension of the programme is intended to allow the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to review current application and screening procedures to determine if they are sufficient to ensure that those approved for resettlement “do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States”. If deemed necessary, additional screening procedures may be introduced.

    The process of applying for resettlement and being screened for admission to the US already takes up to two years. The suspension means that even those refugees who had been approved and were close to boarding a plane will have to sit tight until the review has been completed.

    Singled out

    For Syrian refugees, the wait is likely to be even longer. The executive order states that processing of Syrian nationals is to cease entirely, until “sufficient changes have been made to [the US Refugee Admissions Programme] to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest”.

    Syrians made up nearly 16 percent of refugee admissions to the United States in 2016 and have been the top nationality submitted by UNHCR for resettlement in recent years.

    In a statement reacting to the order on Friday, David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, noted that refugees entering the country via the resettlement programme already undergo an in-depth process of vetting by 12 to 15 government agencies, making it harder for them to enter the country than by any other route.

    “This is one of many reasons to deplore the hasty decision made today,” said Miliband. “In truth, refugees are fleeing terror – they are not terrorists.”

    The IRC is one of eight NGOs contracted to assist refugees who arrive in the US via the resettlement programme.

    The executive order also suspends for at least 90 days the issuing of visas to nationals and many other people travelling from “countries of particular concern”, which the Department of Homeland Security lists as Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

    Ibrahim al-Assil, a Syrian activist and political analyst who now lives in Washington DC and is seeking asylum in the United States, told IRIN that the visa ban will have negative impacts on members of Syrian civil society trying to work with policymakers in the US.

    “It's already been very difficult to get visas for Syrian activists, and that created a gap between the policymakers in the US and Syrian civil society,” he wrote in an email.

    “Also, we have students and professionals who will lose the opportunity to continue their studies or conduct their work, and that will be bad for the future of Syria. Without education or work, there will not be anyone who is capable of rebuilding the country.”

    Silver lining for some?

    The executive order could be good news for one group of refugees. After the suspension is lifted, those fleeing religious persecution could be prioritised if they are part of a religious minority.

    Meissner described the minority religion clause as “a way of getting around the Muslim ban”. On the campaign trail, Trump called for a ban on admitting all Muslims to the country, but immigration and security officials pointed out that implementing a ban based on religious affiliation would be practically impossible.

    None of the actions outlined in the executive order are unexpected. Trump alluded to all of them during his presidential campaign. In fact, there were fears he might end refugee resettlement to the United States entirely. Meissner noted that the review of the refugee admissions programme over the next four months will likely reveal that it’s already “thorough and rigorous and targeted at [allowing in only] those who don’t represent a danger”.

    “If this processing has been taking place in ways many of us believe it has… then this creates a pathway for resuming the programme,” she told IRIN.

    Refugee rights advocates can also take heart from the fact that the Obama administration managed to bring more than 25,000 refugees into the country between the start of the fiscal year in October last year and Trump’s inauguration on 20 January. Another 25,000 refugees could be admitted by this October, following the lifting of the suspension.

    But while the programme is likely to continue in some form, it will not be the example it has been for the last 40 years to other countries still lagging behind on refugee resettlement.

    “It’s not only about numbers but moral leadership,” said Meissner. “That has been the role the US has played in the international protection system.”

    *(An earlier version of this story was published on Thursday before the executive order was signed and made public)

    ks/ag

     

    UPDATED*: Trump action derails global refugee resettlement efforts
  • Trump actions set to derail global refugee resettlement efforts

    US President Donald Trump is preparing to sign an executive order that would suspend refugee resettlement to the United States for the next four months, block entry of Syrian nationals entirely until further notice, and reduce the country’s total refugee admissions for fiscal year 2017 by more than half.

    The actions of the new US administration represent a serious setback for efforts by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR – along with major international NGOs – to push wealthier states to take in more refugees at a time of record levels of global displacement.

    UNHCR estimates that at least 1.2 million refugees are in need of resettlement. This means they’ve exhausted all other options – these people cannot return home for the foreseeable future and have no prospect of integrating in the country hosting them. But the number of refugees currently resettled to third countries represents a tiny fraction of that need. In 2015, 107,000 refugees departed for resettlement countries, the most important of which by far is the United States.

    Last year, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon urged states to take in at least 10 percent of the total refugee population (equivalent to about two million people) through resettlement or other legal channels. But the 10-percent target didn’t make it into the final text of a declaration adopted by member states at a September summit in New York, and the executive order Trump is expected to sign this week is likely to result in a downward trend in global resettlement numbers.

    Currently, around two thirds of the refugees referred for resettlement by UNHCR every year end up in the United States. In the 2016 fiscal year, the country resettled nearly 85,000 refugees and former president Barack Obama had recommended raising that figure to 110,000 in 2017.

    According to Trump’s draft executive order, entitled “Protecting the nation from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals”, refugee resettlement to the United States this year will be capped at 50,000, around the same level as 10 years ago, when the demand was significantly lower.

    “Radical” departure

    Doris Meissner, who heads the US immigration programme at Washington DC-based think tank, the Migration Policy Institute, said the 50,000 figure was established by the Refugee Act of 1980 as a benchmark for admissions. The act authorises the president to exceed that figure based on humanitarian need. In fact, in that same year, the US admitted over 200,000 refugees, mostly from Vietnam, and there was another spike in numbers during the early 1990s as a result of the conflict in the Balkans.

    Meissner described the executive order as a “radical” departure from the long-standing US record on refugee admissions and “a system of values that looks to protect people who are in deep need”.

    The 120-day suspension of the programme is intended to allow the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to review current application and screening procedures to determine if they are sufficient to ensure that those approved for resettlement “do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States”. If deemed necessary, additional screening procedures may be introduced.

    The process of applying for resettlement and being screened for admission to the US already takes up to two years. The suspension means that even those refugees who had been approved and were close to boarding a plane will have to sit tight until the review has been completed.

    Singled out

    For Syrian refugees, the wait is likely to be even longer. The draft executive order states that processing of Syrian nationals is to cease entirely, until “sufficient changes have been made to [the US Refugee Admissions Programme] to ensure its alignment with the national interest”.

    Syrians made up nearly 16 percent of refugee admissions to the United States in 2016 and have been the top nationality submitted by UNHCR for resettlement in recent years.

    Meissner commented that the vetting of refugees being processed for resettlement, particularly of Syrians, is already “the most intense of any group that comes to the US”.

    “These are ultimately the real victims of terrorism,” she added.

    The executive order will also suspend for at least 30 days the issuing of visas to nationals from “countries of particular concern”. Those countries are derived from Division O of the 2016 Appropriations Act, which singled out Syrians and Iraqis as nationals that could be barred from qualifying for the visa waiver programme for security reasons. It is expected that several other countries will be affected by the visa ban, including Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

    Ibrahim al-Assil, a Syrian activist and political analyst who now lives in Washington DC and is seeking asylum in the United States, told IRIN that the visa ban will have negative impacts on members of Syrian civil society trying to work with policymakers in the US.

    “It's already been very difficult to get visas for Syrian activists, and that created a gap between the policymakers in the US and Syrian civil society,” he wrote in an email.

    “Also, we have students and professionals who will lose the opportunity to continue their studies or conduct their work, and that will be bad for the future of Syria. Without education or work, there will not be anyone who is capable of rebuilding the country.”

    Silver lining for some?

    The executive order could be good news for one group of refugees. After the suspension is lifted, those fleeing religious persecution could be prioritised, “provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality”.

    Meissner described the minority religion clause as “a way of getting around the Muslim ban”. On the campaign trail, Trump called for a ban on admitting all Muslims to the country, but immigration and security officials pointed out that implementing a ban based on religious affiliation would be practically impossible.

    None of the actions outlined in the executive order are unexpected. Trump alluded to all of them during his presidential campaign. In fact, there were fears he might end refugee resettlement to the United States entirely. Meissner noted that the review into the refugee admissions programme over the next four months will likely reveal that it’s already “thorough and rigorous and targeted at [allowing in only] those who don’t represent a danger”.

    “If this processing has been taking place in ways many of us believe it has… then this creates a pathway for resuming the programme,” she told IRIN.

    Refugee rights advocates can also take heart from the fact that the Obama administration managed to bring more than 25,000 refugees into the country between the start of the fiscal year in October last year and Trump’s inauguration on 20 January.  Another 25,000 refugees could be admitted by this October, following the lifting of the suspension.

    But while the programme is likely to continue in some form, it will not be the example it has been for the last 40 years to other countries still lagging behind on refugee resettlement.

    “It’s not only about numbers but moral leadership,” said Meissner. “That has been the role the US has played in the international protection system.”

    ks/ag

     

    Trump actions set to derail global refugee resettlement efforts
  • Italy and Germany step up measures to deter asylum seekers

    Those who thought Europe’s refugee “crisis” was over were reminded this week that tens of thousands of refugees remain stranded in Greece and the Balkans. Images of refugee tents shrouded in snow on the Greek islands have sparked outrage about the lack of adequate shelter, and scorn has been poured on the Greek government for keeping refugees in such miserable conditions. But others have pointed out that the real culprits are EU and member state policies that have closed borders and shrugged off responsibility for a more equitable distribution of the refugees arriving on Europe’s southern shores.

    Italy and Germany, along with Greece, have paid the heaviest price for the EU’s lack of solidarity. Germany has received nearly 1.2 million asylum seekers over the past two years, while Italy received 335,000 arrivals over the course of 2015 and 2016. Under increasing pressure from their electorates and with little chance of EU-wide agreement, both countries are pushing ahead with unilateral measures aimed at stemming the flow of migrants and refugees, and more rapidly returning failed asylum seekers.

    Taken in isolation such measures are unlikely to have a major impact, but in late 2015 and early 2016 we saw how the actions of one or two member states can have a knock-on effect on migration policies throughout the EU.

    Agreements with transit countries

    Sea arrivals to Italy reached a new high of 181,000 in 2016 and the pressure on the country’s reception system is immense. Italy’s new government, led by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who took office mid-December, is wasting no time acting to deter the steady stream of smugglers’ boats setting off from Libya’s coast, even in the middle of winter.

    This week, new Interior Minister Marco Minniti was dispatched to Tripoli to broker an agreement on fighting irregular migration through the country with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord. The GNA is one of three governments in Libya vying for power but Italy appears unwilling to wait for the emergence of a central government with which to negotiate. This week it also re-opened its embassy in Tripoli, the first Western country to do so in the two years, since conflict erupted between Libya’s rival factions.

    According to news reports, Minniti and al-Sarraj agreed to strengthen cooperation on fighting terrorism, irregular migration, and human trafficking. A statement issued by the interior ministry noted that the embassy would serve as “the principal coordination centre” for the joint efforts.

    The bilateral agreement, due to be formalised in Rome at the end of January, is not unprecedented. Under a “friendship” treaty that former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi made with the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2008, Italian ships intercepted boats carrying migrants and returned them to Libya, where those on board faced detention and deportation. As Human Rights Watch pointed out, there was no attempt to determine whether any of the migrants qualified for international protection or were victims of trafficking. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy had violated international laws with its “push back” policy.

    While it seems unlikely Italy will renew that strategy, it’s still unclear what form its cooperation with Libya will take, besides supplying Libya’s coastguard with eight new patrol boats. Reportedly, one of the goals will be to boost controls at Libya’s southern border, where most migrants currently enter the country in smugglers’ vehicles originating mainly from Niger. But the GNA has limited authority in the south, where regional tribes control the main smuggling routes.

    migrants_in_toyota_travelling_from_the_libya-niger_border_across_the_libyan_desert_towards_sabha.jpg

    Men in the back of a truck
    Tom Wescott/IRIN
    Migrants in the back of a smugglers' pickup truck bound for Sabha in southern Libya

    The deal may nevertheless set a precedent for other member states to strike similar agreements, or for the EU to consider a migration arrangement like the one it made last year with Turkey. Malta, which is currently holding the EU presidency, has already suggested that the EU could expand on the agreement Italy has forged with Libya.

    Ramped up detentions and deportations

    The second prong of the Italian government’s hardened approach to irregular migration is to increase the rate at which it deports migrants rejected for asylum. Before heading to Tripoli, Minniti was in Tunis to discuss a repatriation agreement that could smooth the way for Italy to more easily deport Tunisian migrants, most of whom don’t qualify for asylum. Anis Amri, who committed the attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December, had arrived in Italy from Tunisia in 2011. Both Italy, and later Germany, attempted to deport him, but Tunisia failed to issue the necessary travel documents.

    A week after Amri was shot dead by police near Milan, Italy’s police chief issued a directive urging officers to take “extraordinary action” to help deport more irregular migrants, “in an international context characterised by instability and threats”. Later, Minniti announced plans to open detention centres in every Italian region where migrants would be held prior to their forced return. Former prime minister Matteo Renzi, who stepped down in December, had given in to EU pressure to build “hotspots” to screen and fingerprint migrants, but had stopped short of detaining them. 

    In the wake of the Berlin attack, Germany is also under pressure to increase the rate at which it returns failed asylum seekers. It deported 25,000 of them in 2016 (up from 21,000 in 2015), and another 55,000 returned home voluntarily, but the figure is not enough to satisfy a public fearful of more extremist attacks and struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of newly recognised refugees.

    German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is pushing a plan that would make it easier to detain rejected asylum seekers considered a potential security threat, and to deport them from “repatriation centres” at airports. Starting in March, Germany also plans to restart returns of newly arrived asylum seekers to Greece, reversing the five-year EU-wide suspension of the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to remain in the first country where they register a claim. This couldn't come at a worse time for Greece, which is already struggling to process the asylum claims of an estimated 62,000 refugees stranded by border closures in the Balkans and the EU-Turkey agreement.

    Germany has threatened to cut foreign aid to countries that don’t cooperate in accepting back deportees. There’s also renewed talk of adding Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to Germany’s list of “safe” countries of origin. Rejected asylum applicants from “safe” countries can be fast-tracked for return, although repatriation agreements are usually necessary to actually carry out deportations.

    Despite the rhetoric from Italy and Germany, the reality is that deportations are hard to do. In a year in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government will be fighting for re-election and in which early elections in Italy are also a strong possibility, the first priority for both countries is to slow the rate of new arrivals.

    Caps on asylum seeker numbers

    Germany already saw a massive drop in arrivals in 2016 compared to 2015 (280,000 compared to 600,000), but that may not be enough to satisfy voters.

    Last year, Austria introduced a cap on the annual number of asylum seekers it would accept, a move widely criticised at the time as a contravention of international refugee law. But Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil is now proposing a system that would see caps imposed across the EU, in conjunction with the offshore processing of asylum applications in countries such as Niger and Jordan.

    In the past, Merkel has dismissed the idea of setting an upper limit on asylum claims, despite pressure to do so from the Christian Social Unity (CSU) party, which forms part of her coalition government. But now Merkel’s own Christian Democrat (CDU) party is proposing annual targets for numbers of asylum seekers based on the humanitarian situation in conflict zones around the world, and on Germany’s ability to absorb newcomers. The proposal stops short of setting a figure for 2017, but it suggests that Germany may now be more receptive to the Austrian plan, which will be presented at a meeting of Central European nations in February.

    2016 saw border closures and the EU-Turkey deal make it a lot harder to get into Europe, but 2017 promises to be a year in which the doors close even further on those seeking refuge and asylum.

    (TOP PHOTO: MSF vessel, Dignity 1, rescued 937 people in five different operations during one day in June 2016. Fernando Calero/MSF)

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    Italy and Germany step up measures to deter asylum seekers
  • Migration trends to watch in 2017

    It’s been a tumultuous year: shock election results, the Brexit referendum, a nervy global economy, and a raft of extremist attacks – all of which have had impacts on migratory movements and the way countries have responded to them.

    There is no sure way of predicting where the next refugee crisis will come from, but some strong policy trends have emerged. And what is striking is how similar those policies are becoming, despite widely varying contexts.

    In the developed world, populist right-wing parties have successfully scapegoated migrants and refugees and convinced electorates they must be deterred at all costs. In the developing world, this has turned migrants into powerful bargaining chips that can be used by origin and transit countries to extract maximum sums of development aid and other concessions.

    How all this plays out in 2017 will depend to some extent on how successful moderate politicians and civil society leaders are at pushing back against policies that will do little more than deflect migratory movements from one country to another.

    Here are the key developments we expect this coming year:

    Europe outsources migration policies

    For all its flaws, the EU-Turkey migration agreement will be the blueprint for the EU’s continuing strategy of outsourcing its migration problems. The accord was intended to give the EU breathing space while it developed more sustainable policies, but member states have failed to reach consensus, and the deal with Turkey will be shored up even if it means turning a blind eye to human rights abuses by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Meanwhile, similar deals with third countries will be sought in an effort to close off the Central Mediterranean, now the most visible irregular migration route into Europe.

    In the absence of a functioning central government in Libya, the main departure point for smugglers’ boats, the EU has had to look further afield and is now in the process of negotiating agreements with Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Ethiopia. As part of the Partnership Framework for cooperation with third countries launched in June this year, we’re likely to see the EU pushing for more cooperation agreements with countries of origin and transit in Africa in 2017.

    “It’s a looking-outwards approach because we don’t know how to deal with it internally,” says Elizabeth Collett, Europe director of the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels. “There’s more interest in prevention and deterrence than finding alternative [legal pathways]. National elections and domestic politics will prevent pursuing those alternatives.”

    Greece and Italy remain the holding cells

    Agreements with third countries are unlikely to yield results in the short-term (in fact it’s questionable how much impact they’ll have even in the long term). In the meantime, the only plan for dealing with continued arrivals to Europe is to keep them for as long as possible in Greece and Italy, but the pressure on both countries is already approaching breaking point.

    Migrants and refugees wait outside Moria reception centre on the Greek island of Lesvos. A new fingerprinting and screening system has delayed registrations.
    Jodi Hilton/IRIN
    Migrants and refugees wait outside the Moria reception centre on the Greek island of Lesvos in October 2015

    Alexander Betts, director of Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre, predicts that in 2017 the EU will push for quicker processing and returns of asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey and stepped-up patrols in the Aegean. He added that the referendum outcome in Italy and the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who was “a voice of moderation in the refugee space”, could deal a blow to progressive asylum policies in that country. Early elections are likely to be held in June 2017 and could yield a victory for the anti-immigration Five Star Movement party.

    The Trump effect on domestic immigration policy

    It will take time for Donald Trump to deliver on many of his election promises on immigration. At this stage, it’s unclear how many of those promises he will even pursue. In interviews, he’s indicated that deporting between two and three million immigrants with criminal backgrounds would be his first priority. It’s a big drop from his campaign pledge to deport all 11.3 million undocumented migrants living in the US but it’s still probably an inflated number, according to Doris Meissner, who heads the Migration Policy Institute’s US immigration policy programme.

    “Our number of those with criminal backgrounds is about 820,000, of which 300,000 could be categorised as serious criminals and [deporting them] is the priority of the current administration anyway,” says Meissner.

    Since being elected, Trump hasn’t repeated his promise to rescind President Barack Obama’s executive order exempting migrants who arrived in the US as children from deportation, known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

    Meissner says there has been strong mobilisation in defence of the DACA programme from some surprising quarters, including business leaders, the military, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a prominent Republican who is co-sponsoring a bi-partisan bill to preserve the status of the DACA population through legislation called the Bridge Act.

    Meanwhile, the state of California and several major cities will likely push back against any efforts to scale up deportations by refusing to cooperate with the federal government and providing free legal aid to people trying to fight deportation. “It’s a clever strategy because our immigration court system is already so backlogged that people who fight deportation will be in a very long line. It could bring the system to its knees,” says Meissner.

    The Trump effect on regional forced displacement

    Under the Obama administration, the US has partnered with Mexico to intercept and deport Central Americans fleeing gang violence in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) before they reach the US border and claim asylum. The Mexican government may be less willing to work with a Trump administration in the wake of highly offensive comments about Mexican immigrants he made on the campaign trail, but Meissner predicts that Mexico’s own interests may be served by continuing to police its southern border. But while Mexican immigration authorities have the power to deport Central Americans, they have no deportation agreements with countries in Africa and Asia, whose citizens are increasingly traversing South and Central America to reach the US. The numbers of Haitians, Africans, and Asians claiming asylum at the US border is likely to continue growing in 2017.

    Jonathan Levinson/IRIN
    Haitian migrants arrive at the Casa del Migrante shelter late into the night

    Trump’s appointment of retired general John Kelly as homeland security secretary is also significant for migration towards the US border. Having only recently stepped down as head of the US Southern Command, responsible for US military activities in South and Central America, he will be well aware of the drivers of displacement in the region and the need to address those drivers, in addition to ramping up enforcement. He has been a champion of the Alliance for Prosperity, a $750 million programme of assistance to Central America, and is expected to moderate some of Trump’s more extreme positions on irregular migration.

    The Trump effect on refugees

    The biggest immediate Trump effect will likely be on the US’s refugee resettlement programme, currently the largest in the world. Trump has promised to suspend admissions of refugees from several predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria.

    “Scaling back refugee resettlement is something Trump could do quite quickly, and if he really wanted to he could shut down cases that are already in the pipeline,” says Meissner.

    Trump could also slash US contributions to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, which currently depends on the US for 40 percent of its funding. He is also unlikely to show the same leadership that Obama has in terms of appealing to other nations and the private sector to fund refugee responses.

    UNHCR and international NGOS feel the squeeze

    Declines in funding from the US (and potentially even from the EU if populist parties win more elections in 2017) could see UNHCR and other major international NGOs playing a less prominent role in the international refugee regime. Jeff Crisp, a former head of policy at UNHCR, predicts this could open the way for other actors, particularly in the development, civil society, and private sectors to fill some of the inevitable gaps in support to refugees.

    Betts of the Refugee Studies Centre says UNHCR will reach a crossroads in 2017 and will need to develop a clear strategy for weathering the current political climate or risk irrelevancy. Cuts in funding and resettlement places as well as more nations ignoring international refugee law will put the agency in “a very challenging position”, says Betts.

    “At the moment, its response predominantly has been to reassert the old principles and values. My concern is that while they might be, in absolute terms, the right values, in the current climate, they will struggle to stick to those objectives without a clear political strategy.”

    The impact of former UNHCR chief, Antonio Guterres, taking the helm as UN secretary-general in 2017 may be a greater focus on the underlying causes of displacement, says Betts. Guterres could also help foster “a favourable political space” in which to develop the global compacts on refugees and migration that UN member states committed to in September.

    More forced returns

    Greater controls on migration in Europe, the US, and Australia have not gone unnoticed in the developing world, where the vast majority of refugees are still hosted. Possible cuts in UNHCR’s funding and continued flows of refugees from Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan will add to the existing pressure on major host countries, including Turkey, Uganda, Kenya, and Pakistan.

    In November, Kenya postponed the closure of Dadaab refugee camp, home to 261,000 Somali refugees, but a new deadline is looming at the end of May and, despite the lip service to voluntary repatriations, Dadaab’s residents are faced with the real threat of forced return to insecurity in Somalia in 2017.

    Afghan refugees in Pakistan are also in the midst of a temporary reprieve from forced return. A repatriation programme that has already seen more than half a million Afghans returned in 2016 has been put on pause until 1 March. But Pakistan has set the end of March as the deadline for all Afghan refugees to leave the country before it starts deporting them. Meanwhile, Iran has also been returning large numbers of undocumented Afghans in recent months and Europe plans to scale up deportations of failed Afghan asylum seekers in 2017.

    Jim Huylebroek/NRC
    Refugees returning from Pakistan travel with their belongings in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province in August 2016

    With worsening insecurity in Afghanistan, Tuesday Reitano of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime predicts many returnees will attempt to migrate again.

    “People generally feel insecure and the desire to move is high and there’s a lot of money to be made there [by smugglers]. I think we’ve been not paying enough attention to what’s going on there.”

    Message over matter

    While there’ll be a continued trend of hardening attitudes towards migrants and refugees in 2017 in many parts of the world, it’s worth remembering that the priority for governments is to be seen to be taking action to deter migrants. Creating that perception with electorates is often more important than delivering real results in terms of bringing down immigration figures.

    Trump’s promise to build “a big, beautiful wall”, which almost certainly helped win him the election, is already being dismissed as unfeasible and largely symbolic. And the EU continues to over-promise the extent that agreements with third countries can deliver a drop in arrival numbers.

    “The messaging of all these policies is over-taking real capacities of what’s feasible,” says Collett of the Migration Policy Institute. “We’ll see it more and more in 2017, this gap between messaging and implementation.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Hundreds of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean aboard a fishing boat, moments before being rescued by the Italian Navy as part of their Mare Nostrum operation in June 2014. Massimo Sestini/The Italian Coastguard​)

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    Migration trends to watch in 2017

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