(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Scale up or cut back? Aid sector grapples with growing funding gap

    This week, the UN announced that $22.2 billion would be required to meet the needs of an estimated 92.8 million people affected by conflicts and natural disasters in 2017. It’s the largest humanitarian appeal ever launched, but current funding trends suggest that aid agencies will be lucky to raise half the amount they’re asking for.

    Given this ever-widening chasm, some aid experts believe it’s time to prioritise, to focus humanitarian efforts on the most urgent life-saving endeavours and ensure at least they are fully funded.

    “Today’s appeals are much more ambitious and sophisticated and want to do all sorts of things ranging from tackling root causes to building resilience,” said Mukesh Kapila, a professor of global health and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester. “While those are all highly desirable, whether one would call them humanitarian in the traditional sense is a question.

    “I think the humanitarian sector needs to revert to basic, fundamental life-saving interventions only,” he told IRIN. “If you start getting into cash-for-food programmes and vulnerability reduction – extremely worthy things to do – those are huge, huge tasks, and by definition the humanitarian approach is a very limited one.”

    In a recent commentary for IRIN, Antonio Donini, an analyst with the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, also suggested that the best response to the crisis in multilateralism signalled by the election of Donald Trump and the jettisoning of humanitarian principles from Syria to South Sudan could be “a more narrowly focused ‘back to basics’ humanitarian enterprise”.

    Not that simple

    UN-led humanitarian appeals don’t represent the needs of all people affected by crises worldwide (they exclude emergency appeals and aid flows that bypass the UN system), but they suggest the need for international emergency aid is outpacing donor governments’ willingness to increase contributions. In 2016, for example, donors gave $11.4 billion towards UN-coordinated appeals – a record amount, but still barely half the $20.1 billion requested. Ten years ago, when the annual appeal was a mere $5 billion, it was almost 70 percent funded.

    The massive aid and relief superstructure that has sprung up over the last 25 years is already under pressure to reform, to become more accountable, more transparent, to spread its power and financial base from Western capitals to the Global South.

    Speaking at the launch of this week’s appeal in Geneva, the UN’s top relief official, Stephen O’Brien, said the growing funding gap was the result of neither donor fatigue nor aid sector failure: “it’s that the demand out there – primarily because of unresolved, protracted conflicts – is getting greater”.

    The price tag for responding to just three of the protracted conflicts covered in the appeal – Syria, Yemen and Iraq – amounts to $10.5 billion, nearly half of the total.

    Many in the sector believe that the “back-to-basics” approach ignores the reality of more complex and drawn-out crises that demand more complex responses – that it’s not enough to just keep people alive, particularly if one of the goals is to reduce the likelihood of future crises that would only create more need.

    SEE: Aid: It’s complicated

    “In an ideal world, humanitarians would be focusing on the strict humanitarian work, and others would be focusing on making sure these populations have access to the infrastructure and livelihoods that are going to enable them to live in dignity. But in reality it’s not happening, and very often it’s not possible,” said Kate Halff, executive secretary of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, an umbrella organisation for nine large international NGOs that partner with the UN.

    “It’s about building broader partnerships for longer-term action,” she said, adding that debates about when development agencies should take over were beside the point. “It doesn’t really matter who does it, provided it’s done in a sustainable way.”

    Halff pointed out that development actors such as the World Bank are already starting to partner with the emergency sector to develop strategies to respond to long-term crises.

    One of the major outcomes of the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul earlier this year was a commitment to strengthen collaboration between humanitarian and development actors with the aim of shrinking needs over the long term, for example through an increased focus on mitigation and preparedness for natural disasters and peace-building to avoid conflicts.

    SEE: Why more money alone won’t improve crisis response 

    Jemilah Mahmood, who led preparations for the summit and is under secretary general for partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told IRIN needs had to be reduced or they would become a “bottomless pit” but recognised the bind the humanitarian sector is in.

    “On the one hand you need the life-saving interventions, but you also need the longer-term, peace-building initiatives,” she said.

    Shifting boundaries

    This shift beyond the traditional parameters of humanitarian work has many “purists” worried. They argue that getting involved in peace-building, stabilisation and recovery work endangers basic principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence, and could lead to aid being instrumentalised or politicised, compromising trust in humanitarian agencies.

    Another challenge is the need for long-term programmes to have multi-year, predictable funding instead of the 12-month cycle that is the current norm. Several countries covered by the 2017 humanitarian appeal – including Chad, Cameroon, and Somalia – are hoping to secure funding for multi-year humanitarian response plans.

    “Money is limited,” said Annett Gunther, deputy director general of humanitarian assistance at Germany’s foreign office. “We need to move from ad hoc financing to smarter, longer-term financing of programmes.”

    The UN is urging donors to reduce earmarking for specific projects and countries and to instead contribute to pooled funds like the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which can be allocated quickly and according to need. More unearmarked funding could help address what Kapila calls the aid “lottery” in which some country response plans are 80 percent funded while others languish below 20 percent.

    Gunther said Germany’s contributions to pooled funding are increasing and that they are encouraging other donors to do the same.

    “Germany has been pushing for a while for a paradigm shift towards more forward-looking humanitarian funding such as disaster preparedness,” she told IRIN.

    Addressing the funding gap will also mean looking beyond traditional donors to new sources of financing such as the private sector, philanthropists and emerging economies like China and the Gulf countries.

    “More and more now we have to look for funds in different places,” said Mahmood, adding that traditional donors are reluctant to fund ostensibly less urgent programmes such as education to promote peace-building that the Red Cross runs in several countries.

    While humanitarian appeals have grown in recent years, Halff pointed out that $22 billion represents “less than the annual revenue of the chewing gum industry”.

    She also said the onus on plugging the funding gap really fell on politicians as much as humanitarians, whose emergency relief work only acts as a band aid for these spiralling, protracted crises.

    “I really think as humanitarians, we have to push back a bit against the narrative that you’re asking for a lot of money and you’re not doing that much. The fundamental problem is a political one and until that’s addressed, we’re left trying to cover a gap that’s uncoverable.

    “We really have to get this right and it’s a collective responsibility, it’s not a responsibility just for the humanitarian sector.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Evening approaches at the Dzaipi transit centre in northern Uganda, where UNHCR has erected tents for many of the refugees. F. Noy/UNHCR)


    Scale up or scale back? Aid sector grapples with growing funding gap
  • Migration facts in a post-truth world

    Post-Brexit and post-Donald Trump’s election, it’s hard to argue with the notion that we’re now living in a “post-truth” era in which objective facts often hold less weight than emotional appeals and “fake news” when it comes to shaping public opinion. Nowhere have post-truths gained more currency than in debates around immigration. Here are a few of the most influential post-truths about migration and refugees, and the facts that contradict them:

    Refugees are a security threat

    One of the most potent post-truths is the idea that terrorists are posing as refugees to gain entry to Europe and the United States. Right-wing politicians and media outlets have successfully made the association between a string of terror attacks over the past year and the unprecedented and chaotic arrival of more than a million asylum seekers to European shores in 2015. Most of those asylum seekers came from countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan that are associated in the public’s mind with extremist groups like so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda; never mind the fact that many were themselves fleeing those groups. A July study by the Pew Research Centre found that in eight out of 10 European nations surveyed, half or more people believed that incoming refugees increased the likelihood of terrorism in their country.

    Many of the claims about extremists infiltrating refugee flows to Europe stemmed from the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and the discovery of Syrian passports near the bodies of two of the perpetrators. At least one of the passports was proven to be fake and the Paris attackers turned out to be second-generation immigrants who had grown up in France or Belgium and then spent time in Syria after joining IS. But the attacks did expose genuine concerns about the lack of screening on the Greek islands at the peak of refugee arrivals in 2015. Those concerns have been largely addressed by new screening procedures, border controls and fences along the main migration routes through Europe, but the possibility that a small number of would-be terrorists entered Europe and registered as asylum seekers in 2015 can’t be discounted. In September, German authorities arrested three Syrian men who had made their way to Germany last year, on suspicion that they were part of an IS sleeper cell. Another Syrian terror suspect, allegedly radicalised after he arrived in Germany, was arrested in Leipzig after three fellow Syrians identified him and tied him up before calling the police.

    Despite such cases, the vast majority of acts of terror both in Europe and the US have been carried out by “homegrown” extremists, radicalised over the internet or during trips abroad. Experts note that using terrorism as the justification for increased migration controls has the effect of increasing feelings of alienation within immigrant communities and stoking xenophobia towards them, a vicious cycle likely to create more extremists of the homegrown variety than to have any impact on the few proven instances of violent extremists infiltrating countries posing as refugees.

    The Syrian refugees as Trojan horse argument made by Donald Trump has even less factual basis in the US context in which the only way for most refugees to enter the country is via formal refugee resettlement programmes. Contrary to Trump’s suggestion that vetting of such refugees is inadequate, it is extremely rigorous and involves security checks by various agencies that can take up to two years. An October 2015 analysis by Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute found that of 784,000 refugees resettled to the US since 2001, just three had been arrested for plotting extremist activities (two were not planning an attack in the US and the plans of the third were “barely credible”). 

    “The refugee resettlement programme is the least likely avenue for a terrorist to choose,” concluded Newland.

    The “crisis” narrative

    Boats crammed with migrants and asylum seekers had been crossing the Central Mediterranean to Italy at a steady rate for over a year when, around mid-2015, the Eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and the Greek islands picked up and soon eclipsed the Central Mediterranean route in terms of numbers. It was around this time that we started talking about a refugee or migration crisis. The term became synonymous with images of Syrian families staggering onto Greek beaches and columns of migrants and refugees trudging through the Balkans. The media loves a crisis and this was one that European news outlets could easily cover by dispatching a journalist to Lesvos, Budapest, or Munich.

    But migrant and refugee arrivals in 2015 were a crisis only relative to what Europe had experienced before and the degree to which it was unprepared for what was to come. Countries like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon that had been absorbing large numbers of refugees for years certainly didn’t view Europe’s predicament as a crisis. Nor did African countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, and Chad that have been hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees for years.

    The crisis narrative has helped populist, right-wing political parties push their anti-immigration agenda (look no further than Nigel Farage’s infamous Brexit campaign poster featuring crowds of asylum seekers on a Balkan road), but it has also driven the EU’s policy responses. The factors driving refugee and migrant arrivals to Europe are complex and long-term and have no clear beginning or end. Defining the phenomenon as a crisis has often resulted in short-term, short-sighted policies like the EU’s controversial deal with Turkey.

    Development aid to the rescue

    In the past year, the EU has announced several new initiatives offering large amounts of development aid to major countries of origin with the goal of stemming migration. The logic goes that such aid spurs economic development, creating new jobs and reducing the need for people to migrate in search of better opportunities.

    Migration experts and economists have been making the point for years that this approach goes against all the evidence that development tends to spur rather than reduce migration as more people have the resources (and aspirations) needed to fund the journey to Europe or elsewhere.

    The EU has nevertheless forged ahead with the multi-billion-euro Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, announced last November as well as the Partnership Framework with third countries launched in June this year. Perhaps realising that development aid alone wouldn’t achieve its migration objectives, the Partnership Framework involves more of a carrot and stick approach. Packages of development aid and trade deals are offered only in return for countries’ cooperation in implementing more migration controls.

    Migrants and refugees are a drain on the economy

    This is perhaps the greatest post-truth of all and the one that Brexit campaigners and Donald Trump manipulated most effectively.

    Claims in the UK’s right-wing tabloid press and by conservative politicians that migrants are coming to the country primarily to take advantage of its social services (otherwise known as “benefit tourism”) have little basis in reality. In many countries, migrants – particularly irregular migrants – have no access to social services. Where they can access the welfare system, they are much less likely to do so than locals, partly because a larger proportion of them are young adults with fewer health and educational needs. A study by University College London found that migrants in the UK contributed significantly more in taxes than they received in social benefits.

    Are these the architects of the post-truth era?

    The effects of immigration on labour markets are more complex and varied. In developed countries, especially during periods of economic growth, migrant workers often hold low-skilled, low-paid jobs that natives are unwilling to do. Although competition for such jobs may become fiercer during an economic downturn, immigration can also create jobs by stimulating economic growth, and because migrant-run businesses often employ locals. There is a strong correlation between immigration rates and economic growth rates. When growth and job opportunities slow, so does immigration.

    The impact refugees and asylum seekers have on labour markets and public spending depends to a large degree on the policies of the host country – how long they must wait before they can legally work, what language and training programmes are available to facilitate integration and employability, and how much support they receive in the form of allowances and housing. An OECD study found that up-front investments in helping refugees integrate are likely to have a long-term pay off as refugees eventually enter the labour market and start making positive contributions to the economy.

    (TOP PHOTO: Migrants and asylum seekers queue up at Mytilene Port on the Greek island of Lesvos waiting for police clearance. Louisa Gouliamaki/IRIN​)


    Migration facts in a post-truth world
  • Who’s afraid of Mr Trump?

    Will billions of dollars in US aid be slashed or redirected under President Trump? For aid agency planners, only one thing about the Trump presidency is certain right now: uncertainty.

    New financial figures obtained and analysed by IRIN show that a number of key US NGOs depend on the US and other governments for more than half their budgets. Several aid officials confirmed that those that rely heavily on US government funding are feeling particularly vulnerable right now.

    At the top of the list is an international development NGO, PACT, which receives 98 percent of its income from government grants. At least 10 major US humanitarian and relief organisations receive more than 50 percent of their income from government (mainly the US, although a breakdown is not always made public).

    Washington also pays nearly 40 percent of the annual budgets of the UN World Food Programme and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

    Even though there is little on the record for his specific policies, Donald Trump’s protectionism and rhetoric on the campaign trail mean that few expect a rise in US aid spending and some fear a sharp brake.

    Christopher Lockyear of Action Against Hunger (US) told IRIN his agency was, like others, reviewing possibilities: “we’re looking at all the options. One of the scenarios of course is that there will be an overall reduction and that’s the scenario that we’re most concerned about.”

    Despite obvious cause for concern, several of the most vulnerable NGOs were trying to remain positive.

    “The short answer is we don’t really know and I don’t see the reason to assume the worst,” said Bill O'Keefe, vice president of government relations and advocacy at the large US non-profit Catholic Relief Services.

    O’Keefe and other NGO officials contacted by IRIN stressed their intention to have a positive and “educational” relationship with the incoming members of Congress about the benefits of the US foreign aid budget and the levels of domestic support it can enjoy.

    In an emailed statement, Mercy Corps told IRIN that cross-party support for foreign aid was strong in Congress, and that it represents an area of US leadership that ought not to be abandoned: “We hope the new administration will take this opportunity to embrace foreign assistance programmes that have been proven to reduce conflict and make the world safer.”

    Nevertheless, Lockyear admitted, “there’s a lot of speculation at the moment”.

    Part of that speculation surrounds who the new administration will appoint to key positions that have a major influence on the direction of aid programmes. These include the top administrators at USAID and PEPFAR (the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), as well as the senior director for development at the National Security Council.

    “The Republican legacy on foreign assistance is quite strong in terms of PEPFAR and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, but how the Trump administration plans to take that up, nobody knows,” said O’Keefe.

    A fair share?

    The club of donors, OECD, ranks the US as the largest country in conventional foreign aid. The UN’s financial tracking service also ranks the US as the biggest donor of emergency aid. Relative to its wealth, however, the US falls well behind others, scoring far below (0.17 percent) the target of 0.7 percent of national income set by the UN.

    According to a formula reached by the UN, based on relative national wealth, the US is obliged to contribute 22 percent of the UN secretariat’s budget. The US, like other richer countries, tops up these obligated dues (“assessed contributions”) with voluntary amounts to certain agencies.

    In an exclusive analysis, based on data from thousands of tax filings released by the Internal Revenue Service, IRIN has identified a number of US non-profits that show significant exposure to governmental funding fluctuations.

    The table shows ten large agencies active in humanitarian and emergency relief. They all have over $5 million in annual income and depend on government grants for more than half their revenues. Much of this government income is from USAID and the US State Department, but it may include foreign governments. One NGO told IRIN it also reports income from UN sources in that line (Part VIII line 1e, for the experts). The IRS public records do not show a breakdown. The data is taken from a huge release of non-profit tax filings made public by the Internal Revenue Service earlier this year. To account for any year-to-year fluctuations, only those NGOs with more than one year of tax filings in the IRS data are included. The data is self-reported by the non-profits. IRIN has calculated the average income from government sources of the available years, and compared that with total reported revenue to find the percentage figure.

    CORRECTION: Earlier versions of this article and graph reported that the government grants income was exclusively from the US government. However the government grants figure may also include income from foreign governments as well as US governmental units. IRIN regrets the error and has checked all the data again to confirm its accuracy.

    Feedback on the methodology is welcome - contact us on hello[at]irinnews.org

    Additional data reporting by Emma Supple

    (TOP PHOTO: USAID coffee-growing project in Guatemala. Meredith McCormack/USAID)




    10 NGOs that would be hard hit by US aid cuts
  • Migration: What if Trump does win?

    Immigration has dominated the US presidential campaign like never before. Donald Trump’s oft-repeated promise that, if elected, he will build a “big, beautiful” wall at the US-Mexico border helped secure him the Republican nomination and his rhetoric about illegal immigration appears to have struck a chord with many working-class Americans.

    But how many of his election promises on immigration are implementable? And what threats does a Trump presidency pose to migrant and refugee rights in the US and beyond?

    The Wall

    Top of Trump’s 10-point plan “to put America first” is, on day one of his presidency, to begin work on “an impenetrable physical wall” that will run the entire 3,200-kilometre length of the US border with Mexico. Numerous commentators have pointed out the near impossibility of such a project. Fences and walls have already been erected along 1,126 kilometres of the border. The topography of much of the remainder is extremely rugged and includes large tracts of privately-owned land.

    “A wall along the entire southwest border sounds like an attractive policy option to a lot of people, but on a practical level it would be nearly impossible to do,” Faye Hipsman, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington DC-based independent think tank, told IRIN.

    “Getting the money for it is another story too,” she added. “It would cost tens of billions of dollars, and it’s hard to imagine Congress approving that.”

    Trump insists that Mexico will pay for the wall, but Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has made it clear that will not happen.

    The irony of Trump’s insistence that America needs a wall is that ramped-up border enforcement over the past decade has already reduced illegal border crossings to an all-time low. A significant proportion of those still crossing the border illegally these days are not Mexicans but Central Americans fleeing gang violence and seeking asylum in the US. A wall would not remove their right to claim asylum, points out Allegra Love, a New Mexico-based immigration lawyer. They could simply go to an official point of entry and apply.


    There are an estimated 11.3 million undocumented migrants living in the United States. Trump has said that he will seek to deport them all, although he has softened his stance recently, saying that he would target up to 6.5 million for swift removal.

    Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, has noted that deporting 11 million people would require “the law enforcement tactics of a police state”, in addition to costing up to $600 billion over 20 years to actually accomplish, according to one study. It would also reduce the US labour force by 6.4 percent at an enormous cost to the economy.

    Deporting economic migrants who have just crossed the border from Mexico is relatively straightforward, but most undocumented migrants in the US entered the country legally and then overstayed their visas. Others are waiting for asylum claims to be heard. Backlogged immigration courts mean that deporting someone can take several years.

    “Our immigration system is deeply complicated,” said Love. “We have some undocumented migrants who have been in the country for decades, some who are just arriving, and the national debate about [deportation] makes it into an easy moral question.”

    While it’s probably far-fetched to imagine that a Trump administration would deport all 11 million undocumented migrants, he could significantly scale up current levels of deportations, which number about 400,000 a year. He has said he would triple the number of immigration enforcement agents and create a new “special deportation task force”.

    Trump has also promised to rescind President Barack Obama’s executive order that exempts undocumented migrants who arrived in the US when they were children from deportation. Hipsman said the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy has had “a huge impact on a large number of peoples’ lives” since it was introduced in 2012. Reversing it would be “an easy thing [Trump] could do in his first week in office”.


    The United States has traditionally offered more resettlement spots for refugees than any other country, but that would likely change under a Trump presidency.

    “The president sets annual refugee resettlement admissions each year, so it’s something the next president would have a big impact on,” said Hipsman.

    Trump has lambasted Democratic rival Hilary Clinton’s promise to increase admissions of refugees from Syria and said he would suspend admissions of refugees from places where “adequate screening cannot occur”; such places would include Syria and Libya. He would also introduce new screening tests that would include an ideological component “to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people”.

    “The vast majority of refugees coming from these places are women and children, [and] it’s misinformation to say that they’re not screened adequately or we don’t know how to screen them,” Hipsman told IRIN. “But unfortunately the executive branch does have significant control over refugee admissions.”


    If elected, Trump will struggle to get many of his immigration policies through Congress, “but there are a lot of things he can do with executive orders”, said Hipsman.

    She added that the possibility of a Trump presidency has immigrant communities around the country worried, not just because of his hard-line policies, but because of the threat of “heightened anti-immigrant sentiment”.

    Love agreed. “[If Trump wins] there’s going to be a lot of fear and hateful people who suddenly have the force of the presidency behind them, and that’s going to cause violence against the people in my community,” she told IRIN.

    “My clients are very worried. The whole debate is validating and normalising hate speech against migrants.”

    In an increasingly polarised America, with Clinton promising to follow through on Obama’s “progressive” reforms, that debate may happen regardless of who emerges victorious after the polls on Tuesday.


    Migration: What if Trump does win?
  • Will Hurricane Matthew reset Haiti’s aid relationships?

    The catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 shocked the world and galvanised a massive international response. Just over two weeks after Hurricane Matthew left a trail of destruction across the southwest of the country, already the world appears to be moving on, despite warnings that the impact is severe.

    The death toll stands at 546, but contaminated water sources and destroyed health-care services are contributing to the rapid spread of cholera and the storm also killed livestock and wiped out crops in many areas where subsistence farmers were about to harvest.

    “The death toll from the earthquake was horrible and the injuries were much worse, but in terms of the lasting effects I think many people would agree there’s a chance this is even worse than the earthquake,” said Conor Shapiro, CEO of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation which provides community-based healthcare and runs a hospital in southern Haiti.

    “Is the international community going to see this as the massive disaster that it is?” he added.

    The earthquake generated an estimated US$9 billion in aid. By now, it’s well known that the scale of that response was not matched by the outcomes. There was a lack of coordination between the hundreds of international NGOs that flocked to the country following the disaster, but more importantly with the Haitian government and local NGOs. Consultation with the people affected by the earthquake was also minimal, hampering relief efforts and creating a lasting mistrust of foreign aid workers. UN peacekeepers failed to adequately treat their waste-water resulting in a cholera outbreak that has claimed at least 10,000 lives.


    According to Emily Troutman, a freelance journalist who was based in Port-au-Prince from 2010 to 2012 and now edits her own blog Aid.Works, just 3.5 percent of the aid that poured into Haiti in the three years after the earthquake went to preparing for similar disasters.

    In recent years, donor support to Haiti has dwindled. However needs remain: from cholera to drought to assiting people still displaced by the earthquake, said Enzo Di Taranto, head of office for OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, in Haiti. He noted that the 2016 humanitarian response plan for the country was only 32 percent funded and that disaster preparedness was one of the most under-funded components, along with projects to strengthen government capacity. “There wasn’t a solid preparedness structure for a disaster we all knew was coming,” he told IRIN.

    The government did have a contingency plan and its Department of Civil Protection together with the humanitarian community carried out evacuations in many coastal villages and small islands that Di Taranto said “saved many, many lives”.

    The government and local NGOs broadcast public service announcements, warning local residents about the hurricane. According to Marilyn Lawney, executive director of the Haitian Health Foundation, which is based in hard-hit Jérémie, many people didn’t believe the warnings. Even if they had, she added, “I’m not sure what they could have done”. There were few buildings in the area that could withstand the Category 4 storm.


    Bahare Khodabande/IRIN
    A school principal, sits among the wreckage of a classroom. His school in Port-Salut used to have 253 students, but was completely destroyed by the hurricane

    Where do you go when the infrastructure is weak?” said Shaprio. “There were some shelters, but not enough.”  

    The World Food Programme had pre-positioned enough food to feed 300,000 people for three months ahead of hurricane season, but most of the aid was warehoused in the capital, Port-au-Prince. The difficulty of transporting supplies along damaged roads to often remote communities in the south meant that by 18 October, WFP had only reached 77,000 of the estimated 806,000 people in urgent need of food aid.

    Last week, frustration at the slow pace of aid delivery was already boiling over. Several aid delivery trucks were attacked and shots were fired at a food distribution point in Chambellon, according to MINUSTAH, the UN’s peacekeeping force in Haiti.   

    Lessons clearly have been learned from the chaos that followed the earthquake. UN agencies and INGOs appear more aware of the need to channel assistance through government structures, but the hurricane arrived just ahead of a presidential election that has now been postponed, leaving the country’s immediate recovery in the hands of a fragile, provisional government.

    “There is a will by key players to empower national authorities so you break the dependence from external partners, but this is a bit tricky because you can do that only when there is capacity,” commented Di Taranto.

    Rocky relationships

    Observers such as former Haiti correspondent and author Jonathan Katz argue that it’s the interference of foreign NGOs that has contributed to Haiti’s weak institutions and government and that they must now move towards forging long-term local partnerships and empowering Haitians to lead their own recovery process.

    Research by Mark Schuller, an associate professor at Northern Illinois University and author of “Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti”, in eight camps where people displaced by the earthquake were still living found that less than five percent of respondents knew why INGOs directed aid where they did.

    “There needs to be a new relationship to decision making and these need to be made public, not only to possible donors, but to people on the ground because beneficiaries have no idea why INGOs make the decisions they do,” Schuller told IRIN.

    The calls for more partnership are not only coming from outside observers. A statement issued by the Popular Democratic People’s Movement, a Haitian civil society organisation, days after the hurricane warns that the government “must not tolerate, or allow any international, multilateral, bilateral or non-governmental organisation to side-step the authority of the state or local organisations to coordinate and manage in their place”.

    Meanwhile, the Haitian embassy in Washington, DC has released a list of “best practices for disaster relief efforts in Haiti” that urges those wishing to assist to “operate under the guidance of local government officials and/or with organizations that… already have systems in place on the ground.”

    Haitian people need to be treated “not just as survivors or victims but experts and leaders; they know best where the aid needs to going and they need to be trusted with making decisions,” said Schuller. “But there is an urgent lack of resources at the moment, so we can provide resources.”

    So far, a flash appeal launched by the humanitarian sector in Haiti in conjunction with the government, has only raised $26.5 million of the $119.8 million asked for the emergency response.

    “What we’re hearing is that people are asking not to be put in camps in a state of dependency,” said Schuller. “They don’t want temporary shelters; they want reconstruction using their own skills.”

    [TOP PHOTO: A woman at the entrance to what is left of her home in Les Cayes. She has five children and no means to rebuild. Bahare Khodabande/IRIN)


    Will Hurricane Matthew reset Haiti’s aid relationships?
  • Great expectations: incoming UN chief urged to make bold reforms

    Shrewd pragmatist, passionate idealist, astute politician, skilled communicator: António Guterres has received no shortage of praise since navigating the arcane selection process to emerge as the next UN chief.

    On 1 January, the former Portuguese prime minister and UN high commissioner for refugees will succeed Ban Ki-moon and become the ninth UN secretary-general, beginning a renewable five-year term. But having talked the talk, can he walk the walk?

    He takes on the new role, routinely billed as the most impossible job in the world, with the 70-year-old institution facing serious reputation problems, the model of multilateralism on the rocks, and humanitarian crises raging from Syria and Iraq to South Sudan and northern Nigeria.

    But experienced observers and former senior UN figures told IRIN he needs to look inwards and address some key systemic problems at the UN’s core if he wants to make real headway.

    “You can barely pick up a stone at the UN without seeing a need for reform under it,” commented Mark Malloch-Brown, who served as former secretary-general Kofi Annan’s deputy in 2006.

    Besides addressing the need for a more efficient, merit-based recruitment process, there is what Malloch-Brown describes as the UN’s “broken accountability system”.

    “There are endless evaluation and audit bodies, but they don’t really grip the issues they should be gripping, and they’re certainly not auditing for outcomes,” he told IRIN. “The whole organisation, both in its management and accountability systems, needs to be put on a management-for-results basis.”

    The Kompass case

    Anders Kompass, a former field operations director at the UN’s human rights agency, OHCHR, blew the whistle on the sexual abuse of children by UN peacekeepers in Central African Republic and ultimately resigned over the organisation’s failure to hold its senior officials to account.

    He told IRIN he was hopeful that Guterres would take an early stand on the issue by “saying from the beginning that he will ensure the independence of the two key institutions in charge of accountability – OIOS (the Office of Internal Oversight Services) and the Ethics Office.”

    He also wants to see Guterres develop a coherent policy to support and defend whistleblowers.

    “Accountability also means there have to be consequences when something is wrong, and to date there aren’t any in the UN,” he said.

    Some of the incidents that have been most damaging to the UN’s image and credibility in recent years have involved its peacekeeping forces. From the sexual abuses Kompass reported in CAR to the cholera outbreak that peacekeepers brought to Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

    Malloch-Brown said there was a need to build an “integrated, unified, disciplined UN peacekeeping force that you can mobilise quickly and that understands proper norms... All of that isn’t there in this peacekeeping-on-the-cheap model that’s been forced on the UN.”

    The P5 hegemony

    How Guterres deals with pressure from powerful member states to influence senior appointments (and everything else) will set the tone for how much independence he enjoys as the UN’s chief executive.

    “Governments have used the management committees of the UN as bargaining chambers where they pick over which programmes get extra resources and which don’t,” said Malloch-Brown. “The secretary-general needs freedom to use the resources he’s been allocated to pursue a set of priorities he’s been given, but in his own way.”

    The first challenge and test of Guterres’ diplomatic skills will be how he handles making appointments to some of the UN secretariat’s top posts. Those positions have largely gone to nationals from the powerful “P5” states who make up the five permanent members of the Security Council.

    For the past decade, for example, three Brits have headed up the UN’s emergency aid coordination agency, OCHA; France currently holds peacekeeping; China has held onto the top spot at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs; while UNICEF, the WFP, and the Department of Political Affairs are led by Americans. UN corridor gossip is focused on a potential reshuffle of these top posts amongst the P5. Other member states and civil society will be hoping that Guterres will find a way to take a more meritocratic approach to appointments.

    I think there’ll be a challenge from the rest of the membership for a fairer distribution [of UN leadership positions] particularly at a time when they consider the [15-member] Security Council membership not to be representative,” said Malloch-Brown.

    Restoring the faith

    Unilateral or ad-hoc coalition approaches to both the refugee crisis and Syria have done much to erode respect for the international laws and conventions governing refugees and the conduct of war. Nan Buzard, executive director of the Geneva-based International Council of Voluntary Agencies, argued that one of Guterres’ most pressing priorities should be promoting a return to the proper application of those laws.

    “International law can’t solve all problems, but the ways in which it’s been undermined is probably the most serious erosion [of member states’ responsibilities] we’re facing,” she told IRIN.

    Malloch-Brown believes the former Portuguese politician has what it takes to be a very good secretary-general but acknowledged the scale of the task ahead.

    “A lot of the current difficulties come, frankly, from having a weak secretary-general who isn’t forceful enough on the political mediation front and who isn’t willing to be assertive enough on the humanitarian,” he said.

    Assertiveness is not generally perceived to be one of Ban’s fortes, particularly when it has come to persuading Security Council member states to set aside geopolitics and prioritise the humanitarian situation in Syria.

    “One of Guterres’ strong points is that he has a sensitive appreciation of how to be assertive without being offensive,” observed Jeff Crisp, former head of policy and evaluation at the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, under Guterres.

    Considering how much more “impossible” the job has become in 2016, the amount of confidence and hope that many in the humanitarian community are placing in Guterres is impressive. But is it misplaced?

    “There’ve been eight secretary-generals; two did it well – Kofi Annan and Dag Hammarskjöld,” said Malloch-Brown. “It’s a lot easier to fail.”


    Great expectations: incoming UN chief urged to make bold reforms
  • Plenty of hype, no new ideas at UN migration summit

    A significant chunk of Manhattan came to a virtual standstill earlier this week as thousands of delegates, media representatives, and leaders and their entourages from around the world converged on the UN for a highly anticipated summit on refugees and migrants. The build-up to Monday's event had been immense, but it yielded few surprises. Its main outcome – the New York Declaration – has been public for longer than a month and widely panned as a watered-down document that commits member states to very little.

    As expected, speeches were made – lots of them. Ministers from each member state took turns to call for more responsibility sharing on refugees, more rights for migrants, more education for refugee children, and more funding for humanitarian assistance. A few countries made announcements about additional resettlement places and scholarship opportunities, and new initiatives to open up labour markets to refugees and migrants. But there were no major challenges to the status quo and the biggest hope the summit held out was the possibility of more fundamental change after another two years, when two global compacts – one on refugees and another on migration – are due to be adopted.

    According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, the adoption of the New York Declaration by 193 member states was a historic achievement. The high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said it represented “a political commitment of unprecedented force and resonance” that would fill “a perennial gap in the international refugee protection system – that of truly sharing responsibility for refugees”.

    While few commentators agreed with this assessment, most did at least applaud the fact that world leaders had convened at the highest level to talk about refugees and migrants. “That shouldn’t be understated,” said Alexander Betts, director of Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre, who nevertheless viewed the event as a largely wasted opportunity that has deferred urgently needed reforms of the global refugee system.

    Why wait another two years?

    “What I don’t accept from what we’ve seen at this conference is that we can just have a blind faith that the declaration automatically leads to two global compacts, which automatically leads to operational change through comprehensive response plans,” Betts told IRIN. “Why do we need such a circuitous route to get there? We should have been finding those solutions here and now.”

    "For us, the question is how it will differ from the usual response"

    “This summit definitely didn’t provide us with the solutions the world needed,” agreed Josephine Liebl, a humanitarian policy adviser with Oxfam. “But it did put something on paper that we can hold up to governments and use to put pressure on them.”

    While the compacts will be developed over the next two years through a process that is still unclear, UNHCR is expected to start implementing a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework by the end of the year.

    “For us, the question is how it will differ from the usual response,” Liebl said.

    Jeff Crisp, former policy chief at UNHCR, also wondered whether the framework represented a substantially new approach, saying: “The [framework] is essentially a synthesis of existing ideas, some of which are relatively new, such as addressing the needs of host communities from the beginning of a refugee emergency, and others which have been on the table for a very long time such as ensuring the engagement of development agencies."

    View from the south

    Voices from the Global South pointed out that countries in Africa and elsewhere have been hosting the majority of the world’s refugees for decades with little fanfare or interest from the developed world.

    “It’s a very northern-centric discussion, and the whole issue became a crisis to the point of states agreeing to this kind of summit because of refugees and migrants reaching Europe,” said Roshan Dadoo, director of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa. “The problem is that the Africa group is pretty weak and they don’t push as hard and they end up taking on the borders of Europe, which seem to be moving further and further south.”

    Detainees at a migrant jail in Zawiya, Libya
    Mathieu Galtier/IRIN
    Detainees at a migrant jail in Libya

    “It’s a big show here, but on the ground people are suffering,” said Milka Isinta, co-chair of the Nairobi-based Pan-African Network in Defense of Migrants’ Rights, addressing a small rally across the road from the UN on Tuesday morning.

    “Kenya’s been hosting refugees for more than 30 years and rich countries don’t want to take responsibility,” she told IRIN afterwards. “Developed countries need to do much more.”

    Refugee pledges, but what about migrants?

    For the most part, leaders used both the UN summit and the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees convened by President Barack Obama on Tuesday, as an opportunity to emphasise what they were already doing to support refugees rather than to announce new initiatives.

    Those new pledges that did emerge from the leaders’ summit will have to be followed up by the administration that succeeds Obama and for which refugees may be viewed as more of a security threat than a priority.

    Despite the declared joint focus of the UN summit on refugees and migrants, there was a strong suggestion by some countries that “if we want to help the refugees, we have to keep out the migrants”, noted Liebl.

    Addressing the General Assembly, British Prime Minister Theresa May gave the game away as she listed the UK’s contributions to supporting Syrian refugees and then referred to the “unprecedented movement of people in search of greater economic opportunities” in the context of the need for more border controls.

    “Countries have to be able to exercise control over their borders,” she said. “The failure to do so erodes public confidence, fuels international crime, damages economies and reduces the resources for those who genuinely need protection.”

    Related stories:

    Let's not wait another two years to act on the refugee crisis

    Afghanistan overwhelmed as refugees return from Pakistan

    Betts commented that UNHCR has done little to champion the protection needs of people who don’t qualify as refugees. “UNHCR didn’t want to discuss those people,” he said. “One senior staff member said that they didn’t want to fudge the line between refugees and migrants because it would fudge the line between what UNHCR does and what IOM (the International Organization for Migration) does.”

    In general, Betts was critical of what he called a lack of “visionary purpose and proactive leadership” from the UN.

    “I accept there are political constraints and UNHCR in particular is in a very difficult position in the current political climate, but what I think is really missing and urgently needed is a vision for what a global refugee system should look like that’s not reactive but is proactive – and that has to come from the UN system.”

    In the absence of that leadership, he added, the best hope is that civil society organisations, the private sector and a handful of the more proactive governments find a way to “work around the system”.

    (TOP PHOTO: A member of Myanmar's Rohingya community is photographed after escaping a jungle camp run by human traffickers. Mahi Ramakrishnan/IRIN)


    Plenty of hype, no new ideas at UN migration summit
  • The hidden failure of Europe’s migration policy billions

    It’s tempting to think that Europe’s migrant and refugee “crisis” is largely behind us, that the EU’s desperate deal with Turkey has had the desired effect – images of dozens of boats depositing refugees on Greek shores and trekking through the Balkans have largely disappeared from our TV screens. 

    Sure, boats are still arriving in Italy, but overall figures for arrivals in 2016 are way down from the same period last year – nearly 300,000 sea arrivals so far compared to 1.1 million during the whole of 2015.

    But sea arrivals only tell part of the story, the most visible part. A new report released today by the Overseas Development Institute shines a light on the less visible channels that asylum seekers are using to reach Europe and finds that the billions of euros governments are spending on fences and cooperation agreements with third countries are having little impact.

    The report’s authors looked at registered arrivals of migrants and refugees to Italy and Greece over the last two years – what they call the ‘overt’ arrivals who are tracked and quantified by organisations like the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration. They then compared those figures to the total number of asylum claims lodged throughout the EU during the same period and found a huge discrepancy, even when they accounted for backlogs of claims some countries are dealing with.

    In 2015, UNHCR and IOM registered about 1.1 million new arrivals and yet 1.7 million asylum claims were lodged, suggesting that 600,000 people found their way into Europe through covert means.

    In 2016, the discrepancy between registered arrivals and asylum claims is much larger. Based on current rates, the authors predict that by the end of the year 890,000 asylum claims will have been made while only about 330,000 new arrivals will be registered.

    So while ‘covert’ arrivals accounted for 38 percent of new asylum seekers in Europe in 2015, they will account for an estimated 63 percent in 2016.

    In fact, 2015 was the anomaly. The report shows that for at least the past seven years, the majority of asylum seekers arriving in Europe have used covert means. These typically include traveling overland concealed in vehicles, flying into the EU using false documents or arriving on a legitimate visa and then applying for asylum.

    These clandestine routes don’t come cheap. They often involve paying for forged documents or bribing border officials. A breakdown of the nationalities of covert arrivals in 2015 show that they were much more likely to be from upper-middle income countries than overt arrivals and that less than a third were from the Middle East, of which only 33 percent were from Syria.

    The findings should sound an alarm bell for policy makers, said one of the report’s authors: ODI’s interim executive director Marta Foresti. “The number of people we know about is going down and the ones we don’t know about are increasing,” she told IRIN.

    “This crisis isn’t going away,” she added. “Even if the Syria crisis was resolved, everything we see in these numbers in terms of overall trends suggests a steady increase [in asylum applications].”

    Big spending

    The second part of the ODI report looks at the costs of deterrence measures both within Europe – in the form of fences, border policing and surveillance – and outside Europe, through funding for external migration controls and for programmes aimed at addressing root causes of migration such as lack of jobs and development.

    Inside Europe, fences have been going up at a rapid rate over the past year. During the latter half of 2015 and early 2016, five fences were erected at a cost of €238 million. In total, Europe spent €1.7 billion on fences and other border control measures between 2014 and 2016, according to ODI’s “conservative” estimate.

    “What we found particularly on border control is a very clear domino effect,” said Foresti. “If a country erects a wall, it’s only a matter of time before their neighbours do the same.”

    The result, notes the report, is millions of euros “poured into shifting burdens across individual countries in Europe, with little progress made on actually reducing the numbers arriving as a whole.”

    Europe’s uneven approach not only to border controls, but to receiving and processing asylum applications has led to the majority of recent asylum seekers gravitating towards a handful of member states that are now shouldering a disproportionate share of the financial burden for hosting them.

    In Sweden, for example – the country that has the highest number of asylum seekers as a proportion of the local population – ODI estimates that the cost per citizen in 2016 was €245. In the UK, which has taken in a relatively small number of refugees, the cost was just €16 (see map).

    Meanwhile, European governments are spending vast sums trying to deter migrants and asylum seekers from ever reaching Europe’s borders. Over the past year, the EU has committed €300 million to strengthening security and border controls in non-European countries and promised billions of euros to support economic development through bilateral agreements and trust funds aimed at discouraging would-be migrants from leaving home.

    Most recently, the EU announced the Partnership Framework on Migration, which could see €9 billion in aid distributed over the next four years to countries that cooperate with the EU’s goals on reducing migration.

    ‘A bottomless pit’

    Considering the amounts of money involved, there’s a surprising lack of evidence that this approach actually works to reduce migration flows. In fact, all the evidence suggests that, in the short term at least, migration actually increases when poor countries experience development and people have more resources and aspirations to travel.

    The failures of Europe’s unilateral and short-term responses to the refugee “crisis” have highlighted the urgent need for multilateral action, argue the authors, and the timing of this report just ahead of the high-level summits in New York next week is no coincidence. One of the major goals of those summits is to achieve greater consensus and responsibility-sharing when it comes to dealing with large movements of refugees and migrants.

    “Without international and regional cooperation, investing in isolated border controls and security is a bottomless pit,” notes the report.

    Even more worrying are the wider, ripple effects as other countries are encouraged to emulate Europe’s approach with their own deterrence policies.

    “It’s highly risky because if others join this race to the bottom, it could result in even greater flows to Europe,” said Foresti.

    The forced closure of Kenya’s camps in Dadaab, hosting more than 300,000 Somali refugees, for example, could see some of those refugees making their way towards Europe.

    “One key thing we’re trying to get across in the call for multilateralism is not just on grounds of solidarity and protecting the rights of refugees, but that it’s actually in the self-interest of countries themselves,” said Foresti.


    The hidden failure of Europe’s migration policy billions
  • The New York refugee summits – what to expect

    It’s billed as a potential “game-changer” for refugee protection and the rights of migrants, but what can we really expect from the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants taking place in New York next Monday? And is US President Barack Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees likely to deliver substantial new commitments on refugee resettlement and funding?

    One week before the two high-level and unprecedented gatherings aimed at stemming the global migration crisis, here’s what we know and don’t know:

    The knowns

    We already have the draft declaration – agreed upon by 193 member states in early August – that will be formally adopted at the UN Summit on Monday the 19th.

    It sets out a long list of vague commitments to address the root causes of large movements of refugees and migrants: to respect their rights; combat xenophobia and exploitation; strengthen search-and-rescue efforts; address funding gaps etc. etc. And it does all this while recognising the often antithetical rights of individual states to manage and control their own borders and “to take measures to prevent irregular border crossings”.

    Observers to the drafting negotiations note that the original text was watered down over successive meetings. “Mostly, it’s ‘we’ll consider doing this’,” Josephine Liebl, a humanitarian policy adviser with Oxfam who sat through many of the July negotiations in New York, told IRIN. “The original text was more decisive.”

    At the last minute, the US and several other member states balked at a commitment to end child detention, agreeing only to refer to it as “a measure of last resort” and to “work towards the ending of this practice”.


    There are other, more glaring, omissions: in particular a commitment to resettle 10 percent of the global refugee population annually (equivalent to about 2.1 million people in 2015). UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had called for this in his recommendations for the summit’s outcomes, but the declaration states only an intention to “expand the number and range of legal pathways” for refugees to be admitted to third countries.

    Also missing is a Global Compact on Responsibility-Sharing for Refugees that was supposed to be one of the summit’s key outcomes.

    Compacts and Frameworks – what’s the difference?

    The “global compact” was expected to set out a roadmap for implementing some of the key commitments made in the declaration, but early drafts were disappointingly lacking in concrete detail on the mechanisms that would compel states to act.

    Rather than address these weaknesses, the compact was dropped and replaced with a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework – to be used as the basis for responses to large movements of refugees. The “framework” is to form the starting point for developing a global compact for adoption in 2018.

    Member states, particularly from Africa and Latin America, justified postponing the compact for two years by arguing that it should conform to the same timeframe as a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, also slated for adoption in 2018.

    Civil society groups, who were unhappy with the draft version of the compact, have had to settle for the hope that the two-year process will deliver something stronger.

    In the meantime, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, will lead the application of this new framework, which is not dissimilar from what is already best practice for responding to refugee crises. No wonder, perhaps, that UNHCR appears satisfied with this result.

    “Even during the negotiations, they seemed quite happy with the outcome document,” Wies Maas, who has been coordinating the work of the civil society action committee in the lead-up to the summit, told IRIN. “From what we’ve understood, they feel they’ve been reaffirmed in their mandate.”

    What about commitments on migrants?

    The summit’s joint focus on refugees and migrants was welcomed by migrant rights groups who viewed it as a rare opportunity to put migrants’ protection needs on an equal footing with those of refugees. But, once again, the declaration fails to outline concrete commitments.  

    “There’s quite a lot of language about protecting the rights of migrants regardless of status, but it’s not clear what that will mean in practice,” said Monami Maulik, advocacy coordinator with the Global Coalition on Migration.

    Even well before the summit, GCM and other migrants rights groups appear to have largely switched their focus to the development of the “Migration Compact” over the next two years. But it’s not yet clear who will lead this process. There are concerns that the responsibility may be handed to the International Organization for Migration, which is to become a related organisation of the UN at the summit on the 19th.

    “Some of our members in some countries have concerns about IOM’s role in voluntary returns, and, if it’s mandate doesn’t change, what that would mean,” Maulik told IRIN.

    A role for civil society?

    The summit will be attended by 229 NGOs and civil society organisations from around the world, but they’re unlikely to have much influence over its largely pre-determined outcomes.

    “It is very much a high-level event and we know the document has already been agreed. So it’s not an influencing opportunity, but an opportunity to remind member states of their responsibilities and the need for them to show more leadership,” said Liebl of Oxfam.

    The summit could provide a platform for individual states to announce national plans to act on the various commitments made in the declaration, but one civil society observer described such hopes as “a bit pie-in the-sky”.

    Several figures from civil society have been carefully selected to speak at the opening plenary session and subsequent roundtables on various themes that will take place during the course of the day. But seven groups – six based in Africa – have been blocked from participating on the basis of member states’ objections.

    “It doesn’t bode well for engagement with civil society during the compact process,” said Maulik of GCM, which is challenging the decision.

    The big unknown

    With hopes already dashed that anything substantial will come out of the UN summit, some are looking to the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees that President Barack Obama will convene on the margins of the General Assembly the following day to deliver more tangible outcomes.

    But while there are relatively few unknowns associated with the UN summit, the leaders’ gathering on Tuesday, 20 September is one big unknown.

    The stated aims of the leaders’ summit are: to double the number of refugees who are resettled or admitted through other legal channels to third countries; to increase funding for humanitarian responses by 30 percent; and to increase the number of refugees in school and who are granted the legal right to work by one million each.

    Only states willing to make “new and significant” commitments have been invited to attend. The list of attendees has not been made public but it’s expected that between 30 and 35 countries will participate, including the co-facilitators, which are Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Sweden, and Jordan.

    US State Department officials have also been tight-lipped about what the new commitments will consist of.

    “The indications we’ve had is that it’s been a struggle to get commitments,” said Julien Schopp, director of humanitarian action at Interaction, a US-based alliance of international NGOs that has been leading the call for the leaders’ summit to be more inclusive of civil society – a call that has largely gone unanswered.

    If countries do make substantial new pledges, one major concern is: whose role will it be to ensure they are actually delivered on, particularly given that the event is being hosted by an outgoing US administration?

    “We’ve seen it in the past three years from the World Humanitarian Summit to the London pledging conference on Syria – everyone arrives with something that looks good and sounds good, but when you look at delivery six months later, there’s not much,” said Schopp.

    Even if the leaders’ summit does deliver, Liebl points out that it’s a “one-off event”.

    “It doesn’t address any of the more structural issues or the lack of a mechanism or widespread agreement to share responsibility [for refugees] continuously and not only when there’s a pledging conference,” she told IRIN.

    “We were looking for some vision and political leadership and for governments to say, ‘Well there’s a rational way we can solve this, it’s not impossible’.”

    At best, added Liebl, the summits may represent the start of a process towards a better deal for refugees and migrants that will need to be really worked upon over the next two years if the new frameworks, compacts, and commitments are to be meaningful.

    (TOP PHOTO: Syrian refugee children at a tent used as a mosque at the Islahiye refugee camp in Hatay, Turkey. Jodi Hilton/IRIN​)


    Will next week’s summits be game-changing or more of the same?
    The New York refugee summits - what to expect
  • Gang violence in Central America is a humanitarian crisis

    Central America’s Northern Triangle – encompassing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – is one of the most violent regions in the world outside of a warzone. Transnational gangs or maras have proliferated in the wake of decades of civil war and are largely responsible for a per capita death rate that rivals that in Syria.

    The humanitarian impacts have become increasingly obvious over the last two years as more and more people, many of them unaccompanied children, have fled the violence and sought protection, mostly in the United States. An estimated 10 percent of the Northern Triangle’s population of 30 million has already left. For those forced to remain, weak and corrupt state institutions have failed to improve their access to health, education, and justice in city neighbourhoods that have been carved up into “territories” by rival gangs, and where schools have become places of recruitment and kidnapping.

    "There’s still a slow recognition of the scale and magnitude of the problem"

    Humanitarian agencies, more used to working in classic conflict settings or in the aftermath of natural disasters, are starting to wake up to the need to respond to the Northern Triangle’s epidemic of violence. Organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières are leading the way, but their programmes are small-scale and, in terms of their reach, “very much the tip of the iceberg”, according to Robert Muggah, director of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank that focuses on security issues.

    “There’s still a slow recognition of the scale and magnitude of the problem,” he told IRIN. “There are still considerable apprehensions in the humanitarian world about how best to engage.”

    How do you engage with gangs?

    Gangs in the Northern Triangle are financed by a range of organised criminal activities, from more localised extortion and smuggling rackets to the trans-regional trade in narcotics, much of it bound for the United States.

    The Igarapé Institute’s projections suggest that homicide rates in the Northern Triangle will continue to rise over the next 20 years, even as they fall in other parts of the world.

    “This creates a conundrum for the humanitarian community,” said Muggah, explaining that, in terms of International Humanitarian Law, gang violence is not defined as an armed conflict, even if the consequences for local populations can be just as devastating and deadly.


    Antonio Aragon/ECHO
    Children look on as paramedics take away the body of a man executed in his home in Ciudad España, near Tegucigalpa

    In practical terms, this means that humanitarian agencies responding to gang violence cannot expect any special protection and may themselves become targets. Attempts to negotiate access with gang members controlling a particular “territory” where agencies want to work can also be deemed a criminal offense.

    “If you meet with a convicted killer and don’t report their whereabouts, you could be charged with a crime of association. It does raise a big red flag for some agencies, because they no longer have the immunity under IHL to engage in these kinds of negotiations formally,” said Muggah.

    Joaquim Guinart, MSF’s field coordinator in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, said his organisation does not attempt to engage with gangs in “red areas” of the city where levels of crime and violence are highest and the organisation is providing care to victims of sexual and other types of violence.

    “Always the gangs have people keeping watch in different parts of the neighbourhood. When they approach us, we explain what we’re doing and they accept it,” he told IRIN. “We monitor violent events through the media and schools. Now, mass killings of several people at once are increasing and the gangs are often fighting for territory, which is putting us on alert.”

    Questions of neutrality

    The ICRC, which runs programmes providing assistance to returning migrants and communities affected by armed violence in all three countries, does not rule out talking to the gangs.

    “We would at some stage attempt to have some dialogue with the gangs. We don’t talk about what it is we discuss with them,” said Yves Heller, the ICRC’s communications coordinator for the region.

    He added that “it is a completely different dynamic” than talking to armed actors in the context of a conflict, where “you’re dealing with some very clear principles”. 

    Related stories:

    The new buzzword in aid – and why agencies are slow to act

    Latin America faces up to urban ‘war’

    Humanitarian intervention in violence-hit slums – from whether to how

    Exiled by force

    The need to coordinate humanitarian efforts with local government departments also raises what Muggah described as “existential questions for agencies that seek to remain neutral and impartial”.

    “In urban violence situations, if you don’t have some alignment with different sectors of the government, then you’re just applying light band aids that are quickly ripped off,” he told IRIN. “It means lowering a flag, not necessarily waving your agency identity and engaging in complex negotiations with governments to help them supplement gaps.”

    He added that governments in the Northern Triangle have been wary about accepting help from humanitarian agencies because of the message it can send about the dire state of security in their countries.

    “It took a lot of communication, clarification, and dialogue between groups like the ICRC and governments to ensure there was a common understanding. There were situations where the ICRC was taken to task for communicating findings that were seen to be reflecting negatively on the country in question,” he said.

    Setting an example

    The biggest dividend for small-scale humanitarian interventions in this region can be the extent to which local governments attempt to replicate them.

    When MSF began providing care to sexual violence victims in Tegucigalpa four years ago, for example, there was no national protocol for treating such patients.

    “Now, the government is going to introduce a protocol for sexual violence, and that is something we’ve been fighting for,” said Guinart. “Our work has given us legitimacy to talk about these things.”


    Antonio Aragon/ECHO
    A Save the Children workshop for adolescents in one of the most violent neighbourhoods in San Pedro Sula, Honduras

    Through multi-disciplinary teams consisting of doctors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists, MSF is also “trying to demonstrate to health authorities the need to address this in a more holistic way,” said Henry Rodriguez, the organisation’s head of mission for Mexico and Honduras.

    “We don’t pretend to change behaviours or the origins of the violence, but at least we can raise awareness about the need to give more support to this population.”

    More help needed

    Encouraging more humanitarian agencies to start programmes in the Northern Triangle will depend to a large extent on finding willing donors.

    The only major donor currently funding humanitarian programmes in the region is the EU’s humanitarian aid department, ECHO.

    “Development donors are doing great work in terms of violence prevention, but in terms of humanitarian response there’s very little,” said Vicente Raimundo, ECHO’s regional head for Central America. “It’s a paradox, because usually it’s the other way around.”

    “I think that we all have failed in acknowledging that we have a humanitarian problem."

    ECHO is partnering with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to help displaced populations in El Salvador, and with the Norwegian Red Cross and the Norwegian Refugee Council in Honduras and El Salvador to make schools safer and children less vulnerable to recruitment by gangs.

    But major gaps remain, particularly in the health and education sectors. “It’s about psychosocial support, and also the needs of people who can’t get to a hospital because it means crossing certain territory [that belongs to a rival gang]. It’s about kids being threatened, recruited, and extorted in schools,” said Raimundo. “I think that we all have failed in acknowledging that we have a humanitarian problem."

    Not just a US problem

    Muggah noted there has been a general decline in aid to Latin America in the last five to 10 years and that many donors view the situation in the Northern Triangle as in “the US’s backyard” and therefore something American donors should be addressing.

    US-funded initiatives have tended to focus on law enforcement and addressing drug trafficking, although the more recent Strategy for Engagement in Central America will also aim to boost economic development, reduce violence, and strengthen government institutions.

    There’s been a slow but growing acknowledgement of the need for a stronger humanitarian response to urban violence in the Northern Triangle, said Muggah, but aid agencies are “struggling to find what their added value is”.

    While organisations like MSF and ICRC have started experimenting with various interventions, “some agencies have kept their heads in the sand and not got involved in the messy and often highly politicised work of [responding to] urban violence.”

    “In the meantime,” he added, “there are enormous needs in these areas, and if the goal is to reduce suffering and to promote protection, the humanitarian world can play a role.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Soldiers patrol a neighbourhood in Comayagüela, Hondruas, in March 2016 after the Mara 18 gang threatened residents with death if they didn't leave their homes within 24 hours. Antonio Aragon/ECHO)


    Gang violence in Central America is a humanitarian crisis
    Aid agencies and donors need to do more

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