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  • Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks

    Revived attempts to resolve one of the world’s least known conflicts will resume in Geneva this week as representatives from Morocco and the Polisario Front attend roundtable talks to discuss the future of Western Sahara, often referred to as the last remaining colony in Africa, and home to tens of thousands of refugees.

     

    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that more than *170,000 of Western Sahara’s indigenous Sahrawis now live as refugees in camps in Algeria’s Tindouf province, although Morocco says the number is only around 40,000. The people of Tindouf are almost entirely dependent on international aid for food, water, education, and other necessities.

     

    Many are cut off from family members by a 2,700-kilometre wall that divides the two thirds of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco – which contains most of its settlements and natural resources – from the sparsely populated desert interior held by the Polisario.

     

    The result of the talks on Thursday and Friday could spell out the future of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO, established as part of a 1991 ceasefire that promised a vote on self-determination within one year, including the option of full independence.

     

    The two parties met face to face for the first time in six years in December, sitting alongside Algeria and Mauritania in informal talks that the UN’s envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, called a “first – but important – step” to rebuilding a fragile peace process that has yielded little since it began decades ago.

     

    Appointed envoy in 2017, Köhler, the former German president, has been working to achieve the political settlement that eluded his three predecessors. Each were unable to reconcile the positions of Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario, which considers itself the liberation movement of the Sahrawi people.

     

    Morocco partly annexed Western Sahara in 1975, following the withdrawal of Spanish colonial forces. That violence pushed tens of thousands of Sahrawis to flee to refugee camps in western Algeria, from where the Polisario fought a guerrilla war backed by Algeria and Libya until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

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    Ruairi Casey/IRIN

    MINURSO

     

    Over a quarter-century later, MINURSO peacekeepers still have a presence in the Western Sahara, but the parties are no closer to a vote, which is often called the “final status referendum”. The conflict is mostly a cold one, although there have been occasional dust-ups, including heightened tensions when then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon referred to Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara as an “occupation”.

     

    No other country recognises its claim over Western Sahara, but Morocco considers the territory an inviolable part of its national identity and has steadfastly refused to consider anything more far-reaching than greater autonomy within the kingdom. “Self-determination, in Morocco’s view, is done by negotiation,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said after December’s talks. “A referendum is not on the agenda.”

     

    In April last year, the Security Council began to renew MINURSO’s mandate for six months, half the usual year. US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has been a key player in recent efforts to jump-start diplomatic negotiations, has taken credit for the switch to six-month mandates, saying in December the change was intended to ratchet up the pressure on both parties to talk.

     

    Bolton, who worked as an assistant for then envoy James Baker between 1997 and 2000, has maintained a keen interest in the conflict, bolstered by a career-long disdain for costly UN missions and what some observers regard as sympathy towards the Polisario.

     

    In December, Bolton told an audience at the Conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation that he was “frustrated” at the lack of progress made over the past years.

     

    “Ladies and gentlemen, 27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there?,” he said. “How can you justify that?”

     

    Future of talks

     

    The European Parliament’s approval last month of a trade deal with Morocco that included Western Sahara’s fishing waters added to the animosity between the parties, especially as it contravened a ruling by the European Court of Justice last year.

     

    The parliamentary green light infuriated the Polisario, which said the EU had violated international law and jeopardised the peace process.

    “27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there? How can you justify that?”

    But the key question in Geneva will be whether Morocco is willing to budge towards a power-sharing arrangement the Polisario might accept – from its current plan of keeping Western Sahara as part of the country, with some autonomy.

     

    Securing such movement is likely to be a challenge, Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University and an expert on the Western Sahara, told IRIN.

     

    Mundy said the current Moroccan plan “seems woefully insufficient to attract interest from Polisario, especially because it says nothing about a final status referendum”.

     

    But he added that Bolton’s shake-up could bring a welcome change of dynamic in a conflict that has changed little since the early 1990s.

     

    “The game might now be to see how much this actually works to get the parties to really discuss substantive issues on a political solution,” said Mundy.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the UNHCR figure was 90,000. This has now been updated)

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    Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks
  • Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

    Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world and is not engulfed in conflict. Yet its people have been fleeing on a scale and at a rate comparable in recent memory only to South Sudanese or Syrians at the height of their civil wars and the Rohingya from Myanmar.

     

    As chronicled by much of our reporting collected below, some three to four million people have escaped the economic meltdown since 2015 and tried to start afresh in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. This exodus has placed enormous pressure on the region; several governments have started making it tougher for migrants to enter and find jobs.

    The many millions more who have stayed in Venezuela face an acute humanitarian crisis denied by their own government: pervasive hunger, the resurgence of disease, an absence of basic medicines, and, in March, an electrical blackout that led to water shortages and the mass looting of the second city of Maracaibo.

    Amid ongoing political upheaval, President Nicolás Maduro has cast aside outside offers of aid, framing them as preludes to a foreign invasion and presenting accusations that the United States is once again interfering in Latin America.

    Meanwhile, the opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, has invited in assistance, from the United States and elsewhere.

    As aid becomes increasingly politicised, some international aid agencies have chosen to sit on the sidelines rather than risk their neutrality. Others run secretive and limited operations inside Venezuela that fly under the media radar.

    Local aid agencies, and others, have had to learn to adapt fast and fill the gaps as the Venezuelan people grow hungrier and sicker.

    A collection of our recent reporting from and about Venezuela is below.

    The crisis inside Venezuela

     

    • Hunger and survival in Venezuela

      Millions have fled Venezuela’s economic meltdown, but for millions more who remain no part of life remains untouched by the crisis, even death.

    Across the border and beyond

    Aid and politics

    A collection of our recent reporting
    Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad
  • Afghans battle with flood aftermath

    Besieged by months of drought and long-term conflict, rural communities in large swathes of Afghanistan are facing yet another emergency: widespread flooding that will leave some rebuilding their lives for years.

     

    Sudden heavy rainfall this month triggered flash floods that swept away thousands of homes and killed dozens in nine Afghan provinces.

     

    More than 112,000 people are affected, with numbers rising as humanitarian assessments trickle in from insecure areas, according to tallies by UN agencies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

     

    Afghanistan is seeing unusually heavy rainfall due to the El Niño weather phenomenon declared in February, which can bring extreme weather across the globe. Forecasts predict there could be warmer temperatures and 40 to 50 percent more rain than usual into May, according to the Red Cross. Months of severe drought also make it harder for soil to absorb excess water, raising the risk of sudden floods.

     

    In hard-hit Nawa-i-Barakzai district in the southern province of Helmand, communities were still waiting for help – and fearing a fresh onslaught of rain – amid destroyed mud homes and dead livestock.

     

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN

     

    In one flattened village, Ali Mohammed, 42, stood on his collapsed roof, the smell of rotting flesh seeping through the mud that used to form the walls of his house.

     

    “It’s my sheep,” he said, pointing to a crack that exposed parts of the dead animals, killed in the floods.

     

    The rains started at night. Mohammed said he and his neighbours rushed to wake their families as the waters from a nearby river rapidly rose and heavy downpours started to tear apart rooftops.

     

    They scrambled to higher ground. But when the waters receded hours later the entire village had been washed away – along with a lifetime of hard work and savings.

     

    The rains came and went quickly, but the aftermath is likely to last years for farmers like Mohammed. He said his personal losses, including dozens of sheep and his entire food supply, totalled a steep 900,000 Afghani, or $12,000. His wife packed a few remaining belongings and took the family’s children to the relative safety of the provincial capital, Lashkargah.

     

    “We didn’t think it could be this bad,” he said.

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    A man walks among destroyed homes
    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN

    Afghanistan’s neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, have also been hit by floods. In Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, which shares a border with Helmand, aid agencies are warning of disease outbreaks due to damaged health clinics, low vaccination rates, and health conditions already worsened by drought.

     

    Here in Helmand, traditionally a Taliban heartland, the latest disaster is exacerbated by widespread poverty and active conflict. Government-controlled Nawa-i-Barakzai borders one of the war’s front lines, and the district has seen a rise in clashes and killings in recent weeks.

     

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN

    The district governor, Ayub Omar Omari, believes the floods are evidence of a changing climate.

     

    “We’ve had a bad drought, followed by the worst floods I’ve seen here in decades,” he said. “People’s entire livelihoods have been swept away.”

     

    Few structures are left standing in areas far from the bigger markets and paved roads, where fragile mud homes are prevalent. Most families have fled, finding refuge with relatives in nearby towns. Those who stayed behind continue to sort through debris, hoping to recover what remains of their belongings.

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN

     

    “It’s not safe for my family to stay outside, but we have little option,” said Haji Badar, 75. He stood surrounded by his daughters on a muddy plateau – his house has literally melted away.

     

    “We’re hoping for help, but none has come yet,” he said, two weeks after the initial rains.

     

    The sky is blue for now, but Badar fears what will come: “Our wettest season has just started.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A boy sits on his bed in Nawa-i-Barakzai district in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Heavy rains and floods destroyed his home, forcing his entire family to sleep outside. CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski/IRIN)

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    “People’s entire livelihoods have been swept away”
    Afghans battle with flood aftermath
  • Note to humanitarians in South Sudan: Strengthen the group, not just the individual

    South Sudan’s five-year civil war has killed 400,000 people and displaced more than four million others, creating the largest refugee crisis in Africa. About half the population of 12 million face severe hunger. But despite continued clashes, a peace deal between warring parties to form a transitional government later this year is cause for optimism.

    If the humanitarian community is to contribute to the healing and reconciliation the world’s youngest nation so urgently needs, it must recognise the social connections that exist within South Sudanese society and strengthen them to underpin any recovery.

    Social connections are an economic safety net in South Sudan; people's family and non-kin relationships are their primary 'go to' in normal times as well as during times of distress. This local social protection predates the current crisis and has been in place well before the arrival of external humanitarian aid.

    “Before the crisis, I could have gone to the local authorities to seek help because my cattle were raided, but now there is no system in place at all.”

    Humanitarian programmes are primarily in the economic sphere – whether in the provision of food, cash to meet basic needs, or support for livelihoods or income generation. New research from Mercy Corps and Tufts University’s Feinstein International Centre explores how these interventions impact these underlying social connections, both positively and negatively.

    While the informal connections and services may not be very visible, aid actors should seek them out. They could include the sharing of food or aid for social capital, as well as the redistribution of wealth amongst more vulnerable community members in what are known as “famine courts”.

    These informal connections may also have adapted to the changing context; for example with the move to more of a cash-based economy, people’s ‘wealth’ may be less visible than before.

    Shared humanitarian aid

    Men and women in Panyijar, in southern Liech state, explained that they belonged to various informal support groups, which earn their income from fishing, herding cattle, collecting firewood, and other activities.

     

    Their interviews revealed that households rely on each other for food, shelter, and work and many share humanitarian aid with others to reinforce or build new connections – just as they would share crops they raise or fish they’ve caught back home.

     

    In Panyijar, which hosts tens of thousands who fled some of the most intense fighting of the civil war, the social safety net is exemplified by cattle herders. Here, cows, not cash, are king, and cattle-keeping is a centuries-old tradition. Cattle farmers long ago formed their own groups organically, mobilising for protection, to share information on grazing and watering their herds and to offer financial support, including loans and goods on credit.

     

    “We share whatever we have. You do not eat alone in our group,” explained Gatkouth, 56, a leader of a group of cattle herders (called a Kwar Wich) for more than three decades in Nyal Payam, near the White Nile River.

     

    During an interview, he described how the cows of one member of the group were not lactating, severely reducing the herder’s food supply. “We cannot let him leave the group because he doesn’t have lactating cows,” he said. “Instead, we eat with him and wait until his cows produce calves and he is able to get enough milk.”

     

    Another risk the group faces are raids by cattle thieves. “Before the crisis, I could have gone to the local authorities to seek help because my cattle were raided, but now there is no system in place at all,” Gatkouth said.

     

    Instead, the group supports community members who are victims of theft by contributing their own cows to his herd.

    These kinds of connections are inherently broad in scope, going well beyond market activity and trade to touch on rites of passage, gender and youth dynamics, and other facets of life.

     

    Aid in context

     

    Social connections are essential in both the crisis and the recovery period in South Sudan, and the lessons we are learning will be crucial as humanitarians consider longer-term recovery issues, such as market-oriented private-sector investment.

    What this means in the practical sense for humanitarians is that aid needs to be based on the context, rather than where it is from.

     

    South Sudan is a collective society, but currently the way much aid is delivered mirrors how Western donors think and is often modelled on their own societies. Organisations tend to work with individuals or households, but in the South Sudan context, everything is communal. Aid actors need to shift our Western notions of individual and household vulnerability to consider our response from a collective perspective.

    Donors too have an important role to play. They should provide aid actors with the flexibility to determine when and how to pivot from short-term emergency assistance to livelihoods support, as ending emergency relief before households are equipped to pursue sustainable livelihoods can undermine these local support systems.

    Before the conflict, in Nyal Payam, cattle herders moved freely, interacting beyond their clans, but now sometimes there is fighting, Gatkouth said. It is up to him to keep the peace.

     

    “If you violate any rules, I call you and others involved for a meeting. My members and I look into the case and resolve it,” he said. “I do not allow arguments in my cattle camps that might lead to fighting either between my group members or with other groups of different Kwar Wich.”

    Gatkouth’s guidance will continue to play a pivotal role in helping his community build peace, as will his relationships of trust and social connections.

     

    How we, as the humanitarian community, honour and maintain such vital relationships of trust will be crucial to building peace and stability and helping South Sudan recover.

    Note to humanitarians in South Sudan: Strengthen the group, not just the individual
    “Social connections are an economic safety net in South Sudan”
  • Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    UN warns of ‘worst humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria

     

    The UN said it had received $6.97 billion in pledges at a Brussels donor conference for Syria this week, shy of the $8.8 billion it had asked for to aid Syrian refugees as well as those still in the country in 2019. While participants emphasised the need for a political solution to Syria’s war, now entering its ninth year, the uptick in violence in rebel-held northwestern Idlib province is a stark reminder that it is far from over. Conflict monitor Action on Armed Violence said Russian airstrikes in Idlib city killed 10 civilians and injured 45 on Wednesday; Russia said it was targeting weapons owned by the al-Qaeda linked group Tahrir al-Sham. A Russia-Turkey deal has so far been holding off a full-scale government offensive on the territory. UN relief chief Mark Lowcock warned the audience in Brussels that such an offensive would “create the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century”.

     

    Storms, floods, and a cyclone batter southeast Africa

     

    Half a million people in Mozambique's fourth largest city of Beira were plunged into darkness when tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall late on Thursday night, knocking down trees and power lines and destroying homes. This follows a week of heavy rains and flooding across southeast Africa that has already killed at least 126 people in Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa. More than a million people have been affected in all. In Mozambique, the floods have already destroyed more than 5,700 homes, while in neighbouring Malawi, over 230,000 people are left without shelter. Both countries are prone to extreme weather events. In Mozambique, floods in 2000 claimed at least 800 lives and another 100 in 2015. In Malawi, the 2015 floods left at least 100 people dead and more than 300,000 others displaced.

     

    North Korea sanctions disrupt aid programmes

     

    Broad economic sanctions against North Korea are disrupting humanitarian work and having a detrimental impact on ordinary citizens, a UN rights watchdog says. In a report to the Human Rights Council this week, the special rapporteur for rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said aid programming continues to see significant delays due to UN and government-imposed sanctions. Banks, suppliers, and transport companies are afraid of running afoul of sanctions, leading to humanitarian supply chains breaking down. The US government has also imposed travel restrictions on its citizens and blocked the delivery of essential supplies like hospital equipment, he said. The UN this month called for $120 million in aid funding. But last year’s appeal was only one-quarter funded, and humanitarian aid only reached one third of the people targeted.

     

    Uptick of violence threatens Yemen peace bid

     

    The UN-brokered ceasefire deal for Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah suffered yet another blow this week, with a group of NGOs warning that there had been a “major outbreak of violence” in the city in the last few days. As we (and plenty of others) have pointed out, the Hodeidah agreement was meant to lead to further peace talks for the whole of Yemen. Don’t hold your breath. Just to the north of Hodeidah, in Hajjah province, recent airstrikes and renewed fighting have killed and injured civilians. UNICEF reported that more than 37,000 people were forced to flee their homes inside Hajjah in March alone, and humanitarians are having trouble accessing those who need help. As Nigel Tricks, East Africa and Yemen regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, put it in a Wednesday statement: “Whilst the eyes of the world are on Hodeidah, airstrikes and shells continue to rain down on civilians in other parts of Yemen, killing with impunity.”

     

    A backtrack from the UN’s refugee agency

     

    UNHCR has reversed a decision that could have seen tens of thousands of ethnic Chin refugees from Myanmar stripped of refugee status. Last year, the UN agency controversially began a review process to determine whether the refugees, originally from Chin State and other parts of western Myanmar, still required international protection. But UNHCR said this week that a “worsening security situation” in parts of Chin State “has affirmed that Chin refugees may still have ongoing international protection needs”. The agency also announced that it would stop its protection re-evaluation process for Chin refugees. In recent months, renewed clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia, have displaced thousands in Rakhine and southern Chin states, including more than 3,200 in Rakhine this month. But even before the latest violence, refugee rights groups say reviewing refugee protections for ethnic Chin was clearly premature. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network says there are more than 33,000 Chin refugees living in Malaysia and India.

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Cases of deadly pneumonic plague have emerged along Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organisation said, including in the Congolese province of Ituri, where health teams are struggling to tackle an ongoing Ebola outbreak.

     

    Rwanda-Uganda: Tension is rising between East African neighbours. Uganda denies it harasses Rwandan citizens and backs rebels. It says Rwanda is blocking trade. Rwanda’s president says it will never be "brought to its knees". His Ugandan counterpart said a “troublemaker” (unnamed) “cannot survive”. Regional mediation efforts have begun.

     

    Sudan: Diseases including measles, dysentery, and pneumonia are spreading rapidly in Darfur's Jebel Marra area, according to a rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-AW), that controls much of the territory. It called for outside assistance, saying dozens of people had already died from a shortage of medicines and medical staff.

     

    Venezuela: Week-long power outages crippled water supplies and cut off telephone and internet services to millions of Venezuelans already struggling with shortages of food and medicines. Amid reports of chaos and looting in the second city of Maracaibo, President Nicolás Maduro blamed “sabotage” and “American imperialism”. Others pointed to a bush fire and crumbling infrastructure.

     

    Yemen: The US Senate voted for a second time on Wednesday to end US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s war. The resolution is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but President Donald Trump has vowed to veto should it reach his desk.

     

    Weekend read

     

    In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace

     

    On 15 December, South Sudan marked five years of war – almost 400,000 people dead, millions displaced, but also signs a peace deal was taking hold, with more people returning home to rebuild shattered lives. Sceptics, embittered by too many false dawns, advised against hoping too hard. It seems they were right. Not only, according to our weekend read, has fighting resumed, but it resumed some time ago – locals in the troubled Yei region even accuse the government of covering up violence to keep up the pretence of control. Tens of thousands of people have been newly displaced, Sam Mednick reports, many of them inaccessible to aid groups. Without new ideas and renewed international engagement, more violence and displacement appear inevitable, according to the International Crisis Group. First test ahead: the formation of a unity government in May.

     

    And finally…

     

    ‘Toothless’ UN migration document becomes far-right rallying cry

     

    Propaganda scrawled by a gunman involved in killing at least 49 people in New Zealand today referred to the Global Compact for Migration. A non-binding international agreement that one expert called “toothless” has become a rallying cry for the far-right and white supremacists worldwide. The three-year UN negotiation process aimed to agree “safe and orderly” migration after arrivals to Europe increased in 2015. It also hoped to stem xenophobia in wealthy countries and reassure developing nations that the walls were not going up entirely. But nationalist politicians pulled out of the process, led by President Trump, claiming the document would pave the way to more immigration. The compact sparked fierce political debate in New Zealand, even though it commits no member state to do anything. One analyst told IRIN it “doesn’t actually do much”. Well, you’d be forgiven for asking now whether it does, but in all the wrong ways.

    (TOP PHOTO: Families have taken shelter in a new makeshift camp north of Idlib, fleeing violence in southern rural Idlib. CREDIT: Aaref Watad/UNICEF)

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    Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • In Madagascar, 1,100 measles deaths are more about money than ‘vaccine hesitancy’

    In a healthcare centre in the Madagascan capital of Antananarivo nine-year-old Faneva inches his arm forward. The nurse disinfects his skin before inserting the needle. A few seconds later, it’s all over. The young boy smiles in relief.

     

    This is the front line of efforts to combat Madagascar’s deadliest measles outbreak in living memory. The virus has killed more than 1,100 people – mostly children – since September, and infected nearly 100,000 more all across this large island nation.

     

    The outbreak is raging, at least in part, due to low immunisation rates. But unlike in more developed countries where parents refuse to vaccinate their children because of so-called “vaccine hesitancy”, the challenge in Madagascar is one of affordability and accessibility.

     

    Despite measures put in place to tackle the spread of measles, the response in Madagascar has been complicated by the high cost and logistical challenge of transporting the vaccine to health centres in remote districts, and storing it long enough at the required low temperature.

     

    Madagascar is among Africa’s poorest countries; 75 percent of its population of 26 million live on less than $2 per day. It faces a host of humanitarian challenges, including El Niño-induced droughts that fuel food insecurity; cyclones that displace tens of thousands annually; and severe health problems such as seasonal plague, chronic malnutrition, and now measles.

     

    One dose, or two?

     

    Faneva received his first dose of the measles vaccine when he was just nine months old, his father, Fanilo Andrianarivony, told IRIN. But his school now requires everyone who is nine years old or younger to be vaccinated with a second dose. In Faneva’s class at school, 15 pupils caught the virus between November and December, despite medical reports indicating they had been vaccinated as babies, their teacher said.

     

    Although a double dose of the vaccine – one at six to eight months, and a booster at least a month later – is recommended by international health bodies, the second dose is not yet part of the routine immunisation schedule recommended by Madagascar’s health ministry. As a result, very few parents take their children to receive a booster dose.

     

    "A single dose is only half effective,” said Jean-Benoît Manhes, the deputy representative for UNICEF in Madagascar. “To become 85 percent effective, a second dose is needed."

     

    Even with the double dose, there is still a 15 percent risk of contagion, Manhes said, explaining that “for individual coverage to work, you need mass immunity, up to 95 percent”.

     

    Reaching the required level of immunity is a huge challenge in Madagascar, where measles vaccination coverage – children who have received at least one dose of the vaccine – is barely 60 percent, according to the World Health Organisation. This low coverage rate has been one of the main drivers of the current outbreak, the WHO said.

     

    Lack of vaccines

     

    Poor health infrastructure and low levels of awareness are factors that have led to an increase in measles cases globally, not just in Madagascar, according to UNICEF. At the same time, complacency and vaccine hesitancy have caused the virus to re-emerge and spread in more developed countries that had been declared measles-free.

     

    “Global cases of measles are surging to alarmingly high levels,” UNICEF warned this month, with 10 countries accounting for over 74 percent of the total increase in 2018.

     

    "Almost all of these cases are preventable," UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said in a statement. "Measles may be the disease, but, all too often, the real infection is misinformation, mistrust, and complacency. We must do more to accurately inform every parent, to help us safely vaccinate every child."

     

     

    In Madagascar, UNICEF, the WHO, and the health ministry launched an immunisation campaign to target all 114 districts in the first quarter of this year.

     

    More than two million children, including Faneva, were immunised in January, and 1.4 million children were vaccinated in February. But the campaigns only reached 25 and 22 districts respectively, meaning another 67 districts still have to wait until the end of March or the beginning of April.

     

    "We are asking the authorities to send vaccines as quickly as possible to our region," a nurse working in a health centre in one of the yet-to-be-reached southern districts told IRIN, preferring her name not be used.

     

    The nurse said that in districts like hers the lack of vaccines means they can only vaccinate children under nine months old with the first routine dose. "It's heartbreaking to see the desperation of parents, but we can’t do anything until [more] vaccines arrive,” she said.

     

    To immunise all the nearly eight million children from nine months to nine years old, Madagascar needed $7 million; however, all the necessary funds were only collected this month. And even now, financial and logistical obstacles remain.

     

    "Ideally, a single national campaign at the same time for all the districts would have been perfect to interrupt the outbreak," UNICEF’s Manhes said.

     

    Help from the sun

     

    Sourcing the number of vaccines needed was a major challenge, and getting eight million doses at one time was “very complicated”, Manhes said.

     

    "Very few laboratories are producing the measles vaccine, and orders are still planned five years in advance," he explained. UNICEF had to negotiate with countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Yemen to get all the vaccines it needed.

     

    Even when stocks are available, disseminating the vaccines and syringes across Madagascar is no easy task due to the vast size of the island – roughly the same size as France or Spain but with notoriously tricky terrain and poor roads, especially in the more remote regions.

     

    In mid-February, the WHO said there was a gap of $3 million in the budget for the third and final vaccination campaign. But at the beginning of March, the Malagasy authorities, with the support of their technical and financial partners, said it would now be possible.

     

    On 5 March, UNICEF and the government ​​signed an agreement to supply 500 health centres in remote parts of the country with $4.5 million worth of solar refrigerators, allowing them to store the vaccines and cut back on shortages in areas where there is no electricity.

     

    "Health centres will be able to offer daily immunisation services when they are equipped with solar refrigerators," said Julio Rakotonirina, a professor of epidemiology who is Madagascar’s minister of public health.

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    Iloniaina Alain/IRIN

    Manhes explained how difficult it is in remote, rural regions far from the capital. "It can happen that parents come to the [health] centre with their children and there is no vaccine,” he said. “When they come back a week later, the centre is closed because the staff went to get their pay. A week later, they come back but the vaccine is out of date or no longer effective because the cold chain has broken down. Do you think they will come back a fourth time, especially if their village is a few hours walk from this centre?”

     

    For Manhes, these broader failings are driving the upsurge in epidemics like the current one. "It is important that Madagascar adopts a sustainable and strengthened health system," he said.

     

    "I did not expect that not being vaccinated could kill him”

     

    Other health and humanitarian concerns in Madagascar also risk worsening the effects of the epidemic. With 47 percent of Malagasy children under age five facing chronic malnutrition, there are risks of serious complications and death if they contract measles, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said.

     

    "Malnutrition that strikes one child in two, also makes the measles bed in Madagascar,” said the WHO representative in Madagascar, Dr. Charlotte Faty Ndiaye.

     

    While families with children unprotected from the virus live in fear, others, like the parents of four-year-old Rado, mourn the outbreak’s latest victims.

     

    "He had coughed a lot and had a very high fever," Rado’s mother, Haingo Nomenjanahary, recalled of the days when her son first became ill.

     

    She took him to the health centre only when rashes developed on his face and body. "We were rushed to the hospital, but the doctors did not save my son," she said.

     

    Rado had never been vaccinated against measles. "He had another [different] vaccine at six months, but when he was nine months old, I had no time to take him to the basic health centre,” Nomenjanahary said. "I did not expect that not being vaccinated could kill him.”

     

    Rado’s one-year-old sister, Ravaka, is luckier than her brother. Nomenjanahary now knows that to protect her youngest daughter she has to take her to be vaccinated, and a few weeks after her son died, she did just that.

     

    Ravaka received her first dose of the measles vaccine at 11 months. "I hope that now she is immune to this danger," her mother said. "And if God still gives me children, I'll take them to the basic health centre to be vaccinated," she promised.

     

    lr/si/ag

    In Madagascar, 1,100 measles deaths are more about money than ‘vaccine hesitancy’
  • Failed aid gambit deepens crisis for Venezuelans at closed Colombia border

    Since last month’s failed attempt to force foreign aid into Venezuela resulted in the closing of the border, aid workers in Colombia say conditions have deteriorated for Venezuelans – both those fleeing and those staying behind in frontier towns now largely cut off from assistance.

     

    “The political crisis has made the humanitarian crisis worse,” said Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a Catholic priest who heads a local NGO called CONSORC that provides support to a growing number of vulnerable Venezuelans in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta.

     

    Some 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country’s economic collapse since 2015, many of them across the two bridges that connect the Venezuelan city of San Antonio del Táchira with Cúcuta.

     

    Colombian Red Cross workers stationed at the Simón Bolívar bridge were overwhelmed when IRIN visited. There were hundreds of Venezuelans waiting for basic medicine and examinations. A Venezuelan with heavily bandaged feet was being rolled on a stretcher to a nearby ambulance.

     

    Read more: Why Venezuelan migrants need to be regarded as refugees

     

    Last month, Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly who has been recognised as interim Venezuelan president by more than 50 countries around the world, invited in humanitarian assistance from the United States and elsewhere. But President Nicolás Maduro cast aside outside offers, framing them as a prelude to a foreign invasion.

     

    The showdown came to a head on 23 February. Although two pickup trucks of aid, amid deadly skirmishes, did pierce the Brazilian border, the blockade held firm. And while some security personnel did defect, they didn’t revolt en masse and bring down the Maduro regime.

     

    Having returned to Caracas from Cúcuta, Guaidó now finds himself accused of sabotaging the national power grid, which went down for much of the past week, depriving Venezuelans of electricity, pumped water, and, in many places, means of communication.

     

    “What is really a social problem – a problem of hunger, of sickness and of medical emergency – is being adversely affected by political jockeying,” said Rodriguez, who noted an increase in the numbers of Venezuelans crossing into Cúcuta despite the closed border.

    waiting_for_a_meal_copy_1920.jpg

    Joshua Collins/IRIN

    The trochas

     

    Colombian immigration officials estimated before the border closure that 35,000 Venezuelans crossed the Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander bridges into Cúcuta daily for work, trade, school, or medical care, with the majority returning home before nightfall.

     

    With the border closed – apart from limited openings on certain days for school or medical care for some children with documentation – Venezuelans have increasingly been flocking to more dangerous routes: the network of clandestine trails called trochas that weave their way between Cúcuta and its sister Venezuelan cities of San Antonio and Ureña.

     

    In the region around Cúcuta, the trochas are controlled primarily by three groups: paramilitary forces loyal to Maduro called the colectivos; Colombian ELN guerrillas; and the Bacrin narcotrafficking group, which uses them to smuggle cocaine through Venezuela.

     

    The trochas are also a major smuggling corridor for other goods. Gasoline is transported from Venezuela – where it is effectively free – to be sold in Colombia, while food and basic hygiene items go the other way for large profits. The gangs who control the trochas charge 2,000 pesos (about 65 cents) to cross, with higher fees for those transporting goods.

     

    The trochas are usually safe for migrants, but there have been some reports of violence as well as instances of criminals preying upon the particularly vulnerable. The number of Venezuelans crossing has become impossible to monitor.

     

    ‘We can no longer enter’

     

    Over the years, this informal cross-border trade has left many Venezuelans in San Antonio and Ureña economically dependent on Cúcuta.

     

    Aid workers in Colombia fear a humanitarian crisis is brewing across the border as residents of the Venezuelan cities now find themselves unable to cross, or unwilling to pay armed criminals to do so.

     

    “We can no longer enter,” said Red Cross doctor Gabriel Antonio Casadiego. “We used to provide basic medical attention to those right across the border, but now it is closed to everyone.”

     

    Among the hundreds of Venezuelans seeking help on the Simón Bolívar bridge was Jesus Herrera, who said he made only 18,000 pesos ($6 USD) a month across the border.

     

    “I came for my daughter. She was having really bad stomach pains,” he said. “There is nothing in Venezuela. At this moment, in San Antonio, we don’t even have power.”

     

    Herrera said the gang who control the trochas had let them pass for free, but he was worried as no one could help his daughter on the Venezuelan side and they would have to return in a few days for another examination.

     

    The doctor, Casadiego, recalled how helpless he felt as a trauma specialist during the riots on 23 February. “All I could think about the whole day was that I could have been of help there,” he said. “They don’t even have basic medical supplies; but we couldn’t enter.”  

    Although he has been unable to assess the situation first hand, Casadiego said the types of patients he saw in Cúcuta left him in no doubt that the situation across the border was already disastrous.

    “We see malnutrition, chronic conditions that have long gone untreated, infections from a lack of antibiotics, dengue fever, and we see the aftermath of wounds from horrible work conditions and violence that were sometimes never treated properly,” he said. “They have no medical system.”

    almas_shelter_copy_1920.jpg

    Joshua Collins/IRIN

     

    Worsening situation

     

    Just outside Cúcuta, Alma Maria Fernandez runs a shelter called Fund AR that provides food and lodging along the main route for migrants travelling on foot to the Colombian capital, Bogotá.  

    She said the days following the attempt to push humanitarian aid into Venezuela were particularly difficult. She estimates that 1,000 people a day passed by this small shelter, when before the number was a few hundred. “We completely ran out of food, of space. All we could offer to those passing was water.”

     

    Read more: Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals

     

    As the political situation in Venezuela has become more and more tense, those fleeing have become increasingly fearful that Maduro loyalists are infiltrating groups of migrants, according to Rodriguez, the priest from CONSORC.

     

    “Many of the Venezuelans want to hide their identities,” he said. “Part of our job is trying to ensure that they have the proper documents to apply for the right to work, to enrol their children in schools and receive medical treatment. But some of them are now afraid to even tell us their real names.”

     

    A paramedic who has worked 10 years for the Red Cross in the region but didn’t want to give his name as he couldn’t speak for the organisation referred to the aid showdown between Guaidó and Maduro as a “circus” and said it had made their jobs more difficult.

     

    “I will say this,” he added. “Right now there’s no power in the hospitals in [the major Venezuelan city of] San Cristóbal. It is certain that people are dying. And I can’t help them. Maybe before we could have at least communicated with them and provided transportation from the border to the hospitals here. But now we can do nothing. And that kills me.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A young Venezuelan family travelling on foot on the 10-day journey from the Colombia-Venezuela border to Bogotá. CREDIT: Joshua Collins/IRIN)

    jc/ag

    Failed aid gambit deepens crisis for Venezuelans at closed Colombia border
  • Hurdles on the road to peace in the Central African Republic

    The government of the Central African Republic and 14 of the most powerful armed groups operating in the country came together to sign a peace deal last month.

    If it goes to plan, the signatories will be responsible for leading the country into a new era of peace, allowing its incredible potential to blossom. However, failure will further solidify CAR’s place as one of the world’s most fractured states.

    Conflict in CAR – rooted in a series of ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic cleavages – has raged with waves of intensity since 2012, displacing millions of civilians and enabling countless crimes against humanity.

    Read more: Little peace to keep, but 4.7 million lives to live

    Despite committing an untold number of atrocities, the country’s armed groups have up until now offered the best chance of representation for much of the population that has long remained on the margins of political life. A successful transition will create a more representative government and secure a peaceful path forward.

    The Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation, signed in Khartoum in February, lays out a series of actions that the government, armed groups, and international and regional partners must undertake to fortify a lasting settlement.

    But to ensure its long-term success, involved parties should exercise caution when dealing with the most fragile of these issues, including the creation of a truth and justice commission, the use of amnesty and impunity, and the formation of an inclusive government.

    Justice and citizen involvement

    One of the most powerful critiques of the recent agreement is its failure to build off the 2015 Bangui Forum, which represented a much broader cross-section of Central Africans.

    While ultimately unsuccessful, the Bangui Forum more fully addressed issues of justice and reconciliation with much more input from victims and victim advocates than the current agreement.

    The pursuit of justice in the wake of conflict and human rights abuses, like those experienced by Central Africans, is critical to building a lasting peace.

    In order to facilitate the implementation of justice, the government is responsible for establishing a Commission on Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Reconciliation. This commission will seek to identify all victims of the conflict and to form a working group focusing on how best to preserve peace and find justice.

    In a post-conflict environment, justice can sometimes be given a lower priority in the face of the myriad pressures facing the peace process. This is even more likely in countries like CAR, given the extreme complexity of conflict dynamics, issues of territorial control, and long history of atrocities.

    But failure to give justice its due would cause untold damage to the psyche of the country while increasing the chance for violence to escalate again in the near future.

    That’s why CAR’s government must also continue educating its citizens on the terms of the agreement. It is important that Central Africans understand and agree with the terms, as an engaged public will contribute to its success. Additionally, citizen support of the agreement will strengthen democracy and build support for the government.

    Amnesty and impunity

    While the agreement recognises that impunity has contributed to the cycles of violence experienced by CAR, and even though it does not deliver general amnesty nor offer impunity to any armed group members, major concerns remain.

    One of the more problematic clauses of the agreement gives President Faustin-Archange Touadéra the power to grant amnesty in addition to his established ability to pardon convicted individuals. So, while not expressed in the agreement itself, there is still an opportunity for those who have committed acts of war to remain free from justice.

    Amnesty is the issue with the greatest potential to derail the agreement. If Touadéra is to grant amnesty to any members of armed groups, he should do so only as a last resort, and with the understanding that this action revictimizes his own citizens. Amnesty should not be given lightly and must be discussed in-depth and with guidance from the AU and the UN.

    If these powers are over-exploited to protect armed group members from justice, then war will inevitably return to the country.

    It is also important to continue building judicial capacity in CAR. The delivery of justice will depend a great deal on local and prefecture courts. With assistance from outside partners, CAR has made great strides in strengthening the judiciary over the last years, and these efforts must continue.

    Finally, international organisations who have a long history of prematurely moving on from crises in CAR, must do more. The people of the country deserve better than to be forgotten once again.

    Inclusivity and compromise

    Regional and international observers have hailed the agreement as a step toward a final peace. But less than a month after the agreement was signed, uncertainty emerged.

    Early in March, the CAR government published a list of new ministerial appointments with several new appointees coming from within the ranks of the armed groups. However, the government was keen to avoid undermining President Touadéra and his allies and selectively left out several groups.

    Acting against what they perceive as Touadéra failing to adhere to the terms of the agreements, several of the armed groups have taken action, including recalling their representatives and blocking a road in the west of the country. If the CAR government does not address this situation, it is unlikely that the agreement will move forward.

     

    If, however, the CAR government capitulates, it will have set a new pace for future negotiations. The current situation shows the precarious balance of bringing armed groups into the political fold while simultaneously protecting the interests of entrenched political actors.

    One of the most important actions for creating political inclusivity will be the transformation of armed groups into effective and legitimate political parties. The previous election, held in 2016, was the first democratic election in CAR since 1993. The next election will start in late 2020 and, in order to participate, these groups must meet agreed-upon standards.

    Peace is within grasp for the first time in many years. However, if participants and observers act recklessly, the numerous vulnerabilities could spell the undoing of the current agreement and lead to a resurgence of conflict in CAR.

    Hurdles on the road to peace in the Central African Republic
    “Failure to give justice its due would cause untold damage to the psyche of the country”
  • In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace

    Once known as the country’s peaceful breadbasket, today the backdrop of rolling hills in South Sudan’s Equatoria region is contrasted by a string of ghost towns, abandoned shops, dilapidated houses, and roads littered with bullets and burnt-out cars.

     

    A fragile peace deal signed in September brought a few months of relief as fighting largely subsided across the country. However, since the beginning of the year violence has escalated between government forces and parties who refuse to accept the agreement – some of them calling it, according to rebel leader Thomas Cirillo, a “betrayal” of the South Sudanese people.

     

    Reports of abductions, ambush, rape, the burning and looting of property, and the killing of civilians have become rife in the last two months.

    Read more: The humanitarian toll of half a decade of war 

    Thousands of people are now displaced in Central Equatoria in what a February report from the South Sudan Civil Society Forum referred to as a “war on civilians”. Thousands more have fled across the border into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

     

    Increased violence is also hindering the ability of aid groups to access vulnerable people, with many hiding in approximately 44 different areas in the forest and an estimated 23,000 people around the Central Equatoria town of Yei unreachable, according to the UN.

     

    “Until all parties stop armed conflict and adhere to the ceasefire, access is going to be compromised because it’s going to be too dangerous for humanitarians and beneficiaries to deliver and receive humanitarian assistance,” said Sarah Vuylsteke, up until recently the deputy head of access for the World Food Programme in South Sudan.

     

    Danger and hunger

     

    In the most dangerous country in the world for humanitarians, 20 percent of security incidents against aid workers have taken place in Central Equatoria. Humanitarians are concerned that if fighting continues the situation will get worse, especially when it comes to food security.

    ☰ Read more: The most dangerous country for humanitarians

     

    For the third year in a row, South Sudan is the most dangerous country in the world for aid workers, according to research by Humanitarian Outcomes. At least 112 aid workers have been killed since the start of the conflict, said the UN. Thirty-five humanitarian access incidents were reported in January and the number of bureaucratic impediments, such as delays at entry points and road blockages, nearly tripled from 2018.

     

    Mohammed Siryon, head of the field office in Yei for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, told IRIN: “The recent conflict has completely stalled our movement.”

     

    Before December, aid groups were able to move freely in Yei. But since January they’ve been forced to travel with military escorts in armoured cars. For the first time since the war erupted in 2013, OCHA is using a bulletproof vehicle for travel outside of Yei, said Siryon. Only two humanitarian convoys have been able to leave the town since the start of the year.

     

    Humanitarian access works on trust, which involves knowing who to speak to and establishing relationships with the various groups, said the World Food Programme’s Sarah Vuylsteke. But recent fighting has created an unpredictable environment of shifting front lines, which makes it hard for aid groups to know who’s in charge in order to negotiate access.

     

    Last month, IRIN joined the second humanitarian mission outside of Yei this year, in which the UN tried to alert both the government and the rebels of their trip to Tokori village near the Congolese border. Less than 10 kilometers from Yei the convoy was stopped by one of the rebels’ pop-up checkpoints. Eight National Salvation Front, or NAS, rebel fighters emerged from the bush, surrounded the cars with AK-47s, and halted the procession.

     

    “We can’t trust you,” said the group’s young leader who referred to himself as “Madam Peter”. He scolded the mission for not alerting the rebels of their travel plans. After 20 minutes of tense discussions the rebels let the convoy through with a warning.

     

    The volatile security is compounded by weak telecommunications. Last year the main telecoms company operating in the Equatorias was shut down, making it nearly impossible to communicate. The rebels, who conduct guerrilla warfare from the bush, can only connect with satellite phones, yet few fighters have access to them and those who do struggle to keep the phones charged, said Siryon of OCHA.  

     

    At least one local aid group, the South Sudan Health Association, which operates in remote locations in the region, sends handwritten letters to rebel leaders. The notes, which detail the day the aid group wants to come and what they intend to bring are sent with locals on motorbike.

     

    “NAS trusts us because we respond when they write,” said Herbert Male, the organisation’s health supervisor.

     

    But even with assurances, humanitarians are still at risk. Last month Male and his team were ambushed by rebels while driving on the Yei-Juba road, forced out of their car and made to lie face down in the dirt until the commander set them free. In March 2018, Male was kidnapped for three weeks by opposition forces, threatened with death, and forced to do hard labour until the UN negotiated his release.

     

    Across South Sudan, more than six million people face extreme hunger, 45,000 of which are in catastrophe at risk of starvation, according to a report released in February by the UN and South Sudanese government.

     

    For its part, South Sudan’s government has downplayed the uptick in violence, insisting that the population influx in Yei is not a result of fighting but rather people’s desire to return home.

     

    “It’s a sign of peace that people are coming back,” said Yousto Baba Lukudu, deputy governor of Yei River state. In February, government officials in Yei hosted a peace rally in its central square, while in stark contrast across town thousands of desperate and hungry recently displaced people lined up to register for food aid.

     

    Several locals in Yei told IRIN that the government is trying to cover up the violence in order to appear in control and not be accused of violating the ceasefire.

     

    Almost six months into South Sudan’s peace deal, which has been riddled with delays, missed deadlines and violations, the momentum has stalled and the international community’s patience is fraying.

     

    In a statement last month, the US, the UK, and Norway – the so-called troika, which helped usher South Sudan to independence in 2011 – said it was “alarmed” at the escalating fighting around Yei and concerned that if the situation continues any progress made in implementing the peace agreement could be “irrevocably set back”.

     

    The Catholic Bishops of South Sudan released a statement last month saying they were extremely concerned about the state of the peace deal, noting that all parties were either still involved in active fighting or preparations for war. “There is a sense of hopelessness that this agreement, like so many before it, will not succeed,” it said.

     

    ‘I have nothing’

     

    On a trip to Central Equatoria at the end of February, IRIN spoke with dozens of civilians who blamed both the government and the rebels for the deteriorating situation.

     

    Joseph Yokuei, 65, had a wound on the back of his head from when armed men he identified as government soldiers beat, robbed, and detained him near the town of Yei.

     

    He was walking from his farm, 24 kilometres out of town, trying to bring food to his family when he was accosted along with 10 other people. “I have nothing now,” he said.

    img_5230_1920.jpg

    Sam Mednick/IRIN

    A month earlier, the family fled to Yei after government tanks attacked their village of Mukaya in search of rebels. They were among the hundreds of displaced people who sought refuge in an overcrowded church in Yei, where they were left for weeks without any food.

     

    Trapped between government forces and rebel fighters belonging to the National Salvation Front, or NAS – one of the non-signatory parties to South Sudan’s latest peace deal – almost 10,000 people now take refuge in five makeshift displacement sites on the outskirts of Yei.

     

    Thousands more have escaped to the bush. While government forces try to weed out rebels from within communities, civilians are bearing the brunt of the fighting, caught between warring parties with little access to food, shelter, or medicine.

     

    “It’s becoming very hard to survive out here,” said James Guer, also recently displaced.

    “If someone goes from the village to town, the [rebels] say you’re working for intelligence. If you go from town to the village, the government says you’re a rebel. I don’t trust anyone with a gun.”

     

    Seated in a plastic chair under a tree in Wuluturu, a neighbourhood on the edge of town where displaced people are living in abandoned houses, the community leader said he doesn’t care who’s in charge, he just wants to feel protected and free. Last month in the town of Morsak he said he found five bodies thrown into a toilet, and a young woman with her throat slit lying dead on the ground beside them.

     

    Scrambled response

     

    The fighting is also preventing people in and around Yei from cultivating their lands. Terrified civilians can’t access their land for fear of being killed or abducted by armed men.

     

    Since the Equatorias are known as South Sudan’s green belt, producing food for the rest of the country, there hasn’t been a robust emergency response in place when it comes to food aid.

     

    “There are only small food stocks in Yei,” explained Dara Elisha, programme manager for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, an international aid group operating in town. “Civilians and humanitarians are not equipped to deal with emergency here.”

     

    WFP conducted a registration last month for displaced people and started an emergency food distribution. So far 635 metric tonnes has been delivered, enough to last 9,000 people for one month, according to a spokesman for the UN’s food agency.

    img_5291a_1920.jpg

    Sam Mednick/IRIN

    Access constraints are also raising fears regarding the spread of Ebola from Congo. Central Equatoria borders both Congo and Uganda, and the International Organisation for Migration has only been able to set up eight out of 18 border screening sites due to instability. Two places along the Congolese border are completely inaccessible.

     

    Congo’s Ebola outbreak is the second deadliest in history and has been ongoing for more than six months in the country’s conflict-prone east. Responders face constant security threats, making it hard to get the virus under control in a busy region with porous borders.

     

    Read more: Inside efforts to prevent a regional Ebola crisis in central Africa 

     

    “We are concerned,” said Stuart Vallis, IOM’s Ebola preparedness coordinator in Yei. “We’re unable to get to the sites to train people and we can’t set up certain sites or get to remote areas.”

     

    The Equatorias were dragged into South Sudan’s crippling five-year civil war when renewed clashes erupted in the capital, Juba, in July 2016, displacing more than one million people in the region.

     

    Despite talk of peace among the country’s leaders, civilians here struggle to remain hopeful.

     

    Burying his face in his shirt, 14-year-old Peter Yakui recounts the day in February when government soldiers stormed his town of Morsak, beating him and threatening to kill him. He narrowly escaped, surviving for weeks in the forest living on wild fruit until he reached Yei. The young boy hasn’t seen his family since the attacks and doubts they’re alive.

     

    Wiping his tear-soaked cheeks with his sleeve, he begged to leave.

     

    “Take me away from here,” he said. “If I stay, I’ll never forget what happened.”

     

    sm/si/ag

    “It’s becoming very hard to survive”
    In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace
  • Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable

    A new US anti-terror law that has forced the majority of American-funded aid operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to grind to a halt may have even wider humanitarian consequences, leaving nonprofits around the world more vulnerable to litigation.

     

    While the 700-word bill appears to have been targeted at the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, experts say the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, or ATCA, is poorly crafted and could result in some non-governmental organisations and businesses being reluctant to take US funding or be associated with US-financed programmes.

     

    Signed in October last year and law as of 31 January, ATCA is an attempt by US lawmakers to make it easier for American courts to hear civil suits related to terrorist attacks abroad, specifically those involving authorities tied to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

     

    Under ATCA, recipients of three kinds of aid – economic support funds (ESF), international narcotics and law enforcement (INCLE) funds, and financing earmarked for nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, and demining (NADR) – become subject to US “personal jurisdiction”.

     

    This means American citizens who have demonstrably suffered injury to “person, property or business” from international acts of terrorism can sue these recipients in US civil court. American NGOs that operate abroad were already subject to personal jurisdiction for such suits, but ATCA broadens this to any recipient.

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict.”

    As a result of the law, the Palestinian Authority (PA) announced it would stop taking those forms of aid, leading the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to shut down its operations in the West Bank and Gaza in February. Other NGOs that receive funding via USAID and from the streams mentioned in ATCA followed suit.

     

    While the bill has so far only caused the shutdown of NGOs working in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no geographical limit in its wording. Experts, including Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about the law and advised aid groups on its legal ramifications, say this means ATCA could have unintended and far-reaching consequences.

     

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict,” he said.

     

    ATCA’s birth and immediate impact

     

    In 2015, a court awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to 10 families who were American victims or related to victims of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s. They argued that the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, both headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, had offered financial support to the attackers and their families, running afoul of the US Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

    The ruling was overturned, in part because even though the victims and plaintiffs held American citizenship, a higher court said the PLO and the PA couldn’t be sued in the US court system for attacks planned and carried out “entirely outside” American borders.

     

    Sponsored by Senator Chuck Grassley, ATCA, which clarifies the ATA, was largely the result of a campaign by the plaintiffs and their lawyers to allow Americans to do just that. After the bill passed, Grassley cited the case against the PA and the PLO: “Carrying out or assisting an act of international terrorism that injures or kills Americans abroad should provide sufficient justification to subject defendants to US legal sanctions,” his office said in a statement.

     

    The Palestinian Authority has received all three types of ATCA-specified aid in recent years. Unwilling to risk liability under the new law and a possible reactivation of earlier lawsuits against it, the PA told the United States in December that it would stop taking US funds from the three streams. It also ordered any NGOs using such funding to end their work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Programming carried out by USAID-funded NGOs, including a planned rehabilitation of Gaza’s water system, have been halted.

     

    Eric Garduno, senior policy and legislative specialist at Catholic Relief Services, said all USAID-funded work on his organisation’s Envision Gaza 2020 programme – through which it provided food to more than 3,000 households – ended entirely when ATCA came into force.

     

    Garduno said 3,000 households was already well below their goal – due to previous US budget cuts and administration scrutiny – and added that he didn’t know how many people Catholic Relief Services would now be able to feed.

     

    “We are in sort of a limbo right now where we think at least some of the programmes that were closed on January 31 can be restarted if there is a change to ATCA, but I don’t know how quickly a change can happen now,” said Garduno. “We do know the longer this is delayed, the less likely any of these programmes will be restarted.”

     

    All of this comes at a sensitive time for NGOs working in the Palestinian territories, after a pro-Israel activist used another US law, the False Claims Act, to seek damages – successfully in at least one case – from nonprofits on the basis that their interaction with US terrorist-designated groups may amount to material support.

     

    Wider impact

     

    Overall, ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding totalled more than $6 billion in the last financial year and was received in more than 50 countries, including fragile humanitarian situations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Yemen.

     

    The funds cover a wide range of activities, from sanitation to law enforcement. INCLE funds that have paid for security assistance in the West Bank have also been spent in countries like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Pakistan to combat the drug trade and finance other security measures.

    “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

    Courts will ultimately decide the breadth of the new law, but analysts say the lack of geographical specificity in ATCA means aid organisations or subcontractors that receive ESF, INCLE, or NADR funding – either directly or indirectly – could be left open to lawsuits if they implement programming in areas where US-designated groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or al-Qaeda affiliates like al-Shabaab operate. This may be true even if the only US funding they receive is for unconnected operations in a different country to the one where the ATCA and ATA-prohibited programming is being conducted.

     

    “There are partners that don’t have a US [base of some sort] that do get US foreign assistance on a pretty regular basis – usually subcontractors,” said Hady Amr, a former senior US diplomat who managed a $1.6 billion aid budget for the Middle East as deputy senior administrator at USAID. “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

     

    Kay Guinane, director of the Charity & Security Network, a group that coordinates nonprofits on regulatory issues, said foreign-based NGOs expressed concern in recent meetings that they may be vulnerable to lawsuits because of ATCA, and would not have the financial means to fight in court. She said the vagueness in US law over what constitutes material support for terrorist action, exacerbated by ATCA, had added to this anxiety.

     

    Few aid groups are willing to talk openly about the issue. “NGOs would be foolish to speak publicly about concerns with ATCA,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “Doing so would be the equivalent of painting a bullseye on their backs at which lawyers and potential litigants looking for targets [could] take aim.”

     

    "It's a hypothetical for now, but it's not paranoid to see [ATCA] as a very real potential threat,” Friedman said. "The potential use of this as a [legal] tool is only limited by the number of cases of US citizens injured overseas and the creativity of lawyers who in finding NGOs to sue."

     

    Neither USAID nor the US State Department responded to questions about whether they were using language in contracts – or warning partners in any other way – about the new implications of receiving ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding.

     

    “The assumption within a large part of the NGO community is that this could have a chilling effect on non-US or local NGOs who are willing to accept US assistance,” said Joel Braunold, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.

     

    Clarification

     

    While the NGO community waits to see what the full impact of ATCA will be, there have been unsuccessful attempts on the US side to adjust the law’s wording, especially since the PA stopped taking funding for security coordination with Israel, which includes aid to Palestinian security forces working with Israel on counter-terrorism measures.

     

    “We learned that no one on Capitol Hill thought ATCA would be interpreted in a way that would force NGO programmes to close,” said Garduno of Catholic Relief Services.

     

    NGOs hoped Congress would deliver a fix in the spending package President Donald Trump signed last month, but this didn’t happen and legislators have so far failed to amend the law.

     

    That doesn’t necessarily mean a change of some sort isn’t on the cards. A spokesperson for Grassley told IRIN was still willing to further “clarify” the law his office drafted, but said the senator blamed the State Department for only raising concerns about US assistance after the legislation had passed. The State Department declined to comment.

     

    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here,” said Anderson of Brookings. “The broader question is whether there is going to be a fix for the broader impact this will have outside the West Bank.”

     

    so/bp/as/ag

    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here”
    Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable

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