(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Q&A: How churches are leading the way in helping migrants with HIV

    Reverend Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, took time out of a recent gathering to explain how faith-based organisations are forging better responses globally for migrants and refugees living with HIV/AIDS.


    Representing 350 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, the WCC is driving forward international collaboration on the issue. Last month, it held a workshop at its headquarters in Geneva aimed at building stronger partnerships to improve the international response.


    In attendance were the International Organisation for Migration, the UN’s refugee agency, UNAIDS, faith-based groups, international and local NGOs, and representatives from civil society groups from around the world.


    “We cannot ignore faith-based organisations,” Michel Sidibé, the executive director of UNAIDS, stressed as he spoke to IRIN on the sidelines of the event, pointing out that such groups are responsible for more than half the health assistance in Africa.


    A major concern at the moment is Venezuelans living with HIV and, according to Sidibé, some 70 percent of health services for migrants at the Venezuela-Colombia border are provided by faith-based groups.


    The economic collapse has decimated Venezuela’s healthcare system and left many, including those with HIV or AIDS, short of vital medicines. Politics is also preventing most international humanitarian aid from entering the country.

    Read more on Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

    An estimated eight percent of the 3.4 million Venezuelans who have left since 2015 are living with HIV or AIDS – or  272,000 people – according to UNAIDS.


    In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, Tveit discusses the oversized role the church plays in helping migrants and refugees living with HIV, how this role evolved, and what it is that faith-based groups can offer on this issue that other organisations can’t.


    IRIN: How are churches working with migrants living with HIV?


    Olav Fykse Tveit: Churches are often at the forefront of welcoming migrants, and work to ensure they are integrated into neighbourhoods in the local community. On the national and global level, we also raise our voices to defend the rights of refugees in particular, but we also raise issues related to migration more generally, such as unfortunate expressions of xenophobia and racism. On those issues, the World Council of Churches cooperates strongly with the Catholic church (not a WCC member), where it has become part of Pope Francis’ agenda.


    IRIN: Within the current crisis in Venezuela, eight percent of those fleeing the country are people with HIV who are unable to find medication or care for their illness. How are WCC member churches working in the region?


    Tveit: We have a history with partner organisations trying to address HIV/AIDS, not only as a disease but also within a contextual perspective, and even as an ethical and cultural issue. We know that attitudes within churches have been a challenge and a problem for HIV sufferers. Stigmatisation, exclusion, different moral attitudes have been an additional problem to their illness. A lot has changed, and we have been working consistently to make churches HIV/AIDS-friendly, and competent, by understanding the entirety of this challenge.


    We have worked on this in Africa and in other regions, including Latin America. The approach has to do with knowledge, but also with capacities. Many of our partner organisations have strong capacities in dealing with urgent refugee situations. They are quite aware of who the most vulnerable are. It is part of their ethos, in the way they work. This is what you see in Venezuela and why they are aware of this particular combination of problems that HIV patients who have also had to flee are facing.


    IRIN: What has the experience been for the WCC when working with more conservative churches on the issue of HIV amongst refugees and migrants?


    Tveit: The churches have learnt a lot through this reality of HIV/AIDS, which as I said, is more than an illness. It is a cultural and moral issue. As churches, we are called to care for those who are excluded for any reason. We need to make sure they are part of a fellowship that involves caring for those people with respect and dignity. In many churches, in all continents, there has been an awakening and an awareness-raising that has changed a lot of the attitudes.


    We hear from partner organisations such as UNAIDS that what we need now more than ever are faith-based organisations who are committed to work in a holistic way on these issues. In other words, not only to deal with just the medical dimension of the illness, but to consider the whole human being.


    IRIN: How about your engagement with the Catholic church on this issue?


    Tveit: The Catholic church is related to this programme through Caritas and its diaconal ministry, and has important initiatives. The programme that we developed is ecumenical, and we work with partners who are willing to work with us too, and share this commitment and objectives. It varies between country to country as to whom we are working with.


    IRIN: How has it been to work on this issue with the Catholic church in some of the countries where the hierarchy may take a traditionalist approach to issues involving sex?


    Tveit: It’s not just the Catholic church that sometimes is described as conservative. Some of our member churches also may have a conservative approach to some of these very important issues…


    The churches in Africa are responsible for more than half of the health services and play an important role in developing health services that correspond to people’s needs and building confidence amongst local people...


    IRIN: Are faith-based organisations then filling a gap left by other organisations that may be seen as too politicised, to act as more “neutral” humanitarian – and particularly health – aid providers?


    Tveit: Christian churches have had a double contribution on this issue. On the one hand we have medical services, and therefore we are willing to contribute. We can also contribute in dealing with attitudes, dealing with stigmatisation both in the churches, but also outside within the communities. But we also have something to contribute together with others. We don’t say that we can fix what others cannot, but we can offer a long-term perspective, which appears to be important for UNAIDS. The medical dimension of it has been dealt with to a large extent, but now the issue is the implementation of it, to help people to live their whole life with this disease, in a proper way and with dignity.


    IRIN: How is the WCC involved in the issue of HIV and migrants elsewhere in the world?


    Tveit: Since 2002, we have worked in Africa on a programme called the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa. It was later expanded to other continents. It was a response to a call from church leaders in Africa. We subsequently developed a programme focused on building understanding and competence among theological students who would become deacons, pastors, and servants to the church. As a result, we have seen important changes and another level of understanding and solidarity with HIV-positive people, in Africa and in other regions.


    IRIN: Given the knowledge that your member churches have on the ground and the critical role they play in providing health services, what presence do you have within the international organisations?


    Tveit: Since the establishment of the WCC in 1948 there has been a lot of cooperation with the UN and UN-based institutions. Cooperation with the World Health Organisation has been quite strong over the years, and we are now revitalising it…


    IRIN: Where does funding come from for programmes helping migrants living with HIV, as churches on the ground may have limited resources?


    Tveit: Some of the initiatives we are building, such as competence-building and networking, are funded through our partners who have this programme on their agenda. Funding comes from churches, but also from other donors, including state agencies. NORAD, the Norwegian government’s development agency, has supported our projects for HIV and AIDS, where it has seen the importance of taking a holistic approach to the issue, including changing attitudes, and a long-term perspective. Investing in churches and church-based health services is a very good investment. Most of those involved in this work are very committed, highly competent, and with the willingness to go the extra mile to offer their services, which adds a lot of value and pays off in an economic sense.


    (TOP PHOTO: A Venezuelan migrant with HIV who left for Ecuador because he was being treated with expired retroviral drugs and his health was declining. CREDIT: Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo/UNHCR)

    Q&A: How churches are leading the way in helping migrants with HIV
    "We can offer a long-term perspective, which appears to be important for UNAIDS”
  • As peace efforts falter, violence in central Mali spirals further out of control

    Housseyni Diallo thought the smoke and flames he saw were from an early morning bonfire lit in the final revelry of a New Year’s Eve celebration. He was wrong: armed men were burning down parts of his village, in central Mali’s Mopti region.


    Diallo, a Fulani herdsman, hid in an abandoned house for safety, peering occasionally through the window as swarms of men from an ethnic Dogon armed group went on a rampage through the community; killing 37 men, women, and children, burning huts and granaries, and depriving villagers of their means of survival.


    “We never thought something like this could happen,” said the herdsman.


    The massacre – in a village called Koulogon – was one of the deadliest, most gruesome episodes in a year-long conflict between Dogon and Fulani armed groups that has enveloped this region of roughly two million people, emptying villages and leaving hundreds dead and wounded, according to the International Federation of Human Rights.


    In mid-February, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, known by its French acronym MINUSMA, said it is investigating two new attacks on Fulani villages in the region. In both cases armed men killed civilians and set fire to “huts, granaries, and livestock”, the UN said. Dogon communities are also facing attacks, according to local officials and displaced people interviewed by IRIN.

    The recent wave of violence comes despite stepped-up efforts to end the unrest here, including peace agreements between communities, ceasefire commitments, airstrikes by French forces, presidential visits, and a government-backed demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration, or DDR, scheme that has just got going.


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    A displaced Fulani herder taking refugee in Bankass town.

    But the efforts have not been enough to mend relations between central Mali’s different communities, which have been soured by the presence of al-Qaeda linked jihadists, whose recruitment of Fulani herders has fuelled distrust with the Dogon in particular.


    Read more: New violence eclipses Mali's plans for peace


    Armed groups on both sides are imposing sieges on villages, restricting access to healthcare centres, local markets, and fields, and triggering hunger and sickness among residents.


    The conflict is responsible for driving the highest death toll in Mali since the outbreak of war in 2012, while the number of internally displaced people has tripled since January last year to 123,000, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination office, OCHA. More than 50 percent of those fleeing their homes are from Mopti.


    “Continuous displacement is taking place,” said Ute Kollies, OCHA’s head of office in Mali.


    Northern roots


    The violence in the centre has roots in a longer-standing crisis in northern Mali, where separatist Tuareg rebels joined by Islamist militants seized large parts of territory in 2012 following a military coup in the capital, Bamako.


    A 2013 French-led intervention pushed the Islamists back as they tried to march south. But they have since regrouped and expanded from the desert north into Mali’s fertile centre, turning Mopti into the country’s deadliest region.


    Known by some as the Macina Liberation Front, or FLM, the militants here have gained ground by recruiting from among the region’s Fulani community, a pastoralist group who have been disadvantaged by government and development programmes that favour agriculture.


    Many hoped the killing of their charismatic leader, Amadou Koufa, by French forces in late November, would halt the group’s expansion and quell the violence. But last Thursday a new video surfaced suggesting Koufa is in fact still alive.


    An “accelerated” DDR programme for the centre, launched by Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga in December, also raised hope of a resolution to the conflict, with 5,000 combatants registered as of January, including fighters from Dogon and Fulani self-defence groups.


    Meanwhile, international NGOs and Mali’s Ministry of Social Cohesion and Reconciliation are implementing inter-communal dialogues that have resulted in a string of local peace agreements between members of both groups.


    But on the ground the situation is deteriorating. In Koulogon, witnesses describe a brutal, premeditated attack involving up to 100 traditional Dogon hunters known as “Dozos”, supported by men from local Dogon villages. Local officials and witnesses said the attack was rooted in a decades-old grudge over land ownership. High-profile Fulani families were shot dead and then burnt inside their houses. Bodies were mutilated.


    “Now we are suffering,” said the herdsman, Diallo. “We don’t even have pots to cook.”


    In nearby Minima Kanda, 60-year-old imam Saydou Sidibe said his small hamlet was attacked at roughly 4am in mid-February by “young Dogon from local villages”. When soldiers finally secured the area, he returned to find five bodies on the ground – including his niece Weloore – and his livestock stolen.


    “They came to take our wealth and take our land,” he said. “Everything our ancestors built for us.”

    Hunters lose control


    Many lay the blame for these attacks on Dan Na Ambassagou – the main Dogon self-defence group in the region. The group is mostly composed of ramshackle fighters with artisanal weapons and traditional hunting uniforms. But UN officials say the group has received support from prominent figures in Bamako and may contain fighters from abroad.


    An old rifle leans against a tree
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    A hunting rifle used by the new Dogon self-defence group near Bankass town.

    The group’s national coordinator, Mamoudou Goudienkile, said they have not attacked any Fulani villages since signing a unilateral ceasefire agreement last September. A retired general in the Malian army, Goudienkile said his men are cantonned at more than 30 sites across Mopti, awaiting DDR.


    “We are not fighting,” said Goudienkile.


    But UN officials say that’s unlikely and that Dan Na Ambassagou does not have control over all Dogon fighters in the region in any case. The attacks in Koulogon and Minima Kanda suggest many are now acting independently, taking their cues from village chiefs and responding to the needs of their local communities as and when they arise.


    Read more: “I have lost everything”: In central Mali, rising extremism stirs inter-communal conflict


    “We can be attacked at any moment,” said the leader of one self-described “independent” Dogon self-defence group, which formed three months ago in a village near Bankass town.


    That fear is not misplaced. Dogon villages are also being attacked and civilians displaced at an alarming rate over the past weeks and months. Some locals blame Fulani self-defence groups, others blame Islamist militants, or a combination of both.

    Amadou Guindo, 41, a Dogon farmer from Boila, 67 kilometres from Bankass, said armed Fulani men “mixed with jihadists” entered his village a few weeks ago telling every Dogon to leave. “They said: ‘the Dogon have chased us away in Koro (an administrative region next to Bankass), so we won’t let you settle here’.”

    “Now we are suffering. We don’t even have pots to cook.”

    Guindo said the villagers decided to stay put because “we have been here for 30 years”. But six days later the armed men returned, shooting wildly at civilians and burning down houses and granaries. Three people lost their lives, Guindo said, among them a young woman shot dead in a chicken coop, and Guindo’s own son, 16-year-old Malick.


    “We lost everything,” Guindo said.


    Villages under siege


    Both Fulani and Dogon communities describe siege-like conditions, with armed men preventing civilians from leaving their villages to access local markets, fields, and healthcare centres. Many are falling sick.


    At the nutrition ward of Bankass hospital three-year-old Fousseyni Ziguime lay on a gurney, a feeding tube through his nose and a tattered pink cloth covering his skeletal frame.


    For three months, his mother said armed men left her too afraid to leave the village and seek medical attention. Instead, she relied on traditional medicine that has made matters worse. Now her son has malaria, a respiratory infection, and severe acute malnutrition. He can barely open his eyes.

    “We don’t have a lot of hope,” said Aminata Djire, the nurse looking after him.


    A young child with medical equipment on a bed
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Fousseyni Ziguime, a malnourished child, at Bankass hospital.

    To end the conflict, analysts say the government must address local grievances, particularly those that are turning Fulani herders into the hands of jihadists. This includes tackling state corruption, military abuses, and economic policies that work to the disadvantage of pastoralists.


    For now the government’s priority lies in convincing more fighters to join the DDR programme. But the process will likely take time, and will not include Islamist militants who, like their counterparts in northern Mali, are not party to any peace initiatives.


    “They will never come to us,” said Oumar Dicko, chairman of the DDR commission in Mopti.


    The fear is that so long as Islamist groups remain present in Mopti, Fulani communities will continue to be held collectively responsible and the cycle of retribution and revenge will go on.


    The new self-defence group in the village near Bankass certainly has no intention of disarming. During an interview with IRIN last week, the group’s leader – who asked not to be named – received a panicked phone call from one of his fighters. The fighter was monitoring activity in neighbouring villages and said armed Fulani men were mobilising to attack them.


    Checkpoints were quickly set up around the village’s perimetre and a motley crew of local youth armed with sticks and hunting rifles was assembled. In the end their presence proved enough to prevent an attack, the leader said later that day, but removing the fear everybody here is living with will be a much taller order.


    “We are all afraid,” he said.



    “We can be attacked at any moment”
    As peace efforts falter, violence in central Mali spirals further out of control
  • How dire climate displacement warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh

    Two years have passed since extreme rains and flash floods inundated this fertile rice-growing region in northeastern Bangladesh, but farmer Shites Das still sees the lasting impact today: his neighbours are abandoning their homes and fields.


    In March 2017, torrential rains burst river banks, washed away roads, and damaged 220,000 hectares of precious rice crops – weeks before the yearly monsoon rains typically set in. It was the start of the worst flooding to hit the country in years. Rice imports skyrocketed to cover a national shortfall, more than 80,000 homes were destroyed across Bangladesh, and in tiny Daiyya village, many families were left without food or crops to sell through the year.


    “In my 32 years, I’ve never seen such hunger,” Das said.


    Families here say such extremes have become increasingly common: warmer winters, drier summers, and more erratic rains that leave farmers guessing.


    "We have no fertility of land like in the past,” Das said. “This has happened because of climate change.”


    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Shites Das, a farmer in Daiyya village in northeast Bangladesh, says many of his neighbours have left their farms, unable to make ends meet.

    Climate scientists typically speak in general terms when explaining the links between climate change and extreme weather – global temperature rise makes volatile weather more likely and more severe.


    However, there’s a growing body of research zeroing in on climate change as the likely culprit for specific disasters that spark humanitarian emergencies – including the flash floods that submerged Daiyya village.


    In December, climate scientists published new research that for the first time examined the link between climate change and Bangladesh’s pre-monsoon rains. University of Oxford researchers analysed data showing that six-day rainfall totals over March and April 2017 exceeded flood thresholds by more than a third. Using historical data and model simulations, the researchers concluded that human-induced climate change “doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall” during that time frame.


    This “extreme event attribution” research was one of 17 similar papers published by the American Meteorological Society last year. Other studies found the marks of climate change in disasters from floods in Peru to heatwaves in Europe and China.


    In Bangladesh, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, it’s further evidence of what many here already know: weather extremes are having life-altering impacts.


    World Bank research predicts climate change could force tens of millions of people to migrate within their own countries by 2050, including some 13 million in densely populated Bangladesh alone.


    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Villagers walk along the banks of the Surma River in northeastern Bangladesh.

    The depleted villages of Bangladesh’s northeast offer a real-time glimpse of how dire climate displacement warnings are becoming a reality: village by village; family by family.


    Facing year-on-year crop loss and unpredictable weather, households here have been moving to the cities in droves – giving up on the rice farming that has sustained them for generations. Das estimates nearly one third of his village has left for good.

    Households here have been moving to the cities in droves – giving up on the rice farming that has sustained them for generations.

    “Those who left our village in 2017 have not come back,” he said. “People got scared.”


    The next lost crop


    Bangladesh’s northeast is a land of stark contrast, where water is plentiful during the monsoon season, and drought-like weather prevails in the dry season.


    It’s dotted with haors – seasonal wetlands where boro, a type of paddy rice, is harvested as the monsoon season begins, typically in April and May. The region is one of the country’s rice bowls, contributing more than 16 percent of boro rice production each year.


    But it’s also one of Bangladesh’s poorest areas; the UN says more than a quarter of its 2.5 million population live in poverty. People mainly scratch out a living through fishing and duck farming, and by cultivating boro rice, which is only harvested once a year.


    Villages here were unprepared for 2017’s sudden floods.

    Das said he watched as farmer after farmer lost their entire crop. His own crop was wiped out; he survived in part by selling his valuable cattle at half the market price, he said.


    Others weren’t as lucky. In nearby Vatidhar village, 60-year-old Anu Begum said she relied on humanitarian food aid to survive.


    “We managed a meal, skipped another,” she said. “It was year-round suffering.”


    Humanitarian group BRAC, which started life in this district, stepped in with more than $2 million in food and cash aid that kept some families going for a year after the floods. But it covered only a fraction of the needs, said Parul Akter, who coordinates the NGO’s programmes in the area.


    “Our support was a drop in the ocean,” she said. “Every household suffered.”


    People in Vatidhar estimate that half of the village’s roughly 700 people have migrated to the cities since the floods.


    While there are no official statistics tracking the area’s migration after the floods, Akter said one third of BRAC’s 18,000 microfinance borrowers from one sub-district alone deserted their villages to find jobs in the eastern city of Sylhet, the southern port of Chittagong, or the capital, Dhaka.


    “People are worried about the next crop loss,” said Ali Hossain, a former local government representative in the area. “Even big farmers having up to 60 acres of land have quit farming.”


    The steady drain of farmers from one of Bangladesh’s main rice-producing regions could also have wider implications for food security. In 2017, rice imports soared to more than three million tonnes from less than 100,000 tonnes the year before – in large part due to shortfalls caused by the floods. At the same time, domestic rice prices climbed 30 percent – beyond the reach of the most vulnerable.


    Anwar Faruque, a former secretary in Bangladesh’s agriculture ministry who now consults for international development organisations, said a loss of haor rice crops could spark a food “crisis” for the entire country. This could lead to even more substantial imports and hiked prices.


    "The ultra-poor will be affected,” he said.


    A sign of things to come


    The northeast’s village-level population shifts were set in motion by a disaster, which in turn was likely triggered by climate change.


    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Emdadul Huq, 75, farms rice in a wetlands area in northeastern Bangladesh. He says winters have grown warmer and rains more intense.

    The 2017 floods are the "early beginning of the trend” reflected across the country, said Atiq Rahman, a climate scientist who co-authored a chapter on vulnerabilities in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the UN body that assesses climate science.


    And estimates suggest 300,000 to 400,000 new migrants each year head to cities in Bangladesh, driven by a complex mix of economic and environmental pressures.


    Experts warn that Bangladesh must boost preparations to help citizens adapt to climate change and better manage migration: development projects that help rural families weather the storms and offer a reason to stay home, for example.


    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Children gather near a rice field. The seasonal wetlands, known as haors, are submerged for much of the year. Rice is harvested once a year as the monsoon season begins.

    “If your homestead is high, if you’ve adequate food, you can minimise your losses,” said Rahman, who believes that current government efforts are inadequate.


    AKM Nuruzzaman, a village official, said that internal migration is a necessity for many rural families in Bangladesh. Even when the monsoon rains come as scheduled and harvests are bountiful, there are no major industries and few job opportunities when it’s not farming season in his sub-district, he said.


    Many households rely on a migrating family member to send money back to the village. Others need more help to diversify their crops and income, he said.




    Some efforts are already underway.


    The country has ploughed more than $400 million into its Climate Change Trust, a state-funded body that finances adaptation and mitigation projects by government agencies. Roughly 80 percent of these funds have gone toward helping Bangladeshis adapt, said Mokhlesar Rahman Sarker, the fund’s deputy head.

    However, none of these adaptation projects cover the northeast haor region – in part because there has been little research about climate change’s impacts here, said AKM Mamunur Rashid, a climate change specialist with the UN Development Programme.


    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    A submersible road connects a village to a local market. The roads, built to withstand monsoon floods, are one way local governments are trying to adapt to a changing climate.

    But regular government departments are building projects such as submersible roads, which are designed to withstand floods, connecting villages to local markets even during the monsoon season.


    Other aid projects are helping local families adapt: a district-wide UN-funded programme has built protective walls to fortify villages against floods, and BRAC has introduced new varieties of rice that can be grown and harvested faster.


    But these efforts will come too late for those who have already left.


    A few months after the 2017 floods ravaged her family’s rice crop, Niyoti Rani Das, 51, took her two children and left Daiyya village for a city near Dhaka.


    Her eldest daughter abandoned her studies to help support the family. Together, they earn about $160 each month working in the booming but perilous textiles industry. Half the salary is eaten up by rent, and the family can’t afford school fees for the youngest, a 12-year-old boy.


    Das and her children live in a slum by a railway line and scramble to make ends meet. But she won’t return to her village: she has a sliver of land, but no rice to grow, she said.



    After the floods, a real-time glimpse of migration as rice-farming villages empty
    How dire climate displacement warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh
  • The trouble with plans to send 116,000 Burundian refugees home

    Under pressure to go home, Burundian refugees in Tanzania face two bad options: return to face social and economic hardship and possible rights violations; or remain in chronically under-resourced camps that restrict their opportunities.


    With both governments confirming plans to return 116,000 Burundians by the end of 2019, it’s crunch time for the international community if it wants to ensure returns are truly voluntary and offer returnees the level of support they will need to reintegrate properly back in Burundi.


    More than 400,000 people fled Burundi, most into neighbouring Tanzania, following violent unrest and repression that accompanied 2015 elections, which saw former rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza returned to power for a controversial third presidential term.


    Limited repatriations began in 2017, but funding shortages mean the process has so far been little more than an offer of free transport back across the border, with a return package of food, non-food items, and cash that doesn’t even last the three months it’s expected to cover.


    Given that many who fled were already amongst the most vulnerable, the daily struggle to feed their families had only increased since they returned.

    Despite this, some 62,000 Burundians have already chosen to go back home. But returnees interviewed by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) said their decisions were driven by dire camp conditions coupled with the risk of abuse if they ventured outside.


    Back in Burundi, the lack of support to reintegrate refugees threatens to hinder their chances of getting food on the table and starting their lives afresh. If past failures are any indication, a botched repatriation on this scale could fuel new conflict and further waves of displacement.


    With elections due to take place next year, some of those interviewed by IRRI were fearful that political tensions will start building again and that renewed violence will erupt.


    Burundi appears to be calm for now, but this shouldn’t hide the fact that the government has restricted political space and refuses to engage in a regional dialogue with opposition parties. Ensuring a properly supported return process has never been more important.


    Problems back home

    A new report, based on 75 interviews IRRI conducted with Burundian returnees, their neighbours and local authorities in August and November last year, finds that many are stuck in a highly precarious situation.


    Several people told us they found the repatriation process slow. Others felt there was insufficient information to guide them through it, despite several systems put in place by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Tanzania to inform refugees about the procedure.

    After the rations and money in the return package ran out, people told us support was limited. Given that many who fled were already amongst the most vulnerable, the daily struggle to feed their families had only increased since they returned.  


    Some were relying on the help of their neighbours or local authorities. But there were occasional tensions too as some who didn’t go into exile resented the fact that returnees received support – however insufficient.


    Returnees said they had been accused of being opposition supporters and some reported being threatened – even physical abused – by the ruling party’s notorious Imbonerakure youth wing militia.


    Another core issue was access to land. Previously unresolved land disputes from prior repatriations continued to cast a shadow over the return process.


    Many of those interviewed were landless and dependent on the meagre return package to secure a place to live. Ensuring equitable access to land is critical, not only to give people access to livelihoods, but also to a wider sense of belonging.


    More and longer support needed


    Effective reintegration of refugees and internally displaced people is a big challenge for countries recovering from conflict.


    In Burundi, the 2015 exodus reversed a repatriation process between 2002 and 2010 in which approximately half a million refugees returned following a number of peace agreements, including the Arusha Accord, which ended the country’s civil war.

    But while the returns made it look like Burundi had found peace, stability only went skin deep. The much harder and time-consuming work of genuine reintegration of returnees didn’t fit well with the short attention spans, or at least budgets, of the government and UN agencies.


    Something similar seems to be taking place now. While most refugees don’t want to return to Burundi because they know they’ll be returning to a volatile political situation and economic hardship, many feel they have no better choice.


    While the returns made it look like Burundi had found peace, stability only went skin deep.

    As the IRRI report demonstrates more fully, the situation faced by Burundian refugees in Tanzania is dire – many are abused when leaving the camps to look for firewood or menial jobs to supplement the insufficient humanitarian assistance.


    Burundi and Tanzania both want the refugees to return. Tanzania is tired of hosting them, fed up with aid that is sporadic and unreliable, while Burundi’s government wants to portray an image of a peaceful country. UNHCR and international donors, however, have been more reluctant to support returns, leading to friction.


    The repatriation process, already painfully slow, was completely halted in November when Burundi suspended international NGOs that refused to adopt ethnic quotas. Some NGOs have been able to reopen since, but others have left the country. Those refugees who were eventually assisted by UNHCR had to lower their expectations.


    Repatriation is a complex, long-term process that must be adequately supported.


    It must take into consideration the humanitarian and development needs of both returnees and the communities to which they are returning, and it needs to grapple with the underlying tensions that created the context for displacement in the first place.  


    But there seems to be lack of recognition – or, at least, of action – by the Burundian government and international actors in this regard.


    In a context in which displacement has had terrible consequences for the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people, recognising repatriation as a long-term endeavour is key to breaking the cycles of conflict and displacement that have plagued Burundi’s recent history.


    Globally, repatriation is being pushed as the most desirable and “durable solution” to end displacement. It is therefore vital that the international community ensures that Burundians return voluntarily and are sufficiently supported and funded to reintegrate effectively.


    (TOP PHOTO: A camp in Tanzania for Burundian refugees. CREDIT: Anouk Delafortrie/ECHO)

    The trouble with plans to send 116,000 Burundian refugees home
    Hovil and Van Laer are Senior Researcher and Programme Director, Prevention and Resolution of Exile, with the International Refugee Rights Initiative, which works to inform and improve responses to the cycles of violence and displacement that are at the heart of large-scale human rights violations.
  • The blame game over Syria’s winter fuel crisis

    Millions of Syrians haven’t had enough fuel to cook their food and heat their homes this winter.


    Syria’s severe fuel shortages have had far-reaching knock-on effects, including a rise in food prices, driven by higher transport costs and currency depreciation in government-run areas that had largely avoided such economic hardship. According to the UN, two thirds of Syrians live in “extreme poverty” and 90 percent spend at least half their income on food, so there’s limited ability to cope with these price hikes.


    As frustration over the state’s inability to solve the shortages mounts, so does discussion of who or what is to blame. Syrian authorities accuse Western nations of “economic warfare”, while US and EU diplomats say the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible. Experts tend to point to a combination of economic malfunction, corruption, and Western sanctions.


    Over the past eight years of war, it has rarely been easy for Syrians to get the fuel that powers electricity plants, factories, hospitals, gas stoves, and home heaters. As Myriam Youssef, a Damascus-based researcher with the London School of Economics, wrote in February, “like many winters past, our days are drained by hours upon hours of waiting… we wait for fuel distribution vehicles to pass by our neighbourhood so that we buy a few litres, enough to warm the house for a couple of hours.”


    But in the last few months, the fuel shortages and related price hikes in parts of the country controlled by al-Assad have become unusually severe. As a cooking gas cylinder in Damascus hit 8,000 Syrian pounds ($15) in January on the black market – more than three times the official price – Baath Media, a news site run by al-Assad’s ruling political party, showed long lines of people waiting for gas in the southern city of Izraa.


    Even members of Syria’s rubber-stamp parliament, who have some leeway to discuss economic issues, complained about the gas crisis in their January session. Parliamentarians mostly blamed Western sanctions, but some also condemned corrupt officials – without naming names.


    Industry collapse, new sanctions


    Experts say this winter's scarcity is largely the result of new US sanctions, both related to President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and to targeted measures against Syria's oil trade.


    This hit at one of the main ways the Syrian government gets its oil, after domestic production was decimated by sanctions and war: Iranian shipments through the Red Sea, paid for with Iranian credits.


    The United States and the European Union both banned the purchase of Syrian oil after al-Assad began a violent crackdown on protesters in 2011, while also sanctioning regime-linked individuals. The EU had taken in 95 percent of Syria’s crude exports before the outset of the war, so its September 2011 embargo hit the country’s oil industry hard, and much of what remained collapsed in subsequent years due to conflict, looting, and a breakdown in maintenance.

    David Butter, a Middle East energy expert with the Chatham House think tank, told IRIN that according to official figures, Syria’s crude production has tumbled from a pre-war output of 385,000 barrels per day to around 24,000 today. With local consumption in government-held Syria at an estimated 125,000 barrels per day, that leaves a shortfall of more than than 100,000 barrels daily.


    The 5 November re-imposition of sanctions on Iranian energy and shipping assets meant that Iranian oil tankers could no longer buy insurance on the international market. They were followed by a 20 November warning from the US Treasury Department that it would “aggressively target” shipping companies if they continued to carry oil for the Syrian government.


    According to Butter, the 20 November notice, which targeted “the entire supply chain for fuel sales to Syria,” had an instant impact. Many of the oil tankers that serve Syrian ports appear to have responded by pulling out of the trade altogether.


    Jihad Yazigi, a Syrian economist and editor-in-chief of The Syria Report, also told IRIN the warning was “the main factor behind the recent shortages,” but added that it was important to take into account that demand for energy and oil products has been high because of the winter season.


    Even after the loss of much of the tanker trade, there is still some oil coming in on trucks from the Kurdish-held northeast. This supply is organised by regime-linked middlemen who have bargained for access to oil wells controlled – at various times – by Western-backed rebels, the so-called Islamic State, and US-backed Kurdish fighters.


    Butter estimates that this trade makes up around 20-30,000 barrels per day of crude oil – much less than the country needs.


    Oil and the economy


    The oil and gas shortages have hit both individuals and the wider Syrian economy.


    Idriss Jazairy, the UN Human Rights Council’s rapporteur on sanctions, reported last year that the US and EU oil embargoes had “dramatically raised the cost of fuel oil for heating, cooking, and lighting,” noting that the state’s gradual reduction of subsidies since 2011 had further impoverished Syrians, and that fuel shortages have second-order effects on the wider economy.


    “Iranian oil supplies to Syria play an important role not only in the sense that they supply oil products to the Syrian economy,” Yazigi explained. “They are also a major source, if not the main source of revenue for the Syrian government.”


    Since Damascus purchases oil from Iran on credit, the state gains from sales to citizens even when prices are subsidised. That makes oil an important revenue source, which, Yazigi said, “both enables the government to fund its war effort, if you want, but also government and public services.”


    Despite this trickle down impact on citizens who live under government control, European diplomats defend the sanctions. They told IRIN the Syrian oil sector is sanctioned because the government uses fuel for military purposes, such as to run helicopters that drop barrel bombs, and point out that there are exemptions for humanitarian purposes.


    They reject the suggestion that EU sanctions are responsible for civilian suffering.


    “It’s a much broader political economy that has caused those fuel shortages, or that determines who is having shortages and who doesn’t”, said one European diplomat, who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity.


    “There are people in Syria who have got plenty of access to what they need”, the diplomat said, pointing to the fact that people close to the regime do not appear to have been impacted by the shortages. “The EU can only control what it can control.”


    A diplomat from another EU member state insisted al-Assad’s government only has itself to blame for Syria’s predicament this winter.


    “The regime takes every opportunity to paint the picture that the EU and the ‘West’ is responsible for the suffering of the Syrian people”, this diplomat said. “However, the regime continues to wage war on its own population, adding to the massive suffering it has already caused.”


    An EU spokesperson told IRIN the sanctions, both on regime-linked individuals and on oil, are “a clear signal that the repressive policies of the al-Assad regime against the civilian population of Syria, including the expropriation of land for political purposes, as well as the production and use of chemical weapons, are considered unacceptable by the EU.”


    The spokesperson said the al-Assad regime must “change its behaviour and contribute to a lasting settlement of the conflict.”


    The US State Department did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment.


    What next?


    Syrian authorities have repeatedly promised that the crisis is about to be resolved, advertising a series of high-level meetings, police raids, and emergency measures to combat waste and corruption. That may be easier said than done given the involvement of top regime figures in the illicit economy.


    A new rationing system allows citizens to buy their allotted 450 litres of subsidised gasoline using a “smart card” that keeps track of purchases. But the rollout has been marred by problems, adding to the frustration of Syrians forced to wait in lines for fuel.


    In January,  a Damascus official announced that an old, parallel distribution network for public sector employees would be shut down. In a hint at government corruption, he said it had incentivised officials to request “large quantities” that were distributed in an “unclear” manner. The following month, the government also ended a decades-old state monopoly on cooking gas imports.


    Fuel needs will soon be reduced with warmer spring weather, but as the US Congress discusses more comprehensive sanctions, Syria’s oil and gas shortages are unlikely to go away any time soon.

    (TOP PHOTO: Ghada, 12, lights a fire to cook at her home in Aleppo this January. Khudr Al-Issa/UNICEF)


    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.



    The blame game over Syria’s winter fuel crisis
  • Briefing: Months after a massacre in Congo, little aid but plenty of fear

    Yumbi, a small farming and fishing town on the banks of the Congo River, is now mostly deserted.


    Days before the Democratic Republic of Congo’s long-delayed December elections, chaos erupted – a massacre left at least 535 people dead over 48 hours and caused 30,000 people from the town and the surrounding villages of Bongende and Nkolo to flee.


    Some 12,000 people who took refuge on river islands remain displaced in the territories of Yumbi and Lukolela. Another 16,000 crossed the river into neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville and are now living as refugees, mostly in the Makotimpoko and Gamboma districts.

    In photos: Congo massacre survivors tell of canoe escapes and being left for dead

    More than two months later, most people say they are still afraid to return home.


    Shelter, food, and mental health services for traumatised survivors are all in urgent demand. Assistance has so far been minimal. The remote location of Yumbi complicates the response as it takes three days to arrive by land from Kinshasa, or one day by boat up the Congo River.  

    Médecins Sans Frontières, currently the only aid organisation on the ground, said the situation may worsen with the coming rainy season, which is also likely to bring infectious diseases including cholera, measles, and malaria.


    Initial reports characterised the violence as intercommunal – Batende perpetrating attacks against minority Banunu – but subsequent reports from the UN and others have noted its “organised and planned” nature. Some witnesses have alleged local officials were involved.


    Violent disputes and occasional clashes had been reported between the Batende and Banunu over land and resources in previous years, but never before had it reached anything like the scale of the 16 and 17 December massacre.


    What are the immediate needs?


    MSF, which responded within the first week of the violence in Yumbi, said it arrived to find that medics had fled and health facilities were damaged. The UN reported that homes and public buildings were also destroyed.


    Fabrizio Andriolo, MSF’s emergency team coordinator, told IRIN that the rainy season – more specifically rising water levels of the Congo River – poses a serious threat to the thousands displaced on the islands.


    Not only will meagre shelters be destroyed if the islands flood, but cholera may reappear – MSF responded to an epidemic in Yumbi in March and April 2018. There are fears also of a measles outbreak, which could spread quickly in such precarious living conditions. The rainy months are also notorious for malaria, currently the main health concern.


    Food is also desperately needed. People are unable to access markets or return to their fields and fishing equipment. Andriolo said his team had already treated 120 cases of child malnutrition – a number he expected to rise in the ongoing absence of aid.


    Since no assistance has been provided to help rebuild damaged infrastructure and supply food in the towns or villages, the population has not yet begun to return. Many also refuse to return out of fear they may be attacked again.


    What are the long-term needs?


    Andriolo stressed the importance of long-term healthcare solutions in the region for when people do start to return, including support for mental health, since the brutality and subsequent trauma of the attacks is likely to have lasting effects.  


    “A lot of the population is extremely traumatised by the events, exhibiting insomnia, lack of hunger, and general lack of energy,” the MSF coordinator said. “Going back will reopen the trauma from seeing the places where the violence occurred.”


    Communities have also been cut off from their livelihoods: the river where they fish, the fields where they farm, and the market where they trade. Many tools of trade and supplies were also destroyed in the violence. Homes and buildings will also need to be rebuilt. In total, 17 schools and 967 houses were destroyed, leaving many without a place to live.


    What caused the violence?


    Most sources say the violence was provoked by the burial of Banunu chief Mantuma Fedor on land the Batende claim as theirs.


    The UN said the attacks “were conducted in a very organised manner and were most likely planned”. Witnesses claimed the attackers were positioned strategically at the entrances of villages during the massacre – which could indicate previous training or planning.


    ☰ Read more: Witnesses describe how the massacre unfolded


    Early on 16 December, a young Banunu man travelled from the village of Bongende to a Batende village a few kilometres away. Upon arrival, he was killed. The Batende sent a messenger back to the other Banunu, warning: “we will come back to attack you”.


    That afternoon in Yumbi, the attacks began, and continued for nearly three hours.


    “I saw a team of visibly armed men coming from Yumbi’s centre… they began to massacre the population with guns and knives (machetes),” recalled Jule Bango Bobongo, a teacher at Kasobongala secondary school in Yumbi.


    In an attempt to escape, many braved the waters of the Congo River, only to drown or be shot dead as they swam. “I was scared to die in the river,” Bobongo continued, “so I fled with others to the Yumbi hospital where we took temporary refuge.”


    When the sound of gunfire stopped, they left the hospital only to find their homes burnt and corpses sprawled on the ground. “We began picking up the wounded to bring them back to the hospital,” Bobongo recalled. “I told myself that ordinary civilians could not organise such an operation on their own… we went home with death in our souls.”

    By the evening, Dr. Bodo Molenga at Yumbi General Hospital had received a total of 133 wounded patients, 17 of whom died while receiving medical care. “It was really awful,” he said. “I saw some seriously injured people and some died in my arms.”


    The next morning, on 17 December, the villages of Bongende and Nkolo came under attack; the slaughter lasted seven hours, according to witnesses. “I found more than 300 bodies in complete decay,” said Nestor Longota, a priest who returned to Bongende from Kinshasa after the attack. “It was horrible, I saw bodies of children, mutilated women young and old who littered the earth for a whole week.”


    Dr. Molenga organised with the local Red Cross committee to bury the bodies. “In Bongende we dug four mass graves for 400 visible corpses,” he said. “But even today other corpses remain stuck between the walls of crushed homes and other bodies.”  


    The UN Joint Human Rights Office, or UNJHRO, would later find 59 mass burial sites and 40 individual graves in Yumbi.


    With more burial sites possibly still to be discovered, the eventual death toll could be as high as 800 – excluding an unknown number of people (estimated to be dozens) who drowned in the river while escaping and whose bodies will likely never be recovered.


    There are allegations that Congolese armed forces, police, or local authorities may have somehow been involved, but there are several competing theories and no clear evidence to implicate any official actors.


    Nestor Longota, a priest in Bongende, said he spoke to a Congolese naval officer who recognised some of his navy colleagues and police officers among the attackers. “How can a village like Yumbi, the largest one in the territory, be attacked for two days with no defense or military intervention?” Longota asked.


    One Batende man, who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told IRIN that the security services and local administration were “in agreement” with the attackers. He and many other survivors pointed the finger at the Bana Mura, Joseph Kabila’s presidential guard.


    Alexis Huguet/IRIN
    Banunu refugees from Yumbi gather in front of Makotimpoko church in Congo-Brazzaville where they have sought refuge.

    To some, the alleged involvement of the military and police suggested voter suppression ahead of the elections that finally took place on 30 December, as the Banunu generally support the opposition and the Batende back Kabila.

    Opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi’s victory in the election marked Congo’s first orderly transfer of power since independence in 1960. However, independent vote monitors found Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate, to be the winner, and there are allegations – denied by both parties – that Tshisekedi and Kabila struck some kind of deal.


    What might happen next?


    Due to the violence, Congo’s government postponed the vote in Yumbi from December until 31 March, a delay also imposed on the Ebola-affected cities of Beni and Butembo in the east.


    While the fighting has ceased in the months following the massacre, tensions between the two communities remain, and the Banunu who continue to live in Yumbi talk of sleepless nights, dreading that their attackers may return.  


    Those interviewed by IRIN nearly all stressed the importance of reconciliation among the two communities.  


    The Batende man who spoke to IRIN said: “Many of us [Batende] did not want this tragedy to happen and denounce it as barbarism… we want justice to be served and the perpetrators to be punished. The truth must be known after the investigations, and the two communities must come to terms [with it].”


    Local authorities, in conjunction with the Congolese military, are now urging people to return in time to vote later this month. But the date hardly seems feasible given that thousands remain displaced, many of them far away and some in neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.


    “The government should first investigate the situation and respond to emergencies in Yumbi… and elections can come in two to three months,” said Jule Bango Bobongo, a teacher at Kasobongala secondary school in Yumbi.


    “Who is left to vote?” asked Priest Longota, “Everyone has been killed or displaced.”

    (TOP PHOTO: An MSF nurse provides care to displaced people now living Moniende island, in the middle of the Congo River, after they fled the massacre in Yumbi in December. CREDIT: Alexis Huguet/IRIN)


    “Who is left to vote? Everyone has been killed or displaced”
    Briefing: Months after a massacre in Congo, little aid but plenty of fear
    First in a two-part series on the 16 and 17 December massacre in Yumbi. The accompanying <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/photo-feature/2019/03/07/congo-massacre-survivors-tell-canoe-escapes-and-being-left-dead">photo essay</a> includes personal accounts from survivors.
  • Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar


    New term, old problems for Nigeria’s Buhari


    Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, who won a second presidential term this week, faces a variety of security challenges: a decade-long and resurgent Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast; endemic insecurity in the oil-producing Niger Delta south, and – less reported but often the most deadly – spiralling violence between pastoralist Fulani herders and local farmers in the northwest. Despite Buhari's 2015 claim that Boko Haram was "technically defeated", jihadists continue gaining ground across Lake Chad and West Africa, where the humanitarian fallout is, if anything, worsening. For a comprehensive look at the causes and the consequences of militancy in the Sahel region, check out this curation of our long-term reporting. And for a personal and graphic account of covering Boko Haram over the course of several years, this reporter’s diary from Chika Oduah is a must-read.


    Headaches in the ‘cash revolution’?


    Humanitarian cash aid programmes in Kenya’s drought-prone northeast are plagued with problems, according to this recent article by Kenyan journalist Anthony Langat published by Devex. Beneficiaries describe them as confusing, unreliable, and wide open to corruption. Families report not receiving what they think they’re due and/or not knowing what they ought to get, and they say there’s no effective system to address complaints. Local leaders are accused of manipulating lists of entitled families, and money transfer agents allegedly skim off unauthorised transfer fees. The Kenyan government and the UN’s World Food Programme – who run different cash initiatives in the area – say some problems are simply clerical, such as wrongly registered mobile phone numbers or ID cards. Earlier research from NGO Ground Truth Solutions showed that 62 percent of a sample of Kenyans enrolled in cash aid projects said they were satisfied with the service. However, 88 percent “did not know “how aid agencies decide who gets cash support”.


    UN peers into a dark Myanmar mirror


    The UN is launching an inquiry into its actions in Myanmar, where critics accuse it of inaction and “complicity” in the face of widespread rights abuses that led to the violent exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya. The UN this week confirmed the appointment of Gert Rosenthal, a Guatemalan diplomat, to lead an internal review of UN operations in Myanmar. The news, first reported by The Guardian, follows a Human Rights Council resolution urging a probe into whether the UN did “everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises”, including the military’s Rohingya purge and abuses against minorities elsewhere in the country. Critics say the UN mission in Myanmar was “glaringly dysfunctional”, marred by infighting over how to engage with the government. A UN-mandated fact-finding mission has warned that problems continue and said that some UN entities refused to cooperate with its own investigation. In a statement, UN spokesman in Myanmar Stanislav Saling said the review will look at how the UN “works on the ground and possible lessons learned for the future”. It’s unclear whether Rosenthal’s findings will be made public.


    Growing recognition for mental health


    In humanitarian terms, psycho-social support is often treated as the poor cousin to aid like food and shelter, with few mental health services available in crisis settings, as we recently reported from South Sudan. But just as the economic cost and importance of mental health is increasingly being recognised in society at large, so the issue is picking up steam in humanitarian contexts too. On the sidelines of this week’s UN pledging conference for Yemen, Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag urged humanitarian donors to invest more in mental health (“second line” healthcare, which includes mental health, makes up only $72 million of the $4.2 billion appeal for Yemen). The Netherlands is funding the development of tools to help aid agencies integrate mental health services into their work and will host a conference later this year to mobilise commitments from others. Psychiatrists argue that mental health support is not just a human right; it also strengthens people’s ability to benefit from other aid, such as education or livelihood programmes.  


    Bond-holders in pandemic finance scheme untouched by Ebola outbreak


    On Thursday, the World Bank announced it was to provide up to $80 million of new funding to combat Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of that sum, $20 million is from its Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, or PEF, set up after the 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. PEF is a leading example of harnessing private capital and donor resources in humanitarian response. Private investors in PEF bonds can lose their investment if a major epidemic happens. Otherwise they get interest (paid by conventional donors) at a rate described last month as “chunky” by the Financial Times. The catch? PEF investors haven’t paid out a penny in Congo. That’s because the outbreak hasn’t spread to a second country, one of the conditions for a payout. IRIN asked a disaster insurance expert about PEF last year; he said it was “quite expensive”.


    In case you missed it:


    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Médecins Sans Frontières has suspended work at two Ebola treatment centres after the facilities in Butembo and Katwa were partially destroyed in two separate attacks in the space of four days this week. The caretaker of one patient was reported to have died trying to flee. The motivation of the unidentified assailants remains unclear. The outbreak, which began seven months ago, continues, with 555 deaths and counting.


    Gaza: A UN commission of inquiry said in a report released Thursday that Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in shooting unarmed civilians during mass Palestinian protests at the Gaza border last year.


    Indonesia: The country has recorded its first polio case since 2006. The World Health Organisation says a strain of vaccine-derived polio was confirmed this month in a child in a remote village of Papua province, one of Indonesia’s poorest regions. The WHO says the case is not linked to a polio outbreak in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.


    Iraq: Human Rights Watch says authorities in Mosul and other parts of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh are harassing, threatening, and arresting aid workers, sometimes accusing them of ties to so-called Islamic State in an effort to change lists of people eligible for humanitarian assistance.


    Pakistan: Shortages of nutritional food and safe water could be leading to “alarmingly high” rates of disease and malnutrition in drought-hit Pakistan, especially for women and children, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


    Somalia: Al-Shabab militants set off two deadly blasts outside a hotel in Mogadishu on Thursday, before seizing a nearby building. Soldiers battled through the night to try to dislodge them. As conflict and insecurity continue across the country, a new report revealed that 320,000 Somalis fled their homes in 2018 – a 58 percent rise on 2017. Some 2.6 million Somalis are now internally displaced.


    Weekend read


    UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

    The difficulty with this story, to steal from Donald Rumsfeld, are the known unknowns. The World Food Programme purchased 50,000 tonnes of porridge mix for mothers and malnourished children, and a proportion of it was lacking key nutrition-enhancing ingredients. It was sent to crisis zones around the world. It likely came from one of two producers who have a duopoly over the market. The deficiencies should have been picked up by third-party inspectors before the food aid was dispatched. But let’s look at what we don’t know – not for a lack of digging by IRIN’s Ben Parker or contributor Lorenzo D’Agostino in Rome. Where exactly did the faulty food aid go? What effect did the lack of protein and fat have on breastfeeding mothers, babies, and children? Which company produced the substandard porridge mix and why? How come the inspectors failed to find fault with the product? Who was told what, and when? Is operational error, negligence, or fraud, or a combination to blame? We await the findings of the investigation with interest.


    And finally...

    Life resumes on Vanuatu’s volcanic Ambae Island


    The most explosive volcanic eruption anywhere in the world last year came courtesy of Manaro Voui on Ambae Island, part of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The volcano spewed more than 540,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air, according to NASA. Volcanologists may be fascinated by Manaro Voui’s rumblings, but for 11,000 Ambae residents, the eruptions have been life-changing. They covered parts of the island with volcanic ash, which destroyed crops and homes and polluted drinking water. Residents have repeatedly been forced to evacuate, and at one point the government declared the entire island uninhabitable. For now, the volcano continues to be a in a state of “major unrest”, but some residents are moving back, and the government is preparing to begin a new school term for some returning students.

    (TOP PHOTO: Destroyed cars by the side of the road after a suicide bomber detonated their vest in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, in 2017. CREDIT: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo)


    Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter
  • Ethiopia’s neglected crisis: No easy way home for doubly displaced Gedeos

    When the men came with their guns and their knives, Meret Sisay’s mother stopped them at the door to their home in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, while the 18-year-old slipped out the back and fled for her life.


    It was the second time in less than a year that Meret – like thousands of others from the Gedeo community who have lived in Oromia’s West Guji zone for decades – had been chased from her village because of her ethnicity.


    A merry-go-round of forced evictions by groups of armed young men and government-pressured returns has left tens of thousands of ethnic Gedeos trapped in dire conditions in makeshift shelters across this part of southern Ethiopia.


    Now in the village of Gotiti, in the Gedeo district of the Southern region that borders Oromia, Meret is one of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 internally displaced people living in overcrowded shelters without roofs and sanitation as the rainy season approaches.


    The Ethiopian government has not formally acknowledged Gotiti's inhabitants as IDPs eligible for humanitarian aid.

    Aid workers say food assistance for IDPs in several areas near the border with West Guji, including Gotiti, has been blocked in order to encourage inhabitants to return to Oromia. They also say they’re worried about the spread of infectious diseases.


    When IRIN visited in February, families of up to 10 individuals were living in wooden shelters well below UN standards for camp shelter space. Many children had swollen bellies – a sign of malnutrition – as well as scabies, diarrhoea, and other indications of unhygienic living conditions.


    Meret was one of almost one million Ethiopians uprooted between April and June by ethnic violence in this part of the country, after Gedeos were accused by their Oromo neighbours of trying to annex land and resources.


    In December, after she and her seven siblings had followed government orders and returned home, she became one of around 15,000 who fled Oromia once again for the safety of Gedeo district.


    Those that arrived in Gedeo reported tales of castration, the cutting off of limbs, and gang rape by local youth and armed rebels, as well as general intimidation and extortion.


    Tom Gardner/IRIN
    Meret Sisay, 18, was forced to flee her home in West Guji twice last year. Now in the village of Gotiti, she lives in a makeshift shelter like thousands of other Gedeos.

    Meret had been back in her village for only two days before armed groups of young men began harassing her and her family. “When we arrived back we started building houses,” she told IRIN. “But [the men] took everything the government had given us... They sent us back empty-handed.”


    ‘At night they come in mobs’


    In total, more than 1.4 million Ethiopians were forced from their homes in the first half of last year – the largest internal displacement anywhere in the world in 2018 – as ethnic and land-fuelled conflicts exploded across the country following the appointment of reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the end of authoritarianism, which for decades had kept a lid on such tensions.


    The policy of the federal government is that displaced households should be safely returned to the communities from which they were evicted, though in some cases resettlement may be possible for those who do not wish to go back.


    A new ‘Action Plan’ drawn up in February by the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, or NDRMC, aims to resettle or return all IDPs within 60 days. A survey will determine which ones are expected to return to their original homes and which will be resettled elsewhere.


    The NDRMC’s commissioner, Mitiku Kassa, said the tight deadline was because of the approaching rains and the need for farmers to prepare their lands in time to plant crops. “Otherwise they will be dependent on food aid next year as well,” he said.


    Mitiku told IRIN he expected displaced Gedeos to return to their original homes. “We don’t have any plan to resettle Gedeos,” he said.


    Aid workers, as well as the IDPs themselves, expressed concern about the timeline for returns, which according to UN guidelines should be safe, voluntary, sustainable, and dignified.


    Several previous attempts to send Gedeos back to Oromia – sometimes by simply putting them on trucks and buses – have backfired. For example, mass displacement occurred in June last year shortly after the return of many of those evicted two months earlier.


    A survey conducted by the government and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, at the end of last year found that at least 90 percent of IDPs in Gedeo did not want to return yet.


    “The government is saying we have to go back,” said Bekele Worasa, 45, a coffee farmer currently living in Gotiti. “But how can we do that when there are people dying there still?”


    “During the day it seems peaceful,” said Tegeno Tiba, 86, now living in an orphanage in the Gedeo town of Chelelektu. “But at night they come in mobs, singing and dancing. You can hear gunshots, and they throw stones. They harass and intimidate us.”


    1 / 3

    Berhanu Seid, 36, is from West Guji, where he lived with his family of eight. Now displaced in the town of Chelelektu, Gedeo, he stays with extended family and receives food aid from World Vision International.
    2 / 3

    Tegeno Tiba, 86, spent his whole life in West Guji, until nine months ago when he was displaced to Chelelektu in Gedeo. He now lives in an orphanage and survives on food aid. He has not returned home since.
    3 / 3

    Bekele Worasa, 45, is a coffee farmer and IDP committee leader. Since December, he has lived in a shelter around the Mekane Yesus Church in Gotiti, together with his wife and 11 children.



    Changing demographics


    Aid workers worry that the deadline could be connected to the upcoming national census, which is due to start in April and may further complicate the situation in West Guji, where tensions between the ethnic groups have been exacerbated by anxieties about their respective population sizes.


    The 2007 census found that 14 percent of the wider West Guji zone were Gedeo, and 79 percent Oromo.


    Berhanu Fekele of World Vision International explained how Oromos in Kercha, West Guji’s most unstable district, believed Gedeos had become the most populous ethnic group. This, he said, is what prompted the claims that Gedeos planned to annex it from Oromia and sparked the conflict.


    “You want to reverse-move people before a census and hope it doesn’t kick off?” one aid worker asked, concerned there would be further violence once the census begins in April. “That is what really keeps me up at night.”

    In places like Kercha, returning Gedeos are now sheltering in makeshift “collection centres” around the main town like coffee marketplaces or churches because they fear it is too dangerous to return to their villages. Many say their properties have been stolen or destroyed.



    A large group of people standing for a portrait in front of a large, makeshift church against a dramatic sky
    Tom Gardner/IRIN
    Leaders of the IDP committee in Gedeo say several thousand people live in a makeshift shelter near the Mekane Yesus Church in Gotiti village.

    Moreover, since August, NGOs working in West Guji have repeatedly expressed concern that returning Gedeos were being excluded from the lists of those in need of humanitarian assistance drawn up by local authorities.

    Ethiopia’s government tightly controls the process of determining those in need. Under its system of ethnically organised federalism that power is in the hands of low-level officials who may, according to aid workers, show bias towards those of their own ethnicity.


    Agencies operating in West Guji have reported that in some places the majority of those listed in need of assistance in recent months have not been IDPs. They have also reported that some households have been deliberately allocated food rations insufficient for their size.


    These reports are what are driving concerns that local authorities are trying to rid the zone of Gedeos. It is only in the past month that humanitarian agencies have been allowed to carry out formal verification checks before carrying out aid distributions.


    “We’re talking about systematic breaches of humanitarian principles – it’s tragic, actually, and it keeps on going,” the head of one international NGO working in the area told IRIN on condition of anonymity, due to concerns his group could lose access if it was openly critical.


    Food aid blocked


    In Gedeo, food distribution in Gotiti and certain other sites near the border with West Guji has been blocked since August in order to encourage IDPs to return to Oromia, aid workers and officials working with international organisations told IRIN, also on condition of anonymity.


    It is unclear whether this policy comes from the higher levels of the federal government. However, according to aid workers, a federal official from the newly formed Ministry of Peace visited Gedeo in December and instructed agencies not to give assistance at these sites.

    “This is an enormous problem for the government, but what is tragic is they are not accepting the support we are offering. They are forbidding us from operating.”

    The Ministry of Peace has since said that more than a million people displaced due to conflicts around the country – over 90 percent of the total – have now returned to their villages, a claim that many aid workers said they doubted.


    “This is an enormous problem for the government,” said a senior official with an international organisation working in the area. “But what is tragic is they are not accepting the support we are offering. They are forbidding us from operating.”


    According to Ayyale Maaro Bokko, head of the local administration of Gedeb, where Gotiti is located, all displaced Gedeos will receive humanitarian assistance in West Guji should they return.


    “We encourage them to go back and get the necessary support there. The government is fully supporting those who are in West Guji now,” he said, adding that any insecurity in the region would soon be resolved.


    According to the African Union’s Kampala Convention on IDPs – which Ethiopia has signed but still not ratified – displaced persons are entitled to freedom of movement and to adequate humanitarian assistance wherever they need it.


    But in the past month aid workers have reported that local authorities in West Guji have told them they cannot give assistance to IDPs who refuse to return to their original villages.


    In Gedeo, Abraham Dube, the leader of a committee of IDPs in Gotiti, said he had tried returning to Oromia as many as four times since April. He now lives with four families – 30 people in total – in a single four-square-metre tent.


    He said six people had died from malnutrition in his camp (known as ‘Spring Site’) and that he had not had any contact with government officials for the duration of his time there. He and all other IDPs in Gedeo – including those in other parts of the district who have been receiving humanitarian assistance – told IRIN they didn’t believe it was safe to return to Oromia.


    “We have nothing here,” said Abraham. “We grew up there and our land is there. But unless the government brings peace, we will die here.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Some 20,000-30,000 displaced people now live in makeshift shelters like these in the village of Gotiti. CREDIT: Tom Gardner/IRIN)


    “Unless the government brings peace, we will die here”
    Ethiopia’s neglected crisis: No easy way home for doubly displaced Gedeos
  • Key donors freeze Uganda refugee aid after UN mismanagement scandal

    Uganda’s refugee sector may run into trouble after two major European donor countries froze funds to the UN refugee agency as a result of fraud, corruption, and mismanagement unearthed in an internal UN audit last year.


    Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting nation in Africa, catering to more than 1.2 million refugees, the vast majority of whom have fled conflict in the neighbouring countries of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


    Germany and the UK’s Department for International Development, or DFID, both confirmed to IRIN that they have frozen funding to UNHCR Uganda, following issues raised in last November’s audit report by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS.


    The report found that the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, critically mismanaged donor funds in Uganda in 2016-2017.


    Uganda’s state minister for relief, disaster preparedness, and refugees, Musa Ecweru, called for continued and increased support from the international community, saying refugee hosting was a “shared responsibility”.


    “We have kept our doors open to refugees,” Ecweru told IRIN. “More refugees are coming despite the peace accord in South Sudan and elections in Democratic Republic of Congo. This is putting a strain on us.”


    The move by the UK and Germany – two of UNHCR Uganda’s top four country donors last year – could cause disruptions to essential life-saving assistance for refugees, the UN refugee agency says.


    Cécile Pouilly, a Geneva-based UNHCR spokeswoman, confirmed the aid freeze without naming the donors. Pouilly said education, water, and mental health support were among the services most at risk, and that negotiations with donors were ongoing.


    Read more: Audit finds UN refugee agency critically mismanaged donor funds in Uganda


    The November audit revealed that UNHCR Uganda wasted tens of millions of dollars, overpaying for goods and services, awarding major contracts improperly, and failing to avoid fraud, corruption, and waste.


    The European Anti-Fraud Office in December confirmed to IRIN that it was “investigating allegations of fraud and irregularities regarding specific projects funded by the European Union to support refugee settlements in Uganda.”

    “It's high time to hold individuals involved in corruption scandals accountable and find ways to continue to support refugees while minimising the risk of financial mismanagement.”

    Four Ugandan officials who were forcefully asked to step aside in February 2018, pending investigations – including the commissioner for refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, Apollo Kazungu, and three of his staff – are yet to be arraigned and charged in court. UNHCR has not provided any information about disciplinary action, if any, taken against its employees.


    “It's high time to hold individuals involved in corruption scandals accountable and find ways to continue to support refugees while minimising the risk of financial mismanagement,” said Thijs Van Laer, programme director at the International Refugee Rights Initiative.


    Frozen funds


    With the exception of emergency funding to help prevent an Ebola outbreak, “DFID has released no further funds to UNHCR in Uganda since the allegations of corruption emerged,” a spokesperson for DFID in London told IRIN. The statement listed funding in 2016 and 2017, suggesting that DFID has not provided funding since January 2018.


    “We will only provide further funding when we are confident that UNHCR has properly addressed the issues raised in the recent audit,” the DFID spokesperson said. “We have asked UNHCR to provide detailed information on whether any UK funding has been lost due to issues raised in the audit.”


    DFID provided £20.1 million (about $25.9 million) in funding to UNHCR in Uganda during 2016 and 2017, according to the DFID spokesperson.


    “DFID has a zero-tolerance approach to fraud and corruption of any kind,” the spokesperson said, adding, “where British taxpayers’ money is misused, we expect our partners to take firm and immediate action.”


    In an emailed statement, German diplomats told IRIN their government’s money was “contingent on the implementation of stringent integrity measures”, and said Germany “will continue its funding in Uganda once the necessary measures have been adequately implemented.”

    Germany, UNHCR Uganda’s second largest donor last year with funding of over $15 million, continues to support the refugee agency’s other projects worldwide, the diplomats said, emphasising that funds allocated for humanitarian assistance must be used in the “most effective and efficient way”.


    UNHCR’s Pouilly said four of 12 critical issues identified in the audit had been resolved, including: strengthening partner selection and procurement; improving reception and registration or refugees; and bolstering management and oversight capacity.


    “While there have not been any funding cuts per se, two donors have decided to freeze funds until they receive additional information on the strengthening of our operational response in Uganda and our efforts to mitigate risks in a sustainable manner,” she said. “We are closely working with these donors to ensure that they receive the information and assurances they need to be able to restart funding our operations in Uganda.”


    Risks for the response


    UNHCR said the fund freeze threatened to disrupt humanitarian aid programmes and would put further strain on Uganda’s already limited public services. A drastic reduction in resources for UNHCR and its partners in Uganda will impact the range, the quality, and the management of life-saving services we are providing on the ground,” according to Pouilly.


    UNHCR had set a target of $448 million to raise for 2019 Uganda operations – for it and its 30 partner organisations. It only raised $173 million of its target in 2018 and currently has $130 million on hand.

    “The last thing refugees in Uganda need is a reduction in the means to support."

    “In addition to the $130 million I have authority to spend, we need 30 to 40 million now to be able to retain this minimum level access to services,” UNHCR country representative Joel Boutroue told journalists in the capital, Kampala. “The lack of funding directly translates into more hardships for the refugees, more hardships to the host communities and more tensions.”


    In December last year, South Sudanese refugees in Bidi Bidi, until recently the world’s largest refugee settlement, staged a violent protest over lack of food, destroying NGO vehicles and looting property. Similar protests have occurred in Uganda’s Arua and Adjumani districts.


    “Uganda can’t handle this crisis alone,” Ecweru said. “We continue to remind our donors, partners and friends [in the international community] that this is a shared responsibility. They should communicate to their capitals and government so that more support continues to come.”


    Pouilly said that without additional funding, reception facilities for new arrivals would remain inadequate – a particular concern given the risk of Ebola spreading from Congo.


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


    “The last thing refugees in Uganda need is a reduction in the means to support them,”  said Van Laer, from the International Refugee Rights Initiative. “The refugee response is already seriously underfunded and 2019 risks becoming a challenging year.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A South Sudanese woman walks back to her home in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northwestern Uganda. CREDIT: Edward Echwalu/ECHO)


    Key donors freeze Uganda refugee aid after UN mismanagement scandal
    “The lack of funding directly translates into more hardships for the refugees”
  • UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

    The World Food Programme is investigating how up to 50,000 tonnes of nutrition-boosting porridge mix it purchased for distribution to nursing mothers and malnourished children in Somalia, Yemen, Bangladesh, and elsewhere was of substandard quality, despite its quality inspection process.


    The UN agency said it became aware of concerns over quality when one sample was tested in June 2018 for unrelated reasons, according to a statement issued on 11 February.


    WFP then initiated laboratory tests across other shipments of the porridge mix, branded as 'Super Cereal', which it “suspected of being below optimal standard”, a spokesperson for the agency said. The product was found to be low in protein and fat, with one batch containing 27 percent less protein than required. The product is safe to eat, the WFP noted.


    Independent nutritionists confirmed to IRIN the product would be safe to eat but said lower protein content – likely the result of an insufficient amount of soybeans – meant the supplement wouldn’t have the intended curative or preventative effects.

    Super Cereal can support the nutritional needs of nursing and pregnant women and can be used in school feeding programmes. It is also used to help prevent or reduce moderate acute malnutrition among under-fives, according to Patrick Webb, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University, and former head of nutrition at WFP.


    These are “important food items that need to be produced to the highest standards in order to achieve intended impacts,” Webb said.


    The agency declined to confirm which of its suppliers is under investigation by its Office of the Inspector General. A spokesperson said investigators are determining if “operational error, negligence, or fraudulent behaviour” are at fault.


    WFP noted that it continues to issue millions of dollars in new contracts to the firm in question because there is a “limited pool” of suppliers of the product.


    In an emailed statement, the agency said it had put in place special measures: “WFP has issued contracts to the company for Super Cereal Plus under a new regime with intensified compliance and monitoring measures including more checks during the process, and daily reports from the company and from the inspection company.” Super Cereal Plus is an enriched version of Super Cereal and made up one third of the suspect 50,000 tonnes, according to WFP.


    Exacting quality standards, unpredictable contracts, and slim profit margins lead to little competition and incentives amongst manufacturers of the product, Webb noted. This means that “substandard practice rarely gets punished,” he said, as “there’s no one else to go to”.


    He said the market for such supplements “had a history of challenges, in large part because these are not run-of-the-mill items. They are specially designed nutritionally enhanced food products.”


    In addition to stringent production guidelines, Super Cereal requires careful storage and handling, is prone to damage from moisture, and has a relatively short shelf life, according to several aid officials. One said it’s “quite hard to handle in the field”. WFP reported less than one percent of post-delivery losses for any reason.


    Distribution and investigation


    In 2017, WFP purchased 247,000 tonnes of Super Cereal, out of three million metric tonnes of food it bought overall. WFP declined to give a costing of the 50,000 tonnes now under investigation. But based on estimates from another purchaser, who asked to remain anonymous, IRIN estimates the cost to be more than $30 million (excluding transport and shipping).


    Since the product was safe for consumption, WFP said it had revised distribution plans to make some use of it, for example in “general food distributions rather than in malnutrition treatment programmes”.


    The porridge mix was distributed to “many countries”, WFP noted, refraining from citing specific countries because of the ongoing investigation.

    The investigation is not without precedent. In 2017 WFP’s inspector general investigated fraud involving “submission of inaccurate or forged inspection certificates” by suppliers in Turkey.


    Webb said quality control issues were often caused by a problem in the manufacturing process, not bad intentions. “Something accidentally ends up in the wrong hopper,” he explained.


    Only a handful of other aid agencies purchase Super Cereal; most international NGOs that distribute the product get it as a donation in kind from WFP’s donor-funded supply or from USAID.


    US Mission to the UN Rome
    'Super Cereal' is one of a range of specialised nutritious foods used in humanitarian programmes to combat malnutrition.

    A food aid expert, who requested anonymity due to work relationships, said WFP’s quality control systems were now “quite robust”.


    WFP relies on third-party inspectors to take samples from every purchase order at the manufacturer, which are then examined and sent to laboratories for testing.


    According to WFP’s procurement web pages, the agency “appoints an independent third-party inspection company to verify that consignments conform to contractual terms.”


    A niche market

    Two European producers dominate the market for supplying WFP with Super Cereal: Belgium-based Michiels Fabrieken and CER.FAR SaS of Italy. Public documents show that each was awarded Super Cereal contracts worth about $60 million in 2018, and together they commanded about 80 percent of the value of WFP contracts for the product.


    A spokesperson for Michiels Fabrieken denied the company was under investigation by WFP when asked by IRIN. The CEO of the other, CER.FAR SaS of Italy, declined to comment.


    According to a businessperson familiar with the sector, the two manufacturers have “wiped out all other competition.”


    In January 2019 alone, the Italian firm won a further $8 million in new Super Cereal contracts.


    The businessperson, who spoke anonymously due to the sensitive business relationships involved, said other producers have been unable to maintain the quality standards and price points demanded by WFP.


    WFP is actively trying to diversify its suppliers and has contracted smaller batches of Super Cereal from companies, including in South Africa and Turkey, according to WFP’s public records.


    While WFP issued a public statement on 11 February, the issue was not raised in a working group devoted specifically to the use of food mixes and supplements last year, according to minutes of its September meeting. WFP told IRIN on 4 February that it had contacted “partners and stakeholders where this is operationally relevant”.  


    (Additional reporting by Lorenzo D’Agostino in Rome)

    (TOP PHOTO: In Ethiopia, Teshome Kalelew has come to collect WFP Super Cereal Plus for his wife, who’s just delivered twins. CREDIT: Michael Tewelde/WFP)


    Investigators determining if “operational error, negligence, or fraudulent behaviour” to blame
    UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

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