Here’s the IRIN team’s weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar:
The (ending) age of Aquarius
MSF’s Mediterranean rescue ship, Aquarius, has been at the centre of a series of diplomatic standoffs this summer as European governments refused to let it dock and disembark migrants and asylum seekers pulled from the waters off the coast of Libya. But its rescuing days could now be over after it had its flag revoked this week by Panama. The pressure appeared to come from Italy, whose populist government argues that such vessels only encourage migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing from North Africa, but which is also keen to stem arrivals after taking in more than 700,000 people since 2013. Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister, denied pressuring Panama (in a Tweet, he claimed he didn’t know the dialling code), but a statement from the Panama Maritime Authority suggested otherwise. “The main complaint comes from the Italian authorities,” it said. The boat, jointly operated with SOS Méditerranée, is the only NGO rescue boat still operating in the Mediterranean. Currently at sea carrying rescued migrants it faces “deflagging” when it next reaches port. Panama’s ship register says the Aquarius refuses to return people to their place of origin. But according to the UN, that would be against refugee law. Given worsening conditions in Libya, UNHCR has updated its legal position on bringing people back to Libya: it’s not “a place of safety for the purpose of disembarkation following rescue at sea.”
Sticking with Libya; yet another ceasefire appears to be in place in the capital, Tripoli, where fighting between rival militias this week killed 117 people and injured 581. This round of violence erupted 20 days after a previous UN-brokered truce agreement came into force, so forgive us for fearing it might not last. The impact on civilians extends beyond deaths and injuries: 1,700 families fled their homes to stay with relatives or sheltered in schools in just a few days, and others were trapped and unable to escape the violence. With power and water temporarily cut, migrants and refugees in the city’s detention centres had reportedly resorted to drinking toilet water. Sceptics say the UN-backed Government of National Accord, which sits in Tripoli, has no real control over the city’s armed groups.
A flood of AI announcements
“AI for good” announcements came thick and fast last week: Microsoft committed $40 million over five years to an “AI for Humanitarian Action” project. Examples of applications include damage assessment, an educational chatbot, and medical research. Google announced an AI-powered flood warning system, now in pilot mode in Patna state, India. The tech giants joined Amazon in a major new effort to better predict and prevent famine. The World Bank-UN-Red Cross-Silicon Valley coalition has broad ambitions, and getting clearer signals from a wealth of data using AI is part of it. Gimmick or gamechanger? You’ll be hearing more from us on this Famine Action Mechanism, FAM. If you have views, please get in touch.
Palliative care: a “moral necessity”
Palliative care is focused on preventing and relieving suffering from life-limiting illnesses. But health advocates say it is frequently overlooked or ignored during humanitarian crises, when resources are stretched and large numbers of people are suddenly in need of basic aid like food and shelter. The World Health Organisation this month released its first guidelines on including palliative care in humanitarian responses. Integrating palliative care and pain relief into humanitarian response is a “medical and moral necessity”, according to the WHO. “The principles of humanitarianism and impartiality require that all patients receive care and should never be abandoned for any reason, even if they are dying,” the guidelines state. What might this actually look like on the ground, in the middle of an evolving emergency? Read our story about a local NGO bringing palliative care to the Rohingya refugee camps of southern Bangladesh.
Some reprieve for Uighurs
In a change of policy, Sweden will not deport Muslim minority Uighurs back to China. Germany announced the same in August. Sweden’s migration agency published a report describing repression in the largely Uighur Xinjiang region on 12 September. That followed a UN report alleging mass human rights abuse, including claims of a million Uighur people detained by the Chinese government, which it denies. Three quarters of about 5,500 Chinese asylum applications in Europe in 2017 were denied, according to EU statistics.
One to watch:
A masterclass in open source accountability
Uniformed men in Cameroon executed two women and their two children, apparently accused of involvement with the extremist Boko Haram group. Somehow, a video of the crime surfaced online. This compelling Twitter thread from BBC explains the forensic research by a network of journalists and NGOs, [including Emmanuel Freudenthal]. Using only open source tools, satellite imagery and online research, the team found the place, time and likely names of the culprits, who now face prosecution. Cameroon’s government had initially denied involvement.
One to look at:
The 1883 eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatau volcano was one of the deadliest eruptions in modern history – and the volcano is rumbling again. There have been ongoing eruptions at Anak Krakatau since June. But the volcano has had sporadic activity for decades and local authorities say there’s currently no immediate danger. NASA has released images showing unobstructed views of the volcano spewing volcanic ash and steam.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The response to Congo’s latest outbreak has been “severely limited by security and other constraints,” according to the WHO, which has warned of a looming “perfect storm”. Last weekend, 18 people died in an attack on the emerging Ebola hotspot city of Beni. The current outbreak has killed at least 100 people, and there are now about 10 new infections a week, as local resistance to vaccination persists. One case has been confirmed on Congo’s border with Uganda.
GAZA: The World Bank is warning that the Gaza economy is in “free fall,” with foreign aid no longer enough to counteract the deterioration. A new report from the bank says every second person in the Palestinian territory lives beneath the poverty line, with unemployment at 53 percent, 70 percent for youth (15-24), and 78 percent for young women.
INDONESIA: Houses have reportedly been swept away and families are missing after a tsunami sent two-metre high waves crashing into the city of Palu on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi following a series of earthquakes, the strongest with a magnitude of 7.5.
IRAQ: Protests over a lack of public services and jobs are still going strong in Iraq’s southern city of Basra, where the main water source is polluted and there is no effective water treatment system. A new desalination plant is being built but workers had to leave because of the demonstrations, and the shooting death this week of human rights activist Suad al-Ali is only likely to add fan the flames.
JAPAN: Typhoon Trami is barrelling toward Japan – three weeks after Jebi, the strongest storm to hit the country in decades. Trami has slowed after clocking 260-kilometre per hour wind speeds earlier this week, but authorities in Japan are still warning the storm will be “very strong”. It’s expected to make landfall over the weekend.
Humanitarian responses in the most complex and hostile operating environments on the planet – think Somalia, Syria, Yemen – involve working with some fairly sketchy groups. Take Syria’s Idlib, for example. As much as 60 percent of the province is controlled by the al-Qaeda-linked extremist group Tahrir al-Sham. Inevitably, especially when working through a chain of local sub-contractors, some aid is going to go astray, or bribes will have to be paid and checkpoints bunged. But how much diversion is too much when civilian lives are at stake? This question is central to our weekend read, which reviews worries in the aid sector about an increasingly tought US stance on counter-terror compliance. This analysis follows a string of reports from IRIN Senior Editor Ben Parker exclusively highlighting NGO project suspensions and closures in Syria, recent prosecutions in US courts, and new strings attached to USAID funding. Adding fuel to the fire, a new report this week by USAID’s inspector general sets the scene for a much harder line on UN funding, which is largely exempt from the most stringent oversight.
A tweet vs. the French nation
This week, a French court convicted a humanitarian worker of criminal defamation for a tweet. Yes, you read that right. Loan Torondel, who volunteered and then worked for two years with L’Auberge des Migrants, a group that assists migrants and asylum seekers in Calais, tweeted a picture of two police officers standing over a man who looks to be a migrant, sitting on his sleeping bag. The man protests that the policeman wants to confiscate his sleeping bag in the cold, and in the text of Torondel’s tweet he ironically has one officer reply: “Maybe, but we are the French nation, sir.” The French nation bit refers to a comment President Emmanuel Macron made last year that was memedad infinitum. For his own memeing Torondel (who is still on Twitter) received a suspended fine and was ordered to pay court costs. He is appealing, and rights defenders say his conviction sets a dangerous precedent and is a worrying escalation in harassment of aid workers by state officials.
As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.
Four years of uncontrolled migration starting in 2014 saw more than 600,000 people cross from Libya to Italy, contributing to a populist backlash that is threatening the foundations of the EU. Stopping clandestine migration has become one of Europe’s main foreign policy goals, and last July the number of refugees and migrants crossing the central Mediterranean dropped dramatically. The EU celebrated the reduced numbers as “good progress”.
But, as critics pointed out, that was only half the story: the decline, resulting from a series of moves by the EU and Italy, meant that tens of thousands of people were stuck in Libya with no way out. They faced horrific abuse, and NGOs and human rights organisations accused the EU of complicity in the violations taking place.
Abdu is one who got stuck. A tall, lanky teenager, he spent nearly two years in smugglers’ warehouses and official Libyan detention centres. But he’s also one of the lucky ones. In February, he boarded a flight to Niger run (with EU support) by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to help some of those stranded in Libya reach Europe. Nearly 1,600 people have been evacuated on similiar flights, but, seven months on, only 174 have been resettled to Europe.
Abdu, an Eritrean teenager, spent nearly two years in smugglers’ warehouses and official Libyan detention centres.
The evacuation programme is part of a €500-million ($620-million) effort to resettle 50,000 refugees over the next two years to the EU, which has a population of more than 500 million people. The target is an increase from previous European resettlement goals, but still only represents a tiny fraction of the need – those chosen can be Syrians in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon as well as refugees in Libya, Egypt, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Ethiopia – countries that combined host more than 6.5 million refugees.
The EU is now teetering on the edge of a fresh political crisis, with boats carrying people rescued from the sea being denied ports of disembarkation, no consensus on how to share responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees within the continent, and increasing talk of further outsourcing the management of migration to African countries.
Against this backdrop, the evacuation and resettlement programme from Libya is perhaps the best face of European policy in the Mediterranean. But, unless EU countries offer more spots for refugees, it is a pathway to safety for no more than a small handful who get the luck of the draw. As the first evacuees adjust to their new lives in Europe, the overwhelming majority are left behind.
☰ READ MORE: EU migration policies in brief
1. Discrediting of Search & Rescue NGOs:
In 2016, NGOs operating boats to rescue asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy were celebrated as heroes. By the following summer, these same organisations were under attack from European politicians who levelled unsubstantiated claims that the NGOs created a pull factor for irregular migration and colluded with smugglers. In July last year, Italy introduced a ‘code of conduct’ aimed at curtailing the activities of search and rescue NGOs that caused a number of them to stop their activities. The new Italian government, which took office in June, has repeatedly blocked NGO boats carrying people rescued from the sea from docking at Italian ports, precipitating a new political crisis in Europe over migration.
2. Training & Equipping the Libyan Coast Guard
The EU and Italy began training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, despite it being linked to smuggling activities and implicated in human rights abuses. The goal of the programme was to increase the coast guard’s capacity to intercept migrant and refugee boats at sea and return their passengers to Libya. The programme has paid dividends this year as the rate of interception and return has increased dramatically and the Italians have favoured the Libyan Coast Guard over search and rescue NGOs while coordinating the response to distress calls at sea. People intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken to detention centres in Libya where they are held indefinitely.
3. Co-opting militias
July 2017 was a turning point in the central Mediterranean. The number of people crossing from Libya to Italy was at an all time high, on pace to surpass 2016’s record of 181,000. Then, on 16 July, the number suddenly and dramatically dropped. In the following weeks, reports trickled out about the Italian government paying off militias involved in smuggling to switch their activities and begin policing the coast against departures. The Italian government denied the reports, but they have since been widely corroborated. As a result of this policy, and the increased activity of the Libyan Coast Guard, the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants to Italy has decreased by nearly 78 percent this year compared to last.
4. Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration
European policies to curb migration led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being held in Libya’s overcrowded and nominally official detention centres. Irregular entry into Libya is criminalised and there are no courts set up in the country to handle migration related cases so people who are detained are held for indefinite periods of time. By October 2017, there were an estimated 20,000 people in migration detention in Libya. Since then, according to the latest data released in March, the UN’s migration body, the International Organization for Migration, has facilitated the return of just over 10,000 people to their countries of origin through an EU funded initiative called Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, or AVRR for short. IOM emphasises the voluntary nature of the programme, but critics say it cannot be considered truly voluntary when the only choices are to remain in detention or return home. For more on this, read the first part of this series: “Homecoming”.
5. UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Mechanism
For refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Libya, returning to countries of origin where their lives could be in danger is not an option. At the end of September 2017, the EU announced it would fund a programme, organised by UNHCR, for the emergency evacuation and resettlement of people who fit into this category. So far, just under 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya to Niger, but in seven months only 174 people have been resettled to Europe.
Four months after arriving in Niger, Abdu is still waiting to find out if and when he will be resettled to Europe. He’s still in the same state of limbo he was in at the end of March when IRIN met him in Niamey, the capital of Niger. At the time, he’d been out of the detention centre in Libya for less than a month and his arms were skeletally thin.
“I thought to go to Europe [and] failed. Now, I came to Niger…. What am I doing here? What will happen from here? I don’t know,” he said, sitting in the shade of a canopy in the courtyard of a UNHCR facility. “I don’t know what I will be planning for the future because everything collapsed; everything finished.”
Born in Eritrea – one of the most repressive countries in the world – Abdu’s mother sent him to live in neighbouring Sudan when he was only seven. She wanted him to grow up away from the political persecution and shadow of indefinite military service that stifled normal life in his homeland.
But Sudan, where he was raised by his uncle, wasn’t much better. As an Eritrean refugee, he faced discrimination and lived in a precarious legal limbo. Abdu saw no future there. “So I decided to go,” he said.
Like so many other young Africans fleeing conflict, political repression, and economic hardship in recent years, he wanted to try to make it to Europe. But first he had to pass through Libya.
After crossing the border from Sudan in July 2016, Abdu, then 16 years old, was taken captive and held for 18 months. The smugglers asked for a ransom of $5,500, tortured him while his relatives were forced to listen on the phone, and rented him out for work like a piece of equipment.
Abdu tried to escape, but only found himself under the control of another smuggler who did the same thing. He was kept in overflowing warehouses, sequestered from the sunlight with around 250 other people. The food was not enough and often spoiled; disease was rampant; people died from malaria and hunger; one woman died after giving birth; the guards drank, carried guns, and smoked hashish, and, at the smallest provocation, spun into a sadistic fury. Abdu’s skin started crawling with scabies, his cheeks sank in, and his long limbs withered to skin and bones.
One day, the smuggler told him that, if he didn’t find a way to pay, it looked like he would soon die. As a courtesy – or to try to squeeze some money out of him instead of having to deal with a corpse – the smuggler reduced the ransom to $1,500.
Finally, Abdu’s relatives were able to purchase his freedom and passage to Europe. It was December 2017. As he finally stood on the seashore before dawn in the freezing cold, Abdu remembered thinking: “We are going to arrive in Europe [and] get protection [and] get rights.”
But he never made it. After nearly 24 hours at sea, the rubber dinghy he was on with around 150 other people was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which, since October 2016, has been trained and equipped by the EU and Italy.
Abdu was brought back to the country he had just escaped and put in another detention centre.
This one was official – run by the Libyan Directorate for Combating Irregular Migration. But it wasn’t much different from the smuggler-controlled warehouses he’d been in before. Again, it was overcrowded and dirty. People were falling sick. There was no torture or extortion, but the guards could be just as brutal. If someone tried to talk to them about the poor conditions “[they are] going to beat you until you are streaming blood,” Abdu said.
Still, he wasn’t about to try his luck on his own again in Libya. The detention centre wasn’t suitable for human inhabitants, Abdu recalled thinking, but it was safer than anywhere he’d been in over a year. That’s where UNHCR found him and secured his release.
The circuitous routes Eritrean and Ethiopian evacuees took to Europe
The lucky few
The small village of Thal-Marmoutier in France seems like it belongs to a different world than the teeming detention centres of Libya.
The road to the village runs between gently rolling hills covered in grapevines and winds through small towns of half-timbered houses. About 40 minutes north of Strasbourg, the largest city in the region of Alsace, bordering Germany, it reaches a valley of hamlets that disrupt the green countryside with their red, high-peaked roofs. It’s an unassuming setting, but it’s the type of place Abdu might end up if and when he is finally resettled.
In mid-March, when IRIN visited, the town of 800 people was hosting the first group of refugees evacuated from Libya.
It was unseasonably cold, and the 55 people housed in a repurposed section of a Franciscan convent were bundled in winter jackets, scarves, and hats. Thirty of them had arrived from Chad, where they had been long-time residents of refugee camps after fleeing Boko Haram violence or conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur. The remaining 25 – from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan – were the first evacuees from Libya. Before reaching France, they, like Abdu, had been flown to Niamey.
The extra stop is necessary because most countries require refugees to be interviewed in person before offering them a resettlement spot. The process is facilitated by embassies and consulates, but, because of security concerns, only one European country (Italy) has a diplomatic presence in Libya.
To resettle refugees stuck in detention centres, UNHCR needed to find a third country willing to host people temporarily, one where European resettlement agencies could carry out their procedures. Niger was the first – and so far only – country to volunteer.
“For us, it is an obligation to participate,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s influential interior minister, said when interviewed by IRIN in Niamey. Niger, the gateway between West Africa and Libya on the migration trail to Europe, is the top recipient of funds from the EU Trust Fund for Africa, an initiative launched in 2015 to “address the root causes of irregular migration”.
“It costs us nothing to help,” Bazoum added, referring to the evacuation programme. “But we gain a sense of humanity in doing so.”
Farida, a 24-year-old aspiring runner from Ethiopia, was waiting in March to move into her own apartment in France.
‘Time is just running from my life’
The first evacuees landed in Niamey on 12 November. A little over a month later, on 19 December, they were on their way to France.
By March, they had been in Thal-Marmoutier for three months and were preparing to move from the reception centre in the convent to individual apartments in different cities.
Among them, several families with children had been living in Libya for a long time. But most of the evacuees were young women who had been imprisoned by smugglers and militias, held in official detention centres, or often both.
“In Libya, it was difficult for me,” said Farida, a 24-year-old aspiring runner from Ethiopia. She fled her home in 2016 because of the conflict between the government and the Oromo people, an ethnic group.
After a brief stay in Cairo, she and her husband decided to go to Libya because they heard a rumour that UNHCR was providing more support there to refugees. Shortly after crossing the border, Farida and her husband were captured by a militia and placed in a detention centre.
“People from the other government (Libya has two rival governments) came and killed the militiamen, and some of the people in the prison also died, but we got out and were taken to another prison,” she said. “When they put me in prison, I was pregnant, and they beat me and killed the child in my belly.”
Teyba, a 20-year-old woman also from Ethiopia, shared a similar story: “A militia put us in prison and tortured us a lot,” she said. “We stayed in prison for a little bit more than a month, and then the fighting started…. Some people died, some people escaped, and some people, I don’t know what happened to them.”
Three months at the reception centre in Thal-Marmoutier had done little to ease the trauma of those experiences. “I haven’t seen anything that made me laugh or that made me happy,” Farida said. “Up to now, life has not been good, even after coming to France.”
The French government placed the refugees in the reception centre to expedite their asylum procedures, and so they could begin to learn French.
Everyone in the group had already received 10-year residency permits – something refugees who are placed directly in individual apartments or houses usually wait at least six months to receive. But many of them said they felt like their lives had been put on pause in Thal-Marmoutier. They were isolated in the small village with little access to transportation and said they had not been well prepared to begin new lives on their own in just a few weeks time.
“I haven’t benefited from anything yet. Time is just running from my life,” said Intissar, a 35-year-old woman from Sudan.
Intissar, a 35-year-old from Sudan, spent several months in Thal-Marmoutier earlier this year completing the asylum process.
A stop-start process
Despite their frustrations with the integration process in France, and the still present psychological wounds from Libya, the people in Thal-Marmoutier were fortunate to reach Europe.
By early March, more than 1,000 people had been airlifted from Libya to Niger. But since the first group in December, no one else had left for Europe. Frustrated with the pace of resettlement, the Nigerien government told UNHCR that the programme had to be put on hold.
“We want the flow to be balanced,” Bazoum, the interior minister, explained. “If people arrive, then we want others to leave. We don’t want people to be here on a permanent basis.”
Since then, an additional 148 people have been resettled to France, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, and other departures are in the works. “The situation is improving,” said Louise Donovan, a UNHCR communications officer in Niger. “We need to speed up our processes as much as possible, and so do the resettlement countries.”
A further 312 people were evacuated directly to Italy. Still, the total number resettled by the programme remains small. “What is problematic right now is the fact that European governments are not offering enough places for resettlement, despite continued requests from UNHCR,” said Matteo de Bellis, a researcher with Amnesty International.
Less than 1 percent
Globally, less than one percent of refugees are resettled each year, and resettlement is on a downward spiral at the moment, dropping by more than 50 percent between 2016 and 2017. The number of refugees needing resettlement is expected to reach 1.4 million next year, 17 percent higher than in 2018, while global resettlement places dropped to just 75,000 in 2017, UNHCR said on Monday.
The Trump administration’s slashing of the US refugee admissions programme – historically the world’s leader – means this trend will likely continue.
Due to the limited capacity, resettlement is usually reserved for people who are considered to be the most vulnerable.
In Libya alone, there are around 19,000 refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan registered with UNHCR – a number increasing each month – as well as 430,000 migrants and potential asylum seekers from throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Many have been subjected to torture, sexual violence, and other abuses. And, because they are in Libya irregularly, resettlement is often the only legal solution to indefinite detention.
In the unlikely scenario that all the sub-Saharan refugees in Libya were to be resettled, they would account for more than one third of the EU’s quota for the next two years. And that’s not taking into account people in Libya who may have legitimate grounds to claim asylum but are not on the official radar. Other solutions are clearly needed, but given the lack of will in the international community, it is unclear what those might be.
“The Niger mechanism is a patch, a useful one under the circumstance, but still a patch,” de Bellis, the Amnesty researcher, said. “There are refugees… who cannot get out of the detention centres because there are no resettlement places available to them.”
It is also uncertain what will happen to any refugees evacuated to Niger that aren’t offered a resettlement spot by European countries.
UNHCR says it is considering all options, including the possibility of integration in Niger or return to their countries of origin – if they are deemed to be safe and people agree to go. But resettlement is the main focus. In April, the pace of people departing for Europe picked up, and evacuations from Libya resumed at the beginning of May – ironically, the same week the Nigerien government broke new and dangerous ground by deporting 132 Sudanese asylum seekers who had crossed the border on their own back to Libya.
For the evacuees in Niger awaiting resettlement, there are still many unanswered questions.
As Abdu was biding his time back in March, something other than the uncertainty about his own future weighed on him: the people still stuck in the detention centres in Libya.
He had started his travels with his best friend. They had been together when they were first kidnapped and held for ransom. But Abdu’s friend was shot in the leg by a guard who accused him of stealing a cigarette. When Abdu tried to escape, he left his friend behind and hasn't spoken to him or heard anything about him since.
“UNHCR is saying they are going to find a solution for me; they are going to help me,” Abdu said. “It’s okay. But what about the others?”
The arrival in Agadez of the Sudanese – most driven from their homes in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur more than a decade ago – signalled something new: it was the first time a group of refugees and asylum seekers had travelled south from Libya in search of protection instead of north towards Europe. Once the first group arrived, more kept coming – until there were around 2,000. European policies have led to a nearly 78 percent drop in the number of people crossing the sea from Libya to Italy since July last year, but the fact that the Sudanese were compelled to head back to Agadez and that their tense reception ultimately resulted in the deportation of 132 people back to Libya speaks to a broader truth: the international refugee protection system is failing.
Read the previous instalments in this special report:
Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.
On our radar:
Migration: Boat disasters, offshoring, UN sanctions and more
No shortage of news on the migration beat. In Tunisia – which, if you haven’t noticed, is fast-becoming the latest North African hotspot for migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe – the interior minister was sacked after a boat carrying an estimated 180 people capsized off the coast. At least 112 people are dead or missing in what is now the deadliest shipwreck this year in the Mediterranean. Off the Horn of Africa, another migrant boat disaster, this time on the perilous route to Yemen and the Gulf states from Somalia (covered in our recent photo feature on Djibouti), cost at least 60 lives. These tragedies hit the headlines (well, some headlines) as news emerged that EU countries, including Austria, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, are in advanced talks about setting up “holding camps” in a country that is “not particularly attractive” to migrants – think Albania and Macedonia – to process asylum seekers. Such outsourcing or offshoring of EU migration policy has been floated before. French President Emmanuel Macron backtracked last year after suggesting Libya was a safe country for returns and that processing camps should be set up there, as well as in Niger and Chad. Speaking of Libya, the UN Security Council slapped unprecedented sanctions this week on six human traffickers, including the head of a regional coast guard unit. We could continue. And we will, next week in fact, when we begin to roll out a two-month series that offers a 360-degree view of the effects that European policies (and deals with African countries) have on the lives of migrants.
It just got harder to help desperate Yemenis
It’s also been a rough week for people requiring assistance in Yemen. On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced it had pulled 71 of its staffers out of the country, saying in a strongly worded statement that its employees “are being intimidated by parties to the conflict”, and its work has been “blocked, threatened, and directly targeted in recent weeks.” The Norwegian Refugee Council, meanwhile, says one of its buildings in Sana’a was bombed on Tuesday, despite the aid group having provided the Saudi Arabian-led coalition with its coordinates to avoid just this sort of thing. Oh, and a World Food Programme ship was attacked last weekend after dropping off its cargo at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, where aid agencies continue to warn that a looming battle will have "catastrophic humanitarian impact". Whodunnit? So far we’ve seen a fair bit of fingerpointing, but not much clarity.
Blasts and ballots in Iraq
At least 18 people were killed and 90 wounded in a Baghdad explosion on Wednesday night, although government sources differ on what caused the blast, which has been chalked up to both the detonation of an arms cache and terrorism. Either way, the deaths happened in the mostly Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City, a stronghold of nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose parliamentary bloc won elections last month. About that vote... On Wednesday, parliament, citing allegations of widespread fraud, ordered a manual recount of all 11 million ballots and banned members of the country’s electoral commission from travelling abroad without permission. Stay tuned for Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod’s upcoming coverage from Iraq, where all is not what it seems.
First look: life inside the fight for independence in Cameroon
Two Cheat Sheets ago we highlighted an urgent plea for France to get involved and help avert a full-scale civil war in Cameroon. Since then, the conflict between government forces and anglophone separatists has intensified. Dozens of armed men who claimed to be separatists were reportedly killed by the Cameroonian armed forces at the end of May after they were surrounded in their makeshift headquarters in a hotel in Menka, a small town in the troubled Northwest Region. IRIN contributor Emmanuel Freudenthal recently became the first journalist to gain access to the separatists, spending a week with them at their secret camps deep in the bush. Next week, we’ll bring you his exclusive first-hand account, offering the first proper look from inside their struggle for independence – at the fighters, their motivations, and the impact on the lives of civilians.
Our weekend read:
Peace deal on the line in pivotal Colombia vote
On 17 June, Colombians head back to the polls for a presidential run-off that is shaping up as a referendum on the country’s divisive peace deal. Voters will choose between a former leftist guerrilla and a right-wing populist promising to overhaul a 2016 peace accord that ended to a half-century conflict between the state and FARC guerrillas. Frequent IRIN contributors Magnus Boding Hansen and Tomás Ayuso have been reporting from Colombia as election day nears. Their dispatch from Bogota, our weekend read, explores how the current favourite, Iván Duque of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, has tapped into frustrations with the 2016 peace deal. Former President Juan Manuel Santos rammed through the accord (with a few tweaks) even after it was shot down in an earlier referendum. “We want peace, but not without justice,” said one Duque supporter. The winner of the upcoming vote will take leadership of a country with pressing humanitarian concerns: more than 6.5 million people are displaced within Colombia’s borders, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have also surged in, fleeing an economy in meltdown.
That outflow of Venezuelans extends far beyond Colombia, by the way. The number of Venezuelans applying for asylum in the European Union has spiked: more than 2,300 people lodged asylum claims in EU countries in April, according to recent statistics – there were only 150 applicants in February 2016. It’s the first time Venezuela has appeared among the top five countries of origin for asylum applications in the EU, joining applicants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.
Emergency basics: Food, shelter, and education
Putting a child in front of a teacher might just save her life, just as much as food, water, or healthcare. But less than five percent of tracked emergency funding goes to education, and about two thirds of UN-led appeals for educational aid in emergencies go unfunded. That was the message this week from advocates arguing for more attention to education in emergency settings. Being in school can make a child better able to cope with stresses and risks today and make better choices in the future, according to a briefing paper issued for the donor-focused event in Geneva. While school might not be as literally "life-saving" as food or medicine, the argument for education as a category of "humanitarian" spending appears to have been won, but resources are slow to appear.
The EC's humanitarian arm, ECHO is ramping up its spending (from 1 percent in 2015 to 8 percent in 2018), while Norway and Switzerland are leading advocates for the issue, too. The two donors called the event, along with UNICEF and Save the Children, on behalf of groups working together as the education "cluster". There's work to be done: in northeastern Nigeria, over 2,300 classrooms need to be built or fixed due to damage by Boko Haram extremists who are anti-"Western" education, according to local education administrator Shettima Bukar Kullima. The northeastern Nigerian state of Borno spends 26 percent of its budget on education, but Kullima said more help was needed -- for things like training 21,000 teachers how to deal with psychosocial strains among pupils. Appeals for emergency education in West Africa are particularly poorly funded, at just 22 percent, even though education in the region is a "battle zone for ideology."
(TOP PHOTO: IOM Yemen staff assist a migrant who survived drowning. CREDIT: IOM)
Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.
On our radar:
Maybe these migrants need Le Spider-Man
In the past week or so, Mamoudou Gassama has scaled four storeys to save a child dangling from a Paris balcony, met with French President Emmanuel Macron, been promised citizenship tout de suite, and joined the French fire brigade. There’s no questioning the extraordinary heroism of the 22-year-old Malian, dubbed “Le Spider-Man”. But there is room for debate about the French government’s treatment of migrants who are not superheroes. France’s parliament is debating a bill that would speed up the deportation of migrants and failed asylum seekers, and on Wednesday police cleared out a makeshift camp in northeast Paris where 1,600 people had been living in squalid conditions. Perhaps a superhero will come to their rescue.
Libya: 4 leaders, one peace plan?
Like so many migrants headed for the Mediterranean and Europe, Mamoudou Gassama is reported to have passed through Libya on his journey to France. It’s a hellish journey, in part because there is no single government and plenty of space for people traffickers to do as they please. This week, four competing Libyan leaders met in Paris to sign a “roadmap to peace”, which is different from the UN’s peace plan (Crisis Group has a helpful briefing for the understandably bewildered). Nothing was actually signed, but elections were set for 10 December. It’s not clear yet how all this will really play out, and the bevy of press releases surrounding the meeting are likely cold comfort for 125,000 residents of Derna, in eastern Libya, who are low on food, water, and medicine as fighting intensifies around them. Look out for our Libyan coverage as part of a deep dive into the effects of EU and African migration policies.
Nigeria’s lesser-known threat
If you think the biggest threat to civilian lives in Nigeria is posed by Boko Haram, think again. The extremist group was responsible for 78 civilian deaths between January and April of this year, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, or ACLED. Over the same period, Fulani militias killed 217 people. One of the largest ethnic groups in the Sahel region, numbering 20 to 30 million, the Fulani are semi-nomadic cattle herders who travel long distances in search of pasture. In Nigeria, drought over recent years has seen them move from their traditional areas of concentration, in the north, to central regions where they have come into conflict with farming communities. President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani and in failing health, has been “slow to respond” to what Africa Confidential describes as just “one element of a wider problem of rampant criminality [that is] either ignored or encouraged by local politicians.” Citing this report, analyst Simon Allison of the Institute for Security Studies cautions: “To lay all the blame on ethnic Fulani militias is to miss the point.” The issue is set to dominate public discourse ahead of next year’s elections. We’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, you can get up to speed with former IRIN Africa Editor Obi Anyadike's deep dive from the region last year: The deadly conflict tearing Nigeria apart (and it's not Boko Haram).
Neglected: Afghans returning from Iran
Aid groups and the Afghan government are fretting over Pakistan’s threats to kick out some 2.5 million refugees and undocumented Afghans. We recently reported from the Spin Boldak border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where many returnees are entering the country only to find that their homes are behind active front lines and unreachable. Not a lot has been said about many more Afghans who are streaming in from Afghanistan’s neighbour to the west: Iran. Under the radar, 300,000 Afghans have returned home from Iran this year (aid groups estimate total returnees from Pakistan this year at around 15,000). Why so many from Iran? A faltering economy is one problem – Iran’s currency has plummeted by 30 percent over the last year. Aid agencies say returnees from Iran include many vulnerable people: unaccompanied children, single women, and those suddenly deported by Iranian authorities. Yet few humanitarian groups are working at the border crossing in Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province through which most returnees from Iran pass. While aid agencies offer food, medical help, and transportation to the majority of people driven out of Pakistan, barely five percent of returnees from Iran get any assistance at all.
To improve the aid sector, think like Starbucks
May 2018 marked two years since the UN held its first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, meant to re-shape the way aid is delivered to millions of people around the world. Now that the dust has settled, and despite many pledges and high-level agreements, the international humanitarian response system is not radically different than it was before this three-year, multi-million-dollar process. Partly as a reaction to that lack of substantial progress, in 2017 the Overseas Development Institute convened a group of humanitarian aid workers, researchers, independent observers, and others generally described as “rebels and misfits” – including IRIN’s director – to try some outside the box thinking. Applying the same, human-centered methodology Starbucks uses to improve its customer experience, the group’s members spent six months employing “design thinking” to re-imagine a humanitarian system that works better for its end users. They came up with – and in some cases prototyped – ideas as far-reaching as abolishing UN agency mandates and as simple as creating community-led response funds (read the full re-cap of the process and its outcomes here). Intrigued? A podcast series puts those ideas up against some scrutiny, and researcher Christina Bennett’s commentary for IRIN offers a practical three-step reform guide.
Meet another cheat sheet – on Pacific food security
Naturally, we can appreciate a handy cheat sheet here on the Cheat Sheet, so here’s one on food security in the perennially under-covered Pacific region. The “regional food security atlas”, produced by the Pacific Community and the World Food Programme, offers a swift overview on food challenges across a vast and diverse region hit by frequent natural disasters. Rapid urbanisation, a changing climate, and unpredictable disasters pose problems for food security across the Pacific Islands. In the last year alone, Pacific countries were hit by tropical cyclones, drought, and severe flooding – multiple times in some cases. In Papua New Guinea’s highlands region, there are worries over long-term food security after a February earthquake wiped out the home gardens that many relied on to feed their families. Aid groups estimate that more than 150,000 people will continue to need food assistance.
Much of the media attention on the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has focused on the vaccination campaign. This is not wrong. Not only could the first major deployment of this experimental vaccine prove a major life-saver right now in Congo and help prevent a major epidemic in the wider region, but it could also hold the key to preventing and containing Ebola outbreaks in the future. But as the World Health Organisation’s head of emergency response, Peter Salama, admitted: it only takes one infected person to travel down the Congo River to Kinshasa to greatly increase the catastrophic potential of this current crisis. So take a bit of time this weekend to read about what IRIN journalist Issa Sikiti da Silva found when he visited the port city of Mbandaka (where three people have died from the virus). He found confusion and no small amount of anger over monitoring – or lack of it – at embarkation points along the river. What people can’t understand is: if the risks are the same, why is the airport screened but not the busy river traffic? The answer probably lies in the impossibility of screening hundreds, if not thousands, of small embarkation points that dot the length of the Congo. The strategy to contain this outbreak appears to be based on tracing people who have come into contact with confirmed Ebola cases and vaccinating all those who’ve been near infected parties, not on monitoring the river for infected passengers who might have escaped the net. We sure hope it works.
TripAdvisor for donors?
Which donors and donor countries are the best to work with? A new survey ranks the helpfulness and influence of donors, according to their clients – the developing country officials who have to deal with them. The Geneva-based vaccine provider, GAVI, heads the list of the most helpful, followed by the International Monetary Fund, UNICEF, and the World Bank. In terms of influence, the IMF comes top, while China and India show the fastest rise since 2014, according to the study from the College of William & Mary, a US university. Education is the most important sector for progress, according to the poll, which canvassed opinion among 3,468 developing country officials and local development workers. Given a chance to rank 16 sustainable development goals, schooling came out top in most regions, while climate change and preserving the oceans tended to come last. It's an unusual take on the development marketplace – a sort of TripAdvisor for donor countries.
The vast majority of Turkey’s 3.7 million refugees do not live in camps, and as a report from the International Crisis Group points out, hostility towards Syrians in the cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir is growing. At least 35 people died in violence between refugees and locals last year. One tried and tested (elsewhere, at least) avenue towards coexistence is education. Turkey plans to phase out refugee-only schools where students study in Arabic by the end of 2018 and shift them to the Turkish curriculum in the Turkish language. How and if this will work is not yet clear – watch this space for an update soon.
Meanwhile, Turkish troops and their Syrian allies are working together in a very different sort of way, fighting US-backed Kurdish troops in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin. So far this has meant loss of life and mass displacement, but this week a key advisor to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan added a new dimension, saying he expects tens of thousands of Syrians to return to Afrin after the military operation is complete. Given current violence (not to mention the sentiments of the Kurdish residents of Afrin) this does seem a stretch, but might it provide a window into Turkish strategic thinking?
America’s endless war
The death of four US special forces soldiers in Niger last year continues to resonate in the US media. In a reconstruction of the soldiers’ final hours, The New York Times this week also told a broader story of the sprawl of US military intervention around the globe. Initially based on a narrow mandate after 9/11, US special forces are now engaged in an almost unlimited war. Previously unremarkable Niger is now the Department of Defence’s second largest deployment in Africa outside Djibouti. And that footprint will be larger still once a giant drone base in Agadez is completed. Joe Penny of the Intercept does a comprehensive dive into the issues, from the constitutional legality of the base, to the political economy of Agadez and, vividly, local opposition to the US presence.
Also noting the potential for destabilisation, War on the Rocks warns that “terrorism is not a useful lens for understanding violence in the Sahel, nor is counterterrorism a proper policy response”. Indeed. And a new Rand report sifts through historical data from around the world and concludes that US military assistance is “associated with increased state repression and incidence of civil war” rather than stability. If you need to know where to avoid, see IRIN’s map on foreign military bases in Africa.
Disaster insurance: dull but fast
Days after powerful Cyclone Gita barged across Tonga’s main island last week, a new disaster insurance scheme paid out more than $3.5 million to help the Pacific Island country’s recovery. The World Bank says it’s the first payment made by the Pacific Catastrophe Risk Insurance Company, which was set up in 2016 to support select countries in the disaster-prone Pacific Islands. Proponents say disaster insurance is an innovative solution for quickly dispatching funding where it’s needed, even if the concept itself may sound rather dull — as an IRIN op-ed pointed out during last year’s destructive Caribbean hurricane season.
Funding for disaster preparedness and response is a big issue in many Pacific Island countries, where resources are scarce and aid is often slowly filtered through the labyrinthine international system. But while disaster insurance may act fast, it’s still just one part of the overall funding picture. After Cyclone Pam struck Vanuatu in 2015, the pilot predecessor of the Pacific insurance scheme released $1.9 million directly to the country within two weeks. Total losses and damages, though, were pegged at more than $400 million — two thirds of Vanuatu’s GDP.
Sorry, say British NGOs
In a sign of mutual solidarity that took some time coming, 23 UK NGO executives promised to do more to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse. In a joint letter, Oxfam, Save the Children and other major groups tried to shore up public confidence following a toxic scandal, while not denying they may have a problem: “As we take every necessary step to right these deep wrongs, we also have a clear responsibility to ensure that the communities we seek to help are not the ones punished for our mistakes.” The move comes after the glare of publicity moved, at least temporarily, onto Save the Children from Oxfam; former Save CEO Justin Forsyth stepped down from his job at UNICEF after his own workplace misconduct at the British agency was exposed by the BBC. The priority measures highlighted in the joint letter were: more funding, better systems and legal methods for work references and background checks.
Why are children dying from measles in Indonesia?
Vaccine-preventable measles is killing children in Indonesia’s Papua province and pointing an international spotlight on the central government. Measles and malnutrition have killed dozens of children in the eastern province since an outbreak began last October, according to the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm. It’s become a sensitive issue for the Indonesian government: a BBC journalist was ejected from Papua after tweeting photos of food deliveries.
Indonesia’s military has for decades suppressed an independence movement in Papua and West Papua. Today, the two provinces lag behind the rest of the country on a range of key health indicators; infant, child and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the country. The outbreak comes after Indonesia had touted a large-scale measles vaccination campaign (half-funded by major international donors), leading critics to question why vaccinations hadn’t reached children in the Papua district hardest hit by the outbreak.
Drownings, deportations, recriminations and xenophobia: the vestiges of France’s colonial past provide the ingredients of a rolling migration crisis in the present-day Indian Ocean. A risky sea crossing has claimed the lives of up to 10,000 people since 1995. The unresolved crisis sees some 20,000 people a year thrown out from a tiny speck of France near Madagascar to the neighbouring island nation of Comoros. The whole situation adds up to lives uprooted, hopes dashed, and a surprising source of support for the right-wing party of Marine le Pen in France. IRIN visited Mayotte to find out more.
Last month, Ousseni Souffiani’s life was turned upside down. He had lived in a hillside shantytown on the island of Mayotte, but a torrential downpour swept his flimsy home away, killing his wife and four of his children who were sheltering inside.
Like many other Comorian immigrants on Mayotte, a speck of French territory in the Indian Ocean, Souffiani’s home was a banga – made of corrugated sheet metal.
All that was left after the tragedy was an old foam mattress and a refrigerator, half-buried beneath the rubble.
When IRIN met Souffiani several weeks later, he was carrying an empty pot covered in cloth. He and his only surviving child, a six-year-old son, were going to a friend’s to ask for food. “We’re starting over at zero,” he said.
Souffiani had most recently worked as a labourer on a manioc field. But his life, like that of other undocumented migrants who’ve made the dangerous sea crossing from the Comoros – just 90 kilometres away – is a precarious one. They face discrimination, and are fearful of being caught by the government’s deportation machine.
Mayotte was once one of the four main islands in the Comoros, all under French control. But during the decolonisation period in the 1970s, it alone voted to join Paris rather than an independent Comoros, splitting the archipelago.
Despite its far-flung location and Comorian claims to the island, Mayotte has most of the trappings and advantages of an official French department – including membership of the EU.
A mirror image of the Mediterranean
So, just as migrants cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, Comorians cross a thin strip of the Mozambique Channel to reach Mayotte and the chance of a better life, usually on small kwassakwassa fishing boats.
As in the Mediterranean, these boats are often in poor condition – they are frequently seized, so smugglers don’t use their best vessels – and they are overloaded.
About 7,000-10,000 Comorians – more than one percent of the islands’ population – died on the crossing between 1995 and 2012, according to a report from the French Senate. Many local observers cite higher figures, and the Comorian authorities claim it is “the world’s largest marine cemetery”.
French border patrols catch several kwassakwassa per night. In most cases, the people on board are deported the very next day. Mayotte has a population of just over 200,000, and yet manages to deport about 20,000 people each year.
Mayotte is exempt from certain French immigration laws, and the border police do not always respect those that do exist. In a report last year, France’s human rights commission condemned the quick deportations in Mayotte, where most migrants don’t even see a lawyer or a judge before expulsion.
The commission wrote that seeking asylum in Mayotte was “mission impossible” and that this “worrying phenomenon” was unique in France. For Comorians, these difficulties are compounded by the fact that they believe themselves to be on their own land when they are on Mayotte.
The people of Mayotte and the Comoros have a common, if complicated, ethnic background, with ancestors arriving over the centuries from Africa, islands in the Pacific, Madagascar, and the Middle East. They also share a language and religion.
Most people on the islands speak some form of the main Comorian language, Shikomori, and adhere to the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam.
Yet the long-settled Mahorans (people of Mayotte) resent the large presence of other Comorians on their island, which puts pressure on public services. Schools are now full of children from the other islands, and at Mayotte’s main hospital, most of the women giving birth are undocumented migrants.
Mansour Kamardine, one of Mayotte’s two representatives in the French parliament, considers the Comorian presence an “invasion” and regularly bemoans the grand remplacement of his island’s population. In 2016, he said Mayotte was on the verge of a “civil war”. In legislative elections last year, he easily won a seat in Paris.
Comorians wait in line outside the office for foreign affairs in Mayotte
Anti-migrant sentiment was also evident in the presidential election a few months earlier. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right party, received significant support in Mayotte, even though most Mahoran voters are Muslim people of colour – not Le Pen’s normal supporters (only about one percent of Mayotte’s population comes from metropole France).
Some Mahorans refer to all other Comorians, no matter which island they’re from, as mdzwani, a slur derived from the name of the closest Comorian island. In 2016, a series of violent evictions by anti-migrant mobs left Comorians camped out in city squares.
In an online manifesto, one local group claims migrants insult, rape, rob, plunder, and burglarise the people of Mayotte, and disfigure the landscape with their banga huts.
But not all Mahoran agree with this depiction of Comorians. Ambidi Said Mattoir, a Mahoran activist who believes his island should still be part of the Comoros, says that many who speak out against immigration are hypocrites who employ undocumented Comorians in their homes and their fields. Without the labour these migrants provide, the economy might collapse, he told IRIN.
The “Dreamers” of Mayotte
Like undocumented “Dreamers” in the United States, people who were brought to Mayotte at a young age often grow up to find themselves treated like foreigners.
Chakour Ali, a 20-year-old electrician, came to Mayotte with his mother on a kwassakwassa when he was five. He hasn’t left since. His request for nationality has been pending for more than two years; he’s still awaiting a response.
In the meantime, he can’t work legally or continue his education. He’d like to study electrical engineering. He graduated from high school two years ago, but now that he’s an adult he’s at greater risk of deportation.
If he had papers that would let him come and go, Ali says he would visit his father on Grande Comore. But, having no memory of the island, he has no interest in living there. “I know nothing about the Comoros,” he told IRIN. “I wouldn’t know how to live there.”
France helped create the tensions now visible among the Comorian population.
In the 1970s, the Comoros voted for independence, but France retroactively interpreted the vote island by island – a way of holding onto Mayotte, the one island that had voted against independence.
In splitting the Comoros, France violated a UN mandate and an agreement with the Comoros to respect existing boundaries during decolonisation. This led the UN to repeatedly condemn France’s occupation of Mayotte, including in a resolution from 1976, just after the split.
In 1995, France introduced a “Balladur” visa requirement for Comorians wishing to travel to Mayotte. The visa was expensive and required an invitation from a Mayotte resident, so most Comorians turned to the kwassakwassa, and the death toll started to climb.
Billboards in the Comoros proclaim that “Mayotte is Comorian and always will be”, “Balladur visa = legalised genocide”, “[International] law is flouted in the Comoros”, and so on.
Over the decades, France upgraded Mayotte’s status, with the support of the Mahoran people, who consistently voted for closer ties to France. But some activists say the referendums were masquerades controlled by France and influenced by French propaganda.
In 2011, in order to fulfill a campaign promise by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy, France made Mayotte a full overseas department – a move that enraged Comorians. Last year, current French President Emmanuel Macron made an insensitive joke about the kwassakwassa boats, causing another diplomatic row with the Comoros.
Yet in September, a new French policy seemed possible: Paris announced a “road map” to opening up travel restrictions between the Comoros and Mayotte so that people would stop risking their lives to make the treacherous journey.
However, many Mahoran protested the plan, seeing it as too soft on illegal immigration. The original road map has now been scrapped and the Balladur visa requirement remains in place, the Mayotte prefecture told IRIN in an email.
Nowhere to go
After the accident in which Souffiani lost his family, his entire shantytown was deemed unsafe. The local government forced everyone out of their banga. However, for most people, including Souffiani, emergency housing was provided for only three weeks (for documented residents, it was three months).
Several people in the community told IRIN they had nowhere to go; they just wanted to return to their banga. Though these huts seem makeshift in construction, many are hooked up to the electricity grid, and some families have televisions and refrigerators. Souffiani will have to rely on his friends until he can once again afford such amenities.
As a young man, he crossed to Mayotte and spent years saving money, then went back to the Comoros to start a business selling clothes. But customs fees, corruption, and political instability derailed his business – the Comoros has endured more than 20 coup d’états in the four decades since independence.
Souffiani and his family ended up on a kwassa kwassa back to Mayotte so the children could receive a good education. That education is what he still wants for his six-year-old boy. “His future is what’s on my mind,” he explained simply.
TOP PHOTO: Deported - the Mayotte authorities daily send home Comorian migrants
Thousands of people have died trying to make the hazardous Indian Ocean crossing
Mayotte: the French migration frontline you’ve never heard of
Ventimiglia is idyllic. It sits just across the Italian border from the French Riviera. The piercingly blue waters of the Mediterranean churn against its rocky beaches, and its buildings, painted in earthy pastels, back up against the foothills of the Alps. On Fridays, the normally quiet streets are bustling with French tourists who cross the border by car, train, and bicycle to shop in its famous markets where artisans and farmers sell clothes, leather items, fresh produce, truffles, cheeses and decadent pastries. Families with young children and elderly couples stroll along the streets and sit at sidewalk cafes or eat in one of the many restaurants along the shore.
But just a short walk from the town centre, another set of visitors inhabits what seems like an entirely different world. These people are mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety, economic opportunity, or both. For them, Ventimiglia is a bottleneck – one of many points where people get stuck along the long and brutal migration trail stretching from east and west Africa into northern Europe.
Their Ventimiglia consists of rows of blanket-laden mattresses under a bridge; a crowded, volunteer-run information point where they can charge their phones and use the internet; a secluded riverbank where they wash their clothes; long lines at a local charity where they wait in turn to shower and receive their morning meal; and a parking lot where they whittle away time playing football, sitting, watching, and waiting to try to cross the border to France.
This Ventimiglia is a purgatory. On the dividing line between two of the founding member states of the EU, it is a distillation of the neglect and trauma asylum seekers experience at each step of the desperate journey towards Europe, and a place where their dreams of a better life begin to crumble.
A volunteer-run service in Ventimiglia offers internet and a place to charge mobile phones
Forced to cross illegally
Home to 24,000 people, Ventimiglia is just five miles (eight kilometres) from the French-Italian border. Its railway station is the last stop in Italy before the tracks crossover into France. The economy is reliant on the free movement of people and goods across the border, a benefit of the Schengen Agreement, which abolished passport controls within the EU. But in June 2015, as an unprecedented number of asylum seekers were crossing the Mediterranean for the second year in a row, France reintroduced border checks in an attempt to stop refugees and migrants from entering its territory.
Ventimiglia was already one of the major transit points for thousands of people who landed in Italy but who wanted to move on to northern European countries with better social services and stronger economies. At the time, Italy was not fully enforcing the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to apply for protection in the first EU country they enter, and there was already a growing wave of Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment across the continent that was prompting governments to try to keep the crisis at bay.
The reinstated border controls did not prevent asylum seekers from crossing into France; they only made it more difficult. Instead of simply taking the train across the border, asylum seekers are now forced to pay smugglers, or to take riskier routes along railroad tracks or dark and winding roads at night or even over dangerous mountain passes that take two or three days to cross. Since September last year, at least eight people have died attempting these routes. “That people should be dying to cross from Italy to France in 2017; that’s just disgraceful,” said Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia.
Even when asylum seekers do make it across, a 1997 agreement between Italy and France allows French police to push them back if they are found within certain areas close to the border. As a result, people often have to try multiple times before they can cross successfully. Those who are sent back end up staying in Ventimiglia until they try again.
At any given time, there are between 300 and 900 asylum seekers in the small town. The majority of people when I visited at the end of October were from Sudan, and there were also people from Chad, Eritrea, and other sub-Saharan countries. A recent spike in arrivals to Italy from Tunisia and Algeria also led to an increase in the numbers of North Africans trying to cross the border to France. Most people stay at a camp set up by the Red Cross a several-mile walk outside town or sleep rough under a bridge closer to the few services that exist in the town centre.
On a warm afternoon in late October, a young man carrying two backpacks wandered into the parking lot next to the bridge. Wearing a heavy coat and a winter hat emblazoned with a British flag, he put his bags down, unzipped his jacket and, without missing a beat, raised his hand to join the football game being played on the asphalt in front of him. A murmur went around that he must have tried to cross the border earlier that day and had been sent back.
The two-hour walk from the border back to the parking lot was well known by many of the people gathered there. Regardless of how asylum seekers try to cross, if they are caught in French territory they are taken to a police station on a road overlooking the coast and then sent walking up the hill, across the border, to the Italian police station on the other side. The Italians register their arrival and sometimes put people on buses that take them to Taranto, 750 miles away in the heel of Italy’s boot. If they aren’t sent to the south, the police let people go and they continue the walk back to Ventimiglia.
But the difficulties often start well before the border.
The most obvious way to get to France from Ventimiglia is by train, and most asylum seekers try their luck this way at least once, even though the odds of making it are long. Late one Sunday morning, I boarded the train at the station in Ventimiglia and found Hussein, 16, and Jawahir, 18, sitting in one of the cars. Both of them were from Sudan and had arrived in Italy recently from Libya, where they had faced torture and abuse. “[The smugglers] took plastic bags, held a lighter to them and let them drip on my foot while they made me talk on the phone to my family,” Jawahir was saying. But his story was interrupted when Italian police officers boarded the train and began checking the carriages and bathrooms. Hussein and Jawahir scrambled from the train and had already disappeared from sight by the time I followed them out onto the platform.
I boarded the train again and it rolled out of the station, gliding past the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean and then plunging into dark tunnels as it headed along the jagged coastline towards the border. There were a couple dozen tourists scattered throughout the cars, and the ride lasted no longer than 20 minutes before we pulled into Menton-Garavan station, the first stop in France.
When the train doors opened, a handful of French police boarded wearing black rubber gloves and did a sweep of the cars while several officers stood by outside making sure no one snuck off before the sweep was complete. When I exited, one man from North Africa, who had evidently evaded the police on the Italian side, was standing against the wall of the station pleading with the officers in French. Two police vans idled in the parking lot waiting to take whoever was caught that day back to the border.
Special rules for children
Outside the station, holidaymakers strolled leisurely along the corniche and through a pop-up market next to the sea. The sun was out, and some people were lounging on the beach and splashing in the water even though it was the end of October. In the centre of town, the restaurants were full of people enjoying platters of seafood for their Sunday lunch, and there was a man playing Spanish guitar in the middle of a historic square with a woman dancing along beside him.
There was no hint of the asylum seekers camped out under the bridge six miles away, trying with stubborn tenacity to reach this place – until I returned to the train station. The afternoon sun had slid behind hazy clouds, and the breeze now carried an autumnal chill. About 10 minutes before the train back to Italy was due to arrive, French police brought a group of asylum seekers to the platform. There was a family with three young children – two of them barely toddlers – and a young man who sat against a wall as police officers hovered nearby.
Families, women, and unaccompanied minors are often sent back on the train instead of being taken to the border. The pushback of unaccompanied minors is particularly problematic. According to the Dublin Regulation, they are supposed to be afforded a 24-hour waiting period before being returned. During this time, authorities are obligated to establish if the minor has family connections in the country where they were found, which would take precedence over sending them back to the country where they first arrived. The European Court of Justice also ruled that, unlike adults, children should not be required to apply for asylum in the country they first entered the EU. So, pushing them back across the border without informing them of their rights, trying to establish if they have family members in the country, and giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum is against France’s legal obligations.
Unaccompanied minors make up a big percentage of the people who are trying to cross the border and who are being sent back. In 2016, the charity Caritas, which runs a shelter in Ventimiglia for children and other particularly vulnerable people, hosted 3,000 unaccompanied minors. And those are just the ones who were counted. Alessandro Verona, a doctor working with the Italian NGO INTERSOS, estimates that up to 35 percent of the people sleeping under the bridge in Ventimiglia are also children and, since many of them never enter the shelter, they are uncounted in the statistics. “The ‘French Dream’ or the ‘English Dream’ is very strong on these youngsters,” Verona said.
The young man being sent back from the station in Menton was from Sudan. His name was Hamed, and he was 15 years old. The officers escorted him on board the train and stood guard outside the doors waiting for it to leave. Later, he showed me the refusal of entry form he was given by the French police. Most of the sections were not filled out, but it clearly stated his date of birth as 1 January, 2002.
Hamed had been in Italy for less than a month and arrived in Ventimiglia only four days before. He had already tried to cross the mountains into France, but was sent back that time as well. When the train reached Ventimiglia, he walked onto the platform and out of the station like any other passenger and made his way back to the bridge.
Why not stay in Italy?
On a cold night, I sat in the parking lot next to the bridge speaking with Adam, a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan. The football matches had ended after the sun went down, and now around 300 other people were in the parking lot waiting for volunteers to arrive and serve dinner. Adam was tall and had a warm smile and a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck. He had been sleeping under the bridge for close to two weeks and had already tried to cross the border three times.
“The first time we tried, we went by train and were sent back,” Adam said. “Another time we tried in the mountain pass. We saw so much danger and so many difficulties. We saw death. We walked in the mountains for two days before we arrived to an area on the French border. We arrived and they sent us back again. Three days in the mountains. On the third day they sent us back.”
Another time, he tried walking along a road. After eight hours, the police caught him and sent him back. Now, he had paid a smuggler and was waiting to try to pass again. “We’re still sleeping under the bridge in the cold,” Adam said. “There’s no safe place. It’s difficult. There’s food and other things, but it’s not enough. Hopefully, it will only be for a period of time and then it will be over.”
I asked him why he didn’t want to stay in Italy. “We heard from people who came here before us that they had housing for a period of time and then they were kicked out,” he said. “That’s a problem. There’s no housing and not much money.”
Adam wanted to go to England “because of the language”, he said, switching from Arabic into English and flashing his smile. “I have little English.” His wife and five children were in Saudi Arabia, where Adam had worked as a migrant labourer. He left and came to Europe because his family did not have documents in Saudi Arabia, which made it difficult for his children to get an education or access resources like medical care. And going back to Sudan wasn’t an option because he was worried about conflict and instability. He wanted to bring his family to Europe so they could be somewhere safe and stable, and where his children could get an education. “You want to live like a human,” he said.
His stay in Ventimiglia had been frustrating and demoralising, but he was still determined. Every time I left the parking lot at night Adam would say: “I hope you don’t find me here tomorrow.” It seemed to him like the French were making people suffer unnecessarily by making it difficult to cross the border. “They know that anyone who is trying to enter France, we will try and try, again and again. Why put these difficulties and make the way risky?” he asked. “We know that we will enter. There’s no other solution. Why put these punishments?”
Life in limbo
A recent report by the Refugee Data Project documented a lack of access to sanitation, clean drinking water, food and medical care for asylum seekers in Ventimiglia. Out of 150 people surveyed, 42 percent knew someone who had died trying to cross the border, and over 40 percent said they had experienced violence from both French and Italian police, including verbal abuse, physical assault, and being tear-gassed. Sixty-one percent of people said that they had been taken by Italian police and deposited in Taranto. “There are some guys who went to Taranto four or five times. It is something that destroys you physically and mentally,” a volunteer named Sara, who asked me not to use her last name out of fear of police harassment, told me.
Some asylum seekers sleep rough under a bridge near the town centre
For the time that people are stranded here, life takes on a soul-crushing routine. They arrive after their long journeys and find a place to sleep in the Red Cross camp or under the bridge. They wait in line for food and toilets or simply go to the bathroom by the river. They wait in line to charge their phones and use the internet; wait in line to pick up warm clothing to guard against the cold at night. They sit by the parking lot watching the afternoon football matches until the sun goes down, and then they wake up the next morning and do it all over again. The municipality and local residents are hostile to their presence because they are afraid the asylum seekers will scare away the tourists that the town’s economy is dependent on. And then there are the attempts to cross the border, and being sent back over and over again. And all of this after people have already been through so much to make it this far.
The endless journey
On my last afternoon in Ventimiglia, I bumped into Hashem, a 22-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker I’d met a couple of weeks earlier in Rome. He was walking towards the sea with a friend and asked if I wanted to come along. As we meandered towards the rocky beach, he said he didn’t know the streets – he had only arrived the night before, and Ventimiglia was foreign to him. He came to Europe because he wanted a better life. “I was a refugee in my own country. The village where I was born in Darfur was burned to the ground,” he said. The people he grew up with are scattered. Some are in other countries in Africa and others made it to Europe, Canada, and the United States. “I wanted to do what you do,” Hashem told me, asking what he should study to become a journalist. He hadn’t graduated from high school in Sudan, but picked up newspapers and read whenever he could.
“The things I experienced in Libya were very hard,” he said. His disappointment with Europe was evident. “After what we experienced, we deserve better than this.” But on some level he understood. So many people like him had come before and it’s hard for European countries to house them all, support them financially, and help them find work. But what other choice did he have? “The future I want is impossible in Africa,” he said. “Good schools are only for the wealthy and there is no freedom.”
We knelt on the rocky beach for a minute listening to the soothing rush as the waves crashed and then pulled back out to sea. The sun was starting to set in the western horizon, turning the jagged coast of France, only five miles away, into a hazy silhouette. Hashem’s plan was to try to cross to France and then Germany and apply for asylum. He wanted to pretend to be a minor. That way, he hoped he wouldn’t have an issue with the Dublin Regulation. “I’m so skinny because of what I’ve been through. People will think I’m younger,” he said with a sad laugh.
He asked me about whether it would be possible for him to finish his studies and go to university. He was smart and determined, but also tired and obviously scarred by his experiences. He had plans for his future. But what he’d been through already was so difficult. Would he be able to continue on – especially now that he felt so unwanted, unwelcome, and unsupported where he was?
I thought about a conversation I’d had the night before with Alessandro, the doctor from INTERSOS. He had described the journey from people’s home countries to Italy as a rush. “Your shadows will not catch you,” he said of the traumas people are escaping and experience along the way. But when they get stuck in Ventimiglia, that changes. “You stop yourself under a place that is full of these shadows – full of these nightmares – with all these people with the same problem, and you stop because you don’t know what to do anymore… All of the thoughts are coming back, and then you lose your strength. The resilience is gone.”
When people finally cross into France, it is still not over. There are more borders that are closed and more bridges in other cities where asylum seekers sleep rough at night. And then, when someone finally reaches their destination and applies for asylum, “most of the time… Dublin will make them come back,” Alessandro said. “You find yourself back in Gorizia, back in Bolzano, back in Ventimiglia, back in Torino,” he added, repeating the names of places along the migration trail through Italy. Even once they’ve arrived, the long and brutal journey doesn’t end.
Foreign military intervention in Africa is controversial when it happens, and occasionally controversial when it doesn’t.
It’s a symptom of the fragility of African states, and the power of external interests. The long and inglorious history of intervention runs from colonial and post-colonial struggles, through to the Cold War, and up to the present day.
But we are now in a complex, multipolar world. The “war on terror”, the arrival of China, and the emergence of regional powers, jostling for influence, has complicated the map. Nothing better illustrates this than the spread of foreign bases on African soil.
The twin hotspots are the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. “It’s where Europe touches Africa, and where Africa touches the Middle East,” explained the Africa director for the International Crisis Group, Comfort Ero.
The Sahel controls the migration route that conveys young men and women across the Mediterranean. It’s also a zone of instability, where al-Qaeda, so-called Islamic State and Boko Haram operate. It’s where state administration and even basic services are absent, encouraging that flow.
From bases across the region, US drones and French soldiers have joined African armies to push the militants into the remote hinterlands. But blasting Jihadists from the sky does not win the hearts and minds argument.
“The challenge is, despite the rise of new security structures in the last few years, they haven’t done much to change the [political] dynamic on the ground,” Ero told IRIN.
Those alliances also give leaders like Idriss Déby in Chad and Ismaïl Omar Guelleh in Djibouti some regime security and a pass on their dodgy human rights record.
And Guelleh has milked it. Djibouti lies on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to the Suez Canal, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. It’s also a waypoint between Africa, India, and the Middle East, and makes a lot of money from hosting seven armies – America, China, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, and soon Saudi Arabia.
The lease on the only permanent US military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier is $63 million a year. China, building its own facility at the other end of the Gulf of Tadjoura, gets a bargain at $20 million. Only Iran seems to have been refused a berth in Djibouti.
The following is a rough guide to whose boots are where in Africa.
Djibouti: China is building its first overseas military base at the port of Obock, across the Gulf of Tadjoura from the US Expeditionary Base at Camp Lemonnier. It’s the latest in China’s $12 billion investments in Djibouti, including a new port, airports and the Ethiopia-Djibouti rail line. The base will have the capacity to house several thousand troops, and is expected to help provide security for China’s interests in the rest of the Horn of Africa.
Chad: Headquarters of the anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane. The roughly 3,500 French troops operate in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Niger: An air transport base at Niamey international airport to support Germany’s growing troop contribution to the UN mission in Mali.
Madagascar: India’s first foreign listening post was set up in northern Madagascar in 2007 to keep an eye on ship movements in the Indian Ocean and listen in on maritime communications.
The Seychelles: Has allocated land on Assumption Island for India to build its first naval base in the Indian Ocean region. The ostensible interest is counter-piracy, but India also seems to be keeping an eye on China.
Djibouti: Since 2011, a contingent of 180 troops has occupied a 12-hectare site next to Camp Lemonnier. This year, the outpost will be expanded. The move is seen as a counter to Chinese influence, linked to a new strategic engagement with Africa, underlined by the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development held in Nairobi last year.
Somalia: Ankara’s first military base in Africa is a training facility for Somali troops. Turkey has steadily increased its influence in Somalia, with major development and commercial projects. In 2011, then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first foreign leader to visit Mogadishu since the start of the civil war.
United Arab Emirates
Eritrea: In 2015, the UAE began developing the mothballed deepwater port of Assab and its 3,500-metre runway, capable of landing large transport planes. Assab is now the UAE’s main logistics hub for all operations in Yemen, including the naval blockade of the Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hodeida. In return, the isolated Eritrean government has received a financial and infrastructural aid package.
Libya: Operates counter-insurgency attack aircraft and drones from Al-Khadim airport in eastern Libya in support of the Libyan National Army fighting jihadist militants.
Somalia: The UAE trains and equips Somalia’s counterterrorism unit and National Intelligence and Security Agency. It also supports the Puntland Maritime Police Force, which is believed to have played a role in interdicting Iranian weapons smuggling to the Houthis.
Somaliland: The UAE has a 30-year lease on a naval and airbase at the port of Berbera. Last year, Dubai Ports World won a contract to manage and double the size of the port, ending Djibouti’s monopoly on Ethiopia’s freight traffic. The UAE is reportedly providing military training and a security guarantee to the self-declared independent territory.
Central African Republic: US special forces are based in the “temporary sites” of Obo and Djema, helping the Ugandan army hunt for Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army
Democratic Republic of Congo: Dungu is another “temporary site” used in the hunt for Kony.
Djibouti: Camp Lemonnier, a 200-hectare expeditionary base housing some 3,200 US soldiers and civilians next to the international airport. Home to the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa of the US Africa Command, it is the only permanent US military base in Africa.
It’s hard to see the silver lining around a year as awful as 2016, but a few good news stories did emerge. Here are some recent successes from the humanitarian world, with our caveats:
Paris Agreement enters into force
Given that 2016 broke a number of unenviable global warming records, it seemed advisable that the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, adopted by 195 countries in the French capital in December 2015, should come into force and be implemented in good time. The first, easier part was achieved surprisingly quickly – enough parliaments had ratified it even before delegates gathered in November in Marrakesh for Paris’s follow-up meeting, COP22. But as for implementation, the devil is in the detail, and much will depend on whether countries live up to the nationally determined contributions that underpin the Paris accord. Plans are now in place for countries to sign off on a new rulebook that envisages them taking responsibility for their own progress from 2020.
Parched earth following a drought in northern Afghanistan. The region has been hit by increasingly unpredictable weather, with most experts agreeing it is an effect of climate change.
Caveats: There is the small matter of a climate change denier, namely Donald J. Trump, being elected president of the country that has been the driving force behind the Paris agreement. And, even if President Trump can’t (and/or doesn’t choose to) torpedo one of the last remaining planks of his predecessor’s legacy, the accord could still be too little too late. Analysis shows that even if national targets are fully implemented, the world will be 2.7 degrees warmer by the end of the century – a temperature rise that would have disastrous consequences.
IS loses ground
In a year of bad and worse news, the fact that so-called Islamic State is being forced off the land it controls is a chink of light for those civilians who have known the horror of its rule. The group has been kicked out of key holdings in Iraq – Ramadi and Fallujah – and lost al-Shaddadi in Syria’s Hassakah province, and Manbij near the Turkish border. Libyan forces backed by US airstrikes recently finished off the group in Sirte. It now holds no territory in the country, although members are still active. And the Iraqi army and its allies are now making slow progress towards Mosul, its last stronghold in Iraq – victory there would leave Raqqa in Syria as its major territorial holding, although it is resurgent in and around Palmyra.
Caveats: We’re loath to call any military campaign ‘good’ – the Iraqi military’s assault against IS in Fallujah involved a punishing siege, and there have been many reported cases of retribution (often by allied militias) against civilians after liberation. And then there are the civilian casualties of course – those IS has been said to use as human shields or execute for attempting to flee, and those killed in coalition airstrikes, not to mention the innocent victims of the more relentless bombing campaigns ordered by the Russian and Syrian governments. There’s also growing concern that as IS-controlled territory shrinks, the group will increasingly turn its attention to sowing chaos in the sort of attacks regularly seen in Baghdad, and recently at a Christmas market in Berlin.
That said, it’s hard to forget the jubilation of those liberated from IS rule – women smoking cigarettes, men cutting the beards they had forced upon them, and church bells ringing.
Peace in Colombia?
In November, Colombia’s Congress approved a peace deal with the FARC rebel group, bringing an end to more than half a century of fighting and – proponents hope – allowing the country to begin a process of healing. The deal will see FARC disarmed and demobilised, and its assets used for victim compensation. The group will form a political party, and have a guaranteed 10 seats in Congress. If the agreement, seen as tougher on FARC than the original version Colombians rejected in a plebiscite two months earlier, ends the bloodshed in Colombia, it’ll be a massive win for the country. More than 260,000 people have died in the conflict, mostly civilians, and nearly seven million people have been displaced.
Celebrations in Bogota after the signing of a series of accords that paved the way for a permanent ceasefire between FARC and the Colombian government
Caveats: While supporters waved flags as the deal was signed — and President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize before the “no” vote — not everyone is celebrating. Opposition leader and former president Alvaro Uribe argues Colombia is still letting the rebels get off easy. He walked out of Congress before the vote. Behind the politics, there are real concerns about justice: fighters who have confessed to war crimes will not serve time in prison. And with FARC promising to break its links with the drug trade, the country’s coca growers, who insist they are doing what they must to get by, are afraid their livelihoods are threatened. Plus, history in Colombia has shown that reintegration will be anything but easy.
Canadians sponsor refugees
In September 2015, the image of Aylan Kurdi, a dead Syrian toddler lying face down on a Turkish beach, galvanised the Canadian public. Canada has had a private sponsorship programme since 1979, allowing groups of individual Canadians to finance the resettlement of specific refugees. Besides making a financial commitment, sponsors provide practical and emotional support as the refugees settle into their new homes. In late 2015 and early 2016, the programme was scaled up to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election promise to fast-track the resettlement of 25,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of February 2016. While Europe has shored up its borders and Trump has promised to reduce refugee resettlement to the United States, the Canadian government has struggled to find and screen sufficient numbers of eligible refugees to meet the demand of willing sponsors. Canada’s model of private sponsorship helped inspire a Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative that launched in Ottawa in December. Several other countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and New Zealand are now implementing their own private refugee sponsorship programmes and interest in this approach continues to grow.
Caveat: Funding for the refugees, whether privately- or government-sponsored, is only in place for one year, while many need longer to integrate and become self-sufficient. A Senate committee has called on Trudeau’s government to allocate more resources as a matter of priority.
Ebola vaccine “100% effective”
This came very late in the year, at the start of the holiday season, and was overshadowed by lots of headlines about celebrities dying, so you might have missed it. On 22 December, The Lancet medical journal published findings from the trial of an experimental Ebola vaccine involving 11,000 people in Guinea. Not a single person vaccinated contracted the Ebola virus and the vaccine was found to be well tolerated and to produce a rapid immune response after just a single dose. The study also highlighted the importance of discovering that trials such as this one, called “Ebola ça Suffit" (French for “Ebola that’s enough”), could be conducted in the challenging aftermath of epidemics and still be effective. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa claimed more than 11,300 lives, mainly in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, between 2013 and 2016. “While these compelling results come too late for those who lost their lives during West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, they show that when the next Ebola outbreak hits, we will not be defenceless,” Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general for health systems and innovation at the World Health Organization, and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
Caveats: Not required (Good news, no strings attached).
(TOP PHOTO: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne welcome Syrian refugees Kevork Jamkossian and his daughter Madeleine who were among 163 Syrians to arrive in Canada on 10 December 2015. PMO of Canada)