Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • A “manufactured” Brexit migrant crisis masks new risks ahead

    In late 2018, small flimsy boats carrying mainly Iranian migrants began to arrive on English beaches from France, navigating the world’s busiest shipping lane. Such voyages are not unprecedented, but in Britain’s current political climate, as Brexit looms, they provided for a sense of heightened panic.

    According to Home Office figures, 312 migrants entered Britain by crossing the Channel in 2018. In the same timespan, Europe received more than 116,000 sea arrivals, with 2,242 migrants known to have drowned in the Mediterranean. Yet by the end of December, weeks before Tuesday’s vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the British government had declared the crossings a “major incident” and deployed navy warships to the waters.

    Migrants’ rights organisations cried foul.

    “It’s a manufactured crisis,” said Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network, a charity that works with unaccompanied asylum seekers. “The government is using it to harden attitudes to Brexit, playing into ideas of an invading army trying to get to our shores when what we’re talking about is a few bedraggled people in boats with hypothermia.”

    Author Gulwali Passarlay, who fled Taliban-run Afghanistan as a teenager in 2006 – arriving in the UK from Calais hidden in a truck full of bananas – said the UK was overreacting to the migrant boats but blamed harsh deterrence policies for encouraging the phenomenon in the first place.

    “Eleven years ago [in Calais] there was no discussion about crossing by small boats; I don’t think people thought it was possible. But the British government has done everything they can to prevent people from coming here. Smugglers always find riskier routes, and they wouldn’t exist if there were legal and safe ways for them to travel. The ‘serious incident’ is [not the crossings but] the reasons those people had to flee their homes in the first place.”

    Beyond the Channel arrivals, migration experts warn that post-Brexit Britain may encounter an asylum upheaval as it leaves EU mechanisms, and that a hidden crisis requiring the attention of British politicians is the risk of large numbers of EU nationals becoming undocumented due to registration complications. They suggest that Brexit has exposed sharp divides over immigration and that uncertainty is growing for migrants and refugees looking for a future in Britain.

    The Iranian asylum case

    On 2 January, Home Secretary (interior minister) Sajid Javid, one of several potential successors to May as prime minister, prejudged the migrants’ asylum validity, saying: “You are coming from France, which is a safe country… but if you were a real, genuine asylum seeker then you could have [claimed asylum] in another safe country. If you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure you are ultimately not successful.”

    Aid groups working around the ports of Calais and Dunkirk suggest that after the French government dismantled the tented ‘Jungle’ camp in October 2016, the population became much more vulnerable. Maya Konforti from L’Auberge des Migrants said treatment by French authorities does not encourage migrants to claim asylum in France and most are motivated to continue due to connections in the UK.

    “They live in horrible conditions, are chased by the police every other day, and their tents and sleeping bags are taken,” she said. “If someone offers them an opportunity to cross [to the UK], they will take it. And often they have family there, they speak good English, and they heard UK is the best place to go.”

    Konforti’s organisation noted that during a November census, 38 percent of the 493 people counted in Calais were Iranian.

    Political repression and depressed economic conditions in Iran are regularly stated reasons for leaving, but a visa-free travel agreement between Tehran and Belgrade may have facilitated the exodus. Signed in August 2017, it allowed Iranians to fly legally to Serbia and thus skip much of the treacherous clandestine route to Europe. More than 15,000 Iranians visited Serbia since the agreement, which was abolished in October 2018 under EU pressure as it became obvious that planes were arriving full of passengers and departing nearly empty.

    Speaking by phone from Belgrade, Miodrag Cakic from Refugee Aid Serbia said: “Initially they were here legally as tourists and so able to go to hotels and had no need to approach NGOs. Only later we started to see the unsuccessful ones coming back from the borders, having run out of money over their legal stay and needing our help.”

    Despite his doubts over the Channel migrants’ validity, Javid’s own department’s statistics for the year ending September 2018 reveal that Iranians had a 47 percent success rate in gaining asylum in the UK (not including figures after appeals).

    Choppy political waters

    In the year up to the referendum in June 2016, a record 284,000 EU citizens arrived in the UK, whereas 289,000 came to Britain from outside Europe.

    For years, ruling Conservative Party policy has been to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, a target apparently unachievable even if EU migration was reduced to zero. Nevertheless, ending freedom of movement from Europe was a key priority for Brexit’s 'Leave' voters, and press coverage of refugees trekking through the Balkans only reinforced this position.

    Despite Britain being largely insulated from the European refugee crisis, it was a trope used by pro-Leave campaigners during the 2016 referendum. Brexit, voters were told, would enable Britain to regain control of its borders. Paradoxically, the opposite may be true.

    As an EU member, the UK is signed up to the Dublin regulation, which states that asylum seekers can be returned to the country where they were first registered on the Eurodac fingerprint database. The law is tailored to enable wealthy northern European states like the UK to outsource asylum responsibilities to poorer southern members such as Italy and Greece where most migrants enter.

    Steve Peers, professor of EU and human rights law at the University of Essex, said Brexit could obstruct Britain’s ability to bounce back migrants to Europe.

    “Without the deterrence of Dublin returns there could possibly be more people coming that would be harder to send back,” he said. “The UK could try to agree bilateral agreements with individual countries, but it would be on the back foot having to negotiate that from scratch. If there’s no [Brexit] deal, the Dublin system will stop immediately, and pending cases could stop too.”

    The UK’s privileged class of EU membership includes opt-outs on many asylum and immigration matters, such as the borderless Schengen area – the EU’s troubled relocation mechanism designed in 2015 to redistribute migrants around the bloc.

    Instead, in 2015, the British government announced an expansion of a scheme to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees from the Middle East by 2020. So far, 12,851 have come by this method – a total over more than three years that approximates to the average daily arrival on the Greek islands at the height of Europe’s refugee influx.

    New challenges for EU migrants

    In the middle of the migrant boat furore, Javid – the son of a Pakistani bus driver who arrived in 1960s Britain with £1 in his pocket – outlined new plans for a post-Brexit ‘skills-based’ immigration system, including limiting low-skilled migrants to short-term visas and a minimum salary threshold for the highly skilled (originally mooted as £30,000). Some observers noted that Javid’s proposals would have prevented his own father from building a life in Britain.

    From March, Britain’s 3.7 million EU citizens will need to begin applying for ‘settled status’ to remain in the country after Brexit. This process, which costs £65, will be managed by the Home Office, a department that is habitually plagued by immigration scandals.

    One of 2018’s biggest political stories in Britain revealed that the Home Office had wrongly deported, detained, and denied services to hundreds of Commonwealth citizens after accusing them of not possessing documentation they never knew they needed. The plight of the ‘Windrush generation’ – named after the ship that brought the first passengers across from the Caribbean to fill post-World War II labour shortages – engulfed May’s government for months.

    The University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory has suggested that potentially tens of thousands of vulnerable EU citizens, without help, may risk not securing their status. The risk for these people is that they become ensnared in the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies.

    Pierre Makhlouf from the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees said Javid’s new measures could sow the seeds for a future Windrush-style scandal as EU nationals who failed to register encounter problems later on: “We are talking about more than three million people now having to regularise themselves in a way that has never been required before. I have no doubt that we will see an increase in undocumented people in the UK.”

    Most political observers predict parliament will vote down May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the government has begun preparing for food and medicine shortages, transport chaos, and civil disorder in case Britain leaves the EU on 29 March without a deal.

    In May, a UN special rapporteur said the referendum had contributed to an environment of increased intolerance and racial discrimination. Whatever the Brexit outcome, the changes coming, against a backdrop of polarised views over immigration, present new challenges for vulnerable migrants.

    (TOP PHOTO: French gendarmes patrol on the beach near Calais on 9 January 2019 as they try to intercept migrants attempting to cross the Channel. CREDIT: Philippe Huguen/AFP)


    A “manufactured” Brexit migrant crisis masks new risks ahead
  • Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Militant attacks spike in Nigeria

    More than 30,000 people have fled fighting in northeastern Nigeria's Borno State, most from Baga on the shores of Lake Chad, as attacks by Boko Haram and its Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) offshoot increased in recent weeks. The UN has expressed concern about the flood of newly displaced people into the state capital, Maiduguri. The impact of the fighting has been "devastating and has created a humanitarian tragedy,” said Edward Kallon, head of UN operations in Nigeria. Meanwhile, the Nigerian army said it had cleared jihadists from several towns, including Baga. The government has previously made claims that Boko Haram was "technically defeated". In reality, the insurgency, which began in 2009, has fragmented but continues – with an uptick in violence in some areas and jihadists targeting other countries in the region. Read more of IRIN's in-depth coverage on countering militancy in the Sahel.

    Winter has come

    Snow and flooding may affect 70,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon this week, according to the UN refugee agency. Storm Norma, bringing rain, high wind, and snow at higher altitudes, will have already passed through Lebanon by Sunday but rain is forecast for next week, adding to flood risks. So far 361 refugee sites have been affected, and one eight-year-old girl died in floodwaters. Flimsy plastic and tarpaulin structures are no match for the heaviest snowfall – one informal settlement near Arsal is said to have been “buried”. Affected refugees have had to find alternatives and aid groups are working to provide shelter, clothing, and heating. The storm follows flooding of displacement camps within Syria: more than 20,000 people in 108 camps were affected in northwestern Idlib by early January, according to Save the Children.

    Congo election result challenged

    After 18 years of Joseph Kabila’s rule, this week saw Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the largest opposition party in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared the provisional victor of long-delayed presidential elections. But another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, called the result an "electoral coup" and said he would file a court challenge against it this weekend. Since independence in 1960 from Belgium, Congo has never seen a peaceful transfer of political power. It is struggling to move on from decades of conflict and political unrest and still faces a host of humanitarian challenges, including its largest ever Ebola outbreak. There are fears these new tensions may lead to a fresh eruption of political violence across the country. Initial unrest has already included one demonstration by Fayulu’s supporters that reportedly left five civilians dead and 17 police officers injured in the southwestern city of Kikwit. Fayulu believes he won 61 percent of the vote, citing election observers from the Catholic Church, which also cast doubt on the result. Fayulu claims Tshisekedi only won because he made a backdoor power-sharing deal with Kabila's chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

    Deal or no deal? Yemen ceasefire falling apart

    The shaky ceasefire deal in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah racked up another obstacle on Thursday when a Houthi drone attacked a military parade at a base that belongs to the Yemeni army and its allies in the Saudi-led coalition. Six soldiers were reportedly killed, and the government of internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi said the attack shows the rebels are “not ready for peace”. Efforts to implement the Hodeidah agreement – reached at talks last month in Stockholm – have been hampered by differing interpretations of the text, which Oxfam this week called too vague, not to mention what a UN spokesperson described as a “lack of trust between the parties”. Watch this space for more on the ongoing diplomatic efforts not just to sort out Hodeidah – a key entry point for aid and commercial goods – but to finally end Yemen’s war.

    Exploring peace amid fresh violence in Thailand’s deep south

    The long-running Malay Muslim separatist insurgency in Thailand’s troubled south is back in the spotlight early in the new year. January has seen renewed attempts at peace talks – as well as fresh bouts of violence. Thai peace negotiators and Malaysian intermediaries want leaders of the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional to join peace talks, though it’s unclear if insurgents affiliated with the group are prepared to do so. These peace overtures come amid continuing violence in the south, including a school car bomb (blamed on the BRN), which injured a 12-year-old student, and the killing of four defence volunteers at a school. Rights groups say such attacks on civilian targets are war crimes, but they also accuse Thai security forces of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture. More than 6,000 people have been killed in violence in Thailand’s southern provinces since 2004, including more than 200 people last year, according to monitoring group Deep South Watch.

    One to listen to

    Keeping local staff safe

    Local staff continue to bear the brunt of violence targeting humanitarian groups. A guard working for an NGO in the Central African Republic was killed on 5 January, while a Syrian staff member of an international NGO was abducted and killed in Idlib. The most recent episode of the Humanitarian Incidents podcast tackles the issue of safety for local staff (including humanitarians working for subcontracted local partners). Nour Qoussaibany, security lead for the International Rescue Committee in Lebanon, speaks about local perceptions that international NGOs pay more attention to the safety of international staff, and explores what can be done to prioritise security for local aid workers. Hint to donors: boosting funding to build local security capacity would be a good start. Listen to the interview here.

    In case you missed it:

    BURUNDI: Disability NGO Handicap International (aka Humanity and Inclusion) is leaving Burundi, citing regulatory demands. In a re-registration process, the government now requires NGOs to apply a quota for the ethnicity of their Burundian staff, a measure the NGO called discriminatory and unconstitutional. [Your tips and views are welcome.]

    NEW VIRUS: A fruit bat has been found to host a previously unknown filovirus (the family that includes Ebola). In the laboratory, it can infect human cells, but the risk of transmission is unknown. According to Nature, researchers have called it Měnglà, after the area where the bat was captured in China.

    THE PHILIPPINES: At least 140 people have been killed in the Philippines since late December, when heavy rains from Tropical Depression Usman unleashed landslides and flooding in parts of southern Luzon and eastern Visayas. Philippine authorities say more than 56,000 people sought refuge in evacuation centres.

    SUDAN: Violence against protesters and medics must end, Human Rights Watch said, after a “particularly bloody” Wednesday in the Sudanese city of Omdurman. At least three people died after government forces opened fire and used tear gas against demonstrators demanding the downfall of President Omar al-Bashir. Officials say 22 people have died since protests started last month; HRW put the toll at around 40.

    WORLD BANK: World Bank President Jim Yong Kim is quitting for a role in private investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners. All previous Bank presidents have also been US citizens. As well as speculating on the backstory, observers are asking if the tradition of Washingon D.C. handpicking the candidate should continue.

    Weekend read

    Women, girls, and gender preparedness in aid

    It’s no secret that understanding how crises affect women and girls differently from men and boys is one of the keys to an effective humanitarian response. But Suzy Madigan, senior advisor for gender and protection for CARE International, says: “The talk is there, but to really put talk into action there needs to be concrete actions put behind it.” Get up to speed on gender issues in aid this weekend, not just with Madigan’s Q&A, which calls for more local women to be included in emergency response, but also with two stories from the ground that show why extra care and planning is needed. Discover how girls forced into conflict in South Sudan are finding it particularly tough to reintegrate into their communities in peacetime, and how the healthcare gap for returnees to Syria’s Raqqa affects vulnerable women.

    And finally...

    Brexit and the US shutdown

    It’s reaching crunch time for two massive news stories with humanitarian ramifications: Brexit, and the US government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s Mexico border wall. On the former, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to see her “only deal on the table” with the EU defeated in a vote on Tuesday. What’s next is anyone’s guess: she could resign, there could be a new general election, possibly another referendum, perhaps all of the above. As a rush of migrant vessels has made it across the Channel from France in recent weeks, we’ll be exploring whether the British government, in its response, has tried to manufacture a migration “crisis” to harden attitudes on immigration at this crucial juncture. On the latter, we’ve already reported on the real humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border, but look out for more on the possible impacts of a prolonged shutdown on humanitarian programmes.

    (TOP PHOTO: People carry the body of one of the attack victims during their burial ceremony at the Sajeri village on the outskirts of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, on 8 January 2019. CREDIT: Audu Marte/AFP)


    Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen
  • Sex for jobs, fake aid workers, and women responders: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar


    COP24 opens with stark warnings


    The UN climate change conference, COP24, begins 2 December in Poland, and vulnerable countries and aid groups are paying particularly close attention. Negotiators are under pressure to hammer out the so-called “rulebook” that lays the ground rules for implementing the Paris Agreement. The 2015 accord outlined broad commitments for tackling climate change – limiting temperature rise, financing to help lower-income countries, developing national climate strategies – but now negotiators must agree on how to make it all work. Nations most susceptible to climate change will be looking for consensus on limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and for more concrete commitments to climate funding – Vanuatu’s foreign minister has pledged to “optimistically but aggressively” engage at COP24, challenging climate polluters and urging progress on the divisive issue of “loss and damage” compensation to vulnerable nations. Humanitarian groups are increasingly witnessing the effects of climate change in everyday aid response. Oxfam says governments at COP24 face “life and death” decisions. For more, read our reporting on the humanitarian impacts of climate change.


    Upsurge in Boko Haram attacks


    A spike in jihadist attacks against military and civilian targets in northeastern Nigeria is undermining claims that Boko Haram has been "defeated". Around 100 Nigerian soldiers were reportedly killed in an attack on an army base earlier this month by Islamic State West Africa Province, a Boko Haram splinter group. AFP has reported at least 17 attempts to overrun army bases in the region since July. Speaking this week in Maiduguri, the birthplace of the insurgency, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said defeating Boko Haram was "a must-win war”, adding: "Our troops must not be distracted. They should be committed to the task of eliminating Boko Haram from the face of the Earth.” During the nine-year rebellion, more than 27,000 people have been killed and 1.8 million displaced. Read more of IRIN’s in-depth coverage: Countering militancy in the Sahel.


    Fake humanitarians in Gaza?


    Remember that mid-November flare-up of violence in Gaza, said to be the worst since 2014 and eventually paused by an Egypt-brokered ceasefire? It all began with a botched Israeli operation in the Palestinian enclave, and reports in the Israeli media recently emerged (based in part on information from Hamas and limited by Israel’s official military censor) that soldiers may have been posing as Palestinian aid workers, having entered the strip with forged documents. We can’t (for now) independently confirm these reports, but it’s worth noting that with Gaza’s economy in steady decline, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, says 80 percent of the area’s 1.9 million residents depend on aid to get by. Just this week, the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said a “slow-motion healthcare emergency is unfolding” in Gaza as the healthcare system is overwhelmed by the number of patients shot or injured by the Israeli army during ongoing protests.  


    'Sex-for-jobs’ scandal hits AU


    An internal investigation by the African Union has uncovered a de facto system whereby "young women are exploited for sex in exchange for jobs”. The findings, made public last week, found widespread reports of mistreatment, and said sexual harassment in particular was confirmed by all 88 women interviewed as part of the probe; youth volunteers and interns were found to be most vulnerable. The inquiry into harassment and gender discrimination was launched in May after three dozen women made allegations about what they called “professional apartheid against female employees in the commission”. In response to the findings, the continental body will establish a comprehensive sexual harassment policy – something that did not previously exist. Although the AU has made ‘women, gender and development’ a key part of its external priorities, internally, more needs to be done to protect victims and ensure perpetrators are called to account. Read more of IRIN’s in-depth coverage on #MeToo in the aid sector.


    Women in disaster response


    Women face greater risks during and after disasters, but they’re often overlooked when it comes to participating in humanitarian responses – despite sector-wide commitments to boost the role of women and girls during crises. New research by CARE International, released during the ongoing 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign, examines what’s preventing more women responders from being included, and outlines potential solutions to the problem. Social norms and discrimination may be obvious barriers to participation, but aid groups and donors must also do more to ensure women take part, the report states. Sidelining women isn’t simply unjust – it’s also a “significant missed opportunity” to make responses better, it notes. Read the research here.

    In case you missed it

    Afghanistan: President Ashraf Ghani this week announced the formation of a 12-person negotiation team aimed at striking a peace agreement with the Taliban. But it’s unclear whether the militant group is open to direct negotiations with the government, which has not been involved in separate preliminary discussions between Taliban and US officials.

    Afghanistan: At least 23 civilians were killed in an airstrike in southern Helmand Province on 27 November, according to the UN mission. The US military said it is investigating. The UN says the number of civilian deaths caused by airstrikes this year – 649 through the end of September – is the highest in nearly a decade.

    Iraq: Heavy rains last weekend caused severe flooding, displacing thousands as tents were wiped out, homes destroyed, and an unknown number of people killed.

    Measles: In 2017, cases of measles increased 6,358 percent in the Americas (fuelled by an outbreak in Venezuela) and 458 percent in Europe (driven by “falsehoods” about the vaccine), according to a new study and press release from leading health agencies warning that the disease is in a “resurgence”.

    Vanuatu: The government of the Pacific nation is telling residents of Ambae to stay away from the island, which was completely evacuated in July due to an erupting volcano. It’s unclear when – or if – the estimated 9,000 or more residents will be allowed to return.

    Yemen: The US Senate voted on Wednesday to move forward with debate on a measure that would (if it succeeds, and that’s a big if) end American military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen.


    Coming up


    In Geneva on 4 December, the UN will appeal for humanitarian funding in 2019. The UN agencies, along with governments and many NGOs, put together annual plans to respond to the most urgent emergency situations. This year the Global Humanitarian Overview sought about $25 billion, to help 97 million people, and so far got about $14 billion. Donors are finding more to give, but needs keep rising. Things to watch: How big will Yemen's appeal need to get to ward off famine? Which countries will no longer need an appeal? Which will join the sorry ranks of the world's top crises? These giant funding appeals don't include all international efforts, by the way: the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and MSF, for example, operate independently. While we’re digesting that, on 5 December, a beefy 330-page report lands, reviewing the sector over the last three years. ALNAP's sweeping State of the Humanitarian System publication is based on literature reviews, evaluations, original case studies, hundreds of interviews, surveys of recipients of aid and data analysis.


    Our weekend read


    Exposed: UNHCR's role in Uganda refugee aid scandal


    What do 15,000 solar lamps, 50,000 wheelbarrows, and 288,000 blankets have in common? It’s not a joke. Unbelievably, they are just part of the litany of waste the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, presided over in Uganda, where hundreds of thousands of civilians fled war and hunger in South Sudan needing every bit of help they could get. In February, when the scandal first broke, it was Ugandan officials in the firing line over a string of offences ranging from theft of relief items to appropriating land meant for refugees. Now, as IRIN Senior Editor Ben Parker lays bare in our weekend read, it is very much UNHCR. An explosive audit by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services reveals a catalogue of errors and mismanagement totalling tens of millions of dollars. How and why could this happen? For clues, look at the vertiginous extent to which Uganda was being held up – during a period of rising xenophobia globally – as a model refugee-hosting nation. “Does that influence the oversight and dissuade UNHCR from digging a little deeper and uncovering corruption and mismanagement? Who has leverage on who?” asks one humanitarian insider.


    And finally…


    "They think I'm different"


    A 15-year-old boy is shoved to the ground by a bigger youth, who with one hand on his throat pours water on his face saying: "I'll drown you". A viral video of a sports pitch incident in northern England has led to police charges for the bully and an outpouring of help. In a TV interview, the boy, whose family are refugees resettled from Syria in 2016, said he and his sister had put up with a barrage of bullying and name-calling at school. "When I came to the UK, I felt I was going to be safe,” he said. While the school, police, and local authorities are facing questions over their handling of the case, a crowdfunding campaign has quickly raised about £150,000 ($190,000) to support the family.




    Sex for jobs, fake aid workers, and women responders
  • African debt, Afghan voter violence, and post-Brexit Britain: The Cheat Sheet

    Here’s the IRIN team’s weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar


    Debt distress deepens

    Eight African countries – including several with humanitarian emergencies such as Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan – are in “debt distress” and a further 18 are at high risk, according to an October report by UK think tank Overseas Development Institute. More than half of the external debt in sub-Saharan Africa is from commercial lenders, governments, and bond markets, not concessional lenders like the World Bank. Average interest payments, now approaching one percent of Gross National Income, are creeping up to levels not seen for a decade. An international mechanism that helped resolve earlier debt crises, the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), is “not able to respond”, according to an ODI commentary, so there is no international mechanism that can tackle the risks to low-income countries of the latest debt landscape. One complication is that important sovereign lenders like China are not part of the debt management grouping, the Paris Club. Some low-income countries’ leaders have taken on debt “under opaque circumstances”, according to campaign group ONE. Also, if a country does default, ONE argues, “vulture funds” are on the lookout to buy questionable debts at a discount then then aggressively seek repayment. Governments around the world have racked up $63 trillion in local and external debt, according to an analysis at the World Economic Forum. A recent speech by IMF chief Christine Lagarde warned that trust, which underpins creditworthiness, “arrives on foot, but leaves on horseback.”


    Violence, voter turnout, and Afghan elections


    Afghanistan’s October parliamentary elections were the country’s most violent vote in years, according to the UN mission, which released statistics this week tallying 435 civilian casualties, including 56 deaths, over three days of polling. The UN says the bloodshed, mainly blamed on the Taliban, was part of a “pattern of attacks, threats and intimidation” directly aimed at discouraging Afghan civilians from voting. Taliban threats and violence leading up to the vote appear to have had an impact on turnout: the Independent Election Commission says less than half of registered voters cast a ballot (though there were also numerous reports of lengthy queues outside shuttered polling stations). Other election observers noted “acute violence” and low voter turnout in places like Kunduz Province. “The question remains as to whether a larger number of people will take part in the presidential election scheduled for April 2019, if the security situation does not significantly improve,” noted Obaid Ali of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.


    Meanwhile, the number of Afghans who have returned (or been deported) from Iran this year now tops 650,000, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM. Read our recent report exploring why returnee numbers are soaring.


    Mixed messages on FGM


    Female Genital Mutilation, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, is a ritual in many societies, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. It can lead to chronic pain, menstrual problems, cysts and some potentially life-threatening infections, among other complications. FGM rates among African children have shown “huge and significant decline” over the last two decades, a study by BMJ Global Health announced this week. East Africa has seen the biggest drop, from 71 percent in 1995 to eight percent in 2016. In North Africa, prevalence fell from nearly 60 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2015, and in West Africa rates dropped from 74 percent in 1996 to about 25 percent in 2017. But while campaigners welcomed the news, some advised caution saying FGM also affects teenagers and women not analysed in the study, meaning the overall numbers could still be far higher. And In February, the UN warned that the number of women predicted to be mutilated each year could rise from here to 4.6 million by 2030.


    Peace in Yemen? Not so fast


    This time last week, we at Cheat Sheet noted a possible jump-start in Yemen’s stalled peace process. Things have changed, to say the least. The UN’s envoy for Yemen has pushed back the proposed start date for talks from the end of the month to the end of the year, and the battle for Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Hodeidah has intensified. Thousands of civilians are unable to escape airstrikes and shelling, and some have reportedly been used as human shields with Houthi rebel fighters taking up positions on a hospital roof. Médecins Sans Frontières has seen an influx of war-wounded civilians at its facilities, and aid agencies are warning that their ability to deliver aid to those in need is hampered. For a raw and absorbing view from the ground, we recommend reading this piece by one Yemeni aid worker who lives and works under fire in Hodeidah.


    Dark tales in Iraq’s mass graves


    The UN documented more than 200 mass graves in Iraq in a report released this week, mostly filled with people killed by so-called Islamic State. UN estimates range from 6,000 bodies to more than 12,000, with thousands in the infamous Khasfa sinkhole south of Mosul alone. Dhia Kareem, head of Iraq’s Mass Graves Directorate, told the New York Times “the number of the victims of the mass graves is much bigger than the numbers in the report.” The UN says the evidence in the sites could help identify victims and prove crucial for future war crimes prosecutions. They also shed some light on a dark time for many Iraqis. Ján Kubiš, the UN’s representative in Iraq, said the graves “are a testament to harrowing human loss, profound suffering and shocking cruelty.”

    In case you missed it:


    DRC: In just two weeks, 61 new cases of Ebola have emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whitney Elmer, deputy country director for Mercy Corps, said the aid group is “increasingly alarmed" by gaps in the response. "We cannot overstate the risks of this virus moving to Goma or neighbouring Uganda.” This week the WHO said 308 cases have been detected, resulting in 189 deaths. Uganda also started administering Ebola vaccinations to protect frontline health workers near the border.


    IRAQ: It has been three years since Sinjar was retaken from so-called Islamic State, but most Yazidis have still not returned. Here’s the Norwegian Refugee Council’s take on the lack of reconstruction, some of our recent reporting, and a small sign of progress from MSF.


    SYRIA: Last weekend, after several false starts, the first UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy reached the deprived desert camp of Rukban, near Syria’s border with Jordan, delivering food, medicine, and sanitary goods. Rukban has become increasingly cut off from aid and other trade, and is hemmed in against the Jordanian border by the Syrian army, rebels, and the US military. The future of the camp of about 45,000 remains uncertain: Jordan and Russia continue talks on how it can be dispersed.


    US: President Donald Trump signed a proclamation on Friday morning to disqualify those who enter the country illegally from being granted asylum. But not all Americans feel that way. To learn more about efforts in Arizona to help those escaping violence and poverty in Central America and Mexico, read Eric Reidy’s series on the humanitarian situation at the US-Mexico border.


    Weekend read


    Pushed back: Rohingya repatriation and Congo’s Kasaï


    For your weekend unwind, we’d like to offer you two very different IRIN briefings linked by a common theme. First, Asia Editor Irwin Loy unpicks the thorny issue of Rohingya repatriation. It appears the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments didn’t deign to consult refugees properly before devising a plan to send them home, starting as early as next week. No one seems to know who is on a list of 2,200 initial would-be returnees or what they would be returning to. Denied citizenship and made to live in apartheid-like conditions for decades before fleeing a military crackdown labelled genocide by UN investigators, many Rohingya are fearful of being pushed back too soon. Will they say yes? A continent away, another large group of people has no choice. More than 300,000 Congolese – mostly migrant workers – have already been driven back home, allegedly violently, from Angola, ostensibly as part of a clamp down on illegal diamond mining. But the worst of it, as Africa Editor Sumayya Ismail explains, is that they’re crossing into the Kasaï region, which is trying to recover from a brutal conflict that has claimed 5,000 lives and displaced more than 1.4 million. Check out Ismail’s briefing to find out what the risks and needs are, and how the influx is already impacting humanitarian operations.


    And finally...


    A post-Brexit humanitarian ‘what if’


    What if a catastrophic Brexit led to civil war, economic collapse, and humanitarian crisis? And what if a divided population of displaced Britons needed aid from other, more stable parts of the world: say, for example, Kenya? A new British play, Aid Memoir, skewers some stereotypes about refugees and Western media coverage. Author Glenda Cooper told IRIN she wanted to provoke a fresh look at the issues of refugee representation in the media by “flipping the usual way we see asylum, migration, and refugees portrayed.” In the piece, a British teenager is sized up for a role in a fundraising appeal for Kenyan TV. To meet the hackneyed expectations of the TV producer, she has to fit in with their assumptions: including finding some ethnically-authentic fish and chips. Cooper wants to use satire to open up thinking about how representation matters in the media beyond a circle of journalists, aid workers, and academics. Her day job at London’s City University includes an as-yet-unpublished research project on migration coverage in the British media in 2017. Its findings: authority figures and NGOs were far more likely than actual migrants to be heard; and migrant or refugee women were only 11 percent of the named people in the coverage.



    African debt, Afghan voter violence, and post-Brexit Britain
  • Schemes to stop sex abuse in the aid sector off to a shaky start

    UK Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt has probably had better days. As the host of the 18 October London conference on steps to address sexual abuse in the aid sector, she went for a bumpy ride: a prominent activist conspicuously boycotted the event; a whistleblower interrupted Mordaunt’s keynote address, walking on stage and charging that victims were not being heard; and the agenda, speaker list, and planning process all came under heavy fire in private and across social media. On top of all that, critics charged that the event was elitist and white-dominated.


    Before the UK-hosted international Safeguarding Summit 2018  even began, the flagship initiative for which the conference had been intended to serve as a launching pad had already come under sharp criticism. A preview of a £10 million government scheme to work with Interpol to vet aid workers against criminal records met with dismay from development sector analysts when it was announced the day before. Most often, those critics charged, even serious cases of misconduct do not end in a criminal conviction.


    Commonly, the person is sacked or resigns, and the employer’s investigations may be inconclusive and prosecution difficult in third countries. What that means, several aid workers noted, is that any database of convicted criminals won’t catch predators.


    “The list of bad guys will be very short,” one senior aid worker said. Another NGO official said the majority of cases aren’t even reported, so there would be no trail to follow. A spokesperson for Save the Children said the project was not a “silver bullet” but hoped to use Interpol “green notices”, which can provide alerts without necessarily requiring a conviction.


    An overnight press release caused further dismay: Mordaunt announced a “coordinating” role in the vetting project – dubbed “Soteria” – for the NGO Save the Children. Several observers were surprised, others outraged: Save the Children UK is currently under investigation by UK authorities for its handling of sexual misconduct in 2015, both by its former CEO and a former senior manager. Whistleblowers have said there was a coverup, and the NGO admitted spending over £100,000 in legal fees this year to steer media reporting of the story. To award them funding in a new preventative structure “spits in the face of survivors," one experienced aid worker said.


    A spokesperson for UK Department for International Development told IRIN that Save’s role in the project does not involve DFID funding. When pressed on the suitability of involving Save, the spokesperson said that the organisation’s “expertise in dealing with these cases” and “commitment to tackling this issue” in fact made it particularly suitable for a role on the advisory board of the project.


    When told of that explanation, a senior aid worker who attended the conference sent IRIN a one-word message: “Bahahahaha”.


    A spokesperson for Save explained that the NGO’s head of safeguarding, Steve Reeves, had conceived the idea for the vetting system and in 2016 had approached Interpol, which will participate in the vetting process. When viewed in that way, the spokesperson said, DFID was joining an existing initiative, supplying “money and leadership”.


    Red flags

    The event had been intended to highlight the UK’s attempts to drive efforts to address sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse in the international aid sector. The issue leapt onto the international agenda after revelations about sexual misconduct by a senior Oxfam staff member were published in the London Times.


    Then, #MeToo and, later, #AidToo scandals and revelations snowballed, rocking public confidence and the reputations of NGOs. Media and public investigations revealed that vulnerable women, possibly under-18, had been blackmailed for sex by aid workers and public outrage greeted news of the widespread use of sex workers by expatriates in the field. The litany of cases included accounts of workplace rape, assault, and harassment that were seen to be badly handled or had been denied or covered up.


    Even in the runup to the conference, red flags were raised, according to several senior aid workers (most of them female) who monitored the planning and attended or followed the conference online. They, in messages with IRIN, pointed to criticisms that ranged from not allowing enough time for audience questions to a lack of diversity among speakers.


    The confirmed agenda and speaker list was circulated only 48 hours before the event. An attendee noted that “inclusion is such a problem still,” pointing to “a lack of brown/black/southern voices”.  


    It was with a sense of “despair”, survivor and activist Megan Nobert noted in her address, that she felt the community needed to be reminded “that the voices and lives of those impacted people” should be at the forefront. “It is easy,” she said, “to get caught up in the technical aspects of safeguarding… redrafting policies, trainings, hotlines, worrying about the media and... funding”.


    In an open letter, activist Paula Donovan declined to participate, calling the event “cavalier and offensive”. Donovan heads “Code Blue”, a campaign calling for the UN to crack down on sexual abuse amongst its staff and peacekeepers. Donovan claimed the agenda consisted of too many “powerful institutions’ appointed spokespersons”. The pain and suffering of survivors, she wrote, “should never be exploited by powerful institutions for public relations or damage control purposes”.


    Criticisms and commitments

    “It seems more about DFID and its public profile than real measures to address this long-standing problem,” one senior aid worker said, referring to the UK Department for International Development. The worker, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, added that too little attention was paid to abuses in the field.


    At the event, the audience of several hundred people who ranged from victims to government officials, heard from survivors, whistleblowers and activists and listened as a range of institutional and government commitments were made.  In her remarks, Mordaunt called for “clear, ambitious commitments” and “coordinated global action” to combat sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment in the aid sector. She said Britain and other large donors would address four main areas: preventing abuses, listening to survivors, responding “decisively”, and learning to do better.


    As Mordaunt spoke, a former Save the Children employee, Alexia Pepper de Caires, slipped onto the stage and interrupted with her own brief speech. De Caires said she was “disgusted” that Save the Children were selected for a new safeguarding role. De Caires has campaigned for the organisation’s CEO and board members to take more responsibility over its earlier failings. She said women who had worked on the issues “for decades” had been sidelined. “We do not need fancy new systems,” she noted. “We do not need technology, we need systematic change” and to understand issues of “sexism, racism, and abuse of power.”


    In response, Mordaunt gave up a later speaking slot to de Caires and other whistleblowers and survivors; former Oxfam employee Lesley Agams; and former UN employee Caroline Hunt-Matthes.

    Michael Hughes/DFID
    Agams and de Caires.

    In addition to the vetting system, several other initiatives were announced at the conference. They included a collective reference-checking system intended to prevent staff from circulating from one agency to another without their misconduct catching up with them. The effort, currently involving 15 agencies, will be coordinated by the Geneva-based aid agency consortium Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response.


    The Dutch government is backing a proposed independent ombudsperson who could investigate allegations of misconduct and abuse that organisations can’t or won’t complete themselves. The next steps may be to find an institutional home for the project and define its scope before launching field-based pilot projects. Analyst Asmita Naik, author of a 2002 report on sex-for-aid in West African relief operations, said the“most pressing need“ was “somewhere for victims to make complaints and ensure these are investigated independently.”


    A humanitarian passport scheme, in which accredited aid workers would be issued an ID card attesting to their clean records, has been backed by DFID and led by Save the Children, was also raised. Such a plan requires refinement on several levels, some conference attendees noted, as the legal and data protection issues are complex, as is the definition of “aid worker”.



    Schemes to stop sex abuse in the aid sector off to a shaky start
    Protests and objections roil UK event
  • US and UK halt key Syria aid shipments over extremist “taxes”

    The United States and Britain have abruptly stopped aid they fund from going through a key border crossing into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, with USAID saying the move is to prevent extremist groups from benefiting from taxes they impose on aid trucks.


    The freeze puts at risk supplies that help to support hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in Idlib, which is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and faces the prospect of an assault by al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces.


    The unexpected instruction to aid agencies, communicated by USAID on 26 September and Britain’s aid department DFID shortly after, forbids shipments from passing into Syria through the main Bab al-Hawa border point with Turkey.


    A spokesperson for USAID said its “partners” should “immediately cease all use of the Bab al-Hawa (BAH) border crossing between Syria and Turkey under USAID-funded awards.” USAID took the step as a “sanctioned terrorist group” is “likely incurring financial benefits from Syrian trucks accessing the BAH border crossing.”


    An aid official familiar with the Syria relief operation confirmed the measures to IRIN and asked for anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject. The US and Britain are two of the top four donors of humanitarian aid to Syria, according to UN data. The others are Germany and the European Union.


    Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group sanctioned by the UN (and therefore all its member states) as well as by the United States, controls a large part of Idlib, including the Bab al-Hawa crossing.


    DFID followed USAID’s lead after the US government told aid groups it had concerns over “taxes” levied by the civilian arm of HTS, aid officials familiar with the humanitarian system in Syria confirmed to IRIN.

    In what appeared to be a swift response to the shutdown, dual English-Arabic language statements dated 29 September from HTS’s self-styled “Salvation Government”, or civilian administration, said it would stop charging aid trucks as of 1 October.


    The Salvation Government confirmed it had been imposing “fees” on “trucks used for delivering humanitarian aid”, money that was spent on repairing and maintaining roads used by the aid trucks. The statement added that the fees would now stop so as to “relieve the suffering and hardship faced by our people”.


    However, what appear to be the official website, and Twitter and Facebook accounts for the administration of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing issued a statement on 1 October denying that it had charged aid trucks cash or in-kind fees.


    Vital aid route for many in need


    In the latter stages of Syria’s war, Idlib’s original population has swollen with displaced people from elsewhere in the country – about one third currently receive internationally-funded humanitarian food aid.


    An estimated 2.5 million people live in rebel-controlled Idlib province and the surrounding areas (excluding the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin), and as many as half have been forced to flee their homes at least once. Estimates of people in all of opposition-controlled northwestern Syria have been put as high as 2.9 million.


    Al-Assad’s government plans to retake Idlib, but a stop-gap deal between Turkey and Russia has put off a full-scale assault that could have had a “catastrophic” impact on the vulnerable civilian population, according to the UN.

    Concerns that food and other aid are being taxed or siphoned off by extremist groups have complicated aid operations in rebel-held parts of Syria this year, despite growing fears for the wellbeing of the general population.


    Bab al-Hawa has changed hands several times in the Syrian war, as rebel groups fight to control its strategic position and lucrative income.


    A Turkish news agency estimates that 1,500 trucks of aid enter Syria through Bab al-Hawa every month, as well as 4,000 commercial truckloads. A promotional video from the border crossing operator has a similar figure, saying 85,000 consignments pass through every year (roughly 7,000 per month).


    One study said that fees and duties through the key crossing point in 2015-2016 amounted to at least $3.6 million per month.


    Aid supplies from Turkey, delivered free on the basis of need, offer a safety net to the most vulnerable who lack income or resources to support themselves. Commercial trade and smuggling, both with Turkey and with the rest of Syria, provide the vast bulk of Idlib’s imports.


    Aid groups that do not rely on US or British funding will be unaffected by the donors’ move: these include Turkish aid groups and its Red Crescent, which also provide aid within Idlib but use a different crossing point not controlled by HTS: Bab al-Salaam, further to the north. The USAID spokesperson told IRIN the Bab al-Salaam border crossing “is not impacted”.



    US and UK halt key Syria aid shipments over extremist “taxes”
  • In appreciation: Barbara Harrell-Bond, refugee advocate and researcher, 1932-2018

    In the current international climate, refugees can use all the supporters they can get. But last week, refugees around the world lost an irreplaceable champion with the passing of Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond.

    Barbara worked tirelessly for more than 35 years to improve protections for refugees, to ensure that their voices were heard not only in academic research but in real-world policy debates.

    Barbara was never short of outrage at how badly refugees were being treated throughout the world. To her, fighting that injustice was the most important thing – it was all-consuming. Her research and teaching were inspirational to generations of scholars and practitioners of refugee and forced migration studies. Most memorably, she never shied away from speaking truth to power, taking on donor governments, UN bodies, large non-governmental organisations, and host governments alike. Indeed, her bold criticisms, backed by robust evidence, have inspired generations of scholars to follow her example and hold to account officials charged with assisting refugees.

    I first met Barbara in 1988 while studying anthropology at the University of Oxford. I had spent the whole year studying subjects like witchcraft and totemism – things that can make people seem more exotic than understood – and I wanted to use my training in a more useful way. My tutor sent me along to meet Barbara. I stepped into her office and found a wonderful, diverse world of people who were doing exactly what I wanted to be doing – using academic research to try to make a positive difference in the world.

    Trained as a legal anthropologist, she studied at Oxford under the supervision of eminent anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard.

    Her engagement with refugees and African studies came later, but her commitment to social justice was clear even from her 1967 dissertation, an ethnography of a deprived housing estate in the Oxford suburbs, Blackbird Leys. She went on to research law and dispute resolution in traditional courts in Sierra Leone.

    Barbara’s work on refugees began in the early 1980s. She established the Refugee Studies Programme at Oxford (now known as the Refugee Studies Centre). Run by a tiny but dedicated team, this institution quickly became a crucial resource and meeting point for academics, practitioners, and refugees themselves. Barbara led the way in establishing refugee studies as an interdisciplinary academic field. At its centre: an agenda for influencing policy and bringing a refugee-centred focus to debates about asylum policy, social integration, and refugee assistance.

    Barbara’s seminal 1986 book Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees was based on research she and a band of Oxford students and local researchers conducted in what is now South Sudan. In it, she makes the very simple argument – she was the first to agree it should not have to be made – that refugees are not helpless victims, but always and everywhere have agency, resilience, and dignity, and that this must be the starting point for any assistance. Showing how badly wrong things can go when they fail to keep this basic truth in mind, this book – as well as Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarianism (which she co-authored) – called to account those acting to aid and protect refugees. Her criticisms were always sharp, direct, and – most embarrassingly for their targets – meticulously substantiated with evidence. She did not suffer fools or egos gladly.

    I worked for Barbara in 1989-1990, helping to put together material for training courses for people working with refugees. She had me working late into the night and on weekends. I remember working on New Year's Day, stepping outside the office only to buy bread, salami, and Barbara's cigarettes. When my work permit expired after a year, she somehow managed to get it extended through a connection in the British government’s Home Office – much to my surprise, as that was a regular target (along with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR) of her strident criticism.

    These days I am less surprised; these organisations are sprinkled with people who were influenced by her, who carry with them a streak of critical boldness even as they work inside the belly of the beast.

    Many years later, when we started a master's degree in ‘Migration, Mobility and Development’ at SOAS, she told me that she was sorry we had focused on migrants of all kinds rather than focus exclusively on refugees, as she thought that the latter needed greater protection. She picked fights over this issue with many people, and she was not easy to get along with. At the same time, she was fiercely loyal to her friends, and we remained in regular contact over three decades, up to just a few weeks ago.

    Barbara’s research and teaching were inspirational to generations of scholars and practitioners of refugee and forced migration studies. She was crucial in the founding of the Journal of Refugee Studies and the Forced Migration Review – respectively the world’s leading academic and practitioner publications on refugees and displacement. She also set up the Rights in Exile web portal that provides essential information and a network of experts who provide pro bono legal assistance to asylum seekers.

    Barbara was also a founder of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration, the leading professional association for scholarship on forced migration. The association will meet next week in Thessaloniki, Greece, where she was to have received yet another lifetime achievement award, and seen the launch of a new film about her life, Barbara Harrell-Bond: A Life Not Ordinary.





    Barbara’s vision of refugee studies demanded being close to the regions and people with whom it is engaged. Disturbed by the idea of a refugee studies centre isolated in the ivory tower of Oxford, she worked with colleagues to establish the Refugee Law Project at the University of Makerere, Uganda, and refugee studies centres at Moi University in Kenya, the American University in Cairo, and others. Out of these centres have come many of the strongest and most interesting voices in refugee studies today, including academics who are or have been refugees themselves.


    Her home in north Oxford was a hive of activity – every guest was pressed into voluntary service to contribute to scholarship or advocacy on refugee issues. Refugees found safe haven there. Stray academics found purpose in her fierce commitment to social justice.

    When I now think about Barbara's legacy, I realise that almost everyone I have collaborated with or respected in the field of refugee studies has a Barbara connection. In some cases she introduced us to each other. In other cases I feel a connection to someone and only find out much later that Barbara touched their lives in some way, in some part of the world – Uganda, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, India… Whether she introduced us to each other or not, having been in her orbit changed all of us and made us into a strong, subversive, passionate clan.


    A few years ago I went to visit her again. She sat in her living room, which continued to be a cottage industry for refugee protection. Three student interns sat at computers. A fourth was cheerfully preparing lunch for everyone. They had all, like me all those years before, been seduced by Barbara's passion.


    In appreciation: Barbara Harrell-Bond, refugee advocate and researcher, 1932-2018
  • #MeToo sex scandals spur interest in standards for the aid sector

    The slew of #MeToo sexual abuse scandals that has jolted the humanitarian sector has prompted calls for proper oversight and vetting of aid agencies and workers, and for the introduction of mandatory professional standards.


    Donors have demanded new measures and reporting from grantees, and investigations have been launched by the British regulator. Critics say aid agencies operate without sufficient checks and balances and wonder why attempts to set up an independent authority, such as an ombudsman, have flopped. This, they argue, partly explains how the Oxfam scandal could happen.


    Others insist that viable systems are in place, they just need to be implemented: a leading benchmark for aid agencies, the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS), drawn up in 2014, already includes the management of risk and prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation.


    “Never has it been more important to apply the Core Humanitarian Standard,” CHS Alliance Executive Director Judith Greenwood wrote in a web posting.


    Over the last 20 years, international aid organisations and donors have set up a range of self-regulation initiatives for quality assurance, accountability, and common technical standards with which many major aid agencies say they comply.


    A handful of donors tie compliance with standards to funding. For example, Denmark makes independent CHS verification or certification a requirement for its strategic partners, and provides funding to defray the costs of compliance. A spokesperson for the humanitarian department of the Danish foreign ministry told IRIN that agencies that have “gone through a CHS verification or certification process [are] shown to have better Protection against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) safe-guarding systems.”


    As humanitarian aid professor Dorothea Hilhorst put it in a column published by IRIN, the problem now facing the sector is not a lack of standards, rather it’s the lack of third-party enforcement and meaningful sanctions. “The initiatives all rely on the voluntary buy-in of NGOs, who ultimately retain power to independently deal with abuse,” she wrote.


    The regulatory challenge


    Designing a unified body of regulations and standards is difficult when so many different types of organisations inhabit the humanitarian space. International emergency aid services are offered by NGOs and charities, faith organisations, volunteer networks, social enterprises, or philanthropic projects connected to for-profit companies. More than 600 agencies received officially reported funding (mainly from governments) in 2017, according to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service (and that doesn’t include myriad smaller and informal groups).


    But there is no international humanitarian watchdog, nor is there a directory of vetted aid groups. Each group is governed by an array of oversight and tax mechanisms in its home country and unevenly governed by the host country at the point of delivery. The organisations are not under a single jurisdiction, and neither are the staff; there isn’t an aid worker union.


    And “aid worker” isn’t a single profession: a trauma surgeon or a water engineer may hold internationally recognised qualifications, but a range of generalist roles lack a single categorisation.


    In the Oxfam scandal, for instance, it was possible for an aid worker whose conduct was questionable to be re-hired repeatedly over a 20-year period because there was no system to flag up such people and prevent their re-recruitment. But proposals for a single register of “whitelisted” aid workers, even if such a registry were legally viable, would not have stopped the re-recruitment of Oxfam Haiti manager Roland van Hauwermeiren: none of the organisations he worked with fired him, nor was he criminally prosecuted.


    Organisations and banana skins


    At the other end of the spectrum, the challenges facing smaller organisations trying to gain credibility can also feel immense.


    Reza Chowdhury, executive director of Coast Trust, a Bangladeshi NGO supporting Rohingya refugees and combatting local poverty, has spent over two years ensuring that his organisation adheres to professional standards.


    Local aid agencies like his that are trying to break into the big leagues have “banana skins” in their internal systems that prevent them gaining credibility, he said. Chowdhury said a two-year process of getting an independent certification as a humanitarian agency, culminating in an on-site audit in late 2017, has been worth it to provide a recognised seal of approval from an independent group, and get a robust review of its procedures.


    Chowdhury spoke as he was picking up a certificate from the Geneva office of the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI).The document designated Coast Trust as the 14th aid agency certified by the group – the first from the so-called Global South, or developing nations.


    Using a network of independent auditors, HQAI assesses aid organisations, usually against the CHS standards. The process involves a management audit: interviewing staff, focus groups, project beneficiaries, reviewing documents and records in the field and at the agency’s offices.

    Ben Parker/IRIN
    Coast Trust is the first southern NGO to be certified by the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI), an independent auditing and advisory service for relief aid agencies, based in Geneva. COAST gained its certificate in January 2018.

    Lately, HQAI is particularly busy, a fact the group’s executive director, Pierre Hauselmann, partially ascribes to reactions to the UK aid agency scandals. “Suddenly, HQAI services have become much more visible, from donors and NGOs alike,” he said.


    Over the last two years, the organisation has done about 35 audits, which Hauselmann says are designed to drive incremental improvements in adherence to the CHS standards. Because the process involves repeat annual reviews, “we can see the improvements from one audit to the other”, he noted.


    A trusted third-party seal of approval can make a difference to donors who are considering whether to shift more cash to non-Western aid groups, often as part of “localisation” efforts, Chowdhury said. HQAI worked with his group to align its operations with the principles and commitments set out in the CHS. In this post-scandal era, that includes showing how an organisation can act on complaints and misconduct if and when they arise.


    It’s a process that takes time, Chowdhury said, not a rapid “commando raid” by auditors. Coast Trust’s audit report included 12 “minor” recommendations, with deadlines for the group to make improvements. These included, for example, better procedures for following up complaints and data protection.


    This is not unusual, said Hauselmann: an audit without findings for improvement would itself be suspect. Coast Trust’s relationship with HQAI, Chowdhury said, is similar to a partnership, but with a watchdog element. To retain their ratings, organisations must commit to annual checkups and, if standards are not kept up, the HQAI seal of approval can be withdrawn. “The teeth exist”, Hauselmann said, but “behind a smile.” In the current climate, he added, agencies are “very wary” of losing certification.




    At least part of the answer to regulating aid workers may lie in the international standards and professional credential systems used by sports coaches and those who care for the elderly, according to a Geneva-based non-profit training provider and association, Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP).


    The group is beta testing multiple-choice examinations on skills, similar to exams offered in other professions. PHAP will soon offer a total of six exams, designed to confirm a candidate’s competence and suitability for specific aid jobs, (for example in cash distribution or needs assessment) and test their general knowledge of the sector as well as ethical foundations.


    Angharad Laing, PHAP’s executive director, said there is no shortage of volunteers to help design and test the exams. As well as taking a “nerdy” pleasure in checking questions on their specialist areas, volunteers feel a sense of community and pride, she said, approaching the project with an attitude of: “Oh wow, lots of people have been thinking really hard about how I do my work”.


    To address misconduct and underperformance, holders of credentials earned through the exams can be stripped of their professional designation after a review by a credentialed peer panel. This process is based on a system devised by the International Standards Organisation.


    Laing says some job postings now specify that candidates hold PHAP credentials. Since the UK scandals broke, she said, the HR departments of major NGOs have contacted her to discuss how they could use PHAP’s services. She believes there has been an over-reliance on agencies and organisations “holding themselves to account”.


    PHAP has 4,000 aid workers as current members and offers face-to-face training, webinars, and a professional membership structure. PHAP’s membership makes it one of the largest aid worker associations, although its members are only a fraction of the amorphous aid community: consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes estimates that there are 450,000 humanitarian aid workers worldwide.


    Technical standards


    In addition to organisational accountability and coherence, and individual competence and ethics, efforts toward stronger regulation in the aid sector must address technical issues.


    Sphere, a donor-funded standards organisation formed in 1997, brings together practitioners and experts to set minimum standards for quality humanitarian response, including targets for planning shelters, building latrines, or setting up vaccine campaigns.


    The group considers issues such as what is the acceptable number of people per toilet in emergency environments (answer: 20), or reminders not to distribute powdered milk.

    “The teeth exist”, Hauselmann said, but “behind a smile.”

    The Sphere Handbook wraps these technical materials with the CHS (of which it was a co-author) and an overarching “humanitarian charter”. The fourth edition of the omnibus publication, available in about 30 languages, will be issued later this year, said executive director Christine Knudsen.


    Enablers or barriers?


    Standards in general are not a barrier to new or small NGOs and newcomers to the sector, Knudsen insisted. In fact, she added, they provide a framework for good practice and comparability.


    Knudsen pointed out that standards and certifications only demonstrate whether an organisation has the structure to do quality work. They are “an enabler, rather than a predictor” of quality, she said.


    Hauselmann of HQAI said that previous attempts at third-party audits and independent assessments had suffered because of a perception that they are “a tool to sanction”. Instead, he stressed, they should be seen as one of the “most important drivers for improvement”.


    However, Nicholas Stockton, former head of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership and a veteran of earlier initiatives to improve standards, doesn’t believe NGOs can achieve effective collective self-regulation.


    After revelations of sex-for-aid abuses in West Africa in 2002, there was a “moral panic”, and new initiatives were established, he wrote in an online comment on IRIN. Gradually, however, “business as usual resumed and a growing sense of impunity and hubris grew, and with it the ever-increasing danger of unmanaged moral hazard that has now been blown open.”



    #MeToo sex scandals spur interest in standards for the aid sector
  • Mosul women, Myanmar clashes, and a massive NGO fine: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a roundup of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.


    Abuse uncovered in Yemen


    Yemen’s three years of war have been hell for civilians, and as we highlighted last month in these stunning photographs by Benedict Moran, that includes the African migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who continue to arrive on the country’s shores. This week, both Human Rights Watch and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, put a spotlight on the horrific conditions these men and women face. HRW reports that Yemeni government officials tortured, raped, and executed migrants and asylum seekers in a detention centre in Aden, possibly aided by UAE-backed forces. The increasing dangers for these migrants – laid bare in the testimonials of former detainees – are just one more reason Yemen so desperately needs peace. All eyes then on the new UN special envoy and what he needs to finally get negotiations going.


    Another conflict in Myanmar


    Far from the international spotlight and the reach of humanitarian aid, an escalating conflict in northern Myanmar continues to trap civilians. The latest clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Kachin Independence Army forced some 2,000 people to flee last week, after what the EU’s humanitarian aid arm called “indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas”. The civilians, including pregnant women and the elderly, have sought shelter in a remote forest and are unable to leave, according to the UN’s humanitarian coordinator. The conflict in Myanmar’s north has largely flared out of view, especially with international attention focused elsewhere on the Rohingya crisis. But as IRIN reported in January, new government restrictions have cut off access and squeezed aid to a trickle for the 100,000 displaced civilians in Kachin and northern Shan states. “While the whole world looks at the Rohingya crisis,” a local aid worker told IRIN, “our suffering gets overshadowed.”


    Read more: In northern Myanmar, a long-forgotten conflict flares out of view


    Thinking beyond aid for the Rohingya crisis


    With close to 900,000 Rohingya now living in Bangladesh and the prospects of returns to Myanmar dubious at best, the international community needs to think beyond traditional humanitarian aid. A new briefing from the Centre for Global Development suggests a way forward: a far-reaching agreement between Bangladesh’s government and donors that would support refugees while also focusing on longer-term development. Such a pact would encourage Bangladesh to reform policies so that Rohingya refugees could better support themselves and one day contribute to the local economy: more freedom of movement, legal access to jobs and the education system, for example. In return, the international community could expand trade preferences for Bangladesh, create new opportunities for Bangladeshi migrants, and fund new development that would benefit both Rohingya refugees and the local communities straining under the weight of new arrivals. The proposal mirrors broader discussions for a so-called global compact on refugees, aimed at finding new ways, beyond traditional short-term aid, for donors to share the burden, which mostly falls to the lower-income countries that host the vast majority of the world’s refugees.


    Huge NGO fine for US counter-terror violations


    In one of the largest cases yet of an NGO falling foul of counter-terror law, the United States has fined a European NGO $2.025 million for working with Iran and with "terrorist" Palestinian groups in Gaza. Like other US grantees, Norwegian People's Aid had declared annually that it did not support entities sanctioned by the United States over the last 10 years. However, it turns out it worked on mine clearance for an oil project in Iran from 2001 to 2008. According to the NGO, the work, contracted by a Norwegian company, was not humanitarian, but intended to deliver revenue for the organisation's charitable activities during a time of "problematic" finances. The United States has long designated Iran a state sponsor of terrorism. The other NPA infraction was to work on a training activity in Gaza from 2012 to 2016 that involved dealing with Hamas and two other Palestinian political groups on the US sanctions list. NPA said it disagreed with the fairness of the claim but “had accepted paying the settlement to reach closure".


    In a statement, USAID said this was the second settlement of its kind: in 2017, the American University in Beirut had to pay $700,000 for including prohibited groups in media training, as well as just for listing another group on its website. According to US data, NPA received an average of $13 million per year from 2010-2016 from the State Department and USAID. US funds were not involved in either case. IRIN estimates that US funds represented 10-15% of NPA's income in 2016.


    More #MeToo: Bad PR all round?


    The chairperson of Save the Children International, Alan Parker, is resigning. The UK branch of the NGO and Parker, a partner at public relations group Brunswick, have come under fire for the handling of misconduct by former CEO Justin Forsyth and advocacy director Brendan Cox. Revelations from leaks and whistleblowers led to Forsyth quitting his job at UNICEF, while Cox left positions in charities linked to his late wife. On the 11th of April, the charity regulator for England and Wales announced an enquiry into how the trustees handled "misconduct and harassment of the charity’s staff".


    Former senior USAID official Jeremy Konyndyk tweeted his approval of the move:



    Interestingly, the enquiry will also look into whether the board "made decisions around public handling and reputation management on the historic allegations appropriately". So, is the PR man's PR about bad PR also under review? Journalists reporting on the issues mentioned a flurry of legal letters from Save the Children demanding changes to news before and after publication. Perhaps the Charity Commission can get an answer to the question IRIN asked some time ago: who paid those expensive lawyers to hassle the press covering Save the Children? (Unsurprisingly, we received no response.)


    Our weekend read


    Where women in Mosul go for therapy


    As we reported some time ago, the statistics on mental health provision in Iraq were stark even before the emergence of so-called Islamic State and the collective trauma that followed. Few were exposed to as much of that horror as the women of Mosul: freedom lost, religious police enforcing extremist rules as the tentacles of Da’esh spread through the country’s second city; then arrests, disappearances, public stonings, even of young girls. The liberation wasn’t swift either, nor painless: a year of airstrikes, mortar shells, and artillery taking civilian lives as well as those of the militants; IS snipers shooting those attempting to flee, others taken as human shields. This is the immediate historical backdrop to our weekend read, Mosul: Overcoming the trauma of IS rule, one haircut at a time.

    And finally


    Who cares?


    For those who’ve already read everything on IRIN’s website, UK magazine New Internationalist has a full issue devoted to the state of humanitarianism. Entitled "Who Cares", the lead article says humanitarian principles are coming under siege from political and security interests so "it’s never been more important for citizens to join the dots". Analyst Alex de Waal argues for prosecutions for those who cause famine, Jamal Osman looks into Turkish influence in Somalia, and other articles include Ian Williams on the future of the UN. A piece on humanitarian technology includes one particularly memorable quote: "no innovation without representation".

    (TOP PHOTO: A detention centre in Yemen. CREDIT: C. Martin-Chico/ICRC)



    Mosul women, Myanmar clashes, and a massive NGO fine
  • School for Syrians, France’s Indian Ocean border and British NGOs say sorry: The Cheat Sheet

    Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:


    This just in


    Whatever the Security Council decides, this is everything you need to know about Syria’s Eastern Ghouta: a new briefing from contributor Aron Lund.


    Syria and Turkey


    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.


    In case you missed it


    The other European migration frontline

    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.
    School for Syrians, France’s Indian Ocean border and British NGOs say sorry

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