(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The crisis inside Venezuela

     

    • Hunger and survival in Venezuela

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

    Across the border and beyond

    Aid and politics

    A collection of our recent reporting
    Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad
  • Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    UN warns of ‘worst humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria

     

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

     

    Storms, floods, and a cyclone batter southeast Africa

     

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

     

    North Korea sanctions disrupt aid programmes

     

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

     

    Uptick of violence threatens Yemen peace bid

     

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

     

    A backtrack from the UN’s refugee agency

     

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

    In case you missed it:

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Weekend read

     

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

     

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

     

    And finally…

     

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

     

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

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

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    Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Failed aid gambit deepens crisis for Venezuelans at closed Colombia border

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

    waiting_for_a_meal_copy_1920.jpg

    Joshua Collins/IRIN
    Venezuelans wait for lunch at "Amigos del Projimo" – a kitchen charity that provides free meals near the Simón Bolívar bridge in Cúcuta.

    The trochas

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    ‘We can no longer enter’

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

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    Joshua Collins/IRIN
    Alma Maria Fernandez (right) runs a shelter and kitchen for Venezuelan migrants called Fund AR just outside Cúcuta.

     

    Worsening situation

     

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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    Failed aid gambit deepens crisis for Venezuelans at closed Colombia border
  • Q&A: How churches are leading the way in helping migrants with HIV

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

    Q&A: How churches are leading the way in helping migrants with HIV
    "We can offer a long-term perspective, which appears to be important for UNAIDS”
  • Why Venezuelan migrants need to be regarded as refugees

    How we treat Venezuelans in exile will shape the future trajectory of their country and the wider region.

    Some 3.4 million Venezuelans have now fled economic and political collapse. More than 1.1 million of them are in Colombia. And yet the Colombian government has recognised that displaced Venezuelans don’t have to be a burden; they can contribute economically, provided the right policies are adopted and there is adequate international support.

    Colombia is allowing Venezuelans who regularise their migration status to work and access public services, even at great cost to the state. And although over half a million Venezuelans are still in an irregular situation because they require a passport from Venezuela in order to regularise their status, there are signs even this may change.

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

    The Colombian government is trying to adapt its public employment service to support integration. In that sense, it follows in the footsteps of countries like Uganda and Turkey, which, despite receiving more than a million refugees, have viewed socio-economic integration, rather than encampment, as both the appropriate policy response and an opportunity for national development.

    But the international community is slow to follow.

    Most UN agencies and donors remain focused on providing humanitarian assistance at the borders. This contrasts with the global zeitgeist, and the Global Compact on Refugees’ focus on development-based approaches to displacement. The World Bank is among the few organisations to make the leap, making Colombia eligible for funding on the basis of facing a mass influx situation.

    Part of the reason for the absence of development-based support is that Colombia and its neighbours are middle-income countries. But a major part of it is also how Venezuelans are labelled. Describing them as ‘refugees’ would draw in a governance apparatus that today includes development actors. But the Venezuelans are being labelled as ‘migrants’ and that is shaping the governance response and the degree of engagement by UNHCR and others.

    The Venezuelan crisis parallels the Zimbabwean exodus of the early 2000s. Between 2003 and 2010, some two million Zimbabweans fled across to South Africa and other neighbouring states. Like Venezuelans, most were fleeing the economic consequences of the underlying political situations, rather than political persecution per se. Basic services were no longer available; poor governance and hyperinflation had ravaged the economy. Most were not recognised as refugees; they were ‘survival migrants’, fleeing fragile and failed states but not recognised as refugees.

    Legally, it is incontrovertible that most Venezuelans fit the 1984 Cartagena Declaration definition of a refugee; they are clearly fleeing ‘massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order’. But, as with Zimbabweans in the early 2000s, there are strong interests in not invoking the ‘refugee’ label. And there is the valid question of what value the ‘refugee’ label would actually add given that Colombia already has a backlog of over 2,000 people in its asylum system – registering Venezuelans for refugee status determination would be slow and cumbersome, and few Venezuelans are actively seeking international protection.

    Development assistance must be unlocked

    The risk of being at the margins of global refugee governance, as the Venezuelan exodus is, is that host countries are not receiving the support and guidance that befits the world’s biggest current displacement crisis.

    The IOM-UNHCR joint platform helps coordinate humanitarian aid and their joint special envoy, Eduardo Stein, offers valuable advocacy. But, today, the relevant governance innovations that bring support for the socio-economic inclusion of displaced populations come through the global refugee regime. UNHCR’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), for example, would be highly relevant to Colombia and other neighbouring states, if it were applied. It offers a mechanism for engaging development actors and the private sector in supporting opportunities for Venezuelans and citizens alike. But it is simply not on the table.

    Even if Venezuelans are seen as survival migrants rather than refugees, the most relevant policy responses can still be derived from historical responses to refugees. The Mexico City Plan of Action of 2004, for example, elaborated two concepts for refuge in Latin America: ‘Cities of Solidarity’ (Ciudades Solidarias) and ‘Borders of Solidarity’ (Fronteras Solidarias).

    Even if we don’t call it a ‘refugee’ crisis, the best solutions are likely to be those that have worked for refugees.

    For host cities and border zones, development plans are needed that offer new employment opportunities for both Venezuelans and receiving country citizens. In Colombia, initial research by UNHCR suggests that Venezuelans might fill important gaps in the fast food sector or the seasonal flower industry, for example. In the border zones, there may be different types of opportunity. In La Guajira, for example, the ecotourism industry has potential. In Norte de Santander, textiles or agriculture might offer employment.

    A number of other countries have already used the mass influx of refugees as an opportunity for regional development in remote border areas. Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for instance benefited immensely from the local integration of Guatemalan refugees during the 1990s. Uganda has attracted development assistance to remote border areas in both the South-West and Nile Valley regions of the country, for example. In Colombia, relations between the central and local governments are often strained, but new resources may offer the chance to build a new relationship between central government and the border areas.

    Arguably the most successful precedent of channelling development assistance to support refugees comes from the region. The International Conference on Refugees in Central America (CIREFCA) of 1989 outlined a range of development programmes to support refugees’ economic integration. It attracted around half a billion dollars of investment, mainly from European donors and the United States.

    Crucially, the conference was not a one-off pledging conference but a multi-year process that built trust and credibility, and included concrete follow-up mechanisms. It involved leadership by an inter-agency secretariat. Of particular relevance, CIREFCA focused not just on ‘refugees’, but also ‘externally displaced persons’ and ‘internally displaced persons’.

    Might a similar ‘International Conference on Venezuelan Migrants’, for example, serve as a catalyst for a development-based approach? Such ‘solidarity conferences’ are a key part of the Global Compact on Refugees, and the Venezuelan context might offer opportunity for one of the first such events. It could serve the host countries of the entire region, including Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile under the ethos of ‘Venezuelan migration as an opportunity for development’.

    Regardless of whether there is consensus for such a process, international engagement for both humanitarian and development is urgently needed. And irrespective of how we label the crisis and the affected population, Latin America’s own history offers a litany of relevant practices.

    Even if we don’t call it a ‘refugee’ crisis, the best solutions are likely to be those that have worked for refugees. What is at stake is not only the needs of millions of Venezuelans but also the future stability and prosperity of the region.

    (TOP PHOTO: Venezuelan migrants climb on a truck on the road from Cúcuta to Pamplona, Colombia, on 10 February 2019. CREDIT: Raul Arboleda/AFP)

    Why Venezuelan migrants need to be regarded as refugees
  • Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Civilians may still be trapped in last Islamic State pocket in Syria

    A reported 2,000 people were evacuated from so-called Islamic State’s last pocket of territory in eastern Syria this week, but the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said there may still be civilians remaining in the village of Baghouz. Once screened for membership in the extremist group, many leaving the territory are taken to al-Hol camp. The UN says 61 young children have died since December on the way there or soon after arrival. The World Health Organisation’s head in Syria told IRIN recently that the security checks were delaying urgent healthcare and that local authorities had denied a request to set up a medical waystation. The SDF denied the charges, but since then UN agencies say they have set up just such a transit site “to address the high number of child deaths”. Some people who had fled Baghouz told Human Rights Watch of hunger and being trapped under heavy shelling, air strikes, and IS threats.

     

    “One after the other”: Tropical storms swarm the Pacific

    The cyclone season has put parts of the southwestern Pacific on high alert. Cyclone Oma threatened the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu for five days, sending over 1,000 to evacuation centres. The storm later brushed New Caledonia’s coast and was due to push towards Australia. Earlier this month, the cyclone warning system in Tonga sent out repeated alerts as four separate “extreme tropical weather systems” threatened the country. Tonga escaped severe damage, but the country’s head meteorologist said facing so many in quick succession was exceptional. Storms in the Pacific islands needn’t cause headline-grabbing death tolls to leave a lasting impact; officials in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were expecting food shortages after Oma wiped out some smallholdings. Vast distances make repairs and recovery difficult. For more on preparing for Pacific disaster, see our recent story on women fighting for a seat at the table: Fiji’s storm-watchers.

     

    South Sudan rights violations may amount to war crimes

    Despite the signing of last year's peace agreement in South Sudan, ongoing violations including rape and sexual violence "may amount to international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity," according to a new UN report. Investigators with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan noted a "confirmed pattern" in the way combatants attacked and destroyed villages, plundered homes, and took women as sexual slaves. Sexual violence has worsened markedly since the commission's last update in December 2017; those targeted included children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Many sides of the conflict, including the army, national security forces, and rebel groups, were blamed for the violence, while the commission also investigated sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers. South Sudan remains one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises: 4.5 million people are displaced, seven million are in need of aid, and nearly 60 percent of the population will face severe food insecurity this year.

    Joining up billions in development, humanitarian, and peace spending

    The “triple nexus” may sound like an ice skating move, but it’s the new orthodoxy in aid. A “recommendation” was adopted today by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD says its donor states command over $74 billion of international funding in “fragile” situations. The new Development Assistance Committee policy says long-term development, peacemaking, and emergency relief should have complementary goals and together could “avoid the occurrence of humanitarian needs”. One aid agency nexus-watcher told IRIN that after much discussion in the aid community it was a relief to see clear definitions and terminology emerge. A source familiar with the discussions said “more must be done to prevent crises and deal with structural issues and root causes, rather than leaving the humanitarian system to pick up the pieces”. The text refers six times to continued respect for humanitarian principles: critics question how humanitarian neutrality and independence sit with politically-flavoured development and peace efforts.

    In case you missed it

    Burkina Faso: More than 100,000 people have been displaced by instability and fighting in the West African country, according to the UN. Tens of thousands have fled this year, as rising militancy and attacks by armed groups affect the North, Sahel, and Eastern regions.

     

    Madagascar: More than 900 people have died since a measles epidemic began in the huge island nation in September, the WHO said. Over 68,000 cases have been documented; those most at risk are infants from nine to 11 months old.

     

    Myanmar: Restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State are affecting some 95,000 people due to ongoing clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, according to the UN’s humanitarian coordination arm. More than 5,500 people have been displaced since December.

     

    Refugee resettlement 2018: UNHCR says 55,692 refugees were permanently resettled in 2018. The UN refugee agency says that’s only about five percent of those they think were eligible. Despite deep cuts in its quota, the US took in more than any other nation. IRIN explored the numbers here.

     

    Yemen: UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on 19 February that the two main sides in Yemen’s war had agreed to withdraw from a small port and oil facility near the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, in a first step towards implementing a much-discussed ceasefire deal for the city.

     

     

    Weekend read

    Opinion: Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    As we write this, Venezuela is top of many media headlines as a quarter of a million people are estimated to be assembling on the border, in Colombia. The presidents of Colombia and Chile are expected – and maybe even Richard Branson. He is backing the concert they’re all there to see, Venezuela Aid Live. The event’s sponsors say it will raise $100 million to help the millions of Venezuelans living with shortages of, well, nearly everything. Branson even suggests that the performance could help persuade Venezuela’s military to defy orders and open the border – sealed tight by President Nicolás Maduro – to aid shipments; shipments that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is inviting. Meanwhile, on the Venezuelan side of the border, Maduro is hosting his own benefit concerts on Friday and Saturday. What’s a humanitarian to make of all this? Analyst and columnist Francisco Toro offers a reality check in his essay on what he calls the “increasingly blatant politicisation of aid”. $100 million for food and medicine, for instance, “is completely out of proportion” with the scale of need in Venezuela. And if you’re concerned about the politicisation of aid, you might like to check out this from The Guardian, on the politicisation of, um, bread.

    And finally

    US-armed donor proposal stirs alarm

    A new type of US government aid official could be embedded with US intelligence or military forces in insecure hotspots to work on certain tactical projects. They would be “super enablers”, according to a proposal developed by consultants hired by USAID. The proposed two-person Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) teams would be physically fit, armed, and able to deploy where USAID can’t send civilians. The proposals met with some support in the US military and intelligence communities, and mixed views from within USAID, the 75-page report said. The concept, first reported by Devex, has been met with dismay by some in the humanitarian Twittersphere, earning reactions such as “wannabe SEALS” and “incredibly unwise”. Also, it’s been met with a humanitarian principles meme (a Ranger tab is a badge indicating completion of a very tough two-month US Army training course):

    (TOP PHOTO: Some of those fleeing besieged IS territory in Syria. CREDIT: Constantin Gouvy/IRIN)

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    Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials
  • Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals

    Daniela wakes up at 4am everyday to begin an hour and a half walk to school in Colombia, across the Venezuelan border. The three hour round trip is normal to her now, she says.

     

    The 14-year-old mathematics enthusiast has made this commute to Colombia for two years, after earning a competitive spot at a high school near the border town of Cúcuta.

    “Teachers were leaving and there were no classes,” Daniela said about her hometown in Venezuela, Llano de Jorge, from where the teenager makes her journey over the Simón Bolívar footbridge each day.

     

    Thousands of other Venezuelans cross into Colombia daily to migrate, or to buy food and medicine unavailable at home and then return.

     

    Speaking on her way home after school with two Venezuelan friends, Daniela told IRIN it can take 30 minutes just to get through the border, and sometimes they have to plead with Venezuelan border officials who can be reluctant to let them pass.

     

    In Colombian schools along the border, eight percent of students are now Venezuelan, according to a report released this year by the Norwegian Refugee Council and Colombian education authorities. Other new arrivals are Colombians who had fled to Venezuela mainly because of the violent Colombian armed conflict and are now coming back.

     

    The report also notes a nearly a 50 percent increase in the number of students coming from Venezuela between 2018 and 2019.

     

    In one ‘’mega’’ high school with 2,500 students, just outside Cúcuta, 85 percent of students are Venezuelan or “returning” Colombians. Around 1,200 of the students cross the border daily to reach the school.

     

    Lala Lovera, director of Fundación Comparte Por Una Vida– a Colombian NGO set up a year ago to help Venezuelan migrants – says there aren’t enough places in Colombian schools to meet demand, and there is no provision for transport.

     

    "It’s to do with the lack of national and local budgets to provide these children with transport”, Lovera says. “They are walking more than 10 kilometres a day just to get an education.”

     

    She added: “The secretary of education in this region is facing a huge challenge; they need 8,000 spaces to be able to cover the demand for the migrant and returning population.”

    “The situation is going to explode, so many are arriving.”

    In response to Venezuela’s economic decline, many teachers have fled the country in search of better opportunities abroad. Others refuse to work for the devalued salaries the government offers in state schools.

    Some students who live near the border, like Daniela, have been able to access schools in Colombia, but competition is fierce and the education system is at breaking point.

     

    “The situation is going to explode, so many are arriving,” said German Berbesi, principal of Megacolegio La Frontera, a school established in 2016 in part to deal with the large migrant population.

     

    Beyond education

    Berbesi is calling for more to be done to deal with migration into Colombia, and to help Venezuelan children who arrive in bad shape.

     

    “A lot of Venezuelan students arrive depressed, affected by what’s happened in their country,” he says. “They leave behind friends and family and everything is new to them.”

     

    Of the 47,457 children enrolled in schools near the border area, 3,841 have Venezuelan nationality. Some 2,037 others are returning Colombians who had moved to Venezuela but are now fleeing the crisis there, according to NRC.

    NRC’s Colombia director, Christian Visnes, told IRIN that they are seeing children not only affected by the Venezuelan crisis, but other factors in Colombia, too.

     

    “In Cúcuta, 12 of every 100 students have been affected by the internal conflict in Colombia and the crisis in Venezuela,” Visnes said. “There are children that have been completely neglected.”

     

    In addition, nearly forty percent of some 4,000 children not attending school in Cúcuta are Venezuelan, according to NRC, which runs education programmes in the region.

     

    “The international community must increase support for this situation," Visnes said.

    valentin_cordoba_at_his_school_in_cucuta._he_says_the_hardest_thing_to_see_is_the_venezuelan_children_having_to_leave_everything_behind_1920_.jpg

    Steven Grattan/IRIN
    Valentin Cordoba at his school in Cúcuta. He says the hardest thing to see is the Venezuelan children having to leave everything behind.

    At Fe y Alegria high school, near the Cúcuta border, principal Valentin Cordoba says students from Venezuela often struggle because the standard curriculum differs between the two Andean nations. Subjects like computer technology, languages, and religious studies aren’t part of the Venezuelan state curriculum.

    “The hardest thing for these children is having to leave everything behind – that’s heartbreaking to watch.”

    “Students have to catch up to the same level,” Cordoba says. Yet, he adds, “The hardest thing for these children is having to leave everything behind – that’s heartbreaking to watch.”

     

    Valentina, 13, is a student at the Mega Colegio La Frontera. She moved to Colombia two years ago with her mother and siblings.

     

    “There was no food, work, or money – so we came here,” she says.

     

    Valentina’s mother works at the busy Simón Bolívar bridge, scraping by in the competitive business of selling bus tickets to the thousands of migrating Venezuelans who pass daily.

     

    “I miss my house, my friends and family there,” Valentina, a history fan says.  “I hope things get better soon so I can go back.”

     

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    “They are walking more than 10km a day just to get an education.”
    Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals
  • Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    There is suddenly a whole new level of anxiety in the humanitarian community over the plight of Venezuela.

     

    On top of longstanding concerns over chronic shortages of food and medicine reaching the country, there’s now real worry about the increasingly blatant politicisation of aid, as the internationally backed opposition movement puts efforts to bring humanitarian supplies into the country at the centre of its messaging strategy against the regime.

     

    Concerns of a humanitarian circus aren’t being helped by Richard Branson’s “Venezuela Aid” concert – a Live Aid-style extravaganza to be held in Cúcuta, just across the Colombian border on Friday. The concert, bringing together some of Latin Pop’s biggest stars, adds a bizarre touch to a complex political-military-humanitarian picture that, some worry, could easily descend into civil war.

    It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool.

    It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool – one aimed squarely at Venezuela’s military establishment for the purpose of getting them to turn on President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Guaidó, who is now recognised as interim president by most of the western hemisphere and Europe but doesn’t control the military, wants to make it crystal clear to them that if they abandon Maduro the rest of the world is ready and able to move quickly to bring desperately needed food and medicine into the country.

     

    The politics here are smart: Guaidó has skillfully pushed Maduro into the hugely unpopular position of having to reject help for people in desperate need. Guaidó is calculating that the move will eventually lead to a mass military defection, and there is good reason to think that – in purely political terms at least – it might well succeed.

     

    However, none of this is likely to assuage concerns in the humanitarian community, which is aghast at the way aid has been turned into little more than just another weapon in the bitter and longrunning struggle for power in Caracas.

     

    On a fundamental level, the humanitarian community can never be seen to violate its principle of political neutrality: even if the opposition tactic does prove effective (which is a long way from a given), for the aid sector to back it would set a precedent that stores up any amount of trouble for the future. The International Committee of the Red Cross has already bowed out of the border aid operation – being led by Colombia and the United States – over these concerns. This is only natural.

     

    But concern about the showdown and the Cúcuta concert goes beyond a general reticence to politicise aid. The larger problem is that when aid becomes this politicised, there's no room left for a realistic assessment of Venezuela's humanitarian needs.

     

    On 14 February, for instance, the Organization of American States regional body held a highly politicised donors’ conference in Washington, D.C. that ended with much self-congratulatory talk of “$100 million in new pledges” of humanitarian aid to Venezuela.

    The number raised eyebrows for several reasons. First, the OAS didn’t publish a detailed breakdown of exactly who pledged what and for when, sowing seeds of doubt about how solid or serious the pledges are. Second, no monitoring, evaluation, or control mechanism of any kind was announced – which, again, can only lead the cynical to doubt how serious the whole enterprise is.

     

    And finally – and most seriously – the $100 million amount is completely out of proportion with even the most conservative estimates of the scale of need in Venezuela. Optimistic predictions of the impact of recent US oil sanctions alone suggest the country’s food imports will drop $120 million per month, and that is from inadequate levels that already saw three in four Venezuelans lose body weight due to hunger last year. And that’s just food, not to mention medicine, other supplies, fuel, etc.

    It could be remembered as the prelude to a catastrophe on a scale that the western hemisphere hasn’t seen in decades.

    In order to make a dent in the real humanitarian needs Venezuelans face, the OAS would have to hold that same donor conference once every three weeks or so for the foreseeable future. Even then, if the aid continued to be held up at the border, it would do no good.

     

    The basic message here is that aid-as-politics turns out to be incompatible with aid-as-aid in the Venezuelan context. If Guaidó’s strategy pans out and delivers a knockout blow to the Maduro regime in the near future, paving the way for large-scale relief efforts under a new government, it will be hailed as a masterstroke. But if it fails and the Maduro clique manages to entrench itself in power, it could be remembered as the prelude to a catastrophe on a scale that the western hemisphere hasn’t seen in decades.

     

    What is clear is that the Venezuelan opposition – alongside powerful allies in the United States, Colombia, Brazil, and Europe – has chosen an exceptionally risky approach without a credible Plan B. For Venezuelans’ sake, we can only hope it works.

     

    Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off
  • South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

    Last week, UN envoy for South Sudan David Shearer said fighting had “diminished greatly” since a September peace agreement. He may have spoken too soon. It has since emerged that clashes in the Equatoria region have displaced about 8,000 people internally and sent 5,000 more fleeing across the border into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in the midst of an Ebola outbreak. Most of the refugees and IDPs are women, children, and the elderly – many traumatised after they “witnessed violent incidents, including armed men reportedly murdering and raping civilians and looting villages," according to Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The clashes began last month between the army and the National Salvation Front, or NAS, one of more than 70 armed groups in South Sudan – and one that didn’t sign last year's accord. Five years of civil war have left 1.9 million South Sudanese internally displaced and 2.4 million living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

    Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

    The World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are among those competing with the UN's World Food Programme for a €500 million European Commission grant. The project supports 1.5 million refugees with cash allowances in Turkey. It’s the largest single humanitarian grant in the world, accounting for about 31 percent of the EC’s emergency aid budget. One of the issues will be indirect costs. A recent EC audit questioned the seven percent overhead fee paid to WFP (to be reduced to 6.5%), which ran the first phase of the project. WFP told IRIN it is following the financial rules set by its board, which includes EU member states. The Emergency Social Safety Net project is largely implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent. Its chief, Kerem Kinik, in a statement to IRIN, declined to back a bidder, saying his organisation "remains in promotion of an impactful and cost-efficient programme design".

    Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

    The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen released its annual report to the public this week. It makes for grim reading on 2018, a period during which the country “continued its slide towards humanitarian and economic catastrophe”. In 224 pages, the group details “widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the various parties involved in the conflict”. Tip: For the group’s look at humanitarian assistance – including the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s obstruction of civilian flights out of Sana’a, and the Houthi rebels’ arrest of aid workers and interference in the selection of aid beneficiaries – skip to page 56. In other Yemen news, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would end the country’s support for the war. It still has to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump’s pen. If you’re confused, yes, last year a similar resolution failed in the House and passed in the Senate, but members have come and gone since then, and the resolution has changed too.

    Counting the cost of internal displacement

    People displaced within their own borders could be costing the global economy nearly $13 billion a year, according to new research by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Researchers assessed costs for eight countries experiencing conflicts or disasters, including Central African Republic, Libya, the Philippines, South Sudan, and Yemen. CAR was found to have the highest financial impact for each displaced person – about $230 million, or 11 percent of the country's GDP, per year. The research found that the highest burdens come from lost income, support for housing, and healthcare. People in low-income countries were also impacted worse than those in lower-middle or upper-middle income countries. Internal displacement "places a heavy burden on the economy," said Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC, "generating specific needs that must be paid for by those affected, their hosts, governments or aid providers". For more on how IDPs need greater protection, read this opinion we published earlier in the week.

    Examining aid partnerships

    Major donors and aid groups have made broad promises to “localise” aid – putting more power and funding in the hands of locals when crises hit. But change has been slow on the ground, to the frustration of many local NGOs, as we’ve documented in our continuing reporting on locally driven aid. So how can local and international groups make this all work? New research examines aid partnerships in four countries – Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, and South Sudan – to look at what kinds of practices might contribute to “localising” aid. There are the positives (locals participating in project design and budgeting), and the negatives (internationals taking credit for local work). But, unsurprisingly, most of the local humanitarians interviewed in the studies said existing partnerships between international and local organisations are not equitable – closer to the subcontracting that characterises many aid relationships. Yet genuine, long-term partnerships are seen as the most likely to accelerate “localisation” reforms. The ongoing research, which you can read here, comes from a consortium of NGOs including Action Aid, CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam, and Tearfund.

    ‘I am free from the conflict, but I do not feel free’

    The number of child soldiers around the world has more than doubled since 2012, according to Child Soldiers International’s analysis of six years of UN reports on children and armed conflict. The latest report verified 8,185 cases of child recruitment in 15 countries – a 159 percent rise on the 3,159 cases verified in 2012.

    Co-produced by a former child soldier, a new project brings to life the voices of 27 children who were recruited into conflict in northern Uganda. There’s a taster below, but you can view the full comic here.

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    © YOLRED and courtesy of Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol)

    In case you missed it

    Germany: The German authorities have arrested two former officers of Bashar al-Assad’s secret service alleged to have tortured critics of the Syrian president. A third man is reported to have been arrested in France. Germany accepts the principle of universal jurisdiction, allowing its courts to try individuals accused of international crimes committed elsewhere – including war crimes, crimes against humanity, even genocide.

    Haiti: After more than a week of protests over corruption amid soaring prices and inflation, President Jovenel Moïse finally broke his silence on Thursday, refusing to step down and urging patience. At least seven people have been killed during demonstrations sparked by anger at the government and the business elite over a $2 billion development aid scandal. More protests and street gunfire was reported in the capital, Port-au-Prince, after Moïse’s speech.

    Kashmir: The deadliest militant attack to hit Indian-administered Kashmir in three decades killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary troops this week, raising tensions in a disputed region that has seen frequent civilian demonstrations against military abuses. The bomb blast was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad, a banned Islamist group.

    Myanmar: The military is shelling villages and blocking humanitarian access in Rakhine State, according to Amnesty International. Rights groups say some of the same army divisions involved in the violent 2017 ouster of 700,000 Rohingya – labelled as a likely genocide by UN investigators – are now being deployed in a crackdown on the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army.

    Sudan: Sudanese government forces have used "extreme violence and shocking abuses" against largely peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said, urging the UN to conduct an independent investigation into the violations. Activists estimate that more than 50 people have died since anti-government demonstrations began in mid-December, while at least 79 journalists have reportedly been arrested.

     

    Weekend read

    International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    The new D-Day for Venezuela is 23 February. This is when opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has said humanitarian aid will enter the country to alleviate the suffering of Venezuelans gripped by widespread shortages of food and medicine. Guaidó has urged the armed forces, who remain loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, to allow the aid in. But there’s no indication Maduro, whose presidency Guaidó denounces as illegitimate, intends to do any such thing. In our weekend read, journalist Paula Dupraz-Dobias unpicks the different strands of what has become an international aid stand-off, with aid agencies caught in the middle and uncertain what to do next. This briefing is essential reading as the showdown continues to obscure a humanitarian crisis that may be denied by Maduro, but shows no sign of letting up.

    And finally

    We recommend you check out this entry to the New York Times’ Lens blog, which features the work of photographer Wesaam al-Badry. Al-Badry and his family fled Iraq just before the Gulf War for Nebraska, and his photos beautifully document their life in the United States, warts and all. There are weddings, a prison release ankle monitor, and an Arabic-language American newspaper. “My family are not one dimensional characters in a refugee story,” al-Badry says. “They have multiple layers, they have their own personalities, their own agency and ways of manoeuvring through life.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A child holds up a map in the Protection of Civilians site in Bor, South Sudan. CREDIT: JC McIlwaine​/UN Photo)

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    South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant
  • In Cúcuta, a soup kitchen and a long road ahead for Venezuelans

    The Colombian border town of Cúcuta is the main point of exodus for Venezuelans leaving their troubled homeland, with up to 40,000 people crossing backwards and forwards here each day.

     

    Most arrive with hopes of new lives and new opportunities in Colombia, while others aim to travel, often by foot, on to other South American countries like Ecuador and Peru. Somewhere between three and four million Venezuelans have left since 2015.

     

    Read more: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

     

    Journalist Steven Grattan went to Cúcuta, once a thriving hub for Venezuelan tourists, and discovered how it is struggling to host hundreds of thousands of new migrants who have landed in a region where education and health institutions are now at breaking point.

     

    Harsh realities greet many new arrivals, as their journeys and dreams of a fresh start become derailed by their own lack of resources and by the shortage of opportunities they find in Colombia.

     

    Day-trippers

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    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Some Venezuelans cross into Colombia simply to buy basic food and supplies to take back to Venezuela. They bring suitcases, like the man in this photo heading back along the Simón Bolívar border bridge – the main point of entry between the two countries. Flour, eggs, toilet roll, and toothpaste are hard to come by, or are extremely expensive. Many are now scared to migrate, knowing that Colombia and other nearby countries are saturated with their fellow citizens, as jobs and opportunities abroad have dried up.

    Colombian refugees returning

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    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    As recently as a decade ago Venezuela was one of the richest countries in the region, playing host itself to more than a quarter of a million Colombians fleeing war and persecution during the armed conflict between Colombian government forces and leftist FARC rebels. Freddy Garzon, 49, was one of those whose family fled Colombia and moved to Venezuela, in 1974. He is now fleeing the other way with his children, aged seven and nine. “I can’t imagine going back [to Venezuela] again. It’s really affected my head,” he says.

    Hunger

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    A long line of people outside of a soup kitchen
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    This is the priority line for parents with young children outside a church-run soup kitchen in Cúcuta. Some 7,500 meals are provided here six days a week, Monday to Saturday. There is a line for the elderly too. Many depend on these meals to help them through the first steps of their migration into Colombia. However, many Venezuelans who live near the border also cross daily and queue for rations as food on the other side is so scarce.

    The cooks

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    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Cooking plantain for 4,000 people’s lunch is no easy task. Elvis Baracho (at the front), 25, is a Venezuelan migrant who has worked at the soup kitchen for almost two years. His salary is minimal ($26 a month), but it allows him to pay for basic needs and he gets two free meals a day. Angel Jose, 25, (behind) lives in a tin house on the outskirts of Cúcuta with his wife and disabled child. In addition to his work at the soup kitchen, he cuts hair. He charges 2,000 pesos (63 cents) per cut, half of which goes to the woman who rents him the clippers.

    Twelve to a room

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    A woman stands in the shade with her cart selling Aloe Vera juice
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Since migrating to Colombia six months ago, Lesther Lopez, 42, has been selling her Aloe Vera concoction around Cúcuta. It supposedly helps with liver, kidney, and cholesterol problems. She says that coming to the soup kitchen for lunch each day means the little money she earns can go toward paying the $95 in monthly rent she is charged for the one room she shares in Cúcuta with 11 others, including her children aged 22, 19, and 14.

    Scraping by to send money home

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    A 48 year old man stands near a colorful wall holding a box of small goods for sale
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Jesus Betancurt sits on the pavement in the sweltering heat on the Simón Bolívar bridge selling biscuits and sweets to passersby. He crossed over a week ago in search of a job. “I live with the hope of being able to send something back to my family,” says the 48-year-old from Carabobo State. “I’ve been trying to find work, but this is all I can get for now.”

    Moving on

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    A closeup of a printed map showing a route for migrants
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    This map is given by the Red Cross to Venezuelan migrants walking into Colombia. It shows a 47-hour walk to the city of Bucaramanga, a small fraction of the route many will take on to Ecuador or Peru. The road winds high into hills, and people often have to sleep rough in cold nighttime temperatures.

    Hitching a ride

    For those leaving Cúcuta, the first stop is the hilltop town Pamplona. Many come on foot on their way to Bucaramanga. In the photo above, migrants leaving Pamplona are trying to hitch a ride from a passing lorry, The migrants often travel vast distances on from here on foot, through the Colombian wetlands, many with suitcases and few resources.

    Escaping the heat

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    A group of men, women, and children in the back of a shipping lorry
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Most don’t get picked up, but these migrants are lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back of an empty lorry. The heat on the road is intense, so they are happy to catch a break. Most of these migrants are trying to leave Colombia for Peru and Chile because they believe there might be more opportunities for work in those countries. Others are searching for family members who have gone before.

    ...

    For more on the situation within Venezuela, read our in-depth reporting: A humanitarian crisis denied.

    (TOP PHOTO: Sergio Carmargo, 59, in the elderly line at the church-run soup kitchen in Cúcuta. CREDIT: Steven Grattan/IRIN)

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    In Cúcuta, a soup kitchen and a long road ahead for Venezuelans

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