The UN agency for Palestinian refugees needs to find about $350 million a year if the United States pulls all its funding, as threatened. With social services at risk for 5.4 million Palestinian refugees living in the occupied territories and the wider Middle East, including schooling for half a million children, IRIN took a look at the numbers and what they mean.
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, was formed in 1949 to help Palestinians who fled at the time of the creation of the state of Israel.
The State Department said the model on which UNRWA operates is “irredeemably flawed”, and the policy change appears to protest the growth in numbers of Palestinian refugees. In 1950, UNRWA's first year, it dealt with some 900,000 refugees. However, their descendants are also refugees, and today’s population stands at about 5.4 million.
Previously, State Department policy agreed with the international consensus that refugee children are themselves refugees, something not unique to Palestinians. The United States and UNRWA signed a framework agreement in December 2017 that assured the UN agency of ongoing American support until a “comprehensive and lasting peace agreement [with Israel] is achieved”. And this long-lasting position on children being included as refugees was reiterated as recently as May 2018 in a congressional research paper.
In an open letter issued today, the head of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl, says there are 5.4 million refugees who have “undeniable” rights that “cannot be wished away”. UNRWA can’t be blamed for perpetuating the refugee issue, he says, arguing that it’s the whole world that has failed to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
As the conflict is unresolved, UNRWA offers the following definition: Palestinian refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict”, and “the descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children”.
Past US funding of UNRWA was “hush money” – compensation given the lack of any political solution – a senior aid worker in the region told IRIN. The aid worker, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the issues, said the US move to undermine UNRWA is aimed to “kill the idea” of a Palestinian diaspora and any “right of return.”
With talk of a federation between the West Bank and Jordan, Trump’s move “throws a match” into the thicket of conventional thinking about the Israel-Palestine issue, the aid worker said. It also may provoke violent protests: UNRWA’s office in Gaza was occupied by protestors last week. Palestinian hopes of statehood used to face a series of “stabbings”, the aid worker said, now they face a “guillotine”.
(TOP PHOTO: Palestine refugees in Lebanon, 1948. Photo: UN)
As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.
Four years of uncontrolled migration starting in 2014 saw more than 600,000 people cross from Libya to Italy, contributing to a populist backlash that is threatening the foundations of the EU. Stopping clandestine migration has become one of Europe’s main foreign policy goals, and last July the number of refugees and migrants crossing the central Mediterranean dropped dramatically. The EU celebrated the reduced numbers as “good progress”.
But, as critics pointed out, that was only half the story: the decline, resulting from a series of moves by the EU and Italy, meant that tens of thousands of people were stuck in Libya with no way out. They faced horrific abuse, and NGOs and human rights organisations accused the EU of complicity in the violations taking place.
Abdu is one who got stuck. A tall, lanky teenager, he spent nearly two years in smugglers’ warehouses and official Libyan detention centres. But he’s also one of the lucky ones. In February, he boarded a flight to Niger run (with EU support) by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to help some of those stranded in Libya reach Europe. Nearly 1,600 people have been evacuated on similiar flights, but, seven months on, only 174 have been resettled to Europe.
The evacuation programme is part of a €500-million ($620-million) effort to resettle 50,000 refugees over the next two years to the EU, which has a population of more than 500 million people. The target is an increase from previous European resettlement goals, but still only represents a tiny fraction of the need – those chosen can be Syrians in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon as well as refugees in Libya, Egypt, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Ethiopia – countries that combined host more than 6.5 million refugees.
The EU is now teetering on the edge of a fresh political crisis, with boats carrying people rescued from the sea being denied ports of disembarkation, no consensus on how to share responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees within the continent, and increasing talk of further outsourcing the management of migration to African countries.
Against this backdrop, the evacuation and resettlement programme from Libya is perhaps the best face of European policy in the Mediterranean. But, unless EU countries offer more spots for refugees, it is a pathway to safety for no more than a small handful who get the luck of the draw. As the first evacuees adjust to their new lives in Europe, the overwhelming majority are left behind.
☰ READ MORE: EU migration policies in brief
1. Discrediting of Search & Rescue NGOs:
In 2016, NGOs operating boats to rescue asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy were celebrated as heroes. By the following summer, these same organisations were under attack from European politicians who levelled unsubstantiated claims that the NGOs created a pull factor for irregular migration and colluded with smugglers. In July last year, Italy introduced a ‘code of conduct’ aimed at curtailing the activities of search and rescue NGOs that caused a number of them to stop their activities. The new Italian government, which took office in June, has repeatedly blocked NGO boats carrying people rescued from the sea from docking at Italian ports, precipitating a new political crisis in Europe over migration.
2. Training & Equipping the Libyan Coast Guard
The EU and Italy began training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, despite it being linked to smuggling activities and implicated in human rights abuses. The goal of the programme was to increase the coast guard’s capacity to intercept migrant and refugee boats at sea and return their passengers to Libya. The programme has paid dividends this year as the rate of interception and return has increased dramatically and the Italians have favoured the Libyan Coast Guard over search and rescue NGOs while coordinating the response to distress calls at sea. People intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken to detention centres in Libya where they are held indefinitely.
3. Co-opting militias
July 2017 was a turning point in the central Mediterranean. The number of people crossing from Libya to Italy was at an all time high, on pace to surpass 2016’s record of 181,000. Then, on 16 July, the number suddenly and dramatically dropped. In the following weeks, reports trickled out about the Italian government paying off militias involved in smuggling to switch their activities and begin policing the coast against departures. The Italian government denied the reports, but they have since been widely corroborated. As a result of this policy, and the increased activity of the Libyan Coast Guard, the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants to Italy has decreased by nearly 78 percent this year compared to last.
4. Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration
European policies to curb migration led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being held in Libya’s overcrowded and nominally official detention centres. Irregular entry into Libya is criminalised and there are no courts set up in the country to handle migration related cases so people who are detained are held for indefinite periods of time. By October 2017, there were an estimated 20,000 people in migration detention in Libya. Since then, according to the latest data released in March, the UN’s migration body, the International Organization for Migration, has facilitated the return of just over 10,000 people to their countries of origin through an EU funded initiative called Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, or AVRR for short. IOM emphasises the voluntary nature of the programme, but critics say it cannot be considered truly voluntary when the only choices are to remain in detention or return home. For more on this, read the first part of this series: “Homecoming”.
5. UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Mechanism
For refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Libya, returning to countries of origin where their lives could be in danger is not an option. At the end of September 2017, the EU announced it would fund a programme, organised by UNHCR, for the emergency evacuation and resettlement of people who fit into this category. So far, just under 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya to Niger, but in seven months only 174 people have been resettled to Europe.
Four months after arriving in Niger, Abdu is still waiting to find out if and when he will be resettled to Europe. He’s still in the same state of limbo he was in at the end of March when IRIN met him in Niamey, the capital of Niger. At the time, he’d been out of the detention centre in Libya for less than a month and his arms were skeletally thin.
“I thought to go to Europe [and] failed. Now, I came to Niger…. What am I doing here? What will happen from here? I don’t know,” he said, sitting in the shade of a canopy in the courtyard of a UNHCR facility. “I don’t know what I will be planning for the future because everything collapsed; everything finished.”
Born in Eritrea – one of the most repressive countries in the world – Abdu’s mother sent him to live in neighbouring Sudan when he was only seven. She wanted him to grow up away from the political persecution and shadow of indefinite military service that stifled normal life in his homeland.
But Sudan, where he was raised by his uncle, wasn’t much better. As an Eritrean refugee, he faced discrimination and lived in a precarious legal limbo. Abdu saw no future there. “So I decided to go,” he said.
Like so many other young Africans fleeing conflict, political repression, and economic hardship in recent years, he wanted to try to make it to Europe. But first he had to pass through Libya.
After crossing the border from Sudan in July 2016, Abdu, then 16 years old, was taken captive and held for 18 months. The smugglers asked for a ransom of $5,500, tortured him while his relatives were forced to listen on the phone, and rented him out for work like a piece of equipment.
Abdu tried to escape, but only found himself under the control of another smuggler who did the same thing. He was kept in overflowing warehouses, sequestered from the sunlight with around 250 other people. The food was not enough and often spoiled; disease was rampant; people died from malaria and hunger; one woman died after giving birth; the guards drank, carried guns, and smoked hashish, and, at the smallest provocation, spun into a sadistic fury. Abdu’s skin started crawling with scabies, his cheeks sank in, and his long limbs withered to skin and bones.
One day, the smuggler told him that, if he didn’t find a way to pay, it looked like he would soon die. As a courtesy – or to try to squeeze some money out of him instead of having to deal with a corpse – the smuggler reduced the ransom to $1,500.
Finally, Abdu’s relatives were able to purchase his freedom and passage to Europe. It was December 2017. As he finally stood on the seashore before dawn in the freezing cold, Abdu remembered thinking: “We are going to arrive in Europe [and] get protection [and] get rights.”
But he never made it. After nearly 24 hours at sea, the rubber dinghy he was on with around 150 other people was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which, since October 2016, has been trained and equipped by the EU and Italy.
Abdu was brought back to the country he had just escaped and put in another detention centre.
This one was official – run by the Libyan Directorate for Combating Irregular Migration. But it wasn’t much different from the smuggler-controlled warehouses he’d been in before. Again, it was overcrowded and dirty. People were falling sick. There was no torture or extortion, but the guards could be just as brutal. If someone tried to talk to them about the poor conditions “[they are] going to beat you until you are streaming blood,” Abdu said.
Still, he wasn’t about to try his luck on his own again in Libya. The detention centre wasn’t suitable for human inhabitants, Abdu recalled thinking, but it was safer than anywhere he’d been in over a year. That’s where UNHCR found him and secured his release.
The circuitous routes Eritrean and Ethiopian evacuees took to Europe
The lucky few
The small village of Thal-Marmoutier in France seems like it belongs to a different world than the teeming detention centres of Libya.
The road to the village runs between gently rolling hills covered in grapevines and winds through small towns of half-timbered houses. About 40 minutes north of Strasbourg, the largest city in the region of Alsace, bordering Germany, it reaches a valley of hamlets that disrupt the green countryside with their red, high-peaked roofs. It’s an unassuming setting, but it’s the type of place Abdu might end up if and when he is finally resettled.
In mid-March, when IRIN visited, the town of 800 people was hosting the first group of refugees evacuated from Libya.
It was unseasonably cold, and the 55 people housed in a repurposed section of a Franciscan convent were bundled in winter jackets, scarves, and hats. Thirty of them had arrived from Chad, where they had been long-time residents of refugee camps after fleeing Boko Haram violence or conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur. The remaining 25 – from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan – were the first evacuees from Libya. Before reaching France, they, like Abdu, had been flown to Niamey.
The extra stop is necessary because most countries require refugees to be interviewed in person before offering them a resettlement spot. The process is facilitated by embassies and consulates, but, because of security concerns, only one European country (Italy) has a diplomatic presence in Libya.
To resettle refugees stuck in detention centres, UNHCR needed to find a third country willing to host people temporarily, one where European resettlement agencies could carry out their procedures. Niger was the first – and so far only – country to volunteer.
“For us, it is an obligation to participate,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s influential interior minister, said when interviewed by IRIN in Niamey. Niger, the gateway between West Africa and Libya on the migration trail to Europe, is the top recipient of funds from the EU Trust Fund for Africa, an initiative launched in 2015 to “address the root causes of irregular migration”.
“It costs us nothing to help,” Bazoum added, referring to the evacuation programme. “But we gain a sense of humanity in doing so.”
The first evacuees landed in Niamey on 12 November. A little over a month later, on 19 December, they were on their way to France.
By March, they had been in Thal-Marmoutier for three months and were preparing to move from the reception centre in the convent to individual apartments in different cities.
Among them, several families with children had been living in Libya for a long time. But most of the evacuees were young women who had been imprisoned by smugglers and militias, held in official detention centres, or often both.
“In Libya, it was difficult for me,” said Farida, a 24-year-old aspiring runner from Ethiopia. She fled her home in 2016 because of the conflict between the government and the Oromo people, an ethnic group.
After a brief stay in Cairo, she and her husband decided to go to Libya because they heard a rumour that UNHCR was providing more support there to refugees. Shortly after crossing the border, Farida and her husband were captured by a militia and placed in a detention centre.
“People from the other government (Libya has two rival governments) came and killed the militiamen, and some of the people in the prison also died, but we got out and were taken to another prison,” she said. “When they put me in prison, I was pregnant, and they beat me and killed the child in my belly.”
Teyba, a 20-year-old woman also from Ethiopia, shared a similar story: “A militia put us in prison and tortured us a lot,” she said. “We stayed in prison for a little bit more than a month, and then the fighting started…. Some people died, some people escaped, and some people, I don’t know what happened to them.”
Three months at the reception centre in Thal-Marmoutier had done little to ease the trauma of those experiences. “I haven’t seen anything that made me laugh or that made me happy,” Farida said. “Up to now, life has not been good, even after coming to France.”
The French government placed the refugees in the reception centre to expedite their asylum procedures, and so they could begin to learn French.
Everyone in the group had already received 10-year residency permits – something refugees who are placed directly in individual apartments or houses usually wait at least six months to receive. But many of them said they felt like their lives had been put on pause in Thal-Marmoutier. They were isolated in the small village with little access to transportation and said they had not been well prepared to begin new lives on their own in just a few weeks time.
“I haven’t benefited from anything yet. Time is just running from my life,” said Intissar, a 35-year-old woman from Sudan.
Despite their frustrations with the integration process in France, and the still present psychological wounds from Libya, the people in Thal-Marmoutier were fortunate to reach Europe.
By early March, more than 1,000 people had been airlifted from Libya to Niger. But since the first group in December, no one else had left for Europe. Frustrated with the pace of resettlement, the Nigerien government told UNHCR that the programme had to be put on hold.
“We want the flow to be balanced,” Bazoum, the interior minister, explained. “If people arrive, then we want others to leave. We don’t want people to be here on a permanent basis.”
Since then, an additional 148 people have been resettled to France, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, and other departures are in the works. “The situation is improving,” said Louise Donovan, a UNHCR communications officer in Niger. “We need to speed up our processes as much as possible, and so do the resettlement countries.”
A further 312 people were evacuated directly to Italy. Still, the total number resettled by the programme remains small. “What is problematic right now is the fact that European governments are not offering enough places for resettlement, despite continued requests from UNHCR,” said Matteo de Bellis, a researcher with Amnesty International.
Less than 1 percent
Globally, less than one percent of refugees are resettled each year, and resettlement is on a downward spiral at the moment, dropping by more than 50 percent between 2016 and 2017. The number of refugees needing resettlement is expected to reach 1.4 million next year, 17 percent higher than in 2018, while global resettlement places dropped to just 75,000 in 2017, UNHCR said on Monday.
The Trump administration’s slashing of the US refugee admissions programme – historically the world’s leader – means this trend will likely continue.
Due to the limited capacity, resettlement is usually reserved for people who are considered to be the most vulnerable.
In Libya alone, there are around 19,000 refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan registered with UNHCR – a number increasing each month – as well as 430,000 migrants and potential asylum seekers from throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Many have been subjected to torture, sexual violence, and other abuses. And, because they are in Libya irregularly, resettlement is often the only legal solution to indefinite detention.
In the unlikely scenario that all the sub-Saharan refugees in Libya were to be resettled, they would account for more than one third of the EU’s quota for the next two years. And that’s not taking into account people in Libya who may have legitimate grounds to claim asylum but are not on the official radar. Other solutions are clearly needed, but given the lack of will in the international community, it is unclear what those might be.
“The Niger mechanism is a patch, a useful one under the circumstance, but still a patch,” de Bellis, the Amnesty researcher, said. “There are refugees… who cannot get out of the detention centres because there are no resettlement places available to them.”
It is also uncertain what will happen to any refugees evacuated to Niger that aren’t offered a resettlement spot by European countries.
UNHCR says it is considering all options, including the possibility of integration in Niger or return to their countries of origin – if they are deemed to be safe and people agree to go. But resettlement is the main focus. In April, the pace of people departing for Europe picked up, and evacuations from Libya resumed at the beginning of May – ironically, the same week the Nigerien government broke new and dangerous ground by deporting 132 Sudanese asylum seekers who had crossed the border on their own back to Libya.
For the evacuees in Niger awaiting resettlement, there are still many unanswered questions.
As Abdu was biding his time back in March, something other than the uncertainty about his own future weighed on him: the people still stuck in the detention centres in Libya.
He had started his travels with his best friend. They had been together when they were first kidnapped and held for ransom. But Abdu’s friend was shot in the leg by a guard who accused him of stealing a cigarette. When Abdu tried to escape, he left his friend behind and hasn't spoken to him or heard anything about him since.
“UNHCR is saying they are going to find a solution for me; they are going to help me,” Abdu said. “It’s okay. But what about the others?”
The arrival in Agadez of the Sudanese – most driven from their homes in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur more than a decade ago – signalled something new: it was the first time a group of refugees and asylum seekers had travelled south from Libya in search of protection instead of north towards Europe. Once the first group arrived, more kept coming – until there were around 2,000. European policies have led to a nearly 78 percent drop in the number of people crossing the sea from Libya to Italy since July last year, but the fact that the Sudanese were compelled to head back to Agadez and that their tense reception ultimately resulted in the deportation of 132 people back to Libya speaks to a broader truth: the international refugee protection system is failing.
Read the previous instalments in this special report:
In 2016, a 12-year-old boy was reportedly detained and tortured in Giwa barracks in northeastern Nigeria. He ended up nearly paralysed. “We wanted to cite the officers in charge,” said lawyer Chino Edmund Obiagwu. “But we weren’t able to get the information on their names.”
Obiagwu is the director of the Legal Defence and Assistance Project, an organisation representing victims of abuse by the Nigerian security forces. He explained how a new website, Who Was in Command, has made his work a lot easier by publishing the names, ranks, and command responsibilities of security forces in Nigeria, Egypt, and Mexico.
Victims of human rights abuses and their families often don’t know the names of the individual security officers they accuse of violating their rights, but their bosses can be held liable for their actions. However, according to Obiagwu, commanders tend not to stay in the same place for more than six months, which makes it time-intensive to find out who is responsible for the troops’ actions.
“There’s a tug of war between institutions that want to remain permanently obscure, and those people who need to know more about them."
Obiagwu said they can only litigate on the strongest of cases. “There are so many cases, there are so many,” he repeated. Given the amount of work for a small organisation, “sometimes we [have to] drop cases because we don’t know who is responsible.”
Having all this information gathered from public sources on one website and made into a reference database has revolutionised his work. Now, “if I want to know the name of the person who is in charge… it can easily be gotten from that website,” he said.
Another user is Aster van Kregten, Amnesty International's senior research advisor for Nigeria. She said it’s especially useful for tracking specific Nigerian police officers, because the police often move officers from one state to another when there’s a complaint against them.
Sometimes, she said, her group will only investigate one specific allegation, but not necessarily look at the “track record” of the officer. With the new site, they can look back at each officer’s history and follow links to public allegations against each individual.
“The only risk is how it’s verified. I can imagine that will be one of the big objections from the military or the police,” said van Kregten. “It’s not the same as the military saying that someone is in charge… but on the website you can check what the sources are… it gives you a very good indication, and then you need to follow up on that.”
The project was initiated by Tony Wilson, director of the Security Force Monitor, a separate venture hosted at Columbia Law School. He explained that he got the idea for this latest project while researching police accountability in Bahrain around 2013.
The Leahy laws, which are supposed to prohibit the United States from providing training or assistance to security forces that have violated human rights with impunity, gave Wilson further motivation. “The main challenge in our perspective is that groups… can’t make specific allegations, and thus the law can’t be implemented,” he explained. Because of that, he fears that some security forces accused of abuses might still get funding from the United States.
Wilson and his colleagues picked countries where there were long-standing concerns with security forces, and where they could partner with solid organisations working on this issue. They hope to extend it to a total of 20 countries over the next three years.
Could this sort of database present additional risks to the security of military or police personnel, or to members of the public? Wilson doesn’t think so because the information is already out there, coming from official announcements by the army and other organisations. “It’s also not like we’re live-tweeting movements of troops,” he said, adding, “there’s always going to be a lag [to the information they are collating].”
Wilson’s colleague, Tom Longley, pointed out what he referred to as “a bias in favour of secrecy” when it comes to working on national security issues. “There’s a tug of war between institutions that want to remain permanently obscure, and those people who need to know more about them so that they… uphold the standards of human rights,” he said.
Amnesty researcher van Kregten hopes, one day at least, security forces might contribute the information freely themselves. “That,” she said, “would be a real step in the direction of transparency.” The Nigerian army didn’t respond to IRIN’s request for comments.
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:
What next for Manus refugees?
Authorities in Papua New Guinea have forcibly removed asylum seekers and refugees from an Australian-backed offshore detention facility on Manus Island, with officers reportedly beating detainees with metal poles in footage the UN’s refugee agency called “shocking and inexcusable”. It’s more unwelcome attention for Australia’s controversial policies, which force asylum seekers who arrive by boat to have their refugee claims processed in other jurisdictions – and sever all possibility of resettlement in Australia. But the situation is far from resolved. Most of the remaining Manus detainees were transferred to unfinished and inadequate facilities elsewhere in Lorengau township, where local residents are reportedly angry about the arrangement. A large majority of asylum applicants on Manus Island and Nauru – where some 345 people are held in another offshore centre – have had their refugee applications approved. But with Australia off the table and a resettlement deal to the United States proceeding slowly, options are slim. UNHCR says recognised refugees are being offered “enticements” to return to countries with shoddy and worsening human rights records: “Severely inadequate services and conditions may now further coerce refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution to nevertheless return to their countries of origin,” the UN refugee agency said.
Bangladesh and Myanmar say they have struck a deal that could send hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. But what happens if those refugees refuse to return? There are few details on how the two countries would go about repatriating almost one million Rohingya stuck in Bangladesh, including more than 623,000 pushed out of Myanmar’s Rakhine State over the last three months. For years, Rohingya have lived amid strict segregation and repressive policies that amount to “apartheid”, Amnesty International said this week, and animosity toward the Rohingya continues to simmer back in Rakhine. Rights groups fear the blueprint for repatriation will be found in the Rohingya crises of decades past. In the late 1970s, Bangladeshi authorities cut food rations to some 200,000 Rohingya refugees, effectively starving people back to Myanmar. More than 10,000 Rohingya starved to death in the process. The cycle continued 20 years later for a new round of refugees: the two countries agreed to a bilateral repatriation deal and tens of thousands were sent back “involuntarily”, according to Human Rights Watch, which also criticised the role of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in the repatriation process. The intense international focus on this year’s exodus will mean even greater scrutiny on aid groups, who have been accused of unintentionally entrenching segregation and rights abuses in Rakhine. But aid groups were sidelined this week as Bangladesh and Myanmar put together their roadmap for returns. This doesn’t bode well for the prospects of truly voluntary returns, according to Amnesty’s director for refugee and migrant rights, Charmain Mohamed. “Returns in the current climate are simply unthinkable,” she said.
Israel offer asylum seekers jail or deportation
The existence of some 40,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, has always been precarious. Even though Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has only granted a handful of Africans asylum. In the last few years many have been held during the nights in a desert detention facility for men called Holot. Israel has been pressuring and paying asylum seekers to leave – $3,500 plus airfare – sending them to countries like Rwanda and Uganda, where their future is uncertain and often dangerous. Now, Israeli politicians plan to give asylum seekers a stark choice: jail or deportation to Rwanda in the next three months. President Paul Kagame’s government will reportedly receive $5,000 a head to take them in. Israel took over refugee status determination from the UN years ago, and UNHCR said it is “seriously concerned” about the government’s proposals and has been unable to follow up on asylum seekers who’ve left Israel because of the government’s secrecy. Ministers have now voted to close Holot as they will presumably have no need for it once the asylum seekers are gone or imprisoned. The last time the government turned men out of the facility with little notice they at least found temporary refuge with sympathetic Israelis. If the government’s plans come to pass, they will now likely be headed somewhere much worse.
Sufi slaughter in Sinai
At least 230 people have been killed in a bomb and gun attack on a mosque in Egypt's northern Sinai, which took place shortly after Friday prayers. The attack in al-Rawda village, west of el-Arish, is in a region where Egyptian forces have been battling a jihadist insurgency linked to so-called Islamic State for years. The mosque was reportedly used by Sufi followers, a mystical expression of Islam condemned by hardline Salafists as heretical. The jihadists have mostly targeted security forces in their attacks in the neglected Sinai region. These have escalated since 2013 when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then the armed forces commander, overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi. In May this year militants extended their reach into central Egypt, attacking a bus carrying Coptic Christians, killing 26 people. See IRIN’s past coverage on the region’s marginalisation and the rise of Sinai extremism, and look out for more ahead.
IRIN Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod conjured this hashtag before it was even official that Saudi Arabia was easing its aid blockade of Yemen. It may not have gone viral (at least not yet) but the point of her piece has hopefully hit home in certain quarters as international awareness grows about an unfolding catastrophe. Some 4.5 million Yemenis were already “severely food insecure” before the war, before an unprecedented cholera epidemic, before the recent aid blockade. The UN says more than 70 percent of the now 19 million Yemenis that require assistance are in rebel-controlled areas, which rely almost entirely on food imports through Hodeidah to survive. And if trade isn’t allowed to resume through the key port soon, experts say famine will be the “likely” result. Time is running out, so let’s keep the hashtag going!
Zimbabwe coup shines light on opaque arms transfers
The Chinese armoured vehicles on the streets of Harare last week were the first sign something unusual was underway in Zimbabwe. But on closer inspection by the security publication Jane’s, they revealed something else: There’s no record of the Chinese-made Type 89 armoured vehicles being delivered to Zimbabwe, neither on the UN Register of Conventional Arms nor the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database. How can that be? Well, a lack of transparency is not unusual in arms transfers. The UN register is only a voluntary system aimed at promoting international security – not everyone abides by it. China only signed up in 2007 and hasn’t made any declarations since 2015, Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told IRIN. Zimbabwe, along with a number of other countries, never admits what they’ve added to their arsenals. Wezemen said this opacity includes several European countries and added that the United States regularly gets caught fibbing about the transfer information it provides.
In related news, there has been much chatter over a possible Chinese connection in the downfall of President Robert Mugabe. After all, Zimbabwe’s head of defence forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, was in China just before the coup/no-coup intervention. But the China-Africa Research Initiative blog points out that any Chinese role is very unlikely as it would fly in the face of Beijing’s general non-interference policy. Chinese investments in Zimbabwe are actually quite small, and the country has almost zero strategic interest for Beijing. However, there is a cozy relationship between the Zimbabwean military and leaders in China’s Anhui Province, which has culminated in a joint-venture diamond mining operation between the Zimbabwean company Anjin and the Chinese government-owned Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Anhui company. Mining in eastern Zimbabwe is highly controversial. A new report by Global Witness sheds more light on some $13 billion of diamond sales that have reportedly gone missing
(TOP PHOTO: An asylum-seeker enters the ‘Regional Processing Centre’ on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.)
Yobieli is 12 years old. He sits on a small leather stool and fumbles with his hands, interlocking his fingers and pulling them apart. There’s a dark shadow of soft peach fuzz on his upper lip, and his cheeks are childishly smooth. But, his eyes look older. They take in the world around him with the measured calculation of an adult, not the innocent wonder of a child.
“I didn’t discuss leaving with my family. I only talked about it with my friends,” he tells me. “Because of the difficulties I was facing in my house, I decided to go alone.”
Yobieli is Eritrean. In August 2016 he fled his home, crossing borders and the desert on foot, unaccompanied by any adult relative or caretaker, only to arrive here: a neon-lit apartment in the rundown outskirts of Cairo, Egypt.
He is one of thousands of children to have undertaken similar journeys in recent years as part of what the UN has called the largest refugee crisis in history. Last year alone, 25,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Italy.
Eritreans were the single largest nationality. But only the ones who make it are counted. An untold number of others disappear and die along the way or, like Yobieli, end up stuck somewhere they never intended to stay. Young, alone and vulnerable, they have been exploited and abused and continue to face a dangerous and uncertain future.
“The main reason I left was poverty,” Yobieli says. But in Eritrea, poverty and politics are deeply intertwined. “My family was poor because my father was a soldier. He was taken to the army.”
Like all Eritrean adults, Yobieli’s father was conscripted into the country’s national service. On paper, conscription is supposed to last for 18 months. In reality, it stretches on indefinitely, essentially acting as a system of forced labour for recruits who receive next-to-no pay.
"I wanted to go anywhere I could feel safe"
National service is the primary reason why nearly 400,000 people – almost nine percent of Eritrea’s population – have fled in recent years, including a large number of unaccompanied children.
With Yobieli’s father gone, his mother was forced to work as a maid in other people’s homes. But the money was never enough. “I stopped going to school in grade four because of the difficulties with my family,” Yobieli says. Instead of attending classes, he tried to find work to help support his family as their situation continued to deteriorate.
But even at such a young age, he knew that not all children faced the same struggles. “I saw young people like me on TV going to school and having a good life, enjoying life. So I asked myself and my friends, ‘Why don’t we have the same life? Why are we living these difficulties?’” Yobieli says.
“We deserve to also have a good life like them. We want to go to school. We want to have a normal life… The only solution was to take a decision [to leave].”
Once the decision was made, the first step was fairly easy. Yobieli’s village is close to Eritrea’s border with Sudan, and he was able to sneak across without the help of a smuggler. On the other side he faced a choice. Most migrants and refugees go to Libya where the chaos of civil war has allowed clandestine migration to flourish. But Libya is also notoriously dangerous. Extortion, kidnapping, rapes, beatings, and detention of migrants and refugees are all commonplace. Last year, more and more Eritreans were opting to come to Egypt to avoid these abuses.
“I heard that the situation in Libya is very difficult because of IS [so-called Islamic State] and the other armed groups and gangs,” says Yobieli. “For the sake of my safety, I decided to come to Egypt.”
The trip across the Sahara requires a smuggler and costs somewhere between $500 and $900. “I didn’t have any money,” Yobieli says. But, he was able to tag along with a group headed to Egypt. Some of the people he was travelling with convinced the smuggler to let him come for free because of his age.
“The trip was difficult,” Yobieli says. “We were hungry and thirsty… The situation was very bad. They used to threaten us with knives. They also beat some of us.” Yobieli was lucky. He wasn’t beaten and even says the smuggler treated him kindly.
Abel, a 17-year-old Eritrean also living alone in Cairo, wasn’t so fortunate. He fled Eritrea when he was 13, after receiving a draft notice for national service. “I didn’t have any other option other than to leave,” he says. After staying in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for almost three years without going to school, he decided to try to make it Europe.
Like Yobieli, he didn’t have enough money to pay for the journey from Sudan to Egypt. “In the middle of the trip the smugglers threatened me with a knife,” Abel says. “They said if I don’t pay them money they will kill me.”
Other Eritreans who Abel was travelling with called their relatives in Europe. They were able to gather enough money to pay the smuggler. Abel, who was 16 at the time, was able to complete the trip.
Zebib, a 16-year-old girl, broke down when I asked her about the journey from Sudan to Egypt. She left Eritrea in November last year, also to avoid national service. When I meet her in Cairo, she’s wearing a pink shirt with small, white hearts on it, the red nail polish on her fingers is chipped and her curly hair is tied in a messy bun.
She has a smooth, pretty face, but her eyes are burning and her voice is choked with anger. “I wanted to go anywhere I could feel safe,” she says, her voice rising and straining with emotion. “If you can help us, I will tell you everything. If you can’t help us…” She trails off as tears start pouring down her cheeks and she buries her face in her hands.
It’s impossible to know what Zebib experienced that made her break down because she won’t talk about it. But rape and sexual abuse are so common along the people smuggling routes from Sudan to Egypt and Libya that women often take injectable contraceptives before starting the journey, according to Swedish-Eritrean migration activist Meron Estefanos.
“A woman knows she will be raped at least three times before she reaches Europe,” Estefanos says. Young girls travelling alone are particularly vulnerable.
Cairo is no safe haven. “We are being treated very badly. When we go out to buy something, we are attacked and beaten,” Zebib says. A group of Egyptian men broke into the apartment where she stays with other Eritreans her age. “They fought with the boys and tried to rape and harass us,” Zebib says. Her lip quivers and she stops talking.
Yobieli also faces problems. “When I go to the shop, they don’t give me change. They beat me in the street,” he says, referring to Egyptians in the neighbourhood where he lives. “They’ve spat on my face. I’ve had money taken from me.”
The living conditions are particularly difficult to tolerate because Yobieli, Zebib, and Abel never intended to stay here. What was supposed to be a brief stop on their way to Europe has now become their reality for the foreseeable future.
After more than 10,000 people arrived in Italy from Egypt last year, Egyptian authorities cracked down on clandestine migration. Now, there is no way for the roughly 8,000 Eritreans who are stuck here to leave without going through Libya, which they were trying to avoid in the first place.
“The way to Europe is blocked,” Yobieli says. “The way to Libya is very risky with IS and the armed groups. Also, living here in Egypt is very difficult… I’m hoping for the UNHCR (UN refugee agency) process.”
But UNHCR’s resettlement programme is slow, and the number of people being sent to third countries is small compared to those in need. Last year, 7,000 people were approved for resettlement from Egypt out of a refugee population of more than 260,000.
Children like Yobieli, Zebib, and Abel are faced with an impossible choice: Endure the harassment and abuse in Egypt while waiting on the slim chances of resettlement, or go to Libya where the situation is even worse but where they might be able to cross the sea.
More and more people are taking the second option, according to Estefanos, the migration activist. “Now, everyone is leaving,” she says. “They wasted nine months in Egypt.”
Zebib is desperate to leave. “We want to go from this country. We want protection,” she says. But she doesn’t have enough money to pay for a smuggler. “I’m dependent on others… I can’t do anything.”
While Yobieli is waiting on UNHCR’s resettlement process, he is attending classes offered by an NGO. “I want to finish school and to become a professor or an engineer or a doctor,” he says. “My plan was to reach Europe in order to improve my life and help my family.”
Sitting in the apartment on the outskirts of Cairo, that possibility seems far, far away. Yobieli’s two older siblings left Eritrea before him with the same ambitions. “My older brother is missing in Libya,” he says. “And my sister drowned in the sea.”
Just before sunrise on a warm September morning, mobile phones in the village of Green Island on Egypt's Mediterranean coast began ringing urgently.
“Our children began calling us from the sea. They said: ‘Save us! This boat is going to sink’,” Walid el-Hor, a community leader in the small fishing community, told IRIN.
At least 204 people died on 21 September when an overloaded boat, carrying around 500 migrants destined for Italy, capsized around eight miles off Green Island.
Those on board included Sudanese, Eritreans, and Somalis, but the majority were Egyptian, and many were locals from Green Island. The village lies just across the Nile from Borg Rasheed, a favourite spot used by smugglers to transport groups of migrants in rickety boats out to larger vessels waiting several miles off the coast.
“They called us, their relatives, when they arrived at the big boat, and because we are fishermen, our children know the sea. When they saw the boat, they understood that it would sink,” said el-Hor.
Deadly accidents involving overcrowded migrant boats are not new; the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has warned that if current trends continue, 2016 is set to be the deadliest year on record for Mediterranean crossings.
But the Borg Rasheed tragedy has put the spotlight on a trend that is worrying local migration experts: the increasing numbers of Egyptians, particularly unaccompanied minors, who are attempting the risky crossing to Europe.
Prior to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, Egyptian migrants seeking to travel to Europe, like many other African migrants, went via smugglers operating on the Libyan coast.
Ehab Goma*, a fisherman in his thirties from Borg Rasheed, told IRIN he had travelled to Libya in his mid-teens to work, first as a fisherman and later as a smuggler, transporting people to Italy.
“There was little money in the Egyptian smuggling industry back then,” he said.
Since the Egyptian revolution in 2011, the trade on Egypt’s coasts has picked up. In the last three years in particular, an increasing number of foreign migrants and refugees have begun to depart from Egypt, preferring to avoid the risks of war-torn Libya.
Small towns like Borg Rasheed have become hotspots for the smuggling business. Goma, like many in the town, still makes money from the trade. Although he no longer captains the boats, he is involved in the “storage” process, whereby migrants are hidden away in coastal safe-houses while waiting for a place on a boat to become available.
And it’s not just foreign migrants. In recent years, Egyptian nationals have started to board the boats in ever greater numbers. According to the International Organization for Migration, a total of 4,095 Egyptians travelled by boat to Italy in 2014, making them the 10th largest national group arriving irregularly by boat. After a small dip in 2015, IOM figures for the first eight months of 2016 show the numbers went back up, with a total of 3,792 Egyptians arriving in Italy.
Many of those on the move – around 60 percent this year – are teenagers travelling alone. Under Italian law, unlike adults, they cannot be deported.
El-Hor, the community leader, said the growing number of young people leaving is inevitable given the lack of economic opportunities in the area.
“Wages are very low; a young man here can work for 2,000 [Egyptian] pounds ($225) a month doing two jobs, but that’s not enough to feed a family,” he said. “If you have sisters you need to marry off, what are you going to do?” he said.
Goma agreed that Egypt’s worsening economy is a factor. “The prices of everything are increasing – water, electricity, cigarettes. There are some jobs in the date palm industry, but they can barely get you 1,000 pounds ($112) a month.”
The government has responded to the growing trend of departures with plans for a national awareness campaign and promises of further development.
Addressing Egyptians in the wake of the Borg Rasheed accident, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi touted new low-income housing projects and upcoming industry and fishery projects.
But locals are skeptical about the government’s efforts. “The wages from these projects are not enough to support a family,” said el-Hor.
Goma said he believes that stories of local people successfully reaching Europe over the past year have has also had a major effect on young people in the town. “They hear it all the time: Mohamed travelled, Ahmed travelled, so-and-so travelled. And then no one can persuade them not to go. There are 7,000 people in Borg Rasheed, and every one of them has a relative in Europe.”
New law targets smugglers
Egyptian authorities have responded to the growing scale of irregular migration by increasingly intercepting boats and arresting those on board. While Egyptians are usually processed and released, foreign migrants are often held for long periods.
UNHCR noted last month that so far in 2016 “over 4,600 foreign nationals, predominantly Sudanese, Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians, have been arrested for attempting irregular departure from the northern coast, which is 28 percent more than the whole of 2015”.
Among those arrested are asylum seekers whose claims may not have been heard, according to UNHCR. Those not registered with the UN agency are at risk of deportation.
There are signs of a potential shift in the state’s approach however. The government has drawn up a new bill that would criminalise people-smuggling for the first time in Egyptian law, while treating migrants as victims. In the wake of the Borg Rasheed accident, the law is being prioritised in parliament.
In addition, in the last two weeks, nine alleged smugglers involved in the shipwreck have been arrested, according to an interior ministry official.
“Normally when the police catch smugglers, they just let them go soon after. But this time, because of the media attention, we don’t know what will happen to them,” said Goma.
The potential impact of the new law, which could see smugglers subjected to stiff fines or prison sentences of between six months and life, is still unclear.
Muhammad Al-Kashef, a migration researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the new law is a “positive step”, but that foreign migrants may still be detained under other legislation if they lack valid travel documents.
“The law gives the state more tools to prevent smuggling activity,” he said. “It is good that it criminalises those who 'store' migrants before they are smuggled and other parts of the smuggling network. It also allows the government to destroy smuggler's boats.
“However, we don't know whether it will have an effect on the number of migrants making the journey.”
Locals in Borg Rasheed feel that little is likely to change without economic development.
“Maybe the smugglers will reorganise things, and start taking fewer people – maybe 150 per boat instead of 500, charging higher prices,” said Goma.
“But nothing will stop people going. It’s not just about the money, it’s about a dignified life. Even if you threaten them with death, people will keep going.”
Sitting at a cafe, he points out three 17-year-old boys from Green Island walking down the street. “This one, Saad, was on the boat that sank, and he survived; that one, Ahmed, his brother was on board but survived; and that one, Mohamed, his brother died. They all say they still want to go to Europe, and for sure they will go.”
Like much of Cairo, the sprawling low-income neighbourhood of Ard el-Lewa comes alive in the evening, once the sun has gone down.
On warm summer nights, children chase cats along streets too narrow for cars. Tuk-tuks weave between the shisha smokers and newspaper readers spilling onto the road as the cafés fill up.
But it’s not just Egyptians out enjoying themselves. Large numbers of young Eritrean men also cluster on street corners, or gather outside the newly opened Eritrean restaurant in one of the concrete tenements, exchanging news in their Tigrinya language.
“There are so many new Eritreans now in Ard el-Lewa,” Filmon*, an Eritrean community activist, told IRIN. “It all changed at the end of last summer. So many started arriving that now there is a shortage of flats to rent and the landlords have increased the prices.”
Cairo has long been home to a small community of Eritrean refugees fleeing war, oppression and traffickers, but local activists say the number of new arrivals has soared over the last year.
In the past, most Eritreans who came to Egypt registered asylum claims with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and waited years for a shot at resettlement to Europe or the United States.
But these recent arrivals don’t intend on staying that long. Filmon said most have come to Egypt with the intention of finding a boat to Europe as soon as possible from ports near Alexandria. “They are all just waiting for the smugglers to tell them their boat is ready,” he said. “Ard el-Lewa has become a big waiting room.”
‘Good smugglers and bad smugglers’
The newcomers are part of a surge of refugees fleeing Eritrea that began in 2014. UNHCR recorded a sharp increase in Eritreans seeking asylum in the EU that year. In 2015, the numbers increased again, with more Eritreans arriving in Italy via the Mediterranean than any other national group.
The refugees are fleeing a notoriously repressive state where political opposition is banned; freedom of movement, expression and religion are curtailed; and young people are forced to perform open-ended military service, which can last for decades.
Tekle, a 27-year-old Pentecostal Christian from Asmara, said he fled because he faced religious persecution.
“We have to pray in secret,” he said. “The risk of jail, especially for the prayer leaders, is very great. Hundreds of Pentecostals are in prison due to their beliefs.”
Tekle arrived in Egypt last autumn, guided by a series of smugglers across the Eritrean border into eastern Sudan, then by jeep to Khartoum, across the desert to Aswan, and by train to Cairo. He is now awaiting a call from a local simsar, or broker, who connects migrants in Ard el-Lewa with smugglers on the coast.
“I am waiting for my turn,” he told IRIN. “I don’t know where I will leave from. They will call me when they know the way is safe, and then we will go to the north coast to wait for the boat.”
Tekle is aware of the risks, but trusts his agent. “I know the good simsars. I only paid $2,000 for my trip – although some others pay much more – and I know he will find me a good boat.”
As Tekle hinted, the journey for many others is much harder.
Rahwa, a skinny 16-year-old, travelled alone from her small village in the Eritrean highlands and is still suffering from the effects of a lingering parasitic infection picked up from drinking the dirty water given to her by her smugglers. Sarah, an older Eritrean woman who is caring for her, says Rahwa was sexually abused by her smugglers during the journey.
“Ninety percent of the ladies who have come this route suffer wounds in their hearts,” said Sarah. “The way is so dangerous… you don’t know if you can even trust the people beside you.”
Filmon agrees that the journey is hardest for women. “There are good smugglers and there are bad smugglers. If you know who to choose and you are with a man, you can be safe. But travelling alone is very dangerous.”
Egypt route picks up
While most Eritreans who cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy still do so via Libya, there are signs that more and more are opting for the Egyptian route. A migrant boat that capsized off the coast of Crete last week had left from Egypt, according to survivors.
Meron Estefanos, a human rights activist and director of the Stockholm-based Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, told IRIN that increasing dangers in Libya are pushing more Eritreans to try Egypt instead. In 2015, there were several incidents in which so-called Islamic State (ISIS) militants kidnapped groups of Eritrean refugees from their smugglers and then shot or beheaded those they determined were Christians.
“Libya is really bad,” Estafanos said. “Either they get kidnapped by Chadian [gangs] or they get kidnapped by ISIS. With the Chadians, at least you pay ransom and get out, but with ISIS there is no getting out… So a lot of people are trying to avoid that.”
Recent round-ups and deportations in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, are also likely to drive more Eritreans towards Egypt, according to Filmon. “For sure, more people will come to Egypt now if Sudan is not safe,” he said. “If refugees can’t live in Sudan, they will have to move.”
It isn’t just Eritreans choosing to take the Egypt route, explained Mohammad Al-Kashef, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who works with refugees in Alexandria.
“The most common nationality I see in detention [after being arrested for irregular migration] is Somali,” said Al-Kashef. “Sudanese, Ethiopian and Eritrean are also very common. There are lots of Egyptians also who are trying to reach Italy to work.”
Figures provided by the International Organization for Migration’s Egypt office also suggest the popularity of the Egypt route is increasing.
According to IOM, more than “1,900 irregular migrants” arrived in Italy from Egypt between January and mid-April, more than double the 655 arrivals recorded in the same period last year.
Egyptian police regularly detain migrants caught trying to use smuggling routes both in and out of the country. Most are detained under provisions of the criminal code that ban leaving the country without official documents and authorisation.
But there are signs that the authorities may be changing the way they deal with irregular migrants. Some refugee advocates say those arrested are being released from detention quicker than previously, particularly if they hold a UN asylum seeker’s card. Parliament is also set to debate a draft migration law that levies stiff penalties against smugglers but would no longer criminalise the migrants themselves.
Despite this, the journey from Ard el-Lewa is full of hazards, particularly for new arrivals like Tekle, who has not yet been registered as an asylum seeker by the UN and is therefore particularly vulnerable to detention.
Estefanos said there have been cases in the last year of Eritreans being transferred to Cairo’s Qanatir prison and eventually deported back to Eritrea. In the past, detained Eritreans would often be returned to Ethiopia, but since last summer Ethiopia has stopped accepting them, she said.
UNHCR in Cairo told IRIN it was aware of a number of Eritreans detained in Qanatir and said it had requested access to them in order to assess their asylum claims. The UN agency couldn’t say whether or not they were being returned in “a voluntary manner”.
Back in Ard el-Lewa, Rahwa is resigned to the risks of the journey north to join her older sister in Sweden. She is hoping for a legal route, but if that fails she is still determined to leave Egypt by sea.
“Life in Egypt is hard. I don’t like leaving the house,” she said. “I want to go to Europe and be with my sister.”
*Names of refugees have been changed to protect their safety
As sea levels rise, so will the costs of dealing with it, Christian Aid reminds us in a report released today.
“Spending money now on reducing the risk of disasters will save money and lives later,” said report author Dr Alison Doig in a statement.
More than one billion people will be exposed to coastal flooding by 2060, the report says. Most of them will be in Asia, where the seven most vulnerable cities are. India’s Kolkata and Mumbai top the list, followed by the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.
The nation with the most people living in areas vulnerable to coastal flooding is China, home to six of the 20 most financially vulnerable cities.
Four of the other top 20 cities are in the United States, including the city with the most materially to lose: Miami. With $3.5 trillion worth of exposed assets, it is projected to pay the highest cost of coastal flooding by 2070.
The growth of coastal populations combined with rising sea levels due to climate change has created “a perfect storm”, said Doig.
Poor people will bear the brunt of it. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for the percentage of global aid for disaster risk reduction to be doubled to one percent, or one billion dollars. The report’s authors suggest raising that figure to 5 percent, arguing that although it sounds like a large amount: it’s better to pay that now than to pay more later.
Ever since Islamic State-affiliated militants tried to take the town of Sheikh Zuwayed in North Sinai last week, the Egyptian media has talked of little else. “What mistakes were made?” “Where did they get their weapons from?” and “What can be done to rid the country of the scourge of Islamist militants?” have been common refrains.
But look closely and you will notice what is lacking – reporting of the human suffering on the ground. Reliable figures on the number of civilian dead and displaced don’t exist, while aid to those in need has been limited, if present at all.
This is in large part due to a systematic campaign to quash criticism and dissent that has intensified since Egypt’s military chiefs ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 with popular support.
Egypt’s northeastern rugged region of Sinai has long been a hotbed of Islamist activity. It has become increasingly militarised as attacks have proliferated in recent years. Draconian security measures now prevent journalists and rights groups from reporting from there.
What we do know
On Wednesday 1 July, an estimated 300-400 armed militants from a group calling itself Wilayat Sinaa (Sinai Province) led a meticulously planned attack on North Sinai's coastal town of Sheikh Zuwayed.
At about 6:30 am, the attackers occupied the rooftops of several houses and kicked off the battle by firing machine guns and RPGs at the town's police compound, the military barracks, and several security checkpoints.
On the ground, several groups laid improvised explosive devices and landmines to try to stop reinforcements arriving from other cities, including North Sinai’s regional capital El-Arish to the west and the border town of Rafah to the east.
Almost 60,000 people live in Sheikh Zuwayed. It is the second largest town in North Sinai and the only major population centre remaining in the restive corner of the peninsula, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel.
I received regular grim updates from contacts in Sheikh Zuwayed as the attacks unfolded.
"The terrorists control the ground. State troops are fighting from their posts and civilians are stranded between both sides," one resident told me an hour after it began.
The fighting was so severe that the first ambulances didn’t arrive in the town until after sunset, another resident said.
Mobile phone networks were cut, so people relied on landlines. Everyone that left their house was feared dead by their friends and families until the next day when movement became possible again.
The battle raged on through Thursday, with government aeroplanes bombarding the southern suburbs of Sheikh Zuwayed where the militants were said to be hiding. Explosions continued into Friday evening.
Normally in such circumstances, there would be a full death toll including civilians. But we do not live in normal times.
Since coming to power in 2013, the Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has steadily closed down media coverage of the region, declaring it a military zone.
Ahmed Abu Draa, one of Sinai's most prominent reporters, was harshly dealt with for claiming to have witnessed Egyptian Apache helicopter gunships striking his hometown of al-Muqataa and neighbouring al-Touma, two villages south of Sheikh Zuwayed, in September 2013.
"What I saw was the destruction of six civilian homes and part of a mosque in al-Muqataa. Four citizens were injured, one of whom was taken to the Sheikh Zuwayed Hospital, where the military detained him and transferred him to the military hospital," the award-winning journalist wrote on 3 September, 2013.
Less than two days after posting this testimony on Facebook, Abu Draa was detained and transferred to a military prison where he remained for a month before being dragged in front of military tribunal on charges of spreading false news. He was sentenced to a suspended jail term of six months and released.
Muhammad Sabry, another Sinai journalist, was detained for filming in the border area of Rafah. He also faced a military trial before receiving a suspended term.
Since these arrests, the avalanche of Sinai news published on a daily basis by almost every news organisation in Egypt and dozens of international media outlets remains focused on the security turmoil, failing to even mention the humanitarian crisis.
The Egyptian government tightened its control over the media in the aftermath of last week’s attack, announcing it was to pass its long-anticipated terrorism law.
Among the many clauses is one that makes publishing any information that contradicts official statements punishable by a minimum two years in prison.
The law, which drastically broadens the definition of terrorism, is expected to intensify the media blackout already imposed in North Sinai, and puts journalists at even graver risk.
"Since the health ministry didn’t declare it in a statement, confirming that three people were killed and buried without an official death registration is putting myself at risk of jail," a journalist from El-Arish, who writes for an Egyptian daily, said on condition of anonymity.
So what was the civilian toll?
As the Egyptian media can’t go there, here is what we can piece together about the humanitarian impact of the attacks in Sheikh Zuwayed.
Certainly, a number of civilians died. According to the head of El-Arish hospital, Sami Anwar, four people were killed by stray bullets and shrapnel caused by heavy shelling on the first day of the attack, including two children aged nine and 15, while 18 others were wounded, including five children. Three other people were killed, according to several sources from the town. One was murdered by militants as he confronted them, and two other women were killed by stray bullets. A number of families buried their dead without even registering them as they would have had to travel 40 kilometers to the nearest open hospital.
Activists and residents of Sheikh Zuwayed said a further six civilians were killed in the suburb of Abu Taweila, which suffered the heaviest aerial bombardment. An improvised explosive device killed two workers and wounded a third on Saturday morning as they went to fix the town's damaged electricity plant. The shredded body of a fourth worker at the electricity plant was also found, after he was reported missing since Wednesday. It wasn’t immediately clear how he died.
El-Arish hospital also received the dead body of a 17-year-old woman along with nine other injured.
These deaths are likely to be less than the total number of civilian casualties, while large numbers of civilians have also been displaced.
When relative stability was regained on Friday morning, dozens of families began an exodus from Sheikh Zuwayed and the surrounding suburbs. Again, the Egyptian government has offered no number so it is hard to gauge the extent of the displacement.
"Despite people's fear to move on highways while confrontations are taking place between the military and terrorists, checkpoints were more crowded on Friday, mainly by pickup trucks loaded with the belongings of fleeing civilians," a Sheikh Zuwayed native who lives in El-Arish said. Two of his close relatives packed up and left on Friday.
Arriving in El-Arish, hundreds of Sheikh Zuwayed residents realised that although the clashes were over, they faced a new financial battle to rebuild their lives.
Transportation between Sheikh Zuwayed and El-Arish now costs as much as 100 Egyptian pounds ($12.50) per person, up drastically from an original six pounds ($0.80), while the cost of renting an apartment in the city has doubled.
Due to crippling curfews on Sheikh Zuwayed in recent years, many businesses have closed, putting such inflated prices out of most people’s reach.
In such circumstances, the state would normally intervene.
But when President Sisi and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab visited El-Arishon July 4 and 6 respectively, neither of them unveiled even basic support for the displaced. No camps or alternative housing solutions were provided.
In the absence of mainstream news, people have taken to social media and are using it to try to fill the vacuum of aid left by the government.
Activists have launched an initiative called "The displaced are our family," where they began counting the number of impoverished evacuees and raising funds and donations to fulfill their needs. Others have volunteered to receive homeless families in their houses.
Many families, though, are still sleeping on the streets of El-Arish beside their packed belongings, while others have returned to Sheikh Zuwayed after failing to find accommodation.
Without a media presence, numbers are hard to ascertain, as are the exact circumstances surrounding what we can only guess were brutal clashes last week, with a likely brazen disregard for the lives of innocent civilians shown by one or both sides.
Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian writer and author of a forthcoming book on Sinai's security and political affairs.