(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable

    A new US anti-terror law that has forced the majority of American-funded aid operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to grind to a halt may have even wider humanitarian consequences, leaving nonprofits around the world more vulnerable to litigation.

     

    While the 700-word bill appears to have been targeted at the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, experts say the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, or ATCA, is poorly crafted and could result in some non-governmental organisations and businesses being reluctant to take US funding or be associated with US-financed programmes.

     

    Signed in October last year and law as of 31 January, ATCA is an attempt by US lawmakers to make it easier for American courts to hear civil suits related to terrorist attacks abroad, specifically those involving authorities tied to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

     

    Under ATCA, recipients of three kinds of aid – economic support funds (ESF), international narcotics and law enforcement (INCLE) funds, and financing earmarked for nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, and demining (NADR) – become subject to US “personal jurisdiction”.

     

    This means American citizens who have demonstrably suffered injury to “person, property or business” from international acts of terrorism can sue these recipients in US civil court. American NGOs that operate abroad were already subject to personal jurisdiction for such suits, but ATCA broadens this to any recipient.

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict.”

    As a result of the law, the Palestinian Authority (PA) announced it would stop taking those forms of aid, leading the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to shut down its operations in the West Bank and Gaza in February. Other NGOs that receive funding via USAID and from the streams mentioned in ATCA followed suit.

     

    While the bill has so far only caused the shutdown of NGOs working in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no geographical limit in its wording. Experts, including Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about the law and advised aid groups on its legal ramifications, say this means ATCA could have unintended and far-reaching consequences.

     

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict,” he said.

     

    ATCA’s birth and immediate impact

     

    In 2015, a court awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to 10 families who were American victims or related to victims of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s. They argued that the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, both headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, had offered financial support to the attackers and their families, running afoul of the US Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

    The ruling was overturned, in part because even though the victims and plaintiffs held American citizenship, a higher court said the PLO and the PA couldn’t be sued in the US court system for attacks planned and carried out “entirely outside” American borders.

     

    Sponsored by Senator Chuck Grassley, ATCA, which clarifies the ATA, was largely the result of a campaign by the plaintiffs and their lawyers to allow Americans to do just that. After the bill passed, Grassley cited the case against the PA and the PLO: “Carrying out or assisting an act of international terrorism that injures or kills Americans abroad should provide sufficient justification to subject defendants to US legal sanctions,” his office said in a statement.

     

    The Palestinian Authority has received all three types of ATCA-specified aid in recent years. Unwilling to risk liability under the new law and a possible reactivation of earlier lawsuits against it, the PA told the United States in December that it would stop taking US funds from the three streams. It also ordered any NGOs using such funding to end their work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Programming carried out by USAID-funded NGOs, including a planned rehabilitation of Gaza’s water system, have been halted.

     

    Eric Garduno, senior policy and legislative specialist at Catholic Relief Services, said all USAID-funded work on his organisation’s Envision Gaza 2020 programme – through which it provided food to more than 3,000 households – ended entirely when ATCA came into force.

     

    Garduno said 3,000 households was already well below their goal – due to previous US budget cuts and administration scrutiny – and added that he didn’t know how many people Catholic Relief Services would now be able to feed.

     

    “We are in sort of a limbo right now where we think at least some of the programmes that were closed on January 31 can be restarted if there is a change to ATCA, but I don’t know how quickly a change can happen now,” said Garduno. “We do know the longer this is delayed, the less likely any of these programmes will be restarted.”

     

    All of this comes at a sensitive time for NGOs working in the Palestinian territories, after a pro-Israel activist used another US law, the False Claims Act, to seek damages – successfully in at least one case – from nonprofits on the basis that their interaction with US terrorist-designated groups may amount to material support.

     

    Wider impact

     

    Overall, ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding totalled more than $6 billion in the last financial year and was received in more than 50 countries, including fragile humanitarian situations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Yemen.

     

    The funds cover a wide range of activities, from sanitation to law enforcement. INCLE funds that have paid for security assistance in the West Bank have also been spent in countries like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Pakistan to combat the drug trade and finance other security measures.

    “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

    Courts will ultimately decide the breadth of the new law, but analysts say the lack of geographical specificity in ATCA means aid organisations or subcontractors that receive ESF, INCLE, or NADR funding – either directly or indirectly – could be left open to lawsuits if they implement programming in areas where US-designated groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or al-Qaeda affiliates like al-Shabaab operate. This may be true even if the only US funding they receive is for unconnected operations in a different country to the one where the ATCA and ATA-prohibited programming is being conducted.

     

    “There are partners that don’t have a US [base of some sort] that do get US foreign assistance on a pretty regular basis – usually subcontractors,” said Hady Amr, a former senior US diplomat who managed a $1.6 billion aid budget for the Middle East as deputy senior administrator at USAID. “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

     

    Kay Guinane, director of the Charity & Security Network, a group that coordinates nonprofits on regulatory issues, said foreign-based NGOs expressed concern in recent meetings that they may be vulnerable to lawsuits because of ATCA, and would not have the financial means to fight in court. She said the vagueness in US law over what constitutes material support for terrorist action, exacerbated by ATCA, had added to this anxiety.

     

    Few aid groups are willing to talk openly about the issue. “NGOs would be foolish to speak publicly about concerns with ATCA,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “Doing so would be the equivalent of painting a bullseye on their backs at which lawyers and potential litigants looking for targets [could] take aim.”

     

    "It's a hypothetical for now, but it's not paranoid to see [ATCA] as a very real potential threat,” Friedman said. "The potential use of this as a [legal] tool is only limited by the number of cases of US citizens injured overseas and the creativity of lawyers who in finding NGOs to sue."

     

    Neither USAID nor the US State Department responded to questions about whether they were using language in contracts – or warning partners in any other way – about the new implications of receiving ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding.

     

    “The assumption within a large part of the NGO community is that this could have a chilling effect on non-US or local NGOs who are willing to accept US assistance,” said Joel Braunold, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.

     

    Clarification

     

    While the NGO community waits to see what the full impact of ATCA will be, there have been unsuccessful attempts on the US side to adjust the law’s wording, especially since the PA stopped taking funding for security coordination with Israel, which includes aid to Palestinian security forces working with Israel on counter-terrorism measures.

     

    “We learned that no one on Capitol Hill thought ATCA would be interpreted in a way that would force NGO programmes to close,” said Garduno of Catholic Relief Services.

     

    NGOs hoped Congress would deliver a fix in the spending package President Donald Trump signed last month, but this didn’t happen and legislators have so far failed to amend the law.

     

    That doesn’t necessarily mean a change of some sort isn’t on the cards. A spokesperson for Grassley told IRIN was still willing to further “clarify” the law his office drafted, but said the senator blamed the State Department for only raising concerns about US assistance after the legislation had passed. The State Department declined to comment.

     

    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here,” said Anderson of Brookings. “The broader question is whether there is going to be a fix for the broader impact this will have outside the West Bank.”

     

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    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here”
    Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable
  • “No indication” Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem will close

    The UN’s agency for Palestine refugees has had “no indication” its schools in East Jerusalem will be closed, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said Tuesday.

     

    The Jerusalem municipality has since October said it would seek to close or challenge UNRWA’s presence in East Jerusalem. But, attending a public event moderated by IRIN in Geneva, Krähenbühl said the Israeli government hadn’t notified the UN of any such plans.

     

    “Our framework and the cooperation between UNRWA and Israel is regulated by an agreement that goes back to the ‘60s, and there has been no indication by the [Israeli] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of any change,” he said. “The position is clear.”

     

    According to information published on UNRWA’s website, some 3,100 Palestinian students attend seven UNRWA schools in East Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians. The UN considers the territory to be occupied by Israel.

     

    “At this stage it is clear all schools of UNRWA, all health centres, and other installations in East Jerusalem are open and operating,” Krähenbühl said. “We will of course follow how that develops.”

     

    The UNRWA chief was in Geneva to appeal for $1.2 billion, the amount the agency says it needs to raise in 2019 to keep services for some 5.4 million registered Palestine refugees consistent with last year.

     

    In 2018, the United States – until then UNRWA’s largest donor – cut $300 million in funding for the agency, which supports Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza with healthcare, schooling, food, and other aid.

     

    Krähenbühl said 40 countries increased their donations to fill the gap left by the United States, but 2019 “will remain a rough year to get the same level [of funding] as last year”.

     

    While the US cuts were a serious hit, 2018 is not the first time UNRWA – short for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – has been in dire financial straits.

     

    Krähenbühl blamed UNRWA’s recurring financial crises on the fact that the agency, which began operations in 1950, was meant to be a short-term stop-gap until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved.

     

    “One of the reasons why historically the funding was not stable or sustainable was that the very concept of UNRWA was not supposed to be sustainable or stable,” he said.

     

    “The international community has a huge responsibility to shift the emphasis from what we have seen over the past 70 years – collective fascination with conflict management – and you get 70 years of UNRWA – when in fact one should be focusing on conflict resolution, which is of course much more difficult.”

     

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    “No indication” Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem will close
  • Sex for jobs, fake aid workers, and women responders: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

     

    COP24 opens with stark warnings

     

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

     

    Upsurge in Boko Haram attacks

     

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

     

    Fake humanitarians in Gaza?

     

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

     

    'Sex-for-jobs’ scandal hits AU

     

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

     

    Women in disaster response

     

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

    In case you missed it

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

    Coming up

     

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

     

    Our weekend read

     

    Exposed: UNHCR's role in Uganda refugee aid scandal

     

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

     

    And finally…

     

    "They think I'm different"

     

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

     

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    Sex for jobs, fake aid workers, and women responders
  • Aid emojis, El Nino warnings, and an Afghan summit: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

     

    Just-in-time funding for Palestinian refugees

     

    The UN's relief agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, has plugged a major hole in this year's finances left by the cancellation of an expected $300 million from the United States. Speaking to the agency's Advisory Commission this week, UNRWA chief Pierre Krähenbühl said the income shortfall now stands at $21 million, after donors contributed $425 million since January. A wide range of donors increased their contributions to make up the difference. Krähenbühl said Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait had provided $50 million each. The agency has made cost savings of $197 million from 2015-17, he added, and will in future benefit from an Islamic waqf fund (a form of endowment) and a World Bank trust fund.

     

    Taking stock in Afghanistan

     

    There are plenty of humanitarian issues in Afghanistan: soaring civilian casualties and mass displacement caused by conflict; drought-parched land; the yearly return of hundreds of thousands of refugees and undocumented migrants pushed out of neighbouring countries. These and other critical topics will be on the table as Afghanistan’s leaders meet with international donors, senior aid officials, civil society groups, and humanitarian and development experts at a UN-hosted conference in Geneva on 27 and 28 November. Organisers say it’s a “crucial moment” for both the government itself and the international community. The government will be looking to bolster international support; donors will be measuring progress on some of the billions in funding promised to the country. Presidential elections are scheduled for April, but the country is mired in an increasingly complex war and progress on possible peace talks with the Taliban has been elusive.

     

    Preparing for El Niño

     

    The Food and Agriculture Organization is urging early action to prepare for the impacts of a possible El Niño event in the coming months. Global El Niño weather phenomena, which are linked to a cycle of warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific, sharpen the risk of extreme weather in volatile ways: heavy rains and flooding in some areas; severe drought in others. Countries already dealing with humanitarian crises could be among those most at risk. An FAO bulletin released this week cites nations from Venezuela and Colombia, to DRC and Malawi, to the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu as being at risk of rainfall shortages. In turn, countries like Somalia, Kenya, Pakistan, and Afghanistan could see excess rains. Parts of Kiribati in the Pacific could see both wet and dry conditions. The FAO says it’s important that policymakers and planners realise that El Niño’s impacts “can be mitigated before they generate large-scale food security emergencies”.  The risks can be steep: the last severe El Niño in 2015 and 2016 triggered appeals for international humanitarian aid in 23 countries, totalling more than $5 billion, the FAO notes.

     

    Climate vulnerable but fighting back

     

    The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu intends to challenge the big polluters it holds responsible for costly climate-linked destruction on its soil. Vanuatu’s foreign affairs minister, Ralph Regenvanu, said the country will explore taking legal action against the fossil fuel industry – as well as governments that profit from it – as part of a movement to “shift the costs of climate protection” back onto those most responsible for climate change. Regenvanu made his comments on Thursday at a virtual climate summit staged by the Climate Vulnerable Forum – a group of nearly 50 developing countries pushing for the world to take stronger action on climate change. The CVF summit is intended to galvanise international efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius ahead of this year’s iteration of the annual UN climate conference, COP24, slated for December in Poland. But smaller countries – which are some of the most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts but often have the least to do with its causes – are also growing increasingly frustrated about global commitments to address monetary damages caused by climate-linked disasters. Regenvanu said Vanuatu lost nearly two thirds of its GDP from a single tropical storm – Cyclone Pam in 2015. “The climate loss and damages ravaging Vanuatu will not go unchallenged,” Regenvanu said.

    As part of the summit, IRIN director Heba Aly also moderated a panel examining climate change’s disproportionate impacts on women – and how women are also taking the lead in addressing it. Read more of IRIN’s reporting on the humanitarian impacts of climate change.

    In case you missed it

     

    AFGHANISTAN: Attacks on religious targets continue to claim lives. An explosion killed at least 26 people attending Friday prayers at a mosque in eastern Afghanistan on 23 November, while a 20 November suicide blast at a gathering of religious scholars in Kabul killed at least 50 and injured dozens more.

     

    AFGHANISTAN: Drought is adding to the continuing humanitarian emergency in Afghanistan, but it's also bad for the opium business. According to figures released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime this week, the estimated land area used for opium cultivation this year has fallen by one fifth since 2017’s record high – partly due to severe drought impacts in western Afghanistan.

     

    MALARIA: No significant progress was made to reduce global malaria cases between 2015 and 2017, according to a new report by the World Health Organization, which said that the pace of fighting the disease has stalled. An estimated 219 million malaria cases were reported in 2017, and the disease still kills more than 435,000 people annually, mainly in Africa. Meanwhile, in a separate effort to try and reduce transmission, thousands of genetically modified mosquitoes are set to be released in a village in Burkina Faso as part of a project aimed at wiping out the malaria-carrying insects. Not everyone is convinced.

     

    YEMEN: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week pledged a combined $500 million to relief efforts in Yemen. The new funding comes as diplomatic pressure increased on them and other warring parties in Yemen to pause fighting and start peace talks. Humanitarian needs are vast, although experts are still considering whether to classify any part of Yemen as a famine. Earlier this year, the two Gulf donors had already put $1 billion towards UN-led relief plans, in addition, they say, to propping up the currency and weak government with billions more.

     

    One to listen to

     

    ‘Number One Ladies’ Landmine Agency’

     

    At the northwestern corner of the African continent lies one of the world’s least reported but longest-running conflicts – Western Sahara. At the heart of it are the region’s Sahrawi people. In this BBC radio documentary, we get a peek into the lives of a unique band of frontline workers: the self-appointed ‘Number One Ladies’ Landmine Agency’, a collective of local women working to clear unexploded bombs along the world’s longest (2,700-kilometre) minefield. Operating in temperatures exceeding 42 degrees Celsius, and at least four hours away from the nearest hospital, they risk their lives and limbs ridding the so-called “Liberated Territories” of some of the seven million mines left over from the unresolved conflict between Morocco and a Sahrawi liberation movement called the Polisario Front. While the group of mostly young women are committed to their part in making their home region safer, they also forge ahead socially – challenging cultural and religious stereotypes, and pushing boundaries to rewrite the role of women in their traditional community. But the team also faces significant challenges: living in Africa’s last-remaining colony as refugees; working in a physically and politically hostile environment; and knowing that an accident is only a footstep away.

     

    Our weekend read

     

    A humanitarian crisis denied

     

    Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world and yet, despite suffering no conflict, its people have been fleeing on a scale and at a rate comparable in recent memory only to Syrians at the height of the civil war and the Rohingya from Myanmar.

    Millions have escaped the economic meltdown since 2015 and started afresh in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. But what of the many millions more who remain in Venezuela? Regular IRIN contributor Susan Schulman spent weeks covering 1,400 kilometres from Carupano in the east to Tucuco in the far west to seek answers. Take time this weekend to read the latest instalment of her ongoing multimedia series. The government of President Nicolás Maduro insists there is no humanitarian crisis, but find out the hungry reality of the "Maduro diet", how ordinary people have taken to hijacking lorries for food and stashing their supplies in graves to survive.

     

    And finally…

     

    Emergency emojis

    Notorious for its acronyms, jargon, and lengthy documents, some would argue the international aid sector needs all the help it can get in non-verbal communication. Flood, fire, volcano, earthquake: some disaster events are easy enough to condense down to a monochrome icon. In 2012, graphic designers at the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, released into the public domain about 500 graphical icons that can be used in emergency-related reports, maps, and infographics. They include, for example, a wilted plant to symbolise drought, and a fax machine. Other concepts in the humanitarian world are not the easiest to communicate in a tiny black-and-white visual. How would you draw "harassment", "submersible pump", or "rural exodus"? In a new release, OCHA has updated some of the icons (even tweaking the trusty old fax machine) and added new ones. Some are depressing signs of the times: "roadblock", "burned house", and "sexual violence". Other novelties show changes in the humanitarian work environment: "cash transfer" , "reconstruction",  and "cell-tower". You can pick up the icons hosted at the Noun Project here. We can only salute the graphic designer who was given the task of making "gap analysis", "humanitarian programme cycle", and "multi-cluster-multi-sector" into universally-understandable symbols.

    (TOP PHOTO: Palestinians search through the rubble of their destroyed homes hit by Israeli strikes in the northern Gaza Strip. CREDIT: Shareef Sarhan/UN Photo)

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    Aid emojis, El Nino warnings, and an Afghan summit
  • Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief in world’s troublespots at risk

    Tougher donor restrictions on relief operations in areas controlled by extremist groups are “out of control”, impeding life-saving work, and could lead aid groups to pull out of the most challenging responses, senior humanitarian officials and rights experts warn.

     

    Project suspensions and closures in Syria, two recent prosecutions in US courts, and a new USAID ruling have combined to make NGOs alarmed at the shrinking space for humanitarian action and unforgiving climate for aid in “terrorist” zones.

     

    French activist and scholar Agnès Callamard, a UN special rapporteur on human rights, is calling for a new system of exemptions for aid to areas like Syria’s northwestern Idlib province that are largely controlled by Islamist extremists.

     

    A 17 September report by Callamard, ”Saving Lives is not a Crime”, released at the start of the UN’s annual General Assembly, argues that counter-terrorism laws are “out of control” and can “potentially criminalise even life-saving medical aid or food relief”.

    A UN special rapporteur on human rights argues counter-terrorism laws are “out of control” and can “potentially criminalise even life-saving medical aid or food relief”.

    She warns they are having “chilling effects” on the provision of aid, preventing assistance “from reaching populations controlled by ‘terrorist’ organisations” and likely resulting in “greater harm to life and civilian deaths”.

     

    Recent moves by the United States – the world’s largest donor to humanitarian efforts – have reinforced what Joel Charny, US director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, characterised as an unrealistic approach toward compliance with anti-terror restrictions, setting off what he deemed an “existential crisis” for some aid groups that depend on US funding.

     

    Some aid groups, facing mounting legal risks on counter-terrorism rules, may decide “it’s not worth the hassle” and pull out of the most testing places, Charny warned.

     

    Two of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, Syria and Somalia, have significant parts of the country controlled by sanctioned groups. USAID guidelines, further tightened for Syria this month, point out several other locations that qualify as high risk for counter-terror violations, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, northeast Nigeria, parts of Ukraine, Venezuela and Yemen.

     

    Callamard says Australia, Britain, Canada, and Switzerland are among the countries that have made efforts to exempt humanitarian action from anti-terrorist regulation. However, the US role in the international banking system, she argues, gives its counter-terrorism policies wide influence.

    Some aid groups, facing mounting legal risks on counter-terrorism rules, may decide “it’s not worth the hassle” and pull out of the most testing places.

    New rules

     

    According to international law, the delivery and distribution of neutral and impartial humanitarian aid must be permitted, no matter who the de facto authorities are. NGOs and other international aid agencies continue to provide food, water, health, and other support to civilians who live in areas controlled by sanctioned groups in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

     

    Such operations, as in Syria’s Idlib province, face multiple challenges, including maintaining impartiality and staff security, dealing with chains of sub-grantees, and reliance on third-party or remote monitoring. Large parts of Idlib are controlled by Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaeda-linked armed group sanctioned by the US government.

     

    While aid groups aim to work impartially on the basis of need, food is strategic and symbolic and vulnerable to political grandstanding – Tahrir Al-Sham issued a decree on 4 September banning the sale of food made in Syria in areas it controls.

     

    To comply with US law, NGOs must declare they do not provide material support or resources to sanctioned groups or individuals, anywhere in the world. In addition, USAID grant agreements may demand detailed procedures on how they limit those risks. For example, they should check the senior staff of any groups they donate to, or use as intermediaries, such as local hospitals and NGOs, against counter-terrorism databases.

     

    In the past some minor cases of aid being diverted to extremist groups have been tolerated, where the imperative of getting help to the needy has taken precedence over the letter of the law.

     

    That seems to be changing.

     

    USAID recently added more requirements to future grant agreements, as reported by IRIN last week. A USAID spokesperson said the new requirements were put in place to ensure that US taxpayers’ dollars are not boosting extremist organisations but are still delivering aid.

     

    But the tougher US policy has been met with outright frustration from some quarters.

     

    One aid worker familiar with the issues, who requested anonymity, charged that the new USAID terms – sent to aid agencies on 12 September – run counter to humanitarian principles and appear to “instrumentalise” aid to achieve strategic goals, such as dislodging extremist groups.

     

    The new rules make it harder to deliver help to civilians trapped in the Idlib region – who may unwillingly be under the thumb of extremists – and are “cruel and nonsensical”, the aid worker said, adding that they leave “so many questions” unanswered, including how to define which group controls which area.

     

    The USAID’s Office of the Inspector General, or OIG, held a roundtable briefing for NGOs on 24 July to lay out its approach to oversight, circulating an updated handbook on fraud prevention in Syria and Iraq. (OIG reports 20 open investigations between Iraq and Syria. The cases include allegations of theft, bribery, fraud, and diversion to armed groups. The OIG claims it has helped avoid losses of $180 million this year.)

     

    The UN estimates that two thirds of the people in Idlib need help with getting enough food.

    Charny described the message from the OIG as: “don’t make any mistakes… or we’ll have to come after you.” He said the OIG had recently been expanding those requirements, for example by requesting notice of unproven allegations of diversion. The OIG also appeared to expect NGOs to vet each beneficiary for links to banned individuals, Charney noted, adding that such a requirement was impractical if not impossible. “We can’t vet every beneficiary” who might be “a cousin or sister-in-law” of a US-sanctioned person, he said.

     

    “Spectrum of manipulation”

     

    It is not uncommon for armed groups, governments, and local officials to try to steal, tax, or skim aid resources. Aid agencies can’t prevent every single such incident. At what point are those losses unacceptable, especially if most of the aid is getting through to people who need it? "What is an acceptable residual risk?" one NGO analyst asked.

     

    According to Charny, there’s a “spectrum of manipulation”, and there may be places where “it’s not possible to work”. But he said his agency aimed to specialise in so-called “hard-to-reach” areas “by doubling down on our ability to do the requisite checking and vetting.”

     

    NGOs routinely struggle to stay within the rules enforced by donors in areas where extremists operate, noted Abby Stoddard, a partner with the aid sector consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes.

    USAID’s two largest NGO partners working in Idlib have already run into regulatory difficulties: Catholic Relief Services halted operations and GOAL has paused part of its food programme. Violations of counter-terrorism law can be punished by fines or, in aggravated cases, imprisonment.

     

    The UN estimates that two thirds of the people in Idlib need help with getting enough food. Countrywide, about 11 million people fall into that category, while about four million of them get monthly help. The new USAID restrictions do not apply to areas controlled by the Bashar al-Assad government, which has regained most of the territory.

    The potential impact of the latest US regulations “looks very bad indeed”, Stoddard warned, noting that Syria is already under-provided for. “The needs of civilians inside Syria are the least covered by humanitarian assistance of any current crisis,” she said, adding that she expected aid to decline further under the new US requirements. An internal UN planning document, seen by IRIN, said “interference in humanitarian programming” from armed groups would also likely increase during any Idlib crisis response.

     

    Some donor officials privately acknowledge that “zero losses is an impossible standard”, but politically they can’t afford to be more flexible, Stoddard said. “Donors have not found a way to communicate the realities of humanitarian assistance in these environments to their tax-paying publics, and they are dealing with significant political risks of their own.”

    “Compliance is costly, some humanitarians working in Syria and Somalia complain that they spend more time proving to donors that the aid is getting there than they do on the programming itself.”

    As in other insecure locations, international NGOs and UN agencies in Idlib typically rely on local NGOs to provide the final leg in the operation: assessing needs, preparing lists of project beneficiaries, liaising with local authorities, and doing distributions. An additional contractor is often engaged to provide “third party monitoring” – additional oversight and spot checks as part of “remote management”.

    “Compliance is costly,” Stoddard said, adding that “some humanitarians working in Syria and Somalia complain that they spend more time proving to donors that the aid is getting there than they do on the programming itself.”

     

    This puts additional strain on the small number of local NGOs that can “handle the compliance burden”, Stoddard said. “Some of these organisations are becoming overstretched, which has the perverse effect of raising the risk that things will go wrong.”

     

    Another US NGO policy analyst dealing with the issue, who asked for anonymity, said USAID should share the “residual risk” with its grantees. Exemptions and waivers can be used, but their use seemed to be out of favour, the analyst continued. “None of us wants our money to go to corruption… [but] zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero incidents.” The analyst added: “Even Walmart has a spillage allowance.”

     

    bp/js/ag

    A harder donor line on counter-terror compliance, from the US in Syria in particular, has the sector worried
    Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief in world’s troublespots at risk
  • A Q&A with the pro-Israel US lawyer rattling NGOs on counter-terror compliance

    Lawyer David Abrams is an American pro-Israel activist behind a legal campaign accusing non-profits of illegally helping terrorists. In the first major case of its kind, he helped the US government win a multi-million-dollar payout from Norwegian People’s Aid in April. He now has four more cases in the works, as he confirmed in a telephone interview with IRIN.

    Several NGO officials, speaking only on background, given the sensitivity of the matter, told IRIN they’re rattled: Abrams has found a way to make a major liability out of relatively minor interaction with US-sanctioned groups. Any NGO that applies for US funding must attest it has not provided material support to US-sanctioned groups anywhere in the world, regardless of whether US funds were involved. This, Abrams has found, can provide a legal opportunity to prosecute them for making false claims.

    NPA, which did receive US funding, rejected the “fairness” of Abrams case but agreed to pay the US government $2.05 million.

    Abrams, who set up his own Zionist Advocacy Center (TZAC) in 2015, claims he is acting against those giving material support to US-sanctioned groups and defending Israel’s interests. He tried, and failed, to seek penalties against the Carter Center for engagements with representatives of Hamas and another Palestinian faction the US has designated as a terrorist group. He also failed to trigger action by US tax authorities against Médecins Sans Frontières for aspects of their health work with Hamas in Gaza, which the Palestinian group has governed since 2007.

    dossier.png

    Abrams labeled this photo of a NPA-supported workshop in 2014. NPA says the political figures on the panel (including a Hamas member) attended only to answer questions from youth participants and that the map is 'a logo depicting the historic Palestine'".

     

    ☰ READ MORE: How NGOs are falling foul of the US “material support” law

    In a 2010 ruling, the US Supreme Court broadly defined “material support” to include training and technical advice, but not holding meetings with sanctioned individuals.

    Abrams worked on a case in which the American University in Beirut had to pay $700,000 for including US-sanctioned Lebanese groups in media training courses, and for simply listing another group on its website. In his case against the Carter Center, Abrams even argued that providing “refreshments” to officials of sanctioned groups was “material support”.

    Abrams’ corporation, the Zionist Advocacy Center, started the NPA case, which the US government then took charge of, and is set to receive a $364,500 share of the settlement, under US whistleblower law. NPA was alleged to have misrepresented itself in assurances to USAID in unrelated grant paperwork for South Sudan.

    NPA was charged under the US False Claims Act, which allows a private individual “with knowledge of past or present fraud on the federal government to sue on the government’s behalf to recover compensatory damages, civil penalties, and triple damages”, according to a book published by the American Bar Association. NPA was accused of not revealing material support to “designated” entities, in its application for USAID funds [in South Sudan] elsewhere. The case argued that NPA should have mentioned activities in Gaza and Iran that would constitute material support.

    Taking a different legal approach, Abrams challenged MSF’s tax-exempt status in the United States for alleged cooperation with the Hamas-run public health service in Gaza, but the Internal Revenue Service rejected his proposition. MSF declined to comment for this article.

     

    Abrams’ campaign has coincided with a more robust enforcement attitude at USAID and compliance failures in Syria to make a tough environment for NGOs working in areas controlled by US-sanctioned groups. USAID’s inspector general said of the NPA case: “My office makes these cases a top priority and we will continue to investigate them aggressively.”

    All of this adds to a sense of foreboding among NGOs, especially those working in the West Bank and Gaza. Adding to their anxiety is the fact that an NGO may not realise it is under investigation until the legal case is in full swing: NPA’s case was filed in 2015, but, the group told an interviewer, it only knew about it in September 2017.

    Some 2.5 million Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories require humanitarian aid, according to the UN. NPA still supports agriculture, fishing and education projects, as well as a range of local civic groups there.

    In a recent interview with IRIN, Abrams confirmed he has two more cases against NGOs already in the courts – one filed in February calling for a $150 million fine. He also said he has another two under preparation – one against an American NGO, the other involving a Middle Eastern group. The identities of the two NGOs with ongoing cases have been sealed by the court. Abrams would not divulge the identity of the other two he is investigating.

    Excerpts of the interview follow, edited for length and clarity:

    You had a case against MSF/Doctors Without Borders?

    Well, according to my research, they had some kind of contract with Hamas so that they could operate in the hospitals in the Gaza Strip. My argument was that by contracting with Hamas, that is support of terrorism in violation of American laws. So even if there's no False Claims Act claim, my argument was that they still aren't in compliance with American laws.

    Why didn’t the case work out?

    The IRS didn't give an explanation. They just said “We looked into this and we're not pursuing it,” or something like that.

    Are USAID and its Office of the Inspector General taking a tougher line on diversion to sanctioned groups?

    You know, I don't know first-hand, although my sense is that it's becoming a bit of a hotter issue than it has been in the past. So I think that that's probably true; I don't know 100 percent.

    Why?

    I think the issue is getting more attention now. I think World Vision kind of got everyone’s attention and now the issue is getting more attention. It's also possible that the work I did has contributed to that. I don't really know. [In 2016, a senior staff member of World Vision in Gaza was accused of skimming off the NGO’s funds to benefit Hamas. He faces terrorism charges in an Israeli court.]

    Has your campaign changed USAID policy?

    I think that's a brick in the wall. And I think it's probably contributed. You know, I'm not going to claim full credit on that but I think I probably deserve a little credit, yes.

    How do USAID view you?

    They're fine with it. They're fine with it because they like to look at these cases and see. And they can make a determination if they think there's something there, or not.

    How many of you work on this and how do you fund it?

    My work is mainly me. I have the occasional intern, but I don't have a staff of people. In terms of funding, you know, it generates its own funding, because under the American law, the whistleblower or the person who brings the claim can get potentially a percentage of any settlement. So in this case against Norwegian People's Aid, I received over $300,000.

    Is this your full-time job?

    In terms of pro-Israel work, I also do anti-boycott work. As you may be aware, there's a movement to boycott Israel. So I do cases that involve legal challenges to those boycotts.

    How would an NGO know they are involved when the cases are under seal?

    If the government decides to investigate, they send an information request to the organisations. So they know they're being investigated, but they don't necessarily know that there is one of these False Claims Act cases.

    These NGOs are trying to help people all over the world and now something that went on in Gaza might impact their work globally. Isn’t this disproportionate?

    So it doesn't seem that my government is in the business of breaking humanitarian NGOs. It seems like their mission is to get them in compliance.

    Well, first of all, it seems that most humanitarian NGOs don't divert or don't get involved in these kinds of issues. But perhaps more importantly, when you look at the amount of aid that, for example, Norwegian People’s Aid received from the US government, and how much they would have had to pay back... the statute can make them pay back everything, tripled. So in theory, they could have been liable for $90 million and instead they only had to pay $2 million. And if you look at that, and if you look at their financials, it's a pretty modest slap on the wrist at this point.

    So it doesn't seem that my government is in the business of breaking humanitarian NGOs. It seems like their mission is to get them in compliance.

    But they could be denied the possibility of future funding. It does effectively cripple them if the case goes badly, doesn’t it?

    If the American government went full out, went all out, then sure, but that doesn't seem to be what's happening.

    Are you saying the penalties are too small?

    I'm only going to talk about the Norwegian People’s Aid case. Too small? That’s a very interesting question. There’s a couple of questions there.

    You asked me is it [the penalty NPA paid] too aggressive? The answer to that is definitely not.

    There’s another question: could it or should it be more aggressive? That's a very interesting question. I think if it were up to me, I think it probably should be. But look, I don't make policy for the American government.

    Isn’t this punishing civilians just because they live in a region controlled by extremists?

    I would say it's definitely possible for humanitarian organisations to pursue a strictly humanitarian agenda without getting tied up with terrorist organisations and, furthermore, without injecting themselves into the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    Why do you do it?

    I'm a pro-Israel advocate… Perhaps it's not a coincidence that most of these designated terrorist organisations are anti-Israel. Going after terrorism is almost the same thing as supporting Israel.

    What about the future? Are there more cases on the way?

    This False Claims Act business, I don’t know how long that’s going to go on for… NGOs seem to be taking this issue pretty seriously. I don't think there's a lot more cases. I intend to do pro-Israel work for ever.

    Do you receive help from others or from Israel?

    I receive no help from anyone.

    bp/as/ag/js

    After Norwegian People’s Aid, four more non-profits are being targeted in a sustained legal campaign
    A Q&A with the pro-Israel US lawyer rattling NGOs on counter-terror compliance
  • Fragile lives, flickers of hope, and following up on sexual abuse: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar:

     

    Fate of Yemen port in the balance

     

    In an attempt to slow down the battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Martin Griffiths, the UN’s envoy to Yemen, has certainly been busy of late, meeting with various parties to Yemen’s war and, most recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Griffiths has had some success in staving off a full-scale military press while he tries to restart negotiations, but civilians in the city and wider province are in a dangerous limbo, with 33,000 fleeing since the start of June and many more risking it all to stay put and protect homes and livelihoods. As it can often seem like just the voices of foreigners talking about the importance of Hodeidah, here’s a just-published open letter from a group of Yemeni experts on the risks of further military escalation in the province. Check back with us soon for a view from the ground in a country where the UN estimates more than 11 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance to survive.

     

    “Collective punishment” in Gaza?

    Last Monday, in response to a series of incendiary kites and balloons sent from Gaza over the past few weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he was closing Israel’s border with the Palestinian enclave to almost all goods: only supplies Israel classifies as humanitarian are allowed in; no exports can leave; and the area Palestinian fishermen can use has been reduced. The move was condemned by human rights groups as collective punishment, while the EU said it “expects Israel to reverse these decisions”, and a UN expert said the restrictions would worsen Gaza’s already “dire humanitarian crisis.” This week, UN humanitarian coordinator Jamie McGoldrick visited Gaza and said he was especially concerned about the impact of fuel shortfalls on health, water, and sanitation services, warning: “we are steps away from a disastrous deterioration”.

    War and peace in Afghanistan

     

    Civilian deaths the highest in a decade, casualties from suicide attacks soaring, schools increasingly under attack: these are all alarming trends from the UN’s latest tally of conflict casualties in Afghanistan, released this week. The mission recorded 1,692 deaths through the first half of the year – the most since the UN began tracking and releasing civilian casualty figures in 2009 (when it recorded 1,052 deaths from conflict). It’s hard to imagine a positive takeaway from such disconcerting stats, but here’s one attempt: for three short days in June, when the government and the Taliban both agreed to put aside their weapons for an end-of-Ramadan ceasefire, the UN recorded almost no civilian casualties caused by either side (fighters aligned with the so-called Islamic State, who were not part of the ceasefire, claimed two suicide attacks that killed dozens). A few more cautiously promising signs: Taliban officials have reportedly ordered a stop to suicide bombings in civilian areas, while the White House is also reportedly mulling talks with the Taliban, which has insisted any potential peace plan must include direct negotiations with the United States. As the International Crisis Group notes in a briefing looking at how to build on the June ceasefire: “The US speaking directly to the Taliban is the best bet for… kickstarting a long-overdue peace process.”

     

     

    One to listen to:

     

    Speaking of the US in Afghanistan…

     

    It’s no secret that a long history of missteps in Afghanistan’s post-war reconstruction have contributed to today’s humanitarian crisis, but this “lessons learned” report on 15 years of US “stabilisation” efforts makes for a sobering read. The new season of NPR’s Rough Translation – a podcast favourite among a few IRIN editors – takes a deep dive into one short-lived US military programme that immersed a handful of US soldiers in Afghan culture and languages. Take a listen to learn more about the controversy of stopping for pizza in Kabul, how to turn a cooking show into an anti-corruption metaphor, and a heartbreaking twist – which, like this Cheat Sheet, nevertheless includes a flicker of hope.

    Report watch:

     

    Handle with care

     

    Countries shouldn't have to be in full-blown meltdown to merit aid and attention. And if the international system concentrates only on "fire-fighting" crises that have already broken out, it risks storing up trouble for later, missing opportunities for preventing countries from slipping off the edge. Don’t believe us, believe this new survey from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which says some 2.3 billion people now live in "fragile contexts". It's not just about war: corruption, climate change, organised crime, and chronic poverty are just some of the ingredients in an OECD methodology that combines dozens of indicators to come up with a ranking of 58 fragile contexts – 15 of them extremely fragile. In the highs and lows, Cambodia and Lesotho no longer count as fragile, but circumstances in Djibouti, Iran, and Nepal worsened and led to their inclusion in this year's report. It's a whopper: 281 pages and some extra statistics on code-sharing website GitHub – plenty to get your teeth into.

     

    Our weekend read:

     

    Misery and misunderstandings, part 1

     

    In this high summer season for migrants crossing the central Mediterranean – and consequently for deaths at sea – there’s plenty of media coverage about EU in-fighting and “burden-sharing”. Critics cry foul that hastily cobbled EU compromises are building a “Fortress Europe” and amount to an offshoring of asylum processing that cuts against human rights law. There is certainly plenty of blame to go around: the EU condemns NGO rescue vessels for acting as a pull factor; they in turn accuse the Italian government and the Libyan Coast Guard of leaving stricken women and children to die. But what of as many as one million migrants and refugees stuck in Libya wrestling with whether to go for it, stay put, or seek resettlement or repatriation? In May, regular IRIN contributor Tom Westcott gained rare access to detention centres in Libya and interviewed dozens of migrants and asylum seekers who had an array of frustrations, dreams, and stories to tell. This latest instalment of our “Destination Europe” series is a two-parter profiling the people at the heart of the exodus and highlighting their confusion as they try to work out what EU and UN initiatives – with their complex eligibility procedures – can do for them. Given the poor conditions in Libya, the endless wait, and the lure of a possible new life in a Western democracy, many are still deciding to risk it and get on a smuggler’s boat.

     

    Coming up:

     

    What happened to sexual abuse victims in CAR?

     

    In April 2015, long before the days of #MeToo and #AidToo, a sexual abuse scandal erupted in the Central African Republic. It made headlines around the world and profoundly damaged trust between Central Africans and the UN peacekeeping mission there. The first testimonies were from young children who claimed to have been raped and sodomised by French soldiers at a camp for internally displaced people in 2013 and 2014. Then, during a four-month investigation in 2016, more than 150 women came forward as potential victims and 41 peacekeepers from Gabon and Burundi were identified as suspects. Anger over alleged cover-ups and slow responses gave way to investigations, independent reviews, and promises victims would be looked after. But what happened next? We can’t give much away now, but look out next week for the third and final part of Philip Kleinfeld’s special report from CAR in which he follows up on all of the above, with shocking and sad results.

     

    Kleinfeld spent five weeks in CAR meeting peacekeepers, warlords, aid workers, and civilians whose lives intersect in a country rich in resources but impoverished by coups, mutinies, and civil war. To get up to speed, check out his first two stories below, or, for more, including a revealing interview with Kleinfeld himself, click on this series link:

     

    Inside mission impossible: Peacekeeping in the Central African Republic

     

    “We have become the targets”: Aid workers caught in a fragmenting conflict

    (TOP PHOTO: A displaced family fleeing Hodeidah on 18 July 2018. CREDIT: NRC)

    bp-as-il/ag

     

    Fragile lives, flickers of hope, and following up on sexual abuse
  • Ebola risks, Gaza stats, and a vote in Burundi: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    Vanuatu: everyone off the island

     

    Pacific Island nations are both extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and home to some of the most remote communities on the planet. The residents of tiny Ambae Island in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu know this all too well: volcanic eruptions have spewed ash over the island and may force the entire population of 11,600 to permanently settle elsewhere. The eruption of Ambae’s Monaro Volcano led to the complete evacuation of the island last October. But weeks of new eruptions beginning in March triggered landslides and destroyed hundreds of homes, raising new risks for the population just months after most residents had returned. UNICEF says the ash has threatened water sources, forcing drinking water to be trucked daily to the entire island from the only two boreholes considered safe. Vanuatu’s government says the island is a disaster zone and has ordered a permanent relocation of all residents by mid-July. But the government says it has a $93-million shortfall for resettlement and needs help from donors. And everyone on Ambae Island may not agree with the relocation plan, which would send residents to separate communities on a nearby island.

     

    Gaza: beyond the death toll

     

    Israeli troops killed 60 Palestinians in Gaza on Monday, firing live ammunition, tear gas, and rubber bullets at ongoing protests dubbed the “Great March of Return”. At the start of the week, the demonstrations coincided with Ivanka Trump’s attending the controversial US embassy in Jerusalem – even People magazine noticed the incongruence of her grin. But protests actually began at the end of March. Since then, hospitals in the enclave have been struggling to cope; 102 deaths (including 12 children) and more than 12,600 injuries were recorded. Need a quick reminder of what life’s like for Gaza’s two million residents? The unemployment rate is 44 percent, the highest in the world; 90 percent of Gazans must buy water from private trucks because 95 percent of water extracted from beneath Gaza is unfit to drink; Gaza is in darkness 16 to 20 (and sometimes more) hours a day; and more than 23,500 people remain displaced from their homes since the war in 2014. Yup, there are plenty more grim figures where those came from.

    41251576485_cb9591ba08_o.jpg

    U.S. Embassy Jerusalem/Flickr

     

    DRC: poised to keep Ebola in check

    Ebola haemorrhagic fever isn’t new to the Democratic Republic of Congo; this is the ninth outbreak since 1976. But the deadly disease has entered what experts call a “new phase”, with one case confirmed in Mbandaka, capital of Equateur Province. The city is home to a million people and, worryingly, is connected by river to the capitals of DRC, Congo - Brazzaville, and the Central African Republic, where large, dense populations could help the disease spread. According to the health ministry by 17 May, there have been 25 deaths from 45 likely, suspected or confirmed cases.

    An experimental vaccine now being distributed in Equateur offers some hope for containing the virus. Community alarm systems are another precaution, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says. Since it responded to all previous Ebola outbreaks in DRC, the local Red Cross has a robust network of experts across the country, said its president, Gregoire Mateso. “They are already in the communities and stand ready to expand awareness-raising, meticulous surveillance, infection control and prevention in areas that are at risk of further spread of the virus.” It goes without saying, but we’ll be keeping a close eye on this one.

    Burundi: a head-scratching referendum

    Keeping a close eye on Burundi Thursday was another matter. Voters were deciding on constitutional amendments that, if passed, could see President Pierre Nkurunziza stay in office, with increased executive clout, until 2034, and dismantle an ethnic power-sharing arrangement agreed 18 years ago to end a civil war that claimed some 300,000 lives. Many foreign journalists have been denied visas and much of the local press has been muzzled. Large-scale violence in the near future is unlikely, according to the International Crisis Group, but “the regime’s repression, the potential demise of power sharing in Burundian institutions and the crumbling economy are harbingers of instability,” it said. Last week, 26 people were killed in an attack on the northwestern village of Cibitoke, but it was not clear whether the incident was linked to the referendum. Either way, Burundi is already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, which, as we recently reported, could easily worsen in the current political climate.

     

    One to listen to:

     

    Counter-terrorism blowback

    He who pays the piper calls the tune, but when it comes to tackling violent extremism in Africa the results have been distinctly off-key. Forgive us for promoting an old friend, but this is the opinion of Obi Anyadike, who spent years reporting for IRIN in Africa before taking up a recent fellowship with the Open Society Foundations. In this timely podcast, which also features Kenyan-based researcher and regular IRIN contributor Nanjala Nyabola, Anyadike argues that militarising security policies tends to boost grievances against the state, abet insecurity, and foster corruption. Western funding priorities are partly to blame. “Now it's much more a security-driven agenda, which is about migration and about al-Qaeda or extremism," explained Anyadike. “The whole idea of creating democracy and all those good things, and good governance, that seems to have been a bygone age now."

    Our weekend read:

     

    EXCLUSIVE: Refugees in Sudan allege chronic corruption in UN resettlement process

     

    Media outfits tie themselves in knots nowadays trying to measure their (nasty word alert) “impact”. Like everyone else, we sometimes feel like we’re shouting into a void, maybe getting a faint echo (chamber) back once in a while. Not this week. We published Sally Hayden’s deep dive into corruption in the UN refugee resettlement programme in Sudan, and readers – and the UNHCR – took note. Over the course of 10 months, Hayden interviewed more than a dozen refugees who alleged some kind of “pay-to-play” scheme was going on – bribes and kickbacks of thousands of dollars paid to middlemen, even UN workers, to jump the queue. There was no smoking gun, in the form of a paper trail or hard physical evidence, but Hayden’s persistence paid off as the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, referred the matter to its independent Inspector General’s Office. Then, two days after we published her exclusive, this from UNHCR: a temporary suspension of the Sudan operation to assure the programme’s integrity, along with the promise of “severe” consequences for anyone found guilty of wrongdoing.

     

    Is what Hayden has uncovered just the tip of the iceberg? Help us find out. If you know of or suspect misconduct in refugee resettlement anywhere we want to hear from you. We promise to keep it confidential. IRIN Senior Editor Ben Parker is working with Hayden to follow up on fresh allegations – use Signal for secure chat to contact Ben (or email [email protected]). His Signal/WhatsApp number is +44 7808 791 267.

     

    And finally:

     

    Kanye West has been stirring up more than his fair share of controversy lately (if you don’t know what we’re talking about, read the internet), but we are very much on board with his recent tweet of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The UN is psyched to get some Kanye attention (check out this piece from NPR’s excellent health and development blog Goats and Soda), and you can get in on the act, too. Click here to check out global progress on the 17 lofty goals, which include ending poverty and achieving gender equality.

    (TOP PHOTO: Logisticians of the World Health Organization (WHO) deploy the first protection and medical kits in DRC a year ago. CREDIT: Eugene Kabambi/OMS/RDC)

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    Ebola risks, Gaza stats, and a vote in Burundi
  • Prison or deportation: The impossible choice for asylum seekers in Israel

    Just two months from now, the Israeli government says it will begin indefinitely imprisoning asylum seekers who refuse deportation. IRIN Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod explores what this means for the tens of thousands of people now facing an uncertain future.

     

    After escaping torture in Sudan, after walking 11 hours through the Egyptian desert, and after handing almost all his money to men with guns who blocked his way, Adam slipped through an opening in a border fence and laid down on the sand.

     

    The respite didn’t last long.

     

    The 24-year-old told every Israeli official he met – first soldiers, then officials at a detention centre – that he was seeking safe haven.

     

    It didn’t go down well, as Adam recounts calmly from his Tel Aviv kitchen table.

     

    “I told them, ‘I’m a refugee’. They said, ‘we don’t have a place for refugees here’.”

     

    “I asked for the UN… They said, ‘here in Israel we don’t have the UN’.”

     

    “I said, ‘so let me go back’. They said, ‘no’.”

     

    Little did he know it would go so badly that four years later he would be labelled an infiltrator and that, as an unmarried, childless male with no official refugee status, he would be high on the list for deportation.

     

    Adam, who told IRIN he was tortured in prison in Sudan for refusing to fight in the military, has fallen foul of a new Israeli government plan to rid the country of the 38,000 African asylum seekers inside its borders.

     

    A new policy

    The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Tel Aviv has been overrun by “illegal infiltrators” who, it maintains, are largely responsible for driving up poverty and crime in working class southern parts of the city.

     

    Starting the first of April, the government says it will give the asylum seekers – more than 90 percent are from Sudan and Eritrea – the choice between prison and “voluntary” deportation. Those who agree to leave will be given $3,500 (this sum will decrease after 1 April) and reportedly then be sent to Rwanda or Uganda, although both governments have denied entering into agreements with Israel.

     

    Asylum seekers began making the trek to Israel in the mid-2000s. Between then and 2014, when the country fortified its border with Egypt, Israel’s policy towards new arrivals has changed often.

    It gave them visas – renewable every few months – that read, “this permit is not a work permit”, but opted not to fine employers who hire them. It sent men to indefinite detention in a series of centres, until the high court limited this to a year in 2015. It has also paid asylum seekers to leave the country – reportedly via secret deals with Rwanda and Uganda (believed to be the destinations in this latest push).

    Forced deportations haven’t been officially announced, but at least one of Netanyahu’s ministers has said they’re on the table.

    When he announced the new policy at a January cabinet meeting, Netanyahu spoke of the “plight of the long-time residents” and said his new deportation plan was aimed at, “restoring quiet – the sense of personal security and law and order – to the residents of south Tel Aviv, and also those of many other neighbourhoods”.

    Welcome to the medina

    South Tel Aviv has become a hive of controversy – and a useful rhetorical tool for politicians – because the government and some locals (but not all) blame poverty and deteriorating conditions on the influx of African asylum seekers, even though one official report suggests state neglect was largely to blame.

    Most did not choose this city anyway. With a dark sense of humour, and a bit of profanity, Adam explains what his one-way ticket to the Central Bus Station in the south of Tel Aviv was like.

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    Mya Guarnieri/IRIN
    African asylum seekers sleep in a Tel Aviv park in 2012

    After being apprehended at the border – an incident that involved running from a searchlight, losing his shoes, and an act of kindness when a soldier gave him his own boots – Adam was told he couldn’t claim status as a refugee but could stay in Israel and work a while, in what officials kept calling the “medina”, city in Arabic.

     

    He didn’t speak much of that language, but after weeks in detention he heard his name called a few times: “Adam-medina”, “Adam-medina”. Loaded onto a bus with other African asylum seekers, he eventually figured out what medina meant and that he was going to a city that turned out to be Tel Aviv.

     

    Unlike some of his fellow passengers, he already feared his prospects were bleak. “We didn’t speak Hebrew; we didn’t have any experience,” he remembers. “People were so happy getting on the bus.”

    “I said to them, ‘Why are you happy? This medina is going to be messed up [in more colourful language]. It’s not going to be easy’.”

    Adam took one look at Tel Aviv, saw men sleeping rough in a park, and got on the first bus out of there. But eventually he came back and found work as an electrician.

    Over time, many asylum seekers found jobs and places to stay near the bus station in south Tel Aviv. Nowadays, shop signs in Tigriniya (the language spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia] compete for space in the area alongside those in Hebrew; barbershop and salons have sprung up to cater to a black clientele; coffee shops display posters of Eritrean musicians.

    Teklit Michael, a 29-year-old Eritrean activist (and middle-distance runner) who fled his country in 2007, says he came to Israel “to be safe from detention, torture, imprisonment”, but never truly felt at home.

    He recounts episodes of discrimination: “When you get on the bus and no one wants to sit next to you… when you cook at a restaurant and people say, ‘I don’t want to… eat what he made’.”

    Refugee status

    As Adam learnt upon arrival in 2013, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, doesn’t process asylum claims in Israel. The government has handled refugee status determination since 2009, and until 2013 it was almost impossible for Eritreans and Sudanese to even submit applications.

    When applying for refugee status did become an option, it was still extremely difficult and bureaucratic.

    “I thought, if you can apply you can at least prove that you tried,” said Anwar Suliman, a Sudanese asylum seeker who IRIN profiled in this 2017 film and interviewed again for this feature.

    He, like Teklit and many others, is still waiting for an answer.

    Adam never filled out the refugee status determination form – what everyone calls the RSD.

    Why? “They told me in the beginning they had no place for me.”

    Plus, he says he knew a lot of people who filled out the form and it amounted to nothing.

    The statistics bear this out – as of mid-2017, more than 12,200 people had filed asylum claims; more than 7,400 had received no reply. Only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese – 11 people total – have been granted refugee status since 2009, even though Israel is a signatory to the refugee convention. One more Eritrean man is said to have been granted status this week, although IRIN could not independently confirm the report.

    Fighting back

    Despite utter mistrust in the system and frustration over the miniscule recognition rate, those RSDs have suddenly begun to feel like some sort of protection.

    That’s because it is childless men who never applied or were rejected who Israel says it will send away first, although later phases of the policy could see others deported.

    IRIN visited Anwar at his home near another central bus station, but not in Tel Aviv – after detention in a desert centre called Holot he was told not to return to the city.

    He has been the face – and name – of lawsuits; he has encouraged his fellow activists to speak out; and he has learned Hebrew and English.

    Now, he says, “we’ve struggled enough. We did everything by the law; we protested; we spoke to the international media, the local media; we did everything.”

     

    “I think now is the time for the Israeli citizens’ to [join us in the] struggle.”

     

    Some have heeded his call.

    There have been protests (including some by residents of south Tel Aviv) against the proposed deportations, promises by rabbis to hide asylum seekers (should it come to that), and a letter from a group of pilots at Israel’s national airline, El Al, saying they would refuse to fly asylum seekers if they were forcibly deported.

    Condemnation from human rights organisations and international Jewish groups perhaps led Rwandan President Paul Kagame, after a recent meeting with Netanyahu, to issue a statement saying he “would only accept a process that fully complies with international law”.

     

    At local NGOs that serve the asylum seeker community, activists say they will do everything they can to put a stop to the new policy. Dror Sadot of the Tel Aviv based NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants told IRIN that there is “a lot of panic” about the possible deportations, and that “now is our time to do everything we can”.

     

    Adi Drori-Avraham, spokeswoman for ASSAF – which provides psychosocial support for asylum seekers who are especially vulnerable (torture victims, single mothers) – says her organisation will keep doing what it has always done.

     

    “We had an Eritrean woman, who is a single woman with three kids, sitting on a chair in her office, sobbing with her head between her hands, asking, ‘Are we going to have to hide?’ It’s a horrible situation, basically the stuff of nightmares.”

     

    Deported to what?

     

    In a recent cabinet meeting, Netanyahu reportedly called the notion that Rwanda is unsafe “a joke”.

     

    But asylum seekers who have taken Israel’s “voluntary” flights to Rwanda in the past have told researchers they arrived to find no support, only a night or two of hotel accommodation, and no legal right to remain there.

     

    With $3,500 in their pockets, they were easy targets for robbery and trafficking to other countries.

    AFP_Israel_deportation_protest_2

    Jack Guez/AFP
    Asylum seekers protest Israel's deportation plan outside the Rwandan embassy

    They felt they had little choice but to leave Rwanda and chance it through dangerous countries like Libya, and, according to UNHCR, “along they way they suffered abuse, torture, and extortion”.

     

    These reports back up stories every asylum seeker IRIN spoke to in Tel Aviv had heard (from friends or friends of friends who took Israel up on the offer of cash), and everyone had also seen the video of three Eritrean refugees who were voluntarily sent to Rwanda, attempted to make it to Libya, and were killed by so-called Islamic State.

     

    “[Rwanda and Uganda] are not our countries… nobody wants to go there,” says Teklit. “What is waiting for them is human trafficking to other countries, torture, other horrible things.”

     

    Teklit says he can only describe how he feels as “desperate”, but calmly says he will choose prison if forced and must remain composed because “the good guys are always the winners, not the bad guys”.

     

    Anwar feels the same: “100 percent I will go to prison. This is a crazy decision [to have to make]. But it’s the best I have.”

     

    Adam has a different take. He knows the risks – he knows he’ll be a sitting duck – but he reckons if he is deported it could help those still in Israel.  If he’s kicked out of a place “that doesn’t feel like your home… maybe people will start paying attention… one day the people here will feel something.”

     

    Changing hearts and minds

    On a recent Friday night at the Eritrean women’s centre in south Tel Aviv where Teklit works – women and children are celebrating a move to new offices with a coffee ceremony and snacks.

    In one corner is an odd-looking pile of plastic heads with hair, which made more sense when Teklit explains that hairdressing, along with cleaning, is one of the few avenues of employment for women from Eritrea.

    Behind the chitchat and selfies, in another room, a group of Eritrean and Ethiopian asylum seekers quietly fills out RSDs – with the help of volunteers, as the forms can only be filled out in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

    The Israeli government says this won’t make a difference, and insists that the deportation exemption only applies to those who had open applications as of the first of this year.

    So why are they still giving it a shot? “Maybe it makes them feel better,” offers one volunteer.

    Because of the recent move, the centre’s walls are nearly bare, but for a painting of one black hand and one white, linked together. Printed beneath, in Hebrew and English: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Asylum seekers protest outside the Rwandan embassy in Hertzliya, Israel. Jack Guez/AFP)

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    Prison or deportation: The impossible choice for asylum seekers in Israel
  • What you need to know now about cuts to the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees

    The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees says it is facing “the gravest financial crisis” in its history after the United States announced it was holding back planned funding. But the agency is also promising that services for more than five million people in the Middle East aren’t on the chopping block just yet.

    “We are determined to do everything in our power to keep services running,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told IRIN on Wednesday. “Schools and clinics will remain open,” he said, as the agency geared up to launch a massive fundraising campaign to fill in the gaps left by its largest donor.

    Here’s a quick guide to what UNRWA is, where its money comes from, and where things might go from here?

    Who does UNRWA help and where?

    UNRWA’s full name – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – is a mouthful.

    Its name (and all press releases, website, and the like) officially refers to “Palestine refugees,” not “Palestinian refugees”. That’s because UNRWA’s definition of a refugee (meant to help those who left or fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict) is tied to place – Palestine refugees are: “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

    The organisation began work in 1950, and its mandate was later expanded to help those displaced by the 1967 war that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem (plus the Golan Heights and Sinai, later given back in a peace deal with Egypt.)

    Those who meet this definition (and their children) and are registered with UNRWA and live in the areas where the agency works – that’s Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem – are eligible for services from the agency, including education, medical care, camp housing in some places, and more.

    Palestinian citizens of Israel, also sometimes called Arab Israelis, are not eligible for UNRWA assistance.

    In total, that’s about 5 million registered Palestine refugees in the region, a figure that has been growing since the agency first began work 1950. The number, needs, and budget are all growing, in large part because the children of Palestine refugees are refugees too.

    UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, is responsible for all other refugees, and the children born into the protracted crises it deals with should be recognised as refugees and given protection.                                                     

    Where does UNRWA’s funding come from?

    The United States announced on Tuesday that it was transferring $60 million of a planned $125 payment to UNRWA, but Gunness says the agency doesn’t yet know if this will be the final and full extent of the cuts.

    Gunness told IRIN that based on conversations with the US administration, the agency had been expecting to receive around $350 million from the country in 2018, roughly the same amount it gave last year.

    Now, it is only sure of $60 million.

    “Even without this reduction in US funding, we were facing a deficit of 150 million, ” Gunness added.

    The financial situation is bad, although this is hardly the first time. In 2015, commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl told IRIN the agency was facing its “most serious financial crisis ever;” in 2016 he said it was “in the midst of a grave financial crisis, of the magnitude faced last year,” and last year warned UNRWA was “on the verge of a major funding breakdown”.

    UNRWA says the near constant state of crisis is because needs and numbers are growing. And it’s in a riskier spot than some other UN agencies because it gets little funding from the main UN budget.

    So UNRWA largely depends on donations from countries, and the United States has historically been the largest, by a long shot. In 2016, it gave more than $368 million, with the EU a distant second at just under 160 million.

    There have been attempts made to put the agency on a more stable footing: expanding the donor base, cutting back on some staff positions, and upping class sizes. Some argue that UNRWA needs to do something radical to fix its chronic funding problem.

    State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the cuts were “not aimed at punishing” the Palestinian Authority, despite earlier comments that suggested otherwise by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.

    Instead, Nauert said, “the United States Government and the Trump administration believe that there should be more so-called burden-sharing to go around.”

    It looks like that is exactly what UNRWA is going to have to ask for. Gunness told IRIN the agency would be asking for money from countries, but also charities, private individuals – really whoever can give.

    Where does the money go?

    UNRWA has, broadly speaking, two major budget lines: main programmes and emergency appeals – for rebuilding Gaza and helping Palestine refugees impacted by the Syrian war, for example.

    A close look at UNRWA’s most recent annual report shows that the largest part of its $1.3 billion total spending in 2016 was on education, followed by “relief and social services”, which includes food assistance and cash.

    The services UNRWA offers differs by location – in Lebanon, for example, UNRWA runs primary and secondary schooling, plus a bit of tuition assistance for university. In the West Bank, it’s primary school only, and then Palestine refugee children move on to nationally-run schools.


     

    The percentage of Palestine refugees who depend on services also differs by location and need. For example, in Syria, where there are some 438,000 Palestine refugees left – many living right in the the middle of a conflict zone – UNRWA says more than 95 percent “are in continuous need of humanitarian aid to meet their needs”.

    Gunness and Krähenbühl are urging new donors to open their wallets – “to rally in support and join UNRWA in creating new funding alliances and initiatives”, as the commissioner-general put it in a Wednesday statement. At stake, he said, “are the rights and dignity of an entire community”.

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    (TOP PHOTO: UNRWA distributes food parcels in Damascus. Taghrid Mohammad/UNRWA)

    What you need to know now about cuts to the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees

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