(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Sahel violence displaces another million people

    Rising conflict and insecurity are accelerating forced displacement across the Sahel, and a new upsurge of violence along the Mali-Niger border has left 10,000 people in "appalling conditions" in improvised camps in Niger's Tillabéri region. The UN says IDP numbers in Mali have tripled to around 120,000. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, or CERF, has allocated $4 million to assist 70,000 people who have fled their homes in just two months in Burkina Faso. Around 4.2 million people – a million more than a year ago – are currently displaced across the Sahel due to a combination of armed attacks by extremist militants, retaliation by regional militaries, and inter-communal violence.

    All NGOs are not equal, especially when it comes to risk

    When it comes to safety, security, and risk, power differences between local and international NGOs can lead to “perverse incentives”, according to the summary of a new report. Local NGOs often do the last mile of humanitarian work, especially in insecure situations. They are funded by much bigger INGOs that act as donors. But while INGOs have sophisticated risk management (10 cooperated with this study by US-based NGO alliance InterAction), their downstream “partners” are not treated the same. The physical safety of local NGO staff, for example, gets much less attention than compliance with financial and counter-terrorism regulations. The report spells it out: INGOs “put a far greater emphasis on the risks of their local partners as opposed to the risks to them.” The study includes case studies from Nigeria and South Sudan, as well as recommendations based on examples of improved practice found during the research.

    First drought, now floods

    Flash floods and landslides have killed more than 70 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, with numbers expected to rise as on-the-ground assessments trickle in. Parts of Afghanistan are particularly hard hit, with nine provinces reporting displacement or damage to homes and agriculture. Some 21,000 people need aid in the southern province of Kandahar alone, according to the UN. Aid groups worry the situation could worsen with continued rain and snowfall expected. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have been grappling with severe drought over the last several months, and heavy rainfall can increase the threat of floods on degraded land. An El Niño weather pattern could also bring more rainfall, combining with the drought impacts to make floods “more ruinous” this year, according to the UN. Which makes this a good time to read more on the complications of responding to emergencies in conflict-hit Afghanistan.

    Algeria rising

    Mass protests triggered by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for re-election in April were not quelled by the announcement that he “would not be a candidate” in future elections (after next month’s, that is). Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, was paralysed by a stroke in 2013, and does not speak in public. Demonstrators are speaking out about corruption, poverty, and poor social services – all issues causing young Algerians to attempt the journey to Europe, according to Omar Belchouchet, editor of an independent Algerian newspaper. “They are fed up with this authoritarian regime which is stifling people, which is pushing its own citizens to die in the Mediterranean,” he said. According to the UN, 7,300 Algerians arrived on Europe’s shores in 2018, up from 5,900 in 2017.

    An international treaty to protect women?

    Today is International Women’s Day, with events taking place across the globe. But this week also saw the launch of the campaign for an Every Woman Treaty, which would seek to limit violence against women the same way existing international agreements limit landmines and smoking. It’s a bold step, but systemic gender inequalities mean it’s more than just direct violence – like rape as a weapon of war – that the humanitarian sector needs to worry about. Women are disproportionately affected, whether they’re subsistence farmers most acutely feeling the effects of climate change, people displaced during conflict, or those abused by the very aid workers who are supposed to be helping them in times of crisis. Although women are also often on the front lines of disasters, leading the response in their communities, they still face barriers to inclusion. Explore our recent reporting to learn more about some of the key humanitarian issues facing women and girls today.

    A guide to ‘White Saviour’ media debates

    British TV audiences have a week’s blizzard of jokey fundraising to come, as Comic Relief gears up for a “Red Nose Nose Day” telethon. Almost as predictable as the line-up of UK comedians is controversy about its video packages from projects abroad. The use of famous Britons to frame field-based segments is accused of being sentimental, simplistic, and disrespectful. This year, early critics included online activists No White Saviours and British member of parliament David Lammy. Comic Relief responded by saying that “people working with or supported by Comic Relief projects tell their own stories in their own words.” The accusations and counter-arguments have a familiar feel: last year, Comic Relief’s segment with musician Ed Sheeran came under fire. Thinking you’d like someone to explain the cycle of critique and outrage from all sides? Take a look at  this blog, from communication academic Tobias Denskus of Malmö University: “White saviour communication rituals in 10 easy steps.”

    In case you missed it

    Central African Republic: Four of the 14 rebel groups that signed a peace deal with the government have reportedly withdrawn in protest of a newly formed government, which they believe is not representative. The fragile agreement was forged after negotiations in the Sudanese capital last month. For an inside look at efforts to keep the peace in CAR, check out our three-part special report.

     

    Iraq: Rather than considering children affiliated with so-called Islamic State as victims in need of rehabilitation, authorities in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have charged hundreds of young people with terrorism offenses because of affiliation with the group, according to Human Rights Watch. In a report released on Thursday, it said confessions are often obtained through torture.

     

    North Korea: The UN this week called for $120 million in funding for North Korea, warning of potential food shortages and the unintended impacts of sanctions blocking humanitarian aid. Nearly 11 million people in the country are considered undernourished – the root of health problems for many North Koreans. New reports suggest North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy has been imploding, with huge declines in exports in 2018.

    Syria: The UN says that as of 3 March, 90 people had died either en route or shortly after arrival to al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, two thirds of them children under five. The camp’s population has swollen to more than 62,000 – 90 percent of them women and children – as thousands of people flee the last IS territory in the country. More than 5,200 new arrivals were reported by the UN between Tuesday and Thursday.

    US-Mexico: US officials say February was the busiest month for apprehensions at its southern border with Mexico in more than a decade – more than 76,100 people in total. The vast majority were families and unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The rise is unusual, but still well below the highs of the 1990s and 2000s when as many as 1.6 million people were apprehended annually.

     

    Weekend read

     

    How dire climate change warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh

     

    The extent to which specific extreme weather events – and related humanitarian disasters – can be attributed to climate change can be a contentious subject and remains a matter of some debate. But try telling that to rice farmers in Bangladesh’s northeast. They have been left bewildered by a succession of warmer winters, drier summers, and more erratic rains. Our weekend read offers a real-time glimpse of how dire climate displacement warnings can become a reality: village by depleted village; family by displaced family. Scientists in December published research that showed that human-induced climate change “doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall” in Bangladesh during March and April 2017. Farmers like Shites Das in the northeastern village of Daiyya are in no doubt. "We have no fertility of land like in the past,” Das says. “This has happened because of climate change.”

    And finally

     

    Somali Night Fever

     

    Check out this film for a different take on Somali refugees and for a rare glimpse into a Mogadishu of the 1970s and 1980s, when trendy nightclubs were graced by “musicians rocking afros and bell-bottom trousers”. When civil war erupted in Somalia in the 1990s, it separated friends and families, and destroyed a once cosmopolitan way of life. As people fled, they took their culture and music with them. As Somalia changed, so the sounds of funk, disco, soul, and reggae that once filled the airwaves also fell silent. Decades later, many Somalis still live in exile – some resettled in other countries, others in refugee camps. Meet Habib, now in Sweden, and Abdulkadir, living in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya: two former band mates and best friends. Separated by the war, they remain wonderfully united by their love of music, and by their memories of a bygone era.

    (TOP PHOTO: An informal refugee settlement of Garin-Wazam in Diffa region, Niger. CREDIT: Vincent Tremeau/UNICEF)

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    Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced
  • How dire climate displacement warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh

    Two years have passed since extreme rains and flash floods inundated this fertile rice-growing region in northeastern Bangladesh, but farmer Shites Das still sees the lasting impact today: his neighbours are abandoning their homes and fields.

     

    In March 2017, torrential rains burst river banks, washed away roads, and damaged 220,000 hectares of precious rice crops – weeks before the yearly monsoon rains typically set in. It was the start of the worst flooding to hit the country in years. Rice imports skyrocketed to cover a national shortfall, more than 80,000 homes were destroyed across Bangladesh, and in tiny Daiyya village, many families were left without food or crops to sell through the year.

     

    “In my 32 years, I’ve never seen such hunger,” Das said.

     

    Families here say such extremes have become increasingly common: warmer winters, drier summers, and more erratic rains that leave farmers guessing.

     

    "We have no fertility of land like in the past,” Das said. “This has happened because of climate change.”

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    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Shites Das, a farmer in Daiyya village in northeast Bangladesh, says many of his neighbours have left their farms, unable to make ends meet.

    Climate scientists typically speak in general terms when explaining the links between climate change and extreme weather – global temperature rise makes volatile weather more likely and more severe.

     

    However, there’s a growing body of research zeroing in on climate change as the likely culprit for specific disasters that spark humanitarian emergencies – including the flash floods that submerged Daiyya village.

     

    In December, climate scientists published new research that for the first time examined the link between climate change and Bangladesh’s pre-monsoon rains. University of Oxford researchers analysed data showing that six-day rainfall totals over March and April 2017 exceeded flood thresholds by more than a third. Using historical data and model simulations, the researchers concluded that human-induced climate change “doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall” during that time frame.

     

    This “extreme event attribution” research was one of 17 similar papers published by the American Meteorological Society last year. Other studies found the marks of climate change in disasters from floods in Peru to heatwaves in Europe and China.

     

    In Bangladesh, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, it’s further evidence of what many here already know: weather extremes are having life-altering impacts.

     

    World Bank research predicts climate change could force tens of millions of people to migrate within their own countries by 2050, including some 13 million in densely populated Bangladesh alone.

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    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Villagers walk along the banks of the Surma River in northeastern Bangladesh.

    The depleted villages of Bangladesh’s northeast offer a real-time glimpse of how dire climate displacement warnings are becoming a reality: village by village; family by family.

     

    Facing year-on-year crop loss and unpredictable weather, households here have been moving to the cities in droves – giving up on the rice farming that has sustained them for generations. Das estimates nearly one third of his village has left for good.

    Households here have been moving to the cities in droves – giving up on the rice farming that has sustained them for generations.

    “Those who left our village in 2017 have not come back,” he said. “People got scared.”

     

    The next lost crop

     

    Bangladesh’s northeast is a land of stark contrast, where water is plentiful during the monsoon season, and drought-like weather prevails in the dry season.

     

    It’s dotted with haors – seasonal wetlands where boro, a type of paddy rice, is harvested as the monsoon season begins, typically in April and May. The region is one of the country’s rice bowls, contributing more than 16 percent of boro rice production each year.

     

    But it’s also one of Bangladesh’s poorest areas; the UN says more than a quarter of its 2.5 million population live in poverty. People mainly scratch out a living through fishing and duck farming, and by cultivating boro rice, which is only harvested once a year.

     

    Villages here were unprepared for 2017’s sudden floods.

    Das said he watched as farmer after farmer lost their entire crop. His own crop was wiped out; he survived in part by selling his valuable cattle at half the market price, he said.

     

    Others weren’t as lucky. In nearby Vatidhar village, 60-year-old Anu Begum said she relied on humanitarian food aid to survive.

     

    “We managed a meal, skipped another,” she said. “It was year-round suffering.”

     

    Humanitarian group BRAC, which started life in this district, stepped in with more than $2 million in food and cash aid that kept some families going for a year after the floods. But it covered only a fraction of the needs, said Parul Akter, who coordinates the NGO’s programmes in the area.

     

    “Our support was a drop in the ocean,” she said. “Every household suffered.”

     

    People in Vatidhar estimate that half of the village’s roughly 700 people have migrated to the cities since the floods.

     

    While there are no official statistics tracking the area’s migration after the floods, Akter said one third of BRAC’s 18,000 microfinance borrowers from one sub-district alone deserted their villages to find jobs in the eastern city of Sylhet, the southern port of Chittagong, or the capital, Dhaka.

     

    “People are worried about the next crop loss,” said Ali Hossain, a former local government representative in the area. “Even big farmers having up to 60 acres of land have quit farming.”

     

    The steady drain of farmers from one of Bangladesh’s main rice-producing regions could also have wider implications for food security. In 2017, rice imports soared to more than three million tonnes from less than 100,000 tonnes the year before – in large part due to shortfalls caused by the floods. At the same time, domestic rice prices climbed 30 percent – beyond the reach of the most vulnerable.

     

    Anwar Faruque, a former secretary in Bangladesh’s agriculture ministry who now consults for international development organisations, said a loss of haor rice crops could spark a food “crisis” for the entire country. This could lead to even more substantial imports and hiked prices.

     

    "The ultra-poor will be affected,” he said.

     

    A sign of things to come

     

    The northeast’s village-level population shifts were set in motion by a disaster, which in turn was likely triggered by climate change.

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    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Emdadul Huq, 75, farms rice in a wetlands area in northeastern Bangladesh. He says winters have grown warmer and rains more intense.

    The 2017 floods are the "early beginning of the trend” reflected across the country, said Atiq Rahman, a climate scientist who co-authored a chapter on vulnerabilities in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the UN body that assesses climate science.

     

    And estimates suggest 300,000 to 400,000 new migrants each year head to cities in Bangladesh, driven by a complex mix of economic and environmental pressures.

     

    Experts warn that Bangladesh must boost preparations to help citizens adapt to climate change and better manage migration: development projects that help rural families weather the storms and offer a reason to stay home, for example.

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    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Children gather near a rice field. The seasonal wetlands, known as haors, are submerged for much of the year. Rice is harvested once a year as the monsoon season begins.

    “If your homestead is high, if you’ve adequate food, you can minimise your losses,” said Rahman, who believes that current government efforts are inadequate.

     

    AKM Nuruzzaman, a village official, said that internal migration is a necessity for many rural families in Bangladesh. Even when the monsoon rains come as scheduled and harvests are bountiful, there are no major industries and few job opportunities when it’s not farming season in his sub-district, he said.

     

    Many households rely on a migrating family member to send money back to the village. Others need more help to diversify their crops and income, he said.

     

    Adapting

     

    Some efforts are already underway.

     

    The country has ploughed more than $400 million into its Climate Change Trust, a state-funded body that finances adaptation and mitigation projects by government agencies. Roughly 80 percent of these funds have gone toward helping Bangladeshis adapt, said Mokhlesar Rahman Sarker, the fund’s deputy head.

    However, none of these adaptation projects cover the northeast haor region – in part because there has been little research about climate change’s impacts here, said AKM Mamunur Rashid, a climate change specialist with the UN Development Programme.

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    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    A submersible road connects a village to a local market. The roads, built to withstand monsoon floods, are one way local governments are trying to adapt to a changing climate.

    But regular government departments are building projects such as submersible roads, which are designed to withstand floods, connecting villages to local markets even during the monsoon season.

     

    Other aid projects are helping local families adapt: a district-wide UN-funded programme has built protective walls to fortify villages against floods, and BRAC has introduced new varieties of rice that can be grown and harvested faster.

     

    But these efforts will come too late for those who have already left.

     

    A few months after the 2017 floods ravaged her family’s rice crop, Niyoti Rani Das, 51, took her two children and left Daiyya village for a city near Dhaka.

     

    Her eldest daughter abandoned her studies to help support the family. Together, they earn about $160 each month working in the booming but perilous textiles industry. Half the salary is eaten up by rent, and the family can’t afford school fees for the youngest, a 12-year-old boy.

     

    Das and her children live in a slum by a railway line and scramble to make ends meet. But she won’t return to her village: she has a sliver of land, but no rice to grow, she said.

     

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    After the floods, a real-time glimpse of migration as rice-farming villages empty
    How dire climate displacement warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh
  • Briefing: How the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh is changing

    Aid groups and authorities in Bangladesh are preparing to ask for more than $900 million in donor funding to help Rohingya refugees in the sprawling refugee settlements of southern Bangladesh.

     

    But nearly 18 months after 700,000 Rohingya fled a violent military crackdown in Myanmar in August 2017, the aid sector finds itself shifting from emergency response to dealing with a protracted crisis.

     

    The camps are now home to nearly one million Rohingya, including previous generations of refugees who fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

     

    “This is like a major city,” said Rachel Wolff, response director for World Vision, one of more than 100 NGOs, UN agencies, and government bodies now working in Cox’s Bazar.

     

    There are slim prospects of a quick return home: the UN says Rakhine State is not yet safe for the Rohingya, who have faced generations of marginalisation and disenfranchisement, and most of the refugees say they won’t go back until their rights are guaranteed.

    A generation of young Rohingya have spent another year without formal schooling or ways to earn a living.

    The dimensions of the response are changing as the months pass: medical operations focused on saving lives in 2017 must now also think of everyday illnesses and healthcare needs; a generation of young Rohingya have spent another year without formal schooling or ways to earn a living; women reported sexual violence at the hands of Myanmar's military, but today the violence happens within the cramped confines of the camps.

     

    Here are some of the biggest issues coming up in delivering aid in city-sized camps, as the crisis continues to evolve and pushes toward a second full year:

     

    Healthcare: from bullet wounds to diabetes

     

    Healthcare workers responding in the early days of the 2017 refugee outflow treated traumatic injuries like bullet and knife wounds, and rushed to implement mass vaccination campaigns and ensure access to safe water.

     

    But as the refugee crisis prolongs, longer-term health needs also become a pressing concern.

     

    “You go through this emergency response and then you say, OK, we don’t know when or if the situation for these refugees will improve, so we need to start addressing things like diabetes… and high blood pressure,” said Jessica Patti, medical coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, which runs four field hospitals and several clinics in the camps.

     

    Read more: A new normal in humanitarian aid: treating middle-class diseases

     

    Major gaps in health services have emerged in the crowded camps: treatment for chronic diseases, care for sexual violence survivors, and mental health and psychiatric services for a population stuck in limbo.

     

    The Inter Sector Coordination Group, the UN-led body coordinating aid efforts in the camps, says treatment for non-communicable diseases, as well as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV is “insufficient”, and that health facilities are unevenly distributed – services are bunched close together in some areas, while refugees in more distant settlements may go without.

    “Congestion is the recipe for all disaster.”

    “After an emergency, everybody sort of comes in, responds, sets up,” Patti said. “But I think we’re at a point now where people need to take a step back and say, OK, maybe some of these services are redundant and need to consider closing, re-evaluating, or moving where we are, to allow for more space in the camps for people to live.”

     

    Overcrowding

     

    The extreme lack of space in the camps cuts through the entire response: health risks from poor hygiene and sanitation soar if latrine standards are inadequate. There’s not enough room for classrooms, nor for storm shelters or comprehensive evacuation plans for the upcoming cyclone and monsoon season.

     

    “Congestion is the recipe for all disaster,” said Rezaul Chowdhury, who leads COAST, a local NGO based in Cox’s Bazar.

     

    The majority of the refugees now live in massive Kutupalong camp, carved out of undulating, flood-prone land.

     

    The amount of useable space available per person – less than 10 square metres in some areas – falls far below minimum international standards for refugee camps.

     

    Needs of women and girls

     

    This severe congestion also adds to the risks faced by women and girls, whose health and protection needs are already “critically underserved” in the camps, according to the Inter-agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises, a coalition of aid organisations.

     

    “The fact that it's such a crowded camp, who's the most affected? It's women and girls,” Wolff said.

     

    “They don't have a space and, being from a culture where, not all, but some portion of males, husbands, and community leaders, are pressuring them to stay in their homes – we're talking about homes that are actually glorified hovels; stay in your plastic shelter – it’s just beyond what I think a human woman could tolerate.”

     

    Schools and livelihoods: a lost generation

     

    There are more than half a million school-age children and young adults in the camps and surrounding areas, but for the past 18 months few have been able to access formal education.

     

    Worried that Rohingya children educated in Bangladesh will integrate into local society and not return home, Bangladesh’s government has placed strict limits on formal education – Rohingya students are not permitted to study using the Bangladeshi curriculum.

     

    Instead, education services are largely limited to informal classrooms run by a range of NGOs and community groups. But aid groups have been slow to finalise an alternative curriculum, and some Rohingya parents have criticised the quality of education on offer. Aid groups say this informal schooling is available to only half of children 14 years old and younger.

     

    At the same time, only primary-level education is allowed, meaning there are few opportunities for Rohingya who are 15 and older. Fewer than 5,000 adolescents have any access to schooling or life-skills training, out of more than 117,000 who may need it, according to aid groups.

    "You are developing a young generation with a lot of frustration.”

    “Without formal education, without skills-building, things to do actively, and preparing for their futures, how do they start to think about where their life is going?” said Wolff. “I think all of us really hope to move a bit faster and get into more self-reliance activities for the refugees, especially the youth.”

     

    Critics say there has been a lack of long-term planning on education, including coordinated advocacy to convince the government to change its rules.

     

    “The Rohingya are getting older. They are growing,” said Chowdhury. “If you don’t have education, then you are developing a young generation with a lot of frustration.”

     

    Host communities: rising tensions

     

    The massive influxes of refugees – and the aid groups that followed them – have raised tensions among Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar. Some say they’ve seen their income plummet as they compete for increasingly scarce resources or services.

     

    A January survey by Ground Truth Solutions, which researches the views of people in crises, pointed to rising tensions among the host communities: “Their attitudes have shifted from the start of the crisis, where they felt much more supportive and welcoming of Rohingya but now are much less so, feeling that Rohingya have ‘been here too long’.”

     

    Aid groups and the government also warn of a “potential deterioration” of relations between Rohingya and the local communities. The upcoming response plan is expected to place a greater emphasis on building social cohesion and on development projects to improve education and access to water and food in host communities. Some of these projects were started last year, but the UN coordination body said a “severe funding gap” put a limit on this assistance.

     

    Planning for the future

     

    The upcoming appeal – north of $900 million – represents one of the largest humanitarian appeals for a crisis this year. But the 2018 Rohingya appeal went underfunded through much of the year, which aid groups said had a direct impact on the quality of services available.

     

    Chowdhury said the aid community continues to concentrate on short-term goals, without planning for a future when funding will wane. He said local NGOs and aid workers have effectively been left out of planning, while international aid groups have done little to build skills among the local organisations that call Bangladesh home.

     

    “When the funds dry out, when UN agencies and all the experts fly out, there should not be a burden on the local people,” Chowdhury said. “There should be an opportunity for the local people.”

     

    At the same time, the future of the Rohingya in Bangladesh is inextricably tied to the government itself, which is in charge of the humanitarian response but also says the refugees must one day return home.

     

    Highly criticised plans to begin refugee returns to Myanmar last year were called off when Rohingya refused to go. The government has also floated plans to resettle some Rohingya on Bhasan Char, a disaster-prone island that rights groups say would be even more precarious than the refugees’ current camp shelters.

    (TOP PHOTO: Young Rohingya refugees play at Balukhali refugee camp in Ukhia on 4 February 2019. CREDIT: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)

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    Briefing: How the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh is changing
  • 2018 in Review: Migration

    This series

    In this week-long series, IRIN’s editors highlight five themes from across our reporting that will continue to inform our coverage of the humanitarian sector in the new year: local aid; women and girls; returns and rebuilding; policy and practice; and migration. Are there untold stories we should be covering in 2019 on these or other themes? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here. Happy reading.

    By-products of so many of the conflicts and natural disasters IRIN covers are thousands of families forced from their homes. But countless more people are driven from their villages, cities, or homelands by persecution, slow-burning crises, or economic necessity and want.

     

    More people are on the move than ever before. International migrants numbered more than 250 million in 2018, a year in which terms like refugee, asylum seeker, and economic migrant again failed to speak to complex, multi-layered issues around migration – experiences that often involve several rounds of displacement and life-threatening journeys.

     

    US President Donald Trump made headlines with his “travel ban” and family separations, but 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing nations like Turkey and Uganda, and 40 million of the 68.5 million people forcibly displaced are still in their home countries.

     

    In 2018, we sought to give voice to migrants and refugees wherever the road took them, especially on emerging routes and in situations where their choices became desperate, whether because of conflict, people traffickers, or foreign governments pursuing a harder line on immigration.

     

    Below are highlights from our reporting:

     

    Heading into war

    Crossroads Djibouti: The African migrants who defy Yemen’s war

    How desperate do you have to be to flee to a country at war? The International Organisation for Migration said up to 150,000 East African migrants will have reached Yemen by the year’s end, crossing deserts, lava fields, and the Gulf of Aden on their way to Gulf states.

    Men walk should to shoulder on a barren road

     

    Lost identity

    How tattered Rohingya IDs trace a trail towards statelessness

    For Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh camps, ID documents aren’t just reminders of what’s left behind, clung to with the distant hope they might permit a return to Myanmar, they’re also a record of the systematic stripping of their citizenship, belonging, and their very identity.

    A man holds up his ID card

     

    War and peace

    Eritrea-Ethiopia peace leads to a refugee surge

    More people were internally displaced in Ethiopia than in any other country in the first half of 2018, mostly due to ethnic conflict driven by scarce resources. By the second half of the year, peace and an open border with Eritrea were encouraging a new wave of Eritrean refugees.

    Portraits of two Eritreans closeup but looking away

     

    Economic collapse

    As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes

    In November, UN agencies put the number of Venezuelans to have fled the country since 2015 at three million. As Colombia, by far the biggest recipient, announced stricter enforcement at official border crossings, migrants and refugees found new, illegal routes out.

    A guard in camo with a rifle against the sky

     

    US border deaths

    Water in the desert

    At least 6,700 bodies have been found since 2000 on the Mexico-US border, a third of them in the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. For 12 years, a little-known humanitarian effort has been underway to try to save migrant lives, starting with water stations on the likeliest routes.

    A cross on a small hill

     

    Unprepared

    Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey

    Before 2012, and before millions of people began crossing the Mediterranean, the Evros river was the main transit point for those hoping to make it into Europe via Greece. This March, it suddenly became popular again. The region was not prepared.

    A shoe stuck in thick barbed wire

     

    Rights lost

    New Italian law adds to unofficial clampdown on asylum seekers

    Tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Italy have been stripped of “humanitarian protection”, losing their right to work and to free language and skills training. But an IRIN investigation found that thousands had already seen their services cut or curtailed over the past two years.

    The back of a head in the foreground with a runway and planes in the background
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Migration
  • 2018 in Review: Local aid

    This series

    In this week-long series, IRIN’s editors highlight five themes from across our reporting that will continue to inform our coverage of the humanitarian sector in the new year: local aid; women and girls; returns and rebuilding; policy and practice; and migration. Are there untold stories we should be covering in 2019 on these or other themes? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here. Happy reading.

    The aid sector has made broad commitments to “localise” aid by shifting more power and funding to humanitarians on the ground where crises hit. But change has been slow, and the costs of delivering aid in emergencies continue to soar.

     

    In sprawling refugee camps and ravaged disaster zones, however, local aid workers are already on the front lines of the world’s most pressing crises, as our 2018 reporting on local aid in emergencies demonstrated.

     

    Below are highlights from our reporting, which will continue to explore how these local humanitarians – from grassroots NGOs and community leaders to local governments and everyday citizens – step in to respond, and to examine how this shift impacts the wider aid sector.

     

    Aid sector imbalances

    From evacuee to humanitarian: aid goes local in conflict-torn Marawi

     

    Local humanitarians rushed to respond when fierce urban warfare and martial law turned the Philippine city of Marawi into a no-go zone for most international aid groups last year. But they also put themselves at immense risk, foregoing basic protections that international staff would demand – exposing imbalances in the aid sector.

    A woman with an umbrella stands on rubble as light breaks through

     

    Stepping in

    In the Caribbean, local aid helps tackle a surge in Venezuelan asylum seekers

     

    Venezuelans continue to flee their country, and the region is struggling to absorb the influx. In small Caribbean nations like Trinidad and Tobago – home to an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans – local aid groups are some of the only agencies helping the growing number of asylum seekers.

    closeup of a people in jeans as they sit waiting

     

    Agile response

    In Burkina Faso, a local drive to educate children fleeing extremist violence

    In 2018, jihadist attacks forced hundreds of schools to close in Burkina Faso’s north. One school in the capital, Ouagadougou, adapted to the emergency by taking in and providing psychological support to children displaced by the violence.

    Twins look directly at the camera in front of a chalkboard

     

    ‘Informal humanitarians’

    Behind Indonesia’s tsunami response, a patchwork army of volunteers

     

    Everyday volunteers are playing a crucial role in the ongoing response to the earthquakes and tsunami that hit Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province in 2018. These “informal humanitarians” were first on the ground, while official aid was hampered by damaged infrastructure and red tape. However, the effort was also “spontaneous and disorganised”, as one volunteer told IRIN.

    A woman with a headscarf and sunglasses on a boat carrying a box of aid on her lap

     

    Aid at home

    First person: Bringing aid to my neighbours in Hodeidah just got harder

     

    “The days are long, the dangers many, and the obstacles to aid workers’ jobs in Hodeidah never seem to end,” a local aid worker wrote in his on-the-ground account of the mounting challenges in Yemen’s Red Sea port.

    A family sits on the floor inside and looks up at the camera

     

    Slow-going reforms

    In Bangladesh, a Rohingya strike highlights growing refugee activism

     

    For proponents of the “localisation” agenda, the response to the Rohingya refugee emergency in Bangladesh is evidence of just how slow reforms have been: local aid groups say they’ve been pushed aside while dozens of big international agencies have flooded into the camps. But the voices of Rohingya refugees themselves have also been conspicuously absent.

    Three adult men in a white have a discussion inside a temporary structure

     


     

    Read more of our local aid coverage here. In 2019 we’ll deepen our reporting on local aid, spotlighting the new humanitarians on the front lines of crises around the globe, tracking progress toward “localisation” and examining the implications of this continuing shift. Any stories we should be covering? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here.

    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Local aid
  • “Nowhere to go” on the front lines of climate change

    In a report released this week during the UN climate change summit in Poland, the UN Environment Programme warned of a widening gap between the cost of adaptation in developing countries – as much as $500 billion annually by 2050 – and what wealthier nations have promised.

     

    But while global leaders negotiate a path forward, communities on the front lines of climate change are already struggling to adjust to the impacts of extreme weather, shifting seasons, and volatile temperatures.

     

    IRIN reporters met with people coping with staggering changes to their ways of life. For some, the shifts have been life-altering: a family forced to flee their land for a city slum; a fisherman trying to farm because the seas are no longer productive; a drought-stricken herder who abandoned his livelihood only to see his new one threatened.

     

    Their stories, presented below, are a snapshot of everyday efforts to cope – and a sign of the enormity of adapting to climate change for those already living with its impacts.

     

    Lower-income countries say previous global commitments of $100 billion a year in climate financing for vulnerable nations are already short of what’s needed, and fail to account for the spiralling costs of disaster-inflicted loss and damages.

     

    “There are limits to the extent to which human and natural systems can adapt,” a bloc of 47 least-developed countries warned. “People are already suffering from the devastation that climate change brings.”

    “Nowhere to go” on the front lines of climate change
    “I have nowhere else to turn”
    From land to lake, drought threatens livelihoods in Kenya’s Turkana
    Fishermen with fish on the shore of Lake Turkana

    Severe drought forced lifelong pastoralist Eperit Naporon to abandon his goat herd to become a fisherman on northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana. But climate change is again threatening his livelihood.

     

    When 200 of his goats died during a drought last year, Naporon decided he had to find another way to feed his family and survive. For decades he had fished the waters of Lake Turkana – the world’s largest desert lake – not as a job, but to supplement the family’s diet. Now, the former herder is a full-time fisherman, supplying his catch to small-scale traders along the shore.

     

    But already, fish in the water have dwindled. “We used to get big and many fish very close to the shores. Now we have to go deeper in conflicted areas with our neighbours as that’s the only way to get a catch,” said the 43-year-old father of nine.

     

    “And what you bring home is much smaller fish compared to what we caught years ago.”

     

    Turkana County has long experienced periods of recurrent drought. However, increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are expected to increase the rates of evaporation at Lake Turkana. Government meteorological data show temperatures in Turkana County increased between two and three degrees Celsius (3.5 and 5.5°F) between 1967 and 2012.

     

    Naporon says the droughts have become longer, more frequent, and more economically damaging: “Nowadays, it dries almost annually. And when it hits, we lose everything... the cows, the goats; it's frustrating.”

     

    Now his second source of hope, the desert lake, is also under threat – not only from high levels of evaporation due to increased temperatures, but also from human interference.

     

    Hydroelectric and irrigation projects constructed along the Omo River will dramatically reduce freshwater input from the river into Lake Turkana, increasing its salinity levels and reducing fish-breeding areas and mature fish populations. The Omo River provides 90 percent of the water in Lake Turkana.

     

    As world leaders deliberate how to implement climate commitments aimed at limiting global temperature rise, the best Naporon can do is hope that the source of his current livelihood holds.

     

    “This is my only hope! I have nowhere else to turn,” he said. “Yes, I still keep a few goats, but with them dying in huge numbers nearly annually, it is no longer possible. So, this lake has to yield.”

    “When the river erodes, it takes away everything”
    Displaced by erosion, climate migrants cause Bangladesh’s slums to swell
    Portrait of a woman close up

    Raima Begum has little idea about global warming, but she’s living proof of the toll climate change is already exacting on the coastal communities of low-lying Bangladesh.

     

    In 2009, the Meghna River swallowed up her entire home and land on Bhola, an island perched near the mouth of the river on the Bay of Bengal. Bhola has gradually been shrinking over decades due to soil erosion exacerbated by rising sea levels and frequent flooding.

     

    “When the river erodes, it takes away everything,” Begum said.

     

    With her land and possessions gone, the 30-year-old mother of two made the lengthy upriver journey here to Kallyanpur Pora Bastee, a slum community on the margins of Bangladesh’s crowded capital, Dhaka. She wasn’t alone: residents say 80 percent of the people here are migrants from Bhola.

     

    Begum’s journey is part of a familiar rural exodus in Bangladesh, where some 300,000 to 400,000 new migrants head to urban centres like Dhaka each year. Reasons for migration are often complex, but wrapped in the economic motivations are environmental pressures – like drought, floods, and disappearing land – that force people like Begum to leave.

     

    Research by the World Bank warns there could be more than 40 million “internal climate migrants” in South Asia by 2050 – one third of them in Bangladesh.

     

    Today, river erosion claims about 10,000 hectares of land each year. Climate change accelerates this damage by increasing the risk and magnitude of extreme disasters such as Bangladesh’s worsening annual floods. A 2013 study on climate change’s impacts suggested that erosion along Bangladesh’s three major rivers could increase by 13 percent by 2050. Researchers say this rising loss of land could swell the ranks of Bangladesh’s climate migrants, like Begum and her family.

     

    The Begums lived off the land back on Bhola. But in the slums of Dhaka, they struggle to make ends meet. Her husband earns less than $100 a month, which is mostly taken up by rent and medicine for her ill son. She blames her family’s problems on the erosion that robbed them of their home, and drove them to the unfamiliar capital.

     

    “Isn’t erosion doing harm to us? Isn’t it our loss?” she said. “We’re now suffering in a foreign land.”

    “When there is no rain, you can’t grow anything”
    In Madagascar, “no rain” pushes farmers to the city
    Woman and child in front of a food market stall

    In a quiet corner of a market in Morondava, a city on Madagascar’s west coast, Alatsoa is tidying her stall: she sells spices and pulses, neatly displayed in their wholesale sacks.

     

    But this wasn’t always her life. Alatsoa, her husband, and their two sons arrived in the city in 2013 after drought in their home region of Androy in southern Madagascar made it impossible to continue working as farmers.

     

    “We grew maize and yam and sold it in local markets,” she said. “But when there is no rain, you can’t grow anything.”

    “No rain” has become an increasingly common concern in Androy as a result of climate change. The region has been in the grips of unprecedented drought since 2013, accentuated by an El Niño phenomenon that brought prolonged rain shortages. This has triggered a humanitarian crisis, with more than a million people now facing food shortages and malnutrition.

     

    This may be a sign of worse to come: forecasts agree that temperatures in the southernmost region will increase, drought will become more common, and rainfall more variable. With farming dependent almost entirely on rainfall, and very little in the way of formal irrigation or modern farming practices in Androy, drought has a disproportionate impact on this poor, underdeveloped region.

    “There is famine there, there is no water. Our future would have been very bleak if we had stayed,” said Alatsoa. “We would have managed to survive, but not live.”

     

    Climate change exacerbates internal migration flows in Madagascar, according to the UN. This trend is clear in Morondava’s market, where dozens of traders from Androy sell produce including bananas, mangoes, and poultry.

    Accompanying Alatsoa at the market, her youngest child Riantsoa, who was born in Morondava, is now three and looks small for her age. But she is likely in better health than many children back in Androy: the World Food Programme estimates that nearly half the children under the age of five in Madagascar suffer from chronic malnutrition or stunting, and the south is the worst-affected region.

     

    “Life here is good,” Alatsoa said. “We eat well and we are healthy. That’s the most important thing.”

     

    But she hopes that one day things will improve enough for the family to return to Androy. “When you’re old, you must go back to your homeland,” she said.

    “It’s all gone”
    Rising sea levels uproot coastal communities in Liberia
    A family in front of a broken building

    Before the sea removed a large chunk of his home in August, 30-year-old Lawrence Saweh sold dry goods at the market.

     

    “The sea damaged what I used to do for work,” he said. “I’m not doing anything now. It’s all gone.”

     

    Over the space of a weekend, his five-room house in the Funday quarter of Monrovia’s New Kru Town district was reduced to two. The sea tore through the concrete structure, demolishing the external walls and claiming what was inside, including his stock of goods to sell and his mother’s bed.

     

    Anything spared by the water was taken by looters who arrived once the sea had receded. “They even stole the zinc roofing,” he said, looking up at the sunlight streaming in from large holes through the remains of his home.

     

    In this coastal suburb, which sits on Bushrod Island, a portion of the capital that lies between the Saint Paul River and the Atlantic Ocean, many homes consist of a hotchpotch of corrugated iron sheets stuck into the sand.

     

    But Saweh’s home wasn’t always a beachside district.

     

    Since the 1970s, coastal erosion has reduced the size of Monrovia’s beachside communities by between two and seven metres annually and the densely populated New Kru Town, which is situated less than a metre above sea level, is among the worst-hit areas. Today, fishing boats nudge against the exposed foundations of Saweh’s home; 30 years ago, the neighbourhood extended more than 200 metres further out.

     

    Rising sea levels caused by climate change are expected to continue causing destruction to Monrovia’s coastal communities. A defence barrier is being built nearby, but this comes as small consolation to Saweh, whose home remains vulnerable and unprotected. “The sea is still finding a way,” he said, watching the saltwater washing into a channel behind his house.

     

    Saweh’s options are limited in the likely event of further destruction. “Where will I go?” he asked. “There’s nowhere to go; no money. That’s why we’re still here.”

    “I can’t predict it anymore”
    Warming oceans, erratic storms disrupt Indonesian fishing villages
    A fisherman in front of a boat and the sea

    Tuna fisherman Salsabila Makatika no longer trusts the ocean that has sustained his community for generations.

     

    Salsabila depends on tuna to support his family of 11 in Asilulu village, a small fishing community on Ambon Island near Indonesia’s eastern edges. But fish that used to be plentiful at the start of the traditional fishing season in early March now appear weeks later. And the storm season that once set in toward the end of the year begins weeks earlier, effectively shrinking his window to make a living.

     

    “I can’t predict it anymore,” said Salsabila, 51. “With the sudden wind changes, I can’t operate. I’ve gone many times out to the ocean but come back with nothing.”

     

    Climate researchers say ocean warming – one consequence of climate change – has already had a “profound” effect on global fisheries, shrinking fish catches in some regions and increasing them elsewhere. Climate change is expected to drive tuna stock here in the western Pacific further eastward and to higher latitudes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that Indonesia will be among the hardest hit in Asia by this ongoing “redistribution” of fisheries.

     

    The volatility is already having an impact here in northern Ambon, where 90 percent of the families depend on fisheries. The tuna is sold to Indonesian companies, who ship it around the country and further abroad.

     

    Salsabila said he used to regularly return with seven large tuna in his boat’s icebox; these days, he catches two at most.

     

    This new reality has pushed some fishing families here to try and diversify their income: catching other types of fish, or balancing their fishing with farming. But other varieties of fish fetch far lower prices, and the amount of land suitable for farming on Ambon is relatively small, said Subair Abdullah, a professor at Ambon Islamic State University who has researched how Asilulu fishers are adapting to climate change.

     

    Subair believes the changing climate is putting the fishing community here at risk of a “food crisis” for which they are not prepared.

     

    “The fishermen impacted aren’t yet aware that what they’re experiencing is climate change,” Subair said. “It makes it hard to adapt.”

    This story was reported by Sophie Mbugua in Kenya, AZM Anas in Bangladesh, Emilie Filou in Madagascar, Lucinda Rouse in Liberia, and Ian Morse in Indonesia.

    (TOP PHOTO: Fishermen in Madagascar, threatened by the effects of global warming. CREDIT: Marco Longari/AFP)

  • In Bangladesh, a Rohingya strike highlights growing refugee activism

    Denied citizenship and driven out of Myanmar, multiple generations of Rohingya families have found a reluctant home in Bangladesh’s crowded refugee camps. But only recently have they found a voice.

     

    Alarmed by aborted plans to repatriate refugees to an uncertain fate in Myanmar, and by what they see as a lack of meaningful consultation from the authorities and aid groups, Rohingya activists are beginning to demand a greater say on issues that impact them.

     

    This nascent advocacy was evident in the camps this week when groups of Rohingya announced a three-day strike to protest new identity cards issued by the Bangladesh authorities and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

     

    Some Rohingya fear their personal data could be used to enable forced returns to Myanmar; the UNHCR says the system isn’t linked to repatriation, but needed to organise and provide aid to the more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh.

     

    Growing grassroots activism among the Rohingya – including an informal network of self-funded schools to teach newcomers – is driven by a generation of refugees who came of age in the camps as well as by more recent arrivals who graduated from school before fleeing Myanmar.

     

    They’re hoping to represent the larger Rohingya refugee community on everything from education and aid policy to human rights and justice for last year’s military purge in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, which sent more than 700,000 new refugees pouring into the camps.

     

    Mohib Ullah was one of the organisers of this week’s protests. He heads the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, or ARSPH, which has become one of the most prominent advocacy groups within the camps.

     

    “If we want to solve our problems, we should do it ourselves. The international community are just helpers,” he said. “The [Rohingya] community has more trust and belief in their own organisations, their own community, their own family.”

    bangladesh-rohingyaadvocacy-1.jpg

    Kaamil Ahmed/IRIN
    Mohib Ullah (left), a refugee who heads the group Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, talks to Rohingya leaders from across the refugee camps.

    Researchers and some humanitarian workers in the camps say aid groups have largely overlooked some of these emerging voices – part of broader criticism that the dozens of UN agencies, NGOs, and government bodies working in Bangladesh need to be more accountable to the refugees.

     

    “They have done consultations with them, but it’s always after the fact,” said Jessica Olney, a consultant who works on community engagement in the camps. “It’s never as a decision-making stakeholder; it’s always informing people what was decided about them.”

     

    With the future of Rohingya refugees uncertain, activists say the aid sector must do a better job of listening, or risk fuelling further frustration and disaffection among the very community it is trying to help.

     

    Learning to lead

     

    Many of today’s unheralded Rohingya leaders are refugees from previous influxes. They’ve come up through makeshift schools run for and by refugees themselves – separate to the basic primary education offered in NGO-run centres.

     

    Zahid Hossain arrived in the camps in 1991, when his parents were among an estimated 250,000 Rohingya who fled discrimination, violence, and forced labour in Myanmar.

     

    When he was a child, he attended one of the refugee-run schools – often simple bamboo structures wedged alongside a teacher’s own shelter and funded by donations raised in the camps or from the sizeable Rohingya diaspora. Now 32 years old, Hossain is a teacher who educates the latest generation of Rohingya refugees.

     

    On the bamboo walls of his one-room classroom, he has hung hand-drawn images of burning homes and tumultuous river crossings: the students who drew the artwork arrived in the camps during last year’s refugee surge.

     

    Hossain believes that by educating young Rohingya refugees he can help foster a generation of leaders that will advocate for the community’s rights after years of persecution in Myanmar and lingering uncertainty about their future in Bangladesh.

    “They have done consultations with them, but it’s always after the fact. ”

    “We can sit here getting food from different organisations. We can sit idly by. But that would be worthless,” he said.

     

    Hossain estimates that some 1,500 students have passed through his class since he started teaching a decade ago and, like Hossain, many of the children educated in the informal schools have become teachers themselves.

     

    During last year’s influx, the schools offered medical help and food to the exhausted new arrivals. Today, the people behind the informal schools also take on community duties like collecting and disposing of waste. Graduates have gone on to work as interpreters with the many NGOs that have followed the refugees to the camps – helping to bridge the language gap by translating from Rohingya into both English and Bengali.

     

    Another informal group, called the Rohingya Community Development Campaign, comprises educated Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar last year or during a smaller influx in 2016. Members of the group have printed off digital copies of textbooks used in Myanmar schools – a way to ensure students will be ready if they’re ever able to return home.

     

    Ullah’s organisation, ARSPH, also runs about 30 classrooms. The 43-year-old arrived with the newest wave of refugees last year. Educated in Myanmar, he initially mobilised new refugees in the camps to count the Rohingya killed during last year’s military purge – estimated by Médecins Sans Frontières to number at least 6,700.

     

    But as ARSPH’s network of volunteers grew, Ullah turned toward education and advocacy. The group is promoting a village council structure for solving problems in the camps – mirroring traditional set-ups at home in Myanmar – and has volunteers on watch for signs of human trafficking.

     

    "In 1978, our grandfathers and grandmothers faced problems as refugees. In '92, again; 2017, again," he told IRIN, recounting past waves of Rohingya outflows from Myanmar. "This is the third time. If we're not trying to solve our own problems, it will continuously go like this. So this kind of organisation is very important to represent the community, to solve problems its own way."

     

    bangladesh-rohingyaadvocacy-4.jpg

    Kaamil Ahmed/IRIN
    Rohingya children learn the Burmese language at a school run by ARSPH volunteers in Kutupalong, the largest refugee camp in Bangladesh.

    Other homegrown groups have set their eyes on international justice.

    In May, 400 women and girls in the camps stamped their fingerprints on a petition that went before judges at the International Criminal Court. The group, named Shanti Mohila, or “Peace Women”, called for the court to investigate the Myanmar authorities for ”deportation, apartheid, persecution, and genocide”. The court prosecutor has since opened a preliminary examination into the deportation allegations.

     

    A missing voice

     

    Aid groups have been criticised for not putting a greater emphasis on consulting Rohingya refugees throughout the ongoing emergency. More than 15 months on from the start of last year’s exodus, they do say they’re now making a more concerted effort. But this week’s protests show there’s still a divide.

    "Yes, there is vulnerability, but at what point will you start giving them control over their own lives by helping them to be included in the decision-making process?"

    Smruti Patel, co-founder of the Global Mentoring Initiative, which researches the role local organisations play in humanitarian crises, said there’s a "pecking order" around aid in the camps, and Rohingya sit at the bottom. She believes refugee skills are often overlooked, or the community as a whole is simply labelled as vulnerable and traumatised.

     

    "Those kind of labels mean that people don’t take them as if they are active in their own development and their own well-being," Patel said. "Yes, there is vulnerability, but at what point will you start giving them control over their own lives by helping them to be included in the decision-making process?"

     

    Olney said the major aid agencies working in Bangladesh are often unaware of schooling initiatives like Hossain’s, or hesitant about engaging with some of the more outspoken Rohingya advocacy groups, which are often critical of aid efforts in the camps.

     

    “If refugee leaders could be engaged and have buy-in from the beginning, they’d be less likely to resist or make problems during the process,” Olney said. “I think that because they’re not being engaged at all, in consultations around repatriation, it pushes them more into tactics of mass resistance and non-cooperation.”

     

    ☰ Who speaks for the Rohingya?

     

    As Bangladesh’s refugee camps grew throughout the 1990s, the government put in place a system of Rohingya representation where refugees known as “mahjis” were responsible for 100 families each. Sometimes elected but usually not, and almost invariably male, the mahjis have been used to coordinate aid supplies and feed information to refugees.

     

    But the system is also seen as unaccountable and prone to corruption. Human Rights Watch has called for the mahji system to be replaced with an elected leadership structure. However, authorities and aid officials have not been able to fully roll out a new representation system.

     

    These concerns about unelected leaders are reflected in how aid groups interact with the emerging Rohingya activists, Olney said. She believes groups like ARSPH are often not consulted because some aid organisations view them as “hardliners” due to their criticism of UNHCR and others. But there’s also scepticism about how representative such grassroots activists are of the wider refugee community in the camps, Olney said.

     

    UNHCR did not respond to questions on this issue.

     

    But the voice of the Rohingya refugees is being heard more and more.

     

    The activists organising this week’s strike said they would stop working for three days and urged Rohingya teachers, health workers, interpreters, labourers, and others across the camps to follow suit.

     

    Earlier this month, Rohingya protested against Bangladesh’s plans to kickstart returns to Myanmar in one part of the camps. The controversial scheme was abandoned at the last minute.

     

    And this past August, on the anniversary of last year’s military operation, thousands of Rohingya lined the roads outside in protest. Students dressed in their old Myanmar school uniforms stood at one site; at another, women protested rape and sexual abuse allegedly committed by Myanmar soldiers.

     

    For Nay San Lwin, a Berlin-based Rohingya activist, these are all positive signs of an emergent civil society within the camps. He believes an educated leadership is key to its evolution.

     

    "As of now, the state is leading, the government is leading them, the aid community is leading them," he said. "But I am sure in a few months or a year from now, they will know themselves how they can take the lead for their own community."

    (TOP PHOTO: Rohingya refugees shout slogans at a protest against a disputed repatriation programme at the Unchiprang refugee camp near Teknaf in southern Bangladesh on 15 November. CREDIT: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP)

    ka/il/ag

    Read more: Local aid groups want more of a say in the Rohingya refugee response

    “If we want to solve our problems, we should do it ourselves”
    In Bangladesh, a Rohingya strike highlights growing refugee activism
  • In a Myanmar village, a bamboo fence separates Rohingya and Rakhine neighbours

    Ten-year-old Soe Min Aung can’t remember the last time he spoke with one of his Muslim neighbours: a bamboo fence has cleaved his community in half, separating his Rakhine Buddhist family from the Rohingya on the other side.

     

    Stakes of wood have been pounded into the middle of the dusty path that once joined the Rakhine and Rohingya sides of Pam Mraung, a village of 500 people located four hours north of the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe.

     

    The Rakhine villagers erected the fence six years ago, when a wave of race-fuelled riots swept over parts of the state and spilled into other areas of Myanmar. Buddhists and Muslims attacked each other, fed by rumours and hate speech that tapped into generations of distrust.

     

    "It's better we don't live together with the Kalar," said Maung Win, a Rakhine farmer who lives near the fence. He used a derogatory term for Muslims in Myanmar, a diverse but majority-Buddhist country.

    While such fences aren’t the norm in mixed villages in Rakhine, communities throughout the state are still deeply divided.

    More than 700,000 Rohingya fled a violent military purge in the northern townships last August. Myanmar’s government says its military was responding to border attacks by a small group of Rohingya fighters; a UN investigation says the military response was organised, pre-planned, and likely amounts to genocide.

     

    Communities across the state continue to be split by a gulf of misunderstanding, fear, and apartheid-like policies that isolate the Rohingya from their Rakhine neighbours.

    But even in villages like Pam Mraung, important economic ties tether the divided communities together: Rohingya send their children to sell fish to the Rakhine villagers; the Rakhine sell the Rohingya vegetables, or bottles of purified water. Researchers say such links may one day help build trust between the two sides.

     

    But the longer the restrictions remain in place, rights groups warn, the more difficult it will be for the communities to learn to live together again.

    myanmar-bamboovillage-6.jpg

    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Rohingya work at a river near Pam Mraung village. The two communities are physically separated, but economic relationships still tie Rohingya and Rakhine together.

    “We just don’t want any trouble”

     

    While international media attention centred on last year's Rohingya refugee exodus from the north, the flashpoint for those who live elsewhere in Rakhine was the violence in 2012.

     

    ☰ Read more: Those who stayed – Myanmar’s remaining Rohingya

     

    The Rohingya were excluded from Myanmar’s 2014 census, making it hard to know how many of them are left in the country after last year’s exodus, when more than 700,000 Rohingya fled into neighbouring Bangladesh.

     

    The UN has estimated that 470,000 “non-displaced” Rohingya still lived in Rakhine State at the end of 2017. In addition, more than 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya are confined to multiple camps, which are mostly concentrated around the capital, Sittwe.

     

    The government has said it intends to close the camps, which was one of dozens of recommendations made last year in a commission on Rakhine State chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

     

    However, rights groups have said this could entrench the existing segregation if Rohingya are simply moved elsewhere and continue to be denied basic rights such as freedom of movement.

     

    In mid-November, an attempt to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar failed after the refugees refused to return to Rakhine State.

     

    And some Rohingya are still trying to flee the state. On 16 November, Myanmar authorities said they had arrested 106 Rohingya on a stranded boat near Yangon. The Rohingya had reportedly left displacement camps in Rakhine State to try and reach Malaysia. Police said they later shot and injured four Rohingya men in Ah Nauk Ye, an IDP camp east of Sittwe, after detaining two men alleged to have helped smuggle the group.

     

    After the riots, Rakhine in Pam Mraung pieced together the fence, blocking off the Buddhist and Muslim sides of the village. Today, the wooden posts are joined together by a bamboo lattice, which is replaced a couple of times each year.

     

    Through the holes in the fence, Rakhine villagers can see their Rohingya neighbours, and their Rohingya neighbours can see the Rakhine. But meaningful interaction is limited.

     

    Instead, rumours and distrust fester. The further away from the fence the Rakhine villagers live, the more horrific the stories become. "During the violence in 2012 two women were disembowelled by the Kalar," said one Rakhine woman, lowering her voice. Her home is a five-minute walk from the fence, toward the far end of the Rakhine side.

     

    Maung Win, the farmer, hadn’t heard of the killing the woman described. "I see the Muslims every day and we sleep pretty well here," he said, laughing.

    myanmar-bamboovillage-5.jpg

    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Maung Win, an ethnic Rakhine, lives near the fence that splits Pam Mraung village in half.

    Still, he thinks the two communities are better off apart. He believes the Rohingya are thieves and drunks. “We just don't want any trouble," he explained.

     

    Kept apart

     

    Longtime divisions between Rakhine and Rohingya communities have been reinforced by years of apartheid-like policies that have institutionalised segregation. The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and are broadly derided as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though they say Rakhine State is their rightful home.

     

    After the 2012 riots, the government forced about 120,000 people, mostly Rohingya, into barren camps, where they remain cut off from their former villages and livelihoods and almost completely dependent on humanitarian groups for survival.

     

    But Rohingya living elsewhere in the state also face strict curfews, heavy restrictions on their movements, and difficulty accessing hospitals and schools. Rights group Amnesty International says that Rohingya children in some areas aren’t allowed to attend classes with Rakhine children; in others, government teachers refuse to teach in Muslim areas. Amnesty says these policies amount to apartheid – a crime against humanity under international humanitarian law.

     

    "The movement restrictions mean a teenager with something as simple to treat as a small, infected wound cannot access care and medicine to heal it,” said Elise Tillet-Dagousset, a human rights researcher who authored the group’s study on apartheid policies in Myanmar.

     

    “It means a father cannot visit his daughter who has been detained for travelling without a permit. It means a five-year-old child would have never met someone who is not from his village or community.”

     

    Along the shoreline of a river near Pam Mraung, Mohammed Saed, a 19-year-old who lives on the Rohingya side of the village, stood shielding his eyes from the late afternoon sun. He had been transporting stones across the river all day long. He is paid to do so by a Rakhine neighbour.

     

    While the monetary exchange keeps him connected to the Rakhine side of the village, much of Saed’s daily life is still defined by animosity and official neglect toward his community. The fence that separates him from his Rakhine neighbours is a lesser problem than the wider restrictions that marginalise the Rohingya.

     

    He doesn’t remember the last time a government teacher came to instruct children on the Rohingya side of his village. If he wants to visit a neighbouring village, he has to pay local authorities a bribe of about 50,000 kyat – roughly $30, or a quarter of his monthly salary. And he’s mindful of the nightly curfews that the Rohingya must adhere to, and of his Rakhine neighbours.

     

    As the sun began to set, Saed grew visibly nervous: “I need to be back in my village before 5pm or there will be trouble.”

    myanmar-bamboovillage-7.jpg

    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Mohammed Saed, a 19-year-old Rohingya man, works for one of his Rakhine neighbours. He faces daily restrictions that severely limit where he can go.

    Ties that bind

     

    Yet even amid the deeply entrenched segregation, generations-old economic relationships still link the Rohingya and the Rakhine.

     

    "In many cases, economic interactions are the main or only tie left to connect the two communities," said Anthony Ware, a researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne. He has studied social cohesion in Rakhine State since 2011 and is working on a study examining what still ties the Buddhist and Muslim communities together.

     

    Trade between villages and interdependence in agriculture – Rakhine hiring Rohingya to plant rice, for example, or sharing the costs of rice-threshing machines – were the first things that were restored after last year’s violence, he said.

     

    While the economic relationship is rarely equal, with Muslims being far more vulnerable to exploitation than the Rakhine, Ware said such everyday interactions may slowly rebuild trust and overcome tensions.

     

    “If you regularly interact and talk to each other, then minor issues are less likely to become big problems,” he said.

     

    In his work with local researchers, Ware has seen villages where Rohingya and Rakhine re-established social connections through such business ties. He has even seen communities where the two sides had begun to play Chinlone – Myanmar’s popular national sport, played with a rattan ball.

     

    “Given how deep the tensions run, finding villages like this is astonishing,” he said.

     

    There are no inter-communal games of Chinlone in divided Pam Mraung. But back on the Rakhine side of the village, farmer Maung Win wondered what life might be like without the fence. Business might improve, he thought, if he could sell his produce to more customers.

     

    “Maybe it would be better if there was no fence,” he said. “Better for selling my crops.” Then he looked around warily, in case anyone was listening.

     

    For now, the youngest generation on the Rakhine side of Pam Mraung are growing up knowing only segregation and distrust.

     

    “Not afraid. I am not afraid of the Kalar,” said Soe Min Aung, the 10-year-old Rakhine child. The other children around him giggled. He doesn’t remember a time when things were any different.

     

    Do he or his friends ever venture to the other side to play with the Muslim children? He looks puzzled. No, he would never do that, he said. There’s a fence.

    (TOP PHOTO: Rakhine and Rohingya neighbours in Pam Mraung village can see each other through holes in the fence. CREDIT: Verena Hölzl/IRIN)

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    “It's better we don't live together”
    In a Myanmar village, a bamboo fence separates Rohingya and Rakhine neighbours
  • African debt, Afghan voter violence, and post-Brexit Britain: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

     

    Debt distress deepens

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

     

    Violence, voter turnout, and Afghan elections

     

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

     

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

     

    Mixed messages on FGM

     

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

     

    Peace in Yemen? Not so fast

     

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

     

    Dark tales in Iraq’s mass graves

     

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

    In case you missed it:

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Weekend read

     

    Pushed back: Rohingya repatriation and Congo’s Kasaï

     

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

     

    And finally...

     

    A post-Brexit humanitarian ‘what if’

     

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

     

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    African debt, Afghan voter violence, and post-Brexit Britain
  • Fear and mistrust surround latest plan to return Rohingya

    Rights groups say a plan to return Rohingya to Myanmar from Bangladesh as early as next week is dangerously premature, while the refugees have been kept in the dark about their own immediate future.

    Roughly 730,000 Rohingya surged into Bangladesh starting in August 2017, fleeing a military purge that a UN rights investigation says amounts to genocide.

    Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to restart stalled repatriation for Rohingya refugees on 15 November. The plan, announced after high-level meetings between the two countries last week, would see an initial 2,260 Rohingya sent back to Myanmar. But it’s unclear who will be sent home, or what the authorities in Bangladesh will do if Rohingya refugees refuse to go. An original January start date came and went with no movement, but it raised fear and confusion in Bangladesh’s packed refugee settlements.

    Rights groups are calling on Bangladesh to shelve the latest plan, saying returns now are “dangerous” and still “highly premature”. Generations of Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Myanmar, and apartheid-like restrictions and hostility toward Rohingya have not dissipated in the last year.

    Rohingya refugees themselves say they haven’t been consulted on returns; many say they won’t go back until their safety and rights can be guaranteed.

    Here’s what we know:

    Who will return?

    Bangladesh and Myanmar say their plan calls for Rohingya refugees to be returned in groups of 150. Both countries have repeatedly said that returns will be “safe and voluntary”. They have compiled lists of several thousand refugees currently living in Bangladesh, but Human Rights Watch says authorities in Bangladesh “culled the names at random”.

    "Bangladesh does not have any policy of local integration and the Rohingya must return to their own country to secure their own future"

    "The names on the list we prepared were not chosen because they particularly wanted to go back,” Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told the rights group in May.

    The UN’s special rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said on Tuesday that Rohingya in Bangladesh’s camps are in deep fear” that their names could be on the list.

    Where will they return to?

    Myanmar authorities say refugees will be transferred to a “transit camp” built in a village tract called Hla Poe Kaung, north of the town of Maungdaw in northern Rakhine State.

    An analysis of satellite images for IRIN earlier this year suggests the camp has been built over the bulldozed remnants of at least four former Rohingya villages, including land that was torched and razed during last year’s military purge. More than 100 new buildings and two helicopter pads were under construction over a 240-hectare swathe of cleared land.

    (Swipe the image to compare: The image on the left shows a view of the repatriation camp near Hla Poe Kaung village on 9 January. The image on the right shows construction at the same site on 27 February. Image credits: ©2018 DigitalGlobe, Inc. Satellite imagery analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT)

    Myanmar authorities continue to place heavy restrictions on humanitarian groups and media in northern Rakhine. Following an assessment of 23 villages in the area in September, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said Rohingya who remain in northern Rakhine aren’t allowed to move freely and have difficulty accessing healthcare and schools. UNHCR said all groups in the area, including Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine communities, live with a prevailing “fear and mistrust” of each other.

    What are Rohingya saying?

    Rohingya say they have not been consulted about return plans – or much of what affects them in day-to-day life in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

    The Free Rohingya Coalition, led by activists based outside the country, said it was “extremely disturbed” by the latest plan, noting that previous repatriations following refugee influxes in the late 1970s and early 1990s only resulted in further violence when refugees returned to Myanmar.

    Rohingya have “widespread and well-founded fear that their lives, families, and communities will once again face further attacks once they are back in their homeland,” the group said in a statement.

    Ongoing research in Bangladesh’s camps shows confusion and fear among Rohingya refugees. A March survey by Internews, BBC Media Action, and Translators Without Borders found some Rohingya were keen to return to Myanmar but were worried about their legal status, further violence, and how they would survive with their former homes and villages demolished. Others were too afraid to even consider going back. Many said they lacked clear information about how the return process would work, or if they would be forced to return.

    “The key finding from the data is that the Rohingya community, while not united in their opinions… appear to agree on one thing: a great desire for more information,” the research concluded.

    What is the international community saying?

    Rights groups have largely condemned the latest return plan, labelling it premature and dangerous. The UN’s Lee and Human Rights Watch called on Bangladesh to abort its repatriation scheme.

    Many have warned that returning Rohingya will be at grave risk of further violence.

    Rohingya “have been slaughtered, persecuted, and driven out”, Susannah Sirkin of the New York-based Physicians for Human Rights said in a statement. “One cannot bring survivors back to Rakhine State without having guarantees for their safety.”

    UNHCR, which had previously signed a controversial agreement with Myanmar laying the groundwork for a future repatriation, said it is not involved with the latest return plan and that it is not yet safe for Rohingya to return.

    What are Bangladesh and Myanmar saying?

    Bangladesh has been ambivalent to incoming Rohingya over successive governments and multiple refugee influxes. The current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has been more receptive to the refugees and allowed humanitarian groups to work in the expanding camps. But she and other officials have repeatedly said that the Rohingya must one day return home.

    "Public sympathy for the Rohingya will not last forever, and the current situation is likely to evolve in unpredictable ways"

    “Bangladesh does not have any policy of local integration and the Rohingya must return to their own country to secure their own future,” the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in a September press release.

    Myanmar authorities have denied almost all allegations of violence against the Rohingya, instead saying the country’s military was justified in responding to attacks on border areas by a small group of Rohingya fighters. Médecins Sans Frontières says at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed. Civilian leaders have barred rights investigators from entering the country, and pushed back against attempts to probe or prosecute alleged crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

    Might political considerations come into play?

    During previous returns in the late 1970s and early 1990s, rights groups accused Bangladesh of forcing Rohingya out, and UNHCR was criticised for participating in and effectively encouraging returns when it couldn’t ensure the safety of Rohingya in Rakhine State.

    Circumstances are different today, but some have warned that the situation is volatile. Bangladesh is heading towards parliamentary elections slated for December and Human Rights Watch says the government appears anxious” to begin repatriations by then.

    In a June analysis, Liam Mahony, a former consultant for UN agencies in Myanmar, warned that political pressures or a destructive natural disaster could suddenly change how Rohingya are viewed in Bangladesh.

    “Public sympathy for the Rohingya will not last forever, and the current situation is likely to evolve in unpredictable ways,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: Rohingya refugees collect water at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. Officials from Myanmar and Bangladesh announced that Rohingya refugees could begin returning to Myanmar in mid-November. Chandan Khanna/AFP)

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    Fear and mistrust surround latest plan to return Rohingya

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