(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Trump pullouts, aid from mining firms, and that Amnesty ad: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar


    Trouble at the top


    The overall coordination body for humanitarian aid lacks a vision, mission, strategy, and sound funding, according to a UN audit. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee, or IASC, formed in 1991, brings together the UN agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, and NGOs in a humanitarian über-cabinet. It is chaired by the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock. His office says he has been working to sort out the group since the period of the audit (2016 to mid-2017). A well-placed senior aid official, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivities, said the committee was making progress on a few issues, such as preventing sexual abuse. The audit revealed problems found in confidential reviews in 2003 and 2014 persisted, notably “insufficient commitment to collective leadership”. The official said there is a “fundamental problem”: if members don’t have stronger incentives to cooperate, further attention to the IASC’s structure "is going to be tinkering at the edges".


    Strange bedfellows: mining firms and humanitarians?


    In February, a magnitude-7.5 earthquake rattled Papua New Guinea’s remote highlands region, toppling villages, killing dozens, and leaving some 270,000 in need of help. Aid groups requested $62 million to respond. International donors have pitched in, but the largest contribution – equivalent to nearly two thirds of the appeal – came from the private sector, including the mining, oil, and gas industries. A briefing released this week by the Melbourne-based Humanitarian Advisory Group explores how extractives companies responded. It’s a polarising issue for many in the aid sector: some organisations, researchers note, refuse to work with or accept money from extractives companies, which have been accused of causing environmental damage and “serious human rights problems” in the past. The HAG briefing notes that extractives companies often responded faster than aid groups after this year’s earthquake, and used their logistics resources to access remote areas blocked by the damage. But they also lacked formal training on humanitarian practices and principles: some aid workers thought companies were targeting only communities in their business areas, for example; others said companies dumped supplies without monitoring to ensure they actually reached their intended targets. Despite the problems, the researchers conclude there is “enormous potential” for engaging extractives companies in disaster response in the Pacific.


    Concerns around aid operations in South Sudan


    Médecins Sans Frontières is concerned its operations in South Sudan may be at risk due to revelations it made about mass rapes in the town of Bentiu in November. This week officials from the medical NGO said the report that at least 125 women and girls were raped by armed men – some in military uniform – had caused friction. “The government of South Sudan is not happy,” an MSF official was anonymously quoted as saying by Kenyan newspaper The East African. “So who knows, maybe our massive operations in Bentiu will come to a close and place at a risk thousands of lives.” The UN condemned the attacks, sent a team of human rights investigators to Bentiu, and called for the culprits to face justice. Human Rights Watch also called for an urgent investigation into the violence. Under pressure, the South Sudanese government sent an investigation team to Bentiu, but this week it claimed there was a “lack of evidence” to substantiate the rape allegations.


    Amnesty backs down over “offensive” online campaign


    Human rights group Amnesty International was forced to pull an online campaign about refugees in Greece after a cover photo was accused of being “fetishised and eroticised”. The picture, in an online magazine produced at its Dutch branch, showed a model apparently naked except for life jackets, intended as a parody of a fashion shoot. After protests on social media, Amnesty Netherlands apologised for “any offence caused” and for the “error of judgement”, but replaced the picture with a model with barbed wire over her eyes. Later, the parent organisation, Amnesty International, also apologised and took the whole project offline.


    Healthcare boost for Yazidis in Iraq’s Sinjar


    Some good news for a change. You may recall a series of three stories we did back in March and April on the Yazidis in Iraq’s Sinjar province, where the religious minority fled massacres and enslavement by so-called Islamic State in 2014. Reporter Tom Westcott found that tens of thousands of families had been returning to towns and villages once ruled by IS, only to face a healthcare crisis. In the bullet-ridden hospital of Sinjar town itself, one doctor with no ambulance was struggling to meet the needs of the many returnees. Today, the situation is greatly improved, Westcott reports. The hospital has moved to new and better premises, has several ambulances, and is being assisted by NGOs. In a visit on 15 December, Nadia Murad said she planned to use her $1 million Nobel Peace Prize money to build another hospital in Sinjar, her hometown.

    In case you missed it:


    AFGHANISTAN/SYRIA: President Donald Trump ordered a full US withdrawal from Syria and the drawdown of about half the 14,000 remaining American troops in Afghanistan. Critics rounded on both decisions as premature, with particular concern raised over the possibility of a new humanitarian disaster if the situation unravels in northern Syria. US Defence Secretary James Mattis announced his resignation on the back of the moves.


    THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Elections to replace President Joseph Kabila were postponed yet again this week, following a previous delay of more than two years. The country is on the cusp of its first ever democratic transfer of power, but a host of humanitarian crises – from Ebola to protracted conflicts – awaits the next leader.


    MADAGASCAR: The leading candidates in Madagascar’s election – both former presidents – have each claimed victory in this week’s polls. Marc Ravalomanana, who came to power in 2002, is up against Andry Rajoelina, who ousted him in a military coup in 2009. Rajoelina then ruled for five years until he was forced out in protests led by Ravalomanana. Official results are due next week. Nine in 10 of Madagascar’s 25 million population live on less than $2 a day, and the island faces huge health and malnutrition problems, made worse by drought and devastating El Niños.


    MYANMAR: Clashes between Myanmar soldiers and the Arakan Army, an armed group that advocates for the ethnic Rakhine community, have displaced hundreds of civilians this month in western Myanmar.


    Weekend read


    A generation of unschooled Cameroonians, another generation of conflict?


    Latest UN estimates put the number of people forced from their homes by conflict between Cameroon’s anglophone minority and the francophone-majority state at 437,500. Many have taken to hiding in the bush, including tens of thousands of school-age children. An untold number are missing out on an education as the insurgency escalates, school attacks and kidnappings spike, and separatist fighters demand schools stay closed. Our weekend read includes interviews with parents, officials, and kidnapped children, and explores how education was the starting point for this crisis, and how a generation of children now risks being recruited by armed groups and perpetuating the conflict.

    For more on the origins of the conflict and the motivations of the separatists, read our two-part special report, the first from inside rebel ranks.

    And finally…


    A vaccine with wings


    This week in a remote corner of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, a commercial drone buzzed 40 kilometres above rocky terrain to deliver an important payload: vaccines to immunise 18 people, including a one-month-old child. It could be an early step toward Vanuatu’s health ministry integrating drone technology into its immunisation programme, which is challenged by scattered communities and inaccessible terrain. According to UNICEF, only one third of Vanuatu’s populated islands have airfields or roads, and one in five children in remote areas don’t have access to vaccines. Aid groups and health agencies have been testing humanitarian uses for drones for years. A US company uses drones to deliver medical supplies in Rwanda; humanitarians have explored using drones for post-disaster mapping; a non-profit in Fiji is trialling drones to unleash a swarm of dengue-fighting mosquitoes. In Vanuatu, proponents of the ongoing vaccine delivery trials say this week’s successful handoff is a ”big leap for global health”.


    To our readers: This is the last Cheat Sheet of 2018. We’ll be back on 11 January, but watch for special Friday coverage during the next two weeks. Best wishes for a brighter 2019.



    Trump pullouts, aid from mining firms, and that Amnesty ad
  • Climate disasters, Congo elections, and charitable countries: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar


    Respite for Yemen’s Hodeidah


    It’s been a busy week for Yemen, at least in the realms of diplomacy and foreign politics. After a week of peace talks in Sweden, on Thursday the UN announced the warring sides had agreed to a ceasefire in the key port city of Hodeidah and the wider province of the same name. Their fighters are to withdraw the city within 21 days, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the “UN will play a leading role in the port”. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this deal and what it means for civilians; you can read the fine print here. Later on Thursday, the US Senate voted to withdraw support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen. It was a rebuke to President Donald Trump’s backing for the kingdom’s crown prince despite mounting evidence of his involvement in the killing of a dissident Saudi journalist, but a largely symbolic one, as Trump has vowed to veto the measure if it passes the House of Representatives and reaches his desk.


    Challenges as Congo prepares to replace Kabila


    The Democratic Republic of Congo's long-delayed presidential election is now just over a week away. But it's still far from smooth sailing, as thousands of voting machines were destroyed in a warehouse fire in the capital, Kinshasa, this week. Officials said the blaze seemed to be criminal in nature, but gave assurances it would not affect the poll. Use of the machines, a first in Congo, have raised opposition concerns of possible voter manipulation in favour of ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who was chosen by President Joseph Kabila as his preferred successor. Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, won’t stand for re-election on 23 December, but said he may contest the 2023 poll. The EU meanwhile renewed sanctions on leading Congolese politicians, including Shadary, saying they were open to reviewing the decision after the election. Kabila, however, has refused to accredit EU election observers, calling the sanctions “politically motivated” and promising to retaliate. One to watch.


    Linking climate change and extreme weather


    Heatwaves in China and the Mediterranean; drought in East Africa and the United States, heavy flooding from parts of Asia to South America: all of these weather extremes that struck across the globe in 2017 would have been “virtually impossible” without the impacts of climate change, according to new research released this week. The study, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, is part of the growing body of “attribution science”, which explores the links between climate change and extreme weather events. The AMS says 70 percent of its research on the topic has found a “substantial link” between extreme events and climate change. There’s a growing push among vulnerable nations to be compensated for loss and damages from climate-linked disasters, but it’s among the more sensitive topics in global climate negotiations – including the COP24 summit set to conclude 14 December in Poland. While countries debate a path forward, communities on the front lines of climate change are already struggling to adjust. Read more on what coping with climate change means for people already living with its impacts.


    Gas guzzlers put on notice


    Humanitarian organisations are large-scale polluters, don't have renewable energy strategies and waste $517 million a year on fuel costs. Those are some of the blunt messages of a new report published by think tank Chatham House. It finds that although it  makes up about five percent of spending, fuel use is not closely tracked and there are few incentives to be more efficient. The study surveyed 21 aid operations in Burkina Faso, Kenya, and Jordan. In Kenya, partly because of heavy generator usage in remote locations, seven agencies were found to spend $6.7 million a year on fuel and related maintenance. There are some exceptions: solar systems for refugee camps in Jordan save $7.5 million a year; adding solar and wind power at a single WFP store in Afghanistan should save $60,000 a year. Donors could push for higher standards by demanding data on emissions, efficiency, and usage, the report argues.

    In case you missed it


    Ebola: Frontline health workers in South Sudan will begin receiving vaccinations for Ebola next week, the WHO said, as the country faces “very high risk” from an outbreak that's killed more than 300 people in neighbouring Congo. Ebola has not spread beyond Congo, but as a precaution, vaccinations also began in Uganda last month.


    International Humanitarian Law: The latest multinational effort to shore up respect for the laws of war has failed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) expressed "strong disappointment" that states could not agree on a “safe space” concept to consider war crimes.


    Papua New Guinea: Powerful volcanic eruptions on Manam Island, off Papua New Guinea’s northern coast, have triggered lava flows and ash fall and displaced multiple villages. A previous eruption in August destroyed two villages, while eruptions in 2004 forced the entire island to evacuate.


    The Philippines: The Philippine Congress this week extended martial law on the southern island of Mindanao through December 2019 – drawing criticism from rights groups. Parts of the island are preparing for a January plebiscite that could create a new autonomous region comprising majority-Muslim areas.


    Syria: UNICEF said that two sick babies died in the past week at Rukban, an isolated camp where 45,000 Syrians are trapped between the Jordanian border and Syrian government front lines. A convoy delivered supplies to the area in November. Before that civilians had gone with almost no aid since January. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council extended authorisation for cross-border aid deliveries elsewhere.


    Weekend read


    South Sudan: The humanitarian toll of a half decade of war


    The statistics speak for themselves: an estimated 400,000 dead, 4.5 million displaced, seven million said to be in need of aid. As South Sudan marks five years of war on 15 December, there is no question that the conflict has exacted an enormous human cost. Our weekend read curates our recent coverage along with a new slideshow and updated timeline of the conflict. As the war enters its sixth year on Sunday only the most optimistic of observers is voicing much hope that the revitalised peace agreement, signed in September by President Salva Kiir and his former rival and soon-to-be vice president (again) Riek Machar, will hold for very long. Regardless, it hasn’t brought an end to the violence, the hunger, and the need for broad-based reconciliation. Look out too for South Sudan analyst Alan Boswell’s stark assessment of where things stand heading into 2019.


    And finally...


    The axis of helpful

    Indonesia, take a bow. A new survey, The World’s Most Generous Countries Report, finds that Indonesians are the most charitable nationality. 153,000 interviewees in 146 countries were asked by pollster Gallup if they a) donated money, b) volunteered their time, or c) helped a stranger. Extrapolating the numbers, Gallup suggests 2.2 billion people helped a stranger in 2017 (about 43 percent of the world's adults). Glass half full: good neighbourliness is alive and well. Glass half empty: what is wrong with the other half? Gallup combines the results into a score per country. Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United States make up the rest of the top four. The bottom scorers for "civic engagement" are China, Greece, and Yemen. Does that seem fair?

    (TOP PHOTO: A woman who fled fighting in Hodeidah arrives at an informal shelter in Aden, Yemen. CREDIT: Ammar Bamatraf/UNHCR)


    Climate disasters, Congo elections, and charitable countries
  • Stemming conflict, staying happy, and storms times two: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers our take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar:


    A dubious distinction


    Quick quiz question: In which country were the most people internally displaced in the first half of this year? Syria? Yemen? Congo? Wrong, wrong, wrong. The answer is Ethiopia, where less high-profile conflicts have been raging far from the media spotlight. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s mid-year report, 1.4 million Ethiopians were newly displaced between January and June. So what’s going on? Well, the two main areas of displacement are both in the south – one around the central zones of Gedeo and West Guji, the other farther east, where the country’s Somali and Oromia regions have been locked in a long border dispute. In both cases, inter-communal tensions are driven by competition over food, farmland, and other resources. But it’s not just about conflict, says IDMC Director Alexandra Bilak. As in other East African displacement hotspots like Somalia and Kenya, droughts and flooding linked to climate change also play their part, even if the science can get complicated.


    Don’t worry, be Paraguayan


    People in Paraguay and Colombia are the most upbeat, a new survey of citizens in 145 countries claims. Polling firm Gallup’s annual Global Emotions Report scores positive and negative feelings. The firm asked 154,000* people about laughter, respect, rest, and mental stimulation on one end of the spectrum, and about their stress, anger, sadness, physical pain, and worry on the other. The Central African Republic broke a depressing record: it scored the most negative feelings of any country in 10 years of surveys, while in 2017 Afghanistan won another unhappy medal: the least positive feelings. Three “meh” countries – in which a significant proportion didn’t report strong feelings one way or another – include a surprising entry: Yemen, along with Belarus and Azerbaijan. A note of caution: the Gallup poll doesn’t include some countries facing profound political and humanitarian problems, including Burundi, North Korea, Somalia, and Sudan.


    International justice in the spotlight

    A UN-mandated rights probe made waves last month when it accused senior Myanmar military commanders of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in last year’s violent purge of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State. On Tuesday, 18 Sept., the UN Human Rights Council is scheduled to discuss the investigation’s final report. The rights probe is calling for Myanmar’s top generals to be investigated and prosecuted at the International Criminal Court – or by an independent tribunal. Separately this week, the United States threatened sanctions against the war crimes court if it proceeds with investigations involving citizens of the US or its allies – a direct response to the prospects of an ICC investigation of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, which could include examining actions taken by US forces. Like many foreign governments, the US has condemned violence against the Rohingya, and most rights groups see the ICC as the only avenue to international justice. Yet the US is now taking aim at the ICC for its actions on an unrelated issue. Could this affect the broader push for ICC investigations in Myanmar? Notably, the UN’s new human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, this week called for a separate “international mechanism” to preserve and analyse evidence of possible atrocity crimes in Myanmar, which would complement any future ICC investigation.


    Rebuilding Afghanistan


    The failure of US reconstruction efforts after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan is a big factor behind the country’s present-day instability. This week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US Congress-mandated watchdog, issued a scathing assessment of a $216-million USAID programme promoting gender equity in the country. Among its findings: only 55 women have benefitted from a key component meant to prepare women for jobs with the Afghan government. Read the report here. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres is scheduled to present his quarterly update on Afghanistan before the Security Council on Monday, 17 Sept. The key humanitarian problems have made frequent appearances here on the Cheat Sheet. Guterres’s report will be the last before parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 Oct. Already this year dozens of election-related attacks have caused hundreds of civilian casualties.

    Storm watch:


    A. Gerst/ESA/NASA
    Hurricane Florence from the International Space Station.

    Hurricane Florence weakened to a Category-1 storm as it made landfall in North and South Carolina on Friday, but lesser wind speeds don’t necessarily mean lesser damage. The storm itself is moving slowly, meaning it could crawl through the area and unleash heavy extended rainfall, as did last year’s destructive Hurricane Harvey. A study published this year in the science journal Nature found evidence that tropical storm “translation speeds” have slowed by 10 percent since 1949 – meaning they linger longer when they strike land.


    Typhoon Mangkhut is expected to hit the northern Philippine island of Luzon early on Saturday, 15 Sept., before veering on a path toward southern China and northern Vietnam. It’s the strongest storm to strike the Philippines this year; millions lie in its direct path and officials are bracing for heavy damages. Is it fair to compare media coverage of two separate disasters looming on either side of the globe? We attempted a tally of coverage on Hurricane Harvey and the South Asian floods last year.


    In case you missed it:


    GENEVA: A new report on food and nutrition says 672 million people (one in eight adults) are obese. About five percent of under fives are also overweight, says “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018”, a UN publication released last week. Of 821 million hungry people, 62 percent are in Asia. After years of steady decline, the number of hungry people is on the rise since 2014, both in terms of percentage and absolute numbers. This, the study says, is due to instability, “adverse climate events”, and economic slowdowns.


    KABUL: It’s not just war that uproots families in Afghanistan. This year, more people have been displaced by drought than conflict, according to UN tallies released this week. More than 275,000 Afghans have left their homes due to drought, compared to 220,000 pushed out by conflict. It’s indicative of Afghanistan’s complex displacement crisis, where IDPs, returned refugees, and victims of disaster all have overlapping humanitarian needs. Case in point: Our story this week from Iran, which threads a link between Iran’s plummeting economy, soaring deportations, and Afghanistan’s drought.


    LONDON: Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah will be the new chief of Oxfam’s GB unit, replacing Mark Goldring later this year. He takes the helm as the veteran development agency navigates its recovery from sex abuse and safeguarding scandals that have rocked public trust in Oxfam and the sector as a whole. The Sri Lankan-born Briton was formerly based in South Africa as the head of CIVICUS, an international alliance of civil society organisations.


    PORT MORESBY: The polio outbreak in Papua New Guinea has reached the country’s capital, health officials have confirmed. We highlighted earlier transmissions last week. There have now been 12 confirmed polio cases this year. The World Health Organisation says the spread of polio to urban Port Moresby is “very worrisome”. PNG health authorities are planning emergency vaccinations in the capital beginning 24 Sept. The country was declared polio-free in 2000.


    The weekend read:


    US bans aid workers in Turkey-Syria scam


    Don’t skim off the world’s most needy and think you can get away with it. That’s certainly one of the morals of this story. Our weekend read reveals the scale of procurement fraud involving cross-border aid from Turkey intended for Syrian refugees, as exposed by a USAID probe that named 20 firms and individuals. As IRIN’s Ben Parker reports, the corruption ring appears to have involved several Turkish companies and staff at several international NGOs. The Irish NGO GOAL has taken a big hit over the scandal, which led to the resignations of several senior staff and major donor diffidence. A former logistics officer at the Irish charity comes in for the biggest censure: a 10-year ban from doing business with the US government. The former Turkey country director of another NGO, the International Rescue Committee, is one of nine individuals debarred for five years. And a wider probe is ongoing.


    And finally:


    See above. An amazing-looking segment on The Weather Channel is going viral (and making other TV stations envious). As Hurricane Florence hits the US, the “Immersive Mixed Reality” video effect shows what a nine-foot storm surge is like projected alongside a live presenter. The channel is working with a partner, The Future Group, to develop eye-popping special effects. The productions are based on technology platform Unreal Engine, used in movie production and video games such as Fortnite.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number polled as 145,000)


    Stemming conflict, staying happy, and storms times two
  • Iraq’s new blues, Lake Chad’s daily perils, and that G-word: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s editorial team offers our take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar:


    Iraq’s Basra blues


    A year ago Iraqi forces took back the country’s second city, Mosul, from so-called Islamic State. National elections in May passed off peacefully (even if turnout was low), and attacks and bombings have been punctuating daily life less frequently. In Baghdad, the proliferation of cafés, clubs, and bars is encouraging talk of a rebirth, even of the capital getting its groove back. So, is Iraq’s endless cycle of violence finally ending? It doesn’t look that way down south, in Basra. On Saturday the Iraqi parliament will meet in emergency session after imposing a curfew on the city to control protests in which nine demonstrators were killed since Tuesday – raising the toll since July to 26. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into an allegedly heavy-handed crackdown by the security forces. At issue is the delivery of basic public services – 30,000 people have been hospitalised after drinking polluted water – but a wider narrative is at play, too. Now that the “war” is over, the political class is under fire from angry citizens wondering when some of the billions of dollars of foreign investment promised to the oil-rich country might trickle down to them. Four months after the elections, efforts to forge a new government are beset by in-fighting and allegations of interference from Iran and the United States. So it’s 15 and a half years after the US-led invasion, and Iraq is still a long way from peace. The country, it seems, has a long road to recovery, as this longread from Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod suggests: Searching for Othman.


    Lake Chad’s protection gap


    Ever struggle to get to grips with the somewhat ambiguous humanitarian term, “protection”? The crisis in Africa’s Lake Chad region – propelled by armed conflict, climate change, and poverty – puts it in sharp focus. “One day they told me it was my turn to make a suicide attack,” Halima, a young Chadian woman whose husband had forced her to join the Boko Haram insurgency, said in a short film played to delegates at a donor conference in Berlin earlier this week. “When I asked them when, they said, ‘today’.” Halima survived the blast but lost both her legs. Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief, told conference attendees that insecurity, abductions, the forced use of children as human bombs, and gender-based violence were part of daily life in the region, which encompasses parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria and where more than 10 million people need life-saving assistance every day. “At the heart of this crisis, it is a crisis of protection,” he said. More than $2 billion was pledged at the conference towards humanitarian needs and long-term resilience, more than th $1.5 billion sought and three times the disappointing haul last year.


    Yemen consultations on hold


    They aren’t negotiations, and they’re not off to a brilliant start. A fresh phase of UN-brokered “consultations” between two key blocs in Yemen’s war was planned for mid-week in Geneva but haven’t got underway. On Wednesday afternoon, UN peace envoy Martin Griffiths told reporters he hoped the consultations, the first in two years, could offer a “flickering signal of hope” to Yemenis after years of war that have “driven so many Yemenis to despair”. The first steps, he said, could be “confidence-building” agreements – for example, agreeing to facilitate vaccinations or release prisoners. The talks were to feature the internationally recognised Gulf-backed government and the Houthi Ansarullah group. A non-partisan group of Yemeni women were to act as a “technical advisory group”, Griffiths said. On Friday, a spokesperson said Griffiths is “still working on getting the Ansarullah delegation to Geneva” – some reports say the group’s demand to evacuate wounded colleagues on the same flight was a sticking point.


    ICC Rohingya ruling hurdles jurisdiction roadblock


    It’s an unprecedented ruling that could have far-reaching implications for international justice. This week, the International Criminal Court ruled the court has jurisdiction to examine the alleged deportation of Rohingya civilians from Myanmar to Bangladesh. After months of inaction, the ruling opens a possible legal pathway to international accountability for violence committed during last year’s Rohingya refugee exodus. Our June deep dive on this issue is worth another read to explore why the case is so unusual (and what it may mean for international crimes elsewhere). Myanmar’s top generals are accused of genocide, but the ICC prosecutor’s legal examination hinges on a specific alleged crime: deportation. That may be a narrow focus given the scale of accusations, but the ICC ruling leaves the door open to examining other crimes – as long as some part of those crimes took place in Bangladesh, which is the basis of the deportation ruling.



    About the G-word


    “Crimes against humanity”, “war crimes”, or “genocide”? How to categorise the extreme violence enacted on Myanmar’s Rohingya minority has been a long-running debate. Last week a UN rights investigation trotted out the G-word, calling for Myanmar’s military commanders to be investigated for the crime of genocide – which, unlike the evocative term “ethnic cleansing”, is a specific crime under the Rome Statute. But time spent debating what to call the violence may further delay legal action. That’s the argument from Charles Petrie, a former UN official critical of the UN’s actions (or lack of) at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. Petrie writes in an op-ed this week in the Guardian: “However we refer to them, immense crimes have been and are being committed in Myanmar. It is time for the world to stop debating how to categorise them.”



    In case you missed it:


    North Korea: Severe flooding has killed 76 people and left just as many missing in the provinces of North and South Hwanghae. The Red Cross says recent heavy rainfall led to widespread floods and landslides that destroyed 800 homes and left thousands homeless.


    Papua New Guinea: Health authorities this week confirmed there have been nine cases of vaccine-derived polio so far this year – although the country was declared free of the virus in 2000. The World Health Organisation has said it is investigating at least 65 cases and warned that the risk in the country is “high”. The government has launched a nationwide immunisation campaign, but the country’s remote terrain and poor weather have posed a challenge.


    Burundi: Crimes against humanity may have taken place in Burundi, where abuses by state security forces continue, a UN panel reported this week. Their report, available only in French so far, says the judiciary lacks independence and raises particular alarm at the “regimentation” enforced by Imbonerakure militia, affiliated with the ruling party. The report includes first-person testimonies of torture and beatings.


    Japan: It has been a summer of disasters. This week, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake struck the northern island of Hokkaido, killing at least 16, and Typhoon Jebi, the strongest storm to hit the country in 25 years, caused widespread flooding. In July, hundreds died as extreme rainfall and a severe regional heatwave hit parts of the country.



    Weekend read:


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Convinced the state cannot protect them traditional Dogon hunters have decided to fill the void themselves, forming a new self-defence militia they call Dana Amassagou.

    “I have lost everything”: In central Mali, rising extremism stirs inter-communal conflict


    This Tuesday, Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, was sworn in for a second term after winning more than two thirds of the vote in the August run-off election. In a low-key ceremony, Keita promised to address the country’s deteriorating security. He will find this hard. Since 2012, the country’s north has been dominated by Tuareg rebels and loosely allied Islamist groups. Now, extremists linked to al-Qaeda have been recruiting Fulani herders in central Mali, sparking clashes between rival ethnic groups and presenting a fresh challenge to the stalled implementation of a 2015 peace accord. As attacks on polling day showed, the Mopti region is fast becoming the epicentre of this new unrest. Regular IRIN contributor Philip Kleinfeld travelled there to take a look. He discovered that dozens of villages have been burned down in recent months as Fulani pastoralists clash with largely sedentary Dogon, Bambara, and Songhai farming communities. In our weekend read, Kleinfeld chronicles this emerging crisis in central Mali, the part Islamist groups are playing, and the extent to which self-defence militias are fuelling broader conflict.


    And finally:


    Wealth vs. physical activity


    Exercise can help prevent cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and some cancers, but 1.4 billion people aren’t getting enough, WHO researchers say. Those who get off the couch the least? Kuwait, American Samoa, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. The most active? The less wealthy countries, led by Uganda and Mozambique. Men are more physically active than women in 95 percent of the countries surveyed. Read more at The Lancet.




    Iraq’s new blues, Lake Chad’s daily perils, and that G-word
  • Missing pages, more on that jacket, and inside the mind of the Taliban: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar:

    What they didn’t say about Eastern Ghouta


    If you’re looking for some grim reading this weekend, try the newly released 23-page report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria on the long (more than five years) siege of Eastern Ghouta. It includes intimate descriptions of a life forced underground by aerial and ground attacks: doctors moving between shelters to care for patients, furniture and plastic burned in stoves until food nearly ran out, and a few shared toilets. The way pro-government forces conducted the siege was a crime against humanity, the report states, and rebel forces are also accused of war crimes for indiscriminate shelling. As dark as all that is, the report could (and maybe should) have been darker. What’s missing from the report are seven pages – an earlier draft was leaked to the New York Times – that contained gruesome details about chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta and placed blame on the regime. A member of the commission said those bits were left out because they needed more corroboration. Perhaps, as the leak certainly suggests, there was dissension in the ranks?



    South Sudan: “A missed opportunity to save lives”


    Maybe you saw the photo: An awkward bear hug between South Sudan’s warring rivals as they met face-to-face in Ethiopia this week for the first time since 2016. But President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar made little tangible progress towards resolving a civil war that has devastated the world’s newest nation for almost five years. The warning issued by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, as he coaxed the two leaders into that bear hug, that “each second and minute that passes with the business as usual is a missed opportunity to save lives,” seemed to fall on deaf ears. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in South Sudan and more than three million have fled their homes since the conflict broke out. And more than seven million lack sufficient food to live healthy lives, with conflict hampering the delivery of emergency aid. There are fears that famine may return to some parts of the country, with the eastern Pibor county, where floods and pests have ravaged crops, at particular risk. We’ll have more on this soon.


    What the Taliban talk about when they talk about peace


    Dare we say it? A grassroots peace movement and an unprecedented (though temporary) Ramadan ceasefire have created rare space for, yes, cautious optimism in war-torn Afghanistan. The government has unilaterally extended a short-term ceasefire against the Taliban, and NATO forces say last week’s Eid al-Fitr truce – during which Taliban fighters and government soldiers posed for selfies – puts the country on the “edge of opportunity” for peace. So what’s the Taliban thinking around all this? A pair of studies released this week offer rare insight on the Taliban mindset. The United States Institute of Peace interviewed three dozen rank-and-file Taliban members, field commanders, and community members who support the Taliban cause to explore the group’s views on peace negotiations, trust (or lack of it), and what an acceptable peace deal might look like. Meanwhile, the Overseas Development Institute examined what life is like in areas under Taliban governance – and how Taliban influence on public services such as health and education can stretch to areas beyond its direct control. “Better understanding of how the Taliban govern, and what drives their policies, is essential for aid access, human rights advocacy and any future peace deal,” the report notes.


    US child migrant separation: Do u care?


    We were going to use this space to shout out the companies and employees who took a stand against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children and parents who enter the US southern border illegally, including several airlines that said they would not fly kids who had been split from their families. But here’s the thing: like half the internet (including the president), we’re having a hard time getting over what first lady Melania Trump wore on her way to a children’s shelter in Texas this week. The offending item was an army green jacket (Zara, if you must know) that said on the back “I really don’t care. Do u?” Her husband had already used an executive order to back off the policy when Melania made the ill-advised fashion choice, but critics point out his order doesn’t exactly amount to compassion. It appears that children may now be kept with their families in detention indefinitely. Hundreds of kids are still far from their families, and there’s no real system in place to reunite them. Which reminds us to remind you: next week is a big week for the International Organization for Migration, when the next director general will be elected here in Geneva. Before that happens next Friday, if you care about migration you might want to read our op-ed in which Jeremy Konyndyk asks whether a vote for Ken Isaacs – the White House nominee for the post, which is usually held by an American – is a vote of support for Trump’s migration policy.


    How to add to PNG’s earthquake troubles


    Add political unrest to Papua New Guinea’s quake-hit Southern Highlands Province, and the humanitarian crisis there only grows worse. The government recently declared a state of emergency there after protesters disputing a local election set fire to buildings in the provincial capital. The UN and aid groups have evacuated staff and suspended assistance in parts of the province, which was one of the hardest hit by a February earthquake. It’s the latest setback for response efforts to what the country’s ambassador to the UN this week called the “the most challenging humanitarian situation” in Papua New Guinea’s history. Aid groups say people displaced by the quake still need clean water, food, and shelter. But responders have struggled to reach remote communities across vast distances and difficult terrain. Read more? The surprise hotline helping quake survivors in Papua New Guinea


    It’s aid report season: here’s a round-up


    It's June, so it's raining humanitarian reports at the UN's annual humanitarian get-together, the Economic and Social Council's Humanitarian Affairs Segment. States, NGOs, agencies, and advocacy groups discussed policy and trends from finance to preventing sexual abuse. It wrapped up this week with a final communiqué.


    Here's a partial list of the set-piece reports put out alongside those New York meetings:


    The annual Global Humanitarian Assistance report tallied $27.3 billion in 2017 emergency flows, an increase of 3 percent on the year before. Only 0.4 percent went directly to local NGOs, a proportion that's barely budged despite calls for more aid to be "localised". Giving way to local groups is not just about money – some international NGOs also have committed to stop poaching staff, and set fairer terms for grant agreements, for example. An alliance of 34 international NGOs that have signed up to better localisation, Charter4Change, also issued its annual round-up.


    Publish What You Fund, an advocacy group, issued its annual ranking of the data availability and transparency of major development agencies. The Asian Development Bank tops the list for the first time, followed by the UN Development Programme and the UK's Department for International Development. At the other end of the scale, aid donors China, United Arab Emirates, and Japan got "very poor" red cards.


    Also this week, the UN put out a 40-page update on the global progress targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, with a chunky 127-page statistical annex.


    Last week we mentioned the independent review of the Grand Bargain emergency aid reforms and another one on transparency. The rest of the Grand Bargain documents are here.

    Our weekend read:


    Destination Europe: Homecoming



    Susan Schulman/IRIN

    These numbers are familiar, especially after this week’s World Refugee Day, but it never hurts to be reminded of them: 68.5 million people around the globe have been forcibly displaced from their homes, including 25.4 million refugees, 40 million internally displaced people, and 3.1 million asylum seekers. The vast majority, some 85 percent, live in developing countries that receive little support.


    Against those stark stats, the Aquarius boat fiasco, which we highlighted on last week’s Cheat Sheet, was just the latest example of how Europe is trying to close its doors to migrants and asylum seekers amid a rise in support for populist, xenophobic policies.


    So, as EU leaders hold an emergency meeting in Brussels on Sunday to overhaul the EU's asylum system, this is the perfect weekend to start reading our two-month special series, “Destination Europe”, which gives the 360-degree view on how EU policies are impacting refugees and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa – putting a human face, as it were, on those start stats above. Susan Schulman gets the ball rolling by telling the stories of returnees to Sierra Leone who have given up on their dreams of Europe. They return penniless, often to families who no longer want them and see them as failures. In the coming instalments, Eric Reidy reports from Niger and France on the lucky few being evacuated from Libya and those stranded in the migrant hub of Agadez, and Tom Westcott provides the latest from inside the detention centres and coastal hubs of Libya where smuggling people to Europe is an ever-more desperate endeavour.


     What’s Rohingya for “chlorine tablets”?


    Working on a hygiene programme but stuck on how to translate “bathing cubicle”, “open defecation”, and “oral rehydration salt” between the five languages used in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps? There’s an app for that. Translators Without Borders have launched a glossary app for aid workers and interpreters working on water, sanitation, and hygiene programmes in the Rohingya camps. The glossary spells out 180 key terms across five languages: English, Bangla, Burmese, Chittagonian, and Rohingya. The nuances of language and communication continue to be an obstacle in the camps, and aid groups have been accused of not doing enough to listen to Rohingya refugees themselves. TWB says clear communication is especially important now during the monsoon season, when heavy rains will increase the risk of flooding and disease.


    And finally:


    G-O-A-L for Peace


    Heard of the #WorldCupofPeace? We hadn’t either, but Virgin Group founder Richard Branson (who admits he’s “never been much of a football fan”) is tweeting and doing interviews about a plan – backed by some major humanitarian organisations and, um, Peter Gabriel – for a truce in Syria to last the duration of the tournament. But we’re one week in, and while host country Russia (a belligerent in the war) is exceeding expectations on the pitch, there’s no ceasefire in sight.



    Missing pages, more on that jacket, and inside the mind of the Taliban
  • Dial for help: The surprise hotline helping quake survivors in Papua New Guinea

    More than two months after Papua New Guinea’s strongest earthquake in almost a century, stranded survivors are turning to an unexpected lifeline: a small domestic violence hotline run by a non-governmental organisation.


    Although the risks of violence against women rise after disasters, most callers aren’t women. They’re men reaching out for support, enquiring about how to obtain food, shelter, and other  services, or fearful of violence that has broken out in some areas after tribal clashes.


    The toll-free line has been ringing almost non-stop with calls from people whose lives are still upended by the 7.5-magnitude earthquake that struck the country’s remote highlands region on 26 February.


    The quake triggered landslides that toppled villages, wiped out food supplies, and blocked key access roads. Authorities say the disaster killed dozens and left an estimated 270,000 in need of help. But tens of thousands of displaced people in isolated areas are still waiting for food, water, shelter, and other emergency aid.


    “In a way, it was one of the only available help sources for people,” said Sally Beadle, programme team leader on gender and child protection with ChildFund, which runs the hotline in cooperation with the Port Moresby-based Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee. “We see that many, many people who access the hotline probably have no access to any other face-to-face service.”


    She added that people are desperate, “and what we hear is that people are hungry”.


    The nine local trauma counsellors at the 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain have fielded roughly 2,000 calls since the earthquake, according to ChildFund. In addition to hearing about shortages of food and other basic needs, the Port Moresby-based counsellors talk with people who are afraid of aftershocks or simply anxious about what’s happening in their communities.


    “Everything was destroyed: their house, their gardens,” said Audrey, a trauma counsellor who uses a pseudonym in her work to protect her identity. “They have no means to get food, and also the water is polluted.”


    She and other hotline workers forward information from the calls to disaster responders working with the government and NGOs. Most callers don’t know where else to turn. “They’re traumatised,” Audrey said. “They’re in fear that it’s going to happen again.”


    A 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck Papua New Guinea’s highlands region on 26 February. The remote area has also been hit by at least 194 aftershocks between 26 February and 9 April.

    Vast distances

    The hotline was set up in 2015 to provide counselling to domestic violence survivors in a country where 68 percent of women report experiencing physical or sexual abuse. ChildFund had recorded about 10,000 calls before the February earthquake.


    The surge in calls after the earthquake reflects the challenge of responding to disasters in Papua New Guinea’s highlands region, where many already remote communities have been further isolated by landslides that have blocked roads, forcing aid workers to make hours-long journeys through rough terrain, often on foot.


    The government and aid groups say that at least 42,000 people in the three hardest-hit areas – Hela, Southern Highlands, and Western provinces – are still without shelter, living in poorly stocked camps or near their buried homes. Survivors in more than two thirds of 38 recently surveyed displacement sites said they had not received food shipments since the earthquake, leaving them reliant on home gardens and dwindling food stocks that were damaged by the disaster.


    The number of displaced people is expected to rise as aid workers finally visit the most hard-to-reach areas. Some of these are accessible only by helicopter, and airlifts are costly; UNICEF says logistics and security – necessitated by the outbreaks of violence that followed the earthquake – consume more than a quarter of its $13.8-million budget for the response.


    Last month, Robyn Drysdale, deputy humanitarian director in the Pacific for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, visited communities in Southern Highlands Province, near the epicentre of the earthquake, as part of an ongoing response focused on minimising maternal and newborn deaths after the disaster.


    She explained that it had been tough to provide healthcare and other basic services to the remote area in the best of times, but that after the earthquake the task of simply reaching people is even more difficult, with roads blocked and entire villages swept away by landslides. Now, she said, “health centres are destroyed, aid posts are destroyed”, and health workers have “run away because they're scared”.


    A home sits in ruins after a 26 February earthquake struck Papua New Guinea’s highlands region. Aid groups say shortages of food, clean water, and health services could lead to disease outbreaks and worsen severe malnutrition.
    Thomas Nybo/UNICEF
    A home sits in ruins after a 26 February earthquake struck Papua New Guinea’s highlands region. Aid groups say shortages of food, clean water, and health services could lead to disease outbreaks and worsen severe malnutrition.

    Long-term impacts


    UNICEF warns that the most-affected areas already had one of the world’s highest levels of child malnutrition. The UN agency predicts widespread damage to farms and other food sources could lead to a jump in the rate of life-threatening severe acute malnutrition – from the current national average of 2.6 percent to 4 percent in the worst-hit provinces. Health authorities are reporting diarrhoea outbreaks and deaths from preventable diseases.


    The earthquake has also inflamed tribal tensions in some areas, and UNICEF says more than 40,000 people now live in the midst of this violence. In late March, UN staff pulled out of Tari, the capital of Hela Province, after tribal clashes killed four people.


    The hotline has received unexpectedly few calls for its original purpose: to help survivors of family violence. Beadle said that while the phone service is available to anyone, the overwhelming proportion of male callers underscores the need to find ways of reaching more women in the weeks ahead.


    “We've got calls from single women who don't have a man, and a lot of this distribution is controlled by men. So they're just completely missing out,” she said.


    She noted that “women aren't not calling because they don't have a need for counselling and support; we're quite certain of that.”


    For most of the helpline staff, this is the first time they have counselled people after a natural disaster. But with aid still out of reach for many and aftershocks continuing to rattle the country, the trauma counsellors are preparing for the long haul.


    “There’s so much to do,” said another trauma counsellor, using the pseudonym Cathy. “People are still calling and asking for aid support. There’s still more to do in the months to come.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A woman and her one-year-old son stand outside a makeshift tent where they have been living since a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit Papua New Guinea on 26 February, destroying most of the homes in their village. Authorities estimate that at least 42,000 people are still displaced, two months after the earthquake. CREDIT: Thomas Nybo/UNICEF)


    Dial for help: The surprise hotline helping quake survivors in Papua New Guinea
  • Satellites and slavery, useless ceasefires and emotional apps: The Cheat Sheet

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


    Papua New Guinea earthquake: the risks to women


    The damage caused by a powerful earthquake that struck Papua New Guinea in late February could take “months and years” to fix, according to the country’s prime minister. But advocates also warn of the effects the disaster could have on women. The country has one of the highest rates of sexual violence against women in the world, and natural disasters can amplify problems women already face. Aid groups reported an increase in domestic violence and sexual assault, for example, during a drought in 2015 and 2016. After sudden disasters like earthquakes, women face greater risks. For instance, emergency shelters often aren’t built with women in mind, said Priyanka Bhalla, an advisor on gender-based violence with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “There are no separate spaces for men and women, there are no safe spaces, there are no separate toilets, the toilets don’t have any lights,” Bhalla told IRIN. Two weeks after the earthquake, officials in Papua New Guinea are still tallying the damage, with rescue teams struggling to reach remote highland villages cut off by landslides. Authorities reported at least 100 fatalities caused by the earthquake or its powerful aftershocks.



    Spotting ‘slavery’ from space


    Can you track rights abuses from space? Researchers at the University of Nottingham have been using satellite imagery to trace the proliferation of brick kilns — which labour and rights groups say are a widespread source of abuse and exploitation — over a swathe of South Asia. In findings released this month, the researchers estimated that more than 55,000 brick kilns exist over a vast “brick belt” spanning parts of Pakistan, Nepal and northern India. The figure is “the first rigorous estimate” of brick kilns in the area, researchers say, and a key step to providing missing data that can be used to confront labour abuse. They add that their work is  another example of how remote sensing can be used in the humanitarian sector, calling the technology “ripe for exploration”. Rights groups say debt bondage and child labour are rampant in South Asia’s brick kilns, which make heavy use of migrant workers. A September report from Anti-Slavery International claimed India’s brick-making industry was rife with “endemic levels of debt-bondage and the worst forms of child labour”, particularly among migrant workers.

    Trapped in Eastern Ghouta


    Humanitarian corridors – safe zones that are meant to allow aid in or people out of a dangerous situation – are nothing new, neither in Syria’s seven years of violence nor in war at large. We’ve seen them go horribly wrong in Srebrenica, and they failed to do much in east Aleppo. But here we are again, in Eastern Ghouta, with Russia claiming it has set up passages that allow civilians to leave the battered enclave and assistance to enter it during a  five-hour window each day. The plan was immediately knocked as a “joke” by the US. Russia has said opposition groups are shelling the corridors, and the International Crisis Group points out that the routes may even serve as cover for further military escalation. What’s clear is that the fighting continues, civilians are not getting out, and very little aid has made it in. Does anyone even remember that Security Council-ordered ceasefire?


    Augmenting Sympathy


    Aid agencies worry that public sympathy is in short supply. As public fatigue with long and apparently intractable wars mounts and news coverage drops away, popular pressure for action and donations tends to dry up. So aid organizations are coming up with new ways to cut through the ennui. Critics say some are cheesy and awkward, at worst exploitative: gamification of actual warfare, its victims and humanitarianism? Up for debate. And what do actual victims think?  But we digress. One of the newest entrants in the quest to stir public interest in humanitarian issues is from The International Committee of the Red Cross, whose iPhone app that presents a child’s experience of war as a 3D “augmented reality” experience. Analyst Michael Neuman, of the MSF-affiliated think tank CRASH, in a series of tweets greeted news of the app in January with a jaded eye: “Many (at least, I do) will just see it as 1/ a mere distraction, 2/ a new source of profit (Davos, c’mon on), and raise 3/ ethical questions.” Ethical quandaries aside, does the new app “Enter The Room”, pack the “devastating” emotional punch ICRC claims?


    In case you missed it


    Conflicts seem to be mushrooming in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The latest region to flare up is Ituri, in the northeast. The New York Times has published compelling evidence of burned villages visible from satellite imagery. On the ground, refugees have poured eastwards into Uganda, and have grim tales to tell. The causes of the violence are not widely agreed by analysts. The region was last wracked by violence between the Hema and Lendu communities in 2002. This week IRIN reporter Samuel Okiror met some of the Congolese who have fled Ituri by boat, and we published their accounts.


    Satellites and slavery, useless ceasefires and emotional apps
  • Bread protests, coconut coding, and a volcanic tsunami: The Cheat Sheet

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


    Sudan’s widening bread price protests


    Despite a government crackdown, Sudan’s cost-of-living protests are unlikely to end soon. Hundreds of people came out on the streets of Khartoum and Omdurman on Tuesday and Wednesday in growing unrest after bread prices more than doubled earlier this month following a jump in the cost of flour. Riot police fired teargas and made a number of arrests, including the detention of opposition politicians. One eyewitness in Khartoum told IRIN he believes “the government is in trouble” as there is real anger on the streets towards an administration viewed as abusive and corrupt. “People are sick of the violence of the authorities; [the protesters] have been non-violent, but I see them taking a different step and starting to defend themselves,” he said. The government has done away with subsidies on bread and fuel and devalued the currency to close a yawning budget gap. But Sudan’s economy could be in worse shape than the authorities are admitting, with a real inflation rate potentially as high as 50 percent. In 2013 the security forces killed dozens of people in similar cost-of-living protests. Look out for IRIN’s exclusive report next week on the corruption and abuse at the heart of the EU migration policy as implemented by Khartoum.


    Coconuts, bananas, and AI


    We've heard a lot about Artificial Intelligence recently. Or is it Machine Learning? Anyway, humans are evidently getting better at training computers. The World Bank has teamed up with drone and photography NGOs WeRobotics and OpenAerialMap to see if computers can automatically identify tree species (taking jobs, again?). Geeks can compete to make the best code to automatically distinguish trees from overhead photographs. Imagery can then be compared before and after disasters to see how much local agriculture might be affected. The test is tuned for Pacific islands set with aerial photos of Tonga. To win, the AI code should know the difference between coconut, banana, papaya, and mango trees 80 percent of the time, and not mix them up with electricity poles or random objects. Human collaborators have classified 13,000 objects by eye, and the computers have to figure out how to do it themselves. May the best bot win.

    (In the photo below, red dots indicate coconut trees while yellow means banana trees)

    Yemen in economic freefall


    We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: while the violence of Yemen’s war has been deadly, the economic collapse it has caused has also had disastrous consequences for civilians. In the past week or so, Yemen’s currency, the rial, sunk to new lows, further damaging the purchasing power of Yemenis already struggling to buy food. Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, allied with internationally recognised (but deposed) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, appealed for help from his allies in Saudi Arabia, saying “saving the riyal means saving Yemenis from inevitable hunger”. The Saudis stepped in fairly quickly, saying they would deposit $2 billion in Yemen’s central bank. Hadi’s government officially moved the central bank to Aden in 2016, but a branch still operates in Houthi rebel-controlled Sana’a. So while this move will hopefully give the currency the boost it needs (to some extent it already has), some worry that the infusion will merely allow Hadi’s allies to pay civil servants who have long gone without their salaries, while workers in Houthi-controlled territories are ignored. Others have warned that the injection of funds is a short-term fix and say the central bank needs to follow up with responsible fiscal practice. Money for food, fuel for conflict, or a strategic deposit? This one might just be all three.


    Tsunami warnings in Papua New Guinea


    It sounds made up, but there are fears a volatile volcano in Papua New Guinea could send a now-deserted island plunging into the ocean, triggering a tsunami that would threaten towns and villages hundreds of kilometres away. Earlier this month, a series of earthquakes caused a volcanic eruption on tiny Kadovar Island, off the country’s northern coast, forcing authorities to evacuate its entire population: some 691 people. Landslides sent 15 homes tumbling into the sea, while volcanic ash destroyed 80 percent of the island, according to provincial officials. But authorities fear an escalation in volcanic activity could cause even greater damage, according to an assessment by disaster management officials and NGOs Oxfam and Save the Children. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill this week issued a stark warning about the seriousness of the threat. The population of Kadovar Island has taken refuge on neighbouring Ruprup Island, where aid groups say there is overcrowding and dwindling food supplies. But the tsunami threat means Kadovar Islanders, as well as their hosts on Ruprup and another island, may all have to be evacuated to the mainland – a daunting task when boats and fuel are in short supply. It’s not the only volcano causing humanitarian problems in the region. Last week, Mayon Volcano in the Philippines erupted, spilling rocks and lava along a two-kilometre path and forcing more than 26,000 people to evacuate. And people in Bali, Indonesia continue to grapple with the uncertainty of Mount Agung, which rumbled in late 2017; some 46,000 people are still living in evacuation centres on the island. 


    Did you miss it?


    Artisanal mines have the edge


    Artisanal mining has a reputation for danger, environmental destruction, and minimal returns – basically a lottery for losers. But the evidence suggests that miners and the community are striking it luckier than assumed. A World Bank study has found that households that live around artisanal mines in Burkina Faso profit far more from increases in gold prices than those around industrial mines. Not only do industrial gold mines fail to pass on the profits, but the benefits of artisanal mining are “economically significant”. It’s something we can assume the 40 million-odd small-scale miners around the world have known for a while.




    Join IRIN at Davos – Wednesday, 24 January


    The Swiss Alpine town of Davos is gearing up for next week’s World Economic Forum. While some humanitarians have been sceptical of what started out as a relatively exclusive gathering of business leaders (even if one special guest this year seems to have abandoned his proclaimed dislike for the global elite), this year’s programme features sessions on a day in the life of a refugee, innovative humanitarian financing, global pandemics, and a host of peace and security issues (watch select sessions here). Attendees range from Bill Gates to the Iraqi prime minister to the heads of UN agencies and NGOs, as the public and private sectors strive for closer collaboration in addressing global challenges. Fresh from the publication of our forecast of the crises that will shape 2018, IRIN will be co-hosting a Global Humanitarian Outlook (event details here). Tune in to watch the live webstream at 21:30 CET (2030 GMT) on Wednesday.


    Data protection and humanitarian action


    On Friday, 26 January, IRIN Senior Editor Ben Parker will join the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), and Privacy International on a panel about Data Protection Challenges in Humanitarian Action. The event is organised by the Brussels Privacy Hub as part of a major conference in Belgium on "Computers, Privacy and Data Protection". Parker has form on this important but poorly understood issue, as shown by his recent stream of reporting.

    (TOP PHOTO: A baker puts dough into an oven to make bread in his bakery in El Fasher, North Darfur. CREDIT: Albert González Farran/UNAMID)


    Bread protests, coconut coding, and a volcanic tsunami
  • Sinai slaughter, Manus refugee “coercion”, and “unthinkable” Rohingya returns: The Cheat Sheet

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


    What next for Manus refugees?


    Authorities in Papua New Guinea have forcibly removed asylum seekers and refugees from an Australian-backed offshore detention facility on Manus Island, with officers reportedly beating detainees with metal poles in footage the UN’s refugee agency called “shocking and inexcusable”. It’s more unwelcome attention for Australia’s controversial policies, which force asylum seekers who arrive by boat to have their refugee claims processed in other jurisdictions – and sever all possibility of resettlement in Australia. But the situation is far from resolved. Most of the remaining Manus detainees were transferred to unfinished and inadequate facilities elsewhere in Lorengau township, where local residents are reportedly angry about the arrangement. A large majority of asylum applicants on Manus Island and Nauru – where some 345 people are held in another offshore centre – have had their refugee applications approved. But with Australia off the table and a resettlement deal to the United States proceeding slowly, options are slim. UNHCR says recognised refugees are being offered “enticements” to return to countries with shoddy and worsening human rights records: “Severely inadequate services and conditions may now further coerce refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution to nevertheless return to their countries of origin,” the UN refugee agency said.


    “Unthinkable” Rohingya returns


    Bangladesh and Myanmar say they have struck a deal that could send hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. But what happens if those refugees refuse to return? There are few details on how the two countries would go about repatriating almost one million Rohingya stuck in Bangladesh, including more than 623,000 pushed out of Myanmar’s Rakhine State over the last three months. For years, Rohingya have lived amid strict segregation and repressive policies that amount to “apartheid”, Amnesty International said this week, and animosity toward the Rohingya continues to simmer back in Rakhine. Rights groups fear the blueprint for repatriation will be found in the Rohingya crises of decades past. In the late 1970s, Bangladeshi authorities cut food rations to some 200,000 Rohingya refugees, effectively starving people back to Myanmar. More than 10,000 Rohingya starved to death in the process. The cycle continued 20 years later for a new round of refugees: the two countries agreed to a bilateral repatriation deal and tens of thousands were sent back “involuntarily”, according to Human Rights Watch, which also criticised the role of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in the repatriation process. The intense international focus on this year’s exodus will mean even greater scrutiny on aid groups, who have been accused of unintentionally entrenching segregation and rights abuses in Rakhine. But aid groups were sidelined this week as Bangladesh and Myanmar put together their roadmap for returns. This doesn’t bode well for the prospects of truly voluntary returns, according to Amnesty’s director for refugee and migrant rights, Charmain Mohamed. “Returns in the current climate are simply unthinkable,” she said.


    Israel offer asylum seekers jail or deportation


    The existence of some 40,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, has always been precarious. Even though Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has only granted a handful of Africans asylum. In the last few years many have been held during the nights in a desert detention facility for men called Holot. Israel has been pressuring and paying asylum seekers to leave – $3,500 plus airfare – sending them to countries like Rwanda and Uganda, where their future is uncertain and often dangerous. Now, Israeli politicians plan to give asylum seekers a stark choice: jail or deportation to Rwanda in the next three months. President Paul Kagame’s government will reportedly receive $5,000 a head to take them in. Israel took over refugee status determination from the UN years ago, and UNHCR said it is “seriously concerned” about the government’s proposals and has been unable to follow up on asylum seekers who’ve left Israel because of the government’s secrecy. Ministers have now voted to close Holot as they will presumably have no need for it once the asylum seekers are gone or imprisoned. The last time the government turned men out of the facility with little notice they at least found temporary refuge with sympathetic Israelis. If the government’s plans come to pass, they will now likely be headed somewhere much worse.


    Sufi slaughter in Sinai


    At least 230 people have been killed in a bomb and gun attack on a mosque in Egypt's northern Sinai, which took place shortly after Friday prayers. The attack in al-Rawda village, west of el-Arish, is in a region where Egyptian forces have been battling a jihadist insurgency linked to so-called Islamic State for years. The mosque was reportedly used by Sufi followers, a mystical expression of Islam condemned by hardline Salafists as heretical. The jihadists have mostly targeted security forces in their attacks in the neglected Sinai region. These have escalated since 2013 when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then the armed forces commander, overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi. In May this year militants extended their reach into central Egypt, attacking a bus carrying Coptic Christians, killing 26 people. See IRIN’s past coverage on the region’s marginalisation and the rise of Sinai extremism, and look out for more ahead.


    Did you miss it?




    IRIN Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod conjured this hashtag before it was even official that Saudi Arabia was easing its aid blockade of Yemen. It may not have gone viral (at least not yet) but the point of her piece has hopefully hit home in certain quarters as international awareness grows about an unfolding catastrophe. Some 4.5 million Yemenis were already “severely food insecure” before the war, before an unprecedented cholera epidemic, before the recent aid blockade. The UN says more than 70 percent of the now 19 million Yemenis that require assistance are in rebel-controlled areas, which rely almost entirely on food imports through Hodeidah to survive. And if trade isn’t allowed to resume through the key port soon, experts say famine will be the “likely” result. Time is running out, so let’s keep the hashtag going!


    Zimbabwe coup shines light on opaque arms transfers


    The Chinese armoured vehicles on the streets of Harare last week were the first sign something unusual was underway in Zimbabwe. But on closer inspection by the security publication Jane’s, they revealed something else: There’s no record of the Chinese-made Type 89 armoured vehicles being delivered to Zimbabwe, neither on the UN Register of Conventional Arms nor the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database. How can that be? Well, a lack of transparency is not unusual in arms transfers. The UN register is only a voluntary system aimed at promoting international security – not everyone abides by it. China only signed up in 2007 and hasn’t made any declarations since 2015, Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told IRIN. Zimbabwe, along with a number of other countries, never admits what they’ve added to their arsenals. Wezemen said this opacity includes several European countries and added that the United States regularly gets caught fibbing about the transfer information it provides.


    Missing diamonds


    In related news, there has been much chatter over a possible Chinese connection in the downfall of President Robert Mugabe. After all, Zimbabwe’s head of defence forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, was in China just before the coup/no-coup intervention. But the China-Africa Research Initiative blog points out that any Chinese role is very unlikely as it would fly in the face of Beijing’s general non-interference policy. Chinese investments in Zimbabwe are actually quite small, and the country has almost zero strategic interest for Beijing. However, there is a cozy relationship between the Zimbabwean military and leaders in China’s Anhui Province, which has culminated in a joint-venture diamond mining operation between the Zimbabwean company Anjin and the Chinese government-owned Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Anhui company. Mining in eastern Zimbabwe is highly controversial. A new report by Global Witness sheds more light on some $13 billion of diamond sales that have reportedly gone missing

    (TOP PHOTO: An asylum-seeker enters the ‘Regional Processing Centre’ on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.)


    Sinai slaughter, Manus refugee “coercion”, and “unthinkable” Rohinya returns
  • El Niño-linked drought kills crops and people in PNG

    People are dying of malnourishment and disease in remote, drought-stricken communities in Papua New Guinea, which will need food aid for the next few months to prevent more deaths.

    Sally Lloyd, an Australian who grew up in Western Province, has been raising the alarm after returning to her childhood home where she saw severely malnourished people. At least two people died in the community of Mougulu during her visit from 29 December to 19 January, but she said there have been more deaths in the area that have gone unreported.

    “We saw and heard of people very weak and thin, malnourished children and a lot of people fainting due to their condition,” she told IRIN. “I would expect the death rate will climb quickly now if help does not arrive soon – many are very weak, very hungry.”

    Lloyd said diseases like malaria are taking an increased toll, as people are too weakened by hunger to fight off the sickness. She has created a Facebook page to raise awareness and money for food relief. 

    PNG has been severely affected by El Niño. The weather phenomenon has been linked to drought and frost, which devastated crops last year, leaving subsistence farmers with nothing to eat.

    “In October we walked through red dust – something I have never before seen in this area of mud and high rainfall,” said Lloyd.

    The latest data suggests that as many as 700,000 people in PNG are in critical need of food assistance, according to the World Food Programme. Regional WFP spokesman Damian Kean told IRIN that gathering information about food security is difficult because it is hard to access many communities.

    Kean said that staples like sweet potatoes were destroyed by low rainfall throughout 2015 and then by frosts from July through October, while insects destroyed many crops planted after that. He said WFP has a team in PNG gathering data about where the biggest needs are and the organisation is prepared to help relief efforts if asked.

    “The government has not issued an official request for assistance, or declared a state of emergency,” said Kean.

    The government began investigating reports of deaths linked to lack of food after Lloyd gave a presentation in the capital, Port Moresby. Local media have reported government airlifts of food to some remote areas this week, but Lloyd said that many badly affected communities have yet to receive aid.

    The response is complicated by PNG’s rugged terrain.

    Lloyd said many communities are accessible only by “a hard week’s walk from the nearest town”, or by fixed-wing aircraft that can land on small strips hacked from the jungle. This makes it difficult to get information out, and expensive to get food aid in.

    As the government ramps up its response, many people are running out of time.

    Lloyd gave the example of a young boy in Mougulu who was carried into a clinic unconscious one night. “Hunger had wasted him and he was dehydrated,” she said. “They couldn't get a drip line in.”

    Lloyd said she had rehydration tablets with her, so they revived him slowly by dissolving them in water and dripping it into his mouth.

    “He came around eventually, but I cannot help but wonder how he will cope going back to a home with either no food at all or possibly a little sago now and again,” she said, referring to a starch extracted from palm plants.

    “I hope he will make it till help arrives.”


    Drought kills crops, people in PNG

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