(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar

    What next in Venezuela?


    The crisis in Venezuela has bubbled away for months, demanding media attention only when protests flare or the sheer number of people fleeing the freefalling economy and increasingly authoritarian state becomes difficult to ignore. Not now. Since President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in two weeks ago for a new six-year term, things have escalated quickly. No sooner was a revolt by members of the National Guard quelled than protesters took to the streets demanding he step down. Opposition challenger Juan Guaidó on Wednesday declared himself leader and has since been recognised as such by the United States and a clutch of regional powers. No one knows what will happen next. Talk of a US military intervention seems to be just that for now, but there’s no sign either that Maduro – still backed by Venezuela’s armed forces – is prepared to accept any offer of amnesty and leave quietly. If he does go, it won’t cure Venezuela’s ills overnight, but it would provide the change in government some argue is the only long-term solution to a humanitarian crisis Maduro has long denied – one that has left his people desperate, hungry, and sick. A study published in The Lancet Global Health Journal this week indicates that infant mortality rates have risen back to 1990s levels.


    “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede”


    Around 9,000 Nigerians who say they fled armed clashes involving Boko Haram are “shuttling” back and forth in the Cameroon border area, a UN official said in Geneva. The group was pushed back after trying to take refuge in the neighbouring country, with Cameroonian officials admitting that insecurity forced the government to take exceptional measures, despite its supposed "open doors" policy. UN humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon Allegra Baiocchi told a press conference "the right of asylum is being tested". She said many of the group were women and children. Cameroon’s director of civil protection Yap Mariatou told IRIN that a recent attack on the border town of Achigashia by an armed group had put the authorities on edge. “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede,” she said. The UN is appealing for $299 million to help 2.3 million people in Cameroon, including about 100,000 refugees from Nigeria and more than 400,000 internally displaced by an ongoing separatist rebellion.


    Mediterranean crossing just got even more dangerous


    The EU’s troubled naval mission against people smuggling in the Mediterranean faced yet another setback this week as Germany announced it was suspending participation, a decision MPs said was the result of Italy’s consistent refusal to allow rescued migrants entry at its ports. The removal of Germany’s ship leaves the mission, Operation Sophia, with only two vessels. Meanwhile, migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean – 201 so far this year – including in two recent shipwrecks, one off the coast of Libya, the second between Morocco and Spain. Many of those rescued are being brought to Libya, and Médecins Sans Frontières says it has seen a “sharp increase” in the number of people held in crowded detention centres there – conditions are dire, with shortages of clean water and food. Human Rights Watch said EU policies, including the decision to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return people, are contributing to a “cycle of extreme abuse” against migrants in the country. For a forensic examination of one Mediterranean incident in 2017 in which at least 20 migrants died, check out this film, “How Europe Outsources Migrant Suffering at Sea”, from Times Insider.


    Forwarding hate


    There’s increasing scrutiny on the real-world impacts of the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media. This week, messaging app WhatsApp announced a five-recipient limit for message forwarding. WhatsApp messages – which can be rapidly distributed through group and broadcast features – have been linked to a spate of lynchings in India and a pre-election flood of false news in Brazil. Sri Lanka also temporarily shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, and others after anti-Muslim violence last March. WhatsApp recipient limits were recommended in a “human rights impact assessment” commissioned by Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. That report focused on Facebook usage in Myanmar, where UN investigators say the company was ”slow and ineffective” in stemming hate speech on its platform amid the violent 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya. But hate speech on WhatsApp could prove even tougher to contain: the company may enforce “community standards” on Facebook, but WhatsApp messages are encrypted.


    Overheard in Davos


    Sure, the mood at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was generally sombre, but there was a bright spot for some: the increasing spotlight on social issues, including humanitarian response. Humanitarian topics included sessions on private sector investment in fragile states and the use of artificial intelligence in crises. The WEF, the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an initiative to promote so-called humanitarian investing – the private sector working to boost economies in crisis-affected areas in order to help people get back on their feet and avoid becoming dependent on aid. The IKEA Foundation pledged 6.8 million euros to help create livelihoods for refugees in Jordan. Still, investors were honest about the constraints of putting capital into fragile states at scale. On the tech side, AI was front and centre with discussions on its use in crisis zones. It has huge potential – from predicting famines to chatbots that help refugees further their education to facial recognition for identifying family members separated by war. But what happens when AI-aggregated data falls into the wrong hands? Or when machines reinforce political or human biases in the data? Many agencies, one observer noted, are pushing ahead with pilot projects and thinking about due diligence later. For more from Davos, see our roundup on IRIN’s event, “Meet the new humanitarians changing the face of aid.”

    In case you missed it:


    Central African Republic: Talks aimed at ending CAR’s long-running conflict began in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, this week. Brokered by the African Union, the negotiations involve representatives of the government and 14 armed groups. Aid officials say a successful peace accord is critical to ensuring the ongoing humanitarian crisis doesn’t deepen.


    Indonesia: Dozens of people were killed after heavy rains battered Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province this week, leading to floods and landslides. Local authorities say the rains caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating homes and forcing more than 3,000 people to evacuate.


    Philippines: A majority voted to ratify a long-awaited peace deal in the conflict-torn Mindanao region, according to unofficial results from the first stage of a referendum held this week. A vote in favour will expand autonomy for Mindanao’s Muslim community.


    Yemen: After just a month on the job, the retired Dutch general overseeing the not-yet-implemented ceasefire for the port city of Hodeidah is reportedly about to step down. It’s not clear why. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen thinks the deal is make-or-break for peace negotiations: read our interview with him to find out why.


    Zimbabwe: Half-a-million government workers have gone on strike across the country, adding to uncertainty after fuel protests and a violent crackdown by security forces left several people dead and hundreds arrested. Accusations that protesters were raped by members of the military have been accompanied by warnings that social unrest and instability are spiralling out of control. Look out for our full briefing next week.


    Weekend read


    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria


    No, as we flagged in our 10 crises to watch in 2019, the war in Syria is not over. The focus towards the end of last year was on the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe if President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces moved in to retake Idlib. While this risk hasn’t gone away, especially as al-Qaeda-linked fighters cement control over parts of the northwestern province, our weekend read takes us elsewhere. In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces is trying to snuff out the last pockets of so-called Islamic State in Syria. This photo feature takes us inside their operations as they intercept a convoy of people escaping what remains of the militant group’s territory. But with IS members disguising themselves as civilians to make last-gasp attacks, how do you tell who is who? Those fleeing – nearly 5,000 in just two days this week – are hungry and exhausted. Some say there’s no food at all in areas under IS control.


    And finally…


    Top Libyan photographer dies in crossfire


    Libyan freelance journalist – and occasional IRIN contributor – Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed last Saturday while covering militia clashes in the capital city of Tripoli, prompting demonstrations by his colleagues denouncing violence against journalists. Ben Khalifa was 35, and is survived by his wife and young daughter. A well-respected photographer who covered the often violent instability that has plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Khalifa was known for his sensitive portrayals of the migrants whose bodies washed up on Libya’s shores, including this 2015 IRIN piece. His death “is a reminder of the utter lack of protection for journalists in Libya, as well as the dangers of photojournalists in the battlefield,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The week of fighting in Tripoli left 16 people dead (including Khalifa) and 65 injured, and rival militias have since agreed to a new ceasefire deal.



    Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot
  • Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar


    Al-Shabab attacks civilians in Kenya and Somalia

    It has been a tragic week in East Africa, as militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack in Kenya and was accused of kidnapping 60 schoolchildren in the Bakol region of southern Somalia. The commissioner of Tiyeglow district said the children were taken on Monday in a raid on a village and most likely recruited as fighters – a common al-Shabab tactic. On Tuesday, the al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a 19-hour siege on an upmarket Nairobi hotel, which left 21 civilians dead. Al-Shabab said the attack was in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It could also be retaliation for Kenyan and US military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia. The hotel attack took place on the eve of a verdict in the trial of men alleged to have been involved in the 2013 siege on Nairobi's Westgate mall, which left 67 people dead. Militancy is an ongoing threat across Africa, a trend we continue to watch in 2019.


    Swine fever threatens food security

    A highly contagious disease with a near-100 percent fatality rate for pigs and wild boars could have “devastating consequences” for food security over large swathes of Asia, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned in a report this week. The FAO says African swine fever threatens to spread from China, where the virus has hit at least 24 provinces since it was detected there in August. The disease is not transmissible to humans, but pork is a key source of animal protein in China, the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia, while China produces half the world’s pigs. The FAO says the risk of the virus spreading beyond China’s borders represents “an imminent threat for the pig population in this region” and could damage livelihoods and food security. There is no vaccine. This week, Chinese agriculture officials announced the culling of more than 916,000 pigs, Mongolia reported its first outbreak, and Australia said it had found traces of African swine fever in six pork products seized at its airports. Since the virus was first discovered nearly a century ago in Kenya, there have been outbreaks in parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil, including ongoing cases in parts of eastern Europe.


    IS reminds US it still exists in Syria

    Days after President Trump said he had begun withdrawing troops from Syria, in part because so-called Islamic State had been defeated, the group claimed a suicide bombing in the northeastern city of Manbij that killed 19 people, including four Americans (two soldiers, a contractor, and a civilian defense department employee). The pullout was already controversial, not to mention confusing – nobody seems to know how or when it is happening – and Wednesday’s attack raised further questions about the wisdom of the move. In northeastern Syria, where some 2,000 US troops plus civilian contractors offer support to Kurdish fighters taking on IS, humanitarians are concerned about the  uncertainty (A Turkish invasion? New alliances? Shifting front lines?) and how it will impact their ability to deliver aid. Read Aron Lund’s latest timely analysis for an understanding of the many possibilities, and what they mean for the estimated two million Syrians in areas under Kurdish control.


    Voting on peace in the Philippines

    On 21 January, parts of conflict-hit Mindanao in the Philippines will begin voting on a long-awaited peace deal that will grant more autonomy and a new homeland for the southern island’s Muslim population. The proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law is the culmination of years of negotiations between Philippine authorities and multiple iterations of Muslim armed groups on Mindanao. Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a peace agreement with the largest Muslim armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The upcoming referendum, which continues on 6 February, is the next step to putting the law into effect. Recent polling suggests large parts of existing Muslim-majority areas on Mindanao support the law, which would create a new territory, known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with greater control of resources and taxation. But it’s uncertain whether adjoining areas like Cotabato City, wedged in the middle of an existing region, will vote to join. If the referendum passes, Mindanao still faces a challenge building peace. Authorities must oversee the decommissioning of thousands of armed fighters. But other armed groups continue to clash, including extremist fighters that have in the past drawn from the ranks of disaffected MILF members.


    Sexual harassment at the UN

    One in three UN workers has been sexually harassed in the past two years, according to survey results published this week. More than 30,000 UN agency staff and contractors took part in the online survey conducted in November by business advisory firm Deloitte. UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed disappointment, not just at the results but also at the low participation – only 17 percent of those polled responded. He said it showed how far the UN has to go before it can “fully and openly” discuss sexual harassment and counter ongoing “mistrust, perceptions of inaction, and lack of accountability”. Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reportedly ordered an internal investigation after a string of anonymous emails containing allegations of racism, sexism, and corruption were sent to top managers at the UN health agency last year. Both reports follow hot on the heels of the announcement last month that the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, will step down six months early, in June, after a panel found that he tolerated “a culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.” A preliminary report this week into the Oxfam scandal, which precipitated the #AidToo movement, called for a stronger system of safeguarding, for empowering and creating the space for staff to challenge negative power dynamics, and for investing in ways to more generally improve the culture of such organisations.

    In case you missed it:

    Democratic Republic of Congo: While global attention has been focused on Congo's disputed elections and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern regions, almost 900 people were killed in inter-communal clashes in western Mai-Ndombe province last month, the UN said. The fighting between Banunu and Batende communities took place in Yumbi, one of the towns excluded from the 30 December polls due to insecurity.


    The Hague: The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity, calling the case against him "exceptionally weak". Gbagbo spent more than seven years in custody, and was tried for allegations including involvement in election-related violence in 2010 and 2011, during which thousands of people were killed. Prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict and, initially at least, he remained behind bars.


    Syria: UNICEF reports that eight children, most under four months, have died in the past month at the makeshift camp on the Jordan-Syria border where some 40,000 Syrians have taken shelter. People at the camp, Rukban, are exposed to harsh winter conditions and are short on medical supplies and care; the last humanitarian convoy was in November.


    United States: Four humanitarian volunteers went on trial this week in Tucson, Arizona, facing misdemeanour charges for leaving water and other supplies in the desert for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Since 2017, at least 43 sets of human remains have reportedly been found in the wildlife refuge where the volunteers had left the provisions.


    Yemen: Days after the UN Security Council voted to send 75 observers to monitor a faltering ceasefire in Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah, bullets hit an armoured car carrying the mission’s head, retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. No one was injured, and the warring sides blamed each other for the incident.


    Zimbabwe: The UN has condemned Zimbabwe's “excessive use of force” in cracking down on protests, which were sparked by a dramatic fuel price hike last weekend. Five people have been killed, hundreds detained, and the government has imposed a total internet shutdown. There is concern that a prolonged crisis could lead to mass displacement and create a new humanitarian challenge for neighbouring countries.

    Weekend read


    Venezuela’s new humanitarians

    Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting pressure at home and abroad as his disputed second term in office begins. Opposition politician Juan Guaidó is challenging Maduro’s rule, while some foreign governments, including the United States, are calling the Maduro regime “illegitimate”. Venezuela is mired in economic freefall and its citizens face severe food and healthcare shortages. The crisis has pushed some three million to flee the country, spilling the humanitarian emergency across the region. For our weekend read, journalist Susan Schulman has the latest from our reporting on local aid in crises. The story profiles Venezuela’s local NGOs, which have been forced to make drastic changes to respond to a humanitarian crisis the government denies. Local organisations that once focused on rights or development find themselves thrust into unfamiliar new roles: an education NGO that abandoned its training programmes because teachers were too busy queuing for food; a rights group that diverted its resources to feed hungry children. “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” says one local activist. “We didn’t know until now.”

    And finally...

    IRIN at Davos

    Look out for IRIN’s participation at next week’s annual World Economic Forum gathering of top business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Join us on Tuesday 22 January at 7:30am local time (0630 GMT), for a live stream of “Meet the New Humanitarians”, our headline event aimed at showcasing emerging actors in the humanitarian landscape, not to mention our new name and brand (In case you missed our big announcement).


    And if you don’t mind a quick 10-second sign-in form (or are already signed on), check out the Humanitarian Action entry on Transformation Maps, the WEF’s new attempt to harness technology and collaboration to tackle complex global issues and better inform decision-makers. IRIN’s Ben Parker was the key contributor.



    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN
  • Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Militant attacks spike in Nigeria

    More than 30,000 people have fled fighting in northeastern Nigeria's Borno State, most from Baga on the shores of Lake Chad, as attacks by Boko Haram and its Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) offshoot increased in recent weeks. The UN has expressed concern about the flood of newly displaced people into the state capital, Maiduguri. The impact of the fighting has been "devastating and has created a humanitarian tragedy,” said Edward Kallon, head of UN operations in Nigeria. Meanwhile, the Nigerian army said it had cleared jihadists from several towns, including Baga. The government has previously made claims that Boko Haram was "technically defeated". In reality, the insurgency, which began in 2009, has fragmented but continues – with an uptick in violence in some areas and jihadists targeting other countries in the region. Read more of IRIN's in-depth coverage on countering militancy in the Sahel.

    Winter has come

    Snow and flooding may affect 70,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon this week, according to the UN refugee agency. Storm Norma, bringing rain, high wind, and snow at higher altitudes, will have already passed through Lebanon by Sunday but rain is forecast for next week, adding to flood risks. So far 361 refugee sites have been affected, and one eight-year-old girl died in floodwaters. Flimsy plastic and tarpaulin structures are no match for the heaviest snowfall – one informal settlement near Arsal is said to have been “buried”. Affected refugees have had to find alternatives and aid groups are working to provide shelter, clothing, and heating. The storm follows flooding of displacement camps within Syria: more than 20,000 people in 108 camps were affected in northwestern Idlib by early January, according to Save the Children.

    Congo election result challenged

    After 18 years of Joseph Kabila’s rule, this week saw Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the largest opposition party in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared the provisional victor of long-delayed presidential elections. But another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, called the result an "electoral coup" and said he would file a court challenge against it this weekend. Since independence in 1960 from Belgium, Congo has never seen a peaceful transfer of political power. It is struggling to move on from decades of conflict and political unrest and still faces a host of humanitarian challenges, including its largest ever Ebola outbreak. There are fears these new tensions may lead to a fresh eruption of political violence across the country. Initial unrest has already included one demonstration by Fayulu’s supporters that reportedly left five civilians dead and 17 police officers injured in the southwestern city of Kikwit. Fayulu believes he won 61 percent of the vote, citing election observers from the Catholic Church, which also cast doubt on the result. Fayulu claims Tshisekedi only won because he made a backdoor power-sharing deal with Kabila's chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

    Deal or no deal? Yemen ceasefire falling apart

    The shaky ceasefire deal in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah racked up another obstacle on Thursday when a Houthi drone attacked a military parade at a base that belongs to the Yemeni army and its allies in the Saudi-led coalition. Six soldiers were reportedly killed, and the government of internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi said the attack shows the rebels are “not ready for peace”. Efforts to implement the Hodeidah agreement – reached at talks last month in Stockholm – have been hampered by differing interpretations of the text, which Oxfam this week called too vague, not to mention what a UN spokesperson described as a “lack of trust between the parties”. Watch this space for more on the ongoing diplomatic efforts not just to sort out Hodeidah – a key entry point for aid and commercial goods – but to finally end Yemen’s war.

    Exploring peace amid fresh violence in Thailand’s deep south

    The long-running Malay Muslim separatist insurgency in Thailand’s troubled south is back in the spotlight early in the new year. January has seen renewed attempts at peace talks – as well as fresh bouts of violence. Thai peace negotiators and Malaysian intermediaries want leaders of the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional to join peace talks, though it’s unclear if insurgents affiliated with the group are prepared to do so. These peace overtures come amid continuing violence in the south, including a school car bomb (blamed on the BRN), which injured a 12-year-old student, and the killing of four defence volunteers at a school. Rights groups say such attacks on civilian targets are war crimes, but they also accuse Thai security forces of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture. More than 6,000 people have been killed in violence in Thailand’s southern provinces since 2004, including more than 200 people last year, according to monitoring group Deep South Watch.

    One to listen to

    Keeping local staff safe

    Local staff continue to bear the brunt of violence targeting humanitarian groups. A guard working for an NGO in the Central African Republic was killed on 5 January, while a Syrian staff member of an international NGO was abducted and killed in Idlib. The most recent episode of the Humanitarian Incidents podcast tackles the issue of safety for local staff (including humanitarians working for subcontracted local partners). Nour Qoussaibany, security lead for the International Rescue Committee in Lebanon, speaks about local perceptions that international NGOs pay more attention to the safety of international staff, and explores what can be done to prioritise security for local aid workers. Hint to donors: boosting funding to build local security capacity would be a good start. Listen to the interview here.

    In case you missed it:

    BURUNDI: Disability NGO Handicap International (aka Humanity and Inclusion) is leaving Burundi, citing regulatory demands. In a re-registration process, the government now requires NGOs to apply a quota for the ethnicity of their Burundian staff, a measure the NGO called discriminatory and unconstitutional. [Your tips and views are welcome.]

    NEW VIRUS: A fruit bat has been found to host a previously unknown filovirus (the family that includes Ebola). In the laboratory, it can infect human cells, but the risk of transmission is unknown. According to Nature, researchers have called it Měnglà, after the area where the bat was captured in China.

    THE PHILIPPINES: At least 140 people have been killed in the Philippines since late December, when heavy rains from Tropical Depression Usman unleashed landslides and flooding in parts of southern Luzon and eastern Visayas. Philippine authorities say more than 56,000 people sought refuge in evacuation centres.

    SUDAN: Violence against protesters and medics must end, Human Rights Watch said, after a “particularly bloody” Wednesday in the Sudanese city of Omdurman. At least three people died after government forces opened fire and used tear gas against demonstrators demanding the downfall of President Omar al-Bashir. Officials say 22 people have died since protests started last month; HRW put the toll at around 40.

    WORLD BANK: World Bank President Jim Yong Kim is quitting for a role in private investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners. All previous Bank presidents have also been US citizens. As well as speculating on the backstory, observers are asking if the tradition of Washingon D.C. handpicking the candidate should continue.

    Weekend read

    Women, girls, and gender preparedness in aid

    It’s no secret that understanding how crises affect women and girls differently from men and boys is one of the keys to an effective humanitarian response. But Suzy Madigan, senior advisor for gender and protection for CARE International, says: “The talk is there, but to really put talk into action there needs to be concrete actions put behind it.” Get up to speed on gender issues in aid this weekend, not just with Madigan’s Q&A, which calls for more local women to be included in emergency response, but also with two stories from the ground that show why extra care and planning is needed. Discover how girls forced into conflict in South Sudan are finding it particularly tough to reintegrate into their communities in peacetime, and how the healthcare gap for returnees to Syria’s Raqqa affects vulnerable women.

    And finally...

    Brexit and the US shutdown

    It’s reaching crunch time for two massive news stories with humanitarian ramifications: Brexit, and the US government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s Mexico border wall. On the former, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to see her “only deal on the table” with the EU defeated in a vote on Tuesday. What’s next is anyone’s guess: she could resign, there could be a new general election, possibly another referendum, perhaps all of the above. As a rush of migrant vessels has made it across the Channel from France in recent weeks, we’ll be exploring whether the British government, in its response, has tried to manufacture a migration “crisis” to harden attitudes on immigration at this crucial juncture. On the latter, we’ve already reported on the real humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border, but look out for more on the possible impacts of a prolonged shutdown on humanitarian programmes.

    (TOP PHOTO: People carry the body of one of the attack victims during their burial ceremony at the Sajeri village on the outskirts of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, on 8 January 2019. CREDIT: Audu Marte/AFP)


    Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen
  • 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
  • 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
  • From evacuee to humanitarian: aid goes local in conflict-torn Marawi

    Until 23 May 2017, Samira Gutoc had been a human rights activist and a resident of Marawi, a lakeside city on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. But when Islamist militants barricaded themselves in the city center last year, igniting a fierce five-month battle with the army, Gutoc found herself thrust into a new role: humanitarian worker.


    She wasn’t alone. Local NGOs, civil society leaders, and an army of volunteers took the early lead – including many who were doing humanitarian work for the first time while putting themselves in harm’s way. The fierce clashes and martial law – imposed by the government on the first day of the siege – meant that the international aid groups already working in Mindanao couldn’t reach the worst-hit communities with immediate emergency assistance.


    Now, these local organisations are pushing to take a greater role in responding to disasters and crises and in fostering peace in troubled Mindanao.

    “We need to highlight that there are groups working on the ground… so that international NGOs can also respect the efforts of local groups where they can't reach,” Gutoc says.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Before turning to humanitarian work, rights activist Samira Gutoc lost her home during the siege. She continues to advocate for Marawi’s displaced: “We need to highlight that there are groups working on the ground.”

    But to do that, these local groups must upend a lopsided system that funnels the bulk of donor money through international aid groups – leaving local ones continually struggling for survival.


    ☰ Read more: Why the aid sector wants to go local


    The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2017, the UN asked for a record $22.2 billion to cover emergencies in 33 countries. But the funding gap continues to widen as the price tag soars.


    What is local aid?

    The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.


    Why local aid?

    The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response by making it faster, less costly, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, they can access areas that international aid groups can’t reach, and they know the needs of their own communities.


    Who are local aid workers?

    Local humanitarian aid includes a broad spectrum of potential on-the-ground responders to crises and disasters: local NGOs, civil society groups and community leaders, indigenous peoples, local governments, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises, including refugees, displaced people, and the everyday volunteers working to help their own communities.



    In May, Philippine NGOs, including some involved during the Marawi siege, launched a fund billed as the first in the country to raise money that directly goes to local groups to use during disasters – offering a potential alternative to the traditional international aid funding system.


    Stable, local funding could equip groups to respond quickly, but it’s still short-term; at the moment, local groups are struggling to maintain their operations.


    Charlito Manlupig, who heads Balay Mindanaw, an NGO based in northern Mindanao, says his organisation already relies on private donations from within the Philippines – but this funding dwindled as the Marawi siege dragged on. Now, he’s back to preparing one-off proposals for international donor money.

    The stakes are high. Parts of Mindanao are home to a decades-long separatist movement, fuelled by generations of marginalisation and soaring poverty among minority Muslims in majority-Catholic Philippines.


    Locals fear rebuilding plans for Marawi may ignore the views of the very people who call the city home – and provide fresh fodder for a new generation of militants. And the post-siege landscape in Marawi is pockmarked with intricacies that make it difficult for outsiders to navigate.


    “Locals know the spoken and unspoken sentiments. They know the culture,” says Regina Antequisa, who heads Ecoweb, an NGO based in nearby Iligan City, where many of Marawi’s displaced bunkered down.


    “This is an important role of local organisations that can be played only by them, especially in a conflict setting. We know one false move can ruin good intentions.”


    Marawi a catalyst for local aid responders


    Today, the local organisations that stepped to the forefront during the Marawi siege continue to lead on the ground.


    When Tropical Storm Tembin swept through parts of Mindanao in December, killing more than 100 people, it also hit evacuees still displaced by the Marawi siege. The same local groups that responded during the conflict used their resources to launch early damage assessments and mobilise funding.


    The UN says such efforts were crucial in helping the government and other aid groups plan a response.


    But Antequisa says most of the money that flows to local groups is short-term, meant to support projects that last for a finite period, rather than stable funding that could sustain and grow a generation of local aid workers. At the same time, most local groups lack the technical staff to take charge of the onerous grant applications that are a necessity for funding in the aid sector – and the skilled staff that do come up through the ranks are often poached by bigger international organisations.


    “I know I cannot always provide stable jobs,” she says. “I cannot assure that after this project we will have another. That’s the life of some local organisations.”


    These local groups say their roots are their greatest strength. Marawi can be a complex environment for outsiders to grasp. The city is both a commercial hub and the spiritual heart of the Maranao, a predominantly Muslim people whose homeland circles Lake Lanao on Mindanao. Long-running feuds among family clans can fuel new conflict from old rivalries. And local customs can dictate even how aid is perceived.


    Salic Ibrahim, who heads Maradeca, a Marawi NGO whose entire staff was displaced, says that while some outside aid groups were preparing to reach people in government evacuation centres set up as the siege wore on, local aid workers knew that most of the needy would be harder to find.


    He says the traditional Maranao code of honour, known as maratabat, meant that extended families would be obligated to take in their displaced relatives – rather than have members of their clan be seen in public evacuation centres. The vast majority of Marawi’s displaced – more than 90 percent – refused to go to evacuation centres.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Some 69,000 people are still displaced, months after the Philippine army declared an end to fighting in Marawi. Some local NGOs are helping to deliver aid in government-run evacuation centres, but they say the entire region needs far more support.

    “Most of the aid agencies who came for the Marawi response do not know the locality,”  Ibrahim says. “They have targets for the number of IDPs and evacuation centres, and realised later that their targets are hard to obtain. Especially the sense of pride of a Maranao, the maratabat: if this will not be handled properly, it will ruin your whole plan.”


    This local knowledge – and restrictions faced by international aid groups – meant there were more opportunities for locals to lead. Rhoda Avila, the humanitarian policy manager for Oxfam in the Philippines, says she was struck how one consortium of local aid groups spearheaded on-the-ground needs assessments – the crucial first step for any humanitarian operation. It was the first time she had seen this happen.


    “Usually Oxfam leads the assessment work, including the development of the response strategy,” Avila says. “The difference now is that they led the assessments, they developed the response strategy, and they asked us if we could support them.”


    Safety passes and fickle funding


    Before the crisis, Gutoc had been a prominent local activist in Marawi. But the violence suddenly put her on the front lines, along with other local leaders pushed out of the city.


    It was a “humanitarian nightmare,” she says. “There were no responders along the streets when people are walking. You could physically find people were dropping off their feet because they couldn't walk anymore.”


    Listen to Samira Gutoc on the humanitarian nightmare.

    Gutoc became a part of a coalition of evacuees called the Ranao Rescue Team. Volunteers, including some from Gutoc’s organisation, staged brazen rescue missions to free civilians still trapped in the city. Local groups used their connections to reach civilians who fled to hard-to-reach areas, advocated for the rights of the displaced, and delivered food and other emergency aid amid the clashes.


    The fighting “limited our freedom of movement and limited our access to affected communities,” says Mark Bidder, head of office for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, in the Philippines. “This is where the local actors really played an important role.”


    ☰ Read more: From evacuee to aid worker


    Fighting left much of Marawi and its surrounding areas a no-go zone for aid workers. But help still trickled in, thanks in part to an army of volunteers from the city itself.


    The violence uprooted the entire staff of Maradeca, a Marawi-based NGO. Salic Ibrahim, who heads the organisation, says they were faced with a simple choice: help their own community, or stand in line themselves to wait for food rations. They chose to help.


    Their makeshift headquarters outside the city was an office during the day; at night, it became a shelter for Maradeca staff who had nowhere else to go.


    Ibrahim recalls a volunteer who didn’t show up for work one day. The volunteer broke down in tears when she explained why she was absent.


    “We don’t have anything to cook,” she told him. “That’s why we went out to look for food.”


    Duyog Marawi, a church-run NGO set up during the siege, works with 140 local volunteers displaced from Marawi. The benefits are obvious – the volunteers work with the very communities they come from.


    But Rey Barnido, the group’s executive director, says he also has a larger goal in mind: he believes the volunteers are the same types of people Islamist extremists would seek to recruit – young, marginalised, and frustrated.


    Aisah Mamosaca works with Ecoweb based in nearby Iligan City. She says she understands what the evacuees are going through – because she is one herself.


    “When you ask them what are their needs, they right away cry,” she says. “And they say, ‘you should not ask because we have the same experience and we have the same needs.’”


    Mamosaca counts herself lucky – she has relatives to stay with in Iligan. But the city she calls home lies in rubble.


    “I still haven’t moved on from this,” she says.



    Rey Barnido is part of Marawi’s Catholic minority and heads Duyog Marawi, a humanitarian organisation created by the local church during the siege.


    “We do not need safety passes,” Barnido says. “We are from the city. So we can go to those other areas where other NGOs do not enter.”


    Listen to Rey Barnido on access.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Rey Barnido leads Duyog Marawi. He says the group’s 140 volunteers, who were displaced during the fighting, are integral to building peace: “They speak the language. They know that the communities.”

    But this also exposes the glaring imbalances that permeate through the aid sector.


    In a conflict zone like Marawi, locals took immense risks to deliver aid in areas off limits to international staff – without the substantial security budgets of the big NGOs. Local groups commonly see a fraction of international donor funding, which is mostly filtered through the UN and larger NGOs before it reaches the ground.


    Barnido says two members of his organisation were killed early on in Marawi – one felled by a sniper’s bullet, the other caught by an exploding bomb.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Philippine soldiers man a checkpoint as civilians briefly return home to Marawi. Continuing militarisation in Mindanao is a major grievance for Muslim communities. The government declared martial law after the siege began, but it’s still in effect.

    Ecoweb’s Regina Antequisa says local volunteers and aid workers put themselves in danger without the luxury of even basic risk insurance.


    “If we would really like to become better in our humanitarian response, I think there is this need to somehow adjust the balance,” she says. “So at least the risk the locals are taking will be lessened, and the protection the internationals are getting for their staff can also be enjoyed by the locals. There is this imbalance as of now.”


    An uneasy peace and a ‘ticking bomb’


    Today, the guns are silent in Marawi; the Islamist militants who overran the city are dead or scattered. But the scars are everywhere: the urban core has been flattened to rubble, more than 69,000 civilians are still displaced, and local aid workers say the region teeters on the edge of violence.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Roughly 69,000 people are still displaced in Marawi. The central city lies in ruins. Local aid group say tensions are high, and that any missteps in the government’s rebuilding plans could fuel new grievances.

    In July, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a long-awaited peace deal that would grant more autonomy to Muslim areas of Mindanao, including Marawi. But martial law still hangs over Mindanao, the government has been accused of not including Marawi’s displaced in their rebuilding plans, and extremist militants are still active.


    On 31 July, a truck bomb killed 10 on Basilan, off of mainland Mindanao; a military official blamed it on Abu Sayyaf, whose leader was killed in Marawi last year.


    Local aid workers told IRIN that Islamist militants continue to recruit in nearby municipalities, though on a lesser scale than before the siege – a troubling sign given the shortage of jobs and education opportunities for Marawi youth after last year’s violence, which destroyed at least 17 schools, says Duyog Marawi’s Barnido.


    “There was a whole population of young people who had nothing to do,” Barnido says.


    Listen to Rey Barnido on young people.

    Families are returning to parts of Marawi, but the economy is at a standstill. Barnido fears the consequences of the continuing uncertainty.


    “The grievance, the pain, and the anger are building out, which we are very much worried about,” he says.


    Drieza Lininding, a Marawi evacuee who heads the Moro Consensus Group, a local peacebuilding organisation, says the city remains a “ticking bomb”.


    “The civilians will be the ones who will suffer the most in any fighting or any conflict,” Lininding says. “So if the government will not properly handle the issues on rehabilitation, this will explode in the future.”


    (Additional reporting by Irwin Loy)



    How a shattered Philippine city has become a test case for localisation
    From evacuee to humanitarian: aid goes local in conflict-torn Marawi
  • Eritrean refugees, UN laggards, and disasters times three: 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:


    Flight risk


    In the viral humanitarian gesture of the week, Swedish student and activist Elin Errson refused to sit down on a flight from Gothenburg to Istanbul until a man being deported to Afghanistan was removed from the plane. Amnesty International has argued that nowhere in Afghanistan can be considered safe, but the Swedish Migration Agency says “the situation differs from region to region” and continues to deport asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected. If you weren’t present one of the 4.2 million times (that’s the count as we write this Cheat Sheet) Errson’s Facebook Live footage was viewed, the man was finally removed from the plane. But he’s likely back on another, or soon will be. The footage shows tension build as one passenger confronts Errson while others back her up. The 21-year-old social worker-in-training tears up but remains composed throughout her protest. As for the man who was removed from the plane, a spokesperson for the Swedish Prison and Probation Service told the Guardian he would be deported as soon as alternative transport was found (such deportations have been interrupted before). “You do it once or twice, and if it doesn’t work we rent a private plane to send them back to Afghanistan, or wherever,” explained a Swedish police spokesperson.


    Fruits of the olive branch

    Few leaders have brought about such dramatic change in so many areas so soon after coming to power as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The repercussions of his most astonishing diplomatic coup – finally mending fences with Eritrea 20 years after the neighbours fought a devastating border war – may be felt all the way to Europe. Here’s why: for two decades, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki used the threat of renewed conflict with Ethiopia to justify a system of prolonged conscription. The prospect of being stuck in the military with terrible working conditions and negligible pay has long been the key driver of Eritrea’s youth exodus, even though leaving the country exposes migrants to the well-known risks of kidnap-for-ransom, torture, detention in Libya, and drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Now that Abiy and Isaias are best buds, commentators and journalists are beginning to ask if that could all be about to change. Another war is surely unthinkable, and mass conscription, which often lasts for years, is therefore unjustifiable. Coupled with the economic boost that renewed bilateral trade could deliver, might staying at home suddenly be much more attractive?


    Ebola: Beaten but not defeated

    It took millions of dollars, hundreds of people, an experimental vaccine, a mass information campaign, and a few helicopters, but the UN’s World Health Organisation announced on Tuesday the end of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ninth Ebola outbreak – one that claimed 29 lives and experts feared could have developed into a major regional epidemic. It’s a much-needed success story for the WHO, and one that lies in stark contrast to the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which killed 11,000 people. “But unfortunately this isn't the end of the road for Ebola, as we know it is a disease that will continue to appear in future,” Josie Golding, head of epidemic preparedness and response at the Wellcome Trust told the BBC. Golding’s grim prediction was validated almost immediately: On Thursday, health officials in Sierra Leone said a new strain of the Ebola virus had been found in bats and could potentially be transmitted to humans. It is not yet clear whether this has already happened, or whether the new strain can even cause the deadly Ebola disease. We’ll keep you posted.


    Disasters can be either natural or man-made, right?


    Wrong, according to many experts and, now, a punctilious Twitter account. There's no such thing as a "natural disaster", according to many analysts, including a 2010 report commissioned by the World Bank. There are natural *hazards*, which may or may not cause a disaster, depending on what humans do about them. We hear that an international task force working on the Measuring Extreme Events and Disasters project has agreed to stop using the term "natural disasters" altogether (to signal the importance of preventative action and perhaps limit fatalistic attitudes). Now there's a Twitter account that politely nags users of the phrase: @NoNatDisasters. If that's not aggressive enough, you can install an extension to the Chrome browser that will automatically replace all instances of the phrase "natural disasters" on any web page. Even the UN's disaster preparedness body, the UNISDR (which, #awkward, emerged from the UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction) says there's no such thing.


    But, readers, do you agree? Would it be (wait for it) disastrous to drop the phrase altogether?


    Disasters, design, and gender-based violence


    Speaking of disasters, with thousands displaced in Laos and disruptive flooding in parts of the Philippines, here’s a timely reminder from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: the risk of gender-based violence rises after disasters. In a report released this week, researchers surveyed 1,800 people previously hit by disasters in Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Respondents in all three countries reported a jump in domestic violence and child marriage after disasters. Researchers say the risks of these and other problems, like trafficking, harassment, and child abuse, increase as basic services break down, and response plans and evacuation shelters often fail to account for the different needs of women, men, and children. So what can governments and aid groups do? The Red Cross says a good start would be to ensure evacuation centres have separate spaces for women and men, adequate lighting, and separate – and lockable – toilets.


    And one more, from Vanuatu

    Completing this week’s disaster trifecta – for the second time in less than a year, an erupting volcano has forced officials in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu to order the complete evacuation of tiny Ambae Island. Manaro Volcano on Ambae began spewing ash over parts of the island in March, posing a threat to water sources. This week, the local Red Cross released pictures showing how new ash fall had covered food gardens, plantations, roads, and water sources on parts of Ambae’s southern edge. At one point the ash blocked out the sun and forced 1,000 people to leave, according to Radio New Zealand. Government disaster officials say the accumulated ash and debris could actually alter the path of streams during a heavy rainfall, producing more dangerous floods and landslides. Residents on the island have been living with fear and uncertainty for months. In October, authorities also evacuated Ambae’s entire population when the volcano began erupting.


    In case you missed it, 23-27 July:


    • Syria/Jordan: Fearing punishment from advancing government forces, 422 members of Syria’s Civil Defence (known as the White Helmets) and their families were evacuated to Jordan via Israel last week, and it appears they will be quickly resettled in the UK, Canada, and Germany. More volunteers were not able to get out of southwest Syria, and President Bashar al-Assad says they can surrender or “be liquidated like any other terrorist.”
    • South Sudan: Demonstrators demanding jobs and accusing aid agencies of hiring mostly non-locals stormed and looted about 10 agency compounds in northwestern Maban County on 23 July. Medical charity MSF has suspended most of its activities in the area. On Thursday, the government and main rebel group signed a preliminary power-sharing deal aimed at ending a civil war now in its fifth year.
    • Laos: Questions mounted this week after part of a hydropower dam collapsed in southern Laos, sweeping away downstream villages, displacing more than 6,600 people, and killing at least 27 (with 131 others still missing). A few key ones: why did downstream communities get little or no warning? Are early warning systems in the Mekong region actually equipped to react? Will this disaster slow the rapid pace of dam construction in the region?
    • United Nations: In a rare "name-and-shame" move, the UN says it’s facing a severe cash crunch, and, to rattle the collection tin, it has listed all the countries behind on their dues. In a statement, the UN thanked 112 countries for paying up their 2018 membership fees. But it also provided a list of 81 states that are late, including some rich nations. While it is used to having to chase members for their contributions, the UN says "cash flow has never been this low" at this point in the year. It also stresses that it's not just a question of differing financial years. Chief amongst the laggards is the United States, which pays 22 percent of the UN's regular budget. In total, the UN says it's owed $809,990,043.53. Check out our handy map below for more:




    Our weekend read:


    Searching for Othman


    Annie Slemrod/IRIN

    War. Displacement. Return. You won’t think about those words in the same way again after reading “Searching for Othman”, which traces the story of war, displacement, and return by following the life of one five-year-old Iraqi. Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod provides a unique window into the problems of displacement and sectarianism gripping Iraq as it tries to recover from years of war, most recently against so-called Islamic State. This spring, 18 months after encountering a silent toddler with shrapnel wounds when visiting a camp for displaced people in Western Iraq, Slemrod returned to Iraq to find him. Along the way, she finds a country recovering, slowly but unevenly. As she writes: “There were maps, graphs, and reports by aid agencies that documented who went where and when. … What was harder to discern, with the numbers showing people returning in waves, was what displaced people were now heading back to. The stats didn’t offer many clues about what had happened to the kids who had lost parents, missed years of school, and spent years away from home.” It’s a perfect read for a lazy summer afternoon.


    And finally:




    An IRIN editor who shall remain unnamed recently perused Elle UK at an airport (yes, we have interests other than humanitarian catastrophes, thank you very much) and noticed a model in a jumper bearing what appeared to be the World Food Programme’s logo. A bit of Googling, and lo and behold, Balenciaga’s Autumn/Winter 2018 collection (unveiled in March, because that’s how high fashion does things) includes several WFP-branded items. Balenciaga’s website says it has already given a quarter million dollars to the UN agency, and will donate 10 percent of the sale price of WFP items (hats, t-shirts, and bum bags) sold between 25 August and 1 February. The fashion house’s items do not come cheap, so this sort of charity is not exactly for the masses, but somebody’s clearly buying: this neon yellow logo tee is already sold out at Saks, months before the October ship date.

    (TOP PHOTO: A man wades through a flooded road at a village in southern Laos. CREDIT: Nhac Nguyen/AFP)


    Eritrean refugees, UN laggards, and disasters times three
  • An island in the Philippines hopes for peace but braces for war

    After years of bloodshed, the southern Philippine island of Mindanao is on the verge of a hard-won peace deal granting greater autonomy to minority Muslims.

    But on the edges of sprawling Liguasan Marsh, civilians like Tamano Bandila are bracing for more violence. He fled his home last year, after hearing rumours that militants linked to so-called Islamic State (IS) were near.

    “I’m worried that IS will come back and recruit the youth and there will be more conflict,” he said, adding that civilians, again, would be the collateral damage.

    Bandila’s home sits in the middle of a resource-rich marshlands in central Mindanao that is also a stronghold of the island’s largest Muslim armed group – the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. For more than 40 years, grievances among the island’s Moro Muslims have fuelled a separatist movement that has battled the army of the majority-Catholic Philippines.


    The backdrop is the spectre of last year’s five-month siege of Marawi, about 120 kilometres north of here, where fighting between the army and Islamist militants levelled the city and uprooted 360,000 people. The destruction both deepened long-held frustrations against the government among Muslims – and raised fears that further missteps in the peace process will only fuel extremism here.


    The government declared an end to the Marawi siege in October, but clashes with Islamist militants continue in places like Liguasan Marsh. Here, the MILF has done what was once unthinkable: formed an uneasy alliance with its former enemies, the Philippine army.




    IRIN recently accompanied MILF fighters as they patrolled their territory in search of militants who scattered into the area after government forces reclaimed Marawi.


    Weaving through canals on narrow canoes and speeding by patches of mangroves, the soldiers passed signs of recent clashes: a shed with an artillery shell-sized hole through the sheet metal roof, a madrassa seized from militants, a MILF fighter still nursing a bandaged gunshot wound to the stomach.


    Today, the MILF and the military coordinate operations in the vast marshlands in a tenuous alliance of former adversaries: the army providing airstrikes while MILF fighters lead the charge on the ground.


    “We are the one who assaults the enemy directly,” said Von Al-Haq, spokesman for the MILF’s military arm.


    It’s another turn in the protracted peace process on Mindanao, where the separatist movement has morphed and fractured over decades of instability and collapsed accords.




    Over the years, the MILF tempered its demands for outright independence in favour of more political autonomy. The MILF signed its peace treaty with the government after years of negotiations in 2014, but other factions rejected the deal.

    Now, President Rodrigo Duterte is on the cusp of signing – as early as this week – the Bangsamoro Organic Law, implementing the peace accord and granting greater autonomy and fiscal powers to a Moro Muslim homeland on Mindanao. But many here – local activists, displaced civilians, the MILF, and other militant groups – warn of more violence to come.

    Waiting in the wings is an array of armed factions opposed to the peace deal – including a new generation of extremist militants who claim allegiance to IS. In June, clashes between the army and insurgents displaced more than 23,000 people in the marshlands, and another 15,000 people elsewhere.


    ☰      Read more: A who’s who of Mindanao militancy


    There are many layers to conflict and displacement in Mindanao, with a range of armed factions, powerful clans, private armies, and paramilitary groups fighting for control on different parts of the island. Here’s a look at a few key players:


    Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF): Came to prominence in the early 1970s and carried the banner of pro-independence Moro Muslims on Mindanao for more than two decades. The MNLF originally demanded an independent state, but later settled for autonomy. Factions within the organisation saw this as an unacceptable compromise and broke away, including elements that would go on to form the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. After years of conflict and peace talks with the MNLF, the government created the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM. But critics say the political entity suffered from dysfunctional governance and lacked financial resources and power. Today, the MNLF is divided, with some factions still opposed to the MILF’s treaty with the government, while members of other factions have been included in peace deliberations. MNLF factions reportedly had a fighting strength of 3,000 in 2016, down from an estimated 17,000 two decades earlier.


    Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF): Split from the MNLF in 1977 over the latter’s acceptance of autonomy with the Philippine government. However, the MILF later embraced peace talks with the government, which continued in starts and stops throughout the 2000s. The group eventually dropped its demands for full independence in favour of a government offer for an autonomous region with more powers than the current ARMM. The Philippine Supreme Court quashed an early agreement between the two sides in 2008, setting off a new round of conflict. The MILF later signed a new peace deal with the government in 2014, leading to the current deliberations for a new autonomous region. Primarily based in central Mindanao, the MILF is estimated to have about 12,000 fighters in its ranks.


    Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF): Rejecting peace talks with the government, a faction of the MILF split to form the BIFF in 2010. BIFF factions remain opposed to the current peace process. Spokesman Abu Misry Mama told IRIN the group continues to seek an independent Muslim state. The BIFF had previously pledged support for the so-called Islamic State, but the spokesman now denies any allegiance: “ISIS has no clear directions. The Bangsamoro struggle does not need this kind of struggle in Mindanao,” he said. BIFF is believed to have a fighting strength of several hundred people.


    Abu Sayyaf: An Islamist separatist organisation founded by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, who recruited former members of the MNLF in 1991. Traditionally operating on the islands of Sulu and Basilan to the southwest of Mindanao, the group was responsible for numerous kidnappings, bombings, and attacks on civilians, often targeting foreign nationals. Isnilon Hapilon emerged as the most prominent commander. The group pledged allegiance to so-called Islamic State in 2014, and Hapilon claimed to be the “emir” of IS supporters in the Philippines. In 2017, Hapilon was the target of a military operation in Marawi, which led to the five-month siege that levelled the city.


    Maute group: Led by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, it grew out of an influential local clan in Lanao del Sur province, in the heart of Muslim Mindanao, and started clashing with government forces. The Maute group declared allegiance to IS in 2014, and its fighters participated in the 2017 taking of Marawi, where both Maute brothers were killed in the subsequent siege. The remnants of the group have scattered and the Philippine army has said they may now be led by Abu Dhar, a former lieutenant to Hapilon. According to the International Crisis Group, the Maute faction previously recruited former MILF fighters.


    Clan-based groups: Feuds between rival clans in western and central Mindanao have been a frequent cause of displacement for civilians, adding another layer of complexity to conflict on Mindanao.


    New People’s Army: A communist insurgent group formed in 1969, the NPA continues to be active in parts of Mindanao (as well as elsewhere in the Philippines). Clashes between the NPA, the army, and paramilitary units have also been one of the main drivers of conflict and displacement on the island.


    “What happened in Marawi City… is one offshoot of the frustration of the people, especially the young people,” Mohagher Iqbal, a senior member of the MILF and its chief peace negotiator, told IRIN.

    “When people are frustrated and the frustration is extreme, then people will go to extreme measures.”


    Abu Sayyaf, known for kidnapping and beheading foreign hostages, reportedly pledged allegiance to IS in 2014, as did another group led by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute. Both Maute brothers and former Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon were killed in Marawi.


    “We have to drive them away so that the incident in Marawi will not be repeated,” said Grand Mufti Huraira Abdulrahman Udasan, the highest-ranking Islamic religious figure in central Mindanao, who issued an edict condemning violent extremism during last year’s siege. “We have been permitted by Islam to take a temporary drastic measure in order to quell the violence. Sometimes, only violence can quell violence.”




    Many here condemn the newer groups, but they are also quick to add that such extremism is rooted in generations of marginalisation rather than jihadist ideology.


    Though Mindanao is believed to be rich in untapped mineral deposits and natural gas reserves, poverty rates in Moro Muslim areas hover over 50 percent – more than double the national average, according to government statistics. And poverty rates have climbed over the last decade on Mindanao, even while falling nationwide.



    “These young people are a product of social injustice,” said Hamidullah Atar, a sultan in Marawi – part of the traditional clan leadership structure in the area – who also runs a peace-building organisation called RIDO. “They become more radical and more extreme because of what happens in our society.”


    But Atar said successive governments have only ever had a military response to insurgent groups on Mindanao. What’s missing, especially amid the rise of more extremist groups, is a sustained effort to tackle the roots of violence by creating jobs, making education more accessible, and improving people’s lives. He noted that while the army killed the leaders of the Maute group in Marawi, they were quickly replaced.


    “Over the past 400 years in Mindanao, militarisation has never been the solution,” Atar said. “They killed the Maute brothers, but now all the subordinates, and all other young people second in line, have now become more extreme than the Maute brothers. So is counter-terrorism and killing them the solution?”




    Sky-high expectations surround the MILF’s peace agreement with the government. Yet local community groups worry that in practice, the resulting law will be stripped back from what was originally negotiated in 2014.


    The Philippine Congress has wrangled over matters of tax revenue, control over resources and waterways, and even the basic question of how outlying municipalities will accede to a new autonomous territory. While the MILF says the current agreement is an imperfect but acceptable new beginning, Islamist militants could still use any failings in the resulting deal as fodder in the future.


    “There’s still a lot of mistrust toward the Manila government,” said Carlos Conde, a Manila-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.


    “Civil society groups, Muslim groups, are trying to build this bridge and remove this distrust. But it’s difficult when you take into account the fact that the Muslim region… really doesn’t have anything significant to show after all these decades.”


    Proponents of the peace accord say it’s a starting point for disaffected Moro Muslims, giving a better chance for local leaders to improve lives over the long-term. But for now, militancy continues in Mindanao despite the peace deal, leaving civilians trapped in the middle.


    Fighting has forced Mariam Maunan Usop to flee her home twice before. Now she lives in a MILF compound near Liguasan Marsh, where she runs a store from her small home.


    “We are already so tired of moving from one place to another...,” Usop said. “I don’t think we can survive another displacement.”



    Civilians on parts of Mindanao fear the rise of extremists linked to so-called Islamic State
    An island in the Philippines hopes for peace but braces for war
  • Marawi: Inside the Philippine city a siege turned into a ghost town

    On 23 May 2017, militants aligned with the so-called Islamic State barricaded themselves into Marawi City on the Philippine island of Mindanao, beginning a five-month siege. A year on, the city still lies in ruins, some 237,000 people remain displaced, and frustration is growing at the slow pace of the rebuild.


    This month, Nasser Lucman and his daughter, Rainisah – along with many other families – were allowed to return to their homes for the first time. The visits were tightly controlled by the army. Those returning were only permitted to recover what belongings they could from the wreckage before leaving again.


    Lucman pulls at a sheet of mangled, corrugated metal that was once his front door, tearing it off and tossing it aside. “See, bullet shells,” he exclaims, pointing his flashlight over a pile of casings that confirms what he already knows: his home has been a war zone.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Nasser Lucman peers through a gaping hole in the wall in his former home in Marawi.

    As the army bombarded Marawi with airstrikes to root out the militants, more than 353,000 people were driven out of the city and surrounding areas. More than 1,000 people were killed. The government says only a few dozen civilians were among the dead. Local NGOs say many more civilians are missing and unaccounted for.


    The government declared an end to the siege in late October and this month reconfirmed its commitment to rebuilding the city. But reconstruction has stalled, with large sections of Marawi covered in rubble and demolitions still not underway. While some of the displaced have returned to outlying parts of the city, authorities say people from the worst-hit central districts, like the Lucmans, won’t be able to return for at least 18 months.


    Thousands still live in evacuation centres and depend on insufficient food and water supplies. Most are bunkered down with extended family outside the city, where they have no access to aid or jobs.


    Local advocates accuse the government of not doing enough to get people back on their feet and earning a living.


    And the threat of militancy and extremism still lingers in Mindanao. The Philippines is a mostly Catholic country, but parts of Mindanao are majority Muslim – including Marawi, which is officially known as the Islamic City of Marawi. Last year’s violence and today’s faltering rebuild have added new levels of mistrust to a decades-long anti-government movement.


    No homes; no jobs


    A few kilometres outside the city, Fatima Lumabao sits in a bare, white tent – one of dozens lined up in rows on a small plot of recently cleared farmland. She has lived here since February, when a nearby municipality evicted hundreds of Marawi evacuees from gymnasiums and government buildings.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Fatima Lumabao is one of some 237,000 Marawi residents who are still displaced, a year after conflict uprooted her city’s entire population. With no job prospects in the makeshift tent city she now calls home, frustrations are rising as food aid dwindles.

    Like the Lucman family, Fatima recently visited her former home in Marawi, only to find it completely destroyed. “We retrieved nothing,” she says.


    Her family now depends on deliveries of government supplies – coffee, soap, a few kilograms of rice – that have grown increasingly sporadic as frustrations build.


    “We are having a hard time getting our food,” she says. “Our water is very limited. We are grabbing at each other just to get our water.”


    Adults and kids alike sit idly in the sweltering heat, waiting for new supplies. On this day, it comes in the form of a rare hot meal served in styrofoam boxes, thanks to a visit by local government and law enforcement officials.


    But what Lumabao, a mother of eight, wants most is to earn a living and rebuild her life. The market where she previously sold fruit was levelled during the siege.


    Samira Gutoc, a local rights activist also displaced during last year’s violence, says the last 12 months have been a struggle for survival. People in evacuation centres have become dependent on aid, she says, but what they really need are jobs.


    “[Humanitarian] assistance may be a temporary band-aid, but respect and dignity is a long-term process and it needs to be given urgently,” says Gutoc, a member of the Ranao Rescue Team, a group of local organisations that helped Marawi residents who fled the city last year. “Especially for ground zero, the war zone people, they don’t feel dignified in this situation.”


    Marawi is the capital and commercial heart of Lanao del Sur Province, but the siege also wiped out most of the businesses in the surrounding areas and devastated their local economies.


    Laisa Masuhud Alamia, executive secretary for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, says the regional government is trying its best to provide services, but agrees that conditions in evacuation centres “are not that good”.


    The nationally led task force in charge of reconstruction says rebuilding Marawi’s worst-hit areas will take at least 18 more months – a questionable timeframe given that authorities are still finding undetonated explosives scattered throughout the city, as well as dead bodies among the ruins.




    Alamia says it will likely be “quite some time” before residents “can actually go back and make sure they have access to all services of government, including livelihoods.”


    A fractured peace


    A decades-long anti-government movement on Mindanao still casts a shadow over last year’s siege and the stalled rebuild here.


    Over years of failed peace attempts, the insurgency on the island has split into a complex array of factions. Armed groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are cautiously waiting for a long-delayed peace accord to become law. Other groups remain steadfastly opposed to the national government and have taken on extremist tones.

    Though the government declared victory over the IS-aligned militants that seized Marawi last year, frequent skirmishes still trap civilians elsewhere on Mindanao – including a March shootout between the army and another IS-aligned group, which displaced more than 4,000 people less than 200 kilometres south of Marawi.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Government authorities display weapons turned in by locals during a public ceremony in Marawi in May 2018. Marawi’s siege, and its slow rebuild, are happening in the middle of a decades-long government insurgency.

    This month, as the anniversary of the Marawi siege approached, President Rodrigo Duterte visited the city, greeting dozens of displaced former residents with promises for a hopeful future.


    “The government really wants peace,” Duterte declared, theatrically tossing aside a prepared speech. “We do not want the government to go here and kill.”

    He pledged support for reconstruction. “We are rebuilding Marawi,” he said. “Slowly the money comes. Not overnight.”


    Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visits Marawi
    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visits Marawi residents still displaced months after the government declared an end to clashes in the city. Duterte has promised to rebuild the devastated city, but reconstruction has barely gotten underway.

    Fatima Lumabao, the mother of eight still living in a tent outside the city, was in the crowd.


    She was not convinced. “I have not even received one peso from the government,” she says.


    Duterte’s public optimism stands in stark contrast with Marawi’s bleak central core, where the crumbling buildings are riddled with bullet holes and many walls are still scrawled with pro-IS graffiti.


    Reconstruction authorities call these districts “the most-affected areas”; families here call it “ground zero”.


    During their short visit, Nasser and Rainisah Lucman stumble through their home looking for anything to salvage. They find some clothing hangers, an old fishing net, and some plastic jugs.


    Through a blasted wall of a downstairs bedroom, they also see their neighbour, Abdulhakim Salem. He stands with a blank stare, surveying the damage in the gaping shell of his own former home, as his family and neighbours gather around him.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    Abdulhakim Salem surveys the damage in his former home in Marawi City, on the Philippine island of Mindanao. He returned to his home in May 2018, a year after militants stormed the city, to find only an empty shell.

    A year after the siege, he says, he still can’t believe fellow Muslims would cause so much damage to other Muslims.


    But, standing amid the destruction, he and his neighbours also wonder if the firepower used by the army was necessary to liberate the city.


    “It was not the terrorists who had bombs and planes,” someone in the group says. Salem and the others nod their heads in agreement.


    Down the street, workers in an ambulance collect the bones of one of last year’s casualties – the body has been rotting in the heat for months.

    (TOP PHOTO: Much of Marawi’s central core lies in ruins, months after the Philippine army ended its siege of the city. Airstrikes and bombs reduced buildings to empty shells or piles of rubble. Families returning to see their former homes for the first time salvage little of value. CREDIT: Wes Bruer/IRIN)


    A year after IS-aligned militants stormed Marawi, IRIN finds a city in ruins, a stalled rebuild, and hundreds of thousands still displaced
    Marawi: Inside the Philippine city a siege turned into a ghost town
  • Suffering Syrians, trapped Venezuelans, and a Ugandan refugee swindle: 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:


    From bad to worse in Syria’s de-escalation zones


    Late last month, IRIN analyst Aron Lund warned of the beginning of a new wave of displacement in northwestern Syria thanks to dual offensives by the government of President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey. But since then it’s been “going from bad to worse” in rebel-held Idlib, warns Save the Children, telling how a displacement camp has been bombed, leaving terrified people with nowhere safe to go. And in the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin, tens of thousands more people have been displaced since 20 January alone. In besieged Eastern Ghouta, which like Idlib was designated as a “de-escalation zone” in a deal hatched last May in Astana, hundreds of children are said to be in urgent need of medical evacuation, food prices are soaring, and monitors and opposition activists say 200 civilians have been killed in four days of government airstrikes. What is left for civilians in the Astana deal that was supposed to wind down years of horrific violence in Syria? The head of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria said this week that the recent violence had made a “mockery of the de-escalation zones”. The Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, went further, declaring: “humanitarian diplomacy is failing”.


    No exit: Venezuela’s neighbours close the door


    Our never-cheery New Year listicle of humanitarian crises to watch out for warned that regional hospitality could soon wear thin as Venezuela’s neighbours felt the strain of more than a million newcomers. Fast forward less than six weeks and events have already overshot our gloomiest predictions. On a visit Thursday to Cúcuta, where hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans take their first steps on Colombian soil, President Juan Manuel Santos announced a raft of tough new measures: temporary permits allowing Venezuelans to cross over and return at will for vital trade, food, and medicines would be scrapped; those already in Colombia would have 90 days to register with officials before becoming “illegal”. At roughly the same time, 1,500 kilometres to the southeast, in the first town through the Brazilian escape route, Boa Vista, Defence Minister Raul Jungmann closed the door a little further: more troops would be deployed to the border; Venezuelans in the frontier region would be relocated to Brazil’s interior. Meanwhile, the extent of the humanitarian crisis brewing inside Venezuela, where malnutrition and diseases like malaria are reportedly on the rise, is getting harder to ascertain. Journalists are finding it harder to report on sensitive issues as President Nicolás Maduro becomes increasingly authoritarian ahead of snap April elections. With the International Monetary Fund predicting 13,000% inflation this year and the fallout from the election still ahead, these may soon be seen as the good times. In his comments in Cúcuta, Santos laid the blame squarely at Maduro’s door and challenged him to start accepting international humanitarian aid. Watch this space.


    Inflated numbers: Ugandan refugee record tarnished


    The Ugandan government has suspended five senior officials for allegedly inflating refugee figures to swindle donor funds. But the scandal could yet be worse, with additional allegations that refugee women in the north of the country have been trafficked back into South Sudan and sold as “wives”. Apollo Kazungu, Uganda’s commissioner for refugees, and members of his staff have been accused of colluding with officials from the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme to fiddle the numbers. Millions of dollars in aid are believed to have been lost as a result, the Guardian reported. The EU, which provides funding to the two agencies, is investigating the charges. Uganda claims to house 1.4 million refugees, a million of whom have fled the ongoing civil war in South Sudan. The concern over numbers is not new, and donors are demanding the implementation of a UN-controlled biometric system of refugee identification. The UN's top official in Uganda, Rosa Malango, has raised a range of concerns, from "corruption to fraud, from trafficking of women and girls to intimidation and harassment of UN personnel”. In the case of trafficking, South Sudanese girls and women are being sold across the border to combatants with the possible complicity of Ugandan officials, AFP reported. According to an internal Ugandan government document, Ugandan officials also extort money from newly-arrived refugees, insisting on payment before providing the free registration service that allows access to aid.


    Small steps for the ICC in Afghanistan and the Philippines


    Victims of war crimes in Afghanistan may support a long-awaited probe by the International Criminal Court, but have they been heard? The court has reportedly received submissions representing more than 715,000 people who shared their views (before a court-imposed 31 January deadline) on whether the ICC should launch a full war crimes investigation in Afghanistan. The ICC doesn’t customarily release the details of these submissions but, according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, Afghans who have publicly spoken out have outlined a range of claims: a Taliban suicide bombing; killings and threats by militant groups; accusations against government officials, the CIA, and the US military. But the analysis raises another important issue: in a vast country with ongoing conflict, high rates of illiteracy, and limited internet penetration, was the 72-day response period long enough to actually listen to potential victims? As Wida Ahmad, director of the Kabul-based Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers, told IRIN in January, scepticism about the international community in Afghanistan extends to the ICC: “They see foreign organisations as actually committing crimes rather than prosecuting them.” It’s not clear when the judges will decide whether or not to authorise an investigation. ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked judges for permission to open a full investigation in November – more than a decade after the prosecutor’s office first began examining the issue. That may not be a reassuring timeline for critics of rights abuses in the Philippines. This week, Bensouda also announced she would open a preliminary examination into the Philippine government’s “war on drugs” campaign, which has reportedly led to more than 12,000 deaths since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016. In response, a Duterte spokesman said the president was “sick and tired of being accused… of crimes against humanity”. 


    Did you miss it?


    Yemen PR wars: Saudi Arabia employs UK/US firms to push multi-billion-dollar aid plan


    When a new Saudi Arabian-led aid project for Yemen was announced and reported on without much in the way of appraisal, we were sceptical, if only because the kingdom, as one party in its neighbour’s nearly three-year war, has more than a little skin in the game. Then we noticed that the press releases for Yemen Humanitarian Comprehensive Operations (YCHO) came from a British PR firm – suspicious. After a fair bit of digging, we realised that if YCHO goes ahead as planned, it will not ease the on-off blockade on a rebel-held port that humanitarians say is key to staving off famine in Yemen, in fact it will divert imports through entry points controlled by the coalition. Digging a little further, we found evidence that the plan was written (at least in part) by UK and US consultants. We’ve had no reply from any of the consultants involved or Saudi Arabia itself (not for lack of trying), but there’s plenty more to examine in this “aid plan”. We’re on the case. 

    (TOP PHOTO: Venezuelans in Cúcuta, Colombia. CREDIT: Paul Smith/UNHCR)


    Suffering Syrians, trapped Venezuelans, and a Ugandan refugee swindle

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