(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    UN warns of ‘worst humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria

     

    The UN said it had received $6.97 billion in pledges at a Brussels donor conference for Syria this week, shy of the $8.8 billion it had asked for to aid Syrian refugees as well as those still in the country in 2019. While participants emphasised the need for a political solution to Syria’s war, now entering its ninth year, the uptick in violence in rebel-held northwestern Idlib province is a stark reminder that it is far from over. Conflict monitor Action on Armed Violence said Russian airstrikes in Idlib city killed 10 civilians and injured 45 on Wednesday; Russia said it was targeting weapons owned by the al-Qaeda linked group Tahrir al-Sham. A Russia-Turkey deal has so far been holding off a full-scale government offensive on the territory. UN relief chief Mark Lowcock warned the audience in Brussels that such an offensive would “create the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century”.

     

    Storms, floods, and a cyclone batter southeast Africa

     

    Half a million people in Mozambique's fourth largest city of Beira were plunged into darkness when tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall late on Thursday night, knocking down trees and power lines and destroying homes. This follows a week of heavy rains and flooding across southeast Africa that has already killed at least 126 people in Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa. More than a million people have been affected in all. In Mozambique, the floods have already destroyed more than 5,700 homes, while in neighbouring Malawi, over 230,000 people are left without shelter. Both countries are prone to extreme weather events. In Mozambique, floods in 2000 claimed at least 800 lives and another 100 in 2015. In Malawi, the 2015 floods left at least 100 people dead and more than 300,000 others displaced.

     

    North Korea sanctions disrupt aid programmes

     

    Broad economic sanctions against North Korea are disrupting humanitarian work and having a detrimental impact on ordinary citizens, a UN rights watchdog says. In a report to the Human Rights Council this week, the special rapporteur for rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said aid programming continues to see significant delays due to UN and government-imposed sanctions. Banks, suppliers, and transport companies are afraid of running afoul of sanctions, leading to humanitarian supply chains breaking down. The US government has also imposed travel restrictions on its citizens and blocked the delivery of essential supplies like hospital equipment, he said. The UN this month called for $120 million in aid funding. But last year’s appeal was only one-quarter funded, and humanitarian aid only reached one third of the people targeted.

     

    Uptick of violence threatens Yemen peace bid

     

    The UN-brokered ceasefire deal for Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah suffered yet another blow this week, with a group of NGOs warning that there had been a “major outbreak of violence” in the city in the last few days. As we (and plenty of others) have pointed out, the Hodeidah agreement was meant to lead to further peace talks for the whole of Yemen. Don’t hold your breath. Just to the north of Hodeidah, in Hajjah province, recent airstrikes and renewed fighting have killed and injured civilians. UNICEF reported that more than 37,000 people were forced to flee their homes inside Hajjah in March alone, and humanitarians are having trouble accessing those who need help. As Nigel Tricks, East Africa and Yemen regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, put it in a Wednesday statement: “Whilst the eyes of the world are on Hodeidah, airstrikes and shells continue to rain down on civilians in other parts of Yemen, killing with impunity.”

     

    A backtrack from the UN’s refugee agency

     

    UNHCR has reversed a decision that could have seen tens of thousands of ethnic Chin refugees from Myanmar stripped of refugee status. Last year, the UN agency controversially began a review process to determine whether the refugees, originally from Chin State and other parts of western Myanmar, still required international protection. But UNHCR said this week that a “worsening security situation” in parts of Chin State “has affirmed that Chin refugees may still have ongoing international protection needs”. The agency also announced that it would stop its protection re-evaluation process for Chin refugees. In recent months, renewed clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia, have displaced thousands in Rakhine and southern Chin states, including more than 3,200 in Rakhine this month. But even before the latest violence, refugee rights groups say reviewing refugee protections for ethnic Chin was clearly premature. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network says there are more than 33,000 Chin refugees living in Malaysia and India.

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Cases of deadly pneumonic plague have emerged along Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organisation said, including in the Congolese province of Ituri, where health teams are struggling to tackle an ongoing Ebola outbreak.

     

    Rwanda-Uganda: Tension is rising between East African neighbours. Uganda denies it harasses Rwandan citizens and backs rebels. It says Rwanda is blocking trade. Rwanda’s president says it will never be "brought to its knees". His Ugandan counterpart said a “troublemaker” (unnamed) “cannot survive”. Regional mediation efforts have begun.

     

    Sudan: Diseases including measles, dysentery, and pneumonia are spreading rapidly in Darfur's Jebel Marra area, according to a rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-AW), that controls much of the territory. It called for outside assistance, saying dozens of people had already died from a shortage of medicines and medical staff.

     

    Venezuela: Week-long power outages crippled water supplies and cut off telephone and internet services to millions of Venezuelans already struggling with shortages of food and medicines. Amid reports of chaos and looting in the second city of Maracaibo, President Nicolás Maduro blamed “sabotage” and “American imperialism”. Others pointed to a bush fire and crumbling infrastructure.

     

    Yemen: The US Senate voted for a second time on Wednesday to end US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s war. The resolution is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but President Donald Trump has vowed to veto should it reach his desk.

     

    Weekend read

     

    In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace

     

    On 15 December, South Sudan marked five years of war – almost 400,000 people dead, millions displaced, but also signs a peace deal was taking hold, with more people returning home to rebuild shattered lives. Sceptics, embittered by too many false dawns, advised against hoping too hard. It seems they were right. Not only, according to our weekend read, has fighting resumed, but it resumed some time ago – locals in the troubled Yei region even accuse the government of covering up violence to keep up the pretence of control. Tens of thousands of people have been newly displaced, Sam Mednick reports, many of them inaccessible to aid groups. Without new ideas and renewed international engagement, more violence and displacement appear inevitable, according to the International Crisis Group. First test ahead: the formation of a unity government in May.

     

    And finally…

     

    ‘Toothless’ UN migration document becomes far-right rallying cry

     

    Propaganda scrawled by a gunman involved in killing at least 49 people in New Zealand today referred to the Global Compact for Migration. A non-binding international agreement that one expert called “toothless” has become a rallying cry for the far-right and white supremacists worldwide. The three-year UN negotiation process aimed to agree “safe and orderly” migration after arrivals to Europe increased in 2015. It also hoped to stem xenophobia in wealthy countries and reassure developing nations that the walls were not going up entirely. But nationalist politicians pulled out of the process, led by President Trump, claiming the document would pave the way to more immigration. The compact sparked fierce political debate in New Zealand, even though it commits no member state to do anything. One analyst told IRIN it “doesn’t actually do much”. Well, you’d be forgiven for asking now whether it does, but in all the wrong ways.

    (TOP PHOTO: Families have taken shelter in a new makeshift camp north of Idlib, fleeing violence in southern rural Idlib. CREDIT: Aaref Watad/UNICEF)

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    Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

     

    New term, old problems for Nigeria’s Buhari

     

    Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, who won a second presidential term this week, faces a variety of security challenges: a decade-long and resurgent Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast; endemic insecurity in the oil-producing Niger Delta south, and – less reported but often the most deadly – spiralling violence between pastoralist Fulani herders and local farmers in the northwest. Despite Buhari's 2015 claim that Boko Haram was "technically defeated", jihadists continue gaining ground across Lake Chad and West Africa, where the humanitarian fallout is, if anything, worsening. For a comprehensive look at the causes and the consequences of militancy in the Sahel region, check out this curation of our long-term reporting. And for a personal and graphic account of covering Boko Haram over the course of several years, this reporter’s diary from Chika Oduah is a must-read.

     

    Headaches in the ‘cash revolution’?

     

    Humanitarian cash aid programmes in Kenya’s drought-prone northeast are plagued with problems, according to this recent article by Kenyan journalist Anthony Langat published by Devex. Beneficiaries describe them as confusing, unreliable, and wide open to corruption. Families report not receiving what they think they’re due and/or not knowing what they ought to get, and they say there’s no effective system to address complaints. Local leaders are accused of manipulating lists of entitled families, and money transfer agents allegedly skim off unauthorised transfer fees. The Kenyan government and the UN’s World Food Programme – who run different cash initiatives in the area – say some problems are simply clerical, such as wrongly registered mobile phone numbers or ID cards. Earlier research from NGO Ground Truth Solutions showed that 62 percent of a sample of Kenyans enrolled in cash aid projects said they were satisfied with the service. However, 88 percent “did not know “how aid agencies decide who gets cash support”.

     

    UN peers into a dark Myanmar mirror

     

    The UN is launching an inquiry into its actions in Myanmar, where critics accuse it of inaction and “complicity” in the face of widespread rights abuses that led to the violent exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya. The UN this week confirmed the appointment of Gert Rosenthal, a Guatemalan diplomat, to lead an internal review of UN operations in Myanmar. The news, first reported by The Guardian, follows a Human Rights Council resolution urging a probe into whether the UN did “everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises”, including the military’s Rohingya purge and abuses against minorities elsewhere in the country. Critics say the UN mission in Myanmar was “glaringly dysfunctional”, marred by infighting over how to engage with the government. A UN-mandated fact-finding mission has warned that problems continue and said that some UN entities refused to cooperate with its own investigation. In a statement, UN spokesman in Myanmar Stanislav Saling said the review will look at how the UN “works on the ground and possible lessons learned for the future”. It’s unclear whether Rosenthal’s findings will be made public.

     

    Growing recognition for mental health

     

    In humanitarian terms, psycho-social support is often treated as the poor cousin to aid like food and shelter, with few mental health services available in crisis settings, as we recently reported from South Sudan. But just as the economic cost and importance of mental health is increasingly being recognised in society at large, so the issue is picking up steam in humanitarian contexts too. On the sidelines of this week’s UN pledging conference for Yemen, Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag urged humanitarian donors to invest more in mental health (“second line” healthcare, which includes mental health, makes up only $72 million of the $4.2 billion appeal for Yemen). The Netherlands is funding the development of tools to help aid agencies integrate mental health services into their work and will host a conference later this year to mobilise commitments from others. Psychiatrists argue that mental health support is not just a human right; it also strengthens people’s ability to benefit from other aid, such as education or livelihood programmes.  

     

    Bond-holders in pandemic finance scheme untouched by Ebola outbreak

     

    On Thursday, the World Bank announced it was to provide up to $80 million of new funding to combat Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of that sum, $20 million is from its Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, or PEF, set up after the 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. PEF is a leading example of harnessing private capital and donor resources in humanitarian response. Private investors in PEF bonds can lose their investment if a major epidemic happens. Otherwise they get interest (paid by conventional donors) at a rate described last month as “chunky” by the Financial Times. The catch? PEF investors haven’t paid out a penny in Congo. That’s because the outbreak hasn’t spread to a second country, one of the conditions for a payout. IRIN asked a disaster insurance expert about PEF last year; he said it was “quite expensive”.

      

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Médecins Sans Frontières has suspended work at two Ebola treatment centres after the facilities in Butembo and Katwa were partially destroyed in two separate attacks in the space of four days this week. The caretaker of one patient was reported to have died trying to flee. The motivation of the unidentified assailants remains unclear. The outbreak, which began seven months ago, continues, with 555 deaths and counting.

     

    Gaza: A UN commission of inquiry said in a report released Thursday that Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in shooting unarmed civilians during mass Palestinian protests at the Gaza border last year.

     

    Indonesia: The country has recorded its first polio case since 2006. The World Health Organisation says a strain of vaccine-derived polio was confirmed this month in a child in a remote village of Papua province, one of Indonesia’s poorest regions. The WHO says the case is not linked to a polio outbreak in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

     

    Iraq: Human Rights Watch says authorities in Mosul and other parts of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh are harassing, threatening, and arresting aid workers, sometimes accusing them of ties to so-called Islamic State in an effort to change lists of people eligible for humanitarian assistance.

     

    Pakistan: Shortages of nutritional food and safe water could be leading to “alarmingly high” rates of disease and malnutrition in drought-hit Pakistan, especially for women and children, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

     

    Somalia: Al-Shabab militants set off two deadly blasts outside a hotel in Mogadishu on Thursday, before seizing a nearby building. Soldiers battled through the night to try to dislodge them. As conflict and insecurity continue across the country, a new report revealed that 320,000 Somalis fled their homes in 2018 – a 58 percent rise on 2017. Some 2.6 million Somalis are now internally displaced.

     

    Weekend read

     

    UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

    The difficulty with this story, to steal from Donald Rumsfeld, are the known unknowns. The World Food Programme purchased 50,000 tonnes of porridge mix for mothers and malnourished children, and a proportion of it was lacking key nutrition-enhancing ingredients. It was sent to crisis zones around the world. It likely came from one of two producers who have a duopoly over the market. The deficiencies should have been picked up by third-party inspectors before the food aid was dispatched. But let’s look at what we don’t know – not for a lack of digging by IRIN’s Ben Parker or contributor Lorenzo D’Agostino in Rome. Where exactly did the faulty food aid go? What effect did the lack of protein and fat have on breastfeeding mothers, babies, and children? Which company produced the substandard porridge mix and why? How come the inspectors failed to find fault with the product? Who was told what, and when? Is operational error, negligence, or fraud, or a combination to blame? We await the findings of the investigation with interest.

     

    And finally...

    Life resumes on Vanuatu’s volcanic Ambae Island

     

    The most explosive volcanic eruption anywhere in the world last year came courtesy of Manaro Voui on Ambae Island, part of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The volcano spewed more than 540,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air, according to NASA. Volcanologists may be fascinated by Manaro Voui’s rumblings, but for 11,000 Ambae residents, the eruptions have been life-changing. They covered parts of the island with volcanic ash, which destroyed crops and homes and polluted drinking water. Residents have repeatedly been forced to evacuate, and at one point the government declared the entire island uninhabitable. For now, the volcano continues to be a in a state of “major unrest”, but some residents are moving back, and the government is preparing to begin a new school term for some returning students.

    (TOP PHOTO: Destroyed cars by the side of the road after a suicide bomber detonated their vest in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, in 2017. CREDIT: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo)

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    Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter
  • Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Civilians may still be trapped in last Islamic State pocket in Syria

    A reported 2,000 people were evacuated from so-called Islamic State’s last pocket of territory in eastern Syria this week, but the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said there may still be civilians remaining in the village of Baghouz. Once screened for membership in the extremist group, many leaving the territory are taken to al-Hol camp. The UN says 61 young children have died since December on the way there or soon after arrival. The World Health Organisation’s head in Syria told IRIN recently that the security checks were delaying urgent healthcare and that local authorities had denied a request to set up a medical waystation. The SDF denied the charges, but since then UN agencies say they have set up just such a transit site “to address the high number of child deaths”. Some people who had fled Baghouz told Human Rights Watch of hunger and being trapped under heavy shelling, air strikes, and IS threats.

     

    “One after the other”: Tropical storms swarm the Pacific

    The cyclone season has put parts of the southwestern Pacific on high alert. Cyclone Oma threatened the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu for five days, sending over 1,000 to evacuation centres. The storm later brushed New Caledonia’s coast and was due to push towards Australia. Earlier this month, the cyclone warning system in Tonga sent out repeated alerts as four separate “extreme tropical weather systems” threatened the country. Tonga escaped severe damage, but the country’s head meteorologist said facing so many in quick succession was exceptional. Storms in the Pacific islands needn’t cause headline-grabbing death tolls to leave a lasting impact; officials in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were expecting food shortages after Oma wiped out some smallholdings. Vast distances make repairs and recovery difficult. For more on preparing for Pacific disaster, see our recent story on women fighting for a seat at the table: Fiji’s storm-watchers.

     

    South Sudan rights violations may amount to war crimes

    Despite the signing of last year's peace agreement in South Sudan, ongoing violations including rape and sexual violence "may amount to international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity," according to a new UN report. Investigators with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan noted a "confirmed pattern" in the way combatants attacked and destroyed villages, plundered homes, and took women as sexual slaves. Sexual violence has worsened markedly since the commission's last update in December 2017; those targeted included children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Many sides of the conflict, including the army, national security forces, and rebel groups, were blamed for the violence, while the commission also investigated sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers. South Sudan remains one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises: 4.5 million people are displaced, seven million are in need of aid, and nearly 60 percent of the population will face severe food insecurity this year.

    Joining up billions in development, humanitarian, and peace spending

    The “triple nexus” may sound like an ice skating move, but it’s the new orthodoxy in aid. A “recommendation” was adopted today by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD says its donor states command over $74 billion of international funding in “fragile” situations. The new Development Assistance Committee policy says long-term development, peacemaking, and emergency relief should have complementary goals and together could “avoid the occurrence of humanitarian needs”. One aid agency nexus-watcher told IRIN that after much discussion in the aid community it was a relief to see clear definitions and terminology emerge. A source familiar with the discussions said “more must be done to prevent crises and deal with structural issues and root causes, rather than leaving the humanitarian system to pick up the pieces”. The text refers six times to continued respect for humanitarian principles: critics question how humanitarian neutrality and independence sit with politically-flavoured development and peace efforts.

    In case you missed it

    Burkina Faso: More than 100,000 people have been displaced by instability and fighting in the West African country, according to the UN. Tens of thousands have fled this year, as rising militancy and attacks by armed groups affect the North, Sahel, and Eastern regions.

     

    Madagascar: More than 900 people have died since a measles epidemic began in the huge island nation in September, the WHO said. Over 68,000 cases have been documented; those most at risk are infants from nine to 11 months old.

     

    Myanmar: Restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State are affecting some 95,000 people due to ongoing clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, according to the UN’s humanitarian coordination arm. More than 5,500 people have been displaced since December.

     

    Refugee resettlement 2018: UNHCR says 55,692 refugees were permanently resettled in 2018. The UN refugee agency says that’s only about five percent of those they think were eligible. Despite deep cuts in its quota, the US took in more than any other nation. IRIN explored the numbers here.

     

    Yemen: UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on 19 February that the two main sides in Yemen’s war had agreed to withdraw from a small port and oil facility near the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, in a first step towards implementing a much-discussed ceasefire deal for the city.

     

     

    Weekend read

    Opinion: Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    As we write this, Venezuela is top of many media headlines as a quarter of a million people are estimated to be assembling on the border, in Colombia. The presidents of Colombia and Chile are expected – and maybe even Richard Branson. He is backing the concert they’re all there to see, Venezuela Aid Live. The event’s sponsors say it will raise $100 million to help the millions of Venezuelans living with shortages of, well, nearly everything. Branson even suggests that the performance could help persuade Venezuela’s military to defy orders and open the border – sealed tight by President Nicolás Maduro – to aid shipments; shipments that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is inviting. Meanwhile, on the Venezuelan side of the border, Maduro is hosting his own benefit concerts on Friday and Saturday. What’s a humanitarian to make of all this? Analyst and columnist Francisco Toro offers a reality check in his essay on what he calls the “increasingly blatant politicisation of aid”. $100 million for food and medicine, for instance, “is completely out of proportion” with the scale of need in Venezuela. And if you’re concerned about the politicisation of aid, you might like to check out this from The Guardian, on the politicisation of, um, bread.

    And finally

    US-armed donor proposal stirs alarm

    A new type of US government aid official could be embedded with US intelligence or military forces in insecure hotspots to work on certain tactical projects. They would be “super enablers”, according to a proposal developed by consultants hired by USAID. The proposed two-person Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) teams would be physically fit, armed, and able to deploy where USAID can’t send civilians. The proposals met with some support in the US military and intelligence communities, and mixed views from within USAID, the 75-page report said. The concept, first reported by Devex, has been met with dismay by some in the humanitarian Twittersphere, earning reactions such as “wannabe SEALS” and “incredibly unwise”. Also, it’s been met with a humanitarian principles meme (a Ranger tab is a badge indicating completion of a very tough two-month US Army training course):

    (TOP PHOTO: Some of those fleeing besieged IS territory in Syria. CREDIT: Constantin Gouvy/IRIN)

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    Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials
  • South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

    Last week, UN envoy for South Sudan David Shearer said fighting had “diminished greatly” since a September peace agreement. He may have spoken too soon. It has since emerged that clashes in the Equatoria region have displaced about 8,000 people internally and sent 5,000 more fleeing across the border into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in the midst of an Ebola outbreak. Most of the refugees and IDPs are women, children, and the elderly – many traumatised after they “witnessed violent incidents, including armed men reportedly murdering and raping civilians and looting villages," according to Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The clashes began last month between the army and the National Salvation Front, or NAS, one of more than 70 armed groups in South Sudan – and one that didn’t sign last year's accord. Five years of civil war have left 1.9 million South Sudanese internally displaced and 2.4 million living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

    Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

    The World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are among those competing with the UN's World Food Programme for a €500 million European Commission grant. The project supports 1.5 million refugees with cash allowances in Turkey. It’s the largest single humanitarian grant in the world, accounting for about 31 percent of the EC’s emergency aid budget. One of the issues will be indirect costs. A recent EC audit questioned the seven percent overhead fee paid to WFP (to be reduced to 6.5%), which ran the first phase of the project. WFP told IRIN it is following the financial rules set by its board, which includes EU member states. The Emergency Social Safety Net project is largely implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent. Its chief, Kerem Kinik, in a statement to IRIN, declined to back a bidder, saying his organisation "remains in promotion of an impactful and cost-efficient programme design".

    Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

    The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen released its annual report to the public this week. It makes for grim reading on 2018, a period during which the country “continued its slide towards humanitarian and economic catastrophe”. In 224 pages, the group details “widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the various parties involved in the conflict”. Tip: For the group’s look at humanitarian assistance – including the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s obstruction of civilian flights out of Sana’a, and the Houthi rebels’ arrest of aid workers and interference in the selection of aid beneficiaries – skip to page 56. In other Yemen news, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would end the country’s support for the war. It still has to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump’s pen. If you’re confused, yes, last year a similar resolution failed in the House and passed in the Senate, but members have come and gone since then, and the resolution has changed too.

    Counting the cost of internal displacement

    People displaced within their own borders could be costing the global economy nearly $13 billion a year, according to new research by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Researchers assessed costs for eight countries experiencing conflicts or disasters, including Central African Republic, Libya, the Philippines, South Sudan, and Yemen. CAR was found to have the highest financial impact for each displaced person – about $230 million, or 11 percent of the country's GDP, per year. The research found that the highest burdens come from lost income, support for housing, and healthcare. People in low-income countries were also impacted worse than those in lower-middle or upper-middle income countries. Internal displacement "places a heavy burden on the economy," said Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC, "generating specific needs that must be paid for by those affected, their hosts, governments or aid providers". For more on how IDPs need greater protection, read this opinion we published earlier in the week.

    Examining aid partnerships

    Major donors and aid groups have made broad promises to “localise” aid – putting more power and funding in the hands of locals when crises hit. But change has been slow on the ground, to the frustration of many local NGOs, as we’ve documented in our continuing reporting on locally driven aid. So how can local and international groups make this all work? New research examines aid partnerships in four countries – Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, and South Sudan – to look at what kinds of practices might contribute to “localising” aid. There are the positives (locals participating in project design and budgeting), and the negatives (internationals taking credit for local work). But, unsurprisingly, most of the local humanitarians interviewed in the studies said existing partnerships between international and local organisations are not equitable – closer to the subcontracting that characterises many aid relationships. Yet genuine, long-term partnerships are seen as the most likely to accelerate “localisation” reforms. The ongoing research, which you can read here, comes from a consortium of NGOs including Action Aid, CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam, and Tearfund.

    ‘I am free from the conflict, but I do not feel free’

    The number of child soldiers around the world has more than doubled since 2012, according to Child Soldiers International’s analysis of six years of UN reports on children and armed conflict. The latest report verified 8,185 cases of child recruitment in 15 countries – a 159 percent rise on the 3,159 cases verified in 2012.

    Co-produced by a former child soldier, a new project brings to life the voices of 27 children who were recruited into conflict in northern Uganda. There’s a taster below, but you can view the full comic here.

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    © YOLRED and courtesy of Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol)

    In case you missed it

    Germany: The German authorities have arrested two former officers of Bashar al-Assad’s secret service alleged to have tortured critics of the Syrian president. A third man is reported to have been arrested in France. Germany accepts the principle of universal jurisdiction, allowing its courts to try individuals accused of international crimes committed elsewhere – including war crimes, crimes against humanity, even genocide.

    Haiti: After more than a week of protests over corruption amid soaring prices and inflation, President Jovenel Moïse finally broke his silence on Thursday, refusing to step down and urging patience. At least seven people have been killed during demonstrations sparked by anger at the government and the business elite over a $2 billion development aid scandal. More protests and street gunfire was reported in the capital, Port-au-Prince, after Moïse’s speech.

    Kashmir: The deadliest militant attack to hit Indian-administered Kashmir in three decades killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary troops this week, raising tensions in a disputed region that has seen frequent civilian demonstrations against military abuses. The bomb blast was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad, a banned Islamist group.

    Myanmar: The military is shelling villages and blocking humanitarian access in Rakhine State, according to Amnesty International. Rights groups say some of the same army divisions involved in the violent 2017 ouster of 700,000 Rohingya – labelled as a likely genocide by UN investigators – are now being deployed in a crackdown on the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army.

    Sudan: Sudanese government forces have used "extreme violence and shocking abuses" against largely peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said, urging the UN to conduct an independent investigation into the violations. Activists estimate that more than 50 people have died since anti-government demonstrations began in mid-December, while at least 79 journalists have reportedly been arrested.

     

    Weekend read

    International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    The new D-Day for Venezuela is 23 February. This is when opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has said humanitarian aid will enter the country to alleviate the suffering of Venezuelans gripped by widespread shortages of food and medicine. Guaidó has urged the armed forces, who remain loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, to allow the aid in. But there’s no indication Maduro, whose presidency Guaidó denounces as illegitimate, intends to do any such thing. In our weekend read, journalist Paula Dupraz-Dobias unpicks the different strands of what has become an international aid stand-off, with aid agencies caught in the middle and uncertain what to do next. This briefing is essential reading as the showdown continues to obscure a humanitarian crisis that may be denied by Maduro, but shows no sign of letting up.

    And finally

    We recommend you check out this entry to the New York Times’ Lens blog, which features the work of photographer Wesaam al-Badry. Al-Badry and his family fled Iraq just before the Gulf War for Nebraska, and his photos beautifully document their life in the United States, warts and all. There are weddings, a prison release ankle monitor, and an Arabic-language American newspaper. “My family are not one dimensional characters in a refugee story,” al-Badry says. “They have multiple layers, they have their own personalities, their own agency and ways of manoeuvring through life.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A child holds up a map in the Protection of Civilians site in Bor, South Sudan. CREDIT: JC McIlwaine​/UN Photo)

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    South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant
  • Briefing: How the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh is changing

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

     

    Healthcare: from bullet wounds to diabetes

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

    “Congestion is the recipe for all disaster.”

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

     

    Overcrowding

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Needs of women and girls

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Schools and livelihoods: a lost generation

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Host communities: rising tensions

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Planning for the future

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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    Briefing: How the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh is changing
  • Editors’ picks: Why you need to read these 2018 stories

    Our top 10 most popular stories are those you clicked on most in 2018, but we also had our own favourites.

     

    Over the past 12 months, IRIN reporters spanned out across the globe to examine under-reported crises, long-running conflicts, extremism, sudden disasters, slow-burning emergencies, and the humanitarian consequences of migration.

     

    Here are some of the stories we wish more people had read, and why they’ll matter in 2019. If you haven’t read them yet, there’s still time.

     

    Evidence unearthed

    burnt-out_vehicle_on_the_road_from_brazzavile_to_kinkala.jpg

    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Burnt-out vehicle on the road from Brazzavile to Kinkala

    Congo-Brazzaville’s hidden war

     

    Unlike better-known conflicts in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, unrest in Congo-Brazzaville after disputed elections in 2016 occurred with little international attention or outside scrutiny. At the end of 2017, Philip Kleinfeld gained rare access to the Pool region, where he documented the toll of two years of conflict. In the government’s crackdown on former militias, villages were bombed from the air while others were pillaged by ground troops. Entire areas were left empty and, despite huge suffering, the government refused to recognise the existence of the crisis for more than a year. Our two-part series took an exclusive look at the lives upended in this brutal hidden war. Satellite images obtained by Emmanuel Freudenthal months after Kleinfeld’s story was published in January 2018 allowed us to update it in June with more evidence of the scale of the government’s scorched-earth campaign.

    Why it matters in 2019:

    A year on, the ceasefire the government announced with rebels in Pool is still holding, while the political space has opened with the release of several political prisoners. The accord paves the way for tens of thousands of displaced civilians to return, but humanitarian needs remain high, especially as the region was largely sealed off from aid organisations at the height of the crisis. Activists remain concerned by the absence of justice, and fear the conflict will flare up again if its root causes are not addressed. The information gathered by Kleinfeld and Freudenthal is meanwhile being used by Congolese lawyers hoping to bring a case before the International Criminal Court.

     


     

    Counter-terror compliance gets harder

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    USAID

    Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief at risk

     

    Tougher donor restrictions on relief operations in areas controlled by extremist groups are “out of control”, impeding life-saving work, and could lead aid groups to pull out of the most challenging responses, senior humanitarian officials and rights experts warned. IRIN reporting revealed that aid to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in northwestern Syria had been quietly halted on counter-terrorism grounds. And, in a parallel development, a Norwegian NGO paid $2.05 million to settle a case brought by the US government regarding its relations with Iran and Palestinian group Hamas.

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

    Millions of vulnerable people in Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere live under the sway of “terrorist” groups they don't necessarily support. How will they receive aid if humanitarian agencies can’t comply with new counter-terrorism regulation? New US court cases and USAID investigations appear likely in 2019.

     

     


     

    Afghan drought solutions

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    Two men in Afghanistan in a farm field.
    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    In drought-hit Abkamari District in western Afghanistan’s Badghis Province, farmers work on a plot of land that is irrigated by a new solar-powered water system.

    Oasis amid the drought: Local water systems give Afghans a reason to stay home

     

    Afghanistan is in the middle of a severe drought that has destroyed crops, killed livestock, and in 2018 uprooted nearly as many people as conflict. We’ve tracked the issue early and often on our weekly Cheat Sheet, as well as in stories examining ongoing impacts such as displacement and child marriage. Conflict has made access difficult for humanitarian groups, and some NGOs fear concentrating aid in the comparatively accessible urban centres of western Afghanistan may be pulling people from their homes in search of help. Is there a better solution? In one parched district, reporter Stefanie Glinski examined how simple water systems are convincing hundreds of families to stay home, even though they have lost their livelihoods to the drought. Many people in need of help live in these remote districts, but not all aid groups are prepared to manage the risks of working there.

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

    Analysts are projecting that food security will worsen in the coming months, with more than 10 million Afghans in a “crisis” or “emergency” situation by February 2019. Yet humanitarian budgets are overstretched and conflict is worsening.

     

     


     

    Iraq’s future

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    Annie Slemrod/IRIN

    Searching for Othman

     

    War. Displacement. Return. What do these words mean to the lives of people on the ground? Join Middle East editor Annie Slemrod in Iraq as she searches for one boy whose name she did not know in a country of 37 million people. She not only finds out his name, but that these words, so common in press releases and news articles, don’t even begin to express how the last few years and the fight against so-called Islamic State have changed the lives of many Iraqis – including one young boy whose life continues to be shaped by that struggle.

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

    Iraq is making a rebound of sorts: it has mostly defeated IS, and millions of displaced people have gone home. But nearly two million more have not. Some of the grievances that allowed IS to flourish have not been addressed, and large-scale protests over shortages of electricity, water, and jobs erupted in 2018 in parts of the country. Othman’s story highlights how hard it will be in 2019, and in the coming years, for many in the country to break a long cycle of violence and build any semblance of a future.

     

     


     

    Migrant journeys

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    Migrant shelter in Sonoyta, Mexico.
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Migrant shelter in Sonoyta, Mexico.

    By sand or by sea

    Are the journeys of Central Americans through Mexico to the US border really a world apart from those of sub-Saharan Africans through Niger and Libya to the Mediterranean Sea? No, journalist Eric Reidy, who has covered both over the past four years, suggests in this reporter’s notebook. He points to “the raw desperation and danger of the journey; the political backlash in Europe and the United States fuelling the rise of the far right; the attempts to stop people from crossing borders that have empowered criminals and increased suffering and abuse.” And, most glaring of all, the “basic inhumanity” of an official response based on prevention rather than legal alternatives. Some things about the two situations are starkly different, of course, so a clear ‘yes/no’ answer isn’t really possible. As he notes, 1.8 million people crossed the sea to Europe in the few years since 2014, compared to the reduction of the undocumented population in the United States over the past decade. And international aid workers have been omnipresent in the Mediterranean crisis but are conspicuous by their absence at the US-Mexico border.

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

    The trend for migration globally is upward, and the political mood in both Europe and the United States heading into the new year only appears to be hardening.

     

     


     

    Hunger and healthcare

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    Susan Schulman/IRIN

    Venezuela: A humanitarian crisis denied

    By October the number of Venezuelans estimated to have fled their country since the economy began to implode in 2015 hit three million. Given the rate of departures, it won’t be long before that figure reaches four million. Much media attention in 2018 focused on the exodus, on desperate mothers and children fleeing to places like Colombia and Brazil. But what of the many more millions left behind? Susan Schulman spent two weeks in August and September travelling across the country. She found pervasive hunger, resurgent disease, and babies dying because of an absence of standard medicines – an acute humanitarian crisis denied by Venezuela’s own government.

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

    There are signs President Nicolás Maduro is beginning to accept the need for outside help, but next year is likely to see the situation deteriorate further. The International Monetary Fund has warned that inflation could reach 10 million percent, while the UN expects the exodus to swell to 5.3 million.

     

     


     

    Sahel climate crisis

    How climate change is plunging Senegal’s herders into poverty

    Climate change is about more than just data and science. It’s about the everyday changes that impact the lives of millions – especially those who are poor and vulnerable. In sub-Saharan Africa’s Sahel region, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, drought, floods, and land degradation are threatening the future of livestock herders and crop growers, some of whom have already lost half their income because of depleted harvests and severe food shortages this year. And if the current climatic patterns continue, as they likely will, it may get worse still. Reporter Lucinda Rouse followed life in the herding communities of the Sahel over a six-month period this year. In this series, she meets people barely getting by due to the climate crisis, delves into the political and economic factors making their lives more difficult, and learns about a green solution that local communities believe may help.

    Why it matters in 2019:

    In October, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that time was rapidly running out to reverse the devastating effects of climate change, and rising Islamist militancy now threatens to deepen the crisis for many in the Sahel region.

     

     


     

    Peace in Myanmar

    myanmar-peacebuilders-4.jpg

    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Nyi Nyi Zaw, an ethnic Rakhine teacher with the peacebuilding organisation People to People, says he was formerly prejudiced against his Rohingya neighbours: ”I used to be blinded just like the people who come to our trainings.”

    The uphill battle to forge peace in Myanmar's Rakhine State

    Generations of Rohingya have been denied citizenship, segregated, and pushed from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Animosity towards the Rohingya runs deep, but there are also more nuanced views – even in deeply divided Rakhine. Reporter Verena Hölzl met with ethnic Rakhine activists trying to build peace in their troubled state. These local peacebuilders face government restrictions and threats from sceptical hardliners.

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

    There are no overnight solutions to a crisis that has simmered over decades of mistrust and marginalisation. But these local efforts may be a small yet important step to building trust among Myanmar’s ethnic communities: “People have to start to listen to each other,” said one Rakhine student, “or we will never have peace”.

     

    Editors’ picks: Why you need to read these 2018 stories
  • 2018 in Review: Migration

    This series

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Below are highlights from our reporting:

     

    Heading into war

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

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

    Men walk should to shoulder on a barren road

     

    Lost identity

    How tattered Rohingya IDs trace a trail towards statelessness

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

    A man holds up his ID card

     

    War and peace

    Eritrea-Ethiopia peace leads to a refugee surge

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

    Portraits of two Eritreans closeup but looking away

     

    Economic collapse

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

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

    A guard in camo with a rifle against the sky

     

    US border deaths

    Water in the desert

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

    A cross on a small hill

     

    Unprepared

    Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey

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

    A shoe stuck in thick barbed wire

     

    Rights lost

    New Italian law adds to unofficial clampdown on asylum seekers

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

    The back of a head in the foreground with a runway and planes in the background
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Migration
  • Trump pullouts, aid from mining firms, and that Amnesty ad: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

     

    Trouble at the top

     

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

     

    Strange bedfellows: mining firms and humanitarians?

     

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

     

    Concerns around aid operations in South Sudan

     

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

     

    Amnesty backs down over “offensive” online campaign

     

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

     

    Healthcare boost for Yazidis in Iraq’s Sinjar

     

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

    In case you missed it:

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Weekend read

     

    A generation of unschooled Cameroonians, another generation of conflict?

     

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

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

    And finally…

     

    A vaccine with wings

     

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

     

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

     

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    Trump pullouts, aid from mining firms, and that Amnesty ad
  • In Bangladesh, a Rohingya strike highlights growing refugee activism

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

    bangladesh-rohingyaadvocacy-1.jpg

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Learning to lead

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    bangladesh-rohingyaadvocacy-4.jpg

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

    Other homegrown groups have set their eyes on international justice.

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

     

    A missing voice

     

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    ☰ Who speaks for the Rohingya?

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    UNHCR did not respond to questions on this issue.

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

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

     

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

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

    “We just don’t want any trouble”

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

    myanmar-bamboovillage-5.jpg

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

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

     

    Kept apart

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

    myanmar-bamboovillage-7.jpg

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

    Ties that bind

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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    “It's better we don't live together”
    In a Myanmar village, a bamboo fence separates Rohingya and Rakhine neighbours

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