(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity

    Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war came to a violent end a decade ago, but the conflict’s unresolved aftermath continues to reverberate through political upheaval and unchecked attacks on minority groups, warns a UN report to be discussed in Geneva today.

     

    Sri Lanka has made “virtually no progress” on probing allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the report, which is to be tabled at the Human Rights Council in the latest examination of the government’s stalled reconciliation promises.

     

    The 1983-2009 conflict largely pitted the military and political leadership, dominated by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, against insurgent fighters from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority. But rights monitors and analysts say years of impunity for civil war-era abuses are also widening cracks elsewhere in Sri Lankan society.

     

    “The risk of new violations increases when impunity for serious crimes continues unchecked,” the UN report warns.

     

    Last March, mobs of Buddhist demonstrators attacked mosques and Muslim-owned houses and businesses in the central city of Kandy, fuelled by hate speech and rumours that had spread over Facebook and other social media. The government declared a state of emergency and temporarily shut down social media networks. The violence left two dead and hundreds of homes damaged, but no one has been convicted for their roles in the riots, despite dozens of initial arrests.

    “The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities.”

    Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group, calls Buddhist-Muslim tensions “a second fault line” that threatens to explode. Today’s report before the Human Rights Council calls last year’s violence a “very dangerous pattern” moulded by the failure to prosecute past abuses.

     

    “The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities,” the report warns.

     

    Stalled promises

     

    The civil war ended in 2009 when the military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers. Previous UN investigations found evidence of “gross violations” of international rights laws on all sides of the conflict, including thousands of civilian deaths in the military onslaught that ended the rebellion.

     

    In 2015, Sri Lanka’s current government pledged to accelerate reconciliation efforts and probe war-time abuses, but rights groups say promised reforms have been slow or non-existent. For example, a government body tasked with investigating the disappearances of tens of thousands of missing people didn’t begin its work until last year, while plans for a national truth commission or to provide reparations for war-time abuses have also stalled.

     

    Rights groups draw a direct line between post-war impunity to continuing abuses and political crises that hamper the country today. For weeks last year, Sri Lanka was mired in political deadlock after President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the violent military offensive that ended the war in 2009, to the position of prime minister.

     

    After weeks of protest, the impasse was only quelled after the country’s Supreme Court reversed Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament, Rajapaksa resigned, and the current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, returned to office.

     

    Finding the missing

     

    Sri Lanka’s missing persons may be the most visceral example of the country’s lingering post-war trauma. It’s also one of the only instances of progress when it comes to the government’s reconciliation efforts.

     

    Rights groups say tens of thousands of Sri Lankans are missing since the 1980s. The government created the Office on Missing Persons in 2016, but it didn’t appoint commissioners or finance its budget until last year. The office’s role includes tracing missing relatives, investigating disappearances, and making recommendations on reforms and reparations to the government.

     

    But the office itself says it faces “distrust and scepticism” among the families it’s trying to help, fuelled by the “failure of successive state institutions to provide families with truth, justice and reparations”.

     

    Finding answers for families with missing relatives, the office said in its first report last year, “is taking place in a polarised context where even the need to address the issue of the missing and the disappeared is questioned by segments of society.”

     

    Transitional justice

     

    Four years after Sri Lanka’s promised reforms, the UN says the fledgling Office on Missing Persons is effectively the “only functioning transitional justice mechanism” in the country.

     

    The government has passed legislation to set up an office for reparations, but rights groups say it will be hampered by excessive government oversight and funding restrictions, leaving the body prone to political interference. A promised truth-finding commission has also seen years of delays.

     

    There has been even less progress on one of the most important – and contentious – measures: holding people accused of war crimes to account. Successive Sri Lankan governments have resisted pressure for an international or hybrid court to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

     

    But there has also been little appetite to investigate such crimes in the country’s domestic courts. Instead, the UN report cites “worrying instances of political interference in the judicial or investigative process”, which raises questions about the justice system’s ability or willingness to investigate complex cases.

     

    Alleged crimes committed by Tamil Tiger fighters have also gone unaddressed. The rebel group is accused of civilian massacres, using suicide bombers, and recruiting child soldiers, but, like the broader reconciliation promises, Amnesty International says the government has also made “no progress” to address these abuses.

     

    “We have nothing to atone for”

     

    When President Sirisena was elected in 2015, he was seen as a reformist who promised to accelerate reconciliation between his country’s divided communities.

    "The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka... are weak minority voices in all communities.”

    But analysts say most reconciliation issues are intensely political, with nationalist Sinhalese forces, chief among them the would-be prime minister Rajapaksa, linking reparations and prosecutions to Sinhalese nationalist identity.

     

    “The sense among many Sinhalese among the military and among a lot of the political leadership is: ‘We beat the terrorists. Perhaps a few people suffered in the process, but we have nothing to atone for,’” said the Crisis Group’s Keenan.

     

    Even seemingly simple measures like vacating military-occupied land in former conflict areas, or releasing political prisoners, has been “grudging and slow”.

     

    Keenan says what’s missing is a government committed to changing long-held nationalist beliefs in both Sinhalese and Tamil communities.

     

    “The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka where all communities are equal and respected, where minority rights are enshrined in the constitution – those are weak minority voices in all communities,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, right, speaks with former president and current opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa after the presentation of the 2019 budget to the parliament by Sri Lankan Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, in Colombo on 5 March 2019. CREDIT: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

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    UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity
  • Afghans battle with flood aftermath

    Besieged by months of drought and long-term conflict, rural communities in large swathes of Afghanistan are facing yet another emergency: widespread flooding that will leave some rebuilding their lives for years.

     

    Sudden heavy rainfall this month triggered flash floods that swept away thousands of homes and killed dozens in nine Afghan provinces.

     

    More than 112,000 people are affected, with numbers rising as humanitarian assessments trickle in from insecure areas, according to tallies by UN agencies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

     

    Afghanistan is seeing unusually heavy rainfall due to the El Niño weather phenomenon declared in February, which can bring extreme weather across the globe. Forecasts predict there could be warmer temperatures and 40 to 50 percent more rain than usual into May, according to the Red Cross. Months of severe drought also make it harder for soil to absorb excess water, raising the risk of sudden floods.

     

    In hard-hit Nawa-i-Barakzai district in the southern province of Helmand, communities were still waiting for help – and fearing a fresh onslaught of rain – amid destroyed mud homes and dead livestock.

     

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Ali Mohammed searches for the remains of his animals, which were crushed when his stable’s roof collapsed during heavy rains this month. Many residents in the area lost everything during the floods.

     

    In one flattened village, Ali Mohammed, 42, stood on his collapsed roof, the smell of rotting flesh seeping through the mud that used to form the walls of his house.

     

    “It’s my sheep,” he said, pointing to a crack that exposed parts of the dead animals, killed in the floods.

     

    The rains started at night. Mohammed said he and his neighbours rushed to wake their families as the waters from a nearby river rapidly rose and heavy downpours started to tear apart rooftops.

     

    They scrambled to higher ground. But when the waters receded hours later the entire village had been washed away – along with a lifetime of hard work and savings.

     

    The rains came and went quickly, but the aftermath is likely to last years for farmers like Mohammed. He said his personal losses, including dozens of sheep and his entire food supply, totalled a steep 900,000 Afghani, or $12,000. His wife packed a few remaining belongings and took the family’s children to the relative safety of the provincial capital, Lashkargah.

     

    “We didn’t think it could be this bad,” he said.

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    A man walks among destroyed homes
    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Locals say the floods affected some 3,000 families in Nawa-i-Barakzai district, and many of the worst-hit farming families had little to begin with.

    Afghanistan’s neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, have also been hit by floods. In Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, which shares a border with Helmand, aid agencies are warning of disease outbreaks due to damaged health clinics, low vaccination rates, and health conditions already worsened by drought.

     

    Here in Helmand, traditionally a Taliban heartland, the latest disaster is exacerbated by widespread poverty and active conflict. Government-controlled Nawa-i-Barakzai borders one of the war’s front lines, and the district has seen a rise in clashes and killings in recent weeks.

     

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    A boy watches his family’s remaining sheep after most were killed in the flood. Blue tarps offer temporary shelter to the family.

    The district governor, Ayub Omar Omari, believes the floods are evidence of a changing climate.

     

    “We’ve had a bad drought, followed by the worst floods I’ve seen here in decades,” he said. “People’s entire livelihoods have been swept away.”

     

    Few structures are left standing in areas far from the bigger markets and paved roads, where fragile mud homes are prevalent. Most families have fled, finding refuge with relatives in nearby towns. Those who stayed behind continue to sort through debris, hoping to recover what remains of their belongings.

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Haji Badar sorts through what’s left of his home and belongings. He estimates his total losses, including 13 sheep, to be the equivalent of about $4,000 – a substantial sum in rural Afghanistan.

     

    “It’s not safe for my family to stay outside, but we have little option,” said Haji Badar, 75. He stood surrounded by his daughters on a muddy plateau – his house has literally melted away.

     

    “We’re hoping for help, but none has come yet,” he said, two weeks after the initial rains.

     

    The sky is blue for now, but Badar fears what will come: “Our wettest season has just started.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A boy sits on his bed in Nawa-i-Barakzai district in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Heavy rains and floods destroyed his home, forcing his entire family to sleep outside. CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski/IRIN)

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    “People’s entire livelihoods have been swept away”
    Afghans battle with flood aftermath
  • 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
  • Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Sahel violence displaces another million people

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

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

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

    First drought, now floods

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

    Algeria rising

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

    An international treaty to protect women?

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

    A guide to ‘White Saviour’ media debates

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

    In case you missed it

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

     

    Weekend read

     

    How dire climate change warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh

     

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

    And finally

     

    Somali Night Fever

     

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

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

     

    The next lost crop

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Villages here were unprepared for 2017’s sudden floods.

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    A sign of things to come

     

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

    1_3_1920.jpg

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

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

     

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

     

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

    1_25_1920.jpg

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Adapting

     

    Some efforts are already underway.

     

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

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

    1_37_1920.jpg

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    aa/il/ag

    After the floods, a real-time glimpse of migration as rice-farming villages empty
    How dire climate displacement warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh
  • 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
  • North Korea’s silent health crisis

    Questions over the future of denuclearisation and economic sanctions dominate the build-up to this week’s summit between the United States and North Korea. But what’s missing is a focus on a key issue affecting ordinary North Koreans: the country’s silent healthcare crisis.

     

    North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump are scheduled to begin talks on 27 February in Hanoi, Vietnam – the second encounter between the two men after last June’s summit in Singapore, which sparked reams of analysis but few tangible results.

     

    Speculation abounds over what might materialise this time: concessions on sanctions, a path toward denuclearisation, perhaps even – if comments from South Korean officials this week are to be believed – an official peace declaration.

    As the two leaders meet, however, everyday North Koreans are struggling with widespread malnutrition and food insecurity. The UN says many North Koreans have difficulty accessing basic services, while more than 40 percent of the country’s population need some form of humanitarian aid.

     

    Health indicators have improved in the two decades since the country’s 1990s famine – during which hundreds of thousands of people starved to death. But there are still major problems. Levels of malnutrition, maternal health, and tuberculosis are worrying enough, but a lack of accurate data on HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B presents new cause for alarm.

     

    Malnutrition: The common denominator

     

    North Korea is frequently portrayed as an unknowable, impenetrable land. However, a substantial amount of data on health indicators is readily available. While it must be treated with caution – malnutrition figures, for example, don’t include political prisoners languishing in camps – the data can be useful for showing longer-term trends.

    Undernourishment is a common denominator for many of the health problems afflicting North Koreans.

    When it comes to the effects of malnutrition, the data shows an improvement in the two decades since the famine ended – but also clear indications of a continuing problem. In 1998, a UNICEF survey found evidence of child stunting – when a child’s height falls considerably below what would be expected at that age. About 62 percent of children younger than seven years of age showed stunted growth, while 60 percent were considered underweight. In 2017, UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey – drawn from household survey data – reported that roughly 19 percent of children were stunted, while about 9.3 percent were underweight.

     

    This is clearly an improvement. But one in five children are still considered stunted. The children in the 1998 survey are now in their 20s, many likely with children of their own. Today, the World Food Programme estimates that 10.9 million people are undernourished – about 43 percent of the population. And undernourishment is a common denominator for many of the health problems afflicting North Koreans.

     

    Undernourishment in pregnant women

     

    Indicators gauging maternal health in North Korea vary widely. The maternal mortality ratio estimates the proportion of women who die during pregnancy – essentially the risk associated with pregnancy in a given country. World Bank data suggests the maternal mortality ratio in North Korea has fallen steadily since a peak in 1999. However, data from North Korea’s own Central Bureau of Statistics says the maternal mortality ratio has fluctuated and even risen in recent years: from 72 per 100,000 live births, to 62.7 in 2014, then a notable jump to 82 in 2015.

     

    Even using the World Bank’s more optimistic figures, North Korea’s maternal mortality ratio still hasn’t reached pre-famine levels – estimated at 56 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1992. And it’s still far off the mark set by South Korea, where the ratio is 11.

     

    Current indicators suggest cause for concern. According to UNICEF, nearly one in three women of reproductive age are undernourished, and nearly one in four are underweight. And the UN agency says it couldn’t distribute nutritional supplements to 95 percent of pregnant and lactating women during a nationwide child health campaign last year, due to funding shortfalls.

     

    Tuberculosis trouble ahead

     

    There is a funding crisis for tuberculosis treatment in North Korea, and the disease may be killing people at an increasing rate. World Health Organisation estimates for tuberculosis deaths in North Korea are on the rise: from a low of 42 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015, to 63 in 2017.

     

    The Global Fund – the donor agency financing treatment for HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria around the world – pulled funding for tuberculosis and malaria programmes last year citing oversight concerns in North Korea’s ”unique operating environment”. The decision was met with worried opinion pieces, open letters, and pleas of concern from the medical community.

     

    With the impact of sanctions and the Global Fund’s withdrawal, there are fears this upward trend may continue. In an open letter published in the British medical journal The Lancet, the director of the Korean American Medical Association, which works on tuberculosis treatment programmes in North Korea, warned that medicine rationing triggered by drugs shortages could fuel the ”rapid creation of drug-resistant TB strains”.

     

    North Korea already struggles with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, which cannot be cured with the two most powerful drugs usually used to treat TB. The WHO estimated there were 4,100 such cases in the country in 2017, but less than half of affected patients had started treatment.

     

    The Eugene Bell Foundation is another prominent NGO working on tuberculosis in North Korea. However, the group says its 12 treatment centres for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis can only hold 1,500 patients combined, meaning many North Koreans are unable to access its programmes.

     

    Misplaced HIV assumptions?

     

    Malnutrition, maternal mortality, and tuberculosis are relatively well documented in North Korea, but much less is known about the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B. This is particularly concerning given the scarcity of medical infrastructure, accurate screening, and specialised doctors and medicines.

     

    The prevalence of HIV is one of the least understood health issues in North Korea. The government has claimed there are no HIV cases in the entire country. But the situation is opaque at best, hidden by stigma and the government’s reluctance to acknowledge the issue let alone openly tackle it. UN agency reports from the late 1990s and early 2000s mirrored the government’s assumptions that the country’s long isolation, low (official) migration, low drug use, and conservative sexual attitudes made HIV and AIDS a non-issue.

     

    Over time, however, UN reports suggest multiple factors that could lead to a growing vulnerability among North Koreans. Surveys and analyses – conducted by UN agencies on reproductive health between 2002 and 2012 – point to increasing vulnerabilities to HIV transmission particularly among women. Condom use is extremely low, while the quality of blood transfusion is often poor. These conditions are amplified in border regions and in disadvantaged remote areas.

     

    UN agencies note that on North Korea’s northern border with China, drug use and prostitution are on the rise, as are cross-border mobility and trafficking. A 2014 study  by the South Korean Ministry of Unification noted that HIV-testing facilities and materials have long been scarcely available in North Korea, which challenges past assumptions of a nearly HIV-free country. Rather than a lack of infections, what we see in North Korea may actually be insufficient testing and misplaced assumptions.  

     

    Healthcare not on the agenda

     

    For North Koreans grappling with the long-term impacts of an inadequate health system, a peace agreement and an end to hostilities will not, on their own, bring an improvement to their lives.

    Available health statistics do not point to a country with a “brighter future”, but to a nation that will need prolonged and extensive care.

    To reverse the impacts of years of undernutrition, North Koreans need reliable and consistent treatment delivered through a robust and well-functioning health system. That will require significant commitment from both the North Korean government and the wary international community. Without adequate funding, access, and the increased capacity to cope with today’s health burdens – including the ones we don’t yet fully grasp – many ordinary North Koreans will continue to struggle to live a full and healthy life.

     

    North Korea may be keen to see the end of punishing UN sanctions, and long-term American objectives ahead of this week’s summit are clear: “the complete, verifiable denuclearisation of the peninsula”.

     

    Realistically, however, the available health statistics do not point to a country with a “brighter future”, as repeatedly promised by US officials, but to a nation that will need prolonged and extensive care.

    (TOP PHOTO: North Koreans gather in Pyongyang on 16 February 2019. CREDIT: Ed Jones/AFP)

    gs-nzc/il/ag

    ...

    The authors are researching a book about North Korea and international cooperation.

    North Korea’s silent health crisis
    There’s a healthcare emergency in North Korea, and a peace declaration won’t fix it
  • 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
  • As Afghanistan’s capital grows, its residents scramble for clean water

    Twice a week, Farid Rahimi gets up at dawn, wraps a blanket around his shoulders to keep warm, gathers his empty jerrycans, and waits beside the tap outside his house in a hillside neighbourhood above Kabul.

     

    At 7am sharp, water bursts from the pipes, filling Rahimi’s tank and buckets. He labours away, saving every drop until – just an hour later – the last drop falls.

     

    “We can’t afford to miss it,” said the 35-year-old. “It’s barely enough.“

     

    Afghanistan’s capital is running dry – its groundwater levels depleted by an expanding population and the long-term impacts of climate change. But its teeming informal settlements continue to grow as decades-long conflict and – more recently – drought drive people like Rahimi into the cities, straining already scarce water supplies.

     

    With large numbers migrating to Kabul, the city’s resources are overstretched and aid agencies and the government are facing a new problem: how to adjust to a shifting population still dependent on some form of humanitarian assistance.

    e21b5337_1920.jpg

    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Farid Rahimi prepares to fill jerrycans with water. His family has access to clean drinking water twice a week for only an hour. Rahimi fills up every available bucket and jerrycan to make sure the water lasts through the rest of the week.

    Rahimi came to Kabul nine years ago to find safety and better job opportunities, but he says it hasn’t been easy. He now shares his house with 12 family members and each month he pays a steep 1,500 Afghani, or $20, for water from a private company.

     

    “Last year we shut down our well,” Rahimi said. “There wasn’t any water left. A few years ago, the situation was a lot better.”

     

    On the move

     

    The UN says more than half a million people in Afghanistan were forced to leave their homes in 2018 due to conflict and drought. An even greater number of Afghans, more than 800,000, returned from Pakistan and Iran during the same year. About seven percent of Kabul’s population are either displaced by war or returnees who previously fled the country, according to estimates from the UN’s migration agency, IOM.

    The majority migrate toward cities, which are now home to one third of Afghanistan’s population of 36 million. According to UN Habitat, 80 percent of urban areas in Kabul are informal settlements.

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Kabul’s outskirts are home to informal settlements where the majority of residents are people displaced from the countryside by fighting and drought. While some families arrived in recent months, others have lived in these settlements for years.

    In Rahimi’s case this means that a muddy, unpaved road winds its way through his neighbourhood and up an overpopulated hill, where simple mud or concrete houses have been built on “grab land”, claimed by those who arrived in Kabul over the past decade without initially registering or even purchasing the property. Electricity is available sporadically, while health facilities and schools are either absent or far away. A private company is in the process of installing water pipes throughout the neighbourhood, but most public services are yet to be provided by the government.

    Read more: As conflict spreads, chronic displacement becomes a powderkeg in Afghanistan

    But when people from rural areas leave their homes for the cities, they may also leave behind the humanitarian aid they had previously relied on.

     

    Pir Mohammed arrived in Kabul five months ago, escaping violence and bombings in his native Helmand province, a Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan.

     

    The 35-year-old had hoped the move would make his life safer and easier. But the family lives in a tent in the middle of Afghanistan’s bitter winter; his cousin has pneumonia.

     

    “It’s just so cold. In Helmand, we received some assistance. Here, we were told the government would help us, but nothing has happened so far,” Mohammed said, while digging a trench outside his shelter to prevent water from leaking into the tent.

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Pir Mohammed shovels dirt in front of his cousin's tent. His family arrived in Kabul five months ago, fleeing fighting and air strikes in Helmand province. He says it’s safer in Kabul, but he can’t access the humanitarian aid he relied on back home.

    Much of the snow falling onto the family’s home is melted and used as drinking water. The current winter has been harsh, with temperatures dropping well below zero most nights.

     

    Rethinking aid

     

    Alison Parker, UNICEF’s communications chief, said the urban shift means aid groups must also rethink how to help people who may still need assistance in the cities.

     

    “Rurally, it’s easier because you engage with communities at the local level. In Kabul, we need to engage with the government and other actors,” Parker said. “It needs a shift in thought and more players need to be on board.”

     

    Yet city planning and humanitarian work often do not go hand in hand, says the city’s deputy mayor, Shoaib Rahim. “Humanitarian services are meeting immediate needs, but urban planning is for the long term,” he said.

     

    While aid agencies do provide some services in urban areas, especially in places where newly displaced people have settled, both private companies and the government take up large – yet still insufficient – chunks of the work.

     

    “Aid professionals often distinguish between humanitarian work and development, but they are intertwined,” said Oxfam Afghanistan country director Ruby Ajanee.

     

    The majority of former refugees and asylum seekers returning from abroad, for example, settle in urban areas, where they may need both short-term aid and and more long-lasting help.

     

    “While their immediate needs for food and shelter are addressed by humanitarian agencies, the long-term development needs of reintegration are addressed by the development agencies, with often a disconnect from the humanitarian agencies,” Ajanee said. “These two sectors have to work together seamlessly where humanitarian effort is linked with development work.”

     

    Rainfall patterns

     

    Comparatively, urban residents are still better off than their rural counterparts. The proportion of people with access to basic water is 63 percent countrywide – 89 percent for the urban population and 53 percent for rural households, according to UNICEF. But migration patterns and a changing climate point to long-term strains on water supplies.

     

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    A man draws water from a public pump in Kabul. Many households lack access to water in their homes, and groundwater levels have been depleted in recent years.

    Afghanistan is one of the world’s top eight countries affected by climate change-induced water shortages, says Paulos Workneh, who heads the water, sanitation and hygiene programme for UNICEF in Afghanistan. As groundwater deteriorates, city dwellers are robbed of their main source of clean water.

     

    “Most of Kabul’s water was accessed through wells, but the situation is now under stress,” Workneh said. “Surface water is polluted by industrial waste, pit latrines and chemicals leaping into the rivers. With rainfall patterns decreasing, sources don’t fill up as quickly anymore.”

     

    While Kabul is starting to tackle the issue of informally built properties – including the registration of many houses initially constructed without permission – one fact remains: the capital grew too quickly.

     

    “The city had 4.6 million people in 2002 and, by 2012, the numbers went up to 7.1 million,” said Koussay Boulaich of UN Habitat, which is offering technical support to a government project responding to the city’s urbanisation trend.

     

    By 2050, one in two Afghans will live in cities, Boulaich said. A similar shift will be needed among the many humanitarian and development groups now concentrating their work in Afghanistan’s rural areas.

     

    “Imagine how important the correlation between urbanisation and development is,” Boulaich said. “In some areas, humanitarian and development work merge, supporting the government in providing long-term sustainable solutions, and urbanisation has to be one of these areas.”

    e21b5353_1920.jpg

    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    A private company has started drilling and construction for new water pipes in this Kabul neighbourhood. Informally built homes line the hillsides in the background.

    Reverse city planning

     

    One of the government’s programmes for urban development, including water, is its “City for All” scheme, which aims to turn the country’s urban migration into economic growth, increase living standards, and even contribute to peace. As part of the plan, informal areas in Kabul are now being registered, roads are being built, and water systems are being set up slowly, with technical help from international agencies.

     

    Mohammed Atik, 60, lives in a Kabul neighbourhood currently undergoing development.

    “The government has built the pipes in our area. There are none in my house yet, but I do see progress,” he said.

     

    For now, however, his household well has dried up. He gets water for his family only by filling up buckets at a neighbour’s house, and he’s worried what will happen if this supply also evaporates.

     

    “I just hope we don't run further out of water,” Atik said. “We’re already using a lot less than a few years ago.”

     

    In Rahimi’s hillside neighbourhood, the government has promised to pave the road in the coming months, while mainly private companies supply the available water.

     

    Merza Mohammed, a 42-year-old employee with Absharan Tagyet, the company laying pipes down Rahimi’s street, said the new infrastructure will serve roughly 1,300 households – though at a price more expensive than the city government’s standard rates.

     

    “We’re a local business supplying areas that the government has not yet reached,” he said.

     

    A few years ago, water was more widely available throughout the city. But prices have more than doubled, he said.

     

    “Today, we’re scrambling. Water is becoming a pricey commodity in Afghanistan.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Winter has been harsh in Kabul, with temperatures dropping well below zero degrees Celsius most nights. CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski/IRIN)

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    “Here, we were told the government would help us, but nothing has happened so far”
    As Afghanistan’s capital grows, its residents scramble for clean water
  • 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

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