(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

    Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world and is not engulfed in conflict. Yet its people have been fleeing on a scale and at a rate comparable in recent memory only to South Sudanese or Syrians at the height of their civil wars and the Rohingya from Myanmar.


    As chronicled by much of our reporting collected below, some three to four million people have escaped the economic meltdown since 2015 and tried to start afresh in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. This exodus has placed enormous pressure on the region; several governments have started making it tougher for migrants to enter and find jobs.

    The many millions more who have stayed in Venezuela face an acute humanitarian crisis denied by their own government: pervasive hunger, the resurgence of disease, an absence of basic medicines, and, in March, an electrical blackout that led to water shortages and the mass looting of the second city of Maracaibo.

    Amid ongoing political upheaval, President Nicolás Maduro has cast aside outside offers of aid, framing them as preludes to a foreign invasion and presenting accusations that the United States is once again interfering in Latin America.

    Meanwhile, the opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, has invited in assistance, from the United States and elsewhere.

    As aid becomes increasingly politicised, some international aid agencies have chosen to sit on the sidelines rather than risk their neutrality. Others run secretive and limited operations inside Venezuela that fly under the media radar.

    Local aid agencies, and others, have had to learn to adapt fast and fill the gaps as the Venezuelan people grow hungrier and sicker.

    A collection of our recent reporting from and about Venezuela is below.

    The crisis inside Venezuela


    • Hunger and survival in Venezuela

      Millions have fled Venezuela’s economic meltdown, but for millions more who remain no part of life remains untouched by the crisis, even death.

    Across the border and beyond

    Aid and politics

    A collection of our recent reporting
    Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad
  • 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)


    Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Failed aid gambit deepens crisis for Venezuelans at closed Colombia border

    Since last month’s failed attempt to force foreign aid into Venezuela resulted in the closing of the border, aid workers in Colombia say conditions have deteriorated for Venezuelans – both those fleeing and those staying behind in frontier towns now largely cut off from assistance.


    “The political crisis has made the humanitarian crisis worse,” said Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a Catholic priest who heads a local NGO called CONSORC that provides support to a growing number of vulnerable Venezuelans in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta.


    Some 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country’s economic collapse since 2015, many of them across the two bridges that connect the Venezuelan city of San Antonio del Táchira with Cúcuta.


    Colombian Red Cross workers stationed at the Simón Bolívar bridge were overwhelmed when IRIN visited. There were hundreds of Venezuelans waiting for basic medicine and examinations. A Venezuelan with heavily bandaged feet was being rolled on a stretcher to a nearby ambulance.


    Read more: Why Venezuelan migrants need to be regarded as refugees


    Last month, Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly who has been recognised as interim Venezuelan president by more than 50 countries around the world, invited in humanitarian assistance from the United States and elsewhere. But President Nicolás Maduro cast aside outside offers, framing them as a prelude to a foreign invasion.


    The showdown came to a head on 23 February. Although two pickup trucks of aid, amid deadly skirmishes, did pierce the Brazilian border, the blockade held firm. And while some security personnel did defect, they didn’t revolt en masse and bring down the Maduro regime.


    Having returned to Caracas from Cúcuta, Guaidó now finds himself accused of sabotaging the national power grid, which went down for much of the past week, depriving Venezuelans of electricity, pumped water, and, in many places, means of communication.


    “What is really a social problem – a problem of hunger, of sickness and of medical emergency – is being adversely affected by political jockeying,” said Rodriguez, who noted an increase in the numbers of Venezuelans crossing into Cúcuta despite the closed border.


    Joshua Collins/IRIN
    Venezuelans wait for lunch at "Amigos del Projimo" – a kitchen charity that provides free meals near the Simón Bolívar bridge in Cúcuta.

    The trochas


    Colombian immigration officials estimated before the border closure that 35,000 Venezuelans crossed the Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander bridges into Cúcuta daily for work, trade, school, or medical care, with the majority returning home before nightfall.


    With the border closed – apart from limited openings on certain days for school or medical care for some children with documentation – Venezuelans have increasingly been flocking to more dangerous routes: the network of clandestine trails called trochas that weave their way between Cúcuta and its sister Venezuelan cities of San Antonio and Ureña.


    In the region around Cúcuta, the trochas are controlled primarily by three groups: paramilitary forces loyal to Maduro called the colectivos; Colombian ELN guerrillas; and the Bacrin narcotrafficking group, which uses them to smuggle cocaine through Venezuela.


    The trochas are also a major smuggling corridor for other goods. Gasoline is transported from Venezuela – where it is effectively free – to be sold in Colombia, while food and basic hygiene items go the other way for large profits. The gangs who control the trochas charge 2,000 pesos (about 65 cents) to cross, with higher fees for those transporting goods.


    The trochas are usually safe for migrants, but there have been some reports of violence as well as instances of criminals preying upon the particularly vulnerable. The number of Venezuelans crossing has become impossible to monitor.


    ‘We can no longer enter’


    Over the years, this informal cross-border trade has left many Venezuelans in San Antonio and Ureña economically dependent on Cúcuta.


    Aid workers in Colombia fear a humanitarian crisis is brewing across the border as residents of the Venezuelan cities now find themselves unable to cross, or unwilling to pay armed criminals to do so.


    “We can no longer enter,” said Red Cross doctor Gabriel Antonio Casadiego. “We used to provide basic medical attention to those right across the border, but now it is closed to everyone.”


    Among the hundreds of Venezuelans seeking help on the Simón Bolívar bridge was Jesus Herrera, who said he made only 18,000 pesos ($6 USD) a month across the border.


    “I came for my daughter. She was having really bad stomach pains,” he said. “There is nothing in Venezuela. At this moment, in San Antonio, we don’t even have power.”


    Herrera said the gang who control the trochas had let them pass for free, but he was worried as no one could help his daughter on the Venezuelan side and they would have to return in a few days for another examination.


    The doctor, Casadiego, recalled how helpless he felt as a trauma specialist during the riots on 23 February. “All I could think about the whole day was that I could have been of help there,” he said. “They don’t even have basic medical supplies; but we couldn’t enter.”  

    Although he has been unable to assess the situation first hand, Casadiego said the types of patients he saw in Cúcuta left him in no doubt that the situation across the border was already disastrous.

    “We see malnutrition, chronic conditions that have long gone untreated, infections from a lack of antibiotics, dengue fever, and we see the aftermath of wounds from horrible work conditions and violence that were sometimes never treated properly,” he said. “They have no medical system.”


    Joshua Collins/IRIN
    Alma Maria Fernandez (right) runs a shelter and kitchen for Venezuelan migrants called Fund AR just outside Cúcuta.


    Worsening situation


    Just outside Cúcuta, Alma Maria Fernandez runs a shelter called Fund AR that provides food and lodging along the main route for migrants travelling on foot to the Colombian capital, Bogotá.  

    She said the days following the attempt to push humanitarian aid into Venezuela were particularly difficult. She estimates that 1,000 people a day passed by this small shelter, when before the number was a few hundred. “We completely ran out of food, of space. All we could offer to those passing was water.”


    Read more: Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals


    As the political situation in Venezuela has become more and more tense, those fleeing have become increasingly fearful that Maduro loyalists are infiltrating groups of migrants, according to Rodriguez, the priest from CONSORC.


    “Many of the Venezuelans want to hide their identities,” he said. “Part of our job is trying to ensure that they have the proper documents to apply for the right to work, to enrol their children in schools and receive medical treatment. But some of them are now afraid to even tell us their real names.”


    A paramedic who has worked 10 years for the Red Cross in the region but didn’t want to give his name as he couldn’t speak for the organisation referred to the aid showdown between Guaidó and Maduro as a “circus” and said it had made their jobs more difficult.


    “I will say this,” he added. “Right now there’s no power in the hospitals in [the major Venezuelan city of] San Cristóbal. It is certain that people are dying. And I can’t help them. Maybe before we could have at least communicated with them and provided transportation from the border to the hospitals here. But now we can do nothing. And that kills me.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A young Venezuelan family travelling on foot on the 10-day journey from the Colombia-Venezuela border to Bogotá. CREDIT: Joshua Collins/IRIN)


    Failed aid gambit deepens crisis for Venezuelans at closed Colombia border
  • Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable

    A new US anti-terror law that has forced the majority of American-funded aid operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to grind to a halt may have even wider humanitarian consequences, leaving nonprofits around the world more vulnerable to litigation.


    While the 700-word bill appears to have been targeted at the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, experts say the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, or ATCA, is poorly crafted and could result in some non-governmental organisations and businesses being reluctant to take US funding or be associated with US-financed programmes.


    Signed in October last year and law as of 31 January, ATCA is an attempt by US lawmakers to make it easier for American courts to hear civil suits related to terrorist attacks abroad, specifically those involving authorities tied to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.


    Under ATCA, recipients of three kinds of aid – economic support funds (ESF), international narcotics and law enforcement (INCLE) funds, and financing earmarked for nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, and demining (NADR) – become subject to US “personal jurisdiction”.


    This means American citizens who have demonstrably suffered injury to “person, property or business” from international acts of terrorism can sue these recipients in US civil court. American NGOs that operate abroad were already subject to personal jurisdiction for such suits, but ATCA broadens this to any recipient.

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict.”

    As a result of the law, the Palestinian Authority (PA) announced it would stop taking those forms of aid, leading the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to shut down its operations in the West Bank and Gaza in February. Other NGOs that receive funding via USAID and from the streams mentioned in ATCA followed suit.


    While the bill has so far only caused the shutdown of NGOs working in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no geographical limit in its wording. Experts, including Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about the law and advised aid groups on its legal ramifications, say this means ATCA could have unintended and far-reaching consequences.


    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict,” he said.


    ATCA’s birth and immediate impact


    In 2015, a court awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to 10 families who were American victims or related to victims of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s. They argued that the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, both headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, had offered financial support to the attackers and their families, running afoul of the US Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

    The ruling was overturned, in part because even though the victims and plaintiffs held American citizenship, a higher court said the PLO and the PA couldn’t be sued in the US court system for attacks planned and carried out “entirely outside” American borders.


    Sponsored by Senator Chuck Grassley, ATCA, which clarifies the ATA, was largely the result of a campaign by the plaintiffs and their lawyers to allow Americans to do just that. After the bill passed, Grassley cited the case against the PA and the PLO: “Carrying out or assisting an act of international terrorism that injures or kills Americans abroad should provide sufficient justification to subject defendants to US legal sanctions,” his office said in a statement.


    The Palestinian Authority has received all three types of ATCA-specified aid in recent years. Unwilling to risk liability under the new law and a possible reactivation of earlier lawsuits against it, the PA told the United States in December that it would stop taking US funds from the three streams. It also ordered any NGOs using such funding to end their work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Programming carried out by USAID-funded NGOs, including a planned rehabilitation of Gaza’s water system, have been halted.


    Eric Garduno, senior policy and legislative specialist at Catholic Relief Services, said all USAID-funded work on his organisation’s Envision Gaza 2020 programme – through which it provided food to more than 3,000 households – ended entirely when ATCA came into force.


    Garduno said 3,000 households was already well below their goal – due to previous US budget cuts and administration scrutiny – and added that he didn’t know how many people Catholic Relief Services would now be able to feed.


    “We are in sort of a limbo right now where we think at least some of the programmes that were closed on January 31 can be restarted if there is a change to ATCA, but I don’t know how quickly a change can happen now,” said Garduno. “We do know the longer this is delayed, the less likely any of these programmes will be restarted.”


    All of this comes at a sensitive time for NGOs working in the Palestinian territories, after a pro-Israel activist used another US law, the False Claims Act, to seek damages – successfully in at least one case – from nonprofits on the basis that their interaction with US terrorist-designated groups may amount to material support.


    Wider impact


    Overall, ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding totalled more than $6 billion in the last financial year and was received in more than 50 countries, including fragile humanitarian situations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Yemen.


    The funds cover a wide range of activities, from sanitation to law enforcement. INCLE funds that have paid for security assistance in the West Bank have also been spent in countries like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Pakistan to combat the drug trade and finance other security measures.

    “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

    Courts will ultimately decide the breadth of the new law, but analysts say the lack of geographical specificity in ATCA means aid organisations or subcontractors that receive ESF, INCLE, or NADR funding – either directly or indirectly – could be left open to lawsuits if they implement programming in areas where US-designated groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or al-Qaeda affiliates like al-Shabaab operate. This may be true even if the only US funding they receive is for unconnected operations in a different country to the one where the ATCA and ATA-prohibited programming is being conducted.


    “There are partners that don’t have a US [base of some sort] that do get US foreign assistance on a pretty regular basis – usually subcontractors,” said Hady Amr, a former senior US diplomat who managed a $1.6 billion aid budget for the Middle East as deputy senior administrator at USAID. “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”


    Kay Guinane, director of the Charity & Security Network, a group that coordinates nonprofits on regulatory issues, said foreign-based NGOs expressed concern in recent meetings that they may be vulnerable to lawsuits because of ATCA, and would not have the financial means to fight in court. She said the vagueness in US law over what constitutes material support for terrorist action, exacerbated by ATCA, had added to this anxiety.


    Few aid groups are willing to talk openly about the issue. “NGOs would be foolish to speak publicly about concerns with ATCA,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “Doing so would be the equivalent of painting a bullseye on their backs at which lawyers and potential litigants looking for targets [could] take aim.”


    "It's a hypothetical for now, but it's not paranoid to see [ATCA] as a very real potential threat,” Friedman said. "The potential use of this as a [legal] tool is only limited by the number of cases of US citizens injured overseas and the creativity of lawyers who in finding NGOs to sue."


    Neither USAID nor the US State Department responded to questions about whether they were using language in contracts – or warning partners in any other way – about the new implications of receiving ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding.


    “The assumption within a large part of the NGO community is that this could have a chilling effect on non-US or local NGOs who are willing to accept US assistance,” said Joel Braunold, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.




    While the NGO community waits to see what the full impact of ATCA will be, there have been unsuccessful attempts on the US side to adjust the law’s wording, especially since the PA stopped taking funding for security coordination with Israel, which includes aid to Palestinian security forces working with Israel on counter-terrorism measures.


    “We learned that no one on Capitol Hill thought ATCA would be interpreted in a way that would force NGO programmes to close,” said Garduno of Catholic Relief Services.


    NGOs hoped Congress would deliver a fix in the spending package President Donald Trump signed last month, but this didn’t happen and legislators have so far failed to amend the law.


    That doesn’t necessarily mean a change of some sort isn’t on the cards. A spokesperson for Grassley told IRIN was still willing to further “clarify” the law his office drafted, but said the senator blamed the State Department for only raising concerns about US assistance after the legislation had passed. The State Department declined to comment.


    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here,” said Anderson of Brookings. “The broader question is whether there is going to be a fix for the broader impact this will have outside the West Bank.”



    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here”
    Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable
  • 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)


    Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced
  • Q&A: How churches are leading the way in helping migrants with HIV

    Reverend Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, took time out of a recent gathering to explain how faith-based organisations are forging better responses globally for migrants and refugees living with HIV/AIDS.


    Representing 350 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, the WCC is driving forward international collaboration on the issue. Last month, it held a workshop at its headquarters in Geneva aimed at building stronger partnerships to improve the international response.


    In attendance were the International Organisation for Migration, the UN’s refugee agency, UNAIDS, faith-based groups, international and local NGOs, and representatives from civil society groups from around the world.


    “We cannot ignore faith-based organisations,” Michel Sidibé, the executive director of UNAIDS, stressed as he spoke to IRIN on the sidelines of the event, pointing out that such groups are responsible for more than half the health assistance in Africa.


    A major concern at the moment is Venezuelans living with HIV and, according to Sidibé, some 70 percent of health services for migrants at the Venezuela-Colombia border are provided by faith-based groups.


    The economic collapse has decimated Venezuela’s healthcare system and left many, including those with HIV or AIDS, short of vital medicines. Politics is also preventing most international humanitarian aid from entering the country.

    Read more on Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

    An estimated eight percent of the 3.4 million Venezuelans who have left since 2015 are living with HIV or AIDS – or  272,000 people – according to UNAIDS.


    In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, Tveit discusses the oversized role the church plays in helping migrants and refugees living with HIV, how this role evolved, and what it is that faith-based groups can offer on this issue that other organisations can’t.


    IRIN: How are churches working with migrants living with HIV?


    Olav Fykse Tveit: Churches are often at the forefront of welcoming migrants, and work to ensure they are integrated into neighbourhoods in the local community. On the national and global level, we also raise our voices to defend the rights of refugees in particular, but we also raise issues related to migration more generally, such as unfortunate expressions of xenophobia and racism. On those issues, the World Council of Churches cooperates strongly with the Catholic church (not a WCC member), where it has become part of Pope Francis’ agenda.


    IRIN: Within the current crisis in Venezuela, eight percent of those fleeing the country are people with HIV who are unable to find medication or care for their illness. How are WCC member churches working in the region?


    Tveit: We have a history with partner organisations trying to address HIV/AIDS, not only as a disease but also within a contextual perspective, and even as an ethical and cultural issue. We know that attitudes within churches have been a challenge and a problem for HIV sufferers. Stigmatisation, exclusion, different moral attitudes have been an additional problem to their illness. A lot has changed, and we have been working consistently to make churches HIV/AIDS-friendly, and competent, by understanding the entirety of this challenge.


    We have worked on this in Africa and in other regions, including Latin America. The approach has to do with knowledge, but also with capacities. Many of our partner organisations have strong capacities in dealing with urgent refugee situations. They are quite aware of who the most vulnerable are. It is part of their ethos, in the way they work. This is what you see in Venezuela and why they are aware of this particular combination of problems that HIV patients who have also had to flee are facing.


    IRIN: What has the experience been for the WCC when working with more conservative churches on the issue of HIV amongst refugees and migrants?


    Tveit: The churches have learnt a lot through this reality of HIV/AIDS, which as I said, is more than an illness. It is a cultural and moral issue. As churches, we are called to care for those who are excluded for any reason. We need to make sure they are part of a fellowship that involves caring for those people with respect and dignity. In many churches, in all continents, there has been an awakening and an awareness-raising that has changed a lot of the attitudes.


    We hear from partner organisations such as UNAIDS that what we need now more than ever are faith-based organisations who are committed to work in a holistic way on these issues. In other words, not only to deal with just the medical dimension of the illness, but to consider the whole human being.


    IRIN: How about your engagement with the Catholic church on this issue?


    Tveit: The Catholic church is related to this programme through Caritas and its diaconal ministry, and has important initiatives. The programme that we developed is ecumenical, and we work with partners who are willing to work with us too, and share this commitment and objectives. It varies between country to country as to whom we are working with.


    IRIN: How has it been to work on this issue with the Catholic church in some of the countries where the hierarchy may take a traditionalist approach to issues involving sex?


    Tveit: It’s not just the Catholic church that sometimes is described as conservative. Some of our member churches also may have a conservative approach to some of these very important issues…


    The churches in Africa are responsible for more than half of the health services and play an important role in developing health services that correspond to people’s needs and building confidence amongst local people...


    IRIN: Are faith-based organisations then filling a gap left by other organisations that may be seen as too politicised, to act as more “neutral” humanitarian – and particularly health – aid providers?


    Tveit: Christian churches have had a double contribution on this issue. On the one hand we have medical services, and therefore we are willing to contribute. We can also contribute in dealing with attitudes, dealing with stigmatisation both in the churches, but also outside within the communities. But we also have something to contribute together with others. We don’t say that we can fix what others cannot, but we can offer a long-term perspective, which appears to be important for UNAIDS. The medical dimension of it has been dealt with to a large extent, but now the issue is the implementation of it, to help people to live their whole life with this disease, in a proper way and with dignity.


    IRIN: How is the WCC involved in the issue of HIV and migrants elsewhere in the world?


    Tveit: Since 2002, we have worked in Africa on a programme called the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa. It was later expanded to other continents. It was a response to a call from church leaders in Africa. We subsequently developed a programme focused on building understanding and competence among theological students who would become deacons, pastors, and servants to the church. As a result, we have seen important changes and another level of understanding and solidarity with HIV-positive people, in Africa and in other regions.


    IRIN: Given the knowledge that your member churches have on the ground and the critical role they play in providing health services, what presence do you have within the international organisations?


    Tveit: Since the establishment of the WCC in 1948 there has been a lot of cooperation with the UN and UN-based institutions. Cooperation with the World Health Organisation has been quite strong over the years, and we are now revitalising it…


    IRIN: Where does funding come from for programmes helping migrants living with HIV, as churches on the ground may have limited resources?


    Tveit: Some of the initiatives we are building, such as competence-building and networking, are funded through our partners who have this programme on their agenda. Funding comes from churches, but also from other donors, including state agencies. NORAD, the Norwegian government’s development agency, has supported our projects for HIV and AIDS, where it has seen the importance of taking a holistic approach to the issue, including changing attitudes, and a long-term perspective. Investing in churches and church-based health services is a very good investment. Most of those involved in this work are very committed, highly competent, and with the willingness to go the extra mile to offer their services, which adds a lot of value and pays off in an economic sense.


    (TOP PHOTO: A Venezuelan migrant with HIV who left for Ecuador because he was being treated with expired retroviral drugs and his health was declining. CREDIT: Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo/UNHCR)

    Q&A: How churches are leading the way in helping migrants with HIV
    "We can offer a long-term perspective, which appears to be important for UNAIDS”
  • Why Venezuelan migrants need to be regarded as refugees

    How we treat Venezuelans in exile will shape the future trajectory of their country and the wider region.

    Some 3.4 million Venezuelans have now fled economic and political collapse. More than 1.1 million of them are in Colombia. And yet the Colombian government has recognised that displaced Venezuelans don’t have to be a burden; they can contribute economically, provided the right policies are adopted and there is adequate international support.

    Colombia is allowing Venezuelans who regularise their migration status to work and access public services, even at great cost to the state. And although over half a million Venezuelans are still in an irregular situation because they require a passport from Venezuela in order to regularise their status, there are signs even this may change.

    Read more: Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

    The Colombian government is trying to adapt its public employment service to support integration. In that sense, it follows in the footsteps of countries like Uganda and Turkey, which, despite receiving more than a million refugees, have viewed socio-economic integration, rather than encampment, as both the appropriate policy response and an opportunity for national development.

    But the international community is slow to follow.

    Most UN agencies and donors remain focused on providing humanitarian assistance at the borders. This contrasts with the global zeitgeist, and the Global Compact on Refugees’ focus on development-based approaches to displacement. The World Bank is among the few organisations to make the leap, making Colombia eligible for funding on the basis of facing a mass influx situation.

    Part of the reason for the absence of development-based support is that Colombia and its neighbours are middle-income countries. But a major part of it is also how Venezuelans are labelled. Describing them as ‘refugees’ would draw in a governance apparatus that today includes development actors. But the Venezuelans are being labelled as ‘migrants’ and that is shaping the governance response and the degree of engagement by UNHCR and others.

    The Venezuelan crisis parallels the Zimbabwean exodus of the early 2000s. Between 2003 and 2010, some two million Zimbabweans fled across to South Africa and other neighbouring states. Like Venezuelans, most were fleeing the economic consequences of the underlying political situations, rather than political persecution per se. Basic services were no longer available; poor governance and hyperinflation had ravaged the economy. Most were not recognised as refugees; they were ‘survival migrants’, fleeing fragile and failed states but not recognised as refugees.

    Legally, it is incontrovertible that most Venezuelans fit the 1984 Cartagena Declaration definition of a refugee; they are clearly fleeing ‘massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order’. But, as with Zimbabweans in the early 2000s, there are strong interests in not invoking the ‘refugee’ label. And there is the valid question of what value the ‘refugee’ label would actually add given that Colombia already has a backlog of over 2,000 people in its asylum system – registering Venezuelans for refugee status determination would be slow and cumbersome, and few Venezuelans are actively seeking international protection.

    Development assistance must be unlocked

    The risk of being at the margins of global refugee governance, as the Venezuelan exodus is, is that host countries are not receiving the support and guidance that befits the world’s biggest current displacement crisis.

    The IOM-UNHCR joint platform helps coordinate humanitarian aid and their joint special envoy, Eduardo Stein, offers valuable advocacy. But, today, the relevant governance innovations that bring support for the socio-economic inclusion of displaced populations come through the global refugee regime. UNHCR’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), for example, would be highly relevant to Colombia and other neighbouring states, if it were applied. It offers a mechanism for engaging development actors and the private sector in supporting opportunities for Venezuelans and citizens alike. But it is simply not on the table.

    Even if Venezuelans are seen as survival migrants rather than refugees, the most relevant policy responses can still be derived from historical responses to refugees. The Mexico City Plan of Action of 2004, for example, elaborated two concepts for refuge in Latin America: ‘Cities of Solidarity’ (Ciudades Solidarias) and ‘Borders of Solidarity’ (Fronteras Solidarias).

    Even if we don’t call it a ‘refugee’ crisis, the best solutions are likely to be those that have worked for refugees.

    For host cities and border zones, development plans are needed that offer new employment opportunities for both Venezuelans and receiving country citizens. In Colombia, initial research by UNHCR suggests that Venezuelans might fill important gaps in the fast food sector or the seasonal flower industry, for example. In the border zones, there may be different types of opportunity. In La Guajira, for example, the ecotourism industry has potential. In Norte de Santander, textiles or agriculture might offer employment.

    A number of other countries have already used the mass influx of refugees as an opportunity for regional development in remote border areas. Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for instance benefited immensely from the local integration of Guatemalan refugees during the 1990s. Uganda has attracted development assistance to remote border areas in both the South-West and Nile Valley regions of the country, for example. In Colombia, relations between the central and local governments are often strained, but new resources may offer the chance to build a new relationship between central government and the border areas.

    Arguably the most successful precedent of channelling development assistance to support refugees comes from the region. The International Conference on Refugees in Central America (CIREFCA) of 1989 outlined a range of development programmes to support refugees’ economic integration. It attracted around half a billion dollars of investment, mainly from European donors and the United States.

    Crucially, the conference was not a one-off pledging conference but a multi-year process that built trust and credibility, and included concrete follow-up mechanisms. It involved leadership by an inter-agency secretariat. Of particular relevance, CIREFCA focused not just on ‘refugees’, but also ‘externally displaced persons’ and ‘internally displaced persons’.

    Might a similar ‘International Conference on Venezuelan Migrants’, for example, serve as a catalyst for a development-based approach? Such ‘solidarity conferences’ are a key part of the Global Compact on Refugees, and the Venezuelan context might offer opportunity for one of the first such events. It could serve the host countries of the entire region, including Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile under the ethos of ‘Venezuelan migration as an opportunity for development’.

    Regardless of whether there is consensus for such a process, international engagement for both humanitarian and development is urgently needed. And irrespective of how we label the crisis and the affected population, Latin America’s own history offers a litany of relevant practices.

    Even if we don’t call it a ‘refugee’ crisis, the best solutions are likely to be those that have worked for refugees. What is at stake is not only the needs of millions of Venezuelans but also the future stability and prosperity of the region.

    (TOP PHOTO: Venezuelan migrants climb on a truck on the road from Cúcuta to Pamplona, Colombia, on 10 February 2019. CREDIT: Raul Arboleda/AFP)

    Why Venezuelan migrants need to be regarded as refugees
  • Saudi Arabia and UAE in record pledge at Yemen aid conference

    Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf donors fighting on one side of the war in Yemen, committed a record-breaking $1 billion towards UN-led humanitarian operations in the country at a pledging conference on Tuesday.


    The UN and 250 associated aid groups were asking for $4.2 billion to meet the needs of millions of the most vulnerable Yemenis in 2019. More than $2.6 billion in new money was pledged at the event, co-hosted by Switzerland and Sweden at the UN in Geneva.


    For nearly four years, a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been backing the internationally recognised (but mostly exiled) Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in its fight against Houthi rebels and their allies.


    The war has caused a sharp rise in the needs of civilians, as extreme poverty, hunger, disease, and displacement threaten the daily lives of most of the country’s approximately 30 million people. Aid and trade in the divided country are frequently disrupted by logistical and military obstructions by all parties to the conflict, aid agencies say.


    The new contribution from Saudi Arabia and UAE, the largest such commitment to a UN humanitarian appeal ever, follows a joint $500 million pledge in November, most of which will also be spent in 2019. The two countries committed $930 million for last years’ appeal.


    Senior Swiss humanitarian aid official Manuel Bessler told IRIN that Yemen was “a good operation” with “actors that can deliver”, but acknowledged that the giant aid response did face challenges in terms of access and security.


    Muna Luqman, chairperson of the Yemeni NGO “Food For Humanity”, lobbying in Geneva for more support to deal with mental health and trauma, said she had ”mixed feelings” about the conference.


    “I’m happy that we’re getting more attention to Yemen, and of course more funding is needed,” she said. “However, I’m sad this is the second or third pledging conference – I hope the next event will be a peace conference.”


    “Driving seat”


    The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and the two Gulf states are still in discussions about how the 2019 funds will be allocated, according to UN and Saudi Arabian officials.


    Mohammed Al-Jaber, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, said talks were underway with OCHA chief Mark Lowcock to review the 2018 experience and “overcome the weaknesses of what happened last year”.


    Saudi Arabian and Emirati officials both declined to elaborate in detail on what those weaknesses were, although UN officials, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the high stakes involved, said Riyadh had expected more impact from its donations and wanted to be “seen in the driving seat” of the humanitarian effort on Yemen.


    Saudi Arabia on Tuesday publicly offered to host the 2020 Yemen humanitarian pledging conference, a proposal that observers said was a non-starter due to Saudi Arabia’s role in the conflict.


    Read more: Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts


    A block grant of $930 million from Saudi Arabia and the UAE was paid to OCHA last year, and then allocated to UN agencies and NGOs in a number of large grants.


    Lowcock said he hoped the same would happen this year. In 2018, the “exceptionally” large grant enabled a synchronised approach that helped stave off famine and save “millions of lives”, he added.


    Salary payments


    Donors and UN agencies called for salaries to be paid to Yemeni state employees, both in areas controlled by the Houthi rebels and in parts of the country run by Hadi’s government and its allies. Among those who have not been paid regularly for around two years are teachers, health workers, and civil servants. Humanitarians say the lack of these payments has contributed to the collapse of Yemen’s economy.


    The issue was a talking point for the UN and Western donors, but they are reluctant to get drawn into paying state employees indefinitely. EU humanitarian aid commissioner Christos Stylianides told IRIN that salary payments were “a precondition in order to see the economy resuming, and at the same time to give the people more dignity”.


    Saudi Arabia’s al-Jaber told IRIN he hoped some of the appeal funding could go towards paying the salaries of government workers.


    The number of unpaid civil servants is hard to pin down. In a recent interview with IRIN, al-Jaber said about 650,000 civil servants were being paid, and rejected a figure of 1.2 million unpaid civil servants that had been circulated by aid agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières.


    Bessler said donors were willing to contribute, at least to some extent, to salaries. “We have to,” he said. “Beside addressing humanitarian needs, we have to build institutions. And for this, the basic… human capacity is also needed.”


    Reem al-Hashimi, the UAE minister of state for international cooperation, agreed it was “incredibly important” that civil servants were paid, but said it wouldn’t be effective alone – if for example the central bank couldn’t also stabilise exchange rates to control the cost of imports.


    The fact that the largest country donors to the appeal, as in 2018, are also parties to the conflict was not lost on participants.


    The conduct of the war by the two biggest donors is “both driving massive humanitarian needs and obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” said Médecins Sans Frontières in a statement.


    And while some donors are engaged directly in the war, others are significant arms exporters to the warring parties, such as the United States and the UK.


    This led Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s executive director, to make a tongue-in-cheek proposal. Speaking at the conference, Byanyima suggested a different pledging conference, to help arms-producing countries diversify into more peaceful industries.

    (TOP PHOTO: A woman receives assistance from the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, in Dhamar province, Yemen. CREDIT: Arwa Al Sabri/UNHCR)


    Saudi Arabia and UAE in record pledge at Yemen aid conference
    Their $1bn was the largest ever such commitment to a UN humanitarian appeal
  • 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)



    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)


    Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials

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