(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Greek roads prove deadly for migrants on busy land route to Europe

    Near the Evros River border between Turkey and Greece, which became a popular migration crossing point in 2018, officials have recorded a sharp increase in migrant and asylum seeker deaths from traffic accidents. And more than a quarter of all migrant deaths in mainland Europe in 2018 were due to road accidents in Greece, according to UN figures.


    Pavlos Pavlidis, a forensic scientist based in Alexandroupoli, Greece, whose sole responsibility is identifying dead migrants and asylum seekers, told IRIN that by mid-December he had already seen dead bodies from nine traffic accidents in 2018, up from two car crashes in 2017.


    Read more → Greece’s man in the migrant morgue


    It’s not entirely clear what’s behind the growing trend, but both reckless practices by human smugglers and attempts to avoid arrest and return to Turkey are possible causes.


    Greece itself has the highest rate of road fatalities in the European Union, at 69 deaths for every one million inhabitants in 2017.


    But for migrants, the roads are even more dangerous. According to statistics from the UN’s International Organization for Migration, 30 migrants died and 82 were injured in road accidents in Greece last year, out of the nearly 48,000 migrants who arrived in the country, 15,814 via Evros. The IOM recorded 109 migrant deaths in all of Europe in 2018.

    Most of the crashes take place on Greece’s Egnatia Odos highway, a €5.93 billion project that stretches from the Ionian Sea to the Turkish frontier, and was designed to be faster and safer than the roads it replaced when it was finalised in 2009.


    Dimitris Koros, a lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees, told IRIN that attempts to avoid capture may encourage dangerous practices: “As [migrants] know that the more deep in the mainland they enter, the less possible it is for them to be pushed back, it makes their driving that much more reckless,” he said. IOM reports that nearly every accident occurs after a high-speed car chase with a police vehicle.


    Human smuggling is a business where corners are regularly cut, and Greece is no exception. In Evros, migrants are loaded into cars or vans beyond capacity. IOM reports that smugglers usually arrange for unaccompanied foreign minors already living in Greece to drive – the idea being that underage drivers won’t get jail time. Other times, migrants are forced to drive themselves. In either case, drivers are likely overwhelmed, unfamiliar with the terrain, and afraid of the authorities.


    Popular land route to Europe


    As IRIN has reported, in April 2018 the Evros River (known as the Meriç in Turkey) saw a resurgence in migrants and asylum seekers crossing into Europe, leaving first responders, police, and aid workers both unprepared and overwhelmed.


    That month, 3,600 people crossed at Evros, surpassing sea arrivals to Greece for the first time since 2014. Numbers have since dropped – the Hellenic Police report 1,848 people crossing in October and 1,025 in November – but they are still significantly up on 2017.


    A string of high-profile accidents began shortly after the uptick in arrivals last year. On 8 June, a van carrying 17 Iranian migrants flew over the Egnatia Odos’ protective barrier, leaving six dead, among them three children. Later that month, on 27 June, a sedan packed with 10 Syrians and Iraqis (including two children) lost control on the highway, killing three people and injuring the rest. The mother of the children died at the Alexandroupoli hospital later that day.


    The pressure on those arriving is intense. Both Human Rights Watch and the Greek Council of Refugees have found a clear pattern of police (or groups wearing paramilitary clothing) speaking in Greek and other foreign languages forcibly returning migrants across the Evros border to Turkey.


    Migrants and smugglers – usually hoping to reach Thessaloniki or Athens before moving elsewhere in Europe – know that the chance of reaching their final destination increases the further they go into the Greek mainland. “I used to breathe a sigh of relief when I saw signs for Kavala [a city some 200 kilometres southwest of Evros],” a former migrant smuggler who requested anonymity told IRIN in June.


    Whatever the causes of the individual crashes, deaths are stacking up.


    On 13 October, police chased a van full of migrants near Kavala, leading the van to crash head on with a truck. All 11 migrants stuffed inside were burned alive, charred beyond recognition. One month later, a migrant van again collided with a truck, injuring 27 people and killing a four-year old Iraqi boy.


    Most recently, on 13 December, a driver ignored warning signs to slow down due to an overturned lorry; he lost control of the vehicle and three migrants died. Another three survived with injuries.

    (TOP PHOTO: A group of Syrians who have just crossed the Evros River from Turkey to Greece. CREDIT: Socrates Baltagiannis/UNHCR)


    Greek roads prove deadly for migrants on busy land route to Europe
  • A “manufactured” Brexit migrant crisis masks new risks ahead

    In late 2018, small flimsy boats carrying mainly Iranian migrants began to arrive on English beaches from France, navigating the world’s busiest shipping lane. Such voyages are not unprecedented, but in Britain’s current political climate, as Brexit looms, they provided for a sense of heightened panic.

    According to Home Office figures, 312 migrants entered Britain by crossing the Channel in 2018. In the same timespan, Europe received more than 116,000 sea arrivals, with 2,242 migrants known to have drowned in the Mediterranean. Yet by the end of December, weeks before Tuesday’s vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the British government had declared the crossings a “major incident” and deployed navy warships to the waters.

    Migrants’ rights organisations cried foul.

    “It’s a manufactured crisis,” said Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network, a charity that works with unaccompanied asylum seekers. “The government is using it to harden attitudes to Brexit, playing into ideas of an invading army trying to get to our shores when what we’re talking about is a few bedraggled people in boats with hypothermia.”

    Author Gulwali Passarlay, who fled Taliban-run Afghanistan as a teenager in 2006 – arriving in the UK from Calais hidden in a truck full of bananas – said the UK was overreacting to the migrant boats but blamed harsh deterrence policies for encouraging the phenomenon in the first place.

    “Eleven years ago [in Calais] there was no discussion about crossing by small boats; I don’t think people thought it was possible. But the British government has done everything they can to prevent people from coming here. Smugglers always find riskier routes, and they wouldn’t exist if there were legal and safe ways for them to travel. The ‘serious incident’ is [not the crossings but] the reasons those people had to flee their homes in the first place.”

    Beyond the Channel arrivals, migration experts warn that post-Brexit Britain may encounter an asylum upheaval as it leaves EU mechanisms, and that a hidden crisis requiring the attention of British politicians is the risk of large numbers of EU nationals becoming undocumented due to registration complications. They suggest that Brexit has exposed sharp divides over immigration and that uncertainty is growing for migrants and refugees looking for a future in Britain.

    The Iranian asylum case

    On 2 January, Home Secretary (interior minister) Sajid Javid, one of several potential successors to May as prime minister, prejudged the migrants’ asylum validity, saying: “You are coming from France, which is a safe country… but if you were a real, genuine asylum seeker then you could have [claimed asylum] in another safe country. If you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure you are ultimately not successful.”

    Aid groups working around the ports of Calais and Dunkirk suggest that after the French government dismantled the tented ‘Jungle’ camp in October 2016, the population became much more vulnerable. Maya Konforti from L’Auberge des Migrants said treatment by French authorities does not encourage migrants to claim asylum in France and most are motivated to continue due to connections in the UK.

    “They live in horrible conditions, are chased by the police every other day, and their tents and sleeping bags are taken,” she said. “If someone offers them an opportunity to cross [to the UK], they will take it. And often they have family there, they speak good English, and they heard UK is the best place to go.”

    Konforti’s organisation noted that during a November census, 38 percent of the 493 people counted in Calais were Iranian.

    Political repression and depressed economic conditions in Iran are regularly stated reasons for leaving, but a visa-free travel agreement between Tehran and Belgrade may have facilitated the exodus. Signed in August 2017, it allowed Iranians to fly legally to Serbia and thus skip much of the treacherous clandestine route to Europe. More than 15,000 Iranians visited Serbia since the agreement, which was abolished in October 2018 under EU pressure as it became obvious that planes were arriving full of passengers and departing nearly empty.

    Speaking by phone from Belgrade, Miodrag Cakic from Refugee Aid Serbia said: “Initially they were here legally as tourists and so able to go to hotels and had no need to approach NGOs. Only later we started to see the unsuccessful ones coming back from the borders, having run out of money over their legal stay and needing our help.”

    Despite his doubts over the Channel migrants’ validity, Javid’s own department’s statistics for the year ending September 2018 reveal that Iranians had a 47 percent success rate in gaining asylum in the UK (not including figures after appeals).

    Choppy political waters

    In the year up to the referendum in June 2016, a record 284,000 EU citizens arrived in the UK, whereas 289,000 came to Britain from outside Europe.

    For years, ruling Conservative Party policy has been to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, a target apparently unachievable even if EU migration was reduced to zero. Nevertheless, ending freedom of movement from Europe was a key priority for Brexit’s 'Leave' voters, and press coverage of refugees trekking through the Balkans only reinforced this position.

    Despite Britain being largely insulated from the European refugee crisis, it was a trope used by pro-Leave campaigners during the 2016 referendum. Brexit, voters were told, would enable Britain to regain control of its borders. Paradoxically, the opposite may be true.

    As an EU member, the UK is signed up to the Dublin regulation, which states that asylum seekers can be returned to the country where they were first registered on the Eurodac fingerprint database. The law is tailored to enable wealthy northern European states like the UK to outsource asylum responsibilities to poorer southern members such as Italy and Greece where most migrants enter.

    Steve Peers, professor of EU and human rights law at the University of Essex, said Brexit could obstruct Britain’s ability to bounce back migrants to Europe.

    “Without the deterrence of Dublin returns there could possibly be more people coming that would be harder to send back,” he said. “The UK could try to agree bilateral agreements with individual countries, but it would be on the back foot having to negotiate that from scratch. If there’s no [Brexit] deal, the Dublin system will stop immediately, and pending cases could stop too.”

    The UK’s privileged class of EU membership includes opt-outs on many asylum and immigration matters, such as the borderless Schengen area – the EU’s troubled relocation mechanism designed in 2015 to redistribute migrants around the bloc.

    Instead, in 2015, the British government announced an expansion of a scheme to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees from the Middle East by 2020. So far, 12,851 have come by this method – a total over more than three years that approximates to the average daily arrival on the Greek islands at the height of Europe’s refugee influx.

    New challenges for EU migrants

    In the middle of the migrant boat furore, Javid – the son of a Pakistani bus driver who arrived in 1960s Britain with £1 in his pocket – outlined new plans for a post-Brexit ‘skills-based’ immigration system, including limiting low-skilled migrants to short-term visas and a minimum salary threshold for the highly skilled (originally mooted as £30,000). Some observers noted that Javid’s proposals would have prevented his own father from building a life in Britain.

    From March, Britain’s 3.7 million EU citizens will need to begin applying for ‘settled status’ to remain in the country after Brexit. This process, which costs £65, will be managed by the Home Office, a department that is habitually plagued by immigration scandals.

    One of 2018’s biggest political stories in Britain revealed that the Home Office had wrongly deported, detained, and denied services to hundreds of Commonwealth citizens after accusing them of not possessing documentation they never knew they needed. The plight of the ‘Windrush generation’ – named after the ship that brought the first passengers across from the Caribbean to fill post-World War II labour shortages – engulfed May’s government for months.

    The University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory has suggested that potentially tens of thousands of vulnerable EU citizens, without help, may risk not securing their status. The risk for these people is that they become ensnared in the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies.

    Pierre Makhlouf from the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees said Javid’s new measures could sow the seeds for a future Windrush-style scandal as EU nationals who failed to register encounter problems later on: “We are talking about more than three million people now having to regularise themselves in a way that has never been required before. I have no doubt that we will see an increase in undocumented people in the UK.”

    Most political observers predict parliament will vote down May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the government has begun preparing for food and medicine shortages, transport chaos, and civil disorder in case Britain leaves the EU on 29 March without a deal.

    In May, a UN special rapporteur said the referendum had contributed to an environment of increased intolerance and racial discrimination. Whatever the Brexit outcome, the changes coming, against a backdrop of polarised views over immigration, present new challenges for vulnerable migrants.

    (TOP PHOTO: French gendarmes patrol on the beach near Calais on 9 January 2019 as they try to intercept migrants attempting to cross the Channel. CREDIT: Philippe Huguen/AFP)


    A “manufactured” Brexit migrant crisis masks new risks ahead
  • Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Militant attacks spike in Nigeria

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

    Winter has come

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

    Congo election result challenged

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

    Deal or no deal? Yemen ceasefire falling apart

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

    Exploring peace amid fresh violence in Thailand’s deep south

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

    One to listen to

    Keeping local staff safe

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

    In case you missed it:

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

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

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

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

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

    Weekend read

    Women, girls, and gender preparedness in aid

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

    And finally...

    Brexit and the US shutdown

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

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


    Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen
  • No way back: New law adds pressure on asylum seekers in Italy

    Over the last five years, some two million migrants and refugees have made it from the north coast of Africa by sea to the perceived promise and safety of Europe. Almost 650,000 people have survived the longest, most dangerous crossing via the central Mediterranean to Italy.

    Lamin Saidykhan, a 21-year-old Gambian, is one of them.

    Saidykhan fled difficult conditions in his home country in 2016, hoping to find a better life in Italy. But things have not been easy. The recent repeal of two-year “humanitarian protection” status for a broad class of asylum seekers leaves people like him even more vulnerable.


    From 2015 to 2017, almost 26,000 Gambians sought asylum in Italy. Under the old law, those who didn’t immediately qualify for asylum could still stay in Italy for a certain period and receive some social benefits. But the rules were tightened late last year to include only victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, and other very specific criteria.

    Read more: New Italian law adds to unofficial clampdown on aid to asylum seekers

    Prominent Italians, including the mayors of Milan and Naples, have publicly opposed the new measures on ethical grounds, while the governors of Tuscany and Piedmont have said they will challenge them in court.

    But dozens of migrants and asylum seekers have already been evicted from state-organised housing, and thousands more remain concerned. Unwilling to return home and unable to build a future in Italy, they fear they may end up on the street with no access to services or support.


    *The production of this film was supported by a Migration Media Award

    No way back: New law adds pressure on asylum seekers in Italy
  • 2018 in Review: Migration

    This series

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

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


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


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


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


    Below are highlights from our reporting:


    Heading into war

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

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

    Men walk should to shoulder on a barren road


    Lost identity

    How tattered Rohingya IDs trace a trail towards statelessness

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

    A man holds up his ID card


    War and peace

    Eritrea-Ethiopia peace leads to a refugee surge

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

    Portraits of two Eritreans closeup but looking away


    Economic collapse

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

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

    A guard in camo with a rifle against the sky


    US border deaths

    Water in the desert

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

    A cross on a small hill



    Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey

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

    A shoe stuck in thick barbed wire


    Rights lost

    New Italian law adds to unofficial clampdown on asylum seekers

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

    The back of a head in the foreground with a runway and planes in the background
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Migration
  • New Italian law adds to unofficial clampdown on aid to asylum seekers

    Tens of thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers have lost their right to two-year residency permits and integration services in Italy after new legislation championed by the populist government’s right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was signed into law this week.


    But over the past two years thousands have already had government services to which they were entitled cut or curtailed, according to interviews with asylum seekers and legal experts over several months, as well as government responses to dozens of freedom of information requests.


    One in every three asylum seekers who arrived in more than half of Italy’s local government prefectures over the past two years has either left or been evicted from their government-run accommodation, according to information IRIN obtained from local governments.


    A request for comment on these findings to the Italian interior ministry went unanswered at time of publication.


    Aid groups warn that the new law will compound an existing crisis in Italy, which is struggling to cope with providing basic services to some 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers awaiting decisions and an estimated 500,000 undocumented migrants – many of whom have already fallen out of the reception system.


    In addition to granting five-year residence permits to refugees and to asylum seekers who meet “subsidiary protection” criteria, Italy has for the past 20 years granted two-year residency permits to a wider group of migrants on comparatively flexible “humanitarian protection” grounds – broadly interpreted as those who aren’t refugees but who can’t be sent home either.

    The controversial new Decree-Law on Immigration and Security, signed by President Sergio Matterella on Monday, scraps “humanitarian protection” altogether and introduces new “special permits” for a much narrower group that comprises: victims of domestic violence, trafficking, and severe exploitation; those with serious health issues; those fleeing natural disasters; and those who commit acts of civic valour.

    • The Decree-Law on Immigration and Security in brief

    • “Humanitarian protection” residency permits – granted to one in four asylum seekers last year – abolished
    • Asylum seekers lose access to integration services until their application is granted
    • Network of reception centres drastically downsized
    • Withdrawal of refugee status made easier
    • Maximum detention time in “repatriation centres” doubled to six months
    • Fast-track expulsions for “socially dangerous” migrants


    In 2017, 20,166 people – around 25 percent of the total who sought asylum – were granted “humanitarian protection”. Those who lose their permits also lose their right to work and their right to stay in the best facilities that have services to help them integrate into Italian society.


    Only 25,000 places are available in Italy’s longer-term, government-run reception system, known by its Italian acronym SPRAR, which typically provides high standards of care. This means that more than 150,000 people waiting for decisions on their asylum applications, or 80 percent of the total, are housed in more than 9,000 supposedly temporary accommodation facilities, known by the acronym CAS. These are for the most part managed by commercial entities with no track record in providing housing and services for asylum seekers, and have been associated with corruption and substandard living conditions.


    Some asylum seekers formerly granted “humanitarian protection” are already being forced out of the SPRAR facilities, meaning they also lose out on integration measures such as language classes and work skills courses.


    "Hundreds have already been expelled from reception centres throughout Italy, and left homeless at a moment's notice,” Oliviero Forti, head of the migration division for Caritas in Italy, told IRIN. “In some places, like Crotone, our charity shelters have been overwhelmed over the weekend. Some very vulnerable individuals, such as pregnant women or persons with psychiatric conditions, are being put on the street without any support measure and, incredibly, government-managed facilities are calling upon Caritas for help.”


    An attempt to reduce arrivals


    Italy overtook Greece in 2016 as the main European entry point for migrants and asylum seekers, receiving 320,000 people in the past two years – the vast majority entering on small, overcrowded vessels operated by smugglers across the Mediterranean from North Africa, or after being rescued en route.


    Salvini, also deputy prime minister, leads the far-right League Party and campaigned on a strongly anti-immigration platform during the March general election. Shortly after taking office in June as part of a fractious ruling coalition with the populist and anti-EU Five Star Movement, Salvini closed the country’s ports to migrant rescue ships.


    Migrants who arrive in Italy by boat typically spend their first two days in initial arrival facilities known as “hotspots”, mostly concentrated in Sicily, where identification procedures take place. Those who are prima facie determined to have a legitimate basis to claim asylum are entitled to a place in the SPRAR system, even if the majority don’t get one.


    These are small facilities evenly distributed across the country, organised by the Interior Ministry and managed by humanitarian organisations with experience working with migrant populations. They are known for providing a high standard of basic services as well as vocational training and psychological counselling. The 25,000 available placements have typically been reserved for the most vulnerable cases, such as minors who are victims of trafficking.


    Under Salvini’s new law, only people who are granted a visa – a process that can take several years — may be placed in SPRAR facilities, not asylum seekers. Migrants and asylum seekers will be sent to a CAS.


    Médecins Sans Frontières warned in a statement that the new law will have a “dramatic impact on the life and health of thousands of people”. MSF said that “over the years it operated inside CAS”, its workers found that prolonged stays in the centres “deteriorates migrants’ mental health” and “hampers their chances of integrating successfully into society”.


    The coalition government promised that Salvini’s new law would result in half a million deportations. Past deportation rates suggest it will be difficult to keep that promise, analysts say. What does seem likely, they say, is that larger numbers of asylum seekers will be detained for longer periods. Salvini’s law doubles to six months the time new arrivals can be held in “repatriation” centres while their identities and nationalities are being confirmed.


    Added to the 30-day detention period many face in hotspot facilities, this means asylum seekers can now be detained for up to seven months without having committed any crime.


    Another measure within the new legislation suspends refugee protections for those considered “socially dangerous” or who are convicted of crimes, even in the first of Italy’s three-stage conviction process.


    Already in crisis


    Based on IRIN’s analysis of responses to freedom of information requests received from 53 of Italy’s 103 prefectures (the others did not reply), the Italian reception system is unable to retain its guests, partly due to a lack of integration opportunities and medical care. More than 28,000 residents have left the temporary facilities over the last 24 months, either because local governments withdrew their right to assistance for alleged violations of certain rules or because the migrants and asylum seekers decided to leave of their own accord.


    Interviews with legal experts, social workers, dozens of migrants, and analysis of the withdrawal orders shows a pattern of widespread violations of migrants’ legal rights in the reception centres, with local authorities sometimes complicit in the abuses.


    The CAS centres – for the most part private-sector hotels and apartments identified and approved by local government – are in theory just one link in a complex and poorly regulated chain of migrant accommodations. But because the SPRAR centres are full to capacity, they have taken on a spill-over function.


    A migrant can be entitled to remain in Italy as an asylum seeker or refugee, but can still lose, with a "withdrawal order", all institutional support, such as accommodation, training, medical care etc. Under EU law that is legally binding in Italy, withdrawal orders should only be issued as a last resort, to punish violent conduct or severe abuse of the reception benefits.


    Dozens of interviews with former and current CAS residents – as well as withdrawal orders and communications between reception centre managers and government officials seen by IRIN – reveal that this regulation is frequently abused, sometimes to retaliate against residents who protest their treatment within the facilities. Minor infringements such as returning to centres late are routinely penalised, sometimes retroactively, with criteria that vary massively from one prefecture to another – including, sometimes, withdrawal notices.


    The abuse of withdrawal orders “infringes both EU and Italian law, depriving migrants of basic human rights,” said Dario Belluccio, a lawyer and the director of ASGI, a leading association of immigration law scholars.

    Those who leave the centres often move to migrant shanty towns, which tend to lack water and electricity and where severe labour exploitation and sex trafficking thrive.

    Those who receive a withdrawal notice – the number could spike under Salvini’s new law, with more asylum seekers being deemed “socially dangerous” or found guilty of minor infractions – instantly lose their place in a residence centre, a €75 monthly allowance, and virtually all institutional support.


    Those who leave the centres often move to migrant shanty towns, which tend to lack water and electricity and where severe labour exploitation and sex trafficking thrive.


    Helped by the unsatisfactory conditions in the reception system, the shanty towns have grown in size over the past few years. In these communities, migrants often find it difficult to obtain basic services such as healthcare as well as the legal assistance needed to follow up on asylum applications.


    No permit, no job, no home


    Even without a withdrawal order, more asylum seekers and migrants may soon find themselves without access to shelter or services provided by the government. That’s already the case for Becky*, a Nigerian woman in her 20s who was trafficked to Italy for sex work. A social worker familiar with her case, who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity for security concerns, said that shortly after arriving in Italy two years ago Becky was forced by her trafficker to leave the reception facility in which she was placed to move to a large shanty town in the province of Foggia.


    When local anti-trafficking authorities became aware of Becky’s case after questions were raised during her asylum interview earlier this year, they offered her a place in a protection facility. But such facilities demand that residents give up their mobile phones to ensure that traffickers can’t track them. Residents are limited to one weekly call to a family member while trafficking allegations are being investigated.


    “It is not an easy choice to make, and she didn’t take up that opportunity,” said the social worker.


    Days before the new immigration law was passed by parliament last month, Becky was issued a humanitarian residence permit by the local asylum commission. But under the new law, authorities are no longer able to distribute the permits, even after they have been granted. “It is not a matter of will, it is literally a matter of police no longer having a button on their computers to print a humanitarian permit,” the social worker noted.


    Without documents, Becky can’t look for a job or new accommodation. So she remains in the shanty town, exactly where her trafficker placed her two years ago.


    (*Name changed for security reasons)



    “Hundreds have already been expelled from reception centres”
    New Italian law adds to unofficial clampdown on aid to asylum seekers
  • Congo data, South Sudan attacks, and UNAIDS in crisis: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar


    "Brutal attacks" against women and girls in South Sudan


    Despite some cautious optimism around a new peace agreement, civilians are still far from safe in South Sudan. Aid groups say more than 150 women and girls were raped, beaten, and brutalised over a 10-day period at the end of November. Armed men, many in uniform, carried out the “abhorrent” attacks near the city of Bentiu, the UN said. Médecins Sans Frontières, which provided emergency medical care to survivors, expressed deep concerns. “Some are girls under 10 years old and others are women older than 65. Even pregnant women have not been spared from these brutal attacks,” said MSF midwife Ruth Okello. Since the war began in 2013, South Sudan has seen horrific levels of sexual violence. In the first half of 2018, 2,300 cases were reported; more than 20 percent of victims were children, the UN said. For more on the conflict and what it’s like to live in Juba and report on it, watch this frank Q&A interview with IRIN contributor Stefanie Glinski. And look out for our special package next week as the war marks its five-year milestone.


    UN accused of manipulating data in Congo


    Aid groups working in the Democratic Republic of Congo have accused the UN of "manipulating" data and bowing to government pressure ahead of elections later this month. In a statement in November, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, put the overall number of people needing assistance in Congo in 2019 at 12.8 million, a slight decrease on last year, despite the fact that according to the authoritative IPC scale 13.1 million Congolese are facing crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity next year (up from 7.7 million in 2018). The OCHA overall needs figure appears to only count the displaced as 1.37 million people newly displaced between January and August 2018. Aid groups say that overlooking three million people who had already been displaced prior to that will dramatically impact their ability to respond to needs, and may encourage forced closures of IDP camps. A letter obtained by IRIN – addressed to UN aid chief Mark Lowcock and Kim Bolduc, the UN’s most senior humanitarian official in Congo – from a forum of 45 international NGOs working in the country, blames the decision on "increased politicisation of humanitarian data", which they say sends a misleading message that the situation is improving "despite clear evidence to the contrary". OCHA has denied manipulating data. Read our report from April on how relations were already strained between aid groups and the Congolese government, after it failed to attend its own donor conference in March.

    UNAIDS: "A broken organisational culture"


    An independent report on harassment and management culture at the UN's specialised HIV/AIDS body, UNAIDS, is out today and it's damning. The executive director, Michel Sidibé, is found to have set up a "patriarchal culture", and the organisation to be in crisis. The four-month review followed reports that a senior UNAIDS official's sexual misconduct was not properly handled. The report plants the blame at the feet of Sidibé. He has been "tolerating harassment and abuse of authority" and "accepted no responsibility for actions and effects of decisions and practices creating the conditions that led to this review,” it said. In an email to staff, Sidibé wrote: "I have taken on board the criticisms."


    Disputed Papua killings raise tensions in Indonesia


    Violence this week in the Papua region put the spotlight back on a decades-long pro-independence movement along Indonesia’s eastern edge. Indonesian authorities say pro-independence fighters killed up to 31 people working on a controversial infrastructure project in Papua province this week, though an armed group that reportedly claimed responsibility said those killed were not civilians. A separate pro-independence leader called for restraint and warned of retaliatory attacks by Indonesia’s military. For decades, Indonesia has quashed Papuan nationalism, which includes both armed elements and a peaceful movement by activists who have called for a referendum on independence. Over that time, the heavily militarised region has been mired in poverty and under-development, letting treatable health problems fester. Earlier this year, a measles outbreak killed dozens of children.


    One year after victory, is Iraq IS-free?


    One year ago (on 9 December, to be exact) Iraq declared victory against so-called Islamic State. The country’s recovery has come in fits and starts. There were elections and a new prime minister, but he’s not yet managed to form a government. November saw the lowest number of civilian deaths and injuries in violence, terrorism, and armed conflict in six years, but a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says IS is regrouping, operating in a cell structure, and targeting the Iraqi government, especially local village heads. And while 4.1 million Iraqis who fled their homes during the IS years have returned home, 1.9 remain displaced, half of them for more than three years. The UN says it’s increasingly clear many of these people don’t want to (or can’t) go home, many still rely on aid, and it’s not clear what their future holds.


    Plus ça change


    MSF employs more people than any other relief organisation, and there are 570,000 people working in humanitarian aid overall. Just two new data points from an ambitious report, the State of the Humanitarian System 2018, released this week. The study finds that the global political climate is causing a "decline in performance in the areas of coverage (the ability to reach everyone in need) and coherence (the ability to conduct operations in line with international humanitarian and refugee law)". The report, from the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance, or ALNAP, also gives a lukewarm appraisal of the humanitarian system: “incremental improvement in some areas, and a lack of movement in others”. While UN agencies dominate the funding picture, six large NGOs command 23 percent of the spending in 2017, the report finds. The 331 page report came hard on the heels of the UN-led omnibus humanitarian appeal for 2019, which signalled the need for $25 billion in aid for more than 90 million people.

    In case you missed it


    Afghanistan: Two bodies managing October parliamentary elections are clashing over poll results in the capital, Kabul. The elections complaints commission declared fraud and invalidated all votes cast in Kabul, but the agency overseeing the vote said it would ignore the ruling.


    China: More than 7,400 women and girls could be victims of forced marriage in just a few remote districts along the northern Myanmar-China border, according to a new study. Nearly 40 percent of women interviewed for the research said they’d been forced to marry.


    Ebola: Eighteen new Ebola cases and five more deaths have been recorded in just two days in Congo. The health ministry expressed particular concern about the spread in Butembo, a major trading city in North Kivu province. With 471 cases, including 273 deaths, the outbreak is now the second-largest ever.


    Libya: Locals say a US strike in Libya killed as many as 11 civilians at the end of November, the casualty monitor Airwars reports. The US says the strike targeted a local faction of al-Qaeda.


    Mediterranean: MSF and SOS Méditerranée say they have been “forced” to stop operating their Aquarius migrant rescue vessel. The ship, which has saved countless lives in the Mediterranean since 2015, has been docked in Marseilles since Panama revoked its registration in September after sustained legal pressure, in particular from Italy.


    Yemen: Two sides in the war kicked off talks in Sweden on Thursday, as a new report said that 20 million people back in Yemen are hungry, including nearly a quarter of a million who could soon be on the “brink of death”, but the threshold for famine has not been met.


    Our weekend read


    “Yes, the babies die”: Tales of despair and dismay from Venezuela


    To get a sense of how fast and how far Venezuela has fallen, look no further than the University Hospital of Maracaibo. Once a shining beacon of the South American nation’s oil-rich economy, this modernist building that once pioneered liver transplants now peels into disrepair and lacks electricity, water, even basic medicines. Inside, the shelves lie empty, coated with flies. Outside, a large mound of blue rubbish bags grows, rotting, by the day. “Hospitals have become like extermination camps,” says surgeon and professor Dr. Dora Colomenares. Our weekend read is the latest instalment of Susan Schulman’s special report on the humanitarian impacts of Venezuela’s economic collapse. Through the graphic accounts of patients and doctors, it lays bare the collapse of a healthcare system that has lost most of its capability to treat the sick. As more and more medical personnel join the mass exodus from the country, malnutrition is weakening immune systems and long-dormant diseases are returning. “We feel very helpless because there is nothing we can do,” Colomenares says. “Yes,” she nods, “yes, the babies die.”


    And finally…


    The muppets are coming to the Rohingya refugee camps. The Lego Foundation this week announced a $100 million grant to the Sesame Workshop – the non-profit behind the long-running US children’s TV show. The money will be used to bring “play-based early childhood development” targeted to Rohingya and Syrian refugee children, including a curriculum featuring Sesame Street’s fuzzy muppet puppets (yes, they are muppets). In Bangladesh, this will include partnering with the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC, whose work in the camps includes running “learning centres” for children – Bangladesh’s government does not allow formal schooling for Rohingya refugees. In case you’re wondering, there is indeed a Bangladeshi version of Sesame Street, and the proponents of this initiative say it will be a part of the programming.

    (TOP PHOTO: South Sudanese students at an event for the International Day for eliminating Sexual Violence in Conflict. CREDIT: UNMISS)


    Congo data, South Sudan attacks, and UNAIDS in crisis
  • Sex for jobs, fake aid workers, and women responders: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar


    COP24 opens with stark warnings


    The UN climate change conference, COP24, begins 2 December in Poland, and vulnerable countries and aid groups are paying particularly close attention. Negotiators are under pressure to hammer out the so-called “rulebook” that lays the ground rules for implementing the Paris Agreement. The 2015 accord outlined broad commitments for tackling climate change – limiting temperature rise, financing to help lower-income countries, developing national climate strategies – but now negotiators must agree on how to make it all work. Nations most susceptible to climate change will be looking for consensus on limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and for more concrete commitments to climate funding – Vanuatu’s foreign minister has pledged to “optimistically but aggressively” engage at COP24, challenging climate polluters and urging progress on the divisive issue of “loss and damage” compensation to vulnerable nations. Humanitarian groups are increasingly witnessing the effects of climate change in everyday aid response. Oxfam says governments at COP24 face “life and death” decisions. For more, read our reporting on the humanitarian impacts of climate change.


    Upsurge in Boko Haram attacks


    A spike in jihadist attacks against military and civilian targets in northeastern Nigeria is undermining claims that Boko Haram has been "defeated". Around 100 Nigerian soldiers were reportedly killed in an attack on an army base earlier this month by Islamic State West Africa Province, a Boko Haram splinter group. AFP has reported at least 17 attempts to overrun army bases in the region since July. Speaking this week in Maiduguri, the birthplace of the insurgency, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said defeating Boko Haram was "a must-win war”, adding: "Our troops must not be distracted. They should be committed to the task of eliminating Boko Haram from the face of the Earth.” During the nine-year rebellion, more than 27,000 people have been killed and 1.8 million displaced. Read more of IRIN’s in-depth coverage: Countering militancy in the Sahel.


    Fake humanitarians in Gaza?


    Remember that mid-November flare-up of violence in Gaza, said to be the worst since 2014 and eventually paused by an Egypt-brokered ceasefire? It all began with a botched Israeli operation in the Palestinian enclave, and reports in the Israeli media recently emerged (based in part on information from Hamas and limited by Israel’s official military censor) that soldiers may have been posing as Palestinian aid workers, having entered the strip with forged documents. We can’t (for now) independently confirm these reports, but it’s worth noting that with Gaza’s economy in steady decline, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, says 80 percent of the area’s 1.9 million residents depend on aid to get by. Just this week, the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said a “slow-motion healthcare emergency is unfolding” in Gaza as the healthcare system is overwhelmed by the number of patients shot or injured by the Israeli army during ongoing protests.  


    'Sex-for-jobs’ scandal hits AU


    An internal investigation by the African Union has uncovered a de facto system whereby "young women are exploited for sex in exchange for jobs”. The findings, made public last week, found widespread reports of mistreatment, and said sexual harassment in particular was confirmed by all 88 women interviewed as part of the probe; youth volunteers and interns were found to be most vulnerable. The inquiry into harassment and gender discrimination was launched in May after three dozen women made allegations about what they called “professional apartheid against female employees in the commission”. In response to the findings, the continental body will establish a comprehensive sexual harassment policy – something that did not previously exist. Although the AU has made ‘women, gender and development’ a key part of its external priorities, internally, more needs to be done to protect victims and ensure perpetrators are called to account. Read more of IRIN’s in-depth coverage on #MeToo in the aid sector.


    Women in disaster response


    Women face greater risks during and after disasters, but they’re often overlooked when it comes to participating in humanitarian responses – despite sector-wide commitments to boost the role of women and girls during crises. New research by CARE International, released during the ongoing 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign, examines what’s preventing more women responders from being included, and outlines potential solutions to the problem. Social norms and discrimination may be obvious barriers to participation, but aid groups and donors must also do more to ensure women take part, the report states. Sidelining women isn’t simply unjust – it’s also a “significant missed opportunity” to make responses better, it notes. Read the research here.

    In case you missed it

    Afghanistan: President Ashraf Ghani this week announced the formation of a 12-person negotiation team aimed at striking a peace agreement with the Taliban. But it’s unclear whether the militant group is open to direct negotiations with the government, which has not been involved in separate preliminary discussions between Taliban and US officials.

    Afghanistan: At least 23 civilians were killed in an airstrike in southern Helmand Province on 27 November, according to the UN mission. The US military said it is investigating. The UN says the number of civilian deaths caused by airstrikes this year – 649 through the end of September – is the highest in nearly a decade.

    Iraq: Heavy rains last weekend caused severe flooding, displacing thousands as tents were wiped out, homes destroyed, and an unknown number of people killed.

    Measles: In 2017, cases of measles increased 6,358 percent in the Americas (fuelled by an outbreak in Venezuela) and 458 percent in Europe (driven by “falsehoods” about the vaccine), according to a new study and press release from leading health agencies warning that the disease is in a “resurgence”.

    Vanuatu: The government of the Pacific nation is telling residents of Ambae to stay away from the island, which was completely evacuated in July due to an erupting volcano. It’s unclear when – or if – the estimated 9,000 or more residents will be allowed to return.

    Yemen: The US Senate voted on Wednesday to move forward with debate on a measure that would (if it succeeds, and that’s a big if) end American military support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen.


    Coming up


    In Geneva on 4 December, the UN will appeal for humanitarian funding in 2019. The UN agencies, along with governments and many NGOs, put together annual plans to respond to the most urgent emergency situations. This year the Global Humanitarian Overview sought about $25 billion, to help 97 million people, and so far got about $14 billion. Donors are finding more to give, but needs keep rising. Things to watch: How big will Yemen's appeal need to get to ward off famine? Which countries will no longer need an appeal? Which will join the sorry ranks of the world's top crises? These giant funding appeals don't include all international efforts, by the way: the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and MSF, for example, operate independently. While we’re digesting that, on 5 December, a beefy 330-page report lands, reviewing the sector over the last three years. ALNAP's sweeping State of the Humanitarian System publication is based on literature reviews, evaluations, original case studies, hundreds of interviews, surveys of recipients of aid and data analysis.


    Our weekend read


    Exposed: UNHCR's role in Uganda refugee aid scandal


    What do 15,000 solar lamps, 50,000 wheelbarrows, and 288,000 blankets have in common? It’s not a joke. Unbelievably, they are just part of the litany of waste the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, presided over in Uganda, where hundreds of thousands of civilians fled war and hunger in South Sudan needing every bit of help they could get. In February, when the scandal first broke, it was Ugandan officials in the firing line over a string of offences ranging from theft of relief items to appropriating land meant for refugees. Now, as IRIN Senior Editor Ben Parker lays bare in our weekend read, it is very much UNHCR. An explosive audit by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services reveals a catalogue of errors and mismanagement totalling tens of millions of dollars. How and why could this happen? For clues, look at the vertiginous extent to which Uganda was being held up – during a period of rising xenophobia globally – as a model refugee-hosting nation. “Does that influence the oversight and dissuade UNHCR from digging a little deeper and uncovering corruption and mismanagement? Who has leverage on who?” asks one humanitarian insider.


    And finally…


    "They think I'm different"


    A 15-year-old boy is shoved to the ground by a bigger youth, who with one hand on his throat pours water on his face saying: "I'll drown you". A viral video of a sports pitch incident in northern England has led to police charges for the bully and an outpouring of help. In a TV interview, the boy, whose family are refugees resettled from Syria in 2016, said he and his sister had put up with a barrage of bullying and name-calling at school. "When I came to the UK, I felt I was going to be safe,” he said. While the school, police, and local authorities are facing questions over their handling of the case, a crowdfunding campaign has quickly raised about £150,000 ($190,000) to support the family.




    Sex for jobs, fake aid workers, and women responders
  • By sand or by sea

    I’m driving down a rural, two-lane highway. Outside, the headlights of the car create a small halo in the surrounding darkness. There are no street lights, no houses, no one else on the road. I can’t see the details of what’s around me, but I know there are other people out there – dozens of them, maybe hundreds – picking their way on foot through the wilderness on either side of me under the cover of night.


    These people are migrants and refugees who have left their homes behind for one reason or another – a tank shell came crashing through the wall; a stranger called demanding money and threatening death; someone fell ill and the necessary, life-saving medical treatment wasn’t available; political corruption and lack of opportunity made earning a living and building a life seem impossible.   


    For many, this will be the defining journey of their lives. Some will reach their destinations and start over, learning to thrive. Others will grow disillusioned, feel alienated and long for home. And some will never make it, joining the ranks of the estimated 56,800 people who have died or disappeared globally while migrating in the past four years. Many deaths go uncounted. How many is anyone’s guess.

    It wasn’t until I started speaking with people along the US-Mexico border that I began to appreciate how similar the abuses that migrants face in Mexico are to those in Libya.


    Sitting in my car, I could be in virtually any border region in the world where this drama plays out on a daily basis. But tonight I’m in southern Arizona. After covering migration in the Mediterranean for the past three and a half years in places like Turkey, Italy, Egypt, Greece, Niger, and elsewhere, this is my first trip to the US-Mexico border where hundreds of thousands of migrants pass clandestinely every year and at least 6,700 bodies of people who died along the way have been found since the year 2000.  

    Migration in these two regions is rarely spoken about in the same breath. They are separate phenomena driven by specific, local factors continents apart. Apples and oranges, as a spokesperson from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, told me.


    But up close there are also similarities: the raw desperation and danger of the journey; the political backlash in Europe and the United States fuelling the rise of the far right; the attempts to stop people from crossing borders that have empowered criminals and increased suffering and abuse.


    Looking at the two situations side by side can provide perspective, challenge the established understanding of what’s happening, and underscore the basic inhumanity of the response on both sides of the Atlantic.


    A sign announcing the beginning of a closed military zone on the Turkish side of the Greek-Turkish land border, July 2018.
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    A sign announcing the beginning of a closed military zone on the Turkish side of the Greek-Turkish land border, July 2018.

    Scale of the “crisis”


    One of the first things that struck me at the US-Mexico border was the scale and longevity of the situation compared to the Mediterranean.


    Between 1990 and 2007, the estimated undocumented population of the United States increased from 3.5 million to 12.2 million – adding an average of more than 500,000 people each year for 17 years. After 2007, it decreased slightly to around 11 million and has remained relatively consistent ever since.


    While far fewer people are trying to irregularly enter the United States now than at any time since the 1970s, hundreds of thousands are still apprehended at the southern border each year. And the undocumented population has remained relatively stable not because people aren’t crossing the border, but because tens of thousands of people living in the United States are being deported each year, and because others are choosing to leave on their own accord.


    Only in the past four years has migration in the Mediterranean reached levels similar to those seen in the United States for decades. Since 2014, nearly 1.8 million people have crossed the sea to Europe – an average of around 440,000 per year – with more than half of these arrivals taking place in 2015.



    Migrants load into the back of a pickup at a checkpoint outside of Agadez, Niger before beginning the long journey across the Sahara to Libya, March 2018.
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Migrants load into the back of a pickup at a checkpoint outside of Agadez, Niger before beginning the long journey across the Sahara to Libya, March 2018.

    In the United States, undocumented people account for around three percent of the overall population of 325 million. In the EU, with a population of 508 million, people who have crossed the Mediterranean since 2014 make up less than 0.4 percent of those living in the 28 member states. Yet in both locations migration has transformed politics in the past handful of years, contributing to a rise in right-wing populism that is fuelling a political crisis in the United States around the presidency of Donald Trump and challenging the foundations of the EU through Brexit and the ascendance of far-right, Eurosceptic parties.


    The immigration or migration “crisis” in both locations is not so much caused by an overwhelming number of people crossing borders, but by the reaction to these movements, and by the way they are leveraged to serve political agendas. In both cases, immigrant and refugee communities are not the existential threat they are often portrayed to be – except to the worldviews of white supremacists and ethno-nationalists. While the political discussion around migration tends to focus on its perceived harm to the United States and the EU,  the actual stories and experiences of the people involved are often overlooked.

    Similar abuses


    Libya is hell. I have been hearing this sentiment from refugees and migrants who have passed through the country since I first started reporting on migration in 2015. The abuses committed by smugglers and militias there have become notorious: kidnapping, torture, rape, indefinite detention, slavery. The EU is under scrutiny for training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrant and refugee boats, condemning people to be returned to these conditions instead of being able to make the passage to Europe.


    It wasn’t until I started speaking with people along the US-Mexico border that I began to appreciate how similar the abuses that migrants face in Mexico are to those in Libya.


    The routes from Central America through Mexico to the US border are controlled by criminal gangs and drug cartels. Kidnappings, sexual violence, and even murder are all common along the way. People waiting near the border to try to cross are held in stark conditions in rudimentary houses run by the cartels, similar to the migrant warehouses in Libya. To leave, they have to pay a coyote – or guide – thousands of dollars to bring them across, and even if they want to try on their own they have to pay an exit fee. “Nobody can come into town without permission,” a volunteer who gives aid to migrants in one of the border towns told me. “They’re not even allowed to go back [if they change their minds]. So that forces them to go north even if they want to or not.”


    International community looks the other way


    Despite these stark conditions, international aid groups were entirely absent from the parts of the US-Mexico border I visited. By contrast, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UNHCR, and a handful of other organisations are virtually omnipresent on all sides of the Mediterranean.

    "The Americans just aren’t the kind of government that’s going to be looking for help that way.”

    In northern Mexico, the response to the humanitarian needs of migrants seems to fall to a network of local shelters and volunteers. Some of the shelters in cities are well established. Others in rural areas are little more than a gathering spot under a tree or a fenced-in lot with tents and cobbled together shacks. Food, medical care, and sanitation are all in high demand and short supply.    


    The view of international organisations appears to be that since the United States is a highly developed country and Mexico has been dealing with migration for years, neither of them really needs help. Meanwhile, the international presence is necessary in the Mediterranean because the situation escalated relatively recently, overwhelming the countries involved.


    When it comes to the United States, however, exceptionalism is also a factor. Places like a vast tent city erected by the US government to house migrant children in Texas and other shelters where children have been handcuffed, assaulted – sometimes sexually – and forced to take psychotropic drugs are exactly the kinds of places the international community would push to gain access to elsewhere. But that doesn’t happen in the United States. “Americans aren’t likely to be in a situation where an outsider is going to say they think we need a better plan. I mean they can think it, but the Americans just aren’t the kind of government that’s going to be looking for help that way,” Joel Millman, an IOM spokesman, told me.


    Complicity: Prevention is not a solution


    Regardless of the involvement, or not, of international organisations, the main response by governments to migration in the Mediterranean and North America has been to try to stop people from moving instead of addressing their humanitarian needs. As a result, abuses have increased and migration has become more dangerous.

    The main response by governments to migration in the Mediterranean and North America has been to try to stop people from moving instead of addressing their humanitarian needs.


    Following the Italian government’s crackdown on search-and-rescue NGOs, the rate at which people are drowning in the Mediterranean has soared this year. And in the United States, a longstanding government policy called “prevention through deterrence” has pushed migration routes into some of the most remote and hostile terrain in the country. Even though border crossings have dramatically decreased, the proportion of people dying has gone up.

    Many migrants and refugees know the dangers they will face before they begin their journeys – whether it’s unforgiving deserts, choppy seas, or brutal cartels and militias. Women take contraceptive injections to avoid getting pregnant from rape, and there are portions of the trail in both North America and the Mediterranean that are commonly referred to as the “the route of death”.


    Imagine the level of desperation driving people to migrate that they face these realities with open eyes and still decide this is their best option. Until governments stop focusing on prevention and start providing legal alternatives for people to reach safety and opportunity, migrants and refugees will continue to face abuses and risk death in their desperate journeys towards a better life.

    By sand or by sea
    A reporter’s notebook from the heart of two migration crises
    Third of three articles from the US-Mexican border reporting on the humanitarian impact of shifting US immigration policies. Read the <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/news-feature/2018/10/29/latin-american-asylum-seekers-hit-us-policy-wall">first</a> and <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/news-feature/2018/11/06/migrants-US-Mexico-caravan-elections-Trump-water-desert">second</a> instalments.
  • African debt, Afghan voter violence, and post-Brexit Britain: The Cheat Sheet

    Here’s the IRIN team’s weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar


    Debt distress deepens

    Eight African countries – including several with humanitarian emergencies such as Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan – are in “debt distress” and a further 18 are at high risk, according to an October report by UK think tank Overseas Development Institute. More than half of the external debt in sub-Saharan Africa is from commercial lenders, governments, and bond markets, not concessional lenders like the World Bank. Average interest payments, now approaching one percent of Gross National Income, are creeping up to levels not seen for a decade. An international mechanism that helped resolve earlier debt crises, the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), is “not able to respond”, according to an ODI commentary, so there is no international mechanism that can tackle the risks to low-income countries of the latest debt landscape. One complication is that important sovereign lenders like China are not part of the debt management grouping, the Paris Club. Some low-income countries’ leaders have taken on debt “under opaque circumstances”, according to campaign group ONE. Also, if a country does default, ONE argues, “vulture funds” are on the lookout to buy questionable debts at a discount then then aggressively seek repayment. Governments around the world have racked up $63 trillion in local and external debt, according to an analysis at the World Economic Forum. A recent speech by IMF chief Christine Lagarde warned that trust, which underpins creditworthiness, “arrives on foot, but leaves on horseback.”


    Violence, voter turnout, and Afghan elections


    Afghanistan’s October parliamentary elections were the country’s most violent vote in years, according to the UN mission, which released statistics this week tallying 435 civilian casualties, including 56 deaths, over three days of polling. The UN says the bloodshed, mainly blamed on the Taliban, was part of a “pattern of attacks, threats and intimidation” directly aimed at discouraging Afghan civilians from voting. Taliban threats and violence leading up to the vote appear to have had an impact on turnout: the Independent Election Commission says less than half of registered voters cast a ballot (though there were also numerous reports of lengthy queues outside shuttered polling stations). Other election observers noted “acute violence” and low voter turnout in places like Kunduz Province. “The question remains as to whether a larger number of people will take part in the presidential election scheduled for April 2019, if the security situation does not significantly improve,” noted Obaid Ali of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.


    Meanwhile, the number of Afghans who have returned (or been deported) from Iran this year now tops 650,000, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM. Read our recent report exploring why returnee numbers are soaring.


    Mixed messages on FGM


    Female Genital Mutilation, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, is a ritual in many societies, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. It can lead to chronic pain, menstrual problems, cysts and some potentially life-threatening infections, among other complications. FGM rates among African children have shown “huge and significant decline” over the last two decades, a study by BMJ Global Health announced this week. East Africa has seen the biggest drop, from 71 percent in 1995 to eight percent in 2016. In North Africa, prevalence fell from nearly 60 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2015, and in West Africa rates dropped from 74 percent in 1996 to about 25 percent in 2017. But while campaigners welcomed the news, some advised caution saying FGM also affects teenagers and women not analysed in the study, meaning the overall numbers could still be far higher. And In February, the UN warned that the number of women predicted to be mutilated each year could rise from here to 4.6 million by 2030.


    Peace in Yemen? Not so fast


    This time last week, we at Cheat Sheet noted a possible jump-start in Yemen’s stalled peace process. Things have changed, to say the least. The UN’s envoy for Yemen has pushed back the proposed start date for talks from the end of the month to the end of the year, and the battle for Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Hodeidah has intensified. Thousands of civilians are unable to escape airstrikes and shelling, and some have reportedly been used as human shields with Houthi rebel fighters taking up positions on a hospital roof. Médecins Sans Frontières has seen an influx of war-wounded civilians at its facilities, and aid agencies are warning that their ability to deliver aid to those in need is hampered. For a raw and absorbing view from the ground, we recommend reading this piece by one Yemeni aid worker who lives and works under fire in Hodeidah.


    Dark tales in Iraq’s mass graves


    The UN documented more than 200 mass graves in Iraq in a report released this week, mostly filled with people killed by so-called Islamic State. UN estimates range from 6,000 bodies to more than 12,000, with thousands in the infamous Khasfa sinkhole south of Mosul alone. Dhia Kareem, head of Iraq’s Mass Graves Directorate, told the New York Times “the number of the victims of the mass graves is much bigger than the numbers in the report.” The UN says the evidence in the sites could help identify victims and prove crucial for future war crimes prosecutions. They also shed some light on a dark time for many Iraqis. Ján Kubiš, the UN’s representative in Iraq, said the graves “are a testament to harrowing human loss, profound suffering and shocking cruelty.”

    In case you missed it:


    DRC: In just two weeks, 61 new cases of Ebola have emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whitney Elmer, deputy country director for Mercy Corps, said the aid group is “increasingly alarmed" by gaps in the response. "We cannot overstate the risks of this virus moving to Goma or neighbouring Uganda.” This week the WHO said 308 cases have been detected, resulting in 189 deaths. Uganda also started administering Ebola vaccinations to protect frontline health workers near the border.


    IRAQ: It has been three years since Sinjar was retaken from so-called Islamic State, but most Yazidis have still not returned. Here’s the Norwegian Refugee Council’s take on the lack of reconstruction, some of our recent reporting, and a small sign of progress from MSF.


    SYRIA: Last weekend, after several false starts, the first UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy reached the deprived desert camp of Rukban, near Syria’s border with Jordan, delivering food, medicine, and sanitary goods. Rukban has become increasingly cut off from aid and other trade, and is hemmed in against the Jordanian border by the Syrian army, rebels, and the US military. The future of the camp of about 45,000 remains uncertain: Jordan and Russia continue talks on how it can be dispersed.


    US: President Donald Trump signed a proclamation on Friday morning to disqualify those who enter the country illegally from being granted asylum. But not all Americans feel that way. To learn more about efforts in Arizona to help those escaping violence and poverty in Central America and Mexico, read Eric Reidy’s series on the humanitarian situation at the US-Mexico border.


    Weekend read


    Pushed back: Rohingya repatriation and Congo’s Kasaï


    For your weekend unwind, we’d like to offer you two very different IRIN briefings linked by a common theme. First, Asia Editor Irwin Loy unpicks the thorny issue of Rohingya repatriation. It appears the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments didn’t deign to consult refugees properly before devising a plan to send them home, starting as early as next week. No one seems to know who is on a list of 2,200 initial would-be returnees or what they would be returning to. Denied citizenship and made to live in apartheid-like conditions for decades before fleeing a military crackdown labelled genocide by UN investigators, many Rohingya are fearful of being pushed back too soon. Will they say yes? A continent away, another large group of people has no choice. More than 300,000 Congolese – mostly migrant workers – have already been driven back home, allegedly violently, from Angola, ostensibly as part of a clamp down on illegal diamond mining. But the worst of it, as Africa Editor Sumayya Ismail explains, is that they’re crossing into the Kasaï region, which is trying to recover from a brutal conflict that has claimed 5,000 lives and displaced more than 1.4 million. Check out Ismail’s briefing to find out what the risks and needs are, and how the influx is already impacting humanitarian operations.


    And finally...


    A post-Brexit humanitarian ‘what if’


    What if a catastrophic Brexit led to civil war, economic collapse, and humanitarian crisis? And what if a divided population of displaced Britons needed aid from other, more stable parts of the world: say, for example, Kenya? A new British play, Aid Memoir, skewers some stereotypes about refugees and Western media coverage. Author Glenda Cooper told IRIN she wanted to provoke a fresh look at the issues of refugee representation in the media by “flipping the usual way we see asylum, migration, and refugees portrayed.” In the piece, a British teenager is sized up for a role in a fundraising appeal for Kenyan TV. To meet the hackneyed expectations of the TV producer, she has to fit in with their assumptions: including finding some ethnically-authentic fish and chips. Cooper wants to use satire to open up thinking about how representation matters in the media beyond a circle of journalists, aid workers, and academics. Her day job at London’s City University includes an as-yet-unpublished research project on migration coverage in the British media in 2017. Its findings: authority figures and NGOs were far more likely than actual migrants to be heard; and migrant or refugee women were only 11 percent of the named people in the coverage.



    African debt, Afghan voter violence, and post-Brexit Britain

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