(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • In economic reforms, a chance for Libya to move forward

    Despite the obvious tie between the economy and Libya’s general decline, efforts to address the conflict’s economic aspects have often taken a back seat to political and security measures.

    Without minimum progress on the economy, attempts to forge a political deal that will stop the fighting in Libya cannot succeed. An international gathering next week in Italy, featuring Libya’s four main competing leaders, offers a rare chance for united progress on the economic front that must be taken.

    Libya’s deepening economic crisis sparked two major armed confrontations this summer: a stand-off over control of oil revenues in the Gulf of Sirte on the northeastern coast in June and July, and recurrent militia attacks on the capital, Tripoli, since August.

    The flare-ups took place hundreds of miles apart, but in both cases armed actors exploited public discontent over financial hardship and the widespread belief that a handful of armed groups are looting the country’s wealth to justify their own ambitions to control Libya’s economic institutions though force, killing and forcing thousands of civilians to flee their homes in the process.

    The violent clashes made headlines outside of Libya, but internally they forced economic issues onto the front burner – where they should be. Every Libyan has been impacted by the steady deterioration of Libya’s economy since 2014, and accusations that the militias controlling Tripoli have embezzled public funds have prompted widespread anger.

    Without minimum progress on the economy, attempts to forge a political deal that will stop the fighting in Libya cannot succeed.

    As a result of poor economic governance, the Libyan dinar has plummeted (7 dinars to the US dollar on the black market, compared with the official rate of 1.3 dinars to the dollar). This means Libyans have a persistent cash liquidity crisis – taking more than 500 Libyan dinars a month (less than $90) out of the bank is nearly impossible – at the same time as their ability to buy basic goods has fallen. The price of consumer goods like food and clothing rocketed by a record 28 per cent in 2017 alone. In a bakery in downtown Tripoli in October, people complained that the price of bread, which is Libya’s main staple food, had almost doubled over the past two years.

    There is some hope: new economic reforms now being rolled out by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, head of the UN-backed government in Tripoli (Libya has several bodies vying for power), are not only the first such measures since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and his regime since 2011. They are also a key step in the right direction for Libya. But they do not go far enough.

    The reforms have two main objectives: to reduce the gap between the official and black market exchange rates, from which militias and political actors have profited, and to ensure easier access to foreign currency through the official banking system.

    So will the reforms make a much-needed difference in the lives of average Libyans? Officials say these are the best they can implement in the current circumstances, but I was in the country when the government rolled out the new measures in early October, and people had strikingly contrasting views about them.

    Shopkeepers were optimistic that the reforms would improve business, particularly as the black market rate dropped by 20 percent after they were introduced. A major importer was beaming when I met him soon after his bank had processed a $10 million letter of credit: “This would have been impossible before the introduction of these new procedures,” he said.

    Many others sounded more sceptical. Young entrepreneurs complained that any positive impact would likely be short-lived. A senior official and mother of three called the measures “an outright lie,” arguing that the problems that affect ordinary Libyans – mainly limits imposed on cash withdrawals and high prices – will persist.

    The reform package’s most controversial aspect is a 184 percent service fee imposed on all purchases of foreign currency for commercial or personal transactions. This measure, which in effect creates two official exchange rates, is a gamble.

    International experts advised against the service fee, warning that it holds great potential for abuse, particularly since the government can create exemptions to the fee. These could provide powerful militias yet another opportunity to benefit from privileged access to the lower, fee-free exchange rate and deplete state coffers. Moreover, there is too much uncertainty about how the government will spend this revenue, an estimated $15 billion per year.

    Overall, the measures fall short of preventing armed groups and powerful actors from defrauding the state. They do little to discourage attempts to change the status quo through violence or create a conducive environment to negotiate solutions to the disputes dividing Libya since 2014. They have also reduced external pressure to make progress on the reunification of the Central Bank of Libya, split since 2014 into two rival branches, or to adopt a sounder long-term policy, including preparing for a proper devaluation of the dinar.

    In short, the reforms are not perfect, but with some adjustments, they offer the best hope Libya has to move forward. The next international meeting on Libya in Palermo, Italy, on 12-13 November offers a prime opportunity for Italian convenors and Libyan and international participants build on the reforms’ benefits, a move that will require both transparency from Libyan stakeholders and a concerted message from external actors.

    Libya’s international backers should pursue three measures. First, they should ensure that the Tripoli government limits exemptions to the service fee and is transparent about how it will use this income. Second, they should persuade the government to pursue more comprehensive policies like subsidy reform and devaluing the dinar. And finally, they should press Libyan stakeholders to take concrete steps to unify the Central Bank of Libya, starting with convening its board and resolving a longstanding dispute over its leadership.

    Emphasising the unification of Libya’s economic institutions would send a strong signal that international partners are serious about bridging divides and enacting long-term reforms. Short of this, half measures could backfire.

    While the details are about exchange rates and banking, it’s important to remember what’s at stake for Libya’s 6.5 million people is much broader: Renewed grievances over persistent poor living conditions, cash shortages and widespread corruption will stunt progress on the political transition and make future violent confrontations more likely.

    (TOP PHOTO: An internally displaced Libyan man sits at a warehouse where WFP food rations are being distributed in Tripoli. CREDIT: Mohamaed Ben Khalif/WFP)

     

    In economic reforms, a chance for Libya to move forward
  • Bleak Bosnian winter for migrants camped out on new route to Europe

    Shouting "Open borders!", several dozen migrants and asylum seekers broke through a police cordon last week at the Maljevac border checkpoint in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina and tried to cross into Croatia.

     

    After being forced back by Croatian police with teargas, they set up camp just inside Bosnian territory. They are in the vanguard of a new wave of migrants determined to reach wealthier European countries, often Germany. Stalled, they have become a political football and face winter with little assistance and inadequate shelter.

     

    The old Balkan route shut down in 2016 as a raft of European countries closed their borders, with Hungary erecting a razor-wire fence. But a new route emerged this year through Bosnia (via Albania and Montenegro or via Macedonia and Serbia) and on to Croatia, a member of the EU. The flow of travellers has been fed by fresh streams of people from the Middle East and Central and South Asia entering Greece from Turkey, notably across the Evros River.

     

     

    By the end of September, more than 16,000 asylum seekers and migrants had entered Bosnia this year, compared to just 359 over the same period last year, according to official figures. The real number is probably far higher as more are smuggled in and uncounted. Over a third of this year’s official arrivals are Pakistani, followed by Iranians (16 percent), Syrians (14 percent), and Iraqis (nine percent).

     

    This spike is challenging Bosnia’s ability to provide food, shelter, and other aid – especially to the nearly 10,000 people that local institutions and aid organisations warn may be stranded at the Croatian border as winter begins. Two decades after the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the situation is also heightening tensions among the country’s Muslim, Serb, and Croat communities and its often fraught tripartite political leadership.

     

    How to respond to the unexpected number of migrants was a key issue in the presidential election earlier this month. Nationalist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who won the Serb seat in the presidency, charged that it was a conspiracy to boost the country’s Muslim population. The outgoing Croat member of the presidency, Dragan Čović, repeatedly called for Bosnia’s borders to be closed to stem the migrant flow.

     

    Maja Gasal Vrazalica, a left-wing member of parliament and a refugee herself during the Bosnian wars, accuses nationalist parties of “misusing the topic of refugees because they want to stoke up all this fear through our nation.”

     

    “I’m very scared”

     

    Most migrants and asylum seekers are concentrated around two northwestern towns, Bihać and nearby Velika Kladuša. Faris Šabić, youth president of the Bihać Red Cross, organises assistance for the some 4,000 migrants camped in Bihać and others who use the town as a way station.

    Since the spring and throughout the summer, as arrivals spiked, several local volunteers joined his staff to provide food, hygiene items, and first aid. But now, as winter draws in, they fear the scale of the crisis is becoming untenable.

     

    “I have to be honest, I'm very scared,” Šabić told IRIN, examining a notebook filled with the names of new arrivals. “Not only for migrants, I'm scared for my locals as well. We are a generous and welcoming people, but I fear that we will not be able to manage the emergency anymore.”

     

    The Bihać Red Cross, along with other aid organisations and human rights groups, is pushing the government to find long-term solutions. But with an economy still recovering from the legacy of the war and a youth unemployment rate of almost 55 percent, it has been hard-pressed to find answers.

     

    Hope that the end of the election season might improve the national debate around migration appears misguided. Around 1,000 Bihać locals staged protests for three consecutive days, from 20-22 October, demanding the relocation of migrants outside the town centre. On the Saturday, Bihać residents even travelled to the capital, Sarajevo, blocking the main street to protest the inaction of the central government.

     

    The local government of the border district where most migrants and asylum seekers wait, Una-Sana, complains of being abandoned by the central government in Sarajevo. "We do not have bad feelings towards migrants, but the situation is unmanageable," the mayor of Bihać, Šuhret Fazlić, told IRIN.

     

    To begin with most residents openly welcomed the migrants, with volunteers providing food and medical help. But tensions have been growing, especially as dozens of the latest newcomers have started occupying the main public spaces in the town.

     

    "They turned our stadium into a toilet and occupied children's playgrounds,” said Fazlić. “I would like to understand why they come here, but what is important at the moment is to understand where to host them in a dignified manner."

     

    Beatings and abuse

     

    Those camped near the Croatian border have all entered Bosnia illegally. Each night, they wait to enter "The Game" – as they refer to attempts to cross the frontier and strike out into dense forests.

     

    Most are detained and pushed back into Bosnia by the Croatian police. Some reach Slovenia before being deported all the way back. Abuse is rife, according to NGOs and human rights groups. Those who have attempted to cross say Croatian police officers destroy their phones to prevent them from navigating the mountains, beat them with electric batons, unleash dogs, steal their money, and destroy their documents and personal belongings. Croatia’s interior ministry has strongly denied allegations of police brutality.

     

    No Name Kitchen, a group of activists that provides showers, soap, and hygiene products to migrants in Velika Kladuša, has been documenting cases of violence allegedly committed by the Croatian police. In August alone the organisation collected accounts from 254 deportees. Most claimed to have suffered physical violence. Of those cases, 43 were minors.

    Croatian media has reported cases of shootings, too. In late May, a smuggler’s van bringing migrants and asylum seekers from Bosnia was shot at and three people including a boy and a girl, both 12, were wounded.

     

    A report earlier this year from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, collated accounts from 2,500 refugees and migrants allegedly pushed back from Croatia to Serbia and Bosnia. In more than 1,500 cases – 100 of them relating to children – asylum procedures were denied, and over 700 people made allegations of violence or theft.

    Winter housing needed

     

    In Velika Kladuša, two kilometres from the Maljevac border checkpoint, around 1,000 people live in a makeshift tent camp that turns into a swamp every time it rains. Temperatures here will soon plummet below zero at night. Finding a new place for them "is a race against time and the key challenge,” said Stephanie Woldenberg, senior UNHCR protection officer.

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    Joshua Evangelista/IRIN
    Pakistani migrants prepare bread in the former student dormitory in Bihać.

    Already, life is difficult.

     

    “Nights here are unsustainable,” Emin, a young Afghan girl who tried twice to cross the border with her family and is among those camped in Velika Kladuša, told IRIN. “Dogs in the kennel are treated better than us.”

     

    Bosnian police reportedly announced last week that migrants are no longer allowed to travel to the northwest zone, and on 30 October said they had bussed dozens of migrants from the border camps to a new government-run facility near Velika Kladuša. Another facility has been set up near Sarajevo since the election. Together, they have doubled the number of beds available to migrants to 1,700, but it’s still nowhere near the capacity needed.

     

    The federal government has identified a defunct factory, Agrokomerc, once owned by the mayor of Velika Kladuša, Fikret Abdić, as a potential site to house more migrants. Abdić was convicted on charges of war crimes during the Balkan wars and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. He became mayor in 2016, after his 2012 release. His local government is strongly opposed to the move and counters that the migrants and asylum seekers should be equally distributed throughout Bosnia.

     

    For now, around 800 people live inside a former student dormitory in Bihać that is falling apart due to damage sustained during the Bosnian wars. Holes in the floor and the absence of basic fixtures and of a proper heating system make it highly unsuitable to house migrants this winter. Clean water and bathing facilities are scarce, and the Red Cross has registered several cases of scabies, lice, and other skin and vector-borne diseases.

     

    Throughout the three-storey building, migrants and asylum seekers lie sprawled across the floor on mattresses, waiting their turn to charge their phones at one of the few electrical sockets. Many are young people from Lahore, Pakistan who sold their family’s homes and businesses to pay for this trip. On average they say they paid $10,000 to smugglers who promised to transport them to the EU. Several display bruises and abrasions, which they say were given to them by Croatian border patrol officers as they tried to enter Croatia. 

     

    The bedding on one mattress is stained with blood. Witnesses told IRIN the person who sleeps there was stabbed by other migrants trying to steal his few belongings. “It happens frequently here,” one said.

     

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    Thousands are stranded on the border with Croatia with no proper shelter as the cold nights draw in and local patience wears thin
    Bleak Bosnian winter for migrants camped out on new route to Europe
  • Typhoon Yutu, refugee investment, and climate dragons: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

     

    Typhoon Yutu holds the record — for now

    The strongest storm recorded anywhere on the planet this year has caused “catastrophic” damage on the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in the northern Pacific Ocean, northeast of Guam. Super Typhoon Yutu reached speeds of up to 255 km/h before it slammed into the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota on Thursday. Local officials reported 133 injuries, downed power lines, and more than 100 homes flattened. US President Donald Trump authorised emergency aid for the islands. Yutu is heading west and weakening, but the danger isn’t over: over the weekend or early next week, the storm is expected to threaten 1.8 million people in the northern Philippines, where it has been given the name Rosita. If it feels like we’ve been reporting on an unusual number of powerful storms lately, there’s a reason for that. Yutu is the 10th storm this year to reach category-5 – indicating wind speeds topping 252 km/h. According to NASA, that’s the second-highest number ever recorded in a single year (there were 12 such storms recorded in 1997).

     

    The F-word in Yemen

    As you may have noticed, there has been some buzz of late about the F-word in Yemen: famine, that is. This week, UN humanitarian relief chief Mark Lowcock warned of “a clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine engulfing” the country, a few days after Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General Jan Egeland said the only way to reverse the “fatal trend” towards famine was to bring about a political solution to Yemen’s war. Médecins Sans Frontières has since weighed in, saying that while it had witnessed an increase in severe acute malnutrition in some areas, so much of Yemen is inaccessible that it’s impossible for humanitarians to get a full picture of malnutrition across the country. “There is no quality data available to declare that a famine is imminent,” a MSF statement noted. It’s true that a declaration of famine is based on surpassing precise numerical thresholds, but there are political concerns at play here too. Catch up on Yemen’s hunger crisis – which is impacting millions, official famine or not, with our briefing.

    Ebola + conflict zone = peril for aid workers

    Two health workers responding to the Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were killed last weekend when rebels opened fire just outside the city of Butembo in the northeast of the country. The pair were members of a Congolese military medical unit stationed in "dangerous zones" to assist national border health officials, the country’s health ministry said. It added that health teams in crisis-affected areas are coming under attack an average of three or four times per week, a level of violence not seen in any of the country’s previous nine Ebola outbreaks. The current one has killed more than 90 people, mostly in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces, which have been plagued by armed rebellions and inter-communal killings since two civil wars in the late 1990s. The weekend attack appeared to be the first time Ebola health workers were killed. Due to the worsening security situation, the World Health Organization last month revised its risk assessment of the outbreak, from “high” to “very high”. It has highlighted the perils of dealing with Ebola in “an active conflict zone” and warned that security incidents could severely impact response activities in the region. And that, of course, means the risk that the virus will continue to spread may rise.

     

    Water worries in Basra schools

    It’s the start of the academic year in Iraq, and with Basra’s main river still contaminated and water and sanitation facilities having collapsed, the Norwegian Refugee Council is warning that 277,000 children in the southern city are at risk of contracting waterborne diseases such as cholera while at school. Unemployment and shortages of public services, including water, caused months of protests in the city. In a recently released survey by PAX, and NGO, 81 percent of respondents in Basra said “poverty or lack of livelihood opportunities” was one of the two main factors likely to cause local conflict in the coming year. Twenty-two percent cited a lack of basic services, which remains a problem for Basra’s children and adults alike. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights reports that 110,000 people have been poisoned in some way by the bad water. That includes the EU’s ambassador to Iraq, Ramon Blecua, who tweeted earlier this month that water pollution had made him sick, too.

     

    Indonesian tsunami, one month later

    Aid groups responding to the 28 September earthquakes and tsunami in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province are warning of new risks emerging in the coming weeks. Early assessments estimate that at least 211,000 people are displaced, staying in about 250 damaged villages or nearly 1,000 campsites. Many are living in makeshift shelters made of “little more than flimsy plastic, bamboo, cloth, and grain sacks”, according to the Indonesian Red Cross. World Vision and its local partner, Wahana Visi, say at least 110,000 survivors are children now living in evacuation centres. Aid groups say the looming rainy season adds to the health threats, with warnings of diarrhoea, malaria, dengue, and respiratory infections. The Salvation Army says there is a crucial need for mental health care and trauma counselling, while UNAIDS says a reduction in stocks of antiretroviral drugs poses a risk for people living with HIV. The official government death toll from the disaster still stands at about 2,100, though it’s believed the actual total could be much higher.

     

    Banking on refugees

    Refugees are a good credit risk. Data from micro-lender Kiva shows that refugees' loans in Jordan have a perfect 100 percent repayment rate (slightly higher than their hosts). NGO International Rescue Committee reports that refugees in the US pay off car loans at a higher than average rate. As traditional aid groans under the weight of high numbers of displaced people and refugees, can't for-profit finance plug some gaps? A recent report from the new Refugee Investment Network defines what ought to qualify as a "refugee investment" – in terms of ownership, impact, or management. RIN describes itself as a groundbreaking "impact investing and blended finance collaborative". It’s study gets ahead of controversial clichés like "entrepreneurial" refugees (no sewing machines are mentioned) to analyse what a range of market players deem "investable" and what type of "connective tissue" is needed to stimulate deal flow and an investment "ecosystem".

     

    In case you missed it

     

    Afghanistan: Afghanistan is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in the southern province of Kandahar on 27 October. A planned nationwide vote was postponed in Kandahar last week following a Taliban attack that killed a prominent police chief. There’s no word yet on when elections will reach the province of Ghazni, which briefly fell to the Taliban in August.

     

    Australia: The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, this week urged Australia to “immediately evacuate” all refugees and asylum seekers still held on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and the Pacific island of Nauru. In a statement, the agency said there’s a growing recognition that “lives are at immediate and critical risk”. Australia’s controversial asylum policies forced some 3,000 asylum seekers arriving by boat to have their refugee claims processed offshore. UNHCR estimates roughly half this number remains. This month, Nauru’s government forced Médecins Sans Frontières to leave.

     

    Bosnia-Croatia border: Six people were injured this week as Croatian police and migrants clashed on the border with Bosnia. Hundreds of migrants and refugees blocked the main road into Croatia, a European Union member, after receiving false information that Croatia would let them enter, according to Balkan Insight. Another 90 migrants and refugees leaving northern Bosnia by train this week were not allowed to disembark in Sarajevo and were returned to the Bosnian border town of Bihac. Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees are trying to leave Bosnia, just one of the many stops on the so-called Balkan route. Watch for our report on the situation at the Bosnia-Croatia border next week.

     

    Cameroon: Cameroon’s Paul Biya, 85, Africa’s oldest leader, won a seventh term in office in a presidential election held on 7 October, according to results announced this week. Nationally, turnout was 53 percent, but in some English-speaking northwestern and southwestern regions affected by a separatist rebellion that has displaced some 240,000 people, it was as low as five percent, according to the International Crisis Group. Some would-be voters in these regions were reportedly intimidated not to cast ballots.

     

    Honduras: The US is expected to send 800 or more troops to its southern border in anticipation of the arrival of thousands of people, mostly from Honduras, who are walking to the US in the hopes of seeking asylum. The migrant caravan has garnered plenty of publicity and a fair bit of misinformation, too – check out this New York Times debunker of viral images of the walk and stay tuned for our own coverage of what’s happening at the border.

     

    South Sudan: Hundreds of civilians were abducted by South Sudanese rebels and government forces between April and August this year, with many still held in captivity, the UN Mission in South Sudan reported, saying the abductions might amount to war crimes. The army denied the accusations; a rebel spokesman said they would be investigated.

     

    Tanzania: Police have arrested 104 suspected militants, charging them with planning to establish bases in neighbouring Mozambique, where a growing insurgency has killed at least 50 people this year. Since October 2017, Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province has seen periodic attacks by suspected Islamists reportedly seeking to impose Sharia law in the Muslim majority province. Last week,Tanzanian police inspector general Simon Sirro said security forces had launched operations over the last few months against “criminals” in areas bordering Cabo Delgado, but that some suspects had managed to flee. Earlier this month, Mozambique put more than 180 suspected militants on trial over this year's attacks.

     

    The weekend read

    What economic meltdown looks like in Venezuela

    Save some time this weekend for the first of our reports from inside Venezuela. Journalist Susan Schulman has chronicled the humanitarian impacts of the country’s economic collapse, which has seen more than 1.6 million people flee the country in the last three years. That’s roughly five percent of its total population. Venezuela’s government says there is no humanitarian crisis, but the stories of worried families and frustrated medical personnel navigating a crumbling health system suggest otherwise.  Venezuelans now rely on dozens of tiny local medical foundations for life-saving drugs, yet these provide a mere band-aid over an imploding health system. And Schulman’s photo essay from inside a hospital depicts a debilitated health system: shortages or a complete dearth of antibiotics and other medicine, run-down equipment, dirty facilities, and often no running water. For more on those fleeing Venezuela, see IRIN’s earlier coverage on border crossings into Colombia and on local aid for asylum seekers in Trinidad and Tobago.

     

    And finally

     

    1.5 dragons or two?

    It’s an unsettling fairy tale with an ambiguous ending – not your typical childhood bedtime story, perhaps, but that’s what you get when a climate scientist writes an allegory for a world facing a changing climate. Scientist Kate Marvel published her fairy tale, “Slaying the Climate Dragon”, in the Scientific American this month after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes” would be required to stave off climate change’s most severe impacts. The world’s leaders have pledged to try to limit global temperature rise to “well below 2°C”, but smaller nations in particular say a target of 1.5°C is essential to avoid the worst impacts – a point made clear in the IPCC report. Marvel told NPR that she wrote her fairy tale “because it’s really hard to relate to things that we can’t tell stories about”. When it comes to climate change, she said, “there are no heroes and we are kind of all the villains”. So how does this tale end? Is it even possible to slay half a dragon? Read it here.

     

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    Typhoon Yutu, refugee investment, and climate dragons
  • Schemes to stop sex abuse in the aid sector off to a shaky start

    UK Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt has probably had better days. As the host of the 18 October London conference on steps to address sexual abuse in the aid sector, she went for a bumpy ride: a prominent activist conspicuously boycotted the event; a whistleblower interrupted Mordaunt’s keynote address, walking on stage and charging that victims were not being heard; and the agenda, speaker list, and planning process all came under heavy fire in private and across social media. On top of all that, critics charged that the event was elitist and white-dominated.

     

    Before the UK-hosted international Safeguarding Summit 2018  even began, the flagship initiative for which the conference had been intended to serve as a launching pad had already come under sharp criticism. A preview of a £10 million government scheme to work with Interpol to vet aid workers against criminal records met with dismay from development sector analysts when it was announced the day before. Most often, those critics charged, even serious cases of misconduct do not end in a criminal conviction.

     

    Commonly, the person is sacked or resigns, and the employer’s investigations may be inconclusive and prosecution difficult in third countries. What that means, several aid workers noted, is that any database of convicted criminals won’t catch predators.

     

    “The list of bad guys will be very short,” one senior aid worker said. Another NGO official said the majority of cases aren’t even reported, so there would be no trail to follow. A spokesperson for Save the Children said the project was not a “silver bullet” but hoped to use Interpol “green notices”, which can provide alerts without necessarily requiring a conviction.

     

    An overnight press release caused further dismay: Mordaunt announced a “coordinating” role in the vetting project – dubbed “Soteria” – for the NGO Save the Children. Several observers were surprised, others outraged: Save the Children UK is currently under investigation by UK authorities for its handling of sexual misconduct in 2015, both by its former CEO and a former senior manager. Whistleblowers have said there was a coverup, and the NGO admitted spending over £100,000 in legal fees this year to steer media reporting of the story. To award them funding in a new preventative structure “spits in the face of survivors," one experienced aid worker said.

     

    A spokesperson for UK Department for International Development told IRIN that Save’s role in the project does not involve DFID funding. When pressed on the suitability of involving Save, the spokesperson said that the organisation’s “expertise in dealing with these cases” and “commitment to tackling this issue” in fact made it particularly suitable for a role on the advisory board of the project.

     

    When told of that explanation, a senior aid worker who attended the conference sent IRIN a one-word message: “Bahahahaha”.

     

    A spokesperson for Save explained that the NGO’s head of safeguarding, Steve Reeves, had conceived the idea for the vetting system and in 2016 had approached Interpol, which will participate in the vetting process. When viewed in that way, the spokesperson said, DFID was joining an existing initiative, supplying “money and leadership”.

     

    Red flags

    The event had been intended to highlight the UK’s attempts to drive efforts to address sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse in the international aid sector. The issue leapt onto the international agenda after revelations about sexual misconduct by a senior Oxfam staff member were published in the London Times.

     

    Then, #MeToo and, later, #AidToo scandals and revelations snowballed, rocking public confidence and the reputations of NGOs. Media and public investigations revealed that vulnerable women, possibly under-18, had been blackmailed for sex by aid workers and public outrage greeted news of the widespread use of sex workers by expatriates in the field. The litany of cases included accounts of workplace rape, assault, and harassment that were seen to be badly handled or had been denied or covered up.

     

    Even in the runup to the conference, red flags were raised, according to several senior aid workers (most of them female) who monitored the planning and attended or followed the conference online. They, in messages with IRIN, pointed to criticisms that ranged from not allowing enough time for audience questions to a lack of diversity among speakers.

     

    The confirmed agenda and speaker list was circulated only 48 hours before the event. An attendee noted that “inclusion is such a problem still,” pointing to “a lack of brown/black/southern voices”.  

     

    It was with a sense of “despair”, survivor and activist Megan Nobert noted in her address, that she felt the community needed to be reminded “that the voices and lives of those impacted people” should be at the forefront. “It is easy,” she said, “to get caught up in the technical aspects of safeguarding… redrafting policies, trainings, hotlines, worrying about the media and... funding”.

     

    In an open letter, activist Paula Donovan declined to participate, calling the event “cavalier and offensive”. Donovan heads “Code Blue”, a campaign calling for the UN to crack down on sexual abuse amongst its staff and peacekeepers. Donovan claimed the agenda consisted of too many “powerful institutions’ appointed spokespersons”. The pain and suffering of survivors, she wrote, “should never be exploited by powerful institutions for public relations or damage control purposes”.

     

    Criticisms and commitments

    “It seems more about DFID and its public profile than real measures to address this long-standing problem,” one senior aid worker said, referring to the UK Department for International Development. The worker, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, added that too little attention was paid to abuses in the field.

     

    At the event, the audience of several hundred people who ranged from victims to government officials, heard from survivors, whistleblowers and activists and listened as a range of institutional and government commitments were made.  In her remarks, Mordaunt called for “clear, ambitious commitments” and “coordinated global action” to combat sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment in the aid sector. She said Britain and other large donors would address four main areas: preventing abuses, listening to survivors, responding “decisively”, and learning to do better.

     

    As Mordaunt spoke, a former Save the Children employee, Alexia Pepper de Caires, slipped onto the stage and interrupted with her own brief speech. De Caires said she was “disgusted” that Save the Children were selected for a new safeguarding role. De Caires has campaigned for the organisation’s CEO and board members to take more responsibility over its earlier failings. She said women who had worked on the issues “for decades” had been sidelined. “We do not need fancy new systems,” she noted. “We do not need technology, we need systematic change” and to understand issues of “sexism, racism, and abuse of power.”

     

    In response, Mordaunt gave up a later speaking slot to de Caires and other whistleblowers and survivors; former Oxfam employee Lesley Agams; and former UN employee Caroline Hunt-Matthes.

    picture1.png

    Michael Hughes/DFID
    Agams and de Caires.

    In addition to the vetting system, several other initiatives were announced at the conference. They included a collective reference-checking system intended to prevent staff from circulating from one agency to another without their misconduct catching up with them. The effort, currently involving 15 agencies, will be coordinated by the Geneva-based aid agency consortium Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response.

     

    The Dutch government is backing a proposed independent ombudsperson who could investigate allegations of misconduct and abuse that organisations can’t or won’t complete themselves. The next steps may be to find an institutional home for the project and define its scope before launching field-based pilot projects. Analyst Asmita Naik, author of a 2002 report on sex-for-aid in West African relief operations, said the“most pressing need“ was “somewhere for victims to make complaints and ensure these are investigated independently.”

     

    A humanitarian passport scheme, in which accredited aid workers would be issued an ID card attesting to their clean records, has been backed by DFID and led by Save the Children, was also raised. Such a plan requires refinement on several levels, some conference attendees noted, as the legal and data protection issues are complex, as is the definition of “aid worker”.

     

    bp/js

    Schemes to stop sex abuse in the aid sector off to a shaky start
    Protests and objections roil UK event
  • An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border

    This is the third of a three-part special report on the Evros River border crossing between Turkey and Greece. Read the other instalments: “Greece’s man in the migrant morgue” and “Unprepared and overwhelmed: Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey.”

    For more migration coverage see our series Destination: Europe

    Linda, a 19-year-old Syrian and registered refugee, had just crossed from Turkey into Greece at the Evros River when men carrying guns appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. She wasn’t sure if they were police officers or soldiers, but they emerged from behind trees and wore dark uniforms that helped them blend into the night.

     

    It was mid-May, and several hours earlier Linda had boarded a mini-bus in Istanbul with around 35 other people, including children and a pregnant woman, eager to enter European Union territory. The trip had been organised by smugglers, and the passengers ended up in a remote area close to the northwestern Turkish city of Edirne. At around three in the morning they boarded small boats that ferried them across the river.

     

    Linda’s plan was to get into Greece, then make her way to Denmark, where her fiancé lives. Her crossing was part of a sharp uptick in traffic into the EU via the Evros (known as the Meriç in Turkish) this spring; 3,600 people are known to have crossed in April alone, compared to just over 1,000 in all of 2013.

     

    But she didn’t make it more than a few steps into EU territory before she was stopped.

     

    The men demanded that everyone in the group hand over their mobile phones. “Then they beat the men who were with us, put us in a boat, and sent us back to the Turkish side of the border,” Linda recalled when she spoke to IRIN recently in Istanbul.

     

    Pushbacks like the one Linda experienced have been going on for years, documented by both human rights watchdogs and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. They are also illegal under European and international law.

     

    “The right to claim and enjoy asylum is a fundamental human right," Leo Dobbs, a UNHCR spokesman in Greece, told IRIN. Pushbacks at the Evros border, he added, are a “serious issue.”

     

    According to a report released by the Greek Council for Refugees in February, before the spring rush, pushbacks have increased to the point of being “systematic” as the number of people crossing the Evros has grown slowly in the past two years.

    The Evros River border between Turkey and Greece is one of the easternmost frontiers of the European Union. Until a fence went up on all but 12 kilometres of the Evros in 2012, it was the easiest and safest path for asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere to reach Europe, and nearly 55,000 people crossed the border irregularly in 2011.

     

    A controversial 2016 EU-Turkey deal that paved the way for asylum seekers to be returned from the Greek Islands to Turkey (which it deems safe under the terms of that agreement), does not apply to the Evros border. Instead, there is a separate, largely ineffective bilateral readmission agreement dating from 2002 that was suspended earlier this year.

     

    Even under the terms of that agreement, pushbacks like the one Linda experienced violate European and international laws on refugee protection, which require states to allow asylum seekers to file for protection and prohibit sending them back to countries where they may face danger. While countries are allowed to protect their borders, they cannot legally return people who have already crossed without first evaluating their claims.   

     

    Pushbacks may be illegal, but they are an open secret. “It’s something that everybody knows,” said Dimitris Koros, a lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees. Now, when an asylum seeker enters Greece from the land border, “the first thing you encounter is the possibility of being pushed back,” he added.

     

    The Greek Ministry for Migration Policy did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment, but the Greek government has repeatedly denied it is engaged in systematic pushbacks.

     

    Human rights organisations say they have raised the issue of responsibility with the Greek government multiple times without receiving a response. “It’s a difficult thing… to say that the government instructs or gives orders to the policemen to do it,” Konstantinos Tsitselikis, a human rights law professor and former director of the Hellenic League for Human Rights said, “but they have the knowledge and they tolerate it at least.”

     

    It’s unclear just how many people have been pushed back or who is responsible, because the area around the border is a closed military zone and there aren’t many NGOs working in the region.

     

    Meanwhile on the Turkish side of the river, security forces regularly apprehend people attempting to cross and transfer them to government-run detention centres. But amidst a pervasive atmosphere of fear and silence, the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants after they are pushed back and detained largely remains a mystery.

     

    A longstanding practice

     

    According to Tsitselikis, pushbacks have been happening for decades.

     

    “I used to do my military service in 1996-97 in the Evros border area,” he told IRIN. “Even then the Greek authorities were doing pushbacks every day.”

     

    Although the border is technically a military zone, these days border police patrol the frontier as well as personnel from the EU border control agency, Frontex.

     

    People who have been pushed back, including Linda, describe being met by security forces wearing different types of uniforms, but it’s tough to assign responsibility.

     

    “Since it takes place outside of the public eye, we don’t really understand who is responsible,” Koros, from the Greek Council for Refugees, said.

     

    When asked about the practice by IRIN, Nikolaos Menexidis, police major general of Western Thrace, the Greek region that borders Turkey, said Hellenic police always follow the proper procedures when dealing with migrants.  

     

    Menexidis said his forces have been working with Turkish police for the past six years on what he calls “technical issues.” They primarily exchange information on stopping smugglers on both sides of the border, he said.

    the_fence_is_bolstered_by_thermal_cameras._farmers_have_special_permission_to_continue_to_use_their_fields.jpg

    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    Most of the border between Turkey and Greece is lined with barbed wire fence and cameras.

    After pushback

     

    Linda’s ordeal did not end when she was pushed back into Turkey. The smugglers who brought her group to the border were gone and so was the bus. Without phones to call for help, the group was stuck. After waiting several hours, they tried to cross again.

     

    This time they made it further, walking for five or six hours in Greek territory before they were stopped, taken to a detention centre, and placed in a room with people from many different countries.

     

    After being held for several more hours, they were driven back to the border, the men were beaten again, and they were all forced back to the Turkish side of the river. By that point, the group was exhausted and thirsty. “For two days we didn’t drink water. When we saw the river we drank from it,” Linda said. “There were people who got sick because the water was dirty.”

    A group of Turkish soldiers found them in the woods and brought them food, water, and milk for the children and pointed them in the direction of Edirne, where they arranged for taxis to bring them back to Istanbul.

     

    In a way, Linda was lucky. Last December, the Greek Council for Refugees documented the case of a Pakistani man who died of hypothermia after being forcibly returned to Turkey. He had fallen into the cold water on the way back.

     

    While the Evros is no more than a few metres wide, its current is deceptively strong and, according to records in Greece, at least 29 people this year have died while trying to cross the water or shortly after.

     

    Some who are forced back to Turkey face serious punishment. Since a failed military coup in 2016, the Turkish government has jailed tens of thousands of opponents, leading to an increase in the number of Turks fleeing to Greece to seek asylum – nearly 2,000 in 2017 compared to just 180 the year before. The Hellenic League for Human Rights has documented two cases of Turks being pushed back from Greece at the Evros and later being imprisoned in Turkey, including journalist Murat Çapan, who is now serving a 22.5 year sentence for “participating in a terrorist organization and attempting to overthrow the constitution”.  

     

    Despite documentation, human rights advocates say they have struggled to bring attention to the issue of pushbacks, as EU and international policymakers focus on stemming Mediterranean crossings. There is little appetite in Europe at the moment for monitoring or changing policies that are keeping asylum seekers and migrants from entering the EU.

     

    “Both the European Union and the Greek government... prefer not to open this discussion, especially in this political environment,” Tsitselikis said, referring to the rise of right-wing, anti-migration politics in Europe that is shaking the foundations of the EU.

    Fear and silence  

     

    In early June, about a 10-minute drive from Edirne, hundreds of people in the parking lot of what the Turkish government calls a “migrant removal centre” huddled under tin pavilions that offered shade from the afternoon sun. This is where those caught on the Turkish side of the river are brought.

     

    IRIN visited three times over the course of a week to try to gain access, but never received a response to our requests.

     

    The centre is surrounded by a low wall topped with a chain-link fence and spools of razor wire. Each time IRIN visited, there were hundreds of people – mostly men, but also women and small children – in the parking lot and white vans passed in and out of the metal gate depositing more people. Two large charter buses idled in the parking lot with their doors open, seemingly waiting for people to board.

     

    In close to a week spent at the border, there was no concrete evidence of what was happening inside the centre. There were hints and rumours, but no one wanted to speak on record – including Turkish organisations that work with asylum seekers – because of the sensitivity of the issue.

     

    It is simply not clear how long people are kept in the centre, or what happens to them when they are removed. The Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management responded to IRIN’s requests for comment with links to online statistics and Turkish law on removals.

     

    Several Syrian and Afghan asylum seekers that IRIN spoke to shared stories of being held in such centres for a period of time before being released inside Turkey and permitted to stay. Most of the people IRIN spoke to reported good treatment while inside.

     

    But in 2015 and 2016, Amnesty International documented cases of Syrians detained while trying to migrate to Europe and being deported to Syria, according to Anna Shea, an Amnesty researcher working on refugee and migrant rights.

     

    Amnesty has also recently documented a case of a Syrian asylum seeker stopped in Edirne being deported to Idlib, the rebel-held province in northwestern Syria where a ceasefire is so far holding off a government offensive but humanitarians warn conditions are still dire. It is unclear if the case is part of a larger trend.

     

    In recent months, Turkey has deported large numbers of Afghans and Syrians, stopped after crossing Turkey’s southern and eastern borders, back to their respective countries.

     

    But it is difficult to know if this practice has been extended to people who have tried to travel to Greece, given that the organisations working on migrant and refugee rights were unwilling to speak on the record, and the government declined to comment on the issue or allow access to detained migrants.

     

    “The total stonewalling and lack of information and complete lack of transparency is cause for concern in and of itself,” said Shea, the Amnesty researcher. “I mean, what do they have to hide?”

    a_deflated_boat_on_the_greek_side_of_the_evros_river_edit.jpg

    Greenery alongside a brown river with a deflated boat in the foreground.
    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    A deflated boat lies on the Greek banks of the Evros.

    Hidden practice

     

    At a small village outside of Edirne, a man herding goats pointed to places where people crossed the nearby river, but there was no sign of anyone during the day. Crossings happened only at night, he said. And the Turkish army prohibited people from approaching the river after 7 pm.  

     

    The road leading from the village followed the winding course of the Evros, which was often blocked from view by thick stands of trees. The surrounding area was full of corn fields, rice paddies, and thick vegetation. Small dirt roads that shot off in the direction of the river were marked with red signs carrying a stencilled soldier – a warning that entry beyond that point was prohibited.

     

    Not far away, in the city centre, everyone seemed shocked to learn that so many people had crossed the border this year. It was a problem that most locals assumed was already in the past, given that most of the frontier had been lined with barbed wire and cameras for the past six years.

     

    But those who have tried and failed to cross the Evros know that the rural quiet harbours dangers the eye can’t see.

     

    Linda has given up on seeing her fiancé anytime soon – a visa is likely to take years – and she isn’t planning on trying to cross the border again. “I started being afraid because of the things I saw,” she said.

     

    With additional reporting by Sarah Souli

     

    as/ag/js

    On an eastern frontier of the European Union, people are whisked back to Turkey before they can claim asylum in Greece.
    An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border
  • Tsunami aid, Spanish surge, and sexual violence in war: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar:

     

    Sulawesi waits for clean water and unwelcome rain

     

    Aid is trickling into areas hit hard by the 28 September earthquakes and tsunami in Indonesia – far too slowly for many survivors, as we reported on the ground in Central Sulawesi this week. While Indonesian authorities and humanitarian groups are sorting through the logistics of bringing aid to a vast island with damaged infrastructure, new problems are on the horizon. The spread of disease and other health risks are a threat in any disaster, but there’s a shortage of clean water and sanitation facilities even in Palu, the provincial capital where most of the relief efforts have been concentrated so far. Most water supply infrastructure was damaged in the earthquakes. While the Red Cross is sending in drinking water by truck, Oxfam says it won’t be enough for the tens of thousands of people needing access to clean water every day. Save the Children calls clean water shortages a “recipe for disaster”. Indonesia’s government has requested limited amounts of aid from international donors and aid groups, and water purification kits are near the top of the list. But the logistics of even delivering aid supplies is daunting. Authorities are routing all international aid to Balikpapan, on neighbouring Kalimantan island, but Palu’s air and sea ports were damaged in the earthquakes. Conditions could soon get worse: meteorologists are predicting above-average rainfall for the next two weeks, which could trigger landslides in the very places aid responders are trying to reach.

     

    Second-class citizens

     

    There were 11 million new internal displacements due to conflict alone in 2017, far more than new refugees. There's an international treaty about refugees, but none for the much larger number of people who flee war or persecution but stay within their own country. Laws that cover their treatment are few and far between: only 12 countries have laws specific to internal displacement. The closest thing to international law for internally displaced people (IDPs) is the "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement". It's a body of "soft law", drawn up in 2008, that lays out rights and principles that states can use to guide their own actions and law-making. To mark the 20th anniversary, a special issue of Forced Migration magazine explores the fate of the internally displaced in several countries, including Ethiopia and Myanmar, and in fields such as data collection and legal protection.

     

    Nobel moves sexual violence in war into the spotlight

     

    No it wasn’t Donald Trump, and it wasn’t the North Korean or South Korean leader either. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize goes to Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad. If you’ve never heard of Mukwege, here’s a no-holds-barred IRIN profile of the doctor’s work from 12 years ago, by which time he had already dedicated himself for six years to fistula repairs for women suffering an epidemic of rape and sexual mutilation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Murad came to prominence more recently, as the public face of Yazidi victims of so-called Islamic State. She was one of approximately 7,000 women abducted from Sinjar province in northern Iraq in 2014 and endured three months as a sex slave of IS militants. We featured the 25-year-old campaigner in this September 2016 story on human trafficking and sex slavery. In today’s announcement, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Nobel committee chair, said both Mukwege and Murad had won the award for their "efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war". Look for a collection of IRIN’s work highlighting this issue next week.

     

    Spanish surge

     

    At least 34 people died this week in the Mediterranean when the inflatable boat they were trying to take to Spain capsized off the Moroccan coast. The UN says there are believed to be 26 survivors, all from sub-Saharan Africa. Spain is an increasingly popular entry point to Europe: a total of 37,441 migrants and asylum seekers had arrived in the country this year by the end of September by sea, an increase of 201 percent from the same period last year (the number of deaths at sea has also doubled). Spain has sometimes allowed ships refused entry elsewhere to dock on its shores, but it’s not always a warm welcome for newcomers: migrants have clashed violently with police after storming the fence that separates Morocco from Spain at Cueta, and those who make it into Europe rarely have it easy. Stay tuned for our coverage of the crush at Europe’s only land border with Africa.

     

    One to listen to:

     

    Operation Fiction Writer

     

    This week, we’re nominating an episode of NPR’s Planet Money podcast for weekend listening. In only 35 minutes, you get a complicated story of asylum mills – law firms that for years helped some Chinese game the US asylum system by fabricating stories that fit the criteria of targeted persecution that the US looks for in asylum claims. One of the people who wrote those stories, and later helped the government bring the mills down as part of “Operation Fiction Writer” is Lawrence, himself an immigrant from China. These days, the government is reviewing the asylum status of 30,000 people, most of them family members of people who used these law firms and have been in the US for years. But Lawrence has refused to help in possible deportations – he says there’s a difference between what is legal and what is right – so he’s using a fake name, and is in hiding from the government. It’s a complex story with shades of grey. Make time to listen for yourself.

     

    In case you missed it:

     

    INDIA: This week the Indian government deported seven Rohingya men to Myanmar, drawing criticism from rights groups who say the men have been put at “grave risk of oppression and abuse” in their home country, where a violent military purge last year uprooted more than 700,000 people. The UN says 200 other Rohingya are detained in India. There are fears that this week’s deportation is a sign authorities plan to act on year-old threats to expel the estimated 40,000 Rohingya living in India.

     

    IRAQ: After months of political jockeying, Shia politician Adel Abdul Mahdi was named prime minister of Iraq this week and has 30 days to form a government. Among the challenges the compromise candidate will face are ongoing protests against unemployment and a lack of public services in the southern city of Basra, where tens of thousands of people have sought medical treatment thanks to contaminated water.

     

    MOZAMBIQUE: The trial of more than 180 suspected militants began this week in northern Cabo Delgado province, where more than 50 people have been killed in attacks linked to a growing insurgency. The defendants – including Mozambicans, Tanzanians, Congolese, Somalis and Burundians – are accused of deadly gun, grenade and knife assaults. Locals and authorities call the assailants “al-Shabaab”, although the group has no known links to the Somali group of the same name. They are reportedly seeking to impose Sharia law in the Muslim-majority province. The trial is the first since the attacks began a year ago.

     

    PAKISTAN: The government has ordered several international NGOs to leave the country. ActionAid, one of the affected organisations, called it a “worrying escalation of recent attacks on civil society”. Authorities in Pakistan have slapped increasing restrictions and registration requirements on international NGOs in recent years, accusing them of overstepping their humanitarian and development mandates.

     

    SOUTH SUDAN: Based on recent findings, three UN agencies have warned that South Sudan’s “relentless conflict” has left more than six million people — almost 60 percent of the entire population — facing crisis levels of hunger, as people are forced to flee their homes and fields, and trade routes and markets are disrupted.

     

    YEMEN: Cholera is making a comeback, with the World Health Organisation reporting a suspected 10,000 cases per week, double the previous rate. In Hodeidah province, where a battle for the key port rattles on, Save the Children said facilities it supports have seen a 170 percent increase in suspected cases since fighting escalated in June.

     

    Our weekend read:

     

    A vote without a say: Cameroon's displaced anglophones wait for peace to return

     

    It’s presidential election weekend in Cameroon, but for the thousands now displaced from home as a result of the conflict in the anglophone regions, it’s a vote, but no real say. After the francophone government’s violent clampdown on English-speaking separatist activists last year, the humanitarian situation has only worsened. The UN estimates that 246,000 people in the country’s Southwest region are now internally displaced, while another 25,000 have fled across the border to Nigeria. While the government has promised a calm election process, and the country’s main election body urges IDPs to return to their homes to vote, the conflict is casting a long shadow over the polls. Earlier this year, we featured a special report from regular IRIN contributor Emmanuel Freudenthal who became the first journalist to embed with Cameroon’s separatist forces. For our weekend read this week, Arison Tamfu travelled into the forests of the Southwest region to meet displaced anglophones now living on the run, many of whom feel like strangers in their own country.

     

    And finally:

     

    Germany's humanitarian spending has risen fast in recent years. The ecosystem of NGOs and aid agencies in Bonn and Berlin has grown to match. Now it has a new think tank, officially launched in July: The Centre for Humanitarian Action is housed at the Maecenata Foundation, and involves church groups Caritas Germany and Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe as well as MSF Germany.

     

    as-il-bp-am-si/ag

    Tsunami aid, Spanish surge, and sexual violence in war
  • After Russia-Turkey deal, the fate of Syria’s Idlib hangs in the balance

    In two weeks, a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey that has so far held off a government offensive on the rebel-controlled Idlib region in northwestern Syria will come into effect. It could avert deepening a humanitarian crisis for millions already living in difficult conditions. But public details about the agreement – reached in the Russian city of Sochi with no Syrians present – are few and far between. So what do we know, and will it work?

     

    Fearing mass displacement and further violence, humanitarians have met the 17 September announcement out of Sochi with guarded optimism, even as they express uncertainty about the outlines of the deal and its chances of implementation.

     

    “The news of an agreement between Russia and Turkey offers relief, but only in so far as it will avoid a bloodbath in Idlib,” wrote Rachel Sider, a policy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, in an email to IRIN.

     

    Sider pointed out that many previous ceasefires in Syria have collapsed, and warned that even with a deal in place the humanitarian situation in Idlib and the surrounding areas – home to as many as *2.5 million people – remains grim, citing “severe water shortages and displaced families sleeping out in the open.”

     

    According to the published memo outlining the Sochi agreement, a demilitarised zone of between 15 and 20 kilometres will be established in Idlib province. No heavy weapons – such as tanks or howitzers – will be allowed inside that area.

     

    The deal further stipulates that all “radical terrorist groups” will be “removed” from the buffer strip by 15 October and the zone will then be monitored jointly by Turkey and Russia, though Russia will reportedly not maintain an on-the-ground presence there.

     

    Last but not least, two key highways that traverse Idlib – the M4, which connects Aleppo to the Syrian coast, and the M5, which links Aleppo to Hama, Homs, and Damascus – will be reopened for traffic by the end of 2018.

    Aside from these key points, the particulars of what was decided in Sochi have yet to be fleshed out or made public, including where exactly the zone will be and who will be allowed to remain in it. “The agreement itself is a bit ambiguous,” said Sam Heller, a senior fellow with the International Crisis Group.

     

    So, as with so many other deals in Syria’s seven-and-a-half-year war, the devil will be in the detail.

     

    What do the Syrians say?

     

    That the announcement came out of a handshake between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no surprise: the former’s support for President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the latter’s backing of al-Assad’s rebel enemies long ago pulled any real negotiations out of Syrian hands.

     

    While Putin is supportive of al-Assad, he also wants to keep Turkey engaged in Russian-directed peace talks and maintain positive ties between Moscow and Ankara, in the hope of prying this important NATO member away from the EU and the United States.

     

    As for Erdogan, his chief concern is to avoiding further fighting in the region, both in order to save Turkey’s rebel allies and out of fear of a massive refugee crisis flooding across his borders.

     

    While there was no Syrian presence at the negotiating table, buy-in from all the forces on the ground will be key if the buffer zone is to hold or even come into effect in the first place.

     

    At least for al-Assad’s part, this appears to be the case. The Syrian Foreign Ministry welcomed the agreement, noting that the diplomatic process must ultimately aim to rid “all of Syria’s soil from terrorism and terrorists as well as from any illegitimate foreign presence.”

     

    The rest of the pro-Assad camp quickly got on side, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif saying “diplomacy works”.

     

    What do the rebels say?

     

    Two major rebel factions dominate in the Idlib region: a pro-Turkey coalition called the National Liberation Front (NLF) and Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group that grew out of the Nusra Front, formerly al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Tahrir al-Sham controls key parts of Idlib, including the provincial capital and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

     

     

    The NLF issued a statement on 22 September that lavished praise on Erdogan and said Syrians in Idlib welcomed the Sochi agreement with “great relief”. However, the group warned it would “keep our fingers on the trigger” to guard against treachery on the part of “the Russian enemy”. The NLF has since warned that it will not tolerate Russian patrols inside the buffer zone.

     

    Heller told IRIN that while “at first glance [the NLF] looks intransigent,” he believes the coalition’s initial statement “likely signals their cooperation on implementing [the deal].”

    “It seems the deal doesn’t require any of the NLF’s [member factions] to actually withdraw [from the buffer zone] or even to surrender their heavy and medium weaponry, just to relocate those weapons beyond the demilitarised buffer,” a move it looks like the NLF will be willing to make, Heller said.

     

    To persuade fighters working under the Tahrir al-Sham umbrella to either withdraw or join Ankara-controlled rebel units, Turkey will likely have to wield both carrot and stick.

    What’s less certain is how other groups present in the area likely to become the buffer zone will react come 15 October. While no groups are mentioned by name in the documents published so far, the Sochi agreement is understood to take aim at the NLF’s jihadist rival Tahrir al-Sham and other terrorist-designated factions.

     

    Tahrir al-Sham under pressure

     

    So far Tahrir al-Sham has taken an ambiguous stance, giving no clear indication if it will comply with the deal or try to wriggle out of it. The group clearly worries that accepting Turkish diktats would weaken its position, but also that rejection could draw a Russian-backed offensive by the Syrian army – or a Turkish-backed attack by the NLF.

     

    Heller said he expects Turkey to try to push Tahrir al-Sham out of the demilitarised buffer by 15 October.

     

    To persuade fighters working under the Tahrir al-Sham umbrella to either withdraw or join Ankara-controlled rebel units, Turkey will likely have to wield both carrot and stick.

     

    Veteran jihadists and foreign fighters dominate Tahrir al-Sham’s leadership, but much of the rank and file are young local men who may be more interested in their families’ survival than ideological principles. According to the Syrian pro-opposition newspaper Enab Baladi, one faction of Tahrir al-Sham has already signalled its readiness to withdraw from the buffer zone, over the objections of a more intransigent rival wing.

     

    While the Sochi-friendly members of Tahrir al-Sham are being courted by Turkey, their rejectionist rivals are supported by smaller jihadi groups like Hurras al-Din, a Tahrir al-Sham splinter that has positioned itself on the most extreme fringe of Idlib’s politics. Hurras al-Din has already come out against the agreement.

     

    Given that Tahrir al-Sham has fractured before, Ahmed Aba-Zeid, a Syrian researcher and supporter of the non-jihadist opposition, has previously told IRIN he anticipates “additional splits as Turkish pressure on the group to dissolve increases, but this time from its non-ideological contingent.”

     

    A Free Syrian Army-flagged group known as Jaish al-Ezzah has also protested the agreement, raising the heat on radicals in Tahrir al-Sham, who stand to lose face if they bend to Turkey’s orders.

     

    Although several prominent members of Tahrir al-Sham have attacked the Sochi deal in the media, it has issued no public statements as of yet, and the group’s representatives say they are still discussing the matter internally.

    Behind the scenes, Tahrir al-Sham appears to be pleading with Turkey to water down the demands placed upon it, or to help find some other face-saving solution.

     

    “Some of this [outward] rejectionist rhetoric may be part of a negotiating pose,” Heller noted.

     

    A Tahrir al-Sham spokesperson did not respond to IRIN’s request for comment.

     

    Turkey’s options, Russia’s decision

     

    Rebel infighting could be as devastating for Idlib’s civilians as a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive, and may spark unpredictable splits and fissures on both sides of the divide.

    Should Turkey fail to get Tahrir al-Sham to comply, or if some faction of the group tries to obstruct implementation of the Sochi deal, it’s possible Ankara will shift gears and support an NLF attack against Tahrir al-Sham, Hurras al-Din, and other jihadist rejectionists.

     

    Rebel infighting could be as devastating for Idlib’s civilians as a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive, and may spark unpredictable splits and fissures on both sides of the divide.

     

    Aware of the distaste most Syrians feel for foreign-inspired infighting, Tahrir al-Sham is already doing its best to appeal to a shared sense of hostility against al-Assad and the Russians.

     

    “Dividing the factions between moderates and terrorists and making them strike each other is a stratagem of the Russian occupation,” warned Tahrir al-Sham’s online news agency, Iba, in a 25 September statement distributed across Syrian social media.

     

    The following day Erdogan insisted that the withdrawal of “radical groups” from Idlib’s demilitarised zone was already underway. But the Turkish president provided no detail and so far there’s little evidence of movement on the ground.

     

    As things stand, the stalemate seems unchanged: Turkey keeps prodding Tahrir al-Sham to play by the Sochi rules and Tahrir al-Sham is still trying to bridge its own internal divides.

     

    With only two weeks left to go, it’s unclear if Erdogan can implement his side of the Sochi deal – or at least persuade Putin that whatever the situation is like on 15 October, it’s better than a battle.

     

    It’s a holding pattern for humanitarians too, with the UN estimating that as many as 800,000 people could be displaced by an offensive.

     

    “Any solution that removes the immediate threat of military action is welcome,” Cynthia Lee, a Damascus-based official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, told IRIN. “We now have to wait and see how the announced ‘demilitarised zone’ around Idlib will be implemented.”

    (*Population statistics in Syria are uncertain and humanitarian sources have in the past overstated numbers in rebel-controlled regions, but there’s no disputing that many vulnerable civilians live in Idlib. Major aid agencies estimate there are as many as 2.5 million people in the wider Idlib region, an area that includes parts of the Idlib, Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo provinces but not Afrin or areas further along the Turkish border.)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

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    After Russia-Turkey deal, the fate of Syria’s Idlib hangs in the balance
  • US and UK halt key Syria aid shipments over extremist “taxes”

    The United States and Britain have abruptly stopped aid they fund from going through a key border crossing into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, with USAID saying the move is to prevent extremist groups from benefiting from taxes they impose on aid trucks.

     

    The freeze puts at risk supplies that help to support hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in Idlib, which is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and faces the prospect of an assault by al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces.

     

    The unexpected instruction to aid agencies, communicated by USAID on 26 September and Britain’s aid department DFID shortly after, forbids shipments from passing into Syria through the main Bab al-Hawa border point with Turkey.

     

    A spokesperson for USAID said its “partners” should “immediately cease all use of the Bab al-Hawa (BAH) border crossing between Syria and Turkey under USAID-funded awards.” USAID took the step as a “sanctioned terrorist group” is “likely incurring financial benefits from Syrian trucks accessing the BAH border crossing.”

     

    An aid official familiar with the Syria relief operation confirmed the measures to IRIN and asked for anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject. The US and Britain are two of the top four donors of humanitarian aid to Syria, according to UN data. The others are Germany and the European Union.

     

    Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group sanctioned by the UN (and therefore all its member states) as well as by the United States, controls a large part of Idlib, including the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

     

    DFID followed USAID’s lead after the US government told aid groups it had concerns over “taxes” levied by the civilian arm of HTS, aid officials familiar with the humanitarian system in Syria confirmed to IRIN.

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    Statements from civilian arms of the sanctioned HTS differ on the fees charged on aid trucks.

    In what appeared to be a swift response to the shutdown, dual English-Arabic language statements dated 29 September from HTS’s self-styled “Salvation Government”, or civilian administration, said it would stop charging aid trucks as of 1 October.

     

    The Salvation Government confirmed it had been imposing “fees” on “trucks used for delivering humanitarian aid”, money that was spent on repairing and maintaining roads used by the aid trucks. The statement added that the fees would now stop so as to “relieve the suffering and hardship faced by our people”.

     

    However, what appear to be the official website, and Twitter and Facebook accounts for the administration of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing issued a statement on 1 October denying that it had charged aid trucks cash or in-kind fees.

     

    Vital aid route for many in need

     

    In the latter stages of Syria’s war, Idlib’s original population has swollen with displaced people from elsewhere in the country – about one third currently receive internationally-funded humanitarian food aid.

     

    An estimated 2.5 million people live in rebel-controlled Idlib province and the surrounding areas (excluding the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin), and as many as half have been forced to flee their homes at least once. Estimates of people in all of opposition-controlled northwestern Syria have been put as high as 2.9 million.

     

    Al-Assad’s government plans to retake Idlib, but a stop-gap deal between Turkey and Russia has put off a full-scale assault that could have had a “catastrophic” impact on the vulnerable civilian population, according to the UN.

    Concerns that food and other aid are being taxed or siphoned off by extremist groups have complicated aid operations in rebel-held parts of Syria this year, despite growing fears for the wellbeing of the general population.

     

    Bab al-Hawa has changed hands several times in the Syrian war, as rebel groups fight to control its strategic position and lucrative income.

     

    A Turkish news agency estimates that 1,500 trucks of aid enter Syria through Bab al-Hawa every month, as well as 4,000 commercial truckloads. A promotional video from the border crossing operator has a similar figure, saying 85,000 consignments pass through every year (roughly 7,000 per month).

     

    One study said that fees and duties through the key crossing point in 2015-2016 amounted to at least $3.6 million per month.

     

    Aid supplies from Turkey, delivered free on the basis of need, offer a safety net to the most vulnerable who lack income or resources to support themselves. Commercial trade and smuggling, both with Turkey and with the rest of Syria, provide the vast bulk of Idlib’s imports.

     

    Aid groups that do not rely on US or British funding will be unaffected by the donors’ move: these include Turkish aid groups and its Red Crescent, which also provide aid within Idlib but use a different crossing point not controlled by HTS: Bab al-Salaam, further to the north. The USAID spokesperson told IRIN the Bab al-Salaam border crossing “is not impacted”.

     

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    US and UK halt key Syria aid shipments over extremist “taxes”
  • Tripoli clashes, dying with dignity, and AI for good: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar:

    The (ending) age of Aquarius

    MSF’s Mediterranean rescue ship, Aquarius, has been at the centre of a series of diplomatic standoffs this summer as European governments refused to let it dock and disembark migrants and asylum seekers pulled from the waters off the coast of Libya. But its rescuing days could now be over after it had its flag revoked this week by Panama. The pressure appeared to come from Italy, whose populist government argues that such vessels only encourage migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing from North Africa, but which is also keen to stem arrivals after taking in more than 700,000 people since 2013. Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister, denied pressuring Panama (in a Tweet, he claimed he didn’t know the dialling code), but a statement from the Panama Maritime Authority suggested otherwise. “The main complaint comes from the Italian authorities,” it said. The boat, jointly operated with SOS Méditerranée, is the only NGO rescue boat still operating in the Mediterranean. Currently at sea carrying rescued migrants it faces “deflagging” when it next reaches port. Panama’s ship register says the Aquarius refuses to return people to their place of origin. But according to the UN, that would be against refugee law. Given worsening conditions in Libya, UNHCR has updated its legal position on bringing people back to Libya: it’s not “a place of safety for the purpose of disembarkation following rescue at sea.”

    Tripoli unravels

    Sticking with Libya; yet another ceasefire appears to be in place in the capital, Tripoli, where fighting between rival militias this week killed 117 people and injured 581. This round of violence erupted 20 days after a previous UN-brokered truce agreement came into force, so forgive us for fearing it might not last. The impact on civilians extends beyond deaths and injuries: 1,700 families fled their homes to stay with relatives or sheltered in schools in just a few days, and others were trapped and unable to escape the violence. With power and water temporarily cut, migrants and refugees in the city’s detention centres had reportedly resorted to drinking toilet water. Sceptics say the UN-backed Government of National Accord, which sits in Tripoli, has no real control over the city’s armed groups.

    A flood of AI announcements

    “AI for good” announcements came thick and fast last week: Microsoft committed $40 million over five years to an “AI for Humanitarian Action” project. Examples of applications include damage assessment, an educational chatbot, and medical research. Google announced an AI-powered flood warning system, now in pilot mode in Patna state, India. The tech giants joined Amazon in a major new effort to better predict and prevent famine. The World Bank-UN-Red Cross-Silicon Valley coalition has broad ambitions, and getting clearer signals from a wealth of data using AI is part of it. Gimmick or gamechanger? You’ll be hearing more from us on this Famine Action Mechanism, FAM. If you have views, please get in touch.

    Palliative care: a “moral necessity”

    Palliative care is focused on preventing and relieving suffering from life-limiting illnesses. But health advocates say it is frequently overlooked or ignored during humanitarian crises, when resources are stretched and large numbers of people are suddenly in need of basic aid like food and shelter. The World Health Organisation this month released its first guidelines on including palliative care in humanitarian responses. Integrating palliative care and pain relief into humanitarian response is a “medical and moral necessity”, according to the WHO. “The principles of humanitarianism and impartiality require that all patients receive care and should never be abandoned for any reason, even if they are dying,” the guidelines state. What might this actually look like on the ground, in the middle of an evolving emergency? Read our story about a local NGO bringing palliative care to the Rohingya refugee camps of southern Bangladesh.

    Some reprieve for Uighurs

    In a change of policy, Sweden will not deport Muslim minority Uighurs back to China. Germany announced the same in August. Sweden’s migration agency published a report describing repression in the largely Uighur Xinjiang region on 12 September. That followed a UN report alleging mass human rights abuse, including claims of a million Uighur people detained by the Chinese government, which it denies. Three quarters of about 5,500 Chinese asylum applications in Europe in 2017 were denied, according to EU statistics.

    One to watch:

    A masterclass in open source accountability

    Uniformed men in Cameroon executed two women and their two children, apparently accused of involvement with the extremist Boko Haram group. Somehow, a video of the crime surfaced online. This compelling Twitter thread from BBC explains the forensic research by a network of journalists and NGOs, [including Emmanuel Freudenthal]. Using only open source tools, satellite imagery and online research, the team found the place, time and likely names of the culprits, who now face prosecution. Cameroon’s government had initially denied involvement.

    One to look at:

    The 1883 eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatau volcano was one of the deadliest eruptions in modern history – and the volcano is rumbling again. There have been ongoing eruptions at Anak Krakatau since June. But the volcano has had sporadic activity for decades and local authorities say there’s currently no immediate danger. NASA has released images showing unobstructed views of the volcano spewing volcanic ash and steam.

    In case you missed it:

     

    DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The response to Congo’s latest outbreak has been “severely limited by security and other constraints,” according to the WHO, which has warned of a looming “perfect storm”. Last weekend, 18 people died in an attack on the emerging Ebola hotspot city of Beni. The current outbreak has killed at least 100 people, and there are now about 10 new infections a week, as local resistance to vaccination persists. One case has been confirmed on Congo’s border with Uganda.

     

    GAZA: The World Bank is warning that the Gaza economy is in “free fall,” with foreign aid no longer enough to counteract the deterioration. A new report from the bank says every second person in the Palestinian territory lives beneath the poverty line, with unemployment at 53 percent, 70 percent for youth (15-24), and 78 percent for young women.

     

    INDONESIA: Houses have reportedly been swept away and families are missing after a tsunami sent two-metre high waves crashing into the city of Palu on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi following a series of earthquakes, the strongest with a magnitude of 7.5.

     

    IRAQ: Protests over a lack of public services and jobs are still going strong in Iraq’s southern city of Basra, where the main water source is polluted and there is no effective water treatment system. A new desalination plant is being built but workers had to leave because of the demonstrations, and the shooting death this week of human rights activist Suad al-Ali is only likely to add fan the flames.

     

    JAPAN: Typhoon Trami is barrelling toward Japan – three weeks after Jebi, the strongest storm to hit the country in decades. Trami has slowed after clocking 260-kilometre per hour wind speeds earlier this week, but authorities in Japan are still warning the storm will be “very strong”. It’s expected to make landfall over the weekend.

     

    SOUTH SUDAN: Fatalities since civil war broke out in 2013 have long been guesstimated at a vague “tens of thousands”. This week a statistical analysis by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine concluded that the conflict had in fact led to almost 400,000 deaths, half of them directly due to violence. But South Sudan watchers, including IRIN contributor Jason Patinkin, were quick to add a few caveats.

     

    Our weekend read:

    Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief in the world’s troublespots at risk

    Humanitarian responses in the most complex and hostile operating environments on the planet – think Somalia, Syria, Yemen – involve working with some fairly sketchy groups. Take Syria’s Idlib, for example. As much as 60 percent of the province is controlled by the al-Qaeda-linked extremist group Tahrir al-Sham. Inevitably, especially when working through a chain of local sub-contractors, some aid is going to go astray, or bribes will have to be paid and checkpoints bunged. But how much diversion is too much when civilian lives are at stake? This question is central to our weekend read, which reviews worries in the aid sector about an increasingly tought US stance on counter-terror compliance. This analysis follows a string of reports from IRIN Senior Editor Ben Parker exclusively highlighting NGO project suspensions and closures in Syria, recent prosecutions in US courts, and new strings attached to USAID funding. Adding fuel to the fire, a new report this week by USAID’s inspector general sets the scene for a much harder line on UN funding, which is largely exempt from the most stringent oversight.

    And finally:

    A tweet vs. the French nation

    This week, a French court convicted a humanitarian worker of criminal defamation for a tweet. Yes, you read that right. Loan Torondel, who volunteered and then worked for two years with L’Auberge des Migrants, a group that assists migrants and asylum seekers in Calais, tweeted a picture of two police officers standing over a man who looks to be a migrant, sitting on his sleeping bag. The man protests that the policeman wants to confiscate his sleeping bag in the cold, and in the text of Torondel’s tweet he ironically has one officer reply: “Maybe, but we are the French nation, sir.” The French nation bit refers to a comment President Emmanuel Macron made last year that was memed ad infinitum. For his own memeing Torondel (who is still on Twitter) received a suspended fine and was ordered to pay court costs. He is appealing, and rights defenders say his conviction sets a dangerous precedent and is a worrying escalation in harassment of aid workers by state officials.

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    Tripoli clashes, dying with dignity, and AI for good
  • As Trump runs low on targets, aid sector asks: are we next?

    At the second UN General Assembly of Donald Trump’s US presidency – and of António Guterres’ tenure – the sense of novelty and apprehension that marked 2017 has given way to concern that revanchist forces are pushing back on human rights and in other areas.

     

    Several leading participants this week in New York spoke of their disappointment that diplomacy and multilateralism are on the retreat, making it harder to disentangle some of the world’s most intractable problems and conflicts – from Syria and Yemen to refugee resettlement and climate change.

     

    And with the Trump administration running low on multilateral punching bags, relief officials and UN observers are now worried that the political weaponisation of aid might become the next frontier, with the US reducing vital funding for assistance programmes overseas that don’t fit its agenda.

    “US foreign assistance is not the president’s personal charity.”

    “Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends,” Trump threatened during his keynote speech at the General Assembly.

     

    Many in his administration, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, are said to have limited appetite for pulling back too far on overseas assistance, and White House attempts to sharply reduce foreign aid overall have been repeatedly torpedoed by Congress.

     

    However, the president’s statement isn’t complete bluster. In recent weeks a senior White House official has undertaken a review of foreign assistance. The aim is reportedly both the kind of quid pro quo arrangements described by Trump and an effort to neutralise China’s growing “soft power”.

     

     

    Such moves have the sector worried that the world’s largest aid donor by volume could be about to withhold assistance – or at least make sure there are more strings attached – just at a time when donor funds are failing to keep pace with soaring humanitarian needs.

     

    “US foreign assistance is not the president’s personal charity,” Abby Maxman, president of Oxfam America, reacted in a statement following Trump’s speech. “Such vindictive antics might be intended to score short-term political points, but they will cost dearly for the most vulnerable among us.”

     

    Mind the gap

     

    Trump’s appearances this week, and their stark attacks on multilateralism, capped a year of building resignation about the limits of global partnership to solve humanitarian problems.

     

    Over the past 12 months, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has – with Russia’s help – all but decided the fate of Syria’s seven-year war; anti-refugee politics have won over larger voting blocs in the West; the conflict in Yemen continues unabated; and Myanmar’s military stands accused of perpetrating a genocidal campaign in full view of the UN.

     

    “[Trump] seemed a bit listless in the General Assembly and he really did look notably isolated in the Security Council,” Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University’s Center for Policy Research, told IRIN. “So this adds to a sense of American drift at the UN.”

     

    US withdrawal has fed speculation – centred mostly on China’s Xi Jinping – about who might attempt to fill the vacuum in global leadership, but going by the speeches at the UN General Assembly it looked as if countries were not so much moving in as moving on.

     

    “It’s not as if the Russians or the Chinese or any other powers have been actively doing things this week to undercut the US, but I think sort of by default they benefit from this perception of American isolation,” said Gowan.

    “Russia and China are trying to destroy human rights pillars, with the US enabling them across the board.”

    Some world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron at the UNGA and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at an event in Berlin during General Assembly week, did offer purposeful defenses of multilateralism, human rights, and sustainable development. But the gap left by the abnegation of US global leadership is yawning – wider still if the Trump administration actively works to spite cooperation among UN member states.

    Human rights advocates in particular have been sounding the alarm about how easily hard-won gains could be unwound without protection. “Russia and China are trying to destroy human rights pillars, with the US enabling them across the board,” Louis Charbonneau, the UN director of Human Rights Watch, told IRIN.

     

    Fears of America First, the vulnerable last

     

    Of late, the United States appears to be running out of targets. It has already pulled out of UNESCO, cut funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) over abortion rules, and left a global migration pact overseen by the UN.

     

    In the run-up to the General Assembly, Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton promised to undermine the International Criminal Court and sanction its judges. On what grounds that could take place is unclear, and in any event the US isn’t a member of the court.

     

    Arguably the most significant development came in June, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and UN ambassador Nikki Haley announced the US would leave the Human Rights Council.

     

    Foreign aid hasn’t been spared either.

     

    The administration has hacked particularly viciously at humanitarian assistance for Palestinians. Last month it completely defunded the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, and in September it zeroed out everything else, including $25 million in planned financing for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network.

     

    And IRIN revealed in August how the Trump administration had put new limits on foreign assistance funded through the UN. A critical report published this week by USAID’s inspector general may offer more ammunition to those in the administration who seek to cut or redirect UN funding.

     

    Yet it's far from decided how damaging the administration’s slashes and withdrawals will ultimately prove for the UN and the humanitarian aid it provides.

     

    “There is obviously scepticism of whether multilateral action will deliver for US interests, and certainly USAID folks will be sensitive to that and aware of that,” Tony Pipa, the former chief strategy officer at the agency, told IRIN.

     

    “The larger policy conversation that Secretary of State Pompeo is going to be leading is likely to be looking at UN votes and what does that mean to providing budgets and assistance to countries themselves,” he explained. “They are a little different, but they are both connected to a scepticism about the effectiveness of aid and specifically the effectiveness of aid going through multilateral organisations.”

    Though never immune from political considerations, development goals swapped for overtly political ones could render a significantly altered aid environment.

    Other former officials said it was difficult to tell how serious the latest threats should be taken. “There’s no order in the administration’s foreign policy, so it’s hard to know,” said Dave Harden, a former USAID assistant administrator.

     

    Weaponisation, and the future of aid

     

    According to a report in the Washington Post, part of the White House plans consider using aid in a targeted battle with China, which in recent years has spread its largesse – and loans – across much of the developing world.

     

    Though never immune from political considerations, development goals swapped for overtly political ones could render a significantly altered aid environment, aimed less at meeting urgency, and more susceptible to corruption as leaders battle to curry favour rather than demonstrate need.

     

    “China and Western donors have a very different view of aid,” said Gowan. “If the US redefines development as being purely a tool of national interest and very much in an effort to contest China’s rise, then this idea of aid being a universal good is not guaranteed.”

     

    One didn’t need to look far this week to see a similarly questionable dynamic playing out.

     

    At a high-level humanitarian meeting on Yemen held Monday, speakers included the UN’s relief chief Mark Lowcock and Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in the country. The crisis in Yemen, stated Grande, is the worst in the world, and worsening. “At least one child is dying every 10 minutes from causes linked to the war,” she said.

     

    Sat on either side of the humanitarian officials were the main donors to the UN’s relief effort in Yemen; the closest being representatives from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Both countries are principal belligerents in the three-and-a-half-year war and argue that their military intervention is defending the internationally recognised government. But their coalition is also responsible for thousands of deaths and mass displacement.

    Critics of the Saudi Arabian-led intervention see the coalition playing such a large aid role as a contradiction, but Guterres has argued that a country’s military actions and humanitarian commitments should be viewed separately.

    “None of the work [the UN has] done… would have been possible without the generous support of the donors, and I’m proud that my country is on the top of the list along with our brothers the United Arab Emirates,” Saudi ambassador Abdullah al-Mouallimi told the meeting in New York. “We must always remember that.”

     

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    As Trump runs low on targets, aid sector asks: are we next?

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