(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • The trouble with plans to send 116,000 Burundian refugees home

    Under pressure to go home, Burundian refugees in Tanzania face two bad options: return to face social and economic hardship and possible rights violations; or remain in chronically under-resourced camps that restrict their opportunities.


    With both governments confirming plans to return 116,000 Burundians by the end of 2019, it’s crunch time for the international community if it wants to ensure returns are truly voluntary and offer returnees the level of support they will need to reintegrate properly back in Burundi.


    More than 400,000 people fled Burundi, most into neighbouring Tanzania, following violent unrest and repression that accompanied 2015 elections, which saw former rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza returned to power for a controversial third presidential term.


    Limited repatriations began in 2017, but funding shortages mean the process has so far been little more than an offer of free transport back across the border, with a return package of food, non-food items, and cash that doesn’t even last the three months it’s expected to cover.


    Given that many who fled were already amongst the most vulnerable, the daily struggle to feed their families had only increased since they returned.

    Despite this, some 62,000 Burundians have already chosen to go back home. But returnees interviewed by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) said their decisions were driven by dire camp conditions coupled with the risk of abuse if they ventured outside.


    Back in Burundi, the lack of support to reintegrate refugees threatens to hinder their chances of getting food on the table and starting their lives afresh. If past failures are any indication, a botched repatriation on this scale could fuel new conflict and further waves of displacement.


    With elections due to take place next year, some of those interviewed by IRRI were fearful that political tensions will start building again and that renewed violence will erupt.


    Burundi appears to be calm for now, but this shouldn’t hide the fact that the government has restricted political space and refuses to engage in a regional dialogue with opposition parties. Ensuring a properly supported return process has never been more important.


    Problems back home

    A new report, based on 75 interviews IRRI conducted with Burundian returnees, their neighbours and local authorities in August and November last year, finds that many are stuck in a highly precarious situation.


    Several people told us they found the repatriation process slow. Others felt there was insufficient information to guide them through it, despite several systems put in place by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Tanzania to inform refugees about the procedure.

    After the rations and money in the return package ran out, people told us support was limited. Given that many who fled were already amongst the most vulnerable, the daily struggle to feed their families had only increased since they returned.  


    Some were relying on the help of their neighbours or local authorities. But there were occasional tensions too as some who didn’t go into exile resented the fact that returnees received support – however insufficient.


    Returnees said they had been accused of being opposition supporters and some reported being threatened – even physical abused – by the ruling party’s notorious Imbonerakure youth wing militia.


    Another core issue was access to land. Previously unresolved land disputes from prior repatriations continued to cast a shadow over the return process.


    Many of those interviewed were landless and dependent on the meagre return package to secure a place to live. Ensuring equitable access to land is critical, not only to give people access to livelihoods, but also to a wider sense of belonging.


    More and longer support needed


    Effective reintegration of refugees and internally displaced people is a big challenge for countries recovering from conflict.


    In Burundi, the 2015 exodus reversed a repatriation process between 2002 and 2010 in which approximately half a million refugees returned following a number of peace agreements, including the Arusha Accord, which ended the country’s civil war.

    But while the returns made it look like Burundi had found peace, stability only went skin deep. The much harder and time-consuming work of genuine reintegration of returnees didn’t fit well with the short attention spans, or at least budgets, of the government and UN agencies.


    Something similar seems to be taking place now. While most refugees don’t want to return to Burundi because they know they’ll be returning to a volatile political situation and economic hardship, many feel they have no better choice.


    While the returns made it look like Burundi had found peace, stability only went skin deep.

    As the IRRI report demonstrates more fully, the situation faced by Burundian refugees in Tanzania is dire – many are abused when leaving the camps to look for firewood or menial jobs to supplement the insufficient humanitarian assistance.


    Burundi and Tanzania both want the refugees to return. Tanzania is tired of hosting them, fed up with aid that is sporadic and unreliable, while Burundi’s government wants to portray an image of a peaceful country. UNHCR and international donors, however, have been more reluctant to support returns, leading to friction.


    The repatriation process, already painfully slow, was completely halted in November when Burundi suspended international NGOs that refused to adopt ethnic quotas. Some NGOs have been able to reopen since, but others have left the country. Those refugees who were eventually assisted by UNHCR had to lower their expectations.


    Repatriation is a complex, long-term process that must be adequately supported.


    It must take into consideration the humanitarian and development needs of both returnees and the communities to which they are returning, and it needs to grapple with the underlying tensions that created the context for displacement in the first place.  


    But there seems to be lack of recognition – or, at least, of action – by the Burundian government and international actors in this regard.


    In a context in which displacement has had terrible consequences for the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people, recognising repatriation as a long-term endeavour is key to breaking the cycles of conflict and displacement that have plagued Burundi’s recent history.


    Globally, repatriation is being pushed as the most desirable and “durable solution” to end displacement. It is therefore vital that the international community ensures that Burundians return voluntarily and are sufficiently supported and funded to reintegrate effectively.


    (TOP PHOTO: A camp in Tanzania for Burundian refugees. CREDIT: Anouk Delafortrie/ECHO)

    The trouble with plans to send 116,000 Burundian refugees home
    Hovil and Van Laer are Senior Researcher and Programme Director, Prevention and Resolution of Exile, with the International Refugee Rights Initiative, which works to inform and improve responses to the cycles of violence and displacement that are at the heart of large-scale human rights violations.
  • Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar


    Al-Shabab attacks civilians in Kenya and Somalia

    It has been a tragic week in East Africa, as militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack in Kenya and was accused of kidnapping 60 schoolchildren in the Bakol region of southern Somalia. The commissioner of Tiyeglow district said the children were taken on Monday in a raid on a village and most likely recruited as fighters – a common al-Shabab tactic. On Tuesday, the al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a 19-hour siege on an upmarket Nairobi hotel, which left 21 civilians dead. Al-Shabab said the attack was in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It could also be retaliation for Kenyan and US military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia. The hotel attack took place on the eve of a verdict in the trial of men alleged to have been involved in the 2013 siege on Nairobi's Westgate mall, which left 67 people dead. Militancy is an ongoing threat across Africa, a trend we continue to watch in 2019.


    Swine fever threatens food security

    A highly contagious disease with a near-100 percent fatality rate for pigs and wild boars could have “devastating consequences” for food security over large swathes of Asia, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned in a report this week. The FAO says African swine fever threatens to spread from China, where the virus has hit at least 24 provinces since it was detected there in August. The disease is not transmissible to humans, but pork is a key source of animal protein in China, the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia, while China produces half the world’s pigs. The FAO says the risk of the virus spreading beyond China’s borders represents “an imminent threat for the pig population in this region” and could damage livelihoods and food security. There is no vaccine. This week, Chinese agriculture officials announced the culling of more than 916,000 pigs, Mongolia reported its first outbreak, and Australia said it had found traces of African swine fever in six pork products seized at its airports. Since the virus was first discovered nearly a century ago in Kenya, there have been outbreaks in parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil, including ongoing cases in parts of eastern Europe.


    IS reminds US it still exists in Syria

    Days after President Trump said he had begun withdrawing troops from Syria, in part because so-called Islamic State had been defeated, the group claimed a suicide bombing in the northeastern city of Manbij that killed 19 people, including four Americans (two soldiers, a contractor, and a civilian defense department employee). The pullout was already controversial, not to mention confusing – nobody seems to know how or when it is happening – and Wednesday’s attack raised further questions about the wisdom of the move. In northeastern Syria, where some 2,000 US troops plus civilian contractors offer support to Kurdish fighters taking on IS, humanitarians are concerned about the  uncertainty (A Turkish invasion? New alliances? Shifting front lines?) and how it will impact their ability to deliver aid. Read Aron Lund’s latest timely analysis for an understanding of the many possibilities, and what they mean for the estimated two million Syrians in areas under Kurdish control.


    Voting on peace in the Philippines

    On 21 January, parts of conflict-hit Mindanao in the Philippines will begin voting on a long-awaited peace deal that will grant more autonomy and a new homeland for the southern island’s Muslim population. The proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law is the culmination of years of negotiations between Philippine authorities and multiple iterations of Muslim armed groups on Mindanao. Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a peace agreement with the largest Muslim armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The upcoming referendum, which continues on 6 February, is the next step to putting the law into effect. Recent polling suggests large parts of existing Muslim-majority areas on Mindanao support the law, which would create a new territory, known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with greater control of resources and taxation. But it’s uncertain whether adjoining areas like Cotabato City, wedged in the middle of an existing region, will vote to join. If the referendum passes, Mindanao still faces a challenge building peace. Authorities must oversee the decommissioning of thousands of armed fighters. But other armed groups continue to clash, including extremist fighters that have in the past drawn from the ranks of disaffected MILF members.


    Sexual harassment at the UN

    One in three UN workers has been sexually harassed in the past two years, according to survey results published this week. More than 30,000 UN agency staff and contractors took part in the online survey conducted in November by business advisory firm Deloitte. UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed disappointment, not just at the results but also at the low participation – only 17 percent of those polled responded. He said it showed how far the UN has to go before it can “fully and openly” discuss sexual harassment and counter ongoing “mistrust, perceptions of inaction, and lack of accountability”. Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reportedly ordered an internal investigation after a string of anonymous emails containing allegations of racism, sexism, and corruption were sent to top managers at the UN health agency last year. Both reports follow hot on the heels of the announcement last month that the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, will step down six months early, in June, after a panel found that he tolerated “a culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.” A preliminary report this week into the Oxfam scandal, which precipitated the #AidToo movement, called for a stronger system of safeguarding, for empowering and creating the space for staff to challenge negative power dynamics, and for investing in ways to more generally improve the culture of such organisations.

    In case you missed it:

    Democratic Republic of Congo: While global attention has been focused on Congo's disputed elections and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern regions, almost 900 people were killed in inter-communal clashes in western Mai-Ndombe province last month, the UN said. The fighting between Banunu and Batende communities took place in Yumbi, one of the towns excluded from the 30 December polls due to insecurity.


    The Hague: The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity, calling the case against him "exceptionally weak". Gbagbo spent more than seven years in custody, and was tried for allegations including involvement in election-related violence in 2010 and 2011, during which thousands of people were killed. Prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict and, initially at least, he remained behind bars.


    Syria: UNICEF reports that eight children, most under four months, have died in the past month at the makeshift camp on the Jordan-Syria border where some 40,000 Syrians have taken shelter. People at the camp, Rukban, are exposed to harsh winter conditions and are short on medical supplies and care; the last humanitarian convoy was in November.


    United States: Four humanitarian volunteers went on trial this week in Tucson, Arizona, facing misdemeanour charges for leaving water and other supplies in the desert for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Since 2017, at least 43 sets of human remains have reportedly been found in the wildlife refuge where the volunteers had left the provisions.


    Yemen: Days after the UN Security Council voted to send 75 observers to monitor a faltering ceasefire in Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah, bullets hit an armoured car carrying the mission’s head, retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. No one was injured, and the warring sides blamed each other for the incident.


    Zimbabwe: The UN has condemned Zimbabwe's “excessive use of force” in cracking down on protests, which were sparked by a dramatic fuel price hike last weekend. Five people have been killed, hundreds detained, and the government has imposed a total internet shutdown. There is concern that a prolonged crisis could lead to mass displacement and create a new humanitarian challenge for neighbouring countries.

    Weekend read


    Venezuela’s new humanitarians

    Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting pressure at home and abroad as his disputed second term in office begins. Opposition politician Juan Guaidó is challenging Maduro’s rule, while some foreign governments, including the United States, are calling the Maduro regime “illegitimate”. Venezuela is mired in economic freefall and its citizens face severe food and healthcare shortages. The crisis has pushed some three million to flee the country, spilling the humanitarian emergency across the region. For our weekend read, journalist Susan Schulman has the latest from our reporting on local aid in crises. The story profiles Venezuela’s local NGOs, which have been forced to make drastic changes to respond to a humanitarian crisis the government denies. Local organisations that once focused on rights or development find themselves thrust into unfamiliar new roles: an education NGO that abandoned its training programmes because teachers were too busy queuing for food; a rights group that diverted its resources to feed hungry children. “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” says one local activist. “We didn’t know until now.”

    And finally...

    IRIN at Davos

    Look out for IRIN’s participation at next week’s annual World Economic Forum gathering of top business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Join us on Tuesday 22 January at 7:30am local time (0630 GMT), for a live stream of “Meet the New Humanitarians”, our headline event aimed at showcasing emerging actors in the humanitarian landscape, not to mention our new name and brand (In case you missed our big announcement).


    And if you don’t mind a quick 10-second sign-in form (or are already signed on), check out the Humanitarian Action entry on Transformation Maps, the WEF’s new attempt to harness technology and collaboration to tackle complex global issues and better inform decision-makers. IRIN’s Ben Parker was the key contributor.



    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN
  • Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Militant attacks spike in Nigeria

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

    Winter has come

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

    Congo election result challenged

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

    Deal or no deal? Yemen ceasefire falling apart

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

    Exploring peace amid fresh violence in Thailand’s deep south

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

    One to listen to

    Keeping local staff safe

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

    In case you missed it:

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

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

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

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

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

    Weekend read

    Women, girls, and gender preparedness in aid

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

    And finally...

    Brexit and the US shutdown

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

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


    Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen
  • Afghan voting, Ugandan mudslides and Burundi’s rusty old signs: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    A vote for stability in Afghanistan


    This weekend, analysts will be keeping an eye on voter turnout for parliamentary elections – seen as a harbinger of public confidence ahead of presidential elections scheduled for next April – as well as signs of voter fraud, which has marred previous polls. Afghan authorities had hoped the 20 October elections would bring a measure of stability to the country after another year of tumult, but the lead-up to the weekend vote has only added to the uncertainty. On Thursday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination of a prominent police chief in Kandahar Province. Earlier this month, a suicide attack struck an election rally, killing at least 14 civilians, in volatile Nangarhar – an eastern province where both the Taliban and fighters aligned with the so-called Islamic State have wrestled for control. The UN says hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured this year in “disturbing” attacks on voter registration centres, schools, and mosques set up for election-related purposes. This includes a 22 April suicide attack outside a distribution centre for national ID cards in Kabul, which killed at least 60 people. The election risks are adding to already pressing humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan. Conflict this year has displaced a quarter million people, and severe drought has uprooted even more. A survey this week from Save the Children looked at the effects of this instability on Afghan children deported from Europe. Most of the children surveyed had been unable to attend school in Afghanistan, while one in five said they had been asked to fight in combat or join an armed group.


    How healthy in 2040?


    In Afghanistan, the third biggest cause of death now is conflict. In 2040, it will be road accidents. In Côte d’Ivoire, heart disease will take over from malaria as the top killer. Progress, of a sort? A new study, from Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, published in The Lancet, estimates the toll of illness and likely life expectancy across the world in 2040. Non-communicable diseases like diabetes and lung and kidney conditions will become more significant. Winners? The Spanish and Japanese will live longest. Syrian life expectancy will jump back up (assuming peace). But Palestinians’ life expectancy is expected to drop the most relative to other nations – from a ranking of 114th in 2016 to 152nd in 2040.


    Yes, another dark week for Yemen


    We know the competition of misery doesn’t much help anyone, but every time we think it can’t get worse in Yemen – which the UN calls the world’s largest humanitarian crisis – it does. This week, the UN said at least 15 civilians were killed and 20 injured when airstrikes hit two minibuses in Hodeidah province, where a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led assault against Houthi rebels is intensifying. The value of the Yemeni currency continued to plummet, causing the prices of food and fuel to skyrocket. That, in turn, brought more warnings of famine. Cholera has once again spread to almost all of Yemen (check back with us next week for more on that), and a tropical cyclone hit the coast near the border with Oman. Three people were confirmed killed; more are missing and injured. Homes have been destroyed, an estimated 3,000 families are displaced, and flood damage means aid workers are having trouble providing help. In short: not much good news.


    Northward from Honduras


    As a growing caravan of as many as 4,000 migrants continued walking from Honduras to the US-Mexico border this week, local groups and ordinary citizens offered support along the way. A bakery distributed bread, middle schools and migrant shelters opened their doors at night, and charity groups cooked meals for people who have been on traveling on foot for days. Those moving northward are often looking for economic opportunity, but they are also fleeing gang and other violence as well as political repression. Doctors Without Borders noted last year that the “unrelenting violence and emotional suffering” in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras is similar to that in conflict zones, and that migrants are “re-victimised” as they make the trek north. Yet governments on the migrants’ route have framed their presence as a security issue, not a humanitarian one, with US President Donald Trump describing the march in a tweet as “the assault on our country from our southern border.” He threatened to cut development aid to Honduras if the migrants reached the US border, echoing his campaign promise to stem immigration. Guatemala and Mexico drew fire from human rights organisations this week for sending hundreds of police officers to their borders. On Thursday, the situation seemed to take a turn, as Mexican president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the marchers deserve “humanitarian treatment” and announced a work visa plan for Central American migrants (as reported by the Mexican paper Excelsior) and that his government would ask the UN for assistance processing asylum requests. An Amnesty International report found, however, that 75 percent of migrants detained by Mexico are not informed of their right to seek asylum. There may be more news to come: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was headed to Mexico on Friday.


    Deaths aren’t the only civilian toll in Somalia attacks


    Last week, US forces launched their deadliest attack in nearly a year on Somalia’s al-Shabab, killing 60 of the militant group’s members, US Africa Command (Africom) reported on Tuesday. Last November, the US said another significant strike against the group killed 100 of its fighters. Al-Shabab has lost large swathes of territory to the Somali army this year, bolstered by US and African Union troops. Africom said no civilians were killed or wounded in last Friday’s air attack, near the al-Shabab-controlled town of Harardhere in Mudug region. Yet the ongoing cycle of violence has taken a devastating toll on many communities.  Among them are current and former child soldiers, who are often forcibly recruited at age eight or nine. For more on this, watch for our piece next week by Somali-Canadian journalist Hassan Ghedi Santur, who recently travelled to Mogadishu and met with child defectors from al-Shabab.


    Uganda: apologies don’t stop landslides


    The death toll from last week's landslides in eastern Uganda’s Bududa district has risen to 43, while the disaster has destroyed some 139 households. Of those affected, 278 are reportedly children under five. Following heavy rains, the Sume river burst its banks last Thursday, forcing large volumes of water and boulders toward peoples’ homes in the sub-county of Bukalasi. This week, the Red Cross launched an emergency appeal to support victims, warning that three other areas are at risk. Bududa is among the most disaster-prone districts in Uganda; in 2010, over 350 people died in landslides there, followed by similar disasters in 2011 and 2012. President Yoweri Museveni this week apologised for the delay in relocating communities from landslide-prone areas, while the government unveiled a plan to resettle those most at risk. But is resettlement the way to address landslides in the eastern mountainous region? Regular IRIN contributor Samuel Okiror explores this question next week, after visiting landslide-affected communities in Uganda. Stay tuned.


    Humanitarian journalism: how are we doing?


    Nearly 200 interviews, four years, three researchers, and countless thousands of words published by specialist and mainstream English-language media informed a new academic study on humanitarian journalism released this week. The State of Humanitarian Journalism is a report card of sorts on how the media covers humanitarian crises, what influences that coverage, and whether audiences care about any of it. (If you’re wondering whether IRIN News was included in the study, yes, we were.) The good news: readers care. Or at least they say they do. In a survey of readers in the UK, France, Germany, and the US, more respondents said they followed news about humanitarian disasters either “closely” or “fairly closely”, paying more attention to it than other international reporting. The not so good news: the high cost of practicing humanitarian journalism. The authors – Martin Scott of the University of East Anglia, Kate Wright of the University of Edinburgh, and Mel Bunce of City University of London – note that few mainstream news organizations cover humanitarian issues other than high-profile emergencies. And most humanitarian journalism is supported by government subsidies or private foundations, which, the authors say, “is worrying because claiming that particular actors or activities are ‘humanitarian’ is a powerful form of legitimacy.” They add: “It is important that media about the suffering does not become a vehicle for commercial or political interests.” Among the gaps in coverage the study identified were reporting on issues affecting women and girls and investigative reporting. We agree. We hope to do more of both as we look toward 2019. In the meantime, check out our latest investigations and reporting on women in Mosul, Cox’s Bazar, and Uganda.


    Add riverbanks to Bangladesh’s disaster list


    Cyclones, floods, drought, storm surge, and even earthquakes: Bangladesh is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries when it comes to disasters. Another frequent risk is soil erosion along the coastal country’s waterways. In September, five kilometres of riverbank along the Padma River collapsed, displacing more than 43,000 people. The European Union’s humanitarian arm, ECHO, says local food shortages have been reported as the erosion caused “significant damage” to cropland. NASA says more than 66,000 hectares of riverbank land along the Padma – a distributary of the Ganges River – have eroded over the last half-century. There are many factors that contribute to soil erosion, both natural and manmade. The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society says the September damage was exacerbated by heavy rains and the opening of a dam gate upstream.  


    One to listen to


    Aid for arms


    Twenty-five years ago, news broke of what’s now known as the “Pergau dam affair” - a secret agreement that linked the promise of UK development aid to Malaysia with arms sales. The scandal, named for an expensive hydroelectric dam project, ended up in headlines, select committees, investigations, a court case against the UK government, and eventually the creation of DFID, the UK government department that administers overseas aid today. Have a listen to this short look back at the furore with the BBC’s Witness for more from a senior civil servant who was at the centre of the whole thing.


    In case you missed it:

    Bangladesh: The risk of forced labour and abuse is rising for Rohingya children, as most families in Bangladesh’s packed refugee camps have few other ways to earn money, the UN’s migration agency, IOM, warned this week. Advocates for children have called the Rohingya camps “a child protection disaster waiting to happen”, citing a lack of economic opportunities for refugee families and a shortage of safe spaces for vulnerable kids.


    DRC: The outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo does not constitute a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), an emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization decided on Wednesday. But it remains “deeply concerned” about the region and called for response to be “intensified” to ensure the situation doesn’t worsen. The WHO said nine neighbouring countries are at high risk, particularly Uganda and Rwanda. Burundi and South Sudan have also been supported with equipment and personnel in case the outbreak reaches them. The situation is particularly complex because the affected area is “in an active conflict zone amidst prolonged humanitarian crises," the WHO said.


    The Gambia: The Gambia this week launched a truth commission intended to shed light on summary executions, disappearances, torture, rape, and other crimes under Yahya Jammeh, who ruled the small West African nation for 22 years. President Adama Barrow, who was voted in to power in December 2016, said in a tweet: "I hope this exercise provides us the opportunity to forge on resolutely as one people, united in our diversity, with the common belief that we can set aside our differences and confront our past."


    Indonesia: The number of people displaced by the 28 September earthquakes and tsunami in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi has jumped to more than 222,000, according to figures released Friday by the AHA Centre, a regional coordination body. It’s nearly triple the previous official tally. The official death toll stands at 2,100, but this is also expected to rise with large numbers of people believed missing.  


    Iran: Faced with a stumbling economy, Iranians are increasingly seeking asylum in European Union countries. Nearly 2,500 Iranians applied for asylum in the EU in August – the highest monthly total in two years and part of a rising trend, according to newly released data from the European Asylum Support Office.


    Nigeria: The second medical aid worker in a month was executed in Borno State this week by a faction of the extremist group Boko Haram. The killing has appalled the international aid community and highlighted the exceptional dangers associated with bringing aid to over seven million civilians in the wider conflict-affected region.


    Syria: The UN’s envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, announced this week that he would step down at the end of November. The diplomat has been on the job for the past four years and has vowed to focus the rest of his time working to assemble a committee to rewrite Syria’s constitution, as agreed at January talks. In news from inside Syria, the UN says Damascus will for the first time allow a convoy of aid to reach people trapped at Rukban, on the Jordan/Syria border next week. Next week IRIN will report on that desert pressure-cooker, the border area known as “the berm”. Have views or tips for us?  Contact us on Twitter or [email protected]


    Venezuela: Mexican companies and individuals will pay reparations to the UN Refugee Agency for speculating on food items sold to Venezuela, which subsidises basic goods. The scheme, which involved officials and businesspeople from several Latin American countries, has been said to enrich those who exploit the subsidies program while exacerbating acute food shortages in Venezuela.


    The weekend read


    ‘Do no digital harm’


    As humanitarian aid is increasingly distributed, and streamlined using big data, privacy risks are piling up. Technologies are evolving quickly, and the aid sector is trying to catch up. It’s time for humanitarian organizations to ask themselves some serious ethical questions, a panel of humanitarian data professionals chaired by IRIN’s Ben Parker pointed out recently. Speaking at the first-ever talk on data security at the Humanitarian Congress Berlin, the panelists warned about the dangers of commercialising sensitive data, the perils of sharing data with irresponsible governments in emergency situations, and the need to avert a breach before it’s too late. Possible solutions to what one panelist called a “digital apocalypse” in terms of privacy and personal agency over data include a moratorium on new technologies like biometrics and alternative technologies (think blockchain and Bitcoin), and smaller privacy-by-design initiatives that minimise the amount of data collected and store it responsibly. If you’re doing the data collection, keep in mind the power you hold over the people whose data is in your hands. Think about rebalancing that relationship through moves like providing safe internet access to clearly explaining rights and conditions of consent. For tips, find some time this weekend to take a look at our excerpts from the discussion.

    And finally

    A new reading of rusty old aid signage


    Two signs on the roadside
    Astrid Jamar
    Billboards in Rutana, Burundi.

    Burundi’s stunning landscape has an unusual feature – an infestation of sign boards marking aid projects and offering foreign-funded public service messages. Researcher Astrid Jamar, based at the University of Edinburgh, was struck by this aid signage and took out an analytical lens. The signs have become part of the landscape, she reports: “residents use aid billboards for various purposes such as drying clothes or as landmarks when giving directions – eg ‘Take the road on the right after USAID AIDS billboard, and then second left after the IOM billboard.’” She counted (and photographed) 20 signs in a 200 metre stretch of road in the town of Rutana. In a blog at the London School of Economics, Jamar reflects on what this might say about Burundi’s fraught relations with donors and foreign aid organisations. (From 1 October it has suspended most international NGO activities, requiring groups to re-register under new terms.) The boards, often years out of date, rusting and faded, symbolise the “cacophonic and disorganised nature of aid efforts”, and an appetite amongst aid operators for “visibility”, Jamar suggests. The signs occupy an ambiguous space, she argues, straddling the neocolonial tendencies of aid and “the current regime’s use of accusations of neo-colonialism to counter criticism of human rights violations”. And she points out that a number of billboards take a banal and paternalistic tone that belittles citizens. Two examples: “Let’s eat food rich in nutrients” and “Let’s avoid adultery because it has negative impacts on the family.”



    Afghan voting, Ugandan mudslides and Burundi’s rusty old signs
  • Refugee resettlement hits 10-year low

    Some 50,000 to 60,000 people fleeing war and persecution will start a new life and be on track for a new passport in 2018, but it will be the fewest number of refugees resettled globally any year since 2007, UN figures show.


    The drop is mainly due to President Donald Trump’s administration slashing the US quota. The United States took in 68 percent of the 770,000 refugees permanently resettled in the last 10 years, according to the UN – an average of about 51,000 per year. But, this calendar year, fewer than 10,000 had made the journey to the United States by the end of July.


    Developing regions host 85 percent of the world’s refugees, according to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.


    Read more »

    So, your country isn't keen to resettle refugees. Are you?

    US refugee resettlement system reels from Trump ban


    With one month to go in the 2017-2018 US financial year, government statistics suggest the United States will have taken in its lowest number of refugees since 1977. A State Department list shows 19,899 arrivals, and non-profit Refugee Council USA predicts a total of 22,000 by the end of September, the fiscal year-end. This number is less than half the reduced ceiling of 45,000 admissions announced by the Trump administration in September 2017. (A UNHCR official explained that the discrepancy between UN and US figures is because the United States also takes cases not referred through the UN refugee agency.)


    Even with the limits imposed by the Trump administration, the United States will still take in more refugees than any other country. After a temporary increase around the Syrian crisis in 2016, other countries are barely matching their own 10-year averages, and none seem ready to start closing the gap left by US cuts.



    Overall, some 126,000 refugees were given a route to permanent residency and citizenship in a new country in 2016, with Australia, Britain, Canada, and Norway taking in more than ever before. That now looks like a record that will not be surpassed for years.


    European centrist politicians are reluctant to offer more help to refugees in this political climate for “fear of the populist movements”, explained Pål Nesse, senior advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We have to step up and do more,” he said, speaking particularly about Europe, while also pointing out that South American, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries could provide more resettlement places.



    Nesse said the failure of rich countries to share the burden weakened their “legitimacy” in talks with developing countries, which “are hosting so many”. Without demonstrating initiative, Western countries cannot counter the accusation of trying to “export the problem”, he added.


    Read more »

    Is resettlement for 10 percent of refugees a pipe dream?


    Refugee resettlement refers to permanent residency and eventual citizenship granted to refugees, usually in the United States, Canada, Australia or other developed economies in Europe. Typically, a family of resettled refugees will have already left their country of origin and found asylum in a neighbouring country. From there, particularly vulnerable or deserving cases can be recommended by UNHCR and put forward as candidates to potential host countries.


    There are other paths to citizenship for refugees: Tanzania, for example, has granted citizenship to tens of thousands of long-term refugees from neighbouring Burundi. Germany may, eventually, grant citizenship to some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees it has taken in since 2015.



    The United States is set to take in its lowest number since 1977
    Refugee resettlement hits 10-year low
  • Iraq’s new blues, Lake Chad’s daily perils, and that G-word: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s editorial team offers our take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar:


    Iraq’s Basra blues


    A year ago Iraqi forces took back the country’s second city, Mosul, from so-called Islamic State. National elections in May passed off peacefully (even if turnout was low), and attacks and bombings have been punctuating daily life less frequently. In Baghdad, the proliferation of cafés, clubs, and bars is encouraging talk of a rebirth, even of the capital getting its groove back. So, is Iraq’s endless cycle of violence finally ending? It doesn’t look that way down south, in Basra. On Saturday the Iraqi parliament will meet in emergency session after imposing a curfew on the city to control protests in which nine demonstrators were killed since Tuesday – raising the toll since July to 26. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into an allegedly heavy-handed crackdown by the security forces. At issue is the delivery of basic public services – 30,000 people have been hospitalised after drinking polluted water – but a wider narrative is at play, too. Now that the “war” is over, the political class is under fire from angry citizens wondering when some of the billions of dollars of foreign investment promised to the oil-rich country might trickle down to them. Four months after the elections, efforts to forge a new government are beset by in-fighting and allegations of interference from Iran and the United States. So it’s 15 and a half years after the US-led invasion, and Iraq is still a long way from peace. The country, it seems, has a long road to recovery, as this longread from Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod suggests: Searching for Othman.


    Lake Chad’s protection gap


    Ever struggle to get to grips with the somewhat ambiguous humanitarian term, “protection”? The crisis in Africa’s Lake Chad region – propelled by armed conflict, climate change, and poverty – puts it in sharp focus. “One day they told me it was my turn to make a suicide attack,” Halima, a young Chadian woman whose husband had forced her to join the Boko Haram insurgency, said in a short film played to delegates at a donor conference in Berlin earlier this week. “When I asked them when, they said, ‘today’.” Halima survived the blast but lost both her legs. Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief, told conference attendees that insecurity, abductions, the forced use of children as human bombs, and gender-based violence were part of daily life in the region, which encompasses parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria and where more than 10 million people need life-saving assistance every day. “At the heart of this crisis, it is a crisis of protection,” he said. More than $2 billion was pledged at the conference towards humanitarian needs and long-term resilience, more than th $1.5 billion sought and three times the disappointing haul last year.


    Yemen consultations on hold


    They aren’t negotiations, and they’re not off to a brilliant start. A fresh phase of UN-brokered “consultations” between two key blocs in Yemen’s war was planned for mid-week in Geneva but haven’t got underway. On Wednesday afternoon, UN peace envoy Martin Griffiths told reporters he hoped the consultations, the first in two years, could offer a “flickering signal of hope” to Yemenis after years of war that have “driven so many Yemenis to despair”. The first steps, he said, could be “confidence-building” agreements – for example, agreeing to facilitate vaccinations or release prisoners. The talks were to feature the internationally recognised Gulf-backed government and the Houthi Ansarullah group. A non-partisan group of Yemeni women were to act as a “technical advisory group”, Griffiths said. On Friday, a spokesperson said Griffiths is “still working on getting the Ansarullah delegation to Geneva” – some reports say the group’s demand to evacuate wounded colleagues on the same flight was a sticking point.


    ICC Rohingya ruling hurdles jurisdiction roadblock


    It’s an unprecedented ruling that could have far-reaching implications for international justice. This week, the International Criminal Court ruled the court has jurisdiction to examine the alleged deportation of Rohingya civilians from Myanmar to Bangladesh. After months of inaction, the ruling opens a possible legal pathway to international accountability for violence committed during last year’s Rohingya refugee exodus. Our June deep dive on this issue is worth another read to explore why the case is so unusual (and what it may mean for international crimes elsewhere). Myanmar’s top generals are accused of genocide, but the ICC prosecutor’s legal examination hinges on a specific alleged crime: deportation. That may be a narrow focus given the scale of accusations, but the ICC ruling leaves the door open to examining other crimes – as long as some part of those crimes took place in Bangladesh, which is the basis of the deportation ruling.



    About the G-word


    “Crimes against humanity”, “war crimes”, or “genocide”? How to categorise the extreme violence enacted on Myanmar’s Rohingya minority has been a long-running debate. Last week a UN rights investigation trotted out the G-word, calling for Myanmar’s military commanders to be investigated for the crime of genocide – which, unlike the evocative term “ethnic cleansing”, is a specific crime under the Rome Statute. But time spent debating what to call the violence may further delay legal action. That’s the argument from Charles Petrie, a former UN official critical of the UN’s actions (or lack of) at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. Petrie writes in an op-ed this week in the Guardian: “However we refer to them, immense crimes have been and are being committed in Myanmar. It is time for the world to stop debating how to categorise them.”



    In case you missed it:


    North Korea: Severe flooding has killed 76 people and left just as many missing in the provinces of North and South Hwanghae. The Red Cross says recent heavy rainfall led to widespread floods and landslides that destroyed 800 homes and left thousands homeless.


    Papua New Guinea: Health authorities this week confirmed there have been nine cases of vaccine-derived polio so far this year – although the country was declared free of the virus in 2000. The World Health Organisation has said it is investigating at least 65 cases and warned that the risk in the country is “high”. The government has launched a nationwide immunisation campaign, but the country’s remote terrain and poor weather have posed a challenge.


    Burundi: Crimes against humanity may have taken place in Burundi, where abuses by state security forces continue, a UN panel reported this week. Their report, available only in French so far, says the judiciary lacks independence and raises particular alarm at the “regimentation” enforced by Imbonerakure militia, affiliated with the ruling party. The report includes first-person testimonies of torture and beatings.


    Japan: It has been a summer of disasters. This week, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake struck the northern island of Hokkaido, killing at least 16, and Typhoon Jebi, the strongest storm to hit the country in 25 years, caused widespread flooding. In July, hundreds died as extreme rainfall and a severe regional heatwave hit parts of the country.



    Weekend read:


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Convinced the state cannot protect them traditional Dogon hunters have decided to fill the void themselves, forming a new self-defence militia they call Dana Amassagou.

    “I have lost everything”: In central Mali, rising extremism stirs inter-communal conflict


    This Tuesday, Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, was sworn in for a second term after winning more than two thirds of the vote in the August run-off election. In a low-key ceremony, Keita promised to address the country’s deteriorating security. He will find this hard. Since 2012, the country’s north has been dominated by Tuareg rebels and loosely allied Islamist groups. Now, extremists linked to al-Qaeda have been recruiting Fulani herders in central Mali, sparking clashes between rival ethnic groups and presenting a fresh challenge to the stalled implementation of a 2015 peace accord. As attacks on polling day showed, the Mopti region is fast becoming the epicentre of this new unrest. Regular IRIN contributor Philip Kleinfeld travelled there to take a look. He discovered that dozens of villages have been burned down in recent months as Fulani pastoralists clash with largely sedentary Dogon, Bambara, and Songhai farming communities. In our weekend read, Kleinfeld chronicles this emerging crisis in central Mali, the part Islamist groups are playing, and the extent to which self-defence militias are fuelling broader conflict.


    And finally:


    Wealth vs. physical activity


    Exercise can help prevent cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and some cancers, but 1.4 billion people aren’t getting enough, WHO researchers say. Those who get off the couch the least? Kuwait, American Samoa, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. The most active? The less wealthy countries, led by Uganda and Mozambique. Men are more physically active than women in 95 percent of the countries surveyed. Read more at The Lancet.




    Iraq’s new blues, Lake Chad’s daily perils, and that G-word
  • Erdogan wins, Burundi baffles, and the EU offshores: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar:


    Breaking bad in Burundi

    Last month’s constitutional referendum was widely seen as a move to allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to stay put for years to come. That the former rebel leader now seems willing to bow out gracefully in 2020 has raised hopes that Burundi might again be moving closer to stability and the rule of law – after 300,000 people died in a 1993-2005 civil war and recent years marked by political unrest and violent oppression. Maybe you were among the many who were pleasantly surprised. Get ready to be disappointed. The latest findings from UN investigators aren’t too hopeful. They found that “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, targeting those opposed to the proposed amendment of the constitution” had taken place this year. The overall security context, they warned, was likely to worsen and cast doubt on the sincerity of Nkurunziza’s announcement. For its part, Burundi dismissed the findings as the fruit of “geopolitical appetites”.

    The slow road to ICC investigations in Myanmar

    The push to levy some form of international judicial accountability for Myanmar’s anti-Rohingya purge nudged forward this week, months after a military campaign in northern Rakhine State ousted more than 700,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh. The European Union and Canada imposed sanctions against seven senior Myanmar military and security officials. An Amnesty International investigation named and accused 13 people of “crimes against humanity committed during the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population”. And a Reuters investigation detailed how two light infantry divisions led last year’s crackdown – drawing partly on social media posts from soldiers who took part. But those who wish to see accountability for last year’s violence – including Rohingya survivors themselves – are still faced with the same problem: the International Criminal Court can’t open an investigation in Myanmar without a referral from the UN Security Council. The court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is exploring ways of bypassing this roadblock – with an unprecedented legal challenge we told you about earlier this month. ICC judges have asked Myanmar to respond by 27 July. Still, rights watchdogs warn that this is not enough to account for the scale of the violence. This week, Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur for rights in Myanmar, said the ICC should be probing “decades of crimes” in Myanmar, including violence elsewhere in the country such as the ongoing crackdowns in Kachin and northern Shan states.

    Afghanistan: cash is king

    There’s a growing trend in the aid sector for offering cash assistance in emergencies: it’s flexible, it’s spent locally, and it helps recipients make their own choices about what they need. For many Afghan refugees returning from neighbouring Pakistan, it’s also one of the only forms of official assistance they get to re-integrate. Is it working? A new case study offers mixed reviews of the repatriation cash grants given by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. People coming back to Afghanistan under a voluntary returns programme receive an average of $200. Afghans use the bulk of their cash grants on food, the case study found, although the cash also helps them to rent homes or buy land. But cash has its limits in Afghanistan, where jobs are increasingly scarce (a situation worsened by a severe drought) and land tenure and insecurity have made it difficult for many to rebuild their lives. “Cash alone has not helped beneficiaries to safely return to non-conflict affected areas; many have become [displaced] in a matter of weeks or months following return,” the study notes. It’s a key issue for the government, which has failed to establish any large-scale land programme for returnees. More than 1.6 million Afghans have returned from (or been pushed out of) Pakistan and Iran over the last two years.

    What Erdogan’s victory means for Syrian refugees

    Looks like Syrian refugees should be breathing a sigh of relief after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election this week – after all, opposition parties did the most during the campaign to pander to growing intolerance among Turks of the more than 3.5 million Syrians who have sought refuge in their northern neighbour. But, come to think of it, Erdogan also vowed to send the refugees home, with his fair share of pandering. So, what will the now-emboldened president do? Erdogan wasn’t expected to barrel through this week’s elections with such force. He had a strong challenger in Muharram Ince – a former physics teacher and religious nominee of a secular party – and even one behind bars: jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas. But with 53 percent of the vote, the president managed to avoid a runoff and will now remain in power until at least 2023. Was the vote free and fair? Hard to say. The polls were held under the state of emergency that has been in place since 2016’s failed coup, and so many Turkish journalists are imprisoned that there’s not much of an independent media left. Erdogan clearly has plenty of support, including from the 30,000 naturalised Syrians eligible to vote. A few of his campaign promises: take over the country’s central bank, send Syrian refugees home, and bolster Turkey’s military campaign in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Plenty to keep an eye on then.


    Our weekend read:

    Destination Europe: Frustration


    Ever hear of “disembarkation platforms”? They’re key to the opaque deal that came out of this week’s marathon EU talks on migration policy, a deal to more equitably share the responsibility for refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers – currently shouldered largely by Italy, Greece, and Spain. Hard facts on how this might work in practice are scarce. What is crystal clear is the push towards offshoring, increasing pressure on African countries (think Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger, and Tunisia) to set up asylum processing centres, known as — you guessed it – “disembarkation platforms”. Despite the carrot of millions of euros in development assistance, no country is rushing forward to sign up. Nor do critics find statements such as, "These platforms will not in any case be black holes or prisons or Guantanamos" (from European Commission spokeswoman Margaritis Schinas) reassuring. Boggled by what this all means to the human beings on the ground? We’re here to help with a cautionary tale on the longer-term effects of EU policy-making in one of those disembarkation platforms, er, transit countries, Niger. In the latest instalment of our special report “Destination Europe”, Eric Reidy visits the people-smuggling hub of Agadez and finds growing frustration as the migration business is driven underground, largely because of EU pressure, and the once-booming local economy nosedives. Fears of militancy are growing. “This law is going to push people to go to the rebellion again, because you have your kids, you have your family, you have many mouths you need to feed,” says Mousa Ahmed, a 51-year-old former driver and former rebel. “They came one day and said, ‘Stop this.’ And they didn’t give you anything to replace it. They’re pushing you to do something.”


    One to listen to:


    What’s another word for ‘immigrant’ ?


    The US Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban, 17 states sued the administration over its “zero-tolerance” border policy – and that’s just the half of what happened this week in the US debate over immigration. But anti-immigrant sentiment, and the rhetoric used to bolster it, isn’t really new. The latest episode of one of our own must-listens, NPR’s Code Switch podcast, looks into the language used to refer to immigrants and other races today and in the past – think invaders, animals, savages, aliens – and what hearing it means for our ability to see other people as subhuman. If you’re not already listening to Code Switch, this week is a great time to start.



    Erdogan wins, Burundi baffles, and the EU offshores
  • As risks rise in Burundi, refuge in Tanzania is no longer secure

    A political almanac, a miniature desk flag, a poster of presidents past and present: symbols of Tanzania, the country that has given her refuge since she fled violence in neighbouring Burundi in 1972, dot the home of Magreth Lameck Mtema in the town of Kigoma, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.


    By rights, these symbols should now represent Mtema’s own nationality but, like tens of thousands of her compatriots, she’s still waiting for the promise of naturalisation – first issued to her more than a decade ago – to be made good, in the form of a certificate of citizenship.


    But even for the many former Burundian refugees who have received such documents, life in Tanzania remains full of uncertainty and restrictions, buffeted by the policy changes of the government and its uneasy relations with international partners.


    Increasingly violent political tensions in Burundi in the run-up to a controversial referendum due on 17 May, raising the possibility of a fresh exodus, only add to the anxiety.


    Read more: In Burundi, a disputed referendum threatens to deep a neglected humanitarian crisis


    The Tanzanian government moved Mtema’s family to a house in Kigoma after they spent a few months of 1972 in one of several sprawling settlement centres that still house tens of thousands of refugees and newly naturalised citizens.


    “There's when our lives started again," Mtema recalled. In the 40 years since, her family have helped make ends meet with the tomatoes, maize, and cassava grown on the plot outside their house. But the recent hardening of the government’s attitude towards refugees has her concerned. Now, she said, her family feels “insecure, because the general mood around here is changing” and they are still waiting for official citizenship.


    “We're starting to get worried; we're unsure what's causing the delay, and this has left us in limbo,” she said.


    Open doors


    Tanzania has a long history of welcoming refugees. For decades, it has opened its borders to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict in their countries, especially Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, going further than most host nations by allotting new arrivals plots of land to farm and encouraging local integration.

    There are now some 315,000 refugees in Tanzania, more than 230,000 of whom fled Burundi since the political crisis there erupted in 2015.


    In 2007, Tanzania offered the earlier 1972 Burundian caseload, numbering some 200,000 (many of whom were born in Tanzania), a choice of being helped to return to Burundi or of receiving Tanzanian citizenship, an option accepted by 80 percent of them.


    The international community hailed the move, which included plans to allow the refugees to move out of sprawling settlement camps to anywhere in Tanzania, as a model for the world’s protracted displacement crises.


    Although the process of naturalisation proceeded, it only did so in fits and starts. Some 170,000 Burundian former refugees have now been granted Tanzanian citizenship, but tens of thousands of others, including Mtema, are still waiting.


    Not only are an estimated 30,000 Burundian refugees yet to receive their certificates, but plans to allow hundreds of thousands of new citizens to move to other parts of the country have never fully come to fruition because of local resistance to such influxes and disagreements over who would foot the bills.


    Doors begin to close


    To make matter worse, the government of Tanzanian President John Magufuli has over the past year appeared to be toughening its stance on refugees.


    After a meeting with Burundian counterpart Pierre Nkurunziza in July 2017, Magufuli ordered yet another halt to the naturalisation process. He also sparked alarm by urging more recent Burundian refugees to return home, deeming their country safe enough to do so despite reports of widespread human rights abuses. A few months earlier, Tanzania stopped granting automatic refugee status for those arriving from Burundi.


    Between September 2017 and February 2018, more than 16,500 Burundian refugees were assisted to voluntarily repatriate to Burundi, according to the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR. The government-led scheme starts a new round in April.

    Timeline: Tanzania's many twists and turns on refugee policy

    In another significant move, in January 2018, Tanzania pulled out of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, or CRRF, a supposedly game-changing new global compact aimed at easing pressure on host countries by helping refugees to become more self-reliant and supporting the communities in which they live. Tanzania, one of 13 pilot countries for the initiative, cited lack of donor funds and unspecified security concerns as reasons for withdrawing.


    This reference to security baffles Mussa Kiumbe Kunda, a Tanzanian resident of Kigoma who has witnessed the arrival of many waves of refugees over the years.


    “We've never had the sense that refugees cause us insecurity in the town here, because I have never once felt threatened by having them here,” he said. “They're not a threat at all to our community.”


    “The government has started interfering in refugees' lives and disturbing them; this was never the case before,” he said.


    Mtema’s experiences back this up.


    “Immigration officers come here often and disturb us; sometimes they ask for bribes, too,” she said.


    Mtema said her brother, the family breadwinner, was recently sacked from his job as a senior civil servant after 15 years, simply because of his nationality.


    "My grandchildren can't go to school at the moment because their parents aren't recognised as citizens and can't get a job. They can't have a good life in Tanzania without citizenship. My dream was not to see my children or grandchildren suffer any more, but without citizenship there are barriers,” she added.


    According to Lucy Hovil, a researcher with with the International Refugee Rights Initiative, an advocacy group, the naturalisation process has been counterproductive for many in Mtema’s situation.


    “A scheme which was supposed to sort out their legal status has actually made it much less clear,” she said. “This whole process has raised their level of visibility and they have become much more vulnerable as a result.”


    Posters of Magufuli and the ruling CCM regime adorn Magreth Mtema’s living room
    Charlie Ensor/IRIN
    Posters of Magufuli and the ruling CCM regime adorn Magreth Mtema’s living room.

    Pressure to return


    Populist politics may play a part in Tanzania’s recent calls for Burundian refugees to return to their country of origin, but analysts also point to the government’s fraught relationship with the international donor community.


    “Tanzania has long felt that it has not been fully supported by the donor community in its response to refugee-hosting, which has historically been generous,” said James Milner, associate professor at Carleton University. "This narrative of Tanzania being abandoned, of Tanzania not receiving, of donors not delivering on the promises they made to Tanzania, is very important, and a very powerful narrative.”


    As of January this year, UNHCR had received only five percent of the $119 million it had sought from donors to meet the needs of refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania.


    While lack of clarity over how responsibilities for implementing the CRRF should be shared between the government, the UN, and donors was a key reason for Tanzania’s withdrawal from the scheme, it is refugees who are feeling the effects.


    “These projects were meant to build services for the host communities as well – primary schools, boreholes, hospitals, and so on,” said an aid worker who asked not to be named, while condemning a government that has been criticised as increasingly repressive and hostile to NGOs.


    Troubles at home


    Since September 2017, UNHCR has helped more than 20,000 Burundians to return from Tanzania. This year, according to a joint communiqué between both governments, as many as 72,000 Burundians “who wish to return” will be repatriated.


    "The governments of Burundi and Tanzania agree that, given the existence of peace, security and political stability in the Republic of Burundi, the two governments are in the position to move forward from providing assistance to voluntary repatriation… and promotion of returns,” the communiqué said.


    But, given its own assessment of the current conditions in Burundi, UNHCR has said it will only support, not “promote”, such returns.


    Last month, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein listed Burundi as among “the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times”, in the same breath as Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    “While Burundi isn't making the headlines that it was during the failed coup in 2015, we are still documenting serious human rights abuses being perpetrated mostly by state actors,” Lewis Mudge, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told IRIN, citing the “illegal and arbitrary detention of individuals who are suspected of being against the referendum” as common abuses.


    A Burundian refugee in Tanzania who only gave his name as Nathaniel described people in Burundi as “worried” and “terrorised”. He said that “to escape from being arrested and/or killed, they will vote ‘yes’” in the referendum, which could allow Nkurunziza to stay in power until 2034.


    Another aid worker who spoke on condition of anonymity, again for fear of reprisals, said that poor conditions in Tanzania’s refugee camps may drive refugees to return home on a “less than voluntary” basis.


    "Refugees reported to our staff that decreasing rations in the camps appear to be a driver for returns,” the worker said, explaining that they are not permitted to work and earn money to buy additional food.  


    People like Mtema find themselves between a rock and a hard place.


    “I have felt for a long time now that this is my home,” she said. “But these days I no longer feel welcome in Tanzania.”



    Back to reading

    (TOP PHOTO: A group of Burundian refugees received their citizenship certificates from President Kikwete. CREDIT: S.Mhando/UNHCR)


    Once held up as a model for resettlement, Tanzanian government policy is hardening at just the wrong time
    As risks rise in Burundi, refuge in Tanzania is no longer secure
  • Twitter battles, Afghan battles, and Agadez arrests: The Cheat Sheet

    Our editors’ Friday roundup of humanitarian trends and developments.

    On our radar:


    Yemen: A Twitter battle for Hodeidah


    Let’s talk about Hodeidah — everyone else is, at least online. Late last month, Saudi officials (and a press release) said that Houthi rebels were “holding hostage” 19 ships in the waters outside Hodeidah, the Red Sea port that’s key to staving off famine in Yemen and is subject to an on-off blockade by the Saudi-led coalition. This, the Saudis said, prevented the ships from delivering fuel. A maritime tracking project jumped in via Twitter, saying that their data showed not only were the tankers delivering fuel and then departing from the port, but that the deliveries were more frequent than usual. “It seems that the more time we spend on tracking the [Hodeidah] tanker situation, the more bizarre it becomes,” the group, TankerTrackers.com, tweeted. Things got even weirder when YCHO, the coalition’s humanitarian operations in Yemen, used TankerTrackers’ data in a tweet to show that “there is no blockade on Yemen.” Confused? Here’s a handy summary from PRI. Oh, and now’s a good time to add that a battle for the port city – which would be disastrous for civilians — is still not out of the question. A senior Houthi official was recently killed nearby, apparently by a UAE drone, and we hear that the rumour mill is churning. We’ll keep you posted.


    Afghanistan: Who’s in control?

    If Afghan officials need another worry, here’s one: in the past three years, government control over Afghanistan’s territory has steadily eroded as insurgent influence has climbed. That’s according to estimates from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which was created by the US to monitor rebuilding efforts. Newly released figures offer a snapshot of the Afghan government’s unsteady grip on its own country: Militant groups including the Taliban and so-called Islamic State-aligned fighters now have control or influence in more than 14 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, up from about 7 percent in November 2015, when SIGAR began tracking such things.

    What does this mean for civilians, including the hundreds of thousands of refugees expected to return home – or to be pushed back home – this year? Afghans who have already returned find a country at war and their former homes in conflict zones, as we detailed this week from the border town of Spin Boldak. Recent returnees say they’re struggling with no land of their own, and no government plan to provide it. Others unable to return to their family homes head to rapidly multiplying tent settlements, where basic services are minimal or non-existent and humanitarian aid is often hard to come by.


    Niger: Arrests in Agadez


    Niger calls them mercenaries and wants them expelled. The UN reckons they were potential victims of slavery or extortion searching for safety. Either way, some 1,700 Sudanese refugees have left Libya for neighbouring Niger since December — moving south in search of more secure lives rather than north, a reversal of usual migration trends that was prompted by European Union efforts to stem migration. On 2 May, police in Agadez arrested around 150 Sudanese who were housed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It’s unclear why.


    Journalist Eric Reidy was recently in Agadez reporting for us and said a number of refugees told him they’re worried that Niger’s government will deport them to Libya or Sudan. Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s interior minister, told Reidy that the Sudanese “came here because they expect to go to Europe.” None of the refugees Reidy spoke to in Agadez said that was their incentive. UNHCR says Niger is the only accessible, safe country for them right now. “Is there any corridor out of southern Libya that can offer… safety? No other corridor than Niger,” said Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR’s top official in the country.


    Their presence is stoking fears that intensified conflict in southern Libya could lead to a large scale displacement crisis in northern Niger. Also in question is whether the UNHCR evacuation and resettlement mechanism for refugees trapped in Libyan detention centres is playing a role in drawing the Sudanese to Niger. Watch for our upcoming coverage, in which Reidy will explore these and other issues.


    Myanmar: Lives upended, again

    In January, we reported on early signs of renewed conflict in northern Myanmar, where clashes between the military and ethnic armed groups were quietly simmering – and civilians caught in the midst of things were out of the reach of aid organisations that face severe restrictions on access. Now, the conflict has escalated: in April alone, more than 5,000 civilians were displaced, and aid groups say recent clashes are the most extensive in years. This week, local and international humanitarian organisations called for a ceasefire and demanded that the government lift access restrictions. The UN’s rights watchdog for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said she had “grave concerns” for the “sharp escalation in hostilities”. About 100,000 civilians have been displaced in northern Myanmar since 2011, when a ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army collapsed. They’ll likely soon be joined in long-term displacement by the 5,000 people whose lives were upended last month, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The prospect of quick returns, the federation said in a recent update, “is rather small”.

    UAE: Undercurrents in Indian Ocean strategy


    What do Yemen and Somalia have in common? If you said they’re home to some of the most vulnerable people on earth, you’d be right. The UN has estimated their combined humanitarian need at $4.5 billion for 2018. Their geo-strategic value might be an ingredient in their suffering, prompting international military involvement and political jockeying for influence. Which leads to another commonality: the UAE. The UAE’s Indian Ocean strategy appears to be in flux, with Yemen and Somalia playing (perhaps unwitting) roles.


    In mid-April UAE pulled out of a military cooperation deal with Somalia, in a messy episode involving the looting of weapons and a planeload of $10 million in cash, according to Reuters.  And this week, the UK’s Independent stated that the UAE is gradually taking over the Yemeni island of Socotra. Journalists who visited undercover say the UAE has already “all but annexed” the island, a poor, remote, and ecologically unique part of Yemen, off the coast of the Horn of Africa. Mainland Yemen has abandoned Socotra, the report notes, and the UAE’s ability to expand its influence was helped by the impact of cyclones in 2015. This week, the Gulf state further boosted its military presence there, according to Yemeni officials. Along with setting up a military base, the UAE has invested in social services and offers education and work opportunities in the Emirates. And the Independent adds that there may be plans for tourist resorts. It’s hard to gauge if there’s any resentment among residents of Socotra, but protests did break out when UAE officials tried to burn a shipment of qat, the stimulant leaf widely chewed all over the region. Oh, and in case you forgot: UAE is a key partner to Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict.


    Your weekend read:

    Burundi: The human price of politics  

    Another vote, another call to boycott it, and fresh warnings that life may get tougher before it gets better for many in Burundi. Burundians go the polls on 17 May to vote on constitutional amendments that could see President Pierre Nkurunziza, who came to power in 2005, remain in office until 2034. The lingering effects of a devastating civil war that ended more than a decade ago, a moribund economy, a violent political crisis, and foreign aid cuts have conspired to leave one in four of Burundi’s citizens in need of humanitarian aid. Our analysis examines the toll the political tensions leading up to and perhaps following the 17 May poll may exact on Burundi’s people. And, as we’ll report next week, the growing tensions are adding to the anxiety of 170,000 Burundian long-term refugees in neighbouring Tanzania. They face increasing pressure to return despite promises of citizenship from a once-welcoming country, where many of them have spent their entire lives. One last thing before you read our analysis: In an announcement that just happened to follow World Press Freedom Day (see below), Burundi officials said local-language re-broadcasts by VOA and BBC are on hold for six months, according to a tweet from the state broadcaster, further limiting public access to information in the runup to the referendum.


    Keep in mind:

    Calling all humanitarian scholars

    If you study humanitarian issues, this one’s for you: 1 June is the deadline to submit papers for the field’s leading academic conference, to be held 27-28 August in the Hague. The theme of the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies is “(Re-)Shaping Boundaries in Crisis and Crisis Response” — boundaries both symbolic and literal, obvs.  Four themes and 60 panels (think “datafication” to “social museology”) will guide the proceedings at the fifth bi-annual gathering. What might all this achieve?  There’s a panel for that: “What do Practitioners Really Need from Academics?


    And finally:


    World Press Freedom Day: Horror and hope

    We’re always humbled to mark World Press Freedom Day, with reminders of just how difficult it is for so many people to access fact-based, impartial information and how perilous it can be to report that information. A harsh reminder came shortly before the day was marked on Thursday,  when a 30 April suicide blast killed nine journalists in Kabul, including veteran AFP photographer Shah Marai. The journalists were covering the aftermath of an earlier bombing when a second attacker struck. Marai’s images from his native Afghanistan gave the world a window onto life through civil war, Taliban rule and today’s instability. In a 2016 essay re-published after his death, Marai spoke frankly about life in Afghanistan, 15 years after the Taliban’s ouster. “There is no more hope,” he wrote: “… I have never felt life to have so little prospects and I don’t see a way out.” This New York Times piece offers more on Marai and his images. Our hope lies in the continued work of journalists around the world.



    Twitter battles, Afghan battles, and Agadez arrests
  • In Burundi, a disputed referendum threatens to deepen a neglected humanitarian crisis

    Burundi isn’t at war, but it has all the humanitarian hallmarks of a country that is.


    Campaigning began this week ahead of a 17 May referendum that could allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to stay in office until 2034. A government clampdown and an uptick in political violence are raising fears that the humanitarian situation will deteriorate further as civil liberties and the rule of law are eroded, prompting more people to join some 400,000 already seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.


    Lewis Mudge, senior researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, said Burundians will continue to flee unless the political crisis is resolved.


    “The current situation is worrying, as a lot of Burundi's problems are political at the root and at their base,” he said. “It's hard to put a timeline on it, but unless these political issues are resolved, I think it's very possible that we could see even more people fleeing the country, which would put an enormous strain on Burundi's neighbours.”


    More than 3.6 million Burundians – about a quarter of the population of what is the world’s fourth poorest country – now need aid to get by, an increase of almost 20 percent over 2017, according to the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan.


    Some 2.6 million people lack reliable access to food, up from 1.5 million a year ago and 700,000 in April 2016. One in six children under the age of five are affected by chronic malnutrition, a condition that stunts growth and impairs mental development.



    Aid agencies say they need some $142 million to meet needs this year. So far, only two percent of the appeal has been funded.


    Much of this money is required to fill the gap left by a cash-strapped and ineffective state in providing basic services – countering widespread malnutrition and food insecurity, boosting primary healthcare (six million Burundians got malaria in 2017), and helping 190,000 internally displaced people (mostly due to natural disasters such as floods and landslides in 2016) and 65,000 refugees from neighbouring states.

    Multiple causes


    Burundi’s inability to care for its citizens has several causes: the lingering effects of a civil war that broke out in 1993 and only formally ended in 2006; an economy overly dependent on an inefficient agriculture sector; the political crisis ignited in 2015 when Nkurunziza decided to run for re-election in apparent violation of constitutional term limits; and the drying-up of the foreign cash on which the government long depended.

    Such overseas assistance “is on a drip at the moment”, according to one aid worker, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of working in Burundi. Suspended donor support has led to a 72-percent cut in the government’s water and sanitation budget, increasing the risk of epidemics such as cholera, while funds for healthcare have been more than halved.


    Hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled the country in the early stages of the 2015 political crisis, and continue to leave at a rate of up to 70 a day, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.


    Richard Moncrieff, Central Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, blamed government policy for the deteriorating humanitarian situation.


    “Some progress was being made before the crisis in 2015 in food security and malnutrition, but this is being reversed partly because donors are pulling out – for which government is to blame also – and partly because government incompetence is being exposed by uncertainty, violence, and flight of human capital,” he said.

    Government policies are also making it harder for humanitarian agencies to deliver aid in Burundi. The 2018 Response Plan pointed to numerous “legal and administrative restrictions [that] limit current and future operational efficiency” of aid agencies and their ability to travel into the interior of the country, except in extremely urgent cases. It added that legislation covering NGOs adopted in January 2017 undermined the independence of aid agencies.


    These constraints “remain a key issue for humanitarian actors” in Burundi, Philippe Adapoe, Save the Children’s country director in neighbouring Rwanda, said.

    Abuses rise as poll draws near


    Wide-ranging human rights abuses committed by security forces and affiliated groups over the past few years led the International Criminal Court to announce in November that it would conduct an investigation into Burundi, even though the country became the first in the world to withdraw from the tribunal the previous month.


    Alleged crimes against humanity cited by the ICC include: murder and attempted murder; imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty; torture; rape; enforced disappearance; and persecution. Depending on its findings, the ICC’s next step could be indictments and arrest warrants.


    The run-up to the 17 May poll has seen a spike in abuses and threats against those opposed to the amendments.


    Mediation efforts led by the East African Community have failed to reconcile the government and the opposition. “The mediation process still shows signs of being highly fractured and is yet to achieve tangible results,” the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies think tank said this week. “Nkurunziza’s government has shown an increasingly intransigent and uncooperative position towards resolving the crisis,” it added.


    Many of Nkurunziza’s leading opponents now live in exile, while those still in Burundi who favour a “No” vote in the referendum are being cast by officials as enemies and criminals.


    “Opponents, including elected officials, are constantly harassed. The [Imbonerakure] militia which protects government bigwigs commits abuses in deplorable indifference of a judiciary which is a mere shadow of itself,” Dieudonné Bashirahishize, the head of a group of lawyers representing victims of the 2015 crisis, told IRIN. “Leaders of the ruling party keep calling for those who dare to push for a ‘No’ vote to be lynched.”


    Read more: Who are the Imbonerakure and is Burundi unravelling?


    In one of several similar videos circulating on social media, a ruling party official says: “If you vote ‘No’, you know it will be death.”


    And in a rare case of hate speech prosecution, a ruling party official was handed a three-year jail term on 30 April, days after publicly warning that opponents of the referendum would be put into pirogues on Lake Tanganyika (widely understood to mean opponents would be fed to the lake’s fish).


    A group of “concerned citizens”, tweeting collectively as @iBurundi, described this trial as a “sideshow” designed to cover up incitement to violence by some of the most senior officials in the ruling party.


    Read more: Hate speech stirs trouble in Burundi


    Speaking out about abuses in Burundi carries great risks. On 26 April, human rights activist Germain Rukuki was handed a 32-year jail sentence after being convicted of taking part in an “insurrection movement” in 2015. Amnesty International said the charges were trumped up.



    AU UN IST Photo
    President Pierre Nkurunziza
    In 2015, the country’s most prominent human rights defender, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. The monthly report for March 2018 prepared by the organisation Mbonimpa heads, APRODH, lists the most recent killings, arbitrary detentions, torture, beatings, and intimidation, and paints a picture of “growing” insecurity. Many abuses were allegedly carried out by the Imbonerakure - the ruling party’s powerful youth wing -, the police, and intelligence agents working for Nkurunziza’s government.


    Lamenting that the prevailing climate of fear was preventing citizens from freely expressing their opinions, Burundi’s bishops said on 2 May that “the time is not right to make profound changes to the constitution”.

    Night raids


    Earlier this month, legislators approved a draft law that would give police the power to conduct night-time raids on people’s homes.


    “The ruling party has just buried democracy in Burundi,” one opposition MP stated after the decision.


    Jérémie Minani, the spokesperson for humanitarian issues in the CNARED opposition coalition – which has called for a boycott of the referendum – said the vote would “create chaos and worsen the suffering and misery of the population”.


    He added that if the constitutional changes were adopted, it would spell the end of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement – signed in 2000 under the stewardship of Nelson Mandela to end the civil war and create a governance framework for sustainable peace.


    The death of the accord would “certainly take the country back to a new civil war,” he warned. “The humanitarian consequences will be extremely serious: a total collapse of the economy resulting in increased poverty.”


    The government, which denies there is a political crisis in Burundi and has contested the data in the latest humanitarian appeal as “fabricated figures”, turned Minani’s accusation on its head.


    The opposition were the ones who “took the path of violence”, Interior Ministry Spokesman Terence Ntahiraja told IRIN. “They showed that on 13 May 2015,” he added, referring to the day of a failed coup attempt. “So I would ask them to change their behaviour, to abandon their intentions to create trouble in the country and to accept democracy and compete on the ground, [in the referendum campaign] and to win if the people so decide.”


    Such an outcome is virtually impossible, said Bashirahishize, the victims’ lawyer. “It’s not a referendum, but a piece of theatre set up to enthrone the ‘Eternal Supreme Guide,’” he told IRIN, using the title the ruling party bestowed on the head of state in March.

    What next?


    Around 400,000 Burundians who fled since 2015 are still living in neighbouring states, but their welcome in two of them is wearing thin. Tanzania, which hosts some 60 percent of the caseload, no longer grants Burundians prima facie refugee status and is keen to step up the rate of repatriations.


    Relations between Burundi and Rwanda have soured, with the neighbours accusing one another of backing rebellions.


    Earlier this month, Bujumbura protested the deportation by Kigali of some 1,600 Burundian refugees, alleging they had been sent back for refusing to join an armed group formed to attack Burundi.


    Lucy Hovil, senior research associate at the International Refugee Rights Initiative, said the situation facing those fleeing Burundi’s political violence was deeply concerning.


    “Given [conditions in] the neighbouring countries to Burundi, this leaves them in a very difficult position because, as you know, many don't want to flee to Rwanda because it's not very safe… and neither is [the Democratic Republic of] Congo,” she said.


    Robert Rugurika, a Burundian living in Brussels, told IRIN that the political repression in his home country deters many refugees from going back.


    “There is nothing the regime can do to convince people to return if it does not stop oppressing Burundians. This won’t happen because the regime only survives by terrorising its own people and committing human rights violations,” he said. “People are still fleeing even now ahead of the referendum. Since assassinations and torture continues against opponents, people will continue to flee in large numbers.”


    Bashirahishize said the international community “needs to pay more attention to the Burundian crisis, which is getting worse with time, so as to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe which risks getting worse with this referendum.”




    The president’s bid to stay in power until 2034 could further destabilise the country
    In Burundi, a disputed referendum threatens to deepen a neglected humanitarian crisis

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