(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • African debt, Afghan voter violence, and post-Brexit Britain: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar


    Debt distress deepens

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


    Violence, voter turnout, and Afghan elections


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


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


    Mixed messages on FGM


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


    Peace in Yemen? Not so fast


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


    Dark tales in Iraq’s mass graves


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

    In case you missed it:


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


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


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


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


    Weekend read


    Pushed back: Rohingya repatriation and Congo’s Kasaï


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


    And finally...


    A post-Brexit humanitarian ‘what if’


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



    African debt, Afghan voter violence, and post-Brexit Britain
  • EXCLUSIVE: Oxfam sexual exploiter in Haiti caught seven years earlier in Liberia

    The man at the centre of a sexual exploitation scandal at aid agency Oxfam was dismissed by another British NGO seven years earlier for similar misconduct, IRIN has found.


    A former colleague reveals that Roland van Hauwermeiren was sent home from his job in Liberia in 2004 after her complaints prompted an investigation into sex parties there with young local women. Despite this, van Hauwermeiren was recruited by Oxfam in Chad less than two years later and went on to work for them in Haiti, and then in Bangladesh for Action contre la Faim.


    The Swedish government’s aid department, alerted in 2008, also missed an opportunity to bring his behaviour to light and even went ahead that year to fund Oxfam’s Chad project, under his management, to the tune of almost $750,000.


    Last week, The Times reported that van Hauwermeiren was ousted from Oxfam for sexual exploitation and abuse when he worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Oxfam’s deputy CEO, Penny Lawrence, has since resigned, and the charity has faced a deluge of criticism, both for the abuse itself and its handling of the staff member. It now faces an enquiry by the charity regulator.


    Agencies in the humanitarian sector face serious challenges in tackling sexual exploitation and abuse, and some argue, at least today, that Oxfam’s safeguarding procedures are stronger than those of many other aid agencies.


    Repeat offender


    Seeing the Times article about van Hauwermeiren, Swedish civil servant and former aid worker Amira Malik Miller was shaken to read about the Haiti case, which pertained to alleged parties and orgies in 2011, seven years after her own experiences of him in Liberia. She couldn’t believe he was still active in the aid world, especially after she had blown the whistle on him and his colleagues, not once but twice.


    “Oh my God, he’s been doing this for 14 years,” she remembers thinking. “He just goes around the system… from Liberia to Chad, to Haiti, to Bangladesh. Someone should have checked properly,” she told IRIN.


    On two previous occasions, she thought she had done enough to stop his predatory behaviour.


    Malik Miller told IRIN how her initial complaints way back in 2004 led to van Hauwermeiren being pushed out of his job as Liberia country director of UK charity Merlin, a medical group now merged with Save the Children. An internal investigation into sexual exploitation and misconduct led to his departure, several Merlin staff members confirmed.


    Formal complaint


    In 2004, Malik Miller was being briefed in London for a new job: assistant to the Liberia country director and reporting officer there for the medical group Merlin. She had been warned by a colleague that there might be some “dodgy” things going on; she says it was clear they were related to sexual behaviour.


    Soon on the plane to the West African country, she was picked up at the airport personally by her new boss: van Hauwermeiren. Initially grateful for his hospitable gesture, her confidence quickly evaporated after he took a call during the drive and said to the person on the other end: “It’s a green light”. She told IRIN it was “really uncomfortable” as she “definitely felt that it was about me”.


    Positioned in van Hauwermeiren’s Monrovia office as the most junior expatriate staff member, Malik Miller couldn’t help but notice unusual patterns in his workday. “He was away a lot,” she explained, often returning to work with fresh clothes or wet hair.


    Assigned to stay in one of two guest houses rented by Merlin, she shared one nicknamed “London” with several colleagues, while van Hauwermeiren and a medical manager were in another called “Brussels”.


    One weekend morning, two or three weeks into her assignment, Malik Miller found one of her housemates, the financial manager, joking with and fondling a young Liberian woman in the kitchen. The woman appeared young, she said. Immediately, she took him aside and explained she wasn’t going to tolerate sex work in the house.


    “It can’t go on where I’m living,” she told him. On the Monday morning, she emailed a formal complaint to the Merlin head office in London.


    From that point on, Malik Miller said it was “quite intimidating” – the four senior managers “constantly had their eye on me”. When Merlin’s human resources officer called to check up on her (which they did frequently), she pretended it was her mother or sister on the line and stepped away so she wouldn’t be overheard.


    Insufficient proof


    Within a fortnight, Merlin had sent a senior two-person team to Monrovia. In the course of their investigation, they spoke to other aid groups, Liberian employees of Merlin, and the expatriate staff and management.


    One of Merlin’s investigating team, a former senior manager, confirmed Malik Miller’s account. He told IRIN he and his colleague rapidly reached their conclusion: the management team (“four middle-aged men”) were all engaged in paying for sex. They had been using Merlin cars to ferry women to and from the NGO’s two guest houses for paid sex and parties involving sex workers.


    “It was obvious,” he explained. “So many people had seen them with a succession of young local girls.” He said it was impossible to say if some of the women were under 18. On being told the findings of the probe, van Hauwermeiren “denied everything” but nevertheless agreed  to an immediate resignation.


    The investigating manager said Merlin lacked sufficient proof to pursue a prosecution, and that the report from Malik Miller was the first he’d heard of the Monrovia misconduct. However, a third source, an aid worker familiar with the episode, countered this, saying the London head office had already been aware of the allegations.


    Van Hauwermeiren and the rest of the Liberia management team were “shameless”, she told IRIN. “They acted like it was the most normal thing in the world.”


    In the wake of the civil war, “the behaviour at that time in Monrovia was insane,” she recalled. “I think Merlin were a bit worse, but plenty of UN types [were] doing the same. Lots of sleazy bars, girls on the beach…”


    “Tip of the iceberg”

    Such behaviour may have been rife then in Liberia, but the former Merlin manager who conducted the 2004 investigation told IRIN that sexual exploitation in the aid sector remains an enormous problem to this day.


    The latest revelations were just the “tip of the iceberg”, he said, calling for more to be done to professionalise the sector. He argued that the lack of a professional certification body means there is no central monitoring of individuals, while aid agencies are compromised by trying to protect their reputations.


    He said it was “staggering” that van Hauwermeiren was able to find re-employment with Oxfam and that he felt “real regret” that his actions didn’t prevent Oxfam recruiting the Belgian. He claimed he couldn’t recall the names and further careers of the other three managers but said they had all been replaced and left Merlin.


    Malik Miller, meanwhile, told IRIN she was partly satisfied with the response of the head office and believed her original complaint had at least been taken seriously. “I felt supported,” she said.


    However, she was left thinking that the disciplinary action taken had been a bit weak. Van Hauwermeiren had been allowed to resign, while the housemate who had brought a sex worker to the guest house was told to apologise and allowed to stay on.


    She started to doubt her own resolve, thinking: “Maybe it is OK… if we can’t prove that they’re under 18, hey ho…. maybe it's me overreacting.”


    She recalled her deeper concern at the time being about this apparent “culture of complacency” that allowed men, ostensibly working for charitable causes, to conduct this behaviour more or less in the open.


    In the sector, it’s “a system failure” and a “lack of responsibility to protect children and vulnerable women,” she said. The transactional sex was widely known by colleagues, male and female, who seemed to have accepted it as normal.


    Second attempt


    Four years later, Malik Miller was at her desk in the Swedish government’s aid department. A file landed on her desk: an application for funding from Oxfam in Chad. She opened it and was appalled to find van Hauwermeiren’s name listed as the country director.


    Per Byman, then humanitarian director of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), confirmed to IRIN that he had been alerted in 2008 by Malik Miller to van Hauwermeiren's previous record at Merlin.


    He told IRIN he had taken advice from SIDA's legal department on what to do about it, but couldn’t recall the outcome. He said he was "disgusted" at reading the recent news of van Hauwermeiren's behaviour.


    SIDA’s website reports a grant of $748,537 to Oxfam for Chad in late 2008. Documents related to the grant include the following: “Oxfam will work with women in their communities to enable them to have recognised value in the family due to increased financial and social capital."


    Asked by IRIN whether it knew of the Liberia case, Oxfam did not answer the question and provided a link to a previous statement. The Charity Commission of England and Wales told IRIN it had no records for Merlin in 2004, so it couldn’t comment on whether it was alerted to the case. Last year, the regulator asked charities to report any previously withheld cases of abuse.


    Save the Children’s press office was unable to comment in detail before publication, but pointed out its takeover of Merlin was in 2013. IRIN was unable immediately to reach Geoff Prescott, who was chief executive of Merlin at the time of the 2004 allegations.


    Looking back, Malik Miller said: "My experience of whistle-blowing has not been negative. I felt like I was listened to, and supported by colleagues, including senior managers. At least that side of the system worked. It's the follow-through that was lacking, and allows people like Roland [van Hauwermeiren] to continue to work in the sector."


    Liberian former aid worker Jeanine Cooper told IRIN she was "shocked" to hear of the case and outraged to see how "these predators are recycled in a cozy system".


    “[Back in 2004], the NGO scene was absolutely horrible; the UN too – impunity all around," said Cooper, who worked with the UN in several countries.


    The aid worker familiar with the Merlin case, who asked to remain anonymous, told IRIN her perception of what is normal in the sector needed readjustment after the experience of working with van Hauwermeiren.


    “My next field posting after Liberia was post- (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami,” she said. “And I remember thinking, ‘oh, there are some old unattractive white men NOT having sex with prostitutes – weird’.”




    Oxfam's sexual exploiter in Haiti was caught seven years earlier in Liberia
    Former colleague tells IRIN how she blew the whistle in 2004 and 2008
  • A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel

    In 2011, several African states warned about the likely consequences of an international military intervention in Libya aimed at toppling Muammar Gaddafi. Now, six years after his death, security in the Sahel region has never been worse.

    In a domino effect, from 2012, the spillover from the Libyan crisis bolstered the Tuareg rebellion in Mali, which in turn facilitated a jihadist incursion, which, after briefly being halted by France’s Operation Serval, arose from the ashes stronger than ever and spread across neighbouring states.

    “Mali’s roots were rotten, it just needed a breeze to make it collapse,” summarised a former Malian minister recently.

    In Mali, the state is now hardly present across much of the country. In mid-December, barely a quarter of state agents were in their posts in the six northern and central regions.

    According to an opposition party tally, 2017 was Mali’s most deadly year since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power in 2013.

    Yet the Sahel region has never been so militarised; it is rife with insurgencies and counter-insurgency forces of various stripes. Relative veterans from France and the United States have recently been joined by troops from Italy and Germany, and by a new regional coalition, as well as by forms of warfare new to the region.

    Presented as solutions by their political masters, the military missions detailed below are seen by others as pouring fuel on the fire, and as simplistic responses to complex problems.

    United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)

    Created in April 2013, this UN mission, now consisting of 13,000 troops, was supposed to stabilise northern regions of Mali after the lightning assault launched against jihadist groups there three months earlier by France’s Operation Serval (see below).

    Instead, MINUSMA faced a resurgence of these groups outside major urban centres and found itself exposed to mobile and seasoned guerrillas. They proved to be beyond the mission’s capabilities to control, and, arguably, peripheral to its mandate.

    “The UN deployed [here] without a peace accord, which is normally a precursor for a peacekeeping mission,” MINUSMA chief Mahamat Saleh Annadif told IRIN. “On the other hand, the idea that MINUSMA came here to fight terrorists has always been a major misunderstanding between Malians and MINUSMA, and unfortunately one that still exists.”

    Annual revisions of the mission’s mandate aimed at making the force more reactive have failed to silence critics. Both within and outside Mali, questions have been raised about the utility of spending more than a billion dollars in a single year when the mission has proved unable to fulfil its core tasks of protecting civilians and defending human rights.

    The killing of civilians during demonstrations by peacekeepers and accusations of rape have helped to sour pubic opinion of MINUMSA.

    The mission’s relations with the Malian government have frequently been strained, not least over the neutrality MINUSMA has shown towards certain rebel groups, a stance Bamako viewed as impeding the state’s recovery of its sovereignty over the entire country.

    The force’s limitations have frequently been highlighted. The latest report on Mali by the UN secretary-general, for example, noted that, “the lack of armoured troop carriers, especially of vehicles protected against landmines, remains a major obstacle to the mission's operations”.

    The previous report, issued in September, said MINUSMA’s civilian protection mandate had been compromised by the “absence of adequate air assets”.

    Both publically and in private, MINUSMA officials have made no secret of their frustration at being used as a punching ball and cash cow by Malian politicians.


    Harandane Dicko/MINUSMA

    Another prominent component of the force’s mandate is to oversee the implementation of the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali. MINUSMA itself is paying the price for the breakdown of that accord: 133 blue helmets have died in Mali, making the mission the fourth most deadly for UN peacekeepers in term of deaths caused by hostile acts. In Mali, jihadist groups have made specific targets of the blue helmets.

    A recent UN Security Council resolution added another element to MINUSMA’s mandate: providing operational and logistical support within Mali to the joint force recently formed by the G5 states of the Sahel (see below). The council said the creation of the force should allow MINUSMA to “better carry out its stabilisation mandate”.

    The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)


    This formation was originally set up in Nigeria under the auspices of the Lake Chad Basin Commission in 1994 but remained largely dormant until 2012 when its mandate was widened to include combatting the Boko Haram insurgency.


    The MNJTF comprises some 7,500 military and non-military personnel from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.


    The force suffered a major setback in January 2015 when its headquarters, in the Nigerian town of Baga, was overrun by Boko Haram fighters. Its base has now been moved to the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.


    Shortly after that incident, the force won official approval from the African Union, with a mandate (renewed this month for a further year) to conduct military operations, achieve coordination at inter-state level, conduct border patrols, find abducted persons, stop the flow of arms, reintegrate insurgents into society, and bring those responsible for crimes to justice.


    The force receives intelligence and training support from the United States, Britain, and France and, although theoretically financially self-reliant, money from the EU, which in August 2016 agreed to allocate some 50 million euros to it, paid through the AU.  Serious budgetary shortfalls and delays in procuring equipment, which left MNJTF troops without essential equipment for over a year and strained AU-EU relations, have hindered the force’s effectiveness.


    Since it become operational in 2016, the MNJTF has, despite tense relations between some contributor states, recorded significant gains against Boko Haram, killing or arresting many hundreds of the group’s members and releasing many of its hostages.


    In December 2017, the AU’s Peace and Security Council said the MNJTF had “significantly weakened the capability of the terrorist group and continued to successfully dislodge it from its strongholds”.


    But, it added, “Boko Haram still remains a serious threat for the countries of the region.”


    A March 2017 paper published by the African Identities journal argued that the MNJTF’s “sole reliance on a concerted military approach in countering terrorism will not address the root causes and may further incubate violent extremism” in the region.


    Force conjointe du G5 Sahel (FC-G5 S)

    The most recent arrival among international armed contingents deployed to counter the spread and intensification of jihadist groups’ activity in the Sahel consists of 5,000 troops from the region’s G5 states: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

    Malian President Boubacar Keita has described the forces as “an innovative approach to collective security, one that puts cooperation and mutual action at the heart of our response”.

    The force is set to deploy under a joint command in three geographic sectors. Its primary objective is to “fight terrorism and transnational crime” committed by various groups, some of which have already joined forces in Mali under the banner of Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin' (JNIM), which is allied to al-Qaeda.

    According to analyst Nicolas Degrais, contrary to media reports, the joint force came into being more as a result of G5 member states’ own initiative and political will than at the instigation of France, which somewhat resents having done so much of the heavy lifting on counter-terrorism over recent years.


    Yet, for the time being at least, it owes its very existence to foreign assistance, notably that of the region’s former colonial power, which has been militarily active in the region since 2013. France has been the new force’s most ardent champion, and has backed it to the tune of eight million euros.


    Other sources of finance are the EU (50 million euros), G5 member states (50 million euros), Saudi Arabia (100 million euros), and the United Arab Emirates (30 million euros). These last two donors are regular customers of the French arms industry.


    It is hoped that further donor conferences will ensure the budget for the FC-G5 S’s first year of operations, some 423 million euros, will be fully funded.


    In November 2017, the force conducted a pilot mission, codenamed “Haw Bi” (“Black Cow”), in the Liptako-Gourma region, where the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso intersect, and which is a centre of insurgent activity. According to at least one analysis, the operation did little to demonstrate the new force was able to operate effectively without French support.


    The FC-G5 S, which is expected to reach its full capacity by March 2018, faces numerous challenges. These include coordinating armies of varying quality deployed by countries whose leaders have different security priorities. And some of these armies stand accused of committing abuses against civilians they suspect of collaborating with jihadist groups.


    Given how hard it is proving to raise enough money for the first year of operations, securing sufficient long-term financing will be, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a “significant challenge.”


    France never fully left Africa when it ceased to be a colonial power, and it keeps making new appearances. 2018 sees it embark on a sixth year of military operations in the Sahel. These began in January 2013 with Operation Serval (in Mali), superseded in August 2014 by the more regional Operation Barkhane, which includes 4,000 troops and is run from N’Djamena.

    Barkhane’s successes include the killing of dozens of jihadists, some of them very senior, and the capture or destruction of more than 22 tonnes of weapons. But it has been unable to prevent extremist groups reappearing and carrying out attacks in central Mali, Burkina Faso, or Niger.

    The days when former French president François “Papa” Hollande was feted from Bamako to Timbuktu are long gone. In Mali’s northern Kidal region, some armed Tuareg groups regard French forces as an army of occupation, while others don’t understand why Barkhane doesn’t come to their aid when they engage with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the Timbuktu region. Meanwhile, in the south of the country, some people suspect Paris of having a hidden agenda to support secessionist movements. Eighty percent of respondents to a recent opinion poll in Bamako said they believed France was in Mali "solely for its own interests."

    In neighbouring Burkina Faso, where a popular revolt toppled France’s long-time protégé Blaise Compaore in 2015, many people, fed up of repeated promises that Paris is putting an end to la Françafrique (its enduring sphere of influence in Africa), resent the French military presence, which they suspect is more of a magnet for jihadist groups than a deterrent.

    Despite these criticisms, Barkhane has had more success against extremist groups than any other military forces.

    United States

    It took the 4 October death in Niger of four special forces on a “reconnaissance mission” to shine a light on the US “shadow war” in the Sahel, even though there was nothing new about its presence there.

    Since 2002, the United States has conducted a succession of counter-terrorism training missions in the region to “support local forces in dealing with the threat”, as General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in October.

    Niger, a key partner in this endeavour, currently plays host to 800 US troops, the largest American contingent in Africa. It will soon have two US military bases on its soil, after one dedicated to drones is built near the city of Agadez.

    The October attack, near the village of Tongo Tongo, seemed to signal an escalation of US military engagement. In November, Niger gave its approval for US drones to be armed and thus for the introduction to the Sahel of a mode of warfare already in use – with deadly effect and numerous mishaps – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

    “This is exactly what we never wanted to see in West Africa: very powerful bombs which, despite their reputed precision, cause dozens of civilian casualties, and provide armed, anti-Western jihadist groups with hundreds of new candidates for recruitment,” warned Gilles Yabi of the Wathi think-tank.


    Sébastien Rieussec/EU
    EUTM Mali arrives in Bamako

    European Union

    The EU is taking a greater interest in the Sahel amid concerns over migration and security resulting from the region’s growing destabilisation.

    The bloc currently has three outfits deployed there: the EU Training Mission-Mali, launched in 2013 to instruct the country’s armed forces; and a capacity-building mission each in Mali and Niger to support domestic agencies countering extremism and organised crime.

    Separately, Germany is shortly to open a military base in Niger to support MINUSMA, while Italy has announced it will sent 470 troops to the country to counter people-smuggling and combat extremism. Meanwhile, Britain is reportedly in talks with France with a view to supplying military helicopters or surveillance aircraft in support of Operation Barkhane.

    (TOP PHOTO: French soldiers from Operation Barkhane in Mali. CREDIT: Fred Marie/Flickr)


    The region has never been so militarised. Here’s an overview of the international players in uniform
    A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel
    Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel
  • Purgatory on the Riviera

    Ventimiglia is idyllic. It sits just across the Italian border from the French Riviera. The piercingly blue waters of the Mediterranean churn against its rocky beaches, and its buildings, painted in earthy pastels, back up against the foothills of the Alps. On Fridays, the normally quiet streets are bustling with French tourists who cross the border by car, train, and bicycle to shop in its famous markets where artisans and farmers sell clothes, leather items, fresh produce, truffles, cheeses and decadent pastries. Families with young children and elderly couples stroll along the streets and sit at sidewalk cafes or eat in one of the many restaurants along the shore.


    But just a short walk from the town centre, another set of visitors inhabits what seems like an entirely different world. These people are mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety, economic opportunity, or both. For them, Ventimiglia is a bottleneck – one of many points where people get stuck along the long and brutal migration trail stretching from east and west Africa into northern Europe.

    Their Ventimiglia consists of rows of blanket-laden mattresses under a bridge; a crowded, volunteer-run information point where they can charge their phones and use the internet; a secluded riverbank where they wash their clothes; long lines at a local charity where they wait in turn to shower and receive their morning meal; and a parking lot where they whittle away time playing football, sitting, watching, and waiting to try to cross the border to France.

    This Ventimiglia is a purgatory. On the dividing line between two of the founding member states of the EU, it is a distillation of the neglect and trauma asylum seekers experience at each step of the desperate journey towards Europe, and a place where their dreams of a better life begin to crumble.  


    Asylum seekers and a volunteer sit outside around a laptop and equipment
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    A volunteer-run service in Ventimiglia offers internet and a place to charge mobile phones

    Forced to cross illegally


    Home to 24,000 people, Ventimiglia is just five miles (eight kilometres) from the French-Italian border. Its railway station is the last stop in Italy before the tracks crossover into France. The economy is reliant on the free movement of people and goods across the border, a benefit of the Schengen Agreement, which abolished passport controls within the EU. But in June 2015, as an unprecedented number of asylum seekers were crossing the Mediterranean for the second year in a row, France reintroduced border checks in an attempt to stop refugees and migrants from entering its territory.


    Ventimiglia was already one of the major transit points for thousands of people who landed in Italy but who wanted to move on to northern European countries with better social services and stronger economies. At the time, Italy was not fully enforcing the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to apply for protection in the first EU country they enter, and there was already a growing wave of Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment across the continent that was prompting governments to try to keep the crisis at bay.


    The reinstated border controls did not prevent asylum seekers from crossing into France; they only made it more difficult. Instead of simply taking the train across the border, asylum seekers are now forced to pay smugglers, or to take riskier routes along railroad tracks or dark and winding roads at night or even over dangerous mountain passes that take two or three days to cross. Since September last year, at least eight people have died attempting these routes. “That people should be dying to cross from Italy to France in 2017; that’s just disgraceful,” said Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia.


    Even when asylum seekers do make it across, a 1997 agreement between Italy and France allows French police to push them back if they are found within certain areas close to the border. As a result, people often have to try multiple times before they can cross successfully. Those who are sent back end up staying in Ventimiglia until they try again.


    At any given time, there are between 300 and 900 asylum seekers in the small town. The majority of people when I visited at the end of October were from Sudan, and there were also people from Chad, Eritrea, and other sub-Saharan countries. A recent spike in arrivals to Italy from Tunisia and Algeria also led to an increase in the numbers of North Africans trying to cross the border to France. Most people stay at a camp set up by the Red Cross a several-mile walk outside town or sleep rough under a bridge closer to the few services that exist in the town centre.


    On a warm afternoon in late October, a young man carrying two backpacks wandered into the parking lot next to the bridge. Wearing a heavy coat and a winter hat emblazoned with a British flag, he put his bags down, unzipped his jacket and, without missing a beat, raised his hand to join the football game being played on the asphalt in front of him. A murmur went around that he must have tried to cross the border earlier that day and had been sent back.


    The two-hour walk from the border back to the parking lot was well known by many of the people gathered there. Regardless of how asylum seekers try to cross, if they are caught in French territory they are taken to a police station on a road overlooking the coast and then sent walking up the hill, across the border, to the Italian police station on the other side. The Italians register their arrival and sometimes put people on buses that take them to Taranto, 750 miles away in the heel of Italy’s boot. If they aren’t sent to the south, the police let people go and they continue the walk back to Ventimiglia.

    But the difficulties often start well before the border.


    Train checks


    The most obvious way to get to France from Ventimiglia is by train, and most asylum seekers try their luck this way at least once, even though the odds of making it are long. Late one Sunday morning, I boarded the train at the station in Ventimiglia and found Hussein, 16, and Jawahir, 18, sitting in one of the cars. Both of them were from Sudan and had arrived in Italy recently from Libya, where they had faced torture and abuse. “[The smugglers] took plastic bags, held a lighter to them and let them drip on my foot while they made me talk on the phone to my family,” Jawahir was saying. But his story was interrupted when Italian police officers boarded the train and began checking the carriages and bathrooms. Hussein and Jawahir scrambled from the train and had already disappeared from sight by the time I followed them out onto the platform.


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Menton, the first train stop in France

    I boarded the train again and it rolled out of the station, gliding past the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean and then plunging into dark tunnels as it headed along the jagged coastline towards the border. There were a couple dozen tourists scattered throughout the cars, and the ride lasted no longer than 20 minutes before we pulled into Menton-Garavan station, the first stop in France.


    When the train doors opened, a handful of French police boarded wearing black rubber gloves and did a sweep of the cars while several officers stood by outside making sure no one snuck off before the sweep was complete. When I exited, one man from North Africa, who had evidently evaded the police on the Italian side, was standing against the wall of the station pleading with the officers in French. Two police vans idled in the parking lot waiting to take whoever was caught that day back to the border.


    Special rules for children


    Outside the station, holidaymakers strolled leisurely along the corniche and through a pop-up market next to the sea. The sun was out, and some people were lounging on the beach and splashing in the water even though it was the end of October. In the centre of town, the restaurants were full of people enjoying platters of seafood for their Sunday lunch, and there was a man playing Spanish guitar in the middle of a historic square with a woman dancing along beside him.


    There was no hint of the asylum seekers camped out under the bridge six miles away, trying with stubborn tenacity to reach this place – until I returned to the train station. The afternoon sun had slid behind hazy clouds, and the breeze now carried an autumnal chill. About 10 minutes before the train back to Italy was due to arrive, French police brought a group of asylum seekers to the platform. There was a family with three young children – two of them barely toddlers – and a young man who sat against a wall as police officers hovered nearby.


    Families, women, and unaccompanied minors are often sent back on the train instead of being taken to the border. The pushback of unaccompanied minors is particularly problematic. According to the Dublin Regulation, they are supposed to be afforded a 24-hour waiting period before being returned. During this time, authorities are obligated to establish if the minor has family connections in the country where they were found, which would take precedence over sending them back to the country where they first arrived. The European Court of Justice also ruled that, unlike adults, children should not be required to apply for asylum in the country they first entered the EU. So, pushing them back across the border without informing them of their rights, trying to establish if they have family members in the country, and giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum is against France’s legal obligations.


    Unaccompanied minors make up a big percentage of the people who are trying to cross the border and who are being sent back. In 2016, the charity Caritas, which runs a shelter in Ventimiglia for children and other particularly vulnerable people, hosted 3,000 unaccompanied minors. And those are just the ones who were counted. Alessandro Verona, a doctor working with the Italian NGO INTERSOS, estimates that up to 35 percent of the people sleeping under the bridge in Ventimiglia are also children and, since many of them never enter the shelter, they are uncounted in the statistics. “The ‘French Dream’ or the ‘English Dream’ is very strong on these youngsters,” Verona said.


    The young man being sent back from the station in Menton was from Sudan. His name was Hamed, and he was 15 years old. The officers escorted him on board the train and stood guard outside the doors waiting for it to leave. Later, he showed me the refusal of entry form he was given by the French police. Most of the sections were not filled out, but it clearly stated his date of birth as 1 January, 2002.


    Two figures walk down a sidewalk amidst greenery and flowers
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Walking back to Ventimiglia after pushback

    Hamed had been in Italy for less than a month and arrived in Ventimiglia only four days before. He had already tried to cross the mountains into France, but was sent back that time as well. When the train reached Ventimiglia, he walked onto the platform and out of the station like any other passenger and made his way back to the bridge.


    Why not stay in Italy?


    On a cold night, I sat in the parking lot next to the bridge speaking with Adam, a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan. The football matches had ended after the sun went down, and now around 300 other people were in the parking lot waiting for volunteers to arrive and serve dinner. Adam was tall and had a warm smile and a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck. He had been sleeping under the bridge for close to two weeks and had already tried to cross the border three times.


    “The first time we tried, we went by train and were sent back,” Adam said. “Another time we tried in the mountain pass. We saw so much danger and so many difficulties. We saw death. We walked in the mountains for two days before we arrived to an area on the French border. We arrived and they sent us back again. Three days in the mountains. On the third day they sent us back.”


    Another time, he tried walking along a road. After eight hours, the police caught him and sent him back. Now, he had paid a smuggler and was waiting to try to pass again. “We’re still sleeping under the bridge in the cold,” Adam said. “There’s no safe place. It’s difficult. There’s food and other things, but it’s not enough. Hopefully, it will only be for a period of time and then it will be over.”  


    I asked him why he didn’t want to stay in Italy. “We heard from people who came here before us that they had housing for a period of time and then they were kicked out,” he said. “That’s a problem. There’s no housing and not much money.”


    Adam wanted to go to England “because of the language”, he said, switching from Arabic into English and flashing his smile. “I have little English.” His wife and five children were in Saudi Arabia, where Adam had worked as a migrant labourer. He left and came to Europe because his family did not have documents in Saudi Arabia, which made it difficult for his children to get an education or access resources like medical care. And going back to Sudan wasn’t an option because he was worried about conflict and instability. He wanted to bring his family to Europe so they could be somewhere safe and stable, and where his children could get an education. “You want to live like a human,” he said.


    His stay in Ventimiglia had been frustrating and demoralising, but he was still determined. Every time I left the parking lot at night Adam would say: “I hope you don’t find me here tomorrow.” It seemed to him like the French were making people suffer unnecessarily by making it difficult to cross the border. “They know that anyone who is trying to enter France, we will try and try, again and again. Why put these difficulties and make the way risky?” he asked. “We know that we will enter. There’s no other solution. Why put these punishments?”


    Life in limbo


    A recent report by the Refugee Data Project documented a lack of access to sanitation, clean drinking water, food and medical care for asylum seekers in Ventimiglia. Out of 150 people surveyed, 42 percent knew someone who had died trying to cross the border, and over 40 percent said they had experienced violence from both French and Italian police, including verbal abuse, physical assault, and being tear-gassed. Sixty-one percent of people said that they had been taken by Italian police and deposited in Taranto. “There are some guys who went to Taranto four or five times. It is something that destroys you physically and mentally,” a volunteer named Sara, who asked me not to use her last name out of fear of police harassment, told me.


    Tent under a bridge in Ventimiglia
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Some asylum seekers sleep rough under a bridge near the town centre

    For the time that people are stranded here, life takes on a soul-crushing routine. They arrive after their long journeys and find a place to sleep in the Red Cross camp or under the bridge. They wait in line for food and toilets or simply go to the bathroom by the river. They wait in line to charge their phones and use the internet; wait in line to pick up warm clothing to guard against the cold at night. They sit by the parking lot watching the afternoon football matches until the sun goes down, and then they wake up the next morning and do it all over again. The municipality and local residents are hostile to their presence because they are afraid the asylum seekers will scare away the tourists that the town’s economy is dependent on. And then there are the attempts to cross the border, and being sent back over and over again. And all of this after people have already been through so much to make it this far.


    The endless journey


    On my last afternoon in Ventimiglia, I bumped into Hashem, a 22-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker I’d met a couple of weeks earlier in Rome. He was walking towards the sea with a friend and asked if I wanted to come along. As we meandered towards the rocky beach, he said he didn’t know the streets – he had only arrived the night before, and Ventimiglia was foreign to him. He came to Europe because he wanted a better life. “I was a refugee in my own country. The village where I was born in Darfur was burned to the ground,” he said. The people he grew up with are scattered. Some are in other countries in Africa and others made it to Europe, Canada, and the United States. “I wanted to do what you do,” Hashem told me, asking what he should study to become a journalist. He hadn’t graduated from high school in Sudan, but picked up newspapers and read whenever he could.


    “The things I experienced in Libya were very hard,” he said. His disappointment with Europe was evident. “After what we experienced, we deserve better than this.” But on some level he understood. So many people like him had come before and it’s hard for European countries to house them all, support them financially, and help them find work. But what other choice did he have? “The future I want is impossible in Africa,” he said. “Good schools are only for the wealthy and there is no freedom.”


    We knelt on the rocky beach for a minute listening to the soothing rush as the waves crashed and then pulled back out to sea. The sun was starting to set in the western horizon, turning the jagged coast of France, only five miles away, into a hazy silhouette. Hashem’s plan was to try to cross to France and then Germany and apply for asylum. He wanted to pretend to be a minor. That way, he hoped he wouldn’t have an issue with the Dublin Regulation. “I’m so skinny because of what I’ve been through. People will think I’m younger,” he said with a sad laugh.


    He asked me about whether it would be possible for him to finish his studies and go to university. He was smart and determined, but also tired and obviously scarred by his experiences. He had plans for his future. But what he’d been through already was so difficult. Would he be able to continue on – especially now that he felt so unwanted, unwelcome, and unsupported where he was?


    I thought about a conversation I’d had the night before with Alessandro, the doctor from INTERSOS. He had described the journey from people’s home countries to Italy as a rush. “Your shadows will not catch you,” he said of the traumas people are escaping and experience along the way. But when they get stuck in Ventimiglia, that changes. “You stop yourself under a place that is full of these shadows – full of these nightmares – with all these people with the same problem, and you stop because you don’t know what to do anymore… All of the thoughts are coming back, and then you lose your strength. The resilience is gone.”


    When people finally cross into France, it is still not over. There are more borders that are closed and more bridges in other cities where asylum seekers sleep rough at night. And then, when someone finally reaches their destination and applies for asylum, “most of the time… Dublin will make them come back,” Alessandro said. “You find yourself back in Gorizia, back in Bolzano, back in Ventimiglia, back in Torino,” he added, repeating the names of places along the migration trail through Italy. Even once they’ve arrived, the long and brutal journey doesn’t end.



    Purgatory on the Riviera
    Final in a four-part special <a href="#more">series</a> exploring the impact of Italy’s migration, integration, and settlement policies
  • New Sahel anti-terror force: risks and opportunities

    Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger are teaming up to take on Islamist militants with the launch of a the 5,000-strong "FC-G5S" force in the restive Sahel. But are more boots on the ground the answer?

    UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently told the Security Council, which votes today on whether to fund the nascent multinational military force, that supporting it was “an opportunity that cannot be missed” and that failing to back it would carry serious risks for a region where insecurity has become “extremely worrying”.

    The Security Council “welcomed the deployment” of the force in a resolution adopted in June, but put off a decision about financing. The resolution's wording was the subject of a prolonged tussle between France – the G5 force’s main proponent – and the United States, which didn’t believe a resolution was necessary, sees the force’s mandate as too broad, and, as the world body’s biggest contributor, isn’t convinced the UN should bankroll it.

    On Friday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Washington wants to know “what the strategy would be, how they see this playing out, what’s involved in it, before we ever commit to UN-assessed funding”. 

    France has been working hard to win over the United States. On a visit to Washington last week, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said the former colonial power had no desire to become the “Praetorian Guard of sovereign African countries”.

    Existing forces

    In 2013 and 2014, France’s Operation Serval drove back militants in Mali’s northern desert from some of the towns and other sanctuaries they had taken. With attacks nevertheless continuing and having spread beyond Mali’s borders, 4,000 French troops are currently deployed under the banner of Operation Barkhane across all the G5 states.

    Mali is also home to the 14,000-strong MINUSMA force, one of the UN’s most expensive peacekeeping missions. It has come under frequent attack by militant groups such as the Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), an al-Qaeda-linked coalition forged last March. Some 86 blue helmets have been killed in militant attacks since MINUSMA was established in July 2013.  

    Meanwhile, efforts by civil society groups to negotiate with some jihadist groups have come to nought, while parties to a 2015 peace agreement between Mali’s government and two coalitions of domestic armed groups – a deal that excluded the jihadists – are embroiled in violent divisions among themselves. Some of these domestic groups are also responsible for attacks against the state. 

    These divisions have dimmed hopes of forging any kind of common front against the jihadists, and even of properly implementing the 2015 accord. The government’s failure to address widespread political and economic grievance further undermines its position.


    Sylvain Liechti/UN Photo
    The MINUSMA Camp in Kidal was targeted by intensive rocket and mortar fire
    Humanitarian fallout

    All this insecurity comes at a high price for Mali’s civilians. At the end of the 2016-17 academic year, 500 schools were closed, up from 296 the previous year, while the numbers of refugees and internally displaced reached a record 140,000 and 55,000 respectively.

    Acute malnutrition among children under five has reached “critical levels” in conflict-affected areas around Timbuktu and Gao, according to UNICEF. The agency predicts that 165,000 children across the country will be acutely malnourished next year.

    “Repeated criminal acts” prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross to suspend its operations in the northern Kidal region in mid-October.

    Funding concerns

    The primary mandate of the G5 force will be to secure the bloc’s common borders and fight “terrorist” and criminal groups.

    The force’s headquarters were established in September in the central Malian town of Sévaré, but its financing has yet to be secured.

    “Estimates still vary; nothing has been settled,” said a diplomat who has followed the latest developments. “If we get to 250 million euros at the donors’ conference in December, that would be very good. But even if financing is obtained in December, the force will not be operational the next day.”

    The G5 says it needs 423 million euros to set things up and run the force for its first year, but so far only a quarter of this sum has materialised, with the G5 and the EU both coming up with 50 million euros and France another eight million.

    "Mobilising sustainable and consistent financial support over a period of several years will remain a significant challenge,” conceded Guterres in his report.

    Money is far from the only uncertainty: Trust between G5 member states remains shaky.

    “The Burkina military believe their Malian counterparts are ‘lazy’ and joined the army to get an income and not to defend the country,” the International Crisis Group said, for example, in its latest report on Burkina Faso.

    And the security and political agendas of G5 states are not always aligned. Facing an economic and social crisis, regional powerhouse Chad, which already has troops in MINUSMA and in a separate regional force fighting Boko Haram, hopes to make the most of its involvement in the force, whose remit it would like to see expanded to include other regional threats closer to home.


    Given how often existing forces in Mali, including the army, are attacked (losing weapons and vehicles in the process), deploying yet more troops in the region carries a real risk of further boosting jihadists groups’ military assets.

    “Malian armed movements have employed an increasing proportion of heavy weaponry from Malian government stockpiles – particularly ammunition for larger weapon systems such as rockets and artillery – as opposed to Libyan or other foreign sources,” Conflict Armament Research said in a 2016 report on the Sahel.

    Human Rights Watch recently reported on “killings, forced disappearances and acts of torture” committed by security forces in Mali and Burkina Faso against suspected members of jihadists groups.

    Even if they are only committed by a minority of soldiers, such acts lead civilians to mistrust the armies supposed to protect them, and in some cases to join the armed groups to seek their protection instead.

    “The fighters are found among the greater population, are part of them and live with them. It is not easy to identify them. That makes combat difficult, even if there are far fewer jihadist than soldiers,” explained Ibrahim Maîga, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies.

    “You can’t defeat these people without helping the population caught in the middle. One side accuses them of being terrorists, the other of collaborating with national or foreign armies. This is why it is imperative that the state gains more legitimacy,” he added.

    The G5 joint force’s first operations are expected to take place in the Liptako-Gourma region, where the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso meet. These states have been particularly affected by the attacks carried out by JNIM, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and Ansarul Islam against national and foreign security forces.

    On 21 October, 13 gendarmes were killed when their barracks in Ayorou in Niger’s Tillaberi region came under attack.

    The joint force will be deployed in an environment rife with trafficking of all kinds, and with globalised jihad, and where myriad local conflicts merge with and fuel each other.

    On the border between Mali and Niger, economic rivalry between Tuareg and Fulani communities has deepened since becoming militarised and politicised.

    Fulani youth – too simplistically – are seen as ready recruits to jihadist groups, and Nigerien Tuareg militia are being used by the government to hunt them.

    In northern Burkina Faso, Ansarul Islam built its popularity by challenging social structures widely seen as inequitable, according to the ICG.


    Harandane Dicko/MINUSMA
    Security Council ambassadors pay their respects to UN peacekeepers killed in the line of duty
    US role

    None of the groups operating in the region has claimed responsibility for the 2 October attack in which four US and four Nigerien soliders were killed 200 kilometres north of Niamey – an attack a top US general has attributed to a local IS-affiliated group. The incident served to bring international attention to US military presence in the region, described by some media as a “shadow war” at a time when the US is in the process of moving its drone operations from Niamey to the central Niger town of Agadez.

     “Our American colleagues believe the [Niger] attack against their troops exposes a dilemma: Do too much and be exposed, or don’t do enough,” a French diplomat remarked.

    It seems the Pentagon is going for the first option: US Defense Secretary James Mattis recently informed Congress that the United States was increasing its anti-terrorism activities in Africa and that new rules of engagement were being introduced, allowing troops to open fire on mere suspects.

    But for the jihadist groups in the region, a greater US military footprint will feed their rhetoric of occupation and help swell their ranks.


    New Sahel anti-terror force: risks and opportunities
    Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel
  • We are not the world: Inside the “perfect storm” of famine

    Like the four countries facing extreme hunger crises today, the famine that gripped Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985 struggled for attention until it was far too late.

    There was conflict. There had been years of consecutive drought – similar to Somalia now. The government spent its money on fighting, not aid. The rich world eventually reacted, with Bob Geldof and Live Aid at the forefront of a public funding campaign. But access in a time of war was hard. By 1984, 200,000 mostly starving Ethiopians had died, young children often the first to go. The final toll was closer to one million.

    More than three decades later, the stakes are arguably even higher. A badly strained humanitarian system finds itself facing not one but four vast challenges. In all, more than 20 million people are at risk of starvation and famine across South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and northeastern Nigeria.

    Much has been learnt since 1984: the value of building resilience before crises arrive, the role climate change plays, the imperative of early conflict prevention, the importance of cash aid, the need to prioritise water as well as food. Nonetheless, the goal posts for those struggling to reach the world’s most vulnerable and provide them with life-saving assistance have shifted. Why?

    The simple answer is conflict. It’s the one factor that afflicts all four famine-facing regions listed above. And that’s not to mention how the effects of war in places like Iraq and Syria, including the mass migration to Europe, have drained valuable humanitarian resources and donor dollars.

    As Nancy Lindborg, president of the US Institute of Peace, pointed out in testimony last week before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “humanitarian assistance flows have shifted from 80 percent of global aid going to victims of natural disasters to now 80 percent going to assist victims of violent conflict.”

    Unfortunately, Lindborg’s remarks may well have fallen on deaf ears: President Donald Trump’s administration is threatening draconian cuts to the State Department’s budget, affecting US funding for everything from UN peacekeeping to the United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF.


    And garnering the attention required to generate the $4.4 billion the UN says is required by July to stave off a humanitarian “catastrophe” is only part of the battle. Devising the correct response strategy and securing the necessary access in complex and fragmented war zones is likely to be even harder.

    These four famines or near-famines do have similarities, but they also have different origins, different trajectories, and therefore different needs. Local factors are at play, with each country prone to its own combination of flaring conflict, weak governance, poor infrastructure, and failing markets.


    Video: Inside the perfect storm of famine

    Inside the “perfect storm” of famine

    Famine hasn’t officially been declared (yet) in Yemen, but, with more hungry people than any of the other big three areas at risk, this feels rather like a technicality.

    A reminder of the UN definition: At least 20 percent of households in an area with extreme food shortages and a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent; and a death rate exceeding two persons per day per 10,000 persons due to lack of food. As Somalia found out in 2011-2012, famine doesn’t need to have been declared for many to die. Nearly half its starvation deaths occurred before it met this statistical definition, including almost 30,000 children in just three months.

    Right now, 17 million of Yemen’s overall population of 27.4 million are classified as food insecure and 3.3 million people, including 2.1 million children, have acute malnutrition. Some half a million children are even worse off – with severe acute malnutrition – UNICEF counts this as a 200 percent increase since 2014.

    Yemen’s crisis is entirely man-made (UN relief chief Stephen O’Brien said as much in recent comments). As such, to the few paying attention, it’s been like watching a car crash in slow motion.



    Even before fighting began two years ago, Yemen was a poor country with a chronic hunger problem. But it was, for the most part, manageable: Aid agencies could move about the country with relative ease; most families could buy their meals at market. That was before the Houthi rebels reportedly helped themselves to the reserves in Yemen’s Central Bank, the country’s sole remaining neutral institution. Their rivals, the government and allies of ousted but internationally recognised President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, moved the bank to their southern stronghold of Aden in September, and since then salaries of public sector workers on all sides of the conflict have gone unpaid.

    The economy is now in complete freefall, with 80 percent of families in debt. “Middle-class people who used to be able to feed their families no longer have the cash to get food, even when it is available on the open market,” World Food Programme spokeswoman Abeer Etefa explained.

    Getting food into Yemen is harder than ever, and becoming pricier too. This matters a great deal in a country that even before this war depended on imports for 90 percent of its food.

    Commercial flights aren’t an option – the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has banned them for months. Hodeida port, once the main entry point for cargo ships bringing fuel, food, and medicine, was hit in August 2015. The airstrikes knocked out four of its five functioning cranes.

    These days, ships are delayed for weeks at port – if they make it through a UN inspection and a slightly less formal one by the Saudi coalition. Mark Kaye, conflict and humanitarian advocacy advisor for Save the Children, told IRIN the majority of supplies are now unloaded by hand, and that his organisation is finding the private vessels it pays to bring in vital medicines increasingly hesitant to take on the risk.

    This is compounded by an uptick of fighting off the coast – the latest example being more than 40 Somalis killed when their boat was struck recently, allegedly by an Apache helicopter.

    WFP also struggles with delays (although it has its own ships), and in February it purchased four mobile cranes – to the tune of $3.8 million – meant as a stopgap to “boost the port’s capacity in handling humanitarian cargo”.

    A spokesperson told IRIN the vessel carrying the cranes “had been waiting for approval for nearly two weeks to berth [at Hodeida]... but was denied the required security clearances to offload the cranes.” WFP didn’t respond when asked who exactly denied the clearance.


    Food insecurity predictions for March-July 2017 - FAO/IPC
    So the holdups continue, and they have real consequences. When Save the Children’s medications were delayed at port, Kaye said mobile medical teams “were running at the bare minimum”.

    “That means you have to make really tough choices,” he added. “If you are treating the child who comes in and is critical, you can’t treat the child who isn’t critical today but will be next week.”

    Once aid makes it into Yemen, it’s a dangerous obstacle course to get it to the most needy, as much of the worst malnutrition is in the areas most heavily impacted by fighting. And some places are under siege, like Taiz city and governorate, making distribution even harder.

    “Every party to this conflict makes it extremely difficult for aid agencies and aid workers to get to some parts of the country,” said WFP’s Etefa. She described Yemen, with seven million in need of emergency food assistance to survive, as a “perfect storm… conflict, collapsing economy, limited capacity at ports, [Saudi and internal] blockades, more poverty, and a country that has had chronic hunger problems.”

    The unthinkable may be about to get worse. There’s fear ground fighting is headed for Hodeida, potentially giving the Saudi-led coalition a road to the Houthis in Sana’a and shuttering the port completely. This is what keeps humanitarians up at night, and what might just throw Yemen into full-fledged famine.

    South Sudan

    The South Sudanese government has already declared famine in two counties, and the UN says 5.5 million people will be on the verge of starvation by July if they don’t get food.

    There’s a dramatic shortfall of funds to stave off the looming catastrophe, with only 18.5 percent of the appeal funding received so far. But that isn’t South Sudan’s biggest problem. Even if humanitarian agencies get the entire $1.6 billion they’ve asked for this year, they’ll struggle to deliver aid to those most in need.

    The country is a bewildering patchwork of armed groups, including various rebel factions as well as the army and government-aligned militias. All sides have engaged in ethnically motivated mass killings, and sexual violence has reached “horrifying” levels, according to the UN.

    Aid agencies are forced to take extraordinary measures to try to find people in need and ensure their staff members don’t become casualties too, skirting around armed groups to get aid to people in remote areas.

    “We have small planes that land on bush runways. We hire porters to walk for hours and hours and hours to get to these islands where people are hiding, where teams are working,” explained Nicolas Peissel, a project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières who has recently been to Leer and Mayendit, the counties, both in rebel-held areas, where famine has been declared.

    “We take canoes,” he told IRIN. “There's one place it takes us over 18 hours to get medicine to them by canoe; so we use whatever is available to us."

    But no amount of precautions can ensure safety for aid workers in South Sudan’s complicated conflict. They have been beaten, kidnapped, and killed.

    In one recent attack, unknown men ambushed a team with the International Organization for Migration that was travelling by convoy on its way back from an area where cholera had broken out. Two people died from gunshot wounds and three others were injured.

    Then, on 25 March, six more aid workers were killed in an ambush. At least 79 aid workers have been murdered since South Sudan descended into civil war in December 2013.

    Such incidents underscore that it’s the war that has caused famine in two counties, and it’s the war that will make it worse.

    “Those other areas at risk of famine could have a chance of averting catastrophe if humanitarian access is secured and respected,” the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said in a recent report.

    But judging by the actions of both the government and opposition so far, there’s little chance that will suddenly begin to happen.

    Speaking to the Security Council on 23 March, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted that the peace process is at a standstill, while government forces have been looting humanitarian compounds and blocking access to people in need. The government has refused to heed warnings from the international community that it must cease such actions to save its people from starvation. “On the contrary, what we hear most often are denials – a refusal by the leadership to even acknowledge the crisis or to fulfil its responsibility to end it,” said Guterres.

    On cue, South Sudan’s representative told the Security Council that his government has cooperated with the UN and its forces have not targeted civilians or perpetrated sexual violence – claims so obviously false they would be laughable if the situation was not so tragic.

    So, the government continues down its path of denial as humanitarians wring their hands, and the world’s newest nation staggers inexorably toward a devastating famine.

    Northeast Nigeria
    Families gather for another distribution of cash handouts.

    Things are very different in Nigeria. Eight years into the Boko Haram crisis, the momentum of the humanitarian response is finally beginning to build.

    But the extent of the problem is huge. Some 5.1 million people are food insecure out of a population of 5.8 million in the three affected northeastern states. But only a fraction – 1.9 million – are being reached.

    This is a crisis of both funding and access. Some $1.1 billion is needed this year for humanitarian action, but the response plan has so far received only $160 million. And despite the government’s repeated promise that the insurgency has been broken, the security situation is fluid, limiting the reach of aid workers. That means the humanitarian presence is at its weakest in the areas where it is most urgently needed.

    The emergency has been slow to reveal its true scale. Boko Haram was in control of much of the northeast by 2014, effectively locking up the rural population. Those that could escape did, mostly heading to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. But little was known of the needs of the many more left behind.

    It’s now clear they are substantial. The military’s advance is breaking Boko Haram’s hold, and, as it does, people are emerging, looking for help. “They are hungry and malnourished; some are incoherent; they have clearly been through a lot,” said Malik Samuel, field communications manager for Médecins Sans Frontières.

    As the military liberates the last remaining areas of the northeast, along the northern border with Niger, it’s possible that pockets of starving people in localised famines will be found. The aid response is already stretched. Will it be able to cope? Can it be sustained?

    The hope is that it will be more effective than last year, when the USAID-funded early warning system, FEWS NET, said that famine had “likely occurred” in Bama and Banki – two towns the military recaptured in 2015.

    The army was unable to care for the people arriving from the surrounding countryside. Although Bama is only 74 kilometres from Maiduguri, as many as 2,000 “famine-related deaths” may have occurred. The situation was likely worse outside the town. We don’t know, because the area was deemed too high-risk to venture into by most aid agencies.

    Bama is now flooded with aid workers. “The government and NGOs stepped up,” said Samuel. “Across the northeast, the aid response is better.”

    It’s certainly more coordinated than it was. There are more skilled staff available, and the at-times tetchy relationship with government authorities has become smoother. But there are still serious gaps. The army nominally controls 23 out of the 27 Local Government Areas in Borno. But its hold is typically restricted to the main town in the area, where the aid operation is based, feeding the displaced who make it out of still-inaccessible rural zones.

    “In some [LGAs], there is still not enough food [distributed],” said Adrian Ouvry, regional humanitarian advisor for Mercy Corps. “In some areas, there is not enough fuel wood, so even if you have the food you can’t cook it.”

    Food security is also about functioning markets: Farmers need to be able to sell their produce. But those trade links between the towns and the countryside have been severed by the conflict. Boko Haram turned to requisitioning the food it needed, and as a result farmers planted less and less.

    The government’s counter-insurgency approach also deepened the isolation of the rural population. Fearful of Boko Haram’s mobility and the threat of infiltration, it banned fuel sales and restricted movement. The closure of the borders – where it could be enforced – also hit agricultural trade, especially the once-thriving livestock business that historically stretched as far as Central African Republic.

    Nigeria is in recession as a result of slumping oil prices and the naira’s freefalling exchange rate against the dollar. Year-on-year inflation hit 19 percent in January, pushing up prices of local and imported staples. This is also being felt keenly in neighbouring Sahelian countries that are struggling already and depend on smuggled Nigerian produce.

    Some 1.8 million people are displaced in the three northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. The bulk are in Maiduguri, whose population has doubled to two million. Rather than settling in poorly serviced official camps, more than 80 percent of these victims of the war live with friends and relatives in the community, further straining households.


    Food insecurity projections for June-August 2017 - FAO/IPC

    Nigeria’s northeast had always been food secure and self-sufficient. But for a third consecutive year farmers have been unable to return to the land for the planting season. The Borno State government, possibly as a sign of frustration, has called for IDPs to head back to their homes by 29 May.

    This is widely seen as an impossible goal given the insecurity, the lack of government services, and the deliberate destruction of infrastructure by Boko Haram, which, according to the World Bank, includes 30 percent of homes in Borno.

    The best that could be achieved would be the return of people to the largest towns in the LGAs, but this only relocates the problem of caring for those in need to strained urban centres.

    The Nigerian government has given assurances that nobody will be forced to move against their will. That is not the case with neighbouring Cameroon, which is “deporting Nigerians on a daily basis”, said MSF’s Samuel. This is despite a tripartite agreement, also signed by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), that forbids refoulement. Nigerians are being forced onto trucks and dumped on the border, where they have a long wait – sometimes weeks – before they receive any assistance.

    It’s a reminder that this is a regional emergency. Boko Haram attacks have spilled over into Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, all of which are sheltering Nigerian refugees and their own displaced as a result of the violence. And this is a fragile Sahelian zone, also grappling with the growing impact of climate change and endemic poverty.


     “Here we go again” might be a typical reaction to the slow-motion disaster that has left 5.5 million people in urgent need of food aid in Somalia.

    Drought? Check. Conflict? Check. Rampant poverty and underdevelopment? Check. An international appeal for almost a billion dollars? Check again. So is this a repeat of 2011, when a famine claimed around 250,000 lives? There are several parallels, but also some significant differences, both in the context on the ground and in the humanitarian response.

    The drought itself is worse and has lasted much longer than the one that preceded the 2011 famine. Of the four countries highlighted, only in Somalia is there a drought. Almost the whole country has suffered near-total crop failure, leading to sharp price rises; some grains cost double what they did a year ago. Livestock herds – the equivalent of bank accounts for many – are dying in vast numbers, with widespread sickness driving down the value of surviving animals. The cost of labour, meanwhile, has plummeted. All this means households have considerably less money to buy food that is a lot more expensive. 

    Large swathes of the country where the food crisis is at its worst, such as in the Bay, Bakool, and Juba regions, where al-Shabab is the de facto authority, are no-go areas for almost all aid agencies, who are denied permission to work there or simply not allowed through checkpoints. The security risks to aid workers in Somalia are also very real: last year there were 165 violent incidents and 16 aid workers killed.

    But inaccessibility and al-Shabab’s presence are not the only factors at play. The adjoining regions of Sool and Sanaag are in the second most severe category of food insecurity but they lie well north of the Islamist group’s main theatre of operations, between the self-declared independent state of Somaliland and Puntland, a semi-autonomous region. Drought there has been especially fierce, while there has been very little investment in resilience projects and humanitarian presence is minimal (unlike in Somalia as a whole, where more than 300 different relief agencies operate).

    Across Somalia, access is generally better than it was in 2011, with an atomised humanitarian presence in aid hubs from which surrounding villages can be reached. This is one reason why today’s map of food insecurity, despite the more severe drought, is less alarming than that of four years ago.  

    The response to that disaster was widely derided as too little much too late and led to considerable soul-searching and the drawing up of “lessons learned”. Chief among these was a determination to ensure that, come the next crisis, aid would be delivered from points much closer to people in need. Mobile health clinics, which play a key role in addressing acute malnutrition and drought-related diseases such as cholera, will, funding permitting, reach further and wider than previously.

    The UN’s Operational Plan for Pre-Famine Scale-Up of Humanitarian Assistance calls for some 4.6 million Somalis to be given access to health services. And the scaling-up of cash-based programming – which accounts for half the planned food response, with the food itself provided by the private sector – is another example of more proximate delivery. In many cases, this assistance arrives directly to people’s phones via mobile money services.

    Additional components of the plan include targeting 200,000 severely malnourished children with therapeutic interventions (such as peanut pastes) and a further two million children for treatment and prevention of moderate acute malnutrition.

    Another important lesson learnt was the importance of “resilience” – ensuring people are better able to absorb, recover from, and reduce the threat posed by shocks such as severe droughts.

    Since 2011, millions of resilience dollars have poured into Somalia. Most have been invested at the very local level, to construct sustainable water sources, diversify economies, and provide microfinance and training for small businesses.

    Gabriella Waaijman, regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said shifting from repetitive crisis-response to longer-term preventive action had made a significant difference in Somalia. As the current drought took hold, “villages with resilience projects were better off,” she told IRIN. “We saw that the first population movements were from villages where such investments had not been made to those where it had.”


    Food insecurity projections for February-June 2017 - FAO/IPC

    But if resilience has been so successful, how come Somalia’s humanitarian crisis has now spread virtually nationwide?

    “The seatbelt has saved a lot of lives,” said Waaijman. “But if you have a head-on collision with a freight train it won’t do you much good.

    “We should stay the course. There’s some modest evidence of positive outcomes at the local level, but we’ve only been at it for a couple of years. As long as we don’t say, ‘let’s try something new again’, we have a bit of a chance.”


    Joined-up thinking that bridges the historic divide between emergency response and development aid could build better resilience, with investment in infrastructure, agriculture and water resources.

    Innovations such as risk insurance and catastrophe bonds also show promise in helping protecting people from the worst when the rains fail or bigger shocks come. And increasing pressure is being brought to bear on donors to provide multi-year financing for longer-term projects on protracted crises.

    Cash aid is all the rage and can be extremely effective in providing access to food to people with no money, even by mobile phone. But such payments don't work so well in parts of South Sudan where road infrastructure is poor and markets are only poorly integrated, even in the dry season, or in areas of Nigeria cut off by Boko Haram. As long as conflict prevents markets from restarting and aid can’t reach those in need, hunger and famine will almost certainly get worse.

    “The point is that emergency assistance only helps if people can access it," Dan Maxwell, who leads the research programme on food security and livelihoods in complex emergencies at the Feinstein International Center, told IRIN. "Resources are critical in all four of these countries, but so is the question of humanitarian access – and of ensuring that warring parties actually respect the rights of people caught in conflict to access assistance, as enshrined in International Humanitarian Law. Beyond adhering to IHL, much more emphasis needs to be put on actually resolving these conflicts – some of which have dragged on for years – and for which any amount of humanitarian assistance is but a palliative.”

    Guterres has made early conflict prevention the centrepiece of his reform agenda for the United Nations, but he has had to be frank about the challenges ahead, especially given the Trump administration's apparent determination to pull the US back from global causes.

    “It has proved very difficult to persuade decision-makers at national and international level that prevention must be their priority – perhaps because successful prevention does not attract attention. The television cameras are not there when a crisis is avoided,” he told the Security Council in January.

    Even if the TV cameras were there, would anyone be watching? It took a picture of a small dead boy, Alan Kurdi, going viral to wake the world up to the so-called European refugee crisis. In 1984, televised images of emaciated Ethiopian children belatedly spawned pop concerts, chart-toppers, and a global outpouring. What will it take now?

    Video: Inside the perfect storm of famine




  • Lake Chad money, Oxfam-GOAL merger, and serial Syria talks: The Cheat Sheet

    Every week, IRIN’s team of editors takes a look at what lies ahead on the humanitarian agenda and curates a selection of some of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed:

    What’s coming up?

    Finding $1.5 billion for Lake Chad

    The borders of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad meet at Lake Chad. The region is now one of the most critical humanitarian hotspots in the world, with a food security ranking teetering on the edge of full-blown famine in some areas. The UN says it can help about eight million of those in need if it is sufficiently funded. 

    Attacks by the extremist Boko Haram and counter-insurgency operations against them have uprooted millions and disrupted social services, trade, and agriculture. 

    Strained relations between Nigerian authorities and the international aid community have also played a part, while formidable logistics and security challenges hamper operations in neighbouring countries. 

    With South Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria all clamouring for media clicks and donor dollars, the "Lake Chad Basin" humanitarian situation has to fight for attention even while its capacity to respond faces setbacks. Last night, fresh attacks and clashes were reported in Maiduguri, the forward base for a still-fragile humanitarian operation in northeastern Nigeria. 

    A conference in Norway on 24 February aims to stimulate donor contributions and diplomatic attention. Thematic sessions will be held on food, protection, access, and education. The one-day event co-hosted by Nigeria, Norway, and the UN, will include ministers from the affected nations and the most important donor countries, leaders of relevant regional organisations, development finance institutions, and UN bodies. And the pledgers better pledge: the UN-led response plans are costed at $1.5 billion.

    Own GOAL?

    The Irish NGO GOAL, reeling from a corruption scandal, has started merger talks with Oxfam Ireland, the two agencies announced. Regular IRIN readers will need no reminding of GOAL's problems. A procurement fraud in Turkey lifted the lid on a shocking web of conflicts of interest that has taken the scalp of the CEO and the COO already, and triggered an investigation by the US government that is still ongoing. GOAL's donors got spooked and its income has collapsed.

    The latest news confirms that the chances of GOAL surviving in its current form are receding by the day. Is it game over for GOAL?

    Lost in Syria peace talks

    One round of Syria peace talks is delayed but under way in the capital of Kazakhstan this week and yet another is due to start the following week in Geneva. The Russia- and Turkey-brokered Astana talks began a day late thanks to disagreements over the agenda, and the UN-sponsored negotiations are on shaky ground too: A key Syrian opposition body has said it wants to talk transition with Damascus, which for its part has no interest in engineering President Bashar al-Assad’s exit from power. Nobody knows exactly who will show up in Geneva, or when, or if they’ll actually do much talking at all. But it’s probably safe to bet that Syria’s long-winded UN rep Bashar al-Jaafari will make an appearance, and that there will be further splits among the opposition delegation, which has presented itself as unified. If all this sounds like déjà vu all over again, you’ve clearly been paying attention for the past six years. With talk now of Pentagon plans for US troops on the ground, tune in next week for our update from Aron Lund on the post-Astana pre-Geneva lay of the land, and what it means for the future of Syria.

    The big Munich meet-up

    Conferences often mean strange bedfellows, and the Munich Security Conference that kicks off today is no exception. Participants include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, US Vice-President Mike Pence and, um, Bono, obviously. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be in attendance too, as will NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. But the weirdest double act of the weekend should come on Sunday when the Israeli and Iranian defence ministers are expected to share the same stage. Considering recent geopolitical shakeups, the discussions seem particularly loaded this year. On the agenda: “The future of transatlantic relations and NATO after the election of Donald Trump, the state of EU cooperation in security and defense matters, the Ukraine crisis and relations with Russia, the war in Syria, and the security situation in the Asia-Pacific.” Oh, to be a fly on the wall in some of those backrooms…

    Myanmar rights commission?

    The 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council will gather in Geneva on 27 February for a month of discussions. Council members will survey the state of human rights in countries around the world and the meeting will touch on hot ticket items including the effects of terrorism and the rights of migrants. Special rapporteurs will also present reports on the countries they’re assigned to. These will include Yanghee Lee, who has been outspoken in her criticism of Myanmar. Since Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi took power, the state of human rights in that country has actually slipped, according to many experts. Lee told IRIN exclusively this week that she will push for a commission of inquiry into abuses of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority. Pressure is growing but whether any Council member intends to sponsor such a resolution in Geneva remains to be seen.

    Did you miss it?

    Bad men in Venezuela

    “A lot of distinctly unsavoury characters have made it into the upper echelons of Venezuelan politics over the past decade or so,” notes the consistently excellent Francisco Toro in this blog for the Washington Post. He then gives us the lowdown on the latest, Tareck El Aissami. Toro describes the newly appointed VP as “the likely successor to the hapless President Nicolás Maduro”, a deeply worrying thought as the US Treasury has just imposed sanctions on him and accused him of direct involvement in drug trafficking and laundering the proceeds through a string of offshore companies. Oil-rich Venezuela’s meltdown from regional powerhouse to economic basket case has been well documented, by this publication and many others. But the country’s political trajectory demands as much scrutiny as the humanitarian fallout. Toro suggests El Aissami’s meteoric rise to within a heartbeat of the presidency was timed to coincide with distracting events in Washington and shouldn’t fly under the radar any longer. “Endowed with smarts, political chops and social-media savvy that Maduro could only dream of, El Aissami is every democrat’s worst nightmare: the guy who could stabilise authoritarianism for the long run,” Toro warns.

    Somalia and the Horn, again

    We mentioned this last week, but it’s still not getting enough attention. The looming famine in the Horn of Africa was entirely predictable – there hasn’t been enough rain in several years – but we’ve still failed to get ahead of it. In Somalia, nearly 260,000 people died as a result of the last major drought in 2010-2012, and experts are now warning of a full-blown famine in June. So what needs to be done? In this informative commentary piece for Al Jazeera, leading food security researcher Esther Ngumbi points out the short-term solutions: food aid, nutrient supplements, cash to buy what food there is. But she also stresses that the conditions that lead to famine in the Horn are regular events so it’s beyond time to invest in longer-term strategies: planting crops that can do with less water, crop diversification, investing in community water resources. Some governments are already on it, but officials, NGOs, and local groups need to better coordinate their efforts to build sustained resilience to these sorts of disasters. With 12 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya already in need of food assistance, this problem isn’t going away. This short BBC video provides a glimpse into the desperate situation already in Somalia. The animal carcasses in the video make for an uncomfortable prophecy.

    (TOP PHOTO: People waiting at a food distribution site on Lake Chad. CREDIT: Ashley Hamer/IRIN)  


    The weekly humanitarian outlook
  • Ten humanitarian stories to look out for in 2017

    While 2016 taught us to expect the unexpected, IRIN’s eyes and ears on the ground have given us an idea of what to look out for in the new year. We can’t promise everyone else will be covering these stories, but here are ten we’ll be watching:

    The impact of Trump

    Since Donald Trump’s election, speculation has been rife about what his presidency will mean for the wider world. His many statements and tweets on the campaign trail suggest that he intends to prioritise domestic and security interests over foreign aid spending and will roll back efforts made during the Obama administration to combat climate change.

    But many in the humanitarian sector have been adopting a glass half full attitude, publicly at least, by pointing out that foreign aid has bipartisan support and Republicans in Congress will oppose any major cuts to foreign assistance. Others are predicting that even if the Trump administration doesn’t significantly cut overall aid spending, it will favour channelling aid through partnerships with the private sector and results-oriented initiatives like the Millennium Challenge Corporation, rather than through traditional recipients like the UN and international NGOs.

    A Trump administration seems likely to allocate less aid to reproductive health and family planning programmes, and funding for initiatives relating to climate change will almost certainly be on the chopping block too. Trump has appointed a number of climate change sceptics to his cabinet, including Rick Perry, who will head the Department of Energy and Scott Pruitt, who will lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Venezuela undone

    The oil-rich nation has been unravelling in almost every conceivable way in 2016 – from runaway inflation and empty supermarket shelves to the virtual collapse of the public health sector with the resurgence of previously eradicated diseases like malaria and diphtheria. The government closely guards data on what appear to be steep rises in maternal and infant mortality rates, poverty and malnutrition, but doctors and civil society groups have been monitoring the worrying trajectory.

    With the government of President Nicolas Maduro still in complete denial about the growing humanitarian crisis (let alone accepting some responsibility for it), the downward spiral will only continue in 2017. Vatican-mediated talks between the government and the opposition that started in October have so far failed to yield an agreement to lift the country’s ban on international aid, a change that could alleviate critical medicine shortages.

    Maduro successfully stalled a recall vote that would likely have unseated him in October 2016. Under Venezuela’s constitutional rules, should Maduro lose a referendum in 2017, he will still be able to hand over power to his vice president and keep the United Socialist Party in power. With a political solution virtually off the table, more social unrest seems inevitable in 2017. Increasingly, Venezuelans will be forced to cross borders in search of livelihoods, healthcare and affordable food. Look to Brazil and Colombia, who will likely bear the brunt of this growing forced migration.

    Yemen’s downward spiral

    A small sliver of the world is finally paying attention to Yemen. That’s in part due to activist campaigns pushing the United States and Britain to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Saudis’ grudging admission they had used British cluster bombs in the war (followed by Britain’s statement of the same).

    But the war and humanitarian catastrophe marches on. Despite assurances by the Saudi-led coalition that they take great care to avoid collateral damage – to IRIN no less – there have been attacks on markets and funerals, and now more than 4,300 civilian deaths since the war began last March. And that’s only what the decimated health system can count.

    family and tent
    Mohammed Yaseen Ahmed Ibrahim/IRIN
    3.3 million people are displaced in Yemen

    Peace talks don’t offer much hope. The UN-backed peace process – already a set of negotiations between elites that didn’t take into account the reality on the ground – is going nowhere, and Houthi rebels have set up their own government.

    And now, Yemen is at serious risk of sliding into famine. Before the war, the country relied on imports for 90 percent of its food. With the economy in tatters, importers are finding it hard to bring in what the country needs, and families simply don’t have the cash to buy food.

    The post-Aleppo future of Syria

    The final fall of the last pocket of resistance in east Aleppo, with fighters and civilians evacuated outside the city, was major victory for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But it does not signal the end of the war or the suffering. Rebels still control the province of Idlib and much of Deraa, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have Afrin in the north, while Turkey appears to have territorial ambitions. Plus there’s so-called Islamic State, resurgent in Palmyra and still in control of Raqqa.

    Aleppo also marks yet another failure for diplomacy. The last round of Geneva talks seems a distant memory, and while a new ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey appears to be holding in some parts of the country, the truce doesn’t include all rebel groups. If this deal doesn’t pave the way for planned peace talks in Kazakhstan and full-scale violence begins again, it’s not clear where al-Assad will take the fight next. But it seems likely that the siege tactics that have typified the war will lead to more local truces and evacuations.

    Once again, this year looks bleak for Syria’s civilians – those bussed from Aleppo are headed into warzones in the middle of winter, joining the 6.3 million civilians already displaced into their own country.

    Myanmar’s Rohingya – a long-running crisis and a new insurgency

    There are few groups as persecuted as the Rohingya. During decades of military rule, Myanmar’s generals gradually stripped away most of their rights, including citizenship, and imposed the apartheid system they live under today.

    About half a million Rohingya have fled across the border during attacks on their communities over the past decades, but Bangladesh doesn’t want them either and refuses to even register them as refugees. The last few months of 2016 saw a new wave of migration over the border as Myanmar’s military allegedly carried out widespread abuses of civilians in the wake of attacks by a new insurgent group.

    Myanmar’s heavy-handed approach is unlikely to crush the group, known as Harakah al-Yakin [“Faith Movement” in Arabic]. In fact, there is a good chance that by targeting the civilian population, the military will drive more youth to join the insurgency. So far, the insurgents have targeted only Myanmar security forces and their motivation seems purely local – to push the government to grant the Rohingya citizenship. But there is a danger that international Islamist groups, including IS, could capitalise on the movement, which could threaten regional stability.

    Genocide and famine warnings in South Sudan

    South Sudan’s descent continues, and it’s likely to only get worse in 2017. The civil war drove 400,000 people across the border into Uganda since a peace deal broke down in July, and there are now more than 1.8 million people internally displaced.

    Ongoing fighting has disrupted farming and made it impossible to provide humanitarian relief in many areas. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warns: “All available indicators point to an unprecedented deterioration of the food security situation across South Sudan in 2017. The risk of famine is real for thousands of people.”

    The war and competition for scarce resources have also led to the “extreme polarization of some ethnic groups,” warned Adama Dieng, the UN’s special advisor on the prevention of genocide, in November. If that process continues, he said, “there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide.”

    Unfortunately, efforts to pressure the government and rebels to return to peace talks have failed. South Sudan enters 2017 under the shadow of looming famine and possible genocide, and the international community seems unable or unwilling to force leaders to stop fighting before they drive their country into an even deeper crisis.

    Iraq’s displacement crisis

    All eyes are on Mosul – the battle that could finally finish off IS in Iraq. Aid groups warn that as many as one million civilians are trapped inside, and more than 110,000 people have already fled the surrounding areas. But there’s another, related problem, brewing in Iraq. Overall 3 million people are displaced across the country, many from areas controlled or already liberated from IS.

    For Sunnis from Anbar province – from cities like Fallujah and Ramadi – going home is far from a sure thing. Those thought to have ties to IS can’t go home, and are stuck in camps, makeshift shelters, or elsewhere. Ignoring this problem risks radicalisation of a population that already feels scapegoated and has in the past been controlled by both al-Qaeda and IS.

    It’s not just Sunnis at risk here. Some Christians say they are too afraid to go home to liberated villages near Mosul. The Iraqi government can hardly keep the lights on and has focused its limited resources on the fighting. But this shortsightedness comes at the country’s future peril.

    In Afghanistan, more than a million people “on the move”

    It’s been a while since Afghanistan had a good year, but the last one has been especially tough – and it’s set the scene for a disastrous 2017.

    After a decade and a half of “boots on the ground” style warfare, the United States withdrew almost all of its troops. This triggered a surprisingly unexpected economic collapse that the country is still struggling to bounce back from. The past year also saw the emergence a migration crisis that will further complicate any economic recovery.

    Two of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, have been pushing Afghan refugees back over the border in massive numbers, while the European Union signed a deal that made aid contingent upon the Afghan government’s agreement to accept rejected asylum seekers. The first plane carrying Afghans deported from Germany arrived in mid-December. In addition, record numbers of people were internally displaced by conflict in 2016.                  

    Going into the new year, Afghanistan is struggling to support 583,174 people displaced by conflict over the past year, as well as 616,620 people who returned from other countries.

    Andrew Quilty/IRIN
    Outside the UN’s intake centre between the Pakistan border and the city of Jalalabad, in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province

    There’s no sign that the Taliban insurgency will ease up, and efforts at convincing them to talk peace with the government have so far been spectacularly unsuccessful. Afghanistan’s military is also battling other insurgent groups, notably IS, which has emerged as a brutal force to be reckoned with in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Meanwhile, Iran continues to push Afghans back home, Europe is likely to return more, and Pakistan says it will begin forced deportations of all Afghans who have not left the country by March.

    Kabila stays on in Congo

    The political false dawn of 2016, Hillary Clinton apart, was the electoral concession that wasn’t by the autocrat running Gambia. The announcement turned out to be just a ploy by President Yahya Jammeh to buy himself more time to work out how he might extend his 22-and-a-half years in power. But we're also shifting our attention from Africa’s smallest mainland country to its second largest – the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila appears to be engaged in similar manoeuvring that has already cost dozens of lives and led to hundreds of arrests.

    Although violent unrest in the Gambia shouldn’t be discounted, the consequences of Kabila clinging to power could be even more disastrous. At the moment, an uneasy truce of sorts seems to be holding. Opposition parties have agreed, in principle at least, to allow Kabila to remain as president until the end of next year, but discussions ahead on a transitional government and delayed elections could quickly unravel. Kabila might also try to amend the constitution again to delay elections into 2018 and beyond. With neighbouring Burundi already in extended turmoil over term limits and memories still fresh of the 1998-2003 Second Congo War that dragged in nine African nations and led to an estimated six million deaths, events in Kinshasa are worth keeping a close eye on in 2017.

    The opposition is weak and, in Kinshasa at least, unarmed, so with little international pressure being brought to bear and the media spotlight elsewhere, the received wisdom is that Kabila will quietly cement his hold on power. But if 2016 taught us anything, it’s to be ready for the unexpected.

    Famine in the Lake Chad Basin region

    In terms of sheer numbers and need, one humanitarian crisis that could overshadow all of the above next year lies in the vast Lake Chad Basin. It has had little coverage by journalists; perhaps more under-reported than any other humanitarian emergency of a similar scale. Despite military progress against Boko Haram extremists, 2016 saw conditions deteriorate fast in this troubled region, where Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria meet.

    Mausi Segun, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told IRIN that such appalling scenes, including the faces of thousands of starving children, haven’t been seen here since the 1967-70 war with secessionist Biafra. Early warning network FEWS NET says 4.7 million people need emergency food assistance in northeastern Nigeria alone and warned on 13 December that a famine is already likely to have occurred and to be ongoing in remote pockets of the region. Across the border in Chad, conditions are little better – more than 130,000 people displaced by the Boko Haram conflict are scattered around camps, competing for slender resources with vulnerable host communities.

    And it’s not just Boko Haram that is the problem: a combination of human water use and climate change has shrunk the lake itself to a 20th of its original size since the 1960s. The crisis is already enormous and only likely to deepen in 2017.

    People at a food distribution site on Lake Chad
    Ashley Hamer/IRIN
    The majority of people at this food distribution site on Lake Chad hail from the Buduma ethnic group

    (TOP PHOTO: Approaching the militarised “red zone” towards the border with Niger, displaced families in the Lake Chad Basin gather for another distribution of cash handouts. Ashley Hamer/IRIN)


    Ten humanitarian stories to look out for in 2017
  • The Grinch’s not-so-festive guide to food ration cuts

    Across much of the world, the festive season is a time of indulgence. But what if you’re too busy fleeing violence and upheaval, or stuck in a refugee camp on reduced rations?

    It’s been a hard year for the most vulnerable among us. This is partly due to tightening aid budgets, but it’s also the result of there simply being so many more people in crisis who need help.

    “It's not just a question of falling donor funding; most donors have continued to be generous, providing funds at relatively consistent levels for years,” World Food Programme spokeswoman Challiss McDonough told IRIN.  “But the number of [those in need] is much larger.”

    A prime example is Uganda, where 602,000 South Sudanese refugees are sheltering. As a result of the conflict in neighbouring South Sudan, “we are now supporting nearly twice as many refugees as we were just six months ago”, explained McDonough.

    WFP, as the global emergency food responder, is feeling the strain. “I'd say there are probably very few countries where we have not had to make some kind of adjustment to our assistance plans because of a lack of funding,” said McDonough.

    The following is a not-so-festive guide to where WFP has been forced to make cuts to already minimal food rations in Africa. It includes some non-refugee national programmes, which have also been impacted by funding shortfalls.

    Burkina Faso

    Rations have been reduced and cash assistance suspended for the 31,000 Malian refugees in Burkina Faso. As a result, about a quarter of refugees do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs.

    “Most refugees in the camps depend solely on humanitarian assistance to survive,” said WFP country director Jean-Charles Dei. “When assistance is interrupted or insufficient, the food security and nutrition situation dramatically deteriorate, especially for women, children, and elderly people.”


    Lack of funding has impacted a range of activities targeting vulnerable communities. Food-for-training for Congolese refugees and Burundian migrants expelled from Tanzania and Rwanda has been suspended. The number of children reached through an anti-stunting campaign has been reduced by 70 percent, with the programme halted entirely in Ruramvya and Rutana provinces.


    Monthly food rations for Central African Republic refugees in Cameroon was cut by 50 percent in November and December. The 150,000 refugees are entirely dependent on international aid.

    In May, WFP also halted its meals programme to 16 primary schools in northern Cameroon due to a lack of funding.

    Central African Republic

    WFP has been unable to assist more than 500,000 people in urgent need of aid and has been forced to halve the amount of food it has provided to those it can reach. Emergency school meals have been suspended in the capital, Bangui, and rations to displaced people in the violence-hit central town of Kaga Bandoro have been slashed by 75 percent. “WFP needs to urgently mobilise flexible contributions to cover for distributions from January onwards,” the agency has warned.


    For the past two years, refugees in Chad have survived on monthly rations well below the minimum requirement. For some, the cuts have been by as much as 60 percent. A joint assessment released in November by WFP and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, found more than 40 percent of the 400,000 refugees in Chad are malnourished and the majority of children are anaemic.


    Since November 2015, ration cuts have affected more than 760,000 refugees, the bulk of them from South Sudan and Somalia. Although there was an improvement in general food rations from June this year, UNHCR has warned that households still face difficulties. The cuts have, in particular, affected children aged under the age of five, with global acute malnutrition above the 15 percent emergency threshold in 10 out of 22 assessed refugee camps.


    All nutrition and livelihood related activities have been suspended due to a lack of funding.


    In December, WFP cut monthly rations by half for the 400,000 refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab and Kakuma camps. It warned that unless urgent new funding is received, it will completely run out of food by February. Most refugees in Dadaab have already had their rations cut down to 70 percent of June 2015 levels, and UNHCR has warned of a likely increase in malnutrition as a result of the new squeeze.

    Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “Given Kenya’s threat to deport Somalis has already triggered illegal forced refugee return, the UN ([World] Food Programme’s decision to further reduce refugee food rations could not have come at a worse time.”


    Ration cuts to 27,000 refugees meant that at the beginning of 2016 they were only receiving 40 percent of the recommended minimum number of daily kilocalories. Those shortages began six months earlier. By March, only three out of seven food items – maize, beans, and cooking oil – were being supplied. The Dzaleka camp hosts people mainly from the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions, with new arrivals escaping unrest across the border in Mozambique.


    In November, WFP halved food rations to 42,500 Malian refugees. Without fresh funding, it says it will be forced to suspend general food distributions, including cash transfers, from next month. A school meals programme for vulnerable Mauritanian children has also been put on hold and will only partially resume in January.


    A nationwide prevention of stunting programme for children aged six-23 months, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers has been discontinued due to limited funding.


    WFP will “significantly scale down” its livelihoods programmes in December 2016. If no additional resources are confirmed, it will only be able to continue with minimal programmes (mainly nutrition) from February 2017. WFP is targeting 1.4 million vulnerable Somalis in food-insecure areas.


    Rations have been cut by 50 percent for some 200,000 refugees who arrived in Uganda prior to July 2015. Low levels of funding, together with the large numbers of new arrivals fleeing fighting in South Sudan has left WFP workers “with no choice but to re-prioritise their focus on those refugees in greatest need.” The humanitarian response to South Sudanese refugees in Uganda was already severely underfunded even before the latest outbreak of violence in Juba in July.

    (TOP PHOTO: Residents of an IDP camp in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo receive food rations distributed by WFP. WFP)


    The Grinch’s not-so-festive guide to food ration cuts

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