(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Afghan voting, Ugandan mudslides and Burundi’s rusty old signs: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    A vote for stability in Afghanistan


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


    How healthy in 2040?


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


    Yes, another dark week for Yemen


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


    Northward from Honduras


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


    Deaths aren’t the only civilian toll in Somalia attacks


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


    Uganda: apologies don’t stop landslides


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


    Humanitarian journalism: how are we doing?


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


    Add riverbanks to Bangladesh’s disaster list


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


    One to listen to


    Aid for arms


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


    In case you missed it:

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


    The weekend read


    ‘Do no digital harm’


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

    And finally

    A new reading of rusty old aid signage


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

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



    Afghan voting, Ugandan mudslides and Burundi’s rusty old signs
  • Aid under attack

    Few aid agencies operate in Nigeria’s volatile Borno State, where a faction of extremist group Boko Haram executed Hauwa Liman, 24, this week. A midwife with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), her killing underscores the dangers faced by humanitarian groups serving civilians in the region.

    Liman was one of three local aid workers kidnapped in the town of Rann in March by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter group of Boko Haram. Another ICRC employee, Saifura Hussaini Khorsa, was killed last month. The third woman, Alice Loksha, a nurse with Unicef, is still being held. During the March raid, at least four other humanitarian workers were killed, causing the UN and Médecins Sans Frontières to withdraw staff.

    The ICRC is known for its caution when deploying workers in conflict areas. But the Aid Worker Security Database listed Nigeria as the fifth most dangerous country for humanitarians last year.  

    Boko Haram has been launching attacks in the area since 2009, ranging from suicide bombs to raids to kidnapping women and children. The group says its goal is to overthrow a corrupt state and swap Western education for Islamic law. Clashes with the military, whose tactics have drawn criticism, have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced 2.5 million.

    The region is under tight government control, and aid workers struggle to serve the 7.7 million people in need of assistance in the worst-affected areas. That number continues to grow as the conflict spreads into parts of Cameroon and Niger. Meanwhile, humanitarian access to Boko Haram-controlled areas is still limited as these are largely inaccessible to outsiders.

    Across Borno State, local and international organisations are investing in projects for deradicalisation, peace building, and reconciliation - both to help Nigerians heal and to prevent the situation from getting worse.

    Boko Haram had previously targeted aid workers before the raid in March and bombed camps for internally displaced people (IDP), which typically have a heavy military presence. But this appears to be the first time ISWAP has executed aid workers after demands for ransom failed to be met.

    Speaking after Khorsa’s death last month, Edward Kallon, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria, said: “This incident demonstrates the severe challenges that Nigeria continues to face, but will not deter the international community from providing aid to millions of Nigerians caught up in the conflict in the northeast.”

    The UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) estimates there are about 3,000 aid workers on the ground in the north-east, most of them Nigerian nationals. Local employees like Liman and Khorsa often face compounded dangers; globally, local staff comprise about 80 percent of aid workers killed, kidnapped, and seriously wounded. In a statement released after the killings, ISWAP said they had targeted the women because they considered them “apostates” for working with non-Muslim aid agencies.

    Rann, a remote town near Borno’s state capital Maiduguri, is the site of an accidental airstrike by the Nigerian military, which last year mistook an IDP camp there for a Boko Haram base. Dozens of people were killed.


    * CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated: "The UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) has about 3,000 aid workers on the ground." OCHA is the source for an estimate of 3,000 aid workers in the north-east. 


    Aid under attack
    Briefing: Boko Haram and humanitarian access
  • Abuses and disappearances mar Nigerian counter-insurgency campaign

    Hajja Gana last saw her son six years ago when soldiers took him away in an early morning raid in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, accusing him of being a Boko Haram terrorist. She has no idea whether he is alive or dead.


    Gana denies that her son, Mustapha Say’ina, then aged 25, was ever a member of the jihadist group. She insists this was a case of mistaken identity, and says the soldiers addressed Say’ina by another name when they questioned him in her home and that his phone number was not on the list they had.

    The soldiers nevertheless beat his six-month-pregnant wife as she protested his innocence and then took him away, she said.


    “They said they just wanted to ask him some questions and would bring him back,” recalls Gana.


     “I never saw him again.”


    Obi Anyadike/IRIN
    Soldiers took Hajja Gana's son away six years ago, accusing him of being a terrorist. She doesn't know whether he is alive or dead.

    The way men like Say’ina disappear violates international law, but also harms the government’s chances in the decade-long war against Boko Haram. According to the UN Development Programme, over 70 percent of African jihadists interviewed for a 2017 report said they had picked up a gun in response to “government action” – including the killing or arrest of family members and friends.


    Abas Yerima* is walking evidence. He was arrested at a funeral of a neighbour shot by the army for allegedly being a Boko Haram member. Yerima was among 120 young men picked up that day in 2012, seemingly on the grounds of guilt by association, and taken to the notorious Giwa Barracks detention facility in Maiduguri.


    Conditions in the overcrowded, unventilated cells are appalling, say former detainees and international rights groups. According to Amnesty International, at least 149 detainees died from hunger or mistreatment from January to April 2016 alone – an allegation the Nigerian government has denied.




    Yerima remembers there was never enough food or water, hundreds of inmates shared a single overflowing bucket as a toilet, there were beatings and people died daily. Only 25 of the 120 men arrested with him survived, he said.


    The facility was then under the control of military intelligence (it’s now run by the military police), yet Yerima said he was never interrogated in the two years he was there. He added that the army appeared to assume the men’s guilt, then ignored whatever information the supposed Boko Haram detainees could provide.


    “They just expected us to die,” Yerima said of the cell guards. Some enjoyed taunting the prisoners: “They used to say, ‘You haven’t died yet?’”


    Despite repeated interview requests from IRIN, neither the army command in Maiduguri or Abuja agreed to discuss these allegations.


    Yerima escaped in 2014, when Boko Haram fighters attacked Giwa, triggering a mass breakout. Yerima made it into the surrounding bush, where Boko Haram members gathered the survivors, piled them into vehicles, and took them to their base in Sambisa Forest.


    A few days later, Boko Haram made an offer: those that didn’t want to join would be given the equivalent of $50 each and could leave unharmed.

    Very few took the money, some possibly distrusting that the Boko Haram fighters would keep their word, said Yerima. But he was clear why he chose to stay: “I thought about how I had suffered, how I had been maltreated [by the army],” he explained.


    Yerima quickly grew disillusioned, unable to square the indiscriminate killing of civilians by Boko Haram with his understanding of Islam. He escaped seven months later. But he knows men from his prison cell, not originally Boko Haram, who chose to stay and fight on with the Islamist insurgency.


    Hearts and minds


    A key challenge for government soldiers in a counter-insurgency conflict is how to identify the enemy. It’s at the core of winning hearts and minds, but the Nigerian army is regularly accused by human rights groups of failing the test, killing and detaining civilians it then claims are terrorists.


    Boko Haram exerts strict control over the villages in the remote rural areas of Borno State in which it operates. The villagers – known as “awam” – are there to serve the “rijal” – the fighting men – by providing free labour, and in the case of women who are forbidden to leave the house to farm, “wives”. Boko Haram does not arm the awam and continually suspects them of trying to escape, for which the punishment for men is automatic execution, according to internally displaced persons (IDPs) interviewed by IRIN.


    In late 2015 and early 2016, an army advance in the Boboshe area of the northeast created an opportunity for villagers to flee to government-controlled towns, where they were “screened”. What that meant in practice was the men of fighting age were separated from the women, detained, and then sent to the Giwa Barracks, IDPs from the area told IRIN.


    The women meanwhile were kept in dire conditions at the Bama Hospital Camp, with little food or water, several people who were detained there told IRIN. They said they also faced sexual abuse by the army and local vigilante.


    “We were treated like animals,” one woman, who said she was visibly pregnant yet raped twice and punched in the stomach, told IRIN. “The radio told us to come out [from Boko Haram control]. We thought we were coming to safety.”

    The last time she saw her husband was outside Bama prison, he was so badly beaten he couldn’t tie the drawstring of his trousers. She doesn’t know if he has survived Giwa or if he’s in another detention facility. She insists he was a farmer who didn’t deserve to be arrested. Her children still ask why the army took him.


     “What can I say – do you think they will ever trust this government again?”


    Giwa serves as a holding facility with detainees kept under “administrative custody”. From there, a determination is eventually made as to whether they are sent to Maiduguri maximum security prison, or the army’s “Safe Corridor” deradicalisation programme. While ostensibly designed for Boko Haram defectors, many of the graduates of this programme IRIN met insisted they were civilians with no association with the insurgency.


    Other detainees – seen as having no case to answer – are freed and then spend time in a government-run transit centre. But it is an ad hoc process.



    After detention


    Mohamed Yunus,* 15, was released from Giwa in January after being locked up for 18 months. He had arrived in Maiduguri with a group of people fleeing Boko Haram-controlled Boboshe and was held for preliminary screening for two weeks at the entrance to the city.


    After IDPs from Boboshe vouched for him, he was released and assigned a tent in the nearby Muna camp, and then went to the local market to look around. That’s where he and some friends were picked up by an army patrol and taken to Giwa. “Nobody tells you why you are there or what you are supposed to have done,” Yunus said.

    “I’m very angry with the government, they made my life horrible. If it wasn’t for the Red Cross feeding us we would be dead.”

    He was assigned to Cell 7, the children’s cell, which is less crowded and unsanitary than those holding the men. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been granted access to Giwa, and food is now distributed more regularly, drinking water is accessible, and each cell has a “long drop” latrine rather than an overflowing bucket. Deaths are still common, though, former detainees told IRIN.


    Of the 270 boys in Yunus’s cell, he said none ever admitted they were Boko Haram members – just that they were village youth like him. He had left Boboshe to escape Boko Haram, fearing the group would eventually force him to join “or kill us or our parents if we refused”.


    Yet instead of finding safety, he wound up in Giwa. “I’m very angry with the government, they made my life horrible,” Yunus told IRIN. “If it wasn’t for the Red Cross feeding us we would be dead.” Yet his anger over the “injustice” he’s faced does not translate into support for Boko Haram, whose violence he condemns.


    Yunus, like other former Giwa detainees, spent a few months in the Bulumkutu transit centre in Maiduguri. According to UNICEF, which works with the government to provide medical and psychosocial care for children and women ex-detainees, a total of 2,166 people have been released from Giwa since June 2016. Of those, 1,521 were children. (At any one time, the facility holds an estimated 1,400 people, but official figures are unavailable.)


    All are in bad shape when they first arrive, a social worker at the centre who requested anonymity told IRIN. “Some are malnourished with swollen limbs,” the worker said. “Some can’t even talk [they are so traumatized] – especially the elderly.”


    For Hajja Gana, she’ll be happy to get her son back, whatever condition he is in. A civil servant two years from retirement, she has sunk what little spare money she has in searching for Say’ina, visiting jails across northern Nigeria based on tip-offs from security officials (for which she has had to pay) or ex-detainees who say they were incarcerated with him.


    “I’m suffering now,” she said. If she finds him, she added, allowing herself a faint bit of hope, “my old age will disappear.”  

    (TOP PHOTO: Internally displaced people line upwatched over by a civilian joint task force member at a food distribution point in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria. CREDIT: Ashley Gilbertson VII Photo/UNICEF)



    *  Aside from Hajja Gana and her son, all names have been changed.

    *“Boko Haram” refers both to Abubaker Shekau’s Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad (JAS) faction and rival Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) led by Abu-Musab al-Barnawi

    The army’s indiscriminate arrests risk bolstering the Boko Haram insurgency
    Abuses and disappearances mar Nigerian counter-insurgency campaign
  • In a Nigerian migration hub, a local group swaps work skills for European dreams

    Judith Giwa is not a migrant, but because she was unemployed and considered vulnerable to migration or trafficking she qualified for training with a local non-profit organisation working to help migrant returnees in Nigeria’s Benin City.


    “I learned this in just three months,” she said, holding up an orange-and-blue wax print child’s dress that she made in a clothes-making course run by Idia Renaissance. “Isn’t it beautiful?”


    Giwa, 31, said she has no intention of trying to migrate to Europe as so many other Nigerians have. During a recent “life skills” class, the discussion focused on the dangers of human smuggling.


    “If I ever go to Europe, I’ll go by plane,” she said. “And I’ll only go when I’ve something to show for it – something I can contribute.”


    Benin City, the capital of southern Edo State, has long been a hub for migrants setting off from Nigeria on the long and often unsuccessful trip to Europe. In mid-2018, some 60,000 Nigerian migrants were registered in Libya. Recently, though, people have started coming the other way.


    Since April 2017 almost 9,000 Nigerian migrants have returned after being stranded or detained in Libya while attempting to reach Europe, most aided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).


    But reaching home is only part of the journey, and local organisations such as the group that trained Giwa, Idia Renaissance, are leading the way in helping people get back on their feet and realise their potential.


    ☰ Read more: Why the aid sector wants to go local


    The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2017, the UN asked for a record $22.2 billion to cover 33 emergencies around the world. But the funding gap continues to widen as the price tag soars.


    What is local aid?


    The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.


    Why local aid?


    The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response by making it faster, less costly, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, they have local knowledge and skills, they can often access areas that international aid groups can’t reach, and they know the needs of their own communities.


    Who are local aid workers?


    Local humanitarian aid includes a broad spectrum of potential on-the-ground responders to crises and disasters: local NGOs, civil society groups and community leaders, indigenous peoples, local governments, faith groups, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises, including refugees, migrants, host communities, and everyday volunteers helping people to reintegrate.


    New skills


    Besides Idia Renaissance, several other local organisations offer training programmes, including the Initiative for Youth Awareness on Migration, Development and Reintegration (IYAMIDR), and the Committee for the Support of Dignity of Women (COSUDOW), a women’s shelter run by a group of nuns.

    Set up in 1999 to try to stem human trafficking and prostitution, Idia Renaissance, like other groups, has in recent years expanded its focus to include returned migrants and now gets most of its money from European organisations.


    It offers classes in cookery, tailoring, fashion design, hairdressing, beadwork and photography. Posters in its classrooms bear warnings in Pidgin: “I nor need to go abroad to make am” (“I don’t need to go abroad to make something of myself”), and “Many Nigerians dey waste away for oyinbo (‘caucasian’) land."


    “We give young Nigerians the skills they need to restart their lives, an alternative to a one-way journey to Europe,” said Roland Nwoha, an Idia Renaissance project coordinator. “You can have a future here, in Nigeria, in your home country – that’s what we want young people to know.”


    Oduwa (who, like others IRIN spoke to, preferred to be identified only by her first name), was trafficked into prostitution in Italy in 2012. On her return to Nigeria the following year, she enrolled in an Idia Renaissance course in catering.


    She now works in the catering unit of the Christian Women Fellowship International, a faith-based non-governmental organisation that teaches young women how to prepare and serve Nigerian dishes for large groups of people.


    "When I came back, I had to face the challenges of life. I couldn’t further my education, but I had to get a skill,” she said. “I became an instructor after some months, teaching catering as well. The experience was “a challenge for me, but it saved me,” she added.


    Between stirring and baking, Oduwa warns her students of the dangers of clandestine migration. “I tell them all the tricks I know human traffickers use,” she told IRIN.


    Yet many students still toy with the idea of leaving. “I’m already very happy when one girl changes her mind,” said Oduwa.


    Saskia Houttuin and Sarah Haaij/IRIN
    A student with the catering unit of the Christian Women Fellowship International, a cooking class that is taught by Oduwa.

    Turning the tide


    Despite the extreme hardships faced by Nigerian migrants in Libya, which often include detention and physical abuse, and are widely reported by those who return, many Nigerians continue to leave in search of better economic opportunities, including in Europe.


    “The people that are leaving all believe they will make it abroad,” explained Nwoha.

    “They believe that they are the exception, that they will be the ones to find a good job, and won't end up on the streets or in prostitution. So, with that confidence, they leave.”


    The most well-travelled route from Benin City leads through northern Kano State and on to Agadez in Niger and then to Libya.



    “In terms of human trafficking and illegal migration, Edo State has the highest numbers [of people leaving Nigeria],” said Aigbeze Uhimwen, a senior IOM project assistant who is overseeing the rollout of the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. “There is a very extended network for people who want to travel out.”


    The EU’s determination to reduce the flow is evidenced by their recent actions in the region.


    Through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), IOM Nigeria received 15.5 million euros to reintegrate returned migrants. IOM opened its first office in Benin City in March, offering information and a wide range of services to those considering migrating from Nigeria, as well as those who have returned.


    The Nigerian government’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, known as NAPTIP, also initiates training and awareness-raising programmes for returned and would-be migrants. Earlier this year NAPTIP intensified its work in Edo State by partnering up with the Oba of Benin, the influential monarch of the Edo people.  


    IOM’s integration services, which are being made available to 3,800 returning migrants, also include business skills training, as well as financial assistance to help people set up their own businesses. There is also awareness-raising, in the form of a Nollywood mini-series about the risks of irregular migration that was broadcast on national TV in 2017, reaching more than 100 million viewers.


    “We asked people here: ‘What kind of industry is needed?’” said Uhimwen. Responses, he said, led to plans to open a pineapple-processing factory that will generate between 100 and 200 direct jobs and benefit local farmers, transporters, and their families.


    “I don’t think the tide of human trafficking can be totally abolished or stopped,” he said. “But what I think can happen is that the frequency can be reduced to a very minimal level.”


    It’s too late to stop Rosemary, a 24-year-old mother of four, from making the trip. She left Benin City for Europe in March 2017 but got no further than Libya. IOM helped her return home that November.

    Less than a year later, a NAPTIP-run training programme has taught her to make soap and set up her own business, ‘Real Journey Liquid Soap’.

    She wants more help to make her business grow, but won’t be trying for Europe again any time soon. “I don’t have the thought of going out of this country again,” she said. “Because I know I can make it here.”



    “I’m already very happy when one girl changes her mind”
    In a Nigerian migration hub, a local group swaps work skills for European dreams
  • Zamfara: Nigeria’s wild northwest

    It was a set-up and Buharin Daji walked right into it. The notorious cattle-rustling kingpin had arrived for a meeting in the northern Nigerian bush, ostensibly to settle differences with one of his senior lieutenants, but instead was shot dead.

    Daji’s murder in March has had consequences in an already deeply troubled Zamfara State, where years of building unrest have claimed thousands of lives and driven whole communities into destitution.

    This underdeveloped yet agriculturally rich region has been unstable for many years. What began as unresolved clashes between Hausa farmers and Fulani pastoralists over access to land has transformed into a lucrative illicit economy of banditry and cattle-rustling dominated by men like Daji.

    Zamfara is different from highly politicised farmer-herder clashes in other parts of Nigeria where largely Muslim pastoralists push south in search of pasture and meet increasingly populated Christian farming areas. Instead, Zamfara is overwhelmingly Muslim and, human rights groups argue, the violence here is fundamentally about the government’s abdication of its responsibility to protect its citizens.

    According to Amnesty International, more than 370 people have been killed by the outlaws so far this year. Others have been kidnapped and held for ransom – payments are encouraged with phone calls to loved ones as those being held undergo torture.

    Daji was viewed as a solution to the crisis. In a case of poacher-turned-gamekeeper, he was put on the state government’s payroll at the end of 2016 to help stop the violence he himself had stoked.

    The idea was that Daji would use his influence to rein in other brigands and help with a gun amnesty drive, all in exchange for a salary and impunity. But this didn’t address the underlying causes of Zamfara’s lawlessness, and the state government’s dysfunction prevented it even from making the regular payments to Daji, Adamu Abubakar, director of the Centre for Community Excellence, a local NGO, told IRIN.

    The death of Daji was the final blow to already frayed attempts to forge peace. With him gone, Zamfara risks unravelling further and faster.

    Roots of lawlessness

    Northwestern Nigeria has a long history of banditry. The first recorded case occurred somewhere between “western Hausaland” and the Niger border in 1901, when a 12,000-strong camel train “laden with assorted grains” was attacked and 210 merchants killed.

    The tragedy for modern-day Zamfara is that more than a century on, there are still ungoverned spaces where the state is incapable of stamping its authority.

    Control is so weak in some regions that bandits can come into rural towns, typically three-up on a motorbike, unchecked. In some areas they lay down the law and become the local authority: “It’s fast justice, and there is no appeal,” explained Abubakar.

    Hausa and pastoralist Fulani communities coexist in Zamfara, with competition over land and water sources historically managed through mediation. Banditry has introduced a new level of friction between the two, with the Fulani, marginalised from local political power, more closely associated with brigandage – men like Daji being an example.

    Nigeria is a big country that is thinly policed. In Zamfara’s rural districts there are likely just two poorly equipped and under-motivated policemen to serve many inaccessible communities, according to Zamfara State government spokesman Ibrahim Dosara.

    Historically, state governments have turned to vigilantes to deliver the manpower and local knowledge the federal police lack. In Zamfara these groups are provided with some motorbikes, uniforms, and locally made single-shot hunting rifles, but little other support to meet the rising tide of banditry.

    Payment of allowances is often late, they are outgunned, and some vigilantes turned on the people they were supposed to protect – stealing and extorting – while also murderously targeting Fulani. “Along the way, part of the vigilante became part of the bandits,” said Abubakar.

    Killing fields

    Aisha is just one face of the emerging crisis. Until a few weeks ago her home was the village of Kagara in central Zurmi district. Now it’s a disused petrol station in Zurmi town, where she and her extended family rely on the hospitality of the station owner and the generosity of the town’s people, who help with food when they can.

    Aisha is here because Kagara was attacked by bandits who killed her husband and then beat her with rifle butts when she tried to protect her younger brother by covering him with her hijab. They shot him and four male cousins dead as they burned and looted, combing the village for homeguard vigilante who had formed to protect the village with locally made muskets.

    The bandits had turned up on motorbikes, armed with AK-47s, speaking both Hausa and the Fulani language, Fufulde, with some taking care to cover their faces. Aisha recognised none of them. She suspects some might have come from neighbouring Niger or further afield, in a transnational criminal free-for-all.

    Asked why she thought they’d attacked Kagara, Aisha gave a now-familiar response: “Only God knows.” But “they have our phones and call us to say they will kill us if we go back,” she added.


    Obi Anyadike/IRIN
    Aisha's home is now a disused petrol station in Zurmi.

    The bandits, seemingly able to move at will, took over three districts in Zurmi in June, a total of some 18 villages and towns. But now the state government is insisting the thousands of people displaced by the rolling violence should go home.

    When IRIN visited Zurmi the authorities had just closed a camp for those displaced by the violence in the local secondary school. Aisha has no intention of going back anytime soon, but her 19-member extended family was unsure what to do.

    Bala Aruna, the petrol station owner, stepped in after he spotted them by the roadside. “I said, ‘I have a place you can shelter out of the rain’,” he recalled.

    “Only God knows when this problem will end,” he said. “Yesterday, [the bandits] attacked people that had returned home, just three or four kilometres from here.”

    Government failure

    Despite the chaos, which helps keep Zamfara the poorest state in the federation, Governor Abdulaziz Yari is frequently absent. He is loudly criticised for spending much of his time in the federal capital, Abuja, where he chairs the powerful Nigeria Governors’ Forum.

    “Banditry is a failure of the state to fulfill its primary purpose of providing security,” Chidi Odinkalu, of the Open Society Justice Initiative, told IRIN. “Yari should go back to Zamfara and do his job and govern his people.”

    The state government spokesman, Dosara, insisted that Yari is “fully engaged” with the affairs of the state.

    At the paramilitary Civil Defence Corps headquarters in Zurmi, a bare, solid low-rise building, the commanding officer spoke candidly about the IDP camp closure being premature. His alarming analysis was that the bandits in this region were trying to clear a corridor along the border with Sokoto State and north to Niger – which includes Aisha’s village.

    “Banditry is a failure of the state to fulfill its primary purpose of providing security.”

    “That’s their base. Anyone they kidnap, that’s where they keep them,” he said. “[If there’s trouble] they run into Niger or Sokoto.”

    The federal government last year responded to the crisis by sending in an army battalion. When that didn’t work it deployed an Air Force special forces Quick Reaction Group in June, complete with helicopter gunships.

    Although that deployment is having some success, “the military can only suppress the problem, they can’t resolve it,” said Abubakar, the NGO director, describing a balloon effect that means wherever they squeeze the outlaws just pop up elsewhere.

    Crime pays

    Banditry exists because it is profitable. From around 2011 there was a surge, which some commentators linked to increasing regional livestock prices. Rustling is now an entrenched and thriving underground business, with stolen cattle kept in the forests that dot Zamfara’s border regions (including the equally troubled Binan Gwari area of Kaduna State) before being discreetly sold to meet the ever-growing demand for beef in southern cities.

    “Before, it was the Fulanis that were rustling cattle, then the Hausas joined in. Now, every criminal in Nigeria has come to Zamfara,” said Suleiman Abakar – a wealthy farmer, until his 60 head of cattle were stolen. “There is no other way to make money as quickly as rustling.”

    In the bad Spaghetti Western that is now Zamfara, cattle rustling is not the only profitable enterprise. Abakar, the former farmer, is now an artisanal gold miner. It’s a job that carries significant risk as gold deposits here are usually found next to highly toxic lead.

    The more immediate danger is not lead poisoning but being shaken down by bandits. “They take whatever they want,” said Abakar.

    “There is no other way to make money as quickly as rustling.”

    The insecurity induces an understandable paranoia. Everybody IRIN spoke to knew at least one victim of the violence, and in every conversation mention is made of shadowy “informers” who spy and sell out their neighbours for a share of the loot.

    The guessing game of who the masterminds are protecting the bandits runs the gamut from senior state officials to traditional rulers – an assumption of high-level impunity and corruption exposing the deep distrust people have for those in power.

    To tackle the broader problem of farmer-herder clashes in Nigeria, recent studies call for effective systems to track livestock movement and trade, new strategies to curb illicit firearms, coherent political approaches to address rural insecurity, and policies that promote rural development and diversification.

    There’s little evidence of any of this happening in Zamfara.



    Hundreds have lost their lives this year as a fertile region descends into worsening conflict
    Zamfara: Nigeria’s wild northwest
  • First Person: Want to thwart human traffickers? Just add water

    Human trafficking in northeastern Nigeria is a topic I’ve written extensively about, but I didn't know how frequently traffickers targeted internally displaced persons camps until one day in January when I got a note about two girls who were setting off for Italy. Nor did I know that their story would prompt a seemingly simple move to decrease the risks of trafficking for IDP camp residents: providing more water.


    The girls had packed their bags and were about to leave an IDP camp in Madinatu, a town in Borno State home to some 5,000 people who fled Boko Haram violence. The camp is not far from the city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram. The girls were planning to travel southwards to Benin City to meet a woman who had promised them jobs as hairdressers in Italy. Abdul Ahmed, a member of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a vigilante group that helps the Nigerian military fight the Boko Haram insurgency, reached me through Facebook to tell me all this.


    He had read an article I had written a week earlier about a teenage girl who became a victim of human trafficking after escaping from Boko Haram. He asked if I would talk to Glory and Blessing (their names have been changed to protect their privacy), both 17, about the risks they were about to take and inform them that many women tempted by the prospect of work abroad end up exploited as sex workers.


    I pulled up that article he had read, attached another story I had written about human trafficking, and asked Abdul to print the document and give it to the girls to read. When they did, they jettisoned their travel plans and unpacked their bags.

    As I soon found out, they weren't the only girls who had met traffickers while fetching water.

    I met the pair a week later. Their story began during a daily trek out of the camp to fetch water.

    “The woman stopped us one morning just as we were approaching the borehole and asked if we knew how to cook or braid hair very well,” Glory recalled. “When we told her we could do both, she said she’ll take us to Italy to work in a saloon.”

    As I soon found out, they weren't the only girls who had met traffickers while fetching water.

    It was on a similar trip that 17-year-old Hadiza Bello – a resident of the Madinatu camp since Boko Haram attacked her hometown in 2016 – met a woman who asked her if she was interested in working as a maid in neighbouring Niger.


    Bello said she had declined the offer because she didn't want to move away from her sick mother. “If not for my mother's condition, I would have gone,” she told me. “It’s good I didn't go because I would have become a victim of trafficking.”

    Aisha Mohammed told me that her 16-year-old daughter, Fatima, left the camp to fetch water in June 2016 and never returned. The last time anyone saw the teenager, she was talking with some women she had met on the way to the borehole. Aisha believes her daughter was trafficked out of Nigeria.


    “She had told me a week before she went missing that some women wanted her to work in Niger,” Aisha told me. “Her friends who went along with her to fetch water said she stopped to have a conversation with women she appeared to have met before, while the other girls continued to the borehole.”

    The water challenge


    Getting clean water is a huge challenge for displaced people in northeast Nigeria. Last year UNICEF reported that 75 percent of water infrastructure in the region’s conflict-affected areas had been destroyed, effectively leaving 3.6 million people without water.

    In the Madinatu camp, a tanker provided by a humanitarian organisation delivers water daily. But the camp is the size of more than 20 football fields, so one tanker of water isn’t enough; many residents have no choice but to look elsewhere, and nearly 1,000 people trek to the borehole each day.

    Some 680,000 of the 1.7 million people displaced by Boko Haram violence in northeast Nigeria live in IDP camps, according to the government’s National Population Commission.

    Médecins Sans Frontières states that thousands of people, particularly women, are exposed to dangers when they venture outside IDP camps near the Borno towns of Gwoza and Pulka. Residents in those camps get a paltry five and eight litres of water a day respectively – far below the 50 litres per person recommended as minimum by the World Health Organization.

    Every year thousands of Nigerian women and children are taken to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Africa and forced into prostitution and involuntary domestic servitude.

    Leaving camps to search for water exposes IDPs “to all forms of violence”, Luis Eguiluz, MSF’s head of mission in Nigeria told me recently. “Because women are vulnerable, they can be easily exploited and sexually abused by people” who take advantage of their desperate situations.


    Every year thousands of Nigerian women and children are taken to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Africa and forced into prostitution and involuntary domestic servitude – some from IDP camps in and around Madinatu.

    Nigerian trafficking victims were identified in at least 40 countries, according to the 2018 United States Department of State “Trafficking in Persons Report.” The report states that sex trafficking “is a major concern across the northeast,” including in all IDP camps in and around Maiduguri.


    Philip Obaji Jr./IRIN
    Campaigners in Madinatu camp spread the word about the threat posed by traffickers.

    Raising awareness


    In search of a solution, I began speaking with survivors of human trafficking living in the Madinatu IDP camp, and local community leaders.


    Survivors include 15-year-old Nana Abdullahi, who escaped from her trafficker in Niger after he forced her into hard domestic labour. “He initially told me he was taking me to Kano [in northwest Nigeria] for a job, but we drove all the way to Niger,” Nana, who fled to Madinatu when Boko Haram invaded her hometown of Bama in 2014, told me.


    “When we got there he dumped me in a small house with so many other girls and ordered me to do all the house cleaning and cooking without paying me for it.”

    Thirty-five-year-old Maryam Haruna ended up in involuntary domestic servitude in Saudi Arabia after being told she was taking part in a pilgrimage.

    "When we arrived in Saudi Arabia I was told I needed to work to pay back what was spent on my trip," Haruna, who was deported in 2014 after more than two years there, told me. "I was paid peanuts, yet I worked like a slave from early morning to very late at night."

    Now, residents don’t need to leave the camp to fetch water. In April, I helped launch “Up Against Trafficking”, an advocacy and support group focused on educating displaced persons on human trafficking.

    “The more you hear these messages, the better prepared you are to take on traffickers.”

    To help protect women and children from traffickers, we provide clean water to the Madinatu camp daily by pumping water from a borehole just outside the camp to a standpipe within it. The property on which the borehole is located is owned by one of our founding members.

    Small donations from individuals support our group, helping to power fuel-running generators that pump the water and assisting survivors of human trafficking to start new lives, often businesses.

    Women and children tend to gather at the pumps in the camp, making them ideal spots for raising awareness about the dangers of trafficking. Every week, members of “Up Against Trafficking” are there to explain the tricks of human traffickers.


    One of our campaigners is Nana, the 15-year-old who escaped servitude in Niger. Speaking to a group of women at the borehole recently, she explained why raising awareness is important: “The more you hear these messages, the better prepared you are to take on traffickers.”

    First Person offers fresh and personal perspectives on crises. Please send submissions to [email protected]

    Near Nigeria’s displacement camps, rich hunting grounds for traffickers
    First Person: Want to thwart human traffickers? Just add water
    Obaji is a founding member of Nigeria’s “Up Against Trafficking” campaign
  • OPINION | The danger of a better-behaved Boko Haram

    Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadist group infamous for its bombings and abductions, is undergoing something of a makeover. A key faction that has the backing of so-called Islamic State has renounced its old blood-soaked ways and is trying instead to win hearts and minds in a new strategic twist to a nine-year insurgency that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.


    To be clear, Abubaker Shekau, the fearsome warlord made legendary by his ranting YouTube performances, has had no such change of heart.


    He considers everyone residing outside the “Daulah” – the zone of territory he controls – are “unbelievers”, and therefore legitimate targets of indiscriminate murder. It was partly on this ideological point that the movement split in August 2016 – a schism marked by vicious internecine fighting and the assassination of senior commanders on both sides.


    The new Boko Haram faction is led by Abu Mus'ab al-Barnawi and his military chief, Mamman Nur. They won the endorsement of IS, which dropped Shekau and picked al-Barnawi as the new “wali”, or governor, of Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).


    In a scathing “open letter” making the case for the division, Nur described Shekau as power drunk, murdering even close associates that oppose him, and reminded him that “takfir (excommunication) should not be dictated by you, because Islam is not your personal possession”.


    Shekau, in essence, is deemed too extreme even for IS. His suicide bombings of mosques and markets are seen as not only having dubious scriptural legitimacy, but as being strategically counterproductive – driving support away from the jihadist cause.


    The jihadist message that the Nigerian government presides over a corrupt, immoral, and unjust system – and that shariah Islamic law is the antidote – is not an alien concept.

    Al-Barnawi has sought to delineate that ideological difference with the recent release of a book, co-authored with his younger brother, entitled Cutting out the Tumour from the Khawarij (rebellion) of Shekau by the Allegiance Pledge of the People of Nobility.


    Both men are the sons of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and in the book make the case of how far Shekau has strayed from the teachings of their father. (Yusuf was extra-judicially killed by the police in 2009 after he ordered an insurrection in northeastern towns – an event that transformed the Salafist cult into a jihadist movement.)


    Never seemingly at ease with the allegiance he swore to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Shekau has resurrected his original Boko Haram label – the organisation’s full name is the "Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad” – and hides out somewhere in southern and central Borno State, in land bordering Sambisa Forest and emptying of people.


    Boko Haram-lite?


    ISWAP’s new public profile is quite different. They have cultivated the idea that they target solely the security forces, not civilians. Many stories are told of how, in ambushes, captured truck drivers have been taken to their camps, fed, and returned to the road unscathed.


    When ISWAP kidnapped 110 schoolgirls in February from Dapchi, Yobe State, Nigerians were stunned when the children were returned within two weeks (with the exception of the sole Christian, Leah Sharibu, and the five other girls killed in the raid).

    ISWAP said they had made a mistake in launching the operation, as kidnapping for ransom had been banned by IS central – especially the kidnap of Muslims (although it is still not clear that no money changed hands).


    But what shocked Nigerians even more was the celebration that greeted the ISWAP fighters as they returned the girls – with shaky cellphone images going viral of the escort being mobbed in the town’s main street.


    Rural Nigeria is generally a conservative place. The jihadist message that the Nigerian government presides over a corrupt, immoral, and unjust system – and that shariah Islamic law is the antidote – is not an alien concept.


    What people condemn is the killing of ordinary villagers by Shekau’s Boko Haram to achieve that end, and the tyrannical control exercised by his fighters.


    The propaganda war


    By contrast, ISWAP presents itself as the people’s champions. Al-Barnawi’s men are said to track and kill members of Boko Haram that murder civilians, and reportedly punishes his own fighters that rape.


    Although ISWAP taxes villagers, it is also said to undertake community projects like well-digging, aiming to build trust for the movement in the countryside. In the northern Borno region bordering Lake Chad that ISWAP controls, there are reports that it provides alms to internally displaced persons, and soft loans – a tactic once utilised by Boko Haram’s founder, Yusuf, to win converts.


    ISWAP is heavily invested in “dawah” (proselytisation) – using Telegram and other secure apps to spread its propaganda. In some government-run displacement camps – all of which are shockingly under-serviced – videos of sermons are surreptitiously shared, to lure people back to ISWAP-held areas. Some show images of well-fed people to counter the government’s narrative of hardship and horror.


    This message of well-being may not be entirely far-fetched. In the Lake Chad region, ISWAP is heavily involved in the lucrative fish and bell pepper market, sharing profits with the fishermen and farmers. Al-Barnawi himself is believed to be based on the Island of Tumbu Gini.


    Battlefield success


    Militarily, ISWAP has also proved its ability. It is believed to have been behind an ambush north of the town of Bama in which the Nigerian army reportedly lost 13 out of 16 vehicles in July. Two days later, its fighters overran a 700-man base in Jilli, close to the Chadian border.

    This then is the new challenge confronting the Nigerian government: how to uproot an insurgency that is seeking to embed itself in the community.

    This is not a group on its last legs, as the Nigerian government and military has so often insisted. Galled by the setbacks, the high command abruptly replaced the general in charge of the northeast theatre – the fourth change of commander in 14 months.


    ISWAP is local but also has a global jihadist connection. The IS link ties it to the insurgencies in Mali and Niger, helping to ensure a flow of weapons south. There are also persistent reports of foreign fighters appearing in its ranks.


    Northeast Nigeria is exhausted by conflict. But the less ISWAP looks like Shekau’s oppressive Boko Haram, and can provide some benefits to the rural population, then the greater the number of new recruits it is likely to attract – from fighters to spies.


    This then is the new challenge confronting the Nigerian government: how to uproot an insurgency that is seeking to embed itself in the community.


    The military’s current operation is called Last Hold – a reflection of the belief that the end is in sight. That confidence may, for the moment, be premature.

    (TOP PHOTO: A leaflet the Nigerian government has been distributing urging those displaced by Boko Haram to return home. CREDIT: Melissa Philips/IRIN)

    OPINION | The danger of a better-behaved Boko Haram
  • Meet “Baba IDP”: the local hero making sure Boko Haram victims get healthcare

    Since fleeing his home in Nigeria’s Borno State six years ago, retired civil servant Iddrisu Ibrahim Halilu has fought tirelessly on behalf of those who, like him, have been displaced by violence meted out by Boko Haram.

    Halilu, 62, is the health coordinator of a camp in the Durumi district of Abuja where some 3,000 people have made a temporary home. In all, the Boko Haram insurgency has claimed more than 20,000 lives and uprooted some 2.4 million people.

    Reed-thin with greying hair and a leathery face, Halilu is seen as a saviour by fellow residents. He spends much of his time trying to source funds to meet the urgent medical needs of people like motorbike-taxi driver Jafaru Ahmed, who suffered multiple fractures in a hit-and-run accident in April.

    Unable to pay for medical care, Ahmed was left largely unattended as he lay in a coma with badly swollen limbs in Abuja’s National Hospital. That was until Halilu facilitated his transfer to a cheaper facility, where he now receives much-needed treatment.


    Halilu’s work is never done: Ahmed may be in better shape, but other camp residents have varying degrees of medical needs. As health coordinator, he feels it is his duty to continue sourcing funds.


    People call him “Baba IDP” – father of internally displaced persons – a term of endearment that suits him.


    A widower who has outlived his own children, Halilu looks on his fellow displaced as his family now, and is deeply troubled by the frequent failure of his relentless fundraising efforts.


    The concentration of local and international health NGOs in Nigeria’s Boko Haram-ravaged northeast means problems in places like Abuja, even though it is the Nigerian capital, are often overlooked.


    ☰    READ MORE    Close to the ground: the push for ‘local aid’ in crises



    What is local aid?

    - The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.


    Who are local aid workers?

    - Local humanitarian aid may include local NGOs, civil society groups and community leaders, local governments, indigenous peoples, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises, including refugees and displaced people working to help their own communities.


    Why local aid?

    - The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response, by making it faster, more efficient, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, can access areas that international aid groups can’t reach, and know the needs of their own communities.

    - The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2017, the UN asked for a record $22.2 billion to cover emergencies in 33 countries.

    - This includes the crisis in northeast Nigeria, where conflict between the government and Boko Haram is in its ninth year. The UN says it needs more than $1 billion to bring aid to more than 6.1 million people in Nigeria. So far, less than half of this has been funded, but humanitarian needs continue to rise.


    Local NGOs, with little capacity to administer treatment, visit the camp occasionally, but international NGOs are largely absent. Contacted by IRIN, Phillips Aruna, country director for Médecins Sans Frontières, said the medical charity was not aware of the needs of IDPs in Abuja, and promised to investigate.


    A man on a mission


    Given the absence of a structured system, the burden of healthcare and advocacy for thousands of displaced people inevitably falls on the few educated members of the camp.


    Halilu studied at the University of Mogadishu in the 1970s, and it was in Somalia that he first came in contact with insurgents and violent extremists.


    When Boko Haram started spreading messages of hate in Maiduguri, his hometown, Halilu was outspoken against them and had to flee Borno State in 2009 after the group targeted him.


    Every day at 8am, Halilu reports at the secretariat of the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and IDPs in the capital, hoping against hope for an audience with the commissioner.


    He dons his usual garb: a blue-chequered waistcoat complete with the logo of “St Regis Secondary School” on top of a white-and-brown striped polo shirt.


    Pairing these with a red baseball cap or, occasionally, an embroidered fila (traditional hat), and sporting an unkempt, grey beard – Halilu always stands out from the crowd. Employees of the secretariat often point and whisper loudly, “Who is that man?” and “Why is he always here?” But the whispers matter little to him.


    Halilu has written dozens of letters to the commission, marked “SOS” and seeking financial assistance. When they go unanswered, an already-poor Halilu often resorts to taking out personal loans to make sure feed patients get fed.


    Shola Lawal/IRIN
    Halilu writes yet another letter at the commission's head office in Abuja.

    Across Abuja, more than 10,000 displaced persons face similarly poor health conditions. But they have to compete for attention and assistance with millions in the northeast: last year, thousands of IDPs in Borno State took to the streets to protest appalling living conditions, demanding for the freedom to return to Bama, their hometown.


    Debtors detained


    Doctors at Abuja’s National Hospital have grown weary of treating the IDPs Halilu brings in, especially as so few are able to pay. It is hospital practice to keep in patients who haven’t settled their bills, even after they’ve been healed.


    When IRIN caught up with him, Halilu was working to secure the release of one such patient.


    "I don’t know where to start the journey because I need money for the hospital bills,” Halilu said, frustration etched into his weathered face. He did not understand how the government could neglect IDPs who live just a few miles from Aso Rock, the presidential villa.


    “We can’t afford even 100 naira (28 US cents) [and] we are talking of bills of 100,000 naira, 200,000 naira,” he said.


    The National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and IDPs has not been forthcoming with financial aid despite a supposed 2017 agreement between the commission, the IDPs, and the National Hospital in Abuja.


    National Hospital spokesman Tayo Haastrup said the commissioner, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouk, had failed to make good on a verbal commitment she gave last year to pay IDP medical bills.


    “We wrote to the commission, stating that the IDPs had a bill of over five million naira to pay, but they wrote back [saying] that they are not aware of what we are saying,’’ Haastrup said. “They (the refugee commission) should support us, they should even pay money in advance for their care.”


    The commission failed to respond to IRIN’s request for comment.


    Cramped conditions


    Halilu explained how diseases spread easily as the camp’s batchas – makeshift shelters fashioned from flimsy tarpaulin sheets and old cement sacks – are so close together.


    Last year, a mysterious sickness characterised by persistent coughing ran quickly through the camp, particularly affecting children.


    Halilu’s batcha is built near a refuse dump, where residents defecate in the open for lack of sufficient latrines. Inside it, beneath the many books he has left open and a single mattress, are paperboards – a flimsy attempt to keep rainwater at bay.


    The onset of rains, which run from June to September and are forecast to be especially heavy this year, has made things even worse in Abuja’s camps and led to an outbreak of cholera.


    “Be Human. Defend the Undefended. Help the Helpless.”

    Umaru Gola, a smallish man in his forties with a tribal mark that runs diagonally from the bridge of his nose to his left cheek, is just recovering from a bout of the disease.


    When Boko Haram attacked Gwoza, a district of Borno, in August 2014, Gola’s four siblings and parents were among those killed. He himself only escaped the massacre by chance.


    Gola used to own three stores in Gwoza. “I was running a business of almost 15 million naira. Now, I don’t have [even] 100,000 naira,” he said.

    To keep himself busy, Gola now focuses on his job as the camp’s spokesperson.


    “Look at all our batcha now: if you throw a cup of water on [the roof] and go inside you will see the water in the room,” Gola said. The materials used to make the huts have gone up in price, putting running repairs out of the reach of many camp residents.


    Gola had hoped that in a camp in the capital, right under the nose of the president, he and his young family would be able to safely get on with life after Boko Haram.


    But what little sense of security they’ve managed to hold on to is now threatened by the unsanitary health conditions.


    “If you look around,” Gola said, gesturing towards the camp, “most of our problems [are related to] the health [situation].”


    Shola Lawal/IRIN
    The health ministry visits the camp for the first time to administer malaria treatment and treated nets. The nets provided were only 500, yet IDPs number over 3,000 in Durumi camp.



    A few months ago, Halilu took a few camp residents to the hospital to donate blood. To his shock, all of them tested positive for hepatitis B, a potentially deadly liver infection that can be passed on through contact with blood and other bodily fluids.


    When a local NGO tested the rest of the camp’s population, they found around 60 percent of them were infected.


    According to Halilu, the government hasn’t made available any vaccines, which are 95 percent effective in preventing infection. Yet, he is certain the commissioner is aware of the outbreak, as he informed her in one of his many letters.


    The shelves of the small camp clinic are empty and the doctor who volunteers to treat residents visits only occasionally. Poor case-surveillance and documentation mean those infected with the virus continue to mix freely with the larger population, putting thousands at risk, according to Halilu.


    A health ministry official who chose to be identified only as Comfort told IRIN the ministry wasn’t aware of the outbreak and said residents should complain directly to the ministry.


    When Halilu first arrived in Abuja six years ago he had hoped to meet the interior minister to raise the plight of those affected by Boko Haram. The minister was unavailable, so he wrote him a letter. Since then, he hasn’t stopped writing, to anyone he thinks can help.


    He sends copies to the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, the health minister, the UN’s refugee agency, even the president. When he visits the commission in person, he is told to put his complaint in writing, so he writes another letter.


    Everywhere he goes, Baba IDP is armed and ready to fire off further missives, carrying sheafs of paper topped with a typed letterhead of his own devising: “INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS” in bold capitals. Underneath is a simple entreaty: “Be Human. Defend the Undefended. Help the Helpless.”



    Broken promises leave thousands of Nigeria’s displaced unable to cover costs
    Meet “Baba IDP”: the local hero making sure Boko Haram victims get healthcare
  • Destination Europe: Desperation

    As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.

    Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Libya's southern borders


    The first time Ousmane Bah was abandoned in the desert, it was June 2017. Five of the people he was with died. He was 21 years old and had left his home in Guinea a couple of months earlier, after his father was killed in a flare-up of political violence. Ousmane was afraid the killers would come for him next, so he decided to try to escape to Europe, where, he said, “they respect the law and human rights”.


    Guinea is part of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, which has a visa-free travel arrangement for citizens of its 15 member countries. As Ousmane crossed borders on commercial buses, no one asked to see his passport or questioned him about where he was going. It was easy progress, that is until he reached the city of Agadez in Niger.


    Agadez has long been a hub for regional migration. Following the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, it became the gateway for people travelling from West Africa to Europe via Libya. As hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants began to arrive on European shores, the EU began searching for ways to stem the flow. On the route from West Africa, that effort focused on Agadez. Six months before Ousmane arrived in the city, the government of Niger had begun enforcing a law that criminalised the irregular movement of people to Libya.


    The EU-backed crackdown on irregular migration has not so much stopped the movement of people from Niger to Libya as forced it underground. A recent report by the research initiative REACH found that, since the beginning of 2017, there has been a diversification of the routes that people take to arrive in Libya, in large part due to the restrictions introduced in Niger. “Key informants” cited in the study – who included law enforcement officials, local leaders, activists, smugglers, and humanitarian aid workers – reported that “they had not witnessed a decrease in arrivals of refugees and migrants from the southern borders.”


    The view of those on the ground in Agadez is that tighter security has made the journey more difficult and dangerous. Migrants end up stuck in stark living conditions for months while they search for a way forward; drivers take riskier routes through the desert; and the number of people abandoned during the trip has increased. Facing such obstacles, some people give up and go home. But others still risk everything – even death – to get one step closer to Europe.


    Because the migration business has been pushed underground, there’s no way to tell how many migrants are stuck in Agadez while searching for a way to Libya. At the beginning of March, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned of increasing humanitarian needs and “thousands” of stranded people. Local government officials say that the population of the city – around 120,000 according to a 2012 census – has doubled, or even tripled, in the past couple of years in part because of stranded migrants. But there are no reliable statistics.


    “I only thought about death”


    Temperatures in the desert around Agadez soar to around 55 C (130 F). There is no protection from the elements, and the trip across the barren landscape to the Libyan border takes three to four days. Still, being abandoned once didn’t discourage Ousmane from trying again.


    The first time, the driver who was taking him had been spooked when he heard that a military patrol was close by. He told the 25 people in the back of the pickup truck to get out and then sped off across the sand. “He wanted to escape because when [the military] catch drivers they go to jail,” Ousmane explained.


    For the next day and night, the group was alone with only a little bit of water they had carried with them. It soon ran out. Three young boys and two older men died from the heat and dehydration. “I thought I was going to die,” Ousmane said. “For 24 hours, I only thought about death.”

    In a stroke of luck, a French military patrol from a base close to the Libyan border found Ousmane and the other survivors and brought them to safety.


    Three months later, Ousmane tried again. He left Agadez with 20 other people, including nine women and two small children. When they stopped for a rest, the driver told the passengers that he was going to a nearby town to get gas and food. “He took the vehicle with him [and] left us, just like that,” Ousmane said. The driver never came back.


    “As far as you could see, there was nothing,” Ousmane continued, his voice rising as he described the empty expanse of sand that surrounded him. “The only thing you could do was cover your head with your clothing to provide some shade.”


    One day stretched into two, and then three and four. Again, Ousmane thought he was going to die. But on the fifth day, a trading caravan appeared on the horizon. Ousmane was rescued. Miraculously, this time, no one died.


    1 / 3

    Smuggler pickup trucks impounded by the Niger military.
    2 / 3

    Smuggler pickup trucks impounded by the Niger military.
    3 / 3

    Smuggler pickup trucks impounded by the Niger military.



    Forced into more dangerous routes


    The route from Agadez to Libya has always been dangerous. The desert is difficult to navigate, the environment unforgiving. If a lone pickup goes off course or breaks down, there is little hope its passengers will survive. Even before the anti-smuggling law, the corpses of abandoned migrants were found from time to time. People who reached Europe often told stories about callous drivers who left passengers to die when they fell out as the trucks bounced over the uneven terrain.


    For the EU, these stories are evidence that the migration business must be stopped: as long as it continues, the argument goes, migrants will be subjected to abuse by smugglers. But critics say that EU-supported policies are intensifying, not mitigating, the dangers and making the route to Libya even more deadly.


    ☰ READ MORE: EU migration policies in brief


    1. Discrediting of Search & Rescue NGOs:


    In 2016, NGOs operating boats to rescue asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy were celebrated as heroes. By the following summer, these same organisations were under attack from European politicians who levelled unsubstantiated claims that the NGOs created a pull factor for irregular migration and colluded with smugglers. In July last year, Italy introduced a ‘code of conduct’ aimed at curtailing the activities of search and rescue NGOs that caused a number of them to stop their activities. The new Italian government, which took office in June, has repeatedly blocked NGO boats carrying people rescued from the sea from docking at Italian ports, precipitating a new political crisis in Europe over migration.


    2. Training & Equipping the Libyan Coast Guard


    The EU and Italy began training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, despite it being linked to smuggling activities and implicated in human rights abuses. The goal of the programme was to increase the coast guard’s capacity to intercept migrant and refugee boats at sea and return their passengers to Libya. The programme has paid dividends this year as the rate of interception and return has increased dramatically and the Italians have favoured the Libyan Coast Guard over search and rescue NGOs while coordinating the response to distress calls at sea. People intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken to detention centres in Libya where they are held indefinitely.


    3. Co-opting militias


    July 2017 was a turning point in the central Mediterranean. The number of people crossing from Libya to Italy was at an all time high, on pace to surpass 2016’s record of 181,000. Then, on 16 July, the number suddenly and dramatically dropped. In the following weeks, reports trickled out about the Italian government paying off militias involved in smuggling to switch their activities and begin policing the coast against departures. The Italian government denied the reports, but they have since been widely corroborated. As a result of this policy, and the increased activity of the Libyan Coast Guard, the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants to Italy has decreased by nearly 78 percent this year compared to last.


    4.  Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration


    European policies to curb migration led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being held in Libya’s overcrowded and nominally official detention centres. Irregular entry into Libya is criminalised and there are no courts set up in the country to handle migration related cases so people who are detained are held for indefinite periods of time. By October 2017, there were an estimated 20,000 people in migration detention in Libya. Since then, according to the latest data released in March, the UN’s migration body, the International Organization for Migration, has facilitated the return of just over 10,000 people to their countries of origin through an EU funded initiative called Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, or AVRR for short. IOM emphasises the voluntary nature of the programme, but critics say it cannot be considered truly voluntary when the only choices are to remain in detention or return home. For more on this, read the first part of this series: “Homecoming”.


    5. UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Mechanism


    For refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Libya, returning to countries of origin where their lives could be in danger is not an option. At the end of September 2017, the EU announced it would fund a programme, organised by UNHCR, for the emergency evacuation and resettlement of people who fit into this category. So far, just under 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya to Niger, but in seven months only 174 people have been resettled to Europe.


    Since the anti-smuggling law was put in place, the International Organization for Migration has recorded a “marked increase” in the number of migrants abandoned in the desert. Military patrols now monitor water wells and the most direct routes to the border, forcing drivers and their passengers deeper into the desert. Among former and current smugglers and local government officials in Agadez, it is common knowledge that the fear of arrest is resulting in drivers abandoning their passengers when they suspect a military patrol is close by.


    It is impossible to know just how many people have died in the desert as a result. But more than 6,500 have been rescued by EU-funded, IOM-coordinated search and rescue missions since October 2016 – around the same time the Nigerien government began enforcing the anti-smuggling law. “What’s the percentage of those saved compared to those who didn’t make it? We don’t know,” Alberto Preato, an IOM programme manager in Niger, said. “The desert is enormous.”


    Life in the ghetto


    Back in Agadez, survivors of failed desert crossings – and people trying to reach Libya for the first time – end up stuck in difficult conditions while they search for a way out. The tallest structure in the city is a centuries-old, eight-storey, mud-packed minaret. Most of the other buildings are low compounds surrounded by seven- to eight-foot tall red-brown walls. Each compound is like a small fort, with its outer walls concealing what’s inside.


    In the sprawling western suburbs of the city, where the roads are made of deeply rutted dirt and many homes have no electricity or water, a number of these compounds house migrants. People in Agadez call them ghettos. Before the law, their existence was accepted, but running a ghetto now can land someone in jail. Owners must either pay bribes to the police to turn a blind eye or migrants must play a game of cat and mouse to avoid being caught.


    Ousmane was staying in one of these compounds towards the end of March. Police had raided it the day before. He sat on reed mats on a dirt floor surrounded by graffiti-covered walls while sharing his story. There was no running water, electricity, or furniture in the house – only a small gas burner and a collection of battered pans stacked against one wall. Young men from various West African countries trickled in in their twos and threes; clothes dirt-stained and ripped. They didn’t all come at once, they said, because they were suspicious that a visitor might have been part of a police trap and wanted to minimise their chances of all being caught.


    In total, there were around 17 people staying in the ghetto. Several were clearly boys under the age of 18. “There are a lot of us who have been picked up by the police,” Ousmane said.


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Ousmane Bah, now 22, in a ghetto of Agadez.

    The anti-smuggling law criminalises the migration business, not people migrating. So Ousmane and the others aren’t technically breaking the law by being in Agadez. That, apparently, doesn’t stop the police from detaining them for two to three days when they are caught. “We spend the night here, and at 2 a.m., if the cops arrive, we leave running, only wearing our shorts, and then have to sneak back in like thieves,” Ousmane said.


    By March, this had been his life in Agadez for close to a year. He had paid $700 to the smugglers who abandoned him in the desert and was out of money. Even if he could afford it, he wasn’t sure he would want to try to reach Libya again after his two close calls. Returning home also wasn’t an option, though. He was still afraid of his father’s killers and had applied for refugee status with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. After five months of waiting without news, he grew impatient and gave up.


    Some of the young men and boys in the ghetto were still trying to reach Libya and Europe. Others had given up. In mid-May, Ousmane ended up trying to cross the desert again. This time, he made it to Libya and was in Tripoli trying to find a way to cross the sea.


    Returning home as last resort


    Perhaps the best indication of just how effective the crackdown on smuggling has been is the number of people participating in IOM’s programme for assisted voluntary return. The programme – funded by the EU – helps migrants who decide to go back, for whatever reason, return to their home countries. In 2015 – the year before the anti-smuggling law came into effect – IOM assisted just over 1,700 people to return home from northern Niger. In 2017, the number jumped to more than 7,000. So far this year, IOM has already facilitated the return of over 5,000 people.


    Some of the people opting to return made it to Libya and ended up in detention centres or were forced into slavery. After escaping, they returned to Niger, according to Preato, the IOM programme manager. Others were rescued in the desert or ended up stuck in Agadez. Still others went to Algeria in search of work and were dumped in the desert north of Agadez after being caught up in what Human Rights Watch has described as a “wave of deportations” carried out by the Algerian government. Regardless, the decision to go home is usually an absolute last resort.


    Alasan Bah’s story is typical.


    One afternoon in March, Bah, a 33-year-old from Gambia, was outside an IOM centre in Agadez. He was sitting on a cinder block in the shadow of a wall doing the best he could to avoid the heat. About 15 other people were gathered around in the dust. All of them were waiting to return to their countries.


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    The IOM centre in Agadez.

    Alasan had left Gambia two years earlier, in March 2016. He had been working in a restaurant, but was frustrated by what felt like a dead-end job. “The salary was from hand to mouth. That’s why I left,” he said. “I decided to find greener pastures outside.”


    His search for better opportunity took him to Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, and finally Algeria. “This bad road to Europe was not my intention,” he said. Instead, he was one of many young Africans migrating within the continent. But, after two years he was giving up.


    “You cannot just keep working as a donkey,” he said. “I was looking for my chance, but I can see that it is not easy. That is why I am returning to my country.”


    Alasan wanted to start a small business buying and selling goods when he got home, but he didn’t even have enough money to pay for his own bus ticket back. Almost two months later, he was back in Gambia. “Many people and other members of the family [are] saying I am a loser, calling me all such names, because I come home empty-handed,” he wrote in a text message. “Every day, life is getting hard. No work. So survival is not easy.”


    For many, starting from scratch while facing the ostracisation that comes with going home empty-handed is not an acceptable option.


    Better to risk it than die poor


    On an oppressively hot evening at the end of March, a 31-year-old from Sierra Leone who asked to be called Mousa sat at a table outside of a hotel in the Nigerien capital, Niamey. An diesel generator whirred in the background as he told the story of how his attempt to reach Europe stalled even before he could make it to Agadez.


    Mousa was born in one of Sierra Leone’s richest diamond-producing regions, but the profits from the trade didn’t benefit the local population. His education was interrupted by the civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, and he wasn’t able to continue after his first year of primary school.


    Mousa’s opportunity to escape poverty came during the Ebola epidemic. His big break? A job with the Red Cross burying the bodies of people who had died from the virus. “We buried more than 20 to 25 people per day – women and children,” Mousa said.


    The job paid well enough for him to save some money – money he used to buy a taxi that he hoped would give him a good source of income when the epidemic finally ended. By the time he realised the taxi had a faulty engine, it was too late. He didn’t have enough cash left to afford repairs. That was the last straw. “I decided to leave,” he said. “Each time when you start rising, you’re going to fall and you don’t have someone that can assist you.”


    He was also frustrated by Sierra Leone’s political class, which he said enriched itself from corruption instead of creating opportunity and a social safety net for the poor. “We look at all these things and we say: ‘Here is not a place to live.’ So we have to go and find another place,” Mousa said.


    Before leaving Sierra Leone, Mousa already knew about the crackdown on migration in Agadez and the dangers of crossing the desert. He had heard the reports about slavery, kidnapping, and torture in Libya and the stories of shipwrecks and people drowning in the Mediterranean. He even knew about the hostility directed towards African migrants in Europe. None of it deterred him. The way he saw it, he was born poor in Africa, and if he stayed on the continent, he would die poor, too. Compared to that fate, the risks involved in trying to reach Europe seemed worth it – regardless of the obstacles the EU tried to place in his way.


    “Either you die or… you make it,” Mousa said.



    Next in Destination Europe: Deportation

    The arrival in Agadez of the Sudanese – most driven from their homes in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur more than a decade ago – signalled something new: it was the first time a group of refugees and asylum seekers had travelled south from Libya in search of protection instead of north towards Europe. Once the first group arrived, more kept coming – until there were around 2,000. European policies have led to a nearly 78 percent drop in the number of people crossing the sea from Libya to Italy since July last year, but the fact that the Sudanese were compelled to head back to Agadez and that their tense reception ultimately resulted in the deportation of 132 people back to Libya speaks to a broader truth: the international refugee protection system is failing.

    Read the previous instalments in this special report:

    Destination Europe: Homecoming

    Destination Europe: Evacuation

    Destination Europe: Frustration

    Nearly dying in the Sahara doesn’t deter some migrants from trying again and again to reach Europe
    Destination Europe: Desperation
  • First Person: Two nearly identical cases of sex abuse; two very different responses

    Arria, 16, lives in a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri, the Nigerian city at the centre of Boko Haram’s insurgency. She fled her village two years ago when insurgents attacked, losing her family as she fled. She has no money, and seldom enough to eat. Nine months ago, a soldier guarding the camp followed her to her tent. He told her she would be his “friend” and that he would look after her. He visited her regularly at night, sometimes bringing food, money, or gifts. Three months ago, Arria discovered she was pregnant. On his next visit, she told the soldier her news. She hasn’t seen him since.


    I worked on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse in northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. With 1.7 million people displaced and 8.5 million in need of humanitarian aid, the population is highly vulnerable to abuse.


    “Sexual exploitation and abuse” – the term for abuse by humanitarian aid workers over their beneficiaries, including through exchanging food, money, or aid for sex – has garnered significant public attention. Following international outcry over some highly publicised cases (including the abuse of children by peacekeepers in Central African Republic and recent reports of exploitation in Haiti) aid organisations have taken steps to combat sexual exploitation and abuse — known in the humanitarian sector as SEA. Dedicated funding has been sourced, targeted programmes and task forces established, experts flown in. Suspected cases of SEA are investigated, perpetrators held accountable and assistance provided to their victims – persons seen as wronged by the humanitarian system at large.


    SEA has become a category unto itself, with its response often separated from other types of gender violence – or from violence perpetrated by soldiers or others present in humanitarian settings, who are not employed by humanitarian organisations.


    It is here, I feel, that we have lost our way. In frantic – often externally imposed – interventions that detach SEA from wider gender violence, we are failing to address the roots of this problem in a way that can truly prevent women from being harmed. In the programmatic streamlining, we’ve lost sight of the basic message that men should not harm women, period, and that harm, by any men, must be dealt with.


    Double standards


    Hired by a humanitarian organisation in Nigeria to put measures in place to prevent and respond to SEA, I toured the sites where those fleeing Boko Haram are encamped. I asked camp women about sexual exploitation: “Who is perpetrating it?” “Where is it happening?” They all said the same thing: Sexual exploitation is happening, extensively. And, frequently, soldiers are the perpetrators.


    I heard countless stories of soldiers with camp “girlfriends”, whom they repaid with gifts and food. I heard of a ring sneaking girls out of a camp to a nearby hotel to sexually service armed men. I was told of screening sites, where those responsible said, “Unless you sleep with me, I will mark you down as being Boko Haram and you will be imprisoned.” It’s an issue that is known about and reported on. Yet, I was there to address SEA by humanitarian workers – not by military personnel. Exploitation by soldiers was not categorised as SEA, so did not fall under my mandate.


    What complicates matters is that in northeast Nigeria, the military is intrinsically involved in the provision of aid. Humanitarian convoys travel with mandatory military escorts. Soldiers guard displaced persons camps. A military-affiliated civilian vigilante group guards aid distributions and ensures order. Security personnel are present in the camps, taking part in humanitarian actions, with access to beneficiary populations. Surely, if military personnel are involved in humanitarian-type roles, to the extent that they exploit these roles, this should be treated as SEA?


    The opposite approach is often taken. In Nigeria, sexual exploitation, when perpetrated by military personnel, is not considered SEA, but regarded as “regular” gender-based violence. There’s a system in place to refer, investigate, report, and act on SEA cases involving humanitarians. Cases with non-humanitarian (i.e. military) perpetrators do not fall under that system. Instead, they are to be dealt with by organisations and bodies engaging in “regular” gender-violence work – who, amongst other things, should report soldiers’ abuse to the military, for it to address internally.


    In practice, however, exploitation cases by soldiers are seldom dealt with by the humanitarian sector, as there are far too many cases and (while serious cases of rape might be reported) the military is too complex an institution to even know where to begin reporting a case of a soldier with a camp “girlfriend”. Some work is being done with the military, advocating for improved response, reporting and investigating on abuse by soldiers, yet this remains at an early stage.


    The practical results felt unsatisfying.


    One day, I travelled to a camp to investigate a series of reports. Each case had almost identical narratives: a desperately poor camp woman had begun a relationship with a man in some position of power. Some of the men worked for aid organisations, some for camp management, some for armed forces. Each woman was now pregnant.


    Those women whose “lovers” were humanitarians we could help; we could ensure the cases were investigated and perpetrators disciplined, and we could support the provision of assistance for them and their unborn children. Those who were involved with soldiers, we could not help – we did not have a workable system to engage the military on these cases, and the women were not entitled to assistance, since it hadn’t been the humanitarian sector that had wronged them. Almost identical stories – yet some women were helped, some not. The distinction felt random.


    Some of the most shameful incidents of SEA have involved peacekeepers deployed on UN missions. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations has taken this on, training soldiers on rules of sexual conduct and putting preventative measures in place. But peacekeepers are just national soldiers on deployment abroad. So, if a soldier sleeps with an aid beneficiary while abroad, it is SEA, triggering the full humanitarian bells and whistles. If he performs that same act while stationed at home, it’s not SEA and is scarcely dealt with. By failing to address this issue from both ends, we cannot produce armed troops, both at home or abroad, who are truly clear about ethical sexual behaviour.                                     

    Too many labels


    The humanitarian field loves classifications – nowhere more than in the gender violence world. We have normal “gender-based violence” – including domestic violence or rape – in both peacetime and emergencies.


    During conflicts and disasters, the “gender-based violence in emergencies”,  or GBViE, folk step in. Sexual violence perpetrated by military personnel in wartime might be labelled “conflict-related sexual violence”. Each category comes with dedicated funding and targeted programming. Yet each is limited in its scope. With programming silos come gaps – meaning cases of violence that fall between intervention cracks.


    Critical issues are being sidestepped through the use of technical classifications.


    Those of us who work on gender violence are there to ensure women’s protection – regardless of who is trying to hurt them. We need to stop this move towards gender violence classification and sub-classification – which is ultimately not a helpful way to address women’s protection. We need to move away from programming silos focussed on perpetrators and their acts, and instead focus on victims and their harm. Women who have been attacked should never be denied assistance because of the identity of their attacker.


    There is no consensus on whether soldiers can perpetrate SEA. To me, anyone carrying out a humanitarian role, present in the humanitarian space, who has access to and power over humanitarian beneficiaries can perpetrate SEA.


    Organisations must develop strategies to prevent sexual exploitation by all – not just by their own staff. Cases with perpetrators who don’t work for humanitarian organisations must also be investigated, reported, and followed up. A woman should never need to trade sex for food, be it with a humanitarian worker, soldier, or neighbour. Each of these situations – and the circumstances that make women desperate enough to engage in them – should be treated with the same levels of outrage, response, and intervention.

    First Person offers fresh and personal perspectives on crises. Please send submissions to [email protected]

    First Person: Two nearly identical cases of sex abuse; two very different responses
    In humanitarian settings, all men are not treated equally when it comes to harming women

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