(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Syria-Jordan: relief convoy fails to reach “desperate” border camp

    A convoy of relief supplies for 45,000 Syrians trapped between the closed Jordanian border and Syrian government front lines did not arrive on Thursday as planned, a UN spokesperson told IRIN. But even if it had, civilians in the isolated no-man’s land camp of Rukban would largely continue to remain cut off from aid, commercial shipments of food, and medical care, in an area where officials and health workers say hunger, disease, and sexual abuse are on the rise.

     

    While the UN no longer lists any part of Syria as “besieged” and classifies Rukban as “hard-to-reach”, a senior aid official familiar with the camp told IRIN that the situation there has “never been as bad as now.”

     

    “It’s hell,” that person added. “It’s very hard to put words on it.” A senior official with another aid organisation said the camp, which began forming in late 2014 after Jordan closed its border to most asylum seekers, is “de facto besieged.” Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve sensitive working relationships.

     

    Iolanda Jaquemet, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told IRIN that “prices of basic commodities inside the camp are skyrocketing, food supplies precarious, and reportedly deaths are rising due to the living conditions and lack of health care.”

     

    The UN’s humanitarian negotiator for Syria, Jan Egeland, confirmed earlier this month that a “trickle” of trade that had kept the informal camp supplied from the Syrian side had been cut off, making it “one of the most desperate places in Syria.” Aid workers say the reduced commercial trade with the rest of Syria has increased tension and cut food supplies.

     

    ‘Under siege’

     

    Activists charge that the trade blockade is a deliberate move by the Bashar al-Assad government. Laila Kiki, executive director of advocacy group The Syria Campaign, said “Rukban has been under siege by the regime for months.”

     

    A UN World Food Programme spokesperson, Herve Verhoosel, said Friday that the convoy “had not started” but that efforts continue to get it on the road.

    “The big problem is that nobody cares.”

    Last week Egeland told reporters “we have been assured that we will have all the green lights and the permits from the government in Damascus to send a convoy with food, with health and sanitation equipment.” The UN and the Red Cross/Red Crescent have been unsuccessfully negotiating with the Syrian government for access to the no-man’s-land border area, known as the “berm”, since 2016.

     

    Civilians in Rukban have received almost no international relief supplies since January, when Jordan permitted food shipments to be dropped across the border by crane. Jordan refuses to allow further supplies to cross its border, saying the camp is Syria’s responsibility. Syria-based aid agencies have been unable to deliver supplies for want of security clearances from armed groups and permissions from the Damascus government.

     

    “History will judge us”

     

    Medical care has also been jeopardised recently. A UNICEF statement noted that two babies who could not be transported to hospital died in early October. The statement about the deaths noted that “history will judge us and the death of children, preventable in many cases, will continue to chase us.”

     

    A resident of the camp, who requested anonymity due to security concerns, said a new arrival date for the delayed convoy had not been announced and that in any case a single shipment would not be of much use. “If these supplies come only one time, what will happen to us after one month, or after 15 days, or after two months? If it’s coming just one time, we don’t need it.”

     

    This month, Russian media reported that Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said he had “serious talks with Russia on the de-establishment of that camp [Rukban]”. Safadi was reported as saying its dispersal would send a signal to Syrian refugees in Jordan that things are improving at home.

     

    For months, Russia has said it was working on proposals to evacuate fighters and civilians from Rukban. IRIN has obtained a 5 September letter and map dated August that were prepared by Russia and proposed a negotiated evacuation of armed opposition and civilians from Rukban. Rebel fighters are mixed in with civilians at the camp. However that plan seems to have stalled in October, triggering the restrictions on trade.

     

    As one of the senior aid officials who spoke to IRIN described the situation, “the big problem is that nobody cares.” The lives of people at Rukban seem, according to that person, to be seen as “completely dispensable” by all parties that could take action.

     

    Water and a modest clinic

     

    Jordan, which already hosts more than 670,000 Syrian refugees, has refused to admit additional refugees or allow anything more than occasional aid deliveries to cross from its territory into Rukban after a suicide attack coming from the camp area struck a Jordanian border post in 2016. Safadi said last year that Rukban was Syria’s responsibility. According to the state news agency, Petra, he said any aid “must be delivered through Syrian territory”.

     

    Clean water is piped to standpipes across the berm – an earth ridge that marks the border. There are no regular food deliveries. A modest clinic funded by UN agencies is accessible at a service area on the Jordanian side of the border.

     

    Because aid officials and journalists are generally banned from entering the berm area, accounts of medical care offer one of the few sources of reliable information about conditions in the camp. Journalists and aid workers monitor the situation from Jordan and Damascus via phone and text messages, and speak with camp residents who reach the clinic inside the Jordanian border.

     

    One of the senior aid officials, who had recently spoken with camp residents at the clinic, said many are “desperate to leave” but don't have money, transport, or a safe destination.

     

    About 250 camp residents are treated daily at the clinic, which is operated by the Jordan Health Aid Society (JHAS), funded by UN agencies. Patients must trek several kilometres on foot to the heavily defended border and then undergo security screening, managed by Jordanian security forces and the allied Syrian militia, the Tribal Army.

    A collection of pre-fabricated units installed in the Jordanian desert host the "service area" and a clinic serving the Rukban camp. A converted truck-trailer serves as a delivery centre for women giving birth.


    JHAS President Yaroup Ajlouni told IRIN he believed conditions were worsening in the camp but said the number of patients had not increased, perhaps because it is difficult to reach the clinic. “I think more cases cannot reach the service area,” he said. The most common conditions treated at the clinic are complicated pregnancies, upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhoea, malnutrition, and trauma.

     

    Jordan allows patients with critical conditions to be treated in Jordanian hospitals before being returned to the camp. Each case requires explicit medical referrals and permission from national security officials in the capital, and hours of delay have become common, aid workers told IRIN.

     

    Ajlouni denied this last point, saying the clinic referred about four cases a day to Jordanian hospitals and that the process happens “so quickly”.

     

    Citing delays and official reluctance to allow patients to reach hospital, the second aid official, who had also spoken with camp residents, said at least three women in the camp had died in pregnancy or childbirth since August. The referral process is “ridiculous” and not practical, the official said. “I struggle to see” the threat that babies or a woman “with a baby coming out of her” could possibly pose to national security, the official added. While statistics are not available and details impossible to confirm, the camp resident also told the aid official that “many pregnant women die here because they need surgery and there is no way to take them to the hospital.”

     

    ‘Hidden stories’ of abuse

     

    In addition to inadequate or delayed medical treatment, stories of rape, sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as underage marriage have emerged from the camp. The cases that make it to the JHAS clinic give a partial picture of what is happening. The two senior aid officials familiar with the situation said such cases were on the rise.

     

    The JHAS president, Ajlouni, said “we hear about sex for food.” And last year, he said, a nine-year-old boy was treated for an anal tear allegedly resulting from a rape. Financial pressure pushes parents to marry off young girls, as a wedding elicits a dowry payment and staying single may make girls more vulnerable to assault. A 14-year-old recently gave birth at the clinic, one of the aid officials said. Ajlouni said he estimated early marriage trends by monitoring requests for contraceptive pills from women who asked for more prescriptions than they needed.

     

    Aljouni cautioned that the full scale of abuse at Rukban was unlikely to ever come to light. “Many hidden stories” would not be told given the lawlessness of Rukban, he said. As he explained: “Do you think a woman can tell? Who will punish the guilty man? If the man is a militia and he knows that she has told a story to the UN? Can the UN protect a woman inside the camp?”

     

    Aid stalemate

     

    Various parties to the Syrian war have vocally blamed each other for the conditions at the camp; negotiations to secure passage for aid are unusually complicated.

     

    A typical relief convoy due to cross Syrian front lines would travel with assurances of safe passage from government and opposition armed groups. Paperwork and inspection of cargo could be demanded at multiple checkpoints. In the case of the planned UN/Red Crescent convoy, however, the journey across front lines also may require that the convoy be vetted by American forces as well as Damascus.

     

    The US base al-Tanf (pronounced at-Tanf) straddles the main road connecting the camp to the rest of Syria and to Iraq and is less than 25 km from the Rukban camp. A spokesperson for the US-led coalition, which is fighting so-called Islamic State, told IRIN that the US intended to verify the relief trucks en route, to “check the security of the [convoy] transport as a precaution but without delay.”

     

    The US has established a “deconfliction zone” within a radius of 55 kilometres around the desert base, and a rebel group it backs called Maghaweir al-Thowra (Commandos of the Revolution) also operates from there. It says US deployment and support to Syrian militia are part of the fight against so-called Islamic State – but are also a bulwark against Iranian influence.

     

    A convoy would also need to contend with armed criminal, rebel, and extremist groups that are active in and around Rukban. The Tribal Army, a militia that has good relations with Jordan, is also present there.

     

    Russia blames the US for blocking humanitarian access and evacuations. The Maghaweir al-Thowra says they are ready to help, and blame Damascus for blocking food and aid.

     

    The US coalition spokesperson told IRIN: “Rukban is a humanitarian tragedy right now, and while not an area of military operations for the coalition, definitely an area of concern from the human perspective.”

     

    One of the senior aid officials interviewed by IRIN described the situation at Rukban even more starkly, calling it “a breakdown of human decency.” Permitting it to continue indicates “no respect for human life”.

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    Aid official says ‘nobody cares’ about 45,000 trapped Syrians
    Syria-Jordan: relief convoy fails to reach “desperate” border camp
  • Three charts on US funding cuts for Palestinian refugees

    The UN agency for Palestinian refugees needs to find about $350 million a year if the United States pulls all its funding, as threatened. With social services at risk for 5.4 million Palestinian refugees living in the occupied territories and the wider Middle East, including schooling for half a million children, IRIN took a look at the numbers and what they mean.

    The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, was formed in 1949 to help Palestinians who fled at the time of the creation of the state of Israel.



    The United States has been a major donor for 70 years and US funding to the agency averaged $348 million for the five years 2013-2017. But earlier this year President Donald Trump’s administration paid only $60 million, a fraction of the expected US contribution, and on Friday it ordered a complete halt to any further funding.

     

     

    In a statement, the US State Department said it was tired of shouldering a “very disproportionate” share of the agency’s spending. However, the US contribution from 2013-2017 represented an average of 28 percent, the same percentage used as the country’s fair share of UN peacekeeping costs.

    In a statement, the European Union said its members, which collectively represent the largest donor to UNRWA, will consult on how to fill the gap.


     

    What reasoning was given?

    The State Department said the model on which UNRWA operates is “irredeemably flawed”, and the policy change appears to protest the growth in numbers of Palestinian refugees. In 1950, UNRWA's first year, it dealt with some 900,000 refugees. However, their descendants are also refugees, and today’s population stands at about 5.4 million.

    Previously, State Department policy agreed with the international consensus that refugee children are themselves refugees, something not unique to Palestinians. The United States and UNRWA signed a framework agreement in December 2017 that assured the UN agency of ongoing American support until a “comprehensive and lasting peace agreement [with Israel] is achieved”. And this long-lasting position on children being included as refugees was reiterated as recently as May 2018 in a congressional research paper

    In an open letter issued today, the head of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl, says there are 5.4 million refugees who have “undeniable” rights that “cannot be wished away”. UNRWA can’t be blamed for perpetuating the refugee issue, he says, arguing that it’s the whole world that has failed to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

    As the conflict is unresolved, UNRWA offers the following definition: Palestinian refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict”, and “the descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children”.

     

    Past US funding of UNRWA was “hush money” – compensation given the lack of any political solution – a senior aid worker in the region told IRIN. The aid worker, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the issues, said the US move to undermine UNRWA is aimed to “kill the idea” of a Palestinian diaspora and any “right of return.”



    With talk of a federation between the West Bank and Jordan, Trump’s move “throws a match” into the thicket of conventional thinking about the Israel-Palestine issue, the aid worker said. It also may provoke violent protests: UNRWA’s office in Gaza was occupied by protestors last week. Palestinian hopes of statehood used to face a series of “stabbings”, the aid worker said, now they face a “guillotine”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Palestine refugees in Lebanon, 1948. Photo: UN)

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    Trump has pulled the plug on UN Palestine refugee agency
  • 3D printing offers new hope for war-wounded

    After seven years of war, an estimated 86,000 Syrians are coping with losing a limb to amputation, according to the World Health Organisation and disability charity Handicap International. IRIN recently spent a day in neighbouring Jordan, exploring how 3D printing technology can produce a new generation of replacement limbs that are more comfortable and adaptable than traditional prosthetics.

    Patients come from Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Many have had amputations following war injuries. Local Jordanians are also patients, some with congenital conditions.

    The Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Foundation, which supports medical and humanitarian innovation and research, funds the 3D project. Its director, Clara Nordon, says she particularly values the lessons learned from real-world field testing: “We see it as our duty to bring scientific evidence to what remains until now, a feeling.” She says the project will only claim a product is successful “when it's proven valuable by our patients”.

     

    A conventional replacement arm is heavy, and where it attaches to the stump, can become painful and sore. They can also be clunky and unsightly, and slow to deliver. Lower arms and hands produced with 3D printing, however, have offered encouraging results in terms of speedy production and comfort and ease of use for patients.

     

    The €150,000-a-year 3D pilot scheme is bringing hope of more practical alternatives to conventional artificial limbs (prostheses), ones that can be tailor-made to the client: children can have upgrades as they grow; they can be painted and coloured; extra fittings can be snapped in and out; they can be made in unusual shapes and sizes. After only its first year, the project is also reporting early benefits in using 3D printing to make face masks to ease the healing of burn patients.

    The International Committee of the Red Cross, which provided prostheses to more than 22,000 conflict-affected people in 2016, sees potential in 3D printing. It already uses 3D technology to develop and field test prosthetic components, explains ICRC’s innovation lead, Nan Buzard.

     

    However, Buzard notes that before the technology can be more widely used regulatory questions must be addressed, as assistive medical devices must pass international certification in many countries. ICRC also notes that so far there are limitations in using the technology for lower-limb prostheses, which must be stronger than those manufactured for upper-limbs; 95 percent of ICRC’s amputee patients have lost all or part of their lower limbs.

     

    NGO Handicap International has tested 3D printed sockets on a few below-the-knee amputees in Madagascar, Syria, and Togo. While patients offered positive feedback, costs were higher than conventional methods. (MSF, however, reports deep cost savings on manufacturing the prosthesis.) The experimental sockets, produced by a company based in the UK, met “structural and medical requirements,” Handicap International reports. In a study of the technology, it suggested further evaluation of a number of issues, including a review of technical training needs; cost of raw materials and workshop space; the costs of scanners and printers; and the speed and effectiveness of fittings.

     

    For MSF’s Cordon, the technological potential of 3D imaging is even more of a game-changer than the printing: “Now what is really a breakthrough is not so much the printer but rather the scanner! It opens hundreds of leads to optimise tele-expertise, remote advice, and actual remote designing.”

    The photos below offer a closer look at the Jordan 3D project.

     

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    Ben Parker/IRIN

    Patients sometimes give up using a prosthetic – the reasons vary. They can be heavy, conspicuous, or unwieldy. Lighter, custom-made 3D printed “false” limbs could significantly improve the patient's quality of life, MSF researchers say. 



    How it works: a 3D camera scans the patient’s arm and the image is used to manufacture a prosthesis fitted specifically to the individual. In 2017, its first year, the project fitted 17 people with made-to-measure plastic hand or arm prosthetics. The 3D project, based in the Jordanian capital Amman, runs alongside a larger conventional rehabilitation hospital. The 3D image files are sent to a commercial 3D printing firm. “It is personalised, depending on every patient,” says project manager Samar Ismail. The hands, forearms, and sockets are shipped back in as little as one day – conventional methods can take several weeks.

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    Ben Parker/IRIN

     

    Test runs and reject plastic hands fill a shelf at the 3D prosthetics office in the rehabilitation hospital. The MSF project, which works with researchers in France and the United States, is considering whether 3D printing can produce useful upper arms, shoulders, and elbow joints, and whether it can produce a prosthesis strong enough to replace amputated legs. It’s also testing 3D printing to make face masks for burn patients, artificial bones used in training and surgery, as well as joints and connectors.

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    Ben Parker/IRIN

    Ismail and the MSF Foundation are particularly upbeat about the “stunning” potential of the masks. After skin grafts and burn treatment, an elastic mask is usually stretched across the face. “It is not comfortable and it is not aesthetic,” Ismail says. Children sometimes refuse it as it looks grotesque. The team has started testing out a 3D printed mask. It’s transparent and only covers the affected area. It looks normal, Ismail says, and one of her patients, a Syrian girl with severe burns, refuses the elastic mask but will agree to wear the 3D printed one.

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    Ben Parker/IRIN

    A demonstration of the 3D camera scanning a hand. After passing the handheld camera over a stump, a detailed three-dimensional image is built up on the laptop computer. After editing and modifications, the file is sent to a 3D fabrication company in northern Jordan, which then sends back the unique part, made from molten plastic by a small robotic machine.

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    Ben Parker/IRIN

    Ismail smooths off the edges of a newly printed child's forearm. After trimming, the printouts are then tested for fit and comfort with the patient. MSF has turned the entire hospital in Amman into its very own reconstructive surgery centre. Some 150 patients stay here, with another 50 in overflow accommodation elsewhere in the city, as well as hundreds of outpatients. The eight-floor facility is dedicated to orthopaedic patients, many of whom have severe, life-changing injuries from the Syrian war. The institution was set up in 2006, to treat Iraqis. Some 11,000 surgeries and 4,700 patients have been treated here over the years, with new cases coming in from as far away as Yemen.

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    Ben Parker/IRIN

    Yusuf*, a Syrian man in his 40s, was injured in 2016 and has multiple injuries to legs and both arms from a bombing in southern Syria. With a better prosthetic arm, medical staff say, the hope is he can feed himself and go to the toilet alone: an “off-the-shelf” prosthetic lower arm has not been a success. He has seven children, and no family in Jordan. He hopes to return home. Here, he is being fitted for a new socket – the flexible joint between his real arm and the plastic lower arm and hand. His left arm stump was scanned, and he'll get a new made-to-measure socket. The socket is the most sensitive part: it is a separate piece that has to fit snugly on the patient’s remaining limb stump, without too much chafing or slipping: each is uniquely shaped. Once that is secure, arms and hands, with the proportions, and skin tone, based on the patient’s other side, can be attached.

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    Ben Parker/IRIN

    Yusuf, wearing his cumbersome left arm (a conventional prosthetic), chats with a fellow patient in the occupational therapy area. With conventional prosthesis, explains Ismail, “we faced many complaints... they use it for a short time and after that they quit, because of the heaviness. The conventional prosthesis is too heavy.”

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    Ben Parker/IRIN

    Beyond matching skin tone, the possibilities of personalising the limb appeals to adults and children: for example, a patient can have multiple snap-in “hands” for different purposes. “One of our patients... she’s seven, eight years old, and she was very happy that she could put on her nail polish by herself,” says Ismail.

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    Occupational therapist Noor al-Khatib teaches a patient how to tie his shoelaces with only one hand. This patient, a Jordanian boy, had a congenital problem with his left hand. “We are not doing the prosthesis and giving it to the patient, and after that going home,” Ismail says. Specific patient needs take precedence: a patient’s goal may be to wash themselves, tie shoelaces, or tie up hair. Adjustments are made based on patient feedback. When a boy’s prosthetic forearm snapped in a fall at school, later models were made to be more robust.

     

    * (Name changed at the request of the patient.)

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    Advances in medical technology are giving amputees more practical and adaptable options
    3D printing offers new hope for war-wounded
  • Eritrean refugees, UN laggards, and disasters times three: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar:

     

    Flight risk

     

    In the viral humanitarian gesture of the week, Swedish student and activist Elin Errson refused to sit down on a flight from Gothenburg to Istanbul until a man being deported to Afghanistan was removed from the plane. Amnesty International has argued that nowhere in Afghanistan can be considered safe, but the Swedish Migration Agency says “the situation differs from region to region” and continues to deport asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected. If you weren’t present one of the 4.2 million times (that’s the count as we write this Cheat Sheet) Errson’s Facebook Live footage was viewed, the man was finally removed from the plane. But he’s likely back on another, or soon will be. The footage shows tension build as one passenger confronts Errson while others back her up. The 21-year-old social worker-in-training tears up but remains composed throughout her protest. As for the man who was removed from the plane, a spokesperson for the Swedish Prison and Probation Service told the Guardian he would be deported as soon as alternative transport was found (such deportations have been interrupted before). “You do it once or twice, and if it doesn’t work we rent a private plane to send them back to Afghanistan, or wherever,” explained a Swedish police spokesperson.

     

    Fruits of the olive branch

    Few leaders have brought about such dramatic change in so many areas so soon after coming to power as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The repercussions of his most astonishing diplomatic coup – finally mending fences with Eritrea 20 years after the neighbours fought a devastating border war – may be felt all the way to Europe. Here’s why: for two decades, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki used the threat of renewed conflict with Ethiopia to justify a system of prolonged conscription. The prospect of being stuck in the military with terrible working conditions and negligible pay has long been the key driver of Eritrea’s youth exodus, even though leaving the country exposes migrants to the well-known risks of kidnap-for-ransom, torture, detention in Libya, and drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Now that Abiy and Isaias are best buds, commentators and journalists are beginning to ask if that could all be about to change. Another war is surely unthinkable, and mass conscription, which often lasts for years, is therefore unjustifiable. Coupled with the economic boost that renewed bilateral trade could deliver, might staying at home suddenly be much more attractive?

     

    Ebola: Beaten but not defeated

    It took millions of dollars, hundreds of people, an experimental vaccine, a mass information campaign, and a few helicopters, but the UN’s World Health Organisation announced on Tuesday the end of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ninth Ebola outbreak – one that claimed 29 lives and experts feared could have developed into a major regional epidemic. It’s a much-needed success story for the WHO, and one that lies in stark contrast to the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which killed 11,000 people. “But unfortunately this isn't the end of the road for Ebola, as we know it is a disease that will continue to appear in future,” Josie Golding, head of epidemic preparedness and response at the Wellcome Trust told the BBC. Golding’s grim prediction was validated almost immediately: On Thursday, health officials in Sierra Leone said a new strain of the Ebola virus had been found in bats and could potentially be transmitted to humans. It is not yet clear whether this has already happened, or whether the new strain can even cause the deadly Ebola disease. We’ll keep you posted.

     

    Disasters can be either natural or man-made, right?

     

    Wrong, according to many experts and, now, a punctilious Twitter account. There's no such thing as a "natural disaster", according to many analysts, including a 2010 report commissioned by the World Bank. There are natural *hazards*, which may or may not cause a disaster, depending on what humans do about them. We hear that an international task force working on the Measuring Extreme Events and Disasters project has agreed to stop using the term "natural disasters" altogether (to signal the importance of preventative action and perhaps limit fatalistic attitudes). Now there's a Twitter account that politely nags users of the phrase: @NoNatDisasters. If that's not aggressive enough, you can install an extension to the Chrome browser that will automatically replace all instances of the phrase "natural disasters" on any web page. Even the UN's disaster preparedness body, the UNISDR (which, #awkward, emerged from the UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction) says there's no such thing.

     

    But, readers, do you agree? Would it be (wait for it) disastrous to drop the phrase altogether?

     

    Disasters, design, and gender-based violence

     

    Speaking of disasters, with thousands displaced in Laos and disruptive flooding in parts of the Philippines, here’s a timely reminder from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: the risk of gender-based violence rises after disasters. In a report released this week, researchers surveyed 1,800 people previously hit by disasters in Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Respondents in all three countries reported a jump in domestic violence and child marriage after disasters. Researchers say the risks of these and other problems, like trafficking, harassment, and child abuse, increase as basic services break down, and response plans and evacuation shelters often fail to account for the different needs of women, men, and children. So what can governments and aid groups do? The Red Cross says a good start would be to ensure evacuation centres have separate spaces for women and men, adequate lighting, and separate – and lockable – toilets.

     

    And one more, from Vanuatu

    Completing this week’s disaster trifecta – for the second time in less than a year, an erupting volcano has forced officials in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu to order the complete evacuation of tiny Ambae Island. Manaro Volcano on Ambae began spewing ash over parts of the island in March, posing a threat to water sources. This week, the local Red Cross released pictures showing how new ash fall had covered food gardens, plantations, roads, and water sources on parts of Ambae’s southern edge. At one point the ash blocked out the sun and forced 1,000 people to leave, according to Radio New Zealand. Government disaster officials say the accumulated ash and debris could actually alter the path of streams during a heavy rainfall, producing more dangerous floods and landslides. Residents on the island have been living with fear and uncertainty for months. In October, authorities also evacuated Ambae’s entire population when the volcano began erupting.

     

    In case you missed it, 23-27 July:

     

    • Syria/Jordan: Fearing punishment from advancing government forces, 422 members of Syria’s Civil Defence (known as the White Helmets) and their families were evacuated to Jordan via Israel last week, and it appears they will be quickly resettled in the UK, Canada, and Germany. More volunteers were not able to get out of southwest Syria, and President Bashar al-Assad says they can surrender or “be liquidated like any other terrorist.”
    • South Sudan: Demonstrators demanding jobs and accusing aid agencies of hiring mostly non-locals stormed and looted about 10 agency compounds in northwestern Maban County on 23 July. Medical charity MSF has suspended most of its activities in the area. On Thursday, the government and main rebel group signed a preliminary power-sharing deal aimed at ending a civil war now in its fifth year.
    • Laos: Questions mounted this week after part of a hydropower dam collapsed in southern Laos, sweeping away downstream villages, displacing more than 6,600 people, and killing at least 27 (with 131 others still missing). A few key ones: why did downstream communities get little or no warning? Are early warning systems in the Mekong region actually equipped to react? Will this disaster slow the rapid pace of dam construction in the region?
    • United Nations: In a rare "name-and-shame" move, the UN says it’s facing a severe cash crunch, and, to rattle the collection tin, it has listed all the countries behind on their dues. In a statement, the UN thanked 112 countries for paying up their 2018 membership fees. But it also provided a list of 81 states that are late, including some rich nations. While it is used to having to chase members for their contributions, the UN says "cash flow has never been this low" at this point in the year. It also stresses that it's not just a question of differing financial years. Chief amongst the laggards is the United States, which pays 22 percent of the UN's regular budget. In total, the UN says it's owed $809,990,043.53. Check out our handy map below for more:

     

     

     

    Our weekend read:

     

    Searching for Othman

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    Annie Slemrod/IRIN

    War. Displacement. Return. You won’t think about those words in the same way again after reading “Searching for Othman”, which traces the story of war, displacement, and return by following the life of one five-year-old Iraqi. Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod provides a unique window into the problems of displacement and sectarianism gripping Iraq as it tries to recover from years of war, most recently against so-called Islamic State. This spring, 18 months after encountering a silent toddler with shrapnel wounds when visiting a camp for displaced people in Western Iraq, Slemrod returned to Iraq to find him. Along the way, she finds a country recovering, slowly but unevenly. As she writes: “There were maps, graphs, and reports by aid agencies that documented who went where and when. … What was harder to discern, with the numbers showing people returning in waves, was what displaced people were now heading back to. The stats didn’t offer many clues about what had happened to the kids who had lost parents, missed years of school, and spent years away from home.” It’s a perfect read for a lazy summer afternoon.

     

    And finally:

     

    Ready-to-wear?

     

    An IRIN editor who shall remain unnamed recently perused Elle UK at an airport (yes, we have interests other than humanitarian catastrophes, thank you very much) and noticed a model in a jumper bearing what appeared to be the World Food Programme’s logo. A bit of Googling, and lo and behold, Balenciaga’s Autumn/Winter 2018 collection (unveiled in March, because that’s how high fashion does things) includes several WFP-branded items. Balenciaga’s website says it has already given a quarter million dollars to the UN agency, and will donate 10 percent of the sale price of WFP items (hats, t-shirts, and bum bags) sold between 25 August and 1 February. The fashion house’s items do not come cheap, so this sort of charity is not exactly for the masses, but somebody’s clearly buying: this neon yellow logo tee is already sold out at Saks, months before the October ship date.

    (TOP PHOTO: A man wades through a flooded road at a village in southern Laos. CREDIT: Nhac Nguyen/AFP)

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    Eritrean refugees, UN laggards, and disasters times three
  • UN fears new Syrian offensive could strand up to 200,000 civilians

    As many as 200,000 people could flee renewed fighting in southwest Syria and end up stranded along the closed border with Jordan, according to the worst-case scenario envisioned in UN documents outlining emergency plans for a brewing humanitarian crisis.

     

    Having secured the centre of the country, including key pockets of resistance in the Damascus suburbs, the Syrian government has set its sights on rebel-held parts of southern Syria, including the city of Daraa, which lies on a strategic artery to Jordan. This part of Syria has been calm for the past year thanks to an internationally brokered ceasefire, but as many as 25,000 people have taken flight since a government offensive, backed by Russian airstrikes, began 16 June.

     

    Not only is the assault likely to displace hundreds of thousands of civilians but, according to internal UN documents shared with IRIN, it may also cut informal trade routes within Syria and interrupt imports from Jordan, making it harder for people to get food and other basic supplies.

     

    The EU has warned of the potentially “devastating” humanitarian consequences of an all-out offensive, and the UN’s top official in Jordan, humanitarian coordinator Anders Pedersen, told IRIN that the world body is “very worried about what’s now happening and about the number of displaced people already”.  

     

    Jordan closed the door to the vast majority of refugees after a suicide car bombing on its borders in June 2016. The concern now is that a new exodus of displaced civilians from around Daraa, some of whom are already nearing the desert frontier, will have no safe place to go. Ayman Safadi, the foreign minister of Jordan, which hosts 660,000 registered Syrian refugees, said on Twitter this weekend that the country “can’t host more”.

    “Berm 2”?

     

    One of the UN documents seen by IRIN, shared by sources concerned about the risks to civilians if Jordan remains sealed off, raises the possibility that those displaced by the new offensive could end up in a similar situation to some 50,000 Syrians already stuck along the harsh desert no-man’s-land on the Syria-Jordan border known as the “berm”.

     

    They are sheltering in an informal camp near Rukban (250 kilometres northeast of Daraa city, as the crow flies) because they were refused entry to Jordan as refugees. The Rukban camp houses fighters and criminal gangs as well as civilians, and is sandwiched between sand mounds “or berms” that mark the north and south of the Jordan-Syria border.

     

    There have been several attacks near the berm since the June 2016 bombing that killed six Jordanian troops, and the kingdom insists its security depends on keeping the border as closed as possible. The only aid permitted to reach the berm from Jordan largely consists of a limited supply of water, an outpatient clinic, and occasional shipments of food delivered by crane.

     

    Aid workers are not permitted to go into Rukban, and delivery of aid has been outsourced to contractors and, at times, armed groups.

     

    In the UN’s worst-case scenario, not only would the new offensive create a larger spontaneous desert camp up against the borderline, but it could be within an area of active air and land conflict.

     

    UN sources told IRIN they are frustrated with their lack of leverage in challenging Jordan’s insistence that maintaining security means limiting aid, and are frustrated by the apparent lack of Western lobbying in favour of international humanitarian law.

     

    Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but if states cannot provide for civilians they are required to allow unhindered humanitarian access. Jordan has long insisted aid deliveries to the berm should be be made from inside Syria.

     

    The UN’s Pedersen said he has reiterated “again and again and again” to Jordan that the UN has an imperative to “adhere to humanitarian principles and international law”.

     

    Preparing for the worst

     

    Aid to rebel-held territories in Syria is delivered via cross-border convoys from Turkey and Jordan, while aid to government-held areas comes from Damascus.

     

    Aid agencies have tried to prepare for the offensive by stockpiling food and medical supplies in rebel-controlled areas in Syria. But such warehousing carries its own risks, and one aid worker familiar with cross-border operations in Syria said there was a limit to the value of pre-positioning. “Looting will happen, diversion will happen, bombing will happen – [but] maybe one part will be saved,” the worker said.

     

    A senior UN official familiar with the Jordan and Syria aid operation, who asked to remain anonymous, said the re-routing of goods, such as food, was less of a concern than the potential disruption in healthcare and the risks to personal safety.

     

    Fears include retribution by Syrian security forces against people in rebel areas. If the deliveries of goods aren’t combined with continuing efforts to prevent harm and abuses, “it’s just a ‘truck and chuck’ operation”, the official said.

     

    According to OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, the movement of people from the south to and from government-controlled territory is already increasingly restricted, resulting in price rises for civilians.

     

    The cost of cooking fuel has jumped: cylinders used in rebel-held areas must be refilled in government areas. Some landlords in opposition territory have immediately responded to increased demand from displaced people by demanding three months rent up front and hiking prices by up to 60 percent, according to OCHA.

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    Ben Parker/IRIN
    Father and daughter (the family requested anonymity) in a Syrian family from Homs living as refugees in rented housing in Mafraq, northern Jordan. Over 160,000 Syrian refugees live in Mafraq Governorate in northern Jordan. 18 June 2018

    The different scenarios

     

    The risk to civilians depends in part on what sort of resistance rebels in the south put up. The eastern side of Daraa city is under partial rebel control, as are areas on either side of the north-south highway.

     

    But the rebel-held areas are already nearly split in two by government-held territory, linked only by a two-kilometre strip of land near the Jordanian border. Sam Heller, co-author of a new policy paper on the conflict by the International Crisis Group, told IRIN that the southern rebel territories are “extremely vulnerable to being cut into smaller pieces”.

     

    The “enclaving” operation likely underway by the Syrian forces could result in four or more distinct pockets of rebel control, which would be much more “digestible” militarily, from the Syrian government’s point of view, according to Heller.

     

    This scenario – divide and besiege – is one the UN and international NGOs have foreseen in a document that sets up four scenarios for the future of southern Syria.

     

    First, it described the status quo: a continued ceasefire and commercial and humanitarian access from Jordan. The second scenario foresees ground offensives that lead to extensive displacement and deprivation in multiple enclaves. The third considers a less violent scenario: negotiated transfer of control of rebel-held territories back to the government. A fourth considers the impact of a complete closure of the border with Jordan.

     

    Russian and Syrian tactics to recapture Eastern Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta followed a pattern: densely-populated rebel pockets were besieged and subjected to heavy and indiscriminate bombardment. At the final stages, rebels and civilians could choose to hand themselves over to government control or move across the country to rebel-controlled northwestern areas.

     

    Such transfers seem less likely in the south, the planning document suggests, projecting that – under any peaceful transition scenario – only 15,000 people would be transferred to the northwestern governorate of Idlib, where many residents from recaptured rebel areas have taken shelter.

     

    Jordan has considerable influence over insurgent groups in southern Syria and may be influential in steering these non-violent transfers of power, according to the International Crisis Group paper: “Keeping the Calm in Southern Syria”.

     

    Heller, like Pedersen, said Jordan remains “extremely concerned” about its border security and the prospect of a new wave of asylum seekers.

     

    One scenario the UN has not played out, at least in documents seen by IRIN, is the possibility that Syrians head en masse towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, although Israel is reportedly bracing for an uptick in fighting near its border.

    (TOP PHOTO: Displaced Syrians from the Daraa province fleeing shelling wait in a makeshift camp in the province of Quneitra, southwestern Syria, on June 22, 2018.)

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    Documents obtained by IRIN outline this worst-case scenario as fighting intensifies around Daraa
    UN fears new Syrian offensive could strand up to 200,000 civilians
  • What you need to know now about cuts to the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees

    The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees says it is facing “the gravest financial crisis” in its history after the United States announced it was holding back planned funding. But the agency is also promising that services for more than five million people in the Middle East aren’t on the chopping block just yet.

    “We are determined to do everything in our power to keep services running,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told IRIN on Wednesday. “Schools and clinics will remain open,” he said, as the agency geared up to launch a massive fundraising campaign to fill in the gaps left by its largest donor.

    Here’s a quick guide to what UNRWA is, where its money comes from, and where things might go from here?

    Who does UNRWA help and where?

    UNRWA’s full name – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – is a mouthful.

    Its name (and all press releases, website, and the like) officially refers to “Palestine refugees,” not “Palestinian refugees”. That’s because UNRWA’s definition of a refugee (meant to help those who left or fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict) is tied to place – Palestine refugees are: “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

    The organisation began work in 1950, and its mandate was later expanded to help those displaced by the 1967 war that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem (plus the Golan Heights and Sinai, later given back in a peace deal with Egypt.)

    Those who meet this definition (and their children) and are registered with UNRWA and live in the areas where the agency works – that’s Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem – are eligible for services from the agency, including education, medical care, camp housing in some places, and more.

    Palestinian citizens of Israel, also sometimes called Arab Israelis, are not eligible for UNRWA assistance.

    In total, that’s about 5 million registered Palestine refugees in the region, a figure that has been growing since the agency first began work 1950. The number, needs, and budget are all growing, in large part because the children of Palestine refugees are refugees too.

    UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, is responsible for all other refugees, and the children born into the protracted crises it deals with should be recognised as refugees and given protection.                                                     

    Where does UNRWA’s funding come from?

    The United States announced on Tuesday that it was transferring $60 million of a planned $125 payment to UNRWA, but Gunness says the agency doesn’t yet know if this will be the final and full extent of the cuts.

    Gunness told IRIN that based on conversations with the US administration, the agency had been expecting to receive around $350 million from the country in 2018, roughly the same amount it gave last year.

    Now, it is only sure of $60 million.

    “Even without this reduction in US funding, we were facing a deficit of 150 million, ” Gunness added.

    The financial situation is bad, although this is hardly the first time. In 2015, commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl told IRIN the agency was facing its “most serious financial crisis ever;” in 2016 he said it was “in the midst of a grave financial crisis, of the magnitude faced last year,” and last year warned UNRWA was “on the verge of a major funding breakdown”.

    UNRWA says the near constant state of crisis is because needs and numbers are growing. And it’s in a riskier spot than some other UN agencies because it gets little funding from the main UN budget.

    So UNRWA largely depends on donations from countries, and the United States has historically been the largest, by a long shot. In 2016, it gave more than $368 million, with the EU a distant second at just under 160 million.

    There have been attempts made to put the agency on a more stable footing: expanding the donor base, cutting back on some staff positions, and upping class sizes. Some argue that UNRWA needs to do something radical to fix its chronic funding problem.

    State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the cuts were “not aimed at punishing” the Palestinian Authority, despite earlier comments that suggested otherwise by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.

    Instead, Nauert said, “the United States Government and the Trump administration believe that there should be more so-called burden-sharing to go around.”

    It looks like that is exactly what UNRWA is going to have to ask for. Gunness told IRIN the agency would be asking for money from countries, but also charities, private individuals – really whoever can give.

    Where does the money go?

    UNRWA has, broadly speaking, two major budget lines: main programmes and emergency appeals – for rebuilding Gaza and helping Palestine refugees impacted by the Syrian war, for example.

    A close look at UNRWA’s most recent annual report shows that the largest part of its $1.3 billion total spending in 2016 was on education, followed by “relief and social services”, which includes food assistance and cash.

    The services UNRWA offers differs by location – in Lebanon, for example, UNRWA runs primary and secondary schooling, plus a bit of tuition assistance for university. In the West Bank, it’s primary school only, and then Palestine refugee children move on to nationally-run schools.


     

    The percentage of Palestine refugees who depend on services also differs by location and need. For example, in Syria, where there are some 438,000 Palestine refugees left – many living right in the the middle of a conflict zone – UNRWA says more than 95 percent “are in continuous need of humanitarian aid to meet their needs”.

    Gunness and Krähenbühl are urging new donors to open their wallets – “to rally in support and join UNRWA in creating new funding alliances and initiatives”, as the commissioner-general put it in a Wednesday statement. At stake, he said, “are the rights and dignity of an entire community”.

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    (TOP PHOTO: UNRWA distributes food parcels in Damascus. Taghrid Mohammad/UNRWA)

    What you need to know now about cuts to the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees
  • Hardening European policies keep refugee children apart from their families

    Ali and Abdelarahmen, 15-year-old cousins from Syria, pause on one of their regular weekend walks through central Hamburg to take a selfie together in front of the Alster canal – one of their favourite spots in the German city.

     

    These walks are part of new routines they’ve built for themselves since arriving here as 12-year-olds in September 2014. Their selfies are not just acts of teenage expression. Ali and Abdelarahmen are among tens of thousands of unaccompanied child refugees in Europe who rely on pictures, messaging apps, and video calls to bridge the distance that separates them from their families.

     

    Such separations are becoming longer as many EU states, including Germany, take an increasingly restrictive approach to the right of refugees, guaranteed by international and EU law, to be reunited with their immediate family. The impacts of such policies are being keenly felt both by the refugees urged to integrate without the support of their loved ones and by family members left behind struggling to adapt to prolonged separations from children and spouses.

    Ali and Abdelarahmen and their families fled the violence in their Syrian hometown of Deraa for Jordan in 2012. But after two years in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid, their lives felt increasingly hopeless. Abdelarahmen’s father, Mohammad, worked illegally in a parking garage to supplement the family’s monthly aid allowance. His 10-year-old sister, Sara, the eldest of three girls bookended by two boys, was starting to fall behind in school. She needed extra tuition – something the family couldn’t afford.

    Europe offered the hope of a brighter future for the children, but the costs and risks of the journey ruled out the possibility of travelling as a family. The two cousins knew of other boys who had set out as envoys for their families, making lives in Europe and then sending for parents, brothers, and sisters to join them later. As the eldest son and a standout student, Abdelarahmen was a natural choice to go ahead. He, Ali, and two other cousins set out from Jordan with a group of other Syrians in August 2014. They flew to Algeria and were driven to Tunis by a smuggler, who later abandoned them. Mohammad had to sell his wife Amal’s jewellery to finance the remainder of the boys’ journey to Libya and then across the Mediterranean. The trip cost $2,500 per boy: an eye-watering sum for a family living on a little over $250 a month.

    Policy shift

     

    Nearly three years later, Abdelarahmen is fluent in German and a big Justin Bieber fan. Living up to his academic promise, he recently started attending a German secondary school. His more reserved cousin, Ali, is passionate about football.

     

    However, the prospect of seeing their parents again is no closer. If 2015 was the year of Willkommenskultur in Germany, 2016 was the year of a hardening policy stance towards refugees. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) began issuing subsidiary protection rather than full refugee status to many asylum seekers. Subsidiary protection comes with a one-year residence permit instead of the three years granted to those with refugee status and, starting in March 2016, no right to family reunification for two years.

     

    Germany is not alone in this shift.

     

    “There is a general trend across EU member states to make family reunification more difficult, by lowering the level of rights given to subsidiary protection holders in comparison to those with refugee status,” explained Minos Mouzourakis of the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles. “As subsidiary protection is less regulated than refugee status under EU law, states have more leeway to restrict rights attached to it.”

     

    Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are among other countries that have applied similar measures. In the UK, unaccompanied minors with refugee status have no right to apply for family members to join them, and the government has rejected calls by campaigners to change that rule, arguing that it would create “perverse incentives” for more unaccompanied children to come to the country. Mouzourakis noted that in the case of Germany, changes in rights to family reunification have been accompanied by a steep increase in the use of subsidiary protection that has affected Syrians in particular. Less than one percent of Syrians were given subsidiary protection in 2015, compared to 42 percent the following year.

     

    Ali and Abdelarahmen cut through the legal jargon in explaining their situation. Ali received a letter five months ago saying he could stay for a year (subsidiary protection). Abdelarahmen is still waiting for a decision on his status. Complex changes to Germany’s asylum system boil down to one thing for them: more uncertainty over when they will see their families.

     

    A world apart

    alis_mum_rahaf_holds_phone_showing_photo_of_him_in_germany_now.jpg

    Sara Elizabeth Williams/IRIN
    Ali's mother, Rahaf, shows a picture of her son in Germany on her phone

    “After three years of waiting and hoping to reunify with our son, we found out that there is no reunification now,” said Ali’s mother, 34-year-old Rahaf, who lives with the rest of the family in Howwarah, a flat, featureless suburb of Irbid. “We are still hoping that next time our son will get a better residency that will allow for reunification.”

    Abdelarahmen’s father Mohammad, brother to Rahaf’s husband, is more resigned to the possibility that they will never be able to join the boys in Germany and that their sons will grow up without them. “We don’t have a country now, so we want our son to have a good country,” he said.

    Devout Sunni Muslims from conservative backgrounds, Mohammad and his wife, Amal, have little knowledge of the different culture their son is being exposed to at such a formative time in his life.

    “No one will push my son to change his religion or change his culture,” said Amal. “My son has given me an idea of what life is like in Germany. He says life is nice, that everyone encourages education – this is all I want to know.” 

    Amal’s dream for Abdelarahmen is for him to study hard and become a doctor, but she worries that with no one to supervise him, he will lose his academic focus and drop out of school. 

    amal_holds_phone_showing_photo_abdelrahman_recently_sent_via_whatsapp_from_germany.jpg

    Sara Elizabeth Williams/IRIN
    Amal holds up a recent photo of Abdelarahmen in Germany on her phone

    For his part, Abdelarahmen seems to recognise that education is his key to unlocking future opportunities in Germany. “In Daraa, it was too dangerous to go to school, and in Jordan we couldn’t afford it,” he told IRIN. “Here, there is no blood, no war. I get to walk in freedom and learn about things in biology like how an eye works.”

     

    Outside school hours, the evenings and weekends can get lonely. The boys live separately, in shared homes run by social services for young people, mostly unaccompanied minors. They miss the simple intimacies of the family home: a kitchen that doesn’t get locked overnight, getting their mother’s help with homework.

     

    “It is very hard when you don’t have your mother with you,” said Abdelarahmen. “Sometimes when I am alone, I feel so empty.”

     

    Refugee organisations argue that being separated from their families affects the ability of refugees, especially vulnerable unaccompanied minors, to integrate in their host countries. “The family reunification issue speaks to the paradox of the refugee situation,” commented Mouzourakis. “On the one hand, you have moves to make it as difficult as possible to enter Europe, and on the other hand, integration is a buzzword across the continent. We are trying to square a circle. How are unaccompanied minors meant to integrate when their parents and siblings are back home?”

     

    Understanding the system

     

    A new report, Separated Families: who stays, who goes, and why?, finds that families make the decision to send a family member ahead to Europe using irregular migration routes as a coping strategy and a last resort. They often under-estimate the amount of time refugee status determination and family reunion will take, especially as EU states implement ever more restrictive policies.

     

    “We found that people's awareness of policies affecting migration – such as who is eligible for family reunification – was relatively high, but that their understanding of how these policies worked in practice was much lower,” said researcher Megan Passey, one of the authors of the report, which was conducted by REACH on behalf of the Mixed Migration Platform, a joint-NGO initiative. 

     

    The study, which surveyed 90 Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi families left behind in five countries, found that in situations where the main earner went ahead to Europe, or where assets had been sold off to fund a journey, family members left behind often experienced financial hardships in addition to the psychological effects of prolonged separation from loved ones.

     

    “Lengthy status determination and reunification processes have placed lives on hold, both in countries of arrival and back home,” write the authors.

     

    But being granted family reunification often comes with its own difficulties. “One of the many challenges we have documented since last year is that ‘family’ for unaccompanied minors in Germany means parents, and therefore siblings fall outside of the definition,” said Karim Alwasiti, of German human rights group Pro Asyl. “In most of the cases we have seen where the parents have been granted family reunification, they have to choose to leave their other children behind. We consider it part of the practice of trying to limit family reunification and keep families apart.”

     

    Both Ali’s and Abdelarahmen’s parents seem completely unaware they would be forced to make such a choice should one of their sons become eligible for family reunion.

     

    “I have the feeling we will be in Germany soon,” said Amal.

    (TOP PHOTO: Ali (left) and Abdelarahmen (right), 15-year-old cousins from Syria, traveled to Germany as unaccompanied minors three years ago. Their families remain in Jordan. Holly Young/IRIN)

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    Hardening European policies keep refugee children apart from their families
  • Techno-utopian solutions to Syria’s refugee crisis fall short

    In a dull, pre-fabricated caravan in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, a group of Syrian children marvel at brand-new laptops and tablets, tapping out words. In another corner, a clutch of youngsters, many in ragged clothes, watch cartoons downloaded from the Internet.

     

    “We don’t want lost generation after lost generation,” says Patrick Weil, president of Libraries Without Borders, as he watches over the children. With financial support from the Alex Soros Foundation, his organisation donated this portable multimedia centre, loaded with learning tools.

     

    Slickly designed by French designer Philippe Starck, the Ideas Box contains tablets, laptops with satellite Internet connections, a movie projector, chairs, tables, puppets and board games. Teachers hover nearby, facilitating discussion and prodding the kids to join in.

     

    Technology-led aid projects like this one are a reaction to Syria’s relentless six-year-long conflict which has pushed more than five million refugees into neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

     

    In Jordan alone, which is host to more than 655,000 registered Syrian refugees, a dizzying array of technology-led projects for refugees are rolling out with the backing of well-meaning, tech-savvy benefactors.  One initiative by Tech Tribes aims to create a tech-supported learning space for Syrian and Jordanian women. Another is developing a mobile application for refugees with mental disabilities.

     

    Advocates of this approach say they’re bringing valuable solutions to the table, but some experts more familiar with local contexts describe such programmes as expensive band-aids that deliver mixed results.

     

    “It's hard to measure these projects and hard to evaluate,” commented Sami Hourani, founder of For9a.com, a website that aggregates educational and job opportunities for young people in the region.

     

    Hourani said there is a need for long-term, sustainable initiatives based on detailed research about refugees’ educational and employment needs. He added that programmes designed without this sort of empirical backing are often guesswork and a waste of resources.

     

    Covering the basics

     

    According to Libraries Without Borders, the Ideas Box is a means for young refugees to pick up skills and complete correspondence courses or online training. However, many of Zaatari’s young people are long out of school and working to help support their families. For them, logging enough hours with the Ideas Box to earn a degree is a tall order.

     

    Amanda Lane, executive director of the Collateral Repair Project (CRP), a grassroots charity that works in one of Amman’s poorest neighbourhoods, stressed the importance of appropriate giving. This starts, she said, by knowing what a community really needs. She gave the example of a box of Raspberry Pi computers recently donated to her organisation to help the children they work with learn to code.

     

    “Coding? Our kids aren’t even literate,” she said. “IT skills are useful and there will be people who can benefit, but the vast majority need foundational skills.”

     

    After years in exile, most Syrians living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have few remaining resources and restricted rights to work, while their children have often been out of school for as long as five years. Lane believes their real need is not for high-tech solutions, but for basic education and wellness programming. Her focus is on providing a safe space and experienced, professional facilitators. When children and adults come to CRP’s after-school programmes, group discussions and yoga classes, they are acting on a need to feel safe and human again, she told IRIN.

     

    “People come here, they do this, and it’s like, ‘For a time, I forget I’m a refugee’,” said Lane.

     

    The need to feel normal again isn’t lost on those backing big-ticket tech projects for refugees.

     

    “We give refugees the right to water, shelter [and] food, which is what they need at first, but then what about their humanity?” asked Alex Soros, who funds Ideas Boxes in several countries, including four in Jordan. “What about the thing that makes us human: cultural activity, education for those of age, the right to be treated as a human being?”

     

    “Perhaps the future president of a peaceful Syria will use the Ideas Box to get an education and read some political theory,” he added. “Maybe that’s the best scenario we can hope for.”

     

    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has partnered with Libraries Without Borders and the Alex Soros Foundation to deploy Ideas Boxes to camps in Burundi and Ethiopia as well as Jordan and Lebanon, and is conducting research to gauge their impact on academic performance amongst other things.

     

    In an article warning about the need for tech companies to consult aid agencies when designing apps and websites for refugees, UNHCR cited the Ideas Box as an example of a “collaborative project” that draws on the agency’s knowledge about the needs of refugees in different settings.

     

    Tech over cash

     

    Grassroots groups like CRP also stress the importance of proximity and detailed local knowledge when designing programmes. Those backing tech projects from afar often don’t fully understand the needs they’re trying to serve, or how they fit into the broader context.

     

    Yet, the sense that those at the leading edge of technology can and should be doing something with their wealth and smarts is pervasive.

     

    In June last year, former US President Barack Obama called on the country’s private sector to “make new, measurable and significant commitments that will have a durable impact on refugees residing in the frontlines of the global refugee crisis and in countries of resettlement”. More than 50 companies have responded to that call, many of them top tech companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft. But while some have pledged cash, companies often prefer to showcase their techie know-how by developing their own bespoke “solutions”.

     

    “There’s a lot of product pushing and ‘what’s in it for us?’,” said Lane. “Tech companies are giving skills, pre-made solutions or gifts versus cash. And there are so many random, one-off projects, it’s not that easy to co-ordinate.”

     

    Drop in the ocean?

     

    For those tech-led projects that are delivering real results, the problem is often one of scale.

     

    ReBootKamp (RBK) is a software engineer training programme run out of Amman’s King Hussein Business Park. It provides trainees, about 60 percent of which are refugees, with an 18-week, thousand-hour course of English training, problem solving and programming.

     

    On the day IRIN visited, the group was coding and flexing some serious soft skills. Two trainees delivered a “lightning talk” – short, personal presentations about issues that matter to them. Palestinian Ru’a spoke of her stomach surgery and told a group of people she didn’t know a month ago, in a language she is still learning to use, how it felt to be bullied about her weight.

     

    As the group broke up, speakers filed outside with a counsellor to talk in a smaller group while the rest returned to a group programming task.

    rbk.jpg

    RBK
    Students at RBK work on a group coding project

    “These are self-actualisation talks,” said RBK’s founder Hugh Bosely, above the hubbub. “We’re trying to eliminate any emotional hurdle that’s getting in the way of their learning.”

     

    Jordan has 32,000 unemployed ICT graduates, with another 7,000 to 8,000 entering the job market every year. And yet, RBK’s software engineers are in high demand, with blue chip companies pre-booking 200 or 300 graduates at a time.

     

    Bosely said new RBK graduates command on average salary of $1,100 dollars or more per month compared to the Jordanian average of around $350. He attributes his students’ employability to RBK’s holistic approach which combines soft skills and English training with an engineering curriculum. Skilled, attentive instructors, on-site counsellors, healthy meals and a safe, warm space are also vital components. The results can be life-changing for both graduates and the families they support.

     

    “The main thing is to get a job,” said Fatima Himmami, 26, an RBK graduate from Aleppo who now works as a teacher for the programme. “Now I’m a real coder. I also develop applications, I can build websites and I support all my family members.”

     

    With 20 applicants for every spot, RBK can choose the most engaged, grounded applicants. Bosely aims for consensus builders: students who can work with and support colleagues from different countries, faiths and sects.

     

    “We’re trying to create better humans,” said Bosely. “We are about producing the kind of people who will go back to their home countries and create peace.”

     

    It’s a lofty goal for a programme spitting out fewer than 50 graduates every four months.

     

    Critics say while RBK has proven its model works, for it to make a real difference, it must be able to reach more young refugees.

     

    “The big question is, is this model scalable?” asked one aid worker familiar with the programme. "If it doesn’t scale, this fantastic, high-quality solution risks being a drop in the ocean.”

     

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    Techno-utopian solutions to Syria’s refugee crisis fall short
  • Jordan looks to turn refugee crisis into economic boon

    Last February, Jordan and the international community agreed on a radically new approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. Instead of viewing refugees as a burden that could only be alleviated by humanitarian aid, the new agreement described them as “a development opportunity” that, with sufficient levels of investment and structural reforms, could benefit Jordan’s entire economy.

     

    The Jordan Compact was welcomed as a potential blueprint for other host countries looking for ways to reduce their dependence on dwindling sources of aid and shift towards a development response that helps refugees become more self-reliant.

     

    According to the World Bank, which is helping to fund the compact’s implementation, it’s “a win-win proposition for Jordan”, but more than a year later, Jordan is struggling to translate its new approach into more economic opportunities for Syrians or Jordanians.

     

    The small, resource-poor country of 9.5 million people – three million of them foreigners according to the 2016 census – has a long history of absorbing the region’s displaced. Beginning in 1948, Jordan welcomed waves of Palestinians, and then in the 1990s and 2000s, it was Iraqis. Each influx has added jobs, cash, and diversity to the economy. 

     

    But the arrival of close to one million Syrian refugees over the past five years (only 657,000 of whom are currently registered with UNHCR) has been tougher to absorb. The issue is partly demographic: Many of Jordan’s Syrians are from poor, rural areas of southern Syria, in contrast to the well-heeled Iraqis who flocked here decades earlier. Meanwhile, the war in Syria and border closures with both Syria and Iraq have hit trade, crippling Jordan’s export economy and compounding the strain of coping with so many needy newcomers. 

     

    Jordan’s economic slowdown has not been helped by the fact that Syrians are largely prevented from working legally. This is designed to protect Jordanian jobs in a stagnating market with an unemployment rate of 15.8 percent (around double that for youth), but has kept hundreds of thousands of Syrians dependent on aid and low-paid, informal work. This has driven wages down, edging out many Jordanians, and resulted in lower government revenues from taxes and employer social insurance payments.

     

    The Jordan Compact, agreed at a major donor conference in London in February 2016, secured $1.7 billion in grants, low-interest loans, and pledges from the international community, in return for Jordan opening up its labour market to Syrian refugees. Besides funding, Jordan was promised access to tariff-free trade with the EU, providing it issued at least 200,000 work permits to Syrians. Until that target is hit, businesses located in 18 special economic zones (SEZs) throughout Jordan can unlock preferential access to the EU market by employing Syrians as 15 percent of their workforce in the first two years, and 25 percent thereafter.

     

    One year on, Jordan has secured $923.6 million in funding, including $147 million in World Bank loans and a December 2016 cash transfer from the United States of close to half a billion dollars. But the hoped-for results haven’t yet materialised. Work permits were made widely available to Syrians from April 2016, but by February 2017, just 38,516 permits had been issued, according to Jordan’s Ministry of Labour.

     

    Trust deficit

    azr_7935edit.jpg

    Alisa Reznick/IRIN
    Ahmad Yassin Hamood, 28, successfully applied for a work permit through his employer at a nut roastery in Amman last summer

    Thirty-year-old Daraa native Ahmad Alhmood recently acquired a work permit after years of working in a food shop without one.

     

    “Before getting my permit I used to watch my back all the time. I worried all the time that the authorities could come to my work,” Alhmood told IRIN.  

     

    Syrians caught working illegally can be arrested, detained, sent to Azraq refugee camp, and, in some cases, deported back to Syria. Alhmood referred to his permit as his “legal weapon” against such outcomes.

     

    “Now, I am like any foreign worker in Jordan. I have my rights and I know that I am legally entitled to them,” he said. Those rights include being paid the minimum wage, recently raised from 190 to 220 Jordanian dinars ($268 to $311) per month, and social security. 

     

    But, for many Syrians, the gains of formalised employment aren’t worth the potential losses. Humanitarian agencies say some refugees fear losing access to aid or the chance of resettlement to a third country. Others prefer to remain under the radar rather than risk registering with a government they don’t fully trust. 

     

    “I believe no permit will protect me in Jordan,” said a Syrian father of one who works in an office in Amman and asked not to be named. “It’s always a matter of how you react with the authorities when they ask to see your papers, and if this guy wants to make things hard for you, then your permissions won’t help.”

     

    Bureaucratic hurdles

     

    This trust deficit doesn’t help, but neither does the fact that not every Syrian who wants a permit can get one. Some professions – engineering, medicine, and teaching, for example – are off-limits completely to refugees, and other occupations for which permits are supposed to be available, are very difficult to get in practice.

     

    Basel, a 24-year-old refugee living in Irbid in northern Jordan, is the sole breadwinner for seven members of his family. He is desperate to make his job at a restaurant more secure by regularising his employment status but described the procedure for getting a permit as “a little bit complicated”.

     

    That’s putting it mildly. The Jordan INGO Forum, a network of 51 international NGOs responding to the Syrian crisis in Jordan, released a document in December called the Work Permit Maze, which maps the labyrinthine steps refugees must take to regularise their employment.  

     

    Several business owners contacted for this article said the process of getting a work permit for their Syrian employees was simply too complex and time-consuming. Most continued to employ Syrians without permits.

     

    Special zones, special challenges

     

    SEZs have the potential scale needed to quickly reach the 200,000-permit goal, but progress towards hiring more Syrians has been slow. Jordan’s Chamber of Industry has argued that Syrians could be a natural fit for industries that struggle to lure Jordanian labour. Currently, the garment manufacturing industry, which accounts for around 20 percent of Jordan’s GDP, hires large numbers of mainly Asian foreign workers to work on SEZs around the country.

    Sanal Kumar, chairman and managing director of Classic Fashion, a global manufacturing company that is Jordan’s biggest garment maker, scoffed at the idea that tariff-free access to the EU was of interest to Jordan-based garment manufacturers. Classic Fashion and others like it can make clothes far more cheaply in Bangladesh, which has duty-fee access to the EU. The reason they manufacture in Jordan, he explained, is for tariff-free access to the US market, thanks to a Jordan-US free trade deal.

     

    For Classic Fashion, employing locals and refugees is still a goal, but one motivated more by corporate social responsibility than any incentives on offer through the Jordan Compact.

     

    Classic Fashion set out to hire 500 Syrians last year, but “unfortunately, the response was very, very negative”, said Kumar. Numerous job fairs resulted in just 30 Syrians coming to work for the company. Many stayed only a few days and, months later, just four Syrians remain on its payroll. Even they aren’t working in the SEZs, where workers live on site, but at satellite factories closer to urban areas.

    azr_8032edit.jpg

    Alisa Reznick/IRIN
    Fatma Rajab Sakr, a 32-year-old mother from Damascus, began working in Classic Apparel's factory inside the Al Hassan Industrial Complex in January. She is now able to support her daughter with her income from the factory.

    More needs to be done by NGOs to help recruit refugees and convince them they won’t lose benefits or refugee claimant status by working legally, said Kumar. He also cited other intractable issues, like the location of most SEZs far from the cities, camps, and villages where most refugees live, a problem compounded by Jordan’s crippling lack of public transportation. 

     

    “As long as the NGOs can find Syrians who are ready to work, Classic is more than ready to take them,” he told IRIN.

     

    Win-win?

     

    John Speakman, who is leading the World Bank’s efforts to develop economic opportunities for Jordanians and Syrian refugees, said his team was “pretty pleased” with the implementation of the Jordan Compact.

     

    “Generally, Jordan’s investment climate is not good. It has even gone backwards over the past four or five years. But we’re seeing progress,” he told IRIN. “We’re trying really hard to make this a win-win proposition for Jordan. There’s a chance this may be transformational.”

    But drastic reforms are needed for Jordan to be a better place to do business, and to ensure the Jordan Compact delivers benefits for refugees. Whether Jordan will be able to make these reforms is the pressing question.

    "The bad business environment in Jordan is a pre-existing problem. To think we can make this work for Syrians – a disempowered, disenfranchised, fragmented population – when it hasn't worked for Jordanians; that's just nuts," said Sean Yom, an associate professor of political science at Temple University who has tracked Jordan’s economic development for more than a decade.

    In the case of the struggle to employ refugees on SEZs, Yom sees a disconnect between the project’s aims and the needs of the people it’s supposed to help.

     

    “Public transport is the lifeblood of the Jordanian economy, and Jordanians say it’s inadequate. The idea that Syrians are going to transport themselves to SEZs an hour away? If Jordanians can’t do it… for Syrians to do it is pure fantasy,” he said.

     

    Yom worries that the compact doesn’t provide sufficient incentives for Jordan to implement the reforms needed to get more people, Jordanian and Syrian alike, participating in a better-functioning economy. But with or without those reforms, he noted, the compact will deliver enough funding to help stabilise Jordan’s economy.

     

    “If or when the Jordan Compact fails, Jordan doesn’t lose that much, because the refugee population is transient,” he said. “For Jordan, this is win-win.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Mohammad Amr, 25, is one of only a handful of Syrian refugees working at the Classic Fashion factory in the Al Hassan Industrial Complex in Amman. Alisa Reznick/IRIN) 

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    Jordan looks to turn refugee crisis into economic boon
  • EXCLUSIVE: World Vision rattles aid groups with solo operation for Syrians at Jordan border

    Some 70,000 Syrians are stranded in a demilitarised zone on the Jordan-Syria border, with aid severely limited and subject to tight restrictions. IRIN can reveal that while the UN delivers assistance by crane or by contractor, the US NGO World Vision is taking a different and controversial approach: using a “moderate” Syrian militia to help bring in supplies.

     

    Aid agencies have tried a range of workarounds to deliver help since Jordan sealed off the area – known as the “berm” – following a June attack by so-called Islamic State. The UN’s efforts have delivered some food to more than 46,000 people and maintained a minimal water supply. A service centre has also been built in Jordanian territory to provide medical care.

     

    All those trying to help the stranded Syrians are treading a fine line on the humanitarian principles of impartiality and independence. Because it can’t enter the berm, the UN has engaged contractors vetted by the Jordanian Armed Forces – themselves unable to enter the area – to do humanitarian distributions and related tasks inside the no man’s land, along the lines of a plan reported exclusively by IRIN in October.

     

    World Vision, however, has opted to pay a logistics contractor affiliated with a militia run by Syrian businessman Rakan Khdeir and backed by Jordan. Khdeir’s militia provides armed protection. While this route has its critics, the NGO says it’s effective and getting aid where it needs to go.

     

    And, according to one well-placed source, one of the UN’s contractors, First Technical Support Company (FTSC), is in fact paying the same militia to provide security for its own food distribution.

     

    Mageed Yahia, the World Food Programme's country director in Jordan, told IRIN any security arrangements made by their contractor, FTSC, was the business of the contractor, not the WFP.

     

    “They are supposed to arrange their own security. We told them that we can’t provide it… it’s not under our obligation” he told IRIN. “This is what we’ve been allowed by the government: distribution can only be done inside the no man’s land, and we can only do a distribution if a contractor carries it out.”

     

    UNHCR, UNICEF and OCHA were also contacted by IRIN for this report but declined to discuss details of contracting arrangements at the berm.

     

    A lawless zone

     

    On Saturday, a car bomb exploded at Rukban, the larger of two settlements on the berm, killing at least six and injuring more than 14. It was the fourth blast in the demilitarised zone in seven months. It was also a reminder that tens of thousands of civilians are stranded in an area that has been infiltrated by IS on several occasions and is too lawless for most aid agencies to enter.

     

    The Syrians see the Jordanian side as a beacon of stability: “I feel afraid when I go to the Syrian berm alone,” said Asmaa, a mother of four living in Rukban (she asked IRIN not to use her real name for her own security). “I feel more confidence and safety when we see the Jordanian berm, because it’s organised and has guards. There are people there who stay up at night to protect it, and protect the people in it.”

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    A family poses after snow for a mobile phone photo at the Jordan-Syria berm zone at the border
    Anonymous/IRIN
    A family poses after snow for a mobile phone photo at the Jordan-Syria berm zone at the border

    In mid-2014, Syrians began piling up at the berm’s two crossing points: Rukban and Hadalat. Some were granted entry. Most were not.

     

    Under pressure from the international community, in early 2016 Jordan increased aid and admissions. But after an IED killed seven troops on 21 June, entries ceased and the area was declared a military zone. Now, more than 70,000 people have amassed on the berm.

     

    Only a trickle of aid has entered in the more than seven months since that June blast, and that’s why Khdeir, the leader of a Syrian militia known as the Tribal Army (full name: Free Tribes’ Army), says he began meeting with aid agencies in late August – he was frustrated with the pace of the UN delivery system.

     

    Sheikh Rakan, as Khdeir is also known, has close ties to the Jordanian Armed Forces. In an interview with IRIN, he disclosed that his salary bill – including costs of $300 per Rukban-based fighter per month – is paid by Jordan, which also supplies his weapons. Khdeir told IRIN he had deployed more than 130 men to quell the violence in the Rukban “camp” and counter IS.

     

    Sheikh Rakan’s favoured aid partner became World Vision. “I felt their humanitarianism. What joined our beliefs was that they love order and I love order. This is very important,” he said.

     

    A working relationship commenced in September, and one senior humanitarian worker called the Tribal Army “the new favourite child of Jordan”.

     

    “Our role is to receive aid from the border, take it to the warehouse, protect it, and then protect the World Vision team as they distribute it,” explained Khdeir.

     

    Dodgy deal?

     

    World Vision has contracted a Jordanian firm connected to Khdeir, Al Badia Logistics Services, to implement the deal, which included drilling a borehole just inside Syria.

     

    A spokesman for World Vision told IRIN: “We have a commercial relationship with Al Badia Logistics Services to deliver goods to the berm for distribution. Payments have been made for services delivered as part of that contract.”

     

    Working so closely with an armed group has upset some in the humanitarian community.

     

    “The nature of the agreement they have is so dodgy,” one senior humanitarian said of World Vision’s collaboration with the Tribal Army. “It’s so far from what I’d call normal humanitarian conduct.”

     

    Describing World Vision’s access as “very instrumentalised”, another aid worker asked: “How can you provide humanitarian assistance through an actor, a military actor, no less?”

     

    But World Vision defended its approach.

     

    “In situations like this, there are no perfect answers,” a spokesman for the NGO told IRIN. “We take great pains to follow humanitarian protocols and principles, carrying out assessments and checks in deciding who we work with. In our request for access to the berm, there were no preconditions requested or agreed that contravene humanitarian principles.”

     

    Khdeir himself seems aware of the apparent contradictions of a militia doing humanitarian work. He said he met with “all the NGOs” but was frustrated at how slowly most of them moved. “Right now, we’re in a time of war, emergency. Making the process democratic won't facilitate or ease anything,” he told IRIN.

     

    World Vision says it has distributed 4,000 hygiene kits and 3,000 packages containing baby clothes, a relatively small part of the total aid response at the berm.

     

    With the Tribal Army as facilitator, World Vision has also trained some Rukban residents to carry out a rapid needs assessment of 600 families. IRIN met more than a dozen of these refugees brought into Jordan for training.

     

    The survey found that hunger was the top concern. The surveyors themselves appeared to confirm that: every one was thin, some even gaunt. All claimed to have lost weight while at Rukban, and none ate more than a single small meal per day.

     

    Allegations and attacks

     

    In addition to these ethical questions surrounding humanitarian principles and neutrality are other serious allegations.

     

    Omar al-Beniai, an activist with a local Syrian Bedouin tribe, accused the Tribal Army of preventing some civilians from accessing medical services, selectively distributing World Vision aid to friends and allies, and sending some back to contacts in Daraa inside Syria, where it could be sold for profit.

     

    Al-Beniai said the Tribal Army is a US and Jordan-backed proxy established to fight IS, and that it had strayed far from its initial mission. The US and Jordan maintain a joint special forces presence near Rukban.

     

    Khdeir dismissed the accusations, and World Vision insisted that its aid delivery is closely monitored.

     

    “We’re confident that the hygiene kits from our first test distribution, at the beginning of November, reached the children and families they were meant for,” a World Vision spokesman told IRIN.

    tyretracksinsnowjordansyriaborder.jpg

    Tyre tracks in the snowy desert at the Jordan-Syria border
    Anonymous/IRIN
    Tyre tracks in the snowy desert at the Jordan-Syria border

    “We carry out the best monitoring we can in situations like this, including checks of the identification of beneficiaries, and we don’t have any evidence to suggest that these supplies – which included diapers, nappy rash cream, toothpaste and laundry detergent – were diverted.”

     

    Regardless of its merits, the aid operation itself may have become a target: on 17 December, a motorcycle-riding suicide bomber blew himself up outside World Vision’s warehouse in the berm area. The fire killed several Tribal Army militiamen guarding the warehouse and destroyed up to 12,000 children’s clothing kits that World Vision said had been donated by UNICEF.

     

    What next?

    The technicalities of how aid is delivered may seem dry but they can mean the difference between life and death.

     

    Well-placed medical sources assert that at least a dozen children have died for lack of health care since June, while women in pregnancy and labour are at high risk, and there is now an outbreak of hepatitis A.

     

    While World Vision’s modest operations continue, the larger UN effort continues to work with both the Jordanian Armed Forces and private contractors to find ways to deliver aid into the berm area, without entering themselves.

     

    jor-syr_20160804_wfp-shaza_moghraby_4009-1024x768cranedeliversaid.jpg

    Shaza Moghraby/WFP
    WFP used a crane to lower food for refugees into a no-go zone at the Jordan-Syria border

    Since June, UN-run aid operations even to the berm’s southern edge have been a start-stop affair, and anything further inside is carried out remotely (aid has even been delivered by crane), or through contractors.

     

    MSF, like other aid agencies, has not been able to work in the area since June. Luiz Eguiluz, Jordan country head of Médecins Sans Frontières until the end of last year, said the UN system isn’t getting the job done. “Remote support doesn’t address the needs of the people at the berm. Not having trained medical professionals there is a problem,” he told IRIN.

     

    The aid boss who called the Tribal Army deal “dodgy” said the main worry was about how it might affect everyone else: “Our concern is that World Vision’s operation doesn’t jeopardise the rest of the operation.” However both the World Vision and UN operations appear mired in security agendas.

     

    The Jordanian military, senior aid workers say, has already had a strong influence on the selection of UN contractors. One senior UN figure confirmed to IRIN that since the area is a military zone, tenders for work there can only be awarded to contractors pre-approved by the Jordanian Armed Forces. Jordan continues to seek UN and donor support for a range of security measures related to the berm that go far beyond the humanitarian operation.

    The UN says it expects to begin a second food distribution cycle on 28 January. But at the berm, plans derail easily.

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    (TOP PHOTO: The UN has set up a service area on the southern side of the berm area with the capacity for more secure distributions. Photo: WFP, November 2016)
    EXCLUSIVE: World Vision rattles aid groups with solo operation for Syrians at Jordan border

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