(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Unsafe in Syria, unwanted in Lebanon

    Samer Najmeh stripped off his life jacket and swam towards the hull of the overturned boat, and towards his son.

     

    Moments before, in the early hours of 22 September, the 33-year-old had been on board the small fibreglass fishing vessel with around 40 others. Most, like Najmeh, were Syrian refugees who had been living in Lebanon for years and were attempting to make the clandestine voyage to Cyprus, an EU member state 250 kilometres from Lebanon’s northern coast.

     

    After only an hour and a half at sea, according to Najmeh’s recollection, the overburdened motor stopped working and the vessel capsized in the ensuing panic, sending its passengers tumbling into the water. “When we first sank we couldn’t see the shore or anything else,” Najmeh said. “Nothing except the water and the sky.”


    Photo of Khaled Najmeh provided by his father.


     

    Most of the people who spilled into the sea were wearing life jackets and quickly bobbed to the surface. But others, including Najmeh’s five-year-old son Khaled, were stuck under the overturned boat, their life jackets pushing them up and trapping them against the hull.

     

    Najmeh dived down multiple times, sweeping the black, salty water away from his face with his hands. Exhausted and out of breath he eventually assumed his son had been pushed away from the boat when it flipped and was floating safely somewhere on the surface.

    It wasn’t until the local fisherman who rescued the group hours later dived under the wreck and brought up Khaled’s body that Najmeh realised his son was dead. “I was holding him in my arms,” he said. “That’s something nobody could handle.”

     

    Khaled was the only casualty of the shipwreck, but that the group was at sea at all highlights the fact that Lebanon is becoming increasingly inhospitable for Syrian refugees. Trapped between a country that does not want them and a homeland they cannot return to, an increasing number of Syrian refugees are looking for any way out they can find.

     

    The Lebanese government estimates 1.5 million Syrian refugees live in the country, which has a population of just 4.5 million Lebanese, making it host to the largest per capita refugee population in the world. These numbers do not take into account the fact that some Syrians have been resettled, smuggled themselves out of the country, or returned to Syria in the past several years.

     

    For some of those Syrians who remain in Lebanon, the best escape is the sea.

     

    Since August, there has been an increase in the number of boats departing from Lebanon for Cyprus, while last year most boat arrivals in Cyprus came from Turkey.

    Compared to the overall situation in the Mediterranean, the numbers are still tiny – just 459 people have arrived in Cyprus out of more than 105,000 total sea arrivals to Europe this year. But 11 of the 21 boats that have landed on the island originated from Lebanon, a country where boats rarely departed from before.

    The increasing numbers are “definitely a very clear sign of the fact that conditions in Lebanon for Syrian refugees are deteriorating at an exponential rate,” said Sara Kayyali, a Human Rights Watch researcher. “It’s become a much more hostile environment.”

     

    A more hostile environment

     

    It has never been easy for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but when the civil war in Syria started in 2011 and people started spilling across the border, reactions to the influx of refugees differed, largely depending on political affiliation and attitudes towards the neighbouring government of President Bashar al-Assad.

     

    Lebanon is a country deeply divided, with its own history of civil war and a political system based on a delicate balance of power between religious sects.

     

    Some communities welcomed the newcomers – and some still do – but as it became apparent that the war in Syria would not be ending anytime soon, more and more people in Lebanon came to view the refugees as an existential threat and a source of instability.

     

    By 2014, as thousands of Syrians were crossing into Lebanon every day and the number of registered refugees passed the million mark, the Lebanese government started taking measures to discourage them from settling in.

     

    It had always prohibited the construction of official refugee camps for Syrians (it has 12 official Palestinian refugee camps), and in 2015 told the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to stop registering new arrivals, almost entirely barred already registered refugees from working, and made it increasingly difficult for Syrians to maintain legal residency.

     

    The results for Syrians in the country have been devastating. By the end of 2017, according to an annual UN assessment, 74 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon did not have legal residency, 76 percent were living below the poverty line, 88 percent did not have adequate access to food, and just 12 percent of 17 to 19 year olds had finished primary school.    

     

    This year, the situation has only worsened. Lebanon’s economy is stuttering, intensifying economic difficulties for refugees, aid money is drying up, and refugee resettlement programmes aren’t taking as many people as in the past, according to May al-Sayegh, spokeswoman for Lebanon’s Ministry of the Displaced.

     

    “If [the situation in Lebanon] becomes worse, you will see more boats going to Europe,” she said.

     

    Pressure to return

     

    Political rhetoric against Syrian refugees has also intensified, and pressure is growing for people like Najmeh to return home. "Lebanon does not accept Syrians to be refugees, not one of them," Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said in September. "They should feel at comfort to go back [to Syria]… and [we] have to stop encouraging them from staying in Lebanon," he added.

    “We don’t have anything to go back to [in Syria]. We don’t have a house. Nothing is left.”

    Since 2015, the Syrian government has retaken much of the territory it lost earlier in the war, and many Lebanese politicians, including Bassil, now argue that large parts of the country are safe for people to return. At the end of June, a group of refugees that registered with Lebanese and Syrian intelligence agencies crossed the border in the first state-organised return. Thousands more have since followed.  

     

    Human rights organisations and researchers worry that these returns are taking place without adequate safety and security guarantees, and without transparency. “We do not support these returns because we cannot determine if they are voluntary or not,” said Kayyali of HRW. “Our concern is that the conditions in Lebanon are contributing to the decision to return.”

     

    UNHCR also maintains that Syria is still too unsafe for refugees to return, which has led to tensions with the Lebanese government.

     

    Not everyone is willing or able to go back. The Syrian government has blocked some people who wanted to return from crossing the border. And others prefer to stay in Lebanon, no matter how bad the conditions, because they fear being thrown in prison, conscription into the military, or simply have nothing to go back to.

     

    In many parts of Syria, more than seven years of war have laid waste to the economy and destroyed infrastructure and community institutions, like schools and hospitals, not to mention people’s homes.

     

    A way out?

     

    This is the position that Najmeh was in when he decided to board the boat that was supposed to carry him to Cyprus with his wife, his late son Khaled, and his eight-year-old daughter. “We don’t have anything to go back to [in Syria],” he said. “We don’t have a house. Nothing is left.”

     

    Najmeh, who hails from Damascus, crossed the border into Lebanon in 2011, at the beginning of the fighting in Syria. He now shares a three-bedroom apartment in a neighbourhood of Tripoli, Lebanon’s northern port city, with his parents and siblings and their families. In total, 12 people are living under the same roof.

     

    “There’s pressure on Syrians now [to return to Syria],” Najmeh said when IRIN visited him about a month and a half after the shipwreck.

    “Normally, you have to go looking for a smuggler. Here, the smuggler comes looking for you.”  

    But the hardest part about living in Lebanon for him has been finding work. “You have rent for the house; children; schools. You have expenses. How are you supposed to pay for all of that if you’re not allowed to work?” he asked.

     

    In Syria, Najmeh was a professional house painter. But in Lebanon, as a registered refugee, he has only been able to find informal work from time to time, for little pay. “You work for a week and then end up sitting for two months,” he said.

     

    During one of his long stretches of unemployment, Najmeh was sitting at a cafe talking with a friend about their woes when another customer overheard their conversation and approached them, offering a way out. For $1,000 per adult and $100 per child he could get them to Cyprus.

     

    Najmeh only had $600, so he borrowed the rest of the money from friends to pay for passage for himself, his wife, and their two children. “Normally, you have to go looking for a smuggler,” Najmeh said. “Here, the smuggler comes looking for you.”  

     

    The journey itself started – like so many thousands of others in different parts of the Mediterranean over the past few years – with Najmeh and his wife and children standing in waist-deep water waiting for a boat to come, shocked and worried that there were far more passengers waiting with them than the smuggler had promised.

     

    And it ended like so many others as well, in tragedy, with Najmeh holding the body of his dead son as he returned to shore.   

    refugee_camp_in_north_lebanon_2_1920.jpg

    A silhouette in a pathway of tents
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Informal refugee camp for Syrians in north Lebanon.

    “Everyone wants to leave”

     

    The shipwreck and Khaled’s death brought what appeared to be an emerging trend of refugees from Lebanon seeking to cross to Cyprus to public attention, and Lebanese authorities stopped several other boats in the ensuing months.

     

    But in Tripoli and along the coast to the north of the city leading to the Syrian border – Najmeh’s boat left only three kilometres south of Syrian soil – it’s hard to get a real sense of whether the boats are the beginning of something or just a momentary anomaly.

     

    There have been isolated cases of illegal migration from Lebanon to Cyprus during the past seven years, but it never became a major trend, largely because Lebanon’s coastline is small and densely populated, making it fairly easy for authorities to detect smuggling.

     

    Until 2016 Syrians with passports were able to travel legally to Turkey, and thousands did, either flying from the airport in Beirut or taking a ferry from Tripoli to southern Turkey and continuing on to Europe from there. Those who remained were often too poor to afford the boat trip or had other reasons they didn’t want to leave.

     

    Fishermen in the ports north of Tripoli acknowledge that boats carrying people are taking off from the coast now, but most are reluctant to speak. They say they fear being wrongly identified as smugglers by Lebanese authorities, or they know the smugglers and don’t want to get in trouble with them.

     

    On a recent night in an informal refugee camp in northern Lebanon about 10 kilometres inland from the coast, a group of men sat around discussing their options. None of them thought Syria was safe enough to return. And everyone had heard that people were going to Cyprus by boat.

     

    “If there’s a way to go by smuggling, I would go immediately,” said Amer al-Khaled, a 37-year-old originally from the Syrian city of Homs. “We’re living without a future… without being able to think about tomorrow.”

     

    Another man, Mohammed Sulayman, was more reluctant. “It’s dangerous, he said. “I want to leave by an official route from the United Nations so that my children can study.”

     

    But legal routes out of Lebanon for refugees have always been limited: Since 2014, just over 50,000 refugees have been resettled from Lebanon. The numbers leaving have dropped the past two years, mirroring a steep decline in available resettlement spots around the world. In 2016, more than 18,000 refugees were able to leave Lebanon legally to other countries. So far this year, just over 8,000 have been resettled.  

     

    “Everyone wants to leave,” another man at the camp said. But for now most people are stuck in Lebanon, unable or unwilling to return home and with nowhere else to go.

     

    As for Samer Najmeh, he’s still looking for a way out. “I want to travel by any route possible.” he said. “How am I supposed to live [like this]?”

     

    Even his son’s death was a reminder of how unwelcome he and his family are in Lebanon. According to Najmeh, the municipality where he lives refused to allow him to bury Khaled in the local cemetery alongside the graves of Lebanese. “They said he was Syrian, like a Syrian might make the ground dirty or something like that,” Najmeh said. “This is a child. Where is the humanity?”

    (TOP PHOTO: Fishing port north of Tripoli, Lebanon where survivors of 22 September shipwreck were brought after they were rescued. CREDIT: Eric Reidy/IRIN)

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    Why some Syrian refugees are leaving Lebanon by sea
    Unsafe in Syria, unwanted in Lebanon
  • A new normal in humanitarian aid: treating middle-class diseases

    Treating undernourished children, boosting nutrition for pregnant women, and even providing a statistical basis for the term “famine” have all become routine parts of humanitarian health programmes. But the routine is changing.

     

    As conflicts and crises overtake middle-income countries like Syria and now Venezuela, aid organisations must deal with obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

     

    In 2017, the World Health Organisation for the first time added medication for diabetes to its standard Interagency Emergency Health Kit – a package of supplies and pharmaceuticals that can meet the needs of 10,000 people over three months. In October that year, in Syria and Iraq, it also started testing a supplementary kit containing medication for non-communicable diseases.

     

    “It was the first time that such a need was recognised,” said Amulya Reddy, a medical advisor at Médecins Sans Frontières, speaking of the Syrian refugee crisis. Before the Syria crisis, she said, “treating NCDs wasn’t part of the routine emergency actions. It was considered more of a medical speciality – most organisations had no experience.”

     

    In more than half of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon, for example, at least one person was diagnosed with at least one of five NCDs in 2016 – three of which (hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes) are diet-related.

     

    Yet steps toward treating chronic diseases among these newer groups of refugees have not kept up with the growing need. Added to that, development and humanitarian organisations face data and funding stumbling blocks as they rethink ways to work together to combat non-communicable diseases.

     

    “NCDs have been neglected so far, but the situation is becoming dire. We will need to adapt to the new challenges – and fast,” warned Slim Slama, a medical officer for NCDs for the Eastern Mediterranean region at the WHO. “Most of the humanitarian system has been geared towards the acute conditions.”

     

    New international guidelines offer a roadmap to humanitarian organisations dealing with such conditions. The Sphere Handbook, a compilation of standards in relief work released last month, includes more detail on NCDs than its previous 2011 edition.

     

    It states, for example, that a patient should not miss medication for non-communicable diseases more than four days a month. The Ebola epidemic and “Syria changed everything in terms of how we frame humanitarian response,” Christine Knudsen, Sphere director, told IRIN.

     

    In addition, the 2018 Global Nutrition Report, released last month, says the issue of diet-related chronic conditions has “barely been on the radar of those responsible for responding to crises until recently.” The study is commissioned by a group of international NGOs, drawing inputs from members of governments, civil society, academia, multilateral organisations, and private businesses.

     

    Different incomes, different problems

     

    In low-income countries, more than half the adults are most likely to die from communicable diseases, conditions arising during pregnancy and childbirth, and nutritional deficiencies. In middle-income countries, the pattern changes, with higher numbers of deaths due to obesity and NCDs linked to a more affluent but unhealthy diet and lifestyle.

     

    The upper and middle classes of poor countries, too, are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions. In terms of absolute numbers, the WHO estimates that 78 percent of global deaths from NCDs took place in low- and middle-income countries. In addition, rising obesity in poorer countries is a sign of risk for non-communicable diseases. A recent life expectancy forecast published by a British medical journal, The Lancet, stated that NCDs as cause of premature mortality will double by 2040.

     

    Screening for and treating diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure has become central to MSF’s operations in Jordan, Reddy said. “It became obvious very quickly that the majority of the refugees had NCDs, and those would need to be addressed.”

     

    The Lebanese example

     

    Hala Ghattas, an associate research professor at the Center for Research on Population and Health at the American University in Beirut, who contributed to the Global Nutrition Report, said there is a need to move beyond traditional response, especially as “humanitarian crises are increasingly occurring in middle-income and low-income countries that are going through demographic and epidemiological transitions”.

     

    In the report, Ghattas and her colleagues analysed how humanitarian agencies addressed various NCDs among Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

     

    They found, for instance, that the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, worked together to respond to the high incidence of NCDs among Syrian refugees by providing subsidised care in the primary healthcare system as well as a referral system for secondary and tertiary care. This meant that 75 percent of the refugees’ treatment costs were covered.

     

    Their research showed that 34 percent of the Syrian refugee population aged 18 to 69 years are overweight, 29 percent are obese, and 49 percent have elevated total cholesterol levels. In related research, the International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that diabetes is the cause of more than 25 percent of amputations in one third of their centres in the Balkans, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Pakistan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

     

    And yet, progress has been slow.

     

    The United Nations General Assembly passed a political declaration on NCDs in September, but it fell short of extending guidelines for crisis situations. “For the first time, there was a reference to disasters, which is a good step, but there was no reference to NCDs in conflict situations,” said Slama.

     

    The way forward

     

    As they try to adapt, health workers are increasingly borrowing lessons learned by the medical and emergency communities during the HIV epidemic in conflict-affected countries like Rwanda and the Central African Republic.

     

    “We’ll have to work towards simplifications in the process, decentralise programmes, and make them more community-based,” Reddy said, adding that data collection on the rates of NCDs among populations in crisis situations is “consistently difficult”.

     

    A lot of the initial work by humanitarian responders in crisis situations is geared towards meeting basic needs and focusing on the most vulnerable in any group. In Lebanon, for example, Ghattas said it took time for the data to catch up with the services. The first survey on NCDs was conducted in 2014, after emergency responders had started caring for those with urgent needs.

     

    “Systems are still ill-equipped to handle NCDs, and as a result there is little evidence on what works and what doesn’t,” Slama of WHO said. As more evaluation results are gathered and new research emerges, medical practitioners will be able to tweak their approaches and tailor them to specific contexts.

     

    For Slama, one of the biggest challenges will be to train medical staff. “We should measure the impact not just in terms of distribution but also provision of care. It is important to look at service utilisation, and to see if people are getting the services they need,” he said.

     

    According to Ghattas, increasing talk of the “humanitarian-development nexus” – a new catchphrase in aid circles that underlines the need to join up emergency and longer-term responses – might be a good sign for the recognition of NCDs in crises.

     

    Some experts are hopeful this trend will result in higher funding for cross-cutting programmes. Currently, the most optimistic estimates put the share of NCDs in global Overseas Development Assistance at two percent, making it a blind spot in the larger global health community. “So, not surprisingly, when conflicts occur and systems collapse, NCDs amongst affected people are ignored,” said Slama.

     

    In a time of increasingly dwindling resources and competing needs, raising funds for NCDs is a tough battle. Or, as Reddy put it: “Unfortunately, NCDs don’t bring in money from donors in conflict situations; starving children do.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A syringe for insulin injection. In 2017, WHO added medication for diabetes to its standard Interagency Emergency Health Kit. CREDIT: Phuong Tran/IRIN)

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    A new normal in humanitarian aid: treating middle-class diseases
    “Non-communicable diseases have been neglected so far, but the situation is becoming dire”
  • Aid deliveries to Syria at risk in UN Security Council vote

    A Security Council resolution that allows the UN to deliver aid across Syria’s borders into opposition-held areas without the permission of President Bashar al-Assad is up for renewal and, as with so many diplomatic manoeuvres in the seven-year war, all eyes are on Russia.

     

    The UN relies on Resolution 2165, first passed in 2014, to use two crossings with Turkey to bring aid to millions of civilians in Syria’s rebel-held northwest, many of whom have fled their homes elsewhere in the country. A government offensive to retake the area, which includes Idlib province, is currently on hold after a deal brokered by Turkey and Russia.

     

    The lion’s share of cross-border assistance is delivered by groups outside the UN system, but humanitarians say the UN provides a reputational and organisational backbone that bolsters the entire aid operation – one that risks being lost if Russia vetoes the resolution.

     

    In an interview on Monday with IRIN’s Ben Parker, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock said there is “no plan B” for delivering UN assistance without the backing of UN resolutions, as the Syrian government is “not willing” to allow aid to cross its front lines to reach rebel-held areas.

     

    ☰ Read more: The backstory of Resolution 2165

     

    UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, which is the basis for all UN international humanitarian action, states “humanitarian assistance should be provided with the consent of the affected country”. The Geneva Conventions also say the consent of affected states is required but may not be arbitrarily withheld.

    In the early years of Syria’s war, many NGOs said that aid was being arbitrarily withheld to border regions and argued that by bringing aid in across borders they were therefore safely within the bounds of the Geneva Conventions.

    But that wasn’t good enough for the UN, which had an assertive member state – Syria – saying no to assistance; to work under 46/182 the body needed a Security Council resolution. They got it with 2165, which said that UN agencies no longer had to request permission from al-Assad, they only had to notify Damascus before crossing the border through one of four entry points:

    • Bab al-Hawa, from Turkey into Idlib in northwestern Syria
    • Bab al-Salameh, also from Turkey into northwestern Syria
    • Ramtha, from Jordan into southern Syria
    • Yaroubiyeh, from Iraq into northeastern Syria

    In 2018, the Ramtha crossing with Jordan was retaken by the Syrian army. Yaroubiyeh has been used sparingly, partly because of insecurity in Iraq.

    As a result, 2165 now mostly matters for northwestern Syria – an area which, according to statistics compiled by the Mercy Corps Humanitarian Access Team and made available to IRIN, holds some 3.3 million Syrians, three quarters of whom live in the wider Idlib area. (However, population statistics in Syria are highly unreliable.)

    Although 2165 does not require permission from Damascus, a demanding apparatus of border inspections came with the resolution, staffed by the UN and funded by donors.

    New UN hubs sprang up in the Turkish city of Gaziantep and in Amman, from where UN agencies began to organise a regular supply chain for civilians in border areas outside al-Assad’s control.

     

    With 2165 set to expire 10 January, Kuwait and Sweden are readying a one-year renewal. The two Security Council members will circulate a draft “soon”, Kuwait’s ambassador to the UN said on Friday.

     

    “The resolution allows the UN and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid through the most direct routes to people in need in Syria,” Per Örnéus, Sweden’s special envoy for the Syria crisis, told IRIN. “The mandate is strictly humanitarian, offering a lifeline for millions of people,” he added. “It must be extended.”

     

    The resolution has been renewed annually since 2014, but last year’s vote caused friction – and nail-biting for humanitarians working on Syrian aid operations – when Russia singled it out for harsh criticism, saying it threatened Syria’s sovereignty.

     

    While al-Assad’s top ally on the Security Council opted not to veto last year, Moscow is sending out mixed signals as the January deadline approaches. Renewal looks more likely than not, but it is far from a sure thing.

     

    Major impact

    Resolution 2165 was first mooted at a time in the war when Damascus regularly denied UN requests to bring help across its borders to areas dominated by the opposition. It allows the UN to bring shipments in at specific points, as long as it notifies the Syrian government.

     

    Humanitarians insist 2165 is crucial, and stress that its importance should not be measured just in terms of the actual quantities of aid delivered.

    In 2017, UN agencies like WFP or UNHCR provided only around 20 percent of the cross-border aid deliveries to Syria. NGOs outside of the UN system brought in the rest, often delivering it through local Syrian organisations and importing their aid mostly through commercial channels (the official Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh crossings with Turkey) or a separate network of crossings monitored by the Turkish Red Crescent.

     

    Most goods – like food and fuel – enter northwestern Syria on a for-profit basis, imported by Turkish or Syrian businessmen.

    Aid agencies say more than three million people live in northwestern areas not controlled by the Syrian government, though population estimates in Syria are notoriously unreliable and have in the past often suffered from overcounting.

    Without 2165, private traders and NGOs could still bring goods in, as long as Ankara approved. But UN involvement would likely end immediately if Damascus objected, and, while NGOs might be able to fill the tonnage gap created by a UN pull-out, losing 2165 would be a big blow to the humanitarian relief effort.

    A source with significant experience of the Syrian aid operation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 2165 brought a “significant increase in the overall response” by helping “what was a fragmented humanitarian community come closer together, coordinate, build institutions, and deliver a more joined-up and effective response as of 2015.”

    Mathieu Rouquette of the Syria International NGO Regional Forum, a network of 70 aid groups working in Syria, said the resolution “still underpins access to millions of people in areas that we are not able to reach from Damascus.”

    There would be other impacts too.

    Aid operations would likely suffer if the UN stopped planning and coordinating deliveries in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep, as many NGOs rely on the UN hub for logistical support.

    “The resolution is what underpins the overall architecture of the humanitarian response,” explained Rouquette. “So an end to that would necessarily mean a return to a fragmented humanitarian response.”

    Moving to Damascus

    Aid workers said the loss of a UN role in the cross-border response would also accelerate the shift of international NGOs from opposition-held areas towards parts of Syria controlled by al-Assad’s government, while enhancing Ankara’s influence over cross-border operations.

    The Syrian government has told most NGOs that in order to register in Damascus they must end their “illegal” cross-border work under 2165.

    Many international NGOs were originally drawn into cross-border work early in the war by US and EU funding streams geared to shore up opposition regions, while others branched out from working with Syrian refugees. They also filled in the gaps before 2165 when the UN could only assist Syrians in state-controlled areas, except for very rare “cross-line” exceptions, like convoys from Damascus to besieged areas.

    Some chafe under the rules laid down by Turkey: Ankara has told international NGOs they can either provide cross-border assistance from Turkey to Syrians in the rebel-held northwest, or work in in northeastern Syria, which is controlled by US-backed Kurdish groups hostile to the Turkish government. They can’t do both.

    In 2017, Turkish authorities ordered Mercy Corps to leave the country, apparently as punishment for its work in the Kurdish-held regions.

    With al-Assad now back in charge of most of Syria, and the sole remaining cross-border hub in Gaziantep catering to an area of northern Syria that is largely under Turkish tutelage, many NGOs have come to view Damascus as the best option.

    “The resolution is what underpins the overall architecture of the humanitarian response.”

    Several NGOs have voiced concerns about what being stripped of the UN cover would mean for the overall optics of cross-border work in a place like Idlib province, which is currently controlled by rebel groups – some of whom are designated terrorists by the United States and other countries.

    Bab al-Hawa has been controlled by the UN-designated al-Qaeda spinoff Tahrir al-Sham since 2017 and has been at the centre of diversion scandals that triggered Western aid cutoffs and NGOs suspensions. USAID is now rolling out a stricter inspection regime, further tilting the risk analysis for NGOs pondering where to focus their operations.

    On Monday, the Charity Commission – the UK government department that regulates and registers NGOs in England and Wales – issued an alert, warning “there is a risk that a terrorist organisation may financially benefit from any aid passing through the Bab al-Hawa crossing.”

    Tripping over counter-terrorism sanctions can cause very serious problems for NGOs: legal issues, economic losses, reputational damage, and donor flight. In the face of these risks, UN involvement offers them and their donors a sense of reassurance and legitimacy.

    Should the cross-border operation be stripped of its UN participation, it would likely prod more Western NGOs to withdraw from Syria altogether or rebase in Damascus on terms set by al-Assad. And, as a result, the northwestern cross-border response would come to rely even more on the Turkish Red Crescent and other Ankara-friendly groups.

     

    Russian roulette

    With a resolution expected on the table in the coming weeks, a Swedish diplomatic source told IRIN that Turkey and Russia are now the “key actors” in the battle over 2165. Ankara may influence Moscow’s views, but it is Russia’s vote in the Security Council that will be decisive.

    ☰ Read more: Moscow’s mood swings

     

    Moscow joined Western states in voting for resolution 2165 and extensions of it in 2014, 2015, and 2016. But last year’s vote was different.

    In November 2017, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia slammed 2165 as “unprecedented and extreme” and said it “usurps Syria’s sovereignty”. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused the resolution of contributing to “the division of Syria”.

    US-Russian conflict in the Security Council was then at a high pitch after Nebenzia cast three successive vetoes to shut down a UN investigation that found the Syrian military had gassed civilians, and many humanitarians feared that 2165’s time was up.

    However, Moscow relented and said it would abstain from voting in return for a review of cross-border aid and monitoring procedures by the secretary-general, allowing 2165 to be renewed on 19 December 2017 with 12 votes in favour and none against. (China and Bolivia also abstained.)

    While aid workers were relieved, many assumed that the resolution was unlikely to be renewed again in recognisable shape.

    But something happened soon after that: Instead of ramping up attacks on 2165 as the vote approached, Moscow fell silent.

    IRIN has learned that a Russian diplomat unexpectedly told NGO representatives in Geneva last month that cross-border aid “should remain and should remain as it is”.

    Four humanitarian and two diplomatic sources confirmed that Russia voiced support for continued cross-border aid.

    Most attributed Russia’s apparent 180 degree turn to the 17 September Turkish-Russian agreement over Idlib, which seems to reflect an unspoken understanding that northwestern Syria will effectively remain in Turkish hands for the foreseeable future.

    “The only explanation I can think of is that there was some sort of deal struck between Turkey and Russia as part of the broader negotiations over Idlib in which Turkey sought non-opposition on this to avoid having to let in another wave of refugees”, a humanitarian source told IRIN.

    Russia could also have decided that it is not currently in its interest to hand back control over cross-border aid to al-Assad, when it currently has that control itself through the Security Council. Even then, Moscow may of course seek to dilute or amend Resolution 2165.

     

    After abstaining from voting on a renewal in 2017, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia as recently as June called the UN secretary-general’s positive review of the resolution  “disappointing” and said “it is essential to work to end the mechanism”, warning that the UN needed to “prepare for the closure of cross-border operations”.

    More recently, Moscow has signalled it will not look to block renewal. But some supporters of 2165 worry that Russia may be trying to lull rivals into a false sense of security, while others fear that poorly handled debates or unrelated quarrels could still encourage a veto.

    “To be honest, I’m not convinced the renewal will be so easy,” one humanitarian source said, accusing parts of the aid community of showing a “baffling” faith in renewal and of failing to prepare for other outcomes.

    On 29 November, Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky told the Security Council that terrorist-listed groups are exploiting cross-border support and insisted that the “significant changes” on the ground in Syria in 2018 require “commensurate adjustment of the cross-border mechanism”.

    Polyansky did not elaborate, but even if Moscow has decided to let 2165 live until further notice, there are a number of limited amendments that may be in the Russian interest.

    Russia could, for example, condition renewal on new language that reinforces al-Assad’s legitimacy or supports reconstruction aid for Syria, which would infuriate Western nations. And while Turkey would presumably oppose the UN’s loss of access through Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh, stripping away UN access to US-backed Kurdish areas through the third crossing at Yaaroubiyeh might be another matter.

    If Moscow wants to have 2165 on the table more often, as a source of leverage, it could also seek to cut the time between renewals.

    The Russian Foreign Ministry, the Russian UN mission, and representatives of the Syrian government all failed to responded to IRIN’s requests for comment.

    (TOP PHOTO: Internally displaced Syrians in northern Aleppo province's Tel Rifaat collect aid supplies. CREDIT: Antwan Chnkdji/UNHCR)

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

    al/as/ag

    Russia could veto renewal of the resolution that gives UN access to rebel areas
    Aid deliveries to Syria at risk in UN Security Council vote
  • What is humanitarian deconfliction?

    A military word used since the 1970s to mean preventing “friendly fire” between allied armies has crept into the humanitarian lexicon. Deconfliction is now being applied to attempts to stop aid clinics, hospitals, and schools from being bombed by warring parties. How does it – or doesn’t it – work?

     

    Deconfliction emerged in humanitarian literature a decade ago, but efforts to use the process in a sustained way to try to stem civilian casualties are more recent and followed a sharp rise in the number of attacks on hospitals and health personnel, particularly in Syria and Yemen. According to the Geneva conventions, health facilities are off limits in war.

     

    High-profile airstrikes that led to greater deconfliction efforts include the October 2015 US bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which killed 42 people.

     

    At the UN Security Council in May 2016, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called attacks on healthcare worldwide “systematic” and, speaking alongside him, MSF President Joanne Liu said there was “an epidemic of attacks on health facilities”.

     

    In response, the humanitarian community stepped up systems to share the geographic coordinates of aid operations with warring parties, especially those using air forces.

     

    At best, both NGOs and armies share the same deconfliction objective: to protect civilians and patients. At worst, sceptics say, armies use it to limit bad publicity and accusations of war crimes.

     

    Deconfliction: The exchange of information and planning advisories by humanitarian actors with military actors in order to prevent or resolve conflicts between the two sets [of] objectives, remove obstacles to humanitarian action, and avoid potential hazards for humanitarian personnel. This may include the negotiation of military pauses, temporary cessation of hostilities or ceasefires, or safe corridors for aid delivery.

    Source: To Stay and Deliver Good practice for humanitarians in complex security environments UN OCHA, 2011

     

     

    The definition may be fairly clear but there is no overarching international framework or rulebook for how deconfliction should be carried out.

     

    In dealing with armed groups that do not have air power, paper-based maps and face-to-face meetings are more often how aid agencies make sure their presence is known to those fighting on the ground.

     

    At present, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, oversees ad hoc arrangements in a variety of settings, while some of the largest humanitarian organisations run their own deconfliction processes independently.

     

    The conflicts in Yemen and Syria demonstrate different approaches to deconfliction with varying degrees of buy-in from humanitarian actors.

     

    Yemen: A multi-step process

     

    Yemen provides the most elaborate system of deconfliction currently in use.

     

    Deconfliction has become routine for relief agencies in Yemen since a spate of airstrikes on hospitals in 2015, the early days of a war that has pitted Houthi rebels and their allies against the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and its backers in a Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

     

    The UN, major NGOs, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and MSF all supply the Saudi-led coalition with coordinates of project sites, offices, warehouses, and convoy movements.

     

    OCHA plays the middleman, collating the GPS coordinates from most UN agencies and NGOs. Each new location or planned road (or sea) movement is sent by email to a coordinating office in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, which should add it to a “no-strike list”. Once the emailed data is acknowledged as received, the site is regarded as “deconflicted”.

    yemennostrikelistjpg

    Map of no-strike locations in Yemen according to the Saudi-led coalition
    Supplied by Saudi-Arabia-led military coalition
    Red dots show thousands of "no-strike" civilian locations, notified by deconfliction in Yemen.

    MSF and the ICRC are exceptions to this system; they communicate directly with the coalition.

     

    A Saudi Arabian official told IRIN the deconfliction system included coordinates for more than 64,000 locations and tracked an average of 30 transports of humanitarian goods and personnel per day, a process the official said requires “highly skilled planning and precision”. IRIN was unable to determine from the UN or Saudi Arabia if the 64,000 figure included temporary itineraries of past road movements, or only static sites and convoys that remain operational. UN documents suggest the list of static sites currently maintained by the UN has under 30,000 entries.

     

    Ghassan Abou Chaar, former country director of MSF in Yemen, told IRIN that the medical charity decided to comply routinely with the deconfliction system to “ensure more security” for its teams in 2015 after a hospital it supports in Haydan, in the northern province of Saada, was destroyed by airstrikes that October. No one was killed.

     

    The health NGO now reports 60-100 static sites to Riyadh. MSF also agreed to send the coalition notification of its road travel – as do the UN and other aid agencies – but drew the line at ambulances. By definition, ambulance movements are unpredictable and take place at short notice, Abou Chaar explained.

     

    Despite this deconfliction effort, the Saudi-led coalition has been widely criticised for the scale and frequency of its attacks on civilian sites, including a widely reported August strike on a school bus – that sort of civilian movement would not have been deconflicted.

     

    In May 2018, a new but unopened MSF cholera treatment unit was hit in the Yemeni town of Abs in the northern province of Hajjah, despite the fact that its location had been reported to the coalition. Some 32 percent of all Saudi-led air raids have targeted non-military areas, according to the Yemen Data Project, an independent monitor. A UN human rights team reported in September that coalition airstrikes had killed at least 4,300 civilians, and in a number of incidents they examined field combat commanders had “routinely failed to consult” the no-strike list.

     

    Abou Chaar believes there have been “intentional mistakes”, when the coalition may hit a “deconflicted” site on the basis of intelligence.

     

    The Saudi official said “the protection of civilians and locations on the list is of highest priority to the coalition.” However, the deconfliction system cannot prevent all incidents, they added, noting that “involuntary mistakes are an unfortunate and infrequent reality of military operations, irrespective of the location.”

     

    An OCHA official who worked on the Yemen deconfliction system, speaking in a training video, said the Saudi Arabian officer receiving the coordinate data was initially “overwhelmed” by the number of sites. There was a danger in listing too many locations, he believed, as it might become “quite possible that none of it is taken into consideration”.

    YemendeconflictionOCHApowerpointscreengrab.png

    Part of a UN OCHA document about deconfliction in Yemen
    UN OCHA
    Deconfliction in Yemen: the UN supplies GPS coordinates of humanitarian sites to the Saudi-led coalition to prevent air strikes.

    In a recent speech, OCHA chief Mark Lowcock said of deconfliction in Yemen: “This system has proven largely effective in sparing the aid operation from accidental or incidental harm. Without it, we would simply not be able to deliver assistance safely.”

     

    Syria: Wary participants

     

    The UN has set up a much smaller deconfliction system for Syria, but it has been met with mistrust and slow uptake by NGOs that feel supplying coordinates to Russia and the Syrian air force (as well as the US military) paints a target on their backs.

     

    The set-up is similar to what has been done in Yemen: NGOs supply coordinates to OCHA, which in turn provides them to the warring parties with air power.

     

    A UN official told IRIN that 778 locations had been listed in Syria throughout the more than seven years of war in Syria, most of them added this year. And of over 120 health facilities reportedly hit by heavy weapons in Syria this year, only a handful were on deconflicted sites.

     

    OCHA is currently urging sceptical NGOs to share coordinates for more locations in the last major rebel-held area, northwestern Idlib, where it estimates there are over 300 health facilities unlisted.

     

    A brief air offensive mounted by Russia and Syria to dislodge rebels in and around Idlib in early September struck a hospital in Kafr Zita, in northern Hama province, that had been deconflicted via the UN. That was the sixth strike on a deconflicted location this year.

     

    Provisional data for Jan-Oct 2018 shows about 1,400 airstrikes affecting civilians in Syria. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), based on open sources and pending verification. More information and methodology.


    Mohamad Katoub, senior advocacy manager of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the healthcare NGO running the Kafr Zita hospital, told IRIN that its facilities made up four of the six hits this year. It only joined the deconfliction process in March, saying in a statement that sharing coordinates was a “last-resort decision” after ”relentless and systematic attacks on healthcare across Syria resulted in no meaningful accountability.”

     

    “As there are no clear consequences”, other than incidents being mentioned in UN briefings, and as, Katoub argued, there is no accountability mechanism, the process should at least be made more public so as to “embarrass” the parties more clearly.

     

    Other NGOs are participating in the UN’s system in Syria, but with mixed enthusiasm, in part because of their view – backed by US NGO Physicians for Human Rights and other organisations – that hospital bombings are a deliberate tactic by the government of Syria.

     

    A 2018 UN Commission of Inquiry report on Syria alleges that “pro-government forces deliberately target medical infrastructure as part of their war strategy, which constitutes the war crime of intentionally targeting protected objects”, and details specific attacks in an “ongoing pattern of deliberate attacks on hospitals”.

     

    An official with a different Syrian medical organisation working in opposition areas told IRIN that “we are sure this method [of deconfliction] does not protect medical facilities”, and that colleagues in the field find the idea hard to stomach. But its value, an official said, requesting anonymity for security reasons, is as “evidence of criminal activities of the regime or Russia if they attack health facilities”. If a deconflicted site is attacked, it would add “accountability in the future”, providing evidence for prosecutions, the official added.

     

    Despite the six strikes this year, former UN humanitarian negotiator Jan Egeland supports the deconfliction process because it minimises overall attacks. He said in September: “There are clear indications that it is shielding those [deconflicted sites] from attack.”

     

    Lack of accountability

     

    The most obvious probIem is that deconfliction doesn’t always work: the location of Kunduz hospital had been supplied to US forces, (and Haydan’s to Riyadh). But the US nevertheless pounded the Afghan facility for 29 minutes. A US investigation found the attack, called in by Afghan ground troops, a “tragedy” due to human error and poor communication.

     

    And when the system doesn’t work, there are no real consequences.

     

    The Kafr Zita airstrike in September, which was met with a swift UN statement but no notable consequences, was the latest of six cases in which Russian or Syrian aircraft have hit deconflicted sites. In a briefing, Egeland reported that Russia was investigating four attacks that happened in March or April 2018. Any follow-up of the September cases in Idlib has so far not been made public.

     

    In the same statement, SAMS said it did not expect UN-run deconfliction to stop attacks on hospitals. The possibility of collecting evidence of war crimes did however provide motivation: “Although we know that such attacks are likely to continue, we hope that this move will act as a deterrent and bring increased transparency to the reporting process.”

     

    In 2016, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied that his government targets hospitals, saying they did not “have a policy to destroy hospitals or schools or any such facility”.

    When the system doesn’t work, there are no real consequences.

    The Saudi Arabian official said that when incidents did occur in Yemen the coalition was committed to “holding those responsible accountable, and putting measures into place to mitigate any future reoccurrence”, referring to its investigative procedures.

     

    The coalition has formed a Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) that investigates serious allegations. However, the coalition’s investigations have been criticised by Human Rights Watch and others for a lack of independence and rigour.

     

    In the case of the Haydan hospital strike, JIAT said Houthi rebels had been using the hospital as a shelter, but that the coalition should still have notified MSF “about withdrawing the international protection from this building” before the bombing.

     

    Last week, Amnesty International accused Houthis of taking up positions on a hospital roof during the ongoing battle for the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah. Several days later, the rights group said the coalition appeared to have struck close to a different busy hospital in the city.

     

    Perceptions and errors

     

    Using the word deconfliction itself is problematic for some: supplying coordinates leads to the “bizarre” phenomenon of NGOs “serving the purpose of the military”, according to analyst Michaël Neuman of the MSF-affiliated think tank CRASH.

     

    By adopting the term deconfliction, rather than something more neutral like “notification”, unarmed aid agencies are revealing their “docility” in playing into a military agenda, Neuman said. Deconfliction may be a common-sense necessity, he added, but it has the disturbing effect of “helping the military designate the targets”.

     

    Another issue is the data management skills required: current humanitarian deconfliction systems are ad hoc – based on manual records and spreadsheets – and are thus error-prone.

    Deconfliction may be a common-sense necessity but it has the disturbing effect of “helping the military designate the targets”.

    A data analyst familiar with the process in several conflicts explained some of the potential areas of error.

     

    One is that geographic coordinates can be written in “minutes and seconds” format or in decimal format. Converting between the two can garble the location. Mixing up latitude and longitude usually puts a marker “in another continent”. Other risks include marking only the centre of a large compound rather than drawing the perimeter, the analyst said.

     

    Aid agencies nevertheless have a duty to supply coordinates to deconfliction mechanisms, because if they don’t they “recklessly and criminally” endanger civilians and humanitarian staff, the analyst argued.

     

    With or without deconfliction, the World Health Organization reports that attacks continue: by mid-October there were at least 215 heavy weapons attacks (including airstrikes) on health facilities this year, 121 in Syria, but just two in Yemen.

     

    While deconfliction has become routine, it remains “a very strange concept” to MSF’s Abou Chaar. For better or worse “we’re locked into it”, he said, adding that he’s sure about one thing: where the responsibility lies. “A hospital shouldn’t be targeted,” he said. “That’s it.”

     

    bp/as/ag

    How aid agencies try to avoid getting bombed in Yemen and Syria
    What is humanitarian deconfliction?
  • African debt, Afghan voter violence, and post-Brexit Britain: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

     

    Debt distress deepens

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

     

    Violence, voter turnout, and Afghan elections

     

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

     

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

     

    Mixed messages on FGM

     

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

     

    Peace in Yemen? Not so fast

     

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

     

    Dark tales in Iraq’s mass graves

     

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

    In case you missed it:

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Weekend read

     

    Pushed back: Rohingya repatriation and Congo’s Kasaï

     

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

     

    And finally...

     

    A post-Brexit humanitarian ‘what if’

     

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

     

    bp-il-as-si/nc/ag

    African debt, Afghan voter violence, and post-Brexit Britain
  • Refugees post-Pittsburgh, Rohingya trauma, and Pacific island storms: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar:

     

    Peace overtures on Yemen

     

    Yemen’s peace process, which has been going nowhere fast for quite some time, may have received a jump-start this week. First, US defence secretary James Mattis told an audience in Washington, DC that the warring sides were ready to come to the UN table and that he expected a ceasefire and talks to begin within 30 days. Then, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed suit with a statement on ending the war and starting talks (with wording that has been parsed again and again). UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed support; the UN’s envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said he’s committed to getting negotiations going within a month. Then, seemingly every aid agency issued a statement of its own. Why now? Might it have something to do with talk of famine in Yemen, or perhaps the scandal enveloping Saudi Arabia around the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi? Check back with us for more.

     

    Humanitarian makeover

     

    "Traditional humanitarian response remains plagued by deep power imbalances, needless rivalries between organisations, and perverse institutional incentives" – not a big revelation to regular IRIN readers, perhaps, but a blunt report card anyway. It comes from think tank Centre for Global Development (CGD), which is starting a new research project, running until 2020, analysing why reforms to the international humanitarian system have fallen short and what might work better. Initial lines of enquiry, according to a posting by Jeremy Konyndyk, a former US donor official and now a senior fellow at CGD, include: more clarity on how donors make decisions, delinking the UN's role in policy-setting from operational response, and looking again at a way to better define needs and response based more on local perspectives. The project is looking at three broad areas: business models, governance, and field practice. Earlier this year, we heard from another research project along similar lines, this time from the UK-based think tank Overseas Development Institute. The lead researcher wrote at the time that they had identified strong opportunities for a better system, but: "Change is elusive. It’s not fully within our power; it’s political, and we have little influence..."

     

    The starting point fits with the message of this year's World Disasters Report, from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It cautions that the "system" that claims to be the international humanitarian apparatus is selective, partial. The report, "Leaving No One Behind", argues that too many situations and people are falling through the cracks. For more, check out the IFRC secretary general’s commentary for IRIN.

     

    Rohingya mental health: culture and context

     

    Nearly one million Rohingya refugees swell the refugee camps of southern Bangladesh, and more than 100 aid groups are trying to help them. But there’s little information on how the refugees conceive of and process trauma, which makes it challenging for NGOs and Bangladesh’s government to offer effective mental health and psychosocial support. A new report by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, compiles existing research on Rohingya culture and concepts of mental health conditions. The guidelines caution that Rohingya interpretations of trauma are not always equivalent to the psychological concepts of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or anxiety. Understanding these “sociocultural aspects” of mental health, the guidelines advise, is crucial to “providing effective culturally informed services to the Rohingya”. We explored this issue in a recent story looking at what mental health professionals might learn from the network of traditional and religious healers in the Rohingya camps.

     

    US synagogue shooter also hated refugees

     

    The man accused of killing 11 people during services at a Pittsburgh synagogue last Saturday appears to have had a fixation with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (better known as HIAS), posting rants on social media like: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.” Founded in 1881 to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, these days HIAS helps resettle refugees of all religions, in partnership with the US government. Donations to the aid agency have reportedly poured in since the shooting, and HIAS says it is determined to continue its work. But staff in Philadelphia, who have helped 100 refugees start new lives in the US this year from places like Myanmar, Syria, and Iraq, say many new arrivals are shaken, both by the attack and the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the country. As HIAS’s executive director in Pennsylvania, Cathryn Miller-Wilson, put it: “Our clients are hysterical, nervous, scared, and upset.”

     

    The gulf between Somalia and Côte d’Ivoire

     

    This week Somalia found its way to the bottom of the 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, an annual report ranking the best and worst functioning countries on the continent. It was preceded by South Sudan, then Libya. These three "worst-governed countries”, plagued by high levels of insecurity, civil strife, and lack of rule of law, are also humanitarian hot spots on the continent with, between them, more than 13 million people in need of humanitarian aid. On the flipside, Côte d’Ivoire, recovering from two civil wars in the last 15 years, showed the “greatest improvement” and was the only country to improve in all categories, placing it third behind only Mauritius and the Seychelles. Overall, however, the report noted that the number of internally displaced people across Africa rose from 10.2 million in 2009 to 14 million in 2017, while the number of refugees rose from 2.7 million in 2008 to 7.3 million in 2017. "The lost opportunity of the past decade is deeply concerning,” said the foundation’s chairman, Mo Ibrahim. "Africa has a huge challenge ahead.”

    Attack highlights acute unemployment in Tunisia

     

    A suicide bomber injured nine people in Tunis on Monday, and the attacker – a 30-year-old female college graduate who had been jobless for three years – was not known to have extremist ties. The attack was a reminder that despite several years of relative peace, politically polarised Tunisia still faces security threats, but it has also put the spotlight on the country’s flagging economy – a third of graduates are unemployed. While many migrants and asylum seekers pass through Tunisia on their way to Europe or stay to look for work, an increasing number of Tunisian nationals are also chancing it on the Mediterranean: Tunisians are now the number one nationality arriving on Italy’s shores; 22 percent of the total. They are also dying at sea: a 23-year-old Tunisian man drowned in a shipwreck on 7 October, one of 1,783 people documented to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this year.

    In case you missed it:

     

    CAMEROON: Security forces and separatist fighters have each blamed the other for the death of Charles Wesco, a US missionary killed in crossfire in the restive anglophone region this week. Hundreds of unarmed civilians have died and tens of thousands more have been forced from their homes since the conflict erupted in 2016. Read our two-part special report from inside the separatist ranks.

     

    MARIANA ISLANDS: The damage is still being tallied from Typhoon Yutu, which destroyed hundreds of homes in the Northern Mariana Islands last week and caused at least 15 deaths when it barged across the northern Philippines this week.

     

    SOUTH SUDAN: Two years after fleeing South Sudan, rebel leader Riek Machar returned to the capital Juba on Wednesday to celebrate a peace deal with President Salva Kiir. But some have questioned whether last month’s agreement is holding, with the World Food Programme saying that violence in some areas is blocking food aid.

     

    SYRIA: Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen has been officially named as the UN’s next envoy for Syria. Check out Aron Lund’s rundown of what Pedersen will be up against when he starts the job early next month.

     

    TONGA: Still recovering from February’s Cyclone Gita, the Pacific Island nation of Tonga is warning residents to expect at least one severe cyclone during the peak November-to-April storm season, due to “climate variability brought about by global warming”.

     

    Weekend read:

     

    US policy ‘wall’ for Latin American asylum seekers

     

    Central Americans and Mexicans are continuing to flee gang violence, repression, and poverty by heading north, but many are finding they can’t cross the border into the United States to claim asylum. Read Eric Reidy’s first instalment from the US-Mexico border, where he outlines “legally dubious practices” by US border officials. The US asylum system is being stretched to a “crisis point”, as the registration process is slowing down even as large numbers continue to arrive. The result is heavy build-up on the Mexican side, where hundreds of asylum seekers need basic services. US President Donald Trump has promised to greet thousands of northern-bound Central American migrants and asylum seekers with twice as many troops on the border. And while Trump’s move garners headlines around the globe, some 300,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo forced out of Angola back to their conflict-riven home region of Kasai receive a fraction of the coverage. They too fled violence at home and find themselves in a similar predicament. UNICEF expressed its concern for the children caught up in both crises, some 80,000 in DRC and an estimated 2,300 now making their way to the US border on foot.

     

    And finally:

     

    All Puerto Rico wants for Christmas ...

     

    Tropical storms unleash destruction in moments, but recovery takes months and years. Last September, Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through the Caribbean, causing dozens of deaths and extensive damage. More than a year later, places like Dominica are still rebuilding “from zero”. In Puerto Rico (where the death toll from Maria is widely disputed), residents of the US territory spent nearly a year in the dark – that’s how long it took for the shattered electricity system to be reconnected everywhere on the island. This week, the design podcast 99% Invisible dives into the story of a Puerto Rican utility worker, Jorge Bracero, who used social media to feed info to residents starving for news amid the blackout, and became something of a local folk hero in the process. Listen to the 33-minute episode to learn more about a one-man news outlet, why Puerto Rico may not be building back better, and a catchy Mariah Carey cover tune.

     

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    Refugees post-Pittsburgh, Rohingya trauma, and Pacific island storms
  • Mission impossible for next UN Syria envoy?

    After more than seven years of war and a peace process that never managed to end the violence, whoever takes over for Staffan de Mistura as the UN’s special envoy for Syria has a tough job ahead – perhaps an impossible one.

     

    After four years on the job, the Swedish-Italian diplomat announced on 17 October that he will step down for “purely personal reasons” in late November. A day later, his advisor for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, also announced he was leaving.

     

    Egeland’s Humanitarian Task Force, although often deadlocked, sometimes seemed more fruitful than the political process headed by de Mistura, as it achieved small successes in widening humanitarian access and civilian protection on the ground.

     

    On the political track, de Mistura had no more luck than his predecessors, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

     

    Who will succeed de Mistura?

     

    Potential candidates to succeed de Mistura reportedly include no less than three Eastern Europeans: former Bosnian president Haris Silajdžić; UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Nikolay Mladenov of Bulgaria; and Slovak diplomat Ján Kubiš, who heads the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).

     

    Another top candidate is former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra. In what seemed like a nod to Lamamra, an anonymous Western diplomat told the Saudi-backed newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat that the UN secretary-general is “waiting for the right time to announce the name of an Arab diplomat.”

     

    Geir Pedersen, Norway’s ambassador to Beijing, is also said by some to be on the short list. With Western and perhaps also Chinese support, Pedersen would be a strong candidate if he can win Russia’s acquiescence.

     

    Egeland’s role as adviser for humanitarian affairs could have hobbled a Pedersen candidacy, since a UN team typically seeks to include many different nationalities. But Egeland’s resignation – a coincidence, according to UN diplomats – removes that obstacle.

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    Jan Egeland briefs the press during round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. Violaine Martin/UN Photo

    Securing humanitarian access

     

    As head of de Mistura’s 23-nation task force, Egeland has led the push to reach besieged and vulnerable civilians in Syria, often running into a wall of bureaucratic obstacles thrown up by Damascus.

     

    Whoever takes de Mistura’s role will have a large say in picking his or her next humanitarian adviser, but aid access will likely continue to be a problem in Syria.

     

    “Looking ahead, the Humanitarian Task Force must remain a venue for dedicated discussion and diplomacy on humanitarian access and protection of civilians across Syria,” said Rachel Sider, policy adviser for Egeland’s Norwegian Refugee Council, noting that many Syrians still risk being exposed to renewed fighting in rebel-controlled regions like Idlib.

     

    “The new team will hopefully build on Egeland and de Mistura’s work and bring renewed focus to protecting Idlib’s three million civilians,” Sider told IRIN. “This crisis is far from over.”

     

    The Geneva process

     

    Getting aid to civilians will be difficult enough, but the main task for the next envoy will be to revive the UN peace talks in Geneva, which have staggered on for years without much in the way of actual negotiating.

     

    The most recent round of UN-led indirect negotiations, known as Geneva IX, was held in spring 2017 and produced no visible result.

     

    In part, that’s a design flaw of the Security Council’s own making. As UN envoy, de Mistura’s work has been strictly guided by resolution 2254 of 2015, which calls for a political transition in Syria. In practical terms, the resolution requires him to create a mechanism to draft a new constitution that will permit UN-supervised elections.

     

    But the idea of a transfer of power remains anathema to President Bashar al-Assad’s government – and since al-Assad is winning the war and Russia has his back in the Security Council, he has no reason to make concessions.

     

    Most real negotiations have instead taken place outside the UN framework and avoided the transition issue altogether. In the Astana process, a series of talks overseen by Russia, Turkey, and Iran have hammered out pragmatic understandings over front lines and ceasefires, mostly to al-Assad’s benefit.

     

    In the hope of finding new leverage, de Mistura has tried to inject the Geneva talks with some of the momentum created in Astana, by working with Russia, Iran, and Turkey to set up a committee that would draft a new Syrian constitution. So far he has not seen much success.

     

    ☰ Read more: Syria’s constitutional committee

     

    In January 2018, de Mistura participated in a Russian-directed Astana spinoff conference in Sochi, in which it was agreed to create a committee tasked with the “drafting of a constitutional reform as a contribution to the political settlement under the UN auspices in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254.”

    By inserting a Damascus-friendly structure into the UN process, Moscow wants to steer the transition process in such a way that it ticks all the boxes of Resolution 2254 and also unlocks Western post-transition reconstruction funding, without actually threatening al-Assad’s power.

    Well aware of Moscow’s ambitions, de Mistura agreed to treat Sochi’s constitutional committee as an element of the Geneva process on one condition: he would pick one third of the delegates including “civil society representatives, independents and other Syrians of standing,” allowing him to control the balance between government and opposition members. At least 30 percent of the committee’s total members would have to be women.

    Eager to get one foot in the Geneva door, Russia approved.

    But since then, things have moved slowly. The Syrian opposition and al-Assad’s government eventually nominated candidates to the committee, but when de Mistura presented his handpicked team of civil society delegates, both Ankara and Damascus rejected it.

    Turkey eventually withdrew its protestations, but Damascus refused to budge, and even refused to meet with de Mistura to discuss the matter. Russian diplomats insisted they would try to persuade al-Assad to change his mind, but he never did. To de Mistura’s frustration, Moscow is still asking for more time 10 months after the Sochi congress.

    Critics of al-Assad – including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Saudi Arabia – have been pressuring the UN to move ahead and set a date for the committee’s launch. But Russia continues to reject what it calls an “artificial deadline”, and al-Assad’s government increasingly rejects the idea of UN influence over Syria’s constitution altogether.

     

    Performance reviews

    Despite the lack of movement on the constitutional committee, the powers that appointed de Mistura to the job gave his performance friendly reviews.

     

    US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said de Mistura had “worked tirelessly to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, saved lives by working to de-escalate the violence that has engulfed the country, and eased suffering by constantly pressing for unhindered delivery of vital medical and humanitarian aid to Syrians in need.”

     

    Nauert’s Russian counterpart Maria Zakharova said “we definitely appreciate his contribution as a professional, a specialist, and a diplomat to the Syrian settlement”, although she noted that it’s “impossible to win everyone’s approval in such a complicated matter”.

    The reactions from inside Syria underscored that point.

    “Sadly, it seems Mr. de Mistura wanted to end his term by stabbing the body of the Syrian people one more time,” Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in the Turkish-backed Moutassem Brigade rebel group, told IRIN. Accusing the UN envoy of being biased toward Russia, Sejari said de Mistura’s resignation “amounts to a clear shirking of duty, offering the Syrian regime an opportunity to escape any potential benefits of the peace process”.

     

    Supporters of al-Assad were just as hostile – but for the opposite reason.

    “I can only remember how he tried so hard to obstruct the liberation of Aleppo from al-Qaeda terrorists by legitimising their illegal occupation of the city through giving them what he called autonomy,” Aleppo parliamentarian Fares al-Shehabi told IRIN, referring to a proposal made by de Mistura during the siege of eastern Aleppo that would have left the area under opposition control if rebel fighters withdrew. The government eventually re-took the entire city at the end of 2016.

     

    “I am personally happy he is gone,” al-Shehabi said.

     

    Supporters of the Kurdish-dominated and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have fought the so-called Islamic State while pragmatically holding a cold peace with al-Assad, voiced no displeasure with de Mistura personally. They did disparage the UN negotiations, which they have been shut out of by Turkey, which considers the group to be terrorists.

     

    “If the negotiations are to enter a serious phase, it will be necessary to change and to include us in the political process,” Ilham Ahmed, who leads an SDF-linked political council, told IRIN. “If not, the crisis will continue and the war will drag on even longer.”

     

    Much ado about nothing?

    On 24 October, de Mistura made one last trip to the Syrian capital, on the heels of a Russian delegation that had reportedly tried to get al-Assad to engage more flexibly with de Mistura’s proposal for a constitutional committee.

    But at a joint press conference with de Mistura in Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem demonstratively poured scorn on the UN plan, redefining it as a “committee to discuss the current constitution” and reiterating that any amendments would be a “sovereign matter”.

    De Mistura tersely noted that discussions had been “very frank and very intense”.

    On 26 October, de Mistura told the Security Council that past agreements with Damascus and Moscow over the constitutional committee no longer seemed to apply. Nevertheless, he said he would continue to consult with Russia and other nations before reporting back on 19 November, in what will likely be his last move as UN envoy.

    Reactions among Security Council members were split along familiar lines: the US said the delay in forming the committee was “unacceptable”, while Russia’s delegate rejected the idea of setting a deadline.

    Given the glaring disconnect between the UN envoy’s mandate and Syria’s political reality, de Mistura's mission was probably always impossible.

    The stalled constitutional committee plan now seems likely to fall into the lap of de Mistura’s successor, but the real question is how much it really matters.

    Even if a constitution-drafting process is eventually allowed to begin, there’s no reason to believe al-Assad or his allies will ever accept any diplomatic mechanism that could result in a genuine political transition, a point underscored by de Mistura’s reception in Damascus.

    Who rules Syria was always ultimately going to be settled by force of arms, and the military challenge to al-Assad has now subsided. The diplomatic haggling may go on, but Russia can continue to use its UN Security Council veto to block any unfavourable development in the UN.

    So as Staffan de Mistura leaves office, the sad truth about the past years of UN peacemaking in Syria is probably that given the glaring disconnect between the UN envoy’s mandate and Syria’s political reality, his mission was always impossible. Unless one or the other changes, his successor will do no better.

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

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    Mission impossible for next UN Syria envoy?
  • 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”.

    bp/as/js

    Aid official says ‘nobody cares’ about 45,000 trapped Syrians
    Syria-Jordan: relief convoy fails to reach “desperate” border camp
  • Afghan voting, Ugandan mudslides and Burundi’s rusty old signs: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    A vote for stability in Afghanistan

     

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

     

    How healthy in 2040?

     

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

     

    Yes, another dark week for Yemen

     

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

     

    Northward from Honduras

     

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

     

    Deaths aren’t the only civilian toll in Somalia attacks

     

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

     

    Uganda: apologies don’t stop landslides

     

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

     

    Humanitarian journalism: how are we doing?

     

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

     

    Add riverbanks to Bangladesh’s disaster list

     

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

     

    One to listen to

     

    Aid for arms

     

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

     

    In case you missed it:

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    The weekend read

     

    ‘Do no digital harm’

     

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

    And finally

    A new reading of rusty old aid signage

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

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

     

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    Afghan voting, Ugandan mudslides and Burundi’s rusty old signs
  • Caribbean tsunamis, migration art and humanitarians and climate change: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

     

    Australian asylum policies under fire

     

    Kicked off the Pacific nation of Nauru, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) this week called for the “immediate evacuation” of all asylum seekers and refugees on the island and an end to Australia’s detention policies for asylum seekers arriving by boat. MSF say the mental health situation on Nauru is “beyond desperate” for an estimated 900 asylum seekers or refugees, including 115 children. Staff psychiatrists forced to leave the island this week described suicide attempts, self-harm, and cases of children who were so traumatised that they were “unable to eat, drink, or even walk to the toilet”. They warned that MSF’s withdrawal from Nauru “will claim lives”. Nauru’s government told MSF that its services were not needed, according to the aid group. Nauru’s government frequently disputes the portrayal of conditions for refugees on the island, calling them “outrageous false allegations by advocates”. Under Australia’s controversial offshore detention policies, asylum seekers arriving by boat were sent to Nauru and Manus Island on Papua New Guinea and barred from ever resettling in Australia even if their refugee claims were verified. Following a March visit to Nauru, the UN refugee agency’s director for Asia and the Pacific said refugees were living under “desperate conditions” and called the policies that keep them there “an abomination”.

    Child hunger: a tale of inequality

     

    Angola, Rwanda, and Ethiopia have made the most progress in reducing hunger since 2000, according to a new report. Figuring out which countries have gotten worse is harder, as seven candidates (including Syria, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan) don't offer reliable data. An annual survey tracking child malnutrition and mortality, the Global Hunger Index, produced by NGOs Concern and Welt Hunger Hilfe, this week reported some “promising” progress in reducing malnutrition since 2000. What it also shows is that child malnutrition can tell a striking story about inequality: in the most extreme example, stunting rates veer between 10 percent in prosperous areas of southern Nigeria to over 50 percent in parts of the north.

     

    Preparing for tsunamis in the Caribbean

     

    Tsunami preparedness and early warning is an urgent topic these days after Indonesia’s 28 September disaster. Across the world, scientists are studying the possible impacts if a significant tsunami were to strike the Caribbean. Writing for Eos, an earth sciences news site published by the American Geophysical Union, researchers say the “enclosed nature” of the Caribbean basin could see tsunami waves reach populated coastlines in a matter of minutes. There have been 100 tsunamis in the region over the past 500 years. The research is aimed at helping emergency planning to lower tsunami risk in the region.

     

    Ebola makes a comeback

     

    Six new cases of Ebola were confirmed in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this week, as the country’s health ministry, the Red Cross and health NGOs continue to tackle the second major outbreak of the disease this year. To date, 200 cases have been reported, of which 165 have been confirmed by laboratory tests, and 90 people have died, according to the DRC ministry of health on 11 October. MSF emergency coordinator Laurence Sailly said the situation remains worrying: "There are confirmed patients in big cities like Beni and Butembo, but also in places far away from the epicentre, close to the Ugandan border. That makes it difficult to contain the epidemic.” Last month the World Health Organisation cautioned that the risk of Ebola spreading nationally and regionally was "very high", adding that it was important for neighbouring provinces and countries to enhance their surveillance and preparedness activities.

     

    One to listen to

    Our audio offering this week is from the BBC’s “Seriously…” podcast, and it intersperses reporting from the US border fence with a discussion of art inspired by the journeys migrants make, or attempt to make, into the country. Here’s a sample: an installation of bricks, each one made with sand from the location where a migrant’s body was found in or around Tucson, Arizona; a virtual reality film by an Oscar-winning director that takes viewers through capture and detention in the desert; and photographs of items (rosaries, family photos, even combs) confiscated and thrown away by authorities, taken by an artist who worked as a janitor at a US Customs and Border Patrol station. It’s worth a listen just to hear how the ring of a pipe on one spot on the border fence has become part of a moving composition.

     

    In case you missed it

    Angola: Tens of thousands of refugees and migrant workers living in Angola were reportedly forced to return to the DRC this week, after the Angolan government issued a notice urging all foreigners without documentation or temporary residence permits to vacate the country. After the outbreak of violence in the DRC’s Kasai region last March, 1.4 million people were displaced while an estimated over 35,000 refugees fled into Angola’s Lunda Norte Province. Since being forcibly returned, reports say that some people are now sleeping out in the open or in churches. Kasai remains volatile, and clashes between militias and government forces regularly occur.

     

    Cameroon: Last Sunday, Cameroonians voted against the backdrop of conflict and instability in the northwest and southwest Anglophone regions. With at least 246,000 people internally displaced, voter turnout was stifled in parts of the country. Election results are expected to be announced on 22 October, with President Paul Biya predicted to enter his seventh consecutive term despite a vocal opposition, including candidate Maurice Kamto who, a day after the election, claimed victory – a claim the government called “irresponsible, illegal”.

     

    Indonesia: With news headlines from Indonesia dominated by the Sulawesi earthquakes and tsunami, it’s easy to forget that the government is still dealing with a separate humanitarian response on the island of Lombok, which was hit by an earthquake in August. Data released this month shows there are still 432,000 people displaced. The IOM, the UN’s migration agency, says some people are choosing to live in tents outside their homes.

     

    Pakistan will allow registered Afghan refugees to stay legally in the country until 30 June 2019, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. It’s a relatively lengthy reprieve for some 1.4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The government this year imposed multiple short-term deadlines for refugees to leave, extending them by mere months at time.

     

    Syria: A Turkey-Russia negotiated truce is set to come into force in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on 15 October, and this week one group of Turkey-backed rebels withdrew their heavy weaponry from what is intended to become a demilitarised zone. But it’s still not clear if a key group of jihadist fighters intends to cooperate or if calm will hold for 2.5 million civilians in the area. Catch up on the deal here and the rebels on the ground here.

     

    United States: Nikki Haley’s resignation announcement on Tuesday as US ambassador to the UN has brought attention to the legacy she’ll leave after nearly two years in the role. In humanitarian terms, it has been one of loss. Haley withdrew US funding from various UN projects — most controversially the UNRWA for Palestinians — and threatened to cut peacekeeping budgets and suspend aid to nearly 40 nations that voted against US interests. She also pulled the US out of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Global Compact on Migration, echoing Donald Trump’s distaste for multilateralism.

     

    The weekend read

    How climate change is plunging Senegal’s herders into poverty

    This week, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of the devastating impact of a rapidly warming planet, saying the consequences of not halting the rise in global temperatures will rapidly change the way people live, with sea levels rising, coral reefs declining, and livestock and crops dying out. For the Fulani herders of West Africa’s Sahel region, the news is confirmation of what they already live through every day: drought, floods, and land degradation that increasingly threatens their way of life. Over the past six months, IRIN contributor Lucinda Rouse intermittently followed life in the herding communities of the drought-stricken Sahel region. For a timely weekend read, take a look at her first instalment in a three-part series on those herders and their families, exploring how they are coping with the impact of the worst “lean season” in years. Six million people in the Sahel faced severe food shortages between January and August this year, and the worst may be yet to come; 2.5 million livestock herders and crop growers now risk losing their incomes.

     

    Humanitarians and climate change

    In a week when the IPCC report spurred headlines that trumpeted dire warnings on the impacts of two degrees of global warming, diplomats, humanitarian policymakers, and some of the scientists behind the report came together in Geneva to take a different approach: how must aid workers and crisis responders act differently to anticipate and better address the humanitarian implications of climate change? Humanitarian response has long addressed climate crises, “we just don’t frame it as such”, Caroline Kende-Robb, secretary-general of CARE International, told the group gathered at the Palais des Nations for the “Climate Science and Humanitarian Dialogue” on Friday. IRIN’s own reporting regularly chronicles the human effects of climate change, including displacement, lost livelihoods, and malnutrition from drought, famine, and flooding. So what’s the key to humanitarian action now? Data is one. Forecast-based financing can spur early action, several speakers noted during a morning panel moderated by IRIN director Heba Aly. (For more on forecast-based financing, see our analysis on the initiative announced last month by the World Bank to address famine.) Documenting the current impacts of climate change is important, too, panelists noted, as a way to anticipate need. “The most vulnerable places have the weakest science,” Myles Allen, who contributed to the report, noted. He urged that humanitarians report on what they are seeing now and tell the stories of people whose lives are already changed by a warming world.

     

    As Marshall Islands citizen and poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner wrote in “2 Degrees”,

    Beyond

    the discussions

    are faces

    all the way out here

    And finally

     

    This Thursday was International Day of the Girl, so we’re taking this opportunity (with the help of CARE and our back catalogue of coverage) to remind Cheat Sheet readers that while fleeing home is hard for everyone, displaced and refugee girls face extra challenges. Child marriage rates shoot up in hard economic times; girls often bear the brunt of gender-based violence; and the UN says girls are 2.5 times more likely than boys to be out of school during conflict. But the theme of this year’s Day of the Girl is all about persistence, so watch this for some serious strength from Millie Wonder and her students in Kenya.

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    Caribbean tsunamis, migration art and humanitarians and climate change

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