(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Iranian-made missiles, climate change refugees, and a volcano in Bali: The Cheat Sheet

    Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:


    Anxious wait for Bali volcano displaced


    Authorities on the Indonesian island of Bali have evacuated more than 55,000 people around the vicinity of the rumbling Mount Agung volcano, which continues to disrupt lives in the tourist hotspot. Mount Agung began erupting on the 21st of November, spewing volcanic ash four kilometres into the air and forcing authorities to close nearby airports. The volcano last erupted in 1963, killing more than 1,000 people. While disaster management authorities say it’s difficult to predict what will happen, it’s likely that Bali residents will be living in uncertainty in the weeks and months ahead. The 1963 eruption stretched out over months, while Mount Sinabung volcano on Sumatra has spiked in and out of danger levels for years – several thousand evacuees have lived in displacement sites since 2015.


    UN releases record-breaking humanitarian appeal for 2018


    Misery remains buoyant. Next year, some 135.7 million people will be in life-threatening danger thanks to war and natural disasters. The UN's Global Humanitarian Overview for 2018 was released today, summarising critical situations and adding up the cost of projects required to help at least 90 million of them. Every year the UN coordinates a forecast of humanitarian operations and needs among dozens of aid agencies. The UN-led appeals include some NGOs, but not the Red Cross movement. Next year's price tag, if fully funded, would be $22.5 billion, one percent higher than projections at this point last year. In practice, the figure is aspirational: so far in 2017, UN fundraising has landed just 52 percent of its target. Speaking at the launch in Geneva, the top UN humanitarian official Mark Lowcock said the package of projects was the biggest-ever, but also that it was better designed and that donors could have "confidence in its needs assessment and credibility". IRIN will probe further in a sit-down interview with Lowcock. Look out for that next week! 


    The importance of UNVIM


    If you’ve been following our coverage of Yemen of late, you’ll remember Houthi rebels fired a rocket at Riyadh in early November, prompting the Saudi Arabian-led coalition fighting the rebels to close Yemen’s key airports, borders, and ports to trade and aid. The coalition said the closures were necessary to prevent weapons smuggling from Iran, but it also brought millions of Yemenis ever closer to starvation. The blockade has since eased (although the UN and others say it has not let up enough to avert a humanitarian catastrophe); just in time for a UN panel of monitors to reportedly conclude that remnants of four Houthi ballistic missiles fired at Saudi Arabia this year appear to have been made in Iran. Why isn’t there a UN force guarding against just this sort of thing? Well, actually, there is. It’s called the UN Verification and Inspections Mechanism, UNVIM for short, and how it works is more than a bit confusing. We’ve got you covered. Look out for our explainer next week on what it takes to get a commercial ship, the source of most of Yemen’s food, into the country.


    Biya yesterday, today and tomorrow?


    At the beginning of the year, the list of Africa’s longest serving leaders looked like this: Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola; Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea; Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe; Paul Biya of Cameroon; and Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo. Two of those men have since gone – Dos Santos stepped down in August (after 38 years) and Mugabe resigned last week (after 37), although the armoured vehicles outside his house had something to do with the decision. Guessing who might be next is a mug’s game. But Cameroon’s Paul Biya celebrated his 35th anniversary in a more subdued manner than usual, writes Kangsen Feka Wakai in the online journal Africa is a Country. Cameroon’s armed forces did not parade in front of him along Yaoundé’s Boulevard du 20 Mai. Instead, most of this year’s celebrations were led by ruling party officials imploring their militants to vote for Biya in next year’s elections under the slogan “Paul Biya yesterday, today and tomorrow”. But that’s a hard sell in Cameroon’s anglophone regions. Why? The region is simmering. Biya’s clampdown on anglophone militants demanding secession has triggered an armed uprising. Eight members of the security forces have been killed in the past few weeks, and the government claims that the rebels have sanctuary in neighbouring Nigeria. See IRIN’s earlier reporting, and look out for our upcoming story on the crisis.


    What Pacific Islanders really want


    New Zealand made headlines by proposing the world’s first humanitarian visa programme for so-called climate change refugees. But the proposal is hardly straightforward. Who would qualify in countries where climate change is just one of many factors that trigger displacement? What about communities displaced by natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis? As Nina Hall, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, points out in an article over at The Conversation, any eventual policy will need to pay far greater concern to the needs of the Pacific Islanders themselves. Both New Zealand and Australia already have ample avenues to safe and legal migration for Pacific Islanders, but these may be underused or poorly targeted. New Zealand’s Pacific Access Category programme, for example, uses a lottery system to offer 650 resident visas a year to citizens from Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kiribati. But there are only 75 spots each year open to people from Kiribati and Tuvalu – low-lying atoll nations at the most risk from rising sea levels and coastal erosion. New Zealand’s humanitarian visa proposal would only open up 100 total spots for people in all the Pacific Island nations. At the same time, many Pacific nations have instead called for New Zealand and Australia to expand existing work opportunities, such as short-term seasonal migration programmes, which fuel local economies through valuable remittances. About 12,000 Pacific Islanders each year already work in New Zealand or Australia under seasonal work schemes – but this number is grossly overshadowed by the 249,000 working holiday-maker visas Australia alone handed out to backpackers in 2013 – almost all from wealthy countries, according to a World Bank study. Countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu, the study notes, want access to employment, and “do not wish their peoples to be treated as ‘refugees’ fleeing a hopeless economic and environmental situation”. It’s a point Kiribati’s president, Taneti Maamau, underscored at November’s COP23 climate change summit in Bonn. “The continued conversation and predictions for Kiribati to sink in [the] future are not only de-empowering but also contradictory to our current efforts to build our islands,” he said.




    We were the world; now what?


    Today’s World AIDS Day comes in the wake of worrying developments from Washington: signs of US retreat from its leadership role in the global response. Donald Trump’s administration has proposed more than a billion dollars in cuts to key programmes such as the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief and the Global Fund. According to the One Campaign, if the cuts took effect, they could lead to nearly 300,000 deaths and more than 1.75 million new infections every year. The move is in keeping with Trump’s “America first” rhetoric and broad retreat from multilateralism, which has already been demonstrated by efforts to make deep cuts to foreign assistance, including food aid, and threats to withdraw from UNESCO and the Paris climate deal. Such a drift away from collective positive action is hardly unique to the US. As we reported yesterday, as far-right parties have made gains across Europe, two UN-backed “compacts” conceived more than a year ago to improve the response to the global refugee and migrant crisis now seem “rudderless in the face of strong political headwinds”. So what’s the big picture and where do these trends leave the future of humanitarian aid? On 7 December, the One Campaign’s president and CEO, Gayle Smith, will deliver the Overseas Development Institute’s annual lecture on exactly this subject in London. Details of how to attend or watch the livestream here.



    Iranian-made missiles, climate change refugees, and a volcano in Bali
  • IRIN wins top Asia award for video reporting

    We are delighted to announce that the Society of Publishers in Asia has recognised IRIN's outstanding work in the region with an overall win in the video reporting category and an honourable mention for our human rights reporting. Special mention to IRIN Asia Editor Jared Ferrie and IRIN Multimedia Editor Miranda Grant for their award-winning contributions.

    Winner Group B, Excellence in Video Reporting: Why this Indonesian fisherman risked it all

    Shot and produced by acclaimed German filmmaker Florian Kunert, this mini documentary powerfully captures the tough position Indonesian fishermen find themselves in. Fish stocks are depleting rapidly, putting pressure on them to find ways to increase their dwindling catches to feed their families. The easiest method is blast fishing, which they do by building makeshift bombs from plastic bottles filled with explosive powder scratched off of matches.  

    But blast fishing carries huge risks, both in human and environmental terms. It destroys the coral reefs that provide a habitat for fish, and exposes fishermen to mortal danger. Beautifully filmed in markets and villages, on the open water and below the ocean’s surface, this video provides a stark warning about the human costs of destroying fishing habitats.

    Honorable Mention Group B, Excellence in Human Rights Reporting: Myanmar says Rohingya rape and abuse allegations “made-up”, despite mounting evidence

    In the face of outright denials by Myanmar’s government, IRIN Asia Editor Jared Ferrie uncovered strong evidence that the military was committing atrocities against the country’s persecuted ethnic Rohingya Muslim community. His story juxtaposes the experiences of survivors against government statements, providing a historical record of both the atrocities and the attempts to cover them up.

    As Myanmar refused to allow journalists near the police border posts where the accounts were emerging, Ferrie travelled to neighbouring Bangladesh. His vital reporting there revealed that the number of people who fled across the border was far higher than previously reported and directly challenged the government’s narrative. A spokeswoman for Myanmar’s leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, insisted that military operations had been conducted “with very much restraint”. And allegations of rape and ethnic cleansing? “Completely false.” With the evidence presented in Ferrie's story, such denials became impossible to believe.

    Read the feature

    See the full list of award winners.

    (TOP PHOTO: A camp near Sittwe, Myanmar, seen in March 2015, for Rohingya displaced by violence in 2012. CREDIT: Sara Perria/IRIN)

    IRIN receives Asia reporting awards
  • Islamic State ramps up recruitment in Pakistan

    Obaid Khan was planning to join Pakistan’s public school system as a teacher after finishing his undergraduate degree in May this year. Instead, he dropped out of university to join the so-called Islamic State, and he’s now fighting in Afghanistan.
    Obaid’s life-plan began to change when a man identifying himself as Qari Abid contacted him via Facebook last August. As their correspondence deepened, Khan became more and more convinced that he needed to join the “jihad against infidels”, according to his elder brother, Hanifullah, whom Abid attempted to recruit as well.
    “He used to get promotional Islamic State material and sermons about jihad every second day in his Facebook inbox,” said Hanifullah about his brother. 
    Then, at the end of October, Obaid suddenly left the family home in Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the frontier with Afghanistan. Last month, he called Hanifullah and told him he had finished training with IS and was now fighting in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province, where Afghan government and US forces have been battling the militants.
    “He was a religious-minded person, but we never thought he would one day join a militant group like the IS,” said Hanifullah in a telephone interview.
    Military assaults have squeezed IS out of some of the territory it took control of in Iraq and Syria, and the group has recently expanded its presence in South Asia. 
    In January 2015, IS declared its intention to establish “Khorasan”, in reference to a historical region that once covered much of modern day Afghanistan as well as parts of Iran and Central Asia. Nangarhar remains its main base of operations, but its tentacles extend across the border into Pakistan too.
    Officially, Pakistan’s government says that IS, or Daesh as it is referred to here, is not active in the country. But a senior security official has told IRIN that the group represents a serious threat to the country as it coordinates with other militant groups, and ramps up recruitment using social media. The official and Pakistani relatives of IS fighters have shared information on how the recruitment process works.

    Government denials

    “There is no organised presence, I repeat, no organised presence of Daesh in Pakistan,” Mohammed Nafees Zakaria, a foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters on 15 December. “The pronouncement of one or two random individuals of having affiliation to Daesh does not form the basis for claiming organised presence for this entity in Pakistan.”
    However, a senior counter-terrorism official told IRIN that 14 Pakistanis joined IS in October alone, while hundreds more are also believed to be in touch with the recruiters through social media.
    “The IS recruiters contact young, educated Pakistani men and women through Facebook, telegram, and other social media platforms and convince them to join the IS in Syria and Afghanistan,” said the official, who requested his name be withheld due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
    He said he believed the presence of IS could pose a more dangerous threat to Pakistan than the Taliban and other militants, because “it has penetrated in urban educated youth through social media and has enough resources too to lure them to Syria and Afghanistan in the name of jihad”.
    The resources include cash payments to families of new recruits, according to the official as well as the brother of another young Pakistani man who has joined IS and is now in Afghanistan for training.
    The man told IRIN that his family is receiving a monthly stipend of 30,000 rupees ($286) and that leading IS figures in the region had also promised to sponsor the education of his brother’s three children.
    “My brother was inducted into the IS force through multiple interviews on Facebook,” said the man on condition of anonymity. “We don’t know exact identity of the recruiters.”
    Khurram Mehran, a spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, said his organisation has no clear-cut policy to counter the presence of IS on internet and its recruitment of Pakistanis through social media.
    “The government has been continuously denying the presence of IS in Pakistan,” he said. “We start monitoring activities of any militant group on the internet only after we receive instructions from relevant government departments."

    Asia expansion?

    As recently as 21 December, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said during a visit to Bosnia that IS is not active in Pakistan, and that the country has destroyed sanctuaries and safe havens of al-Qaeda and Taliban.
    Despite such public statements, the militant group has carried out attacks in Pakistan, according to the counter-terrorism official, and IS itself. 
    The IS claimed responsibility for a May 2015 attack on a bus in Karachi that killed 47 people. It also claimed responsibility for the attack on a hospital in Quetta last August that killed 72 people, as well as an attack on the Quetta Police College in October, which killed 59 officers.
    The counter-terrorism official said IS has linked up with other militant groups that have a more established presence in Pakistan and have better capabilities on the ground.
    “The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi carried out these attacks in Pakistan under the banner of the Islamic State,” said the official. “IS has effectively infused its ideology in these groups through its promotional material of jihad.”
    He said Pakistan military operations have forced many Islamist fighters across the border into Afghanistan, particularly those with IMU and the Tehreek-e-Taliban militant group, but the porous border allows them to cross back into Pakistan to plan and carry out operations.
    “The IMU fighters have also had their presence in Pakistan's Balochistan province and some tribal areas of the country as they have married local girls and developed relationship with local warlords,” the counter-terrorism official added.
    For now, the IS presence in Asia is focused mainly on the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there are signs that the groups has plans to expand throughout the region. 
    The group took responsibility for an attack on a café in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in July where 20 hostages were killed. Indonesian police said an IS militant believed to be in Syria ordered an attack in the capital, Jakarta, one year ago that killed two people. Militant groups in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao have also publicly pledged allegiance to IS.
    (TOP PHOTO: Philippines soldiers with bomb-making material and IS propaganda captured from a militant group in Mindanao. CREDIT: Jared Ferrie/IRIN)
    Islamic State ramps up recruitment in Pakistan
  • UPDATED: Search for survivors as deadly quake again hits Indonesia’s Aceh

    Twelve years after the world’s deadliest tsunami struck Aceh’s shores first, those living near the northern tip of the Indonesian province are again counting their losses and looking for survivors after a killer earthquake.

    *At least 102 people have been killed, according to the humanitarian arm of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The organisation said on Thursday that a hospital and a school collapsed, along with more than 100 shophouses, and 14 mosques. The quake "heavily damaged" at least 161 houses, and 3,267 people are now staying in temporary shelters.

    Nine more bodies have been pulled from rubble since Wednesday, when National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told IRIN that young children were among those who died. At least 128 people were seriously injured, he said.

    The shallow subsea earthquake, which had a magnitude of 6.5, according to the United States Geological Survey, struck at 5am on Wednesday morning.

    Its epicentre was at a depth of 8.2 kilometres (five miles) just off Pidie Jaya, a region on the east coast of the island of Sumatra, about 70 kilometres southeast of the provincial capital Banda Aceh.

    The temblor struck at dawn, as many in the predominantly Muslim region were rising to pray. At least five aftershocks were felt in the hours after the initial quake. The rescue effort is concentrated on Meureudu, the town closest to the epicentre.

    Local TV stations broadcast images of collapsed buildings, cracked roads, and improvised field hospitals in which survivors were being treated by the side of the road.

    President Joko Widodo has announced his chief of staff will fly to the region to oversee the rescue effort, while the military has deployed 740 troops to help.

    Related stories:

    Aceh redux: The tsunami that helped stop a war

    Aceh's unfinished recovery

    Bad memories

    The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami remains fresh in the memories of many in Aceh. Tremors often send residents running for high ground.

    One female resident of Pidie Jaya told AP how she fled with her husband and children to a nearby hill after Wednesday’s quake jolted them from their sleep.

    "It terrified me. I was having difficulty breathing or walking," she said. "We ran to a nearby hill, because our house is near a beach. We were afraid a tsunami can come at any time."

    Relief workers are complaining of inadequate numbers of medical staff in the area, and many casualties are reportedly having to be transported significant distances to neighbouring districts for treatment.  


    Irsyad Hadi/Plan International
    Rescuers search for survivors of the earthquake

    Offers of assistance

    A written statement from Plan International said it was coordinating with national and local disaster management agencies and in-country humanitarian agencies, and was ready to respond if asked.

    “We have pre-positioned emergency supplies that can be distributed, including emergency shelter kits and other urgent humanitarian supplies,” the aid organisation’s Wahyu Kuncoro said.

    “Many schools are now closed as a result of the earthquake, which means that thousands of children are not able to resume their education. As a result, these children may lack the physical protection and emotional support that their school environment provides.” 

    *Malaysia offered to send its Disaster Assistance and Rescue team if needed. Indonesia has not requested international assistance, according to ASEAN, which recommended that disaster response teams remain on standby.

    Due to its location on the infamous “Ring of Fire” — a set of fault lines that circle the Pacific Basin — large earthquakes are common across Indonesia.

    In March, a 7.8-magnitude quake struck off the southwestern coast of Sumatra, but no tsunami was recorded and no deaths occurred.

    The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and earthquake – recorded as 9.1-magnitude by USGS – killed 230,000 people in more than a dozen countries, including 170,000 in Aceh Province alone.


    *(This story has been updated with new estimates from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations of the number of people killed, damage caused to infrastructure, and Malaysia's offer to send a disaster response team.)

    (TOP PHOTO: Rescue workers help a victim of the earthquake. CREDIT: Indonesian Red Cross)



    UPDATED: Search for survivors as deadly quake again hits Indonesia’s Aceh
  • How mining and militarisation led to an HIV epidemic in Indonesia’s Papua

    Martina Wanago was sick. In fact, she was sure she would die. She had contracted HIV, which has reached epidemic proportions here in Indonesia’s remote and restive province of Papua. And like many of those infected, she didn’t know what was wrong with her.

    “All I could do was just wait for God to call me,” Wanago said, closing her eyes as firelight flickered on her face in a traditional roundhouse in Kambele, a remote artisanal mining village deep in cloud-shrouded mountains.
    But it was here, in this unlikely spot, that she found salvation. Or rather, she found treatment – at the Waa Waa Hospital in the nearby community of Banti.
    The hospital was built by Freeport McMoRan, one of the world’s largest mining companies, based in Phoenix, Arizona. It is one of very few positive developments that the industry has brought to indigenous Papuans.  
    In fact, Papua’s resource wealth is intimately connected to its tortuous past half-century, which has included a foiled attempt at independence followed by an armed rebellion in which Indonesian security forces have killed tens of thousands of indigenous people.
    A more recent consequence of mining and militarisation is that – along with an underfunded healthcare system – they have contributed to an HIV epidemic in Papua.
    Timika, near the Grasberg mine, which is majority owned by Freeport, was a village of less than 1,000 indigenous Kamoro people in the 1950s. It boomed throughout the 1990s, becoming a city of 120,000 people, including men who had migrated to work at the mine and who created a market that attracted sex workers from other parts of Indonesia. Among newly-arrived female sex workers, HIV rates jumped from zero to 1.4 percent between 1997 and 2002, according to a study published in the journal Sexual Health. From mining towns, HIV has spread even to remote villages with no access to healthcare.
    It is "one of the few national epidemics that continues to spread", according to a 2013 study conducted by Indonesia’s health ministry. In Papua Province, reported AIDS cases [320 per 100,000 people] are almost 20 times the national average, researchers found. And the study indicated that 88 percent of HIV-positive people in Papua and neighbouring West Papua provinces were unaware that they had contracted the virus.

    Mining, military and HIV

    Wanago and her husband had walked for three days from their ancestral village to get to Kambele. They came to pan gold from as much as 230,000 tonnes of untreated mine waste dumped daily into the river by Grasberg, which is one of the world's largest goldmines.
    They had come to find opportunity, a way to make a living to support their children. Instead, they found HIV.
    Like so many others, Wanago’s husband contracted the virus from a sex worker in one of the brothels that cater to mining communities. And then he passed it on to his wife.


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Artisanal miners extract gold out of waste from the Grasberg mine dumped into the Aiwa River
    The Indonesian government has designated the Grasberg mine a “strategic industry”, which allows the military to hold exclusive contracts over its security. In Papua and the wider West Papua region, some officers are involved in an illegal but booming business on the side – the sex trade.
    A Papua provincial government official, speaking to IRIN on condition of anonymity, provided specifics of one brothel operation, which includes 57 “houses” and about 180 sex workers.
    “These are the owners: the oldest, retired military man – he owns more than one house – one active military [officer] who works in the military hospital, one active police officer, and civilian migrants including Chinese descent, backed by security,” said the official.
    *The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Brisbane received similar information during a recent fact-finding mission. "Church workers and gatherings of a number of Catholic congregations in a number of locations told our delegation that the HIV problem is worsened by infected sex workers being brought in, often by the military," it said in a May report
    The military did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
    **The Indonesian health ministry's 2013 study found that 3.5 percent of women in Papua and West Papua provinces who engaged in commercial sex were HIV positive.
    Over the past decade, health authorities have carried out prevention programmes in both provinces, which "contributed to halting the growth of the epidemic", according to a report published by the Burnet Institute, an Australian medical research organisation. Between 2006 and 2013, the HIV rate stayed at high but stable rate of 2.9 percent among indigenous Papuans, the institute said.
    However, the health ministry's study found that more than 85 percent of those who tested positive for HIV while participating in the survey did not know their status beforehand, "thus indicating a huge need for increased targeted HIV testing programs".


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Sex workers from Java relax at a brothel in Timika, Papua Province

    Decimated population

    Of course, mining is not the only reason the military is in Papua – although the two are historically intertwined.
    In 1960, Freeport McMoRan was known as Freeport Sulphur and its executives became interested in gold deposits that had been discovered high in the mountains of what was then known as Dutch New Guinea. (The region now consists of West Papua Province and Papua Province, which borders the independent nation of Papua New Guinea to the east. Somewhat confusingly, the Indonesian provinces are often referred to collectively as West Papua)
    At that point, indigenous Papuans who had been living under Dutch rule were three years into a 10-year process leading up to independence. An Indonesian General named Suharto – who was later to become president after a bloody coup – hijacked that process and began secret negotiations with Freeport, which granted the company mining exploration rights.
    With so much mineral wealth at stake, as well as an expansionist Indonesian military, Dutch New Guinea became a battleground, and Indonesian soldiers were sent in to maintain control over the political situation.
    Rather than a plebiscite as specified by a 1962 agreement under UN auspices, the 1969 vote included only about 1,000 Papuan leaders selected by Indonesia, who cast ballots under the threat of violence. Despite such obvious coercion, the UN accepted the results and Indonesia annexed the region.
    Thus began a rebellion that continues to this day.


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    The Grasberg mine, one of the biggest gold and copper mines in the world, is carved out of the mountains at 4,200 meters
    Indonesia strictly limits media and researchers’ access to Papua, and local civil society groups are under constant surveillance and threats of arrest. So independent statistics on the number of casualties are hard to come by, and they vary widely.
    “In aggregate, many tens if not hundreds of thousands of West Papuan people have been killed under Indonesian rule as the direct result of explicit government policies,” according to 2013 article in the Griffith Journal of Law.
    The activist group, Free West Papua, says the Indonesian regime has killed or disappeared 100,000 people since 1962. In addition: “During the mid-1990s the Indonesian military systematically destroyed village gardens, causing widespread famine.”
    The election of President Joko Widodo in 2014 brought new hope for Papuans. He publicly stated his commitment to human rights, met with Papuan religious and political leaders during his first year in office, and last year ordered the release of five political prisoners. Yet, little has been done to rein in the security forces.
    Today, Papua remains by far the most militarised province in the country, according to Made Supriamata, a PHD candidate at New York State’s Cornell University who researches Indonesian security forces. He told IRIN that there are three times as many soldiers in Papua than in any other province.
    As Papua’s indigenous people were being decimated over decades of conflict, they came under another even more powerful demographic threat: Indonesia began encouraging migration from other parts of the country into the province. According to a 2010 study by the University of Sydney, indigenous people made up 96 percent of the population of West Papua (including both provinces) in 1971; by 2010 that figure had fallen to only about 48 percent.
    And now, Papuans are dying of HIV.

    AIDS activism

    Many countries around the world have, of course, shown that HIV does not have to be fatal. But that requires a healthcare system that functions to at least a minimum standard of providing access to a large portion of the population.
    Indonesian health ministry reports show that in an area of 53,000 square kilometers – bigger than Croatia – a population of 400,000 is served by only one 70-bed hospital, and 15 health centres, two of which don’t even have a doctor.
    The best hospital in the province, and the only one in the highlands region, is the Waa Waa Hospital in Banti where Martina Wanago and others receive treatment as part of its HIV programme. The hospital receives between 100 and 120 patients a day from three nearby villages. But the majority of Papuans live in remote areas, far from this hospital, and are left without access to modern medicine.
    “We worry about the other villages,” said Dr. Milke, who runs the programme. 
    “In those villages, they rely on supernatural healers and beliefs,” she told IRIN. “We only know what happens there if someone comes here sick and they tell us their wife or husband has died and so have many others.”


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    The Waa Waa Hospital in Banti
    The HIV epidemic has fed into theories that the Indonesian government is trying to wipe out the indigenous population.
    “Papuans believe HIV was intentionally introduced into Papua by Indonesians in order to kill us,” one Papuan confided to IRIN. “And that the government intentionally leaves the disease to spread widely without taking serious measures to overcome the problem.”
    There is no evidence the theory is true, but some Papuans have reached the conclusion given that government policies have reduced them to a minority in their homeland. And security forces continue to arrest, abuse, and sometimes kill those who speak out, according to advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch. Despite those pressures, Papuan activists continue to campaign for independence.
    “Under international law and practice, we have a right to self-determination,” one told IRIN, on condition of anonymity. “It is our land.”
    Wanago has turned to activism too, although it’s of a different kind – she’s drawing on her own experience to encourage people to use condoms.
    *(This story has been updated to include comment from the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Brisbane.)
    **(An earlier version of this story included figures from two sources that suggested inflated rates of HIV among sex workers.)
    Gaining rare access into a region severely restricted to journalists, IRIN exposes how a rampant sex trade and inadequate HIV treatments are fuelling a health crisis
  • Why this Indonesian fisherman risked it all

    On the Indonesian island of Kaledupa, fishermen like Lino create makeshift bombs out of plastic soda bottles to catch greater numbers of fish.

    Blast Fishing in Indonesia

    Florian Kunert/IRIN
    Blast Fishing in Indonesia

    Blast fishing can yield up to ten times more than traditional fishing but it decimates fish populations and destroys everything in its wake. More than seventy percent of Indonesia’s coral reef is severely deteriorated due to human activity, and blast fishing is one of the leading causes of this devastation. But there just aren't as many fish as there used to be and Lino needs to find a way to feed his family.

    Blast fishing in Sulawesi
    Why this Indonesian fisherman risked it all
    This short film is part of an in-depth IRIN series looking at how climate change and overfishing are wiping out global fish stocks and threatening a health crisis for coastal communities in the tropical zone. Winner of the Society of Publishers in Asia award for Excellence in Video Reporting.
  • Can seaweed farming save Indonesian fishermen?

    Isria is sitting out on a large bamboo platform over the sea. Piles of seaweed with a multitude of colours and textures surround him. He runs his hand along a thin rope, removing a bunch of seaweed every metre and throwing it out onto the platform to dry. His boat is tied up, piled high with these seaweed-laden ropes; he has just returned from a harvest.

    Isria, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. He is a seaweed farmer. He lives in Lohuu village on Kaledupa, an island that forms part of the Wakatobi Marine Park off eastern Sulawesi in Indonesia. Almost all of the working-age residents of this village of a couple hundred people are seaweed farmers.

    The families in Lohuu are not alone in the region. With dwindling fish stocks, people all around these islands are finding it increasingly hard to make a living from fishing so many are turning to seaweed farming instead.

    Could seaweed be the economic future of this region? Isria thinks so. Pointing behind him to his home, and then out towards the ocean, he smiles and says, “I love this work. With seaweed farming I can make enough money to feed my family.”


    Vivien Cumming/IRIN
    A small seaweed farm in Pulau Manui, Indonesia

    Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There are environmental impacts associated with seaweed farming that are just beginning to be understood. Worse though, as Kihagar, another seaweed farmer, points out, climate change may be affecting seaweed growth: “The weather is changing and it can sometimes give me a bad harvest.”

    For centuries seaweed has been a farmed product, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the use of carrageenan – a seaweed-derived thickening agent – turned commercial. Nowadays, many everyday products contain carrageenans, everything from toothpaste to ice cream to burgers.

    In Indonesia, seaweed farming has been growing over the last three decades. By 2009, Indonesia had become the world’s largest producer of katoni seaweed (Kappaphycus alvarezii), one of the most important commercial sources of carrageenans. By 2013, when the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization conducted extensive research into the booming industry, it was already supporting the livelihoods of more than 20,000 smallholder farmers in Indonesia alone.

    Seaweed grows as fishing dies

    In Lohuu and nearby villages, people started farming seaweed in 1989. La Ode Waidi, one of the oldest seaweed farmers in the village, used to journey to Borneo for tree felling work. On his travels, he noticed how much money seaweed farming made in other parts of Indonesia and started doing it himself back in Lohuu. Other villagers slowly followed suit and soon the majority of them were growing seaweed. In Lohuu, it has become the financial backbone of the community.

    There are no longer enough fish to provide the livelihoods that people need. Mukan said he is still eking out a living as a fisherman, but times are tough. He described how he used to go out and bring home a basket full of fish after one hour. Now he can be out there for half a day and return with nothing.


    Isria removes seaweed from the ropes it grows on

    Professor David Smith of the University of Essex, a marine biologist who has led a reef monitoring project in the region for 15 years, has found that there are 75 percent less fish today than when they started recording in 2002.

    “This is because of overfishing, but also a loss of coral cover, which is due to multiple reasons,” he says.

    Fish stocks aren’t just plummeting here; it’s a global problem. And in low-latitude developing nations like Indonesia, a crisis is brewing. In this nation of more than 17,000 islands and 260 million people, disappearing fish stocks could lead to malnutrition. As the FAO noted in a 2014 report, “the fishery sector provides a significant contribution to the food security of the country”.

    This is scarily apparent on remote islands such as Kaledupa. People here eat fish three times a day. Fish provide the protein and micronutrients needed to survive. But this crucial food source is disappearing as habitat degradation and overfishing take their toll on stocks.

    Fishermen on Kaledupa say they are worried about the future, and that they are open to alternatives to fishing that would provide enough income to feed their families. It’s no coincidence that so many are turning to seaweed farming.

    Wonder crop?

    It’s being lauded as a wonder crop that requires no fresh water, land, pesticides or fertilisers, and it grows fast. But seaweed farming is not without its challenges.

    Starting a farm is a labour-intensive process. Very small pieces of seaweed are tied every 20 centimetres to long ropes, which are anchored to sticks and attached to plastic bottles and pieces of polystyrene that act as floats. The farms float on the surface over large areas of shallow water. After 40 days the seaweed is harvested and dried in the sun.

    Once dry, the farmers sell it to brokers and it eventually makes its way to the Philippines, where 87 percent of Indonesia’s seaweed is processed, according to The Opwall Trust, a UK charity that supports conservation-friendly economic development projects. The high value of processed carrageenan means that this represents a significant and unnecessary loss to the Indonesian economy.

    Currently, katoni is around 8,000 rupiah (USD 59 cents) per kilogram, but historically the price has been volatile. In 2008, prices suddenly shot up from 5,000 to 18,000 rupiah, before tumbling again to 10,000.


    Vivien Cumming/IRIN
    A boat brings in seaweed from a farm in Dewara on Kaledupa Island

    Despite an increasing global demand for carrageenan, higher prices are not filtering down to the farmers. The Opwall Trust is piloting a plan over the next few years to build a seaweed processing plant in the region. It would cut out the middleman, meaning local farmers would be getting a better price for their seaweed.

    The by-products of processing are nutrients that could be used to fertilise poor soil on the island and produce food, which could reduce reliance on fish as the main protein and source of nutrients.

    The Opwall Trust also plans to offers farmers a share in the processing plant in return for relinquishing their fishing licences.

    That sounds like a great idea, but in practice it’s unlikely to stop anyone from fishing. The region already suffers from poor enforcement and is rife with illegal practices like using explosives to catch fish.

    Biodiversity concerns

    So could seaweed farming really offer a suitable alternative to fishing?

    On the island of Kaledupa, it does provide a more reliable income than fishing right now, but there are serious longer-term concerns. Disease can have a big impact on harvests, and so can weather patterns, which are both becoming more erratic with climate change.

    Smith, of the University of Essex, warns that if seaweed farming is left unregulated it can create environmental problems too. Shallow coastal habitats and inter-tidal areas maybe be altered or destroyed by the increasing development of seaweed farms. These coastal shallow habitats provide nursery areas that most species of fish in the tropics depend on for their survival.

    Perhaps this can be overcome by creating more than just seaweed farms. In other parts of the world, seaweed has been grown alongside shellfish and other marine life.

    As long as future aquaculture doesn’t repeat past mistakes, it may provide a sustainable alternative to fishing, experts say. But that depends on making conservation a priority and ensuring that it allows a diversity of species to coexist.

    “If seaweed farming is to be the answer, it is better to look at the most sustainable ways to manage and farm now rather than wait for expansion, unregulated farming and environmentally degrading processes,” warns Smith.


    Vivien Cumming/IRIN
    Kihagar and his son make seaweed ropes in their home in Lohuu

    Planning for the future does not come naturally to the people of Kaledupa. In their culture, people live one day at a time. In fact, the Indonesian language has no future tense.

    But people adapt, like former fisherman Kihagar, who turned to seaweed farming as the fish ran out. He sits in his front room surrounded by mounds of rope and plastic bottles, teaching his son how to mend and build seaweed ropes.

    “Hopefully we can always do this,” says Kihagar.


    (TOP PHOTO: A girl sorts through seaweed under her family's house in Dewara, Kaledupa, before laying it out to dry. CREDIT: Vivien Cumming)

    Can seaweed farming save Indonesian fishermen?
  • How ready are Indian Ocean nations for the next big tsunami?

    On Boxing Day 2004, a 9.2-magnitude earthquake struck off the west coast of Sumatra, triggering a tsunami with a series of waves up to 30 metres (100 feet) high that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 13 countries. Today, almost 12 years later, tens of thousands of people from Indian Ocean coastal communities will evacuate their homes in an exercise to establish how prepared the region is for the next "big one".
    The two-day drill involves 24 countries, including many of those that suffered the worst devastation in 2004, and will see at least 10 of those carry out a practice evacuation totalling about 50,000 people.
    The exercise and subsequent evaluation are an attempt to find out how well the regional tsunami warning system, which began operating in 2011, is working.
    “In terms of scale, at least in Indonesia, this is unprecedented,” said Puji Pujiono, a disaster risk reduction advisor with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
    He told IRIN that 3,000 people from various Indonesian agencies are involved, and the drill is being carried out in four districts vulnerable to tsunamis.
    “The exercise is meant to test the standard operating procedures and communication links at all levels of the warning chain,” said Andi Eka Sakya, director general of the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics, known by its Bahasa acronym BMKG.
    He told IRIN the simulation would gauge whether “agencies, community organisations and citizens groups are able to work together to prepare for the evacuation after a tsunami warning is issued by national and local authorities.”
    What will happen?
    Today’s exercise involves a quake similar to the one in 2004, off the coast of Sumatra. Tomorrow’s will simulate a 9-magnitude earthquake in the Makran Trench in the ocean south of Iran and Pakistan, according to UNESCO, which is responsible for coordinating the tsunami warning system’s governance.
    About 7,000 people will be evacuated from 14 Sri Lankan villages, while about 8,000 students will participate in simulated evacuations in Oman. In India, about 35,000 people will take part in evacuations from 350 villages over the next two days.
    “Simulating tsunami waves travelling across the Indian Ocean, both exercises will be conducted in real time lasting about 12 hours,” said UNESCO. 
    Earlier this year, authorities had the opportunity to see the system at work after a magnitude 7.8 quake off Sumatra on 2 March set off warnings in several countries.
    In Indonesia, the BMKG sent its first bulletin within five minutes, warning local and regional authorities of the temblor. Ten minutes later it followed up with a tsunami warning bulletin, which was cancelled half an hour later, according to Sakya, the agency’s director general.
    That’s the way the warning system is supposed to work at an agency level. On the ground, the response was mixed, Sakya said in a May interview. In some communities the evacuation was orderly, while there was confusion and panic in others.
    “Some sirens had been turned on by the local officers, but then, after misinterpreting the tsunami information, they turned them off,” he said.
    Reactions in other countries from the March quake should become clearer once a survey by UNESCO’s Indian Ocean Tsunami Information Centre is completed. However, the survey is hampered by a poor response rate from the 24 countries that were asked to take part; only 14 had responded as of the end of July.
    (PHOTO: A tsunami evacuation sign in Sri Lanka. CREDIT: Amantha Perera/IRIN)
    How ready are Indian Ocean nations for the next big tsunami?
  • Where are the Rohingya boat survivors now?

    When Malaysia allowed hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants abandoned by their smugglers and left adrift on the Andaman Sea to come ashore last May, it marked the end of a regional diplomatic stalemate that had left thousands of lives in the balance and garnered international headlines.

    Nearly a year later, a crackdown has successfully reduced migrant smuggling and trafficking into Malaysia to a trickle. But for hundreds of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who came off the smugglers’ boats hoping for a new life, their troubles are far from over and now no one seems to care.

    “Malaysia got praised for opening up its borders and allowing them to disembark, but what happened is that the folks that were on the boat were pretty much immediately put into detention."

    “Malaysia got praised for opening up its borders and allowing them to disembark, but what happened is that the folks that were on the boat were pretty much immediately put into detention,” explained Amy Smith, executive director of Southeast Asia-based human rights NGO, Fortify Rights.

    The Malaysian and Indonesian governments finally agreed to allow the stranded migrants to come ashore but promised them only temporary refuge and assistance. They gave the international community a 12-month deadline to resettle or repatriate the mostly Rohingya victims of the crisis.

    The majority of Bangladeshi migrants rescued from the boats opted to be returned home, but more than 370 Rohingya refugees who came off the boats in Malaysia have been held ever since in the Belantik detention centre in Kedah in the northwest of the country. Typically, detainees identified by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, as Rohingya are judged to have clear asylum claims and released in a matter of weeks.

    For months, the government prevented UNHCR, and humanitarian groups, from accessing the Belantik detention centre. By August, when UN staff were finally admitted, many refugees had fallen ill with tuberculosis, said Richard Towle, the UNHCR representative in Malaysia.

    “All of that group is still in detention,” Towle told IRIN. “Some have suffered enormously during their journeys to Malaysia and many of them were in poor shape before they left Rakhine State [in Myanmar]. Now superimpose nearly one year of detention — these detention facilities in Malaysia are a tough place.”

    TB infections have prolonged the already slow and complicated process of refugee status determinations, and then resettlement applications. Towle explained that resettlement countries won’t accept a refugee until six months after they complete treatment for the infectious disease.

    Where can they go?

    The United States has promised to resettle an unspecified number of the refugees, while Australia has declined to accept any.

    “Australia is not accepting any Rohingya refugees, full stop,” Towle said. “The caseload doesn’t fit within current policy criteria for resettlement, so we have to look further afield for resettlement options.”

    The government restricts access to detention centres, but humanitarian organisations and refugees who have spent time in detention described the conditions to IRIN as severely overcrowded and rife with disease.

    UNHCR is trying to convince Malaysian authorities to release the refugees and allow them to live in one of the country’s sizeable Rohingya communities, but so far to no avail.

    Neither Malaysia nor Indonesia is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning that Rohingya refugees are treated as undocumented migrants with no right to work or access to public services.

    The Malaysian government is now working with UNHCR to establish a pilot programme that would allow 300 Rohingya with refugee status to legally work, but for the majority, life in Malaysia remains a struggle.

    They live in neighbourhoods like Ampang, where apartments are affordable and an established Rohingya community offers support to new arrivals. But undocumented Rohingya say they can only secure the most dangerous and low-paying jobs. Others spend their days hiding from their smugglers, many of whom live in the same community and demand repayment for debts.

    “Unfortunately, the hope of Malaysia falls quite flat,” Smith said. “For Rohingya, it is a very difficult situation because they are basically treated as illegal undocumented migrants and are subject to arrest, exploitation [and] extortion by the Malaysian authorities.”

    In Indonesia, most of the Rohingya refugees who had been rescued last May off the coast of Aceh Province in the north have since disappeared from the temporary camps where they were being hosted. They are thought to have put their lives in the hands of smugglers once again in an effort to reach Malaysia and its better prospects for working in the informal economy. It is not known how many successfully made the journey, but some have approached UNHCR’s Kuala Lumpur office and applied for asylum. Towle declined to give specific numbers, but confirmed that “a considerable percentage of the people who finished up in Indonesia have drifted across, under their own devices, towards Malaysia.”


    A map showing the location of abandoned smugglers' boats when their passengers were finally found or rescued

    Long-term solution

    The Muslim Rohingya have been described as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Claiming they are don’t belong to a genuine ethnic group but are Bengali migrants, the government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar has restricted their freedom of movement and denied them citizenship, access to education and the right to vote.

    The situation in Rakhine State, where most of Myanmar’s Rohingya population are confined to camps, remains tense, but fewer are choosing to leave. Chris Lewa, coordinator of Thailand-based human rights group, the Arakan Project, believes many are waiting to see if Myanmar’s new government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, will improve their situation. Others may have been put off by news from Malaysia of frequent immigration raids to catch undocumented migrants.

    “The Rohingyas are sort of trapped in Rakhine nowadays,” Lewa said. “However, for the time being, there seems to be less urgency for them to flee due to hope with the new government and due to the deteriorating situation in Malaysia.” 

    Related stories:

    All at sea: what lies behind Southeast Asia's migrant crisis?

    Kept afloat by hope: the endless odyssey of the Rohingya

    Tackling the roots of the Rohingya crisis

    Rohingya refugees vanish from Indonesia

    While the first half of 2015 was marked by an estimated 33,600 Rohingya and Baghladeshi migrants taking smugglers’ boats across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, the highly-publicised crackdown on smuggling networks has reduced arrivals dramatically – UNHCR reported just 1,600 departures in the second half of the year. Others continue to travel overland, crossing the Thai-Malaysian border on foot.

    UNHCR estimates that 370 Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya refugees died during boat crossings during 2015. The remains of more than 220 others were unearthed in people trafficking camps along the Thai-Malaysia border.

    The Bali Process, a regional framework set up in 2002 to tackle people smuggling and trafficking, has done little to address the root causes of irregular migration. At a ministerial meeting in March, regional leaders pledged greater cooperation on search and rescue efforts and providing temporary protection and legal pathways for refugees and migrants.

    “The Bay of Bengal [crisis] was a wake-up call for the people of the region about the need for greater cooperation,” said Towle. “The Bali Process is a step towards that, but there is still a [long] way to go, otherwise we’ll see another crisis again with the same response as before.”



    Where are the Rohingya boat survivors now?
    No happy ending for Myanmar refugees
  • It’s not just in Greece that refugees are stranded

    Indonesia used a regional meeting on migration in Bali on Wednesday to pressure Australia to take in more of the refugees who have become stranded in the Southeast Asian nation as a result of Canberra’s controversial policy of turning back asylum seeker boats.

    Indonesia had long been a transit country for thousands of asylum seekers trying to reach Australian shores. But Australia launched Operation Sovereign Borders in September 2013, policing its waters and turning back boats with such efficiency that it has all but blocked off the route. Several hundred new asylum seekers, however, are still arriving in Indonesia every month. An ever-increasing number are now spending years in limbo in a country that neither recognises them as refugees nor offers any possibility of local integration.

    Resettlement to a third country is the only option for most of the nearly 14,000 asylum seekers and refugees now stranded in Indonesia (up from 10,000 two years ago). Australia used to be the country that accepted the majority of refugees in Indonesia for resettlement, but now it only takes those who registered there before July 2014.

    Other countries with resettlement programmes, many of them preoccupied with the refugee exodus from Syria, have done little to help.

    With no right to work and little support available from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, many new arrivals simply hand themselves over to the Indonesian authorities knowing that at least they’ll be fed and sheltered while they’re detained.

    But Indonesia’s 13 detention facilities are now bursting at the seams. According to the Global Detention Project, 2,806 asylum seekers are currently in immigration detention, many of them unaccompanied minors living in conditions that are often overcrowded and that Human Rights Watch has described as "appalling".

    Related stories:

    The world's clogged asylum system

    Living in limbo: Refugee stories from Indonesia

    Asylum seekers left high and dry in Indonesia

    Hundreds of migrant children behind bars in Indonesia

    Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting to discuss progress on the Bali Process – a forum for tackling irregular migration in the Asia-Pacific region – Indonesia appealed to Australia to change its policy. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop responded that all 45 countries signed up to the Bali Process needed to do more, not just Australia.

    "We have taken about 2,000 people from Indonesia over the last few years who have been deemed to be refugees," she told a journalist. "Australia is already playing a significant role and we urge other countries to do similarly."

    Antje Missbach, a researcher based at Monash University in Melbourne who recently published a book about the asylum seekers stuck in limbo in Indonesia, said that upcoming elections in Australia meant it was unlikely the government would reverse its hardline policy of deterring asylum seekers anytime soon.

    Indonesia’s own government also shows little sign of changing its policy of not recognising or integrating refugees. “They have their own internally displaced people, high unemployment and many people living below the poverty line – that has always been their stance. But I think if there was political will [to change policy], they surely could,” Missbach told IRIN.

    While the previous Indonesian administration indicated that it was prepared to sign up to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the current government, which took power in 2014, has made no similar commitment.

    “For the time being, they could try to do more to accommodate asylum seekers,” Missbach said. “For years they have been working on a presidential decree that would provide a domestic framework… but it’s very unlikely they’ll be given the right to work or study.”


    It’s not just in Greece that refugees are stranded
    Indonesia ramps up pressure on Australia to change policy

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