(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Stemming conflict, staying happy, and storms times two: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers our take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar:

     

    A dubious distinction

     

    Quick quiz question: In which country were the most people internally displaced in the first half of this year? Syria? Yemen? Congo? Wrong, wrong, wrong. The answer is Ethiopia, where less high-profile conflicts have been raging far from the media spotlight. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s mid-year report, 1.4 million Ethiopians were newly displaced between January and June. So what’s going on? Well, the two main areas of displacement are both in the south – one around the central zones of Gedeo and West Guji, the other farther east, where the country’s Somali and Oromia regions have been locked in a long border dispute. In both cases, inter-communal tensions are driven by competition over food, farmland, and other resources. But it’s not just about conflict, says IDMC Director Alexandra Bilak. As in other East African displacement hotspots like Somalia and Kenya, droughts and flooding linked to climate change also play their part, even if the science can get complicated.

     

    Don’t worry, be Paraguayan

     

    People in Paraguay and Colombia are the most upbeat, a new survey of citizens in 145 countries claims. Polling firm Gallup’s annual Global Emotions Report scores positive and negative feelings. The firm asked 154,000* people about laughter, respect, rest, and mental stimulation on one end of the spectrum, and about their stress, anger, sadness, physical pain, and worry on the other. The Central African Republic broke a depressing record: it scored the most negative feelings of any country in 10 years of surveys, while in 2017 Afghanistan won another unhappy medal: the least positive feelings. Three “meh” countries – in which a significant proportion didn’t report strong feelings one way or another – include a surprising entry: Yemen, along with Belarus and Azerbaijan. A note of caution: the Gallup poll doesn’t include some countries facing profound political and humanitarian problems, including Burundi, North Korea, Somalia, and Sudan.

     

    International justice in the spotlight

    A UN-mandated rights probe made waves last month when it accused senior Myanmar military commanders of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in last year’s violent purge of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State. On Tuesday, 18 Sept., the UN Human Rights Council is scheduled to discuss the investigation’s final report. The rights probe is calling for Myanmar’s top generals to be investigated and prosecuted at the International Criminal Court – or by an independent tribunal. Separately this week, the United States threatened sanctions against the war crimes court if it proceeds with investigations involving citizens of the US or its allies – a direct response to the prospects of an ICC investigation of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, which could include examining actions taken by US forces. Like many foreign governments, the US has condemned violence against the Rohingya, and most rights groups see the ICC as the only avenue to international justice. Yet the US is now taking aim at the ICC for its actions on an unrelated issue. Could this affect the broader push for ICC investigations in Myanmar? Notably, the UN’s new human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, this week called for a separate “international mechanism” to preserve and analyse evidence of possible atrocity crimes in Myanmar, which would complement any future ICC investigation.

     

    Rebuilding Afghanistan

     

    The failure of US reconstruction efforts after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan is a big factor behind the country’s present-day instability. This week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US Congress-mandated watchdog, issued a scathing assessment of a $216-million USAID programme promoting gender equity in the country. Among its findings: only 55 women have benefitted from a key component meant to prepare women for jobs with the Afghan government. Read the report here. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres is scheduled to present his quarterly update on Afghanistan before the Security Council on Monday, 17 Sept. The key humanitarian problems have made frequent appearances here on the Cheat Sheet. Guterres’s report will be the last before parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 Oct. Already this year dozens of election-related attacks have caused hundreds of civilian casualties.

    Storm watch:

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    A. Gerst/ESA/NASA
    Hurricane Florence from the International Space Station.

    Hurricane Florence weakened to a Category-1 storm as it made landfall in North and South Carolina on Friday, but lesser wind speeds don’t necessarily mean lesser damage. The storm itself is moving slowly, meaning it could crawl through the area and unleash heavy extended rainfall, as did last year’s destructive Hurricane Harvey. A study published this year in the science journal Nature found evidence that tropical storm “translation speeds” have slowed by 10 percent since 1949 – meaning they linger longer when they strike land.

     

    Typhoon Mangkhut is expected to hit the northern Philippine island of Luzon early on Saturday, 15 Sept., before veering on a path toward southern China and northern Vietnam. It’s the strongest storm to strike the Philippines this year; millions lie in its direct path and officials are bracing for heavy damages. Is it fair to compare media coverage of two separate disasters looming on either side of the globe? We attempted a tally of coverage on Hurricane Harvey and the South Asian floods last year.

     

    In case you missed it:

     

    GENEVA: A new report on food and nutrition says 672 million people (one in eight adults) are obese. About five percent of under fives are also overweight, says “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018”, a UN publication released last week. Of 821 million hungry people, 62 percent are in Asia. After years of steady decline, the number of hungry people is on the rise since 2014, both in terms of percentage and absolute numbers. This, the study says, is due to instability, “adverse climate events”, and economic slowdowns.

     

    KABUL: It’s not just war that uproots families in Afghanistan. This year, more people have been displaced by drought than conflict, according to UN tallies released this week. More than 275,000 Afghans have left their homes due to drought, compared to 220,000 pushed out by conflict. It’s indicative of Afghanistan’s complex displacement crisis, where IDPs, returned refugees, and victims of disaster all have overlapping humanitarian needs. Case in point: Our story this week from Iran, which threads a link between Iran’s plummeting economy, soaring deportations, and Afghanistan’s drought.

     

    LONDON: Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah will be the new chief of Oxfam’s GB unit, replacing Mark Goldring later this year. He takes the helm as the veteran development agency navigates its recovery from sex abuse and safeguarding scandals that have rocked public trust in Oxfam and the sector as a whole. The Sri Lankan-born Briton was formerly based in South Africa as the head of CIVICUS, an international alliance of civil society organisations.

     

    PORT MORESBY: The polio outbreak in Papua New Guinea has reached the country’s capital, health officials have confirmed. We highlighted earlier transmissions last week. There have now been 12 confirmed polio cases this year. The World Health Organisation says the spread of polio to urban Port Moresby is “very worrisome”. PNG health authorities are planning emergency vaccinations in the capital beginning 24 Sept. The country was declared polio-free in 2000.

     

    The weekend read:

     

    US bans aid workers in Turkey-Syria scam

     

    Don’t skim off the world’s most needy and think you can get away with it. That’s certainly one of the morals of this story. Our weekend read reveals the scale of procurement fraud involving cross-border aid from Turkey intended for Syrian refugees, as exposed by a USAID probe that named 20 firms and individuals. As IRIN’s Ben Parker reports, the corruption ring appears to have involved several Turkish companies and staff at several international NGOs. The Irish NGO GOAL has taken a big hit over the scandal, which led to the resignations of several senior staff and major donor diffidence. A former logistics officer at the Irish charity comes in for the biggest censure: a 10-year ban from doing business with the US government. The former Turkey country director of another NGO, the International Rescue Committee, is one of nine individuals debarred for five years. And a wider probe is ongoing.

     

    And finally:

     

    See above. An amazing-looking segment on The Weather Channel is going viral (and making other TV stations envious). As Hurricane Florence hits the US, the “Immersive Mixed Reality” video effect shows what a nine-foot storm surge is like projected alongside a live presenter. The channel is working with a partner, The Future Group, to develop eye-popping special effects. The productions are based on technology platform Unreal Engine, used in movie production and video games such as Fortnite.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number polled as 145,000)

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    Stemming conflict, staying happy, and storms times two
  • Record coca, record murders: the flipside of “peace” in southern Colombia

    Hundreds of Colombian farmers, activists, and community organisers have been killed over the past 18 months, despite the landmark peace deal that supposedly ended 52 years of war. For them, and for local leaders in the former conflict zones, the war – which left an estimated 220,000 dead and seven million displaced over five decades – didn’t end: it only became worse.

     

    Those who advocate for leaving behind the illegal coca economy that has long been the rural regions’ mainstay are growing increasingly desperate, as armed groups vie for the bountiful coca-producing areas and trafficking routes once controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is disarming under the peace accord.

     

    “Whenever we hear talk of peace, we worry,” says Anadelia Trochez, 43, president of the community council in El Ceral, a village in the Cauca Valley, the most productive coca-growing area in the country. “Out here, that usually means more trouble.”

     

    The peace deal itself now hangs in the balance after staunch conservative Iván Duque won the presidency on Sunday. He had campaigned to overhaul terms many Colombians see as too kind to the FARC guerrillas – namely reduced sentences for their leaders and a guaranteed 10 seats in Congress.

    With the historic signing of a deal to end hostilities two years ago, on 23 June 2016 (the actual accord didn’t pass Congress until November 2016), the conflict was meant to have reached a negotiated conclusion.

    Instead, more than 100 community leaders and activists were slain nationally in 2017 – a record – and more than 100 have already been killed in 2018, another record, according to Somos Defensores, an organisation monitoring persecution and assassinations in Colombia. Only a fraction of the murders are investigated, and almost two in three occurred in former FARC conflict areas, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

     

    Diana Sánchez, director of Bogota-based Somos Defensores, said she sees a pattern in the recent bloodshed: of the various social, environmental, and community leaders killed, the majority resided in the coca-growing regions – 68 dead in the first half of 2018.

     

    “We’re being killed, one by one, for supporting the peace accord and substitution,” explains Ancízar Barrios, regional representative for the National Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Growers Coop (COCCAM), referring to the government’s stalled initiative to encourage farmers to substitute other crops for coca. “The programme has been a fatal failure and the people paying the price are once again farmers.”

     

    While Colombia is experiencing its lowest overall homicide rate since the 1970s, violence against coca growers in areas formerly under FARC control has gone markedly up. In places where the substitution programme is expected to be implemented, killings have doubled.

     

    For leaders like Trochez, the murders hark back to some of the worst periods in Colombia’s conflict in the 1980s and 1990s, when people who lived in areas under FARC influence were often caught in the crossfire between the military, the guerrillas, and state-sanctioned paramilitary groups.

     

    The FARC controlled some 170,000 acres of Colombia’s prime coca-growing territory, in a country that produces half the world’s cocaine. Annual profits of anywhere between $500 million and $1 billion have attracted an array of armed actors, including the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN), two groups that had not previously operated in Cauca.

     

    Two years after the official end of the Colombian conflict, the sound of gunfire continues to echo, and columns of armed men linger in the region’s forests, as the military conducts a new, more secretive war. “Every time a group disarms, there are fights between smaller ones to fill in the void,” says Trochez. “First with the paramilitaries, and now with the FARC.”

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    Tomás Ayuso/IRIN
    The indigenous Nasa village of El Ceral has been the site of massacres by paramilitary and military.

    A new war?

     

    In El Ceral, all four community leaders have received death threats from armed groups that have emerged since the official end of the conflict.

     

    They fear the stage is now set for a repeat of the 1980s and 1990s, as the state, smaller guerrilla groups, criminal gangs (“bandas criminales or BACRIM), and paramilitary successors jockey for control.

     

    In her single-room home overlooking hills flushed emerald-green with coca plantations, Trochez, in a strained voice, says she believes she and other officials are being targeted because they support the government’s much-touted but sluggishly implemented plan to substitute other crops for coca.

     

    Villages here have depended almost exclusively on coca and coca paste production since the 1990s. Even if they wanted to grow other cash crops, the pitiful state of rural roads, and the difficulty in bringing their produce to market, makes coca the only viable way to make a living. Coca sellers don’t need to go to market – the buyers go directly to the farmer, cash in hand, to buy as much as they can.

     

    The substitution programme, a cornerstone of the peace accords, is meant to transition rural populations away from living off coca by replacing the plant with legal crops such as melon, yucca, cacao, or sugar cane. Through a series of multi-year loans, government subsidies, technical assistance, and the creation of market access for affected communities, villages pledged to the plan will gradually shift away from coca. The goal is to build the infrastructure that would allow farmers to bring their new crops to market.  

     

    But many powerful forces don’t want to see any of this happen.

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    Tomás Ayuso/IRIN
    Whole hillsides are covered in coca as planting soars in 2018.

    Coca boom

    You don’t have to move off the main roads connecting the villages through Cauca’s mountains to see coca production in full swing – several multi-hectare plantations, crops recently sown, are in plain sight.

     

    “Look!” exclaims Barrios, pointing to a hillside covered in coca leaf. “Coca growers are so angry at the government and their unfulfilled promises that they don’t even hide their plants anymore.”

     

    Barrios says there has been an 80 percent boom in production locally and blames this on widespread mistrust and confusion over the government’s coca substitution plan.

     

    A little over 10 percent of the government’s pledged technical assistance has been released to farmers so far, and fewer than half of the families who signed up for the programme have received their first loans; fewer still their second. The rest of the substitution plan – new roads, land reform, and developing market access – is also lagging behind.

     

    IRIN spoke to at least nine farmers who had pledged to substitute but said they hadn’t received any subsidy money and therefore had gone back to farming coca. But the reasons for their changes of heart weren’t purely financial: all but one said they had received death threats.

     

    Coca pickers, known locally as raspachines, harvest the coca leaf to sell to processors who render the leaf into a paste in rural laboratories. Coca harvesting has been steadily increasing since the 2016 peace accords between Bogotá and the FARC guerrillas.
    Coca pickers, known locally as raspachines, harvest the coca leaf to sell to processors who render the leaf into a paste in rural laboratories. Coca harvesting has been steadily increasing since the 2016 peace accords between Bogotá and the FARC guerrillas.

     

     
     

    The message is clear: grow coca or face the consequences. Six pro-substitution coca growers affiliated with COCCAM have been killed in Cauca this year alone; 36 since 2016.

     

    Colombia’s coca output, which hit 900 tonnes last year, is breaking records and flooding European markets, and triggering the first rise in cocaine consumption in over a decade in the United States.

     

    This exponential growth in coca cultivation is partly due to a 2015 policy shift made by the Santos’ government, which abandoned a two-decade-old eradication strategy. Aerial glyphosate fumigation was banned for its indiscriminate destruction of both licit and illicit crops, and for the potential health risks it posed to farmers and livestock.

     

    As fumigation halted, eradication by hand took its place. By the end of May 2018, 50,000 hectares of coca were supposed to have been destroyed, but so far only 6,831 hectares have been certified by the UN as eradicated.

     

    Coca producers render the harvested leaf into a paste to be later crystallised into cocaine.
    Coca producers render the harvested leaf into a paste to be later crystallised into cocaine.

     

     
     

    The future

     

    Outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos insists the substitution plan, his brainchild, will succeed. In a recent interview, he focused on the 120,000 families who have signed up to the programme and still cited the 50,000 hectares of coca plantations being eradicated by hand.

     

    The government is urging people to be patient and hopes the deployment of 80,000 police officers and soldiers to coca-growing regions in the wake of the FARC’s demobilisation, as well as a separate initiative to protect community leaders in 595 key towns and villages, will yield results.

     

    “We’re getting there,” Rodrigo Rivera Salazar, the government’s high peace commissioner, told IRIN. “We’re planting the seeds of law so that Colombia’s next government can reap the benefits.”

     

    The former defense minister said the task was clearly enormous and would take time. “Look, there’s no easy way to do this. We have a 500-point plan to bring the state to areas where it’s never existed, and create legal economies where there’s only coca. We have to do it one point at a time. Colombia has significant problems, yes, but they’re getting smaller.”

    2400_daily_life_in_cauca1.jpg

    Tomás Ayuso/IRIN
    Life in the Cauca department, home to countless afro-Colombian, indigenous Nasa, and mestizo farmer communities, is made difficult by the tough terrain.

    In the mountain villages of Cauca, where a few years ago there were strong hopes of peace, pessimism is setting in. Gladys Fernandez, a sitting member of the community council in La Esperanza, has scaled down her involvement since getting threats.

     

    “People here trusted the FARC because they kept law and order,” she explains. “Sure, it wasn’t a perfect system, but at least it was predictable. Since they disarmed, there’ve been more robberies, more drugs, and no one is able to put a stop to all the violence against social leaders.”

     

    Others are also growing impatient.

     

    “I [take part in the community leadership] for my three kids and five grandkids. But I have to say that I’m very scared,” says Jesus María Gonzalez Salinas, a 57-year-old councillor in the nearby village of La Ventura.

     

    Gonzalez struggles to make a living from corn, plantain, and chicken farming. “All I want is for the peace deal to kick in,” he says. “But if the promised money to help victims and coca growers doesn’t come, I just might have to start growing coca again out of necessity.” Most of his fellow growers already have, he adds.

    The effect Sunday’s election will have on the coca-growing region is unclear. Duque, who, at 41, is Colombia’s youngest-ever president-elect, is expected to take a hard line against the criminal gangs and the guerrillas, but he has also pledged to revisit the peace deal and hinted that he might end substitution and resume aerial fumigation.

    The last village at the cusp of the Colombian Massif, the source of the mighty Cauca river, is El Porvenir. Rain batters the tin roofs of the coca-growing village while farmers loudly celebrate a local holiday under buzzing light bulbs.

     

    Speaking last week before Sunday’s run-off presidential vote, local community leader Jose Edgar Cañaveral Ortega said he planned to vote for Duque’s opponent, Gustavo Petro, who vowed to uphold the peace deal and support the substitution plan. “We either break the cycle of war now,” says Cañaveral. “Or we never will.”

     

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    Even as the FARC disarms, other groups battle for the lucrative drugs trade and kill anyone who stands in their way
    Record coca, record murders: the flipside of “peace” in southern Colombia
  • More migrant disasters, less help for Yemenis, and Cameroon’s brewing war: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar:

     

    Migration: Boat disasters, offshoring, UN sanctions and more

    No shortage of news on the migration beat. In Tunisia – which, if you haven’t noticed, is fast-becoming the latest North African hotspot for migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe – the interior minister was sacked after a boat carrying an estimated 180 people capsized off the coast. At least 112 people are dead or missing in what is now the deadliest shipwreck this year in the Mediterranean. Off the Horn of Africa, another migrant boat disaster, this time on the perilous route to Yemen and the Gulf states from Somalia (covered in our recent photo feature on Djibouti), cost at least 60 lives. These tragedies hit the headlines (well, some headlines) as news emerged that EU countries, including Austria, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, are in advanced talks about setting up “holding camps” in a country that is “not particularly attractive” to migrants – think Albania and Macedonia – to process asylum seekers. Such outsourcing or offshoring of EU migration policy has been floated before. French President Emmanuel Macron backtracked last year after suggesting Libya was a safe country for returns and that processing camps should be set up there, as well as in Niger and Chad. Speaking of Libya, the UN Security Council slapped unprecedented sanctions this week on six human traffickers, including the head of a regional coast guard unit. We could continue. And we will, next week in fact, when we begin to roll out a two-month series that offers a 360-degree view of the effects that European policies (and deals with African countries) have on the lives of migrants.

     

    It just got harder to help desperate Yemenis

     

    It’s also been a rough week for people requiring assistance in Yemen. On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced it had pulled 71 of its staffers out of the country, saying in a strongly worded statement that its employees “are being intimidated by parties to the conflict”, and its work has been “blocked, threatened, and directly targeted in recent weeks.” The Norwegian Refugee Council, meanwhile, says one of its buildings in Sana’a was bombed on Tuesday, despite the aid group having provided the Saudi Arabian-led coalition with its coordinates to avoid just this sort of thing. Oh, and a World Food Programme ship was attacked last weekend after dropping off its cargo at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, where aid agencies continue to warn that a looming battle will have "catastrophic humanitarian impact". Whodunnit? So far we’ve seen a fair bit of finger pointing, but not much clarity.

     

    Blasts and ballots in Iraq

     

    At least 18 people were killed and 90 wounded in a Baghdad explosion on Wednesday night, although government sources differ on what caused the blast, which has been chalked up to both the detonation of an arms cache and terrorism. Either way, the deaths happened in the mostly Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City, a stronghold of nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose parliamentary bloc won elections last month. About that vote... On Wednesday, parliament, citing allegations of widespread fraud, ordered a manual recount of all 11 million ballots and banned members of the country’s electoral commission from travelling abroad without permission. Stay tuned for Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod’s upcoming coverage from Iraq, where all is not what it seems.

     

    First look: life inside the fight for independence in Cameroon

     

    Two Cheat Sheets ago we highlighted an urgent plea for France to get involved and help avert a full-scale civil war in Cameroon. Since then, the conflict between government forces and anglophone separatists has intensified. Dozens of armed men who claimed to be separatists were reportedly killed by the Cameroonian armed forces at the end of May after they were surrounded in their makeshift headquarters in a hotel in Menka, a small town in the troubled Northwest Region. IRIN contributor Emmanuel Freudenthal recently became the first journalist to gain access to the separatists, spending a week with them at their secret camps deep in the bush. Next week, we’ll bring you his exclusive first-hand account, offering the first proper look from inside their struggle for independence – at the fighters, their motivations, and the impact on the lives of civilians.

     

    Our weekend read:

     

    Peace deal on the line in pivotal Colombia vote

     

    On 17 June, Colombians head back to the polls for a presidential run-off that is shaping up as a referendum on the country’s divisive peace deal. Voters will choose between a former leftist guerrilla and a right-wing populist promising to overhaul a 2016 peace accord that ended to a half-century conflict between the state and FARC guerrillas. Frequent IRIN contributors Magnus Boding Hansen and Tomás Ayuso have been reporting from Colombia as election day nears. Their dispatch from Bogota, our weekend read, explores how the current favourite, Iván Duque of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, has tapped into frustrations with the 2016 peace deal. Former President Juan Manuel Santos rammed through the accord (with a few tweaks) even after it was shot down in an earlier referendum. “We want peace, but not without justice,” said one Duque supporter. The winner of the upcoming vote will take leadership of a country with pressing humanitarian concerns: more than 6.5 million people are displaced within Colombia’s borders, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have also surged in, fleeing an economy in meltdown.

     

    That outflow of Venezuelans extends far beyond Colombia, by the way. The number of Venezuelans applying for asylum in the European Union has spiked: more than 2,300 people lodged asylum claims in EU countries in April, according to recent statistics – there were only 150 applicants in February 2016. It’s the first time Venezuela has appeared among the top five countries of origin for asylum applications in the EU, joining applicants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.

     

    And finally...

     

    Emergency basics: Food, shelter, and education

     

    Putting a child in front of a teacher might just save her life, just as much as food, water, or healthcare. But less than five percent of tracked emergency funding goes to education, and about two thirds of UN-led appeals for educational aid in emergencies go unfunded. That was the message this week from advocates arguing for more attention to education in emergency settings. Being in school can make a child better able to cope with stresses and risks today and make better choices in the future, according to a briefing paper issued for the donor-focused event in Geneva. While school might not be as literally "life-saving" as food or medicine, the argument for education as a category of "humanitarian" spending appears to have been won, but resources are slow to appear.

     

    The EC's humanitarian arm, ECHO is ramping up its spending (from 1 percent in 2015 to 8 percent in 2018), while Norway and Switzerland are leading advocates for the issue, too. The two donors called the event, along with UNICEF and Save the Children, on behalf of groups working together as the education "cluster". There's work to be done: in northeastern Nigeria, over 2,300 classrooms need to be built or fixed due to damage by Boko Haram extremists who are anti-"Western" education, according to local education administrator Shettima Bukar Kullima. The northeastern Nigerian state of Borno spends 26 percent of its budget on education, but Kullima said more help was needed -- for things like training 21,000 teachers how to deal with psychosocial strains among pupils. Appeals for emergency education in West Africa are particularly poorly funded, at just 22 percent, even though education in the region is a "battle zone for ideology."

    (TOP PHOTO: IOM Yemen staff assist a migrant who survived drowning. CREDIT: IOM)

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    More migrant disasters, less help for Yemenis, and Cameroon’s brewing war
  • Colombian election throws future of peace deal into doubt

    Billed as the first peacetime Colombian election in more than half a century, the presidential run-off on 17 June has become a referendum on peace itself, or at least on whether the sluggishly implemented 2016 accords that officially ended 52 years of conflict between the state and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas require another look.

     

    Colombians face a stark choice: vote in a former leftist guerrilla whom critics compare to Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez, or plump for a right-wing populist who threatens to overhaul the peace deal that ended the longest-running conflict in the Western Hemisphere.

     

    Iván Duque, the candidate of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, is expected to prevail and become, at just 41 years old, Colombia’s youngest-ever president. Duque was the clear winner of the 27 May first-round vote and has since opened up a significant opinion poll lead over former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, the 58-year-old leader of the left-wing Humane Colombia movement.

     

    “The FARC got a better deal than their victims, and I’m the one who will right this injustice,” Duque, a former senator, told IRIN at a campaign rally at a Bogotá amusement park in May. But despite his tough talk on the deal, experts say it’s unlikely he will seek to tear up the accords entirely. Petro, on the other hand, has vowed to safeguard the FARC agreement and focused his campaign on fighting inequality and reining in Colombia’s elite.

    Duque delivers a fiery speech, condemning the peace accord as appeasement towards the FARC and characterising the former guerrillas as duplicitous killers taking advantage of a weak government.

     

    Meanwhile, the influx of one million Venezuelans since their country’s economy began melting down in 2015 has landed a new displacement crisis on Colombia’s doorstep; even as the country struggles to assist more than 6.5 million internally displaced people of its own (second globally only to Syria) and deal with the bitter legacies of more than five decades of conflict.

     

    Other issues are festering too – the election comes as the government is negotiating with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, while also attempting to achieve the surrender and disarmament of Colombia’s biggest crime/drug trafficking syndicate, the Gaitán Self-Defence Forces.

    A fragile moment

     

    Eighteen months after President Juan Manuel Santos forced the FARC peace accords into law – defying the razor-thin majority that had unexpectedly voted against an earlier version in a referendum – Colombia still finds itself polarised over what compromises are acceptable to end a conflict that cost more than 220,000 lives and left more than eight and a half million registered victims.

     

    Duque is seen as the heir to 65-year-old former president Álvaro Uribe, a vigorous opponent of the peace accords who is still beloved by many on the right for the hard line he took against the FARC during eight years in power between 2002 and 2010.

     

    The deal has not put an end to violence, as other armed groups and criminal gangs, including the ELN, vie for control over former FARC business and territory. A total of 487,129 people were forced to leave their homes between January 2015 and December 2017, and more than 10 percent of Colombians (4.9 million) are in need of assistance, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.

     

    Since 2016, the FARC, now a political party bearing the same name, has followed through on its end of the deal: demobilising 7,000 combatants, relinquishing 9,000 weapons, handing over assets, and decamping former guerrillas into two dozen specific areas around the country to be retrained and reintegrated.

     

    However, according to the International Commission on Human Rights Verification watchdog group, the government has only complied with 18.5 percent of the reforms, laws, and promises it made in the agreement. These include everything from economic reparations and security guarantees to land and housing reforms, development aid, and assistance for farmers who signed up to end coca production.

     

    “The old parties – the political organisations of the mainstay politicians like Uribe and Santos – actively block change… to benefit cronies in the private sector, and nothing ever gets done,” said Diana Sánchez, director of Somos Defensores, an organisation that seeks to protect human rights defenders from persecution and assassination.

     

    For Sánchez, this inaction helps explain Petro’s popularity in departments like Nariño, Putumayo, Cauca, and Chocó, where new armed groups have risen from the ashes of the FARC, fighting for the illicit rents and profits on lucrative drug trafficking routes and clandestine mining sites relinquished by the guerrillas. Here, commitment to the accords is seen as critical. “People in the regions that suffered through the war see Petro as the sole leader with a mandate towards peace,” Sánchez said, arguing that Duque’s hardline approach appeals more in areas that never bore the brunt of the conflict.

     

    Duque ascendant

     

    But at the Duque event in May, victims of the FARC, most of whom were bussed in to Bogotá from across the country, rallied around the candidate’s plan to make right what they see as an ill-advised deal between the former guerrillas and President Santos. The rapturous crowd erupted in bouts of raucous applause as Duque delivered a firebrand speech, vowing to “bring justice to their victimisers” and pledging to “punish those who left families fractured”.

    At the end of Duque’s speech, candles are lit by attendants to commemorate those killed by the FARC.

     

    He accused the outgoing Santos government of “rolling out the red carpet for criminals and drug traffickers on their way into Congress” – a sardonic reference to two of the accords’ key articles: an amnesty for ex-guerrillas found guilty of the more minor crimes and the guarantee of 10 seats for FARC representatives in Congress for the 2018 and 2022 legislatures.

     

    Supporters, wearing baseball hats and t-shirts emblazoned with the Duque slogan “Big Heart, Firm Hand”, had their own simple message. “We were used by President Santos,” said Jorge Eliécer Vasquez, a representative of a FARC victims group. “He made us believe his promises of reparations, but abandoned us as soon as the deal was signed. We want peace, but not without justice.”

     

    Asked by IRIN how he would renegotiate a better deal on behalf of victims, Duque gave no specifics but replied: “The courts have said that the norms of implementation can be modified.”

    Supporters celebrate the arrival of the political phenom to the venue. Should he emerge victorious on 17 June, Duque, at just 41, would become the youngest-ever Colombian president.

     

    Most observers expect tinkering rather than wholesale changes. “A Duque administration may chip away at the edges of the peace deal, but will be unlikely to dismantle it,” James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former commander of US military operations in the region, wrote recently for Bloomberg.

     

    Petro time?

     

    Petro, the first left-wing candidate with a realistic shot at the Colombian presidency since the 1948 assassination of charismatic liberal populist Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, may be languishing in the polls but still has an outside chance if he can build a strong enough coalition of left-leaning voters and those wary of disrupting the peace deal.

    Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla, urges his supporters to get out to the ballot box, saying they must vote now or it’ll be too late to rein in Colombia's corrupt elites.

     

    His tenure as mayor was marked by disputes with the private sector as he tried to advance controversial social reforms. As a presidential candidate, one of his main campaign promises of “buying up unproductive land” from the rich is being presented by his opponents as evidence that he is bent on mass expropriations in the vein of Chávez, the perennial boogeyman of Colombian politics.

     

    Spurred on by fears the recent election victory of Chávez’s heir, President Nicolás Maduro, could cause more people to flee Venezuela, the Duque campaign has been relentlessly pushing the idea that a Petro victory will turn “Colombia into another Venezuela”.

     

    At a May rally in the main plaza of the Pacific-coast port of Buenaventura, Petro responded to his rival’s comparison: “Uribe is the Maduro of this country,” he exclaimed, drawing a laugh from the capacity crowd. “I’m the opposite of Uribe and Maduro,” he continued. “I’ll free us from the chains of exploitation. The old kleptocratic elites [Uribe] have held us back for far too long.”

     

    Flanked by bodyguards, the progressive candidate offered to break the wheel that drives Colombia’s inequality and cycles of generational violence. After hours standing in the rain waiting for the candidate’s arrival, the crowd – in a city hard hit toward the end of the conflict and that has seen a recent spike in criminal violence – cheered his promises of peace.

    The threat of storms and heavy rain does little to diminish the crowds as supporters of Petro, seen as the progressive candidate, flock to Buenaventura’s main square to hear his vision of a "Humane Colombia".

     

    Petro drew rousing applause with his comparison between land developers who covet communal areas for mega-projects – such as terraforming Buenaventura’s deep-water harbour – and the whip-wielding master that exploited the labour of enslaved Afro-Colombians during colonial times. “We either break the chains that bound us to our cruel past,” Petro proclaimed, “or we seize this moment like our freedom-fighting forebears did against the Pharaohs of Egypt, against the Spanish Kings, against the slave masters.”

     

    Rodrigo Londoño (better known by his nom de guerre, Timochenko), the former FARC commander-in-chief who now leads the successor political party, called off his campaign after threats to his life and heart-related health issues made his candidacy unsustainable.

    Londoño, the FARC leader, insists there is a firm commitment to the peace accords by the guerrillas, no matter who wins on 17 June.

     

    Speaking to IRIN at his rural headquarters in the remote village of Puerto Esperanza in the eastern department of Meta, he indicated that the FARC would remain fully committed to peace whatever the outcome of the election.

     

    “There’s no retreat from the peace we achieved,” he said. “This is a difficult moment for us; some of our guys are growing impatient with the government dragging their feet. But we remain committed and hopeful. What the FARC wants, and agrees on, is peace.” Asked if this would still be viable if Duque were to win and follow through on his campaign promises, Londoño took a second or two before offering a conciliatory reply: “Achieving peace would be more challenging, but would remain possible.”

     

    mbh-ta/ag/js

    Presidential frontrunner wants to rewrite the landmark 2016 accords
    Colombian election throws future of peace deal into doubt
  • Maduro election win is no victory for hungry Venezuelans

    Days after President Nicolás Maduro’s election victory on Sunday, most Venezuelans continue to face what has become their new normal: shortages of food and medicine, infants dying of malnutrition, rising crime, and collapsing infrastructure. Experts warn that Maduro’s new six-year term could bring the country – which boasts the largest proven oil reserves in the world – greater international isolation and economic mayhem, including fresh US sanctions, debt defaults, worse hyperinflation, and political violence.  

     

    For countries elsewhere in Latin America, especially Brazil and Colombia, that means feeling the reverberations of Venezuela’s economic meltdown even more strongly as thousands more families are displaced throughout the region by hunger and scarcity.

     

    “President Maduro did not offer any credible plan for restoring economic growth during the campaign,” says Harold Trinkunas, Latin America expert at Stanford University. “The displacement crisis is likely to accelerate and humanitarian needs, both in Venezuela and in countries receiving displaced Venezuelans, will increase.”

     

    According to the International Organization for Migration, one million Venezuelans fled the country from 2015 to 2017. Hundreds of thousands more left in the first three months of this year. Between 3,000 and 5,000 are still leaving every day, according to UN estimates. Some have been fleeing south to Boa Vista in Brazil, down more than 200 kilometres of road dubbed the “Hunger Highway”, but the majority take the shorter route out, to Colombia.

     

    On the Simón Bolívar International Bridge that straddles the border to the Colombian town of Cúcuta, the enormous scale of Venezuela’s dysfunction is clear. Each day, an estimated 50,000 Venezuelans enter across the bridge, while others come in illegally through clandestine tunnels.

    Read more: Venezuelan exodus puts new strains on Colombian border town

     

     

     

    Many are day-trippers, sourcing supplies or viable currency to take home, but others are displaced families hauling bundles of luggage, looking for new lives. Some have money saved and travel on towards Colombian cities, towns, and villages, hunting work and stability. But others cross with nothing but the clothes on their backs, forced to live precariously, hustling an existence on the humid streets of Cúcuta.

    Venezuela and Colombia map featuring Cucuta

    The Colombian government has been criticised for toughening its response, particularly for tightening immigration checks instead of easing legal restrictions on migrants seeking work. Humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisations have stepped into the void, but their efforts have met challenges too.

    On 4 May, after only one week of operations, the World Food Programme indefinitely suspended a food coupon system intended to help migrants in Cúcuta. The needs of the Venezuelans had been far outpacing WFP capacity and the initiative was stoking frayed local tensions as the local Colombian population was demanding to be included as well.

    In Cúcuta’s city hall, Mayor César Rojas is feeling the strain, not just because of the influx but also, he explains, because of the loss of trade.

     

    “We’ve always depended on commerce with Venezuela. With less commerce with Venezuela, our unemployment rate reached 15.8 percent last year. This caused strife against Venezuelans by Colombians who feel they’re having jobs taken from them,” he says. “Bogotá (the Colombian government) has promised to help handle this crisis and should start delivering on that. But the only viable, lasting solution lies in Venezuela.”

     

    Cesar’s condition is assessed at the Erasmo Meoz Hospital in Cúcuta. The abscess and malaria eating away at his health frighten his wife, Methsabe, who refuses to leave his side.

     

    Medical emergencies

     

    Methsabe Medina willed herself across Venezuela to Cúcuta to save her husband Cesar’s life. He stumbled over the bridge, barely conscious, clinging to his wife. Cesar needed treatment for malaria (rising infection rates are one of the most visible signs of the collapse of Venezuela’s healthcare system) and a gnawing abscess on his thigh, left to fester due to the lack of medical supplies in their hometown of Maracay, in north-central Venezuela.

     

    Instead of looking for help in Venezuela, the Medinas headed for Cúcuta’s Erasmo Meoz Hospital. Even though it was some 740 kilometres away and in another country, it was the nearest place they knew of that could save Cesar’s leg.

     

    At the hospital, nurses run back-to-back shifts to meet surging demand. Doctor Andres Eloy Galvis, head of the emergency department, concedes that the Venezuelan situation has already reached critical mass. “We’re doing a lot, but we need help, from Bogotá or elsewhere,” he says. “Otherwise, within a year, we’ll have to ask patients to bring medical supplies themselves, just like in Venezuela.”

     

    Official figures shared by the hospital’s administration show that 30 percent of patients are Venezuelan. Of the 1,533 women who went into labour in 2018’s first trimester, 635 had come from Venezuela specifically to give birth.

     

    The impact their presence has on the heavily indebted hospital, now $5.6 million in the red, isn’t lost on the hundreds of migrant patients, many of whom are exhausted and suffering from malnutrition after days of travelling with dwindling supplies.

     

    The overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude.

    At the maternity ward is Odalys Martinez. Like many Venezuelans, Odalys came to Colombia because work dried up in Venezuela. Once she gives birth to her son, she plans to go on to Bogotá to find a job and start her life again.

     

    In the maternity ward, 19-year-old Odalys Martinez is waiting to give birth. She says she would have lost her baby if it wasn’t for Colombia. Martinez is from the relatively prosperous state of Portuguesa. It was once Venezuela’s breadbasket, but, even there, farmers are now struggling. Legally, Martinez’s child will not have the benefits of citizenship, but she still sees the family’s future in Colombia rather than Venezuela. “I can’t raise my son back home, and I can’t do it in Cúcuta. There isn’t much work in either place. So, once my baby’s ready to travel, we’ll go to Bogotá and start our lives there.”

    Frustrations

     

    Outside the vaulted office windows of the mayor’s office in Cúcuta, lines of people queue up at financial institutions waiting for wire transfers from the Venezuelan diaspora. Cousins, aunts, friends, even former neighbours – now living around the region and further afield – pitch in to help. When the money is secured, the migrant Venezuelans invest in sweets to sell at stop lights and parks, hoping to make enough money to secure a roof for the night, some food, or, in many cases, a bus ticket towards a less crowded city.

     

    Across Cúcuta, the Venezuelans – and some of the Colombians – are growing increasingly impatient and frustrated.

    At a migrant shelter run by Scalabrinian priests, a Catholic order that provides support for migrants, is 58-year-old widowed father of two Luis Delgado. He left Maracay after he lost his wife to an aggressive cervical cancer. Delgado looked for treatment for his wife all over Venezuela, but was unable to afford the never-stocked medicines or even receive any kind of medical care from the collapsed clinics.

     

    Luis Delgado attends a mass presided over by Father Francesco Bortignon at the Scalabrinian shelter in Cúcuta. Delgado lost his wife after they were unable to find treatment in Venezuela for her cervical cancer. The widower now raises his two children at the shelter and plans to work as a seasonal coffee picker, once he can raise enough money to travel to the farms.

     

    Delgado feels trapped in Cúcuta but says he has a plan to get to Toledo, about 80 kilometres south of Cúcuta, and work as a coffee or cacao harvester. As eight-year-old Oscar and Luisana, seven, pull on his worn hands, he adds: “They’re the only reason I haven’t given up yet.”

     

    He’s shooting for Toledo, not because of a tip or privileged information, but on a faint memory of a family vacation he took in the 1980s. He remembers seeing the throngs of coffee pickers taking to the fields, and hearing the promise of work. But Delgado’s dream of a new life in Toledo has stalled: the one-way bus fare for all three of them is six dollars, too steep to cover.

     

    Survival

     

    According to experts, the election of Maduro and the downward trajectory of the economic crisis mean things will get worse before they get better.

     

    “Venezuela’s GDP has shrunk over 40 percent since 2013, hyperinflation has taken hold, and oil production, the mainstay export for the country, has declined to below 1.5 million barrels a day, the lowest level since 1950,” says Trinkunas. “With no prospect for change or better governance, more and more Venezuelans will give up hope and flee abroad, and those behind will become increasingly immiserated and in need of humanitarian aid.”

     

    The Ordaz family outside their unfinished, for-rent, one-room home on the outskirts of Cúcuta. The parents worry about the children’s schooling and where their next meal will come from. The children share a ration of apples before their mother, Daniela, heads off to work.

     

    At the very edge of Cúcuta, where Venezuela’s mountains loom over rolling storm clouds, Carlos Ordaz, a beneficiary of the suspended WFP programme, isn’t sure how he’ll feed his six children once the 667,000 pesos ($235) from the UN agency runs out.

     

    Ordaz, a phone technician from El Tigre in eastern Venezuela, has been unable to get a legal job and blames Colombian “xenophobia”. His wife, Daniela, works as a live-in domestic help. She spends precious few hours with her children in between the seven-day shifts and earns 600,000 pesos ($211) a month, which just about keeps the family afloat.

     

    The family of eight, which sold everything to finance the journey across Venezuela and was forced for a while to live off just wild yucca leaves, shares two mattresses in an unfinished, for-rent, single-room house. It isn’t much, but it’s safe, says Ordaz, and for that he feels grateful.

     

    “Sometimes, I get homesick, but we can’t go back,” says Daniela. “Not now.”

     

    Their two girls draw stick figures of their mom, dad, brothers, and sisters under the word FAMILY on a piece of paper they give Daniela before she leaves for work. Their four boys eat and share three apples cut into wedges and bought with the WFP coupons.

     

    With the suspension of the WFP programme, Ordaz says they’re back at square one. They’ll start rationing supplies, just like they did every day back home since 2015. “If this mess taught us anything, it was how to survive,” says Carlos, keeping only one bite of apple for himself.

    (TOP PHOTO: Migrants wait outside the Scalabrinian shelter in Cúcuta. Many Venezuelans are forced to sleep on the streets as lodging is in short supply. CREDIT: Tomás Ayuso/IRIN)

    ta-mb/ag

    Experts fear the largest displacement crisis in Latin America is about to get even worse
    Maduro election win is no victory for hungry Venezuelans
  • As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes

    It’s about the distance of a drive from Berlin to Athens. The 2,219-kilometre long Colombian-Venezuelan border has long been porous and difficult to manage. There are seven official crossings, but nearly 300 clandestine trails, called trochas, are fought over for control by various illegal armed groups, used by smugglers and crossed daily by thousands of migrants, often at great risk.

    Analysts and officials say traffic on those trails has increased in the weeks since Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced stricter enforcement at official border crossings, an effort to stem migration from Venezuela.

    Colombia doesn’t recognise the Venezuelan migrants as refugees, but the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, stated on Monday that a significant number should be considered as such. It is also urging receiving states to allow the Venezuelans access to their territory and to adopt more pragmatic protective measures.

    A game of numbers

    “The problem of the Venezuelan migrants has been growing. It’s a complex problem; a problem that we are not used to,” Santos said during a visit to the border town of Cúcuta on 8 February, the day he announced the new border regulations.

    Since then, only holders of valid visas or migratory cards (which only permit short-term visits and are no longer issued) may enter Colombia. Willington Muñoz, coordinator of a refugee centre run by the Catholic Church in Cúcuta, says the new measures can be interpreted as a “diplomatic closure of the border”, because many Venezuelans lack the documents needed to obtain passports and officials may request unaffordable bribes or lack the materials to process them.  

    bramebuscolombia.jpg

    Bram Ebus/IRIN
    An official crossing in Cucuta

    Colombia’s migration office boasted that the influx at official Venezuelan crossings dropped by 30 percent in the two weeks following the new regulations. But such statistics can be a game of numbers. Venezuelans desperate to escape economic and political crisis are not easily stopped.

    Officials in the Colombian border department Norte de Santander, of which Cúcuta is the capital, have logged 78 trochas. They say they have recently seen more smugglers and undocumented migrants using those trails. More than 550,000 documented Venezuelans currently reside in Colombia, but many more have entered without documentation, straining border cities like Cúcuta.

    ‘They will kill you’

    Smugglers, too, rely on the trochas. “If you make a mistake and take the wrong trocha, they will kill you,” a 23-year-old from Caracas, who requested that his name not be used out of fear for his safety, says of the various groups that ply the trails.

    He arrived in Colombia last November, and says he was recruited as a smuggler while sleeping in Cúcuta’s bus station. He says he stopped smuggling contraband goods a few weeks ago, fearing for his life. He earned well, relying on the trochas for his work,  “but life is worth more”, he explains.

    A four-kilometre walk across the border via a trocha is a costly venture, he says. Paramilitaries and guerrillas who have long fought in Colombia’s half-century civil conflict crowd the routes. ELN and EPL guerrillas are present, as are the Rastrojos and Urabeños – paramilitary groups that vie for control over the most lucrative trochas. All demand payment from people using the routes.

    A single trocha sometimes includes seven or more checkpoints controlled by different groups, including the Venezuelan National Guard. An increasing number of Venezuelan migrants, as well as the maleteros, the smugglers who use the trochas, are falling prey to extortion at the many checkpoints. The total cost of one-way passage averages at least $80-$100, paid out to different groups at different checkpoints, according to analysts and people who have used the routes. Higher fees are demanded for transporting goods. “If you do not pay they will kill you,” the former smuggler says.

    39558006904_4e0a071218_k.jpg

    Policía Nacional de los colombianos
    Border control at the Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar bridge near Cúcuta

    The Colombian government does not ignore the trocha wars. “There will be more control and more security at borders,” Santos said, pledging greater security across all border regions when he announced the clampdown at official border crossings. Since early February,  Colombia has sent about 3,000 security personnel to border areas, and seven trochas have been closed. But as some shut down, new ones open.

    Fuelling an underground economy

    Trochas fuel the thriving underground economy in Cúcuta. The border city exists largely because of the difference in value between the Venezuelan and Colombian currencies. In the past, Venezuela was much more prosperous than Colombia, and Colombian products were sold across the border. Now, it’s the other way around. Everything from foodstuffs to Venezuela’s heavily subsidised fuel is transported via the trochas.

    On a tour of downtown Cúcuta, the former smuggler and a street vendor of sweets and snacks point out unregulated market stalls. They offer shampoos, cigarettes, flour, milk powder, and many other products, largely food, that are made in Venezuela but hard to buy there. Because Venezuela is riddled by hyperinflation, basic goods are often trafficked via the trochas to Colombia, where they fetch a much better price in stronger Colombian pesos.

    At one of the Cúcuta market stalls, a 49-year-old woman who is a dual Colombian-Venezuelan national sells contraband Venezuelan rum and household products. Once a week she walks over a trocha, she says, paying fees at seven or eight armed checkpoints. When she can, she prefers to buy from others smugglers and avoid the risk of the trochas.

    Another good widely available in Venezuela and smuggled to Colombia is arms. “A revolver costs about 1.3 million Colombian pesos ($470) in Colombia, and you can buy it for 400,000 pesos ($140) in Venezuela,” the former smuggler explains.

    The human toll

    Women – many of them minors – are also trafficked across the informal crossing routes and then prostituted in Cúcuta. Human trafficking routes have existed along the border since the 1980s, Wilfredo Cañizares Arévalo, director of Foundation Progresar in Cúcuta, explains. Most often, Colombian women were trafficked to Venezuela, where they were then sent to Aruba and Curacao as sex workers.

    The crisis in Venezuela has flipped things, Arévalo says: Venezuelan women and underage girls are now trafficked to Colombia. The recent tightening of border controls, he says, “resulted in old, informal routes to be opened again” for trafficking women and an increase in the trafficking of minors. Routes across the border, he notes, are in constant flux.

    Venezuelans without money or legal identity papers are easy prey for illegal armed groups looking for workers. “Recruiting has increased,” says a representative of Colombia’s Departmental Ombudsman for Human Rights. “Many underage Colombo-Venezuelans and Venezuelans [are sought].”

    Children 12 or 13 years old are often recruited to collect “intelligence” and transport fuel to Colombia, where it brings a much higher price than in Venezuela, the representative explains. “Venezuelan kids are given bicycles by the ELN. They cross the border with the bikes and the fuel. They know where the army, the ELN, the Rastrojos, Urabeños and the police are. They use the rural zones around Cúcuta.” Shootouts between groups occur in populated rural hamlets in broad daylight, and minors have been killed, the official adds.

    From new solutions, new problems

    The border and migration crises, including the trochas wars, have become one of the most politicised topics as Colombia and Venezuela prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections this spring. So far, though, no solution to either is in sight.

    Ivan Briscoe, the Latin America and Caribbean programme director of the independent peacebuilding organisation International Crisis Group, explains that the migrant crisis will continue as long as the fundamental drivers of migration remain or increase.

    Referring to the crackdown on documentation at official border points, he notes: “The perverse effect of increased controls when there is a huge demand of migration is that it increases the prices which can be charged to migrants because of their sheer desire to cross.” And, he adds, the measures may also boost activity in illicit markets. Rather than ease the crisis, he says, Colombia’s efforts to curb the influx of economic migrants have brought new problems.

    (TOP PHOTO: A member of the Policía Nacional of Colombia stands guard in Cúcuta)

    be/js/ag

     

    For more:

    Half a million and counting: Venezuelan exodus puts new strains on Colombian border town

    Venezuela needs sane governance, not aid

    Colombia’s Venezuela problem

    Stricter entry regulations have decreased official crossings by 30 percent, but the real number entering is now harder to gauge
    As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes
  • Half a million and counting: Venezuelan exodus puts new strains on Colombian border town

    The sun is burning at the Colombian border town of Cúcuta. Red Cross workers attend to people with dehydration and fatigue as hundreds of Venezuelans line up to have their passports stamped, covering their heads with clothing and cardboard to fashion what shade they can.

     

    These are just the latest arrivals. By January, at least 550,000 Venezuelans were officially residing in Colombia, with nearly half arriving last year alone, according to Colombian officials. Most are fleeing  their country’s economic meltdown – one of the world’s largest migrations unassociated with conflict. The pace picked up in the last six months of 2017, with a 62 percent increase in the number of Venezuelans living in Colombia in the second half of that year compared to the first. And they keep coming.

     

    Cúcuta’s city centre is full of migrants sleeping on the streets. Most of them have no money. Beggars are everywhere. Underage girls prostitute themselves alongside the roads. Armed gangs, ELN guerrillas, and paramilitaries are said to be widely recruiting desperate Venezuelan youngsters.

     

    Colombia isn’t used to this. For more than half a century, the human tide went the other way – more than five million Colombians migrated to Venezuela to escape conflict among government forces, paramilitaries, crime syndicates, and guerrilla groups. Now, the tide has turned.

     

    Jozef Merkx, country representative for UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, worries that Colombia’s hospitality is already at breaking point. He doesn’t know what will happen if similar numbers of Venezuelans arrive over the next six months – a distinct possibility, especially as tensions may rise around Venezuela’s 20 May presidential elections.

     

    Colombian officials say that legal migration from Venezuela declined in February, after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that a valid passport or migratory card — which permits short-term visits to the border area and which Colombia has temporarily stopped issuing — are needed to cross the border, tightening what had been an often lax review of documents. Entries at seven migration checkpoints fell from 48,000 to 35,000 per day, officials say, although those numbers include people who buy goods and return to Venezuela as well as those who transit through Colombia. But analysts and observers say more migrants are now crossing at informal border points, or trochas, often controlled by illegal armed groups.

    “Colombia is not prepared for what is happening now with Venezuela, and they have never gone through this,” says Merkx. “Colombia is a refugee-producing country. Now, for the first time, it’s a receiving country, and they are not ready.”

     

    The Colombian government has been drawing up emergency plans to cope with the influx of migrants, but concrete measures are still hard to identify. NGOs and charities as well as the UN and a few other international organizations provide assistance. The pace of arrivals is so great, though, that most Venezuelans fend largely for themselves, as a visit to Cúcuta in late February reveals.

     

    A constant influx

     

    On the Puente Internacional Simón Bolívar, the short bridge that is the main crossing point for Venezuelans into Colombia, the influx is continuous. Families dragging suitcases and pushing grandmothers in wheelchairs have an exhausted but relieved look on their faces as they cross.

     

    José Luis has tears in his eyes. “I leave my wife and three children behind”, says the 44-year-old carpenter, who declines to give his surname. Like many, he hopes that the last of his savings can take him somewhere he can find a job, turn his fortunes around, and start sending money back home.

     

    Others are in worse shape.

    “We haven’t eaten for 24 hours so we can save some money”, says a 27-year-old former teacher who asked to remain anonymous because she fears retaliation on family members back home. She left her five-year old behind with her father. Waiting in the queue at the Colombian migration office, she has around $10 to her name.



     

    Hustling to get by

     

    Colombia is a difficult place for Venezuelans to try their luck. Internal conflict has left more than seven million Colombians as internally displaced persons, without jobs or houses. That conflict includes decades of fighting among various left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary organizations and the Colombian National Army. Venezuelans must compete with the locally displaced on the formal and informal labour market. In Cúcuta, the 2017 unemployment rate was already 16 percent.

     

    Many Venezuelans arrive solo con la ropa puesta — with only the clothes on their backs. People do what they can to get by.

     

    “I buy hair, I buy hair!” a young Venezuelan man in a baseball cap, Julio César Romero, screams.

     

    Women’s hair for wigs can fetch anywhere between seven and 28 dollars, he explains, but the recent border restrictions have brought a decline in trade. “We used to have frequent clients”, says the 18-year-old. “We cut the hair of 20, 30 girls a day.”

     

    A woman looks away. She doesn’t want to answer questions. She just bought two large, black and recently cut ponytails.

     

    The money women earn for their hair might be just enough for a bus ticket to a nearby destination. Bringing money from Venezuela is nearly useless, as the currency, the bolívar, has plummeted. The 2017 inflation rate in Venezuela is estimated to be more than 2,600 percent and is expected to rise above 8,000 percent this year.

     

    The hair trade isn’t the only recent entrepreneurial venture. Félix Martínez ran a tourist services company in Choroni, on the Caribbean Venezuelan coast, until last year. When tourists stopped visiting as a result of the crisis, the 34-year-old was unable to provide for his family. He arrived in Colombia five months ago.

     

    “I’m selling tasty orange juice, from Venezuelan oranges and with a lot of vitamin C”, he announces. “Most people love it!” If Martínez had the money to buy supplies, he would also like to sell piña coladas. He is not much of a complainer, though: He is sending money to his three children, wife, and father back in Venezuela.

    cucuta-53.jpg

    Bram Ebus/IRIN
    Felix Martínez, a former tourism worker, arrived in Colombia five months ago and now earns $35 a week selling orange juice near Cúcuta

    He earns about $35 a week and sends around $10 to his family. Martínez would like to find other opportunities, maybe in Ecuador or Peru. If Venezuela changes, he hopes to return. “To go back right now, I would go back as a defeated person”, he says. “It will be the same, and that is not what we want.”

    “Open-air hotels”

     

    The shelter run by the Catholic Church is completely full, and a second one managed by the local Red Cross and the Colombian foreign ministry is available only to Venezuelans with valid passports — which many recent arrivals lack. Venezuelans say access to new passports is difficult, with officials often asking for bribes or citing a shortage of materials to produce the documents.

     

    Finding shelter has become a cat-and-mouse game among police officers, criminals, and migrants. When migrants began occupying sports fields near the central bus station, gangs saw an opportunity to charge fees for the use of the space. The makeshift camp, nicknamed “Hotel Caracas”, was evacuated by the police, who deported about 130 people. Most of the migrants moved to other “open-air hotels.” But wherever they settle in large numbers, the police usually arrive sooner or later to evict them, displacing them somewhere else.

     

    Several Venezuelans interviewed for this article, while stressing their appreciation for help offered by Colombian citizens, also complained about hostile encounters with local people who fear for their jobs and worry about increased crime.

     

    A new UNHCR campaign, “Somos Panas” – “We are friends” in Venezuelan slang — aims to counter fears of growing xenophobia.

     

    A large refugee camp would not be a sustainable solution and can only be considered as a “last resort”, says Merkx of the UNHCR. Refugee camps are intended as temporary solutions, he explains, but often turn into settlements while long-term solutions for the residents remain unaddressed. He also worries that camps may trigger a rise in migration.

     

    Still, he emphasizes that solutions are urgently needed. “The border should stay open, one way or another, for the persons that flee from Venezuela”, he says.

    A surgeon, now sleeping on the street

     

    Every day around lunchtime, nuns from the Diocesan Food Bank of Cúcuta hand out food to people living on the streets. Venezuelans fill the queues. Among them is Oswaldo López, a surgeon from Caracas who is in his late 40s.

     

    “I studied 14 years for my career”, he says, waiting for a fruit juice and a small portion of rice and beans. Eventually, López’s income was not enough to provide for his family. Now, he sleeps rough on the streets of Cúcuta. The money he took with him, $35, was stolen at the border.

    cucuta-19_edit.jpg

    Bram Ebus/IRIN
    "We wash ourselves in the river because the water in Cúcuta is too expensive," says one of the influx of Venezuelan migrants who now call Cúcuta home

    In the same queue stands Jhonny Castro from Barquisimeto, the capital of Venezuela’s Lara state. He studied business administration, is father to a six-year-old, and says he watched his grandmother die from a lack of medication and his 23-year-old nephew succumb to tuberculosis, a disease easily treated in Colombia. He receives his meal and walks to the Pamplonita River in the centre of the city with a few other migrants he has befriended.

     

    As Castro sits on a stone at the riverbank, his friends enter the dirty water to wash the clothes they are wearing. “We wash ourselves in the river because the water in Cúcuta is too expensive”, says one, Yorman Alvarado, a 40-year-old father of three who worked in the Venezuelan military. He now does odd jobs as a welder.

     

    As he eats, Castro explains that because he is undocumented he cannot get a formal job.  Instead, he looks for garbage to recycle, earning 20 cents a kilo for plastic and 10 cents for cardboard. A kilo of aluminium soda cans, though, brings 77 cents. On a good day, he can earn $1.50.

     

    Nearby, three young cousins from Venezuela’s third largest city, Valencia, have done well today. Over two days, they’ve gathered 20 kilos of cardboard, 15 kilos of scrap metal, and two of aluminium. This has bought enough food to last a few days. Firewood can be found easily, they say. The only problem: they have no pan to cook the food in.

     

    be/ag/js

     

    Find more IRIN coverage of Venezuela

    Venezuela needs sane governance, not aid

    Colombia’s Venezuela problem

    Trash economics: surviving Venezuela’s downfall

    Venezuelan voices: The real-life stories beyond the protests

     

    The town of Cúcuta offers few jobs, little shelter and much crime, but for Venezuelan migrants it’s better than home
    Half a million and counting: Venezuelan exodus puts new strains on Colombian border town
  • Ten humanitarian crises to look out for in 2018

    From the Rohingya to South Sudan, hurricanes to famine, 2017 was full of disasters and crises. But 2018 is shaping up to be even worse. Here’s why.

    The UN has appealed for record levels of funding to help those whose lives have been torn apart, but the gap between the funding needs and the funding available continues to grow.

    And what makes the outlook especially bad for 2018 is that the political will needed to resolve conflicts, welcome refugees, and address climate change also appears to be waning. What a difference a year, a new US president, and a German election make.

    Here’s our insider take on 10 crises that will shape the humanitarian agenda in 2018 (See 2017’s list here):

    IRIN’s editors sketch out the gloomy-looking horizon for next year
    Ten humanitarian crises to look out for in 2018
    Syria’s sieges and displacement
    Outskirts of Aleppo. Kids playing with burnt chairs.

    As Syria heads towards seven years of war and Western governments quietly drop their demands for political transition, it has become increasingly clear that President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power, at least in some capacity.

     

    But that doesn’t mean the violence or suffering is over: pockets of resistance are still being starved into submission and being denied aid – nearly three million Syrians still live in areas the UN defines as besieged or “hard to reach” (see: eastern Ghouta right now), while chemical weapons are deployed to horrifying effect.

     

    There’s talk of reconstruction where the fighting has fizzled out, be it in areas brought under the government’s control or in cities like Raqqa, which is now controlled by Kurdish forces but has a mixed population that is beginning to come home, to utter destruction.

     

    Investors are lining up for a slice of the rebuilding pie. But an average of 6,550 Syrians were displaced by violence each day in 2017. So what of the 6.1 million and counting displaced inside Syria – many sheltering in tents or unfinished buildings and facing another long winter – not to mention the 5.5 million refugees abroad? Will they have a say in how Syria is rebuilt? With reconstruction already a major bone of contention in peace talks and the EU planning to get involved in 2018, how this plays out is important and worth watching.

    Congo unravels

    You know the situation is bad when people start fleeing their homes, and it doesn’t get much worse than the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Here, violence in its eastern provinces has triggered the world’s worst displacement crisis – for a second year in a row. More than 1.7 million people abandoned their farms and villages this year, on top of 922,000 in 2016. The provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Kasai, and Tanganyika are the worst affected and the epicentres of unrest in the country.

     

    New alliances of armed groups have emerged to take on a demoralised government army and challenge President Joseph Kabila in distant Kinshasa. He refused to step down and hold elections in 2016 when his constitutionally mandated two-term limit expired – and the political ambition of some of these groups is to topple him. These rebellions are a new addition to the regular lawlessness of armed groups and conflict entrepreneurs that have stalked the region for years. It is a confusing cast of characters, in which the army also plays a freelance role and, as IRIN reported this month, as an instigator of some of the rights abuses that are forcing civilians to flee.

     

    As we enter 2018, more than 13 million people require humanitarian assistance and protection – that’s close to six million more people than at the start of 2017. Over three million people are severely food insecure in the Kasai region alone, their villages and fields looted. Aid is only slowly trickling in. The $812 million appeal for Congo is less than 50 percent funded. That lack of international commitment represents the single largest impediment to the humanitarian response.

    Yemen slips further towards famine

    If we repeat the words “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” so often that they starting to lose gravity, here are a few numbers that might help hammer home just how grim life has become after more than two and a half years of war in Yemen, a country of more than 29 million: 8.4 million people are on the verge of starvation; 400,000 children have severe acute malnutrition (that’s as bad as it gets), and more than 5,500 civilians have been killed.

     

    Last January, we warned Yemen was at serious risk of sliding into famine. That now seems a near-certainty and may be unfolding right now, with the Saudi Arabian-led coalition continuing to restrict or at least delay commercial imports of food and fuel (among other goods), causing prices to shoot up and meaning those on the margin no longer have enough cash to buy the bare necessities.

     

    And what of that cholera epidemic that killed 2,226 and infected nearly a million since April before receding? Nobody has been vaccinated, fuel shortages mean less clean water, and the rainy season is coming. All of this combines to create a real risk that the disease will make a comeback. Diphtheria is on the rise, too. None of this happens in a vacuum: without proper nutrition, Yemenis are increasingly susceptible to illness.

    South Sudan – it could get even worse

    A much-anticipated ceasefire in South Sudan didn’t last long.

    It came into effect at midnight on Christmas Eve, and a few hours later government and rebel forces were fighting around the northern town of Koch in Unity State. The violence hasn’t derailed the peace talks underway in Addis Ababa, but it does point to how difficult it will be for the internationally-backed diplomatic process to shape events on the ground.

    The ceasefire is between President Salva Kiir and several rebel groups, but confidence is low that negotiations can bring a quick and decisive end to a war entering its fifth year.

    South Sudan has fragmented, with a host of ethnic militias emerging with shifting loyalties. The various members of this so-called “gun class” all want a seat at the table, in the belief that any future agreement will be based on a power-sharing deal and a division of the country’s resources along the lines of the last failed settlement.

    The international community lacks leverage and neighbouring countries don’t have the unity of purpose necessary to achieve a broad-based and sustainable peace agreement.

    What that means is that more refugees – on top of an existing two million – will continue to pour across the country’s borders as the fighting season resumes.

    It also means some seven million people inside the country – almost two thirds of the remaining population – will still need humanitarian assistance; hunger will also continue to threaten millions as a result of the war, displacement, and collapse of the rural economy. And yes, there will be the threat of renewed famine.

    One final ingredient in the brew of despair is that the humanitarian community’s access to those in need will be constrained by both the prevailing insecurity and the government’s cynical taxation of aid operations.

    CAR – where humanitarians fear to tread
    A family from Boeing pack up their belongings and prepare to leave M'Poko

    There are many reasons why Central African Republic was officially the unhappiest country in the world in 2017.

    You can start with the 50 percent increase in the number of displaced, bringing the total to 633,000 people. Then there are the more than two million hungry people, and the half a million who have figured it’s just too hard to stay and have left for neighbouring countries.

    It’s not much fun being an aid worker either. In November another humanitarian worker was killed in the north of the country, bringing to 14 the number to have died this year. The level of violence has forced aid agencies to repeatedly suspend operations as their personnel, convoys, and bases are deliberately targeted.

    Behind the insecurity is a four-year conflict between competing armed groups that neither a weak government nor an under-staffed UN peacekeeping mission can contain. It pits mainly Muslim ex-Séléka rebels against Christian anti-Balaka, but some of the worst fighting has its roots in the splintering of the Séléka coalition and a feud between former allies.

    The violence across the country boils down to the lucrative control of natural resources and the taxes the groups raise from checkpoints. Such is the insecurity that the government’s writ doesn’t even cover all of the capital, Bangui.

    Rohingya refugees in limbo; forgotten conflicts simmer elsewhere in Myanmar

    After a catastrophic year in which more than 655,000 people were driven out of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, it’s hard to imagine 2018 could go any worse for the Rohingya minority.

    But, with nearly a million Rohingya refugees crowded into overloaded settlements in southern Bangladesh, the new year brings a host of new questions.

    The sudden exodus of refugees captured the world’s attention, but as the crisis shifts from emergency response to long-term survival, will the focus – and funding – keep pace with the pressing needs on the ground? Can the fragile settlements withstand a significant storm, or even the seasonal monsoon rains that will fall in a few short months? And will the Bangladeshi and Myanmar authorities try to make good on a plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees despite warnings from any number of aid groups, rights monitors, and UN agencies, and a troubling history of less-than-voluntary returns?

     

     

    While Rakhine State smoulders, long-simmering conflicts continue to fly under the radar elsewhere in Myanmar. Clashes between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups in the country’s north have escalated, largely out of the public spotlight. In northern Kachin and Shan states, some 100,000 people have been uprooted since 2011, when a government ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army collapsed. Roughly 40 percent of these people live in areas outside government control. But Myanmar has also put limits on aid access to areas even under its authority, mirroring the more publicised restrictions in place in Rakhine. Buried somewhere is Myanmar’s long-stalled peace process involving myriad ethnic armed groups operating across the country. A new round of talks is set for later in January. But with only a handful of armed groups on board with a tenuous ceasefire agreement and other key players excluded entirely, a politically negotiated peace remains elusive.

    Afghans return to flaring conflict

    Afghanistan begins 2018 facing another volatile year.

    Conflict has displaced more than one million Afghans over the last two years. But added to this are the ever-growing numbers of Afghans returning from (or rather kicked out of) Europe and neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran. They’re coming back to a country that the UN in August concluded was no longer in “post-conflict” mode but in active conflict once again, one where a resurgent Taliban and emboldened Islamic State-aligned militants vie for control as the government’s grasp weakens.

     

    The problem can be summarised in one ominous chart, which shows US military estimates that the Afghan government has influence in less than 57 percent of the country’s districts:

     

    The raging conflict has had disastrous impacts on Afghan civilians. Last year saw civilian casualties soar to near record-high levels, and an escalating number of people were killed in attacks targeting places of worship – something the UN has called a “disturbing” new element to the violence. Healthcare continues to come under siege, with skirmishes severing access to hospitals and clinics, and aid workers caught in the crossfire.

     

    The next 12 months could prove an even greater challenge. January is the start of Afghanistan’s food “lean season”, which will hit those already uprooted by conflict particularly hard. It’s now begrudgingly accepted that a viable peace settlement must include the Taliban – a once unthinkable suggestion – but there has been “no meaningful progress”. With parliamentary elections scheduled for July 2018, the battle for control of Afghanistan will continue on multiple fronts as the snows melt and the fighting resumes in earnest.

    Venezuelan exodus to strain neighbours

    The descent of Venezuela from oil-rich powerhouse to economic basketcase has been well chronicled.

    Less thoroughly reported, partly due to media restrictions under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Hugo Chávez’s successor, President Nicolas Máduro, has been the extent of the humanitarian crisis. Shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation have led to growing reports of severe childhood malnutrition in addition to a general healthcare crisis, and to more than a million Venezuelans fleeing the country.

     

    If 2017 was the year when the scale of crisis within Venezuela began to reveal itself, 2018 is set to be when the full effects are felt beyond its borders. The political situation underpinning this crisis is only likely to worsen. Elections, slated for December 2018, are expected to be brought forward and foisted upon a weary, hungry, and increasingly desperate electorate that is sharply divided. Unrest or government crackdowns will only send more Venezuelans pouring over the border. There are already signs that regional hospitality is wearing thin and of emergency camps being prepared. The International Monetary Fund predicted that Venezuela’s triple-digit inflation could soar to more than 2,300 percent in 2018. As the year closed out, opposition parties were barred from the election, a main opposition leader was banned from political activity for 15 years, and violent pro-democracy protests rocked the capital, Caracas. None of this augurs well.

    Libya: Africa’s giant holding cell

    An AU-EU summit at the end of 2017 seemed to offer a glimmer of hope for the 700,000 to one million migrants stuck in the nightmare that is Libya.

    It produced a plan to repatriate those who want it, and to move others from squalid detention centres into better conditions.

     

    Some flights home did subsequently take off, and a first group (of 162 refugees and migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen) was even evacuated by the UN on 22 December from Libya to Italy. But we’ve yet to see how this scheme will play out, and there are some serious obstacles. Many migrants have nowhere safe to return to, and it’s not clear how a UN-backed government that controls little in the way of territory or popular support will manage to move and protect migrants in a country with multiple governments, militias, and tribes.

     

    That the meeting even got press (in large part thanks to a CNN film of what appeared to be a slave auctions) in an oft-ignored country is a sign of how little the world cares about the mostly sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya, for whom kidnapping, extortion, and rape have become the norm.

     

    European policy has largely focused on keeping migrants from boarding boats in the Mediterranean or reaching their shores – creating a situation that is bad enough for Libyans and shockingly worse for Africans. At the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron mooted a military and police initiative inside Libya, plus UN sanctions for people-smugglers. How this could actually work is anyone’s guess, and it seems unlikely to get at the source of many migrants’ woes: the lack of legal avenues to get out of the desperate situations that brought them to Libya’s hell in the first place.

    A year of turmoil in Cameroon

    It’s taken just over a year for political agitation in Cameroon’s anglophone region to turn into armed opposition against the government of President Paul Biya.

    Separatism was only a fringe idea until the government cracked down hard on protesters demanding greater representation for the neglected minority region. Now, government soldiers are being killed, Biya is promising all-out war, and thousands of refugees are fleeing into neighbouring Nigeria.

    Anglophone Cameroon is becoming radicalised. Refugees recounting experiences of killings by the security forces talk of revenge, and commentators worry that the opportunity for negotiations with more moderate anglophone leaders – those pursuing a policy of civil disobedience and diplomatic pressure on Yaoundé – may be rapidly shrinking.

    If the government believes there is a military solution to the activists’ demands for an independent “Ambazonia”, made up of the two anglophone regions of western Cameroon, they may well be mistaken. Where the separatists’ training camps are being established, next to the Nigerian border, is a remote and heavily forested zone – ideal for guerrilla warfare.

    Biya, 85 in February and in power for the past 35 years, is standing in elections once again in 2018. The “anglophone crisis” and the potential of an even larger refugee exodus will not only leave him politically damaged but could be regionally destabalising, especially as Nigeria faces its own separatist challenge.

    il-oa-as/ag

  • Colombia’s Venezuela problem

    An imploding economy, marked by product shortages and hyperinflation, has driven almost half-a-million Venezuelans to live in Colombia. That number includes a 50-percent rise in the past three months alone as thousands of new migrants arrive each day in search of medicine, food, and work.

     

    The influx is putting a massive strain on health and social services in Colombia, a middle-income country trying to recover from five decades of civil war with communist FARC rebels. It may be far from over.

     

    The deepening political crisis and economic malaise in Venezuela means the Colombian government has to prepare in case the situation escalates and it is reportedly drawing up emergency plans to house up to a million Venezuelans in camps along the border.

     

    According to Colombia’s Foreign Ministry, there are already 470,000 Venezuelans living in the country and that number sees a net increase of 2,000 to 3,000 migrants every day with more returning to Venezuela or using Colombia as a bridge to head to other South American countries.

    Manuel Rueda 1.png

    Venezuelans cross the border into Colombia under a sign that reads
    Manuel Rueda/IRIN
    Every day thousands of Venezuelans walk into Cucuta Colombia, crossing a bridge that marks the border between both countries. Many decide not to return to their country

    Feeling the strain

     

    Yeiny Acevedo crossed into Cucuta, Colombia at five in the morning, hoping to get her two-month-old daughter vaccinated for tetanus and influenza. A few minutes later she arrived at the health post a few blocks from the border. But even at that early hour, two dozen or so Venezuelan women were already there, waiting to do the same.

     

    “I never expected it would come to this,” Acevedo told IRIN.

     

    Her hometown of Maracay is a major Venezuelan city and only 70 miles (110 kilometres) southwest of the capital, Caracas, but basic vaccines have become almost impossible to find anywhere in the country. So Acevedo made a 12-hour bus trip to the distant Colombian border to see if she could get some help.

     

    “It’s a tough situation,” Acevedo said. “Any virus can be really dangerous for my child, because she has no vaccines.”

     

    At La Parada neighbourhood clinic, where Acevedo went to get vaccines for her baby, three days of the week have now been set aside just for providing care to Venezuelans, part of a strategy to stop preventable diseases that are spreading in Venezuela – like diphtheria – from entering Colombia.

     

    Nurses at the four-room clinic told IRIN they vaccinate up to 300 Venezuelan babies each week for tetanus, polio, diphtheria, hepatitis B, and influenza – as long as supplies last that is. “We get vaccines sent to us each month by the state government,” explained Candida Caceres, the head nurse. “But we usually run out by the third week of the month.”

     

    The clinic isn’t the only overburdened service. Cucuta’s Erasmo Meoz University Hospital says it has accrued a debt of more than $3 million over the past two years from treating Venezuelan patients. The law says they must help anyone who arrives needing emergency treatment, but they only get reimbursed if patients have insurance, which most Venezuelans don’t.

     

    Colombia’s health ministry approved additional funds of $1 million in April for border hospitals dealing with the Venezuelan influx, but the numbers have almost doubled since then and medical administrators in Cucuta say the money is insufficient and not being effectively administered.

     

    “We still haven’t received a peso from the ministry of health,” Juan Agustin Ramirez, general manager at Erasmo Meoz University Hospital, told IRIN. Ramirez said he hoped that by lobbying the government and airing the problem on national and international media outlets, he could “shame” officials into providing more support.

     

    “We’ve had to cut back on expenses,” he explained. “That means we are not investing in new medical equipment or hiring more personnel.”

    6.jpg

    Manuel Rueda/IRIN
    Venezuelan immigrants line up for food at the Divine Providence Dining Hall in Cucuta, Colombia

    Hustling an existence

     

    Many of the Venezuelan migrants entering Cucuta are desperately short on cash so they try to make some money by peddling cigarettes, coffee, water, and other merchandise on the city’s streets.

     

    Yennis Jurado, a 33-year-old former construction worker from the Venezuelan city of Coro, told IRIN he made up to $5 a day selling fruits and vegetables smuggled across the border. It sounds a modest take, but Jurado said it would take him a month to earn a similar amount in Venezuela.

     

    Immigrants who get regular jobs in Colombia can aspire to a minimum wage of around $250 a month, 50 times more than Venezuela’s minimum wage, which, depleted by the bolivar’s fast devaluation, currently amounts to only $5 a month.

     

    “Many of us here are sleeping on the streets,” said Jose Barroso, a former supermarket supply manager from Caracas who now sells cigarettes on the streets of Cucuta. “But at least in Colombia we have the possibility to rise.”

     

    The Colombian government has so far refrained from providing economic support to new arrivals, but the Catholic Church is helping with food and shelter.

     

    In La Parada, the diocese of Cucuta is delivering 1,000 free meals a day to Venezuelan migrants, with food donated by parish members and local businesses. “It hurts us to see these people struggling for a plate of food,” said Father Hugo Suarez, who runs the dining hall.

    Manuel Rueda 3.png

    People asleep on the street with suitcases in Colombia
    Manuel Rueda/IRIN
    Many Venezuelans are short on cash, and they sleep on the streets while they make more money to go further into Colombia

    Deeper trouble ahead

     

    Raul Gallegos, Venezuela analyst at global security consultancy Control Risks, predicts that Venezuelans will most likely continue to head into Colombia and other South American countries at a similar rate in 2018, especially as the economic prognosis remains dire.

     

    Inflation in Venezuela is expected to climb from 700 percent this year to 2,000 percent next, according to International Monetary Fund estimates, while the economy is expected to shrink another six percent. Oil production – Venezuela’s main economic engine – has stagnated and Gallegos sees little cause for optimism as the national oil company PDVSA is being stacked with ruling party loyalists who have little experience in the industry.

     

    The ruling party’s tight grip of the electoral system also means there’s next to no chance of a new government with different policies taking over. If President Nicolas Maduro is re-elected in the first half of 2018 in an election with no international oversight, as expected, it might encourage even more people to leave the country.

     

    The Colombian government is preparing an emergency contingency plan, which, according to a recent report citing unnamed senior officials, includes provisions to host up to one million people in different camps along the border.

     

    There are already signs that Colombia’s patience is wearing thin. “Their arrival complicates post-conflict recovery,” Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín told a recent press conference. “We already have to expand health services, roads, and rural development schemes to many parts of the country (affected by the war) and receiving lots of Venezuelans generates an important additional cost.”

     

    The Colombian government allows Venezuelans to stay in the country for 90 days without a visa – the standard policy for years. It has also permitted Venezuelans who have no criminal records to apply for a special two-year residence permit that lets them work and sign up for national health insurance. But the offer is only valid for Venezuelans who arrived in Colombia before July 28. Those who continue to stream in no longer get those benefits.

     

    “I think we are far from a Turkey-style situation where massive numbers of [Syrians] are crossing the border at once with nothing,” Gallegos said. “But it is a steady flow of people that merits more attention.”

     

     

    (TOP PHOTO: A Venezuelan migrant feeds her child at the Divine Providence Dining Hall in Cucuta, Colombia. The Catholic charity is feeding around 1,000 venezuelans each day.)

    mr/ag

    The relentless influx of desperate Venezuelans is placing a huge strain on its western neighbour
    Colombia’s Venezuela problem
  • Colombia’s female FARC fighters wage a new war, for gender parity

    When Angie Rios, 27, left to join communist rebels as a teenager, she told her mother never to change her phone number.

     

    Nine years later, Rios is a seasoned guerrilla and sports a pierced eyebrow, a bandana, and gumboots, tempered by feminine flourishes – rhinestones dangle from her earlobes and throat; her fingernails are painted pink.

     

    When the peace deal was finally signed in November between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC, and the government, Rios made a phone call.

     

    “Hi mom, it’s me.”

     

    For thousands of FARC women, who make up more than 40 percent of the armed group, homecoming is fraught. Right now, they’re reconnecting with family members who they’d left years, if not decades, ago.

     

    Female guerrillas, many from remote corners of the country, told IRIN they never really looked back when they joined FARC.

     

    They say they were fleeing the drudgery of domestic rural life. Among the communist rebels, they found the easy camaraderie and gender equity, at least the veneer of it, that they longed for.

     

    Now, after laying down their arms as part of a historic peace deal, they face a unique stigma. Whereas men are viewed as macho for having fought in the war, women are seen as “loose” for having slept with male guerrillas, and tainted for having undergone abortions. Even the rebels themselves, one researcher says, reject their former lovers.

     

    A government reintegration programme, previously accused of pigeon-holing female ex-fighters into home economics style workshops, is now bracing for the gargantuan task of assimilating them into communities that can be unforgiving to women who shirk traditional gender roles.  

     

    Female guerrillas say they’re determined to fight back – this time for gender parity. The stakes are high: Reintegrating these women into society is essential for Colombia to move past war and truly end the longest-running conflict in the Americas.

     

    When IRIN spoke to her, on a rain-battered day in June, Rios stood in the kitchen of one of the 26 rural camps holding FARC rebels, frying beef and pork in a vat of bubbling oil, pinching the crisp meat with a pair of tongs.

     

    Rios said her mother didn’t recognise her voice at first when she called: “She thought I was dead”. When she did realise it was her daughter, she broke down and cried. Her father, an evangelical Christian, began to thank God.

     

    “At first, they didn’t like what I did with my life, but they now support me,” said Rios. “I don’t judge them and they don’t judge me.”

     

    Rios now calls her parents every day. They talk about what they’re doing, how they’re going to meet up very soon. They don’t speak about religion. “My mother calls me ‘my little girl’,” Rios said.

     

    The oil spluttered as she dropped in more meat. How does she feel cooking for her comrades — the same task that from the age of 13, working in a low-paying kitchen to support her six siblings, finally stirred her to leave home in Meta province and join FARC?

     

    “It’s not something I do all day,” Rios responded, adding that she used to keep guard and is now also pursuing a course at the camp to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a dentist. “I want everyone to have a nice smile,” she explained.

     

    There are other dreams too. Rios wants to have children with her partner, a FARC commander. She feels a sense of relief that she won’t have to worry anymore about him dying every time he steps out on a mission. She wants to help the FARC fight for its cause in its new incarnation as a political party.

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    Ex-FARC combatant Angie Rios
    Sruthi Gottipati/IRIN

    No gender utopia

     

    Rios’s mountainside camp in the municipality of Icononzo holds 300 people, of which 125 are women, in keeping with the gender ratio of FARC as a whole.

     

    “For us, women have the same rights as men,” said 38-year-old Gregory Morales, a 17-year veteran of the rebel group.

     

    And it appears to be true. Women and men don the same fatigues and do the same work: cleaning, cooking, construction.

     

    Unlike the right-wing paramilitaries it fought against, FARC has a gender discourse, said Kimberly Theidon, a professor and academic director of gender analysis in international studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

     

    Both the former and current women in FARC IRIN interviewed said they had joined the rebels willingly and had been free to choose their sexual partners. None said they had faced sexual assaults – statements in keeping with what one trauma counsellor who works with ex-combatants had also observed.

     

    These accounts differ from reports published by human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and those rights didn’t extend to their bodies when it came to pregnancies.

     

    “If you’re a guerrilla, you have to take contraception,” said Victoria Sandino, a senior FARC leader who was the group’s representative on a gender sub-commission during peace talks in Havana, Cuba.

     

    She said it was a requirement because FARC was in an active war. If guerrillas got pregnant and wanted to keep the baby, they had to leave the group. If they wanted to stay, they had to abort, said Sandino.

     

    FARC, despite its stated ideals, is no gender utopia.

     

    “There’s the ideology and there’s the reality, and there’s a gap between the two,” said Theidon, noting how she had seen middle-aged commanders with pretty girls by their side. “What’s with the 45-year-old man with the young guerrillera?”

     

    Theidon, who has researched the FARC extensively, said male guerrillas have said they don’t want to marry their comrades because the female fighters have had multiple sexual partners. “There’s a stigma around these women, even among the ones they served with.”

     

    Women aren’t represented in the top echelons of the armed outfit. In the seven-member secretariat that governs the FARC, for instance, there are no women.

     

    “For us, it’s been hard to be in positions of leadership because it’s an army with a patriarchal scheme and machismo,” Sandino acknowledged, adding that during the peace negotiations, an internal struggle for recognising women ensued.

    "When you’re going to place the landmine, you need to make sure you don’t breathe, that your hands don’t shake"

    Five years ago, she said, there were no women among the 31 senior commanders of the FARC’s joint general staff. Now, there are 61 commanders and 11 of them are women.

     

    Friendship and fraternity

     

    Ever since 32-year-old Yurany Cardenas was a child growing up on a farm boxed in by jungle in Guaviare province, she craved for camaraderie. She dutifully helped her mother and little sister grow corn and yucca, but it was an older male cousin she looked up to. When she was 14 years old, that cousin, aged 22 at the time, left to join the FARC.

     

    Cardenas, like others raised in secluded corners of Colombia, was already familiar with the group. Her mother was too poor to send Cardenas and her sister to school and FARC fighters pitched in. “They gave my mother money so I could go to school, buy books and uniforms,” said Cardenas. “With their help, I studied three years of primary school.”

     

    But Cardenas wasn’t interested in school. She wanted to join her cousin. Cardenas said she made several attempts to convince the guerrillas and they finally agreed, on the condition she spoke to her mother about it. Her mother, unsurprisingly, begged her to stay: “You’re big, but not big enough,” Cardenas recalled her saying.

     

    One day, when Cardenas was kicking around a football and her mother went to wash clothes, she spied her opening. The guerrillas took her in a boat to a FARC camp. She didn’t find her cousin but still stayed. “I liked the fraternity, the relationships.” She felt like she finally fitted in.

     

    Cardenas said she worked as a nurse for three years before realising she had the aptitude for a more deadly undertaking: laying landmines.

     

    “You need to be calm, and I had those skills,” said Cardenas, adding that she doesn’t drink much coffee and doesn’t smoke. “When you’re going to place the landmine, you need to make sure you don’t breathe, that your hands don’t shake.”

     

    Her commander, she said, was surprised at her suggestion: There weren’t many women who were handling explosives. Soon, she went from treating comrades wounded by landmines to placing them to kill government soldiers. Cardenas did not look remorseful.

     

    “She might not be seeing the mutilated children who the landmines killed,” said Theidon, adding that guerrillas are quickly socialised and indoctrinated to carry out horrific violence.

     

    Cardenas had a miscarriage once when she didn’t know she was pregnant. She also opted for an abortion when she was in the middle of a combat operation. Another time, she travelled to her mother’s house with a swollen belly, clutching money FARC had given her for a C-section. She returned to fight four months later. Her daughter, now 17 years old, lives with Cardenas’s mother in Meta.

     

    As she spoke, behind her, a pickup truck rattled up the mountainside and paused next to a tent. Female guerrillas clambered on, jovial and laughing raucously, slipping in happily next to their male colleagues.

    colombia_cardenas.jpg

    Ex-FARC Yurany Cardenas
    Sruthi Gottipati/IRIN
    Yurany Cardenas

    Was it difficult to give up her daughter? “Yes, of course,” Cardenas continued. “But I had to complete the mission.”

     

    In the FARC, guerrillas are only allowed to visit family if someone dies or is sick, said Morales, the FARC veteran. Rebels are reluctant to visit their families anyway, for fear relatives could be threatened if they’re linked to FARC.

     

    Since the peace deal, Cardenas talks regularly to her daughter by phone. She last saw her when she was five years old. “She told me, ‘I’m used to not having you in my life but I’ll still wait for you, don’t worry’,” Cardenas said. “Now I dream and I hope to spend more time with her and my mother.”

     

    Navigating a new world

     

    In Bogota, the National Reincorporation and Normalisation Agency (ARN) is closely watching the peace process inch forward. It’s not the first demobilisation it has had to contend with. Armed groups have long fought for, and controlled, territory in Colombia. From 2003 to 2006, about 40,000 individual fighters left the paramilitary coalition known as the AUC and some 32,000 demobilised collectively.

     

    In the past 14 years, agency officials say they helped reintegrate 50,000 ex-combatants into civilian life and they plan to draw on those lessons to shape a new programme for the FARC.

     

    “I insist, everything must be adapted,” said Joshua Mitrotti, the director of the agency, seated at a conference table in his office. “And everything must be agreed upon with the FARC. But it is easier to start with a proven experience and (a programme) that has previously been monitored and evaluated.”

     

    A census is taking the pulse of what fighters need, which a council consisting of FARC and agency leaders will then use to determine the next steps. But with 7,000 fighters being absorbed into the fabric of Colombian civil life at once, the agency has its work cut out. Reintegration, agency officials stress, should not only benefit ex-combatants but also the communities that receive them.     

     

    Part of the agency’s mandate involves ensuring that former rebels get jobs and become financially independent. To do so, FARC plans to establish a cooperative to carry out projects to help guerrillas navigate what is a whole new world for them. And it’s this collective reintegration that Sandino believes holds the most promise for female ex-combatants.

     

    She said initiatives being explored include having round-the-clock kindergartens that would allow mothers to study or work at the same time, making food preparation a shared responsibility. It would mean “women don’t have to stay at home cooking”, Sandino said. Even communal laundromats are being discussed, she added. 

     

    Sandino believes such bold measures, “never seen before in Colombia or in the history of Latin American countries”, will help women gain access to the same opportunities as men and draw them into public life.

     

    “We don’t want women to retreat into a domestic world. That’s not want they did as guerrillas,” said Sandino. Instead, she visualises a collective economy where women will be an active part of political, social, and community life.

     

    It’s the kind of principles she believes she fought for with an Israeli-made Galil assault rifle ever since she joined the rebel ranks 25 years ago.

     

    Sruthi Gottipati reported on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

     

    sg/oa/ag

    TOP PHOTO: Traditional gender roles in Colombia - a new frontline for female ex-FARC guerrillas. CREDIT: Galo Naranjo/Flickr

    Colombia’s female FARC fighters wage a new war, for gender parity

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