(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • As displacement runs to years, northern Iraq camps need an overhaul

    Thousands of Iraqis displaced years ago by the fight against so-called Islamic State are still living in flood-prone camps that weren’t built to shelter them through several harsh northern winters, aid officials and camp managers say.

     

    Iraq officially declared victory against IS in December 2017, but 1.8 million people remain unwilling or unable to go home. Some, like the family members of those affiliated with IS, have been rejected by their communities. Others have found their homes destroyed, hometowns unsafe, and no way to make a living.

     

    In much of the north of the country, many of those displaced remain in camps where tents are pitched directly on low-lying ground and only protected from the elements by plastic tarps.

     

    The inadequacy of this protection was exposed during two weeks of torrential rain in late November and early December. At least 21 people were killed and 180 people were injured by flooding in Nineveh and Salah al-Din provinces. Some of the camps in Nineveh – including the seven known as Jeddah 1 to 6 and Qayyarah – were engulfed by water.

     

    More than 7,000 internally displaced people were temporarily evacuated to higher ground, and 2,300 tents were damaged in Qayyarah camp alone, where 7,300 families live.

     

    Most of those evacuated, like Wazza Aboud Atif, 45, who lives in Jeddah 6, have since returned. But they still feel the impact of the floods.

     

    Atif says her tent, blankets, and clothing never fully dried out. She points to her knees to show how high the water got at one point, explaining how it mixed with sewage and swirled back into the tents. Atif says she and her neighbours, one of whom she sheltered with when the water rose, developed rashes from the putrid water.

    “Everybody was talking about six months or seven months and then the internally displaced people will return… now three years have passed, and they are still inside the camp.”

    Hussein Zewar, general manager of Jeddah 1-6, says many of the camps, including those he oversees, are in desperate need of an upgrade. Some tents haven’t been replaced in years, and aid agencies say donor money is drying up as attention turns away from Iraq.

     

    “This camp was constructed as a temporary camp,” Zewar says. When IS first came to Iraq in mid-June 2014, “everybody was talking about six months or seven months and then the internally displaced people will return… but what happened is now three years have passed, and they are still inside the camp.”

     

    Complaints continue

     

    The heavy rains in November and December hit the Jeddah and Qayyarah camps the hardest, but others displacement sites in the north were also affected. Camp conditions in Iraq vary widely, depending on where exactly they are located and who runs and funds them.

     

    Hamam Alil 1 and 2 camps, 40 kilometers south and on higher ground, are managed by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The tents are on raised concrete platforms with gravel around the bases that prevents the ground from getting too muddy.

     

    The lowest areas of land in Hamam Alil 2 were deliberately left unpopulated in case of flooding, and the camp has a drainage system, says Hovig Etyemezian, head of UNHCR’s Mosul office. Consequently, the flooding was not as severe as in Jeddah or Qayyarah.

     

    However, residents of the Hamam Alil camps also complain about the conditions of their tents, saying they have holes in them that allow insects in and fail to keep out the damp and the cold. Etyemezian says that while camp maintenance always responds to complaints, there are 4,600 tents at Hamam Alil so there is sometimes a time lapse between complaint and response, depending on the severity of the issue.

     

    Funding for Jeddah, which is run by a local NGO, comes from the UN’s migration agency, IOM. *Qayarrah is managed by the same NGO but receives its funding from the Danish Refugee Council. Sandra Black, IOM’s spokeswoman in Iraq, says the agency has made efforts to prepare for winter but “camps are vulnerable because they are emergency constructions not permanent structures.” 

     

    The agency is “advocating for urgent tent replacement in 2019, and is seeking continued support,” Black says, adding that during this winter season IOM replaced more than 1,200 tents in camps across Iraq, both in preparation for winter and in response to the floods.

     

    But Zewar, the camp manager, says he needs more than new tents if residents are to be kept out of harm’s way the next time heavy rains come: he says it’s time for more permanent living structures and an improved drainage system.

     

    Is money the solution?

     

    For more than a year now, humanitarians have been warning that as Iraq slips from the headlines donors are less interested in giving money for emergency aid like camps, keen to turn their pocketbooks towards reconstruction projects. Last year’s floods, they say, are a cautionary tale.

     

    The UN and the agencies it works with asked for considerably less money to aid Iraqis in 2018 and 2019 than in previous years: $569 million and $701 million respectively, compared to $861 million in 2016 and $985 in 2017.

     

    These appeals are some of the best funded in the world, consistently receiving more than 93 percent of what the UN says is needed (2019 is the exception, but most pledges have not been made yet). Aid officials say the decreasing appeals mean they have less to spend, and that reduction trickles down.

     

    “It’s nothing new,” says UNHCR’s Etyemezian. “Unfortunately, when we have crises that last longer than predicted, and when the media buzz disappears over time, there is less and less interest. The media cover it less, there is also less and less donor interest, and fatigue over time.”

     

    “Most of the tents in Qayyarah were meant for six months but have lasted for two years. They were poorly maintained; but it’s not an issue of will but an issue of means,” says NRC spokesman Tom Peyre-Costa.

     

    The IOM’s Black also says that “decreased funding will impact the living conditions in IDP camps and lower the ability to adequately respond to natural disasters.”

     

    Not everyone agrees the lack of donor money is the problem. An engineer who works in the camps and requests anonymity for fear of backlash from management says aid agencies spend too much on paying and housing international workers, while only a fraction makes it to camp maintenance. “This [flooding] will happen again again again many times because [there is never] any action,” he says.  “Because people don't care.”

     

    Etyemezian says UNHCR supports the camps as much as possible, but a certain level of damage after a downpour like last year’s is inevitable. “Even with the amount of money we spend on camps, there is only a degree of prevention you can do,” he says.

     

    Fatiya Rajib, a 38-year-old widow who shares responsibility for 13 children with a neighbour in Hamam Alil 2, has yet to receive a replacement for her flood-damaged tent and blames three recent trips to the doctor on the poor conditions she lives in.

     

    Rajib worries what the future will bring. “We’re afraid of the rain,” she says, looking up at the grey sky. “Whenever there is any rain, we don’t sleep.”  

    *(An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that IOM funds Qayyarah camp)

    (TOP PHOTO: A woman and child walk through Jeddah Camp 6, one of the IDP camps in northern Iraq worst affected by the flooding. CREDIT: Pesha Magid/IRIN)

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    “Whenever there is any rain, we don’t sleep”
    As displacement runs to years, northern Iraq camps need an overhaul
  • Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Civilians may still be trapped in last Islamic State pocket in Syria

    A reported 2,000 people were evacuated from so-called Islamic State’s last pocket of territory in eastern Syria this week, but the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said there may still be civilians remaining in the village of Baghouz. Once screened for membership in the extremist group, many leaving the territory are taken to al-Hol camp. The UN says 61 young children have died since December on the way there or soon after arrival. The World Health Organisation’s head in Syria told IRIN recently that the security checks were delaying urgent healthcare and that local authorities had denied a request to set up a medical waystation. The SDF denied the charges, but since then UN agencies say they have set up just such a transit site “to address the high number of child deaths”. Some people who had fled Baghouz told Human Rights Watch of hunger and being trapped under heavy shelling, air strikes, and IS threats.

     

    “One after the other”: Tropical storms swarm the Pacific

    The cyclone season has put parts of the southwestern Pacific on high alert. Cyclone Oma threatened the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu for five days, sending over 1,000 to evacuation centres. The storm later brushed New Caledonia’s coast and was due to push towards Australia. Earlier this month, the cyclone warning system in Tonga sent out repeated alerts as four separate “extreme tropical weather systems” threatened the country. Tonga escaped severe damage, but the country’s head meteorologist said facing so many in quick succession was exceptional. Storms in the Pacific islands needn’t cause headline-grabbing death tolls to leave a lasting impact; officials in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were expecting food shortages after Oma wiped out some smallholdings. Vast distances make repairs and recovery difficult. For more on preparing for Pacific disaster, see our recent story on women fighting for a seat at the table: Fiji’s storm-watchers.

     

    South Sudan rights violations may amount to war crimes

    Despite the signing of last year's peace agreement in South Sudan, ongoing violations including rape and sexual violence "may amount to international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity," according to a new UN report. Investigators with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan noted a "confirmed pattern" in the way combatants attacked and destroyed villages, plundered homes, and took women as sexual slaves. Sexual violence has worsened markedly since the commission's last update in December 2017; those targeted included children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Many sides of the conflict, including the army, national security forces, and rebel groups, were blamed for the violence, while the commission also investigated sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers. South Sudan remains one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises: 4.5 million people are displaced, seven million are in need of aid, and nearly 60 percent of the population will face severe food insecurity this year.

    Joining up billions in development, humanitarian, and peace spending

    The “triple nexus” may sound like an ice skating move, but it’s the new orthodoxy in aid. A “recommendation” was adopted today by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD says its donor states command over $74 billion of international funding in “fragile” situations. The new Development Assistance Committee policy says long-term development, peacemaking, and emergency relief should have complementary goals and together could “avoid the occurrence of humanitarian needs”. One aid agency nexus-watcher told IRIN that after much discussion in the aid community it was a relief to see clear definitions and terminology emerge. A source familiar with the discussions said “more must be done to prevent crises and deal with structural issues and root causes, rather than leaving the humanitarian system to pick up the pieces”. The text refers six times to continued respect for humanitarian principles: critics question how humanitarian neutrality and independence sit with politically-flavoured development and peace efforts.

    In case you missed it

    Burkina Faso: More than 100,000 people have been displaced by instability and fighting in the West African country, according to the UN. Tens of thousands have fled this year, as rising militancy and attacks by armed groups affect the North, Sahel, and Eastern regions.

     

    Madagascar: More than 900 people have died since a measles epidemic began in the huge island nation in September, the WHO said. Over 68,000 cases have been documented; those most at risk are infants from nine to 11 months old.

     

    Myanmar: Restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State are affecting some 95,000 people due to ongoing clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, according to the UN’s humanitarian coordination arm. More than 5,500 people have been displaced since December.

     

    Refugee resettlement 2018: UNHCR says 55,692 refugees were permanently resettled in 2018. The UN refugee agency says that’s only about five percent of those they think were eligible. Despite deep cuts in its quota, the US took in more than any other nation. IRIN explored the numbers here.

     

    Yemen: UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on 19 February that the two main sides in Yemen’s war had agreed to withdraw from a small port and oil facility near the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, in a first step towards implementing a much-discussed ceasefire deal for the city.

     

     

    Weekend read

    Opinion: Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    As we write this, Venezuela is top of many media headlines as a quarter of a million people are estimated to be assembling on the border, in Colombia. The presidents of Colombia and Chile are expected – and maybe even Richard Branson. He is backing the concert they’re all there to see, Venezuela Aid Live. The event’s sponsors say it will raise $100 million to help the millions of Venezuelans living with shortages of, well, nearly everything. Branson even suggests that the performance could help persuade Venezuela’s military to defy orders and open the border – sealed tight by President Nicolás Maduro – to aid shipments; shipments that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is inviting. Meanwhile, on the Venezuelan side of the border, Maduro is hosting his own benefit concerts on Friday and Saturday. What’s a humanitarian to make of all this? Analyst and columnist Francisco Toro offers a reality check in his essay on what he calls the “increasingly blatant politicisation of aid”. $100 million for food and medicine, for instance, “is completely out of proportion” with the scale of need in Venezuela. And if you’re concerned about the politicisation of aid, you might like to check out this from The Guardian, on the politicisation of, um, bread.

    And finally

    US-armed donor proposal stirs alarm

    A new type of US government aid official could be embedded with US intelligence or military forces in insecure hotspots to work on certain tactical projects. They would be “super enablers”, according to a proposal developed by consultants hired by USAID. The proposed two-person Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) teams would be physically fit, armed, and able to deploy where USAID can’t send civilians. The proposals met with some support in the US military and intelligence communities, and mixed views from within USAID, the 75-page report said. The concept, first reported by Devex, has been met with dismay by some in the humanitarian Twittersphere, earning reactions such as “wannabe SEALS” and “incredibly unwise”. Also, it’s been met with a humanitarian principles meme (a Ranger tab is a badge indicating completion of a very tough two-month US Army training course):

    (TOP PHOTO: Some of those fleeing besieged IS territory in Syria. CREDIT: Constantin Gouvy/IRIN)

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    Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials
  • Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals

    Daniela wakes up at 4am everyday to begin an hour and a half walk to school in Colombia, across the Venezuelan border. The three hour round trip is normal to her now, she says.

     

    The 14-year-old mathematics enthusiast has made this commute to Colombia for two years, after earning a competitive spot at a high school near the border town of Cúcuta.

    “Teachers were leaving and there were no classes,” Daniela said about her hometown in Venezuela, Llano de Jorge, from where the teenager makes her journey over the Simón Bolívar footbridge each day.

     

    Thousands of other Venezuelans cross into Colombia daily to migrate, or to buy food and medicine unavailable at home and then return.

     

    Speaking on her way home after school with two Venezuelan friends, Daniela told IRIN it can take 30 minutes just to get through the border, and sometimes they have to plead with Venezuelan border officials who can be reluctant to let them pass.

     

    In Colombian schools along the border, eight percent of students are now Venezuelan, according to a report released this year by the Norwegian Refugee Council and Colombian education authorities. Other new arrivals are Colombians who had fled to Venezuela mainly because of the violent Colombian armed conflict and are now coming back.

     

    The report also notes a nearly a 50 percent increase in the number of students coming from Venezuela between 2018 and 2019.

     

    In one ‘’mega’’ high school with 2,500 students, just outside Cúcuta, 85 percent of students are Venezuelan or “returning” Colombians. Around 1,200 of the students cross the border daily to reach the school.

     

    Lala Lovera, director of Fundación Comparte Por Una Vida– a Colombian NGO set up a year ago to help Venezuelan migrants – says there aren’t enough places in Colombian schools to meet demand, and there is no provision for transport.

     

    "It’s to do with the lack of national and local budgets to provide these children with transport”, Lovera says. “They are walking more than 10 kilometres a day just to get an education.”

     

    She added: “The secretary of education in this region is facing a huge challenge; they need 8,000 spaces to be able to cover the demand for the migrant and returning population.”

    “The situation is going to explode, so many are arriving.”

    In response to Venezuela’s economic decline, many teachers have fled the country in search of better opportunities abroad. Others refuse to work for the devalued salaries the government offers in state schools.

    Some students who live near the border, like Daniela, have been able to access schools in Colombia, but competition is fierce and the education system is at breaking point.

     

    “The situation is going to explode, so many are arriving,” said German Berbesi, principal of Megacolegio La Frontera, a school established in 2016 in part to deal with the large migrant population.

     

    Beyond education

    Berbesi is calling for more to be done to deal with migration into Colombia, and to help Venezuelan children who arrive in bad shape.

     

    “A lot of Venezuelan students arrive depressed, affected by what’s happened in their country,” he says. “They leave behind friends and family and everything is new to them.”

     

    Of the 47,457 children enrolled in schools near the border area, 3,841 have Venezuelan nationality. Some 2,037 others are returning Colombians who had moved to Venezuela but are now fleeing the crisis there, according to NRC.

    NRC’s Colombia director, Christian Visnes, told IRIN that they are seeing children not only affected by the Venezuelan crisis, but other factors in Colombia, too.

     

    “In Cúcuta, 12 of every 100 students have been affected by the internal conflict in Colombia and the crisis in Venezuela,” Visnes said. “There are children that have been completely neglected.”

     

    In addition, nearly forty percent of some 4,000 children not attending school in Cúcuta are Venezuelan, according to NRC, which runs education programmes in the region.

     

    “The international community must increase support for this situation," Visnes said.

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    Steven Grattan/IRIN
    Valentin Cordoba at his school in Cúcuta. He says the hardest thing to see is the Venezuelan children having to leave everything behind.

    At Fe y Alegria high school, near the Cúcuta border, principal Valentin Cordoba says students from Venezuela often struggle because the standard curriculum differs between the two Andean nations. Subjects like computer technology, languages, and religious studies aren’t part of the Venezuelan state curriculum.

    “The hardest thing for these children is having to leave everything behind – that’s heartbreaking to watch.”

    “Students have to catch up to the same level,” Cordoba says. Yet, he adds, “The hardest thing for these children is having to leave everything behind – that’s heartbreaking to watch.”

     

    Valentina, 13, is a student at the Mega Colegio La Frontera. She moved to Colombia two years ago with her mother and siblings.

     

    “There was no food, work, or money – so we came here,” she says.

     

    Valentina’s mother works at the busy Simón Bolívar bridge, scraping by in the competitive business of selling bus tickets to the thousands of migrating Venezuelans who pass daily.

     

    “I miss my house, my friends and family there,” Valentina, a history fan says.  “I hope things get better soon so I can go back.”

     

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    “They are walking more than 10km a day just to get an education.”
    Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals
  • Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    There is suddenly a whole new level of anxiety in the humanitarian community over the plight of Venezuela.

     

    On top of longstanding concerns over chronic shortages of food and medicine reaching the country, there’s now real worry about the increasingly blatant politicisation of aid, as the internationally backed opposition movement puts efforts to bring humanitarian supplies into the country at the centre of its messaging strategy against the regime.

     

    Concerns of a humanitarian circus aren’t being helped by Richard Branson’s “Venezuela Aid” concert – a Live Aid-style extravaganza to be held in Cúcuta, just across the Colombian border on Friday. The concert, bringing together some of Latin Pop’s biggest stars, adds a bizarre touch to a complex political-military-humanitarian picture that, some worry, could easily descend into civil war.

    It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool.

    It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool – one aimed squarely at Venezuela’s military establishment for the purpose of getting them to turn on President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Guaidó, who is now recognised as interim president by most of the western hemisphere and Europe but doesn’t control the military, wants to make it crystal clear to them that if they abandon Maduro the rest of the world is ready and able to move quickly to bring desperately needed food and medicine into the country.

     

    The politics here are smart: Guaidó has skillfully pushed Maduro into the hugely unpopular position of having to reject help for people in desperate need. Guaidó is calculating that the move will eventually lead to a mass military defection, and there is good reason to think that – in purely political terms at least – it might well succeed.

     

    However, none of this is likely to assuage concerns in the humanitarian community, which is aghast at the way aid has been turned into little more than just another weapon in the bitter and longrunning struggle for power in Caracas.

     

    On a fundamental level, the humanitarian community can never be seen to violate its principle of political neutrality: even if the opposition tactic does prove effective (which is a long way from a given), for the aid sector to back it would set a precedent that stores up any amount of trouble for the future. The International Committee of the Red Cross has already bowed out of the border aid operation – being led by Colombia and the United States – over these concerns. This is only natural.

     

    But concern about the showdown and the Cúcuta concert goes beyond a general reticence to politicise aid. The larger problem is that when aid becomes this politicised, there's no room left for a realistic assessment of Venezuela's humanitarian needs.

     

    On 14 February, for instance, the Organization of American States regional body held a highly politicised donors’ conference in Washington, D.C. that ended with much self-congratulatory talk of “$100 million in new pledges” of humanitarian aid to Venezuela.

    The number raised eyebrows for several reasons. First, the OAS didn’t publish a detailed breakdown of exactly who pledged what and for when, sowing seeds of doubt about how solid or serious the pledges are. Second, no monitoring, evaluation, or control mechanism of any kind was announced – which, again, can only lead the cynical to doubt how serious the whole enterprise is.

     

    And finally – and most seriously – the $100 million amount is completely out of proportion with even the most conservative estimates of the scale of need in Venezuela. Optimistic predictions of the impact of recent US oil sanctions alone suggest the country’s food imports will drop $120 million per month, and that is from inadequate levels that already saw three in four Venezuelans lose body weight due to hunger last year. And that’s just food, not to mention medicine, other supplies, fuel, etc.

    It could be remembered as the prelude to a catastrophe on a scale that the western hemisphere hasn’t seen in decades.

    In order to make a dent in the real humanitarian needs Venezuelans face, the OAS would have to hold that same donor conference once every three weeks or so for the foreseeable future. Even then, if the aid continued to be held up at the border, it would do no good.

     

    The basic message here is that aid-as-politics turns out to be incompatible with aid-as-aid in the Venezuelan context. If Guaidó’s strategy pans out and delivers a knockout blow to the Maduro regime in the near future, paving the way for large-scale relief efforts under a new government, it will be hailed as a masterstroke. But if it fails and the Maduro clique manages to entrench itself in power, it could be remembered as the prelude to a catastrophe on a scale that the western hemisphere hasn’t seen in decades.

     

    What is clear is that the Venezuelan opposition – alongside powerful allies in the United States, Colombia, Brazil, and Europe – has chosen an exceptionally risky approach without a credible Plan B. For Venezuelans’ sake, we can only hope it works.

     

    Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off
  • In Libya, hard economic times force migrant workers to look elsewhere

    The well-worn description of migrants in Libya is of desperate people trapped in hellish detention centres trying to get to Europe. But many come for work, and some return multiple times despite the dangers posed by people smugglers, armed gangs, or merciless employers.

     

    After years of civil conflict and political mismanagement, oil-rich Libya is on the verge of economic collapse. It can hardly look after its own financially struggling citizens, let alone its migrant workforce, who have become vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping, and other abuses.

     

    Philip Badou, a Ghanaian pastor who has lived in Tripoli for the past 25 years and has a mostly migrant congregation there, said Libya’s downward spiral has made life so bad for migrant workers that some longtime residents of the capital are leaving.

     

    “Libya always provided many opportunities for Africans, and they just weren’t interested in going to Europe before because they could make good money here,” said Badou. “This big problem with migration has really only started since 2011.”

     

    This was the year Muammar Gaddafi was ousted. Under his rule, Libya had depended on a large migrant workforce; his 42 years in power marked by a reliance on oil revenues and the handing out to citizens of public sector jobs that required little actual work.

    “Libya always provided many opportunities for Africans, and they just weren’t interested in going to Europe before because they could make good money here.”

    The UN estimates there are currently some 670,000 migrants and refugees in Libya, including 56,455 currently registered with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and another 6,200 in detention centres across the country.

     

    It’s not clear what proportion of those people are in the country solely to work, but it is still a mostly sub-Saharan African workforce that unloads cargo ships, tends to farmland, restocks shelves, operates most aspects of construction and demolition, and manages rubbish and street clearance. There are also Syrian and Ukrainian doctors and dentists, Indian and Iraqi teachers, Filipino nurses and oil workers, and Eastern European engineers.

     

    ‘They had rights’

     

    Some migrant workers in Libya manage to get regular employment, but for most it is more of a struggle.

     

    Across the country, many congregate at roadside points each morning, waiting for prospective employers. They can make up to 650 or 700 Libyan dinars per month – the average salary a Libyan in a state sector job makes – but their jobs are insecure and can be dangerous.

     

    Migrant workers say they are often held up at gunpoint for their wages after a day’s work, if they are paid at all. Some foreigners are abducted off the streets and forced to work for free.

     

    “One of my Nigerien workers went missing, and when I called his phone it was answered by a Libyan who had basically abducted the worker because he wanted a large farm area cleaned for free,” said Farouq, a Libyan who runs a beach resort in Misrata.

     

    The kidnapping of foreigners for extortion is a common practice in some parts of the country, including the southern town of Sebha, a hub for the smuggling of goods and people. One church in Tripoli, which has an all migrant congregation, reported using most of its collections in 2016 to pay ransoms to free its members, although less so in the past two years.

     

    Even foreigners who have been in Libya for several years have no legal resource. The country has multiple militias competing for power and no real police force with any quantifiable power, but also few migrant workers have official documents and there are few functioning embassies where they can be renewed.

    This is a change from the Gaddafi years, according to 28-year-old Libyan taxi driver Mohamed. “No one would treat migrants like this [then]. It was illegal. They had rights,” he said. “I remember well one single case, before 2011, where Libyans attacked a migrant family accused of stealing. It was a major, shocking news story.”

     

    Money transfer problems

     

    While security threats can be a factor, it is mostly disenchantment with Libya’s financial situation that is driving migrant workers away to Europe or, in some cases, back home.

     

    Official money transfers abroad in Libyan dinars have been impossible since mid-2014, and both foreigners and locals have to rely on the black market as the official exchange rate has been largely unavailable and irrelevant for years.

     

    “Money is the main reason for so many people going to Europe,” said Badou, the Ghanaian pastor. “Since official money transfers stopped, there’s no way to send wages home legally and people have to work hard just to get 700 Libyan dinar, officially $504, which, on the black market, is now equivalent to $150, which is very bad. So of course, people start to leave.”

    “Here in Libya, we really need migrant workers. To be honest, we can’t get anything done without them.”

    Libya’s economic meltdown has meant banks have limited cash and restrict daily withdrawals, leaving most Libyans unable to access their own savings. As one government employee explained, salaries – routinely paid months late – are now “just a figure on paper”. This cash crisis has has been accompanied by rising prices, leaving many struggling financially.

     

    The exodus is beginning to cause alarm among some Libyan employers, according to a senior member of the Ghanaian community who said Libyans had started pleading with Ghanian plasterers to stop leaving. Within Libya’s migrant workforce, many nationalities have “specialties” and there are few skilled plasterers able to fill the void left by departing Ghanaians, he said.

     

    Libya is heavily dependent on its migrant workforce and some say that without foreign workers, the country would struggle to function.

     

    “Here in Libya, we really need migrant workers. To be honest, we can’t get anything done without them,” said General Mohammed al-Tamimi, the military commander at a checkpoint north of Sebha. “Recently, when we capture migrants, they stay here with us and we employ them as labourers,” as there are no detention centres open in Libya’s south, he added.

     

    In the open, but not safe

     

    As fast as people leave, either heading home overland or braving the Mediterranean crossing towards Europe, more migrants arrive across Libya’s porous southern borders.

     

    Despite the dangers of their lives here, they don’t live in hiding and, in Tripoli at least, they have long been a noticeable and active part of the community.

    migrant_workers_in_tripoli_playing_football_1920.jpg

    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Migrant workers play football in the Libyan capital city of Tripoli.

    For example, every Friday for the last 20 years, migrant football teams have played on a wasteland patch in the capital’s Souq al-Juma district. Last year, several hundred migrants and a handful of Libyans gathered to watch the final of a four-month tournament organised by migrant football enthusiasts.

     

    “We have no problems, no intimidation, nothing,” said Jaffa, a day labourer from Niger, one of the organisers. “The situation for migrants here is not like they say in the media. It’s actually okay.”

     

    But “okay” masks a myriad of difficulties, both financial and otherwise. “These football matches are great because they allow people suffering a very difficult situation to put their energy into something positive,” said Ben Hamza Adali, a Libyan who plays on one migrant team. “This place is in a well-secured area and we don’t suffer from any threats or harassment because no one has a problem with football.”

     

    Mid-game, a Toyota pickup pulled up and three men armed with Kalashnikovs, wearing official blue police uniforms and balaclavas, ran onto the football pitch, shooting in the air.

     

    Efforts by Tripoli’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to rein in the capital’s militias remain ineffective, with many operating independently, despite the state uniforms most now wear.

     

    It may just have been a show of power but it sent hundreds of terrified migrants fleeing across the pitch, scattering out into the busy road. No one was injured and, after a few minutes, the armed men sped off. The footballers returned, with a greatly diminished audience.

     

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    In Libya, hard economic times force migrant workers to look elsewhere
  • South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

    Last week, UN envoy for South Sudan David Shearer said fighting had “diminished greatly” since a September peace agreement. He may have spoken too soon. It has since emerged that clashes in the Equatoria region have displaced about 8,000 people internally and sent 5,000 more fleeing across the border into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in the midst of an Ebola outbreak. Most of the refugees and IDPs are women, children, and the elderly – many traumatised after they “witnessed violent incidents, including armed men reportedly murdering and raping civilians and looting villages," according to Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The clashes began last month between the army and the National Salvation Front, or NAS, one of more than 70 armed groups in South Sudan – and one that didn’t sign last year's accord. Five years of civil war have left 1.9 million South Sudanese internally displaced and 2.4 million living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

    Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

    The World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are among those competing with the UN's World Food Programme for a €500 million European Commission grant. The project supports 1.5 million refugees with cash allowances in Turkey. It’s the largest single humanitarian grant in the world, accounting for about 31 percent of the EC’s emergency aid budget. One of the issues will be indirect costs. A recent EC audit questioned the seven percent overhead fee paid to WFP (to be reduced to 6.5%), which ran the first phase of the project. WFP told IRIN it is following the financial rules set by its board, which includes EU member states. The Emergency Social Safety Net project is largely implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent. Its chief, Kerem Kinik, in a statement to IRIN, declined to back a bidder, saying his organisation "remains in promotion of an impactful and cost-efficient programme design".

    Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

    The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen released its annual report to the public this week. It makes for grim reading on 2018, a period during which the country “continued its slide towards humanitarian and economic catastrophe”. In 224 pages, the group details “widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the various parties involved in the conflict”. Tip: For the group’s look at humanitarian assistance – including the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s obstruction of civilian flights out of Sana’a, and the Houthi rebels’ arrest of aid workers and interference in the selection of aid beneficiaries – skip to page 56. In other Yemen news, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would end the country’s support for the war. It still has to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump’s pen. If you’re confused, yes, last year a similar resolution failed in the House and passed in the Senate, but members have come and gone since then, and the resolution has changed too.

    Counting the cost of internal displacement

    People displaced within their own borders could be costing the global economy nearly $13 billion a year, according to new research by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Researchers assessed costs for eight countries experiencing conflicts or disasters, including Central African Republic, Libya, the Philippines, South Sudan, and Yemen. CAR was found to have the highest financial impact for each displaced person – about $230 million, or 11 percent of the country's GDP, per year. The research found that the highest burdens come from lost income, support for housing, and healthcare. People in low-income countries were also impacted worse than those in lower-middle or upper-middle income countries. Internal displacement "places a heavy burden on the economy," said Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC, "generating specific needs that must be paid for by those affected, their hosts, governments or aid providers". For more on how IDPs need greater protection, read this opinion we published earlier in the week.

    Examining aid partnerships

    Major donors and aid groups have made broad promises to “localise” aid – putting more power and funding in the hands of locals when crises hit. But change has been slow on the ground, to the frustration of many local NGOs, as we’ve documented in our continuing reporting on locally driven aid. So how can local and international groups make this all work? New research examines aid partnerships in four countries – Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, and South Sudan – to look at what kinds of practices might contribute to “localising” aid. There are the positives (locals participating in project design and budgeting), and the negatives (internationals taking credit for local work). But, unsurprisingly, most of the local humanitarians interviewed in the studies said existing partnerships between international and local organisations are not equitable – closer to the subcontracting that characterises many aid relationships. Yet genuine, long-term partnerships are seen as the most likely to accelerate “localisation” reforms. The ongoing research, which you can read here, comes from a consortium of NGOs including Action Aid, CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam, and Tearfund.

    ‘I am free from the conflict, but I do not feel free’

    The number of child soldiers around the world has more than doubled since 2012, according to Child Soldiers International’s analysis of six years of UN reports on children and armed conflict. The latest report verified 8,185 cases of child recruitment in 15 countries – a 159 percent rise on the 3,159 cases verified in 2012.

    Co-produced by a former child soldier, a new project brings to life the voices of 27 children who were recruited into conflict in northern Uganda. There’s a taster below, but you can view the full comic here.

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    © YOLRED and courtesy of Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol)

    In case you missed it

    Germany: The German authorities have arrested two former officers of Bashar al-Assad’s secret service alleged to have tortured critics of the Syrian president. A third man is reported to have been arrested in France. Germany accepts the principle of universal jurisdiction, allowing its courts to try individuals accused of international crimes committed elsewhere – including war crimes, crimes against humanity, even genocide.

    Haiti: After more than a week of protests over corruption amid soaring prices and inflation, President Jovenel Moïse finally broke his silence on Thursday, refusing to step down and urging patience. At least seven people have been killed during demonstrations sparked by anger at the government and the business elite over a $2 billion development aid scandal. More protests and street gunfire was reported in the capital, Port-au-Prince, after Moïse’s speech.

    Kashmir: The deadliest militant attack to hit Indian-administered Kashmir in three decades killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary troops this week, raising tensions in a disputed region that has seen frequent civilian demonstrations against military abuses. The bomb blast was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad, a banned Islamist group.

    Myanmar: The military is shelling villages and blocking humanitarian access in Rakhine State, according to Amnesty International. Rights groups say some of the same army divisions involved in the violent 2017 ouster of 700,000 Rohingya – labelled as a likely genocide by UN investigators – are now being deployed in a crackdown on the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army.

    Sudan: Sudanese government forces have used "extreme violence and shocking abuses" against largely peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said, urging the UN to conduct an independent investigation into the violations. Activists estimate that more than 50 people have died since anti-government demonstrations began in mid-December, while at least 79 journalists have reportedly been arrested.

     

    Weekend read

    International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    The new D-Day for Venezuela is 23 February. This is when opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has said humanitarian aid will enter the country to alleviate the suffering of Venezuelans gripped by widespread shortages of food and medicine. Guaidó has urged the armed forces, who remain loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, to allow the aid in. But there’s no indication Maduro, whose presidency Guaidó denounces as illegitimate, intends to do any such thing. In our weekend read, journalist Paula Dupraz-Dobias unpicks the different strands of what has become an international aid stand-off, with aid agencies caught in the middle and uncertain what to do next. This briefing is essential reading as the showdown continues to obscure a humanitarian crisis that may be denied by Maduro, but shows no sign of letting up.

    And finally

    We recommend you check out this entry to the New York Times’ Lens blog, which features the work of photographer Wesaam al-Badry. Al-Badry and his family fled Iraq just before the Gulf War for Nebraska, and his photos beautifully document their life in the United States, warts and all. There are weddings, a prison release ankle monitor, and an Arabic-language American newspaper. “My family are not one dimensional characters in a refugee story,” al-Badry says. “They have multiple layers, they have their own personalities, their own agency and ways of manoeuvring through life.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A child holds up a map in the Protection of Civilians site in Bor, South Sudan. CREDIT: JC McIlwaine​/UN Photo)

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    South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant
  • In Cúcuta, a soup kitchen and a long road ahead for Venezuelans

    The Colombian border town of Cúcuta is the main point of exodus for Venezuelans leaving their troubled homeland, with up to 40,000 people crossing backwards and forwards here each day.

     

    Most arrive with hopes of new lives and new opportunities in Colombia, while others aim to travel, often by foot, on to other South American countries like Ecuador and Peru. Somewhere between three and four million Venezuelans have left since 2015.

     

    Read more: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

     

    Journalist Steven Grattan went to Cúcuta, once a thriving hub for Venezuelan tourists, and discovered how it is struggling to host hundreds of thousands of new migrants who have landed in a region where education and health institutions are now at breaking point.

     

    Harsh realities greet many new arrivals, as their journeys and dreams of a fresh start become derailed by their own lack of resources and by the shortage of opportunities they find in Colombia.

     

    Day-trippers

    2._some_venezuelans_1920.jpg

    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Some Venezuelans cross into Colombia simply to buy basic food and supplies to take back to Venezuela. They bring suitcases, like the man in this photo heading back along the Simón Bolívar border bridge – the main point of entry between the two countries. Flour, eggs, toilet roll, and toothpaste are hard to come by, or are extremely expensive. Many are now scared to migrate, knowing that Colombia and other nearby countries are saturated with their fellow citizens, as jobs and opportunities abroad have dried up.

    Colombian refugees returning

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    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    As recently as a decade ago Venezuela was one of the richest countries in the region, playing host itself to more than a quarter of a million Colombians fleeing war and persecution during the armed conflict between Colombian government forces and leftist FARC rebels. Freddy Garzon, 49, was one of those whose family fled Colombia and moved to Venezuela, in 1974. He is now fleeing the other way with his children, aged seven and nine. “I can’t imagine going back [to Venezuela] again. It’s really affected my head,” he says.

    Hunger

    this_is_the_priority_1920.jpg

    A long line of people outside of a soup kitchen
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    This is the priority line for parents with young children outside a church-run soup kitchen in Cúcuta. Some 7,500 meals are provided here six days a week, Monday to Saturday. There is a line for the elderly too. Many depend on these meals to help them through the first steps of their migration into Colombia. However, many Venezuelans who live near the border also cross daily and queue for rations as food on the other side is so scarce.

    The cooks

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    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Cooking plantain for 4,000 people’s lunch is no easy task. Elvis Baracho (at the front), 25, is a Venezuelan migrant who has worked at the soup kitchen for almost two years. His salary is minimal ($26 a month), but it allows him to pay for basic needs and he gets two free meals a day. Angel Jose, 25, (behind) lives in a tin house on the outskirts of Cúcuta with his wife and disabled child. In addition to his work at the soup kitchen, he cuts hair. He charges 2,000 pesos (63 cents) per cut, half of which goes to the woman who rents him the clippers.

    Twelve to a room

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    A woman stands in the shade with her cart selling Aloe Vera juice
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Since migrating to Colombia six months ago, Lesther Lopez, 42, has been selling her Aloe Vera concoction around Cúcuta. It supposedly helps with liver, kidney, and cholesterol problems. She says that coming to the soup kitchen for lunch each day means the little money she earns can go toward paying the $95 in monthly rent she is charged for the one room she shares in Cúcuta with 11 others, including her children aged 22, 19, and 14.

    Scraping by to send money home

    1._jesus_betancurt_48_1920.jpg

    A 48 year old man stands near a colorful wall holding a box of small goods for sale
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Jesus Betancurt sits on the pavement in the sweltering heat on the Simón Bolívar bridge selling biscuits and sweets to passersby. He crossed over a week ago in search of a job. “I live with the hope of being able to send something back to my family,” says the 48-year-old from Carabobo State. “I’ve been trying to find work, but this is all I can get for now.”

    Moving on

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    A closeup of a printed map showing a route for migrants
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    This map is given by the Red Cross to Venezuelan migrants walking into Colombia. It shows a 47-hour walk to the city of Bucaramanga, a small fraction of the route many will take on to Ecuador or Peru. The road winds high into hills, and people often have to sleep rough in cold nighttime temperatures.

    Hitching a ride

    For those leaving Cúcuta, the first stop is the hilltop town Pamplona. Many come on foot on their way to Bucaramanga. In the photo above, migrants leaving Pamplona are trying to hitch a ride from a passing lorry, The migrants often travel vast distances on from here on foot, through the Colombian wetlands, many with suitcases and few resources.

    Escaping the heat

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    A group of men, women, and children in the back of a shipping lorry
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Most don’t get picked up, but these migrants are lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back of an empty lorry. The heat on the road is intense, so they are happy to catch a break. Most of these migrants are trying to leave Colombia for Peru and Chile because they believe there might be more opportunities for work in those countries. Others are searching for family members who have gone before.

    ...

    For more on the situation within Venezuela, read our in-depth reporting: A humanitarian crisis denied.

    (TOP PHOTO: Sergio Carmargo, 59, in the elderly line at the church-run soup kitchen in Cúcuta. CREDIT: Steven Grattan/IRIN)

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    In Cúcuta, a soup kitchen and a long road ahead for Venezuelans
  • Briefing: How the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh is changing

    Aid groups and authorities in Bangladesh are preparing to ask for more than $900 million in donor funding to help Rohingya refugees in the sprawling refugee settlements of southern Bangladesh.

     

    But nearly 18 months after 700,000 Rohingya fled a violent military crackdown in Myanmar in August 2017, the aid sector finds itself shifting from emergency response to dealing with a protracted crisis.

     

    The camps are now home to nearly one million Rohingya, including previous generations of refugees who fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

     

    “This is like a major city,” said Rachel Wolff, response director for World Vision, one of more than 100 NGOs, UN agencies, and government bodies now working in Cox’s Bazar.

     

    There are slim prospects of a quick return home: the UN says Rakhine State is not yet safe for the Rohingya, who have faced generations of marginalisation and disenfranchisement, and most of the refugees say they won’t go back until their rights are guaranteed.

    A generation of young Rohingya have spent another year without formal schooling or ways to earn a living.

    The dimensions of the response are changing as the months pass: medical operations focused on saving lives in 2017 must now also think of everyday illnesses and healthcare needs; a generation of young Rohingya have spent another year without formal schooling or ways to earn a living; women reported sexual violence at the hands of Myanmar's military, but today the violence happens within the cramped confines of the camps.

     

    Here are some of the biggest issues coming up in delivering aid in city-sized camps, as the crisis continues to evolve and pushes toward a second full year:

     

    Healthcare: from bullet wounds to diabetes

     

    Healthcare workers responding in the early days of the 2017 refugee outflow treated traumatic injuries like bullet and knife wounds, and rushed to implement mass vaccination campaigns and ensure access to safe water.

     

    But as the refugee crisis prolongs, longer-term health needs also become a pressing concern.

     

    “You go through this emergency response and then you say, OK, we don’t know when or if the situation for these refugees will improve, so we need to start addressing things like diabetes… and high blood pressure,” said Jessica Patti, medical coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, which runs four field hospitals and several clinics in the camps.

     

    Read more: A new normal in humanitarian aid: treating middle-class diseases

     

    Major gaps in health services have emerged in the crowded camps: treatment for chronic diseases, care for sexual violence survivors, and mental health and psychiatric services for a population stuck in limbo.

     

    The Inter Sector Coordination Group, the UN-led body coordinating aid efforts in the camps, says treatment for non-communicable diseases, as well as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV is “insufficient”, and that health facilities are unevenly distributed – services are bunched close together in some areas, while refugees in more distant settlements may go without.

    “Congestion is the recipe for all disaster.”

    “After an emergency, everybody sort of comes in, responds, sets up,” Patti said. “But I think we’re at a point now where people need to take a step back and say, OK, maybe some of these services are redundant and need to consider closing, re-evaluating, or moving where we are, to allow for more space in the camps for people to live.”

     

    Overcrowding

     

    The extreme lack of space in the camps cuts through the entire response: health risks from poor hygiene and sanitation soar if latrine standards are inadequate. There’s not enough room for classrooms, nor for storm shelters or comprehensive evacuation plans for the upcoming cyclone and monsoon season.

     

    “Congestion is the recipe for all disaster,” said Rezaul Chowdhury, who leads COAST, a local NGO based in Cox’s Bazar.

     

    The majority of the refugees now live in massive Kutupalong camp, carved out of undulating, flood-prone land.

     

    The amount of useable space available per person – less than 10 square metres in some areas – falls far below minimum international standards for refugee camps.

     

    Needs of women and girls

     

    This severe congestion also adds to the risks faced by women and girls, whose health and protection needs are already “critically underserved” in the camps, according to the Inter-agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises, a coalition of aid organisations.

     

    “The fact that it's such a crowded camp, who's the most affected? It's women and girls,” Wolff said.

     

    “They don't have a space and, being from a culture where, not all, but some portion of males, husbands, and community leaders, are pressuring them to stay in their homes – we're talking about homes that are actually glorified hovels; stay in your plastic shelter – it’s just beyond what I think a human woman could tolerate.”

     

    Schools and livelihoods: a lost generation

     

    There are more than half a million school-age children and young adults in the camps and surrounding areas, but for the past 18 months few have been able to access formal education.

     

    Worried that Rohingya children educated in Bangladesh will integrate into local society and not return home, Bangladesh’s government has placed strict limits on formal education – Rohingya students are not permitted to study using the Bangladeshi curriculum.

     

    Instead, education services are largely limited to informal classrooms run by a range of NGOs and community groups. But aid groups have been slow to finalise an alternative curriculum, and some Rohingya parents have criticised the quality of education on offer. Aid groups say this informal schooling is available to only half of children 14 years old and younger.

     

    At the same time, only primary-level education is allowed, meaning there are few opportunities for Rohingya who are 15 and older. Fewer than 5,000 adolescents have any access to schooling or life-skills training, out of more than 117,000 who may need it, according to aid groups.

    "You are developing a young generation with a lot of frustration.”

    “Without formal education, without skills-building, things to do actively, and preparing for their futures, how do they start to think about where their life is going?” said Wolff. “I think all of us really hope to move a bit faster and get into more self-reliance activities for the refugees, especially the youth.”

     

    Critics say there has been a lack of long-term planning on education, including coordinated advocacy to convince the government to change its rules.

     

    “The Rohingya are getting older. They are growing,” said Chowdhury. “If you don’t have education, then you are developing a young generation with a lot of frustration.”

     

    Host communities: rising tensions

     

    The massive influxes of refugees – and the aid groups that followed them – have raised tensions among Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar. Some say they’ve seen their income plummet as they compete for increasingly scarce resources or services.

     

    A January survey by Ground Truth Solutions, which researches the views of people in crises, pointed to rising tensions among the host communities: “Their attitudes have shifted from the start of the crisis, where they felt much more supportive and welcoming of Rohingya but now are much less so, feeling that Rohingya have ‘been here too long’.”

     

    Aid groups and the government also warn of a “potential deterioration” of relations between Rohingya and the local communities. The upcoming response plan is expected to place a greater emphasis on building social cohesion and on development projects to improve education and access to water and food in host communities. Some of these projects were started last year, but the UN coordination body said a “severe funding gap” put a limit on this assistance.

     

    Planning for the future

     

    The upcoming appeal – north of $900 million – represents one of the largest humanitarian appeals for a crisis this year. But the 2018 Rohingya appeal went underfunded through much of the year, which aid groups said had a direct impact on the quality of services available.

     

    Chowdhury said the aid community continues to concentrate on short-term goals, without planning for a future when funding will wane. He said local NGOs and aid workers have effectively been left out of planning, while international aid groups have done little to build skills among the local organisations that call Bangladesh home.

     

    “When the funds dry out, when UN agencies and all the experts fly out, there should not be a burden on the local people,” Chowdhury said. “There should be an opportunity for the local people.”

     

    At the same time, the future of the Rohingya in Bangladesh is inextricably tied to the government itself, which is in charge of the humanitarian response but also says the refugees must one day return home.

     

    Highly criticised plans to begin refugee returns to Myanmar last year were called off when Rohingya refused to go. The government has also floated plans to resettle some Rohingya on Bhasan Char, a disaster-prone island that rights groups say would be even more precarious than the refugees’ current camp shelters.

    (TOP PHOTO: Young Rohingya refugees play at Balukhali refugee camp in Ukhia on 4 February 2019. CREDIT: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)

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    Briefing: How the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh is changing
  • The world’s 40 million invisible refugees

    People displaced within their own countries – whether by conflict or disaster – often struggle for the same recognition and protections afforded to refugees. And yet the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were launched 21 years ago today – the creation of Sudanese diplomat Francis Deng, then the UN’s special rapporteur for IDPs, or internally displaced persons.

    The 30 principles built on pre-existing instruments such as the Geneva Conventions, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – all of which ratifying governments had committed to. They reminded national governments of certain absolute obligations towards their citizens, those laid down in international humanitarian law. More than two decades later, governments continue to routinely fail to implement Deng’s principles; in Africa this is despite the African Union having made them binding through the 2009 Kampala Declaration.

    The grossest violations of international law can be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, and specialised courts such as those set up for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But when IDPs can’t enjoy basic rights found in domestic law – for example to education, health services, or to vote – it speaks to deep problems of neglect that can’t be prosecuted by international bodies.

    The lack of application of the guiding principles since 1998 reveals not only a lack of awareness of the needs of IDPs, but also of the inability of states to prevent and resolve the crises that force people to flee within their own country.

    When IDPs can’t enjoy basic rights found in domestic law – for example to education, health services, or to vote – it speaks to deep problems of neglect that can’t be prosecuted by international bodies.

    When the principles were born, there were 20 million IDPs; by the end of 2017 there were twice as many – a rise driven by protracted conflicts and a growing number of extreme weather events. Those who flee from armed conflicts often remain IDPs for many years, while those who are forced away because of storms, floods, or earthquakes tend to return sooner.

    So what can be done to improve the lives of the world’s 40 million IDPs?

    In a 2018 analysis for the 20th anniversary of the guiding principles, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) in Geneva – established at the initiative of the Norwegian Refugee Council in the year the principles were launched – identified three urgent issues for further action.

    First, the economic consequences of internal displacement need to be properly assessed. In terms of shelter, healthcare, and food, these can be estimated with relative ease, but the more intangible societal burden – lost opportunities in education, investments and revenue, psychological trauma, and social fragmentation – is harder to pin down. IDMC has begun a new programme to estimate these costs, so that the real burden to societies becomes known and can be factored into national plans and budgets.

    Second, access to data on existing levels and new flows of internal displacement must be improved. IDMC uses a broad range of formal and informal sources for its statistics – sources often afflicted with considerable uncertainty as states don’t always register the correct information or make data public.

    Finally, and most importantly, governments in the affected countries must be encouraged and supported to take more responsibility for their IDPs.

    Much has happened in terms of protection and assistance during displacement, but a great deal remains to be done to prevent flight in the first place, and to enable safe return and reintegration. Many states are not taking these responsibilities as seriously as their citizens have the right to expect. And some are committing, or allowing, grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. Displacement has, in some countries, been enforced, or even prevented, through siege. And several fragile and conflict-prone states lack the capacity to even implement the principles.

    In Somalia, for instance, IDPs find their way to cities when violence, drought, and floods undermine their rural livelihoods. The largest increase in 10 years occurred in 2017 – there are now 600,000 IDPs in Mogadishu. In the absence of legislation and regulations, they live under great insecurity, especially in the capital. As the value of land where they have settled rises in the growing economy, they risk being forcibly evicted by landowners belonging to a different clan than their own. They are extremely vulnerable, mostly living in poor shelters without access to clean water, healthcare, or education.

    In Ethiopia, the new government has created political openings and the beginning of reconciliation with Eritrea. But communal tensions over access to natural resources in 2018 led to violence between ethnic groups in the south of the country that created the largest number of new IDPs anywhere in the world. Hundreds of thousands of these people were being assisted with relative efficiency by the authorities but were forced to return towards the end of the year under the threat of having assistance taken away – even though the conflict in the south remained unresolved. Many Ethiopian IDPs have ended up in a new cycle of precarious displacement with little hope of rebuilding their livelihoods.

    Last year's global compacts on migration and refugees, for instance, didn't even try to address the IDP issue.

    In Syria, a degree of repressive stability is emerging as the regime regains control of large parts of the country. But 2.9 million new IDPs were added in 2017 – many finding themselves in Idlib province, which remains under threat from a new military offensive. Syrian IDPs are often hard to reach for humanitarian actors struggling to gain access to areas both under and outside of government control. For a long time the regime failed to properly acknowledge the existence of IDPs. Both the regime and rebel groups used besiegement as a war strategy – to force the population onto its knees by depriving them of food, water, and medical assistance. A new law gives the authorities the right to seize land and property for redevelopment, only providing compensation if the owner is able to prove ownership within one year – this will hit refugees and IDPs hard and make return and reintegration more difficult.

    States can always invite the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, or other agencies into their countries to assist IDPs, but many are reluctant to commit to anything that they see as a challenge to national sovereignty – especially anything that is legally binding. Last year's global compacts on migration and refugees, for instance, didn't even try to address the IDP issue.

    The number of people forced to flee violence and the impacts of climate change is growing. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement should be increasing their chances of receiving protection and assistance. But they need to be respected and, without the political will to prevent people from being forced to leave their own homes in the first place, they are insufficient.

    (A version of this article was first published, in Swedish, in the online magazine Mänsklig Säkerhet)

    (TOP PHOTO: A young Somali girl walks through an IDP camp near the town of Beletweyne, Somalia​. CREDIT: Tobin Jones/AMISOM Photo​)

    The world’s 40 million invisible refugees
  • Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    MSF rejects claims it didn’t follow plans to avoid Yemen bombing

    An investigation into the bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières cholera treatment centre in Yemen in June 2018 has “dismayed” the NGO. A panel appointed by the Saudi Arabia-led alliance found that the new and still-empty building had been bombed by the coalition in “an unintended error”. The investigators, however, disputed details of how the location’s coordinates were supplied to Riyadh and whether there were markings on the roof of the building identifying it as a humanitarian site. At a Riyadh press conference in mid-January, the official spokesman for the investigators said the coalition was acting on intelligence the building was used for arms and ammunition storage. MSF said the findings were “unacceptable and contradictory”, noting that under international law, “It is the sole responsibility of armed parties to the conflict to proactively take all necessary measures to ensure that protected facilities are not attacked.” For more on notifications and coordinates, read our IRIN explainer on “deconfliction”.

    Measles kills more than 300 in Madagascar

    Madagascar is suffering its worst measles outbreak in decades. More than 50,000 people have been infected and at least 300 killed, most of them children, according to health officials. Cases have been reported in all major towns and cities, as well as in rural areas. Supported by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, the government has initiated fresh vaccination campaigns. Deaths from measles are avoidable if such campaigns are thorough enough. The virus gained ground in Madagascar as immunisation rates fell below 50 percent (from the recommended 90 percent), mostly due to access difficulties. This IRIN story from the archives is evidence that this is not a new problem: health experts were expressing concerns about falling rates (then from 81 percent to 64 percent) as far back as 2011. Although worst hit, Madagascar is not alone in having to tackle the virus. Measles has also struck parts of the United States and Europe, where cases tripled last year. Health authorities in the Philippines are also urging immunisations following an outbreak in Manila and nearby regions that has left 1,500 people infected and caused at least 25 deaths.

    Atrocities feared amid rising militancy in Burkina Faso

    Attacks and counter-attacks between militants and security forces in Burkina Faso are taking a heavy toll on civilians. This week, jihadists attacked the northern village of Kain near the Malian border, killing 14 people. Security forces retaliated, launching ground and air assaults that left 146 militants dead. Soon after, another attack in Oursi in the Sahel Region left 21 militants and five gendarmes dead. Human Rights Watch has called out atrocities on both sides, saying the army "executed" some suspected militants in front of their own families. The UN says persistent armed attacks and violence displaced 36,000 people in January alone, as insecurity risks impeded access to aid. For three years, Burkina Faso has been battling an escalating wave of attacks, while regional Sahel neighbours Mali and Niger face similar threats. Rising militancy across Africa is a trend we’re  watching in 2019.

    Aid stuck on Venezuela border

    As a former Venezuelan diplomat now working with the opposition as a go-between with international aid groups in Geneva told IRIN  this week, the current situation is “something that doesn’t make any sense”. The Venezuelan people are desperately short of food and medicine, some three to four million people have fled the country since 2015, and their president, Nicolás Maduro, is refusing to allow humanitarian aid in. That’s not to say the offers of assistance, from the United States in particular, might not be something of a Trojan Horse. Maduro says, “no one will enter, not one invading soldier”, and the United States has a chequered past of military intervention and regime change in Latin America. For now, the aid arriving in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta is going nowhere. Maduro’s forces have blocked the bridge into Venezuela and seem to have no intention of allowing it in. Opposition leader and self-declared president-in-waiting Juan Guaidó has suggested stockpiling it in three locations at the border in the hope this will change. More from on this unfolding story next week.

    Mixed picture in South Sudan as refugees return

    Political violence has “dropped dramatically" since the signing of September's peace deal, David Shearer, the UN envoy in South Sudan, said in the same week that nine people were killed in clashes between rebel factions in the Western Equatoria region. More than 20,000 South Sudanese refugees have so far voluntarily returned from neighbouring Uganda, according to Joel Boutroue, the UN refugee agency's representative in Uganda. However, in December, UNHCR said that despite reduced violence in some areas, South Sudan was not yet "conducive” for the safe return of refugees. Although Shearer praised some of the "positive" developments in recent months, including rebel leader Riek Machar's plan to return to Juba in May, he also flagged concerns about ongoing conflict and a loss of momentum in the peace process, with recent meetings reportedly lacking substance or real outcomes.

    One to listen to:

    In this week’s story on Yemen’s shaky ceasefire deal, we mentioned that Yemeni rights watchdog Mwatana for Human Rights had documented 624 civilian cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture in 2018. Here’s your chance to find out more about where that number came from: Radya al-Mutawakel, the organisation’s co-founder, is interviewed at length on the latest episode of the International Rescue Committee’s podcast, “Displaced”. She talks about the challenges of independently verifying information on human rights violations in the midst of a divisive war, including airstrikes, torture, disappearances, and detention, and explains why she thinks it is important to build what she calls a “human rights memory” in Yemen. Al-Mutawakel and Mwatana’s latest challenge? Figuring out how to document starvation as a  violation, as the link between victim and perpetrator is not always clear cut.

    In case you missed it

    Ethiopia: In 2009, Ethiopia banned local NGOs from raising more than 10 percent of income from abroad. The provision in the law governing civil society was criticised as a means to stifle dissent. Local media report that new rules lifting the limit have passed the Ethiopian parliament this week, part of wide-ranging reforms under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

     

    Syria: A joint UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy arrived on Thursday at Rukban, an informal camp located in a no man’s land near the Syria-Jordan border. The last delivery of aid to more than 40,000 people sheltering in the area known as “the berm” was in November.

     

    Tonga: Authorities in the Pacific Island nation are warning of gale-force winds, floods, and damaging waves as a tropical depression brushes past the country over the weekend. Last year, Cyclone Gita landed a direct hit on parts of Tonga, including its main island, Tongatapu.

     

    Yemen: This week’s Amman talks on a Yemen prisoner swap have not yet resulted in agreement on the lists of names to be exchanged, but a UN spokesman said separate talks on a UN boat had yielded a “preliminary compromise” on withdrawing forces from Hodeidah. For background, read this.

     

    Weekend read

    New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns

    Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you’ll be aware of our weekend read: CIA-funded data-mining company Palantir signs a $45 million five-year deal to help the UN’s World Food Programme pool its data and find cost-saving efficiencies. To say data privacy and protection activists are unamused is an understatement: this is a company that provided software to US customs officials to help them deport migrants. “The recipients of WFP aid are already in extremely vulnerable situations; they should not be put at additional risk of harm or exploitation,” Privacy International told IRIN’s Ben Parker. But WFP insists there will be no “data-sharing”, and hit back with a statement outlining its thinking and the safeguards it feels are in place. This wasn’t enough, however, to assuage critics, who penned an open letter to WFP urging them to reconsider the agreement and be more transparent. As Centre for Innovation protection experts suggest here, this isn’t a new conundrum, and the Palantir furore might jolt the humanitarian sector into some belated engagement on data privacy and protection concerns.

     

    And finally...

    Hot in here

    The last four years have been the four warmest years on record, according to separate analyses released this week by organisations including NASA and the WMO, the UN’s meteorological agency. Analysts say it’s a “clear sign” of long-term climate change, along with “extreme and high-impact weather” that affected millions. The WMO says the average global temperature in 2018 was 1.0° Celsius above pre-industrial levels – climate scientists say temperature rise must be limited to less than 2.0° to stave off the worst impacts.

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    Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal

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