(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Yemen deal in the balance

    So what about that ceasefire deal for Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, the one agreed in late December, the same one Saudi Arabia’s envoy to the country told IRIN was key to moving the peace process? It has still not been implemented. A UN-led committee to redeploy (i.e. withdraw) fighters from the city and province has only met twice so far, and each side has accused the other of multiple violations. The two sides swapped a small number of prisoners this week, but nowhere near the scale of a larger swap agreement the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is still waiting to carry out (the sticking point appears to involve lists of names). UN envoy Martin Griffiths says the Hodeidah ceasefire is “generally holding”, despite the extension of deadlines on key elements of the deal: “The initial timelines were rather ambitious,” he said this week. “We are dealing with a complex situation on the ground.”

    Mediterranean more dangerous for migrants

    The figures are in and EU leaders, through their migration policies, are “complicit in the tragedy”, according to a letter signed by dozens of NGOs. Arrivals to Europe across the Mediterranean and the overall number of deaths both fell sharply in 2018, but deaths per arrival went the other way: one in 269 in 2015 became one in 51 in 2018 (one in 14 from Libya) – and the number of deaths across the Western Mediterranean to Spain quadrupled last year. Two years since the EU-backed Italy-Libya deal sought to stem the flow by supporting the Libyan coastguard while Tripoli cracked down on smuggling operations, anger is growing as EU nations prevent rescue operations and refuse to allow migrant-carrying vessels to dock. The NGO letter sent on Wednesday to the EU contained three main demands: support search and rescue operations; adopt timely and predictable disembarkation arrangements; end returns to Libya. Renewing its criticism in a statement on Friday, Oxfam said "people are now in even more danger at sea and are being taken back by the Libyan coastguard to face human rights abuses in Libya". A double migrant boat disaster off the coast of Djibouti this week – more than 100 people dead or missing – was a reminder that this is not just a problem in the Mediterranean.

     

    For more on EU policies and how they affect migrants and refugees in Africa, read our “Destination Europe” series.

    “Speed-networking” at mass humanitarian hook-up

    A big-tent gathering of the humanitarian community kicks off Monday. The Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) offers a sprawling programme of 100 sessions across five days and 19 rooms in a Geneva conference centre. Over 2,100 relief professionals, diplomats, company representatives, NGO officials, and students have registered for the free event, backed by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and the Swiss government. Organiser Jesper Lund told IRIN the aim is the “acceleration of collaboration”. In its fifth year, HNPW prides itself on being an open forum, allowing parallel sessions of like-minded networks, and tries to avoid predictable formats. This year there will be speed-networking sessions to match up interested parties for one-on-one contacts. (The IRIN team will be around, and we’re always up for some speed-tipoffs, obvs). The range of topics for the week covers everything from airport readiness for disasters to (oh look!) humanitarian journalism (that's on Friday).

    Talking peace, losing ground

    The Afghan government’s control of its own territory continues to shrink. The government now has control or influence in about 54 percent of its districts, according to numbers released this week by SIGAR – the US-government mandated watchdog tracking reconstruction in Afghanistan. Afghan control is at its lowest since SIGAR began reporting the data in 2015 (other metrics suggest the government’s grip is even more tenuous, and that the insurgent Taliban need not directly control territory to wield influence). It’s another sign of the rocky road ahead in Afghanistan, despite recent talks of Taliban peace negotiations. In the aid sector, there’s plenty of concern about what a bargained Taliban peace might mean, particularly for the rights of women and minorities. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s Jan Egeland says “dialogue for humanitarian access and protection have been pushed off the table”. For now, Afghanistan remains mired in crisis: hundreds of thousands displaced by war and an ongoing severe drought, refugees and migrants returning to instability, and rising civilian casualties.

    Opposition arrests in Cameroon

    Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto, who maintains he won last year's presidential election, was among some 200 people arrested this week after new protests took place against the re-election of veteran leader Paul Biya. Further marches, planned for this weekend and into next week, were also banned by the government. The October vote was marred by violence, especially in the Northwest and Southwest anglophone regions, which are in the midst of a separatist rebellion against the francophone government. Last year, IRIN embedded with Cameroon’s separatist forces to get an inside look at the fledgling armed struggle.

    In case you missed it

     

    Democratic Republic of Congo: More than 50 mass graves have been found by a UN fact-finding mission near the western town of Yumbi, where a spate of inter-communal violence last December left almost 900 people dead in just three days.

     

    Indonesia: Dengue killed more than 100 people across the country in January. The mosquito-borne illness is endemic in parts of Indonesia, but health authorities are reporting a surge in cases during the current rainy season.

     

    Nigeria: Some 30,000 people fled the northeastern town of Rann last weekend for neighbouring Cameroon, about a week after 9,000 refugees were reported to have been forcibly returned by the Cameroonian authorities. Further violence has sent another 6,000 Nigerians fleeing into Chad.

     

    Syria: The UN says 23,000 people, including 10,000 in the past week, have fled so-called Islamic State’s last territory in Syria since December, most of them to al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province. The World Health Organisation says the camp is overwhelmed, with thousands of people sleeping in the open without so much as blankets. In the past eight weeks at least 29 children are reported to have died, mostly from hypothermia, on the way to the camp or just after arrival.

     

    USAID: The US government is reshuffling its aid portfolio, bringing the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and Food for Peace under a single humanitarian department. The new arrangement should reduce unnecessary fragmentation, according to a Twitter thread by former OFDA chief Jeremy Konyndyk.

     

    Weekend read

    The choices they made: Hondurans at the US-Mexico border

    As US President Donald Trump orders “several thousand” more US troops to the Mexican border, what about those on the other side? Take some time this weekend to delve into this feature from award-winning photojournalist Tomás Ayuso. A Honduran native, Ayuso wanted to better understand the motivations of countrymen and countrywomen who continue to make the long march north, even as the welcome they can expect looks increasingly hostile. What he found was not a uniform answer. From the man left for dead after being “executed” for refusing to become a drug dealer, to the woman whose husband died suddenly and felt compelled to find a better life for her and her son, the choices people made were all different. At the US border, there are choices too. One man has had enough and is heading home. The woman and son mentioned above also had enough of waiting. They headed across the border with smugglers shortly after Ayuso interviewed them and haven’t been heard from since.

    IRIN Event

    The future of the UN agency for Palestine refugees

    On Wednesday, IRIN Director Heba Aly sat down for a public conversation in Geneva with Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees. They talked about the agency’s funding ask for this year (it’s $1.2 billion), how UNRWA was only meant to be a temporary stop-gap but still exists 70 years on, and why it is frequently broke (Krähenbühl says those last two are related). The commissioner-general also addressed the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding from UNRWA, which serves some 5.4 million registered refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). Speaking of East Jerusalem, the commissioner-general said he’d had “no indication” from the Israeli government that the schools UNRWA runs there would be shut down, despite multiple statements to the contrary from the local municipality.

    And finally...

    “Australia’s loss”

    Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani is making a name for himself in Australia – but he’s not allowed to set foot in the country. Boochani is an unwitting resident of Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where he was sent in 2013 after trying to seek asylum in Australia. This week, Boochani’s book, “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison”, cleaned up at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, an annual contest in Australia. Judges called Boochani’s book, composed on a mobile phone, “a literary triumph, devastating and transcendent”, awarding it the non-fiction prize as well as the top honour – a haul worth 125,000 Australian dollars (more than 90,000 US dollars) . There are still about 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and another island, Nauru – part of Australia’s criticised asylum policy, which saw boat arrivals pushed to offshore detention camps and barred from ever entering Australia. In an opinion piece published this week, the US official who signed a deal to take in hundreds of people stuck on Nauru or Manus says resettled refugees are putting down roots in their new American homes. Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state, writes about meeting the former detainees, now working in restaurants, attending evening classes, or sending their own kids to school. “Australia’s loss,” she writes, “is America’s gain”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Abdulrahman Mohammed Jahia (33) and his family heard a loud explosion outside their house in Sana'a, Yemen. Their neighbouring building was hit by airstrikes. CREDIT: Becky Bakr Abdulla/NRC)

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    Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen
  • Briefing: What the fuel protests mean for Zimbabweans

    Zimbabweans had been hoping for a fresh start when Robert Mugabe’s 38-year rule came to an end in November 2017. But 14 months on, a brutal crackdown on fuel protests, which has left up to a dozen people dead, has the country on edge and is likely to make existing food and health problems even worse.

     

    The Southern African country already faces a range of humanitarian concerns, with the UN and international aid groups filling gaps in food security, health and HIV care, water and sanitation, and social protection for vulnerable civilians.

     

    Ongoing outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever have killed more than 80 people since September, and some 2.4 million Zimbabweans, more than a quarter of the rural population, require food assistance this January-March lean season.

     

    The new unrest, coupled with growing economic and political uncertainty under the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is raising fears that the humanitarian situation may deteriorate further, threatening the health and livelihoods of millions of people and leading more Zimbabweans to flee to neighbouring countries.

    What are the underlying economic issues?

    Zimbabwe, which is under international sanctions, has battled two decades of unemployment, rising costs, a currency crisis, and nearly collapsed public services. Inflation rates have surged, and about 80 percent of those with work are employed in an informal sector marked by poor and unpredictable working conditions.

     

    The country abandoned its national currency in 2009 in favour of a multi-currency system, and has since suffered from a decade-long currency crisis. This has led to instability in the price of goods and services – an instability compounded by the new unrest.

    “The political problems are actually stronger than the economic problems.”

    “The current problems in Zimbabwe are both political and economic,” said Michael Tichareva, an independent financial expert based between Harare and Johannesburg. He attributed the roots of the current crisis to a combination of corruption and gross mismanagement of public institutions by the long-ruling ZANU-PF party.

     

    “The political problems are actually stronger than the economic problems,” he said. “Once the major political parties have a common purpose of developing Zimbabwe, and engage in a nation-building dialogue in order to bring unity, then the economic problems will most likely disappear.”

     

    Why are there food and fuel shortages?

     

    The country’s agro-based economy is crippled – largely due to droughts, poorly integrated climate risk management policies, and a lack of state support for small-scale farmers who grow most of the country’s food.

     

    FEWS NET, a US-funded food security and malnutrition watchdog, says economic challenges and below-average rainfall this season will directly affect livelihoods and food security in large parts of the country – mostly for poor households, but also for some who are better off. Shortages of basic food commodities include cooking oil, sugar, flour, and bread.

     

    Zimbabwe has to import nearly all its fuel. Stocks are heavily dependent on foreign currency exchange, and even when foreign currency is released it can take a long time to get fuel from depots out to affected areas. Severe fuel shortages have plagued the country for the last two months.

     

    A week after the protests, people could only get petrol or diesel if they waited in kilometres-long queues or if they had friends with connections. Supermarkets also struggled to stock their shelves, and medicine was scarce.

     

    The shortage of goods and fuel has sent prices skyrocketing.

     

    A loaf of bread, which cost between 70 cents and one dollar (or Zimbabwean bond note) in December is now 1.50 in the shops and five dollars in the streets, following the protests. Fresh milk, which was 1.20 in December, is now four dollars; maize meal that was 4.50 is now 8.20; and cooking oil that was 3.20 is now nine dollars.

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    Farai Mudzingwa/IRIN
    A nation-wide stay-away emptied the centre of Zimbabwe's capital city, Harare, before mass street protests erupted.

    What sparked the current crisis?

    On 12 January, Mnangagwa’s announced a 150 percent increase in the price of fuel – an attempt to stabilise supplies as Zimbabwe struggles with what is its worst shortage in a decade. This led to calls for a nationwide stay-away, which then escalated into mass street protests in the main towns and cities across the country, and a deadly crackdown by police and the military.

    Between eight and 12 people were reportedly killed, 78 people were injured from gunshots, and several hundred arrested. House raids, abductions, and incidents of systematic torture were reported, as well as allegations that some soldiers raped protesters.

    Mnangagwa, who was in Europe when the unrest began, cut his trip short, cancelling his attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and promised that the violence – which he blamed on “rogue” elements in the security forces – would be investigated.

     

    However, the ZANU-PF government then accused the opposition of orchestrating the protests, saying they were planned in advance and not triggered by the fuel price hike. The presidential spokesperson even went on to threaten more violence against the opposition. Reports of state-sponsored attacks continued even after protests died down, with allegations of soldiers patrolling suburbs, beating up residents, and abducting people.

     

    The hope for a new era that accompanied Mnangagwa’s election win last year is fast evaporating amid recriminations over a heavy-handed state response that has led to comparisons with his predecessor.

    What are the humanitarian implications?

    Nelson Chamisa, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, has said the people of Zimbabwe are facing an existential threat and warned of “a far worse humanitarian crisis with devastating consequences”.

    Last week, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition also warned that if issues were not addressed it could trigger a regional humanitarian crisis, presumably speaking to fears of a new wave of outward migration.

    Such claims are hard to qualify, but some immediate effects on health access, and water and sanitation, have already been felt during the protests.

     

    Blessing Gorejena, executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, told IRIN that victims of violence were having difficulty accessing emergency medical care.

    “In some instances those victims have no idea where to go to seek medical attention,” she said. “In other instances, where they have been provided with support, the state is putting impediments that are obstructing these victims from accessing the healthcare facilities.” Gorejena said doctors were victimised and harassed, medical facilities were raided, and ambulances attacked.

    Consequences of prolonged stay-aways on the health system could also cause serious setbacks in treatment for HIV patients who need to access antiretroviral treatment in public hospitals. According to UNAIDS, Zimbabwe had 1,3 million people living with HIV in 2016, with 75 percent of these accessing daily antiretroviral therapy.

    “The public health issues come up when there are issues with governance, issues with political unrest, instability,” said a public health specialist at a local NGO that advises Zimbabwe’s health ministry, asking to remain nameless for fear of reprisals.

    “The stay-away also means that basic services [like those] at the city council are not being rendered,” the specialist said. Such services include the maintenance and repair of sewer lines and water pipes – critical to preventing contamination and ensuring hygiene standards in a country tackling a series of cholera, dysentery, and typhoid outbreaks.

    For cholera patients needing treatment, public unrest can also lead to delays in the sick reaching health centres. “Some doctors couldn’t make their way [to hospitals during the protests] because they feared for their safety,” the public health specialist added.

    What will happen next?

     

    Mnangagwa has called for a national dialogue to resolve the crisis. However the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition said the environment was not yet conducive to talks as “false accusations and charges” continue to be labelled against labour and civil society leaders, while violence by security forces has not ceased. The group warned of “greater chances of escalation of social unrest and instability” if this volatility is not addressed.

    “The mood is bleak. The hope from November 2017 is gone."

    Hundreds of activists and opposition figures are still in hiding, and some fear that the government crackdown could last for months. At the same time, the economic problems that caused the crisis persist.

    South Africa’s president said Zimbabwe’s crisis was a challenge for the whole of Africa, and called for international sanctions to be lifted as a means to ease the situation.

     

    Some reports say up to three million Zimbabweans already reside in South Africa, both as legal and undocumented residents. Amid concerns over a new  “influx”, South Africa’s main opposition party said officials along the border between the two countries told them as many as 130,000 people made the crossing from Zimbabwe in just one day last week.

    “I study migration in response to crisis, and Zimbabwe is my main case study,” Chipo Dendere, an assistant professor of political science at Amherst College, told IRIN. “People will want to leave, and they are already doing so.”

    “The mood is bleak. The hope from November 2017 is gone. The danger with this new type of hopelessness is that it opens doors for extremists,” she said. “Under Mugabe, people would say anyone is better – they held on to that. Now [Mnangagwa] has crushed that expectation of anything better. By increasing open militarisation of the state, [Mnangagwa] has failed to create the needed illusion that Zimbabwe is a civilian government, and that is scary for people.”

    (TOP PHOTO: People in Zimbabwe have battled two decades of unemployment, rising costs, and nearly collapsed public services. CREDIT: Zinyange Auntony/AFP)

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    “People will want to leave, and they are already doing so”
    Briefing: What the fuel protests mean for Zimbabweans
  • “No indication” Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem will close

    The UN’s agency for Palestine refugees has had “no indication” its schools in East Jerusalem will be closed, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said Tuesday.

     

    The Jerusalem municipality has since October said it would seek to close or challenge UNRWA’s presence in East Jerusalem. But, attending a public event moderated by IRIN in Geneva, Krähenbühl said the Israeli government hadn’t notified the UN of any such plans.

     

    “Our framework and the cooperation between UNRWA and Israel is regulated by an agreement that goes back to the ‘60s, and there has been no indication by the [Israeli] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of any change,” he said. “The position is clear.”

     

    According to information published on UNRWA’s website, some 3,100 Palestinian students attend seven UNRWA schools in East Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians. The UN considers the territory to be occupied by Israel.

     

    “At this stage it is clear all schools of UNRWA, all health centres, and other installations in East Jerusalem are open and operating,” Krähenbühl said. “We will of course follow how that develops.”

     

    The UNRWA chief was in Geneva to appeal for $1.2 billion, the amount the agency says it needs to raise in 2019 to keep services for some 5.4 million registered Palestine refugees consistent with last year.

     

    In 2018, the United States – until then UNRWA’s largest donor – cut $300 million in funding for the agency, which supports Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza with healthcare, schooling, food, and other aid.

     

    Krähenbühl said 40 countries increased their donations to fill the gap left by the United States, but 2019 “will remain a rough year to get the same level [of funding] as last year”.

     

    While the US cuts were a serious hit, 2018 is not the first time UNRWA – short for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – has been in dire financial straits.

     

    Krähenbühl blamed UNRWA’s recurring financial crises on the fact that the agency, which began operations in 1950, was meant to be a short-term stop-gap until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved.

     

    “One of the reasons why historically the funding was not stable or sustainable was that the very concept of UNRWA was not supposed to be sustainable or stable,” he said.

     

    “The international community has a huge responsibility to shift the emphasis from what we have seen over the past 70 years – collective fascination with conflict management – and you get 70 years of UNRWA – when in fact one should be focusing on conflict resolution, which is of course much more difficult.”

     

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    “No indication” Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem will close
  • WATCH LIVE: The future of the UN's agency for Palestine refugees

    Join us at the Graduate Institute in Geneva or through a livestream via the link below on Tuesday, 29 January at 18.30 CET.

    IRIN Director Heba Aly will be in discussion with Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees).

    Watch on YouTube

    WATCH LIVE: The future of the UN's agency for Palestine refugees
  • Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

    What next in Venezuela?

     

    The crisis in Venezuela has bubbled away for months, demanding media attention only when protests flare or the sheer number of people fleeing the freefalling economy and increasingly authoritarian state becomes difficult to ignore. Not now. Since President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in two weeks ago for a new six-year term, things have escalated quickly. No sooner was a revolt by members of the National Guard quelled than protesters took to the streets demanding he step down. Opposition challenger Juan Guaidó on Wednesday declared himself leader and has since been recognised as such by the United States and a clutch of regional powers. No one knows what will happen next. Talk of a US military intervention seems to be just that for now, but there’s no sign either that Maduro – still backed by Venezuela’s armed forces – is prepared to accept any offer of amnesty and leave quietly. If he does go, it won’t cure Venezuela’s ills overnight, but it would provide the change in government some argue is the only long-term solution to a humanitarian crisis Maduro has long denied – one that has left his people desperate, hungry, and sick. A study published in The Lancet Global Health Journal this week indicates that infant mortality rates have risen back to 1990s levels.

     

    “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede”

     

    Around 9,000 Nigerians who say they fled armed clashes involving Boko Haram are “shuttling” back and forth in the Cameroon border area, a UN official said in Geneva. The group was pushed back after trying to take refuge in the neighbouring country, with Cameroonian officials admitting that insecurity forced the government to take exceptional measures, despite its supposed "open doors" policy. UN humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon Allegra Baiocchi told a press conference "the right of asylum is being tested". She said many of the group were women and children. Cameroon’s director of civil protection Yap Mariatou told IRIN that a recent attack on the border town of Achigashia by an armed group had put the authorities on edge. “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede,” she said. The UN is appealing for $299 million to help 2.3 million people in Cameroon, including about 100,000 refugees from Nigeria and more than 400,000 internally displaced by an ongoing separatist rebellion.

     

    Mediterranean crossing just got even more dangerous

     

    The EU’s troubled naval mission against people smuggling in the Mediterranean faced yet another setback this week as Germany announced it was suspending participation, a decision MPs said was the result of Italy’s consistent refusal to allow rescued migrants entry at its ports. The removal of Germany’s ship leaves the mission, Operation Sophia, with only two vessels. Meanwhile, migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean – 201 so far this year – including in two recent shipwrecks, one off the coast of Libya, the second between Morocco and Spain. Many of those rescued are being brought to Libya, and Médecins Sans Frontières says it has seen a “sharp increase” in the number of people held in crowded detention centres there – conditions are dire, with shortages of clean water and food. Human Rights Watch said EU policies, including the decision to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return people, are contributing to a “cycle of extreme abuse” against migrants in the country. For a forensic examination of one Mediterranean incident in 2017 in which at least 20 migrants died, check out this film, “How Europe Outsources Migrant Suffering at Sea”, from Times Insider.

     

    Forwarding hate

     

    There’s increasing scrutiny on the real-world impacts of the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media. This week, messaging app WhatsApp announced a five-recipient limit for message forwarding. WhatsApp messages – which can be rapidly distributed through group and broadcast features – have been linked to a spate of lynchings in India and a pre-election flood of false news in Brazil. Sri Lanka also temporarily shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, and others after anti-Muslim violence last March. WhatsApp recipient limits were recommended in a “human rights impact assessment” commissioned by Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. That report focused on Facebook usage in Myanmar, where UN investigators say the company was ”slow and ineffective” in stemming hate speech on its platform amid the violent 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya. But hate speech on WhatsApp could prove even tougher to contain: the company may enforce “community standards” on Facebook, but WhatsApp messages are encrypted.

     

    Overheard in Davos

     

    Sure, the mood at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was generally sombre, but there was a bright spot for some: the increasing spotlight on social issues, including humanitarian response. Humanitarian topics included sessions on private sector investment in fragile states and the use of artificial intelligence in crises. The WEF, the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an initiative to promote so-called humanitarian investing – the private sector working to boost economies in crisis-affected areas in order to help people get back on their feet and avoid becoming dependent on aid. The IKEA Foundation pledged 6.8 million euros to help create livelihoods for refugees in Jordan. Still, investors were honest about the constraints of putting capital into fragile states at scale. On the tech side, AI was front and centre with discussions on its use in crisis zones. It has huge potential – from predicting famines to chatbots that help refugees further their education to facial recognition for identifying family members separated by war. But what happens when AI-aggregated data falls into the wrong hands? Or when machines reinforce political or human biases in the data? Many agencies, one observer noted, are pushing ahead with pilot projects and thinking about due diligence later. For more from Davos, see our roundup on IRIN’s event, “Meet the new humanitarians changing the face of aid.”

    In case you missed it:

     

    Central African Republic: Talks aimed at ending CAR’s long-running conflict began in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, this week. Brokered by the African Union, the negotiations involve representatives of the government and 14 armed groups. Aid officials say a successful peace accord is critical to ensuring the ongoing humanitarian crisis doesn’t deepen.

     

    Indonesia: Dozens of people were killed after heavy rains battered Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province this week, leading to floods and landslides. Local authorities say the rains caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating homes and forcing more than 3,000 people to evacuate.

     

    Philippines: A majority voted to ratify a long-awaited peace deal in the conflict-torn Mindanao region, according to unofficial results from the first stage of a referendum held this week. A vote in favour will expand autonomy for Mindanao’s Muslim community.

     

    Yemen: After just a month on the job, the retired Dutch general overseeing the not-yet-implemented ceasefire for the port city of Hodeidah is reportedly about to step down. It’s not clear why. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen thinks the deal is make-or-break for peace negotiations: read our interview with him to find out why.

     

    Zimbabwe: Half-a-million government workers have gone on strike across the country, adding to uncertainty after fuel protests and a violent crackdown by security forces left several people dead and hundreds arrested. Accusations that protesters were raped by members of the military have been accompanied by warnings that social unrest and instability are spiralling out of control. Look out for our full briefing next week.

     

    Weekend read

     

    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria

     

    No, as we flagged in our 10 crises to watch in 2019, the war in Syria is not over. The focus towards the end of last year was on the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe if President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces moved in to retake Idlib. While this risk hasn’t gone away, especially as al-Qaeda-linked fighters cement control over parts of the northwestern province, our weekend read takes us elsewhere. In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces is trying to snuff out the last pockets of so-called Islamic State in Syria. This photo feature takes us inside their operations as they intercept a convoy of people escaping what remains of the militant group’s territory. But with IS members disguising themselves as civilians to make last-gasp attacks, how do you tell who is who? Those fleeing – nearly 5,000 in just two days this week – are hungry and exhausted. Some say there’s no food at all in areas under IS control.

     

    And finally…

     

    Top Libyan photographer dies in crossfire

     

    Libyan freelance journalist – and occasional IRIN contributor – Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed last Saturday while covering militia clashes in the capital city of Tripoli, prompting demonstrations by his colleagues denouncing violence against journalists. Ben Khalifa was 35, and is survived by his wife and young daughter. A well-respected photographer who covered the often violent instability that has plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Khalifa was known for his sensitive portrayals of the migrants whose bodies washed up on Libya’s shores, including this 2015 IRIN piece. His death “is a reminder of the utter lack of protection for journalists in Libya, as well as the dangers of photojournalists in the battlefield,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The week of fighting in Tripoli left 16 people dead (including Khalifa) and 65 injured, and rival militias have since agreed to a new ceasefire deal.

     

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    Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot
  • Transcript of interview with Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen

    This transcript has been edited for clarity

     

    Q: You were in Stockholm… There was a lot of optimism after the negotiations, after the agreement about Hodeidah, and now it seems [to be receding]. How do you see things playing out on the ground?

     

    A: Actually I think [retired Dutch] General Patrick [Cammaert] is starting to do his job. I think the UN and General Patrick should start to implement the agreement. They did a good job, to start. Yes, there is a delay. And we hope this delay is just to build… the relationship with the two parties, and also to re-organise themselves, or even start to organise themselves, because there is no entity there [at the port], with Mr Patrick. I think what I heard from [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths is that they will start this week to implement the ports, then they will go to phase two, to prepare withdrawal from the city.

     

    Q: Does that mean there is now agreement between the parties on what “local security forces” means? That has been a point of contention.

     

    A: There are still discussions between the Yemeni government, the Houthis, and General Patrick. But I think they will solve it.

     

    Q: Is there agreement on who should do security in the port?

     

    A: I think this is clear, but there is a difference on who the people should be. There are security units, and police units, and also Red Sea port authorities, and they will be responsible for the ports. But it is about the names - who they will be. I think they will depend on [who was in the port authority] before September 2014, before the Houthis controlled the ports.

     

    Q: But are most or many of those people, from the Red Sea port authority, not gone?

     

    A: No… I think the military and security people, part of them left. But the Red Sea Port Authority, maybe 95 percent of the people are still there. Because they are civilians, they are doing their job, the Houthis brought new supervisors and they appointed a new director. So the change will not affect the port’s operations.

     

    Q: So at this point you would be comfortable with the Red Sea Port Authority running the port, but it’s a question of who is on the list?

     

    A: I am not in the negotiations. I am just following the negotiations. [The talks on implementing Hodeidah] are between General Saghir Aziz from the Yemeni government, and General [Ali al-] Mushki from the Houthi side. I will be be honest with you: Mushki was a general before he joined the Houthi side. And that’s good… Yes, he’s working with a militia. But his background, he’s not a militia guy. And that’s the difference. Yes, he’s working with the Houthis because they’re paying his salary and they’re taking care of his family. He has his reasons to work with them, but actually he is a general.

     

    Q: You have been at various attempts at talks, including Stockholm. Does negotiating with the Houthis legitimise their role… in Yemen?

     

    A: It’s clear to everyone. The Houthis are still a militia. And we do not deal with them as a party, because they are not a party… and they do not call themselves a party… They say “we are Houthis, we are Ansar Allah.” But who is Ansar Allah? Are they a political party? No. They are a militia. Now, I think if they start to negotiate with the Yemeni government and the other political components, they will find themselves among the other Yemeni components and they can participate in any government in the future like any other party. But [right now] the Houthis are still a militia. They themselves believe they will continue as a militia. And this is not acceptable.

     

    Q: So you feel it is ok to negotiate with them at this point, but at some point you would like to see them transition into a party?

     

    A: Do you mean Saudi Arabia or the Yemeni government? Because Saudi Arabia will not negotiate with a militia. We negotiate and work with governments. And our main goal is to restore the legitimate government. It is about the state, rebuilding the legitimate state. And our program here at the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, one of our main goals is to rebuild the state.

     

    Q: One criticism of how the UN has structured the talks is that there are only two sides: the Yemeni government, and the Houthis. As you know well, Yemen is much more complicated than that, with various other groups including the southerners, Islah, and others. What do you think of the two-sided approach?

     

    A: Yemen is complicated. If you look at the south, there is a complicated issue in the south [with a long history], what they call the southern issue. They discussed it in the Yemen National Dialogue [Conference]... Yes, the issue isn’t solved 100 percent, but they agreed on the outcomes... Also the Saada issue was solved, they have 35 representatives [in the NDC]. The Houthi side participated in the Yemeni national dialogue…. The Houthis destroyed all this. They destroyed the national dialogue outcomes, they destroyed the state, they destroyed institutions, they destroyed the army, the security, even hopes. Now we should solve the main problem… It’s not easy to solve in one day, and in one day sign an agreement. But [the UN talks] have opened the way to a roadmap to solve all Yemeni problems. And they will not be solved in a military way. They will solve it by talks, by discussing the issues at the table. I think we should start with the main problem, which is the key to solving the other problems. That is that the Houthi militia controls the state, they control the institutions. You will not find in history a militia that controls a ballistic missile or fighter jet. Please, give me an example.

     

    Q: Hezbollah?

     

    A: No. They bring it from outside but they cannot control the Lebanese jets. They bring them from Iran and build them.

     

    Q: So you do think that the two track approach is right for now to solve the main war?

     

    A: Yes, and then the Yemenis should be at the table in Sana’a, talk to each other, about their future. South, north, if you look at the Yemenis who have suffered from the Houthis, they will not accept this happening again. If you are in Taiz, if you are from Hodeidah, or even from Saada or Marib you will think about your future or your kids’ future. You will say, “look, how can we stop anybody from repeating this.”

     

    Q: But there are many different groups part of your alliance - they don’t necessarily take orders from who they are supposed to and they don’t have the following of the local population. So if the big war ends, is there a possibility that Yemen will become a series of smaller wars?

     

    A: Don’t try to imagine more and more. Make it simple, because we know Yemen before [President] Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Let’s talk about Ali Abdullah Saleh’s time [as president]. He just controlled three cities: Sana’a, Taiz, and Hodeidah. And sometimes Aden. The other cities, he didn’t control. The local authorities, the local tribes...  that’s what controlled these provinces. We know 100% Ali Abdullah Saleh did not have a strong government. He just controlled by establishing fighting between the tribes. And trying to cause differences between the people. After the war, yes, the situation will not be good. But it will open doors for everybody to speak out about his issues. And then we will start, all of us - the Yemeni government, GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, and the international community - to support this government to build their capacity, to expand to control all of Yemen. And that will take time.

     

    If you look at Iraq as an example, the USA was there. The USA spent billions of dollars [on reconstruction], but also Iraq has a lot of resources - the government has oil, rivers, and agriculture. But because nobody supported the government in political competence, they lost it [control of the country]. We will not [let this happen] to Yemen. All Yemeni parties - Houthis, southerners, Taiz - should participate in the government, and should work together on a roadmap. They will need time. They need two, three or four years to start bringing their country back.

     

    Q: Speaking of time, we’ve heard the next round of talks will be in January… There is a very limited agreement for Hodeidah, the Taiz part is not going anywhere, do you really think there is a prospect for a political solution at this point?

     

    A: I think the UN and some other countries would like to have a round two tomorrow, not at the end of January… but I think the most important thing is the implementation in Hodeidah. If there is implementation in Hodeidah, from two sides, especially from the Houthis, as they are controlling the ports and city… if they withdraw and start to implement the agreement, that will open a big door to a comprehensive political solution.

     

    Because Yemen does not belong to Hadi or the Houthis. There are a lot of Yemenis [parties] [lists GPC, southerners, Islah, others in the government alliance]... Some of them don’t care about Hadi himself. They care about the project of Hadi, which means the legitimacy of Hadi, the legitimacy of the state. If you have a president, you should keep him until you transfer to another president in a peaceful way. This is what Yemenis are looking for. Even if they are with Hadi now, they are not [all] with Hadi himself, they are with this project. In Yemen there are two main projects. One is the state project, which still now is in the hands of Hadi. And there is the militia project, which is mainly in the hands of the Houthis.

     

    If you can convince the Houthis to accept engaging with the state project in a roadmap: to handover their weapons, to stop using military means… then we will have a new government with all Yemeni components to control Yemen. Then everybody can support this state, which is still fragile. And we will work to support them, to unite them, to build security.

     

    I think there is no effective round of talks between Yemenis if Hodeidah is not implemented. Maybe they say “ok, we will go to Jordan, or Kuwait, or Germany, or wherever [for further talks].” But they will not do any good. And [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths will find himself at a wall. Because everybody will blame him because he did not do anything at Hodeidah. That is the negative. The positive is, if I am Yemeni, a Yemeni political figure, if I saw with my eyes that Hodeidah was implemented, I would put pressure on Hadi to accept the framework, to accept a comprehensive political solution which sometimes might even hurt Hadi’s authority. That means, if the Houthis implement Hodeidah, everybody will pressure all parties to come to the table and make it succeed.

     

    Q: Speaking of pressure, before the Stockholm talks there were warnings Yemen was about to fall into famine, the killing of [dissident Saudi journalist Jamal] Khashoggi, there was a lot of pressure on Saudi Arabia and a lot of press attention on Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen. How did that affect the negotiations?

     

    A: Look. Everybody repeats that, you are not alone. But I will explain it to you in a different way. Let’s talk about Kuwait [in 2016]. We were there, and we supported the Houthis engaging in good faith. We invited them to come to the south of Saudi Arabia in a city they call Dahran al-Janoub. We spent two weeks there with them. We sent ten convoys to Saada to support them. We released Houthi prisoners and they released Saudi soldiers. And also we met with [Houthi negotiator] Mohammed Abdelsalam Faleitah, myself I traveled with him five times to Kuwait. And also I engaged myself to talk to the Houthis, to convince them to engage with Yemeni parties.

     

    And at the end of these talks Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the ex UN envoy to Yemen, introduced what they called his initiative. It consisted of two parts: a security arrangement, and the a arrangement. He said we should first sign on the security arrangement and then we can go on to sign another one. The security arrangement [talked about withdrawal from “Zone A.” The  Houthis were to withdraw from [that zone, which was] Taiz, Sana’a, and Hodeidah - just the cities, not the provinces. There was a High Yemeni Committee for Military and Economy, which was going to be responsible for Hodeidah. In the beginning the Houthis accepted. But before the talks finished on the 17 of Ramadan 2016, Mohammed Abdelsalam Faleitah traveled to another country for two days and he came back, and he said no. And Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in front of the Security Council, said clearly that in Kuwait we succeeded until the last days. And the Houthis refused. And you can review what he said in the Security Council exactly.

     

    If you look at what happened in Stockholm, it’s the same thing. The Houthis will withdraw from the ports, and will open the siege on Taiz... In this agreement in Stockholm, in Taiz they will open corridors, and they will have a ceasefire for the city and they will demine there. Now if you look at the situation now it is the same as Kuwait, it is the same goal.

     

    Yes, it’s talk time... but what we asked for at [previous rounds of negotiations in] Kuwait is happening now, because of [pressure on] the Houthis, not because of us. Everybody says maybe because of those pressures [we are ready to deal], they make connections with the timing. That’s not true. The truth is we succeeded in our diplomatic efforts. We used political means to satisfy our goals to restore legitimate institutions and government to Yemen.

     

    If we finish in Hodeidah and Taiz, we have just Sana’a [to negotiate]. And that will be easy for the Houthis and for us.

     

    Q: To make an agreement on? Why would the Houthis want to withdraw from Sana’a, when that would basically leave them with just Saada?

     

    A: There are different kinds of withdrawal and it is a complicated issue... If they would like to stay in Sana’a without weapons, this is possible.

     

    Q: So you still consider UNSC Resolution 2216 the framework?

     

    A: Yes, we [can] apply it in a different way. Let’s say if we are out of Hodeidah, 100 kilometres away, because in Kuwait [the plan] was 150 kilometres… We were surrounding the Houthis from three sides. The Houthis were under pressure. They knew in the next days we would take over the ports and city [of Hodeidah].

     

    Q: So you are saying there was more pressure on the Houthis than on you?

     

    A: Sure. The Houthis would not agree to come to the table without military pressures.

     

    Q: But was there not pressure from your allies?

     

    A: Yes, there was pressure on us. But even with this pressure, we satisfied what we are asking for.

     

    Q: Surely your allies, like the Americans, must have given you a push.

     

    A: No, it’s not a push. Think about it. If we attacked the port, if we attacked the city, and we… destroyed the city, what would happen to the US government, UK, our allies there? It is clear. They would find themselves in a bad position. So they had two choices: to listen to their people, and that means they would hurt us. Or they hurt themselves, and they would lose their authority [with their own people]. So they would go with the first option, to hurt us, which would hurt our relationship between the governments. So that meant wanted to help them, and they wanted to help us [by making a deal in Hodeidah].

     

    And they have given us good advice from the first day of the war. And we discuss it, we… discuss and debate. It’s not about orders, it’s about their interests, and our interests.

     

    Q: You brought up public concern about the war, and I think there is a growing awareness in the US and other countries about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Was this part of the pressure, or as you say, discussions with your allies?

     

    A: No. The humanitarian situation is a pressure on everybody. Because nobody, even us, we don’t want to see kids in Yemen in a bad situation. We do not just say that for you or for the media. They [Yemenis] are our brothers. And we are fighting there to restore hopes, not to kill Yemenis. We spent billions of dollars to support the war, the economy, the humanitarian situation. And we will continue to support Yemen. We don’t want Yemenis to hate us or to see us as their enemy. We are not their enemy. Yes, maybe the Houthis and some people under the Houthi control or some people who don’t understand the situation, but most Yemenis know that Saudi Arabia is there to support them.

     

    And yes, we’ve made mistakes, like other countries do, during the war. But we did a lot of things for the Yemeni people. For the humanitarian [side] we spent [billions of dollars]… And we are also very upset by the humanitarian situation…. We have our YCHO [Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations] plan. We did that. It’s not about pressure. It’s about the situation in Yemen. We are there to help them, to bring hope...The Houthis are very aggressive and they use the humanitarian situation and try to escalate the situation by different means.

     

    Q: How do they do that?

     

    A: They continue to violate the humanitarian convoys, they take the convoys sometimes. They steal relief and humanitarian staff… But we have a lot of evidence of this, and we’ve sent it it to the UN organisations... The Houthis put pressure on [aid workers], and if you are there in Sana’a, and you are with UNICEF or WHO, who will protect you? Nobody will protect you. Yes, your organisation will be very upset. Your organisation will try to save you. But nobody will protect you if they kill or hurt your friend. But if somebody in Saudi Arabia or the coalition hurts someone in the UN organisation, we are responsible state. We will be responsible to respond to these people, to the courts, to the states. But in Yemen, nobody will hold them accountable.

     

    Q: What about your accountability to civilians? Coalition airstrikes are considered to have caused the majority of civilian deaths on the ground. JIAT has investigated and said it will pay compensation in some cases, has this been paid?

     

    A: Yes, they started.

     

    Q: How many people have been compensated?

     

    A: I don’t know exactly but I know they started with the Yemeni government, who as a part of the coalition, are responsible for its people. They sent us a list and there is a fund responsible for that. And they started to do it. I think we are trying to accelerate this mechanism, and it will work more and more, because it just started a couple of months ago.

     

    Q: On the humanitarian situation, the coalition has been blamed for delaying ships coming in, particularly to Hodeidah.

     

    A: This is all a story, and it has been solved. There was misunderstanding and miscommunication between the UN, the special envoy, and the coalition. As YCHO we met with different UN organisations like UNVIM, WFP, and OCHA. And we have a good mechanism to ensure clearance in less than 24 hours, 24 hours maximum. And… if you look at any statement it doesn’t mention anything about the clearance, even [UN resident coordinator in Yemen] Lise Grande and [UN relief chief] Mark Lowcock, when we talked to them, they said “thank you for that. Thank you for your mechanism for the ships going to Hodeidah.” I am sure about that.

     

    Q: In the war at large, airstrikes have hit civilians, healthcare facilities and infrastructure in Yemen and contributed to the humanitarian crisis. What’s your answer that Saudi aid and reconstruction efforts are just a PR effort, trying to fix your image?

     

    A: It’s not PR. And anybody who says that wants to hurt us. But if someone is neutral, he should study and see with his eyes and research how much Saudi Arabia did for the UN organisations, King Salman [Humanitarian Aid and Relief] Center, Saudi Development and Reconstruction Plan for Yemen, and for the economy.

     

    I will give you an example. When we deposited 2.2 billion dollars to the Central Bank, is it PR? No. It is 2.2, just for the Central Bank. When we provided $60 million US dollars in oil derivatives for electricity power stations, is it PR? When we issued $350 [letters of credit for] businessmen to import basic food to the Yemeni people, is it PR ? They are our permanent brothers, and we are there to support Yemeni government and Yemeni people also.

     

    But… they still say it is PR.

     

    About the damage that you mention. I am sure 100 percent the coalition is implementing IHL [international humanitarian law]. And we are responsible countries - we are twelve countries [in the coalition] - and we implement NATO standards. And also we investigate in each accident and sometimes they say yes [we were wrong], and sometimes no, they clarify their position. And they continue to investigate… This is war and some things happen because of the war. I think the coalition did a good job. It is a clean war for us. Because we are aware of what we are doing there in Yemen. We are there to reinstate their state.

     

    Q: You talked about reinstating the state, and you have talked about reconstruction. How do you plan to reconstruct a country during a war? How can you plan for what people need when a war is still going on?

     

    A: First of all, this connects to your previous connections about existing in Yemen. This war is for two main things: to restore the legitimate government of Yemen, and to secure our national security. Yemen is a poor country. Before the war, Yemen’s rank in terms of poverty was 138. The Yemeni government budget is less than around $10 billion. It’s nothing for a big country like Yemen with 26 million people.

     

    Our strategy in Yemen is to develop and reconstruct, and these are two different things. Development - there was no development in Yemen before the war and we are trying to develop now areas that are out of the war, like Mahrah, Hadhramaut, Socotra, Marib, Jawf [provinces]. They are safe, so we can start there. Because we spent time to push, to convince, to urge the Houthis to come to the table and accept a deal... so we will start where there is security and stability and there is no war there... And we have convinced the Yemeni government to work with us. And I think in 2019, we will have a lot of projects in Yemen, in different provinces in Yemen, from Saudi Arabia, from Emirates, from Kuwait, and also from the Yemeni government. And I am sure America will engage, and Europe will engage, because they will not wait for the Houthis to engage. Yemenis are dying. Yemenis are in a bad situation. Not because of the humanitarian cases, because of the economy.

     

    Q: But I think it’s the same thing. The economy is so bad that you can’t buy food.

     

    A: So we can start. Now in Saada, Amran, Hajjah, how do the people live there? In all Yemen, 70 percent of Yemenis depend on agriculture, and fishing. This is a big field, we can work on the agriculture, we can work with the fisherman to give them a chance to live. To grow food, sell it in the markets, also to export it to Saudi Arabia. We will have a mechanism to support all Yemenis everywhere, through different access. We are not in Saada, we are not in Amran, we cannot go to Sana’a, but we can work with institutions, private and semi-governmental like the social fund, workers’ fund, villagers’ fund, and private sector. And also we can work easily in some areas controlled by the Yemeni government.

     

    Q: What specifically are you doing to revitalise the economy. I know you deposited money in the Central Bank, but it is not for use, it is for shoring up the currency. What else are you doing?

     

    A: For the Central Bank we are working with the governor - not just Saudi Arabia, the quad - US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, and with IFC [International Finance Corporation] and also the World Bank to build and support the Central Bank in Aden. We deposited the $2.2 billion, and we are urging other countries like the Emirates to also deposit another billion to the Central Bank. That will help the economy, and it will help the rial. Also if you look at the $60 million dollars [in oil derivatives] that we gave to the Yemeni government to operate power stations, we cut that from the Yemeni budget. So now they have in their hands $60 million they can use to, say, bring services. We urged them to do it. And that will help people. Any amount in Yemen, it makes a difference.

     

    Q: What about encouraging the Central Bank to issue more letters of credit to importers?

     

    A: We are doing it. Saudi Arabia has issued more than $350 million letters of credit and they will continue to do so. Last week we issued more than $50 million letters of credit from Saudi Arabia’s central bank. We received the orders from them [Yemen’s Central Bank], because there is a mechanism [for letters of credit to go through Saudi Arabia] - the Houthis and previous Central Bank governor spent our [previous deposits] for nothing. We have to be sure the Yemeni government or Central Bank will be used to help Yemeni people.

     

    Q: So the letters of credit that were issued just now are to Yemeni importers?

     

    A: Yes, to Yemeni importers only.

     

    Q: One of the biggest issues in Yemen is poverty. It’s not necessarily there isn’t enough food in Yemen, it’s that people don’t have money to buy it. What else are you doing for that?

     

    A: All UN organisations are trying to ignore Aden. They are ignoring Aden port, I don’t know why. Maybe I can guess. They would like to save Hodeidah, they are afraid to mention Aden port and say it’s a good port, they are afraid somebody will attack Hodeidah port.

     

    If you look at Aden, it is the biggest port in Yemen. We can give you the numbers to clarify our position. Last week we provided two cranes to Aden port and we helped Aden port authority to govern and try to increase the capacity of the procedures, of importing. Also we provided one crane to Mukalla. And we will open another port from al-Khadra in Najran, so there will be two land ports [from Saudi Arabia into Yemen].

     

    Q: But international organisations say Aden is at capacity and doesn’t have the capacity to store and mill grain like Hodeidah. Is that something you would look into in your reconstruction plans?

     

    A: That’s not true. Aden is the biggest port and can receive millions of tons from different kinds of food or commercial shipments. It is about the location of Hodeidah. They are trying to hurt Aden port to save Hodeidah. Hodeidah is the second port of Yemen, and we know the figures before the war.

     

    But I agree with them if they close Hodeidah, there is seventy percent of the people of Yemen in the north and it is not easy to bring the food from Aden to the north.

     

    Q: It is very expensive to do this if you consider…

     

    A: It is very expensive, it is very risky, there are a lot of issues… and because of that they say a lot of false, wrong information. In 2016 [former UN Relief Chief] Stephen O’Brien said in of the Security Council said Hodeidah port is receiving 80 percent of the imports to Yemen. We have 21 ports to Yemen. This guy is crazy.

     

    Q: Could he have made a mistake?

     

    A: No he meant it. I will give you know another number and you can check it yourself. The UN and other international organisations now repeat the number that there are 1.2 million government workers who do not receive their salary workers. Did you see that before?

     

    Q: I’m familiar with the issue of the salaries.

     

    A: How many people?

     

    Q: I don’t have an exact number in front of me.

     

    A: The last tweet from the ICRC two weeks ago, they made it emotional. It’s PR…[They said] that in Yemen there are 1.2 million government workers who do not receive their salaries for more than two years.” That’s not true.

     

    Q: Ok, so what is true?

     

    A: The truth is that 650,000 [government employees] receive their salaries.

     

    Q: Every month?

     

    A: Every month.

     

    Q: Paid by whom?

     

    A: Paid by the Yemeni government, through the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance.

     

    Q: Is that only people in government controlled areas?

     

    A: Yes and also civilian workers everywhere. If he works in Sana’a and goes to Aden to do his job there he will take his salary.

     

    Q: And what about a teacher who lives in Sana’a?

     

    A: They do not receive anything. That’s true. But when you repeat the number 1.2 million just to convince the people to give you money, it’s just not true.

     

    Q: You mentioned the UN and international organisations several times. Do they back your reconstruction plans? Are they involved?

     

    A: No, we talked to WFP, we talked to the World Bank, we talked to Islamic Bank, and also we talked to Mark Lowock and Lise Grande, we briefed them and invited them to come and participate any time.

     

    Q: So they are not involved?

     

    A: World Bank yes, we will work with them. Islamic Bank would like to engage and work with us. USAID, DIFD, are engaging and would like to work with us. And also the French visited.

     

    Q: So this support is still in discussion?

     

    A: Yes, because we started only five months ago.

     

    Q: I understand it is early days. I saw the presentation [on the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen al-Jaber heads] but a lot of it appears to be what is going to be built in the future. Is there an actual plan now?

     

    A: We hit the ground, we are there.

     

    Q: In some places, yes. But is there a larger plan other than the PowerPoint, are there more than feasibility studies?

     

    A: Yes.

     

    Q: The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about [the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen’s] projects in Mahra in which locals objected to the Saudi presence there. What’s your response to the argument that redevelopment and reconstruction is just part of the military effort, that it is a continuation of the war and and effort to keep Saudi Arabia’s power in Yemen?

     

    A: Mahra is the gate for smuggling. Before the war, during the war, and after the war. And we have a strategy in Yemen: secure, stable Yemen.

     

    And our goal won’t end if the Houthis come into the government. We should keep supporting the Yemeni government with or without the Houthis. If the Houthis participate in the government, we will support this government. Even if the prime minister is a Houthi, we will support this government. Because it is not just about Yemen. It’s about our national security. When they smuggle drugs from the Arabian Sea [from Mahra] they don’t want to bring them to Yemen, they want to bring them to Saudi Arabia. If they smuggle weapons [they are headed to Saudi Arabia]. Because the price in Saudi Arabia is different. A [handgun] gun in yemen is $500. If you smuggle it to Saudi Arabia you can sell it for $5,000 dollars.

     

    Another example: drugs. Nobody in Yemen uses drugs, except for qat. But in Saudi Arabia there are a lot of people… kids… they will use it. And that has a high cost. Now in Mahra the coast is 50 kilometres. There were no coast guard soldiers there. Zero. Nobody was protecting this area.

     

    Also from Omani territory there are some smuggling networks that are continuing to do their jobs from before the war, using the weakness of the Yemeni side... We talked to our brothers in Oman, and they are now doing a good job to protect their side. But from the other side there was nothing, from the coast or from the land. What we are doing there is training the security and the coast guard. And we are also doing development and reconstruction for the people of Mahra. Because if I am a Mahra citizen and you said, “Ok, I will bring the coast guard and I will bring the border guards and there will be no security and new arrangements,” but there is no income, how will I work? But if we develop, and provide the security… and also education and also schools - we started to build eight or nine schools - and hospitals, [school] busses, agriculture, fisheries, and boats and airports that means Mahra will be strong enough to continue to work. Even if we withdraw from Mahra after the war, it will be a strong province.

     

    And look, Mahra and Hadhramaut...We already transferred the power from the Saudis and Emiratis to the Yemeni side.

     

    Q: How is that working?

     

    A: It’s working. Because we are still there to supervise and train. They need somebody to lead them… it’s complicated. If they work, let’s say, we will decrease the smuggling… unless those people work with the smugglers, as a mafia. Those people in Mahra and Hadhramaut are good people. They don’t want to work with the smugglers, they are ashamed to work in smuggling… now we finished in Hadhramaut and Mahra we will continue to support the Yemeni government in places like Abyan and Lahj [provinces]… also with terrorism - al-Qaeda and Da’esh [so-called Islamic State], after Syria, they might decide to go to Yemen. If we are not ready to fight them in Yemen before they enter we will find ourselves after this war fighting al-Qaeda and Da’esh.



    Q: So you do see development as part of a security strategy?

     

    A: Yes. We built also an anti-terrorism center there.

     

    Q: What does that mean?

     

    A: That means there is no center to fight al-Qaeda. If we build this center in Mahra airport that means all countries, all allies who are fighting al-Qaeda, they can find themselves in a good place to support the Yemeni government in fighting al-Qaeda or Da’esh… It’s preemptive… we are trying to prevent Yemen from falling into the hands of Da’esh or al-Qaeda after this war.

     

    Q: Is [the presence of Da’esh or al-Qaeda] something you are worried about?

     

    A: Yes, we are very worried. Because after this war, some people in Yemen would like to have Da’esh and al-Qaeda, especially the Houthis, they are very happy to have Da’esh and al-Qaeda, to continue fighting, saying “I am here to fight al-Qaeda and Da’esh.” They said that in 2014 when they controlled the north of Sana’a and Amran... They said “we are here to fight al-Qaeda.” And they will continue to repeat that. And that means some people, some tribes in the middle and the south also say they will engage with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis.

     

    Q: As you suggested, people and groups officially allied with the coalition are working with al-Qaeda because they want to fight the Houthis. Is this a concern?

     

    A: We are afraid of that. We have a lot of Zaidis [the sect the Houthis belong to] fighting with the Yemeni Hadi government: military leadership, tribal leadership, political leadership, half of the people fighting the Houthis are Zaidi. Because it is not about Zaidi or Sunni or Shafi’i[the Sunni majority in Yemen]; it’s about security and stability.

     

    Q: I’m going to ask you about another media report, the New York Times report that there are child soldiers from Sudan fighting with the coalition. What is your response? Are there child soldiers fighting with the coalition?

     

    A: It is false. How did this guy go to this Sudan, make a report, find some kids and say let’s make a story about Saudi Arabia and the kids. Why not come to Aden, Jezzan, Saada, Hajjah, or anywhere…

     

    Q: Well, it’s not easy to go there.

     

    A: You can go. A lot of journalists visit... i think some people are working for some countries or organisations that would like to hurt Saudi Arabia and [they] say “let’s keep Saudi Arabia in a bad situation” because of Khashoggi’s case. They would like to use different cases to make Saudi Arabia out as a bad country. We are clear: There are no kids fighting with us, from any country, from Yemen, from Sudan, from any country. And anybody who would like to be sure, who would like to… report, he is welcome to come, meet, and go there... but don’t try to play games [and write] bad things that are not accurate.

     

    Q: In your opinion, what responsibility does Saudi Arabia have for the current humanitarian crisis in Yemen?

     

    A: Actually are the ones who make it lower. The Houthis are increasing the humanitarian situation. We are the ones who are trying to facilitate humanitarian and commercial shipments to Yemen, through Jeddah and Jizan through our land, through Wadiyah, from everywhere.

     

    At the same time we are the ones who support the UN organisations with money to fund them, from 2015. From 2015 we are the ones who covered the UN pledge. Yes, there is a war. But that doesn’t mean that this war, we can stop it, because the Houthis want to control the country. We are trying to make a balance between security, stability, and restoring the legitimate government. At the same time we are trying to avoid Yemenis from the humanitarian situation.

     

    If we look at this war Saudi has a main strategy, the main track is the political track, which did not start now, it started in 2011. If the analysts would like to be fair they should think about that. Saudi Arabia started the political process in 2011 when we introduced the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] initiative. Which is a Saudi initiative, although we call it the GCC initiative because our brothers participated in it.

     

    From 2011-2014 we spent $7 billion to support the Yemeni government: $3.2 billion in oil derivatives; $1 billion to central bank $450 million for the social fund; $3 billion for infrastructure and social service projects.* Electricity in the north of yemen, 80 percent of the electricity power stations there are Saudi-funded, it’s not Yemeni or international, it’s Saudi funded. [Look at] Marib 1 and Marib 2 [power stations], and we are ready start with Marib 3, which will increase the capacity of the power stations.

     

    In 2014 when the Houthis took over Sana’a, we did not engage, nobody engaged, because the Yemenis found themselves with a partnership agreement that gave Houthis six seats in the government, and when it changed from Saleh to Hadi government, we did not engage in a war. We tried to take the Yemenis from civil war to the political track. Then the Houthis continued to attack, and Hadi himself escaped to Aden, and when he escaped to Aden, we did not bring our troops there. We were waiting and trying to convince the Houthis and other parties to stop fighting. And Hadi, his first statement, when he arrived to Aden, said “please, Houthis stop the war, we are ready to engage back and talk at the table.” The Houthis and Saleh refused. Then the war came, and then it was a war of necessity not a war of our choice. We supported the talks in Geneva in 2015, we supported the Kuwait talks in 2016, and we are the ones who supported the talks in Stockholm and that is what Mr Martin Griffiths said clearly to the media and the Security Council. And we will continue to support Mr Martin Griffiths to find a solution… we will support the political process. This is the main track.

     

    We have another two tracks. The military track: the main aim of the military track is to support the political track to force the Houthis to come to the table. And also to restore the legitimate [government], to restore the state… We will not accept Yemen to become a Somalia, and we will not accept another Hezbollah in the south of Saudi Arabia. We are not Israel, and they are not Hezbollah. They are Yemeni, they are our brothers, we have the same culture, the same traditions and we help them and will continue to do so.

     

    The third track is the humanitarian track, and please go back to 2013 and look for the UN HRP [Humanitarian Response Plan] 2013, it is 10.2 million people in Yemen need help. You can read it again.

     

    This is the fourth track: it is economy, development, and reconstruction. We are the ones who support the economy. Nobody [else] supports the Yemeni economy. We saved the rial, we saved the Central Bank, we saved the electricity power stations, we saved the private sectors and we are trying to support everybody. This, my friend, is the Saudi strategy to support Yemen.

     

    When the Yemenis agree on a comprehensive political solution, we will stop the military track which supports the legitimate Yemeni government and we will support their security, economy, the political process, and work with Yemenis to finish the political process, to build their economy and develop and reconstruct their country.

     

    *IRIN could not independently verify these or other figures

    Transcript of interview with Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen
    9 January 2019
  • Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts

    A political solution to nearly four years of war in Yemen is possible as long as the shaky ceasefire deal for the northern port city of Hodeidah takes hold, Saudi Arabia’s influential ambassador to Yemen has told IRIN.

     

    Mohammed al-Jaber, who is the public face of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and is said to have a direct line to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, suggested the Hodeidah deal could lead to further fruitful UN-backed peace talks if it succeeds but might be their undoing if it doesn’t.

     

    “I think there is no [next] effective round of talks between Yemenis if Hodeidah is not implemented,” al-Jaber told IRIN in an interview in his Riyadh office. “If the Houthis implement Hodeidah, everybody will pressure all parties to come to the table and make it succeed.”

     

    The next round of what the UN officially calls “political consultations” are expected later this month, but warring sides are still at odds over the finer details of the Hodeidah deal and there are fears it might soon collapse. Aid groups warn of a spiral towards famine if fighting restarts around the city – a key entry point for commercial imports and humanitarian aid, especially for parts of the country under Houthi control.

     

    Hashed out at December negotiations near Stockholm but still to come into effect, the ceasefire deal is supposed to see both Saudi-led coalition forces and Houthi rebels withdraw from Hodeidah city and eventually Hodeidah province, with “local security forces” taking over and the UN playing some role in managing the port.

     

    While the ambassador was quick to emphasise that he is not an official party to the negotiations – Saudi Arabia’s position is not to negotiate with the Houthis and the UN process is two-sided, between the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels – he was in Stockholm and recounted locations, attendees, and results (or lack of) past talks in detail.

     

    ‘A clean war’

    IRIN sat down with al-Jaber at a pivotal point in the 46-month war. The conflict has left tens of thousands dead and millions without enough to eat, while decimating a health system that has been unable to cope with two waves of cholera and destroying the country’s already weak economy.

     

    Away from the debate over Hodeidah, the broader war is ongoing: a Houthi drone hit a Yemeni military parade the day after IRIN spoke with the ambassador, fighting in the southern city of Taiz continues, and the coalition has been pounding the capital city of Sana’a with airstrikes.

     

    In a wide-ranging interview in his Riyadh office, al-Jaber said his country is waging a “clean war” in Yemen, is doing all it can to lessen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, and is already planning for its redevelopment and reconstruction despite ongoing fighting.

     

    A military strategist by training who heads up two bodies that focus on humanitarian, development, and restronstruction aid to Yemen, the ambassador strongly dismissed the idea that any of this assistance was an attempt to polish his country’s tarnished public image.

     

    “It’s not PR. And anybody who says that wants to hurt us,” al-Jaber said. “But if someone is neutral, he should study and see with his eyes and research how much Saudi Arabia did for [funding] the UN organisations, [with its own relief projects], and for the economy….[Yemenis] are our permanent brothers, and we are there to support [the] Yemeni government and Yemeni people.”

     

    The view in Riyadh

     

    Saudi Arabia’s public position on Yemen has been fairly consistent since March 2015, when it began airstrikes along with a multi-country coalition to support the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee the country by Houthi rebels and their allies, including fighters who sided with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

     

    Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as an Iranian proxy and a threat to its borders and says its mission in Yemen is to restore Hadi’s government.

     

    Few expected the war to drag on this long – in fact, the coalition said it was ending the initial military operation a month into its bombing, officially swapping it out for “Operation Restoring Hope” – a peacebuilding effort aimed at forging a political solution in Yemen and shoring up Saudi Arabia’s national security.

     

    Al-Jaber, appointed to his job in late 2014, also used the word “hope” when discussing the Saudi role in the war.

     

    “We are fighting there to restore hopes, not to kill Yemenis,” he said. “We spent billions of dollars to support the war, the economy, the humanitarian situation, and we will continue to support Yemen. We don’t want Yemenis to hate us or to see us as their enemy. We are not their enemy.”

     

    He said he remained “100 percent sure” that the coalition was waging the war in line with international humanitarian law.

     

    “We are responsible countries,” he said. “We are 12 countries [in the coalition] and we implement NATO standards… I think the coalition did a good job. It is a clean war for us, because we are aware of what we are doing there in Yemen. We are there to reinstate their state.”

     

    Saudi Arabia’s air campaign has been blamed for the majority of the nearly 7,000 violent civilian deaths the UN has been able to count in the war.

     

    In August, an airstrike hit a bus full of children in a rebel-held northern part of the country, killing a reported 40 children and 51 people total – one of several civilian atrocities that rights groups say violate international law. A UN group of experts has said it believes individuals on all sides of Yemen’s conflict may have committed war crimes.

     

    In response to questions about such strikes, as well as hits on civilian infrastructure like hospitals, al-Jaber admitted that Saudi Arabia had “made mistakes”, much as “other countries do, during war.”

     

    “We investigate each accident,” he said, referring to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, or JIAT – a body set up to look into “claims and accidents” in coalition operations but whose members are not disclosed to the public.

     

    Findings are usually only released in summary press releases and can be hard to track, but an August report by Human Rights Watch said JIAT investigations were inadequate and that the watchdog was “unaware of any concrete steps the coalition has taken to implement a compensation process or to hold individuals accountable for possible war crimes.”

     

    Al-Jaber said the coalition began the compensation process “a couple of months ago” but that he didn’t know how many people had been compensated so far. “I know they started,” he said. “The Yemeni government… sent us a list [of names] and there is a fund responsible for that… we are trying to accelerate this mechanism.”

     

    Aden, Hodeidah, or both?

     

    The international community says there’s no alternative to Hodeidah for avoiding mass hunger in the country, not only because of the port’s overall capacity – including to store and mill flour – but also because it is in the north of the country where 70 percent of the population lives (and Houthis are in control).

     

    In November 2018, the Saudi-led coalition closed most air, sea, and land entries to Yemen for two weeks after a Houthi rocket was fired at Riyadh, causing aid agencies to warn of imminent catastrophe. Even before that, aid groups said the coalition had delayed and diverted the entry of crucial supplies, including fuel.

     

    Al-Jaber said the “humanitarian situation was pressure on everybody”, but that he believed the importance of Hodeidah had been exaggerated and that “UN organisations are trying to ignore Aden port”.

     

    The Saudi-led coalition has been pushing for increased use of Aden, but UN relief chief Mark Lowcock said earlier this month that the southern port has a “severe congestion” problem. Trucking supplies from Aden to the north adds cost and can be risky, which al-Jaber admitted.

     

    In a briefing on 9 January at the UN Security Council, Lowcock said that fuel imports are now rising and more ships are trying to get to Yemen’s ports, but commercial food imports were still at their lowest since the UN began monitoring in 2016.

     

    Al-Jaber said the coalition had been unfairly accused of deepening the humanitarian crisis through delays in allowing shipping to reach Yemen, particularly Hodeidah. What he called a “misunderstanding” is now resolved and the UN and the coalition have a mechanism to ensure ship clearance at Hodeidah in “24 hours maximum”, he added.

     

    If anything, al-Jaber said, Saudi Arabia is lessening the humanitarian crisis. It has contributed $901 million to UN-led humanitarian appeals for Yemen between 2015 and 2018, according to UN funding data, and he also mentioned the $2.2 billion Saudi Arabia had deposited in Yemen’s Central Bank and $350 million in letters of credit to Yemeni importers he said had recently been issued (a number IRIN could not independently verify).

     

    Looking forward

     

    While all eyes remain on Hodeidah, al-Jaber was also keen to talk about development and reconstruction – an approach he said feeds into the two main aims of the war: “to restore the legitimate government of Yemen, and to secure our national security”.

     

    Al-Jaber said the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, which he has been working on for the past few months, is already being rolled out in parts of the country the government controls.

     

    IRIN wasn’t shown the overall plan but was given a PowerPoint presentation on projects that have begun – new school buses, textbooks, and beefing up power stations by shipping $60 million in oil derivatives each month – as well as some that are still in the works, like new hospitals and an airport.

     

    But how do you reconstruct a country you don’t completely control, in the midst of a war?

     

    Al-Jaber, who said he had briefed the UN about his plans and invited them to collaborate, anticipated support from other organisations, including the World Bank, and said it’s best to start in areas the coalition controls as “they are safe”.

     

    His strategy also involves beefing up borders to clamp down on smuggling, and making sure al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State (Da’esh in its Arabic acronym) do not take hold in the country.

     

    He said he was “very worried about” this, both because the Houthis could use their presence as an excuse to continue fighting and because “some people, some tribes in the middle and the south, also say they will engage with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis.”

     

    The disparate nature of the coalition Saudi Arabia heads, and the loose and often tense alliances that support Hadi’s government, mean Yemen’s war could yet fracture into a collection of disastrous smaller conflicts.

     

    Al-Jaber was candid that several parties currently on side with the government, including southern separatists and the powerful Islamist Islah party, may not fully back Hadi. Rather, he explained, they agree with the “Hadi project” – that is, the legitimacy of his government.

     

    “When the Yemenis agree on a comprehensive political solution, we will stop the military track which supports the legitimate Yemeni government,” the ambassador said. “And [then] we will support their security, economy, the political process, and work with Yemenis to finish the political process, to build their economy and develop and reconstruct their country.”

     

    For the full interview, read the transcript here.

     

    as/ag

    Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts
  • Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

     

    Al-Shabab attacks civilians in Kenya and Somalia

    It has been a tragic week in East Africa, as militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack in Kenya and was accused of kidnapping 60 schoolchildren in the Bakol region of southern Somalia. The commissioner of Tiyeglow district said the children were taken on Monday in a raid on a village and most likely recruited as fighters – a common al-Shabab tactic. On Tuesday, the al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a 19-hour siege on an upmarket Nairobi hotel, which left 21 civilians dead. Al-Shabab said the attack was in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It could also be retaliation for Kenyan and US military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia. The hotel attack took place on the eve of a verdict in the trial of men alleged to have been involved in the 2013 siege on Nairobi's Westgate mall, which left 67 people dead. Militancy is an ongoing threat across Africa, a trend we continue to watch in 2019.

     

    Swine fever threatens food security

    A highly contagious disease with a near-100 percent fatality rate for pigs and wild boars could have “devastating consequences” for food security over large swathes of Asia, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned in a report this week. The FAO says African swine fever threatens to spread from China, where the virus has hit at least 24 provinces since it was detected there in August. The disease is not transmissible to humans, but pork is a key source of animal protein in China, the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia, while China produces half the world’s pigs. The FAO says the risk of the virus spreading beyond China’s borders represents “an imminent threat for the pig population in this region” and could damage livelihoods and food security. There is no vaccine. This week, Chinese agriculture officials announced the culling of more than 916,000 pigs, Mongolia reported its first outbreak, and Australia said it had found traces of African swine fever in six pork products seized at its airports. Since the virus was first discovered nearly a century ago in Kenya, there have been outbreaks in parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil, including ongoing cases in parts of eastern Europe.

     

    IS reminds US it still exists in Syria

    Days after President Trump said he had begun withdrawing troops from Syria, in part because so-called Islamic State had been defeated, the group claimed a suicide bombing in the northeastern city of Manbij that killed 19 people, including four Americans (two soldiers, a contractor, and a civilian defense department employee). The pullout was already controversial, not to mention confusing – nobody seems to know how or when it is happening – and Wednesday’s attack raised further questions about the wisdom of the move. In northeastern Syria, where some 2,000 US troops plus civilian contractors offer support to Kurdish fighters taking on IS, humanitarians are concerned about the  uncertainty (A Turkish invasion? New alliances? Shifting front lines?) and how it will impact their ability to deliver aid. Read Aron Lund’s latest timely analysis for an understanding of the many possibilities, and what they mean for the estimated two million Syrians in areas under Kurdish control.

     

    Voting on peace in the Philippines

    On 21 January, parts of conflict-hit Mindanao in the Philippines will begin voting on a long-awaited peace deal that will grant more autonomy and a new homeland for the southern island’s Muslim population. The proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law is the culmination of years of negotiations between Philippine authorities and multiple iterations of Muslim armed groups on Mindanao. Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a peace agreement with the largest Muslim armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The upcoming referendum, which continues on 6 February, is the next step to putting the law into effect. Recent polling suggests large parts of existing Muslim-majority areas on Mindanao support the law, which would create a new territory, known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with greater control of resources and taxation. But it’s uncertain whether adjoining areas like Cotabato City, wedged in the middle of an existing region, will vote to join. If the referendum passes, Mindanao still faces a challenge building peace. Authorities must oversee the decommissioning of thousands of armed fighters. But other armed groups continue to clash, including extremist fighters that have in the past drawn from the ranks of disaffected MILF members.

     

    Sexual harassment at the UN

    One in three UN workers has been sexually harassed in the past two years, according to survey results published this week. More than 30,000 UN agency staff and contractors took part in the online survey conducted in November by business advisory firm Deloitte. UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed disappointment, not just at the results but also at the low participation – only 17 percent of those polled responded. He said it showed how far the UN has to go before it can “fully and openly” discuss sexual harassment and counter ongoing “mistrust, perceptions of inaction, and lack of accountability”. Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reportedly ordered an internal investigation after a string of anonymous emails containing allegations of racism, sexism, and corruption were sent to top managers at the UN health agency last year. Both reports follow hot on the heels of the announcement last month that the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, will step down six months early, in June, after a panel found that he tolerated “a culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.” A preliminary report this week into the Oxfam scandal, which precipitated the #AidToo movement, called for a stronger system of safeguarding, for empowering and creating the space for staff to challenge negative power dynamics, and for investing in ways to more generally improve the culture of such organisations.

    In case you missed it:

    Democratic Republic of Congo: While global attention has been focused on Congo's disputed elections and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern regions, almost 900 people were killed in inter-communal clashes in western Mai-Ndombe province last month, the UN said. The fighting between Banunu and Batende communities took place in Yumbi, one of the towns excluded from the 30 December polls due to insecurity.

     

    The Hague: The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity, calling the case against him "exceptionally weak". Gbagbo spent more than seven years in custody, and was tried for allegations including involvement in election-related violence in 2010 and 2011, during which thousands of people were killed. Prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict and, initially at least, he remained behind bars.

     

    Syria: UNICEF reports that eight children, most under four months, have died in the past month at the makeshift camp on the Jordan-Syria border where some 40,000 Syrians have taken shelter. People at the camp, Rukban, are exposed to harsh winter conditions and are short on medical supplies and care; the last humanitarian convoy was in November.

     

    United States: Four humanitarian volunteers went on trial this week in Tucson, Arizona, facing misdemeanour charges for leaving water and other supplies in the desert for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Since 2017, at least 43 sets of human remains have reportedly been found in the wildlife refuge where the volunteers had left the provisions.

     

    Yemen: Days after the UN Security Council voted to send 75 observers to monitor a faltering ceasefire in Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah, bullets hit an armoured car carrying the mission’s head, retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. No one was injured, and the warring sides blamed each other for the incident.

     

    Zimbabwe: The UN has condemned Zimbabwe's “excessive use of force” in cracking down on protests, which were sparked by a dramatic fuel price hike last weekend. Five people have been killed, hundreds detained, and the government has imposed a total internet shutdown. There is concern that a prolonged crisis could lead to mass displacement and create a new humanitarian challenge for neighbouring countries.

    Weekend read

     

    Venezuela’s new humanitarians

    Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting pressure at home and abroad as his disputed second term in office begins. Opposition politician Juan Guaidó is challenging Maduro’s rule, while some foreign governments, including the United States, are calling the Maduro regime “illegitimate”. Venezuela is mired in economic freefall and its citizens face severe food and healthcare shortages. The crisis has pushed some three million to flee the country, spilling the humanitarian emergency across the region. For our weekend read, journalist Susan Schulman has the latest from our reporting on local aid in crises. The story profiles Venezuela’s local NGOs, which have been forced to make drastic changes to respond to a humanitarian crisis the government denies. Local organisations that once focused on rights or development find themselves thrust into unfamiliar new roles: an education NGO that abandoned its training programmes because teachers were too busy queuing for food; a rights group that diverted its resources to feed hungry children. “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” says one local activist. “We didn’t know until now.”

    And finally...

    IRIN at Davos

    Look out for IRIN’s participation at next week’s annual World Economic Forum gathering of top business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Join us on Tuesday 22 January at 7:30am local time (0630 GMT), for a live stream of “Meet the New Humanitarians”, our headline event aimed at showcasing emerging actors in the humanitarian landscape, not to mention our new name and brand (In case you missed our big announcement).

     

    And if you don’t mind a quick 10-second sign-in form (or are already signed on), check out the Humanitarian Action entry on Transformation Maps, the WEF’s new attempt to harness technology and collaboration to tackle complex global issues and better inform decision-makers. IRIN’s Ben Parker was the key contributor.

     

    il-as-si-ar/ns/ag

    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN
  • As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics

    Roberto Patiño never intended to become a humanitarian. But today the 30-year-old heads an NGO that helps feed thousands of children a week as Venezuela’s economic crisis spirals.

     

    More than three million Venezuelans have left the country – the majority since 2015, according to the UN. They are fleeing an economic collapse that has triggered severe food and medicine shortages. Patiño’s organisation, Mi Convive, is among a handful of local NGOs in Venezuela that have stepped into the breach.

     

    Across the country, cash-strapped local organisations like Mi Convive are making drastic changes to their operations in response to a humanitarian emergency the government denies. Civil society groups that once concentrated on rights or development in Venezuela, an upper-middle income country, are transforming their operations to focus on more urgent needs as basic necessities become scarce.

     

    Patiño founded Mi Convive in the capital, Caracas, in 2013. It was originally built to promote human rights with a mandate for violence prevention. He worked in communities with high crime rates, holding town hall-style meetings intended to increase political engagement.

     

    But in early 2016, a child in a Caracas community where Mi Convive worked asked Patiño for food.

     

    “She said she was starving,” he recalls.  

     

    Patiño was stunned.

     

    “This is so urgent,” he remembers thinking. “We had to adapt and we had to change.”

     

    LISTEN: Roberto Patiño, founder of Venezuelan NGO Mi Convive, which has changed its operations to focus on the country’s humanitarian crisis.

    By May 2016, Mi Convive had refocused on child nutrition, launching an organisation called Alimenta La Solidaridad, which opened its first community kitchen, or comedor, in the La Vega neighbourhood perched high over Caracas.

     

    By 2018, the food programme was running 18 community kitchens in Caracas and 35 more across the country, feeding 4,500 children a week. It’s still not enough. The public kitchens have waiting lists and Alimenta La Solidaridad is trying to open more, Patiño says.

     

    As his contested second term in office begins, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting opposition at home and abroad. In November, the country quietly agreed to receive assistance from the UN’s emergency response fund for the first time. But analysts say the $9.2 million in funding for existing UN programmes is a drop in the bucket compared to a humanitarian emergency that has left households without stable food supplies and medicine. Facing glaringly inadequate government services and a lack of official aid, struggling local NGOs have found themselves trying to fill the gap.

     

    ☰ Read more: What to call a crisis

     

    Venezuela agreed to accept $9.2 million in funding from the UN’s emergency aid coffers in November, but it continues to deny the existence of a humanitarian crisis within its borders.

     

    The money, drawn from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, will be used to scale up existing programmes by agencies already operating in the country, including UNICEF, IOM, UNHCR, WHO, and UNFPA.

     

    The infusion of funding is a welcome step for some – but observers say it represents only a fraction of the humanitarian need.

     

    “Nine million dollars is a drop in the ocean. It is a colossal humanitarian crisis,” says Richard Lapper, a Latin America specialist at the Chatham House think tank.

     

    By comparison, a 2018 plan formulated by the WHO, UNAIDS, and the Venezuelan health ministry to respond to HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria was budgeted at $122 million over three years.

     

    Tamara Taraciuk of Human Rights Watch says the government has made a subtle shift in recent months away from total denial. “They are recognising an economic crisis,” she says. “They still do not talk about a humanitarian crisis.”

     

    An effective and sustainable aid response would require a comprehensive assessment of the problems – which would inevitably involve admitting the scale of humanitarian needs.

     

    “Without a proper diagnosis there is no way this crisis is going to be solved, and for a proper diagnosis you need the government’s cooperation and statistics,” she says. “Or at least access to the country – full access to the country – to come up with an independent diagnosis.”

     

    “The real problem is that the state is not working,” activist and former diplomat Luisa Kislinger says. “There is no way a number of NGOs or one NGO can replace the state.”

     

    “The role of local groups is so important,” says Tamara Taraciuk, senior Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has tracked the humanitarian impact of the crisis within Venezuela’s borders and around the region. She says local NGOs have been compelled to shift their operations toward something they had never foreseen: humanitarian work.

     

    “They are helping people who would otherwise not receive any aid,” Taraciuk says.

     

    This would be a challenge anywhere, but oil-rich Venezuela was uniquely unprepared: civil society was small; NGOs like Mi Convive largely focused on human rights or development. And, says Luisa Kislinger, a women’s rights activist and a former Venezuelan diplomat, the country had rarely seen humanitarian emergencies within its own borders.

     

    When the economy imploded, precious few organisations had experience doing humanitarian work.

     

    “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” Kislinger says. “We didn’t know until now.”

    venezuela-localaid-11.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elderly people queue for food at a public kitchen in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

    Local groups morph

     

    The barren food supplies and run-down hospitals of today are a stark contrast with a few short years ago. Venezuela, a verdant country of 30 million with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, was riding high oil prices, which papered over underlying weaknesses in the economy. But by 2016 the country was in an economic tailspin created by a perfect storm of fiscal mismanagement and plummeting oil prices.

     

    Today, skyrocketing inflation has left many unable to afford food, and malnutrition is soaring. Daily departures rose to an estimated 5,500 people by the end of 2018, many citing hunger. The UN estimates the number of Venezuelans living outside their homeland could reach 5.3 million by the end of this year. Aid agencies say they need $738 million to tackle the humanitarian emergency in 16 countries now home to large numbers of Venezuelans.

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    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ennio Prince, 70, sits in a home for elderly people in Carúpano. Malnutrition rates are rising across Venezuela. Local humanitarian groups say impoverished elderly people often do not have enough food to eat: “I am always hungry,” Prince says.

    But within the country, the Maduro government denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, instead blaming his country’s economic freefall on foreign powers, sanctions, and political sabotage.

     

    ☰ Read more: Roadblocks for local aid

     

    Venezuela’s economic crisis has also claimed NGOs among its victims. Some organisations have been forced to close their doors as hyper-inflation made operations unsustainable or as staff and volunteers also fled the country.  

     

    But dozens of tiny local foundations have also emerged. They are often self-funded or supported by donations from abroad.

     

    Controls on foreign currency also make it tough for NGOs to operate. Staff at local organisations say it is difficult for NGOs to legally bring money into Venezuela.

     

    Like Patiño’s Mi Convive, the Caracas-based Fundación Educando Ninó Felices has been forced to switch its operations to address basic humanitarian needs.

     

    The organisation was first founded in 2016 as an education NGO, introducing new technology and teaching methods to schools.

     

    Within a year, however, it soon became clear that there were more pressing problems.

     

    “The teachers started to say that they couldn’t go to the school because they had to queue up to get food,” says former staff member Claudia Cova.

     

    Training teachers, Cova says, “suddenly became ridiculously unnecessary” compared to essentials like food and clothing.

     

    “We had to abandon these things and look after more basic needs such as ensuring that the children had shoes, that they had food, and making sure that they could continue attending their classes and that the teachers didn’t leave the school,” Cova says.

     

    The humanitarian emergency has also forced change on other organisations with long track records in Venezuela.

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    A portrait of bearded man's face
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Jesus Villarroel, a priest and director for Caritas in the eastern Venezuelan city of Carúpano, says the country’s economic crisis has forced the Catholic charity to take on more humanitarian work.

    When the Catholic charity Caritas opened operations in Venezuela in 1997, its work was focused on pastoral care for prisoners, support for the sick, and human rights advocacy. But seeing hunger and malnutrition rising, the organisation started prioritising humanitarian work in 2016, says Jesus Villarroel, a priest and the director of Caritas in Carúpano, site of one of the largest churches in the eastern state of Sucre.

     

    Caritas has opened community kitchens across the country and expanded alliances with local organisations to strengthen its humanitarian response on food and healthcare.

     

    “We are absolutely playing a more important role now than before the crisis,” Villarroel says. ‘‘We don’t pretend to be a substitute for the state. Because of the indifference of the state, we are seeking to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the country, to make dignity from little.”

     

    The Caritas Carúpano headquarters is buzzing. Food for the 90 people who come here every day is prepared in the kitchen while a dozen people wait for medical clinics run by small local foundations working with Caritas.

     

    It is a godsend for Erimas Milagro Machado Rodriguez, 28. Her children, Sirian, one, and Damian, four, suffer frequent diarrhoea. Doctors tell her they are severely malnourished.

     

    ‘‘The children cry every day because they are hungry,” Rodriguez says, her shoulders slumping and eyes sinking into a gaunt face. “When I can’t find any food, I try to make juice from fruit and give them a lot of liquid to fill them up.”  

     

    Rodriguez has also come to the kitchen to try to get treatment for Damian. The child was diagnosed with a psychological disability, but unable to get him any help, she is desperate. “I don’t know what to do or where to go to get the children what they need,” she says biting her lip, her eyes glassy. “It makes me feel so bad as a mother.”

     

    Around the city of Machiques, on the opposite side of the country near the Colombian border, the local Caritas office has recently increased the frequency of free meals it provides to five days a week.

     

    “Years ago, only the homeless went,” says Dr. Ingrid Graterol, director of the Machiques Caritas office. “But today everyone goes.”  

     

    Caritas is planning on setting up a medical clinic in Tucoco, a small village nestled under the foothills about 16 kilometres from the Colombian border.

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    A doctor checks on a child in a woman's arms
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ingrid Graterol, a doctor who works with Caritas, checks on a child in Tucoco, a village near the Colombian border in western Venezuela.

    Graterol says malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea, and pneumonia have claimed lives in Tucuco over the past three years, but a particularly severe bout of malaria ravaged the village last year.

     

    The organisation partnered with a local friar to bring medicine to the remote village. But it was too late for Lisbeth Alehandra Fernandez, who was born last May.

     

    The baby had arrived with a healthy scream, a shock of black hair, and an immediate curiosity about the world. Twenty-three days later, she was dead.  

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    A grieving woman wipes a tear from her eyes
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ludi Fernandez is dependent on local NGOs when she needs healthcare.

    Lisbeth didn’t die of the pneumonia written on her death certificate. She didn’t even die from the malaria she had contracted.

     

    She died because there were no medicines to treat her malaria in the local hospital and none in the private clinic two hours away. Left untreated, her condition worsened. By the time her parents managed to find the drugs on the black market and raise the money to pay for them, it was too late.  

     

    “We didn’t have anything and then there was a total lack of medicines,” says the baby’s mother, 32-year-old school administrator Ludi Mar Yakusa Fernandez.

     

    Threats and intimidation

     

    In Venezuela, undertaking humanitarian work in a crisis the government refuses to acknowledge comes with its own set of challenges.  

     

    When local NGOs try to set up new comedors, they face threats, false accusations, and intimidation from chavistas – a term used to describe militant supporters of the late president, Hugo Chávez, and his successor Maduro.

     

    Elizabeth Tarrio, who works for Alimenta La Solidaridad, says bureaucrats of the Maduro government and communal councils – the neighbourhood bodies set up in 2006 by Chávez to administer policies locally – have tried to boycott and obstruct their efforts.

     

    “Communal councils don’t want to show weakness so they prevent us doing things to improve things,” she says. “They are supposed to provide food, but they don’t so they don’t want us to bring food.”

     

    Mi Convive’s Patiño says chavistas may threaten to withhold government-subsidised food boxes from communities where the NGO is trying to start new aid programmes.

     

    The NGO workers have found that the solution is to slowly build a relationship with the community first.

     

    “The community leaders – the real community leaders, the mothers – are the ones who put a stop to it,” says Patiño. “For mothers and grandmothers, their first priority is children, regardless of political affiliation.”

     

    Even Caritas faces headwinds, despite its long history in Venezuela. In October 2017, Caritas Venezuela warned that some 280,000 children could die from malnutrition. Two weeks later, Maduro attacked the Catholic church in the country, saying that everything linked to it "is contaminated, poisoned by a counter-revolutionary vision and permanent conspiracy".

     

    Hunger reaches young and old

     

    The deprivations in Venezuela extend from its outer reaches to its capital, Caracas – the nerve centre of Alimenta La Solidaridad’s operations.

     

    The colonial Hacienda La Vega sits amid lush grounds in the centre of the city. Built in 1590, it has been home to a succession of aristocratic families. Today, though, it hosts the warehouse, kitchen, and headquarters of Alimenta La Solidaridad. Mountains of leeks and bananas lie on the grounds; hundreds of tins of nutritional supplements – donated mostly by Venezuelans abroad – share space with 19th-century leather-bound books, elaborate engravings of family trees, and portraits of nobility.

    venezuela-localaid-10.jpg

    A woman stands in a commercial sized kitchen area with notes written directly on the wall
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elizabeth Tarrio, 59, works with Alimenta La Solidaridad, which runs more than 50 public kitchens around Venezuela, feeding more than 4,500 children a week.

    Elizabeth Tarrio, 59, is bustling around, checking on progress as volunteers sort and weigh food supplies and organise them for delivery to 18 communities in Caracas.

     

    “We have seen a huge rise in malnourished kids. Huge. That’s why we are trying to open more comedors,” she says.

     

    Throughout the country, however, needs continue to outstrip supply. Local NGOs are a stop-gap measure, not a replacement for basic government services. In addition to the food and medicine shortages, Venezuelans see frequent blackouts and water cuts, and soaring prices are a problem for groups trying to help.

     

    Tarrio opens a deep freeze. There’s a large fish but no meat.   

     

    A couple of days earlier, the government imposed price controls on meat, regulating prices at such low rates that many distributors refused to sell.

     

    A steep set of stairs winds up the hill, past a mural of the angel San Miguel, the namesake of this Caracas neighbourhood, past a sign advertising light bulb repair, past a stream of children, all clutching spoons, who form a long queue around a narrow staircase that rises to a small home. Inside, two dozen children sit at white plastic tables, their heads bowed in prayer. Vitamins are spooned into open mouths, bowls of food are gobbled down, and the next round of children comes in and takes their places.  

     

    This newest comedor was opened by Alimenta La Solidaridad in San Miguel last year. The number of children who come here doubled in its first three months; there are 18 more children on the waiting list.

     

    The hunger reaches both young and old.

     

    In another part of Caracas, the people waiting to take their places at a separate kitchen are the elderly. Some lean on walking frames, others on canes, anxiety scoring deeply lined faces.

     

    This public kitchen is run by Fundación Nacional Amigos de la Tercera Edad, an organisation started in 1977 – part social club, part social help. It too has been changed by Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis; it now focuses on feeding the elderly.

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    Elderly people sit eating in front of a mural of the last supper in similar positions accidentally
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elderly Venezuelans eat at a public kitchen run by Fundación Nacional Amigos de la Tercera Edad, a local NGO. The organisation says it doesn’t have enough resources to feed the growing number of elderly who need free food.

    Carmen Senovia Tovar, 77, is overseeing the second sitting of the day. She has worked at the foundation for 23 years; she says the situation has radically deteriorated over the last five years.  

     

    “We have people only eating one meal a day and sometimes none,” she says. “Sometimes they have to collect it from the garbage.”

    venezuela-localaid-9.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Carmen Senovia Tovar, 77, works with a local NGO to serve lunch to elderly people at a public kitchen in Caracas.

    Even as the needs increase, Tovar worries that her organisation’s ability to help is withering. Hyper-inflation continues to ascend, sending costs soaring on a daily basis. Funds that were once able to supply food for 200 now only cover 150, she says, and the organisation can only provide meals three times a week rather than its planned five.

     

    For the elderly Venezuelans who rely on the local NGO, however, the efforts are life-saving.

     

    “This place is not just very important, it is super important,” says 78-year-old Martin Burguillos as he waits his turn in the queue. “It’s the only place we can find food.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Children queue for lunch served by the NGO Mi Convive in the San Miguel neighbourhood of Caracas. CREDIT: Susan Schulman/IRIN)

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    As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics
    One of a series of stories from within Venezuela, reporting on the humanitarian impacts of the country's economic collapse. <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/11/20/venezuela-humanitarian-crisis-denied">Read more here</a>.
  • A “manufactured” Brexit migrant crisis masks new risks ahead

    In late 2018, small flimsy boats carrying mainly Iranian migrants began to arrive on English beaches from France, navigating the world’s busiest shipping lane. Such voyages are not unprecedented, but in Britain’s current political climate, as Brexit looms, they provided for a sense of heightened panic.

    According to Home Office figures, 312 migrants entered Britain by crossing the Channel in 2018. In the same timespan, Europe received more than 116,000 sea arrivals, with 2,242 migrants known to have drowned in the Mediterranean. Yet by the end of December, weeks before Tuesday’s vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the British government had declared the crossings a “major incident” and deployed navy warships to the waters.

    Migrants’ rights organisations cried foul.

    “It’s a manufactured crisis,” said Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network, a charity that works with unaccompanied asylum seekers. “The government is using it to harden attitudes to Brexit, playing into ideas of an invading army trying to get to our shores when what we’re talking about is a few bedraggled people in boats with hypothermia.”

    Author Gulwali Passarlay, who fled Taliban-run Afghanistan as a teenager in 2006 – arriving in the UK from Calais hidden in a truck full of bananas – said the UK was overreacting to the migrant boats but blamed harsh deterrence policies for encouraging the phenomenon in the first place.

    “Eleven years ago [in Calais] there was no discussion about crossing by small boats; I don’t think people thought it was possible. But the British government has done everything they can to prevent people from coming here. Smugglers always find riskier routes, and they wouldn’t exist if there were legal and safe ways for them to travel. The ‘serious incident’ is [not the crossings but] the reasons those people had to flee their homes in the first place.”

    Beyond the Channel arrivals, migration experts warn that post-Brexit Britain may encounter an asylum upheaval as it leaves EU mechanisms, and that a hidden crisis requiring the attention of British politicians is the risk of large numbers of EU nationals becoming undocumented due to registration complications. They suggest that Brexit has exposed sharp divides over immigration and that uncertainty is growing for migrants and refugees looking for a future in Britain.

    The Iranian asylum case

    On 2 January, Home Secretary (interior minister) Sajid Javid, one of several potential successors to May as prime minister, prejudged the migrants’ asylum validity, saying: “You are coming from France, which is a safe country… but if you were a real, genuine asylum seeker then you could have [claimed asylum] in another safe country. If you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure you are ultimately not successful.”

    Aid groups working around the ports of Calais and Dunkirk suggest that after the French government dismantled the tented ‘Jungle’ camp in October 2016, the population became much more vulnerable. Maya Konforti from L’Auberge des Migrants said treatment by French authorities does not encourage migrants to claim asylum in France and most are motivated to continue due to connections in the UK.

    “They live in horrible conditions, are chased by the police every other day, and their tents and sleeping bags are taken,” she said. “If someone offers them an opportunity to cross [to the UK], they will take it. And often they have family there, they speak good English, and they heard UK is the best place to go.”

    Konforti’s organisation noted that during a November census, 38 percent of the 493 people counted in Calais were Iranian.

    Political repression and depressed economic conditions in Iran are regularly stated reasons for leaving, but a visa-free travel agreement between Tehran and Belgrade may have facilitated the exodus. Signed in August 2017, it allowed Iranians to fly legally to Serbia and thus skip much of the treacherous clandestine route to Europe. More than 15,000 Iranians visited Serbia since the agreement, which was abolished in October 2018 under EU pressure as it became obvious that planes were arriving full of passengers and departing nearly empty.

    Speaking by phone from Belgrade, Miodrag Cakic from Refugee Aid Serbia said: “Initially they were here legally as tourists and so able to go to hotels and had no need to approach NGOs. Only later we started to see the unsuccessful ones coming back from the borders, having run out of money over their legal stay and needing our help.”

    Despite his doubts over the Channel migrants’ validity, Javid’s own department’s statistics for the year ending September 2018 reveal that Iranians had a 47 percent success rate in gaining asylum in the UK (not including figures after appeals).

    Choppy political waters

    In the year up to the referendum in June 2016, a record 284,000 EU citizens arrived in the UK, whereas 289,000 came to Britain from outside Europe.

    For years, ruling Conservative Party policy has been to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, a target apparently unachievable even if EU migration was reduced to zero. Nevertheless, ending freedom of movement from Europe was a key priority for Brexit’s 'Leave' voters, and press coverage of refugees trekking through the Balkans only reinforced this position.

    Despite Britain being largely insulated from the European refugee crisis, it was a trope used by pro-Leave campaigners during the 2016 referendum. Brexit, voters were told, would enable Britain to regain control of its borders. Paradoxically, the opposite may be true.

    As an EU member, the UK is signed up to the Dublin regulation, which states that asylum seekers can be returned to the country where they were first registered on the Eurodac fingerprint database. The law is tailored to enable wealthy northern European states like the UK to outsource asylum responsibilities to poorer southern members such as Italy and Greece where most migrants enter.

    Steve Peers, professor of EU and human rights law at the University of Essex, said Brexit could obstruct Britain’s ability to bounce back migrants to Europe.

    “Without the deterrence of Dublin returns there could possibly be more people coming that would be harder to send back,” he said. “The UK could try to agree bilateral agreements with individual countries, but it would be on the back foot having to negotiate that from scratch. If there’s no [Brexit] deal, the Dublin system will stop immediately, and pending cases could stop too.”

    The UK’s privileged class of EU membership includes opt-outs on many asylum and immigration matters, such as the borderless Schengen area – the EU’s troubled relocation mechanism designed in 2015 to redistribute migrants around the bloc.

    Instead, in 2015, the British government announced an expansion of a scheme to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees from the Middle East by 2020. So far, 12,851 have come by this method – a total over more than three years that approximates to the average daily arrival on the Greek islands at the height of Europe’s refugee influx.

    New challenges for EU migrants

    In the middle of the migrant boat furore, Javid – the son of a Pakistani bus driver who arrived in 1960s Britain with £1 in his pocket – outlined new plans for a post-Brexit ‘skills-based’ immigration system, including limiting low-skilled migrants to short-term visas and a minimum salary threshold for the highly skilled (originally mooted as £30,000). Some observers noted that Javid’s proposals would have prevented his own father from building a life in Britain.

    From March, Britain’s 3.7 million EU citizens will need to begin applying for ‘settled status’ to remain in the country after Brexit. This process, which costs £65, will be managed by the Home Office, a department that is habitually plagued by immigration scandals.

    One of 2018’s biggest political stories in Britain revealed that the Home Office had wrongly deported, detained, and denied services to hundreds of Commonwealth citizens after accusing them of not possessing documentation they never knew they needed. The plight of the ‘Windrush generation’ – named after the ship that brought the first passengers across from the Caribbean to fill post-World War II labour shortages – engulfed May’s government for months.

    The University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory has suggested that potentially tens of thousands of vulnerable EU citizens, without help, may risk not securing their status. The risk for these people is that they become ensnared in the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies.

    Pierre Makhlouf from the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees said Javid’s new measures could sow the seeds for a future Windrush-style scandal as EU nationals who failed to register encounter problems later on: “We are talking about more than three million people now having to regularise themselves in a way that has never been required before. I have no doubt that we will see an increase in undocumented people in the UK.”

    Most political observers predict parliament will vote down May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the government has begun preparing for food and medicine shortages, transport chaos, and civil disorder in case Britain leaves the EU on 29 March without a deal.

    In May, a UN special rapporteur said the referendum had contributed to an environment of increased intolerance and racial discrimination. Whatever the Brexit outcome, the changes coming, against a backdrop of polarised views over immigration, present new challenges for vulnerable migrants.

    (TOP PHOTO: French gendarmes patrol on the beach near Calais on 9 January 2019 as they try to intercept migrants attempting to cross the Channel. CREDIT: Philippe Huguen/AFP)

    ac/ag

    A “manufactured” Brexit migrant crisis masks new risks ahead

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