(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

    Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world and is not engulfed in conflict. Yet its people have been fleeing on a scale and at a rate comparable in recent memory only to South Sudanese or Syrians at the height of their civil wars and the Rohingya from Myanmar.


    As chronicled by much of our reporting collected below, some three to four million people have escaped the economic meltdown since 2015 and tried to start afresh in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. This exodus has placed enormous pressure on the region; several governments have started making it tougher for migrants to enter and find jobs.

    The many millions more who have stayed in Venezuela face an acute humanitarian crisis denied by their own government: pervasive hunger, the resurgence of disease, an absence of basic medicines, and, in March, an electrical blackout that led to water shortages and the mass looting of the second city of Maracaibo.

    Amid ongoing political upheaval, President Nicolás Maduro has cast aside outside offers of aid, framing them as preludes to a foreign invasion and presenting accusations that the United States is once again interfering in Latin America.

    Meanwhile, the opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, has invited in assistance, from the United States and elsewhere.

    As aid becomes increasingly politicised, some international aid agencies have chosen to sit on the sidelines rather than risk their neutrality. Others run secretive and limited operations inside Venezuela that fly under the media radar.

    Local aid agencies, and others, have had to learn to adapt fast and fill the gaps as the Venezuelan people grow hungrier and sicker.

    A collection of our recent reporting from and about Venezuela is below.

    The crisis inside Venezuela


    • Hunger and survival in Venezuela

      Millions have fled Venezuela’s economic meltdown, but for millions more who remain no part of life remains untouched by the crisis, even death.

    Across the border and beyond

    Aid and politics

    A collection of our recent reporting
    Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad
  • Inside efforts to prevent a regional Ebola crisis in central Africa

    The current outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the second deadliest in history, killing more than 400 people and infecting hundreds more. Its location in both an active conflict zone and a busy border region has created what one of those leading the response describes as a “perfect storm” of risk for central Africa.


    Since the outbreak erupted in August, a massive response effort has built up around the epicentres in eastern North Kivu and Ituri provinces. It now involves hundreds of Congolese officials and World Health Organization staff, as well as hundreds of local and international aid and health workers. But a lesser-known parallel effort is also underway – within Congo but also in neighbouring countries – to ensure that a regional epidemic like the one that claimed more than 11,000 lives in West Africa in 2013-2016 isn’t repeated.


    Weeks of IRIN reporting, including trips to assess efforts in border areas, revealed some intensive monitoring and tight collaboration, especially between Congo and Uganda, but also a realisation from health officials of the extreme difficulty of policing thousands of kilometres of porous frontier in a busy trading area prone to spiralling violence.



    A woman walks toward a man in a surgical mask
    Fiston Mahamba/IRIN
    Officials at Kasindi do body temperature checks as a first test for symptoms of Ebola.

    At the Kasindi border between eastern Congo and Uganda, a line of people waits to make the crossing. Before they get their documents checked, they stand – forehead first – in front of a hygiene official in a surgical mask who screens them with an infrared thermo-gun. Those found to have higher-than-normal body temperatures are tested further for Ebola-like symptoms.


    This screening station – just a simple wood and tarp gazebo, some plastic outdoor furniture, and a makeshift water tank for hand-washing – represents the front line of the cross-border system trying to prevent the deadly Ebola virus from spreading from one country to the next. More than a dozen similar stations are now dotted along the Congo-Uganda border, health ministers from both countries told IRIN. Across the border in Uganda, 22 of the highest risk areas have implemented additional monitoring measures to try and ensure Ebola stays out.


    Between 20,000 and 30,000 back-and-forth crossings – most by informal traders or people with cultural and family links – take place between the two countries each day, according to Congolese border officials. These large human flows have become a major challenge for those involved in the Ebola response.

    “People are crossing borders all the time,” Peter Salama, the WHO’s deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response, told IRIN. “The challenge really is just the sheer volume of people. It requires a real level of cross-country collaboration to be able to ensure that a case on one side of the border is adequately traced on the other side of the border.”

    Fears of a cross-border epidemic aren’t restricted to Uganda, which is closest to the current outbreak. They also stretch to Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan.

    Up to 60,000 people cross between Rwanda and Congo daily, according to the Red Cross; while Congo’s ministry of health said more than 24,000 people cross between Congo and Burundi each month, and another 3,000 each month between Congo and South Sudan.

    Travel within Congo is also a concern – Ebola has already spread from an initial epicentre near Beni to more densely populated areas, such as the major trading hub of Butembo, home to more than one million people.

    “The context for this outbreak is a perfect storm,” said Salama. “There’s the combination of great insecurity that has been going on for decades – now increasing in severity and frequency – a highly mobile and also very dense population in urban areas, proximity to international borders, major logistical challenges, and of course the fact that all of this is occurring in an election period.”

    Together with the WHO and health NGOs, the governments of neighbouring countries say they have strengthened cross-border collaboration to keep the outbreak from spreading. The health ministers of Congo and Uganda told IRIN in December that they are working closely together to screen travellers and track potential cases. Salama said more than 26 million people have already been screened across various points of entry, and so-far two confirmed cases have been detected.

    But it is no easy feat.

    Busy border regions

    The Kasindi crossing into Uganda lies 82 kilometres east of Beni. It’s the third busiest point of entry between Congo and any neighbouring country after the port of Matadi (with Angola) and the town of Kasumbalesa (with Zambia). It has become even busier in recent months, as stricter entry and exit measures have been imposed at nearby irregular crossing points in an attempt to keep Ebola contained.

    The border region around Kasindi is also home to the Nande and the Konzo – communities who live between the two countries (the former in Congo, the latter in Uganda) but share the same ethnicity.

    “[People] have family members on both sides of the border. Over the years, they have crossed the border unofficially,” explained Eddy Kasenda, head of Congo’s border hygiene services. “But with response teams currently stationed at the places formerly used for irregular border crossings, there is a big influx at [Kasindi’s] port of entry and exit.”

    Kasenda said teams are now stationed at both formal and informal crossings to control local migration and help execute the six pillars of Ebola response, which include surveillance, contact tracing, and community engagement.

    A few people remain sceptical, some saying the response is nothing more than a business opportunity for international organisations, but Kitsa Musayi from Beni said almost everyone in his neighbourhood is now serious about complying with the Ebola response measures.

    Standing in line at the Kasindi border while his two friends disinfected their hands at the water tank, Musayi added: "when some of those resisting the response activities started to die from Ebola” is when people began to cooperate.

    Oly Ilunga Kalenga, Congo’s health minister, said the exchange of information between Congolese and Ugandan response teams was a big factor in the success, up until now, in preventing Ebola’s spread to Uganda. “We collaborate intensively, especially in sharing information on alerts. The disease control general directorates of both countries are in constant contact to facilitate the collaboration,” he said.


    A lot of people crowd a road
    Fiston Mahamba/IRIN
    With more than 20,000 crossings between DRC and Uganda each day, monitoring everyone has become a major challenge.

    Regional prevention measures

    Ugandan health minister Jane Ruth Aceng said she viewed all of Uganda’s border districts with Congo as being at high risk.

    “There is a lot of information and training for health workers in high-risk districts,” she said. “Three thousand health workers have already been vaccinated in Uganda as part of Uganda’s preparations to face the epidemic. Teams from the Congolese health ministry came to Uganda to train Ugandan health personnel to administer the vaccine against the Ebola virus.

    “We are not waiting for the first confirmed case to launch the response. We are in the midst of deploying experimental treatments.”

    Rwanda and Burundi, although further away from the outbreak, are also on high alert. Several Congolese towns are located close to the border with Rwanda, including the capital of North Kivu province, Goma – a city of more than one million people that has an international airport. Burundi, meanwhile, shares more than 10 entry and exit points along Congo’s border.

    Both countries say they are conducting screenings at border crossings and building up the capacity of their response and healthcare infrastructure in case the outbreak spreads. Last month the UN Central Emergency Response Fund allocated $10 million to strengthen Ebola preparedness in neighbouring countries. Rwanda’s ministry of health, in collaboration with the WHO, also conducted Ebola simulation exercises in two border districts earlier this month.

    Perhaps the main neighbour of concern is South Sudan, which has three principal border crossings with DRC. Years of war have decimated South Sudan’s economy; it has no properly functioning healthcare service; and a lack of roads and infrastructure in some parts of the country – not to mention ongoing conflict – could seriously impede response and containment efforts if Ebola were to spread there.

    The worst-case scenario would be if "insecurity in DRC itself becomes so profound that it really limits entirely our ability to control this outbreak,” Salama said. This would have major implications for all neighbouring countries, especially South Sudan, which "will be one of the more difficult scenarios.”

    Like Uganda, South Sudan also started Ebola vaccinations for frontline health workers in December.

    “The government willingness is there,” said Salama. “But the issue with South Sudan is that after decades of conflict, and ongoing conflict, the primary healthcare system – which is really the first line of defense for surveillance, labs, community health work, for all of our detection and response – is really very rudimentary.”

    There are also major accessibility issues. “Outside of urban centres it’s extremely difficult even to access areas, either because of a lack of paved roads, or because of insecurity,” Salama said. “That poses a huge challenge and it’s really why it’s so important that if anyone is symptomatic with symptoms that could be consistent with Ebola, they are able to identify that at the points of entry with South Sudan. Because if they cross, it will be much, much more difficult outside of the urban areas to pick out the first confirmed case in that country."

    Internal spread

    So far, no confirmed cases of Ebola have been found outside DRC. But the WHO says alerts have been investigated in South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and in one traveller returning from Burundi to Sweden.

    Inside Congo, cases have been confirmed in 17 different health zones. To try and stem the flow of potentially infected people, officials have set up checkpoints along the road between towns in eastern DRC, health ministry spokeswoman Jessica Ilunga said.

    Butembo, which saw its first case of Ebola in November, is one of the bigger concerns. Large numbers of people travel in and out of the city daily from all across the region, many of them traders buying and selling produce and supplies before moving on to other towns where they do the same.


    “Because there are relatively good road connections in these parts of the country, the population and the traders are very mobile,” Ilunga said. “We set up health control stations on the main roads being used by the population, including those leading to Uganda and bigger Congolese cities like Bunia, Kisangani, and Goma.”


    A woman in medical gear outside of a medical tent
    Fiston Mahamba/IRIN
    Congo’s health ministry, NGOs, and the WHO have been tackling the outbreak for nearly six months.

    At some stations, she added, officials even check people’s identities to make sure their names are not on the lists of contacts health teams are tracing for possible exposure to Ebola.

    Travelling on the Beni-Kasindi road, IRIN met Jean-Jacques Mali, who trades between Butembo and Uganda’s capital, Kampala. He said many of those initially resistant to the extra preventative measures have now changed their minds.

    "Those who were most resistant have now started word-of-mouth communication within their communities, warning them about the risks of refusing the vaccine, for example,” Mali said. “Some have even helped people with Ebola-like symptoms to visit hospitals.”


    The key to tackling this outbreak is “not just [to] have community engagement, but also having the community driving the response,” Salama said, explaining that trying to access a highly mobile population in dense urban areas in a region where there are ongoing armed attacks means some affected populations may not be reachable.


    “In some of the most insecure areas, we have trained community health workers and given them cell phones so they are the ones who are following up on a daily basis, to see if the contact is becoming symptomatic and calling that information back into the central emergency operation centre,” he said, adding that response teams have been able to reach 16-20 percent more people who would otherwise have been inaccessible.

    Ilunga, the Congolese health ministry spokeswoman, expressed relief that Ebola hasn’t reached neighbouring countries or other big Congolese cities like Bunia, Goma, and Kisangani. But her relief was tinged with caution and acceptance of the scale of the challenge that still lies ahead.

    "We know that it can still happen,” she said. "As long as there are sick people and contacts who are travelling, there is still risk for the outbreak to spread. As long as the outbreak continues, we are still on high alert."

    Editor's note: Figures in this article were updated shortly after publication to reflect 26 million people screened (instead of 18 million mentioned previously) and two confirmed cases along the border

    (Additional reporting by Africa Editor Sumayya Ismail)

    (TOP PHOTO: Ebola screening stations are set up at more than a dozen points along Congo’s border region with Uganda. CREDIT: Fiston Mahamba/IRIN)


    “We are still on high alert”
    Inside efforts to prevent a regional Ebola crisis in central Africa
  • Venezuela’s doctors and patients share tales of despair and dismay

    Maracaibo, the once-opulent heart of Venezuela’s oil industry, now resembles a ghost town.


    At the entrance to University Hospital blue rubbish bags are piled high and spill out on the roadway. A dozen black cats prowl, brazenly sniffing at the trash. Neglect has potholed the road; the sprawling modernist building is missing windows and paint is peeling.


    Inside, corridors are crammed with broken beds, incubators, lab equipment. The elevators don’t work, the halls are dark. Emigration has halved the nursing staff and reduced the number of doctors by two thirds, employees say. It has also emptied a car park, closed wards, curtailed services, and left parts of the hospital feeling as ghostly and abandoned as the city itself.


    “Hospitals,” surgeon and professor Dr. Dora Colomenares says, just before beginning a recent shift, “have become like extermination camps.”


    Reliable statistics are impossible to find but, according to a report released in September by Venezuelan human rights group CEPAZ, Venezuela’s public healthcare facilities had by last year lost 60 percent of their 2011 capacity to care for patients. The report cited the dwindling number of trained medical personnel, scarce medicines, and increasingly unreliable basic services due to a lack of water and electricity.


    Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez in July announced a “special plan” to address problems within the healthcare system, but he did not provide details then or respond to recent requests for comment from IRIN.


    At the same time, long-dormant diseases have re-emerged, given a foothold as widespread malnutrition weakens many Venezuelans’ immune systems, and vaccines and medications become ever scarcer.




    Unsurprisingly, morale among the country’s remaining doctors is low. “There is a frustration and sense of impotence,” explains Dr. Rafael Piroza, president of the Association of Medical Doctors in the eastern state of Sucre. “We are formed to give and fight for life, and that we can’t do that makes us feel like accomplices.”


    Between 2012 and 2017, 22,000 physicians were registered as leaving Venezuela. While the current number of medical professionals in this country of 32.8 million people is unknown, 39,900 medical personnel were registered as working in Venezuela in 2014, according to the latest figures available from PAHO.


    ‘Patients are dying’


    Official figures on emigration are also hard to come by, but in Maracaibo locals say that as many as 60 percent of the 1.6 million residents who lived here in 2015, according to the most recent UN estimates, have left. That figure sounds impossible until you drive through the empty streets, with shuttered back-to-back home decor shops and high-end auto dealers.


    Rubbish flies in the wind in the empty residential neighbourhoods and main streets of this city, in the country’s west. The golden arch of McDonalds is a lone beacon of life for the few cars that pass beneath traffic lights darkened by electricity outages. The occasional person can be seen filling water containers from broken pipes and hauling them home through deserted streets.   


    Water has become a rarity here and elsewhere in Venezuela. Recent CEPAZ studies reported that 82 percent of the Venezuelan population and 79 percent of hospitals no longer receive water on a regular basis. Electricity is increasingly scarce, too, with frequent outages a feature of life. Large swathes of the country are often left without power, sometimes for days on end.  


    The impact on daily life is often disastrous, but perhaps nowhere more so than in Venezuela’s hospitals.   


    Colomenares knows that first hand. Once past the armed security forces guarding the entrance to the University Hospital of Maracaibo, she leans in and, mindful of the security staff that bar journalists from hospitals, confides in a near whisper: “There is no water. Without water, there is bacteria everywhere. It is a vicious cycle – no water, no electricity, no medicines. So it’s like a dead end. Infections, malnutrition – all this leads to a dead end, and death.”



    A doctor points to an empty shelf
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Dr. Dora Colomenares at the University Hospital of Maracaibo.

    She flings open the doors to a cupboard used to store medicine. Empty. A sink and counter are coated with filth and studded with dead flies.

    Since electricity and water services have failed, Colomenares says she has seen deaths in both adults and children “aggressively rise”.


    “When I was an intern, if there had been a death – one, two, or three – during my shift, it would have been alarming, very worrying. Now, daily, there are about 20 deaths at this hospital. It is horrendous.”


    Dr. Dilmond Antonio, 69 years old, is watching his patients die. His office at the hospital is crammed with medical textbooks and journals, a low-energy light bulb suspended from the ceiling casting a blue-ish light.  


    Maracaibo hospital was once renowned. It was a pioneer in liver transplants in Venezuela. Antonio says his unit hasn’t done a liver transplant in four years, adding that patients who need them won’t get them: they will die.


    Patients who had successful transplants may die, too. A man who had a liver transplant four years ago recently died because he couldn’t find medication to prevent the organ from being rejected, Antonio recalls.


    Figures included in the healthcare report released by CEPAZ place Antonio’s patient in the context of a larger story: the man was one of 3,000 organ transplant patients who stopped receiving immunosuppressive drugs this year; one of the 96 who suffered organ rejection; and one of 12 who have already died.


    ‘Yes, the babies die’


    University Hospital of Maracaibo is lucky: it has a generator – at least 33 percent of hospitals nationwide don’t, according to the CEPAZ report. However, due to a lack of maintenance and repair, it often doesn’t work. Even when it does, it can’t supply power to the whole hospital for the erratic and often prolonged blackouts.


    On the neonatal ward, a power supply is the difference between life and death. Before the crisis, premature babies born at 29-30 weeks gestation would survive. Now, the survival age has been reduced to 36 weeks gestation, Colomenares says. Almost all born earlier die, she adds.


    Lack of functioning incubators means three or four babies will often share one incubator. But when the generator doesn’t work, nothing, including the incubators, works.  


    "We feel very helpless because there is nothing we can do,” Colomenares says, her voice thickening. “Yes,” she nods, “yes, the babies die.”   


    Between 2015 and 2016, the infant mortality rate rose by 30 percent and the maternal mortality rate by 66 percent, according to government figures. The health minister behind the release of those figures, Antonieta Caporale, was sacked in May 2017 within days of announcing them.


    No more official mortality data has been forthcoming since then, but an October 2018 report from CEPAZ suggests figures “continue to rise into 2018, with the aggravating factors of malnutrition and epidemics”.


    “Right now, for us doctors, these [figures] have risen,” Colomenares says. “The conditions are a lot worse now.”


    Secretary General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro Lemes charged in a recent address to the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic Studies that newborns in Syria have a better chance of survival than those born in Venezuela today.


    Colomenares’ view of the situation is equally stark. ‘It’s a crime against humanity,” she says.


    The once-renowned University Hospital in Maracaibo


    ‘They let him die like a dog’


    Isneudy Romero, 27, knows the failings of Venezuela’s medical system. Shifting uneasily as she stands outside the hospital in Maracaibo, she pushes her dark hair off her face, her eyes darting to make sure no one is listening, and begins to speak of her family’s experience.


    She’d had a bad summer.


    It didn’t begin when she found herself suffocating in the dark after the electricity failure took out the lights, air conditioning, and fridge. It didn’t even start when the city’s water supply failed and she started having to haul water three kilometres from a broken pipe. It started, although she wasn’t to know it quite yet, when Antonio Romero, her 53-year-old father and a long-time government employee, had stomach surgery at the hospital. 


    The surgery went off without a hitch, so they thought, and he came home. But before long he developed an infection. Romero believes the infection was acquired in the hospital – not unreasonably given that contracting infections in hospitals has become a common occurrence these days due to hospitals having neither water nor cleaning fluid. 


    Unable to find the antibiotics he needed, her father’s condition worsened. She and her sister took him back to the hospital, where doctors explained he needed a second operation. And then, after a moment’s pause, added apologetically and in pained voices that, regretfully, they were unable to perform the surgery because there was no electricity in the hospital.  


    That left Romero and her family on a renewed and more desperate quest for antibiotics, hoping they might help keep him alive. But – with the scarcity of drugs rising even higher since a March survey in which more than 88 percent of 100 public and private hospitals and health centres indicated shortages of medication – they hunted high and low in vain. In June, Antonio Romero died.  


    That wasn’t the end of it. 


    Coffins are few and far between. When they can be found, they are expensive. Unable to afford the luxuries of a funeral parlour, the family lay their father’s body out on the kitchen table, where they conducted the funeral service, praying the body wouldn’t explode before they managed to raise the money to bury him.


    “My father worked 32 years in a ministry – yet they let him die like a dog,” Isneudy Romero says.


    Soon after, Romero’s 18-month-old niece fell ill with pneumonia. Five years ago, pneumonia in children in Venezuela was less common, but now severe malnutrition is weakening immune systems and triggering a marked increase in the illness, especially in the under-5’s. Like a growing number of the children in the country, her niece, Luisa, suffered from malnutrition. 


    Romero and her sister brought Luisa to the hospital, but instead of getting better she contracted a bacterial infection in the intensive care unit.


    It was left to the family to supply the material and medicines needed to treat the pneumonia. They constructed an oxygen hood out of pieces of plastic and masking tape. Once again, they tried desperately to find the antibiotics and other medications necessary to treat the infection. Yet again, they looked in vain.  


    Luisa died from the bacterial infection contracted at the hospital.  


    Again, a body was placed on the family’s kitchen table.


    When all the prayers were said, Luisa was laid in a concrete grave inscribed with hearts drawn by her family’s fingers. The family was left deeply in debt.  


    “We couldn’t even give either of them a proper burial,” Romero says.  


    Of course it is lethal


    Elsewhere in Venezuela, patients aren’t faring much better.

    Luis Rodriguez, 68, has been to a lot of funerals this year. He worries the next he attends will be his own.


    Rodriguez is a former boxer from Cariaco in Sucre State, a small town famed for having produced former super flyweight boxing champion Jesus Rafael Orono.


    Today, Rodriguez is a dialysis patient fighting round after round to simply survive – and the bouts are not going his way.


    Rodriguez needs three treatments a week, four hours for each treatment, at a clinic in Cumaná, the state capital, about 90 minutes from his home. But with only eight machines of 16 working, his treatments have been reduced by half. And that’s before they were further abbreviated by electricity outages mid-treatment.


    The dialysis centre has nothing – no medicine, nothing – so it’s up to Rodriguez to supply the medicines for the treatment and, when he can’t get the required amount of dialysis, hypertension drugs to maintain his health. But hypertension drugs can’t be found anywhere. So, in addition to his kidney problems, he has developed severe hypertension and tachycardia (an abnormally high heart rate).


    “Of course, it is lethal,” he says. “Last year there were 65 of us dialysis patients, and, today, there are only 24 of us left.”


    Rodriguez falls silent, sitting on a chair amidst the empty stalls in the market where he is passing time. A friend greets Rodriguez, clapping him on the back as he passes by. Rodriguez looks up.


    “I have been very pained as a dialysis patient to go to the funerals of my dialysis friends – with no guarantee it will turn out any different for me,” Rodriguez says, shaking this head. “I feel really alone because when I go to dialysis and ask for my friends, they tell me they aren’t here, they have left, either through God or out of the country.” 


    ‘There’s no medicine here’


    Some 1,400 kilometres west of Cariaco, the small village of Tucuco sits at the foot of low mountains dense with lush-green foliage and gently shrouded in low clouds.


    It is a village like any other in Venezuela these days.


    There is a bakery with no bread.


    A butcher with no meat.


    A bank with no money.


    A small hospital without medicines. “Unless there is a mystic there, they are impotent as they don’t have anything to even reduce a fever, or pull a tooth,” one local man confides.  


    Two children walk in a village
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    The village of Tucuco.

    Five years ago, it was paradise here, says Herminia Ramirez, 50. Now, she adds, that paradise has been lost to disease, death, and emigration.


    Two families, 14 people in all, live in the Ramirez’s small home of corrugated iron, wood, and thatch.


    A small child with carrot-tinged hair characteristic of malnutrition timidly stands in the door of the house, alternating her attention between the chatter outside and the cartoons playing under roll bars on the television indoors. The family’s bright-green pet parrots hop around freely; a pet peccary, or skunk pig, stirs from his sleep and noses at the thin bars of his cage.


    Ramirez’s grandfather is swinging, cocooned in a hammock. He is suffering from his fourth bout of malaria this year. Her son is mending his bicycle tyre. He has had malaria nine times, the family says, and now has a colon problem.


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    The corrugated iron home of Herminia Ramirez, far left, in Tucuco.

    “Lots of people we know here have died,” says Ramirez. “Most from malnutrition, but a lot have died of malaria, hepatitis, yellow fever, and tuberculosis too.”


    She shrugs. “There’s no medicine here. There’s nothing.”   


    Dr. Ingrid Graterol nods in agreement. She has been coming here regularly as a doctor with the NGO CARITAS for 15 years and is now the director of the Machiques office.


    In Machiques, a two-hour drive from here, there used to be a hospital with a fully equipped operating room, Graterol explains. It no longer functions, so for Martinez’s son to even hope to get treatment for his colon the only option is to get to Maracaibo, 260 kilometres away.

    Up to 90 percent of public buses are reportedly out of operation, as bus owners, unable to afford even basic repairs, have been forced to abandon vehicles.


    “There is no transport to Maracaibo,” Graterol says. “Now, if a woman needs a C-section, she dies,” she adds by way of explanation. “If she finds a car, there’s no gas. And if she finds gas, maybe the driver wants to sell [their] fuel instead. And, if she finds the car, the gas, and a willing driver, she won’t have the cash.”


    A man leading a horse walks slowly by, its hooves clattering on the pavement, interrupting a moment of silence. Graterol continues, anger in her voice, explaining how there used to be no deaths from childbirth in the region.


    “If we had one, that would be really bad and they’d call for an investigation,” she says. “Now, we have almost one a month. And it’s not even important anymore as it happens so much no one cares.”


    ‘I feel depressed’


    As hospital conditions worsen and more facilities close, more and more medical personnel are leaving the country.


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Dr. Piroza at a small hospital in Cumaná.

    “I feel depressed, it pains me badly when, as president of the association, I have to sign legal papers to enable doctors to emigrate,” explains Piroza of the Association of Medical Doctors.I feel a great pain – but I understand their situation, as salaries are too small even for them to eat, and they will be very welcome where they go.”


    The doctors who remain have not stopped fighting for their patients.


    Protests by medical personnel and people affected by the failures of the healthcare system are on the rise. According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a local human rights NGO, between January and August 296 protests were held despite the very real risk of protesting: doctors have been threatened with criminal charges for speaking out and hospital directors have been suspended.


    Piroza himself took part in a recent protest by medical staff at a small hospital in Cumaná. He and his colleagues covered a fence with large cardboard signs detailing what they don’t have in their facility: oxygen, supplies for carrying out basic tests, drugs, water, light bulbs. In short, everything.



    ‘We feel very helpless because there is nothing’
    Venezuela’s doctors and patients share tales of despair and dismay
    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>.
  • Hunger and survival in Venezuela

    The government continues to deny the existence of a humanitarian crisis, blaming power failures on Venezuela’s proximity to the sun and suggesting people buy gold nuggets and plant medicinal herbs in their gardens to ward off poverty and disease.


    Inflation continues its dizzying ascent. It has reached an eye-watering 800,000 percent and is on target, according to the International Monetary Fund, to surge to 10 million percent next year – driving severe hunger, shortages of basic goods, and accelerating the exodus from the country.  


    At least 2.3 million people are estimated to have fled Venezuela since 2015. One in 12 Venezuelans is now thought to have left the country.


    As those abroad build new lives where shelves are laden with food and medicine, many of those IRIN encountered during two weeks of reporting across Venezuela – from the once-thriving fishing and sugar-producing areas of Cumana and Cariaco in the east to once-opulent and wealthy Maracaibo in the west – face a daily battle for survival.


    Residents tell of children starving to death, of forming human chains to block roads to hijack trucks just to get food. They tell of hiding provisions – toilet paper even – in cemeteries, and of concealing their supplies in buckets under layers of trash.​ They tell of being prisoners in their own homes, frightened to leave for fear of looters, who don’t come for their televisions and computers – no one wants those any more – but for basic foodstuffs and medicine.


    While some Venezuelans abroad paper social media with pictures of themselves posing jubilantly in front of powdered milk and shampoo, those who remain grind guava leaves with baking soda to make deodorant, and boil ash from the fire to make soap. It leaves people “itching all day long like gorillas,” says Leidis Vallenilla, explaining how the term violin has become a euphemism for body odour. “We have a whole orchestra here,” she laughs.


    There is pride here, too.


    “The inventive part of us has really been activated,” says Vallenilla.


    The road holds secrets


    Lined with lush foliage and mango trees, dotted with the occasional home, the road from Cumana to Carupano in Venezuela’s eastern state of Sucre winds gently, every now and then rising to give a glimpse of the sea.


    Pilongo – 23-year-old José Gregorio’s nickname, acquired from a cartoon he loved as a baby – leans into the windscreen and squints, staring closely into the verges. He’s looking for vehicles hiding in the bushes, where they wait to ambush cars.


    As the crisis has deepened, so has the threat. This road is a main artery to the east; seemingly bucolic, it is one of the most dangerous in the country.


    Hunger is behind most everything here.


    Hunger was behind the widespread protests that roiled the country in 2015 and precipitated the flight of millions of Venezuelans from the country.


    Then, shortages of essential foodstuffs – milk, butter, sugar, pasta, flour, oil, rice, beef, and chicken – were estimated at 80-90 percent.


    It has only gotten worse since.


    By 2018, according to a report produced by three Venezuelan universities, only one in 10 Venezuelans could afford enough daily food. Hunger has blanketed the country.


    Cumana was once the fourth largest tuna processing town in the world. Nearby, around Caraico and Carupano, was a major sugar-producing area. Not any more. Now, people are starving.


    Government food trucks travel the road carrying President Nicolás Maduro’s signature boxes of subsidised food.


    Named CLAP – after the Spanish acronym for Local Committees for Supply and Production – Maduro rolled them out in 2016 in order, he declared, to circumvent the “economic war” being waged on Venezuela by the United States and his opponents.


    CLAP box
    Susan Schulman/IRIN

    These boxes, the government claims, will feed a family of four for one week. They are supposed to be delivered once a month to all those who have signed up for the “Carnet de la Patria” – a controversial ID card that grants holders access to subsidised food.


    However, according to those who get the CLAP boxes, the food arrives spoiled or past its sell-by date, is nowhere near enough to last even a week, and never comes more than, if you’re lucky, once every six weeks. Around Cumana, seven hours east of the capital Caracas, people say the boxes arrive once every three to four months.


    Pilongo, Vallenilla, and other locals say the trucks still barrel through here daily – in convoys of as many as 40 – laden with precious food and never stopping for angered, hungry people. They recall how people started coating the road with oil so the trucks would skid into a ditch and then everyone would swarm around and loot them.

    “A population which is not well fed become thieves and will steal any food no matter what.”

    When the truck drivers wised up and took a diversion, people got metal strips with sharp teeth and laid them across the other road. Tires would blow out and trucks would still be looted. When the National Guard came and confiscated the metal strips, the community protested that they belonged to them. After a fight, the mayor agreed and returned the strips.


    As hunger grew around the country so did the number of incidents like these, leading Maduro to issue an edict that armed National Guards must accompany the government food trucks. This has given greater license to the much-feared National Guard, who locals accuse of being behind the bodies they say have been turning up on nearby beaches.


    The threat hasn’t stopped people. They just choose different trucks.


    “Malnutrition is the mother of the whole problem,” says Pilingo’s former teacher, Fernando Battisti Garcia, 64, talking from his home in the town of Muelle de Cariaco. “A population which is not well fed become thieves and will steal any food no matter what.”


    People call it “the Maduro diet”.


    “As soon as people see a big truck coming with supplies,” explains Pilingo, “they go into the street – men, women, even children – and stop the truck and take the supplies.”


    It happened just a few days ago, he says, adding that the National Guard has begun searching people’s houses and if they find anything – food, toilet paper, supplies – they take you to jail.


    So people have started hiding the goods in tombs in cemeteries, or lowering them in buckets into water tanks.  


    “Everyone is just so desperate,” Pilingo shrugs.  


    With their erratic and infrequent delivery of meagre, often spoiled goods, CLAP boxes have done little to address hunger. What they have done, however, is line the pockets – and secure the loyalty – of military and government officials.


    The US treasury estimates as much as 70 percent of the CLAP programme is victim to corruption, while accusations of military and government officials siphoning off millions of dollars and creating a lucrative food trafficking business and thriving black market have led to sanctions and intensifying international scrutiny.


    The CLAP boxes have also succeeded in creating dependency. As inflation continues to spiral upwards and poverty escalates – jumping from 81.8 to 87 percent between 2016 and 2017 – more and more desperate people have become reliant on them to supplement their impoverished diets. In 2018, one in two Venezuelans say CLAP boxes are an “essential” part of their diet, while 83 percent of pro-Maduro voters say that CLAP is their main source of food.


    Malaria and death


    Vallenilla, 60, sits in a folding chair in her shop on the main road passing through Cerezal, a town of 1,000. Dozens of the colourful fabric dolls she makes and sells bob overhead hung from the ceiling, but she admits it has been a long time since she has had any customers.

    It has been a long time too since anyone around here has been able to get any medicine. And it has been even longer since people had enough food.


    “We have lost a lot of kids here to malaria and hepatitis,” says Vallenilla. “You can see people whose eyes and lips have turned orange. But worst of all is malnutrition. Malnourished children are dying here – yes, in my community they are starving to death.


    “The vice-president (Delcy Rodríguez) says there is enough food to feed three countries the size of Venezuela, but the truth is the malnourished kids, the elderly – that is what is real; that is what is the truth.”


    Vallenilla nods across the street where a rail-thin woman is sitting in her doorway. “That woman used to weigh 230 pounds,” she confides. She gestures down the street. “And a woman lost her three-year-old to malnutrition last week, a few streets down….”


    But those women won’t talk about it, says Vallenilla. No one here speaks out, she says. Everyone is scared; scared of losing their CLAP box; scared of the bodies turning up; scared of the repercussions of being identified through the Carnet de la Patria; scared of being reported to Maduro’s security forces; scared full stop.  

    “The vice-president (Delcy Rodríguez) says there is enough food to feed three countries the size of Venezuela, but the truth is the malnourished kids, the elderly – that is what is real; that is what is the truth.”

    But Vallenilla isn’t scared. She is angry.


    “About two months ago, malaria was in fashion here – everyone here was trembling from fever,” she seethes, fury rising in her voice. “We had to block the road for two days. We made a trembling chain of people just to force the government to bring us treatment.”


    But even then, the government didn’t bring the full treatment. They brought only half a dose. Half treatments mean malaria will recur. Half treatments risk mosquitos building immunity. Half treatment is the best anyone can hope for these days across Venezuela. And, if they even get that, they can consider themselves lucky.  


    “This is why people die,” Vallenilla bellows. “How can you play with people’s health like that? Kids’ health? It is inhuman!


    ‘‘The most sacred thing is your child. Having to put your child in the ground, having your child die? It is the worst thing. How must a mother feel?”


    Her brown eyes glare under the placid smiles of her handmade dolls overhead.


    “I cannot change my feelings – I will not change my feelings for a bone!’ she says. “No matter how many bones they throw to me, I will not be silenced!’


    Vallenilla’s thin neighbour across the street shrinks into the shadows at the sound of the raised voice.


    “This is like a curse, a spell cast on the population,” Vallenilla sighs.


    Electrocution and amputation


    On a sunny Saturday afternoon, there is not a soul to be seen in Cariaco, a town of supposedly 22,000 souls in the east of Venezuela. It is eerily empty. Shops are shuttered and there is no one visible behind the fences barricading the single-storey pastel houses topped with several rows of electrified wires.


    You used to be able to walk anywhere, anytime,’’ Pilingo reminisces.


    No more. People are home. They all say they just don’t dare leave their homes for fear they will get broken into when they go out. Vallenilla says she even slaughtered her 17 ducks as she knew they would be taken otherwise.


    The night before, someone had broken into a local house just to steal some clothes.


    “Hunger is taking over in most towns,” Garcia, the former teacher, observes. ‘‘If people have the possibility of one or two meals in a day, they consider it like providence.”


    “People go too long without food,” Leidis concurs. “You can’t blame them looting and hijacking.”


    The consequences are showing up in unexpected ways.  


    Music blares from speakers mounted on a flatbed truck as it drives slowly through the small village of Pantonó, leading a young crowd surrounding a wooden coffin hoisted high by the cluster of men carrying it.


    Susan Schulman/IRIN

    This is the funeral of a 13-year-old boy, a member of the local baseball team who was electrocuted when he tried to go through an electrified fence in the rain – it is thought, to find food.


    There were virtually no cases of electrocution before the crisis, says Dr. Dora Colomenares, a surgeon at University Hospital in Maracaibo. Now it is a common occurrence as people breach electric fences hunting for food, medicine, and electricity sources to wire off to their homes.


    An unprecedented number of children are also arriving at hospital with broken bones. Doctors told IRIN many injuries were hungry children left alone by parents to go out searching day in and day out for food and medicine, even children who had fallen out of fruit trees they had scaled ever higher searching for something to eat.


    This desperation is also reflected in the thriving business of herb selling, as people across the country turn to traditional remedies in the absence of standard medicine.


    Louisa Lopez, 54, the lone vendor in her row, is packing up the medicinal herbs and leaves she sells. Slits of light coming through the corrugated roof dapple the darkness, bouncing off empty stalls in nearby Cariaco market hall.


    Lopez didn’t have this business before the crisis, but when medicine became scarce she anticipated that people would turn to traditional and homemade remedies. After doing her research on the internet, she set up a stall.

    Her instinct has proven spot on. “Business,” she smiles, “is booming.”


    But so is death.


    Needless, pointless, avoidable. Deaths that would have been unimaginable even five years ago.  


    One man in Cumana is eager to talk but fearful of losing his job and CLAP box for speaking out. He asks that his real name not be used and steps inside his pastel-coloured home, where a framed photo of a middle-aged man is sat shrine-like under a vase of lilies atop a decorative lace tablecloth on a round table.


    This, he explains, was his uncle “Alberto M” – a chef. He had died two weeks earlier of hypertension and diabetes, a failure of herbal medicine. The man picks up the photo and studies it in silence. His uncle’s warm smile and kind eyes beam back, blissfully unaware of the fate that would needlessly, avoidably befall him.  


    “There is a death daily around here,” says the man, placing the photo back on the table before reeling off a list of recent deaths in the neighbourhood: children from malnutrition; a mother and her unborn baby – more failures of herbal medicine – dead from a urine infection; a brother-in-law, shot, his family charges, by the police and whose body washed up on a nearby shore.  


    “But,” he says after a long pause, “we don’t even have coffins. The morgue is stacked high with dead bodies as people can’t find coffins.”


    He explains how people have taken to bringing the body home and praying it doesn’t explode – as happened the week before just down the street – before they find a way to bury it.  


    Depression and anger


    This endless struggle just to survive exacts a huge emotional toll.  


    “You see people who walk around feeling betrayed, with low spirits, sad – many who don’t want to live, because of the issue of food,” says Garcia, shaking this head, his eyes sad.


    “The biggest psychiatric problem in the world is in Venezuela,” says Colomenares, the surgeon in Maracaibo. “Why? Because there are many depressed people, people who have lost hope. Melancholy and all these things mix with the problems the people are already going through, and they don’t know how to cope with it.”


    Yet, as more and more people are driven to the brink, psychiatric wards are closing. The number of people attended to in public psychiatric facilities has dropped from 23,000 to 3,500 and those that are still working have neither food nor medicines, according to a report published by the Cuatro Por Venezuela Foundation in September.


    Suicide has surged throughout the country.  


    Official statistics are hard to come by, but a psychiatric nurse at a large eastern hospital whispers in confidence, scared of losing his job for speaking out, that in his ward alone there were 10 suicides between January and July this year. By comparison, in 2017, there were only three or four. Before then, there were virtually none, he says.


    Venezuelan children’s rights group CECODAP released a study that reported an 18 percent rise from 2017 in adolescents committing suicide in 2018, while Bloomberg found there were 131 suicides in Caracas alone in June and July, a large increase on the normal monthly rate.


    Anger is growing at the seeming indifference of Maduro and his government – a government that refuses to acknowledge the scale of death and sickness of its own citizens.  

    "How can you not curse the government straight out? This damn government! This damn government!”

    "I insist here there is no humanitarian crisis; there is a war on the country,” Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Constituent Assembly, said last month, before claiming: “Those who speak of humanitarian crisis are the ones who have created war against our country.”  


    Over a lunch of thin soup at his mission in the west of Venezuela, Friar Nelson Sandoval describes the scene in the summer when his whole village was overcome by malaria and there was no medicine. “It was like an apocalyptic film where people were so desperate; they were literally in the street having convulsions.”


    He pounds his fist on the table. “How can you not curse the government straight out? How terrible it is when the electricity is out; when you’re hungry and yet food gets spoiled; when you’re tired as you couldn’t sleep as it was too hot? How do you give Mass? How can you not curse the government straight out? This damn government! This damn government!”


    Emails to the government media department and the Minister of Information for comment on the widespread hunger, the hijacking of food trucks, and the lack of medicines were unanswered at time of publication.



    “Malnutrition is the mother of the whole problem”
    Hunger and survival in Venezuela
    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>.
  • Remedies and roadblocks as Senegal battles climate change

    During the long dry season, the parched landscape around the village of Mbar Toubab in Senegal’s northwestern Louga region is almost entirely devoid of vegetation. For kilometres on end, the bush is slowly turning to desert, like the vast Sahara a little to the north. When the rains come, a carpet of grass miraculously appears and the trees grow leaves.


    But even this transformation is subdued compared to a fenced-off 200-hectare plot of land that is, come August, bursting with green. Inside this oasis, dense foliage restricts visibility to a couple of hundred metres, and the sound of birdsong fills the air.


    The plot is a mere brick in the Great Green Wall, an ambitious project described by its architects as an “8,000-kilometre new world wonder across the entire width of Africa, [designed] to transform the lives of millions living on the front line of climate change.” Initiated in 2007, the project aims to rejuvenate and protect vast swathes of land that have become arid and infertile through poor management and drought.


    This year’s “lean season”, compounded by a delayed crisis response, was devastating for herding communities in Senegal, which lost hundreds of thousands of animals due to a lack of food and water. In a zone where the climate is getting progressively harsher as the gaps between the difficult years of drought, poor harvests, and food shortages get smaller, aid officials agree that emergency responses are of little use without longer term efforts to help communities survive. Efforts that, in the jargon of the aid world, deliver resilience.


    The Great Green Wall is one such initiative. Its goal is to improve environmental conditions in the Sahel region – a semi-arid band covering more than three million square kilometres on the southern edge of the Sahara – and protect agricultural land and natural resources that people depend on to survive. The project is also aimed at creating jobs and ensuring food security for communities along its path. But not everyone agrees that it’s the best solution to meet their needs, including some semi-nomadic livestock herders in Senegal who find themselves cut off from pasture, increasing the potential for conflict over access to ever scarcer natural resources.


    “We’re worried the wall might have negative consequences for herders,” says Dabel Ba in Senegal’s northeastern town of Ranerou, where the project is still in its early stages.


    Pan-African green belt


    An idea that was first presented a decade ago by the African Union Commission, the pan-African green belt stretches across the continent from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. It now involves 21 countries in varying stages of participation.


    While the image of a physical wall, or perhaps a hedge, extending across Africa initially captured imaginations, the term “Great Green Wall” has become a misnomer. What began as a reforestation project with a focus on planting trees has evolved into a mosaic of different activities to help combat desertification caused by climate change and misuse of the land, says Colonel Papa Sarr, technical director of Senegal’s Great Green Wall agency, which sits within the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development’s  Directorate of Water, Forests and Hunting.

    Senegal started planting trees 10 years ago, at a target rate of 5,000 hectares per year. The project’s activities also include establishing market gardens and enabling “natural regeneration”, the practice of simply fencing off a plot of land to allow it to recover from the effects of overgrazing. This, some experts say, can be more reliable than reforestation initiatives, which are costlier and run the risk of failing as young trees planted in a barren landscape struggle to survive.


    Lucinda Rouse/IRIN
    Women, many of whom are also herders, from communities surrounding one of the protected plots who are being paid to plant trees as part of the GGW's reforestation programme.

    “We need to restore the environment in a more intelligent and participatory way,” says Deborah Goffner, coordinator of the French National Research Agency’s Future Sahel programme, which undertakes research to inform the Great Green Wall’s strategy. “In some places, natural regeneration is the way to go. Soil fertility increases, but it’s less sexy to say ‘let’s put up a fence and wait for nature to come back.’”


    Herder concerns


    While Senegal hopes its stretch of the Great Green Wall will improve life for people living alongside it – most of whom depend at least in part on income from raising livestock – not everyone looks upon the initiative favourably.


    “The Great Green Wall doesn’t suit migrating herders,” says Saidou Harouna Ba who, together with his livestock, spent this year’s lean season in Ranerou. “We’ll have to travel longer distances with our animals around fences.”


    Herders in the Sahel typically travel hundreds of kilometres with their animals during the lean season, when pasture and water supplies are depleted in their home regions. In periods of drought, this journey becomes especially arduous; this year, herders sustained heavy losses after they were forced to travel even further than usual in search of food for their animals, because pasture was in extremely short supply.


    Making large plots of land off limits to them therefore raises the risk of conflict, especially when the barriers obstruct key paths. Migrating herders like Saidou are sometimes forced to change their routes because of the fences, while in some areas, herders have cut through fences in order to reach grass for their livestock. And that, say experts, is why working with local communities and gaining their buy-in is essential for the programme’s success. “Communities want the sovereignty to be able to put up fences where they want,” says Future Sahel’s Goffner.

    “The fences are there for as long as the population wants them,” says Sergeant Elhadj Goudiaby, who is leading the initiative around Mbar Toubab in close consultation with the local community. But, he continues, “the only way to convince populations is to demonstrate the benefits of our work.”



    Lucinda Rouse/IRIN
    A protected plot, to the left of the fence, in Ranerou, Senegal during the dry season.

    ‘Protect the plots’


    Community buy-in seems strong in Mbar Toubab, where tree-planting has provided jobs for locals and herders have also benefitted. In May, the worst month this year for herders after pastureland dried up and the price of manufactured feed skyrocketed, a controlled harvest was conducted at one of the plots. For a fee, people were allowed to load carts with grass under the watch of community members involved in guiding Great Green Wall activities. The proceeds, totalling 1.4 million CFA ($2,500), were allocated to the village school.


    That project convinced many of the benefits of land regeneration. “We need to protect the plots so we have grass during the lean season,” says Couro Sow, a Mbar Toubab resident.


    The Great Green Wall initiative has also established market gardens for women to grow fruit and vegetables to boost their incomes and feed their families. In one such garden in Mbar Toubab, 150 women take turns working the five-hectare plot, where potatoes, carrots, okra, and watermelons grow.


    This is a relative rarity in an area where most people raise livestock. “Most of the populations here are pastoral [mobile livestock farmers] and don’t know how to farm the land,” says Goudiaby. “We’re putting in place management systems to change this.”


    Ramata Ka, 68, who helps cultivate the garden, appreciates the regular supply of fresh produce. “Previously we could only buy vegetables at the weekly market. Now we can find them here and we also sell them to make money,” she says.


    Lucinda Rouse/IRIN
    Growing okra in a garden plot in Mbar Toubab, Senegal.

    Seventeen-year-old Fatoumata Sow offers this explanation of how the Great Green Wall is helping her community: “Animals are eating from the plot, people from the gardens.”


    Measuring success


    Officials have realised that even the Great Green Wall is not immune to the the effects of climate change; poor rainfall has hindered tree-planting activities.


    Funding, which technical director Sarr says is largely down to national agencies to raise in collaboration with international NGOs and donors, is also not guaranteed far into the future. He speaks of a need to “find new partners to amplify results”. Meanwhile the Senegalese government’s portion of the budget has to be reconfirmed on an annual basis, historically to the tune of 1 billion CFA ($1.7 million).


    At the same time, the long-term success of initiatives like the market gardens cannot be guaranteed without the agency’s support for funding seeds, pest control and irrigation – water supplies are often scarce and the gardens would invariably be in competition with herders in search of water for their animals.


    But Goudiaby remains optimistic. “I can’t say we’ve succeeded, but we’re in the process of succeeding,” he says. He considers the Great Green Wall’s biggest achievement thus far to be changing people’s ideas about environmental management. That, he believes, makes the work sustainable. “In 20 to 25 years,” he says,  “we may have achieved certain objectives.”



    A pan-African green belt may help beleaguered herders
    Remedies and roadblocks as Senegal battles climate change
    Over the past six months, IRIN has intermittently followed life in the herding communities of the drought-stricken Sahel region. This is the last in a three-part series on those herders and their families, who are coping with the impact of the worst ‘lean season’ in years. Read <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/10/10/Senegal-climate-change-Fulani-herders-drought-Sahel">part one here</a>, and <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/10/18/early-warnings-climate-change-senegal-food-crisis">part two here</a>.
  • Early warnings, late response to Senegal’s food crisis

    Fatimata Abdul Ba, 40, spent most of the last year away from her home and family. Water and pasture where her animals could graze were in short supply near her village in northern Senegal’s Podor County, and she was forced to move almost 300 kilometres as grassland for the family's herd of cattle, sheep, and goats dried up.

    “At one point we spent 24 hours at a borehole with no water,” she says, now back in her village, Namarel, after journeying to the eastern Tambacounda region.

    As the Sahel emerges from its worst “lean season” — the period between harvests — in years, the consequences have been particularly devastating for herders in Chad, Mauritania, and Senegal, with those in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger also facing hardships.

    In Senegal, herders struggled to find water, while a lack of pasture for animals to graze on forced them to rely on increasingly costly manufactured feed. At the same time, livestock prices dwindled, and animals fell sick after being forced into small, concentrated areas around the remaining sources of water.


    None of this was unexpected, according to analysts and the herders themselves. Hardships could have been eased, if not partially averted, if early warnings that came more than a year ago had been heeded, aid officials say. But information delays kept many donors and NGOs on standby as they waited for projections to be confirmed, while some locals and aid officials say the Senegalese government did not sufficiently communicate the urgency of the situation.


    Early warnings...


    “It was totally dry” in Senegal’s Podor County last September, says Alexander Orenstein, who monitors drought risk for NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF). “Where there should have been grass past knee height, it didn’t reach beyond people’s toes.”


    UN agencies now estimate that almost six million people in the Sahel faced severe food shortages during the lean season between June and August. Half of them depend at least in part on income from raising livestock.


    As early as March, IRIN learned of boreholes in Senegal drying up and water pumps breaking down because of strain from months of overuse. Things worsened as the lean season continued: the majority of herders say May was the hardest month. Even the first rains on 27 June brought more damage than help, as they were accompanied by unseasonably cold winds that killed tens of thousands of animals in a single day.


    ACF uses satellite imagery to monitor pasture growth that helps identify areas of concern across the Sahel. It published data last September pointing out the areas at risk, and called for rapid assessments and stocks of animal feed.



    At the same time, a joint bulletin by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) for August-September 2017 highlighted the areas at risk of running low on crops and pasture for grazing.

    In ACF’s final alert following the end of the rainy season last October, which also corresponds with the end of annual pasture growth, it concluded that “state and humanitarian actors need to begin preparations to mitigate the effects of the oncoming lean season”. It noted severe pasture shortages in Mauritania, Senegal, and Chad, and warned about “a strong possibility of an early, prolonged, and difficult 2018 lean season”. This was followed by a call to action from a handful of multilateral agencies, NGOs, and regional associations, all noting the “gravity” of the situation and urging a common response.



    … Late response


    The regional response to help protect the livelihoods of herders “should have been textbook,” one humanitarian worker tells IRIN, referring to a plan that combines cash transfers for herders; distributing feed and vaccinating the herd; and rehabilitating water systems.

    When aid arrived, it was largely along those lines. The WFP in Senegal distributed three rounds of food vouchers from July to September after funding was released by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The FAO provided animal feed and vaccinations.


    But many argue that these interventions came too late to have any meaningful impact on the situation.

    “The feed from FAO arrived in August and September, but the crisis was between December and July,” says Mariam Ndiaye, the administrator of a herders’ association in Namarel. By the time food stocks were delivered to some areas, they were no longer required because rains had come and the animals who had survived the lean season were grazing in new pasture.

    The story was similar in the response to shortages of food for people living in the herding communities. Noël Marie Zagré, regional nutrition adviser at UNICEF, tells IRIN that it can take up to three months for malnutrition treatment, including therapeutic foods, to reach beneficiaries after an aid agency makes a decision to distribute it.

    ☰ Read more: When UN agencies raised the alarm


    • In March 2018, the WFP, FAO and UNICEF issued a call for early action, citing food security analysis prepared by the Permanent Inter-State Committee for the Fight Against Drought in the Sahel (CILSS) in November 2017 through its biannual Cadre Harmonisé exercise.
    • Also in March, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published an Overview of Humanitarian Needs and Requirements by country, which concluded that millions of people would lack support to rebuild livelihoods and 4 million acutely malnourished children would not receive treatment if humanitarians failed to respond.
    • On 3 May 2018, the WFP, FAO and UNICEF issued a joint statement appealing for funds, warning that “drought, high food prices and conflict are set to drive millions of people into acute hunger and malnutrition in parts of… [the] Sahel, if the global community does not act now.”
    • In July 2018, the FAO issued its mid-year update on underfunded appeals. Senegal saw a funding gap of 51.2% and Mauritania a 48.7% gap for priority activities supporting livestock and agricultural production.
    • On 17 August 2018, the FAO, IFAD and WFP pledged “to increase support for regional efforts addressing the critical food and nutrition security situation in the Sahel.”


    Amadou Siley Sow, a shepherd from Feter village in Podor County, made it through the lean season. But he can attest to the seriousness of those early warnings. Like Fatimata in Namarel, he spent the season on the move, travelling ever further from home with his young family as grass ran out along the way. He spent several months stationed 15 kilometres from a borehole, in an area where pasture was available; the 30 kilometre daily round trip for water took its toll, and he lost hundreds of animals.


    “Even the donkeys died,” he says. But for him, the biggest difficulty was the skyrocketing cost of animal feed combined with the low price he could get for his sheep. That all left him significantly poorer than he had been at the beginning of the season.

    “Nobody came to help,” Sow says. “The government promises things for us every year but nothing ever comes of it.”


    He continues: “Politicians are liars! I won’t be voting in the presidential election next year.”


    *Note on terms: “Human lean season”: period between harvests when people have to rely on food stocks. “Pastoral lean season”: period when herders have to rely on secondary sources of pasture and water for livestock.

    An undeclared crisis

    In April, the Senegalese government issued an announcement stating that certain zones were at risk of severe food shortages. It did not declare a crisis – a categorisation that some NGOs say would have helped to raise funds for a timelier response to the warnings and perhaps alleviated some of the hardships faced by herding communities.


    Before that, in January, a government delegation reporting to the prime minister’s office visited Saint-Louis and Matam – the two regions suffering the worst pasture shortages. After the visit, a response plan was submitted in March and, by June, 800 million CFA ($1.4 million) was released to buy 4,000 tonnes of animal feed for those in the worst-hit areas. This was in addition to an existing government fund to subsidise animal feed purchased through herders’ associations.

    Salif Harouna Ba is one herder who benefited from that lower-cost feed. “The government helped the population,” he says. He paid 5,200 CFA ($9) per 40 kg sack at Dolly Ranch in Senegal’s Linguere County at a time when the market price had risen from 7,000 CFA ($12) to 13,000 CFA ($23).

    But many other herders were unable to access enough of the subsidised feed, while depletion of the government’s fund (set up in 2012, but not replenished since 2015) meant that fewer herders could be helped by subsidies than in previous years.


    Abba Leye Sall, the head of the Ministry of Livestock’s animal division, admits that funding “was insufficient compared to what was budgeted” in the response plan, but “it helped”, she says.


    Mariam Ndiaye of the Namarel herders’ association disagrees: “People were restricted to buying four sacks per person at 5,000 CFA,” she says. “That’s not enough, it didn’t help.”

    The government also compensated herders who lost livestock in the 27 June rains, allocating one billion CFA ($1.8 million). The Ministry of Livestock maintains that all herders who declared losses, up to a total of 33,970 animals, were compensated during a three-day verification period. According to Sall, this was facilitated by veterinarians posted across the affected zones to verify claims.

    Aliou Samba Ba, president of the Senegalese branch of the Réseau Billital Maroobé (RBM), a regional pastoralist network, contests the process: “It’s not logistically possible for the vets to travel from village to village assessing the damage within the space of three days.”

    “On standby”

    Ba describes the recent lean season as “a catastrophic, exceptional crisis” for herders, and deems the state response to be “a drop in the ocean”. He believes more NGOs and donor agencies may have helped if Senegal’s government had declared a crisis situation.


    Some international NGOs did take action earlier than the government. The WFP’s William Affif says his organisation began scaling up existing efforts to increase communities’ resilience to the projected shortfalls in food and water in March, before launching an emergency response plan for the Sahel in June.

    Sall, from the Ministry of Livestock, says the government’s March response plan was enough to ensure assistance. “Donors went to help once the report was validated,” she says. But, she adds, donors “intervened very late”.


    One reason for that, aid officials say, is the twice-yearly analysis of food insecurity across the Sahel, known as the Cadre Harmonisé (“harmonised framework”). Last November it projected that 4.25 million people across the region would require food assistance during 2018’s lean season, with 1.6 million children at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

    However, the Cadre Harmonisé’s operating calendar meant that the predictions were not validated until later. Donors waited for the final, validated figures to be released in April rather than acting on the November projections. That means that although ACF’s October warning had accurately predicted how the crisis would play out, it was not solid enough to prompt an immediate response.


    “We were on standby as everyone was waiting for the Cadre Harmonisé,” says WFP’s Affif.


    As a result, he says: “We all agree that we were too late to address the pastoralist issue.”

     (TOP PHOTO: Even herders like Amadou Siley Sow and Aliou Samba Ba, who made it through the lean season, lost hundreds of animals to drought this year. CREDIT: Lucinda Rouse/IRIN)


    Signs that 2018 would be tough on herders appeared more than a year ago
    Early warnings, late response to Senegal’s food crisis
    Over the past six months, IRIN has intermittently followed life in the herding communities of the drought-stricken Sahel region. This is the second in a three-part series on those herders and their families, who are coping with the impact of the worst ‘lean season’ in years. Read <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/10/10/Senegal-climate-change-Fulani-herders-drought-Sahel">part one here</a>, and <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/10/25/remedies-and-roadblocks-senegal-battles-climate-change">part three here</a>.
  • How climate change is plunging Senegal’s herders into poverty

    Saidou Harouna Ba surveys what's left of his only source of income: his animal herd. “If I’d stayed at home, they would all be dead,” he says. As it is, the 46-year-old Fulani herder returned to his village in Senegal’s northern Podor County after 10 months away with just half the number of sheep, cattle, and donkeys he set out with.


    Losing half the herd means Saidou lost half his wealth. A year ago, he was not badly off, able to comfortably support his family. Now, because of the toll climate change has taken, coupled with a government ill-equipped to deal with the fallout, he’s bordering on poverty.


    This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that an increase in global warming will adversely affect livestock and crop production, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. But herders like Saidou have already seen increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, drought, floods, and land degradation threaten their way of life.

    Six million people in the Sahel faced severe food shortages in a prolonged lean season between January and August this year; Senegal was one of the three worst affected countries in the region. It may get worse yet, as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 2.5 million livestock herders, or “pastoralists,” and those who raise both livestock and crops in the Sahel risk losing their income.


    As soon as the rainy season ended last September, it became clear that erratic rainfall had led to diminished pasture across the Sahel. This forced northern herders like Saidou, who normally begin travelling south in January or February, to embark on their annual journey up to four months early, and in far greater numbers than usual.


    Seasonal migration – which helps over-grazed regions recover by temporarily shifting the burden to areas with more pasture – is common for the Fulani, one of the Sahel’s largest ethnic groups. But as the length of the migration period and the distance herders are forced to travel to find food and water for their livestock increases, their economic well-being and very way of life are at risk.


    Life in pastoral communities revolves around their main source of financial capital: the herd. So when animals are placed under stress, the social fabric also suffers. “Food security is above all assured by the security of the herd,” says Aliou Samba Ba, president of the Senegalese branch of the Réseau Billital Maroobé (RBM), a network of pastoralist associations in West Africa.


    On the road, children accompanying their herder parents miss school, while animals die because of the rise in diseases. At home, people are hungry and increasingly worried about the waning value of the little that they own.


    A Senegalese child with donkeys at a watering trough in a dusty landscape
    Lucinda Rouse/IRIN
    Skinny cattle and donkeys drink from the borehole in the town of Ranerou, which hosts thousands of herders and their livestock during the dry season.

    “If there was good rain, all of our problems would be solved,” says Saidou. This isn’t looking likely: in the Sahel, the gaps between the hardship years are getting smaller and weather conditions are becoming more extreme.


    Changing climate, chronic problems


    IRIN first met Saidou in March in Ranerou, a small town in the northeastern Matam region. Accompanied by his wife and their two youngest children, it had taken him 10 days on foot to travel the 200 kilometres south from his village of Namarel with a herd of several hundred animals.


    Thousands of herders and their livestock spend the dry season in Ranerou every year. But this time was different. Saidou had to station the animals 10 kilometres out of town, where a meagre supply of grass could be found. But with the route between their camp and the town barren and devoid of vegetation, they could only make the journey to Ranerou’s borehole to drink every few days. The animals stopped producing milk, a key nutritional staple for the family.

    In the last five years, some areas in Senegal have reported decreases of between 50 and 100 percent in crops and grazing areas. This led to a spike in the demand for manufactured animal feed this year, which sent prices skyrocketing. A 40 kg sack of feed that cost around 7,000 CFA ($12) in October 2017 had risen to 13,000 CFA ($23) by March. Herders had to sell off animals to buy feed to sustain the rest of their herds, leaving a severe dent in their wealth.


    Meanwhile, a government fund set up in 2012 to subsidise animal feed was not sufficiently replenished. The last cash injection was in 2015, and since herders tapped the fund in 2016 and 2017, subsidies weren’t available at the same level this year. “The state did not have the means to put in place a livestock safeguarding operation,” says Abba Leye Sall, the head of Animal Sectors at the Ministry of Livestock.


    In addition, livestock prices plummeted due to desperate herders bringing large numbers of animals to market. Cattle, sheep, and goats fetched half the price they had four months earlier; by March in Ranerou, a sack of feed cost more than a sheep.


    “Next time, I’d sell more animals in advance for a better price and buy a stock of feed while the price was still stable,” says Sidy Samba Ba, also from Namarel. This year he travelled some 100 kilometres further south than Saidou and suffered similar losses.


    But it’s difficult to predict the conditions of the season ahead, and with donkey-drawn carts as the primary means of transport, carrying large stocks of feed presents logistical difficulties.


    As the year went on, herds intermingled around scarce water supplies and the incidence of disease rose. Foot-and-mouth disease killed young animals and slowed the pace of already weak herds forced to hobble long distances in search of sustenance.


    Then on 27 June, Senegal’s first rains came, accompanied by an unseasonably cold wind. Tens of thousands of animals died in the space of a day as the long-awaited rains became a killer. Some herders lost everything.


    When the herd is happy, the people are happy


    Children were among the first to suffer. Many accompanied their parents on the journey south to help with the herd or because no one was left at home to care for them. For those who ordinarily attended school, this meant missing an academic year. Healthcare was non-existent when they became ill camping under tarpaulin sheets. “Social services are not adapted to mobility,” observes Noël Marie Zagré, regional nutrition adviser at UNICEF, the UN’s agency for children.

    “For 10 months, we rarely ate meat or vegetables.”

    For the few who stayed at home, life also changed. “The society changed,” says Mariam Harouna Ba, who remained in Namarel. “It was very difficult, especially for children and pregnant women who were really hungry because there was no milk.”


    This was a serious concern in a region already experiencing high rates of malnutrition. Vehicles connecting remote villages like Namarel to market towns such as Ndioum became few and far between as transporters followed the herders. It was hard to source fish or vegetables, while meat prices increased in areas with no animals left.


    When the family at home requested money, herders needed to sell yet another animal, for an ever decreasing price. The main meal of the day was reduced to a bowl of rice seasoned with a stock cube. “For 10 months, we rarely ate meat or vegetables,” says Mariam.


    Traders also saw a dip in sales, and many shut up shop during the migration period. Aly Amadou Diop runs a homeware store in the town of Ndioum that remained open. “I haven’t made a profit this year,” he says, surrounded by stacks of foam mattresses and plastic-wrapped crockery. Between October 2017 and August 2018, sales would rarely exceed 25,000 CFA ($44) per day, down from an average of 500,000 CFA ($880). “I don’t want to leave Ndioum,” he continues, “but if there’s another year like this I’ll be forced to look at other options abroad.”


    In parts of Senegal that hosted the migrants, business improved and many traders followed the herders south. But already scarce natural resources in host regions were placed under extreme strain. According to Kalidou Ba, secretary general of a local agro-pastoralist association, the region could have easily supported the resident herds in Ranerou-Ferlo County if the northern migrants had not moved in. Instead, livestock in host regions were forced to move southwards as the demand for water and pasture increased.


    Since the host regions are also home to crop farmers, concerns rose that the early influx of livestock could damage crops. Fortunately in Senegal, the use of pastoral corridors kept herders on pre-agreed routes. But in other countries in the region the unseasonal presence of animals added fuel to existing inter-communal conflicts.


    A Senegalese man walks away through low-lying greenery
    Lucinda Rouse/IRIN
    Saidou Harouna Ba, a herder from Senegal’s northern Podor County, lost half his herd during this year’s seasonal migration.

    Back home, but still insecure


    Six months after Saidou’s return to Namarel, he’s at home surrounded by lush green pasture following much-needed rains. Cows and goats mooch around the yard in easy co-existence with his family, occasionally shooed benignly as they chew the edges of straw mats.

    “One bushfire could destroy everything.”

    Saidou appears more relaxed than he had in dusty Ranerou. Although he is heavy-hearted from the toll of the long migration and seeing so many of his animals perish, he says he is relieved to have found a good pasture on his return in August.


    “I’m happy, because I left to save my animals,” he says. “Even though I couldn’t save them all, I saved a part.”


    In Namarel today, animals graze in abundant pasture and many herders are hopeful that they won’t need to make the journey south next year.


    But even this year, another threat still looms: bushfires, which typically begin in late October when the lush grass from the rainy season turns yellow.


    As the RBM’s Aliou Samba Ba warns:  “One bushfire could destroy everything.”

    (TOP PHOTO: By March, the cost of a sack of animal feed exceeded the price of a sheep in Ranerou. CREDIT: Lucinda Rouse/IRIN)


    “If there was good rain, all of our problems would be solved.”
    How climate change is plunging Senegal’s herders into poverty
    Over the past six months, IRIN has intermittently followed life in the herding communities of the drought-stricken Sahel region. This is the first in a three-part series on those herders and their families, who are coping with the impact of the worst ‘lean season’ in years. Read <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/10/18/early-warnings-climate-change-senegal-food-crisis">part two here</a>, and <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/10/25/remedies-and-roadblocks-senegal-battles-climate-change">part three here</a>.
  • An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border

    This is the third of a three-part special report on the Evros River border crossing between Turkey and Greece. Read the other instalments: “Greece’s man in the migrant morgue” and “Unprepared and overwhelmed: Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey.”

    For more migration coverage see our series Destination: Europe

    Linda, a 19-year-old Syrian and registered refugee, had just crossed from Turkey into Greece at the Evros River when men carrying guns appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. She wasn’t sure if they were police officers or soldiers, but they emerged from behind trees and wore dark uniforms that helped them blend into the night.


    It was mid-May, and several hours earlier Linda had boarded a mini-bus in Istanbul with around 35 other people, including children and a pregnant woman, eager to enter European Union territory. The trip had been organised by smugglers, and the passengers ended up in a remote area close to the northwestern Turkish city of Edirne. At around three in the morning they boarded small boats that ferried them across the river.


    Linda’s plan was to get into Greece, then make her way to Denmark, where her fiancé lives. Her crossing was part of a sharp uptick in traffic into the EU via the Evros (known as the Meriç in Turkish) this spring; 3,600 people are known to have crossed in April alone, compared to just over 1,000 in all of 2013.


    But she didn’t make it more than a few steps into EU territory before she was stopped.


    The men demanded that everyone in the group hand over their mobile phones. “Then they beat the men who were with us, put us in a boat, and sent us back to the Turkish side of the border,” Linda recalled when she spoke to IRIN recently in Istanbul.


    Pushbacks like the one Linda experienced have been going on for years, documented by both human rights watchdogs and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. They are also illegal under European and international law.


    “The right to claim and enjoy asylum is a fundamental human right," Leo Dobbs, a UNHCR spokesman in Greece, told IRIN. Pushbacks at the Evros border, he added, are a “serious issue.”


    According to a report released by the Greek Council for Refugees in February, before the spring rush, pushbacks have increased to the point of being “systematic” as the number of people crossing the Evros has grown slowly in the past two years.

    The Evros River border between Turkey and Greece is one of the easternmost frontiers of the European Union. Until a fence went up on all but 12 kilometres of the Evros in 2012, it was the easiest and safest path for asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere to reach Europe, and nearly 55,000 people crossed the border irregularly in 2011.


    A controversial 2016 EU-Turkey deal that paved the way for asylum seekers to be returned from the Greek Islands to Turkey (which it deems safe under the terms of that agreement), does not apply to the Evros border. Instead, there is a separate, largely ineffective bilateral readmission agreement dating from 2002 that was suspended earlier this year.


    Even under the terms of that agreement, pushbacks like the one Linda experienced violate European and international laws on refugee protection, which require states to allow asylum seekers to file for protection and prohibit sending them back to countries where they may face danger. While countries are allowed to protect their borders, they cannot legally return people who have already crossed without first evaluating their claims.   


    Pushbacks may be illegal, but they are an open secret. “It’s something that everybody knows,” said Dimitris Koros, a lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees. Now, when an asylum seeker enters Greece from the land border, “the first thing you encounter is the possibility of being pushed back,” he added.


    The Greek Ministry for Migration Policy did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment, but the Greek government has repeatedly denied it is engaged in systematic pushbacks.


    Human rights organisations say they have raised the issue of responsibility with the Greek government multiple times without receiving a response. “It’s a difficult thing… to say that the government instructs or gives orders to the policemen to do it,” Konstantinos Tsitselikis, a human rights law professor and former director of the Hellenic League for Human Rights said, “but they have the knowledge and they tolerate it at least.”


    It’s unclear just how many people have been pushed back or who is responsible, because the area around the border is a closed military zone and there aren’t many NGOs working in the region.


    Meanwhile on the Turkish side of the river, security forces regularly apprehend people attempting to cross and transfer them to government-run detention centres. But amidst a pervasive atmosphere of fear and silence, the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants after they are pushed back and detained largely remains a mystery.


    A longstanding practice


    According to Tsitselikis, pushbacks have been happening for decades.


    “I used to do my military service in 1996-97 in the Evros border area,” he told IRIN. “Even then the Greek authorities were doing pushbacks every day.”


    Although the border is technically a military zone, these days border police patrol the frontier as well as personnel from the EU border control agency, Frontex.


    People who have been pushed back, including Linda, describe being met by security forces wearing different types of uniforms, but it’s tough to assign responsibility.


    “Since it takes place outside of the public eye, we don’t really understand who is responsible,” Koros, from the Greek Council for Refugees, said.


    When asked about the practice by IRIN, Nikolaos Menexidis, police major general of Western Thrace, the Greek region that borders Turkey, said Hellenic police always follow the proper procedures when dealing with migrants.  


    Menexidis said his forces have been working with Turkish police for the past six years on what he calls “technical issues.” They primarily exchange information on stopping smugglers on both sides of the border, he said.


    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    Most of the border between Turkey and Greece is lined with barbed wire fence and cameras.

    After pushback


    Linda’s ordeal did not end when she was pushed back into Turkey. The smugglers who brought her group to the border were gone and so was the bus. Without phones to call for help, the group was stuck. After waiting several hours, they tried to cross again.


    This time they made it further, walking for five or six hours in Greek territory before they were stopped, taken to a detention centre, and placed in a room with people from many different countries.


    After being held for several more hours, they were driven back to the border, the men were beaten again, and they were all forced back to the Turkish side of the river. By that point, the group was exhausted and thirsty. “For two days we didn’t drink water. When we saw the river we drank from it,” Linda said. “There were people who got sick because the water was dirty.”

    A group of Turkish soldiers found them in the woods and brought them food, water, and milk for the children and pointed them in the direction of Edirne, where they arranged for taxis to bring them back to Istanbul.


    In a way, Linda was lucky. Last December, the Greek Council for Refugees documented the case of a Pakistani man who died of hypothermia after being forcibly returned to Turkey. He had fallen into the cold water on the way back.


    While the Evros is no more than a few metres wide, its current is deceptively strong and, according to records in Greece, at least 29 people this year have died while trying to cross the water or shortly after.


    Some who are forced back to Turkey face serious punishment. Since a failed military coup in 2016, the Turkish government has jailed tens of thousands of opponents, leading to an increase in the number of Turks fleeing to Greece to seek asylum – nearly 2,000 in 2017 compared to just 180 the year before. The Hellenic League for Human Rights has documented two cases of Turks being pushed back from Greece at the Evros and later being imprisoned in Turkey, including journalist Murat Çapan, who is now serving a 22.5 year sentence for “participating in a terrorist organization and attempting to overthrow the constitution”.  


    Despite documentation, human rights advocates say they have struggled to bring attention to the issue of pushbacks, as EU and international policymakers focus on stemming Mediterranean crossings. There is little appetite in Europe at the moment for monitoring or changing policies that are keeping asylum seekers and migrants from entering the EU.


    “Both the European Union and the Greek government... prefer not to open this discussion, especially in this political environment,” Tsitselikis said, referring to the rise of right-wing, anti-migration politics in Europe that is shaking the foundations of the EU.

    Fear and silence  


    In early June, about a 10-minute drive from Edirne, hundreds of people in the parking lot of what the Turkish government calls a “migrant removal centre” huddled under tin pavilions that offered shade from the afternoon sun. This is where those caught on the Turkish side of the river are brought.


    IRIN visited three times over the course of a week to try to gain access, but never received a response to our requests.


    The centre is surrounded by a low wall topped with a chain-link fence and spools of razor wire. Each time IRIN visited, there were hundreds of people – mostly men, but also women and small children – in the parking lot and white vans passed in and out of the metal gate depositing more people. Two large charter buses idled in the parking lot with their doors open, seemingly waiting for people to board.


    In close to a week spent at the border, there was no concrete evidence of what was happening inside the centre. There were hints and rumours, but no one wanted to speak on record – including Turkish organisations that work with asylum seekers – because of the sensitivity of the issue.


    It is simply not clear how long people are kept in the centre, or what happens to them when they are removed. The Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management responded to IRIN’s requests for comment with links to online statistics and Turkish law on removals.


    Several Syrian and Afghan asylum seekers that IRIN spoke to shared stories of being held in such centres for a period of time before being released inside Turkey and permitted to stay. Most of the people IRIN spoke to reported good treatment while inside.


    But in 2015 and 2016, Amnesty International documented cases of Syrians detained while trying to migrate to Europe and being deported to Syria, according to Anna Shea, an Amnesty researcher working on refugee and migrant rights.


    Amnesty has also recently documented a case of a Syrian asylum seeker stopped in Edirne being deported to Idlib, the rebel-held province in northwestern Syria where a ceasefire is so far holding off a government offensive but humanitarians warn conditions are still dire. It is unclear if the case is part of a larger trend.


    In recent months, Turkey has deported large numbers of Afghans and Syrians, stopped after crossing Turkey’s southern and eastern borders, back to their respective countries.


    But it is difficult to know if this practice has been extended to people who have tried to travel to Greece, given that the organisations working on migrant and refugee rights were unwilling to speak on the record, and the government declined to comment on the issue or allow access to detained migrants.


    “The total stonewalling and lack of information and complete lack of transparency is cause for concern in and of itself,” said Shea, the Amnesty researcher. “I mean, what do they have to hide?”


    Greenery alongside a brown river with a deflated boat in the foreground.
    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    A deflated boat lies on the Greek banks of the Evros.

    Hidden practice


    At a small village outside of Edirne, a man herding goats pointed to places where people crossed the nearby river, but there was no sign of anyone during the day. Crossings happened only at night, he said. And the Turkish army prohibited people from approaching the river after 7 pm.  


    The road leading from the village followed the winding course of the Evros, which was often blocked from view by thick stands of trees. The surrounding area was full of corn fields, rice paddies, and thick vegetation. Small dirt roads that shot off in the direction of the river were marked with red signs carrying a stencilled soldier – a warning that entry beyond that point was prohibited.


    Not far away, in the city centre, everyone seemed shocked to learn that so many people had crossed the border this year. It was a problem that most locals assumed was already in the past, given that most of the frontier had been lined with barbed wire and cameras for the past six years.


    But those who have tried and failed to cross the Evros know that the rural quiet harbours dangers the eye can’t see.


    Linda has given up on seeing her fiancé anytime soon – a visa is likely to take years – and she isn’t planning on trying to cross the border again. “I started being afraid because of the things I saw,” she said.


    With additional reporting by Sarah Souli



    On an eastern frontier of the European Union, people are whisked back to Turkey before they can claim asylum in Greece.
    An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border
  • Unprepared and overwhelmed: Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey

    This is the second of a three-part special report on the Evros River border crossing between Turkey and Greece. Read the other instalments: “An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border” and “Greece’s man in the migrant morgue”.

    For more migration coverage see our series Destination: Europe

    Locals in Evros are used to new faces. People have been quietly slipping across the river that forms a natural barrier for all but 12 kilometres of the tense, militarised border between Greece and Turkey since Greece joined the European Union in 1981.


    But everyone on the Evros River was puzzled when a crush of hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers began crossing their sleepy riverine border every day in March. Six months later, arrivals have slowed but worries persist that the region is still poorly prepared for any new influx.


    At the rush’s height in April, more than 3,600 crossed the river in one month, surpassing the total number of people arriving in Greece by sea for the first time since 2012. They came across the Evros on plastic dinghies, and once on Greek soil they were picked up by smugglers in cars or continued the journey by foot. The banks of the river were littered with discarded clothes, water bottles, food and medicine packages, and flotation devices, which remain there today.


    Despite its history of migration, Evros, one of Greece’s poorest regions, was caught off guard. Hundreds of new arrivals were crammed into police stations, waiting for months to lodge their asylum claims. There were no NGOs to help out. Conditions were dismal, and services limited.


    “We are all surprised with the rise in arrivals in Evros, and the lack of Greek preparation,” said Georgia Spyropoulou, an advocacy officer with the Hellenic League for Human Rights, from her office in Athens.


    Greek officials say they were caught unawares too, with a local police commissioner telling the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in June that “it is necessary to be prepared in case there is an increase in arrivals again.” Still, local police insisted they were doing the best they could with the resources available to them.


    No one is quite sure what prompted the flood of people in the first place. And plenty of of people are still making their way to Evros – 9,480 by the end of July, taking a gamble on a border that looks safe but can be deadly – 29 people have died this year during the crossing or shortly after.


    Border police and barn doors


    Before 2012, and before millions of people began landing on Europe’s beaches and drowning in the Mediterranean, Evros (known as the Meriç River in Turkish) was the main crossing point for those hoping to make it into Europe through Greece.


    Amidst mounting pressure from other EU countries to further seal its borders (Austria’s interior minister famously said Greece was “open like a barn door”), Athens launched Operation Aspida (“Shield”) in 2012, deploying 1,800 more police officers and erecting a fence on the land portion of the border, adding to a 175-strong rapid border intervention team known as RABIT – set up in 2010 with the help of Frontex, the EU border agency.

    Those who made it alive to the Greek banks of the Evros this year found a system wholly unprepared for their arrival.

    The new measures worked, and by November 2012 migrant arrivals had dwindled to none – a remarkable decrease from 6,500 in August that year.


    Athens denies reports of pushbacks of asylum seekers, but human rights watchdogs have documented collective expulsions in which people are forced back into Turkey after already crossing the river, and the UN has also raised concerns.


    Despite the crackdown, the numbers began to creep up again slowly this March. And then the spring rush came.


    Understaffed and unprepared


    Those who made it alive to the Greek banks of the Evros this year found a system wholly unprepared for their arrival.


    A group of Syrian and Iraqi refugees behind a fence
    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers at the RIC in Fylakio

    The procedure is supposed to be simple: new arrivals are brought to “pre-removal detention centres” run by the Hellenic police, where they wait for no more than seven days to be fingerprinted and have their asylum claims registered at the region’s one official Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in the small village of Fylakio.


    But it proved to be anything but.


    The RIC was understaffed and overwhelmed by the numbers, causing the sorts of major delays in processing that have plagued the reception system on the Greek islands.


    In a scathing review of Evros in the springtime, UNHCR criticised the detention of new arrivals in sub-standard police facilities. Human Rights Watch also found troubling conditions in May: women and girls were being held with unrelated men. One woman told the watchdog she was sexually assaulted by a fellow asylum seeker; her requests to be transferred to another location were ignored.


    After asylum seekers’ claims are processed, they are moved to the RIC itself, which has a 240-person capacity.


    Unlike on the Greek islands and its controversial policy of containment, people in Evros are allowed to move about the country. After applying for asylum, most head to other government- or UN-run camps elsewhere in the country. Still, even the RIC facility quickly became overrun as unaccompanied minors and those likely to have their asylum claims rejected had to stay on.




    When IRIN visited Fylakio in July, it found the RIC camp no longer overcrowded, and newly arrived asylum seekers expressed relief at being out of the pre-removal detention centre. “That was a very bad place,” one Turkish arrival said, declining to elaborate.

    “We have the experience and motivation to manage the situation,” but not the manpower.

    IRIN was not granted access to the nearby pre-removal detention centre. But despite Greek police releasing many migrants from police detention, a HRW report from July said conditions in Fylakio remained “inhumane”, describing “dark, dank cells, with overpowering odours in the corridors”, a lack of toilets and locked doors, and insufficient healthcare.


    There have been some improvements for those out of their first detention, and NGOs have arrived to help: ARISIS, a Greek non-governmental organisation that provides social support for minors, had recently set up a makeshift office, and Médecins Sans Frontières has now established a permanent outpost in Fylakio.


    But one RIC employee said they remain understaffed. “We have the experience and motivation to manage the situation,” but not the manpower, the employee said, asking to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to speak to the media.


    Staff work in two shifts. When IRIN visited, the centre’s director was on sick leave, and there were still no doctors on staff, and only three nurses.


    In one crowded container at the RIC centre, an Iraqi family was living alongside the body of a dog that had died the previous week – its body still hadn’t been removed, and the stench lingered. The mother was concerned for the health of her infant, who was in hospital. Because members of the family, including the mother, are minors, they are currently stuck in limbo, waiting at the RIC.


    Communication remains a constant issue. There are no official, permanent translators and the overwhelming majority of the centre’s staff only speaks English or Greek.


    A shoe in barbed wire at the Turkey Greece border
    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    The fence that lines all but 12 kilometres of the border between Greece and Turkey is bolstered by thermal cameras.

    “There are asylum seekers who are interpreting for other asylum seekers… [which is] completely inappropriate,” Eva Cosse, Western Europe researcher for HRW, told IRIN.


    What’s next?


    Months after the springtime surge at Evros, there is still confusion about what caused it – and if there’s any way to predict if the same thing might happen again. Everyone, it seems, has a theory.


    “The waves of migration increase in populations when there are serious issues in the country of origin,” Nikolaos Menexidis, the barrel-chested police major general of Western Thrace, told IRIN from his headquarters in the town of Kommini. “When Turkey created the latest issues in Afrin, we saw a rise in numbers.”


    It’s true that following Turkey’s assault on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin – militias supported by Ankara took control in March – the majority of those recorded crossing in the spring were Syrian Kurds and Iraqis.


    But that doesn’t explain the drop in other nationalities who have long used the river crossing, like asylum seekers from Pakistan, countered Dimitros Koros, a lawyer with the Greek Council of Refugees.


    ☰ Read more: Are Greece/Turkey relations responsible?


    Over the past year, tensions between Greece and Turkey have increased dramatically.


    Relations soured after a historic visit by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Greece in November 2017 that saw the Turkish president suggest a revisiting of the Lausanne Treaty, which delineates the borders between the two countries.


    Then on 2 March this year two Greek soldiers accidentally strayed into Turkey. Such incidents are not uncommon, but this time Turkey kept the two soldiers in custody. Ankara attempted to trade with Athens for eight soldiers accused of involvement in the failed 2016 coup who fled to Greece.


    Athens refused, instead releasing the eight Turks into protective Greek custody. Several days later Turkey announced they would no longer honour a bilateral deal in which Greece returns irregular migrants who cross at Evros back to Turkey. More than 1,200 migrants have been sent back under this deal in the previous two years.


    The soldiers have since been returned and the deal is back on. But in the meantime the reduced chance of being legally returned to Turkey may have encouraged people to take the Evros route.


    Locals, who have witnessed the ebbs and flows of people since the 1980s, see the refugees as pawns in a much larger game.


    “All the problems are created by politicians,” an employee of Bedreddine, a café in the Evros town of Orestiada that collects food and other donations for refugees in addition to serving food, told IRIN. “In April, it was political – because of Erdogan [and the captured soldiers].”


    “I think everything is a play by Erdogan – he can send or stop refugees in Greece or in Europe generally,” echoed Giorgos, a retiree and resident of Didimoticho, one of the first villages refugees see when crossing into Greece. “For sure it’s a political game,” said Vasilis (not his real name), a former people smuggler.


    But “the movement of people does not stop or start like that,” countered Spyropoulou, the advocacy officer of the Hellenic League for Human Rights. It’s much more complicated, she argued, adding: “Turkey doesn’t have that holistic power.”



    Some people may be driven by politics – Turks who had fled and made it to the RIC in Fylakio said they had been wrongly accused of terrorist activity at home or suspected of ties to the Gulen movement, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for the 2016 attempted coup in his country. Others may have just heard there was a chance to make it to Europe at the river.


    Whatever the reason for the surge, migrants and asylum seekers people will likely continue to take their chances on the way to Greece. And Koros, the lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees, worries that new arrivals will continue to struggle, as they move away from the squalid conditions at the border itself and into a wider region unequipped to help.


    “Evros is not just the border,” he said. “Evros is here in Thessaloniki. They are here, homeless, without any provision of service.”



    When an old migration route became new again, the Evros region was caught on the back foot
    Unprepared and overwhelmed: Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey
  • Greece’s man in the migrant morgue

    This is the first of a three-part special report on the Evros River border crossing between Turkey and Greece. Read the other instalments: “An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border” and “Unprepared and overwhelmed: Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey.”

    For more migration coverage see our series Destination: Europe

    Pavlos Pavlidis has spent nearly two decades examining and identifying the bodies of migrants and asylum seekers who have died attempting one of the least known but deadliest routes into Europe.


    So far, that's 359 bodies – a grim count and occupation. Pavlidis is tall, with sloping shoulders and a cigarette perpetually affixed to his hand. He has the gentle but clinical demeanour of someone used to delivering bad news, but would rather see what he does as bringing answers to the living.


    “For me, it’s very important that I give an answer to people,” says Pavlidis, who is in his mid fifties and personally inspects every body that washes up on the Greek side of the muddy banks of the Evros River that divides Greece and Turkey. “It’s not a good answer. It’s a tragedy – but at least it’s an answer.”

    At first glance, the river where most of the corpses come from looks quaint and harmless enough. Sunflower fields dot the banks, local tavernas serve up the water’s main catch, a meaty catfish, and the water itself is just a couple dozen metres wide.

    But this is one of the deadliest border crossings in Europe. Until 2010, it was riddled with 25,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines, buried by Greece in 1974 after Turkey invaded Cyprus. Today, all but 12 kilometres of the border are fenced off.

    At first glance, the river where most of the corpses come from looks quaint and harmless enough. But this is one of the deadliest border crossings in Europe.

    This spring brought a surge of people from Syria and Iraq trying to cross the Evros – 2,700 people traversed its waters in April alone (more than crossed in the whole of 2017), surpassing sea arrivals in Lesvos for the first time since 2012. The UN’s refugee agency says at least 9,840 people crossed the river in the first seven months of 2018.

    Along with the thousands who managed to enter Greece across the Evros this year, 29 didn’t make it; their bodies brought to a hospital in Alexandroupoli, the largest city in the Evros region, and to Pavlidis’ basement morgue.


    Hidden dangers

    Because the river isn’t very wide and appears calm, many migrants don’t see the danger coming. But Pavlidis says the river’s current is deceptively strong and difficult for even a seasoned swimmer to navigate.


    Smugglers pile families into tiny inflatable boats and, since they rarely allow luggage, many people wear three or four pairs of trousers and shirts, adding extra weight.


    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    A plastic boat caught in the trees of the Evros river.

    Unlike in the Mediterranean, where the salt helps keep bodies intact, the freshwater Evros decomposes them quickly. Bloated corpses are found after several weeks or months by local fishermen, the EU border agency Frontex, or local police. Pavlidis says that children, their tiny bodies bogged down by sediment and fallen trees, are almost never found.


    “The bottom of the river is very muddy,” he explains. “There are a lot of branches from the trees and the bodies get stuck...The fibres of the clothes get soft and disintegrate. And the fish – we have all kinds of fish in the river, and they eat the skin post-mortem.”


    Along with the thousands who managed to enter Greece across the Evros this year, 29 didn’t make it.



    By the time bodies show up in Pavlidis’ morgue, most are beyond recognition.


    He turns on his computer and starts clicking through dozens of horrific images. In one, a man’s face is a black oval, the skin completely peeled off and frozen into a never-ending scream. The cause of death was hypothermia – a relatively quick death, two or three minutes. Hypothermia usually preserves the face, but in this case, the man’s face was burned from the sun, and his eyes had been eaten by birds. In another photograph, a body is bloated like a drum, the skin stuck to the metal gurney in transparent sheets.


    After 18 years in the morgue, Pavlidis is hardened against the images; he says he has to be.


    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    Pavlidis catalogues and stores personal items in the hopes they might help with identification.

    The photos do not usually help Pavlidis in giving the dead a name, but their bodies do offer rare clues, like the odd tattoo. Sometimes he can glean religion by checking male bodies for circumcision.


    Pavlidis collects anything that might help with identification, but he often has little to go on. “Because of the length of time spent in the water, their personal items or documents are damaged,” he says.


    Pavlidis also takes DNA from each body (teeth, usually), and gives each person a unique identification number.


    With the help of one nurse, he meticulously documents each corpse, photographing the body and carefully placing any salvaged personal items in little plastic bags he stores in his office.

    He keeps each corpse for months – shelved in refrigerators maintained at a chilly -20 degrees Celsius – in the hope that someone will show up to claim them.

    Family contact

    Pavlidis can collect and catalogue the bodies with care, but connecting with the families from a small city in northeastern Greece is a challenge.


    “My problem is contact with the family. These parents are in [places like] Afghanistan or Pakistan; they don’t know where Alexandroupoli is or who I am,” he says. “It’s easier if the family is already here in Europe. I can take DNA from them to make a familial match.”


    Of all the corpses he’s catalogued, only 103 have been identified.


    Pavlidis works with the Greek police and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and is in close contact with the Pakistani Embassy in Athens; Iraq and Syria have missions there too. But the closest Afghan embassy is in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and communication is more difficult.


    In some cases, the identification part of his job turns into a bureaucratic nightmare. Once, Pavlidis dealt with the body of a Chinese man who was found with his credit cards and other forms of identification. With the help of the ICRC, Pavlidis contacted the Chinese government. Two years later, an official response came: there were too many people in China with the same name to identify him.


    That man died in a traffic accident, highlighting one of the absurd realities of the Evros crossing – the danger doesn’t stop once migrants reach the Grecian banks of the river. They must walk for several kilometres to reach the nearest village, and many follow the train tracks into town.


    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    Pavlidis stands in front of the last corpse to arrive in 2017. His morgue can hold up to two dozen bodies at a time.

    Stoic by professional necessity, one case particularly rattled Pavlidis: in 2015, a Syrian family was walking along the train tracks when a six-year-old girl let go of her father’s hand and ran into an oncoming train.

    Her body, like that of many others whose bodies are left behind in Greece, is buried in the village of Sidiro, a Muslim enclave in Evros. Bodies deemed to be Muslim are sent to the village, where they receive an Islamic burial. In July when IRIN visited, there were three empty graves, recently dug and awaiting bodies.


    Non-Muslims are buried in a local Christian cemetery.


    The car and van journey towards Thessaloniki, where many migrants are headed, is equally dangerous, thanks to unsafe cars used by smugglers (who sometimes force migrants to drive themselves), and even police chases.


    In early June, a van carrying 16 Iranian migrants crashed in the mountains near Kavali, killing six people, including three children. During IRIN’s time in Evros, a sedan carrying 10 people from Syria and Iraq, including two children, crashed on the main highway criss-crossing northern Greece, killing two adults  on impact. The mother of the children died upon arrival to Alexandroupoli hospital.


    It was the worst car accident the hospital had seen in 2018, and it brought the hospital’s director-general to tears.


    Despite the dangers, there will be more deaths. People will continue to cross Evros, and some will succumb to the river or roads. And waiting for them will be Pavlidis, resolute in his duty to provide them a last glimmer of dignity from a basement morgue in a small port city.


    “These families can’t wait for a lifetime,” he says. “It’s an ethical responsibility and an ethical satisfaction to do this work.”



    The Evros River is an increasingly popular route into Europe despite its deadly record
    Greece’s man in the migrant morgue

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