(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


    Beyond education

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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



    “They are walking more than 10km a day just to get an education.”
    Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals
  • As Afghanistan’s capital grows, its residents scramble for clean water

    Twice a week, Farid Rahimi gets up at dawn, wraps a blanket around his shoulders to keep warm, gathers his empty jerrycans, and waits beside the tap outside his house in a hillside neighbourhood above Kabul.


    At 7am sharp, water bursts from the pipes, filling Rahimi’s tank and buckets. He labours away, saving every drop until – just an hour later – the last drop falls.


    “We can’t afford to miss it,” said the 35-year-old. “It’s barely enough.“


    Afghanistan’s capital is running dry – its groundwater levels depleted by an expanding population and the long-term impacts of climate change. But its teeming informal settlements continue to grow as decades-long conflict and – more recently – drought drive people like Rahimi into the cities, straining already scarce water supplies.


    With large numbers migrating to Kabul, the city’s resources are overstretched and aid agencies and the government are facing a new problem: how to adjust to a shifting population still dependent on some form of humanitarian assistance.


    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Farid Rahimi prepares to fill jerrycans with water. His family has access to clean drinking water twice a week for only an hour. Rahimi fills up every available bucket and jerrycan to make sure the water lasts through the rest of the week.

    Rahimi came to Kabul nine years ago to find safety and better job opportunities, but he says it hasn’t been easy. He now shares his house with 12 family members and each month he pays a steep 1,500 Afghani, or $20, for water from a private company.


    “Last year we shut down our well,” Rahimi said. “There wasn’t any water left. A few years ago, the situation was a lot better.”


    On the move


    The UN says more than half a million people in Afghanistan were forced to leave their homes in 2018 due to conflict and drought. An even greater number of Afghans, more than 800,000, returned from Pakistan and Iran during the same year. About seven percent of Kabul’s population are either displaced by war or returnees who previously fled the country, according to estimates from the UN’s migration agency, IOM.

    The majority migrate toward cities, which are now home to one third of Afghanistan’s population of 36 million. According to UN Habitat, 80 percent of urban areas in Kabul are informal settlements.


    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Kabul’s outskirts are home to informal settlements where the majority of residents are people displaced from the countryside by fighting and drought. While some families arrived in recent months, others have lived in these settlements for years.

    In Rahimi’s case this means that a muddy, unpaved road winds its way through his neighbourhood and up an overpopulated hill, where simple mud or concrete houses have been built on “grab land”, claimed by those who arrived in Kabul over the past decade without initially registering or even purchasing the property. Electricity is available sporadically, while health facilities and schools are either absent or far away. A private company is in the process of installing water pipes throughout the neighbourhood, but most public services are yet to be provided by the government.

    Read more: As conflict spreads, chronic displacement becomes a powderkeg in Afghanistan

    But when people from rural areas leave their homes for the cities, they may also leave behind the humanitarian aid they had previously relied on.


    Pir Mohammed arrived in Kabul five months ago, escaping violence and bombings in his native Helmand province, a Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan.


    The 35-year-old had hoped the move would make his life safer and easier. But the family lives in a tent in the middle of Afghanistan’s bitter winter; his cousin has pneumonia.


    “It’s just so cold. In Helmand, we received some assistance. Here, we were told the government would help us, but nothing has happened so far,” Mohammed said, while digging a trench outside his shelter to prevent water from leaking into the tent.


    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Pir Mohammed shovels dirt in front of his cousin's tent. His family arrived in Kabul five months ago, fleeing fighting and air strikes in Helmand province. He says it’s safer in Kabul, but he can’t access the humanitarian aid he relied on back home.

    Much of the snow falling onto the family’s home is melted and used as drinking water. The current winter has been harsh, with temperatures dropping well below zero most nights.


    Rethinking aid


    Alison Parker, UNICEF’s communications chief, said the urban shift means aid groups must also rethink how to help people who may still need assistance in the cities.


    “Rurally, it’s easier because you engage with communities at the local level. In Kabul, we need to engage with the government and other actors,” Parker said. “It needs a shift in thought and more players need to be on board.”


    Yet city planning and humanitarian work often do not go hand in hand, says the city’s deputy mayor, Shoaib Rahim. “Humanitarian services are meeting immediate needs, but urban planning is for the long term,” he said.


    While aid agencies do provide some services in urban areas, especially in places where newly displaced people have settled, both private companies and the government take up large – yet still insufficient – chunks of the work.


    “Aid professionals often distinguish between humanitarian work and development, but they are intertwined,” said Oxfam Afghanistan country director Ruby Ajanee.


    The majority of former refugees and asylum seekers returning from abroad, for example, settle in urban areas, where they may need both short-term aid and and more long-lasting help.


    “While their immediate needs for food and shelter are addressed by humanitarian agencies, the long-term development needs of reintegration are addressed by the development agencies, with often a disconnect from the humanitarian agencies,” Ajanee said. “These two sectors have to work together seamlessly where humanitarian effort is linked with development work.”


    Rainfall patterns


    Comparatively, urban residents are still better off than their rural counterparts. The proportion of people with access to basic water is 63 percent countrywide – 89 percent for the urban population and 53 percent for rural households, according to UNICEF. But migration patterns and a changing climate point to long-term strains on water supplies.



    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    A man draws water from a public pump in Kabul. Many households lack access to water in their homes, and groundwater levels have been depleted in recent years.

    Afghanistan is one of the world’s top eight countries affected by climate change-induced water shortages, says Paulos Workneh, who heads the water, sanitation and hygiene programme for UNICEF in Afghanistan. As groundwater deteriorates, city dwellers are robbed of their main source of clean water.


    “Most of Kabul’s water was accessed through wells, but the situation is now under stress,” Workneh said. “Surface water is polluted by industrial waste, pit latrines and chemicals leaping into the rivers. With rainfall patterns decreasing, sources don’t fill up as quickly anymore.”


    While Kabul is starting to tackle the issue of informally built properties – including the registration of many houses initially constructed without permission – one fact remains: the capital grew too quickly.


    “The city had 4.6 million people in 2002 and, by 2012, the numbers went up to 7.1 million,” said Koussay Boulaich of UN Habitat, which is offering technical support to a government project responding to the city’s urbanisation trend.


    By 2050, one in two Afghans will live in cities, Boulaich said. A similar shift will be needed among the many humanitarian and development groups now concentrating their work in Afghanistan’s rural areas.


    “Imagine how important the correlation between urbanisation and development is,” Boulaich said. “In some areas, humanitarian and development work merge, supporting the government in providing long-term sustainable solutions, and urbanisation has to be one of these areas.”


    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    A private company has started drilling and construction for new water pipes in this Kabul neighbourhood. Informally built homes line the hillsides in the background.

    Reverse city planning


    One of the government’s programmes for urban development, including water, is its “City for All” scheme, which aims to turn the country’s urban migration into economic growth, increase living standards, and even contribute to peace. As part of the plan, informal areas in Kabul are now being registered, roads are being built, and water systems are being set up slowly, with technical help from international agencies.


    Mohammed Atik, 60, lives in a Kabul neighbourhood currently undergoing development.

    “The government has built the pipes in our area. There are none in my house yet, but I do see progress,” he said.


    For now, however, his household well has dried up. He gets water for his family only by filling up buckets at a neighbour’s house, and he’s worried what will happen if this supply also evaporates.


    “I just hope we don't run further out of water,” Atik said. “We’re already using a lot less than a few years ago.”


    In Rahimi’s hillside neighbourhood, the government has promised to pave the road in the coming months, while mainly private companies supply the available water.


    Merza Mohammed, a 42-year-old employee with Absharan Tagyet, the company laying pipes down Rahimi’s street, said the new infrastructure will serve roughly 1,300 households – though at a price more expensive than the city government’s standard rates.


    “We’re a local business supplying areas that the government has not yet reached,” he said.


    A few years ago, water was more widely available throughout the city. But prices have more than doubled, he said.


    “Today, we’re scrambling. Water is becoming a pricey commodity in Afghanistan.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Winter has been harsh in Kabul, with temperatures dropping well below zero degrees Celsius most nights. CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski/IRIN)


    “Here, we were told the government would help us, but nothing has happened so far”
    As Afghanistan’s capital grows, its residents scramble for clean water
  • The unlikely diplomat bringing Yemen’s war dead home

    After months of negotiations, last week Yemen’s warring parties failed to agree on a prisoner exchange, but may have settled on a preliminary swap of 1,000 corpses. Moving the war dead is a job that’s usually done by health workers, or carefully negotiated by diplomats. But for the past few years in Yemen, one former boy scout and his small team have been going it alone.


    After walking 10 hours carrying the dead body, Hadi Juma’aan needed to rest. Far from where his car had failed in the mountains between the northern Yemeni provinces of Amran and al-Jawf, without mobile phone service, Juma’aan closed his eyes and waited for morning to come.


    A few hours later, before sunrise, he awoke in a panic.


    “A dog came wanting to eat the corpse,” he recalls. “I thought the dead had risen. I was terrified.”


    But once he came to his senses, Juma’aan carried on. After all, bringing the bodies of dead fighters home to their families is his job.

    After three years and 10 months of war in Yemen, and more than 60,000 dead by one estimate, Juma’aan is busy. By his count, he and a small team of volunteers have evacuated the bodies of 360 fighters from front lines, and negotiated the release of 170 prisoners of war, without much in the way of financial resources, training, or even plastic gloves.



    Juma’aan, who is in his mid thirties, didn’t set out to become a body collector. Before the war, he worked as a community activist at a government-run organisation that promoted sustainable development.


    But in September 2015, seven months after the fighting in Yemen began, the job came for him. A relative asked Juma’aan, a former boy scout with wilderness skills, for help finding his two brothers who had gone missing while fighting in Taiz province. He found their bodies, was shot in the process by a soldier who mistook him for a combatant, and found his calling.

    Nadwa al-Dawsari/IRIN
    Hadi Juma'aan works with a small team of volunteers.


    “That is where it all started for me,” Juma’aan says, recalling the role his Muslim faith played in his decision to take on the job. “When I saw all the corpses scattered, it struck me. Yes, these were fighters, but they are our brothers and they need to be respected. Our religion tells us that burial is how we honour our dead.”


    Shortly after that first mission to Taiz, Juma’aan officially founded and registered the Coordination Council for Human Rights, in the hope that operating as a non-governmental organisation would enable him to scale up. He recruited 70 volunteers, including 12 women, and after word spread about his February 2016 evacuation of 11 corpses from a front line in Nehm, east of the capital city of Sana’a, the requests from families began to pour in: they wanted help finding their missing fighters, or bringing home their loved ones for burial.


    Yemen’s war has pitted Houthi rebels and their allies against the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and forces who back it, including a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There is no rule of law anymore and the fighting has left almost nothing in the way of services like ambulances, let alone a system for bringing the dead home.


    Juma’aan’s job filling in the gaps requires close coordination with all sides in the war: he works with both Houthi rebels and Yemeni military leaders, making sure that both sides at a front line approve of how and when he plans to pick up a body. Sometimes, they must agree to respect a brief ceasefire so he can enter and do his job. This can take months of preparations and negotiations.


    “I make a dozen or so trips to meet with field commanders, officials, local leaders, and families of the fighters, so that I have accurate information,” he explains, adding that he tries to recoup his costs by charging a “small fee” from parties to the conflict, but nothing from civilians.


    To identify himself as a non-combatant when he enters an active conflict zone, Juma’aan wears white clothing and raises his white scarf as a flag. He brings plastic bags, his truck, and a mobile phone.


    He never brings a gun.


    Not that he hasn’t found himself in peril; Juma’aan regularly risks his life for those who have lost theirs. He has survived bombings and been shot twice. He has lost three pickup trucks – two were hit by airstrikes and one was taken by the Houthis.


    Then are the less immediate physical risks. “Most of the time, the bodies have been there for weeks and even months,” says Juama’aan, who has had no formal training in how to deal with corpses or the possible health complications. “One time a corpse split in half while I was trying to put it in a bag. The stench was overwhelming.”




    Despite an insistence on maintaining his own neutrality, Juma’aan’s work is not spared the divisions that have torn Yemen apart.


    “If I evacuate a body and an attack or airstrike happens after that, people accuse me of spying for the other side,” says Juma’aan, who has been imprisoned a total of seven times by both sides in the war.


    His own family has been split apart by the war, too. “My closest relatives are divided,” Juma’aan says. “Some [stand] with.. [Hadi’s government] and some with the Houthis. It is painful.”

    “Every time I contemplate quitting, families come to me to help them find their loved ones.”

    While Juma’aan feels his work brings a sense of comfort to families who have lost loved ones, he has also witnessed the depth of desperation that accompanies grief, and the stress of living in conflict.


    He recalls an older woman who falsely claimed a corpse he had recovered as the body of her son, burying it as her own.


    “When I asked her why she lied and claimed the wrong body, she told me she did it to get compensation from the Houthis,” Juma’aan says. Her son was a missing Houthi fighter, she presumed him to be dead, and Yemen’s economic collapse meant she needed money badly.


    It’s a frustrating and emotionally draining job – one that has left Juma’an in debt and seen his team dwindle to 15 as his staff struggle without resources or proper training.


    But three years after taking up the mantle of this unique form of diplomacy, he has no intention of giving it up. At least not while his services are still needed.


    “I know what I am doing is almost suicidal, but every time I contemplate quitting, families come to me to help them find their loved ones,” he says. “I keep going because I know what I do brings them comfort and peace.”



    The unlikely diplomat bringing Yemen’s war dead home
  • Further reading on militancy

    The following is a guide to must-read articles, reports and research papers on militancy in the Sahel. It’s an ever-expanding library, but this is a useful resource to get you started – from overviews on extremism to country-specific analysis.

    Understanding extremism

    Journey to Extremism in Africa

    Valuable data by UNDP based on interviews with 500 ex-jihadists in five African countries trying to understand their backgrounds and “tipping points” that led them to join extremist groups



    Alt-Right or Jihad?

    Unleashed by globalisation’s dark side and the collapse of communities, radical Islam and the alt-Right share a common cause


    Women, Gender and Daesh Radicalisation

    An exploration of the role of gender in IS recruitment. It challenges the narrative of women as “innately peaceful”, or as actors coerced into joining.


    Not all Young People in Jihadist Groups are 'Radicalised Youth'

    The importance of micro-local contexts in preventing and countering recruitment by violent extremist groups


    The Art of Making a Jihadist

    Interview with militancy doyen Thomas Hegghammer on the hidden culture of poetry, music and storytelling that sustains jihadis


    War, Martyrdom, and Terror: Evolutionary Underpinnings of the Moral Imperative to Extreme Group Violence

    Why do people decide to sacrifice their own lives in acts of extreme violence against others?

    What Motivates ISIS Fighters – and Those who Fight Against Them

    Accessible CNN report on the three crucial factors motivating extremists: a deep commitment to sacred values, the readiness to forsake family for those values, and the perceived spiritual strength of the group or community that the fighter represents.

    Membership Matters: Coerced Recruits and Rebel Allegiance

    Why press-ganged rebels fight on rather than surrendering at every opportunity


    Sahel Blog

    Weekly blog covering politics and religion in the Sahel by Alex Thurston


    On combating extremism


    Countering Violent Extremism

    Excellent overview on what we know about Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism


    Here’s What the Social Science Says About Countering Violent Extremism

    Unless we understand the powerful cultural forces behind the turn to violent extremism, we will fail to address the threat


    Shouldn’t YOU be Countering Violent Extremism?

    Excellent overview of the inherent weaknesses of CVE – like does it work?


    Making CVE Work

    What it says on the tin – a stab at making CVE fit for purpose


    Transforming violent extremism: A peacebuilder’s guide

    Search for Common Ground draws on three decades of experience in transforming violent conflict in communities plagued by many of the same dynamics underlying violent extremism


    “Defeating IS Ideology” Sounds Good, But What Does It Really Mean?

    The West’s obsessive focus on combatting ideology has produced no quantifiably positive results


    DDR in the Context of Offensive Military Operations, Counterterrorism, CVE and Non-Permissive Environments: Key Questions, Challenges, and Considerations

    Ignore the crazy title – useful article on the challenge of DDR in the context of counter-insurgency


    A way home for jihadis: Denmark's radical approach to Islamic extremism

    A readable look at the Aarhus model for deradicalising extremists


    The Sahel/Lake Chad region


    Responses to Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Region: Policies, Cooperation and Livelihoods

    No single factor explains the emergence and rise of Boko Haram in the region, but understanding the overall context is important to understanding the movement itself


    Lake Chad: The World’s Most Complex Humanitarian Disaster

    A deep multimedia dive exploring the inter-connected crisis


    Crisis and Development: The Lake Chad Area and Boko Haram

    Even before the Boko Haram crisis, the Lake Chad region was one of the poorest in the world


    Watchmen of Lake Chad: Vigilante Groups Fighting Boko Haram

    The rise of vigilante groups, and the potential for problems in the future


    Finding the Right Role for the G5 Sahel Joint Force

    The G5 is an experiment in a region crowded by sometimes-competing military initiatives



    The Niger-Mali Border: Subordinating Military Action to a Political Strategy

    The Nigerien government and its allies’ use of military force and non-state armed proxies to curtail jihadist groups along the Niger-Mali border is stoking intercommunal conflict.


    The New Jihadist Strategy in the Sahel

    Beyond Islamic ideology, AQIM and related movements have framed their message as one of fighting a neo-colonial enemy, and tailored their narratives to fit their local contexts




    Boko Haram Beyond the Headlines: Analyses of Africa’s Enduring Insurgency

    Most up to date analysis by some of the best researchers


    ‘Year of the Debacle’: How Nigeria Lost Its Way in the War Against Boko Haram

    An up-close account of the Nigerian army’s failure to come to grips with the insurgency


    Factional Dynamics within Boko Haram

    ISWAP’s attempts to redefine its relations with the civilian population could make it a long-term threat to regional stability


    Boko Haram’s New Tactics Imperil Nigeria’s Countryside

    The future of the war turns on whether the military can definitively claim control of the countryside


    ‘The Disease is Unbelief’: Boko Haram’s Religious and Political Worldview

    The combination of exclusivism and grievance has provided the ideological framework for Boko Haram’s violence


    Gifts and Graft: How Boko Haram Uses Financial Services for Recruitment and Support

    Crucial study by Mercy Corps into what motivated young people to join Boko Haram


    Motivations and Empty Promises: Voices of Former Boko Haram Combatants and Nigerian Youth

    Mercy Corps second ground-breaking study on Boko Haram


    “If You See it You Will Cry”: Life and Death in Giwa Barracks

    Hundreds of people, including children, have died following their detention in horrendous conditions at Giwa barracks military detention centre, Maiduguri.


    Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict

    The first serious study of Boko Haram from way back in 2010, and it’s still relevant


    'Bad Blood'

    Perceptions of children born of conflict-related sexual violence and women and girls associated with Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria


    Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency

    Women have suffered violence and abuse by Boko Haram, but they are not only victims. Their experiences should inform policies to tackle the insurgency and build peace


    ‘They betrayed us’: Women who survived Biko Haram raped, starved and detained in Nigeria

    The Nigerian military has recaptured vast swathes of territory controlled by Boko Haram. But instead of “freeing” people who had been trapped in these areas, the military has carried out systematic abuse.


    Ideational Dimensions of the Boko Haram Phenomenon

    How Boko Haram frames its struggle and the appeal of its message





    Going Beyond the Complexity of Mali’s Conflict

    A useful multi-layered analysis of the Malian conflict


    Mali is Becoming a Failed State and it is Not the Jihadists’ Fault

    A focus on regional security masks the root cause of the Malian crisis


    What Can Save Mali?

    Good overview of the crisis, which argues that dialogue is part of the answer


    Mali: New Study on Local Security Perceptions

    How Malians experience and understand security, and the impact of the perceived ‘absence of the state'


    Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making?

    How rebellion spread from northern Mali and erupted in the country’s central region


    Mali's young 'jihadists': Fueled by faith or circumstance?

    Interviews with 63 youths formerly engaged in 'jihadist' groups challenge preconceived ideas about violent extremism in Mali


    The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality

    The government should work toward a partnership with religious authorities to enable them to play a stabilising role, argues the ICG



    Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency

    The struggle against Boko Haram in south-eastern Niger is increasingly sharpening local conflicts over access to resources


    Understanding Trajectories of Radicalisation in Agadez

    Interesting look at people’s perceptions of extremism and democracy




    Cameroon’s Far North: A New Chapter in the Fight Against Boko Haram

    As fighting between government forces and Boko Haram diminishes, a lasting peace depends on how the government deals with former members of the jihadist movement


    Cameroon’s Far North: Reconstruction amid Ongoing Conflict

    The government and international partners should embrace development policies that take into account the local population’s resilience strategies, says ICG




    Fighting Boko Haram in Chad: Beyond Military Measures

    The government needs to relaunch trade, improve public services and reintegrate demobilised militants.

    Further reading on militancy
  • Six aid policy priorities to watch in 2019

    Not so much a crystal ball as a cracked Land Cruiser windshield: peering into the road ahead, here are six humanitarian issues to keep a close eye on in 2019. They’re not all new – and they are in no particular order – but all the same, they seem to us most likely to drive change, open up opportunity, or demand attention.


    Maybe we’ve picked the wrong things? Missed out some big ones? Got the wrong end of the stick? We look forward to hearing your takes. Please respond on Twitter, email, or vent in the comments at the bottom.


    1. Humanitarian principles under attack

    Humanitarian work relies on acceptance that it’s well-intentioned and has no hidden agenda. Preserving the space to operate requires high standards among aid agencies, and persuasive humanitarian advocacy. But it also relies on an international consensus to uphold, not demonise, humanitarian action and principles. Right now, humanitarian action, busy mopping up man’s inhumanity to man, could use a little human aid itself.


    International humanitarian action rests on four principles: humanity, neutrality, independence, and impartiality. Aid work should be protected under international law, but the taboos seem to be weakening: hospitals are bombed, refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean are condemned to drown, aid workers are targeted by fighters, and civilians are starved into surrender. All with little consequences for the perpetrators. To many, humanitarian principles themselves seem under attack and the international community short of ideas to restore them.

    The international consensus is showing some cracks across the board, whether it’s on climate change, human rights, migration, or the rules of war.

    Aid work in situations of war and human rights abuse, as in Syria and Myanmar, is especially vulnerable to accusations of bias, of deliberately destabilising authority or helping the enemy. Without a broad coalition defending humanitarian law and values, governments, armed groups, and local communities feel justified to block, intimidate, or even harm relief operations and aid workers.


    The guardians of the Geneva Conventions – the International Committee of the Red Cross, along with Switzerland – have tried to form a mechanism to monitor possible violations of humanitarian law, but international divisions have led to failure.


    International humanitarian aid relies on shared values, collective action, and mutual support between states and aid organisations. But the international consensus is showing some cracks across the board, whether it’s on climate change, human rights, migration, or the rules of war.


    2. New needs, new financing


    The UN says crises are multiplying and lasting longer, and in 2018 the sector had a funding gap of about $10 billion. Pursuing new sources of income and a wider range of financial instruments is a top priority for humanitarian planners.


    Taxpayers foot four fifths of the bill for most international humanitarian action, mainly through government grants to UN agencies and international NGOs. Contributions to charities from individuals make up the rest.


    While the EU and the US account for about half of international humanitarian grants, the Gulf states have become big contributors to international relief agencies. Other emerging economies are less engaged, although in 2018 the Chinese government announced the formation of an International Development Cooperation Agency. Islamic finance is being tapped – one scheme applies Malaysian charitable zakat payments to a project in Kenya. In a significant policy shift, the World Bank’s shareholders have steered it to do more in risky and fragile places.


    Fundraising by online celebrities, crowdfunding, and social media communities can unlock significant sums, and some play on “cutting out the middleman” of international aid groups. A French YouTube personality, Jérôme Jarre, raised about $3 million for drought relief in Somalia in 2017. Social media giant Facebook released new tools in 2018 for individuals to set up their own charitable fundraising campaigns.


    Public-private financial instruments are being tested against real-world problems. Insurance on market terms is gaining ground: hurricanes, droughts, and epidemics are covered in private-public mechanisms. An impact bond finances new Red Cross centres for the war-wounded. Adaptive and predictive financing models use data to trigger early finance once indicators cross an agreed threshold, reducing the need for guesswork and donor persuasion. Most of these approaches are not yet at scale and underwritten by familiar Western donor countries.


    Corporates, too, are moving beyond charitable giving. Philanthropic initiatives at MasterCard, DHL, IKEA, and Airbnb, to name just a few, are finding ways to sustainably apply their strengths to crisis response.


    Donor countries are also trying to better join up their development and humanitarian planning to reduce long-term needs as well as tackle short-term essentials.


    3. Giving money, not stuff


    Donors and big aid agencies have committed to supplying more aid in the form of cash. In 2016, cash transfers and vouchers made up about 10 percent of international humanitarian aid, or $2.8 billion, up from 2.5 percent a year earlier. International NGO World Vision, for example, expects to provide fully half of its spending in the form of cash by 2020.

    Cash aid offers an elegant solution for buying goods and renting accommodation, and injects funds into local economies. But the market can’t deliver face-to-face healthcare, counselling, or education: in crisis zones, commercial service providers are rarely an option. In practice, cash aid still needs monitoring, and advisory and protective services, especially to help those who fall through the cracks.

    Why not cash should be the first question asked before starting any aid project.


    As unconditional cash aid grows in scale, UN agencies and NGOs are having to redefine their raison d’être. Cash threatens the traditional “business model” of many aid groups: a highly specialist aid agency (focusing on supplying just food or shelter, for example) makes little sense if families make their own purchasing decisions.


    Financial service providers are taking over a significant role – and a percentage of the value transferred. In Turkey, for example, the European Commission provides cash transfers for 1.3 million Syrian refugees, in collaboration with the Turkish government, state-owned Halkbank, the Red Crescent, and the UN. The two-year contract is worth €650 million.


    Why not cash should be the first question asked before starting any aid project, a key 2015 study published by UK think tank the Overseas Development Institute urged. Yet institutional and technical hurdles linger, some based on misperceptions. Cash aid doesn’t succumb to more fraud than bags or boxes of goods. Fears that recipients will spend the cash unwisely – on tobacco and alcohol, say – have also proven unfounded.


    4. A ‘participation revolution’


    Thanks in part to models borrowed from the private sector, and higher expectations from donors, aid recipients are now getting more of a say in how humanitarian response functions.  


    In Jordan, for example, a UN-backed call centre handles 150,000 calls a month from refugees with complaints, questions, or seeking advice. Modest improvements long familiar to conventional customer service are gaining ground across the sector, from simple suggestion boxes to self-service user apps and satisfaction surveys. Some donors require their grantees to be independently audited against humanitarian accountability benchmarks.

    A 2018 survey by aid quality analysts ALNAP reported that only 36 percent of humanitarian aid recipients were able to give opinions on programmes, make complaints, or suggest changes to aid agencies. It’s low, but a jump from only 19 percent in 2015.


    Affected people are often asked what they need, but not how they need it.

    Major aid organisations at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 promised a “participation revolution” to include affected people and communities in the process of designing the programmes to help them. The hope is to correct course based on their feedback, and to handle complaints, including abuse by aid workers, effectively.


    An environment in which aid recipients get to design services, criticise providers, and expose failure doesn’t happen by itself, though. Donors and the agencies tend to call the shots. Affected people are often asked what they need, but not how they need it. Feedback can also take a back seat due to the urgency to get things done. Checks and balances, from police forces to pharmaceutical testing, may be weak or in disarray, leading to a regulatory vacuum.


    5. Making way for home-grown aid


    On balance, relief aid should be “as local as possible, as international as necessary”, according to the resolutions of the World Humanitarian Summit and a reformist alliance comprising major donors and international aid groups – the Grand Bargain. The group set a target to increase funding to local groups from under three percent to 25 percent by 2020.


    That’s the policy, but it’s proving harder to implement than it may sound. In 2017, IRIN found that two thirds of international relief funding, some $14 billion, went to just 12 UN and international non-governmental organisations.


    Grassroots NGOs with local knowledge and networks are at the end of a sub-granting chain, doing frontline relief delivery but not getting the recognition or the finances to match. Some claim they feel more like disposable sub-contractors than partners, and international groups are hogging resources and market share. As a result, local groups say they are unable to grow and mature as organisations in their own right, especially when their staff are poached.


    There is plenty to value in the internationalism of emergency aid and an equilibrium needs to be found: aid groups that can rapidly operate at scale are not always there in humanitarian situations. Skills and expertise often need to be imported. Helping civilians in conflicts may work better with a neutral external organisation.


    Big donors are now looking to overcome the barriers. Some are legal: for example, the European Commission’s humanitarian department is restricted to funding EU entities. Others are administrative: stringent donor reporting requirements and financial rules present a steep learning curve for smaller NGOs. Finally, the donor civil servants that approve grants argue they don’t have the capacity to sign up dozens of smaller new partners. As a stop-gap measure, donors are increasing contributions through UN-administered pooled funds, which can funnel cash to local NGOs. More recipient governments, like Indonesia’s, are forcing the issue and not allowing new aid agencies to set up shop.


    6. Doing no digital harm


    Humanitarian action has only started to experience the digital disruption that has upended other sectors. The digitisation of aid will have far-reaching effects on a sector still structured around post-World War II institutions. While the potential gains in meeting needs effectively could be inspiring, humanitarian managers are focused too on a new take on an old dictum: “do no digital harm”.



    A fingerprint being taken
    Jiro Ose/UNHCR
    Biometric data is being collected in Uganda from recently arrived South Sudanese refugees.

    A common thread to the digital developments, whether around biometric ID, software vulnerability, or privacy, is about risk. Tightening up data protection has become a new priority for the sector. Aid systems have often been built ad hoc and lack the robust data protection and cybersecurity measures that would be standard in the commercial sector.  

    Personal data and a framework for responsibly handling new digital ID systems is becoming an urgent challenge. The details of more than 20 million vulnerable people are on the cloud in databases run by aid agencies.


    Their records may contain data about family circumstances, income, and place of origin, as well as fingerprints or iris scans. These systems can offer compelling advantages: by removing duplicates and ghost entries, a recount of refugees in Uganda in 2018 reduced the headcount from 1.4 million to 1.1 million.


    On the flip side, that personal data could be hacked or misused by governments or criminals, bringing a new level of risk to people who are already vulnerable.



    Six aid policy priorities to watch in 2019
  • Ten humanitarian crises and trends to watch in 2019

    These 10 crises and trends will help shape our coverage in 2019. Here’s why they have our attention and should demand yours.


    Ten humanitarian crises and trends to watch in 2019
    1. Climate displacement: Tomorrow’s emergencies today

    From rising sea levels to withering drought and unpredictable weather: projections for what the world can expect if climate change remains unchecked are grave.

    Yet extreme weather is already uprooting populations around the globe, and the aid sector and governments are struggling to cope. Vulnerable communities have long known what the aid sector is just beginning to articulate: climate change is a humanitarian issue, and its fingerprints are already evident in today’s most pressing emergencies.


    Why we’re watching: 

    Severe drought in 2018 affected hundreds of thousands of people, from Central Asia to Central America, from the Sahel to North Korea. In Afghanistan, drought displaced nearly as many people as conflict in 2018, and the worst impacts may be yet to come. In Somalia, food shortages from drought and floods combined with conflict to force people from their homes. In low-lying Pacific nations, governments are reluctantly making worst-case contingency plans to permanently move entire communities – a handful of managed relocations are already quietly underway. World Bank research predicts climate change could force 143 million people by 2050 to migrate within their own countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.


    This year could offer an early climate test for the aid sector. The UN’s meteorological agency says there is a 75-80 percent chance of a weak El Niño event developing by February, which could combine with long-term climate change to destabilise already volatile rainfall and temperature patterns around the world. It’s a threat multiplier that could sharpen food insecurity and exacerbate existing emergencies.


    Keep in mind:

    Recently, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimated drought-linked displacement for the first time in four countries, tallying 1.3 million people in Burundi, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Somalia. These numbers, researchers said, “suggest that the true scale of displacement far exceeds available estimates”. Attributing climate change to specific disasters is an emerging science, though, and definitively linking climate change to specific displacement is even more difficult. Uncertainties in estimating displacement are a “major blind spot” for the aid sector: without knowing how many people could lose their homes and livelihoods, planning humanitarian responses and enacting responsive policies becomes more problematic.

    2. Syria: It’s not over ‘til it’s over


    A win by President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly seen as a fait accompli, but with large parts of the country still controlled by rebels and others seemingly up for grabs, the fighting isn’t finished, nor are attempts to influence the aid effort.


    Why we’re watching:

    Nearly eight years since the uprising against al-Assad began, his government appears to be closing in on victory, both on the battlefield and in the political arena: rebel pockets in the capital Damascus have been defeated, and the Arab League is reportedly looking to readmit Syria to its ranks, after expelling it for violent repression of demonstrators in 2011. But the war is not over yet: there are still an estimated three million people in the rebel-held northwest around Idlib province, which is only quiet due to a Turkey-Russia deal. The US announcement that it will pull its troops out of Syria at some point could mean a bloody power struggle in the northeast, where Turkey, Kurdish fighters, government forces, and the remnants of so-called Islamic State all have an interest. As donors, al-Assad, and outside powers all look to get a foothold in Syria’s future, the mix of potential chaos and pockets of calm – including areas run by groups designated as terrorists by Western countries – will make it even harder to deliver neutral aid, based on need alone, to all Syrians. That aid includes emergency needs like food, shelter, and healthcare, as well as the increasingly controversial issue of reconstruction during wartime. If you think aid has already been manipulated in Syria, there’s plenty more of that to come.


    Keep in mind:

    The UN no longer considers any part of Syria besieged, but 45,000 people are trapped in a no man’s land between Syrian government front lines and the border with Jordan. With aid deliveries few and far between, this makeshift camp is a reminder of ongoing blockages in the aid effort.

    3. Outsourcing risk: Local responders shoulder the danger


    In insecure areas with limited access, many international aid organisations subcontract donor-funded programmes to local groups – “remote management” in industry jargon. But aid analysts say this increasingly widespread strategy carries ethical and moral quandaries.


    Why we’re watching:

    From Afghanistan and Syria to the Central African Republic and South Sudan, violence is pushing international aid groups to rethink their operations in conflict areas, as once-accepted norms of providing humanitarian access safely to aid workers are repeatedly flouted.


    Faced with threats to humanitarian staff and shrinking access, international aid groups are relying more and more on local responders, but those responders don’t always have the resources to stay safe. In 2017, nearly half of the 300 aid workers killed, kidnapped, or wounded on the job worked for local non-governmental organisations – a sharp rise reflecting “near-universal reliance” on local staff in the riskiest areas, according to the Aid Worker Security Database.


    Despite taking on more of the risk, local groups say they don’t always have the means to stay safe. Strapped for cash and commonly unable to access direct donor funding, local NGOs frequently have no alternative but to accept short-term sub-grants. Funding and project plans often trickle down without the support to strengthen security and manage the risks. The trend stretches beyond conflict zones: the wider humanitarian sector has promised to “localise” aid – empowering local communities, NGOs, and authorities to lead their own responses – but local organisations say they’re often treated as sub-contractors rather than equal partners.


    Is there a solution? Local aid organisations are pushing for direct, longer-term funding and a greater share of the resources that could help their staff manage the risks. But promised reforms have been slow across the aid sector, let alone in conflict zones.


    Keep in mind:

    There’s a common assumption that local staff and organisations face fewer risks in insecure areas, precisely because they are local. But local aid workers have always carried the greatest burden in violent humanitarian emergencies: roughly nine of every 10 aid workers attacked are local staff.

    4. Ethiopia: Gambling on reforms


    Loosening a political straitjacket on 105 million people and weakening central control at the same time: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s moves could be the biggest relaxation of state control – and the least predictable humanitarian planning scenario – since the death of Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik in 1913. In a country whose poorest have little room for error, his experiment is a high-stakes gamble that could backfire and cause less welcome upheavals.


    Why we’re watching:

    For many years, Abiy, who took office in April 2018, was an officer in the vast national intelligence apparatus. Since taking power, he has moved boldly to rein in that same security establishment, end a cold war with Eritrea, and even install a former political prisoner (jailed by his own party in 2005) to run the country’s elections. The developments are breathtaking – but a little scary. Inter-communal tensions have been flaring in Ethiopia since 2017: violent clashes over land and resources left 1.4 million displaced in 2018 alone. In addition, about four million are on welfare schemes every year, and some eight million more have needed help with basic food in the last two years thanks to poor weather. Ethiopia relies on rain-fed agriculture and is precariously low on foreign exchange. Regions (and sub-regions) are demanding more autonomy, the ruling political coalition is under strain, and a military old guard feels cornered.


    Keep in mind:

    Ethiopia hosts more than 900,000 refugees, mainly from South Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea. It has a military presence in Somalia, including part of a flagging African Union force fighting al-Shabab extremists. It is also the top contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping.

    5. Returning refugees: The meaning of ‘voluntary’

    Pressure is building on millions of vulnerable people to return to dangerous homelands, with 2019 shaping up as a pivotal year for the world’s four largest refugee crises. Between them, Syrians, Afghans, South Sudanese, and Myanmar’s Rohingya account for well over half the world’s refugees, not to mention an almost equal number of internally displaced people.




    Refugees IDPs Hosts

    Click on each to view


    Why we’re watching:

    Aid agencies and analysts say it’s not peace and readiness driving returns, but political considerations and poor conditions in host countries. And returns are often voluntary in name only. Refugees can have their right to stay revoked or be offered incentives to return, but in many cases they feel compelled to head back to danger for family reunification or because they have little prospect of integration (access to housing, schools, work, and healthcare) elsewhere.


    The UN refugee agency is forecasting 250,000 Syrians to return to their country in 2019. But not all of Syria’s 5.6 million refugees or 6.2 million IDPs want to go back. For those who do return, obstacles can include a lack of documentation confirming identity and property ownership, few or no basic services, and the risk of unexploded ordnance – not to mention forced conscription and the ongoing war.


    In South Sudan, where a fragile peace deal is encouraging returns, returnees also face extreme food insecurity and few functioning markets in one of the world’s most underdeveloped economies. A recent report highlighted a dearth of planning “to ensure a continuation of protection and life-saving aid services in potential areas of returns”.


    Afghans fleeing war are now finding it harder to find refuge abroad, and hundreds of thousands of refugees in Pakistan and Iran face increasing pressure to return to a country still mired in conflict, with safe land and job opportunities in short supply. Neighbouring countries are also reportedly preparing for a fresh refugee influx linked to US withdrawal plans.


    Meanwhile, Rohingya in Bangladesh remain in a stateless limbo, having been denied citizenship in their home country of Myanmar. Attempts to kickstart repatriations floundered in 2018. But Bangladesh says the nearly one million Rohingya refugees on its soil must one day return home, and no one really knows what 2019 will bring.


    Keep in mind:

    The UN abides by the legal principle of non-refoulement and has criteria for refugee returns: they mustn’t be rushed or premature and they must be voluntary and sustainable. We’ll be watching to see if this holds true over the next 12 months.

    6. Infectious diseases: Healthcare as a casualty of crisis


    Countries experiencing humanitarian crises are seeing the re-emergence of previously forgotten diseases; for example, diphtheria, which took a toll on Yemenis, Venezuelans, and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2018. And political and structural challenges in some of the world’s least developed countries are fostering rich environments for many other diseases to thrive: cholera, Ebola, malaria, measles, MERS, yellow fever, and Zika.


    Why we’re watching:

    Despite significant medical advances and modern organisational procedures that can help tackle outbreaks almost as soon as they occur, epidemics and infectious diseases are still among the most common killers in many countries caught up in conflicts or natural disasters. In places like South Sudan, with weak healthcare systems weakened further by war, resources are unavailable to deal with even treatable diseases like malaria. As a result, thousands of lives are unnecessarily lost. In countries gripped by protracted conflict, like the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, years of fighting have decimated health facilities. The presence of armed groups often thwarts attempts to reach patients, preventing measles or yellow fever vaccination campaigns for instance and, in 2018, enabling Ebola to spread in eastern Congo. In countries in all-out war, like Syria and Yemen, bombs and attacks have left hospitals in ruins, while the destruction of water and sanitation infrastructure has made it easy for diseases like cholera to spread.


    Keep in mind:

    While outbreaks of disease are a medical concern, it is the larger structural and political issues that allow them to thrive and recur. The combination of weak systems, flaws in prevention efforts, ineffective response capabilities, and ongoing conflict is making healthcare a casualty of crisis and a huge concern for humanitarian workers going into 2019.

    7. South Sudan and Congo: Politics versus peace


    2019 is a political year of promise for the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan: the reason we’ve grouped them together. While the world watches to see if the DRC can achieve a first peaceful transfer of democratic power and if a fledgling peace deal in South Sudan will hold, how both situations develop also carries major implications for millions of people in need of assistance.

    Why we’re watching:

    South Sudan and the DRC are two of the world's largest humanitarian crises, displacing almost 10 million people between them. The roots of conflict and the historical backdrop in each country are very different, but civilians in both are desperately hoping that political change in 2019 will yield more peaceful conditions on the ground.

    In Congo, long-delayed elections to replace President Joseph Kabila – in power since 2001 – finally took place on 30 December. The polls, although relatively peaceful, were marred by reports of widespread irregularities, including broken voting machines and missing voter rolls. Other areas (largely opposition strongholds) were excluded from the vote entirely, the government citing instability and Ebola as reasons for the decision. This sparked violent street protests, as opposition figures alleged the move was a ploy by Kabila to manipulate the polls and ensure his party retains power (more than one million registered voters were excluded). If elections aren’t viewed as free and fair, tensions could escalate – as they have in the past – moving political violence to the top of Congo's extensive list of challenges. The country is in the midst of its worst Ebola outbreak; armed attacks continue in the central and eastern regions, including Ebola-affected North Kivu and Ituri; and intercommunal conflict, displacement, and severe food insecurity have left almost 13 million people in need of assistance.

    In South Sudan, where half a decade of war has devastated the country, yet another peace agreement was signed between the warring parties in September. While some see signs of hope that this new truce will hold, ushering in the return of refugees and the rebuilding of the country, many analysts fear more of the same, as the new accord is not that different from the one drafted in 2015 that fell apart soon after being signed. Although violence has reduced in some parts of the country, armed groups are still active; IDPs are not yet rushing home as security and basic social services are lacking; and many remain suspicious of the motivations of the politicians whose in-fighting triggered the crisis.

    Keep in mind:

    The extent of displacement and food insecurity in South Sudan and the large number of conflicts in Congo amount to a scale of humanitarian crisis only matched by Syria and Yemen. It will take more than ballot sheets and paper pacts to turn lives around, although it’s a start. And Ebola could become an even bigger problem, especially if it spreads from Congo to South Sudan.

    8. Anti-terror compliance: When aid falls foul of the law


    It’s getting harder to stay on the right side of counter-terrorism legislation, NGOs say. That means more vulnerable people could be left without the aid they and their families depend on. And the penalties for the wrong type of engagement with sanctioned groups can be very costly, as the NGO Norwegian People’s Aid found.


    Why we’re watching:

    The scope of counter-terrorism legislation has not widened dramatically – although the UK may add new legal provisions – but the machinery of enforcement has matured. Risk is thus being pushed down to implementing agencies, observers say. Donors’ compliance demands are getting heavier, and that’s making it harder to help people who, whatever their views, just happen to live where sanctioned groups are in control – from Somalia to Palestine to Syria. Whatever the regulations, NGOs still need to move funds and engage in dialogue with whichever authority holds sway. NGO advocates say they can’t possibly check every aid recipient’s family for members who are militants, but they fear that’s where things are heading. Investigators attached to USAID told IRIN they don’t pursue petty cases but have a duty to stop large-scale criminal fraud in taxpayer-funded aid programmes. But even minor infractions – like who attends a training session or public event – can put an aid agency on the wrong side of sweeping counter-terrorism laws. Working in Gaza, for example, is a US legal minefield, as the de facto authority that runs hospitals and schools, Hamas, is a designated terrorist group.


    Keep in mind:

    Several US investigations are expected to become public in 2019, which may impact more NGOs. Some aid agencies may shut up shop in the most difficult areas. Donors may choose to transfer more funding through large UN agencies or international banks to avoid the enforcement headaches of dealing with smaller NGOs with less legal clout. Getting help to Palestinians and parts of Syria will be particularly difficult.

    9. Militancy in Africa: Weak governments struggle, civilians suffer

    Violent jihadism continues to gain ground in Africa, representing a serious trial for weak and neglectful governments, and driving up humanitarian needs for civilians.

    In Nigeria, the Islamic State of West Africa Province (a Boko Haram splinter group) is now the deadliest IS franchise – seizing towns and racking up more killings in November than IS-linked groups in Syria and Iraq. Security has also worsened due to Islamist attacks in several other countries in recent months, noticeably in Mali and Burkina Faso. Meanwhile, governments from North Africa to South Africa appear unprepared for the potential security impact of the return of citizens who fought with IS in Syria and Iraq.


    Why we’re watching:

    Extremist groups operate in Egypt and Libya, and across a belt of Sahelian countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria. In Somalia they control a large swathe of territory, threatening other countries in East Africa, while a new militant group has emerged in the southern African nation of Mozambique. Somalia and Mali have been the hubs of longstanding jihadist insurgencies, which have also lent support to like-minded groups in neighbouring countries, such as Burkina Faso. In the Sahel, violent events linked to militant Islamist groups tripled in 2018. All this prevents governments from delivering public goods and services to affected regions, robbing them of an effective riposte to the ideological challenge posed by the militants, who portray their rebellions in terms of justice and righteousness.


    Keep in mind:

    African armies have proven unprepared to deal with these guerrilla forces. Governments continue to reach for military solutions, backed by their Western partners. At the same time, an over-militarised response risks fuelling support for the extremist cause as a consequence of human rights abuses committed by the security forces and measures that restrict people’s livelihoods.

    10. Yemen: Risk of fragmenting conflict

    Yemen’s main warring parties are finally talking, and even shaking hands. But even if the 45- month war ends – and that’s a big if – the country could easily slide into a series of local conflicts, bringing little respite for the 24 million civilians the UN says need some sort of aid, be it food, clean water, or shelter.


    Why we’re watching:

    The sheer scale of Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe is staggering: the figure for those in need (above) represents 80 percent of the country’s population, and 2018 also saw economic collapse, a renewed cholera outbreak, and a further slide towards famine. The conflict sometimes seems intractable, and so it was to the surprise of many observers that UN-led talks on Yemen bore some fruit at the end of the year, when two delegations in Stockholm agreed to a ceasefire in the key port city of Hodeidah, among other measures. But Yemen’s conflict has more than two sides; it’s really a fractured web of alliances at local, national, and international levels so complicated that few people really understand it, and the main negotiating parties don’t always control the troops fighting on the ground. As 2019 starts, a UN observer mission is in Hodeidah and more talks are scheduled. But if those with a place at the negotiating table do agree to end the larger war without addressing local grievances, there’s a real risk that a series of smaller conflicts will leave civilians in the line of fire and prevent them from getting the help they desperately need.


    Keep in mind:

    The UN is appealing for $4 billion to help 15 million Yemenis in 2019 – that’s the most it has ever requested for one country. The needs are huge, and even though the world is finally paying some attention to Yemen, the violence, hunger, and death may not end even if the war does.

  • Editors’ picks: Why you need to read these 2018 stories

    Our top 10 most popular stories are those you clicked on most in 2018, but we also had our own favourites.


    Over the past 12 months, IRIN reporters spanned out across the globe to examine under-reported crises, long-running conflicts, extremism, sudden disasters, slow-burning emergencies, and the humanitarian consequences of migration.


    Here are some of the stories we wish more people had read, and why they’ll matter in 2019. If you haven’t read them yet, there’s still time.


    Evidence unearthed


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Burnt-out vehicle on the road from Brazzavile to Kinkala

    Congo-Brazzaville’s hidden war


    Unlike better-known conflicts in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, unrest in Congo-Brazzaville after disputed elections in 2016 occurred with little international attention or outside scrutiny. At the end of 2017, Philip Kleinfeld gained rare access to the Pool region, where he documented the toll of two years of conflict. In the government’s crackdown on former militias, villages were bombed from the air while others were pillaged by ground troops. Entire areas were left empty and, despite huge suffering, the government refused to recognise the existence of the crisis for more than a year. Our two-part series took an exclusive look at the lives upended in this brutal hidden war. Satellite images obtained by Emmanuel Freudenthal months after Kleinfeld’s story was published in January 2018 allowed us to update it in June with more evidence of the scale of the government’s scorched-earth campaign.

    Why it matters in 2019:

    A year on, the ceasefire the government announced with rebels in Pool is still holding, while the political space has opened with the release of several political prisoners. The accord paves the way for tens of thousands of displaced civilians to return, but humanitarian needs remain high, especially as the region was largely sealed off from aid organisations at the height of the crisis. Activists remain concerned by the absence of justice, and fear the conflict will flare up again if its root causes are not addressed. The information gathered by Kleinfeld and Freudenthal is meanwhile being used by Congolese lawyers hoping to bring a case before the International Criminal Court.



    Counter-terror compliance gets harder



    Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief at risk


    Tougher donor restrictions on relief operations in areas controlled by extremist groups are “out of control”, impeding life-saving work, and could lead aid groups to pull out of the most challenging responses, senior humanitarian officials and rights experts warned. IRIN reporting revealed that aid to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in northwestern Syria had been quietly halted on counter-terrorism grounds. And, in a parallel development, a Norwegian NGO paid $2.05 million to settle a case brought by the US government regarding its relations with Iran and Palestinian group Hamas.


    Why it matters in 2019:

    Millions of vulnerable people in Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere live under the sway of “terrorist” groups they don't necessarily support. How will they receive aid if humanitarian agencies can’t comply with new counter-terrorism regulation? New US court cases and USAID investigations appear likely in 2019.




    Afghan drought solutions


    Two men in Afghanistan in a farm field.
    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    In drought-hit Abkamari District in western Afghanistan’s Badghis Province, farmers work on a plot of land that is irrigated by a new solar-powered water system.

    Oasis amid the drought: Local water systems give Afghans a reason to stay home


    Afghanistan is in the middle of a severe drought that has destroyed crops, killed livestock, and in 2018 uprooted nearly as many people as conflict. We’ve tracked the issue early and often on our weekly Cheat Sheet, as well as in stories examining ongoing impacts such as displacement and child marriage. Conflict has made access difficult for humanitarian groups, and some NGOs fear concentrating aid in the comparatively accessible urban centres of western Afghanistan may be pulling people from their homes in search of help. Is there a better solution? In one parched district, reporter Stefanie Glinski examined how simple water systems are convincing hundreds of families to stay home, even though they have lost their livelihoods to the drought. Many people in need of help live in these remote districts, but not all aid groups are prepared to manage the risks of working there.


    Why it matters in 2019:

    Analysts are projecting that food security will worsen in the coming months, with more than 10 million Afghans in a “crisis” or “emergency” situation by February 2019. Yet humanitarian budgets are overstretched and conflict is worsening.




    Iraq’s future


    Annie Slemrod/IRIN

    Searching for Othman


    War. Displacement. Return. What do these words mean to the lives of people on the ground? Join Middle East editor Annie Slemrod in Iraq as she searches for one boy whose name she did not know in a country of 37 million people. She not only finds out his name, but that these words, so common in press releases and news articles, don’t even begin to express how the last few years and the fight against so-called Islamic State have changed the lives of many Iraqis – including one young boy whose life continues to be shaped by that struggle.


    Why it matters in 2019:

    Iraq is making a rebound of sorts: it has mostly defeated IS, and millions of displaced people have gone home. But nearly two million more have not. Some of the grievances that allowed IS to flourish have not been addressed, and large-scale protests over shortages of electricity, water, and jobs erupted in 2018 in parts of the country. Othman’s story highlights how hard it will be in 2019, and in the coming years, for many in the country to break a long cycle of violence and build any semblance of a future.




    Migrant journeys


    Migrant shelter in Sonoyta, Mexico.
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Migrant shelter in Sonoyta, Mexico.

    By sand or by sea

    Are the journeys of Central Americans through Mexico to the US border really a world apart from those of sub-Saharan Africans through Niger and Libya to the Mediterranean Sea? No, journalist Eric Reidy, who has covered both over the past four years, suggests in this reporter’s notebook. He points to “the raw desperation and danger of the journey; the political backlash in Europe and the United States fuelling the rise of the far right; the attempts to stop people from crossing borders that have empowered criminals and increased suffering and abuse.” And, most glaring of all, the “basic inhumanity” of an official response based on prevention rather than legal alternatives. Some things about the two situations are starkly different, of course, so a clear ‘yes/no’ answer isn’t really possible. As he notes, 1.8 million people crossed the sea to Europe in the few years since 2014, compared to the reduction of the undocumented population in the United States over the past decade. And international aid workers have been omnipresent in the Mediterranean crisis but are conspicuous by their absence at the US-Mexico border.


    Why it matters in 2019:

    The trend for migration globally is upward, and the political mood in both Europe and the United States heading into the new year only appears to be hardening.




    Hunger and healthcare


    Susan Schulman/IRIN

    Venezuela: A humanitarian crisis denied

    By October the number of Venezuelans estimated to have fled their country since the economy began to implode in 2015 hit three million. Given the rate of departures, it won’t be long before that figure reaches four million. Much media attention in 2018 focused on the exodus, on desperate mothers and children fleeing to places like Colombia and Brazil. But what of the many more millions left behind? Susan Schulman spent two weeks in August and September travelling across the country. She found pervasive hunger, resurgent disease, and babies dying because of an absence of standard medicines – an acute humanitarian crisis denied by Venezuela’s own government.


    Why it matters in 2019:

    There are signs President Nicolás Maduro is beginning to accept the need for outside help, but next year is likely to see the situation deteriorate further. The International Monetary Fund has warned that inflation could reach 10 million percent, while the UN expects the exodus to swell to 5.3 million.




    Sahel climate crisis

    How climate change is plunging Senegal’s herders into poverty

    Climate change is about more than just data and science. It’s about the everyday changes that impact the lives of millions – especially those who are poor and vulnerable. In sub-Saharan Africa’s Sahel region, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, drought, floods, and land degradation are threatening the future of livestock herders and crop growers, some of whom have already lost half their income because of depleted harvests and severe food shortages this year. And if the current climatic patterns continue, as they likely will, it may get worse still. Reporter Lucinda Rouse followed life in the herding communities of the Sahel over a six-month period this year. In this series, she meets people barely getting by due to the climate crisis, delves into the political and economic factors making their lives more difficult, and learns about a green solution that local communities believe may help.

    Why it matters in 2019:

    In October, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that time was rapidly running out to reverse the devastating effects of climate change, and rising Islamist militancy now threatens to deepen the crisis for many in the Sahel region.




    Peace in Myanmar


    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Nyi Nyi Zaw, an ethnic Rakhine teacher with the peacebuilding organisation People to People, says he was formerly prejudiced against his Rohingya neighbours: ”I used to be blinded just like the people who come to our trainings.”

    The uphill battle to forge peace in Myanmar's Rakhine State

    Generations of Rohingya have been denied citizenship, segregated, and pushed from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Animosity towards the Rohingya runs deep, but there are also more nuanced views – even in deeply divided Rakhine. Reporter Verena Hölzl met with ethnic Rakhine activists trying to build peace in their troubled state. These local peacebuilders face government restrictions and threats from sceptical hardliners.


    Why it matters in 2019:

    There are no overnight solutions to a crisis that has simmered over decades of mistrust and marginalisation. But these local efforts may be a small yet important step to building trust among Myanmar’s ethnic communities: “People have to start to listen to each other,” said one Rakhine student, “or we will never have peace”.


    Editors’ picks: Why you need to read these 2018 stories
  • Our 10 most popular stories of 2018

    Investigations, exclusives, and special reports dominate our most-read stories this year, but there’s room for some timely analysis and the odd news feature. Find out which IRIN articles created the most buzz in 2018 (by unique pageviews, most-viewed first). And once you’re on top of the news, why not test yourself with our year-end quiz?

    Cameroon’s anglophone war, part 1 and part 2

    Emmanuel Freudenthal became the first journalist to spend time with an anglophone armed group, trekking for a week with them in the sun and rain, across rivers and up steep hills, through dark rainforests and fields of giant grass. In this two-part series, he explored the make-up and motivation of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, and how the civil war brewing in Cameroon was changing the lives of fighters, civilians, and refugees.

    A gun in the foreground as soldiers stand in file in mismatched clothing


    EXCLUSIVE: Oxfam sexual exploiter in Haiti caught seven years earlier in Liberia

    IRIN found that the man at the centre of Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal was dismissed by another British NGO seven years earlier for similar misconduct. A former colleague revealed that Roland van Hauwermeiren was sent home from Liberia in 2004 after her complaints prompted an investigation into sex parties there with young local women.

    People walk in the distances abstractly


    Understanding Eastern Ghouta in Syria

    In February, the UN said nearly 400,000 civilians were trapped in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, the latest battleground in a series of bloody rebel defeats in Syria’s cities. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Russian allies seemed poised for a major ground offensive on the besieged insurgent enclave. Syria analyst Aron Lund unpicked what we knew, and what we didn’t.

    A dust cloud from an explosion on a city


    Audit finds UN refugee agency critically mismanaged donor funds in Uganda

    This damning internal probe by the UN into waste and corruption in refugee operations in Uganda in 2017 went unnoticed by many. Ben Parker read the fine print and exposed the extent of mismanagement by the UN’s refugee agency, including a $7.9 million contract for road repairs awarded to a contractor with no experience in road construction.

    Two girls in a refugee camp one with her arm on the other


    Eritrea-Ethiopia peace leads to a refugee surge

    Inter-ethnic conflict over scarce resources saw more people internally displaced in Ethiopia in the first half of 2018 than in any other country. In the second half of the year, peace and an open border with Eritrea saw a sudden spike in Eritrean refugees. Addis Ababa-based reporter James Jeffrey travelled to the border regions to speak to new arrivals.

    Closeup of two Eritrean men looking away from the camera


    Inside the EU’s flawed $200 million migration deal with Sudan

    As millions of dollars in EU funds flow into Sudan to stem African migration, asylum seekers say they are increasingly afraid and living in fear of exploitation. In interviews with dozens of Eritreans and Ethiopians, as well as local journalists and lawyers, reporter Caitlin Chandler documented allegations of endemic police abuse, including extortion, violence, and sexual assault.

    An obscured portrait of a man's face behind purple and white drapes


    Former Save the Children staffers speak out on abusive culture under Justin Forsyth

    2018 was a year in which #AidToo scandals tarnished the image of the sector. In February, Justin Forsyth resigned from UNICEF, becoming the highest-profile departure in the widening scandal sparked by the Oxfam sexual exploitation case. Former colleagues of Forsyth told IRIN of their disappointment at what they saw as a half-hearted apology that failed to properly acknowledge his past misconduct.

    A man with a notebook sits on the floor with two people facing away from the camera


    EXCLUSIVE: Audit exposes UN food agency’s poor data-handling

    The year that brought us GDPR disclaimers also brought some belated realisation in the aid sector about the importance of data protection. In January, after an internal audit slammed failings across its systems, the World Food Programme told IRIN’s Ben Parker it was “working to get ahead of the curve” on data-handling, would address weaknesses, and spend more on systems.

    Two cards like credit cards that read: Humanitarian Assistance


    EXCLUSIVE: Refugees in Sudan allege chronic corruption in UN resettlement process

    Sudan, again. This time allegations of corruption within the UN’s refugee resettlement operations in Khartoum. Investigating the programme over a 10-month period, journalist Sally Hayden uncovered a bribery scheme that prompted it to be shut down while the UN refugee agency mounted an investigation. Her follow-up in July found further problems as potential witnesses expressed fears of retaliation and concerns over a lack of protection.

    Outside of an office with barbed wire


    Yemen PR wars: Saudi Arabia employs UK/US firms to push multi-billion dollar aid plan

    In a year in which Yemen was described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the aid largesse of Saudi Arabia came under the microscope. IRIN revealed the extent of Riyadh’s PR offensive as critics suggested its multi-billion dollar aid plan amounted to propaganda and could reduce imports of vital goods into a key port held by the Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia’s opponents in the three-year war.

    Men in camo, one with a camera, offload aid on a pallet

    (TOP PHOTO: Refugees from anglophone areas of Cameroon in camps across the border in Nigeria. CREDIT: Emmanuel Freudenthal/IRIN)


    From #AidToo and UN mismanagement to Cameroon and a siege in Syria
    Our 10 most popular stories of 2018
  • 2018 in Review: Migration

    This series

    In this week-long series, IRIN’s editors highlight five themes from across our reporting that will continue to inform our coverage of the humanitarian sector in the new year: local aid; women and girls; returns and rebuilding; policy and practice; and migration. Are there untold stories we should be covering in 2019 on these or other themes? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here. Happy reading.

    By-products of so many of the conflicts and natural disasters IRIN covers are thousands of families forced from their homes. But countless more people are driven from their villages, cities, or homelands by persecution, slow-burning crises, or economic necessity and want.


    More people are on the move than ever before. International migrants numbered more than 250 million in 2018, a year in which terms like refugee, asylum seeker, and economic migrant again failed to speak to complex, multi-layered issues around migration – experiences that often involve several rounds of displacement and life-threatening journeys.


    US President Donald Trump made headlines with his “travel ban” and family separations, but 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing nations like Turkey and Uganda, and 40 million of the 68.5 million people forcibly displaced are still in their home countries.


    In 2018, we sought to give voice to migrants and refugees wherever the road took them, especially on emerging routes and in situations where their choices became desperate, whether because of conflict, people traffickers, or foreign governments pursuing a harder line on immigration.


    Below are highlights from our reporting:


    Heading into war

    Crossroads Djibouti: The African migrants who defy Yemen’s war

    How desperate do you have to be to flee to a country at war? The International Organisation for Migration said up to 150,000 East African migrants will have reached Yemen by the year’s end, crossing deserts, lava fields, and the Gulf of Aden on their way to Gulf states.

    Men walk should to shoulder on a barren road


    Lost identity

    How tattered Rohingya IDs trace a trail towards statelessness

    For Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh camps, ID documents aren’t just reminders of what’s left behind, clung to with the distant hope they might permit a return to Myanmar, they’re also a record of the systematic stripping of their citizenship, belonging, and their very identity.

    A man holds up his ID card


    War and peace

    Eritrea-Ethiopia peace leads to a refugee surge

    More people were internally displaced in Ethiopia than in any other country in the first half of 2018, mostly due to ethnic conflict driven by scarce resources. By the second half of the year, peace and an open border with Eritrea were encouraging a new wave of Eritrean refugees.

    Portraits of two Eritreans closeup but looking away


    Economic collapse

    As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes

    In November, UN agencies put the number of Venezuelans to have fled the country since 2015 at three million. As Colombia, by far the biggest recipient, announced stricter enforcement at official border crossings, migrants and refugees found new, illegal routes out.

    A guard in camo with a rifle against the sky


    US border deaths

    Water in the desert

    At least 6,700 bodies have been found since 2000 on the Mexico-US border, a third of them in the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. For 12 years, a little-known humanitarian effort has been underway to try to save migrant lives, starting with water stations on the likeliest routes.

    A cross on a small hill



    Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey

    Before 2012, and before millions of people began crossing the Mediterranean, the Evros river was the main transit point for those hoping to make it into Europe via Greece. This March, it suddenly became popular again. The region was not prepared.

    A shoe stuck in thick barbed wire


    Rights lost

    New Italian law adds to unofficial clampdown on asylum seekers

    Tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Italy have been stripped of “humanitarian protection”, losing their right to work and to free language and skills training. But an IRIN investigation found that thousands had already seen their services cut or curtailed over the past two years.

    The back of a head in the foreground with a runway and planes in the background
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Migration
  • Are you a humanitarian newshound? Take this quiz to find out


    Our ‘Ten humanitarian crises to watch’ list for 2018 was sadly prescient. Next week, we’ll be publishing our 2019 list. Before we do, take this quiz to check you’re up to speed.

    There’s a question related to each item on our 2018 list, plus a couple of bonus questions at the end to keep you on your toes. Share your score on Twitter or Facebook.




    Are you a humanitarian newshound? Take this quiz to find out

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