(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • 2018 in Review: Humanitarian policy and practice

    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.

    The world of humanitarian aid in some ways is predictable and hasn’t changed much for years: donations flow from governments and individuals to aid groups that help those in need with food, healthcare, shelter, or clean water.


    Simple, right? Not quite. Raising the cash, controlling the purse strings, protecting data, and stopping fraud and sexual abuse are all hot-button issues that demanded the attention of the humanitarian enterprise this year.


    Here are some of the events and issues that shaped policy and practice in 2018:


    Counter-terror compliance

    Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief in world’s troublespots at risk


    Militants, governments, and local officials may try to steal aid. Aid agencies aren’t expected to prevent every single such incident. But when they involve sanctioned and terrorist groups, US enforcement can come down hard, as major aid agencies found this year. Deliveries to some of the most vulnerable in Syria have been cancelled and aid agencies pulled out as a result.

    Aid workers offload supplies


    US funding

    Three charts on US funding cuts for Palestinian refugees


    By cutting US funding for the UN Palestine refugee agency almost to nil, the Trump administration gave a funding headache to the UN and other nations. Judging by administrative manoeuvres and the political climate, it could be a harbinger of more to come. In the case of UNRWA, the United States was paying about 28 percent of the bill – roughly proportionate to its share of global income. Some aid organisations, including the UN’s food and refugee agencies, are more dependent on the US taxpayer – up to 40 percent.

    Black and white photo of an old bearded man with his head on a burlap sack with a young girl holding it and looking into the distance


    Heads in the cloud?

    “Do no digital harm”


    An “accident waiting to happen” – that’s what a data protection analyst said of shortcomings in a cloud-based UN database of millions. Keen to beat cheats and wow donors, aid agencies have dived into digital record-keeping and biometric registration. Home-grown humanitarian IT systems hold “toxic assets” and need to be more secure and limit the risk of personal data abuse. A discussion in October offered rare candour on “doing no digital harm”, with a range of views from a blockchain startup, a data-specialist consultant, as well as officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN.

    Closeup of a digital fingerprint being taken


    Unfriendly fire

    What is humanitarian deconfliction?


    Hospital bombings have become common in the Syrian war. Many analysts (but not all), say there has been a pattern of deliberate targeting, to demoralise and crush any resistance. Perhaps surprisingly, aid groups are now voluntarily giving the coordinates of their hospitals to those doing the bombing. In the worst case, they’re handing over a list of targets. But they do it because if a declared site is then bombed, the criminal intent of the bomber will be plain for all to see. “Deconfliction” may, for some at least, be a gut-wrenching gamble, but it’s becoming more and more routine.

    A map of Yemen with many red dots


    Keeping up standards

    #MeToo sex scandals spur interest in standards for the aid sector


    Aid agencies are loosely governed: their tax privileges may be tightly defined in their home countries, but their far-flung field operations have less regulatory scrutiny. How to detect bad apples? How to know if an agency meets minimum standards? Borrowing from international best practice in other business sectors, a Geneva-based independent audit scheme is working to make quality standards transparent in the humanitarian sector.

    Closeup of a document reading This is to certify


    Plug and play

    3D printing offers new hope for war-wounded


    Clunky, heavy, and ugly, a replacement arm for an amputee is too often left on a shelf, unused. A better, lighter (and maybe cheaper) alternative may be possible using 3D printing. This pilot scheme is trying out the technology for war-wounded and disabled patients in Jordan. Hype about humanitarian innovation may be in decline, but this is an experiment worth watching.

    A man on crutches and a doctor in physical therapy
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Humanitarian policy and practice
  • 2018 in Review: Local aid

    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.

    The aid sector has made broad commitments to “localise” aid by shifting more power and funding to humanitarians on the ground where crises hit. But change has been slow, and the costs of delivering aid in emergencies continue to soar.


    In sprawling refugee camps and ravaged disaster zones, however, local aid workers are already on the front lines of the world’s most pressing crises, as our 2018 reporting on local aid in emergencies demonstrated.


    Below are highlights from our reporting, which will continue to explore how these local humanitarians – from grassroots NGOs and community leaders to local governments and everyday citizens – step in to respond, and to examine how this shift impacts the wider aid sector.


    Aid sector imbalances

    From evacuee to humanitarian: aid goes local in conflict-torn Marawi


    Local humanitarians rushed to respond when fierce urban warfare and martial law turned the Philippine city of Marawi into a no-go zone for most international aid groups last year. But they also put themselves at immense risk, foregoing basic protections that international staff would demand – exposing imbalances in the aid sector.

    A woman with an umbrella stands on rubble as light breaks through


    Stepping in

    In the Caribbean, local aid helps tackle a surge in Venezuelan asylum seekers


    Venezuelans continue to flee their country, and the region is struggling to absorb the influx. In small Caribbean nations like Trinidad and Tobago – home to an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans – local aid groups are some of the only agencies helping the growing number of asylum seekers.

    closeup of a people in jeans as they sit waiting


    Agile response

    In Burkina Faso, a local drive to educate children fleeing extremist violence

    In 2018, jihadist attacks forced hundreds of schools to close in Burkina Faso’s north. One school in the capital, Ouagadougou, adapted to the emergency by taking in and providing psychological support to children displaced by the violence.

    Twins look directly at the camera in front of a chalkboard


    ‘Informal humanitarians’

    Behind Indonesia’s tsunami response, a patchwork army of volunteers


    Everyday volunteers are playing a crucial role in the ongoing response to the earthquakes and tsunami that hit Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province in 2018. These “informal humanitarians” were first on the ground, while official aid was hampered by damaged infrastructure and red tape. However, the effort was also “spontaneous and disorganised”, as one volunteer told IRIN.

    A woman with a headscarf and sunglasses on a boat carrying a box of aid on her lap


    Aid at home

    First person: Bringing aid to my neighbours in Hodeidah just got harder


    “The days are long, the dangers many, and the obstacles to aid workers’ jobs in Hodeidah never seem to end,” a local aid worker wrote in his on-the-ground account of the mounting challenges in Yemen’s Red Sea port.

    A family sits on the floor inside and looks up at the camera


    Slow-going reforms

    In Bangladesh, a Rohingya strike highlights growing refugee activism


    For proponents of the “localisation” agenda, the response to the Rohingya refugee emergency in Bangladesh is evidence of just how slow reforms have been: local aid groups say they’ve been pushed aside while dozens of big international agencies have flooded into the camps. But the voices of Rohingya refugees themselves have also been conspicuously absent.

    Three adult men in a white have a discussion inside a temporary structure



    Read more of our local aid coverage here. In 2019 we’ll deepen our reporting on local aid, spotlighting the new humanitarians on the front lines of crises around the globe, tracking progress toward “localisation” and examining the implications of this continuing shift. Any stories we should be covering? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here.

    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Local aid
  • 2018 in Review: Returns and rebuilding

    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.

    While it’s the death and destruction of wars and natural disasters that tend to grab headlines, civilians continue to suffer long after the television crews have packed up their cameras.


    Whether the cause is violence or an earthquake, civilians often return from a crisis to find their homes destroyed and the infrastructure – think water, healthcare, and schools – they once relied on decimated.


    The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes is growing: the UN says it rose from 59.5 million in 2014 to 68.5 million in 2017. IRIN has stayed on the story as these people, as well as refugees and migrants, go back home and try to rebuild their lives and communities.


    Here are some of the ways we covered rebuilding and returns in 2018:


    No way home

    In Iraq, families linked to so-called Islamic State suffer for their relatives’ sins

    Among the nearly two million Iraqis still displaced by the fight against IS are those with real or perceived ties to the militant group. Their communities don’t want them, their country doesn’t know what to do with them, and many are stuck in Iraq’s camps for the foreseeable future.

    closeup of a woman's hands with small markings as she sits on the floor


    Returning to nothing

    Razed villages and empty fields await Congo-Brazzaville’s displaced


    A December 2017 peace agreement sent some of the 108,000 people who fled fighting in the previous two years back home to Congo-Brazzaville, but our reporters found many homes had been burned to the ground, there was not enough food for returnees, and schools had been shuttered.

    A group of people in Republic of Congo sit outside their temporary shelter in various positions some smiling


    Slow and steady

    In Nepal, rushed earthquake rebuild leads to a mountain of debt

    Faster reconstruction isn’t always better. More than three years after a series of earthquakes and aftershocks in Nepal killed 9,000 people and turned parts of the country into rubble, a rush to meet deadlines for government help means people are taking on extra loans they can’t afford, and building new homes that are unlikely to withstand future earthquakes.

    A Nepalese man in a red coat repairs a roof with mountains in the background


    Turning the tide

    Returning from Libyan detention, young Gambians try to change the migration exodus mindset

    Among the thousands of Gambians who tried to make it to Europe only to be flown back from Libya’s squalid migrant detention centres is a group of young people now taking to the airwaves, streets, and social media to discourage others from making the same journey.

    A group of young men in a radio studio at mics


    A city destroyed

    First person: In Raqqa, you can’t go home again

    Raqqa is the former "capital" of so-called Islamic State, but for Syrian citizen journalist Mazen Hassoun it will always be his hometown. Now living in Europe, Hassoun describes what it’s like to hear from his friends and family about the destruction of the streets he once played in, as they try to rebuild their lives amidst the rubble.

    people working in rubble
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Returns and rebuilding
  • 2018 in Review: Women and girls

    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.

    Rape used as a weapon of war, the effects of climate change, the economic impact of conflict: women face greater risks during and after disasters.

    When it comes to humanitarian response, women are still often overlooked despite sector-wide commitments to better recognise their needs and include them in relief efforts.

    Meanwhile, abuse and harassment inside the very industry tasked with providing aid sometimes worsen the situation. Women and girls who are aid recipients can be doubly affected as they become victims, and some female aid workers have also been victimised – their relative positions of power unable to protect them.

    In 2018, as IRIN continued to highlight the challenges faced by some of the world’s most vulnerable women and girls, we also turned the spotlight on the inner workings of the aid sector, at a time when #AidToo tarnished the image of the industry.

    Below are highlights from our reporting.

    Aid’s MeToo Moment

    #MeToo, #AidToo, Exploitation and Abuse

    In revelations that shook the aid industry this year, NGOs including Oxfam, Save the Children, and the Red Cross along with a few UN agencies were implicated in sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation scandals. Our coverage identified failures in the system and helped to ask critical questions about the way forward.

    closeup of a woman's hands with fingers interlaced and blue sleeves

    UN victims

    Central African Republic: ‘I have no power to complain’

    Years after sexual abuse allegations were made against UN peacekeepers deployed in Central African Republic, IRIN’s Philip Kleinfeld visited CAR and spoke with women to reveal stark gaps in support and justice for victims, as well as new allegations from women who had not previously come forward.

    women walking across a road one stares into camera from a distance


    Rape as a weapon

    Nine months on, a race against time to find pregnant Rohingya rape survivors

    In 2017, Myanmar’s military was accused of widespread sexual violence in its crackdown on Rohingya communities. Nine months later, aid groups in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps prepared to identify and assist the women and girls who were made pregnant by rape.


    Climate and gender

    Opinion | What to do about climate change? Ask women – they have the most to lose


    Climate change affects everyone, but poor people who already live in the ecological margins are hit hardest – especially women, many of whom collect the firewood, fetch the water, and grow the food. So women must also be on the front lines of finding solutions. The struggle for climate justice and gender justice must go hand in hand.

    A woman walks in front of a temporary shelter with a water jug

    Displacement’s toll

    Rebuilding lives while awaiting peace in South Sudan

    In South Sudan, a country where 80 percent of those displaced are women and children, and where seven million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, it’s not easy for women to reclaim their livelihoods. But local initiatives are offering basic skills training to help some rebuild their futures.

    a woman at a sewing machine


    Community support

    Mosul: Overcoming the trauma of IS rule, one haircut at a time

    Post-war Mosul, a city freed from the grip of the so-called Islamic State, is still struggling to recover. In the absence of much in the way of mental health services, one place is now an unofficial group therapy session: the salon, where Iraqi women can gather among themselves to process the collective trauma of three years of terror.

    A woman walks into a hair salon at night


    Routine and risk

    First Person: Want to thwart human traffickers? Just add water


    Getting clean water is a huge challenge for displaced people in northeast Nigeria’s Borno State. With 75 percent of infrastructure destroyed due to conflict and insufficient supplies in displacement camps, many are forced to leave in search of boreholes. But for women and girls, this presents an additional threat – the risk of being trafficked.

    A group of people around a water spot
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Women and girls
    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.
  • In Burkina Faso, a local drive to educate children fleeing extremist violence

    When nine-year-old twins Jan and Jannick started their new school term at the beginning of October, they admitted that for the first time in years they weren’t scared to attend class.


    Months earlier, the family escaped Oursi – a Burkinabé town in the restive Sahel region – after the twins’ former school closed due to fighting and extremist attacks. The boys are among the lucky ones, able to continue their education safely 400 kilometres away in the capital, Ouagadougou, at a school started by a local couple.


    “Our parents decided to leave because of the jihadists,” says Jan, wearing a green uniform and sitting outside his new classroom. “We heard gunshots often at school. When fighting started, classes would stop.”


    “I was afraid when we left,” his brother Jannick says, remembering the day they fled Oursi. “We sat in a crowded bus with all of our luggage. There were jihadists in our town. They killed one of the teachers and kidnapped people.”


    Violence has been on the rise in Burkina Faso: from armed attacks by jihadists on villages, roadside bombs, kidnappings, and, earlier this year, targeted attacks on the army headquarters and the French embassy in the capital. The fighting has displaced almost 40,000 people, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, with an additional 7,000 fleeing across the border to Mali.


    Before they left Oursi, life was a daily struggle for the twins: their parents – a teacher and a businessman – both battled to earn an income or keep their jobs; and with frequent gunfire, more schools closed, officially putting their education on hold.


    Their former primary school is one of 473 (55 percent of the total) in the country’s Northern and Sahel regions forced to close because of this year’s violence, according to OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body. Some 65,000 pupils and more than 2,000 teachers were driven from schools in the northern borderlands, it said.


    Today the twins are safe at CEFISE, the centre for integrated education and training of the deaf and hearing, a local initiative committed to providing for the needs of all children, including those with disabilities and those like Jan and Jannick who fled armed conflict.


    A teacher and a student in front of a chalk board
    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    A class is in progress at CEFISE.

    But teachers say the boys, like other classmates, are still traumatised by their experiences.


    “Displacement affects children’s learning. Many are afraid and recall attacks,” explains Elie Bagbila, country director of Light for the World, a non-profit supporting CEFISE and helping children with disabilities. “At the same time, they have to get used to a new school and new teacher.”


    CEFISE has an annual tuition fee of roughly $300, but the school says education should be accessible to all, and fees are often reduced or covered by the school’s partners.


    While many other schools offer free education, they often lack resources, especially when it comes to helping disabled children or those who may have additional needs due to psychological trauma.


    Home-grown help


    “Children need to find a welcoming environment, otherwise they will never feel safe again,” Thérèse Kafando, CEFISE’s co-founder and director, tells IRIN.


    Together with her late husband, the couple started the institution 30 years ago, when, according to Kadando, “nobody saw the need for inclusive education” for the disabled or those suffering mental health problems.

    Even today, she says, there aren’t many schools like CEFISE; but the initiative is expanding. While a particular focus is put on children living with disabilities, the school’s unique curriculum – including on-site psychologists – makes it an open and welcoming environment for children who had to flee conflict.


    ☰ Read more: Why the aid sector wants to go local


    The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2017, the UN asked for a record $22.2 billion to cover 33 emergencies around the world. But the funding gap continues to widen as the price tag soars.


    What is local aid?


    The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.


    Why local aid?


    The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response by making it faster, less costly, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, they have local knowledge and skills, they can often access areas that international aid groups can’t reach, and they know the needs of their own communities.


    Who are local aid workers?


    Local humanitarian aid includes a broad spectrum of potential on-the-ground responders to crises and disasters: local NGOs, civil society groups and leaders, indigenous peoples, local governments, faith groups, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises, including displaced people and the everyday volunteers working to help their own communities.



    Sitting in her office, she is surrounded by awards and medals that student groups have won over the years. While she can’t put a number to exactly how many of her students fled conflict, she says that numbers are growing due to the recent uptick in violence. A total of over 4,000 students, more than 500 with disabilities, both from the capital and beyond, currently attend classes here.


    Initial funding for CEFISE first came out of Kafando’s own pocket. “I really believed in the concept and at first, we had to prove ourselves,” she says. “Today we receive some government support as well as training and funds from Light for the World, an organisation that works on inclusive education.”


    However, aid workers and organisations like Light for the World face their own challenges in Burkina Faso, including providing emergency education and serving the needs of disabled children in areas of conflict; increasingly difficult in the country’s Sahel region.


    “Our community-based rehabilitation workers, who visit remote villages to ensure that children with disabilities are cared for and receive an education, haven’t been able to access the northern regions they usually work in,” Bagbila explains. This is largely due to weighing risks and making sure that both beneficiaries and aid workers can be kept safe.


    Portrait of a woman
    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Thérèse Kafando, director of CEFISE and widow of the late founder, explains that all children are welcome at her school.

    “There are no easy solutions and children are especially affected in this conflict. They need to be in a place where they can access services,” he says.


    Schools under threat


    Burkina Faso is on the front lines of jihadism in the Sahel region and the situation continues to deteriorate. While the government tries to weaken the power of Islamist groups in the north, many people say they feel unsupported by a state that has weaker security forces than other West African nations.


    Providing education in this environment has been tough.


    Attacks or threats against schools have increased fear among the local population, especially teachers, UNICEF said in July. Violence and displacement have surged, and more than half  of those registered as internally displaced are children, according to OCHA.


    Children who haven’t fled as far as Ouagadougou often attend “safe schools”, either set up in IDP camps or in other areas were people have settled. The government has organised special remedial sessions for children who have missed exams due to conflict – most of these happening in the camps – but needs are growing too fast to be adequately met.


    Against this backdrop, initiatives like CEFISE in the relative safety of the capital continue to draw students, especially from the restive areas. While Ouagadougou has experienced violence, the larger military and UN presence arguably make it harder for armed groups to launch attacks there.


    In the Sahel region, families with disabled children face additional hardships. As one of the least urbanised countries in the world, Burkina Faso boasts high levels of poverty, and outside the cities jihadists target the most vulnerable.


    The government of Burkina Faso signed a law on the promotion and protection of persons with disabilities in 2010 but admits that most of the work is left to NGOs or local initiatives such as CEFISE.


    “Even with 20 percent of the national budget allocated for education, the government has little capacity and is overwhelmed when it comes to working with children with disabilities,” says Rasmata Ouédraogo, director for the promotion of inclusive education at the ministry of education.

    A shy 13-year-old girl with braided hair and wearing a summer dress, and who prefers not to be named, tells IRIN how she came to CEFISE a few years ago and now stays with distant relatives while her parents live in a camp in the north.


    Born deaf, she originally didn't attend school, but when the conflict intensified at home, her parents sent her to Ouagadougou. “Back home, I was scared because it wasn’t safe and I wasn’t able to hear anything,” she explains in sign language.


    Jan and Jannick recall struggles that children with disabilities face in their hometown Oursi, including fear, neglect, stigmatisation and ridicule.

    “There was a deaf boy and whenever we had to run away [from the fighting], he didn’t know what to do. It was more dangerous for him,” says Jan.


    For vulnerable children, and for those who have escaped conflict like Jan and Jannick, CEFISE has become a better alternative. Here, those needing psychological support have found care and a safe place to study alongside children living with physical as well as mental disabilities.


    But the twins still remember the other children in Oursi who have not been as lucky.


    Talking about his deaf friend back home, Jan says: “I think about him sometimes. It would be good for him if he was here too.”


    “I don’t think he is in school now,” he adds. “I don’t think most of my friends are in school.”



    Hundreds of schools have been forced to close in the north as jihadist attacks spread
    In Burkina Faso, a local drive to educate children fleeing extremist violence
  • In a Myanmar village, a bamboo fence separates Rohingya and Rakhine neighbours

    Ten-year-old Soe Min Aung can’t remember the last time he spoke with one of his Muslim neighbours: a bamboo fence has cleaved his community in half, separating his Rakhine Buddhist family from the Rohingya on the other side.


    Stakes of wood have been pounded into the middle of the dusty path that once joined the Rakhine and Rohingya sides of Pam Mraung, a village of 500 people located four hours north of the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe.


    The Rakhine villagers erected the fence six years ago, when a wave of race-fuelled riots swept over parts of the state and spilled into other areas of Myanmar. Buddhists and Muslims attacked each other, fed by rumours and hate speech that tapped into generations of distrust.


    "It's better we don't live together with the Kalar," said Maung Win, a Rakhine farmer who lives near the fence. He used a derogatory term for Muslims in Myanmar, a diverse but majority-Buddhist country.

    While such fences aren’t the norm in mixed villages in Rakhine, communities throughout the state are still deeply divided.

    More than 700,000 Rohingya fled a violent military purge in the northern townships last August. Myanmar’s government says its military was responding to border attacks by a small group of Rohingya fighters; a UN investigation says the military response was organised, pre-planned, and likely amounts to genocide.


    Communities across the state continue to be split by a gulf of misunderstanding, fear, and apartheid-like policies that isolate the Rohingya from their Rakhine neighbours.

    But even in villages like Pam Mraung, important economic ties tether the divided communities together: Rohingya send their children to sell fish to the Rakhine villagers; the Rakhine sell the Rohingya vegetables, or bottles of purified water. Researchers say such links may one day help build trust between the two sides.


    But the longer the restrictions remain in place, rights groups warn, the more difficult it will be for the communities to learn to live together again.


    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Rohingya work at a river near Pam Mraung village. The two communities are physically separated, but economic relationships still tie Rohingya and Rakhine together.

    “We just don’t want any trouble”


    While international media attention centred on last year's Rohingya refugee exodus from the north, the flashpoint for those who live elsewhere in Rakhine was the violence in 2012.


    ☰ Read more: Those who stayed – Myanmar’s remaining Rohingya


    The Rohingya were excluded from Myanmar’s 2014 census, making it hard to know how many of them are left in the country after last year’s exodus, when more than 700,000 Rohingya fled into neighbouring Bangladesh.


    The UN has estimated that 470,000 “non-displaced” Rohingya still lived in Rakhine State at the end of 2017. In addition, more than 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya are confined to multiple camps, which are mostly concentrated around the capital, Sittwe.


    The government has said it intends to close the camps, which was one of dozens of recommendations made last year in a commission on Rakhine State chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.


    However, rights groups have said this could entrench the existing segregation if Rohingya are simply moved elsewhere and continue to be denied basic rights such as freedom of movement.


    In mid-November, an attempt to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar failed after the refugees refused to return to Rakhine State.


    And some Rohingya are still trying to flee the state. On 16 November, Myanmar authorities said they had arrested 106 Rohingya on a stranded boat near Yangon. The Rohingya had reportedly left displacement camps in Rakhine State to try and reach Malaysia. Police said they later shot and injured four Rohingya men in Ah Nauk Ye, an IDP camp east of Sittwe, after detaining two men alleged to have helped smuggle the group.


    After the riots, Rakhine in Pam Mraung pieced together the fence, blocking off the Buddhist and Muslim sides of the village. Today, the wooden posts are joined together by a bamboo lattice, which is replaced a couple of times each year.


    Through the holes in the fence, Rakhine villagers can see their Rohingya neighbours, and their Rohingya neighbours can see the Rakhine. But meaningful interaction is limited.


    Instead, rumours and distrust fester. The further away from the fence the Rakhine villagers live, the more horrific the stories become. "During the violence in 2012 two women were disembowelled by the Kalar," said one Rakhine woman, lowering her voice. Her home is a five-minute walk from the fence, toward the far end of the Rakhine side.


    Maung Win, the farmer, hadn’t heard of the killing the woman described. "I see the Muslims every day and we sleep pretty well here," he said, laughing.


    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Maung Win, an ethnic Rakhine, lives near the fence that splits Pam Mraung village in half.

    Still, he thinks the two communities are better off apart. He believes the Rohingya are thieves and drunks. “We just don't want any trouble," he explained.


    Kept apart


    Longtime divisions between Rakhine and Rohingya communities have been reinforced by years of apartheid-like policies that have institutionalised segregation. The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and are broadly derided as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though they say Rakhine State is their rightful home.


    After the 2012 riots, the government forced about 120,000 people, mostly Rohingya, into barren camps, where they remain cut off from their former villages and livelihoods and almost completely dependent on humanitarian groups for survival.


    But Rohingya living elsewhere in the state also face strict curfews, heavy restrictions on their movements, and difficulty accessing hospitals and schools. Rights group Amnesty International says that Rohingya children in some areas aren’t allowed to attend classes with Rakhine children; in others, government teachers refuse to teach in Muslim areas. Amnesty says these policies amount to apartheid – a crime against humanity under international humanitarian law.


    "The movement restrictions mean a teenager with something as simple to treat as a small, infected wound cannot access care and medicine to heal it,” said Elise Tillet-Dagousset, a human rights researcher who authored the group’s study on apartheid policies in Myanmar.


    “It means a father cannot visit his daughter who has been detained for travelling without a permit. It means a five-year-old child would have never met someone who is not from his village or community.”


    Along the shoreline of a river near Pam Mraung, Mohammed Saed, a 19-year-old who lives on the Rohingya side of the village, stood shielding his eyes from the late afternoon sun. He had been transporting stones across the river all day long. He is paid to do so by a Rakhine neighbour.


    While the monetary exchange keeps him connected to the Rakhine side of the village, much of Saed’s daily life is still defined by animosity and official neglect toward his community. The fence that separates him from his Rakhine neighbours is a lesser problem than the wider restrictions that marginalise the Rohingya.


    He doesn’t remember the last time a government teacher came to instruct children on the Rohingya side of his village. If he wants to visit a neighbouring village, he has to pay local authorities a bribe of about 50,000 kyat – roughly $30, or a quarter of his monthly salary. And he’s mindful of the nightly curfews that the Rohingya must adhere to, and of his Rakhine neighbours.


    As the sun began to set, Saed grew visibly nervous: “I need to be back in my village before 5pm or there will be trouble.”


    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Mohammed Saed, a 19-year-old Rohingya man, works for one of his Rakhine neighbours. He faces daily restrictions that severely limit where he can go.

    Ties that bind


    Yet even amid the deeply entrenched segregation, generations-old economic relationships still link the Rohingya and the Rakhine.


    "In many cases, economic interactions are the main or only tie left to connect the two communities," said Anthony Ware, a researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne. He has studied social cohesion in Rakhine State since 2011 and is working on a study examining what still ties the Buddhist and Muslim communities together.


    Trade between villages and interdependence in agriculture – Rakhine hiring Rohingya to plant rice, for example, or sharing the costs of rice-threshing machines – were the first things that were restored after last year’s violence, he said.


    While the economic relationship is rarely equal, with Muslims being far more vulnerable to exploitation than the Rakhine, Ware said such everyday interactions may slowly rebuild trust and overcome tensions.


    “If you regularly interact and talk to each other, then minor issues are less likely to become big problems,” he said.


    In his work with local researchers, Ware has seen villages where Rohingya and Rakhine re-established social connections through such business ties. He has even seen communities where the two sides had begun to play Chinlone – Myanmar’s popular national sport, played with a rattan ball.


    “Given how deep the tensions run, finding villages like this is astonishing,” he said.


    There are no inter-communal games of Chinlone in divided Pam Mraung. But back on the Rakhine side of the village, farmer Maung Win wondered what life might be like without the fence. Business might improve, he thought, if he could sell his produce to more customers.


    “Maybe it would be better if there was no fence,” he said. “Better for selling my crops.” Then he looked around warily, in case anyone was listening.


    For now, the youngest generation on the Rakhine side of Pam Mraung are growing up knowing only segregation and distrust.


    “Not afraid. I am not afraid of the Kalar,” said Soe Min Aung, the 10-year-old Rakhine child. The other children around him giggled. He doesn’t remember a time when things were any different.


    Do he or his friends ever venture to the other side to play with the Muslim children? He looks puzzled. No, he would never do that, he said. There’s a fence.

    (TOP PHOTO: Rakhine and Rohingya neighbours in Pam Mraung village can see each other through holes in the fence. CREDIT: Verena Hölzl/IRIN)


    “It's better we don't live together”
    In a Myanmar village, a bamboo fence separates Rohingya and Rakhine neighbours
  • “Do no digital harm”

    Refugees can pay for groceries with the blink of an eye in Jordan, interactive maps track thousands of people on the move in Syria, a plastic ration card can hold a whole Rohingya family’s details. More digital innovations for humanitarian work are on the horizon, too. But at what risk?

    Plenty, according to a panel on handling sensitive data in humanitarian contexts, the first time the topic was discussed as part of the Humanitarian Congress Berlin. As aid delivery and end-user registration are increasingly digitised, sensitive data on millions of the world’s most vulnerable populations could be hacked, sold, or shared with abusive governments. The humanitarian sector must start asking itself how, as one panellist put it, to “do no digital harm”.

    IRIN senior editor Ben Parker moderated the four-member panel that brought together representatives from the humanitarian and private sectors. Nora Dettmer, a member of the event’s steering committee, noted that “though data collection and analysis offer exciting opportunities… it also comes with serious risk.”  

    Yet digitalisation and data don’t just spell risk, as the panelists pointed out; they also mean that recipients of humanitarian aid have more tools to find information, make decisions and stay in touch with loved ones. “It's no longer only food, shelter, or water when they reach a humanitarian organization,” ICRC data protection officer and panelist Maria-Elena Ciccolini said. “They will ask for connectivity.”

    Karl Steinacker said that the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), where he heads the Global Service Centre, is heavily invested in the use of biometrics (for example, fingerprints and iris scans) for identifying refugees. Steinacker said his agency tries to limit risk with strategies like minimising the amount of data recorded. With less information, held for shorter periods of time, any data breach would cause less damage.

    It’s right to consider new technologies, but innovations, including blockchain and biometrics, should not be brought in just for their novelty value or future promises of efficiency, Zara Rahman, a researcher at consultancy The Engine Room, noted. Humanitarian workers are used to making fast decisions, but “being slow, and thoughtful, and intentional is a key part of doing it right,” she said.

    Paul Currion, COO of Disberse, suggested that a digital “apocalypse” in society has already begun in terms of privacy and personal control over data. He cautioned that the humanitarian sector may only wake up to the risks if there is a catastrophic data breach, putting vulnerable people at even more risk.

    Those risks may sometimes lurk in plain sight, as a few people at the discussion – including a panelist – found out. Parker had set up a fake WiFi network, a tempting alternative to often slow internet access at the event. About 12 people had logged on to it by the time the panel started – an unwise move in network security. Why? “I made it and it's not secure and it's not what the organisers gave you,” Parker chided.

    Highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, are excerpted below.

    Video of the full conversation is online here.



    Maria-Elena Ciccolini, Deputy Data Protection Officer for Europe and Central Asia, International Committee of the Red Cross

    Paul Currion, Chief Operating Officer, Disberse

    Zara Rahman, Research and Engagement Team Lead, The Engine Room

    Karl Steinacker, Head Global Service Center, Copenhagen, UNHCR

    On privacy and consent to use aid recipients’ data

    Maria-Elena Ciccolini: “You can't just analyze or reprocess the data for a purpose that is not reasonably expected by the data subject… You do not have a blanket authorization just because people consented to provide you the data for a specific purpose.”

    Zara Rahman: “Would we be okay with this kind of disclosure or this kind of data collection if it were for ourselves?”

    Karl Steinacker: “It is true that we have not designed our systems [with] ‘privacy by design’ or ‘privacy by default’… we have to do a retrofit. The High Commissioner does indeed want refugees to have agency over their data. But in order to have agency over your data, in order to manage your data, that data has to be credible.”

    Maria-Elena Ciccolini: “Consent is the preferred legal basis to collect and process data, but we realize it cannot be used in many instances, and we would prefer, for example, public interest or vital interest, which gives us the same duty of informing the people from whom we collect data.”

    On power imbalances in the humanitarian sector

    Currion: “By giving them [affected people] connectivity, you give them access to information, potentially you give them more power, and this is something that the humanitarian community has obviously struggled with greatly over the years.”

    Rahman: “The humanitarian space is probably home to what must be the biggest power asymmetry between the people who are gathering the data versus the people from whom the data is being gathered… I think the way in which we see the power asymmetry playing out is in ownership of the data.”

    Currion: “This is not about data; this is about power. And we should always remember that. Don't get distracted by the technology. Don't get distracted by the hype.”

    Ciccolini: “We deal with people that sometimes have a very low level of education or data literacy. How can we pass all these messages about new technology or even more basic messages? And from a data protection point of view, it is, how can we say that consent is informed and valid?”


    On the risks of collecting and storing data

    Currion: “We need to test. We need to experiment. Now, it's not good to experiment on vulnerable communities. It's good to experiment on ourselves as organisations and humanitarians first.”

    Rahman: “Biometric data is one that I worry specifically about, just because it's immutable, it's permanent. It can't be changed by the individual. It really takes away a lot of the kind of potential agency that people could have.”

    Steinacker: “If you deal with hundreds of thousands, with millions of people walking in, how much time [do] you spend on the assessment before you start the action — the humanitarian action, that is?”

    Rahman: “I would love for everyone to see data as more of a toxic asset, rather than a thing that they should be collecting more and more of.”


    On commercial interests and weighing the benefits of big data

    Currion: “Historically, the humanitarian sector is insanely bad at connecting information that it gathers to decisions that it makes. We're not good at evidence-based decision-making. … Should we be collecting this data, should we be doing this analysis? I'd say maybe, but I'd like to see that actually there was some evidence that we were using that to make better decisions.”

    Steinacker: UNHCR would be “irrelevant” and “risk the welfare and the protection of refugees if we would not try to go this way and do it right. So the question is not whether or not we do it. The question is whether we do it right.”

    Ciccolini: “It's not just about risk for our beneficiaries. It also has an impact on our reputation. So I don't think that just a very nice deal or a very good price would make us let go on our principles.”

    Steinacker: “I think it's not only technology which will define the future. It's exactly that relationship between the private sector, the commercial sector and the aid industry – which has been so far, to a certain extent at least, non-commercialised – which will define how this thing is going forward.”

    Graphics: Event cartoonist Claudia Meier of GPPi


    A conversation on handling sensitive data
    “Do no digital harm”
  • Abuses and disappearances mar Nigerian counter-insurgency campaign

    Hajja Gana last saw her son six years ago when soldiers took him away in an early morning raid in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, accusing him of being a Boko Haram terrorist. She has no idea whether he is alive or dead.


    Gana denies that her son, Mustapha Say’ina, then aged 25, was ever a member of the jihadist group. She insists this was a case of mistaken identity, and says the soldiers addressed Say’ina by another name when they questioned him in her home and that his phone number was not on the list they had.

    The soldiers nevertheless beat his six-month-pregnant wife as she protested his innocence and then took him away, she said.


    “They said they just wanted to ask him some questions and would bring him back,” recalls Gana.


     “I never saw him again.”


    Obi Anyadike/IRIN
    Soldiers took Hajja Gana's son away six years ago, accusing him of being a terrorist. She doesn't know whether he is alive or dead.

    The way men like Say’ina disappear violates international law, but also harms the government’s chances in the decade-long war against Boko Haram. According to the UN Development Programme, over 70 percent of African jihadists interviewed for a 2017 report said they had picked up a gun in response to “government action” – including the killing or arrest of family members and friends.


    Abas Yerima* is walking evidence. He was arrested at a funeral of a neighbour shot by the army for allegedly being a Boko Haram member. Yerima was among 120 young men picked up that day in 2012, seemingly on the grounds of guilt by association, and taken to the notorious Giwa Barracks detention facility in Maiduguri.


    Conditions in the overcrowded, unventilated cells are appalling, say former detainees and international rights groups. According to Amnesty International, at least 149 detainees died from hunger or mistreatment from January to April 2016 alone – an allegation the Nigerian government has denied.




    Yerima remembers there was never enough food or water, hundreds of inmates shared a single overflowing bucket as a toilet, there were beatings and people died daily. Only 25 of the 120 men arrested with him survived, he said.


    The facility was then under the control of military intelligence (it’s now run by the military police), yet Yerima said he was never interrogated in the two years he was there. He added that the army appeared to assume the men’s guilt, then ignored whatever information the supposed Boko Haram detainees could provide.


    “They just expected us to die,” Yerima said of the cell guards. Some enjoyed taunting the prisoners: “They used to say, ‘You haven’t died yet?’”


    Despite repeated interview requests from IRIN, neither the army command in Maiduguri or Abuja agreed to discuss these allegations.


    Yerima escaped in 2014, when Boko Haram fighters attacked Giwa, triggering a mass breakout. Yerima made it into the surrounding bush, where Boko Haram members gathered the survivors, piled them into vehicles, and took them to their base in Sambisa Forest.


    A few days later, Boko Haram made an offer: those that didn’t want to join would be given the equivalent of $50 each and could leave unharmed.

    Very few took the money, some possibly distrusting that the Boko Haram fighters would keep their word, said Yerima. But he was clear why he chose to stay: “I thought about how I had suffered, how I had been maltreated [by the army],” he explained.


    Yerima quickly grew disillusioned, unable to square the indiscriminate killing of civilians by Boko Haram with his understanding of Islam. He escaped seven months later. But he knows men from his prison cell, not originally Boko Haram, who chose to stay and fight on with the Islamist insurgency.


    Hearts and minds


    A key challenge for government soldiers in a counter-insurgency conflict is how to identify the enemy. It’s at the core of winning hearts and minds, but the Nigerian army is regularly accused by human rights groups of failing the test, killing and detaining civilians it then claims are terrorists.


    Boko Haram exerts strict control over the villages in the remote rural areas of Borno State in which it operates. The villagers – known as “awam” – are there to serve the “rijal” – the fighting men – by providing free labour, and in the case of women who are forbidden to leave the house to farm, “wives”. Boko Haram does not arm the awam and continually suspects them of trying to escape, for which the punishment for men is automatic execution, according to internally displaced persons (IDPs) interviewed by IRIN.


    In late 2015 and early 2016, an army advance in the Boboshe area of the northeast created an opportunity for villagers to flee to government-controlled towns, where they were “screened”. What that meant in practice was the men of fighting age were separated from the women, detained, and then sent to the Giwa Barracks, IDPs from the area told IRIN.


    The women meanwhile were kept in dire conditions at the Bama Hospital Camp, with little food or water, several people who were detained there told IRIN. They said they also faced sexual abuse by the army and local vigilante.


    “We were treated like animals,” one woman, who said she was visibly pregnant yet raped twice and punched in the stomach, told IRIN. “The radio told us to come out [from Boko Haram control]. We thought we were coming to safety.”

    The last time she saw her husband was outside Bama prison, he was so badly beaten he couldn’t tie the drawstring of his trousers. She doesn’t know if he has survived Giwa or if he’s in another detention facility. She insists he was a farmer who didn’t deserve to be arrested. Her children still ask why the army took him.


     “What can I say – do you think they will ever trust this government again?”


    Giwa serves as a holding facility with detainees kept under “administrative custody”. From there, a determination is eventually made as to whether they are sent to Maiduguri maximum security prison, or the army’s “Safe Corridor” deradicalisation programme. While ostensibly designed for Boko Haram defectors, many of the graduates of this programme IRIN met insisted they were civilians with no association with the insurgency.


    Other detainees – seen as having no case to answer – are freed and then spend time in a government-run transit centre. But it is an ad hoc process.



    After detention


    Mohamed Yunus,* 15, was released from Giwa in January after being locked up for 18 months. He had arrived in Maiduguri with a group of people fleeing Boko Haram-controlled Boboshe and was held for preliminary screening for two weeks at the entrance to the city.


    After IDPs from Boboshe vouched for him, he was released and assigned a tent in the nearby Muna camp, and then went to the local market to look around. That’s where he and some friends were picked up by an army patrol and taken to Giwa. “Nobody tells you why you are there or what you are supposed to have done,” Yunus said.

    “I’m very angry with the government, they made my life horrible. If it wasn’t for the Red Cross feeding us we would be dead.”

    He was assigned to Cell 7, the children’s cell, which is less crowded and unsanitary than those holding the men. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been granted access to Giwa, and food is now distributed more regularly, drinking water is accessible, and each cell has a “long drop” latrine rather than an overflowing bucket. Deaths are still common, though, former detainees told IRIN.


    Of the 270 boys in Yunus’s cell, he said none ever admitted they were Boko Haram members – just that they were village youth like him. He had left Boboshe to escape Boko Haram, fearing the group would eventually force him to join “or kill us or our parents if we refused”.


    Yet instead of finding safety, he wound up in Giwa. “I’m very angry with the government, they made my life horrible,” Yunus told IRIN. “If it wasn’t for the Red Cross feeding us we would be dead.” Yet his anger over the “injustice” he’s faced does not translate into support for Boko Haram, whose violence he condemns.


    Yunus, like other former Giwa detainees, spent a few months in the Bulumkutu transit centre in Maiduguri. According to UNICEF, which works with the government to provide medical and psychosocial care for children and women ex-detainees, a total of 2,166 people have been released from Giwa since June 2016. Of those, 1,521 were children. (At any one time, the facility holds an estimated 1,400 people, but official figures are unavailable.)


    All are in bad shape when they first arrive, a social worker at the centre who requested anonymity told IRIN. “Some are malnourished with swollen limbs,” the worker said. “Some can’t even talk [they are so traumatized] – especially the elderly.”


    For Hajja Gana, she’ll be happy to get her son back, whatever condition he is in. A civil servant two years from retirement, she has sunk what little spare money she has in searching for Say’ina, visiting jails across northern Nigeria based on tip-offs from security officials (for which she has had to pay) or ex-detainees who say they were incarcerated with him.


    “I’m suffering now,” she said. If she finds him, she added, allowing herself a faint bit of hope, “my old age will disappear.”  

    (TOP PHOTO: Internally displaced people line upwatched over by a civilian joint task force member at a food distribution point in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria. CREDIT: Ashley Gilbertson VII Photo/UNICEF)



    *  Aside from Hajja Gana and her son, all names have been changed.

    *“Boko Haram” refers both to Abubaker Shekau’s Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad (JAS) faction and rival Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) led by Abu-Musab al-Barnawi

    The army’s indiscriminate arrests risk bolstering the Boko Haram insurgency
    Abuses and disappearances mar Nigerian counter-insurgency campaign
  • WTF? A guide to disaster aid acronyms

    International disaster responders have a language all of their own. Things like this would make total sense: “UNDAC are on the ground, and linking with the HCT. Needs include CRI, AAP, WASH, and CMCoord, and pledges are updated in FTS. It can’t be long before an IA RTE and some kind of MIRA-style NA is underway, even while SAR should follow INSARAG guidelines – including K9s.”

    First published during the response to the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, this article was updated following the earthquake and tsunami affecting Central Sulawesi in Indonesia.


    The latest on the tsunami disaster in Indonesia


    Local and international aid responders are still facing challenges reaching remote areas hit by earthquakes and a tsunami that struck Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province on 28 September.


    As of 3 October, Indonesian authorities said there were more than 1,400 confirmed deaths. These numbers are expected to rise as search and rescue teams reach areas blocked off by landslides and debris. The government and aid groups say they still don’t know the full scale of the damage.


    Rescue teams have been hampered by a lack of heavy equipment, fuel, and electricity shortages. The main air and seaports in heavily damaged Palu, the provincial capital, are only partially functional, while blocked roads have slowed the arrival of relief supplies over land.


    The Indonesian government is leading the response but has said it will accept international aid on a case-by-case basis. A multitude of international aid agencies and donors have offered to help and some have started to arrive. Local NGOs, local authorities, the Red Cross, and volunteers from surrounding communities have shouldered the bulk of the response so far.


    Here’s your (TL;DR) guide to the serious, but clanking machinery of international relief acronymage:

    AAP: Accountability to Affected Populations – Accountability has been a buzzword in aid for years now, and gaining in prominence as an issue. The improvement of two-way communication between aid agencies and their clients – or “beneficiaries” – is now often wrapped up in AAP.  Related terms include CwC – Communicating with Communities – and CDAC – Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities.

    AHA: This regional coordination body is providing support to the Indonesian government and its handling of international offers of help. It's an acronym wrapped in another acronym (is there a word for that?):  the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance. Oh, it's also connected to the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management (ACDM).

    BNPB: Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana – the national disaster management authority of Indonesia.

    CMCoord: Civil-Military Coordination. Aka CIMIC or CIVMIL. The often strained relationship between aid agencies and militaries has its own specialist roles and policies. (h/t Oliver Lacey-Hall)

    CRI: Core Relief Item – this is a new entry – it's a catch-all term for tarpaulins, buckets, cooking pots, and all manner of items distributed after a disaster. The term CRI looks set to take over from the awkward term, NFI (see below).

    FTS: The UN’s Financial Tracking Service. Updated in real time, it tracks pledges and actual contributions made towards humanitarian response around the world.

    GDACS: Global Disaster Alerting Coordination System – a web-based kitchen sink of semi-automated information tools, maps, and resources used by disaster responders. GDACS hosts the VSOSOCC (see below).


    HC: During an emergency or in a country prone to disasters, a Humanitarian Coordinator may be designated to coordinate both UN and non-UN international humanitarian action in liaison with government. In that case, the HC chairs an HCT (Humanitarian Country Team), comprising major international aid agencies as well as local aid groups and, most of the time, the host government. The HC is usually, but not always, the same person as the RC (UN Resident Coordinator). When the two hats are worn by one individual, as is the case now with Anita Nirody in Indonesia, he or she is known by the title RC/HC.


    IA RTE: Inter-Agency Real-Time Evaluation. Mandated by the IASC (see below), IA RTEs are commissioned reports in the first few weeks and months of a new emergency to give quick feedback on gaps, access constraints, potential threats, and quality of the humanitarian response.

    IASC: Inter-Agency Standing Committee. Grouping UN agencies, NGOs, the Red Cross, and other international organisations, the IASC is a forum for humanitarian responders to develop policies, agree on a clear division of responsibility for the various aspects of humanitarian assistance and identify gaps in response. Weaknesses in the humanitarian system exposed by disasters in Pakistan and Haiti led to a process of IASC reform, called the "Transformative Agenda" – TA. (Those who work on the TA are the STAIT – The Senior Transformative Agenda Implementation Team). Oh, wait, that’s now become the P2P – the Peer to Peer Support Team – thanks @ICVARefugee for that one.


    INSARAG: International Search and Rescue Advisory Group. Under a UN umbrella, this network of more than 80 countries and organisations establishes minimum standards for search and rescue and a methodology for international coordination in earthquake response.

    K9: Canine. Sniffer dogs used by USARs and ISARs.


    L3: Level 3 emergency. This is the IASC classification for the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises. The classification should activate a faster mobilisation of human and financial resources, and is based on five criteria: scale, complexity, urgency, capacity, and reputational risk.

    MIRA: Multi-Cluster Initial Rapid Assessment. Developed by the IASC to identify strategic humanitarian priorities during the first weeks following an emergency, carried out by a team of emergency specialists from various sectors. MIRA is a flavour of NA – Needs Assessment.

    NFI: Non-food items. The category is a catch-all for non-medical supplies including mattresses, household items, hygiene kits, tents, buckets, tarpaulins and so on. Term heading out of fashion – see CRI above.

    OSOCC:  On-Site Operations Coordination Centre. Developed by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to assist countries in coordinating international search-and-rescue efforts following an earthquake. Its private online workspace is called the Virtual OSOCC (VOSOCC). On the ground it has one or more BOOs - Bases of Operation.

    RC/RC: Red Cross/Red Crescent – National societies of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement can choose to use a cross, crescent, or a “crystal” emblem. To acknowledge the multi-faith implications and not mix things up with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC, that’s another story), disaster texts will often use RC/RC to refer to all the national  movements’ members. 

    SASOP: Standard Operating Procedure for Regional Standby Arrangements and Coordination of Joint Disaster Relief and Emergency Response Operations – a term coined by ASEAN and a process that is now being used to filter offers of help.


    UNDAC: United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination. UNDAC teams are deploying to Indonesia to help the UN and government during the first phase of the response. UNDAC (its new handbook has just been published) also assists in the coordination of incoming international relief.


    USAR: Urban Search And Rescue. When search and rescue teams are deployed internationally, they may be called ISARs. They often are combined with FMTs – Foreign Medical Teams or EMTs – Emergency Medical Teams.


    WASH: WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene. All of which are often lacking in the aftermath of a disaster and can lead to the spread of disease.



    WTF? A guide to disaster aid acronyms
    Your guide to disaster alphabet soup: Updated October 2018
  • Reporter’s Diary: Back to Lesvos

    I first visited the Greek island of Lesvos in 2016. It was the tail end of the great migration that saw over a million people cross from Turkey to Greece in the span of a year. Even then, Moria, the camp set up to house the refugees streaming across the sea, was overcrowded and squalid.

    I recently returned to discover that conditions have only become worse and the people forced to spend time inside its barbed wire fences have only grown more desperate. The regional government is now threatening to close Moria if the national government doesn’t clean up the camp.


    Parts of Lesvos look like an island paradise. Its sandy beaches end abruptly at the turquoise waters of the Aegean Sea, houses with red tile roofs are clustered together in small towns, and olive trees blanket its rocky hills. When I visited last month, the summer sun had bleached the grass yellow, wooden fishing boats bobbed in the harbor, and people on holiday splashed in the surf. But in Moria sewage was flowing into tents, reports of sexual abuse were on the rise, and overcrowding was so severe the UN described the situation at Greece’s most populous refugee camp as “reaching boiling point”.


    More than one million people fleeing war and violence in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan crossed from Turkey to the Greek islands between January 2015 and early 2016. Over half of them first set foot in Greece, and on European soil, in Lesvos. But in March 2016, the European Union and Turkey signed an agreement that led to a dramatic reduction in the number of people arriving to Greece. So far this year, just over 17,000 people have landed on the islands. At times in 2015, more than 10,000 people would arrive on Lesvos in a single day.

    Public health inspectors deemed the camp “unsuitable and dangerous for public health and the environment”.

    Despite the drop in numbers, the saga isn’t over, and visiting Lesvos today is a stark reminder of that. Thousands of people are still stranded on the island and, shortly after I left, the regional governor threatened to close Moria, citing “uncontrollable amounts of waste”, broken sewage pipes, and overflowing rubbish bins. Public health inspectors deemed the camp “unsuitable and dangerous for public health and the environment”. Soon after, a group of 19 NGOs said in a statement that “it is nothing short of shameful that people are expected to endure such horrific conditions on European soil.”


    The Greek government is under increasing pressure to house refugees on the mainland – where conditions for refugees are also poor – but right now no one really knows what would happen to those on Lesvos should Moria be closed down.


    Razor wire and hunger strikes


    In some places in the north and the east, Lesvos is separated from Turkey by a strait no wider than 10 or 15 kilometres. This narrow distance is what makes the island such an appealing destination for those desperate to reach Europe. From the Turkish seaside town of Ayvalik, the ferry to Lesvos takes less than an hour. I sat on the upper deck as it churned across the sea in April 2016, a month after Macedonia shut its border to refugees crossing from Greece, effectively closing the route that more than a million people had taken to reach Western Europe the previous year.


    The Greek government had been slow to respond when large numbers of refugees started landing on its shores. Volunteers and NGOs stepped in to provide the services that people needed. On Lesvos there were volunteer-run camps providing shelter, food, and medical assistance to new arrivals. But the EU-Turkey deal required that people be kept in official camps like Moria so they could be processed and potentially deported.


    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Graffiti on Moria's outer wall.

    By the time I got there, the volunteer-run camps were being dismantled and the people staying in them were being corralled into Moria, a former military base. Once inside, people weren’t allowed to leave, a policy enforced by multiple layers of fences topped in spools of razor wire.


    Moria had space for around 2,500 people, but even in 2016 it was already over capacity. While walking along the perimeter I scrawled my phone number on a piece of paper, wrapped it around a rock, and threw it over the fence to an Iranian refugee named Mohamed.


    For months afterwards he sent me pictures and videos of women and children sleeping on the ground, bathrooms flooded with water and dirt, and people staging hunger strikes inside the camp to protest the squalid conditions.  


    “The image of Europe is a lie”


    Two and a half years later, refugees now have more freedom of movement on Lesvos – they can move about the island but not leave it.


    I arrived in Mytilene, the main city on the island, in August. At first glance it was easy to forget that these were people who had fled wars and risked their lives to cross the sea. People were queuing at cash points to withdraw their monthly 90 euro ($104) stipends from UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. Some sat at restaurants that served Greek kebabs, enjoyed ice cream cones in the afternoon heat, or walked along the sidewalks pushing babies in strollers next to tourists and locals.

    The conditions on Lesvos break people down.

    The illusion of normalcy melted away at the bus stop where people waited to catch a ride back to Moria. There were no Greeks or tourists standing in line, and the bus that arrived advertised its destination in Arabic and English. Buildings along the winding road inland were spray-painted with graffiti saying “stop deportations” and “no human is illegal”.

    Moria is located in a shallow valley between olive groves. It looked more or less the same as it had two and a half years ago. Fences topped with razor wire stilled ringed the prefabricated buildings and tents inside. A collection of cafes outside the fences had expanded, and people calling out in Arabic hawked fruits and vegetables from carts as people filtered in and out of the main gate.  


    Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that more than 8,000 people now live in Moria; an annex has sprung up outside the fences. People shuffled along a narrow path separating the annex from the main camp or sat in the shade smoking cigarettes, women washed dishes and clothing at outdoor faucets, and streams of foul-smelling liquid leaked out from under latrines.


    I met a group of young Palestinian men at a cafe. “The image of Europe is a lie,” one of them told me. They described how the food in the camp was terrible, how criminals had slipped in, and how violence regularly broke out because of the stress and anger caused by the overcrowding and poor conditions.


    A doctor who volunteers in Moria later told me that self-harm and suicide attempts are common and sexual violence is pervasive. It takes at least six months, and sometimes up to a year and a half, for people to have their asylum claims processed. If accepted, they are given a document that allows them to travel to mainland Greece. If denied, they are sent to Turkey. In the meantime, the conditions on Lesvos break people down.


    “Ninety-nine percent of refugees... [are] vulnerable because of what happened to them in their home country [and] what happened to them during the crossing of borders,” Jalal Barekzai, an Afghan refugee who volunteers with NGOs in Lesvos, told me. “When they are arriving here they have to stay in Moria in this bad condition. They get more and more vulnerable.”


    Many of the problems that existed in April 2016 when people were first rounded up into Moria, and when I first visited Lesvos, still exist today. They have only been amplified by time and neglect.


    Jalal said the international community has abandoned those stuck on the island. “They want Moria,” he said. “Moria is a good thing for them to keep people away.”

    Reporter’s Diary offers personal perspectives on humanitarian emergencies from our correspondents in the field.


    Reporter’s Diary: Back to Lesvos

Support our work

Donate now