(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • As quake-prone Asia urbanises, shoddy construction raises disaster risk

    More than half a million people killed, 1.4 million injured, and 80 percent of buildings damaged in Bangladesh’s three largest cities: That’s the “worst-case scenario” outlined in an unpublished draft contingency plan for a large earthquake.
    The information may change by the time the plan is completed later this year, cautioned Henry Glorieux, an advisor at the office of UN resident coordinator Robert Watkins. But the draft obtained by IRIN draws on previous research, including the government’s 2015 Seismic Risk Assessment, which included similar findings.
    The risks to Bangladesh, in particular to its sprawling capital, Dhaka, also threaten many other Asian cities. There is no centralised database that collects and compares information from around the region about vulnerability to earthquakes and risk reduction initiatives, but experts say the same trends that make Dhaka so vulnerable are apparent elsewhere too.
    “Many urban areas in Asia are growing quickly, and buildings going up without regard to seismic building codes,” said Julie Jomo of Geohazards International, a California-based company that aims to help improve safety before disasters strike. 
    That is certainly a danger in Bangladesh. In addition to its geographical location in a fault zone, the government’s 2015 assessment pointed to “unabated and unplanned growth of urban settlements and infrastructure, and ever-increasing urban population”.

    Urban sprawl

    As many as 350,000 people migrate to Dhaka each year, according to the World Bank. Climate change will only accelerate that growth, as rising seas and floodwaters from melting Himalayan glaciers inundate the river delta that makes up much of Bangladesh’s territory, washing away and salinising farmland.
    With 160 million people, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, while Dhaka is one of the world’s fastest growing cities, according to the Global Cities Institute at the University of Toronto. The capital’s population was about 15 million in 2010, and it’s predicted to rise to 22 million by 2025 when it will be the Earth’s fourth largest metropolis.
    Where will all those people live? Many will find shelter in crowded slums, while those with more money may end up in one of the ever-increasing number of buildings pushing skyward as construction booms. 
    There are serious concerns about the ability of many of those buildings to stand up to even a moderate earthquake. Dhaka didn’t have a building code until 1993, and it is often disregarded today.
    A 2010 survey by the government and the UN Development Programme found that 78,000 buildings out of 326,000 were extremely vulnerable to earthquakes.
    Buildings have collapsed without even the tiniest tremor. In 2013, more than 1,000 people were killed when the eight-storey Rana Plaza, housing five garment factories, buckled.
    “The Rana Plaza collapse was a wake-up call that many buildings manage to get permission from the concerned department, but they might not follow building codes,” said Mohammad Abu Sadeque, director of the government’s Housing and Building Research Institute. 
    Yet, four years later, little has changed, he said. The city’s development authority, known as RAJUK, has not been provided with the resources it needs to crack down on shoddy construction.
    “It is quite a difficult task to monitor the high number of new buildings in Dhaka,” admitted Serajul Islam, RAJUK’s chief planner. “We get many complaints about flouting building codes and we take action when it comes to our notice.”
    To make matters worse, much of Dhaka is built on land reclaimed from the river delta, which raises the risk of “liquefaction” – when sandy ground behaves like liquid during a quake.


    Asia is home to extremes in elevation and the world's most active seismic and volcanic activity
    Asia is home to extremes in elevation and the world's most active seismic and volcanic activity

    The big ones

    Bangladesh and neighbouring countries could be in for a catastrophic shake, according to a study published last July in the journal Nature Geoscience. Scientists identified a subduction zone – where one tectonic plate moves over another – beneath Bangladesh, raising the potential for a “megathrust” that could cause a magnitude 9 earthquake.
    Noting that 140 million people in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India live within 100 kilometres of the fault line, the authors called it an “underappreciated hazard in one of the most densely populated regions of the world”.
    The newly discovered subduction zone under Bangladesh is one of many earthquake-prone areas throughout Asia. Northward lies the Central Himalayan Seismic Gap, part of a plate boundary that has not recently slipped.
    “Seismologists note that there is enough pent up strain and historical precedent that a very big earthquake is now due,” said Jomo of Geohazards International. “It would affect Nepal and a lot of people in northern India, causing much damage in Delhi.” 
    Tectonic plates also cut through China and Central Asia, while other Asian countries lie along the “ring of fire”, which encircles the Pacific Ocean and accounts for 90 percent of the world’s quakes.
    Asia is also the most populous continent, and has a rapidly urbanising population. That raises the threat of massive loss of life if buildings are constructed poorly, emergency services are not in place, and people aren’t educated about what to do when the earth shakes.
    Some cities are more prepared than others. Manila, for example, sits directly astride a fault and authorities there have scaled up earthquake drills and building inspections. After being hit by two large quakes in 2015, Kathmandu is working on a mitigation strategy. Japan is the world’s leader in quake-proof construction. 
    But many cities continue to allow the construction of buildings that are essentially brittle concrete frames, when they should be reinforced with rebar.
    “This is the reason that densely populated cities such as Karachi – located near another seismic gap – would be vulnerable even in a moderate earthquake,” said Jomo.
    As Dhaka illustrates, building codes are great on paper, but useless if they’re not enforced.
    (TOP PHOTO: A boy stands near buildings destroyed in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, one year later. CREDIT: Red Cross Society of China)
    As quake-prone Asia urbanises, shoddy construction raises disaster risk
  • Bellicose North Korea gives aid donors the jitters

    The long winter is ending in North Korea, and another season of bombast is about to begin. 

    From April to September, a series of holidays will almost inevitably be accompanied by bellicose statements – rhetoric likely to heighten tensions and make donors extra-jittery about funding humanitarian programmes that a great many North Koreans depend upon for their survival.

    Upcoming holidays include the April anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il-sung, who led North Korea from its formation in 1948 until his death in 1994. The anniversary of the start of the 1950-1953 Korean War is in June, and September marks the founding of the country at the end of the conflict, which split the Korean peninsular into two nations (both still claim to be the legitimate government of the entire territory).

    “This is the season where they do parades and make bombastic claims about reunification,” explained Gianluca Spezza, research director at leading website NK News, speaking in a personal capacity. “They start to ratchet up tensions. It’s part of the national propaganda system.”

    This year, those tensions are already noticeably higher than normal. In November, the UN slapped further sanctions on North Korea, restricting critical coal exports in response to its fifth and largest nuclear test. Under UN Security Council rules, North Korea is allowed to continue only limited exports in order to pay for the “livelihoods” of its people.

    China, by far the largest buyer of North Korea’s coal (its biggest export), announced in February that it would cease all purchases. That statement came six days after North Korea tested a ballistic missile system, with one missile falling just 200 kilometres from Japan’s coast.

    Other regional rifts have also widened since the 13 February assassination in Kuala Lumpur International Airport of the exiled and estranged half-brother of Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader. South Korea accused Pyongyang of poisoning Kim Jong-nam with the lethal nerve agent VX, but the North angrily denied it and denounced Malaysia’s ensuing investigation as a smear campaign.

    Against the backdrop of all this geopolitical tumult, the UN has released its funding appeal for 2017. The “needs assessment” said that 41 percent of North Korea’s 25 million people are undernourished, while 70 percent depend on government rations. The UN is asking for just $114 million, but may have trouble raising even that relatively small sum.

    “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is in the midst of a protracted, entrenched humanitarian situation largely forgotten or overlooked by the rest of the world,” said UN resident coordinator Tapan Mishra, using the country’s official name in the assessment.

    “I appeal to donors not to let political considerations get in the way of providing continued support for humanitarian assistance and relief,” he said, noting a “radical decline in donor funding since 2012”.

    SEE: Sanctions make delivering aid hard in North Korea

    Donor dilemma

    Recent events and the prospect of further trouble ahead is likely to make countries that contribute aid even more reluctant to be associated with North Korea.

    “The intensification of sanctions and the worsening reputation of North Korea has a huge impact on being able to find donors,” said Jenny Town, assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

    Japan, for example, has been an important contributor to humanitarian programmes.

    “When DPRK does missile launches and they end up in the Sea of Japan, one day they can say, ‘We’ve had enough,’” said Spezza.

    He said the UN and China are the only reasons North Korea is able to function. The country lost its Cold War benefactor when the Soviet Union collapsed and it was struck by a series of floods, storms, and hailstorms that devastated crops between 1995 and 1998.

    “It was a biblical disaster,” said Spezza.

    Nobody knows how many people died in the ensuing famines; estimates range from 300,000 to one million.

    That’s when the UN began large-scale humanitarian programmes, which continue 22 years later. Indicators such as malnutrition and mortality rates gradually rebounded, although the country has not managed to regain the levels of normalcy it had maintained until the early 1990s.

    Some potential donors make the argument that a country that spends money building up its military while depending on humanitarian aid for two decades does not deserve support. At the same time, withdrawal of such aid would only hurt the victims of North Korea’s bad policies.

    In addition to being chronically short of food, North Koreans are also subject to the regime’s use of food to punish those it considers “expendable”, a UN commission of inquiry found in 2014.

    “If the UN pulled the plug, hypothetically, [North Korea] would go down in a few months,” said Spezza.

    Other than Japan, big donors to UN programmes include the EU and the US. Current EU programming is due to end in November and will be up for renewal. Despite sabre-rattling between Washington and Pyongyang, the US provided $900,000 of aid in January, although the State Department has said it is reviewing last-minute spending approved by the previous administration.

    The new US administration's readjustment of its relationship with North Korea may go further than reevaluating aid. On his recent trip to Asia, President Donald Trump's secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, hinted at measures that could even include military action. 

    “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” he said during a stopover in South Korea's capital, Seoul. “We’re exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.”

    China, the prop

    China’s role in propping up the economy is even more important than donors and UN agencies, which is why its decision to halt coal imports – a key source of cash for Kim's regime – is so significant.

    In response, the government’s Korean Central News Agency ran an article that accused China of “mean behaviour” and “dancing to the tune of the US”.

    “It has unhesitatingly taken inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people's living standard,” said the article, which ran under the byline of Jong Phil.

    In fact, China’s decision will likely have little impact on living standards, according to Town, of the US-Korea Institute. She cited, for example, allegations that North Korea’s mines use forced labour.

    “The revenue stream is not one that would have trickled down to the average person in that way,” said Town. “Nor would this particular revenue stream have much impact on say, agricultural production.”

    Spezza said it’s almost impossible to think that China would allow North Korea to fail, even though it considers the regime to be “like a child throwing tantrums”.

    Beijing is loath to abandon its neighbour as that would mean a state collapse and reunification, probably under the leadership of South Korea. Seoul is a staunch US ally and the country hosts more than 28,000 American troops. China does not want them on its doorstep.

    “So, it’s geopolitics,” said Spezza.


    (TOP PHOTO: Aid agencies carry out an assessment of flood damage in North Korea's North Hamgyong province in September 2016. CREDIT: UNICEF)

    Bellicose North Korea gives aid donors the jitters
  • Indian Ocean Dipole? The obscure climate phenomenon driving drought in East Africa

    An obscure climate phenomenon in the Indian Ocean is contributing to an East Africa drought that is threatening the lives of millions of people, as famine looms.
    It wasn’t until the 1990s that Japanese scientists discovered the Indian Ocean Dipole, a warm pool of water that migrates between western and eastern “poles” and affects atmospheric temperatures and rainfall. The phenomenon occurs in cycles of positive (warmer) and negative (cooler) sea temperatures, but it has become more extreme in recent years due to climate change.
    A negative Indian Ocean Dipole results in less rainfall over East Africa, and that’s contributing to the current drought that aid agencies warn could trigger mass famine. 
    The UN's emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, says 12.8 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya are “severely food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance”.
    Save the Children warned yesterday that Somalia is “reaching a ‘tipping point’ that could be far worse than the 2011 famine, which claimed 260,000 lives.”
    The drought is the culmination of two years of below average rainfall combined with the “most extreme El Niño in 50 years”, according to OCHA. El Niño is a cyclical phenomenon that affects weather patterns around the world.
    “But there is now another challenge: the negative Indian Ocean Dipole,” said OCHA.
    Climate change is making the Indian Ocean Dipole and other phenomena more “extreme”, according to Robert Marchant, head of the Institute for Tropical Ecosystems at Britain’s University of York.
    “The warming-cooling shifts will be more pronounced, which means more extreme conditions on land,” he said in a phone interview. "Those quite severe droughts are becoming much more normal.”
    There are no easy answers for governments searching for ways to mitigate the risks of more frequent and intense droughts, he said. But measures could include better pasture management for herders, and changing the kinds of crops farmers grow.
    Chief among those is maize, which came to Tanzania from Latin America in the 1600s, said Marchant. It has largely replaced traditional crops of sorghum, millet and cassava, which are “much more resilient to climate volatility”. 
    Governments can also make better use of climate models produced by scientists, he suggested. But he added that climate change is extremely complex, making it difficult to produce models that always correctly predict climate events.
    In the more immediate term, governments and aid agencies are going to have to deal with the famine now bearing down on East Africa.
    “It’s coming,” said Marchant. “Hopefully, things are being put in place that will help.”
    Warnings from aid groups have been getting more and more urgent.
    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the World Food Programme said on Monday that two million of those facing “critical shortages in food assistance” are refugees who are often forbidden from working to provide for their families. The agencies said the number of refugees in Africa has grown from 2.6 million in 2011 to almost five million last year, but donor funding has not risen accordingly and food assistance has been cut.
    The UN is appealing for $825 million for Somalia alone to fund “life saving assistance” until June.
    “The drought situation is deteriorating rapidly,” said Peter de Clercq, the humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, in a statement. “We are at a critical phase and we need to act fast and efficiently to avoid the worst.” 
    (TOP PHOTO: A woman and child waiting for food rations in Badbado camp, Somalia, in 2011. CREDIT: Stuart Price/UN)
    Indian Ocean Dipole? The obscure climate phenomenon driving drought in East Africa
  • UN under fire even as Pakistan lifts Afghan deportation order

    Pakistan has backed off threats to deport more than two million Afghans starting next month, but the refugees are still under intense pressure to leave and the UN is accused of complicity in alleged plans to coerce them back across the border into a war zone.
    Last week, Pakistan announced it would allow Afghans to stay in the country until the end of the year. Insiders say the decision by the administration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came after lobbying from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, as well as two allied political parties and the Afghan government. Sharif’s cabinet was also warned that such a move could push Afghanistan closer to Pakistan’s archrival, India.
    But the decision will not alleviate the fear and uncertainty that Afghans live with in Pakistan. In fact, the situation is now similar to last year when about 600,000 Afghans crossed the border under intense pressure from the government, including an initial end-of-year deportation deadline (which was later delayed until the end of March 2017).
    “Giving refugees short-term status and threatening deportation is a very effective way to get people to leave,” said Gerry Simpson, author of a report released today by Human Rights Watch.
    The report accuses Pakistan of violating international law by committing refoulement: forcibly returning refugees to a country where they face persecution, torture or a risk to their lives. The report says UNHCR is complicit because it has failed to condemn government measures intended to coerce Afghans to leave and has assisted the government by providing cash grants to returnees.
    “It’s clearly high time for UNHCR to speak in plain, simple English and call it what it is, which is forced return,” Simpson told IRIN.

    Freedom to choose?

    The refugee agency rejected HRW’s accusations.
    “The return of Afghan refugees in 2016 from Pakistan was categorically not refoulement,” said Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Pakistan.
    She told IRIN that the agency does not promote returning to Afghanistan, but offered the cash grant to those who decided on their own accord to leave Pakistan.
    “We acknowledge that conditions for return are less than ideal,” said Khan. “UNHCR facilitates voluntary repatriation upon the request and fully informed decision of refugees.”
    Simpson argued that conditions were not only “less than ideal”, but became so difficult for Afghans in Pakistan last year that repatriation became less of a decision than a necessity.
    Halfway through 2016, the government launched a public information campaign warning Afghans that they needed to leave the country or face deportation. After that, refugees began reporting increasing animosity from members of Pakistan’s host communities and they often suddenly found their rents were increased, their children were not allowed to attend school, and employment dried up. The government has denied ordering security forces to harass refugees, but HRW collected evidence that such harassment dramatically increased after the government announced the plan.
    Harassment by security forces appeared to have dropped off late last year when the government extended the deportation deadline to March. It’s not yet clear whether refugees will be facing the same pressures in 2017, but Simpson warned of that possibility.
    Those who decide to return to Afghanistan will be going home to a war that shows no signs of abating and has only become more dangerous for civilians. The UN Mission in Afghanistan recorded 11,418 civilians killed or injured last year, the highest number since UNAMA began documenting civilian casualties in 2009.
    The Afghan government is struggling with a record number of displaced people, including those who fled their homes due to conflict last year, as well as record numbers of Afghans who have returned mainly from Pakistan and Iran. The government and aid agencies are asking for $550 million from the international community to support the most “vulnerable and marginalised” people in the country in 2017.


    Human Rights Watch


    Human Rights Watch

    Backroom talks

    Afghanistan’s government formally requested Pakistan to extend the stay of the refugees until the security situation improves, according to a senior Pakistani official who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to media on the subject.
    The official said that the cabinet also received briefings, which warned that forced repatriation would put further pressure on the strained relationship between the two countries and that India might use that tension to its advantage.
    “India can exploit sentiments of the deported refugees in its favour,” he said. “Therefore, we need to be extra careful in pushing the refugees across the border.”
    Imran Zeb, Pakistan’s chief commissioner for Afghan refugees, told IRIN that the government also based its decision on appeals by UNHCR and two political parties, Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami and Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam (Fazal).
    Both parties receive most of their support from regions along Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan, especially among ethnic Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border.
    “We don’t want to throw them into mouths of wolves in Afghanistan,” said Muhammad Jamaluddin, a Jamiat member of the National Assembly. “The refugees will go back voluntarily when the situation improves in their hometowns.”
    Simpson, of HRW, said another likely factor was that Pakistan simply does not have the capability to quickly deport the approximately 2.4 million Afghans in the country. However, if Pakistan ramps up pressure on them as it did last year, and if about the same number leave as a result, it could force out most remaining refugees within three years.
    (TOP PHOTO: A truck carrying Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan travels through Afghanistan's Nangarhar province in August 2016. CREDIT: Jim Huylebroek/NRC)   
    UN under fire even as Pakistan lifts Afghan deportation order
  • EXCLUSIVE: UN rights envoy urges inquiry into abuses of Rohingya in Myanmar

    The UN should launch an inquiry into military abuses of Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslims, because the government is incapable of carrying out a credible investigation, the UN’s rights envoy will tell the Human Rights Council next month.
    Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told IRIN that she will urge member states to sponsor a resolution for a commission of inquiry when she presents her report to the Council in Geneva on 13 March.
    “I never said in the past to a reporter what I plan to put in my report,” she said in a phone interview. “This time I am making this point: I will certainly be pushing for an inquiry, definitely, on the Rohingya situation.”
    Rights groups have, over the past few years, been urging the UN to investigate reports of abuses against the Rohingya, a mostly stateless minority forced to live under an apartheid system. But the calls have become more urgent since reports of mass rapes, killings, and other atrocities began to emerge in early October, when the military launched counterinsurgency operations.
    There is now unprecedented pressure for a UN-backed inquiry, which could find evidence that Myanmar’s military has committed crimes against humanity.
    “A commission of inquiry would have been unthinkable six months ago, but serious momentum is growing daily,” said Matt Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, which has documented abuses of Rohingya. “The special rapporteur plays an essential role in helping UN member states understand what to do. They'll strongly consider her recommendations.”

    Mass exodus

    More than 69,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since October, bringing with them horrific accounts of soldiers attacking their communities in Maungdaw, a township on the border that the military has kept under strict lockdown. Rohingya who made it to Bangladesh have recounted their experiences to groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which also analysed satellite images indicating that the military systematically burned villages.
    A “flash report” issued last week by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights added considerable weight to the push for an inquiry. Myanmar refused to allow UN investigators into Maungdaw, but 204 survivors in Bangladesh recounted harrowing experiences that allegedly included witnessing children being “slaughtered with knives”.
    Myanmar’s civilian government, headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has for months responded to such allegations with outright denials. But her administration appears to have softened its stance – if only slightly – in the wake of the OHCHR findings. 
    Spokespersons for the president’s office and the foreign ministry did not answer phone calls, but the government today printed a statement on the front page of the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper in response to the OHCHR report.
    “The government of Myanmar considers the allegations contained in the report very serious in nature and is also deeply concerned about the report,” said the statement, which added that a government commission formed in December would investigate.
    Few people outside the government have faith in that commission, which is headed by Myint Swe, a former lieutenant general who was only recently removed from the US sanctions list.
    “It’s gone beyond the point of depending on the government to do a credible investigation,” said Lee, who met with the commission during her visit to Myanmar last month. “It didn’t even have a methodology of approaching this investigation,” she told IRIN.
    A UN commission would include forensic specialists who would be tasked with determining whether crimes took place or not. 


    Two questions loom large: Will one of the 47 member states in the Human Rights Council put forward a resolution to form a commission of inquiry? And, if so, will Myanmar cooperate?
    Myanmar’s military is unlikely to allow access to investigators who would probably find evidence that its soldiers committed crimes against humanity, according to a European diplomat who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. 
    Aung San Suu Kyi’s government may be cooperative, but the military has ignored instructions over the past couple months from her administration to allow independent investigators, said the diplomat.
    Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration has no control over the military and her influence on military matters is thought to be little if any.
    The generals dissolved their junta in 2010, after almost half a century of unbroken military rule, and ushered in sweeping reforms that allowed Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to participate in elections after being violently repressed for decades. While the NLD won a majority in parliament, the military occupies key ministries in line with the constitution it wrote in 2008, which also gives it authority to carry out operations without civilian oversight.
    However, the military would be under intense pressure to cooperate with a UN-backed commission of inquiry. Refusal by the government and military to cooperate with the UN would strip away much of the credibility Myanmar has gained internationally over the past few years through the reform process initiated by the generals themselves.
    “It would put Myanmar back in time, to pariah state status,” said Lee.
    That question of how Myanmar reacts will be irrelevant if no Human Rights Council member sponsors a resolution. Although pressure is growing, it is by no means a given.
    During the Barack Obama presidency, the US was supportive of the reform process, while also frequently speaking out against rights violations. But US policy under President Donald Trump remains to be seen.
    A spokesman for the US embassy declined to comment on the potential for a UN-backed inquiry, and instead focused on Myanmar’s own promises to investigate the OHCHR findings.
    “We hope the Myanmar government will take the report’s findings seriously and redouble efforts both to protect the civilian population and to investigate these allegations in a thorough and credible manner,” said the spokesman.
    IRIN submitted queries to four other embassies, as well as Bangladesh’s foreign ministry, none of which responded.
    Lee and other sources pointed to the European Union as one of the most likely candidates to sponsor a resolution. The EU ambassador, Roland Kobia, suggested it was a possibility – but couched his statement in diplomatic language.
    “The EU will continue to table a Myanmar-specific country resolution in the UN HRC as we have done in years past,” said Kobia. “I would expect that the topic of the investigation… will come up during the negotiations on the resolution text.”
    (TOP PHOTO: The front page of Myanmar's state-run newspaper on 9 February 2017 carried two articles about government attempts to investigate alleged military abuses of Rohingya. CREDIT: Jared Ferrie/IRIN)
    EXCLUSIVE: UN rights envoy urges inquiry into abuses of Rohingya in Myanmar
    Jared Ferrie is the 2017 winner of the UNCA Awards - The Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for written media.
  • Climate change and mass migration: a growing threat to global security

    When international leaders met in the Bangladeshi capital last month for ongoing discussions about a new global migration policy, they glossed over what experts say will soon become a massive driver of migration: climate change.
    “The international system is in a state of denial,” said A.N.M. Muniruzzaman, a retired major-general who now heads the Bangladesh Institute for Peace and Security Studies.
    The Global Forum on Migration and Development in Dhaka came less than two months after UN nation states committed to developing within two years a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Climate change figured only as a sub-theme during one roundtable at the conference, which Muniruzzaman said was typical of similar events.
    “If we want an orderly management of the coming crisis, we need to sit down now – we should have sat down yesterday – to talk about how the management will take place,” he said in an interview in his office in Bangladesh’s crowded capital.
    Groups like the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration, are well aware of the risks, and say they are working to bring climate change to the forefront of policy discussions. During the roundtable in Dhaka, Michele Cavinato, head of UNHCR’s Asylum and Migration Unit, called climate change “the defining challenge of our times”.

    Hard to measure

    It’s difficult to say exactly how many people around the world will be forced to move as the effects of climate change grow starker in the coming decades. But mass displacement is already happening as climate change contributes to natural disasters such as desertification, droughts, floods, and powerful storms. 
    About 203 million people around the world were displaced by natural disasters between 2008 and 2015, and the risk has doubled since the 1970s, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s 2016 Global Report on Internal Displacement.
    Most of the displacement takes place within countries, but those driven across borders are not considered refugees, because the 1951 Refugee Convention recognises only people fleeing war or persecution.
    “There is a legal gap to assist and protect people who cross borders in the context of disasters and climate change,” Marine Franck, a UNHCR climate change and disaster displacement officer, told IRIN. 
    Another aspect of climate change, which makes it hard to quantify the exact number of people displaced by the phenomenon, is that it is a “threat multiplier”. This means it exacerbates the potential for other drivers of forced migration such as conflict; so refugees fleeing war may also be fleeing climate change. It also often triggers slow-onset disasters like droughts, which gradually erode people’s livelihoods.
    How many people will be displaced by climate change depends to a great degree on what countries do now to mitigate the future effects.

    Flashpoint Bangladesh

    It’s hard to think of a country that encompasses more of the risks of climate change than Bangladesh.
    The impoverished nation’s approximately 160 million people are squeezed into an area slightly smaller than Tunisia, which has 11 million people, making it one of the most densely-populated countries on earth. Its coastline hugs the Bay of Bengal, putting it in the path of cyclones that are increasing in frequency and intensity. 
    Bangladesh is also one of the world’s flattest countries, with a river delta comprising much of its territory, making it especially vulnerable to land erosion. Himalayan glaciers will continue to melt, swelling the rivers, while rising sea levels engulf coastal areas and cause salinisation further inland, contaminating drinking water and rendering agriculture impossible.
    By 2050, Bangladesh could see more than 20 million people displaced, according to the government’s Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan. Many of those will migrate to the capital, which the government predicts will swell from 14 to 40 million people. But Bangladesh’s cities will not be able to absorb the influx of people driven from their homes by climate change. 
    “The settlement of these environmental refugees will pose a serious problem for… densely populated Bangladesh and migration [abroad] must be considered as a valid option for the country,” says the government’s plan. "Preparations in the meantime will be made to convert this population into trained and useful citizens for any country."
    Yet, many countries will be dealing with crises of their own and Bangladesh will find it hard to convince them to welcome its "climate change refugees". Massive displacement within the country could further undermine a fragile political system and contribute to militancy, which is already on the rise.
    “It could destabilise the country and it could also go to the point of state collapse,” said Muniruzzaman. 
    Officials at Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry failed to reply to repeated requests for comment.

    Global security

    While Bangladesh will be one of the countries hardest hit by climate change, it is of course a global issue.
    Desertification is already consuming fertile land in Africa, causing people to leave their homes to find work elsewhere, including Europe. Some countries are predicted to disappear entirely into rising seas. The Pacific Island nation of Kiribati has a strategy that would ideally allow its 100,000 citizens to “migrate with dignity”.
    However, South Asia, with its large population and vulnerability to various climate change effects, is particularly at risk, according to a new report by the International Organization for Migration. Of the 203 million people internally displaced between 2008 and 2015 by natural disasters, 36 percent were in South Asia. 
    The report notes that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has recognised climate change as a threat, and made policies intended to mitigate the effects. However, “migration concerns are only scantily mentioned."
    That’s a pattern worldwide, said Muniruzzaman, noting that last month’s Global Forum on Migration and Development did not include a session dedicated to climate change.
    Unless the focus shifts, he warned, the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration will be unable to address mass displacement due to climate change – and the threat multiplier effects could reach far further than many expect.
    For example, he said, climate change migrants with few options for employment may swell the ranks of criminal and militant groups, while the disappearance of island nations could spark armed conflict on the high seas as countries rush to claim newly vacant maritime territory. 
    “It will not be just a humanitarian problem,” said Muniruzzaman. “It will be an international security problem.”
    (TOP PHOTO:  A farmer inspects his flood-damaged rice crop in Bangladesh's Manikanj District. CREDIT: Farid Ahmed/IRIN)
    Climate change and mass migration: a growing threat to global security
  • The roots and risks of Myanmar’s new Rohingya insurgency

    Proghyananda Vikkhu stood in his purple monk’s robe in front of gleaming gold statues of the Buddha, recalling the night that a mob of nationalist Muslims attacked his monastery in eastern Bangladesh.

    “This monastery is 300 years old and it was totally demolished on that night in 2012,” he said. “Within one year, the Bangladesh government totally rebuilt it with help from the army.”

    The mob also sacked a village next door, motivated in part by twisted retribution for attacks by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists on ethnic Rohingya Muslims on the other side of the border, in Myanmar.

    The government and military responses to violence against Bangladesh’s Buddhist minority and Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority couldn’t be more different.

    Hundreds of people were killed in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2012 and 140,000 were forced into displacement camps. Almost all the victims were Rohingya, burnt out of their homes by mobs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, and about 100,000 remain in camps today.

    The 157-year-old mosque in the state capital, Sittwe, is still damaged. It’s now off-limits to worshippers, and instead serves as a police post.

    Unlike Buddhists who enjoy the rights of full citizens in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims saw their citizenship stripped away during decades of military rule. 

    Today, overwhelmingly-Buddhist Myanmar is led by a nominally civilian government headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Su Kyi, but this shift away from direct military rule has not helped the Rohingya. They live under an apartheid system, with their movements severely restricted, along with their access to healthcare, education, and employment.

    Decades of oppression have fuelled anger in the Rohingya community, which has recently given rise to an insurgency that threatens stability in Myanmar as well as Bangladesh. Analysts warn that the insurgency could attract support from international Islamist militant groups, including the so-called Islamic State.

    “We cannot take this lightly, either as Bangladesh or members of the international community,” said A.N.M. Muniruzzaman, a retired major-general who now heads the Bangladesh Institute for Peace and Security Studies.

    He said Bangladesh should sponsor a UN Security Council resolution that would aim to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State and stop Myanmar from forcing Rohingya over the border.

    On 30 December, 11 Nobel Peace Prize Winners also urged the UN Security Council to take action, and they accused Myanmar of “ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her decades-long struggle against Myanmar’s former junta, was not among the signatories.


    Proghyananda Vikkhu, associate director of the Sima Bihar monastery in Ramu
    Jared Ferrie/IRIN
    Proghyananda Vikkhu, associate director of the Sima Bihar monastery in Ramu

    Rising insurgency

    It was in direct response to the 2012 violence that some Rohingya began organising the nascent insurgency, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group. A committee of Rohingya in Mecca oversees the group, which is called Harakah al-Yakin [“Faith Movement” in Arabic], and 20 Rohingya with international experience in guerrilla warfare are leading operations on the ground, ICG said.

    Harakah al-Yakin struck first on 9 October, with hundreds of insurgents carrying out coordinated attacks on Myanmar police border posts that killed nine officers in Maungdaw, a frontier township. Four soldiers were killed in clashes on 11 October, while another soldier died and several more were wounded on 12 November before the insurgents retreated to a village, pursued by troops.

    “Several hundred villagers, armed with whatever they had to hand [knives and farming implements], supported the attackers, seemingly spontaneously,” ICG said.

    The military called in air support after a lieutenant-colonel was shot dead, and two helicopter gunships “allegedly fired indiscriminately" at villagers trying to flee, according to the report. After the 12 November battles, “the military considerably stepped up its operations” in Maungdaw, said ICG.

    Since then, there have been reports of widespread military abuses against Rohingya civilians, including rapes, killings, and disappearances. Rohingya have been fleeing by the tens of thousands into Bangladesh.

    “Violence and abuses are likely to boost support for the armed group,” ICG warned. “People pushed to desperation and anger, with no hope for the future, are more likely to embrace extremist responses, however counterproductive.”


    Allegations of abuse have been met by flat denials from the government, which refuses to allow journalists and investigators into Maungdaw. Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Aye Aye Soe told IRIN she did not believe the International Organization for Migration when it said at least 34,000 Rohingya had crossed into Bangladesh since military operations began.

    SEE: Myanmar says Rohingya rape and abuse allegations “made up”, despite mounting evidence

    The new arrivals join as many as half a million Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh during attacks on their communities over the past few decades. Impoverished and overpopulated, Bangladesh struggles to host the refugees, and it now faces the potential that the overcrowded camps could become recruiting grounds for Harakah al-Yakin. Already, hundreds of Rohingya refugees have crossed back into Myanmar to join the insurgency, according to ICG.

    Still, Myanmar continues to insist the situation in Rakhine State is “not an international issue”, as a 19 December article posted to the Ministry of Information website put it.

    Muniruzzaman said Bangladesh has unsuccessfully tried to “woo” Myanmar into working together to resolve issues in Rakhine State. He noted that Aung San Suu Kyi has visited virtually every other country in the region aside from Bangladesh.

    Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry summoned Myanmar’s ambassador in both November and December to offer its cooperation on resolving issues in Rakhine State so that the Rohingya can go home.

    On 23 November, the ministry urged Myanmar to consider allowing an “independent investigation” into allegations of military abuses. The ministry also requested that Myanmar “take urgent appropriate measures so that Muslim minorities in the Rakhine State are not forced to seek shelter across the border”, according to a statement.

    Myanmar has thus far failed to do either. 

    Complicated history

    Many of the problems facing the approximately one million Rohingya in Myanmar are rooted in one overarching issue – statelessness. Unfortunately, full citizenship is largely based on membership in one of the 135 “national races”, which do not include the Rohingya.

    SEE: Bribes and bureaucracy – Myanmar’s chaotic citizenship system

    “It goes way, way past in history, whether they are citizens or not,” said Aye Aye Soe. “And then it depends on a lot of issues. You have to consider both communities in Rakhine State.”

    The other community – ethnic Rakhines who comprise about two thirds of the state’s population – largely consider the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It is a sentiment widely shared throughout Myanmar, but it’s based on a false history that nationalists have propagated over decades: that the Rohingya, whom they call “Bengalis”, arrived during the British colonial period or afterwards.

    Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture even announced in mid-December that it would publish a treatise showing that the Rohingya are not from Myanmar.

    The ancient ancestry of the Rakhine and Rohingya people is the subject of much debate, but historians say that both identities emerged from the kingdom of Arakan, which encompassed much of today’s Rakhine State, as well as areas that are now in Bangladesh. The identity of each is based to great extent on religion, and there is ample evidence of both a Buddhist and Muslim presence in the kingdom.

    Archeologists have unearthed coins from the 15th century that show Arakanese rulers using Islamic titles. But Michael Charney, a historian at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, argues that there were relatively few Muslims residing in Arakan until slave raids in the 17th century greatly boosted the population.

    “Although there is very little evidence of a rural Muslim community in Arakan prior to the 1570s, they clearly made up a substantial proportion of the population in the 1770s, prior to Burman rule,” he writes.

    The Burmans, who comprise modern Myanmar’s most populous and politically-powerful ethnic group, conquered Arakan in 1784. But Burma ruled for only 40 years before the British took it over, after which there was further migration into the region from what is now Bangladesh.


    A group of Rohingya who fled Myanmar have taken refuge in the village of Hazi Para
    A group of Rohingya who fled Myanmar have taken refuge in the village of Hazi Para


    Myanmar insists that, in order to receive citizenship, Rohingya Muslims must provide evidence that their families were living in Rakhine State before the British conquest in 1824.

    From an international perspective, it is anomalous to disenfranchise the descendants of people who arrived 193 years ago or even later. If other countries were to impose similar restrictions, many people who fled Myanmar during half a century of military dictatorship would suddenly find themselves stateless too.

    It’s also difficult for many Rohingya to prove their lineage, even if it does pre-date British rule. Identification documents have been lost throughout the years, including some that burnt along with their houses.

    The differences between citizenship policies in Myanmar and Bangladesh are striking. Minority Buddhists who find themselves living in a predominantly Muslim country – on one side of a border arbitrarily drawn by the British – do not have to prove their right to be citizens. They are born Bangladeshi.

    Buddhist teachings

    Even so, anti-Rohingya prejudice is also common in the Rakhine Buddhist minority community in Bangladesh, according to Kya Thein Aung, who is Rakhine and head of Cox’s Bazar City College.

    “Our parents told us Rohingya means a floating culture: people who don’t have a place,” he said. In contrast: “We are the original people of this land.”

    Kya Thein Aung said he doubted that most reports of abuses against Rohingya were true. “If Myanmar denied to give them citizenship, then you can take them to another country,” he added.

    Proghyananda Vikkhu, the Buddhist monk who is associate director of the Sima Bihar monastery in Ramu, had a more enlightened view.

    “The Myanmar military is responsible for torturing Rohingya people,” said Vikkhu, who is a member of the Barua ethnic minority.

    He said Buddhism teaches that all people have the right to be happy and live peacefully, and he condemned Buddhists who participated in attacks against Rohingya communities.

    “The people who take part in this kind of violence don’t follow the rules of Buddhism,” he said. “They are not real Buddhists.”


    (TOP PHOTO: The Bimukti Bidarshan Bhabona Kendra Buddhist temple in Ramu was one of 16 temples damaged or destroyed by mobs of nationalist Muslims in 2012. The government and the military rebuilt them. CREDIT: Jared Ferrie/IRIN)

    The roots and risks of Myanmar’s new Rohingya insurgency
  • Myanmar says Rohingya rape and abuse allegations “made-up”, despite mounting evidence

    One by one, seven Myanmar soldiers raped Yasmin in her home, as she stifled her screams for fear of being murdered.

    Sixteen days ago, the military attacked Mukhtar’s village, and now the elderly man sits in a small hut nursing shotgun wounds to his thigh.

    Two fingers on two-year-old Anwar’s tiny hand are fused together at the base, after he suffered burns when soldiers set houses on fire.

    These are a few of the stories shared with IRIN by members of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority who have fled across the border into Bangladesh during the past couple months, as the military carried out “clearance operations” against insurgents.

    Myanmar’s government and military would have you believe they are lies.

    “Most of them are made-up stories, blown out of proportion,” said Aye Aye Soe, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. “The things they are accusing us of didn’t happen at all.”
    Her comments echo a steady stream of statements from the government since military operations began, following deadly attacks on border police posts in the frontier township of Maungdaw on 9 October. A 3 November article in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper went as far as accusing rights groups and media of reporting incidents that were “intentionally fabricated in collusion with terrorist groups”. Yet, the military refuses to allow journalists or investigators into the area to verify or disprove accounts of abuses.
    Despite the lack of access, evidence of atrocities has continued to pile up. Organisations including the UN have collected accounts of rapes, killings, and disappearances. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also published reports that include separate analyses of satellite imagery that strongly indicates villages were set on fire by the military – a direct challenge to government claims that Rohingya residents are burning down their own homes in order to “cast suspicion over security forces”.
    On 20 December, the International Organization for Migration said at least 34,000 Rohingya had crossed into Bangladesh since October.
    Aye Aye Soe raised doubt about such a large number.
    “I am sure there are people going for the border, I accept that,” she said in a telephone interview. “But I don’t know if it could be 20 or 30 thousand. It’s blown out of proportion.”
    Military operations have “been carried out with very much restraint”, said Aye Aye Soe. “And regarding rape, ethnic cleansing – it’s completely false.”
    Such denials are hard to square with testimonies provided to IRIN as well as groups like Fortify Rights, which just concluded a research trip to Bangladesh where team members interviewed scores of victims and triangulated eyewitness accounts. Some recent arrivals also bear physical injuries, including gunshot wounds and signs of rape.
    “The government's callous denials have reached the heights of absurdity,” Matt Smith, the group’s chief executive officer, told IRIN. “The government's claim that these accounts might be fabricated is disgusting.”


    A Rohingya family
    Jared Ferrie/IRIN
    A Rohingya family sheltering in the village of Hazibara, Bangladesh, after fleeing Myanmar

    Yasmin’s story

    Yasmin said soldiers arrived in her village just before dawn, firing shots in the air.
    “The feeling of fright – I can’t explain,” she said in an interview in Hazi Para, a village about 80 kilometres inside Bangladesh.
    Like the other Rohingya quoted in this story, Yasmin is an alias. Using their real names could put them or their families in danger of retribution by Myanmar security forces.
    The soldiers forced residents out onto the road and asked where the men were, as most of them had already fled. The soldiers finally left, but the villagers’ nightmare wasn’t over. They returned later in the day and some “had drunk a lot”, said Yasmin.
    They took the women into their houses, demanded money and valuables, and then raped them, she said. After they raped her, they set her house on fire, along with the village mosque and other homes. They killed a religious leader and arrested several elderly men, including her father-in-law.
    “They took him away and we still don’t know where he is,” Yasmin said.
    The soldiers then herded about 400 women and children into a large yard between two houses where they kept them under guard, said Yasmin.
    Dates and details of the attack recounted by Yasmin line up with statements provided by Rohingya village leaders to a commission formed by the government to investigate the violence, which were shared with IRIN. Accounts related to IRIN by Rohingya sheltering in a village and unofficial refugee camps in Bangladesh also matched up to testimonies gathered by rights groups. The cumulative evidence suggests a widespread pattern of military abuses.
    Yasmin said the soldiers confiscated all mobile phones, but one “clever” woman had hidden hers. Yasmin’s husband, Mohammad, was already in Bangladesh, in the city of Chittagong, where he had found work as a day labourer. She knew his phone number by heart and she called to tell him about the attack, and that his father had been arrested.
    “When I heard my wife’s voice, it was unbelievable” said Mohammad. “I was very sorrowful when I heard my father had been taken away by the army.”
    He said he is now so consumed by worry that he is unable to look for work.
    After three days of being held prisoner without food, Yasmin saw her chance to escape. She fled into the countryside with her four children, and made her way to the Naf River, which forms the border.
    Yasmin and her children spent three days on the Myanmar side of the river. The Bangladesh Border Guards were preventing Rohingya from entering the country, and she had no money to pay a smuggler. Finally, her husband was able to transfer money to the smuggler using “BKash”, a mobile phone service, and they crossed the river at night in a small boat.
    In the meantime, Mohammad had travelled to Hazi Para, the home village of a friend he met while working in Chittagong, and a woman there offered shelter to him and his family.


    Jared Ferrie/IRIN
    This two-year-old child's hand was badly burnt when Myanmar soldiers set fire to his village

    Aid barriers

    Nobody knows how many Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh so far, but the number definitely surpasses the IOM figure of 34,000, which includes only those in official and unofficial camps as well as two towns. Many more are in villages like Hazi Para, where residents said Yasmin’s family was one of about 45 sheltering there. Fortify Rights found many Rohingya camped out in forests and fields along the border.
    “We have no statistics at all,” said Ali Hossain, deputy commissioner of the border district of Cox’s Bazar.
    His government’s reluctance to gather information on new arrivals reflects the tough position Bangladesh is in.
    Even before the latest influx, the impoverished and densely-populated country was hosting 32,000 registered refugees and as many as 500,000 undocumented Rohingya who had surged across the border at various times since the 1970s, mainly during bouts of mob violence and military operations in Myanmar similar to those ongoing at the moment. Now, Bangladesh is reluctant to officially open its borders or to allow aid groups to scale up their response to the crisis, afraid that might encourage more Rohingya to come. At the same time, border guards have often turned a blind eye to those crossing over, while aid agencies have quietly increased their support.
    But it’s not enough.
    Rohingya in makeshift camps said new arrivals are begging from people who themselves have barely enough to survive. Others are suffering from illness or injury but cannot get medical care.
    A doctor working in the camps told Fortify Rights that in the past two months alone he had treated 13 women who were victims of rape. One was gang-raped by soldiers and had been bleeding for two weeks.
    Another woman told IRIN she was still bleeding after soldiers raped her, but she was afraid to go to government hospitals for fear of being sent back to Myanmar. There are five security checkpoints between her and a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontiers, so she wouldn’t go there either. Her husband was arrested during the attack on her village, and she had no idea if he was still alive.
    “I beg here and there for a living,” said the woman, who has three children. “I have no relatives here.”

    PR battles

    Myanmar’s government appears unmoved by such testimonies, despite being headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her pro-democracy struggle against the former military junta.
    Instead, the government continues to publish statements like a 19 December article posted on the Ministry of Information website, which accused the international community of unfairly “putting pressure on us” as a result of “false news”.
    “Even though [we] have been the victim of violent attacks, Myanmar has handled this problem with full regard to humanitarian considers [sic] and looked upon these criminal acts in a lenient manner and acted in accordance with the law,” said the article.
    Critics say the barrage of statements denying abuses provides cover for the military to carry out operations that Amnesty International warned “amount to collective punishment” of Rohingya communities. The UN and others have called for an independent investigation into allegations of atrocities, and Amnesty has raised the possibility that they could amount to crimes against humanity.
    (TOP PHOTO: A Rohingya woman and child in the Kutupalong informal settlement, Bangladesh, in June, 2014. CREDIT: Will Baxter)
    Myanmar says Rohingya rape and abuse allegations “made-up”, despite mounting evidence
    Honorable Mention for the Society of Publishers in Asia award for Excellence in Human Rights Reporting.
  • If Trump’s America shrinks humanitarian support, will China fill the void?

    China’s latest “white paper” is another sign of the country’s decision to play a larger role in global affairs. It comes after statements from US president-elect Donald Trump that suggest he will lead his country in retreat from internationalism. Can China fill a potential void in humanitarianism?
    The received wisdom is that China’s internal dynamics limit the country’s ability to become a true humanitarian leader, but there are indications it might seek to raise its profile in certain fields, particularly peacekeeping and possibly climate change.
    “The white paper focuses on development, but it does not promise anything about democracy, personal freedom and human rights,” said Xu Guoqi, a professor of history at the University of Hong Kong who is writing a book called The Idea of China.
    He said China’s unwillingness to promote those ideals at home undermines its ability to take a lead role in global affairs.
    “How can the Chinese government step up its role in international humanitarianism, when it does not dare to denounce non-democratic regimes which are largely responsible for global crises in humanitarianism?” he asked.
    Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College in London, said that China’s moves toward increased multilateralism are “complicated”.
    “For sure, China wants a stronger and more dominant regional role,” he said. “But it does not want to have huge responsibilities in the wider world foisted on it.”
    However, he noted, much depends on what the new US administration does.
    “The Trump presidency [position] on climate change and a number of other areas does push China towards having no choice but to take a more active role in international issues, because of the space left by a more inward looking, isolationist US,” said Brown.

    Diplomatic bungling

    Many questions remain about what Trump’s foreign policy will actually look like, although his forays into international affairs so far have not been reassuring to many.
    Trump caused a diplomatic stir by speaking on the phone to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on 2 December, something no US president or president-elect has done since 1979. In that year, the US officially stopped recognising Taiwan as an independent government. It instead began recognising China’s government in Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province in violation of its “one China” policy, which it has aggressively promoted worldwide.
    China responded with a stern warning. The day after the call, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters: "We urge [the] relevant US side to honor the commitment to the one-China policy.”
    Trump followed up with tweets accusing China of managing its currency in a way that would damage US companies, and condemning Beijing for building a military base in the South China Sea, where a handful of countries have overlapping territorial claims.
    Also worrying are Trump’s statements on climate change. He referred to global warming in a 2012 Twitter post as a concept “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.
    Trump also suggested during his campaign that he would withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change, which requires countries to drastically cut down on the use of fossil fuels in order to mitigate the effects of global warming.
    In its white paper, China said it has made “significant efforts in moving the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emission mitigation toward adoption and taking effect,” according to the government news agency, Xinhua.

    Focus on peacekeeping

    The white paper also included a section on peacekeeping, which is China’s most high profile humanitarian contribution. China pledged to continue scaling up its commitment of troops and funding.
    “In the coming five years China will train 2,000 peacekeeping personnel for other countries, launch 10 mine sweeping aid programmes, provide 100 million US dollars of non-reimbursable military aid to the African Union, and allocate part of the China-UN Peace and Development Fund to support UN peacekeeping operations,” reported Xinhua.
    Peacekeeping serves multiple purposes for China, said Brown.
    “Taking part in peacekeeping missions does help to at least give China some chance to ensure that it is doing as much as it can to pacify and stabilise regions, many of which figure as trade or resource suppliers,” he said. “This is also a relatively good, and inexpensive, way of China demonstrating global citizenship and improving its international image.”
    Yun Sun, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Washington DC-based Stimson Centre, said China contributes to peacekeeping as a way to insert itself into the global balance of power.
    “Since UN is a multilateral platform, China sees it as the most legitimate, and an effective way of control over Western unilateralism or military intervention,” she said.

    Minor player

    Peacekeeping aside, China has not so far been a major aid donor.
    The white paper said that China has provided $58 billion in international assistance over the past six decades – a figure that Reuters calculated to be less than the European Union and its member states contributed in 2015 only. 
    The paper did not provide a breakdown of where the $58 billion went, but the figure certainly includes grants and loans for development projects, as well as any funding for humanitarian disasters.
    In fact, China’s contribution to humanitarian response has been miniscule compared to its status as the world’s most populous nation and second biggest economy.
    In June, IRIN reported that China contributed only $54 million in humanitarian aid in 2014, according to Development Initiatives, which analysed data from sources including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UN, and the International Monetary Fund. The UN’s Financial Tracking Service, which documents global humanitarian aid flows, shows that China’s contribution fell in 2015 to a mere $37 million. 
    If the next US administration does pull back significantly from providing humanitarian support, it could open the door for China to play a bigger role. But experts warned only to expect this if Beijing sees tangible benefits in doing so.
    “China is not a purely altruistic player. It is a self-interested one,” said Brown. “But it does have the personnel and the resources to do a huge amount if it wants to.”
    (TOP PHOTO: Chinese peacekeepers in South Sudan. CREDIT: JC Mcllwaine/UNMISS)
    If Trump’s America shrinks humanitarian support, will China fill the void?
    A new “white paper" shows Beijing envisioning a bigger international role
  • Will the UN become complicit in Pakistan’s illegal return of Afghan refugees?

    The UN’s refugee agency may become complicit in a violation of international law if it restarts a programme in March that assists Pakistan in forcing Afghan refugees over the border into their war-torn homeland.
    UNHCR says its repatriation programme, which included cash grants for returnees, has been put on pause from 1 November until 1 March. Pakistan has set a deadline of the end of March for all Afghan refugees to leave the country before it starts deporting them. 
    About 538,100 Afghans have already returned this year, according to the UN's emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. Most of those have crossed the border since late June, when Pakistan announced its deadline and security forces stepped up a campaign of intimidation and harassment. Even though the war has been getting worse in Afghanistan – with record numbers of civilians killed, injured and displaced – many decided to leave rather than face increasing hostility and extortion by members of the Pakistani police and military. 
    “Like all other states, Pakistan is prohibited from refouling – that is, forcibly returning – registered refugees in any manner whatsoever to their home country, and has therefore committed mass refoulement,” said Gerry Simpson of Human Rights Watch.
    Simpson has just completed a research trip to the region and the rights group will soon release its findings, including one that may raise alarm bells within UNHCR.
    “If UNHCR resumes its cash grant on 1 March while Pakistan maintains its 31 March deportation deadline for registered refugees – or extends it by just a few months – then UNHCR will become complicit in mass refoulement,” he told IRIN. “That’s because registered refugees will feel they have no choice but to take UN money to go home ‘voluntarily’ before Pakistan kicks them out with nothing.”
    UNHCR declined to respond to the allegation directly, but emailed this statement in response: "The return of registered Afghan refugees from Pakistan is a repatriation in less than ideal circumstances and is the result of a number of factors. The Afghans we see daily deciding to return are making extremely difficult decisions and UNHCR is doing everything  we can to assist them. We continue to speak up for the rights of Afghan refugees while they are in Pakistan and to intervene on their behalf."
    Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Pakistan, said that the agency will use the winter period to raise funds to continue its repatriation programme, including providing cash to returnees. She said UNHCR had dispersed $125 million in cash payments in three months.
    “During the peak days, five to six thousand refugees were going back to Afghanistan and the UNHCR was giving around $2.2 million in cash per day on average,” Khan told IRIN. “We have to sustain this amount to keep the repatriation process going, and for this we are going to appeal the donors.”


    Enayatullah Azad/NRC
    Families recently returned from Pakistan pitch tents provided by the Norwegian Refugee Council near Jalalabad

    Under pressure

    There is no doubt that Afghans crossed the border en masse over the past few months under pressure from Pakistani authorities. The $400 given to individuals by UNHCR may have provided extra incentive, and it was critical in helping them settle as best they could in a country embroiled in conflict. But the argument that Afghans are making a choice to leave Pakistan will become thinner and thinner as the deportation deadline gets closer.
    “UNHCR is now on clear notice that Pakistan’s abuses are driving out record numbers of Afghans,” said Simpson. “Resuming crucial cash support to Afghans in early March 2017 will undoubtedly assist Pakistan’s aim of forcing out further refugees as the 31 March deportation deadline looms.”
    The terrible conditions Afghans are returning to and the hostile environment they are leaving in Pakistan are well documented by rights groups as well as the UN itself. 
    For example, a 30 September OCHA report noted that a surge of returnees was “spurred by increasing incidents of detention, forced evictions, police raids and harassment”.
    “Many families were forced to leave quickly with little time to properly sell assets, and are often arriving with few possessions,” said the report.
    The International Organization for Migration, which is a “UN-related” body, warned earlier in September: “Unprecedented numbers of Afghans are fleeing increased incidents of violence, arbitrary arrest, detention and other forms of harassment.”
    Pakistani officials deny issuing any orders to security forces to crack down on refugees.
    "Pakistan is neither violating any international law nor forcing Afghan refugees to return to their country,” Aqdas Shaukat, a spokesman for the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, told IRIN. “We have also issued directives to provincial governments asking them not to harass or force any Afghan refugee to leave Pakistan.”
    For Simpson, the evidence stands for itself.
    “You don’t need a government to admit it’s forcing people out to conclude that it’s forcing people out,” he said.

    Temporary reprieve 

    Pakistan appears to have temporarily called off its officially-denied-yet-quite-obvious campaign of intimidation against Afghan refugees.
    "The repatriation of the Afghan refugees has been suspended from November to February next year following a formal request from the Afghan government, UNHCR, and some opposition political parties,” Abdul Qadir Baloch, the Minister for States and Frontier Regions, told IRIN.
    Returns data from UNHCR and IOM correspond to the minister’s conciliatory tone.
    For registered refugees, returns spiked at 145,955 in October and fell to 26,303 during the first week of November. But while the repatriation programme was halted on 1 November, UNHCR is still processing people who were already scheduled to return.
    The situation for unregistered refugees is a bit different. Of the approximately 2.4 million Afghans who fled to Pakistan during decades of war at home, about one million are “undocumented”. This is largely because Pakistan stopped registering refugees in 2007, so those arriving afterwards would not have received a “Proof of Residency” card. Others may have had the cards, but were unable to get them extended, which Pakistan frequently requires.
    Undocumented refugees are ineligible for cash grants from UNHCR, are more vulnerable to abuse by state authorities, and are under even more pressure to leave. Data provided by IOM shows that 10,844 undocumented Afghans crossed the border between 29 September and 5 November, an 18.6 percent increase over the previous week. However, deportations fell by 91 percent – a huge reduction, which suggests that a directive was issued to police.

    Uncertain future

    Afghans in Pakistan have learned to live with the psychological stress of the government’s capricious policies. Pakistan has issued deadlines before, and then extended them. But the sheer number of Afghans who have left over the past few months, coupled with the intimidation campaign by security agencies, suggests that this time the threat is more serious. 
    The flow of refugees across the border is likely to be reduced to a trickle now that winter has set in and UNHCR has suspended its repatriation programme. But anxiety will only grow amongst Afghans in Pakistan as March approaches and they wonder if the government will carry through on its threat to deport them.
    (TOP PHOTO: Mehnaz,10, with her family. They recently returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan, which is pressuring Afghan refugees to leave. CREDIT: Tiril Skartein/NRC)
    Will the UN become complicit in Pakistan’s illegal return of Afghan refugees?

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