Journalism from the heart of crises

Welcome to the beta version of our site. We'll be working as hard as we can over the next few days to smooth out any glitches. If something looks odd, please let us know by getting in touch here.

  • Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


    Beyond education

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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



    “They are walking more than 10km a day just to get an education.”
    Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals
  • Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    There is suddenly a whole new level of anxiety in the humanitarian community over the plight of Venezuela.


    On top of longstanding concerns over chronic shortages of food and medicine reaching the country, there’s now real worry about the increasingly blatant politicisation of aid, as the internationally backed opposition movement puts efforts to bring humanitarian supplies into the country at the centre of its messaging strategy against the regime.


    Concerns of a humanitarian circus aren’t being helped by Richard Branson’s “Venezuela Aid” concert – a Live Aid-style extravaganza to be held in Cúcuta, just across the Colombian border on Friday. The concert, bringing together some of Latin Pop’s biggest stars, adds a bizarre touch to a complex political-military-humanitarian picture that, some worry, could easily descend into civil war.

    It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool.

    It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool – one aimed squarely at Venezuela’s military establishment for the purpose of getting them to turn on President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Guaidó, who is now recognised as interim president by most of the western hemisphere and Europe but doesn’t control the military, wants to make it crystal clear to them that if they abandon Maduro the rest of the world is ready and able to move quickly to bring desperately needed food and medicine into the country.


    The politics here are smart: Guaidó has skillfully pushed Maduro into the hugely unpopular position of having to reject help for people in desperate need. Guaidó is calculating that the move will eventually lead to a mass military defection, and there is good reason to think that – in purely political terms at least – it might well succeed.


    However, none of this is likely to assuage concerns in the humanitarian community, which is aghast at the way aid has been turned into little more than just another weapon in the bitter and longrunning struggle for power in Caracas.


    On a fundamental level, the humanitarian community can never be seen to violate its principle of political neutrality: even if the opposition tactic does prove effective (which is a long way from a given), for the aid sector to back it would set a precedent that stores up any amount of trouble for the future. The International Committee of the Red Cross has already bowed out of the border aid operation – being led by Colombia and the United States – over these concerns. This is only natural.


    But concern about the showdown and the Cúcuta concert goes beyond a general reticence to politicise aid. The larger problem is that when aid becomes this politicised, there's no room left for a realistic assessment of Venezuela's humanitarian needs.


    On 14 February, for instance, the Organization of American States regional body held a highly politicised donors’ conference in Washington, D.C. that ended with much self-congratulatory talk of “$100 million in new pledges” of humanitarian aid to Venezuela.

    The number raised eyebrows for several reasons. First, the OAS didn’t publish a detailed breakdown of exactly who pledged what and for when, sowing seeds of doubt about how solid or serious the pledges are. Second, no monitoring, evaluation, or control mechanism of any kind was announced – which, again, can only lead the cynical to doubt how serious the whole enterprise is.


    And finally – and most seriously – the $100 million amount is completely out of proportion with even the most conservative estimates of the scale of need in Venezuela. Optimistic predictions of the impact of recent US oil sanctions alone suggest the country’s food imports will drop $120 million per month, and that is from inadequate levels that already saw three in four Venezuelans lose body weight due to hunger last year. And that’s just food, not to mention medicine, other supplies, fuel, etc.

    It could be remembered as the prelude to a catastrophe on a scale that the western hemisphere hasn’t seen in decades.

    In order to make a dent in the real humanitarian needs Venezuelans face, the OAS would have to hold that same donor conference once every three weeks or so for the foreseeable future. Even then, if the aid continued to be held up at the border, it would do no good.


    The basic message here is that aid-as-politics turns out to be incompatible with aid-as-aid in the Venezuelan context. If Guaidó’s strategy pans out and delivers a knockout blow to the Maduro regime in the near future, paving the way for large-scale relief efforts under a new government, it will be hailed as a masterstroke. But if it fails and the Maduro clique manages to entrench itself in power, it could be remembered as the prelude to a catastrophe on a scale that the western hemisphere hasn’t seen in decades.


    What is clear is that the Venezuelan opposition – alongside powerful allies in the United States, Colombia, Brazil, and Europe – has chosen an exceptionally risky approach without a credible Plan B. For Venezuelans’ sake, we can only hope it works.


    Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off
  • Briefing: Haiti’s new crisis and the humanitarian risks

    The last decade has been cruel to Haiti: one of the world’s deadliest ever earthquakes struck in 2010; cholera, brought in accidentally by UN peacekeepers, then ravaged the country for years afterwards, claiming at least 10,000 lives; and, in October 2016, Hurricane Matthew wiped out 90 percent of buildings along the southern coast at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion.


    The Caribbean country is now gripped by deadly protests over allegations of government corruption and the crippling effects of stubbornly high inflation – protests that could bring down President Jovenel Moïse and have already plunged the nation of 11 million people into renewed uncertainty.


    ☰ Read more: Haiti’s changing fortunes


    Haiti, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic to the east, has a proud history – a successful revolution against French rule culminated in the formation of the world’s first black republic in 1804.


    But since three decades of brutal Duvalier dictatorship ended in 1986, its more recent past has been marked by revolts, coups, natural disasters, questionable military and foreign interventions, and political mismanagement.


    Over the course of a few decades, Haiti went from being a booming (if short-lived) tourist destination, and a large exporter of food and other goods, to a failed economic state that has to import more than 80 percent of its rice at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.


    According to the World Bank, 59 percent of Haiti’s population lives below the poverty line (on less than $2.41 a day), and almost one in four in extreme poverty (less than $1.23 a day). Only a quarter of Haitians have access to electricity. The country has an official unemployment rate of 30 percent, but the real figure is believed to be higher.


    “Haitians want to work, but they can’t find jobs,” said Haitian economist Eddy Labossière, calling in particular for a better loan system for the country’s farmers. It is very difficult for Haitians to get credit to help start or build businesses – 80 percent of loans given out by the banks go to just 10 percent of borrowers.


    Clarens Renois, a former journalist who is now the president of the National Union for Integration and Reconciliation, or UNIR, a centre-left opposition party, called for dialogue and said he didn’t think it wise for Moïse to resign without a plan in place.


    “There are many players,” Renois said. “You have the private sector; in the past you had the military; you have the international community playing into it; and, of course, the Haitian politicians.”


    Haitians use democracy to protest in the streets, he said, but they can’t even find food to feed their children. “I think we’re in a really big crisis,” Renois said. “Even if schools reopen and things return to normal, you will still have to address this in the next three to six months.”


    One of the most vulnerable countries to extreme weather events, Haiti has long had chronic problems trying to feed its population. In December, the UN’s World Food Programme stated that “between March and June 2019, it is projected that 2.6 million people will be acutely food insecure, including 571,000 in a food emergency.”


    But the current political and economic crisis, aid officials are warning, will only worsen the humanitarian prognosis for what is already the poorest country in the western hemisphere.


    Why did protests erupt?

    A report published in 2017 by the Haitian Senate accused dozens of government officials and heads of private firms of embezzling $2 billion from Petrocaribe – a cut-price-oil aid programme Venezuela offers to several Caribbean countries. According to the Miami Herald, the report listed a firm Moïse owns as a beneficiary of funds from a road construction project that never had a signed contract.


    The funds were supposed to go to infrastructure development and health, education, and social programmes. The allegations fed into existing questions about what successive governments had to show for some $9 billion in foreign aid since the 2010 earthquake, even though little of it went directly to the Haitian government of Haitian firms.

    Demonstrations over a 40 percent hike in fuel prices in July 2018 marked the beginning of the current unrest. Then, on 14 August, Haitian filmmaker and writer Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. posted a photo of himself on social media holding a sign asking where the PetroCaribe funds had gone, hashtag #PetroCaribeChallenge.


    The tweet quickly went viral, inspiring both the Haitian youth and the Haitian diaspora. Black banners started being draped above streets in the capital, Port-au-Prince, asking “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a?” or “Where is the PetroCaribe money?”

    Pascale Solages, a spokeswoman for the PetroCaribe Challenge, said the movement is inspiring everyone to rise up and speak out against corruption. “We need to have investigations,” she told IRIN. “The people who are accused need to go on trial; we need to have justice.”


    When did the violence start?


    The movement began peacefully, attracting thousands of protesters demanding greater government accountability. However, as it grew, opposition politicians became involved and different agendas came into play. The first clashes were reported in October and November.



    A stack of tires on fire at a petrol station as protesters march behind
    Jessica Obert/IRIN


    Frustration over corruption but also over inflation, gas shortages, and failed government promises to introduce 24-hour electricity and boost agricultural production came to a head on 7 February when the opposition began a series of protests dubbed “Operation Lockdown Haiti”, marching on the presidential palace, and blocking the road to the airport.

    Some protesters burned cars and looted as the security situation deteriorated. At least nine people have been killed and dozens injured in 10 days of protests that also saw 78 detainees escape from a prison in Aquin, a town in southern Haiti.


    President Moïse didn’t address the nation until last Thursday, a week after the protests started. He called for the country to stand behind him, saying he wouldn’t resign to armed gangs and drug dealers. The US Embassy released a statement shortly after the address, supporting Moïse but urging his government to crack down on corruption and find those responsible for the missing PetroCaribe funds.


    Protests continued after Moïse’s speech and into the weekend, but the streets have been calmer since Sunday even while uncertainty remains.


    What are the humanitarian needs?


    High inflation for several years, recently exceeding 15 percent, has made it ever more difficult for most Haitians to buy the bare necessities and feed their families. A few months ago one US dollar was equivalent to roughly 71 gourdes. It has now risen to nearly 85. One small can of rice used to cost 35 gourdes. Now, it costs 60.


    Hospitals in the capital reported being besieged during the protests, unable to get doctors or patients in, let alone medicines, although one doctor told CNN: “To be honest this is normal for this hospital – we don't have medicines, we don't have any working equipment.”

    "Generally speaking there is food available, it’s just that people don’t have the cash to buy anything."


    WFP supported a national analysis in December that found “a significant deterioration of food security and the nutritional situation of rural households”. It said 2.2 million Haitians were facing acute food insecurity, including 386,000 in a food emergency.


    Jessica Pearl, country director of Mercy Corps, explained how most people in Haiti live on the margins, so her organisation works to build their resilience and leave them less dependent on foreign aid.


    “In the humanitarian community, we try to distribute cash instead of food so that people can support the local economy, and the cash circulates in the local economy,” she told IRIN. “In the areas where the food is not available, there would be some distribution of food that is handled by the UN World Food Programme. Generally speaking there is food available, it’s just that people don’t have the cash to buy anything. This will be the largest challenge for people.”


    What are the risks ahead?


    Pearl warned that the situation was now likely to get worse. “We were already in a difficult food security situation, and there were already plans underway to provide food assistance to a large number of people across the country,” she said. “So that need hasn’t gone away and if anything it’s probably been exacerbated.”


    The WFP prediction for March-June represents an almost 50 percent increase in those with “food emergency” status in just a few months.


    For Mercy Corps and other aid agencies, as well as any government response efforts, the volatility and unpredictability of the demonstrations makes it difficult to move safely through the streets, particularly in the overcrowded capital. This has prevented the delivery of water and fuel, and the restocking of markets.


    According to the Miami Herald, aid groups have been unclear whether the situation is even safe enough to enter Haiti.

    “We want the price of goods to go down and for the possibility to find work. We just want the country to function well.”

    In the countryside, Haitians are often dependent on gas and food coming overland from the Dominican Republic. The economic crisis has meant trucks have had difficulty providing diesel to stations outside the capital, and roadblocks have disrupted trade.


    Kesner Pharel, a Harvard graduate and economist in Haiti, warned that continued political instability would hit the economy hard as renewed calm will be needed to draw back in some foreign investment and make the devalued gourde more competitive.


    “If you look at the last 10 months, you see the riots in July, a big strike in October, one week of strikes in November, and now the country has been closed for more than a week. It’s a big shock for the economic supply,” Pharel said. “If you aren’t creating wealth, how can you solve unemployment? Where are you getting the money to buy?”


    A mother and daughter sit on a bed as light from the window falls on them
    Jessica Obert/IRIN


    What do ordinary Haitians think?


    On the steep hillside in the Turgeau neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, you can almost convince yourself that all is well below. However, Kessia Madocher, 31, struggles to find drinking water and food for her daughter and four brothers and sisters.

    Normally, she’d be able to send her water canisters down the hill on a motorcycle. Now, she has to walk long distances to stand in long lines with no guarantee of getting any. Madocher has resorted to buying water from neighbours’ rain basins – used normally for bathing – and treating it with clorox. Since the unrest, she says they’ve had to cut back on food and water.


    Savanel St. Jour works as a motorcycle driver in the capital. He took part in the most recent protests and says Moïse must go because no one can trust what he says any longer.


    Madocher isn’t so sure. A friend of hers was killed last week in the demonstrations, and she says she’s afraid to leave her home to look for food and can’t send her daughter to school.

    “Jovenel didn’t say anything of substance,” Madocher says. “He didn’t speak for us or about the missing money people are protesting about. He’s speaking for the rich people that are with him.”


    Madocher leaves an empty cup used to measure rice on the table in her house. Gallons of empty jugs of water are piled up in the corner of the room. She wants the country to change, but in a way that all Haitians feel the impact. “We want the price of goods to go down and for the possibility to find work,” she says. “We just want the country to function well.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Protesters demonstrate in anger at the PetroCaribe scandal. CREDIT: Jessica Obert/IRIN)


    “We just want the country to function well”
    Briefing: Haiti’s new crisis and the humanitarian risks
  • South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

    Last week, UN envoy for South Sudan David Shearer said fighting had “diminished greatly” since a September peace agreement. He may have spoken too soon. It has since emerged that clashes in the Equatoria region have displaced about 8,000 people internally and sent 5,000 more fleeing across the border into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in the midst of an Ebola outbreak. Most of the refugees and IDPs are women, children, and the elderly – many traumatised after they “witnessed violent incidents, including armed men reportedly murdering and raping civilians and looting villages," according to Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The clashes began last month between the army and the National Salvation Front, or NAS, one of more than 70 armed groups in South Sudan – and one that didn’t sign last year's accord. Five years of civil war have left 1.9 million South Sudanese internally displaced and 2.4 million living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

    Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

    The World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are among those competing with the UN's World Food Programme for a €500 million European Commission grant. The project supports 1.5 million refugees with cash allowances in Turkey. It’s the largest single humanitarian grant in the world, accounting for about 31 percent of the EC’s emergency aid budget. One of the issues will be indirect costs. A recent EC audit questioned the seven percent overhead fee paid to WFP (to be reduced to 6.5%), which ran the first phase of the project. WFP told IRIN it is following the financial rules set by its board, which includes EU member states. The Emergency Social Safety Net project is largely implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent. Its chief, Kerem Kinik, in a statement to IRIN, declined to back a bidder, saying his organisation "remains in promotion of an impactful and cost-efficient programme design".

    Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

    The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen released its annual report to the public this week. It makes for grim reading on 2018, a period during which the country “continued its slide towards humanitarian and economic catastrophe”. In 224 pages, the group details “widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the various parties involved in the conflict”. Tip: For the group’s look at humanitarian assistance – including the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s obstruction of civilian flights out of Sana’a, and the Houthi rebels’ arrest of aid workers and interference in the selection of aid beneficiaries – skip to page 56. In other Yemen news, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would end the country’s support for the war. It still has to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump’s pen. If you’re confused, yes, last year a similar resolution failed in the House and passed in the Senate, but members have come and gone since then, and the resolution has changed too.

    Counting the cost of internal displacement

    People displaced within their own borders could be costing the global economy nearly $13 billion a year, according to new research by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Researchers assessed costs for eight countries experiencing conflicts or disasters, including Central African Republic, Libya, the Philippines, South Sudan, and Yemen. CAR was found to have the highest financial impact for each displaced person – about $230 million, or 11 percent of the country's GDP, per year. The research found that the highest burdens come from lost income, support for housing, and healthcare. People in low-income countries were also impacted worse than those in lower-middle or upper-middle income countries. Internal displacement "places a heavy burden on the economy," said Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC, "generating specific needs that must be paid for by those affected, their hosts, governments or aid providers". For more on how IDPs need greater protection, read this opinion we published earlier in the week.

    Examining aid partnerships

    Major donors and aid groups have made broad promises to “localise” aid – putting more power and funding in the hands of locals when crises hit. But change has been slow on the ground, to the frustration of many local NGOs, as we’ve documented in our continuing reporting on locally driven aid. So how can local and international groups make this all work? New research examines aid partnerships in four countries – Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, and South Sudan – to look at what kinds of practices might contribute to “localising” aid. There are the positives (locals participating in project design and budgeting), and the negatives (internationals taking credit for local work). But, unsurprisingly, most of the local humanitarians interviewed in the studies said existing partnerships between international and local organisations are not equitable – closer to the subcontracting that characterises many aid relationships. Yet genuine, long-term partnerships are seen as the most likely to accelerate “localisation” reforms. The ongoing research, which you can read here, comes from a consortium of NGOs including Action Aid, CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam, and Tearfund.

    ‘I am free from the conflict, but I do not feel free’

    The number of child soldiers around the world has more than doubled since 2012, according to Child Soldiers International’s analysis of six years of UN reports on children and armed conflict. The latest report verified 8,185 cases of child recruitment in 15 countries – a 159 percent rise on the 3,159 cases verified in 2012.

    Co-produced by a former child soldier, a new project brings to life the voices of 27 children who were recruited into conflict in northern Uganda. There’s a taster below, but you can view the full comic here.


    © YOLRED and courtesy of Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol)

    In case you missed it

    Germany: The German authorities have arrested two former officers of Bashar al-Assad’s secret service alleged to have tortured critics of the Syrian president. A third man is reported to have been arrested in France. Germany accepts the principle of universal jurisdiction, allowing its courts to try individuals accused of international crimes committed elsewhere – including war crimes, crimes against humanity, even genocide.

    Haiti: After more than a week of protests over corruption amid soaring prices and inflation, President Jovenel Moïse finally broke his silence on Thursday, refusing to step down and urging patience. At least seven people have been killed during demonstrations sparked by anger at the government and the business elite over a $2 billion development aid scandal. More protests and street gunfire was reported in the capital, Port-au-Prince, after Moïse’s speech.

    Kashmir: The deadliest militant attack to hit Indian-administered Kashmir in three decades killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary troops this week, raising tensions in a disputed region that has seen frequent civilian demonstrations against military abuses. The bomb blast was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad, a banned Islamist group.

    Myanmar: The military is shelling villages and blocking humanitarian access in Rakhine State, according to Amnesty International. Rights groups say some of the same army divisions involved in the violent 2017 ouster of 700,000 Rohingya – labelled as a likely genocide by UN investigators – are now being deployed in a crackdown on the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army.

    Sudan: Sudanese government forces have used "extreme violence and shocking abuses" against largely peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said, urging the UN to conduct an independent investigation into the violations. Activists estimate that more than 50 people have died since anti-government demonstrations began in mid-December, while at least 79 journalists have reportedly been arrested.


    Weekend read

    International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    The new D-Day for Venezuela is 23 February. This is when opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has said humanitarian aid will enter the country to alleviate the suffering of Venezuelans gripped by widespread shortages of food and medicine. Guaidó has urged the armed forces, who remain loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, to allow the aid in. But there’s no indication Maduro, whose presidency Guaidó denounces as illegitimate, intends to do any such thing. In our weekend read, journalist Paula Dupraz-Dobias unpicks the different strands of what has become an international aid stand-off, with aid agencies caught in the middle and uncertain what to do next. This briefing is essential reading as the showdown continues to obscure a humanitarian crisis that may be denied by Maduro, but shows no sign of letting up.

    And finally

    We recommend you check out this entry to the New York Times’ Lens blog, which features the work of photographer Wesaam al-Badry. Al-Badry and his family fled Iraq just before the Gulf War for Nebraska, and his photos beautifully document their life in the United States, warts and all. There are weddings, a prison release ankle monitor, and an Arabic-language American newspaper. “My family are not one dimensional characters in a refugee story,” al-Badry says. “They have multiple layers, they have their own personalities, their own agency and ways of manoeuvring through life.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A child holds up a map in the Protection of Civilians site in Bor, South Sudan. CREDIT: JC McIlwaine​/UN Photo)


    South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant
  • In Cúcuta, a soup kitchen and a long road ahead for Venezuelans

    The Colombian border town of Cúcuta is the main point of exodus for Venezuelans leaving their troubled homeland, with up to 40,000 people crossing backwards and forwards here each day.


    Most arrive with hopes of new lives and new opportunities in Colombia, while others aim to travel, often by foot, on to other South American countries like Ecuador and Peru. Somewhere between three and four million Venezuelans have left since 2015.


    Read more: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela


    Journalist Steven Grattan went to Cúcuta, once a thriving hub for Venezuelan tourists, and discovered how it is struggling to host hundreds of thousands of new migrants who have landed in a region where education and health institutions are now at breaking point.


    Harsh realities greet many new arrivals, as their journeys and dreams of a fresh start become derailed by their own lack of resources and by the shortage of opportunities they find in Colombia.




    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Some Venezuelans cross into Colombia simply to buy basic food and supplies to take back to Venezuela. They bring suitcases, like the man in this photo heading back along the Simón Bolívar border bridge – the main point of entry between the two countries. Flour, eggs, toilet roll, and toothpaste are hard to come by, or are extremely expensive. Many are now scared to migrate, knowing that Colombia and other nearby countries are saturated with their fellow citizens, as jobs and opportunities abroad have dried up.

    Colombian refugees returning


    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    As recently as a decade ago Venezuela was one of the richest countries in the region, playing host itself to more than a quarter of a million Colombians fleeing war and persecution during the armed conflict between Colombian government forces and leftist FARC rebels. Freddy Garzon, 49, was one of those whose family fled Colombia and moved to Venezuela, in 1974. He is now fleeing the other way with his children, aged seven and nine. “I can’t imagine going back [to Venezuela] again. It’s really affected my head,” he says.



    A long line of people outside of a soup kitchen
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    This is the priority line for parents with young children outside a church-run soup kitchen in Cúcuta. Some 7,500 meals are provided here six days a week, Monday to Saturday. There is a line for the elderly too. Many depend on these meals to help them through the first steps of their migration into Colombia. However, many Venezuelans who live near the border also cross daily and queue for rations as food on the other side is so scarce.

    The cooks


    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Cooking plantain for 4,000 people’s lunch is no easy task. Elvis Baracho (at the front), 25, is a Venezuelan migrant who has worked at the soup kitchen for almost two years. His salary is minimal ($26 a month), but it allows him to pay for basic needs and he gets two free meals a day. Angel Jose, 25, (behind) lives in a tin house on the outskirts of Cúcuta with his wife and disabled child. In addition to his work at the soup kitchen, he cuts hair. He charges 2,000 pesos (63 cents) per cut, half of which goes to the woman who rents him the clippers.

    Twelve to a room


    A woman stands in the shade with her cart selling Aloe Vera juice
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Since migrating to Colombia six months ago, Lesther Lopez, 42, has been selling her Aloe Vera concoction around Cúcuta. It supposedly helps with liver, kidney, and cholesterol problems. She says that coming to the soup kitchen for lunch each day means the little money she earns can go toward paying the $95 in monthly rent she is charged for the one room she shares in Cúcuta with 11 others, including her children aged 22, 19, and 14.

    Scraping by to send money home


    A 48 year old man stands near a colorful wall holding a box of small goods for sale
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Jesus Betancurt sits on the pavement in the sweltering heat on the Simón Bolívar bridge selling biscuits and sweets to passersby. He crossed over a week ago in search of a job. “I live with the hope of being able to send something back to my family,” says the 48-year-old from Carabobo State. “I’ve been trying to find work, but this is all I can get for now.”

    Moving on


    A closeup of a printed map showing a route for migrants
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    This map is given by the Red Cross to Venezuelan migrants walking into Colombia. It shows a 47-hour walk to the city of Bucaramanga, a small fraction of the route many will take on to Ecuador or Peru. The road winds high into hills, and people often have to sleep rough in cold nighttime temperatures.

    Hitching a ride

    For those leaving Cúcuta, the first stop is the hilltop town Pamplona. Many come on foot on their way to Bucaramanga. In the photo above, migrants leaving Pamplona are trying to hitch a ride from a passing lorry, The migrants often travel vast distances on from here on foot, through the Colombian wetlands, many with suitcases and few resources.

    Escaping the heat


    A group of men, women, and children in the back of a shipping lorry
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Most don’t get picked up, but these migrants are lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back of an empty lorry. The heat on the road is intense, so they are happy to catch a break. Most of these migrants are trying to leave Colombia for Peru and Chile because they believe there might be more opportunities for work in those countries. Others are searching for family members who have gone before.


    For more on the situation within Venezuela, read our in-depth reporting: A humanitarian crisis denied.

    (TOP PHOTO: Sergio Carmargo, 59, in the elderly line at the church-run soup kitchen in Cúcuta. CREDIT: Steven Grattan/IRIN)


    In Cúcuta, a soup kitchen and a long road ahead for Venezuelans
  • Briefing: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    Humanitarian aid to millions of hungry and sick Venezuelans has become an international political football, with President Nicolás Maduro equating the prospect of outside assistance entering his country to a foreign military intervention.


    National Assembly leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó says Maduro’s election win last year was illegitimate. In calling for the president to step aside and allow fresh elections, the opposition leader has secured the support of dozens of countries – including the United States, Canada, and most of Latin America and Europe.


    But the Venezuelan military – along with Russia, China, Turkey, and leftist regional governments in Cuba and Bolivia – is still backing Maduro, who was sworn in for a new six-year term in January, precipitating mass protests in the capital, Caracas, and other cities.


    Trucks carrying US relief supplies have rolled into the Colombian border town of Cúcuta only to have their entry into Venezuela blocked by the Venezuelan military, with Maduro describing it as a “show of fake humanitarian aid”.


    Meanwhile, the UN says it cannot deliver humanitarian assistance to Venezuela unless requested to do so by the government.


    As the showdown intensifies, here’s what we know.


    What’s the current situation?


    Last week, 50 metric tonnes of aid provided by the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, was delivered in a convoy of trucks with the help of the Colombian government to Cúcuta. Colombian and US officials say it includes basic food items such as flour, rice, lentils, and cooking oil, as well as personal hygiene items.


    The United States has pledged $20 million in assistance to Venezuela. “This is a downpayment. This is just the beginning,” US Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker told reporters in Cúcuta on Friday.


    The Venezuelan military continues to block the Tienditas international bridge between Cúcuta and the neighbouring Venezuelan town of Tachira, preventing the USAID supplies from being delivered.


    President Maduro denies that Venezuela faces a humanitarian crisis, and maintains that economic difficulties are a result of sanctions imposed by Washington.


    Read more:  A humanitarian crisis denied


    Some 10 percent of the population – more than three million Venezuelans – have left their country since 2015 as the economy has collapsed and it has become increasingly difficult to find basic and affordable food and medicine.


    Read more:  Worries grow as more Venezuelans look to Peru


    Tens of thousands of Venezuelans continue to cross every day into Cúcuta over the Simón Bolívar bridge, which has effectively become a pedestrian-only artery due to the large number of people fleeing in search of medicine or food, or to start new lives.


    What plans are there to get aid in?


    Guaidó has vowed to open routes into the country for the US aid and has called on Venezuelans to get ready to help distribute it. He says distribution plans – through various points along the border – will be made clear in the coming days.


    The opposition is appealing to the military to allow the supplies through. Up until now the military has supported Maduro, although a rebellion by the national guard was quashed last month.


    At a press conference in Cúcuta on Friday, Lester Toledo, Guaidó’s spokesperson in Colombia, said: “Dear military personnel, this aid is also for you... here comes food for your children, here comes medicine for the people who are suffering.”


    Along the border with Brazil, the indigenous Pemón community, whose lands straddle the international boundary, has said it will allow assistance to pass through its territory to be distributed in Venezuela. The area, known as La Gran Sabana, includes the only paved road crossing between Brazil and Venezuela.


    What are the main needs?


    Organisations operating within Venezuela have remained discrete about the humanitarian situation within the country due to the government’s sensitivity toward the issue and official stance that it needs no assistance.


    However, academic studies, as well as numerous media reports and stories recounted by fleeing migrants, indicate that living conditions have deteriorated sharply for most of the population and that there are dire shortages of food and medicine.


    Read more: Hunger and survival in Venezuela


    An annual study by three major Venezuelan universities on living conditions in Venezuela (known as Encovi) estimated in its latest survey, in 2017, that 87 percent of the population was living under the poverty line and 61 percent in extreme poverty (a near 10 percent rise on the previous year).


    Hyperinflation, linked to a severe contraction of the oil sale-dependent economy, was estimated at around 1.7 million percent in 2018, according to the National Assembly’s National Price Index. Venezuela’s Central Bank stopped publishing inflation figures in 2016.


    Families are often unable to feed themselves more than once a day, with Encovi reporting significant average weight losses, even by 2017.


    The health ministry stopped publishing national health data in 2017, after an official report highlighted a large increase in infant and maternal mortality rates, which led to the immediate sacking of the health minister.


    Since 2016, outbreaks of diphtheria and measles, two vaccine-preventable diseases that had all but been eradicated in Venezuela, have once again been on the rise. In 2018, the number of tuberculosis cases reported at two TB centres in Caracas rose by 40 percent. Other reports say AIDS-related deaths have tripled and malaria cases are up by more than 200 percent.


    As doctors and nurses, along with other trained professionals, have joined the exodus, hospitals have become overwhelmed and unable to cope with patients seeking help, especially as people can’t afford medicines and shortages drive up black market prices.


    A survey of more than 130 hospitals and clinics by the National Assembly and Médicos por la Salud, a local NGO, found shortages of basic drugs increased to 88 percent last year. It also found that only one in 10 hospitals – most of them private clinics – had functioning operating rooms. Shortages of running water were commonplace.


    US sanctions imposed in January on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA may also be contributing to the suffering. The economy has shrunk by half since Maduro assumed power in 2013, and further contraction is expected as PDVSA accounts for 90 percent of the country’s hard currency inflows.


    Is it just the US offering aid?


    A number of other countries have pledged funds for humanitarian assistance to Venezuela.


    Some $2.5 million out of the $53 million Canada pledged at last week’s meeting of the Lima Group – a regional alliance seeking a peaceful agreement to the crisis – is expected to go to organisations already in Venezuela providing healthcare services.


    “We’re working with trusted humanitarian partners to try to get money to flow into Venezuela,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s international development minister.


    Bibeau said it was too early for funds to go directly to Guaidó, even though Canada – along with several other countries – has recognised the 35-year-old member of the centrist social-democratic Popular Will party as interim president.


    Germany has promised five million euros of humanitarian assistance to Venezuela “as soon as the political condition in the country allow this,” Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said last week.


    Is any international aid being provided within Venezuela?


    Although Maduro is refusing to allow in emergency humanitarian aid, he hasn’t stopped some existing programmes within the country from being ramped up.


    “UN agencies have been scaling up existing activities inside Venezuela to meet urgent health nutrition and protection needs,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said on Friday.


    Laerke explained to IRIN that international organizations in Venezuela  “have an agreement with the government that (scaling-up) can happen”.


    Funding shortfalls nonetheless may affect the extent of those operations. Less than half of the $109.5 million required for OCHA’s emergency plan to help 3.6 million Venezuelans, including two million children, has so far been received.


    UN agencies working in Venezuela include UNICEF, the Pan American Health Organization (a regional agency of WHO), UNAIDS, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Development Programme. Currently, the UN employs than 300 national and international staff in the country.


    Laerke said the UN is delivering 100,000 treatments for severe or acute malnutrition and six temporary shelters have been set up in border areas in western Venezuela to accommodate 1,600 people and provide them with food and clothing.


    WHO and PAHO are cooperating with the Venezuelan health ministry on healthcare management programmes. WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević said 50 tonnes of medicine and supplies were delivered to the country in 2018.


     PAHO also provided Venezuela with some 13 million doses of measles and rubella vaccines and 5.4 million doses of tetanus and diphtheria vaccines following outbreaks of the illnesses.


    In November, a $9.2 million UN health and nutrition aid package was announced, making it the first emergency funding approved by the government. The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) supports programmes that offer nutritional help to children and pregnant women and breast-feeding at risk mothers.


    Local and international aid groups inside Venezuela have also been adapting their services to provide essential food and services to people in need.


    Read more: As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics


    As the crisis has unfolded, the Catholic relief agency Caritas says it has increasingly been gearing its efforts towards essential humanitarian assistance, away from its traditional focus on pastoral care for prisoners and human rights advocacy.


    What next?


    One of many organisations providing assistance to migrants fleeing Venezuela is the World Food Programme, which says it isn’t talking to political parties in Venezuela and is only working with Maduro’s government and aid partners outside the country.

    “Any potential political use of humanitarian aid can generate risks, in particular for those the aid is intended to support."

    However, Hervé Verhoosel, the WFP’s senior spokesperson in Geneva, said the UN agency has begun to “pre-position food” at the Colombia-Venezuela border so it “will be ready when we have the authorisation to go (into Venezuela)”.


    An international NGO forum in Colombia, which includes Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Médecins du Monde, Terre des Hommes and others, has expressed concern about the plans to send humanitarian aid to Venezuela from Colombia following tensions surrounding the delivery of US aid to Cúcuta.


    “Any potential political use of humanitarian aid can generate risks, in particular for those the aid is intended to support, if this use is not based on technical and objective criteria,” it warned.

    Christian Visnes, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN from Cúcuta that it was “key to differentiate governments’ aid from humanitarian aid.”


    The International Committee of the Red Cross, which operates independently and in support of the Venezuelan Red Cross, was critical of the “highly politicised environment”, which it said makes it “challenging for humanitarian organisations to operate in”.


    Calls for dialogue to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis – and by association, to improve the humanitarian situation in Venezuela – are yet to bear fruit.


    A request from Maduro to allow the Vatican to mediate talks was initially welcomed by Guaidó, but he insisted any negotiations must begin with Maduro’s exit.

    (TOP PHOTO: A Venezuelan migrant feeds her baby at the Divina Providencia migrant shelter in Cúcuta​, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, on 7 February 2019. CREDIT: Schneyder Mendoza/AFP)


    Briefing: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela
  • Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    MSF rejects claims it didn’t follow plans to avoid Yemen bombing

    An investigation into the bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières cholera treatment centre in Yemen in June 2018 has “dismayed” the NGO. A panel appointed by the Saudi Arabia-led alliance found that the new and still-empty building had been bombed by the coalition in “an unintended error”. The investigators, however, disputed details of how the location’s coordinates were supplied to Riyadh and whether there were markings on the roof of the building identifying it as a humanitarian site. At a Riyadh press conference in mid-January, the official spokesman for the investigators said the coalition was acting on intelligence the building was used for arms and ammunition storage. MSF said the findings were “unacceptable and contradictory”, noting that under international law, “It is the sole responsibility of armed parties to the conflict to proactively take all necessary measures to ensure that protected facilities are not attacked.” For more on notifications and coordinates, read our IRIN explainer on “deconfliction”.

    Measles kills more than 300 in Madagascar

    Madagascar is suffering its worst measles outbreak in decades. More than 50,000 people have been infected and at least 300 killed, most of them children, according to health officials. Cases have been reported in all major towns and cities, as well as in rural areas. Supported by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, the government has initiated fresh vaccination campaigns. Deaths from measles are avoidable if such campaigns are thorough enough. The virus gained ground in Madagascar as immunisation rates fell below 50 percent (from the recommended 90 percent), mostly due to access difficulties. This IRIN story from the archives is evidence that this is not a new problem: health experts were expressing concerns about falling rates (then from 81 percent to 64 percent) as far back as 2011. Although worst hit, Madagascar is not alone in having to tackle the virus. Measles has also struck parts of the United States and Europe, where cases tripled last year. Health authorities in the Philippines are also urging immunisations following an outbreak in Manila and nearby regions that has left 1,500 people infected and caused at least 25 deaths.

    Atrocities feared amid rising militancy in Burkina Faso

    Attacks and counter-attacks between militants and security forces in Burkina Faso are taking a heavy toll on civilians. This week, jihadists attacked the northern village of Kain near the Malian border, killing 14 people. Security forces retaliated, launching ground and air assaults that left 146 militants dead. Soon after, another attack in Oursi in the Sahel Region left 21 militants and five gendarmes dead. Human Rights Watch has called out atrocities on both sides, saying the army "executed" some suspected militants in front of their own families. The UN says persistent armed attacks and violence displaced 36,000 people in January alone, as insecurity risks impeded access to aid. For three years, Burkina Faso has been battling an escalating wave of attacks, while regional Sahel neighbours Mali and Niger face similar threats. Rising militancy across Africa is a trend we’re  watching in 2019.

    Aid stuck on Venezuela border

    As a former Venezuelan diplomat now working with the opposition as a go-between with international aid groups in Geneva told IRIN  this week, the current situation is “something that doesn’t make any sense”. The Venezuelan people are desperately short of food and medicine, some three to four million people have fled the country since 2015, and their president, Nicolás Maduro, is refusing to allow humanitarian aid in. That’s not to say the offers of assistance, from the United States in particular, might not be something of a Trojan Horse. Maduro says, “no one will enter, not one invading soldier”, and the United States has a chequered past of military intervention and regime change in Latin America. For now, the aid arriving in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta is going nowhere. Maduro’s forces have blocked the bridge into Venezuela and seem to have no intention of allowing it in. Opposition leader and self-declared president-in-waiting Juan Guaidó has suggested stockpiling it in three locations at the border in the hope this will change. More from on this unfolding story next week.

    Mixed picture in South Sudan as refugees return

    Political violence has “dropped dramatically" since the signing of September's peace deal, David Shearer, the UN envoy in South Sudan, said in the same week that nine people were killed in clashes between rebel factions in the Western Equatoria region. More than 20,000 South Sudanese refugees have so far voluntarily returned from neighbouring Uganda, according to Joel Boutroue, the UN refugee agency's representative in Uganda. However, in December, UNHCR said that despite reduced violence in some areas, South Sudan was not yet "conducive” for the safe return of refugees. Although Shearer praised some of the "positive" developments in recent months, including rebel leader Riek Machar's plan to return to Juba in May, he also flagged concerns about ongoing conflict and a loss of momentum in the peace process, with recent meetings reportedly lacking substance or real outcomes.

    One to listen to:

    In this week’s story on Yemen’s shaky ceasefire deal, we mentioned that Yemeni rights watchdog Mwatana for Human Rights had documented 624 civilian cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture in 2018. Here’s your chance to find out more about where that number came from: Radya al-Mutawakel, the organisation’s co-founder, is interviewed at length on the latest episode of the International Rescue Committee’s podcast, “Displaced”. She talks about the challenges of independently verifying information on human rights violations in the midst of a divisive war, including airstrikes, torture, disappearances, and detention, and explains why she thinks it is important to build what she calls a “human rights memory” in Yemen. Al-Mutawakel and Mwatana’s latest challenge? Figuring out how to document starvation as a  violation, as the link between victim and perpetrator is not always clear cut.

    In case you missed it

    Ethiopia: In 2009, Ethiopia banned local NGOs from raising more than 10 percent of income from abroad. The provision in the law governing civil society was criticised as a means to stifle dissent. Local media report that new rules lifting the limit have passed the Ethiopian parliament this week, part of wide-ranging reforms under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.


    Syria: A joint UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy arrived on Thursday at Rukban, an informal camp located in a no man’s land near the Syria-Jordan border. The last delivery of aid to more than 40,000 people sheltering in the area known as “the berm” was in November.


    Tonga: Authorities in the Pacific Island nation are warning of gale-force winds, floods, and damaging waves as a tropical depression brushes past the country over the weekend. Last year, Cyclone Gita landed a direct hit on parts of Tonga, including its main island, Tongatapu.


    Yemen: This week’s Amman talks on a Yemen prisoner swap have not yet resulted in agreement on the lists of names to be exchanged, but a UN spokesman said separate talks on a UN boat had yielded a “preliminary compromise” on withdrawing forces from Hodeidah. For background, read this.


    Weekend read

    New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns

    Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you’ll be aware of our weekend read: CIA-funded data-mining company Palantir signs a $45 million five-year deal to help the UN’s World Food Programme pool its data and find cost-saving efficiencies. To say data privacy and protection activists are unamused is an understatement: this is a company that provided software to US customs officials to help them deport migrants. “The recipients of WFP aid are already in extremely vulnerable situations; they should not be put at additional risk of harm or exploitation,” Privacy International told IRIN’s Ben Parker. But WFP insists there will be no “data-sharing”, and hit back with a statement outlining its thinking and the safeguards it feels are in place. This wasn’t enough, however, to assuage critics, who penned an open letter to WFP urging them to reconsider the agreement and be more transparent. As Centre for Innovation protection experts suggest here, this isn’t a new conundrum, and the Palantir furore might jolt the humanitarian sector into some belated engagement on data privacy and protection concerns.


    And finally...

    Hot in here

    The last four years have been the four warmest years on record, according to separate analyses released this week by organisations including NASA and the WMO, the UN’s meteorological agency. Analysts say it’s a “clear sign” of long-term climate change, along with “extreme and high-impact weather” that affected millions. The WMO says the average global temperature in 2018 was 1.0° Celsius above pre-industrial levels – climate scientists say temperature rise must be limited to less than 2.0° to stave off the worst impacts.


    Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal
  • Q&A: Inside the effort to break the Venezuelan aid impasse

    The UN has warned against politicising humanitarian assistance to hungry and sick Venezuelans after the country’s armed forces set up roadblocks at border points with Colombia, where food and medicine was expected to enter the crisis-ridden country.


    US aid has arrived at the Colombian border at the request of Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who recently declared himself president, and European states have also pledged to contribute humanitarian support after recognising Guaidó as head of state earlier this week.


    Allowing in assistance would be tantamount to accepting a US-led invasion, according to President Nicolás Maduro, who, along with his government, denies a humanitarian crisis exists and blames his country’s economic problems on US sanctions.


    International aid groups, meanwhile, want to help more but are wary of getting caught up in a political row. Supporting one side or the other could, they fear, muddy fundamental humanitarian principles of neutrality.


    In the middle of it all is Maria-Alejandra Aristeguieta Alvarez, the ex officio representative of the Venezuelan opposition in Geneva, where much of the international aid sector is based.


    Formerly a member of the Venezuelan mission here, Alvarez was forced to resign her post in 2002 and now heads Iniciativa por Venezuela, a group acting as go-betweens for the Venezuelan opposition and international organisations in Geneva.


    Aid groups have been providing assistance to Venezuelans fleeing via key border points in Colombia and Brazil, but they can’t help within Venezuela because Maduro’s government hasn’t invited them in.


    Since 2015, up to four million people have left Venezuela, where an economic collapse marked by hyperinflation and chronic unemployment has led to a lack of food and basic medicines, even to the return of once-eradicated diseases like diphtheria and measles.


    Alvarez spoke with IRIN this week about the aid stand-off at the Colombian border and what is happening behind the scenes to get assistance to those who need it. She described the current situation in Venezuela as “something that doesn’t make any sense,” adding: “nobody from any government would try to kill its own people, but that is exactly the way it is.”


    The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.


    IRIN: Given the role Geneva plays on the humanitarian front, has the opposition nominated a representative to the international organisations that are critical for organising assistance?


    Maria-Alejandra Aristeguieta Alvarez: Officially there is no one, because the UN has not recognised Guaidó as the new government. It will be a long shot at this stage to achieve that recognition, because while 40-plus governments have recognised the Guaidó government, there are some 190 member states at the UN. It is also a matter of time, because the General Assembly – which can adopt a decision recognising the government – will only meet in September. Meanwhile, I have been acting as the ex officio representative of the opposition here.


    Since the beginning of the humanitarian crisis, [Iniciativa por Venezuela has] been speaking to the various international organisations in Geneva about the humanitarian situation and about what comes next.


    IRIN: How much discussion on these issues is taking place within those organisations here in Geneva?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: Most of the discussions are taking place in Caracas. I am much more of a facilitator, and raising awareness of situations. I work with both sides: with Caracas [the National Assembly led by Guaidó], telling them how and who to get in touch with… and, on the other side, we are working with organisations in Geneva to inform them about the situation in Venezuela...


    IRIN: Which organisations have you been in contact with?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: I would rather not mention them as they have people on the ground in Venezuela, and once you say that they have been in touch with the opposition, either here or in Caracas, they are concerned about the fate of their representatives in Venezuela. They have been carrying out work in Venezuela in a very low-key [way], very discreetly… and would like to keep it that way.


    IRIN: Do humanitarian projects run by international organisations receive approval from the government?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: Yes, absolutely, they get approval from the Maduro regime. They have been working with them on different projects in different areas, from medicine and also on the humanitarian side, and also issues related to food…


    The organisations are operating in Venezuela, but not as extensively and as comfortably as they would like. Of course they would like to get all that humanitarian aid coming from Colombia and Brazil, and Curaçao and Aruba. (Earlier this week it was announced that American aid would be delivered to Colombia, Brazil, and a Caribbean island).


    IRIN: As the UN says it cannot deliver assistance without a request from the Maduro government, who exactly is coordinating the assistance at the border and efforts to get the aid into Venezuela?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: A few organisations are working there. Across the border you have the ICRC, UNHCR* (the UN’s refugee agency), IOM (the UN’s migration agency), and OCHA, the UN humanitarian coordinator. They work together as a team to bring humanitarian aid to people who have been migrating over the past two years. They have been focusing on those migrants, providing primary aid and food so that they can continue their journey onwards. They have been working in Colombia and Brazil very efficiently.


    They have been also working there with the government of Colombia, which said it is willing to offer them support, as well as with the Americans and Canadians and any other countries aid [departments] in helping to transfer it across the border to Venezuela. As it is a long border between Colombia and Venezuela, [if aid is allowed into Venezuela] there would be a couple of ‘compilation points’ where food and medicine would be transferred to the other side.


    IRIN: Is the opposition talking to the international organisations to see where aid could possibly enter the country?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: Definitely. We have been carrying out discussions with the various organisations that are in Venezuela, and increasingly with those that are on the other side of the border, particularly in Cúcuta, Colombia. They have been discussing particular ways of helping the migrants, and now how to help those within Venezuela.


    IRIN: This week, Maduro’s forces set up roadblocks to stop trucks from crossing the border to deliver aid. Who exactly is responsible for coordinating the trucks that need to cross the border?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: We have many Venezuelans on the other side of the border who are willing to help. There are also members of the army who have fled and who are eager to help.


    We have associations around the world, mostly in Colombia. These organisations have spoken to the Colombian government and (Guaidó’s) National Assembly, saying that they would be ready to help and to be part of the logistics, meaning that these would be Venezuelans going into the country and driving perhaps those trucks or cars to bring food in...


    On Tuesday, Miguel Pizarro, the head of the technical commission (in charge of humanitarian aid in the National Assembly), said there would not be any forcing of aid into Venezuela. If the borders are not open, the boxes will just stay there.


    IRIN: Given the long border that may be difficult to police, will there be attempts to bring aid in through other entry points?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: Aid has been sent to Venezuela for some time from different countries. Individuals and associations have been doing so. People return to Venezuela with suitcases filled with food to distribute to their families and to give to NGOs in the poorest areas. Courier deliveries are also bringing food to Venezuela. This has been going on for two, three years now. But along the border between Venezuela and Colombia that is over 2,000 kilometres long, you get people entering informally, who move back and forth.


    In some cases I can tell you that there are some embassies on the ground who are providing funds to buy the food.


    We are now talking about volumes of assistance that you cannot take though those “caminos verdes” or illegal borders. You would have to bring it though places where there is infrastructure, such as over the Simón Bolívar bridge (in Cúcuta), which is now pedestrian, where you would have to stop people crossing to Colombia to allow the trucks to come across.


    IRIN: Could we imagine humanitarian corridors being set up by international parties such as the UN?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: That is what we are hoping for, but so far we only have several states, who are then accused of wanting to invade the country (by the Maduro government)...


    We hope that some organisations will take this opportunity. The Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN have said that they are eager to get [the Maduro government’s] OK... I am sure the Red Cross would not admit it, because of their concern to remain neutral. But I would think that the UN, because of the political implications and the potential humanitarian impact, would take a different stance.


    IRIN: In Geneva, one can imagine international agencies must be knocking at the Venezuelan mission’s door offering assistance.


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: They have been receiving proposals from various organisations for quite some time, but to admit that they need help means admitting to a failure in how they run the government as well as to ideological failure. They have been denying this crisis for the past five years and denying that there is any hunger, as people [help] themselves from garbage piles, and [die] from chronic diseases because there is no treatment.


    IRIN: Will donors be stigmatised by the politicisation of the situation, where the Maduro regime is exploiting images of USAID packages with US flags at the border to warn of an alleged US invasion risk? Do you think donors may be disincentivised to contribute?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: As soon as the European countries began on Monday to recognise Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela, we immediately began receiving aid proposals from different countries. Germany offered five million euros in humanitarian aid, and (Spanish Prime Minister Pedro) Sánchez said he was ready to send humanitarian aid to ‘compilation points’. Far from disincentivising those countries, there is a multilateral approach that is taking precedence over any unilateral approach.

    (TOP PHOTO: Aerial view of the Tienditas Bridge, in the border between Cucuta, Colombia and Tachira, Venezuela, after Venezuelan military forces blocked it with containers on February 6, 2019. CREDIT: Edinson Estupinan/AFP)


    (*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that OHCHR, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was working in Venezuela. It should have read UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. The story was updated to reflect this on 12 February)

    “Nobody from any government would try to kill its own people, but that is exactly the way it is.”
    Q&A: Inside the effort to break the Venezuelan aid impasse
  • New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns

    CIA-linked software firm Palantir will help the UN’s World Food Programme analyse its data in a new partnership worth $45 million, both organisations announced Tuesday, drawing immediate flak from privacy and data protection activists.


    The California-based contractor, best known for its work in intelligence and immigration enforcement, will provide software and expertise to the UN’s food relief agency over five years to help WFP pool its enormous amounts of data and find cost-saving efficiencies.

    At a press conference in Geneva, WFP’s chief information officer Enrica Porcari said the plan was to launch a data integration effort that would include records of distributions to beneficiaries but, she stressed, not personally identifiable data. “Can all the data pour into one lake?” she asked, rhetorically. The system would then, she explained, work like a bank whose algorithms flag unusual credit card activity, picking up “anomalies” in beneficiary locations and behaviour that might signal misuse.


    "WFP is jumping headlong into something they don’t understand, without thinking through the consequences, and the UN has put no frameworks in place to regulate it."

    In future, if multiple aid agencies connected to the WFP’s SCOPE beneficiary management system and used it as the basis for recording what people received, a powerful overview could be achieved, Porcari said.



    Palantir executive vice president Josh Harris said WFP’s 92 million aid recipient “customers”, its more than 30 data systems, and its difficult operating environment represented a “complex data landscape”, but something his company’s software was built for. The opportunity to provide support to WFP is a “dream combination” that fits “mission-driven” Palantir’s philanthropic goals, Harris added.


    Listen to the event

    Palantir has already worked with WFP on a pilot project on food procurement in Iraq that has produced over $26 million (or about 10 percent) in savings, the two organisations said.


    ‘This data is highly sensitive’


    Privacy and data protection activists cried foul at the new tie-up, questioning if WFP understood what it was getting itself into and if proper safeguards had been put in place.


    “The recipients of WFP aid are already in extremely vulnerable situations; they should not be put at additional risk of harm or exploitation,” a spokesperson for activist NGO Privacy International told IRIN. “This data is highly sensitive, and it is essential that proper protections are put in place, to limit the data gathered, transferred, and processed.”


    Asked for the legal basis for any data-sharing with Palantir, Porcari said: “there is no data-sharing”. She insisted that all data instead would rest under WFP’s control, with personal data being kept separate and secure.


    But Privacy International, which recently analysed the (unintended) risks of humanitarian data misuse, warned: “We've seen examples of systems that are produced in agreements such as the one between WFP and Palantir increasing risks to the people the systems are aiming to benefit. There are risks to both individuals and whole populations from the gathering and processing of data from humanitarian activities.”


    A humanitarian data analyst, who requested anonymity due to work relationships, was also alarmed at the news, saying: "WFP is jumping headlong into something they don’t understand, without thinking through the consequences, and the UN has put no frameworks in place to regulate it."


    Palantir was established with the help of seed capital from a CIA-linked investment body. Its main clients have been US security and intelligence bodies.


    Its capacity to structure and overlay vast datasets has led it to be credited with helping the US government to find Osama bin Laden. However, its work with US police and, most recently, immigration enforcement, has come under fire for secrecy, profiling bias, enabling human rights violations, and the wholesale harvesting of personal data.


    “It is the height of irony that the very company that faced direct criticism in its role facilitating US immigration authorities' human rights abuses is now promoting itself as trustworthy of working in humanitarian aid,” the Privacy International spokesperson said.


    Gaining ground in the industry


    From the 2013 Haiyan super-typhoon in the Philippines to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Palantir has often sought opportunities to deploy its technology in the humanitarian arena.


    Few analysts contacted by IRIN in this 2016 investigation doubted the software had powerful potential, but reputational concerns made a number of potential partners walk away, even when offered free access to Palantir products and software advisors.

    “It is the height of irony that the very company that faced direct criticism in its role facilitating US immigration authorities' human rights abuses is now promoting itself as trustworthy of working in humanitarian aid.”

    Nevertheless, Palantir’s pro-bono “Philanthropy Engineering” has provided support to numerous non-profits, including the Carter Center, Team Rubicon, the Enough Project, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is a paying customer.


    WFP has been working with Palantir since 2017 – a WFP spokesperson said an encounter at the World Economic Forum in 2015 kicked off the relationship. Gaining greater insight from a mountain of internal and external data with the help of Palantir’s Foundry system has already led to cost savings and efficiencies, according to the Rome-based UN agency.


    A starting point for the Palantir work inside WFP was Optimus. According to a recent update from WFP, Optimus is an internal tool to help guide purchasing and other planning decisions, for example in Ethiopia or Yemen, to assign different commodities to make up a mixed basket of food for distribution depending on funding and seasonal market prices.  


    Poncari described WFP as being on a “very aggressive digital transformation journey” and said it had a “moral imperative” to leverage technology to achieve efficiencies. “We just want to go with the best,” she told reporters.


    Listen to the full event


    New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns
    Critics say it could put ‘highly sensitive’ data about millions of food aid recipients at risk
  • As Venezuela crisis spirals, needs across the Colombian border grow

    Martha Alarcon strokes the head of a young Venezuelan woman in tears who is  hungry and exhausted from walking the highway in scorching heat.


    This is nothing new for Alarcon. Owner of a small roadside snack stall, the 55-year-old Colombian has been helping Venezuelans trying to escape their country’s economic collapse for more than two years – providing food, drink, and a place to sleep on the outskirts of the overrun border town of Cúcuta.


    Recent days have seen an unusually high influx of migrants, and Alarcon’s resources are scarce. Up to 200 migrants can pass by her stall each day on their long walks up into the high Andes, and beyond to Ecuador and Peru.

    “Sometimes there are too many,” she says. “But I at least give them a piece of bread and some juice.”


    The Simón Bolívar International Bridge into Cúcuta is the main point of entry from Venezuela into Colombia. It sees around 40,000 Venezuelans crossing per day to seek respite from the immiseration in their homeland.


    According to aid groups and local people, last week saw an upsurge in arrivals as the situation in Venezuela spiralled further out of control, amid mass street protests calling for President Nicolás Maduro to step aside.


    Read more: Hope rises in Venezuela’s hunger-driven political crisis


    Since last week, more than 30 countries have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, including the United States, Canada, several EU countries, and Colombia, while 15 others – including China and Russia – continue to support Maduro. Eleven regional countries have also issued a statement urging the Venezuelan military to back Guaidó and calling for the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid.

    “Sometimes there are too many, but I at least give them a piece of bread and some juice.”

    Maduro is blamed by many for his country’s predicament, accused of widespread human rights abuses as he clamps down on dissent, and criticised for refusing to acknowledge the extent of the humanitarian crisis and accept international assistance.


    Cash seen as most helpful


    In December, the UN estimated that another two million Venezuelans could leave the country in 2019, bringing the total since 2015 up to 5.3 million.


    International aid for Venezuelans has been slow to arrive, even for those who have fled, putting a strain on Colombia, as well as other neighbouring countries. The International Rescue Committee, one of several large aid organisations responding to the crisis, has deemed the response “critically underfunded”.


    A UN appeal was made for an injection of $738 million this year to help Venezuela’s neighbours cope with the influx. The Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan allocates $315 million to Colombia, $117 million to Ecuador, $106 million to Peru, and $56 million to Brazil – the countries that have borne the brunt of the exodus. The appeal has received less than $5 million in funding so far, according to UN data.

    In Colombia, the IRC says it is concentrating on providing cash aid to Venezuelans, which best serves their most common problems: food, rent, healthcare, shelter, medicine, and joblessness.


    “A recent IRC assessment found that the top six needs reported by Venezuelans in Colombia could all be met with access to cash, which is why the IRC has prioritised giving Venezuelans money so they are able to buy what they need most,” says Marianne Menjivar, IRC country director in Colombia.


    In emergency situations where there are healthy markets, it is common practice to meet a range of basic humanitarian needs by providing cash allowances. Recipients can then buy what they need.


    Menjivar said her team used to see predominantly men coming in search of work to send money home, but that over the past months the trend has changed to include more families and children crossing in increasingly deep states of desperation.


    “I couldn’t be there anymore”


    Venezuela’s once-buoyant socialist economic system has failed since the collapse of world oil prices in 2014, with inflation soaring to almost two million percent.  Millions of Venezuelans have been driven to neighbouring countries due to the lack of food, medicine, and security in the country.


    Read more: Hunger and survival in Venezuela


    Many cross into the arid city of Cúcuta to buy basic food and medicine that is unavailable in Venezuela and then return, while others use it as their first port of call as they migrate elsewhere in Colombia or to other nearby countries.

    “IRC teams are seeing children who are suffering from malnutrition or have diseases that were previously eradicated in the country,” says Menjivar. “Venezuelans are increasingly desperate to find stability, reunite with family or just find a way to buy food.”


    Hanging from the walls and ceiling of Alarcon’s stall are thousands of handwritten notes. Some are scribbled on worthless Venezuelan money, lamenting their sad fates as many have left their families behind.

    Edwar Espina, 29, choked up when he spoke about his troubled homeland in Martha’s shelter. A former paramedic from Yaracuy state, he is migrating with his childhood friend, with just a tattered backpack to his name.


    The pair slept for five days on the streets of Cúcuta before continuing on, like so many others, on foot in the sweltering heat. Their destination – the Colombian capital, Bogotá – is more than 550 kilometres away.


    “I couldn’t be there anymore,” Espina says of his homeland. “I asked ‘why am I here? I’m wasting my youth!’.” Espina doesn’t know where they will sleep the night, probably on the side of the road.


    Heading on


    From the scorching heat of Cúcuta, some migrants head to Pamplona, a frigid mountain town some 80 kilometres away. From there, they make their way across Colombia’s vast wetlands, trying to reach larger cities like Bucaramanga, or on to Peru or Ecuador, in search of job opportunities.


    The journey to Pamplona can take a whole day on the windy roads, and many carry small suitcases and even wheel prams along the difficult trek, which reaches an elevation of 2,343 metres. Migrants arrive exhausted, dehydrated, and then have to face cold nighttime temperatures in the city.


    At the top of the hill upon entry to Pamplona are two small refuges, run by locals. One was set up by 52-year-old Douglas Cabeza, who lives in a hut with his 83-year-old mother and several dogs.


    “People arrive ill,” he says. “They have swollen feet, there are pregnant women, babies without diapers, and people with stomach problems.”


    Cabeza says he recently quit his job as a shoe mender so he could do this voluntary work full-time.


    The service he offers is basic, but without it migrants would have nothing upon arrival. He says the only real help he has received has come from the Norwegian Refugee Council, and that other local aid is scarce.

    Thanks to the NRC, he was able to go from taking in 15 people, when he began, to having space for over 120, offering them basic showers and sleeping areas.


    At the back of his house, he has constructed a series of unstable makeshift bridges with logs that lead to a foliage-filled jungle of small campsites, six in total, with foam beds and plastic sheets propped up with sticks for migrants to sleep under. There is no electricity or water.


    “There’s nothing at all”


    Almost 1.5 million Venezuelans have settled in Colombia since 2016. This number is increasing daily and, as the Colombian government tries to keep its doors open, services are becoming overstretched.


    At the Cúcuta border, some Venezuelans cross each day simply to buy food, others to eat at soup kitchens.


    Men offer to buy Venezuelan women’s long hair for the wig business, and vendors have started doing a good trade in selling contraband medication, including even basic drugs like paracetamol (acetaminophen) that are now almost impossible for Venezuelans to obtain in their homeland.


    The lack of doctors and medical care in Venezuela has also meant many come across for treatment for the day.


    “There’s nothing at all. No doctors, nothing,” says Kelma Mendoza, 31, sitting outside a Red Cross medical centre at the border. She travelled for two hours by bus with her four-month-old baby boy to get his first injections.


    Mendoza plans to return, to whatever happens next in Venezuela. But most will continue on, pursuing their dreams of a better life across the Simón Bolívar bridge, but discovering some harsh realities in Colombia: a lack of aid, resources, and jobs.



    “There are pregnant women, babies without diapers, and people with stomach problems”
    As Venezuela crisis spirals, needs across the Colombian border grow

Support our work

Donate now