Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    UN warns of ‘worst humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria

     

    The UN said it had received $6.97 billion in pledges at a Brussels donor conference for Syria this week, shy of the $8.8 billion it had asked for to aid Syrian refugees as well as those still in the country in 2019. While participants emphasised the need for a political solution to Syria’s war, now entering its ninth year, the uptick in violence in rebel-held northwestern Idlib province is a stark reminder that it is far from over. Conflict monitor Action on Armed Violence said Russian airstrikes in Idlib city killed 10 civilians and injured 45 on Wednesday; Russia said it was targeting weapons owned by the al-Qaeda linked group Tahrir al-Sham. A Russia-Turkey deal has so far been holding off a full-scale government offensive on the territory. UN relief chief Mark Lowcock warned the audience in Brussels that such an offensive would “create the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century”.

     

    Storms, floods, and a cyclone batter southeast Africa

     

    Half a million people in Mozambique's fourth largest city of Beira were plunged into darkness when tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall late on Thursday night, knocking down trees and power lines and destroying homes. This follows a week of heavy rains and flooding across southeast Africa that has already killed at least 126 people in Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa. More than a million people have been affected in all. In Mozambique, the floods have already destroyed more than 5,700 homes, while in neighbouring Malawi, over 230,000 people are left without shelter. Both countries are prone to extreme weather events. In Mozambique, floods in 2000 claimed at least 800 lives and another 100 in 2015. In Malawi, the 2015 floods left at least 100 people dead and more than 300,000 others displaced.

     

    North Korea sanctions disrupt aid programmes

     

    Broad economic sanctions against North Korea are disrupting humanitarian work and having a detrimental impact on ordinary citizens, a UN rights watchdog says. In a report to the Human Rights Council this week, the special rapporteur for rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said aid programming continues to see significant delays due to UN and government-imposed sanctions. Banks, suppliers, and transport companies are afraid of running afoul of sanctions, leading to humanitarian supply chains breaking down. The US government has also imposed travel restrictions on its citizens and blocked the delivery of essential supplies like hospital equipment, he said. The UN this month called for $120 million in aid funding. But last year’s appeal was only one-quarter funded, and humanitarian aid only reached one third of the people targeted.

     

    Uptick of violence threatens Yemen peace bid

     

    The UN-brokered ceasefire deal for Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah suffered yet another blow this week, with a group of NGOs warning that there had been a “major outbreak of violence” in the city in the last few days. As we (and plenty of others) have pointed out, the Hodeidah agreement was meant to lead to further peace talks for the whole of Yemen. Don’t hold your breath. Just to the north of Hodeidah, in Hajjah province, recent airstrikes and renewed fighting have killed and injured civilians. UNICEF reported that more than 37,000 people were forced to flee their homes inside Hajjah in March alone, and humanitarians are having trouble accessing those who need help. As Nigel Tricks, East Africa and Yemen regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, put it in a Wednesday statement: “Whilst the eyes of the world are on Hodeidah, airstrikes and shells continue to rain down on civilians in other parts of Yemen, killing with impunity.”

     

    A backtrack from the UN’s refugee agency

     

    UNHCR has reversed a decision that could have seen tens of thousands of ethnic Chin refugees from Myanmar stripped of refugee status. Last year, the UN agency controversially began a review process to determine whether the refugees, originally from Chin State and other parts of western Myanmar, still required international protection. But UNHCR said this week that a “worsening security situation” in parts of Chin State “has affirmed that Chin refugees may still have ongoing international protection needs”. The agency also announced that it would stop its protection re-evaluation process for Chin refugees. In recent months, renewed clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia, have displaced thousands in Rakhine and southern Chin states, including more than 3,200 in Rakhine this month. But even before the latest violence, refugee rights groups say reviewing refugee protections for ethnic Chin was clearly premature. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network says there are more than 33,000 Chin refugees living in Malaysia and India.

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Cases of deadly pneumonic plague have emerged along Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organisation said, including in the Congolese province of Ituri, where health teams are struggling to tackle an ongoing Ebola outbreak.

     

    Rwanda-Uganda: Tension is rising between East African neighbours. Uganda denies it harasses Rwandan citizens and backs rebels. It says Rwanda is blocking trade. Rwanda’s president says it will never be "brought to its knees". His Ugandan counterpart said a “troublemaker” (unnamed) “cannot survive”. Regional mediation efforts have begun.

     

    Sudan: Diseases including measles, dysentery, and pneumonia are spreading rapidly in Darfur's Jebel Marra area, according to a rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-AW), that controls much of the territory. It called for outside assistance, saying dozens of people had already died from a shortage of medicines and medical staff.

     

    Venezuela: Week-long power outages crippled water supplies and cut off telephone and internet services to millions of Venezuelans already struggling with shortages of food and medicines. Amid reports of chaos and looting in the second city of Maracaibo, President Nicolás Maduro blamed “sabotage” and “American imperialism”. Others pointed to a bush fire and crumbling infrastructure.

     

    Yemen: The US Senate voted for a second time on Wednesday to end US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s war. The resolution is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but President Donald Trump has vowed to veto should it reach his desk.

     

    Weekend read

     

    In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace

     

    On 15 December, South Sudan marked five years of war – almost 400,000 people dead, millions displaced, but also signs a peace deal was taking hold, with more people returning home to rebuild shattered lives. Sceptics, embittered by too many false dawns, advised against hoping too hard. It seems they were right. Not only, according to our weekend read, has fighting resumed, but it resumed some time ago – locals in the troubled Yei region even accuse the government of covering up violence to keep up the pretence of control. Tens of thousands of people have been newly displaced, Sam Mednick reports, many of them inaccessible to aid groups. Without new ideas and renewed international engagement, more violence and displacement appear inevitable, according to the International Crisis Group. First test ahead: the formation of a unity government in May.

     

    And finally…

     

    ‘Toothless’ UN migration document becomes far-right rallying cry

     

    Propaganda scrawled by a gunman involved in killing at least 49 people in New Zealand today referred to the Global Compact for Migration. A non-binding international agreement that one expert called “toothless” has become a rallying cry for the far-right and white supremacists worldwide. The three-year UN negotiation process aimed to agree “safe and orderly” migration after arrivals to Europe increased in 2015. It also hoped to stem xenophobia in wealthy countries and reassure developing nations that the walls were not going up entirely. But nationalist politicians pulled out of the process, led by President Trump, claiming the document would pave the way to more immigration. The compact sparked fierce political debate in New Zealand, even though it commits no member state to do anything. One analyst told IRIN it “doesn’t actually do much”. Well, you’d be forgiven for asking now whether it does, but in all the wrong ways.

    (TOP PHOTO: Families have taken shelter in a new makeshift camp north of Idlib, fleeing violence in southern rural Idlib. CREDIT: Aaref Watad/UNICEF)

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    Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Sahel violence displaces another million people

    Rising conflict and insecurity are accelerating forced displacement across the Sahel, and a new upsurge of violence along the Mali-Niger border has left 10,000 people in "appalling conditions" in improvised camps in Niger's Tillabéri region. The UN says IDP numbers in Mali have tripled to around 120,000. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, or CERF, has allocated $4 million to assist 70,000 people who have fled their homes in just two months in Burkina Faso. Around 4.2 million people – a million more than a year ago – are currently displaced across the Sahel due to a combination of armed attacks by extremist militants, retaliation by regional militaries, and inter-communal violence.

    All NGOs are not equal, especially when it comes to risk

    When it comes to safety, security, and risk, power differences between local and international NGOs can lead to “perverse incentives”, according to the summary of a new report. Local NGOs often do the last mile of humanitarian work, especially in insecure situations. They are funded by much bigger INGOs that act as donors. But while INGOs have sophisticated risk management (10 cooperated with this study by US-based NGO alliance InterAction), their downstream “partners” are not treated the same. The physical safety of local NGO staff, for example, gets much less attention than compliance with financial and counter-terrorism regulations. The report spells it out: INGOs “put a far greater emphasis on the risks of their local partners as opposed to the risks to them.” The study includes case studies from Nigeria and South Sudan, as well as recommendations based on examples of improved practice found during the research.

    First drought, now floods

    Flash floods and landslides have killed more than 70 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, with numbers expected to rise as on-the-ground assessments trickle in. Parts of Afghanistan are particularly hard hit, with nine provinces reporting displacement or damage to homes and agriculture. Some 21,000 people need aid in the southern province of Kandahar alone, according to the UN. Aid groups worry the situation could worsen with continued rain and snowfall expected. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have been grappling with severe drought over the last several months, and heavy rainfall can increase the threat of floods on degraded land. An El Niño weather pattern could also bring more rainfall, combining with the drought impacts to make floods “more ruinous” this year, according to the UN. Which makes this a good time to read more on the complications of responding to emergencies in conflict-hit Afghanistan.

    Algeria rising

    Mass protests triggered by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for re-election in April were not quelled by the announcement that he “would not be a candidate” in future elections (after next month’s, that is). Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, was paralysed by a stroke in 2013, and does not speak in public. Demonstrators are speaking out about corruption, poverty, and poor social services – all issues causing young Algerians to attempt the journey to Europe, according to Omar Belchouchet, editor of an independent Algerian newspaper. “They are fed up with this authoritarian regime which is stifling people, which is pushing its own citizens to die in the Mediterranean,” he said. According to the UN, 7,300 Algerians arrived on Europe’s shores in 2018, up from 5,900 in 2017.

    An international treaty to protect women?

    Today is International Women’s Day, with events taking place across the globe. But this week also saw the launch of the campaign for an Every Woman Treaty, which would seek to limit violence against women the same way existing international agreements limit landmines and smoking. It’s a bold step, but systemic gender inequalities mean it’s more than just direct violence – like rape as a weapon of war – that the humanitarian sector needs to worry about. Women are disproportionately affected, whether they’re subsistence farmers most acutely feeling the effects of climate change, people displaced during conflict, or those abused by the very aid workers who are supposed to be helping them in times of crisis. Although women are also often on the front lines of disasters, leading the response in their communities, they still face barriers to inclusion. Explore our recent reporting to learn more about some of the key humanitarian issues facing women and girls today.

    A guide to ‘White Saviour’ media debates

    British TV audiences have a week’s blizzard of jokey fundraising to come, as Comic Relief gears up for a “Red Nose Nose Day” telethon. Almost as predictable as the line-up of UK comedians is controversy about its video packages from projects abroad. The use of famous Britons to frame field-based segments is accused of being sentimental, simplistic, and disrespectful. This year, early critics included online activists No White Saviours and British member of parliament David Lammy. Comic Relief responded by saying that “people working with or supported by Comic Relief projects tell their own stories in their own words.” The accusations and counter-arguments have a familiar feel: last year, Comic Relief’s segment with musician Ed Sheeran came under fire. Thinking you’d like someone to explain the cycle of critique and outrage from all sides? Take a look at  this blog, from communication academic Tobias Denskus of Malmö University: “White saviour communication rituals in 10 easy steps.”

    In case you missed it

    Central African Republic: Four of the 14 rebel groups that signed a peace deal with the government have reportedly withdrawn in protest of a newly formed government, which they believe is not representative. The fragile agreement was forged after negotiations in the Sudanese capital last month. For an inside look at efforts to keep the peace in CAR, check out our three-part special report.

     

    Iraq: Rather than considering children affiliated with so-called Islamic State as victims in need of rehabilitation, authorities in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have charged hundreds of young people with terrorism offenses because of affiliation with the group, according to Human Rights Watch. In a report released on Thursday, it said confessions are often obtained through torture.

     

    North Korea: The UN this week called for $120 million in funding for North Korea, warning of potential food shortages and the unintended impacts of sanctions blocking humanitarian aid. Nearly 11 million people in the country are considered undernourished – the root of health problems for many North Koreans. New reports suggest North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy has been imploding, with huge declines in exports in 2018.

    Syria: The UN says that as of 3 March, 90 people had died either en route or shortly after arrival to al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, two thirds of them children under five. The camp’s population has swollen to more than 62,000 – 90 percent of them women and children – as thousands of people flee the last IS territory in the country. More than 5,200 new arrivals were reported by the UN between Tuesday and Thursday.

    US-Mexico: US officials say February was the busiest month for apprehensions at its southern border with Mexico in more than a decade – more than 76,100 people in total. The vast majority were families and unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The rise is unusual, but still well below the highs of the 1990s and 2000s when as many as 1.6 million people were apprehended annually.

     

    Weekend read

     

    How dire climate change warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh

     

    The extent to which specific extreme weather events – and related humanitarian disasters – can be attributed to climate change can be a contentious subject and remains a matter of some debate. But try telling that to rice farmers in Bangladesh’s northeast. They have been left bewildered by a succession of warmer winters, drier summers, and more erratic rains. Our weekend read offers a real-time glimpse of how dire climate displacement warnings can become a reality: village by depleted village; family by displaced family. Scientists in December published research that showed that human-induced climate change “doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall” in Bangladesh during March and April 2017. Farmers like Shites Das in the northeastern village of Daiyya are in no doubt. "We have no fertility of land like in the past,” Das says. “This has happened because of climate change.”

    And finally

     

    Somali Night Fever

     

    Check out this film for a different take on Somali refugees and for a rare glimpse into a Mogadishu of the 1970s and 1980s, when trendy nightclubs were graced by “musicians rocking afros and bell-bottom trousers”. When civil war erupted in Somalia in the 1990s, it separated friends and families, and destroyed a once cosmopolitan way of life. As people fled, they took their culture and music with them. As Somalia changed, so the sounds of funk, disco, soul, and reggae that once filled the airwaves also fell silent. Decades later, many Somalis still live in exile – some resettled in other countries, others in refugee camps. Meet Habib, now in Sweden, and Abdulkadir, living in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya: two former band mates and best friends. Separated by the war, they remain wonderfully united by their love of music, and by their memories of a bygone era.

    (TOP PHOTO: An informal refugee settlement of Garin-Wazam in Diffa region, Niger. CREDIT: Vincent Tremeau/UNICEF)

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    Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced
  • The blame game over Syria’s winter fuel crisis

    Millions of Syrians haven’t had enough fuel to cook their food and heat their homes this winter.

     

    Syria’s severe fuel shortages have had far-reaching knock-on effects, including a rise in food prices, driven by higher transport costs and currency depreciation in government-run areas that had largely avoided such economic hardship. According to the UN, two thirds of Syrians live in “extreme poverty” and 90 percent spend at least half their income on food, so there’s limited ability to cope with these price hikes.

     

    As frustration over the state’s inability to solve the shortages mounts, so does discussion of who or what is to blame. Syrian authorities accuse Western nations of “economic warfare”, while US and EU diplomats say the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible. Experts tend to point to a combination of economic malfunction, corruption, and Western sanctions.

     

    Over the past eight years of war, it has rarely been easy for Syrians to get the fuel that powers electricity plants, factories, hospitals, gas stoves, and home heaters. As Myriam Youssef, a Damascus-based researcher with the London School of Economics, wrote in February, “like many winters past, our days are drained by hours upon hours of waiting… we wait for fuel distribution vehicles to pass by our neighbourhood so that we buy a few litres, enough to warm the house for a couple of hours.”

     

    But in the last few months, the fuel shortages and related price hikes in parts of the country controlled by al-Assad have become unusually severe. As a cooking gas cylinder in Damascus hit 8,000 Syrian pounds ($15) in January on the black market – more than three times the official price – Baath Media, a news site run by al-Assad’s ruling political party, showed long lines of people waiting for gas in the southern city of Izraa.

     

    Even members of Syria’s rubber-stamp parliament, who have some leeway to discuss economic issues, complained about the gas crisis in their January session. Parliamentarians mostly blamed Western sanctions, but some also condemned corrupt officials – without naming names.

     

    Industry collapse, new sanctions

     

    Experts say this winter's scarcity is largely the result of new US sanctions, both related to President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and to targeted measures against Syria's oil trade.

     

    This hit at one of the main ways the Syrian government gets its oil, after domestic production was decimated by sanctions and war: Iranian shipments through the Red Sea, paid for with Iranian credits.

     

    The United States and the European Union both banned the purchase of Syrian oil after al-Assad began a violent crackdown on protesters in 2011, while also sanctioning regime-linked individuals. The EU had taken in 95 percent of Syria’s crude exports before the outset of the war, so its September 2011 embargo hit the country’s oil industry hard, and much of what remained collapsed in subsequent years due to conflict, looting, and a breakdown in maintenance.

    David Butter, a Middle East energy expert with the Chatham House think tank, told IRIN that according to official figures, Syria’s crude production has tumbled from a pre-war output of 385,000 barrels per day to around 24,000 today. With local consumption in government-held Syria at an estimated 125,000 barrels per day, that leaves a shortfall of more than than 100,000 barrels daily.

     

    The 5 November re-imposition of sanctions on Iranian energy and shipping assets meant that Iranian oil tankers could no longer buy insurance on the international market. They were followed by a 20 November warning from the US Treasury Department that it would “aggressively target” shipping companies if they continued to carry oil for the Syrian government.

     

    According to Butter, the 20 November notice, which targeted “the entire supply chain for fuel sales to Syria,” had an instant impact. Many of the oil tankers that serve Syrian ports appear to have responded by pulling out of the trade altogether.

     

    Jihad Yazigi, a Syrian economist and editor-in-chief of The Syria Report, also told IRIN the warning was “the main factor behind the recent shortages,” but added that it was important to take into account that demand for energy and oil products has been high because of the winter season.

     

    Even after the loss of much of the tanker trade, there is still some oil coming in on trucks from the Kurdish-held northeast. This supply is organised by regime-linked middlemen who have bargained for access to oil wells controlled – at various times – by Western-backed rebels, the so-called Islamic State, and US-backed Kurdish fighters.

     

    Butter estimates that this trade makes up around 20-30,000 barrels per day of crude oil – much less than the country needs.

     

    Oil and the economy

     

    The oil and gas shortages have hit both individuals and the wider Syrian economy.

     

    Idriss Jazairy, the UN Human Rights Council’s rapporteur on sanctions, reported last year that the US and EU oil embargoes had “dramatically raised the cost of fuel oil for heating, cooking, and lighting,” noting that the state’s gradual reduction of subsidies since 2011 had further impoverished Syrians, and that fuel shortages have second-order effects on the wider economy.

     

    “Iranian oil supplies to Syria play an important role not only in the sense that they supply oil products to the Syrian economy,” Yazigi explained. “They are also a major source, if not the main source of revenue for the Syrian government.”

     

    Since Damascus purchases oil from Iran on credit, the state gains from sales to citizens even when prices are subsidised. That makes oil an important revenue source, which, Yazigi said, “both enables the government to fund its war effort, if you want, but also government and public services.”

     

    Despite this trickle down impact on citizens who live under government control, European diplomats defend the sanctions. They told IRIN the Syrian oil sector is sanctioned because the government uses fuel for military purposes, such as to run helicopters that drop barrel bombs, and point out that there are exemptions for humanitarian purposes.

     

    They reject the suggestion that EU sanctions are responsible for civilian suffering.

     

    “It’s a much broader political economy that has caused those fuel shortages, or that determines who is having shortages and who doesn’t”, said one European diplomat, who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity.

     

    “There are people in Syria who have got plenty of access to what they need”, the diplomat said, pointing to the fact that people close to the regime do not appear to have been impacted by the shortages. “The EU can only control what it can control.”

     

    A diplomat from another EU member state insisted al-Assad’s government only has itself to blame for Syria’s predicament this winter.

     

    “The regime takes every opportunity to paint the picture that the EU and the ‘West’ is responsible for the suffering of the Syrian people”, this diplomat said. “However, the regime continues to wage war on its own population, adding to the massive suffering it has already caused.”

     

    An EU spokesperson told IRIN the sanctions, both on regime-linked individuals and on oil, are “a clear signal that the repressive policies of the al-Assad regime against the civilian population of Syria, including the expropriation of land for political purposes, as well as the production and use of chemical weapons, are considered unacceptable by the EU.”

     

    The spokesperson said the al-Assad regime must “change its behaviour and contribute to a lasting settlement of the conflict.”

     

    The US State Department did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment.

     

    What next?

     

    Syrian authorities have repeatedly promised that the crisis is about to be resolved, advertising a series of high-level meetings, police raids, and emergency measures to combat waste and corruption. That may be easier said than done given the involvement of top regime figures in the illicit economy.

     

    A new rationing system allows citizens to buy their allotted 450 litres of subsidised gasoline using a “smart card” that keeps track of purchases. But the rollout has been marred by problems, adding to the frustration of Syrians forced to wait in lines for fuel.

     

    In January,  a Damascus official announced that an old, parallel distribution network for public sector employees would be shut down. In a hint at government corruption, he said it had incentivised officials to request “large quantities” that were distributed in an “unclear” manner. The following month, the government also ended a decades-old state monopoly on cooking gas imports.

     

    Fuel needs will soon be reduced with warmer spring weather, but as the US Congress discusses more comprehensive sanctions, Syria’s oil and gas shortages are unlikely to go away any time soon.

    (TOP PHOTO: Ghada, 12, lights a fire to cook at her home in Aleppo this January. Khudr Al-Issa/UNICEF)

     

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

     

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    The blame game over Syria’s winter fuel crisis
  • Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Civilians may still be trapped in last Islamic State pocket in Syria

    A reported 2,000 people were evacuated from so-called Islamic State’s last pocket of territory in eastern Syria this week, but the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said there may still be civilians remaining in the village of Baghouz. Once screened for membership in the extremist group, many leaving the territory are taken to al-Hol camp. The UN says 61 young children have died since December on the way there or soon after arrival. The World Health Organisation’s head in Syria told IRIN recently that the security checks were delaying urgent healthcare and that local authorities had denied a request to set up a medical waystation. The SDF denied the charges, but since then UN agencies say they have set up just such a transit site “to address the high number of child deaths”. Some people who had fled Baghouz told Human Rights Watch of hunger and being trapped under heavy shelling, air strikes, and IS threats.

     

    “One after the other”: Tropical storms swarm the Pacific

    The cyclone season has put parts of the southwestern Pacific on high alert. Cyclone Oma threatened the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu for five days, sending over 1,000 to evacuation centres. The storm later brushed New Caledonia’s coast and was due to push towards Australia. Earlier this month, the cyclone warning system in Tonga sent out repeated alerts as four separate “extreme tropical weather systems” threatened the country. Tonga escaped severe damage, but the country’s head meteorologist said facing so many in quick succession was exceptional. Storms in the Pacific islands needn’t cause headline-grabbing death tolls to leave a lasting impact; officials in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were expecting food shortages after Oma wiped out some smallholdings. Vast distances make repairs and recovery difficult. For more on preparing for Pacific disaster, see our recent story on women fighting for a seat at the table: Fiji’s storm-watchers.

     

    South Sudan rights violations may amount to war crimes

    Despite the signing of last year's peace agreement in South Sudan, ongoing violations including rape and sexual violence "may amount to international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity," according to a new UN report. Investigators with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan noted a "confirmed pattern" in the way combatants attacked and destroyed villages, plundered homes, and took women as sexual slaves. Sexual violence has worsened markedly since the commission's last update in December 2017; those targeted included children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Many sides of the conflict, including the army, national security forces, and rebel groups, were blamed for the violence, while the commission also investigated sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers. South Sudan remains one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises: 4.5 million people are displaced, seven million are in need of aid, and nearly 60 percent of the population will face severe food insecurity this year.

    Joining up billions in development, humanitarian, and peace spending

    The “triple nexus” may sound like an ice skating move, but it’s the new orthodoxy in aid. A “recommendation” was adopted today by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD says its donor states command over $74 billion of international funding in “fragile” situations. The new Development Assistance Committee policy says long-term development, peacemaking, and emergency relief should have complementary goals and together could “avoid the occurrence of humanitarian needs”. One aid agency nexus-watcher told IRIN that after much discussion in the aid community it was a relief to see clear definitions and terminology emerge. A source familiar with the discussions said “more must be done to prevent crises and deal with structural issues and root causes, rather than leaving the humanitarian system to pick up the pieces”. The text refers six times to continued respect for humanitarian principles: critics question how humanitarian neutrality and independence sit with politically-flavoured development and peace efforts.

    In case you missed it

    Burkina Faso: More than 100,000 people have been displaced by instability and fighting in the West African country, according to the UN. Tens of thousands have fled this year, as rising militancy and attacks by armed groups affect the North, Sahel, and Eastern regions.

     

    Madagascar: More than 900 people have died since a measles epidemic began in the huge island nation in September, the WHO said. Over 68,000 cases have been documented; those most at risk are infants from nine to 11 months old.

     

    Myanmar: Restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State are affecting some 95,000 people due to ongoing clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, according to the UN’s humanitarian coordination arm. More than 5,500 people have been displaced since December.

     

    Refugee resettlement 2018: UNHCR says 55,692 refugees were permanently resettled in 2018. The UN refugee agency says that’s only about five percent of those they think were eligible. Despite deep cuts in its quota, the US took in more than any other nation. IRIN explored the numbers here.

     

    Yemen: UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on 19 February that the two main sides in Yemen’s war had agreed to withdraw from a small port and oil facility near the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, in a first step towards implementing a much-discussed ceasefire deal for the city.

     

     

    Weekend read

    Opinion: Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    As we write this, Venezuela is top of many media headlines as a quarter of a million people are estimated to be assembling on the border, in Colombia. The presidents of Colombia and Chile are expected – and maybe even Richard Branson. He is backing the concert they’re all there to see, Venezuela Aid Live. The event’s sponsors say it will raise $100 million to help the millions of Venezuelans living with shortages of, well, nearly everything. Branson even suggests that the performance could help persuade Venezuela’s military to defy orders and open the border – sealed tight by President Nicolás Maduro – to aid shipments; shipments that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is inviting. Meanwhile, on the Venezuelan side of the border, Maduro is hosting his own benefit concerts on Friday and Saturday. What’s a humanitarian to make of all this? Analyst and columnist Francisco Toro offers a reality check in his essay on what he calls the “increasingly blatant politicisation of aid”. $100 million for food and medicine, for instance, “is completely out of proportion” with the scale of need in Venezuela. And if you’re concerned about the politicisation of aid, you might like to check out this from The Guardian, on the politicisation of, um, bread.

    And finally

    US-armed donor proposal stirs alarm

    A new type of US government aid official could be embedded with US intelligence or military forces in insecure hotspots to work on certain tactical projects. They would be “super enablers”, according to a proposal developed by consultants hired by USAID. The proposed two-person Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) teams would be physically fit, armed, and able to deploy where USAID can’t send civilians. The proposals met with some support in the US military and intelligence communities, and mixed views from within USAID, the 75-page report said. The concept, first reported by Devex, has been met with dismay by some in the humanitarian Twittersphere, earning reactions such as “wannabe SEALS” and “incredibly unwise”. Also, it’s been met with a humanitarian principles meme (a Ranger tab is a badge indicating completion of a very tough two-month US Army training course):

    (TOP PHOTO: Some of those fleeing besieged IS territory in Syria. CREDIT: Constantin Gouvy/IRIN)

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    Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials
  • Security checks delaying urgent healthcare for Syrians fleeing Islamic State: UN official

    The UN says people fleeing so-called Islamic State are being prevented from seeing medical workers until they undergo security screening at a displacement camp in Syria, despite travelling long distances in the winter cold and after enduring months of food shortages.

     

    As of last week, the UN’s World Health Organisation said 35 children and newborns had died in the last two months either en route or shortly after arrival to al-Hol, the main camp where people leaving IS territory are taken.

     

    A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias fighting off the last vestiges of IS in Hajin and surrounding areas of Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, insisted they are putting the health needs of new arrivals first.

     

    A total of 25,000 people have fled to al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province since the beginning of December, 10,000 of them since 22 January.

     

    The SDF controls the territory around al-Hol camp and screens people leaving IS territory to separate off those suspected of being IS members and fighters from civilians. This is done at multiple locations in Syria, including at al-Hol.

    "I personally made sure that medical teams are receiving newcomers before any specific screening or measures."

    With priority given to the screening process, new arrivals are being made to wait “too long in the reception area at the camp before medical triage takes place,” Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO’s representative in Syria, told IRIN. “When they come to the camp, we want to see them immediately,” she said. “If there are sick children or critically ill patients, we don’t want to wait until they are finished [the screening].”

    Hoff said most of the 35 deaths were from hypothermia or hypoglycemia; cold and hunger. IRIN was with the SDF when it met a convoy of people fleeing IS in January, and many said they had been living with severe shortages of food and medicine for months.

     

    Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the SDF, denied Hoff’s assertion that security was being prioritised over health.

     

    He told IRIN that “no security screening is being conducted before the provision of medical and logistical services,” adding that medical care was provided by the SDF’s specialist medical teams in what he called a “humanitarian corridor” between the IS-controlled areas and displaced persons’ camps.

    “It is untrue that we subject new arrivals to security screening before medical check-up,” he said. “I visited the humanitarian corridor more than once and I personally made sure that medical teams are receiving newcomers before any specific screening or measures. In addition to the availability of medical teams, food stuffs, water, and essentials are being distributed.”

     

    UN call for earlier help

     

    This is not the first time screening procedures for members of IS have come under scrutiny. As IS has been beaten back in Syria and Iraq, rights groups have expressed concern about separation of families, arbitrary detention, and a lack of transparency in the process.

     

    In a 1 February statement, the UN’s agency for refugees, UNHCR, said it was “concerned about the persistent practice of confiscation of identity documents and movement restrictions imposed on residents of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugee camps in Hassakeh governorate.”

     

    Hoff also said that WHO, along with other UN agencies, had asked to set up a waystation between Hajin and al-Hol where they could treat emergency medical cases and provide other aid. The journey to the camp is approximately 250 kilometres from Hajin, and she said health workers “need to interact earlier – we cannot wait until they come to the camp”.

     

    “We have asked the forces in control [of the area] for access at the al-Omar oilfield centre [on the route from Hajin to al-Hol] so we can meet them and have a health point to perform medical check-ups there, and also have some ambulances to pick them up and send trauma and critically ill patients to hospitals for treatment,” Hoff said. “Because people are dying… If we interact earlier, we can send ambulances, get people to the hospital earlier.”

     

    Hoff said the request was made over two weeks ago.

     

    Bali denied the SDF had received any such request, saying: “Claims that the UN has requested the establishment of a station near al-Omar oil field are false and we received no request from any side to set [up] such a station.”

    “People are dying… If we interact earlier, we can send ambulances, get people to the hospital earlier.”

    A spokesman for the US-backed coalition referred questions back to the SDF because, he said, those “forces provided support to the civilians on the ground, not the coalition.”

     

    UNHCR failed to respond to questions about its part in the request to set up a waystation on the way to al-Hol. But in its 1 February statement the agency said that “humanitarian actors have collectively requested forces in control of the area to designate a transit site en route for al-Hol where life-saving assistance can be provided.

     

    “This initiative remains unimplemented more than two weeks later,” the statement added, noting that “little or no assistance is provided en route to the hungry and cold people, the vast majority of whom are women and children.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Muhammad, 15, fled al-Sousah village in Hajin as violence escalated and sought safety at al-Hol camp along with his older brother. CREDIT: Delil Soleiman/UNICEF)

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    Security checks delaying urgent healthcare for Syrians fleeing Islamic State: UN official
    The Kurdish militia fighting IS insists it is putting medical assistance first
  • The world’s 40 million invisible refugees

    People displaced within their own countries – whether by conflict or disaster – often struggle for the same recognition and protections afforded to refugees. And yet the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were launched 21 years ago today – the creation of Sudanese diplomat Francis Deng, then the UN’s special rapporteur for IDPs, or internally displaced persons.

    The 30 principles built on pre-existing instruments such as the Geneva Conventions, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – all of which ratifying governments had committed to. They reminded national governments of certain absolute obligations towards their citizens, those laid down in international humanitarian law. More than two decades later, governments continue to routinely fail to implement Deng’s principles; in Africa this is despite the African Union having made them binding through the 2009 Kampala Declaration.

    The grossest violations of international law can be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, and specialised courts such as those set up for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But when IDPs can’t enjoy basic rights found in domestic law – for example to education, health services, or to vote – it speaks to deep problems of neglect that can’t be prosecuted by international bodies.

    The lack of application of the guiding principles since 1998 reveals not only a lack of awareness of the needs of IDPs, but also of the inability of states to prevent and resolve the crises that force people to flee within their own country.

    When IDPs can’t enjoy basic rights found in domestic law – for example to education, health services, or to vote – it speaks to deep problems of neglect that can’t be prosecuted by international bodies.

    When the principles were born, there were 20 million IDPs; by the end of 2017 there were twice as many – a rise driven by protracted conflicts and a growing number of extreme weather events. Those who flee from armed conflicts often remain IDPs for many years, while those who are forced away because of storms, floods, or earthquakes tend to return sooner.

    So what can be done to improve the lives of the world’s 40 million IDPs?

    In a 2018 analysis for the 20th anniversary of the guiding principles, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) in Geneva – established at the initiative of the Norwegian Refugee Council in the year the principles were launched – identified three urgent issues for further action.

    First, the economic consequences of internal displacement need to be properly assessed. In terms of shelter, healthcare, and food, these can be estimated with relative ease, but the more intangible societal burden – lost opportunities in education, investments and revenue, psychological trauma, and social fragmentation – is harder to pin down. IDMC has begun a new programme to estimate these costs, so that the real burden to societies becomes known and can be factored into national plans and budgets.

    Second, access to data on existing levels and new flows of internal displacement must be improved. IDMC uses a broad range of formal and informal sources for its statistics – sources often afflicted with considerable uncertainty as states don’t always register the correct information or make data public.

    Finally, and most importantly, governments in the affected countries must be encouraged and supported to take more responsibility for their IDPs.

    Much has happened in terms of protection and assistance during displacement, but a great deal remains to be done to prevent flight in the first place, and to enable safe return and reintegration. Many states are not taking these responsibilities as seriously as their citizens have the right to expect. And some are committing, or allowing, grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. Displacement has, in some countries, been enforced, or even prevented, through siege. And several fragile and conflict-prone states lack the capacity to even implement the principles.

    In Somalia, for instance, IDPs find their way to cities when violence, drought, and floods undermine their rural livelihoods. The largest increase in 10 years occurred in 2017 – there are now 600,000 IDPs in Mogadishu. In the absence of legislation and regulations, they live under great insecurity, especially in the capital. As the value of land where they have settled rises in the growing economy, they risk being forcibly evicted by landowners belonging to a different clan than their own. They are extremely vulnerable, mostly living in poor shelters without access to clean water, healthcare, or education.

    In Ethiopia, the new government has created political openings and the beginning of reconciliation with Eritrea. But communal tensions over access to natural resources in 2018 led to violence between ethnic groups in the south of the country that created the largest number of new IDPs anywhere in the world. Hundreds of thousands of these people were being assisted with relative efficiency by the authorities but were forced to return towards the end of the year under the threat of having assistance taken away – even though the conflict in the south remained unresolved. Many Ethiopian IDPs have ended up in a new cycle of precarious displacement with little hope of rebuilding their livelihoods.

    Last year's global compacts on migration and refugees, for instance, didn't even try to address the IDP issue.

    In Syria, a degree of repressive stability is emerging as the regime regains control of large parts of the country. But 2.9 million new IDPs were added in 2017 – many finding themselves in Idlib province, which remains under threat from a new military offensive. Syrian IDPs are often hard to reach for humanitarian actors struggling to gain access to areas both under and outside of government control. For a long time the regime failed to properly acknowledge the existence of IDPs. Both the regime and rebel groups used besiegement as a war strategy – to force the population onto its knees by depriving them of food, water, and medical assistance. A new law gives the authorities the right to seize land and property for redevelopment, only providing compensation if the owner is able to prove ownership within one year – this will hit refugees and IDPs hard and make return and reintegration more difficult.

    States can always invite the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, or other agencies into their countries to assist IDPs, but many are reluctant to commit to anything that they see as a challenge to national sovereignty – especially anything that is legally binding. Last year's global compacts on migration and refugees, for instance, didn't even try to address the IDP issue.

    The number of people forced to flee violence and the impacts of climate change is growing. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement should be increasing their chances of receiving protection and assistance. But they need to be respected and, without the political will to prevent people from being forced to leave their own homes in the first place, they are insufficient.

    (A version of this article was first published, in Swedish, in the online magazine Mänsklig Säkerhet)

    (TOP PHOTO: A young Somali girl walks through an IDP camp near the town of Beletweyne, Somalia​. CREDIT: Tobin Jones/AMISOM Photo​)

    The world’s 40 million invisible refugees
  • 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.

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    Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal
  • Q&A: Top US aid fraud investigator defends tough counter-terror stance

    The USAID Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is a watchdog that has launched multiple investigations into aid diversion in Syria and Iraq, and banned at least 20 individuals and companies connected with an elaborate fraud involving Turkish suppliers and four NGOs.

     

    Recently, it has focused on aid skimmed off by extremist groups in Syria: not just fraud, but potentially cases of financing terrorism. Despite its successes in clamping down on corruption, critics say its rigid attitude is preventing aid from getting through to people in need.

     

    IRIN interviewed the OIG’s head of investigations, Dan Altman, by phone in late December. He disclosed new details about the diversion of over $8 million worth of food aid to a Syrian armed group – a case first reported by IRIN.

     

    Altman said several other Syria diversion investigations are still underway. He also rejected accusations of over-aggressive enforcement and spelled out what he believes NGOs need to do to respond to allegations of material support to terrorists.

     

    Extracts of the interview follow, edited for length and clarity.

     

    IRIN: Are the OIG’s expectations of ‘zero tolerance’ for fraud or diversion realistic?

     

    Dan Altman: This is a really, really critical point. The type of issues we investigate is when we have an organised and systemic effort to penetrate and take control of an implementer. We're not talking about a one-off, like a staff member that maybe took a couple bags of flour and threw it in their trunk, or one little distribution team maybe giving a couple things to cousins. We're talking about organised crime, where they've completely infiltrated and taken control of the procurement or logistics systems of USAID implementers. That's the type of issue that we’re investigating.

     

    [For example], the implementer at their headquarters… believes there's one reality going on inside of Syria, but the actual reality is that their office in Syria and their staff in Syria are in some way under the control of HTS [the sanctioned Islamist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham], which is resulting in a systemic manipulation of the programme.

     

    IRIN: What do you say to allegations of an aggressive attitude from OIG agents in the field?

     

    Altman: The reality is that the US government is the only bilateral donor that sends criminal investigators out into the field. Basically, we have the right to have reasonable access to all of their records and documents, and to their people to ask questions.

    So if the allegation is that we’re aggressive and that we're forward-leaning, then ‘guilty as charged’.

    In the cases that we've run in [Syria’s northwestern province of] Idlib, we have directly confronted people who have later admitted to intentionally diverting tens of thousands of food kits, and potentially millions of dollars worth of resources, to HTS, knowingly. We're sitting in the room talking to them. In other instances, we've encountered NGO staff that actually have some direct relationship with HTS.

     

    And, in fact, I've noticed that there are many NGOs that appear to have strong opinions about our work. But I have also noted that the NGOs that are most affected by this... they're not complaining, and it's because they took on a very difficult job in a difficult place, and through our investigative work they determined there was an issue. They put things on hold for long enough to satisfy themselves and USAID that issues were addressed and they got back to work.

     

    IRIN: How serious are the cases currently being investigated?

     

    Altman: I'm not going to identify the name of the organisation. But we have an instance in Idlib where we had a diversion of almost 400,000 food kits that are worth about eight and a half million dollars. [IRIN believes he is referring to a previously reported food diversion case involving Catholic Relief Services. A CRS spokesperson declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.]

     

    Anybody stealing eight and a half or nine million dollars worth of humanitarian commodities: we would investigate that. We’d do our best to collect the information and facts necessary to make sure that the organisation… was made ineligible to work for the US government and, if appropriate, try to put the people in jail.

    Whether or not those items were stolen by people and sold in the market so they could enrich themselves and buy boats or houses, or whether those kits were diverted to be given to the family of fighters and armed groups in lieu of salary, that's sort of a side point.

     

    I don't think that anyone reasonable would say that, as the oversight body for USAID, that we should do anything other than aggressively investigate that; notwithstanding the fact that the stuff is going to an armed group, that eight million dollars is not going to intended beneficiaries.

     

    IRIN: Is the OIG demanding an excessive amount of conditions and requirements?

     

    Altman: OIG doesn’t set any requirements for the [foreign aid] projects. USAID sets the requirements… [and] has put more stringent requirements in place [on Syria] when they perceive there is a risk or a problem. In the environments where USAID is operating and the implementers are operating, perfection is not only impossible but it might be said that any organisation that claims to be working in that area and never had a problem, that would be something that would raise our eyebrows. So in no way are we expecting perfection.

     

    These are really, really complicated environments. And so as soon as we think of a good system or control, the bad guys will think of a way to exploit it. It does mean that we should constantly be vigilant and creative about ways to keep trying to outsmart them.

     

    IRIN: What are some examples of the kind of fraud uncovered in Syria?

     

    Altman: A family of five is supposed to get X amount of food, but they only get 60 percent of it because someone is diverting the other 40 percent; they make the families sign for the whole amount… We [US aid programmes] paid for parkas and lined insulated boots for children, but what they got were rubber rain boots and a sweatshirt of a such poor quality that you could stick your finger through it. We have given women burlap underwear… we have given expired and unsanitary medical commodities [to some medical facilities].

    Where the staff of an NGO is providing basically the salaries for fighters in an armed group [using diverted aid resources], not only is it an obscenity, in the sense that it's a loss of resources that are meant to go to hungry Syrians, we are actually funding the conflict.

     

    And so those are the reasons why we take these cases seriously. While we’re an oversight body, I don't think that any of the work that we're doing is inconsistent with the humanitarian principles.

     

    So if the allegation is that we’re aggressive and that we're forward-leaning, then ‘guilty as charged’, but we're doing it primarily because we want the programmes to be effective and reach the intended beneficiaries.

     

    IRIN: Which criticisms of the OIG investigations bother you?

     

    Altman: OIG has no problem with being challenged. Our IG [Inspector General], Ann Calvaresi Barr, when she came in, wanted to raise the level of the work that we do to point out when there are systemic and strategic problems. So when we're identifying issues like this, and it's causing disruptions and it's causing people to really reflect on the work they're doing, I'm perfectly fine with them being upset with us.

     

    We’re having a conversation; the conversation is resulting in information getting out, it’s raising awareness, and hopefully will help tighten up the systems and controls.

     

    And that's why we keep gathering the whole industry together. But like when we had those 54 organisations [in an OIG “roundtable” meeting] in July, it wasn't a love-fest… but we were having a good, open dialogue.

     

    IRIN: One activist’s campaign has led to heavy fines for one or two NGOs that didn’t reveal to USAID their connections with sanctioned groups. Legal cases relied in part on the NGOs’ public web postings. How do you view these cases under the False Claims Act?

     

    Altman: We get, over the course of a year, 1,500 to 2,000 complaints that come in from all over the world. And we get complaints that are true and complaints that aren't true. We get complaints from people that are doing it with a positive motivation. We get complaints from people that have an axe to grind with somebody.

     

    Our job is to assess whether or not there's a violation of rule, regulation, or law; and then to determine whether something is of a sufficient priority that we think that we need to look into it or whether it could be handled by somebody else. We don't spend a whole lot of time worrying about who's bringing the complaint.

     

    I read in one of your articles, somebody at the workshop commented that we were being heavy-handed or threatening or whatever.

     

    The point of that event in July was to say to people, ‘this is something you need to pay attention to’, and that if you have questions or concerns on previous engagements [with sanctioned groups], discuss that with USAID directly, don't lie [when applying for US government funds]..

     

    This is the thing that's important for the NGOs to understand: that because of the way the law is set up, anybody has the ability to bring these things forward, and the US government's required to respond to it. Therefore, don't lie.

     

    It would be far more productive to understand the regulations, to comply with the regulations, to be honest and to negotiate, versus to be dishonest and then have to deal with the consequences of it.

     

    I think, as a general principle, being honest is a good idea, and not lying when you're applying for awards.

    Q&A: Top US aid fraud investigator defends tough counter-terror stance
    The OIG chief of investigations reveals $8.5 million of food aid diversion in Syria
  • In Syria’s Aleppo, a slow rebuild begins

    More than two years after the Syrian government won a long and deadly battle for Aleppo, sounds of demolition and construction have replaced the explosions and gunfire that used to echo through the city’s centre.

     

    In the Old City’s labyrinthine markets, where government troops and rebel groups fought it out, shuttered shops are riddled with bullet-holes.

     

    The words “мин нет” [no mines] spray-painted on buildings signal where Russian de-miners have cleared up explosives. Rubble is piled up along the main roads, where it has been swept aside by clearers working for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

     

    Those with enough money to self-fund rebuilding and get in new stocks are starting to reopen businesses: a few shisha cafes have sprung up, an expensive restaurant, a historic hotel takes in occasional guests.

    And in the central parts of the city that IRIN visited, some people are starting to rebuild their homes. Most civilians said they were grateful the violence had ended, regardless of who they supported in the fight for Aleppo or the broader war.

    But it’s a slow and limited process. Before the war, Aleppo was a thriving city with a population of at least 2.3 million. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but the UN estimates there are now 1.6 million people in the city, with 600,000 people returning to the wider province since forces loyal to al-Assad recaptured the last opposition holdout in east Aleppo in December 2016.

    By some counts, there are only 200,000 people living in east Aleppo, which was damaged on a scale far greater than the west, in part due to Russia-Syria coalition airstrikes in September and October 2016 that represented some of the war’s heaviest and most sustained bombing.

    Wrecked homes, local support

    Reconstruction in the midst of Syria’s near-eight-year war is controversial. Most American and European governments refuse to fund rebuilding on a large scale as long as al-Assad remains in power.

     

    On the UN’s part, Damascus-based spokeswoman Fadwa Baroud said it “does not, nor is it in any position to fund reconstruction [in Aleppo], which is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, although it remains committed to delivering lifesaving, needs-based assistance and protection services across Syria.”

     

    She said the UN does do “light rehabilitation” work, including repairing water and sanitation infrastructure, and funding other NGOs who are helping with installing new doors and windows. It does not fund the complete reconstruction of private homes.

     

    “A huge bomb fell right outside my house, killing all the Syrian army soldiers there, so I just took my children and ran, taking nothing, not even my money or jewellery because there was no time.”

    This impacts people like Dalida Hindoyan, who stood on her recently rebuilt balcony, looking out at crumpled homes, where once-horizontal floors are now folded towards the street at acute angles.

     

    Living opposite a large military base in central Aleppo’s mixed-faith Midan district had once given her third-floor apartment an aura of security but, in 2012, the area became a front line between government and rebel forces, thrusting its residents into danger.

     

    Hindoyan became accustomed to living in fear of snipers, mortars, and explosives-filled gas canisters that locals called “hell cannons” and say were deployed by rebel fighters.

     

    In 2014, the fighting escalated dramatically. “A huge bomb fell right outside my house, killing all the Syrian army soldiers there, so I just took my children and ran, taking nothing, not even my money or jewellery because there was no time,” Hindoyan, 53, recalled.

     

    She found temporary accommodation elsewhere in the city and did not return until most of Aleppo had been retaken by government forces in late 2016. She found the front of her apartment shattered and the rest looted and blackened by fire.

    Although Hindoyan started clearing rubble and scrubbing charred walls herself, she had no funds to cover the extensive repairs needed to make the premises habitable. Like many in this part of the city with a large Christian population, she turned to her local church for support.

    The Armenian Church Relief Committee had recently signed an agreement with a French NGO, SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, to help rebuild Christian homes in Aleppo, and Hindoyan’s home was one of the first to be completed.

     

    “The Armenian Church does some basic repairs, but the damage to Christian homes in Aleppo is so extensive they really need the support of international NGOs to complete projects,” explained the NGO’s Aleppo project manager Matthieu Siossian, who has a total budget of $100,000 for restoring homes in the city.

     

    It costs around $2,000-$3,000 to fix up an apartment that has considerable damage like Hindoyan’s, a sum beyond the reach of most ordinary Syrians.

     

    There are some other options, including government compensation. However, one Aleppo resident, who preferred not to give his name, told IRIN he expected it would only cover around 10 percent of the total costs of rebuilding a home.

    Although a few of his acquaintances had received similar compensation, he said most residents he knew hadn’t and that with government funds still tied up in the war most didn’t expect to receive anything imminently, if at all.

    This makes rebuilding out of reach for many, especially given that funds are scarce and job opportunities limited. “Needs are extremely high, and the situation is extremely dire for many in Aleppo,” said the UN’s Baroud.

    Returning from abroad

     

    Despite the challenges, some people are coming back from abroad. The UN expects some 250,000 of the 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees to return this year, spurred on by growing pressure to leave host countries. Some of those people are headed for Aleppo.

     

    “After three years in Turkey, I came back within days of Aleppo being liberated,” said Mohamed, who 10 months ago reopened his shop in the city centre that sells roasted nuts and seeds. “All that time, I was just waiting to come back because this shop has been in my family for three generations,” he said. “The roof was caved in, but luckily the equipment had survived.”

     

    Armenian Church Relief Committee head Pierre Musali said there are many reasons why people want to return. “Some simply want [to] live in their home country, but others have found it very difficult to settle in Europe, because of money problems, a lack of job opportunities, and even the weather,” he explained.

    “Two years since the city witnessed some of the worst violence in this conflict, tens of thousands of Syrian families are still unable to return home and recover their lives.”

    Musali said 5,000 families are currently registered with the church committee for aid distributions, mainly basic foodstuffs.

     

    For others, including those who fled during the war in east Aleppo, return to the country and the city is still a distant prospect.

    “Two years since the city witnessed some of the worst violence in this conflict, tens of thousands of Syrian families are still unable to return home and recover their lives,” said Rachel Sider, advocacy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

    Poverty, destruction, and a lack of basic services are among the barriers to return, along with political and military affiliations. Although the Syrian government has promised amnesty for those who fled Syria to avoid compulsory military service, not everyone trusts this pledge, and it isn’t clear to what extent this applies to all of those who joined rebel groups.

     

    Last year Syria’s government introduced Law 10, a provision that allows the government to redevelop areas it sees fit, giving property owners only 30 days to prove ownership if they wish to receive compensation.

     

    The 30-day limit has since been extended to one year, but rights groups argue it will still be difficult, sometimes impossible, for displaced people – more than six million within Syria and millions more refugees abroad – to get paid for their ruined homes.

     

    Carpenter Abdul Gader has re-established his business in a friend's Old City premises. He keeps his pet pigeons in an abandoned adjacent premises where he says the owners once stored weapons for the rebels.

     

    “Five property owners from this small area can’t come back because they were with the [rebel] Free Syrian Army,” he said. “One is now in [rebel-controlled] Idlib and the others are in Turkey.”

     

    Father Fabien Alanziz Gonzalez ministers to 80 Catholic families, of the 150 that formerly lived in the Midan district. He said memories of the fighting, of extortion by rebels, as well as the subsequent destruction, had made some reluctant to return.

    “It’s not easy. Look around you,” he said, gesturing across the ruined expanse of the city from the rooftop of a new apartment block built by his church to house local families who have lost their homes. “But honestly, after [more than] seven years of war, everyone just says: ‘Thank God there are no more bombs’.”

     

    tw/as/ag

    In Syria’s Aleppo, a slow rebuild begins
  • Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

    What next in Venezuela?

     

    The crisis in Venezuela has bubbled away for months, demanding media attention only when protests flare or the sheer number of people fleeing the freefalling economy and increasingly authoritarian state becomes difficult to ignore. Not now. Since President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in two weeks ago for a new six-year term, things have escalated quickly. No sooner was a revolt by members of the National Guard quelled than protesters took to the streets demanding he step down. Opposition challenger Juan Guaidó on Wednesday declared himself leader and has since been recognised as such by the United States and a clutch of regional powers. No one knows what will happen next. Talk of a US military intervention seems to be just that for now, but there’s no sign either that Maduro – still backed by Venezuela’s armed forces – is prepared to accept any offer of amnesty and leave quietly. If he does go, it won’t cure Venezuela’s ills overnight, but it would provide the change in government some argue is the only long-term solution to a humanitarian crisis Maduro has long denied – one that has left his people desperate, hungry, and sick. A study published in The Lancet Global Health Journal this week indicates that infant mortality rates have risen back to 1990s levels.

     

    “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede”

     

    Around 9,000 Nigerians who say they fled armed clashes involving Boko Haram are “shuttling” back and forth in the Cameroon border area, a UN official said in Geneva. The group was pushed back after trying to take refuge in the neighbouring country, with Cameroonian officials admitting that insecurity forced the government to take exceptional measures, despite its supposed "open doors" policy. UN humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon Allegra Baiocchi told a press conference "the right of asylum is being tested". She said many of the group were women and children. Cameroon’s director of civil protection Yap Mariatou told IRIN that a recent attack on the border town of Achigashia by an armed group had put the authorities on edge. “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede,” she said. The UN is appealing for $299 million to help 2.3 million people in Cameroon, including about 100,000 refugees from Nigeria and more than 400,000 internally displaced by an ongoing separatist rebellion.

     

    Mediterranean crossing just got even more dangerous

     

    The EU’s troubled naval mission against people smuggling in the Mediterranean faced yet another setback this week as Germany announced it was suspending participation, a decision MPs said was the result of Italy’s consistent refusal to allow rescued migrants entry at its ports. The removal of Germany’s ship leaves the mission, Operation Sophia, with only two vessels. Meanwhile, migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean – 201 so far this year – including in two recent shipwrecks, one off the coast of Libya, the second between Morocco and Spain. Many of those rescued are being brought to Libya, and Médecins Sans Frontières says it has seen a “sharp increase” in the number of people held in crowded detention centres there – conditions are dire, with shortages of clean water and food. Human Rights Watch said EU policies, including the decision to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return people, are contributing to a “cycle of extreme abuse” against migrants in the country. For a forensic examination of one Mediterranean incident in 2017 in which at least 20 migrants died, check out this film, “How Europe Outsources Migrant Suffering at Sea”, from Times Insider.

     

    Forwarding hate

     

    There’s increasing scrutiny on the real-world impacts of the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media. This week, messaging app WhatsApp announced a five-recipient limit for message forwarding. WhatsApp messages – which can be rapidly distributed through group and broadcast features – have been linked to a spate of lynchings in India and a pre-election flood of false news in Brazil. Sri Lanka also temporarily shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, and others after anti-Muslim violence last March. WhatsApp recipient limits were recommended in a “human rights impact assessment” commissioned by Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. That report focused on Facebook usage in Myanmar, where UN investigators say the company was ”slow and ineffective” in stemming hate speech on its platform amid the violent 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya. But hate speech on WhatsApp could prove even tougher to contain: the company may enforce “community standards” on Facebook, but WhatsApp messages are encrypted.

     

    Overheard in Davos

     

    Sure, the mood at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was generally sombre, but there was a bright spot for some: the increasing spotlight on social issues, including humanitarian response. Humanitarian topics included sessions on private sector investment in fragile states and the use of artificial intelligence in crises. The WEF, the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an initiative to promote so-called humanitarian investing – the private sector working to boost economies in crisis-affected areas in order to help people get back on their feet and avoid becoming dependent on aid. The IKEA Foundation pledged 6.8 million euros to help create livelihoods for refugees in Jordan. Still, investors were honest about the constraints of putting capital into fragile states at scale. On the tech side, AI was front and centre with discussions on its use in crisis zones. It has huge potential – from predicting famines to chatbots that help refugees further their education to facial recognition for identifying family members separated by war. But what happens when AI-aggregated data falls into the wrong hands? Or when machines reinforce political or human biases in the data? Many agencies, one observer noted, are pushing ahead with pilot projects and thinking about due diligence later. For more from Davos, see our roundup on IRIN’s event, “Meet the new humanitarians changing the face of aid.”

    In case you missed it:

     

    Central African Republic: Talks aimed at ending CAR’s long-running conflict began in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, this week. Brokered by the African Union, the negotiations involve representatives of the government and 14 armed groups. Aid officials say a successful peace accord is critical to ensuring the ongoing humanitarian crisis doesn’t deepen.

     

    Indonesia: Dozens of people were killed after heavy rains battered Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province this week, leading to floods and landslides. Local authorities say the rains caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating homes and forcing more than 3,000 people to evacuate.

     

    Philippines: A majority voted to ratify a long-awaited peace deal in the conflict-torn Mindanao region, according to unofficial results from the first stage of a referendum held this week. A vote in favour will expand autonomy for Mindanao’s Muslim community.

     

    Yemen: After just a month on the job, the retired Dutch general overseeing the not-yet-implemented ceasefire for the port city of Hodeidah is reportedly about to step down. It’s not clear why. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen thinks the deal is make-or-break for peace negotiations: read our interview with him to find out why.

     

    Zimbabwe: Half-a-million government workers have gone on strike across the country, adding to uncertainty after fuel protests and a violent crackdown by security forces left several people dead and hundreds arrested. Accusations that protesters were raped by members of the military have been accompanied by warnings that social unrest and instability are spiralling out of control. Look out for our full briefing next week.

     

    Weekend read

     

    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria

     

    No, as we flagged in our 10 crises to watch in 2019, the war in Syria is not over. The focus towards the end of last year was on the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe if President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces moved in to retake Idlib. While this risk hasn’t gone away, especially as al-Qaeda-linked fighters cement control over parts of the northwestern province, our weekend read takes us elsewhere. In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces is trying to snuff out the last pockets of so-called Islamic State in Syria. This photo feature takes us inside their operations as they intercept a convoy of people escaping what remains of the militant group’s territory. But with IS members disguising themselves as civilians to make last-gasp attacks, how do you tell who is who? Those fleeing – nearly 5,000 in just two days this week – are hungry and exhausted. Some say there’s no food at all in areas under IS control.

     

    And finally…

     

    Top Libyan photographer dies in crossfire

     

    Libyan freelance journalist – and occasional IRIN contributor – Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed last Saturday while covering militia clashes in the capital city of Tripoli, prompting demonstrations by his colleagues denouncing violence against journalists. Ben Khalifa was 35, and is survived by his wife and young daughter. A well-respected photographer who covered the often violent instability that has plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Khalifa was known for his sensitive portrayals of the migrants whose bodies washed up on Libya’s shores, including this 2015 IRIN piece. His death “is a reminder of the utter lack of protection for journalists in Libya, as well as the dangers of photojournalists in the battlefield,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The week of fighting in Tripoli left 16 people dead (including Khalifa) and 65 injured, and rival militias have since agreed to a new ceasefire deal.

     

    as-bp-il-si-ha/nc/ag

    Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot

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