(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • 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.

    children_wait_outside_a_red_cross_facility_in_pamplona._the_irc_say_more_children_have_been_migrating_recently_than_before_1920.jpg

    Steven Grattan/IRIN
    Children wait outside a Red Cross facility in Pamplona. The IRC says more children have been migrating recently than before.

    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.

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    Steven Grattan/IRIN
    The notes of lament left by Venezuelan migrants passing through Martha's stall.

    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.

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    Steven Grattan/IRIN
    Venezuelan migrants at Douglas Cabeza's shelter in Pamplona.

    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.

     

    sg/ag

    “There are pregnant women, babies without diapers, and people with stomach problems”
    As Venezuela crisis spirals, needs across the Colombian border grow
  • Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

     

    Al-Shabab attacks civilians in Kenya and Somalia

    It has been a tragic week in East Africa, as militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack in Kenya and was accused of kidnapping 60 schoolchildren in the Bakol region of southern Somalia. The commissioner of Tiyeglow district said the children were taken on Monday in a raid on a village and most likely recruited as fighters – a common al-Shabab tactic. On Tuesday, the al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a 19-hour siege on an upmarket Nairobi hotel, which left 21 civilians dead. Al-Shabab said the attack was in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It could also be retaliation for Kenyan and US military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia. The hotel attack took place on the eve of a verdict in the trial of men alleged to have been involved in the 2013 siege on Nairobi's Westgate mall, which left 67 people dead. Militancy is an ongoing threat across Africa, a trend we continue to watch in 2019.

     

    Swine fever threatens food security

    A highly contagious disease with a near-100 percent fatality rate for pigs and wild boars could have “devastating consequences” for food security over large swathes of Asia, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned in a report this week. The FAO says African swine fever threatens to spread from China, where the virus has hit at least 24 provinces since it was detected there in August. The disease is not transmissible to humans, but pork is a key source of animal protein in China, the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia, while China produces half the world’s pigs. The FAO says the risk of the virus spreading beyond China’s borders represents “an imminent threat for the pig population in this region” and could damage livelihoods and food security. There is no vaccine. This week, Chinese agriculture officials announced the culling of more than 916,000 pigs, Mongolia reported its first outbreak, and Australia said it had found traces of African swine fever in six pork products seized at its airports. Since the virus was first discovered nearly a century ago in Kenya, there have been outbreaks in parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil, including ongoing cases in parts of eastern Europe.

     

    IS reminds US it still exists in Syria

    Days after President Trump said he had begun withdrawing troops from Syria, in part because so-called Islamic State had been defeated, the group claimed a suicide bombing in the northeastern city of Manbij that killed 19 people, including four Americans (two soldiers, a contractor, and a civilian defense department employee). The pullout was already controversial, not to mention confusing – nobody seems to know how or when it is happening – and Wednesday’s attack raised further questions about the wisdom of the move. In northeastern Syria, where some 2,000 US troops plus civilian contractors offer support to Kurdish fighters taking on IS, humanitarians are concerned about the  uncertainty (A Turkish invasion? New alliances? Shifting front lines?) and how it will impact their ability to deliver aid. Read Aron Lund’s latest timely analysis for an understanding of the many possibilities, and what they mean for the estimated two million Syrians in areas under Kurdish control.

     

    Voting on peace in the Philippines

    On 21 January, parts of conflict-hit Mindanao in the Philippines will begin voting on a long-awaited peace deal that will grant more autonomy and a new homeland for the southern island’s Muslim population. The proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law is the culmination of years of negotiations between Philippine authorities and multiple iterations of Muslim armed groups on Mindanao. Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a peace agreement with the largest Muslim armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The upcoming referendum, which continues on 6 February, is the next step to putting the law into effect. Recent polling suggests large parts of existing Muslim-majority areas on Mindanao support the law, which would create a new territory, known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with greater control of resources and taxation. But it’s uncertain whether adjoining areas like Cotabato City, wedged in the middle of an existing region, will vote to join. If the referendum passes, Mindanao still faces a challenge building peace. Authorities must oversee the decommissioning of thousands of armed fighters. But other armed groups continue to clash, including extremist fighters that have in the past drawn from the ranks of disaffected MILF members.

     

    Sexual harassment at the UN

    One in three UN workers has been sexually harassed in the past two years, according to survey results published this week. More than 30,000 UN agency staff and contractors took part in the online survey conducted in November by business advisory firm Deloitte. UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed disappointment, not just at the results but also at the low participation – only 17 percent of those polled responded. He said it showed how far the UN has to go before it can “fully and openly” discuss sexual harassment and counter ongoing “mistrust, perceptions of inaction, and lack of accountability”. Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reportedly ordered an internal investigation after a string of anonymous emails containing allegations of racism, sexism, and corruption were sent to top managers at the UN health agency last year. Both reports follow hot on the heels of the announcement last month that the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, will step down six months early, in June, after a panel found that he tolerated “a culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.” A preliminary report this week into the Oxfam scandal, which precipitated the #AidToo movement, called for a stronger system of safeguarding, for empowering and creating the space for staff to challenge negative power dynamics, and for investing in ways to more generally improve the culture of such organisations.

    In case you missed it:

    Democratic Republic of Congo: While global attention has been focused on Congo's disputed elections and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern regions, almost 900 people were killed in inter-communal clashes in western Mai-Ndombe province last month, the UN said. The fighting between Banunu and Batende communities took place in Yumbi, one of the towns excluded from the 30 December polls due to insecurity.

     

    The Hague: The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity, calling the case against him "exceptionally weak". Gbagbo spent more than seven years in custody, and was tried for allegations including involvement in election-related violence in 2010 and 2011, during which thousands of people were killed. Prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict and, initially at least, he remained behind bars.

     

    Syria: UNICEF reports that eight children, most under four months, have died in the past month at the makeshift camp on the Jordan-Syria border where some 40,000 Syrians have taken shelter. People at the camp, Rukban, are exposed to harsh winter conditions and are short on medical supplies and care; the last humanitarian convoy was in November.

     

    United States: Four humanitarian volunteers went on trial this week in Tucson, Arizona, facing misdemeanour charges for leaving water and other supplies in the desert for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Since 2017, at least 43 sets of human remains have reportedly been found in the wildlife refuge where the volunteers had left the provisions.

     

    Yemen: Days after the UN Security Council voted to send 75 observers to monitor a faltering ceasefire in Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah, bullets hit an armoured car carrying the mission’s head, retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. No one was injured, and the warring sides blamed each other for the incident.

     

    Zimbabwe: The UN has condemned Zimbabwe's “excessive use of force” in cracking down on protests, which were sparked by a dramatic fuel price hike last weekend. Five people have been killed, hundreds detained, and the government has imposed a total internet shutdown. There is concern that a prolonged crisis could lead to mass displacement and create a new humanitarian challenge for neighbouring countries.

    Weekend read

     

    Venezuela’s new humanitarians

    Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting pressure at home and abroad as his disputed second term in office begins. Opposition politician Juan Guaidó is challenging Maduro’s rule, while some foreign governments, including the United States, are calling the Maduro regime “illegitimate”. Venezuela is mired in economic freefall and its citizens face severe food and healthcare shortages. The crisis has pushed some three million to flee the country, spilling the humanitarian emergency across the region. For our weekend read, journalist Susan Schulman has the latest from our reporting on local aid in crises. The story profiles Venezuela’s local NGOs, which have been forced to make drastic changes to respond to a humanitarian crisis the government denies. Local organisations that once focused on rights or development find themselves thrust into unfamiliar new roles: an education NGO that abandoned its training programmes because teachers were too busy queuing for food; a rights group that diverted its resources to feed hungry children. “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” says one local activist. “We didn’t know until now.”

    And finally...

    IRIN at Davos

    Look out for IRIN’s participation at next week’s annual World Economic Forum gathering of top business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Join us on Tuesday 22 January at 7:30am local time (0630 GMT), for a live stream of “Meet the New Humanitarians”, our headline event aimed at showcasing emerging actors in the humanitarian landscape, not to mention our new name and brand (In case you missed our big announcement).

     

    And if you don’t mind a quick 10-second sign-in form (or are already signed on), check out the Humanitarian Action entry on Transformation Maps, the WEF’s new attempt to harness technology and collaboration to tackle complex global issues and better inform decision-makers. IRIN’s Ben Parker was the key contributor.

     

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    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN
  • As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics

    Roberto Patiño never intended to become a humanitarian. But today the 30-year-old heads an NGO that helps feed thousands of children a week as Venezuela’s economic crisis spirals.

     

    More than three million Venezuelans have left the country – the majority since 2015, according to the UN. They are fleeing an economic collapse that has triggered severe food and medicine shortages. Patiño’s organisation, Mi Convive, is among a handful of local NGOs in Venezuela that have stepped into the breach.

     

    Across the country, cash-strapped local organisations like Mi Convive are making drastic changes to their operations in response to a humanitarian emergency the government denies. Civil society groups that once concentrated on rights or development in Venezuela, an upper-middle income country, are transforming their operations to focus on more urgent needs as basic necessities become scarce.

     

    Patiño founded Mi Convive in the capital, Caracas, in 2013. It was originally built to promote human rights with a mandate for violence prevention. He worked in communities with high crime rates, holding town hall-style meetings intended to increase political engagement.

     

    But in early 2016, a child in a Caracas community where Mi Convive worked asked Patiño for food.

     

    “She said she was starving,” he recalls.  

     

    Patiño was stunned.

     

    “This is so urgent,” he remembers thinking. “We had to adapt and we had to change.”

     

    LISTEN: Roberto Patiño, founder of Venezuelan NGO Mi Convive, which has changed its operations to focus on the country’s humanitarian crisis.

    By May 2016, Mi Convive had refocused on child nutrition, launching an organisation called Alimenta La Solidaridad, which opened its first community kitchen, or comedor, in the La Vega neighbourhood perched high over Caracas.

     

    By 2018, the food programme was running 18 community kitchens in Caracas and 35 more across the country, feeding 4,500 children a week. It’s still not enough. The public kitchens have waiting lists and Alimenta La Solidaridad is trying to open more, Patiño says.

     

    As his contested second term in office begins, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting opposition at home and abroad. In November, the country quietly agreed to receive assistance from the UN’s emergency response fund for the first time. But analysts say the $9.2 million in funding for existing UN programmes is a drop in the bucket compared to a humanitarian emergency that has left households without stable food supplies and medicine. Facing glaringly inadequate government services and a lack of official aid, struggling local NGOs have found themselves trying to fill the gap.

     

    ☰ Read more: What to call a crisis

     

    Venezuela agreed to accept $9.2 million in funding from the UN’s emergency aid coffers in November, but it continues to deny the existence of a humanitarian crisis within its borders.

     

    The money, drawn from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, will be used to scale up existing programmes by agencies already operating in the country, including UNICEF, IOM, UNHCR, WHO, and UNFPA.

     

    The infusion of funding is a welcome step for some – but observers say it represents only a fraction of the humanitarian need.

     

    “Nine million dollars is a drop in the ocean. It is a colossal humanitarian crisis,” says Richard Lapper, a Latin America specialist at the Chatham House think tank.

     

    By comparison, a 2018 plan formulated by the WHO, UNAIDS, and the Venezuelan health ministry to respond to HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria was budgeted at $122 million over three years.

     

    Tamara Taraciuk of Human Rights Watch says the government has made a subtle shift in recent months away from total denial. “They are recognising an economic crisis,” she says. “They still do not talk about a humanitarian crisis.”

     

    An effective and sustainable aid response would require a comprehensive assessment of the problems – which would inevitably involve admitting the scale of humanitarian needs.

     

    “Without a proper diagnosis there is no way this crisis is going to be solved, and for a proper diagnosis you need the government’s cooperation and statistics,” she says. “Or at least access to the country – full access to the country – to come up with an independent diagnosis.”

     

    “The real problem is that the state is not working,” activist and former diplomat Luisa Kislinger says. “There is no way a number of NGOs or one NGO can replace the state.”

     

    “The role of local groups is so important,” says Tamara Taraciuk, senior Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has tracked the humanitarian impact of the crisis within Venezuela’s borders and around the region. She says local NGOs have been compelled to shift their operations toward something they had never foreseen: humanitarian work.

     

    “They are helping people who would otherwise not receive any aid,” Taraciuk says.

     

    This would be a challenge anywhere, but oil-rich Venezuela was uniquely unprepared: civil society was small; NGOs like Mi Convive largely focused on human rights or development. And, says Luisa Kislinger, a women’s rights activist and a former Venezuelan diplomat, the country had rarely seen humanitarian emergencies within its own borders.

     

    When the economy imploded, precious few organisations had experience doing humanitarian work.

     

    “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” Kislinger says. “We didn’t know until now.”

    venezuela-localaid-11.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elderly people queue for food at a public kitchen in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

    Local groups morph

     

    The barren food supplies and run-down hospitals of today are a stark contrast with a few short years ago. Venezuela, a verdant country of 30 million with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, was riding high oil prices, which papered over underlying weaknesses in the economy. But by 2016 the country was in an economic tailspin created by a perfect storm of fiscal mismanagement and plummeting oil prices.

     

    Today, skyrocketing inflation has left many unable to afford food, and malnutrition is soaring. Daily departures rose to an estimated 5,500 people by the end of 2018, many citing hunger. The UN estimates the number of Venezuelans living outside their homeland could reach 5.3 million by the end of this year. Aid agencies say they need $738 million to tackle the humanitarian emergency in 16 countries now home to large numbers of Venezuelans.

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    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ennio Prince, 70, sits in a home for elderly people in Carúpano. Malnutrition rates are rising across Venezuela. Local humanitarian groups say impoverished elderly people often do not have enough food to eat: “I am always hungry,” Prince says.

    But within the country, the Maduro government denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, instead blaming his country’s economic freefall on foreign powers, sanctions, and political sabotage.

     

    ☰ Read more: Roadblocks for local aid

     

    Venezuela’s economic crisis has also claimed NGOs among its victims. Some organisations have been forced to close their doors as hyper-inflation made operations unsustainable or as staff and volunteers also fled the country.  

     

    But dozens of tiny local foundations have also emerged. They are often self-funded or supported by donations from abroad.

     

    Controls on foreign currency also make it tough for NGOs to operate. Staff at local organisations say it is difficult for NGOs to legally bring money into Venezuela.

     

    Like Patiño’s Mi Convive, the Caracas-based Fundación Educando Ninó Felices has been forced to switch its operations to address basic humanitarian needs.

     

    The organisation was first founded in 2016 as an education NGO, introducing new technology and teaching methods to schools.

     

    Within a year, however, it soon became clear that there were more pressing problems.

     

    “The teachers started to say that they couldn’t go to the school because they had to queue up to get food,” says former staff member Claudia Cova.

     

    Training teachers, Cova says, “suddenly became ridiculously unnecessary” compared to essentials like food and clothing.

     

    “We had to abandon these things and look after more basic needs such as ensuring that the children had shoes, that they had food, and making sure that they could continue attending their classes and that the teachers didn’t leave the school,” Cova says.

     

    The humanitarian emergency has also forced change on other organisations with long track records in Venezuela.

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    A portrait of bearded man's face
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Jesus Villarroel, a priest and director for Caritas in the eastern Venezuelan city of Carúpano, says the country’s economic crisis has forced the Catholic charity to take on more humanitarian work.

    When the Catholic charity Caritas opened operations in Venezuela in 1997, its work was focused on pastoral care for prisoners, support for the sick, and human rights advocacy. But seeing hunger and malnutrition rising, the organisation started prioritising humanitarian work in 2016, says Jesus Villarroel, a priest and the director of Caritas in Carúpano, site of one of the largest churches in the eastern state of Sucre.

     

    Caritas has opened community kitchens across the country and expanded alliances with local organisations to strengthen its humanitarian response on food and healthcare.

     

    “We are absolutely playing a more important role now than before the crisis,” Villarroel says. ‘‘We don’t pretend to be a substitute for the state. Because of the indifference of the state, we are seeking to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the country, to make dignity from little.”

     

    The Caritas Carúpano headquarters is buzzing. Food for the 90 people who come here every day is prepared in the kitchen while a dozen people wait for medical clinics run by small local foundations working with Caritas.

     

    It is a godsend for Erimas Milagro Machado Rodriguez, 28. Her children, Sirian, one, and Damian, four, suffer frequent diarrhoea. Doctors tell her they are severely malnourished.

     

    ‘‘The children cry every day because they are hungry,” Rodriguez says, her shoulders slumping and eyes sinking into a gaunt face. “When I can’t find any food, I try to make juice from fruit and give them a lot of liquid to fill them up.”  

     

    Rodriguez has also come to the kitchen to try to get treatment for Damian. The child was diagnosed with a psychological disability, but unable to get him any help, she is desperate. “I don’t know what to do or where to go to get the children what they need,” she says biting her lip, her eyes glassy. “It makes me feel so bad as a mother.”

     

    Around the city of Machiques, on the opposite side of the country near the Colombian border, the local Caritas office has recently increased the frequency of free meals it provides to five days a week.

     

    “Years ago, only the homeless went,” says Dr. Ingrid Graterol, director of the Machiques Caritas office. “But today everyone goes.”  

     

    Caritas is planning on setting up a medical clinic in Tucoco, a small village nestled under the foothills about 16 kilometres from the Colombian border.

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    A doctor checks on a child in a woman's arms
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ingrid Graterol, a doctor who works with Caritas, checks on a child in Tucoco, a village near the Colombian border in western Venezuela.

    Graterol says malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea, and pneumonia have claimed lives in Tucuco over the past three years, but a particularly severe bout of malaria ravaged the village last year.

     

    The organisation partnered with a local friar to bring medicine to the remote village. But it was too late for Lisbeth Alehandra Fernandez, who was born last May.

     

    The baby had arrived with a healthy scream, a shock of black hair, and an immediate curiosity about the world. Twenty-three days later, she was dead.  

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    A grieving woman wipes a tear from her eyes
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ludi Fernandez is dependent on local NGOs when she needs healthcare.

    Lisbeth didn’t die of the pneumonia written on her death certificate. She didn’t even die from the malaria she had contracted.

     

    She died because there were no medicines to treat her malaria in the local hospital and none in the private clinic two hours away. Left untreated, her condition worsened. By the time her parents managed to find the drugs on the black market and raise the money to pay for them, it was too late.  

     

    “We didn’t have anything and then there was a total lack of medicines,” says the baby’s mother, 32-year-old school administrator Ludi Mar Yakusa Fernandez.

     

    Threats and intimidation

     

    In Venezuela, undertaking humanitarian work in a crisis the government refuses to acknowledge comes with its own set of challenges.  

     

    When local NGOs try to set up new comedors, they face threats, false accusations, and intimidation from chavistas – a term used to describe militant supporters of the late president, Hugo Chávez, and his successor Maduro.

     

    Elizabeth Tarrio, who works for Alimenta La Solidaridad, says bureaucrats of the Maduro government and communal councils – the neighbourhood bodies set up in 2006 by Chávez to administer policies locally – have tried to boycott and obstruct their efforts.

     

    “Communal councils don’t want to show weakness so they prevent us doing things to improve things,” she says. “They are supposed to provide food, but they don’t so they don’t want us to bring food.”

     

    Mi Convive’s Patiño says chavistas may threaten to withhold government-subsidised food boxes from communities where the NGO is trying to start new aid programmes.

     

    The NGO workers have found that the solution is to slowly build a relationship with the community first.

     

    “The community leaders – the real community leaders, the mothers – are the ones who put a stop to it,” says Patiño. “For mothers and grandmothers, their first priority is children, regardless of political affiliation.”

     

    Even Caritas faces headwinds, despite its long history in Venezuela. In October 2017, Caritas Venezuela warned that some 280,000 children could die from malnutrition. Two weeks later, Maduro attacked the Catholic church in the country, saying that everything linked to it "is contaminated, poisoned by a counter-revolutionary vision and permanent conspiracy".

     

    Hunger reaches young and old

     

    The deprivations in Venezuela extend from its outer reaches to its capital, Caracas – the nerve centre of Alimenta La Solidaridad’s operations.

     

    The colonial Hacienda La Vega sits amid lush grounds in the centre of the city. Built in 1590, it has been home to a succession of aristocratic families. Today, though, it hosts the warehouse, kitchen, and headquarters of Alimenta La Solidaridad. Mountains of leeks and bananas lie on the grounds; hundreds of tins of nutritional supplements – donated mostly by Venezuelans abroad – share space with 19th-century leather-bound books, elaborate engravings of family trees, and portraits of nobility.

    venezuela-localaid-10.jpg

    A woman stands in a commercial sized kitchen area with notes written directly on the wall
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elizabeth Tarrio, 59, works with Alimenta La Solidaridad, which runs more than 50 public kitchens around Venezuela, feeding more than 4,500 children a week.

    Elizabeth Tarrio, 59, is bustling around, checking on progress as volunteers sort and weigh food supplies and organise them for delivery to 18 communities in Caracas.

     

    “We have seen a huge rise in malnourished kids. Huge. That’s why we are trying to open more comedors,” she says.

     

    Throughout the country, however, needs continue to outstrip supply. Local NGOs are a stop-gap measure, not a replacement for basic government services. In addition to the food and medicine shortages, Venezuelans see frequent blackouts and water cuts, and soaring prices are a problem for groups trying to help.

     

    Tarrio opens a deep freeze. There’s a large fish but no meat.   

     

    A couple of days earlier, the government imposed price controls on meat, regulating prices at such low rates that many distributors refused to sell.

     

    A steep set of stairs winds up the hill, past a mural of the angel San Miguel, the namesake of this Caracas neighbourhood, past a sign advertising light bulb repair, past a stream of children, all clutching spoons, who form a long queue around a narrow staircase that rises to a small home. Inside, two dozen children sit at white plastic tables, their heads bowed in prayer. Vitamins are spooned into open mouths, bowls of food are gobbled down, and the next round of children comes in and takes their places.  

     

    This newest comedor was opened by Alimenta La Solidaridad in San Miguel last year. The number of children who come here doubled in its first three months; there are 18 more children on the waiting list.

     

    The hunger reaches both young and old.

     

    In another part of Caracas, the people waiting to take their places at a separate kitchen are the elderly. Some lean on walking frames, others on canes, anxiety scoring deeply lined faces.

     

    This public kitchen is run by Fundación Nacional Amigos de la Tercera Edad, an organisation started in 1977 – part social club, part social help. It too has been changed by Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis; it now focuses on feeding the elderly.

    venezuela-localaid-8.jpg

    Elderly people sit eating in front of a mural of the last supper in similar positions accidentally
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elderly Venezuelans eat at a public kitchen run by Fundación Nacional Amigos de la Tercera Edad, a local NGO. The organisation says it doesn’t have enough resources to feed the growing number of elderly who need free food.

    Carmen Senovia Tovar, 77, is overseeing the second sitting of the day. She has worked at the foundation for 23 years; she says the situation has radically deteriorated over the last five years.  

     

    “We have people only eating one meal a day and sometimes none,” she says. “Sometimes they have to collect it from the garbage.”

    venezuela-localaid-9.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Carmen Senovia Tovar, 77, works with a local NGO to serve lunch to elderly people at a public kitchen in Caracas.

    Even as the needs increase, Tovar worries that her organisation’s ability to help is withering. Hyper-inflation continues to ascend, sending costs soaring on a daily basis. Funds that were once able to supply food for 200 now only cover 150, she says, and the organisation can only provide meals three times a week rather than its planned five.

     

    For the elderly Venezuelans who rely on the local NGO, however, the efforts are life-saving.

     

    “This place is not just very important, it is super important,” says 78-year-old Martin Burguillos as he waits his turn in the queue. “It’s the only place we can find food.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Children queue for lunch served by the NGO Mi Convive in the San Miguel neighbourhood of Caracas. CREDIT: Susan Schulman/IRIN)

    ss/il/ag

    As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics
    One of a series of stories from within Venezuela, reporting on the humanitarian impacts of the country's economic collapse. <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/11/20/venezuela-humanitarian-crisis-denied">Read more here</a>.
  • Inside efforts to prevent a regional Ebola crisis in central Africa

    The current outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the second deadliest in history, killing more than 400 people and infecting hundreds more. Its location in both an active conflict zone and a busy border region has created what one of those leading the response describes as a “perfect storm” of risk for central Africa.

     

    Since the outbreak erupted in August, a massive response effort has built up around the epicentres in eastern North Kivu and Ituri provinces. It now involves hundreds of Congolese officials and World Health Organization staff, as well as hundreds of local and international aid and health workers. But a lesser-known parallel effort is also underway – within Congo but also in neighbouring countries – to ensure that a regional epidemic like the one that claimed more than 11,000 lives in West Africa in 2013-2016 isn’t repeated.

     

    Weeks of IRIN reporting, including trips to assess efforts in border areas, revealed some intensive monitoring and tight collaboration, especially between Congo and Uganda, but also a realisation from health officials of the extreme difficulty of policing thousands of kilometres of porous frontier in a busy trading area prone to spiralling violence.

     

    img_8613_1920.jpg

    A woman walks toward a man in a surgical mask
    Fiston Mahamba/IRIN
    Officials at Kasindi do body temperature checks as a first test for symptoms of Ebola.

    At the Kasindi border between eastern Congo and Uganda, a line of people waits to make the crossing. Before they get their documents checked, they stand – forehead first – in front of a hygiene official in a surgical mask who screens them with an infrared thermo-gun. Those found to have higher-than-normal body temperatures are tested further for Ebola-like symptoms.

     

    This screening station – just a simple wood and tarp gazebo, some plastic outdoor furniture, and a makeshift water tank for hand-washing – represents the front line of the cross-border system trying to prevent the deadly Ebola virus from spreading from one country to the next. More than a dozen similar stations are now dotted along the Congo-Uganda border, health ministers from both countries told IRIN. Across the border in Uganda, 22 of the highest risk areas have implemented additional monitoring measures to try and ensure Ebola stays out.

     

    Between 20,000 and 30,000 back-and-forth crossings – most by informal traders or people with cultural and family links – take place between the two countries each day, according to Congolese border officials. These large human flows have become a major challenge for those involved in the Ebola response.

    “People are crossing borders all the time,” Peter Salama, the WHO’s deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response, told IRIN. “The challenge really is just the sheer volume of people. It requires a real level of cross-country collaboration to be able to ensure that a case on one side of the border is adequately traced on the other side of the border.”

    Fears of a cross-border epidemic aren’t restricted to Uganda, which is closest to the current outbreak. They also stretch to Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan.

    Up to 60,000 people cross between Rwanda and Congo daily, according to the Red Cross; while Congo’s ministry of health said more than 24,000 people cross between Congo and Burundi each month, and another 3,000 each month between Congo and South Sudan.

    Travel within Congo is also a concern – Ebola has already spread from an initial epicentre near Beni to more densely populated areas, such as the major trading hub of Butembo, home to more than one million people.

    “The context for this outbreak is a perfect storm,” said Salama. “There’s the combination of great insecurity that has been going on for decades – now increasing in severity and frequency – a highly mobile and also very dense population in urban areas, proximity to international borders, major logistical challenges, and of course the fact that all of this is occurring in an election period.”

    Together with the WHO and health NGOs, the governments of neighbouring countries say they have strengthened cross-border collaboration to keep the outbreak from spreading. The health ministers of Congo and Uganda told IRIN in December that they are working closely together to screen travellers and track potential cases. Salama said more than 26 million people have already been screened across various points of entry, and so-far two confirmed cases have been detected.

    But it is no easy feat.

    Busy border regions

    The Kasindi crossing into Uganda lies 82 kilometres east of Beni. It’s the third busiest point of entry between Congo and any neighbouring country after the port of Matadi (with Angola) and the town of Kasumbalesa (with Zambia). It has become even busier in recent months, as stricter entry and exit measures have been imposed at nearby irregular crossing points in an attempt to keep Ebola contained.

    The border region around Kasindi is also home to the Nande and the Konzo – communities who live between the two countries (the former in Congo, the latter in Uganda) but share the same ethnicity.

    “[People] have family members on both sides of the border. Over the years, they have crossed the border unofficially,” explained Eddy Kasenda, head of Congo’s border hygiene services. “But with response teams currently stationed at the places formerly used for irregular border crossings, there is a big influx at [Kasindi’s] port of entry and exit.”

    Kasenda said teams are now stationed at both formal and informal crossings to control local migration and help execute the six pillars of Ebola response, which include surveillance, contact tracing, and community engagement.

    A few people remain sceptical, some saying the response is nothing more than a business opportunity for international organisations, but Kitsa Musayi from Beni said almost everyone in his neighbourhood is now serious about complying with the Ebola response measures.

    Standing in line at the Kasindi border while his two friends disinfected their hands at the water tank, Musayi added: "when some of those resisting the response activities started to die from Ebola” is when people began to cooperate.

    Oly Ilunga Kalenga, Congo’s health minister, said the exchange of information between Congolese and Ugandan response teams was a big factor in the success, up until now, in preventing Ebola’s spread to Uganda. “We collaborate intensively, especially in sharing information on alerts. The disease control general directorates of both countries are in constant contact to facilitate the collaboration,” he said.

    img_8602_1920.jpg

    A lot of people crowd a road
    Fiston Mahamba/IRIN
    With more than 20,000 crossings between DRC and Uganda each day, monitoring everyone has become a major challenge.

    Regional prevention measures

    Ugandan health minister Jane Ruth Aceng said she viewed all of Uganda’s border districts with Congo as being at high risk.

    “There is a lot of information and training for health workers in high-risk districts,” she said. “Three thousand health workers have already been vaccinated in Uganda as part of Uganda’s preparations to face the epidemic. Teams from the Congolese health ministry came to Uganda to train Ugandan health personnel to administer the vaccine against the Ebola virus.

    “We are not waiting for the first confirmed case to launch the response. We are in the midst of deploying experimental treatments.”

    Rwanda and Burundi, although further away from the outbreak, are also on high alert. Several Congolese towns are located close to the border with Rwanda, including the capital of North Kivu province, Goma – a city of more than one million people that has an international airport. Burundi, meanwhile, shares more than 10 entry and exit points along Congo’s border.

    Both countries say they are conducting screenings at border crossings and building up the capacity of their response and healthcare infrastructure in case the outbreak spreads. Last month the UN Central Emergency Response Fund allocated $10 million to strengthen Ebola preparedness in neighbouring countries. Rwanda’s ministry of health, in collaboration with the WHO, also conducted Ebola simulation exercises in two border districts earlier this month.

    Perhaps the main neighbour of concern is South Sudan, which has three principal border crossings with DRC. Years of war have decimated South Sudan’s economy; it has no properly functioning healthcare service; and a lack of roads and infrastructure in some parts of the country – not to mention ongoing conflict – could seriously impede response and containment efforts if Ebola were to spread there.

    The worst-case scenario would be if "insecurity in DRC itself becomes so profound that it really limits entirely our ability to control this outbreak,” Salama said. This would have major implications for all neighbouring countries, especially South Sudan, which "will be one of the more difficult scenarios.”

    Like Uganda, South Sudan also started Ebola vaccinations for frontline health workers in December.

    “The government willingness is there,” said Salama. “But the issue with South Sudan is that after decades of conflict, and ongoing conflict, the primary healthcare system – which is really the first line of defense for surveillance, labs, community health work, for all of our detection and response – is really very rudimentary.”

    There are also major accessibility issues. “Outside of urban centres it’s extremely difficult even to access areas, either because of a lack of paved roads, or because of insecurity,” Salama said. “That poses a huge challenge and it’s really why it’s so important that if anyone is symptomatic with symptoms that could be consistent with Ebola, they are able to identify that at the points of entry with South Sudan. Because if they cross, it will be much, much more difficult outside of the urban areas to pick out the first confirmed case in that country."

    Internal spread

    So far, no confirmed cases of Ebola have been found outside DRC. But the WHO says alerts have been investigated in South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and in one traveller returning from Burundi to Sweden.

    Inside Congo, cases have been confirmed in 17 different health zones. To try and stem the flow of potentially infected people, officials have set up checkpoints along the road between towns in eastern DRC, health ministry spokeswoman Jessica Ilunga said.

    Butembo, which saw its first case of Ebola in November, is one of the bigger concerns. Large numbers of people travel in and out of the city daily from all across the region, many of them traders buying and selling produce and supplies before moving on to other towns where they do the same.

     

    “Because there are relatively good road connections in these parts of the country, the population and the traders are very mobile,” Ilunga said. “We set up health control stations on the main roads being used by the population, including those leading to Uganda and bigger Congolese cities like Bunia, Kisangani, and Goma.”

    img_7612_1920.jpg

    A woman in medical gear outside of a medical tent
    Fiston Mahamba/IRIN
    Congo’s health ministry, NGOs, and the WHO have been tackling the outbreak for nearly six months.

    At some stations, she added, officials even check people’s identities to make sure their names are not on the lists of contacts health teams are tracing for possible exposure to Ebola.

    Travelling on the Beni-Kasindi road, IRIN met Jean-Jacques Mali, who trades between Butembo and Uganda’s capital, Kampala. He said many of those initially resistant to the extra preventative measures have now changed their minds.

    "Those who were most resistant have now started word-of-mouth communication within their communities, warning them about the risks of refusing the vaccine, for example,” Mali said. “Some have even helped people with Ebola-like symptoms to visit hospitals.”

     

    The key to tackling this outbreak is “not just [to] have community engagement, but also having the community driving the response,” Salama said, explaining that trying to access a highly mobile population in dense urban areas in a region where there are ongoing armed attacks means some affected populations may not be reachable.

     

    “In some of the most insecure areas, we have trained community health workers and given them cell phones so they are the ones who are following up on a daily basis, to see if the contact is becoming symptomatic and calling that information back into the central emergency operation centre,” he said, adding that response teams have been able to reach 16-20 percent more people who would otherwise have been inaccessible.

    Ilunga, the Congolese health ministry spokeswoman, expressed relief that Ebola hasn’t reached neighbouring countries or other big Congolese cities like Bunia, Goma, and Kisangani. But her relief was tinged with caution and acceptance of the scale of the challenge that still lies ahead.

    "We know that it can still happen,” she said. "As long as there are sick people and contacts who are travelling, there is still risk for the outbreak to spread. As long as the outbreak continues, we are still on high alert."

    Editor's note: Figures in this article were updated shortly after publication to reflect 26 million people screened (instead of 18 million mentioned previously) and two confirmed cases along the border

    (Additional reporting by Africa Editor Sumayya Ismail)

    (TOP PHOTO: Ebola screening stations are set up at more than a dozen points along Congo’s border region with Uganda. CREDIT: Fiston Mahamba/IRIN)

    fm/si/ag

    “We are still on high alert”
    Inside efforts to prevent a regional Ebola crisis in central Africa
  • Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Militant attacks spike in Nigeria

    More than 30,000 people have fled fighting in northeastern Nigeria's Borno State, most from Baga on the shores of Lake Chad, as attacks by Boko Haram and its Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) offshoot increased in recent weeks. The UN has expressed concern about the flood of newly displaced people into the state capital, Maiduguri. The impact of the fighting has been "devastating and has created a humanitarian tragedy,” said Edward Kallon, head of UN operations in Nigeria. Meanwhile, the Nigerian army said it had cleared jihadists from several towns, including Baga. The government has previously made claims that Boko Haram was "technically defeated". In reality, the insurgency, which began in 2009, has fragmented but continues – with an uptick in violence in some areas and jihadists targeting other countries in the region. Read more of IRIN's in-depth coverage on countering militancy in the Sahel.

    Winter has come

    Snow and flooding may affect 70,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon this week, according to the UN refugee agency. Storm Norma, bringing rain, high wind, and snow at higher altitudes, will have already passed through Lebanon by Sunday but rain is forecast for next week, adding to flood risks. So far 361 refugee sites have been affected, and one eight-year-old girl died in floodwaters. Flimsy plastic and tarpaulin structures are no match for the heaviest snowfall – one informal settlement near Arsal is said to have been “buried”. Affected refugees have had to find alternatives and aid groups are working to provide shelter, clothing, and heating. The storm follows flooding of displacement camps within Syria: more than 20,000 people in 108 camps were affected in northwestern Idlib by early January, according to Save the Children.

    Congo election result challenged

    After 18 years of Joseph Kabila’s rule, this week saw Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the largest opposition party in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared the provisional victor of long-delayed presidential elections. But another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, called the result an "electoral coup" and said he would file a court challenge against it this weekend. Since independence in 1960 from Belgium, Congo has never seen a peaceful transfer of political power. It is struggling to move on from decades of conflict and political unrest and still faces a host of humanitarian challenges, including its largest ever Ebola outbreak. There are fears these new tensions may lead to a fresh eruption of political violence across the country. Initial unrest has already included one demonstration by Fayulu’s supporters that reportedly left five civilians dead and 17 police officers injured in the southwestern city of Kikwit. Fayulu believes he won 61 percent of the vote, citing election observers from the Catholic Church, which also cast doubt on the result. Fayulu claims Tshisekedi only won because he made a backdoor power-sharing deal with Kabila's chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

    Deal or no deal? Yemen ceasefire falling apart

    The shaky ceasefire deal in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah racked up another obstacle on Thursday when a Houthi drone attacked a military parade at a base that belongs to the Yemeni army and its allies in the Saudi-led coalition. Six soldiers were reportedly killed, and the government of internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi said the attack shows the rebels are “not ready for peace”. Efforts to implement the Hodeidah agreement – reached at talks last month in Stockholm – have been hampered by differing interpretations of the text, which Oxfam this week called too vague, not to mention what a UN spokesperson described as a “lack of trust between the parties”. Watch this space for more on the ongoing diplomatic efforts not just to sort out Hodeidah – a key entry point for aid and commercial goods – but to finally end Yemen’s war.

    Exploring peace amid fresh violence in Thailand’s deep south

    The long-running Malay Muslim separatist insurgency in Thailand’s troubled south is back in the spotlight early in the new year. January has seen renewed attempts at peace talks – as well as fresh bouts of violence. Thai peace negotiators and Malaysian intermediaries want leaders of the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional to join peace talks, though it’s unclear if insurgents affiliated with the group are prepared to do so. These peace overtures come amid continuing violence in the south, including a school car bomb (blamed on the BRN), which injured a 12-year-old student, and the killing of four defence volunteers at a school. Rights groups say such attacks on civilian targets are war crimes, but they also accuse Thai security forces of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture. More than 6,000 people have been killed in violence in Thailand’s southern provinces since 2004, including more than 200 people last year, according to monitoring group Deep South Watch.

    One to listen to

    Keeping local staff safe

    Local staff continue to bear the brunt of violence targeting humanitarian groups. A guard working for an NGO in the Central African Republic was killed on 5 January, while a Syrian staff member of an international NGO was abducted and killed in Idlib. The most recent episode of the Humanitarian Incidents podcast tackles the issue of safety for local staff (including humanitarians working for subcontracted local partners). Nour Qoussaibany, security lead for the International Rescue Committee in Lebanon, speaks about local perceptions that international NGOs pay more attention to the safety of international staff, and explores what can be done to prioritise security for local aid workers. Hint to donors: boosting funding to build local security capacity would be a good start. Listen to the interview here.

    In case you missed it:

    BURUNDI: Disability NGO Handicap International (aka Humanity and Inclusion) is leaving Burundi, citing regulatory demands. In a re-registration process, the government now requires NGOs to apply a quota for the ethnicity of their Burundian staff, a measure the NGO called discriminatory and unconstitutional. [Your tips and views are welcome.]

    NEW VIRUS: A fruit bat has been found to host a previously unknown filovirus (the family that includes Ebola). In the laboratory, it can infect human cells, but the risk of transmission is unknown. According to Nature, researchers have called it Měnglà, after the area where the bat was captured in China.

    THE PHILIPPINES: At least 140 people have been killed in the Philippines since late December, when heavy rains from Tropical Depression Usman unleashed landslides and flooding in parts of southern Luzon and eastern Visayas. Philippine authorities say more than 56,000 people sought refuge in evacuation centres.

    SUDAN: Violence against protesters and medics must end, Human Rights Watch said, after a “particularly bloody” Wednesday in the Sudanese city of Omdurman. At least three people died after government forces opened fire and used tear gas against demonstrators demanding the downfall of President Omar al-Bashir. Officials say 22 people have died since protests started last month; HRW put the toll at around 40.

    WORLD BANK: World Bank President Jim Yong Kim is quitting for a role in private investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners. All previous Bank presidents have also been US citizens. As well as speculating on the backstory, observers are asking if the tradition of Washingon D.C. handpicking the candidate should continue.

    Weekend read

    Women, girls, and gender preparedness in aid

    It’s no secret that understanding how crises affect women and girls differently from men and boys is one of the keys to an effective humanitarian response. But Suzy Madigan, senior advisor for gender and protection for CARE International, says: “The talk is there, but to really put talk into action there needs to be concrete actions put behind it.” Get up to speed on gender issues in aid this weekend, not just with Madigan’s Q&A, which calls for more local women to be included in emergency response, but also with two stories from the ground that show why extra care and planning is needed. Discover how girls forced into conflict in South Sudan are finding it particularly tough to reintegrate into their communities in peacetime, and how the healthcare gap for returnees to Syria’s Raqqa affects vulnerable women.

    And finally...

    Brexit and the US shutdown

    It’s reaching crunch time for two massive news stories with humanitarian ramifications: Brexit, and the US government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s Mexico border wall. On the former, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to see her “only deal on the table” with the EU defeated in a vote on Tuesday. What’s next is anyone’s guess: she could resign, there could be a new general election, possibly another referendum, perhaps all of the above. As a rush of migrant vessels has made it across the Channel from France in recent weeks, we’ll be exploring whether the British government, in its response, has tried to manufacture a migration “crisis” to harden attitudes on immigration at this crucial juncture. On the latter, we’ve already reported on the real humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border, but look out for more on the possible impacts of a prolonged shutdown on humanitarian programmes.

    (TOP PHOTO: People carry the body of one of the attack victims during their burial ceremony at the Sajeri village on the outskirts of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, on 8 January 2019. CREDIT: Audu Marte/AFP)

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    Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen
  • UPDATED: Four humanitarian challenges for Congo's new leader

    The Democratic Republic of Congo has a new leader in waiting after the election commission announced on Thursday that Felix Tshisekedi, head of the country’s largest opposition party, is the provisional winner of a long-delayed, now-disputed presidential election. He will inherit a host of humanitarian crises – from Ebola to protracted conflicts – that continue to plague the vast Central African nation.

    In previous elections in 2006 and 2011, disputed results sparked violent protests. There are  fears that a repeat this time around might see a fresh eruption of political violence, which could worsen one of the world’s largest humanitarian emergencies.

    If Tshisekedi is confirmed the winner and replaces Joseph Kabila after 18 years, it will be both historic and contentious: historic in that it would represent Congo’s first ever peaceful transfer of democratic power; contentious due to accusations of fraud and voter manipulation – murmurs even of a possible power-sharing deal behind the scenes between Tshisekedi and Kabila’s preferred successor, the ruling party’s Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

    The Catholic Church, which has an influential role in Congolese politics and deployed some 40,000 observers to monitor the 30 December polls, indicated to journalists before the provisional result that opposition candidate Martin Fayulu – backed by two of Kabila’s longtime rivals – was the winner. Since the result, which must be confirmed by the Supreme Court before the 18 January inauguration, it has only said the vote tally (7 million to Tshisekedi, 6.4 million to Fayulu, 4.4 million to Shadary) doesn’t match its data. Fayulu himself has denounced the result as an “electoral coup”.

    Officially, Congo is not a country at war. But the mineral-rich country, roughly the size of Western Europe, is in the midst of dozens of protracted conflicts involving hundreds of armed groups, including in the provinces of Tanganyika, Haut-Katanga, and Mai-Ndombe.

    With some five million people currently displaced, and almost 13 million in need of assistance, the new president faces more than just political problems. Here are four of the most pressing humanitarian challenges he will have to deal with in 2019.

    UPDATED: Four humanitarian challenges for Congo's new leader
    Ebola

    Ebola is endemic in the DRC. But the country's current 10th outbreak is its worst, and it’s far from over yet. Not only is this the second largest Ebola outbreak in history – beaten only by the 2014-2016 epidemic that claimed more than 11,000 lives across West Africa – it’s the first to take place in an active conflict zone.

    It began in August 2018 around Beni and Mangina in eastern North Kivu province – just as an earlier outbreak in western Equateur province ended – and has also affected Ituri. It has now killed more than 380 people and spread to more densely populated urban areas including the trading hub of Butembo – home to about one million people.

    Read more | Q&A: Congo Ebola outbreak at critical juncture, says top WHO official

      

    While previous outbreaks were confined to rural areas, and therefore easier to isolate, this one is near a busy border region, which has raised fears the disease could spread into neighbouring countries, including Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi.

    The fact that the epicentre of the outbreak is in a restive part of the country awash with armed groups has hampered the emergency response, the UN said in a report last month. Violence has triggered displacements from and to Ebola-affected villages, most likely contributing to the spread of the disease.

    North Kivu and South Kivu

    Eastern Congo, which was the epicentre of two devastating wars, 1996-1997 and 1998-2003, is still caught up in near-constant fighting, fuelled by the presence of more than 130 armed groups, often vying for control over lucrative mining operations and other natural resources.

     

    The provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu have witnessed regular killings, rapes, mutilations and other atrocities against civilians. The number of human rights violations in North Kivu alone amounts to one third of all the abuses recorded in the DRC, the UN said in a report in December that documented “hundreds” of extrajudicial killings and cases of torture and sexual violence against civilians over the last two years.

     

    Read more | In-depth – A decades-long cycle of war

      

    Widespread violence, largely attributed to armed groups, provoked mass displacements of people, the UN said, while allegations of complicity between some army members and armed groups in the worst-affected territories of Lubero and Masisi increasingly threatened the already vulnerable civilian population.

    The security situation also deteriorated in 2018 in nearby Beni Territory, which is plagued by armed groups and is the epicentre of the current Ebola outbreak.

    Meanwhile, in South Kivu, armed conflict, sexual violence, serious human rights violations and risks of forced recruitment into armed groups all contribute to displacement, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The province has also experienced inter-communal violence, including an uptick in skirmishes ahead of December’s elections, and it hosts more than 40,000 refugees from neighbouring Burundi.

    Kasai

    In 2016, conflict erupted in Kasai between the Kamuina Nsapu anti-government movement and Congolese security forces and soon engulfed the entire region. An estimated 5,000 people were killed and more than 1.4 million displaced.

    Although the authorities have since regained control of much of the region, ethnic tensions and political disputes continue. And for those who have come back home, the destruction caused by years of fighting means that returns are accompanied by significant humanitarian needs.

    The Kasai region already had some of the poorest and least developed provinces in the DRC, even before the 2016 conflict. After the violence began, people were unable to grow crops, driving a 750 percent rise in food insecurity and a massive increase in malnutrition rates. In May last year, UNICEF reported that 400,000 children were “at risk of death” in the Kasais because of food shortages.

    A November 2018 report by MSF documented alarmingly high levels of rape in region. The health NGO said it treated 2,600 victims of sexual violence between May 2017 and September 2018.

     

    Read more | Briefing: Problems multiply in Congo’s Kasai

      

    Compounding an already stressful humanitarian situation, more than 300,000 Congolese nationals who were expelled from neighbouring Angola in October, crossed over into Kasai, piling a new emergency on top of existing ones in an already fragile region.

    Most returnees appear to want to move away from the Kasai border areas, toward other destinations inland, which could help ease the humanitarian strain. However, expulsions from Angola are not an isolated event and more returnees could arrive in the coming year.

    Ituri

    Inter-communal tensions led to conflict and displacement across Congo last year, but perhaps most noticeably in Ituri province. In the Djugu territory in December 2017, violence between Lendu (farmers) and Hema (herders) escalated and spread. By March 2018, 300,000 people were internally displaced.

    Secondary displacement was also reported as people moved in search of food, healthcare, and shelter due to a lack of assistance, while tens of thousands of people crossed the border to Uganda to become refugees.

    Read more | Politics and oil: the unseen drivers of violence in Congo’s Ituri Province

      

    Although displaced people began returning to Ituri in March, Djugu has seen renewed conflict between armed groups and the military since September. Of the 7,985 households that returned, about one third have been displaced again.

    Displaced households do not have access to their fields, while returnees have lost two successive agricultural seasons, according to a report from the Famine Early Warning System Network, or FEWS NET.

    In December, UNHCR said it had received reports of close to 100,000 newly displaced people in Iruri. It added that an estimated 88,000 houses in Ituri and North Kivu have been destroyed or damaged due to violence.

    (Initially published on 20 December, this story was updated following the provisional election result on 10 January.)

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  • “The world forgot us”: Women and healthcare in ruined Raqqa

    More than a year after Raqqa was liberated from so-called Islamic State, tens of thousands of people who returned to a devastated city are still struggling to rebuild, and basic services – especially for women and children – are notably lacking.

     

    After Kurdish forces and airstrikes from a US-led coalition ousted IS from Raqqa last October – the group still holds some territory in Syria – more than 166,000 people returned to the city and its surrounding villages, according to the UN. Raqqa once had some 300,000 residents, and as many as one million in the wider province of the same name.

    A suicide attack on Monday was yet another reminder that life in the militant group’s former capital is far from back to normal. IS claimed responsibility for the attack on what it called a “recruitment” centre for US-backed Kurdish forces. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four civilians and one Kurdish fighter were killed.

     

    Returnees have found homes destroyed and clean water and electricity in short supply. The World Health Organisation says one of two hospitals and eight of 19 public clinics in the city still need “major reconstruction”.

     

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

     

    Without money to pay for petrol or transport, those living on the city’s outskirts find it even more difficult to access basic treatment, as Arianna Pagani and Sara Manisera found during three weeks reporting in the region in late 2018.

     

    They spent time with healthcare workers who were visiting villages dotted around the city.

    The network of mobile clinics and ambulances, financed by the EU and run by the Italian NGO Un Ponte Per (A Bridge To) and the Kurdish Red Crescent, is trying to fill the gaps, especially in healthcare services for women.

     

    Medicine on the move

    Residents of the village of al-Khalaya wait their turn at the mobile clinic, which stops by for three or four hours a week and sometimes sees as many as 100 patients in a visit.

     

    For many of the village’s estimated 6,000 people, this is their only chance to access free healthcare, as they can’t afford the 30 kilometre drive to Raqqa.

     

    In addition to visiting the villages outside Raqqa, mobile clinics also stop in rural areas of Hassakeh and Deir Ezzor provinces.

     

    ‘A bad situation’ for women

    Sherin Moustafa Ahmad, 38, fled Raqqa with her family after IS took control of the city in January 2014, declaring it the capital of its caliphate.

     

    She returned in 2017 after the liberation to find her home destroyed by shelling, and went back to work as a midwife in a mobile clinic.

     

    Ahmad says the shortage of clean running water and poor sanitation facilities means women and girls end up with a variety of gynaecological problems, like urinary tract infections or cystitis.

     

    “We try to reduce the suffering of all those affected by the war, [either] by IS or the coalition bombing,” she says. “It’s a bad situation. [Women] don’t have the money to go to private clinics so we provide them free gynaecological exams, ultrasounds, and [other] consultations.”

     

    ‘They give us medication’

    Medication is free at the mobile clinics. This woman, who asked not to be named or pictured, is picking up a prescription for her daughter. She stayed in the region even when IS took control, moving from house to house, and says that life is tougher in al-Khalaya now than it was before the war.

     

    “Before it wasn’t good, but a little bit better… IS entered our houses, they destroyed everything: doors, windows,” she says. “We don’t have money, we don’t have jobs, we can’t even buy basic food. My son [might as well] eat dust…. At least [at the mobile clinic] they give us medication, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

     

    Dirty water and disease

    At Raqqa’s al-Rasheed clinic, one of the few places that provides free healthcare in Raqqa city, staff say they see up to 300 patients each day, most of them children. Common ailments include pneumonia, diarrhoea, typhus, flu, and respiratory infections.

     

    “The main causes of these diseases are dirty water and air pollution,” says Munir Hussein of the Kurdish Red Crescent.

     

    Ailments from dust and debris

    The fighting to take back Raqqa from IS, led by Kurdish forces on the ground backed by air support from a US-led coalition, left the city largely in ruins. Demining efforts are ongoing, as are efforts to clean up the city’s streets.

     

    “We’ve seen a reduction in blast-related casualties in the last few months, but people have a lot of other health problems due to exposure from the dust and debris that are everywhere in the city,” says the Kurdish Red Crescent’s Hussein.

     

    Malnourishment and depression

    Maha Hussein, 28, a paediatric nurse at al-Rasheed, says she regularly treats children and mothers who are undernourished.

    “This is a common problem, both for children and mothers, because they don’t eat enough food so there’s not enough breast milk. Most of the babies eat only starchy food, such as rice and potatoes. It’s not sufficient for a growing child. As a result you have many nine-month-old babies weighing only four kilos,” says Hussein.

     

    Anxiety and depression are also a major concern for the mothers Hussein sees: "It is as if they were still living in a state of war,” she says.

     

    ‘We are abandoned’

    Sheltering from the rain in an abandoned building in al-Khayala, Kheffe Mahmoud says the mobile clinic is one of the only visible presences of aid from the outside world: “They are the only ones helping us in this area. We are abandoned. The world forgot us.”

     

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    “The world forgot us”: Women and healthcare in ruined Raqqa
  • Editors’ picks: Why you need to read these 2018 stories

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Evidence unearthed

    burnt-out_vehicle_on_the_road_from_brazzavile_to_kinkala.jpg

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

    Congo-Brazzaville’s hidden war

     

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

    Why it matters in 2019:

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

     


     

    Counter-terror compliance gets harder

    usaid.png

    USAID

    Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief at risk

     

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

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

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

     

     


     

    Afghan drought solutions

    afghanistan-droughtsolutions-1.jpg

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

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

     

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

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

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

     

     


     

    Iraq’s future

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    Annie Slemrod/IRIN

    Searching for Othman

     

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

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

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

     

     


     

    Migrant journeys

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

    By sand or by sea

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

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

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

     

     


     

    Hunger and healthcare

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    Susan Schulman/IRIN

    Venezuela: A humanitarian crisis denied

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

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

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

     

     


     

    Sahel climate crisis

    How climate change is plunging Senegal’s herders into poverty

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

    Why it matters in 2019:

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

     

     


     

    Peace in Myanmar

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

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

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

     

    Why it matters in 2019:

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

     

    Editors’ picks: Why you need to read these 2018 stories
  • Are you a humanitarian newshound? Take this quiz to find out

     

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

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

     

     

     

    Are you a humanitarian newshound? Take this quiz to find out
  • 2018 in Review: Women and girls

    This series

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

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

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

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

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

    Below are highlights from our reporting.

    Aid’s MeToo Moment

    #MeToo, #AidToo, Exploitation and Abuse

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

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

    UN victims

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

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

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

     

    Rape as a weapon

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

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

    landscape

    Climate and gender

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

     

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

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

    Displacement’s toll

    Rebuilding lives while awaiting peace in South Sudan

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

    a woman at a sewing machine

     

    Community support

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

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

    A woman walks into a hair salon at night

     

    Routine and risk

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

     

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

    A group of people around a water spot
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Women and girls
    In this week-long series, IRIN’s editors highlight five themes from across our reporting that will continue to inform our coverage of the humanitarian sector in the new year: local aid; women and girls; returns and rebuilding; policy and practice; and migration. Are there untold stories we should be covering in 2019 on these or other themes? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here. Happy reading.

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