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The trouble with plans to send 116,000 Burundian refugees home

IRIN Gender - Tue, 03/05/2019 - 05:19

Under pressure to go home, Burundian refugees in Tanzania face two bad options: return to face social and economic hardship and possible rights violations; or remain in chronically under-resourced camps that restrict their opportunities.


With both governments confirming plans to return 116,000 Burundians by the end of 2019, it’s crunch time for the international community if it wants to ensure returns are truly voluntary and offer returnees the level of support they will need to reintegrate properly back in Burundi.


More than 400,000 people fled Burundi, most into neighbouring Tanzania, following violent unrest and repression that accompanied 2015 elections, which saw former rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza returned to power for a controversial third presidential term.


Limited repatriations began in 2017, but funding shortages mean the process has so far been little more than an offer of free transport back across the border, with a return package of food, non-food items, and cash that doesn’t even last the three months it’s expected to cover.


Given that many who fled were already amongst the most vulnerable, the daily struggle to feed their families had only increased since they returned.

Despite this, some 62,000 Burundians have already chosen to go back home. But returnees interviewed by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) said their decisions were driven by dire camp conditions coupled with the risk of abuse if they ventured outside.


Back in Burundi, the lack of support to reintegrate refugees threatens to hinder their chances of getting food on the table and starting their lives afresh. If past failures are any indication, a botched repatriation on this scale could fuel new conflict and further waves of displacement.


With elections due to take place next year, some of those interviewed by IRRI were fearful that political tensions will start building again and that renewed violence will erupt.


Burundi appears to be calm for now, but this shouldn’t hide the fact that the government has restricted political space and refuses to engage in a regional dialogue with opposition parties. Ensuring a properly supported return process has never been more important.


Problems back home

A new report, based on 75 interviews IRRI conducted with Burundian returnees, their neighbours and local authorities in August and November last year, finds that many are stuck in a highly precarious situation.


Several people told us they found the repatriation process slow. Others felt there was insufficient information to guide them through it, despite several systems put in place by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Tanzania to inform refugees about the procedure.

After the rations and money in the return package ran out, people told us support was limited. Given that many who fled were already amongst the most vulnerable, the daily struggle to feed their families had only increased since they returned.  


Some were relying on the help of their neighbours or local authorities. But there were occasional tensions too as some who didn’t go into exile resented the fact that returnees received support – however insufficient.


Returnees said they had been accused of being opposition supporters and some reported being threatened – even physical abused – by the ruling party’s notorious Imbonerakure youth wing militia.


Another core issue was access to land. Previously unresolved land disputes from prior repatriations continued to cast a shadow over the return process.


Many of those interviewed were landless and dependent on the meagre return package to secure a place to live. Ensuring equitable access to land is critical, not only to give people access to livelihoods, but also to a wider sense of belonging.


More and longer support needed


Effective reintegration of refugees and internally displaced people is a big challenge for countries recovering from conflict.


In Burundi, the 2015 exodus reversed a repatriation process between 2002 and 2010 in which approximately half a million refugees returned following a number of peace agreements, including the Arusha Accord, which ended the country’s civil war.

But while the returns made it look like Burundi had found peace, stability only went skin deep. The much harder and time-consuming work of genuine reintegration of returnees didn’t fit well with the short attention spans, or at least budgets, of the government and UN agencies.


Something similar seems to be taking place now. While most refugees don’t want to return to Burundi because they know they’ll be returning to a volatile political situation and economic hardship, many feel they have no better choice.


While the returns made it look like Burundi had found peace, stability only went skin deep.

As the IRRI report demonstrates more fully, the situation faced by Burundian refugees in Tanzania is dire – many are abused when leaving the camps to look for firewood or menial jobs to supplement the insufficient humanitarian assistance.


Burundi and Tanzania both want the refugees to return. Tanzania is tired of hosting them, fed up with aid that is sporadic and unreliable, while Burundi’s government wants to portray an image of a peaceful country. UNHCR and international donors, however, have been more reluctant to support returns, leading to friction.


The repatriation process, already painfully slow, was completely halted in November when Burundi suspended international NGOs that refused to adopt ethnic quotas. Some NGOs have been able to reopen since, but others have left the country. Those refugees who were eventually assisted by UNHCR had to lower their expectations.


Repatriation is a complex, long-term process that must be adequately supported.


It must take into consideration the humanitarian and development needs of both returnees and the communities to which they are returning, and it needs to grapple with the underlying tensions that created the context for displacement in the first place.  


But there seems to be lack of recognition – or, at least, of action – by the Burundian government and international actors in this regard.


In a context in which displacement has had terrible consequences for the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people, recognising repatriation as a long-term endeavour is key to breaking the cycles of conflict and displacement that have plagued Burundi’s recent history.


Globally, repatriation is being pushed as the most desirable and “durable solution” to end displacement. It is therefore vital that the international community ensures that Burundians return voluntarily and are sufficiently supported and funded to reintegrate effectively.


(TOP PHOTO: A camp in Tanzania for Burundian refugees. CREDIT: Anouk Delafortrie/ECHO)

29919473581_e804107120_o_1920.jpg Opinion Migration Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics The trouble with plans to send 116,000 Burundian refugees home Lucy Hovil and Thijs Van Laer IRIN Africa East Africa Burundi Tanzania
Categories: Gender Parity

Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter: The Cheat Sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 03/01/2019 - 10:47

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

On our radar


New term, old problems for Nigeria’s Buhari


Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, who won a second presidential term this week, faces a variety of security challenges: a decade-long and resurgent Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast; endemic insecurity in the oil-producing Niger Delta south, and – less reported but often the most deadly – spiralling violence between pastoralist Fulani herders and local farmers in the northwest. Despite Buhari's 2015 claim that Boko Haram was "technically defeated", jihadists continue gaining ground across Lake Chad and West Africa, where the humanitarian fallout is, if anything, worsening. For a comprehensive look at the causes and the consequences of militancy in the Sahel region, check out this curation of our long-term reporting. And for a personal and graphic account of covering Boko Haram over the course of several years, this reporter’s diary from Chika Oduah is a must-read.


Headaches in the ‘cash revolution’?


Humanitarian cash aid programmes in Kenya’s drought-prone northeast are plagued with problems, according to this recent article by Kenyan journalist Anthony Langat published by Devex. Beneficiaries describe them as confusing, unreliable, and wide open to corruption. Families report not receiving what they think they’re due and/or not knowing what they ought to get, and they say there’s no effective system to address complaints. Local leaders are accused of manipulating lists of entitled families, and money transfer agents allegedly skim off unauthorised transfer fees. The Kenyan government and the UN’s World Food Programme – who run different cash initiatives in the area – say some problems are simply clerical, such as wrongly registered mobile phone numbers or ID cards. Earlier research from NGO Ground Truth Solutions showed that 62 percent of a sample of Kenyans enrolled in cash aid projects said they were satisfied with the service. However, 88 percent “did not know “how aid agencies decide who gets cash support”.


UN peers into a dark Myanmar mirror


The UN is launching an inquiry into its actions in Myanmar, where critics accuse it of inaction and “complicity” in the face of widespread rights abuses that led to the violent exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya. The UN this week confirmed the appointment of Gert Rosenthal, a Guatemalan diplomat, to lead an internal review of UN operations in Myanmar. The news, first reported by The Guardian, follows a Human Rights Council resolution urging a probe into whether the UN did “everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises”, including the military’s Rohingya purge and abuses against minorities elsewhere in the country. Critics say the UN mission in Myanmar was “glaringly dysfunctional”, marred by infighting over how to engage with the government. A UN-mandated fact-finding mission has warned that problems continue and said that some UN entities refused to cooperate with its own investigation. In a statement, UN spokesman in Myanmar Stanislav Saling said the review will look at how the UN “works on the ground and possible lessons learned for the future”. It’s unclear whether Rosenthal’s findings will be made public.


Growing recognition for mental health


In humanitarian terms, psycho-social support is often treated as the poor cousin to aid like food and shelter, with few mental health services available in crisis settings, as we recently reported from South Sudan. But just as the economic cost and importance of mental health is increasingly being recognised in society at large, so the issue is picking up steam in humanitarian contexts too. On the sidelines of this week’s UN pledging conference for Yemen, Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag urged humanitarian donors to invest more in mental health (“second line” healthcare, which includes mental health, makes up only $72 million of the $4.2 billion appeal for Yemen). The Netherlands is funding the development of tools to help aid agencies integrate mental health services into their work and will host a conference later this year to mobilise commitments from others. Psychiatrists argue that mental health support is not just a human right; it also strengthens people’s ability to benefit from other aid, such as education or livelihood programmes.  


Bond-holders in pandemic finance scheme untouched by Ebola outbreak


On Thursday, the World Bank announced it was to provide up to $80 million of new funding to combat Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of that sum, $20 million is from its Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, or PEF, set up after the 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. PEF is a leading example of harnessing private capital and donor resources in humanitarian response. Private investors in PEF bonds can lose their investment if a major epidemic happens. Otherwise they get interest (paid by conventional donors) at a rate described last month as “chunky” by the Financial Times. The catch? PEF investors haven’t paid out a penny in Congo. That’s because the outbreak hasn’t spread to a second country, one of the conditions for a payout. IRIN asked a disaster insurance expert about PEF last year; he said it was “quite expensive”.


*/ In case you missed it:


The Democratic Republic of Congo: Médecins Sans Frontières has suspended work at two Ebola treatment centres after the facilities in Butembo and Katwa were partially destroyed in two separate attacks in the space of four days this week. The caretaker of one patient was reported to have died trying to flee. The motivation of the unidentified assailants remains unclear. The outbreak, which began seven months ago, continues, with 555 deaths and counting.


Gaza: A UN commission of inquiry said in a report released Thursday that Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in shooting unarmed civilians during mass Palestinian protests at the Gaza border last year.


Indonesia: The country has recorded its first polio case since 2006. The World Health Organisation says a strain of vaccine-derived polio was confirmed this month in a child in a remote village of Papua province, one of Indonesia’s poorest regions. The WHO says the case is not linked to a polio outbreak in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.


Iraq: Human Rights Watch says authorities in Mosul and other parts of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh are harassing, threatening, and arresting aid workers, sometimes accusing them of ties to so-called Islamic State in an effort to change lists of people eligible for humanitarian assistance.


Pakistan: Shortages of nutritional food and safe water could be leading to “alarmingly high” rates of disease and malnutrition in drought-hit Pakistan, especially for women and children, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


Somalia: Al-Shabab militants set off two deadly blasts outside a hotel in Mogadishu on Thursday, before seizing a nearby building. Soldiers battled through the night to try to dislodge them. As conflict and insecurity continue across the country, a new report revealed that 320,000 Somalis fled their homes in 2018 – a 58 percent rise on 2017. Some 2.6 million Somalis are now internally displaced.


Weekend read


UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

The difficulty with this story, to steal from Donald Rumsfeld, are the known unknowns. The World Food Programme purchased 50,000 tonnes of porridge mix for mothers and malnourished children, and a proportion of it was lacking key nutrition-enhancing ingredients. It was sent to crisis zones around the world. It likely came from one of two producers who have a duopoly over the market. The deficiencies should have been picked up by third-party inspectors before the food aid was dispatched. But let’s look at what we don’t know – not for a lack of digging by IRIN’s Ben Parker or contributor Lorenzo D’Agostino in Rome. Where exactly did the faulty food aid go? What effect did the lack of protein and fat have on breastfeeding mothers, babies, and children? Which company produced the substandard porridge mix and why? How come the inspectors failed to find fault with the product? Who was told what, and when? Is operational error, negligence, or fraud, or a combination to blame? We await the findings of the investigation with interest.


And finally...

NASA Life resumes on Vanuatu’s volcanic Ambae Island


The most explosive volcanic eruption anywhere in the world last year came courtesy of Manaro Voui on Ambae Island, part of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The volcano spewed more than 540,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air, according to NASA. Volcanologists may be fascinated by Manaro Voui’s rumblings, but for 11,000 Ambae residents, the eruptions have been life-changing. They covered parts of the island with volcanic ash, which destroyed crops and homes and polluted drinking water. Residents have repeatedly been forced to evacuate, and at one point the government declared the entire island uninhabitable. For now, the volcano continues to be a in a state of “major unrest”, but some residents are moving back, and the government is preparing to begin a new school term for some returning students.

(TOP PHOTO: Destroyed cars by the side of the road after a suicide bomber detonated their vest in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, in 2017. CREDIT: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo)


un058606.jpg News Aid and Policy Environment and Disasters Conflict Food Health Human Rights Politics and Economics Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter IRIN Nigeria DRC Somalia Kenya Indonesia Vanuatu Myanmar Pakistan Palestine Iraq
Categories: Gender Parity

Ethiopia’s neglected crisis: No easy way home for doubly displaced Gedeos

IRIN Gender - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 11:23

When the men came with their guns and their knives, Meret Sisay’s mother stopped them at the door to their home in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, while the 18-year-old slipped out the back and fled for her life.


It was the second time in less than a year that Meret – like thousands of others from the Gedeo community who have lived in Oromia’s West Guji zone for decades – had been chased from her village because of her ethnicity.


A merry-go-round of forced evictions by groups of armed young men and government-pressured returns has left tens of thousands of ethnic Gedeos trapped in dire conditions in makeshift shelters across this part of southern Ethiopia.


Now in the village of Gotiti, in the Gedeo district of the Southern region that borders Oromia, Meret is one of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 internally displaced people living in overcrowded shelters without roofs and sanitation as the rainy season approaches.


The Ethiopian government has not formally acknowledged Gotiti's inhabitants as IDPs eligible for humanitarian aid.

Aid workers say food assistance for IDPs in several areas near the border with West Guji, including Gotiti, has been blocked in order to encourage inhabitants to return to Oromia. They also say they’re worried about the spread of infectious diseases.


When IRIN visited in February, families of up to 10 individuals were living in wooden shelters well below UN standards for camp shelter space. Many children had swollen bellies – a sign of malnutrition – as well as scabies, diarrhoea, and other indications of unhygienic living conditions.


Meret was one of almost one million Ethiopians uprooted between April and June by ethnic violence in this part of the country, after Gedeos were accused by their Oromo neighbours of trying to annex land and resources.


In December, after she and her seven siblings had followed government orders and returned home, she became one of around 15,000 who fled Oromia once again for the safety of Gedeo district.


Those that arrived in Gedeo reported tales of castration, the cutting off of limbs, and gang rape by local youth and armed rebels, as well as general intimidation and extortion.

Tom Gardner/IRIN Meret Sisay, 18, was forced to flee her home in West Guji twice last year. Now in the village of Gotiti, she lives in a makeshift shelter like thousands of other Gedeos.

Meret had been back in her village for only two days before armed groups of young men began harassing her and her family. “When we arrived back we started building houses,” she told IRIN. “But [the men] took everything the government had given us... They sent us back empty-handed.”


‘At night they come in mobs’


In total, more than 1.4 million Ethiopians were forced from their homes in the first half of last year – the largest internal displacement anywhere in the world in 2018 – as ethnic and land-fuelled conflicts exploded across the country following the appointment of reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the end of authoritarianism, which for decades had kept a lid on such tensions.


The policy of the federal government is that displaced households should be safely returned to the communities from which they were evicted, though in some cases resettlement may be possible for those who do not wish to go back.


A new ‘Action Plan’ drawn up in February by the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, or NDRMC, aims to resettle or return all IDPs within 60 days. A survey will determine which ones are expected to return to their original homes and which will be resettled elsewhere.


The NDRMC’s commissioner, Mitiku Kassa, said the tight deadline was because of the approaching rains and the need for farmers to prepare their lands in time to plant crops. “Otherwise they will be dependent on food aid next year as well,” he said.


Mitiku told IRIN he expected displaced Gedeos to return to their original homes. “We don’t have any plan to resettle Gedeos,” he said.


Aid workers, as well as the IDPs themselves, expressed concern about the timeline for returns, which according to UN guidelines should be safe, voluntary, sustainable, and dignified.


Several previous attempts to send Gedeos back to Oromia – sometimes by simply putting them on trucks and buses – have backfired. For example, mass displacement occurred in June last year shortly after the return of many of those evicted two months earlier.


A survey conducted by the government and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, at the end of last year found that at least 90 percent of IDPs in Gedeo did not want to return yet.


“The government is saying we have to go back,” said Bekele Worasa, 45, a coffee farmer currently living in Gotiti. “But how can we do that when there are people dying there still?”


“During the day it seems peaceful,” said Tegeno Tiba, 86, now living in an orphanage in the Gedeo town of Chelelektu. “But at night they come in mobs, singing and dancing. You can hear gunshots, and they throw stones. They harass and intimidate us.”


*/ 1 / 3

Berhanu Seid, 36, is from West Guji, where he lived with his family of eight. Now displaced in the town of Chelelektu, Gedeo, he stays with extended family and receives food aid from World Vision International. 2 / 3

Tegeno Tiba, 86, spent his whole life in West Guji, until nine months ago when he was displaced to Chelelektu in Gedeo. He now lives in an orphanage and survives on food aid. He has not returned home since. 3 / 3

Bekele Worasa, 45, is a coffee farmer and IDP committee leader. Since December, he has lived in a shelter around the Mekane Yesus Church in Gotiti, together with his wife and 11 children.


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Aid workers worry that the deadline could be connected to the upcoming national census, which is due to start in April and may further complicate the situation in West Guji, where tensions between the ethnic groups have been exacerbated by anxieties about their respective population sizes.


The 2007 census found that 14 percent of the wider West Guji zone were Gedeo, and 79 percent Oromo.


Berhanu Fekele of World Vision International explained how Oromos in Kercha, West Guji’s most unstable district, believed Gedeos had become the most populous ethnic group. This, he said, is what prompted the claims that Gedeos planned to annex it from Oromia and sparked the conflict.


“You want to reverse-move people before a census and hope it doesn’t kick off?” one aid worker asked, concerned there would be further violence once the census begins in April. “That is what really keeps me up at night.”

In places like Kercha, returning Gedeos are now sheltering in makeshift “collection centres” around the main town like coffee marketplaces or churches because they fear it is too dangerous to return to their villages. Many say their properties have been stolen or destroyed.


Tom Gardner/IRIN Leaders of the IDP committee in Gedeo say several thousand people live in a makeshift shelter near the Mekane Yesus Church in Gotiti village.

Moreover, since August, NGOs working in West Guji have repeatedly expressed concern that returning Gedeos were being excluded from the lists of those in need of humanitarian assistance drawn up by local authorities.

Ethiopia’s government tightly controls the process of determining those in need. Under its system of ethnically organised federalism that power is in the hands of low-level officials who may, according to aid workers, show bias towards those of their own ethnicity.


Agencies operating in West Guji have reported that in some places the majority of those listed in need of assistance in recent months have not been IDPs. They have also reported that some households have been deliberately allocated food rations insufficient for their size.


These reports are what are driving concerns that local authorities are trying to rid the zone of Gedeos. It is only in the past month that humanitarian agencies have been allowed to carry out formal verification checks before carrying out aid distributions.


“We’re talking about systematic breaches of humanitarian principles – it’s tragic, actually, and it keeps on going,” the head of one international NGO working in the area told IRIN on condition of anonymity, due to concerns his group could lose access if it was openly critical.


Food aid blocked


In Gedeo, food distribution in Gotiti and certain other sites near the border with West Guji has been blocked since August in order to encourage IDPs to return to Oromia, aid workers and officials working with international organisations told IRIN, also on condition of anonymity.


It is unclear whether this policy comes from the higher levels of the federal government. However, according to aid workers, a federal official from the newly formed Ministry of Peace visited Gedeo in December and instructed agencies not to give assistance at these sites.

“This is an enormous problem for the government, but what is tragic is they are not accepting the support we are offering. They are forbidding us from operating.”

The Ministry of Peace has since said that more than a million people displaced due to conflicts around the country – over 90 percent of the total – have now returned to their villages, a claim that many aid workers said they doubted.


“This is an enormous problem for the government,” said a senior official with an international organisation working in the area. “But what is tragic is they are not accepting the support we are offering. They are forbidding us from operating.”


According to Ayyale Maaro Bokko, head of the local administration of Gedeb, where Gotiti is located, all displaced Gedeos will receive humanitarian assistance in West Guji should they return.


“We encourage them to go back and get the necessary support there. The government is fully supporting those who are in West Guji now,” he said, adding that any insecurity in the region would soon be resolved.


According to the African Union’s Kampala Convention on IDPs – which Ethiopia has signed but still not ratified – displaced persons are entitled to freedom of movement and to adequate humanitarian assistance wherever they need it.


But in the past month aid workers have reported that local authorities in West Guji have told them they cannot give assistance to IDPs who refuse to return to their original villages.


In Gedeo, Abraham Dube, the leader of a committee of IDPs in Gotiti, said he had tried returning to Oromia as many as four times since April. He now lives with four families – 30 people in total – in a single four-square-metre tent.


He said six people had died from malnutrition in his camp (known as ‘Spring Site’) and that he had not had any contact with government officials for the duration of his time there. He and all other IDPs in Gedeo – including those in other parts of the district who have been receiving humanitarian assistance – told IRIN they didn’t believe it was safe to return to Oromia.


“We have nothing here,” said Abraham. “We grew up there and our land is there. But unless the government brings peace, we will die here.”

(TOP PHOTO: Some 20,000-30,000 displaced people now live in makeshift shelters like these in the village of Gotiti. CREDIT: Tom Gardner/IRIN)


“Unless the government brings peace, we will die here” Ethiopia’s neglected crisis: No easy way home for doubly displaced Gedeos gotiti_1920.jpg Tom Gardner News feature Migration Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics GEDEO/Ethiopia IRIN Africa East Africa Ethiopia HORN OF AFRICA
Categories: Gender Parity

Why Venezuelan migrants need to be regarded as refugees

IRIN Gender - Wed, 02/27/2019 - 06:36

How we treat Venezuelans in exile will shape the future trajectory of their country and the wider region.

Some 3.4 million Venezuelans have now fled economic and political collapse. More than 1.1 million of them are in Colombia. And yet the Colombian government has recognised that displaced Venezuelans don’t have to be a burden; they can contribute economically, provided the right policies are adopted and there is adequate international support.

Colombia is allowing Venezuelans who regularise their migration status to work and access public services, even at great cost to the state. And although over half a million Venezuelans are still in an irregular situation because they require a passport from Venezuela in order to regularise their status, there are signs even this may change.

Read more: Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

The Colombian government is trying to adapt its public employment service to support integration. In that sense, it follows in the footsteps of countries like Uganda and Turkey, which, despite receiving more than a million refugees, have viewed socio-economic integration, rather than encampment, as both the appropriate policy response and an opportunity for national development.

But the international community is slow to follow.

Most UN agencies and donors remain focused on providing humanitarian assistance at the borders. This contrasts with the global zeitgeist, and the Global Compact on Refugees’ focus on development-based approaches to displacement. The World Bank is among the few organisations to make the leap, making Colombia eligible for funding on the basis of facing a mass influx situation.

Part of the reason for the absence of development-based support is that Colombia and its neighbours are middle-income countries. But a major part of it is also how Venezuelans are labelled. Describing them as ‘refugees’ would draw in a governance apparatus that today includes development actors. But the Venezuelans are being labelled as ‘migrants’ and that is shaping the governance response and the degree of engagement by UNHCR and others.

The Venezuelan crisis parallels the Zimbabwean exodus of the early 2000s. Between 2003 and 2010, some two million Zimbabweans fled across to South Africa and other neighbouring states. Like Venezuelans, most were fleeing the economic consequences of the underlying political situations, rather than political persecution per se. Basic services were no longer available; poor governance and hyperinflation had ravaged the economy. Most were not recognised as refugees; they were ‘survival migrants’, fleeing fragile and failed states but not recognised as refugees.

Legally, it is incontrovertible that most Venezuelans fit the 1984 Cartagena Declaration definition of a refugee; they are clearly fleeing ‘massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order’. But, as with Zimbabweans in the early 2000s, there are strong interests in not invoking the ‘refugee’ label. And there is the valid question of what value the ‘refugee’ label would actually add given that Colombia already has a backlog of over 2,000 people in its asylum system – registering Venezuelans for refugee status determination would be slow and cumbersome, and few Venezuelans are actively seeking international protection.

Development assistance must be unlocked

The risk of being at the margins of global refugee governance, as the Venezuelan exodus is, is that host countries are not receiving the support and guidance that befits the world’s biggest current displacement crisis.

The IOM-UNHCR joint platform helps coordinate humanitarian aid and their joint special envoy, Eduardo Stein, offers valuable advocacy. But, today, the relevant governance innovations that bring support for the socio-economic inclusion of displaced populations come through the global refugee regime. UNHCR’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), for example, would be highly relevant to Colombia and other neighbouring states, if it were applied. It offers a mechanism for engaging development actors and the private sector in supporting opportunities for Venezuelans and citizens alike. But it is simply not on the table.

Even if Venezuelans are seen as survival migrants rather than refugees, the most relevant policy responses can still be derived from historical responses to refugees. The Mexico City Plan of Action of 2004, for example, elaborated two concepts for refuge in Latin America: ‘Cities of Solidarity’ (Ciudades Solidarias) and ‘Borders of Solidarity’ (Fronteras Solidarias).

Even if we don’t call it a ‘refugee’ crisis, the best solutions are likely to be those that have worked for refugees.

For host cities and border zones, development plans are needed that offer new employment opportunities for both Venezuelans and receiving country citizens. In Colombia, initial research by UNHCR suggests that Venezuelans might fill important gaps in the fast food sector or the seasonal flower industry, for example. In the border zones, there may be different types of opportunity. In La Guajira, for example, the ecotourism industry has potential. In Norte de Santander, textiles or agriculture might offer employment.

A number of other countries have already used the mass influx of refugees as an opportunity for regional development in remote border areas. Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for instance benefited immensely from the local integration of Guatemalan refugees during the 1990s. Uganda has attracted development assistance to remote border areas in both the South-West and Nile Valley regions of the country, for example. In Colombia, relations between the central and local governments are often strained, but new resources may offer the chance to build a new relationship between central government and the border areas.

Arguably the most successful precedent of channelling development assistance to support refugees comes from the region. The International Conference on Refugees in Central America (CIREFCA) of 1989 outlined a range of development programmes to support refugees’ economic integration. It attracted around half a billion dollars of investment, mainly from European donors and the United States.

Crucially, the conference was not a one-off pledging conference but a multi-year process that built trust and credibility, and included concrete follow-up mechanisms. It involved leadership by an inter-agency secretariat. Of particular relevance, CIREFCA focused not just on ‘refugees’, but also ‘externally displaced persons’ and ‘internally displaced persons’.

Might a similar ‘International Conference on Venezuelan Migrants’, for example, serve as a catalyst for a development-based approach? Such ‘solidarity conferences’ are a key part of the Global Compact on Refugees, and the Venezuelan context might offer opportunity for one of the first such events. It could serve the host countries of the entire region, including Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile under the ethos of ‘Venezuelan migration as an opportunity for development’.

Regardless of whether there is consensus for such a process, international engagement for both humanitarian and development is urgently needed. And irrespective of how we label the crisis and the affected population, Latin America’s own history offers a litany of relevant practices.

Even if we don’t call it a ‘refugee’ crisis, the best solutions are likely to be those that have worked for refugees. What is at stake is not only the needs of millions of Venezuelans but also the future stability and prosperity of the region.

(TOP PHOTO: Venezuelan migrants climb on a truck on the road from Cúcuta to Pamplona, Colombia, on 10 February 2019. CREDIT: Raul Arboleda/AFP)

afpdontreuse_000_1da5os_1280.jpg Opinion Migration Human Rights Politics and Economics Why Venezuelan migrants need to be regarded as refugees Alexander Betts IRIN OXFORD UK Americas Venezuela Colombia
Categories: Gender Parity

South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 07:23

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

On our radar Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

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

Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

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

Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

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

Counting the cost of internal displacement

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

Examining aid partnerships

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

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

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

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

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


In case you missed it

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

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

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

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

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

  Weekend read International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

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

And finally

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

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


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Categories: Gender Parity

Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal: The Cheat Sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 02/08/2019 - 10:46

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

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

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

Measles kills more than 300 in Madagascar

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

Atrocities feared amid rising militancy in Burkina Faso

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

Aid stuck on Venezuela border

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

Mixed picture in South Sudan as refugees return

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

One to listen to:

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

*/ In case you missed it

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


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


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


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

  Weekend read New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns

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


And finally... Hot in here

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


Yemen airstrikes NRC 2 News Aid and Policy Migration Environment and Disasters Climate change Conflict Health Human Rights Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal IRIN Geneva Burkina Faso Madagascar Ethiopia South Sudan Venezuela United Nations HQ Global Tonga Syria Yemen
Categories: Gender Parity

“No indication” Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem will close

IRIN Gender - Wed, 01/30/2019 - 09:57

The UN’s agency for Palestine refugees has had “no indication” its schools in East Jerusalem will be closed, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said Tuesday.


The Jerusalem municipality has since October said it would seek to close or challenge UNRWA’s presence in East Jerusalem. But, attending a public event moderated by IRIN in Geneva, Krähenbühl said the Israeli government hadn’t notified the UN of any such plans.


“Our framework and the cooperation between UNRWA and Israel is regulated by an agreement that goes back to the ‘60s, and there has been no indication by the [Israeli] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of any change,” he said. “The position is clear.”


According to information published on UNRWA’s website, some 3,100 Palestinian students attend seven UNRWA schools in East Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians. The UN considers the territory to be occupied by Israel.


“At this stage it is clear all schools of UNRWA, all health centres, and other installations in East Jerusalem are open and operating,” Krähenbühl said. “We will of course follow how that develops.”


The UNRWA chief was in Geneva to appeal for $1.2 billion, the amount the agency says it needs to raise in 2019 to keep services for some 5.4 million registered Palestine refugees consistent with last year.


In 2018, the United States – until then UNRWA’s largest donor – cut $300 million in funding for the agency, which supports Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza with healthcare, schooling, food, and other aid.


Krähenbühl said 40 countries increased their donations to fill the gap left by the United States, but 2019 “will remain a rough year to get the same level [of funding] as last year”.


While the US cuts were a serious hit, 2018 is not the first time UNRWA – short for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – has been in dire financial straits.


Krähenbühl blamed UNRWA’s recurring financial crises on the fact that the agency, which began operations in 1950, was meant to be a short-term stop-gap until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved.


“One of the reasons why historically the funding was not stable or sustainable was that the very concept of UNRWA was not supposed to be sustainable or stable,” he said.


“The international community has a huge responsibility to shift the emphasis from what we have seen over the past 70 years – collective fascination with conflict management – and you get 70 years of UNRWA – when in fact one should be focusing on conflict resolution, which is of course much more difficult.”



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Categories: Gender Parity

WATCH LIVE: The future of the UN's agency for Palestine refugees

IRIN Gender - Tue, 01/29/2019 - 05:16

Join us at the Graduate Institute in Geneva or through a livestream via the link below on Tuesday, 29 January at 18.30 CET.

IRIN Director Heba Aly will be in discussion with Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees).

A Conversation with Pierre Krähenbühl

Watch on YouTube

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Categories: Gender Parity

The choices they made: Hondurans at the US-Mexico border

IRIN Gender - Mon, 01/28/2019 - 10:19

As another “caravan” of Central Americans, mainly from Honduras and 12,000 strong, enters Mexico, several thousand members of the group that travelled in October are still waiting on the US-Mexico border. Photographer Tomás Ayuso spent a week speaking with some of them recently in a ramshackle tent city in Tijuana.

They told him why they left Honduras – now dealing with fresh political protests – and about their tricky decisions to either apply for asylum in the United States or in Mexico.


“Deportation [back to Honduras] would be the death of us,” said Mayra Santos*, describing how she and members of her family had to flee drug-related violence in Santa Barbara, a city in western Honduras.


Those who choose to request asylum in the United States must register and then wait their turn to see an asylum officer. It can take weeks, even months, to secure this preliminary interview – designed to establish if the person faces a credible fear of persecution or torture if returned to their homeland.


If they pass this and are allowed to enter the United States, they must wait again, this time for a hearing with an immigration judge. Due to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases, it can take years before a final decision is reached – with deportation back to their country of origin a constant threat.



☰ Read more: A system in crisis


In the past decade, migration across the southern border of the United States has undergone a dramatic change. Every year since the late 1970s US Border Patrol agents apprehended close to a million or more undocumented migrants entering the country. In 2007, that number began to fall, and last year there were just over 310,000 apprehensions – the lowest number since 1971.

At the same time, the proportion of people entering the United States from the southern border to claim asylum has increased. Ten years ago, one out of every 100 people crossing the border was seeking humanitarian protection, according to a recent report published by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a non-partisan think tank in Washington DC. Today that number is about one in three.

According to Jason Boyd, policy counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or AILA, the increase is being driven by ongoing humanitarian emergencies in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, an area of Central America known as the Northern Triangle. These countries have some of the highest homicide rates in the world and are wracked by gang violence, gender-based violence, extortion, and extra-judicial killings. “Many of the individuals and families arriving at the US southern border are literally fleeing for their lives,” said Boyd.

But the system that is supposed to provide them protection is in crisis. Beginning in 2010 the number of asylum requests lodged in the United States started to balloon, mirroring an upward trend in global displacement. Last year, 79,000 people approached the US border saying they had a credible fear of returning to their home country, compared to 9,000 at the beginning of the decade.

The increase in credible-fear claims, as well as asylum requests made by people already in the United States, has strained the system to a “crisis point”, according to the MPI report. This has led to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases in US immigration courts and people having to wait many months, if not years, to receive a hearing and a decision.


Some don’t wait for the initial meeting and try to cross illegally in the hope of claiming asylum once inside the United States. They must navigate a border lined in places with concertina wire and patrolled by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. Journeys through less well guarded stretches of desert are long and dangerous and migrants and asylum seekers often resort to hiring smugglers, known as coyotes, to help them.


For the thousands of asylum seekers still waiting at the US-Mexico border and the thousands more set to join them, a string of policy changes by the US President Donald Trump and the government’s recent five-week shutdown have all made their next steps less certain.


☰ Read more: How the US shutdown has impacted the border situation


The shutdown had already resulted in more than 40,000 cancelled immigration court hearings as of January 11, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. More than 80,000 individuals awaiting their day in court may have been impacted by the time the shutdown ended and hearings could restart on Monday, 28 January.


Every week an estimated 20,000 more cases are added to the active case backlog, which is already above 800,000, according to TRAC. Those whose hearings come up have already been waiting up to four years and could have to wait another three or four years until their next date is called. Only those detained are having their cases processed.


Slower processing means that border officials are also filtering in less applicants from Mexico – between 20 and 90 per day – putting further pressure on those trying to make sure there are enough food, clothing, and medical supplies at shelters across Tijuana.


For those who choose to try to make a life in Mexico, newly inaugurated Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has expanded a programme for humanitarian visas and political asylum, but Mexico too has a long backlog of claimants and has faced criticism for detaining people for long periods in squalid conditions.


The Mexican government has also launched a national jobs initiative, offering asylum seekers thousands of new positions across the country. These are mostly geared towards unskilled labour, but the government has said it will try to match an individual’s skills with more specialised jobs. Almost 30,000 people claimed asylum in Mexico last year – a more than ten-fold increase since 2014.

Months of living rough has taken its toll, and a few migrants are choosing to return to Honduras. They give themselves up to Mexican migration authorities, who take them into custody and deport them. As one man who took this option, Wilmer Rosa, said: “I never had anything to begin with, so in a way I didn’t lose anything by trying.”

A new chance after being left for dead

Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

Abel Martinez, 23, from Tegucigalpa.


Abel Martinez* said he fled the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, after a botched execution left him on the side of the road bleeding out but not dead. For weeks, he said, a gang had been trying to recruit him to sell drugs. He refused. Finally, a gang member, a childhood friend, demanded he join, or else. Martinez said he said “no”, and was shot five times in his head and torso.


Months later, he still has three slugs in his body. When Martinez left the hospital he and his mother moved to his aunt’s home in southern Honduras, joining some 200,000 Hondurans displaced by violence or natural disaster. When he heard news of a caravan, he caught up with the group as it crossed into Guatemala.


Martinez has decided to stay in Mexico and is trying to get his paperwork in order so he can start a job. He must be patient as the Mexican immigration authorities in Tijuana are overwhelmed by demands for visas and work permits.


Martinez is determined to use the opportunity the caravan afforded him. “It’s God’s will anyway, in this life and the next,” he said. “If he brought me back from the otherside, I only hope he has a purpose for me here.”


Fleeing a life of forced criminality

Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

Alexander Estrada, 24, from El Progreso.

Growing up in El Progreso, near the northern city of San Pedro Sula, Alexander Estrada* watched criminal groups begin to take over urban neighbourhoods in 2014. Trafficked drugs arrived in the jungles of the Honduran east by air and were then smuggled through El Progreso to Guatemala, a key hub in the northward supply lines. Local gangs began buying cocaine from the smugglers and selling it in the city. Once only a transit country for drugs, the growth of the gangs has also helped to make more Hondurans consumers of the drugs.


A local drug lord approached Estrada to demand that he sell drugs. He had been without work for three years and agreed, worried about providing for his family. “I tried working construction, security, warehouses,” he said. “But I just couldn’t find anyone that would hire me.” At the same time, the economy took a dive and taxes spiked, disproportionately affecting those in the middle and lower classes.


Estrada said he had been working since he was 15 and dropped out of school because education was a luxury and in Honduras one only gets a job through nepotism or other connections – which he did not have. Slinging drugs brought food to the table, but it also brought him tremendous shame. He was desperate to leave but feared repercussions from the drug gangs. When the caravan departed, Estrada fled, telling only his mother, who supported his decision.


Now, he said, he is grateful to Mexico and Mexicans for giving him safe passage and for giving him space for his own renewal. “It’s been hard, but I know that by getting asylum in Mexico, I have another shot at making a living the honest way,” he said, before breaking down in tears and stating what he now understood to be true. “I don't think I’ll go back to Honduras again in my lifetime.”


Leaving a country that failed them

Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

Mayra Santos, 28, and her two-year-old son, from Santa Barbara.


Mayra Santos’* said she never used to think she’d leave Honduras: she had a house and a store. But she feared that her son would grow up surrounded by men involved in drug trafficking and that he would have no choice but to join them.


Then her teenage niece, whom she adopted after her mother abandoned her, started being stalked by the local drug strongman in their western Honduran town on Santa Barbara. “It's a different country, it's a different city,” Santos said, referring to the growth in drug trafficking. “We don’t have anyone to look out for us. She [her niece] knew – we all knew – we had to leave.”


As the threat of sexual violence grew, Santos, her son, and her niece left home for shelter in Guatemala. When the caravan set off, they joined, eager to move further from Honduras and reasoning that with so many people the northward journey could be made in relative safety.


Santos is determined to enter the United States and stay there. She has plenty of evidence of the threats her family faced: text messages from the men who hounded her niece, as well as audio notes in which the family describes the violence that was bearing down on them. Her children’s future, Santos said, is no longer in Central America, as much as it pains her to accept that. The truth, she added, is that Honduras failed her family, not the other way around.


Finding love, hoping for humanitarian protection

Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

Marlan Pena, 20, from Trujillo, and Xiomara Enriquez, 29, from Santa Rosa de Copan.


The couple met on the journey north, somewhere in southern Mexico. Their stories of departure, however, are very similar to those of others in the Honduran LGBTQ community – they are frequently harassed and attacked especially in the more conservative parts of the country. A string of catcalling incidents that escalated into outright threats of sexual violence pushed Marian Pena to leave her coastal city, where she said she faced daily harassment.


She, like others, said the group trek to the US-Mexico border was a lifeboat out of Honduras: “Maybe up north I can be free, and be myself; have all the opportunities I never had back home because of who I was.”


Xiomara Enriquez did not openly admit her sexual identity to start with, unlike Pena. She feared the reactions of the people in her small town. But the desire to live without secrets grew more by the day. She had heard of LGBTQ Hondurans leaving the country to be able to live their lives as they chose, and that freedom appealed to her. “I wanted to be free to be who I was, to love who I wanted,” she explained. “In Honduras, in a way, I could never be free. There was too much homophobia,” she said.


During the group’s slow crawl through Chiapas, Pena approached Enriquez and they quickly fell in love. They’ve since been inseparable. The couple met with American lawyers working with LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana and are filing for humanitarian asylum in the United States. While waiting to have their cases heard by asylum officers at the border, they remain optimistic. “Being together during this process has made this journey that much easier,” says Pena. “Without her, I don’t know if I could’ve made it all the way here.”


Taking a chance on an illegal crossing

Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

Dinora Rivera, 35 and Isaac Montufar, 12, from Santa Barbara.


Dinora Rivera’s husband died suddenly in late 2017. Since then her life has been in freefall. Although she worked several jobs to support herself and her son, her financial situation was precarious. In mid-2018, the factories where Rivera worked closed and she was left without her main source of income, even as the price of basic goods and services rose.


Then the “caravan” passed through her town of Santa Barbara. “We had never seen anything like it,” she recalled. “People were almost dancing on their way to the border.” She had already been in talks with a local smuggler to take her to the border for several thousand dollars. Instead, she joined the group of other self-exiled Hondurans on the northward march.


In Tijuana they slept on a sidewalk, and later in a church. Unlike others seeking asylum due to death threats, Rivera’s motivation is purely economic, which gives her little chance of being admitted into the United States. “Unless you know someone, you aren’t going to find a job,” she explained. “All we ask for is a chance at dignity, and I think in America we can find it.”


Soon after this photo was taken, Rivera met men who claimed to be able to smuggle her and her son across the border. After days wrestling with the decision, she took up the offer and left with a group of other “caravanners”. She hasn’t been heard from since.


Returning home, on his terms

Tomás Ayuso/IRIN

Wilmer Rosa, 32, from San Pedro Sula.


In his zoot suits and long, draping jackets, Wilmer Rosa, the sharply dressed Honduran of Tijuana, cuts a unique silhouette against the layers of donated sweaters most other migrants wear. “Just because I am displaced doesn’t mean I shouldn’t care for my appearance,” he said. He dressed in formal attire back home, he said, and he was lucky enough to find similar items in the piles of donated clothes brought to the shelters.

In Honduras, Rosa worked at a textile plant, one of the working poor of San Pedro Sula who earn enough to buy food but little else. Two months after arriving in Mexico, he was fed up. The last straw was when he was robbed of the little money he had earned working odd jobs for a fishmonger.


The day this portrait was taken, Rosa decided it was time to hang up his dream: the stakes of crossing illegally were too high and he couldn’t stand to just wait any longer. He could go back with his head held high, he reasoned. He had his health, and he saw it as a victory that he accomplished what he set out to do: walk to the border.


Rosa planned to turn himself in for deportation. He would then wait in a jail until a flight of Honduran deportees to San Pedro Sula was filled, and he’d be home after a wild two months in Mexico.


“I am happy that I am making this decision myself and not being forced to do it on someone else’s terms,” Rosa said.


He said his goodbyes and walked through the crowd towards the police station. Other Hondurans near the post asked him to reconsider: “C’mon man stay, you’re almost there! You are going to give up at the finish line?”


But Rosa was done: he wanted to go home.

(*Name changed for security reasons)


*/ “We all knew we had to leave” The choices they made: Hondurans at the US-Mexico border border_clash_11_1920.jpg Tomás Ayuso Photo feature Migration Conflict Human Rights TIJUANA/Mexico IRIN Americas United States Mexico Honduras
Categories: Gender Parity

Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 01/18/2019 - 09:06

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.



afp_000_1c97az_1280.jpg News Aid and Policy Conflict Health Human Rights Politics and Economics Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN IRIN Geneva Africa Zimbabwe DRC Burundi Somalia Kenya United States Venezuela Asia Philippines Switzerland Global Syria Yemen
Categories: Gender Parity

Where there’s political will, there’s a way to protect civilians

IRIN Gender - Mon, 01/14/2019 - 09:32

2018 was a disastrous year for civilians caught in conflict.


In most conflict zones around the world, the majority of those killed were civilians. Those who survived suffered myriad physical, emotional, and economic hardships.


In the Middle East, three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the body charged with maintaining global peace and security – conducted or supported military campaigns that massacred civilians.


In Syria, Russia participated in the offensive on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which killed more than 1,000 civilians, some through the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.


In Yemen, the US and the UK continued to support the Saudi-led coalition, despite mounting evidence that airstrikes there have hit hospitals, markets, and school buses, and that the on-off blockade it imposed has worsened an already catastrophic humanitarian crisis in which nearly 16 million Yemenis – more than half of the population – are on the brink of starvation.

We have repeatedly seen that when political will to protect civilians is mustered, tangible progress is possible.

In Afghanistan, insurgent groups increasingly targeted civilians, and the number of civilian deaths and injuries climbed steadily over 2018, reaching at least 8,050 by the end of September, according to the latest UN figures.


In Africa, UN peacekeeping missions continued to fall short of their mandates to protect civilians. In the Central African Republic, for example, at least 70 civilians were killed in an attack on a displaced persons’ camp metres away from a UN base. In South Sudan, reports emerged of at least 125 women being raped as they made the multi-day journey to a food distribution site. In the Beni area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN has failed to contain the killings of civilians, which some estimates put at 1,000 since 2014.


Despite these discouraging examples, we at CIVIC have hope for 2019. Why? Because we have repeatedly seen that when political will to protect civilians is mustered, tangible progress is possible.


In Yemen, the October murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi spurred

a renewed push to end external actors’ involvement in the war – one factor in December talks that declared a desperately needed (if not yet implemented) ceasefire for the port of Hodeidah. In Syria, it appears that a political deal has prevented – at least for the time being – a military assault on the province of Idlib, which would undoubtedly have catastrophic consequences for civilians.


The three-day Eid holiday ceasefire in Afghanistan last June offered a glimpse of what peace could look like, as Taliban fighters, Afghan military, and civilians mingled without fighting, despite two bombings in Nangarhar province, one claimed by the so-called Islamic State.


At the international level, last May the UN General Assembly dedicated an entire week to discussing tangible ways to further the protection of civilians, and Secretary-General António Guterres called for all UN member states to adopt national policy frameworks on the issue.


Just as we supported the Afghan government in its groundbreaking 2017 adoption of a civilian protection policy, we at CIVIC will continue to help governments around the world – from Iraq to Nigeria to Ukraine – looking to do the same: identifying potential improvements to their policies and laws; providing workshops to equip military and security forces to see their mission with a protection mindset; helping them to understand their obligations under international humanitarian law, and to account for civilian lives in their day-to-day operations.


In South Sudan last January, UNMISS opened a base in Yei – an area devastated by violence in 2017 – to enable the UN mission to better protect civilians in the region. UNMISS is committed to using inter-communal dialogues across the country to prevent deadly conflicts between semi-nomadic cattle farmers and agricultural groups.


In Congo’s Ituri province, the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO responded to escalating violence against civilians in the first half of the year by rapidly launching mobile troop deployments to high-threat areas and initiating peace dialogues between communities. This move was possible thanks to collaboration between officials, community leaders, and UN mission leadership – and most actors in the region agree that the peacekeepers’ quick action halted ongoing violence and likely prevented an escalation in fighting.


These two peacekeeping wins are particularly encouraging as we approach the 20th anniversary of the first specifically mandated UN mission to protect civilians: the formation of UNAMSIL in 1999 was in part a response to global outrage following the massacre of civilians in Sierra Leone.


We’re also hopeful for 2019 because even when political will wavers, the will of civilians themselves does not. We’ve seen repeatedly how meaningfully engaging communities about their own protection yields tangible advances. In Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, for example, community elders in two districts convinced the Taliban, at least temporarily, to remove and stop planting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).


In northeastern Nigeria, when community protection committees in Bama notified the military that local militia were sexually exploiting women near an informal displaced persons’ camp, the military banned all militia members who did not have family members at the site from entering. These same committees also obtained regular military escorts for civilians leaving the site, allowing 3,500 people to farm and collect firewood without fear of being attacked.


This sort of determination is encouraging, but it cannot stand alone. Ensuring the protection of civilians in conflict requires consistent, committed, and courageous support from leaders at all levels.


With strong leadership at the international level, true commitment and political will by key states involved in conflicts, and meaningful engagement of affected communities, protection is possible.


We call on leaders to muster the political will to make the possible a reality in 2019.


Civilians trapped in conflict zones don’t have another year to spare.


(TOP PHOTO: A displaced South Sudanese woman in a Protection of Civilians site adjacent to the UNMISS base in Wau, South Sudan. CREDIT: Phil Hatcher-Moore/UNICEF)

un070613_1920.jpg Opinion Conflict Human Rights Where there’s political will, there’s a way to protect civilians Federico Borello IRIN Nigeria DRC Global Syria Yemen
Categories: Gender Parity

In South Sudan, girls forced into war face gender double standards in peace

IRIN Gender - Mon, 01/07/2019 - 05:00

Women and girls bear an additional burden in any war, as the threat of sexual violence or abuse combines with the standard risks of conflict.


The conflict in South Sudan is no different. Since it began in December 2013, both sides have been accused of using rape and sexual assault as a “weapon of war”. UN envoy Pramila Patten told the Security Council last month that the practice “escalated dramatically” in 2018.


For women and girls kidnapped by armed groups, even if they survive widespread sexual violence and forced marriage, many are left unable to fully rejoin their communities, in part because the programmes intended to ease their transition back into society are traditionally designed for boys and controlled by men.


In South Sudan, more than 950 children abducted by armed groups were released in 2018, as a peace deal, signed in September, tenuously holds. Around 28 percent of those officially released were girls. Many more have reportedly been leaving or escaping captivity unofficially.


To join a reintegration programme, former militia members often have to be included on lists that their male commanders give to those negotiating their release.


Although many women and girls have voluntarily joined armed groups in South Sudan, many others have been forcibly recruited, becoming ‘wives’ to militia members, who then won’t let them leave (it is hard to know how many, as the commanders are in control of the lists).


While some girls kidnapped by armed groups are forced to fight, or to kill civilians while looting villages, most are taken to cook and clean.


When Poni*, 17, was taken from her home in 2015 by an armed opposition group fighting the government, she says she didn’t struggle. “I was thinking... I am just a girl. I don’t have any power to resist and fight with those men,” she told IRIN.


Poni decided her best chance of survival was to obey orders: to cook, clean, fetch water, even to loot. “If you refused to do it, they would immediately kill you,” she said. “I decided to do these bad things because I saw others shot dead, because they refused to obey orders.”


In preliminary findings from a research trip in South Sudan, NGO Child Soldiers International noted in October: “Girls’ involvement in armed conflict is seen as less direct than boys.”


Girls and women who find their way back to their communities on their own aren’t always seen as “soldiers” and consequently those with power don’t put them forward for programmes that could support them.


“As a result, girls have often been excluded from demobilisation and reintegration initiatives,” Child Soldiers International said.


Assistance for women and girls


The UN says it has learned lessons around the support of girls. Since 2006, it has included gender in the guidelines it uses to plan demobilisation, demilitarisation, and reintegration (DDR) programmes in countries including South Sudan.


One key change was the removal of a requirement that fighters hand in weapons or ammunition before they enter a reintegration programme; such a requirement excluded girls involved in armed groups in non-combat roles. Before this change, women and girls involved in the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia were largely shut out of those DDR processes in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“There’s always a priority on economic reintegration... social reintegration is under-resourced and forgotten about.”

Within South Sudan’s process, which was agreed as part of the September peace deal, the UN and its partners provide psychological and financial assistance to children like Poni, most of whom are reunited with their families. This includes three month’s worth of food rations and other necessities. The DDR programme also assists with education and skills development.


Some NGOs say that still isn’t enough for the released girls. Such programmes, they argue, have historically been tailored towards boys, so female-specific needs – including access to post-rape counselling and care, or better social reintegration – aren’t being met effectively.


“There’s always a priority on economic reintegration, meaning vocational training [and school],” Lyndsay Hockin, a child protection specialist with World Vision in South Sudan, told IRIN. Meanwhile, “social reintegration is under-resourced and forgotten about.”


“Social reintegration” is shorthand for the intangible but ultimately crucial process of being accepted by families and communities again. It may not cost as much as training and counselling, but it requires more time, commitment, and relationship-building, said Hockin, who works in Yambio and the surrounding region of southwest South Sudan.


Stigma and distrust


South Sudan is a difficult place to be female in the first place: 80 percent of refugees and displaced people are women and children; around 75 percent of girls are not enrolled in primary school; more than 50 percent are married before the age of 18; and 58 percent of households are reportedly female-headed.


Since the civil war started, more than 19,000 children are estimated to have been recruited into armed groups, according to UNICEF. Aid workers told IRIN that 20-40 percent of them are girls, but it’s impossible to know exactly.


While some boys are kidnapped to become child soldiers, others join armed groups voluntarily – sometimes out of need, because they feel it is the only way they can feed themselves, said Timothy Irwin, UNICEF spokesman in South Sudan. The same is true of some girls and women in Pibor, in the east of the country, according to Child Soldiers International.


In the region around Yambio, however, experts told IRIN that girls involved with armed groups tend to be abducted, many on their way to school.


“In terms of our caseload, they were all taken against their will,” said Hockin. “They were wanting to be back with their families, and they were not wanting to be still married.”


“Life was so bad, especially for the girls,” 16-year-old Maria* told IRIN. “They would rape us and take us to the commander.”


Maria was abducted from her home by a pro-government militia in 2015. She was formally released in a ceremony arranged by the government’s National DDR Commission in February in Yambio. A total of 348 children were freed that day, 100 of them girls.


The releases were negotiated by local religious leaders, who were escorted by UN peacekeeping troops to meet armed groups in remote areas. A group of women who had self-identified as survivors of sexual violence, many also single mothers, were linked up with the released girls as mentors. Meanwhile, daycare was introduced for young mothers who were going back to school.


Children like Maria who have suffered sexual violence, who may have children themselves, can find it even harder to reintegrate due to the stigma of sex before marriage.


The marriages themselves can carry repercussions too, given that they are often to men who have committed violence against the communities the girls are returning to. In Yambio, the local Zande ethnic group already has a “culture of rumour and suspicion”, said Hockin. Captured children are often used by armed groups to scout out areas ahead of attacks, meaning some are suspected of being spies on their return.


“For the girls that are married… [people ask] was that marriage a conduit for intelligence-gathering?” Hockin explained. “It would be quite natural for the girl to be sharing information with her husband.”


Read more → South Sudan: The humanitarian toll of half a decade of war

Many returning girls were bullied by their peers in school, but keeping them apart wasn’t a good idea either, she said. “That was actually reinforcing a lot of stigma.”


‘Women live with violence’


While the releases of child soldiers across the country have been from opposition forces and pro-government militias, the UN and the US State Department have reported that all sides in the conflict – including the national army, the South Sudan People's Defense Force (SSPDF) – use child soldiers.


The government and the army usually deny abusing women and girls, but reports from the ground often contradict those denials.


“You are supposed to leave children in peace.”

The SSPDF, formerly know as the SPLA, was accused of mass rapes of women and girls as part of indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Unity State in April-May 2018. After a mass rape of at least 125 women in Bentiu in Unity State in November, the victims said armed men, many in military uniform, had attacked them. Almost two in three women and girls in South Sudan report having experienced sexual violence at least once in their lives.


“Rape has long been condoned, normalised, and used to terrorise women and girls across South Sudan,” said Nyagoah Tut Pur, a South Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch, adding that authorities should show they are serious about addressing the culture of impunity for such crimes.


“It is not normal and it is not acceptable that women live with violence and that they are sexually abused,” UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in October during a visit to South Sudan, where a joint UN-AU delegation said the participation of women was key to the successful implementation of the new peace deal.


There seems to be some willingness to make women more visible in decision-making: the September deal has stipulated a new quota for 35 percent of women in government positions, raised from 25 percent when South Sudan gained independence in 2011.

Even as many observers remain sceptical that peace will hold, with violence still continuing in parts of the country, Poni and Maria hope to move on with their lives. Both want to go to school, using skills they are currently honing on vocational training courses run by UNICEF in Yambio to earn money to pay their fees.


“I was helpless, and now I am thankful,” Maria said.


But it is hard for girls in South Sudan to move on from the trauma they have experienced.


Poni didn’t want to talk about her family, but she did want to say that children like her should be free, that they should never have to go through what she did.


“You are supposed to leave children in peace,” she said.


*Names have been changed



Additional reporting by Silvano Yokwe and Nancy Acayo

The reporting for this piece was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation

un0202131.jpg News feature Conflict Human Rights Child soldiers In South Sudan, girls forced into war face gender double standards in peace Rachel Savage Maura Ajak IRIN JUBA Africa East Africa South Sudan
Categories: Gender Parity

Congo data, South Sudan attacks, and UNAIDS in crisis: The Cheat Sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 12:12

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


On our radar


"Brutal attacks" against women and girls in South Sudan


Despite some cautious optimism around a new peace agreement, civilians are still far from safe in South Sudan. Aid groups say more than 150 women and girls were raped, beaten, and brutalised over a 10-day period at the end of November. Armed men, many in uniform, carried out the “abhorrent” attacks near the city of Bentiu, the UN said. Médecins Sans Frontières, which provided emergency medical care to survivors, expressed deep concerns. “Some are girls under 10 years old and others are women older than 65. Even pregnant women have not been spared from these brutal attacks,” said MSF midwife Ruth Okello. Since the war began in 2013, South Sudan has seen horrific levels of sexual violence. In the first half of 2018, 2,300 cases were reported; more than 20 percent of victims were children, the UN said. For more on the conflict and what it’s like to live in Juba and report on it, watch this frank Q&A interview with IRIN contributor Stefanie Glinski. And look out for our special package next week as the war marks its five-year milestone.


UN accused of manipulating data in Congo


Aid groups working in the Democratic Republic of Congo have accused the UN of "manipulating" data and bowing to government pressure ahead of elections later this month. In a statement in November, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, put the overall number of people needing assistance in Congo in 2019 at 12.8 million, a slight decrease on last year, despite the fact that according to the authoritative IPC scale 13.1 million Congolese are facing crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity next year (up from 7.7 million in 2018). The OCHA overall needs figure appears to only count the displaced as 1.37 million people newly displaced between January and August 2018. Aid groups say that overlooking three million people who had already been displaced prior to that will dramatically impact their ability to respond to needs, and may encourage forced closures of IDP camps. A letter obtained by IRIN – addressed to UN aid chief Mark Lowcock and Kim Bolduc, the UN’s most senior humanitarian official in Congo – from a forum of 45 international NGOs working in the country, blames the decision on "increased politicisation of humanitarian data", which they say sends a misleading message that the situation is improving "despite clear evidence to the contrary". OCHA has denied manipulating data. Read our report from April on how relations were already strained between aid groups and the Congolese government, after it failed to attend its own donor conference in March.

UNAIDS: "A broken organisational culture"


An independent report on harassment and management culture at the UN's specialised HIV/AIDS body, UNAIDS, is out today and it's damning. The executive director, Michel Sidibé, is found to have set up a "patriarchal culture", and the organisation to be in crisis. The four-month review followed reports that a senior UNAIDS official's sexual misconduct was not properly handled. The report plants the blame at the feet of Sidibé. He has been "tolerating harassment and abuse of authority" and "accepted no responsibility for actions and effects of decisions and practices creating the conditions that led to this review,” it said. In an email to staff, Sidibé wrote: "I have taken on board the criticisms."


Disputed Papua killings raise tensions in Indonesia


Violence this week in the Papua region put the spotlight back on a decades-long pro-independence movement along Indonesia’s eastern edge. Indonesian authorities say pro-independence fighters killed up to 31 people working on a controversial infrastructure project in Papua province this week, though an armed group that reportedly claimed responsibility said those killed were not civilians. A separate pro-independence leader called for restraint and warned of retaliatory attacks by Indonesia’s military. For decades, Indonesia has quashed Papuan nationalism, which includes both armed elements and a peaceful movement by activists who have called for a referendum on independence. Over that time, the heavily militarised region has been mired in poverty and under-development, letting treatable health problems fester. Earlier this year, a measles outbreak killed dozens of children.


One year after victory, is Iraq IS-free?


One year ago (on 9 December, to be exact) Iraq declared victory against so-called Islamic State. The country’s recovery has come in fits and starts. There were elections and a new prime minister, but he’s not yet managed to form a government. November saw the lowest number of civilian deaths and injuries in violence, terrorism, and armed conflict in six years, but a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says IS is regrouping, operating in a cell structure, and targeting the Iraqi government, especially local village heads. And while 4.1 million Iraqis who fled their homes during the IS years have returned home, 1.9 remain displaced, half of them for more than three years. The UN says it’s increasingly clear many of these people don’t want to (or can’t) go home, many still rely on aid, and it’s not clear what their future holds.


Plus ça change


MSF employs more people than any other relief organisation, and there are 570,000 people working in humanitarian aid overall. Just two new data points from an ambitious report, the State of the Humanitarian System 2018, released this week. The study finds that the global political climate is causing a "decline in performance in the areas of coverage (the ability to reach everyone in need) and coherence (the ability to conduct operations in line with international humanitarian and refugee law)". The report, from the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance, or ALNAP, also gives a lukewarm appraisal of the humanitarian system: “incremental improvement in some areas, and a lack of movement in others”. While UN agencies dominate the funding picture, six large NGOs command 23 percent of the spending in 2017, the report finds. The 331 page report came hard on the heels of the UN-led omnibus humanitarian appeal for 2019, which signalled the need for $25 billion in aid for more than 90 million people.


In case you missed it


Afghanistan: Two bodies managing October parliamentary elections are clashing over poll results in the capital, Kabul. The elections complaints commission declared fraud and invalidated all votes cast in Kabul, but the agency overseeing the vote said it would ignore the ruling.


China: More than 7,400 women and girls could be victims of forced marriage in just a few remote districts along the northern Myanmar-China border, according to a new study. Nearly 40 percent of women interviewed for the research said they’d been forced to marry.


Ebola: Eighteen new Ebola cases and five more deaths have been recorded in just two days in Congo. The health ministry expressed particular concern about the spread in Butembo, a major trading city in North Kivu province. With 471 cases, including 273 deaths, the outbreak is now the second-largest ever.


Libya: Locals say a US strike in Libya killed as many as 11 civilians at the end of November, the casualty monitor Airwars reports. The US says the strike targeted a local faction of al-Qaeda.


Mediterranean: MSF and SOS Méditerranée say they have been “forced” to stop operating their Aquarius migrant rescue vessel. The ship, which has saved countless lives in the Mediterranean since 2015, has been docked in Marseilles since Panama revoked its registration in September after sustained legal pressure, in particular from Italy.


Yemen: Two sides in the war kicked off talks in Sweden on Thursday, as a new report said that 20 million people back in Yemen are hungry, including nearly a quarter of a million who could soon be on the “brink of death”, but the threshold for famine has not been met.


Our weekend read


“Yes, the babies die”: Tales of despair and dismay from Venezuela


To get a sense of how fast and how far Venezuela has fallen, look no further than the University Hospital of Maracaibo. Once a shining beacon of the South American nation’s oil-rich economy, this modernist building that once pioneered liver transplants now peels into disrepair and lacks electricity, water, even basic medicines. Inside, the shelves lie empty, coated with flies. Outside, a large mound of blue rubbish bags grows, rotting, by the day. “Hospitals have become like extermination camps,” says surgeon and professor Dr. Dora Colomenares. Our weekend read is the latest instalment of Susan Schulman’s special report on the humanitarian impacts of Venezuela’s economic collapse. Through the graphic accounts of patients and doctors, it lays bare the collapse of a healthcare system that has lost most of its capability to treat the sick. As more and more medical personnel join the mass exodus from the country, malnutrition is weakening immune systems and long-dormant diseases are returning. “We feel very helpless because there is nothing we can do,” Colomenares says. “Yes,” she nods, “yes, the babies die.”


And finally…


The muppets are coming to the Rohingya refugee camps. The Lego Foundation this week announced a $100 million grant to the Sesame Workshop – the non-profit behind the long-running US children’s TV show. The money will be used to bring “play-based early childhood development” targeted to Rohingya and Syrian refugee children, including a curriculum featuring Sesame Street’s fuzzy muppet puppets (yes, they are muppets). In Bangladesh, this will include partnering with the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC, whose work in the camps includes running “learning centres” for children – Bangladesh’s government does not allow formal schooling for Rohingya refugees. In case you’re wondering, there is indeed a Bangladeshi version of Sesame Street, and the proponents of this initiative say it will be a part of the programming.

(TOP PHOTO: South Sudanese students at an event for the International Day for eliminating Sexual Violence in Conflict. CREDIT: UNMISS)


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Categories: Gender Parity