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IRIN TEDx Talk: Stop eating junk news

IRIN Gender - 12 hours 41 min ago

Over the last decade, we've awoken to the fact that junk food hurts us. It's time for a similar revolution in our news consumption. 

In this new TEDx Talk, IRIN Director Heba Aly takes on the role of ‘chief news nutritionist’. Fake news is one thing but Heba explains why we must stop consuming the more insidious, less obvious variety of junk news: “If classical junk news is your greasy double bacon cheeseburger, junk coverage of important news is the low fat blueberry muffin that looks healthy but is actually loaded with calories.”

A journalist covering humanitarian crises for the past 10 years, Heba highlights through personal experiences and powerful examples the dangers of simplistic narratives that can warp our views of conflicts and crises, affect realities on the ground and even impact peace negotiations.

“It has never been more important to understand our ever-complex world because we cannot prevent, respond to or resolve these crises if we do not properly understand them,” she says. 

“This isn’t just about a failure to understand the world around us. Junk news erodes our democracies because it fails to give us the information we need to be responsible, active citizens and to make informed decisions about our own lives.” 

IRIN’s mission is to put quality, independent journalism at the service of the most vulnerable people on earth. As Heba explains, “reliable journalism does exist - you just have to seek it out and consume it, and where possible support the journalists producing it.”

Food is fuel; knowledge is power. Better diets make us healthier. High quality news helps change the world for the better. Support IRIN’s journalism here.

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Categories: Gender Parity

EU fails to identify and protect gay, lesbian, and transgender asylum seekers

IRIN Gender - 17 hours 47 min ago

Daar* was scared to tell anyone he was gay, let alone the foreign officials who held his future in their hands.


So when the 28-year-old Syrian from Damascus had his first interview for European asylum on the Aegean island of Lesvos, he kept mum, even though revealing his identity would have helped him start a new life away from the island’s squalid camps.


“I was afraid,” he told IRIN. “I didn’t know how to say that [I am gay], and didn’t want to talk about that with the official interpreter who was present during the interview. He is from the Arab community and I didn’t know how he would react.”


In his second interview, Daar decided to tell the asylum office he was gay, helping him gain asylum in a European country and leave the island.


What Daar may not have known at first is that under EU law, people who have been persecuted or face persecution in their home countries due to their sexual orientation and gender identity qualify for refugee status and potentially asylum.


But a weeks-long IRIN investigation has found that EU governments are often failing to even identify gay, bisexual, and transgender asylum seekers, let alone afford them special protections that, as a vulnerable group, many desperately need.


Ignorance and fear


Joey*, a volunteer from the UK who came to Greece to help LGBTQI individuals through their immigration and asylum procedures, understands why many people share Daar’s original instinct to hold back.


The onus is on asylum seekers to raise issues of sexuality and gender in the interviews that are a required part of the asylum process, and only then can officials ask questions on the topic. In some countries, like Finland, France, or Sweden, questions around sexual orientation aren’t allowed at all as they’re considered a personal intrusion.


“Why would you, if you come from a country where you can’t really be open about who you are, why would you go to an official, policeman, or representative of the asylum service and say, ‘and by the way, I am lesbian or transgender’, or anything?” questioned Joey.


Katherine Reilly, an activist for LGBTQI rights who has advised asylum seekers on the interview process, agrees: “You have to carry on your shoulders two stigmas at the same time, and I understand why many people are not ready to deal with it,” she told IRIN.

Some people cross the hurdle of telling officials they are gay or transgender and claim asylum because of it, only to find their applications have been rejected. Last year Eliana, a trans woman from Lebanon, was rejected in Germany on the grounds that she crossed from Turkey to Greece as a man and therefore couldn’t be considered trans.

In 2014, the European Court of Justice concluded that asylum seekers couldn’t be asked to present proof of their sexual orientation “in a way that violates their privacy and dignity”.

But some asylum offices, in Hungary for example, still ask for proof that is humiliating and/or impossible to provide.

Your browser does not support the video tag.   Unsure


Only a handful of EU member states have specific guidelines for interviewing LGBTQI individuals. A UNHCR survey revealed that only one in in five asylum offices have formal or informal procedures dedicated to handling these issues.


A number of grassroots groups and NGOs in Greece and across Europe are trying to find ways to help, not just by encouraging people to come out during the asylum interview, but also by demanding that interviewers ask the right questions and address the situation appropriately.


IRIN met Abtin*, a 17-year-old from Iran who has set up a campaign group in Greece that aims to reach Iranians before they leave home to encourage them to talk about their sexuality on arrival in Europe.


That’s all well and good for those who are certain about their sexual orientation, but it doesn’t help M*, a 23-year-old from Iran, who is still questioning if he might be bisexual.


“When I was 14, I started thinking about a possible relationship but could not define am I interested in boys or girls. At some moment, I understood that I do not mind both, but maybe prefer a little bit boys. But, I never ever had anybody to talk about it [with],” he said.


M said he was a member of the special Iranian police force tasked with seeking out those not respecting the draconian rules imposed by the Islamic republic’s religious leaders. “We were looking for people at the parties, people who drink, or boys and girls who get together… different things. If we found somebody, and many of them were kids of the same age as me, we had to take them to the police station.”


M recalled how strict the rules were about sexuality: “It is considered as sickness in Iran, and if somebody finds out you are gay or lesbian, or anything that is not by their rules, you could end up in prison or even killed.”


During his interviews in Greece, M didn’t mention his sexuality and claimed asylum as a political activist. Even today, he finds it hard to accept his bisexuality and is yet to have a same-sex relationship.


In Athens, where he lives now, he is trying to find a way to come out: “I speak with a psychologist about all that and they are helping me to understand.”


M strongly believes this is another reason many refugees and asylum seekers from countries where they can’t explore their sexuality don’t talk about it during asylum interviews: They are still coming to terms with it themselves.

Where to stay?

While waiting for the application process to take its course, LBGTQI asylum seekers face a more urgent challenge: finding a safe place to sleep.

EU member states are supposed to take into consideration the vulnerability of migrants and asylum seekers applying for housing.

But the LGBTQI community isn’t explicitly mentioned in official guidelines, and rights advocates say it should be.


Several LGBTQI asylum seekers told IRIN they or their LGBTQI friends had been beaten up or forced to leave camps or collective accommodation after being verbally abused or humiliated. Most said they wouldn’t complain to the authorities or the police as this would only make matters worse.


“Even if they decide to talk about it and report to, let’s say, those responsible in the camp, what can be done?” asked Joey.


If they are under threat, LGBTQI people are often separated from other asylum seekers – put in single rooms or further away from other people – a solution that just exacerbates a sense of isolation.


In Greece, several NGOs offer apartment accommodation for LGBTQI people, but space is limited. Some in the community are still consigned to live in camps, which can be dangerous for them, especially if they are transgender.


The grassroots group Lesvos LGBTQI+ Refugee Solidarity says cramped conditions for more than 5,000 asylum seekers and the onset of winter are driving a desperate situation for the gay and transgender community in the Moria camp on Lesvos.


“LGBTQI+ refugees in Moria have been driven from their assigned containers and tents by insults and threats of homophobic and transphobic violence,” the group said in a recent statement. “Some spent the night sleeping in front of the camp offices, waiting for them to reopen so they can beg for relocation.”

Roland Schönbauer/UNHCR Government-run Moria camp for refugees and migrants, Lesvos, Greece How big is the problem?


It’s impossible to estimate how many gay, lesbian, or transgender people are among the refugee and migrant population in Europe, especially as many are still not ready to talk openly about their sexual orientation or gender identity.


The lack of numbers means even Europe doesn’t know how many people they are failing to protect. In March, the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, known as FRA, issued a worrying report detailing: the lack of “statistical data on claims based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity”; the lack of “protection measures”, especially against harassment in reception centres; and the lack of “relevant guidelines and trained staff” to support LGBTQI asylum seekers.


Only about two in five asylum offices run by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, collect data at all on asylum claims based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and that number drops to more like one in three when refugee status determination is done by member states.


There may be some good reason for the dearth of numbers, though. The FRA report notes that gathering statistics on sexual orientation or gender identity could “raise data protection issues or violate the confidentiality of information collected during asylum interviews.”




The European Asylum Support Office, or EASO, created by the European Union to strengthen the coordination of member states on asylum issues, confirmed to IRIN that there is no reliable data. It also recognised that many people do not talk about their sexuality or gender during their first interview due to the lack of knowledge of their rights, and fear of being deported or persecuted. Aware of this, EASO has developed a series of tools for people working in asylum offices for dealing with vulnerable groups, including the LGBTQI population. But there is no way to observe if these instructions are being put into practice. 


On the ground, NGOs are taking matters into their own hands. Margarita Kontomichali, from the Greek NGO Solidarity Now, is coordinating a housing and assistance programme for LGBTQI asylum seekers in Greece called Safe Refugee.


“Our main concerns regard their mental health and the development of negative coping mechanisms. A major element is the double stigma that they have to bear,” she told IRIN, referencing the added risks LGBTQI people face in all stages of the displacement cycle and the need for greater protections.


“They are often at heightened risk for discrimination and exclusion from access to basic services, and they are also subjected to different forms of abuse, often also by their fellow compatriots,” she said.


Europe appears to know there is a problem: The European Parliament in February 2016 issued a report that acknowledged that LBGTQI people suffered abuse in the EU as well as their countries of origin. It recommended fast-tracking asylum claims and called on all member states to ensure that reception centres, as well as interview procedures, were sensitive to LGBTQI people.


Almost two years later, only some of the recommendations are being followed, and in a piecemeal fashion in countries like Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden.


What LGBTQI rights advocates want are EU-wide guidelines and protections, now, across the board.


*Name has been changed

(TOP PHOTO: A safe space inside the Kyiv offices of Ukrainian LGBTI organisation, Insight. The NGO provides shelter and legal aid for gay Ukrainians and has been inundated with people internally displaced by conflict in the east. Anastasia Vlasova/UNHCR)



An IRIN investigation finds that guidelines and systems for this vulnerable group are grossly inadequate EU fails to identify and protect gay, lesbian, and transgender asylum seekers safespace.jpg Nidzara Ahmetasevic Investigations Migration Human Rights ATHENS IRIN Europe Greece European Union Global
Categories: Gender Parity

Rohingya death count, war games, and a non-coup in Zimbabwe: The Cheat Sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 11/17/2017 - 10:27

Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:


Plus ça change in Zimbabwe


It all started with tanks; except the military vehicles globally reported on the outskirts of Harare on Tuesday evening weren’t tanks at all, but infantry fighting vehicles. Anyway, things like tanks on the streets, the president under house arrest, a man in uniform on state TV insisting it’s all a temporary measure, everything will return to normal shortly. Has to be a coup, right? Not so fast. It’s increasingly apparent that Zimbabwe’s army has no intention of effecting fundamental political changes. It may have determined it’s time for President Robert Mugabe, 93, in power since 1987, to leave office, but they haven’t actually yet deposed him, and still refer to him as the head of state. And, as this article published by African Arguments postulates, what’s really been happening in recent days is a “realignment” and an “internal settling of scores” within the long-ruling ZANU-PF party. “This is no revolution giving the power to the people. The army has done its duty in giving power back to the party,” it concludes. For more on life after Mugabe, read our recent analysis (Not that we’re claiming we saw this coming).


Libya’s descent


Libya is hell for migrants, with rape, extortion, and imprisonment rife. Utter chaos in the country has allowed smugglers – allied with some of the country’s militias and competing political forces – to run rampant. Two months ago, the UN launched an action plan to get an “inclusive political process” going again and establish some sense of stability. But Ghassan Salamé, the UN’s special representative in Libya, hinted in a Thursday briefing to the Security Council that it would be a complicated and long road ahead: “Elections should not take place until we are certain that they will not add a third Parliament or fourth government.” It’s in part thanks to political instability that Libya’s economy is in a bad way. Despite a small rebound in oil outputs, inflation is rising and the country is unable to fund much in the way of food imports or defend its foreign reserves. On the ground – with many going unpaid and food prices rising steadily – some Libyans are getting desperate. Reuters reports that in Tripoli, people are selling foreign currency and jewelry to pay for medical care. Whose fault is the economic collapse? According to Libya’s Central Bank Governor Sadiq al-Kabir earlier this week: “everyone”.


Tracking deaths in Bangladesh’s swelling Rohingya camps


Health authorities in Bangladesh are investigating a measles outbreak in the crowded Rohingya camps of Cox’s Bazar, to where more than 620,000 refugees have fled since late August. In that time, there have been at least 412 cases. Aid groups have warned that disease outbreaks are likely in the makeshift camps, where authorities have struggled to keep pace with the swelling refugee numbers and even basic water and sanitation systems are severely inadequate. Ongoing tests of drinking water sources in the camps, for example, found 83 percent tested positive for faecal contamination. It’s forced health authorities and aid groups to keep a close eye for early signs of problems. Health providers have set up an early warning reporting system in Cox’s Bazar, tracking everything from severe diarrhoea and respiratory infections to a recent, worrying uptick in cases of “unexplained fever” – there were more than 36,000 reported cases as of early November. This surveillance system is also a thorough, if dispassionate, record of what’s killing people in the camps, which now have the population, but none of the infrastructure, of a bustling city. Until 4 November, the system recorded 143 deaths since the most recent influx began. For more, read some of IRIN’s recent reporting looking at the monumental task of setting up a health system from scratch, and the very real problem of severe malnourishment among new refugees – particularly children.


In Rakhine, official restrictions loosen as informal pressures tighten


While health workers struggle with the influx in Bangladesh, humanitarian groups continue to face obstacles delivering aid back in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where the UN and international NGOs have also become the target of simmering anti-Rohingya sentiment. After being barred from operations in much of the state for three months, the World Food Programme delivered food aid to 119,000 people in October. But restrictions on NGO staff are still a problem; as of this week, more than 150 national staff employed by aid organisations were blocked from working in camps or villages in central Rakhine, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. While the aid restrictions stem from official refusal of work permissions or travel authorisations, the tensions also see more informal constraints levied on Muslim people remaining in central Rakhine State – away from the northern Rakhine border areas that were the flashpoint of this year’s refugee crisis. In townships like Minbya, Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw, ethnic Rakhine community leaders continue to pressure people not to do business with Muslim communities, according to OCHA. This means that people in Muslim communities have had difficulty even working, buying or selling food in local markets, or accessing public services. For insight into how aid groups have become tangled in Rakhine’s religious and ethnic tensions, read IRIN’s recent analysis: While the international community mulls action, deep-rooted Buddhist distrust of aid groups grows in Rakhine State. It’s a crucial but thorny issue for the UN and aid groups who plan to continue operating in Rakhine; read more about the behind-the-scenes debate on this here.




Coming up soon, World Toilet Day (on Sunday) is a time to celebrate the benefits of a good lav, and salute the return of the unforgettable #FecalSludge hashtag on Twitter. But doing your business is serious business (see Bangladesh camps above). Diarrhoea from dirty water is still a major killer of children. More than 800 million people don't have a toilet to use and defecate in the open. Among the puns, promos, and campaign materials bubbling up for the bug day, this video from the International Rescue Committee really caught our eye.


Did you miss it?


Peeking through the cracks into Yemen’s war


IRIN Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod recently gained rare access inside Yemen. Her reporter’s diary is a raw, personal account on a conflict and a humanitiarian crisis that can never get enough attention. It is also a must-read. Good thing there’s more to come.


War games


On a single day in June 1859 some 40,000 Italian soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle of Solferino. Visiting Swiss businessman Henry Dunant was so appalled by the suffering of the injured that he dedicated himself to persuading the world to inject rules into the treatment of wounded combatants and medical personnel during armed conflicts. Five years later, 16 countries adopted the first Geneva Convention, a pillar of what is now known as International Humanitarian Law. In its key role as the guarantor and chief advocate of the Conventions (there are now four), the organisation Dunant went on to found, the International Committee of the Red Cross, has now launched an online quiz, “Don’t Be Numb”, which offers virtual medals to those who know that targeting civilians, medical staff and facilities, or religious shrines, or torturing anyone, or looting cultural artifacts, violate the laws of war. It’s a message the ICRC’s Virtual Reality Unit (VRU) has also been gently persuading developers of violent computer games to integrate into their products. As Rolling Stone magazine recently reported, most companies ignored the ICRC’s overtures, which led to erroneous media claims that the Geneva-based organization was calling for 600 million gamers to be prosecuted for alleged digital war crimes. But Dunant would, no doubt, be delighted to learn that his mores have been taken on board by Bohemia Interactive, the creator of the Arma series of games. Is this partnership, which has led Bohemia to donate some of its profits to the ICRC, a model for similar collaborations? “The door is open,” VRU head Christian Rouffaer told the magazine.



cheat_sheet_small.jpg News Migration Health Human Rights Politics and Economics Rohingya death count, war games, and a non-coup in Zimbabwe IRIN Africa Zimbabwe Asia Bangladesh Myanmar Middle East and North Africa Libya
Categories: Gender Parity

Where are Burundi’s missing witnesses to crimes against humanity?

IRIN Gender - Thu, 11/16/2017 - 11:22

In Burundi, it’s not just witnesses to the politically motivated string of murders, torture, and rapes who are going missing, it’s also the perpetrators, underscoring the enormous scale of the challenge now facing the International Criminal Court.

So great are the risks to the “life and wellbeing” of potential witnesses to alleged crimes against humanity committed by state agents here that ICC judges agreed for the first time to deliberate in secret before deciding the tribunal’s chief prosecutor could step up her enquiries.

Fears of a Kenya-style witness tampering campaign appear well-founded: Several people with first-hand knowledge of crimes implicating police, soldiers, and militia members have disappeared or been killed in Burundi, according to relatives and rights groups.

An ICC judges’ ruling has authorised Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to elevate her “preliminary examination” to an “investigation”, paving the way for eventual arrest warrants, criminal charges, and trials.

The judges cited Bensouda’s affirmation: “[The] Government of Burundi has not merely been uncooperative but has actively sought to target, both in Burundi and abroad, persons who it perceives could implicate it in the crimes alleged, as established by additional sources.”

And, in another unprecedented decision, the judges allowed Bensouda to wait a full 10 days before informing the Burundian government that such permission had been granted.

In so doing, they granted time for witness protection measures to be put in place and lent credence to Bensouda’s view that the “concrete possibility of an investigation [was] likely to affect the calculations of those implicated by the crimes”.

The alleged crimes in question include: murder and attempted murder, imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty, torture, rape, enforced disappearance, and persecution.

According to the prosecutor, high-ranking officials of the Burundian government, the police, the intelligence service, the military, and also the Imbonerakure (the ruling party’s youth wing), appear to be those most responsible for the most serious crimes.

“The Chamber considers that multiple sources indicate that the Government of Burundi has interfered with, intimidated, or harmed victims and witnesses,” the judges’ decision read.

30 months of hell

Such a campaign appears to have begun soon after the country was plunged into a violent crisis in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would run for a third term in office (widely deemed unconstitutional) prompted street protests, a heavy-handed response from security forces, and an attempted coup.

A list of dozens of Burundians “forcibly disappeared” over the past two-and-a-half years has been published on a dedicated website called Ndondeza, which is the Kirundi for “Help me to find him”.

Names on the list include those of activists and politicians from various parties, journalists, state intelligence agents, police and army officers, Imbonerakure members, and would-be refugees detained while trying to leave Burundi.

“People implicated in crimes are often eliminated in the same way as their victims,” explaned Pacifique Nininahazwe, who is president of the Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (the organisation behind the Ndondeza campaign) as well as a leading opponent of Nkurunziza’s third term in office.

Speaking to IRIN by phone from Europe where he is living in exile, Nininahazwe said there were already several cases of Imbonerakure members being eliminated after having been “implicated in odious crimes”, including those who attempted to assassinate Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the country’s leading human rights activist.

Missing perpetrators

Among this category of missing is Aimé Aloys Manirakiza, who has not been seen since May 2017.

“He was one of the Imbonerakure in Musaga zone,” Manirakiza’s wife, Allaine Vanessa Kaneza, said in a blog post, the authenticity of which she confirmed to IRIN by phone from Rwanda, to where she fled in October 2017. Musaga is an opposition stronghold in the capital, Bujumbura, and the scene of anti-Nkurunziza demonstrations in 2015 that led to a vicious crackdown.

“He committed crimes, torture, executions of people in the opposition. Sometimes, he told me about this himself, and [at other times] other people came to tell me,” she said. “I want to say sorry to all the families who lost loved ones because of what my husband did.”

Also missing: Christophe Ndabagoye, an intelligence agent working undercover as a member of an opposition party, the National Liberation Forces.

“He told me he worked for the intelligence services and that he knew lots of secrets,” one of his relatives told IRIN, asking not to be identified.

One day “he got a phone call from another officer whose name I don’t know. He left and to this day cannot be found. The same goes for the car he was using,” the relative added.

After Ndabagoye disappeared, relatives looked for him in prisons, morgues and forests, but to no avail.

The cousin believed the state wanted to get rid of Ndabagoye because he was “involved in plans to eliminate certain demonstrators and above all because he was close to General Adophe Nshimirimana” – a former intelligence chief and close associate of the president who was killed in a rocket attack in August 2015.

IRIN could not independently verify this account. More broadly, it's not clear if missing Imbonerakure and intelligence agents are being eliminated because they too could end up as witnesses, or if there has been a campaign of reprisal killings, or both. Either which way, it only makes the ICC's task of prosecuting harder.

Spokespersons for Burundi’s government and the police couldn’t be reached for fresh comment on the alleged disappearances.

But speaking in August to France 24, Burundi’s ambassador to France, Christine Nina Niyonsayde, dismissed any state role, saying: “Sometimes, there are people who disappear voluntarily, who leave and are not found, and later, maybe years later, they are found, either in other countries [or elsewhere] and they have changed their name.”

In January, police spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye accused Nininahazwe on state television of running a network that “disappeared” people itself but then accused the police of doing so. He claimed such “criminality was born with the insurrectional movement initiated by those opposed to Nkurunziza’s third term”.


burundi_missing.jpg News Human Rights Where are Burundi’s missing witnesses to crimes against humanity? IRIN Dozens are reported to have been “forcibly disappeared”, but the government denies there’s an issue BUJUMBURA Africa East Africa Burundi
Categories: Gender Parity

A shot across the bows from The Hague as ICC investigates Burundi

IRIN Gender - Fri, 11/10/2017 - 10:23

By authorising a full-scale investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed by state actors in Burundi, judges of the International Criminal Court want to send a clear message to perpetrators of such crimes across the world: If you think pulling out of this tribunal will let you off the hook, think again.

On 27 October, Burundi became the first party to withdraw from the Rome Statue, the ICC’s legal foundation.

But in response to an unpublicised 5 September request from the court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, the judges of Pre-Trial Chamber III ruled that the court still “has jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed while Burundi was a state party to the ICC Rome Statute”.

The judges handed down the ruling on 25 October but kept it under seal in order to protect witnesses until a redacted version was released on Thursday.

In a crucial interpretation of the statue, which sets an important precedent, they determined that the ICC’s jurisdiction “remains unaffected by a withdrawal of a State Party from the Statute”.

“It was a surprise move for everyone, including the government of Burundi,” international law expert Benjamin Dürr told IRIN.

Step forward

By elevating its engagement with Burundi from the “preliminary examination” started in March 2016 – a process that simply determines issues of jurisdiction and admissibility – to an “investigation”, the judges have now opened the door to indictments and arrest warrants being issued.

This is precisely what a UN Commission of Enquiry urged the court to do in a September report that detailed crimes allegedly committed by people at “the highest level of the state” and within the security services in Burundi since April 2015, when protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office prompted protests met with a very harsh response.

Crimes allegedly include “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and enforced disappearances”.

In their ruling, the judges referred to estimates that “at least 1,200 persons were allegedly killed, thousands illegally detained, thousands reportedly tortured and hundreds disappeared”.


However, the ruling doesn’t mean international prosecutions of these crimes are now inevitable, let alone imminent.

Burundi has the right to ask the ICC prosecutor to defer the investigation on the grounds that the crimes in question are being investigated by domestic courts. Even if this claim lacks much foundation (the ICC judges deemed Burundian authorities “inactive” in this regard), such a move would oblige the prosecutor to issue a fresh request to the judges to open an investigation. Both Burundi and the prosecutor would then be allowed to appeal the judges’ response to such a request. This process could take years.

Another caveat: The collapse of ICC cases against prominent Kenyans, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the moribund state of the case against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, illustrate how hard it is to prosecute incumbent leaders.

The judges also ruled that Burundi is still obliged to cooperate with the ICC despite its withdrawal. If it fails do so, the UN Security Council could in theory impose sanctions, as it already threatened to do in August amid worsening security.

Those in power unmoved

The response from the country’s government and Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party was vitriolic.

The country’s ambassador to the UN, Albert Shingiro, tweeted that the judges’ ruling was a “non-event” and described it as “another attempt to destabilise Burundi that will fail as its previous [attempts did]”.

Government spokesman Willy Nyamitwe was equally strident, saying on Twitter: “As usual, the @IntlCrimCourt plunges into outrageous lies to implement Westerners’ hidden agenda to destabilise #Africa.”

Justice Minister Aimée Laurentine Kanyana went as far as challenging the legality of the ruling and insisted her country – which has already prevented the UN commission of enquiry from entering Burundi and blocked the deployment of 228 police authorised by the UN Security Council – would not cooperate with any ICC investigations.

“If they [the investigators] come here by force, Burundians will defend themselves as Ntare Rugamba did,” she said. A household name in Burundi, Ntare Rugamba was a 19th century king who battled neighbouring states to double the size of the country.

François-Xavier Ndaruzaniye, a prominent supporter of the government, said demonstrations against the judges’ ruling would be held across the country on Saturday.

Opposition delighted

Meanwhile, opponents of Nkurunziza’s government, mostly living in exile, welcomed the judge’s decision.

Anicet Niyonkuru, executive secretary of CNARED, the main opposition alliance, said he was now confident that Burundi’s worst perpetrators would finally be brought to justice.

“They will [be] plucked like ripe fruit,” he said on Facebook.

Pacifique Nininahazwe, a leading civil society activist, told IRIN by phone that it was “a great day for the families of victims” and said justice would sooner or later catch up with people who have been so far protected by the government.

But on the streets of the Bujumbura, even as they welomced the judges’ decision, some worried that it might worsen the security situation.

“I’m really happy,” said Seconde Hamenyimana, speaking in the capital’s Musaga district, an opposition stronghold  where many demonstrated against Nkurunziza in 2015.

“If I could, I would march in favour of the ICC’s good initiative,” she said, adding however that worries over security had kept her awake all night.

“Everyone is afraid. The streets, shops, and restaurants in my area emptied before 7pm last night. Everyone went to hide at home.”

(Additional reporting from Bujumbura. Top photo: Residents of Bujumbura demonstrate in favour of Burundi's withdrawal from the International Criminal Court in October 2017. Contributor/IRIN)




bujumbura_demo.jpg Analysis Human Rights A shot across the bows from The Hague as ICC investigates Burundi Anthony Morland IRIN Court rules that countries can remain under its jurisdiction even after they withdraw Paris/Bujumbura Africa East Africa Burundi
Categories: Gender Parity

Refugees warn of looming civil war in Cameroon

IRIN Gender - Thu, 11/09/2017 - 12:31

As Patrick Ndong was getting ready to leave home for his poultry farm in the Cameroonian commune of Akwaya, a group of soldiers stormed into his compound and began shooting in the air.


Ndong took to his heels, but as he did so he could see soldiers dragging young boys from the village into a waiting van.


“They [the boys] were shouting for help,” Ndong told IRIN. “One woman was crying and rolling on the floor because her son had been shot.”


Like thousands of others who fled Akwaya in English-speaking southwest Cameroon, Ndong spent three days in the bush before crossing the border into the tiny Nigerian village of Utanga, in Cross River State.


“I had to eat leaves to survive,” said Ndong, a livestock breeder. “I’ll never forget the day soldiers totally destroyed my life.”


That was on 1 October, the day when thousands of Cameroonians in the two English-speaking regions took to the streets demanding secession from the rest of the majority Francophone country.


The security forces responded with violence. Just in Bamenda, the capital of Northwest Region, Amnesty International said 17 people were killed. There is now mounting concern that Cameroon’s “anglophone crisis” is spinning out of control.


Fleeing refugees


The refugee flow from Akwaya - a collection of villages sandwiched between Nigeria and Cameroon - and other locations in western Cameroon, is just one example.


At least 20,000 people are currently sheltering in a string of communities in Nigeria’s Cross River state, according to state government officials.


“The influx of people has not ceased yet,” John Inaku, the director-general of the State Emergency Managing Authority told IRIN. “They are still coming in, even up till this morning.”


The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said last week that 5,000 people had been registered or were awaiting registration, but added that it was working on a contingency plan of up to 40,000 people crossing into southeastern Nigeria.


“Our fear, however, is that 40,000 might actually be a conservative figure in a situation where the conflict might continue,” warned UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch.


Tensions are indeed increasing. On Tuesday, two Cameroonian gendarmes were killed in Bamenda in an overnight raid on a security checkpoint, reportedly by English-speaking separatists. A third officer was killed in an ambush on a patrol an hour later.


No one yet knows how many people died in Akwaya, but “the government has forced our people into carrying arms,” said 39-year-old Solomon Ode, who fled to Utanga last month. “This is going to turn into a full-blown war.”


Activists of the Southern Cameroonian United Front had warned for months that they would symbolically declare Northwest and Southwest Cameroon the so-called independent Republic of Ambazonia on 1 October.


There were large protests in support across the regions’ major towns, but it was in places like Akwaya where some of the worst violence was committed by the security forces, and which went largely unreported.


“We wanted to tell the world that we are no longer slaves of Cameroon,” said John Tita, who marched with protesters in Buea, the capital of Southwest Region, before returning to Akwaya later in the day to find his house destroyed, allegedly by the army.


One woman told IRIN her 14-year-old son was shot by soldiers inside her compound in Akwaya and was then taken away. “I don't know if he's dead or alive,” she said. “There was blood all over his body.”

Mbom Sixtus/IRIN Protesters in Bamenda burn the Cameroon flag Chronology of crisis


Anglophones make up roughly one fifth of Cameroon's population of 23 million. Originally part of British-administered Cameroon, the previously separate region voted to join the rest of the country in 1961. But they have complained of discrimination and marginalisation for decades.


Over the last few years there have been increasingly loud calls for a return to a pre-1972 federal constitution and greater self-governance for western Cameroon.


The tempo of dissent increased in November last year when lawyers in Bamenda protested against the Cameroonian government’s decision to appoint anglophone magistrates who had no training in the British common law used in the western regions. They were joined by teachers similarly opposed to the appointment of francophones in English-speaking schools.


The security forces arrested at least 100 people as the protests degenerated. A month later, police opened fire on a demonstration killing four people.


The government has labelled the demonstrators terrorists. It has tried to snuff out the unrest with mass detentions. Earlier in the year it cut the internet to western Cameroon for three months, arguing that social media was being used to fan the disturbances.

The response from the protesters has been to declare a weekly one-day business stayaway as part of a broader civil disobedience campaign, which has included school boycotts.

Government condemned

The government’s heavy-handed approach has eroded both domestic and international support – with Western governments condemning the shooting of protesters in Bamenda last month.


The United States said the government’s “use of force to restrict free expression and peaceful assembly” was unacceptable, while and the United Kingdom called for restraint, urging all parties "to reject violence, embrace dialogue".


Anglophone bishops have kicked back against “the barbarism and the irresponsible use of firearms against unarmed civilians by the forces of law and order”.


The government has denied the allegations of deliberate killings by the security forces. Communications Minister Issa Bakary Tchiroma said it was propaganda by the secessionists to “carry out their evil intentions to destabilise Cameroon”.


The United Nations and the African Union have both called for talks to end the crisis – a call supported by Ben Ayade, the governor of Cross River State.


“Any form of relocation of a people, no matter how temporary, is a failure of the world to address the issues,” he said last week.


But IRIN found little appetite for dialogue among the Akwaya refugees.


“It is Ambazonia or nothing,” said one man supporting the separatist cause who asked not to be named. “The government in Yaoundé has been killing our people like ants.”


“How many times do we have to negotiate with the government?” asked Ode, who warned of civil war. “We’ve been talking with them [the government] since 1961, but they don’t see anything good about anglophones.”


Bernard Chongo, who used to work in an orphanage in Akwaya, believes the crisis is likely to get worse.


“I pray every day for Cameroon,” he said. “[But] the way things are, only a miracle will prevent a civil war.”



TOP PHOTO: Cameroonian refugees arriving in Cross River State

unhcr_nigeria.jpg News Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Refugees warn of looming civil war in Cameroon Philip Obaji Jr. IRIN Up to 20,000 anglophones have fled into Nigeria amid fears a secessionist struggle is spiralling out of control CALABAR Africa Cameroon Nigeria
Categories: Gender Parity

US ramps up military strikes in Somalia

IRIN Gender - Mon, 11/06/2017 - 07:45

When Ali Osman Diblawe arrived in Bariire he was barefoot and winded. He had sprinted the 2.5 kilometres from his farm to the southern Somali town after hearing a barrage of gunfire tear through his small village soon after the early morning prayer.

That was on 25 August. In the days prior, he and at least two others on the farm had seen what they thought was an odd-looking black bird in the sky.

“There was something small and dark that was flying high over the town in the morning when we went to our farms and in the evening when we came home,” Diblawe told IRIN over a phone. “It was far away, but I thought that’s a drone, that looks like a drone.”

Anxious, he approached the local Somali National Army commander to voice his concerns over what he suspected was US surveillance of the village.

He explained that although the farmers had small arms – as many do in rural Somalia, where there are ongoing clan conflicts – they were not members of the jihadist group al-Shabab. He returned to his village on 24 August hoping he had been listened to.

The next morning the shooting started and Diblawe ran. When he plucked up the courage to return home he saw the bodies of 10 of his neighbours sprawled on the ground. Standing over them were the SNA soldiers who had killed them, and the handful of US Special Operators who had orchestrated the operation. Diblawe’s warning had fallen on deaf ears.

Local media first misreported the incident as a US drone strike. They later clarified that the 10 people had been killed in a joint US-Somali ground operation – confirmed in a statement issued by the US Africa Command, known as AFRICOM.

The raid came six months after President Donald Trump had loosened regulations restricting operations in Somalia, and five months after the first US soldier was killed in the country since the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.

The Bariire raid exemplifies what has been a gradual ramping-up of US military activity in Somalia over the last three years, one in which drones – both armed and for surveillance – have played a central role.

This includes the first air strike against so-called Islamic State in Somalia on 3 November.  According to an AFRICOM statement, the drone attack killed “several terrorists” near Qandala, a small port town in northeastern Puntland that IS briefly occupied late last year.

“In 2011 there were four or five maybe six [air] strikes and US ground operations, and that trend continued up until 2015,” said Jack Serle, a specialist investigator with the Bureau for Investigative Journalism’s drone warfare team.

“But in 2015 the pace of strikes really accelerated and we’re now tracking at least 20 airstrikes and ground operations this year, which is the highest we’ve ever recorded.”

Christina Goldbaum/IRIN Somali soldier with Ugandan AMISOM troops Relaxed rules of engagement

In March, the Trump administration designated parts of southern Somalia an “area of active hostilities”, a move which gives commanders in the field greater autonomy over the use of force.

Prior to the policy change, US forces in Somalia had been operating under the more restrictive Barrack Obama-era guidelines known as the Presidential Policy Guidance.

Implemented in May 2013 in an effort to reduce the number of civilian casualties in counter-terrorism operations, the guidelines require high-level deliberations among cabinet officials to confirm that targets outside of traditional war zones pose a threat to Americans, and that there is near certainty no civilians will be killed.

The undoing of these regulations came after significant lobbying from the Pentagon and General Thomas Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander.

Yet in the initial three months after the new policy was implemented, there was no change in the number of strikes: there was one strike in April, one in May, and one in June.

But then in July something changed: there were five strikes that month, four in August, and three in September, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

“This pales in comparison to other countries where the US operates drones,” said Serle, noting that in Yemen there have been 115 confirmed air strikes this year alone. But, he added, in comparison to the last three years in Somalia, “this is unprecedented.”

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Who’s a terrorist?

The marked increase in strikes and operations in recent years, combined with the Trump administration’s new operating regulations, and the incident in August, has caused concern in human rights circles.

Researchers have repeatedly warned about the challenges of foreign militaries operating in a country where clan conflicts and small arms are prolific among civilian populations, like in Bariire.

In these areas, where various clans have long feuded over land and water, farmers often carry guns to protect their farms against attacks from rival clan militias.

A prolonged drought has also caused mass displacement, forcing these armed farmers and pastoralists to move into new areas when the land can no longer support them. Without accurate intelligence, this can look like a group of al-Shabab militants on the move.

Though many claim that farmers who carry guns in al-Shabab controlled areas are in some form of alliance with the jihadists in order to keep their weapons, it’s incredibly difficult to discern whether this is true.

It’s particularly hard when translators and intelligence officers providing foreign militaries with this information are themselves often involved – even peripherally – in these clan disputes. 

“We have already started to see in certain circumstances a real risk that expanded operations are leading to increased civilian harm,” said Laetitia Bader, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“It could also be used or seen as an opportunity from a whole variety of actors to sow [dis]information and feed into increasingly tense localised conflicts,” she added.

Such it seems was the case in Bariire, where it appears the US operated on misleading intelligence that Diblawe – and many others – suspect came from a rival clan in active conflict with the people in the village.

In a press release after the operation, AFRICOM said it was aware of “civilian casualty allegations” and that it was “conducting an assessment into the situation to determine the facts on the ground.”

More accidental deaths

But Bariire isn’t the first US investigation into accidental casualties in Somalia. In September last year, a drone strike killed 22 soldiers from a regional militia the US had worked alongside near Galkayo, in Galmadug State, central Somalia.

At the time, the Galmadug security minister told reporters that he suspected security personnel in a rival clan in neigbouring Puntland had deliberately misinformed US forces – telling them Galmadug’s soldiers were actually al-Shabab.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, AFRICOM claimed US forces had carried out a “self-defence strike”, which resulted in the death of nine al-Shabab militants. But as furious residents of Galkayo burned American flags in protest, AFRICOM said it would open an investigation into the allegations.

“It’s essential that if operations that the US are unilaterally carrying out, or supporting the Somali armed forces to carry out, that when they go wrong, the US is promptly investigating civilian casualty allegations and publicly publishing the outcomes of these investigations,” said Bader.

“When there are incidents of criminal wrongdoing and when these operations are found to be illegal, it’s key that individuals are being brought to justice.”

In Bariire, Diblawe is still waiting to hear the results of the Pentagon’s latest investigation, which he hopes will bring justice over the deaths of his neighbours and friends.

“We don’t believe the Americans have any agenda to kill us, they don’t have an agenda to support one clan against another,” he said. “But there are people who systematically brand us with the name ‘al-Shabab’ in order to get support in this clan conflict.”

But before Diblawe gets answers, Somalis can expect more drone strikes. President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” and Somalia’s international partners are preparing for a much-anticipated large-scale offensive against al-Shabab in which the US, which has emerged as one of the government’s strongest allies, will most likely play a key role.


TOP PHOTO: US MQ-9 Reaper drone

Human rights groups concerned there will be a rise in civilian casualties US ramps up military strikes in Somalia predator_4.jpg Christina Goldbaum Feature Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics MOGADISHU IRIN Africa East Africa Somalia United States
Categories: Gender Parity

Who owns Kenya?

IRIN Gender - Fri, 11/03/2017 - 12:04

Two elections in two months has not settled Kenya’s political crisis. But the impasse is not really about who will sit in State House. It’s a deeper question: it’s about who owns Kenya – its citizens or a historically entrenched political elite.

Kenya went back to the polls on 26 October after the Supreme Court annulled the first attempt in August. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won easily after his main opponent, Raila Odinga, withdrew from the race alleging the inability of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to carry out a credible poll.

Some have proposed that the political crisis is nothing more than a dispute between two of Kenya’s famously power-hungry politicians, each accusing the other of trying to vault into office by fraudulent means.

Others blame the ethnicisation of Kenya’s politics and the deep tribal fault lines within Kenyan society. Still others maintain that the country’s winner-take-all political system, which does not allow those rejected by voters a cushy and safe landing.

All these diagnoses fail to identify the central conflict that connects all these issues – the struggle to bend the country’s post-colonial extractive state to the will of a new and progressive constitution.

It is a war that has been silently waged for at least 55 years.

Colonial constitution

In 1962, Kenyan representatives to the Lancaster Constitutional Conference agreed on a constitution broadly similar to the one the country finally adopted in 2010. It established a Bill of Rights. It created regional assemblies and local government in an effort to devolve power from the centre. It even had a Supreme Court.

Yet in less than a decade, it would be so mangled through amendments that in 1969 it was officially recognised as a different document.

Kenya’s current attorney-general, Githu Muigai, noted way back in 1992 that the independence constitution was incompatible with the inherited authoritarian colonial administrative structure.

“Unhappily, instead of the latter being amended to fit the former, the former was altered to fit the latter, with the result that the constitution was effectively downgraded,” Muigai wrote.

In short, under the ruling KANU party, the colonial state and its logic of extraction of resources from the many to enrich the few – initially British colonials, but now a similarly tiny African political elite – prevailed and undid the constitution.

What followed was an “eating” binge as politicians and senior officials and their families and friends grabbed whatever they could lay their hands on.

By the late 1980s, the looting and oppression sparked a reaction from citizen groups, media, and churchmen who pushed hard for a new constitution, even in the face of violent government crackdowns as well as state-led attempts to co-opt and hollow out their demands. The popular agitation came to fruition in August 2010 when the current constitution was finally promulgated.

Yet the colonial state did not just fade away. Its more egregious aspects were simply renamed and allowed to hide in plain sight.

The hated provincial administrators became county commissioners; the police, though nominally independent, still remained “a citizen containment squad”, as an official report into police reforms had labelled them.

Under Kenyatta, the state retained its authoritarian character but with a fresh, likable face.

Its violence, however, was never far below the surface, as was witnessed in the aftermath of its bungled responses to extremist attacks such as the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, when the government scapegoated entire communities to cover up its failures. And, more recently, in the brutal crackdown on people protesting the two elections in which nearly 70 people have died.

Where to now?

The Supreme Court annulment of the August poll came as a real shock to a political and economic elite who had assumed the ballot would be a coronation of their chosen candidate. It was the first real attempt to use the 2010 constitution to challenge their power and status as, effectively, owners of the state.

The response was quick and effective: legislative changes to virtually make it impossible for the court to nullify another election, threats to the judges, and a dubious re-run poll to sanitise what the court had impugned. It has also included Kenyatta’s supporters extolling the benefits of a “benevolent dictator”.

It is within the context of this historically frustrated effort to bring the colonial state to heel that we must locate the current political impasse. It must not be made out to be about the Luo versus the Kikuyu (although there is an aspect of that), or Kenyatta versus Odinga (although that matters too), or election winners versus election losers (a much less convincing argument).

The real question is whether the wenyenchi (the owners of the nation) will give up their control of the state to the wananchi (the people of the nation); whether they will allow the constitution to dismantle and remake the colonial state into one that works for all Kenyans.

While history may not offer much encouragement, the low turnout (even the highest estimates come in at under 40 percent) for the repeat election suggest there is broad agreement on the need for elections to adhere to constitutional standards of being free, fair, simple, verifiable, transparent, and credible.

The politicians are out of touch with the people. Their brinksmanship demonstrates that they are yet to learn the lessons of the 1960s and that they can’t be trusted not to repeat the same mistakes their fathers’ made.

Which leads us to the question of what should happen now. There is undoubtedly a need to resolve the immediate political crisis and generate consensus on how to address the longer-term issues. Proposed talks between Kenyatta and Odinga would be critical to this but, as noted above, can’t be left solely to them.

The involvement of civil society, the media, and the religious establishment – both as mediators and participants in their own right – would help lay a framework that isn’t solely dictated by the interests of the two protagonists.

The goal should be to establish a roadmap to a resolution of the crisis, including an agreed forum for a comprehensive national dialogue to address not just the immediate issues but, more importantly, to deal with the unfinished business of reforming the colonial state and addressing its legacy of abuse, marginalisation, and impoverishment.

Kenya faces much more than an electoral crisis. For over half a century, contestation over who controls the state has been allowed to take precedence over the need to reform that state so it works for not just a few, but for all its citizens. That must now change.


TOP PHOTO: Rivals - Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta: CREDIT: The Star newspaper

raila_uhuru_2.jpg Opinion Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Who owns Kenya? Patrick Gathara IRIN The election crisis is really a struggle over elite power NAIROBI Africa Kenya
Categories: Gender Parity

‘I have to help my family’

IRIN Gender - Wed, 11/01/2017 - 21:58

The boy took a deep breath before lifting up two bags full of red bricks, balancing the load on his shoulders. The sun burned his bare feet as he walked through the refugee camp, his back hunched under the weight.

A 10-year-old Rohingya, Mohammed has been working non-stop for the past two weeks, helping his struggling family earn a living in the world’s fastest growing refugee camp. 

Leaving their former lives in Myanmar’s Rakhine State to set up homes in the teeming camps of southern Bangladesh cost the family hundreds of dollars – money that must now be recouped, one brick at a time.

“We had to pay for the boat ride to Bangladesh and the material to build a house here,” Mohammed told IRIN as he set about earning his day’s wages – about $0.04 a brick. “I’m helping my parents earn money.”

There is a severe shortage of safe spaces for kids in the camps, more than two months after a new wave of violence in Rakhine began pushing more than 600,000 Rohingya across the border. With desperate Rohingya families like Mohammed’s arriving with nothing, advocates say children are at high risk of exploitation and abuse.

“It’s a child protection disaster waiting to happen,” said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who heads Save the Children.

Stefanie Glinski/IRIN Mohammed, 10, is a brick collector. He earns three Taka, or about $0.04, for each brick he carries. Safe spaces 

While official data and numbers of Rohingya child labourers have yet to be collected, experts worry the situation could get out of hand. More than half the new arrivals are children.

Yousuf Ali, who works with local non-profit YPSA, said it’s clear many children have already started working. Most are employed by Bangladeshi businesses and earn the equivalent of between $1.20 and $1.80 a day.

“Most families are open to having their children employed, as they have no other means to survive,” Ali said.

Conditions in the refugee camps are chaotic. Heavy rain continues to turn the area into deep mud fields and families are scrambling to establish a living. An army of aid groups and volunteers has rushed in to help, but the sheer numbers are immense.  

Families say it costs $120 to buy bamboo and plastic sheeting from local vendors – a significant portion of their savings. Aid groups estimate more than 400,000 children, including girls and boys who arrived before the latest wave of refugees, can’t access schools or other learning places. 

With so few safe spots for children, it raises real risks of trafficking and child labour, said Torgeir Lind, an expert on psychosocial support with the Norwegian Red Cross.

“The needs in the camps are huge,” Lind said. “There are lots of children, but not enough schooling. That means that there are no daytime activities for children.”

The supply chain

Child labour is a problem in refugee emergencies around the world, as it often is in host communities

A study in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, for example, estimated 13.3 percent of children aged seven to 17 were working.

“If this is the overarching situation around the world, then we need to look at the Rohingya camps,” said Sheema Sen Gupta, UNICEF’s deputy representative in Bangladesh.

“Families arrive here with nothing. What happens once they have pitched their tents? They have a meal a day or don’t eat for days. Instead of sitting around, children go and find work.” 

Gupta said it’s repeatedly host communities that exploit children. Often times they don’t look at it as a form of exploitation, but see children as part of the available workforce. 

Kashan, a local Bangladeshi who didn’t want to share his full name, owns several ice cream businesses in the Rohingya camps. Weeks ago he quit his job as a construction worker, realising that the refugee influx provided an opportunity to make easy money. Through a fixer, he finds and hires children to sell ice cream throughout the camps. The children work for six hours and are paid about $1.80 a day, he said.

“It’s good money for them,” Kashan told IRIN. “Many of them have never been to school and even worked when they still lived in Myanmar. I’m helping them earn a living.”

Eleven-year-old Hamidul was hired by Kashan. The child walks for hours through the hot and muggy camp to sell ice cream. 

“It’s tiring, but I have to help my family,” Hamidul said. “We had to borrow a lot of money to come here and we are trying to pay it back.” 

Hamidul said he has two younger sisters who stay at home to help in the household. 

“None of us go to school,” he said. 

Stefanie Glinski/IRIN Hamidul, 11, was hired by a local fixer to sell ice cream in Rohingya refugee camps. He works between 8am and 2pm and walks many kilometres each day.

In a rapidly evolving environment, aid agencies have to be careful their own resources aren’t used for child labour through local supply chains or subcontractors.

“There is always a fear that NGOs and aid agencies use these services,” Gupta said. “We raise awareness and tell business owners that it can’t be done. We also assess where to buy supplies and where exactly they are coming from.”

Peter Meyer, team leader for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Bangladesh, said staff members visit contractors and work sites every morning.

“We sometimes see that parents have sent their sons to go to work instead and we have to send them home again,” Meyer said. “It’s a huge challenge.”

‘I don’t want them to work’

Far from the overcrowded hustle, on a steep hill in Balukhali refugee camp, Noor, 35, lives with her husband and three children. 

“We only escaped our village because it was separated by a water canal,” the exhausted mother remembered. “I saw women being raped and tortured on the other side, but we managed to escape.”

In Myanmar, Noor said, the family lived in a large wooden house with five rooms and owned several fishing businesses.  

Now her family lives in a small tent made from bamboo and black plastic sheets.

“I work all day. I carry jugs of water up the hill, do all the cooking and cleaning, and spend several shifts at the market,” she told IRIN.

But she said she’s prepared to do whatever it takes so her children can return to school one day.

“My children study at the mosque in the mornings and I hope they can go back to school soon. It doesn’t matter how much I have to do. I don’t want them to work.” 


The growing danger of child labour in Rohingya refugee camps ‘I have to help my family’ rohingya-childlabour-1.jpg Stefanie Glinski Feature Migration Conflict Human Rights COX'S BAZAR IRIN Asia Bangladesh Myanmar
Categories: Gender Parity

Election leaves western Kenya angry and bitter

IRIN Gender - Thu, 10/26/2017 - 13:28

After tyres finish burning, what is left is a matted mesh of singed black wire. In Kenya’s western city of Kisumu, they hug curbs and roundabouts, leaving dark, cricular footprints where the road melted underneath.


This is the Nyanza heartland of opposition leader Raila Odinga, where demonstrations have erupted since August against the Independent Electoral and Borders Commission’s perceived bias, and again today as Kenyans go to re-run elections – polls the opposition have boycotted.


The protracted election crisis has accustomed people in Nyanza to defiance. Here, the explosion of a tear gas canister is met with cheers. Protesters run into the white fumes. They salvage undetonated canisters and throw them back at police the next time. Even as live rounds crack into the air, in the distance a spinning slingshot always emerges.


It was in some ways no surprise then that on the eve of the 26 October election, Odinga – twice a losing presidential candidate – announced he was transforming his National Super Alliance (NASA) into a National Resistance Movement to confront the “electoral dictatorship” of the ruling Jubilee Party.


The trigger was the inability of the Supreme Court, in dramatic televised failure on Wednesday, to reach a quorum and rule on a petition to postpone the poll re-run.


The court had earlier nullified the August presidential election over procedural failures. Few neutral observers believed a divided IEBC had been able to fix its problems over the past 56 days.


Residents of Mamboleo, a neighbourhood outside Kisumu City, certainly did not. Like protestors throughout Nyanza, they set up roadblocks to prevent ballot papers from being delivered on Wednesday. All along the shoddy, pot-holed dirt road, piles of stones and bricks – even a telephone pole – were laid out.


As paramilitary GSU escorted a convoy of vehicles, screams and hoots, wild and crude, came from protesters hiding behind gates and in between corrugated metal shacks – and from police themselves. Tear gas and rocks were exchanged, insults too. Doors were kicked in and shots fired in the air.


Turnout was so low today in four counties in Nyanza that the IEBC postponed the vote.


These are alien scenes for Kenya, a middle-income regional leader. But they offer a disturbing glimpse into the possibility of the abyss beyond this disputed election.

April Zhu/IRIN Raila Odinga addresses a NASA rally Victims


Odinga has voiced an anger that has been swirling here over the perceived manipulation of the institutions of the state by President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the alleged victimisation of a region and people seen as opposing him.


You hear it at the People’s Parliament in Kisumu’s city square where the supposed words of Thomas Jefferson are approvingly repeated: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”.


The “resistance” already has its martyrs. Last week, 18-year-old Michael Okoth Okello was killed in the violent aftermath of anti-IEBC demonstrations in Kisumu – shot in the neck by police.


The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights released a report highlighting cases of violence in the wake of the annulled 8 August election. The report documents 37 deaths, 35 of them committed by the police.


Kenyans living in NASA strongholds like Nyanza and pockets of Nairobi – especially those like Odinga of Luo ethnicity – were disproportionately represented among the victims.


There have been high-profile condemnations of ethnically targeted police brutality, like the campaign “Luo Lives Matter” championed by Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o.


Many here in Kisumu point to the difference in police response when Kikuyus – the country’s largest ethnic group and generally seen as supportive of Kenyatta – demonstrate.


“You don’t see police shooting the ‘Nairobi Business Community’ who come out armed to defend their businesses, families, and even Uhuru’s presidency,” said George Siwa, an electrician in Kisumu who attended Monday’s anti-IEBC demonstrations.


Odinga, 72, a polarising political figure in Kenya, made that link to ethnically targeted violence in his address on Wednesday.


“As we speak, truckloads of paramilitary and police officers have been deployed to commit massacre, especially in western Kenya and Nairobi with the sole purpose of protecting an illegitimate hold on power,” he said.


“We have seen them rope in militia, dress them in police attire, arm them, and unleash them on protesters with deadly consequences,” he alleged.


The reference to militia is a nod to a belief here that a criminal Kikuyu militia, known as Mungiki, has been revived and has infiltrated the police.

April Zhu/IRIN Memories of election violence


It harks back to the violence of the 2007/08 elections, when Mungiki and rival Kalenjin militia were accused of ethnic killings, although many of the 1,500 people who died were shot by the police.


Both Kenyatta and his then-opponent, William Ruto, now deputy president, were indicted by the International Criminal Court for their alleged roles in the violence.


The charges were withdrawn due to insufficient evidence, and both men went on to form the Jubilee Party to defeat Odinga in the disputed 2013 election.


Whether Mungiki is in fact back in operation, the important point is that it is a widely held belief in Nyanza. It draws on the idea of official consent; it’s symbolic of unresolved but familiar conflicts that stretch back to independence.


In the midst of this heightened ethnic tension, acting Cabinet Secretary of the Interior Fred Matiang’i said at a Jubilee rally last week that he was an enkororo – a member of the outlawed Kisii ethnic militia, Chinkororo.


His comment, spoken in Gusii, was meant as a threat to anyone planning to interfere with IEBC voting centres. But the more disturbing implication – especially for Luos – is that even the head of the police may not be above the use of non-state ethnic militias to create “order”.


Demonstrators in Kisumu now shout “Mungiki” at the GSU. Anecdotes and “fake news” encourages the belief that it was not the police who killed Okoth but the Kikuyu militia in police uniform.


“Why would the government hire militia groups? It is training them to satisfy their own interests,” said Smith Hempstone Otieno, a student at Kisumu Polytechnic. “You understand that this is the kind of government that is trying to oppress the will of the people.”


Protesters now say the struggle is no longer about sharing or rotating power between ethnic groups, but ending what they see as an intractable pattern of Luo disenfranchisement.


What is less readily acknowledged is that Jubilee ran a slick and well-funded campaign that appealed to swing regions of Kenya. NASA’s, by contrast, seemed less strategic.




But in Nyanza, Jubilee’s determination to go ahead with the election, ignoring widespread calls for a postponement, feels like the cynical zero-sum calculation of past elections.


In recent rallies, NASA supporters have shouted to politicians “Bunde! Bunde!” (“guns” in Dholuo). Asking for weapons is a startling step-change in resistance.


“All we have now are stones and tear gas,” a young demonstrator told IRIN. He pointed to the blue hills behind the flyover at Kondele. “Beyond that is our border with the Kalenjins... So, the lasting solution is you keep your side, we keep our side, so we can move forward.”


That the idea of secession is being talked about by some in Nyanza is an indication of the depth of frustration.


“They are doing things as if they are in their own republic. We need peace and a lasting solution,” said an elderly man at the People’s Parliament who did not want to be named. “In fact, where we are heading, if we want peace and we don’t want to be killed, then at least let us divorce.”


That has the support of some senior politicians. Governor Nyong’o, on the day before the election, told international media that he may propose to host a conference in Kisumu to discuss possibilities, risks, and opportunities of forming a “People’s Democratic Republic of Kenya”.


Judged from the government buildings and gleaming office towers of Nairobi, that would seem an unsound and impractical idea.


But “when a government fails to enact the will of the people, rebellion is justified,” said Nyong’o. “Secession is justified.”



Opponents of the ruling party believe today’s vote is a fix Election leaves western Kenya angry and bitter kisumu_crowd.jpg April Zhu Feature Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics KISUMU IRIN Africa Kenya
Categories: Gender Parity

Irresponsible data? The risks of registering the Rohingya

IRIN Gender - Mon, 10/23/2017 - 01:52

Massive amounts of personal and biometric data are being gathered from hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. This should set off multiple alarm bells.


As bystanders to likely crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, the humanitarian community has a particular responsibility to ensure their rights are not violated further, through data and technology. Now is the time to push for safeguards, before it’s too late.


Gathering data on marginalised groups can be a risky business, and the Rohingya are no strangers to having information about them used to further diminish their human rights. What is being proposed in Bangladesh raises broad concerns about the responsible and ethical use of data and is potentially dangerous.


The Bangladeshi government registration process includes scanning in “biometric” data – at this stage, fingerprints, with the UN providing “technical assistance”. At the same time, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, announced this week that it is carrying out a separate counting exercise, including taking photographs.


Refugees may reasonably think their access to aid and protection may depend on one or both registrations, so the power asymmetry is stark between those designing and carrying out the data collection and those on the receiving end of it.


The responsible data considerations are numerous and complex.


What data should be collected, by whom? Who has access to it? In case of machine or human error, what processes are in place to review and make changes? What could be the unintended consequences of these growing databases? How could the data be abused?


All of these questions, and more, need to be thought through and the conclusions intentionally planned into any kind of data collection about the Rohingya, before more harm is done.


Registering the Rohingya


According to local media, Bangladeshi firm Tiger IT has provided the government with a software system to register Rohingyas. It will record the individual’s fingerprints, alongside name, gender, age, photograph, parents’ names, birthplace, nationality, country, and religion – all of which will be linked to an ID card. The card does not use the term “Rohingya”, and some are refusing to be registered because of this omission.


The experience in Bangladesh echoes that in Myanmar. The 2014 census in Myanmar listed 135 ethnic groups but deliberately omitted any option for “Rohingya”. This led many to refuse the national ID cards that followed, which used the loaded substitute term “Bengali”. Rohingya worried that this was just another attempt to erase them as a community. In a mirror move, a Bangladeshi census in 2016 labelled Rohingya as “Myanmar nationals” – a status Myanmar itself does not recognise.


This month, UNHCR announced it is engaged in a separate counting exercise: Once refugees’ information, including photographs, have been gathered digitally with an unnamed “app”, a laminated yellow card with a unique number is assigned by the Bangladeshi government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission. It’s unclear how, if at all, this exercise links up with the other registration, led by the Department of Immigration and Passports.


Producing separate datasets (and possibly providing more than one official identification card) is not an efficient use of resources and indeed might lead to complications for the refugees on the receiving end of the questions and the cards.


Roger Arnold/UNHCR Rohinyga refugees are being registered in Bangladesh Using biometric data as proof of identity might allow aid and services to be delivered to Rohingya refugees more effectively, but it’s a double-edged sword for several reasons:



Firstly, it can be used to drive repatriation (voluntary or otherwise). Bangladeshi Industry Minister Amir Hossain Amu has openly stated that the country has “no plan to give any refugee status to Rohingya”, adding: “the reason behind the biometric process is to keep record of Rohingya. We want them to go back to their own place.”


Secondly, it can digitally enable discrimination. Rohingya have to follow a ”code of conduct” that forces them to stay inside the camps and limits their interaction with locals. If the database of Rohingya people were to be leaked, hacked, or shared (for example, with the Myanmar government), it could make it easier to deny Rohingya access to basic services, or target them, or discriminate against them. For example, Bangladeshi mobile phone operators have been banned from selling SIM cards to Rohingya refugees. Biometric data could in theory be shared with mobile phone operators to enforce the ban.


Thirdly, errors and omissions can be harder to resolve. Unlike passwords, fingerprints can’t be changed. Once collected, it may be virtually impossible to get rid of them or correct them. Biometric devices are not 100 percent accurate – and it’s unclear what action could be taken if mistakes are made.


Responsible data


So how could data collection on the Rohingya help their cause?


There need to be accountability processes in place in case of error, and responsible data practices must clearly be followed. According to data minimisation principles, only data that is necessary should be collected, and access to stored personal data should be strictly limited – many decisions around aid can be made with aggregate numbers, rather than personal data on individuals.


Choices around what data is gathered should be made with a long-term strategy in mind. The collection, storage, and use of that data should then be carefully planned in line with this strategy.


The Rohingya have long been persecuted, even before the horrors they face today in Myanmar.


We have a responsibility to ensure their rights are respected and protected – and that the data purportedly gathered as part of the humanitarian response is used for that purpose and not for further persecution.



  bangladesh-rohingya-2.jpg Opinion Aid and Policy Migration Conflict Human Rights Fingerprinting the Rohingya Zara Rahman IRIN ID cards have brought little but pain to the Rohingya. And this time they’re biometric BERLIN Bangladesh Myanmar
Categories: Gender Parity

#MeToo in the humanitarian world

IRIN Gender - Fri, 10/20/2017 - 12:22

Our friends and family sometimes think the humanitarian world is populated by saints. The general public might also think that (our fundraising campaigns certainly play on this). However, those of us who live in it know our sector is not so different from others. We walk amongst mortals – flawed human beings.

We* are two of those millions who tweeted #MeToo – recalling our own many experiences of harassment, from when we were schoolgirls, to this day – make no mistake, it is a pervasive factor in every woman's life. But even though we are aid workers, we too experience sexual harassment and assault in the humanitarian world.  

Since the 1990s, reports have documented UN peacekeepers engaging in sexual exploitation and abuse. The humanitarian aid world had their own scandal in 2001 in Guinea-Conakry, Liberia, and Sierra Leone when female refugees complained about being forced to trade sex for food. These led to a better understanding of the vulnerability of aid recipients to abuse and exploitation and led to high-level initiatives to root out sexual abuse by UN staff (to varying degrees of success). 

The sexist culture in our sector needs to be called out and things need to change: It’s time to end all those times women have to smile wanly at sexist jokes; evade the clutches of some grabbing, entitled man; or trade warnings with each other about this or that male colleague (oh, there are Harvey Weinsteins in our midst).

The sexist culture in our sector needs to be called out and things need to change


Recently, female aid workers have spoken out about the sexual assault and harassment they face in the course of their work, including the brave women who spoke publicly about being assaulted in the Terrain Hotel in South Sudan in August 2016, a horrifying event.

In 2016, an organisation called ‘Report the Abuse’ was created to highlight the sexual abuse of aid workers. It folded in 2017 – not due to lack of interest, but due to a lack of resources. Sexual violence is a problem in our sector. We don’t have all the numbers, but the ones we do know already show us that it’s a problem.

Pervasive culture

Let's have a few examples: In one of our organisations, rating the sexual desirability of co-workers is a common pastime. It sounds kind of fun as a field drinking game. Until it's your boss talking about the length of the skirts the receptionist wears. She's 20 years his junior.

In a prestigious humanitarian organisation one of us used to work for, women would do their best to avoid being posted to missions in Africa, not due to hardships in the field but in order not to have to deal with the constant use of sex workers by their male colleagues.

Just fun between consenting adults! All forgotten in the morning back at the office!

But the winks and knowing smiles amongst men permeate and corrode the atmosphere, bringing with it a culture of objectifying and degrading women. Not to mention the damage it does to the reputation of aid organisations that locals view as exercising their (mainly white) privilege. And let's face it. There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy to be "helping people in Africa" whilst paying for sex.

Abuse of power amongst staff is common. There are many women in our sector, but the senior leadership is still mainly dominated by men. How many cases do you know of male country directors sleeping with junior staff? In some offices, it's a rite of passage for first-missioneers.

One of us remembers her creepy boss who touched her inappropriately and asked her for 'an agreement of bodies' whilst trying to get his help on a tricky negotiation with a local partner. He then pressured her to go for drinks with him. “Did I go? Yes. I asked a friend to come with me though. Did I report it? Hell no! I didn't want to risk my reputation in the organisation, which depended on me being able to get on with everyone. I did what many women do. I told my friends over a beer in the bar, made sure the door was open when we had to meet, and worked even harder to show I was worthy of attention for more than my body.”

We all have those stories. These are the stories that women tell each other after trainings, in the bars at night. We whisper about how to keep ourselves safe. And now we talk about them on our Facebook groups – some brave women speaking out and others silently lurking, thinking: “Me too. Me too.”

That's what this sexist culture does to you. It makes you doubt yourself. It diminishes you. As someone said in the #MeToo discussions: "I guess I'm lucky only just to have been harassed." Another asked, “how much more could I have done in my life if I didn’t spend so much time thinking, forgetting, dealing, and laughing off these incidences? Where could I have spent my energy?”

The humanitarian world must do better to ensure zero tolerance for sexual abuse and harassment – both against our vulnerable beneficiaries and within our own organisations. We have to change the culture. And it has to start from within. Ask your organisation right now what they have in place to report abuses and how they manage cases. If they can’t answer you, keep asking, because only when we demand change, will the culture actually change. Don’t wait until the next woman whispers her story to you in the dark. Start asking for change from within.

* This is a guest column for IRIN by two anonymous aid workers

we_can_do_it.jpg Opinion Aid and Policy Human Rights #MeToo in the humanitarian world IRIN The humanitarian world is not populated by saints. Global
Categories: Gender Parity

UN, aid groups debate Myanmar internment plan for Rohingya refugees

IRIN Gender - Fri, 10/20/2017 - 08:44

Aid groups working in Myanmar's crisis-hit Rakhine State are scrambling on how to respond if the government pushes forward with controversial plans to create new internment camps for displaced Rohingya, documents obtained by IRIN reveal.

The internal papers shed light on the urgent, behind-the-scenes debate aid groups are having in the wake of a refugee crisis that has pushed almost 600,000 Rohingya from northern Rakhine State into neighbouring Bangladesh over the last two months.

A 4 October “working document” shows that international NGOs are drawing up a list of likely scenarios and “red lines” – clear deal-breakers that would force humanitarian groups not to offer aid in the proposed camps.

But there is disagreement among the NGO representatives over what would constitute a clear red line, the document shows. There is also “no common agreement” on what the policy should be in a number of possible scenarios: if Rohingya are forced into the camps; if Rohingya are relocated there from elsewhere in the state; if there is no viable resettlement plan; and if Rohingya are unable to move freely – a widely expected aspect of the camp proposal.

"There are folks who are focused on the pragmatic, humanitarian imperative stuff... and there are people who are wanting to follow a more principled path"

Central to the discussion are fears the proposed camps will mirror conditions in existing displacement camps in central Rakhine that rights groups have likened to “open-air prisons”. The once-temporary camps were created after communal violence displaced 140,000 people – mostly Rohingya – in 2012. Five years later, barbed-wire fences and barricades still keep the camps on lockdown.

“Like 2012, it appears that displaced populations will be forced into overcrowded and underprepared camps that are ‘controlled’ or administered by the military,” the document states. "Any new camps are likely to be established as a temporary solution but like [central Rakhine State], end up as a permanent situation of segregation from other communities.”

This underscores the debate about what should take precedence when it comes to aid in the restrictive camps: the obligation to help a vulnerable population, or the need to hold back if direct involvement could entrench abusive conditions.

"That debate is dominating how the agencies are approaching this,” a senior humanitarian source with knowledge of the discussions told IRIN.

“There are folks who are focused on the pragmatic, humanitarian imperative stuff, where the government is seen as the main duty bearer,” the source said. “And there are people who are wanting to follow a more principled path where they might not engage.”

Representatives from NGOs including Save the Children, Care International, Plan International, Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council, Solidarités International, Trocaire, the Lutheran Word Federation and Action Against Hunger were included in the discussions. The agencies did not reply to IRIN’s request for comment.

Freedom of movement

Plans for the camp form part of Myanmar's resettlement solution to a crisis that has seen almost 600,000 Rohingya surge into Bangladesh since 25 August, when a group of Rohingya militants attacked border areas in northern Rakhine. Myanmar’s military has been accused of a grossly disproportionate response, launching what rights groups call a “scorched-earth campaign” to root out and raze entire Rohingya villages.

Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi said in a speech earlier this month that Myanmar could resettle Rohingya refugees – pending a murky citizenship verification process. But plans for this are vague, even while aid groups in Myanmar scramble to prepare.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay told IRIN that authorities would set up “temporary camps” as part of the resettlement process. Some camps would be located near a checkpoint at Taung Pyo Let Wea by the Bangladesh border – an area in which Amnesty International has accused the Myanmar military of planting landmines.

Zaw Htay told IRIN the camps would be a short-term solution for the returning refugees.

"The international community will rue the day if they decide to go along with this plan"

“They can return to their places of origin. At the same time, we are constructing new villages for Bengali people who come to return to our country,” the spokesman said, using the government’s preferred term for Rohingya, who are seen as interlopers from Bangladesh despite a long history in the area.

Asked whether Rohingya in the camps would be allowed to move freely, Zaw Htay said: “After the verification process, they can get freedom of movement according to existing laws.”

However, only 2,000 Rohingya have been granted any form of citizenship rights under a previous verification process, according to the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called Myanmar’s camp proposal “a human rights disaster”.

“The international community will rue the day if they decide to go along with this plan,” Robertson told IRIN. “To put it bluntly, this is a plan for an open-air Rohingya prison, surrounded by barbed wire, hostile security forces and hateful Rakhine communities. The international community should boycott this proposal and demand that the right to return means going back to the locations where people lived before this latest wave of ethnic cleansing, and rebuilding there.”

When asked about the establishment of new camps, Stanislav Saling, a spokesman for the office of the UN resident coordinator in Myanmar, said: “The return of IDPs and refugees should be voluntary and to the places of origin where they have the highest prospect of rebuilding their lives.”

Do no harm?

In an internal position paper obtained by IRIN, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, also stressed the need to “avoid camps” in northern Rakhine.

“The establishment of camps or camp-like situations in northern Rakhine would carry considerable political, ethical, humanitarian, human rights and financial risks and should be strongly advocated against, regardless of their alleged temporary nature,” the UNHCR stated in the September paper, which recommends “key messages” for the international community.

The refugee agency said the principle of “do no harm” should take precedence: “The need to respond to immediate humanitarian needs should not make the international community lose sight of the longer-term consequences of today’s actions on the future of affected communities. These consequences should be considered from the start.”

But it’s unclear whether there will be a consensus among the 77 individual aid groups active in Rakhine before the August violence.

The 4 October working document warns that the government will insist on leading any humanitarian efforts, likely “picking and choosing” international counterparts while imposing greater restrictions.

It also outlines key questions still up for debate among the major aid groups: “Given the experience in [central Rakhine State], what constitutes doing harm? What are [the] alternatives?”

UNIC Yangon Jeffrey Feltman, the UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, is pictured in a photo during his October 2017 trip to Myanmar. ‘Things won’t go back to as they were before’

While aid groups debate the camps, they’re also grappling with the more existential question of how to engage with a government that has grown increasingly resentful toward the international community amid intense criticism.

Related stories:

Internment fears as Myanmar plans new camps for scattered Rohingya

Rohingya exodus puts pressure back on UN rights probe

Inside the ‘glaringly dysfunctional’ UN mission in Myanmar

Long before the most recent violence, UN agencies were mired in an internal debate in Myanmar that has pitted development objectives against human rights concerns – mainly over the Rohingya issue. Divisions recently came to a head with the announcement that the UN’s resident coordinator in Myanmar, Renata Lok-Dessallien, will be replaced at the end of the month. As IRIN reported earlier this year, an April 2017 memo sent to UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned this “dysfunctionality” was leading to the “growing irrelevance of the UN in guiding and defining the international community’s efforts to address the challenges confronting Myanmar.” 

On 17 October, senior officials from UN agencies and international NGOs met with Jeffrey Feltman, the UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, who was in the country for consultations with the government.

“We have to admit that things won’t go back to as they were before,” one senior aid official said, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by IRIN. “We need to redefine our role, our partnership with the government and the people.”

Feltman told the meeting that the UN can come across as “arrogant”, which the civilian government “deeply resents”.

“[Myanmar’s government] resents the fact that the UN/INGOs still think they’re needed,” Feltman said, according to the meeting minutes. “The government has realised the international criticism is not going to go away without some action – but they still want to do it independently. It may be that the action opted for by the government does not meet UN standards and we have to ask ourselves what our response will be if they do ask for help.”

(TOP PHOTO: The office of an aid agency in a displacement camp for Rohingya outside Sittwe in Myanmar's Rakhine State.)


ans_5407.jpg News Aid and Policy Conflict Human Rights UN, aid groups debate Myanmar internment plan for Rohingya refugees Emanuel Stoakes Should humanitarian groups go along with the Myanmar government’s Rohingya resettlement solution? IRIN Asia Bangladesh Myanmar
Categories: Gender Parity

Shock and revulsion over Mogadishu bombing

IRIN Gender - Mon, 10/16/2017 - 08:04

The bomb was as enormous as the flecks of torn skin smudging the ground are miniscule. Entire overcrowded buses were blown up, every passenger killed. No one in the vicinity was spared: shopkeepers at the side of the road selling khat; office managers; children fooling around or running errands for parents; a medical student about to graduate; mothers; fathers; sisters; brothers. 


At approximately 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, a truck bomb was detonated in the middle of the traffic in Mogadishu's Hodan district, next to the landmark Safari hotel, frequented by politicians and other Somali movers and shakers.    


Later in the day, a second explosion was reported in the city's Madina district.


When the Hodan bomb went off, near the busy K5 roundabout, Somalis on social media reported it as the loudest explosion they'd ever heard – a feat in itself in a city that's been used to violence for more than two decades. 


The bodycount started in the dozens, but soon started to climb, hitting 85, then more than 100. Now the death toll is officially up to 276 people.


It is expected to reach more than 300, said Mohamed Moalim, permanent secretary in the government’s Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management. Hundreds more have been injured.


"We still have a number of bodies not identified, hundreds of families wanting to identify loved ones, but it’s happening slowly because of the size of the situation,” he told IRIN via Skype. Many of the bodies are charred beyond recognition. 


"When you see the area and location, you will [understand the extent of the damage]," said Farah Bashir, managing director of Galayr Consultancy, referring to the bustling commercial district, with many shops, hotels, and businesses.


He wasn't at the office when the explosion happened, but he heard the blast and arrived to find complete destruction, with shattered buildings and people trapped under rubble.


"The blood of the victims, burned pieces of human bodies,” said Bashir. “No doors, windows, curtains, walls – all [destoyed] and demolished.”


The city’s two largest hospitals, Medina and Turkish-supported Digfer, are entirely overwhelmed. There aren't nearly enough doctors and nurses to tend to everyone. Medical students are volunteering, but supplies are low.


"We need food, water, emergency equipment, beds, sheets, antibiotics," said Moalim. The UN and international NGOs are mobilising, but none were immediately on the ground, he noted.


African Union troops, known as AMISOM, have been providing security and services in the clean-up, and the Turkish government is sending ambulance planes expected to land today.

Hassan Istiila/IRIN Aftermath of the bombing


Al-Shabab on the march?


As of yet, no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but it bears all the hallmarks of the jihadist group al-Shabab, at war with successive governments and their international backers since 2006.


They have staged repeated attacks in Mogadishu, but nothing close to the scale of Saturday’s carnage. Previously the worst attack was in June when 30 people died in the bombing of a popular pizza restaurant.


“They won’t claim responsibility because of the massive civilian deaths, but this was definitely an al-Shabab operation,” said Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group.


“Why they’ve done it is because they had the opportunity to do it,” he told IRIN.


The security forces have suffered a series of setbacks over the last few months. They have withdrawn from the key Lower Shabelle region as a result of al-Shabab attacks, and there are rising tensions and low morale within the fledgling Somali National Army.


Last week, defense minister Abdirashid Abdullahi Mohamed and army chief General Mohamed Ahmed Jimale both submitted their resignations amid reports of rivalry between the two men.


The Somali army is being retrained and built up so it can take over security once AMISOM troops start withdrawing next year, but reforms have been slow.


The recent military setbacks have allowed al-Shabab “to gain a corridor to infiltrate Mogadishu,” said Abdi. “This is a serious lapse in security, or collusion.”


The truck carrying the explosives was believed to have been waived through the numerous checkpoints along the Afgooye road into the city, although the government says it was being followed before it detonated.


The attack has generated universal revulsion, with Mogadishu residents taking to the streets to demonstrate their outrage. Hundreds more have lined up to donate blood. 


"I'm feeling very sad," said Bashir. "You can't identify and you can't know and you can't analyse the loss of [so many] innocent people who were just doing business around the area." 


Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has declared three days of mourning.


The shock of Saturday’s attack has been likened to the impact of al-Shabab’s 2009 bombing of a medical school graduation that killed 19 people, which was widely condemned and hurt the group’s standing inside Somalia.


“We’re beginning to see a groundswell of public resentment, but whether this will translate into support for the government is hard to tell,” said Abdi.


Farmajo was elected in February by a landslide, but has struggled to bridge the deep divide between the central government and the six federal states over powers and authority, which is hobbling his administration.


The divisions have been exacerbated by the Gulf crisis between the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition, versus a diplomatically isolated Qatar.


Farmajo is seen to side with Qatar, while the cash-strapped Somali states have chosen Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – who are looking for bases in Somalia for their military intervention in neighbouring Yemen.


Al-Shabab may have been trying to take advantage of the government’s weakness, but it is unclear how things will now play out. “This [attack] could throw the government a lifeline in terms of public support, but it could tip the other way if it’s mishandled,” said Abdi.



mog_bombing.jpg News Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Shock and revulsion over Mogadishu bombing Amanda Sperber IRIN NAIROBI Africa Somalia
Categories: Gender Parity

Zimbabwe: What happens after Mugabe?

IRIN Gender - Fri, 10/13/2017 - 05:30

At the ripe old age of 93, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s long-serving president, has offered himself as the candidate to lead his ruling ZANU-PF party in elections next year.


In power since independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe would be 99 should he win the 2018 election and complete a five-year term. He has boasted that he will live – and rule – until he is 100.


His wife Grace, a political power in her own right, has gone even further. Speaking at a rally organised by ZANU-PF’s Youth League last year, the First Lady addressed her husband saying: “We want you to lead this country even from your grave.”


Mugabe has always been respected and feared rather than loved. But his cabinet, stuffed with loyalists, relatives, and praise singers, is now outdoing itself in pushing his cult of personality into overdrive.


Behind the public scenes of loyalty and adulation is an intense power struggle, as Mugabe’s physical frailty becomes evident. Factions are looking for his endorsement in the battle underway over his succession.


His public stumbles (fodder for an irreverent social media) and frequent absences from the country for medical attention, are all the more concerning for party apparatchiks as there is no obvious heir apparent.


“Mugabe wants to die in office and is not interested in seeing his successor,” said Pedzisayi Ruhanya, the director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute. “He is not a student of democratic processes.”


There are no threats to his rule from outside the party. He is accused of stealing elections (although he commands support in the rural areas), brutalising the electorate, and infiltrating the ranks of the opposition to sow confusion. Age is his only real challenger.

Film Library Film Library Photo Library Back to film list Mugabe Memes in Zimbabwe Share this film Le déluge


But the jockeying for power is dangerous. The military and veterans of the guerrilla war against white minority rule have been the power behind Mugabe’s throne. And they want to pick who will replace him.


Over the last year, influential members of the War Veteran’s Association have been expelled from the party. They publicly declared their support for Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa – heresy while Mugabe still lives.


In July, Mugabe accused his commanders (who are all ZANU-PF members) of interfering in the party’s internal politics, which he said was tantamount to a coup. A few days later, soldiers rampaged through central Harare beating up the police.


“We are being threatened day and night that if so-and-so does not succeed Mugabe, we will kill you with guns,” the First Lady said last week. “The president sleeps with one eye open.”


This week Mugabe made his move. He sacked Mnangagwa as justice minister in a cabinet reshuffle that has strengthened the position of Grace – Mnangagwa’s chief rival.


The political tussle is being played out against the backdrop of the hardships faced by the vast majority of Zimbabweans. On the back of a good harvest, Zimbabwe’s economic growth has climbed to 2.8 percent from 0.7 percent last year, according to the IMF.


But the economy is not keeping pace with population growth. Zimbabweans face shortages from electricity to water to fuel. Banks ration cash withdrawals. Poor service delivery and unemployment adds to the despair. Economic growth is projected to slip back to 0.8 percent in 2018 and turn sharply negative by 2022.


The spending habits of the Mugabes, with money seemingly to burn, is a subject of endless public fascination. Last year more than four million Zimbabweans were in need of food aid, and the government was appealing for $1.5 billion in relief support.


The First Lady’s recent splurging has included a $4 million mansion in South Africa’s posh Sandhurst suburb and a Rolls Royce. Her son from an earlier marriage, Russell Goreraza, bought two Rollers and air-freighted them to Zimbabwe.


The extravagant lifestyles of two other sons – first in Dubai and now South Africa – has earned them the nickname “Boyz dze smoko” (the terrible boys). When Grace allegedly beat up a model she found in their hotel room in August, it caused a diplomatic incident.


A former typist in the office of the president, Grace has not endeared herself to most Zimbabweans. But as a ferocious Mugabe loyalist, she is not to be underestimated.


The plan seems to be that Mugabe will run and win in 2018, and then secure the interests of his family as best he can. The risk is the instability this strategy could cause.


The following is a rough guide to the main protagonists in the succession drama:


Grace Mugabe


When news first filtered out that Mugabe was lining up his wife (and former mistress) as a potential successor, the general reaction was one of derision and dismissal.


IRIN A typical example was the casual sexism of former war veteran’s leader Jabulani Sibanda, who scolded party members in 2014 for “plotting a bedroom coup”. He warned that “power is not sexually transmitted”.


Grace, 52, remained in the shadows for many years after the marriage, concentrating on charitable works. Shopping trips abroad earned her the unenviable nicknames “Gucci Grace” and “The First Shopper”.


But in 2014 she emerged to conduct “meet the people” public gatherings, where she sensationally attacked then vice-president Joice Mujuru, alleging she was aiming to overthrow Mugabe.


Mujuru, a powerful former guerrilla leader, had the support of a significant section of the party as Mugabe’s successor. But Grace’s accusations of “treason, corruption, and witchcraft” were enough to sink her.


Grace is secretary of ZANU-PF’s Women’s League and has the active support of the Youth League. Some politicians have coalesced around her to form a faction called Generation 40 – a grouping of younger leaders that deliberately draw a distinction with the party’s old guard.


With Grace as their leader, they have the ear of Mugabe and have begun to set the party’s agenda.


Grace has become so powerful that at public meetings addressed by Mugabe, she has summoned erring party and government officials to the podium for a public dressing down.


Ruhanya believes that in reality Mugabe pulls the strings of G40. “Mugabe is the leader of G40,” he told IRIN. “That explains why no member of that faction has suffered any political setbacks as they enjoy [his] protection.”


Some observers suggest Grace, with the support of her husband and the power of the state, could easily win the succession battle. She once told a public meeting that she was “already ruling”. 


But Ruhanya thinks this is premature. “Mugabe knows that his wife is ambitious, but she lacks the capacity and sophistication to handle complex party and state matters,” he said. “Grace can only behave the way she does for as long as Mugabe is alive.”


Emmerson Mnangagwa


Standing in the way of Grace is Mnangagwa, 75, a once-feared former spy chief and one of the few surviving members of the first cabinet in 1980. But his Lacoste team [derived from his “crocodile” nickname] are being purged.


IRIN His influence was already on the wane, outflanked by Mujuru in the battle to control ZANU-PF. Now his political problems are turning potentially deadly. He was airlifted to South Africa in August after reacting to food consumed at a political rally.


His supporters said he was poisoned, with the suspect ice cream supplied by the First Lady’s dairy company. The allegation of foul play has been vehemently denied, with Grace reportedly claiming he wasn’t worth poisoning.


Chris Mutsvangwa, a war veterans’ leader and former minister expelled from the party over accusations of supporting Mnangagwa, believes the G40 bid for the presidency – using Grace – will collapse.


“Grace does not exist [as First Lady] in the constitution. She is a frantic if hopeless would-be usurper of power,” he told IRIN. “The G40 putchist agenda is bound to fail in the face of popular resistance.”


Sydney Sekeramayi


Until recently, Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi, 75, was not in the succession mix. He has held several portfolios since independence, but was seen to lack political clout.


He was thrust into the spotlight this year when his “humility” and “consensus-style of leadership” was contrasted with the ambition of Mnangagwa by an acolyte of the First Lady.


Grace then went on to strengthen his hand by describing how Sekeramayi, a Swedish-trained medical doctor as well as guerrilla, had saved Mugabe’s life when he was struck by a severe bout of diarrhoea.


But in 2014 he was out in the cold over his perceived support for Mujuru. It was Mugabe who brought him back into the political fold.

IRIN All three men ­– Mugabe, Mnangagwa, and Sekeramayi – share one thing in common. They were key actors in the ethnic cleansing in southwestern Matabeleland in the early 1980s in which 20,000 Ndebele civilians were killed.


The military distrusts anyone who is not a veteran of the independence struggle. Sekeramayi has the right credentials, and could be an alternative pick by Mugabe should Plan A – handing over to Grace – prove impossible.


As the ruling party continues to implode, along with the country, Ruhanya believes this is all to be expected.


“The chaos happening in Zimbabwe and ZANU-PF is what happens when the end of an authoritarian era approaches,” he said.



TOP PHOTO: President Robert Mugabe

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If UN is to be credible, it must act on Burundi before it's too late

IRIN Gender - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 08:42

The Burundian government carries the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens from crimes against humanity, but instead it’s the main abuser.

A UN Commission of Inquiry reported last month that the security forces, the intelligence service, and the ruling party militia bare the greatest guilt for two years of killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, disappearances, and sexual violence in Burundi.

With the government unwilling to protect its population, it falls to the international community to provide that shield.

But although Burundi remains on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Security Council in New York, the reaction by the world body has so far been insufficient.

During the most recent session of the Human Rights Council last month, two resolutions on Burundi were adopted.

The first, led by the European Union, extended the mandate of the commission of inquiry – set up to investigate human rights abuses – for a further year. It received support from two African member states, Botswana and Rwanda.

The second resolution was a last-minute bid by the African Group, which sought to discredit and dismantle the panel of inquiry launched by the Human Rights Council in 2016.

It called for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to send three separate experts “to engage with the Burundian authorities and all other stakeholders”.

Burundi has promised to cooperate with those experts. But the likelihood they will have any real impact is in doubt given Burundi’s past refusal to cooperate with UN initiatives that seek an end to the crisis in the country, which pits President Pierre Nkurunziza against an opposition that claims his rule is illegal, and demands his ousting.

For example, in July 2016, the UN Security Council authorised 228 police officers to monitor the security situation. The resolution was an attempt to salvage the reputation of the Council, which needed to be seen as doing something. However, due to government opposition, the police officers were never able to deploy.

Following the outcome of the Human Rights Council meeting last month, it is unlikely that the Security Council will take strong action – such as targeted sanctions – despite Burundi rejecting its legally-binding resolutions.


Divided UN


In New York as in Geneva, Burundi remains one of the most divisive issues. Some Security Council members – primarily China, Russia, and Egypt – see the situation as an internal human rights affair rather than a peace and security issue.


The position of those who want the Security Council to be more engaged on human rights issues, led by the United States, is sharply opposed by those who want the Council to remain focused on more traditional security matters.


All members of the Security Council are waiting to take their cues from African states – primarily Burundi’s neighbours – Tanzania and Uganda.


Given the relatively strong African consensus in Geneva opposing what is characterised as outside interference, and the ongoing – although stalled – mediation efforts led by the East African Community, those members of the Security Council interested in stronger action are unlikely to push for that in the current climate.


Despite the new UN secretary-general’s focus on crisis prevention, the case of Burundi shows how difficult it is to implement prevention measures in specific cases.


The Human Rights Council has no way of enforcing decisions and relies on the cooperation of UN member states, including Burundi. The Security Council is unlikely to act until a situation has already spiralled out of control and threatens international peace and security.


On the ground, three scenarios could jolt the Security Council into action.


The first could be an escalation of attacks from outside Burundi, such as by the Democratic Republic of Congo-based rebel group, the Popular Forces of Burundi. The FPB’s leadership recently vowed to increase attacks. This would likely intensify the violence and could even lead to civil war in the long term.


The second scenario could centre around the more than 400,000 refugees in neighboring countries. Tanzania, which hosts almost 60 percent of fleeing Burundese, has already reached a deal with Burundi and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, which will see the repatriation of almost 12,000 refugees, many of whom want to leave ill-equipped camps.


If the refugee flow does not stop, Tanzania may change course and ask the Security Council to do something.


A third scenario could see an intensification of internal division within the ruling party, which would likely see a deterioration of the security situation, especially if an attempt is made to prevent Nkurunziza from running for a fourth term.


All three of these scenarios would pose an even greater risk of mass atrocities. If the UN is serious about prevention, it must take credible action on Burundi now before it is too late.


TOP PHOTO: Burundi police on patrol


baxter_04.jpg Opinion Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics If UN is to be credible, it must act on Burundi before it's too late Dominique Fraser IRIN GENEVA Africa East Africa Burundi
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Women drivers, corrupt cops, and dating refugees: The Cheat Sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 09/29/2017 - 13:57

Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:

Was letting women drive a Saudi PR stunt?

It would have been hard to miss the news that Saudi Arabia will soon let women drive, trumpeted as a major victory led by brave activists. The policy change is a big deal, but might it also have been a PR stunt to try to appease the West? Perhaps, distraction from the war in Yemen and today’s hotly debated UN Human Rights Council vote on an independent investigation into the war in Yemen? Don’t rule it out. Saudi Arabia was certainly nervous – it reportedly sent a letter warning other countries that such a probe could “negatively affect” trade and diplomatic ties with the kingdom. The proposal, which has been written and rewritten, negotiated and hashtagged (#YemenInquiryNow), was strongly supported by advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch.

Diplomacy has singularly failed to do anything for the people of Yemen, who are enduring the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth. So, especially as Saudi Arabia has several friends in high places, expectations were low ahead of the vote. But as Cheat Sheet went to press the council passed a resolution by consensus that mandates a group of international experts to investigate abuses. Amnesty International Senior Director for Research Anna Neistat said the move “sends an unequivocal message to all parties to the conflict in Yemen – that their conduct will be scrutinised and the abuses they commit will not go unpunished.” The independent investigation falls short of a full-scale UN international commission of inquiry that could have led to referrals to the international criminal court, but it won’t leave the powers-that-be in Riyadh particularly happy. If allowing women to drive was a PR stunt, it was an epic fail.

Biafra redux

A growing secessionist swell in southeastern Nigeria is dividing the country once again, 50 years after the civil war that claimed a million lives (see an earlier IRIN report). Thousands of troops have been deployed to the region in a heavy-handed crackdown on pro-Biafra agitation, and the leader of the breakaway Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) campaign, Nnamdi Kanu, has gone missing – reportedly detained by the army. Secessionist sentiment has been building in recent years under the leadership of Kanu, a skilled propagandist. He won sympathy among Igbos in the southeast during a lengthy trial on terrorism and treason charges. A pro-Biafra social media campaign portrays President Muhammadu Buhari as a pro-Muslim northerner out to crush the southeast. In June, northern youth groups upped the ante by demanding that all Igbos must leave the north by 1 October – an uncomfortable reminder of the pogroms in the north that led to the declaration of Biafra in 1967. Kanu’s announcement of the formation of self-defence units and threat to prevent elections in the southeast has also worsened the tension. Igbos are a successful trading community, spread throughout the country. Many leading Igbos have condemned Kanu’s cause, including the southeastern governors. But the governors have also called for urgent dialogue, drawing parallels between IPOB, an inflexible government, and the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast.

Drying out and dying out in Kenya’s Turkana

Turkana County lies in the 80 percent of Kenya’s landmass that is classed as drylands, where most inhabitants eke out a living raising livestock – cows, goats, sheep, and camels. Pastoralism is a way of life that is defined by environmental variation, with herders constantly moving their flocks across vast distances to the best available pasture and water points. Coping with the occasional failure of seasonal rains has always been a feature of this arduous livelihood. But as IRIN discovered on a just-concluded reporting mission to Turkana, the drought which for months has ravaged much of east Africa, and which the Kenyan government has termed a national emergency, is the worst in living memory. One local official said half a million head of livestock had succumbed to thirst, hunger, and disease, leaving many herders destitute. Much of the human population has fallen into crisis levels of food insecurity. The climate shock is all the more severe because of the Kenyan drylands’ chronic poverty, and the absence of basic services that would have served as a cushion. And while grassland tends to recover from droughts once rains return, this one is so severe and prolonged that there are fears that some pasture has been scorched beyond repair. All these issues and more – including the pernicious threat posed by an aggressive, invasive, and tantalisingly evergreen shrub – will be explored in depth in IRIN’s forthcoming package of stories.

The refugee’s dating coach

This week, we bring you something a bit different – dare we say it, even uplifting? It’s the final episode in the inaugural series of a new NPR podcast – Rough Translation – all about navigating the dating landscape in Berlin as a Syrian refugee. This is not yet another piece about teaching Arab men how to approach women in miniskirts in the aftermath of the Cologne attacks, although the repercussions of the media frenzy after those events certainly form a backdrop to this must-listen. Instead, this is the story of Aktham, known as “Abu Techno” for his role in getting the word about the Syrian uprising out – and his quest to find a relationship in a new language and culture, with a little help from his German flirt coach Sophia. There are misunderstandings aplenty, honesty, and some fresh perspective on how the little things matter even when you've fled something vast and terrible.

Did you miss it?

Unfair cop: Why African police forces make violent extremism worse

Studies indicate that the majority of young people who sign up to extremist groups do so because of the actions of government security forces, often the killing or arrest of friends or family members. Often the culprit in many African countries is the abusive and intimidatory behaviour of corrupt police officers. In this hard-hitting analysis, IRIN’s Africa Editor Obi Anyadike strikes at the heart of issue, offering his depressing but acurate critique of those paid to protect not endanger society. But in Kenyan senior sergeant Francis Mwangi, someone at the forefront of efforts to reform policing, Anyadike finds some hope. But are the lessons Mwangi is learning as he builds bridges in the Nairobi slum of Kamakunji being written down and taught in police academies across the continent? Probably not. Meanwhile, from Nigeria to Somalia, from Kenya even to South Africa, police forces are seen as subservient to the wishes of ruling elites. In insurgeny-prone areas, hit squads take priority over proper detective work. Tolerance of abuse is mainstream. Governance failures abound. All the talk is of the soft power of preventing violent extremism, or PVE. But if this is to work in an African context, policing needs a radical overhaul.

Anyadike’s story is part of IRIN’s special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel.

(TOP PHOTO: A young girl in a displacement camp in rural Taiz in Yemen. Ahmed al-Basha/IRIN)


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Unfair cop – why African police forces make violent extremism worse

IRIN Gender - Thu, 09/28/2017 - 07:16

Undermanned, underfunded, underwhelming: African police forces struggle to contain regular crime, and they are even further out of their depth when it comes to tackling violent extremism.

The best way to identify threats to public safety is a policing model that promotes trust and collaboration with the community, say the policy manuals on preventing violent extremism, better known as PVE. A positive relationship is believed to help build resilience to radicalisation.

But the reality in much of the world is that the police are viewed as corrupt, violent, and people best avoided.

“In African culture the police are there to intimidate, to coerce,” acknowledged Kenyan senior sergeant Francis Mwangi.

He is trying his best to change that perception. Sharp and articulate, Mwangi is the face of a new policing initiative in the Nairobi slum of Kamakunji, which aims to build a partnership with the community to help blunt radicalisation of the youth.

Traditional policing – far too often based on brutality and arbitrary arrest rather than proper detective work – can create more fear of the security services than the insurgents and is clearly counter-productive.

A new UNDP study based on interviews with more than 500 jihadists –  drawn mainly from Kenya, Nigeria, and Somalia­ – found that in over 70 percent of cases “government action”, including the killing or arrest of a family member or friend, was the tipping point that prompted them to join.

Why is the culture of human rights abuse and resistance to reform so deeply ingrained?

Citizen or subject

Part of the problem is history. African police forces were set up by the colonial powers to maintain control over the local population. Independence didn’t really change that function. Their role largely remains regime protection and representation rather than serving the public.

As a result, most police forces are seriously undermanned. The UN recommends a ratio of 300 officers per 100,000 citizens. It’s a rough guide – force levels are influenced by a range of factors. But Kenya manages a ratio of only 203, Nigeria 187, and Mali – another country facing an Islamist insurgency – just 38.

Police forces are also underequipped. From vehicles and the fuel to run them, to paper, pens, and printing ink. The barest of necessities are in short supply, before you get to functioning forensic labs and national fingerprint databases.

Unsurprisingly, conviction rates are low. In South Africa, one of the more advanced police forces on the continent, only an estimated 10 percent of murder cases end in conviction. In crimes of sexual violence, it falls to between four and eight percent.

The temptation, then, is to turn to forced confessions. In Nigeria, torture has become such an integral part of policing that many stations have an informal torture officer, according to a 2014 Amnesty International report.

The prevalence of shoot-to-kill policies are also a reflection of the failure of the criminal justice system, with sections of the community seeing themselves as targets of persecution.

Police hit squads take that logic one step further. In the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, they are known to operate against so-called radical elements, whose deaths only serve to stoke the anger of Muslim youth, who view themselves as already marginalised.

Nigeria provides a stark example of the impact of the failure of due process. In 2009 the police killed Boko Haram founder Mohamed Yusuf while he was in custody. It did not stop his movement, and his successor, Abubakar Shakau, has proved a far more brutal and implacable enemy.

The impunity of the police commanders involved in the murder undermines the moral authority of the Nigerian state.

Governance failure is key in the tolerance of abuse. A corrupt political system breeds corrupt cops. If states are unwilling to provide opportunities, services, and rights to entire sections of its citizens, “there is then little reason to expect national police actors to do so”, argues a report by the Global Centre on Cooperative Security.

Sympathy for the police

The subservience of the police to the ruling elite doesn’t win them any political favours. Conditions of service are generally appalling and pay poor. Families of officers killed in action can struggle to receive their benefits – with kickbacks expected.

A former Nigerian Inspector General of Police acknowledged that some barracks were “to say the least, nauseating”. In the absence of accommodation, one Nigerian officer told IRIN how he spent the first few months of his posting to the northeastern city of Maiduguri sleeping on two plastic hard-backed chairs.

The police top-brass regularly make whistle-stop visits to the city as part of political entourages, but hardly ever drop in on the officers who are on the frontline of the insurgency, and very much targets for Boko Haram.

Predatory police take out their frustrations on the public – typically the most vulnerable and powerless members of society. According to an Afrobarometer survey across 34 countries, the police are universally regarded as the most corrupt of institutions – well ahead of even government officials.

“In most cases the police in Africa are demoralised because the remuneration they are getting is just peanuts,” said sergeant Mwangi in half-hearted mitigation. “They have a family to feed so can be prone to being compromised.”

In the Afrobarometer survey, more than half of respondents who had been victims of a crime did not report it to the police. Regionally, levels of distrust were highest in East Africa – just 43 percent said they would seek the assistance of police first if they became victims.

That’s because the police don’t have a monopoly on criminal justice. People often have multiple choices, with varying degrees of legitimacy and links to the state – from family and friends out to exact revenge, to local militia, customary courts, and formal commercial security guards.

Western models of PVE stress community policing – the ideal of the “bobby on the beat”. But in an African context, community policing means something quite different.

These informal security systems – some of which are just plain vigilantes – have less to do with notions of state legitimacy, “and more to do with what’s available, trusted, and affordable,” the Global Centre on Cooperative Security report points out.

Resistant to reform

Security sector reform is a growth industry in aid world, despite little concrete evidence of success. The reports compiled by external police experts, paid for with donor money, gather dust on the shelves of police commands, the officer in Maiduguri told IRIN.

According to researcher Alice Hills, police reform cannot be divorced from “fundamental socio-political change”. Without buy-in from the powers that be, the effects are only transitory.

The lessons being learnt by sergeant Mwangi in Kamakunji, for instance, are yet to feature in the curriculum of the Kenyan police college.

Reform is admittedly difficult to tackle in the middle of an insurgency. The priority of governments and their international partners is for harder-hitting security services, not the soft power of PVE.

What that can mean in practice is squads of men who are simply more proficient at harming their fellow citizens and extracting rents.

What is needed are “programmes that recognise that the core problems of governance lies in incentives and desire, not capacity,” write researchers Rachel Kleinfeld and Harry Bader.


201407170953140179.jpg Analysis Conflict Human Rights Unfair cop – why African police forces make violent extremism worse Obi Anyadike IRIN NAIROBI Africa Kenya South Africa Mali Nigeria
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Back to war: Cameroon forcibly deporting Nigerian refugees

IRIN Gender - Wed, 09/27/2017 - 12:10

Cameroonian soldiers are using “extreme physical violence” to force tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Boko Haram insurgency to return to northeastern Nigeria, Human Rights Watch has warned.


In a report released today, the rights group said Cameroon’s security forces have used torture and assault to drive at least 100,000 people back across the border since 2015, even though the government has signed an agreement with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to ensure returns are voluntary and only “when conditions were conducive”.


Many returnees have wound up in camps for displaced people in Nigeria’s Borno State that lack adequate food and services. They are unable to return to their villages due to the continued insecurity in the countryside, and the camps themselves are not always safe.


Cameroon is refusing to register tens of thousands of Nigerian asylum seekers as refugees who are stuck in the border areas, HRW said. It fears infiltration by Boko Haram, who have mounted scores of attacks since 2014 in the country’s Far North Region – typically suicide bombings.


Cameroon’s zero-tolerance policy means more than 4,400 Nigerians were deported between January and mid-August this year and in the process people have been “tortured, assaulted, and sexually exploited”, said the rights group.


The report interviewed a refugee who was deported from the border town of Mora in March. He told HRW that he was one of 40 Nigerians rounded up by Cameroonian soldiers and forced onto a bus.


“They beat some of the men so badly, they were heavily bleeding,” he said. “When we got to the Nigerian border they shouted: ‘Go and die in Nigeria.’”


Cameroon “has correctly committed itself to protecting the lucky Nigerians who made it to the country’s only refugee camp,” said Gerry Simpson, HRW associate refugee director.


“But in the meantime, local authorities and the military are denying tens of thousands of Nigerian asylum seekers protection who risk forced return to the carnage in northeast Nigeria,” he told IRIN.


Simpson said that Cameroon’s deportation of 100,000 Nigerians over the past two years “puts it on a black list of a handful of other countries committing unconscionable mass refoulement”.


UNHCR has also criticised Cameroon over the deportations, while urging Nigeria’s neighbours to continue keeping their borders open to allow refugees in.


Cameroonian Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma has, however, denied the accusations of forced returns. "This repatriation has taken place willingly," he told the BBC in March.

“Abusive restrictions”


But the 70,000 Nigerians who have made it to Cameroon’s official Maroua refugee camp are only marginally better off than those playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities in the border regions.


The refugees have only limited access to healthcare, food, and water and are placed under “a strict encampment policy”, including what HRW called “abusive restrictions” on their movement.


In order to be recognised as refugees and receive aid, all asylum seekers are required to live in Maroua, built in 2013.


But asylum seekers told HRW how thousands of refugees left the camp in April and May this year in protest at the food shortages. The report said the World Food Programme had to cut rations in January by 25 percent due to a lack of funding.


Since the Boko Haram insurgency began in 2009, more than 20,000 people have been killed in Nigeria, with almost 1.9 million internally displaced. A further 200,000 have fled the country, sheltering in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.


In Nigeria’s northeast, more than 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and a further 5.2 million are food insecure. The potential existence of pockets of famine has been a real concern in a country where the humanitarian response is overstretched.


Nigeria has repeatedly claimed to have defeated the eight-year-old insurgency. But Amnesty International said in a report earlier this month that attacks on civilians by Boko Haram in Cameroon and Nigeria have doubled to 381 since April.


More suffering


There are security and humanitarian implications for refugees being forcibly returned to what is still an active war zone, said Cheta Nwanze, head of research at the Lagos-based geopolitical research firm SBM Intelligence.


“Entire villages in some districts have been laid [to] waste and are mostly uninhabited and uninhabitable,” he told IRIN.


“Critical infrastructure, such as roads and schools have been degraded by the effects of war, and the entire northeast region, one of Nigeria's prominent agricultural producing areas, has had an underwhelming farming season for the sixth successive year.”


Nwanze added: “The refugee camps in the region are mostly overcrowded, understaffed, under-resourced, insanitary, and the federal and state officials in many cases have routinely creamed off critical humanitarian supplies meant for people in desperate need.”


In April and May, HRW says at least 13,000 refugees returned from Minawao to a displacement camp in Banki, just across the border in Nigeria. It was attacked by Boko Haram and at least 18 of those killed were from Cameroon.


Disconcertingly, HRW said on one occasion in late June 2017, the Nigerian authorities responded to Cameroonian pressure by sending military vehicles over the border to help Cameroon deport almost 1,000 asylum seekers.


This, the rights group, said makes Nigeria complicit in the unlawful forced return of its own citizens.


But Nigeria is trying to manage a difficult relationship with its eastern neighbour, said Nwanze. Cameroon is part of a regional military alliance that includes Chad and Niger and is aimed at Boko Haram.


“If the Nigerian side declines to cooperate on joint humanitarian and security concerns, a simmering but low-level situation could very well lead to a wider security contagion in the region,” said the security analyst.



TOP PHOTO: Nigerian refugees returned from Cameroon

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Neglected northern Uganda mustn’t be ignored any longer

IRIN Gender - Tue, 09/19/2017 - 06:12

Uganda received its one millionth refugee from South Sudan on 17 August. This influx of people, many of whom have fled terrible violence to seek sanctuary in northern Uganda, has put a significant financial strain on the country and in particular its northern region.

The Ugandan government has looked to external actors for assistance. It hosted a conference in August where international donors pledged support to the tune of $352 million: a significant sum, but still a long way short of the $2 billion that Kampala and the United Nations had hoped to raise.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres lauded the open-door approach of the Ugandan government towards refugees, while the Economist chose to describe it as “a model”. Others remain more sceptical.

Stephen Oola, founder of the Amani Institute Uganda, a Gulu-based think tank, is adamant that “historically refugees have been used by the current regime for dirty political manoeuvres” and that the current situation is “no different”.

In this instance, hosting refugees gives the government leverage to resist international pressure on domestic issues such as the disputed 2016 elections and the campaign to amend constitutional age limits.

But with so much of the focus on the plight of refugees – who are undoubtedly in need of food, shelter, and basic support services – citizens of northern Uganda are once again being sidelined and ignored by their government: an approach that has characterised three decades of political dominance by the ruling National Resistance Movement.   

Widening gap

President Yoweri Museveni’s time in power has been marked by a widening disparity between residents of northern and, to a lesser extent, eastern Uganda and those that live in central and western parts of the country; areas from which Museveni draws the bulk of his political support.

While significant strides have been made in reducing those living in poverty – between 1993 and 2013 the percentage of Ugandans living below the poverty lined dropped from almost 60 percent to 19 percent – in that same period the distribution has changed significantly.

From a fairly equal spread across the four main regions in the early 1990s, in 2013 almost half of those in poverty lived in the north, with west and central areas comprising less than 20 percent of the total. Rising levels of individual inequality are being replicated between regions.

Unquestionably the development of the northern region was stymied by conflict. Fighting between Ugandan forces and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army spanned almost two decades (1987-2006). At its peak more than one million Ugandans were displaced in what was described as the “most neglected crisis in the world”.

But the conflict itself, and its aftermath, produced tensions and divisions between citizens in the north and the government, whose forces were accused of carrying out abuses against civilians when they were supposed to be protecting them. These accusations have not been investigated by the International Criminal Court (which has focused instead on the LRA) or national courts.

In the decade since the end of the conflict, efforts to rebuild infrastructure, improve basic services, and to encourage reconciliation have been outlined in a series of Peace, Recovery and Development Plans.

Now into its third iteration, progress made on improving physical infrastructure is visible but question marks remain over the government’s ability to deliver the “soft” components: schools and hospitals often lack the staff and equipment to function effectively and the “peacebuilding” element has been underfunded and gradually pushed aside.

Lack of engagement

Critics point to the lack of citizen engagement in the design of the plans as a problem. “We saw what was done but not our will was done” was a sentiment captured by a Refugee Law Project report in 2013.

Corruption has also hampered the success of rehabilitation efforts. In 2012, Uganda’s auditor general discovered $12.7 million had been misappropriated by staff in the office of the prime minister; money that was earmarked to develop areas affected by the conflict.

When money did flow to the districts and projects, complaints from local government officials were that the disbursements were delayed, and that the money eventually received was less than promised.

Finally, and linked to the lack of consultation, the absence of compensation for victims who had property, land, or cattle stolen during conflict continues to be a bone of contention.

That’s especially the case when they saw the way the government acted quickly to offer financial support to those affected by the 2010 al-Shabab bombing in Kampala, and the continued support received by people in the Luwero triangle – the NRM’s base of operations when it fought the northern-supported government of Milton Obote in the 1980s.

Action, not promises

A lack of strong political voice in government has also hampered development in the northern region. In the current list of 81 cabinet members and ministers of state only 17 percent of positions are held by representatives from northern constituencies and districts.

Coupled with this is the fact that Museveni has increasingly come to rely heavily on a network of more than 150 special advisers, many of whom are more interested in serving their own patronage networks in southern and western parts of the country than seriously addressing national development challenges.

In a speech to attendees of the Uganda Solidarity Summit on Refugees in June, Museveni spoke of how “the hosting districts should be rewarded” but asked international donors to provide that support in expediting the building of roads, saying that the Ugandan government will “eventually do these”. But the last three decades point to the need for more action and less promises in the region. 

So far northern Uganda has adapted remarkably to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the accompanying pressures. Perhaps communities recalling their own very recent experiences of displacement have been sympathetic to the plight of South Sudanese refugees.

But if the Ugandan government is serious about providing more permanent refuge to those fleeing conflict in neighbouring countries it cannot ignore the underlying development needs in the north.

Better schools, hospitals, and roads are needed, but so too, and perhaps more importantly, is meaningful dialogue with citizens to find solutions that are not imposed but developed in partnership with them. Northern Uganda has, for too long, been pushed to the periphery of government thinking: It’s time for that to change.


PHOTO: The millionth South Sudanese refugee arrives in northern Uganda

ss_refugees_uganda.jpg Opinion Migration Human Rights Politics and Economics Neglected northern Uganda mustn’t be ignored any longer Jamie Hitchen IRIN LONDON Africa South Sudan Uganda
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