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Suffering Syrians, trapped Venezuelans, and a Ugandan refugee swindle: The Cheat Sheet

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 18:29:19 +0000

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:   From bad to worse in Syria’s de-escalation zones   Late last month, IRIN analyst Aron Lund warned of the beginning of a new wave of displacement in northwestern Syria thanks to dual offensives by the government of President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey. But since then it’s been “going from bad to worse” in rebel-held Idlib, warns Save the Children, telling how a displacement camp has been bombed, leaving terrified people with nowhere safe to go. And in the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin, tens of thousands more people have been displaced since 20 January alone. In besieged Eastern Ghouta, which like Idlib was designated as a “de-escalation zone” in a deal hatched last May in Astana, hundreds of children are said to be in urgent need of medical evacuation, food prices are soaring, and monitors and opposition activists say 200 civilians have been killed in four days of government airstrikes. What is left for civilians in the Astana deal that was supposed to wind down years of horrific violence in Syria? The head of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria said this week that the recent violence had made a “mockery of the de-escalation zones”. The Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, went further, declaring: “humanitarian diplomacy is failing”.   No exit: Venezuela’s neighbours close the door   Our never-cheery New Year listicle of humanitarian crises to watch out for warned that regional hospitality could soon wear thin as Venezuela’s neighbours felt the strain of more than a million newcomers. Fast forward less than six weeks and events have already overshot our gloomiest predictions. On a visit Thursday to Cúcuta, where hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans take their first steps on Colombian soil, President Juan Manuel Santos announced a raft of tough new measures: temporary permits allowing Venezuelans to cross over and return at will for vital trade, food, and medicines would be scrapped; those already in Colombia would have 90 days to register with officials before becoming “illegal”. At roughly the same time, 1,500 kilometres to the southeast, in the first town through the Brazilian escape route, Boa Vista, Defence Minister Raul Jungmann closed the door a little further: more troops would be deployed to the border; Venezuelans in the frontier region would be relocated to Brazil’s interior. Meanwhile, the extent of the humanitarian crisis brewing inside Venezuela, where malnutrition and diseases like malaria are reportedly on the rise, is getting harder to ascertain. Journalists are finding it harder to report on sensitive issues as President Nicolás Maduro becomes increasingly authoritarian ahead of snap April elections. With the International Monetary Fund predicting 13,000% inflation this year and the fallout from the election still ahead, these may soon be seen as the good times. In his comments in Cúcuta, Santos laid the blame squarely at Maduro’s door and challenged him to start accepting international humanitarian aid. Watch this space.   Inflated numbers: Ugandan refugee record tarnished   The Ugandan government has suspended five senior officials for allegedly inflating refugee figures to swindle donor funds. But the scandal could yet be worse, with additional allegations that refugee women in the north of the country have been trafficked back into South Sudan and sold as “wives”. Apollo Kazungu, Uganda’s commissioner for refugees, and members of his staff have been accused of colluding with officials from the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme to fiddle the numbers. Millions of dollars in aid are believed to have been lost as a result, the Guardian reported. The EU, which provides funding to the two agencies, is investigating the charges. Uganda claims to house 1.4 million refugees, a million of whom have fled the ongoing c[...]



It is time to end the child soldier stereotype

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 12:30:45 +0000

From Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Myanmar and Nigeria, countless children remain trapped in armed conflict.   The UN Secretary General’s 2017 Report on Children and Armed Conflict names 56 non-state armed groups and seven state armed forces in 14 countries that recruit children.   Escalating conflicts have led to a spike in child recruitment in several regions. Deepening unrest in Congo saw more than 3,000 child soldiers recruited in 2017, levels in the Middle East have doubled, while the shocking scale of recruitment in South Sudan was laid bare again this month by Human Rights Watch.   “In conflicts around the world, children have become frontline targets, used as human shields, killed, maimed and recruited to fight. Rape, forced marriage, abduction and enslavement have become standard tactics,” a UNICEF statement declared in December.    Child soldier myths   Sadly, the use of child soldiers is nothing new, but the recent spotlight placed on Nigeria’s “Chibok girls” and the “Caliphate Cubs” of so-called Islamic State has drawn global attention to the problem.   The abduction of the 276 schoolgirls from the Nigerian town of Chibok by Boko Haram militants in 2014 raised awareness of the harsh reality faced by girls in some armed groups – from sexual abuse to their increasing use as suicide bombers.   The brutal indoctrination of children recruited to fight under IS, and their prominent use in propaganda materials, illustrates both the vulnerability of children and the lengths some armed groups will go to exploit them.       Child soldiers have always played many roles during armed conflict, as porters and cooks, messengers or spies, while sexual, physical, and psychological abuse is also common. Many are kept away from the front lines.   But child soldiers are still too often reduced to stereotypes. A Google search of “child soldier” shows children bearing arms in all but four of the first 50 images, and 47 of them are boys.   The UN estimates up to 40 percent of child soldiers worldwide are in fact girls, who often encounter serious difficulties when returning home.   Another misconception is that once they are freed from an armed group, former child soldiers will return to a normal life and be welcomed with open arms by their communities.   In reality, rejection and discrimination by family and friends is commonplace. Child Soldiers International conducted research in Congo in 2016 that brought to light the hardships endured by returning girl soldiers.   Of 150 girls interviewed, a majority had suffered horrendous sexual abuse, with several taken as “wives” by their captors. Their experiences were compounded when they returned home, as many were ostracised by their families.   Practical support   This is one reason why global efforts to improve the reintegration of child soldiers must intensify, and should be tailored to local environments and the individual needs of children.   For example, we found that the overriding wish of the girls in Congo was to return to education, to help them take on a positive identity and achieve redemption in the eyes of the community. Involvement in agricultural initiatives – the most common source of occupation in eastern Congo – also helped significantly, as well as bringing positive benefits to the broader community.   We also found that engaging community leaders to involve the girls in social activities helped strengthen relationships and change the way family and friends viewed them.   Upholding rights, providing funds   To ensure that reintegration support for these children is effective, there needs to be a more concerted effort to back appropriate programmes.   According to a recent report, while total Official Development Assistance amounted to $174 billion in 2015, only 0.6 percent was spent on projects fully or partially designed to end violence against children. It is crucial the international community recognises the importance of reintegration, and while many programmes [...]



Turkey, Assad offensives bring new displacement crisis in Syria

Tue, 23 Jan 2018 12:12:22 +0000

 A Syrian government offensive in northwestern Syria has already forced more than 200,000 civilians to flee in less than a month, with tens of thousands more at risk as fighting escalates. And with Afrin now under fire from the Turkish army and its allies, it could get much worse still.   Over the past month, Syrian government forces have been pushing into rebel-controlled Idlib Province, and Turkey is now in the early days of an attack on the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin.   Both areas, particularly Idlib, house large numbers of civilians who have already been internally displaced. While Afrin’s crisis is just beginning, some 210,000 people are on the run in Idlib Province. More than half are minors, and Save the Children describes this wave as one of the worst displacement crises of Syria’s nearly seven-year war.   “Many are sheltering in the open in freezing temperatures or in abandoned buildings,” the group said in statement. “With fighting closing in on all sides, many are trapped with nowhere left to flee.”   Turkey attacks Afrin The Turkish attack began 20 January with more than 100 airstrikes against Kurdish targets in Afrin, a mountainous Kurdish enclave in the far northwestern corner of Syria, also known as Kurd Dagh. The following day, Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels crossed the Syrian-Turkish border.   Their opponents belong to a Kurdish militia known as the Popular Defence Forces (YPG). It is a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged war on the government in Ankara for decades over demands for Kurdish rights and self-rule, and faced a brutal crackdown in response.   Turkey is determined to break up the Kurdish hold on northern Syria, where the US Air Force has helped YPG fighters take territory from the so-called Islamic State (IS).   However, the Americans only work with the YPG and its allies in eastern Syria. In the western enclave of Afrin, YPG forces have been left to fend for themselves, battling Turkish- and American-allied rebels and seeking support from Russia, which has helped them manage relations with President Bashar al-Assad’s administration in nearby Aleppo.   The complicated situation has led to a strange mix of international reactions. Except for the Turkey-based Syrian exile opposition, most players with a stake in this war are critical of Ankara’s intervention.   The Syrian and Iranian governments have condemned the intervention as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty, and even governments critical of al-Assad have protested, with France calling for an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council.   Although Washington initially seemed unhappy with the idea of Turkish-Kurdish escalation, a spokesperson later avoided condemning the attacks once they were underway, instead calling on Turkey to “ensure that its military operations remain limited in scope and duration and scrupulous to avoid civilian casualties”, while taking note of Ankara’s “legitimate security concerns.”   Russia, too, is taking a nuanced position. Since March 2017, a small Russian monitoring mission has been stationed in Afrin to prevent clashes and prevent a Turkish intervention. Moscow has moved its monitors out of Turkey’s way and then urged restraint, without demanding a Turkish retreat. YPG leaders are outraged, accusing Moscow of trading Afrin for Turkish concessions in Idlib and the Syrian peace talks. Some suspect that Russia is hoping to use the Turks in order to force the Kurds to accept a return of al-Assad’s government to Afrin.   Turkey seems well aware that it isn’t making any friends by attacking the group chiefly responsible for quashing IS. In an unusual display of public relations savvy, Ankara has named its campaign Operation Olive Branch and Turkish officials are claiming to be targeting both YPG/PKK and IS.   In reality, there are no IS forces anywhere to be found in the area, but saying so certainly makes for better headlines – and YPG co[...]



What you need to know now about cuts to the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees

Mon, 01 Jan 2018 17:01:28 +0000

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees says it is facing “the gravest financial crisis” in its history after the United States announced it was holding back planned funding. But the agency is also promising that services for more than five million people in the Middle East aren’t on the chopping block just yet.

“We are determined to do everything in our power to keep services running,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told IRIN on Wednesday. “Schools and clinics will remain open,” he said, as the agency geared up to launch a massive fundraising campaign to fill in the gaps left by its largest donor.

Here’s a quick guide to what UNRWA is, where its money comes from, and where things might go from here?

Who does UNRWA help and where?

UNRWA’s full name – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – is a mouthful.

Its name (and all press releases, website, and the like) officially refers to “Palestine refugees,” not “Palestinian refugees”. That’s because UNRWA’s definition of a refugee (meant to help those who left or fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict) is tied to place – Palestine refugees are: “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

The organisation began work in 1950, and its mandate was later expanded to help those displaced by the 1967 war that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem (plus the Golan Heights and Sinai, later given back in a peace deal with Egypt.)

Those who meet this definition (and their children) and are registered with UNRWA and live in the areas where the agency works – that’s Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem – are eligible for services from the agency, including education, medical care, camp housing in some places, and more.

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Crisis listicles, localisation in practice, and long-term dangers in Burundi: The Cheat Sheet

Fri, 22 Dec 2017 16:42:34 +0000

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:     Most neglected crisis of 2017?   One disturbing aspect of this poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation is the massive scale of the crises mentioned. That they remain so under-covered by the mainstream media, frankly, beggars belief. However, it will come as no surprise to regular IRIN readers that the Democratic Republic of Congo came out top when representatives of 20 leading aid organisations were surveyed. At the very start of 2017, we flagged the potential for the situation to deteriorate as President Joseph Kabila clung to power and we’ve been reporting since on the major developments from the ground, not only in Kasai, which is beginning to get some belated attention, but also of the emerging dangers in North and South Kivu. With more than four million displaced and a similar number facing critical levels of hunger, the pressure on the underfunded and overstretched response going into 2018 is immense. But other places are rightly highlighted too. Oxfam points out that many people don’t even know that Central African Republic exists, let alone that about a quarter of the population has been displaced by violence that has spread rapidly this year, especially in eastern parts of the country. While Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen all received deserved mentions, some aid organisations took a different tack, flagging the neglect of hunger, famine, and the use of food as a “weapon of war”. Keep your eyes peeled around New Year for IRIN’s own listicle on humanitarian disasters to look out for in 2018 and for our in-depth package on the food crises gripping the globe.       The deadly price of power in Congo   Staying with Congo, it’s army, known as the FARDC, has a long history of committing human rights abuses. In 2008, Human Rights Watch documented testimony of the killing, raping, and looting of civilians by government soldiers as they battled rebels in North Kivu province, which lies in the east of the country. Earlier this week, IRIN published a harrowing report of similar, systematic atrocities in the same province, as related by dozens of civilians there. The rebels the army is fighting in North Kivu may have changed, but it seems the soldiers’ crimes remain the same. So it comes as little surprise to hear that government forces are responsible for many of the abuses against civilians committed in Kasai, another area of Congo on which IRIN has reported on in depth. More than 3,000 people have been killed over the past year in Kasai, where the FARDC is fighting the Kamuina Nsapu insurgency. The backdrop to the violence is Kabila’s refusal to leave office or hold elections even though his final constitutional mandate expired last year. Testimony from Kasai refugees now living in Angola has been collated in a report this week by the global human rights movement FIDH. The extent to which these abuses are evidently planned and organised points to a “deliberate strategy of terror and destruction, which led to crimes against humanity,” it says. And FIDH made no bones about the motive for such violence, describing it as “part of a recurring scheme of Joseph Kabila’s regime to mobilise tension and violence in order to retain power through chaos and diversion.”   When the rubber hits the road   The surge of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh has brought with it another influx: international aid workers. The major NGOs and UN agencies have also flooded in to tackle one of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises. But where does this leave local NGOs? More than a year after the aid sector made ambitious pledges to shift to an aid model led by local organisations, reforms have largely stalled. Local NGOs and civil society groups have become increasingly frustrated with t[...]



The man-made disaster in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta

Tue, 19 Dec 2017 11:29:49 +0000

In the words of UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, it is the “epicentre of suffering”. Just a few kilometres from the affluent central neighbourhoods of Damascus lies the Eastern Ghouta region, where hunger and deprivation reigns among bombed-out homes, as yet another icy winter descends on Syria.   The Eastern Ghouta wasn’t struck by some inexplicable natural disaster, but by war and collective punishment. The insurgent-controlled enclave is under siege by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has imposed harsh restrictions on the entry of food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies.   The UN recently estimated that 393,000 people live in the Ghouta enclave, a quarter of them internally displaced. That represents 94 percent of all the people listed by the UN as living under siege in Syria. Their situation has always been difficult, but after smuggling routes were destroyed and aid deliveries stopped by Syrian authorities earlier this year, it has grown into a major crisis.   A last-minute rush of food deliveries in late October and November seems to have brought temporary relief, but the Ghouta’s humanitarian crisis is sure to continue. This is because it is man-made, and the men who made it do not want it to end.   The siege   A major staging ground for Syria’s anti-government insurgents in 2011 and 2012, the Eastern Ghouta region fell under siege by al-Assad loyalists in April 2013. Government troops have imposed restrictions on the entry of humanitarian supplies and food, while striking the area with artillery and from the air. Thousands have been killed and maimed, and the general health situation has deteriorated severely.   Inside the besieged area, two insurgent groups eventually came to dominate: the Islam Army and Failaq al-Rahman. Both rule their own areas with harsh tactics, while lobbing mortars into Damascus, also killing civilians.   For the past three or four years, the Eastern Ghouta had two points of contact with the outside world. The first was the Wafideen crossing near Douma, a checkpoint gauntlet run by state forces on one side and by the Islam Army on the other. The other was a network of tunnels through the Damascus suburbs, which served to move goods not permitted at Wafideen, including people, fuel, and medicines – and, for that matter, also cigarettes, narcotics, and ammunition.   Both the crossing and the tunnels have been systematically exploited for personal enrichment by corrupt regime and rebel commanders and their business associates. But whoever profits, the bill always ended up with the Ghouta’s besieged civilians, who have no choice but to pay the price asked – literally, a captive market. Vivian Tou'meh/UNHCR Volunteers, humanitarian aid workers and UNHCR staff help to unload supplies in May 2017 In addition to government-approved commerce and rebel smuggling, many in the Ghouta survive thanks to foreign aid. But to reach the besieged area, aid organs must ask the government’s permission. In theory, UN aid workers should not face any obstacles when trying to help civilians, but, in practice, al-Assad’s forces control the environment and wave guns in their faces, leaving the UN no choice but to beg for access. Most of these pleas go unanswered by Damascus, where officials have a political and economic stake in keeping the Ghouta’s humanitarian crisis boiling.   One reason is that profiteering and social problems undermine cohesion on the opposing side. In April-May 2016 and again in April 2017, the Islam Army and Failaq al-Rahman began to attack each other, partly over smuggling profits. Exploiting the breakdown in rebel lines, al-Assad’s government retook large parts of the enclave and was able to shut down the tunnels in late February 2017. As fuel stockpiles dried up, generators and pumps stopped functioning, leading to an acc[...]



Security lapses at aid agency leave beneficiary data at risk

Mon, 27 Nov 2017 21:39:29 +0000

Aid agencies have put some projects on hold while reviewing the security of a popular online system for handling aid distributions, IRIN has learnt. Sensitive personal and financial data on tens of thousands of people in humanitarian aid projects is at risk from hackers, according to a damning security analysis by a financial technology startup.   In a report, Mautinoa Technologies said it identified several security problems in a software platform used by aid agencies to store the data of vulnerable people, exposing them to "very significant risks". The company behind the platform, Red Rose, denies the claims.   Mautinoa, a new provider of payment systems and technologies, was able to enter a cloud-based server of the NGO, Catholic Relief Services, and access names, photographs, family details, PIN numbers and map coordinates for more than 8,000 families receiving assistance from the NGO in West Africa.   In response, Oxfam, one of several customers of the platform, told IRIN it has “temporarily suspended uploading new data,” to its Red Rose systems, as a precautionary measure. A spokesperson told IRIN the NGO, depending on its assessment, may review plans to implement the system in Bangladesh, where it is currently training staff. In recent days, a Red Rose server used for a CARE project in West Africa until May was taken offline. IOM told IRIN it is making plans to reduce its use of external “vendor support.”   The incident is a real-world reminder of the possibility of personal details of aid beneficiaries falling into the wrong hands and the potential for fraud, as aid agencies increasingly turn to voucher systems and digital cash transfers as more efficient forms of assistance.   The risks are significant: gaps in legal and ethical frameworks for humanitarian operations and a lack of professional skills in digital data amount to “a disaster waiting to happen,” according to a recent paper from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.   Humanitarian security analyst Rakesh Bharania, now of Tarian Innovation LLC, and former co-chair of the security and privacy working group of humanitarian-corporate alliance NetHope, told IRIN “the risks to vulnerable people are extremely serious” and there's an “under-appreciated obligation” on aid groups and donors to tackle the issue.   To manage its cash and voucher transfers, CRS – like at least 10 other aid groups – uses the web-based system run by Red Rose, a young company based in Turkey and the UK that has rapidly emerged in recent years as a leading vendor of online data management platforms and apps for humanitarian responders.   By following instructions and clues in a public training video, Mautinoa got access to CRS’s administrative dashboard, giving it full control to view and edit financial and personal details, and to download data. The system, although not connected to the banking system, contains financial records totalling about $4 million, provided by donors including USAID and the European Commission.   CRS, an NGO which manages $900 million of annual income and works in over 100 countries, confirmed the incident to IRIN, blaming an error in “password management”, but Mautinoa said it had found deeper flaws in the software. These claims Red Rose vigorously denies.   The revelations could cause a “shockwave” in the aid sector, according to one analyst. Another said the implications of a bigger security breach could be “terrifying” for the safety of vulnerable refugees and other people in crisis situations. "very poor cyber-hygiene practices going on" Isolated incident?   In a statement provided to IRIN, Red Rose said “this is an isolated incident which we believe does not pose a risk of harm to our clients or beneficiaries.” The company argued that “the unauthorized access is not a system-related issue, but a username and password management iss[...]