Worries grow over 2016 humanitarian impact from El Nino

The strongest El Nino weather cycle on record is likely to increase the threat of hunger and disease for millions of people in 2016, aid agencies say.

The weather phenomenon is set to exacerbate droughts in some areas, while increasing flooding in others.

Some of the worst impacts are likely in Africa with food shortages expected to peak in February.

Regions including the Caribbean, Central and South America will also be hit in the next six months.

This periodic weather event, which tends to drive up global temperatures and disturb weather patterns, has helped push 2015 into the record books as the world’s warmest year.

“By some measures this has already been the strongest El Nino on record. It depends on exactly how you measure it,” said Dr Nick Klingaman from the University of Reading. “In a lot of tropical countries we are seeing big reductions in rainfall of the order of 20-30%. Indonesia has experienced a bad drought; the Indian monsoon was about 15% below normal; and the forecasts for Brazil and Australia are for reduced monsoons.”

As both droughts and floods continue, the scale of the potential impacts is worrying aid agencies. Around 31 million people are said to be facing food insecurity across Africa, a significant increase over the last year.


Put fears aside during humanitarian crisis

The recent violence that so brutally ended lives in Paris, Beirut and San Bernardino understandably heightened concerns about further terror attacks. But we can and must address those security concerns while upholding our fundamental values and obligations. Refusing to do our part in bringing a small fraction of those fleeing terror in Syria to the United States will not make us safer. It does not reflect who we are as a country. And it sends precisely the wrong message to the rest of the world.

Refugees go through more stringent security background checks than any group of immigrants coming to the U.S. The entire process for resettlement can take two years or more. We know firsthand about this exhausting yet critical system of checks and how the U.S. does not compromise on security, even for a single mother with four kids or an orphaned child.

Before Paris, we saw an outpouring of support for Syrians from communities across the United States, with church groups and others being overwhelmed by parishioners’ requests to host Syrian refugees or help humanitarian aid workers prepare refugees for winter. Those were and still are the right instincts. Showing generosity, inclusiveness and compassion in the face of terror and violence reflects the best of who we are as a nation.

[Excerpts of Chicago Sun-Times Opinion piece by Liz Dre who served in the Obama administration from 2009-2014, and Anne Sweeney who has worked to resettle refugees with UNHCR and the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program.] 

More than 1 million refugees reach Europe in 2015

The number of migrants who have entered Europe by sea and land this year has passed 1 million, the International Organization for Migration said Tuesday. Taking into account the latest updates, there had been 1,005,504 “irregular arrivals” in 2015.

The figures show that the vast majority — 971,289 — have come by sea over the Mediterranean. Another 34,215 have crossed from Turkey into Bulgaria and Greece by land.

Among those traveling by sea, 3,695 are known to have drowned. That’s a rate of more than 10 deaths each day this year.

One in every two of those crossing the Mediterranean this year — half a million people — were Syrians escaping the grinding, four-year civil war in their homeland, which has created the worst refugee crisis seen in 25 years, according to the United Nations.

Afghans accounted for 20% of the migrant flow, and Iraqis 7%.

Meanwhile, Turkey is now the largest refugee-hosting country in the world, with close to 2.5 million. And Lebanon, with a population of less than 5 million, is hosting more than a million.


Canada hopes to settle 35,000 to 50,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016

Canada’s Minister of Immigration and Citizenship says his country’s resettlement program for Syrian refugees could double its intake by the end of next year to 50,000.

Canada’s new Liberal government is pushing forward with its pledge to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February.

McCallum says Canada hopes to settle 35,000 to 50,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016, with the UN refugee agency, the Jordanian government and the International Organization for Migration assisting with the vetting process.

McCallum toured development projects and refugee facilities during a two-day stop in Jordan.

[Globe and Mail]

First 1000 Syrian refugees arrive in UK

The first 1,000 Syrian refugees have now arrived in the UK under the government’s scheme to resettle vulnerable people living in refugee camps. Prime Minister David Cameron said the government was providing funding so the refugees get access to housing, healthcare and education.

The UK government has promised to accept 20,000 Syrians over five years.

Cameron has argued that accepting people only from camps in Syria, Turkey and Jordan will provide a “direct and safe” route to safety – instead of encouraging them to make the journey across the Mediterranean by boat.

In response to questioning from MPs, Home Secretary Theresa May said all refugees would be subject to rigorous security checks to make sure Islamic State militants were not among them.

There have been criticisms from some high profile figures who believe the UK’s response to the refugee crisis has not been enough. Lord Phillips, former UK Supreme Court head, and Lord Macdonald, ex-director of public prosecutions, were among 300 who signed an open letter on the issue. One retired judge said the UK could cope with taking in 75,000 refugees a year.


Canadian Red Carpet Treatment for Syrian Refugees

Jim Estill, who made his fortune as a tech entrepreneur, has launched a new startup in his hometown of Guelph, Ontario. Estill is leading a huge community effort to settle about 50 Syrian refugee families. He’s expecting the first to arrive by the end of January and is prepared to foot a bill of about $1.1 million for food, housing and clothing.

“This is absolutely not a religious thing and not a political thing,” Estill said. “It’s a Canadian thing.”

About 125 kilometers (80 miles) to the south, across the world’s longest border, Americans are struggling to reconcile a celebrated immigrant history with fears refugees from the Middle East will steal jobs, drain public services or, worse yet, turn out to be terrorists. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has issued a call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. altogether and governors of more than 30 states are opposed to accepting the victims of a brutal civil war in Syria that has displaced more than four million people.

In Canada, there are no such qualms. The new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has personally helped fit Syrian children into puffy winter jackets and major corporations are donating goods, services and cash, including a C$5 million contribution to resettlement programs last week by Canadian National Railway Co., the second-largest railroad in North America.

“We get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult situations,” Trudeau said as he and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne greeted the first chartered flight of refugees at Toronto’s Pearson airport. His government has promised to bring in 25,000 Syrians before the end of February, more than twice the target of the Obama administration.

Perrin Beatty, chief executive officer of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and a former member of parliament, is set to meet with 60 company executives to figure out how they can help the new arrivals. In 1979, Beatty was a rookie cabinet minister in a Conservative government that evacuated 50,000 Vietnamese refugees — the so-called boat people — to Canada. He is struck by the contribution they have made to the country and sees the new influx of Syrians as no different than earlier settlers who fled persecution and other disasters, including his own Irish forebears in the early 1800s.

A former defense minister, Beatty said any security anxieties about the Syrian refugees are misplaced. “Your average planeload of refugees is far better vetted than the average planeload of tourists,” he said. “What you’re getting is enormously grateful people who fled from the most terrible conditions of oppression and war. These are people who want to make a new life and contribute.”

Canadians take pride in the waves of refugees they’ve taken in since the Second World War (the record was more checkered beforehand), including the 37,000 Hungarians in 1957; more than 7,000 Ismaili Muslims evicted from Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972 and the boat people in 1979. Canada’s positive record of diversity is often invoked when its leaders visit other nations and has become a major component of the country’s self-identity.

As for Donald Trump’s views, Estill said he has little patience for people playing politics with so much hardship to address. “It’s just troubling that someone with as much influence as Trump would be mongering hate,” he said. “I don’t believe in hate, and I don’t believe hate ever solves anything,” he said. “These are people. That’s what they are.”


Migrant crisis a historic test for Europe

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has described the migrant crisis as a “historic test” for Europe.

More than one million refugees have come to Germany so far this year, officials there say.

Defending her policy on migrants at the annual conference of her CDU party, Mrs Merkel said that Germany was standing by its humanitarian duties. But she said the flow of migrants would be reduced – a step that some members of the party have been calling for.

The German leader said the decision by Germany and Austria to allow in migrants stranded in the Hungarian capital, after many started walking towards the border on 4 September, was a humanitarian imperative.

“Something that was far away from us – that we have seen on television – is now literally at our front door,” she said. “The war in Syria, the barrel bombings by (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad, the spread of IS in Syria and Iraq, the fact that Libya has no functioning government, the situation in Afghanistan – all that is no longer far away but has come to us.”

Mrs Merkel, who has led Germany for 10 years, was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year last week. The US news magazine cited her role in Europe’s crises over migration and the Greek debt crisis, saying she had provided “steadfast moral leadership in a world where it is in short supply”.


Funding the global humanitarian crisis

As the UN asks for a staggering $20bn in humanitarian funding, some of the leading donor states share their thoughts on the future of the sector:

United Kingdom (Desmond Swayne, minister of State and lead for Department for International Development) – The UK is leading the way as the third-largest donor in the world to emergency appeals. But we need other donors to step up – the UN appeal for Syria, for instance, is only 49% funded…. The international community as a whole needs to address the growing gap between humanitarian need and resources. … Unfortunately, humanitarian need is increasing, fueled in part by the consequences of conflict. The number of people affected by crises around the world has almost doubled over the past decade, and over 90% of people in extreme poverty are living in countries that are politically fragile, environmentally vulnerable or both. To meet these challenges head on, we have refocused half of DfID’s budget on supporting fragile and broken states and regions to tackle many of these issues at the source.

Norway (Børge Brende, minister for foreign affairs) – I’m very concerned about the widening gap between humanitarian need and funding. Norway is one of the world’s largest humanitarian donors, per capita. We increased the humanitarian budget this year and will further increase the budget substantially for next year to respond to the increasing needs. A major part of this funding goes through UN appeals. … However, we cannot depend on a continuous increase in funds. We need to develop better ways to use our set of resources more effectively. We must also be able to think long-term in humanitarian efforts, and focus on resilience to shocks in development assistance. Prevention of conflict and crisis through mediation, human rights, democracy and good governance is essential and also more cost-effective than emergency assistance.

United States (Spokesperson for USAid, the US government’s development agency) – The US is the world’s single largest humanitarian donor. In the fiscal year 2015, the US Agency for International Develepment (USAID) and the Department of State provided more than $6bn in life-saving humanitarian assistance. … Given the rising needs in long-term protracted humanitarian emergencies such as Syria and South Sudan, new humanitarian emergencies in Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and the anticipated preparation for and response to El Nino-related disasters, the United States expects its humanitarian resources to be stretched in the coming year.

Sweden (Isabella Lövin, minister for international development cooperation) – We are the fifth biggest bilateral donor in the world and we expect to give at least as much as we gave last year, and probably more. Our concern is that so many other countries don’t live up to the aim of giving 0.7% of GPI to development aid. Also, it’s not just about how much you give, it’s about how much you give that’s un-earmarked. Sweden is a big donor of un-earmarked funding, and that means that it’s much more easily available for humanitarian organizations like the UNHCR, and can be used immediately to respond to a crisis. That makes it much more valuable funding, and we’d like to see other countries giving more that’s un-earmarked.

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Unparalleled challenges require new and innovative solutions. Next year, the UN will be holding its first-ever World Humanitarian Summit. The hope is that this will serve as a forum for change, where countries can come together with solutions to improve the humanitarian system to meet the challenges of today and the future.

[The Guardian]

Hunger is a logistical issue

There are nearly 800 million hungry people around the globe.

There is no food shortage. Hunger is a logistics problem. This crisis involves all aspects of the supply chain, including storage, transportation, packaging, international shipping, customs clearance, roads, tracking and visibility.

In rural Africa, food often goes uneaten and wasted because supply chains aren’t delivering small-scale farmers’ surpluses to their local or regional markets. This is common in many regions.

About a third of the food produced in the world is wasted. Some of it rots in warehouses while it waits to go to market. Some rots in ports and at border crossings waiting for clearance. And some rots in the field because it’s just not economically beneficial for the farmer to harvest it.

In India, an estimated 30% of fruits and vegetables rot before they reach the market. This is due to a lack of cold storage facilities. Meanwhile, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa lose 30% to 40% of their harvested crops each year to insects, mold and moisture.

In Africa, the amount of food that goes bad is enough to feed 49 million people.

[Read full CNN article]

Border surge overwhelms US immigration officials

The number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the US border is at an all-time high. So far, the U.S. Border Patrol has picked up over 10,500 — more than twice the number at the same point last year.

And the number of families trying to cross also has surged, with more than 12,500 people caught — a 173 percent increase over last year.

The vast majority of unaccompanied children and families come from three Central American countries: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

The surge of illegal immigrant children continued unabated in November, pushing the Obama administration to announce emergency measures.  Migration usually surges in the spring then drops in the summer and remains low through the winter. This year has defied that trend, leaving the Obama administration scrambling to rejuvenate its capacity to handle a problem that Homeland Security officials hoped was behind them.

The surge of Central American women and children began several years ago and peaked in May and June last year, when more than 20,000 were caught at the US-Mexico border every month. By the end of last year, the numbers had dropped precipitously and Homeland Security officials were optimistic that they had solved the problem.

Under Obama administration policy, illegal immigrant children from countries other than Mexico or Canada cannot be sent home quickly. Instead, they must be processed and sent to live in juvenile homes or with sponsors, awaiting court dates that often don’t come for years.

[Washington Times]

The other migrant crisis

A year after President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced with great fanfare their plans to normalize relations, an old source of tension has stubbornly returned, with a rush of Cubans trying to get to the United States.

The number of unauthorized Cubans arriving in the United States nearly doubled in fiscal 2015, rising to 43,159 from 24,278 the previous year, according to U.S. border officials, and the surge appears to be accelerating. Combined with the more than 20,000 who are issued immigration visas annually under existing accords, it amounts to the largest influx of Cubans into the United States in decades. Not since the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when 125,000 landed in South Florida, have so many Cubans headed north.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) say American generosity is being abused by Cuban migrants who obtain U.S. residency and then begin traveling back to the island to ferry merchandise, run small businesses or get cheap dental work.

Cubans have been streaming north by land, sea and air all year. The U.S. Coast Guard picked up 4,462 at sea during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 and has retrieved more than 900 since then. Several thousand asylum-seeking Cubans have landed in Miami, flying via the Bahamas or Cayman Islands with European passports issued in recent years to the descendants of Spanish immigrants. The largest number have come overland from Ecuador, traveling by bus and taxi through Colombia, Central America and Mexico to reach the United States.

The flood of migrants is creating–on a far smaller scale–the kinds of scenes that Europe has experienced as Middle Eastern and South Asian migrants have poured over the borders.

[Washington Post]

Germany approaches 1 million asylum seekers in 2015

Germany has registered 964,574 new asylum-seekers in the first 11 months of the year, putting it on course for more than a million in 2015. The number of migrants arriving has not slowed despite the winter cold.

Germany has registered more asylum-seekers than any other nation in Europe, although at about 1% of its population, less per capita than several smaller nations.

The number of arrivals in Germany so far this year is four times the total for all of 2014. Syrians, for whom Germany has adopted an open-door policy, have been the largest group at around a third.

Germany’s interior ministry said the time taken to process applications had been brought down from an average of around seven months in 2014 to five months this year – in part by speeding applications from Syria and from what it defines as “safe countries of origin” – such as West Balkan states.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe fell by more than a third in November, due to poor weather and a Turkish crackdown on people smugglers.


Initiatives and commitments from Climate Conference

Initiatives and commitments to help protect the most vulnerable from climate change were announced at the Paris climate change conference, having the potential to mitigate the impact of climate change on older people, who often bear the brunt of its effects.

“Today, there are 901 million people over 60, predicted to reach 1.4 billion by 2030, with nearly three-quarters living in developing countries,” said Clodagh Byrne, Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience Adviser at HelpAge International. “Older people are among those who suffer the most from the impacts of climate change due to the prevalence of health conditions, social isolation and limited mobility.”

Water insecurity is particularly hard on older people. They’re more susceptible to dehydration, infection and disease. Climate change is expected to reduce water quality through increased temperatures, pollution and disruption of treatment facilities, and the resulting health effects will be worse for older people.

Poorer older people suffer due to a combination of factors including distance to or difficult-to-access water distribution points, the costs involved and non-age friendly latrines.

Resilience initiatives were also announced, amounting to $1 billion dollars pledged to protect the most vulnerable from climate change. Commitments include: early warning systems for over 50 of the least developed countries and small island states, access to insurance to 400 million vulnerable people in five years, and a UN initiative to protect 634 million people living in risk-prone coastal areas and those living in areas at risk from droughts and floods.

[HelpAge International]

British aid to India ends this month

After decades of giving millions of pounds to India for various projects, Britain’s traditional aid program to India will end this month and move to a new relationship that focuses on pro-poor private sector projects and technical assistance.

Ending aid to India in 2015 was announced by the secretary for International Development in November 2012 amidst growing demands that an economically-challenged Britain should stop giving aid to a country that had its own space and nuclear programs.

Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has stopped approving new financial grant aid to India. All new programs will be either technical assistance or private sector initiatives financed using returnable capital; and working together on global development issues.

After 2015, DFID said its technical assistance and returnable capital program will focus on three thematic areas: urbanization, economic development and empowering women and girls, which reflect the Government of India’s priorities.

Britain spends 0.7% of its gross national income on international aid.

[Hindustan Times]

Syrian refugee makes good on hand up

Abdul Halim al-Attar, a refugee from Syria who was photographed selling pens in the streets of Beirut, is now running three businesses in the city after an online crowdfunding campaign in his name collected $191,000. The 33-year-old father of two opened a bakery two months ago and has since added a kebab shop and a small restaurant to his business venture. He employs 16 Syrian refugees.

One of those moved by al-Attar’s plight was an online journalist and web developer in Norway, Gissur Simonarson, who created a Twitter account and an Indiegogo campaign to raise $5,000 for al-Attar and his family. When it closed three months later, the campaign had collected almost forty times more: $188,685. Another $2,324 in donations has trickled in since then.

“Not only did my life change, but also the lives of my children and the lives of people in Syria whom I helped,” he said. Al-Attar said he gave away about $25,000 to friends and relatives in Syria.

For al-Attar, it’s a long way from Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp on the southern edge of Damascus where he was employed at a chocolate factory. The camp is now devastated by fighting.

Getting the funds to al-Attar has been a struggle. So far he has only received 40 percent of roughly $168,000, after Indiegogo and Paypal took out about $20,000 in processing and banking fees. PayPal does not operate in Lebanon, so at the moment the cash is brought over to Lebanon bit-by-bit by a friend of the campaign who can make withdrawals in Dubai.

Despite his frustration and the uncertainty about when and whether he’ll receive the rest of his money, al-Attar feels grateful. He sported a T-shirt reading “Stay positive,” and a large smile. “When God wants to grant you something, you’ll get it,” he said.

“Seeing that he opened a restaurant and his kids look well taken care of, I’m really happy,” Simonarson said in a phone interview from Oslo.


Mark Zuckerberg and wife to give $45 billion to charity

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged to give away his fortune to make the world a “better place” for his new baby daughter Maxima and others.

In a letter to Maxima posted on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan said they were going to give away 99 percent of their company shares — estimated value $45 billion — during their lives in an effort to make a happy and healthy world.

Zuckerberg will “gift or otherwise direct” nearly all his shares of Facebook stock, or the after-tax proceeds of sales of shares, to further a mission of “advancing human potential and promoting equality” by means of activities for the public good, the California-based social network said in a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Zuckerberg early on added his name to those who have taken a Giving Pledge to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. Names on the pledge include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, and IAC/InterActiveCorp powerhouse Barry Diller.

“We believe all lives have equal value, and that includes the many more people who will live in future generations than live today,” Zuckerberg and Chan said. “Our society has an obligation to invest now to improve the lives of all those coming into this world, not just those already here.”


Syrian refugees grapple with perceptions

The Paris attacks are sparking fears in Europe that the Islamic State is hiding its operatives among the tens of thousands of refugees pouring into the European Union each month.

One Syrian refugee, Samar Alalaly, rejects those concerns. The 30-year-old Syrian mother of three, who arrived in Germany six weeks ago, says they don’t make sense. “We ran away from war,” she says. “We didn’t come to make war here.”

In a tent for newcomers, Kholoud Daadi, 39, says it’s frightening to know the terror group ISIS, one of the main reasons her family fled Syria, carried out attacks in Europe a week before she arrived in Germany.

God willing, she says, she and other refugees can convince German society that they are moral people who treasure peace and security as their hosts do.

Many Germans, including the authorities, aren’t convinced that’s true of everyone. And profiling has been very public. For instance, on Saturday night at Alexanderplatz in Berlin, police patted down a half-dozen young Middle Eastern men they had rounded up in front of passersby. The young men, one of whom carried a skateboard, looked upset as they held their hands up in the air.

Fauzi Nagdali, a 21-year-old from the Syrian city of Homs, says such tactics are unfair. He arrived in Germany and was recently approved for asylum. He says that Syrians have undertaken a life-threatening journey to find a safe haven, only to be arrested.


On Syrian refugees and friendly European passport holders entering the USA

The U.S. government routinely takes 18 to 24 months to screen would-be Syrian refugees before they are allowed to board flights to the United States.

Meanwhile, an estimated 20 million people fly to the United States each year from visa waiver countries such as France and Britain.

U.S. officials have quietly acknowledged that they are far more worried about the possibility that would-be attackers from the Islamic State or other militant groups could enter the United States as travelers from visa waiver countries rather than as Syrian refugees.

Officials have acknowledged that a European traveling to Syria to train with a group like Islamic State might be able to later enter the United States without significant scrutiny, if they are not already known to U.S. intelligence or partners such as Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 or France’s DGSI.

Consequently, the White House have just announced changes to the U.S. visa waiver program so that security officials can more closely screen travelers from 38 countries allowed to enter the United States without obtaining visas before they travel.


UN humanitarian funding update

  • As of 30 November, the funding gap of the UN-coordinated inter-agency appeals is US$10.2 billion, which means that 51 per cent of the required funds remain unmet.
  • So far in 2015, $2.2 billion in pledges remain outstanding.
  • Since January, more than $421.1 million has been allocated for life-saving interventions in 42 emergencies worldwide: $252.2 million in rapid response grants to 31 emergencies and $169 million to sustain humanitarian operations in 20 underfunded and protracted crises.
  • Through the end of November, more than $400 million in support of people in some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
  • Libya continues to experience ongoing violence, depriving the most vulnerable of their basic needs and triggering large-scale displacement, forcing Libyans to flee on multiple occasions.

[From UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs]

America designates new head of USAID

The US Senate signed off on a new administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) amid a growing Syrian humanitarian crisis.

Despite the bipartisan consensus around her nomination, Gayle Smith was delayed over partisan fighting on unrelated issues for 7 months.

“At a time when continued U.S. leadership in addressing humanitarian crises around the globe is a matter of the greatest urgency, it is critically important that the U.S. Agency for International Development  be led by an Administrator of the best possible qualifications,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in a statement. “I am certain Gayle will build on her remarkable record to tackle global challenges and move us closer to a world where all people can reach their full potential.”

Oxfam America’s president Raymond C. Offenheiser remarked that Smith is “an unequivocal champion of those facing poverty and injustice.”