Europeans fall back on old alliances in lieu of unified refugee strategy

Roughly five weeks ago, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council and one of the European Union’s most powerful political figures, issued a blunt warning to its 28 countries: Come up with a coherent plan to tackle the refugee crisis within two months, or risk chaos.

Surprisingly, given the plodding pace of European Union policy making, many of Europe’s national leaders are now moving swiftly, announcing tough new border policies and guidelines on asylum.

Austria joined with many of the Balkan countries to approve a tough border policy in what some are wryly calling the return of the Hapsburg Empire. Four former Soviet satellites, led by Poland and Hungary, have become another opposition power bloc.

All the while, a call for unity by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is increasingly being ignored, even as she struggles to tamp down on a political revolt at home while searching for a formula to reduce the number of refugees still trying to reach Germany.

“We are now entering a situation in which everybody is trying to stop the refugees before they reach their borders,” said Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a research institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. Krastev added, “The basic question is, which country  turns into a parking lot for refugees?” … Greece [is]  the so-called refugee parking lot.

While European Union leaders agreed to pay 3 billion euros, roughly $3.3 billion, to aid organizations in Turkey to help stanch the flow of migrants departing the Turkish coast for the Greek islands, record numbers of migrants keep coming.

[New York Times]

70000 refugees may be stuck in Greece this month

The UN is warning of a growing humanitarian challenge along Macedonia’s border with Greece as thousands fleeing war remain stuck in limbo. Four Balkans countries have announced a daily cap on how many people can pass through and Austria has restricted entry for hundreds of thousands.

Following the border shutdowns, Greece, a primary gateway to Europe, has been inundated with refugees. Greek officials say the number of refugees trapped in the country may reach 70,000 in the coming weeks, although a NATO plan to crack down on smugglers could limit the flow of migration significantly.

About 22,000 migrants and refugees were already in Greece, Yannis Mouzalas, the immigration minister, told Greek Mega TV on Sunday.

Last week, NATO diplomats said ships already deployed in the Aegean Sea, including Turkish and Greek vessels, would pass intelligence and reconnaissance information to Turkish and Greek coastguards and to the EU border agency, Frontex, and also return to Turkey any people rescued by NATO crews.

Greece has asked for emergency funding from Europe to tackle the unprecedented crisis, Mouzalas said, without providing details on the amount requested.

[Al Jazeera]

UN envoy says Syrian ceasefire ‘moving in the right direction’

International task forces established to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access and a ceasefire in Syria “are moving in the right direction,” a United Nations mediator said Thursday, ahead of a Friday deadline to accept a truce.

Speaking to the press in Geneva, Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, said that today’s humanitarian task force meeting was “useful and effective,” reporting that humanitarian aid on nearly 200 trucks had reached to 110,000 people in besieged areas and, yesterday, a trial run began for air drops aimed at reaching another 200,000 people in need. However, he stressed that “nothing is enough and much more need to be done.”

The 26th of  February is a “crucial day,” Mr. De Mistura said, noting that, following a midday deadline for the acceptance of the cessation of hostilities agreement, a ceasefire task force will meet to discuss the modalities. He will then brief the UN Security Council and will speak to the press to announce a date for the resumption of intra-Syrian talks aimed at ending five years of bloody warfare there.

If the cessation of hostilities takes hold, humanitarian assistance would reach more people not just in the besieged areas but everywhere in Syria, he said.

[UN News Centre]

Humanitarian fears hang over Balkans migrant talks

Balkan countries along the well-trodden migrant path towards northern Europe met Wednesday to explore ways to stem the flow despite growing fears that tighter controls will spark a humanitarian crisis, particularly in Greece.

The talks come after figures showing Europe’s migrant headache continuing to rage, with over 110,000 people arriving in Greece and Italy so far this year alone, following more than one million in 2015.

The influx has boosted anti-immigration parties, driven a wedge among many of the 28 members of the European Union and thrown into doubt the continent’s cherished passport-free Schengen Zone that is crucial for commerce.

Sparked by sparked by Austria’s much-criticized introduction last week of daily migrant limits, countries throughout the western Balkans have begun unilaterally to impose restrictions. Most recently, Macedonia has closed its frontier to Afghans and introduced more stringent document checks for Syrians and Iraqis seeking to travel to northern and western Europe. The restrictions have caused a bottleneck of thousands of people at the Greek-Macedonian border.

Amnesty International hit out Wednesday at Europe’s “shameful” response, saying most EU countries had “simply decided that the protection of their borders is more important than the protection of the rights of refugees”.


Will international NGOs survive?

International NGOs (INGO), whether humanitarian, human rights, development or environment, are all facing a set of critical and far-reaching crises.

Their very legitimacy is in question from all sides: governments, southern partners, donors, and even their own staff. The critiques are myriad. Southern organizations and governments argue that INGOs are unaccountable and have too much power; humanitarian agencies, meanwhile, fail to consult beneficiaries and local groups effectively, and it’s unclear where donors’ money goes. At home some politicians argue that INGOs shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them by campaigning while receiving government grants. Conversely, they’re accused of not campaigning enough; that they are apolitical, and too close, in some cases, to the corporate sector.

In spite of what some perceive as great successes of the sector – reaching the 0.7% foreign aid target or international debt relief – there is no backing away from the view that the sector needs, at the very least, a tune-up, if not a wholesale revolution to enable it to face modern times.

Social innovation seems to be rising up around INGOs, making them appear out-dated and static. Social enterprises are rapidly occupying the service delivery space where INGOs once led, with a fresh wave of philanthro-capitalists seeking out “beyond charity” solutions to poverty.

The sector’s traditional approach to challenge has been to develop codes of practice, joint charters, or training schemes. Some go further: Action Aid and Oxfam have shifted their headquarters to the global south. But such approaches feel a bit like changing a warning sign on a poorly engineered aircraft – they still have a high likelihood of failure.

It is unlikely that INGOs will survive, at least in their current form, without a direct full-frontal assault on the sector.

[An Opinion printed in The Guardian]

Why so much progress in developing countries?

Three major forces have been at work since the 90’s:
First, the end of the cold war, the demise of communism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union dramatically improved the global environment for sustained and peaceful development. The United States and the Soviet Union stopped propping up some of the world’s nastiest dictators. Proxy wars and political violence associated with the cold war came to an end in Central America, Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, and elsewhere. Perhaps most powerfully, economic and political ideologies shifted substantially. Communism and strong state control lost credibility and a new consensus began to form around more market-based economic systems and –at least in many countries– more accountable and democratic governance, along with greater respect for basic freedoms and rights. Developing countries around the world introduced major economic and political reforms and began to build institutions more conducive to growth and social progress.

Second, globalization and international access to new technologies brought more trade and finance and a far greater exchange of ideas and information. Exports from developing countries are five times as large today as they were just 20 years ago, and financial flows are 12 times as large, creating many more economic opportunities. With deeper global integration came technologies that spurred progress: vaccines, medicines, new seed varieties, mobile phones, the Internet, and faster and cheaper air travel. To be sure, globalization has brought challenges, risks, and volatility, not least the 2007 food and 2008 financial crises. But it has also brought investment, jobs, ideas, and markets, all of which stimulated progress.

Third, while global changes mattered, the countries that began to move forward did so primarily because of strong leadership and courageous actions by the people in those countries themselves.

In addition, foreign aid played a supporting role in bolstering progress. Aid has been particularly helpful in improving health, fighting disease, mitigating the impacts of natural disasters and humanitarian crises, and helping to jump-start turnarounds from war. Aid programs have helped save millions of lives by fighting malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and diarrhea, and by immunizing children around the world. Aid is not the most important driver of development, but it has played an important secondary role in the development surge over the past two decades.

[Christian Science Monitor]

Pope delivers a stinging critique of both US and Mexico for mistreating the poor and marginalized

On Wednesday, Pope Francis unleashed another aspect of his complex public persona: The disappointed prophet who excoriates world powers for mistreating the poor and marginalized.

Celebrating Mass in Ciudad Juarez, a city just across the border from the United States, Francis delivered a stinging critique of leaders on both sides of the fence, calling the “forced migration” of thousands of Central Americans a “human tragedy” and “humanitarian crisis”. … “Injustice is radicalized in the young,” the Pope said during his homily before a congregation of more than 200,000 people. “They are ‘cannon fodder,’ persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs.”

The Bible readings at the Mass told the story of Jonah, another angry prophet. The Bible passages set up the Pope to blister injustices in Mexico and indifference in the United States, casting both countries as modern-day Ninevehs. “Go and tell them that injustice has infected their way of seeing the world,” the Pope said, describing Jonah’s mission to rouse the city of Nineveh from the morass of moral decay. “Go and help them to understand that by the way they treat each other, ordering and organizing themselves, they are only creating death and destruction, suffering and oppression.”

It was a grand geopolitical gesture from the Pope’s political playbook, mirroring his prayer at the wall separating Palestinian territories and Israel in 2014. It also thrust Francis into the polarized debates over immigration in both the United States and Mexico.


UN: Humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Yemen

The UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien has said a “humanitarian catastrophe” is unfolding in Yemen with more than 21 million Yemenis in need of some form of aid.

O’Brien said that the situation was exacerbated by increased restrictions on efforts to respond to what he called the “staggering needs” of millions of people, including the diversion of a UN aid ship by Saudi-led coalition forces.

O’Brien said that more than 6,000 people had been killed since the beginning of coalition strikes against Houthi rebels in March 2015, of which about half were civilians. He said more than 700 children had been killed and some 1,000 injured. At least 7.6 million people were now “severely food-insecure” and more than 3.4 million children were out of school, the official said.

UN sanctions monitors said in a report last month that the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels have targeted civilians and that some of the attacks could be crimes against humanity.

[Al Jazeera]

A major transformation in the Global War on Poverty – Part 1

Global poverty has fallen faster during the past 20 years than at any time in history. Around the world hunger, child death, and disease rates have all plummeted. More girls are getting into school. In fact, never before have so many people, in so many poor countries, made so much progress in reducing poverty, increasing incomes, improving health, reducing conflict and war, and spreading democracy.

Some of these gains–especially the declines in poverty and child mortality–rank among the greatest achievements in history. Yet few people are aware that they are even happening.

In 1993 almost 2 billion people around the world lived on the paltry sum of less than $1.90 a day (the World Bank’s definition of “extreme” poverty), or less than $10 a day for a family of five. By best estimates, the number was down to around 700 million in 2015, and falling. More than 60 developing countries around the world have seen a decline in the number of extreme poor, despite continued population growth.

Meanwhile, millions more poor people have access to clean water and basic sanitation facilities. The share of people living in chronic hunger has been cut nearly in half, with better nutrition and lower rates of stunted growth in children.

Prior to 1980 just half of girls in developing countries completed primary school; now 85 percent do. Less than 50 percent of adult females could read and write, but today global female literacy has passed 93 percent.   Read more

A major transformation in the Global War on Poverty – Part 2

Perhaps most remarkable of all are the widespread improvements in the global war on poverty is in basic health.

Diarrhea killed 5 million children a year in 1990, but less than 1 million in 2014. Malaria deaths have been cut by half since 2000, and deaths from tuberculosis and HIV have both fallen by one-third.

Because of better nutrition, greater access to immunizations, and success in fighting diseases, life expectancy at birth has increased from 50 years in 1960 to 65 years today.

The biggest health gains have been for children. The rate of child death has declined in every country in the world since 1980

At the same time, economic growth has accelerated, and average incomes have risen. As incomes have risen and democracy has spread, conflict, war, and violence have fallen sharply.  (This fact surprises anyone reading the daily news about Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan.)

The fight against extreme poverty is far from over. Not all developing countries are making progress, and even in those that are, not everyone is moving forward. There are still 700 million people living in extreme poverty. Every year, 6 million children die of preventable diseases. Many countries, especially the poorest, remain vulnerable to calamities such as the Ebola outbreak that swept through West Africa in 2014. Too few women and girls get the opportunities they deserve. Nevertheless, the changes over the past two decades are a big start–the strongest and most promising start ever–in improving the well-being of millions of people in many of the world’s poorest countries.

[Christian Science Monitor]

Syria allows humanitarian aid into 7 besieged areas

The United Nations said Tuesday that Syria has agreed to allow access for humanitarian aid to seven besieged areas of the war-torn country. The areas involved are Deir ez-Zor, Foah and Kafraya in Idleb, and Madaya, Zabadani, Kafr Batna and Madamiyet Elsham in rural Damascus.

Damascus gave the green light to the aid convoys after the UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura visited the capital on Tuesday.

De Mistura earlier in the day had announced that an aid convoy would be sent Wednesday to several towns under siege by the regime or the rebels.

“It is clear it is the duty of the government of Syria to want to reach every Syrian person wherever they are and allow the UN to bring humanitarian aid, particularly now after so long time,” he told journalists after a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.


Refugee Camps are anything but temporary

More than 600,000 refugees have flooded into Europe this year. However, more than 58 million displaced people remain, mostly in the developing world. Millions are stuck in refugee camps, housed in row after row of tents, enduring the cold and blistering heat and dust that blows in from every direction.

There is a spirit of technological optimism in the humanitarian community that sees refugees’ problems as logistical issues amenable to high-tech solutions. In Turkey refugees use debit cards provided by the World Food Program to shop in stores rather than waiting for food packages. In Jordan, refugees get texts from UNHCR when aid money is deposited and then use an iris scanner to withdraw cash at an ATM. Facebook just announced it will bring the Internet to camps around the world.

Refugee camps are meant for short-term emergencies. They are supposed to be temporary way stations where displaced people can get medical care, food supplies, and shelter until they can either return home or be resettled elsewhere.

But although camps are designed to be temporary, the average length of stay is now more than 17 years. More than half of the world’s displaced people are in what UNHCR calls “protracted displacement.” In Nepal’s Beldangi Camp, refugees have waited 18 years to resettle or return to Bhutan. In the Republic of Georgia, people displaced from Abkhazia 23 years ago are still crammed into decaying Soviet hotels that have become vertical refugee camps. Many Palestinian camps, some almost 70 years old, are now outright slums.

In order to pursue the explicit goal of keeping displaced people from being stuck in poverty and violence or to achieve the implicit goal of preventing an even more massive influx of migration into Europe, donor countries must find a way to turn camps into places where people can rebuild their lives.


Three reasons humanitarian aid fails

In 2008, Indiana University geographer Elizabeth Dunn went to Georgia on a Fulbright grant. After a year living near a 2500-resident camp, she decided to spend the next several summers living with the residents. Her research focus turned to how the refugees rebuilt their lives using humanitarian aid from government agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

What surprised Dunn was that much of the aid was not helpful. Dunn says the problems she saw in Georgia are typical of many refugee relief efforts, including the current Syrian crisis. In an interview with Science, she lays out three lessons on humanitarian aid from the perspectives of those who receive it, and she explains why such aid often fails.

1. Not communicating a plan – Because aid agencies, NGOs, and other humanitarian groups often compete with each other for funding, they don’t always tell each other—and refugees—what they’re doing. That includes what kind of aid they plan to deliver and when, Dunn says. With no coordinated plan, and no plan for communicating it to the people receiving aid, agencies force refugees and the displaced into an awkward position: They can’t make any plans using their own resources.

2. Not treating refugees like individuals -When the media talk about the mass migration of refugees, it tends to describe them as “one giant moving mass of people, like a river or a flood,” Dunn says. But an architect from Damascus or a computer programmer from Aleppo will need very different aid from someone who used to be a rural farmer or wedding singer. When government agencies or NGOs hand out in-kind assistance—such as these standardized housing kits recently designed by IKEA—they can effectively deny people the ability to combine their own skills and resources with aid to “come up with the solution that’s right for them,” she says. In the aftermath of the Georgia-Russia conflict, for example, “there was a big push” in Georgia to immediately roll out a multi-million-dollar breastfeeding support program. The reason? Breastfeeding has been an important need in other places receiving development aid, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, the water is polluted with pathogens like cholera, and it’s very hard to get infant formula. In Georgia, “it was a crazy use of money,” Dunn says, because there was no water shortage and formula was readily available.

3. Not modifying programs to fit the need – “There’s an idea that that refugees should take anything, whether or not it’s appropriate,” Dunn says. The Georgian camp, for example, frequently received large boxes full of used stuffed animals, despite the fact that average age of the residents in the camp was 54. Moving on to the current Syrian refugee crisis, she says that providing means of communicating and gathering information, such as cell phone towers and charging stations, should be a first priority. Not only can aid workers do “a much better job” of announcing aid if they have everybody’s cell phone numbers, but they can also figure out what refugees need using the exact same tools.


US and Russia announce plan for Humanitarian Aid and a Cease-Fire in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, announced that they had agreed on the delivery over the next few days of desperately needed aid to besieged Syrian cities, to be followed by a “cessation of hostilities” within a week on the way to a more formal cease-fire.

“The real test is whether all the parties honor those commitments,” Kerry said, sitting next to Mr. Lavrov, the two men doing their best to appear cooperative after weeks of trading accusations over the accelerated Russian air campaign that has given new support to the government of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

Crucial Syria talks begin

With dim prospects for success, world powers gathered in Munich, Germany, to find ways to end the bloodletting in Syria and open channels of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Russia, which is backing the Syrian regime, is proposing a cease-fire to begin March 1. The suspicion is that Russia would prefer a cease-fire to begin three weeks from now in order to provide time to finish crushing the rebels and return the besieged city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, to the hands of President Bashar Assad.

The United States, Saudi Arabia, other Arab Gulf states and much of the West want to get rid of Assad, saying his brutality and willingness to use chemical weapons against his own people make him more suited for a war-crimes tribunal than a presidential palace. But Russia and Iran remain Assad’s firm backers, and their forces have shifted the balance of power in war-torn Syria back to Assad after nearly five years of civil war.

Another goal of the Munich talks is to persuade the warring parties to return to negotiations in Geneva on Feb. 25. The first attempt at negotiations broke down earlier this month when opposition groups walked out over the Aleppo offensive.

[Read full Los Angeles Times article]

No amount of money can end Syria’s suffering

Aid teams in northern Syria are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the numbers of refugees. No amount of money and supplies can end Syria’s suffering. That must come from politicians. Following is a piece from the international aid organization Mercy Corps:

A steady stream of people – most on foot – walk in one direction toward the Turkish border. There is an unspoken truth these brave people share among themselves: they fear the siege of Aleppo, which pre-war was Syria’s largest city, is about to begin.

Our Mercy Corps humanitarian aid teams in Syria daily witness new waves of displaced families forced to flee their homes in search of safety. After five years of war, it is hard to imagine that the conditions in Syria could get any worse, but they have. Every time we think we’ve seen it all, the conflict takes another turn and surprises us.

In recent weeks, there has been a huge increase in civilian casualties as the bombing has intensified, with tens of thousands of people arriving at the border with Turkey. In the last few days alone, camps near the Turkish border have effectively doubled in size and there is no end in sight to the long lines of displaced people desperately trying to survive. Our estimates say that roughly 70,000 people are currently moving towards the border.

Amid the winter cold, more people arrive without basic necessities – no food, no water and no blankets. There is no place for people to sleep and even makeshift shelters are increasingly difficult to come by. Despite terrible conditions, our teams are working hard to live up to the humanitarian imperative that drives them. In collaboration with our local partners, we’re positioned around the border, meeting refugees with food, water and basic items, such as mattresses and blankets, where we can.

The unbearable reality is that no amount of money and no shipment of supplies can end Syria’s suffering. The current humanitarian situation in Syria is shameful and morally unacceptable, and the end of this grave human crisis is long overdue. We must dial up the pressure on political leaders to force an end to the war.

[Read full article in The Guardian]

$10 Billion pledged at Syrian donor conference

The Guardian highlights the main points as the London conference closes.

Billions more in international aid pledges for Syrian refugees

At the recent conference attended by 70 world leaders, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the US secretary of state John Kerry, and the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to double UK aid to Syria through to 2020.

Britain, already the second-largest bilateral donor in Syria behind the US, announced it would double its own funding to Syria to £2.3bn up to 2020. The announcement means the UK government’s 2015’s pledge is doubled for 2016.

All this still leaves the UN short of the $9bn it deems necessary this year to improve schooling, access to work and help Syrians survive. The UN only received half of the funds it sought for Syria last year, Cameron points out, and the Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood said unless funding was increased “another 1 million people will turn their back on Syria”.

The prime minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, who is also co-chairing the conference said it was in Europe’s self interest to do more to help Syrians. “If we don’t invest more in the neighborhood and neighboring countries will have an even bigger problem than we have today,” she said on Thursday. She also urged rich Gulf countries to do more to help.

[The Guardian]

UN asks for $861 million to help Iraq

The United Nations appealed on Sunday for $861 million to help Iraq meet a big funding gap in its 2016 emergency response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war against Islamic State.

Baghdad, whose revenues have fallen as oil prices have plunged, has said it would manage to finance less than half of its $1.56 billion plan to assist 10 million people in need.

U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq Lise Grande said she expected the crisis in Iraq “to widen and worsen” in coming months. The United Nations expects huge numbers of civilians to flee Mosul when Iraqi forces mount an offensive to retake the northern city from Islamic State, which the authorities have pledged to do this year.

Among the 10 million Iraqis requiring urgent assistance are more than 3.3 million people displaced by the conflict with Islamic State since 2014 and a quarter million people from neighboring Syria who have fled from their country’s nearly five-year-old war, according to the United Nations. Children make up half of the displaced population.