UN highlights challenges of humanitarian operations in Syria

A United Nations spokesperson today highlighted the challenging working environment in which UN humanitarian agencies are operating in within Syria, while noting that aid is being delivered to all those who need, regardless of their affiliation and where they live.

“We are focused on reaching all people in need by whatever means feasible, including through regular programs, cross-line, cross-border and air operations,” saids OCHA Deputy Spokesperson Jens Laerke. “This delivery is despite the dangerous security conditions; every day UN staff and our partners risk their lives to deliver this life-saving assistance,” he added.

The spokesperson addressed the UN’s work with all parties to the conflict, including relevant departments of the Government of Syria, to reach people with the life-saving support they need. “The Government determines the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that the UN agencies in Syria are permitted to work with,” the spokesperson said. “If agencies in Syria did not accept this, they would not be able to save so many lives by delivering critical supplies and services to millions of people across the country.”

In his remarks, Mr. Laerke said that the UN delivers to all areas of the country – irrespective of the status of control and using the most effective methods, including deliveries to non-government controlled areas through UN Security Council-authorized cross-border deliveries from Turkey and Jordan and deliveries from government-controlled areas across conflict lines to besieged and hard-to-reach enclaves.

“Since the beginning of 2016, the UN and partners in Syria have successfully reached 1.2 million people in besieged and hard-to-reach and other priority areas through inter-agency operations,” Laerke said.

[UN News Centre]

Abducted Australian aid worker freed in Afghanistan

Afghan special forces have rescued a kidnapped Australian aid worker, four months after she was taken at gunpoint in the country’s volatile east. Katherine Jane Wilson, said to be aged around 60, is “safe and well”, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said, without disclosing when she was released or who was behind her abduction.  The minister, who has previously said Australia does not pay ransom for kidnappers, voiced relief for Wilson and her family but would not provide details of how she was freed.

Unidentified masked gunmen kidnapped Wilson from Jalalabad, near the border with Pakistan, in late April when she was visiting the city for a women’s embroidery project. Wilson, a well-known aid worker in the country, ran a non-governmental organisation known as Zardozi, which promotes the work of Afghan artisans — particularly women.

Following her abduction an Australian man was seized, along with an American colleague, in Kabul by gunmen wearing police uniforms. The two foreigners, professors from the American University of Afghanistan, were pulled from their vehicle earlier this month after the kidnappers smashed the passenger side window and hauled them out.

Judith D’Souza, a 40-year-old Indian employee of the Aga Khan Foundation, a prominent NGO that has long worked in Afghanistan, was also abducted near her residence in the heart of Kabul on June 9. She was rescued in July.

The abductions underscore the growing dangers faced by foreigners in Afghanistan, plagued by Taliban and other militant groups.

[Yahoo News]

International Red Cross delivers humanitarian assistance to 33,500 Syrians

An international aid convoy of 19 trucks delivered humanitarian assistance to at least 33,500 people in Syria on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria said.

“19-truck convoy entering AldarAlkabira [town in central Syria], rural Homs [city in western Syria], bringing aid to 33,500 people,” the organization said on its twitter account.

Syria has been mired in civil war since 2011, with government forces loyal to President Bashar Assad fighting numerous opposition factions and extremist groups. Almost 14 million Syrian people remain in deep need of receiving humanitarian aid, which cannot be delivered due to continuous fighting.

[Sputnik News]

Are rich nations turning their back on the world?

Yves Daccord, 52, is director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This 153-year-old institution has a continuing mission to protect the victims of war, with direct assistance and by promoting and strengthening the international laws and principles that guard their well-being.

Daccord believes this mission has never been harder. “The gap between the humanitarian needs of the people and the response they receive, not only from us, from anybody, is increasing. …It’s changing quickly.”

The more than 60 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons worldwide is the most since World War II, and more than 600 million people now live in conflict-affected countries. By 2030 two-thirds of the world’s poor will live in “fragile” states–those unable to deal with the extra burden of natural disasters or war.

In response, the Red Cross’ budget has had to grow by 50 per cent in just four years.

There has always been conflict, there are always disasters. What worries Swiss-born Daccord is that he senses a withdrawal, a vacancy at the top. “Today at the top leadership [level] there is a sense of ‘My God, we don’t know how to handle that’.”

Daccord laments a “very inward-looking” Europe that has squandered a decade in which it should have been a world leader in humanitarian work.

[The Age]

Evacuation of Damascus suburb begins

Civilians and rebel fighters have begun leaving the Syrian town of Darayya, near the Syrian capital Damascus, after a deal was reached ending a four-year government siege.

Opposition fighters are due to be given safe passage to the rebel-held city of Idlib, while civilians will go to government shelters in Damascus. Some 700 armed men and 4,000 civilians will be evacuated as part of the agreement, according to Syrian state media.

The Syrian army encircled Darayya in 2012 and just one aid delivery has reached the town since then. For years those living in Darayya have endured constant shelling, as well as suffering shortages of food, water and electricity.

The withdrawal of rebels just a few miles from Damascus is a boost for President Bashar al-Assad, analysts say.

The evacuation comes as US Secretary of State John Kerry holds talks on Syria with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. They are meeting in a bid to broker a temporary ceasefire in the city of Aleppo, where fighting between government and rebel forces has escalated in recent weeks, leaving hundreds dead.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan have agreed a deal to boost aid to Aleppo, Turkish media reported.


Tech companies helping with the refugee crisis

Last year, more than 1.1 million people fled to Europe from places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 163,000 refugees applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015. (In Europe, only Germany — with nearly 10 times Sweden’s population — received more requests, according to the United Nations.)

Tiny Finland, with just 5.5 million people, reported 32,000 asylum seekers in 2015 versus 3,651 applicants the year before.

Migrants are a burden on countries offering comprehensive welfare services ranging from guaranteed housing to universal health care. All services depend on taxes paid by residents with steady jobs. So it’s to everyone’s benefit when asylum seekers find work quickly.

“Dish” Eldishnawy, founder of Finnish big data company Floralytics, recently co-moderated Newcomer Bootcamp — a one-day course for refugees from Syria, Iraq and Somalia on setting up and running businesses in Finland and Western Europe. The course, held in Helsinki, was just one of a series of conferences, workshops and hackathons organized by Techfugees, a nonprofit social enterprise that describes itself as “a tech community response to the needs of refugees.”

About 250 miles away in Stockholm, Johan Engstrom founded Sync Accelerator, a private recruitment agency matching technically proficient refugees with Swedish companies that need their skills. (Think of Sync Accelerator as a sort of Swedish LinkedIn that’s focused exclusively on integrating highly educated newly arrived refugees into the Swedish labor market.)


Switzerland new route for EU-bound refugees

Refugees are finding new routes into the European Union. Swiss authorities have noticed a rise in border crossings from Italy.

Large numbers of refugees have appeared in the border region between Domodossola, Italy, and Brig. Most are Eritrean, followed by Gambians and Nigerians.

Miriam Behrens, director of the Swiss Refugee Council, has criticized the government’s handling of the borders. “We see a type of racial profiling,” she said. “Those with darker skin are pulled off trains and buses for questioning. The authorities have relatively wide leeway.”

Refugees can apply for asylum in Switzerland and remain there. “Many I’ve spoken to are unaware of the concept of asylum,” Behrens said.

Most refugees who reach Switzerland want to continue onto Germany or Sweden, Behrens said, because “many have relatives or acquaintances there.” Even applicants for Swiss asylum may continue northward.

[Deutsche Welle]

As US politicians shun Syrian refugees, faith-based groups embrace them

When 31 governors called for a ban on Syrian refugees coming into the U.S. after last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, it united faith-based communities across the country. They are challenging the wave of opposition to these refugees by taking a leading role in resettling them.

“If they didn’t have the churches and synagogues providing what they do, this system would collapse,” says Jennifer Quigley, referring to the federal resettlement program that is now under attack from Congress and many governors. Quigley is a strategist for refugee protection with Human Rights First, an advocacy group that has pressed the administration to increase Syrian resettlement from the pledged goal of 10,000 in 2016 to 100,000 in fiscal year 2017.

“Refugees are facing crises every day against extremists in the world. We need to stand with refugees, especially now,” Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale in central New Jersey says. Kaper-Dale and his wife, Stephanie, serve as co-pastors at the Reformed Church of Highland Park. Their local interfaith coalition has supported 14 refugees so far this year from countries including Colombia and Syria. In addition, Kaper-Dale’s church is supporting a Syrian family applying for asylum. Their interfaith coalition is committed to resettling 50 more refugees from Africa and the Middle East, who are expected to start arriving in the fall.

Even as Congress and President Obama fight over whether to accept Syrians under the current federal program, there is a “real desire at the grass roots, stepping up to the plate in new ways,” says Shaun Casey, the State Department’s special representative for religion and global affairs.

The U.S. is committed to resettling 75,000 refugees total in 2016, with an additional 10,000 Syrians.


Justice elusive for slain Aid Workers

It was a massacre that shocked the world’s humanitarian community. Seventeen aid workers were killed outside their office in Sri Lanka’s northeast–executed at point-blank range with automatic weapons in one of the worst attacks on humanitarians.

A decade on, justice remains elusive for families of the victims, all Sri Lankan nationals, says Action Contra La Faim (ACF), the charity where they worked.  ACF has found evidence they were likely assassinated by Sri Lankan security forces and that their attackers must have been shielded by Sri Lankan top authorities.

As aid workers across the globe gathered on Friday to mark World Humanitarian Day, paying tribute to those killed working on front lines of crises, experts say much more needs to be done to ensure perpetrators are held accountable.

In 2015 alone, 109 aid workers were killed, 110 injured and 68 kidnapped in attacks in countries such as Afghanistan, South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, according to consulting group Humanitarian Outcomes.

Yet experts say few, if any, of the 148 attacks, which included physical and sexual assault, bombings, shootings and kidnappings, have been independently investigated and satisfactory justice served.


Two years after Gaza war, rebuilding lags behind and international donors are bailing

In the summer of 2014, the four-story building where Nashat Nawati lived with his extended family was reduced to rubble by Israeli bombs during a six-week war with Hamas. Two years later, Nawati and his six children are still stuck in temporary quarters half the size of his old apartment as they wait to get foreign aid necessary to rebuild.

Nawati is one of about 75,000 Gazans still displaced from their homes as a $3.5-billion effort to rebuild Gaza from the destruction of the war creeps along at a pace officials say has fallen years behind schedule. The biggest problem, according to the United Nations, is funding shortfalls. Only about 50% of promised donor aid was disbursed as of the end of March, according to the latest World Bank report. Among large donors, Persian Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia had transferred only 15% or less of their pledges.

Unemployment among Gaza’s youth is estimated at 60%. According to the United Nations, it will take Gaza’s economy another two years to return to the point where it was before the war. Last year, the United Nations warned that Gaza may become uninhabitable by 2020 if there is no change in the economic situation.

The rebuilding task is daunting. Gaza’s power lines and the territory’s sole power plant were hit during the war, leading to rolling power cuts of 12 to 18 hours a day on an electricity grid capable of supplying only half of the territory’s needs. The power shortage has hobbled Gaza’s sewage treatment plant, sending about 24 million gallons of raw sewage into the sea daily and creating a stifling stench along the coast. Schools, businesses, farms and medical centers also sustained tens of millions of dollars in damage.

There are multiple headwinds holding up the massive project: The Hamas-controlled territory of 1.8 million Palestinians is hemmed in by an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, and building materials like cement have been in short supply; a U.N.-run system that gives Israel oversight over the distribution of construction supplies has been criticized for slowing rebuilding with too much red tape.

 [Los Angeles Times]

Russia to support weekly 48-hour humanitarian ceasefires in Aleppo

As a means to broaden the scale of the humanitarian mission in Aleppo, the Russian Defense Ministry is ready to back the UN proposal to introduce 48-hour pauses each week, which would allow the city’s population to be supplied with food and medication, and for vital infrastructure damaged by terrorist shelling to be restored, the ministry’s spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, said.

A test-run of the 48-hour truces could be organized next week to see if relief can reach civilians safely.

The Russian Ministry of Defense proposed that humanitarian aid be delivered to Aleppo by two separate routes to western and eastern parts of the city, as the eastern part of Aleppo is controlled by militia while the western part is controlled by government forces.


A wounded child in Aleppo

5 year old Aleppo resident Omran DaqneeshSurrounded by shouting, he’s completely silent.

The child is small, alone, covered in blood and dust, dropped in the back of an ambulance with his feet dangling off the edge of a too-big chair.

He doesn’t cry or speak. His face is stunned and dazed, but not surprised. He wipes his hand over his wounded face, looks at the blood, wipes it off on the chair.

And he stares.

The world is staring back. This tiny moment in Aleppo has resonated in a new way.

The Associated Press reports: “A doctor in Aleppo … confirmed he was brought to the hospital Wednesday night following an airstrike on the rebel-held neighborhood of Qaterji.”

“We were passing them from one balcony to the other,” said photojournalist Mahmoud Raslan, who took the iconic photo. He said he had passed along three lifeless bodies before receiving the wounded boy.

“A doctor later reported eight dead, among them five children.”


Preserving our humanitarian gains

Recently six of the biggest humanitarian organizations issued a joint plea for international action, in a report that warned of “a dramatic increase in protracted conflict and displacement, combined with an ever-increasing number of natural disasters [which have] resulted in widespread human suffering, loss of dignity, dashed hopes and death”.

The organizations, which included CARE, International rescue, Oxfam, Save the Children and the World Food Program, presented a doomsday scenario. “Preserving and enhancing the gains civilization has made over the past few centuries is at serious risk,” the report said.

“Unfortunately the needs are running at an unprecedented level of increase across the entire global community,” World Food Program (WFP) chief Etharin Cousin said.

Most of the programs of the WFP used to be disaster-related. But now 80 per cent of its large emergency responses are conflict related, Cousin said. And the trouble is, aid doesn’t end war. “If conflict is what is driving you and… you don’t have political solutions to the conflict, it requires us to continue to provide support.”

The “ongoing plea” is “that the world not turn away from those in need… We live on a small planet and we are all responsible”.

[The Age]

The humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo

With fighting intensified around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, rebels fighting the Syrian government began a new offensive to break an ongoing government-backed siege of the city. The rebels have been led in part by an offshoot of the Nusra Front, which, up until last month, had been aligned with al-Qaeda.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the fighting for Aleppo as, quote, “beyond doubt one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times.” The United Nations is warning of a dire humanitarian crisis, as millions are left without water or electricity.

U.N. spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci said: “The commission is gravely concerned for the safety of civilians, including a reported 100,000 children living in eastern Aleppo city, where violence has reached new heights in recent weeks as asymmetric warfare intensifies over control of armed group-held neighborhoods and their principal remaining supply lines.”

Overall, the death toll in the five-year Syrian conflict has reached close to half a million people. The ongoing war has displaced about half the prewar population, with more than 6 million Syrians displaced inside Syria and nearly 5 million Syrian refugees outside Syria’s borders.

According to the humanitarian group Physicians for Human Rights, there have been more than 370 attacks on 265 medical facilities during the five-year conflict, as well as the deaths of 750 medical personnel.

[Democracy Now!]

With rise of Nationalism, the demise of Internationalism

Yves Daccord, the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, cautiously agrees that a [number of industrialized countries] are responding to a rise of nationalism, and a withdrawal from internationalism, manifesting in Brexit, in America’s Trump, in France’s Front Nationale and Greece’s Syriza, among many others.

In part he puts it down to the global economy. “Despite what the market is telling us, the reality for most of the people around the world is the situation has not improved since [the] 2008 [crisis],” Daccord says.

“If you are middle income, lower income, the reality is your life has become more difficult, from Europe to Africa, Asia, whatever. And this why people are coming back somewhat to what they know: ‘my community, my own interests, my border’.

He complains that, worldwide, “the big discussions have been about the financial crisis and about the security crisis. And that’s not enough”.

“What we are really lacking right now is political will at the international level.”

[The Age]

Refugees find the welcome no longer so warm

I’ll never forget my first encounter with Sawsan Shahoud. She was scrabbling out of a dinghy on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, her husband and seven-year-old son beside her, they were terrified and bewildered.

I had asked Sawsan why she had put her child’s life at such risk. She didn’t hold back with the answer. “We’re running from Assad, we’re running from ISIS, we’re running from everyone,” she screamed at me. “No-one is helping us, we have no choice but to do this. Do you think I would choose to risk the life of my child?”

Fast forward nine months, and a smiling Sawsan welcomed me into the room she now calls home in a small town outside Frankfurt. But in the few short months she’s been here, things have changed. Attitudes have hardened, the welcome is no longer so warm.

Applauded into railway stations last summer, refugees like her are now treated with suspicion by many Germans. A series of terror attacks across Europe have made this country question the wisdom of allowing so many people in.

“This word, refugee” she tells me “will follow us forever. I don’t know if the people here will let my son study with their children. I really worry about all that. It’s not our fault, you can’t blame us for the actions of a few crazy people.”

It’s hard to argue with that. All Sawsan wants is a life at peace, her basic human right. She dreams that her son may study here and grow up a proud citizen of his new adopted country. She wants him to have the same chances our children have. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.


Immigrants and refugees helped create 1.3 million jobs in Germany, study finds

In 2014, entrepreneurs and small-business owners with foreign backgrounds created some 1.3 million jobs in Germany, according to a new report.

The study, put out by the Bertelsmann Foundation, one of Germany’s largest nonprofits, found a 36 percent rise in such job creation over the past decade; This advance came while the number of people with immigrant backgrounds in Germany increased by just 9 percent during the same period.

“We show with our study that people with a migrant background in Germany do not take away jobs from anyone–quite the opposite,” said Aart de Geus, chairman of the Bertelsmann Foundation, as cited by Deutsche Welle.

The new data comes at a moment when the conversation on immigration and the role of foreigners in German society has taken a darker turn. Starting in 2015, the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and other asylum seekers has roiled German politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had opened Germany’s doors to those fleeing Syria, has suffered considerable political blowback after asylum seekers were implicated in incidents of sexual harassment and violence.

 [Washington Post]

The Olympic Refugee Team has its own flag and anthem

At the opening ceremony in Rio, the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team marched in the Parade of Nations carrying flags emblazoned with the five-ring Olympics logo. It was a powerful unifying gesture in a time marked by global unrest; these ten athletes were representing not just their war-torn countries, but the world. But in a certain light, assigning this team the most universal sporting symbol on Earth was to deprive them an identity of their own. What this group really needed was its own symbol.

Now, members of the Refugee Olympic Team have that option. A non-profit called The Refugee Nation commissioned artists to develop a flag and national anthem for the Olympic team that would represent the athletes and the growing number of refugees around the world. “We felt they deserved a more unique identity.”

Refugee FlagThe flag is a banner of bright orange crossed by a single black band—colors that evoke the life jackets so many refugees have worn on their journeys to safety. “If you’ve worn a lifejacket as a refugee, you will feel something when you see this flag,” says Amsterdam-based Syrian refugee Yara Said, who designed the flag. “It’s a powerful memory.”

“The flag is a statement,” she says. “We are here, we are strong, we are human, and we’re going to go on.”


Aid workers in Gaza fear an Israeli campaign against international charities

Concern is mounting in the Gaza Strip over Israeli charges against employees of international aid organizations who are accused of diverting funds to Hamas. The worry is that the could be the start of a campaign against international charities that could discourage and disrupt the flow of aid to the blockaded enclave where the overwhelming majority of Gazans depend on it.

“These international organizations are working to alleviate suffering in Gaza. We are concerned that these allegations and claims and this campaign will lead to withdrawal of some organizations and more restrictions of work and projects on the ground” for those that remain, said Amjad Shawa, Gaza director of the Palestinian NGO Network, which co-ordinates between local and international NGOs on the provision of agriculture, health and development aid.

Mr Shawa expressed fears the controversy would affect reconstruction efforts that are urgently needed to help the tens of thousands of Gazans still waiting to rebuild homes destroyed in the 2014 war.

Concerns began last week when Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, released a statement alleging that World Vision’s Gaza director was “active in the military wing of Hamas and [had] exploited the organization’s budget and resources for Hamas”. The global Christian charity is one of the biggest donors to Gaza.

In the second indictment a Gaza engineer for the United Nations Development Programme was charged with utilizing UNDP resources for Hamas.

The Shin Bet indicated there were other similar cases that had not yet been publicized.

“The spotlight now seems to be on aid organizations as a whole,” said a foreign staffer of a Western aid organization who asked for anonymity. “We continue to watch what happens. Ultimately our concern is that as a sector we want to continue to assist almost the entire 1.8 million population of Gaza. That’s our real concern, to make sure these people continue to get the aid they need.’’

[The National-UAE]

Refugee swimmer makes history at the Olympics

When Yusra Mardini dove into the Olympic pool, she made history. It wasn’t her time on the scoreboard — it was simply that she was there.

Last August, four years into the Syrian civil war, the 18-year-old fled her home. Like many other refugees, she and her sister ended up on small boat bound for the island of Lesbos off the coast of Greece. The boat began to sink, and Yusra jumped in the water. For three hours she and her sister pushed the boat to shore, saving nearly 20 lives.

Yusra traveled 1,500 miles through Turkey and central Europe before settling in Berlin, Germany, where she trained for the Olympics. She’s now part of the first refugee team to ever compete in the Games.

“When you have a problem in your life that doesn’t mean you need to sit down and cry like babies. The problem was the reason why I am here, and why I am stronger and I want to reach my goals.”

While Yusra won’t be leaving Rio with an Olympic medal, it doesn’t matter. She already swam the race of a lifetime.