Don’t call it the ‘refugee crisis’, it’s a humanitarian crisis

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In recent months across Europe, a dramatic spike in refugee arrivals to Greece and 39 dead bodies of Vietnamese citizens discovered in an abandoned lorry in Essex provoked a return of “the migration crisis” in news coverage. When the almost five-year-long “migration crisis” in Europe began, publications and politicians were tentative about referring to it as such.

The differences between the ways we describe emergencies are incredibly important. Declaring a “humanitarian crisis” shifts responsibility and focus to states and their leaders, whereas placing “migrant” before the crisis, suggests that the fault of the crisis is, at least in part, theirs.

Between 2014 and 2019, at least 17,428 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Still, people continue to reach Europe, though European policies have radically exacerbated the risks to their lives and health:
– Italy has pursued a series of policies of shutting down ports and arresting those who operate rescue missions. In 2018, less people crossed the Mediterranean than the year before but of those who did, six drowned every day.
– The Greek islands have essentially become open-air holding prisons, as well as collectively being nearly five times over capacity. 
– Even prior to the recent Turkish incursion in Northern Syria, the numbers arriving in Greece had spiked where conditions are infamously inhumane: Fires regularly destroy areas of camps and remaining belongings; coupled with self-harm and suicide attempts, increasingly by children too.

The number of people arriving may have reduced but their suffering has multiplied.  And the fact that arrivals have suddenly increased proves this crisis is far from over.

As many critics posit, Europe may not be responsible for the conflicts that force people from their homes. However, there should absolutely be no doubt as to who is responsible for destroying key humanitarian protections; a Draconian border regime; criminalizing rescue ships; refusing to create safe routes to asylum and in many cases deliberately making life unliveable for vulnerable people.

Labeling it a “refugee” or “migration crisis”, however, indicates that refugees and migrants are different to those we associate with traditional humanitarian emergencies and less deserving of the assumed response.

[The Independent]

Hundreds of thousands of civilians at risk in Syria amid ongoing violence

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At least 92 people have been killed in northeastern and northwestern Syria in the weeks following 9 October, when Turkish forces invaded Kurdish-held border areas in the northeast, according to the UN human rights office OHCHR.

Noting that victims had come under fire from airstrikes and ground-based strikes, OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville said people are increasingly being targeted by the “indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in populated areas, including in local markets”.

On Thursday, Najat Rochdi, Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, warned that hundreds of thousands of people in northeast Syria have been left vulnerable following the Turkish military incursion. “Of the more than 200,000 people who fled the fighting in recent weeks, close to 100,000 people have not yet been able to return home and are dispersed across improvised camps and collective shelters,” she said in a statement. These recent displacements have compounded an already dire situation in which 710,000 people were already displaced, and approximately 1.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, Ms. Rochdi’s statement explained.

In a related warning, Mr. Colville said that people recently displaced during the military offensive have been “subsequently…subjected to arbitrary detention, in addition to enforced disappearances, after returning to their homes. This is occurring both in areas controlled by Turkish forces and Turkish-affiliated armed groups and in areas controlled by Kurdish armed groups.”

The OHCHR spokesperson added that attacks using improvised explosive devices in the formerly Kurdish-controlled north-east “have noticeably escalated in recent days, mainly in areas under the control of Turkish-affiliated armed groups, which suggests they have most likely been carried out by groups opposing the Turkish military offensive”.

UN humanitarians meanwhile warned that a serious funding crisis risks leaving hundreds of thousands of Syrians vulnerable to deteriorating weather conditions.

[UN.org]

Geography professor Dr Scott Warren faces retrial in Arizona, with possible ten-year jail sentence

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Dr Scott Warren, a geography professor and volunteer with the humanitarian group No More Deaths, is charged with “harboring” two migrants after providing them with food, water and clean clothing in his hometown of Ajo, 43 miles from the Mexican border.

Warren, who faces a possible ten-year jail sentence, is being prosecuted for a second time after an earlier trial was declared a mistrial in July.

Amnesty International is calling on the US Department of Justice to drop the spurious criminal charges. Amnesty believes the volunteer activities of Warren and No More Deaths provide vital humanitarian aid directed at upholding the right to life and preventing the deaths of migrants and people seeking asylum in the highly-dangerous Sonoran Desert. Last week, Amnesty wrote to Arizona’s Attorney, Michael Bailey, calling on him to do this.

Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said: “The Trump administration’s second attempt to prosecute Scott Warren is a cynical misuse of the justice system, intended to criminalize compassion and lifesaving humanitarian aid. This is a dark hour for the USA when the government is seeking to send a man to prison for ten years simply for providing food, water and clean clothes to people in need.
 
“The US authorities must stop harassing Dr Warren and other human rights defenders who have simply shown kindness to fellow human beings.”

Arizona has the deadliest border area in the USA, accounting for more than a third (38%) of the 7,242 border deaths recorded by US border authorities over the last 20 years.

[Amnesty.org]

600 US-bound refugees resettled

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More than 600 refugees landed in the United States this week, marking the first arrivals of US fiscal year 2020.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) welcomed the refugees who come from a variety of countries. IOM works closely with the US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to provide case processing support, pre-departure health assessments and cultural orientation, as well as transportation support for refugees.

Almost half of the refugees resettled in the US in fiscal year 2019 were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

On Tuesday, a group of 25 Congolese refugees were the first to arrive on Tuesday morning at Washington Dulles International Airport before continuing to their final destinations. Due to ongoing violence, the families fled to neighboring Rwanda where they remained in limbo for years.

[IOM]

What is a war crime?

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Whether in conflicts in Syria, Yemen or Iraq, civilians bear the brunt of war. The protection of civilians lies at the foundation of international humanitarian law (IHL), the law that regulates the conduct of war. According to the United Nations, a war crime is a serious breach of international law committed against civilians or “enemy combatants” during an international or domestic armed conflict.

A war crime occurs when superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is inflicted upon an enemy. In spite of the outrage caused by the bombing of a school or a country’s TV station, such actions do not necessarily amount to war crimes. Such bombing will only be a war crime if the extent of civilian casualties resulting from the attack is excessive compared to the military advantage gained from the attack. And in contrast with genocide and crimes against humanity, war crimes have to occur in the context of armed conflict.

Although the concept of war crimes has ancient roots, rules on war crimes started to develop at the end of the 19th century. The meaning of war crimes was clarified in the four 1949 Geneva Conventions.

Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention defines war crimes as “wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including … willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person … taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly”.

But in spite of the near-universal ratification of the Geneva Conventions, war crimes often go unpunished. According to Mark Drumbl, professor of law at Washington and Lee University, this can be attributed to several factors, including difficulties in obtaining evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, high requirements such as proving intention and, most importantly, power politics.

Thousands of Filipinos in need of humanitarian assistance after Mindanao earthquakes

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Mindanao has been shaken by three consecutive earthquakes within the same location on 16, 29 and 31 October 2019, each compounding the effect of the previous one.

According to authorities, the death toll from the last two earthquakes is now at 21 with over 400 people injured and an estimated more than 35,000 people displaced. Many families have been left homeless due to the destruction of their houses

More than 180,000 people are affected with many families requiring humanitarian assistance.

Philippine Red Cross Chairman Richard Gordon said: “People are left anxious by the earthquakes and the ongoing aftershocks. Families do not feel safe returning to their homes. Since the first earthquake hit, our volunteers and staff have been working around the clock to provide not only relief items and safe drinking water, but also psychosocial support to help families cope with their fears.”

[International Red Cross]

British aid to help vaccinate more than 400 million children a year against polio

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UK International Development Secretary Alok Sharma has pledged new aid support to help vaccinate more than 400 million children a year against polio.

  • UK support will help vaccinate more than 750 children a minute against polio in developing countries around the world
  • The UK package of up to £400 million will help support 20 million health workers and volunteers, via the Global Polio Eradication Initiative
  • Three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – are still not officially polio free

This funding which runs from 2020 to 2023 will help buy tens of millions doses of polio vaccine every year. Without this new support, tens of thousands of children would be at risk of paralysis from the disease, which leaves many unable to walk for the rest of their lives.

Sharma said: “We have made tremendous progress to fight this debilitating disease, but our work must continue if we are to eradicate it forever. … If we were to pull back on immunizations, we could see 200,000 new cases each year in a decade. This would not only be a tragedy for the children affected and their families, but also for the world. We cannot let this happen.”

Thanks to global efforts, backed by the UK, more than 18 million people are currently walking who would otherwise have been paralyzed by the virus.

[ReliefWeb]

Sex-for-food: girls face impossible choices in Southern Africa

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A food crisis is especially acute in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia, which account for 75% of the people needing food assistance. The ongoing food crisis is compounded by a number of factors including drought, the effects of cyclone Idai and its related flooding, conflict and economic downturn.

“We are extremely concerned at the increasing number of adolescent girls caught up in food insecurity, especially where they are being traded off by family members in an effort to earn the next meal,” says Stuart Katwikirize, Plan International Regional Head of Disaster Risk Management.

From sex-for-food to forced marriage, girls are caught between impossible choices for survival as severe food shortages sweep across the southern continent.

In Mozambique multiple and consecutive incidents have left almost 10 per cent of the country’s population in need of lifesaving and resilience-building assistance.

“Adolescent girls and women are typically more affected by drought because it is usually their job to find water and food for the family, ” says Anne Hoff, Country Director, Plan International Mozambique.

“Children are increasingly dropping out of school because of hunger issues which remains a serious concern,” said Angela Muriithi, Country Director, Plan International Zimbabwe. “An estimated 2.2 million people in urban areas are facing food and economic insecurity, with 53% of households in Harare reporting inability to pay school fees.”

[Plan International]

Floods in Somalia displace more than 250,000 people

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Heavy rains have killed at least 10 people and displaced more than 270,000 in Somalia, destroying infrastructure and livelihoods in the Horn of Africa nation, the United Nations said on Friday.

East Africa has been experiencing heavy rains with the Indian Ocean’s equivalent of the Pacific Ocean-based El Nino, at its strongest since 2006.

A tropical storm next week is expected to worsen the floods. Rains are forecast to continue until the end of the year and humanitarian organizations are warning of waterborne diseases and mass displacement.

“Higher than usual rains are expected to continue through November and December, leading to more floods and conditions for disease,” the International Rescue Committee said in a statement. “Recovery from these weather conditions may take years.”

[Reuters]

Local citizens become frontline aid workers in Syria

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In the past few weeks, Zozan Ayoub has gone from running a small primary school in northeast Syria to recording the names of people fleeing war, coordinating aid deliveries, and tending to the needs of the families now sheltering in her classrooms.

Her transformation from headteacher to citizen aid worker happened fast. Some 22,000 of the 180,000 people the UN says fled the violence, went to Hassakeh. Local authorities sent word to Ayoub, who lives and works in the city, some 80 kilometres from the Turkey-Syria border, to cancel classes and prepare for their arrival.

In a matter of hours, Ayoub and other staff members at the two-floor school had cleaned up and replaced desks with rugs and mattresses. “Students will miss lessons,” Ayoub acknowledged. “But we have to provide for these people.”

Even though aid agencies, both local and international, are on the ground too, many have had to evacuate staff, and all are operating in a precarious situation.

That’s where people like Ayoub come in. Across northeast Syria, local people have become temporary aid workers, collected food and clothes, or opened their homes to those in need.

Despite the efforts of citizens who have stepped up, the lion’s share of aid work in the northeast is still being carried out by established NGOs. But it is the local groups, often partnering with international NGOs, who are actually bringing water, food, and other necessities to people who need it. Read more

More on local citizens becoming frontline aid workers in Syria

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Kadar Sheikhmous, director of Shar for Development, a Syrian NGO that works in the northeast, said regular people in displacement hotspots like Hassakeh or the nearby town of Tel Tamer were the first to step up and help. Before aid agencies had even started their emergency response, residents came out to offer support in any way they could, he added.

In the city of Qamishli, near the border with Turkey, 34-year-old Helin Othman has been doing her part, working overtime to deliver food baskets and diapers to displaced people. Two years ago, the young Kurdish woman set up a Facebook group aimed at helping those affected by Syria’s ongoing conflict. These days, she is rallying the support of almost 50,000 online followers. Many regularly donate money and supplies.

Othman helped 250 displaced families in Qamishli and Hassakeh with food last week. She is reaching out to those who are staying with friends or family, rather than those in shelters like the Hassakeh schools, because even though these people are fortunate to have found a home to stay in, they are often off the radar of aid organizations.

In the Assyrian Christian village of Tel Nasri, some 40 kilometres northwest of Hassakeh, 150 mostly Sunni Muslim families from the border town of Ras al-Ayn have taken refuge in homes abandoned by the area’s persecuted Christian community. According to three sources from the Assyrian community, the owners of the houses, the local council in exile, and Syria’s Assyrian bishop, agreed to temporarily open their doors to those in need.

Sami returned to the Assyrian Christian village after it was emptied out by IS. He welcomes the newly displaced people, mostly Sunni Muslims: “We’ve been helping the families who came… We eat together, keep each other company.”

“Lots and lots of people have invited people into their homes. It has been inspiring; everyone is hosting someone,” said one aid worker familiar with the situation in the northeast who wished to remain anonymous so they could continue working in the area. “People are trying so hard to do anything they can, and that should be commended.”

[The New Humanitarian]

EU boosts humanitarian assistance following floods in Horn of Africa

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As heavy flooding in the Horn of Africa region continues to put the lives of many vulnerable communities at risk, the European Commission is providing an additional €3 million in emergency aid.

The funding will be provided through humanitarian organizations in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan, and will provide emergency shelter for displaced people, food, logistics support for access as well as water, hygiene and sanitation assistance aimed at preventing the outbreak of cholera and other water-borne diseases.

[ReliefWeb]

Bernie Sanders wants to cut military aid to Israel, give it to Gaza as humanitarian relief

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2020 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders says if elected, he would take the $3.8 billion in annual military financing the US gives to Israel and instead give it to Gaza in the form of humanitarian aid.

The Vermont senator said he would use the military assistance to pressure Israel to take steps towards a two-state solution.

“My solution is to say to Israel: you get $3.8 billion every year, if you want military aid you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza, in fact, I think it is fair to say that some of that should go right now into humanitarian aid”

The US has agreed to give Israel a massive military aid package called the Memorandum of Understanding MOU. The latest aid package was approved by the Obama administration and agrees to give Israel $38 billion – $3.8 billion per year –  in military aid to Israel over 10 years. The MOU covers the years 2019-2028.

Several Democrats have proposed withholding some aid to push Israel into peace talks with the Palestinians. However, he is the first to suggest the US should give it to Gaza as humanitarian relief.

“It is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government, or for that matter to any government at all. We have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy,” Sanders said. “What is going on in Gaza right now, for example, is absolutely inhumane. It is unacceptable. It is unsustainable.”

[CBN News]

UN welcomes efforts to de-escalate crisis in northeast Syria

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The United Nations welcomes efforts to de-escalate the crisis in northeastern Syria in the wake of Turkey and Russia agreeing to a deal that would allow Russian military police and Syrian border guards into the area, among other measures.

UN Assistant Secretary-General, Khaled Khiari, noted that while the situation remains volatile and uncertain, there has been “an encouraging surge of diplomatic activity” in recent weeks. “The United Nations takes note of these agreements and welcomes any efforts to de-escalate the situation in line with the UN Charter and to protect civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law,” said Mr. Khiari. “The United Nations also takes note of Turkey’s announcement that ‘at this stage, there is no further need to conduct a new operation outside the present operation area.’

In the last two weeks alone, nearly 180,000 people fled the border areas between Turkey and Syria. A reduction in fighting means some have begun to return. “As the situation evolves, a critical challenge facing humanitarian actors is the need to scale up operations from within Syria,” said Ursula Mueller, the number two official in the UN humanitarian affairs coordination office, OCHA. “To achieve this, we will need all parties to facilitate safe, rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access via land and air routes to transport humanitarian supplies, along with an expansion of humanitarian capacity in the northeast.”

Another challenge are explosive hazards such as mines which also impede humanitarian access in Syria, in addition to injuring and killing civilians. Agnes Marcaillou, Director of the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) reported that so far this year, Syria has recorded an average of 184 explosive incidents per day. “The contamination severely impacts the lives and livelihoods of the population and further amplifies the social and economic crisis,” she said.

[UN News]

Africans caught in US-Mexico migration limbo

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For months, hundreds of African migrants and asylum seekers from conflict-ridden countries like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been camped out in tents in front of the main immigration detention facility in the town of Tapachula, in southern Mexico.

Most flew halfway around the world to Brazil, then made the dangerous journey north through the Darien Gap – a remote, roadless swathe of jungle – before traversing Central America into Mexico in the hope of finally reaching the United States to claim asylum.

On reaching Tapachula, they found themselves corralled into a detention center and told they couldn’t progress further without a permit that protects them for deportation and allows them to stay legally – permits that are harder to come by since Mexico agreed in June to help the United States limit the number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border.

Fearing deportation or that the permits will never come, a frustrated group of migrants – including hundreds of Africans – set off north this week only to be stopped shortly afterwards by Mexican national guard and police and returned to a holding facility. Even if the Africans were to reach the US border and get to the front of the long queue, a recent policy – pushed by President Donald Trump and known as “Remain in Mexico” – means migrants hoping to seek asylum in the United States must await their fate in Mexico. 

The US administration is also set to enforce a series of bilateral agreements that will bar people from applying if they don’t first apply for asylum in the Central American countries they travelled through: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The asylum seekers could be deported back to the so-called “safe third country”, which critics say are not safe at all and would put many at renewed risk. 

Pressure is growing on many of the Africans to claim asylum in Mexico, but several told The New Humanitarian they didn’t want to because of the lack of economic opportunities and a perception they could struggle with racist attitudes. Even if they were to pursue asylum in Mexico, the system is already overwhelmed. According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, asylum applications in Mexico rose from 2,100 in 2014 to 48,000 for the first eight months of 2019.

According to the Mixed Migration Centre, an independent resource for data on migrants and asylum seekers, some 4,799 Africans were apprehended in Mexico between January and July this year – a fourfold increase over the same period in 2018. “Somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 [Africans] are currently stranded in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula,” it said.

[The New Humanitarian]

Alleviating poverty “a slow deliberative process of discovery – no miracle cure”

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Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their on-the-ground experiments on how best to alleviate poverty. This award recognizes their more than a quarter of a century’s work in showing how randomized control trials can help to alleviate poverty.

Esther Duflo  states that alleviating poverty, is “a slow deliberative process of discovery – no miracle cure.” 

The need for context, the fact that one size does not fit all, and the essential nature of detailed and deliberate communication and engagement is all part of this continual process of investigation.

Duflo’s TED Talk reiterates the importance of identifying the right problem. She provides a reminder for us to battle against our assumptions and best guesses and eliminate those things that, although part of the problem, are not in themselves the answer to making the biggest impact and creating the possibility of taking solutions to scale.  She nicely demonstrates how getting this right means we can really get change as well as value for money.

[International Institute for Environment and Development]

End to Syrian ceasefire threatens new round of civilian flight

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As the end of a five-day ceasefire approaches in Syria’s northeast, thousands of civilians who have fled their homes – many of them several times already during the country’s eight and a half year war – face the prospect of having to do so once again.  Both humanitarians and the people they help are worried about what will happen if the violence kicks off again.

Hedinn Halldorsson, a spokesperson for OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body said, explains that the dangers civilians face rise every time their lives are upended. “The risk of gender based violence against women and children… increases. There is also a considerable psychological impact; distress, caused by [each] displacement.”

“They’ve lost everything; their homes, their income. They are terrified of everything, even of people asking them their names,” said Zozan Ayoub, the headmistress of an elementary school in Hassakeh who is now running the building as a shelter. “They have no psychological support. They are five families to one room, and they lack electricity, food, and gas for cooking.”

In 2013, Omar and her family fled their hometown of Tel Abyad when clashes broke out between Kurdish fighters and ISIS. They traveled westwards to Kobani, where they stayed until ISIS advanced on the city in late 2014, then forcing them to flee into Turkey. When Tel Abyad was liberated from the militants in 2015, she and her family returned to their hometown, only to flee home once again when Turkish airstrikes began with the new offensive.

“We are civilians; what do they want from us?” she asked angrily.

The UN warns that this cycle of displacement translates into extreme physical and mental stress. People are unable to hold down jobs, ultimately forcing more families to depend on aid to get by. This is compounded by the fact that unlike refugees, displaced people have not crossed a border for sanctuary, and largely remain close to the conflict they are trying to escape from.

[The New Humanitarian]

US restores aid to Central America after reaching migration deals

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The United States restored economic aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that had been cut off after the Trump administration complained the three Central American countries had done too little to halt a surge in migration.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday announced that some “targeted assistance” would resume as they praised governments of the three countries for reaching immigration agreements with the United States.

The three countries from the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America have sent record numbers of migrants toward the United States in recent years, fueling Trump’s rhetoric as part of his “zero tolerance” anti-immigration policy. Pompeo said in a statement that he had cut off the aid earlier this year on Trump’s direction “until the governments of these countries took sufficient action to reduce the overwhelming number of migrants coming to the U.S. border.”

Neither Trump nor Pompeo said how much of the hundreds of millions of dollars of suspended aid would be released. The Washington Post, citing an unnamed person familiar with the decision, reported it amounted to $143 million.

The Trump administration requires asylum-seekers to first seek safe haven in a third country they pass through on the way to the United States. The administration contends the majority of asylum-seekers are really economic migrants who will stay home if their only option is to seek asylum somewhere else.

[Reuters]