Monthly Archives: October 2019

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.


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]

Four years of growing callousness in the central Mediterranean

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In the past six years, more than 15,000 people have died or gone missing in the waters between Libya and the southern shores of Europe. Stretched out over time, death on this scale is numbing; it is easy to overlook exactly what is happening and difficult to continue to care.

During the past four years, European policies have made the death rate in the central Mediterranean rise from one for every 40 people who reached Italy to one for every 12.

When NGOs operating search-and-rescue boats stepped in to try to fill the gap, the rescuers were heros. They garnered positive press coverage and won humanitarian awards. One NGO was given a European Citizen’s Prize in 2016 by the European Parliament for its “contribution to European cooperation and the promotion of common values”.

Smugglers changed their tactics, switching from rickety old fishing boats to even more precarious inflatable rafts. Between 2015 and 2017, on days with good weather, so many boats would set out from Libya that the NGOs weren’t able to respond to all of the incidents at the same time.

In Europe, resentment about migration was growing, fueling the rise of far-right political parties. Centrist governments scrambled to adopt tough-on-migration policies, hoping to prevent themselves from sliding in the polls. Search-and-rescue NGOs became a favorite scapegoat. In April 2017, a Sicilian prosecutor claimed that NGOs were working with smugglers to help migrants and asylum seekers reach Europe, only to say, a few months later, that “no evidence [had] yet been found” to back up his statement.

Since the campaign against search-and-rescue NGOs began, the number of asylum seekers and migrants reaching Italy has dropped precipitously, from 120,000 in 2017 to just over 8,000 so far this year. But the decrease is simply the result of European policies that have kept people trapped in Libya, where thousands of asylum seekers and migrants have been stuck in dismal conditions in Libyan detention centres, where torture, sexual violence, extortion and other abuses regularly occur.

The beginning of September saw an unexpected turning point in the campaign against search-and-rescue NGOs. Italy’s populist-far right governing coalition suddenly collapsed and NGO boats are once again allowed to dock in Italian ports, and s deal between Italy, Malta, Germany, and France shows some progress among EU countries on sharing the responsibility of hosting asylum seekers and migrants disembarked in Italy.

These are positive steps, but they aren’t solutions, and they are taken on shaky ground

[Read full article at 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.