Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

More than half the population of Syria in need of humanitarian aid

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Over 11 million people across Syria need aid — more than half the country’s estimated population — and the U.N. and other organizations are reaching an average of 5.6 million people a month, the U.N. humanitarian chief said Thursday.

Mark Lowcock told the Security Council that across northern Syria 4 million people are supported by U.N. cross-border deliveries including 2.7 million in the northwest, the last major opposition-held area in the country.

With the resolution authorizing cross-border aid expiring in December, Lowcock stressed to the council that “there is no alternative to the cross-border operation” and its renewal is “critical. He warned that without a cross-border operation, “we would see an immediate end of aid supporting millions of civilians” which would cause “a rapid increase in hunger and disease. A lot more people would flood across the borders, making an existing crisis even worse in the region,” he added.

Lowcock said he remains very concerned about the situation in the northwest, pointing to an increase in airstrikes and ground-based strikes mostly in parts of southern and western Idlib in recent weeks. “In the last two days there have been reports of over 100 airstrikes in Idlib and surrounding areas,” he said. More than half the people in Idlib moved there from other parts of the country, and hundreds of thousands are living in camps and informal shelters near the Turkish border, he said.

[AP]

I’m a humanitarian. Don’t prosecute me for doing my job.

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In 2011, I negotiated in Afghanistan with the Taliban and the United States to establish a trauma hospital in the northern city of Kunduz that would care for the wounded and sick, regardless of who they were. Between 2012 and 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières treated thousands of patients – mostly civilians, but also Taliban and Afghan army patients. This we celebrated as a win for impartial humanitarian action.  

But front lines changed, and during a fateful week in October 2015 when the Taliban took control of the town, US and Afghan counter-terrorism forces declared the entire area, and the people in it, as hostile territory. Arguing that Taliban fighters had “taken over” our hospital, the United States bombed it five times over the span of two hours, until it burned to the ground, with everyone in it. The only Taliban inside were patients – hors combat. I would return to Afghanistan shortly after to mourn the lives of 48 staff and patients who died that day, some scorched to death in their hospital beds.

The bombing of our hospital in Kunduz was condemned around the world, and the United States ultimately financially compensated the families of the victims. But an independent investigation to determine why the hospital was bombed was denied. It is an extreme example of what can go wrong when the impartiality of humanitarian action is not respected.

A new bill before the Dutch government threatens to make the same mistake. The law proposes to criminalize citizens’ travel – without Dutch government permission – to areas it designates as controlled by ‘terrorist’ organizations. The criteria upon which such permission will be granted are not clear. Aimed originally at preventing Dutch citizens from joining the so-called Islamic State, this broad new law has serious inadvertent effects on me and many others in many other places around the world.

As a Dutch aid worker regularly travelling to such areas to deliver lifesaving medical assistance, this new law, if adopted, essentially obliges me to prove I have no terrorist intentions prior to saving lives. This remarkable reversal of the burden of proof not only restricts and endangers my own profession, but violates the humanitarian principle of impartiality that populations trapped in conflict rely on. This principle guarantees that their needs, not which side of the front line they find themselves, determines their access to assistance.

Impartiality is the core tenet of humanitarianism relief. For a medical organization such as ours, the consequences of such legislation are even more dire. Under international law, both civilians and combatants have a right to medical care. This was one of the main purposes of the Geneva Conventions, which allow special protection under IHL for an impartial humanitarian body that collects the wounded and sick. Combatants receiving medical care are considered hors combat and have the same status as civilians. This means MSF has the legal right – and responsibility – to treat everyone, even ‘terrorists’ and even in ‘designated areas’. 

Saving lives is not a crime. Under international law, preventing me from doing so is.

[Excerpts of article by Michiel Hofman, Senior humanitarian specialist with Médecins Sans Frontières]

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]