International humanitarian aid takes the form of more cash rather than goods

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In 2016, cash transfers and vouchers made up about 10 percent of international humanitarian aid, or $2.8 billion, up from 2.5 percent a year earlier.

Donors and big aid agencies have committed to supplying more aid in the form of cash. International NGO World Vision, for example, expects to provide fully half of its spending in the form of cash by 2020.

Cash aid offers an elegant solution for buying goods and renting accommodation, and injects funds into local economies.

As unconditional cash aid grows in scale, UN agencies and NGOs are having to redefine their raison d’être. Cash threatens the traditional “business model” of many aid groups: a highly specialist aid agency (focusing on supplying just food or shelter, for example) makes little sense if families make their own purchasing decisions.

Financial service providers are taking over a significant role – and a percentage of the value transferred. In Turkey, for example, the European Commission provides cash transfers for 1.3 million Syrian refugees, in collaboration with the Turkish government, state-owned Halkbank, the Red Crescent, and the UN. The two-year contract is worth €650 million.

Why not cash should be the first question asked before starting any aid project, a key 2015 study published by UK think tank the Overseas Development Institute urged. Yet institutional and technical hurdles linger, some based on misperceptions. Cash aid doesn’t succumb to more fraud than bags or boxes of goods. Fears that recipients will spend the cash unwisely – on tobacco and alcohol, say – have also proven unfounded.

[IRIN]

UK removing Isis explosives and helping Iraqis return home

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More than a million Iraqis whose lives have been devastated by Daesh (aka Isis) safely returned home in 2018, made possible in part thanks to a huge UK aid funded mine clearance mission.

The Department for International Development (DFID) has today announced further support to clear explosives  (Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs) from schools, hospitals and roads in Iraq, eradicating one of the lasting impacts of Daesh’s reign of terror across the country. With the support of UK aid, approximately 16,500 explosives, 800 suicide belts and a staggering 2,000 deadly explosives traps were cleared in Iraq last year.

This new funding will support projects across the country’s Sinjar Province, an area with a historically large population of Yezidis who have been displaced by Daesh in their thousands, and one of the areas worst impacted by Daesh occupation. UK aid will support six explosive clearance teams who will be deployed across the region making schools, hospitals and critical infrastructure safe from suspected explosive.

The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has called the use of explosive traps a Daesh strategy to ‘win on the cheap’, continuing to devastate Iraq even as the Iraqi people try to rebuild.

With hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq still in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, the UK has supported more than 400,000 people with food and provided life-saving healthcare services to over four million people since 2014.

[Department for International Development]

Massive storm bringing torrential rain and waves up to 16 feet high is pounding Thailand

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A tropical storm bringing torrential rain, high winds, and waves up to 16 feet high has slammed into Thailand in what could be the nation’s worst storm in more than 30 years. The national meteorological service warned of “severe conditions” still to come.

The storm made landfall over the Pak Phanang district on the country’s east coast, according to the Thai Meteorological Department. The department warned that “torrential downpours” would strike the mainland.

Forecasters expect the storm to slow as it moves over land, at which point it would be classified as a depression rather than a tropical storm. It could still cause significant damage in this weakened state.

Thailand’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation said thousands of residents in coastal areas had been evacuated.

Thousands of tourists are trapped on some of the country’s most popular islands, including Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao, CNN reported.

The US and Israel have quit UNESCO

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The United States and Israel officially quit the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency, the culmination of a process triggered more than a year ago amid concerns that the organization fosters anti-Israel bias.

The withdrawal is mainly procedural yet serves a new blow to UNESCO, co-founded by the U.S. after World War II to foster peace. The Paris-based organization has been denounced by its critics as a crucible for anti-Israel bias: blasted for criticizing Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, naming ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites and granting full membership to Palestine in 2011.

The withdrawals will not greatly impact UNESCO financially, since it has been dealing with a funding slash ever since 2011 when both Israel and the U.S. stopped paying dues after Palestine was voted in as a member state. Since then officials estimate that the U.S. — which accounted for around 22 percent of the total budget — has accrued $600 million in unpaid dues, which was one of the reasons for President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw. Israel owes an estimated $10 million.

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay took up her post just after Trump announced the pullout. Azoulay, who has Jewish and Moroccan heritage, has presided over the launch of a Holocaust education website and the U.N.’s first educational guidelines on fighting anti-Semitism — initiatives that might be seen as responding to U.S. and Israeli concerns.

[TIME]

Number of injured in Indonesia tsunami surges to over 14,000, with over 400 deaths

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The number of injured in the volcano-triggered tsunami along the coast of Sunda Strait in Indonesia jumped significantly to 14,059, as search and rescue operations continue.

The death toll from the Dec 22 tsunami, triggered by the eruption of Anak Krakatau volcano and the ensuing underwater landslide, has reached at least 437 people. The total number of displaced persons was put lower to 33,719, after reaching a peak of 40,386 on Friday. , The tsunami destroyed 2,752 houses and 510 ships.

The spokesman of national disaster management agency Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said search and rescue operations continued as many were believed to remain missing in the provinces of Banten and Lampung, with the emergency status being extended.

The strong eruption of the Anak Krakatau volcano has reduced the height of the volcano to 110 meters from 338 meters, volcanologists said.

The Anak Krakatau volcano, or “Child of Krakatoa” volcano in English, is one of the 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, a nation home to 17,500 islands and which sits on a vulnerable quake-hit zone so called “the Pacific Ring of Fire”.

[The Star]

Death awaits deported asylum seekers

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The threats from MS-13 had become incessant. There were handwritten letters, phone calls and text messages that all said the same thing: The gang was preparing to kill Ronald Acevedo. El Salvador had the world’s highest murder rate. Acevedo had already been stabbed once. His family pieced together a plan. They paid a smuggler to take Acevedo to the United States border.

The plan didn’t work. After eight months in detention, Acevedo, 20, abruptly withdrew his asylum claim. He was deported to El Salvador on Nov. 29, 2017. He disappeared on Dec. 5, 2017, and his body was later found in the trunk of a car, wrapped in white sheets. An autopsy showed signs of torture.

Acevedo’s case made its way through American immigration courts just as the White House launched attempts to reduce the number of people who are eligible for asylum, a protection that for nearly 70 years had served to shield victims of war and persecution. Some of those denied asylum are sent back to countries where their lives are put in immediate danger.

In addition to Acevedo, The Post has identified another asylum seeker, Miguel Panameño, who was killed this year, months after being deported to El Salvador. He is buried in the same cemetery as Acevedo.

Immigration lawyers in the United States believe many more cases exist. Some nongovernmental groups have made efforts to track the number of deaths, but there are no official mechanisms to catalogue them. Between 2012 and 2017, the United States denied asylum to 12,300 Salvadorans and deported them.

The number of people applying for asylum in the United States has increased steadily over the past four years, as has the number of people denied asylum. Last year, 120,000 migrants made asylum claims in U.S. immigration courts, a fourfold increase from 2014.

Many of those fleeing gang violence first attempt to disappear in another part of El Salvador before leaving the country. But MS-13 had, at least in some cases, tracked them down.

“They have connections everywhere,” Acevedo said in his credible fear interview, the first step in establishing a legitimate asylum case in the United States. “If you go to another zone they will know.”

[Washington Post]

As the US debates Trump’s wall, thousands of migrants being dumped at the border

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As the high-stakes immigration debates rage nationally over walls, U.S. border troops, caravans and a federal government shutdown, crowded buses rolled into the downtown Greyhound station in El Paso. That’s where hundreds of migrant asylum-seekers were sent after federal detention centers hit full capacity as more and more people squeeze into ill-equipped border stations.

U.S. authorities released more than 1,500 migrants this week in El Paso alone, including 522 on Wednesday, the largest single-day release.  The scene in El Paso is being played out at many locations along the Texas and Arizona border.  Church shelters recently have been taking in about 2,200 to 2,300 migrants a week.

“I am really, really disappointed when my government does things like this,” Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter that coordinates local migrant assistance efforts, said of the mass release. “The bottom line is you don’t release families with young children to the streets.”

But the churches that host people remain overloaded.  Without way stations like Annunciation, says newly elected U.S. Rep.- Veronica Escobar, (D-Texas), migrants who have been processed by ICE would end up on the streets homeless, hungry and without support.

Garcia said immigration holding facilities on the border were initially set up to hold men — not families. “It’s inappropriate to be holding families in holding cells.” Garcia added that he had heard that women, especially those pregnant, were being released due to crowding at the women’s detention area of one immigration detention center in El Paso. Read more

Migrant families are being dumped in US border cities

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Estela Tomas Felipe was one of the more than 1,500 migrants released in El Paso this week. At the Greyhound station, Felipe, with her one-year-old daughter strapped to her back, was in good spirits, and heading to Birmingham, Alabama, to meet her husband, who left Guatemala two months ago.

She left her poor farming community in Guatemala 21 days ago. There, “they take women and then they rape them or kill them,” she said as she explained why she and her daughter made the harrowing trip by truck and other vehicles through Mexico and into the United States. “That’s why I came here.”

Following the deaths of two Guatemalan children this month who were in Customs and Border Protection custody, advocates expressed concern that US immigration authorities were rushing migrants through the asylum process.

Felipe Gómez Alonzo, 8, who died Christmas Eve, tested positive for influenza B, according to the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator. 

Jakelin Caal, 7, also Guatemalan, died December 8 at an El Paso children’s hospital after being detained with her father and while preparing to travel by bus to a Border Patrol station in New Mexico.

The chaos at the border has also been complicated by the partial government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s insistence on including funds for a border wall in the federal budget.

[USA Today]

US refugee policy also puts a damper on Christians

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Laith Yakona wants only one thing for Christmas, the same thing he has prayed for the last four Christmases: To spend the holidays with his family.

War, bombings, kidnappings, death threats, and death squads failed to break up the Yakona family in their hometown of Baghdad before leaving for Jordan. Yet after a decade of their navigating the increasingly polarized war-torn Iraq and then a life in exile, one event has split the family in two: A new life in America.

“As soon as my parents left for America, our lives here have been on hold,” Mr. Yakona says from the sparse rented apartment he shares with his sister in Amman. “Our family is torn in two, and we have been given no reason why.”

Yakona is one of thousands of Christian refugees from the Middle East whose arrival on American soil has been put on hold indefinitely amid the Trump administration’s slowdown and downsizing of the US refugee program. With the policy to tighten the borders, the US intake of refugees has dropped dramatically. In fiscal year 2017, the US government accepted a quota of 110,000 refugees. Under President Trump, the ceiling was lowered to 45,000 for fiscal year 2018. But according to the State Department, the US only took in half that number, 22,500, in 2018.

The new Trump Administration policy has disproportionally impacted Christian refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Iran. The US intake of Christian refugees from across the Middle East was down 99 percent from 2017 to 2018, and for Iraqi Christians, down 98 percent, according to State Department statistics analyzed by World Relief, a Christian organization that advocates opening US borders to refugees.

“American churches, primarily evangelical churches, may not realize that there is a dramatic slowdown in refugee resettlement, and they definitely don’t realize that persecuted Christians have been so dramatically shut out,” says Mathew Soerens, US director of church mobilization at World Relief.

[Christian Science Monitor]

US funding cut for Palestinian refugees

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The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, needs to find about $350 million a year if the United States pulls all its funding, as threatened.

The European Union said its members, which collectively represent the largest donor to UNRWA, will consult on how to fill the gap.

With social services at risk for 5.4 million Palestinian refugees living in the occupied territories and the wider Middle East, including schooling for half a million children, here’s a look at the numbers and what they mean.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, was formed in 1949 to help Palestinians who fled at the time of the creation of the state of Israel. The United States has been a major donor for 70 years and US funding to the agency averaged $348 million for the five years 2013-2017. But earlier this year President Donald Trump’s administration paid only $60 million, a fraction of the expected US contribution, and on Friday it ordered a complete halt to any further funding.

The US State Department said it was tired of shouldering a “very disproportionate” share of the agency’s spending. However, the US contribution from 2013-2017 represented an average of 28 percent, the same percentage used as the country’s fair share of UN peacekeeping costs.

In an open letter issued today, the head of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl, says there are 5.4 million refugees who have “undeniable” rights that “cannot be wished away”. UNRWA can’t be blamed for perpetuating the refugee issue, he says, arguing that it’s the whole world that has failed to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

[IRIN]