IRIN's Top Picks: Data, poverty, and the Eritrean exodus

Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of recent must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates.

Five to read:

A peek into Eritrea

The odysseys of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans to Europe have been well chronicled this year. Less well covered has been the growing exodus to Europe and North Africa from Eritrea. Accurate information from the secretive East African nation is rare – the totalitarian government has blocked all efforts by the likes of the UN and Amnesty to carry out research – journalistic reports are rarer still. So this longread by the Guardian’s Africa correspondent David Smith, who managed to make it in, is worth a look. Contrary to the popular perception of Eritrea as Africa’s North Korea, the reporter found a country at peace, with a low crime rate, Muslims and Christians living in harmony, and a convincing façade of normal daily life in the capital, Asmara. However, in between trips to government offices, Smith also managed to speak to some ordinary Eritreans. They told him how few of them can see a future, and how most are conscripted into the army in an endless national service that resembles nothing so much as slavery. The piece captures the sense of constant unease below the surface. As one shopkeeper told him: “Most Eritreans are suffering, but it is in our culture to act as if we are living nicely. We like to pretend.”

Christmas: an act of defiance

Around the world today, hundreds of millions of people are celebrating Christmas. Among them will be Syrian blogger Marcell Shehwaro, whose latest post charts how she and her family have fought to keep this festival of love alive amidst the vortex of horror that is the country’s civil war. The conflict has turned Christmas from a time of joy to an act of resistance. Shehwaro documents the heart-stopping lengths to which they’ve gone in recent years: from using a fake identity to get back into her home neighbourhood of Aleppo to share the occasion with friends and family – after fleeing political persecution – to smuggling a Christmas tree in a suitcase across the Turkish border. She and a dwindling group of friends and family have been determined that whatever else the war may take from them, it won’t take Christmas. Among her presents during her last Christmas in Aleppo was an assassination pistol – a gift from a friend in the Free Syrian Army in case she was taken by so-called Islamic State militants. It’s hard to reconcile the idea of a family celebration with gifts that facilitate suicide, but this, Shehwaro says, is the reality of today’s Syrian Christmas. “Maybe this is what Christmas is all about,” she writes. “To be naïve amongst people you love, defying death and loneliness.”

Poverty deepens for Syrians in Lebanon

For the more than one million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, things are looking bleak. The just-published 2015 Vulnerability Assessment, summarising research carried out by three UN agencies, confirms that one in four people living in Lebanon are Syrian, the highest number of refugees per resident anywhere in the world. Since 2014, those refugees have only become more vulnerable. The headline finding is that a massive 70 percent now live below the Lebanese poverty line of $3.84, up from 49 percent in 2014. But behind that figure are stories of refugees getting into debt as they run out of savings, living four people to a room (on average) with insufficient food (89%). More and more are showing signs of settling in for the long haul, buying basic household goods and winter clothing. The UN agencies say their approach is shifting from emergency to protracted crisis response. The main cause of refugee’s financial vulnerability: the lack of access to long-term earning opportunities.

WHS: already leaving people behind?

That many people would complain that the World Humanitarian Summit had failed to address their particular pet issues and concerns was an inevitable part of the process. This week, however, a group of major British organisations took their concerns to a new level, writing a strong letter to the UN’s humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien – whose office is overseeing the WHS. The letter expressed concern that his last statement left out the marginalised groups whose presence at the heart of humanitarian action, they argue, needs to be at the core of the reform process. Islamic Relief, Save the Children and Oxfam – three of the 10 who signed – fear that the clear findings of the WHS’s own Synthesis Report are being watered down ahead of the summit in Istanbul in May. “The consultation highlighted the need for humanitarian assistance to be better adapted to meet the differing needs of vulnerable groups taking into account gender, age and disability,” says HelpAge, one of the signatories to the letter. “The agencies are dismayed to find that the priorities identified in the statement issued by the UN humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien, fail to recognise these issues.” The full letter hasn’t been shared as two signatory agencies wish to remain anonymous, but be prepared for more lobbying along these lines in the months ahead.

Vigilantes v Boko Haram

The failure of Nigerian security forces to contain what has become the world’s deadliest terrorist group – Boko Haram – helped bring down the last president. Frustrated citizens have formed the Civilian Joint Task Force, a vigilante body that has now swelled to over 10,000 members. Of these, just 50 or so are women. This week, the New Yorker profiles one: Fatima Muhammed. She joined the CJTF after a man she was close to was killed by Boko Haram. Her day job is running a canteen, a role she now mixes with tasks like carrying out body searches on suspected female terrorists – something her fellow male vigilantes are prevented from doing on faith and cultural grounds. This thought-provoking piece, which notes her drift from civilian to full-time combatant, also asks what will happen to people like her if the CJTF is allowed to continue to grow outside official structures. As one state governor tells the magazine, the group could turn into “a monster”.

One to listen to:

A tricky little thing called data

In the introduction to the Lebanon report, the UN’s refugee arm, UNHCR, goes out of its way to thank not just the agencies that collected the data, but also the families who provided it. With good reason: the difficulty in collecting, analysing, presenting, and sharing data about refugees, particularly in the context of protection work, is the topic of this week’s Humanitarian Assistance Podcast. A potentially dry topic is brought to life by an articulate and well-informed panel, which not only discusses the emerging challenges of digital data management, ethics, and privacy, but also looks at the increasing capacity of refugees to source and organise data themselves. “Refugees are now able to do things that would previously be the role of humanitarians,” including create and maintain digital identities, says Patrick Vink, director of the Programme on Peace and Human Rights at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. “People can access information and make decisions for themselves.”

One from IRIN:

Will a political dispute become a humanitarian disaster?

The eyes of the world that turned towards Kathmandu when Nepal suffered a massive earthquake in April have long since looked away. Yet the country is sliding into a humanitarian crisis, as border blockades slowly choke off vital supplies. In this story, IRIN explores the political deadlock that is the root of the problem – the Indian and Nepalese governments and marginalised groups on both sides of the border locking horns over Nepal’s new constitution – and draws attention to the increasingly serious consequences. More than two thirds of basic medicines are out of stock at primary healthcare posts across the country. Fuel shortages mean that lifesaving goods like tarpaulins and blankets cannot be transported to where they are most needed, in remote mountain villages. And cooking gas now costs 630% more than it did at the start of the blockade. As politicians continue to argue, millions of Nepalis are being pushed further and further into vulnerability: the risks of winter weather, extreme food shortages, and easily preventable disease are growing by the day.