Suffering Syrians, trapped Venezuelans, and a Ugandan refugee swindle: The Cheat Sheet

Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:

 

From bad to worse in Syria’s de-escalation zones

 

Late last month, IRIN analyst Aron Lund warned of the beginning of a new wave of displacement in northwestern Syria thanks to dual offensives by the government of President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey. But since then it’s been “going from bad to worse” in rebel-held Idlib, warns Save the Children, telling how a displacement camp has been bombed, leaving terrified people with nowhere safe to go. And in the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin, tens of thousands more people have been displaced since 20 January alone. In besieged Eastern Ghouta, which like Idlib was designated as a “de-escalation zone” in a deal hatched last May in Astana, hundreds of children are said to be in urgent need of medical evacuation, food prices are soaring, and monitors and opposition activists say 200 civilians have been killed in four days of government airstrikes. What is left for civilians in the Astana deal that was supposed to wind down years of horrific violence in Syria? The head of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria said this week that the recent violence had made a “mockery of the de-escalation zones”. The Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, went further, declaring: “humanitarian diplomacy is failing”.

 

No exit: Venezuela’s neighbours close the door

 

Our never-cheery New Year listicle of humanitarian crises to watch out for warned that regional hospitality could soon wear thin as Venezuela’s neighbours felt the strain of more than a million newcomers. Fast forward less than six weeks and events have already overshot our gloomiest predictions. On a visit Thursday to Cúcuta, where hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans take their first steps on Colombian soil, President Juan Manuel Santos announced a raft of tough new measures: temporary permits allowing Venezuelans to cross over and return at will for vital trade, food, and medicines would be scrapped; those already in Colombia would have 90 days to register with officials before becoming “illegal”. At roughly the same time, 1,500 kilometres to the southeast, in the first town through the Brazilian escape route, Boa Vista, Defence Minister Raul Jungmann closed the door a little further: more troops would be deployed to the border; Venezuelans in the frontier region would be relocated to Brazil’s interior. Meanwhile, the extent of the humanitarian crisis brewing inside Venezuela, where malnutrition and diseases like malaria are reportedly on the rise, is getting harder to ascertain. Journalists are finding it harder to report on sensitive issues as President Nicolás Maduro becomes increasingly authoritarian ahead of snap April elections. With the International Monetary Fund predicting 13,000% inflation this year and the fallout from the election still ahead, these may soon be seen as the good times. In his comments in Cúcuta, Santos laid the blame squarely at Maduro’s door and challenged him to start accepting international humanitarian aid. Watch this space.

 

Inflated numbers: Ugandan refugee record tarnished

 

The Ugandan government has suspended five senior officials for allegedly inflating refugee figures to swindle donor funds. But the scandal could yet be worse, with additional allegations that refugee women in the north of the country have been trafficked back into South Sudan and sold as “wives”. Apollo Kazungu, Uganda’s commissioner for refugees, and members of his staff have been accused of colluding with officials from the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme to fiddle the numbers. Millions of dollars in aid are believed to have been lost as a result, the Guardian reported. The EU, which provides funding to the two agencies, is investigating the charges. Uganda claims to house 1.4 million refugees, a million of whom have fled the ongoing civil war in South Sudan. The concern over numbers is not new, and donors are demanding the implementation of a UN-controlled biometric system of refugee identification. The UN's top official in Uganda, Rosa Malango, has raised a range of concerns, from "corruption to fraud, from trafficking of women and girls to intimidation and harassment of UN personnel”. In the case of trafficking, South Sudanese girls and women are being sold across the border to combatants with the possible complicity of Ugandan officials, AFP reported. According to an internal Ugandan government document, Ugandan officials also extort money from newly-arrived refugees, insisting on payment before providing the free registration service that allows access to aid.

 

Small steps for the ICC in Afghanistan and the Philippines

 

Victims of war crimes in Afghanistan may support a long-awaited probe by the International Criminal Court, but have they been heard? The court has reportedly received submissions representing more than 715,000 people who shared their views (before a court-imposed 31 January deadline) on whether the ICC should launch a full war crimes investigation in Afghanistan. The ICC doesn’t customarily release the details of these submissions but, according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, Afghans who have publicly spoken out have outlined a range of claims: a Taliban suicide bombing; killings and threats by militant groups; accusations against government officials, the CIA, and the US military. But the analysis raises another important issue: in a vast country with ongoing conflict, high rates of illiteracy, and limited internet penetration, was the 72-day response period long enough to actually listen to potential victims? As Wida Ahmad, director of the Kabul-based Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers, told IRIN in January, scepticism about the international community in Afghanistan extends to the ICC: “They see foreign organisations as actually committing crimes rather than prosecuting them.” It’s not clear when the judges will decide whether or not to authorise an investigation. ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked judges for permission to open a full investigation in November – more than a decade after the prosecutor’s office first began examining the issue. That may not be a reassuring timeline for critics of rights abuses in the Philippines. This week, Bensouda also announced she would open a preliminary examination into the Philippine government’s “war on drugs” campaign, which has reportedly led to more than 12,000 deaths since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016. In response, a Duterte spokesman said the president was “sick and tired of being accused… of crimes against humanity”. 

 

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Yemen PR wars: Saudi Arabia employs UK/US firms to push multi-billion-dollar aid plan

 

When a new Saudi Arabian-led aid project for Yemen was announced and reported on without much in the way of appraisal, we were sceptical, if only because the kingdom, as one party in its neighbour’s nearly three-year war, has more than a little skin in the game. Then we noticed that the press releases for Yemen Humanitarian Comprehensive Operations (YCHO) came from a British PR firm – suspicious. After a fair bit of digging, we realised that if YCHO goes ahead as planned, it will not ease the on-off blockade on a rebel-held port that humanitarians say is key to staving off famine in Yemen, in fact it will divert imports through entry points controlled by the coalition. Digging a little further, we found evidence that the plan was written (at least in part) by UK and US consultants. We’ve had no reply from any of the consultants involved or Saudi Arabia itself (not for lack of trying), but there’s plenty more to examine in this “aid plan”. We’re on the case. 

(TOP PHOTO: Venezuelans in Cúcuta, Colombia. CREDIT: Paul Smith/UNHCR)

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