Top Picks: Migrant motives, Guillain-Barré, and conflict diamonds

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.

Four to read:

Is Guillain-Barré the hidden concern with Zika?

The main focus since Zika virus emerged from the scientific shadows has been on the risk of pregnant women becoming infected and delivering babies with abnormally small heads. And while this remains a major concern – the first Zika-linked birth defects in Colombia were detected this week – scientists from the Pasteur Institute in Paris have for the first time provided evidence that Zika virus can cause Guillain-Barré syndrome. After investigating all 42 cases of the rare neurological condition that occurred during an earlier Zika outbreak in French Polynesia, they concluded that Zika virus should be added to the list of infectious pathogens susceptible to cause Guillain-Barré syndrome and advised at-risk countries in Latin America to ensure they had adequate intensive care beds to cope with an expected influx of GBS patients. The syndrome causes rapid-onset muscle weakness that can be life-threatening during the acute phase, although most people will make a good recovery if they receive the correct care. These findings are sure to cause further alarm, especially in Brazil, where more than 1.5 million Zika infections have been reported, and in Colombia where the caseload numbers in the tens of thousands.

Asia on the move

In general, the global conversation about migration tends to focus on the negatives. In contrast, this report published by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific makes an important point: “Migrants from countries across the region play a key role as development actors, helping drive GDP growth in their countries of destination, while supporting families and even communities in their countries of origin.” This fact is often lost, however, and prejudice often appears to inform knee-jerk policies that often restrict the rights of migrants as well as their entry into a country. The report makes a compelling case that, in doing so, countries in the Asia-Pacific region are undermining their own economic growth. For example, restricting access to employment leads migrants into the informal economy, where both labour standards and wages are low. National workers must then compete for jobs with illegal migrants and “a race to the bottom in terms of wages and labour standards ensues”. The report urges countries to take another look at their migration policies and make changes that both protect migrants and boost wealth-creation.

Refugee cash grants

How should we help Syrian refugees? One much-debated aid strategy that’s on the rise is the delivery of cash grants that beneficiaries can spend as they please. Two years of research compared otherwise similar groups of Syrian refugees in Lebanon who did and didn’t receive direct cash aid, and is summarised here in a brief and easy read from the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute. The results are clear: refugees can make their own good decisions. Those who were given cash didn’t waste their money. Instead, they spent it on heating supplies, shelter, water and food. They were less likely to send their children to work, and more likely to send them to school. There’s even evidence that cash grants improve the local economy as well as relations between refugees and host communities – and in a country like Lebanon, where there are more than one million refugees and no camps, that's no small achievement.

The role of EU policy in migrant decision-making

In recent months, EU member states have introduced ever more restrictive migration policies – from erecting fences to reducing support to asylum seekers – in a bid to deter people from setting out in the first place. And yet, they keep coming – at a rate of nearly 2,000 a day even during the winter months of January and February. New research by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) attempts to understand why this is and whether migration policies in destination countries have any impact on people’s decisions, either before they begin their journeys, or along the way. Based on interviews with more than 50 recently arrived migrants in four European cities they found that migrants are much more likely to make decisions based on information from a trusted source such as family and friends than from anti-migration messages transmitted by European governments. They also found that migrants often change their plans and destinations during long, complex journeys, and that policies that made those journeys more dangerous and expensive rarely deterred them but simply re-routed them through other countries.

IRIN also touched on this issue this week with a story from Athens, Istanbul and Kabul on how Afghan migrants refuse to be deterred by Europe’s border restrictions: Don’t know, don’t care.

Two to watch:

On the Brink of Famine 360°

If the subject weren’t so distressing, this 360-degree Frontline documentary about extreme hunger in South Sudan would be every humanitarian’s favourite gizmo. The producers used a camera that simultaneously records all 360 degrees of a scene. By dragging your mouse over the screen, you can rotate the angle and perspective of the film as it’s playing. You’ll find yourself looking into the sky as aid packages pound to the ground from overhead and then looking over the landscape of the largest camp for displaced people from a seat in an airplane. If the near-famine in South Sudan wasn’t enough to raise global awareness, this film may draw in people that may not have otherwise paid attention, adding to the increasingly urgent calls for action. For more on the remarkable new technology, still in its early days, check out this behind-the-scenes look at the making of the documentary.

Conflicted diamonds

The US Dodd-Frank law was supposed to be a watershed moment – an ethical intervention to stop the mining of conflict diamonds in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mineral trade in eastern Congo came to a virtual standstill – for both licit and illicit miners. This Al Jazeera film questions the advocacy groups that say Dodd-Frank has been a success.


One from IRIN:

Hard lines: Access issues deepen Ukraine aid crisis

In March 2015, IRIN contributor Kristina Jovanovski reported from rebel-held Ukraine on the perilous journeys civilians were making across the frontline into government-controlled territory to access official state pensions, disablility benefits and cheaper supplies. A year later, she returned to the same blown-up bridge that marks the middle of no man’s land. Only, this time, she couldn’t cross. It has become harder for journalists to enter rebel territory, and as Jovanovski discovered it’s not just the media that’s seen access restricted. Freedom of movement has been further impeded for aid organisations and civilians and tighter restrictions at checkpoints both ways are making life ever more miserable for those struggling to get by in frontline areas. With the war poised to enter its third year next month, Jovanovski’s reporting, backed by an in-depth UN report this week, offer a glimpse into the netherworld of frontline communities. The more the conflict drags on, the more permanent the state of lawlessness, the more palpable the despair of those living on the margins of what’s possible. A grim read, but a necessary one.

Coming Up:

The humanitarian system under the microscope

In the lead-up to the World Humanitarian Summit in May, many governments are exploring what they can do to align themselves with some of the proposed reforms to how aid is delivered in crises. Late last year, the British parliament’s International Development Committee launched an inquiry into the global humanitarian system, aimed at shaping the UK Department for International Development’s priorities for the Summit. It seeks to answer questions like: What are the shortcomings of the current funding model? And how is the “slow pace of reform within the UN system” hindering overall improvements in the sector? The few written submissions (now closed) are fairly predictable, encouraging DFID to focus on the most protracted crises and bridge the humanitarian-development divide. But one submission by a group of aid agencies and research institutes focuses on one area that has been less talked about in the WHS process thus far: making decisions based on evidence. As someone involved in setting standards in the humanitarian sector recently put it: “We have almost a pathological fear in measuring what we do.” The inquiry will hear oral testimony on Tuesday from the UK minister of state for international development, the head of humanitarian policy at DFID, and representatives of the UN Development Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Overseas Development Institute.