Top Picks: Mass atrocities, makeshift refineries, and migrant children

Welcome to IRIN's weekly top picks of must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises.

Six to read:

Scorched earth and charred lives in Syria

As the US-led coalition and Russia target so-called Islamic State’s oil refineries to dent the group's finances, thousands of makeshift facilities have sprung up, controlled both by IS and civilians desperate for fuel or income. Syrians need fuel for heating, pumping water, and running hospital generators, but could do without the dangerous (and possibly deadly) side-effects PAX documents in this report, from carcinogens and other toxins to long-lasting environmental impacts. Tens of thousands of Syrians may be affected by these practices. Worst off are likely those staffing the backyard refineries, a large number of them children orphaned by the war.

Ballot bother

In the wake of the Gabon election unrest, Afrobarometer has released its latest survey which finds that only half of Africans trust their national electoral commissions, and many fear violence and unfair practices during campaigns.

Citizens’ views on election quality are generally consistent with assessments by international experts. Two thirds of Africans rate their most recent election as “completely free and fair” (41 percent) or “free and fair, but with minor problems” (24 percent). But substantial proportions of the population are sceptical about the quality of their elections. More than four in 10 Africans say that voters are at least “sometimes” threatened with violence at the polls (44 percent); that opposition parties and candidates are at least “sometimes” prevented from running (43 percent); that the news media “never” or only “sometimes” provides fair coverage of all candidates (43 percent); and that voters are “often” or “always” bribed (43 percent).

With at least 25 countries conducting national elections in 2016-2017, the perceptions paint a troubling picture of the management and quality of elections.

Dissecting an attack on a university in Afghanistan

In a two-part series, the Afghanistan Analysts Network puts together a detailed account of the 24 August attack on the American University in Kabul, which killed 13 people and injured 49, mostly students. The first part contains a blow-by-blow report of the attack, which began when a truckload of explosives was detonated next to the country’s only vocational school for visually impaired people. That’s followed by brief bios of the victims. The second part asks: who did it and why? No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the analyst finds that the Taliban are the most likely suspects.

Africa in bloom

Africa’s farms are beginning to bloom. A decade of intense domestic attention to farmers and food production has generated “the most successful development effort” in African history, with countries that made the biggest investments rewarded with sizeable jumps in both farm productivity and overall economic performance, according to a major new report by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

The report, released this week, finds evidence that many farmers are “gaining more options in the seeds they plant, in the fertilisers they use, and in the markets available to purchase their produce.” But the gains are fragile. Africa remains “the world’s most food insecure continent”, and climate change will make the going even harder.

The 284-page report includes a range of findings, from a call for four times more public funding on agriculture – the equivalent of $40 billion – to the need to link production to agro-industries, and provide farmers with better access to financing. It warns that “much more remains to be done to sustain these gains and truly drive the agricultural transformation needed for Africa’s development and ensure a better life for all.”

Preventing mass atrocities

The race to become the next UN secretary-general is heating up, but no one seems to know with any certainty which candidate will triumph. Whoever it is, argues this report from the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, their “essential agenda” needs to focus on preventing mass atrocities, from Syria to South Sudan. Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon have achieved much by advocating for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and introducing innovations such as the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG) and the Human Rights up Front (HRuF) initiative, but much more needs to be done, it says. Four core recommendations: strengthen HRuF (early action to prevent large-scale abuses of human rights or international humanitarian law); merge the posts of special adviser on R2P and OSAPG into one overarching senior adviser on preventing mass atrocities (and give the person greater powers); strengthen the UN’s preventive and response tools (including resources for mediation and diplomatic capabilities in regional offices); and revitalise international discussions around mass atrocities. The fifth strand is one IRIN aims to help with: improve early warning and analysis, including with more detailed analysis and better reporting on threats from senior UN officials. Please, come to us and we'll help spread the word.

Young and on the move

UNICEF made a big splash this week with the release of its report on “the growing crisis for refugee and migrant children” around the world. But if you want to understand the movements of children and young people from a region that produces a particularly high proportion of child migrants – the Horn of Africa – read this report, published jointly by Save the Children and the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat. Almost half of international migrants in the Horn are under 20 and children make up the majority of forcibly displaced populations in the region. Increasingly, children and youth are making journeys outside the region without an adult to watch over them, particularly to Europe, but also to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. More than 7,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Italy by sea from Africa in the first five months of 2016, double the number during the same period last year. Many of them were from Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. This study looks at the motivations behind these journeys and the risks child migrants face: from detention and trafficking to physical and sexual abuse. It ends with some recommendations for organisations trying to develop protection programmes for this group.

One to watch:

Exporting terror

In case you missed it, here’s another chance to watch and hear from Harry Sarfo, a former so-called Islamic State militant who became disillusioned and fled back to Germany, where he is serving a three-year term on terrorism charges. With security analysts predicting an uptick in attempted IS attacks in the West as the group loses territory in Iraq and Syria, this jailhouse New York Times interview in August makes for uncomfortable viewing, especially in Europe.

“They started really serious laughing, with tears in their eyes,” Sarfo tells interviewer Rukmini Callimachi, relating what IS commanders in Syria had told him seven months before the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people. “‘Don’t worry about France… No problem. Don’t worry about France. France, we have enough people.’” Sarfo refused to go back to Europe on a suicide mission but says a wide network, in the “hundreds”, has returned and remains active. “You can tell now that many people still in their heart feel as part of the Islamic State, and they still have ties, and they still have friends in the Islamic State; so it’s easy for people in the Islamic State to get hold of them.” Open gun control policies and social networking sites make America a target too, he warns. “They say… ‘We can radicalise them easily and, if they don’t have any criminal record, they can buy the guns themselves. We don’t need to have no contact man who needs to provide guns for them.’”

One from IRIN:

Inside Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war rooms

IRIN Middle East editor Annie Slemrod somehow managed to finagle her way not only into the Saudi defence ministry, but into the rooms where specialist cells make targeting decisions for airstrikes in Yemen. With the civilian toll off the charts and rising, and pressure building on Britain and the United States to stop supporting the war, this is definitely in the must-read column: (SPOILER ALERT: The propaganda leaflets at the end are worth it on their own)

Coming up:

Aidex Africa and “localization”, 14-15 September, Nairobi

The theme of this two-day conference by AidEx, a leading international event for professionals in aid and development, is 'localisation' – looking at local supply chains in East Africa, local capacity-building, and local partnerships. The high-level audience will include governments, UN agencies, and major NGOs in the region. It’s all happening at the Safari Park Hotel, Nairobi and if you have any interesting information or angles please seek out IRIN Africa Editor Obi Anyadike, one of the panellists. Programme here.

Refugees: Innovate to integrate – “Social Innovation for Refugees Inclusion”, 12 – 13 September, Brussels

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) is hosting this two-day event that aims to highlight innovative initiatives for promoting refugee integration that have rolled out all over Europe in recent months. Speakers will share their experiences in developing new ways to incorporate refugees and migrants into education, the labour market, and society.

The event will be web-streamed here.

(TOP PHOTO: Narrowly re-elected Gabon President Ali Bongo. Opposition candidate Jean Ping has cried foul. Credit: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr)

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