UN whistleblowing, Rohingya voice recorders, and Yemen cholera fears: 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:


Yemen cholera warning


It has been on the decline for more than 20 weeks now, after hitting more than one million suspected cases and 2,259 deaths, but the World Health Organisation warned this week that Yemen’s cholera epidemic may see a resurgence as rains are expected in April and August. That’s a terrifying prospect for many Yemenis, whose healthcare system is still in tatters. A well-placed source explained to IRIN that while it’s difficult to make solid weather predictions more than a few weeks out, we do know that the second wave of an outbreak is usually less severe than the first (immunity helps), and that it tends to strike worst in the same areas that were hardest hit before. Displacement – a common theme in Yemen’s war – is a large part of the problem, as civilians fleeing violence often end up in camps with poor sanitation, increasing their risk of contracting a disease that should be easy to treat.


UN thaws out its Afghan refugee programme


After a three-month winter break, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is restarting a programme that helps Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan. But it comes as Pakistan’s latest deadline to oust Afghan refugees – the end of March – quickly approaches. Pakistan has long been home to Afghans fleeing war and violence in their homeland. But the Pakistani government has repeatedly warned that time is running out for the more than 1.3 million registered refugees still in the country – and at least 600,000 other undocumented Afghans. The potential for more mass returns is a major fear for the humanitarian sector in Afghanistan: more than half a million people have been displaced by conflict since last January, while the violence has also made it harder for aid groups to access people in need. More than 120,000 of last year’s displaced now live in a single province, Nangarhar, where civilians have been caught in the crossfire among a plethora of combatants, including fighters linked to the so-called Islamic State group, Taliban militants, the Afghan government and US forces. Any mass refugee returns from Pakistan will add to an already dire situation on the ground. UNHCR data shows that Nangarhar is the second-most likely destination among Afghan returnees after the capital, Kabul. But while the aid sector waits to see whether Pakistan will again extend its refugee deadline, large numbers of Afghans are already returning home from elsewhere: the IOM says 88,000 undocumented Afghans have already returned from Iran this year alone.


Read more: Afghanistan’s deepening migration crisis


Blowing in the wind


More than half of UN core staff wouldn’t feel safe blowing the whistle on misconduct, according to a new internal survey. Despite high levels of pride in the institution, over a third also think the organisation doesn’t hold staff accountable for their actions. Results of the questionnaire, in which 39 percent of staff (more than 14,000 people) participated, were circulated on 1 March and obtained by IRIN.


In a covering email to all staff, UN chief António Guterres said the findings on ethical conduct and accountability required “closer scrutiny”. Explicit protection for whistleblowers at the UN has been policy for over a decade, and a 2005 rule was reinforced last year. Given the recent wave of abuse and exploitation cases emerging across the aid sector, the finding might not instill confidence in misconduct being exposed. However, no benchmark was given to compare the result with other employers. Overall, 27 percent said they weren’t “confident that staff will be protected from retaliation for reporting misconduct or cooperating with audit or investigation”, while 28 percent were neutral on the question.

Guterres welcomed results that showed good levels of pride and “engagement”, with 88 percent of respondents saying they were proud to work at the UN. That score beat the public sector average by 25 percentage points, according to the report. The survey, the first of its kind, was conducted online at the end of 2017 by US consultancy Gartner, and should be repeated in two years.


A work in progress


The non-binding "Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration" has a “zero draft”. Now comes the hard part: UN member states must negotiate how it will actually work. Overall, reception has been positive – a surprise, given that the United States pulled out of compact negotiations, Hungary threatened to follow suit, and an earlier report by Guterres was criticised as taking too positive a view on migration. The draft’s 22 commitments include a range of promises from ending detention for child migrants to coordinating efforts to find missing migrants. Still, it’s far from perfect. “There are 25 pages in the zero draft, but there’s one page on follow-up and review, and one page on implementation,” Kathleen Newland, senior fellow and co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute, told IRIN. “So there’s an awful lot about the ‘what’ and very little about the ‘how.’ And it kicks the can down the road in terms of governance and institutional issues.” Observers also feel the draft places too much emphasis on development aid as a cure-all for “root causes” of migration from the Global South. “We should be careful that ‘curtailing’ migration is not increasingly used to justify international development,” says an assessment by the new, Geneva-based Mixed Migration Centre. “Moreover…[the compact] does not sufficiently recognise that convincing evidence has shown that economic development will lead to more migration.” (Emphasis ours.) A second version – what negotiators have dubbed “zero draft plus” – is due out Monday. But it won’t end there. UN member states will hash out some concerns at a meeting in New York later this month, and there’ll be plenty of wrangling over the final wording well beyond that.


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“This is the first time anyone has listened to us”


How do aid groups listen to the concerns of the very people they’re trying to help? Not particularly well, at least in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps, according to a new report on aid accountability conducted during the ongoing crisis. The report by Christian Aid and local non-profit Gana Unnayan Kendra found that the majority of Rohingya interviewed had no idea how to offer their opinions or make complaints about aid in the camps. The report’s authors found a common response when interviewing Rohingya refugees: “This is the first time anyone has listened to us.” The report notes that aid groups commonly rely on written complaints boxes – yet a separate survey found that 73 percent of respondents were illiterate. In one “widespread case”, instructions were only offered in English. Unsurprisingly, these complaints boxes, along with phone lines and SMS messages, were the least-favoured ways of giving feedback. “Humanitarians are still rolling out not just text-based, but English language accountability mechanisms, directly imported from vastly different contexts and cultures,” the report states. “This indicates a lack of understanding of the Rohingya population.” The report recommends more effective alternatives: voice recorders in communal spaces staffed by volunteers, training camp leaders on “the concept of accountability”, and door-to-door interviews.




The great and the good descend on Dubai


Next week is DIHAD, an annual Dubai conference that bills itself as “the ultimate regional event for the exchange of humanitarian ideas, values and practices”. If you’re there, do seek out IRIN’s Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod, who is looking to do just that.