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Fuller picture of Typhoon Haiyan

When it comes to emergencies, the media tend to focus most on deaths as a result of the catastrophe. While the deaths are tragic, the full picture comes in looking at the entire impact of the typhoon on its victims. Here, from the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is an infographic that gives lots of information on how many people in the Philippines have been effected by Typhoon Haiyan, how many have been displaced from their homes, how many are children, and other details. I got this from the U.N. emergencies website, called ReliefWeb. It’s an excellent source of information on all sorts of humanitarian issues. Here’s the infographic.

Philippines Typhoon Haiyan Humanitarian Snapshot as of 11/16/2013

Philippines Typhoon Haiyan Humanitarian Snapshot as of 11/16/2013

Myanmar releases some child soldiers

It’s interesting to watch developments in Myanmar as the country continues to emerge, seemingly, from its harsh past. Though its leaders have more to do, there are encouraging signs, including Myanmar on Monday  releasing 24 child soldiers from its military. It is in line with officials’ pledge to halt child-rights violations. Pledges are important, and are a change from abuses committed in silence, but let’s see what else the country’s leaders do to respect the rights of children. UPI reported on the child soldiers being released and here’s a statement from the United Nations on the action. UNICEF says that more children are expected to be released from the military in the near future.

Photo by Susan Warner for Save the Children

Photo by Susan Warner for Save the Children

Save the Children has a pretty nifty project going on (a beneficiary is pictured above) in northeastern Kenya that not only gets locally produced milk to malnourished children and pregnant/breastfeeding women, but also seeks to strengthen the region’s entire milk-production chain. I wrote about it while profiling Karl Frey, a Save technical advisor to the project who was raised by his Mennonite family on Lancaster County dairy farm. See, the global really is local. Read my story, in today’s Inquirer, here.

Girls as child soldiers

What an underreported topic this is. IRIN has a great report on it, pointing out that when girls are kidnapped by rebels and military groups, they often are described only as sex slaves. And no one ever talks about their participation in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs. I know I am partly guilty of this. When I was writing on the civil war in northern Uganda between President Yoweri Museveni’s government and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, I once in a while - a long while - mentioned that girls served as soldiers. But mainly, I used only that “sex slave” moniker. Here are the first couple of paragraphs. But read the full report, which actually is pretty brief.

JOHANNESBURG, 12 February 2013 (IRIN) - Girl child soldiers are often thought of only as “sex slaves,” a term that glosses over the complex roles many play within armed groups and in some national armies. This thinking contributes to their subsequent invisibility in the demobilization processes - in fact, girls are frequently the most challenging child soldiers to rehabilitate.

The broad categorization of girl soldiers as victims of sexual abuse obscures the fact that they are often highly valued militarily. While sexual abuse is believed to be widespread, girls’ vulnerability may vary, as attitudes toward women differ extensively across militias … About 40 percent of the hundreds of thousands of child soldiers scattered across the world’s conflicts today are thought to be girls, but the numbers of girls enrolling in child soldier DDR programmes dwindles to five percent or less.

Muslims glad extremists out of town

This story from IRIN is especially interesting because it quotes Muslim Malians who are glad that forces from Mali and France have pushed Islamist extremist militias out of Gao and Timbuktu in northern Mali. Too many people plaster the label “extremist” on any devout Muslim. As this story shows, that’s unfair and untrue. Story below.

Relief as Mali towns recaptured


BAMAKO/DAKAR, 28 January 2013 (IRIN) - Residents of Gao and Timbuktu in northern Mali expressed relief after French and Malian forces re-took the towns from Islamist militia, but said they faced an enormous task in rebuilding the cities.


The forces recaptured Timbuktu on 28 January, three days after they seized Gao to the east of Timbuktu.


Malian forces say they faced no resistance from Islamist groups in Timbuktu, most of whom had fled the city before the forces arrived. Timbuktu had been under the control of Ansar Dine which destroyed ancient shrines and artefacts in the UNESCO-listed site.


“We were like prisoners in our own town. Timbuktu has always been an Islamic city, no one can dictate to us religious precepts. I always wondered in the name of what religion these people were acting,” said Timbuktu’s mayor, Ousmane Hallé Maïga, thanking French and Malian forces for freeing his city.


“To impose Sharia on peaceful citizens, believers, devout Muslims - how does this happen?” He continued.


“We can heave a sigh of relief,” said Aboubacar Maïga, president of Timbuktu’s Youth Council of “We can smoke in the streets if we want to, women can wear what they want. We hope that our parents, who fled and are now refugees, will come back as soon as they can to pick up their lives and rebuild our beautiful city.”


The Islamist groups had imposed a strict brand of Sharia, or Islamic law, in the regions under their control and amputated or flogged those accused of flouting the rules.




Over the last year many public buildings in the city have been destroyed, including schools, health clinics, ancient monuments, hotels and restaurants.


“Rebuilding will take years,” said Mouna Cissé, a trader at Timbuktu market. “Timbuktu had once been a modern city - one that was open to the world,” he told IRIN. “Now we can go out into the streets without being picked up by Jihadists.”


Islamist militants cut the water and electricity supply several days ago, and some burned ancient manuscripts in the towns library before they fled.


“A lot of work to do”


In Gao, which had been cut off from the world for a week as its phone network was destroyed, a large crowd greeted the Malian army when it arrived. Mayor of Gao, Sadou Diallo, returning from Bamako where he had taken refuge, told reporters: “I am a happy man. I am very happy to see the land of my ancestors. I call on people here to remain vigilant, to denounce any Islamists who are still hiding in our town.”


“We have a lot of work to do,” said Oumar Touré, a respected elder in Gao. “The governorate was destroyed, the police and military police headquarters were bombed. We are going to have to rebuild the infrastructure from scratch for the economy to get going again,” he said.


“The priority is to repair destroyed school buildings so children can start learning, and to restore damaged health centres and the hospital,” he told IRIN by telephone from Gao.


Young men IRIN spoke to had different priorities: “We’ll soon open up the bars where we can drink beer, dance,” Modibo Ongoinba, a youth in Gao told IRIN.


Fragile humanitarian situation


Humanitarian conditions in the north are fragile, aid agencies have warned. Oxfam warned that people’s access to food supplies had significantly deteriorated and with supply routes disabled, most markets closed, cash supply severely crippled, food prices rising and stocks dwindling, people are barely coping.


The military offensive has further disrupted staple food supply to Gao, which had already been hit by shortages due to the 2011-12 food crisis. Major traders are reported to have fled the town and food prices are rising, aid group Oxfam said in a statement.


“Food prices have risen by nearly 20 percent since military intervention in early January. Before the intervention a 50-kg bag of rice cost US$34. In just two weeks the price has risen to $41 and rice becomes increasingly rare,” Oxfam said.


Aid agency Action against Hunger is among several that had continued to work in the north but had restricted programmes to the main cities of Ansongo, Bourem, Gao and Menaka, according to a 25th January statement.


Some 15 percent of children in Gao are acutely malnourished.


Colonel Didier Dacko, chief of Malian military operations, said they were organizing an airlift to transport medicine for the hospital and fuel for generators in the city of Gao.


Malian forces will continue to search for and rout out any militants who may have remained in the city, he said.

Not your grandparents’ refugee housing

This report from IRIN shows changing trends in where refugees end up living.

© Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

© Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

NOUAKCHOTT/DAKAR, 9 January 2013 (IRIN) - Sequestering refugees in rural camps is no longer the norm: The most recent estimates indicate that almost half of refugees flock to urban areas and just one third to rural camps, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). But while agencies are adjusting their approaches, they are still struggling to match their response with their policies.

UNHCR has come a long way since 1997 when its refugee response approach implied that responding to refugees in towns and cities was to be avoided. In 2009 it committed to a policy that recognized the right of displaced people to move freely, stressing that its mandate to protect refugees is not affected by their location.

There are upsides to urban support. Refugees are more likely to find work (when permitted to do so by the local authorities) and become self-sufficient in urban settings, say agencies. Because of this, though start-up costs may be higher, these should diminish over the long term. It also makes more sense for a lot of refugees who were in any case displaced from urban settings, said Jeff Crisp, head of policy development and evaluation at UNHCR.

Kellie Leeson, urban refugee strategy focal point at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told IRIN: “Typically refugees who come to urban centres do so to find jobs - that motivation and ambition should be applauded and should spark the question: how can we take advantage of that to help them survive on their own?”

Dominique Hyde, head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Jordan, said Syrian refugees benefited from being in urban settings: “It’s a positive. If you look at lessons learned from Iraqis in Jordan. Living conditions are more normal, you’re not in a camp setting, your movements are not restricted. Although it is more difficult to access them, they are aware through informal networks of how to access services. Urban settings are better settings for refugees.”

“If you have a camp setting, it’s easier to count people, to provide a school, to provide a health centre. But for refugees, being in their own apartment, and being able to take their own decisions with cash assistance is preferred,” she said.


In Kenya, many of the 45,000-100,000 refugees in the capital Nairobi fled Kakuma and Dadaab camps because of insecurity and lack of employment opportunities.

Experience shows in long-term situations camp conditions progressively decline as donor interest wanes. “Even in a competitive environment like Nairobi, you can eke out a living somehow,” said Crisp.

But in December 2012 the Kenyan government ordered Nairobi-based refugees to return to Kakuma and Dadaab, following a spate of attacks in Kenya’s northeastern Somali region and in the capital, Nairobi.

IRC has found that when it comes to creating opportunities for refugees in urban settings, programmes work best when they target both host populations and refugees. This was clearly the case in Nairobi where they teamed up with NIKE which runs a micro-franchise programme to train women aged 17-19 to set up small businesses.

“We’re trying to build networks so that it isn’t about isolated groups but refugees can engage with the host communities,” said Leeson.

“Obviously refugees will have specific protection issues but in general what they want is employment, health and education - that’s what everyone wants, right?”

The difficulty is where to draw the line between responding to refugee needs and solving the problems of the urban poor, says UNHCR’s Crisp. Refugees tend to settle among other poor and vulnerable communities, including migrants, irregular migrants and rejected asylum seekers, each of which has critical needs.

Tensions are also easily raised if aid is directed at just one group.

Studies of Nairobi-based refugees have shown urban refugees often pay higher rents than Kenyans, and are charged more for public health services and education fees, according to the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group.

Inclusive programmes

In San Diego and New York City in the USA, IRC works with local authorities to access land for ex-refugees from Burkina Faso, Myanmar, Cameroon and all over, who have resettled, to grow urban gardens. So as not to aggravate tensions, and to promote inclusion, the programme invites locals to get involved too.

Responding in urban settings involves having to work with new partners, such as the municipal authorities, so that refugees are integrated into existing education and health systems, rather than creating parallel ones. “These [urban authorities] are new partners and we are in the early stages of engaging with them… it involves a big shift,” said Crisp.

Local authorities are not always open to addressing refugee needs, and may prioritize rural camps over urban-based aid, according to UNHCR.


In Mauritania, both the local authorities and UNHCR have pushed refugees to stay in Mbéra camp in the east, if they want to receive aid, refugee groups in the capital, Nouakchott, told IRIN.

Refugees elsewhere - including for instance, Syrian refugees in Turkey - face a similar situation.

In Mauritania some 57,000 refugees are registered at Mbéra, while refugee group the Association of Refugees and Victims of Azawad and the Urban Community of Nouakchott (CUN), which represents the nine municipal authorities of Nouakchott, estimate a further 15,000 Malians fled to the capital, but no urban registration process took place, so the number is not known.

UNHCR has no immediate plans to address Nouakchott-based refugee needs. “The authorities have been very clear - that humanitarian aid is for those who are in the camp. Our strategy here is not for urban refugees in the capital,” said Elise Villechalane, reports officer for UNHCR in Nouakchott at the end of 2012.

“Our priority is to save lives immediately. It may evolve over time, but that is the current priority.”

Malians in Nouakchott come from both the Islamist-held north and from Kati and Bamako in the south following the March 2012 military coup. Many of the refugees are ex-government officials or other individuals with some means and thus may not be eligible in any case, for vulnerability-led aid, noted refugee groups.

Refugees who reach capital cities often create a “self-selection process” as they tend to be more educated and have more means to get to the capital in the first place.

However, agencies have moved away from making the assumption that only “young able-bodied men reach capital cities”, said Crisp. “We know they are a diverse group made up of women, children, men, people with disabilities, and other vulnerabilities.”

Many Malians arrived in Nouakchott with nothing, having used their resources to get there, said Zakiatou Oualette Alatine, an ex-Malian minister in Kati, and now spokesperson for the Association of Refugees and Victims of Azawad. “Many of us arrived empty-handed. Some of the young have found jobs but many of them are exploited as they don’t have refugee status. Most rely on extended family. A minority begs for money,” Kati told IRIN.

Both she and Safia Mint Moulay, representative of Karama, an association that represents Malian refugees in Nouakchott, said what urban refugees need most is identification papers. Without refugee cards they are unable to get a job or attend school, said Moulay. “These people have real needs… Getting their papers - that is the key to everything. If they have papers then they have a right to receive food aid, blankets, shelter and protection,” she said.

These refugees do not want to go to Mbéra as they will not be able to work at all, said Alatine. Refugees have criticized life in the camps and the lack of schools.

CUN, alongside the international association of francophone mayors, gave 60,000 euros (US$78,500) for food for urban refugees, said Mohamed Fouad Berrad, CUN’s presidential adviser, but resources would need to come from elsewhere in future.

Shift in mind-set required

Getting urban refugee responses right requires a shift in mind-set, says IRC’s Leeson. “We can’t say let’s just do what we did before and translate it to an urban setting. We need to be more thoughtful about what we are doing.”

Too often refugees flee insecurity in camps only to face new forms of insecurity in cities, say refugee agencies. Urban refugees are often highly mobile and invisible, making them hard to protect. A study of Nairobi-based refugees by the Humanitarian Policy Group, IRC and the Refugee Consortium of Kenya, noted urban refugees were too fearful of deportation to make themselves visible and demand their rights. Host states must be pressured into recognizing refugee rights to protection and giving them a clearer legal status, the report recommends.

Refugee associations in Nouakchott have been campaigning with the government, but little has shifted, they said.

UNHCR is still learning but the organization has put more time and resources into turning its urban refugee policy into practice than almost any other strategy, said Crisp.

“We are still in a transitional phrase. It isn’t quite prominent yet for everyone. But we need to get everyone orientated to the urban context,” he said.

The agency is collating best practice from urban responses globally, including in Malaysia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ecuador, India, Tajikistan and Bulgaria, which will be available on a database this year.

To turn such best practice into a systematic reality will inevitably require more resources, Crisp noted. UNHCR launched record-level appeals amounting to US$3.6 billion in 2012, due to several high-profile refugee crises, and the funding is not in place to allocate or train staff dedicated specifically to addressing the challenges of urban response.

Comedy used for good ends up in death

This sad story from the Associated Press, as printed in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

Somali comedian who dared mock militants is killed

MOGADISHU, Somalia - A popular Somali comedian and playwright who mocked Islamist militants for brainwashing children and killing civilians has been shot dead.

The 43-year-old TV and radio comedian Abdi Jeylani Malaq, was killed Tuesday by two young men near his Mogadishu home.

Abdi Muridi Dhere, a colleague, said Malaq’s death is heartbreaking. He said the killing has sent Mogadishu back to the “dark days.”

Seven journalists have been killed in Somalia this year in what appear to be targeted killings. Dhere says the government needs to provide better security.

The human rights group Amnesty International has demanded that Somali authorities and the international community take action to reestablish the rule of law in Somalia following the killing of the Somali comedian.

When”old school” is the best tool

Al Jazeera offers this fascinating story on how Liberian Alfred Sirleaf reaches thousands of readers with his newspaper, the Daily Talk, which he writes everyday on a, wait for it, chalkboard.

Photo from the Yale Globalist, courtesy Alfred Sirleaf.

Photo from the Yale Globalist, courtesy Alfred Sirleaf.

The chalkboard’s location, on the side of a wooden shack in the center of capital city, Monrovia, says the story, “turns out to be a good vantage point to watch the world go by: presidential motorcades, boda-boda cycle taxis, Chinese construction machinery, liveried NGO vehicles and UN Land Cruisers trundle by, as well as the tide of pedestrians flowing into town in the morning and back to the shanties at sundown. All of Monrovia passes here. And on their way, many stop to read about what is going on in the world at The Daily Talk.”

The Internet deserves acclaim for interconnecting the world with information. But that doesn’t mean that traditional communication formats aren’t sometimes best-suited — or even most accessible. Last year, according to the CIA World Factbook, the entire country had seven Internet hosts. With its rural reaches and deep poverty, many more people have access to that chalkboard than access to a computer and an Internet connection. The smartest communicators, activists, etc., use whichever tool will work best to reach their audience. And kudos to Al Jazeera for picking up on this story.

High-tech humanitarianism

Some groups are looking at how online technology can assist refugees during and after emergencies. This story comes from Global Voices. Global Voices is “an international community of bloggers who report on blogs and citizen media from around the world,” according to its website.

Says Global Voices about the groups: “The first, Refugees United, uses online databases that can be accessed through mobile platforms to reunite refugees who have lost track of family members and the next, HKRefugeeInfoChannel provides legal and welfare information to refugees in Hong Kong through YouTube videos.” Watch a video that was on the Global Voices website.

Taylor terrorized, too, in Liberia

The New York Times’ Helene Cooper tells this powerful, powerful tale of how Charles Taylor, convicted this week of war crimes in Sierra Leone, also bloodied his own country. Lest we forget. Here are the first few paragraphs. Use the link above for the full story:

By Helene Copoer

When I heard the news Thursday that Charles G. Taylor, the former president of Liberia, had been found guilty of war crimes in Sierra Leone, I immediately telephoned one of the people whose life had been ripped apart by his soldiers: my sister Eunice, back home in Liberia.

Convicted: Charles Taylor

Convicted: Charles Taylor

Before Mr. Taylor unleashed the tsunami of rape, murder, torture and dismemberment that would engulf Sierra Leone, killing more than 50,000 people and causing hundreds of thousands to flee, there was Liberia.
It was in Liberia that Mr. Taylor’s rebels arrived in June 1990 at the Firestone rubber plantation (they still called it “plantation”) outside Monrovia, where Eunice was working. The fighters were intent on the revenge killings that would claim hundreds of thousands of civilians from Liberia’s rival ethnic groups. Eunice, then 27, ran outside in time to see about 20 men grabbing her co-worker Harris Brown and dragging him outside.