Author Archives: Andrea Silkoset

COVID-19 could kill off Muslim charities in the West that fail to adapt

Written by

About the authors: Dr. Ghassan Elkahlout is Head of the MSc. Program in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Mr. Omar Gamal holds a MSc. in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action, and is a humanitarian partnership consultant.

Boy in camp. Photo: Danish Muslim Aid via Flickr

Humanitarian organisations have issued dire warnings about the potentially catastrophic impact of COVID-19 in countries already in the throes of crisis. Calling for $2.01 billion to fund a coordinated humanitarian response to COVID-19, the United Nations priorities countries gripped by food insecurity, including Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Muslim charities are on the frontline in this global health crisis. As national non-governmental organizations they are among the first to reach communities with lifesaving aid. And as international charities, they are providing vital support to vulnerable people who

Incomes drop as needs rise

However, Muslim charities face unprecedented challenges as the coronavirus crisis strangles fundraising and threatens lifesaving programmes in the field – at precisely the moment they’re needed most. Western-Muslim charities.  Lockdowns imposed to save lives in the West have prevented Muslim charities from carrying out their usual fundraising in mosques and through public events. Their incomes are dropping precisely as the humanitarian needs are rising. Many are responding to COVID in the countries in which they fundraise, as well as to complicated crises in Muslim majority countries including Yemen, Syria and Myanmar. They are also providing a lifeline to those affected by largely neglected crises such as in Gaza and Mali.

New ways of humanitarian fundraising

According to the United Nations, funding for humanitarian action has been falling short since 2009, exceeding $13 billion last year. The gap is the result of natural disasters and protracted conflicts such as in Yemen and Syria, and an increase in numbers of refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. Muslim charities are responding to many of these crises, with donations from Muslims making up a sizable proportion of their income. Muslims give sadaqa, voluntary charity, and obligatory alms-giving known as zakat, with many choosing to support programmes serving their local and national communities. However Muslim charities typically focus their humanitarian programming on the Global South, and so they lack implementing bodies in the west.

What’s more, COVID has left their usual donors with less money to give – according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), half of the world’s workers are now in danger of losing their jobs. In response, Muslim charities should develop implementing bodies and strengthen local charities in donor countries and use the opportunity to educate donors about the value of their economic empowerment programming.

As the world looks for ways in which to live with the virus, the ‘tried and tested’ fundraising activities on which many Muslim charities rely may be gone forever.  But without the outlays associated with putting on public events, combined with lower office running costs as staff in lockdown work from home and the expenditure on travel drops, savings can be made. Savvy charities will invest this cash in training staff in new ways of working, and in developing creative and resilient fundraising mechanisms.

Fundraising for sectors such as health or education, rather than countries, would give charities greater flexibility to respond where the needs are greatest. Concentrating on building brand affinity rather than promoting individual projects will boost donor retention. Drawing on volunteers to organise challenges, as an alternative to using alternative fundraising that would reduce costs and better engage donors.

Adapting project implementation

The virus is also presenting significant challenges to Muslim charities as they implement their humanitarian programmes. For example, some are currently distributing Ramadan food parcels, with budgets reaching $5 million or more. They are having to find ways of getting food supplies to vulnerable families while introducing social distancing measures to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. Many humanitarian projects are seeing their duration extended by up to 12 months, leaving vulnerable people without the interventions they so desperately need. It is unclear who will shoulder the additional cost of the extensions. Muslim international non-governmental organisations still have to run their field offices, and they have to find the money for unforeseen expenses such as face masks, hand sanitizer, and increased use of private transport. We estimate that the measures needed to protect staff from infection could see the cost of humanitarian action could rise by 15-25%.

Muslim charities must prepare teams to negotiate with donors about the increase in project costs, and to preserve the skills and expertise in their offices, consider reducing all staff salaries as an alternative to redundancies.

A heavy price

The Muslim charities that survive this global crisis will be those that swiftly adapt, and that invest in a new vision for fundraising post-COVID. Those that do not will themselves fall victim to COVID-19. And it will be the world’s poorest people who pay the price.

Ramadan and Social Responsibility During Coronavirus

Written by

This text was originally published in Norwegian in Vårt Land and is-reposted here. A version of the post translated into English also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve. Translation by Fidotext.

Mosque in Grønland, Oslo. Photo: Oskar Seljeskog via Flickr

Muslims have just celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. The month of fasting, which is demanding in itself, has been even harder this year with the current social distancing requirements. Usually the high point of each day would be gathering with family and friends to break the fast with the evening meal, known as iftar. This year these customary gatherings have not been possible in the same way as in other years, for Muslims across the world.

Religion and risk of infection

Places of worship, like other spaces where large numbers of people gather, were affected early on by the Covid-19 pandemic, and in some cases were early hotspots for spreading infection. A synagogue in New York, a church in the Philippines, and a mass religious gathering in Pakistan were all hotspots for spreading Covid-19 infection in early 2020.

In Norway, mosques were quick to shut their doors and take on an important role in efforts to stop the spread of infection by providing information and advice. Through their networks, mosques have reached out to people who were not easily reachable through the authorities’ established channels. Like for other religious leaders, the decision to ask the faithful to stay at home, away from mosques, has been difficult. In times of crisis, religious beliefs and rituals are important to many people. But the situation has demanded the opposite; not to gather, not to stand close together.

The social responsibility of Muslim leaders

Religious leaders have played a role in fighting coronavirus in many places. While some have promoted conspiracy theories and sown doubts about the true danger of the virus, religious leaders all over the world have contributed to preventing infection, many by putting their religious authority behind official infection-control measures. This is evidence of the social responsibility often taken on by religious leaders. This social responsibility has taken on a new form within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, but simultaneously it is recognizable, perhaps especially for the enthusiasm with which most Muslims contribute to social initiatives during the month of Ramadan.

In recent months in Norway we have seen a series of initiatives designed to provide assistance through donations of money and food. For many Muslims, the month of fasting is a time of self-denial, for evaluating what one has and sharing it with people who have less. The month of fasting, and the festival of Eid al-Fitr at its end, is a time when many Muslims give a little extra. It is time to pay the annual religious alms, or zakat, comprising 2.5% of one’s total wealth accumulated over the year, which is used to combat poverty and help people to lead more dignified lives.

Coronavirus initiatives in Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia

Naturally, the pandemic has triggered a huge wave of social engagement among Muslims all over the world. We have followed developments in Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia, three countries included in our study of Muslim humanitarian actors. All three countries have been hit hard by Covid-19. Numbers of infections and fatalities are rising daily. Societies are locked down, with enormous economic consequences for millions of people who now have no jobs or incomes.

In all three countries, the government restrictions are subject to constant debate. Religious leaders and networks have great political influence, and are very important for social services. An effective response depends on religious leaders and organizations taking on responsibility.Pakistan has seen an enormous number of private initiatives. There is a long-standing and strong charitable tradition in Pakistan, through the distribution of money and food. This time, under lockdown, distributions have been mobilized through WhatsApp and social media.

In Nigeria, many of the country’s Muslim organizations have come together to coordinate local responses such as the distribution of food and other humanitarian items. Nationally, the Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC), which consists of Muslims and Christians, has organized a joint prayer initiative, intended partly as an expression of the common challenge presented by the pandemic.In Indonesia, religious leaders want to use Zakat funds to help mitigate the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The leaders emphasize that this is about concern for one’s fellow humans, where seeing a neighbour starve is not a viable alternative, and they call on neighbourhoods to engage in mutual support.

A new UN partnership with Muslim humanitarian organizations?

Covid-19 has affected all of us. We still know little about how the pandemic will change our lives both across different places in the world. But we know already that it will affect some people worse than others, and that the impact will fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable. People who were already the most at risk, with the least access to healthcare and the fewest economic resources, are now those who are being hit hardest.

The coronavirus crisis has shown clearly the importance of everyone contributing, and everyone coming together. Global cooperation amongst different actors – the private and the public sector, secular and religious – has become more important than ever. This is precisely the point made in the UN’s Agenda 2030, which sets out 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global pandemic has lent new relevance to this agenda.

In order to tackle the problems which the pandemic is causing for the world’s poor, the UN wishes to enter into partnership with Muslim actors in aid as well as the Islamic-finance sector. Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its complex consequences will require international cooperation and global solutions. How, and to what extent, such new partnerships will function across existing lines of division, remains an important question.

Meanwhile, we send our best wishes for a happy Eid al-Fitr to those of you who are celebrating.

Peace in Afghanistan? Watch the militias

Written by

This text first appeared on The New Humanitarian, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Astri Suhrke is a political scientist and Senior Researcher Emerita at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway. Antonio De Lauri is a Senior Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway.

An Afghan National Directorate of Security police stands guard in Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan on 6 November 2012. Photo: Erik De Castro/REUTERS

The prospects of direct talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban have raised cautious hopes after decades of conflict. But if there is to be a durable peace, then Afghanistan’s CIA-supported paramilitary forces must also be disbanded.

In February, the United States and the Taliban inked an agreement calling for US forces to withdraw, and for the Taliban not to support international terrorism. This treaty paves the way for the Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate a comprehensive peace settlement, though this process has stalled for weeks.

Afghanistan has been cursed with foreign-financed militias, and the units supported and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency are of special significance. The US-Taliban agreement does not include the activities of the CIA in Afghanistan. But the future of these militias – and their involvement in conflict, targeted killings, and political violence – cannot be left out of the conversation.

The agency has a long, torrid history in Afghanistan. As outlined in a recent report for the Costs of War Project, which researches and analyses the toll of post-9/11 wars, the CIA played a key role in the 1980s in American efforts to assist Afghan rebels known as mujahideen, who invoked the duty of holy warriors to fight Soviet forces and the Afghan communist government. Assistance included organising a mule-and-truck trade in arms and opium. 

The CIA took a lower profile in the country during the 1990s when the mujahideen and the Taliban fought for power, but a well-established local infrastructure enabled the agency to rapidly spring into action after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Operatives equipped with mobile phones and large bundles of dollar bills entered the country on a mission to mobilise Afghan militias. 

“Afghanistan has been cursed with foreign-financed militias, and the units supported and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency are of special significance.”

Since then, the CIA has financed, trained, and worked closely with militias and special forces of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency – the National Directorate of Security, or NDS. These units function like death squads in secretive night raids often labelled simply as search operations.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, found at least 278 civilians were killed and dozens more injured in search operations last year – about three quarters of these were caused by NDS or other forces trained by the CIA.

This adds up to about six percent of recorded civilian deaths attributed to any side last year. But even these numbers are conservative; they include only cases the UN could document and do not include civilian casualties from airstrikes launched in support of search operations. 

Rights groups and journalists have also extensively documented targeted killings of civilians by CIA-supported units. For example, in October 2018, Human Rights Watch found evidence that an Afghan paramilitary unit raided a home in Rodat district of Nangarhar province, killing five members of one family, including an elderly woman and child. Similarly, at least four civilians were executed during a July 2019 raid on a medical clinic in Wardak province; HRW attributed the strike to an NDS unit.

The humanitarian toll is clear. But the very existence of these paramilitary squads has also contributed to Afghanistan’s continuing instability.

Since 2001, the fragmentation of military power has been a main reason for the country’s limited progress in rebuilding and strengthening the central state. Apart from the human rights issues, a peace agreement that allows CIA-supported paramilitary forces to continue operating outside the control of the state and the chain of command of its armed forces – as these units have been doing – would gravely undermine the prospects for a sustainable peace. Shielded from accountability by powerful foreign backers and protected by the country’s forbidding geography and complex social and political environment, the units could run a prolonged, under-the-radar dirty war, setting off a new spiral of violence. 

“The humanitarian toll is clear. But the very existence of these paramilitary squads has also contributed to Afghanistan’s continuing instability.”

Models for a good peace agreement that address this problem are readily available. Over the past three decades, almost all armed conflicts that ended in a compromise settlement have included agreements for the demobilisation and restructuring of armed forces – including paramilitary units and militias. The 1992 Chapultepec Agreement, which ended more than a decade of civil war in El Salvador, is one of the clearest examples: an entire section in the treaty’s first chapter deals with paramilitary bodies that were infamous for human rights violations. In unambiguous language, the treaty stipulates that paramilitary forces have no place in a state governed by the rule of law.

This was also the case in Afghanistan after 2001 when the UN launched an ambitious programme aimed at disarming armed groups or integrating them into regular armed forces. However, under pressure from renewed conflict, the programme folded soon after it began. 

This time around, disarming the CIA’s forces may be more difficult, even if the issue is covered in an eventual peace agreement. The CIA paramilitaries constitute a formidable set of actors in their own right. Given their highly paid and somewhat privileged status, they are unlikely to welcome a drastic reduction in pay that would accompany demobilisation or integration. If violence continues, which seems likely, the militias will be in high demand in the political marketplace. Well trained and well equipped, they may be reborn as private armies or “security guards” in the service of powerful individuals, or operate autonomously to prey on civilians and commercial sources by taxing local businesses and trade. Either possibility is in line with patterns of political violence in modern Afghan history.

The path forward is not simple. But the lessons from history – in Afghanistan and beyond – are clear. To attain a sustainable peace, externally supported paramilitary forces must be dealt with. The proper instruments are iron-clad formal obligations that are vigorously implemented.

“Is Mediterranean Search and Rescue a pull factor?” Or is that an irrelevant question?

Written by

This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here. Pål Nesse is Senior Adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council. This is the fifth and final instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective.

Migrants in Lesbos. Photo: Amanda Nero/IOM

A few years back I participated in a moving ceremony outside the Maritime Museum in Oslo, where Vietnamese refugees unveiled a monument in appreciation of being rescued by Norwegian merchant ships in the South China Sea in the 1970s and 80s. In the first row were several retired captains, some of them in their nineties, sitting next to Vietnamese people that were rescued at their orders. They were life-saving heroes – and the many hundred saved were granted resettlement in Norway. Fortunately, I never heard anyone suggesting this was an unacceptable practice, as it was a pull factor for future Vietnamese migrants.

Since then, I have visited the Italian Coast Guard in Sicily, the crew on a Norwegian oil rig support ship that rescued 1,900 persons off the Libyan coast, fishermen and others plying the seas. They all referred to the duty of rescue as an “of course” practice, something they all adhere to.

In July last year, Germany requested European countries to join a “coalition of the willing” that would jointly share responsibility for those rescued in the Central Mediterranean – and support Italy’s policy change that again permitted disembarkation in Italy, without Italy solely being left the responsibility for those coming ashore. Eight European countries responded positively. Since then, more have joined. This is one of those few recent European occasions – where the shortage of pan-European consensus on refugees and migrants resulted in a constructive protection and responsibility sharing initiative.

As I write this, the Norwegian ship “Ocean Viking” has 407 migrants on board, rescued in the Mediterranean during the last week of January. The ship is chartered and operated by MSF (Doctors Without Borders) and SOS Mediterranée. Yet, various European governments, including my own, keeps warning against this NGO activity. They claim it constitutes a pull factor for African migration to Europe, contributing to more deaths at sea. 

Academics and news channels have countered this argument based on their research and interviews with the migrants and refugees themselves. NGOs operating rescue ships claim the same.  Migrants state they took the risk of leaving Libya to reach Europe by boat, irrespective of rescue ships in the area.

But isn’t the question of “pull factor” the wrong one to start with? Any forced displacement or voluntary migration intervention in countries of origin, transit countries or potential destinations may constitute a certain degree of push or pull – based on real or perceived options and opportunities for those on the move. Rescuing people from fragile or sinking boats at sea is a humanitarian imperative, practiced by coastal countries like Italy and Norway for centuries. Even if the boat used for the transport should never have left the port of origin due to its condition, incompetence of the crew or the weather forecast, that is irrelevant to the simple duty of rescue. 

Ask any sailor.

Search and Rescue: A necessary presence in the Mediterranean as long as people are drowning

Written by

This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here. Kyrre Lind is a field worker and spokesperson and Head of program department MSF Norway. This is the fourth instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective. 

The Italian Coast Guard rescues migrants bound for Italy. Photo: Francesco Malavolta/IOM

Last night when I wrote this piece, the search and rescue ship Ocean Viking rescued 92 people, including pregnant women and small babies, from an overcrowded rubber boat 30 nautical miles from the coast of Libya. Many of the survivors suffered from hypothermia and seasickness, and many were extremely weak and saturated in fuel.

Doctors without Borders (MSF) and SOS MEDITERRANEE have since august 2019 rescued over 1,500 people at sea in the central Mediterranean. In 2019, 14,876 people reached Malta or Italy by sea, while 771 deaths were recorded. In 2019, more than 2,000 people were evacuated from Libya by UNHCR, to Niger, Rwanda, different European countries and Canada. At the same time, the Libyan coastguard forced more than 9,000 border crossers back. About 3,000 – 5,000 remain trapped in official detention centres in Libya.

In August 2019, MSF returned to sea as people were drowning. Our actions were directed at saving their lives. We intervened because the conflict raged in Tripoli and ever more migrants and refugees were losing their lives in Libya. Throughout the second half of 2019, it often took days and weeks before assignment of a place of safety for the people we rescued. There is no established, predictable system for disembarkation of people from rescue ships and boats.

From our perspective as participants in the search and rescue, there seems to be little indication that NGO boats are a pull factor from the countries of origin. We see that reasons for leaving home are manifold. For those who already planned to cross the Mediterranean when they set on their journey, Europe is the real pull factor. They hope to obtain protection, security, a better life and a good job. However, there are also long-established migration routes from West Africa and Sudan to Libya and not everyone planned to cross the Mediterranean when they first set out on their journey. Many people we encountered tell us that they just wanted to get a job. Libya has for a long time been a country that hosts guest workers from African countries and others. The fact of the matter is that today Libya is a fragile country ravaged in civil war: lawless conditions make it easier to get a job without paperwork, but also increase the risk of exploitation and abuse. Yet, many take the chance and try to get a job in Libya.

What people tell us aboard the Ocean Viking is that the situation in Libya is the main reason why they are trying to leave the country. People tell us about war horrors, brutal violence, gross exploitation and slavery-like work conditions. Our medical staff on-board Ocean Viking see wounds and scars from beatings, cuts, burns and gunshots, the consequences of sexualized violence, and illnesses related to unhygienic living conditions. EU reports confirm how bad the situation is. IOM has expressed strong concerns about the situation and has asked for a completely new approach in the region. The people we meet say they would rather risk their lives at sea than stay in Libya.

Norway, the country where I come from, receives quota refugees from Libya (450 in 2019), and at the same time supports transit reception centres in Rwanda. However, Norway, via the EU, also supports the Libyan coastguard, which is forcibly returning people to Libya. Back on land, most of them are sent straight back to detention centres – back to the very same detention system MSF have consistently called for people to be evacuated from. Absurdly, and shamefully Norwegian politics is currently helping a few to get out of a terrible situation, while at the same time contributing to pushing people back to that very same conditions.

From where I stand, the narrative that our search and rescue activities are a pull factor for migration seems oversimplified. It is a tool used to defend the present politics, which is failing to solve the humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean Sea.

The duty to rescue refugees and migrants at sea

Written by

This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here.  Erik Røsæg is professor at the Scandinavian Institute of Maritime Law and member of PluriCourts.  This is the third instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective.

Ocean Monarch 1848 by Walters. Source: Wikimedia

The search and rescue activities are a subject of long-standing legal obligations and frameworks which often become muddled and entangled in the intense political debates surrounding the issue. In this post I discuss legal obligations of states related to the search and rescue. From a legal point of view, nation states can control their borders and refuse migrants to enter under certain conditions. However, states have clear obligations towards refugees and migrants before they cross the border, including assistance at sea. Even if assistance at sea may function as a “pull factor” and encourage refugees and migrants to attempt to cross the Mediterranean, there is no legal avenue for states to avoid such assistance. Moreover, if assistance is rendered, this entails further obligations towards refugees and migrants.

The duty to rescue

There is a duty pursuant to international law for a ship to attempt the rescue of persons at danger at sea. This duty is based on a long-standing and strongly felt moral obligation among seafarers. This is stated, for example, in the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Article 98 the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Regulation V-33. All states recognize this duty.

One implication of this rule is that a state cannot legally prohibit its vessels from rescuing persons at sea: states must accept that their vessels engage in rescue operations. In the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), coastal states undertake the role to coordinate the SAR in respect of persons in specified areas (Article 2.3). There is a duty to organize such services (UNCLOS Article 98 and SOLAS, Regulation V-7).  There are no provisions in the SAR convention that the particular state in charge of a specific area can direct foreign vessels whether to assist or not. Within the 12 nautical miles of territorial waters, the state has general jurisdiction on other grounds (including the right to direct vessels how to assist or not to assist), but this jurisdiction does not extend to ships in passage assisting other vessels (UNCLOS Articles 17-18).

It is sometimes suggested that migrant vessels heading from Africa to Europe are so unseaworthy, overloaded and in such bad shape, that they are unlikely to make it to the destination. It is thus suggested that the rules of maritime rescue do not apply. I can see no legal basis for this argument. Most likely, the majority of ships in the need of a rescue have ended up in this situation because they are unseaworthy, and it would be quite harsh that passengers should pay with their lives for not having ensured the seaworthiness of the vessel. On land, persons in danger are assisted if they have driven too fast, been the passenger of a car driven by a drunk driver, had thoughts of suicide, or caused themselves illness through bad lifestyle choices.

The maritime rules of rescue also apply to stand-by rescuers, and not solely to rescue operations initiated by, for example, freighters coincidentally passing by. As such, even the ships of humanitarian organizations deployed to the Mediterranean with no other purpose than to rescue, can invoke the rules of maritime rescue. There is a long tradition of such specialized rescuers, and this is clearly reflected in the international law of remuneration for rescue. These rules stipulate that professional salvors should receive extra remuneration to compensate for their preparedness (see for example International Convention on Salvage Article 13). These provisions would be meaningless if the rules did not apply to vessels designated purely to salvage.

In sum, there is a duty and a right to render assistance to persons in danger at sea. This duty applies regardless of whether the rescue operations are believed to have an undesired pull effect, motivating refugees and migrants to travel.

Rescuees on board

Rescuers assume primary responsibility for taking care of the rescuees, but there are limits to what they can do. If necessary, the relevant authorities must intervene. At sea, nation states have the duty to actively secure fundamental human rights. This duty was reiterated by The European Court of Human Rights, which stated in Hirsi Jamaa v Italy that the 

“special nature of the maritime environment cannot justify an area outside the law where individuals are covered by no legal system capable of affording them enjoyment of the rights and guarantees protected by the Convention [the European Convention on Human Rights] which the States have undertaken to secure to everyone within their jurisdiction” (Hirsi Jamaa v. Italy para. 178). 

The relevant authority is principally the state with jurisdiction, which has the opportunity to take legal as well as practical actions. This is primarily the state in which the ship with the rescuees is registered, the flag state (UNCLOS, Article 92). Coastal states have such powers pursuant to the rules of the law of the sea over vessels in their internal waters (very near the coast), and (with some exceptions) over those in their territorial waters (typically within 12 nautical miles from their coast).  Thus, these states can and must take action and have some responsibility for securing human rights on board.

It may be difficult to find a port that is willing to receive the rescuees. If no such port is found, the responsibility for the rescuees remains for the rescue vessels and the states having jurisdiction over it. It can be tempting in such cases to disembark the rescuees in any willing port. However, international law requires that rescuees should only be disembarked in a safe port (see Martin Ratowich, International Law and Rescue of Refugees by Sea (Stockholm, 2019)). This does not have to be a Western European port, but for example, Libyan ports are not considered safe ports in this respect (see UNHCR and IOM joint statement). Persons who may be political refugees are even better protected (via the principle of “non-refoulement”). If no willing, safe port can be found, the European coastal states and the flag states cannot pass the buck further and must take care of the rescuees.

Conclusion

Non-assistance to refugees and migrants at sea is not a legal option. When they are rescued, this entails some obligations for the rescuer and the states having jurisdiction over the rescuer. These obligations prevent disembarkation in an unsafe port and include a responsibility for protecting human rights of the rescuees. This is essential for the protection of migrants.

Unfortunately, even states that generally take human rights seriously often fail to honor these obligations. They ignore their responsibilities to make sure that migrants are rescued and that human rights are respected on board their vessels or visiting vessels. Furthermore, they may allow or even encourage rescuees to de disembarked in a port that is unsafe for them. This is a shameful breach of the best of humanitarian and maritime traditions.

The “pull factor”: How it became a central premise in European discussions about cross-Mediterranean migration

Written by

This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here. Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert is a Research Director and Senior Researcher, PRIO. This is the second instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective. 

Photo: Sea-Watch via Flickr

Debates have flourished in recent years about whether the NGO-led rescue vessels in the Mediterranean create a pull-factor and encourage more migrants to attempt the risky journey across the Mediterranean. The connection between aid to migrants and the fear of creating a pull-factor is neither new, nor unique to Europe, and constitutes one of the central elements in refugee reception policies in many host countries across the world. It has also been an element in European refugee reception policies for many years, and has become particularly pregnant in recent years following the large number of arrivals in 2015, and the debate around the rescue operations at sea

This debate around the rescue efforts in the Mediterranean can be traced back to the set-up of Operation Mare Nostrum. The search and rescue mission, led by the Italian navy, was established in response to the large shipwreck of Lampedusa in October 2013, which was met with moral outrage, compassion for the victims and declarations of this brining “shame” on Europe by European leaders. The year during which Mare Nostrum was operational was also the period in which migrant arrivals increased the most. Although there were probably many driving factors for this increase, the juxtaposition of increased rescue efforts and increased migrant arrivals quickly led to conclusions that the first led to the second. While the theory was initially seen as controversial, since it was used to legitimate the need to reduce rescue capacities at a time where these needs seemed to be increasing, it has become a commonplace, widespread and generally accepted in European political circles. 

State of the art: what has been said about the connection 

The theory has been increasingly questioned and criticized by scholars in the field, including in previous posts on this blog, especially by Elias Steinhilper and Rob Gruijters. They demonstrate such an approach is not reflected in data as they compare periods of high rescue capacity and low rescue capacity (also seen in relation to the total number of arrivals and drownings in these periods). Moreover, the reports “Death by Rescue” and “Blaming the rescuers”  by researchers from Forensic Oceanography at Goldsmiths (University of London) have shown how the policies in this area led to the retreat of state-led rescue and an increase in the loss of lives at sea. They also demonstrated that NGOs filling this role are becoming the target of accusations outlined above. The most recent attempt to engage in this controversy by refuting the pull factor theory is the work of Eugenio Cusumano and Matteo Villa, who have systematically analysed the number of departures from Libya to Italy, from 2014 to October 2019. They concluded that there is “no relationship between the presence of NGOs at sea and the number of migrants leaving Libyan shores”. They also found that departures from Libya have been largely shaped by weather conditions, as well as Italian policies of “onshore containment” in Libya.

What these reports highlight is that the assumption about SAR as a pull factor is either weak or unfounded. The picture is much more complex and policy responses need to reflect that. 

The pull factor as a symptom: of what?

Despite these findings, the assumption about the SAR as a pull factor is still deeply anchored in policy and popular debate around responses to migration in the Mediterranean. It pervades policies and public discussions in different reception countries across Europe, from Greece where border crossers are stuck, to France that seeks to avoid a creation of a new “Jungle” off Calais. It is also very much present in countries like Norway, much further away from the Mediterranean and with very few arrivals in recent years (2655 asylum applicants in 2018, and 2305 in 2019, the lowest number since the mid-1990’s). This focus appears to be symptomatic of the way the EU is struggling to deal with and respond to the “migration issue”, and analyzing this debate indeed tells us several things about the state of EU policies in this area – or the state of the stalemate.

First, debates about how to solve the Mediterranean crisis over the past years have been complex, as well as intense and polarising, with seemingly few solutions in sight. In such a setting, it becomes important to point to certain causes, or ideally, actors to blame. While the focus a few years ago was to a large extent on the smugglers as the root cause and actors to blame for the Mediterranean migration, the blame is now on the rescuers, for “playing into the hands of the smugglers”. Condemning the presence of the rescue vessels also becomes a way to point to a “solution”, at the time when there are seemingly very few solutions in sight. Returning them to Libya is not legally feasible, as it is not considered a “safe harbour” (see upcoming post by Røsæg), and seeking to establish asylum reception centres in Libya also pose several legal, practical and political challenges. The fact that intense policy efforts and enormous financial spendings to reinforce European border security have not put an end to the tragic situation in the Mediterranean, with people still attempting the perilous journey, also creates a political need for someone to blame. 

Finally, the tragic humanitarian situation at Europe’s borders today is likely not the result of an inability of providing an official Search and Rescue operation, but is first and foremost a product of an unwillingness to provide better and more assistance to border crossers. This unwillingness is inherently tied together with the idea that any form of aid runs the risk of both “fixating” already arrived migrants and encouraging more to come. The humanitarian concerns, however, are not absent from European policy makers’ discussions in this area, which also constitutes the strength of the “pull factor theory”: as it is argued that is  for humanitarian reasons that we should refrain from rescuing, as these practices contribute to maintain the same humanitarian suffering. Such rhetoric is the main reason why this assumption that links the SAR and increased mobility should continue to be challenged and debated.

The controversial lifesavers: NGO search and rescue in the Mediterranean

Written by

This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here. Post by Katja Franko and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert. Katja is Professor of criminology at the University of Oslo. Her work is primarily concerned with borders, globalization and issues of criminalization of migration. Maria is Research Director and Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and the Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS). Her work is primarily concerned with humanitarian and security responses to migration and border management. This is the first instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective. 

This artwork in Copenhagen, by renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, is made up of actual life jackets used by migrants crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos in search of safety or a better life in Europe. Photo: TeaMeister via Flickr

During 2016 and 2017, more than 46,000 migrants were rescued yearly by NGOs and civil society actors close to the Italian coast. The numbers have declined considerably in the past two years. NGOs are, nevertheless, still the largest single actor in search and rescue in the area apart from the Libyan coast guard, after Italy and the EU  delegated increased responsibilities on this matter to Libya during the last year. As pointed out by previous contributions on this blog, these activities have been subjected to various types of state intervention such as seizure of rescue vessels, arrests of crew members, and initiation of legal procedures against them. 

At the same time, NGO search and rescue (SAR) activities have been surrounded by intense rhetorical battles. Migration policy is a highly politicised field and positions on humanitarian rescue vary considerably, often depending on the speakers’ professions, institutional affiliations and political convictions. Attention to language is important here. The use of certain metaphors, discursive couplings and rhetorical tropes framing migrants and rescuers influences attitudes and political actions by focusing on certain aspects of the activities while suppressing others. At the most extreme, NGOs have been accused of ‘playing into the hands of human traffickers’ (Fabrice Leggeri, Director of Frontex, Die Welt, 27.2. 2017). SAR has been rhetorically coupled with human smuggling and even trafficking. As Frontex wrote in one of its reports: 

“Apparently, all parties involved in SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean unintentionally help criminals achieve their objectives at minimum cost, strengthen their business model by increasing the chances of success.” (Frontex, 2017: 32).

More recently, the French interior minister Christophe Castaner suggested (5.4. 2019) that SAR off the North African coasts represent “a real collusion between smugglers and some NGOs“. What these linguistic tropes do is to present the rescuers as deliberately creating routes for irregular migration into Europe, and thereby effectively deflecting attention away from the duty of rescue and the lifesaving efforts they are fulfilling. Within this debate, there are similar discourses that eventually create doubts around the migrants’ right to assistance, by questioning their right to international protection. This narrative is underpinned by their awareness of the risks that they “put themselves into”, thereby obscuring the fact that the right to rescue is unconditional of any legal status (yet to be defined) and the reasons that have led anyone into that situation in the first place. 

While the statements referred to here may be the sharpest and most dramatic examples of condemnation of NGO rescue operations by EU member states and agencies, a more pervasive and, arguably, more influential perception has been established in the past decade or so: that SAR constitutes a pull factor for irregular migration. While the debate on the topic has raged, with polarized views and disagreements around this assumption, this idea of SAR as a pull factor has become more widespread. The idea is probably attractive because it provides a seemingly simple explanation to a situation that is otherwise difficult to comprehend: why people are risking their lives, and what should be done about it. 

Because the pull-factor argument has become pervasive in current discussions about  responses to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, it is important to address the question by closely examining the findings of existing scientific studies on the subject, and to critically discuss what this assumption does to the policy responses in the area. This is what we aim to do in this week’s thematic issue. The contributions address the issue of humanitarian Search and Rescue from several standpoints: from a policy and legal perspective, and from the point of view of humanitarian actors who are tackling these questions on a daily basis. The contributions were first presented at a public debate that took place at the House of Literature in Oslo in November 2019, jointly organized by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies and the University of Oslo’s NORDHOST project. Conscious of the fact that migration policies are often more informed by political convenience than scientific knowledge or even reference to international legal obligations, the event aimed to bring in dialogue researchers, politicians, NGO representatives and the general public in order to discuss the nature and impact of humanitarian SAR operations. 

In the second post, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert examines some of the existing studies about SAR as the pull factor, all refuting any direct connection and pointing to a more complex picture affecting the numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean. Her contribution then asks what the focus on SAR as a pull factor says about the state of European policies in the area.

Erik Røsæg, professor of maritime law at the University of Oslo, examines SAR from the perspective of the international law of the sea. What do existing conventions actually say about the duty to rescue, whose responsibility is it, and what it means to fulfil this responsibility? While political discourse may give an impression that there is much room for choice, Røsæg’s contribution points to the clarity and firmness of state legal obligations when it comes to SAR. 

The final two posts are contributions from the field by two NGO representatives, Kyrre Lind from Doctors without Borders Norway, and Pål Nesse from the Norwegian Refugee Council. Lind shares an account from the perspective of those participating actively in search and rescue, and who are at the centre of the “pull factor” polemic. Nesse follows up arguing that the “pull factor question” is all together the wrong question to start with: not only is the picture much more complex, but it also obscures what should be very clear, namely, the duty to rescue lives at sea.

While the contributions are critical of the discourses through which search and rescue activities have been framed in recent years, they also paint a more pressing overall picture. They show that European policies in this area have turned away from some central principles that have traditionally been seen as salient guides for political action: scientific evidence, legal rules and humanitarian principles. The contributions in this issue, and the preceding debate, show that this development is also taking place in Norway, a country that is often taking great pride in observing the above-mentioned principles. This is yet another reminder that when it comes to migration policy, there are few countries that have been able to stand firm on principles, when faced with the perceived urgency of the issue. 

Afghanistan’s Corona Threat Contagion Knows No Borders

Written by

This is an updated version of a text published as an op-ed in Adresseaviden, 24 April 2020:  ‘Afghanistan coronatruet – tikkende smittebomber over grensen’.  Translation from Norwegian by Fidotext. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve. Birgitte Lange is the Secretary General of Save the Children, Norway. Kristian Berg Harpviken is a Researcher at PRIO and member of the board of Save the Children Norway.

Taxi heading for the Iranian border, Herat 2008. Photo: Kristian Berg Harpviken/PRIO

During March, 145,000 Afghans returned from Iran, many infected with coronavirus. In Afghanistan, the number of people infected with the virus is increasing every day. This is bad news for Afghan children, who already live in the world’s most dangerous country.

Politically, Afghanistan is in a very challenging situation. The results of last year’s election are disputed, with two men having claimed the post as the country’s president. At the end of February, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement providing for the withdrawal of international forces in return for the Taliban’s agreement to prevent international terror groups from operating from Afghan soil. The United States is frustrated about the dispute over the presidency, and has cut this year’s aid funding by USD 1 billion. The dispute is not only an obstacle to peace negotations, but has also prevented a rapid and effective response to the coronavirus.

Save the Children’s national office in Afghanistan is seriously concerned about the country’s children. Afghanistan is very high on the list of the world’s worst places to be a child. The vast majority of children in Afghanistan have spent their entire childhoods in wartime. A coronavirus outbreak will have huge consequences, and children will be particularly vulnerable. Millions of Afghan children live in poverty, many are undernourished and already have very limited access to food, education and healthcare. The challenges will become even greater if scarce resources get tied up in the management of a coronavirus epidemic.

Children without access to education will be even more vulnerable to violence and the risk of child marriages will increase. Save the Children is working with the Afghan authorities both to provide vulnerable children with access to education at this time and to ensure that they can return to school as quickly as possible.

National borders have been closed all over the world, while at the same time, one border crossing is busier than ever before – Afghanistan’s western border with Iran. In March alone over 145,000 Afghans returned from Iran, a country where coronavirus has caused the deaths of over 6,277 people, while close to a  100,000 have tested positive. Currently there are reports of 2,900 cases and 90 deaths in Afghanistan. Many of those infected had returned from Iran.

The large numbers of people who are now returning from Iran, where there are up to four million Afghan refugees and migrant workers, is causing concern. The government in Kabul sought to close the border on 23 February, but was forced to reopen it the following day. Tens of thousands of people who fled the virus were trapped in no-man’s-land between the two countries. In total, almost 200,000 people have returned to Afghanistan so far in 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The healthcare system in Afghanistan is not capable of dealing with the virus without significant foreign help, even though it has been significantly strengthened by foreign aid since 2001. The WHO is now assisting the Afghan authorities with testing and building up the necessary infrastructure along the border. Funds from the EU and elsewhere are helping to secure equipment to prevent infection, including PPE for health workers. Even so, the needs are overwhelming.

Norwegian military personnel running field hospitals in Afghanistan have taken in the first coronavirus patients. They have told the Norwegian tabloid VG of their fears about huge numbers of unrecorded cases.

According to the BBC, the Afghan health authorities fear that 16 million of the country’s population of 30 million could become infected. The worst-case scenario would involve 700,000 hospital admissions, 220,000 patients requiring intensive care, and potentially 110,000 deaths.

The consequences of the virus for the global economy also represents a serious threat for Afghanistan. International aid comprises almost 20 percent of Afghanistan’s total gross national product (GDP) and more than 75 percent of the central government budget. If donor countries start cutting their aid budgets in order to deal with their own economic crises, the consequences for Afghanistan will be catastrophic. Norway is recognized as an effective and flexible provider of aid to Afghanistan over the course of many decades.

The Norwegian authorities must now increase their aid to Afghanistan in order to finance the country’s plan for a response to coronavirus, and humanitarian organizations must scale up their efforts as quickly as possible. This means providing funds for badly needed equipment such as tests, PPE for health workers, and ventilators for the sickest patients. It is important that the needs of the most vulnerable are prioritized. In addition, Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries must ensure free passage for important supplies, and aid workers.

It is equally important that all parties to the conflict immediately comply with the call by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, for a global ceasefire during the pandemic. This could form the basis for the peace that Afghanistan so badly needs. Afghanistan must now use all available resources in the battle against coronavirus, but the country is completely reliant on support from the rest of the world!

The COVID-19 Resettlement Freeze: Towards a Permanent Suspension?

Written by

This text was originally posted on the UNSW Kaldor Centre blog and is-reposted here. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve.

Migrants boarding the bus headed towards the processing center in Amman, Jordan 2015. Photo: IOM/Muse Mohammed via Flickr

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the suspension of international resettlement for refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), resettlement-related travel will resume as soon as prudence and logistics permit. Meanwhile, individuals and families that were set to go are in limbo for the foreseeable future. However, this is not the first time that resettlement has been suspended on account of a public health emergency – and it may not be the last.

Before the pandemic, it was already clear that resettlement would struggle to make the comeback predicted at the 2016 UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. There had been a sharp decline in resettlement to the US, which historically took the largest number of resettled refugees, and resettlement had been suspended altogether in some traditional receiving countries, such as Denmark in 2017. There was also the manifest unwillingness of the European Union (EU) and its member states to redistribute refugees hosted by Greece and Italy during the influx from Syria in 2015–16, and the EU’s push for emergency resettlement in African states rather than the EU.

Yet, the discretionary nature of refugee resettlement as a durable solution – rather than an obligation under international law – has long caused strong and seemingly sudden fluctuation in resettlement numbers for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it is far too early to assert the ‘death of resettlement’. Rather, it’s the time to revisit key debates to provide pointers on resettlement post-COVID-19.

A volatile instrument of refugee governance: discretion and historical shocks

Resettlement does not entail a firm set of obligations under international law. Resettlement is one of three non-hierarchical durable solutions for refugees. According to the definition used by UNHCR, resettlement involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a state in which they have initially sought protection to a third state that has agreed to admit them with permanent residence status. The actual mechanisms of the resettlement process are largely unregulated by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The discretionary nature of resettlement means that there is a lack of harmonisation as to who will be resettled across resettling countries. Groups prioritised by one country – for example women at risk or LGBTI refugees – may not be on the priority list of others. Moreover, there is a gap between UNHCR statistics on refugees put forward for resettlement and those who actually have been physically moved by the various receiving countries. Therefore, one should execise caution when reading resettlement statistics.

Furthermore, given the discretionary nature of refugee resettlement, numbers have varied significantly over time in response to external shocks. For example, the 1980s saw a decline in resettlement. This followed a nearly 40 year-period in which resettlement was the preferred durable solution of UNHCR and states for many refugee populations (though not for African refugees). Western states became increasingly reluctant to resettle people whom they considered to be ‘would-be economic migrants’. In addition, the end of the Cold War saw a shift towards temporary protection and repatriation instead of resettlement. By the mid-1990s, however, UNHCR sought to reframe resettlement as a humanitarian act, and argued in a seminal report that it was a strategic instrument of international protection by states. The clearer doctrinal separation between refugees and migrants, and the provision of ‘soft law’ guidance to states, contributed to a resurgence of refugee resettlement from the mid-1990s.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks led to a significant decline in resettlement, particularly in the US. Prior to 9/11, processing time averaged one year; after 9/11, it stretched to a two- to three-year process. Immediately after 9/11, the number of refugees resettled in the US plummeted—from more than 73,000 in 2000 to less than 30,000 in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, as the Bush administration developed more stringent security screening protocols. These protocols remained in place through the Obama administration, and were expanded under the Trump administration’s ‘extreme vetting’ protocols.

Health concerns, such as COVID-19, have also been a reason why resettlement has been delayed or suspended. With regards to infectious diseases, stigma and the fear of contagion has affected the willingness of states to resettle refugees. For example, UNHCR has decades of experience in trying to overcome medical bans to resettle HIV-positive refugees. In 2014, and noting the lack of a public health rationale, UNHCR reported that some resettlement selection missions to Ebola-affected regions in West Africa had been cancelled. Australia went as far as to suspend humanitarian visas for refugees from Ebola-affected countries.

Preserving and expanding the resettlement space

Scholarship is divided on the best ways to preserve, and perhaps expand, resettlement. Focusing on Europe, Thielemann argues that a clear, binding legal framework is necessary to strengthen resettlement. In contrast, Suhrke considers that the adoption of binding resettlement targets would only be accepted by states if the targets did not required them to do more than they are already doing. Rather than legal developments, she argues, it is political leadership (and a conducive domestic and international environment) that matter. Actual developments reflect both academic perspectives, and innovations may also help preserve the resettlement space.

In recent years, litigation has been used to preserve resettlement. The EU has adopted a binding legal framework on intra-EU refugee resettlement and the European Commission has taken non-compliant states to court.  In the US, resettlement agencies have sued the Trump administration for allowing US states to refuse to resettle refugees. In January 2020, the federal court, granting a first injunction to the plaintiffs, ‘prohibited the Trump administration from allowing states and localities to veto refugee resettlement’.

Regarding political leadership, at the international level, UNHCR has focused recently on broad alliances, including with the private sector, and supported ‘complementary pathways’ of admission to expand resettlement. Some have criticised this approach for being too top-down because the actual needs of refugees and their agency are overlooked. Canada’s response to the resettlement needs of Syrians branded it the new global leader in resettlement – although resettlement advocates note that there has been no announcement of a considerable, longer-term expansion of resettlement. During the COVID-19 pandemic, while resettlement is suspended, states, UNHCR, and civil society will need to provide strong statements supporting the swift resumption of resettlement activities and an expansion of resettlement intakes.

Though innovation is not a panacea and must be given critical scrutiny, technological innovation has the potential to expand the resettlement space as well. For instance, a project run out of Stanford University, experimenting with the use of algorithms for assigning placements for refugees, suggested that such placement – allegedly at no cost to the host economy – would increase refugees’ chances of finding employment by roughly 40 to 70 per cent, thus helping resource-constrained governments and resettlement agencies find the best places for refugees to relocate.

It remains to be seen how long resettlement will be suspended due to concerns about COVID-19. As we have seen from history, when politics or pandemics have slowed down resettlement, it has had the ability to bounce back. Eyes will be on how international organisations, states, and civil society act in the coming months to shape resettlement in the future.