Author Archives: Andrea Silkoset

The Politics of Humanitarian Aid to Myanmar

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This text first appeared on PK Forum, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Marte Nilsen is Senior Researcher at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Women in a market in Myanmar. Photo: eGuide Travel CC BY

I felt like I had defeated the dictators when I walked out of Yangon’s Mingeladon airport for the first time, more than 20 years ago. Unnoticed, I had sneaked out of the que and avoided the mandatory exchange of three new, unfolded, and spotless 100-dollar bills into the FEC monopoly money that the Myanmar military regime made foreigners use. Before arrival, I had gone many rounds with myself considering the ethical dilemma of visiting Burma, or Myanmar, under the repressive regime of the generals. I had seen the leaflets and posters all over Northern Thailand, asking tourists not to go. I knew about the brutal crackdown of the student uprising ten years earlier. I knew about the civil wars, the humanitarian suffering, and about Aung San Su Kyi in house arrest. Yet, I decided to go. I had to see for myself.

Myanmar was something else. The tea leaf salads, the Shan noodles, the cheroot cigars, the green tea and the palm sugar jaggery. Getting conned by black market money changers down at Sule Pagoda. Listening to cheesy Burmese love songs to the tunes of Metallica in coffeeshops serving black coffee with lime. The blasting karaoke on overnight busses. Getting lectured, in secrecy, by school teachers and tour guides about politics and about the radio that was broadcasting from my home town in Oslo. The strange feeling of normality interrupted by the large red billboards in white writing with propaganda from the military regime, reminding me about the repression and the hardship.

Returning to Myanmar 14 years later, it was like arriving to a different country. T-shirts and shoulder bags picturing the Lady was sold openly on the streets. A booming civil society and people speaking freely about politics, about the war and the suffering, and about the peace process. Dissidents returning from exile. In October 2012, together with our local partner, PRIO organized an academic conference about democratization and peace in Myanmar – the first of its kind in many decades. Myanmar was opening up, but international actors engaged in heated arguments and disputes about the reliability of the reforms and the sincerity of the generals.

Building up since the response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the politics of aid to Myanmar was reaching a peak of tension. Anyone providing humanitarian relief for people in Myanmar would have to consider the political implications of their approach and be prepared to be met by harsh criticism for their stance. Were any operations dealing with the illegitimate regime in Naypyidaw consequently undermining the struggle for democracy and minority rights, or were such concerns trumped by the humanitarian imperative of providing assistance wherever it is needed? 

Was it more effective to pressure the military with isolation and international sanctions, or did these sanctions only hurt the people of Myanmar? Could support to civil society groups inside Myanmar lead to a transformation of Myanmar society and to political changes in the long run, or would this strategy only benefit existing elites with close links to the regime? These were the kind of questions that characterized the heated debate. The different positions were strongly held by the various aid providers and advocacy groups, and they were based on competing theories of change. 

In the first years of the transition since 2011, I followed closely the work and the different approaches of the three Norwegian organizations with the largest operations in Myanmar and along the Thai-Myanmar border – The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) and the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA). 

Norway had become an engine in the international shift from sanctions and isolation to engagement, and initiated a number of humanitarian programs inside Myanmar to support the peace process and the reforms. Some of these initiatives were operated by NRC and NPA, while NCA expressed concern against the initiatives and feared that they would be implemented at the expense of support to refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border. In 2017 I visited some of the key humanitarian projects of these three Norwegian organizations in Myanmar and along the border, and I conducted interviews with staff, partner organizations and aid recipients. 

In my study I found that these three organizations exhibited characteristics from three competing humanitarian approaches that are commonly found among aid providers in Myanmar. While NRC strived to operate with a neutral approach aiming to secure humanitarian principles without pursuing any other political agenda, NPA cultivated a more pragmatic approach aiming to work with the government to open up space for local organizations. 

This approach was the result of a clear political thinking that the humanitarian suffering can only be stopped through a transformation of the Myanmar Society from below. This political thinking was largely shared by NCA, but while NPA saw a value in expanding its support within Myanmar, NCA maintained an idealist approach aiming to support exile organizations to push for human rights and seek to hold international donors, the Myanmar government, and the military accountable for their actions. 

One of the most difficult dilemmas for aid providers working in authoritarian and repressive states involved in violent conflict is the trade-off between getting humanitarian access in the short term and securing human rights for the future. To gain access to the areas where people are in desperate need of outside assistance, humanitarian providers need to bargain and compromise with the regimes that cause the suffering. Where the line between confrontation and collaboration should be drawn is a constant source of debate among aid providers. 

The controversies in Myanmar concerned two strategic divides: One between staying neutral (NRC) and having a political agenda (NPA, NCA); and one between maintaining a distance to the old regime (NCA) and seeking careful engagement (NRC, NPA). However, I would argue that despite the competing strategies, the different approaches among humanitarian actors have, unintentionally, contributed to a division of labour, enabling them to address a variety of Myanmar’s humanitarian needs. 

Achieving peace, development and democracy in a country like Myanmar, with its complex conflict dynamics and history of injustice and repression, is bound to be a long and winding road, involving a multitude of actors and engagement strategies. There is no simple recipe to progress. My first visit to Myanmar back in 1998, and the journeys of other travellers at the time, didn’t do much either way concerning democratization or repression. 

But it did lead to some incredible meetings between people with different experiences and references, to meaningful exchanges of ideas and insights, and to long-lasting friendships. Similarly, it is not the different approaches of various aid providers that is going to determine the success of Myanmar’s peace process or path to democracy and prosperity. That will be the struggle of the Myanmar people. However, the diversity of support that humanitarian actors can provide to people in desperate need and to people with aspirations, abilities and commitment to transform their country and their communities has been crucial in the past and will remain important in the years to come.

PRIO Global Fellows with expertise in humanitarian studies

We are pleased to announce that Larissa Fast (University of Manchester) has been awarded the PRIO Global Fellowship, and that Dorothea Hilhorst (ISS) has had her PRIO Global Fellowship renewed. PRIO Global Fellows are academics with strong scholarly records and a commitment to the research agenda on peace and conflict. They all have their main positions elsewhere but work closely with PRIO researchers and regularly spend time in Oslo. Given the thematic expertise of these two scholars, they will also be cooperating with NCHS.

Larissa Fast is Senior Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies HCRI, University of Manchester. Her research addresses two fundamental problems: how best to protect civilians, particularly those who intervene in violent conflict, and how to make such intervention more effective, ethical, and responsive to local needs and circumstances.

​​​Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid & Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University in The Hague. Hilhorst’s research interests concern aid–society relations and development aspects of disasters, conflict and humanitarian aid, and the interactions between them.

We look forward to cooperating with these great academics.

In a critical moment for Yemen, donor fatigue can have disastrous consequences

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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 Belal Abdo is a former Yemeni diplomat, and holds a Master degree in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action.

WFP food distibution in Raymah. Photo: Julien Harneis via Flickr

Heartbreakingly for those of us still watching, Yemen continues to descend further into humanitarian catastrophe. Now the scene of the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet, the country has been spiraling deeper into suffering since the war began in 2015 and the ongoing cholera epidemic took hold the following year. The economy in ruins, healthcare system close to collapse, and infrastructure devastated after years of conflict, a staggering 80% of the population need some form of humanitarian assistance or protection – some 24 million people. And now those people, already teetering on the edge of survival, face Covid-19, leading the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency to warm that the deadly virus could ‘delete Yemen from maps all over the world’.

Limited resources despite deepening crisis

Despite the deepening crisis, humanitarian aid operations in Yemen remain critically underfunded.  The UN warns that 30 of its 41 programmes in the country will have to close in few weeks. Some of the resources pledged last year have not yet materialized, causing financial distress to critical life-saving humanitarian programmes. What is more, humanitarian organizations working in Yemen face tremendous challenges. According to reports, they are threatened if they do not make payouts to warring parties, who are alleged to use the funds to finance their war effort. Humanitarian workers also face threats and restrictions, ratcheting up security concerns and limitations on their movements. During recent years, humanitarian aid is said to have been stolen from humanitarian organizations, in particular the World Food Programme, which declared that it will suspend its operations if the authorities continue to impose restrictions on the programme, their aid personnel, or their warehouses. Last year, Yemeni activists adopted a campaign calling for further transparency by UN agencies, especially in relation to using and disbursing funds for Yemen. Some also levelled accusations of corruption and the squandering of huge portions of funds on international travel, higher salaries for unqualified international staff, and diversion of aid money to warring parties. Activists claimed that only a small portion of funds was reaching those in need – in some cases, less than 30%.

“Pledges will not save lives unless they are paid” 

The dire situation in Yemen has prompted the UN to call, jointly with Saudi Arabia, for a high-level pledging conference for the response to the crisis. The conference convened via an online platform on June 2, 2020 and was attended by around 125 countries and international organizations, UN agencies, and non-governmental organizations. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, urged donor countries to pledge generously and to transfer the resources as quickly as possible so as major humanitarian aid operations can be maintained. Some 30 pledging announcements were made, amounting to $1.35 billion; around $1 billion less than that promised at last year’s pledging conference. This leaves a huge shortfall in the $2.41 billion needed to cover the UN’s basic humanitarian programmes in the country for the next six months.  UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, added that “pledges will not save lives unless they are paid”.

Of the pledges announced, Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition, is to contribute half a billion dollars – the biggest contribution for humanitarian situation in 2020 in Yemen. About $300 million will go to the UN agencies, and $200 million will support humanitarian programmes run by King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre. Although other Arab countries participated in the Conference, they have not pledged any financial support.  The United Arab Emirates, which is a key actor in the coalition and which directly or indirectly controls some areas in Yemen, has not pledged any money, choosing to refer to funding disbursed to UN agencies or politically charged Yemeni-run organizations. Qatar, among the top ten major donors to OCHA and humanitarian action around the world, did not participate in the conference due to circumstances relating to its withdrawal from the coalition, while Kuwait, surprisingly, did not commit.

Yemen’s hour of need

It is perhaps understandable that donors feel exhausted and despondent, as we see in the language of figures or numbers and as those who once supported Arab Spring issues turn away to focus instead on problems such as coronavirus and the global economic recession. But it comes at a time when Yemen needs more desperately than ever a political settlement which brings warring parties to the negotiating table with the support of Arab countries and the international community.  Donors –– especially those who contributed to what is now the world’s largest humanitarian crisis –– must shoulder their responsibilities by providing humanitarian aid and contributing to post-conflict reconstruction. History will not forgive them if they do not.

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

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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 who endure precarious conditions in camps and urban centres.

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

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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

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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.