When the storm subsides: What happened to grassroots initiatives assisting refugees?

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This blog was originally published on BlISS, the blog of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and is re-posted here. Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert is a Senior Researcher and Research Director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Co-director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.

Image: The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS)

Back in 2015, cardboard placards bearing the words ‘Refugees Welcome’ that were shown in public spaces became an important way for ordinary European citizens to demonstrate solidarity with refugees and other migrants arriving en masse in Europe at the time. Citizen-led initiatives staffed by volunteers mushroomed, providing crucial assistance to refugees when humanitarian organisations were surprised and overwhelmed. But has something changed over the years as the amount of refugees entering Europe became smaller? What happened to these smaller grassroots initiatives as state and professional humanitarian actors gradually took over?

The arrival of migrants to Europe during the summer of 2015 and in the succeeding months saw massive political attention and media coverage at the time due to the sheer scale of the influx. Also remarkable was the widespread mobilisation of volunteers who helped refugees during and after their arduous journeys. Besides those initiatives led by civil society networks, many of the volunteers were ordinary citizens who had never or rarely been involved in volunteer initiatives before. They mobilised across Europe to provide basic assistance to refugees traversing Europe in a number of ways, for example in the form of food, shelter, clothes, access to Wi-Fi, and access to electrical outlets for charging mobile phones.

As the number of people wanting to help grew rapidly, it became necessary to organise volunteers and create structures. And so a flurry of new organisations arose in 2015 in Greece, the north of France around Calais, as well as in Paris – and basically in most of the European countries receiving an increased number of refugees between 2015 and 2016. Yet, as government policies on migration became increasingly strict and as fewer refugees arrived – at least to other European countries than Greece, where those who’ve made it there have mostly been stuck – what has become of these initiatives?

Following two of the main Norwegian volunteer initiatives created in 2015 can give us an insight into different paths some of these organisations have taken. Refugees Welcome Norway (RWN) and A Drop in the Ocean (Dråpen i Havet – DiH ) are two initiatives who took quite different paths, with one assisting refugees arriving in Norway and the other one organising volunteers to go help in Greece. Refugees Welcome Norway became the umbrella organisation for most of the spontaneous volunteer efforts that popped up, first in Oslo, and then across several other cities in Norway. It took its name from other similar organisations that were being formed in Germany and most other European countries at the time.

A Drop in the Ocean was created by a Norwegian woman with personal connections to Greece and who had jumped on the first possible plane to Athens in late August 2015 after having grown increasingly frustrated following radio debates on exactly what number of refugees Norway might take in. She saw many others wanting to follow suit. The initiative quickly started attracting many more volunteers, first from Norway, and then from a range of other countries as well, who wanted to go to Greece and “do something” to help the refugees arriving there. Over the years, it has become a rather well-respected NGO among those organisations doing humanitarian work on the Greek mainland and islands.

Fewer refugees arriving and other actors taking over

The context in which the two initiatives emerged changed over the next year – albeit in different ways. In Norway, fewer refugees arrived from 2016 onwards, primarily due to reinforced border controls, the returning of asylum seekers to Russia (who had crossed over to Norway at its northern border with Russia), and increased restrictions on family reunification. While RWN for a couple of weeks in August and September 2015 was busy providing basic assistance to those waiting in front of the police registration office, itself unprepared for these new arrivals, a new reception and registration office established by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration by mid-October meant that immediate assistance became the responsibility of the state in collaboration with the Norwegian Red Cross.

In Greece, the situation changed in a different way: fewer refugees and other migrants arrived from March 2016 onwards following the entering into force of the EU-Turkey agreement – yet some boats still arrived in varying numbers in the subsequent years. More importantly, Greece’s border to Europe was sealed off, and those having arrived on the islands were prevented from moving further. For the volunteers in place, the work shifted from reception on the beaches to working in the various ‘camps’ that had been established on the islands. While many more established humanitarian organisations by then had set up their own operations, DiH felt its support was still needed.

Two paths: a preparedness structure in case of a “next refugee crisis” and a professionalising humanitarian organisation

The two organisations developed in different ways over the years, both adapting to changing needs, as well as to varying levels of volunteer ‘supply’, yet both continuing to be characterised by volunteering, either as a political force for change or as individuals contributing to benevolent acts at different levels. As fewer migrants actually reached Norway, the then-leaders of RWN shifted their attention to political lobbying – notably against the government’s forced returns of migrants to Russia. Others involved in RWN in 2015 and 2016 in the meantime launched other local initiatives, which can be read as direct spin-offs from the activities of RWN in the early days: from neighbourhood integration projects (offering the possibility to act as contact points for newly arrived refugees in volunteers’ neighbourhoods) to a second-hand shop handing out clothes to those in need. Several key leaders of RWN also drew on the structure that had been established earlier, with local chapters emerging in multiple cities and common systems made ready to organise, recruit, and deploy volunteers should the number refugees and other migrants rise again.

DiH developed in a different way: it sought to develop itself into a professional humanitarian organisation, all the while not replicating the undesirable sides of the sector. The organisation in many ways sees itself as a reaction to these, i.e. to the formalised structures and bureaucracy plaguing professional humanitarian organisations. When I visited their facilities on the outskirts of Athens a few years ago, they would stress how DiH volunteers were directly interacting with the refugees, getting to know them, as opposed to officials of international organisations who were too busy with paperwork inside their bunker offices. DiH has also become more involved in political lobbying in recent years, in particular towards the Norwegian government and decision-makers, for example by organising awareness campaigns to draw attention to the dire conditions of refugees in the Moria camp and other similar places, or by pressuring Norway to accept more refugees from Greece.

What both organisations have had in common is a strong emphasis on their origins as “popular movements”, based on a multitude of spontaneous desires to “do something” to help out. While formalising their structures, professionalising and adapting to changing needs, they continue to stress that it “should be easy to help”. Both of them have also over these years developed new volunteer recruitment strategies designed precisely to continue to “make it easy”, and to attract new volunteers when these were no longer coming in in large numbers.

Challenging humanitarian practices?

These benevolent acts can be understood both as emerging out of a desire or “need” to help fellow human beings in vulnerable situations (as such identifying primarily as humanitarian acts), as well as acts meant to protest against the non-action or insufficient response by the state and professional humanitarian organisations (as such self-defining as part of a broader social or political movement). Many initiatives started as the former, and evolved into the latter – with many of these volunteers arguing about the impossibility of remaining neutral and apolitical in the face of the injustices lived by the migrants. The intersection between humanitarian needs and protection needs, as well acts of helping out amidst state-led efforts to keep migrants away, makes this an interesting microcosm – also to study what is required for humanitarian aid to be precisely that – a humanitarianism based on humanity and impartiality. While most of the volunteer-based responses to the situation arising in 2015 have evolved into socially and politically engaged initiatives and have defined their actions as “humanitarian” to varying degrees, they nevertheless continue to challenge how humanitarian responses should be understood and practiced in highly politicised contexts.


This blog post is based on an article titled ‘Making It “Easy to Help”: The Evolution of Norwegian Volunteer Initiatives for Refugees’ that was published in International Migration. The article can be accessed freely here.

The datafication of refugee protection in and beyond the Middle East: A case for digital refugee lawyering

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In February and March 2021, I organised a two-part workshop in which academics, activists, lawyers and NGO-workers were invited to (re)think how digital technologies interact with refugee protection, specifically in the Middle East. Refugee protection – the right to be protected from persecution and the right to make claims to these rights in another country – is increasingly data-driven protection. The increased pluralisation and privatisation of migration management interact with widespread experimental deployment of humanitarian technology. In regard to border and migration governance, governments and UN agencies are developing emerging digital technologies in ways that are ‘dangerous and discriminatory’.

Discussions of digital rights of refugees are key, because getting their privacy wrong can have disastrous consequences. Digital technologies also interact with refugee law, for instance by reconstituting what counts as legal knowledge. And the same technologies – biometric information and automated technologies – are also increasingly used for pre-emptive border controls further narrowing the right to seek refuge and future rights of refugees. Here I consider some important concerns and potential directions for doing differently, derived from the workshop, before I make a case for digital refugee lawyering.  

Concerns about data-driven refugee protection

The workshop’s geographical focus relates to the relatively large presence of refugee populations in Middle Eastern protection contexts and the complex legal interplay pertaining to the roles (and immunity) that International Organisations have taken on regarding refugee rights, in interaction with governments, private entities, implementing partners and donors. Limited regulations combined with a dwindling of funding and the push for efficiency and ‘objectivity’ by external stakeholders has contributed to experimental technology-use, such as the use of iris-scanning technologies, automated vulnerability assessments and cash-assistance via block-chain technology. Humanitarian operations in Jordan and Lebanon are known for innovation and datafication of relief. Geographical areas that receive less humanitarian and academic attention are perhaps also prime locations for technological experimentation.

Recently, there has been more attention for data protection in humanitarian settings. International organizations have developed their own data protection policies. But matters such as limited information provided to data subjects, widespread (meta)data sharing and the permanence of data are persisting as is the presumption that a digital identity would result into a legal identity. Concerns about the use of data beyond its original purposes, cyber (in)security, and algorithm’s tendencies for entrenching structural inequalities also remain.

The increased usage of ‘new’ technologies can cloud that technologies have long been used in refugee management and already often simultaneously imposed control. For instance, physical copies of UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination handbook were never made accessible, for concern that refugees would use them to ‘game’ the system. Current emphasis on data extraction and biometrics closely resemble colonial governance and its racialised exceptionalism. And some refugee communities have longstanding histories of being experimented on.

What is new is the persistence of data, their accessibility over distance and the ability to continuously reassemble data. Technologies can enable urban refugee settings to become camp-like environments by installing modes of surveillance and control. Digital transformations are not confined to refugee governance. But experimentations in humanitarian settings often provide normative and scientific affirmation for technological-driven measures and relate to larger macro-political developments, including anti-migration tendencies and bio-tracing efforts to control Covid-19.

Greater and inclusive techno-legal consciousness

The involvement of private sector and big tech often creates opacity. Across the board, there is need for greater techno-legal consciousness and more knowledge on the back-end of technological infrastructure, on how data can be (mis)used, exploited and misappropriated and how the activities of private partners – including but going beyond Palantir, IrisGuard, Accenture – oscillate between border control and humanitarian operations. Such private partnerships raise questions about normative frameworks used within UN organisations. Committed humanitarian operations might be dedicated to not sharing data, but it is questionable whether involved third parties will uphold the same standards.

This not an argument for more handbooks, for there is often a gap between guidelines produced in Brussels or Geneva and actual data practices by humanitarian workers and this can easily result in more work pressure in the ‘field’. Persisting hierarchical work cultures, fear that admitting mistakes would result in loss (jobs, funding) and the need to tell success stories continue to make learning from the past difficult.

Academics, activists, affected populations, the tech community, practitioners, and policymakers ought to join their efforts. This includes being mindful to the politics of translation, language and accessibility to knowledge. Concerned populations are actively involved in negotiating safety, also concerning their data use, but meaningful consent and access to necessary information. From the outset people on the move, trusted local researchers and communities already working on these topics ought to be involved in discussions on digital rights spaces. In the tech community emphasis is often put on removing biases whereas in refugee law, personal information and characteristics are crucial to determine the credibility of a claim. Such and other differences need to be recognised and addressed.

Implementing partners, headquartered in the EEA, are since 2018 required to follow the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). GDPR also applies to personal data collected from people beyond Europe. It does not apply to International Organisations. Workshop participants noted that the GDPR did not result in substantive changes in how data is collected, stored, and processed: other NGOs, not bound by GDPR, would be asked to do the work. Many countries across the globe have their own national frameworks for data protection, but these are not always enforced as GDPR would be. Data protection policies can also be (mis)used for government control.

Donors tend to push for efficiency and a logic of audit but have rather minimal requirement for data protection and technology-oriented programs. And claims about the functionality of technologies in humanitarian relief are hardly ever questioned or evaluated. It is therefore noteworthy that in April 2021 a European parliament member asked why the EU, by funding the WFP and UNHCR’s biometric identity systems for refugee registration in Jordan, was approving standards that within the EU would be deemed ethically unacceptable. This question will hopefully be taken forward. 

A case for digital refugee lawyering

Discussions on rights easily turn into discursive dances around responsibilities and sovereignty that do not relate to realities on the ground. The concept of digital refugee lawyering I put forward therefore perceives digital rights as a negotiated practice. It not only considers how technologies interact with the already precarious access to rights that is reality to many forced and illegalised migrants worldwide. It also explores how to ensure that – considering legal marginalisation in interaction with (lack of) rule of law – people seeking protection and persons working to aid their access to rights can draw safely upon the potentials of digital connectivity. How technologies operate and interact with social relationships relates to matters such as access, power, and privilege. There is potential that procedures taken to curtail Covid-19 can aggravate risks of refugees. And much of UNHCR’s processing procedures are now done remotely. Legal aid is following this development. This only makes discussions on how to act collectively and locally in favor of digital rights of refugees and other (illegalized) migrants more pertinent.

Vaccine nationalism and vaccine diplomacy: Vaccine distribution and the global south

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The coronavirus pandemic represents a massive challenge for all states. In the first instance, it is a health crisis, with thousands of citizens infected and dying across the world. At the same time, the health crisis is accompanied by an economic crisis, as government measures to deal with the pandemic lead to severe contractions in economic activity. Finally, it represents a potential political crisis, with governments facing the massive challenge of addressing both the pandemic itself and its effects.

The ability of states to deal with the crisis varies greatly. While rich countries with strong institutions are well placed to handle it reasonably well, poorer countries with institutions that are less effective are severely constrained.

Poor countries’ access to Covid19 vaccines depends on the production capacity and the policies of the vaccine producing countries. The vaccines were first developed in the West and Western countries have the largest production capacity, at least in the short term. However, vaccines are also produced in China, India and Russia.

Although everyone realises that “nobody is safe until everybody is safe”, responses to the pandemic and to vaccination have been driven by national interests rather than global cooperation and solidarity. While Western countries’ policies can be described as “vaccine nationalism”, doing everything they can to get access to as many vaccines as possible to their own citizens, emerging powers such as China, India and Russia, have been practicing “vaccine diplomacy” and used the pandemic to improve their relations with other states.

Constraints on vaccine distribution: Politics and economics

In addition to the global constraints in terms of production capacity, three interrelated factors constrain poor countries’ access to vaccines at the moment: lack of purchasing power, vaccine nationalism in rich countries and intellectual property rights preventing the production of cheaper vaccines. The first is purchasing power. At the moment, global production capacity is still limited in relation to demand. So far, rich countries, with 14% of the world’s population have obtained 53% of the vaccines. Almost all of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have gone to rich countries. The US and the UK have banned vaccine exports, while the European Union (EU) has exported 34 million doses to Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong – countries that have no problem paying for vaccines. The EU has also sent about 9 million doses to the UK. Meanwhile, African countries, such as Uganda and South Africa, have paid more than twice as much per dose for the AstraZeneca vaccine as the EU. This has led the World Health Organisation (WHO) to warn that the world is on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure”.

The second constraint for developing countries is political. With production capacity limited and concentrated in rich countries, poor countries have received a very limited number of vaccines. Rich countries have prioritized securing vaccines for their own citizens and have ordered several times more vaccines than they need. Taken together with the shortage of supply and poor countries limited purchasing power, this “vaccine nationalism” has left poor countries with only a fraction of the vaccines they need.

The third constraint is the system of intellectual property rights, which gives those who develop a vaccine an exclusive right to produce it for a specified time period. The first medicines were developed by Western companies with funding from governments and in cooperation with public research institutions. After the first vaccines were developed, Chinese and Russian companies have developed their own vaccines, while India’s Serum Institute has made an agreement with AstraZeneca to produce their vaccine with a license. The Serum Institute has produced 60 million vaccine doses, which have been supplied to over 70 nations, on a bilateral-grant or commercial basis. While China, India, South Africa and Brazil have the ability to develop and produce copies of the patented vaccines – so-called generics – significantly cheaper than the big Western companies, they are only allowed to do so if agreements are made with the patent-owning companies. India and South Africa have proposed that patent rules should be wavered in the current emergency situation. However, this was flatly rejected by both Western governments and the pharmaceutical industry.

International cooperation and vaccine diplomacy

Meanwhile, there are two countervailing factors that to some extent compensate for these constraints. First, the Covax initiative – a collaboration between UNICEF, the WHO, the vaccine alliance Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations – uses purchases by wealthier nations to fund vaccine supplies to poorer and middle-income countries. The Serum Institute is contracted to supply 1 billion vaccine doses to Covax this year, and received $300 million in funding support from Gavi and the Gates Foundation to assist it in expanding its capacity. By 1 April, 33 million vaccine doses India have been distributed through the Covax facility.

However, funding for Covax remains insufficient. According to the WHO, Covax has only received a quarter of the funds needed. Moreover, because of an increase in infections in India, export of vaccines produced in the country were halted in late March. In addition, India is now facing constraints in supplies of filters and bags needed for its vaccine production, as a result of a US ban on exports of such equipment. These developments will cause delays in the distribution of vaccines, including distribution under the Covax programme.

The second countervailing factor is the vaccine supplies coming from non-western countries. While Western countries have scrambled to obtain as many vaccines as possible for their own population, other countries have used vaccines as a political resource. China, India and Russia have all distributed vaccines to other countries, sometimes for free. Such “vaccine diplomacy” lies behind the distribution of vaccines to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In Asia, it has become part of the competition between China and India for regional influence. India, with its formidable vaccine manufacturing capacity, and a licensing deal to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine, has distributed 60 million doses, mainly to Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Its pharmaceutical industry is also the largest contributor of vaccine to the global Covax facility.

China has sent its own manufacturers’ vaccines to a large number of countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America – partly as donations and partly as sales. This vaccine provision has been linked with the Belt and Road Initiative, distributing vaccines as part of deals related to ports, roads and rail projects. China has also decided to provide 10 million vaccine doses to the Covax alliance.

Meanwhile, Russia has capitalised on delays in the EU’s programme to promote its Sputnik vaccine to Hungary, Serbia, Austria, as well as to Middle Eastern and Latin American countries, albeit in much smaller volumes than China and India. Russian and Chinese companies have also been willing to strike licensing deals to allow manufacturers in places such as Indonesia and Malaysia to partly or fully produce Covid-19 vaccines themselves.

So what are the implications of these factors for poor countries’ ability to vaccinate their populations? Clearly, the constraints faced by poor countries (purchasing power, vaccine nationalism and patent rules) have so far been much more severe than the countervailing factors (Covax, supplies from emerging powers). The result is that poor countries, by and large, will have to wait until rich countries have vaccinated their own populations before they will receive anything like the amount of vaccines they need. Meanwhile, the pandemic will continue, and new mutants are likely to emerge which may be both more infectious and more resistant to the existing vaccines.

Looking for the humanitarian backbone at the top of the United Nations

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This blog first appeared on Flesh & Blood: The Blog of Mukesh Kapila and is re-posted here. You can access the original blog post hereMukesh Kapila is Professor Emeritus of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester.

The United Nations is not just another bureaucracy. Its structures and symbols mark a secular faith that is determined to save humanity, according to its holy book, the UN Charter.  To do that, it engages on four grand missions: fostering peace and security, progressing economic and social development, advancing human rights, and providing humanitarian succour.

The UN’s noble theology derives from universal human values that underpin the dreams and aspirations of billions, even if it’s flawed set-up fails so often. While it’s contradictions constantly test the patience of adherents, they are also remarkably persistent. Perhaps because they are perpetually hopeful that a wise leader is about to emerge who will do better than the last one that disappointed us so much.

The four grand missions are each headed by their own high priests and a great shiver of excitement runs through the UN’s hallowed corridors whenever one of these priesthoods is up for anointment. The one coming up now is for humanitarian affairs.

Of course, we don’t  live in medieval times. Thus, we are told that the selection of the correctly-titled position of the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator will be merit based (although it is not clear whether that is the merit of the candidate or their country). If you had been interested, you would have applied by the closing date of 15 March. You can be confident in the open and transparent selection process as applications were welcomed from anywhere (as long as you had fluent English), digitally (sorry if you didn’t have good internet), and from anyone (but especially women). You will be graded strictly accordingly to the UN’s human resources competency framework.

Naturally, the Secretary-General can’t rely solely on this process. So, he also conducts his own mysterious “search and consultations” and gets guidance from special visitations. In any case, we will know when the Secretary General’s divine hand lands on someone when, in the words of his messenger“It will be announced when it is announced, when you see white smoke”.  

There is a formal job description for the USG’s duties and responsibilities. It is well- written with a beguiling simplicity. After de-coding, we learn that the role requires a superwoman or man who will be the world’s conscience and can boldly hold the mirror to its misbehaviours. This is massively difficult nowadays with record levels of disasters, conflicts, population displacements, violations of international humanitarian laws, crimes against humanity, and attacks on humanitarian workers and facilities. 

The USG is officially licenced to call a spade a spade. Thus, fluency with a broad lexicon of words around horror, shock or outrage is essential as well as fine judgement on the shades of concern to be expressed in different contexts. Similarly calibrated must be the look of sincerity and compassion in front of the camera, depending on whether the setting is a refugee camp or a press conference. 

However, it will be wise not to over-do this, as it is prudent not to be too rude to despots and dictators, because they are UN members too. And, when the bad behaviours come from big powers or from within the permanent members of the Security Council, the incumbent must tread with extra caution. Be careful not to embarrass the Big Boss, who is up for re-election this year and will need the votes of all important countries. 

The world’s top humanitarian must also be adept at holding out the begging bowl which is implanted into the USG immediately on assuming office. The bowl is bottomless because of the ever-growing needs of the world’s most vulnerable. Hence, the USG must use all their begging, bullying, and cajoling skills with reluctant donors, but should beware becoming too boring or tiresome, by constantly asking for more and more.

When they do get some funds (perhaps 10 to 70% of appeals, depending on the crisis that is popular at a moment), they must exercise the wisdom of Solomon in doling out the dough. Nowadays, there are sophisticated metrics to measure misery but any USG with a heart instead of a computer chip will find it tough to tackle questions such as:  Whose suffering is more urgent? Whose needs are more deserving? Besides, much of the mobilised funds are often too little and too late, or ear-marked for concerns or countries that donors prefer.

So, when the right needs are, inevitably, not met at the right time in the right way, there will be complaints. The USG must always be a good sport and shoulder the blame. It is a natural extension of the role of the world’s conscience to be the lightening conductor for its woes and frustrations. Of course, everyone knows that most of the world’s problems don’t have humanitarian solutions but that is beside the point.

The USG will be extremely busy firefighting (mostly insoluble) crises around the world. That includes rallying humanitarian ‘troops’ everywhere. They fly many different banners and follow their own brands of the humanitarian faith. But it is the USG’s task, as Emergency Relief Coordinator, to get them pointed vaguely in the same direction or, at least, not at cross-purposes. How to do this is beyond the knowhow of the world’s most expensive business schools, although that has not stopped several consulting firms from establishing lucrative business lines in humanitarian leadership training. They get tax benefits by offering pro bono services to cash-strapped humanitarian bodies which reciprocate by serving as training grounds for junior consultants. After all, anyone wanting to get anywhere, has to start somewhere, and the humanitarian field is one of the very few public endeavours that is open to all comers (although, to be fair, this is getting better after the scandals of recent years and there is another profitable business line in monitoring quality and standards for conduct and performance). 

Meanwhile, the outward-facing USG must not neglect looking inside their personal fiefdom: the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). This consists of a split headquarters straddling  New York and Geneva and dozens of offices or representatives worldwide. It will be useful if the USG brushes up on their knowledge of Max Weber, that great 19th century sociologist who waxed lyrical on the topic of the perfect bureaucracy. If he was alive today, he would surely be overwhelmed by the beauty of the UN, in that regard. OCHA, as a constituent department of the UN Secretariat reflects all the attributes of the parent body and improves on it by adding its own bizarre structural complications.  

It is the job of the USG to manage OCHA and many a good incumbent has been broken at the wheel of change, especially when challenging its internal chieftaincies. The next post-holder would be wise to remember that although several humanitarian bodies have won the Nobel Prize, none have been awarded for pioneering organisational reform.

The Secretary-General will be mulling over these considerations while grilling hopeful candidates. Meanwhile, it is a fairly harmless ritual to offer him unsolicited advice on selecting his new humanitarian chief. This starts first by damning the incumbent to be replaced. That is quite OK as it is a generally recognised truth that all high careers end in failure because, as said by the idiosyncratic statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, “that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”.

Critics can make their job easier by following an established checklist. The obvious place to start is with gender and geographic diversity: if you are male and white, you can expect to be automatically pilloried. Especially, if your predecessors were the same as you. Even worse if they were of the same nationality.

Then it gets more complicated. We know that it won’t look good if the SG appoints a serial rights abuser to such a sacred role. Fortunately, candidates have self-attested that they have not violated international human rights and humanitarian laws. But what if their country is a champion violator of such decencies? Of course, a good person can’t be blamed for the sins of their nation. But they will have needed strong national backing to advance their candidature in an institution which is, above all, a club of nations. So should otherwise good candidates be blackballed if they are too close to less-than-wholesome governments?

Then let us come to candidates from humanitarian superpowers. Should the nationals of donor countries be favoured? There is an element of reward and recognition here as most international funding comes from just a few countries. Would selecting someone from a generous country encourage the miserly ones to step up? In any case, it is a well-known principle of international business that he who pays the piper gets to call the tune. Or conversely, it could be argued that candidates from countries that receive most funding for humanitarian crises are better qualified, and should get extra points in the selection hurdles?

May that also mean a bigger voice of understanding for the victims of humanitarian crises?

The SG may feel that these are all mutually-cancelling considerations. In those circumstances, a random selection made by picking a name out of a hat is as good as any tortuously-finessed choice.

Alternatively, he could throw away his complicated grids and checklists, and ignore all lobbyists. The Secretary-General could then liberate himself to make a truly revolutionary move. He could, without fear or favour, and without any other consideration, appoint to the top humanitarian position, someone that possesses a genuine humanitarian backbone. Doing that could also allow the UN to stand up straighter when facing-up to its detractors.

Will the UN Secretary-General have the special X-ray vision to detect the person with the sturdiest humanitarian backbone among the several worthy applicants? 

Collateral damage in Court

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“Collateral damage” – that much maligned term for civilian victims of military operations – has been a recurring feature of the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East for the past two decades. Cases where civilian casualties were clearly unintended have mostly involved US-forces or their allies, yet they very rarely end up in a court to decide culpability or award compensation. The recent outcome of a case that after more than ten years reached the European Court of Human Rights was therefore a watershed – a symbolic marker for thousands of similar civilian victims and their families.

The material facts of the case (Hanan vs Germany) are not in dispute. Late in the evening of 3 September 2009, the Taliban captured two fuel tankers that became stranded in a dried river-bed in Kunduz, a northern province of Afghanistan. The area was technically allocated to a German military contingent in a complex arrangement between the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan Government, whereby the forces of various NATO countries and other US allies had responsibility for providing “security assistance” in different parts of the country to keep the Taliban at bay. The commander of the nearest German base, Colonel Georg Klein, was told by a local informant that a large number of persons had gathered near the fuel tankers, and that they were all Taliban.

It was now close to midnight and all German personnel were on base. The colonel requested assistance for American planes to bomb the site. Two planes arrived and two 250-pound bombs were dropped. Subsequent investigation showed that numerous civilians, including children, were killed. They had come from a nearby village to collect free fuel from the stranded tankers. Casualty figures vary due to difficulties of ascertaining human remnants after the fireball caused by the exploding tankers. The UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) settled for 74 civilians deaths, including “many children”.

German authorities investigated and in April 2010 the Federal Prosecutor reported his findings. The colonel was cleared. He had not committed a war crime because he had not intended to kill civilians. He “reasonably believed” at the time that the persons assembling around the tankers were all Taliban. Thus he could not be prosecuted under international war crimes provisions incorporated into German law. Nor could he be prosecuted for wrongful deaths under domestic criminal law because the airstrikes were permitted under the laws governing armed conflict. Case closed.

But the matter did not end there. Human rights activists took up the case of a local villager, Abdul Hanan, who had lost two young sons in the flames. They appealed to the European Court in Strasbourg, invoking the right to life of Art. 2 in the European Convention on Human rights. Choosing a minimalist strategy, Hanan’s supporters did not argue that Germany had violated the substance of Art. 2 by taking the life of Hanan’s two sons, but merely that Germany had a duty to investigate the matter effectively, and had failed to do so. 

The Court’s conclusions, issued last month, were based on long and (to a non-lawyer) intricate discussion of jurisdictional matters. Did the Court have jurisdiction over German actions undertaken extra-territorially in a UN-authorized multinational operation? Did German investigation in itself constitute recognition of responsibility that triggered the Court’s jurisdiction? In the end, the Court answered yes to the first question, and a qualified no to the second.

Some international lawyers saw the Court’s judgment as a partial victory for the applicability of European human rights law in extra-territorial situations. It might be a precedent that other civilian victims could draw comfort from. Others saw the Court as striking “a complex balance in the face of delicate issues” that might affect the willingness of states to participate in international military operations and investigate “deaths occurring in that context.

The rest of the Court’s findings raises different questions. The Court found that the German investigation had been effective, and at no point did it question the German prosecutor’s conclusion: The colonel’s actions were justifiable. His subjective understanding of the situation at the time was what mattered, and he was convinced they were all Taliban. Yet the Court did not ask:

  • Was the investigation effective when the German investigators did not interview the families of the victims? The German prosecutors accepted the colonel’s assumption that no civilians would be out at night and that no civilians would be at the site of the strike since the nearest village was 850 meters away. No one asked if this was too far to walk for poor villagers when offered free fuel.
  • Did the colonel use the minimum force necessary to deal with the situation, as arguably called for by international humanitarian law? For a start, the colonel misinformed American forces when requesting air support, reporting that there were “troops in contact” on the ground. But, as the Court noted in an aside, “there had been no enemy contact in the literal sense of the term.” Neither German nor Afghan troops were on the site. Once the first plane arrived, the colonel refused the pilot’s suggestion to ‘buzz’ the site to scare people away rather than bomb them.
  • Did the colonel observe the principle of precaution in international humanitarian law to “do everything feasible” to ascertain whether civilians were on site before ordering airstrikes? The colonel relied on one informant who lived nearby. The Court notes positively that the colonel made seven phone calls to that one informant. Calls to seven different sources might have yielded better intelligence. Moreover, the oil tankers were only 7 km away from the base. Could not the colonel have sent out a few men to assess the situation?

In other cases, the Court has applied the principles of international humanitarian law more robustly by asking such questions and awarded damages to the victims (Isayeva vs Russia and Isayeva, Yusupova and Bazayeva vs Russia). In the present case, there was not much for Abdul Hanan to take home to his village of Omar Khel. For Colonel Klein, the matter ended better. He was in 2012 promoted to Brigadier General in the German army.


72 Million Children Are at Risk for Sexual Violence in Conflict. What Can Be Done?

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This blog was originally published on the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) blog and is re-posted here. You can access the original blog post by clicking this link.

A staggering 72 million children—17% of the 426 million children living in conflict areas globally, or 1 in 6—are living near armed groups that have been reported to perpetrate sexual violence against children.

That means 3% of all children in the world are living at risk for sexual violence in a conflict zone.

This is one of the figures of wartime risk reported in Save the Children’s 2021 report Weapon of War: Sexual Violence Against Children in Conflict. The figure is based on a new study conducted at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

This background study not only reveals an alarming reality, it identifies a concerning upward trend. This is a global problem that requires urgent attention. There are too few studies focusing on this problem or systematically documenting how children are victimized by sexual violence – directly or indirectly, how prevalent this is, and what the consequences are.

Finding children at risk

Globally, we estimate that in 2019 about 426 million children lived in a conflict zone, 50 kilometers or closer to violent conflict events. In some of these conflicts, the armed actors commit acts of sexual violence. A large majority of the conflicts with reports of sexual violence in recent years also have reports of children among the victims/survivors of sexual violence by armed actors. The Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (SVAC) dataset provides systematic data on the reported prevalence of sexual violence, and which conflict actors have been reported to commit sexual violence against children. The updated SVAC data covers all armed conflicts in the years 1989-2019. Due to data limitations we do not know exactly how many children have been victimized of sexual violence, only where it has been reported and how pervasive the problem seems to be. Based on this, and using specific information on the location and timing of conflict events and population density we estimate how many children live in areas where conflict actors commit sexual violence against children.

The figure of 72 million children reflects the specific risk associated with sexual violence by actors directly involved in armed conflict, and does not account for risk of sexual violence committed by other types of perpetrators, such as sexual violence by criminal gangs, peacekeepers, law enforcement, or domestic sexual violence.

Figure taken from PRIO Policy Brief “Children at Risk of Wartime Sexual Violence, 1990–2019”

Key Findings

Some of our main findings show:

  • Of the 54 active conflicts in 2019, 22 involved reports of sexual violence against civilians. 15 of these 22 conflicts (68%) involved reports of sexual violence by one or more armed groups against children under the age of 18.
  • In 2019, almost 1 in 3 children (31%) lived in a country where conflict actors have reportedly used sexual violence against children. This constitutes approximately 834 million children in total.
  • In 2019, approximately 72 million children (3% of all children in the world) were living in a conflict zone (i.e. within 50 kilometers of one or more conflict events) with reported risk of sexual violence against children.
  • Our estimated number of children living in conflict zones with risk of sexual violence against children has increased since 1990. However, there are large variations from year to year.
  • In 2019, Asia was the world region with the highest total number of children living in conflict zones with reported sexual violence against children (approximately 37 million children).
  • The Middle East was the world region in which a child had the highest probability of living in a conflict zone with reported sexual violence against children (16%).
  • The five countries in 2019 with the highest share of children living in conflict zones with reported war time sexual violence are Yemen (83%), Somalia (56%), Iraq (49%), Syria (48%) and Colombia (24%).

Figure taken from PRIO Policy Brief “Children at Risk of Wartime Sexual Violence, 1990–2019”

Action must be taken

Sexual violence against children is a global problem that requires urgent attention. Policy makers, human rights defenders, and other actors need to devote more resources and dedicated attention to this vulnerable group of war victims to reduce the harm of war to children.

Specifically, we offer three recommendations:

  • Governments and non-governmental organizations should improve reporting on sexual violence against children and reverse recent trends of shorter, less detailed, and geographically limited human rights reports
  • There should be better use of existing bodies such as UN and/or regional peacekeeping operations, UN Special Representatives, and political missions, to increase monitoring and reporting of sexual violence against children in conflict zones
  • Domestic and international human rights organizations should demand that governments and non-state actors comply with international humanitarian law as obligated by the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols

As the child population at risk of wartime sexual violence seems to be increasing, the imperative to take action is more urgent than ever. As a member of the UN Security Council, and chairing the working group on Children in Armed Conflict, Norway now has a golden opportunity to contribute to this end. The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ine Eriksen Søreide, has promised to bring up the results from the report at the UN Security Council demanding that perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict be held accountable.

The politics of refugee relief: UNRWA and the ongoing funding crisis

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On 9 November 2020 Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, tweeted: “I am pained to announce that despite all efforts to raise the resources for @UNRWA 2020, I informed our 28,000 staff that we do not have enough funds to pay their salaries in full this month”. This is a desperate situation for the Agency serving 5,7 million Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza. How will restored aid levels under the Biden administration affect the organisation, and what is the wider context of international aid to UNRWA?

Funding crisis

The economic shortfall was a direct consequence of United States President Donald J. Trump’s policy of defunding UNRWA in 2018. The US, a major donor since the creation of the Agency, cut approximately 30 percent of UNRWA’s budget. The decision to defund UNRWA reflected both the Trump administration’s attitude towards international engagement generally, as well as its intention to undermine the Palestinian refugees’ established rights and existence as a political problem.

In addition to the funding crisis, UNRWA operations and refugees – struggle under the combined weight of Covid-19, civil war in Syria, economic collapse in Lebanon, the entrenched occupation of the West Bank and the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza.

UNRWA is a humanitarian “quasi-state” providing basic services like education and health services to Palestinian refugees. Half a million children attend the 700 UNRWA-run schools and 3,1 million refugees access Agency health services. With its programs, UNRWA provides a basic social security net in a context where, by virtue of being stateless, the refugees are often disfavored compared to the local nationals. Poverty rates among the refugees vary. Around 25 percent of the refugees live in overcrowded refugee camps, characterized by dilapidated infrastructure and higher levels of poverty. Some common features are unemployment, insecure employment and lower wages.

Critics of UNRWA often promote a myth of UNRWA turning refugees into helpless, passive aid recipients by providing “perpetual” relief assistance. Relief, however, is limited to the poorest segment of the refugees only, and to emergency operations, like currently running in Syria and Gaza. One result of strict criteria is that refugees who do not qualify may also find themselves in dire straits. Moreover, the Israeli occupation has created conditions of severe hardship, and international aid seeks to alleviate that. While urgently needed, aid may also  be claimed to subsidize the occupation. The blockade of Gaza alone has resulted in losses of USD 16,6 billion to Gaza’s economy.       

International aid to UNRWA

In November 2019, the UN General Assembly supported the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate, like it has every third year since 1949. But such support does not reflect states’ willingness to fund the Agency. In fact, UNRWA has struggled for decades to cover its budgets, as it depends on annual voluntary funding from states. This has made operations vulnerable to donor fatigue, to shifting donor priorities and to competition from other humanitarian crises. As a result, UNRWA must expend a great deal of effort to raise funds. Moreover, as each year passes without a solution to the refugee issue, the need for services (like schooling) increases due to population growth, leading some critics to label UNRWA’s efforts as “unsustainable”.

Aid to UNRWA does not come without strings. It is often contingent on reforms: for example, measures to cut expenses and cost efficiency. US aid to UNRWA has had a high degree of conditionality. A prime example has been the demand for Palestinian staff “neutrality”, referring to their political affiliations. Most donors have funded UNRWA because it is seen as helpful to upholding regional stability and because they have traditionally funded it. At the same time, UNRWA risks losing funding if it moves too far into what is considered political terrain and away from the core of its mandate.

Initially, after the US 2018 aid cut, other donors stepped up to fill the gap. But already in 2019 contributions dropped again. Currently, in pure numbers, Germany is the largest donor, while Sweden and Norway are highest per capita. Generally, the funding trend from Europe has been downward. In addition, the sudden defunding by Gulf countries in 2020 appears related to the US-driven normalization deals with Israel (EuMEP policymaker update, UNRWA crisis special, 18 Dec. 2020). Recently, a French newspaper leaked rumors that UAE is plotting with Israel against UNRWA to remove the organization without a solution to the refugee problem. These trends illustrate insecurities for the future. The Agency will most likely face demands for further reforms, tighter budgets, operating in a crisis mode affecting both employees and refugees. Some observers suggest that regional destabilization could occur if services are cut.

More than 70 years after the establishment of the Israeli state and the well-documented forceful displacement of Palestinians, Israel has never admitted any responsibility for the refugees’ displacement, and fiercely rejects any talk of their return. The refugees have not had access to any voluntary durable solution, restitution, reparations, or compensation based in international law or UN resolutions. It is a situation of violated rights and protracted injustice. The refugee question has been marginalized in political negotiations, most recently in the Oslo framework. This points to the dilemma of using humanitarian assistance as a substitute for politics, as a painkiller rather than a cure. This dilemma is real, but marginalizing or closing down UNRWA does not help solve it. Rethinking refugee relief and international aid is however overdue, as is strengthening UNRWA’s mandate and refugees’ access to rights.

Palestinian refugee camp, Kjersti G. Berg

Changing of the guard

The overall aim of the Trump administration’s aid cut was not just to remove UNRWA. It was to deny the existence of the Palestinian refugees and the right of return, and to remove them from the political equation – in accordance with Israel’s stated interests. The Trump administration has also targeted other core political issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and the ongoing Israeli annexation of the West Bank. While the Biden administration will not undo policies on Jerusalem and normalization agreements, the new administration has moved quickly to renew US aid to UNRWA.

With the Biden administration, it appears that the US will return to multilateral politics and to the role as a major aid actor worldwide. While the resumption of aid to UNRWA is important in alleviating dire needs, it is unclear what the terms and conditions of funding will be. Even with Trump gone, right wing politicians in Israel and Republican members of Congress will continue to seek to remove UNRWA, delegitimize it, and argue that UNRWA is perpetuating false refugee claims (one report by the US Congress suggested that only 20,000 of them are refugees).

Biden is expected to continue the United States’ longstanding support to Israel and not leverage its USD 38 billion, decade-spanning defense package to Israel for policy changes with respect to the Palestinians. While some will celebrate resumption of the peace process as a positive development, it provokes little optimism in Palestinians. This is a return to the old game, where Israel under the guise of the said process was able to undermine the two-state solution by accelerating land grabs, deepening violations of international law, and entrenching the occupation.

Debunking misconceptions UNRWA and Palestinian refugees

Due to its close relation to the unsolved Palestinian refugee question, ideologically and politically-motivated misconceptions abound about UNRWA and its mandate. UNRWA was established in 1949 as a temporary mechanism for humanitarian assistance and “works” projects (i.e. projects aiming to integrate the refugees into the host countries by way of employment. These projects were closed shortly after) for the newly-made Palestinian refugees. It was part of a dual system, where UNRWA would cater to refugees’ humanitarian needs, while their political rights were covered by UNGA Resolution 194, enshrining their Right of Return and compensation for the material losses they suffered in 1948. The UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) was mandated to facilitate “repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation”. However, the push to solve the refugees’ predicament through negotiations faded. The UNCCP became inactive and the international community would gradually see the refugee problem mainly as a humanitarian problem. UNRWA’s mandate has evolved over the years, but the core of its mandate is to provide essential education, health, and relief services while the Palestinians wait for a just solution. The mandate does not include searching for political solutions.

One common misconception is that removing UNRWA will do away with refugees’ status as refugees, including their right of return. The Right of Return is well established in international law: it is not unique to the Palestinian refugees, and it does not depend on UNRWA’s existence. Another repeated misconception is that UNRWA is unique or fundamentally different from the UNHCR. It is not. It is an overlapping system to the UNHCR, and an integral part of the international refugee regime. UNRWA’s generational definition of Palestinian refugees, registering descendants of those who fled in 1948, is often a selected target of critics of UNRWA. Today, 5,7 million, and counting, Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA, as many are both stateless and refugees, and the political question remains unsolved. Their registration is fully in line with UNHCR practices. Palestinian refugees are refugees as per international law, and they have the right to protection just like other refugees. As UNRWA only registers the 1948 refugees and their descendants,  one can add that UNHCR would also have registered displacements of Palestinians after 1948 and until current days, making for even higher numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons. The argument that UNHCR would have solved the refugee question is fictious. Destroying UNRWA, which is the result of cutting aid, does nothing to alter the political reality, it only increases suffering in an already dire situation.

Refugee Legal Aid in Humanitarian Operations

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This post first appeared on Maja Janmyr’s blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Nora Milch Johnsen is a research assistant at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, where she works on the REF-ARAB, BEYOND and ASILE research projects led by Maja Janmyr.

A building with curtains in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Alev Takil via Unsplash

How do humanitarian organisations provide legal aid to refugees in countries that do not have any refugee-specific legislation and where rule of law is largely absent? I spent most of 2020 examining this question closer in my MA thesis focusing on the legal aid program of one international humanitarian organisation in Lebanon. More specifically, I sought to understand how Lebanon’s legal and policy framework on refugees influenced this organisation’s legal aid operations, and which strategies were used to promote and to improve refugee protection in this context. As I will argue in this blog post, the endemic lack of rule of law in Lebanon has discouraged the organisation I studied from outrightly challenging the restrictive refugee policies of the Lebanese government.

Refugee legal aid in the context of a humanitarian operation

The humanitarian response to influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon has been among the largest humanitarian operations globally. The legal aid program I studied is operated by one of the leading humanitarian NGOs in Lebanon and specifically targets refugees and others affected by the Syrian crisis. The program offers information sessions, legal counselling and representation on different predefined legal topics and is also involved in legal research and advocacy.

Legal aid is provided in a context of increasingly restrictive policies with regards to refugees, and a justice system suffering from endemic lack of rule of law. Despite the fact that refugees make up a quarter of its population, Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the country does not have any formal legislation affording any special status to refugees. Ten years into the Syrian crisis, the situation for refugees in Lebanon is becoming ever more precarious. As a result of tightened regulations, it is estimated that only 22 per cent of refugees in Lebanon have legal residency status. Without a valid residency visa, Syrian refugees are considered illegally present in the country and can face criminal sanctions that might lead to arrest, detention, deportation orders or deportation. To avoid interactions with the authorities, refugees are restricting their movement, limiting their access to basic services such as education and health care.

This situation is further aggravated by the fact that Lebanon’s sectarian power sharing system – largely based on elite-bargaining and clientelist networks – uneasily interacts with institutionalized responses to refugee protection and principles of rule of law. The presence of refugees is largely governed through elite-bargained decisions, some of which are kept confidential. Political interference with the judiciary is also not uncommon, and judgements challenging the political interests of the Government are not necessarily enforced. As such, the lack of rule of law affects not only the nature of Lebanon’s refugee response, but also the prospect of challenging it through the use of legal mechanisms.

Manoeuvring Lebanon’s refugee policies and justice system

In my thesis, I argue that the lack of rule of law that is endemic to the Lebanese justice system has discouraged the humanitarian legal aid program from outrightly challenging the restrictive refugee policies of the Lebanese government. Rather than engaging in strategic litigation, I argue, the legal aid program pragmatically explores the possibilities for protection within the existing bounds of Lebanon’s legal and policy framework.

A main finding in my work is that the legal aid program I studied is hesitant to engage in strategies that directly challenge the Government’s restrictive refugee policies either in court or through advocacy. As they often owe their positions to political leaders, judges are generally unwilling to challenge the Government’s policy by accepting pro-refugee argumentation. In the few successful cases, the judgements have not necessarily been enforced. Political interference with the justice system seems thus to discourage the use of strategic litigation.

In addition, by exposing individual refugees to the authorities, the legal aid program often considers that directly challenging political interests comes with a risk of harm for the individual concerned. Informed by a rights-based approach to humanitarian assistance, the legal aid program is committed to the ‘do no harm principle’. In this case, this principle seems to prevent the use of more confrontational strategies altogether. The humanitarian organisation’s dependency on the cooperation of the Lebanese government in order to fulfil its functions also makes it vulnerable to any backlash that could be triggered by directly challenging the Governments’ refugee policies.

In this context then, the focus of the legal aid program is less on strategic litigation and more on administrative procedures. As refugees are not afforded any special status under Lebanese law, the legal aid provided by this organisation is focused on assisting refugees in navigating their options within the fragmented and often inconsistently applied legal and policy framework. The activities related to legal residency thus focus on the administrative procedures available to renew or regularize residency at the General Directorate of General Security (GSO), either based on a UNHCR registration certificate or a ‘pledge of responsibility’ by a Lebanese national. For example, even seemingly straightforward administrative procedures for legal residency and civil registration require legal representation due to burdensome document requirements and the Government’s inconsistent application of these. And as I specifically discuss in my thesis, the legal aid program seeks to improve refugees’ access to civil documentation by engaging with the relatively independent institutions of the religious courts and the elected neighbourhood leaders, the Mukhtars.

Possibilities for protection and potential for harm

Providing legal aid within a legal and policy framework that is inherently hostile to refugees is not a straightforward task. In my thesis, I discuss the ways in which the legal aid program’s politically pragmatic approach, in its quest for practical solutions, in some cases may result in increased protection in some respects, but heightened protection risks in other.

In 2015, on the request of the Lebanese government, UNHCR suspended its registration activities and no longer provides ‘new’ refugees with a UNHCR certificate. This means that currently, the only way to secure legal residency for those unable to obtain this certificate is to find a Lebanese national willing to ‘pledge responsibility’ for their stay.

Residency based on a ‘pledge of responsibility’ is not identical to the regions’ infamous kafala system but it mirrors the same exploitative dynamic, as the migrant’s residency is tied to the contractual relationship with the employer sponsoring the residency. In response to reports of migrant workers suffering horrific abuse under the kafala system, numerous rights groups have called for the dismantling of this system altogether, although not specifically with regards to the ‘pledge of responsibility’ available for Syrian refugees.

Because it is currently the only option of legal residency for a large number of Syrian refugees, the legal aid program’s assistance in obtaining residency based on a ‘pledge of responsibility’ is indeed a pragmatic solution. This approach nevertheless raises questions about the role of humanitarian organisations in assisting refugees to enter into a contractual relationship which, on the one hand, may protect them from the severe consequences of illegal stay, but, on the other, might expose them to exploitation in the hands of potentially ill-meaning sponsors. Choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea, as the saying goes, is often a fundamentally difficult question – both legally and morally.

My study of the legal aid operations of this one humanitarian organisation in Lebanon sheds light on the dilemmas humanitarian legal aid providers are confronted with when they operate in contexts similar to that of Lebanon, where rule of law is largely absent, and where the legal framework does not provide for the protection of refugees. More than anything else, however, my study raises more difficult questions than it answers: In the pursuit of refugee protection, to what extent can – and should – humanitarian organisations engage in principled and sometimes outrightly confrontational strategies that nonetheless may backlash?  And to what extent should these strategies rather be pragmatic? In Lebanon, the legal aid program I studied balances these dilemmas by manoeuvring the protection possibilities within the existing bounds of the legal and policy framework, while at the same time steering clear of direct confrontations with the Lebanese government.

The Coldest Cold Chain: Chilling Effects of Covid-19 Vaccines

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This post first appeared on the International Health Policies (IHP) blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link.

Woman receiving an influenza vaccination at the Maternal and Child Hospital in Vientiane, Laos. Photo: CDC via Unsplash

After various stretches of lockdowns and the related dire political, social, and economic consequences, the world has welcomed the news that several companies – including ModernaAstraZeneca and Pfizer – are approaching an effective vaccine for Covid-19. Approximately 200 more are in the pipeline, of which 48 in clinical and 164 in pre-clinical stages of development. While there is thus hope on the horizon, for low and lower-middle income countries the roll-out of the vaccine will be enormously expensive, whatever option is eventually selected. As such, the life-saving vaccine may bring ramifications for future prioritization within domestic health budgets as well as allocations in foreign aid budgets.

In terms of ethics considerations, much of the debate so far has either focused on (1) criticizing high-income countries scrambling to secure vaccines for their citizens for lacking in solidarity and for inadequate support of equitable distribution schemes (COVAX) – or (2) on prioritization of population groups (see herehere and here). Contributing to the emergent analysis of the ethics of Covid-19 vaccination schemes while things are still ‘up in the air’ – the coordinated ‘mammoth operation’ led by UNICEF is in the midst of a vaccine tender process (running 6 weeks from November 12) – in this commentary, we suggest that attention must also be paid to the complex ethics challenges arising from the logistical challenges of distributing specific vaccines.

Taking the Pfizer vaccine, with a storage requirement of -70˚C (-94 F) or below, as our case example, we identify a preliminary list of challenges relating to the feasibility and societal impact of a successful roll-out of an ultra-cold chain dependent vaccine. The cost and the probability of logistics failure is extremely high – and even if a program can be successfully implemented, serious ethical issues with chilling effects on global health outcomes will likely arise. We also suggest that laying out some of the issues related to the Pfizer vaccine, if it were to be rolled out globally, can shed some light on medium and long-term ethics challenges for other vaccines as well, even if some probably present fewer challenges in this regard.

Feasibility

With respect to feasibility, ultra-cold chains require special cooling systems in facilities and during transportation. The tradeoffs involved in successful implementation must be carefully considered. Technical challenges greatly increasing risk include time constraints, freezing units, package sizes, and kitting:

  • The vaccine puts significant constraints on time: The proposed active plus passive cooling in containers will enable keeping vaccines in the required temperature range for 72 hours, after which the combination of power cells (active cooling) and dry ice (passive cooling) deteriorates. Such a short delivery time calls for air transportation; yet carrying dry ice on airplanes, especially passenger planes, is regulated as it consumes oxygen. The same solution has been used for ultra-cold chains before (e.g., STRIVE Ebola vaccine), but the scale of any Covid-19 vaccination programme will be constrained by the global availability of such containers, and the regulations constraining their use.
  • The unaffordability of freezing units is a possible spoiler: The estimated time that vaccines will stay usable after opening a package is 24 hours only. At facilities, including storage, customs, cross-docking, materials handling, and vaccination centers, freezing units will be required to store and appropriately handle the vaccines. In a bidding war, rural, small, and underfunded hospitals will lose out.
  • Proposed package sizes are for 5,000 vs 1,000 units. While optimal for transportation, these sizes do not consider usage patterns: the administration of 1,000 vaccines within 24 hours requires huge distribution facilities and massive manpower. Throwing away unused vaccines comes at an exuberant cost. Locations with lower population density may not be able to use such package sizes and de facto be excluded from the distribution of vaccines.
  • Vaccination programs have a host of material needs: syringes, gloves, PPE, tents for locations etc. Kitting will be of the essence; yet the other parts of these health kits will differ in their temperature control requirements. Inter-agency health kits have in the past been developed for vaccination programmes as well as emergencies, and include from cholera kits to entire field hospitals as a kit. They are composed in a way that regardless of the administering unit, any humanitarian organisation or health centre would know what to find in which box, and which items would need special processes (such as temperature control) in handling and storage. In the case of COVAX, UNICEF has started to procure and stock up on e.g. syringes and gloves, as to say, items that will for sure be needed to be able to administer vaccines.

Societal impact

In terms of societal impact, the following chilling effects of getting an effective vaccine program rolled out urgently need ethical consideration:

  • The Covid-19 response focuses on an increasingly narrow range of options for combatting the pandemic. We are now at a point where the solution – in the form of a vaccine (any of the vaccines) – is steering problem framing. However, even if cold chains can successfully be kept intact in hard-to-reach areas, and the vaccine can be distributed successfully, a vaccine program does not solve the structural problems in public health infrastructure that are greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. Food shortages, lack of access to clean water and basic hygiene, domestic violence and drop-outs will not be magically cured through a vaccine.
  • While the Covax Advanced Market Commitment (AMC) scheme will likely be a useful vehicle to secure health outcomes, it should be noted that GAVI explicitly mentions co-payments: “it is likely that the 92 ODA-eligible countries accessing vaccines through the AMC may also be required to share some of the costs of COVID-19 vaccines and delivery, up to US$ 1.60 – US$ 2 per dose – a mirror of the amount paid upfront by self-financing participants.” Taken together, the knock-on effects of the cost of vaccines and ultra-cold chains constrain future decisions about health budget allocations. Already overwhelmed health budgets in poorer regions will be additionally burdened by high-income countries demanding that vaccine coverage is prioritized to combat Covid-19 once and for all. In other words, the countries with the youngest populations and the highest child mortality will be asked to invest their health budgets to rescue the aging West.
  • Whichever vaccine or set of vaccines are procured for distribution through global mechanisms, this decision will likely determine pathways for foreign aid. For example, once effective ultra-cold chains have been financed and established, there is a likelihood that allocations for vaccines will tie up a significant portion of donor budgets for the short-to-medium time. We argue that the funding of vaccine initiatives –in particular the financing of the ACT-Accelerator through ODA budgets– needs to be subjected to careful ethics impact assessments.

In conclusion, while a vaccine requiring an ultra-cold chain may be the most daunting one logistically, all options come with their own requirements on temperature ranges, but also with differences in vaccine efficacy, and regimes to administer. Technically, if we can manage the Pfizer one, the other ones should follow. Regardless, the ethics of every single vaccine candidate, including its likely logistics pathways and distributive impact on public health, needs to be carefully mapped out.

WFP Logistics – Delivering on the promise (WFP Nobel Series, 6)

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The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the sixth post in the series. Gyöngyi Kovács is Erkko Professor in Humanitarian Logistics at the HUMLOG Institute, Hanken School of Economics.

Mozambique, Goonda, 24 March 2019 WFP unloading food distributions. Photo: WFP/Marco Frattini

Congratulations to the World Food Programme for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020! Apart from the fundamental yet difficult relationship between hunger and peace, which has been problematised earlier, it is perhaps time to reflect just how WFP sees to it that food is being available, and/or delivered to people who need it.

For a long time already, WFP logistics has had the mantra of “moving the world”. Their logistics and supply chain team is massive, not only in terms of numbers of vehicles and warehouses, but also when it comes to where these are located. Logistically speaking, food is bulky. In other words, it requires volume, capacity, and the related equipment. Given the volumes WFP needs to be able to move anywhere in the world, it is less surprising that they’ve built up their logistics capabilities, and have therefore also become the lead of the Logistics Cluster.

The “Log Cluster”, as it is often referred to, has an important co-ordination role to play if and when large volumes need to be delivered, and many organisations are involved. This is the case in larger sudden-onset disasters, but also after consecutive droughts, when regions and countries have run out of food altogether. The Log Cluster has though also come a long way in co-ordinating other global efforts in logistics and supply chain management, harmonising templates, contributing to global preparedness, writing a logistics operational guide (the “LOG”) to assist other organisations in their logistical efforts, assessing the logistics capacities of various countries etc. The list of initiatives is endless.

But what’s the link between food supply chains and peace? Food has been used as a weapon of war, as discussed earlier in this series. Delivering food to people who have been deprived of it, and negotiating humanitarian convoys to get secure passage is an important aspect. It is so important that “negotiation skills with warlords” is frequently noted as an eligibility criterion on job ads for humanitarian logisticians (Kovács and Tatham, 2010). Furthermore, the way the supply chain is configured can reinstate interdependencies between conflicting parties. Creating, or reinstating interdependencies of traders and industries across conflict lines has been used as a peacebuilding mechanism already in the Balkans in the 1990s (Gibbs, 2009). In essence, the way (food) supply chains are designed can indeed contribute or undermine local capacities, but also contribute to conflicts or conversely, to peacebuilding.

Yet come to this, do we always need to move food, or any other in-kind goods for that matter? Food is a basic need, yes, but importing food can also undermine the local industry and economy. WFP engages in all sorts of innovation projects, from trying out new types of vehicles (amphibious vehicles, drones, trucks delivered by helicopters – some of which may be problematic in conflict zones to begin with, see “The good drone”), to fortifying local foods. Perhaps the most important innovation is though the combination of cash-based initiatives (CBI) with making food available through bringing (local) retailers closer, ensuring the availability as well as affordability of food. The main selling proposition for CBI is that recipients can make their own decisions what they prioritise, and vote with their feet, or rather, their money. This is most certainly a very welcome development. From a supply chain perspective, they require a complete rethink, however (Heaslip et al., 2018). WFP and many other organisations have full-heartedly embraced CBI, with increasing percentages of their “deliveries” being ones in cash. The next question will though be, how to ensure that food is in the markets also during the pandemic. At the end of the day, if everything else fails, humanitarian organisations will still need to deliver.

References

Gibbs DN, 2009. First do no harm: Humanitarian intervention and the destruction of Yugoslavia. Vanderbilt University Press.

Heaslip G, Kovács G & Haavisto I, 2018. Innovations in humanitarian supply chains: the case of cash transfer programmes, Production Planning and Control, Vol.29 No.14, pp.1175-1190, doi: 10.1080/09537287.2018.1542172

Kovács G & Tatham P, 2010. What is special about a humanitarian logistician? A survey of logistic skills and performance. Supply Chain Forum: An International Journal, Vol.11 No.3, pp 32-41, doi: 10.1080/16258312.2010.11517238