One year ago this week, Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico causing catastrophic damage to the island. Women and girls are typically disproportionately impacted in natural disasters, and there are widely held standards and guidelines in place to guarantee their protection before, during, and after an emergency. However, insufficient protocols were put in place to ensure that women were protected during and after the storm. In fact, violence against women increased after Hurricane María, and women’s rights activists have now declared a crisis of gender-based violence (GBV) in the storm’s aftermath.
The Rohingya minority in Myanmar has undergone a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing marked by widespread and systematic sexual violence. While Rohingya women living in refugee camps in Bangladesh are currently safe from the violence in Myanmar, gender-based violence (GBV) continues in refuge, with hundreds of incidents reported weekly. And despite the acute awareness of the use of sexual violence as a weapon against the Rohingya, the humanitarian community in Bangladesh was—and remains—ill-prepared to prioritize the response to GBV as a lifesaving matter.
During a recent mission to the camps in Bangladesh which now houses tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees, Daniel Sullivan and Francisca Vigaud-Walsh interviewed Mayyu Ali, a young Rohingya man who described the crimes against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Mayyu called on the international community to take concrete action to end the violence.
Según los hallazgos en el informe de Refugees International (RI), tanto Estados Unidos como México deportan a personas con considerables necesidades de protección a Honduras y El Salvador, países de los que huyeron. El informe, Vidas en riesgo: Fallas en las medidas de protección afectan a hondureños y salvadoreños deportados de Estados Unidos y México, indica que el proceso de protección en todas las etapas –desde la tramitación de una solicitud de asilo hasta la deportación y reinserción en el país de origen– se caracteriza por graves fallas que, en última instancia, ponen en peligro vidas humanas. La investigación de RI también determinó que, a pesar de las inversiones sustanciales en servicios de acogida para los deportados, tanto Honduras como El Salvador tienen sistemas de protección deficientes.
Both the United States and Mexico are deporting individuals with significant protection needs back to Honduras and El Salvador – the countries from which they fled. In this report, Refugees International (RI) finds that the protection process at every stage – from asylum application to deportation to reintegration into the country of origin – suffers from serious failures that ultimately put lives at risk. The RI research also found that despite important investments in reception services for deportees, both Honduras and El Salvador have weak protection systems.
At the close of this year’s 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, Francisca Vigaud-Walsh writes that women’s bodies are often a battleground in conflict zones, and humanitarian aid areas must be a place for healing their wounds. Programs such as the U.S. initiative "Safe From the Start" are essential tools in the addressing the impacts of violence against woman and girls in conflicts.
Following a recent mission to the Northern Triangle region of Central American, Refugees International finds that current conditions require that the United States government not deport Temporary Protective Status beneficiaries from Honduras and El Salvador. Rather, the U.S. should provide alternatives for Honduran and Salvadoran women, men and children to remain in the United States legally.
The flood of people fleeing South Sudan, coupled with delays and constraints on funding, has led to a shortfall in food rations to refugees.
According to agencies working on the ground in Uganda, where most of the refugees have been arriving from the conflict across the border, food supply lines are being shut down and distribution of aid is becoming increasing irregular.
The UN’s World Food Programme said it had been forced to cut the amount of grain handed out due to delayed funding, with cash transfers offered to refugees to make up the shortfall.
“When the funding comes late it takes a bit longer to secure the cereals. It means that you have to go to the markets to procure, transport, store and distribute,” said El Khidir Daloum, WFP director for Uganda.
In the past fortnight, South Sudanese refugees at Nyumanzi settlement in Adjumani, which hosts about 20,000 people, protested in front of officials from the prime minister’s office.
Titus Jogo, refugee desk officer in Adjumani, said that they had to calm people down and explain that, while the WFP did not have enough cereal stocks this month, money would be provided instead so that people could buy food at the local market.
Andie Lambe, executive director at International Refugee Rights Initiative, said: “Our understanding is that the ration cuts this month were as a result of a break in the food pipeline within WFP and that these cuts are both temporary and that the gap was substituted with a cash equivalent of the missing ration. In addition, WFP assured us that this would not be applied to recent arrivals and vulnerable households.
“The refugees are dependent on handouts due to the lack of alternatives for them to support themselves. When rumours of rations being permanently cut or stopped altogether are combined with actual cuts and without clear explanation being given for this, tensions will increase and it is not unreasonable for refugees to voice their disquiet.”
The sheer scale of the disaster, in which more than 86% of refugees are women and children, means that strains have been put on already scarce resources.
“Uganda is dealing with a refugee crisis of historic proportions and the country and its humanitarian partners have not been able to meet the needs of one million South Sudanese who have sought protection from violence in a relatively short amount of time,” said Francisca Vigaud-Walsh of Refugees International.
“Uganda has an exemplary refugee policy and has done what it can to provide safe harbour and land to refugees, but the needs of refugees outstrip the capacity of humanitarian responders, given that the funding simply isn’t there,” she said.
In May this year, WFP was forced to cut food rations to refugees in the east African nation by 50% due to severe funding shortages. The agency need an estimated $167m (£126m) to provide aid through to the end of the year, but donors contributed only $30m as of September.
“Every month we need $20m to feed the refugees in Uganda. For the next six months we have a shortage of $62m to $85m for refugees,” said Daloum. “We know what it takes to secure those resources, but at the same time, this is a life-saving issue.”
The Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, and the UN secretary general, António Guterres, hosted a summit in June in Kampala to call for action for South Sudanese refugees, with $674m needed to support them in 2017. However by August, only 21% of that sum had been raised.
This piece originally appeared here
After the liberation of Mosul from Islamic State (ISIS) occupation in July 2017, Refugees International (RI) traveled to Iraq to examine the specific challenges faced by women and girls in the aftermath of the military operation. Among the most urgent issues are the detention and sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of Iraqi women and girls perceived or alleged to be affiliated with ISIS by Iraqi Security Forces and other Iraqi authorities.
The battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq is in its late stages, but in the aftermath of the conflict new challenges arise. There are 11 million people in Iraq who need humanitarian assistance. The original causes of their vulnerability—conflict and displacement—may be lessening, but their unmet daily needs remain.
This month marks the three-year anniversary of the withdrawal of an 11,000-strong Peshmerga force from Sinjar in northern Iraq. The withdrawal left Sinjar’s Yazidi minority community besieged by Islamic State (ISIS) fighters. For one displaced Yazidi family with whom I recently met in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, there is both reason to grieve and to celebrate. The head of family told me that dozens of extended family members were kidnapped by ISIS during the siege. But this anniversary also marks the first that his now 15-year-old daughter, Vian,* is home.
Uganda faces one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing refugee crises. The implosion of South Sudan has forced more than 1.5 million refugees to seek asylum in the region, with Uganda host to an estimated 700,000 of them. Thousands continue to arrive daily and the United Nations Refugee Agency forecasts that 925,000 South Sudanese refugees could reach Uganda by year’s end. Of those registered through December 2016, 86 percent are women and children fleeing war, hunger, and appalling acts of gender-based violence. No emergency response is perfect, but the Ugandan government and aid agencies deserve great credit for receiving South Sudanese refugees in a dignified and protective manner.
After 50 years of brutal war, the peace agreement between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People’s Army is cause to celebrate. Women and girls have long been on the frontlines of this war – as combatant, victim, and peacemaker. What they and all conflict victims stand to gain from peace is monumental, given that entire generations have known nothing but war. However, the challenges to a sustainable peace in Colombia cannot be underestimated as ongoing conflict and violence continue to threaten this population.
Read the original article here.
By Erika Piñeros
Days after Colombia voted ‘no’ to the terms of a peace deal between the government and the FARC rebel group, the country is still struggling to come to terms with the unexpected result and what it means for the nation’s long and elusive search for peace.
A ‘yes’ vote would have paved the way for an end to more than half a century of fighting between the government and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The conflict with the FARC and other armed groups has claimed more than 260,000 lives, the majority of them civilians, and displaced nearly seven million people.
But just over half (50.21 percent) of those who cast their ballots on Sunday voted ‘no’ to the question: “Do you support the final accord to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?”
In the hours following the announcement of the result, both the government and the FARC issued statements calling for calm and emphasising that a June ceasefire would remain in place.
But on Monday, FARC chief Rodrigo Londoño, aka Timoleon or "Timochenko", insisted that the peace agreement signed on 26 September was legally binding, irrespective of the referendum result.
Then, on Tuesday night, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the ceasefire would end on 31 October.
Londoño responded on Twitter: "And after that, the war continues?”
That indeed is the question that now hangs over a country that had become increasingly polarised in the run-up to the plebiscite.
The sense of division was not helped by conflicting messages around what Colombians were being asked to vote on. While President Santos campaigned for “Yes to peace”, the opposition’s slogan was “No to the accord”.
Legally, the government was responsible for educating the public about the contents of the 297-page peace accord. And yet, Santos’s government was also behind the ‘yes’ campaign.
“It wasn’t clear to voters what was instructive and what was the ‘yes’ campaign,” said Pedro Vaca, director for the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP).
“It was very dirty. What we had was a political campaign, not an information campaign,” commented Rafael Batista, a local journalist.
And yet, the government’s attempts both to educate the public and promote the ‘yes’ campaign, failed to reach the entire country.
Refugees International conducted a fact-finding mission among people displaced by the civil war and found “large numbers of displaced people who at best were uninformed or, at worst, had fundamental misgivings on the accord’s provisions,” said Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, a senior advocate with the organisation.
In Norte de Santander – a province that saw an overwhelming vote against the accord – Vigaud-Walsh noted that, “Nearly all Colombians we interviewed said that the peace deal would not improve their lives.
“Peace agreement or not, they are currently experiencing increased threats from the ELN guerrilla group.”
The National Liberation Party (ELN) was not a party to the peace deal.
Enthusiasm to get out and vote was low too. Historically, Colombia has a low voter turnout rate, but only 38 percent of registered voters participated in Sunday’s referendum. That’s the lowest turnout rate since 1994.
In addition, despite the simple Yes/No option on the ballot, more than 250,000 votes were left blank or found to be invalid, the highest rate in over half a century.
Part of the problem may have been the short timeframe that was allowed for new voters to register – just five weeks between the announcement of the plebiscite and voting day.
In a country with one of the world’s highest displacement rates, an unknown number of those most affected by the conflict were left unable to cast their votes.
Vigaud-Walsh of Refugees International said that many displaced people would have had to return to their places of origin in order to vote.
“[That’s] a costly option for the vast majority, both in financial and security terms,” she told IRIN. “Their inability to vote may have been a factor in the outcome of the plebiscite.”
The devil was in the detail
‘No’ voters have been keen to make clear that they did not reject peace, but the terms of the accord which many felt gave too much away to the FARC in terms of amnesty for confessed war crimes and political power, among other issues.
“I voted ‘no’,” said Ana, a 42-year-old nurse from Colombia’s northwestern Uraba region. “We all want peace, but not like this. Those accords were not transparent or fair,” she added, referring to the secretive nature of the initial peace talks between the government and the FARC, and the fact that the deal does not extend to all armed groups.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in June, President Santos warned that, should Colombians reject the peace deal, “we have ample information that the FARC are ready to go back to war, an urban war which would be even more destructive than the rural war.”
Whether Santos was using scare tactics or genuinely feared a return to war is unclear.
The leader of the opposition and the ‘no’ campaign, former president Alvaro Uribe, was due to meet with Santos on Wednesday to present his party’s demands for a renegotiated peace deal.
“Our standards of justice, reparation, attention to victims and truth have to be higher,” said opposition spokesman and former vice-president Francisco Santos. “We will work with the government to be able to redirect this accord.”
But the FARC may be unwilling to compromise on major sticking points for the Uribe camp, such as prison time for its leaders, payment of compensation to victims and those found guilty of crimes being barred from public office.
An anonymous source, who is in regular contact with the FARC high command, told IRIN, “It’s clear [the FARC] are looking for other things. There’s a lot of economic interest there.
“Colombians are too divided now, and the ones who will decide everything are the ones at the top, as always.”
Many are heralding this as an historic moment for the South American nation, host to more than seven million of its own displaced citizens, making it the second-largest internal displacement crisis in the world after Syria. If and when the Colombian people vote “yes” on peace, Colombia’s humanitarian stakeholders should not let their enthusiasm obscure the continued challenges the country will face – challenges that could imperil the peace agreement’s viability at any time.
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A second Chibok schoolgirl has been rescued, Nigeria's army said Thursday, after President Muhammadu Buhari met the first student to be found and voiced fresh hope for the recovery of the more than 200 others still being held.
Army spokesman Colonel Sani Usman said the student was found by troops and civilian vigilantes at about 11:00 am (1000 GMT) on Thursday in the Damboa area of Borno state, northeast Nigeria, during military operations.
"Her name is Miss Serah Luka," he added in a statement, saying she was believed to be a Christian pastor's daughter and originally from Madagali, in neighbouring Adamawa state.
A photograph released by the military showed a young woman in a long, dark blue hijab common in the region and seen on abducted girls in previous videos from the Boko Haram Islamist militant group.
Boko Haram's shadowy leader, Abubakar Shekau, has previously claimed all the girls had converted to Islam.
The first student to be found, Amina Ali, flew with her mother to meet the president at his official Aso Rock residence in the capital, Abuja.
Buhari said he was "delighted" at her release and the government was doing "all it can to rescue the remaining Chibok girls", who were abducted from the remote town in northeast Nigeria on April 14, 2014.
"Amina's rescue gives us new hope, and offers a unique opportunity for vital information," he said.
A total of 276 girls were kidnapped from the Government Girls Secondary School. Fifty-seven escaped in the hours that followed.
The abduction provoked global outrage and brought worldwide attention to the conflict but until Amina and the latest student were found, there were few indications about their possible release.
- Reunion -
Community leaders said Amina told her relatives at a brief reunion at the family home in Mbalala, near Chibok, that most of the girls were still in the Sambisa Forest area of Borno state but six had died.
Nigeria's military has been conducting operations in the former game reserve for weeks in the hope of flushing out militants and destroying Islamist camps in the sprawling semi-desert scrubland.
Borno state governor Kashim Shettima said on Thursday soldiers were "already moving into the forest aggressively".
"I am an eternal optimist. I believe that in the coming days and weeks more recoveries will be made," he told reporters.
The abducted girls have long been thought to have been taken to the forest. Satellite imagery provided by the United States and Britain reportedly identified the location of some of the students.
But Nigeria's military failed to act on the intelligence, Britain's former ambassador to Nigeria has claimed.
Former president Goodluck Jonathan's delayed response to the abduction and overall handling of the insurgency was seen as a major factor in his election defeat to Buhari last year.
- Medical treatment -
Amina was brought to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, with her four-month-old baby girl named Safiya and a man she said was her husband.
Her purported husband, identified by the army as "suspected Boko Haram terrorist" Mohammed Hayatu, was shown in one photograph cradling the infant on a hospital bed.
The army said he was "undergoing further investigation at (the) Joint Intelligence Centre" and was being "well-treated".
Boko Haram has used kidnapping as a weapon of war in the conflict, which has killed at least 20,000 people, forced 2.6 million from their homes and devastated the northeast since 2009.
Young women and girls have been forced to marry rebel fighters, becoming sex slaves and even suicide bombers in the group's campaign for a hardline Islamic state.
Men and boys have also been seized and forcibly conscripted.
- Victim support -
Boko Haram is thought to have kidnapped several thousand women and young girls and there have been calls for Nigeria to do more to support former hostages.
Buhari said Amina would receive "the best care the Nigerian government can afford" and disclosed she had undergone medical tests for about five hours and met trauma experts.
The resumption of her education would be "a priority", he added. "Every girl has the right to an education and a life choice," he said.
Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, from Refugees International (RI) said such specialised care was not available to most former hostages.
"On the contrary there is a seemingly arbitrary and haphazard approach to dealing with these women and girls," she said.
RI and other agencies have highlighted in particular the lack of facilities for victims of sexual violence and psychological services.
Northern Nigeria, which is largely Muslim, is deeply conservative and kidnap victims have reportedly been shunned on their return home.
Read the original article here.
By Michelle Faul | AP May 19
LAGOS, Nigeria — Aid workers and parents of the girls who were kidnapped from a school in 2014 lashed out at the Nigerian government and military Thursday for their handling of the first of the so-called Chibok girls to escape the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.
Tuesday’s escape brought joy and renewed hope but also increased pressure for the government of President Muhammadu Buhari to rescue 200-plus other students who were seized in the mass abduction that outraged the world.
On Thursday, Amina Ali Nkeki, who was found nursing her 4-month-old baby on the fringes of Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold, was flown to Abuja to meet with the president.
A second girl believed to be among the Chibok abductees was rescued Thursday evening, army spokesman Col. Sani Kukasheka Usman said in a late-night statement.
The information could not be independently confirmed, and Yakubu Nkeki, chairman of the Chibok Parents Association and uncle of Ali, said he had heard the report but had no information about it.
Ali, 19, was shielded from journalists when she arrived at the presidential villa, her mother carrying her baby. She was shown into Buhari’s office for a private hour-long meeting. Television cameras and photographers were allowed in briefly afterward.
A presidential statement said Buhari’s feelings were “tinged with deep sadness at the horrors the young girl has had to go through at such an early stage in her life.”
On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram stormed and firebombed the Government Girls Secondary School at the remote northeastern town of Chibok after a handful of soldiers ran out of ammunition and ran away from about 200 extremists. They seized 276 girls preparing for science exams. Dozens managed to escape in the first hours. Until Tuesday, 219 remained captive.
Ali revealed to her mother that a few of the girls died in captivity, but most remain under heavy guard in the forest, according to family doctor Idriss Danladi.
“Bring back our girls — now and alive!” about 40 men and women chanted Thursday evening at a rally of the movement, which has inspired a worldwide social media campaign using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. They have met faithfully every week at Abuja’s Unity Fountain.
“No more excuses. And no failure is acceptable,” Oby Ezekwesili, a founder of the movement, told the gathering. “We can rescue our Chibok girls. What happened with one can happen with 218.”
A former World Bank vice president and Nigerian education minister, she helped start the group after former President Goodluck Jonathan initially denied there had ever been a mass kidnapping. His wife claimed it was a ruse to make her husband look bad.
Jonathan lost elections last year in part because he was seen as not caring about the Chibok girls and not committed to rescuing them.
Ezekwesili criticized Buhari for admitting he has not seen a proof-of-life video that Boko Haram sent to the government months ago in a bid to open negotiations to exchange the Chibok girls for detained Boko Haram leaders. It was the first indication in two years that some of the girls are alive.
“We urged our government to take the proof-of-life video seriously,” she told the rally. “But you know that our president did not watch that video.”
Still, she said, “God is very good. He gave us a miracle, a young woman who was in the enclave of the terrorists with the best bed of information that anybody can have.”
She called for Buhari to mobilize countries such as the United States, France and Britain in a reinvigorated effort to find the girls. Those countries sent drones, hostage negotiators, intelligence officers and others after the kidnapping, to no avail.
Chibok parents were outraged that the military had “paraded” the young woman beside the Boko Haram commander who took her as his wife, Ezekwesili said.
Ali has told her mother that the man, Mohammed Hayatu, rescued her, deserting Boko Haram and leading her out of the forest because the camp had run out of food and they feared their baby would starve to death, according to Danladi. The military said Hayatu is detained for interrogation.
Buhari’s government also was lambasted by Washington-based Refugees International, which said Ali should be getting immediate care for rape and psychological counseling, instead of making public appearances.
“It is an outrage!” said Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, women and girls’ advocate at Refugees International, saying the escapee’s case should not be politicized.
Buhari’s statement said medical personnel and trauma experts had examined Ali on Wednesday for five hours. The president promised that she would get the best medical care and education available.
The Associated Press does not normally identify suspected victims of sexual assault, but Ali appeared publicly alongside the president and was seen widely on television. Buhari’s statement identified her by name.
In it, Buhari repeated promises his administration will do all it can to bring the girls home.
Nigerian hunters found Ali wandering on the fringes of the remote northeastern Sambisa Forest and reunited her with her mother, Danladi said after speaking with the mother.
Nigeria’s military claimed it had rescued the young woman, though its initial statement identified the escapee as another Chibok girl who is still missing.
Authorities will be asking her where her classmates are being held. If Boko Haram tries to move large groups of girls because of her escape, those movements can be captured by satellites and air reconnaissance.
Aid groups also alleged that thousands of other rescued or escaped Boko Haram hostages have been further abused by the military, which detains many.
Amnesty International this month called the military’s Giwa barracks in Maiduguri “a place of death” where babies and children are among scores of detainees dying from disease, hunger, dehydration and gunshot wounds.
Nigeria’s military denied the allegations and insisted that Amnesty officials have seen the facilities and “made recommendations that were implemented.”
Amnesty said the military’s statement was “completely false” and that the rights organization has never been allowed into Giwa.
The fresh charges of military abuses come as the U.S. considers a Nigerian request to buy 12 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to fight Boko Haram.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed the proposal last week. Attempts by the Jonathan administration to buy American helicopter gunships were blocked, in part because of alleged Nigerian military abuses.
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FREED FEMALE BOKO HARAM CAPTIVES RELIANT ON 'SURVIVAL SEX’ FOR FOOD: REPORT
BY CONOR GAFFEY ON 4/21/16 AT 10:23 AM
Nigerian women freed from Boko Haram captivity are prostituting themselves for food and overdosing on cough syrup due to inadequate provisions in government-run camps, according to a report.
Boko Haram’s armed insurgency in northeast Nigeria, which began in 2009, has killed thousands and displaced more than 2 million people. The militant group has targeted women and children for abduction, with Amnesty International estimating in April 2015 that the group had kidnapped at least 2,000 women and girls since the start of 2014. In March 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).
A report by U.S.-based humanitarian group Refugees International (RI) released on Wednesday claims that the Nigerian government—in cooperation with the international community and humanitarian agencies—was failing to meet the needs of women who had suffered gender-based violence (GBV) at the hands of Boko Haram. Around 8 percent of the 2.2 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in northeast Nigeria live in camps run by government agencies, with the rest living in host communities, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The RI report, based on a mission to the Borno state capital Maiduguri—where the majority of IDPs are based—found that rehabilitory assistance for victims of GBV was completely lacking. The report states that “zero percent of GBV survivors received specialized care or integrated services,” such as psychosocial counselling.
Women subjected to sexual violence by Boko Haram are often stigmatized by host communities, particularly if they have been impregnated by their captors. The lack of mental health support has forced women and girls to turn to alternative means of easing their pain—the report found that the price of cough syrup in the camps had more than doubled from 60 naira ($0.30) to up to 200 naira ($1) due to the demand by people drinking bottles of the medicine in order to fall asleep.
Female IDPs are also turning to “survival sex” in order to gain access to food, which is in short supply in the government run camps, according to the report. In one camp, there were three cooking points for a population of 6,000 IDPs. This food shortage forces women, according to the report, to sell their bodies in order to get food or money to buy food. The issue has previously been highlighted by Borno state governor Kashim Shettima, who vowed in September 2015 to sack any government officials found to be diverting foodstuffs meant for the IDPs.
The Borno State government has reportedly claimed to spend at least 600 million naira ($3 million) on feeding IDPs each month. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari pledged in December 2015 that thereturn of displaced persons to their home communities would begin in 2016, imploring the international community for additional assistance in addressing the issue. The United States recently pledged to give $40 million in humanitarian assistance to help people affected by Boko Haram in Nigeria and other countries bordering Lake Chad.
It has been two years since the world’s deadliest terrorist organization – Boko Haram – abducted 271 girls from their high school in the town of Chibok – a tragedy that would shine much needed international attention on conflict in northeastern Nigeria. Sadly, the Chibok girls are only one part of a much larger story of violence against women and girls in the northeast. But the attention on this remote corner of the Sahel has not translated into sustained humanitarian assistance for all those that have been affected.
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BY ESTHER YU-HSI LEE MAR 17, 2016 8:00 AM
The portrayal of the refugee crisis that has garnered significant international attention is often of a Syrian holding onto a dinghy for dear life, heading to Europe to escape the violence and turmoil back home in the Middle East.
But the reality is that Europe isn’t alone in this issue. African countries are experiencing a similar exodus. Many people in the East African region have been on the run since April 2015.
And just like in Europe, this crisis shows no signs of relenting.
More than 220,00 refugees in the East African nation of Burundi have fled after a failed coup attempt and extra-judicial killings following incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement last year that he would seek an unconstitutional third term. After Nkurunziza won, his country descended into political unrest as opposition members and party defectors took to the streets to protest.
Within Burundi, more than 46,000 people are internally displaced and hundreds have been killed. And hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to neighboring countries: Rwanda is hosting75,000 Burundians, while Tanzania has 130,000, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has 18,000, and Uganda has 21,000, according to figures from Al Jazeera America.
Burundian refugees in neighboring countries face dire conditions in camps, while young people face the additional hardship of forced recruitment by Burundian opposition groups and non-state armed militias to topple the incumbency.
A December 2015 Refugees International report found some evidence that teen refugees between 15 and 17 fled to Rwanda only to be recruited to join a non-state armed group whose aim was to overthrow President Nkurunziza. Once recruited, the teens were transported to a training camp inside Rwanda to learn how to use weapons, first aid, camouflague, and other military skills.
“The objective after that was that they would remain in the DRC for a certain amount of time until it would be possible for them to reenter Burundi and to undertake some kind of a military operation back home,” Michael Boyce, advocate at the research advocacy organization Refugees International and author of the report, told ThinkProgress. “These are not the only cases of child recruitment, but only direct testimony.”
Though six teens were apprehended in the DRC and provided information of recruitment to international officials, it’s possible that many more teen refugees were likely being trained in at least one training camp with the capacity to hold 500 soldiers. Women and girls were also present at the training site, suggesting that “the problem is larger than just six individuals who got caught up in this enterprise,” Boyce noted.
Boyce’s observation has been corroborated by some of the on-the-ground witness testimony that also found “Rwandan police officers watched as recruits who agreed to join military training boarded shuttles out of Mahama and that Rwandan military vehicles were used in some cases,” Al Jazeera previously reported. And in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes of Africa spoke with at least three Burundian former child soldiers in the DRC who explained that they had been recruited in Rwandan refugee camps to later fight in Burundi.
There could still be more teenagers susceptible to recruitment. There are various reasons why teens may be drawn to fight — including extreme poverty and the lack of opportunity for them to continue their education. They may decide the payment from the opposition groups is worth the risk.
But one international agency has stepped in to stem the flow of activities that allow for the abuse, exploitation, and neglect of children. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rwanda has been identifying and managing cases of vulnerable children — kids who might be unaccompanied without their parents or guardians, kids who are taking care of their younger siblings alone, or kids who are engaged in child labor.
“There was a very high number of such children in this particular refugee influx,” Martina Pomeroy, the UNHCR spokeswoman in Rwanda, told ThinkProgress. She explained that there’s a team of protection staff on the ground “who are in the camp every day speaking to refugees and community groups” to identify these kids and monitor how they’re doing.
The group has also engaged in activities to empower parents to protect their children from exploitation or recruitment. Pomeroy said they help provide access to education for all refugee children and have trained “para-social workers” from among the refugee community, who help to raise awareness on child protection and the rights of children.
Still, the issue of teen refugee recruitment may spiral into a more troubling situation as the Burundian government has been increasingly shutting its borders as a justification to keep out those recruits. For example, two months after Nkurunziza took office last year, the government closed off exit points at the borders with Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to “protect the image of the country,” sources told the International Business Times at the time.
At least with Nkurunziza still in power, the refugee crisis won’t go away any time soon. But it remains to be seen if international actors will react in the same way that they have to the crisis in Europe.
“It’s a slow burn — there’s not as much of an impetus for the rest of the community to be involved,” Boyce said. “Just because it’s a slow burn doesn’t mean it can’t explode at some point in the near future. With Burundian armed groups active in neighboring countries, the risk for a regional conflagration is very real and I think the risk grows every day that we don’t achieve a political solution in Burundi that puts in the path on sustainable peace.”