- By Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for RefugeesThe pace and scale of the Syria crisis spurred efforts to try new approaches, harnessing new technologies and revolutionizing the way we listen to refugees and meet their needs.In January last year, I visited Jordan and Lebanon, just days after becoming head of the UN Refugee Agency. There I saw for myself the consequences of the world’s largest ...
Mariama Omar is a feisty lady. Although she lost her sight in March this year, she still has a hop in her step and cracks jokes with UNHCR staff who visit her in Dollo Ado, eastern Ethiopia.
She thinks she is around seventy, but she’s not worried about being on her own in Ethiopia. Two of her three children died of yellow fever some years ago and sh...e is not in contact with the rest of her family. They’re only interested in me when I have money. Now I’m broke, they couldn’t care less. I’m better off without them, she laughs, smoothing her hair
behind a shawl, keen to look good for the photograph.
Mariamas life in Somalia was far from easy. She says she spent months hiding at home from militiamen and finally decided to leave her home in the region of Gode when food was too hard to come by and she finally became blind. When she first arrived from Somalia, Mariama was severely dehydrated and was suffering from diarrhoea. She now lives in Dollo Ados newest camp, Hilaweyn, where yesterday UNHCRs community services staff came to bathe her and clean her tent. Her health has now recovered and she feels happy to be in the refugee camp, away from the threat of fighting, with her own tent and new blanket.
Luckily for Mariama, her 15-year-old neighbour, Mohamed, ia that rare thing - a caring teenage boy who helps her to put on her sandals and fetches her water every day. UNHCR staff help many vulnerable people like Mariama every day. But for many refugees, the support offered by family and friends is one of the most important services available in the camps.
Q. There has been a sharp increase in numbers of Somalis leaving the country due to violence compounded by drought. What is the condition of the thousands of people arriving each day at the UNHCR camps in Kenya and Ethiopia?...
A. We have never seen this level of malnutrition. Kids are arriving in terrible shape. Between 45 & 55 % of children arriving in Ethiopia are malnourished and 30-40% in Kenya. This is unprecedented.
Q. What is the cause?
A. Many families are deciding to move after they have exhausted all their resources. Because of the drought, most had almost total crop failure and the market prices are making even basic foods too expensive. They walk for days. They are on their very last leg when they arrive. Tragically, when we see child deaths in our emergency feeding programs, most are within 24 hours of admission despite our emergency care. They are just drained. So we are seeing a three fold increase in under five mortality in Dadaab and .
We are also witnessing deteriorating nutrition rates among longer-term residents. Somalis are unbelievably hospitable and they are sharing their own rations with the new arrivals until they are registered and receiving food.
Q. What is UNHCR doing to manage this emergency?
A. At the reception centers in Kenya we have a coordinated effort with the DRA and work with a whole range of UN and NGO partners. We immediately distribute high energy biscuits which are ready-to-eat and provide instant calories and micronutrients. Refugees are then pre-screened and receive 15-day food ration while awaiting formal registration. The reception centres also allow us to undertake health and nutrition screening. These are all life-saving interventions. In Ethiopia, refugees are pre-screened at the border by the government and then transferred to our transit centeer where they receive hot meals and are screened for health and nutrition problems while awaiting registration and transfer to the camps.
Q. How will UNHCR handle this in the long term?
A. We have been attempting to respond at each stage as the crisis has grown. But the crisis is beginning to outpace our ability to effectively respond to the heightened needs which is why we are issuing an emergency call for more staff and funding. We are about to conduct a massive mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) screening in Dadaab which will let us know exactly who is malnourished and needs to be enrolled in our selective feeding programs. . In Ethiopia we have just opened a third camp due to the ongoing influx and working to deploy additional staff and redoubling our efforts to get all services up and running. Emergency convoys of essential supplies are being airlifted and trucked in to Addis and will be taken down to the South to support the ongoing relief initiative.
A strong wind carries dust everywhere and covers up people and things even inside the precarious shelters, the heat during the day is almost unbearable, no trees around, just a flat reddish landscape with small thorn bushes, covered by plastic bags.
Walking through the settlements of displaced people you can hear coughing and crying all the time, sick children everywhere. Some of the families have just arrived from South-Central Somalia, fleeing from fighting or drought, now squatting with a relative or a sympathetic person in and around the city of Galkayo.
The shelters are made of stick frames covered with cartons, pieces of clothes and plastic sheets, once a pattern of bright colors, now opaque from sun and dust. Because of a lack of proper health care in 21 settlements, 60,000 IDPs are at risk of developing complications from a simple ailment, especially the children.
Habibo, 25, with her three children, Naima, 4, Mohamed, 3, and Rakmo, 1, arrived three days ago fleeing right after her husband was killed by a stray bullet in Bakara market in Mogadishu. They walked for a day and then they spent two others on top of a truck to cover the distance from Mogadishu, a terrible journey for a woman alone with three small kids.
Now they share a shelter with another family in the Warshad Galey settlement in Galkayo. She doesn’t know how to get food and all her children are sick. The only medical post for the camp can provide some drugs for the fever and diarrhea, but a job and a steady income can’t be found.
Habibo compares the life in Mogadishu with her situation now: “Even though we didn’t have as much we were comfortable living in a rented room but now I depend on well wishers for food and a place to sleep.” She just dreams of good health for her kids and a safe place to raise them.
What was your first impression when you arrived on Lampedusa?
It feels like a holiday island. The contradiction between the place where the asylum seekers are coming and the place itself is strange-I’m used to going to borders in regions where when you arrive somewhere, you experience war or you see people fleeing, or you sense the crisis. When I ...arrived in Lampedusa, I didn’t feel it, I was like, “Why am I here?”
What has really moved you about this particular situation?
What’s really moved me is I suddenly realized just how close Africa is to Europe. It’s very close. The sea is actually a border, which means people who cross it are fighting against the ocean- and the majority don’t know the sea: they’ve never been swimming, they are not fisherman, so it’s really a dangerous environment-- more than what we can imagine.
Can you tell us how this compares to other situations you have covered?
One of the main differences is that when they arrive, the asylum seekers seem to come from nowhere; when you are looking out on the island, there is nothing but the sea- it’s a huge empty space. On other occasions, when I was on a border, you look and see another country; sometimes you can hear explosions or fighting. You can really tie the asylum seekers to the situation they left. On Lampedusa it’s as if they arrive out of nowhere. You feel that the sea is giving them to Europe…like a gift.
Can you tell me about some of the challenges you have faced as a photographer?
To me the most delicate situation has been dealing with the Italian authorities on the island. Sometimes they don’t allow photos to be taken. It’s a sensitive issue in Italy. I don’t understand all of the aspects of the problem. I feel that it’s not an easy assignment, which I would have expected it to be, since it’s in Europe-but maybe the location makes it more delicate to cover because this asylum seeker/refugee issue is linked with immigration. And immigration is a sensitive issue and a political one.
By contrast in Africa it’s not a political issue, it’s a humanitiarian issue; even if you have a weak government with limited financial means, they will welcome people as people who are seeking refuge. It won’t be so much of an issue.
Something like 2% of those fleeing Libya, come to Lampedusa, which means a very small amount of people. I hope that Europe will be helpful and welcoming and can understand that it’s not a danger. Maybe it’s a chance for Europe to show what a real democracy means.
Yesterday we asked you who the man in this photo is, and what he's just been through. Read on for the answer:
Alex, a 31 year-old Nigerian who fled Libya, sits on a bed in a transit centre on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. He arrived in the early hours of May 13th with his pregnant wife, who was immediately taken to hospital in Sicily to giv...e birth. When his wife and child return, a ship will take the family o another Italian city where they will be given a place to live until their case is evaluated.
Before deciding to flee Libya, Alex lived and worked in a barber's shop in the city of Misrata. When war broke out, he said life there became untenable: "I hid inside my house for more than three weeks with no possibility of going out or getting food. Life is impossible for civilians in Misrata. That place is so horrible. You can't walk down the street, you can't find food. We were all stranded. I decided not to die of hunger and sneaked out one night and headed to the port. There was a boat and everyone was jumping on, hoping to find a way out of Misrata. So many people were there: pregnant women, children trying to save their lives. So I boarded, thinking that leaving would be the best thing.
"The conditions on the boat were extremely rough. We spent five days at sea and only survived by the grace of God. I didn't know where I was going or where I came from. I was just going, convinced that I would eventually arrive in a safe place. Thank God we were finally rescued between Lampedusa and Tunisia. I don't really know what we'll do now. I have to see if I can get assistance because I've lost everything that I worked hard for in Libya. I just pray that I can get back on my feet. I am so tired now, but I am feeling a little bit better. My story is difficult to recount, it was so horrible."
A refugee crisis can develop very quickly, requiring UNHCR's immediate response. Come with us behind the scenes of our Central Emergency Stockpile in Dubai and see how UNHCR rushes tonnes of emergency aid and equipment to the field.
UNHCR established its massive warehouse facility in Dubai in late 2006. In terms of logistics, Dubai is an ideal loca...tion with ready access to all continents and excellent cargo handling facilities. It is close to the Middle East's busiest seaport and within a short drive of five international airports where charter planes can be deployed in 24 to 48 hours.
Covering an area the size of several football fields, the Central Emergency Stockpile contains 16,000m³ of relief items - enough to meet the immediate non-food needs of 500,000 people. The aisles are stacked high with tents, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, blankets, mosquito nets, jerry cans and buckets along with operational support items like trucks, generators, hospital tents, prefabricated warehouses and telecommunications equipment.
UNHCR Supply Manager Relson Cordero is one of 12 dedicated staff who oversee the delivery of goods to and from the stockpile. The team handles a minimum of three shipments a week, with each outgoing shipment replenished by multiple incoming shipments.
"We are a small team in Dubai," Relson says, "but we work together and complement one another. This is so crucial when dealing with emergencies. We never miss a flight or a shipment, whatever the situation or the conditions. Whether it's day or night or the weekend, even if there's a dust storm in Dubai, we can't afford to be late for a flight because we know that it means a delay of one or two days in the delivery of the relief items on the ground."
In 2009, the Dubai team dispatched relief and equipment to 24 countries including four major emergency operations in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
"You really see the huge difference it makes during a crisis like Georgia, Myanmar or Pakistan," says Relson. "Yemen is a major emergency right now and we've sent nine shipments there since mid-2009."
"I can say that we are proud and honoured with what we do here in Dubai. We usually need to send supplies within 48 hours and even some of my special family celebrations have to be postponed because of emergencies. My wife always tells me not to feel sorry, but to think about the people we are helping. The reward is knowing that a blanket will give warmth to a child or a kitchen set will let a mother cook a basic meal for her family."
I’ve been almost a fortnight in sleepy Sallum. One loses track of time in a place with such history, including monumental battles in World War II. Sallum is on the Mediterranean, right on the border with Egypt and Libya. I'm here for two months as a UNHCR reporting officer. The hours of work are extraordinarily long – that, I am told, is the norm ...in an emergency.
Every day, more than 2,500 people cross the border every day – mostly Egyptians and Libyans – fleeing the ravages of war. Families come in cars loaded with their belongings and the Libyans have the red and green flag [of the former monarchy] flying. The colours of the revolution.
We are dealing with about 3,500-5,000 people who are stranded at the Sallum border crossing, waiting to have their papers processed, so they can transit Egypt and go home. There are families from Chad, from Niger, from Sudan, who have fled the war in Libya and are living in conditions that are crowded, cramped and, frankly, insufficient for the cold and clear desert nights. UNHCR is not permitted to open a camp at the border, so women and children are living in halls, others in outdoor shelters, some on the pavements in the port area of Sallum. UNHCR has done its best to distribute plastic sheets so that people can shelter from the rain, the ferocious sandstorms and the cold. Like any place on the Mediterranean, the weather in Sallum is unpredictable.
There are asylum-seekers too – about 500 individuals waiting to have their claims assessed by UNHCR's legal officers. The process is long and these are people who could be here for at least three months. Most are from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan’s Darfur region. Life is difficult in their cramped plastic shelters, but when the summer comes, it will be worse. Food and water are adequate but the queues for food snake around the site.
Sallum, itself, is charming. Right on the dazzling blue Mediterranean, with one "main" street and places to eat – we fondly call cafés. They are anything but. The shops stock basic essentials and the fruit and vegetables are a delight – fresh, tasty, healthy. People are friendly and when they hear I am from India, I'm greeted with a wide smile. "Welcome," they say.
I love my walks by the sea, but I have to be chaperoned. Sallum is extremely conservative and it reminds me of Pakistan’s hilly tribal areas. I do break the rules: I walk alone to the office and in the town during the day, but stepping out as a woman after nightfall is unacceptable. That, I find stifling. But, the cute donkey carts, the dusty roads and arid hills contrasting with the brilliant blue skies and aquamarine waters more than make up.”
- UNHCR staff trapped in Abijan Office Compound: Interview with Jacques Franquin, Representative in Côte d'Ivoire
ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, April 7 (UNHCR) – For the past week, a small group of UNHCR staff have been trapped inside the refugee agency’s office complex in the conflict-torn Côte d'Ivoire city of Abidjan. Jacques Franquin, UNHCR’s representative in Côte d'Ivoire, has been helping to keep morale up as he tries to arrange for his team and some 300 Libe...rian refugees to be evacuated to safety. Earlier this week, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres hailed the team in Abidjan for their courage and their deviotion to the refugees under their charge. Franquin spoke by phone today to Alexandra Eurdolian from UNHCR’s public information section and told her about the drama and challenges. Excerpts:
How many of you are there in the compound? What’s it like there?
We are six international staff – myself, the security officer and four staff on mission. We also have four local guards and 300 refugees in the compound. This morning, one of the refugees gave birth and she named her boy after our security officer, Bizo. We are trying to survive. As UNHCR’s representative, I am the most privileged – I have my own office with a big table, a sofa and a bathroom. So I live quite well. We also have running water and electricity.
Do the refugees also have water and electricity?
All the refugees have access to water and electricity in the canteen that they occupy. They can also charge their telephone batteries.
What’s your food situation like?
Food is the most critical issue for us. We are surviving on canned food — sardines, tuna, and we are almost at the end of our stock. Some mornings we can manage to send a guard to get some bread. That’s it. The other day they managed to get some soda, so sometimes we have that. We had a small stash of rice and noodles. We are able to cook because the refugees have some charcoal.
Usually the female refugees go to the market, but now they are a bit short of money. And anyhow, there’s less and less to buy in the markets. We are working with other organizations, such as OCHA [UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], to find sacks of rice for the refugees because they are getting more and more angry.
How’s the security situation?
Now the situation is a bit better. There was fighting in the street just 30 metres from here and it was quite scary. I saw one soldier being killed. And sometimes there are stray bullets, in fact two refugees have been hit — one in the chest, and a little girl got hit in the stomach. She had to be evacuated to a hospital with the help of the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] and the Ivorian Red Cross. They took her and her father by ambulance and we heard that she had surgery and survived.
It was also quite tense a few days ago when the pro-Bagbo [presidential candidate Laurent Gbagbo] soldiers were here and deliberately scaring the population by shooting randomly all over the place. For lots of young soldiers of the republican forces [loyal to Gbagbo’s foe and presidential rival, Alassane Ouattara], the city of Abidjan probably looked like a big supermarket ready to be looted. Our office was attacked by looters last Thursday – we were extremely frightened. They ended up leaving with one vehicle after threatening our guards. We found the vehicle the next day about 500 metres away and riddled with bullets.