Blog - ECHO in the field

Archive for January, 2012

Vicious circle of inter-ethnic violence continues to affect thousands of people in South Sudan

Thursday, January 26th, 2012
Unaccompanied minors at the residence of the county's Commissioner in Pibor

Credit for photo: Marilena CHATZIANTONIOU, European Commission, DG Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), Juba – SOUTH SUDAN

26/01/2012 – On January 10, an inter-agency mission visited Pibor and Likuangole towns to gauge the needs of the affected populations. In this mission was one of the European Commission’s experts based in Juba.

An entire village burnt to the ground, dozens of unaccompanied children, a school that now serves as a shelter to those that fled their homes, numerous people in need of medical assistance, looted compounds of humanitarian organizations – wherever we turn, we see human suffering and destruction. These are the consequences of the last outburst of fighting in a deadly cycle of violence between Murle and Lou Nuer in South Sudan. Read the full entry

Addressing the forgotten crisis in Rakhine State, Burma/Myanmar

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

24/01/2012 – Burma/Myanmar, January 2012 – Rakhine state, a region stretching along Burma/Myanmar’s western coastline, exemplifies the many socio-economic challenges facing the country. With few roads and no railway system, boats are the only reliable mode of transport for the isolated communities living along the coast and the shores of the regions’ main river, the Kaladan. Due to the poor state of social services and underlying poverty, many households especially in the northern areas of the state suffer from constant food insecurity and a lack of even the most basic health services. The state was also badly affected by Cyclone Giri which hit communities in the south in October 2010.

An added factor is that the population of the state is predominantly Muslim in a country where Buddhism predominates. While not all Muslims face discrimination, many suffer from various forms of discrimination and segregation by the authorities because they are not considered Myanmar citizens. Their plight is so desperate that every year many hundreds s brave the dangerous seas trying to reach Malaysia, Indonesia or even further afield in fragile boats. There is little public knowledge of their situation as most media attention is focused on the political issues of Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, the capital, none of which have yet positively affected the lives of the many minority communities in the country.

Using its forgotten crisis assessment tool, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil protection department (ECHO) has identified the Muslim communities in Rakhine state as being in particular need of humanitarian assistance. In 2011 alone, ECHO provided more than €4 million, accounting for 30% of its humanitarian budget for Burma/Myanmar, to five projects in Rakhine State.  ECHO partners include Action Against Hunger, Medecin Sans Frontiers (Netherlands), the World Food Program, Zoa and UNHCR.

In 2012, ECHO will continue to focus its support on the Muslim population in northern Rakhine State and on the communities in southern Rakhine State which were badly affected by Cyclone Giri in late 2010.  Food security, nutrition, health care and protection are our key priorities.

Returning from a regular assessment mission to Rakhine state recently, the head of ECHO’s Office in Yangon, Christophe Reltien, summed up his observations:  “In Rakhine State, the people face numerous challenges ranging from social and economic hardship to community tensions over access to land” he stated. “We need a comprehensive approach to addressing this protracted humanitarian crisis, one that addresses the acute needs of the Muslim community and also responds to the  humanitarian needs of other communities in that state.”

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Being part of the first European Humanitarian Aid Voluntary Corps pilot – impressions from Tajikistan

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Cecilia (at front wearing a white T-shirt) along with the 24 other volunteers participating in the pilot project that has launched the European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps. 12/01/2012 – “We want to place Tajikistan back on the map of the humanitarian community” says Cecilia Corriga on the phone from Dushanbe. The 29-year old Sardinian is one of the first of 25 volunteers currently participating in the first European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps pilot project being run by Save the Children, NOHA & Bioforce. Recalling her first impressions of a Save the Children assessment mission she joined in late October, 2011 she says ‘Food security is becoming an issue of concern for Save the Children here in Tajikistan ‘she explains. ‘We found that the southern provinces are particularly hard hit by erratic weather patterns which have destroyed crops for three consecutive years. In the mountainous, stunningly beautiful countryside around the southern city of Kurgan-Tyube we visited small cotton farms and subsistence farmers affected by this year’s early snow. There, whole families live in tiny one-room houses, without electricity and running water, not having enough money to buy fuel or wood to heat their home because what little money they have is kept to buy food ‘.Cecilia was deployed to Dushanbe, Tajikistan with Save the Children UK, after she completed  a one month intensive training in Pensarn, UK. She explained that as part of Save the Children’s country team, her tasks include carrying out assessment missions, supporting advocacy efforts and drafting funding proposals. Read the full entry

An uncertain future for Burmese refugees in Thailand

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

The winter sun rises over the mountains marking the Thai-Burmese border, slowly dissipating the mist which has settled overnight. My colleagues and I have been travelling since dawn heading south from the western border town of Mae Sot to the Nu Po refugee camp, home to some 18,000 refugees mostly ethnic Karen fleeing the conflict and social deprivation in Burma/Myanmar. As the vehicle winds its way over the mountains, I reflect on the situation of the refugees, one that is marked by contradictions: Their official status is that of “illegal migrants”, not “refugees” as the Thai government has not signed the 1956 UN Convention on the Treatment of Refugees. Therefore they do not live in “refugee camps” but in “temporary camps” although the nine camps on the border have existed for some 20 years. As we approach the camp Nu Po, the effect of this “temporary” status becomes apparent: The homes of the “refugees” are constructed out of wood and bamboo. The Thai authorities do not allow the use of modern material such as corrugated iron sheets or bricks or concrete as they would symbolize a certain “permanence” concerning their situation. Also the refugees are officially not allowed to leave the camps making them completely dependent on the aid provided by international NGOs, funded by large donors such as ECHO. In fact the European Commission has been funding humanitarian aid such as food and health care in the camps for nearly twenty years, a commitment which will continue in 2012. As one walks through the dusty streets of the camps between the wooden houses tightly rowed one next to the other, one becomes aware of the large number of children. A whole new generation is growing up knowing nothing but life in the camps. More than 70,000 refugees have taken the opportunity to re-settle in third countries, mostly in the USA. But still the number of refugees in the nine camps remains steady at 148,000, as more flee the insecurity and the tough social and economic situation in Burma/Myanmar’s border region. Life in the camps revolves around the schooling of the children and the monthly distribution of food rations. The Thai Burmese Border Consortium (TBBC), an alliance of NGOs, constantly verifies the number of recipients and monitors food distributions. Other NGOs provide basic health care, education, and water and sanitation, almost acting as the local municipality of a small town. And this is what these camps have naturally evolved into after more than 20 years; real settled communities. It is with the realization of this situation that ECHO together with other donors and the NGO community has been promoting a strategy for more durable solutions for the refugees. The Thai government has not yet signed up to the draft strategy but there have been important developments, quietly implemented but with important effects on the lives of many refugees. Some of the camps have now been connected to the national electricity grid. Many refugees also now have access to the Thai mobile phone network allowing them to access the internet and stay in contact with friends and relatives, even those living abroad. Vocational training is now being offered inside the camps on a limited basis. This training includes projects in small-scale agriculture supported by ECHO. In Nu Po, the Dutch NGO, ZOA, has been able to access land next to the refugee camp which has allowed 60 families to grow their own vegetables. Teams of men and women carefully tend the small plots with tools provided through the project. Notably the project also includes local Thai famers who have participated in the training programs and help in the marketing of the produces. The refugees, mostly women, have been able to supplement their food rations and have an income allowing them to purchase small necessities such as clothing and toiletries. Much discussion amongst the refugees also center around the effects that recent political reforms in Burma/Myanmar might have on their lives. Camp leaders fear that the Thai authorities may force them to return in the coming years, as relations between Thailand and Burma/Myanmar steadily improve. Many say they would return home voluntarily “if the conditions are right”. So it is hoped that the political reforms (on both sides of the former warring parties) will materialize in actual peace and stability on the ground. Some refugees have been in the camps so long they only have distant memories, while the young have known nothing else but life in the camps. So their hope is that this new year will turn the page introducing reconciliation and return, allowing them to restart their lives afresh in dignity and self-reliance.

10/01/2012 – The winter sun rises over the mountains marking the Thai-Burmese border, slowly dissipating the mist which has settled overnight. My colleagues and I have been travelling since dawn heading south from the western border town of Mae Sot to the Nu Po refugee camp, home to some 18,000 refugees mostly ethnic Karen fleeing the conflict and social deprivation in Burma/Myanmar.

As the vehicle winds its way over the mountains, I reflect on the situation of the refugees, one that is marked by contradictions: Their official status is that of “illegal migrants”, not “refugees” as the Thai government has not signed the 1956 UN Convention on the Treatment of Refugees.  Therefore they do not live in “refugee camps” but in “temporary camps” although the nine camps on the border have existed for some 20 years.

As we approach the camp Nu Po, the effect of this “temporary” status becomes apparent: The homes of the “refugees” are constructed out of wood and bamboo. The Thai authorities do not allow the use of modern material such as corrugated iron sheets or bricks or concrete as they would symbolize a certain “permanence” concerning their situation.  Also the refugees are officially not allowed to leave the camps making them completely dependent on the aid provided by international NGOs, funded by large donors such as ECHO. In fact the European Commission has been funding humanitarian aid such as food and health care in the camps for nearly twenty years, a commitment which will continue in 2012.

As one walks through the dusty streets of the camps between the wooden houses tightly rowed one next to the other, one becomes aware of the large number of children. A whole new generation is growing up knowing nothing but life in the camps. More than 70,000 refugees have taken the opportunity to re-settle in third countries, mostly in the USA. But still the number of refugees in the nine camps remains steady at 148,000, as more flee the insecurity and the tough social and economic situation in Burma/Myanmar’s border region.

Life in the camps revolves around the schooling of the children and the monthly distribution of food rations. The Thai Burmese Border Consortium (TBBC), an alliance of NGOs, constantly verifies the number of recipients and monitors food distributions. Other NGOs provide basic health care, education, and water and sanitation, almost acting as the local municipality of a small town.  And this is what these camps have naturally evolved into after more than 20 years; real settled communities. It is with the realization of this situation that ECHO together with other donors and the NGO community has been promoting a strategy for more durable solutions for the refugees.

The Thai government has not yet signed up to the draft strategy but there have been important developments, quietly implemented but with important effects on the lives of many refugees.  Some of the camps have now been connected to the national electricity grid. Many refugees also now have access to the Thai mobile phone network allowing them to access the internet and stay in contact with friends and relatives, even those living abroad. Vocational training is now being offered inside the camps on a limited basis. This training includes projects in small-scale agriculture supported by ECHO. In Nu Po, the Dutch NGO, ZOA, has been able to access land next to the refugee camp which has allowed 60 families to grow their own vegetables.  Teams of men and women carefully tend the small plots with tools provided through the project. Notably the project also includes local Thai famers who have participated in the training programs and help in the marketing of the produces. The refugees, mostly women, have been able to supplement their food rations and have an income allowing them to purchase small necessities such as clothing and toiletries.

Much discussion amongst the refugees also center around the effects that recent political reforms in Burma/Myanmar might have on their lives. Camp leaders fear that the Thai authorities may force them to return in the coming years, as relations between Thailand and Burma/Myanmar steadily improve. Many say they would return home voluntarily   “if the conditions are right”. So it is hoped that the political reforms (on both sides of the former warring parties) will materialize in actual peace and stability on the ground.  Some refugees have been in the camps so long they only have distant memories, while the young have known nothing else but life in the camps. So their hope is that this new year will turn the page introducing reconciliation and return, allowing them to restart their lives afresh in dignity and self-reliance.

Emergency helicopters increase our capacity to help

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012
This is Nigel Sanders, a helicopter pilot and manager of this emergency response programme dedicated to quickly responding to emergencies all over the world.

This is Nigel Sanders, a helicopter pilot and manager of this emergency response programme dedicated to quickly responding to emergencies all over the world.

03/01/2012 – Often in times of crises, rescue teams face extreme difficulties gaining access to the affected communities. Life saving supplies such as medicine, water, and food, fail to reach the hotspots speedily because infrastructure is either destroyed or rendered unusable.

The World Food Programme, with funding from the European Commission, has started an aviation emergency response programme to address this need. The programme is ensuring that helicopters are rapidly made available to transport humanitarian workers and deliver cargo when an area becomes inaccessible for regular aircraft.

My name is Nigel Sanders, and I’m part of the team responsible for setting up this emergency response programme. In many places where I have previously worked, access is a constant constraint to effective delivery of aid. Read the full entry