Humanitarian Access and Ethics

The other night I went to an Overseas Development Institute (ODI) event titled: “Humanitarian Access and Ethics: Decision Making in Unsafe Environments” – thank goodness for reading week, I was able to attend in person instead of watching online later (yes, I spent my reading week doing fun things like going to development talks).

I thought it was a really interesting panel; this kind of situation had always stuck with me when reading and learning about the work that humanitarian actors do. They obviously need to have ethics and have a boundary line, but what does that mean when they also have to negotiate with actors committing crimes in order to access the people that need help?

The panel talked about the complexities of negotiating access, and the challenges that arise not only for the humanitarian actors on the ground, but also for those in management and for donors. There has apparently been a shift in the sector from saving lives to managing risks, which is preventing actors from reaching the most vulnerable. This might mean that donors are putting restrictions on how the funds are used, or the humanitarian organization itself is changing its tactics in order to gain that funding or protect its staff.

They raised a lot of issues that the sector is facing, and fully acknowledged that the aid industry has a negative institutional history and that its competitiveness to secure funds means that it doesn’t always act in an ethical manner. But they did also make some excellent suggestions on how they can improve – making compromises to gain access requires contextual analysis (i.e. understanding of the context on the ground), but also perception analysis (i.e. understanding how the community feels about the organization working there). It also requires consistency in judgement and decision making, and a set policy regarding negotiations. Also, there needs to be more communication between staff on the ground and management so that situations are clarified and the best decisions can be made.

The aid/humanitarian sector tends to attract two opinions – either people think that humanitarian organizations are doing fantastic work, or people think that the sector is so rotten it needs to be scrapped and done over. The reality, like with all extremes, tends to the middle. There is a lot of work that the sector needs to do so that it does as much good as it claims to want to do, and finding a way to adhere to, but also adapt humanitarian principles to local contexts is a good start.

I definitely recommend watching the video of the event if you have time – it was really interesting!


Book Launch: “Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour” by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano

Book launches! They’re a thing!

So I seem to be going to a lot of book launches lately – they are such a great way to hear directly from the authors about their experiences writing, the research they’ve done, and the conclusions they’ve drawn.

Last night I went to the book launch of “Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour” by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano. They talked about the research they conducted into the smuggling trade, the connection to highly sophisticated criminal networks, and how the smuggling trade is connected to migration and organized crime. They made some really excellent points, points that I’ve been thinking about myself, but obviously, made much more clearly.

They made clear that there is a distinction between a human smuggler and a trafficker; this is important to remember because many politicians are equating the two in discussing the “refugee crisis”. Smugglers are providing a service; this service is necessary because of policies criminalizing migration. By criminalizing migration, you end up criminalizing migrants themselves; by making people more desperate, you are directly pushing them into the path of the smugglers, but they are deciding to choose these services, they pay for a service and receive something in return. The difference with trafficking, is that people are in situations which they don’t choose – they are trafficked to a location they didn’t choose, they are forced to engage in activities they didn’t decide to do (i.e. sex work or forced labour), and their liberty is constrained. They presented an interesting analysis of the smuggling networks that have arisen out of the current situation – many smuggling networks are increasingly sophisticated and professional – using smartphones, QR codes, online money transfers and holding funds in a third-party account until the refugee reaches their destination safely and provides final access to the funds. But there are so many variations, based on what people can pay and what routes people take, that there are, of course, the cheap options which sees hundreds of people crammed on a broken down dinghy, almost certainly to capsize, where the smuggler doesn’t care about reputation, just cash up front. These cheaper options leave people much more vulnerable to being forced into a trafficked situation, where they pay large sums of money up front, but end up being forced into labour to actually work their way onto a boat, or trafficked to other locations, now that they have lost their financial bargaining power.

And a distinction also needs to be made between migrant and refugee. As I’ve mentioned in posts before, refugees are a legally protected group of people fleeing danger from their homelands. Migrants, economic migrants in particular, are those who have chosen to leave in search of better economic prosperity elsewhere. But the distinction becomes increasingly blurry as people are on the move. When a Syrian refugee, who initially moved into Lebanon or Jordan with savings, expecting the conflict not to last long, has run out of money, and decides to try to make it to Europe with the hope of stability, is their second journey one of an economic migrant or a refugee? And when a Somali migrant, in search of better economic prosperity, is captured, trafficked, and assaulted making their way to Egypt or Libya in order to make the Mediterranean crossing to Europe, is their second journey a continuation of the first, or are they now a persecuted refugee seeking sanctuary? Many on the move switch in and out of these categories of migrant/refugee, and it is a challenging endeavor to try and categorize these people….because at the core, these are people who are coming up against the immovable force of increasingly restrictive migration policies that are forcing people to take desperate steps. In the end, this is not a refugee crisis; it is the failure of providing accessible migration options, and it is the failure to ameliorate the conditions, economically, politically, and socially, that are driving people to go on the move in search of safety, stability, and prosperity.

All in all, this was a fascinating event, and I am looking forward to reading the book to get a better insight into the connections between organized crime, immigration policies, and the refugee crisis. As Peter and Tuesday concluded, smugglers may be “criminals”, but they are equally saviours to the people who have helped them reach safety.

Book Launch: “The Battle for Syria” by Christopher Phillips

I have been to so many interesting events in London so far! Book launches, panel discussions, lectures, film screenings…the list goes on.

One of the most interesting events I have been to so far has been the book launch of Christopher Phillips new book The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East.

Not only was the event held in a room in the Houses of Parliament (which was really cool!), Chris’s talk was incredibly clear, concise, and well researched. I can’t wait to get my copy and devour it.

Chris had a few main conclusions that he presented, which reframed the discussion of the conflict in Syria from the fragmented internal factors, to the force of the interested international actors. Firstly, he claimed that the international environment was critical in transforming the uprising into a civil war. Due to the weakened power of US hegemony in the region (because of the failure of the Iraq war), there was a reluctance to get involved and intervene early on. Secondly, once the unrest in Syria began, actions taken by the international community escalated the conflict into a civil war. For example, Obama’s call for Bashar al-Assad to step down led to the general expectation of US involvement, which resulted in the opposition to arm themselves believing that America was coming to their aid…..however, the US had no intention of taking any military action. Additionally, although Iran and Russia weren’t initially on board with Assad’s tactics, they saw him as this focal point against the US. Thirdly, once the armed conflict was underway, the international actors shaped the war and have prolonged the scale and the violence. Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are all anti-Assad, but have all backed different armed groups, leading to schisms in the opposition, and an increase in extremism and competition for resources. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are all on the Assad side, and ISIS is also a factor in the conflict. All of these external actors are providing enough support for the armed groups to stay in the game, as it were, but not enough to win. And so the danger is now an outsourced war where no one side has enough resources to win, but no one side has sustained enough losses to consider conceding. As of now, it seems like the actors who are supporting Assad are willing to put in more resources to maintain his power, and, with the lack of a coherent opposition, Western actors are fearful of putting too many resources on the ground in case they fall into extremist hands.

I find Chris’s analysis to be an interesting understanding of how the conflict has reached this point, and I’m looking forward to reading his book to get a better grasp of his arguments. It’s challenging to predict how the situation will progress, and when/how the conflict will end, but what is certain is that while international actors are vying for position and power, the people who are actually getting hurt are Syrian civilians and activists who began calling for freedom and democracy.

A note on my absence…

Hi wordpress blogosphere!

It’s been a while since I’ve written or shared anything here. Part of that reason has definitely been one of life being busy and of simply being lazy. Another part of it has been the complete saturation of the negative news cycle – I needed to take a step back from the constant bombardment of information and tragedy and trauma that permeates our world today.

But the biggest part of it is a fear of raising my voice – the fear of offending someone, not knowing everything about an issue and so feeling like I’m not qualified to contribute, and the fear of asserting myself into a space where I don’t belong. My undergrad studies in anthropology, and indeed, my immersion in pop culture, has led to my being “woke” (as some kids say), and I feel the need to acknowledge my relative position of privilege in the discussion of the Middle East. I am an outsider to the region and the culture. I am a white Canadian girl, of no particular religious orientation, fascinated by the region, and I do not want to take space away from local activists and community leaders who are attempting to have their voices heard on similar issues that I am interested in.

My aim is to amplify those voices, to not speak over or for others, and to acknowledge when I may have done so and to step back if that is the case. Please call me out on anything and engage with me – I am (as we all are) always learning, and always open to growing and evolving.

Having said all that – I am working on getting over my fear of raising my voice, so be prepared for many more blog posts in the future! I have recently started my Masters degree at SOAS in London, UK, and I am going to so many different events, and meeting so many different people, that I have lots of things to share and to write about.

One voice may be small on its own. But added to the voices of many, it becomes a roar.



Fact, advocacy, parody

history & humanitarianism

Benjamin Thomas White recently published a blog on the surprising ‘fact’ the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. Once surprising because of how very long it was, it is now surprising because, despite being frequently repeated, it turns out not to be true. In the first instance, the data it relies upon is from 2003. If the simple passage of time then doesn’t lead you to think a recount might be necessary, then perhaps the UN’s claim that the global refugee population is now at its highest since the Second World War will. Secondly, the figure didn’t include Palestinian refugees. Thirdly, it wasn’t about camps. And finally, as UNHCR’s own documents stated, it was always a very crude estimate. (You can get the full details on Ben’s blog.)

In discussions after the blog, Jeff Crisp – formerly of UNHCR – drew our attention to a report he…

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Heroes: The White Helmets

Amazing and brave heroes – the Syrian White Helmets


the white helmets syria

We all know the big charities and NGO’s of today’s development and humanitarian scene. When I say UNICEF, Oxfam, Save the children, Red Cross and International Rescue Committee, you probably all know what these organizations are and what they aim to do. All these organizations have their pro’s and con’s ranging from discussions about overpaid executives, expensive headquarters and inefficient use of funds. But let’s be honest. There will never be big NGO’s without con’s. Try and solve the problems of the world and you are bound to step on someone’s  toes.

These are the big, well-known charities, but there are millions and millions of non-profit, charitable organizations around the world. In the ‘Heroes’ section we would like to introduce the smaller, not so well-known, but amazing organizations to you. By doing so, we hope to offer these small organizations a platform to share their work and to help you…

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Stories of the Day – June 17

Wow, time really does fly when you’re having fun. I’ve spent the last couple weeks traveling to see some friends and family (and watching a lot of women’s soccer – go Canada!), but I’m back in a blogging groove, and there’s definitely lots that has been going on in the world. So here’s what I’m reading today:

  • 2015 is ‘year of fear’ for children worldwide, warns Gordon Brown
    • I don’t even know what to say about this, except for the fact that these numbers are tragic and incomprehensibly large. The world has record numbers of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and refugees – 38 million and 16.7 million respectively – and half of those are children. That’s 27.35 million children who have been uprooted from their homes, and the implications of this are staggering. These children are at risk of being trafficked, sold into slavery, into forced labour, child marriages, not to mention being unable to go to school. We are going to have a huge population bulge of young adults in the coming years who will be struggling with the fallout of witnessing war, and all the stresses that come with fleeing homes and trying to find safety again. This is really an unprecedented time in global crises, and it’s somewhat understandable the donor fatigue that first-world/western countries are feeling, but man – this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. We seriously need to inject huge sums of money into humanitarian support for these crises, and we need to focus on providing education and psychological support for these children.
  • Hate crimes against Muslims in Britain spike after ‘jihadi’ attacks, study finds
    • This kind of report is really disheartening. It’s sad to read that people cannot distinguish the actions of an individual from the actions of a group. Whenever some white man goes off and kills a person/people, you don’t see other groups of people committing crimes against white men. Now, obviously, that’s because of the entrenched position of privilege that they hold, but I think the thought experiment is valuable – by turning the reaction on its head, we can see how really absurd the thought process is.
    • It’s also really important to note this quote: “Findings also suggest that where the media stress the Muslim background of attackers, and devote significant coverage to it, the violent response is likely to be greater than in cases where the motivation of the attackers are downplayed or rejected in favour of alternative explanations.”
  • The Story of a Hate Crime
    • Speaking of what happens when a white man shoots and kills people….. This really is a long-form story that you must read. It details the story of the Chapel Hill shooting in which three young Muslim Americans were shot and killed – allegedly over a parking spot. But really, we all know (or we should know) that this was a racially/religiously motivated hate crime. And it makes a very poignant point – “Bloggers complained that the Chapel Hill killings weren’t getting enough media coverage, and that if the roles had been reversed—Muslim shooter, non-Muslim victims—the incident would have been labelled terrorism.” It is undeniably unjust that the definition of terrorism is inextricably bound to the race/religion of the person committing the crime. This act should be labeled terrorism – if terrorism is the act of committing a crime that instills terror in a group of people, then racially/religiously motivated crimes should be labelled terrorism – because the family and friends of these young people felt threatened and unsafe in their own communities and homes after this shooting took place. I haven’t read a follow-up to this story as to what is happening to the perpetrator of these killings, but I really hope that has been charged and convicted of a hate crime. And I hope he serves his sentence in prison. But more than that, I hope he has the opportunity to meet and get to know young Muslims like the people he killed, and really and truly understand that what he did was incredibly stupid and wrong. And I hope he lives with that for the rest of his life.