How Much Aid Is Going to Haiti? TONS. And That’s the Problem

Years after a major humanitarian intervention in Haiti, many who donated to “help” after the 2010 earthquake are still wondering what happened to the money. Hurricane Matthew brought Haiti under the limelight once again, and just this week, headlines and accusations are flying towards the Clinton Foundation. Other weeks, we’ve seen headlines about waste at the American Red Cross. Yele Haiti, the organization led by Wyclef Jean, one of the most famous Haitians in the world, was shut down after an investigative story into its finances by The New York Times.

The public perception of humanitarian aid as a futile and possibly corrupt endeavor is a major threat to the industry and to global efforts to ease suffering. But most aid organizations have no one to blame but themselves for this perception. In annual reports and online marketing materials, many organizations make loud and exaggerated claims of success. These claims run directly counter to the ongoing struggles of local communities.

Aid organizations aren’t lying, not exactly. They are exaggerating and misdirecting donors. Where aid organizations include numbers to “prove” their “impact,” they are often shaped to give the best possible impression. Data as proof of impact is a huge trend in the industry. “Evidence-based” aid is seen as a concrete solution to the problem of accountability.

Unfortunately, numbers on their own are not proof of anything. In fact, data often obscures and obliterates a need for human input. “Billions” were spent and “millions” were helped. Meanwhile, local communities insist that they aren’t getting the aid they need and they don’t like what they get. For numbers to have meaning, people must understand the reality behind the information being shared.

Reporting in “Tons” of Aid

I know people don’t really understand the meaning behind the numbers because I’ve been studying humanitarian aid for a decade and I don’t understand it myself. It’s not for lack of trying. As an example, for the past few weeks, I’ve been following the aid response to Hurricane Matthew. I’m finding that some aspects in the marketing of humanitarian aid have improved in recent years. For instance, almost no organizations are claiming to “rebuild” Haiti after this latest disaster. Following the earthquake in 2010, claims of “rebuilding” turned out to be deceitful, as very few houses were actually built.

But in this humanitarian response, I’ve noticed a troubling trend. Aid organizations are reporting how much they’ve given in “tons.” Metric tons, U.S. tons… just tons and tons of aid. “Tons” is a dangerous word, like “rebuilding,” because it has a formal and an informal meaning. It is the definition of an actual weight and, more simply, “a large number or amount.” To give real meaning to this metric, we would have to know how much each aid intervention weighs. How much does one tarp weigh? How much does a water filter weigh?

Food aid has been reported by tonnage for many years, partially because the World Food Program delivers so much of it. In the case of Hurricane Matthew, almost every major aid organization is reporting their aid in tons and it’s not only limited to commodities. This is deceptive because some aid is heavy while also being small. Consider a bottle of water. A few bottles of water are much heavier than a water filter, but for the people on the ground, they have less impact.

If an organization reports giving a “ton” of aid, which is only bottles of water, what did they achieve? After a disaster, donors and local communities often complain about how nothing on the ground seemed to change despite the scale of the response. They are legitimately confused because “scale” is not reported in a way that makes sense.

Click to view slideshow.

What “Helping” Should Mean

The use of the term “tons” is not the only problem in humanitarian reporting. Other units of measurement are equally perplexing. The numbers of “people in need” and “people reached” are often vague and not based on human observation. For example, one of the biggest needs in Haiti right now is what humanitarians call “WASH,” or water, sanitation and hygiene. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Haiti reports 2.1 million people were impacted by Hurricane Matthew. At the same time, they say that only 750,000 people will need WASH “services” provided to them for three months during the “emergency.”

What about the remaining 1.35 million people? If aid organizations insist on using numbers, maybe they could tell us how they came to them. Cholera is a deadly waterborne disease that is passed through fecal contamination. So we can assume many WASH activities will be aimed to provide clean drinking water and safe places to go to the bathroom. The water and sanitation working group, which collaborates with the government of Haiti, says their goal is to provide toilets to 200,000 people. Their standard is 50 people per toilet.

The very best metrics here are simple: How many toilets were destroyed? How many delivered? And how many people are using each one? But that’s not how the working group calculates its impact. They calculate success by what percentage of their goal they’ve reached. According to their reports, they’re at zero percent so far. Even before the hurricane hit, 32 to 50% of defecation in the region was outdoors. So this is the humanitarian response: 2.1 million Haitians get 4,000 toilets for a period of three months, maybe? When you put it that way, it sounds silly and inadequate. Which it is. Which is probably why they don’t put it that way.

Bottom line: the goal of the humanitarian intervention is not to make Haiti better than it was before. At best, it is only to get Haiti back up to pre-hurricane levels of sanitation. To humanitarians, this probably seems like an obvious point. Ordinary people have no idea that this is how aid works. Donors assume their donations will improve the living conditions of Haitians. They believe aid improves lives because of the word “help,” which they are frequently implored to do. No reasonable person believes that getting Haiti back to their terrible pre-hurricane living conditions is a truly moral intervention. For most of us, “help” means improving lives over time.

A Numbers Game

Many aid organizations contribute to the public’s misunderstanding by overstating their goals and impact. “ARRIVED,” USAID reports on Twitter, “38 metric tons of chlorine we sent 2 #Haiti to help stop the spread of #cholera. It’s enough 2 treat Haitian water system for 3 mos.” That would be great, except almost none of the people impacted by the hurricane were even on the Haitian water system to begin with (1.2% in the Grande Anse, 7.3 to 10% in Nippes and Sud). Without providing context, USAID is making a completely meaningless claim.


Similarly, on their website, the French organization ACTED reports they installed six water filtration units in Haiti. “The Aquaforce 500 units provide from 40 to 50 m3 [cubic meters] of drinking water per day,” they report. “The six water purification units allow some 12,000 people daily to drink safe water…” Wow, sounds impressive!

Wait, what is a cubic meter of water? I dare you to ask your neighbor how much water this is. Probably, the people who wrote the press release don’t even know. I looked it up. Forty to 50 cubic meters is equal to 40,000 to 50,000 liters. For Americans, this is between 10,000 and 13,000 gallons of water. So everyone gets five gallons of water every day? If only it were that simple. I researched the filtration system, the Aquaforce 500, and discovered its rate of water production. In a perfect world, if the water is not too dirty, it can deliver 528 gallons per hour.

For 2,000 people to get five gallons of water per day from one Aquaforce 500 machine, they would have to run each filtration system for 19 hours a day. Each hour, 106 people would have to line up. ACTED shows a photo that indicates the machine has six spigots. That means about 17 people would stand at each spigot, and to get five gallons, they would all take exactly 3.5 minutes. It’s highly improbable that any of that will happen. The Aquaforce 500 may be capable of producing 10,000 gallons of water per day, but it definitely won’t be delivering that much. Right now in Haiti, there are less than 12 hours of daylight each day. People don’t have flashlights. They’re not going to be standing in line from 5 a.m. to midnight.

The Need for a New Lens…

While it seems like ACTED is reporting what they delivered, they’re not. To do that, they would have to count how much water is processed through the machine each day and how many people drank the water. Like many organizations, they are reporting their intent. By doing so, they are making people believe that their donation is going much further than it really is. Metric tons, millions of dollars, “people reached” and cubic meters are nonsensical units of measurement chosen because they sound impressive. No one should have to use a calculator to figure out how much humanitarian aid is actually being delivered.

When journalists report that people in Haiti are thirsty and they are dying because the water is so dirty, many critics claim they are focusing too much on the “disaster narrative.” When journalists go to great lengths to investigate non-profit organizations, officials often demean their efforts by claiming they’re on a “witch hunt.” While it may be true in some cases, for the most part, journalists are doing nothing of the sort. Journalists are watching Haitians die and they are trying to make sense of their observations in a world dominated by a powerful, false “hero” mythology cultivated by the aid organizations themselves.

If the humanitarian industry wants to survive, they need to admit that “accountability” is not about data, evidence or reporting. They are already reporting data, most of it is meaningless. Bold claims to “innovate” through technology or technical standards won’t fix the problem. This is about ethics. Aid organizations are not meeting their ethical obligation to donors and to the communities they serve because they refuse to communicate with them in an understandable way.

If they want to live up to their own moral promise to “help,” they need to turn their focus back to real people and report their activities through the lens of people in need. When my friends look at the stories coming out of Haiti with heartbreak and desperation, they ask me, “What happened to the money we already donated?” I would love to know. We all would.

Billions of Aid Dollars Spent: Why Isn’t Haiti Ready for a Hurricane?

As Hurricane Matthew barrels toward Haiti, millions of Haitians are at risk of death, displacement, injury or illness. Sustained wind speeds inside the storm are up to 138 mph, making Matthew a Category 4 hurricane. In the past, Category 1 storms have caused significant deaths in Haiti, so this storm may be one of the worst ever to hit the island nation.

Haiti is no stranger to hurricanes. Since 1980, there was Allen, Gilbert, Gordon, Georges, Ivan, Dennis, Gustav, Hanna, Ike and Tomas. Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 killed thousands. The threat is known. So why do hundreds of people die each time a major storm hits? Why isn’t Haiti better prepared? What happens to the money we donate?

1. Very little aid money goes to disaster preparedness and prevention.

Globally, the humanitarian sector took in $28 billion last year, the highest amount ever recorded. With climate change on the horizon, disaster preparedness should be a priority spending area. It’s not. On average, only about four percent of all humanitarian aid is dedicated to preparedness. This holds true for Haiti, where prevention received only 3.5% of funding from 2009 to 2013.

Only about four percent of all humanitarian aid is dedicated to preparedness.

In reality, we have no idea how much money goes to prevention and preparedness. “Following the money” in humanitarian aid is currently impossible. Preparedness, as a subset of aid, is even more opaque. Despite the reams of data and reports generated by aid groups, there is no universal tracking code for prevention projects.  

2. Most aid money doesn’t go to local governments or local groups.

Real disaster preparedness requires long-term investments and local cooperation. But aid organizations and foreign governments routinely refuse to fund local governments or groups that they perceive to be corrupt or incompetent. Unfortunately, corrupt countries with incompetent governments are usually the most in need. 

Foreign groups often sidestep locals, even the very skilled and non-corrupt, because it is faster and simpler. As a result, projects either don’t get off the ground or they fail. In 2015, local and national organizations received only 0.4% of all direct humanitarian assistance. Domestic authorities in recipient countries received only 1.2% of international funds.

This funding pattern sets in motion a destructive cycle as year after year, the big money is spent on foreigners and consultants while locals are no better trained or positioned to take over when they leave. In Haiti, the classic example is deforestation, which contributes to flooding. Organizations spend millions on efforts to plant trees, but the real trick is convincing people not to cut them down. Most environmental aid projects in Haiti last less than five years and have no follow-up.

3. People don’t donate to prevention.

Humanitarian response is reactive, in part, because funding is reactive. Giving is emotional and irrational. If people can’t see the problem, it isn’t likely to garner support. In the recent Syrian refugee crisis, people were motivated to donate only after they saw photos of Alan Kurdi, the drowned baby who washed up on a Turkish beach.

Consider the slogan, “Build Back Better.” The emphasis is on what is already broken.

Similarly, governments give more to countries who are nearby, speak the same language or with whom they have a colonial relationship. We give money because of headlines or politics. We don’t give based on the efficiency of our donation.

Disaster preparedness is too abstract for people to take out their wallets. Even when someone says, “Hey, if you give $5 now, you’ll save more lives and money in the long run…” people just aren’t inclined to do it. Consider the slogan, “Build Back Better.” The emphasis is on what is already broken. A more pragmatic slogan would be, “Build Better.” It’s not likely to catch on.

4. Aid organizations spend massive amounts of money on emergency response, much more than people imagine.

Because giving is impulsive, donors typically don’t ask for rigorous explanations of how their donations were spent after disasters. They give money and then forget about it. When they do follow-up, donors are satisfied with a few photos and metrics showing evidence of “impact.” As a result, most aid organizations take on tasks that are imminently achievable. They spend their money on emergency response, which is very expensive.

Spending money is the best way to make money because big aid organizations raise most of their funds in the midst of crises, not ahead of them. Imagine how much it costs to go to the emergency room for a chronic disease instead of getting a vaccine. The problem is, disasters sell. Not being prepared is a waste of money, but ultimately the humanitarian aid sector doesn’t operate off any sort of logical model of cost vs. benefit.

5. The voices of aid recipients aren’t being heard.

Right now, the concept of “accountability” is almost entirely driven by organizations’ interactions with their donors, not aid recipients. Most organizations say, “What can we give?” instead of “What do you need?” Local people want preventative solutions to their problems, but their voices aren’t being heard. Aid recipients are poor, they are not politically influential, they have little access to the media and therefore, they are invisible. Often, it is only through their death that they are noticed at all.

Ethicists suggest that the humanitarian industry start thinking of “donations” as “investments” because donors, at their core, do want their money to improve many lives, instead of saving just a few. These ongoing cycles of death and desperation, followed by a manic humanitarian response, erode trust in the system. 

When disaster preparedness finally gets the attention it deserves, it won’t be because prevention makes more sense or is easier to sell. Humanitarian organizations must shift their ethical commitment to focus on local communities simply because it is the right thing to do


  • Put ethics first. For some issues, financial and practical arguments will never sway the marketplace. Aid organizations need to focus on prevention and local communities because their value systems demand it.
  • Donors need to give more, sooner.  If we wait for babies to wash up on beaches, it’s too late.
  • Give to groups who have a long-term track record in the country. And not to groups who are planning to leave when the journalists do. 
  • Listen to local voices. In surveys during the Ebola response, the organization Ground Truth Solutions found more than 80% of aid recipients felt their needs weren’t met. In Nepal, they found similar negative perceptions. People want sustainable solutions.
  • Dedicate a fixed percentage of aid funding for disaster prevention and preparedness. Every organization, large or small, can do this.
  • Track the money so that communities know where aid dollars are going. This means using universal codes like IATI for the type of response and sharing that data publicly.
  • Give more money to local groups and governments.



Cholera in Haiti: UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

Note from Aid.Works:

The text of the “Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights” written by Philip Alston is taken from an optical scan of the document, which was obtained by journalist Jonathan M. Katz two months ahead of its planned date of publication. Katz subsequently shared the document via the New York Times Magazine on August 19, 2016. This is not a final version of the report. If you note errors in transcription, please comment below. Footnotes are excluded but can be found on the original document.

The two photos shared here picture Claudette Brianvil, the first known cholera victim in Port-au-Prince. She was a mother of four. She died on November 9, 2010.  The photos are not an original part of the report.

Claudette Brianvil became suddenly ill then died of cholera, Cite Soleil, Haiti in 2010.

Claudette Brianvil became suddenly ill then died of cholera, Cite Soleil, Haiti in 2010.

Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

Seventy-first session
Item 68b of the provisional agenda
Promotion and protection of human rights: Human rights questions, including alternative approaches for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms

Note by the Secretary-General

The Secretary-General has the honour to transmit to the General Assembly the report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, submitted in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 26/3.


Cholera arrived in Haiti in October 2010, soon after the arrival of a new contingent of United Nations peacekeepers from a cholera-infected region. The scientific evidence now points overwhelmingly to the responsibility of the peacekeeping mission as the source of the outbreak. 9,145 persons have so far died and almost 730,000 have been infected. To date, the United Nations has denied responsibility for the outbreak, rejected all claims for compensation, refused to establish any procedure to resolve the resulting disputes, and has relied upon a claim of absolute immunity in defending litigation brought by victims. This policy of abdicating responsibility relies on a claim of scientific uncertainty that is no longer sustainable and an unpublished legal opinion that the resulting claims are not “of a private law nature” and are thus not receivable. Based on what is known of the legal analysis, it is deeply flawed.

The UN’s policy is morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating. It is also entirely unnecessary. In practice, it jeopardizes the immunity by encouraging arguments calling for it to be reconsidered by national courts; it upholds a double standard according to which the UN insists that Member States respect human rights, while rejecting any such responsibility for itself; it leaves the UN vulnerable to eventual claims for damages and compensation in this and subsequent cases which are highly unlikely to be settled on terms that are manageable from the perspective; it provides highly-combustible fuel for those who claim that UN peace-keeping operations trample on the rights of those being protected; and it undermines both the overall credibility and the integrity of the Office of the Secretary-General.

This report outlines why a new approach is urgently needed and suggests what it might look like in broad outline. The starting point is that there should be an apology and acceptance of responsibility in the name of the Secretary-General. Consideration then needs to be given to constructing a policy package to address the need for compensation to the victims.


I. Introduction
A. The role of the Special Rapporteur
B. The approach of the report

II. The source of the outbreak, and the United Nations’ response
A. The scientific evidence
B. The United Nations’ response
C. The United Nations’ legal response
D. Responses to the United Nations position
E. The role of States

III. Addressing the major concerns
A. Agreed principles
B. Arguments against accountability

IV. Why the United Nations’ position needs to change

V. The Way Forward

I. Introduction

1. This report, on the responsibility of the United Nations in relation to cholera in Haiti, is submitted in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 26/3.

2. Cholera arrived in Haiti in October 2010, just a few days after the arrival of a new contingent of peacekeepers to join the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). They had come from a country in which an identical strain of the disease was prevalent. More than 9,000 persons have so far died in Haiti as a result of the epidemic that ensued. The scientific evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the arrival of Nepalese peacekeepers and the outbreak of cholera are directly linked to one another. But the United Nations has never acknowledged its responsibility for the outbreak, rejected all claims for compensation, refused to establish any procedure to resolve the disputes over its responsibility, and relied upon a claim of absolute immunity in litigation brought by victims seeking redress in United Slams courts after having blocked all other attempts at resolution, In essence, the United Nations has proceeded as though its responsibilities are limited to containing the epidemic, rather than recognizing its responsibility towards all those who have died or been affected by the disease. To justify this policy of abdicating responsibility, the United Nations has relied solely on an undisclosed internal legal opinion, the thrust of which has been divulged, but the tent of which presumably remains confidential. In the view of the Special Rapporteur, and of the vast majority of expert commentators, the legal approach adopted by the Organization is deeply flawed.

3. The Special Rapporteur considers that the United Nations’ existing approach of simply abdicating responsibility is morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating. The abdication approach is not only unsustainable, it is also entirely unnecessary. There are powerful reasons why the Secretary-General should urgently adopt a new approach, one that respects the human rights of the victims, while protecting United Nations’ immunity, honoring its commitment to the rule of law, and upholding the integrity of the peacekeeping system.

A. The role of the Special Rapporteur

4. The present report is submitted by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Cholera has proven to be a major challenge for the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Haiti ranks 163rd out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index for 2015, and United Nations Development Programme estimates that over 42 per cent of its population live in or near multidimensional poverty. World Bank figures are even more distressing, indicating that more than 6 million (59%) Haiti’s population, of 10.4 million live under the national poverty line of US $2.42 per day and over 2.5 million live under the national extreme poverty line of US $1.23 per day.

5. Cholera has thus far infected at least 4% of Haiti’s entire population. It has had its greatest impact on those living in poverty who are poorly placed to cope with the consequences of the disease or to take the precautions necessary to reduce the risks involved. It has also diverted scarce resources in an already impoverished country.

6. The motivation for preparing the report arises from the previous joint efforts by the Special Rapporteur in close collaboration with four other mandate-holders — those concerned with Haiti, health, housing, and water and sanitation. While this report is not jointly authored, it builds upon the shared concerns of this group of mandate-holders and seeks to expand upon the positions that they have jointly expressed in previous statements. The mandate-holders drew strong encouragement from a letter sent to them on 25 February 2016 by the Deputy Secretary-General in which he welcomed their “offer to engage further on this matter and discuss what further steps the United Nations could take, in keeping with its mandates, to assist the victims of cholera and their communities.” After consultation with each of the relevant mandate-holders it was decided that a focused report to the General Assembly by the Special Rapporteur could help advance this dialogue.

B. The approach of the report

7. The report is based upon human rights principles and attaches particular importance to obligations to respect rights, to provide remedies, and to ensure accountability. But the Special Rapporteur recognizes that arguments based on human rights or international law often do not suffice to convince Member States, or even the United Nations to take the necessary steps. Human rights reports too often assume that pointing to international norms and asserting obligations is all that is required to bring about a fundamental change of policy on the part of governments or international organizations. The reality is usually much more complex. Those in authority need also to be convinced of the unsustainability and costliness of existing policies, and of the feasibility of change.

8. The report thus also relies on arguments rooted in pragmatism and self-interest. It adopts this approach not only for strategic reasons, nor because many legal analyses of the issues have already been published, but because its goal is to convince the key actors that a policy reversal is essential, entirely feasible and can be set in train immediately.

9. The arguments that arise most consistently, and seem to have the greatest purchase, are those based on fears that accepting responsibility might undermine the immunity, jeopardize its financial viability, have a negative impact on future peacekeeping, create bad precedents, or embroil the Organization in endless litigation.

10. In contrast, the starting point of this report is to underscore that the existing abdication approach cannot be justified by invoking fundamental principles and claiming that these would be jeopardized if the United Nations accepts responsibility. As exclaimed below acceptance of responsibility can protect rather than undermine United Nations’ immunity. Formal acceptance of human rights principles by the Organization is but somehow problematic, third party liability is not a concept that is alien to the United Nations, and remedies can be provided without opening a Pandora’s Box.

11. The report seeks to assuage these fears and to identify a way forward that upholds the human rights of the Haitian people, while also saving the United Nations from a singularly self-destructive approach which is undermining its legitimacy and credibility.

12. First, however, because United Nations officials have consistently disputed the issue, it is necessary to review the scientific evidence that establishes MINUSTAH as the source responsible for introducing cholera into Haiti and to demonstrate that the legal arguments invoked by the United Nations to abdicate responsibility are wholly unconvincing.

II. The source of the outbreak, and the United Nations’ response

13. Haiti’s first ever cholera outbreak began in mid-October 2010. Many scholars have repeated the claim made by the Independent Panel of on the Cholera Outbreak in Haiti (the ‘Independent Experts’) that this was the first time in 100 years that cholera had occurred in Haiti, but in fact there is no record of cholera ever having previously been in Haiti. As of 28 May 2016, United Nations figures recorded 9,145 deaths from cholera and 779,212 persons infected. Scientific studies have also claimed that the actual mortality rate is almost certainly substantially higher than reported. Between January and April 2016, 150 new deaths occurred, an increase of 18% over the same period in 2015.

A. The scientific evidence

14. Starting on October 8, 2010 a contingent of Nepalese peacekeepers, who had completed their training in Kathmandu at the time of a cholera outbreak there, arrived at MINUSTAH’s Annapurna Camp in Mirebalais, Haiti. Within days, a few villagers living in Meye who drew their water them a stream close to the camp toilets were infected. Byway of explanation, later investigations revealed that on 16 or 17 October a sanitation company under contract to MINISTAH emptied the camp’s waste tanks. Because the septic pit into which the waste should have been deposited was full, “the driver dumped the contents and a large amount of fecal waste entered the local stream and flowed on to the Artibonite River. By the next morning, many in communities were infected.”

15. As the magnitude of the disaster became known, key international officials carefully avoided acknowledging that the outbreak had resulted from discharges from the MINUSTAH camp. The implication that cholera had come from elsewhere also drew support from an environmental theory suggested by some scientific observers according to which the cholera microbe is naturally present in many backwater settings and can be activated by environmental shocks such as the earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010 or by unusually heavy rains. Nevertheless, most scientific and media sources rejected this theory and placed the blame clearly upon the peacekeepers.

16. In order to resolve the controversy, the Secretary-General, to his credit, established the Panel of Independent Experts in January 2011. In its May 2011 report, the Panel expressly rejected the environmental theory. Instead, it found that “the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the source of the Haiti cholera outbreak was due to contamination of the Maya Tributary of the Artibonite River with a pathogenic strain of current South Asian type Vibrio cholerae as a result of human activity”. If the experts had left it at that, the conclusion would have been that peacekeepers were responsible for the outbreak. But they went on to claim that the dumping of feces alone “could not have been the source of such an outbreak without simultaneous water and sanitation and health care system deficiencies…, coupled with conducive environmental and epidemiological conditions…”. By adding this observation the experts suggested that nature, as well as Haiti’s under-development, were also to blame. This enabled them to reach their ultimate conclusion that the “outbreak was caused by the confluence of circumstances…, and was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual.”
17. In response to the controversy provoked by this ambiguous and inconsistent assessment the Panel published a follow-up article in 2013 seeking to clarify their view that “the preponderance of the evidence and the weight of the circumstantial evidence does lead to the conclusion that personnel associated with the Mirebalais MINUSTAI facility were the most likely source of introduction of cholera into Haiti.” They also noted that their scientific language had been accurately translated in a newspaper report that stated their conclusion as being that the outbreak “was almost certainly caused by a poorly constructed sanitation system installed at a rural camp used by several hundred UN troops from Nepal.” They went on to explain why they asserted that no-one was at fault: “we do not feel that this was a deliberate introduction of cholera into Haiti”. Rather, it was “an accidental and unfortunate confluence of events”.

B. The United Nations’ response

18. For the most part, the question of who bears responsibility for bringing cholera to Haiti has been systematically side-stepped in United Nations analyses. The first technique has been to take refuge in the passive voice whereby readers are told that ‘cholera emerged,’ or ‘a severe outbreak of cholera was confirmed,’ or as Assistant Secretary-General and Senior Coordinator for Cholera Response, Pedro Medrano wrote to the mandate-holders in 2014, cholera ‘occurred’. In other words, it just happened, and no scientific or technical explanation is needed. Another technique has been to invoke the need to move beyond the past and instead focus on the future. The past is seen neither as a vital element in devising effective policies for the future, nor as a dimension that needs to be understood if non-repetition is to be promoted. A third approach has been to replace the term ‘responsibility’ by ‘blame’ and to then portray the ‘blame game’ as unhelpful, distracting, unanswerable, or divisive, and thus to be avoided. For example, although the Panel was appointed precisely to “investigate and seek to determine the source” of the outbreak, the bottom line of their analysis was that the source was “no longer relevant to controlling the outbreak.” It was therefore time to look ahead and focus instead on preventive measures.

19. Although the report by the Panel has been central to the arguments made by United Nations officials in response to calls for it to accept responsibility, the approach taken by the United Nations has been inconsistent and somewhat unpredictable, in some contexts, the Panel’s conclusions have been challenged and their recommendations rejected; in others, their finding of no fault has been endorsed and heavily relied upon.

20. Immediately after the publication of the Panels’ report in May 2011, a United Nations spokesperson was dismissive of the report on the grounds that it did “not present any conclusive scientific evidence linking the outbreak to the MINUSTAH peacekeepers or the Mirebalais camp.” Senior officials have continued to rely on this defence. The more detailed and official response provided to the Special Procedures mandate-holders in November 2014 in a letter from Assistant Secretary-General Medrano took a different tack, however. Although the letter is long and detailed, it curiously makes no mention of the Panel’s principal finding, which was that that “the source of the Haiti cholera outbreak was due to contamination of the Meye Tributary of the Artibonite River with a pathogenic strain of current South Asian type Vibrio cholerae as a result of human activity”. In other words, MINUSTAH was indeed the source. Instead, after citing the panel’s reference to poor water and sanitation conditions and inadequate medical facilities, he suggests that the main outcome of the inquiry was the statement that the outbreak “was not the fault of, or due to deliberate action by, a group or individual.” Similarly, a regularly updated Fact Sheet describing “United Nations follow-up to the [Panel’s] recommendations” continues to make no mention of the Panel’s principal conclusion in relation to MINUSTAH. It has virtually been airbrushed out of the picture.

21. It is also noteworthy that having so enthusiastically embraced the Panel’s no fault statement, the United Nations effectively rejected some of its other key suggestions for screening and prophylaxis, an approach strongly challenged by a recent expert report.

22. Because the position taken by United Nations officials relies heavily on the claim that there remains doubt as to the source of the cholera outbreak and invokes the Panel’s report in support, it is appropriate both to assess the validity of the panel’s consistently cited assessment and to consider more recent scientific assessments. Before doing so it should be noted that there is a fundamental inconsistency in the Panel’s conclusions. After stating clearly that “the source of the Haiti cholera outbreak was due to contamination…”, the report goes on to say that “[t]he introduction of this cholera strain as a result of environmental contamination with feces could not have been the source of such an outbreak without simultaneous water and sanitation and health care system deficiencies.” Presumably, the Panel intended to say that the contamination could not alone have been the sole cause, had there not been deficiencies in the environment into which the feces were released. But that is not in fact what the report states.

23. From a legal perspective, there are essential flaws in the reasoning of the Panel in finding no fault. First, the experts’ conclusion that the MINUSTAH base was the source makes it very difficult to then conclude that no individual or group was at fault. Second, the experts provide no analysis whatsoever to support their no fault assertion. Third and most importantly, the Panel’s report adopts a scientific rather than a legal approach, but this does not prevent them from purporting to offer a legal conclusion that no fault can be found, although they neither identify any legal standard nor undertake any legal assessment of evidence. The explanation they subsequently provided – that they did not “feel” that cholera was “deliberately” introduced – completely fails to mention let alone address the central issue of negligence which lies at the heart of the legal issue of fault in this case. These flaws clearly invalidate the no fault finding on which the United Nations has consistently sought to rely so heavily in order to avoid responsibility.

24. Finally, as noted above, the Panel sought to mitigate the responsibility by noting that the outbreak was due not to one single event but rather to a “confluence of circumstances”, including deficient water, sanitation and health care systems. But again, apart from being inconsistent with the principal finding that MINUSTAH was indeed responsible, this construction conflates responsibility for bringing cholera to Haiti on the one hand with the country’s vulnerability on the other hand. The fact is that cholera would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations.

25. In the more than five years since the Independent Panel of Experts submitted their report in May 2011 there have been many scientific studies that have evaluated the evidence and have added new elements to what was known at that time. It is beyond the scope of the present report to recount the analyses and conclusions of the various studies, but this task has been undertaken systematically in a book published in Jane 2016. Its author, Ralph R. Frerichs, is Professor Emeritus of Epidemiology at UCLA and the book provides a painstaking and even-handed assessment of the scientific debates that have taken place. For present purposes, it must suffice to note that the book concludes that the peacekeepers were responsible for bringing cholera. In doing so, it systematically vindicates the conclusions reached by one of the first international experts on cholera to investigate the outbreak in Haiti, Dr. Renaud Piarroux. It also depletes what it describes as a “misinformation campaign to protect the UN and the peacekeeping program.”

26. The bottom line is that continued United Nations reliance on the argument that the scientific evidence is ambiguous or unclear as a way of avoiding responsibility is no longer tenable. It might possibly have been defensible in 2010 or even 2011, but subsequent research has provided as clear a demonstration of responsibility as is scientifically possible. If the United Nations chooses to continue to contest this conclusion, it should establish an independent inquiry without delay.

27. On 3 November 2011, a petition was lodged with MINUSTAH on behalf of some 5,000 cholera victims claiming: (i) a fair and impartial hearing; (ii) monetary compensation; (iii) preventive action by the United Nations; and (iv) a public acknowledgement of United Nations responsibility and a public apology. Sixteen months later the Under Secretary-General for Legal Affairs replied. The letter noted that “[t]he United Nations is extremely saddened by the catastrophic outbreak of cholera, and the Secretary-General has expressed his profound sympathy for the terrible suffering caused by the cholera outbreak.” It went on to make what seems to be an indirect reference to the theory that the earthquake that occurred nine months earlier was the real culprit: “The cholera outbreak was not only an enormous national disaster, but was also a painful reminder of Haiti’s vulnerability in the event of a national emergency.” After recalling the Independent Panel’s “confluence of circumstances” and no fault findings, the letter deemed the claims “not receivable pursuant to Section 29 of the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations”. That provision requires the United Nations to provide for modes of settlement of disputes of a private law character to which it is a party, but the Under Secretary-General considered the claims not to be of a ‘private law character’ because their consideration “would necessarily include a review of political and policy matters.”

28. The claimants challenged the non-receivability finding and requested either mediation or a meeting to discuss the matter. In July 2013, the Under Secretary-General wasted no words in dismissing such requests: “in relation to your request for the engagement of a mediator, there is no basis for such engagement in connection with claims that are not receivable. As these claims are not receivable, I do not consider it necessary to meet and further discuss this matter.” Left with no further recourse within the United Nations, the claimants filed a class action suit in October 2013 with the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. In January 2015, the court ruled that the defendants were immune from suit. The claimants subsequently appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit whose judgment is currently awaited.

29. While the brevity of the present report precludes a detailed legal analysis, the basic principles are clear. The United Nations has long accepted that, as an attribute of its international legal personality, it can incur obligations and liabilities of a private law nature. It also recognizes its international responsibility for damages caused by the activities of UN forces within this framework. General Assembly Resolution 52/247 (1998) on third-party liability sets up a special regime to deal with third party claims in the context of peacekeeping missions, although it sets temporal, financial and other limitations to that liability.

30. Claims of a ‘private law character’ are also referred to in the MINUSTAH Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which defines them as “third party claims for property loss or damage and for personal injury, illness death arising from or directly attributed to MINUSTAH”. In elaborating on this category, the Secretary-General has stated that claims received in the past include “claims for compensation submitted by third parties for personal injury or death and/or property loss or damage incurred as a result of acts committed by members of a United Nations peace-keeping operation within the ‘mission area’ concerned.” Such claims are distinguished from those “based on political or policy-related grievances against the United Nations, usually related to actions or decisions taken by the Security Council or the General Assembly”, and which often “consist of rambling statements denouncing the policies of the Organization” and claiming that financial losses resulted therefrom.

31. Claims received in the context of peacekeeping operations are often solved amicably but the United Nations keeps all such matters confidential. A former official responsible for such claims over a ten year period identified only one other case of non-receivability on these grounds, which related to Kosovo. That case was also referred to in the United Nations’ 2014 letter to the Special Procedures mandate-holders. It involved a claim for damages resulting from lead contamination in camps established by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The claims were rejected by the United Nations on the grounds that they amounted to a review of the performance of UNMIK’s mandate. The 2014 letter also notes two other cases in which the United Nations has rejected claims. One was against UNAMIR in Rwanda for failing to protect victims of the 1994 genocide and the other was against UNPROFOR for failing to protect the inhabitants of Srebrenica in 1995.

32. It has been suggested to the Special Rapporteur by several sources that the legal advice originally submitted to the Secretary-General took a rather different approach to these crucial issues from that which was finally adopted, but this cannot be confirmed since none of the Office’s analyses have been made public. If true, however, it might explain why the arguments adduced in order to abdicate responsibility are both per peremptory and inadequately justified.

33. In the view of the Special Rapporteur, and of most scholars, the legal arguments supporting the claim of non-receivability are wholly unconvincing in legal terms. First, the claims appear to have all of the characteristics of a private law tort claim. The victims accuse the United Nations of negligence for failure to adequately screen its peacekeeping forces for cholera, failure to provide for adequate sanitation facilities and waste management at Mirebalais camp, failure to undertake adequate water quality testing and a failure to take immediate corrective action after cholera was introduced. These are classic third party claims for damages for personal injury, illness and death, and they arise directly from action or inaction by, or attributable to, MINUSTAH. This would include a failure to exercise non-negligent supervision of the actions of private contractors. The United Nations has frequently processed claims involving alleged negligence, especially for example in relation to traffic accidents.

34. Second, the duties owed by the United Nations are directly analogous to those owed by a company or private property carrier to ensure adequate waste management and to take adequate precautions to prevent spreading diseases.

35. Third, the contention that receipt of the claims would “necessarily involve a review of political and policy matters” is self-serving and unjustified. The claims are far from being ‘political’ in the sense defined by the Secretary-General in 1995 as those, targeting actions or decisions of political organs, nor are they rambling denunciations. In terms of policies, it is true that waste management and other such internal policies might need to be reviewed, but if that prospect is enough to trigger non-receivability it would become effectively impossible ever to claim damages from the United Nations.

36. Fourth, the Haiti case is clearly distinguishable from the Rwanda and Srebrenica claims, both of which alleged a failure by peacekeepers to fulfill the essence of their mandate and raised issues of operational judgment as opposed to a failure to avoid spreading a highly infectious and lethal disease. The Kosovo case is closer to the Haitian case, but might arguably be distinguished by the facts that UNMIK in Kosovo Operated as an interim administration, and that the United Nations should not be held responsible for contamination which pre-dated its arrival. It is noteworthy that the non-receivability classification did not prevent the Human Rights Advisory Panel established by the United Nations to examine cases of alleged human rights violations in Kosovo from holding in 2016 that “UNMIK was responsible for compromising irreversibly the life, health and development potential” of the child complainants.

D. Responses to the United Nations position

37. Although the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, called publicly in 2013 for the Haiti victims to be compensated, the abdication approach has otherwise prevailed in the ranks of United Nations officials, under the watchful of the Office of Legal Affairs.

38. In contrast, Special Procedures mandate-holders have been consistently critical of the refusal to take responsibility. In particular, successive Independent Experts on the human rights situation in Haiti have warned since 2012 of the costs of silence and denial on this issue. In 2016 the Independent Expert called for the urgent creation of a commission “to quantify the harm done, establish compensation, identify responsible parties, halt the epidemic and take other measures…”.

39. The global media has been systematically critical of the United Nations. For example, The Economist has accused the United Nations of dodging its responsibility, the New York Times argues that it has “failed to face up to its role in [Haiti’s] continuing tragedy,” Business Insider has referred to the cholera Outbreak as “the UN’s Watergate”, the Washington Post has commented that “by refusing to acknowledge responsibility, the United Nations jeopardizes its standing and moral authority.”

40. Even some of the Organization’s traditional supporters have argued that it’s “peacekeeping brand has been stained indelibly by three major sins”, which are sexual misconduct, the negligence involved in bringing cholera to Haiti, and “the abject failure of the United Nations to own up to these lapses, and to respond to them in an effective, principled way.”

41. Scholars have criticized the United Nations’ “shabby formalistic maneuvers to avoid the very principles of the Rule of Law that they urge on the rest of the world,” its “preposterous” failure to provide a remedy, its pursuit of “peacekeeping without accountability”, its compounding of a public health disaster with a public relations disaster, its dangerous “legalism” which effectively insulate the organization from accountability”, and its “repeated failures … to provide adequate due process to those affected by its decision-making [which] has had a detrimental effect on the Organization and its activities.”

42. Among NGOs, Amnesty International has called upon the Secretary-General “to establish a fair, transparent and independent mechanism to hear the claims of cholera victims, and ensure redress, including compensation”. Human Rights Watch has been critical of the absence of any “independent adjudication of the facts surrounding the introduction of cholera and the question of the UN’s involvement”. And 34 NGOs have cited “overwhelming evidence that UN peacekeepers are responsible for the introduction of cholera to Haiti” as the basis on which to call upon the candidates for the post of Secretary-General to “pledge to ensure that victims of cholera in Haiti have access to fair remedies.”

E. The role of States

43. The OLA’s opinion has provided a convenient justification for States to avoid engagement on the UN’s responsibility for the cholera epidemic in Haiti. Although the Security Council authorized the deployment of peacekeepers to Haiti and regularly reviews the status of the mission, it has notably failed to address the issue of the responsibility for the introduction of cholera. In June 2016 a bipartisan group of 158 members of the United States Congress stated that “each day that passes without an appropriate U.N. response is a tragedy for Haitian cholera victims and a stain on the U.N.’s reputation”, and called upon the United States Secretary of State to the United Nations to compensate the victims. Leading newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe, endorsed this call to focus on the misdeeds of the United Nations. Yet there is much to be said for the view that without the acquiescence, if not the active support, of the United States and other Security Council members, the abdication approach would not have been adopted by the United Nations.

44. While the United Nations has been keen to emphasize how much it has done in Haiti, the reality in that Member States have so far agreed to contribute only 18% of the $2.2 billion required to implement the National Plan for the Elimination of Cholera in Haiti 2013-2022.

III. Addressing the major concerns

A. Agreed principles

45. Before addressing the major practical concerns that have been used to justify the abdication approach, it is important to emphasize that there is broad agreement in relation to the key principles that are at stake, even if controversy remains about their application.

46. First, it is generally agreed that the principle of United Nations immunity is a vitally important one and that any initiative by the Organization to accept responsibility for the cholera outbreak should uphold that principle.

47. Second, it is agreed that United Nations actions should comply with human rights standards. As Assistant Secretary-General Medrano informed the Special Procedures mandates holders, the United Nations seeks “to ensure that its peacekeeping operations and their personnel operate within the normative framework of international human rights law and are held accountable for alleged violations.”

48. Third, as noted above, the United Nations accepts in principle that it is liable to third parties for damages occurring in the course of its peacekeeping operations. As the Secretary-General has written, “[t]he undertaking to settle disputes of a private law nature submitted against it and the practice of actual settlement of such third-party claims … evidence the recognition on the part of the United Nations that liability for damage caused by members of United Nations forces is attributable to the Organization.”

49. Fourth, it is recognised in the 1946 Convention, in the SOFA, and in United Nations practice, that appropriate remedies should be provided where disputes arise in relation to liability for acts of a private character.

50. Given the extent to which there is agreement on this legal framework, the puzzle is why the current position of the United Nations remains so very distant from the outcome that these principles seem to require. In essence, there are two reasons. The first is the determination to abide by the (unpublished) legal opinion that declares the claim not to be of a private character. For the reasons explained above, this opinion should be reconsidered and revised. The second reason is the failure to openly acknowledge and clearly address a range of background considerations which have fueled fears that have apparently deterred the various actors from seeking to resolve the problem in a principled manner. The report turns now to examine these matters.

B. Arguments against accountability

51. Issues of fundamental principle have not, as the preceding analysis demonstrated, been at the heart of the concerns of those supporting the current abdication approach of the United Nations. Instead, a range of practical or instrumentalist concerns have been raised. These concerns are important, especially because they seem to explain the depth of the opposition to a policy which would conform to the ideals and fundamental principles of the United Nations and would accept responsibility and facilitate appropriate action.

1. Protecting absolute immunity

52. The immunity of the United Nations from suit in national courts is seen by most observers as an indispensable means of protecting it from political attacks, and avoiding putting it at the mercy of unpredictable and perhaps ill-intentioned or hostile national courts. But absolute immunity without the provision of alternative remedies is equally unsustainable, which is why the 1946 Convention provides for both immunity and remedies. In 2005, a review of peacekeeping recommended the waiver of immunity in relation to criminal acts “where continued immunity would impede the course of justice and where immunity can be waived without prejudice to the interests of the United Nations.” A similar principle should apply in the present context.

53. The irony of the United Nations’ position on cholera in Haiti is that far from strengthening its case for immunity it has provoked a backlash which has led scholars and commentators to call for immunity to be lifted, for only functional immunities to be recognized, or for national courts to adapt their approach to immunity to respect the human rights principle of access to a remedy. Support for these suggestions will only grow if an appropriate remedy is not provided in the Haiti cholera case. There is much to be said in favour of the argument supported by many scholars and invoked in the litigation that the absolute immunity conferred by Article 2 of the 1946 Convention is contingent upon respect for Article 29’s requirement that “appropriate modes of settlement” be provided by the United Nations.

2. Surrendering to the threat of litigation

54. Some officials and diplomats have suggested that although they would favor providing an appropriate remedy in this case, nothing can be done until the shadow of litigation has been lifted. To take action before then would only encourage many more suits designed to achieve the same result (the proverbial ‘floodgates’ would be opened). It follows that only when the pending suit by cholera victims in US court has been rejected and the immunity upheld can the matter be looked at in an objective and non-prejudicial light. But it seems likely that those invoking this argument are really counting on the fact that once the suit is dismissed, pressure to negotiate or reconsider will dissipate or even dissolve and stonewalling can confidently be resumed.

55. If the floodgates argument was in fact being invoked in good faith then it would augur very badly indeed for the United Nations since it would imply that there are actually many cases in which the Organization has unfairly refused to provide a remedy and that the United Nations will not budge unless litigation is initiated. In fact, if the current litigation is dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals the result will not be to put the lid on future litigation. Rather, such an outcome is likely to generate even more pressure on victims and advocates to try to persuade other authorities and courts in other countries that the United Nations’ immunity in such situations leads to an unconscionable result that needs somehow to be rectified.

3. Creating a bad precedent

56. A closely related argument is that “if the UN settles with private claimants or enters into dispute resolution processes that result in a finding that compensation is owed, it may have a chilling effect on the Organization”. But this suffers from the same infirmities as the floodgates argument. If United Nations’ practices in terms of third party liability are consistent and fair, and if claims are settled on a basis that is sustainable for the Organization, there is no reason why there would suddenly be a rash of claims that are not currently being pursued. The fear of creating a bad precedent is a classic argument to justify inaction in the face of injustice.

4. Penalizing troop contributing countries

57. Various observers have suggested that recognition of liability in a case such as cholera in Haiti would deter troop contributing countries (TCCs) from participating in future missions. But there are several problems with this analysis. First, the reputational damage caused to TCCs by the United Nations’ rejection of legitimate claims is surely even greater than that flowing from a just settlement. A festering sore is much worse than a wound that is healed. Second, those States that are generally keen to contribute troops will be less likely to be asked if their contingents remain under the shadow of unresolved allegations. Third, in line with the General Assembly’s 1995 resolution on third party liability, the principal burden of financial settlements that are reached in response to legitimate claims should fall upon the Organization itself and not upon the individual State. Thus the most effective way to address the fears of TCCs is to ensure that an insurance scheme is in place, whether set up internally or with an external insurer.

5. Undermining the financial viability of peacekeeping

53. Fears have been expressed that the success of the current litigation could ‘bankrupt’ the United Nations itself, or at least its peacekeeping operations. These fears reflect calculations based on the amounts claimed by the litigants before the United States courts: $100,000 for deceased victim and $50,000 for each victim who suffered illness and injury. Multiplied by the current official figures of 9,145 dead and 779,212 infected, potential liability, excluding claims for those certain to die and be infected in the years ahead, would amount to or almost $40 billion. Since this is almost five times the total annual budget for peacekeeping worldwide, it is a figure that is understandably seen as prohibitive and unrealistic. At a time of widespread budgetary austerity, shrinking support for multilateral development and humanitarian funding, and the prioritization of funding for the refugee crisis, it is perhaps not surprising that both the United Nations and Member States have in effect put the Haiti cholera case into the ‘too hard basket’ and opted to do nothing. 59. But again this is short-sighted and self-defeating. The figure of $40 billion should stand as a warning of the consequences that could follow if national courts become convinced that the abdication policy is not just unconscionable but also legally unjustified. The best way to avoid that happening is for the United Nations to offer an appropriate remedy. The present report is not the place to offer a detailed estimate of what that should look like or what it might cost. But there are certain guidelines and precedents that can helpfully be kept in mind in this context.

60. First, scholars have debated whether the optimal approach for the United Nations to take is one that proceeds from the principles of human rights or from the law of torts. For academic purposes, a rich debate can and has already been had around some of these issues. From the perspective of the United Nations, neither of these regimes fits the situation perfectly and elements can be drawn item both in shaping the best response.

61. Second, the General Assembly’s 1993 resolution on third party liability is of major relevance. It sets a temporal limitation for the submission of claims, but this may be extended by the Secretary-General in exceptional circumstances. Compensation payable for injury, illness or death is to be determined by reference to local compensation standards, but cannot exceed $50,000. Compensation is not payable either for non-economic loss or punitive or moral damages.

62. Third, various precedents exist for the United Nations to make one-time lump sum payments for damages caused by peacekeeping operations. An agreement reached with Belgium in 1965 involved acceptance of “financial liability where the damage is the result of action taken by agents of the United Nations in violation of the laws of war and the rules of international law”, but was stated to be “without prejudice to the privileges and immunities which the United Nations enjoys”. Similar were also entered into with Luxembourg in 1966 and Italy in 1967.

63. Fourth, different arrangements might be contemplated for cases of death than for those involving injury. Given the ongoing nature of the problem and the complexity of compensating all of those who became ill, a programmatic approach might be an important element in relation to the second category of victims.

64. Fifth, guidance might be drawn from important precedents for lump sum settlements at the national level. Relevant examples include the arrangements set up in the United States to compensate the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the USA-France agreement in 2014 to compensate Holocaust victims, and the Canadian Reparations Programme for the Indian Residential School System, created to redress the historical legacies of discrimination suffered by Aboriginal children attending those schools.

65. It is clear that the United Nations could make use of these various precedents in order to shape an approach to as part of a broader package that would provide justice to the victims and be affordable.

IV. Why the United Nations’ position needs to change

66. The Special Rapporteur has argued above that the major concerns that appear to underlie the abdication approach can all be addressed satisfactorily without jeopardizing any core interests of the United Nations or its Member States. But the case to he made in favour of action is actually much stronger than that conclusion might suggest. Thus, before outlining what a constructive and responsible approach might look like, it is important to highlight the positive reasons which argue strongly for an urgent change of policy.

67. Peacekeeping: This is an increasingly crucial part of the United Nations’ role in many parts of the world. Its potential to succeed depends on various factors, but pre-eminent among them are its legitimacy, credibility, and responsiveness. In Haiti, the reputation of MINUSTAH has been gravely tarnished by the cholera episode. And the message that the Organization is unprepared to accept responsibility for negligent conduct which gives rise to dire consequences, despite the fact that it has been definitively found guilty both in the scientific world and in the court of public opinion, will not have escaped other States that are contemplating agreeing to host or participate in peacekeeping operations. While there is a big difference between sexual abuse and negligent conduct, there is an important message for the United Nations in the Haiti context to be learned from the Independent Inquiry into sexual abuse in the Central African Republic. It warned that “[W]hen the international community fails to care for the victims or to hold the perpetrators to account” it amounts to a betrayal of trust.

68. The rule of law: The Secretary-General and the Deputy Secretary-General have given strong voice to the resolutions of the General Assembly underscoring the central importance of respecting the rule of law. Yet, the UN’s approach in this case undermines the rule of law and diminishes the UN’s credibility as an advocate for its respect. By failing to take even minimal steps to hold itself accountable and compensate those affected or even to explain the reasons for its refusal to do so, the UN replicates the very behaviour it seeks to modify elsewhere. The rule of law requires that the UN abide by its treaty obligations, including those under the SOFA, as well as fundamental human rights such as providing an effective remedy to those harmed by the Organization. It also requires that it act consistently and respond in comparable fashion to all legitimate private law claims made against it. The Organization should be leading by setting a good example.

69. Human rights: One of the most impressive human rights achievements in recent years emerged from a similar time of crisis Within the Organisation as a result of its role in the final months of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2010. In response to concerted criticism, the Secretary-General first commissioned an Internal Review Panel to explore whether the United Nations had met its responsibilities to prevent and respond to serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law. He then followed up by announcing his Human Rights up Front initiative which “aims to help the UN act more coherently across the pillars of the Organization’s work – peace and security, development, and human rights”. As the Deputy Secretary-General has noted, “Human Rights up Front is about improving how the UN system functions and how staff members are to perform.” Yet the refusal to address the human rights violations that have occurred in Haiti as a result of the cholera epidemic stands in stark contrast to the excellent intentions of that initiative. Unless action is taken, the message is that a double standard applies according to which the United Nations can insist that Member States respect human rights, while rejecting any such responsibility for itself even in a particularly egregious situation.

70. Remedies: The provision of remedies for wrongdoing is an essential dimension of the law relating to immunity, of human rights law, of the rule of law, and of the principle of accountability. The High Commissioner for Human Rights regularly and rightly admonishes states which refuse to provide a remedy to those whose human rights have been violated, yet in the Haiti case the United Nations has refused even to contemplate a range of remedies which could reasonably and feasibly be provided. Similarly, in the transitional justice context, the United Nations consistently calls upon States to acknowledge wrongdoing, to ensure meaningful processes for the vindication of claims, and to provide victims with redress. Yet in the Haiti case the victims are told that a handful of broadly-focused development projects should provide sufficient redress. Even in the context of armed conflicts, various United Nations bodies have urged States to provide forms of compensation, whether ex gratia or otherwise, to the killed or injured even though the legal obligation to provide such compensation is not uncontested.

71. The Office of the Secretary-General: It is vital that the integrity of the Office of the Secretary-General be upheld. The current Secretary-General has visited and grieved with cholera victims in Haiti, has talked of the Organization’s moral duty, and has generally expressed deep concern about the issue. But he has consistently stopped short of taking any of the steps that are required if the United Nations is to move beyond its policy of abdicating responsibility. From the outside, and to many on the inside, the reason seems to be that the legal advice given by the Office of Legal Affairs has been permitted to override all of the other considerations that militate so powerfully in favour of seeking a constructive and just solution. Rule by law, as interpreted by the Office, has trumped the rule of law.

72. In summary, what is at stake is the Organization’s overall credibility in many different areas. Its existing position on cholera in Haiti is at odds with the positions that it espouses so strongly in other key policy areas. It has a huge amount to gain by rethinking its position and a great deal to lose by stubbornly maintaining its current approach.

V. The Way Forward

73. The abdication approach has thrived because sterile legal formalism, facilitated by a failure to explore constructive options, has been permitted to prevail. But that approach is contrary to both the interests of justice and the interests of the United Nations.

74. There are strong grounds for now adopting a new approach. First, the element of doubt as to the United Nations’ responsibility for the introduction of cholera has been definitively removed. A series of studies and statements subsequent to the Independent Expert Panels’ report, as well as their own clarification, leave no reasonable doubt and the United Nations’ position must reflect that reality. A policy that might arguably have been justified in years gone by, is clearly no longer supported by the scientific facts.

75. Second, the existing policy was formulated some six years ago, and pays no heed to the important lessons that have emerged from both the Human Rights up Front initiative and the Panel report on the Central African Republic.

76. Third, there is new a much stronger commitment to taking the rule of law seriously in the context of the approach adopted within the United Nations itself, and this needs to be reflected in the response to cholera in Haiti.

77. This report is not the appropriate content in which to spell out in detail the steps that should now be taken to right the wrongs that have occurred. But it is possible to sketch in broad outline the principal steps that should be considered.

(1) First and foremost, there should be an apology and an acceptance of responsibility in the name of the Secretary-General. This should be done as soon as possible in order to provide the foundation upon which subsequent steps can be based.

(2) Consideration needs to be given to constructing a policy package to address the need for compensation to the victims.

(3) The development projects which the United Nations has initiated since the outbreak of cholera can be a part of the overall package, although consideration should be given to tailoring them mere appropriately towards the specific rights and needs of those who have been infected. But these project-based initiatives should not be seen as a substitute for personal compensation, especially for those who have died as a result of the outbreak. The funding arrangements for this compensation could be shaped in light of the elements identified above.

(4) The process that is followed once the initial step has been taken will be important and should reflect a newfound commitment to consulting with all stakeholders on as transparent a basis as possible.

(5) The process outlined here should provide the foundation for a new approach to be adopted by the United Nations in the future in such cases.

78. While the Secretary-General can and should of his own accord take the important step of accepting responsibility, support from key Governments will also be crucial. States that provide substantial support to the peacekeeping budget, particularly the United States which is the principal contributor, should actively support a resolution to this ongoing crisis that respects the rights of the victims of this tragedy and best serves the reputational and other interests of the United Nations.

Aidworkers Pen Protest Letter: Cite ‘Callous Negligence’ at UN, Aid Organizations

This World Humanitarian Day, a group of aidworkers and advocates have gathered together to protest unsafe work environments. Their letter appears on and has been signed by hundreds of people. The authors were galvanized by a recent report from the Associated Press on an incident of violence in South Sudan. Aidworkers were attacked in a popular hotel compound and held hostage. At least one person died in the attack.

The event sparked outrage and grief in the aid community. The report from the AP came a month after the incident took place. It highlighted the failure of the UN peacekeeping mission to respond to the violence. Many in the aid community were further aggrieved by the UN and international organizations’ silence on the attack. The UN acknowledged a “fact-finding” investigation in July, but only upgraded to a “Special Inquiry” after the story made headlines. Some aidworkers say they were asked not to talk about the incident.

The petition was announced to coincide with World Humanitarian Day, which was originally created to commemorate lives lost in service to humanitarian missions. This year, the organizers of World Humanitarian Day shifted focus away from aidworker safety, despite evidence that the job is more dangerous now than ever before.

Read the full letter below. You can sign the petition on

United Nations, International Organisations, World Governments – Protect Aid Workers Now!

We, a global community of serving and former humanitarian aid workers, can no longer remain silent while so many of us are murdered, raped, taken hostage, and attacked with impunity in crisis zones around the world.

This July, a brutal attack by South Sudanese forces targeted aid workers in the Terrain compound in Juba. They were killed, beaten, gang-raped, and threatened with death. Terrified, they begged for protection from UN peacekeeping forces stationed nearby.

No-one came.

See original AP article.

This horrifying incident is one more example of a decades-long pattern of callous negligence and failure to protect civilians, including aid workers, by Member States, The United Nations – including its Peacekeeping Department – and aid organisations.

In the first half of this decade, more than two thousand aid workers were kidnapped, extorted, used as proxy targets, bombed, assaulted, shot or otherwise attacked for doing their jobs: national and international, who deserve equal protection. There is a growing database of incidents of sexual violence within and against the aid community.

The response by the governments, UN, donors, aid recipients and international organizations has been inadequate. A culture of silence and dishonesty has grown around the realities of delivering aid in dangerous places. Justice for crimes against aid workers has not been on the agenda despite the recent commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit. These attacks are in breach of International Humanitarian Law.

On World Humanitarian Day, 19 August 2016, we stand with the survivors of the Terrain attack, who have exhibited incredible courage despite suffering immense trauma. We stand with the thousands of humanitarian workers and other civilian survivors of violence in crises worldwide.

But words of consolation are no longer enough. It is time to take action.

We are professional aid workers, not martyrs, and we demand the protection and justice we deserve. The people we exist to help deserve and need aid workers who are whole in mind and body, and who can do their job of providing that help in safety. Failure to protect and support those who provide assistance is thus also a dereliction of our collective commitment to the alleviation of humanitarian suffering.

We, the Undersigned International Aid Workers, call on United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, donors governments, aid recipients, international and national aid organisations to take the following urgent measures:

  • Grant protected legal status to humanitarian aid workers under International Humanitarian Law, and appoint a Special Rapporteur on aid worker protection and well being;
  • Adopt a common international Code of Duty of Care for NGOs, UN agencies and Red Cross movement to be signed and adopted internationally; and
  • Dedicate more resources and create mandatory safety conditions for aid agencies to operate under an international code of conduct.

This petition will be delivered to:

  • UN SG
  • Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO)

World Humanitarian Day: Shifting the Focus from Aidworker Safety


On August 19th, the UN will commemorate World Humanitarian Day. The event was held for the first time in 2009, following advocacy from the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation. Over time, the day has been marked with several themes. This year, the theme is “One Humanity.” Although the day was initially created to memorialize lives lost in humanitarian aid work, this year’s theme is focused on children and young people. To understand this shift, I spoke with David Bassiouni, a spokesperson for the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation.

David Bassiouni was previously the first UN Humanitarian Coordinator appointed to Somalia (1992) and a long-time senior official with UNICEF. Bassiouni is currently Chairman and CEO of the Bassiouni Group. Aid.Works reached Bassiouni by phone.

Aid.Works:  How is the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation involved in World Humanitarian Day?

Bassiouni:  The foundation was very instrumental in advocating for the establishment of World Humanitarian Day to mark the ultimate sacrifices that humanitarian workers all over the world have been making to save lives and reach people in need in humanitarian crises.

The 19th of August was selected as the milestone because it coincided with the attack on the UN in Baghdad in which Sergio Vieira de Mello and several colleagues lost their lives. It represents not only the people who perished that day but all humanitarian workers all over the world.

Who was Sergio? What kind of person was he?

Sergio Vieira De MelloSergio is, by all considerations, a giant in the humanitarian field. A man who dedicated his life to humanitarian work. From the time he joined the UNHCR until his death, he devoted his life, attention and service to humanity. He was a very charismatic leader who is much missed by so many.

He held a number of positions in the UNHCR, as representative in several countries all over the world and he also held the position of Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. As well as the Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, whom we call the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC). He also held the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. And finally, he was the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Baghdad, Iraq when that fateful incident occurred and he lost his life.

Would you say that the situation in terms of the safety and challenges facing aid workers has improved or gotten worse since Sergio’s death?

I think it has gotten worse. Because in the past, even speaking for UNICEF where I served a large part of my career, you had something called “working on both sides of the crisis.” So that when you are caught up in a crisis, you can reach both sides by negotiations. You could cross from one side to the other and give assistance to everybody.

We are not able to create zones of peace, into which humanitarian workers can cross.

But today in Syria we are compromised and limited because we are not able to create zones of peace into which humanitarian workers can cross and provide assistance, reach people, relieve suffering and save lives. Also, humanitarian crises have become politicized so that things are worse than they were in the time of Sergio.

This World Humanitarian Day isn’t focused very much on the sacrifice of aid workers. This year the theme is “One Humanity” and it’s focused on the five principles that the UN is promoting to improve humanitarian aid. Why do you think the focus has shifted away from aid workers’ sacrifice in the field?

It is a great shift and I support that. Because it’s not that we will forget Sergio and great colleagues who have paid the ultimate price. They will still remain very fresh in our minds and our hearts. But I think that it’s good that the themes and focus are shifting to young people this year to new, evolving situations and demands. I think this is just a natural evolution of the nature of humanitarian crises. I don’t think we are shifting away or turning our back to the sacrifices that so many colleagues and friends and relatives have paid in the past.

Have you been following what happened in South Sudan, where some aid workers at the Hotel Terrain were raped and one aid worker was killed, point-blank? In that case, the UN Peacekeepers decided not to respond to help. Is that a situation that you’ve seen before, or is this something new?

I happen to come from South Sudan. I am South Sudanese, so I know what is happening on the ground very well. What happened is part of the sad situation that has engulfed South Sudan and certainly what has been reported is not acceptable. If, as alleged, it is true that rape and murder have been committed, then it is the responsibility of all concerned to find out who the perpetrators are and bring them to justice.

We in the UN should use this as a clarion call for action.

I do not know the facts, but I think that is, from the reporting alone, that is not something that anyone will accept and I think the government may not even be happy with that. We in the UN should use this as a clarion call for action. We must do our part, if the opportunity is there, to prevent deaths.

As you said, the situation for aid workers is getting worse since Sergio’s time and this incident in South Sudan exemplifies that. What do you think can be done to improve the safety of aid workers?

I think we have to look deeper into the root causes of the crises, which are mostly political and try to resolve the underlying factors. Also, we have to advocate for a change of mind, a change of heart in people and use people on the ground — such as traditional leaders and people who have influence — to take it upon themselves [to create change]. It is not the peacekeepers or international community who should be coming in to mind our home.

We should take it upon ourselves to ensure that we as a nation, or we as people are bound by international humanitarian norms and standards. First, respecting all human rights and upholding freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of engagement. It is our duty to resolve some of these problems. Some of them may be deep-rooted, caused by inequities of society. We have to look at the root causes otherwise this is going to be a continuing saga of the tragedy of humanity. Because the respect for human life is reducing. The ability of people to wreak havoc and create heinous crimes with impunity is also increasing so we need to work towards reducing that.

Anything to add?

I think at this particular point in time, as we focus our attention on the future, we are using the younger generation as a platform. We hope this will prick our conscience to say that the duty of respecting international norms and standards and the importance of protecting the helpless civilians is a joint effort of everybody. Of governments, of citizens, of civil society, of international communities, international organizations and all of us.


Photos courtesy of the United Nations

How Turkey Coup Attempt Will Impact Aid Groups and Syrian Refugees

Since the failed coup attempt on July 15, the government of Turkey has fired or detained thousands of people. Some were soldiers, some teachers, some students. Others were high-profile human rights activists. The most significant impact of the coup is President Erdogan’s increased detention of alleged enemies of the state.

As I reported here in April, Turkey was already in the midst of an attack on civil liberties. This week, arrest warrants were issued for at least 42 “critical” journalists. More than 1,300 civil society organizations and charities were shut down, 1,043 private schools, 35 hospitals and 15 universities.

A women’s health clinic, run by a Turkish Armenian doctor, was raided by the government and the private medical files of the patients were taken. Amnesty International indicated there are now credible reports of torture and rape in detention centers holding accused coup plotters.

For a list of recent arrests and closures, see the bottom of this story. Here is a summary of the areas of humanitarian response that will be impacted by the coup attempt:

Turkey/EU 1:1 Refugee Exchange Deal Will Likely Stop

In March of this year, the European Union began sending refugees in Europe “back” to Turkey. One refugee in Europe is sent to Turkey, and in exchange, one refugee is taken from a camp in Turkey and resettled to Europe. This scheme was widely denounced by rights groups and aid organizations. And it never really worked. So far, only 468 refugees have been resettled in Turkey using this mechanism.

In light of Turkey’s decision to suspend some components of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), this exchange program will likely stop. Even before the upheaval of the coup attempt, the 1:1 scheme was successfully challenged in Greek courts. Cases are now making their way to the European Court of Human Rights.

Refugees, who were initially ordered to be sent to Turkey, won their cases based on Turkey’s violation of the principle of non-refoulement. According to the courts, the country does not provide enough protection to refugees and is sending Syrians back into a war zone. This is a violation of international law. Given the current security and human rights situation in Turkey, it will be considerably easier now to prove Turkey is not a “safe” third country.

Despite the challenges, the EU Commission defended the 1:1 scheme as recently as May. After the coup attempt, Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, gave an interview indicating the migration scheme is not going to change. But realistically, there are going to be many more successful legal challenges and it’s unlikely the 1:1 deal will survive.

Syrian Refugees in Turkey Resigned to Stay, Some Optimistic

The number of refugees fleeing to Europe via Turkey is much lower since the 1:1 deal was struck. But no one knows the extent to which the 1:1 deal itself was a deterrent. If the deal disappears, will Syrians flock to Europe again? It doesn’t seem likely. Most of the analysis indicates that the real reason Syrians stopped going to Europe is that Eastern European “transit” countries closed their borders to refugees.

Syrian refugees have heard that migrants in Europe are being stopped in Greece and Italy and are unable to transit farther. There are more than 50,000 people “stuck” now in Greece, most of whom are not in organized camps or formal living quarters.

Despite a lack of access to schools and jobs, Syrian refugees are cautiously optimistic about their future in Turkey. Just prior to the coup attempt, President Erdogan stated that he was interested in giving Syrian refugees full citizenship in Turkey. The Turkish government later clarified that only a very narrow group of refugees would be eligible. For Syrian refugees, any citizenship is welcome. “People prefer EU citizenship, but Turkey is good also,” one refugee told me. “Any citizenship works for Syrians.”

Following Erdogan’s announcement, there was an immediate backlash within Turkey among Turkish citizens and the hashtag #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliIstemiyorum (I don’t want Syrians in my country) was trending. Many see Erdogan’s interest in Syrian refugees as politically self-serving. And some even speculate that the coup attempt was timed to coincide with this rise in negative sentiment because more people would be on the side of the coup.

Future EU Funding to Turkey of $4 Billion Undetermined

According to the 1:1 deal, Turkey was supposed to receive $6.7 billion to support refugees in exchange for tightening its borders and following steps to remove some aspects of their law which the EU found questionable. About $2 to $3 billion was already committed to helping Syrian refugees in Turkey before negotiations were underway. Those monies are still on track to be delivered.

So today, the main question is whether and how the additional approximately $4 billion will be sent. These aid funds were contingent on some other items: Turkey wanted visa-free travel for Turkish people in the EU Schengen zone, and the EU wanted Turkey to implement legal and policy changes.

The primary policy change that doomed these negotiations was Item 65 in the Visa Liberalization Roadmap:

Revise – in line with the ECHR and with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case law, the EU acquis and EU Member States practices – the legal framework as regards organised crime and terrorism, as well as its interpretation by the courts and by the security forces and the law enforcement agencies, so as to ensure the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression, of assembly and association in practice:

  • Turkey needs to revise its legislation and practices on terrorism in line with European standards, notably by better aligning the definition of terrorism in order to narrow the scope.
  • A draft law on the establishment of a commission to inspect alleged violations committed by the law enforcement agencies in times of peace is being drafted by Turkish authorities, but has not yet been adopted.

Since the coup attempt, President Erdogan has arrested tens of thousands of people under the broad umbrella category of terrorism. Under the State of Emergency, he has explicitly suspended Turkish citizen’s right to association, assembly and freedom of expression. The changes required by Item 65 were unrealistic before the coup attempt, now they are impossible.

The additional EU funding was contingent on these negotiations. So it’s unclear now what will happen. Obviously, there is an incentive for Europe to make sure Syrians are happy in Turkey and don’t try to flee. But politically, it will be very difficult for the European Commission to defend giving $4 billion to Turkey in the current environment.

In an interview on Tuesday with German television, President Erdogan accused the EU of being “dishonest” and only delivering about $1 or $2 million in aid total to Turkey. The EU delegation to Turkey denied Erdogan’s claim. In a tweet, the delegation said EUR 740 million have been pledged, EUR 150 million is committed, and EUR 105 million was spent.

“Ask them [the EU]. Did you pay?” Erdogan said. “But Turkey still hosts three million people. What would Europe do if we let these people go to Europe?”

Transparency Will Suffer and Dangerous Conditions Increase for Aid Groups

Turkey remains home to at least 2.7 million Syrian refugees. Their well-being is largely unknown because the Turkish government has not surveyed them to determine their conditions. This is one of the ongoing problems with delivery of aid funds to Turkey. The government repeatedly blocks international aid organizations from conducting surveys themselves. Aid groups remain silent on this matter because they don’t want to be forced to leave Turkey.

Before the coup attempt, only 16 international organizations had government approval to provide direct aid in Turkey. Mostly, that was limited to camps. Many more international aid groups are operating in Turkey but they are doing so either under the table or just as a launch pad for operations in Syria.

Amazingly, these groups aren’t pulling out of Turkey. Dozens are still hiring. Prior to the coup attempt, some international organizations did relocate staff from Southeastern Turkey to Istanbul because of the security environment. Following the bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and the coup attempt, Istanbul is also proving to be a volatile choice.

At this point, it is unlikely aid groups currently in Turkey will leave. If they do, their options for a base of operations are Amman or Beirut, neither of which are as convenient to Syria. With the EU still set to spend billions in Turkey, no one wants to be the first to leave. This presents a significant risk to their employees, particularly local nationals.

So far, no well-known international associations have reported being impacted by the purge. But thousands of small groups, including advocacy and human rights organizations, have been shut down by the government.

The complete list of closed civil society organizations is here:

Power Shifts Under State of Emergency Conditions

This is a summary of the powers granted to President Erdogan through the “State of Emergency”:

  1. Limits on the time people can spend outside, including curfews.
  2. Limits on where and when people can gather and how many.
  3. Searching persons and their vehicles and houses without a warrant and taking anything as evidence.
  4. Mandatory to carry ID papers all the time if visiting an area other than hometown.
  5. Any printing press may be banned or will require approval.
  6. Any voiced broadcast whether it be radio, TV or film will depend on approval.
  7. Inspection of all theater plays, depending on approval.
  8. Determination that persons thought to be harmful for public peace may be unable to enter, stay or leave certain areas.
  9. Banning or making all public demonstrations in open or closed spaces dependent on approval.
  10. The ability to halt all activities of any foundation or association on a case-by-case basis for three months.

Read other summaries of the State of Emergency laws here:

CNN Turk

Deutsche Welle

BBC Turkce



The Agony of Watching a Coup Live Online

It was like being inside a haunted house. Every time I clicked on a video feed, I was opening another door to unknown terror. Except it was live. We were all living it together. Click. Life. Click. Another life. Click. Another view of the coup. There was no way to know what would happen.

One scene was a man with his scalp partially ripped off his head. From a bomb? I watched him being lifted into the back of a car. I knew I wasn’t there. Not really. But I was. The man taking the footage was holding me in his hands. As he ran from the chaos, he carried me with him. Did we run together? I felt like we did.

More than a week after the attempted coup in Turkey, I am still astonished. Still reeling. I watched the events unfold live on Periscope via Twitter, and it was one of the most amazing and devastating experiences of my life. I wonder now how to recover from it. How to make sense of what I saw.

I am not new to social media as a vehicle for terrible real-time news. I used Twitter extensively following the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Initially, I used it from a distance, as a way to figure out who was dead or alive. Later, I tweeted from Haiti and reported many events as they happened.

I’ve tweeted with celebrities and dictators. Through riots. I’ve reported from some of the most tragic human scenes on Earth. Starving kids and rotting bodies. Nothing prepared me for this.

In the first place, I wasn’t the photographer. With Periscope, I looked through someone else’s lens. And they weren’t photographers, either. I discovered something important: Journalists show us what we ought to see. People with cellphones show us what they’re actually looking at themselves.

Journalists show us what we ought to see. People with cellphones show us what they’re looking at.

Click. I’m in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. It’s nighttime and the streetlights show a crowded square. We are walking toward a tank. We are yelling. Everyone has flags. “God is Great!” we yell. Is he? We are crossing the street to get closer to a tank when shots are fired. “They are shooting,” I hear the man say. “Friends, come!” Everyone needs to run. Run!

Click. A camera bounces. I am walking down another road with a crowd. I can see the man walking in front of us. He’s about 50 years old. His pants, his shirt… they don’t fit very well. He is not a rich man. I see him holding a hammer behind his back. He’s hiding the hammer. But I see it.

Click. I stumble into the hallway of a hospital, and I watch as a bloody body is carried into an operating room on a stretcher. I watch the hurried doctors in the yellow light. More victims come through the door, and the man taking the footage is explaining it all. I can’t hear him. All I hear is the screaming.

I’ve never heard Turkish men cry like this. Proud men in agony. But as I listen and watch, being held in the hand of a stranger, I’m not embarrassed. I’m not scared. I feel dead. I don’t have to scream because they are screaming for me.

Click. I am walking with a man at the airport in Istanbul. We’re outside Arrivals. The people around us begin to climb on top of a tank parked in the road. The soldier is so young. He can’t be older than 20.

The crowd hops up, and men crawl towards him on the tank. He looks scared. And amused? He looks like he isn’t planning to shoot anyone. He laughs. But there is something else in his face, a hesitance, a raw fear. He might shoot. He hasn’t decided what to do.

The man with the camera walks into the airport. Inside, we watch a 14-year-old girl get into a fight with her mom in the middle of a crowd. She’s melting down. We don’t understand. Is she angry? Is she crazy? Does she know there is a coup attempt underway? Or is she mad at her parents about a party, a slight? Something personal?

She tears at her hair, begging in her mother’s face. I understand now. She is angry at her parents’ incompetence. She is suddenly, and for the first time, realizing they can’t protect her. They can’t get her out. There are limits to their powers and she is furious, hurt.

We walk through hallways and doors, and there is sky again. Then an airplane? We are on the runway of the airport.

I shuffle back into the streets. Click, Ankara. Click, Istanbul. Click, tanks. Click, flags. Click, chanting. Click, gunshots. Click, the mosques begin the call to prayer. But what time is it? Click, fistfights. Click, traffic jams. Click. A guy on a motorcycle holds me on the handlebars. We are watching the summer night speed past us. I feel safe again. Let’s go. Let’s get out of here.

Click. In Ankara, I open a door into a darkened room. I feel as if I’ve just woken up with this young man in his apartment. He is sleepy, he stumbles to the balcony. I guess he lives alone. In the darkness, we watch a firefight in midair. Is an F-16 shooting at a helicopter? Is the helicopter shooting at the ground?

From his bedroom, the gunfire looks like comets. Like cascading fireworks in the dark. I wonder if he is still in his pajamas. If there is leftover dinner sitting on his coffee table. What kind of life is this? Looking out the window in the night at a city under siege?

I don’t speak Turkish perfectly but I speak enough. I sat all night, until the dawn rose in Istanbul, watching Turkey fall to pieces. I searched for words I knew: sokakta, halklar, tanklar, ateş, bomba, hastane. In the streets, people, tanks, gunfire, bomb, hospital. I realize now, I don’t know a lot of words about war in Turkish. I will study them. I’ll make a list.

I need to learn: traitor, purge, torture, death penalty. Next time, I will be ready. That is my worst grief. Knowing next time, I won’t be surprised at all.


Closed Doors, Open Secrets: How the World Abandoned Millions of Syrian Refugees in Turkey

“The house is expensive. The water is expensive. The electricity is expensive. The bread is expensive.”

Nuwal is 30 years old and she speaks slowly and deliberately as she tells me about her family’s problems since they fled Syria four years ago.

Most Syrian adults are not able to work in Turkey. Most of their kids are not able to go to school. They receive the promise of medical aid from the government, but few are able to access doctors because the hospitals are overrun. As a condition of their protection in Turkey, refugees are forbidden from applying for formal asylum or legal “refugee” status. Each year, they register with the government as “temporary” and pray that this status won’t be revoked.

Life in Turkey is difficult, but they’re stuck, Nuwal’s friend Ali explains.

He says that most Syrian refugees would like to leave Turkey, “But trying to go to Europe would cost at least $2,000.” He says there are no jobs in Turkey to raise those funds.

Even if they had the money, which they don’t, going to Europe is almost impossible now. Refugees who go by foot find closed gates and fences along the way. NATO has set up ships in the Aegean Sea. Last year, 489,000 Syrian refugees went from Turkey to Greece through the Aegean. At least 239 refugees died along the way.

Despite how desperately Syrians want to leave Turkey, they are sentenced to stay there. This month, hundreds of refugees who fled Turkey were actually shipped back. In a deal with the European Union, Turkey agreed to take back thousands of refugees in Greece in exchange for $6.7 billion from the European Union. It’s not clear who will receive this funding, the Turkish government or aid groups.

But Nuwal, for one, is unlikely to see the money.

I. Turkish Government Tactics Lead to Secrecy


Turkey is now host to 2.7 million Syrian refugees, more refugees than any country in the world. For Europe, Turkey’s “open door” policy has been a godsend. But for Syrians, like Nuwal, prospects in Turkey are bleak, and getting worse.

most refugees are not in campsThe Turkish government says it has spent $10 billion on the refugee problem since the war in Syria began. But it’s hard to tell just where the money went because the government hasn’t told anyone. For now, the world can only guess.

Processing and paperwork for 2.7 million new residents is expensive. Increased security is certainly also an expense. The refugee camps are most expensive of all. Nearly 300,000 people live in camps in Turkey, which offer healthcare, food and school for Syrian children. It’s possible that those items alone, over the course of five years, cost $10 billion.

Putting aside the startling figure of $10 billion, it’s easy to see that most refugees in Turkey have received no aid. None at all.

The vast majority – 85 to 90% – of refugees in Turkey are like Nuwal; they don’t live in camps. More than 2 million people are dispersed in cities and towns, in shanties and empty rooms, rented for a hundred dollars a month. Refugee children work illegally in factories for slave wages and beg in the streets. They are hungry and desperate.

To figure this out, all a person has to do is ask and look around a little. And in other humanitarian situations, that’s what people would do. International aid groups would send out surveyors with clipboards and calculators. Journalists would investigate and hold the government to account.

Basic questions in humanitarian disasters include: Who needs aid? What kind of aid? How much do they need? Why aren’t they getting it? Has the government failed? No one has asked these questions in Turkey, in part, because asking them can get you arrested.


In 2012, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists published a report, “Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis,” which identified Turkey as more dangerous to journalists than China, Iran or Eritrea. Following publication of the report, freedom of expression in Turkey has only gotten worse.

Between 2014 and 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan filed charges of “insulting the president” more than 1,800 times against his critics. Turkey arrested more journalists than any other country in the world in 2015.

In August, two British journalists from VICE were arrested in Turkey and charged with “terrorism.” In November, the editor of the major independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet, and its bureau chief of the nation’s capital Ankara were arrested and charged with espionage and aiding a terrorist group. They published a story that accused the government of sending weapons to Syria under the guise of humanitarian aid.

In January, dozens of academicians were rounded up and sent to jail after signing a petition that called for an end to violence against Kurdish civilians. In early March, the government raided and took over the most widely circulated Turkish newspaper, Zaman, and its English-language partner, Today’s Zaman. Thousands of protesters in Istanbul were met with teargas and rubber bullets.

Overt censorship has led to self-censorship and critical reporting from Turkey has almost disappeared. Sevgi Akarcesme is the Editor of Today’s Zaman, and she refuses to resign her position despite the government’s actions against the paper. At an event in Brussels, she warned that the strangling of press freedom is a bellwether.

“Turkey is hell for journalists,” she said. “It should be hell for people soon.”

Timeline: “Erdogan and the Turkish Press”


International aid organizations face similar limits in Turkey. Aid groups have intervened successfully in Lebanon and Jordan, but in Turkey reports indicate the government is blocking their access to refugees who aren’t in camps. Even though this fact is well-known among humanitarians, aid groups are not drawing attention to it.

Aid groups who criticize the President or his government could face expulsion, or worse. Currently only 16 foreign aid organizations are legally approved by the government to provide direct aid to Turkey. That aid is mostly limited to the 272,000 people in camps along the country’s border.

foreign civil society organizations ngos approved to provide direct aid in turkey

Click to expand the image

Because many groups are not allowed to operate in Turkey, they are forced to hide their activities. On the United Nations website for Financial Tracking, international organizations operating in Turkey are obscured. Minutes from humanitarian coordination meetings, which would typically include the names of people present, are anonymous.

Although private “partners” spent $38 million in Turkey last year, the United Nations lists their projects only as “Various.” On the website of AmeriCares, for example, the organization states that they spent more than $1 million on direct medical aid in Turkey and Jordan. But the organization is not approved by the government to operate in Turkey. Their contribution to Syrian refugees in Turkey is not individually identifiable in the primary humanitarian tracking system.

Job postings for international organizations reveal that many organizations are operating secretly in Turkey. Handicap International makes no mention of their operations in Turkey on their website. But last month their US office advertised six job postings that are based in Istanbul or Gaziantep. The postings stated the organization “is already active in Turkey” and even conducted a needs assessment in the country in 2015. Handicap International declined to provide the needs assessment to Aid.Works. A spokesperson for Handicap International was unable to comment.

Adam Smith International, a consulting firm, is one of the biggest quasi-aid operations in Turkey. They are working on a rule of law project in Syria, among others. The organization, based in the UK, currently advertises four positions based in Istanbul to establish “a very large multi-donor trust fund” with activities in Turkey. But they are not listed by the Turkish government as an approved civil society organization, and on their website, it appears they do not work in Turkey.


Lack of transparency in accounting is normal in humanitarian responses, but this level of obfuscation is extremely uncommon. Aid workers, speaking on the condition of anonymity because their jobs would be threatened, say that international organizations have various tactics to avoid the oppressive legal environment in Turkey. They are doing so in order to keep their operations alive – both in Turkey and Syria.

Some organizations operate only via local partner organizations, sending money to local groups while retaining international staff to oversee those groups. Meanwhile, their international staff works in the country on tourist visas. Other organizations operate as tax-paying companies. To pay local partner groups, they either bring in undeclared cash by hand, or use hawalas, a largely unregulated cash-based remittance system.

us foreign aid to syria 2016 to 2017Because Turkey is not considered a failed state or under siege in any way, humanitarian protocol is that the sovereignty of the country must be respected. In the case of Syria, the war itself has made the country immune to these finer legal points. Numerous aid organizations are open about their humanitarian activities in Syria. There are some notable exceptions, however. Aid groups tend not to talk about government funded activities, even when they make up the majority of international aid. For example, the US Department of State has budgeted $238 million on foreign aid to Syria this year. This figure includes $175 million of “Economic Support Funds.”

Economic Support Funding primarily provides cash to “friendly” Syrian civil society groups, with the hope that our aid will bypass President Assad and support democracy. Identifying which Syrian groups are friendly and which groups are actually just a cover for terrorists is very time-consuming and expensive. The programs to identify such groups and find ways to send them money are run by American non-government organizations, many operating out of Turkey.

Whereas organizations are open about aid like schools, water or food, pro-democracy aid is rarely mentioned. On their websites, groups obscure information about programs linked to Economic Support Funding. Like the UN financial tracking system, most of these contracts are listed in US foreign aid budgets with a generic “various” designation.

Organizations combine private and public funding in complex ways that understandably lead to both private and public programming, and private and public messaging. In the Syrian refugee response, organizations seem led by secret goals. They are motivated by hidden outcomes. There are named partners and unnamed partners. Donors really don’t know where their money is going. But the people who suffer most in this political puzzle are the people in need. 

Read: “The Problem with Secret Aid”

II. Needs of Non-Camp Refugees are Vast, Unknown


no reliable estimates of people in need turkey aidworksAs aid groups scramble for access to Syria via Turkey, they are mysteriously silent on the millions of refugees in need at their doorstep. For those who are doing discreet work inside Turkey for the benefit of refugees, it is impossible to see how money is being spent. It’s clear that very little aid is going anywhere outside of the camps. At the same time, no one knows what the needs of refugees in Turkey really are.

The Turkish government has blocked international organizations’ access to data. A major report from the United Nations and other partners, including the International Organization for Migration, says there are “no reliable estimates” on the number of people in need inside Turkey. International aid groups do not have the authority, they say, to conduct needs assessments and if the Turkish government has conducted them, they are not sharing.

Registration of refugees is controlled by the Turkish government. Except in rare cases, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is forbidden from registering refugees, and they do not have access to the government’s registry. Only broad statistical data is publicly available. As a result, the names, needs and location of refugees are unknown to the international community. In an annual progress report, the UN admitted they are in the dark and unable to measure accountability of aid in Turkey:

“In the absence of access to population registration information and varying levels of permission to conduct assessments and surveys, the challenge remains for … partners to establish a concrete accountability framework to monitor and evaluate the impact of the interventions.”


assessment-of-non-camp-refugees-in-turkeyOver the past five years, only one small study on refugee needs was made public. In 2014, the Turkish government surveyed 1,200 families who live outside of camps. The survey indicated that 97% of female Syrians in Turkey could not find jobs. They were also hungry. The report noted that “78 percent of the respondents indicated not having a sufficient amount of food for the next seven days, nor having money to purchase it.”

Food aid, which is typically one of the least controversial types of assistance, has barely reached the urban or non-camp refugees. In an annual progress report, the World Food Program and other non-named “actors” say they reached only 150,000 people outside of camps in 2015. Based on common reporting limitations, it’s not clear for how many months or days those people were helped. In terms of food aid, the noted 150,000 people number is very small.

This year, the World Food Program hopes to provide food aid to 585,000 non-camp refugees in Turkey. Zoie Jones, a spokesperson for the World Food Program, told a reporter that they believe 2.3 million people are in need. But the aid is contingent on funding. Last year, WFP only received 67% of the funding they requested for Turkey. As a result, WFP had to cut off food aid to nine refugee camps. The Turkish government stepped in and provided the aid, Jones says.

When funding is limited, humanitarian aid goes to camps first, and often, last. The camps continue to receive aid while urban refugees will not. The non-camp refugees, like Nuwal and Ali, have no formal relationship with aid groups, so they have no one to ask for help. To distribute food outside of the camps, Jones says, “We work very closely with the Government to identify areas and/or families to be visited.”


According to the current thinking in humanitarian aid, what’s happening in Turkey now is actually a best practice. For decades, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has been trying to nail down a policy on how to deal with refugees in non-camp settings. Their policy statements typically set precedent for the aid community as a whole. Prior to the Syrian refugee crisis, UNHCR’s goal was for refugees to never be in a camp unless absolutely necessary.

Urban refugees unreachableThe position has some merit. Camps can become prisons, where people are relegated to wait for help and can’t achieve the dignity of a real life. Camps are also dangerous. In the African continent, especially, history has shown that rebel groups and criminals can and will use camps to hide predators or find new prey. Governments, too, may abuse the camp system, and when political winds shift, they can swiftly turn them into detention centers.

But where camps have a strict advantage is in the distribution of aid. The logistics are easy and the people in need are at hand. In urban or dispersed settings, like the one in Turkey, it is much harder to reach refugees and identify them for the purpose of aid distribution. So far, no one has solved that problem.

Jeff Crisp is a research fellow at the Refugee Study Center in Oxford. He previously worked for UNHCR and he helped write the UNHCR Policy on Alternatives to Camps.

“Since the policy was introduced,” he says, “UNHCR’s been doing a number of things to try and improve its outreach to refugees in urban areas, such as, you know, telephone help, hotlines, information campaigns, mobile kind of registration teams that move around to try and contact people.”

In Turkey, hotlines and information campaigns are pretty pointless since the agency is not allowed to help in most cases. The government-dictated role of UNHCR is to “provide technical advice” to the Turkish government. And while the agency says it has mobile teams roving the country, striving for “understanding” of the situation of refugees, they haven’t published anything so far about what they found. Reaching urban refugees was already a huge, intransigent problem. Reaching them while in the context of an opaque government, like Turkey’s, makes the task impossible.


Complex needs assessments aren’t really necessary. Walk through the streets of any town in Turkey, and it’s clear that the government, and the world, has failed these urban refugees. In Eastern Turkey especially, Syrian children shuffle through the streets most mornings, no backpacks, no books. They are on their way to work in factories where many earn less than $1 an hour.

Groups which usually take up the issue of child labor, like the International Labor Organization, have been silent on the problem in Turkey. But in Lebanon, where they are allowed to conduct studies, the ILO found that 78% of Syrian refugee children were sent to work. In Jordan, more than half of children were working.

UNICEF, along with the US-based organization, Save the Children, issued a report on child labor in the region, “Small Hands, Heavy Burden.” The report cites data from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, but none from Turkey. The report hardly mentions Turkey at all, even though most Syrian refugee children live in Turkey.

As noted earlier, few Syrian children are able to go to school in Turkey, despite their legal right to do so. The Turkish government has registered approximately 929,000 school-age children from Syria. Seventy thousand of these children have access to schools in refugee camps. Outside of camps, the vast majority of Syrian children do not go to school. According to data from Human Rights Watch, from 2014 to 2015, public schools in Turkey registered only 36,655 Syrian children.

food-aid-in-non-camp-settingsWith children not attending schools, their parents are more likely to send them to work. Syrian children are working because their parents can’t. Adult Syrian refugees are legally permitted to work in Turkey, but to date the government has only issued about 7,351 work permits, that’s less than 0.3% of adult refugees. The employment rules are complex, limiting Syrians by quotas and to certain industries.

Nuwal’s children are too little to work in factories. Instead, her five-year-old daughter, Marya, begs on the street near their home. Every day she walks up and down the block, past an old Armenian church, hustling for change.

Once in a while, her mom says, the cops bring her home and reprimand her. Marya always goes back out. She is relentless. She frowns, she pouts, she pulls at the edge of a man’s coat.

“Please,” she implores in Turkish, “my mom is dead.”

Not true at all. But she knows that’s what people want to hear. Marya earns about $1.70 a day by begging.

Syrian Refugee Children At work Collecting Trash Emily Troutman

III. EU, Greece Unwilling and Unable to Cope


Despite a lack of transparency in Turkey and the negative environment, foreign governments are eager for the country to take in even more refugees so that they don’t have to do so themselves. From the shores of Greece to the snowy fields of Norway, Syrians fleeing the war find themselves unwelcome and unwanted.

Around the world, the news on any given day shows the chaos surrounding the refugee issue. Hungary fires tear gas, water cannon at refugees. Refugees drown in a swollen river. Refugees drown off Turkey’s coast. In Macedonia, refugees break through a border fence using a “home-made battering ram.” In France, their refugee camp is demolished.

In 2013, Europe and the Balkan states registered 52,755 Syrians. In 2014, they registered 127,890. Last year, they registered 383,740 and the doors slammed shut.

Turkey is the only country to border both Syria and the European Union, which gives them enormous power to decide the fate of refugees. Turkish President Erdogan has made it clear that they can and will “wave through” refugees passing to Europe, if they want.

“We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria any time and we can put the refugees on buses,” Erdogan has reportedly said.

In lieu of buses, the refugees are paying human traffickers to take boats. Daniel Szabo is a Communications Officer for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). His office collects data to track missing and dead migrants, who often risk their lives to reach Europe. “They are driven by a desire for a better life,” he says.

The Missing Migrants Project has recorded the historic increases in traffic to Greece and Italy through the Eastern Mediterranean route, via Turkey.

“Last year it was a different route,” Szabo says, “the Central Mediterranean. We saw a shift this year to the Eastern Med, which is shorter, and yet with the amount of people coming through there, it’s turning out to be deadly in its own right.”

IOM estimates 3,770 people died in the Mediterranean in 2015. The numbers are probably much higher, since many refugees are never recovered.


Kastellorizo Greece Aidworks Syrian Refugees

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The tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo is more than 300 miles from mainland Greece. But it is only one mile from Turkey. It’s so close that in warm weather, some Syrian refugees just risk it and swim the distance.

When volunteer Shellie Corman arrived on Kastellorizo in February, she found that it wasn’t exactly the way she remembered. Corman has lived in Turkey for many years and decided to travel to the Greek island to help out with the refugees. Secluded, pristine beaches that were once an oasis for tourists are now “stacked with life jackets and plastic debris.”

On her first day there, she was briefed by a few members of Medicin Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders). Her goal was simply to meet the boats of people arriving and give them dry clothes, if they needed it. The aid workers cautioned her that patience on the island among locals is running thin.

“I really can empathize with the local population,” Corman said in an interview via Skype. “I know this island. I’ve been here before as a tourist.”

She said, “[Ordinarily] it’s a very clean island. It’s not clean right now, when people have nowhere to sleep and nowhere to [go to the bathroom]…”

Sanitation is just one of the challenges faced by small communities who are the front edge of the European Union. Kastellorizo has a permanent population of only 200 people. At times, as many as 900 Syrian refugees have been stranded there.

From Kastellorizo, refugees hope to take ferries to mainland Greece. They don’t always have the money to continue on. Sometimes they think they’re already in mainland Greece. For many reasons, refugees often get stuck here too.


Shortly after Corman came to Kastellorizo, a boat of 150 refugees arrived in the middle of the night. Working with a “ragtag group of volunteers” in a former schoolhouse, she helped the refugees get into dry clothes. The refugees were soaking wet from the boat trip and stunned.

In an online journal on Facebook, she wrote to friends about her experience: “We spent 2 hours giving clothes … to a very poor group. Two women and a total of 13 kids ranging in age from 12 to a few months old. At one point at least nine of them were HOWLING in unison, and it took great fortitude to keep on trying different jackets and shoes. We managed it and all drank a few glasses of wine as a reward to ourselves for managing to get them ready for their journey.”

Kastellorizo Greece Aid Workers Courtesy Shellie Corman

Volunteers on the island of Kastellorizo, Greece. Photos courtesy of Shellie Corman.

The volunteers distributed clothing donated from Greece and Turkey. They had organized the items by size, to make it easier to tend to the children.

“They looked like they were in pretty bad shape,” Corman says. “Unwashed for a month or two, not healthy. Sores on their face, no shoes. Little tiny babies, completely filthy.”

The schoolhouse distribution center was the last remaining vestige of organized aid on the island. On one refugee family’s first night stuck on Kastellorizo, a local Albanian man brought them a dinner of spaghetti. The next night, two Australian-Greek entrepreneurs opened the doors of their restaurant to give the family dinner. But as the doctors had warned her, the spirit of generosity was “waning.”

“They have closed the hall that was being used for sleeping,” she wrote. “And generally [the islanders] feel that the more they provide for refugees, the more they will encourage new arrivals.”


When Corman woke the next night to a great commotion at 3:30 a.m., she assumed another boat of refugees had arrived. Instead, the volunteers were told their clothing distribution center was on fire.

“We all ran to see what was happening, although from the window of our room we could see the flames,” she wrote. “When we arrived, there was a small group of refugees and locals standing in front of the building watching the fire, which had by then completely burned out the center, the large palm trees behind had caught fire, and there were a few people with a small hose and a few buckets. A futile effort to quell the flames.

“This appears to be a clear message by some of the locals, to let all of us and the refugees know that we are not welcome.”

Local police sent an arson investigator to the site, but days of rain following the fire made it impossible for them to find any evidence. If it was arson, it’s likely that locals know the culprit. On an island of 200 people, it’s hard to keep secrets.

“I didn’t expect something like that on a small island like this,” Corman told me. “The place was totally gutted because, I mean, it was packed with things. It was full – full – of jeans and jackets and shoes and slippers and hats and gloves and underwear and clothes for babies.

“The place must’ve been burning for at least half an hour,” she said. “The fire was so strong, it seemed like it was doused with gasoline. People are in shock.”

There is very little data about the frequency of arson attacks on refugee centers in Europe.

But a recent investigation by ZEIT ONLINE and DIE ZEIT found that in Germany alone in 2015, there were 93 arson attacks against refugee centers with people still inside. In Sweden, dozens of shelters were set on fire in 2015. In Greece, just last month, two former military barracks, which were slated to house refugees, were set on fire.

Before and after. An aid center on the island of Kastellorizo engulfed in flames, March 1, 2016. Photos courtesy of Shellie Corman.

Before and after. An aid center on the island of Kastellorizo engulfed in flames, March 1, 2016. Photos courtesy of Shellie Corman.


The European Union has been desperate, given the unpopularity of opening the borders, to quell the influx of Syrians via Turkey. Recognizing this, Turkey began negotiating a deal with the European Union to tighten the borders in exchange for financial support. The deal fell apart in late 2015. As President Erdogan had promised, the floodgates opened even further.

Arrivals to Greece 2015 to 2016 aid works

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Minutes of a meeting from November were recently released:

“So how will you deal with refugees if you don’t get a deal?” Erdogan asked the European delegates. “Kill the refugees?”

Initially, the EU promised about $3 billion in exchange for Turkey monitoring its borders. After the deal faltered, an additional 144,899 people entered Greece. A new deal for $6.7 billion was struck this month.

“We do not have the word ‘idiot’ written on our foreheads,” Erdogan has said.

Heading into negotiations in March, the Prime Minister of Belgium said Turkey’s tactics “at times resembles a form of blackmail.”

Last week, when it appeared that the promised funds were still not forthcoming, President Erdogan falsely claimed that 3 million refugees are “being fed on our budget.”

“We have received lots of thanks for our action on the ­refugees and in the fight against terrorism. But we are not doing this for thanks,” he added.


The backlash against refugees has extended everywhere, it seems. Australia is offshoring refugees on remote islands. In the United States, where relatively few Syrians end up, more than half of all state governors are refusing to allow them in. So far, the US federal government hasn’t challenged those states.

Andreas Needham is a Communications Officer for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. The organization helps refugees find permanent placement when they flee their home country. This differs from temporary placement or irregular migration, in which refugees’ futures are less known.

Via email, Needham says UNHCR resettled 15,800 Syrian refugees between 2013 and 2015.

“However it is likely,” Needham writes, “that the actual number of departures of Syrians from neighboring countries is far higher – as not all data is shared by States with UNHCR – and that approximately one-third of the 170,000 Syrian refugees for which places were pledged actually departed.”

Some refugees may have been placed without the knowledge of UNHCR and the organization says they are working on better data collection. But given these numbers, in a best case scenario, only 55,000 Syrian refugees out of 4.8 million who need homes have found one – anywhere in the world. Countries have “pledged” 170,000 places for Syrians and, by and large, are not making good on those pledges.

UNHCR resettled 15,800 Syrian refugees between 2013 and 2015.

It is curious that Turkey was willing to take so many. Initially, they may not have had a choice. When thousands of people walk into your country, what can you do? Turkey also had a political agenda. For the past decade, since the EU rebuffed Turkey’s efforts to join Europe, President Erdogan has been formulating a plan to solidify his power base among Arab states in the region. Millions of grateful refugees means more loyal followers.

The primary reason Turkey took so many refugees is that it cost them little to do so. Turkey offered them almost nothing. And to ensure they don’t ever have to offer them anything, they refuse to call them “refugees.” At first, they were called “guests” and now they are “temporary” foreigners. “Refugees” have clear rights, in terms of international law. Turkey has managed to sidestep these laws.

IV. Turkey and the 1951 Convention on the Rights of Refugees


Although international human rights law now forms a theoretical framework to protect people fleeing violence, this wasn’t always the case. Susan Martin is Professor of International Migration in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the author of the book, International Migration: Evolving Trends from the Early 20th Century to the Present.

“The concept of a refugee is very old,” she says. “But the idea of there being international responsibility to assist and protect refugees is really a twentieth century concept that didn’t really exist before.”

It’s really only after the Holocaust that the system begins to take hold.

International bodies like the League of Nations and the High Commissioner for Refugees (now known as UNHCR) existed in the 1920s, but they were not very active. They helped during the Greece and Turkey population exchanges following World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, for example. Then in the 1930s, those humanitarian efforts ground to a halt.

“Governments did nothing to save the refugees from Nazi Germany or to help more people to get out and become refugees,” Martin explains. “So it’s really only after the Holocaust that the system begins to take hold.”

In the shadow of the Holocaust, members of the newly formed United Nations wrote and signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention was designed to protect people displaced by World War II, but over the years it has continued to serve as the “key legal document” of international refugee law.


The 1951 convention establishes some of the core rights of refugees, including “non-refoulement,” which says it is forbidden to forcibly return someone to a place where their life is threatened. Once a refugee arrives in a safe country, the 1951 Convention says they cannot be sent back if they have a “well-founded” fear of persecution.

Turkey geographic exception 1951 convention aidworksOther basic principles of the convention say that refugees should not be discriminated against based on where they are from and should not be penalized for being a refugee. For example, refugees fleeing to another country should not be arrested for doing so. They should also be allowed to earn money to care for themselves and be given some form of identification.

Over the years, more than 145 countries signed on to the 1951 Convention, though many have not, including the United States. Most Asian countries are not signatories, nor are many countries in the Middle East. Lebanon and Jordan are not signatories.

Since the law was written primarily for World War II victims, it was later updated to apply to any refugee. The 1967 update to the Convention changed the language of the agreement and specified that a “refugee” can be from anywhere and will still be protected. In a twist that has thrown human rights organizations on their heads, Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Convention – but in the 1967 update, they maintain a “geographical exception” to the law.

As a result, in Turkey, “refugees” are only defined as people from Europe. In the modern era, few refugees are actually from Europe; most are from the area known as the “global South.” But should thousands of Norwegians suddenly flee Norway, rest assured they would be called “refugees” in Turkey. Following this designation, Norwegian refugees would be allowed to register with UNHCR for resettlement. Each Norwegian would be interviewed individually to see if they should be allowed asylum as refugees. Syrians are not.


Despite centuries of migration to Turkey, the country has a troubled history with non-citizens. Turkey was founded on the notion of a particular “Turkish” ethnic and cultural identity. It has been a problematic position for the country, since it is situated in a region with dozens of different ethnicities, religions and linguistic traditions. Over the years, many minority groups, most notably the Armenians and Kurdish people, faced expulsion in Turkey.

Kurdish people make up an estimated 15 to 20% of Turkey’s population. Kurds live throughout the region in northern Syria and Iraq, and also Iran. Until 1983, it was illegal in Turkey for a person to speak the Kurdish language in the street. Until 2012, it was illegal to learn Kurdish in a Turkish school. Their political rights remain highly restricted.

Turkey faces an ongoing battle with Kurdish terrorist groups, eager for independence. In January, the Turkish town of Cizre was under siege for six weeks as troops moved in to battle suspected Kurdish militants. More than 100,000 people were forced to flee. In retaliation, a Kurdish terrorist group known as the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK) carried out two bombings in Ankara in February and March. The suicide attacks killed 65 people. In the midst of this highly politicized terrorist threat, innocent Kurdish people remain vulnerable to mistreatment in Turkey.

The “Kurdish problem,” as it’s known in the region, isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Complicating matters further, the US government, in defiance of Turkish objections, has been funding and training Kurdish militias in Syria with the aim to bring down Assad. Unfortunately, there is no way to know how many Syrian refugees identify as Kurdish. Do you speak Kurdish? is likely one of the questions that UNHCR would ask refugees, were they allowed to register them in Turkey.


Initially, when Syrians fled the war to neighboring Turkey, they were called “guests” through an informal policy that didn’t really amount to a law. In 2014, under pressure from the European Union, the country implemented its first-ever comprehensive law related to migration. It also created, for the first time, a government agency which directs these policies, the General Directorate for Migration Management (GDMM).

Writing any law at all was a step in the right direction. But the legal protections under the law are weakened because of Turkey’s “geographic exception” to the 1951 Convention. It’s the new Turkish law that says the Syrian people fleeing the war may apply for “temporary protection.” Essentially, they are allowed to live in Turkey, but not forever.

The new law states that Syrians under “temporary protection” have the right to education, basic healthcare and work under limited conditions. But on the ground, resources are under pressure and their access is limited.

Andrew Schoenholtz, a Professor from Practice and Director of Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute. He is an expert on the 1951 Convention. He notes that Turkey’s refugee policies have been a topic of contention among human rights lawyers for many years.

“Years ago I had heard critiques of the system,” he says, “because [Turkey] used to require asylum seekers to apply within seven days. Then they liberalized and made it fourteen days. It was always a problematic asylum system, particularly because they weren’t ever recognizing non-Europeans as refugees.”

Turkey now has a law that applies some rights to Syrians. Unfortunately, the passage of a law alone doesn’t determine whether Turkey can or will live up to its standards. Refugees are driven by the reality on the ground, not promises.

“At the end of the day,” Schoenholtz says, “if you think about why people have moved on [from Turkey], my guess is that a number of people gave up hope that things would change in Syria. And there’s no reason to believe, at this point, that they’re wrong about that, unfortunately. And how long will people put up with what is essentially an inhospitable country to stay in?”

conditions of temporary protective status in turkey aidworks

To read the law in its entirety:

V. The “1 for 1” Deal


Like a Syrian family of 13 who Shellie Corman fitted with dry clothes, more than 57,000 refugees are now stranded in Greece. Countries north of Greece have tightened their borders and are no longer allowing refugees to enter. Europeans know that the Syrians don’t want to stay in Greece, and if they could find a way out, they would certainly keep walking to friendlier, richer Central European countries.


Click to expand. Source:

As a result of this continental freezing of borders, many of the 57,000 Syrians in Greece right now are trapped in camps. Whereas a few weeks ago, they were just staying in the camps on their way somewhere else, they are now unable to go anywhere. Aid groups say this is equivalent to being “arbitrarily detained,” which is in violation of the 1951 Convention on refugees.

For some refugees in Greece, the situation is even worse. According to the new EU deal with Turkey, any refugee who arrives to a Greek island after March 20 will be sent back to Turkey. The deal states that for every refugee Turkey takes back from Greece, the EU will take a refugee from a camp on the Syrian border.

It is being called the “1 for 1” deal. Of course, to sweeten it, Turkey will receive $6.7 billion. They also negotiated an agreement that will allow Turkish citizens to travel in the EU without a visa, which was previously prohibited. Swapping refugees around like baseball cards is drawing criticism from aid groups and experts.

Medicin Sans Frontiers / Doctors without Borders has withdrawn from a few of these Greek camps, stating on their website:

European leaders have completely lost track of reality and the deal [between] the EU and Turkey is one of the clearest examples of their cynicism. For each refugee that will risk his life at sea and will be summarily sent back to Turkey, another one may have the chance to reach Europe from Turkey under a proposed resettlement scheme. This crude calculation reduces people to mere numbers, denying them humane treatment and discarding their right to seek protection.


The UN refugee agency has repeatedly said they are not party to the EU/Turkey deal. But their mandated role to look after the welfare of refugees does require that they be involved in some aspects of it. In Greece, UNHCR will continue to monitor the situation, but they are no longer taking refugees to certain camps, since they “have now become detention facilities.”

In regards to the broader EU/Turkey deal, returning Syrians to Turkey, the agency is more circumspect. Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, recently addressed the Chamber of the European Parliament. “As a first reaction,” he said. “I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law.”

On March 23, UNHCR issued legal guidance on the EU/ Turkey deal. They noted that EU law requires that when refugees are sent to a “safe third country,” their human rights must be protected just like they would be in the original country. In other words, Turkey must be as safe for refugees as Greece is. The EU law mentions “adequate standards of living, work rights, health care and education.” Refugees must be protected from persecution based on religious ideas or social identity.

None of these rights is a given in Turkey, which is why numerous organizations came out against the deal. The core right of refugees — to be protected from “refoulement” — is even in question in Turkey. On April 1, Amnesty International released a report that indicated Turkey is returning refugees to Syria. Over the past few months, thousands may have been returned, including women and children. Amnesty says their research confirms “a practice that is an open secret in the region.”

Within Turkey, UNHCR discourages Syrians from seeking permanent placement in another country since no one will take them. The global system of “resettlement” has basically stopped working.


As the world struggles to find homes for refugees, the war in Syria has brought the country to its knees. The estimated death toll is 470,000. Much of Syria’s industry and infrastructure has been destroyed. In 2015, the Center for Strategic and International Studies conducted an analysis of Syria’s post-war future. It found that “Syria will require a massive construction effort for every aspect of governance, its economy, and its social and physical infrastructure.”

The country is unable to export oil. Many regions are controlled by ISIS. Air and ground assaults have devastated major cities. Each day it becomes increasingly unlikely that refugees will want to go back, even when the war ends.

Guy Goodwin-Gill is a European lawyer and Emeritus Professor of International Refugee Law at Oxford. He is one of Europe’s most outspoken advocates for a more humane, collective approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. While international agencies and governments are scrambling to solve these problems, he contends that “none of this should’ve come as a surprise to anyone.

“One of the sad things is that people have always been surprised,” he says, “ever since 1921 when they first got together internationally and decided to do something about refugees. They assumed that refugees would be a temporary phenomenon, a blip in the relations between states, and they set up one temporary agency after another.”

None of this should’ve come as a surprise to anyone.

Until 2003, UNHCR was on five-year renewable mandates. But even after changing this status, the agency has been unable to reliably fund its services.

“UNHCR still has to act as if it’s a temporary agency,” he says, “running around every year to raise money, instead of being entitled to budget on the basis of a regular income, with the necessary allowance being made for emergencies.”

Refugee crises like this one have happened time and again. “But sadly,” Goodwin-Gill says, “states tend to go in for a great deal of wishful thinking. They like to think that every refugee exodus is short term; that the war will soon be over. Everyone will go back. Well, experience ought to tell us otherwise, but they do not seem to be particularly able to learn from experience.”


Since the war sped up in Syria about a year ago, and the numbers of refugees increased, many articles and experts have pointed out that the world hasn’t seen a refugee crisis like this since World War II. The statement is only true if the terms are carefully defined. While “refugee” crises may be rare in Europe, “migrants” are not.

“The elephant in the room is the migration issue,” says Guy Goodwin-Gill, “because that’s something which states, and the US is no exception here, are not prepared … to work cooperatively on.”

The term “migrant” usually refers to someone fleeing economic problems. While it is considered illegal to send someone back to a war, sending them back to a terrible, poor country isn’t. In the case of a formerly, or intermittently, war-torn country the difference between an economic migrant and a conflict-fleeing refugee is especially unclear.

Since January, 475,902 Syrians have fled to Greece. Many of these refugees are now stranded in various camps. But with them, on boats and in buses, are the victims of older wars. More than 205,000 Afghans fled to Greece in 2016. Almost 90,000 Iraqis have also made the journey. Most moved on to other European countries.

Around the world, Iraqis and Afghans face stricter policies and definitions that leave them out of asylum schemes. The UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, faced a backlash from human rights advocates when he called the refugees in the French camp in Calais a “bunch of migrants,” then compared them to criminals trying to rob his country.

“They are economic migrants,” he said, “and they want to enter Britain illegally and the British people and I want to make sure our borders are secure and you can’t break into Britain without permission.”

An appeals court in the UK recently ruled that Afghanistan is “safe enough” for refugees in the UK to return home. Though parts of Afghanistan are still controlled by terrorists, the courts ruled that the country’s capital is safe. They are now deporting Afghans via special charter flights to Kabul.


Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are now grouped together in European camps. It could be said that all of them are fleeing war or violence. But determining who has a legitimate claim to protection under international law is time-consuming and countries sometimes enlist specialized experts to interview each person individually. The process is subject to interpretation.

The 1951 Convention requires a “well-founded fear of persecution.” In his work on the subject, Georgetown law professor Andrew Schoenholtz describes how the US and Canada sometimes give protection to people from Central America. Sometimes they don’t. Drug-funded gangs use death threats, rape, torture and forced recruitment to terrorize entire cities and states in Central America. Gangs can co-opt governments and police forces, making justice inaccessible.

“US military analysts characterize this as ‘asymmetrical warfare,’” he writes, “or ‘insurgency’ used to establish political control and domination.”

In one immigration case in the US, the applicant received asylum because his gang-related tattoos proved he was affiliated with a targeted group. In another case, a journalist from Mexico was granted protection in Canada because of articles he’d written about organized crime.

People in Mexico undoubtedly have trouble finding honest work in cities controlled by drug cartels. But unless they are fleeing the cartel itself, they are considered an “economic migrant.” Without money to feed their families, and no legal route to US residency, many take their chances in the Sonoran Desert.

Of the 200 or so people “returned” to Turkey from Greece this month, most were not Syrians. Because of this, their fate in Turkey is totally unknown. The country has grudgingly passed laws to protect Syrians, but people fleeing older wars in the region remain unprotected. When the war in Syria ends, Syrians will also be vulnerable to deportation.


Human rights distinctions can be easily avoided in one fell swoop. If the fleeing individual never actually sets foot in your country, then the problem lands in a legal gray zone. In the US, presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed building a fence along the southern border with Mexico and, in a truly eccentric political flurry, he suggested Mexico should pay for it.

Since the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis, new fences have popped up in France, Macedonia, Hungary and Turkey. Fences make refugees other people’s problem, or in this case, other countries’ problem. Although fences aren’t necessarily illegal, blocking refugees does run counter to the 1951 Convention, which recommends “that Governments continue to receive refugees in their territories and that they act in concert in a true spirit of international cooperation.”

When a refugee meets a closed door and knocks, they are probably asking for protection. Particularly if a war rages on behind them. But if everyone pretends not to hear them knock, then they can avoid the whole mess. The burden is on the refugee to find a way in, which is why human traffickers continue to make money in spite of police efforts to shut down these criminal enterprises.

Guy Goodwin-Gill says like-minded countries need to rally together because “the future is not in building fences and walls.

“Quite frankly, if you’re desperate, if you’re a migrant indeed, or if you’re a refugee and you see a wall, you’re not suddenly gonna say, ‘Oh dear. Better go home and die, there’s a wall over there.’ Um, no,” he states. “If you’re desperate, you’re going to look around for a way to get under it or over it or through it. That’s human nature. And that’s one of the things that states tend not to recognize: what it is that drives people.”

VI. Syria’s Past, Turkey’s Future


Nothing drives people quite like war. The war in Syria is entering its sixth year, with few signs of abating. It’s been so long and become so muddled, that people forget how the war began. The conflict started in the Syrian city of Daraa when 15 school children were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti on a city wall. “The people want the regime to fall,” their graffiti read.

It was the time of the Arab Spring and the kids were inspired by revolutions in other autocratic nations in the region, including in Tunisia, where the self-immolation of a street vendor became a symbol of righteous anger among the impoverished. In Syria, the arrested schoolkids ranged in age from 10 to 15. While in police custody, they were tortured, and thousands took to the streets in their defense.

Within the region, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad was always considered a dictatorial leader. Trained as an ophthalmologist, he took over the job of president in 2000 from his father, who ruled Syria for 30 years. When he took the job from his father, elections were held, but no one was allowed to run against him. The regime occupied democratic Lebanon until 2005, when that country’s “Cedar Revolution” pushed out Syrian troops.

Despite his disdain for basic democratic principles, many western leaders believed Assad, the son, would be a reformer. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Syria in 2007 and said, “We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace.” Then-Senator John Kerry also believed Assad might break from his father’s totalitarian traditions. “Syria will move,” he said, “Syria will change as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States.”

That didn’t happen.


Two young Syrian refugees keep warm in a hidden space where they live in Gaziantep, Turkey.


When Syrian protesters came out to defend the 15 tortured children in March 2011, the government responded with live fire and at least four protesters were killed. A few weeks later, Assad addressed the Syrian Parliament. “Today, there is a new fashion which they call ‘revolutions,’” he said. This particular uprising was not a revolution, he contended, but a well-planned “conspiracy.”

He accused foreign and domestic elements of conspiring to create a misinformation campaign, and that campaign turned the Syrian people against one another. “They used the satellite TV stations and the Internet but did not achieve anything,” he said. “And then, using sedition, started to produce fake information, voices, images, etc.; they forged everything.

“Then they used weapons,” he said. “They started killing people at random; because they knew when there is blood, it becomes more difficult to solve the problem.” To fight conspirators and interlopers, Assad said, the people of Daraa, “share the responsibility of putting an end to sedition.

“Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty; and all those who can contribute to burying it and do not are part of it. The Holy Quran says, ‘Sedition is worse than killing,’ so all those involved intentionally or unintentionally in it contribute to destroying their country. So there is no compromise or middle way in this. What is at stake is the homeland and there is a huge conspiracy.”

Reforms, he acknowledged, would’ve helped quell the people’s concerns but were taking longer than planned. “There are no obstacles [to reform],” he said. “There are simply delays.”


The themes and accusations in Assad’s speech sound eerily familiar. The trial began this month in Turkey for Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, the journalists from Cumhuriyet accused of trying to topple the government with a story that showed weapons being sent to Syria under the pretense of humanitarian aid. The courts have ruled that the trial will happen behind closed doors and the president himself may be one of the official complainants.

President Erdogan acknowledged that the trucks Gul and Dundar wrote about belonged to the Turkish intelligence agency. And that they did contain weapons, being sent to Turkmen rebel fighters in Syria. Gul and Dundar weren’t arrested because they were wrong. They were arrested because they were right. The story was a set-up, Erdogan says, to discredit him.

Erdogan contends that the article was part of a huge foreign and domestic conspiracy that he calls the “parallel state,” whose aim is sedition and terrorism and which he has been fighting for a number of years. He believes “the parallel state” is being run by a Turkish religious leader, Fethullah Gulen, who currently lives in rural Pennsylvania. Once allies, Gulen and Erdogan ultimately became bitter competitors.

Speaking in 2014, Erdogan said, “I want my dear nation to know that we are not just faced with a simple network, but one which is a pawn of national and international evil forces.”

Journalists Gul and Dundar face life in prison. A few foreign delegates made a small show of protest by attending the opening of the trial, and President Erdogan retaliated against them. His world view, like Assad’s, is spirited by spies and provocateurs. “The consul-generals in Istanbul attended the trial,” he commented to a group of business leaders. “‘Who are you? What business do you have there?’

“Diplomacy has a certain propriety and manners. This is not your country. This is Turkey,” he said. “You can move inside the Consulate building and within the boundaries of the Consulate. But elsewhere is subject to permission.”


Even as President Erdogan makes it clear that democratic influences are unwelcome, Europe is doubling down on its commitment to Turkey. Against numerous legal, ethical and moral objections, the EU is now deporting refugees from Greece back to Turkey. It’s a very bad time to be forced to live in Erdogan’s world. But to appease objectors, the EU made a commitment to give $6.7 billion to improve the lives of refugees there.

When the money for refugees in Turkey is finally dispersed, it will be the most well-funded humanitarian emergency in the world, second only to Syria itself. Initial reports indicate much of the humanitarian funds will be dispersed through a multi-donor trust fund, the “Madad Fund,” managed by Europeans with cooperation from the Turkish government. Some money has already been dispersed, with a focus on food and education in the camps.

Whether or not the funds will actually improve the lives of refugees is debatable. Post-disaster trust funds typically distribute money according to a broad strategic plan based on a national needs assessment. The strategic plan for the Madad Fund is especially broad, since no one conducted any assessments. The plan leans on the usual vagaries of modern aid, including a lot of funding to support “stability” and “resilience,” “leveraging … capacities and knowledge,” and “maximizing coherence and synergies.”

Most Syrian refugees live in Turkey, but they don’t live in camps and Erdogan is too paranoid to let foreign aid groups go around knocking on doors. It’s been five years since the war began and no one has surveyed the people most in need. No one has even said they are in need. If aid groups have unofficial assessments in their hands, they are as secretive about them as the Turkish government.


Covert aid has ramifications and the most obvious one is silence. Sometimes secrecy within the aid world is a side-effect of complex bureaucracies. But not in the case of Turkey. Secrecy has become the standard operating procedure. It may help aid groups stay in Turkey in the short term, but the long term impact is that no one can be held accountable for the conditions of the urban refugees.

Aid groups have no incentive to advocate against Erdogan’s policies because right now they can raise money for the “Syrian crisis” and avoid mentioning Turkey at all. Individual donors don’t understand the geography. Institutional donors facilitate the practice. Government and UN-led funding schemes build in opportunities for organizations to obscure their roles in Turkey.

The Madad Fund, like other multi-donor trust funds, favors complexity. Committees who make project decisions for trust funds don’t want to evaluate lots of small proposals, so they tend to award big contracts with big goals, run by multiple organizations in collaboration. The application process for the Madad Fund is not public and the FAQ for the fund is revealing.

Is there a funding ceiling? “There are no fixed ceilings,” the fund replies. Is there a recommended timeline? The EU Commission suggests, “Project duration should be between 24 and 54 months.” In other words, bigger is better. Organizations are encouraged to “maximize synergies” by applying with partners.

The scale and complexity of the grants will make it hard for any outsiders to track the aid. But the Madad Fund goes one step further and actually tells organizations how to apply for money even when they aren’t allowed to operate in the country.

As [an] International NGO, do we need to be registered in the country/ countries where we want to implement our programs? No, the fund says. If your organization isn’t registered, they recommend finding a partner who is. “Co-applicants can be entities which do not have legal personality under the applicable national law,” they write, “provided that their representatives have the capacity to take on legal obligations on their behalf.”


The European Commission is facilitating funding to international aid groups who use local aid groups as their “representatives.” Letting local groups take the fall if something goes wrong seems especially dangerous in Turkey, where the government is inclined to arrest people on a whim. This practice underlies the international community’s entire approach to the refugee crisis in Turkey.

The approach favors private gain over societal benefits. If aid organizations were to openly acknowledge the condition for refugees in Turkey, the risk for those organizations would be very high. Just like it is for journalists. They might be kicked out of the country, their employees may get arrested and they wouldn’t be able to receive any funding at all. The financial consequences would be enormous. They would be opting out of one of the biggest disaster marketplaces in recent history.

Governments, particularly within the European Union, are reticent to blow the whistle on Turkey because they don’t want any more refugees. The UN hasn’t blown the whistle because they are funded and run by those very same governments. Because the people in need are “urban refugees,” the true situation for Syrians in Turkey is not known. Because their needs are not known, it has become easy not to address them.

And this is how bad countries become truly terrible. This is how a crisis becomes a disaster – when the people and organizations with the power to make change instead take up a shield of silence to protect themselves. Silence isn’t a shield, it’s a sword. Secrecy is the tradecraft of tyrants. It may work for a while, but when Erdogan becomes the next Assad, where will the refugees go then?

For two years, Marya has pulled at the pockets of people who walk past her, begging for money so she can eat. Marya says her mom is dead, but actually, her mother is alive, capable and bright. She escaped a war and managed to help her children escape. She opted out of a dictatorship. That ought to count for something.

The fact of this family living at all is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. But Marya’s mom is struggling so much in Turkey that her survival now feels like a liability. Fleeing the war is not an error she made and needs to be punished for. Her life, her living, ought to lift her up. It ought to lift us all up. It is an opportunity – for the whole world – to do more.

Lesvos – where to volunteer

Team Health Point Project tent in Moria Camp.Team Health Point Project tent in Moria Camp.

I spent two weeks, end November 2015 on the island working with Team Positive Action as well as with Health Point Project with the clear impression that the vast majority of the frontline response was done by unpaid volunteers, as well as local people stepping up to the task.

Almost all volunteer organizations have their main online presence on facebook, where they often update on their acitivities. Several facebook groups are active as well. However, these facebook pages quickly become large and difficult to navigate, and the answers one gets varies in quality. The most widely used facebook groups for volunteers are Information Points for Volunteers, Volunteer´s Coordination Team (the name may be misleading since this group is actually an extenstion of a particular volunteer group, the Volunteer´s Coordination Agency, run by Fred Morlet, though general questions are often asked). For medical people the group Medics for Greece may be useful.

The Lesvos Volunteer Map is continuously updated and shows where various organizations work.

Want to Volunteer on Lesvos and Information for Short-Term Volunteers are very comprehensive and continuously updated pages and a must-read for all considering volounteering on Lesvos and providing a very thorough list of volounteer opportunities. Also check out the Excel sheet Short-Term Volunteers Spreadsheet.

Volounteers distributing clothes at The Afghan Hill in MoriaVolounteers distributing clothes at The Afghan Hill in Moria

Main areas of interest for volunteers:

The north coast (arrival of the majority of boats): Main city here is Molyvos, app. 1:15 h. drive (80 km) from Mytilini. From here one may access to the North Coast on paved road to Eftalou (5 km), continuing unpaved (app 15 km) to Skala Sykaminea. Read about the migrants journey arriving on the coast.

The camps: The two main camps Moria and Kara Tepe are both located app. 10 km north of Mytilini. A third, smaller camp, Pikpa is located by the airport and caters primarily to people with special needs. The camps are described in detail in a separate post

Below, I highlight a few of the most established organizations, which I personally met when I was on the Island. Medical volunteers may read about the overall medical organization in a separate post.

On the North Coast:

Starfish – an established organization, working in Oxy transit camp and not on the actual coast. Seems very organized, with about 100 young people of all ages and nationalities working for them, many in theis 20s.  Skills required: All are welcome. The work is non-medical, no particular skills needed to apply. Very structured.

A Drop in The Ocean – Norwegian organization, open to anyone. Working mainly out of Eftalou. Mainly non-medical and no particular skills needed to apply. Works with The Kempsons and founded by Trude Petersen, after a short visit previously this year. Their facebook group has an impressive 30.000 members. Skills required: All are welcome. In addition they specifically ask for medical personnel.

Lighthouse Relief – Scandinavian initiated organization, open to anyone. Works out of Platanos, close to Skala Sykaminea where they operate a transit camp with possibilities for overnight stays as well as a small emergency room. No particular skills needed to apply. Also check their facebook page.

The Kempsons – not an organization, but a British couple, Eric and Philippa working out of their house in Eftalou. Collaborates with several volunteer organizations such as A Drop in The Ocean and Positive Action and knows what is going on mainly on the North Coast. For donations, they have an Amazon wish-list. Also check out Eric Kempson´s YouTube page.

Team Positive Action: Not a fixed team on the ground, but collaborates with The Kempsons and send volounteers with all sorts of backgrounds. Originates from the Scottish organization Positive Action in Housing.

The Volounteer Cook – A Young Malaysian cooking on the beach in Platanos. There are several other volounteer cooking organizations needing help,  including VCA, Bristol Skipchen and others. Try enquiring on the general facebook pages.

Disaster Medics – Paramedics and other people with medical skills working where neede, as of now, as mobile response team on the coast. Check out their facebook page, frequently updated with news.

The organization of medical volunteers on the North Coast is described in detail in a separate post.

In the Camps

Lesvos Volounteer Agency– one of the oldest and most established as well as professionally run of the volunteers organizations.  As of now, they work in Kara Tepe. No particular skills needed to apply.

Health Point Project – seem to have established a presence at the Moria Camp in a tent at the bottom of the Afghan Hill. They need all sorts of people, both with or without medical skills.

The overall medical organization of the camps is described in detail in a separate post.

Finally, a brief note regarding donations: Always ask organizations on the ground what they need as this changes. Information on the various facebook groups may not be accurate unless it comes directly from the organizations.  Buy as much as possible locally, it avoids shipping/customs as well as supports the local economy. For those going to the island: If in doubt who to give to, bring your money with you and find out what is needed once you are there.

Finally, if you need to talk to someone about what you have experienced on Lesvos after you get home, try Psychologists across borders.

Further info:
Overview of all posts on Lesvos and Lesvos FAQ for volunteers.

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