Rights in Crisis

  • We believe that the women, men and children who are affected by conflicts and disasters have a right to live in safety and dignity. Those most at risk – whether because of an earthquake, a drought or civil war – have a right to a life free from violence, and to have clean water, shelter and food. They also have the right to be heard and to take control of their own lives.

"We fled from our home... there were so many bodies on the streets."

 
Wafaa and her family in the half build house they now call home. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam
 
"We fled from our home; there were so many dead bodies on the streets." Wafaa (name changed to protect identity) sits on the floor in one of three rooms in a small, half-built house her brother rents for their families in Kahlo Bazini, in Kirkuk, northern Iraq. Conditions in the house are basic at best, some of the walls aren't yet finished and until Oxfam intervened they had no facilities to wash, no toilet, and no clean water.
 
"Our living situation is difficult, but we make things work; my brother works cleaning shops so that he can earn money to provide food for us. My children and I all depend on my brother. He goes to clean the shops and then brings home vegetables, things like tomatoes, and shares them between my children and his. We have lived in this same situation for a while," explains Wafaa.
 
Before arriving in Kirkuk, Wafaa and her family moved several times trying to escape ISIS as they took control of large areas of Iraq in 2014. "When we first left out home, we went to my brother's house in Al Eshaqi. We were there for three days and then attacks, bombing and killings started in the streets, so we left to go to my sister's house; she lived far away from the places that had been captured by ISIS. We didn't stay there very long though, about 27 days, and then the fighting started there as well. There were airstrikes, missiles and bombs everywhere."
 
At one point Wafaa and her family were forced to live in an empty school building: 'The school had no appliances; there was no water, toilets or place to wash; the water we were using came directly from the river, it was dirty and polluted. It gave us a lot of infections and allergic reactions. No one came to check if we were okay and the fighting continued to reach us again.
 
"Then my son got ill; he fell on the ground and his face swelled up. My son is only six years old. I had to tell my family that I couldn't stay there any longer." But the area was surrounded from both sides.
 
 
Wafaa Derwesh* (name changed), 39, was displaced with her family when ISIS took control of her village. She now lives in a small village near Kirkuk called Khalo Bazini. Photo: Tommy Trenchard / Oxfam
 
The school where Wafaa and her family were staying was isolated and very far from any roads, "It was like we had escaped to a small empty island far away", Wafaa explains. "There was no water and no electricity. And then ISIS struck. Three ISIS fighters who were carrying guns and firing passed by us; we were so scared we ran away again.
 
"When ISIS came, there were a lot of other families at the school; many of them left the school with us to escape ISIS. They put their black flag above the school; the same school that had been like a home to us." As Wafaa sits in the dark room of the house she and her family now call home she tells the story of how they escaped from ISIS.
 
"We left the school at around 4.00am and we reached the army controlled area at 12.00pm. ISIS had destroyed all the bridges. It was a cold winter, we had no clothes with us and we were trying to escape from ISIS. We were in bad situation, but there were other families and relatives who couldn't leave because ISIS had already taken control of the area and taken them under siege."
 
Not all of her family had been so fortunate. "My sister was still living at the school. She didn't have a car, and random bombing and air strikes had already begun between the army and ISIS. She was alone in the middle of their battle. She called my mom and told her the battle had begun and that she was about to give birth to her baby.
 
"One of my sister's neighbours was her midwife at the birth. It all happened during these air strikes and bombings. We were having a very cold and rainy spell and my sister was giving birth to her new child. She had been complaining about the pain in her stomach but there was no doctor, no food, and no medicine, and no car for her to get to them."
 
Even though ISIS had surrounded the area, Wafaa and her brothers went back to the school to try and fetch their sister. They wanted to get her the medical help she so badly needed. "She was on the dirty ground that had been polluted and her stomach was too swollen, I can't describe it, we couldn't do anything for her; we were helpless and powerless. It was very difficult to see her like that; she was my sister."
 
 
Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam
 
Wafaa managed to get her sister out of the school but she died soon after that. 'That's how I last saw her; it was very tragic; we all suffered and felt sad about losing her. We had become displaced in one way, and her daughters who are very young became displaced in a different way.' After her sister died, Wafaa took in her nieces and now provides for them as well as her own children.
 
There are currently over 3.2 million people displaced in Iraq, and even after their village or town has been recaptured from ISIS, families like Wafaa's aren't able to go home due to the level of destruction, number of mines left behind and the slow vetting process that ensues. "Our area was liberated a long time ago," Wafaa explains, "but they won't allow us to return because there are mines that have been planted, explosive devices and bombs in our farms and houses. Behind our home ISIS planted many bombs and explosive devices.
 
"I'm not afraid of anything. I'm waiting for the checkpoint at Balad to open and then I'll return to my house. My home was small but nice, and I was living happily in it. We left because ISIS attacked us; missiles were falling everywhere and my children were crying. It was a difficult situation and it was hard on my children. I couldn't make them understand that we had left because of the bombing and the battle between the army and ISIS. My children were afraid of ISIS.
 
"My young children are always saying that they miss their games and our house. They ask me when will we go back? All the displaced people here want to return to our homes because we are exhausted."
 
WHAT OXFAM IS DOING IN IRAQ
 
On Friday October 7th Irish Aid delivered 80 tonnes of aid to Iraq for Oxfam to distribute to vulnerable people fleeing the conflict in Mosul and beyond. Items being sent include blankets, jerry cans, cooking sets, water tanks, tarpaulins and shelter kits.
 
 
Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said he is gravely concerned up to 1.5 million people in the city of Mosul have been living under siege for more than two years, with a further 1 million in surrounding areas currently under ISIS control.
 
Oxfam has been working in 50 villages and towns across Diyala and Kirkuk governorates in northern Iraq since 2014. We are providing safe water in camps and in communities where people who have fled the fighting are sheltering, and enabling people to earn a living so that they can support their families. We have also been helping families as they return home once it is safe to do so.
 
We are now scaling up our response in the Mosul Corridor, operating in Salah Al-Din and Ninewa governorates. Oxfam is also working in the key strategic area of Qayyarat, which is 80km south of Mosul and sandwiched between ISIS-controlled territories. We are providing clear water and sanitation and essential items like blankets and hygiene kits.
 
Oxfam works across Iraq including in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
 
As military operations begin to retake the city of Mosul and surrounding areas from ISIS, we are expecting to help 60,000 people.
 

The migrants' winter walk: Oxfam calls for safe passage of refugees to Europe

Nearly 60 million people around the world are now officially “displaced” from their homes – the highest figure recorded by the United Nations since the Second World War.

Millions of these refugees are fleeing poverty and conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of them are making the difficult journey to Europe in the hope of a better life for them and their children.

In January 2016, the total number of arrivals of refugees to Europe reached 1,167,475 but at least 3,810 women, men and children are dead or missing, lost during the journey at sea or over land.

These are not just numbers, they are real people.

“People are arriving here exhausted, hungry and thirsty and often in need of urgent medical attention.” Riccardo Sansone Oxfam’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Serbia.
 
 
Fatheh, 45, (pictured above) is travelling alone with her 4 children. She had to flee Syria, but her husband stayed to take care of his mother who is too old for such a long and difficult journey. “Mine and my relatives’ homes were totally destroyed. There are no buildings left in my neighbourhood. We started going from one place to another. We were refugees inside our own country until we had nowhere to go. At that point, we had no other option but to leave Syria and become refugees. Even if the war ended, I don‘t think we’d ever come back home”.
 
 
Smart phones are a life-line to migrants and refugees. They help them to plan their journeys and stay in touch with their families. 
 
At Oxfam we recognise the importance of information sharing. We are working on the ground to provide refugees with information on safe roads, places, and their human and asylum rights.
 
 
Between October 2015 and January 2016, 985,600 arrivals were documented in Serbia and Macedonia. Many of the refugees along this route come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
 
To cross Serbia refugees must be granted a travel pass which gives them 72 hours to cross the border out of the country. Most refugees, who are mostly women, children and elderly people, make this journey on buses, trains and on foot.
 
For most of the route there are no, or inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
 
We believe that everyone has a right to safe water, sanitation and hygiene as a basic essential service.
 
So far we have supplied vulnerable people with portable latrines, sanitary and waste containers and sanitation equipment such as soap and toilet paper in three areas of Serbia.
 
 
Khalid (pictured above) has wrapped his children in a blanket to protect them from the cold as he carries them towards the Serbian border. He and his family, like millions of others, have fled the ongoing war in Syria.
 
People are only able to take the possessions that they can carry and are not prepared for the winter conditions that they face along the Balkans route, where temperatures drop below -16°C (3°F). 
 
Oxfam has supplied around 100,000 refugees and migrants with urgently needed winter items (such as jackets, underwear, gloves, cups, blankets and scarves) during the cold winter months in Dimitrovgrad, Sid, Preševo (Serbia).
 
 
The opening and closing of borders only adds to the challenges that refugees face. As routes change so do the needs in each location, even the train stations become temporary camps.
 
The Serbian government and NGOs on the ground are warning that the situation will only get worse throughout winter as the heavy snow will make the journey harder and more dangerous.

 

What Oxfam is doing

Working with local organisations in Serbia and Macedonia to protect new arrivals
 
 
Many of the migrants and refugees arriving in Europe along the Balkan route face daily uncertainty and practical challenges such as the route to take on their journey, from basic information about aid points and available services to the increasing risk posed by human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Most of them are women, children and elderly people. Through close interaction and monitoring of local authorities we support them, by ensuring that local organisations can provide adequate assistance and protection to new arrivals.
 
Besides our protection programme, we are also installing toilets, showers and water points and will be distributing hygiene and sanitary packs, as well as socks, coats and blankets to about 100,000 people in Serbia and in Macedonia. With the Balkan winter here, refugees not only face dropping temperatures, but food and water shortages, poor sanitation, and few winter clothes. The opening and closing of borders only adds to their struggle as routes change and so do the needs in each location. The Serbian government and NGOs on the ground are warning that the situation will only get worse in the coming months: the heavy snow will make the journey harder and more dangerous and people may be unable to continue.
 
We have been working in partnership with UN women to support the distribution of urgently needed items in Serbia and Macedonia following a UN Women gender assessment that shows women and girls' specific needs and vulnerabilities are not being adequately addressed. In partnership, we are also poised to deliver a targeted information campaign to women, capacity-building training to local counterparts and advocacy activities raising the voice of women migrants and refugees.
 
Providing emergency, legal and psychological support in Italy
 
We are helping those arriving in Italy by providing food, clothes, shoes, and personal hygiene kits as well as longer term psychological and legal support. We are supporting asylum seekers to find accommodation, and with cash so that they can meet their basic needs in Sicily and around Florence.
 
Distributing hot meals and winter kits in Lesbos, Greece
 
 
Above: Sanitation facilities at Kara Tepe camp, Greece. Photo: Jodi Hilton/Oxfam
 
We are providing hot meals to people on the Greek island of Lesbos.Thanks to the help of volunteers we are distributing meals of rice, lentils and vegetables once a day in co-operation with Save the Children.
 
We are also preparing winter kits and clothes for distribution on Lesbos and Kos and improving water and sanitation facilities in Moria Camp, Lesbos.
 
Border access is restricted between Greece and Macedonia: only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are allowed to cross, while thousands of asylum seekers from other nationalities are stuck in Greece.
 
Life-saving emergency support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan
 
More than 4 million people have had to flee Syria to escape its civil war. In 2014 we reached nearly half a million refugees in Jordan and Lebanon with clean drinking water or cash and relief supplies, such as blankets and stoves and vouchers for hygiene supplies. We are helping families get the information they need about their legal and human rights and connecting them to medical, legal and support services.
 
We have built shower and toilet blocks in refugee camps, informal settlements and on deserted routes used by people fleeing Syria and have installed or repaired toilets in communities hosting refugees. Piped water schemes are being developed for Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp and in host communities in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
 
We are also providing clean water to Syrians inside their country through rehabilitation of infrastructure, water trucking and repairing of wells.
 
Calling for safe passage 
 
Many refugees face brutality and poor treatment. Every day, approximately 50 boats with refugees or migrants, fleeing war or poverty, arrive off the coast of the small island of Lesbos, Greece. 
 
Desperately seeking safety in a new country, refugees pay traffickers amounts of around €1,000 per person (€800 if you're over 60 or if the weather is bad), to risk their lives on dangerous journeys.
 
 
Some are lucky enough to get to beaches where they face volunteer groups across Europe, others are not so lucky. More than 4,000 people fleeing for their lives, failed to reach the coast in 2015.
 
Our call for safe passage is founded in the belief that all people have the right to a life of dignity.
 
The EU must urgently provide safe and legal passage for migrants and refugees coming to Europe.
 
Refugees and migrants must not be forced to risk their lives or resort to extremely dangerous measures to continue their journey.
 

All photos by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam.

The refugee crisis you won’t have heard about: On the ground in Tanzania

The situation facing refugees from Syria has been one of the big international stories of the past year but another crisis has been less visible.

Tens of thousands of refugees have fled Burundi, a landlocked country in East Africa, into neighbouring Tanzania after election tensions last year led to weeks of violent protests.

Michael O’Riordan, Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Coordinator, took a lead role in organising the humanitarian response.

Having been involved in many humanitarian programmes before ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines to South Sudan, Michael was well prepared for his secondment to Tanzania last year.

Nevertheless, the huge influx of refugees arriving from Burundi meant it was like “setting up a small town from scratch” at the Nyarugusu camp.

Michael first arrived in May last year after approximately 30,000 people crowded onto a rugged beach shore of Kakunga Beach, Lake Tanganyika, on the Burundi and Tanzania border. Many spent up to three weeks here in exposed, cramped conditions with little clean water, food or sanitation.

Watch this video where Michael shares his experiences in Tanzania, responding to the Burundian refugee crisis:

Michael in Tanzania | Oxfam Check-In

The refugees there were brought to the Nyarugusu camp, where Michael helped set up Oxfam’s emergency programme. Often whatever worldly belongings they brought on their journey had to be left behind to be transported to the camp at a later date, meaning that many refugees arrive in the camp with just the clothes on their back. People are thirsty and tired; many are sick. They’ve gone through so much already just to get to this point, and what they need now is clean water, food and a place to sleep.

One of Michael’s main priorities was to expand the existing water and sanitation network within the Nyarugusu camp to allow for the huge numbers arriving. The original water system was built by Oxfam 20 years ago and was designed to be used by 50,000 people but was already being used by 65,000 mainly Congolese refugees. (Nyarugusu was created in the mid-1990s to house people fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo).

The numbers of people now arriving from Burundi since May 2015 has made Nyarugusu the world’s third largest refugee camp today with a population of 173,000 with the vast majority new arrivals (it was once the ninth largest).

Having so many people living in such close proximity to each other creates conditions ripe for diseases like cholera and typhoid to spread. Access to clean running water, a toilet and a shower is vital.

Above: Michael O'Riordan shares a moment of laughter with refugee children in Tanzania.

“We were dealing with approximately 30,000 of the refugees coming from Burundi’, says Michael. “So many basic services were lacking, and we had to set them up from scratch. This meant the first phase of the trip was very busy, with many 24 hour days and very little sleep. We also had to import some of our equipment due to the lack of services in the area. The only way of importing this was driving from Nairobi in Kenya all the way to northern Tanzania, which was a good four/five days of physical driving.”

The Tanzania Water and Environment Sanitation (TWESA), a local NGO set up by Oxfam, partnered up with Oxfam in dealing with the crisis. Michael describes how TWESA’s local knowledge of the area meant they had the capacity to respond effectively to the crisis. There was also a reunion of old friends, as many of the Oxfam and TWESA staff had previously worked together before.

The long days and limited services were challenges for Michael and his team, but it was easy to be reminded of the importance of a humanitarian presence in the area on his first day meeting refugees. “I was talking to a woman who had been separated from her husband and some of her children, and who had not received food in five days,” he says. “It really brought home to me the desperate situation which many were facing, and the work that needed to be done.’’

Clockwise from top: Boy using Oxfam water station for hygiene at Tanzanian refugee camp. Oxfam workers prepare water supplies at Tanzanian refugee camp. Refugees in Tanzania.

Along with improving water and sanitation systems and providing basic hygiene items like soap, toothpaste and sanitary towels, Michael observed a need for something else basic but equally vital – buckets, cooking pots and kitchen utensils for people to carry, prepare and eat the food being distributed to them, something which Oxfam has since distributed.

People were using any container they could find to collect the nutritious porridge-like food that was being distributed, and Michael watched as a man, who had queued for hours, finished what he had to eat and walked down the length of the queue to pass his precious container onto the first person who had none.

“That generosity, even in their hardship, these people were willing to share with each other to make sure that they could each get food really struck me. I met that man again several weeks later, and he was able to take me to where he was staying now… he had set up a little barber business using a razor powered by solar energy. In so far as you can be in that environment, he was trying to make his life normal again.

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First impressions mask difficult reality of life in a Syrian refugee camp

Before I arrived in Jordan, Zaatari Refugee Camp in my mind had taken on almost mythical proportions. I had heard that it was initially constructed to accommodate a population of 35,000 but was now rumoured to have a registered population of more than 130,000. And frighteningly, not the largest refugee camp in the world.

As I approached by car, it seems strange to say but I was disappointed by first impressions. Zaatari refugee camp sits atop a relatively flat landscape not far from the Syrian border and without an aerial view the sense of scale I had imagined was impossible to view.

 

Above: The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is a sprawling city with rows of tents as far as the eye can see. Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

Surrounded by a high wire fence for security, it appears orderly with its seemingly evenly spaced rows of regulation refugee tents. It is solid underfoot too with crushed stone to prevent muddying caused by vehicles and human traffic in winter rain. And either side of the road that leads from the main entrance is a remarkable array of market stalls selling everything from fruit, vegetables and cooked food to clothes and toys and household basics sourced from local traders outside the camp. The refugees from Syria have proven themselves to be remarkably self-reliant and resourceful.

“It doesn’t seem that bad,” a companion commented. Indeed there is much about Zaatari that on first appearances “doesn’t seem that bad”…if the alternative is to be trapped in a bitter conflict that has left an estimated 70,000 dead and forced another 6 million (yes, million) people to flee their homes.

First impressions too of course can be deceptive and as the morning and hours passed, the realities of life in the refugee camp became more apparent…more than anything else the sense of confinement, the restricted space, the lack of opportunity to escape even for just a short time from the heaving bustling hive of activity. 

Clockwise from top:  Clothes drying on a high-wire fence in the camp. Caroline Gluck/Oxfam. Oxfam public health staff put the finishing touches to 95,000 litre water tanks that will considerably increase the water storage capacity in the refugee camp. Karl Schembri/Oxfam. A woman and child gather water in the camp where Oxfam has installed tap stands and towers, latrines, bathing areas, laundry areas, water collection points and wash blocks. Caroline Gluck/Oxfam. Syrian children in the camp share a smile. Karl Schembri/Oxfam. Syrian refugees arrive at the camp, originally built for 35,000 but now accommodating more than 130,000. Caroline Gluck/Oxfam.

And as we moved beyond the road that once formed the main axis of the camp, it is with regret that I say my expectations of scale were finally met. Row upon row upon row of tents dominated the horizon as far as the eye could see. This was no camp. This was a sprawling city, ironically the significance of which is only best understood when you see the enormity of the blank canvas of land that has been cleared to accommodate still more tents and, more recently, prefabs.

Later, faces pressed against the fence outside a health clinic where lines of mothers and young children queued served only again to re-enforce the sense of claustrophobia and suggesting that, despite best efforts, supply of services had outstripped demand. It could hardly be otherwise. 

Organisations like Oxfam are working closely with the refugee population to provide access to the most basic of human needs such as clean water and washing facilities but the scale of need is frankly overwhelming…1,500 people arrive on average each day. I wondered how we in Ireland would cope with such an influx. More importantly still, how do the Syrian refugees cope?

Refugee camps are rarely constructed as homes but places of temporary refuge until it is safe to go home or some alternative option is found. Almost as though lives can be put on hold while diplomats, like economists, trade options...and futures...of those whose recent past, and perhaps even lives, have been comprised of choices few of us could ever even conceive.

As I write now amidst a flurry of international activity to bring about a resolution to the conflict, I hear that the influx of refugees across the border into Jordan has almost ceased. And then the question, why? And quickly the realisation that those in Zaatari are the lucky ones...they were able to flee. And it is then you understand the true meaning of “it doesn’t seem that bad”.

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