Understanding Resilience – An Interview with the UNDP’s Samuel Doe

 Samuel Doe is the UNDP policy adviser for crisis, fragility and resilience (photo: Josh Styer/EMU)


Samuel Doe is the UNDP policy adviser for crisis, fragility and resilience (photo: Josh Styer/EMU)

July 10, 2015 – When Samuel Doe was growing up during Liberia’s 1990s civil-war he recalls aid workers distributing wheat to feed the hungry.

“Liberians never ate wheat. We had to learn to eat wheat,” he says. “It wasn’t our decision.” He also remembers mothers queuing up to receive cooked porridge to feed their babies and aid workers insisting on feeding the babies themselves. “They did not trust the mothers would feed their babies.”

“That sort of indignity is becoming less and less now,” says Doe, who is the UN Development Program’s policy adviser on resilience, an often-used and misunderstood term that is transforming the way aid and development work.

At a fundamental level, “resilience is about harnessing agency, the intentional action of human beings and believing that human beings can make dignified decisions that over time strengthen their independence, strengthen their interdependence and their self-reliance,” Doe explains.

But how does that translate on the ground for the UN and international NGO’s doing aid and development work and what were the reasons behind the shift to a resilience approach?

There are four broad reasons, Doe says.

The first is a realization that, with a lot of complex emergencies, once the response and recovery phase is over, these countries do not have a stronger society and stronger systems.

“We find them repeatedly again and again falling back onto those conditions of fragility that have been exacerbated by the crisis. Countries that have gone through war and have recurrence in 2-3, maybe 5-10 years,” Doe says. “Countries that have repeated disasters have been depleted of human resources and social capital. That is one of the reasons why people begin to ask how can we make the humanitarian response and recovery processes put countries on a path that is sustainable after a disaster.”

“The second reason behind the motivation, the push to resilience, is that prior to this thinking we have always thought in the international system that there is a sequential approach, a sequential relationship between humanitarian response and development. So there is a crisis, the first line actors are humanitarians, they do their bit then they get out and then we come in and then development people pick up the pieces. But, increasingly, depending on the quality of work that humanitarians do, they are likely inadvertently to make the development space more difficult.”

“For example in many humanitarian responses there is a tendency to develop parallel systems: we can’t work with the governments so we will establish our own coordination system, which brought about the cluster system. We will set up our own accountability system. The funding mechanism will go directly to the implementing organizations that we will work with. So government being the primary actor to responding to disaster is often left out in these emergency response.”

“Parallel systems that are developed in a crisis context that then overcrowd the local government systems over time make them almost inoperable to assume responsibility once the response is over. Many governments are saying increasingly that unless we use the country systems in preparing and responding to disasters it will be difficult for these countries to develop much more robust systems against future disasters.”

The third reason is that emergencies are increasingly slow-onset, says Doe, and aid and development work is happening at the same time.

“Take the case of Syria, the case of the Horn of Africa, or the case of the Sahel. There is no relief and then development. There is relief and then development constantly interacting because it’s a slow-onset crisis, it’s a protracted crisis. This illusion that humanitarians will do their bit, they will get out and then we’ll come in does not work. Therefore we have to cultivate a new way of working that allows development actors and humanitarian actors to work in the same space at the same time but that then puts a lot of pressure on the humanitarians who say well ‘we need the core humanitarian principles to still be respected,’ principles of neutrality, independence, impartiality. These need to be respected but they do not preclude the recognition and use of local systems. So how can local systems be used by respecting impartiality and neutrality and independence. This is the discourse we are pushing.”

The fourth reason is that the architecture of the development and humanitarian communities reflects the financial architecture of the donor communities so there are donors that fund only humanitarian work and donors that only fund development work. “There is no bridge conceptually or operationally for humanitarians to tap into development funds and vice versa,” Doe says.

But slowly UN appeals are being reconfigured to move away from short-term appeals, months or up to one year, to multi-year appeals that address both the humanitarian emergency and the underlying development issues.

So how will a resilience approach be implemented and what lessons have been learned from the past?

“Society should have the capacity to predict risk and if possible prevent risk using development, prevent the threat factors that are preventable,” says Doe. “So say, for example, we look at the Ebola crisis in West Africa, we’re saying the recovery plan should emphasize the resilience of the countries because when the crisis happened, it only took three months for Ebola to destroy the institutions the international community had invested billions into in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It took just three months for the economy to go into free fall, for the health systems to collapse completely. The highest donor support in Liberia was to the health sector. The system that we put the most money into was the system that collapsed in three months. What gave way to that?”

“Prior to Ebola, Liberia had literally 51 doctors for 4.5 million people. More than two-thirds of those doctors were concentrated in Monrovia, Although we’re investing in building the infrastructure of the health system, we’re building the clinics, but the Liberian medical school was producing less than 20 doctors every year. It’s appalling that the doctors being produced weren’t equipped to deal with very basic supply chain management, access of rural clinics to supplies, roads that were inaccessible. Even basic gloves were not in villages and clinics. So the way we invested in the health system focused a lot on payment of salaries, focused a lot on building the infrastructure but the human capital that is necessary to sustain those systems was less invested in. So our investment was sort of skewered to different priorities.”

A major push behind resilience thinking is strengthening local governments as they are the front-line responders to a crisis.

“If we do risk sensitive development we need to emphasize local government systems, emphasize working with local governments, making sure local governments and administrative bodies are strong, that local governments have their own preparedness capacity in place,” Doe says. “That there is a strong, fluid, very active supply line, a communication line that runs across local and central governments. We’ve  seen that in the Ebola crisis, we’ve seen that in other crisis: when the local systems are functioning, when the local communities are actively engaging the systems, the response capacity is fast and is effective.”

The resilience approach is now being used for the Syrian crisis and Doe explains the thinking that lead to this.

“There was tension between humanitarians and the development people. At some point the humanitarians said this is a humanitarian crisis, we want to focus on humanitarian issues. we do not want the development actors to confuse this, but over time we all realized that this crisis is going on years and it’s transnational. Turkey is affected, Jordan is affected, Lebanon is affected. They all have refugees. The refugees are not all in camps, they’re in homes, some are working. So you can’t use the way we do humanitarian response in that setting.”

“In Lebanon for example you have two shifts of schools, morning and in the afternoon, so maybe you have to increase the salaries of teachers. Paying that cannot come through a humanitarian fund, it goes through the government. That is the kind of thing that is happening. Strengthening systems of governments so that they deliver on a humanitarian crisis. Rather than strengthening humanitarian systems so that they deliver only humanitarian aid. So that is the distinction that is being made in the Syrian situation.”

Prepaid cards distributed to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Prepaid cards distributed to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Another example Doe gave is the credit card system used in Jordan where Syrian refugees are given prepaid cards instead of aid workers determining what goods and services the refugees need, the refugees decide for themselves.

“They have credit cards now, they can go to a bank, use their credit card and get their funds for their own welfare. That’s an example of choice, of empowerment. So giving them choice giving them the freedom of choice is an important outcome or characteristic of building resilience. It’s dignity,” says Doe, who was instrumental in designing the 3RP plan for Syria.

Although resilience has been a buzzword for the past few years, it is only now that it is being codified. The United Nations is about to release its UN System Principles on Building Resilience, a document two years in the making that involved not just the UN’s humanitarian and development arms but also international NGO’s working on the ground.

“It’s an amazing process, just to have a blueprint, something that is codified,” Doe says. Now the hard work starts. “Multi-year appeals, getting donors to  change their way of thinking, trying to really get governments thinking too that this is about ownership: this is your crisis. Working together more coherently getting coordination systems way ahead of time, making sure we have preparedness –  we spend billions of dollars on response but less than one percent on readiness of countries, changing that paradigm, making sure we spend a bit more money on getting people ready. Are these schools ready, are they producing the right human capital?”

Doe also says a more integrated early warning system, not just for food and conflict, but also pathogens is needed. He said there’s currently a push to get the EU to develop its own Center for Disease Control so that it too can provide global disease surveillance.

The stark reason why the UN is changing the way aid and development is done is simply because natural disasters are increasing and new conflicts continue to emerge and escalate at an alarming rate. This underlies the resilience approach.

“We will not be able to deal with all of these exogenously, just from outsiders going in,” Doe says. “That’s not going to work.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

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Syria Overtakes Afghanistan as Top Source Country for Refugees

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June 18, 2015 – Before the conflict in Syria started, the country was among the top five refugee hosting states. It is now the number one source country for refugees, having overtaken Afghanistan which had been the number one source country since 1981.

There are now a record 59.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, mostly as a result of war and persecution, according to figures released Thursday by the UN Refugee Agency in its annual Global Trends report. In addition to the 3.9 million Syrian refugees in 107 countries, there are another 7.6 million internally displaced Syrians. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are hosted in neighboring countries Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.

The number of Afghan refugees stands at 2.6 million, making them the second largest refugee group. The majority of Afghan refugees are hosted in Pakistan and Iran.

The next highest group of refugees are Somalis with 1.1 million, mostly residing in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Sudan and South Sudan are the third and fourth largest countries of origin for refugees with the latter experiencing a massive outflow of people fleeing war and hunger in the past twelve months – some 616,200 South Sudanese are now refugees compared with 114,400 last year. Ethiopia and Kenya were the top destination countries for South Sudanese.

Armed conflicts in the Central African Republic and Ukraine saw the number of refugees from these countries grow with Cameroon hosting the majority of CAR’s 412,000 refugees while more than 270,000 Ukrainians applied for asylum or refugee status in Russia. There are also more than 800,000 displaced inside Ukraine.

Developing countries continue to bear the primary burden of hosting refugees while the Americas hosts the lowest number and Europe – excluding Russian and Turkey, which is now the world’s biggest host country – the next lowest.

UNHCR said in its report that at least 3,500 people died crossing the Mediterranean last year seeking shelter in Europe.

More than half of the world’s refugees are children, the agency said.

The full report is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Wikimedia

Syrian Government Attacks on Medical Facilities Reach Record High in April

hcid-ambulance
May 28, 2015 – A medical facility was attacked almost every other day by Syrian government forces during April and the majority of attacks involved the use of barrel bombs, Ban Ki-moon reported to the Security Council on Thursday.

In his monthly report to the Council, Ban wrote that there were 14 attacks on medical facilities throughout the country in April. Five of the attacks occurred in Idlib, four in Aleppo, two in Damascus and one each in the Deir ez -Zor, Hama and Hasakeh Governorates. In addition, ambulances and medical personnel continue to be targeted. Seven medial workers were killed in April, five by shelling and two who were shot. Government forces were responsible for all attacks, the UN chief stated.

“The number of attacks on medical facilities in April was the highest monthly total on record in my monthly reports since the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2139,” Ban wrote. “Attacks on such facilities have a multiplier effect, not only killing and injuring, but also leaving many people unable to get the treatment that they need.”

Meanwhile, the number of people in besieged areas stands at 422,000 including 163,500 besieged by government forces in eastern Ghouta. No assistance reached eastern Ghouta in April but in early May, the World Health Organization was able to deliver, through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), diabetes treatment for 200 people as well as two dialysis machines, according to the report.

WHO had requested permission to send 2,000 renal failure medicines but permission was granted for only 250. The SARC convoy delivering the aid was hit by mortar fire resulting in the death of one volunteer and injuries to three others.

More than 225,000 people are besieged by ISIL Deir ez-Zor city. No aid has reached them since March when the Food and Agriculture Organization delivered 140 sheep.

The UN defines a besieged area as “an area surrounded by armed actors with the sustained effect that humanitarian assistance cannot regularly enter, and civilians, the sick and wounded cannot regularly exit.”

The government is also confiscating medical supplies, Ban said in the monthly report to the Council.

“Despite obtaining approval from the local authorities, all injectable medicines, surgical supplies and medical kits were removed from a United Nations inter-agency convoy to Ar-Rastan in Homs by the security forces. Consequently, people were deprived of 10,459 treatments,” he said in the report.”

A measles vaccination campaign by UNICEF and WHO in April targeting 2.5 million children reached 1.6 million children, Ban wrote. ISIL did not permit the campaign in Raqqa and large parts of Deir ez -Zor with the exception of allowing 1,000 children to be vaccinated in Raqqa. Fighting prevented the campaign reaching other areas including in Aleppo, Homs and rural Damascus.

Nine humanitarian aid workers have been killed in Syria since the start of the year, according to the report, bringing to 76 the number killed since March 2011.

The full report is below.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Photo: ICRC

Ban Ki-moon Monthly Report on Syria resolutions

UN Unable to Reach 420,000 Besieged in Syria

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OCHA map of besieged areas in Syria. Click for larger image.

April 22, 2015 – United Nations aid agencies delivered food to only 18,200 people in besieged areas of Syria last month while health assistance reached a mere 1,198, according to new report from Ban Ki-moon to the Security Council.

Ban wrote that 440,000 people remain besieged in Syria including 167,500 by government forces in eastern Ghouta and Darayya, a further 26,500 by unnamed non-State armed groups in Nubul and Zahra while 228,000 are besieged by ISIS in Deir ez-Zor city as well as 18,000 in Yarmouk.

“The parties to the conflict continued to restrict access to besieged areas during March,” Ban wrote. “United Nations agencies reached a total of 18,000 people (4 per cent) with food assistance and 1,198 people (0.3 per cent) with health assistance. No core relief items were dispatched during the reporting period.”

The UN defines a besieged area as “an area surrounded by armed actors with the sustained effect that humanitarian assistance cannot regularly enter, and civilians, the sick and wounded cannot regularly exit.”

The secretary-general’s report stated that with the exception of a supply of water for 300 people last month, no aid has been delivered to eastern Ghouta since March. In the government-controlled western neighborhoods of Deir ez-Zor city, 228,000 people are besieged by ISIL and no United Nations aid has reached them since May 2014, the report said. ISIL has also deactivated a power plant in Deir-az-Zor, severely restricting the water supply for besieged residents.

The report also details continuing summary execution and torture by government forces and ISIS.

The full report is below.

Secretary-General Report on Syria, April 2015

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Podcast, Episode 1, Humanitarian Crisis in Syria

April 20, 2015 – Interviews with UN officials on the sidelines of the recent Kuwait III pledging conference, including WHO director-general Margaret Chan who provides an overview of the health crisis inside Syria; WHO Syria coordinator Elizabeth Hoff on specific health challenges, including prostheses and mental health; and the World Food Program’s Dina El Kassaby, recently returned from Syria, on what she saw and the challenges of delivering food aid.

EU, US, Kuwait top Donors at Syria Pledging Conference

Ban Ki-moon and Kuwait FM Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah at a press conference following the Third International Pledging Conference for Syria (UN Photo)

Ban Ki-moon and Kuwait FM Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah at a press conference following the Third International Pledging Conference for Syria (UN Photo)

Kuwait City, March 31, 2015 –  A total of $3.8 billion was promised to alleviate the dire humanitarian situation for Syrians at the Third Humanitarian Pledging Conference for the country, more than double the combined amount committed at the previous two donor conferences for Syria.

The European Union and its member states pledged a total of $1.2 billion while the United States, $507 million, and hosts Kuwait, $500 million, were the top donors.

Also among the biggest to promise aid were the UAE, $100 million, and Saudi Arabia, $60 million. “While we cannot bring peace, this funding will help humanitarian organizations deliver life-saving food, water, shelter, health services and other relief to millions of people in urgent need,” outgoing UN aid chief Valerie Amos said.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has not yet released a final tally of all donors, saying it had to first convert from money pledged in national currencies into dollars, the currency used by the United Nations when releasing figures. [full list of pledges now available]

The conflict in Syria has killed an estimated 200,000 people while a further one million have been injured since 2011.

Amos told UN Tribune that “despite the considerable amount of work that we have been able to do, the huge toll that the people of Syria have had to take is a poor reflection on the international community.

“I think the fact that we have not been able to find a political solution to this crisis, that the violence has escalated rather than deescalated is something I view with a huge amount of regret and I will continue to do what I can as a private citizen to help and support the Syrian people,” she said.

This was the first of the three Syria donors conferences where the UN Development Program was principally involved along the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “I think it’s widely acknowledged now that a purely humanitarian response cannot do the job,” UNDP Administrator Helen Clark told UN Tribune.

“We need more sustainable solutions. Those solutions are real investment in livelihoods, jobs, training, basic community infrastructure and services and keeping community tolerance of newcomers coming in. These are development tasks and now there’s wide awareness that this must be invested in.”

Speaking after the conference, Ban Ki-moon told reporters of his “deep anger against Syrian leaders who have been abandoning their own people.”

“The best humanitarian solution to end the suffering is a political solution to end the war,” Ban said. “It is time to forge an inclusive, Syrian-led political transition based on the Geneva Communique and which meets the aspirations of the Syrian people.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN Agencies Pin Hopes on Kuwait Pledging Conference for Syria Funds

An example of a World Food Program package delivered to Syrians in need.

An example of a World Food Program package provided to Syrians in need.

Kuwait City, March 29, 2015 – Representatives from UN agencies started gathering in Kuwait over the weekend ahead of the Third International Pledging Conference for Syria with hopes that donors will stump up much needed funds for the at least 12 million Syrians in need.

A combined total of almost $4 billion was pledged at the previous two donor conferences – $1.5 billon in 2013 and 2.4 billion last year – but almost double that amount is needed at the March 31st gathering to meet basic needs for the remainder of the year.

The World Food Program requires $30 million weekly to feed six million Syrians inside and outside the country while the World Health Organization’s (WHO) requirements to provide life-saving medicines and services for 2015 is over $1 billion.

The WHO’s Tarik Jasarevic told UN Tribune that new crises continue to emerge and with the warmer season approaching the risk of cholera increases.

A crisis that continues to worsen is the decreasing amount of medical facilities and professionals in the country. Barely half the hospitals in Syria are fully functioning while more than half of the country’s doctors and health staff have left the country due to insecurity.

Procuring essential medicines is another growing challenge. While Syria once produced 90 percent of the drugs it needed in in the country, that figure is now less than 30 percent.

A hidden crisis is emerging in the mental health sector with a lack of facilities and a lack of medicine. Syrians with chronic diseases, including an estimated 10,000 children with cancer, are also at risk due to diminishing availability of life-saving treatment while a lack of dialysis treatment for diabetes sufferers is yet another growing crisis.

The UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) requires $903 billion for 2015. Two years ago, 2.5 million Syrian children needed help, the agency’s Juliette Touma told UN Tribune, but that figure has increased three-fold to 8.5 million, including 2.6 million children who are not in school.

Another UN agency hoping for a big response in Kuwait is UNRWA, the agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, including more than 500,000 residing in camps in Syria. UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said it urgently needs $415 million as 95 percent of Palestinian refugees in Syria cannot meet their daily needs.

Some 78 governments and more than 40 aid agencies are expected in Kuwait for the pledging conference on Tuesday which Ban Ki-moon will chair.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN Reports Continuing Interactions Between IDF and Armed Groups in Golan

Israeli Forces in the Golan Heights (Feb. 2015) photo: Creative Commons/IDF

Israeli Forces in the Golan Heights (Feb. 2015) photo: Creative Commons/IDF

March 26, 2015 – UN peacekeepers continue to observe interactions between armed groups in the Golan Heights and members of the Israeli Defence Forces.

The information was in the latest report to the Security Council from Ban Ki-moon on the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force monitoring the 1974 ceasefire agreement between Israel and Syria.

“UNDOF observed one occasion in November [2014] and several in January and February when armed individuals crossed the ceasefire line, approached the technical fence [that runs along the length of the Israeli side of the buffer zone] and at times interacted with IDF across the ceasefire line in the vicinity of United Nations observation posts 51 and 54 [see map,]” Ban wrote in the report released this week.

The Al Nusra Front and allied groups control most of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights but are engaged in an ongoing battle with Iran-backed Hezbollah for control of the strategic plateau.

Ban’s report also said that trucks, some mounted with anti-aircraft guns, crossed over to the Israeli side and that packages were loaded onto a number of trucks before returning to the Syrian side. The report added that injured individuals were also transported to the Israeli side.

“In some instances, wounded individuals were handed over from the Bravo [Syrian] side to the Alpha [Israeli] side. During the evening of 20 January, in the area north of observation post 54, UNDOF observed two trucks crossing from the Bravo side to the Alpha side, where they were received by IDF personnel. The trucks were loaded with sacks before returning to the Bravo side,” Ban wrote.

“On at least four occasions in February, United Nations personnel at observation post 54 saw vehicles, including small trucks, crossing the ceasefire line from the Bravo side and approaching the technical fence,” the UN chief added. “On one such occasion, several vehicles, including some with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back, were seen parked next to the technical fence.”

The UNDOF force has seen its size and scope reduced in recent months due to the deteriorating security situation and most of the troops are located on the Israeli side while also manning some key observation posts including on Mount Hermon.

Late last year, Ban recommended reducing the force from its mandated strength of about 900 personnel to less than 750 because of limited capacity and the reluctance of countries to offer troops for the mission. In the past year or so, Austria, the Philippines, Japan and Croatia have all withdrawn their contingents. Currently, troops from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands make up the force.

Recently, a spokesperson for the Czech president’s office said the country has offered troops to replace those departing.

“By sending Czech soldiers to the mission in the Golan Heights and possibly also to the mission in Lebanon, the president (Zeman) wants to not only confront the threat of Islamism, but also reinforce the defense of Israel,” Hynek Kmoníček, head of the foreign affairs section of the Presidential Office, told the daily Mladá fronta Dnes.

However, the spokesperson was corrected by the Czech military’s chief-of staff who said UNDOF’s mission “is not to defend Israel against possible attacks by Islamic militants, given the mission’s mandate and the capabilities of the Israeli forces.”

The report from Ban also said that UN vehicles stolen by Al Nusra are being used by the group and some have been outfitted with anti-aircraft guns.

The full report is below.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Report on UNDOF

Needs Far Outstrip Resources as Syria Donors Prepare to Meet

Syrian Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan.  (C. McCauley/Wikimedia Commons)

Syrian Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. (C. McCauley/Wikimedia Commons)

March 25, 2015 – With the campaign against ISIS dominating headlines from Syria, the United Nations will convene a donors conference on March 31st in Kuwait to raise much needed funds to address the ever-growing humanitarian crisis inside and outside Syria’s borders and to re-ignite awareness of the world’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

More than half of Syria’s population is displaced, some 7 million inside the country and another almost 4 million have fled the country with the majority residing in camps in neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.

An $8.5 billion UN appeal was launched at the beginning of the year but only seven percent of the requested funds have been received, with just 23 countries contributing so far in 2015.

Despite the media and donor fatigue, the humanitarian situation in Syria is dire and atrocities continue, including more reports of chemical agents used as weapons. The Security Council this month adopted a resolution condemning the use of weaponized toxic chemicals following the OPCW’s finding “with a high degree of confidence, that chlorine had been used as a weapon in three villages in northern Syria from April to August 2014.”

An estimated one million Syrians have suffered injuries in the past five years, according to Handicap International with tens of thousands of those in need of prosthetic limbs. And a recent report from Physicians for Human Rights said that in the year from March 15, 2014 to Feb. 28, 2015, 162 medical personnel in Syria were killed. There were 82 attacks on medical facilities inside the country, including 32 attacks on 24 facilities using barrel bombs, the report added.

As well as seeking much needed funds, the United Nations will also hope that Western countries will share the burden of hosting Syria’s refugees. So far, only five percent of those who have fled the country have found refuge in EU countries, with the majority finding shelter in Germany and Sweden.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN Peacekeepers Observe IDF Interacting With Al Nusra in Golan

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Dec. 4, 2014 – UN troops monitoring the 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria have witnessed interactions between members of the Israeli Defence Forces and the Al Nusra Front who have taken over a large part of the Golan Heights.

The information is included in a report by Ban Ki-moon to the Security Council issued on Thursday on the activities of the UN Disengagement Observer Force. The peacekeeping mission was forced to relocate its troops from the Golan because of a deteriorating security situation which included 45 Fijian troops kidnapped by the rebels in August.

In the report Ban writes, “Following the evacuation of UNDOF personnel from position 85 on 28 August, UNDOF sporadically observed armed members of the opposition interacting with IDF across the ceasefire line in the vicinity of United Nations position 85.” [see map]

The bulk of the 930-strong UNDOF force have relocated to the Israeli (Alpha) side of the ceasefire line while the mission maintains some positions in southern and northern (Mount Hermon) parts of the Golan Heights. Because of the limited capacity to perform its mandate, Ban has recommended reducing the force by some 200 troops.

In their hasty withdrawal from positions in the Golan in mid-September, the troops were unable to secure all of their assets. “Unfortunately some assets and equipment were left behind,” Ban writes. UN Tribune reported in September that Al Nusra had previously seized several UN armored vehicles as well as taken command of facilities the UN had vacated.

Ban identifies Al Nusra as the group behind the kidnapping of the UN troops. “It should be noted here that from information posted on social media as well as in the course of its efforts to secure the release of the peacekeepers, the United Nations learned that its personnel had been taken and held by members of the Nusra Front. There were indications that the Nusra Front intended to detain additional UNDOF personnel and take from UNDOF more weapons and vehicles as opportunities arose.”

In the report, Ban writes that the Syrian government had threatened to bomb camps hosting IDPs in the Golan Heights.

“During the reporting period, UNDOF observed two tented camps housing internally displaced persons in the vicinity of United Nations position 80…UNDOF estimates that from 60 to 70 families live in the camps…Late in September, the Senior Syrian Arab Delegate sent a letter to the UNDOF Force Commander stating that the camps for internally displaced persons were not used for humanitarian reasons but as a base for “armed terrorist” groups who also crossed to the Alpha side. The Delegate
requested that UNDOF remove the camps within a period of 15 days, after which the camps would be considered a legitimate target for the Syrian armed forces.”

UNDOF informed the Syrian delegate that it was not in its mandate to relocate civilians displaced by conflict and urged that no attack be carried out. In addition, the ICRC were informed of the Syrian request, the report states.

It also says that Syrian forces have withdrawn from a number of locations in the ceasefire area. “Over the course of the reporting period, the Syrian armed forces withdrew from additional positions and checkpoints in the areas of separation and limitation, leaving armed groups in control of more territory in the UNDOF area of operations.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image/UN Photo