Burma’s Mines Desperately Need Reform as Foreign Firms Implicated in Abuse

First published in Vice News – 10 Feb 2015

Amnesty International has claimed foreign companies are profiting from serious human rights abuses perpetrated in Myanmar’s mining industry, as well as accusing the country’s authorities of violent repression and forced mass evictions in the pursuit of mineral riches.

In a report released on Tuesday, the rights group focuses on the notorious Monywa copper project, comprising the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung (“S&K” mine), and the Letpadaung mine in the country’s central Monywa District. Since beginning operations in the 1980s, the project has fallen short of nearly every good-practice indicator, according to the report, titled Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine.

In 1978, a Myanmar government-owned enterprise began developing deposits at what is now the S&K mine in central Myanmar. In 1996 a subsidiary of the Canadian company, Ivanhoe Mines (now Turquoise Hill Resources) entered into a joint venture with the government-owned enterprise and reaped the rewards for over a decade.

In 2010, the Monywa project was taken over by the Myanmar military company, UMEHL, and Wanbao Mining Ltd, a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned military company, Norinco. As is often the case with mines, it didn’t take long for the first of many abuse cases to spring up, with the initial development in 1996-97 forcibly evicting thousands of people.

“These concerns have been in the public domain since the early 2000s,” Meghna Abraham, Amnesty International’s corporate crimes researcher, told VICE News. “After all that attention, one hoped that the government would finally take some corrective measures and address the issues… and that’s just not happened.”

As well as the forced evictions, Amnesty details the lackluster environmental assessment, the opaque sales of corporate assets, and the collusion of abuse by the foreign companies involved. The report also mentions the harsh crackdowns on peaceful protesters — including the shooting dead of a woman in December 2014 and the infamous use of white phosphorous to clear a sit-in protest in November 2012.

“No one has been held accountable,” continues Abraham. “There has been no accountability of officials who have been implicated… and the companies haven’t been held accountable.”

According to the report, both the Canadian Ivanhoe Mines, and the Chinese Wanbao Mining have “built their business on a foundation of human rights abuse.” With regards to Ivanhoe, the forced evictions of the S&K mines’ inception was apparently done with their knowledge, yet the wrongs were never addressed. Wanbao Mining, meanwhile, is charged with “directly engaging” with the forced evictions and even providing “material assistance” to police during protests. Both deny the charges and wrote full ripostes, attached in the report’s appendix.

Despite the focus on just one project, the issues raised show wider-reaching structural flaws in the investment and development sectors of a country suddenly exposed to the full might of globalized capital. The report calls its own findings, “a cautionary tale for the government of Myanmar and investors.”

Myanmar has a long history of mining, with silver, zinc, lead, tin, tungsten, and precious stones having been mined since the fifteenth century. The country itself is incredibly rich in gems, mineral resources, and oil and gas reserves. Yet after undergoing the military dictatorship’s 26-year-long policy of isolation from 1962 until 1988, coupled with Western sanctions, the country found itself near destitute and with a seriously underdeveloped infrastructure.

In 2012, after sanctions on the country began to ease, foreign companies and investors eagerly spied the country’s potential. In just one example, Coca-Cola immediately returned to Myanmar in 2012 after nearly 60 years out of the country. On my last visit, a large coke poster even welcomed me to the country.

Yet with regards to the extractive industries, a restrictive 1994 mining law has meant that many companies and investors have adopted a more patient, wait-and-see approach. Meanwhile, the promise of new legislation, designed to improve practices and clear the way for further foreign investment, continues to rattle around the country’s houses of parliament.

“We believe that within the month the law will be [passed] by parliament” U Aye Lwin, secretary general of the Myanmar Federation of Mining Association, told VICE News. “I will say that there are so many possibilities for mining projects now.”

It seems to be only a matter of time before the extractive industry is capitalized on more by both domestic and foreign money, and the worry is that the old structures will continue to oblige social and environmental abuse, even if new reforms and laws are enacted.

“The challenge in implementing those reforms, once adopted, will be lack of government capacity, and lack of transparency,” Vicky Bowman, director of the Yangon-based Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, told VICE News. “But we have to start somewhere.”

Abraham believes that the Myanmar government has begun moving in the right direction, but has shown through Monywa that it is still falling short. “Definitely in the last couple of years the government have taken some positive steps; that is undeniable. I think what we are seeing is a lack of commitment to follow through, especially when, in this context, the military owns the business involved.”

The issue of the military, as well as the country’s omnipresent “crony” cliques, is yet another hurdle for reform. With strong ties to big business, the military, and politics, the cronies of Myanmar are infamous for operating with apparent impunity.

“That’s the question,” said Abraham, “will the government act when the military is involved in some of the business? So far we haven’t seen that.”

“In the case of the Letpadaung mine, this may well have been a contributory factor to the current problems,” added Bowman. “UMEHL, the military partner (in the Monywa Project), apparently has significant responsibility for overseeing community engagement by the joint venture, which is not a good starting point, given their reputation and also their lack of experience in doing this in any context.”

Nonetheless, Lwin is optimistic that with the new law and reforms, mining in Myanmar can be beneficial for the country’s economy and its people, without abrogating the rights of locals or the environment. “Now we are a member of the EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative). We are going to follow the regulations and we will be adhering to them and submitting papers to them,” he states.

Abraham is also hopeful for Myanmar’s future in the extractive industries. “The nature of human rights is we have to be optimistic,” she tells me with a chuckle, before continuing: “When we went to Myanmar, we see a clampdown, we see arrests but there is a change. The civil society space has increased. There are amazing activists and lawyers and others working on this. And I think there are people in government who are trying to make change happen too.”

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Stateless: Human Trafficking in Thailand’s Highland Villages

The Salween River

First published in Vice, February 3rd 2015

The village of Baan Thatafang sits alone on a small hilltop by the edge of North Thailand. Below, the Salween River’s brown, treacle waters slowly wind south, the meandering current demarcating Thailand’s border with neighbouring Burma, whose dark green mountains dominate the village vista.

The view is breathtaking, yet Baan Thatafang’s idyllic setting belies a major issue that affects many more villages like it: human trafficking. Baan Thatafang has now become one of the latest ethnic minority settlements to be identified by local NGOs as being at threat from Thailand’s sprawling business in the trafficking of desperate people.

An estimated 1 million ethnic minority people live in North and West Thailand, but exact numbers are hard to come by. Many villages are informal; entire groups roam around large areas, surviving through swidden and subsistence agriculture. Most importantly, though, huge numbers of people are unregistered.

The hill tribe area of Mae Sam Laep

In the Thai Government’s last statement on registration, way back in 2005, its Interior Ministry estimated that some 50 percent of these groups remain unregistered under any legal status category. Without registration and ID cards, these peoples end up living in a limbo of “statelessness”.

UN research in these regions has long identified this lack of legal identity as the single greatest threat to these communities.

In a UNIAP (UN Inter-Agency Project on Trafficking) report from 2001, the risks of being officially “stateless” are made brutally clear. Without their legal status, these peoples are put under a cornucopia of constraints and handicaps. They are not permitted ownership of land, access to state medical care, suffrage, school or marriage certifications, free travel nor the ability to work outside their own province. These suffocating restrictions are key ingredients to the melting pot of desperation and easy exploitation that traffickers have long preyed upon.

Steps have certainly been taken at both the governmental level and on the international level, most notably the more decisive 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act and UNESCO’s Highland Citizenship and Birth Registration Project.

Yet in mid-2014, the US State Department’s latest Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report downgraded Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest grade, putting it among the likes of North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the report, the US State Department specifically cited “…members of ethnic minorities, and stateless persons…” as being “at the greatest risk of being trafficked”.

The unregistered masses continue to be exploited.

Mickey Choothesa, COSA

“We know a few girls who work in the red light district now who came from our target communities, because they couldn’t find any jobs [due to their lack of registration],” explains Mickey Choothesa, founder of the local anti-trafficking organisation COSA (Children of Southeast Asia). “Usually, if they have opportunities to stay at school, a strong community base, or any other opportunities really, you find that they will not get mixed up with trafficking.”

Mickey has been actively working against the trafficking of young girls from hill tribe communities for nearly a decade with COSA. “We focus on girls who are being misled and don’t have that opportunity of choice,” he explains.

While we may think of trafficking through a Western mindset, which evokes scenes of midnight snatch-and-grabs (which do happen), Mickey explains that most of those trafficked from the hill tribes are simply economically desperate. Devoid of opportunity, they sell themselves – or their children – without fully understanding the debt bondage and slave-like conditions they will end up in. At COSA, Mickey tries to identify these vulnerable individuals and provide decent opportunities for them before the spectre of trafficking strikes.

Life at COSA’s shelter for rescued girls

Since its inception in 2006, COSA’s Chiang Mai base has slowly expanded to include a school bus service for isolated villages, outreach programmes in the hill tribes, educational programmes and a large shelter, where some 27 at-risk girls now live, and many more have found sanctuary in the past.

In his office, Mickey sits among a plethora of military-grade equipment – a reminder of his previous life as a US military photographer, and handy when working in the world of human trafficking. Bulletproof vests rest against a table heaving with first aid equipment. A small pistol peers out from a nearby bag. “You’ve got to be prepared, man,” he says with a shrug when I express my surprise.

Outside, a small group of girls trickle back to the shelter after finishing at the nearby school. Most have been taken in by COSA after their individual living situations were deemed “at-risk” to trafficking by Mickey and his social workers.

“For example, we have two girls whose mother is a sex worker. We found she just couldn’t take care of her two daughters,” Mickey explains when I ask how he identifies who is vulnerable. “They have never been to school, are always alone at home. We deem that to be a high-risk environment, so we got the girls out and into our shelter.”

As the years have progressed, COSA, like many other local NGOs, has found it necessary to work in conjunction with the local authorities. Unfortunately, these local forces are occasionally levied with charges ranging from incompetence to collaboration with the traffickers – a problem that local NGOs have experienced, too.

“It’s absolutely necessary to make sure you know who you are working with,” Phensiri Pansiri explains to me with regards to the authorities. As programme coordinator of FOCUS (Foundation of Child Understanding), previously TRAFCORD (Anti-Trafficking Coordination Unit Northern Thailand), Pansiri is in almost constant communication with the government and the local authorities for her work.

Lunch time at the COSA shelter

“We have had times before where we have given details to some police and the details were leaked. Then you know that person cannot be trusted,” she says.

“When you deal with human trafficking, you deal with a lot of corruption,” says Mickey. “These guys earn next to nothing and a little more money can be very tempting, it’s understandable to a degree.” Despite this, both Mickey and Pansiri talk of the importance of involving the authorities, saying that “building relationships” and “trust” is of the utmost importance.

Back in Baan Thatafang, Mickey and our (trusted) police escort, Captain Pauridet from the local vice and trafficking unit, slowly trudge up the hill towards the local primary school.

The local primary school where girls have been trafficked

“We heard of a few girls being trafficked here and have since been coming back and watching it closely,” says Mickey, gesturing to the various huts that dot the surrounding hills. “Normally, it’s the schools [who] tell us what has been happening, as they are with the children almost every day.”

Captain Pauridet explains that, usually, people are lured away with the prospect of working in the restaurant business in the cities for better money, and are then forced into other work. “Often, the girls end up in the sex industry,” he says.

Fifty years ago, Baan Thatafang was the setting for an outpost of the Border Patrol Police, a ruthless paramilitary unit created with CIA assistance to counter any perceived Communist threat from neighbouring countries. Today, the area is home to a few hundred villagers, mostly of Karen ethnicity. The majority are from the state of Karen just a few hundred metres away in Burma, and the signs around the village are still written in both Thai and Burmese. Other Karen families, however, have been calling this plot of Thailand home for centuries.

Artwork on the walls of the primary school

Baan Thatafang is about as isolated as they come. Located in a river valley among the mountainous Mae Sam Laep sub district of Mae Hong Son province, just getting there requires a dizzying drive through the mountains before a precarious dirt road forces us onto a boat for the final stretch.

Eventually, we make it to the primary school. The main hall of the school, I am told, was once the main office for the old BPP. Standing high on wooden stilts, flags from all the Southeast countries flicker in the light breeze.

Girls doing homework at COSA

Inside one of the classrooms, a couple of 13-year-old Karenni sisters sit anxiously. Mickey and another staff member from COSA greet them warmly and slowly get a conversation going. “How are you?” they ask the girls, who shyly mumble back.

“We’re meeting their family next week. They should be coming to COSA, it’s just not safe for them at their homes now,” explained Mickey, not wanting to elaborate further.

Children on the banks of Mae Sam Laep

The school only accommodates those up to the age of 13, and the next school is almost 40km away through the winding mountains and dirt roads. Unsurprisingly, many won’t undertake such a journey.

Outin, a teacher at the school for 12 years, tells me how the work of the UN and NGOs has helped register pupils, yet the numbers of unregistered remain shockingly high. “Right now I think we can estimate that it’s around 50 percent who remain unregistered,” she says, her colleague nodding his approval.

Her estimate isn’t far off what was found in the 2010 UNESCO survey on the Mae Hong Son ethnic minority highland peoples, which estimated that at least 40 percent of those in Mae Sam Laep have no ID card at all.

A man hassles a woman in a bar in a red light district of Chiang Mai, where some previously trafficked employees worked. There is no indication that any of the people in the photo are involved in prostitution.

“We’re very aware of the trafficking phenomenon, and the majority of kids here become vulnerable to it in different ways,” says Outin. “Those that are unregistered have less choices than if they have that card.” Mickey agrees wholeheartedly. “Without any sort of ID, they have zero opportunities. They won’t go to high school and they will soon be tempted by those who offer them easy money from outside.”

It is apposite that we meet at a school as, through his years of experience, Mickey is adamant that greater education is the key to battling trafficking. “We need to educate the older generation on what their rights are, as so many don’t know,” he says as we walk back to the boat. “Then we have to focus on the next generation.”

“My battle is one kid at a time, one village at a time, one day at time. I may help one girl, but that girl could go on to educate and save more. That’s my wish.”

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Thailand’s Multimillion Dollar Insect-Farming Sector

First Published on November 21 on Vice Munchies

A rising chorus of chirping crickets greeted Aunt Jai as she lifted the blue mosquito netting off the concrete pens outside her house. Bubbling away with enthusiasm, she quickly pointed out every little detail of her modest cricket farm.

“Those are the breeders… These are the young house crickets… There you can see some of their eggs, if you lift that cassava leaf…” For a 62-year-old, she is shockingly nimble, bouncing around between each of her 15 concrete pens, proudly showcasing the insects that have brought her so much success.

She laughed and made a sweeping gesture to the tens of thousands of crickets around her. “I used to be just a normal farmer!”

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Thailand, like many countries, has a long history of eating insects, or what is called “entomophagy.” But while many of these countries have seen a decline in insect-eaters—due in no small part to insect-eating’s negative portrayal by the West—Thailand’s insect-eating community has actually grown and diversified beyond historical levels, thanks to a changing perception of insects as food.

Today, Thailand is praised by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as “one of the few countries to have developed a viable and thriving insect farming sector” with “more than 20,000 insect farming enterprises … registered in the country.” The sector now constitutes a multi-million-dollar frontier of farming; it is growing so quickly that it continues to outpace academic research and government oversight.

With only two years’ experience, Aunt Jai is among the new wave of Thais entering the insect-farming industry. Yet, unlike some other farmers, she was not aware of its potential, instead setting out with the simple goal of sating her daughter’s cravings.

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“[My daughter] absolutely loves to eat crickets, so I thought I would buy some cricket eggs and try and rear some for her,” she recalled with an incredulous giggle. “I didn’t know what would come next.”

After receiving a small batch of various cricket eggs in the mail, Aunt Jai placed them in a small blue box and, having never been taught how to rear crickets, struggled to raise them through three months of trial and error. Eventually, she made her breakthrough and started rearing several cycles of crickets. Two months later, word of her crickets was spreading in her rural village near Don Chedi, just 80 kilometers northwest of Bangkok.

“People were coming to my farm and asking to buy some of my crickets,” she told me. Aunt Jai immediately realised the potential of her side project. “It cost me 3,000 THB ($91) to start, and after five months I had managed to make back my money, plus an extra 20,000 THB ($610)!”

She quickly invested another 100,000 THB for the 15 large concrete blocks that make up her farm today. “Today I’m making over 20,000 THB selling around 200 kilos of crickets per month. Next year, I want to double the size of my farm and begin selling to wholesalers in Talad Thai.”

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Talad Thai, on the outskirts of Bangkok, is the country’s largest wholesale and retail market, located on nearly 200 acres of land. Walking amongst the hundreds of various wholesalers is a dizzying, glorious exposure to the sheer variety and quantity of foodstuffs available in Thailand.

Mountains of pumpkins shade their wholesalers from the sun, while gourds, lemons, potatoes, and tomatoes line walkways. Onions, forests of green herbs, and bundles of garlic hang off tables. Omnipresent in the humid air is that subtle sting of dried chillies in water and vinegar.

Talad Thai, and markets like it, are a common step in the supply chain of medium- to large-scale insect-farming enterprises. With this one-stop solution, farmers suddenly find it possible to sell in bulk to a wider consumer base. Talad Thai alone generates an average monthly income of over 300,000 THB ($9,150) per month through insects.

Tucked away in one area of the vegetables section is one of the market’s four insect wholesalers. Somnuek, a 54-year-old wholesaler of insects for nearly seven years, has little time to rest as he and his family work hard to serve their stream of customers.

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“After awareness campaigns from doctors and the UN, I’ve definitely seen the number of consumers go up, which has in turn meant there are more farms to meet the growing demand,” he explained before quickly reaching over to a mound of slightly damp, cold silkworm pupae and calling an older passerby. “Eat this! It’s good for your joints, especially your knees.”

Gesturing to the glistening bowls of defrosting insects, Somnuek estimated that when he started his monthly profits were in the thousands. Now he always tops 100,000 THB ($3,050) per month.

“I import from Cambodia and China and export to different Thai communities all around the world,” he told me. “I have even sold 100 kilos of silkworm pupae to some Thai people in the USA.”

Thailand’s northeast Isan region, and to a lesser extent the more southern regions, have historically made up the bulk of the insect-eaters in Thailand. And while they may still constitute a majority of the consumer market, that base is quickly diversifying and expanding as attitudes change.

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Dr. Yupa Hanboonsong, an associate professor of entomology at Khon Kaen University and a co-author of a 2013 FAO report on insect farming in Thailand, puts this change down to a recent effort in increasing the younger generations’ level of comfort with eating insects.

“We have been throwing food fairs, introducing new recipes, serving them in school lunches, putting the food in nicer packaging, exposing [children] to insects in a more positive way,” explained Hanboonsong. “Through this, we change opinions.”

“Fifteen years ago, this was only seen as something the Isan, the poor, and the old would eat,” said Hanboonsong. “Now, recently I saw a child who was 5 to 6 years old eating insects. I went up to her and asked, ‘Why are you eating insects?’ And she looked at me like it was such a weird question to ask! You know it’s normal to her—she’s just eating it like she would a piece of candy.”

Harn, an 18-year-old from Isan who set up his insect stall in downtown Bangkok, is able to make 20,000 THB per month with a 50 percent profit margin. “I knew I could set up anywhere and be OK,” said Harn, who gets his insects from the nearby Khlong Toei market. “Everyone buys here—all sorts of Thais, Chinese, Western tourists. I used to buy and cook them for myself, but I saw that it was becoming more popular, so I decided to sell them.”

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Back in Talad Thai, Somnuek had also noticed the sudden diversity in consumers. “You get all sorts of people buying here now,” he said. “I even had a pretty famous local actress buy from me.”

The unnamed “pretty famous local actress” apparently bought a few kilos of one of the most prized insects —the bamboo caterpillar. In a nearby stall, these caterpillars were selling for 400 THB per kilo—four times the price of the house cricket. Only available seasonally through harvesting in the wild, the bamboo caterpillar is considered one of the more elegant insects to be seen eating, particularly in North Thailand.

Although the FAO estimates that Thailand has some 200 edible species of insect, fewer than a dozen are regularly eaten. Hanboonsong explains that these insects can be subdivided into two groups: farmed insects (such as crickets and palm weevils) and wild-harvested (such as bamboo caterpillars, weaver ants and giant water bugs).

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For the most part, the wild-harvested insects are only available in certain regions, or during specific times of the year, and are difficult to intensively farm. As such, their scarcity drives their prices up to even beyond that of chicken, pork, or beef. With refrigeration usage on the rise, however, more of these insects are available year-round. (Frozen insects are still fine after one to two years.)

While this is positive for the consumers in the short term, it also means that some farmers have an incentive to harvest at unsustainable levels when they are available. Even at the current rate of wild harvesting, populations of both the popular giant water bug and weaver ant eggs are declining.

“We need to have the farmers join into a big group, so that we can ensure they are taught GAPs (Good Agricultural Practice),” explained Hanboonsong. “As well as changing perceptions on eating insects, we have to ensure good practice with wild harvesting and farming.”

After her months of trial and error, Aunt Jai is more than aware of the risks that come with poor farming practice. “I now ensure it’s not too crowded so as to give them space to breathe and to jump. If it’s too crowded, there is more chance that they will eat one another.”

Yet, even with all the caveats that inevitably follow a sprawling sector that bypasses government oversight and outpaces academic research, Thailand has shown that a successful trade in insects is possible, and the rewards are very real for poor, rural farmers like Aunt Jai. “Crickets paid for this farm. Crickets bought my car,” she said, pointing at a relatively new Toyota. “Cricket farming can pull you out of poverty.”

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In Jordan, Thousands of Syrian Refugees are Under Serious Threat From a New Law

First published in Newsweek in print edition 17/10/2014 and online on 8th October 2014.

women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as  the return from the only market in the camp.

Women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as the return from the only market in the camp

Just 10km northeast of Jordan’s Mafraq city, some 20 tents are pitched next to a plot of agricultural land, the conspicuous greenery breaking up the otherwise flat, sun-bleached desert. In a faded blue font on the side of some of the tents are the words “UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency”.

This small plot of land in the desert is the latest settling ground for Ahmad Al-Obeyd and over 100 members of his extended family, all refugees from the same rural Damascus suburb. For almost a year, Ahmad has been moving his caravan of tents around Jordan, following agricultural harvests in the hope of finding work. For the past five months, they have been based near Mafraq, on a dusty plot just two kilometres from the very country they once fled.

Al-Obeyd and his family all arrived in Jordan between December 2013 and March 2014.  Carrying whatever they could, some of his family paid smugglers while others hitchhiked through dangerous territory, before finally walking the last few kilometres across the border. His family were registered in Za’atari camp. “It was very, very tough,” said Al-Obeyd, “I don’t like to think about that journey, but thank God we made it.”

Now, thanks to a recent change in Jordanian Government policy, Al-Obeyd and tens of thousands like him live under threat of eviction, incarceration, and even deportation back to Syria.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in the early spring of 2011, over 608,000 Syrians have crossed the border, seeking asylum and refuge in Jordan.  A recent economic study by the World Food Programme stated that the sheer number of Syrians coming in had “triggered major demographic shifts; tested infrastructure and pressured social services”.  Today, Syrian refugees make up one tenth of the Jordanian population.

As a result, public opinion has slowly turned on the refugees, and in a speech to parliament on the November 3rd 2013, King Abdullah II stated that unless the international community quickly came to Jordan’s aid, he would “take measures to protect the interests of our people and country.”

The resident of Mafraq, for example, are keen to keep Syrians away from their communities – a September 2012 poll by the Jordanian Centre for Strategic Studies found that 80% of townspeople supported the idea of segregation of refugees inside refugee camps.

Then, in July of this year, the government and its new Syrian Refugees Directorate, SRAD, implemented a new policy. According to the new rules unregistered refugees, and those who choose to leave the confines of the camps without official authorisation, find themselves cut off from any humanitarian assistance, access to public services, and at risk of incarceration, eviction and even deportation back to Syria. The choice presented to theserefugees is simple: stay in the camps, or give up your access to aid.

The reality is more complicated: nearly 100,000 refugees currently live in one of Jordan’s two refugee camps, created in response to the Syrian conflict – around 85,000 in Za’atari camp and an estimated 12,000 in the new Azraq camp, opened on April 30th this year. The rest – the vast majority – live outside the camps; having registered with the UNHCR in urban areas, not registered at all, or having simply left without authorisation.

“If you are not going through the bail out procedure, UNHCR is no longer in a position to renew your documents and to officially recognise your stay outside the camps,” says Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth, UNHCR’s Head of Azraq Camp’s Field Office. As partners of SRAD, few aid agency workers are willing to openly decry the new policy for risk of a government backlash that could in turn seriously hinder their efforts with refugees. Nevertheless, many quietly worry that the policy signifies a new hardline shift from the government, presaging a more coercive, restrictive future for refugees without the right papers.

In order for someone to obtain a bailout from Za’atari or Azraq today, Syrians need a Jordanian relative – “not necessarily a blood relation, but there has to be a justified relation” Castel-Hollingsworth adds – who can vouch for you and is willing to act as your guarantor while you try and start a new life outside the camp. She acknowledges that obtaining a bailout permit is incredibly difficult: “It is very restrictive in terms of the criteria you need to meet, in order to be able to apply, and then to actually get the permit,” she says, from her office in Azraq camp.

At the other end of Azraq, sitting in the shade of his corrugated metal shelter, Sabra, a 41-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo, describes his first stay at the camp: “I arrived in Jordan and came to this camp on May 2nd,” he said. “I escaped the camp on the 28th May.”

It took just two and a half months before police in Amman stopped and questioned him, and, with only Azraq registration papers, he was quickly returned to the camp. Sabra’s story resonates with many like him: “I tried [to leave legally], but I couldn’t,” he says. “I tried to get the bailout [through SRAD], but I don’t have any relatives in Jordan or anybody who could be my [guarantor].”

Azraq camp’s creation was a direct result of the huge number of refugees overwhelming Za’atari camp in 2012. With a maximum capacity of 60,000 Za’atari quickly swelled to 120,000 just over a year after opening. Refugees soon streamed out of the camps and entered Jordanian residential areas. Al-Obeyd and his entire family were among them. As was common at the time, they snuck out in the night. “We left slowly, my son-in-law leaving first, then afterwards, in small groups, the rest of us snuck out,” Al-Obeyd says.

“At that time in Za’atari, there were 2,000 refugees arriving per day,” says Castel-Hollingsworth. “The government and UNHCR realised…Za’atari could not cope.”  In February, the government decided there needed to be another camp. Today, Azraq accepts 96-97% of all new arrivals into the country.

Azraq is unlike almost every other refugee camp in the world. Out of the gently undulating desert in central Jordan, Azraq’s rugged shelters sit in perfect rows. Today, close to 10,000 shelters have been built, each with a 5-person capacity. At 14.7 square km, the camp itself has the feel of peculiarly sparse, under-construction town. Everywhere is orange desert, grey roads and yellowing shelters.

“People say [it’s like planning a city], but yes it is urban planning. Yesterday I was approving the layout for a cemetery,” Castel-Hollingsworth says. Lessons have certainly been learned from the chaos of Za’atari, and Castel-Hollingsworth is proud of the fact there have been “no security incidents in the camp,” a serious issue that continues to plague Za’atari.

Yet there is much to be done. The camp itself has only one supermarket; no electricity save small, solar powered devices; no running field hospital; no floors in the shelters, and unlike Za’atari, practically no business opportunities for the refugees.

Castel-Hollingsworth considers these issues very urgent. “People say that if they get electricity, the hospital and the markets, people will come back from the urban areas to live here,” she says.  Yet, in the mean time, the refugees continue to leave – bailed out or not.

Sabra says that leaving Azraq was a way of restoring his “dignity”. “There is only so long you can live off [hand outs]. I feel I am living half a life here.” It is a sentiment echoed by Al-Obyed: “In order to live in dignity, you have to work,” he says. “That’s why we prefer to live [outside], even with all the risks involved.”

An estimated 13,000 refugees, or around 50% of those registered at Azraq, have already left illegally. Almost all of them will fall foul of the new bailout policy. Al-Obeyd knows his family are at risk by continuing to illegally reside in what are termed “informal tented settlements” (ITS). “When the policy first started, we began hearing of mass evictions of people just like us,” says Al-Obeyd. “We were seriously considering moving back to the refugee camps before they had a chance to move us forcefully.”

To date, ITS evictions have been fairly piecemeal, but one aid agency worker in Jordan warns that, “It seems to be accepted by aid workers that [more wide-scale evictions] will inevitably happen.” Al-Obeyd calls the new policy “devastating”. Nodding in the direction of his family, he notes, “It is the poorest, the most desperate, who are most affected.” He explains that for the Syrian refugees, everyone has lost something, and some have lost everything. “If they evict us, destroy our things and send us back [to the camps] I would ask them to instead return us to Syria.” He pauses to consider what he has just said, before nodding, “Yes. That would be kinder.”

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City Of Life

First Published in Philanthropy Age Magazine in October 2014.  Tearsheets below.

On the outskirts of central Cairo, in the shadow of the Mokattam hills, some 70,000 Zabaleen (literally ‘garbage collectors’ in Arabic) collect, sort and recycle nearly two-thirds of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output – all 10,000 tons of it.

Originally from Upper Egypt, this majority Coptic Christian community has gone on to thrive in the one sector that has hitherto only been addressed begrudgingly: waste management.

In the Manshiyet Nasser neighbourhood of Mokattam, the largest congregation of Zabaleen live and work in and amongst the rubbish they collect. Specially built apartments tower over a maze of narrow streets where the ground overflows with the municipal waste of almost 12 million Cairenes. When the wind picks up, the air becomes saturated with a grimy dust while clouds of flies attack any decaying organic matter.

On first inspection, the area seems to be a pungent, anarchic mess of people, buildings, narrow alleys, cars and rubbish. Yet within the apparent chaos, the zabaleen families are able to achieve a diversion rate that would arouse the envy of waste management corporations worldwide.

“The Zabaleen are now recycling about 85% of the garbage they receive.” Explains Ezzat Naem, the head of the Garbage Collectors Syndicate. By comparison, the EU is aiming for a recycling rate of just 50% of household waste by the year 2020.

Originally subsistence farmers from Upper Egypt, the Zabaleen arrived in Cairo in the 1940s and began working in coordination with the existing garbage collectors, who hailed from the western Oasis governorates.

“When my people first came here, it was the Wahaya (Oasis people) who were collecting the rubbish.” Explains Naem, “they would simply take it to the outskirts of the city and leave it to dry in the sun before maybe selling it back to people as a fuel for fire.”

With the sudden influx of Upper Egyptians, the Wahaya quickly began contracting the new migrants to specific areas of Cairo. It was a business partnership that persists to this day. “Families have been working the same areas for over 60 years.” States Naem. “For example, my grandfather started by collecting garbage in El Koba Gardens, my father continued collecting the garbage from El Koba and my brothers today still collect the garbage from El Koba!”

Yet while the routes may have remained consistent, the incredible proficiency of todays Zabaleen is the result of a long evolution in their operations of collection, sorting and recycling.

The early Zabaleen would simply use the organic waste as a source of food for their livestock and just ignore most of the inorganic materials, instead preferring to dump them in landfills. Local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) spotted an opportunity and in the 1960s they began visiting the Zabaleen to buy leftover inorganic materials like paper and metal, which they would then process and resell.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the Zabaleen themselves started recycling proper. Microloans provided in coordination with a World Bank program allowed the Zabaleen to begin their own recycling, thus forgoing the third party SMEs. With advice and help from local NGOs, the Zabaleen entered a new period of efficient recycling that continues to outstrip most European and US cities today.

In Manshiyet Nasser, the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) NGO was established in 1984 with precisely this goal. The NGO was determined to help the Zabaleen make the most out of their situation in both an environmentally safe, and economically sound manner.

For over 30 years, APE – with funding from local and international donations – has been offering the residents of Manshiyet Nasser help and guidance through an ever-expanding range of programs and workshops.

“The main objective when we started was to simply help them in the recycling of rubbish,” Says Hany Al Arian, the current director of APE. “Right now we have diversified to: the production of recycled products; programs for women; pre school for the kids; and of course, health coverage for the people.”

In spite of the Zabaleen’s obvious proficiency in recycling, the working conditions remain a major health concern. The Zabaleen and their families spend their days surrounded by potentially infectious, disease-ridden garbage. “We are especially concerned for the women. They are the ones sorting through and categorising the inorganic waste their husbands bring them.” Explains Al Arian. “We have been doing a number of awareness, treatment and prevention programs on good health practices for the Zabaleen.”

Since 2007, Al Arian estimates that APE has spent some EGP 17 million (USD 2.4 million) on treatments alone. “Hepatitis C, Diabetes, Anaemia with the blood, Glaucoma. These are all major problems here.”

On the ground floor of one of APE’s buildings lies their small treatment room. A small congregation of women wait patiently outside to see the doctors, happy just to have a healthcare option so close to their homes.

Outside the main block, a small school is hidden among some recently planted trees. Packed with young children, the small classrooms overlook an eco garden built by APE in 2002, replacing what had once been a large composting plant.

“It was important that we gave these children something to do, some preparation for school and to keep them away from the streets.” Says Al Arian explaining that they accommodate children anywhere from birth up to the end of primary school. “Right now, we have approximately 650 children altogether coming to our schools.”

A common set up found with APE is to have the women working in APE’s recycling facilities, while their children cared for in the school not 200 meters away. “One of the most important things we at APE can do is to empower the women here.” States Al Arian. “But empowering the women is not enough; you have to educate the men. So we are also trying to do some workshops to broaden their minds.”

One woman who found exactly such an opportunity with APE is 38 year-old Aida Ghaly. “After I was married, I became very lonely so I came to APE looking for something to do. I quickly learnt embroidery and now teach it to other girls.”

“My husband was happy because I was nearby, had work that would help our income, and APE were able to help me when I had my children, [post natal] and in providing early education for them too.”

With her embroidery, Ghaly joins around 200 women who help to create recycled products from paper and textiles. Close to the rooms where the women work, a huge array of their products is on offer for sale, from bags and birthday cards, to pillow covers and coin purses. “We have maybe 200 different design styles, but we modify and add new ones everyday.” Explains one of the workers proudly.

“The income made by selling our recycled products should make the program self-sustaining, but since the revolution we have had trouble on that front.” States Al Arian. “Because the local economy is in such trouble, people are less willing to spend and we are having to look more to overseas markets.”

In spite of the successes of the Zabaleen with the help of NGOs like APE, in the early 2000s their community was dealt a massive blow when the Egyptian government decided to instead contract four multinational waste management corporations.

A 15-year contract was signed that stipulated the multinationals needed to maintain a recycling rate of just 20%, while the Zabaleen were told to stop collecting altogether. The income loss of the Zabaleen coupled with the needless waste ending up in landfills meant that only a few years into the contract, the experiment was already considered a desperate failure.

“These multinational companies came with a European attitude, they weren’t aware of what the zabaleen provided.” Explains Naem. “So they placed large [skips] in the streets, instead of going door to door. They asked the residents to bring the garbage down to the street. Of course the Egyptians refused.”

“We are the only people in the whole world who will go into apartments and collect your garbage from your front door.” Says Naem proudly. “Now they are subcontracting the Zabaleen through the Wahaya, adding another layer where income is lost for the average Zaabal.”

However, with the Multinationals’ contracts due to end in 2017 and with APE continuing in their work with the Zabaleen community, Naem is optimistic for the future. “Now the Government is beginning to acknowledge us and we are cared for a bit more. I feel the future could be very bright for my people.”

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The Rollergirls of Cairo

First Published in INK Global Magazine September 2014.  Tearsheets below:

A plateau of late afternoon sunshine breaks over the top of the small stadium and quietly illuminates the green, acrylic court below. A wall of chairs towers over the court from one side while on the opposing wall, a grand dusty sign reads “International Cairo Stadium”.

Stepping into the arena, the girls assess their surroundings. “Not too bad.” Says one, slowly putting on her bandana. Others in the group smile and head towards the courtside seats, ready to kit up.

With the holidays finishing, it has taken this group of young women 3 months to find a new venue for their sport and their excitement is palpable.

These are the CaiRollers: Egypt’s first and only roller derby team. The World’s fastest growing female sport is now beginning to pick up speed in Cairo. With around 22 Egyptian members, the team has come a long way since its inception 2 years earlier when two Americans, Angie Turk and Shanekia Bickham, founded CaiRollers.

At the start, the group mainly consisted of members of the Cairo expat community, but now it is young Egyptian women who make up the majority.

28 year old Nawal Ahmed was one of the first to join the group after hearing about CaiRollers through Facebook. “There were only one or two Arab people in the beginning, the rest were all foreigners.” Says Nawal. “Now it is almost all Arab girls!”

As time progressed and the expat contingent slowly began leaving the country, the “fresh meat”, as the new recruits are endearingly called, drew in increasing numbers of young Egyptian women. Nawal recalls her first training session, still fresh in her memory.

“It was a tiny track, and there were around 7 or 8 girls. I was so excited; I loved skating when I was younger. When I put on the skates, they were so heavy because I had not skated for years.” Says Nawal. “But then, after half an hour I started racing with them, I was falling, I was learning. It was so much fun. Since then I have never missed a practice.

Two years later and Nawal has progressed from “fresh meat” to instructor, teaching the latest crop of women in the dos and don’ts of roller derby.

The basic gameplay involves two teams of five skating in their pack around the track. The five are made up of a jammer and four blockers. If one pack’s jammer is able to lap the opposing pack, points are scored, and it is the job of the blockers to stop the opposing teams jammer from passing them.

With this being their first practice in over 3 months, the girls are raring to go and quick to kit up: elbow pads, mouth guards, knee pads, wrist guards, helmets and skates all essential equipment. With a long piece of rope, two members carefully mark out the oval roller derby track while the others begin skating around, tentatively at first, before muscle memory kicks in and their speed increases. A couple fall over as trained, taking a knee down to the ground before righting themselves again and continuing round the track.

Twice a week the group would meet up and train in the art of roller derby: blocking, sprinting, jumping, hitting and falling. It’s not a sport for the faint hearted, with bruises and more serious injuries common, despite the protective gear they have to wear.

“It’s bad ass!” Says Lina El Ghobashy, who first heard of CaiRollers on the radio. “You play, get injured, but continue playing!”

Lina smiles to reveal a gap in her teeth, an apparent ‘war wound’ from an earlier roller derby bout. “Well, I gave this girl a hit and when she was falling, her elbow went straight into my mouth.” She explains with a shrug of the shoulders. “I had taken out my mouth guard just before, so I was penalised for that as well! A broken tooth and a penalty!” She laughs with faux indignity. “Don’t worry, I’m seeing a dentist later today.”

Since starting, CaiRollers have managed to organise three official match-style bouts, their popularity increasing with each one. Around 130 people watched their last match, dubbed the “mother of all bouts”. Since no other roller derby team exists in the area, the group is forced to split itself into two teams, the last bout: Isis Crisis vs. the Killa’patras.

In spite of the obvious physical dangers and relative obscurity of the sport, the vast majority of CaiRoller’s members have received nothing but support from family, friends and even complete strangers.

“The first few months my mother was worried when I was coming home covered in bruises,” explains Lina, “but soon she understood what it meant to me and is now fully behind it.”

Some, like Nouran El Kabbany, one of the newer recruits, take great pleasure in the shock value roller derby provides to her friends and work colleagues. “Just this morning a colleague saw my helmet and asked about it. I explained the game and her face was like ‘Woah! Is this here in Egypt?’ I felt so proud at that moment that I am a part of this.”

Yet more than simply fun, fitness and the occasional shock, Nouran thinks roller derby has had an all-encompassing effect on her life, an opinion echoed by many of the other members.

“Roller derby has changed my life for the better. It has given me greater self-confidence and the realisation that you are never too old to do something completely new.” She explains. “I find myself practicing every time I’m on the road. Derby is a life style, not just a game.”

Lina concurs, noting the peculiar contrast in her daily activities. “I mean I’m a pharmacist; it feels like you’re entering a totally different world. In the morning I’m in a suit with my glasses on and now I’m with skates being aggressive. I love it.”

Both Lina and Nouran consider the polar opposite duality of their lives to be a thing of beauty, and with CaiRollers’ prominence growing with every practice, bout and ‘fresh meat clinic’, an increasing number of local women are being given the opportunity to experience it first hand.

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‘Trade In Spade’ – Gaza’s Destroyed Tunnels

First published in print with Makeshift Magazine July 2014

Tearsheets below:

Abu Mohamed hovers near the entrance of a gaping cavern and fumbles with a small set of speakers. He carefully traces his fingers along a black wire until they reach a tiny, metal nub soldered onto the end. Putting the ad-hoc microphone to his lips, he shouts, “Ready? Okay. Pull, Wajdi!”

At the end of the tunnel, nearly a kilometer away, Abu Mohamed’s command booms through another set of speakers in a haze of distorted feedback. Wajdi, hunkered underground in near-total darkness, reaches over a mound of freshly dug soil and flicks a rusty switch from “0” to “1”. A nearby crank whirrs at full speed and a sprawl of cable slowly spins towards him.

Back at the surface, Abu Mohamed watches as an empty rubber sled, hooked to one end of the cable, slowly slithers down a steady gradient and into the tunnel to Wajdi, who fills it with soil and sends it back. Turning to me, Abu Mohamed smiles, throws his arms open and almost bows. “This is how you build a tunnel, my friend.

For the beleaguered residents of the Gaza Strip, underground smuggling tunnels to Egypt are a lifeline. When the Islamist group Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, Israel responded with a trade blockade, and the subterranean black market became the main thoroughfare for everyday necessities. “We’re talking everything here: household furniture, flour, sugar, cement, tobacco, electronics, gas. It was a huge business,” says Omar Shaban, an economist and director of the local think tank PalThink.

Hundreds of tunnels that connected to Egypt’s Sinai region once accounted for 99 percent of trade in Gaza, he adds. The market was so lucrative that in 2008, Hamas started incorporating tunnel revenues into its fiscal budget. “At its height, the tunnels were the main source of tax to the Hamas government. There were some estimations that the taxes arrived to half a billion dollars a year.”

That has all since changed since the summer of 2013, after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup and a spate of terrorist attacks hit Egypt’s poorly policed Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas (an original offshoot of the Brotherhood) were quickly blamed for the attacks, and the smuggling tunnels were labeled a conduit to terrorism.

“They must have destroyed some 1,100 [tunnels],” Abu Mohamed sighs, remembering the Egyptian military operation that followed Morsi’s coup. He adamantly denied that weapons or militants flowed underground. “We use it as a lifeline, not for terrorists.”

Abu Mohamed is one of a handful of remaining diggers trying to resuscitate the tunnel networks and ameliorate an economic slump that Omar Shaban describes as “the worst ever in Gaza’s recent history”. Abu Mohamed’s tent in the southern Rafah region of Gaza is a rare sign of life in a sea of abandoned white marquees that shelter the entrances to defunct tunnels.

Abu Mohamed is five months and one kilometer into the project; he will need to double this to finish. “The tunnels need to be longer now to avoid the Egyptian military,” he says.

The typical strategy for building a tunnel is to simply dig at an angle perpendicular to the border with Egypt. Ahmed, another digger here, peers over the edge of a tunnel well and explains, “You have two basic types of tunnel: one like this,”—he kicks a rock down the shaft and waits to hear it crack against the bottom—“which is built straight down around 15 meters, before going straight across the border, then straight up again.” The other type slowly curves down in a gentle “U” shape before popping back up in Egypt.

“I have heard of some people digging with their hands,” Abu Mohamed explains as another sled full of soil emerges from the hole. “But we have spades and pickaxes. Gaza is good for that. It has a lot of construction equipment lying around and no materials to build with.”

The Gazan diggers almost mock the Egyptian border guards with how close they build to the border. None of the tunnel entrances are more than 200 meters away from the Egyptian outposts. “They already know we start here. What’s really important is that they don’t find the exit,” Ahmed says, pointing over into Egypt.

“We don’t know exactly where the other tunnels are, underground, but it isn’t that congested down there,” Abu Mohamed says. “As long as we dig straight from here we won’t have any problems. The only problems are when we reach Egypt.”

The entrance to his tunnel, which measures four-and-a-half feet high, is framed with large piles of sandbags in a cursory attempt to stop the earth from collapsing in around it. Wooden supports prop up the passageway for the first 20 meters, but after that, the tunnel continues on its own, unsupported and with tons of earth above it.

Towards the middle, the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel reaches several lows of less than three feet, requiring visitors to assume a prostrate crawl to sneak through. The atmosphere hangs heavy with a stale humidity, the earth sweats and heaves under the immense weight above it. In these tunnels, workplace safety and standard engineering codes are merely an afterthought.

“It’s very dangerous. I know a lot of people who have died,” Ahmed says. “My cousin was injured in a tunnel collapse just six months ago.” Peering into the darkness he recalls his first venture into one of the tunnels. “It felt like I was walking into my own grave.”

Wajdi suddenly comes in over the speakers from deep inside the tunnel. “[The sled is] all full, Abu Mohamed. Can you send some water and cigarettes down the next time?” Abu Mohamed reaches into his packet of cigarettes, pulls out three sticks and lays them down next to the microphone. “No problem, Wajdi.”

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August 7, 2014 · 16:55