My recent radio silence can be blamed on a new job: an exciting new opportunity to be more involved in research and advocacy on displacement in Central America. I’ve been spending my days recently learning a host of new skills: proposal writing; situation monitoring and infographic designing. The power has gone off a couple of times in the past few weeks here in Puerto Rico (nearly eight months after Hurricane Maria), so I’ve also developed some new contingency planning skills such as knowing exactly where the nearest café with a generator is and always keeping my computer fully charged. This recent article from The New York Times runs through the current state of the response to Maria, and the various bungles made over the past few months with respect to the government response and the reconstruction of the power grid: a chaotic tangle of overlapping missions and fumbling coordination, according to the NYT.

The other day, on one of my café trips, I noticed a somewhat twee chalkboard entitled ‘what are you grateful for?’. People had written a range of response such as ‘love’ and ‘coffee’. As I just spent the past few hours reading reports of the dangers of being a journalist in Central America, the first thing that came to mind was ‘I’m grateful for the work of excellent journalists’. So on that note, here’s my pick of the month of interesting articles, with the common denominator this month being exceptional storytelling, in particular of difficult journeys made by migrants and refugees. Make yourself a coffee because these are worth a good peruse.

Firstly, Reuters ran a special report recently, including photos and animations, documenting the journeys made by Venezuelans travelling across South America to Chile, in order to start new lives. Journalist Alexandra Ulmer and photographer Carlos Garcia Rawlins took the bus journey all the way from Caracas to Chile, crossing five countries, documenting the lives of people young and old making the difficult decision to leave, often having to split up their families and leave behind their possessions, in order to find safety, security and stability. UNHCR recently reported that 5000 people are currently leaving Venezuela every day, one of the largest movements of people in the continent’s recent history. The Reuters report provides detailed personal accounts of why people are leaving: middle class families losing all purchasing power, unable to buy basic medicines for their children, missing school because they couldn’t afford to take the bus, people losing weight due to food scarcity and staying at home for fear of violence in the streets.

Another migration route: this time without a bus service, the way forward guided only by footsteps in the desert. Journalist Benedict Moran published a photo report for IRINNews from a migration route in Djibouti; a crossroads where Yemenis arrive fleeing war, and at the same time, where migrants and refugees from across Africa pass through in order to get to Yemen and beyond. The photos and animations on this report are incredible – showing just how bleak and treacherous the journeys must be: many (…) walk for days across lava fields and arid zones where temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius. Seeing the pictures of this terrain just made me think (perhaps somewhat flippantly) that if a European ‘adventurer’ with a fancy camera made the journey across this desert, they would probably be offered a book deal or sponsorship at the end of it; instead people cross without shoes, at risk of being kidnapped, subjected to sexual violence, or death. These are the types of journeys ‘migrants’ are making, these are the journeys that make the refugee/migrant dichotomy inadequate for the 21st century.

Finally, two podcasts: firstly for the Spanish speakers (and for those that can listen and grasp the gist, there’s an English transcript). Radio Ambulante is a podcast in Spanish telling stories from Latin America, that works with storytellers and radio producers from across the continent. I cannot recommend it enough, and in particular, this episode ‘No Country for Young Men‘ by Daniel Alarcón on everyday life, violence and displacement in Honduras. It is a superb piece that weaves a story of separated families, remittances, bravery, fear and journeys. Without spoiling the plot, I will say that the podcast includes so many different layers, including the journey abroad made by one, as well as the life for those left behind – with daily journeys of skirting danger, or the anti-journey of resorting to confinement. Finally, especially for those who have had their interest piqued by the current ‘migrant caravan’ news in the US – check out the three part podcast series by Radiolab on the history of the US-Mexico border. I’m only halfway through so I can’t vouch for the third episode, but Radiolab has never let me down when it comes to exceptional storytelling, so do go and check it out.

Thanks for reading and do let me know any great pieces that are on your radar this month!


On my radar: following international negotiations from afar


Earlier this month UNHCR released an updated draft for the Global Compact on Refugees, and formal negotiations continued in the humanitarian capital.

I was pleased to read the updated draft: UNHCR have made clear that reducing the number of refugees living in protracted situations without durable solutions (Paragraph 5.4) is the overall goal of the process. They have proposed a system in which states can pledge voluntary contributions towards this goal (Paragraph 6). And they have sketched out a model in which ambition can be continuously raised, and the implementation of contributions can be tracked in the years to come (Paragraphs 14 & 16). I believe a system like this, similar to the final structure of the Paris Agreement, which I studied for my MA thesis and recently suggested could be a useful model for the Compact, is an excellent first step towards improving the current refugee protection regime. Hopefully it will also contribute to improving the narrative on global responsibility sharing for refugees.

When UNHCR released the new draft, I was immediately curious as to the reaction from humanitarian actors and experts. Being currently based away from the centre of the discussions, no longer privy to informal discussions in the corridors of the Palais des Nations, I went online and to Twitter, to see what I could find. UNHCR has made the draft public, as well as the written contributions submitted by states, agencies and NGOs to the consultations. But for civil society organisations, refugees, researchers, and any other interested/concerned parties following the process from afar, what else is out there? Who is providing insight into the positioning of states, into the strategy of UN agencies, or the concerns of NGOs?

Here are a few things of interest that I found in my recent internet trawling:

This is a small sample of information I could find, mostly opinions from academics, NGO statements and some investigative journalism. It’s still hard to get a sense of where the discussions are going, sitting from a distance.

Does it matter if individuals based outside of Geneva and New York can follow these processes? I suspect that many would say that not really, perhaps the Compact won’t amount to much anyway. However, the optimist in me would say that this is our opportunity to improve the refugee system – ensuring that everyone can follow and contribute constructively is vital. I’ll keep trawling, and I’m all ears for any of your favourite sources.


On My Radar: Extreme weather eroding independence & lessons from engaging with climate deniers

This is the first in a series of regular round-ups of articles and resources that I will be posting. I’m an avid reader of regular ‘recommended reads’ made by bloggers or news sites (such as IRINnews and Refugees Deeply), so I thought it would be time to establish my own compilations of some of the links that I’ve found and pondered over. Do leave me a comment below to let me know if you also found these articles interesting!

Aerial view of Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Blue reinforced plastic sheeting cover some of the roofs damaged by Hurricane Maria. S. Nelson-Pollard: Jan 2018.
  • On new renewable energy perpetuating old power structures: I’m currently in Puerto Rico, which is five months into recovering from the mighty Hurricane Maria. While most of the capital, San Juan, is back to operating at most of its previous capacity, the street that I’m living on only just got electricity back this week. As the island’s old grid is gradually being repaired and power cables restored, people across the island have been dependant on the few neighbours on their streets running noisy generators, especially for keeping their fridges running. After the storm I was caught up in the internet buzz that the post-hurricane reconstruction could generate a massive boom for renewable energy on the island. However, this article from the Puerto Rican Centre for Investigative Journalism (CPIPR) was an interesting read, explaining how the majority of solar panels in Puerto Rico are leased from a Texan company and connected to the main electricity grid. To the surprise of many of those who thought they would achieve energy independence through investing in solar panels, when the grid doesn’t work (such as, for example, after a major hurricane), the panels shut off. As a researcher from the University of Puerto Rico puts it in the article “We went from fossil dependency to renewables dependency with a company that is not from here. We continue to send the money out of the island,”. As a response to customers complaining about not being able to depend on power despite having the panels, the company proposed supplying batteries, at an extra cost, $100 a month for 10 years…

  • On Hurricane Irma potentially ending collective land ownership in Barbuda: I was curious to know how reconstruction was going on other Caribbean islands, and came across this short video and this short documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Barbuda. The land on Barbuda has been held in common ownership since the end of slavery, meaning that it cannot be bought or sold. Developers can lease land if their projects are accepted by a majority of Barbudans. However, to pay for post Irma reconstruction, the government of Antigua and Barbuda wants to end this common ownership system and allow for private investment. Foreign investors are eyeing up the pristine beaches, including Robert de Niro, who is looking to build a mega luxury resort. In an attempt to keep their unique political system (and I assume to prevent the island becoming a giant golf course), many Barbudans are fighting back against this move by the government. But as this documentary reminds us, it can be extremely difficult for displaced people to defend their land rights, especially when they are far from home, dispersed, and so much of their energy has to go into finding new schools for their children, securing new jobs, and protecting their belongings which are still sitting under an open roof. It’s the opportune time for land grabs.

  • On learning the lessons from engaging with climate deniers: Taking my reflections on the growing realities of climate change a step further, I started listening to the podcast ‘Warm Regards’ one afternoon last week, and found the latest episode on tips for engaging with climate deniers quite interesting. In a post-Brexit/Trump world, I think we are becoming increasingly aware that although our echo chambers are cosy, they must be dismantled if we are to see any real change. I’m always interested in the particular topic of engaging with people who are politically very different to me, especially as I’ve been really terrible at this in the past and have charged into conversations like a bull. One of the concepts from the podcast stuck with me: some people may choose to deny climate change because they see the solutions as taking away some of their fundamental freedoms, preferred comforts or parts of their identity, and we have to recognise how this can be scary or difficult, but in a sense, we also have to answer the question of ‘What part of me do I have to let go of?’. The guest on the show, a climate scientist called Katharine Hayhoe, mentioned for example when she was challenged by people who have no scientific background, nor respect for facts, she would feel as if it was a direct attack on her identity as a scientist. She raised that it’s important to leave these emotions, which are directly tied to our personal egos, aside, in order to engage in conversations outside ivory towers. If we expect climate deniers to have to lose a part of their identities (such as driving an SUV), we should be prepared to lose a part of our identities (such as being respected as scientists, for example). This was super interesting to me, as a pointer for my next conversation on migration and displacement, with people who may not agree with me or who believe false information. The aim is not to get people to agree with the facts or to be respected as an ‘expert’, but to find common ground in which to plant some seeds of increased tolerance and change.
That’s what’s been on my mind this week! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and any recommendations you may have.