FROM THE FIELD: facing up to the extreme mental health pressures of conflict

2 July 2019

For those caught up in conflict situations, the trauma can lead to severe mental health problems. This is also the case for the humanitarian workers who are trying to help them.

During much of his 30-year career as a humanitarian with the UN, Fabrizio Hochschild, today a senior UN official reporting directly to the Secretary-General, struggled with mental health issues associated with his work.

Mr. Hochschild, who has risen through the ranks to become the Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination, suffered post-traumatic stress disorder following a posting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the time of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, early in his career.

In this episode of the award-winning podcast series Awake At Night, produced by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, Mr. Hochschild talks openly about his experience, the effect it had on him personally and professionally, and why it is important to end the stigma of mental illness.

You can hear testimony from several humanitarian workers, and their experiences in some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous locations, by listening to the other episodes of Awake At Night here.

© UNHCR/Susan Hopper
UNHCR Spokesperson and Communications Head, Melissa Fleming (l) interviews Fabrizio Hochschild, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination, for the Awake at Night podcast

DR Congo: UN food agency triples aid in strife-hit Ituri province

2 July 2019

Food aid is being tripled for troubled Ituri province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to respond to what the World Food Programme (WFP) has described as the world’s second largest hunger crisis in the world, after Yemen.

In addition to worsening hunger, communities in north-east DRC face a deadly Ebola outbreak and inter-ethnic clashes that claimed at least 117 lives between 10 and 13 June, according to a recent report by the UN human rights office, OHCHR.

Announcing the aid scale-up operation on Tuesday, WFP spokesperson Hervé Verhoosel warned that “people are dying of hunger, or, malnutrition is such that they are dying”.
WFP/Jacques David
The World Food Programme (WFP) held massive food distributions in the Ituri provice, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where thousands of persons had fled from their villages due to ethnic clashes. 21 March 2018.

He added that although there is no accurate data on the total number of deaths from hunger in Ituri, 13 million people are food insecure nationally, including five million acutely malnourished children.

The situation has worsened because of an increase in clashes between Hema herders and Lendu farmers that have driven people from their homes, along with rising food prices; a lack of income and access to a varied diet; and crop damage due to insects; and disease epidemics.

‘Senseless cruelty’

Addressing the rising violence, Mr. Verhoosel said: “This senseless cruelty comes right at harvest time, where the newly displaced have had to flee their homes in rural villages with very little or nothing”. He added that “many victims of this increase in violence are malnourished and have been forced to move numerous times…they are seeking security in urban centres and in the bush.”

According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, inter-ethnic violence has led to the mass displacement of 300,000 people since June, while some 7,500 people have crossed into neighbouring Uganda from DRC, across Lake Albert.

Together with North Kivu province, people in Ituri are also living through the DRC’s worst recorded Ebola virus outbreak, which WFP is helping to contain by providing assistance to people infected by the often fatal disease and their families and friends, in a bid to prevent at-risk populations from making unnecessary journeys.

In its latest Ebola update, the UN and authorities reported that since the outbreak began on 1 August 2018, 2,338 people have been infected with Ebola, including 2,244 confirmed and 94 probable cases.

A total of 1,571 people have died (1,477 confirmed and 94 probable) and 653 have recovered from the illness.

To help 5.2 million people across DRC for the next six months, the UN food agency said that it needs $155 million, including $35 million to respond directly to Ebola.

New UN-Syrian Action Plan signals an ‘important day’ for child protection, says UN envoy

1 July 2019

The top UN official charged with representing the interests of children caught up in armed conflict, has signed a landmark new agreement on child protection with the Force Commander of a main Syrian opposition military alliance, it was announced on Monday, aimed at ending and preventing the recruitment and use of children under the age of 18.

Describing the action plan as “the beginning of a process”,  and “an important day”, Virginia Gamba, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC), explained that the signing “demonstrates a significant commitment by the SDF to ensure that no child is recruited and used by any entity operating under its umbrella”.

Ms. Gamba and Force Commander General Mazloum Abdi endorsed the agreement during an official ceremony at the Palais des Nations, in Geneva, on Saturday.

The Action Plan follows the listing of the United States-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) in the Secretary-General’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict regarding the recruitment and use of children. The units operate under SDF command, which describes itself as committed to a secular, democratic and decentralized Syria.

The Action Plan obliges the SDF to:

  • End and prevent the recruitment and use of children.
  • Identify and separate boys and girls currently within its ranks.
  • Put preventative, protection and disciplinary measures in place on child recruitment and use.

A welcome commitment

The Action Plan was the result of months of UN-SDF engagement, in close consultation with the Special Representative.

Virginia Gamba, UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, and Mazloum Abdi, Force Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, sign a Plan of Action to stop recruiting child soldiers, 29 June 2019., by UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferre

Commending the work of child protection partners on the ground, Ms. Gamba lamented that the situation of children in Syria remains one of the most dire on her agenda.

The Special Representative highlighted the importance of Actions Plans to engage with parties to conflict, noting that since Security Council resolution 1460 was adopted in 2003, they have been strong tools of the CAAC mandate.

“Actions Plans represent an opportunity for parties to change their attitude and behavior so that grave violations against children stop and are prevented to durably improve the protection of children affected by armed conflict”, Ms. Gamba explained.

“I urge all parties listed in the annexes of the Secretary-General annual report, in Syria and elsewhere, to seize the opportunity to engage with the UN and adopt Action Plans,” the Special Representative added.

As the conflict continues in its ninth year, the Ms. Gamba encouraged all parties to work towards a political solution, in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254 of 2015 to bring sustainable peace to the country: the best option to prevent grave violations against children.

Heat stress spike predicted to cost global economy $2,400 billion a year

1 July 2019

An increase in heat stress at work linked to climate change is set to have a massive impact on global productivity and economic losses, notably in agriculture and construction, UN labour experts said on Monday.

Highlighting that the world’s poorest countries will be worst affected, particularly in West Africa and South-East Asia, the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned that the lost output will be equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs – or 2.2 per cent of total working hours worldwide – during 2030.

The total cost of these losses will be $2,400 billion every year, ILO’s Working On A Warmer Planet report maintains, based on a global temperature rise of only 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

“The impact of heat stress on labour productivity is a serious consequence of climate change,” said Catherine Saget, Chief of Unit in the ILO’s Research department and one of the main authors of the report. “We can expect to see more inequality between low and high-income countries and worsening working conditions for the most vulnerable.”

Agriculture and construction will be worst affected

In the ILO report, heat stress is defined as generally occurring at above 35 degrees Celsius, in places where there is high humidity.

Excess heat at work is an occupational health risk and in extreme cases can lead to heatstroke, which can be fatal, the UN agency explains.

With some 940 million people active in agriculture around the world, farmers are set to be worst hit by rising temperatures, according to the ILO data, which indicates that the sector will be responsible for 60 per cent of global working hours lost from heat stress, by 2030.

Construction will also be “severely impacted”, with an estimated 19 per cent of global working hours lost at the end of the next decade, ILO says.

Other at-risk sectors include refuse collection, emergency services, transport, tourism and sports, with southern Asian and western African States suffering the biggest productivity losses, equivalent to approximately five per cent of working hours by 2030.

“The impact of heat stress on labour productivity is a serious consequence of climate change, which adds to other adverse impacts such as changing rain patterns, raising sea levels and loss of biodiversity,” Ms. Saget explained.

Underlining how communities in the world’s poorest regions will suffer the most significant economic losses because they often lack the resources to adapt to increased heat, the ILO official insisted that this would lead to “more inequality between low and high-income countries and worsening working conditions for the most vulnerable, as well as displacement of people”.

The economic losses of heat stress will therefore reinforce already existing economic disadvantage, in particular the higher rates of working poverty, informal and vulnerable employment, subsistence agriculture, and a lack of social protection, Ms. Saget added.

To adapt to this new reality, ILO is calling for urgent measures by Governments, employers and workers, focusing on protecting the most vulnerable.

These include adequate infrastructure and improved early warning systems for extreme weather events, and improved implementation of international labour standards in occupational safety and health to help tackle heat-related hazards.