Parts of the Middle East experienced dramatic transformation and fundamental political change in 2011, as popular uprisings swept through the region. The mass mobilization took place in countries with little history of street protests. It reflected the mounting social discontent, particularly among younger sections of the population marching against a lack of opportunities and a sense of disenfranchisement. The uprisings brought wholesale regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while Yemen and Syria became increasingly unstable and violent. Other countries, such as Bahrain, were also affected. In Yemen, the political breakdown compounded an already grave humanitarian situation.
The humanitarian consequences of different crises varied from country to country. For example, the Libya conflict triggered a large-scale exodus of people to neighbouring countries. In Egypt, the political upheaval did not generate any significant humanitarian needs.
The region remains socially and politically fragile. The social context in many areas is dominated by rapid urbanization and population growth, while climate change, economic inequalities and associated food insecurity contribute to a growing vulnerability.
Earthquakes in Van, Turkey, in October and November were harsh reminders of the devastating effects of natural disasters, to which the entire region is prone. Central Asia was struck by several natural disasters, but they did not prompt significant international humanitarian response.
ROMENACA reviewed its priorities in response to the challenges posed by this rapidly changing environment. The Libyan crisis brought particular challenges, testing the office’s capacity to respond with the full range of OCHA tools and services. ROMENACA swiftly established the Libya Crisis Network to respond from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—countries with little experience of internationally supported humanitarian emergencies.
Services to the humanitarian community included activating the regional IASC structure—the MENA group—for operational coordination. ROMENACA established a Web-based response portal for real-time sharing of information, produced daily situation reports and maps, and ensured the effective management of human resources deployed to the region. It also led the first joint UN assessment team that entered eastern Libya in early March (see box).
On 23 October, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Van province in south-east Turkey. This was followed by two earthquakes on 9 November, with a magnitude of 5.6 and 4.5 respectively. In all, 644 people lost their lives and more than 4,000 were injured. ROMENACA deployed staff to Turkey within 24 hours, following the UN RC’s request. ROMENACA supported the UNCT with humanitarian coordination and prepared a rapid CERF proposal, which secured $3.5 million. From Cairo, the office provided daily humanitarian info-graphics for dissemination through Web-based platforms to responders worldwide.
Responding to these disasters became ROMENACA’s top priority during the year. But there was also a steady focus on preparedness and contingency planning in priority countries. Preparedness was improved in Morocco, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Kyrgyzstan during the first part of the year, and the Syria contingency plan was updated in September. The ROMENACA Information Management Unit developed applications and information products in support of the RC/HC in Syria, including contact lists, situation maps, operational data sets and a humanitarian monitoring database. A plan for responding to a large-scale earthquake in Turkey was prepared in the second half of the year.
Disaster response preparedness also included trainings for humanitarian partners in eight countries. ROMENACA facilitators led or supported 10 trainings in the UAE, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. The trainings in Jordan, Egypt and Qatar were regional in scope, involving regional-level partners and those from GCC countries. The outcome was increased capacities in crisis communication, the use of CERF, and emergency tools and services such as needs assessments, protection monitoring, information management and humanitarian reporting. The Arabic-language UNDAC training in December in Abu Dhabi included government participants from Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Jordan, Morocco, oPt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Staff from the AU and the OIC also participated.
The move towards more consolidated regional partnerships included the signing of memorandums of understanding with the League of Arab States and the OIC, including an associated action plan. Regular briefings to Member States and donors gave ROMENACA more leverage in responding to crises and mobilizing support. Public advocacy, media outreach, newsletters and updates in English and Arabic contributed to raising awareness of humanitarian issues across the region.
The re-configuration of the Regional Office will mean that the Central Asia States, Afghanistan and Pakistan will no longer be part of the region as of January 2012. The establishment of the Gulf Liaison Office in Abu Dhabi will also affect the priorities and continuation of the OCHA 2010-2013 Strategic Framework.
Now operating as OCHA ROMENA, the new office will continue to learn from previous lessons and adapt to new situations in a region often characterized by its volatility and vulnerability.