The case for including migration in the post-2015 agenda

The case for including migration in the post-2015 agenda

Smuggled migrants on edge of Sahara desert/ Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Diallo Manzo for IRIN

Smuggled migrants on edge of Sahara desert/ Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Diallo Manzo for IRIN

BANGKOK, 11 November 2014 (IRIN) – As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire at the end of 2015, campaigners are calling for the inclusion of migrant worker protections in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), noting that migrants contribute billions to reducing poverty – often at great cost to their personal safety and well-being.

The world’s estimated 232 million international migrants (2013 UN estimate) generated some US$400 billion in remittances for their families and communities back home in 2013, three times more than total overseas development assistance in the same year, according to the World Bank.

For the 10-15 percent of these migrants that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates are undocumented, the human cost of their contributions to their home countries’ economies is often high, sometimes even fatal.

IOM estimates 40,000 migrants – almost all undocumented, including asylum-seekers – have died en route to a destination country since 2000.

An unknown number also lose their lives post-arrival in host countries as a result of unsafe working conditions.

But addressing these risks is politically sensitive, say activists, due to host countries’ fears about creating pull factors for migrants. Despite migrants’ significant contribution to national incomes, they are easy scapegoats for already overburdened health and education systems.

“Including migration in the SDGs would be a bold act,” said Kathleen Newland, co-founder of US-based NGO Migration Policy Institute (MPI). “The causes of migration and local costs of globalization are difficult to see, but people can see immigration,” she added, explaining that more awareness and outreach is needed at the national level to ease popular insecurity about all groups of migrant workers.

The working group on migration for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN) spent five years discussing how to implement the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection of Migrants. In 2012, the group dissolved without reaching an agreement.

Advocates hope that where regional organizations have fallen short in addressing protection of migrant rights, the SDGs can help make migration less deadly by encouraging states and international organizations to invest more resources.

Benefits of remittances

The socio-economic and development benefits of remittances are clear: for every 10 percent of a population that migrates to work in a higher income country, there is a 1.9 percent reduction in poverty in the country of origin, the World Bank calculates.

In Latin America, a 1 percent increase in remittances reduced infant mortality rates by 1.2 deaths per 1,000 babies, noted a 2013 report by Peter Sutherland, the UN Special Representative on international migration.

Households are more likely to spend remittances on health and education than other types of additional income, according to MPI.

“If reduction of poverty, increased rates of education, and better health outcomes are markers of development, strong evidence exists that remittances make a major contribution,” noted MPI in a 2013 policy brief.

Migrants arriving on Lampedusa in August 2007/ Photo courtesy of Sara Prestianni

Migrants arriving on Lampedusa in August 2007/ Photo courtesy of Sara Prestianni

So major that in Thailand after the military seized power in June 2014 and cracked down on the country’s undocumented foreign workers, leading to the deportation of tens of thousands, it was not long before they returned, said Reiko Harima, regional coordinator for the Secretariat of the Mekong Migration Network (MMN), a Bangkok-based umbrella advocacy group for Southeast Asian migrants.

“Even one week without wages is too long for them,” she explained.

Harima estimates over one million of Thailand’s migrants are undocumented.

Construction, fishing, and farming industries rely on the country’s 2.2 million migrants, according to the Federation of Thai Industries, and the junta quickly changed tack. They ceased arrests and, instead, extended migrants’ registration to enable them to stay legally.

“Families take a huge gamble and go into debt to pay [for family members to migrate]. There is a lot of pressure on migration to be ‘successful’,” said Richard Mallett, an Overseas Development Institute (ODI) research fellow and co-author of a 2014 report on migration from Nepal.

Success is often measured in remittances, while the human costs are overlooked. The lack of documentation often means that migrants cannot access lifesaving health care and fear protesting unsafe, even fatal, working conditions.

Labour unions, NGOs, and human rights activists have documented employers in the Gulf states keeping migrants’ passports, essentially rendering them indentured until debts for travel to the host country are repaid.

The UN special rapporteur on migrants, Francois Crépeau, in a statement to the UN General Assembly on 24 October, called on states to minimize the risks of abuse and urged migrants’ inclusion in the SDGs.

Wish list

One problem, according to MMN, is that policies fail to reflect the long-term reality of migration by trying to restrict migrants’ time in a host country.

For example, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Myanmar government and Thailand requires Thailand’s estimated 140,000 Burmese migrants (who fuel the shrimp and construction industries) to leave after four years and return to Myanmar for three years before they can re-apply.

“It wrongly assumes migration is temporary, when the reality is that migrants who learn skills to work in an industry, and their employers, want them to stay,” said Harima.

“The legal migration channel needs to be made cheaper, and more accessible for the workers who want to go abroad, while recruitment agencies are regulated properly,” she added.

In the current draft of the SDGs, the need for safe and orderly migration is stressed and protecting the rights and safe working conditions of all migrants, including migrant workers, is included under Goal 8.

“There is still a lot of horse trading to be done,” said Newland, explaining that the Open Working Group has submitted its recommendations to the panel and now the decision is in the court of states. “The risk is that any inclusion of migration in the SDGs will have to be reduced to the lowest common denominator to gain approval,” she said.



Migrant detention abuse can scar children for life

Migrant detention “abuse” can scar children for life

BANGKOK, 21 October 2014 (IRIN) – An increasing number of migrant children are being detained in countries where they are seeking asylum despite a growing body of scientific evidence that such incarceration leads to long-term psychological and developmental difficulties.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2013 declared detaining migrant children is “never in [children’s] best interests and is not justifiable” and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it should be conducted with an “ethic of care – and not enforcement”. However, according to a June 2014 article in The Lancet, more than 60 countries detain migrant children, which causes “deleterious effects on children’s mental, developmental, and physical health”.

Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN

So when, in response to a recent surge in migrant children, the US was discovered to be detaining large numbers of migrant children, analysts flayed the tactic. Between October 2013 and September 2014, 68,541 unaccompanied minors were apprehended along the southern border, a 77 percent increase on the previous year; 70 percent reported they were held for more than the legally-allowed 72 hours. Human Rights Watch (HRW) argued: “a wide variety of research studies link immigration detention with mental health consequences for children, including harm that lasts beyond the period of detention.”

And when Australia, home to the notorious Operation Sovereign Borders programme, announced on 19 August 2014 that it would release some migrant children from detention, the plan’s limitations – an arrival cut-off date of 19 July 2013, and age limit of 10 years – drew criticism that the move might, in fact, exacerbate mental health problems. Karen Zwi, a paediatrician and head of the Community Child Health department at Australia’s Sydney Children’s Hospital, said the new release plan “will affect only 16 percent of those currently in locked detention”, arguing it could “heighten the despair of the other 745 (84 percent) children who have been excluded from the release.”

“What we see in children in detention is a huge range of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) for a prolonged period of time,” Zwi told IRIN, referring to ACEs, which the UN World Health Organization (WHO) defines as: “some of the most intensive and frequently occurring sources of stress that children may suffer”, ranging from neglect to violence. “The more of those that you are exposed to, the worse your outcome in adulthood is in terms of physical and mental health,” Zwi said.

Evidence mounting

A 2014 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that the majority of a representative sample of the country’s paediatricians “consider mandatory detention a form of child abuse”. Even among the 18 percent of respondents who “strongly approved” of detention of children in general, 92 percent said “detention of asylum-seeker children and their families is a form of child abuse.”

Evidence of the long-term impacts of child abuse is mounting: a 2014statistical analysis by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that abuse in childhood, including mental violence inflicted by conditions of detention, can have adverse impacts on educational achievement and personal income, and cause “damage at the societal level, including direct and indirect costs due to increased social spending and lost economic productivity”. For example, a 2013 study estimated the economic cost of child abuse in East Asia and the Pacific to exceed US$160 billion.

“The immigration detention of children and families, represents a grave violation of children’s rights and a serious breach of justice.”

Today there are more forced migrants (51.2 million) than at any point since World War II, according to UNHCR – the majority from Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. Half of them are children; at least 25,000 unaccompanied migrant children filed asylum claims in 2013. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), global migrants increased from 154 million in 1990 to 232 million in 2013. The International Detention Coalition(IDC) says states are increasingly responding by detaining migrants, and theNGO Coalition on Migration estimates one million migrant children are affected by detention globally.

Exposure to violence

Detained migrant children are exposed to all of the mental strains experienced by adult detainees. “The longer a child is detained, the more likely they will be exposed to… riots, hunger strikes, and self-harm incidents,” explained Oliver White, the head of policy and advocacy for Jesuit Refugee Services-Australia.

In Thailand and Indonesia, HRW documented detained migrant children witnessing fights and guards beating detainees. In Malta, which shoulders a heavy burden as migrants cross the Mediterranean and reach its shores, HRW found that children at immigration detention facilities suffer abuse at the hands of other detainees.

In a 2013 report on Manus Island, one of the off-shore locations where Australia processes asylum seekers who arrive by boat, Amnesty International quotes a service provider at the facility there as saying: “These conditions are contributing to a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, lack of sleep and trauma.” In its 2013 report on Nauru, another Australian off-shore detention centre, UNHCR noted “the deteriorating mental health of children”.

Researchers say the impact of detention can be harsher on children, whose brains, when exposed to multiple negative stressors, can be re-wired with stress responses that last into adulthood. According to Zwi, this is a process of creating “neural pathways”, or tracts in the brain through which information is transported between brain cells.

“Fundamentally the problem is a threatening adverse environment,” Zwi said. “A child with well-developed pathways for fear is more likely to be scared and avoidant, impacting learning and how they face challenges for years after,” echoing UNICEF’s claim that “moderate or severe acts of violence can alter brain development and compromise a child’s potential.”

Others point to the lack of opportunity for recovery from trauma while in detention.

“The natural process is one of recovery but that can only be done in situations of safety and security,” explained Belinda Liddell, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales with the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Programme, which works to “understand the psychological and neurobiological effects of refugee trauma and pathways to recovery”.

A full stop to detention

According to government figures in August, there were 876 migrant children in detention in Australia.

Australia currently runs some psychological counselling programmes for detained immigrants, which Amnesty accused of being insufficiently resourced. However, according to Zwi, “even a lot of psychological help cannot make good the terrible exposure kids are experiencing.”

In February 2014, citing that the number of detained migrant children was higher than during its last study of the issue in 2004, the Australian Human Rights Commission launched a National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, which is due out by the end of the year.

July 2014 analysis of government data by the Refugee Council of Australiafound that while the total number of migrants in detention had decreased, child asylum seekers were more likely than adults to be detained, and the average length of detention had tripled since September 2013.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians said in June 2014 that removing children from immigration detention was “the only way to protect their health”.

Refugee campaigners agree, and say the best response is to stop detaining migrant children globally. Alternatives to immigration detention implemented in some countries – including material and legal support – have proven not only more humane, but also cheaper than detention.

“The immigration detention of children and families, represents a grave violation of children’s rights and a serious breach of justice,” stated NGOs, including IDC and Terre des Hommes, at a presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2014.


Resilience planning – some do’s and don’ts

Resilience planning – some do’s and don’ts

Resilience planning can ignore the most vulnerable/ Photo courtesy of Jason Gutierrez, Philippines floods/ IRIN

Resilience planning can ignore the most vulnerable (Photo courtesy of Jason Gutierrez, Philippines floods, IRIN)

BANGKOK, 26 September 2014 (IRIN) – Among the topics being discussed at the 2014 World Climate Week in New York City (22-26 September), are financing resilient cities, corporate actions for resilience, the ways data can support resilience moves, and women’s leadership in resilience planning.

IRIN looks at some of the successes, failures and pitfalls in resilience planning.

Hazard-resilient investments can range from enforced building codes, to early warning systems, to community-level waste management – all crucial for buffering societies against disasters.

“It can be as easy as painting lines on trees to gauge water levels [so] you can see when it is time to pack up and leave, before it is too late,” Richard Yates, the director of the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) regional mission for Asia, told IRIN, pointing to a USAID-supported project in the Philippines.

But resilience planning which does not include a range of actors – from vulnerable communities to big companies – can fail to accomplish anything new, warned a critique by the Humanitarian Policy Group at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

“There is a danger that we go on and think we are building resilience when really we are ignoring the most vulnerable,” said Paul Levine, a livelihoods and vulnerability specialist with ODI. “In coming up with a whole new language and framework, we forget the basics.”

For example, relocations without community consent, can do more harm than good. The best way to proceed is to bring together scientists, governments, the private sector, and communities.

What doesn’t work?

In the aftermath of the April 2014 floods in Honiara, Solomon Islands, where more than 10,000 people lost their homes, the City Council declared informal riverside settlements as “no-build zones” while simultaneously pushing to shut evacuation centres, leaving people with no choice but to return to places with limited access to livelihoods and services.

“The [government-run] process of relocating people from the formal Honiara evacuation centres has been quite a fraught one, as people are being removed to provinces where they have either never lived, or have not lived in 20 or 30 years,” said Philippa Ross, the UN Women’s gender and protection adviser based in Suva, Fiji’s capital, adding that at least hundreds remained homeless.

But, argued Sune Gudnitz, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bangkok, “the government has to enforce no-build zones in areas of high risk.”

He explained that geo-hazard mapping from aerial footage captured by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC – an intergovernmental organization made up of 26 nations) found that riverside areas are unsafe because of flood hazards.

ODI’s Levine says such relocations are not uncommon, calling them a “disturbing reality”.

“Relocating populations in high risk coastal areas under the name of resilient urban planning, then a few years later installing tourist resorts there, is not unknown to happen,” said Levine, citing relocations in Sri Lanka after the Indian Ocean 2004 tsunami, where decisions based on the scientific and technical aspects of resilience resulted in forced relocations.

Accountable governance

According to Mercy Corps, which has been working on resilience in East Africa since 2004, and is a member of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCRN) in Indonesia, making communities resilient is less about science and more about equitable and accountable governance.

It is often the most impoverished who set up their homes on vacant urban land in areas frequently not suitable for building, according to the Jakarta-based Institute of Social and Environmental Transition ISET-International (ISET), a research institution that works on climate change adaptation in cities.

“You often have large flows of workers and migrants seeking any open space they can find to settle because it’s fundamental to accessing work, school for their children,” said Marcus Moench, ISET’s president.

“The key point is that if resettlement does need to happen, everyone needs to be involved whether they are informal settlements or not,” said Paul Jeffery, Indonesia country director for Mercy Corps.

Septic tanks in lieu of relocation

Experts say much can be done to improve peoples’ situations without relocating them.

“We don’t want to erode people’s decision-making ability to live where they choose,” said Mercy Corps’ Jeffery. “First [we need to] know why they are living there, ensure people are aware of the risks, and then find ways to better prepare them.”

For example, a Mercy Corps sanitation project in flood-prone Jakarta helps to install affordable septic tanks in densely-populated areas to protect people from the health risks of wading through faeces during floods.

It encompasses all local actors: Mercy Corps worked in communities to raise awareness about the importance of septic tanks, which get installed in individual homes. The NGO then campaigned for the municipal government to install larger septic tanks in nearby rubbish dumps so the household tanks could be emptied regularly. Microcredit loans, supplied by the NGO, prompted small businesses to open push-cart services for hauling waste from small tanks to the big central tank.

The system even attracted funding from IKEA, the Swedish retailer, which will now pay to install 100 septic tanks in parts of North Jakarta within the next two years.

Gender and resilience

Experts say that supporting genuine resilience also requires questioning who speaks for the community. Gender, for example, can offer a lens on power disparities that poorly-framed resilience interventions can exacerbate.

“Even within the same household, individuals will experience shocks and stresses in different ways,” said a 2014 Mercy Corps report, which also noted that during assessments, women tend to identify risks sometimes absent from traditional frameworks.

“The big-picture worldview associated with resilience tends to reflect men’s priorities more than women’s. We just hear what the men say as being important because it matches what we assume and think is important  rather than something like sickness, which affects people more but is not a crisis as we conceptualize it,” said Levine.

A 2013 study co-researched by the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) on Kenya, Ethiopia and the self-declared republic of Somaliland noted that women needed to be prompted in order to identify recent droughts as a risk.

“Investing in resilience makes good business sense”

“Businesses are also recognizing that investing in resilience makes good business sense,” said USAID’s Yates. Nearly 80 percent of all economic investment comes from private companies, according to the UN’s 2013 Global Assessment report.

“The challenges are too great for any single entity or sector to tackle alone,” said Kyla Reid, the head of the GSMA Disaster Response Network, a liaison between mobile phone operators and humanitarian organizations that works in disaster areas such as in the wake of the Philippines 2013 Typhoon Haiyan.

In August 2014, USAID partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to sponsorUS$100 million in prize money to inspire new measures in resilience from public and private sector actors.


Concern over World Bank proposals to roll back safeguards for indigenous people

IRIN Global

BANGKOK, 3 September 2014 (IRIN) – Activists warn of a harmful regression in the World Bank’s safeguard policies, claiming that proposed changes being considered this autumn could weaken the rights of indigenous people, and others in danger of displacement and abuse as a result of Bank-funded development projects.

“This [version of the safeguards] will be dangerous backsliding into their bad legacy of treatment against indigenous people if it is approved,” said Joan Carling, secretary-general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), a network that operates in 14 Asian countries.

According to the World Bank, “the proposed Environmental and Social Framework builds on the decades-old safeguard policies and aims to consolidate them into a more modern, unified framework that is more efficient and effective to apply and implement.”

However, campaigners say the current draft dilutes the protective promise of the safeguards and fails to include indigenous rights considerations in projects funded by the World Bank by obtaining “free, prior, and informed consent” for development interventions. The proposed changes, including an “opt out” policy, could leave development decisions solely at the discretion of governments.

In a 22 July statement the Bank Information Centre (BIC), an independent watchdog, explained: “The Bank is proposing a new loophole that allows governments to ‘opt out’ of following requirements related to indigenous peoples, which would be a major blow to indigenous peoples who have counted on the Bank to recognize them when governments refuse.” The World Bank was the first multilateral development bank to introduce an indigenous people’s policy (in 1982).

Other adjustments suggest a broader attempt to roll-back responsbilities: “The elimination of clear, predictable rules also appears to be a clear attempt by the Bank to avoid accountability for the negative impacts of projects that it funds,” BIC said.

With more than US$50 billion in development aid at risk of being funnelled into projects that could forcibly evict, displace, or fail to adequately compensate communities for resource losses, pressure is mounting on the Bank as board meetings begin on 3 September.


The pending amendments retain the requirement for project-affected peoples’ “free, prior and informed consent” to relocate; proper compensation; labour rights of workers; and non-discriminatory development. However, the draft includes options for the Bank’s non-compliance, which leaves it for governments to decide how to proceed with projects – including by ignoring indigenous people.

“Allowing [governments] not to recognize groups [as indigenous] is incredibly problematic particularly when we know the history of government violating indigenous peoples’ rights,” said Jessica Evans, senior researcher on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch’s (HRW).

According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons (UNDRIP), indigenous people are those who maintain historical continuity with pre-colonial groups, have strong relationships with natural resources and land as the basis of their cultural and physical survival, and self-identify themselves as indigenous as part of their belief systems which differ from the dominant society.

While UNDRIP has been adopted by 143 countries, domestic implementation has been limited. The draft safeguards give governments a loophole to escape recognition of indigenous persons when it comes to Bank-funded development interventions status if it causes conflict or goes against the constitution of the country.

According to a 30 July statement from the Bank about the proposed safeguards draft, indigenous status can be opted out of “in exceptional circumstances when there are risks of exacerbating ethnic tension or civil strife or where the identification of Indigenous Peoples is inconsistent with the constitution of the country…”

“Setting the standard is something an institution as powerful and influential as the World Bank should be considering as mandatory, rather than optional.”

As the draft safeguards go under review by the Bank’s board, activists warn that without major reform to the draft, consultations with indigenous groups when designing and implementing development projects have little meaning.

“If they provide the opt out option for recognizing indigenous groups, indigenous people will suffer adverse impacts,” warned AIPP’s Carling, adding that government refusal to acknowledge the indigenous status of many ethnic minorities can be a contributing factor to statelessness, poverty and forced relocation.

A history of abuses

A root concern about the proposed safeguards is that they shift the onus forenvironmental and social responsibility away from the Bank and onto borrowing governments, which means funds could go to states alreadynotorious for land grabs, corruption and human rights violations.

In recent years researchers have documented cases of forced evictions in poor communities as a part of World Bank-funded projects.

For example, in East Badia, a community in Lagos, Nigeria, Amnesty International reported that 9,000 people had their homes razed to make way for luxury apartments. In Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, up to 135,000 families will be relocated in the next three years to make way for urban development, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a Sri Lankan NGO, argues.

In East Badia, community protests against the razing of homes met all of the requirements to trigger the safeguards for a full World Bank investigation. However, the Bank’s eight-member board instead decided to institute a pilot project for resettlement which compensated communities one-third below the market rate for informal housing in Lagos.

“The compensation was so low it did not enable them to live anywhere else except another slum or precarious accommodation which will put them in danger of being forcibly evicted again,” said Alessandra Masci, Amnesty International’s senior analyst for business and human rights, and lead researcher for the report on Lagos.

The Bank’s pilot, implemented in November 2013, was in line with the new direction of the bank (and the draft safeguards currently under consideration), in which vague language creates flexibility in decision-making for the Bank and the borrower government – leaving the poor to fend for themselves, analysts say.

“Banks and panels are standing back and leaving communities completely alone to deal with entities much more powerful than them,” explained Masci.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the government, armed with US$213 million of World Bank loans, will forcibly relocate an estimated 300,000 people under the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project (MCUDP), according to CPA.

A commitment to ending poverty?

Critics warn that without airtight safeguards for vulnerable people, the rights of indigenous groups will continue to be violated by development projects, and undermine the very target the Bank has set for itself: to end poverty.

While indigenous people comprise 5 percent of the global population, they make up 15 percent of all people living beneath national poverty lines globally,according to the UN.

“In order for grievance mechanisms to work, environmental and social standards need to be clear and prescriptive,” said Kristen Genovese, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), a Washington-based watchdog.

Some fear that growing competition in international lending – with the emergence of Chinese and Japanese development banks, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the BRICS bank – may stoke a fear of losing clients and trigger a race-to-the-bottom panic. Experts argue that the World Bank should see its safeguards as an opportunity to assert its position as a global leader.

“Competition is good. It means more finance for development,” said HRW’s Evans. “The Bank could show other lenders best practices and be a model development bank.”

Sophie Chao, a project officer with the Forest People’s Programme (FPP), a Netherlands-based indigenous and environmental rights organization, said: “Setting the standard is something an institution as powerful and influential as the World Bank should be considering as mandatory, rather than optional.”

Carling asked: “If their main target is to address poverty – if not for the poor, who is development really for then?”



Photo courtesy of Wendy Stone/IRIN

Kenya’s nomadic Maasai tribes rely on livestock for survival/ Wendy Stone/IRIN/ 2012

Analysis: Stopping disease swaps between humans and animals

HONG KONG, 13 December 2013 (IRIN) – With more than half of all human infections originating in animals, experts say a multi-sectoral, global response to zoonoses – diseases passing between animals and humans – is urgently needed. IRIN talked to a panel of experts to learn just how deadly humans and animals can be to one another, and ultimately how each can save the other.

“By neglecting the health of animals and ecosystems, we fail to recognize that human health is inextricably linked with animal and ecosystem health,” said Laura H. Kahn, a physician and researcher at Princeton University in the US. Khan co-founded the One Health Initiative, which links human health to how well animals and the ecosystem fare.

With almost half of the some 1,000 pathogen species found in livestock and animals kept as pets able to cross over into humans, poor animal health undoubtedly increases the risk of poor human health, experts warn.

Known zoonoses cause an estimated 2.3 billion cases of sickness and 1.7 million human deaths annually, reported the Nairobi-headquartered International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in 2012.

But then there are the unknown viruses, which are estimated to number at least 320,000, according to calculations by Simon Anthony and co-researchers published in 2013.

Scientists say preventing and containing zoonoses requires improved human and animal health surveillance systems, food safety and biodiversity conservation and – equally difficult, if not more so – collaboration among biologists, veterinarians and doctors for people.

Changing world, changing risk

A good part of zoonoses (some 70 percent of which come from wildlife) are directly attributable to human actions that have vastly changed animal environments, decreasing animals’ resilience against infection and boosting the risk of humans falling ill.

“Changes in farming and marketing systems have led to more and more pathogens present in society that human beings have never previously been exposed to,” Yi Guan, the medical doctor and virologist based in Hong Kong who first traced the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome(SARS) to live poultry markets in eastern China, told IRIN.

The planet’s population is expected to exceed nine billion people by 2050, leading to more pressure on environmental resources and food systems. By that time, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates global meat consumption per person will increase 27 percent (with most of that growth in China and Brazil).

“Urbanization is [linked] to the intensification of animal systems [in cities], leading to an increased risk of zoonosis,” said Fred Unger, a veterinary scientist with ILRI.

From the 1960s until 2010, due to urbanization, especially in developing countries, FAO calculated the global consumption of milk doubled, while that of meat tripled and eggs grew fivefold.

These days, each city in eastern China hosts at least one dozen retailers selling different species of live poultry in open markets. Birds taken from different regions of China to urban markets led to the outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 bird flu and the recently diagnosed bird flu strain H7N9, said Yi.

“There are direct impacts and consequences of the change in the farming and marketing systems,” said Yi. “These also provide increased opportunities and chances for human and animal interaction.”

While there are health benefits to moving animal husbandry into cities and slums, there are also zoonotic pathogens brewing in the unhealthy physical conditions animals are kept in, increasing humans’ exposure to those pathogens.

But it is not just people casting a wary eye at animals; animals would be justified in being suspicious of us.

Decreased animal immunity

Expanding industrialization, such as extractive industries, frequently establish worker camps in virgin forests, exposing wildlife to people for the first time, said Kaia Tombak, a conservation programme assistant at Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.

“Increased human disturbance and habitat loss cause elevated levels of stress in many animals. This reduces their immune function and causes diseases [in animals] to become more prevalent,” said Tombak.

Development-induced habitat loss is another contributing factor to zoonoses, say biologists.

The Nipah virus – a potentially fatal disease with respiratory symptoms that can infect the brain – emerged in Malaysia the late 1990s, when people destroyed massive sections of rainforest, the natural habitat of fruit bats, in order to build pig farms and cultivate fruit orchards.

Researchers theorize
that as bats, carriers of the virus, came into closer contact for the first time with densely populated pig farms, they infected a number of pigs, which then infected humans.

On average, some 75 percent of people infected died.

Yet, cross-infection can be prevented in these cases, said Tombak. Camps for extractive industries based in forested areas can install screens to prevent bats from roosting indoors and establish responsible waste disposal practices to prevent attracting wild animals to camps, she suggested.

Even when people and animals are not fearful of one another, there is a common potential enemy – warming temperatures.

Edward Allen, a research scientist at the Laos Institute for Renewable Energy, based in Vientiane, has noted that even moderate temperature dips and rises within 10 degrees Celsius can lead to more deaths in both groups.

These temperature changes kill thousands of animals annually, and can damage surviving animals’ fertility and milk production – affecting human nutrition – according to FAO.

Stumbling blocks

Half the world’s surface area has some type of disease surveillance, but most national programmes are based in places with the least number of outbreaks, according to the UK medical journal The Lancet. The journal noted in 2012 that countries with high wildlife biodiversity and population density are “hotspots for emerging infectious disease”, yet almost none of the major surveillance systems were based in these lower-latitude regions.

In an oft-cited meta-study published in 2008 in the journal Nature, Kate Jones and co-researchers recommended “re-allocation of resources for ‘smart surveillance’”.

Between 1996 and 2009, more than half of all emerging infectious disease outbreaks were in Africa – a continent that lags behind in early warning systems and disease surveillance – according to a 2012 report by the UK-basedRoyal Society of Biological Sciences.

And even where there is adequate surveillance, politics – including powerful agriculture lobbies – can prevent zoonoses from being identified and rapidly treated, said Kahn of the One Health Initiative.

When Q fever, an infectious disease causing stillbirths and miscarriages in sheep, cattle and goats, broke out in the Netherlands between 2007 and 2009, “the Dutch Ministries of Agriculture and Health were at odds with each other, hindering an effective response,” said Kahn, explaining that the Ministry of Agriculture initially denied the livestock origins of the disease, which eventually spread to more than 2,000 people, killing about 1 percent, by 2009. The initial denial, which lasted until June 2008, of Q fever’s origins meant “nothing was done to prevent further outbreaks… The disease continued to spread,” said Kahn.

Harnessing survival

But while humans and animals can spell each other’s doom, they can also support each other’s survival.

In 2000, the prevalence of fully immunized nomadic pastoralist children and women in eastern Chad’s Chari-Baguirmi and Kanem regions was near zero. In the same nomadic camps, however, livestock were compulsorily vaccinated by circulating veterinary teams.

Chad’s Ministries of Livestock and Health decided to join forces to carry outvaccination campaigns for pastoralists and their animals, resulting, for the first time, in 10 percent of nomadic children under the age of one being fully immunized wherever the joint campaign was conducted.

But while calls for such joint campaigns, which cut costs while reaching more people and livestock, have been proposed by FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) for at least two decades, experts say there is still not enough collaboration.

Part of the problem is academic “silos”, said disease ecologist Peter Daszak, who heads the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, at a recent standing-room-only session on One Health at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Health annual conference held in Washington, DC.

“Working with animals – that’s the easy part. But for human experts, we need to create a dictionary just for each side to understand one another,” he wryly noted.

“Nobody has the knowledge and expertise to do everything from beginning to end [of disease identification and containment],” added Yi.