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Hazel Healy became a co-editor at New Internationalist in 2011. She began her working life as a researcher with Colombian feminists in Medellin, coaxed peas and beans out of the soils of East Manchester with kids, and went on to do advocacy work with refugees from the Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan.

She took up journalism full time in 2007, co-founding online investigative paper Manchester Mule and going on to cover everything from campaigns by Senegalese migrant organizers in Madrid to the trials of Dominican gardeners in New York.

Since joining New Internationalist she has written on food speculation, climate adaptation and digital freedom, and keeps a close eye all things migratory. She also edits the Agenda section of the magazine.

Her work has also been featured in The LA Times, by La Agencia EFE and the Women’s Studies Review.


Hazel Healy became a co-editor at New Internationalist in 2011. She began her working life as a researcher with Colombian feminists in Medellin, coaxed peas and beans out of the soils of East Manchester with kids, and went on to do advocacy work with refugees from the Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan.

She took up journalism full time in 2007, co-founding online investigative paper Manchester Mule and going on to cover everything from campaigns by Senegalese migrant organizers in Madrid to the trials of Dominican gardeners in New York.

Since joining New Internationalist she has written on food speculation, climate adaptation and digital freedom, and keeps a close eye all things migratory. She also edits the Agenda section of the magazine.

Her work has also been featured in The LA Times, by La Agencia EFE and the Women’s Studies Review.

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New Internationalist is now the world’s biggest media co-operative

made it.jpg

New Internationalist is now a 3,400+ members strong co-operative.

Hazel Healy looks back on the community share offer that has raised £700,000.

When I last wrote, we were walking on air. New Internationalist had just met our £500,000 target for our community share offer, with four days left to run on our Crowdfunder.

Then, something even more astonishing happened. The campaign took on a life of its own. We stretched the target to £650,000 and flew past it, alighting finally on the figure of £704,114 as the offer closed.

By this point, I was grasping for metaphors. We’d ‘climbed the summit’, ‘gone through the roof’ and now perhaps we’ve gone into orbit and are slowly circling the earth. This incredible level of support, which has taken us a clear 40 per cent in excess of our original target of £500,000 has surpassed our greatest expectations.

We are immensely grateful to all our supporters. By this we mean both those who invested personally and those who spread the word on social media and out in the real world, championing the cause of a better media and helping to secure the future of New Internationalist.

It’s early days for analysis but some things we do know. We now have 3,409 co-owners and 75 per cent of people put in £50-£100. This is truly a movement of ordinary people. With important implications for our business, as flagged by new owner Sam Turner, on Twitter.

Our owners are all ages and come from all walks of life. They range from (in his words) a ‘seasoned old timer of 80 who has been supporting the NI since the 1970s’ and young activists who have just come across us. Our youngest is an 11 year old, who was bought shares in trust by their grandmother, and the oldest owner is 98.

There’s romance in our story too. One couple bought each other shares for a 24-year wedding anniversary gift.

And our supporters are of course now part of our organization – it’s a union of sorts. As one new owner wrote: ‘Delighted for you (or should I say “us”!).’ These next few years will be uncharted territory as we embark on this great democratic challenge, blurring the boundaries between readers, owners and journalists. But all that is yet to come.

At last count, these bold media pioneers hail from 42 countries across the globe. Concentrated in our subscriber heartlands of the UK, Canada, US, Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa, our new owners can also be found everywhere from Alaska to Papua New Guinea. Do take a look at our zoomable map to see where the internationalists live:

The bedrock of our support has come from ordinary people – 75 per cent of investors put in £100 or less. But our cause was also picked up by movers and shakers in the worlds of culture, media and politics, with backing and endorsements from journalists such as John Pilger and Lindsey Hilsum, writer and performer AL Kennedy, and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.

So here we are. Audience-owned, fully capitalized and in a position to put ambitious plans into action: we will now be able to embrace new technologies, revamp our magazine and build the book publishing and Ethical Shop arms of our business.

These are exciting times, full of possibility. Our socially conscious journalism will now reach more people than ever before – at a time when it has never been more needed.

For anyone who has closely tracked this campaign, you may be suffering withdrawal symptoms, as I am.

The hours after campaign-close on Thursday evening found me helplessly refreshing the Crowdfunder page – like shaking an unresponsive corpse. (Feeling a bit better today, thanks.)

If you’d like to re-live the Crowdfunder dream you can always read some of the press coverage we’ve picked up along the way.

I feel strangely sad to say goodbye but I have to remind myself that – unlike other crowdfunders that aren’t selling community shares that bestow ownership – this is just the beginning.

To be continued...

As we were. New Internationalist staff mark the end of the Crowdfunder. Now with 3,400 owners, next time they are going to need a bigger pub.

If you missed out on investing go to factsandheart.org to see other ways you can support the work of New Internationalist.

New Internationalist smashes through £500K Crowdfunder target


© New Internationalist

With three days to go, there’s still time to be part of this success story, says co-editor Hazel Healy.

Readers, we did it!

At 10.06 on Sunday night, 32 days into our Crowdfunder, we hit our £500,000 target. It was an amazing moment. This bright springtime Monday morning finds us elated here at New Internationalist – this is a roaring endorsement of all that our magazine has achieved over its 44-year history and what it will now go on to be.

It’s a hugely exciting and transformative moment for us as a co-operative, but also a great uplift for the principles we all share. The success of this Crowdfunder demonstrates that thousands of people do care about the lives of others, thousands of miles away – and are fiercely committed to independent journalism that helps us to understand the world – and change it. In the words of one new co-owner: ‘turns out hope conquers fear, after all.’

Setting off on this journey was daunting, to say the least. Speaking to people during the course of this campaign more than one person asked politely – why did you set the target so high? By our calculations, half-a-million was the minimum we need to turn our business round. If that was a mountain to climb, we have now launched off in a glider, as we are now heading for a £600,000 stretch-target.

Why the stretch? The funds we have raised this far mean that New Internationalist will be able not just to continue, but to do more. This means more ground-breaking multimedia such as our After Ebola project, shortlisted by the One World Media awards just this week.

It means more coverage of communities at the heart of the struggle to save our environment, such as this one, whose story reached over 12 million during the Paris climate talks. And more magazines that uncover what’s really going on in the world, like The Coming War on China by John Pilger.

Anything more we are able to raise between now and 6 April will help us get our socially conscious journalism out to even more people and bolster our long-term prospects. Specifically, we can funnel more resources to key areas such as website development and editorial staff time, and expand the reach of our publishing in books, print and online.

As I write, things are speeding up. We have now passed £528,000. And there’s still time for people to come on board and join in with this democratic media experiment – for 3 more days. So do please check out our video on factsandheart.org, read our Business Plan and Offer, and see if this is something you would like to get behind.

If there is one stand-out fact in this campaign so far, it’s this: almost all pledges have come from ordinary people. The largest cheque, for £10,000, came in on Monday from a retired professor in Finland, who has subscribed for the past 30 years.

It feels as if we are breaking new ground. This truly is people-powered media that is defying the trend of media concentration and clickbait journalism. Our independence has always allowed us to tell stories the way they are meant to be told – without voyeurism and without spin.

It turns out that’s the thing that our supporters value most. I’d like to finish this campaign update with some of the reasons that our investors have given for choosing to become co-owners:

‘Because accurate, values-led journalism has never been so important.’

‘NI goes where the mainstream media fear to tread and holds the rich and powerful to account.’

‘Always impressive, always challenging. Always on the right side. Long may your voice be heard.’

New Internationalist Community Share Offer goes global


West Papuan independence activist Benny Wenda explaining his experience with New Internationalist.

In under a month, New Internationalist’s innovative community share offer has already raised more than £390,000 of our £500,000 target. The number of New Internationalist co-owners has swelled from 800 to more than 1,800 people — and we’re thrilled to discover that they come from over 30 countries worldwide. As you can see in our interactive map, we’re becoming a truly global movement!

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Our new members continue to post wonderful comments on the Crowdfunder page. Quite tickled by this one, from Philip:

New Internationalist, though quite different, ranks with the New York Times as one of the best publications on the planet.

We’ve also had a few company investors, including Ethical Consumer magazine, come on board.

It already feels quite different to be part of a co-op made up of thousands, rather than 18 people. It was amazing to bump into some of our new investors face to face at the anti-racism march in London last Saturday, whilst handing out flyers.

I get the strong sense that New Internationalist will be able to achieve so much more with all of you behind us.

So let’s get over the finish line! The race is on to raise the remaining £100,000 by 6 April. If you haven’t invested yet, please consider doing so as soon as possible – we only have 10 days to go. If you can't invest or you have already, here's some simple ways to spread the word:

Support grows

The campaign continues to attract support from political and cultural movers and shakers such as Icelandic Pirate Party MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir who had this warm endorsement for New Internationalist.

Media Attention

We’ve more from the press, including posts on the anti-privatization campaign site We Own It, The Bookseller, and Ethical Consumer Magazine, an interview on BBC Oxford (our 15-min interview comes in at 2:08 pm) and coverage in Publishers Weekly.

It’s make or break time now. We know campaigns hit a slump in the middle but with £100k still to go, we cannot afford to slow down. Let’s give it all we’ve got! Invest now at: factsandheart.org

‘We’ve never had a benefactor... It made sense to turn to our readers’


New Internationalist co-editor Hazel Healy and Web Editorial Assistant Alessio Perrone.

What prompted New Internationalist to go down this road?

It felt like we had to do something big. Our paid subscriptions have dropped in recent years, in line with print’s decline worldwide. And that’s been a big knock for a small, independent company like ours.

At the same time, things are starting to look up. Magazine circulation has grown this year, digital sales are increasing – and we are reaching many more millions, through our website, than we could have dreamed of when this magazine was born 44 years ago.

So, we are at a point where we have a plan for how to turn things around, and where we need this uplift to get back up on to higher ground. We’ve never had a benefactor – obviously an oligarch is out of the question. It made sense to turn to our readers and others who share their values through this Community Share Offer.

Is now a good time for this?

Absolutely. With President Trump wreaking havoc in the US and the spread of fake news and zero-sum nationalism, there has never been a greater need for journalism like ours. It’s a frightening time: progressive voices urgently need to be heard; we need to be breaking out of the leftwing echo-chamber and reaching a bigger audience. The share offer will help us to do that.

There are many challenges ahead – climate change and yawning inequality to name but two. To handle what’s coming we need knowledge – not clickbait.

We need journalism that brings people together; that makes the point that we rise or fall together. This is what internationalism – and our journalism – is all about.

The public is more on board with the idea of bolstering good media. Journalism projects on the funding site Kickstarter raised over $6 million last year and over 20 per cent of those funded were established media organizations like ours.

And our subscribers are quite special – ‘idealistic, energetic and concerned about the lives of people thousands of miles away’, in the words of former co-editor Dexter Tiranti.

They stepped in for us once before, in 1975, when the oil crisis doubled the price of postage in one year. Cheques rolled in from educationalists, NGOs, individuals from across the world. Today, we have tens of thousands pledged already. It definitely feels like the right time for us to do this.

Can you explain what a community share offer is?

Say there is a community asset – like a windfarm or local shop or football club – that you want to set up or save. Well, you can do it through a community share offer.

It’s been catching on in recent years, enabling people to club together to create or support businesses with a social benefit.

If things go to plan, you may even get interest on your investment. But it is more that you buy a share to invest in the kind of world you’d like to live in.

'We write about others coming together to change things; now it’s our turn'

A world – for example – with a flourishing New Internationalist in it, producing quality journalism that makes the case for a more equal world and gets progressive political ideas out to new audiences.

In our share issue, anyone over 16 can buy shares. And a small shareholder will have just as much power as a large one.

Won’t that be a major shift in power dynamics?

It is a big, bold offer to give away power, yes. When our supporters invest, they become the joint custodians of our mission, charged with keeping us on track and ensuring that New Internationalist can never deviate from its founding principles as laid down in our Editorial Charter.

We have converted into a co-operative society, which allows for multiple stakeholders and gives us new mechanisms such as a Common Council, as a more active forum for engaging with content and direction in the company.

It will be a big cultural shift for us – as a workers’ co-operative – but there’s a certain logical progression there, too. We were founded by Peter and Lesley Adamson, then owned by the workers and now by our readers and supporters.

It’s a way to truly democratize the media and do something big ourselves – we write about others coming together to change things; now it’s our turn.

So, what makes New Internationalist special – what do you do that others don’t do?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the past six months. I’ve drawn on readers’ letters and testimonials in the process – to understand what it is people value about us.

Our readers often talk about our attention to facts, the opportunity to go in-depth into a subject (which of course we love as journalists and editors). Then there is also the way we tell our stories – giving people a dignified platform. Never talking down to our readers.

And, the way we bring to life the realities of people thousands of miles away connects us to one another in way that a mainstream-media piece about, say, ‘100 girls undergo female genital mutilation in a day’ will never do.

The final factor that sets us apart is, of course, our concern with justice – knowing that the way things are is neither natural nor inevitable. We lay out alternatives and introduce the people working to change things for the better.

We have distilled all that into the campaign slogan ‘Buy into a Better Story’ with the tagline ‘facts and heart’ – which was actually based on a comment from a Canadian subscriber about the Ebola magazine in June last year.

You are going for £500,000 ($635,000) and this is an all-or-nothing campaign on Crowdfunder. If you don’t raise the money you will have to return what you raise. Why the radical step?

We got to this target after a lot of number-crunching. And we think this is the minimum we need to turn our business round, scale up and flourish into the future.

You have to remember that a share offer is substantively different to a funding drive – which says ‘fund us to continue doing what we do’. In this case, we are saying ‘invest in us, to help transform our organization’.

With that sum, we will relaunch the magazine, hugely increase our digital output and grow our book publishing and Ethical Shop social enterprise. Anything less will only be a sticking plaster. See factsandheart.org for the full business plan…

OK. I’m in – I want to buy into a better story! How do I invest?

Excellent question! Go to factsandheart.org or call us on +44(0) 1865 413304 (UK) or (613) 826 1319 (Canada/US)

Before you go...

It’s a critical time to build media that brings people together – not drives them apart. That means journalism that creates an inclusive global community, and emphasizes that the struggles of people are often in opposition to the same elite-driven globalization and share the same aspiration to a global, common good.

At New Internationalist, we have never had a rich benefactor or a media tycoon bankrolling what we do. So it makes sense for us to turn to our readers to help shape the kind of journalism that makes the case for something better.

On 1 March, we launched an ambitious Community Share Offer, opening up ownership of New Internationalist to ordinary people all over the world. If you are interested in joining us, visit factsandheart.org.

Jeremy means Jeremy – and so, to work


Parliamentary politics and social movements converged at the Momentum fringe festival at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool. by Hazel Healy

While the parliamentary Labour Party licks its wounds, the rank and file are inspired, practical and focused on the business of winning elections. Hazel Healy reports from the Labour conference.

Heather Reilly rushes up, out of breath, waving a selfie with Jeremy Corbyn on her phone. The 25-year-old lawyer got the snap as Corbyn did the rounds of the stands in the exhibition hall on day two of the Labour Party conference on the Liverpool docks.

‘I see the effects of the bedroom tax and cuts to welfare every day – it breaks my heart,’ she says. ‘Jeremy is the only politician who represents the end of austerity, that’s what’s so exciting about him.’

This is her first Labour Party conference. She doesn’t just identify with his policies, she thinks he can win. ‘My brother’s 16 and he can’t wait to vote for Jeremy in 2020. He has engaged a whole new generation of young people that will hopefully vote Labour for the rest of lives.’

For all his unpopularity among his own parliamentarians, Corbyn has swollen the Labour ranks by over 400,000 – making this the largest party in Western Europe

Corbyn’s superstar status since his re-election as Labour party leader with 62 per cent of the vote, two days previously, has also spread to other members of the shadow cabinet. I overhear an older Labour party member whisper to a friend with reverence: ‘I touched John McDonnell! He said thank you.’

John McDonnell, Labour Party MP, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Hazel Healy

But if some are still in the first flush since Corbyn’s surprise election to the party last year, others are settling down to make the relationship work.

The mood on the conference floor on Monday among the party faithful – even those that voted for challenger Owen Smith – seemed to be more of relief that the bitter leadership contest is settled, than rancour.

Retired engineer Tony Lees, the chair of the Constituent Labour party in Maldon Essex is sitting quietly after a ‘shake up your branch meeting’ training session. He voted for Smith, but bears Corbyn no ill will.

‘I’m not about to resign from the party,’ he says. ‘Corbyn’s principles are fine and genuine. I was disappointed that MPs don’t support him more.’

He has seen Labour party membership double over the past year to reach 300 in Maldon – a solid Conservative stronghold since 1955 – but regrets that meetings seem to be stuck at 30. He’s taking a practical approach, planning on attending another session on ‘retaining, engaging and inspiring’ new members later this afternoon.

And the new members continue to flood into the party. For all his unpopularity among his own parliamentarians, since Corbyn became leader in 2015, he has swollen the Labour ranks by over 400,000 – making this the largest party in Western Europe.

One of these new members is Mika Minio Paluello. She has spent the last 15 years involved in climate change and anti-war activism and has come to the conference to influence energy policy.

‘I used to feel that decision-making processes in the party were very top down and hierarchical. Trying to influence Labour felt the same as putting pressure on the Tories,’ she says. ‘Now it’s different, there’s a lot more openness. It feels like we should seize our opportunity.’

She is also now a branch officer for Walthamstow, breathing new life into meetings with film screenings and debates. ‘Meetings in Walthamstow used to number less than 10. Now we have 50 people plus.’

Momentum conference. Hazel Healy

Up the road at the World Transformed event organized by Momentum – the grassroots group that has sprung up in support of Corbyn – there are queues snaking round the block for sessions to debate Proportional Representation, tackle austerity and re-nationalize the NHS.

The festival is run like clockwork by young graduates in blue T-shirts. There’s not a Socialist Worker paper in sight.

Labour Party members and activists are rubbing shoulders – a slip stream, a new space has opened up in the wake of Corbyn’s renewed mandate.

The media has cottoned on, they’re here in force – The Guardian, Independent, Spectator – an unusual sight at an activist fringe event. With a Trot exposè proving elusive they are running humorous pieces on leftwing paraphernalia, and, maybe, just maybe, starting to take this movement seriously.

‘In the past, it used to be people protesting outside the conference,’ muses Colin Chalmers from Twinning Against Austerity at a Spanish tapas bar across the road. ‘Now there’s a new generation of activists who are joining the Labour Party. This is something new.’

‘People are talking to each other,’ agrees Hilary Wainright, the editor of Red Pepper magazine. ‘There is a new level of confidence to bring about change.’

This enthusiasm is also felt on the streets of Liverpool. ‘I really do think Corbyn could get Labour elected, there’s an unbelievable amount of older people who are rejoining,’ says taxi driver Brian Harding.

He believes Corbyn’s anti-austerity message is starting to be heard by the people on the hard edge of Conservative cuts. ‘All you’ve got to do is look at the food banks. I’ve known people who’ve gone days without food so they can feed their kids,’ he say. ‘Seeing Jeremy has given people hope – it’s something different. That’s what people have wanted for years. And they are starting to fight back.

The young lawyer Heather Reilly expects MPs hostile to Corbyn to fall in line. ‘They’ve had their say but the members have spoken. The backstabbing has to stop.’

This doesn’t feel like a protest party – the accusation levelled at Corbyn by his critics. This feels like a party coming of age, in metamorphosis – a party of possibility.

Hazel Healy is co-editor of New Internationalist magazine.

After Ebola – in pictures

EbolaPhoto09 - Holding a photo

by Hazel Healy

The world’s media has moved on but people in Sierra Leone are still living with the consequences of the most deadly outbreak of Ebola in history. In this photo gallery, we look at out how they are coping, two years on. Photos and text by Hazel Healy unless otherwise stated.

A promise

Above, Alhassan Kemokai holds a picture of his mother, Madame Basheratu Kemokai who caught Ebola at Kenema Hospital. She was one of more than 40 hospital staff to die at Kenema – site of Sierra Leone’s only isolation ward – which, in the early days of the epidemic, was overwhelmed by cases. On her death bed, she took the hands of her eldest son in hers and told him he should not forget his younger siblings; Alhassan survived Ebola to find himself at the head of a vastly expanded family.

‘We are jam packed!’

The family of Alhassan Kemokai (pictured centre) grew exponentially from two boys, aged 2 and 9, to 17 orphaned children and young adults from his extended family (front row: left to right: Titi (3), Alhassan (31), Kumba, Alhassan’s girlfriend, and Mansoor their son (2), backrow left to right- Zeinab (12), Kumba’s sister who has been drafted in to help, Halima (9), Issatu (17) and Agustin (11)). Alhassan, is energized, and coping – just – thanks to a job at German NGO Welthungerhilfe, but talks of a ‘deficit every blessed month!’ and worries that he may have to give up the youngest child (his niece Titi, on his lap) for adoption. Alhassan is still plagued by aches and pains and advocates for other survivors in the district of Kenema, Sierra Leone to help them access promised free health care.

Sharing is not easy

Kumba Kendema absorbed nine children orphaned by Ebola from her partner Alhassan Kemokai’s family. ‘When they call me mother it makes me happy – we treat them all equally,’ she says. ‘I want them to feel they are our own.’ Her two-year-old son Mansoor, pictured, is less pleased about sharing his parents, she admits, and tries to keep the other children away from her. She baulked at the added responsibility at first but friends talked her into staying put, convincing her that things will change. And so she shouldered this formidable domestic burden – laundry alone takes 3-4 hours a day – drafting in her sister, and aunt (pictured below) to help.

Satta and Paul

Not all orphans have a solid foundation to fall back on. Ebola survivors Satta (3) and Paul (6) are now being cared for solely their 22-year-old aunt Serah, who is also bringing up five other cousins, in Koindu, Kailahun district the early epicentre of Ebola. Both children suffer Ebola after effects, with chronic eye problems and relapses into fever. Serah has been unable to finish her own schooling or find work, and relies on a charity Smile With Us to feed and educate the seven children in her care, which it does entirely through donations raised by the Sierra Leonean diaspora in the US and Australia. The charity Street Child estimates that over 12,000 children have lost their primary care giver to Ebola, and over 3,200 have lost both parents.

Back to school

Ebola spread haphazardly through Sierra Leone, devastating some areas but skipping others altogether. The remote small town of Kamakwie in the northern Bombali district had just one positive case, after local communities organized an Ebola task force, support by the NGO Health Poverty Action, to keep the disease at bay. But residents country-wide were all affected by measures to stamp out the virus, such as closing down schools for a year. At the time of this photo, 14-year-old Andrew Kayo (pictured above, known as City Boy as he comes from the capital Freetown) was prepping for an exam the following week, struggling to catch up on a year of missed schooling. Pictured below, Mariama Kamera, Balza Sesey and Mbulu Kamara.

Picking up the pieces

Laurence Ivil

Elizabeth Katta has taken charge of the baby boy of her 14-year-old sister who became pregnant during Ebola. Her sister is one of many girls exposed to sexual exploitation during the financial hardships of Ebola when teenage pregnancy jumped as much as 60 per cent in some areas, according to research by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium. Elizabeth’s intervention means that her sister has been able to stay in school – but one far from home. ‘My sister loves Munda, she rings for news of him every day,’ says Elizabeth. ‘But she was so ashamed the father did not recognize his son that she has gone to live with another sister, and studies 100km away.’

Rebuilding trust

Maternal health promoters Fatu Bangura, Foudea Turay and Memuna Bangura (left to right), who are trained and supported by Health Poverty Action, spent a month visiting villages to persuade pregnant women and nursing mothers to return to their clinic in Kamakwie. Sierra Leone already has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates and during the outbreak at least five women in the area died in childbirth after shunning the clinic for fear of infection. But on the day of the photo, Fatu was satisfied their work had hit its target. ‘People know us – and respect us, they listen to us,’ she explained. The previous day had seen a full house of breastfeeding mothers, and 65 immunizations against measles, BCG and yellow fever.

They brought us on board too late

Pa Mohamed Sesay is a paramount chief and head of a secret society in Makeni. Responsible for performing traditional burials, the societies inadvertently helped spread of the disease by washing and burying the dead when the bodies of Ebola victims were highly infectious. But after influential society members were engaged in the Ebola response and trained by Health Poverty Action, the secret burials stopped and people began to hand over their sick to the Red Cross. Sesay always believed in the disease. He says community resistance came partly from poor messaging saying Ebola had no cure. ‘People said, “why would I bother going to the hospital, if I go there to die?”’. He is anxious to perform rites and bless those who died while traditional ceremonies were banned, so they can have eternal rest.

Surviving stigma

During the outbreak, many Ebola survivors were ostracized by communities afraid of catching the virus. Nine-year-old granddaughter Christina (second on the left) was rejected by her school mates until a teacher Joseph Ali Kanu – who was trained by Health Poverty Action as a ‘psycho social’ worker to help reintegrate survivors – won them round by hugging Christina whenever he could declaring: ‘this is my school girl! She’s your sister – your friend!’. Christina’s grandmother, Esther Turay (pictured centre) fell sick after her husband Agustin, a community health worker died from Ebola, swiftly followed by her six-year-old grandson and her son, a miner, who was also the family breadwinner. Ester is struggling to make ends meet: she has suffered chronic joint pain since Ebola, and is unable to do her previous work of making bread and farming; government help for survivors has dried up.

Seeking closure: The final resting place

Biosafety imperatives rode roughshod over social rites during Ebola, especially during its peak, with loved ones buried far from home, sometimes in unmarked graves. Families, who were left ignorant of the fate or final resting place of the sick who were taken away, are still trying to trace their dead. Mariama B Jalloh lost her father and 27 other relatives when Ebola ravaged her hometown of Kumala in northeast Sierra Leone. He was taken to a treatment centre hundreds of kilometres away, where he died alone. Eighteen months later, she came in search of his body in an overgrown, neglected Ebola graveyard in the southern city of Bo.

Grave 187

Mariama Jalloh collected her father’s death certificate from the council with the number 187 of his grave. After hours of searching (‘it felt like a disaster, I nearly lost hope’) she found the faded stick (pictured above) in the chaotic burial site with the help of a gravedigger who remembered where her father was buried from the date of his death. She arrived just in time. But it will soon be too late for hundreds of other families – unable to afford the journey to distant graveyards such as this one – to find the graves of their loved ones as temporary markers fall away from graves, and with them the only means of identifying them as someone’s lost child, mother or brother.

‘I feel he is with me’

Laurence Ivil

After Mariama bought a permanent metal marker, gravediggers cleared the soil around the grave of her father, Alhaji Musa Jalloh, and prayed with her. ‘I was able to say the prayers that you must say when a Muslim dies in Sierra Leone,’ she said. ‘I asked god to take care of him, the way he took care of me when I was small. I felt closer to him, I felt he could see me.

‘When my father died so far from home it caused my family great pain. They did not bury him with respect. Now that I have identified him, my family can come – they will not need to suffer as I have.’

Offering solace

Michael Duff

Moved by the distress of families like Mariama’s, the charity Concern Worldwide took over ‘safe and dignified burials and body management’ in and around the capital Freetown, in October 2014. Over the next 18 months, their workers would dig more than 16,300 graves at the cemeteries Kingtom (pictured above) and Waterloo, each grave marked with a permanent headstone. Families trying to trace those who died still arrive daily; Concern – which was recognized by the EU for its Ebola response work – has also bussed people in from nearby villages and run radio jingles inviting families. Unlike the forgotten burial site in Bo, on arrival in Kingtom mourners are given a condolence card, with a name and number. ‘It’s good to be able to offer some solace in the face of so much sorrow,’ says Fiona McLysaght, Concern Country Director in Sierra Leone. ‘We had a survivor looking just last week for their grandchildren, daughter and son-in-law. When someone has lost most of their family, you can at least make sure they are able to find the graves.’

Known unto God

Michael Duff

During the fear-filled, chaotic early days of Ebola, many bodies that came for burial could not be identified; some were buried in mass graves. They were those who had come to clinics already sick and delirious, or had died on arrival. They were the unaccompanied under-fives or those people whose bodies were found in the street. In Kingtom cemetery in the capital Freetown, there are 665 unnamed graves marked only as ‘known to god’ that date back to this time. If bereaved families have the date of the death of a loved one, Concern Worldwide’s Family Liaison Officers are often able to pinpoint the area of the graveyard that the person is buried in, so that, even if there is no named headstone, families have a place where they can come to pray.

All the children

Michael Duff

Stillborn babies and under-fives accounted for almost half the burials in Kingtom and Waterloo cemeteries, highlighting the inherent weakness of Sierra Leone’s health system. Not all deaths were due to Ebola, but during the outbreak all burials had to be treated as suspicious and be carried out in 24 hours. Since November 2015, normal, non-medical burials are allowed again, but all dead bodies are still swabbed and four burial teams are still on standby for suspicious cases.

‘The best gift is to be alive’

A brilliant young army medic, Boie Jalloh, ran an Ebola Treatment Centre (ETU) on the outskirts of Freetown, just months after completing medical school. He went on to treat 1,000 patients at the ETU – which was set up and run by Sierra Leoneans and had impressive survival rates – and has since won a presidential award. Despite the suffering he witnessed, he says the epidemic changed him in a good way – ‘I am more humble. And I appreciate life more now – I was sure I would not escape Ebola.’ Jalloh will go abroad to specialize in infectious diseases but will return home – refusing to join the exodus of trained professionals seeking better opportunities in the industrialized word. ‘We are the most experienced people in the world [at fighting Ebola],’ he says. ’I love my country, but also I will have more responsibilities here. Elsewhere, as a noncitizen you only go so far.’

Moving on

‘I’m looking for a loving, caring man – with money,’ says Mabinti, pictured here doing Kadikadi’s hair before a community dance organized by the women’s group of Magazine Wharf, a former Ebola hotspot, one of Freetown’s largest slums and source of the last cases in the capital. The group of smoked-fish sellers has called the first dance since the time of Ebola ‘Pick someone up’. ‘We want to talk together, eat together and dance – for our good health,’ says Kadikadi, who is being filmed for the Back in Touch digital feature.

‘People are very excited that Ebola has gone,’ says citizen reporter Mohamed S Camara, whose mother is one of the organizers. ‘Women have a hard life, they need to relax. Tonight is about dancing, and forgetting.’

The After Ebola project was a partnership with On Our Radar supported by the European Journalism Centre’s Innovation in Development Reporting grant programme.

It funded an investigation in our June 2016 magazine into the humanitarian response to Ebola, as well as the Back in Touch webdoc by citizen reporters, which has been nominated for the AIB Media and Lovie awards.

Did we learn the right lessons from Ebola?

Nurse in Sierra Leone

Nurse Nafisatu Jabbi worked throughout the Ebola outbreak in a remote community clinic. The sole survivor of her four-woman team, she is currently working for free while she waits to go on to the government pay roll. © Hazel Healy

The final day of Sierra Leone’s most recent ‘Ebola-free countdown’ in March 2016 coincided with news of a fresh incidence of the killer disease in neighbouring Guinea. A mix of scientists and government officials were picking over the lessons learned from the epidemic at a symposium in the capital Freetown.

‘The WHO [World Health Organization] can stop announcing that we are “free of Ebola”, said Professor Radcliffe Lisk, vice-president of the West African College of Physicians. ‘It is absolutely futile and irrelevant, considering what happened in Guinea yesterday. You can only be free of an epidemic.’

‘We should talk of when, not if,’ agreed Tina Davies from Sierra Leone’s ministry of welfare. A row of grim faces on the platform suggested that everyone knows they are in this for the long haul.

Sierra Leone has learnt the hard way – after over 14,000 infections and nearly 4,000 dead. There is resolve: ‘Let us understand one thing,’ says Stephen Ngoujah from Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Response Co-ordination (NERC). ‘The scope and magnitude of this epidemic will not happen again.’

For now, Sierra Leone is on high alert. The virus is known to linger on in the bodies of survivors and can be sexually transmitted. Dead bodies are still being swabbed, a skeletal response infrastructure is still in place. But how do we keep West Africa safe from this – and other epidemics – in the future?

The answers have less to do with medicine than you might think. The first place to look for them is in the nature of the response to the outbreak, which allowed things to spiral out of hand.

A botched response

Sierra Leoneans are no strangers to deadly disease: life expectancy, at just 46, is one of the lowest in the world and one in ten children do not live past five. But the Ebola virus was different, in part due to its terrifying 60-per-cent mortality rate and the way that it killed. This was a disease spread by love – through those who cared for the sick. It wiped out entire families in one fell swoop, especially in the early days.

Deaths were undignified, often delirious. Households were cut off from one another, all social gatherings banned and people went hungry, quarantined in their homes and neighbourhoods. No-one escaped the economic impact of the stringent measures put in place to stop it – restrictions on movement that brought trade and agriculture to a standstill.

‘It’s not easy to forget my colleagues. The ones who lost their lives weren’t even being paid’

We’ve known about Ebola since 1976, but the previous 26 outbreaks – mostly in Congo and Uganda – were brought under control within three months. The failure to contain it successfully in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea this time has prompted a slew of soul-searching – and at times anguished – reports from medical and multilateral institutions and NGOs. They concur on a chronic lack of leadership from the WHO, and accuse national governments of being painfully slow to act. (The WHO, in turn, blames its inertia on deep budget cuts.)

The Sierra Leonean government now openly admits that it was not prepared. Even though, in the words of Stephen Ngoujah, they ‘knew it was coming’. In March 2014, when the first cases crept in, Ebola had been slowly spreading through neighbouring Guinea and Liberia since the beginning of the year. With just 136 doctors for 6.2 million people, a dearth of hospitals, equipment or centralized logistics, Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health didn’t stand much of a chance.

But instead of admitting that it could not cope, four months of unproductive high-level meetings ensued. Repeated, frantic warnings from Médicins Sans Frontières – the first NGO to respond – were ignored. It would be five more months, and nearly 1,000 deaths, before the WHO declared Ebola an international health emergency that would prompt the influx of funds and resources to help bring the virus under control.

Spreading fear

In 2014, the Ebola haemorrhagic virus spread through West Africa. It was the longest, and most widespread outbreak in history, killing more than all past episodes combined. Check out our fact spread on how Ebola impacted Sierra Leone.

In the early days of the epidemic, public health messages were confused. Perhaps the most pernicious message was that Ebola had no cure. This served to reduce trust and confidence in an already dysfunctional and long-neglected health system and encouraged Ebola sufferers to turn to the supernatural for solutions, seeking cures from traditional healers. The sick would break out of clinics, preferring to take their chances in the bush.

As Shek Ahmed Bobor-Kamera, an emergency programme officer with Christian Aid, explains: ‘The messaging was really bad. It failed to look at culture and tradition and how people respond to situations like this. In our tradition, if one of my people dies, I have to stay with them until the end. The message was: “Don’t touch the sick! There’s no cure!” This is my mother, my child. I have to abandon my child? When they took them, you didn’t see them again – they never came back to report on that person’s progress.’

Shek Ahmed also says the initial emphasis of the Ebola response was too focused on medical solutions (‘it was all “treatment, treatment, treatment!”). The influential locals – faith leaders, traditional healers, mammy queens and paramount chiefs – who were best placed to communicate with people at risk were not involved in the response until far too late. Once communities were enlisted, though, evidence suggests their impact was decisive.1

‘They accepted the message from us: “Ebola will leave us, if you do this,”’ as Moses Escanu, a teacher who was part of a local Ebola task force in Binkolo, Bombali District, explains. He was part of an army of volunteers, supported by Health Poverty Action, who enforced a set of draconian bylaws that stopped movement and forbade hiding sick people, refusing an Ebola test or ‘harbouring strangers’. First thought up by paramount chiefs in Kenema, the bylaws were so effective that the government rolled them out nationally.

‘You couldn’t bring in enough doctors and nurses,’ says Mike McDonald of the Global Health Response and Resilience Initiative. ‘You had to stop the transmission – mathematically, that’s what had to happen to shut down the epidemic. Communities did that themselves.’

Enter the internationals

The global humanitarian response, when it came, midway through the crisis, was truly impressive. Countries from across the world from Togo to Liechtenstein all threw something into the pot, alongside international banks and institutions. The US and Britain were major donors, mobilizing $2.1 billion and $687 million respectively, and by October 2015, $4.6 billion had been disbursed, in grants and loans, according to the Office of the UN Special Envoy on Ebola.

Ground zero: in the words of its paramount chief, Koindu was destroyed first by Sierra Leone’s civil war and then by Ebola. Just across the border from Guinea, the town and surrounding villages were the early epicentre of the virus. An ongoing ban on Sunday trading – instigated to quell the epidemic – has also robbed the town of its main market day and livelihood, leaving the streets quiet and empty.

Hazel Healy

Alongside 39,000 local health workers, and large numbers of surveillance and community mobilization staff, some 1,300 foreign medics took part (including 850 volunteers from other African countries and a delegation of Cubans) and over 1,000 WHO and UN logistics personnel.

It was a generous display of solidarity. But it came too late for many Sierra Leonean health workers, who were working in unprepared, overwhelmed facilities. The World Bank has reported that Ebola killed five per cent of doctors, and seven per cent of nurses and midwives.

Nafisatu Jabbi was the only survivor of her four-woman team, who ran a maternal health post in Koindu, Kailahun district, the early epicentre of the outbreak. ‘It’s not easy to forget your colleagues. The ones who lost their lives were not even being paid,’ she explains. Their situation was not atypical: in Sierra Leone’s chronically underfunded health system, trained nurses are expected to volunteer for years before earning a salary.

Her best friend Mercy was among those who died. It was early May 2014, just days before the first confirmed case. ‘We thought Mercy had cholera. I cleared up her vomit, felt her skin, took her temperature,’ she says. ‘We trained together; we were like sisters.’ Five other nurses they trained with went to visit Mercy when she was sick, and later died. Nafisatu herself never contracted Ebola. With all the other clinic staff either dead, infected or having fled, she ran the centre alone, delivering babies in the morning and staffing an Ebola holding-centre in the afternoon, while caring for Mercy’s three orphaned children. Later she would earn some hazard pay, at $80 per week.

Nafisatu’s experience raises questions around the allocation of resources. The science journalist Amy Maxmen has documented how Save The Children spent an $18.9 million grant from Britain’s overseas aid office DFID to set up an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU). The ETU treated some 280 patients, after opening in stages in November as infections peaked. Staff salaries and living expenses spoke for $12 million of the grant. From all the millions that flowed in, Maxmen found that less than two per cent was earmarked for frontline hospital workers. This imbalance is symptomatic of a wider problem in the humanitarian industry, which tends to exclude the locals. Last year’s World Disasters Report shows that just 1.6 per cent of funding to tackle global crises went to in-country NGOs, while just three per cent went to national states.

‘I felt some foreign agencies prioritized health worker safety over patient care,’ says young military medic Boie Jalloh, specifically in relation to one medical NGO’s policy not to administer intravenous fluids for Ebola patients.2 Jalloh was 29 and less than a year out of medical school when he set up and ran an ETU in a former police training school on the edge of Freetown, where he would go on to treat over 1,000 patients.

‘We needed these people. They did very well. They were very swift at opening ETUs and raising the alarm,’ he says. ‘But if it happened again I would do things differently. By setting the goal as isolating patients, that put people off coming because everyone died.’

Check out Back in Touch our interactive web documentary feature co-produced with On Our Radar. This is just one of 8 in an extraordinary collection of citizen reporters' tales of love, loss and re-connection in post-Ebola Sierra Leone.


Ebola has added another layer of trauma to an already fragile society. When the virus hit, Sierra Leone was still recovering from a vicious 10-year civil war that ended in 2002. Some 70 per cent of people lived below the poverty line. The epidemic wiped out a recent financial upswing, with the economy taking a double hit from the trading restrictions, withdrawn investment and blocked foreign trade provoked by Ebola, and the collapsed price of iron ore, a key export.

Eighteen months since the peak of the outbreak, the recovery has barely begun, as any Sierra Leonean will tell you. Both of the country’s main occupations of farming and petty trading suffered in equal measure. The farmers missed two growing seasons. They were forced to eat their seed stock of ground nuts and rice to survive. In a similar fashion, traders were forced to use up their assets, or ‘eat our business money’ as market trader Theresa Jusu put it, becoming unable to start up trade again.

Still, it is Ebola survivors, orphans and their carers who bear the greatest burden. While less stigmatized than in the early days of the disease, some 17,000 survivors across West Africa suffer chronic ill-health, with acute eye conditions, debilitating joint pain and loss of hearing. Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are widespread.

Survivors often double-up as carers for orphaned children. Alhassan Kemokai caught Ebola from his mother Madame Basheratu, who worked at Kenema hospital. As she lay dying, she held out her hands to her eldest son and blessed him. ‘She told me not to forget my younger sisters,’ he recalls, explaining how he survived the disease and emerged to find his belongings burnt – for fear of contamination – and a much larger family to care for. His carefully planned household of two well-spaced children has expanded from four to 17, after he became the breadwinner for seven orphans plus young widows and siblings (aged between 4 and 22).

‘We are jam-packed!’ he says of the new house that he has rented on the edge of town, where the family lives on simple meals of rice and pepper with palm oil while desperately trying to keep all the children in school. He seems at once exhilarated and overwhelmed by the challenge, while his partner, Kumba Kendema, is exhausted by the washing (three to four hours a day) but wants the children to feel they are her own. She has bussed in her mother and aunt to help prepare meals.

Alhassan has a desk job with a German NGO and they are just about surviving – many are not so lucky. But he is not sure how long he can cope, and is considering an offer from a Guinean family to adopt the youngest orphan. Alhassan’s case is typical of many extended families – elastic at the best of times – that have been stretched to the limits by Ebola.

Alhassan Kemokai with his partner Kumba Kendema and their youngest child Masour, who just acquired 11 new siblings after his parents took in the orphaned children of relatives lost to Ebola.

Hazel Healy

Positive changes

Sierra Leoneans will also point out that Ebola has brought some changes for the better. For one thing, the country now has a fledgling mental health service, with 20 nurses operating across all districts who are able to offer counselling and support for some of the many thousands left traumatized.

Standards of hygiene and care in hospitals are also improved. ‘It used to be hard to see a packet of gloves here,’ remarks Mark Ali, the medical officer in charge of a freshly painted emergency ward at Connaught government hospital in Freetown. ‘Now things are easier.’ He is working alongside Kings Sierra Leone Partnership, a British charity that builds up health systems through long term co-development. One positive legacy of Ebola is that Kings has scaled up from a $146,000 per year operation to close to $2.9 million. That means, among other things, that Connaught now has piped oxygen (which has led to a 20-per-cent improvement in mortality rates in the hospital) and a functioning triage system.

Outside the emergency ward, Spanish doctor Marta Lado is standing at the entrance to another Ebola legacy – Sierra Leone’s first infectious diseases isolation unit, which can now serve patients with TB, Lassa fever and cholera. Lado was working as a clinical manager for Kings when Ebola hit, and refused point blank to leave. She cared for over 1,000 patients in an improvised isolation ward at Connaught with a British nurse and a handful of local staff in very difficult conditions. ‘The way I coped with the terrible things that I witnessed is that I stayed on. Now we start to see the real value of partnership,’ she says. ‘The new unit is run entirely by the nurses. Healthcare workers have this new confidence and pride in what they do; they want to improve the hospital. And that came from Ebola. Don’t ask me how, but it did.’

‘It was a steep learning curve but we are all experts now – our clinicians are the most experienced in the world,’ says Boie Jalloh, whose outstanding role in the response won him a presidential award, which he shrugs off. ‘Thousands of others did more than me, in their quiet corners. I am just happy to be alive,’ he says. It is a point of pride to him, however, that the ETU he managed was set up and run by Sierra Leoneans. He wants to see local research capacity enhanced so it is not just international experts presenting papers on Ebola at conferences.

Another unexpected legacy is a more united country with a stronger civil society. ‘We have seen what was possible, we can build solidarity and act together,’ says Fatou Wurie, an activist who runs the Survivor Dream project. ‘We have to hold Sierra Leone to account. It’s not enough to say health or women’s rights is a government priority.’

‘Healthcare workers have this new confidence and pride in what they do – and that came from Ebola’

Meanwhile, the Budget Advocacy Network is pushing for changes in tax regimes for mining companies that would see more money available for public services, and for an IMF debt write-off. They want action on illicit capital flight to the tune of $71 million per year over the past decade. This is money that could and should have been spent on the people of Sierra Leone.3

It’s a civic confidence that will be sorely needed to keep the government on track. Much work lies ahead for a cash-strapped executive whose first challenge is to keep its promise to employ the Ebola health-worker volunteers – or risk losing that expertise and momentum. There is also the small matter of a missing $3 million from the government’s own Ebola response funds, which has yet to be resolved.4 And the authorities will need to fight IMF restrictions if they are to increase public spending.

The road to rebuilding health systems will be a long one. Ebola exposed the intense vulnerability of a country to epidemics when 30 per cent of people are too poor even to seek care. The international spread of Ebola has also turned the world’s attention to the value of shoring up weak health systems and has helped to bring Universal Health Coverage – the dream of free healthcare seen off by IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies of the 1980s and ’90s – back into the frame.

Sierra Leone has taken small steps towards this with its free healthcare initiative for pregnant mothers and the under-fives, launched in 2010, but still has among the highest child and maternal mortality figures in the world. For systemic change, more funders must eschew ‘single-issue’ high-profile diseases and quick fixes, in favour of the more hum-drum business of public health.

The country will need support for some years to come. With $1.6 billion dispersed and over $3 billion pledged in global ‘Ebola recovery’ funds, there is some evidence of international commitment. But it will need to be the right kind of aid that enhances capacity, and builds up national systems. Success, says Shek Ahmed, will come from support ‘that goes direct to local partners or in direct cash transfers – not on expat salaries’.

On high alert, post-Ebola: Nafisatu Jabbi (centre right) at the Koindu community clinic, accompanied by a newly replenished staff team, including Community Health Officer Alfonsus Vandi (centre left).

Hazel Healy

Frontline champions

Back up at Ebola champion Nafisatu’s station in Koindu, a new team of maternal health promoters are in post. She reports that there are more medicines and equipment available – though she is still waiting to go on to the government payroll.

Outside, men are working on an isolation unit and new nurses’ quarters have been built – both evidence of Phase 1 of the government’s plan to upgrade healthcare facilities, post-Ebola.

An energetic Alfonsus Vandi has just taken up the job of Community Health Officer. ‘We’ve got some idea about how to protect ourselves,’ he says, pointing out a biohazard safety box. ‘Infection Prevention Control is now creating an impact. Even the communities have learned!’

Ebola exposed the intense vulnerability of a country where 30 per cent of people are too poor even to seek care

He is full of optimism. He says outreach work by staff is bringing people back to the clinic. Anxious for the ambulance service – currently banjaxed by a sick driver – to come back on line, he talks about how medical supplies should reflect the needs of the area.

The success of his remote outpost will be a key test of an effective decentralized health system, and the ongoing community engagement that will be essential to keep Ebola at bay.

It would be good to think the world has got Vandi’s back. Let’s hope we have learned the right lessons from Ebola. We owe it to the victims, and the people standing guard. Explore our interactive digital feature 'Back in Touch' in collaboration with On Our Radar which tells the stories of life after Ebola

  1. Africa All-Party Parliamentary Group, February 2016. nin.tl/LessonsCommunities.

  2. Read more on this controversy in The New York Times: nin.tl/EbolaDoctorsDividedIVTherapy

  3. Health Poverty Action, 2015. nin.tl/HealthyRevenues

  4. The Guardian, February 2015. nin.tl/NationalAuditorReport

Ebola - the facts

Why the EU-Turkey deal will not solve the refugee crisis

Co-editor Hazel Healy went on the Real News Network to discuss the EU-Turkey refugee deportation deal. This is what she said:

GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: My name is Gregory Wilpert and I'm coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. The European Union has begun to apply a deal that it reached with the government of Turkey to send refugees who landed in Greece back to Turkey. In the past year, over 1 million refugees travelled from countries in the Middle East, particularly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq to Turkey in the hopes of making it all the way to Europe.

WILPERT: Let's start with your concrete experience. You travelled to the island of Lesvos, Greece a couple of months ago which has been one of the main arrival points for refugees coming from Turkey. What did you see there? What was the situation like for the refugees?

HAZEL HEALY: I arrived on 28 of October to a small tourist town called Molyvos, I say town but it's more like a village. Actually earlier that day there had been a shipwreck – one of the most serious off of the island and 40 people were still missing – so my arrival on the island was more devastating than I was expecting, even after everything that I had read on the news about the crisis before that. In terms of the people who I actually met, I think we can read the statistics and hear that 95% percent of that make that crossing from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, around half of them are from Syria.

When you hear the personal stories, it helps you to relate to these people and the journeys that they are undertaking and the reasons they are fleeing. One man I met was Salman, who was a Syriac Christian from northern Syria. He joins the exodus of Christians from the Middle East that started with the war in Iraq and has carried on a pace with ISIS. He had lost his cousin that night – he hadn't come in on any rescue boats. Then another woman that I met was a Yazidi mother of two called Linda who had lost her 18-month-old son, Jude, earlier that day. He had drowned on the crossing.

The Yazidis from Iraq (like Linda), also have a well-founded case under the Refugee Convention but she was having to travel in this way and actually lose her child fleeing persecution by ISIS – who we all know in the West and the kind of terror that they can be responsible for. One other group I met were two Syrians, Amel and Majid who was a Master's of Economics student and he said that the reason he was leaving Syria was that it had got to the point where you either shoot a gun or you leave..

WILPERT: Was that kind of the situation for most of the people you talked to? That they were essentially escaping a civil war situation such as in Syria or Afghanistan?

HEALY: Or in Iraq... It was actually an extraordinary experience because there were people there from all over the world. I also met a Somali who called himself ‘Captain Phillips’ who was running away from Mogadishu after he had received death threats from Al Shabab for his work with a Western, microfinance NGO. But what I saw from everyone were either people fleeing war or in search of more sustainable, secure lives. And I was also told by more than one Syrian:

'If I could, I’d go back tomorrow', 'This isn't my choice’, ‘I'm just looking for a way out'.

WILPERT: Where did they say they were trying to get to? I assume that Greece was not their ultimate destination. Where were they hoping to go?

HEALY: In most cases, people had a family member who they were hoping to join. So Amal was hoping to join her husband in Berlin. The Yazidi woman, Linda, her parents were already in Germany and she was making her way towards them. I met another man from Iraq who had a brother in Switzerland. I even met an Iranian DJ who was hoping to join a cousin, I think it was, in Zurich. So really a range of motivations and also contacts and reasons for choosing different countries.

WILPERT: Well let's turn to the deal that was reached between the European Union and Turkey last month, which is beginning to be implemented now. People are being returned. You've been in touch with people, what have they been saying about this process of being returned to Turkey?

HEALY: Well, there are so many concerns about this deal. I mean, its legality is questionable on many fronts. The first is that, how can you be sure that the people that are returned to Turkey have had their asylum claim properly evaluated in that time? Of the first 202 who were deported amid much fanfare and media attention on Monday, 13 of those, the Greek authorities have said, 'Oh sorry that was a mistake, we haven't actually finished processing their asylum claims.'

So that’s hardly encouraging. The second point is that Turkey is not a safe country to return people to so that means if you do return asylum seekers to that country, you’re guilty of something called ‘refoulement’. So under the Refugee Convention, you cannot return people to a place where they're at risk of further persecution. So Amnesty has been documenting how on the boarder with Syria, Turkey has been returning people to Syria, pushing them back over the boarder illegally so it’s not a safe place for Syrians, and even less so for the other nationalities.

You also have all sorts of people swept up in this deal. You have Eritreans who are phoning up advocates saying, 'Well what about us?' 'Will we be sent back to Turkey?' 'Where can we claim asylum?' Because Turkey isn’t even a full signatory to the Refugee Convention so there are so many worries that people have about people being able to access the protection that they're legally entitled to if they're sent back to Turkey.

WILPERT: From what you've seen of the situation there, certainly also I think in addition to Amnesty International criticizing the Turkey EU deal, they have also been criticising the camps in Greece themselves, including the one I think that you visited in Lesbos which is one of the largest. What do you think would be the solution to this problem that apparently, even though Europe is saying that they are going to take them in, then at the same time returning them to Turkey, what should be done? What would be a better solution to this situation?

HEALY: There's an easy answer to that and it's safe, legal pathways and you also need a global response. I don't think this can just be a European response. But if you start with Europe, if you take the Resettlement Program, which is the only safe legal pathway that’s been offered to the refugees currently. It was 160,000 places were pledged, that was the target, and of those, 660 people have been relocated within Europe which is 0.4% of that promised total. So you can shut the door, slam the door in the faces of the refugees, and if you don't offer them any other way to reach safety, they will carry on coming and they will come by another route. So people are already reporting high numbers of crossings from Libya which is a very dangerous route and even more people died traveling that route last year than they did coming via Greece.

You have to provide people another option, a safe option, a means by which they can have viable lives for themselves and their families because otherwise it's just like the war on drugs. It's just like a displacement effect – a balloon effect. It's a supply-centric effort – you have to look at the reasons people leave, that they are seeking safety and sustainable lives. You need to look at the pull factors such as the labour market and jobs in those destination countries that are also in need of workers. And you need to think about our intervention abroad as the industrialized North. And until you think on those things, and act on them, this crisis isn't going to go away.

WILPERT: One thing that has really impressed me in reading about the situation is that practically all of the media always insist on referring to them as ‘migrants’. What do you think about the usage of that term, given the situation that you've experienced of the people who are fleeing their countries and trying to enter Europe?

HEALY: It's a good question and there are two things going on here... Firstly there is a global displacement crisis. The Middle East and North Africa are in turmoil and that is generating a lot of refugees, conflict refugees. At the same time there are other people on the same pathways who are brought, with slightly different motivations and slightly different push factors. But what you find is that actually the ‘neat’ categories of refugees or migrants don't always fit the people who are on the road. For example if you take Syrians, who leave, who flee the war so that they are safe from the bombs but they are in Lebanon and they are getting deeper and deeper into debt and they can’t establish viable lives there. They practice what’s called ‘secondary migration’ and it’s the same for Eritreans who escape the repressive regime. They get as far as Sudan, they have no options there, they have no way of surviving there, so they just keep moving until they get to a place where they think they can build a new life.

Then you might have people who are commonly categorized as economic migrants like Pakistanis or Nigerians who are actually fleeing localized violence – which isn't well-publicized but actually would have a good case even under the Refugee Convention. The question becomes more, how can we update the Convention to adapt to the realities of the world we are living in to encompass the different kinds of people who are coming and the things that they are looking for?

Humanity adrift


Migrants arrived by boat near the village of Skala on the Greek island of Lesbos. © Sergey Ponomarev

In a taverna overlooking Molyvos harbour, exhausted Greek coastguards have come off shift and are drinking in a huddle. They have just pulled 242 refugees out of the water, in the worst shipwreck off the shores of Lesvos since the refugee crisis began last year.

By 1.30am there is only one man left in the bar, Yanis Stipsanos, the vice-mayor of Molyvos. ‘Too many people have died at my place,’ he says, his face like thunder. ‘I didn’t kill them. Turkey killed them.’ He thinks for a moment. ‘Europe killed them.’ Pauses. ‘Fuck you, Europe, and take them. This is not Lesvos’s problem, it’s humanity’s problem.’

Outside, a scene of quiet devastation is unfolding. Wet, salty clothes are strewn about the large cobble stones. The floor of a tiny port-side Orthodox chapel is covered by survivors in blankets, trying to bed down for the night.

At the chapel entrance, Salman, a Syriac Christian with red-rimmed, green eyes is pacing. He fled Qamishli in northern Syria, joining the exodus of Christians from the Middle East that began with the invasion of Iraq. The last rescue boat has long since docked but his 27-year-old cousin is still missing. His phone lights up with another call from his uncle and aunt.

A young Yazidi woman, Linda, approaches a medic. Despite the blankets piled high on her shoulders, she is shaking violently, going into shock: ‘I had my son in the water for an hour, then I lost him.’ She left Bashiqa in northern Iraq 14 months ago with her two young children, when ISIS fighters were one day away.

‘I had my son in the water for an hour – then I lost him’.

The medic leads Linda back the way she came, on another search through some of the people bedded down on the top floor of a port building. They cross paths with an official clutching reams of paper, which bear the names of 38 missing people.

Elsewhere, a young Iraqi man announces, to no-one in particular, that he will never sleep again. ‘I am so happy to be alive! I will stay here – and sell noodles!’.

‘There were so many kids around me. Their life jackets didn’t work for them – the waves were going into their mouths. We paid money to die’

The refugees – mostly from Syria, but also Iraq and Afghanistan – had embarked on the 10-kilometre crossing from Turkey in a large wooden boat, on the afternoon of 28 October. Supposedly more seaworthy than the customary rubber dinghies, smugglers had charged a premium of up to $2,500 per person. But the craft was made of insubstantial stuff, thin as cardboard. Any doubters were forced on at gunpoint. After 40 minutes, it ran into high winds. The top deck crashed into the lower deck; the boat sank in a matter of minutes.

‘It was like a disaster movie,’ says Feroz, who used to do PR for the Free Syrian Army, ‘Everyone was screaming. There were so many kids around me – the life jackets didn’t work for them, the waves were going into their mouths.’ He shakes his head. ‘We paid money to die.’

Preventable deaths

The UN refugee agency has found that 90 per cent of those who cross into Europe by sea last year came from the world’s top-10 refugee producing nations. So why are refugees paying money to die? The answer lies in Europe’s dysfunctional asylum policy which, to borrow the phrasing of Refugee Law scholar Cathryn Costello, majors in shifting responsibility for refugees and migrants instead of sharing it.

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention, born of Europe’s own terrible wars, bestows protection on those fleeing persecution and can extend to conflict refugees. It has been signed by 145 nations. But there is a catch: people can only claim asylum once they are inside your territory. The game, then, is to stop their arrival.

Clockwise from top left: Survivor: Feroz, from Damascus, was one of 242 people rescued from the shipwreck of 28 October. Superhighway tide mark: thousands of arrivals daily through October up until December have left Lesvos’s northern beaches littered with life jackets, despite constant volunteer clean-ups. Fragmented families: a group of Palestinians from Yarmouk, Damascus, pose at Molyvos harbour after a safe landing. All have husbands, wives and children still in Syria. ‘Humanitarian caste system’: migrants ar e divided into deserving and undeserving on the basis of nationality at registration camps on Lesvos.

All photos: Petros Diveris

The Schengen Agreement, which allows free movement between signatory European countries, effectively pushes Europe’s border to the outer rim – Greece, Italy, Spain and the Balkans. Amnesty International reports that the EU spent $2 billion between 2007 and 2013 to stop people breaching that border.

Legal entry is a pipe dream for most asylum-seekers. In 2014, a total of 104,000 of the world’s refugees were resettled by the UN directly from camps: less than 0.1 per cent of the total.

Slowly but surely, land routes into Europe have been fortified and sealed. A visa-regime prevents travel by air or ferry, and family reunion is highly restricted.

History shows us the world can act together when it chooses

This pushes refugees into more and more dangerous journeys at the hands of smugglers. Linda, the mother I met in Molyvos harbour, was travelling with 20 members of the persecuted Yazidi community who have a strong claim to protection under the 1951 convention. She was hoping to join her parents in Germany. They had driven to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and later flown to Istanbul, only to pay upwards of $35,000 (a ferry ticket costs $15) to travel together on a ‘cardboard’ boat that sank.

Linda’s 18-month-old son Joud was just one of 90 children to drown in the Aegean Sea in October. The deaths of some 3,600 people on Europe’s Mediterranean border in 2015 make the beaches of Lesvos – the entry point for half of Europe’s sea arrivals – feel like a war zone.

The perverse paradox of Europe’s asylum policy – offering protection while pulling up the drawbridge – creates a do-or-die asylum policy. If you make it, you can claim. And for most, it’s a risk worth taking. If you’re Syrian, like 50 per cent of those coming to Europe across the Med, you are almost certain to get it.

Volunteers are filling the gap left by a negligent Europe

We are failing refugees on a monumental scale. What’s more, history shows us refugees need not be arriving broke, exhausted and empty-handed – if they arrive at all – on an island of 85,000 inhabitants, ill-equipped to shelter or support them.

As Cathryn Costello has pointed out: ‘If everyone arrived with a humanitarian visa, and was claiming asylum in the country they wanted to, things would look very different.’

Unpicking unprecedented

Warmed up: volunteers stripped Baby Mohamed of his wet clothes, dressed him and wrapped him in a rescue blanket after he arrived freezing cold at dusk in Eftalou.

Petros Diveris

‘There are 19.5 million refugees in a world population of 7 billion. It’s a manageable problem,’ Alexander Betts tells me. Head of the Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre, he appears to have encyclopaedic knowledge of all the refugee crises the world has ever known.

He puts this crisis in perspective, reminding me that the overwhelming preponderance of refugees are in the Global South. Ethiopia is home to 650,000; Iran to nearly a million. Europe as a whole, with its 508 million wealthy citizens, has yet to receive as many people as Lebanon.

The world can, and has, dealt with refugee crises before. The million arrivals in Europe reported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 2015 represent a challenge, but we have found imaginative ways to ensure safe passage in the past. Betts talks about Nansen passports – refugee travel documents issued in the interwar years – that gave safe passage to 450,000 refugees between 1922 and 1942.

Rapid, effective, global

Europe has also handled crises on its doorstep. In the 1999 Kosovo War, 850,000 refugees streamed over the border into Macedonia and Montenegro. The UN speedily evacuated 100,000 people under a temporary humanitarian relocation scheme, to every country in Europe.

Earlier, the Hungarian crisis of 1956 saw 180,000 people flee to Austria. Within months, just 410 Hungarians remained. The rest were taken in among 36 states, everywhere from the US to Paraguay.

Any attempt to control borders is delusional

No refugee crisis is the same as any other; all were fraught with mistakes. But they show that the world can act together when it chooses.

The protracted exodus from Indochina in the late 1970s saw thousands flee Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in rickety boats, heading for Southeast Asia. The countries receiving them were overwhelmed – much like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan today, and thousands drowned. But the UN agreed an Orderly Passage programme to stop the sea crossings. By the time the crisis ended in 1996, 1.6 million were resettled, mostly in the West.

This time round, certain European states – primarily Germany and Sweden – stand out for their generosity. But efforts to share the load have stalled. The EU’s relocation scheme, brokered in September 2015, aimed to ease the pressure on states of first refuge, such as Greece. But four months later, only 160 people had been moved out of its 160,000 target. On a global scale, the US has pledged to take 10,000 Syrians, Australia 12,000 and Canada 25,000 but these numbers represent just a fraction of the 4.2 million who have fled the Syrian war.

This looks like a crisis of politics, not numbers.

Solidarity explosion

‘How many sandwiches did we make today, Stelios?’ calls out Melinda, back in Molyvos harbour at her restaurant, the Captain’s Table, which has turned into a de facto hub for refugee support. Stelios thinks for a moment. ‘More than 5,000’, a prodigious rate of sandwichmaking for new arrivals. Melinda estimates that they are spending $10,000 on relief, every day.

If governments are refusing to step up to the plate, the citizens of Europe have had less reserve. As extraordinary as the numbers flowing into Europe, is the solidarity flowing out to meet them.

Mixed messages: refugees have received a varied reception as they journey through Europe. Here, a policeman plays with a girl last September in Denmark, a cut-through for many Syrian and Iraqi refugees heading for Sweden.

Claus Fisker/Reuters

Lesvos has become a magnet for these new humanitarians. Scores of people wearing branded tabards with names like Drop in the Ocean or Team Humanity, stride into the sea on Lesvos’ northern beaches, to meet refugee boats. The volunteers are not easily pigeon-holed, and have divergent political opinions. They are people such as Richy, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan; Amanda, a single mother of four grown-up children, who first came to Lesvos as a tourist, and Lukas, a German cyclist, who came to do his bit for Europe.

Across the island, they spot boats, clean up beaches and hand out dry clothes to new arrivals. A team of Spanish lifeguards work around the clock with six jet skis to assist the Greek coastguard. (The EU contribution to the rescue effort – a high-sided Frontex patrol boat – has proved ill-suited to the task.)

These volunteers are filling the gap left by a negligent Europe. All are self-funded, most co-operate with local efforts and often channel significant resources from networks back home.

The ‘problem’ is not migration but xenophobia fuelled by politicians and the media

Freed of bureaucratic constraints, they can also complement the work of international NGOs and the UNHCR, which were late to come to Greece.

In the camps to the south of the island where people must register before moving on, there exists what one aid worker harshly described as a ‘humanitarian caste system’. Syrians, who are thought more likely to be accepted as refugees, stay in Kara Tepe camp. Those slated for rejection by Europe – Pakistanis, Iranians and Afghans – are consigned to Moria, in appalling conditions. There they are fed by volunteers from Pikpa, the ‘village of all together’.

Safe haven

Established in 2012, Pikpa’s entirely volunteer-run reception centre has become a haven for those whose journeys have been interrupted by illness or bereavement. The run-down recreation ground is peaceful after the heart-thumping adrenalin of the beaches, but suffused with sadness.

As I walk in, a little girl with a mop of straight black hair walks up and hugs me, then walks off to make a collage. Leo, a Syrian volunteer in his twenties with hazel eyes, pitches up to show me around. He left Damascus three years ago, tried life in Lebanon and Turkey before slipping through Greece’s land border, unable to face ‘working 12 hours at half-pay and paying double rent’.

Big migrations will prove to be the new normal. Think of this crisis as a trial run

The shockwaves of the shipwreck two days ago are plain to see. A widowed Afghan man is standing awkwardly by the swings with three daughters, gazing into space. A 10-year-old Syrian girl, Sara, tells me in perfect English, ‘my parents were lost on Wednesday,’ with a shrug and a small self-conscious smile, adding, ‘but now my uncle has come from Germany.’

‘It’s too much,’ says Leo. ‘Every day we hear about people dying in the sea. They can open the land border. People will come anyway. Why not make it legal?’

Yanis, a psychologist who volunteers with Pikpa, was comforting refugees in the hospital after the accident. ‘These families came looking for a better life but they lost everything,’ he says. ‘I feel so ashamed.’

No invasion

The moral case for safe passage is beyond doubt. We have the track-record and legal framework to deal with this. So why is Europe – and the rest of the world – falling so far short of its moral obligations? An obsession with migration, pinned as the cause of all 21st-century ills, may have something to do with it.

Dutch academic Hein de Haas believes the Left has boxed itself in when it comes to migration by drawing on humanitarian arguments and neglecting practical ones.

‘You can’t persuade people to have the same values as you,’ he tells me in a weary tone when we meet in an Oxford bookshop. Instead, he has spent years running the numbers. His analysis tracks migration flows and policy over the past century in 163 countries. And his findings are startling. His work on visa policy shows that border controls have often spurred settlement, not stopped it.

The Spanish case is one example. Until early 1990, Moroccans did not need visas to enter Spain. They would come for seasonal work and then leave. As soon as visas were introduced, immigration from Morocco rocketed. And instead of returning, people stayed put.

‘If we had visa-free migration, more people are likely to come to work, and to have a look around – but also to go home again,’ he says.

He takes apart other migration myths. There is no ‘invasion’ – the percentage of the world’s population that migrate has remained static, at around three per cent. There is scant evidence that welfare is a pull factor, either. Migrants are attracted by labour markets – economies that perform well. And on balance, they contribute more to economies than they take away. Meanwhile, much-needed assistance is sent back in remittances – in amounts which dwarf international aid. And his parting shot: as poorer states get richer, their citizens are more likely to migrate, not less – it is a function of development, not something that will be ‘stopped’ by aid.

De Haas says we should be more worried that migrants will soon choose to go to India and China, and shun the West altogether, and he highlights a growing trend of north-to-south migration. The ‘problem’, he concludes, is not the movement of people but xenophobia fuelled by politicians and the media.

And what’s more, any attempt to control borders is delusional. ‘The migration hardliners are ignoring reality. They act like ostriches, they want to think it away. But it’s like being against ageing! Migration is happening. There’s little we can do about it.’

The Great Walk

Back on the beaches of Eftalou, in northern Lesvos, there are no deaths the day after the major wreck. At dusk, close to 1,000 people huddle in the wind on the beach road, newly disembarked from rubber dinghys littering the seafront.

Empathy is holding out – against the odds

A beaming Iraqi stands with his wife and four children wrapped up in golden foil emergency blankets like little toffees. He hopes to join his brother in Switzerland. A Syrian whose only luggage seems to be a guitar tries to speak to me in English. His friend Hila translates: they made the crossing because they felt it was their ‘last chance’. ‘But,’ she adds, ‘I would go back tomorrow, if I could.’

Up at Oxi transit camp, on a dangerous curve with commanding views of an Aegean turning purple as the sky darkens, a volunteer admires the new multi-coloured bus ticket queuing system, pinned to a piece of cardboard on a post. The whole world is here. Afghan women with jet-black hair and loose scarves, tall Somalis with high cheekbones wrapped in brightly coloured shawls, carrying large handbags.

Up by a kiosk, a Somali who introduces himself with a wide grin as ‘Captain Phillips’ is ordering sandwiches for the 13 in his group who sit texting on their Samsung phones. He describes circuitous, arduous routes through Dubai, Iran and Turkey. His decision to leave was prompted by a bomb that killed a Chinese diplomat in Mogadishu in July and threats against him from an acquaintance linked to Islamist terror group Al Shabaab.

It has never been so urgent to challenge alarmist, illiberal voices

There’s an Iranian house and techno DJ, Farzad, with foil blankets flying out into the wind around his socks, making him look like Icarus. His plan seems to hinge around being free to party in Switzerland, where a cousin lives.

A senior UNHCR official on the island says we need a new lens, beyond the 1951 refugee convention. ‘I call this the Great Walk. There’s everybody here. People who say, “I’m leaving because I want to be fulfilled as a human being.” It’s not only because of the war. And I understand them – life is life because it moves! This is the formation of a new generation in Europe. Let’s not be afraid – let’s understand how we can live together.’

It’s only when you obstruct this flow that you get a crisis.

Beyond boats

In Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos, the following day, hundreds of Greeks are demonstrating in support of refugees. Migrants are applauding and filming the march on their phones.

University lecturer Dimitris Ballas is inspired by the tolerance of his island’s inhabitants. They have seen their per capita income the past six years, and watched the beaches of Lesvos disappear under a wave of orange life jackets and human drama, threatening the tourism they depend on. But, on the whole, they don’t blame the refugees. As one hotel owner said to me in Molyvos: ‘How can I be angry with these poor people? They have even less than we do. They are the victims of geopolitics – just like us.’

‘I’m hopeful. Obviously there are some people who are unhappy about this but most are doing their best to help – in the midst of our own crisis,’ says Ballas. ‘It brings to prominence what it means to be human. And that is beautiful to see.’

Yet at a political level, humanitarian solutions have never seemed further away. Boats are still sinking, tragedies on endless repeat. And the ink is fresh on a questionable $3.3billion EU deal with Turkey, which hinges around keeping refugees out of Europe.

‘How are we going to stop people? Trap people in Syria? Where are these people going to go?’ asks Rae McGrath. The director of Mercy Corps relief operations in Turkey and northern Syria, he is struggling to see the movement of people into Europe as a ‘crisis’ after stopping food aid to 621,000 displaced people in ISIS-controlled areas in early 2014.

He throws down the gauntlet: ‘When do we start shooting refugees?’

Don’t give up on the politics

There’s an alternative to this dystopia. And we can start building it now. The UN needs $20 billion for its humanitarian budget for 2016. (That is just two-thirds of what Britain coughed up to bail out Lloyds Bank Group or the cost to the US of two-years’ worth of bombing ISIS in Syria); responsibility for refugees must be shared out globally, and safe passage assured; people seeking new lives would stop dying tomorrow if land borders were opened, reception centres built and carrier sanctions (which prevent airlines from transporting refugees) dropped. In the meantime, search-and-rescue in the Aegean Sea must be deployed immediately.

We must push for political solutions. For people to be able to go back to their homes and live in peace, or to be accepted in Europe and the Western world that has played its part in making wars, and creating an unstable, unequal world.

It has never been so urgent to challenge alarmist, illiberal voices. Recent regional elections show the far right is gaining ground in Sweden, Austria, France and Switzerland, and the proto-fascist Pegida is attracting support in Germany.

Yet empathy is holding out, against the odds. British journalist Paul Mason reports that many in Athens voted Syriza back in through gritted teeth, if only for better treatment of migrants.

There is everything to play for. Alexander Betts believes that as protracted conflicts bed down in our fragile and mobile world, big migrations will prove to be the new normal. Think of this crisis as a trial run.

People will continue to come. We have to expect it and not be hijacked by fear. Fruitless attempts to seal borders come at a terrible human cost that is unacceptable. Such policies are the work of functionaries who see people as numbers. Anyone who has witnessed men, women and children dying on the prosperous shores of peacetime Europe knows this is wrong. We can, and must, do better.