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CIHC and IIHA Advocate for Older Persons’ Rights in Crisis at the United Nations

 

February 16, 2018, New York – Fifteen years after the international community ratified the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, the Center for International Humanitarian Cooperation and the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs illuminated the plight and called for the rights of older persons at the United Nations Secretariat in New York City.

Humanitarian Action for Older Persons: Fifteen Years After Madrid, a CIHC side event of the 56th Session of the United Nations Commission for Social Development, featured interventions from fellows of the IIHA, Ambassadors from Japan and El Salvador, and representatives of the International Rescue Committee and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Panelists addressed the national and international frameworks and projects that serve older persons and underscored the ongoing challenges in providing ageing populations with adequate humanitarian services.

IIHA Research Fellow on Ageing Ann Pawliczko, PhD opened the event by introducing the inevitable effect that increased life expectancy will have during crises.

“We can expect more older persons to be affected by humanitarian crises and to comprise growing percentages of displaced populations. It is, therefore, essential that disaster risk reduction and preparedness plans as well as humanitarian aid during and after crises recognize and address the unique issues, needs and contributions of older persons and harness their experience in ways that benefit them and their communities,” she said.

His Excellency Ambassador Rubén Hasbún of El Salvador represented the Group of Friends of Older Persons, a diplomatic collective of countries convening on the promotion and protection of human rights of older persons. The ambassador stressed the vulnerability of older persons and called for the UN and its allies to “mainstream ageing and issues of relevance to older persons into development policies,” including in the UN’s current mission to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable development around the world.

Similarly, His Excellency Ambassador Toshiya Hoshino of Japan spoke to the experience and lessons learned in responding to older persons in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami – where 65 percent of those killed were over 60 years old. Japan has the largest percentage of older persons in the world and is one of the most natural disaster-prone countries.

The country’s disaster risk reduction and management mechanisms, therefore, take the unique needs of older persons into account when crafting and implementing disaster risk reduction policies, plans and guidelines. The Ambassador hailed information technology systems in Japan that communicate life-saving information to older persons before, during and after emergencies as a critical component of humanitarian response and recovery. He also emphasized the importance of regarding older persons’ wisdom and experience as valuable assets and integrating them within disaster response frameworks, consistent with the Sendai Framework 2015-2030.

Andrew Painter, Senior Policy Advisor at UNHCR, spoke to the disproportionate impact of displacement on older persons in both emergency and protracted crises. These include health and physical limitations, disruption of social networks, loss of crucial services, and shifting cultural or familial roles, and ultimately isolation. However, he also encouraged the humanitarian community to embrace the contributions of this population.

“There is a very common perception…of older persons as passive, dependent, waiting for aid as opposed to the vital contributors to their community that they can be and that they are: playing roles as leaders of their communities, serving as resources of guidance for advice to younger generations, transmitting  cultures and skills and crafts, contributing to the well-being of their families in many respects and even contributing to peace and reconciliation processes.

For humanitarians, as for all, the challenge in programming is to address the very specific and real needs of older persons but in the context of empowering older persons to really play these roles in communities where they find themselves,” said Painter.

Sandra Vines, Director for Resettlement at International Rescue Committee, also elaborated on the need for protection among older refugees who are resettled in the United States. She spoke of the IRC initiative to help older refugees achieve self-sufficiency through a strengths-based approach by assisting them to access health care, transportation, housing and other services to allow them to thrive.

“Elderly refugees are very resilient and flexible… (they) can live successful and happy lives in the US,” said Vines.

Sylvia Beales, a consultant on Ageing and Inclusive Social Development, pointed out that it is essential to ensure that older persons are included in the implementation of the various frameworks, charters and other mechanisms that address disaster planning and response. She drew particular attention to the five steps of the Inclusion Charter – participation, data, funding, capacity, and coordination –  to deliver impartial and accountable humanitarian assistance that responds to the vulnerability in all its forms, and reaches the most marginalized people, including older persons.

In conclusion, IIHA Research Fellow Rene Desiderio, PhD, noted that while there are noteworthy initiatives addressing the special needs of older persons, such as strengthening and investing in disaster risk reduction, preparedness, resilience, and governance, much more needs to be done.

“With millions of older persons in many parts of the world affected by conflicts, fragility, and vulnerability, and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection, the Agenda for Humanity calls for action to reduce suffering, risk, and vulnerability and that no one is left behind. Moreover, it places an emphasis on ‘reaching the furthest behind first’. It is …a call to all stakeholders, to all concerned citizens, to all of us to get involved or continue to be involved and collectively ensure that older persons are not forgotten and that no older person is left behind,” concluded Dr. Desiderio.

Humanitarian Action for Older Persons: Fifteen Years After Madrid was convened by the Center for International Health and Cooperation and the Institute for International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University in collaboration with the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations, the Group of Friends of Older Persons (GoFOP), United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Clare Bollnow, IIHA Research Intern

Angela Wells, IIHA Communications Officer

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Older Persons: A Priority to Protect

Angela Wells / Jesuit Refugee Service

January 30, 2018, New York City – The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 proved to be one of the most devastating natural disasters of the century. For the nation’s men and women aged 65 and over, who made up nearly a quarter of its population, the disaster proved severely catastrophic. Unable to evacuate or secure shelter and under precarious health conditions, older Japanese people faced disproportionate insecurity, as reported by the Guardian.

The aftermath of the Japanese disaster brought to light the vulnerability of ageing populations affected by humanitarian crises. This unsurprising yet deeply neglected reality is one humanitarian responders struggle to address in protracted and emergency crises globally.

Around the world, older persons hold the social fabric of their communities together – especially when crisis strikes. They serve as family guardians and community leaders, advocates and teachers. They are also the first to fall through the cracks of the humanitarian safety net – with limited mobility and frail health as they struggle more than most to reach safety, rebuild their homes, and continue their lives in dignity.

While the number of older persons living in protracted or emergency crises is unknown, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has reported that by 2050 the global population of individuals over the age of sixty will more than double to comprise a quarter of the world’s population. In countries susceptible to climate change-induced disasters and conflict, older persons are sure to face greater protection risks, barriers to healthcare, and vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

Despite this evident risk, the humanitarian infrastructure continually falters in its attempts to provide dignified response to older persons – as reported by the UN Refugee Agency. Immediately after fleeing, they are the first to be split up from their families and lose access to lifesaving medical services. As they begin to start life anew, they face age discrimination when pursuing employment opportunities, health care, and social services.

In a humanitarian sphere with competing interests and rapidly evolving crises, older populations are simply not a top priority. This leaves a huge gap in assistance and creates an environment where older persons struggle to prevail.

Furthermore, in urban areas, where more than 80 percent of the world’s displaced reside, older persons are extremely marginalized and unable to access basic services. Whether the hurricane in San Juan or conflict in Mosul, cities are increasingly becoming hubs for disaster and their older and displaced residents the most affected.

“The elderly are largely invisible in disaster preparedness programs, rescue efforts and reconstruction projects. Too often, they are the forgotten ones whom no one bothers to inform, check on or assist….Older persons are particularly at risk if they live in sub-standard or overcrowded housing, in shantytowns, or in areas with badly designed infrastructure, poor transport systems, or ineffective local leadership,” wrote Ann Pawliczko, PhD IIHA Research Fellow on Ageing in a soon-to-be-published book on urban disasters.

Fortunately, the international community has made a concerted effort to address the plight of older persons affected by crises.  In 2002, the United Nations adopted the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing which urged humanitarian responses to include older persons in project design and assessment, and to protect older individuals, especially women, from exploitation and abuse.

Fifteen years later, significant strides have been made. Non-governmental  organizations like HelpAge International and the International Rescue Committee promote the inclusion and protection of older persons amidst global crises and displacement.The 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals call on the international community to leave no older person behind. Nation states have convened to form bodies like the Group of Friends of Older Persons to address their rights and needs on the UN stage.

Humanitarians are also beginning to recognize the wisdom and leadership that older persons contribute to their communities in the aftermath of crises.

“Older people are more likely to be aid givers than receivers. Their assistance to others means that supporting older people – with healthcare or income generation activities, skills training or credit – supports their families and communities. Little attention has yet been paid to how older people can be helped to fulfill such valuable roles in rebuilding communities, and recognition of their special contribution should not lead to devolution of yet more responsibilities without a corresponding increase in support,” reports HelpAge International.

Looking forward, HelpAge and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction are pursuing and promoting fourteen targets that seek to improve humanitarian response to older persons. These include involving older persons in the development of disaster and climate risk assessment, increasing access to early warning signals and information for older persons, and ensuring direct support to older persons including income support and disaster insurance.

These solutions and others will be more deeply explored by representatives of the  Permanent Mission of Japan, UNHCR, IRC, and independent experts and Fordham University at an upcoming side event of the 56th Session of the United Nations Commission for Social Development: “Humanitarian Action for Older Persons: Fifteen Years After The Madrid Plan” taking place at the United Nations Secretariat next week.

The event is being convened by the Center for International Health and Cooperation and the Institute for International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University in collaboration with the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations, the Group of Friends of Older Persons (GoFOP), the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Angela Wells, IIHA Communications  Officer
Noel Langan, IIHA Communications Intern

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