The slow burn of food prices is squeezing the world dry

A new Oxfam report reveals the crushing effects of roller-coaster food prices.

The G8 summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland next month is likely to witness the usual awkward moment as global leaders sit down to groaning dinner tables and discuss global poverty and hunger. Assuming our political masters don’t have time to go and sit with poor people beforehand to see how their lives have changed in the last five years, they might at least consider skimming some new research from Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies into exactly that.

It reveals that a profound (and largely unrecognised) shock is transforming the lives of poor people around the world. In 2007, the world’s food system went into a prolonged spasm, as thirty years of steady and falling prices came to an end, and an era of high and roller-coaster prices commenced (with no end in sight). The findings are published today, under the title Squeezed.

Squeezed finds that the angry riots in 30 countries that characterised the first days of the food price spike have given way to a cumulative "slow burn" effect, as food price volatility has permeated almost every aspect of poor people’s lives: how they select, buy, grow and prepare food, how much and what kind of food they eat, their future dreams, and the relationships that bind families and communities together (or drive them apart).

Most families have reacted to high prices by eating lower quality food – fewer ingredients, replacing the fresh products that give flavour to staples with a stock cube or instant noodle seasoning: less nutritious, but at least it stops the kids complaining. That shift to cheaper food has raised horsemeat-type fears of adulteration – dodgy food chains are a universal concern.

Poor people are also trying ever harder to grow, gather and process their own food, as well as (in the case of women), find yet more ways to earn a few extra cents by going out to work, often in the so-called "informal economy". That has squeezed women’s time in the home so much that in many countries, free time is in danger of becoming an exclusively male concept. That produces knock-on effects, notably on elderly relatives (often women) who are required to take over part of the work of cooking, cleaning and raising children. Not surprisingly, exhaustion and anxiety are undermining many relationships – between old and young, husband and wife. Stories of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence are commonplace.

The food price spike also seems to be a tipping point in a shift away from relationships built on reciprocity (help me and I’ll help you in return, when you need it). People too ashamed to ask for help from friends and neighbours, and wary of not being able to return the kindness, are increasingly turning to the state to provide "social protection", for example through giving money so people can buy what they need and food for work schemes.

Communities’ ritual cycles of births, marriages and funerals are also being undermined, as families unable to afford the celebrations put them off for an ever-receding "better year". In the words of one woman from Bangladesh "only the rich arrange birthdays and marriages. We are busy just to win our bread."

Every sign suggests that this era of food price volatility is now the "new normal". Governments and aid donors need to respond in three key areas: social protection, wider policy and the care economy. On social protection, the key is to get schemes in place before the next big shock hits – crises are terrible times to introduce new laws and institutions. These should include automatic triggers so that when a price spike hits, poor people do not have to wait for decisions from parliaments or presidents before receiving help.

More broadly, governments need to tackle some of the structural causes of food price volatility, building up food reserves and dismantling grain trading cartels. Above all, they need to invest in small farmers both as producers and consumers of food, as climate change disrupts farming in more and more countries.

Finally, policy makers need to recognise that the unpaid economy of the home is profoundly affected by all this, and needs to be taken into account, for example by supporting both women and substitute carers to cope with the increased pressure on their waking hours.

As for those dinner conversations at the G8, Squeezed highlights the need to tackle some of the underlying drivers of chaos in the global food system. The big powers need to address the "land grabs" that are diverting land away from food production in many poor countries, adding to price pressures. Cracking down on tax evasion and tax havens would help curb capital flight and boost poor country government revenues. A shock as profound as that to the food system requires action from every quarter if there’s to be enough food for everyone.

Dr Duncan Green is Strategic Adviser at Oxfam.

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The EU-Turkey refugee deal only succeeded in one thing

It swept the humanitarian crisis under the carpet.

The Greek island of Chios is a picturesque holiday resort, and home to some 50,000 Greek residents. The occasional cruise boat moors alongside the fishing boats which populate the main harbour of the island. Tourism and fisheries make up the majority of the island’s economy.  A 7km stretch of sea separates Chios from Turkey. It is so close that you can look across the water and see the lights come on in houses in Çeşme as night falls. This beautiful island is also one of the scene of an unfolding and largely untold humanitarian disaster. It is evidence that the EU-Turkey deal in March, intended to stem the flow of refugees, has failed. 

Chios is home to more than 3,000 asylum seekers. Refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, make the perilous crossing from Turkey every day. Smugglers launch tiny rubber boats in the middle of the night, over capacity to a dangerous level, to attempt the crossing. One Syrian boy told us that the smuggler on the boat counted down from 10 to calculate when the best time was to purposefully puncture the side of the boat in order to escape the Turkish coastguard, but be rescued from drowning by the Greeks.

As a result of these cavalier strategies, this scenic stretch of water has become the grave of thousands. Those who are rescued by the Turkish authorities rather than Greece are often detained. Such high stakes has not deterred the refugees - one family we knew of had tried 17 times to get to Chios from Turkey. 

The main camp on Chios, "Vial", is at the end of a dusty track and is housed in a disused aluminium factory surrounded by barbed wire. G4S, the private security firm, guards the entrance to the European Asylum Support Office compound. It looks more like a prison than a place of refuge. The majority of the refugees live in metal containers. The camp was constructed to hold 1,100 and now holds approximately twice as many.

Most of the migrants and refugees who arrived in Greece before the EU-Turkey deal have been moved to the mainland, nominally in the hope of relocation elsewhere in Europe. More recent arrivals on Chios (and those simply left behind) have been subject to the hastily-adopted Greek Law 4375/2015, which allows for the lengthy detention of asylum seekers on arrival.

While camps on other Greek islands operate as de facto prisons, on Chios, the police allow refugees to travel around (but not leave) the island. A bus service is provided between Vial and the island’s main city, to allow those housed in unofficial camps to come to Vial for appointments. This is a tacit acknowledgement that makeshift camps are needed for those who cannot be accommodated in Vial’s limited facilities. Thus, the entire island is turned into an open prison camp, with asylum seekers unable to leave until their claims are determined, a process taking upwards of six months. During that time refugees, many of whom have fled from unimaginable horror, are left in an endless waiting game.

In May 2016, a Human Rights Watch report called the refugee “hotspots” on the Greek islands, such as Vial, “unsanitary and unsafe” . By September, when we arrived, the situation had not improved. The conditions in the camps around Chios were shocking. Violence was a daily event - both between asylum seekers and from the frustrated local population. Children, at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, would simply disappear. We would spend hours searching the camps, armed with lists of unaccompanied minors, asking everyone we saw if they had seen this or that child. Some had already become desperate enough to risk their lives in the hands of human traffickers, in order to escape from the very place where they initially sought sanctuary. Shortly after we left Chios we heard that seven people had suffocated to death in a fridge trying to reach the mainland. Isis were known to be recruiting in the camps. 

Unaccompanied children were left to live together in overcrowded containers, often without enough beds. They would take it in turns to stay awake on guard. Food was often inedible. Access to medical treatment was limited. In Vial, the medical facilities were located inside the disused aluminium factory. To be able to speak to a doctor, you first had to get the permission of the police officers manning the entrance gate. People were sometimes left waiting there for days in the baking heat of summer.

It is no surprise that most of the refugees we met were self-harming, severely depressed and suicidal. It is also no exaggeration to say that everyone we interviewed said they would rather be dead than live in this limbo on Chios. Many of the refugees who arrive in Greece are already seriously traumatised. Large numbers of them are victims of torture, or bereaved or wounded by the Syrian war. Almost all have been forced to flee their homelands because of incomprehensible suffering. The reception they receive in Europe only reinforces their trauma. “I didn’t expect Europe to be like this," a Kurdish Syrian refugee aged 18 told us. His entire family (26 members) had been killed in one bomb blast and he had been subjected to horrific torture under the Assad regime.

We volunteered in the camps on Chios providing legal aid. Any hopes we had on arrival of facilitating the speedy settlement of refugees in Europe were quickly dispelled. The structures in place on Chios for the processing of asylum applications were at breaking point. A tiny team of under-resourced and overworked staff from the Greek Asylum Service and European Asylum Support Organisation try to work through the mammoth backlog of cases, but with officers only conducting two asylum interviews per day each, the process moved at a glacial pace. Every day of infuriating bureaucracy is another day vulnerable people are left in appalling conditions. During this indeterminate period of delay in an individual’s protection claim being processed, the authorities failed to take any steps to disseminate information or timescales which would have minimised the psychological harm caused by the never-ending uncertainty.

So what can be done? A French legal NGO collected the accounts of 51 residents in the camps and applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to oblige Greece to take interim measures to safeguard the refugees from the risk of serious and irreversible harm. This application was quickly dismissed, with the residents being asked to wait (yet again) and abide by the usual procedures (yet again). The case of Raoufi and others v Greece, brought on behalf of several asylum seekers challenging their detention in camps in Greece, is pending before the ECtHR and doesn’t look likely to change the position for refugees in Europe any time soon. 

Some have placed their hopes in the controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey, signed in March of this year. The heart of the EU-Turkey deal is the return of so-called "irregular migrants" to Turkey. Syrian refugees who reach Turkey are expected to make their asylum claims there and await relocation to Europe. Turkey will then, on a one-for-one basis, take migrants from Europe who have not patiently waited their turn. The supposed lawfulness of such a deal comes from the suggestion that Turkey is a "safe third country" to which to remove refugees. 

The attractiveness of this agreement to the EU, which comes at a cost of several billion euros, is that it may deter refugees from undertaking the dangerous (and politically inconvenient) crossing into Europe. While the European Commission has insisted that the numbers of refugee arrivals has fallen, their assertions are contradicted by aid agencies who point out that the temporary drop in arrivals following the EU-Turkey deal was short-lived. Refugees continue to arrive in large numbers on Chios, to face appalling conditions on reception. Few are returned to Turkey and the promised funding has not yet been provided to Turkey’s satisfaction.

Our experience on Chios was that the EU-Turkey deal is not only not working, it is fundamentally unworkable. Most of the refugees with whom we worked had passed through Turkey on their way to Greece. Almost all had stories of mistreatment in Turkey. In particular, we were told of guards on the Syrian border shooting and wounding at desperate people – including women and small children – attempting to cross into Turkey. Once in Turkey, arbitrary arrest and detention was the norm. Those migrants most likely to be returned to Turkey (because they cannot be returned to their country of origin) are Syrians, for whom Turkey is clearly not a "safe third country". Turkey’s systematic refusal to allow refugees fleeing Syria to cross its border is a clear breach of international law mandating the reception of refugees. Those refugees who manage to slip through into Turkey are left without meaningful protection or support. Kurds are systematically mistreated by the Turkish state while migrants in general face abuse by police, army officials and criminals. Turkey simply is not a safe third country for refugees, as is underlined by the tiny numbers of people found appropriate for return. 

The EU is seeking to resolve its refugee crisis by returning vulnerable people to inhuman conditions in breach of EU member states’ obligations under international law. The assessments as to whether the refugees are returnable to Turkey, are meaningless. Thousands of refugees are waiting for months for these assessments and yet a tiny minority have been found to be appropriate for return. 

In the meantime, a humanitarian disaster unfolds. The physical and mental health of those trapped in the camps deteriorate. Children are left without schooling or proper protection. Violence breaks out. Self-harm rises. Lives are irreparably damaged. Further delay, for political, economic or legal wrangling, is not an option. As long as the European Union fails to act, it remains complicit in these human rights violations. 

Miranda Butler, Maria Moodie, Bryony Poynor and Saoirse Townshend are barristers who recently volunteered in Chios, providing legal aid to refugees.