(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • First Person: To stop Ebola, ask the rebels to help

    The Democratic Republic of Congo is in the midst of its 10th Ebola outbreak. Since the first case was declared in the northeastern town of Beni in August 2018, almost 800 cases have been confirmed in 19 different health zones, and more than 500 people have died.

     

    I’ve worked on four Ebola outbreaks across Africa and have often found myself in tricky situations with local people who view outsiders with suspicion. During the 2014 outbreak in Guinea, for example, my team and I were threatened by villagers who ran after us with machetes.

    It only took a few days in Butembo before I was surrounded by an angry mob chanting “kill him”.

    It only took a few days in Butembo, responding to the current outbreak in eastern Congo, before I was surrounded by an angry mob chanting “kill him”, after they refused to allow our surveillance team to investigate a death in their neighbourhood.

    Such experiences have taught me that keeping your calm and speaking respectfully are the best ways to de-escalate tense and violent situations.

    But I still wasn’t prepared for my first experience of going face-to-face with Mai-Mai rebel leaders to negotiate access in Congo so our health teams could reach affected communities.

     

    Since this outbreak erupted in North Kivu province last August, health teams knew they would face big challenges. The virus had resurfaced in a densely populated, heavily travelled urban region where about 100 armed groups operate, restricting the response. The risk of rapid geographic spread was very high.

     

    Ebola is a highly contagious virus, and when a person contracts the disease all those they come into contact with need to be screened for symptoms.

     

    As the Ebola response coordinator in Butembo, my role was to organise surveillance activities to find these contacts as quickly as possible – that means before they start showing symptoms, become contagious, and spread the virus.

     

    Very early on in this outbreak we got an indication of just how hard this was going to be. Six days after I arrived in Beni, the epicentre, we heard that 30 contacts of confirmed Ebola patients had fled to Butembo, about 60 kilometres away and home to over a million people.

    Finding people who don’t want to be found is not an easy task.

    Finding people who don’t want to be found is not an easy task. It’s made even more difficult when those affected live in inaccessible areas controlled by armed rebel groups, including the Mai-Mai – self-defense militias feared by the local population because of years of crimes, including torture, kidnapping, and indiscriminate killings.

     

    Less than two months after I arrived in Butembo, we heard that the body of an eight-month-old boy who died from Ebola was in the Mai-Mai village of Tinge. Because the risk of Ebola spreading is most severe immediately after a patient dies, I knew we needed to gain access to people in Tinge as our only way of saving lives and avoiding disaster.

    I told our health teams and international partners we had to go to that village to vaccinate people. Everybody thought I was crazy.

     

    The Mai-Mai are known to be well armed and unafraid of the authorities. Even our national police and army don’t dare venture into some of these rebel-controlled zones. Only my driver and the titulaire – the nurse overseeing that health zone – agreed to join this uncertain and risky mission.

    The following morning, I got into the car not knowing if I would even come back alive. After a 45-minute drive on windy roads, followed by a 35-minute walk along muddy forest trails, we finally reached Tinge. About 50 people were gathered under big dark green tarpaulins, mourning the baby boy.

    We were greeted by a woman who asked what we were doing in their village. I told her I had to see the village chief because I had something important to tell him. She pointed me to his house.

    As an epidemiologist with a specialisation in molecular biology, my colleagues jokingly nicknamed me “the complete man” because I can perform all the tasks in the surveillance toolkits: investigate and validate alerts, take samples from suspect cases, and even test these samples in the laboratory.

    However, in this situation, my skills weren’t that useful. What we needed even more was to find a way to convince the sceptical local community to collaborate with us and stop Ebola.

     

    As I entered the house of the village chief, my heart was racing. I had heard so many scary stories about Mai-Mai fighters that I didn’t know what to expect.

     

    In the house, I saw five men at the dining table, waiting for lunch to be served. They were covered with the amulets the Mai-Mai use to protect themselves. The chief was sitting on a chair with large banana leaves beneath his feet.

    To my surprise, when they saw me, they invited me to join them at the table. A woman brought a small stool and hot water to wash my hands, before we were served pondu (cassava leaves), fufu (cassava flour with water) and one piece of meat.

     

    My hosts remained silent, observing and analysing my behaviour. Only when I began eating did the atmosphere lighten. My hosts started smiling and talking. The chief told me they appreciated my humility by agreeing to eat with them.

    That is when our conversation finally started. They had never heard about Ebola nor the vaccination. So I spent more than 30 minutes explaining the virus to them, how it spreads, what the preventative measures are, and how the vaccination works.

    Without saying a word, the village chief went outside and gathered the villagers. He said a few words in their local dialect while making big gestures. Then he allowed the titulaire to list all those who had been in contact with the baby boy so we could follow the chain of transmission. In total, 75 people came forward.

     

    Before leaving, we agreed to meet the next day in a neutral zone where vaccination teams and police agents would be allowed to come. At 8am, everyone arrived and our teams began vaccinating.

     

    Not a single person in that village developed the virus.

     

    After making contact with the chief of Tinge, I was able to meet other Mai-Mai chiefs, including a group that controls the area linking Butembo to the major city of Goma. I visited their village in December, where I spoke to a group of fighters for two hours, answering all the questions they had about Ebola.

    Later, in a one-on-one meeting with the chief, I called the Minister of Health and arranged for them to speak. The chief warmly thanked the minister for his commitment to ending the Ebola outbreak, guaranteeing that his fighters would not harm the response teams. A week later, I returned to the village with several boxes of medicines the minister sent the Mai-Mai to cement this collaboration.

    Earning trust during such a deadly outbreak is always hard. Which showed me yet again that respect, compassion, and humility can go a long way – even saving your life and the life of an entire community.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: Dr Shako with Mai-Mai fighters after a discussion about Ebola and negotiations with their leader in Rutshuru. CREDIT: Dr Jean-Christophe Shako)

    First Person: To stop Ebola, ask the rebels to help
    “I had heard so many scary stories about Mai-Mai fighters that I didn’t know what to expect"
  • In Libya, hard economic times force migrant workers to look elsewhere

    The well-worn description of migrants in Libya is of desperate people trapped in hellish detention centres trying to get to Europe. But many come for work, and some return multiple times despite the dangers posed by people smugglers, armed gangs, or merciless employers.

     

    After years of civil conflict and political mismanagement, oil-rich Libya is on the verge of economic collapse. It can hardly look after its own financially struggling citizens, let alone its migrant workforce, who have become vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping, and other abuses.

     

    Philip Badou, a Ghanaian pastor who has lived in Tripoli for the past 25 years and has a mostly migrant congregation there, said Libya’s downward spiral has made life so bad for migrant workers that some longtime residents of the capital are leaving.

     

    “Libya always provided many opportunities for Africans, and they just weren’t interested in going to Europe before because they could make good money here,” said Badou. “This big problem with migration has really only started since 2011.”

     

    This was the year Muammar Gaddafi was ousted. Under his rule, Libya had depended on a large migrant workforce; his 42 years in power marked by a reliance on oil revenues and the handing out to citizens of public sector jobs that required little actual work.

    “Libya always provided many opportunities for Africans, and they just weren’t interested in going to Europe before because they could make good money here.”

    The UN estimates there are currently some 670,000 migrants and refugees in Libya, including 56,455 currently registered with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and another 6,200 in detention centres across the country.

     

    It’s not clear what proportion of those people are in the country solely to work, but it is still a mostly sub-Saharan African workforce that unloads cargo ships, tends to farmland, restocks shelves, operates most aspects of construction and demolition, and manages rubbish and street clearance. There are also Syrian and Ukrainian doctors and dentists, Indian and Iraqi teachers, Filipino nurses and oil workers, and Eastern European engineers.

     

    ‘They had rights’

     

    Some migrant workers in Libya manage to get regular employment, but for most it is more of a struggle.

     

    Across the country, many congregate at roadside points each morning, waiting for prospective employers. They can make up to 650 or 700 Libyan dinars per month – the average salary a Libyan in a state sector job makes – but their jobs are insecure and can be dangerous.

     

    Migrant workers say they are often held up at gunpoint for their wages after a day’s work, if they are paid at all. Some foreigners are abducted off the streets and forced to work for free.

     

    “One of my Nigerien workers went missing, and when I called his phone it was answered by a Libyan who had basically abducted the worker because he wanted a large farm area cleaned for free,” said Farouq, a Libyan who runs a beach resort in Misrata.

     

    The kidnapping of foreigners for extortion is a common practice in some parts of the country, including the southern town of Sebha, a hub for the smuggling of goods and people. One church in Tripoli, which has an all migrant congregation, reported using most of its collections in 2016 to pay ransoms to free its members, although less so in the past two years.

     

    Even foreigners who have been in Libya for several years have no legal resource. The country has multiple militias competing for power and no real police force with any quantifiable power, but also few migrant workers have official documents and there are few functioning embassies where they can be renewed.

    This is a change from the Gaddafi years, according to 28-year-old Libyan taxi driver Mohamed. “No one would treat migrants like this [then]. It was illegal. They had rights,” he said. “I remember well one single case, before 2011, where Libyans attacked a migrant family accused of stealing. It was a major, shocking news story.”

     

    Money transfer problems

     

    While security threats can be a factor, it is mostly disenchantment with Libya’s financial situation that is driving migrant workers away to Europe or, in some cases, back home.

     

    Official money transfers abroad in Libyan dinars have been impossible since mid-2014, and both foreigners and locals have to rely on the black market as the official exchange rate has been largely unavailable and irrelevant for years.

     

    “Money is the main reason for so many people going to Europe,” said Badou, the Ghanaian pastor. “Since official money transfers stopped, there’s no way to send wages home legally and people have to work hard just to get 700 Libyan dinar, officially $504, which, on the black market, is now equivalent to $150, which is very bad. So of course, people start to leave.”

    “Here in Libya, we really need migrant workers. To be honest, we can’t get anything done without them.”

    Libya’s economic meltdown has meant banks have limited cash and restrict daily withdrawals, leaving most Libyans unable to access their own savings. As one government employee explained, salaries – routinely paid months late – are now “just a figure on paper”. This cash crisis has has been accompanied by rising prices, leaving many struggling financially.

     

    The exodus is beginning to cause alarm among some Libyan employers, according to a senior member of the Ghanaian community who said Libyans had started pleading with Ghanian plasterers to stop leaving. Within Libya’s migrant workforce, many nationalities have “specialties” and there are few skilled plasterers able to fill the void left by departing Ghanaians, he said.

     

    Libya is heavily dependent on its migrant workforce and some say that without foreign workers, the country would struggle to function.

     

    “Here in Libya, we really need migrant workers. To be honest, we can’t get anything done without them,” said General Mohammed al-Tamimi, the military commander at a checkpoint north of Sebha. “Recently, when we capture migrants, they stay here with us and we employ them as labourers,” as there are no detention centres open in Libya’s south, he added.

     

    In the open, but not safe

     

    As fast as people leave, either heading home overland or braving the Mediterranean crossing towards Europe, more migrants arrive across Libya’s porous southern borders.

     

    Despite the dangers of their lives here, they don’t live in hiding and, in Tripoli at least, they have long been a noticeable and active part of the community.

    migrant_workers_in_tripoli_playing_football_1920.jpg

    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Migrant workers play football in the Libyan capital city of Tripoli.

    For example, every Friday for the last 20 years, migrant football teams have played on a wasteland patch in the capital’s Souq al-Juma district. Last year, several hundred migrants and a handful of Libyans gathered to watch the final of a four-month tournament organised by migrant football enthusiasts.

     

    “We have no problems, no intimidation, nothing,” said Jaffa, a day labourer from Niger, one of the organisers. “The situation for migrants here is not like they say in the media. It’s actually okay.”

     

    But “okay” masks a myriad of difficulties, both financial and otherwise. “These football matches are great because they allow people suffering a very difficult situation to put their energy into something positive,” said Ben Hamza Adali, a Libyan who plays on one migrant team. “This place is in a well-secured area and we don’t suffer from any threats or harassment because no one has a problem with football.”

     

    Mid-game, a Toyota pickup pulled up and three men armed with Kalashnikovs, wearing official blue police uniforms and balaclavas, ran onto the football pitch, shooting in the air.

     

    Efforts by Tripoli’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to rein in the capital’s militias remain ineffective, with many operating independently, despite the state uniforms most now wear.

     

    It may just have been a show of power but it sent hundreds of terrified migrants fleeing across the pitch, scattering out into the busy road. No one was injured and, after a few minutes, the armed men sped off. The footballers returned, with a greatly diminished audience.

     

    tw/as/ag

    In Libya, hard economic times force migrant workers to look elsewhere
  • South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

    Last week, UN envoy for South Sudan David Shearer said fighting had “diminished greatly” since a September peace agreement. He may have spoken too soon. It has since emerged that clashes in the Equatoria region have displaced about 8,000 people internally and sent 5,000 more fleeing across the border into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in the midst of an Ebola outbreak. Most of the refugees and IDPs are women, children, and the elderly – many traumatised after they “witnessed violent incidents, including armed men reportedly murdering and raping civilians and looting villages," according to Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The clashes began last month between the army and the National Salvation Front, or NAS, one of more than 70 armed groups in South Sudan – and one that didn’t sign last year's accord. Five years of civil war have left 1.9 million South Sudanese internally displaced and 2.4 million living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

    Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

    The World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are among those competing with the UN's World Food Programme for a €500 million European Commission grant. The project supports 1.5 million refugees with cash allowances in Turkey. It’s the largest single humanitarian grant in the world, accounting for about 31 percent of the EC’s emergency aid budget. One of the issues will be indirect costs. A recent EC audit questioned the seven percent overhead fee paid to WFP (to be reduced to 6.5%), which ran the first phase of the project. WFP told IRIN it is following the financial rules set by its board, which includes EU member states. The Emergency Social Safety Net project is largely implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent. Its chief, Kerem Kinik, in a statement to IRIN, declined to back a bidder, saying his organisation "remains in promotion of an impactful and cost-efficient programme design".

    Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

    The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen released its annual report to the public this week. It makes for grim reading on 2018, a period during which the country “continued its slide towards humanitarian and economic catastrophe”. In 224 pages, the group details “widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the various parties involved in the conflict”. Tip: For the group’s look at humanitarian assistance – including the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s obstruction of civilian flights out of Sana’a, and the Houthi rebels’ arrest of aid workers and interference in the selection of aid beneficiaries – skip to page 56. In other Yemen news, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would end the country’s support for the war. It still has to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump’s pen. If you’re confused, yes, last year a similar resolution failed in the House and passed in the Senate, but members have come and gone since then, and the resolution has changed too.

    Counting the cost of internal displacement

    People displaced within their own borders could be costing the global economy nearly $13 billion a year, according to new research by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Researchers assessed costs for eight countries experiencing conflicts or disasters, including Central African Republic, Libya, the Philippines, South Sudan, and Yemen. CAR was found to have the highest financial impact for each displaced person – about $230 million, or 11 percent of the country's GDP, per year. The research found that the highest burdens come from lost income, support for housing, and healthcare. People in low-income countries were also impacted worse than those in lower-middle or upper-middle income countries. Internal displacement "places a heavy burden on the economy," said Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC, "generating specific needs that must be paid for by those affected, their hosts, governments or aid providers". For more on how IDPs need greater protection, read this opinion we published earlier in the week.

    Examining aid partnerships

    Major donors and aid groups have made broad promises to “localise” aid – putting more power and funding in the hands of locals when crises hit. But change has been slow on the ground, to the frustration of many local NGOs, as we’ve documented in our continuing reporting on locally driven aid. So how can local and international groups make this all work? New research examines aid partnerships in four countries – Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, and South Sudan – to look at what kinds of practices might contribute to “localising” aid. There are the positives (locals participating in project design and budgeting), and the negatives (internationals taking credit for local work). But, unsurprisingly, most of the local humanitarians interviewed in the studies said existing partnerships between international and local organisations are not equitable – closer to the subcontracting that characterises many aid relationships. Yet genuine, long-term partnerships are seen as the most likely to accelerate “localisation” reforms. The ongoing research, which you can read here, comes from a consortium of NGOs including Action Aid, CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam, and Tearfund.

    ‘I am free from the conflict, but I do not feel free’

    The number of child soldiers around the world has more than doubled since 2012, according to Child Soldiers International’s analysis of six years of UN reports on children and armed conflict. The latest report verified 8,185 cases of child recruitment in 15 countries – a 159 percent rise on the 3,159 cases verified in 2012.

    Co-produced by a former child soldier, a new project brings to life the voices of 27 children who were recruited into conflict in northern Uganda. There’s a taster below, but you can view the full comic here.

    screenshot_2019-02-15_at_06.51.01.png

    © YOLRED and courtesy of Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol)

    In case you missed it

    Germany: The German authorities have arrested two former officers of Bashar al-Assad’s secret service alleged to have tortured critics of the Syrian president. A third man is reported to have been arrested in France. Germany accepts the principle of universal jurisdiction, allowing its courts to try individuals accused of international crimes committed elsewhere – including war crimes, crimes against humanity, even genocide.

    Haiti: After more than a week of protests over corruption amid soaring prices and inflation, President Jovenel Moïse finally broke his silence on Thursday, refusing to step down and urging patience. At least seven people have been killed during demonstrations sparked by anger at the government and the business elite over a $2 billion development aid scandal. More protests and street gunfire was reported in the capital, Port-au-Prince, after Moïse’s speech.

    Kashmir: The deadliest militant attack to hit Indian-administered Kashmir in three decades killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary troops this week, raising tensions in a disputed region that has seen frequent civilian demonstrations against military abuses. The bomb blast was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad, a banned Islamist group.

    Myanmar: The military is shelling villages and blocking humanitarian access in Rakhine State, according to Amnesty International. Rights groups say some of the same army divisions involved in the violent 2017 ouster of 700,000 Rohingya – labelled as a likely genocide by UN investigators – are now being deployed in a crackdown on the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army.

    Sudan: Sudanese government forces have used "extreme violence and shocking abuses" against largely peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said, urging the UN to conduct an independent investigation into the violations. Activists estimate that more than 50 people have died since anti-government demonstrations began in mid-December, while at least 79 journalists have reportedly been arrested.

     

    Weekend read

    International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    The new D-Day for Venezuela is 23 February. This is when opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has said humanitarian aid will enter the country to alleviate the suffering of Venezuelans gripped by widespread shortages of food and medicine. Guaidó has urged the armed forces, who remain loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, to allow the aid in. But there’s no indication Maduro, whose presidency Guaidó denounces as illegitimate, intends to do any such thing. In our weekend read, journalist Paula Dupraz-Dobias unpicks the different strands of what has become an international aid stand-off, with aid agencies caught in the middle and uncertain what to do next. This briefing is essential reading as the showdown continues to obscure a humanitarian crisis that may be denied by Maduro, but shows no sign of letting up.

    And finally

    We recommend you check out this entry to the New York Times’ Lens blog, which features the work of photographer Wesaam al-Badry. Al-Badry and his family fled Iraq just before the Gulf War for Nebraska, and his photos beautifully document their life in the United States, warts and all. There are weddings, a prison release ankle monitor, and an Arabic-language American newspaper. “My family are not one dimensional characters in a refugee story,” al-Badry says. “They have multiple layers, they have their own personalities, their own agency and ways of manoeuvring through life.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A child holds up a map in the Protection of Civilians site in Bor, South Sudan. CREDIT: JC McIlwaine​/UN Photo)

    as-bp-il-si/ag

    South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant
  • Power shift creates new tensions and Tigrayan fears in Ethiopia

    Disagreements over land and resources between the 80 different ethnic groups in Ethiopia have often led to violence and mass displacement, but a fast and unprecedented shift of power led by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is causing new strains, experts say.

     

    “Ethnic tensions are the biggest problem for Ethiopia right now,” Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group that played a significant role in lobbying the US government to censor the former regime. “You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

     

    During the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4 million new internally displaced people exceeded Syria’s. By the end of last year, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4 million.

     

    Tigrayans comprise just six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million people but are perceived as a powerful minority because of their ethnic affinity with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The TPLF wielded almost unlimited power for more than two decades until reforms within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front last year.

     

    Since coming to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy – from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest – has brought major changes to the politics of the country, including an unprecedented redistribution of power within the EPRDF and away from the TPLF.

     

    The politics of ethnic tensions

     

    Despite the conflicting interests and disagreements between ethnic groups, the Ethiopian government has managed to keep the peace on a national scale. But that juggling act has shown signs of strain in recent years.

    “You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

    In 2017, an escalation in ethnic clashes in the Oromia and the Somali regions led to a spike in IDPs. This continued into 2018, when clashes between the Oromo and Gedeo ethnic groups displaced approximately 970,000 people in the West Guji and Gedeo zones of neighbouring Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region.

     

    “The pace and scale of the change happening in Ethiopia is quite unbelievable,” said Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow with the Africa Programme at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

     

    “The impact of inter-communal tensions and ethnic violence presents a serious challenge for the new leadership – in Tigray and elsewhere. Abiy's aggressive reform agenda has won praise, but shaking up Ethiopia's government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries.”

     

    Although clashes are sometimes fuelled by other disagreements, such as land or resources, people affected often claim that politicians across the spectrum use ethnic tensions as a means of divide and rule, or to consolidate their position as a perceived bulwark against further trouble.

     

    “Sadly [around Ethiopia] ethnic bias and violence is affecting many people at the local level,” said a foreign humanitarian worker with an international organisation helping Ethiopian IDPs, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue. This includes fuelling the displacement crisis and worsening the humanitarian situation.

     

    “The main humanitarian concern is that new displacements are occurring by the day, that due to the wide geographic scope, coordination and response in all locations is practically impossible,” the aid worker said.

     

    “I would like to see more transparency as to what actions the government is taking to hold regional and zonal governments responsible for addressing conflict, for supporting reconciliation, and supporting humanitarian response.”

     

    Tigray fears

     

    Although Tigrayans constitute a relatively small part of overall IDP numbers so far, some Tigrayans fear the power shift in Addis Ababa away from the TPLF leaves them more vulnerable and exposed.

     

    Already simmering anti-Tigrayan sentiments have led to violence, people told IRIN, from barricading roads and forcibly stopping traffic to looting and attacks on Tigrayan homes and businesses in the Amhara and Oromia regions.

    5b_1920.jpg

    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Tigrayans on the streets of Mekelle, the Tigray capital.

    In the Tigray region’s capital of Mekelle, more than 750 kilometers north of the political changes taking place in Addis Ababa, many Tigrayans feel increasingly isolated from fellow Ethiopians.

     

    “The rest of the country hates us,” Weyanay Gebremedhn, 25, told IRIN. Despite the reforms, Tigrayans say what hasn’t changed is the narrative that they are responsible by association for the ills of the TPLF.

     

    Although he now struggles to find work, 35-year-old Huey Berhe, who does mostly odd jobs to pay the bills, said he felt safer living among his own community in Mekelle.

     

    Huey said he had been a student at Jimma University in western Ethiopia, until growing ethnic tensions sparked fights on campus and led to Tigrayans being targeted. “I left my studies at Jimma after the trouble there,” he said. “It was bad – it’s not something I like to discuss.”

     

    ‘A better evil’

     

    “There is a lot of [lies] and propaganda, and the TPLF has been made the scapegoat for all vice,” said Gebre Weleslase, a Tigrayan law professor at Mekelle University. He criticised Abiy for not condemning ethnic attacks, which he said had contributed to tens of thousands of Tigrayans leaving Amhara for Tigray in recent years.

    But Amhara Association of America’s Tewodrose said the feeling of “hate” that Ethiopians have toward the TPLF “doesn’t extend to Tigrayans”.

     

    “There is resentment toward them when other Ethiopians hear of rallies in Tigray supporting the TPLF, because that seems like they aren’t supporting reform efforts,” he said. “But that doesn’t lead to them being targeted, otherwise there would have been more displacements.”

    ☰ Read more: The complex Tigray evolution

     

    Although the TPLF is credited with spearheading the 1991 overthrow of Ethiopia’s military Derg dictatorship, it is hated for usurping power from, and using it against, Ethiopia’s two main ethnic groups – the Oromo and Amhara – who represent 35 percent and 27 percent of the country’s population, respectively.

     

    Brewing animosity over its misgovernance erupted after a plan emerged in 2014 to increase the size of Addis Ababa into Oromia. Oromo protests gathered steam in 2015, joined by Amhara protests in 2016, and did not let up for three years.

    A unified Oromo-Amhara opposition is a source of numerical dread for the TPLF and for many Tigrayans given the Amhara region borders Tigray to the south (clashes have already occurred over the inter-regional border).

    When anti-government protests rocked the Amhara city of Gondar in July 2016, hundreds of ethnic Tigrayans living there had to flee. They reported their homes and businesses were attacked because of their ethnic association and perceived affiliation with the government.

     

    “In Gondar, the Tigrayans suffered because decades of mistrust, decades of grievances, and perceptions and even aspirations from other communities came to the fore, which was hammered into people’s minds through organised and persistent propaganda for two decades by domestic and diaspora media and political groupings,” said Daniel Berhane, founder of the online magazine Horn Affairs, one of few media to regularly cover attacks against Tigrayans.

     

    “The violence against Tigrayans because of their ethnic association marked a turning point,” journalist Abdi Latif Dahir wrote in an article for Quartz Africa following the Gondar attacks. “Ethiopia, a bastion of stability in a tumultuous region, had for years proved to be resilient and achieved impressive economic growth. But the attacks highlighted how historically, the struggle for political space in Ethiopia has always folded into a battle over land, religion, language, demography, and yes, ethnicity.”

     

    Tigrayans, however, aren’t as reassured. Despite the vast majority enduring years of poverty and struggle under the TPLF, which should give them as many reasons as most Ethiopians to feel betrayed, even those Tigrayans who dislike the TPLF now say that turning to its patronage may be their only means of seeking protection.

     

    “The TPLF political machinery extended everywhere in the country – into the judiciary, the universities… it became like something out of George Orwell’s ‘1984’,” Huey said. “But the fact is now the TPLF may represent a better evil as we are being made to feel so unsafe – they seem our only ally as we are threatened by the rest of the country.”

     

    Others note that Abiy has a delicate balance to strike, especially for the sake of Tigrayans.

     

    “The prime minister needs to be careful not to allow his targeting of anti-reform elements within the TPLF, to become an attack on the people of Tigray,” said Soliman.

     

    “The region has a history of resolute peoples and will have to be included with all other regions, in order for Abiy to accomplish his goals of reconciliation, socio-political integration and regional development, as well as long-term peace with Eritrea.”

     

    Although the government has a big role to play, some Ethiopians told IRIN it is essential for the general population to also face up to the inherent prejudices and problems that lie at the core of their society.

     

    “It’s about the people being willing and taking individual responsibility – the government can’t do everything,” Weyanay said. “People need to read more and challenge their assumptions and get new perspectives.”

     

    jj/si/ag

    “Shaking up Ethiopia's government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries”
    Power shift creates new tensions and Tigrayan fears in Ethiopia
  • Drought and rising costs to leave 2.4 million Zimbabweans needing food aid

    The 150 percent fuel price hike that sparked mass public unrest across Zimbabwe last month sent the cost of living skyrocketing: the price of bread nearly doubled in a week.

     

    Worse is likely to come.

     

    Combined with poor harvests, political unrest, eroded salaries, and an ongoing currency crisis, the rising costs mean the ability of many Zimbabweans to grow or afford a basic meal is under threat. More than two million people are predicted to need humanitarian food assistance this year, despite government claims to the contrary.

     

    Crop harvests in many parts of the country have been written off due to poor rains and erratic weather patterns. Freda Mbewe, 63, is among those worst affected.

     

    For years Mbewe grew maize in her small backyard in a working class township in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo. She processed it into mealie meal to make isitshwala, a traditional porridge that’s a staple for many in her community.

     

    “I could get up to 10 20-litre buckets of maize from my field,” she said – enough to last her a few months, with some left over to sell. “There are no rains this season,” she said. “I cannot even afford the price of mealie meal.”

     

    Shelves in some stores are running low on basic produce, while those few main supermarkets that are still fully stocked with imported staples have raised their prices to offset their increased costs.

     

    “Old people are feeling it the most because they have no means or power to look for money,” said Jenni Williams, coordinator of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, or WOZA, a rights group that works with communities in Bulawayo.

     

    “Food aid would be a welcome relief, but should not come at the hands of politicians,” Williams said, a thinly veiled reference to past allegations that the ruling ZANU-PF party has prioritised assistance to its supporters.

     

    Faith-based organisations in the city are coordinating efforts to provide food assistance, especially for the elderly like Mbewe. Around the country, international aid groups, including the World Food Programme and USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, are assisting the most vulnerable.

     

    Grain shortages

     

    The Food and Agriculture Organisation has said 2.4 million people, about 28 percent of the rural population, will be food insecure by March 2019, largely as a result of “reduced output and low purchasing power”.

     

    FEWS NET, a US-funded food security and malnutrition watchdog, issued a 1 February alert for Zimbabwe entitled: “Sharp macroeconomic decline expected to drive high prices and humanitarian assistance needs.”

     

    It noted that food relief efforts targeted 234,000 people in 11 districts in December, but that “plans are in place to scale up to approximately 1.1 million people” in 30 of the country’s 59 districts during the peak of the January-March lean season.

     

    “Poor households are accessing lower than normal agricultural labour opportunities given poor seasonal performance since October, and many are likely to harvest crops later than normal in May,” the bulletin said. “Given the increased cost to suppliers in transporting their products and milling grains, the costs of basic commodities in rural areas have increased significantly and in some cases are considered prohibitive for poor households.”

     

    According to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee, or ZimVac, up to 92 percent of rural households in the country rely on agriculture as their primary livelihood. Even so, farmers last year delivered just 1.2 million tonnes of maize to the Grain Marketing Board, less than two thirds of the country’s annual consumption of up to 1.9 million tonnes.

     

    Despite this deficit, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Sekai Nzenza has insisted that Zimbabwe has enough food reserves.

     

    Food production was also dealt a severe knock by the fuel price increase as farmers reported they were failing to access fuel for generators for their irrigation projects, leading to large scale losses as crops wilted.

     

    Price rises

     

    Even if there is enough grain, this doesn’t mean those who need it can afford it.

     

    Between September 2018 and January 2019, maize grain prices increased between 50 and 200 percent, FEWS NET said, while the prices of sugar, wheat flour, and bread rose between 35 and 100 percent, and cooking oil by over 300 percent during the same period.

    In stores, the cost of everything, from potatoes to toothpaste to bread, has continued to rise. A loaf that cost between 70 cents and one Zimbabwean dollar (or bond note) in December, was 1.50 at the end of January. It rose last week to between 2.00 and 2.50, before the government introduced price controls on Friday, which saw bread costs decrease to 1.90.

     

    With domestic pantries and grain silos empty, and the cost of basic items increasing rapidly, many families have been forced to eat less. The volatile exchange rate, controlled by the illegal parallel market, has also made it virtually impossible for people to keep to a budget.

     

    Mbewe says her 80 dollar (about US $30) monthly government pension holds no weight against the daily economic realities.

     

    Eroded salaries, now worth less because of soaring inflation, have seen doctors, nurses, teachers, and other government employees go on strike since President Emmerson Mnangagwa claimed victory in last July’s election.

     

    Susan Dliwayo, a primary school teacher in Bulawayo, said she can no longer afford to prepare a packed lunch for her children. Civil servants, who number close to 160,000 according to official figures, continue striking for a 300 percent salary hike to try and mitigate the rising cost of living.

     

    “Things are terrible,” said Lazarus Mthombeni, a security guard in Bulawayo, adding that he has gone three months without a salary yet continues going to work because he has nothing else to do. “We are working but cannot afford the most basic things in life.”

     

    Dwindling foreign reserves

     

    With most companies importing their raw materials, demand for foreign currency has continued to rise, with the central bank struggling to allocate forex to critical industries, including food manufacturers and fuel importers.

     

    Analysts say because Zimbabwe no longer exports as much it did, foreign currency reserves have dwindled, forcing the finance minister to introduce what he says are austerity measures that prioritise forex allocations to only a few manufacturers.

     

    Local manufacturers complain about a lack of foreign currency to import raw materials to continue production that has already been crippled by the fuel shortages, while the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries says the lack of forex means employers can’t pay workers in foreign currency to shield them from the escalating cost of living.

     

    There were reports that a new currency would be introduced this week, as the government attempts to stem rising prices and cash shortages. However, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube dismissed the claims, telling state media on Monday that currency reforms will only be implemented in the next 12 months.

     

    Vice President Kembo Mohadi has hinted at the introduction of government price controls to make basic commodities “affordable”.

     

    But analysts continue to warn about the unintended consequences of price controls, which previously failed and led to empty shelves as businesses struggled to stay afloat.

     

    “In the short term, price control works in delivering cheap or affordable commodity price for key products such as mealie meal and bread. This keeps consumers happy and keep ‘food riots’ and ‘bread riots’ at bay, especially in urban areas,” said Sobona Mtisi, a UK-based Zimbabwean researcher and academic. “However, this has the unintended effect of making crops such as maize and wheat not profitable for a farmer to grow as they do not deliver an economic profit.”

     

    With poor rainfall predicted and an increased need to help farmers during the 2019/2020 season, the UN is stepping up its support.

     

    “FAO is assisting drought affected smallholder farmers to access subsidised drought tolerant seed varieties to restore their productive capacity,” Alain Obin, an agency representative in Zimbabwe, told IRN via email.

     

    Further trouble ahead

     

    In a newspaper article last month, University of Zimbabwe economist Professor Tony Hawkins wrote that “few [people] take seriously the budget forecasts of 3.1 percent growth and 22.3 percent inflation in 2019” – figures from the largely discredited national statistics agency.

     

    Because the bulk of the country’s agro-economy is dependent on rainfall, he said lower levels over the next three months (among other factors) mean “growth will fall short of target and could turn negative”.

     

    With continued suppressed production, and the bulk of the goods sourced outside of Zimbabwe, the rising price of basic commodities is expected to further stoke inflation.

     

    “At best, inflation is likely to average 40 percent,” Hawkins wrote. An uptick in inflation has in the past led to shortages of basic commodities as manufacturers struggle to keep pace with rising production costs. It has also led to panic buying as consumers stock up to try to beat ever-changing prices.

     

    Zimbabweans with ready funds are now shopping in neighbouring Botswana and South Africa, where prices are considered cheap. But this means increased travel costs and the  inconvenience of long two-way journeys.

     

    The crisis has spurred a new wave of migration across the border, as an increasing number of Zimbabweans seek to make a living elsewhere.

     

    South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, raised fears last month that the crisis in Zimbabwe could turn into a humanitarian nightmare, noting that the number of Zimbabweans entering South Africa at the height of last month’s unrest spiked to more than 130,000 in a single day.

     

    South Africa has so far stuck to its policy of “quiet diplomacy” in dealing with Zimbabwe’s drawn-out crisis, but Nathan Hayes, a country analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, warned that a new surge of migrants across the border “could spark intervention”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Crop harvests in many parts of the country have been written off due to poor rains and erratic weather patterns. CREDIT: Marko Phiri/IRIN)

    mp/si/ag

    Drought and rising costs to leave 2.4 million Zimbabweans needing food aid
    “We are working but cannot afford the most basic things in life”
  • The world’s 40 million invisible refugees

    People displaced within their own countries – whether by conflict or disaster – often struggle for the same recognition and protections afforded to refugees. And yet the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were launched 21 years ago today – the creation of Sudanese diplomat Francis Deng, then the UN’s special rapporteur for IDPs, or internally displaced persons.

    The 30 principles built on pre-existing instruments such as the Geneva Conventions, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – all of which ratifying governments had committed to. They reminded national governments of certain absolute obligations towards their citizens, those laid down in international humanitarian law. More than two decades later, governments continue to routinely fail to implement Deng’s principles; in Africa this is despite the African Union having made them binding through the 2009 Kampala Declaration.

    The grossest violations of international law can be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, and specialised courts such as those set up for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But when IDPs can’t enjoy basic rights found in domestic law – for example to education, health services, or to vote – it speaks to deep problems of neglect that can’t be prosecuted by international bodies.

    The lack of application of the guiding principles since 1998 reveals not only a lack of awareness of the needs of IDPs, but also of the inability of states to prevent and resolve the crises that force people to flee within their own country.

    When IDPs can’t enjoy basic rights found in domestic law – for example to education, health services, or to vote – it speaks to deep problems of neglect that can’t be prosecuted by international bodies.

    When the principles were born, there were 20 million IDPs; by the end of 2017 there were twice as many – a rise driven by protracted conflicts and a growing number of extreme weather events. Those who flee from armed conflicts often remain IDPs for many years, while those who are forced away because of storms, floods, or earthquakes tend to return sooner.

    So what can be done to improve the lives of the world’s 40 million IDPs?

    In a 2018 analysis for the 20th anniversary of the guiding principles, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) in Geneva – established at the initiative of the Norwegian Refugee Council in the year the principles were launched – identified three urgent issues for further action.

    First, the economic consequences of internal displacement need to be properly assessed. In terms of shelter, healthcare, and food, these can be estimated with relative ease, but the more intangible societal burden – lost opportunities in education, investments and revenue, psychological trauma, and social fragmentation – is harder to pin down. IDMC has begun a new programme to estimate these costs, so that the real burden to societies becomes known and can be factored into national plans and budgets.

    Second, access to data on existing levels and new flows of internal displacement must be improved. IDMC uses a broad range of formal and informal sources for its statistics – sources often afflicted with considerable uncertainty as states don’t always register the correct information or make data public.

    Finally, and most importantly, governments in the affected countries must be encouraged and supported to take more responsibility for their IDPs.

    Much has happened in terms of protection and assistance during displacement, but a great deal remains to be done to prevent flight in the first place, and to enable safe return and reintegration. Many states are not taking these responsibilities as seriously as their citizens have the right to expect. And some are committing, or allowing, grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. Displacement has, in some countries, been enforced, or even prevented, through siege. And several fragile and conflict-prone states lack the capacity to even implement the principles.

    In Somalia, for instance, IDPs find their way to cities when violence, drought, and floods undermine their rural livelihoods. The largest increase in 10 years occurred in 2017 – there are now 600,000 IDPs in Mogadishu. In the absence of legislation and regulations, they live under great insecurity, especially in the capital. As the value of land where they have settled rises in the growing economy, they risk being forcibly evicted by landowners belonging to a different clan than their own. They are extremely vulnerable, mostly living in poor shelters without access to clean water, healthcare, or education.

    In Ethiopia, the new government has created political openings and the beginning of reconciliation with Eritrea. But communal tensions over access to natural resources in 2018 led to violence between ethnic groups in the south of the country that created the largest number of new IDPs anywhere in the world. Hundreds of thousands of these people were being assisted with relative efficiency by the authorities but were forced to return towards the end of the year under the threat of having assistance taken away – even though the conflict in the south remained unresolved. Many Ethiopian IDPs have ended up in a new cycle of precarious displacement with little hope of rebuilding their livelihoods.

    Last year's global compacts on migration and refugees, for instance, didn't even try to address the IDP issue.

    In Syria, a degree of repressive stability is emerging as the regime regains control of large parts of the country. But 2.9 million new IDPs were added in 2017 – many finding themselves in Idlib province, which remains under threat from a new military offensive. Syrian IDPs are often hard to reach for humanitarian actors struggling to gain access to areas both under and outside of government control. For a long time the regime failed to properly acknowledge the existence of IDPs. Both the regime and rebel groups used besiegement as a war strategy – to force the population onto its knees by depriving them of food, water, and medical assistance. A new law gives the authorities the right to seize land and property for redevelopment, only providing compensation if the owner is able to prove ownership within one year – this will hit refugees and IDPs hard and make return and reintegration more difficult.

    States can always invite the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, or other agencies into their countries to assist IDPs, but many are reluctant to commit to anything that they see as a challenge to national sovereignty – especially anything that is legally binding. Last year's global compacts on migration and refugees, for instance, didn't even try to address the IDP issue.

    The number of people forced to flee violence and the impacts of climate change is growing. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement should be increasing their chances of receiving protection and assistance. But they need to be respected and, without the political will to prevent people from being forced to leave their own homes in the first place, they are insufficient.

    (A version of this article was first published, in Swedish, in the online magazine Mänsklig Säkerhet)

    (TOP PHOTO: A young Somali girl walks through an IDP camp near the town of Beletweyne, Somalia​. CREDIT: Tobin Jones/AMISOM Photo​)

    The world’s 40 million invisible refugees
  • Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    MSF rejects claims it didn’t follow plans to avoid Yemen bombing

    An investigation into the bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières cholera treatment centre in Yemen in June 2018 has “dismayed” the NGO. A panel appointed by the Saudi Arabia-led alliance found that the new and still-empty building had been bombed by the coalition in “an unintended error”. The investigators, however, disputed details of how the location’s coordinates were supplied to Riyadh and whether there were markings on the roof of the building identifying it as a humanitarian site. At a Riyadh press conference in mid-January, the official spokesman for the investigators said the coalition was acting on intelligence the building was used for arms and ammunition storage. MSF said the findings were “unacceptable and contradictory”, noting that under international law, “It is the sole responsibility of armed parties to the conflict to proactively take all necessary measures to ensure that protected facilities are not attacked.” For more on notifications and coordinates, read our IRIN explainer on “deconfliction”.

    Measles kills more than 300 in Madagascar

    Madagascar is suffering its worst measles outbreak in decades. More than 50,000 people have been infected and at least 300 killed, most of them children, according to health officials. Cases have been reported in all major towns and cities, as well as in rural areas. Supported by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, the government has initiated fresh vaccination campaigns. Deaths from measles are avoidable if such campaigns are thorough enough. The virus gained ground in Madagascar as immunisation rates fell below 50 percent (from the recommended 90 percent), mostly due to access difficulties. This IRIN story from the archives is evidence that this is not a new problem: health experts were expressing concerns about falling rates (then from 81 percent to 64 percent) as far back as 2011. Although worst hit, Madagascar is not alone in having to tackle the virus. Measles has also struck parts of the United States and Europe, where cases tripled last year. Health authorities in the Philippines are also urging immunisations following an outbreak in Manila and nearby regions that has left 1,500 people infected and caused at least 25 deaths.

    Atrocities feared amid rising militancy in Burkina Faso

    Attacks and counter-attacks between militants and security forces in Burkina Faso are taking a heavy toll on civilians. This week, jihadists attacked the northern village of Kain near the Malian border, killing 14 people. Security forces retaliated, launching ground and air assaults that left 146 militants dead. Soon after, another attack in Oursi in the Sahel Region left 21 militants and five gendarmes dead. Human Rights Watch has called out atrocities on both sides, saying the army "executed" some suspected militants in front of their own families. The UN says persistent armed attacks and violence displaced 36,000 people in January alone, as insecurity risks impeded access to aid. For three years, Burkina Faso has been battling an escalating wave of attacks, while regional Sahel neighbours Mali and Niger face similar threats. Rising militancy across Africa is a trend we’re  watching in 2019.

    Aid stuck on Venezuela border

    As a former Venezuelan diplomat now working with the opposition as a go-between with international aid groups in Geneva told IRIN  this week, the current situation is “something that doesn’t make any sense”. The Venezuelan people are desperately short of food and medicine, some three to four million people have fled the country since 2015, and their president, Nicolás Maduro, is refusing to allow humanitarian aid in. That’s not to say the offers of assistance, from the United States in particular, might not be something of a Trojan Horse. Maduro says, “no one will enter, not one invading soldier”, and the United States has a chequered past of military intervention and regime change in Latin America. For now, the aid arriving in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta is going nowhere. Maduro’s forces have blocked the bridge into Venezuela and seem to have no intention of allowing it in. Opposition leader and self-declared president-in-waiting Juan Guaidó has suggested stockpiling it in three locations at the border in the hope this will change. More from on this unfolding story next week.

    Mixed picture in South Sudan as refugees return

    Political violence has “dropped dramatically" since the signing of September's peace deal, David Shearer, the UN envoy in South Sudan, said in the same week that nine people were killed in clashes between rebel factions in the Western Equatoria region. More than 20,000 South Sudanese refugees have so far voluntarily returned from neighbouring Uganda, according to Joel Boutroue, the UN refugee agency's representative in Uganda. However, in December, UNHCR said that despite reduced violence in some areas, South Sudan was not yet "conducive” for the safe return of refugees. Although Shearer praised some of the "positive" developments in recent months, including rebel leader Riek Machar's plan to return to Juba in May, he also flagged concerns about ongoing conflict and a loss of momentum in the peace process, with recent meetings reportedly lacking substance or real outcomes.

    One to listen to:

    In this week’s story on Yemen’s shaky ceasefire deal, we mentioned that Yemeni rights watchdog Mwatana for Human Rights had documented 624 civilian cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture in 2018. Here’s your chance to find out more about where that number came from: Radya al-Mutawakel, the organisation’s co-founder, is interviewed at length on the latest episode of the International Rescue Committee’s podcast, “Displaced”. She talks about the challenges of independently verifying information on human rights violations in the midst of a divisive war, including airstrikes, torture, disappearances, and detention, and explains why she thinks it is important to build what she calls a “human rights memory” in Yemen. Al-Mutawakel and Mwatana’s latest challenge? Figuring out how to document starvation as a  violation, as the link between victim and perpetrator is not always clear cut.

    In case you missed it

    Ethiopia: In 2009, Ethiopia banned local NGOs from raising more than 10 percent of income from abroad. The provision in the law governing civil society was criticised as a means to stifle dissent. Local media report that new rules lifting the limit have passed the Ethiopian parliament this week, part of wide-ranging reforms under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

     

    Syria: A joint UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy arrived on Thursday at Rukban, an informal camp located in a no man’s land near the Syria-Jordan border. The last delivery of aid to more than 40,000 people sheltering in the area known as “the berm” was in November.

     

    Tonga: Authorities in the Pacific Island nation are warning of gale-force winds, floods, and damaging waves as a tropical depression brushes past the country over the weekend. Last year, Cyclone Gita landed a direct hit on parts of Tonga, including its main island, Tongatapu.

     

    Yemen: This week’s Amman talks on a Yemen prisoner swap have not yet resulted in agreement on the lists of names to be exchanged, but a UN spokesman said separate talks on a UN boat had yielded a “preliminary compromise” on withdrawing forces from Hodeidah. For background, read this.

     

    Weekend read

    New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns

    Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you’ll be aware of our weekend read: CIA-funded data-mining company Palantir signs a $45 million five-year deal to help the UN’s World Food Programme pool its data and find cost-saving efficiencies. To say data privacy and protection activists are unamused is an understatement: this is a company that provided software to US customs officials to help them deport migrants. “The recipients of WFP aid are already in extremely vulnerable situations; they should not be put at additional risk of harm or exploitation,” Privacy International told IRIN’s Ben Parker. But WFP insists there will be no “data-sharing”, and hit back with a statement outlining its thinking and the safeguards it feels are in place. This wasn’t enough, however, to assuage critics, who penned an open letter to WFP urging them to reconsider the agreement and be more transparent. As Centre for Innovation protection experts suggest here, this isn’t a new conundrum, and the Palantir furore might jolt the humanitarian sector into some belated engagement on data privacy and protection concerns.

     

    And finally...

    Hot in here

    The last four years have been the four warmest years on record, according to separate analyses released this week by organisations including NASA and the WMO, the UN’s meteorological agency. Analysts say it’s a “clear sign” of long-term climate change, along with “extreme and high-impact weather” that affected millions. The WMO says the average global temperature in 2018 was 1.0° Celsius above pre-industrial levels – climate scientists say temperature rise must be limited to less than 2.0° to stave off the worst impacts.

    il-bp-as-si/ag

    Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal
  • Briefing: Nigerians seek safety in Cameroon as Boko Haram crisis escalates

    A wave of increasingly sophisticated militant attacks in northeastern Nigeria has forced almost 60,000 people to flee since November, the largest number for more than two years, raising fears from the UN and aid groups of a renewed Boko Haram crisis.

     

    More than half of those who fled escaped a series of Boko Haram attacks in the remote town of Rann, near the border with Cameroon, in January. The violence – which killed dozens of people – sparked two large waves of displacement across the border. Thousands of the Nigerian refugees were forcibly returned by the Cameroonian authorities.

     

    Since Boko Haram’s insurgency began in 2009, at least 35,000 people have been killed. Attacks across the wider Lake Chad region – which encompasses parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria – have seen some 2.5 million people displaced, including 1.9 million internally in Nigeria and some 250,000 Nigerian refugees.

     

    Although the Nigerian government has regularly made claims that the jihadist threat has been minimised, evidence on the ground suggests otherwise, and there are concerns that Nigeria’s general elections on 16 February may make the situation worse.

     

    What happened in Rann?

     

    Boko Haram launched a 14 January attack that reportedly killed 14 people in Rann. Homes and buildings were destroyed, including Médecins Sans Frontières and UNICEF clinics, as well as compounds belonging to the International Organisation for Migration, the World Health Organisation, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

     

    Regional troops fighting Boko Haram worked to secure the town, but when they withdrew more than 9,000 people fled, on foot, towards Bodo in Cameroon. About 1,800 of them – mostly women and children – managed to remain with host families in villages near Makary and Fotokol, according to David Manan, Cameroon director for the Norwegian Refugee Council. But the majority were forced out of Cameroon, with little choice but to return to Rann.

     

    About a week later, another 35,000 people fled Rann for Cameroon, fearing another militant attack. Most now reside in a makeshift settlement in the Cameroonian village of Goura, UN News reported, saying the refugees are safe and haven’t – for now – been asked to leave.

    msf258651high.jpg

    Zara Abicho/MSF
    Fearing further attacks, more than 35,000 of Rann's residents have sought refuge across the border in Cameroon.

    On 28 January, Rann residents’ worst fears were confirmed when at least 60 people were killed in the deadliest attack yet on the town by Boko Haram, who also destroyed hundreds of shelters for displaced people.

     

    Is Cameroon forcibly returning refugees?

     

    Cameroon, which hosts more than 370,000 refugees – 100,000 from Nigeria – turned back the first wave of refugees from Rann, in a move reminiscent of previous actions that saw tens of thousands of Nigerians forcibly returned between 2015 and 2017.

     

    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed immediate alarm, saying it was “gravely concerned” about the safety and living conditions of people who were returned last month. “This action was totally unexpected and puts lives of thousands of refugees at risk,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

     

    Speaking to IRIN in Cameroon last week, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk was more diplomatic. “When a country receives 35,000 people just in a couple of days, you would have a big crisis in the country,” he said. “Sometimes the situations are very difficult, but it is very important for us to find the bridge between the true security interests of a country and the protection of civilians.”

     

    Cameroon fears infiltration by Boko Haram, who have mounted scores of attacks since 2014 in the country’s Far North Region – typically suicide bombings. Cameroon’s military has recently reported a resurgence in Boko Haram activity along its border with Nigeria and said there were five attacks in the region in January alone.

     

    After the second wave of 35,000 people fled Rann, aid groups, including the NRC, urged Cameroon to keep its borders open, emphasising the need to assist those fleeing. So far it appears that the Cameroonian authorities have kept the border open and no more forcible returns have been reported.

    Isa Sadiq Bwala/MSF
    A burnt market in Rann, Nigeria.

     

    “The situation in the northeast [of Nigeria] remains volatile and forced return is exposing these people to harm,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, a policy and advocacy think-tank covering West Africa.

     

    What are the humanitarian needs?

     

    Across Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State and in neighbouring countries, existing camp facilities are overstretched. Having thousands flock to the same locations leaves people in dire need of shelter, food, and water, and can lead to unsanitary conditions and greater risk of disease outbreaks, Hassan told IRIN.

     

    Because of the “spike in attacks” and displacements in Borno State since November, NRC expressed concern about the resulting humanitarian crisis.

    "More than 100,000 people have been forced to flee, many for the second time," Eric Batonon, Nigeria director for NRC, said in a statement. “By denying assistance and protection to those fleeing, needs are exacerbated.”

     

    In Cameroon’s Bodo, MSF said it was assisting new arrivals with food, water, and medical care. In Goura, the UN and its partners responded to the sudden influx by providing basic services, including shelter and protection, in the makeshift settlement.

     

    UNHCR’s Türk said the priority was to “save the life of everybody who was able to escape”.

     

    “I have personally met Nigerian refugees in Cameroon,” he said. “Those people are traumatised. Things are happening in a very complex security context. So what we are trying to do is to marry the protection of people whose lives need to be saved... and identification of security needs that are legitimate.”

     

    Türk said while immediate emergency assistance is the main focus, it’s also essential to support vulnerable host communities and refugees who have been in camps for a long time – assisting them with access to education, health facilities, and social protection.

     

    How much of a threat is Boko Haram?

     

    Many of the attacks in recent months have been attributed to fighters from Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP, a faction of Boko Haram that broke off in 2016.

     

    “Generally, there has been an upsurge in direct military confrontations since mid-2018, around the same time there was a leadership change within ISWAP,” explained Omar S. Mahmood, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, or ISS. “Since then, the group has been on the offensive, pushing back military units across much of northern Borno.”

     

    The Nigerian government is quick to downplay the potency of the militants, but renewed attacks on military outposts, aid workers, and civilians suggest they have grown more aggressive, and possibly also in number and strength. At least 100 soldiers have been killed since late December, according to a report seen by Reuters. IOM also noted the “increased sophistication” of the attackers.

     

    Matthew T. Page, a former US State Department official and associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank, said Nigeria’s political and security leaders were unable or unwilling to devise a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. “Their piecemeal approach is not commensurate with the seriousness and complexity of the threat,” he said.

     

    In a war where cooperation between neighbouring countries is essential, the forced return of refugees could also hinder the battle to stave off threats from jihadists. “Many times we only see the military activity and issues of insecurity,” Türk said. “We should never forget that civilians are directly affected as they are caught in the crossfire, caught between the rock and the hard place when it comes to fighting and violence.”

     

    What next?

     

    International aid organisations are stepping up their response. A new $135 million humanitarian appeal was launched last week to assist Nigerian refugees and host communities in the three other Lake Chad countries, but last year only 42 percent of a similar appeal for $157 million was funded.

     

    UNHCR, which is coordinating the response plan, says recent violence has pushed people into “crowded camps or in towns in Borno State where they are surviving in tough living conditions”.

     

    But the threat of new attacks remains. And there are additional security concerns in light of the upcoming elections. Boko Haram ramped up attacks in the weeks leading up to the 2015 elections and may be doing likewise this time. Meanwhile, insecurity across northeastern Nigeria means the possibility of everyone voting in affected towns remains slim.

     

    Mahmood from the ISS think tank said a lot would depend on the outcome of the Nigerian elections and how seriously any new administration is about tackling the Boko Haram threat.

     

    “When President Muhammadu Buhari was first elected in 2015, he prioritised the Boko Haram conflict and made substantial gains,” he said. “Some of those have elapsed now, especially as the political season has taken over.”

     

    Central to stemming any recent losses would be coordination with neighbours like Cameroon, Mahmood said, adding: “The insecurity clearly has regional implications and does not adhere to political boundaries.”

     

    (Additional reporting by Mbom Sixtus in Yaoundé, Cameroon)

    (TOP PHOTO: After Boko Haram attacked Rann on 14 January, more than 9,000 people fled towards Bodo in Cameroon. Most were turned back by Cameroonian authorities. CREDIT: Silas Adamou/MSF)

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    Briefing: Nigerians seek safety in Cameroon as Boko Haram crisis escalates
  • Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Yemen deal in the balance

    So what about that ceasefire deal for Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, the one agreed in late December, the same one Saudi Arabia’s envoy to the country told IRIN was key to moving the peace process? It has still not been implemented. A UN-led committee to redeploy (i.e. withdraw) fighters from the city and province has only met twice so far, and each side has accused the other of multiple violations. The two sides swapped a small number of prisoners this week, but nowhere near the scale of a larger swap agreement the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is still waiting to carry out (the sticking point appears to involve lists of names). UN envoy Martin Griffiths says the Hodeidah ceasefire is “generally holding”, despite the extension of deadlines on key elements of the deal: “The initial timelines were rather ambitious,” he said this week. “We are dealing with a complex situation on the ground.”

    Mediterranean more dangerous for migrants

    The figures are in and EU leaders, through their migration policies, are “complicit in the tragedy”, according to a letter signed by dozens of NGOs. Arrivals to Europe across the Mediterranean and the overall number of deaths both fell sharply in 2018, but deaths per arrival went the other way: one in 269 in 2015 became one in 51 in 2018 (one in 14 from Libya) – and the number of deaths across the Western Mediterranean to Spain quadrupled last year. Two years since the EU-backed Italy-Libya deal sought to stem the flow by supporting the Libyan coastguard while Tripoli cracked down on smuggling operations, anger is growing as EU nations prevent rescue operations and refuse to allow migrant-carrying vessels to dock. The NGO letter sent on Wednesday to the EU contained three main demands: support search and rescue operations; adopt timely and predictable disembarkation arrangements; end returns to Libya. Renewing its criticism in a statement on Friday, Oxfam said "people are now in even more danger at sea and are being taken back by the Libyan coastguard to face human rights abuses in Libya". A double migrant boat disaster off the coast of Djibouti this week – more than 100 people dead or missing – was a reminder that this is not just a problem in the Mediterranean.

     

    For more on EU policies and how they affect migrants and refugees in Africa, read our “Destination Europe” series.

    “Speed-networking” at mass humanitarian hook-up

    A big-tent gathering of the humanitarian community kicks off Monday. The Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) offers a sprawling programme of 100 sessions across five days and 19 rooms in a Geneva conference centre. Over 2,100 relief professionals, diplomats, company representatives, NGO officials, and students have registered for the free event, backed by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and the Swiss government. Organiser Jesper Lund told IRIN the aim is the “acceleration of collaboration”. In its fifth year, HNPW prides itself on being an open forum, allowing parallel sessions of like-minded networks, and tries to avoid predictable formats. This year there will be speed-networking sessions to match up interested parties for one-on-one contacts. (The IRIN team will be around, and we’re always up for some speed-tipoffs, obvs). The range of topics for the week covers everything from airport readiness for disasters to (oh look!) humanitarian journalism (that's on Friday).

    Talking peace, losing ground

    The Afghan government’s control of its own territory continues to shrink. The government now has control or influence in about 54 percent of its districts, according to numbers released this week by SIGAR – the US-government mandated watchdog tracking reconstruction in Afghanistan. Afghan control is at its lowest since SIGAR began reporting the data in 2015 (other metrics suggest the government’s grip is even more tenuous, and that the insurgent Taliban need not directly control territory to wield influence). It’s another sign of the rocky road ahead in Afghanistan, despite recent talks of Taliban peace negotiations. In the aid sector, there’s plenty of concern about what a bargained Taliban peace might mean, particularly for the rights of women and minorities. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s Jan Egeland says “dialogue for humanitarian access and protection have been pushed off the table”. For now, Afghanistan remains mired in crisis: hundreds of thousands displaced by war and an ongoing severe drought, refugees and migrants returning to instability, and rising civilian casualties.

    Opposition arrests in Cameroon

    Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto, who maintains he won last year's presidential election, was among some 200 people arrested this week after new protests took place against the re-election of veteran leader Paul Biya. Further marches, planned for this weekend and into next week, were also banned by the government. The October vote was marred by violence, especially in the Northwest and Southwest anglophone regions, which are in the midst of a separatist rebellion against the francophone government. Last year, IRIN embedded with Cameroon’s separatist forces to get an inside look at the fledgling armed struggle.

    In case you missed it

     

    Democratic Republic of Congo: More than 50 mass graves have been found by a UN fact-finding mission near the western town of Yumbi, where a spate of inter-communal violence last December left almost 900 people dead in just three days.

     

    Indonesia: Dengue killed more than 100 people across the country in January. The mosquito-borne illness is endemic in parts of Indonesia, but health authorities are reporting a surge in cases during the current rainy season.

     

    Nigeria: Some 30,000 people fled the northeastern town of Rann last weekend for neighbouring Cameroon, about a week after 9,000 refugees were reported to have been forcibly returned by the Cameroonian authorities. Further violence has sent another 6,000 Nigerians fleeing into Chad.

     

    Syria: The UN says 23,000 people, including 10,000 in the past week, have fled so-called Islamic State’s last territory in Syria since December, most of them to al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province. The World Health Organisation says the camp is overwhelmed, with thousands of people sleeping in the open without so much as blankets. In the past eight weeks at least 29 children are reported to have died, mostly from hypothermia, on the way to the camp or just after arrival.

     

    USAID: The US government is reshuffling its aid portfolio, bringing the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and Food for Peace under a single humanitarian department. The new arrangement should reduce unnecessary fragmentation, according to a Twitter thread by former OFDA chief Jeremy Konyndyk.

     

    Weekend read

    The choices they made: Hondurans at the US-Mexico border

    As US President Donald Trump orders “several thousand” more US troops to the Mexican border, what about those on the other side? Take some time this weekend to delve into this feature from award-winning photojournalist Tomás Ayuso. A Honduran native, Ayuso wanted to better understand the motivations of countrymen and countrywomen who continue to make the long march north, even as the welcome they can expect looks increasingly hostile. What he found was not a uniform answer. From the man left for dead after being “executed” for refusing to become a drug dealer, to the woman whose husband died suddenly and felt compelled to find a better life for her and her son, the choices people made were all different. At the US border, there are choices too. One man has had enough and is heading home. The woman and son mentioned above also had enough of waiting. They headed across the border with smugglers shortly after Ayuso interviewed them and haven’t been heard from since.

    IRIN Event

    The future of the UN agency for Palestine refugees

    On Wednesday, IRIN Director Heba Aly sat down for a public conversation in Geneva with Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees. They talked about the agency’s funding ask for this year (it’s $1.2 billion), how UNRWA was only meant to be a temporary stop-gap but still exists 70 years on, and why it is frequently broke (Krähenbühl says those last two are related). The commissioner-general also addressed the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding from UNRWA, which serves some 5.4 million registered refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). Speaking of East Jerusalem, the commissioner-general said he’d had “no indication” from the Israeli government that the schools UNRWA runs there would be shut down, despite multiple statements to the contrary from the local municipality.

    And finally...

    “Australia’s loss”

    Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani is making a name for himself in Australia – but he’s not allowed to set foot in the country. Boochani is an unwitting resident of Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where he was sent in 2013 after trying to seek asylum in Australia. This week, Boochani’s book, “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison”, cleaned up at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, an annual contest in Australia. Judges called Boochani’s book, composed on a mobile phone, “a literary triumph, devastating and transcendent”, awarding it the non-fiction prize as well as the top honour – a haul worth 125,000 Australian dollars (more than 90,000 US dollars) . There are still about 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and another island, Nauru – part of Australia’s criticised asylum policy, which saw boat arrivals pushed to offshore detention camps and barred from ever entering Australia. In an opinion piece published this week, the US official who signed a deal to take in hundreds of people stuck on Nauru or Manus says resettled refugees are putting down roots in their new American homes. Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state, writes about meeting the former detainees, now working in restaurants, attending evening classes, or sending their own kids to school. “Australia’s loss,” she writes, “is America’s gain”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Abdulrahman Mohammed Jahia (33) and his family heard a loud explosion outside their house in Sana'a, Yemen. Their neighbouring building was hit by airstrikes. CREDIT: Becky Bakr Abdulla/NRC)

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    Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen
  • Briefing: What the fuel protests mean for Zimbabweans

    Zimbabweans had been hoping for a fresh start when Robert Mugabe’s 38-year rule came to an end in November 2017. But 14 months on, a brutal crackdown on fuel protests, which has left up to a dozen people dead, has the country on edge and is likely to make existing food and health problems even worse.

     

    The Southern African country already faces a range of humanitarian concerns, with the UN and international aid groups filling gaps in food security, health and HIV care, water and sanitation, and social protection for vulnerable civilians.

     

    Ongoing outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever have killed more than 80 people since September, and some 2.4 million Zimbabweans, more than a quarter of the rural population, require food assistance this January-March lean season.

     

    The new unrest, coupled with growing economic and political uncertainty under the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is raising fears that the humanitarian situation may deteriorate further, threatening the health and livelihoods of millions of people and leading more Zimbabweans to flee to neighbouring countries.

    What are the underlying economic issues?

    Zimbabwe, which is under international sanctions, has battled two decades of unemployment, rising costs, a currency crisis, and nearly collapsed public services. Inflation rates have surged, and about 80 percent of those with work are employed in an informal sector marked by poor and unpredictable working conditions.

     

    The country abandoned its national currency in 2009 in favour of a multi-currency system, and has since suffered from a decade-long currency crisis. This has led to instability in the price of goods and services – an instability compounded by the new unrest.

    “The political problems are actually stronger than the economic problems.”

    “The current problems in Zimbabwe are both political and economic,” said Michael Tichareva, an independent financial expert based between Harare and Johannesburg. He attributed the roots of the current crisis to a combination of corruption and gross mismanagement of public institutions by the long-ruling ZANU-PF party.

     

    “The political problems are actually stronger than the economic problems,” he said. “Once the major political parties have a common purpose of developing Zimbabwe, and engage in a nation-building dialogue in order to bring unity, then the economic problems will most likely disappear.”

     

    Why are there food and fuel shortages?

     

    The country’s agro-based economy is crippled – largely due to droughts, poorly integrated climate risk management policies, and a lack of state support for small-scale farmers who grow most of the country’s food.

     

    FEWS NET, a US-funded food security and malnutrition watchdog, says economic challenges and below-average rainfall this season will directly affect livelihoods and food security in large parts of the country – mostly for poor households, but also for some who are better off. Shortages of basic food commodities include cooking oil, sugar, flour, and bread.

     

    Zimbabwe has to import nearly all its fuel. Stocks are heavily dependent on foreign currency exchange, and even when foreign currency is released it can take a long time to get fuel from depots out to affected areas. Severe fuel shortages have plagued the country for the last two months.

     

    A week after the protests, people could only get petrol or diesel if they waited in kilometres-long queues or if they had friends with connections. Supermarkets also struggled to stock their shelves, and medicine was scarce.

     

    The shortage of goods and fuel has sent prices skyrocketing.

     

    A loaf of bread, which cost between 70 cents and one dollar (or Zimbabwean bond note) in December is now 1.50 in the shops and five dollars in the streets, following the protests. Fresh milk, which was 1.20 in December, is now four dollars; maize meal that was 4.50 is now 8.20; and cooking oil that was 3.20 is now nine dollars.

    img_9798-1296x864.jpg

    Farai Mudzingwa/IRIN
    A nation-wide stay-away emptied the centre of Zimbabwe's capital city, Harare, before mass street protests erupted.

    What sparked the current crisis?

    On 12 January, Mnangagwa’s announced a 150 percent increase in the price of fuel – an attempt to stabilise supplies as Zimbabwe struggles with what is its worst shortage in a decade. This led to calls for a nationwide stay-away, which then escalated into mass street protests in the main towns and cities across the country, and a deadly crackdown by police and the military.

    Between eight and 12 people were reportedly killed, 78 people were injured from gunshots, and several hundred arrested. House raids, abductions, and incidents of systematic torture were reported, as well as allegations that some soldiers raped protesters.

    Mnangagwa, who was in Europe when the unrest began, cut his trip short, cancelling his attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and promised that the violence – which he blamed on “rogue” elements in the security forces – would be investigated.

     

    However, the ZANU-PF government then accused the opposition of orchestrating the protests, saying they were planned in advance and not triggered by the fuel price hike. The presidential spokesperson even went on to threaten more violence against the opposition. Reports of state-sponsored attacks continued even after protests died down, with allegations of soldiers patrolling suburbs, beating up residents, and abducting people.

     

    The hope for a new era that accompanied Mnangagwa’s election win last year is fast evaporating amid recriminations over a heavy-handed state response that has led to comparisons with his predecessor.

    What are the humanitarian implications?

    Nelson Chamisa, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, has said the people of Zimbabwe are facing an existential threat and warned of “a far worse humanitarian crisis with devastating consequences”.

    Last week, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition also warned that if issues were not addressed it could trigger a regional humanitarian crisis, presumably speaking to fears of a new wave of outward migration.

    Such claims are hard to qualify, but some immediate effects on health access, and water and sanitation, have already been felt during the protests.

     

    Blessing Gorejena, executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, told IRIN that victims of violence were having difficulty accessing emergency medical care.

    “In some instances those victims have no idea where to go to seek medical attention,” she said. “In other instances, where they have been provided with support, the state is putting impediments that are obstructing these victims from accessing the healthcare facilities.” Gorejena said doctors were victimised and harassed, medical facilities were raided, and ambulances attacked.

    Consequences of prolonged stay-aways on the health system could also cause serious setbacks in treatment for HIV patients who need to access antiretroviral treatment in public hospitals. According to UNAIDS, Zimbabwe had 1,3 million people living with HIV in 2016, with 75 percent of these accessing daily antiretroviral therapy.

    “The public health issues come up when there are issues with governance, issues with political unrest, instability,” said a public health specialist at a local NGO that advises Zimbabwe’s health ministry, asking to remain nameless for fear of reprisals.

    “The stay-away also means that basic services [like those] at the city council are not being rendered,” the specialist said. Such services include the maintenance and repair of sewer lines and water pipes – critical to preventing contamination and ensuring hygiene standards in a country tackling a series of cholera, dysentery, and typhoid outbreaks.

    For cholera patients needing treatment, public unrest can also lead to delays in the sick reaching health centres. “Some doctors couldn’t make their way [to hospitals during the protests] because they feared for their safety,” the public health specialist added.

    What will happen next?

     

    Mnangagwa has called for a national dialogue to resolve the crisis. However the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition said the environment was not yet conducive to talks as “false accusations and charges” continue to be labelled against labour and civil society leaders, while violence by security forces has not ceased. The group warned of “greater chances of escalation of social unrest and instability” if this volatility is not addressed.

    “The mood is bleak. The hope from November 2017 is gone."

    Hundreds of activists and opposition figures are still in hiding, and some fear that the government crackdown could last for months. At the same time, the economic problems that caused the crisis persist.

    South Africa’s president said Zimbabwe’s crisis was a challenge for the whole of Africa, and called for international sanctions to be lifted as a means to ease the situation.

     

    Some reports say up to three million Zimbabweans already reside in South Africa, both as legal and undocumented residents. Amid concerns over a new  “influx”, South Africa’s main opposition party said officials along the border between the two countries told them as many as 130,000 people made the crossing from Zimbabwe in just one day last week.

    “I study migration in response to crisis, and Zimbabwe is my main case study,” Chipo Dendere, an assistant professor of political science at Amherst College, told IRIN. “People will want to leave, and they are already doing so.”

    “The mood is bleak. The hope from November 2017 is gone. The danger with this new type of hopelessness is that it opens doors for extremists,” she said. “Under Mugabe, people would say anyone is better – they held on to that. Now [Mnangagwa] has crushed that expectation of anything better. By increasing open militarisation of the state, [Mnangagwa] has failed to create the needed illusion that Zimbabwe is a civilian government, and that is scary for people.”

    (TOP PHOTO: People in Zimbabwe have battled two decades of unemployment, rising costs, and nearly collapsed public services. CREDIT: Zinyange Auntony/AFP)

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    “People will want to leave, and they are already doing so”
    Briefing: What the fuel protests mean for Zimbabweans

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