From war and genocide, to disaster and disease; from insect invasion and terrorism, to election violence and economic collapse: humanitarian crises have come in all forms over the last quarter century.

Some have been confined within state borders; others have destabilised entire regions. Some have killed hundreds of thousands of people in an instant; others have displaced communities over generations. Some make global headlines and draw immense funding; others fly under the radar of international interest. What they have in common is that they all influenced the evolution of the humanitarian sector and continue to shape our collective history.

We went back through our reporting and chose 25 crises that most defined our world. A look back on why these crises mattered then, and why they still matter today, reveals the magnitude of the problems that humanitarians are called upon to address and suggests ways we might address the crises of the future. 

At a glance: 25 crises that shaped history

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1994

What happened

A plane carrying former Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down in April 1994. Hutu extremists blamed the downing on the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi rebel group. Over the next 100 days in Rwanda, more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities. The genocide ended in July, when the RPF took control of the country. The crisis continued across the border, however, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), then known as Zaire, where hundreds of thousands of Hutus – including those responsible for the killings – had sought refuge. Rwanda’s new government backed a rebel force led by Laurent Kabila, which pursued the genocidaires into Congo before marching to the capital, Kinshasa, and toppling the country’s kleptocratic leader, Mobutu Sese Seko. Kabila soon fell out with his Rwandan allies, triggering a new Rwanda-backed rebellion in 1998 that sucked in several African countries in a conflict dubbed “Africa’s World War.”

Why it mattered then and still matters today

Humanitarians scrambled to assist the Rwandan refugees living in camps in Congo but faced hard ethical questions. The refugees were dying of cholera and needed help, but among them were genocidaires using the camps – and aid – to regroup and launch attacks back home. Some aid groups pulled out; others stayed put, not wanting to abandon those genuinely in need. More than 25 years after the genocide, Rwanda has made significant strides, much of it through local reconciliation and justice processes. But divisions remain – particularly in the diaspora – and not all violence committed during the 1990s has been properly recognised by an authoritarian regime that silences opponents. Across the border, Congo remains very much in crisis, with some 120 armed groups – including the genocidaires, now called the FDLR – operating in eastern parts of the country. More than 1 million people have fled their homes in the past six months alone.


1990s

What happened

The first human-to-human transmission of HIV began in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, around 1920. But the global pandemic we know today only got really underway in the 1980s, and by the 1990s was having a significant impact in Africa. The epicentre was initially East Africa, but the virus quickly travelled along the transport corridors to southern Africa. By 2001, more than 28 million people on the continent were living with HIV. In the same year, TNH (then known as IRIN News) began PlusNews, its award-winning multimedia service promoting awareness and advocacy around HIV/AIDS. In 2004 a French language service was launched, followed by PlusNews in Portuguese in 2005.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

East and southern Africa is still the region hardest hit by HIV. The good news is that it’s also the region that has made the most progress in reducing infection rates – driving the global decline in AIDS deaths. In 2018, across Africa, 85 percent of people living with HIV were aware of their status, 79 percent of them were on treatment, and 87 percent of those on treatment had achieved viral suppression to undetectable levels. But AIDS still remains the largest cause of death for women of reproductive age, and the burden of new HIV infections overwhelmingly falls on adolescent girls. Millions of young people still cannot access the simple health services they need: free condoms, an HIV test without parental consent, and pre-exposure prophylaxis. Meanwhile, a sharp drop in donor funding is handicapping the global goal of eradicating AIDS by 2030. 


1999-2003

What happened

Liberia’s first civil war began in 1989, when a group of rebels led by Charles Taylor launched an uprising against President Samuel Doe, who had come to power nine years earlier in a military coup. Taylor’s forces quickly reached the capital, Monrovia, triggering a regional peacekeeping intervention called ECOMOG (or, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group). After various rebel splits and failed peace agreements, Taylor became president in 1997 elections, but a new rebellion soon broke out and triggered a second civil war. Taylor eventually stood down in 2003 under international pressure, claiming asylum in Nigeria. Belligerents signed a peace agreement that led to a transitional administration and elections two years later. In 2012, Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in jail for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone while he led Liberia – he supplied weapons to rebels in exchange for diamonds. He became the first person to be convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials for crimes committed while head of state.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

A quarter of a million people died during the conflict and the wider region was destabilised – Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast in particular. The decision by West African leaders to deploy troops from ECOMOG was commended by some as an example of regional problem-solving that helped prevent bloodletting. Others, though, questioned its neutrality and effectiveness, and a UN mission was eventually deployed in 2003. The UN mission withdrew last year, after 15 years on the ground. Peace remains fragile, with perpetrators of crimes still in positions of political power and victims suffering from lingering trauma. Former soccer star George Wear is now president, but a sinking economy and persistent corruption has brought thousands onto the streets in recent months.


2001

September 11th and Afghanistan invasion

What happened?

The 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks ignited a catastrophic humanitarian fallout that continues to reverberate nearly two decades later. Within a month, US and NATO forces invaded Afghanistan – the first strike in the so-called “war on terror”. Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership would be deposed by the end of the year, but it quickly regrouped as a deadly insurgency and now challenges the embattled Afghan government for control. Radical militancy spread in the wake of US anti-terror campaigns, while the humanitarian costs rose. Post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and elsewhere have killed more than 800,000 people and cost some $6.4 trillion, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

The post-9/11 world has forced the aid sector into a balancing act, upholding sacrosanct humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence amid growing counter-terrorism laws and the increasing politicisation of aid itself. At times, murky counter-terror legislation from donor countries has blocked aid to civilians and potentially criminalised aid work. Compliance pressures have put many humanitarian operations at risk – from Syria to Somalia and Nigeria. Counter-terrorism laws are “out of control” and can “potentially criminalise even life-saving medical aid or food relief,” a UN rights rapporteur warned in 2018. After September 11th, donors increasingly emphasised so-called countering violent extremism projects, or CVE, though the effectiveness of such programmes is often questioned. But the farthest-reaching impact is on civilians themselves. In Afghanistan, healthcare, education, and the participation of women and girls have seen marked gains since the US invasion, but the country is still aid-dependent and wrangled in a conflict that killed or injured 10,000 civilians last year. Each year, hundreds of thousands are displaced by war or disaster, or forced to return from abroad. Afghans represent one of the largest refugee populations in the world. In February 2020, nearly two decades after invading Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, the US struck a tentative peace agreement with the militant group, which would see international forces withdraw.


2002-2020

What happened

Zimbabwe is on the front line of climate change. It has struggled with a series of droughts since 2000, but sometimes it’s been floods, and occasionally both disasters in the same year. The result has been a string of food emergencies – in 2002, 2005, 2008, 2016, 2019, and now 2020. These crises have been compounded by a broke government, unable to provide enough support to its small-scale farmers. Currently, more than 7 million people are short of food in both rural and urban areas – a reflection of the country’s economic meltdown as much as drought. TNH’s strong historical focus on Zimbabwe was not always welcomed by the government, and earned us a reprimand in 2003 for coverage of the political drivers of its humanitarian needs.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

Zimbabwe’s land reform programme began in 2000, when the vast estates owned by a few thousand white commercial farmers were seized and redistributed to landless black Zimbabweans. But that was not the start of the country’s food security problems – despite media coverage to the contrary. The programme was, in fact, broadly successful in reversing centuries of land injustice. But the commercial farmers were key to foreign exchange earnings, and in conjunction with worsening donor relations and problematic policy choices, the economy was pushed into a downturn, limiting investment in agriculture. Various subsidy and mechanisation programmes have failed due to poor implementation, politicisation, and corruption. Cumulative years of shortages – inflation hit 89.7 sextillion percent in 2008 – lack of opportunities, and political repression has led to an outflow of an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans – the majority to neighbouring South Africa and Botswana, and their remittances home have been vital to keeping families afloat. Climate change means a drying of Zimbabwe. Yet climate-smart agriculture schemes are patchy, links to markets weak, and extension services barely function.


2003

What happened

Iraqis had lived through multiple wars in the decades before 2003, but it was that year’s US-led invasion – based on what is now known to be flawed intelligence about “weapons of mass destruction” – that ended Saddam Hussein’s more than two-decade rule. While many Iraqis celebrated the falling of a dictator, the aftermath was nothing short of disastrous. Within three years, an estimated 1.2 million Iraqis had been forced to flee their homes, as insurgent groups sprung up to counter the US presence, followed by years of sectarian violence with al-Qaeda as a major player. Bombings on markets, coffee shops, and holy places made Iraq an increasingly dangerous place to live.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

The US withdrew its forces from Iraq in 2011, but the legacy of the invasion is ever-present. While sectarianism is far from the only division in Iraqi society, the ostensibly secular government and system the US installed after Saddam’s toppling used a religious quota system that put mostly Shia Muslims in power, leading to a feeling of marginalisation among many Sunnis. It is this frustration that may have allowed the so-called Islamic State to find some support in some parts of Iraq (although the vast majority of the group’s victims were Sunnis, as IS claimed to be), and fighting off the extremists took a massive toll on Iraq’s people, infrastructure, and economy. With homes still destroyed and many people unable to return due to insecurity, there has still been no large-scale attempt at reconciliation or dealing with communal grievances (although months of recent protests show Iraqis of all stripes have plenty in common). Rebuilding the country and society is likely to take years. 


2003

What happened

Low-level skirmishes in Sudan's western Darfur region escalated in 2003, when two rebel groups – the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – took up arms against the government, accusing it of neglecting the region. Combined with tensions between sedentary farming communities and nomads, drought and desertification, an expanding population, and a divide-and-rule strategy that pit one tribal group against another, this became an explosive mix.

In late 2003, TNH (then known as IRIN News) was among the first media organisations to send a journalist into Darfur. We found the early signs of the scorched earth tactics, “devils on horseback”, abduction, and rape that would go on to terrorise civilians. The death toll is disputed, but the UN estimates that as many as 300,000 people may have died, mostly of war-related disease and malnutrition, and almost 3 million others have been forced to flee their homes. 

Why it mattered then and still matters today

Darfur was the world’s reminder that genocide was still possible in the 21st century, even after the promises of “never again” that followed the slaughter in Rwanda in 1994. It prompted a UN peacekeeping mission, resulted in war crimes charges against President Omar al-Bashir at the International Criminal Court, and galvanised the West, with George Clooney and other celebrities turning “Save Darfur” into a major US lobby. And while it slipped from the headlines, the conflict in Darfur never really ended – not after the ICC charges in 2008; not in 2015, when violence surged; and not in 2017, when exiled rebels barrelled across the Libyan-Sudanese border in 160 vehicles, breaking through Sudanese defence lines and giving lie to the widely touted notion that the conflict was finally over. The problems that drove conflict in Darfur – marginalisation of the periphery, centralisation of power, and competition for resources – continue to plague Sudan today; they were at the heart of the protests that ultimately ousted the Sudanese president from power in April 2019.


2003-2005

What happened?

A desert locust crisis in the Sahel in 2004 was the largest outbreak in 15 years, sweeping the region from Mauritania to Sudan’s Red Sea coast. It began with four unrelated outbreaks in 2003 in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Sudan. Control measures were only taken in the summer of 2004 when locusts were already ravaging crops in 18 countries. Harvest losses were huge – valued at up to $2.5 billion. TNH’s (then known as IRIN News) West Africa bureau in Dakar kept tabs on the unfolding food crisis, and a film – The Eighth Plague – highlighted the impact of the giant swarms on the region.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

The crisis lasted two years and devastated communities. In Mauritania alone, 80 percent of the harvest was eaten by the clouds of insects. In Niger, nearly 4,000 villages were abandoned by farmers after they lost their crops. It cost more than $500 million to bring the crisis under control, but it reinforced the case for a then fledgling region-wide locust surveillance and control mechanism, implemented by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation. Locusts struck again in 2012, spreading south from breeding grounds in Algeria and Libya. The jihadist conflict in the region this time handicapped the response. It also underlined the deeper impact of a collision of multiple crises driving humanitarian needs in the Sahel – including economic fragility, instability, food insecurity, and climate shocks – issues that TNH has closely monitored over the years.


2004

What happened

On 26 December 2004, a 9.2-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia triggered a series of tsunamis that ricocheted across the Indian Ocean. Waves up to 30 metres high crashed into coastal communities in at least 13 countries, killing an estimated 230,000 people. Most of the casualties were in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, but tsunami deaths were recorded as far away as Yemen, Somalia, Tanzania, and even South Africa. The disaster helped end a conflict in Indonesia’s Aceh and arguably contributed to prolonging Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

The 2004 tsunami was one of the first global disasters in the modern era. It jumpstarted reforms to how massive aid operations are coordinated and fuelled a new impetus for preparedness planning and early warning systems. Cash transfer programmes, now common in aid responses, were trialled on a wide scale during the tsunami aftermath. Today’s international humanitarian cluster system was created a year later to streamline coordination after the rapid influx of aid groups and funds resulted in duplicated work and messy coordination. “It was a chaotic response,” one humanitarian told TNH. The tsunami also pushed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to accelerate plans for shared emergency response planning (though the creation of a regional coordination body, the now-prominent AHA Centre, was still years away). The scale of devastation forced governments to examine their own complacency on disaster risk: before the tsunami, ”no one was interested because they’d seen nothing on the scale of what we were all about to experience,” an Indonesian academic said, describing meetings with government officials. New regional tsunami early warning systems were quickly created around the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean, and strengthened in the Pacific. These systems continue to bolster disaster preparedness today. But funding, maintenance, and community-level planning still fall short. In 2018, earthquakes and tsunami waves killed more than 4,800 people in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi. Officials said limited earthquake sensors and tidal gauges failed to accurately predict the danger; no warning sirens sounded as the waves crashed ashore.


2007

What happened

On 30 December 2007, Kenya’s Electoral Commission hastily declared incumbent Mwai Kibaki the winner of close-run elections. Opposition leader Raila Odinga, who had been leading in the polls, cried foul and international election monitors agreed. An explosion of largely ethnic-based violence followed, beginning in Nairobi’s poorest suburbs and spreading into central Kenya. Some of it was spontaneous, some systematic. When it was over, up to 1,200 people were dead – many shot by the police – and more than 650,000 people displaced. Mediation by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan led to the signing of a power-sharing agreement between Kibaki and Odinga in February and the creation of three key investigative commissions. TNH’s (then known as IRIN News) headquarters was in Nairobi, and we witnessed the crisis as it unfolded – including the emotional impact it had on local staff. 

Why it mattered then and still matters today

Odinga had built a political coalition based on a widespread perception that Kibaki’s government had entrenched ethnicity and governed in the interests of his Kikuyu community – the largest ethnic group. Kibaki’s supporters painted Odinga, a Luo, as a dangerous radical out to punish them. The same undercurrents of politically manipulated ethnic identities have been present in every subsequent election. In July 2009, after months of frustrating talks, Annan forwarded the names of six people to the International Criminal Court for prosecution over their role in the violence. They included Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been a leading figure in Kibaki’s election coalition, and William Ruto, a key member in the opposition. In the 2013 election, both men – who had been accused of organising attacks against each other's communities – formed a political pact against Odinga and defeated him. Despite fresh allegations of rigging, Kenyans avoided taking to the streets to protest. Kenyatta, as president, and Ruto as his vice president, mobilised regional support and ran a spirited assault against the ICC. In 2015 the charges against Kenyatta were dropped and, a year later, charges against Ruto were abandoned. Thousands of people displaced by the 2007-08 violence are still homeless.


2009

What happened

The beginning of Boko Haram was as a radical fringe Islamist movement operating in northeast Nigeria in the early 2000s. It rejected secularism, Nigeria’s venal politics, and demanded sharia law as the antidote. Its growing influence led to a violent confrontation with local authorities in 2009. Crushed, it went underground, emerging rebuilt a year later under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau and committed to global jihad. Its military campaign was stunningly successful. It captured towns and villages across three northern states, and by 2014 it was the world’s deadliest insurgent group, targeting anyone deemed an “unbeliever”. In 2015 Shekau pledged allegiance to so-called Islamic State, and Boko Haram became the group’s West African franchise. A year later it split: Shekau, accused of “excesses” against Muslims, was ousted as the leader of Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), but he continued under the banner of the original Boko Haram.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

The conflict has killed more than 35,000 people; driven 2 million people from their homes; spilled into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger; and triggered a localised famine. Women in particular have suffered: abducted as “wives” and used as suicide bombers against urban targets. The Nigerian military has also been accused of brutality, undermining its counter-insurgency campaign. Initial success by the army in 2015 has long since stalled. Instead, ISWAP in particular has inflicted a series of heavy losses against the military, capturing a string of bases in northern Borno state. As a consequence, the army has withdrawn into more secure “super camps” – with only the Nigerian air force seen as effectively blunting the jihadists free reign in the countryside. ISWAP’s propaganda urges people to join them in the Islamic state it is creating – contrasting life there with the government’s grim displacement camps. But a series of violent leadership changes threatens the group’s stability and ideological direction.


2010

What happened

On 10 January 2010 a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. With a 30 second flick of its tail, “le grand serpent” (the great snake, as Haitians called it) killed an estimated 220,000 people, brought immeasurable damage to infrastructure, and left nearly 1.5 million people homeless. The damage was not merely the consequence of the earthquake’s magnitude, however. Overcrowding, poorly built structures, and the absence of building codes were largely to blame for the sweeping destruction. With Haiti’s long history of political turmoil, natural disasters, and poverty, the earthquake marked a sad turning point for many Haitians who would come to refer to events in the small country as having taken place “before” or “after”. 

Why it mattered then and still matters today

Not since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had a disaster received such attention, including extensive media coverage and visits from politicians, celebrities, and thousands of volunteers. Unprecedented funding for the humanitarian response was sent with millions of dollars coming from remittances, and more than 3 billion dollars was committed to the formal humanitarian sector. As the response unfolded, however, many levelled complaints about poor accountability and transparency of funding. Weaknesses in the multilateral response to the earthquake as well as the Pakistan floods that same year led to the Transformative Agenda reforms. 

Ten months after the earthquake, cholera was confirmed in Haiti for the first time in more than a century. The disease rapidly spread due to the poor water and sanitation infrastructure, resulting in the worst outbreak in recent history, with more than 8,000 deaths. Five years later, the UN acknowledged its role in the outbreak, which was traced to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) base. Many of Haiti’s ills still persist, including weak political governance, poor infrastructure, and environmental insecurity. Haiti still ranks among the world’s least developed countries. Its fragility is continually exposed through recurring disasters, such as 2016 Hurricane Matthew.


2011

What happened

In July 2011, after a year of increasingly dire warnings, famine was declared in southern Somalia. Although 13 million people across the Horn of Africa were facing a drought-induced food crisis, only in Somalia was there a famine emergency, and it killed an estimated 260,000 people. There are a number of reasons why. The south and centre of the country were controlled by the jihadist group al-Shabab, who limited humanitarian access, and aid agencies felt similarly constrained by donor counter-terror laws. Major food agencies CARE and the World Food Programme were absent; a steep rise in food prices reduced the purchasing power of poor farmers; and the “normalisation of crisis” meant humanitarians were slow to respond to their own early warning data

Why it mattered then and still matters today

The famine has been repeatedly raked over for lessons learnt. One clear recognition is the need to build the “resilience” of communities regularly affected by crisis. Early warning needs to be better tuned, and – not surprisingly – risk-averse actors and a late response makes a crisis worse. A severe drought in 2016 was an opportunity to put that into practice. National grain production had dropped to its lowest level in a decade; food prices were rising, and people were on the move. This time there was a timely and generous international aid push. Somalia also had more effective government agencies and the aid community had the right tools – including cash transfers. All that helped avert famine in 2017. But Somalia remains fragile. Drought again in 2019 left 2.2 million people hungry, and this year, floods and swarms of locusts across the Horn of Africa have represented a whole new threat.


2012

What happened

When pro-democracy protests began to sweep across Syria in 2011 as part of the so-called “Arab Spring,” President Bashar al-Assad’s response was swift and violent: activists were tortured and killed, and the army cracked down hard on centres of dissent. Opposition members, including defectors in exile, began organising abroad. Inside the country, they took up arms, first as part of the umbrella Free Syrian Army and later in various rebel factions, including increasingly powerful Islamist groups. The so-called Islamic State also joined the fray, taking over the city of Raqqa in 2014 and drawing Western airstrikes. There have been brutal sieges, horrific bombings, and chemical weapons attacks, and the war is still not over. Al-Assad and his allies have taken back much of the battered country, but rebels still control the northwestern province of Idlib and its surroundings. 

Why it mattered then and still matters today

As the violence became unbearable, more than 5.6 million Syrians fled and became refugees, sheltering in nearby countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, but also attempting dangerous journeys across the Meditteranean to Europe. Even more people were forced out of their homes and hometowns but remained inside Syria, trapped inside borders that sealed further shut as the war rattled on. Despite the refugee crisis and atrocity after atrocity, the UN Security Council was all but paralysed on the subject of Syria, as aid became and remains political football. That doesn’t mean foreign powers aren’t involved: Russia uses its airpower to back al-Assad, and Turkey invaded the northeast in late 2019. And plenty of other countries have lined up to support various parties in the war, with money, guns, or political clout. These days, talk of political transition is rarely heard; instead many question if Idlib will be the deadly “endgame” as well as how (and if) Syrians will choose to return to a country badly in need of reconstruction.


2013

What happened

West Africa’s Ebola crisis began in December 2013 in a small Guinean village called Meliandou and ended two and a half years later with 11,000 deaths and 28,000 infections in the worst outbreak since the virus was discovered in 1976. The epidemic stretched health systems in the most affected countries – Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – to the limits, while a handful of cases were also reported in Europe, the United States, and other parts of Africa. A separate outbreak of Ebola in a conflict-scarred corner of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has since become the second deadliest recorded so far, taking more than 2,200 lives between August 2018 and June 2020, when the World Health Organization declared an official end to the outbreak.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

The West Africa outbreak marked the first time Ebola had spread from the countryside into densely populated urban spaces. But while the results were devastating, the international response was often lacking. The World Health Organization was strongly criticised for failing to sound the alarm quickly enough – a public health emergency of international concern was not declared until August 2014 – funding was slow to arrive, and an effective coordination system took time to get going. Many aid agencies lacked the clinical expertise required to respond; others lost millions of dollars to corruption. Communication problems and weak community engagement meant the early phases of the response were marred by distrust in response efforts. Despite an effective vaccine and new drug therapies, similar problems have been repeated in the response to later outbreaks in eastern Congo, where friction with responders led to hundreds of attacks on healthcare workers, treatment centres, and patients. For survivors of both epidemics, the shadow of the disease lingers long after recovery, with many suffering mental health challenges, economic hardship, and medical ailments.


2013

What happened

Typhoon Haiyan crashed into parts of the Philippines in November 2013 with wind speeds topping 310 kilometres per hour – one of the most powerful storms ever recorded. The typhoon damaged or destroyed more than 1 million homes and uprooted nearly 4 million people. It was also one of the deadliest storms to strike the Philippines: the government says more than 6,300 died, and another 1,000 were declared missing. Recovery and rebuilding lasted years, and many communities devastated by Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, have been battered repeatedly by subsequent storms.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

A massive international response helped save lives, but there was criticism that local aid responders were overlooked and poorly integrated into the humanitarian cluster system. “There is an assumption that local NGOs don’t have resources,” one international aid worker said. “So our natural thing is not to look around and say, ‘Now which is the organisation which might help us with warehousing?’ We just assume they don’t exist.” At the same time, the Haiyan response underscored the depth of local response resources: NGOs and civil society groups battle-hardened by frequent crises, a massive diaspora, a robust private sector that helped kickstart recovery. The Haiyan response helped galvanise the push for the aid sector’s “localisation” reforms, which would be codified into the Grand Bargain pledges nearly three years later. (How is that progressing? The jury’s still out.) Since Haiyan, local groups have launched the country’s first disaster fund targeting local donors and recipients, called SAFER (Shared Aid Fund for Emergency Response). It’s seen as an early step in untangling aid from the global donor web. Haiyan also saw an early deployment of the regional disaster management body, the AHA Centre, foreshadowing a greater coordination role. The typhoon also became a poignant example of the humanitarian toll of climate change: chief Philippines negotiator Yeb Saño made headlines pleading for climate action during the COP19 summit, which started days after Haiyan struck. Countries strengthened climate pledges in the ensuing years, but those fall far short of what’s needed, critics say, especially when it comes to mounting disaster loss and damages.


2013

What happened

In December 2013, political tensions within South Sudan’s ruling party boiled over. What began as a political dispute degenerated into civil war, fought largely along ethnic lines – making it, inevitably, all the more vicious. The fighting wrenched apart communities that had once lived together. More than 4 million people were forced from their homes, seeking refuge in the bush, at UN bases, and in neighbouring countries. Soldiers and militia on both sides killed, raped, and robbed with impunity. The violence drove farmers off their land, and rural markets collapsed, along with people’s purchasing power. The threat of famine was a persistent worry until it did finally break out in northern Unity state in 2017.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

Just two years after independence in 2011, the government and national army split. President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, tried to keep his fractious coalition of political leaders and warlords together under a fraying “big tent” by allowing those inside to steal from state coffers. His rival, Riak Machar, with fewer resources at his disposal, mobilised more narrowly from among his Nuer roots. The notion of a national cake to be shared by the men with guns underpinned the first power-sharing peace agreement in 2015. But, without political or security sector reforms, it quickly collapsed and fighting resumed. More armed ethnic-based groups took to the bush and the humanitarian situation degenerated. Aid workers were denied access by the violence, driving hunger and disease that still affects 7.5 million people. After a ceasefire was signed in 2018, the warring parties finally joined a unity government in February 2020. But the economy is still in crisis and donors are increasingly weary.


2015

What happened

More than 2 million people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe since 2014, and more than 20,000 have drowned or gone missing while attempting the passage. The desperate bid to cross the sea forms a nexus where many crises overlap: conflict and political repression in Syria, Iraq, Darfur, and Eritrea; endemic poverty, political corruption, insurgencies, and the desire for a better life in West Africa; Libya’s descent into chaos; Turkey’s use of refugees as bargaining chips; the EU’s failure to receive people on its shores with dignity and humanity; and the international community’s inability to find solutions for long-term displacement.

Why it mattered then and what it still matters today

The crisis has reconfigured countless lives. After risking everything, some people found the opportunity to live in safety and rebuild. Volunteers on the front lines found a purpose. Other people are stuck in an indefinite limbo in camps, detention centres, or informal settlements, enduring abject neglect or horrific abuse. People have lost their lives. By the thousands, they have been swallowed by the sea or their bodies left to decompose in the remote desert. Some were buried in unmarked graves in cemeteries dotting Europe’s borders. And countless parents, siblings, spouses, and friends have been left to grieve or wonder what happened to their loved ones who died or disappeared.

The Mediterranean migration crisis has reshaped politics in Europe, leading to the ascendance of nativist political forces and calling into question the EU’s core values and stability. It has also revealed the shortcomings of the international refugee protection system in an era of increased interconnectivity and mobility. The migration crisis sparked the Global Compact on Refugees, which was affirmed by the UN General Assembly in December 2018 but left ambiguities when it came to resettling refugees in European countries. At the 2019 Refugee Forum, a check-up on progress toward the goals of the compact, resettlement numbers had dropped significantly since 2016, largely due to the US cutting refugee admissions.


2015

What happened

The start of Yemen’s war is commonly pegged to early 2015, when Houthi rebels took over the capital city of Sana’a, sending the country’s president into exile. A coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia backed the president and launched a devastating bombing campaign that is only one facet of a complex war that includes strained alliances, the Houthis joining forces with another former (and now deceased) president, and the intervention, often indirectly, of multiple foreign powers. But Yemen’s troubles began long before 2015 – it was already the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula – and the fighting threw much of its population into what is often called the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” marked by hunger, cholera, and economic collapse.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

Despite staggering levels of human suffering, neither the international community nor the international media paid much attention to Yemen, until a botched US raid in 2017 and the killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi the next year. This brief moment in the sun helped shine a light on the role of western countries – and their weapons – in alleged war crimes, and on the very real spectre of famine (even though one was never officially declared). But it failed to stop the war, and after the media glare dimmed, various peace and de-escalation deals have come and gone without much progress. The war continues on various front lines and has even intensified in some places. And now, just as unfunded aid programmes warn they will have to soon shut their doors, COVID-19 is coursing through Yemen, a country with a healthcare system that was largely in tatters even before the global pandemic came knocking.


2016

What happened

After half a century of war that left more than 200,000 people dead and created one of the world’s largest IDP populations – estimated at 5.7 million – finding peace was going to be complicated. In 2016, after long negotiations in Havana, the government of Colombia and the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a permanent ceasefire to end the conflict. The deal was far-reaching and complex, involving multiple programmes that aimed to improve the lives of rural Colombians. One remarkable innovation in the peace talks was to include victims – significant, as 80 percent of deaths were civilians. After the agreement was rejected in a referendum, President Juan Manuel Santos quickly had it approved by Congress. A few days later, Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize, a move that the Norwegian judges acknowledged would “give him strength in this demanding task”. 

Why it mattered then and still matters today

Since 2016 and the handover of weapons, FARC has been represented in Congress, and international organisations and NGOs – guarantors of the peace agreement – have become more engaged in humanitarian and development programmes in the country. The attribution of formal land titles to farmers and indigenous people has been expedited, and a national voluntary illegal crop substitution programme has been put in place. However, much of the progress achieved by the deal has stalled since the inauguration in 2018 of president Ivan Duque, who helped lead the “vote no” initiative in the referendum. Instead of seeing government forces enter many areas previously controlled by FARC, the armed group’s military void has created opportunities for criminal and other armed groups, including those interested in benefiting from FARC’s previously profitable role in the cocaine trade. Meanwhile, a deteriorating humanitarian situation within the country means that over 5 million people are still in need. 


2016-2017

What happened

People picking through garbage, hospitals unable to provide care for patients, violent crackdowns on political opponents, and extrajudicial killings. After years of economic mismanagement, growing authoritarianism, and political turmoil, the global oil slump in 2015 accelerated Venezuela’s freefall into hyperinflation, mounting starvation, disease, crime, and rising mortality rates. President Nicolas Maduro and his government, however, denied that a crisis existed, aggravating attempts by local NGOs to alleviate the situation. Groups became victims to harassment and even physical attacks by intelligence services, while aid shipments to them were blocked by red tape and politics. A country that had long been seen as a secure destination for Latin Americans fleeing political turmoil in the 1980s and early 1990s thus converted itself into the source of the region’s largest recorded migration crisis. 

Why it mattered then and still matters today

By the end of 2019, 4.5 million Venezuelans were living abroad. Most refugees and migrants resettled in neighbouring countries, many of which were struggling with their own social and economic challenges. Venezuelans who had arrived earlier were able to apply for some form of residency, but since 2019 social and legal barriers have been on the rise. For Venezuelans remaining within their country, US sanctions have further blighted the situation, the worst economic crisis facing a country that is not experiencing war. In March 2019, Maduro negotiated terms for delivery of aid, prompting the UN to step up its own programmes. But the issue of aid remains nonetheless a political hot potato, which complicates relief amid the spread of COVID-19 and the return of desperate migrants.


2017

What happened

Denied citizenship and basic rights, Myanmar’s Rohingya minority have scattered across the globe over generations, driven from their homes in Rakhine State by successive waves of military purges. An army crackdown in the 1970s pushed some 200,000 people across the border to Bangladesh. A quarter million people fled in the 1990s. Later ousters, including the mass exodus of more than 700,000 people starting in August 2017, swelled Bangladesh’s refugee camps to the size of a city. Today, the diaspora dwarfs the number of Rohingya still in Rakhine. Those who remain live under crushing, apartheid-like restrictions or in barricaded displacement camps. Those who fled face a life on the margins: dependent on aid in Bangladesh’s teeming camps, or in urban slums with few rights in Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and further afield.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

A genocide, which Myanmar is accused of committing against the Rohingya, doesn’t happen overnight. The seeds of persecution were planted long before the 2017 military crackdown captured the international spotlight. The community was stripped of rights over decades – their claims to citizenship, and their very identity and history, scraped away and rewritten. Accused of inaction and complicity, aid groups have been forced to examine their own policies amid Rakhine State’s deep ethnic divisions. Safety continues to elude the Rohingya: they’re rejected at home, increasingly unwelcome in Bangladesh, and even stranded at sea. Their lives have become part of a protracted, decades-long emergency; the international community has proven powerless to address its root causes, and humanitarian groups are locked in a perpetual response on its fringes. TNH’s early reporting on the Rohingya (when we were known as IRIN News) shows the core issues are strikingly indistinguishable from today. “Our lives are miserable,” Mostafa Kamal, a refugee in the Bangladesh camps, told a reporter in 2008. ”If the government changes inside Myanmar, I will return, but I'm not hopeful.” In a 2010 story, another Rohingya pinned her hopes on Aung San Suu Kyi, then an international democracy icon about to be released from years of house arrest in Myanmar: “Our only hope is if Aung San Suu Kyi comes to power,” she said. A decade later, the camps’ population has quadrupled, and Suu Kyi leads a government accused of genocide. Rights groups see alarming parallels in the treatment of rejected minorities elsewhere. Controversial citizenship rules have disproportionately excluded Bengali-speaking Muslims in northeast India’s Assam, for example, and India’s central government has promised to roll out similar schemes elsewhere.


2019

Gang violence in Central America and US migration policy

What happened

Faltering governance, corruption, institutional violence, and poverty have long shaken Central America, providing a perfect setting in which criminal activities could thrive. In the three countries known as the Northern Triangle – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – transnational gangs, also known as maras, have proliferated and are largely responsible for national homicide rates that rival war zones. Widespread sexual violence in the region has further contributed to the flight of some 10 percent of the population, many of whom escaped dangerous situations in the spur of the moment. But while human caravans headed by foot to the US-Mexico border, international assistance to the region has steadily declined. In the US, President Donald Trump has pushed for stricter measures to impede the flow of immigrants, in line with his anti-Latino migrant electoral campaign rhetoric. In 2019, the “Remain in Mexico” policy obliging asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their court dates for asylum hearings preceded another ruling that forced refugees to request asylum in third countries they had transited through before applying in the US. The Trump administration reinforced that requirement in an agreement with Guatemala, requiring would-be US immigrants to request asylum there, while allowing migrants to the US to be deported to the Central American state, which is highly dependent on US aid.

Why it mattered then and still matters today

 

While the large-scale apprehension and deportation of migrants originating from south of the US border is not new, the conditions under which this is happening signal the Trump administration’s drive to curb migration from its southern border at all costs. Images of detained children, separated from their parents, held in caged facilities – often run by private contractors – the deportation of migrants who had lived long-term in the US, and, most recently, a policy that the government justifies as a measure to contain COVID-19 (immediately deporting asylum seekers who have entered the country through irregular means and denying them formal process) have aimed to send a signal to migrants that they are not welcome. But for those trapped – sometimes for a second time round – in violent environments in poor Northern Triangle countries, the prospect of a light at the end of the tunnel is bleak. Aid has slumped, and even when an assistance carrot from the US appears to deliver on structural reform promises – as in the case of El Salvador – the Trump administration suspended payments.


2020

What happened

In late December 2019, a previously unidentified coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, resulting in an outbreak in many cities in China. By 11 February 2020, the World Health Organization officially named it Coronavirus Disease-2019 (COVID-19). Within a month, the virus had spread across the world and a global pandemic was declared on 11 March. 

 

Why it mattered then and still matters today

The pandemic was the first time since World War II that the entire world was affected by the same crisis at the same time, leading to shortages in medical equipment and overwhelming health facilities even in developed countries. This forced difficult decisions about whom to save, as bodies piled up and makeshift morgues were set up in parks. In May, the UN released a record $6.71 billion global appeal to respond to the health emergency as well as to new needs driven by food insecurity, job losses, suspended vaccinations, and conflict. While immediate needs are still pressing, the global re-orientation presents an opportunity for the humanitarian sector, with many speculating this could be a turning point for how the system operates. 


Ongoing

What happened

 

Greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere began rising in the 1880s, in line with industrialisation, but they have skyrocketed in recent years. The planet’s temperature has risen accordingly, to more than 1.1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial baseline as of 2019. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when climate change began causing serious humanitarian need, but we’ve already seen its devastating effects build over a quarter century of reporting on disasters: climate-linked disasters have flooded villages, displaced communities, plunged farmers deeper into poverty, helped fuel internal migration to cities, and increased the frequency and severity of life-threatening storms from the Bahamas to the Pacific Islands, and from Mozambique to the United States. As the vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross said in 2018: “We’ve been responding to the effects of climate change for decades. We just haven’t framed it as such.”

 

Why it mattered then and still matters today

Rising temperatures will continue exacerbating existing stressors. Some worst-case projections envision climate change incrementally driving armed conflict, nuclear war, and ecosystem collapse; poorer nations and regions becoming unviable; deadly heat conditions persisting for more than 100 days per year in several regions; and more than one billion people needing to relocate. But apocalyptic predictions overlook the supporting role climate change is already playing in many of today’s ongoing emergencies. The UN projects that more than 212 million people could need humanitarian aid by 2022 – a steep rise, driven by climate change and conflict, over the 146 million people budgeted in planning last year. According to the UN’s annual Emissions Gap report, even if governments fully achieved the emissions cuts they have committed to in policy pledges – and that’s a big if – warming is likely to rise to 3.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That’s well off the 1.5-degree target scientists now say is necessary to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

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