The myopic fixation with Russia’s war in Ukraine makes it even more important than usual this year to remember the many other crises – of less geopolitical importance – that are too easily forgotten by the media and neglected by aid donors.
According to the latest figures, some 339 million people in 69 countries will require humanitarian assistance in 2023, with the UN appealing for an increase of 25% in funding compared to last year, when responses were already only half met.
As the only newsroom that specialises on covering humanitarian crises around the globe, and having reported from more than 60 countries last year, The New Humanitarian has identified the following 10 emergencies that demand extra attention in 2023.
Tens of millions of affected people in these countries are already living without enough food or in extreme danger. Access restraints mean some can’t be reached, while the widening gap between needs and donor funding will see many others go without assistance.
The Horn of Africa: Drought and conflict combine
Numbers: More than 36 million drought-affected across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.
The Horn of Africa is enduring its worst drought in 40 years, and the situation only looks set to deteriorate. Somalia is the worst-affected country, with famine and catastrophic food shortages projected for 700,000 people between April and June, and 8.3 million expected to go hungry in total – the result of five consecutive failed rainy seasons, increasing food prices, and a dip in aid money. Vast numbers are already estimated to have died, and at least three million livestock have been lost. The region is also grappling with various conflicts: Al-Shabab is battling the Somali government and limiting aid access in areas it controls; while a peace deal in neighbouring Ethiopia between the federal administration and Tigrayan forces has many hurdles still to overcome.
Syria: Record needs as attention wanes
Numbers: 6.8 million internally displaced. 15.3 million people in need.
After more than 11 years of war, Syria has fallen out of the headlines, but the UN says more people than ever before – 15.3 million – need some sort of aid this year. Around 6.8 million Syrians remain internally displaced (the largest number in the world), and many live in the rebel-held northwest where aid is conditional on a fragile UN Security Council Resolution. Much of the new need is tied to a crippling economic crisis, which saw food prices rise by 532% between 2020 and 2022, and record levels of hunger. Severe water shortages have contributed to a cholera outbreak and a worsening fuel crisis, and the war still isn’t over. Russian and government airstrikes still hit the rebel-held northwest, while there are Turkish airstrikes in the northeast, not to mention the increasing threat of yet another full-on Ankara-led invasion.
The Democratic Republic of Congo: The return of the M23
Numbers: 27 million (around a quarter of the population) need aid.
The return of the long dormant M23 armed group has deepened humanitarian needs in eastern DRC and triggered a geopolitical crisis that could set off a wider proxy conflict in the Great Lakes region. The Rwanda-supported rebel group has promised to withdraw from positions captured in recent months, but the situation remains volatile and hundreds of thousands of displaced people need urgent support. A new East African force has arrived to a population wary of outside meddling, while UN blue helmets are facing public ire for their perceived inaction. Attention on the M23 has pulled focus away from other insurgent groups, including the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces and the Ituri-based CODECO militias. They will likely wreak more havoc in 2023, while planned presidential elections could add to the instability.
Myanmar: A forgotten but escalating conflict
Numbers: 1.3 million internally displaced. 130,000 Rohingya in internment camps.
In the first week of January, fighting in Karen State displaced more than 10,000 people. Such events have grown common across Myanmar, where indiscriminate attacks by the notoriously brutal Tatmadaw (armed forces) have seen more than 1.1 million displaced since the military took power in a February 2021 coup. Even as thousands have been killed and tens of thousands of homes destroyed, Myanmar has largely become a forgotten crisis, with the widespread civilian resistance left to fight on its own. With the government barely functioning and the economy in freefall, humanitarian needs are growing ever more dire.
Haiti: Soaring needs in a security vacuum
Numbers: 5.2 million (nearly half the population) need food aid.
Haiti is wrestling with a string of overlapping crises – famine-levels of hunger, extreme gang violence, cholera – and things may get worse before they get better. January began with a sobering reality. The Caribbean country has no more remaining elected officials. Ariel Henry has ruled by decree since President Jovenel Moïse’s 2021 assassination. New elections aren’t likely until rampant gang violence subsides, while neither Haitians nor the international community can agree on the merits of an armed foreign intervention to restore order. The scale of humanitarian need, meanwhile, is alarming. Some 19,000 Haitians are on the brink of famine. Cholera has killed more than 457 people, with another 22,500 suspected cases. More than 155,000 people have been displaced, mostly due to the gang violence. And although Haiti still has more than 14,000 police officers, they are outnumbered and outgunned by scores of gangs that control two thirds of the capital.
The Sahel: Spreading jihadist insurgencies
Numbers: 14.4 million in need across Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger. 2.3 million internally displaced; over 7,000 schools non-functioning.
Civilian deaths and humanitarian needs hit new highs in Burkina Faso and Mali last year, and indicators could worsen again in 2023 as jihadists expand their territory across the region. Two military coups in 12 months have driven instability in Burkina Faso, while Wagner Group mercenaries were involved in heinous abuses in Mali as France ended its unpopular mission. Niger is faring slightly better (its government has expressed a willingness to talk with jihadists), but militants are still well entrenched. Some frontline Sahelian communities have launched their own dialogues with jihadists to try and ease violence, but pacts have proved unable to halt the overall downward spiral. Jihadists are now spreading south and targeting coastal countries, including Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, and Togo. A militarised response could worsen the situation.
Afghanistan: Aid cuts, growing hunger, and women at risk
Numbers: 28.3 million people (two thirds of the population) in need of aid.
While the Taliban’s ascension to power in August 2021 brought an end to acute conflict, it has been accompanied by a steadily worsening humanitarian crisis. Previously, three quarters of the national budget came from foreign donors. Already devastated by the lack of foreign support, Afghan’s economy struggled further in 2022, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine increased global food prices. More than 20 million people are projected to face acute hunger by March, while more than 3 million children younger than 5 are acutely malnourished. In spite of the risks, Afghans desperate for work have been crossing borders in droves, with more than one million heading into Iran alone. A recent ban on women NGO staff, meanwhile, is projected to push 6 million people even closer to famine. With the Taliban government diplomatically isolated, however, it has been difficult for aid agencies to negotiate.
Israel/Palestine: An intractable conflict grows deadlier
Numbers: 2.1 million people in need of aid; 61% live in Gaza.
Last year was the deadliest year in decades for Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, with Israeli forces killing 146 Palestinians. Many of these deaths took place during regular army raids that began after a wave of attacks by Palestinians between March and May that killed 19 people inside Israel and the West Bank. As 2023 begins, there’s no sign that this wave of violence, which included an increase in settler attacks and several days of rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes, will abate. In fact, Israel has just sworn in its most far-right government ever, which is likely to exacerbate discriminatory policies and inflame tensions. Even if there isn’t a major change in relations with Gaza, which has now been blockaded for 15 years, for the strip’s 2.1 million residents that just means more of the same: widespread poverty, aid dependency, and a vicious cycle of war, truce, and reconstruction.
Venezuela: A crisis in flux as border policies change, xenophobia grows
Numbers: Around 7 million in Venezuela (one in four) need aid, as do most of the 5.96 million refugees and migrants in the region.
2023 looks set to be a dynamic year for around 13 million Venezuelans requiring emergency aid within and outside the country. 2022 saw the numbers heading for the US southern border soar, many on treacherous routes. A recent change in US immigration policy looks likely to reverse this trend in 2023, leaving thousands stranded in Mexico, and many more struggling to build new lives in host countries closer to home, where harsh economic realities are making it harder to find work and driving xenophobic rhetoric. Improving relations between new Colombian President Gustavo Petro and his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolás Maduro, could pay dividends for reducing dangers on border crossings, while the easing of US sanctions could improve the situation within Venezuela, where many lives remain hostage to economic stagnation, food and fuel shortages, and a shattered healthcare system. While some refugees are returning, the future at home remains difficult and uncertain.
South Sudan: Unravelling ‘peace’ and mass flooding
Numbers: 9.4 million in need of aid (76% of the population). 2.2 million internally displaced; 2.3 million refugees.
President Salva Kiir and his long-time rival, Vice President Riek Machar, have been trying to project an image of national unity and reconciliation since forming a unity government in 2020. But as feuding elites and unaddressed local grievances produce large-scale conflict in the countryside, this is becoming an increasingly hard sell. Experts say a flawed peace agreement has worsened the situation, yet that deal remains the only real game in town for the international community. More conflict seems inevitable this year, with the situation in Upper Nile State of particular concern. The impact of four consecutive years of mass flooding will be felt too, as hunger reaches levels unseen even during the devastating 2013-2018 civil war.