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Why these 10 humanitarian crises demand your attention now

Beyond Gaza and Ukraine, emergency aid needs are going unmet in these neglected hotspots around the globe.

This is a composite image. The background has a texture of crinkled paper. On top is a world map with red circles in the horn of Africa, Mali, Sudan, Haiti, Venezuela, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Myanmar, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the centre of the frame, a hand holding a magnifying glass.

As the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine continue to dominate headlines going into 2024, it’s important to remember the many other crises that are too easily forgotten by the media and neglected by aid donors – often just because of their complexity or their relative lack of geopolitical importance.

Needs in the “uninhabitable” Gaza Strip are indescribably high, as Israel’s operations to destroy Hamas enter a fourth month, the death toll nears 23,000, and 85% of the population of 2.3 million – who are unable to leave the territory – remain displaced by the bombardment and ground invasion. Tens of thousands of Palestinians are sick or wounded but barely any hospitals are functioning, and Israel’s all-out siege is preventing the entry of all but a trickle of humanitarian supplies, while it cuts off water, food, fuel, and electricity. Remarks from far-right Israeli ministers have fuelled accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Millions also face displacement and the constant threat of bombardment in Ukraine, where Russia’s invasion is far from over even as international attention wanes.

But the people of Gaza and Ukraine are not alone in their suffering.

According to the latest UN figures, nearly 300 million people in 72 countries will require humanitarian assistance and protection this year. Globally, response plans in 2023 were less than 40% funded, while the donor outlook is even gloomier for the coming year as the UN scales back its ambitions.

As 2024 begins, tens of millions of affected people in the settings below are already in extreme hunger or extreme danger, while access restraints or funding limitations mean many can’t be reached by an international emergency response system that is overwhelmed and more intently focused elsewhere.

Sudan: Alleged ethnic cleansing and the world’s largest internal displacement crisis

Numbers: 25 million people (more than half the population) need humanitarian assistance. More than 7 million people displaced.

The conflict that broke out in April between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has created the world’s biggest internal displacement crisis. More than 7 million people have left their homes, including 1.5 million who have escaped abroad. Khartoum has been devastated and the RSF is accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide crimes in Darfur. Mediation efforts have failed and aid agencies face one of the world's hardest operational environments on top of limited funding. Sudanese mutual aid groups are the main humanitarian responders, but they’ve received scant support from international donors and several have had to pause their work. Fears that Sudan is facing a Libya-style split between an RSF-held west and an army-held north and east are giving way to concerns that the RSF – which is on a diplomatic charm offensive as it consolidates its military upper hand – is seeking total power.

Myanmar: Anti-junta gains bring both hope and fear

Numbers: 2.5 million displaced, including more than 660,000 since late October 2023 alone. The 2023 response plan only one third funded.

For the first time since the military-led government took total power in February 2021 – arresting Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party had won a landslide election victory months earlier – dozens of armed groups are uniting to take on the junta and winning. While some see the gains by these groups, which number upwards of 250 overall, as a sign that the junta is finally on the backfoot and hope it might one day lead to its downfall, others fear the military’s violent response will only lead to soaring humanitarian needs in a country that already receives very little global attention. In the short-term, the latter is already unfolding as more than 660,000 people have been newly displaced since fighting intensified in late October. As the junta has long restricted access for international aid groups, calls are growing for local aid groups to be given more support.

Haiti: Will foreign intervention make things better or worse? 

Numbers: More than half of Haiti’s population – some 5.2 million people – need humanitarian assistance and protection. More than 4,000 people were killed by gang violence in 2023, an 80% increase on 2022. Rapes and gender-based violence are at unprecedented levels.

Gang violence has put a chokehold on Haiti since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. As murders and rapes continue to soar in the capital – and spread into other parts of the Caribbean nation – a UN-backed force has been delayed by legal challenges in Kenya but could arrive later this year to try to quell the violence. But Haiti has no elected representatives, and many fear that any foreign armed force that manages to rein in the gangs will continue to prop up Haiti’s corrupt political and financial elites. Meanwhile, humanitarian needs are soaring, in a country where aid access is extremely hard to negotiate. Some 200,000 people have been displaced – a situation that has worsened since 115,000 Haitians were deported from other countries in 2023. Some 3.3 million Haitians lack access to safe water, and in some districts of the capital almost everyone is suffering from severe hunger and only getting one meal – or less – a day. 

West African Sahel: Insurgencies worsen under junta rule

Numbers: 8.8 million people need assistance in Mali, nearly 400,000 internally displaced. 3.7 million people need assistance in Burkina Faso, over 2 million internally displaced. 4.3 million people need assistance in Niger; around 335,000 internally displaced.

Jihadist insurgencies and political instability are worsening in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, three neighbouring Sahelian countries. Military leaders seized power in Niger last year, meaning juntas now rule across the region. They enjoy significant local support but are diplomatically isolated. Jihadist attacks continued in Niger after the coup, and sanctions imposed on the country by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are causing nationwide hardship. Burkina Faso’s junta has halted efforts to dialogue with jihadists in favour of a “total war”, and the insurgents are imposing sieges on communities supportive of the army. Meanwhile, in Mali, the junta has booted out a decade-long UN peacekeeping mission and kickstarted a dangerous new war with the Tuareg-dominated armed groups that operate in the north.

The Horn of Africa: Floods, conflict, and Red Sea rivalry

Numbers: 49 million (in the Greater Horn of Africa region) experiencing acute food insecurity. Over 19 million (in the Greater Horn of Africa region) displaced by conflict, drought, and flooding.

After a record drought, large parts of the Horn of Africa have faced catastrophic recent flooding. Some 2 million people have been displaced as entire villages were wiped out by the El Niño-induced rains. Conflicts are also metastasising across the region. The peace deal between Ethiopia’s government and the Tigray region has held for over a year, but stumbling blocks remain and fighting has flared in Amhara and Oromia. Somalia’s offensive against al-Shabab appears to have stalled after some early gains, while regional efforts to halt Sudan’s war are having limited impact. Red Sea rivalries are heating up too: Landlocked Ethiopia’s port ambitions have led to a deal with coastal Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia. Mogadishu, which views the area as part of its territory, has symbolically nullified the agreement and referred to it as an “act of aggression” that violates its sovereignty.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Record displacement amid a peacekeeper pullout

Numbers: Nearly 7 million internally displaced. Over 25 million with crisis levels of food insecurity.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s displacement crisis hit a record 6.9 million last year, and things are already off to a turbulent start in 2024. President Félix Tshisekedi was declared the landslide winner of a December election, but opposition candidates are demanding a re-run, citing widespread irregularities. A long-standing UN peacekeeping mission is, meanwhile, accelerating its drawdown, even as the security situation deteriorates. Fighting has been especially intense in the east between the Rwanda-backed M23 rebel group and the Congolese army, which is supported by local militias and foreign mercenaries. Civilians are also facing alarming security situations in the northeastern Ituri region and across the long-suffering Kivus

Syria: The downward slide continues as attention wanes

Numbers: 15.3 million in need of aid before the February earthquakes, 120,000 displaced by violence since October, adding to the “largest displacement crisis in the world”.

At the start of 2023, humanitarian needs were already at a record high in Syria, due to economic collapse, climate change, and a long unresolved war. By the end of the year, things were much worse. A series of massive earthquakes hit southeastern Türkiye and northern Syria in early February, killing more than 4,500 people in Syria (as well as more than 50,000 in Türkiye), destroying or damaging tens of thousands of homes, and impacting millions in a part of the country where most were already in crisis. In July, the UN Security Council failed to renew a resolution that allows aid across the Türkiye-Syria border, meaning access to this rebel-held part of the country now depends on the permission of President Bashar al-Assad. In October, the Syrian government and its Russian allies began bombing targets in Idlib, in a major escalation that has killed civilians and forced 120,000 to flee their homes. Add to that a cholera outbreak and humanitarian funding so low the World Food Programme says it will stop its general food assistance in January 2024, and the outlook is more than concerning.

Yemen: Houthi attacks in Red Sea threaten an elusive peace

Numbers: 21.6 million people in need of aid. Funding for UN-coordinated aid is declining: 62% in 2021, 53% in 2022, 38% 2023.

For nearly two years, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and the government of Saudi Arabia – which supports the internationally recognised government of Yemen – have been discussing an end to the conflict. These back-channel talks have borne some fruit, but not peace, and the Houthis’ attempts to join the fray in the Israel-Hamas war by attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea have the potential to change the dynamics once again. Meanwhile, the country’s massive humanitarian crisis rattles on: Yemen is facing another rapidly spreading cholera outbreak, and the WFP announced in late 2023 that it would be pausing its general food assistance in Houthi-run north Yemen due to low funding and a breakdown in negotiations with authorities on who should get aid. NGOs working in the country, which has a long-running hunger problem, warn that the suspension will “exacerbate the already critical humanitarian situation, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable populations, including children, pregnant women, and the elderly”.

Venezuela: Dimming hopes of a 2024 détente

Numbers: 7.1 million migrants worldwide; nearly 6 million in Latin America, of whom over 5 million need aid. 7.7 million people in need of assistance within Venezuela.

President Nicolás Maduro’s decision in December to annex Guyana’s oil-rich Essequibo region was only the latest in a string of events towards the backend of 2023 that dampened hopes of an end to the political, humanitarian, and economic crisis that has driven more than 7 million Venezuelans to migrate since 2015, and left the remaining 28.7 million facing hyperinflation, shattered healthcare services, and hunger. Maduro’s government had signed an October deal with the opposition to pave the way for free and monitored 2024 elections – this was to include the US lifting sanctions over Venezuela’s once-mighty oil industry. A few days later, the UN agreed to manage a trust fund to unfreeze sanctioned Venezuela assets abroad to address humanitarian needs. But as the opposition gained strength, Maduro sought to reassert his power, arresting key leaders. Along with the Essequibo move, this risks the reimposition of US sanctions, destabilising the region, and exacerbating, once again, Venezuela’s massive humanitarian needs.

Afghanistan: The engagement conundrum

Numbers: 23.7 million people in need of assistance. 6.3 million experiencing long-term displacement. 3.7 million children out of school, including 2.2 million girls.

Billed in 2023 (before Gaza erupted) by the UN as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, Afghanistan has dropped off the international media radar since the Taliban took back power in August 2021. Although conflict-related displacement since the withdrawal of Western forces has drastically reduced, the country is still grappling with the effects of four decades of war, growing climate shocks, and an Islamic Emirate government that continues to be accused of rights abuses while being sanctioned and ostracised by most of the international community. Some are wondering how to bring the Taliban in from the cold, especially in light of a devastating series of earthquakes in Herat in October, and after neighbouring Pakistan’s recent expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Afghans. Though discussions have picked up, critics of engagement want to see more progress on women’s rights before issues like withheld diplomatic recognition, frozen Afghan central bank reserves, and sanctions on Taliban leaders are reconsidered.

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