Our editors’ Friday roundup of humanitarian trends and developments.
On our radar:
Yemen: A Twitter battle for Hodeidah
Let’s talk about Hodeidah — everyone else is, at least online. Late last month, Saudi officials (and a press release) said that Houthi rebels were “holding hostage” 19 ships in the waters outside Hodeidah, the Red Sea port that’s key to staving off famine in Yemen and is subject to an on-off blockade by the Saudi-led coalition. This, the Saudis said, prevented the ships from delivering fuel. A maritime tracking project jumped in via Twitter, saying that their data showed not only were the tankers delivering fuel and then departing from the port, but that the deliveries were more frequent than usual. “It seems that the more time we spend on tracking the [Hodeidah] tanker situation, the more bizarre it becomes,” the group, TankerTrackers.com, tweeted. Things got even weirder when YCHO, the coalition’s humanitarian operations in Yemen, used TankerTrackers’ data in a tweet to show that “there is no blockade on Yemen.” Confused? Here’s a handy summary from PRI. Oh, and now’s a good time to add that a battle for the port city – which would be disastrous for civilians — is still not out of the question. A senior Houthi official was recently killed nearby, apparently by a UAE drone, and we hear that the rumour mill is churning. We’ll keep you posted.
We've now identified and logged all of the vessels in question. Should they move, we'll know about it. They came in (for the most part) from the UAE via Djibouti, carrying fuel for the population, given it's collectively over 2.2M barrels. Saudis say Houthis blocked all 18. #OOTT pic.twitter.com/Zzm8W1ElN4— TankerTrackers.com:oil_drum: (@TankerTrackers) April 21, 2018
Afghanistan: Who’s in control?
If Afghan officials need another worry, here’s one: in the past three years, government control over Afghanistan’s territory has steadily eroded as insurgent influence has climbed. That’s according to estimates from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which was created by the US to monitor rebuilding efforts. Newly released figures offer a snapshot of the Afghan government’s unsteady grip on its own country: Militant groups including the Taliban and so-called Islamic State-aligned fighters now have control or influence in more than 14 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, up from about 7 percent in November 2015, when SIGAR began tracking such things.
What does this mean for civilians, including the hundreds of thousands of refugees expected to return home – or to be pushed back home – this year? Afghans who have already returned find a country at war and their former homes in conflict zones, as we detailed this week from the border town of Spin Boldak. Recent returnees say they’re struggling with no land of their own, and no government plan to provide it. Others unable to return to their family homes head to rapidly multiplying tent settlements, where basic services are minimal or non-existent and humanitarian aid is often hard to come by.
Niger: Arrests in Agadez
Niger calls them mercenaries and wants them expelled. The UN reckons they were potential victims of slavery or extortion searching for safety. Either way, some 1,700 Sudanese refugees have left Libya for neighbouring Niger since December — moving south in search of more secure lives rather than north, a reversal of usual migration trends that was prompted by European Union efforts to stem migration. On 2 May, police in Agadez arrested around 150 Sudanese who were housed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It’s unclear why.
Journalist Eric Reidy was recently in Agadez reporting for us and said a number of refugees told him they’re worried that Niger’s government will deport them to Libya or Sudan. Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s interior minister, told Reidy that the Sudanese “came here because they expect to go to Europe.” None of the refugees Reidy spoke to in Agadez said that was their incentive. UNHCR says Niger is the only accessible, safe country for them right now. “Is there any corridor out of southern Libya that can offer… safety? No other corridor than Niger,” said Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR’s top official in the country.
Their presence is stoking fears that intensified conflict in southern Libya could lead to a large scale displacement crisis in northern Niger. Also in question is whether the UNHCR evacuation and resettlement mechanism for refugees trapped in Libyan detention centres is playing a role in drawing the Sudanese to Niger. Watch for our upcoming coverage, in which Reidy will explore these and other issues.
Myanmar: Lives upended, again
In January, we reported on early signs of renewed conflict in northern Myanmar, where clashes between the military and ethnic armed groups were quietly simmering – and civilians caught in the midst of things were out of the reach of aid organisations that face severe restrictions on access. Now, the conflict has escalated: in April alone, more than 5,000 civilians were displaced, and aid groups say recent clashes are the most extensive in years. This week, local and international humanitarian organisations called for a ceasefire and demanded that the government lift access restrictions. The UN’s rights watchdog for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said she had “grave concerns” for the “sharp escalation in hostilities”. About 100,000 civilians have been displaced in northern Myanmar since 2011, when a ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army collapsed. They’ll likely soon be joined in long-term displacement by the 5,000 people whose lives were upended last month, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The prospect of quick returns, the federation said in a recent update, “is rather small”.
UAE: Undercurrents in Indian Ocean strategy
What do Yemen and Somalia have in common? If you said they’re home to some of the most vulnerable people on earth, you’d be right. The UN has estimated their combined humanitarian need at $4.5 billion for 2018. Their geo-strategic value might be an ingredient in their suffering, prompting international military involvement and political jockeying for influence. Which leads to another commonality: the UAE. The UAE’s Indian Ocean strategy appears to be in flux, with Yemen and Somalia playing (perhaps unwitting) roles.
In mid-April UAE pulled out of a military cooperation deal with Somalia, in a messy episode involving the looting of weapons and a planeload of $10 million in cash, according to Reuters. And this week, the UK’s Independent stated that the UAE is gradually taking over the Yemeni island of Socotra. Journalists who visited undercover say the UAE has already “all but annexed” the island, a poor, remote, and ecologically unique part of Yemen, off the coast of the Horn of Africa. Mainland Yemen has abandoned Socotra, the report notes, and the UAE’s ability to expand its influence was helped by the impact of cyclones in 2015. This week, the Gulf state further boosted its military presence there, according to Yemeni officials. Along with setting up a military base, the UAE has invested in social services and offers education and work opportunities in the Emirates. And the Independent adds that there may be plans for tourist resorts. It’s hard to gauge if there’s any resentment among residents of Socotra, but protests did break out when UAE officials tried to burn a shipment of qat, the stimulant leaf widely chewed all over the region. Oh, and in case you forgot: UAE is a key partner to Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict.
Your weekend read:
Burundi: The human price of politics
Another vote, another call to boycott it, and fresh warnings that life may get tougher before it gets better for many in Burundi. Burundians go the polls on 17 May to vote on constitutional amendments that could see President Pierre Nkurunziza, who came to power in 2005, remain in office until 2034. The lingering effects of a devastating civil war that ended more than a decade ago, a moribund economy, a violent political crisis, and foreign aid cuts have conspired to leave one in four of Burundi’s citizens in need of humanitarian aid. Our analysis examines the toll the political tensions leading up to and perhaps following the 17 May poll may exact on Burundi’s people. And, as we’ll report next week, the growing tensions are adding to the anxiety of 170,000 Burundian long-term refugees in neighbouring Tanzania. They face increasing pressure to return despite promises of citizenship from a once-welcoming country, where many of them have spent their entire lives. One last thing before you read our analysis: In an announcement that just happened to follow World Press Freedom Day (see below), Burundi officials said local-language re-broadcasts by VOA and BBC are on hold for six months, according to a tweet from the state broadcaster, further limiting public access to information in the runup to the referendum.
Keep in mind:
Calling all humanitarian scholars
If you study humanitarian issues, this one’s for you: 1 June is the deadline to submit papers for the field’s leading academic conference, to be held 27-28 August in the Hague. The theme of the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies is “(Re-)Shaping Boundaries in Crisis and Crisis Response” — boundaries both symbolic and literal, obvs. Four themes and 60 panels (think “datafication” to “social museology”) will guide the proceedings at the fifth bi-annual gathering. What might all this achieve? There’s a panel for that: “What do Practitioners Really Need from Academics?”
World Press Freedom Day: Horror and hope
We’re always humbled to mark World Press Freedom Day, with reminders of just how difficult it is for so many people to access fact-based, impartial information and how perilous it can be to report that information. A harsh reminder came shortly before the day was marked on Thursday, when a 30 April suicide blast killed nine journalists in Kabul, including veteran AFP photographer Shah Marai. The journalists were covering the aftermath of an earlier bombing when a second attacker struck. Marai’s images from his native Afghanistan gave the world a window onto life through civil war, Taliban rule and today’s instability. In a 2016 essay re-published after his death, Marai spoke frankly about life in Afghanistan, 15 years after the Taliban’s ouster. “There is no more hope,” he wrote: “… I have never felt life to have so little prospects and I don’t see a way out.” This New York Times piece offers more on Marai and his images. Our hope lies in the continued work of journalists around the world.