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Syrian strikes, Sri Lankan backlash, and silencing journalists: The Cheat Sheet

Omar Haj Kadour/AFP
A man stares at a building damaged during reported shelling by government and allied forces, in the town of Hbeit in the southern countryside of the rebel-held Idlib province on 3 May 2019.

Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

No, the Syrian war is not over

While a Russia-Turkey deal to hold off a Syrian government offensive in the rebel-held northwest is technically still in place, there’s been an uptick in bombing in and around Idlib province, and civilians are dying. A UN spokesman said Thursday that at least nine people were reported to have been killed in Idlib and Hama in the past 48 hours, and more than 300 civilians are believed to have met the same fate in the past three months in the northwest. A group of doctors that works in Syria said Wednesday that four medical facilities in the region had been hit in the past 72 hours; the World Health Organisation put the number at three. Civilians are fleeing in the hundreds of thousands – an estimated 323,000 people have been displaced in the northwest since last September. If the violence continues, they may have no place safe to go.

Refugee backlash after Sri Lanka attacks

Refugees and asylum seekers taking shelter in Sri Lanka have been threatened and attacked in the aftermath of the 21 April suicide blasts that killed more than 250 people, rights groups say. Landlords have evicted several hundred refugees and asylum seekers since the Easter Sunday attacks, which authorities blame on a little-known Islamist extremist group. The mainly Pakistani and Afghan asylum seekers include Christians and Ahmadi Muslims who fled persecution in their own countries. It’s not the first time anti-Muslim sentiment has reached asylum seekers in Sri Lanka – Buddhist hardliners have previously threatened Rohingya refugees. Rights groups are urging the government to ensure safety for all communities in multicultural Sri Lanka as the attacks’ political and societal fallout unfolds. This week, President Maithripala Sirisena announced a ban on “covering one’s face”.

World Press Freedom Day? No one told Museveni

When it comes to repression, like good comedy, it’s all about timing. On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, Uganda’s communications commission announced it had ordered 13 radio and TV stations to suspend their news editors, producers, and heads of programming for “misrepresenting information”. More than 30 journalists are believed to be affected. The punishment was for the live coverage of the dramatic arrest – yet again – of Bobi Wine, opposition politician and major thorn in the side of President Yoweri Museveni. Wine’s arrest (he’s now out on bail) follows his protest over a social media tax introduced last year – seen as a government attack on free speech. In an ongoing media crackdown, three radio stations were also switched off last month for hosting opposition leader Kizza Besigye. Just as a reminder, the theme for this year’s press freedom day is Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.

Legal headaches at Start Network ‘birthday’

Regulatory, governance, and financial details have made setting up a UK-based humanitarian alliance “a difficult journey”, according to its director. On 1 May, the Start Network announced its “independence”, spinning off from its previous status under Save the Children UK. Director Sean Lowrie said the lengthy process required “elaborate” and “sophisticated” procedures to manage risk and satisfy regulators. The alliance of about 40 NGOs has distributed over £50 million since 2014 though its flagship quick-response Start Fund. Among the issues that surrounded its separate legal status were counter-terrorism rules – who’s to blame if aid inadvertently reaches terrorist groups has become difficult. The Norwegian Refugee Council has been negotiating the issue with the network and so far declined to sign up. NRC Geneva Director James Munn said the new Start Network funding agreement contains a counter-terrorism clause that allows for “vague interpretation” and reflects an “increasingly worrying environment” where donors transfer as much risk as possible "downstream" to NGO grantees. Lowrie said he understood, but found the decision "regrettable" and stressed that the network was complying with demands from its donors, including the UK.

Weighing earthquake risks in Nepal

Thousands were killed when two major earthquakes struck near Nepal’s Kathmandu valley in April and May 2015. People are still rebuilding their homes four years later. Post-disaster risk-reduction efforts have often focused on making the Kathmandu area better prepared. But new research suggests that concentrating on the capital overlooks greater earthquake risks elsewhere. The study, published in the journal PNAS, used new earthquake modelling techniques to map out vulnerability. It found the most at-risk districts, home to some 9.5 million people, are mainly in western Nepal – not Kathmandu. Researchers believe the findings can be used to help Nepal better target its limited disaster preparedness funds. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction says the findings have “raised alarm bells” about risk in western Nepal, which has reportedly not seen a major earthquake in the last 500 years.

In case you missed it

INDIA: One of the most powerful storms India has seen in 20 years made landfall on India’s eastern coastline in Odisha State on Friday. Authorities said one million people were evacuated, but aid groups warn that Cyclone Fani may cause longer-term damage to crops and livelihoods. Heavy rainfall, floods, and storm surges posed new risks as the storm pushed northeast towards Bangladesh. After the initial impact, officials in Odisha put the death toll at seven.

MOZAMBIQUE: A cholera outbreak has been declared in the northern province of Cabo Delgado following flooding caused by Cyclone Kenneth. At least 14 cholera cases have been detected, and 200,000 people need medical assistance. The storm, which claimed 41 lives in Mozambique and seven others in the Comoros Islands, came six weeks after Cyclone Idai battered the region, killing at least 1,000 people.

NORTH KOREA: Hit by a year of floods and heatwaves, food production in North Korea is at its lowest level in a decade and more than 10 million people may need food aid, according to a UN food security assessment released on Friday.

SYRIA: Thousands of people are fleeing Rukban – a remote Syrian camp in rebel-held territory on the border with Jordan – as food runs out and aid is not on the way. Read this for more on what’s happening to those who have left and on what will become of the tens of thousands still in the “desperate” outpost.

TIMOR-LESTE: Heavy rains through a long monsoon season have fuelled a surge in dengue cases in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, and the government may need significant help to contain the outbreak, the country’s Red Cross agency says.

UGANDA: The World Food Programme has halted worldwide distribution of a fortified cereal from one of its suppliers. Three people died and nearly 300 became ill in Uganda between March and April. Test results to determine what went wrong have been inconclusive. WFP is separately investigating why another ‘Super Cereal” batch elsewhere was found to be low in protein in fat. The product is typically given to nursing mothers and malnourished children in humanitarian hotspots.

UNITED STATES: President Donald Trump gave US officials 90 days to implement new regulations to charge application fees to asylum seekers and deny work permits to those who enter the country illegally – the latest in a raft of Trump measures to counter what he has termed a “crisis” of Central American migrants at the Mexican border.

Weekend read

Ebola responders in Congo confront fake news and social media chatter

In mid-February, the response was going well. The government in the Democratic Republic of Congo declared Ebola to be “under control” in and around the city of Beni. It seemed only a matter of time before enough contacts were traced and vaccinated to bring the virus to heal in epicentre areas Butembo and Katwa. Not so now. Since February, case numbers have almost doubled, deaths too – almost certain to pass the 1,000 mark in the coming days. What happened? In two words: insecurity and distrust. And driving the latter is social media. Our weekend read this week is a timely look from TNH’s Vittoria Elliott at the battle to win the information war, with fake news and conspiracy theories creating a new contagion thanks to platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. Experts worry the longer the outbreak goes on, the greater chance it could spread to a major city, like Goma, or to a neighbouring country, like South Sudan.

And finally

Disability and armed conflict

War is hard enough for the able-bodied. Conflict presents extra risks for anyone with a physical or mental disability. On 9 May researchers based at the Geneva Academy will sum up three years of study into how international law could do better for the disabled. The publication includes case studies from Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Palestine, Ukraine, and Vietnam. To accompany it, an exhibition of 60 photos will be opened on the Geneva lakefront. The installation highlights work by photographer Giles Duley, himself severely injured while working in Afghanistan.

(TOP PHOTO: A man stares at a building damaged during reported shelling by government and allied forces, in the town of Hbeit in the southern countryside of the rebel-held Idlib province on 3 May 2019.)


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