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Deconfliction, data difficulties, and a deadly day in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

Nabil Hasan/AFP
Yemeni security forces at the scene of a missile attack on 1 August 2019.

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

On our radar

Bad to worse in Yemen

Two attacks in Yemen’s southern city of Aden made for one of the war’s deadliest day in years on Thursday: at least 40 people were killed when a Houthi missile hit a military parade, and a suicide bomber drove a truck into a police station into the city, killing at least 11. No one has claimed responsibility for the second bombing. Most of the troops hit in the missile attack, including a senior commander, belong to a force loyal to (and paid by) the United Arab Emirates, which along with Saudi Arabia runs a coalition that supports the internationally recognised, but largely exiled, Yemeni government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Last month, the UAE announced it was pulling most of its troops and weaponry out of Yemen, and has increasingly called for a political solution to Yemen’s more than four-year war, in yet another sign of how divided apparent allies on both sides of the conflict often are. Earlier in the week, both Houthi rebels and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition blamed the other party for an attack on a market in the northern province of Saada that killed a reported 14 civilians.

Funding for Palestinian refugees frozen

Donor countries Switzerland and the Netherlands have suspended funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees until an investigation into allegations of misconduct is resolved. The UN's internal watchdog has not finished its probe into UNRWA, but details were published of a dossier of allegations compiled by the agency’s ethics office. According to the document obtained by Al Jazeera, an inner circle at the top of the organisation was guilty of "misconduct, nepotism, retaliation... and other abuses of authority". According to Al Jazeera, the document suggests the commissioner general, Pierre Krähenbühl, had a personal relationship with a direct subordinate. UNRWA has faced financial crisis since President Donald Trump’s administration slashed US funding to zero. Briton Christian Saunders was named as acting deputy commissioner from 1 August, replacing one of the figures named in the complaint. In a statement, UNRWA said it could not comment on allegations while the investigation was underway.

Futile coordinate-sharing

After three months of escalating deaths, displacement, and hits on hospitals in and around Syria’s Idlib province, the UN appears to be coming to the conclusion that the coordinate-sharing system it uses to stop aid clinics, schools, and other civilian targets from being bombed is not working. Its “deconfliction” mechanism allows NGOs to share their locations with OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, which in turn hands them over to the warring parties with air power. The idea is to keep the sites safe, but on Tuesday OCHA head Mark Lowcock warned, not for the first time, that “in the current environment deconfliction is not proving effective in helping to protect those who utilise the system”. And on Thursday a UN spokesperson announced that UN Secretary-General António Guterres was setting up an inquiry into “destruction of, or damage to facilities on the deconfliction list and UN-supported facilities in the area”. At least one aid group working in Syria already says the probe is too little too late. Click here for background on humanitarian deconfliction and how it works, and click here to get up to date on what’s happening in northwest Syria.

Rohingya registration data mystery

This week, a delegation from the government of Myanmar met with Rohingya refugees and government officials in Bangladesh’s cramped camps to discuss possible repatriation. Human Rights Watch called it a “bizarre charm offensive”. Local news confirmed that 25,000 names representing more than 5,000 Rohingya families, validated by Bangladesh’s government, were handed over to Myanmar. Later, an official with the disaster coordination arm of the regional body ASEAN, posted a photo showing a box of the printouts. They appear to show the details of refugees and possibly – it’s hard to see – fingerprints. Bangladesh and Myanmar have previously shared lists of refugees as part of preparations for returns – though no official repatriations have happened and most Rohingya say they won’t return until their safety and citizenship in Myanmar is guaranteed. Myanmar insists that returnees accept provisional National Verification Cards, which do not guarantee citizenship. Given Myanmar’s denial of full citizenship for the Rohingya, data protection advocates have warned that digital biometric registration could be as useful for rejecting Rohingya rights as protecting them. The last attempt at a homecoming flopped in November 2018, when 2,260 pre-selected people refused to return. Many refugees have undergone multiple government-mandated registrations in Bangladesh’s camps. The current effort to register the Rohingya is the most high-tech: since June 2018, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the Bangladeshi government have registered 430,000 people (less than half of the Rohingya refugees) and collected related biometric data: fingerprints and iris scans. It’s not yet clear if this latest round of biometric data is what filled the box in the photo. A UNHCR official told TNH the organisation is “seeking clarification” from Bangladesh.

What happens when 700,000 farmers and fishers flee their homes?

While haphazard return plans and Rohingya ID are scrutinised once again, there’s new information about conditions in the homeland that refugees fled: the razed fields and villages of northern Rakhine state. In April and May last year, Myanmar’s government allowed a UN team to conduct a rare analysis of agricultural production and food security in a state where humanitarian access is severely restricted. The mission found vast tracts of abandoned rice fields, decimated livestock, and severe harvest losses. It’s not a surprise considering 700,000 Rohingya – many farming families among them – were forced to leave their land months earlier. But the numbers are striking: less than one quarter of the season’s planted paddy rice was harvested, and many fields weren’t sown. This caused market food prices to spike by between 26 and 44 percent, and the majority of farmers had already run out of food months before the usual lean season. How are things today? Nearly 100,000 people in the north depend on emergency food aid, and food insecurity is spreading elsewhere in Rakhine, where the military has been battling the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army. Local farmers report fields have been left idle, and rights groups warn of a mounting food crisis.

In case you missed it

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The wife and daughter of a man who died of Ebola this week in the eastern city of Goma have tested positive for the disease, as has the nurse who treated him. Health authorities are trying to trace all possible contacts of the family in Goma, a densely populated city on the Rwandan border. The dead man’s sister, who had fled to South Kivu – a province that hasn’t had any Ebola cases – has been found and will be monitored. For all the latest, read our report from Goma.

PAKISTAN: More than three million people in Pakistan’s Sindh and Balochistan provinces could face crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity through October, according to new early warning analyses. Sindh and Balochistan have suffered through years of drought and underdevelopment, and ongoing monsoon flooding is making matters worse.

SUDAN: Pro-democracy leaders say they have resolved major sticking points regarding a power-sharing agreement with the country’s military rulers. A stumbling block was the opposition’s refusal to accept blanket immunity for the members of the transitional government for past crimes. It comes as the African Union demanded the prosecution of the soldiers responsible for the killing of protesters in el-Obeid, and more deaths in Omdurman this week.

YEMEN: For the second time this year, desert locusts have swarmed through Yemen, providing a welcome food source in a country facing famine but also threatening future agricultural production. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said that while Yemen is not the only country with the influx, the war has impeded efforts to control the insects.

Weekend read

US-Mexico border crisis: Contradictions and conundrums from the front line

US President Donald Trump has been busy changing laws in recent weeks both at home and abroad to dissuade large numbers of people from immigrating to the United States. In our weekend read James Jeffrey looks at the effects of the new measures. What he finds at the US-Mexico border knocks holes in the more simplistic narratives being woven around the crisis: a Texas nun working on the response feels by and large that US border guards are just doing their jobs; Trump’s measures also appear to be working, at least in terms of deterrence. But the human fallout is real too, especially on the Mexican side of the border. As Jeffrey highlights, many would-be immigrants are families of asylum seekers from Central America fleeing crime and persecution rather than single men from Mexico who used to make up the bulk of immigrants. For more on how the search for safety just got harder, watch this TNH film about a lesbian couple from El Salvador stuck in dangerous limbo in crime-ridden Ciudad Juárez.

And finally...

Vocabulary time: Digilantism and technocolonialism

Two articles analysing the politics around international aid have expanded our vocabulary this week. One features Barbie Savior, Humanitarians of Tinder on Tumblr, and Radi-Aid. These satirical accounts are a crafted form of digilantism, authors Kaylan C. Schwarz and Lisa Ann Richey argue. They describe how disrespectful or exploitative depictions of poverty, especially by comfortable Western voluntourists, are mocked by a watchful online community. A second article introduces another portmanteau term, technocolonialism, to describe the role of digital innovation and data in humanitarian practice. Mirca Madianou’s July 2019 paper (touching on refugee and feedback apps and Rohingya biometrics) argues that the way digital data is being used revives patterns of coloniality, stating: “refugees and other humanitarian subjects are disproportionately affected by the convergence of digital developments, capitalism, and colonial legacies”.

(TOP PHOTO: Yemeni security forces at the scene of a missile attack in Aden on 1 August 2019.)


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