Italy’s newest migration clampdown, a US aid clawback, and worries in Kashmir: The Cheat Sheet

Photo of migrants in a boat in the Mediterranean.
Crew members of the 'Ocean Viking' rescue ship, operated by French NGOs SOS Mediterranee and Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), stand ready on board of an inflatable dinghy, as they approach an inflatable boat carrying some 85 migrants on 9 August 2019. (Anne Chaon/AFP)

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

On our radar

€1m Italian fine for migrant rescue ships

In yet another step towards what critics refer to as the “criminalisation of humanitarian aid” – and another win for Italian Interior Minister (and Deputy Prime Minister) Matteo Salvini – Italy’s parliament on Monday voted in favour of a bill that drastically hikes the punishments for NGO boats that rescue migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean. The new law boosts the possible fine for vessels operating in Italian waters without permission from 50,000 to one million euros, threatens to arrest their captains, and allows for the boats to be impounded. It’s the latest in a series of moves by Salvini and his far-right League party to crack down on migration and the NGOs that help people at sea. That effort has included attempts to bring charges against Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Mediterranée, who together restarted search and rescue operations off the coast of Libya this week and almost immediately faced problems, as Malta refused to allow their ship to refuel in its harbour.

Trump eyes unspent aid funds

President Donald Trump’s administration is attempting to claw back billions of dollars in unspent international aid funds. The Office of Management and Budget requested that the US government’s international development arm, USAID, and the State Department freeze new spending across a range of programmes and tally unspent funds at the end of the financial year, on 30 September. Under US budgeting rules, "unobligated resources" can be cancelled if not spent by the deadline. The Trump White House proposed a similar move, known as rescission, last year to claim back about $3.5 billion, but dropped it after resistance from Congress. This year the amount would be similar, and some Democratic lawmakers have again vowed to block the move. Sam Worthington, CEO of US-based NGO alliance InterAction, said the move, first reported by The Washington Post, “threatens the effectiveness of US assistance and puts America’s global leadership at risk”. Some 90 NGOs have added their objections in a joint statement. The earmarked funds included amounts for peacekeeping, the UN, and international health efforts. The combined budget of USAID and State is around $40 billion, of which $19.2 billion is aid spent through USAID.

Kashmir on lockdown

It has been a week of heightened tensions and uncertainty after India’s government abolished special status for Indian-administered Kashmir. The move could strip autonomy from Jammu and Kashmir state and split it into two separate territories. Authorities have shut down internet and phone services, closed schools, banned public gatherings, increased troop levels, and put prominent Kashmir politicians under house arrest. Jammu and Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority state in the Hindu-majority country. Critics say India’s actions could usher in radical demographic changes – and escalate tensions in a disputed region where authorities are already accused of rampant rights abuses. Kashmir is home to a decades-long insurgency, but local groups say crackdowns are driving young Kashmiris toward militancy. Last year was Kashmir’s deadliest in a decade, with at least 586 people killed, and the bloodshed has continued, with 271 deaths through the first half of 2019, according to local rights monitors. India and Pakistan both claim the contested Kashmir region, and border flare-ups are common.

Ebola vaccination trial rolled out in Uganda

Efforts to combat Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo have so far centred on an experimental vaccine produced by American pharmaceutical company Merck, but there are concerns about stocks of the vaccine as the outbreak – the second deadliest ever – has entered its second year. Last week neighbouring Uganda launched a two-year trial of a second vaccine, inoculating some 800 health workers and others who would be more likely to come into contact with the disease. The vaccine regime, which requires two doses 56 days apart – unlike the Merck vaccine, which only requires a one-off dose – has already been tested on some 6,000 people in Europe, the United States, and Africa. The vaccine is manufactured by Janssen Vaccines & Prevention B.V., part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical companies of Johnson & Johnson. The Congolese government has been reluctant to use the Janssen vaccine, despite a May recommendation to do so by the World Health Organisation’s panel of experts. In addition to providing longer-lasting and stronger immunity, experts say the Janssen vaccine, unlike the Merck one, has the potential to protect people against several different strains of Ebola. The current outbreak has killed more than 1,850 people, including a five-year-old boy in Uganda who had travelled to an affected area in eastern Congo.

In case you missed it…

AFGHANISTAN: A Taliban-claimed suicide attack killed 14 people and injured more than 140 people in Kabul this week. It follows a July in which conflict casualties jumped to 1,500 civilians – the highest monthly total in more than two years, according to the UN.

BURUNDI: More than 1,800 people have died from malaria this year in Burundi, according to the UN’s humanitarian agency. Nationwide, some 5.7 million cases have been recorded since the beginning of the year, a figure that represents roughly half of Burundi’s population.

DATA: After agreements with Houthi officials, the UN World Food Programme plans to add biometric records of nine million people in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen to its databases. The agency already has records of 37 million people and the fingerprints of more than seven million in 32 countries, according to a statement. Meanwhile, the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, has collected records of 500,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, about half the total.

LIBYA: Several days of clashes in the southern city of Murzuq have reportedly killed at least 75 people since last Saturday. One airstrike alone killed at least 43 people on Sunday, and the fighting between tribes in the area continues.

YEMEN: Deepening tensions in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen led to an outbreak of violence in the southern city of Aden this week, reportedly killing at least one person and injuring several others.

Weekend read

Reporter’s Diary: Boko Haram and the Battle of Ideas

What happens when an insurgent group serves a community better than the government? It’s a question that seemed apt to ask now, 10 years after the jihadist group Boko Haram appeared on the scene in northeast Nigeria, sparking an ongoing war that has left more than two million people displaced and 35,000 dead. No one seems to be winning – which is a terrible indictment of the Nigerian government and its counter-insurgency campaign, TNH editor Obi Anyadike writes in a reporter’s notebook. Spend some time with him this weekend, as he reflects on the town of Baga and why Nigeria’s jihadists still pose an ideological challenge. Baga is now controlled by an offshoot of Boko Haram, and many residents are not complaining. A commander with the jihadists explains why: “We have introduced a new regime of services to the local populace,” he boasted to Anyadike in a WhatsApp interview. “It would seem that the military, even at the height of their control over these territories, did not present themselves as a value proposition to the villagers, [meting out only] injustice.” Meet some of the residents of Baga, who, as Anyadike reveals, are not looking for an ideology but for a peaceful existence that, so far, their government has failed to provide.

And finally...

US accused of deepening Venezuela crisis

A decision this week by the Trump administration to freeze all Venezuelan government assets with only a few exceptions for transactions related to certain items of food, clothing, and medicine drew condemnation from the UN rights chief. “I am deeply worried about the potentially severe impact on the human rights of the people of Venezuela of the new set of unilateral sanctions imposed by the US this week,” the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in a statement on Thursday. The measures, intended to up the pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to cede power, are “likely to significantly exacerbate the crisis for millions of ordinary Venezuelans”, Bachelet said. Following the move, Maduro pulled his delegation out of mediation talks with the opposition, scheduled for Thursday in Barbados, citing “grave and brutal aggression” by the Trump administration. Some 3.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country’s economic and political meltdown since the end of 2015, sparking a region-wide humanitarian crisis.

(TOP PHOTO: Crew members of the 'Ocean Viking' rescue ship, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Mediterranée, stand ready on board of an inflatable dinghy, as they approach an inflatable boat carrying some 85 migrants on 9 August 2019.)

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