Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Rukban’s last stand?
Syrians stranded in the Rukban camp would rather risk their lives in “catastrophic” conditions than put themselves at the mercy of Syrian authorities. A new UN/Red Crescent mission is offering one more chance to the remaining population at Rukban to get out. Somewhere between 11,000 and 24,000 people are estimated to be stranded close to the border with Jordan – some will be persuaded to go, others not. For those who stay, despite (or because of) US and Russian strategic interest in the area, there is little prospect of relief or safe passage. Their desert encampment is neither under Syrian government control, nor under a single armed group. It gets no aid, due to Syrian and Jordanian restrictions; smugglers supply a trickle of basic goods. Sexual abuse and criminality are common, and childbirth is dangerous. About half the population, estimated to be 41,000 in February, have since gone back to their home areas. Some able-bodied men have managed to slip away on smugglers' motorbikes.
Game-changing Ebola drugs in DRC
More than a year into the Democratic Republic of Congo’s deadly Ebola outbreak, some good news finally emerged this week. Two new antibody-based treatments being trialled in the DRC have proved so effective that some scientists believe Ebola can no longer be considered incurable. The drugs – REGN-EB3 and mAb-114 – increase survival rates to between 89 and 94 percent and will now be rolled out across Ebola clinics in affected areas. An experimental vaccine produced by the American pharmaceutical company Merck has also proven effective, delivering roughly 97 percent protection for those inoculated. It is hoped the new drugs will significantly reduce the fear that surrounds the virus and encourage more people to seek treatment, though health experts have warned that building trust between local communities and Ebola responders will also be crucial in combating the outbreak – now the second-deadliest on record.
Social media and democracy in Africa
Since the beginning of 2019, at least 10 African countries have suffered government-ordered internet shutdowns. Chad so far holds the record, with a 16-month blackout that finally ended in July. Social media is increasingly framed as a threat by authoritarian leaders. But it’s complicated. Social media can provide the public with greater access to information and is a tool for hashtag-driven political mobilisation. It also allows an urban elite to dominate the conversation to the exclusion of all others; serves as a testing ground for election manipulation algorithms; or indeed threaten the state, as in the case of al-Shabab, whose social media game is streaks ahead of the Somali government’s. Nigeria’s 2019 election was an example of how WhatsApp was used to both spread disinformation and counter it. Social media alone cannot (yet?) win an election in Africa. So while WhatsApp and other social media have transformed the electoral environment, they have not revolutionised it.
Malaria reaches ‘epidemic levels’ in Burundi
A six-year-old Burundian YouTube star, Darcy Irakoze, died of malaria this week, putting the spotlight on what the UN has described as an “epidemic” in the small East African country. 1,800 people have died of the mosquito-borne disease since January and almost six million people – roughly half of Burundi’s population – have been infected. Health experts blame climatic changes and a lack of preventative measures like mosquito nets, but Burundi’s government has downplayed the numbers and refused to declare a national emergency. The country’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza – who was controversially re-elected for a third term in 2015 – is likely keen to avoid criticism ahead of presidential elections next year. Look out for our upcoming report on the humanitarian needs that Burundi’s government would rather you didn’t see, and check out our story this week on the challenges of combating malaria in Kenya.
Too much freedom?
How do African citizens perceive and interpret the state of political and civil liberties? The independent research outfit Afrobarometer uncovered some disturbing trends in a 34- country survey. The results reveal a decline in popular demand for hard-won freedoms, in particular the right to associate freely. There is also “considerable willingness” to accept the imposition of restrictions in the name of protecting public security – especially in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Cameroon, and Niger – all countries that have experienced political violence (see our Sahel coverage here). In contrast, there were low levels of support for restrictions on freedoms in Cabo Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, Morocco, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. As the researchers write, the survey’s findings suggest that fear of insecurity may be leading citizens to conclude that “freedoms come with costs as well as benefits, and that there may be such a thing as too much freedom”.
A day honouring women humanitarians
Monday, 19 August marks World Humanitarian Day, a concept created ten years ago by the UN to highlight relief work and contributions of aid workers. Events will be held in at least 16 countries. This year the UN's relief coordination wing, OCHA, has made “women humanitarians” its theme, and will release a special video profiling 24 individuals in a day-in-the-life video presentation for the occasion. The UK-based think tank ODI will have a Twitter chat panel discussion about the “risks and rewards” for women working in the sector; the hashtags are #WomenHumanitarians or #WHD2019. Profiles and multimedia packages have been published by many aid groups, including Islamic Relief and World Vision. Not to be left out, we’ll issue a selection of coverage from The New Humanitarian to mark the occasion.
In case you missed it…
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: 1,900 civilians were killed by armed groups operating in Congo’s eastern Kivu provinces between June 2017 and June 2019, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch and the New York University-based Congo Research Group. More than 3,300 people were abducted during the same period.
MALI: Seven years of conflict in Mali are taking a toll on children, according to UNICEF. More than 150 children have been killed this year, with 75 others injured in violent attacks. A spike in intercommunal violence and armed groups has also led to a doubling of the number of child soldiers compared to the same period last year. More than 900 schools also remain closed.
UNAIDS: The UN's organisation for HIV/AIDS will be led by Ugandan Winnie Byanyima, replacing Michel Sidibé, whose leadership was slammed by an independent panel. Sidibé’s departure followed a sexual harassment case involving a senior UNAIDS official. No stranger to dealing with bad publicity, Byanyima led Oxfam International during the fallout from revelations about sexual exploitation and abuse by the NGO’s staff in Haiti.
YEMEN: A large rally in Yemen’s southern city of Aden passed off peacefully on Thursday as tens of thousands gathered to celebrate the political aspirations of southern Yemen and the recent seizure of control of the local administration by forces led by the armed group Southern Transitional Council (STC). With the north under Houthi control and Aden under STC, Yemen’s political fragmentation continues.
Six weeks ago, we explored how several emergencies in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo risk being overlooked because of the Ebola outbreak. Our editors’ choice this weekend is an in-depth look at one of them: conflict in Ituri. Since June, 360 people have been killed, 300,000 displaced, by a wave of gruesome attacks tearing the region – also afflicted by Ebola – apart. Journalist Philip Kleinfeld travelled to Ituri to get to the bottom of what is going on. He found villages deserted, women and children with gunshots and arrow wounds lying untreated in a solitary hospital, but few answers to who was behind the attacks. Motives of the militiamen, referred to locally as simply “les assailants” (“the attackers”), remain largely a mystery. “Even if there is peace, I have lost my hope,” says the mother of three murdered children.
And finally …
An Italian doctor’s newest patient: EU migration policies
He was known as the “Doctor of Lampedusa” for his work in treating migrants who landed on the Italian island. Now, Pietro Bartolo is serving as a member of the European parliament and wants to help reform EU migration policies. Those are policies whose impact Bartolo has seen first-hand – some of which critics say encourage the “criminalisation” of humanitarian work. Recently, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini banned the Proactiva Open Arms rescue ship from entering territorial waters. An Italian court then blocked Salvini’s orders, and six EU countries offered to help the ship’s passengers, but the ship remains near Lampedusa without a port to go to and nearly 150 people aboard. “It's our duty to save lives,” Bartolo told the BBC recently, “but today it's becoming a crime?”
(TOP PHOTO: Displaced families living in Rukban.)