Fears for Rohingya refugees, a counter-terror bill that could impede aid, and a new role for a new Sudan: The Cheat Sheet

Rohingya refugees gathering behind a barbed-wire fence in a temporary settlement setup in a "no man's land" border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh
Rohingya refugees gathering behind a barbed-wire fence in a temporary settlement setup in a "no man's land" border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh (Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

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

On our radar

Rohingya camps: All is not well

Rights groups say there’s a “climate of intense fear” in Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps following the killings of six refugees by police officers. Police officials say the men were involved in the murder of a local Bangladeshi man and killed in “crossfires”; critics say such language is often used to explain extrajudicial killings. Tensions with the host community in southern Bangladesh have risen over the last two years as the refugee emergency evolves into a long-term crisis. This week, six UN rights watchdogs warned of escalating restrictions in the refugee camps following the Bangladeshi man’s murder, a failed attempt to kickstart refugee returns to Myanmar, and a large protest marking two years since more than 700,000 Rohingya were forced out of Myanmar. What the watchdogs called a “sudden crackdown” includes a ban on mobile phone services, suspensions of some NGOs working in the camps, and renewed discussions on surrounding the massive camps with barbed-wire fences. Most Rohingya say they want to return to Myanmar if their safety and citizenship are guaranteed. But a UN rights probe released this week noted that little has changed in the Rohingya homeland of Rakhine State: “If anything, the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar is worse”, investigators reported.

A new Sudan and a new regional player?

The fall of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir has opened the door to a realignment of relations in a troubled region. Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok took his first official international trip last week to South Sudan – a visit paving the way to closer ties between the two neighbours. That now means a mediation role for President Salva Kiir, bringing Sudan’s remaining armed opposition groups to the negotiating table with Khartoum. The signing of the Juba Declaration on 11 September, outlining the steps to peace, has cleared the remaining hurdles to further talks. Sudan has also invited back aid groups to work in its war-affected “three areas” that had been expelled by al-Bashir more than a decade ago. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s visit to Khartoum last weekend is another aspect of warming regional relations, according to the Institute of Security Studies. Sudan is now also included in talks on regional integration involving Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, and there is growing domestic pressure in Khartoum to address the future of its 30,000 troops in Yemen.

Worried welcome for arrivals to Greek islands

An uptick in boat arrivals to the Greek islands has aid workers speaking out, once again, about the desperate conditions people face when they arrive in already overcrowded camps in places such as Lesvos. More than 30,755 migrants and refugees entered Greece by sea this year, according to the UN’s migration agency – a 40 percent increase from the same time period last year. More people have arrived, and they are being crammed into “reception centres” while they wait to have their asylum claims processed under the terms of a 2016 EU-Turkey deal. The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières has said some 24,000 people on the Greek Islands are living in “horrendous conditions,” and 12 NGOs said in a Wednesday statement that the Greek government’s decision to move some 1,500 people to the mainland is “a step forward, but it is not a solution for the people who are housed in tents that do not meet basic living standards.”

Aid and counter-terror measures

A controversial anti-terror bill requiring Dutch aid workers and journalists to get permission from the government to work in “terrorist”-controlled areas will be heard at the Dutch Senate next week. The proposed law, prepared by the new Dutch coalition government and approved by the House of Representatives earlier this month, will pose practical and ethical problems for aid workers, says Arjan Hehenkamp, former general director of Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland and now deputy director of the Dutch foundation Stichting Vluchteling. This is the latest in what aid workers describe as an increase in restrictions imposed by counter-terrorism measures. The topic was the focus of this week’s Washington Humanitarian Forum, organised by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told the forum attendees he now needs a “help desk” to navigate how to deliver aid without breaking the law. A new report from CSIS calls for a better balance between national security and humanitarian interests. Some 132 million people around the world are in need of humanitarian assistance, the report said, but aid to them is often blocked.

DRC death: A new blow to a key rebel group?

One of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s most-wanted rebel commanders, Sylvestre Mudacumura, was shot dead in a military operation Wednesday morning, the army said. Mudacumura was the leader of the FDLR – a Hutu rebel group formed of Rwandan genocidaires who fled into eastern Congo after perpetrating atrocities against the Tutsi community in 1994. The thousands-strong group went on to commit a string of abuses, including large-scale massacres of Congolese civilians, prompting the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Mudacumura in 2012. His death is the latest blow for the rebels who have been weakened in recent years by internal splits and military pressure from the DRC army as well as rival armed groups. On the back-foot it has contracted so-called “Nyatura” militias from the Congolese Hutu community to fight on its behalf – triggering new conflicts and displacement documented by TNH last year.

(Another) security summit for West Africa’s Sahel

Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have pledged $1 billion at the latest summit meeting aimed at fighting jihadist groups operating in the region. Militant groups linked to so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda have dramatically increased their presence in the Sahel, triggering conflicts that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the first half of 2019 alone. The new fund will be spent on military operations and collaboration, but critics say more attention should be paid to the social and political grievances helping militants take root. Existing military efforts including the G5 Sahel – a five-nation counter-terrorism alliance – lack funding and have failed to stem the rising violence. For details, take a look at our in-depth Sahel coverage.

In case you missed it…

AFGHANISTAN: The US cut $100 million in aid to Afghanistan this week and said it plans to hold back a further $60 million, citing “Afghan government corruption”. Earlier, last-minute negotiations were needed for the UN Security Council to extend the mandate of the UN mission in Afghanistan after countries tussled over wording of the final resolution. Afghan presidential elections are scheduled for 28 September.

THE PHILIPPINES: Health officials announced a polio outbreak, nearly two decades after the Philippines was declared free of the disease. A three-year-old girl in conflict-hit Lanao del Sur province, on the island of Mindanao, was confirmed to have polio this week; two sewage samples elsewhere also tested positive for the virus. Health authorities blame declining immunisation rates.

SOUTH SUDAN: Recruitment of child soldiers is on the rise again in South Sudan as the government and opposition try to form a united army – one of the sticking points ahead of the November deadline to form a government. According to the UN’s panel of experts, girls and women are also being recruited to work or perform sexual services for the troops.

SYRIA: The International Rescue Committee said Monday that the number of children under 5 dying in northeastern Syria’s al-Hol camp has more than doubled since March, with 339 children dying between December and September 1. Nearly 69,000 people live in the isolated and tense camp, most of whom fled so-called Islamic State’s last territory in Syria in early 2019.

TANZANIA: Authorities in Tanzania told the World Health Organisation there are no cases of Ebola in the country, following rumours that a woman had contracted the virus earlier this month. On Monday, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called for Tanzania to share its laboratory results. The latest Ebola outbreak that began in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year has so far killed 2,108 people.

TURKEY: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria could become home to two to three million Syrian refugees. He threatened to act alone if discussions with the US to set up the area on the Turkey-Syria border fall through.

Weekend read

Why you don’t want to be a Venezuelan woman right now

As Venezuela continues on its downward spiral, women living in the chaos are facing ever higher hurdles. Consider this: Violence against women has risen, while maternal mortality has climbed by 80 percent in 2018 compared to the previous year. “The hospitals in Venezuela are a death sentence,” a woman who left to give birth in Colombia told Joshua Collins, who for our weekend read reports on the heavy toll women face both within Venezuela and after they flee. The facts are stark: Birth control and condoms are hard to come by, contributing to the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in South America, and HIV rates have risen. Crossing borders often controlled by armed criminals brings its own difficulties: reports of violence, sexual assault, forced recruitment by guerrilla groups, and disappearances are commonplace. Once in countries like Colombia, jobs are hard to come by and the trauma lingers. “It was very hard to overcome the sensation that at any moment I could lose everything again,” a woman who left Venezuela for Colombia told Collins. “That someone would snatch me off the street. It made no sense, but that was my life.”

And finally…

Swapping ‘beautiful speeches’ for action on climate change

As you read this, one of the largest climate action protests is taking place or recently concluded in more than 150 countries around the world, led on Friday by students and 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg ahead of next week’s UN General Assembly. Hot-button topics on this year’s agenda include Kashmir, the Rohingya crisis, and the state of the global compacts on refugees and migration. But the most talked about concern is climate change. UN Secretary-General António Guterres is calling for concrete plans instead of “beautiful speeches”. And as leaders start another round of discussions aimed at fending off the worst consequences of a warming world, the aid sector is increasingly aware of a simple reality: climate change is already taking its toll. New research from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates that climate change could nearly double the number of people caught in crises by 2050 – and send response costs skyrocketing. In the meantime, have a look at some of our reporting on the soaring humanitarian costs of climate change.

Want to have your say at the UNGA? We’ll be there. Tell us what you want to read about here.

(TOP PHOTO: Rohingya refugees gathering behind a barbed-wire fence in a temporary settlement setup in a border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh.)

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