Samoa’s measles emergency, South Sudan clashes, and shutting out migrants in Libya: The Cheat Sheet

Registered Nurse Vaipou Fainu’u prepares a Vitamin A supplement for a baby in Samoa.
Registered Nurse Vaipou Fainu’u prepares a Vitamin A supplement for a baby in Samoa. (Allan Stephen/UNICEF)

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

On our radar

One in 50 Samoans has measles

Samoa has launched a $10.7 million, UN-backed appeal for its rapidly spreading measles outbreak, which had killed at least 63 people as of 6 December, with cases rising. The international appeal is a sign of measles’ outsized impact on the tiny Pacific nation: with more than 4,300 suspected cases in a population of 200,000 – roughly two in every 100 people have measles. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said Samoa must “redesign” its vaccination system – immunisation coverage rates as low as 28 percent last year helped vaccine-preventable measles spread. “We clearly see the vulnerabilities the country is still facing and the prospect of other crises to occur,” he said. The government declared a state of emergency in November and is ordering mandatory vaccinations for vulnerable groups. This week, police announced incitement charges against an “anti-vaxxer”. Meanwhile, new estimates show global measles deaths are rising after years of decline. The WHO said 140,000 people died from measles in 2018, compared with 124,000 the year before. Preliminary estimates suggest cases have already tripled in 2019. Misinformation leading to “vaccine hesitancy” is one of several causes, as are poor or interrupted health systems.

Peacekeepers deployed in South Sudan

Political violence has declined in South Sudan since last year’s power-sharing accord, but that doesn’t mean peace for everyone. The UN peacekeeping mission deployed Nepalese blue helmets this week to Western Lakes State after fighting between the Gak and Manuer communities left 79 people dead and more than 100 injured. “Inter-communal violence continues to have devastating consequences in South Sudan,” said James Reynolds, head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Meanwhile, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, called for “increased protection” for aid workers in the country after armed men broke into a Relief International compound in Upper Nile State, assaulting several members of staff before robbing cash and other valuables. In October, three aid workers with the International Organisation for Migration were reportedly killed in crossfire in Central Equatoria. And almost one million South Sudanese have been affected by flooding that has submerged communities, caused substantial crop losses, and threatened to reverse some of the humanitarian gains made during a year-long ceasefire.

Problems at UN facility in Tripoli

If you’ve been paying attention to Libya, you’ve probably read the media reports about an overcrowded UN facility in Tripoli: perhaps you’ve heard that UNHCR is planning to force migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers to leave by cutting off food (a claim the agency denies), or that conditions inside are deteriorating fast. The people inside are among an estimated 600,000 migrants in Libya, including more than 45,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. Some have come in search of work, others are hoping to make the incredibly dangerous trip to Europe. Those who risk it and are rescued by the Libyan coast guard are often returned to land and the country’s notorious detention centres, which is among the reasons a recent French plan to give the service more boats met with such strong opposition. Keep an eye out next week for our take on Libya’s humanitarian landscape, including what’s really happening in the Tripoli centre, and how it got this bad in the first place.

The future of cash

About 80 groups that are practitioners and advocates for aid in the form of cash gathered this week in London to review what the future may hold. Giving people money was until quite recently treated as an innovation in humanitarian policy, but cash aid reached $4.7 billion in 2018 – 13 percent of the total – and still has room to grow. Despite initial doubts, research and multiple evaluations say it works and gives recipients more choice, but it’s also disruptive to established players and systems: transmitting money – via banks, mobiles, or cards – is relatively straightforward, and therefore means less work for aid agencies. It may lead to "big and painful changes" in the sector, the Cash Learning Partnership's annual conference was told. Scenarios for how it will evolve over the next decade range from “synergy” to “chaos”, according to the "Future of Financial Assistance", a new study that looks at everything from the private sector, banks, and the state, to the latest trends in technology, data, and digital ID.

Climate prominent, as UN outlines 2020 response plans

Conflict and climate shocks play a role in eight of the world’s worst food crises and are driving up humanitarian needs and costs, the UN said this week as aid agencies outlined 2020 response plans totalling nearly $29 billion. In all, roughly 168 million people will need some form of humanitarian aid next year across 30 countries or regional emergencies, including Yemen, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Venezuela’s migrant exodus, and the Rohingya refugee crisis. But there are already warnings the number of people in need could top 200 million by 2022: “The situation will keep getting worse unless climate change and the root causes of conflict are better addressed,” the UN’s emergency aid arm, OCHA, said. Separately, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation reported that 2019 will cap the warmest decade on record. Global hunger is now on the rise after years of decline – a reversal driven by climate variability and extreme weather, the WMO said.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Gunmen on Wednesday killed Japanese aid worker Tetsu Nakamura – the second high-profile slaying of a humanitarian in as many weeks. Meanwhile, there are moves to restart Taliban peace talks after negotiations collapsed in September – US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was scheduled to meet with Taliban officials in Doha, the US state department said.

BURKINA FASO: At least 14 people were killed after suspected Islamist militants attacked a church in eastern Burkina Faso on Sunday – the latest in a string of similar incidents that have rocked a country known for its religious diversity and tolerance. Once based in the north, militants have now spread their grip over large parts of eastern and southwestern regions.

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Sixteen people were decapitated by militia fighters in the Ebola-affected region of Beni on Thursday – the latest in a series of massacres that began in November. The attacks have been blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – an Islamist rebel group formed in 1995 in opposition to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

EASTERN/SOUTHERN AFRICA: East Africa is bracing for Tropical Cyclone Pawan, expected to hit the Somali coast over the weekend – bringing yet more flooding to an already drenched region. This extreme weather, which has affected over 2.8 million people, and a catastrophic drought in southern Africa have led to steep cereal price rises. See TNH’s new Diary of a Drought project for more on the impact on six families in three countries.

IRAQ: Anti-government protests are still going strong despite last week’s resignation of the country’s prime minister, and the death toll is rising too. At least 400 people have now been killed, and more than a dozen people were stabbed on Thursday while demonstrating (there do not appear to have been any fatalities). Despite all this, Iraqis continue to take to the streets: Click here to read prominent Iraqi journalist Mustafa Saadon’s take on why.

MAURITANIA/THE GAMBIA: At least 63 migrants – all thought to be Gambian and reportedly including eight women and one child – died when their fishing boat went down on Wednesday off the coast of Mauritania. According to the UN’s migration agency, IOM, 159 people have died on the West African migration route to the Canary Islands so far this year, almost four times as many as in 2018.

Weekend read

Fear, hunger, and mystery killers stalk Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado

The numbers in need aren’t huge compared to some of the world’s humanitarian crises, but the situation in Mozambique’s northernmost province is concerning on many levels. Rich in natural gas and gems, and fringed by idyllic islands and beaches, Cabo Delgado has transformed in the course of a few years from a relatively peaceful tourist draw into a hotbed of militancy. Add to this a dangerously militarised response and major food and shelter shocks from the largest storm ever to hit the continent of Africa – Cyclone Kenneth, in April – and you have plenty of ingredients for long-term disaster. In a rare piece of ground reporting from the region, TNH’s Philip Kleinfeld found civilians enduring a “double misery” as they try to rebuild from the storm only to have their villages burnt down by suspected Islamist insurgents. In recent weeks, this mysterious insurgency seems to be growing, just as aid work launched in the aftermath of Kenneth may be wrapping up. Trouble ahead.

And finally…

Can Facebook show migration trends?

A study has said data from social media platforms may be used to accurately estimate international migration. Facebook’s marketing interface allows advertisers to estimate the size of slices of the user community. In a new paper, researchers show an option called “people who used to live in country X and now live abroad” could also track emigrants, for example from Venezuela. The report, by a team including the EU, Qatar-based researchers, and the IOM, shows how data from Facebook – adjusted by levels of usage by country, gender, and age – in general “strongly correlated” with official migration numbers: for the exodus of Venezuelans to Colombia and Spain, the Facebook data was more up to date than the official statistics. Coincidence? Perhaps.

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