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A Syrian town falls, a Gambian relapse, and a global health emergency: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

A Syrian army soldier stands on a roof near a street sign that was written by rebels in the streets of Maarat al-Numan, the town taken this week by government forces.
A Syrian army soldier stands on a roof near a street sign that was written by rebels in the streets of Maarat al-Numan, the town taken this week by government forces. (Yamam Al Shaar/Reuters)

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

On our radar

Idlib’s growing desperation

It has been a dangerous and desperate eight months for the millions of people who live in Syria’s northwest, and it’s only getting worse. This week Syrian government forces, which along with their Russian allies have been leading an offensive on rebel-held Idlib province and its surroundings, took control of a strategic town, forcing more people to flee their homes. The UN says a total of 390,000 people have taken flight in the past two months alone, a number it says is likely to increase significantly as more people go on the run and others who already have are included in official statistics. People are taking shelter wherever they can in the cold winter weather, and at the same time the Syrian pound is collapsing as food prices rise, forcing even more people to rely on aid. Hospitals are still being bombed, civilians are dying, and it may get worse still. 

Echoes of the past in “new” Gambia

A “new Gambia” was declared when the little known property developer Adama Barrow beat iron-fisted dictator Yahya Jammeh to the top job of the small West African nation in 2016. But political tensions are rising and fears of the old Gambia are creeping in. Barrow reneged on his campaign promise to serve three years as a transitional president – this month was supposed to be his last – claiming that the constitution requires him to instead serve five. Protests last weekend in Banjul turned violent with at least three people killed, more than two dozen injured, and 137 arrested – a crackdown Amnesty International said “had alarming echoes of Gambia’s brutal past”, Jammeh has meanwhile indicated his desire to return home after three years exiled in Equatorial Guinea. The former leader is accused of emptying state coffers before fleeing the country, and stealing around $1 billion of public money during his 22-year rule. The crimes committed during his time in office have been aired on national television as part of a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. But the release of high-profile members of Jammeh’s personal hit squad – known as the Junglers – from military detention in exchange for telling the truth about their grisly crimes has sparked outrage among victims’ families. Barrow’s failure to address The Gambia’s stubbornly high youth unemployment rate has added to frustrations, while growing numbers of those who risked their lives reaching Europe now risk deportation as asylum laws on the continent harden. 

WHO declares an emergency (and names a disease)

The World Health Organisation on Thursday declared China’s new coronavirus a global health emergency, citing the growing threat posed to countries with weaker health systems. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries [that] are ill-prepared to deal with it,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general. Declaring a “public health emergency of international concern”, or PHEIC, can be symbolic as much as practical: it helps focus global attention and resources while emphasising WHO recommendations on how to respond. The rare PHEIC decision comes as the coronavirus continues to spread in China and abroad. Confirmed cases neared the 10,000 mark by 31 January – the vast majority in China, but with cases reported in at least 20 other countries or jurisdictions. As the coronavirus evolves, so too does the question of what to call it. The WHO is proposing a moniker not likely to be popular with the world’s headline writers: “2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease”. 


Young Rohingya refugees to get Myanmar curriculum

Bangladesh will allow Rohingya refugee children 14 and younger to access formal education, the government announced. It’ll be the first time children will study using Myanmar-language curricula since 700,000 Rohingya were pushed into Bangladesh’s packed camps in late 2017. Rights groups called it a long-awaited “step forward”. Bangladesh has enforced strict limits on formal schooling in the camps. Aid groups have opened up “temporary learning centres”, but many Rohingya parents say the classes – often playtime or basic numeracy – are grossly inadequate, especially for older children. At the same time, Rohingya educators say aid groups are reluctant to support refugee-run schools staffed by experienced teachers. The UN says it will begin teaching the Myanmar curriculum in April as a pilot project for 10,000 students in grades six to nine. But it’s far short of the education needs: there are more than 400,000 school-age children in the camps. Khin Maung, a Rohingya education activist, said he hopes children older than 14 will also be allowed to learn: “Many of us had our education and training in Myanmar interrupted by the genocide,” he said.

UNHCR pulls support from flagship Libya centre

After a slow months-long collapse and an increasing drive to get people to leave what was originally meant to be a flagship refugee transit centre in the Libyan capital, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said this week it was suspending services in Tripoli’s Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF). Violence has been closing in on the city for months; troops tied to the UN-backed government’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) – which controls the facility’s entry and exit – are training next door; and last month mortar shells fell nearby. Efforts to halt Libya’s spiralling conflict have so far proved unsuccessful, and it’s not just migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who have been impacted: The UN’s migration agency, IOM, says 149,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in and around Tripoli since April. Many have sought safety in places that are relatively sheltered from the fighting, but IOM says people “displaced to locations close to areas of conflict remain at risk, along with host community members providing them with shelter”.

In case you missed it

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Militia clashes in the town of Bria left around 50 people dead, local authorities said this week, in the most serious outbreak of violence since the signing of a peace deal last year. The clashes come at a time of heightened political tension in CAR, following the return of former rebel leader and ex-President Michel Djotodia after years in exile and of the man he overthrew, Francois Bozizé. Both may try to run in presidential and legislative elections slated for December.

ISRAEL/PALESTINE: US President Donald Trump revealed the details of his long-delayed Middle East peace plan on Tuesday, proposing that Israel annex much of the occupied West Bank, including Israeli settlements, and control most of Jerusalem. The plan was roundly rejected by the Palestinian leadership

LANDMINES: The Trump administration is reportedly preparing to end a US moratorium on the production and deployment of landmines. The United States is not a signatory to the Mine Ban Treaty but had banned production of the weapons and restricted their use to the Korean peninsula. For the latest on global efforts to rid the world of landmines, which have an indiscriminate effect on civilians, read our recent roundup.

NORTH KOREA: The Global Fund has restarted funding for tuberculosis and malaria programmes in North Korea, nearly two years after abruptly pulling out over oversight concerns. The new grants, which are implemented by UNICEF, the WHO, and the US-based Eugene Bell Foundation, began this month. In an email, a spokesperson said the Global Fund’s board now has “assurance that the grant is being implemented effectively”.

YEMEN: Violence surged across Yemen this week with airstrikes, ground fighting, and shelling killing and injuring civilians. The uptick comes as an agreement over Yemen’s south is stalled, and as Oman-based talks between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels are expected to restart soon. The UN’s special envoy for Yemen told an emergency session of the Security Council that it was important to stop the escalation “before it’s too late”.

Weekend read

Gruesome attacks deepen instability in Congo’s Ebola zone

With any luck Beni, the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak ravaging communities and destroying lives in eastern Congo these past 18 months, has seen the worst of the deadly virus. Cases have been dropping off and containment strategies seem to be working – not before the loss of more than 2,240 lives. However, the violence that blighted the region long before the epidemic is raging worse than ever. Some 300 people have been killed in a spate of attacks since November. The nature of the violence is horrifying and seems intended to create maximum terror – beheadings, women and children targeted mercilessly. Journalist Robert Flummerfelt travelled to Beni to talk to victims and hear their stories. The worst of it, they said: “We don’t know why these people are killing us.” The attacks may not derail Ebola containment efforts again, as they have before. But anger is increasing, protests are growing, and both UN peacekeepers and the government are being asked to do more.

And finally… 

UN hack: Known unknowns

A UN spokesperson said a cyber attack on the UN last year was serious, but “not a landmark event”. An internal document obtained by The New Humanitarian described the “compromise” of dozens of servers, databases, and user accounts. The UN has been clear on some things: its human rights body, one of several organisations affected, said categorically the incident “did not compromise sensitive information”. Systems at the UN Office at Geneva were more seriously affected, requiring a major rebuild. Despite questions from TNH, no full account has been given of what might have been taken. Questions remain: Who was behind it? Why? What did they get? Given the UN’s silence on the incident, another question might be: “Will anybody be told next time?”


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