Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Idlib’s worsening warzone
Over half a million people are on the move in northwestern Syria, the front line is closing on the regional capital, the border is sealed to people trying to flee, and health services are collapsing. This week, eight aid agencies say Syria’s Idlib warzone is already a winter “humanitarian catastrophe”, as options shrink for temporary accomodation and camps are overflowing. As TNH reported last month, civilians are dismantling their own homes before they flee to deny looters property they expect never to see again, as rebel defenses collapse. Decisions made by Turkey will be key in the coming days and weeks for the future of the millions of people in the region: Turkish forces and groups they back have been directly involved in recent fighting around the strategic town of Saraqeb, exchanging fire with Syrian government forces, according to Turkish media. President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, Russia, says “terrorist” rebels are mounting an “aggressive” campaign. However the Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, show little sign of slowing their offensive despite calls for restraint from the EU, the UN, and the United States.
Climate migration warnings: ‘Being right for the wrong reason’
Efforts to whip up concern about climate migration may be a good lever to highlight the urgency of action on emissions, but it can backfire and turn sentiment against migrants, according to researcher Hein de Haas. Also, in a recent blog, he alleges that “alarmist rhetoric” about climate migration is not based on available research. NGOs and pressure groups are using alarmist rhetoric about impending mass migrations in an attempt to make governments “do something”. De Haas says they are turning climate change into a “security topic”. Climate change is more likely to make poor people get stuck where they are, he argues, rather than trigger epic waves of international migration.
Cameroon’s crisis gets nastier
There’s been a surge in political violence in Cameroon’s two western regions ahead of parliamentary and municipal elections on 9 February. Amnesty International has accused the army of dozens of killings, the burning of villages, and the displacement of thousands of people as it tries to stamp out a separatist movement. The anglophone militants demanding independence from the rest of francophone Cameroon have vowed to disrupt the polls and have also stepped up their attacks. They have ordered the closure of schools and markets, and told people to stay indoors between 7 and 12 February. The crisis has shuttered more than 40 percent of the health centres in the two regions, and more than 600,000 children are out of school. At least 3,000 civilians have died since the conflict began in 2016, and 730,000 people have been displaced. Seen TNH’s latest report here.
Starting over in a new country can be a life-changing opportunity for a refugee family who can’t go home. But the chances of that are very slim, according to new data. The UN’s refugee agency reported on Wednesday that 63,696 refugees were offered resettlement in 2019, about half the number in 2016. Those were placed from an estimated 1.4 million potential cases – just 4.5 percent. UN refugee case-workers prepare files of candidates eligible for “resettlement” – those who are most vulnerable where they are, or who face special threats back home. Once accepted by the receiving country, resettlement usually means not just an air ticket and accommodation, but a clear path to permanent residency and citizenship. The American quota has been slashed [see graph below] by President Donald Trump’s administration, but the United States remains the largest receiving country, offering one third of places in 2019.
Preparing for the coronavirus
The World Health Organisation has launched a $675 million coronavirus response plan. The lion’s share of the money would be earmarked to help countries with weaker health systems get ready – boosting surveillance, infection control, testing, and treatment capabilities. “All countries are at risk and need to prepare,” the response plan warns. The coronavirus – for now called the “2019‐nCoV acute respiratory disease” – continues to spread rapidly in China, with confirmed cases rising by the thousands each day. There were more than 250 confirmed infections in at least two dozen other countries and jurisdictions by 7 February (plus 61 confirmed cases on a quarantined cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan). There have been no confirmed cases in Africa, but there’s plenty of concern over whether health systems are prepared. Read more on how countries like Kenya are trying to rapidly develop testing systems: Ready or not? Africa and the coronavirus.
In case you missed it
MYANMAR: The government re-imposed an internet blackout in five townships in Rakhine and Chin states as civilians continue to be trapped in clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group. Rights groups accuse the military of war crimes and repeating civilian-punishing tactics used in its other long-standing conflicts.
TUCSON, Arizona: Four aid volunteers found guilty of breaking US federal law for leaving provisions for undocumented migrants to find in a wilderness area near the US-Mexico border have had their convictions overturned. The judge ruled that the volunteers were acting on sincere religious beliefs and said the government had embraced a “gruesome logic” that criminalises “interfering with a border enforcement strategy of deterrence by death”.
TUVALU: A state of emergency is still in effect two weeks after Cyclone Tino hit the low-lying Pacific nation in January. The storm whipped up large waves that uprooted crops, potentially threatening food security in the coming weeks, humanitarian groups say. The World Bank has offered a $6 million grant for response and recovery.
UNITED KINGDOM: Ninety migrants and asylum seekers – a one-day record – were intercepted on Thursday trying to cross the English Channel from France on a succession of small inflatable boats. More than 2,750 migrants attempted the route in 2019 – a near five-fold increase on 2018. The latest arrivals said they were from countries including Egypt, Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Senegal, Syria, and Yemen. Fifteen claimed to be minors.
YEMEN: After long negotiations, seven patients and their relatives flew out of Sana’a airport on a flight to Amman on Monday – the first of 30 patients scheduled for medical evacuation to the Jordanian and Egyptian capitals. The Saudi-led coalition, which controls the airspace above Yemen, closed Sana’a airport to regularly scheduled civilian flights in August 2016.
The mood music in Geneva, where representatives of Libya’s warring sides are meeting to try to forge a lasting ceasefire, appears positive, at least according to UN envoy Ghassan Salamé. Any deal would come as a relief to civilians caught in the crossfire of Libya’s conflict, which has escalated since April last year when Khalifa Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive to seize the capital, Tripoli, from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). Our weekend read looks at the fate of hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers at a flagship centre in Tripoli who face an uncertain future after the UN’s refugee agency pulled its support. UNHCR now deems the Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) too dangerous to back, but some of those facing pressure to leave told TNH they don’t know where to go or what to do next.
Laid off in the name of local aid?
NGOs and aid workers are known for saying they work to put themselves out of a job. But in practice it’s rare for a Western charity to shut up shop voluntarily. One exception is SOS Sahel International UK, which announced it was closing after 36 years. Affiliates in Sudan and Ethiopia will continue to work on poverty alleviation in drylands independently. The NGO had an income of about $8.5 million over the last five years. In a farewell newsletter, the UK charity said it was celebrating a success in localisation – strengthening humanitarian organisations in the countries where they work.