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Mediterranean deaths, Somali unrest, and the cost of coronavirus: The Cheat Sheet

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

(Christopher Jahn/IFRC)

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

On our radar

A grim milestone for the Mediterranean

Refugees became political pawns between the EU, Greece, and Turkey this week, but there was also a timely reminder of what can happen when people feel compelled to attempt ever more dangerous journeys. The UN’s migration agency, IOM, announced that the drowning of 91 people last month and other recent fatalities had taken the toll in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014 above 20,000. The rise in deaths has slowed in recent years, but the death rate per crossing has been increasing, as riskier trips are attempted and as search and rescue efforts have been curtailed – by right-wing governments and, latterly, the coronavirus. This week, The New Humanitarian revamped its migration coverage, breaking it down into five sub-themes: Why people move; Risky journeys; Shifting responses; Life in limbo; and Going home. Do take a look and send us some feedback, or, even better, some story ideas. We’re always open to suggestions on how to humanise those at the heart of displacement crises, who are too often politicised or reduced to statistics.

Somalia clashes stoke regional tensions

Somali troops clashed with forces from the country’s semi-autonomous Jubaland region this week in a flare-up of violence that is raising tensions with neighbouring countries and may play into the hands of the militant group al-Shabab. Tensions have been rising since August, when Jubaland’s incumbent president, Ahmed Madobe, won regional elections that Mogadishu described as “not free and fair”. The central government wanted a loyalist candidate to win as it seeks greater control over Somalia's five regions ahead of upcoming national elections. Neighbouring Kenya, which has troops deployed as part of an African Union peace enforcement operation, is on the side of Madobe, who it sees as an ally against al-Shabab, while Ethiopia has aligned with Mogadishu. On Wednesday, Kenya accused Somali troops of encroaching on its territory and destroying property during this week’s violence, while the US said last week that the clashes are a distraction in efforts against al-Shabab. An estimated 56,000 people have been uprooted, according to the UN.

Corona cash

The coronavirus is putting pressure on national health systems, and threatening the wellbeing of markets and businesses large and small. It’s going to be expensive, but there is some funding on the way. The announcement of $12 billion from the World Bank gave a sense of scale. Of that the Bank has set aside $3.3 billion for grant funding for low-income countries. Overall, the big money is going to be in loans and macro-economic intervention; a smaller amount will be for grants. The World Bank will use half of its tranche as lending or for interventionary investments – to help businesses threatened with going under, for example. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) pledged to make $50 billion available. Again, the headline figure is not for grants or humanitarian response: all but a $200 million fraction will be available as loans to governments. The World Health Organisation, meanwhile, has appealed for $675 million for three months of emergency health preparedness and response funding.

A rocky road ahead for Afghanistan war crimes probe

The International Criminal Court this week gave the go-ahead for its prosecutor to investigate alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. It’s being hailed as a major step after years of conflict and impunity, but there’s a long road ahead with significant roadblocks – not the least of which is the US government, which opposes ICC jurisdiction. The decision opens the door to potential prosecutions against the Taliban, Afghan, and international armed forces (including CIA members accused of torturing detainees in secret detention facilities). It also sets the stage for a confrontation: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the ruling “reckless” (the United States last year revoked the visa of the court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, as she pursued the case). For survivors of Afghanistan’s decades of turbulence, however, an ICC investigation is a rare opportunity for accountability. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission called it an “important step for justice”. Amnesty International noted there’s little mention of reconciliation in the recent US-Taliban peace deal.

A coup in Guinea-Bissau?

A political dispute in the late 1990s triggered a full-scale civil war in Guinea-Bissau that cost hundreds of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people in a country of just 1.8 million. There’s no suggestion yet that the country is about to descend into renewed conflict, but alarm bells are starting to ring. Guinea-Bissau’s military appeared to pick a side this week following contested elections that resulted in the appointment of two rival presidents – a worrying development in a country that has suffered nine coups or attempted coups since independence. The national election commission declared a former army general, Umaro Cissoko Embalo, as winner of the December polls, but the party of runner-up Domingos Simoes Pereira said the results were invalid and used its majority in parliament to appoint a third politician, Cipriano Cassama, as interim president. Cassama resigned two days later, citing death threats and the risk of civil war, while soldiers stationed themselves outside the country’s Supreme Court – which had called for an audit of the vote – and shut down state television and radio. Opposition leaders said the interference constituted a coup. The standoff follows five years of political turmoil that saw former president José Mário Vaz – eliminated in the first round of the December polls – sack seven different prime ministers. On Monday, the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, called on the army to remain neutral.

In case you missed it

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The last patient being treated for Ebola in eastern Congo was discharged on Tuesday – leaving the country’s once-packed treatment centres empty and raising hopes the deadly epidemic is finally drawing to a close. No new cases have been reported since 17 February, according to the WHO, which says the incubation period of the virus is 21 days.

MYANMAR: Fighting continues to intensify in Rakhine State. Rights groups say dozens of civilians were killed or injured in clashes between the military and the Arakan Army in recent weeks. Local groups say more than 100,000 have been displaced over the last year, but aid is severely restricted. More in our recent briefing: The growing emergency on Myanmar’s newest battleground.

NIGERIA: At least 50 people were killed by gunmen in Nigeria’s northwestern Kaduna state on Sunday in violence that local officials blamed on “banditry”. Attacks have increased in the region in recent years, costing hundreds of lives. See TNH’s reporting from the ground.

SOUTH SUDAN: Thousands of people have fled their homes in eastern South Sudan following an outbreak of inter-communal violence that began mid-February. The ICRC said hundreds of people have been wounded and villages looted in the clashes, which come shortly after warring parties finally agreed to form a transitional government of national unity.

YEMEN: Thousands of people — it’s not clear yet exactly how many — have fled heavy fighting in Yemen’s al-Jawf province, north of Sana’a. Some 5,000 families had already fled clashes in al-Jawf, Sana’a, and Marib starting mid-February; humanitarians have not been able to access everyone because of security and other restrictions.

Weekend read

First Person: Reporting Idlib, from a home under fire

“A cruise liner of tourists has got far more press, political, and policy attention than three million people being continuously bombed in Idlib.” This quote is from a different story we published last week on coronavirus, but it’s an apt way to introduce our weekend read featuring Muhammad Al Hosse. Interviewed over the phone by Madeline Edwards as bombs fell near him, the 24-year-old Syrian photojournalist said he must get the word out even though the war was closing in around him. “If we don’t communicate these tragedies to the world, maybe nobody will know what is happening to us,” he said. But in the midst of Covid-19 outbreaks around the globe, who is really listening? New satellite imagery analysis published this week shows the staggering scale of the displacement and the devastation. According to the UN’s latest figures, 2.8 million of four million people in northwest Syria now need humanitarian assistance, but aid is hard to deliver. Reports have emerged each week of shelling or airstrikes hitting civilian targets, children killed. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed a ceasefire to end a recent escalation. But how long will the truce hold, and what of the almost one million people forced into flight?

And finally…

#AidToo and Save the Children UK

When its CEO, Justin Forsyth, was accused of misconduct, including sexual harassment, in 2012 and 2015, Save the Children UK didn't handle the allegations properly. When those incidents came to light in 2018, as well as claims of misconduct by Forsyth’s aide, Brendan Cox, the agency again handled its response poorly. It made at least one statement to the media that was “not wholly correct”. Those are some of the findings of the Charity Commision, the NGO’s regulator, in a 37-page report that has taken two years to produce. In response, the NGO apologised and reiterated measures it has taken to reform corporate culture. Some whistleblowers and campaigners are disappointed in the report and calling for the resignation of current CEO Kevin Watkins – a charity trustee at the time of the incidents.

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