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Libyan returns, Darfur emergency, and a pared-back pilgrimage: The Cheat Sheet

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

Louise O'Brien/TNH

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

On our radar

Shot on return, or left to drift

The extreme dangers for migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe via north Africa and the Central Mediterranean were underlined this week. Libyan authorities shot dead three Sudanese asylum seekers on 27 July as they attempted to flee after being intercepted at sea and returned to the country by the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard. And in two separate incidents, boats carrying close to 100 asylum seekers and migrants were left to drift for more than a day as both Libyan and Maltese authorities failed to respond to distress calls – a recurring pattern since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. After a private merchant vessel also refused to help one of the stranded boats, Maltese authorities eventually rescued one and the Italian Coast Guard the other. At least 232 people are known to have died or gone missing in the Central Mediterranean so far this year, although the true number is almost certainly higher. Meanwhile, at least 1,750 people died – many of them in Libya – between 2018 and 2019 while undertaking journeys from East and West Africa to the Mediterranean coast, making the migration route one of the deadliest in the world, according to a new report from the UN’s refugee agency and the Danish Refugee Council. Keep an eye out for upcoming TNH articles on the surge in disappearances of people returned to Libya and on the fledgling legal bids to sue the EU for assisting human rights abuses in the country. 

60+ killed in Darfur attack

Much has changed in Sudan since the ousting of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir last year, but not in war-scarred Darfur, where lives are still being lost and humanitarian needs are growing. More than 60 people were killed and nearly as many injured in an attack by a militia group on 25 July – one in a string of violent incidents that has prompted authorities to declare a state of emergency. The UN’s aid coordination agency said the attacks were leading to increased displacement at a critical moment during the agricultural season. Jonas Horner, a Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group, said militias were defending land taken from displaced populations amid expectation that peace talks between the government and rebel groups around the country may spark return movements. A peacekeeping mission in Darfur with a mandate to protect civilians is, meanwhile, set to shut down at the end of the year – a move that could “expose the region to major insecurity”, according to the Institute for Security Studies. Read our latest on Sudan’s shaky transition for more.

Warning signs in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s city streets were empty today as soldiers and police set up roadblocks to enforce a ban on protests. Demonstrators had been set to march to protest alleged state corruption and the mismanagement of the economy – with inflation at over 700 percent, shortages of foreign currency, and public hospitals crippled by strikes and a lack of medicine. But President Emmerson Mnangagwa has accused opposition leaders of attempting to overthrow the government, and said the security forces would “appropriately respond to their shenanigans”. What that has often meant is beatings, and the use of live ammunition. Earlier this week, the government called the US ambassador “a thug”, accused him of funding the protests, and threatened him with expulsion. But the government’s political problems do not stop with the opposition. There is a factional fight underway in the ruling party and – three years after the overthrow of former president Robert Mugabe – a section of the army appears deeply unhappy. “In any county where a military coup has happened, there is a tendency for it to recur,” noted NGO activist Blessing Vava.

Deadly activism

A record 212 environmental activists were killed in 2019, according to a new report from Global Witness. The toll was up from 164 in 2018, and more than half of the killings occurred in Colombia and the Philippines. In Colombia, where 64 activists were killed, violence has spiked since a 2016 peace agreement. Farmers have been pushed to swap illegal crops for other harvests and many have been moved off of land to make way for other industries. The country is one of the world’s largest coal exporters but also has substantial oil, gas, and palm oil holdings. In the Philippines, 43 people were killed – many of those killed fighting against the country’s many agribusinesses. Brazil reported 24 killings, while killings of environmental activists in Honduras jumped from four in 2018 to 14 last year. Mining was the sector linked to the most killings, but logging had the largest increase in deaths since 2018. There were seven killings in Africa, but Global Witness warned that several cases likely went unreported. Read this week’s TNH story for more on how hundreds of Indigenous people in Colombia forced from their rainforest reserves by conflict are protesting the lack of government assistance as they try to make new lives in the capital, Bogotá.

Including women = less COVID risk

Women and girls have paid a heavy price in the COVID-19 pandemic, with increased gender-based violence, forced marriages, and loss of reproductive healthcare. But when it comes to deaths, people are dying at a rate six times higher in countries with male leadership than in countries with female leaders. New research by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the PRIO Centre for Gender, Peace and Security suggests that countries that prioritise the well-being of women have also fared better. The research looked at women’s well-being as measured by the Women, Peace, and Security Index and risk factors associated with the outbreak that exceed a nation’s capacity to respond. Their findings? Countries that do poorly on women’s inclusion, justice, and security are at higher risk during a pandemic. For more from women and girls themselves, check out our She Said reporting.

COVID-19 news

AFGHANISTAN: Coronavirus has “decimated” Afghan women’s healthcare access, and humanitarian aid is “excluding” women and girls as well, according to a new CARE study on the pandemic’s gender impacts. The analysis, based on interviews or surveys of about 400 people, found three quarters of Afghan women have no access to family planning, and many aren’t able to reach clinics at all. Only eight percent of interviewed women said they received aid in the last month; some cited a lack of female aid staff. See our recent reporting on Afghanistan’s missing coronavirus patients: Women.

CHINA/LATIN AMERICA: As global competition over coronavirus vaccines builds, China’s foreign minister has vowed to loan $1 billion to help Latin American countries access any workable vaccine it produces. Observers suggested this may not be a simple act of kindness, but it’s not just Brazil that might be interested: Mexico, Chile, and Peru are also among the top 10 countries in the world for confirmed cases.

FINANCE: Wealthy countries have found $11 trillion to cushion the blow of the coronavirus for themselves, but less than half a percent of that to give as aid. COVID-19 exposes global inequalities like never before, as well as the limitations of the international aid machinery. According to a new study commissioned by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the crisis demands a "fundamental rethink" and a "pivot to preparedness". It warns that this crisis won't be a one-off: "Systemic crises are likely to become an increasingly common feature of a highly integrated global economy with a growing population, an unstable and warming climate and deteriorating ecosystems."

ISRAEL/PALESTINE: Both Israel and the occupied West Bank are witnessing a second wave in COVID-19 infections, and there is increasing concern about the potential for spread in crowded Palestinian refugee camps. Previous lockdowns and a ban on Palestinians going back and forth to Israel for work (a major source of income) are believed to have helped contain the virus, but many restrictions have since been lifted, and cases are surging.

NORTH KOREA: Pyongyang announced its first suspected case of coronavirus, warning of a “dangerous situation”, according to state media. North Korea was among the first countries to seal its borders with China in the early days of COVID-19, though various media have reported signs of undisclosed cases. Malnutrition and food insecurity are widespread, and the country’s underfunded health system struggles to treat diseases like tuberculosis.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: A car bomb killed at least 17 people on Thursday on the eve of an Eid al-Adha ceasefire. The Taliban said it’s not behind the unclaimed attack. UN statistics show civilian conflict casualties fell in the first half of 2020, but notably not casualties caused by the two main parties that have delayed peace talks for months: the Taliban and the government. The overall drop is linked to a smaller battlefield footprint from international forces and so-called Islamic State, the UN said.

ASIA FLOODS: Monsoon floods hitting vast stretches of Asia have been so severe in part because of previous damage to vital flood barriers. In Bangladesh, where up to a third of the land is now submerged, many communities hadn’t fully repaired the damage after back-to-back seasons of severe flooding in 2016, 2017, and 2019: The normal recovery cycle is at least three years. An early assessment of this year’s (ongoing) disaster warns that infrastructure repair and reconstruction must be a big part of early recovery plans in the coming months.

IRAQ: A new report from Amnesty International documents the myriad challenges faced by around 2,000 young Yazidis who survived what the UN has called a genocide by the so-called Islamic State. Having returned to their families in Iraq after witnessing and being subjected to horrific events, the watchdog says these children are now facing a “physical and mental health crisis”, are often no longer able to speak their own Kurdish dialects, and have trouble enrolling in school. Check out these stories for our reporting on the challenges facing Yazidis who have come back after years in captivity. 

MALI: The opposition coalition leading Mali’s surging protest movement called for further civil disobedience this week as the latest mediation effort by West African leaders came to little. Protesters have been calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who has struggled to stem rising jihadist and inter-communal violence in the country after seven years in power. Read more in our latest from the ground.

RANSOMWARE: NGOs in North America and the UK were among over 100 organisations whose data was accessed by hackers in a cyber attack in May. US cloud services provider Blackbaud, used as a fundraising platform by charities, announced it had paid off ransomware hackers for an undisclosed sum and restored the systems. But what happened to the data and when were victims notified? (Save the Children says it was only notified in July). Blackbaud said: "We have no reason to believe that any data went beyond the cybercriminal." Analysts point out the hack could include the estimated wealth and giving habits of individuals who donate to charities. 

YEMEN: Southern separatists and Yemen’s internationally recognised authorities have reportedly agreed (not for the first time) to form a government of technocrats equally split between representatives of the north and the south. The deal will see the powerful Southern Transitional Council give up its late April declaration of “self-administration” in the south, which escalated tensions between the STC and forces allied with President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi; both sides are members of the same Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Weekend read

Ebola business concerns resurface as new Congo outbreak spreads

When hundreds of millions of international aid dollars were pumped into the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern Ebola response in 2018 and 2019, it kickstarted a scramble to profit. So-called “Ebola business” didn’t just drive widespread corruption, it potentially cost lives. Just eight weeks into a new outbreak in northwestern Équateur province, it appears the lessons have not been learned: Aid officials have reported that local officials are already attempting to profit from relief funds. Concerns over the latest outbreak – which has claimed more than 30 lives – are compounded by COVID-19 travel restrictions. Border closures make it more difficult to bring staff and equipment into the country to fight the virus, and there is a country-wide shortage of vaccines. “The epidemic is running ahead of us,” Robert Ghosn, of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), told TNH earlier this month. “The response overall is not on par with the needs.”

And finally…

The Hajj, in miniature

Sparsely populated Hajj ceremony with everyone circled, but spaced out and under colourful umbrellas.
Saudi Ministry of Media
The annual pilgrimage to the Hajj ceremony began Wednesday, 29 July, in the Saudi town of Mecca marked by the limitations imposed by the new coronavirus pandemic.

The week saw the start of a drastically different version of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca: Usually more than two million Muslims from all over the world descend on the holy city in one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, but thanks to the pandemic it has been scaled back to a socially distanced 10,000, all of whom were already inside Saudi Arabia. Pilgrims have all been tested for COVID-19, and will wear masks and electronic monitoring bracelets while they perform a series of rites that all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it are supposed to perform at least once in their lives. This year’s pilgrims will not be able to kiss or touch the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site site, which is usually closely surrounded by people. The Washington Post reports that the downsized Hajj has had a “devastating” impact on people in Somalia, which usually exports millions of livestock to Saudi Arabia in the months leading up to the Hajj. The country relies so heavily on this trade that the entire economy – already in a bad way – has been hit hard.


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