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Beirut blast, Sudan abuse allegation, and a Welshman in Ukraine: 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

A calamity in Lebanon

In the wake of Tuesday night’s blast – which tore through Beirut, killing at least 154 and injuring thousands more – residents of the capital have been clearing rubble from their streets, port officials have been placed under house arrest, and some Lebanese have been out in protest at a government they say was negligent in allowing thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate to be stored unsafely for years, eventually leading to the massive explosion. Search and rescue teams as well as plane-loads of aid have arrived from across the world to help a country that was already in the midst of a massive economic crisis. Shelters are being set up to take in families whose homes are destroyed or too damaged to sleep in. Some aid groups have expressed concern that the needs of Lebanon’s most vulnerable, like Syrian refugees, will become neglected as more Lebanese nationals need help. The World Food Programme says it is handing out food parcels to affected families, and noted that it is increasingly worried about food insecurity in Lebanon, which was already on the rise. Stay tuned for TNH’s reporting on that vital issue next week. 

NGO racism row in Sudan

The head of Catholic Relief Services in Sudan is out on bail after being arrested for allegedly calling a security guard a “slave”, Khartoum police Captain Hamza Alnur told The New Humanitarian. Driss Moumane, a Moroccan-American, was charged with “verbal abuse” on 28 July, according to Alnur. No trial date has yet been set, but penalties range from a month in jail to a fine. Some anti-racism groups in the capital have been calling for protests over the incident. The Baltimore, Maryland-based NGO declined to answer specific questions about Moumane’s employment history, saying that “discussing ongoing sensitive matters with The New Humanitarian might put our staff at risk”. Nikki Gamer, a spokesperson for CRS, told TNH: “We are aware of the issues raised and are investigating all claims.” Moumane did not respond to emails from TNH. The arrest comes as the aid sector wrestles with issues of race and colonialism against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement. In June, Médecins Sans Frontières issued a statement saying it had failed to tackle “institutional racism”.

Humanitarian newsman honoured

Ukraine's capital, Kiev, has decided to name a lane after Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, in addition to a Ukrainian honour awarded in 2008, to mark his reporting on a hidden famine in 1933. Jones' dispatches were critical to bringing first-hand news of the disaster – locally called Holomodor – to Western readers. Farm collectivisation and state seizure of produce to meet impossibly high quotas were the main causes of the famine that killed millions. Independent Ukraine and several other countries and historians say the episode was a deliberate genocidal attempt to crush Ukrainian nationalism. Jones, clandestinely entered Ukraine on foot in March 1933 and recorded horrific scenes of starvation, and then published articles describing the desperation situation. Moscow downplayed the seriousness and other Western journalists countered Jones' reporting: The New York Times published a piece headlined “Russians Hungry But Not Starving”. A film based on Jones' life was released in 2019 following a 2015 book based on his diaries

Piecemeal peace in Mozambique

It has been a year since Mozambique’s ruling Frelimo party signed a peace deal with opposition movement Renamo, but things aren’t going very smoothly. A dissident Renamo faction that rejected the agreement is still launching deadly attacks in central Mozambique after efforts to negotiate with the group failed. The violence has cost dozens of lives and spread fear in an area still recovering from a devastating cyclone last year. The UN secretary-general's personal envoy for Mozambique, Mirko Manzoni, insists that a programme to disarm and reintegrate Renamo fighters into society has got going, and that progress has been made in decentralising power. But any hope that reconciliation between Frelimo and Renamo – bitter rivals since the late 1970s – might help the government deal with an Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado province is yet to bear fruit. Violence in the gas-rich northern region continues to spiral, with more than 250,000 people displaced on the last count.

Man-made monsoon damage

Climate change makes extreme hazards more volatile and more intense, but there are also very human reasons why monsoon damage has been so severe across wide stretches of Asia this year. Hundreds have died and more than 17 million people are affected in South Asia. Floods that have submerged a third of Bangladesh are also the country’s longest-lasting in more than 20 years. In northeast India’s Assam, local NGOs say pre-monsoon repairs to river embankments weren’t completed in time. Observers point to rapid urbanisation and haphazard construction in Nepal, where at least 163 people have died in floods and landslides. And in Bangladesh, climate change and hydrology experts say urbanisation, land cover changes, wetland encroachment, deforestation, and road construction across floodplains have all played a role, according to a UN-led response appeal issued this week. The coronavirus pandemic is complicating disaster response and recovery everywhere, underscoring the need to double down on basic preparedness planning, risk reduction experts say. For now, the flood waters remain, and authorities and aid groups face a long recovery when it subsides. Humanitarian groups have earmarked aid to one million more people in Bangladesh alone until March 2021.

Covid-19 news

BRAZIL: One of Brazil’s most influential Indigenous leaders died on Wednesday of COVID-19 complications as the country raced to control infections – particularly in its Indigenous communities. Chief Aritana Yawalapiti, whose surname is also the name of his tribe in Brazil’s central Upper Xingu area, was one of the last speakers of his tribe’s language. Indigenous communities in Brazil have been particularly hard hit because many live in remote areas without adequate medical help. The numbers of the dead range between 300 and 631, with cases estimated at between 16,000 and 22,325. Indigenous communities elsewhere in Latin America are facing similar challenges with the pandemic. In Colombia, hundreds of Indigenous Emberá who fled violence in their rainforest reserves are now having to confront the virus with little to no assistance. Peru and Ecuador have also recorded large outbreaks amongst their Indigenous populations in the Amazon. 

GREECE: Last week, MSF was forced to close its coronavirus isolation centre close to Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos following legal action by authorities over urban planning regulations. The centre was the only place where residents of the severely overcrowded camp could be isolated and receive medical treatment if they were displaying coronavirus symptoms. Greek authorities have implemented a number of harsh policies aimed at asylum seekers and migrants during the coronavirus pandemic, including evicting people from accommodations, imposing movement restrictions on people living in camps and pushing asylum seekers back from Greece’s borders. 

HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE: Studies have shown the anti-malarial drug doesn’t work as a COVID-19 remedy, and could even be dangerous. But that hasn’t stopped sales – and prices – rocketing, especially in Nigeria. Following President Donald Trump’s touting of the drug’s efficacy, a packet of 60 tablets that sold in Nigeria for $8 four months ago now retails at $194. The Nigerian authorities have accused pharmacies of “price gouging”, and said that prosecutions are underway. Although hydroxychloroquine has been discontinued in several countries as a malaria drug, manufacturers have responded to the new surge in demand. Kenya, concerned with people stockpiling, has banned over-the-counter sales. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has warned of an uptick in counterfeit hydroxychloroquine in Africa.

NORTH KOREA: Coronavirus test results for the north’s first suspected case were “inconclusive”, the WHO told journalists this week. North Korean state media announced the case in July after previously insisting the north was virus free. The handful of humanitarian groups working in North Korea have been preparing for months, but there are few international staff in-country (only a quarter of UN staff remain and programme monitoring has been on hold since January, UNICEF said). Aid groups also face roadblocks getting supplies and funding past global sanctions. How bad is it? A Red Cross official raised eyebrows this week when he told the Financial Times that cash-strapped agencies were borrowing money from North Korean authorities “to maintain operations”. 

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: COVID-19 cases have surged over the last three weeks, prompting a request for international aid. Papua New Guinea has a relatively low caseload – about 163 as of 7 August – but some of the poorest health and development indicators in Asia and the Pacific. Australia announced it’s sending an emergency medical team to the capital, Port Moresby. This week, the operators of the large Ok Tedi mine in western PNG announced they have shut operations for 14 days after seven workers tested positive.

In case you missed it

CAMEROON: A Boko Haram attack on a camp for displaced people in Cameroon’s Far North Region on Sunday has left at least 18 civilians dead. The makeshift camp sheltered 800 people in a village close to the Nigerian border. Over the past month there have been 20 incursions and attacks by the jihadists, according to the local mayor. The UN has condemned the rising violence and abductions in the Lake Chad region.

IRAQ: Monday marked six years since the Sinjar massacre, when militants from the so-called Islamic State swept into the historic refuge of the Yazidi minority group in northern Iraq, beginning a campaign of mass murder, enslavement, and forced conversion. At the time, some 50,000 Yazidis fled up Sinjar mountain in a dramatic escape. Some remained there but most survivors eventually moved on to camps elsewhere, and return has been slow: Some 200,000 Yazidis remain displaced today. There is insufficient healthcare, jobs, and basic infrastructure for those who have come back, and the demining group MAG says the area remains littered with explosives

SOMALIA: More than 150,000 people have been forced from their homes by flash floods in the country’s south since late June. Communities in Hirshabelle and South West states, along the Shabelle River, have been particularly affected, with almost 150,000 hectares of farmland inundated. More rain is forecast to fall in the Ethiopian highlands next week, which will again affect communities down river. Over 650,000 people in Somalia have been displaced by floods since the beginning of the year, and the government has called for urgent aid.

SRI LANKA: Lawyers, activists, and journalists are increasingly facing threats and intimidation following last year’s election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, rights groups warned. The groups say a “campaign of fear” has escalated, especially in the lead-up to 5 August parliamentary elections that bolstered power behind the Rajapaksa family. Sri Lankan officials have also pledged to put NGOs under greater scrutiny.

UNITED STATES: Border Patrol agents raided a medical aid camp run by the humanitarian group No More Deaths in the Arizona desert close to the US-Mexico border and arrested more than 30 migrants last Friday. US government policies have pushed routes into remote areas of the desert, where migrants regularly die of dehydration and heat stroke. Years of tensions between Border Patrol and groups providing humanitarian aid to migrants in the desert are now being compounded by harsh Trump administration policies that have effectively ended access to asylum at the US-Mexico border.

YEMEN: More heavy rains and flash floods hit large swathes of Yemen this week, leaving many already displaced people in need of new shelter and killing 16 people in the central province of Marib, according to local authorities. This year has seen especially heavy rain in the country, destroying homes, businesses, and tens of thousands of tents, and raising the risk of already endemic waterborne diseases like cholera. 

Weekend read

What happens to migrants forcibly returned to Libya?

‘These are people going missing by the hundreds.’

There’s rightly a media focus on attempted migrant crossings to Europe from Libya, and on the ever-evolving search and rescue situation in the Mediterranean as European countries fall over themselves not to assist: Headlines of stranded vessels – rescued or not – proliferate as the summer progresses. But there’s not so much on what happens next, when the migrants are returned to Libya. As Mat Nashed points out in our weekend read, an estimated 40,000 men, women, and children have been returned since 2017, and UN officials told him many returnees are now disappearing off their radar – sent to unofficial detention centres to end up in the hands of abusers, extorters, and traffickers. Worse still, millions of euros of EU money are being spent on training and funding the Libyan Coast Guard’s interception and returns programme. Two NGOs this week filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee against Italy, Malta, and Libya over violating the rights of people to leave the war-torn country and seek safety. Stay tuned to TNH for more on these fledgling legal efforts.

And finally…

Who posted it?

A USAID official appointed by the Trump administration, Merritt Corrigan, left the post after a (now-deleted) Twitter thread voicing opposition to gay marriage and accusing USAID of being anti-Christian. Her past internet postings and articles indicated similar views. However, after she was apparently fired, she denied the thread was her own work, saying “my devices were not in my control”. Right-wing agitator Jacob Wohl claims she was in a relationship with him and made the postings of her own free will. Democratic lawmakers argue there are other USAID appointees whose views are inconsistent with its role, including a religious freedom adviser alleged to have posted Islamophobic opinions.

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