Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
A crunch moment in Sudan
Sudan’s power-sharing government signed a peace deal with an alliance of rebel groups this week, sparking hopes of an end to decades of conflict in the country. The agreement will see rebels given government posts, power devolved to local regions, and displaced people offered a chance to return home. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok dedicated the deal – one of his main priorities following the ousting of Omar al-Bashir 14 months ago – to children born in refugee camps, while the UN commended an “historic achievement”. But there are reasons to be cautious. Two of Sudan’s main armed groups in Darfur and the southern states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan refused to sign. Abdul Wahid, leader of a faction of the holdout Sudan Liberation Movement, said the deal was “business as usual” and unlikely to address root causes of conflict. With Sudan’s economy in freefall, it’s also unclear how the transitional government will be able to afford the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to make it workable. Previous agreements in 2006 and 2011 came to little, but with al-Bashir now out of the picture – perhaps soon facing the ICC – things could be different this time around. With violence rising in Darfur and in other parts of the country, there’s a lot riding on it.
Aid squeezed as coronavirus hits western Myanmar
Coronavirus cases are surging in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and humanitarian access in conflict-hit townships and cramped displacement sites has been further squeezed. The government has imposed curfews, stay-at-home orders, and new aid restrictions in Rakhine, which has confirmed more than 400 COVID-19 cases since mid-August. As of 4 September, the state had more than 40 percent of the country’s total caseload. The Rakhine Ethnic Congress, a local humanitarian group, says conflict between the military and the insurgent Arakan Army has displaced some 200,000 people since late 2018, but authorities have resisted calls for a ceasefire to deal with the pandemic. Government restrictions in Rakhine have kept aid to a minimum for years, but this has been cut even further amid the COVID-19 surge. The UN says two agencies and 11 international NGOs temporarily suspended services after positive tests among aid staff. Meanwhile, a government-ordered blockade on high-speed mobile internet is leaving many in Rakhine and parts of neighbouring Chin state in the dark. “The local population… are largely unaware of containment measures related to COVID-19,” the humanitarian analysis group ACAPS noted in a briefing.
A grim anniversary
It has been five years since the death of Alan Kurdi. The Syrian toddler’s lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach on 2 September 2015, spurring a moment of global empathy for the fate of refugees trying to reach Europe. The UK’s frenzied response to a record number of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel and European countries’ continued support for the Libyan Coast Guard and obstruction of NGO search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean during the pandemic suggests such empathy has long since expired. Since 2015, more than 13,000 people are known to have died – the actual number is thought to be far higher – attempting to reach Europe by sea, and arrivals to the continent have dropped dramatically. Refugee and migrant children attempting to reach Europe alone or with their parents are also worse off now than they were five years ago due to hardened European policies, according to a new report from Save the Children.
Democratic backsliding in West Africa
When a group of soldiers forced Mali’s elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, to resign last month, West African leaders were quick to issue denouncements. Robust defence of democracy, right? Well, maybe not: Presidents in the region are seeking to extend their own mandates through various dubious means – and avoid a Mali-style situation in the process – so more cynical motives were likely at play. On Wednesday, President Alpha Condé of Guinea – a country with a long history of coups – confirmed his intention to stand for a third stint in office, a move critics say violates constitutional term limits. Dozens have died in protests against the 82-year-old in recent months, and new demonstrations are now planned. Deadly violence has also broken out in Ivory Coast since President Alassane Ouattara’s decision to stand for an equally controversial third term in elections next month. Disputed polls in 2010 led to a brief civil war in the country and the death of around 3,000 people. At a recent summit on Mali’s crisis, Guinea Bissau’s new leader, Sissoco Embaló, told his counterparts that third terms should also be considered coups. But regional criticism of Ouattara and Conde will likely remain muted, as democratic gains in West Africa are reversed.
Coronavirus in the camps
COVID-19 outbreaks in crowded refugee and displacement camps took longer to occur than many – including TNH – predicted early on in the pandemic, but they may be beginning to pick up steam. A first case was confirmed on 2 September at Moria camp – built to house fewer than 3,000 people but currently hosting almost 13,000 – on the Greek island of Lesvos. Syria’s al-Hol camp, in opposition-controlled territory in the country’s northwest, reported its first case of community transmission at the end of August, and Kyangwali refugee camp in Uganda – hosting around 120,000 people – was put under lockdown last week due to a rising number of cases. Several reception centres for asylum seekers and migrants in Italy have also reported outbreaks. And dozens of people have tested positive in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, and in the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. Due to limited testing in many areas, these numbers likely only provide a partial picture.
Lebanon’s French connection
One month since an explosion at Beirut’s port killed more than 180 and decimated part of the city, the question of who will come to Lebanon’s aid – and what they will ask in return – has again come to the forefront, with French President Emmanuel Macron back in town. Macron was last in the Lebanese capital shortly after the 4 August blast, promising assistance and urging a major shift in the country’s sectarian (and arguably corrupt) political system. That visit was met with support from some corners, and allegations of colonialism from others. This time, in addition to paying his respects to Lebanon’s iconic singer Fairouz, he made a series of explicit demands for major reform at the same time as threatening leaders of various political factions with individual sanctions. Lebanon was mid-financial collapse when the blast hit Beirut, and donors have said they are wary of funnelling large sums of money through a system they don’t trust. But is the sort of change Macron demands possible? Is he just talking to the same old entrenched ruling class? He’s certainly not the first leader from his country to intervene in the former French protectorate. But is it really his place?
In case you missed it
THE CANARY ISLANDS: Around 4,000 migrants and asylum seekers have crossed from Africa’s coast to the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, so far this year. More than 250 have died or gone missing. Last year, just under 2,700 people made the journey. The uptick corresponds with a 50 percent decrease in the number of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Morocco to Spain this year, after the EU gave money to Morocco in 2019 to prevent departures.
THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: An outbreak of Ebola in northwestern Équateur continues to spread more than three months after the first cases were discovered: 110 people have fallen ill – of which 48 have died – in the province, where thick rainforests and unpaved roads are complicating response efforts. Read our latest on the situation.
ETHIOPIA: US President Donald Trump has reportedly waded into the Ethiopia-Egypt dam dispute by ordering a “temporary pause” in aid to Addis Ababa over its “unilateral decision” to begin filling the dam, after 10 days of talks failed to reach an agreement on a timetable. The freeze could affect as much as $100 million in aid.
FALL ARMYWORM: The crop-munching fall armyworm has reached the Pacific Islands. The pest, which devours food crops like corn and sweet potato, was found in Papua New Guinea’s Western Province and will likely spread to Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands, according to the Pacific Community, the region’s scientific research organisation. Native to the Americas, the fall armyworm has been on a global march, threatening food security in Africa, Asia, and now the Pacific. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the pest destroys enough maize each year to feed tens of millions of people.
ICC SANCTIONS: The United States has announced sanctions against the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, in what the war crimes court called unprecedented, “serious attacks” against the rule of law. Bensouda is investigating alleged atrocity crimes committed in Afghanistan, in a probe that could be the ICC’s first to examine abuses blamed on US forces or the CIA.
NORTH KOREA: A second powerful storm in days has battered the Korean Peninsula, and a third could be on the way. Typhoon Maysak brought widespread flooding to North Korea’s eastern provinces, as well as damage and casualties in South Korea. Typhoon Bavi hit both countries a week earlier. A more powerful storm, Haishen, is forecast to strike the same areas on 7 September. The Korean Peninsula normally sees one typhoon during a normal year, according to NASA.
YEMEN: Pictures circulating on social media that purport to show water leaking from the FSO Safer, an oil tanker abandoned off Yemen’s Red Sea coast since 2015, have raised new concerns about the possibility of a massive oil spill and environmental catastrophe, or even an explosion. A UN team has been blocked from boarding the ship and assessing the damage.
‘Had we had a better health centre closer by, we could have been telling a different story.’
Two facts about Peru: It has the highest per capita coronavirus death rate in the world, and almost one in three Peruvians identify as Indigenous. When photojournalist Sebastián Castañeda travelled to the Peruvian Amazon for TNH in late July, he found many Indigenous people with COVID-19 unable to get to hospitals and reliant on the support of local shamans and community volunteers. From a mass grave outside the eastern city of Pucallpa, to overcrowded river boats, to makeshift clinics and limited oxygen supplies, Castañeda’s images are powerful and sad. None brings home the gravity of this health emergency, which has flown dangerously under the media radar, more than one showing the last moments of Emilio Estrella, leader of the Kakataibo community and lifelong protector of its language and culture. Read more here on how health and aid workers are being encouraged to embrace traditional medicine, and follow this link to explore our stream of reporting on Indigenous groups.
An arrest in Rwanda
For a man who officially won 99 percent of the vote in 2017, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has a lot of enemies. One of his fiercest opponents, Paul Rusesabagina, had until last week voiced his criticism from abroad. But on Monday he was paraded in handcuffs in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, accused of terrorism-related offenses. How he arrived from Dubai, where he was visiting, remains a mystery. Rusesabagina, who holds Belgian citizenship and lives in the United States, is credited with saving more than 1,000 lives during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. He has also spoken out against Kagame’s silencing of the opposition. But now he’s accused of the more serious crime of links to the National Liberation Forces, which includes former genocidaires in its ranks, and is believed responsible for two deadly attacks in 2018. Political space is limited in Rwanda. In February, popular singer and activist Kizito Mihigo was found dead in his cell. He was among 2,000 prisoners freed in 2018, also including Victoire Ingabire, jailed before she could contest the 2010 presidential election. Five senior members of her party have been killed or gone missing in recent years – other dissidents are merely harassed.
We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do
We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.
Our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation triggered this probe, demonstrating the impact our journalism can have.
But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking.
We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.
The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and do more of this.