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Yemen aid plea, Mali power struggle, and Storm Alpha: 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

Yemen famine warning (again)

People are mentioning the F word and Yemen in the same breath once again, nearly two years after it seemed like the country had narrowly avoided a massive famine (if not the widespread hunger and the associated deaths). On Tuesday, UN relief chief Mark Lowcock warned the Security Council that “the spectre of famine has returned” to Yemen, as conflict escalates and the UN’s appeal for money to fund aid programmes in the country is massively underfunded, at around 30 percent. Lowcock singled out Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait – all members of the coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen – for criticism, saying they have a “particular responsibility” to donate. In addition to war and (the lack of) money, obstruction by various parties is a major obstacle to the humanitarian effort: In a new report on this subject, Human Rights Watch calls for sanctions against Yemeni officials responsible for breaking international humanitarian law by denying civilians the aid they need.

Power wrangles in Mali

A month ago, a group of soldiers ousted Mali’s unpopular president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and were welcomed as heroes in the streets of the capital, Bamako. Now, faith is fading as many accuse their new rulers of trying to consolidate power. On Sunday, the opposition coalition behind anti-government protests that preceded the coup rejected the junta’s plan to hold elections in 18 months – arguing that it fails to ensure a civilian will lead the transitional government. West African presidents from the regional ECOWAS bloc also vowed to maintain economic sanctions until the military stands aside. After a previous coup in Mali in 2012, ECOWAS and other organisations quickly pressured the military to put civilians in charge. But the current coup leaders are more senior – and seemingly shrewder – than the last crop. And the regional body’s failure to condemn power grabs by sitting presidents – from Ivory Coast to Guinea – has put its credibility as an enforcer of democracy on the line.

False dawn?

US President Donald Trump called the agreements signed this week to normalise relations between Israel and two Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, “the dawn of a new Middle East.” But not everyone agrees that the opening of embassies, the tightening of commercial ties (Israel and the UAE already did plenty of quiet business together), and the possible selling of weapons, will change all that much. That’s especially true for millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, who will continue to live under occupation. The UN says that between March and August this year Israel demolished or confiscated 389 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank, leaving 442 people homeless. That’s the highest average destruction rate in four years. And while the “Abraham Accords” may have put a halt to Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, Israeli officials have signalled it is still not off the table

Uganda ‘cleaning’ NGO list

The suspension of more than 200 organisations assisting 1.4 million refugees in Uganda remains in force – four weeks after the government imposed the ban. Patrick Onen Esaga, spokesman for the National Bureau for NGOs, told TNH his bureau, along with the Office of the Prime Minister, was still “cleaning” the list of NGOs and international agencies Kampala has accused of operating illegally and without government approval in the camps. Among them are 85 international agencies, including the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Relief Services, Plan International, and the Lutheran World Federation. The move affects three quarters of the refugee aid groups in the country. Although Uganda’s COVID-19 lockdown has shut its borders to fresh arrivals, there is concern the suspension will harm the level of assistance provided to existing refugees, mostly from South Sudan. Leslie Vélez, spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, told TNH: “NGOs are critical partners for the UN and the government as together we continue to ensure that refugees and the host community have access to basic services.” She said UNHCR was “monitoring” the situation.

Preparing for the next one

If there’s one group that can say, “I told you so”, it's the GPMB, a body of international public health experts set up last year to look at health emergencies. Last September, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board's initial report, “A World At Risk”, kicked off with this: “there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy.” This week, it revisited the state of readiness in a new report and updated its recommendations in the light of COVID-19, including this plea: “Again, we say: ‘It is well past time to act’.” Updating recommendations for better leadership, systems, coordination, and funding, it added special emphasis to some ingredients of last year’s report. An entire section is now devoted to “engaged citizenship”. While governments may stumble and international solidarity seems scarce, citizens have to step up. “Individuals have significant responsibility to protect one another”, to avoid misinformation, and inform themselves, it says, noting that “the anti-vaccination movement threatens to exacerbate and prolong the pandemic”.

In case you missed it

GREECE: Thirteen migrants were arrested after a fire broke out at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos on 15 September. Firefighters brought the blaze under control before it damaged the camp, which was built to house 648 people and is currently hosting 4,600. It came a week after a blaze at Moria refugee camp on Lesvos left around 13,000 people homeless, underscoring the dire situation created by EU migration externalisation policies.

LIBYA: At least 24 migrants are presumed to have drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya on 14 September. Survivors from two other boats were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and are now in detention centres in Libya, where thousands of people have disappeared off the official radar this year. Nearly 500 people are estimated to have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean since January.

MYANMAR: The number of civilians displaced by conflict in parts of Rakhine and Chin states has doubled since the start of the year, the UN reported. Clashes between Myanmar’s military and the insurgent Arakan Army have uprooted at least 90,000 people since the conflict escalated in late 2018. However, local humanitarian groups say the true figure is closer to 200,000. Rakhine is also an epicentre of Myanmar’s recent coronavirus surge, and aid groups say restrictions on access and high-speed internet are jeopardising humanitarian efforts.

NEPAL: A magnitude-6.0 earthquake this week struck Nepal’s Sindhupalchowk district – one of the areas hardest hit by quakes that killed more than 9,000 people in 2015. There was no major damage reported. The district is among several that have seen dozens of deaths from landslides during this year’s particularly hazardous monsoon season. Research by the NGO People in Need found that the COVID-19 pandemic has had lopsided impacts among families still rebuilding after the 2015 quakes.

SYRIA: Three aid workers were killed in Aleppo province on Monday alone, Lowcock, the UN relief chief, has told the Security Council. A staffer from the Turkish Red Crescent was attacked and killed in his car, and two aid workers for Syrian NGOs, including a doctor, were killed in a car bomb that left at least 11 other people dead. The British charity World Vision, meanwhile, said one of its local staff was killed on Wednesday in an ambush on a humanitarian convoy in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

UGANDA: The UN has launched an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse and the exploitation of vulnerable women by members of its staff in northeastern Karamoja region. The allegations centre on the World Food Programme compound in the town of Moroto, and involve UN staff demanding sex from local women in exchange for food, and the hiring of sex workers.

UNITED STATES: A gynaecologist at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centre in Georgia has routinely performed unnecessary procedures, including hysterectomies, on migrant women, according to a whistleblower complaint by a nurse who worked at the facility. A private company contracted by the Department of Homeland Security operates the centre, and the alleged abuses have been allowed to occur because of poor oversight and overall inhumane conditions in detention, according to a lawyer familiar with the cases. 

VENEZUELA: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his government have been accused of “crimes against humanity”. Investigators from the UN Human Rights Council found that Maduro and top ministers have since 2014 engaged in a pattern of systematic violence aimed at suppressing political opposition. The UN panel said the serious human rights violations included killings and torture. Millions have fled Venezuela, which has been locked in an economic downturn and political crisis for years. Security forces have also been accused of detaining thousands of people suspected of having COVID-19.

Weekend read

Jordan returns refugees to desolate Syrian border camp, rights groups cry foul

‘These deportations have happened with no fair trial or due process.’

Over the past few months, dozens of Syrian refugees have been deported by the Jordanian government to Rukban, a desolate camp on the Syria-Jordan border. While a member of the camp’s administrative council told TNH the returns are due to “security issues”, several deportees denied having any such issues or any criminal history in the country. “I still don’t know the reason [why this happened], and [why] nobody has investigated it with us,” says Muhammed, a Syrian refugee who, alongside his family of six, is now living in a small mud shelter. Security issues aside, watchdog groups say the deportations are a violation of asylum seekers’ rights and that sending a refugee back to likely harm – known as refoulement – is prohibited under customary international law. While Jordan has been quietly deporting asylum seekers for several years, this is the first time it has been accused of forcible transfers to the desert no man’s land, which experiences scalding temperatures in the summer and is largely cut off from food and medicine supplies.

And finally…

Alphabet soup

There have been so many major storms during this year’s Atlantic hurricane season that forecasters are quickly running out of names. Hurricane Sally, which soaked the southeastern United States this week, is one of 20 named tropical cyclones in the Atlantic this year. Wilfred is the only name left on an alphabetical list of 21 (letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are usually skipped) – and a storm forming on the Gulf of Mexico looks likely to adopt the moniker soon. So what comes next in a hurricane season that has churned through the alphabet at a record pace? After Wilfred, Atlantic hurricanes will be christened with Greek letters – from Alpha to Omega – for only the second time ever. The odds are high that an upcoming storm will dip into the Greek alphabet: There are at least two months left in the Atlantic hurricane season.

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