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Refugee bracelets, African famine predictions, and the problem with a virtual UNGA: 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

Closed EU refugee camps?

A closed camp for asylum seekers being set up by Greek authorities on the island of Samos with support from the EU could provide a preview of what reception and identification centres will look like under the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The closed camp is supposed to improve living conditions for asylum seekers on the Greek islands, a claim humanitarian groups are wary of. The facility is five kilometres from the closest town and will be surrounded by a six-metre-high barbed wire fence. Asylum seekers will be issued microchip bracelets that control access during the day and the gates will be locked at night. The existing camps aren't closed, even though they were intended to be, because they became so overcrowded they couldn't contain everyone and people became so angry at being locked in that they protested and rioted. The deficiencies of the current model were dramatically illustrated by fires at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos at the beginning of September that left 12,500 people temporarily homeless. Last week, the EU announced it would also build a new facility on Lesvos in partnership with Greece. Currently, 10,000 former inhabitants of Moria are living in a tent camp and more than 240 have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Weighing famine risk in Africa

What should we make of disturbing predictions that fragile African countries are “closer to the abyss” of famine as a result of COVID-19? The concern is that market and supply chain disruptions, plus increasing urban poverty, will push millions of people over the brink – with up to 12,000 deaths a day forecast. But much of this modelling was predicated on longer duration lockdowns and permanent job losses, and also conflated pre-existing crises with the early impacts of COVID-19. One senior aid official told The New Humanitarian that COVID-19 fallout estimates no longer hold true and accused some aid agencies of jumping on the coronavirus “bandwagon”. Lockdowns have certainly had a crushing impact on Africa’s urban poor, but governments are beginning to lift the restrictions and restart their economies. Moreover, food prices have generally remained stable rather than the steep increases predicted. With African countries seeming to have avoided the worst, “we should be focusing more on conflict and disaster”, the aid official said. Look out for an upcoming TNH story exploring the regional impact of COVID-19, and an update to our Drought Diaries.

Pandemic haircuts

Zambia says it needs to pause interest payments on $3 billion of commercial bonds due to the pandemic, an announcement analysts Fitch described as the “initiation of a default-like process”. When a state cannot or will not pay back its loans – a sovereign debt default – it becomes harder to borrow or attract investment, opens up legal liabilities, and can have destabilising economic effects. According to Fitch, Argentina, Ecuador, and Lebanon have also defaulted in 2020 and it expects a record year for defaults. The move by Zambia was widely anticipated, and creditors may agree to the suspension. In June, the International Monetary Fund listed eight countries as being in “debt distress”.  Zambia, with $11 billion of debt, is one of 28 countries at “high risk”. The COVID-19-related debts that countries are accruing are adding to concerns that a new debt crisis could develop in emerging markets – one that is even harder to untangle than a predecessor in the 1980s

Leaving Lebanon

Cases of COVID-19 are reaching new heights in Lebanon, where politicians cannot agree on containment measures or on the formation of a new government – the previous leadership having resigned after the August Beirut explosion that compounded months of turmoil and economic collapse. The upsurge in cases has spread across the country: 90 UN peacekeepers in the south had tested positive as of 13 September, there is an ongoing outbreak at a prison in Beirut, and numbers are reportedly high in the northern port of Tripoli, considered Lebanon’s poorest city even before the fiscal crisis left more and more people struggling to put food on the table. The desperate economic circumstances are among the factors driving a growing number of people to board smugglers’ boats from Tripoli to Cyprus. Despite the dangers, locals told our reporter, people are turning to the sea as the best of a bunch of bad options. 

A crisis too good to waste

COVID-19 is an irresistible opportunity for the unscrupulous to make money. Whether it's inflating the price of equipment or flat out stealing, oversight rules get bent in emergencies. In Kenya, at least 15 top government officials and businesspeople are being investigated over the pilfering of $400 million meant for medical supplies. Kenya received $2 billion in aid to fight the pandemic, but health staff still face life-threatening shortages of PPE. The scandal has centred on tenders issued by the state-run Kenya Medical Supplies Agency. It has triggered street protests – but also weary acknowledgment that looting is inevitable in the current political climate. Malfeasance is not unique to Kenya. Big pots of cash spent quickly also saw exorbitant PPE bodysuits in the UK, and $10.5 billion in COVID funding channelled to clients of pro-President Donald Trump lobbyists. The pandemic is more than a medical challenge. It’s also a test of people’s faith in governments and institutions, and that has implications for political and social cohesion, notes the IMF.  

War crimes court hearings in a refugee camp?

Rohingya refugees are pushing to bring justice a little closer to home. Survivors of Myanmar’s violent military purge are petitioning the International Criminal Court to hold proceedings in any potential case outside its usual seat in The Hague. Lawyers for three groups of victims, including survivors of a documented massacre, say they’re trying to close the 8,000-kilometre gulf between The Hague and Bangladesh’s refugee camps, now home to some 900,000 Rohingya. “Justice is neither accessible nor visible to victims,” the petitioners said in submissions to the court. This week, the court’s registry, which manages ICC operations, suggested five possible options, ranging from a one-day judicial visit to a full hearing to confirm charges against would-be suspects, which could include testimony from survivors and witnesses. Each option brings a slew of logistical challenges, from COVID-19 travel restrictions and translating between five languages, to setting up a detention centre if suspects are involved and getting government approval from Bangladesh. ICC rules allow proceedings to be held outside The Hague “in whole or in part”, and changing venues has been debated (though ultimately rejected) in other cases. ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who began her investigation in November, has opposed the move, arguing that it’s far too early in a process that could take years.

In case you missed it

CAMEROON: Four soldiers have been sentenced to 10 years in prison for the killing of two women and two children during an operation against Boko Haram jihadists in the north of the country. The execution was filmed and became the focus of an award-winning investigation by the BBC. Rights groups have accused the army of systematic abuse.

ETHIOPIA:  The influential Oromo nationalist Jawar Mohammed has been charged with terrorism offenses for his alleged role in a wave of violence that followed the June murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a much-loved Oromo singer and activist. The charge could further inflame tensions in restive Oromia region, where a rebel insurgency is bubbling.

FRAGILE STATES: An annual report on aid to fragile states reported that Egypt, Malawi, Nepal, Rwanda, and Timor-Leste had improved enough to get off the list, but Cambodia, Lesotho, Nicaragua, and Togo had been added. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned that debt payments for fragile states in 2021 could be over 80 percent of their incoming aid flows. 

SYRIA: Human Rights Watch said a policy implemented in July by the Syrian government requiring citizens entering the country to exchange $100 for Syrian pounds at the official exchange rate is an obstacle for those wishing to return home. The policy was an attempt to help Syria boost its foreign currency reserves during an economic crisis, but HRW says some people have been unable to gather enough US dollars to pay the fee, leaving them stranded or forced to turn back. 

UK: Britain is planning weekly flights to deport asylum seekers who cross the English Channel by boat, with at least 1,000 people set to be returned to France, Germany, and Italy. The plan is part of an effort to crack down on irregular migration after a recent spike in people crossing the Channel by boat, but it has already run into roadblocks as legal challenges forced at least one deportation flight to be cancelled. 

Weekend read

How COVID-19 has created a crisis on the Venezuela-Colombia border

A region of northern Colombia where people had been facing hardship before the pandemic appears now to be heading for a full-blown humanitarian crisis, affecting both Indigenous communities and tens of thousands of returning Venezuelan migrants. La Guajira is home to the Wayúu, a diverse Indigenous community whose homelands have long been neglected by the federal government. An estimated 92 percent of residents live in poverty, while food and water shortages are common, and medical services almost non-existent. As economic opportunities in the wider region have dried up with the onset of coronavirus, tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants have tried to return home. Many end up in the dozens of overcrowded encampments that have sprung up in La Guajira along the Venezuelan border, and where there is little food or access to healthcare. On the Venezuelan side, migrants who make it through the 200 person-per-day “humanitarian corridor” at Cúcuta – opting against illegal and dangerous smuggling routes – are forced into squalid quarantine camps under armed guard.

And finally…

Crying out for leadership

Whether it was Donald Trump demanding Beijing be held accountable for spreading “the China virus”, Hassan Rouhani comparing Iran’s plight to that of George Floyd, or even the stream of Western presidents and prime ministers making desperate pleas in defence of multilateralism, the UN General Assembly has not been an edifying spectacle. In fact, it isn’t even much of a spectacle, as this year’s “virtual” event has been reduced to a series of pre-recorded speeches and some associated Zoom calls. That, according to an unnamed UN diplomat writing in The Independent, is part of the problem. In order to have better leadership, Emin Pasha (pseudonym) argues, you don’t just need better leaders, you need to be able to lay the diplomatic groundwork to foster good relations. And given the challenges of COVID-19, climate change, and deepening global inequality, Pasha says, we’re running out of time.

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