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A Libyan descent, a Syrian aid impasse, and a royal mess: The Cheat Sheet

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

A fighter loyal to Libya's UN-backed government looks at a room burned out during clashes last weekend with troops loyal to Khalifa Haftar.
A fighter loyal to Libya's UN-backed government looks at a room burned out during clashes last weekend with troops loyal to Khalifa Haftar. (Goran Tomasevic/REUTERS)

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

On our radar

More Libya warning signs

After nine months of fighting centred on the capital, Tripoli, this week saw two duelling – and so far unsuccessful – calls for a ceasefire in Libya. Russia and Turkey, which back opposing sides in the conflict between the UN-backed government and eastern forces led by General Khalifa Haftar, put forth a proposed truce, even as Italy hosted separate talks in Rome. In an evolving conflict drawing in more and more foreign powers, Haftar claimed this week that his forces had taken the strategically important coastal city of Sirte. The UN says at least 11 civilians have been killed in an uptick in violence that started early December. A military academy was also bombed in Tripoli over the weekend, killing at least 28 people. In another worrying development, shelling last week hit in or near the Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF). The UN’s refugee agency has failed to convince more than 1,000 people to leave the troubled centre after it lost control of what was intended to be a transit facility for those about to be evacuated out of Libya. So far, there’s no clear way out of the escalating conflict, either for Libyans or the 600,000 migrants and refugees stuck in the country.

Crunchtime (again) for UN aid to Idlib

This Friday, the UN Security Council will agree what can be done about extending a special arrangement for Syrian relief aid. Or it won’t. Diplomatic power games could hold up aid to some of Syria’s most at-risk people, if a compromise or delay is not decided. About a million people in Syria’s most violent war zone, Idlib, got help with food from the UN in December. A ceasefire announced Thursday will not immediately alter huge humanitarian needs. UN aid could stop on 11 January if diplomats can’t agree on the legal basis for the operation that supplies rebel-controlled territory. Russia wants to put new limits on the arrangement, which its ally, Damascus, objects to. Along with China, Russia vetoed a more permissive extension on 20 December. This lifeline seems to have become a bargaining chip, but it’s only one of the key challenges facing aid operations in Syria, as we lay out in this 2020 overview.

Sudan: The good and the bad

A political revolution is underway in Sudan, but humanitarian needs remain grim. Some 9.3 million people – 23 percent of the population – will need aid relief in 2020, according to the UN. Most households cannot afford even a basic daily food basket. While conflict is reducing following talks between the new government and rebel groups, there are still 1.87 million people made homeless by war. The western region of Darfur is among the areas where needs – and tensions – are highest. Clashes at the end of December between “Arab” militia and “African” communities killed 54 people and forced more than 40,000 already displaced persons to flee their camps. See the TNH report here. There was better news from South Kordofan, with a visit by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to Kauda, the bastion of the largest rebel group, the SPLM-N. The groundbreaking 8 January trip was seen as a boost to peace talks due to conclude next month and could help pave the way for humanitarian access.

Who is funding conscripted labour in Eritrea?

The EU and the UN are unable to properly monitor a joint project in Eritrea that uses military conscripts as labour, according to a report by The New York Times. Despite assurances of oversight on health and safety, and international human rights standards, neither the EU itself, nor UN officials funded by the EU, are able to fully verify project activities. The EU has paid €20 million towards the road-building scheme, via the UN's Office for Project Services. The irony is bleak: the EU's Trust Fund for Africa is intended to stem migration, but unpaid and indefinite military service is one of the human rights abuses that drives Eritreans to seek asylum. This is not the first case where EU migration-related funding in African countries has attracted criticism on human rights grounds, including in Libya, Niger, and Sudan. A further €95 million from the EU was committed to Eritrea last December, according to the report.

China’s ‘disruptive’ aid potential

Can China play a bigger role in humanitarian response? China is one of the world’s largest economies, but it has an undersized – yet growing – role in emergency aid. A new paper from the Melbourne-based Humanitarian Advisory Group tries to unpack some of the assumptions, challenges, and opportunities around Chinese aid. The researchers argue that China has the potential to play a positive “disruptive” role in the aid system, particularly in jolting slow-moving reforms such as shifting to locally driven aid and bringing the humanitarian and development worlds closer together. Unlike the traditional international aid sector, China has no clear divide between its humanitarian and development aims, and half of its aid is coordinated directly with national governments. However, China tends to use its own expertise rather than building local strengths. Check out the study here, and read some of our previous reporting on Chinese humanitarian aid here.

The translation crisis at the US border

People seeking asylum in the United States come from all over the world and speak a dizzying array of languages. Last week, the New Yorker explored the under-reported repercussions of how language barriers may play a role in denying basic rights. Legal advocates helping speakers of Mayan languages say mistranslations (or a sheer lack of interpreters) have led to child separations, extended detentions, deportations, and worse: five of the six children who died while held by the US Department of Homeland Security since Donald Trump took office were indigenous Mayan-language speakers. In California, a local non-profit is training indigenous-language interpreters to help. But a growing number of other non-Spanish speakers from further afield – including people from India, China, and Bangladesh – are joining those crossing the border.

In case you missed it

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: More than 200 fighters from a militia known as CODECO have surrendered in Congo’s northeastern Ituri province, where unrest last year displaced over 300,000 people. The ethnic Lendu group has been blamed for dozens of massacres, but its leader has expressed interest in demobilisation in recent months.

MALARIA: Burundi is struggling with staggering levels of malaria – more than 8.5 million cases and 3,170 deaths since the beginning of last year, in a population of just 12 million. Nineteen districts in the east of the country are hardest hit. See a TNH report on the outbreak.

MALI/NIGER: Eighteen UN peacekeepers were injured – six seriously – after a rocket was fired Thursday at a military compound in northern Mali’s Kidal region. Extremist groups are active in the area and have regularly attacked the six-year-old UN mission – the world body’s most dangerous ongoing peace operation, which is known by its French acronym, MINUSMA. At least 25 soldiers were also killed yesterday in the latest suspected jihadist attack in neighbouring Niger.

MEASLES: A measles outbreak that infected nearly three percent of the population of Samoa is stabilising, but the reported discovery of new cases in Papua New Guinea is fuelling more alarm in the Pacific amid a global measles surge. An outbreak of the vaccine-preventable disease has killed more than 6,000 people in Congo alone, the WHO said this week.

PUERTO RICO: The US territory in the Caribbean has been rocked by the most powerful earthquake to strike the island in more than a century. The 6.4-magnitude quake – one of more than 100 to shake the island in recent weeks – knocked out power, damaged hundreds of homes, and killed at least one. It comes as people struggle to rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which killed nearly 3,000 in 2017, and caused some $90 billion in damages.

Weekend read

Reporter’s Diary: Hazardous handshakes and other indignities in the time of Ebola

Efforts to bring the second deadliest outbreak of Ebola in human history to an end were repeatedly thwarted in 2019 by attacks on health workers that caused response activities to be suspended. The motives for such attacks remain unclear, but the World Health Organisation and others have suggested that the response will continue to flounder without community acceptance. This deeply personal account from Emmanuel Freudenthal shows how he tried to report from the perspective of those most affected in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It opens with Freudenthal himself receiving the Ebola vaccine, but is jam-packed with telling observations, like this one from a health worker: “Our brothers from the community think that we are eating bread dipped into the blood of our brothers, that we plot, that we conspire so that our brothers die. So that’s the risk and dangers we face.” After at least 2,235 deaths, and as efforts intensify in 2020 to finally reach zero new cases, understanding the context has never been so important. Have a read.

And finally…

Heavy the letterhead that wears the crown

A new study will evaluate whether charities really benefit from figurehead patrons – and its timing couldn’t be better. Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle said this week they will distance themselves from the public role of the royal family and the media. “Megxit”, and Prince Andrew’s links with US sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, have renewed debate on the relevance and taxpayer value-for-money of the dynasty. One justification for the royals is their good works: as many as 3,000 UK charities have royal patrons. But who gains? Giving Evidence, led by UK analyst and commentator Caroline Fiennes, will apply research methods to find out if having a royal patron makes any difference to charities.


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