Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
An old war resurfaces
A little known and long-running conflict in the Caucasus is having its deadliest flare-up in years: Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting for a week in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave of around 150,000 people inside Azerbaijan that declared independence in 1991, but is not internationally recognised. The two sides fought over the territory as the Soviet Union collapsed, in a war that left an estimated 30,000 people dead and more than a million displaced. Since 1994, a fragile truce has largely kept the peace, although there have been outbursts of violence, including fierce clashes in 2016. The official death toll is now more than 100, but the two sides have different numbers, with shelling and drones reportedly in the mix. And there’s another new and potentially dangerous element to the decades-old conflict: International powers are starting to take an interest. Turkey has thrown its support behind Azerbaijan, although it denies reports that Turkish security companies have brought fighters from Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh. And Russia has a military base in Armenia, but also retains ties with Azerbaijan. So far, calls for a ceasefire have gone unheeded, although Armenia has said it “stands ready” for talks.
A new kind of protest in Venezuela
A wave of demonstrations has erupted in Venezuela over the past week – markedly different from the opposition-led mass protests of last year. Since 27 September, more than 100 smaller protests have broken out across the country over shortages of electricity, water, fuel, and basic supplies. Iran has sent tankers of emergency fuel supplies, while President Nicolás Maduro has reportedly sent in soldiers, police, and local militias to quell localised skirmishes. A mission of UN experts last month accused Maduro’s government of “crimes against humanity”, and his security forces of using techniques including electric shocks, genital mutilation, and asphyxiation to torture his opponents. Meanwhile, many of the millions of Venezuelans who fled the country’s economic collapse are trying to return home as regional work opportunities dry up due to the coronavirus. For more, check out our recent reporting.
After a senior staffer at Amnesty International took his own life, his family got a payment of $1 million but had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), according to The Times. The London-based NGO paid the sum to settle a case brought in France. Mauritius-born Gaëtan Mootoo, 65, left a note suggesting workplace issues had significantly contributed to his suicide. Mootoo was a veteran researcher for Amnesty based in Paris, and a restructuring process had triggered a decline in his confidence and morale, according to an independent review following his death in 2018. Gagging clauses used by other non-profits have been in the news recently: for example, Christian NGO Tearfund used an NDA with a staff member who had alleged bullying, according to Civil Society News. NDAs may have legitimate uses, but can also “silence whistle-blowers or victims of other kinds of wrongdoing”, according to a review by the CHS Alliance, an NGO standards group.
The administration of US President Donald Trump has further slashed the country’s refugee resettlement programme, announcing a historically low ceiling for refugee admissions of 15,000 for the 2021 fiscal year, which began on 1 October. Since coming to office, Trump has scaled back refugee admissions every year, in line with his administration’s focus on reducing both regular and irregular immigration to the United States. Since the beginning of the refugee resettlement programme in 1980, the country has resettled 95,000 refugees on average per year, making it by far the global leader. The US resettlement ceiling was set at 18,000 for fiscal year 2020, but only 11,814 were resettled due to bureaucratic impediments and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. There are around 120,000 refugees around the world currently on lists awaiting possible resettlement in the United States.
Back to the future?
The Italian government is preparing to amend controversial security decrees issued by far-right, former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. The decrees, passed in 2018 and 2019, stripped tens of thousands of migrants of humanitarian protection, imposed heavy fines on NGO search and rescue ships and hobbled Italy’s migration reception system. If passed, a new decree would reinstate broader grounds for humanitarian protection and reform Italy’s reception system, among other positive measures, although it still takes a hard line on NGO search and rescue boats. At the same time, Salvini is set to stand trial in Sicily beginning 3 October for allegedly illegally detaining migrants at sea. The charges stem from a 2019 incident where Salvini blocked 116 migrants from disembarking from an Italian Coast Guard boat as part of his “closed ports” policy. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison, but an acquittal could also present him with a political victory.
Spending on the Sahel
This month’s donor conference on the Sahel will signal the appetite of Western governments for continued humanitarian funding in the teeth of global recession. The early indications seem positive. The United States announced this week $152 million in new aid for a region where 2.5 million people have been displaced by conflict and hunger. The pledging conference, convened by Denmark and held in partnership with Germany and the EU, “is being driven by [those countries], and as such they will be expected to pay,” a Geneva-based aid official told The New Humanitarian. So far, donors have provided roughly 40 percent of the required funding. Despite coronavirus-triggered economic woes, global humanitarian spending is around $3 billion more this year than at the same time in 2019 – a total of $11.25 billion versus $8.24 billion – although overall humanitarian needs are much larger, the aid official said. For background on the crisis, read our 2019 collection: The Sahel in flames.
In case you missed it
ASSAM: India’s northeast is facing a third wave of floods, in a monsoon season that has already brought unusually heavy damage across the region. State authorities in Assam say 13,500 hectares of crops were flooded in late September; earlier flooding wiped out crops and pushed tens of thousands into relief camps.
GREECE: The Greek government has accused 33 aid workers from four NGOs of charges related to people smuggling and spying. The names of the groups have yet to be officially released. The accusations mirror charges levelled against aid workers in 2018 that rights groups said were part of an effort to criminalise individuals and groups providing assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in the country.
HAITI/COLOMBIA: More than 90 Haitian migrants – 33 of them children – were rescued off the Colombian coast on Tuesday after their boat engine reportedly failed and their trafficker made off on another vessel. Thousands of Haitians try to reach Panama each year so they can travel onwards through Central America to the United States: The Colombian authorities have deported 3,000 Haitians so far in 2020. A long-running political and economic crisis in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, has been compounded by COVID-19 and is causing severe food shortages and hunger.
INDIA: Amnesty International India has shut its operations after its bank accounts were frozen in what it calls a government “witch-hunt” targeting rights groups. The government accuses Amnesty of “interference in domestic political debates”. In September, India tightened its already-stringent regulations on foreign funding for NGOs, which has also limited humanitarian programmes for years. Rights groups say the government uses the law to muzzle criticism from civil society groups.
SOUTH SUDAN: The country’s peace process is in trouble. Rival forces waiting to be unified are deserting training centres due to a lack of food, and “there has been almost no movement on the critical areas of security sector reform,” David Shearer, the UN special envoy, said this week. Delays across a range of key areas could lead to the postponement of elections scheduled for 2023, he warned.
SYRIA: A 29 September UN update says COVID-19 has “rapidly evolved” in parts of Syria controlled by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and “all factors… point to widespread community transmission”. The Ministry of Health says 143 healthcare workers have tested positive, and at least 11 are reported to have died.
In the first week of September, authorities in Cyprus pushed back 200 migrants at sea coming from Lebanon, refusing to let them lodge asylum claims, according to Human Rights Watch. Greek and Cypriot coast guards reportedly attempted to capsize boats, abandoned vessels at sea without food or water, and in some cases moved migrants onto civilian passenger vessels before transporting them back to Lebanon. The sudden increase in Lebanese attempting these journeys represents a significant new trend. In light of the influx, the lack of a robust refugee integration plan in Cyprus – long a destination for Syrian refugees – is beginning to wear on the island’s social fabric: Job opportunities for migrants remain limited, while xenophobia is on the rise. Through the lens of a recent murder of a Syrian refugee, reporter Daniel Thomas explores how Cyprus has been dealing with becoming an asylum hotpost and where the government might find some room for improvement.
A hacking incident at fundraising platform Blackbaud was worse than originally reported. In a 29 September update, the company said “bank account information, social security numbers, usernames and/or passwords” were in some cases accessible to the intruders. As we reported, Save the Children and World Vision were among dozens of NGOs affected by the data breach. Since that article’s publication, announcements have continued to trickle out, including from Mercy Corps and Islamic Relief USA. Frustration is running high among some clients, TNH understands. One UK NGO official said the company was “refusing point blank to answer calls and emails from charity clients. Literally no answers.” In July, Blackbaud had announced that hackers had copied “a subset of data” (but no social security or banking information) held at the company, and had been paid a ransom. It has not divulged how many of its 45,000 clients were affected, nor how many individual customers of those clients had data accessed. One client said it had over a million customers’ data compromised. Blackbaud’s share price has taken a hit as at least five lawsuits have been filed. One, likely to chill NGO lawyers, blames the NGOs who used Blackbaud’s services, as well as the company, for failing to protect sensitive personal data.
It was The New Humanitarian’s investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation that uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led the World Health Organization to launch an independent review and reform its practices.
This demonstrates the important impact that 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 shine a light on similar abuses.