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Abuse hearings, starvation tactics, and bagasse noses: The Cheat Sheet

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

(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

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

On our radar

Sexual abuse in aid work gets a hearing

UK lawmakers are taking testimonies on sexual abuse within the aid sector. The International Development Committee held a meeting on 6 October after an investigation between The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation revealed that more than 50 women were allegedly sexually abused or exploited by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo between late 2018 and 2020. Some 30 of the women said they were lured into sex-for-jobs schemes by men who said they were from the World Health Organization. The WHO says it plans to investigate the claims. Congo’s health ministry also said it would investigate. Ten women accused workers from the Ministry of Health. Experts say there has been a “culture of impunity” for abusers. The experts also told committee members that organisations are more concerned about their reputations than getting justice for victims. “The UN, the NGOs believe they are above the law,” Andrew MacLeod of Hear Their Cries, a charity fighting sex abuse in the aid sector, told the committee. Another round of hearings on the topic will be held next week. 

South Sudan slides backwards

Starvation is being deliberately used as a “method of war” in South Sudan, a UN-backed human rights panel said this week. The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has documented how government forces have intentionally pillaged communities living under opposition control in Western Bahr el Ghazal and “systematically denied” humanitarian access to areas of eastern Jonglei state. Commissioner Andrew Clapham said the attacks on civilians could “amount to crimes against humanity” – echoing a similar charge by the commission earlier in the year, when government forces and armed groups were accused of war strategies “responsible for the starvation of the population in [northern] Wau and Unity states”. The commission released a separate report this week also condemning the power-sharing government’s lack of progress in implementing the transitional justice and accountability mechanisms agreed in the 2018 peace agreement. They were supposed to end impunity for killings, rapes, and abductions during the conflict. Instead, “political violence is spiralling out of control [again] at the inter-communal level but driven by national actors who arm ethnic militias and paramilitary groups,” the commission said.

Guatemala pushes back Hondurans

Three days after fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras, some 3,300 migrants were sent back across the border on 4 October by Guatemalan police and military over concerns they posed a COVID-19 risk. The group, part of a so-called human “caravan” heading to the United States, was the first such migration since the start of the pandemic from the three Northern Triangle countries, which also include El Salvador. It was also the first time a caravan was halted ahead of Mexico’s southern border, where agents have, since 2019, taken a heavy-handed response to US-bound migrant groups. President Donald Trump has pressured Central American countries to stop migrants from making it to the United States, under threat of withdrawing aid or, in the case of Mexico, imposing tariffs. Guatemala and Mexico appear to have been coordinating their response ahead of the latest arrivals. Red Cross volunteers provided migrants with water, medical assistance, and COVID-19 information, but the UN’s refugee agency was told by President Alejandro Giammattei to withdraw from the border for “hindering” efforts to send back the migrants, who, he said, had entered the country illegally.

Theory and practice

It has been more than five years since the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) was launched, a set of nine voluntary commitments meant to improve aid. This week’s CHS Alliance Exchange – a virtual meeting of over 150 aid organisations – was a chance to take stock of how far the sector has come in meeting them. Despite the more than 100 humanitarian organisations who have signed up to the commitments, progress – as reported in the 2020 edition of the Humanitarian Accountability Report (HAR) – has yet to match the overall ambition. Organisations have done best in fulfilling the commitment around “coordination and complementarity”. The degree to which they agree to welcome and address complaints was the lowest scoring commitment, despite a sector-wide acknowledgement that this needs to change. The HAR’s findings suggest the sector’s performance is generally better in... “establishing policies rather than those related to what staff do in practice”.

Freed in Mali

A French aid worker and a kidnapped politician have been released by jihadists in Mali. The aid worker, Sophie Pétronin, was abducted in late 2016 in the northern city of Gao, where she ran a charity for children. She was greeted by her son in emotional scenes at Bamako airport. The freed politician, Soumaïla Cissé, is Mali’s main opposition leader. He had been held captive since March. Two Italians were set free in the same deal, which saw jihadists – and others accused of collaborating with them – released from prison in exchange. A new government was also announced on Monday, some six weeks after a group of soldiers deposed the country’s unpopular president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. West Africa’s regional ECOWAS bloc – which had previously called for the junta to be dissolved – lifted its economic sanctions on 6 October. But the coup leaders have taken top posts in the new government and will likely play an outsized role in the 18-month transition before elections.

Iraq’s coronavirus challenge

COVID-19 cases have been rising steadily in Iraq since April, with nearly 395,000 confirmed infections and 9,683 deaths as of 8 October. Combatting the virus has been a challenge on multiple fronts: The health system is underfunded and has been deteriorating for decades; there have been multiple serious assaults against doctors as despondent relatives turn to violence as an outlet for their grief; and the Iraqi Red Crescent Society says the lockdowns and curfews aren’t really working as people have little choice but to leave their homes to make a living. Oil prices combined with the pandemic have made life even more difficult, according to a new UN report that highlights increasing inequality and the bleak economic outlook in a country where unemployment has long been high.

In case you missed it

BURKINA FASO: Gunmen killed 25 internally displaced people who were returning to their homes in northern Burkina Faso on 4 October, according to the UN’s refugee agency. The attackers identified themselves as jihadists and cited the presence of local volunteers in the area as a motive, witnesses told AP. The government has been arming civilians to fight jihadists since January but analysts say the programme has created new risks for residents. 

EAST AFRICA: Nearly six million people have been affected by flooding this year, with 1.5 million forced from their homes. Parts of the region are recording the heaviest rains in a century. In Sudan, the torrential downpours have affected more than 875,000 people, and the UN says over 10 million are now at risk of contracting water-borne diseases.

ITALY/TUNISIA: Italy reached an agreement with Tunisia to nearly double monthly deportations of Tunisian migrants, from up to 320 to 600. The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic is pushing Tunisians to migrate, causing a spike in the numbers crossing the Mediterranean to Italy by boat. So far this year, nearly 10,000 Tunisians have reached Italy, compared to just 2,600 in all of 2019. 

MYANMAR: A surge in COVID-19 cases continues to hamper already limited aid access in parts of Myanmar. The UN says prevention and control measures are making it harder for aid groups to reach displaced people. In Rakhine, the state government requires aid staff to submit “COVID-19 free certificates”, which take 15 days to process. This is on top of the usual travel authorisations, which are often denied or delayed. Myanmar’s caseload has multiplied since mid-August, rising from the low hundreds to more than 22,400 as of 9 October.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: The foreign ministers of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan met Friday in Moscow to try to bring an end to the worst fighting in decades over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Hundreds of people, including scores of civilians on both sides, have been killed amid heavy shelling since the fighting broke out on 27 September. Separatist authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh say up to half the population of the territory – 75,000 people – have been displaced, but this hasn’t been independently confirmed.

PEACE: The UN’s World Food Programme won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. The committee praised the organisation for “advancing the fraternity of nations”, saying “assistance to increase food security not only prevents hunger, but can also help to improve prospects for stability and peace”.

SYRIA: A truck bomb in northeastern Syria on 6 October killed more than a dozen civilians and wounded another 75. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the explosion in al-Bab, which is controlled by Turkey-backed rebels.

YEMEN: Fighting near Yemen’s northern port of Hodeidah has reportedly left dozens of people dead and injured, including civilians. A December 2018 agreement halted an offensive by the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition on the Houthi-held city, but the deal was never fully implemented. Read this for more on Yemen’s overlapping crises and where diplomatic efforts stand today.

Weekend read

Greece’s ‘new tactic’ of migrant expulsion from deep inside its land borders

When the leaders of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party were convicted this week of running a criminal organisation, tens of thousands of Greeks filled the streets of Athens in celebration. But while human rights groups and others celebrated the ruling as a major victory in the fight against racist violence and hate crimes, there’s growing disquiet over a different form of Greek political intolerance: the forced return of asylum seekers. Greece has long barred people from crossing its land border with Turkey illegally, returning those it catches before they can claim asylum, in what are called pushbacks. This year has also seen the government turning away those migrating by sea, sometimes on small, inflatable rafts. And now, as Sarah Souli reports, it appears that the ruling New Democracy party has been taking an even harder line, expelling hundreds of asylum seekers – some with cards that should allow them to stay – from deep inside Greek territory.

And finally…

Red noses go green

Somewhere between national treasure and indefensible cringefest, the UK's Comic Relief is binning its signature red plastic clown noses. Fans of the charity fundraising TV marathon need not fear: They are being replaced with bagasse, a biodegradable material made from sugarcane. Organisers said the charity had worked with retailer Sainsbury's to develop the new plant-based noses to reduce its consumption of single-use plastics – a move demanded by schoolchildren. Supporters will be able to sample the “widely celebrated sustainable qualities” of the new noses in the run-up to the next Red Nose Day in March 2021. But what to put on your face is not a laughing matter these days. Comic Relief says it will make sure supporters can “enjoy their Nose safely and responsibly, when they go on sale early next year. Advice will be shared that aligns with the latest government guidance.”

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