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Barbed wire, prisoner swaps, and Nutella and tyre survival tactics: 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

In Nigeria, a movement and a moment

It started as protest against the killing and extortion by Nigeria’s notorious police Special Anti-Robbery Squad, but #EndSARS has become much more than that. After more than a week of demonstrations in cities across the country, the youth-led movement has rejected the new SWAT unit that is replacing SARS as a cynical rebrand. They want officers accused of murder and brutality – their crimes regularly posted on social media – prosecuted. And, in a weaponisation of hashtags, the demands have expanded to include pay cuts for national assembly senators (#NASSPayCutNow), then a more combative #EndNASS, and – at the heart of the issue – #EndBadGovernanceinNIGERIA. There has been pushback. The police have used live ammunition, killing at least 10; demonstrations have been banned; and busloads of machete-wielding street toughs have broken up peaceful marches. The army has signalled it will intervene in support of the government should matters deteriorate. But this feels like a moment, the voicing of general disgust with a political system seemingly indifferent to the death of its citizens, not only at the hands of the police but in multiplying conflict zones across the country. 

Bangladesh rings Rohingya camps with barbed wire

Authorities in Bangladesh are surrounding the Rohingya refugee camps with barbed-wire fencing and watchtowers in what refugees and rights groups liken to a “prison”. Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights says construction on some 28 kilometres of fencing is nearly complete around parts of the camps, which are home to some 900,000 Rohingya pushed out of Myanmar. Humanitarian workers fear the fencing could hamper aid delivery and block access to medical clinics. Bangladeshi officials say the fencing is a response to growing concerns about crime and gang violence; humanitarian groups say any security measures must be proportionate: “The civilian and humanitarian character of the camps must be maintained,” the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, warned in December. Rights groups and aid workers say the fencing appears to redraw the camp boundaries and leaves thousands of refugees on the outside – sparking concern it’s part of a plan to push families to the disaster-prone Bhasan Char island camp, to where most refugees have refused to relocate. Meanwhile, aid agencies are preparing for a 22 October donor pledging conference. Less than half of this year’s $1 billion response plan has been funded.

Guinea on edge

Guinea’s head of state, Alpha Condé, will run for a third term on Sunday – a move critics say is illegal and many fear could spark post-election violence. The 82-year-old became the coup-prone country’s first democratically elected leader when he took charge in 2010. But in March, voters approved a constitutional referendum that Condé claims resets presidential term limits. At least 50 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since widespread demonstrations against the president began last year. Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, warned last week that candidates are “stirring up ethnic divisions” ahead of the vote. Condé is largely backed by the Malinke group, while his main challenger, Cellou Dalein Diallo, is closely associated with the Fulani community. Ethnic divisions have led to deadly conflicts in the past. And fear of violence on Sunday has already caused hundreds of people to flee their homes in the eastern city of Kankan.

Commission to investigate WHO sex abuse claims

The World Health Organization will send an independent commission to the Democratic Republic of Congo to investigate sex abuse allegations against WHO workers in the Ebola outbreak. The announcement comes after an investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation found more than 50 women who said they were lured into sex-for-work schemes and other forms of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers between 2018 and 2020. Thirty women said they were exploited by WHO workers. The commission will be led by Aïchatou Mindaoudou, former minister of foreign affairs and of social development of Niger. She will be joined by co-chair Julienne Lusenge, a Congolese human rights activist and advocate for survivors of sexual violence in conflict. Up to seven members, including the two chairs, will be on the commission. WHO said the commission will “establish the facts, identify and support survivors, ensure that any ongoing abuse has stopped, and hold perpetrators to account.” The Congolese government, as well as several NGOs whose workers were named by the women, have also said they will investigate the abuse claims.

G20 debt repayment pause extended

Low-income countries – including humanitarian hotspots such as Mozambique and Afghanistan – struggling to stay afloat due to loans, healthcare costs, and recession won a further six-month debt repayment break from the G20 group of major economies this week. The G20 announced the pause can continue up to July 2021, but said that might not be enough: “The significant debt vulnerabilities and deteriorating outlook” could demand further “debt treatment” measures. The Debt Service Suspension Initiative (check our explainer on the DSSI here), has so far freed up about $5 billion that countries can use to tackle the pandemic instead of service loans. But some, like Zambia, are close to defaulting on loans. The DSSI, offered to about 60 mainly low-income states, allows countries to pause bilateral (country-to-country) loans. That’s only about a third of their debt bills. Commercial lenders are due another third but haven't signed up to offer the same deal; the G20 is “disappointed”. None of these arrangements actually cuts amounts due. Debt analysts at Oxfam said the offering was the “bare minimum”.

Prisoner swaps and hostage releases in Yemen

A long-awaited prisoner exchange got underway in Yemen this week – an operation the International Committee of the Red Cross says will take “11 planes, multiple cities, and two days,” with 1,081 people eventually released. While it doesn’t include thousands of other detainees held across the country – journalists and activists, for example – the UN is hoping the swap will help build confidence between the warring parties, as well as momentum for peace talks. Separately, two American hostages were released from Houthi custody this week, reportedly as part of a trade for 200 loyalists to the rebel group who had been stuck in Oman. One of them, Sandra Loli, was described in reports as a humanitarian worker, and a family spokesperson told TNH that her first stint in Yemen was as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1983 to 1985. Before she was taken hostage 16 months ago, the spokesperson said that Loli was working with a company she runs with her husband that makes “affordable colloidal silver-infused ceramic water filters, [which] have provided a source of safe drinking water to tens of thousands of Yemeni people.” Burt Cohen, executive director of the aptly-named group Potters Without Borders, told TNH that “Sandra has been instrumental in the development of low-cost ceramic water filter production in the country.”

Shifting routes to Europe

Migration restrictions in North Africa are pushing people to seek alternative routes to Europe. In 48 hours last week, over 1,000 asylum seekers and migrants reached the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa. Many of the asylum seekers and migrants set sail from Senegal, more than 1,600 kilometres away. Nearly 8,000 people have made the journey so far this year – the most since 2006 when more than 30,000 people arrived on the islands – and at least 251 have died. The uptick follows an EU-backed crackdown by the Moroccan government on migration across the Mediterranean. The sea journey from Morocco to Spain can be as short as 16 kilometres, but the Canary Islands are 100 kilometres away from the closest point on the African coast. In 2018, nearly 60,000 people reached Spain by sea from Morocco. So far this year, that number stands at just over 20,000.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Thousands have fled fighting between Taliban and Afghan forces in the southern province of Helmand, trapping civilians in the capital, Lashkargah, and disrupting healthcare. Local authorities say up to 35,000 people are displaced, though humanitarian assessments are still underway. Peace talks between the Taliban and government started in September but violence has risen. “Too many Afghans are dying,” the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, warned on 15 October.

IVORY COAST: Two leading opposition candidates have called on supporters to boycott this month’s presidential election as tensions continue to build in the West African country. The incumbent, President Alassane Ouattara, is standing for a controversial third term, which critics consider unconstitutional. Disputed polls in 2010 led to a brief civil war and the death of around 3,000 people.

MYANMAR: Two children were killed in crossfire in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on 5 October after allegedly being used as human shields. The UN said the pair were among 15 farmers forced to walk in front of a Myanmar army unit when gunfire erupted between soldiers and fighters with the Arakan Army. Local aid groups say the escalating conflict in Rakhine has displaced more than 200,000 people since late 2018.

SOUTHEAST ASIA FLOODS: Heavy rainfall fuelled by a pair of tropical storms has driven extensive flooding in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. At least 48 are dead and 16,000 are displaced, and there is extensive damage to crops and infrastructure, according to the AHA Centre, the regional disaster management body.

UK: Britain is reportedly considering deploying nets in the English Channel to stop asylum seekers and migrants crossing from France by clogging the propellers of their boats. It’s the latest in a series of extreme tactics proposed to stop the crossings. More than 7,000 people have reached the UK in small boats this year – a four-fold increase from last year – but the number of asylum applications has dropped significantly since April.

Weekend read

Are warnings of a COVID-19 famine in Africa overblown?

The warnings have come thick and fast – many from the head of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning World Food Programme: a famine of “biblical proportions”; COVID-19 pushing mostly African countries “closer to the abyss” of famine; “if we do not act now… many people will die”. But might such dire predictions be overblown? And, if so, what other vital issues might they be pulling attention away from? For this two-part weekend read, we revisited the six families from our award-winning Drought Diaries series and asked them how COVID-19 has affected their lives in Somalia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. We also asked experts in emergency aid in Africa what they thought. And while it’s true coronavirus hasn’t left the continent untouched, many African countries appear to be holding up better than expected. As one aid official put it, while there’s “no harm in preparing for the worst”, “jumping on [COVID-19] bandwagons” isn’t a good look, and the evidence suggests “we need to get our focus back to the existing conflict/disaster settings”. While you’re reading, don’t miss the chance to meet HumanitariBot – an ever-helpful ChatBot who is eager to tell you about everything from drought to locusts, but who, yes, maybe needs a new name. (Here are some of the current suggestions...) 

And finally…

Mad, bad times in Maracaibo

“If the world was unprepared for a pandemic, a country that wasn’t even prepared for next week was specially vulnerable.” That’s an early observation from Antonio Matheus in his simple, powerful take from the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo for the Caracas Chronicles news blog. Two years ago, we reported on how this once-opulent heart of Venezuela’s oil industry had been reduced to a ghost town of crumbling hospitals and half-empty streets. Matheus, himself, questioned in March how long the city would last lockdown. “It turns out the answer is, not that long,” he writes. And yet, for the most part, the picture he conveys is one of resilience, of hustling against the odds, of education via Zoom, from a rocking chair. Everyone is trying to sell something, and will package together the most unlikely items: Nutella, truck tyres, and a box of band-aids. “Maracaibo is combo central now,” Matheus writes. The city’s staggering descent drips from the page. It’s heartbreaking, but inescapably uplifting too. Make time for a read, if you can. 

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