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Cameroon school killings, male rape in Rohingya camps, and 200 migrant deaths at sea: The Cheat Sheet

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

Cheat Sheet graphic showing people and an army tank.
(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

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

On our radar

‘Why should we kill our own children?’

Cameroon’s anglophone conflict reached a new low last week when gunmen killed eight children and injured 12 others at a school in the southwestern town of Kumba. Officials blamed anglophone separatists, who are demanding independence from the majority French-speaking country, though no group has claimed responsibility. Separatists have enforced an education boycott on English-speaking regions since 2017 as part of their three-year struggle against the government. Talks between the warring sides have taken place in recent months in Yaoundé, the capital. But hardliners from both camps are hampering efforts, and violence has increased on the ground, where more than 700,000 people are now displaced. On Tuesday, Kumba residents held a vigil outside the school, as injured children battled for their lives in hospital. “I have not eaten, I cannot sleep because of this war, this nonsense crisis,” one woman told France 24. “Why should we kill our own children?”

Overlooked: Male sexual violence survivors in refugee camps

Sexual violence against men and boys in conflict is more common than assumed, and the abuse continues – under-reported and unresolved – in aid settings like Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps, new research warns. The Women’s Refugee Commission calls its findings, published this week, “disturbing” and a call to action for humanitarian groups, donors, and host governments. The researchers interviewed refugees and aid workers in Bangladesh, Italy, and Kenya. The WRC says some humanitarian organisations have begun to address the issue, but the response is uneven and “not nearly enough for survivors of all genders”. Last year, TNH reporting found male rape survivors were going uncounted in the Rohingya camps. Aid groups were largely unaware of the scope of a problem that was commonly known among refugees. Treatment was rare: “If we identify new survivors, I don't even know where to refer them to,” said one advocate who works with survivors. Have things changed? The WRC report found some aid groups claimed to offer specialised care. But follow-up interviews in Bangladesh in December 2019 showed “few male survivors had been able to successfully access mental health and medical care”.

Alternatives to migrant drownings

A series of deadly shipwrecks along migration routes to Europe has reignited debate over how to establish safe and legal pathways for asylum seekers and migrants to reach European countries. In the past week, at least 140 people died when a ship heading from Senegal to the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago, sank in the Atlantic Ocean, a family of four – including two young children – drowned in the English Channel while attempting to reach the UK from France, and at least 31 people died in four shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean. Dozens more migrants reportedly died in a separate incident when their boat broke down after leaving Senegal. Civil society organisations have long advocated for more safe and legal routes for asylum seekers and migrants to reach Europe. But since the 2015 migration crisis, European countries have doubled down on efforts to increase border security and partner with third countries to reduce irregular arrivals to the continent. 

Aden’s COVID-19 toll revisited

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the south Yemen city of Aden, nobody knew exactly how many people had been infected with, or died from, the disease. Some names made it into official statistics, but after more than five years of war, record-keeping had largely broken down (not to mention the fact that some information was deliberately suppressed). People like Doctor Ammar Derwish didn’t need numbers to know the situation was dire. As he wrote in his award-winning diary, which we published in July: “People are falling down, one by one, like dominoes.” Now, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has analysed years of satellite imagery of Aden cemeteries to estimate 2,100 pandemic-related “excess deaths” between April and September. That’s drastically higher than the entire country’s official death toll of 599. The study has not yet been peer reviewed, but its authors are now looking to replicate their technique in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and are touting it as a potential breakthrough in how crucial information can be gathered during infectious disease outbreaks and other humanitarian crises. 

New Venezuelan exodus?

Evidence is growing of a new wave of Venezuelans fleeing their homeland, as lockdowns ease and migrants look to the wider region to find work and, in many cases, send money home to their families. The Colombian Red Cross says almost three quarters of its interventions during September in the dangerous border areas involved people leaving Venezuela. This goes against the previous flow, as some 115,000 Venezuelans had returned home in recent months because of dwindling regional opportunities and increased hardship and xenophobia due to the pandemic. After ending one of the region’s longest lockdowns on 1 September, the Colombian government is now predicting a fresh influx of up to 250,000 Venezuelans by the year-end. Médecins Sans Frontières warned this week that the worst violence in decades – and related displacement – was driving a mental health crisis in the border areas. For more, read our recent story.

‘Justice has been done’

A Sudanese security guard who reported an American charity boss to the police for allegedly calling him a slave has applauded Catholic Relief Services for sacking Driss Moumane. The Baltimore-based charity said on 20 October that Moumane had been terminated as CRS’s Sudan country representative. He was arrested for alleged racist abuse in late July, but an investigation by The New Humanitarian found that at least three whistleblowers had also filed complaints against Moumane dating as far back as 2018. In an email responding to the sacking, the security guard, Mustafa Babikir told TNH: “Justice has been done.” Babikir said he had felt emboldened to go to the police because of the Black Lives Matter protests. “We need to join the wide solidarity that the Black Lives Matter movement has attracted around the globe,” he said. Babikir said he received a $800 settlement from Moumane, and used the money to help his family and 10 siblings. CRS has denied any knowledge of a settlement.

In case you missed it

GREECE/TURKEY: A 7-0-magnitude earthquake struck on 30 October in the Aegean Sea. Initial reports suggested several multi-storey buildings in the Turkish city of Izmir had collapsed, with several people killed, hundreds injured, and more trapped beneath the rubble. Flooding damage from a small tsunami was also reported on Greece’s Aegean island of Samos.

LOCUSTS: A new generation of desert locusts has started breeding in Ethiopia and Somalia, with new swarms expected to form by mid-December, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation warned this week. The swarms began last year and are the largest in east Africa in several decades.

MYANMAR: A boat driver was killed on 28 October in Rakhine State when Myanmar security forces fired on a vessel shuttling aid supplies for the International Committee of the Red Cross, The Irrawaddy reported. A military spokesman claimed Arakan Army fighters were on board and fired first; the insurgent group has denied this. The UN says two people in IDP camps have tested positive for the coronavirus – the first reported cases among people displaced by the Rakhine State conflict, which has uprooted more than 220,000 people since late 2018.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Fresh talks began in Geneva on 30 October to try to end more than a month of fighting that has claimed hundreds, probably thousands, of lives in Nagorno-Karabakh. Both sides have been blamed for dozens of civilian deaths. Azerbaijan this week accused Armenia of the deadliest civilian incident yet – a missile strike that killed more than 20 people. Among the recent fatalities was an Azerbaijani Red Crescent Society volunteer. Two others were wounded.

PALAU: Hotter days, cooler nights, rising temperatures, and more tidal floods: A new report by the US-based East-West Center has tracked signs of climate change in the western Pacific nation of Palau. It found the number of “hot days” with temperatures above 32C had more than doubled since 1952, while “cool nights” had shrunk by two thirds to only 13.

US-MEXICO: Migrant deaths in the Arizona desert have reached a seven-year high, with the remains of 181 people found so far in 2020. Humanitarian aid groups and local officials say the deaths result from long-standing US policies that have pushed migration routes into more remote areas of the desert, harsh weather this year, and Trump administration laws that have cut off access to asylum at the US-Mexico border during the pandemic. 

VIETNAM: Landslides triggered by Vietnam’s fourth major storm in October buried at least 53 people, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says. Aid groups are planning an emergency response as Vietnam deals with one of its worst disasters in two decades. The four October storms, including Molave this week, worsened severe floods that have inundated central Vietnam and parts of Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.

Weekend read

Inside the childhood hunger ‘emergency’ in Syria’s Idlib

Idlib doesn’t make the headlines quite as much as it used to, thanks to a March ceasefire that put a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive on hold – but life for millions of civilians in the rebel-held northwest remains a struggle. The UN reports a drastic rise in cases of COVID-19 over the past month, and UN relief chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council this week that “healthcare workers increasingly fear being overwhelmed” by the virus. And the pandemic is far from the only challenge doctors and nurses in the battered region are facing: For months, they’ve been witnessing rising rates of malnutrition, especially in young children. In this Weekend Read, find out how mass displacement and a collapsing currency have collided to create a situation where more and more parents are struggling to buy enough food for their kids.

And finally…

How now to count cows

Cows matter a lot in South Sudan: as assets – a means of exchange and source of food – and also as triggers of conflict. But no one knows how many there are. The government says there are about 12 million, but the last aerial survey was in the 1970s and estimates vary wildly. Now, data scientists backed with UK aid funds have developed a computer model they say can automatically spot a cattle camp – with 90 percent accuracy – from satellite imagery. The camps gather huge herds in the dry season and offer the most realistic way to count cows from space. The next phase of the study will fine-tune the system to compare counts of animals on the ground in the camps with machine-based estimates. Apart from the machine learning challenge, the researchers admit another risk: Exposing the location of camps might invite trouble. Livestock herding is a key plank of Sudan’s economy, but cattle-raiding is a “fact of life” in the fragile and food insecure country.

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