Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Yet another Yemen aid problem
The UN and some international NGOs have moved a number of American aid workers out of Houthi rebel-controlled northern Yemen, following reports that the Trump administration will officially designate the group a terrorist organisation before the president leaves office (presumably) in late January. Aid officials have been working behind the scenes to avoid such a listing for months, fearing it would make it even more difficult to deliver assistance in Yemen, where access restrictions, conflict, and outright obstruction have already been making aid workers’ jobs extremely difficult – and often dangerous. It’s not clear what difference listing the Houthis would make, as US officials have a variety of options, and sanctions can include humanitarian exceptions. In the past few years, donor countries have set up various legal (anti-terror), administrative, and bureaucratic measures in places like Syria, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Nigeria – to name just a few – all of which they say are necessary to make sure aid does not fall into the wrong hands. NGOs say the measures often suffocate their work. Read more on what’s at stake here.
UN prepares Ethiopia appeal, but aid workers withdrawn
The UN and NGOs will issue a funding appeal to help some two million people affected by the fighting between the central government and regional armed forces in Tigray. The $75.7 million humanitarian response plan will cover the period November-January, and has been prepared by the UN's humanitarian coordination wing, OCHA. Donors are being asked to fund relief in the Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions. Tens of thousands of refugees arriving in Sudan are the most visible humanitarian symptom of conflict in Ethiopia, due to the media and telecommunication blackout inside Ethiopia. However, new internal displacement, growing medical needs, and support to hundreds of thousands of already poor Tigrayans and Eritrean refugees in Tigray are among the assumptions of relief aid planners. Internal NGO and UN reports indicate that the aid agencies’ ability to move around and operate is highly restricted. On 16 and 18 November, two convoys of “non-essential” aid workers were pulled out of Tigray, according to OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke.
After more than two years, Congo is free of Ebola
And now for some good news. After six months, 130 cases, and 55 deaths, another Ebola epidemic is over in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The outbreak – in the northwestern province of Équateur – was considerably less deadly than the one before it, in Congo’s restive eastern provinces. But like its predecessor, it proved difficult to contain: COVID-19 travel restrictions and border closures hindered efforts to mobilise staff and equipment; thick rainforest and unpaved roads complicated response efforts; and, as the virus spread, so did concerns about local officials trying to profit from relief funds. On 18 November, Health Minister Eteni Longondo warned that further flare-ups in Équateur are possible. “There remains a high risk of a resurgence, and this should be an alarm signal for strengthening the monitoring system,” Longondo said. But the outbreak’s conclusion is a cause for celebration, marking the first time Congo has been Ebola-free since August 2018, when the eastern epidemic commenced. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Afghanistan’s pivotal donor summit
Donors and Afghan officials will meet (virtually, mostly) in Geneva next week for a key summit that could determine aid-dependent Afghanistan’s fiscal future. These pledging conferences are every four years, but this one comes at a particularly pivotal moment for Afghanistan. The country’s budget is propped up by development, military, and humanitarian aid (and will be for the foreseeable future), but the United States – Afghanistan’s largest donor – has indicated it could make substantial cuts. Other major donors are stressing conditions to their contributions, some of which – such as aid access and a permanent ceasefire – appear to be at least partially beyond the current government’s control. There’s political uncertainty within Afghanistan and on the world stage: Taliban peace talks are underway, but conflict continues to shutter health clinics and uproot civilians; and Trump may accelerate US troop withdrawals. The 23-24 November summit aims to raise support (read: cash) for the next four years, but humanitarian concerns are mounting now. Coronavirus ripples have drained Afghanistan’s economy (and the government's budget) and raised food prices. One third of the population may face crisis or emergency levels of hunger through March 2021, just as the country hurtles toward a second wave of COVID-19.
Can asylum seeker pushbacks be ‘torture’?
An “unprecedented” complaint has been filed at the European Court of Human Rights alleging that the pushback of an asylum seeker from Greece violated the prohibition of torture. The applicant – ‘A.N’ – had almost reached the Aegean island of Samos when the dinghy he was travelling on was intercepted by the Greek Coast Guard. According to the claim, those on board were beaten, robbed, and forced onto life rafts that were then pulled back towards Turkish waters. In May, we noticed investigators at Just Security, an online legal forum, had documented at least 11 such pushbacks. Since then, over 1,000 migrants and asylum seekers have been forced onto these tent-shaped, orange rafts and set adrift. According to lawyers who filed the claim, in addition to the prohibition of torture, two other violations of the European Convention on Human Rights have been raised: the right to life, and the right to an effective remedy. For more, read our reporting on Greece’s growing trend of mainland “pushbacks”.
Cities of migration
More than 94 percent of asylum seekers and migrants in various cities around the world have lost income since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Mixed Migration Centre’s new annual report. The loss of income has had severe consequences, including making people unable to afford basic goods or send remittances to their families. The Mixed Migration Centre’s report puts a spotlight on cities as places where most asylum seekers leave from, pass through, settle in, and return to. While national governments set migration policy, cities are on the front lines of providing housing, jobs, education, healthcare, and other services to asylum seekers and migrants. The report also focuses on how the pandemic has exacerbated the plight of displaced people and people on the move by accelerating the normalisation of extreme migration policies around the world.
In case you missed it
AUSTRALIA: Australian special forces killed 39 civilians or detainees in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013 in what may be war crimes, an Australian Defence Force inquiry has found. The inquiry’s heavily redacted report, released this week, alleged that commanders in an elite unit ordered junior soldiers to shoot prisoners as a type of initiation, and planted weapons on bodies to conceal “deliberate unlawful killings”.
FRANCE: French police ejected around 2,000 asylum seekers and migrants, many from Somalia and Afghanistan, from a makeshift camp in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. On average, French police have evicted 388 asylum seekers and migrants from makeshift shelters in the country every day in the past year, according to a new report by a coalition of NGOs and aid groups.
IRAN-AFGHAN RETURNS: It could be a record-breaking year for undocumented Afghans returning home, by choice or by force. The UN’s migration agency, IOM, says nearly 750,000 undocumented Afghans have returned – the vast majority leaving behind economic turmoil in Iran. The previous high was 805,000 in 2018, though more than one million Afghans, including registered refugees, were pushed home in 2016, partly driven by refugee crackdowns in Pakistan.
IRAQ: The Iraqi government is going ahead with a decision to close several displacement camps, despite the fact that some aid groups say the move could leave more than 100,000 people without anywhere to go. More than six million people were forced to flee their homes during Iraq’s fight against the so-called Islamic State, and while many have since returned, some 1.3 million remain displaced and many fear they will never be able to go back.
REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT: A record low of only around 15,500 refugees were resettled worldwide between January and the end of September this year, according to UNHCR. In comparison, nearly 64,000 refugees were resettled in all of 2019 and more than 126,000 were resettled in 2016. This year’s number reflects the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on refugee resettlement, and the Trump administration’s dramatic slashing of US admissions.
SOUTH SUDAN: More than 1,000 people have been killed in inter-communal violence in South Sudan in just six months, according to the UN, despite rival leaders forming a transitional government of national unity in February. Over a million people in the country have also been affected by floods since July.
UGANDA: Thirty-seven people have been killed in clashes between security forces and protesters angered by the arrest of reggae singer and presidential candidate Bobi Wine. The popular 38-year-old – detained for flouting COVID-19 restrictions – will run against Uganda’s longtime president, Yoweri Museveni, in January polls.
UNITED STATES: A judge has halted the expulsion of unaccompanied children from the United States under a heavily criticised public health order issued at the onset of the pandemic. Since March, the order has allowed US authorities to remove around 250,000 asylum seekers and migrants – including 13,000 children – without allowing them access to asylum procedures. The new ruling doesn’t apply to adults or families, who can still be expelled.
WESTERN SAHARA: Clashes broke out this week in Western Sahara between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, threatening a 1991 ceasefire deal that ended 16 years of fighting between the two sides. An estimated 170,000 Sahrawi refugees live in camps in Algeria’s Tindouf province, separated by a wall from the parts of the territory controlled by Morocco. Efforts to finally end the mostly cold conflict have seen little success.
Hurricanes Eta and Iota have been catastrophic for parts of Colombia, Mexico, and Central America, leaving hundreds dead and thousands facing painful recoveries from disastrous flooding and landslides. They came just two weeks apart in a record-breaking storm season that saw the World Meteorological Organization resort to using the Greek alphabet to name them. But they are just one symptom of a broader climate crisis afflicting the region. In Honduras, where the largest number of people died in the recent storms, thousands of people have been migrating annually from rural areas due to hunger and perennial drought. As Jared Olson reports, it’s not just climate change to blame for the slow-build disaster in the region’s Dry Corridor: Corrupt land use, deforestation, and an agricultural system focused on profit at all cost also play a part. And while emergency disaster assistance for the storms is essential, so is urgent help in tackling these longer-term problems.
A fair shake
Nigeria received the equivalent of $17 per head in international development aid in 2018, but the Pacific island state of Kiribati got $640 per capita. A new analysis says populous countries lose out on their fair share of aid, and proposes better ways to slice the cake. Researchers at the Center for Global Development calculated that current levels of country-specific aid targeted evenly would work out at around $85 per head. There are 689 million people in extreme poverty (or at least there were before COVID-19), but many of them are not in the countries classed as the lowest income. That means that an equal-share model would spend a lot more in a country like India, for example. The CGD researchers considered two other scenarios for slicing the aid pie, and concluded that Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo are getting a raw deal from the way aid is currently distributed. Depending on priorities, they reckoned that two other large countries, Ethiopia and Pakistan, also ought to move ahead in the queue.
We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do
We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.
Our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation triggered this probe, demonstrating the impact 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 do more of this.