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Nigerian kidnappings, Fiji storm costs, and songs of revolution: The Cheat Sheet

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

Louise O'Brien/TNH

The Cheat Sheet will be on a year-end pause for the next two weeks — maybe you will be, too! We’ll be back on 8 January to keep you in the humanitarian loop with our weekly take on news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

Nigeria abduction leaves questions

The good news is that more than 340 boys abducted last week from a secondary school in Nigeria’s northwestern state of Katsina have been released. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility, releasing a video with clips of the children spliced together with a message from the jihadist group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau. The group has set up cells in the northwest – outside its usual northeast zone of operation – but may also be subcontracting work to bandits in the area. What’s unclear is if all the children are accounted for and – while the Nigerian military seems to have succeeded in blocking the escape of the gunmen – if any ransom was paid. In the video, one of the boys urges the government to pay (plus close schools, dissolve the vigilante groups hunting the bandits, and withdraw the army), but the government has denied handing over any cash. Aside from money, Boko Haram is also interested in the release of detained senior commanders. Time will tell what deal was done, but the jury is still out on what this disturbing new insecurity low really means, and how significant it could prove.

Fiji counts costs after Cyclone Yasa hits

Relief efforts are underway in Fiji after Cyclone Yasa slammed into the Pacific Island nation with 240-km/h winds. The government warns casualties may rise as damage reports emerge from remote islands; so far, it has recorded two deaths, including a three-month-old baby. Damages are expected to total hundreds of millions of dollars. Yasa made landfall on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island, on 17 December, leaving what Fiji’s Red Cross called a “devastating trail of destruction”. Early photos from parts of the island show flattened homes and damaged crops. A resident of one village in Bua province, which bore the brunt of Yasa’s winds, said people needed food, clothes, bedding, and seedlings to recover from extensive crop damage. Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island, was spared the worst, but heavy rains sparked flooding and crop damage in some areas. Yasa was downgraded to a Category 3 storm by Friday, and was expected to approach parts of Tonga over the weekend. Yasa is the first Category 5 storm to strike Fiji since 2016’s catastrophic Cyclone Winston, but it’s at least the 12th storm to make landfall since 2012. “This is not normal,” Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said in a statement as Yasa approached. “This is a climate emergency.”

Yemen, two years after Stockholm

This week in 2018 the main warring parties in Yemen shook hands on a ceasefire deal that halted an offensive on the strategically important port city of Hodeidah that many warned would have had catastrophic humanitarian consequences. It was a major diplomatic breakthrough, but much of the so-called Stockholm agreement – representatives of Houthi rebels and the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi forged the accord in a castle outside the Swedish capital – never came to pass. The endeavour was knocked by some for not having real Yemeni buy-in, overlooking those who can really make change on the ground, and for being too broad. Others, including key Saudi officials, said it would make or break peace efforts in Yemen. Two years on, clashes have erupted in Hodeidah province once again, and deadly violence is surging elsewhere too. Diplomats are once again condemning the escalation, with UN Secretary-General António Guterres saying that fulfilling the commitments made in 2018 “is crucial to avoid any action that could exacerbate the dire situation in Yemen”. It’s starting to feel like déjà vu all over again. 

Overlapping crimes?

For years, the EU has responded to migration as a criminal justice and security issue, at least in part based on the belief that people smuggling is linked to other transnational crimes such as drug and weapons trafficking. This assumption is being called into question by new findings by Transcrime, an inter-university research centre. Only 3.4 percent of people smuggling and human trafficking cases in the Middle East and North Africa between 2011 and 2019 overlapped with other crimes, according to Transcrime’s findings. In a webinar presenting the research, Alberto Aziani, a criminologist who worked on the study, said the findings make it “hard to justify stricter controls on migration flows in the name of the fight against the trafficking of other illicit goods”. The research, he added, also showed that more legal migration channels would reduce opportunities for criminal activity directly related to people smuggling and human trafficking.

Access denied

Access to humanitarian aid has improved in Iran but deteriorated in Cameroon, Libya, and Mozambique since July, according to the Assessment Capacities Project, or ACAPS. In Syria, Eritrea and Yemen, constraints remain extreme, the independent humanitarian analysis provider says in a December update. Access in Ethiopia has also worsened since the conflict in the northern Tigray region began in November. For Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh, COVID-19 has brought significant restrictions. But it’s not just conflict and the coronavirus that are constraining access. From Honduras to Vietnam, extreme weather events – landslides, floods, hurricanes, and typhoons – have also hampered efforts to reach in-need populations, ACAPS says.

In case you missed it

BRAZIL: After long downplaying its severity, President Jair Bolsonaro said last week that Brazil was at “the tailend of the pandemic”. But COVID-19 continues to surge, with Indigenous communities, including those in the Yanomami reservation, particularly hard hit. Political infighting and haphazard planning have helped drive Brazil’s death toll to second globally after the United States, at over 185,000.

EU-AFGHANISTAN: Deportations of rejected Afghan asylum seekers from the EU resumed this week after a nine-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. The first deportation flight, carrying 11 Afghans from Austria and Bulgaria, landed in Kabul on 16 December. Germany, Hungary, and Sweden are also taking steps to resume deportations amid criticism from activists and human rights groups that Afghanistan is too dangerous to send people back to.

ICC: Thousands of extrajudicial killings blamed on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called “war on drugs” may amount to crimes against humanity, Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, said in a report this week. A decision on opening a full investigation could come early in 2021. Rights group Karapatan called it “a damning indictment”, but government officials defended the anti-drug campaign, labelling Bensouda’s statement a “press release”. In the same report, Bensouda shut the door on a separate bid to examine China’s alleged persecution of its Uighur minority. Uighur groups had petitioned the court, citing a precedent-setting investigation of alleged deportation crimes against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. But Bensouda said forced transfers of Uighurs from other countries into China “raise concerns”, but do not amount to the crime of deportation under international criminal law.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh has continued despite last month’s ceasefire. The Azerbaijanis have accused the Armenians of carrying out two deadly attacks on their forces in the past three weeks. Videos posted online on 22 November and 3 December, meanwhile, show the beheading of two elderly men – attacks on non-combatants allegedly carried out by Azerbaijani forces. Armenians have also accused Azerbaijani forces of capturing as many as 160 soldiers in the past week. Separately, Human Rights Watch has accused Azerbaijani forces of deliberately targeting a church on 8 October in what could be considered a war crime. The attack took place before the Russia-brokered ceasefire in November. The Ghazanchetsots Cathedral – a civilian building with cultural significance – was attacked while Armenian forces still controlled the city.

SOMALIA-KENYA: Somalia has severed diplomatic relations with Kenya and recalled its diplomats after accusing the country of meddling in its internal affairs. The move followed a meeting between the presidents of Kenya and Somaliland, a breakaway region that Mogadishu refuses to recognise.

UK: For the first time in its history, UNICEF UK will respond to a domestic emergency, granting £25,000 worth of breakfast boxes over the two-week Christmas school holidays to vulnerable children and families in London. While it has been dismissed by the British government as a “political stunt,” recent statistics reveal that families and children across the UK are still food insecure, and record numbers of Britons turned up at food banks in the first month of lockdown.

VENEZUELA-TRINIDAD: With little hope their country’s economic and political crisis will turn around anytime soon, many Venezuelans have been risking their lives on the dangerous sea route to closest neighbour Trinidad and Tobago. In recent days, it has emerged that at least 28 Venezuelan migrants drowned after their vessel, which left Venezuela’s northeastern state of Sucre on 6 December, failed to reach its destination. The Trinidadian authorities have repatriated hundreds of Venezuelans since an amnesty was declared last year that allowed migrants to live, work, and access public services. NGOs estimate that 40,000 Venezuelans have entered the country illegally.

Weekend read

Ethnic profiling of Tigrayans heightens tensions in Ethiopia

Tigrayans in Ethiopia's capital are feeling the heat from a conflict playing out hundreds of kilometres further north. The government maintains its military assault, which began in early November, is targeted against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Yet ordinary Tigrayans in Addis Ababa – restaurant owners, cafe dwellers, charity workers – report being ethnically profiled and harassed by neighbours, strangers, and government officials. Though some of the Tigrayans TNH spoke to foresaw the conflict in Tigray, few expected to be ensnared as they have been. Analysts fear the discrimination is alienating Tigrayans and deepening anti-government resistance. And as clashes in the northern province continue, regional tensions are also rising: This week, Sudanese officials said their troops were ambushed by Ethiopian forces and militias along the border with Tigray, leaving an unknown number dead.

And finally…

Songs of hope

On 17 November 2010, 26-year-old Tunisian fruitseller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a protest against police harassment that would lead to his death, the overthrow of his country’s regime, and mass protests across the Middle East that would come to be known as the “Arab Spring”. The actual causes for the pro-democracy uprisings in countries including Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen were actually much more complicated than one young man’s desperate act (Facebook, climate change, economic recession, and a youth bulge are among the factors often proposed and debated). The outcomes varied too: While some dictators fell, others were replaced by repressive regimes or long bloody wars. What the uprisings meant, and if they were worth it, will doubtless be discussed for decades to come. But 10 years ago, for many of those watching or protesting from Tunis to Tahrir Square, it was a moment marked by hope. And by music. So as a reminder of that time, and the ebullience that has since turned sour in so many cases, here’s a playlist, compiled by Agence France-Presse, of the “soundtrack of the Arab uprisings in 10 songs”. The songs, and what happened to those who sang them, still have resonance today.


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