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A Nigerian massacre, record 2021 needs, and racism in Papua: 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

Shock at Boko Haram atrocity

The massacre on 29 November of at least 43 farm labourers outside Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri has shocked even this war-numbed country. The migrant workers were all decapitated or had their throats slit by Abubakar Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram. It was punishment, the jihadists said, for the passing of information to the army by farmers tired of the insurgents’ extortion. In a staggeringly tone-deaf comment, a senior government official blamed the farmers for not seeking military clearance before heading to the fields. In the ensuing uproar, there have been demands for President Muhammadu Buhari to resign – even from within his northern powerbase. Northern social media has also attacked his more general failure to #SecureNorth – a reference to the wider banditry roiling the region. Nigeria’s powerful governors are backing calls to hire private military companies, like South Africa’s STTEP. “Nigeria has made no visible headway despite sinking billions of dollars to prosecute the war,” Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development told The New Humanitarian. “We, the citizens, are just helpless onlookers.”

2021 to break records for humanitarian needs

The pandemic has sent humanitarian needs “skyrocketing”, according to the UN, which tabled plans to help 160 million people next year at a cost of $35 billion. That’s not even all the people who could use the help: The UN’s 2021 Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO) estimates 235 million are in need. The fallout of two long-running conflicts, Yemen and Syria, account for about $13.4 billion of the total. Looking at the type of relief, food needs make up $9 billion. The UN and the aid groups included in the plan are very unlikely to raise the full amount: The same fundraising mechanism has raised about $17 billion so far in 2020, despite cumulative appeals of nearly $40 billion. New to the UN’s list of counties requiring a humanitarian response plan in 2021: Mozambique, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe.

The ticking ‘time bomb’ in Indonesia’s West Papua

Tensions are rising in Indonesia’s disputed Papua and West Papua provinces, sparking calls for de-escalation from the UN Human Rights Office. The last two years have seen “disturbing” levels of violence, a spokesperson said, including police shootings, killings of activists and church members, and crackdowns on anti-racism protests. This week, pro-independence Papuan groups announced the formation of a “provisional government” in exile, calling it “an intensification of the struggle against Indonesia’s colonisation of the territory”. Authorities have long suppressed the indigenous Papuan pro-independence movement since the region was absorbed into Indonesia in a disputed 1969 vote. Calls for a referendum on independence have been ignored, and a low-level conflict has simmered – along with widespread allegations of rights violations against Indonesia’s military. Abuses have escalated over the last two years, marked by racism, impunity, and extrajudicial killings, says rights group Tapol, which counted dozens of deaths, mass arrests, and at least 22,000 displaced during protest crackdowns in 2019. The movement has spawned a #PapuanLivesMatter hashtag aimed at highlighting discrimination against Papuans. In not addressing racism, Tapol warned, “the Indonesian government is creating another time bomb, due to explode some time in the future”. The UN called on Indonesia to investigate abuses and to hold ”meaningful and inclusive dialogue” with Papuans.

Burundian refugees ‘disappeared’ in Tanzania

Authorities in Tanzania have forcibly disappeared, tortured, and detained at least 18 Burundian refugees in recent months, according to a report published this week by Human Rights Watch. Eight were forcibly returned to Burundi, while the whereabouts of several others remains unknown. Life has long been tough for more than 150,000 Burundians currently living in Tanzania: While refugees were initially welcomed, the government’s policy has hardened, and residents in camps now face a string of restrictions on their daily lives, as well as threats of forced repatriation. Research suggests the restrictions are a key reason many return home to Burundi, where a disputed third-term bid in 2015 by then-president Pierre Nkurunziza triggered waves of political violence that caused 400,000 people to flee the country. Presidential elections in May saw Évariste Ndayishimiye come to power, and a month later Nkurunziza unexpectedly died of what many suspect was COVID-19. But human rights violations continue and prospects of change remains slim in the East African country. “The majority think it is too much to make the decision to return,” one refugee living in Tanzania told TNH in July. “The death of Nkurunziza did not change anything.”

Oxygen concern for Palestinians, as COVID-19 surges

COVID-19 infections are surging in the West Bank and Gaza, with active cases aross the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, more than doubling (from 9,748 to 23,336) in the past two weeks. Cases tripled in Gaza, where the leader of Hamas, which runs the Palestinian enclave of around two million people, tested positive this week. The numbers could be even higher, given limited testing capacity. Gaza’s healthcare system has been worn down by wars and a years-long blockade by Israel and Egypt, so shortages of medical equipment are nothing new. But now there may not be enough oxygen at the hospitals that are treating patients with COVID-19. Although the UN says it is coordinating delivery of “essential oxygen-generation equipment”, that’s not likely to happen until early next year.

‘Super Cereal’ poisoning triggers food safety review

When five Ugandans died and 300 became sick after eating Super Cereal, a fortified porridge mix donated by the UN World Food Programme in 2019, the agency faced a public backlash, but also a scientific puzzle: What was in it? WFP's routine testing hadn’t flagged anything wrong, and the symptoms were unusual. One survivor told our reporter Samuel Okiror: “The children were running [around] like mad people or those possessed by evil spirits.” WFP instigated an extensive scientific review that found a poisonous weed to be the culprit. A relative of deadly nightshade had contaminated the supply of “animal-grade” soybeans used by WFP’s Turkish contractor, according to a November study that came out of the review, which highlighted lapses at the Turkish factory but also a lack of international guidelines. A new 196-page UN report includes proposals to set safe levels of the toxin in question: tropane alkaloids. In a separate case, WFP discovered a large batch of sub-standard Super Cereal from an Italian supplier in 2018 – although deemed safe, it had been shipped to the field before it was found to lack the correct nutritional ingredients.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Taliban and Afghan government negotiators this week announced a breakthrough allowing the two sides to continue peace talks, and possibly discuss a ceasefire. The progress, announced in a series of parallel tweets, essentially amounts to an agreement on rules and procedures for the negotiations.

ETHIOPIA: Four humanitarians working for international aid organisations have been killed in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, according to a report by Reuters. The aid workers were killed in one of four camps housing more than 96,000 Eritrean refugees. Federal forces are now in control of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, but fighting continues in other parts of the northern region. Read our latest on the conflict for more.

ROHINGYA: Bangladesh authorities have started moving hundreds of Rohingya refugees, some against their will, to a flood-prone island on the Bay of Bengal. The government says the move is voluntary, but several Rohingya say their names appeared on relocation lists without consent. Refugees International called it “nothing short of a dangerous mass detention”. 

US-MEXICO: US Customs and Border Patrol apprehended nearly 10,000 unaccompanied minors during the first three weeks of November amid an uptick in people crossing the US-Mexico border. CBP expects irregular crossings to continue to grow and is projecting the number of unaccompanied minors entering the US from Mexico to increase by 50 percent in the next 120 days, presenting an early challenge to the migration agenda of President Joe Biden’s incoming administration.

YEMEN: New data and projections on food insecurity in Yemen show that 13.5 million people are facing “high levels of acute food insecurity”, a number predicted to reach 16.2 million between January and June 2021. Some 16,500 people are in “catastrophe”, the worst phase of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification where conditions are “famine-like”. This figure is likely to reach 47,000 in the first six months of next year. Read this for more on what these numbers mean – and what they don’t tell us – about Yemen’s massive hunger problem.

Weekend read

Pushing back against the tide: Vanuatu’s climate fight

From the comfort of a far-off living room, the drastic effects of climate change on Pacific islanders can feel remote and intangible. The stunning visuals in our weekend read by Ann Esswein and Felie Zernack help bridge this gap. As the drone footage zooms out from Jeffrey and Joyce Daniels, you get a very real sense of the vulnerability and isolation in Pacific countries that have borne the brunt of climate change for decades. At risk of losing what's left of its fast-eroding land, their tiny Vanuatu island of Emao is weighing its options. One leading politician is seeking legal redress in a case that could set a precedent through the International Court of Justice. It would certainly revive the long-running debate over who should carry the costs of climate change and how richer countries can be made more accountable for their high levels of pollution.

And finally…

If a tree falls in a forest?

Staying with the climate theme: As world leaders scrambled to contain the spread of the coronavirus, vast expanses of the Amazon rainforest were being destroyed at record levels in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has encouraged more farming and mining in the region since taking office in January 2019. Roughly 11,088 square kilometres of the rainforest, an area the size of greater London, vanished between August 2019 and July this year – the highest figure since 2008, according to data from the Brazilian space institute, Inpe. The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, credited for helping slow climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. As a new report from 38 leading academic institutions and UN agencies urged countries to use COVID-19 recovery as an opportunity to finally tackle the climate crisis, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said it was time to “flick the green switch”. But as leading conservationist David Attenborough pointed out in an interview with Guterres: “The solutions can only come today from international action.”

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