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Darfur unrest, Biden changes, and besieged Bangui: 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.

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Hundreds killed in Darfur violence

Just weeks after the UN Security Council voted unanimously to terminate the mandate of the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) in Darfur, a new outbreak of violence in the region has left hundreds dead and injured. At least 159 people diedincluding three aid workers – and tens of thousands were displaced following militia attacks on displacement camps in West Darfur’s El Geneina. Dozens more lost their lives in South Darfur amid clashes between Arab Rizeigat and Fallata groups. During more than 13 years on the ground, UNAMID has often been criticised for failing to protect people. But many Dafuris protested against its withdrawal and have little faith in the Sudanese government, even with the old regime out the door. Addressing this week’s violence, Jonas Horner, a Sudan analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the new administration had “comprehensively failed its first real test of maintaining security”. More tests should be expected in the months ahead.


President Joe Biden will "review" US sanctions on the Yemeni Houthi rebel group, and end support “for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen”, according to his nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Biden has also announced that the United States will rejoin the Paris climate accord, cancel immigration bans on Muslim-majority countries, and end the state of emergency at the US-Mexico border. The United States will stay in the World Health Organization (and pay its bills), join the COVAX fund for global COVID-19 vaccination, and rescind the anti-abortion Mexico City Policy (aka the Global Gag rule). Until Samatha Power or another name is confirmed, Gloria Steele will be acting head of USAID, the foreign aid and development department. Devex called this “a bit of a surprise” – after a long USAID career, Steele had been due to take up the role of COO of NGO CARE. Biden also fired the leadership of international broadcaster VOA. Still to come, action on the Biden pledge to raise annual refugee admissions to 125,000, set by Trump for the 2021 fiscal year at 15,000, the lowest on record.

CAR’s cut-off capital

The UN has warned of food and medicine shortages in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, as rebels strike the main trade route linking the city to neighbouring Cameroon. Three drivers who attempted the journey this week were injured in an ambush, while dozens more truck drivers remain stranded at the Cameroonian border town of Garoua-Boulaï. Other roads leading to Bangui – where market stalls now lie half empty – have also been seized in what one analyst told The New Humanitarian could constitute a strategy to “asphyxiate” the city. On 20 January, the UN’s top official in CAR requested more peacekeepers be sent to the country, which has some of the highest humanitarian needs per capita of any state in the world. At least 100,000 people have now fled their homes since the rebels launched an offensive triggered by last month’s contested elections. Read more on the situation in our list of 2021 crises to watch, or in our latest dispatch from the ground.

Food markets not super

More and more people are finding it hard to work and get enough food due to the pandemic. To make matters worse, the global prices of basic food commodities are rising. Market uncertainty caused wheat tenders issued by importers Egypt and Ethiopia to go awry recently – uncertainty has increased partly due to Russia’s plans to impose higher taxes on exports. Future contracts for maize and soybean, meanwhile, hit a six-year high earlier this month, according to US government data, although they have since eased due to the prospect of good rains in South America. Overall, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization said global food prices in 2020 were at three-year highs, peaking further in December, noting vegetable oil had also risen sharply. At 107.5, FAO’s December price index is still well below the price crunch of 2008, when it peaked at 132.5. Spikes then were credited with causing widespread political upheavals.

Protests anew in Tunisia

In related news, Tunisians have been taking to streets across the country for a week now, protesting against widespread unemployment and an ongoing economic crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The demonstrations began shortly after a four-day lockdown that coincided with the tenth anniversary of the flight of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced out of power after 23 years by a popular revolt that set off the “Arab Spring”. While that change brought democracy, it did not bring an end to joblessness or poverty, a situation that has forced an increasing number of desperate Tunisians to take their chances on the sea crossing to Europe. While some protests have turned violent, others remain peaceful: Amnesty International says security forces have used tear gas and batons to disperse protesters of both kinds, and urged against the use of “unnecessary and excessive force”.

The missing genocide declaration

In one of the Trump administration’s final foreign policy moves, the US State Department declared that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uighur minority – drawing questions about why the United States hasn’t done the same for Myanmar’s repression of the Rohingya. “I’m baffled and deeply concerned that Secretary [Mike] Pompeo has declined to make a similar finding of genocide against the state of Myanmar for its vicious mass attacks against the Rohingya,” said Eric Schwartz, head of Refugees International, which is among many international and Rohingya groups that have long pushed for a stronger rebuke against Myanmar. Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state nominee, told a Senate confirmation hearing he agreed with the genocide assessment against China (and reportedly said he would oversee a review on Myanmar). It’s unclear what impact the Trump administration’s genocide declaration will have. Its statement, now archived on the State Department website, calls on “multilateral and relevant juridical bodies” to “promote accountability” for atrocity crimes. But successive US administrations have been at odds with the body responsible for trying such cases, the International Criminal Court.

In case you missed it

AUSTRALIA: Dozens of refugees and asylum seekers have been released after months of detainment in a Melbourne hotel – among some 192 people transferred for medical treatment to Australia from offshore processing centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. The released men were given six-month “bridging visas”, but the government said they are still expected to leave Australia. The country bans asylum seekers arriving by boat from settling in Australia even if their refugee claims are approved. Some have spent years in detention: After his release this week, Kurdish-Iranian refugee Mostafa Azimitabar, who was previously held on Manus, tweeted: “After 2,737 days locked up in detention – I am free.”

GUATEMALA/US: Guatemalan security forces detained and expelled around 3,000 mostly Honduran asylum seekers and migrants travelling towards the United States – the second such group in as many months. People cited poverty, security threats, and the lingering effects of last year's hurricanes as their reasons for migrating, and few said they were aware of promises by US President Biden to roll back harsh Trump-era migration policies.

INDONESIA/PHILIPPINES: Relief efforts continue after the mid-January earthquakes that killed at least 90 people and affected some 40,000 in West Sulawesi. Some 1.3 million Indonesians are affected by disasters already in January. In addition to the earthquakes, rainy season floods have swept swathes of the archipelago nation, from West Sumatra to Papua in its far east. Floods have also displaced more than 40,000 people in the Philippines, including at least 10,000 people in Sulu.

IRAQ: Two suicide bombings hit a market in central Baghdad on 21 January, killing at least 32 people and wounding more than 100. The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in the Iraqi capital, where suicide bombings have become rare.

ISRAEL/PALESTINE: A WHO official said the agency has raised “concerns” about unequal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines between Israelis and Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Israel is vaccinating its population at a record rate, but rights groups say it should also provide vaccines to people living under its occupation. 

ITALY: Expulsions from Italy to Slovenia resulting in a series of chain pushbacks across the Balkans and out of the EU violate Italian and EU law, according to a recent Italian court ruling, which said people expelled have the right to immediately re-enter Italy to apply for asylum. For more, read our recent story on Europe’s chain of migrant expulsion from Italy to Bosnia

LIBYA/EU: At least 43 asylum seekers and migrants died in a shipwreck off Libya on 20 January. In separate incidents, the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard intercepted 134 people, while 120 others were rescued by the Ocean Viking – the only NGO search and rescue vessel left operating. Read TNH’s timeline, Death on the Central Mediterranean: 2013-2020, for more. 

UK: COVID-19 cases are spreading at immigration detention centres in the UK. Cases have been confirmed in at least three facilities, prompting urgent calls for people – including those awaiting asylum decisions – to be released to safe and suitable accommodation.

VENEZUELA: The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, halted cash transfer programmes via local groups in Venezuela after a series of police raids on non-profits, including the detention of members of HIV-prevention NGO Azul Positivo on 12 January.

Weekend read

The longshot bid to end rampant banditry in Nigeria’s northwest

The December kidnapping of 340 boys from their school to forests in Nigeria’s Zamfara State carried eerie echoes of the snatching of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in April 2014. Only, this time the masterminds were bandits – armed gangs behind rising criminality across the northwest, including in neighbouring Kaduna State, that has displaced more than 200,000 people since 2011. The boys were freed. The world moved on. But the crisis – brewing in the shadow of the Boko Haram conflict for many years – is far from over. In fact, the criminality is reaching new peaks, with kidnapping overtaking traditional livelihoods and eroding social bonds. As Senior Africa Editor Obi Anyadike explains in our weekend read – after weeks of reporting in the region – the runaway banditry is the outcome of many factors. These include growing tensions between Fulani and Hausa groups over access to land, pasture, and water – made worse by a drying climate and limited government intervention. Past responses have been sporadic, and poorly thought out and implemented, feeding the cycle of criminality. Traditional governance is of little help, having lost much of its power. Zamfara’s governor has launched a new amnesty initiative to try to turn things around. It’s early days to see if it bears fruit. Analysts fear there’s only a small window before things escalate beyond repair.

And finally…

A ‘refugee ban’ in Cyprus

The Republic of Cyprus receives the most asylum requests per capita in the EU, but the Mediterranean island nation has failed for years to put in place a comprehensive national plan to support refugee integration. Recently, the Cypriot interior minister quietly issued a controversial decree banning any more Syrian refugees from settling in the coastal town of Chloraka. Located on the western edge of the island, around 1,400 of Chloraka’s 7,000 residents are Syrian refugees. A murder in the town during last April’s coronavirus lockdown sparked sensationalist reports of a crime wave linked to migration. Our report from last September, “Murder, media frenzy, and poor refugee integration in Cyprus”, found that crime rates across the island have actually been falling since 2017, but racist incidents have been on the rise. Chloraka’s community leader, who supports the new decree, said the town is not racist, but doesn’t have the resources it needs to support the refugees already there – suggesting that a comprehensive integration strategy is indeed needed.

On the upside


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