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Climate disasters, lockdown protests, and a Davos downplayed: 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

Mozambique’s ‘wake-up call’

More than 270,000 people have been affected by heavy winds and torrential rain since Tropical Cyclone Eloise made landfall in Mozambique on 23 January. Schools and health centres were flattened and more than 20,000 people were displaced in the region, which is still recovering from the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai almost two years ago. Despite considerable investments in reconstruction and disaster prevention since Idai – one of southern Africa’s worst ever weather-related disasters – Mozambique remains among the world’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change. Addressing the aftermath of Eloise, the UN’s resident coordinator in Mozambique, Myrta Kaulard, told reporters: “This is really a very bad wake-up call of how much Mozambique is exposed to climate. This yearly rendezvous with the cyclonic season is just too frequent for recovery to progress.” For more on the issue, have a look back at our reporting on Idai and the post-cyclone relief efforts, and at some of the other challenges facing insurgent-hit Mozambique.

Adapting to repeat climate disasters

As Mozambique is showing, repeat disasters are dragging out short-term emergencies into lengthy crises – it’s one of the trends we’ve highlighted on our annual list. Now, the trend is making a dent on research tracking long-term disaster damages. Germanwatch, an advocacy and research group based in Bonn, says a new category of countries is showing up on its annual climate risk index, which includes rankings of most affected countries over the previous 20 years. Single extreme disasters usually propel countries and territories onto the list – think Puerto Rico and 2017’s Hurricane Maria, or Myanmar and 2008’s Cyclone Nargis. But its latest index, released this week, finds countries like Haiti, the Philippines, and Pakistan joining the list because they are “repeatedly hit by extreme weather events and have no time to fully recover before the next event hits”. At this week’s Climate Adaptation Summit, held (virtually) in the Netherlands, climate advocates called on countries to boost funding to help communities adapt to growing disaster threats, including locally led preparedness and risk reduction.

Lebanon’s lockdown protests

Frustration over a strict COVID-19 lockdown and a collapsing economy bubbled over into protests in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, where a government building was set alight on the night of 28 January, and several days of clashes between security forces and demonstrators left one person dead and more than 100 injured. Lebanon is in the midst of a 24-hour curfew, with even supermarkets closed (except for deliveries) – a measure that authorities defended as necessary given a surge of coronavirus cases that has left the healthcare system struggling to cope. But crippling poverty is on the rise in Lebanon – thanks to an ongoing financial crisis, compounded by the global pandemic and an August explosion at the Beirut port – and some argue that the strict containment rules go too far, while some local aid groups say they have been denied permission to bring help, including much-needed food, to vulnerable families.

‘EU asylum under attack’

In an unusually direct statement, the UN’s refugee agency has condemned EU countries for failing to uphold the fundamental human right to seek asylum by pushing people back from the bloc’s external land and sea borders in a “violent and apparently systematic way”. The UNHCR press release, issued on 28 January, stopped short of naming specific EU members, but called on states to investigate and bring an end to pushbacks, adding that the pandemic provides no excuse for the violations. “It is possible to protect against the pandemic and to ensure access to fair and speedy asylum processes,” it said. EU countries have been carrying out pushbacks for years, but the practice has become increasingly widespread and blatant. Since the coronavirus pandemic began last March, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, and Malta have all faced scrutiny for expelling asylum seekers from their territory in violation of EU and international law. Also this week, Frontex, the EU’s border agency – which itself has faced criticism for its alleged complicity in pushbacks in several countries – announced it was suspending its operations in Hungary over human rights concerns.

Biden ends ‘gag rule’

President Joe Biden has opened the way to restore US funding for international aid groups that perform abortions, offer abortion counselling, or advocate for the legalisation of abortion. In the latest salvo of a Democratic/Republican tit for tat that has gone on since the Mexico City Policy was first implemented by Reagan in 1984, Biden rescinded what is otherwise known as the “global gag rule” on 28 January. This year’s move comes at a crucial time: Women’s access to contraception and reproductive health has been hampered during the pandemic, resulting in unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and weaker healthcare for mothers and children. The International Planned Parenthood Federation, which helps fund clinics and programmes around the world, said the US funding cuts had impacted healthcare services in more than 50 countries. Funding losses have gone well beyond abortion-related services: Some NGOs were also forced to scale back HIV testing, cancer screening, and counselling for gender-based violence. A report by the US Government Accountability Office released last year found that NGOs were unable to receive roughly $153 million in funding in 2017 – and this was before the “gag rule” was expanded by president Donald Trump in 2019 to encompass any organisations found to be supporting other NGOs that provided abortion services or counselling. With his Democratic Party controlling both chambers of Congress, Biden is being urged to go further by permanently repealing the “gag rule” and the related Helms Amendment. For more, read our full story.

The election crisis brewing in Somalia

A political crisis is looming in Somalia. The mandate of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo ends on 8 February, but nobody agrees on how subsequent elections should be held. Opposition candidates believe Farmajo has stacked various electoral commissions with his own supporters, while fighting between government troops and regional forces in the southern state of Jubaland is also hindering efforts. Jubaland’s president, Ahmed Madobe, is refusing to allow polls in the state’s contested Gedo area so long as federal troops remain on the ground. The al-Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabab has, meanwhile, threatened to disrupt the elections whenever they are held. The insurgents have benefited from the recent withdrawal – following the eruption of conflict in Tigray – of thousands of Ethiopian troops who were serving against them in Somalia. US troops who were training Somalia’s elite forces also pulled out of the country earlier this month following orders issued in December during the chaotic last days of Trump’s presidency.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Conflict casualties fell in Afghanistan during 2020, but unclaimed, targeted killings tripled, according to findings from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The commission found overall casualties dropped by 21 percent from the previous year to roughly 8,500 civilians killed and injured. But a quarter of all casualties came from targeted killings of journalists, activists, religious scholars, government workers, and other public figures.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: More than 200,000 Central Africans have now fled their homes since rebels launched an offensive triggered by last month’s contested elections, according to the UN’s refugee agency. The government is currently on the offensive, having previously failed to prevent the rebels from seizing towns and attacking the capital city.

CHILDREN: A new hub was launched in Geneva this week, linking a broad range of expertise to improve access to education for children living in emergencies. Historically an underfunded area, (only 2.6% of humanitarian funds support education) the hub aims to bring more visibility, funding, and political commitment to the issue. An estimated 127 million children living in crisis settings today are not in school; UNICEF projects an additional 24 million children to drop out due to school closures and the economic impacts of COVID-19. 

COVID-19 IN AFRICA: African countries have secured a further 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The news comes as more contagious variants of the disease fuel a surge in cases and deaths across the continent.

DENMARK: Denmark's prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, has said she wants to reduce asylum claims in the country to zero. “That’s what our target is. Of course, we can’t promise it… but we can create a vision,” Frederiksen said in remarks to the country’s parliament on 22 January. Denmark has a history of putting policies in place to discourage people from seeking asylum. Last year, only 1,547 people sought asylum in Denmark, the lowest number since 1998. 

PERU: In its boldest move yet to curb Venezuelan migration, the Peruvian government sent tanks, armoured vehicles, and military personnel to the border with Ecuador, which extends over 1,500 kilometres. Peru’s military said it was intended to curb illegal entries into the country, which have continued in defiance of COVID-19 border closures at a rate of 30 a day. More than one million Venezuelans are estimated to live in Peru, a country of 33 million.

SRI LANKA: Nearly 12 years after the violent end of its civil war, Sri Lanka is slipping dangerously toward repeating “grave human rights violations”, the UN’s human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, warned in a new report that calls for targeted sanctions and investigations into alleged war crimes. “It is time for international action to ensure justice for international crimes,” Bachelet said, warning of impunity for war-era abuses, growing crackdowns on civil society, and the marginalisation of minorities.

SYRIA: The UN has appointed a panel to review the widely discrediteddeconfliction” process in Syria. Under the system, the UN gave Russian and US-led forces the coordinates of hospitals and other civilian sites, but the hospitals kept getting bombed anyway

SYRIA: Recent floods have killed one child and destroyed or damaged more than 21,000 tents and shelters in northwest Syria’s displacement camps. Many people have been forced to sleep on waterlogged mattresses, in empty buildings, or out in the open. More harsh weather is expected in the coming days. 

Weekend read

The long road to sorting out US refugee resettlement

US refugee resettlement has long been a ray of hope for displaced people around the globe. Pre-Trump, the US resettled more refugees a year than the rest of the world combined – even if that number still amounted to a tiny fraction of those in need. When Donald Trump took office in 2017, he slashed budgets and the resettlement quota, created bottlenecks, and changed priorities to favour Eastern Europeans and Christians over Muslims from the Middle East and Africa. President Joe Biden’s early moves to roll back Trump’s discriminatory agenda have raised hopes he’ll follow through on other campaign promises, such as raising resettlement numbers to 125,000 per year from the current, record low ceiling of 15,000. Despite the optimism, experts say the damage caused by Trump will take time to undo. In our weekend read, Mélissa Godin tells the story of Yasmin, a woman who arrived alone in the United States as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2000 and has struggled for years to bring her family to her new home. Yasmin’s experience provides a window into the effects Trump’s policies have had on the thousands of families they have kept apart. It’s also a timely read as a reminder of the vanishingly small number of resettlement spots made available by governments. In 2020, only 70,000 slots existed for 1.44 million refugees. But because of the pandemic and Trump’s policies, only 22,770 refugees were actually resettled, the UN revealed this week.

And finally…

WEF on WiFi

The private jets may not be clogging the skies over eastern Switzerland, but some traditions live on, even when Davos goes virtual. Oxfam’s latest inequality report, which was on the event programme, said the world's 10 richest people got $540bn richer. But that’s since the stock market tanked in March and other data is delayed, so the traditional factoid (“x billionaires have the same as y billion others”) was a no-show. Greta Thunberg told the online World Economic Forum event that 30 years of “blah blah blah” on climate change wasn’t good enough. There were sessions on post-pandemic recovery and future economic trends, and gems like this: “Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr explains why he’s now a green venture capitalist”. All of which gave plutocrat-roaster Anand Giridharadas the opportunity for an avalanche of snarky soundbites, such as “A rising tide lifts all megayachts.”

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