Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Rohingya camp security fears grow after activist killed
The killing of Mohib Ullah, a prominent Rohingya community leader, has drawn international condemnation and renewed deep-rooted fear in Bangladesh’s refugee camps. Mohib Ullah was shot and killed on 29 September outside the office of the civil society group he headed. A relative reportedly blamed members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group active in the camps. Mohib Ullah had become one of his community’s most prominent voices in the aftermath of the 2017 Myanmar military purge that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh's camps. He led early attempts to document atrocity crimes, stood up for his community before governments and aid agencies, and addressed the UN (and Donald Trump). For many Rohingya, Mohib Ullah’s death underscores a chaotic sense of insecurity in the sprawling camps – especially at night. Rohingya describe a climate of fear as gangs or militant groups – sometimes referred to euphemistically as “the night government” – extort, kidnap, and commit assault with impunity. Aid groups admit they’ve been largely powerless to protect even volunteer Rohingya workers, and refugees rarely find help from Bangladeshi security forces or the justice system. Mohib Ullah’s death is adding to the unease, a Rohingya man said: “People are very afraid [to] speak out.”
Drought crisis in northern and eastern Kenya
Kenya is facing its worst drought in a decade, with 2.4 million people expected to be going hungry by November. The fast-emerging humanitarian crisis is not only the result of two consecutive poor rainy seasons in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands region – an arc of under-developed territory in the north and east of the county. Needs are compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, insecurity, as well as by pests and diseases. Household maize stocks are well below the five-year average, and both livestock and milk production have fallen, driving up prices. A glut in the livestock market, as people sell off their animals, is further eroding pastoralists’ earnings. They are already forced to walk longer distances in search of water and to forage for their livestock, resulting in a spike in inter-communal tensions. Upcoming short rains, due to fall from October to December, are also forecast to be below average, resulting yet again in poor harvests and worsening livestock conditions next year.
Probe confirms WHO sex abuse in Congo, but what about the victims?
The World Health Organization says it’s on the hunt for more perpetrators who sexually abused and exploited women and girls during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An independent probe, triggered by an investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, found evidence of widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response between August 2018 and June 2020. More than 80 alleged perpetrators were fully or partially identified, with 21 who were either sacked or are no longer working for the WHO. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, has promised far-reaching reforms and an investigation into whether any WHO staff failed to act on complaints of abuse. At least two senior WHO staff have been placed on administrative leave to allow for an investigation to proceed. But for the victims – many of whom were given WHO jobs in exchange for sex – justice and compensation remain elusive. While the WHO said it would refer nine rape allegations to Congolese authorities for possible prosecution, the UN agency has all but ruled out paying reparations to the victims. Instead, it says it will ensure women have access to psychosocial support and schooling assistance for their children.
Seven UN officials expelled from Ethiopia
In an interview with AP on 28 September, the UN’s top humanitarian official, Martin Griffiths, described the crisis in Tigray as a “stain on our conscience”. This message appears to have gone down badly in Addis Ababa: On 30 September, seven senior UN officials were expelled from Ethiopia for allegedly “meddling in the internal affairs of the country”. The expulsions come as starvation deaths rise in Tigray, where a humanitarian and economic blockade has left hundreds of thousands of people facing famine. They also come ahead of an expected government offensive in Tigray that Addis Ababa will presumably not want UN officials speaking out against. Among those being deported is the head of the UN’s emergency aid coordination body (OCHA) in Ethiopia, whose frequent situation reports have provided one of few reliable guides to this awful, nearly year-long conflict.
Syria’s unknown toll, and growing water problem
For the first time since it stopped attempting to count Syria’s dead back in 2014, the UN has released a new casualty number: It says 350,209 people were killed in the war between March 2011 and March 2021, but cautions that because of the strict methodology used, this figure is “certainly an under-count of the actual number of killings”. And it doesn’t include those who died from causes that would likely have been more easily treatable were it not for the ongoing violence, such as hunger or COVID-19, which is now barrelling through northwest Syria, spreading quickly in displacement camps and overwhelming healthcare facilities. To make things worse, Médecins Sans Frontières points out that many people across northern Syria are unable to access safe water. This doesn’t just make it harder to limit the spread of COVID-19, it has also led to a worrying increase in cases of scabies, diarrhoea, and other waterborne diseases. These problems are not new, but with much of the country in economic trouble, fewer people can afford to buy their own clean water and aid agencies and NGOs are struggling to fill the gaps.
COVID’s unequal economic hit in Africa
From jobless Kenyan tour guides to shuttered micro-businesses in South Africa, COVID-19 lockdowns have had a drastic impact on economic life across Africa. The largest employment shocks tend to be felt in urban areas and among the more educated sections of the population – the so-called “new poor”. But the lockdown hit is not uniform and may also reinforce existing patterns of inequality. A saving grace has been the resilience of the informal sector. Some people who’ve lost formal jobs have been able to switch into informal trade to stay afloat. Tracking surveys in Kenya by the World Bank have shown how households can also bounce back as lockdowns ease. But much of that recovery may also be driven by lower-quality jobs. In Nigeria, agricultural employment has increased sharply, suggesting some individuals have turned to low-income farm work to cope with job losses.
Talking reparations at the UNGA, or not...
The global reckoning with the legacy of slavery and the ongoing impacts of racism and colonialism sparked by last year’s Black Lives Matter protests was a high-profile issue during the opening events of the 76th UN General Assembly, which ended this week in New York. At a meeting on 22 September, titled “Reparations, racial justice and equality for people of African descent”, leaders from African and Caribbean countries called for the creation of a system of reparations. The calls echoed a report released by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights earlier this year recommending countries do more to end violence and systemic descrimination against people of African descent – including through financial and other forms of reparations. But countries that benefited from slavery and colonialism, such at the United States, the UK, and France, did not participate in the event in New York – held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration – over concerns about anti-semitism; neither did they voice a position on reparations elsewhere during the UNGA.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: The International Criminal Court prosecutor plans to “deprioritise” investigations of atrocity crimes allegedly committed by US forces or forces linked to the former Afghan government, drawing criticism from Afghan activists and rights groups. In a statement this week, the court’s prosecutor, Karim Khan, said “limited resources” would push him to focus on the actions of the Taliban or a branch of the so-called Islamic State. Advocates for justice have long warned that decades of impunity have prolonged Afghanistan’s conflicts.
AUSTRALIA/NAURU: A new memorandum of understanding allowing Australia to continue to indefinitely detain asylum seekers at a facility on the Pacific island of Nauru was signed on 24 September. Since 2012, asylum seekers arriving by boat have been barred from settlement in Australia and have been sent to offshore detention centres instead. Human rights groups heavily criticise the policy, but several European countries – including the UK and Denmark – have expressed interest in establishing similar systems.
BANGLADESH: Rohingya refugees continue to try to leave the controversial Bhasan Char island camp. Police have detained dozens of people trying to flee, including 35 this week. At least 11 Rohingya died in August when their boat capsized. Rights groups call Bhasan Char an “island jail”. The government has urged the UN and aid groups to ramp up services on the island, to where some 20,000 people have been transferred.
BURKINA FASO: The Norwegian Refugee Council has had its operations indefinitely suspended after criticising the way government authorities are managing the country’s humanitarian crisis. Local authorities are in charge of registering newly displaced people – a process that has slowed down the time taken to provide assistance. See our latest for more.
CHILE/PERU: While thousands of mostly Haitian migrants have been evacuated from both sides of the US-Mexico border, similar scenes have been taking place in northern Chile. After police cleared a migrant camp in Iquique, not far from the Peruvian border, anti-migrant protesters set fire to remaining belongings at the encampment, shouting xenophobic slogans at the mostly Venezuelan and Haitian nationals.
CUBA: As the government speeds up the rollout of domestically produced COVID-19 vaccines, export of the jabs – yet to receive WHO approval – has begun to Vietnam and Venezuela. As our story this week explores, needs for other treatments in short supply on the island are being filled by grassroots initiatives. Meanwhile, a civil society group is calling for new protests in November, months after thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against government mismanagement of the economy and health sector.
HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL/CLIMATE: The push to create a UN envoy for climate change will reach the Human Rights Council in Geneva next week. Driven largely by countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate disasters, the resolution – to be tabled on 4 October – would create a special rapporteur for human rights and climate change. A vote is expected to be held by the end of the week.
LEBANON: The inquiry into last year’s massive explosion at the Beirut port has been temporarily suspended after a former minister accused the judge in charge of bias and misconduct. The judge’s predecessor was removed after similar complaints, and a court will now decide how to proceed.
MALI: France has continued a diplomatic drive to prevent Malian authorities from closing a deal with the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organisation with close links to Vladimir Putin. “If Mali commits to a partnership with these mercenaries, then Mali will isolate itself and will lose the support of the international community,” Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said on 30 September. Other countries have also warned against a possible deal.
SOUTH SUDAN: Almost half a million people have been affected by heavy flooding in the country since May, according to the UN. Access to communities is proving a challenge, with most areas inaccessible by road or highly insecure due to ongoing conflict. The country is also experiencing its worst food crisis since independence, as our recent report detailed.
YEMEN: Fighting is flaring up once again around the central Yemeni province and city of Marib, forcing many to flee their homes. Some newly displaced people have reportedly been unable to reach camps, and are taking shelter under trees.
It’s not really news that the humanitarian aid sector has fallen short of meeting the needs of those affected by crises for years, or that those needs have been growing. As explained in our weekend read by Policy Editor Jessica Alexander, calls for change and reform plans aren’t new either. But a new report by the Center for Global Development – presented during an event last week moderated by The New Humanitarian – proposes a more fundamental overhaul of the architecture of humanitarian aid: revamping the way organisations are held accountable, co-ordinated, financed, and governed. As Alexander explains in her analysis, at their core is a growing clamour for affected communities to have a greater say in which needs are addressed, by whom, and in giving feedback. But is the sector listening? For more, check out the latest episode of our Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast, and listen in while host and TNH CEO Heba Aly asks some key players if the new proposals are practical and palatable.
The ‘Wild West of charity fundraising’
A popular Instagram meme creator, a GoFundMe campaign to evacuate people from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and $3.3 million spent on cancelled or nearly empty flights – this Washington Post investigation details the struggles behind an internet personality’s ambitious humanitarian fundraiser. Tommy Marcus, the creator of a pandemic-themed Instagram meme account, helped raise some $7.2 million in less than two weeks for what he and his partners called “Operation Flyaway”. So far, no Afghans have been evacuated on Flyaway-chartered flights, the investigation found, though organisers say they’ve helped at least 300 people leave on other flights. To be fair, all evacuation operations struggled in the chaos that followed the Taliban’s swift mid-August surge, and many Afghans who wish to leave are still stuck on waiting lists or simply unable – including some Afghan staff at UN agencies or international NGOs. But the Post investigation is also a cautionary tale in an era of viral aid campaigns, overnight philanthropy, and social media influencers – as one expert called it, the “Wild West of charity fundraising”.
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.