Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
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The F-word and Afghanistan
Aid agencies are often cautious about dropping the F-bomb – “famine” – when talking about food crises (some more so than others). But there’s growing alarm as winter approaches in Afghanistan, where more than half the population may face crisis or emergency levels of hunger. NGOs say they’re already seeing a “worrisome rise” in malnutrition, including women with malnourished children in urgent need of help. “Unless people are able to access food, the cycle of malnutrition cannot be broken and the population face the very real risk of famine,” the International Rescue Committee warned. Afghanistan was already mired in severe drought before the Taliban surged back to power in August. Added to this is an economy that collapsed amid donor funding freezes, and sanctions that have paralysed the banking system. Analysts have offered a range of solutions to revive the banks, inject cash, review sanctions, and channel funds. They’re all workarounds for a core problem – the Western donors that kept Afghanistan’s economy afloat (and aid-dependent) for 20 years don’t yet have a plan to deal with a Taliban government. Until then, Afghans are relying on stopgap measures, like $15 million from The Global Fund (rather than the World Bank), managed by the UN Development Programme (instead of Afghanistan’s health ministry), to keep health clinics open for a few weeks. “The total collapse of essential services… can be prevented,” said Kanni Wignaraja, a UNDP regional director.
Last-ditch diplomacy in Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s government has laid out conditions for peace talks with Tigrayan forces though it’s unclear if the rebels will accept them. Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti called for the rebels to withdraw from the Amhara and Afar regions – where they have been expanding into – and accept the legitimacy of the central government. But rebel official Getachew Reda earlier said withdrawing to Tigray before talks open is “an absolute non-starter”. Mufti’s comments come as diplomatic efforts to end the year-long civil war have gathered pace. The African Union’s Horn of Africa envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, has held meetings with both sides of the conflict; and the US special envoy in the region, Jeffrey Feltman, has been in Ethiopia too. Yet, war rhetoric has continued on both sides, the government has arrested local UN staff, and there has been no let up in the humanitarian crisis, which has left some seven million people in need of urgent assistance – a number certain to rise should the rebels push on to Addis Ababa.
A sharp escalation on the EU’s eastern frontier
Tensions on the EU’s eastern border escalated sharply this week. Since July, Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been using irregular migration to retaliate against the EU for imposing sanctions in response to human rights abuses. This week, between 3,000 and 4,000 asylum seekers and migrants, directed by Belarusian security forces, pushed towards the border and clashed with Polish border guards. Poland has sent 15,000 soldiers to the region to prevent people from crossing, and Belarusian security forces are not allowing people to turn back. There are fears the situation could result in a military confrontation. Russian President Vladamir Putin – an ally of Lukashenko – brushed off an appeal from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to intervene. The EU is threatening more sanctions, and Belarus is threatening to cut off gas supplies to the EU. Meanwhile, some analysts are saying the EU’s tortured migration politics have once again turned a perfectly manageable situation into a humanitarian crisis: asylum seekers and migrants are sleeping rough as temperatures plunge below freezing; a 14-year-old boy froze to death, becoming at least the eleventh person to have died attempting to cross the border.
Haiti’s dangerous freefall
Haiti’s fuel shortage is causing taps to run dry in parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Because of rampant gang violence and kidnappings, truck drivers have been wary of making their usual fuel deliveries. Without fuel – gasoline is selling for as much as $30 a gallon on the informal market – water pumps have stopped working, and deliveries of bottled water have stalled. Haiti’s national water authority says some three million people may be impacted in Port-au-Prince alone. The fuel shortages have also caused some hospitals, banks, and schools to reduce hours or close. Because of the insecurity – and the 14 August earthquake in the country’s southern peninsula that killed some 2,200 people – education has been repeatedly interrupted. Children have also increasingly become targets for gangs looking for ransom, according to UNICEF. The UN has warned of continuing shortages, while the United States has urged all Americans, including aid workers, to leave the country. A group of 17 American and Canadian missionaries is still being held after they were kidnapped three weeks ago. Since the start of the year, there have been more than 800 kidnappings.
Rising global food prices = more hunger
Global food prices are at a 10-year high, pinching consumers hardest in developing economies as they spend a larger proportion of their incomes on staples. Wheat and maize prices are currently up by around 40 percent year-on-year – even higher in “real” terms when adjusted for inflation. The price rises are being driven by the impact of COVID-19, including bottlenecks in supply chains and labour shortages; weather shocks; and soaring transport and production costs due to an energy crisis likely to continue into next year. That adds up to slower global economic recovery from the pandemic, and yet more hardship for the world’s poorest. As a result, the World Food Programme estimates the number of people “teetering on the edge of famine” has jumped from 42 million earlier in the year, to 45 million. Rising prices are part of the problem, but so too are natural disasters – including deepening droughts in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa – and the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. Conflict, as ever, is also part of the mix, with WFP’s new estimate reflecting the impact of the widening war in Ethiopia.
Peacekeepers accused of smuggling gold and diamonds in CAR
The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic is facing another blow to its reputation as Portuguese blue helmets are accused of smuggling gold, diamonds, and drugs out of the country. Ten people have been arrested so far and nearly 100 homes raided as part of a police investigation in Portugal. Other peacekeepers in CAR have previously been accused of widescale sexual abuse and exploitation – claims inadequately investigated by the UN. The mission’s track record in protecting civilians against a hodgepodge of rebel groups has also been questioned. A rebel coalition launched a major offensive late last year, though they have since lost ground to the government, which announced a unilateral ceasefire last month. Bangui is now pushing for a political dialogue, but opposition officials are wary and key rebel leaders aren’t invited.
In case you missed it
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The Congolese army said on 9 November it had recovered positions lost to rebels of the former March 23 Movement (M23) in the eastern Rutshuru area. Thousands of refugees have been fleeing into Uganda’s southwestern Kisoro district to escape the fighting, which began on 7 November when the rebels reportedly overran five Congolese army barracks. Hundreds of M23 fighters fled into Uganda in 2013 to escape a combined UN-government offensive.
EBOLA: Clinical trials have begun for a new Ebola vaccine to tackle both the Zaire and Sudan strains – the main cause of outbreaks worldwide. The jab is based on a weakened version of a common cold virus – the same technology used for the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. The results of the Phase One trials will be known in the second half of 2022. A vaccine already exists for Zaire – the most lethal of the four Ebola strains.
EL SALVADOR: The government of El Salvador’s authoritarian leader, President Nayib Bukele, has proposed a new “foreign agent” law that would make it much more difficult for NGOs and media outlets to operate in the country. Critics say the move is particularly targeted at grant funding for independent journalism.
LIBYA: Libya’s presidential council suspended Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush on 6 November, a move that was rejected by the country’s transitional government. The disagreement comes ahead of a 12 November conference in Paris on Libya’s stability, with presidential elections scheduled for 24 December but far from a sure thing.
MYANMAR: Conditions continue to deteriorate across Myanmar after the 1 February coup. Violence is flaring in Chin and other parts of the northwest, where the military is accused of razing homes and occupying churches. Clashes have also erupted for the first time in a year between the military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine State. The Security Council again declared “deep concern” (while Myanmar civil society groups were “deeply disappointed” with the UN body). And with the military continuing to block aid, rights groups renewed calls for cross-border aid from Myanmar’s neighbours.
NICARAGUA: After a months-long crackdown that saw seven presidential hopefuls among dozens of opposition figures detained, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega secured a fourth term in office after 7 November elections denounced by critics as a sham. Observers fear a tightening of Ortega’s authoritarian grip, which has already seen humanitarian groups feeling the squeeze and more than 100,000 Nicaraguans flee abroad.
SIERRA LEONE: Scores of unidentifiable bodies were laid to rest in a mass funeral in Freetown on 8 November – the victims of a fuel tanker explosion on 5 November that killed 131 people. The government has promised an investigation into the tragedy – the latest disaster to befall the city. For more, read The New Humanitarian’s follow-up analysis on urban risk reduction in Africa.
SYRIA: A new report from Physicians for Human Rights looks back at the early days of the Syrian uprising, finding that in 2011 and 2012, healthcare workers who were detained for providing medical care to protesters were significantly more likely to be detained, forcibly disappeared, or die in detention than those who were arrested for their own political activities.
UNITED STATES: The United States re-opened its border to vaccinated “non-essential” travellers – including tourists – on 8 November, 20 months after it closed due to COVID-19. However, a pandemic-related policy, called Title 42, which allows people who cross the border to be expelled without having their asylum claims heard, remains in place. More than 1.2 million people have been expelled from the United States since March 2020 under Title 42.
VACCINES: More refugees and undocumented people are getting COVID-19 vaccines, according to a round-up from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. A half-million “foreign nationals” in Iran have been vaccinated, including undocumented Afghans. A vaccine drive in Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps was put on hold (in favour of a cholera campaign) but is expected to resume in December. Nepal, an early leader in including refugees, says some 86 percent of “persons of concern” have been vaccinated. Progress is slower in Indonesia, where the government allows vaccines for refugees only after 70 percent of the population in their area has been vaccinated.
YEMEN: Saudi Arabia has denied it is withdrawing from south Yemen after troops and heavy artillery were reportedly seen leaving a major military base. A spokesperson for the anti-Houthi rebel coalition the kingdom leads with the UAE said on 11 November that its troops were simply redeploying.
While discussions at the COP26 in Glasgow centre on what can be done to ward off future catastrophe, Bangladesh is already in the grips of the climate crisis now. And as photojournalist Zakir Hossain Chowdhury graphically highlights in this photo essay, it’s women in coastal communities who bear the brunt of it. Stark images of flood devastation show women reeling under the effects of climate change. All have lost homes – some more than once; many are hungry; and health problems are common. Yet despite this shared burden, their suffering is not the same. For some, the hot, dry months are harder because saline contamination wrecks arable land and forces them to travel even farther than usual to get clean drinking water. For many, a barrage of storms has made life more difficult, in a country where women are often viewed as less important than men. With men moving away to find work, women have to take on even more, and child marriage is on the rise. As COP26 draws to a close this week, the plight of these women makes inclusive global action – not least by the aid sector – ever more urgent.
Pushback on pushbacks
Members of the UK border force are reportedly refusing to implement a plan to turn boats carrying asylum seekers and migrants in the English Channel back to France over fears the policy could lead to deaths. More than 22,000 people have crossed the English Channel this year in small dinghies despite a series of hardline deterrent policies proposed by the UK Home Office. At least three people have died attempting the crossing in recent weeks. The number of people using the route has increased compared to last year, but asylum claims in the UK remain low relative to European countries like Germany and France. UK home secretary Priti Patel proposed the legally dubious plan to turn back boats in September. “There is fairly universal agreement that this is not likely to ever happen,” a Border Force officer told the UK newspaper The Times. “We will not be easily pushed about by Priti Patel.”
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