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Expired COVID vaccines, Nigerian camp closures, and Yemen’s worsening war: The Cheat Sheet

(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

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Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

The short shelf life of donated doses

More than two thirds of donated COVID-19 vaccines are weeks away from expiry, making it harder for countries with stretched health systems to roll them out in time, according to the World Health Organization. Wealthy nations scooped up early vaccine stocks as lower-income countries waited on the sidelines through much of the year. Global supplies are on the rise, partly due to wealthy countries donating excess doses, but most donated jabs have a shelf life of less than three months, the WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week. Supplies are often shipped with little advance warning, or even an indication of which vaccine – or how many doses – are on the way. Donated doses that quickly expire could damage public confidence in vaccines, organisations including the African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention warn. Recent media stories have zeroed in on vaccine hesitancy, stumbling rollouts, and expired doses in the Global South – one recent Daily Mail headline reads: “So much for vaccine inequity”. But as usual, there’s much nuance behind the problem. For more, read our recent coverage of South Africa’s vaccination campaign, where racial and class disparities may partly explain a mismatch in vaccine access.

Aid agencies banned in Nigeria camp closure drive

Northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State government has ordered the closure of all formal displacement camps by the end of the year – but this week also banned aid agencies from delivering food to people being resettled in their areas of origin. The goal is to wean people off relief assistance, to empower them to “begin to build back their lives”, Governor Babagana Zulum said in a statement. Each family is instead being given a one-off start-up stipend of between $100 and $200. While most displaced are keen to return, they fear attack by jihadist insurgents. “They are not safe [in the areas of resettlement], and there are no basic services,” Care International country director Hussaini Abdu told The New Humanitarian. The camp closure drive covers the 59 official sites but does not include 182 informal settlements. Neither does it affect the displaced living with family and friends – the bulk of the 1.6 million people forced from their homes by the decade-long conflict.

Crises collide in Yemen

It will come as no surprise to our readers that things are getting worse, once again, for Yemen’s civilians. A new survey by Norwegian Refugee Council finds that “skyrocketing inflation” in southern Yemen is forcing families to cut down on daily meals because they can’t afford enough food, and the US-funded famine monitor FEWS NET says that intensified fighting combined with the ongoing currency crash is worsening food insecurity across the country. As the battle for the key city of Marib continues, and front lines shift in the coastal province of Hodeidah, people fleeing the conflict are struggling to get help, with some camps hit by shelling. Poor conditions for the newly displaced mean acute watery diarrhoea, malaria, and upper respiratory tract infections are common, and medical needs come from bullets and bombs too: The Yemen Data Project says November saw a surge in air raids across the country, resulting in the highest numbers of civilian deaths and injuries (29) in a single month since June 2020.

Peace talks slip further away in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s government declared a national state of emergency last month as Tigrayan forces pushed towards the capital city, Addis Ababa. But the civil war – which rarely plays out as expected – is now shifting again as the rebels retreat from positions across Afar and Amhara regions amid a renewed federal offensive. Tigrayan officials argue the withdrawal is tactical and that their forces remain intact, but analysts say they are facing significant pressure from regional militias, new army recruits, and a federal drone campaign. As the rebels retreat, new reports are emerging that they have killed civilians and looted homes and health facilities, just as government-allied forces did when operating in Tigray. What happens next is anyone’s guess. Addis Ababa previously said the withdrawal of the rebels to Tigray was a precondition for peace talks. But Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appears emboldened by the military gains and Tigrayan officials seem unwilling to accept defeat. More suffering seems the likeliest outcome.

Tough UK asylum bill moves closer to becoming law

The UK’s controversial Nationality and Borders bill moved one step closer to becoming law this week when it passed a vote in the House of Commons. The UK government introduced the legislation in response to an increase in asylum seekers and migrants crossing the English Channel from France in the past year. The government says the bill will make the UK’s asylum system fairer, deter people from entering the country irregularly, and make it easier to deport those whose asylum claims are denied. Asylum advocates and human rights groups have heavily criticised the bill, saying it will severely narrow access to asylum, and that people travel irregularly to the UK because legal routes to enter the country are virtually non-existent. In a rare, strongly worded public commentary, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said that, if passed, the legislation will “undermine the 1951 [Refugee] Convention and international protection system, not just in the UK, but globally”. All that remains for the bill to become law is for the two houses of the UK parliament to consider proposed amendments and agree on a final version. 

West Africa’s deepening food crisis

Almost 36 million people are expected to go hungry across West Africa by March next year, several months earlier than the usual lean season. Years of poor rains and low harvests in the Sahel are part of the problem, contributing to rising food prices that are 30 to 40 percent higher than the world average, according to the World Food Programme. Insecurity is the other major driver. In conflict-hit northern Burkina Faso, some households will have exhausted their own-grown food by January, and in Niger, cereal production has dropped by more than a third. Thirteen million people in northeastern Nigeria can’t afford to cover all their food needs, and an estimated 14,000 people are in “famine-like” conditions in areas under insurgent control. Violence is also driving hunger in parts of anglophone Cameroon, where only “relatively small” amounts of aid reaches needy households.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: UNICEF is asking for $2 billion for its work in Afghanistan next year – the agency’s largest-ever appeal for a single country. It’s a sign of Afghanistan’s massive humanitarian needs and of donor dilemmas following the Taliban’s August takeover. Amid aid suspensions and a collapsing economy, UNICEF is reportedly one of two UN agencies through which hundreds of millions in World Bank-managed funds, on hold since August, may be channelled

EU/LIBYA: The Italian Navy recently delivered a container-based Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre to Tripoli, Libya as part of an EU-financed effort to increase the capacity of Libyan authorities to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching Europe. The delivery comes as a new journalistic investigation reveals the EU’s involvement in financing “almost every aspect of Libya’s often lethal migration detention system”. Explore our interactive visual guide to the EU-backed migration control system in the Mediterranean: The European approach to stopping Libya migration

GREECE: On a visit to the Greek island of Lesvos on 5 December, Pope Francis denounced European indifference to the suffering of refugees and migrants, and self-interest that “condemns to death those on the fringes”. The suffering of refugees on Lesvos has been a powerful symbol of the callousness of European migration policy. Pope Francis previously visited the island in 2016. Greece is building a series of new refugee camps on the Greek islands with EU-funding that rights groups say are “jail-like”.

HAITI: Gangs have released three more people who were part of an American and Canadian missionary group abducted in October. Two others were released last month. Another 12 are still being held. The Caribbean country has been terrorised by rival armed gangs in recent months, hampering aid shipments and causing a fuel and water crisis.

INDIA: There are fresh calls for India to repeal a controversial anti-insurgency law after security forces killed at least 14 civilians this month in the northeastern state of Nagaland. Critics say the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, in place in Nagaland for decades and in force elsewhere as well, has perpetuated abuses and shielded security forces from facing responsibility.

INDONESIA: Lava flows, ash, debris, and a collapsed bridge continue to complicate aid responses as relief and rescue efforts continue following the eruption of Mount Semeru in Indonesia’s East Java. The government says at least 43 people are dead following the 4 December eruption, which also injured at least 100 people and displaced more than 5,400.

IRAQ: At least four people were killed by a bomb in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on 8 December. No group claimed immediate responsibility for the attack, but Iraq’s military said the motorbike rigged with explosives “carries the fingerprints” of the so-called Islamic State. 

LEBANON: Lebanon’s labour minister has changed a longstanding regulation that bars Palestine refugees from working in professions that require syndicate membership, including law, medicine, pharmacy, and tourism. The impact of this ministerial decree may be limited however, as it is not legislation (meaning another minister could reverse it), and some syndicates may still now allow Palestinian members in their ranks. 

MEXICO: At least 54 people were killed when a tractor-trailer carrying more than 100 migrants crashed in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas near the Guatemalan border on 9 December. The victims were from Central America. Thousands from the region transit through Mexico in tractor-trailers, trying to avoid Mexican law enforcement agencies that the US is leaning on to stop migration to the US-Mexico border. 

MYANMAR: Civil society groups are calling on UN agencies to stop “all forms of cooperation” with Myanmar’s junta. They argue that the signing of memorandums of understanding, and letting the junta participate in international summits, risk legitimising the military following the February coup

SOUTH SUDAN: Dozens of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands displaced by fighting in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria state, according to a new report from Amnesty International. The fighting, which has centred on Tambura county, pits local forces allied to the army against groups supportive of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition.

Weekend read

Drawing Syria’s trauma

Not long after Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, following months of demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and violent government crackdowns, Ammar Azzouz left his hometown of Homs, known as “capital of the Syrian revolution”, and headed to the UK to continue his university education. The young man watched from afar as half a million of his compatriots lost their lives to conflict, and as more than half of Syria’s pre-war population were forced from their homes, either abroad or displaced internally. He always thought he would return home, and as that became less likely and the violence intensified, the now 33-year-old architect took refuge in art. In this special report, Azzouz talks us through his drawings and paintings, and explains how they have helped him deal with the trauma of life in exile. But the deeper power of his beautiful but haunting creations, some of which pre-date the war, comes from how they chronicle the hopes and dreams, despair and damage, of a generation of young Syrians. Sign up here or stay tuned to The New Humanitarian for further details on a London exhibition of his work we are planning for early 2022.

And finally…

New narratives

In the British Museum, artefacts have a story to tell, and the curators often have short histories next to the exhibits. But what would the narrative of stolen and contested artefacts be if you asked people from the countries the objects were taken from?

Vice News explores this in The Unfiltered History Tour, telling the true story of 10 looted items on display at the museum in London. The unofficial tour – also available as a podcast – explores not just the history but also the ongoing legacy of imperialism and colonialism. 

“There is this colonialism of knowledge,” explains Egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad, one of the contributors speaking on the Rosetta Stone. “And we are not perceived as the ones who have the right of decision-making of where our heritage should be, even how it should be interpreted.”

The British Museum holds around eight million objects, although only around one percent of them are actually on display. Calls for art repatriation have grown louder in recent years. And while some European institutions are occasionally returning looted and contested cultural artefacts, a 2018 study estimated that more than 90 percent “of African heritage is to be found outside the continent in the major world museums”.

Disclaimer: The New Humanitarian’s Podcast Producer Marthe van der Wolf was involved in the production of the tour and podcast.

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