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Venezuelans in Colombia, rapes in Tigray, and Ebola (again) in Congo: 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

Duque’s Venezuela volte-face

Weeks after being condemned by humanitarian groups for suggesting Colombia wouldn’t offer most migrants in the country a COVID-19 vaccine, President Iván Duque has done an about-turn, pivoting to a widely praised offer of temporary protective status for a decade to roughly one million undocumented Venezuelans. Colombia hosts the largest number of the estimated 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled economic and political strife in their homeland since 2014. The new measure will also apply to future regular Venezuelan arrivals for the next two years, as well as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans already in Colombia with shorter-term status. Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) who had urged all Latin American countries to vaccinate migrants after Duque’s earlier remarks, stood alongside the conservative Colombian leader as he announced the new plan. Grandi then moved on to Costa Rica, where he signed an agreement between UNHCR and San José to provide health insurance to 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers. It is estimated that some 400,000 Nicaraguans live in Costa Rica, including many who have been hard hit by the coronavirus and lockdown measures to curb its spread.

Rapes confirmed, reporter raided, victim threatened

The Ethiopian government confirmed this week cases of rape in Tigray and vowed to support survivors and prosecute offenders. But the survivor of a horrific gang rape allegedly committed by Eritrean soldiers in Tigray received threats after her story was published by the Los Angeles Times. Reporter Lucy Kassa was raided by plainclothes security officers at her home before publication, threatened, and had her laptop confiscated. Kassa reports that the severely injured rape survivor had also been threatened for telling her story. A government statement said Kassa did not have the required accreditation. The Ethiopian human rights commission said it had reports of 108 rapes in three towns, but given the collapse of health services and the police, it expected cases “might be higher”. Almost no independent media coverage is permitted in Tigray, and humanitarian access is extremely limited and subject to arbitrary procedures, despite UN and NGO attempts to negotiate access to help high numbers of people in dire need. For more on the access difficulties, read our story.

New Ebola outbreak in Congo

Two Ebola deaths within a week have signalled a new outbreak of the deadly disease in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The latest victim was a 60-year-old woman from Biena, near the city of Butembo, who died on 10 February and was not given a safe burial. She came from the same area as a 42-year-old woman who died on 3 February. The new cluster has emerged three months after the country was declared Ebola-free, and is the 12th outbreak in Congo since the virus was first identified in the country in 1976. A track and trace operation is underway to locate known contacts of both women. In the case of the first victim, she visited at least three health facilities – initially as an outpatient – over 10 days before her death and unsafe burial in Butembo. Health experts suspect she may have been infected by her husband through sex. He had survived Ebola after an outbreak in Butembo last year, but there is growing evidence that – despite a patient testing negative – the virus can remain alive and deadly in bodily fluids, especially semen, for months, possibly years.

Whatever happened to those Syria talks?

To say Syria talks haven’t gone well over nearly 10 years of war would be an understatement, but UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen can’t be accused of underplaying the situation in his remarks this week about the most recent round of Syria’s Constitutional Committee. While the UN-led talks are no longer the main game in town (these days the real negotiations – even if they aren’t exactly about countrywide peace – happen in places like Astana with Russia, Turkey, and Iran), the committee is supposed to be drafting a new Syrian constitution, which, theoretically at least, could be tied to a future transfer of power. But the committee, which got off to a slow and contentious start three years ago, has now clearly hit a wall. On 9 February, Pedersen put it like this: Without “constructive international diplomacy on Syria… I am more convinced than ever that… it is unlikely that any track – the constitutional track or any other – will really move forward”. To spell it out further, he added, “there is a lack of trust and confidence and a lack of political will to compromise – and a lack of political space to do so.”

Variants and the world’s vaccine pipeline

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can be used in countries where contagious new variants are taking hold, a WHO panel recommended this week. Coronavirus deaths in Africa have jumped by 40 percent in a month and health systems are “overstretched” as a new variant first identified in South Africa spreads to at least eight countries, the WHO warned. Days earlier, South Africa suspended its rollout of the vaccine after one study suggested it was “minimally effective” at preventing mild or moderate cases caused by the COVID-19 variant. But the WHO panel said the study did not determine the vaccine’s effect on severe cases: The “known and potential benefits” outweigh the risks, the panel said. Many lower-income countries, including those with humanitarian emergencies, are relying on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to drive immunisation plans. The vaccine makes up most of the pipeline for COVAX – the UN-backed scheme meant to ensure equal global access. Public health officials say COVAX will roll out enough doses to cover at least 3.3 percent of participating countries’ populations through mid-2021. But first, the WHO will have to approve the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for emergency use. A decision is expected this month.

Haiti president refuses to budge

More than 20 people, including a Supreme Court justice, were arrested after allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Opponents say Moïse’s five-year term should have ended on 7 February; Moïse says it runs until 2022 as it doesn’t include the interim year of a provisional president after Michel Martelly left office without a successor. Moïse’s position has been supported by US President Joe Biden’s administration and the Organization of American States. But Moïse has been under pressure to step down amid corruption claims, including allegations that Haitian officials stole millions of dollars in funds meant to help low-income Haitians. Meanwhile, humanitarian needs in the Caribbean country have skyrocketed in the past year as violent protests, strikes, and spikes in kidnappings have crippled the economy and increased insecurity. Some 40 percent of Haiti’s population of 11.4 million will likely need humanitarian assistance this year, according to aid estimates. Despite the instability, and an order from Biden to suspend deportations, at least 72 Haitians – many of them children – were deported this week under orders from the previous Trump administration.

In case you missed it

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: A convoy carrying humanitarian supplies reached CAR’s capital city, Bangui, on 8 February, after a weeks-long rebel blockade. Read our latest on the humanitarian toll of the post-election crisis.

ISRAEL/PALESTINE: The International Criminal Court has ruled that it has jurisdiction over war crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, opening the door to potential investigations into past allegations, including Israel’s conduct in Gaza in the 2014 war, and the conduct of Palestinian armed groups operating there.

LIBYA: A UN-sponsored process has produced a new interim government for Libya, which aims to end long-running divisions in the country. The new prime minister and three-person presidency council now have the task of forming a new government, and aim to hold elections by the end of the year.

MALI: Around 20 peacekeepers were injured in an attack in central Mali on 10 February. Extremist groups are active in the area and have regularly attacked the UN mission, which is known by its French acronym, MINUSMA.

MYANMAR: Protests continued across ethnic lines in Myanmar, as an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council heard calls for the international community to respond to the 1 February military coup. “We need more than a statement on a piece of paper,” said the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, reading a message from an activist who had gone into hiding.

SOMALIA: After failing to strike a deal over a delayed ballot that should have elected a new president on 8 February, federal and regional leaders are meeting again on 15 February to try to negotiate a way out of the constitutional crisis. At stake is Somalia’s stability, and real concerns the country could slide back into clan warfare.

UK/KENYA: A British charity set up by Kenyan suspected child trafficker Gilbert Deya could earn over $1 million from the sale of a derelict theatre. Deya was extradited from Britain to Kenya in 2017. ”Our inquiry is ongoing; we cannot comment, but we will continue to examine all relevant concerns,” the regulator, which started an investigation into the charity in 2016, told TNH.

YEMEN: The US State Department has reversed a designation of Houthi rebels as a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation”, less than a month after the previous administration blacklisted the group in a move aid groups warned would worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Weekend read

Floods, fighting, famine: South Sudan's triple crisis

Reporting from South Sudan in our weekend read, journalist Sam Mednick unravels the different layers of crisis piling up in the long-suffering northeastern regions of Pibor and Jonglei. First came fighting that displaced thousands, then came a second year of torrential floods that washed away crops and houses. And although there isn’t enough data to formally declare a famine, food experts have little doubt one is now occurring, with more than 30,000 people likely affected. All of this comes despite a peace deal and a new unity government that was meant to end five years of bitter conflict in the country. As Mednick reported last month, implementation of the agreement has been hampered by a lack of political will and insufficient funding. Peace deal officials in the capital city, Juba, have even been chased from hotels because the government isn’t paying their bills. Fighting, meanwhile, continues in the countryside where local community conflicts are far from resolved. More from Mednick's trip to the country to come.

And finally…

Finding numbers

Crisis responders are making do with only half the basic data they ought to have, according to a new review by the UN’s humanitarian office. OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data says it has gathered 49 percent of the basic datasets key to working in 27 emergency situations (these datasets range from airport locations to poverty rates). The data has to meet a minimum level of detail (not just country-wide numbers, for example) and freshness to qualify. Data on malnutrition and schools is particularly weak, while Mali has the best coverage. OCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange portal more than doubled its traffic in 2020, partly due to demand for COVID-19 data.

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