Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Aid on hold after Myanmar coup
The fallout from Myanmar’s 1 February coup continues, as the military clamps down on communications and humanitarian groups search for signs of how aid to nearly one million people may be affected. Authorities charged the country’s deposed de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, with allegedly importing walkie-talkies. The military also blocked Facebook, synonymous to the internet for many, and banned virtual private networks, or VPNs, used to circumvent local restrictions. A “civil disobedience” campaign pushing back against the coup has started, but some security forces have been instructed to use force against any protesters, Fortify Rights says, and authorities have arrested nearly 150 people since Monday, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Aid groups are still debating how their already fraught relations with authorities will work now that the military is back in charge. Several aid groups have suspended or reduced services. The Norwegian Refugee Council, one of several agencies that put work on pause, warns of a “humanitarian disaster” if there’s a further clampdown on aid access.
The COVAX vaccine pipeline
Low-income countries should receive their first coronavirus vaccine doses through the UN-backed COVAX scheme in late February or early March, the World Health Organization and other agencies announced this week. COVAX was created to try to ensure equitable COVID-19 vaccine access, but many countries have found themselves sidelined as wealthier countries scoop up early supplies directly from manufacturers. Current projections call for enough COVAX doses to cover 3.3 percent of participating countries’ populations in the first half of 2021. Still, there are plenty of question marks: for example, the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, representing 99 percent of the current pipeline, is still waiting approval for emergency use by the WHO. Countries must also ensure they have the infrastructure in place to roll out the vaccines. It’s unclear how, when, or if refugees, migrants, the displaced, and other vulnerable groups will get vaccines, or if doses will reach communities in conflict zones. Some countries explicitly include refugees in their planning; others have refused or offered mixed signals. There’s a clear disparity between the vaccine haves and have nots: While some countries are already vaccinating lower-risk groups, others with spiralling COVID-19 outbreaks are still waiting for their first doses. For more, track developments on our frequently updated data page.
US aims to resettle 125,000 refugees annually
US President Joe Biden issued an executive order on 4 February to begin rebuilding the US refugee admissions programme with the aim of increasing resettlement numbers to 125,000 for fiscal year 2022, up from the historically low 15,000 set by former president Donald Trump for 2021. However, executive actions on migration and asylum issued earlier in the week were greeted by advocacy groups as more of a mixed bag. Notably, Biden left two controversial policies that have effectively ended access to asylum at the US-Mexico border on the books, pending review, while also creating a task force to reunite families separated by Trump’s border policies. The moves appear more cautious than executive actions taken on Biden’s first day in office that ended Trump era immigration bans on Muslim majority countries and rescinded the state of emergency declaration at the US-Mexico border.
Lord’s Resistance Army commander convicted
The International Criminal Court on 4 February found Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen guilty of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Reactions in Uganda were mixed: Some would have preferred restorative justice, others say his abduction and abuse as a child reduced his culpability. For many, the verdict was a bitter-sweet relief, for example in Lukodi, the site of LRA attacks raised in the Ongwen case. In 2015 – after decades of LRA atrocities, a generation of upheaval in northern Uganda, and years of on-off peace initiatives – Ongwen turned himself in. The ICC had issued arrest warrants for him and four other LRA leaders – the court’s first ever warrants – in 2005. Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, remains at large, with a small band of fighters, possibly on the South Sudan-Central African Republic border. The New Humanitarian has published background (including exclusive archival video) and key milestones in a Twitter thread.
Uighurs allege rape in China detention camps
New allegations detail how women were systematically raped, tortured, and sexually abused in China’s so-called “re-education camps” for Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. The BBC report was based on interviews with several former detainees and a guard. The United States, Britain, and Australia are demanding that independent investigators be given access to the camps. TNH understands that the International Committee of the Red Cross – one of the few organisations that have been allowed to visit detention facilities around the world – has had no access so far. The United States has accused China of committing crimes against humanity and genocide. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in December rejected an application to investigate genocide claims, saying it couldn’t as China is not a signatory to the ICC and any crimes therefore occurred outside its jurisdiction. China has denied allegations of human rights abuses. The Chinese government says the camps are vocational training centres designed to counter extremism. More than one million people have been sent to the camps, according to the Chinese government.
Haiti on the brink
After days of street protests, Haiti is bracing for a 7 February ultimatum in a long-running standoff between opponents and supporters of Jovenel Moïse. Opponents are calling on the president to stand down, but Moïse says his five-year term runs till 2022 as it doesn’t include the interim year of a provisional president after Michel Martelly left office without a successor. Concerns over corruption, the country’s economic paralysis, and a spike in kidnappings have fed into the protests over the constitutional crisis. Hunger predictions are also worrying. According to a food security analysis from August, nearly 42 percent of Haitians are experiencing acute hunger. That number is expected to increase in the coming months. Economic and political woes have plagued the Caribbean nation for years, but the pandemic has increased unemployment and driven up humanitarian needs.
Protesters killed in Angola
Angolan security forces killed more than 10 people on 30 January as they protested over living conditions in the diamond-rich town of Cafunfo, in northeastern Lunda Norte province. The demonstration was organised by the Lunda-Tchokwé Protectorate Movement, part of its push for autonomy for a region whose diamond wealth has long lined the pockets of senior ruling party and military figures. The group denied allegations by the security forces that the protesters were armed secessionists who had attempted to break into the police station. Human Rights Watch, which interviewed survivors, said the demonstrators had gathered to demand better public services, including water and electricity, but had been fired upon by the police. A graphic video circulating on social media showed several bodies on a road, and one police officer stepping on the head of a severely wounded man. Amnesty International said the authorities have continued to hunt down survivors, and OMUNGA, a local NGO, alleged many activists remain unaccounted for. Both HRW and Amnesty have called for an independent inquiry.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: Conflict casualties fell in 2020, but aid interference surged as armed groups like the Taliban pressured humanitarians. UN stats show “access impediments” more than doubled in 2020 over the previous year, including demands for taxation, as the Taliban “expanded their range of operations”.
ETHIOPIA: Almost no aid is reaching people in Tigray, three months after conflict began. The UN suggests the government is stalling requests for on-the-ground aid worker visits while preventing independent media reporting. Calls for more access are growing. Over two million people are estimated to be in need as food supplies dwindle, while public services are out of action and government relief efforts are limited and opaque.
IRAQ: Iraq closed one of its last remaining displacement camps (outside of the northern Kurdish region) this week. While the government insists it wants to re-integrate displaced people into society, residents of the camp say they were forced to leave with little warning, and some have no homes to return to.
LEBANON: Six months after a deadly blast rocked Beirut’s port, aid groups say that while most damaged or destroyed homes have been fixed, many Lebanese now face rising poverty, survivors are trying to deal with the psychological aftermath, and COVID-19 has brought the healthcare system to the verge of collapse. Efforts to investigate the explosion have largely been blocked.
PACIFIC STORMS: A trio of tropical storms lashed parts of the Pacific Islands this week. Heavy rains from cyclones Ana, Bina, and Lucas caused damage in countries including Fiji, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea. Parts of Fiji were still recovering from December’s powerful Cyclone Yasa.
SOMALIA: Emergency talks are underway between regional and federal leaders to avoid a constitutional crisis over the tenure of President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo”. A delay in holding elections means his mandate expires on 8 February without a successor being chosen. As political tensions grow, the three days of talks are aimed at trying to find a compromise.
YEMEN: President Joe Biden announced an end to US support for the Saudi Arabia- and United Arab Emirates-led offensive in Yemen, shortly after freezing arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Biden also named veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking as special envoy to Yemen, in what many see as a sign that the United States will take a more active role in trying to end the six-year war.
A declaration – or not – of famine doesn’t tell the whole story of hunger in a country. In our weekend read, some of the key players who determine if a famine is declared debunk popular misconceptions about the “f” word. They explain how their work is a technical process that uses a range of data to assess the severity of hunger crises. Lack of – or incomplete – data can make it difficult to establish if famine conditions have been met, even if hunger-related deaths are high. And just as humanitarians may issue famine warnings with little new evidence, politicians may also downplay the severity of situations to save face. Death tolls, they say, are a consequence of the scale, duration, and severity of a hunger crisis, not just whether the word “famine” has been invoked. That’s why, for example, you shouldn’t read too much into a “likely” famine being declared in one part of South Sudan while no famine has been declared in Yemen.
Protection racket rocks RI
Nancy Wilson, CEO of international NGO Relief International, is on administrative leave after she was found to approve payments to an armed rebel group via an “access consultant”. RI paid out several thousand dollars a month after receiving threats to staff in a conflict zone, according to British charity news website Third Sector. The report says the money was paid last year and not revealed to the Board or donors. The specific country and group have been withheld by Third Sector for security reasons. The NGO issued a statement saying, “While we do not have all the facts yet, Relief International will do whatever is necessary to right any wrongs.” It hasn’t been a good year for RI (US and UK turnover total over $170m): Its CFO quit in 2020 after a $500,000 payment to UNICEF ended up in a scammer’s bank account, Third Sector reports.
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.