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Syria’s tragedy, Myanmar returns, and missing Magufuli: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

(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

Syria’s decade of devastation

Next week marks 10 years since demonstrations against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were met with force, and an uprising that was part of the so-called “Arab Spring” spiralled into a long and brutal war. It is a conflict that has been marked, at different stages, by sieges, starvation, bombing, street fighting, chemical attacks, the destruction of hospitals, the manipulation of much-needed humanitarian aid. Diplomacy has largely failed, entire cities and towns have been destroyed, and more than 12 million people have been forced to flee their homes, either becoming refugees or displaced people in their own country. Nobody knows exactly how many people have killed, although most agree that the number long ago surpassed 470,000. That doesn’t include lives lost to disease, hunger, or the children who have frozen to death in their tents. Pretty much every aid and advocacy group has a new report or statement about this “anniversary” (we’ll have something for you to read next week too), but to be honest, we’re not sure it’s possible to sum up what this level of suffering feels like for the civilians who have had no choice but to try and endure it.

Fleeing (and forced returns) in Myanmar

Myanmar’s violent crackdown on civilian protesters continues following the military’s 1 February coup, and many who fled conflict or persecution in the Southeast Asian nation are facing growing pressure to return. Indian authorities say they may deport more than 200 Rohingya refugees detained this week. Some 170 people were rounded up in Jammu, pushing many in the community into hiding. Another 88 Rohingya were later arrested outside the Delhi office of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The group had fled the Jammu raids in search of protection, Al Jazeera reported. “The Myanmar military’s increasingly brutal repression following the coup puts any returnees at serious risk of abuse,” said Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch. Elsewhere, the BBC reported that dozens of defecting police officers are seeking refuge in northeast India’s Mizoram State, which borders Myanmar’s Chin State. Earlier, in February, 40 Chin families also sought asylum in Mizoram, according to the Rights and Risks Analysis Group, a Delhi-based NGO. In late February, Malaysia deported more than 1,000 detained migrants back to Myanmar – a group that likely included refugees or asylum seekers, rights groups said. Meanwhile, 22 civil society groups called on UN agencies in Myanmar to speak out against the coup, accusing agency heads of staying silent.

North Korea’s tiny aid footprint

Humanitarian operations in North Korea have come to a near-standstill, with only three international humanitarian staff left in the entire country, the UN’s special rapporteur for the country, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said in a report to the Human Rights Council this week. UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are among those who have withdrawn staff or put programmes on hold due to border closures or travel restrictions. Quintana is calling for “full and unimpeded access” for medical and humanitarian staff as North Korea waits for its first COVID-19 vaccines. North Korea is slated to receive at least 1.7 million doses through COVAX, the UN-backed scheme meant to ensure equitable vaccine access. North Korea says it has zero coronavirus cases (a claim many observers reject), but its economy has stumbled amid closed borders, sanctions, and extensive agricultural damage caused by floods and storms last year. “Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them,” Quintana said.

The pandemic’s secondary impacts

Nearly 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon now live in extreme poverty, up from 55 percent in 2019. Three million refugees in East Africa have had their food rations cut by up to 60 percent because of funding shortfalls. NGOs recorded a 66 percent increase in self-harm among refugees living in camps in Greece during lockdowns. These are just some of the secondary impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on displaced populations. Meanwhile, COVID is becoming a major factor pushing people to migrate even while global mobility remains severely constricted. And as vaccine rollouts slowly – and unequally – pick up pace around the world, experts worry refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants will be largely left out, adding yet another hurdle for vulnerable people to seek protection. Read the latest from our Migration Editor-at-large Eric Reidy for more on how COVID is affecting refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people, and migration one year into the pandemic.

Turning up the heat

Our Editorial hopefully helped to get the ball rolling, and now the pressure is certainly mounting for a fair and meritocratic process to appoint the UN’s top humanitarian. On Tuesday, more than 50 leaders across Britain’s aid, government, and academic circles signed an open letter to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, urging him to support an open and inclusive process to fill the role of Emergency Relief Coordinator. Notably though, not one of the past three people in the position, nor the incumbent Mark Lowcock – all Brits – put their pen to the letter. The selection process, like that for many senior UN roles, has historically been carried out through tacit political arrangements, excluding talent from much of the world, especially countries it seeks to serve. As the public call for applicants closes on 15 March, rumours are swirling about possible candidates from other countries. Stay tuned to see whether Secretary-General António Guterres heeds the growing calls for a transparent process, and for a more diverse and representative leader. 

Record reparations for Congo warlord’s victims

The International Criminal Court has ruled that victims of convicted Congolese militia leader Bosco Ntaganda – known as The Terminator – should get a total of $30 million in compensation. It’s the court’s highest ever reparations order. The award will be made through the independent Trust Fund for Victims and includes financial and vocational training assistance to the survivors of Ntaganda’s attrocities in eastern Ituri province, which included murder, rape, and the recruitment of child soldiers. Those victims could number 100,000. Reparations are meant to acknowledge and remedy harm, but the TFV is underfunded. It relies on voluntary contributions, and in 2020 had around $21 million in reserve. Much of that was pledged to other cases – and dwarfed by the amount the ICC spends on prosecutions. Law professor Luke Moffett suggests the international community may be giving more attention “to paying lawyers than ensuring effective remedies for those most affected by the worst crimes known to humanity”.

Landmark UN peacekeeper paternity decision in Haiti

A Haitian court has ordered a former UN peacekeeper from Uruguay to pay child support to a woman he impregnated in 2011. In what was described as the first case of its kind in Haiti – and possibly the world – Sandra Wisner, a senior attorney for the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, says the next step will be getting Uruguay and the UN to help enforce it. The group has been working with the Haitian-based Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) to represent several Haitian women who were impregnated and abandoned by UN peacekeepers. Cases are pending for at least 10 other children. Hundreds of children are thought to have been fathered by UN peacekeepers between 2004 and 2017 during the UN Stabilisation Mission (MINUSTAH), according to a study that interviewed some 2,500 people in Haiti – the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Wisner says justice has been slow for the women, largely because the UN has dragged its feet in lifting the functional immunity of the peacekeepers. For more, read our full story.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Facing a looming deadline to withdraw international forces, the United States is proposing an interim power-sharing deal between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban, according to Afghan news outlet TOLOnews, which posted details of the proposal this week. Nearly half of Afghanistans population may need humanitarian aid this year, aid agencies say. 

KASHMIR: Pakistan and India agreed to a ceasefire along the so-called Line of Control dividing the contested Kashmir region, restoring an often-broken 2003 agreement after months of escalating tensions. 

LEBANON: Lebanon has seen a week of protests after the country’s currency plummeted to yet another low, with poverty rising alongside food prices. In the midst of a long economic crisis, politicians have failed to form a government despite the nomination of a prime minister last October. 

MEDITERRANEAN: At least 39 people from sub-Saharan Africa died on 9 March when two boats carrying asylum seekers and migrants sank after departing from Tunisia. Economic fallout from the coronavirus is driving an uptick in the number of people departing from North Africa toward Europe, and more than 230 have died this year in the central Mediterranean, nearly double the number over the same period in 2020. 

MOZAMBIQUE: A senior military official has denied allegations by Amnesty International that the army and a private security company have committed extrajudicial killings in the battle against jihadist insurgents in the country’s northeast. A recent Amnesty report accused the army, the mercenary Dyck Advisory Group, and the jihadists of war crimes. The military official claimed the report was written by "people who have never been here".

US/VENEZUELA: A former Cuban refugee now in charge of US homeland security announced an 18-month reprieve from deportation for 320,000 Venezuelans living in the country. The declaration by newly-appointed Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas offers them temporary protective status, which includes work permits for those applying during a 180-day period. In early 2020, “stealth deportations” were carried out by the previous Trump administration, sending home an unknown number of Venezuelans who had fled their country’s economic and humanitarian crisis.

YEMEN: At least 44 people are believed to have been killed after a fire broke out in a detention centre for migrants in Yemen's Houthi rebel-held capital city of Sana'a. At least 900 people, mostly from Ethiopia, are reportedly being held at the overcrowded facility. The UN's migration agency said the death toll was still unknown, and called for urgent humanitarian access" to the injured.

Weekend read

EXCLUSIVE: Burkina Faso’s secret peace talks and fragile jihadist ceasefire

Rocked by jihadist violence since 2016, the peace process in Burkina Faso is fairly non-existent. At least, that’s what we thought. Thanks to exclusive on-the-ground reporting by Sam Mednick, we can reveal that high-level officials have in fact been holding a series of secret meetings with jihadists. And these have led to a makeshift ceasefire with the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) – one of the two main extremist outfits behind the crisis. Fighting has also dropped sharply: The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data reports nearly five times fewer clashes between jihadists and security forces from November 2020 to January 2021 compared to the same period a year earlier. Mednick was one of the first journalists in years to enter Djibo, a town in the heart of JNIM territory, and reported that dozens of jihadists are now coming in from the bush to buy goods rather than to attack the market. Yet much remains unclear. Is the other main extremist group, the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS), also involved? Why is the government not involving community leaders? And, most importantly, will the ceasefire last?

And finally…

Where is Magufuli?

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has not been seen in public for almost two weeks, with no official word yet where the man – nicknamed “the bulldozer” – may have parked himself. Unconfirmed media reports in Kenya – and tweets by opposition politicians in Tanzania – suggest it could be a Nairobi hospital, with the famously COVID-denying leader possibly receiving treatment for that very ailment. If that’s the case, then the KiSwahili proverb, mpanda ovyo, hula ovyo – you reap what you sow – is apt. Magufuli has ridiculed the coronavirus threat, refused to release data on infection rates, denounced vaccines, and opposed mask-wearing. Scared of censure, Tanzanian doctors have referred only coyly to the country’s “rising respiratory challenges”. But since the end of February there has been a shift in tone. After months of claiming the virus had been defeated by the power of prayer, Magufuli – a former chemistry professor – called on Tanzanians to mask up. That coincided with a raft of senior politicians struggling with respiratory problems, including the finance minister, Philip Mpango. Meanwhile, the government has warned local media of consequences for “spreading rumours” about the president’s whereabouts – with the latest speculation being that he’s now in India.



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