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Myanmar’s food prices, Libya’s women cabinet ministers, and peace moves in the Sahel: The Cheat Sheet

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(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

Food prices soar as Myanmar violence escalates

Food and fuel prices are rising across Myanmar, posing a “looming threat” to food security as the violent fallout from the 1 February military coup continues, the UN’s World Food Programme warns. Prices have spiked in northern Rakhine State in particular, including a 27 percent rise for cooking oil and a 33 percent jump for petrol. “If these price trends continue, they will severely undermine the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable to put enough food on the family table,” said Stephen Anderson, WFP’s country director. The rising prices are also hitting communities hosting people displaced by the military’s conflict with the Arakan Army, exacerbating tensions, an aid worker based in Rakhine told TNH. Prices of rice or cooking oil have jumped by 15 to 30 percent, the aid worker said, but day labour wages have flattened. High prices and blocked supply lines are also making it difficult to deliver aid in Myanmar’s other conflict zones. A widespread civil disobedience movement pushing back against the coup has paralysed the country’s banking system and affected the transportation sector, making it difficult or impossible to transfer money. Higher shipping prices, dwindling cash, and the “dysfunctional” financial sector could trigger “panic buying in the coming weeks”, WFP says. As of 18 March, more than 220 people have been killed and 2,200 arrested since the coup began, according to local rights monitors. Many were protesters shot and killed by security forces in what rights groups call an escalating “bloodbath”. Security forces have also occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses across the country, UN agencies and Save the Children said.

New Libyan rule, 10 years after NATO intervention

Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) officially handed power over to a new interim government in Tripoli this week, the day after Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh’s cabinet was sworn in by the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk. Getting to this point has been a long and complicated UN-led process with multi-track negotiations and consultations, and the new leadership faces multiple challenges, including holding elections and restoring much-needed government services. It also needs to unite a country that has been torn apart recently by a year-long war – and one that has largely been in chaos since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, helped by NATO’s decision (10 years ago today) to intervene. The new cabinet contains five women, including the ministers of foreign affairs and justice. Together they make up 15 percent of the leadership, not the 30 percent delegates to the UN process had promised. But many Libyan women are taking this as at least a step in the right direction. Read this for more on Libya’s past and long road towards real peace.

Violence (and peace moves) in the Sahel

It has been another bloody week in West Africa’s Sahel. Fifty-eight people were killed by gunmen on motorbikes in Niger’s extremist-hit Tillabéri region, while at least 33 soldiers were killed across the border in Mali in an area where jihadists are also active. But there’s room for some positive news too. In Burkina Faso, which borders both Mali and Niger, secret talks between security officials and jihadists have resulted in a makeshift ceasefire in parts of the country. And grassroots peace initiatives involving local communities, ethnic militias, and jihadist groups are also taking root in central Mali, which has been hit hard by conflict in recent years. Analysts say dialogue with jihadists can help reduce civilian suffering. But the idea faces strong opposition from France, which has thousands of troops stationed in the region and appears to see military operations as the only option. “With terrorists, we do not discuss,” President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview last year. “We fight."

US asylum pressure builds

Apprehensions of asylum seekers and migrants at the southern US border have been steadily increasing since last May – a trend many experts predicted as the pandemic exacerbates push factors in Mexico and Central America, and as the United States starts to move away from Trump administration policies that left many in danger. But the numbers might not be exactly what they seem. The United States has been summarily expelling people under a public health order since last March – a policy continued by the Biden administration despite opposition from human rights groups – and more than a third of those apprehended are repeat crossers. So what’s really new? At the beginning of February, the United States carved out an exception to the expulsion policy for unaccompanied children, leading to a spike in minors entering the country, and it is struggling to provide adequate housing for the children. For now, the main concern is for the health, safety, and human rights of children in US custody. But in the longer term, if the perception of a ‘border crisis’ takes root, the political fallout could jeopardise Biden’s plans to roll back more of Trump’s migration legacy and lead to growing humanitarian needs in shelters and cities in northern Mexico. 

EU citizens back aid spending

Ninety percent of EU citizens think it's "important" the union funds humanitarian aid, up slightly from 88 percent in 2016. The least supportive nation is Austria, and the most enthusiastic is Portugal. The numbers come from a survey of some 27,000 EU citizens released this week. The Irish are the most proud of the EU's humanitarian aid, which amounts to about three or four euros per EU taxpayer per year. About half of EU citizens surveyed said spending should stay the same, but 18 percent of Finns said the budget should be cut, and 60 percent of Romanians think it should go up. Three quarters like the aid spending to be coordinated by the bloc, while 22 percent say it's better spent by individual countries. The survey was released to coincide with a new EU humanitarian strategy – and, if you haven’t read it already, our interview with EC humanitarian chief Janez Lenarčič about that triggered some strong reactions. One potentially interesting side note from the polling: TV is becoming less important as a source of news, dropping five percent since the last survey in 2016.

‘The Emperor’ looks to prolong power in Congo-Brazzaville

Presidential polls are set to open this weekend in Congo-Brazzaville, five years after a post-election conflict displaced tens of thousands of people. Wounds remain raw in the southern Pool region, where a previously dormant militia known as the Ninjas contested the 2016 re-election of long-time ruler Denis Sassou Nguesso. TNH was the first international media organisation granted access to Pool in late 2017 to document the toll of the conflict. Though authorities claim to have conducted a targeted offensive against the Ninjas, our correspondent found evidence of scorched-earth tactics. A ceasefire agreement was signed in December 2017, but Ninjas have criticised the government for failing to help them reintegrate into civilian life. While analysts say there’s a small risk of violence ahead of the coming polls, only one outcome seems certain: another victory for Sassou Nguesso. After 36 years in power, he has been dubbed “The Emperor” by some of his fellow African leaders.

In case you missed it

BRAZIL: As daily deaths from COVID-19 hit a new record here this week, a leading Brazilian health institute said hospitals and medical services were facing their “biggest collapse” in history. Indigenous people have been among the worst hit, with mortality rates more than double the national average. One of the latest victims was Aruka Juma, the last surviving member of the Juma tribe in Rondônia, where he likely caught the disease from loggers. For more on global coronavirus news and trends, check out our regularly updated feature.

DATA BREACH: The email addresses and other personal data of 1.8 million Oxfam Australia supporters were hacked and put online, Bleeping Computer first reported in February. The database included some payment history and bank account details. Earlier this month, Oxfam warned supporters to watch out for scams and phishing attempts, saying it regretted the incident.

GREECE: A juvenile court on the island of Lesvos found two 18-year-old Afghans guilty of starting the fire that burned down the Moria refugee camp last September, sentencing them to five years in prison. Greece has also charged the father of a six-year-old Afghan boy who drowned crossing the Aegean from Turkey last year with child endangerment. If convicted, the father faces up to 10 years in prison. 

HAITI: Haitian police officers stormed several police stations, freeing jailed colleagues accused of plotting a coup against President Jovenel Moïse. The country has been gripped by escalating gang violence, kidnapping, and political unrest, which has had a knock-on effect to pandemic lockdown restrictions. UNICEF says immunisations have dropped by up to 40 percent, and some Haitians say they’re hesitant to get a jab against the coronavirus because they don’t trust Moïse’s leadership.

HEALTHCARE: Disruptions to health services from COVID-19 may have caused 239,000 additional child and maternal deaths in South Asia during 2020, according to a new UN study. The research estimated the impacts of service cuts or falling health access, such as sharp drops in childhood immunisations or the number of children treated for severe malnutrition.

PALESTINE: The first shipment of COVAX-provided COVID-19 vaccines bound for the West Bank and Gaza arrived this week, with more expected in several months. Israel, which is the global leader in vaccinations per capita, has come in for harsh criticism for not vaccinating most Palestinians living in the territories it occupies. In the last few weeks, it began inoculating Palestinians who work in Israel. 

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: The Pacific nation is imposing lockdowns as surging coronavirus cases threaten to overwhelm a meagre health system, while vaccine imports are still weeks away. On 17 March, Australia announced it would donate 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to target frontline health workers. Hospitals are reporting high infection rates among health workers and pregnant women.

YEMEN: An official from Yemen’s Houthi rebels has expressed “deep regret” over a 7 March fire in a Sana’a migration detention centre that killed at least 44 people. Houthi Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein al-Azi reportedly said the blaze was an accident; detainees told Human Rights Watch that Houthi forces launched “unidentified projectiles” to put down protests in the centre, starting the deadly fire.

Weekend read

Syria: A decade of flight

The Syrian war has now entered its eleventh year. Over the past 10 years, fear and violence have forced at least 13 million Syrians to flee their homes, a number that is split almost evenly between refugees and those displaced inside the country. Only about 201,000 Syrian refugees have been given new starts through the UN’s resettlement programme, although some have received residency in countries like Germany. But the vast majority of the 6.6 million registered Syrian refugees remain in limbo, with limited freedom of movement and restricted rights to work. Our weekend read is a timeline that walks you through the past decade of war and flight, year by year. Using interactive maps, photos, and archival TNH coverage, it shows how many people have been forced into exile and where they’ve gone. But it goes beyond the numbers, looking at individual Syrians’ stories. Scrolling through from 2011 to 2021, a fuller picture of the long and brutal war – and of the heavy toll it has taken on so many people – emerges. These days, as global interest in Syria wanes, and the pandemic shutters many of the remaining open doors, refugees are facing growing pressure to return home. But the war is not fully over and Syria’s economy has collapsed. For many, going back is not a viable option.

And finally…

Retired hurricanes

Dorian and Laura are retiring from hurricane duty, along with the entire Greek alphabet. Tropical cyclones in the Atlantic will no longer be named Dorian, Laura, Eta, or Iota: The official “hurricane committee” of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization is retiring these monikers “because of the death and destruction” the 2019 and 2020 storms caused. They join a list of 93 names retired since 1953. The committee also announced it’ll stop naming storms using the Greek alphabet, saying they cause confusion when translated into other languages, and that there’s “too much focus” on the rarity of the names rather than the impacts. Until now, Atlantic hurricanes were named after Greek letters only when the rotating list of 21 names was exhausted – as was the case during last year’s record-breaking hurricane season, which produced 30 named storms. Scientists say climate change is making tropical cyclones more volatile and destructive. This year’s Atlantic hurricane season officially begins 1 June. The first name up: Ana.

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