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Rohingya fire, Eritrean pullout, and a sexual abuse scandal in Ghana: 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

Rohingya camp fire: Build back safer?

Controversial fences lining Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps are the focus of attention after the deadly 22 March fire that uprooted more than 45,000 people – roughly five percent of the camps’ population. Rights groups say the fences “cost lives” as refugees struggled to flee the blaze. Witnesses told TNH the fences prevented some people from scrambling to safety, and slowed rescuers and fire services. Bangladeshi officials told media the fences aren’t to blame. Humanitarian NGOs are asking Bangladeshi authorities to “reconsider” the fences and, in the meantime, to ensure gates are staffed and opened 24/7. They’re also calling for the crowded camps to be “built back safer”, with more space between shelters, fire-resistant material, and better evacuation planning. Almost all the camps’ structures are made from bamboo; in the past, the government has prohibited using more permanent materials. Construction on the fences and watchtowers accelerated months ago, but aid groups, locked in an at-times tense relationship with the government, haven’t often spoken publicly on the issue. The fire disaster appears to have changed things: “This tragic event could have been less disastrous had barbed wire fencing not been erected,” said the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland.

Eritrea to withdraw troops from Ethiopia

Eritrean troops – accused of killings, rape, rights abuses, and looting – will pull out of Ethiopia, according to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who only admitted the troops were there on 23 March, after months of denial. Abiy also acknowledged rights abuses against civilians in the nearly five-month conflict in the northern Tigray region. Joint investigations between the UN and the national human rights commission – which also confirmed earlier accounts of a massacre at Axum – have been agreed in principle, while humanitarian teams will have less restrictions on movement. However, those relatively positive developments are outweighed by reports of previously unknown massacres, severe humanitarian needs, ongoing violence, forced displacement, and an escalation well beyond Tigray. The Los Angeles Times reported a January massacre at Bora, blaming Ethiopian federal troops for the killings, while Médecins Sans Frontières witnessed roadside executions by federal troops this week. Clashes continue, meanwhile, between Ethiopian and Sudanese forces at a contested border zone. And 500 kilometres south of the Tigray capital, Mekelle, killings and armed clashes involving (at least) Amhara and Oromo civilians and armed groups in locations including Ataye and Shewa Robit led to dozens of deaths and transport interruptions. 

Sex abuse at Global Fund grantee in Ghana

The Global Fund says leaders of an HIV programme it funds in Ghana demanded money and sex from beneficiaries in exchange for assistance. In an 18-page report seen by The New Humanitarian but not made public, the Global Fund said the allegations at the Ghana Network Association of People Living with HIV were first reported in 2019 and took place between 2010 and 2019. The network did not immediately respond to emails from TNH, but the report indicated the majority of executives denied the allegations. Investigators from the fund, which invests around $4 billion a year to fight infectious diseases, also found its safeguarding framework to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse was “inadequate”. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres released his annual report on measures being taken to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse, citing findings of an investigation by TNH and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. More than 50 women said they were sexually abused or exploited by aid workers during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The women said most of the men were from the World Health Organization. 

Kenya’s ‘reckless’ threat to close refugee camps

This week, the Kenyan government made a new but now familiar threat to close Dadaab refugee camp, adding there would be “no room for further negotiation”. It gave the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, two weeks to draw up a plan to shut not just Dadaab but also Kakuma – home in total to almost half a million refugees. “We will continue our dialogue with the Kenyan authorities on this issue,” UNHCR said in response. The NGO Refugees International was more forthright. “These orders are reckless and cruel,” it said. The majority of the refugees – most born in Kenya – would be forced back to conflict-hit Somalia, in the middle of a drought and the coronavirus pandemic. A high court rejected an earlier government attempt, so why is it at it again? Reasons advanced so far include punishing Somalia over a worsening maritime dispute; an attempt to wring better funding from the donors; and politics. Next year is, after all, an election year, and closing the camps – which the government claims are a security threat – is a populist vote winner.

Six years and counting in Yemen

Yemen enters its seventh year of war with plenty to watch and worry about: This week, Saudi Arabia proposed a plan to end the conflict, but Houthi rebels say the peace proposal offers nothing new, and doesn’t go far enough towards lifting an air and sea blockade on parts of the country. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reports that the Houthis have “indiscriminately fired artillery and missiles” into heavily populated areas during their offensive on the province of Marib, forcing people to flee their homes or the camps they had taken shelter in. Around 11,000 people have been forcibly displaced by the assault since the start of February, and aid groups warn that number could rise to 385,000 if the fighting moves closer to Marib city. And here’s yet another concern for civilians: While it’s hard to say without widespread testing, Yemen may well be in the midst of a second wave of COVID-19. Read this for a peek into what the devastating first wave looked and felt like in Aden.

New president, same old abuses in Burundi

In public speeches, he has called for justice and respect for the rule of law. But human rights abuses have continued unabated during the first year of Burundian President Évariste Ndayishimiye’s premiership. Abuses currently centre on the southwestern region of Rumonge, where heavy clashes between rebels and the military broke out in August 2020. Security agents have in recent months killed, tortured, and arrested more than a dozen Rumonge residents accused of supporting armed opposition groups, according to the latest report from the Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI). The report focuses on the death in police custody of a 64-year-old man – Égide Sindayigaya – who was beaten with whips, jabbed with needles, and forced to lie on metal bottle camps. “The fact that state agents continue to violate the most basic human rights when dealing with suspects serves as a concrete example of how President Ndayishimiye’s public pleas are not translated into action,” the BHRI report stated. Read our latest from Burundi for more.

In case you missed it

BRAZIL: COVID-19 deaths hit a new high this week in Brazil, with over 3,250 daily fatalities recorded on 23 March and the country’s intensive care units overwhelmed. The rapid spread of a new variant has driven the Amazon region’s death count to nearly 60,000. Many deaths have been in Indigenous communities, where patience for vaccines is running out amid growing distrust due to corruption scandals and slow rollouts. For more, read our full story.

COLOMBIA/VENEZUELA: Simmering tensions between Venezuela and Colombian rebels on its territory escalated on 21 March into clashes that left two Venezuelan soldiers dead and sent thousands of Venezuelans fleeing across the border. The ICRC, meanwhile, reported that, within Colombia itself, 2020 had seen a resurgence of violence, killings, and disappearances.

FRAUD: The International Rescue Committee has agreed to pay $6.9 million to settle a long-running USAID investigation into procurement fraud in Turkey. The probe found that NGO officials colluded with suppliers to profit from the purchase of goods destined for Syria. The IRC says it was “the victim of an organised criminal campaign”, and that the agreement “does not constitute an admission of liability”. Ernest Halilov, a former staffer of Irish NGO GOAL, and a central figure in the scam, admitted bribing NGO staff to steer contracts his way. He awaits sentencing in the United States.

MYANMAR: Some 100,000 migrant workers have fled post-coup military crackdowns in Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, said the UN’s migration agency, IOM. The public health system has “practically collapsed” following the 1 February coup amid a widespread civil disobedience movement, aid groups say. The shutdowns include the national HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis programmes.

SYRIA: The UN says a recent wave of airstrikes and shelling in rebel-held northwest Syria have killed and injured dozens of civilians. A hospital in western Aleppo province was hit and forced to close, and CARE said an airstrike set off a fire at an aid warehouse, destroying supplies for 25,000 people.

UK/KENYA: A British charity formed by Kenyan alleged child trafficker Gilbert Deya has been taken over by the regulator. The Charity Commission, which has appointed interim managers, said the charity’s trustees conducted “financial transactions that ran counter to legal orders”. Gilbert Deya Ministries had been under investigation since 2016 and intended to sell a property in Manchester for over $1 million. 

UK: Plans to overhaul the UK’s asylum system unveiled on 24 March by Home Secretary Priti Patel have been denounced as “inhumane” by humanitarian groups. The overhaul follows an uptick in the still comparatively small number of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in boats during the past year and would create an unfair, two-tiered system that treats asylum claims differently depending on how applicants enter the country, according to critics.

VACCINE: Deliveries of coronavirus vaccines produced by India’s Serum Institute will be delayed, officials with the UN-backed COVAX vaccine equity scheme confirmed on 25 March, as India struggles with rising COVID-19 infections. The announcement deals a blow to lower-income countries, which are almost entirely reliant on COVAX to drive their initial rollouts. The Serum Institute’s version of the AstraZeneca vaccine represented nearly 60 percent of COVAX supplies through the end of May.

Weekend read

When a migrant drowns, a whole community feels the loss

The hidden costs of Mediterranean shipwrecks on a remote Senegalese village.

The death at sea of yet another young man – and his mother’s grief – bring to light the real costs of Senegal-Europe migration in our weekend read by Ottavia Spaggiari. Like thousands before him, and thousands since, Demba died in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya in 2015 trying to get to a better life for his family. He was 22 years old. Fed up with economic hardship, underdevelopment, and ineffective political leadership, young Senegalese men are taking higher risks to escape difficult lives made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. It matters little that Europe has all but closed its doors, and that violence against sub-Saharan asylum seekers and migrants is rife in Libya. For poor families left behind, grief is common, though a luxury they can ill afford as they must focus on continuing to survive. There are other costs too: young widows – some in their teens – forced to remarry their husbands’ brothers out of economic necessity. Families who sell belongings or borrow money so their sons or brothers can migrate, hoping for a monetary lifeline from abroad, often have to do struggle through extra financial difficulties even as they mourn the loss of their loved one. Then there’s the silent trauma carried by returnees who witnessed violence or had to watch friends die. Government and donor efforts to improve outcomes at home or curb dangers abroad are paltry and ineffective. Without more resources and investment, the cycle will simply continue.

And finally…

Finding some light

Twenty countries are facing soaring hunger this year, with Yemen, South Sudan, and northern Nigeria again topping the danger list with “catastrophic levels” of need. Worldwide, more than 34 million people are grappling with acute hunger, according to the UN’s two food agencies. In many instances, the humanitarian crises are driven by conflict. But economic woes and raging inflation – especially in countries like Venezuela and Lebanon – are also hurting people’s ability to afford the food they need. And natural calamities – poor rains and locusts – have added to the conflict-related problems across the Horn of Africa. But there is some better news, too. Southern Africa, after years of droughts, has had good rains, and above-average harvests are expected for most countries. South Africa, for one, is anticipating a record maize crop, with exports expected to jump by 40 percent to 3.5 million tonnes – more than enough to cover any regional deficits. Even Zimbabwe, so often a byword for agricultural failure, is expecting a good crop – although its deep-seated economic misery will still affect the purchasing power of poor households.

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