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Vaccine doubts, Afghan volatility, and a volcanic eruption: 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.

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The global ripples of domestic vaccine suspensions

The United States hit pause this week on its rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, in a move that could have repercussions for countries with spiralling COVID-19 infections but few vaccine options. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reviewing the vaccine produced by J&J after six people – from more than 6.8 million doses administered – developed rare blood clots. It’s unclear what caused the blood clots, which can occur naturally (and can also be caused by COVID-19 itself). Soon after, South Africa paused its J&J rollout as a precautionary measure. Several countries previously paused use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for similar reasons, though Europe’s drugs regulator and a World Health Organization committee later declared the vaccine safe. The COVAX equity scheme, which is supplying much of the world’s vaccines, is heavily reliant on both vaccines. The precautionary suspensions are unnecessarily eroding vaccine confidence globally, according to Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the African Union’s Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance. “People are saying, ‘If you don’t want it out there… why are you saying we should take it? This is the problem we are running into,” Alakija told the BBC.

US pullout leaves unanswered questions for Afghan civilians

Afghanistan now has a clearer timeline for when US and international troops will leave, but the questions surrounding what this means for civilians and aid operations in the country remain the same. US President Joe Biden this week confirmed plans to withdraw American forces before 11 September – the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that led to the Afghanistan invasion. NATO also said 9,500 international soldiers – including 2,500 US troops – would leave, beginning 1 May. But the implications of the pullout are as volatile as they were when Biden’s predecessor first inked a peace deal with the Taliban last year. Will the Taliban pursue a decisive military victory or continue with sporadic peace negotiations with the government? How will women and minorities fare? How will this affect local and international aid operations, and the roughly 16 million Afghans – more than 40 percent of the population – who rely on humanitarian relief? Will there be a future for reconciliation after decades of war? And what about those militias? More than 1,700 civilians were killed or injured in conflict in the first three months of 2021, the UN said this week. 

Toll from Darfur clashes rises to 144

The death toll continues to climb after clashes last week in Darfur’s El Geneina. A doctor’s committee in the town – the capital of West Darfur state – said at least 144 people were killed, though the number is likely higher as many casualties were buried without medical attention or contact with local authorities. The clashes involved members of the local Masalit and Arab communities, and follows a similar outbreak of violence earlier this year. The New Humanitarian visited El Geneina in February finding communities polarised by Sudan’s troubled transition, and vulnerable after the December withdrawal of a UN-African Union peacekeeping mission that had been on the ground for 13 years. “The government doesn’t have a clear plan to deal with protecting civilians,” Ibrahim Musa Hussin Ali, a civil society activist from El Geneina, told TNH this week, adding: “Recent events need investigation.” Read our ongoing series on Darfur for more.

Messy politics and a drought crisis in Somalia

The political heat is rising in Somalia over the determination of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, to cling to power despite his term ending in February. This week he embraced a decision by the Lower house to extend his (and their) stay in office for an extra two years to allow the running of delayed elections. The move was rejected by the Senate as “unconstitutional”. The Senate called on Farmajo to rejoin UN-led talks – which he has rejected. As the crisis deepened, there were reports of a troop build-up in the capital and the fragmentation of the security forces. The political tussle is being played out in the Mogadishu bubble. In the countryside, where the government holds little sway, a new drought emergency is underway. Almost 40,000 people have been forced from their homes in the first three months of the year due to poor rains, joining the 1.3 million people displaced in 2020 by combined humanitarian disasters. Another bad rainy season is forecast for April-June, but donor funding is roughly $1 billion short of the appeal target.

Mass evacuation after Caribbean eruptions

Roughly 20,000 people, or nearly 20 percent of the population of St Vincent and the Grenadines, have been evacuated since volcanic eruptions began on 9 April, taking most by surprise. The activity from La Soufrière volcano on the archipelago’s main island, St Vincent, is ongoing, and includes ash clouds that are blanketing communities and crops, and contaminating drinking water. Health authorities reported cases of COVID-19 in one of the government’s 89 shelters and said mass testing will take place to trace infections. The regional Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, or CDEMA, which is coordinating much of the relief, has deployed a damage assessment team to identify needs. Donors in nearby island states have, meanwhile, sent assistance, while the UN resident coordinator for Barbados and the Caribbean announced a funding appeal and response plan.

In case you missed it

AID FINANCE: Foreign aid from major donor countries rose to a record high of $161.2 billion in 2020, up 3.5 percent in real terms from 2019. According to donor group OECD, $18 billion of the total was classified as humanitarian aid, while $12 billion of COVID-19 spending explained most of the increase. For comparison, pandemic measures spent at home in the donor countries cost about $16 trillion.

HAITI: President Jovenel Moïse has vowed to secure the return of 10 Catholic clergy members kidnapped on 11 April on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The country has been gripped by a recent wave of crime and kidnappings, as well as by political unrest and an economic crisis. On 1 April, armed men abducted a pastor and three others during a church service that was being live streamed. Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe, meanwhile, resigned on 14 April and was quickly replaced by Claude Joseph. 

MOZAMBIQUE: The jihadist conflict in the north of the county is worsening an already precarious humanitarian situation. The World Food Programme has warned that close to a million people are facing severe hunger – with the new displacement of over 17,000 people from the embattled town of Palma deepening needs. UNICEF said malnutrition rates among the displaced are already close to 13 percent – “and it’s going to get worse”.

THE PHILIPPINES: Conflict between the army and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters is expanding beyond the armed group’s traditional stronghold in parts of Maguindanao in the southern Mindanao region, aid groups said. At least 40,000 people remain displaced since clashes escalated in March.

SYRIA: The investigation unit of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said this week that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that the Syrian government dropped chlorine gas in February 2018 on Saraqib, a city in the rebel-held province of Idlib.

TANZANIA/BURUNDI: UN human rights experts have condemned the arbitrary arrest, torture, and killing of refugees allegedly by the Tanzanian police working with Tanzanian and Burundian intelligence. Some refugees were also forced to sign up for their “voluntary return”. There are around 150,000 Burundi refugees in Tanzania, with both governments seeking their return, despite Burundi’s record of rights violations.

UNITED STATES: Despite campaign promises and early moves to ease barriers, the Biden administration is on track to admit the fewest refugees to the US since 1980. So far this fiscal year, only 2,050 refugees have entered the United States. Biden issued a presidential determination in January increasing the resettlement ceiling for this year from 15,000, set by former president Donald Trump, to 62,500. But Biden has yet to sign the document, leaving the process stalled. 

YEMEN/HORN OF AFRICA: Forty-two people died after a boat carrying around 60 East African migrants escaping dire conditions in Yemen capsized off the coast of Djibouti on 12 April. Thousands of East African migrants trying to reach Saudi Arabia and other rich Gulf countries to find work have been stranded in Yemen during the pandemic, and the number of people attempting the risky return journey to Ethiopia and Somalia has increased this year.

Weekend read

In northern Mexico, aid efforts struggle to keep pace with soaring migration needs

‘It is not a good time for migrants to travel north.’

Our weekend read by Luís Chaparro highlights how humanitarian efforts in northern Mexico are struggling to meet growing needs. In Ciudad Juárez, the worst-affected city and one of the few accepting returned migrants and asylum seekers from the United States, there isn’t enough housing or aid support to go round – especially because of COVID-19 social distancing requirements. There isn’t enough food either, and migrants and asylum seekers face the added risk of human rights abuses and violence in a city where they are often targeted by criminals. Surges in humanitarian need come from people fleeing violence, poverty, and climate disasters in Central America. Expelled asylum seekers and migrants who enter the US irregularly – 172,000 in March alone – add to this number. These expulsions fall under Title 42 – a controversial Trump-era order that allows US authorities to immediately expel anyone who crosses the border to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It’s not all doom and gloom though. The Biden administration is making good on campaign promises to change course. And there’s hope for some with firm dates to legally enter and begin new lives in the United States. Yet thousands will still wait months for their turn to cross, while the fate of others remains unknown.

And finally…

The new (fake) UN agency

Frustrated drivers from New York to Nairobi might try using fake UN number plates to help get away with some dodgy driving and parking. But a "human rights” association registered in Paris has taken things to a whole new level: As well as sketchy number plates, they are accused of issuing "fantasy" passports, popping up unexplained in sensitive situations and, now, posting profiles of fictitious staff. A comprehensive investigation by Elise Thomas for Bellingcat this week adds to earlier reports that claimed that the group – called CIPDH (English translation: International Human Rights Defence Committee) – peddles fake and misleading information and pretends falsely to be affiliated with the UN.

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