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Mozambique upheaval, new Oxfam sex abuse claims, and refugee islands: The Cheat Sheet

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Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

Stark needs and stark funding for Syria

For the fifth year in a row, and ten years into Syria’s catastrophic war, this week the EU and UN co-hosted a Brussels conference to mobilise support for the aid effort for the country, its refugees, and their hosts. The international community pledged just $4.4 billion, far short of the more than $10 billion the UN says it needs for 2021 ($4.2 billion for relief inside Syria and $5.8 billion for refugees and communities in places like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey). Both the US and the UK decreased their contributions to the Syria relief effort, although other countries upped their pledges. As usual, it remains to be seen who will make good on their promises of money. In the meantime, the needs are stark and aid groups warn that cuts could be dangerous: The violence is not over, and Syria’s economy is a mess, leading to more hungry people. Food prices have shot up, long queues for fuel and bread have become commonplace, and when it rains heavily in the rebel-held northwest (as it may do this weekend), people who live in tents lose their shelter – and sometimes even their lives.

Battle for Mozambique’s Palma uproots thousands

Thousands of people have been uprooted after Islamist militants stormed a major town in Mozambique’s northernmost Cabo Delgado province. That town, Palma, was a hub for displaced people fleeing conflict in the region and lies just a few kilometres from a multi-billion-dollar natural gas project on which the country’s future is effectively mortgaged. Insurgents began the well-coordinated attack on 24 March, looting banks and government buildings. Their attention then switched to a local hotel hosting expatriate workers and civil servants. The hotel guests attempted to escape on 26 March in a 16-vehicle convoy but were ambushed by militants. As many as 50 may have died. The US designated the insurgents a “global terrorist” organisation last month, citing links to the so-called Islamic State. But local grievances are driving the group’s expansion and precise connections to IS remains murky. For more on the violence and how it’s affecting local communities, read our December report.

Oxfam faces new sex abuse, exploitation, and fraud allegations in Congo

Oxfam is facing new allegations of sexual exploitation, harassment, and fraud in the Democratic Republic of Congo, The Times reported Friday, adding that two Oxfam workers have been suspended as a result of a probe that began in November 2020 – just a month after The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation published a joint investigation that uncovered widespread allegations of aid worker sex abuse during the Ebola outbreak. The new claims, pointed to by The Times, are detailed in a 10-page letter obtained by The New Humanitarian and written by 22 former and current staff. Although the probe began in November, the allegations stretch back to 2015 and name several senior Oxfam staff. The allegations range from sexual exploitation and sex-for-work schemes during the Ebola outbreak to death threats and fraud committed by senior staff. Oxfam confirmed the suspensions with The New Humanitarian on Friday, but said it could not comment on the new allegations because they are part of the external investigation that has been launched. The recent allegations come just weeks after the British charity was cleared to apply for UK aid funds again after workers were accused in a sex scandal following the 2010 Haiti earthquake. 

Rohingya island camp dilemma looms

Long resistant to endorsing government plans to house Rohingya refugees on a disaster-prone island, aid agencies in Bangladesh may soon be forced into a decision. Some 13,000 Rohingya now live in barracks-style housing on the island, Bhasan Char, after the government accelerated transfers from crowded mainland camps in late 2020. This week, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies weighed in, calling for “urgent investment… to ensure that women and children are adequately protected, and that food security, healthcare, and schooling is assured”. Aid groups have been extremely cautious: Rights groups call the island a floating “prison” and worry that refugees will be dangerously exposed during the Bay of Bengal’s looming cyclone season, which typically peaks in May and November. UN agencies have not released findings from a March visit to the island. Some local NGOs and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society are currently providing aid. Médecins Sans Frontières calls Bhasan Char “a symptom of the wider deterioration in living conditions” for Rohingya refugees. A 22 March fire destroyed parts of the mainland camps in Cox’s Bazar district, uprooting 48,000 people. Rohingya say barbed-wire fences surrounding the camps made it harder to escape; rebuilding is expected to last months. In the ensuing days, several small fires have ignited elsewhere in the camps: “The fire incident has induced extreme fear,” aid agency BRAC reported.

For more on camps and fences, keep reading.

New camps, same old crisis? 

The EU will fund the construction of five new refugee camps on the Greek islands. The new facilities will be surrounded by fences and entry and exit will be controlled through a central gate. EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, who announced the plan on a visit to the island of Lesvos on 29 March, said the camps will provide “dignified” living conditions. But advocacy groups argue that any continuation of the policy of containing people on the islands for the duration of the asylum process is a recipe for disaster. Existing camps have been in a perpetual state of humanitarian crisis since Greece began preventing asylum seekers from leaving the islands after the signing of the EU-Turkey Deal in March 2016. It’s unclear how the EU’s involvement will improve conditions. If anything, the fact that the camps will be surrounded by fences is a sad reminder of the recent fire at camps in Bangladesh, where refugees say barbed-wire fencing prevented people from fleeing

A French airstrike, 19 dead Malians, and a UN report

A French airstrike killed 19 civilians attending a wedding celebration in a remote central Malian village, according to an investigation by the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the country, MINUSMA. The report based its findings on hundreds of interviews, satellite images, and evidence gathered from a trip to Bounti, the village hit by the 3 January strike. France’s defence ministry rejected the report, maintaining the casualties were Islamist militants. French troops were hailed as heroes by many Malians when they drove out militant groups from major towns in the country’s desert north in 2013. But criticism has grown as a more than 5,000-strong regional counter-insurgency force – called Operation Barkhane – has failed to prevent the militants from regrouping and expanding across West Africa’s Sahel. Despite some recent battlefield gains, the operation is drawing increasing comparisons to the US war in Afghanistan.

Violence amplifies secessionist demands in Nigeria 

Secessionist demands are growing in Nigeria’s southeast, fueled in part by repeated clashes between northern-based Fulani pastoralists and local communities. In the latest violence this week, four villages in Ebonyi State were attacked by gunmen, suspected to be pastoralists, with 18 people killed. A secessionist movement has been building in the southeast for years over the region’s perceived marginalisation by successive federal governments. But it has been radicalised by the rising tide of farmer-pastoralist conflicts, with the northern-led government accused of defending the herders. In December, the Eastern Security Network (ESN) was formed as the paramilitary wing of the secessionist Indigenous People of Biafra, and there have been a series of clashes with the security forces. On 24 March an ESN camp was raided by the army and 16 people killed. Policemen and police posts have been attacked by ESN. Security analyst Cheta Nwanze told The New Humanitarian that a heavily populated southeast may not have the geography for a full-blown insurgency. But the security forces, who “behave like an occupying army, can be counted on to make things worse.”

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Three female polio workers were shot and killed in an unclaimed 30 March attack in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province, in what rights groups called a “despicable and cowardly act”. The country has restarted polio immunisation campaigns (and is planning COVID-19 vaccine rollouts) after the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of children to miss polio vaccinations in 2020. Afghanistan has reported new cases in areas that had previously been polio-free.

CANARY ISLANDS: Around 3,000 migrants and asylum seekers – including an unprecedented number of women and children – arrived to the Canary Islands in the first three months of 2021, double the number over the same period last year. The Spanish archipelago is hosting around 26,000 asylum seekers and migrants following a sharp uptick in arrivals last year, but reception conditions are reportedly inadequate, and many asylum seekers and migrants fear deportation. 

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Russian private military contractors supporting CAR’s government against a rebel offensive have committed a string of human rights abuses since December, according to reports received by the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries. The alleged abuses include mass summary executions, torture, and attacks on humanitarian workers. The UN experts also raised concerns about “close contact” between mercenaries and peacekeepers operating in the country.

INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT: Judges upheld the acquittal of Côte d’Ivoire’s former President Laurent Gbagbo, who was previously convicted for war crimes allegedly committed after disputed elections in 2010. In a separate case, judges upheld the conviction of Bosco Ntaganda, a former warlord from the Democractic Republic of Congo. He will serve a 30 year sentence for 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

LEBANON: Save the Children reported that the pandemic and unrest have combined to disrupt education for 1.2 million children for more than a year. Remote learning has not been an option for many kids, and the aid group warned that as Lebanon’s economic crisis continues, there is a risk that many will never go back to school.

THE PHILIPPINES: Clashes between the army and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) rebel group in Maguindanao, in the southern Mindanao region, have displaced 66,000 people since mid-March, the UN said. Displaced families are staying in dozens of evacuation camps, many of which don’t have toilets or cooking areas, the World Food Programme reported. Peacebuilding NGO International Alert said the clashes may be “a preview of more violence” as extremist groups like BIFF and other groups jostle for influence in the lead-up to elections scheduled for 2022.

YEMEN: UNICEF said 360,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine arrived in the southern city of Aden this week, the first of 1.9 million doses the COVAX facility plans to deliver to the country this year. The vaccines arrived as aid agencies warn of a surge in coronavirus infections, amidst a possible second wave.

Weekend read

Cameroon’s elusive peace: Rivals, rifts, and secret talks

For the past four years, R. Maxwell Bone has talked with separatist leaders, government officials, representatives of civil society, and many civilians whose lives have been upended by the violence taking place in Cameroon’s anglophone regions. Calls for peace are growing – both within the country and from international quarters. Government officials and representatives of a separatist faction have met secretly to discuss what it would take to move toward peace. An initiative led by a Swiss-based NGO has been trying to open the way toward talks. But as Bone makes clear in our weekend read, the outlook for peace in the conflict between the government and fighters who are demanding independence for Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions is clouded by indecision and disagreement within the government and the separatist groups over how the peace process should move forward – or, in the case of government hardliners, whether a peace deal is needed at all. Since 2017, 800,000 people have been displaced and three million have had their lives upended in one way or another. Both state and separatist actors have been accused of attacks on rural villages, schools and teachers, kidnappings, and abuses against women. President Paul Biya has refused all contact with the separatists, calling them “terrorists”. But not all in his government share his views. Distrust is rife among both separatist and government leaders, and some observers told The New Humanitarian that they think personal interests have overtaken the interest in peace. As the impasse drags on, civil society leaders just want the violence to end, so the abuses against civilians by both sides to the conflict can stop.

And finally…

One step forward, two steps back

A Syrian refugee living in Germany, who announced in February that he was running for a seat in the country’s parliament, has withdrawn his candidacy after being subject to a “massive” number of racist attacks and personal threats. Tareq Alaows, 31, fled Syria after participating in peaceful protests and helping to provide humanitarian assistance to people affected by the country’s civil war. Alaows was one of the more than one million refugees who arrived to Germany in 2015, and has since learned German and applied for citizenship while becoming an outspoken advocate for refugee rights. He was motivated to run to be a voice for refugees in the German parliament, and his candidacy was celebrated as an integration success story. “The great public interest generated by my candidacy shows what we refugees can do,” Alaows said. “But unfortunately, our society lacks discrimination-free spaces in many areas of life. It’s up to all of us to actively deal with that in our surroundings and to change things.”

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