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Darfur’s aid plea, Venezuela’s hungry children, and oxygen shortages in South Asia: 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

A cry for help from Darfur

Sudan’s West Darfur State appealed this week for urgent help from the federal government to tackle the humanitarian fallout from clashes earlier this month between Arab Rizeigat and non-Arab Masalit communities in the city of El Geneina that left over 144 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. The state’s governor said his administration was unable to cope with the scale of the displacement. Khartoum has struggled to bring peace to Darfur. The violence in El Geneina was reportedly instigated by its own Rapid Support Forces, drawn largely from the former Janjaweed militia responsible for war crimes in the region in the 2000s. The RSF, which recruits heavily from the Rizeigat, is led by a key member of the transitional government, which gives the military immunity for previous and current crimes. That’s one reason why the region’s most powerful insurgent group has refused to sign a peace deal with Khartoum. In its Jebel Marra mountain redoubt, the main faction of the Sudan Liberation Army, known as the SLA-AW, argues the killing of non-Arabs has continued and, rather than dropping its weapons, is training new recruits. For more, read this week’s rare report from the Jebel Marra by The New Humanitarian’s Philip Kleinfeld and Mohammed Amin.

Food aid deal in Venezuela

The World Food Programme has struck a deal to deliver food to 183,000 Venezuelan schoolchildren by the end of the year, aiming to provide daily meals to 1.5 million students by the end of 2023. A spokesperson for the UN agency in Geneva told The New Humanitarian that WFP Executive Director David Beasley met with President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas and received assurances the distribution will be “independent of (the country’s) social programmes”. Maduro is accused of using state handouts to foster corruption and increase political support. He has long denied the country’s humanitarian crisis, refusing for years to accept international aid, even as the economy imploded and more than five million people fled. The ensuing crisis has been marked by food shortages, a decimated healthcare system, growing malnutrition, and the return of preventable diseases. The health ministry has failed to publish any statistics on infant mortality for four years – the health minister was sacked in 2017 after disclosing figures showing a 30 percent rise on the preceding year. The WFP said it would focus on the most vulnerable children first – those with special needs and at pre-primary level. A 2020 WFP study put Venezuela fourth in the world in terms of food insecurity, behind only Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Afghanistan.

From vaccine diplomacy to domestic shortfalls

Coronavirus surges in South Asia are setting global records as countries strain under overloaded health systems and oxygen shortages. India recorded nearly 315,000 new infections on 22 April – the largest single-day total in any country since the pandemic began. Bangladesh and Pakistan have also seen rapid rises, which have had a “catastrophic” impact on frontline workers, the Red Cross says. What happens in India has direct repercussions for global vaccine rollouts. India is the leading supplier to much of the world through COVAX, the UN-backed vaccine equity scheme, and touted generous donations as part of its “vaccine diplomacy” push. Now, it is struggling to vaccinate its own population amid reported shortages. In recent weeks, it has restricted exports (delaying COVAX deliveries), and fast-tracked foreign-made vaccines. Facing its own shortfalls, Bangladesh has postponed vaccinations for some 900,000 Rohingya refugees until COVAX supplies arrive. Meanwhile, rights groups warn of growing vaccine inequality within South Asian countries. Vaccines have mostly bypassed often-neglected communities including Dalits, ethnic minorities, day labourers, refugees, and migrants, Amnesty International said.

Crisis point in Somalia

A flurry of diplomatic efforts is underway to try to prevent a political logjam in Somalia from degenerating into armed conflict. The African Union, backed by Western partners and the UN, is leading the effort to renew talks between President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” and a coalition of opposition parties to resolve a constitutional crisis – made all the more urgent by the splintering of the country’s fragile security forces. Farmajo’s term ended in February, but planned elections were not held, and he is looking for an extra two years in office. The opposition, including two former presidents, has rejected that extension. They want its “unconstitutionality” recognised as the starting point for talks. The leaders have so far avoided declaring a parallel government. But they are now based in well-defended suburbs of Mogadishu. The powerful Hawiye clan this week withdrew its support for Farmajo. Other armed clans are also picking sides. Farmajo can, however, rely on the backing of a special forces unit recently returned from training in Eritrea. But the only winners in any confrontation will be the powerful jihadist group al-Shabab, who have long argued the political elite is self-serving and incompetent.

2021’s deadliest migrant drowning in the Mediterranean

Around 130 asylum seekers and migrants are presumed dead following a shipwreck on 22 April in international waters off the coast of Libya – the largest shipwreck so far this year in the Mediterranean. European and Italian authorities failed to launch a rescue mission despite being informed of the rubber dinghy’s location by Alarm Phone, a NGO hotline for migrant boats in distress. After searching for hours, the NGO search and rescue ship “Ocean Viking” found the dinghy capsized with at least 10 bodies floating in its vicinity. Another migrant boat with approximately 40 people onboard is also missing at sea. Pending confirmation, the two incidents would bring the number of asylum seekers and migrants who have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean this year to more than 520, with boat departures from North Africa expected to increase in the coming months as weather conditions improve. For background, read our timeline Death on the Central Mediterranean.

Blistering assessment of UN’s SEA efforts

There was a notable absence of gold stars in the UN’s report card on how well it tackled the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse between 2015 and 2018. Although the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services noted several improvements in its report, there were also numerous areas where there was little to no progress. Criminal accountability had been “mostly unsuccessful”, especially in civilian cases. (It was recently discovered that the UK chose not to prosecute a British national serving with the UN and accused of raping a girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo.) Information and support provided to victims was also “insufficient or non-existent”, with rare exceptions. Processing and investigating SEA allegations was also taking longer than stipulated, with some investigations taking nearly two years. And while improved reporting mechanisms were thought to have contributed to an increase in allegations – there was a 164 percent jump from 2015 to 2018 – transparency and reporting problems linger. The UN was also pushed to publish the numbers of all SEA allegations outside of peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. Public reporting on such allegations “would strengthen consistent application of the zero-tolerance policy on SEA,” the report concluded.

Aid accountability, again

Mark Lowcock, the top UN humanitarian official, proposed on 22 April a new independent body to respond to the views of crisis-affected people and hold the aid system to account. The initiative, previewed in the Guardian, garnered initial scepticism, with questions about its independence (it will be housed at the UN’s emergency aid agency, OCHA, and report to its chief, the Emergency Relief Coordinator), and the timing of the move: It comes just weeks before Lowcock’s departure. Lowcock said he hoped the new Independent Commission for Voices in Crises, or ICVIC, would upend a system “set up to give people in need what international agencies and donors think is best, and what we have to offer, rather than giving people what they themselves say they most need”, by publicly reporting on what affected people say they need and then grading humanitarians on how well they have responded. But groups have been tracking affected people’s feedback and the aid system’s responsiveness to it for years, and some in the space wonder what’s all that different. There are some new ingredients: Lowcock wants to leverage UN-managed funds – the emergency response fund as well as the pooled funds at country level, totalling $1.7 billion per year. More of that money, he said, should be allocated to programmes that listen and respond to affected people’s priorities. Whether Lowcock’s successor takes on the proposal – billed initially as a three-year pilot scheme – and whether it has the teeth needed to make a difference remain open questions.

In case you missed it

CENTRAL AMERICA/MEXICO/US: UNICEF says the number of children in Mexico trying to reach the United States soared from 380 to nearly 3,500 this year, with almost 300 more arriving in overwhelmed shelters every day. Half of the children – mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico itself – come without a parent. For more on the roots of the migration crisis and efforts to alleviate it, read this week’s TNH briefing.

CHAD: The central African country faces an uncertain future following the death this week of Idriss Déby, its authoritarian ruler for the past three decades. A transitional military council, headed by his son General Mahamat Idriss Déby, is now in charge – but he does not appear to have the full support of the military. An unstable Chad has implications for the Western-backed anti-jihadist fight in the wider Sahel.

COVID-19 IN THE MIDDLE EAST: It’s a week into Ramadan, and many Muslims in the Middle East are marking the holy month amid increasing COVID-19 related restrictions, as cases rise in many countries across the region: Gaza, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq are among the places battling a worrying rise in infections.

MOZAMBIQUE: Government forces are accused of extrajudicial killings in the northern town of Palma, recaptured from jihadist insurgents earlier this month. News reports said the military were killing suspected insurgents, and locals now fear them as much as the jihadists. As Southern African states mull military intervention, Zimbabwean special forces are reportedly already in Palma.

MYANMAR: The crisis sparked by the 1 February military coup could push up to 3.4 million people into hunger amid job losses and soaring food prices, the World Food Programme warned. Rice prices have skyrocketed by as much as 43 percent in some townships.

NIGERIA: The northeastern town of Dikwa was overrun on 17-18 April by jihadist Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) fighters – the fourth time since the beginning of the year. The fall of Dikwa follows defeat by the army earlier this month in Damasak. ISWAP took that town after three attempts, forcing 65,000 people to flee. Both Dikwa and Damasak are “humanitarian hubs” and all aid work has been suspended.

PALAU: Typhoon Surigae caused widespread damage to parts of Palau on 16 April, snapping electricity and communications lines on outer islands. The storm – the first typhoon in the western Pacific this year – later veered toward the Philippines, where at least 30,000 evacuees were still displaced as of 23 April.

SYRIA: Two Syrian aid workers were shot and killed in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province on 17 April, according to the UN. The aid workers were reportedly killed by unnamed assailants as they were returning home from work.

Weekend read

Marib’s descent back into war is shocking, but it shouldn’t be a surprise

Much has changed since Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod visited Yemen’s Marib in November 2017, and much has not. In her Reporter’s Diary at the time, she explained how she was only able to catch glimpses of the war beyond what was then a bastion of relative calm. Now, its residents find themselves in the crosshairs of a Houthi offensive, with missiles hitting civilian areas of the city and nearby displacement camps. But what is also noticeable in comparing the two accounts are the constants: warnings of impending famine, blind eyes being turned to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Yemen’s healthcare system – prior to COVID-19 – already in disrepair. In our weekend read, Slemrod reflects on how drastically the conflict has caught up with Marib and worries about the fate of the people she met back in 2017. She also wonders why we don’t act when we see warning signs, and why we’re always distracted by the next big thing, ignoring the slow-burning tragedies.

Humanitarian week

The annual Humanitarian Networking and Partnership Week has kicked off, for the first time remotely, and will be spread over the next three weeks. With more than 3,000 registered participants – from UN agencies to civil society to private sector players – the line-up of events will touch on some familiar humanitarian themes (think nexus and accountability), but it will also introduce new ones to reflect some lingering hot topics: emergency response during the pandemic, inclusion, and localisation.

And finally…

Urban mosquito threatens the Horn of Africa

Djibouti is patient zero for a species of mosquito that’s emigrated from Asia and could threaten 126 million people with malaria. Anopheles stephensi is a sub-species that thrives in cities and is well-established in India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It turned up in Djibouti in 2013. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes are at home in rural areas in Africa, so “an urban-adapted malaria mosquito could wreak havoc across the continent if allowed to spread”, said one of the scientists involved in a new research project funded by the Wellcome Trust. The announcement was timed for World Malaria Day on 25 April. Africa already accounts for 94 percent of malaria cases and deaths – about 200 million cases a year – according to the World Health Organization. A ray of light: A year-long trial of 450 children in Burkina Faso of a vaccine being developed by the Jenner Institute at Oxford University has just become the first to pass the WHO’s 75 percent efficacy threshold.

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