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Beyond Tigray, more Oxfam woes, and new vaccine hurdles: 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

Now, news from another Ethiopia conflict

A survey released this week exposed major gaps in the relief operation in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, and the UN has deemed the humanitarian situation there “extremely dire”. But Tigray is only one of several conflict hotspots in Ethiopia. In the east of the country, over 100 people have been killed in violence between the Afar and Somali Issa communities since 2 April. Officials from both sides have blamed the other for the latest clashes. Five thousand people may be newly displaced, according to local media. Areas along the border between the two ethnically-defined regions have been disputed for years. Earlier flare-ups had killed dozens and displaced 30,000 people as of January 2021, according to a UN report. The presidents of the Afar and Somali regions, Awol Arba and Mustafa Omer, met for talks chaired by the federal government on 8 April and agreed to investigate and resolve issues peacefully, according to news outlet Addis Standard. Historically, Afar-Somali tension also exists across the border in Djibouti, which is holding elections today

Let’s talk about what’s behind Central American migration to the US

Way south of the US border with Mexico, where apprehensions of unaccompanied children and families have been surging since late last year, the Biden administration has started to put into motion its new regional policy to deal with northward migration. Ricardo Zuñiga, the new US envoy to the Northern Triangle countries – Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras – travelled to the region this week to talk to officials about addressing the “root causes” of recent immigration trends. The Northern Triangle countries are plagued by violence and endemic corruption and were battered in 2020 by double hurricanes and the economic effects of COVID-19. After meeting with Guatemala’s president Alejandro Giammattei, Zuñiga travelled to El Salvador, but was snubbed by its increasingly authoritarian president Nayib Bukele. Bukele reportedly refused to meet with the US official because he was upset by US criticism. A Honduran delegation, meanwhile, travelled to Washington in search of additional economic assistance and protection for its citizens in the US. The Biden administration has announced plans to invest $4 billion in the region while offering “new paths” for migration.

Oxfam takes another hit, but should it be the only one? 

Oxfam is back in the doghouse, its door to UK funding slammed shut again after new allegations of sexual exploitation and fraud in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Will other NGOs and UN agencies accused of misconduct find a similar fate? The Times first reported abuse and corruption claims late last week, prompting the UK government to block the charity from applying for aid money until “issues have been resolved.” The charity had just been allowed to re-apply for funds after a sex scandal in Haiti was uncovered in 2018. The UK government said: “All organisations bidding for UK aid must meet the high standards of safeguarding required.” The news coincided with the government’s response to the UK parliament’s International Development Committee report on tackling sexual exploitation and abuse. The government agreed with most of the committee’s 30 recommendations, but pushed back on two – it disagreed that there was a “gap in the system” for background checks on aid workers, and said it already assesses whistleblowing practices as part of its due diligence on charities. Several Oxfam whistleblowers have told The New Humanitarian that the charity made it nearly impossible for them to safely report concerns. Oxfam was one of seven organisations named in The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation’s investigation last year into aid worker sex abuse allegations during the Ebola outbreak in DRC. Oxfam was accused in one case; more than 30 women, meanwhile, accused workers from the World Health Organization. 

From coronavirus front lines to disaster response: Timor-Leste 

Severe floods and landslides killed at least 200 people in Timor-Leste and parts of eastern Indonesia this week after days of torrential rains that were worsened by Cyclone Seroja, a tropical storm now twisting toward Australia. The floods – the worst in 40 years, authorities said – killed at least 42 people in Timor-Leste and damaged COVID-19 quarantine and isolation centres as well as a medical storage facility that was set to receive the country’s first coronavirus vaccine shipments. At least 10,000 people are displaced in official evacuation centres, and many more may be uprooted elsewhere and in need of urgent help, the UN said. The disaster comes in the middle of a coronavirus surge and as Timor-Leste was set to begin vaccinations for frontline workers. Many essential staff are now “at the front line of the floods response”, the UN said. Parts of Indonesia were also deeply affected, including the western part of Timor, where Cyclone Seroja made a direct hit. Indonesia has recorded at least 163 deaths with dozens more missing as of 9 April. After hitting Timor, Seroja veered toward Western Australia and was projected to make landfall on 11 April.

Vaccine rollout headaches

The world’s poorer countries face two COVID-19 vaccine challenges: getting enough stock and then getting enough jabs into the arms of their people. Much has been made of “vaccine nationalism” – the hoarding of supplies by richer countries – but the new test is about running an effective rollout. Europe’s stumbles prove that’s not easy. South Africa solved an initial vaccine supply problem, but its inoculation drive has got off to a slow start. It’s managing to vaccinate an average of 6,918 health workers a day. If that rate is extrapolated to May’s mass rollout phase, it will take 16 years to reach herd immunity. The government remains confident, and so far has refused to allow private health companies to import and administer jabs – with Kenya an example of what can go wrong with that. There, a vaccine free-for-all took root, with queue jumping and competition between the well-connected offering rival jabs. AstraZeneca is free, but the privately imported Russian Sputnik V was being offered at $70 a jab – and pushed by social media influencers – until the government banned shipments last week, fearing counterfeits.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Measles outbreaks are emerging in conflict-hit districts in Afghanistan’s south. Provincial authorities reported 14 measles cases among children in Nahr-e-Saraj and Maywand districts in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, respectively. Both districts have seen heavy recent fighting, and aid groups consider them to be among the country’s most difficult to access.

CROATIA-BOSNIA: Fifty asylum seekers and migrants were stripped of their belongings and clothes and violently expelled from EU member state Croatia into Bosnia on 2 April, prompting fresh calls from the UN for urgent action to end the widely documented practice. Despite being illegal under EU and international law, the expulsions, known as pushbacks, have proliferated at the Croatia-Bosnia border and other external EU borders during the pandemic

FRANCE: France’s high court issued a final dismissal of a case against Cédric Herrou, a French farmer who has been arrested 11 times and faced five trials since 2016 for providing aid and support to asylum seekers and migrants along the Italian-French border. Herrou’s legal struggles have become emblematic of what civil society organisations describe as a trend of governments criminalising the provision of humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants in the EU. 

SOUTH SUDAN: A coalition called “Concerned South Sudanese Healthcare Professionals” released a statement to reporters this week warning of dangerous deficiencies in the country’s healthcare system and calling for more funding. The statement came as The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera published an investigation into COVID-19 profiteering schemes in South Sudan and looked at how little of its own money goes toward its creaking healthcare system. 

VACCINES FOR REFUGEES: Jordan, Nepal, Rwanda, and Serbia are among 20 countries where refugees are receiving COVID-19 vaccines “on an equal footing to citizens”, said the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. At least 153 countries include refugees in their immunisation plans, but in practice vaccine shortages, shorthanded health systems, red tape, or fear of arrest can keep refugees and migrants on the outside.

VENEZUELA: Venezuelan healthcare students and the country’s medicine and science academies are urging the government to speed up vaccination plans, Reuters reported, amid a rise in infections and deaths of frontline health workers. The country has received about 750,000 vaccine doses from Russia and China, for a population of about 28 million. Venezuela is eligible for vaccines through the COVAX programme, but President Nicolás Maduro has said the country will not approve the AstraZeneca vaccine, which forms the bulk of COVAX supplies.

Weekend read

Holdout rebels, sidelined victims, and other hurdles to peace in Darfur

A peace agreement between Sudan’s transitional government and armed groups was feted last year, after mass protests that kicked long-serving ruler Omar al-Bashir out of office. But all is not well, as Africa correspondent and editor Philip Kleinfeld and contributor Mohammed Amin explain in our weekend read – the first in our series of reports based on their three weeks in Darfur, where they spoke with displaced people, aid workers, UN officials, and communities in rebel-held territory where conflict still lingers. The deal now faces mass resistance from several directions: A major rebel group in the western region of Darfur has refused to sign, and local communities are rejecting it because they say they were not consulted. They also distrust the new transitional government, which is chock-full of military leaders involved in past conflicts. Funding shortfalls caused by an economic crisis pose a further threat. All this is taking place against a backdrop of shrinking humanitarian aid for displaced people; critical food needs; deadly fresh violence; and worries that the return of rebel groups whose members were displaced to neighbouring countries – part of the peace deal – could trigger new conflicts. Kleinfeld and Amin did spot a glimmer of hope: Some local activists have launched a peacebuilding initiative that promises to take the views of local residents into account. 

If you’re hungry for more of Kleinfeld’s and Amin’s reporting, here’s a weekend read bonus, the second article in their series:

What’s behind the rising violence in Sudan’s Darfur?

‘The violence is not tribal, it is political.’

Darfuris thought Sudan's political transition meant the worst was behind them. Burnt camps and new militia attacks tell a different story.

And finally…

Between technophobia and techno-apologetics

Digital ID and related technologies in the aid world have become a polarised topic – too much so, charge a group of academic analysts, who have published a paper calling for a new, balanced approach to research and discussion. Proponents say that tech, such as fingerprint-linked ID cards, offers efficient record-keeping and helps people access the services they are entitled to. Critics say the deployment of digital ID in aid enables control and surveillance and exposes people already in great difficulty to new risks. The paper’s authors signpost the need for a “depolarised approach” and more attention to the views of the end-users. They say they want to chart a course between “techno-apologetics” and “technophobic rhetoric”. The paper, “Between surveillance and recognition: Rethinking digital identity in aid,” is published in the journal Big Data and Society.

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