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Gaza strikes, WHO cover-up claims, and hunger in Madagascar: The Cheat Sheet

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Louise O'Brien/TNH

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

On our radar

Israel-Palestine toll grows as war looms

The intensity of what could turn into a fully-fledged war between Israel and Hamas and its allies in Gaza is ramping up so quickly that much is likely to change by the time you read this. At the time of publication, 119 people had reportedly been killed by Israeli bombs in Gaza, and eight inside Israel by rockets fired from the occupied Palestinian territory that is home to around two million people, who are for the most part unable to leave because of severe restrictions on movement by Israel and Egypt. The death toll is likely to rise, and cities and towns inside Israel that are home to both Jewish and Palestinian Israeli citizens have also seen outbreaks of intercommunal violence. Synagogues were set on fire in the city of Lod, and live TV showed a mob of far-right Israelis in Bat Yam dragging a man they believed to be Arab from his car, beating him bloody. The roots of what’s happening now clearly go far deeper than the rising tensions over the past few weeks, but we suggest you read this for the recent background on the deadly flare-up.

WHO accused of covering up sex abuse claims

The World Health Organization has been accused of covering up sex abuse claims against its workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Ebola outbreak between 2018 and 2020. The WHO knew about allegations against one of its senior doctors during the Ebola crisis – a doctor with close ties to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – but denied knowledge of the claims, according to The Associated Press, which obtained private emails, legal documents, and recordings of internal meetings. Another doctor allegedly tried to pay off a woman he impregnated. Neither of the men were disciplined, according to the AP. The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation first broke the story last year about widespread aid worker sex abuse in Congo. This week, we published a second investigation with new claims of aid worker sex abuse during the Ebola outbreak. In total, 44 of the 73 women we interviewed accused men who said they worked for the WHO. Among the new claims: a woman who said she was raped by a WHO worker, and another woman who was allegedly lured into a sex-for-work scheme and died after a botched abortion. 

Madagascar drought drives severe hunger

Southern Madagascar is facing its worst drought in 40 years, threatening more than a million people with severe hunger. The region received half of its usual rains during the October planting season and up to 60 percent of the coming harvest is expected to be lost. This is the third consecutive year of drought, and two in every five people are now “severely food insecure”, with nearly 14,000 people facing “catastrophic” levels of starvation – the first time such a degree of hunger has been recorded in the country. In the worst-affected district of Amboasary Atsimo, global acute malnutrition is an alarming 27 percent, a rate at which irreversible damage is caused to children. “The children are starving, some are dying,” said Amer Daoudi, a senior World Food Programme official. “We are already witnessing the abandonment of entire villages.” COVID-19 lockdowns have limited the ability of rural people to find work, and – with transport routes and delivery chains interrupted – food prices have risen. Needs are expected to deepen, with a prolonged and severe lean season forecast, starting in October. 

No end to deadly demonstrations in Colombia

More than three weeks after nationwide protests began in Colombia, the political unrest shows little sign of abating. In Cali, the epicentre of the demonstrations, a power void as the strife took hold of the city has led to armed civilians fighting each other amid gasoline and food shortages. In recent days, “humanitarian corridors” have been set up to allow in some food supplies and medicine. On 10 May, President Iván Duque travelled to Cali to meet demonstration leaders upset with rising poverty, inequality, and state neglect – worsened by the pandemic. But talks ended without any agreement on how to end the deadlock. Marchers have expanded their demands to include healthcare reforms and an end to police brutality. Human rights groups say the police are responsible for most of the 42 protest-related deaths so far. Accusations of excessive force by the Colombian police, more used to fighting armed groups, further undermine its ability to take on the gangs and guerrillas that have expanded their control in much of the countryside five years after a widely praised peace deal. 

Afghanistan’s school killings and a legacy of impunity

In a country tangled in decades of war, the 8 May bomb blasts outside a Kabul school were particularly shocking for who they appeared to target: children. It came a year after an attack on a maternity ward in the same community – where gunmen killed at least 24 people, including women in labour – provoked similar revulsion and pushed Médecins Sans Frontières to end its work at the hospital. An interview published by MSF this week underscores how little accountability there is for such atrocities. The Afghan government promised to investigate the May 2020 attack, but even a year later there are no answers. The ”most likely hypothesis” from MSF’s own inquiry landed on members of a group affiliated with so-called Islamic State, said Dr Isabelle Defourny, MSF’s operations director. Many Afghans see impunity as the barrier to peace and justice. It’s why groups like the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission called for “reparations and documentation”, along with a UN-backed inquiry, following this month’s violence. The MSF interview also shows the dilemmas aid groups confront, with civilian casualties rising and international forces set to withdraw by September. A year after the hospital massacre, MSF hasn’t resumed its operations there. “We can’t work in an environment where patients and medical staff are targeted, and where we can’t prevent such a massacre from happening again,” Defourny said.

In case you missed it

CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN: More than 2,000 asylum seekers and migrants landed on Lampedusa the weekend of 8-9 May, stretching the Italian island's reception capacity. Up to 700 had to sleep on a pier before being sent for mandatory quarantine. More than 700 other people were intercepted by EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libya, bringing the total intercepted this year to nearly 8,000. The death toll, meanwhile, continues to climb, with at least 45 presumed dead in three seperate shipwrecks

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Congolese and Ugandan forces will launch joint military operations against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group, Kinshasa announced this week. The United States considers the ADF a branch of the so-called Islamic State, but researchers say links between the two groups are tenuous. 

ETHIOPIA: More than 100 Ethiopian soldiers serving in the recently closed UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur have claimed asylum in Sudan. The soldiers – from Ethiopia’s conflict-hit northern region of Tigray – have been transferred to a refugee camp in eastern Sudan.

EU: Lawyers in Greece have accused the EU’s border agency, Frontex, of registering asylum seekers who are minors as adults when they arrive in the Greek islands. The report adds to a growing list of scandals, including recent revelations that Frontex airplanes in the central Mediterranean contact the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard even when other vessels are closer to migrants boats in distress, leading to delays in rescues that likely resulted in at least 90 deaths.

LEBANON: The EU is reportedly drafting sanctions on politicians it says are blocking the formation of a government in Lebanon. The country’s political class has been unable to agree on a government for nine months, as the economy further collapses and money runs out for Lebanon’s already limited supply of public electricity.

NEPAL: Facing surging COVID-19 infections and overloaded hospitals, Nepal is in “desperate need” of medical supplies and vaccines rather than funding, Human Rights Watch said. Nepal depends on India for equipment and vaccines, but both are in short supply as India’s COVID-19 crisis continues. “Money is no use,” one official said. Aid groups warn that Nepal’s spiralling emergency will soon rival India’s, but the country has far fewer resources and international support.

SOMALIA: The UN Security Council has extended the mandate of AMISOM, the African Union’s peace enforcement operation, to the end of the year, easing security uncertainties as Somalia heads to elections. The 22,000 AMISOM troops were to begin withdrawing this year, but the AU has paused the drawdown as political tensions have risen over the delayed poll.

TIMOR-LESTE: At least 3,000 people are still displaced more than a month after widespread floods hit roughly 10 percent of the Pacific nation’s population. Knock-on health impacts continue to be a concern: Aid groups say three young children have died from suspected diarrhoea-related diseases, while COVID-19 cases are rising.

UN: Martin Griffiths will take over from Mark Lowcock as head of the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. The news met with mixed reactions: While his CV is more than adequate, those lobbying for a change in nationality (Britons have occupied the job since 2007) and more diversity in UN appointees were disappointed. A successor to Griffiths in his current role as UN special envoy for Yemen has not been named, and the UN announcement did not give a start date.

WHO: The World Health Organization plays too many roles. Its financing, governance, and regional office structure all are flawed. It faces political interference from member states. It should leave procurement and delivery of healthcare supplies to others, focusing on coordination and technical support. These are some of the findings in a 53-page review of the institution, background to a major independent report on the pandemic.

Weekend read

What’s behind the UK’s harsh post-Brexit asylum overhaul?

The UK government’s plan to overhaul the country’s asylum system has drawn the ire of UNHCR. The UN’s refugee agency and other migration experts say it goes against the 1951 Refugee Convention and global protection ethics. UK Interior Minister Priti Patel says the plan will prioritise asylum seekers who arrive through legal channels while creating barriers for those who arrive irregularly. Rights groups and asylum advocates disagree. To them, the approach cashes in on public fears of a migration crisis to build a restrictive asylum system that would exclude many who need help. A review was needed, given the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, but the new rules could make migration even riskier than it already is, especially for women and children who don’t qualify for support. With EU governments refusing to sign bilateral return agreements, migrants who arrive in the UK and don’t qualify for asylum are in danger of being “warehoused in deeply inappropriate, inhumane facilities”, one civil society actor told The New Humanitarian. This comes amid rising numbers of asylum seekers trying to reach the UK as EU policies grow more hostile; nearly 8,500 crossed by boat from France in 2020, more than four times the number in 2019.

And finally…

Decolonising research

Foreign researchers in humanitarian settings have too often swooped in and conducted extractive studies without meaningful local involvement, according to a new briefing paper and related webinar. The paper says the academic world should properly regulate so-called “Parasitic Swallows'', as such temporary visitors can “do harm, retraumatising participants, and preventing them from evolving their identity”. Research “co-production” – involving the community as well as academics and NGOs in the entire process – offers a healthier model, according to a paper published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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