Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
After 11 days of fighting and destruction, a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza came into effect at 2am on Friday local time. Both sides have claimed victory in a conflict that, according to officials, killed 232 people in Gaza and 12 in Israel – the result of heavy bombing of the occupied Palestinian territory and rockets shot at civilian population centres in Israel. At the time of publication, the Egypt-mediated truce appeared to be holding, although the issues that led to the worst flare-up in violence since the 2014 Gaza war have not been resolved. Israel’s Supreme Court has yet to decide on the potential eviction of several Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem. A hearing on the matter was delayed because of rising tensions. And while the effort to rebuild Gaza is likely to get underway soon, with pledges of aid from the international community, the territory remains under blockade from Egypt and Israel.
Myanmar soldiers sever supplies to town under siege
Government soldiers have blockaded a town in Chin State in western Myanmar, cutting off food and water supplies as violence escalates following the February coup, a rights group said this week. Mindat town has been the focus of a military crackdown on civilian self-defence groups since mid-May. The Chin Human Rights Organization called the blockade an attempt “to starve a community struggling to survive”. Officials in the northeast Indian state of Mizoram, across the border from Chin State, said at least 15,000 people have sought shelter there since the coup. But thousands who fled the recent bombardment in Mindat remain in Chin, and humanitarian access is “challenging”, the UN said. Myanmar’s February coup has re-ignited or worsened long-running conflicts in border areas controlled or contested by an array of ethnic armed groups. The country’s healthcare system has collapsed, and humanitarian access in many areas is severely restricted, aid groups warn.
New allegations in Mercy Corps sex scandal
Eight people formerly associated with US NGO Mercy Corps were involved in child sexual abuse, according to a survivor. A new independent report into the widening allegations could be “traumatic and triggering”, according to the NGO. Tania Culver Humphrey, now 50, provided 5,000 documents about allegations that were brushed aside in the 1990s and again in 2018. She told investigators her father, former Mercy Corps president Ellsworth Culver, had abused her and other girls for years in the US, and on foreign trips. She said her father also arranged for other men to abuse her. Around 1981, a girl aged about nine died after a night of abuse by Culver and another man in Thailand, she said. Mercy Corps’ board investigated in 1992 and decided only to demote Culver, and without accepting the claims. He worked for the NGO for another 10 years until his death in 2005. Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D'Oyen McKenna, said "we unreservedly believe Ms. Culver Humphrey".
Mali gets a new cabinet as reforms lag
A new cabinet was being formed this week in Mali amid criticism of the slow pace of reform by the transitional government that came to power in September, a month after a military coup toppled ex-president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Civil society groups say the army wields too much influence in the transition and promised reforms have not materialised. Legislative and presidential elections are scheduled for February 2022 but conflicts in central and northern parts of the country – where jihadist groups are active – may disrupt that timeline. More than a dozen people were killed this week in the northern town of Gao when their vehicle hit a landmine. A French journalist, Olivier Dubois, was kidnapped by al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in the same town last month. More than 300,000 people are currently internally displaced across the country, and millions more are in need of humanitarian assistance.
A migration crisis in Ceuta
More than 8,000 asylum seekers and migrants – including around 1,500 minors – swam or climbed over fences from Morocco to enter Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta on 17 and 18 May. Spanish soldiers at the border pushed people back, sometimes violently, and rounded up those who had managed to get in. The majority who crossed have been returned to Morocco, drawing criticism from rights groups who say bulk returns are illegal under international law. The crossings began after the Spanish government allowed a seperatist leader from Western Sahara – which was annexed by Morocco in 1975 – to enter Spain to be treated for COVID-19. Morocco’s apparent decision to relax border controls in retaliation highlighted the EU’s dependence on third countries to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching its territory. The events in Ceuta are reminiscent of a week-long crisis at the Greek-Turkey border last March following a declaration by Ankara that it would no longer prevent refugees from leaving the country – an apparent effort to extract political concessions from the EU.
Testing time for Libya’s new government
Libya’s new unity government, with only some two months under its belt, faces a long list of challenges after years of war and division. One key step is the holding of elections by 24 December as agreed. But government institutions remain badly split by political rivalries – backed by foreign powers – and there has been no justice or reconciliation for crimes committed in the decade of conflict. This week, the issue of an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries came to the fore, as the International Criminal Court warned they could be prosecuted for a variety of serious offences. Both sides in Libya’s most recent war were supported by fighters from a variety of countries, including Russia, Turkey, Chad, Sudan, and Syria. Many worry that their continued presence threatens any semblance of peace and stability. An October 2020 ceasefire deal was supposed to see them leave within 90 days, but UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently said there had been “no reduction” in their presence on the ground.
In case you missed it
DISPLACEMENT: The number of people forced to live away from their homes due to conflict reached 48 million by the end of 2020, a record high, according to IDMC. New estimates from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre say at least another seven million remained displaced by weather events and natural hazards. These numbers are in addition to a global population of over 30 million refugees and asylum seekers.
COLOMBIA: A leading former rebel FARC commander, who had rejected the 2016 peace agreement, was killed in Venezuela this week. Jesús Santrich died in an ambush by Colombian commandos, according to members of his splinter group, the Segunda Marquetalia. A number of dissident groups have sought shelter across the border in Venezuela.
ETHIOPIA: Conflict in Tigray is causing a “major food security emergency” which could still worsen without reduced conflict, better economic conditions and relief, says the Famine Early Warning System. Tigray contains the worst-affected areas, but the numbers of people who aren’t getting enough food are the highest they have been for five years countrywide.
INDIA: Cyclone Tauktae hurtled along India’s western coast and slammed into Gujarat state on 17 May, killing at least 122 people and forcing nearly a quarter million to evacuate. NASA says climate change is likely driving more powerful cyclones on the Arabian Sea. Meanwhile, India’s meteorological department has warned that another storm may emerge in the Bay of Bengal, making landfall on 26 May.
MOZAMBIQUE: Tanzania has expelled about 4,000 Mozambican asylum seekers since September, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, including 1,500 this month. UNHCR called for “all parties” to “fully uphold the right to cross international borders to seek asylum” – implicitly calling for Tanzania not to push back the Mozambicans, who are among hundreds of thousands uprooted by conflict in northern Cabo Delgado province.
NAMIBIA: Germany will pay reparations and formally apologise for a colonial-era genocide committed in Namibia after an agreement was reached between the two countries. The deal, reported by German media, will see development projects implemented for the descendants of some 75,000 Herero and Nama people killed between 1904 and 1908.
VACCINES: India’s Serum Institute won’t restart vaccine exports until the end of the year, the company said on 18 May. The announcement from the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer – and the main supplier for the COVAX vaccine-sharing programme – comes as global shortages hit predominantly lower-income countries. COVAX is rushing to get other vaccines into its pipeline, but the vast majority of these doses won’t be available until late 2021 or next year.
The Gaza conflict – the worst since the 2014 war – has taken its toll on an ailing health system that was already struggling to cope with a surge in COVID-19 cases. As Mohammed Zaanoun explains in our weekend read, doctors and nurses had to work around the clock to deal with the fallout of the bombing and shelling. But they did so with outdated and worn-out equipment after many years of siege, and a lack of even basic supplies. With restrictions on goods from both Israel and Egypt entering the territory, and crippling power cuts, Gaza is facing what UN experts describe as a “long-term health crisis”. The violence, and movement restrictions, also kept aid workers from reaching those most in need. Stretched to the limit, health workers added their voices to the calls for urgent international assistance to help meet the growing humanitarian needs of Gazans.
Sean’s new role
From Hollywood bad boy to humanitarian, Sean Penn’s work after the deadly 2010 Haiti earthquake can be seen in the documentary, Citizen Penn. “We were an airplane that built itself after takeoff,” Penn says of his J/P Haitian Relief Organization, which was renamed CORE. So why Haiti? When news broke of the disaster, Penn said he was in the midst of a booze-filled bender wrestling with empty nest syndrome. Soon, he found himself on the phone with late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, begging him to send 350,000 bottles of morphine for emergency medical relief to Haiti (amputations without pain relief were not uncommon after the earthquake). Penn’s work quickly grew into helping manage a camp of more than 50,000 people who had been displaced. Despite initial scepticism, he won praise for breaking bottlenecks in getting emergency supplies and putting Haitians in the driver’s seat of the relief work. Unlike some celebrities and NGOs, Penn and CORE have stuck around, working with Haitian communities in disaster preparedness and community building.