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Afghan Hazara, Grand Bargain 2.0, and France’s seven years in the Sahel: 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

While conflict builds, Afghan Hazara minorities come under attack

Afghanistan’s Hazara minorities were the target of an attack that killed at least 10 staff members of the Halo Trust demining group. Gunmen stormed a work camp in northern Baghlan Province on 8 June, “and went bed to bed murdering members of the Halo Trust”, said the group’s CEO, James Cowan. Witnesses told the BBC that the gunmen sought out Hazara men – members of a mostly Shiite Muslim community that has long faced persecution in Afghanistan. In May, bomb blasts killed dozens outside a school in a Kabul neighbourhood home to many Hazara. A branch of so-called Islamic State reportedly claimed responsibility for the Halo Trust attack. The violence comes as conflict continues to build in Afghanistan ahead of the planned withdrawal of US and international forces by September. Fighting flares across the country. Clashes between the Taliban and government soldiers have forced schools to close in Ghazni, south of Kabul. In an interview published in Foreign Policy this week, a Taliban spokesman pledged to “continue our war” if long-stalled peace talks with the government fail. “Trust of both sides for one another is close to zero,” he said.

An agreement more than anyone bargained for

Next week, Grand Bargain signatories will have some useful analysis to bring to their Annual Meeting, where they’re set to hammer out the specifics of the new framework, or 2.0 as it’s being called. The Overseas Development Institute, a UK-based think tank, has just published its five-year review on progress since the agenda was launched in 2016. The big winners? Cash: Its use as aid has doubled over the past five years. Localisation: While the commitment is not fully met, it is now at least hardwired into the humanitarian discourse. And the way humanitarian actors assess and report needs has also seen improvement. But change is hard, and five years is not a long time. Many of the other 51 commitments have stalled or need political muscle to break through impasses. Many are hopeful that the Grand Bargain 2.0’s proposed reconfiguration can deliver more of its original ambition. Read our take on the hurdles and hopes for the Grand Bargain’s next phase in this two-part article: Part 1 on the origins of the bargain and areas of progress; Part 2 on persistent obstacles in the areas of localisation, more agile funding, and participation of affected communities. 

France announces Sahel drawdown

France is to reduce its forces battling jihadists in the Sahel – a seven-year deployment that has failed to stem the violence, and which has proved increasingly unpopular both in the region and domestically. President Emmanuel Macron said on 10 June there would be a “profound transformation” of its Operation Barkhane, with France relying more on special forces, air power, and cooperation with allies. The details of the plan will be finalised by the end of June, he added. France has suffered a recent setback in the Sahel with the death of its close ally, Chadian leader Idriss Déby, and an increasingly complicated relationship with Mali – the focus of Barkhane’s 5,100-strong intervention. Last week, Paris suspended joint military operations with Malian forces after a second coup. Macron has also refused to support moves by some Sahelian countries to open negotiations with jihadists, and has suggested that African partners have not pulled their weight in the counter-insurgency fight – a conflict widely seen as militarily unwinnable.

‘Do not come’

On a trip to Guatemala and Mexico meant to bolster US efforts to tackle the “root causes” of migration, Vice President Kamala Harris had a stern message for would-be asylum seekers and migrants: “Do not come. You will be turned back.” Last month, apprehensions of undocumented migrants at the US-Mexico border reached their highest level since April 2000. Opponents of the US administration have used the uptick to score political points and – after an initial flurry of activity – Biden has been slow to follow through on the “more humane approach” to migration he promised on the campaign trail. A pandemic-related public health order that essentially ended access to asylum at the US-Mexico border remains in place, with several exceptions; although there are signs the Biden administration may be looking to unwind the policy. Still, human rights groups are concerned that the “root causes” strategy in Central America is being pursued alongside support to expand militarised border control in the region.

Africa’s vaccine rollout grinds to a halt

Roll your sleeves back down Africa, you’re not getting a vaccine shot anytime soon. Forty-seven countries (out of 54) are set to miss a September target to vaccinate 10 percent of their people. To reach even that modest goal, Africa needs 225 million more doses now. But vaccine shipments have “ground to a near halt”, says the World Health Organization. The UN agency has also chastised some African countries for inefficient use of what “precious” vaccines have arrived. Overall, Africa needs 700 million shots. To help get them there, G7 leaders meeting today are expected to pledge one billion doses for the world’s poorest countries, but many of them won’t actually land until next year. Meanwhile, Africa is witnessing a COVID spike, taking the toll to five million registered cases – although those numbers are recognised as a terrible under-estimation. There are fears of an India-type scenario with this “third wave”, all the more alarming because of the weakness of Africa’s health services, with their much higher COVID mortality rates

Volunteer fighters targeted in Burkina Faso

Last year, we warned that an initiative calling for civilians to fight jihadist groups would worsen Burkina Faso’s already multi-sided conflict. We weren’t wrong. On 5 June, more than 130 people were killed when extremists targeted the northeastern village of Solhan, in response to the presence of volunteer fighters, who are poorly trained and responsible for a string of their own abuses. The massacre is the worst committed during the country’s five-year struggle against militant groups. And it comes after a period of relative calm thanks to secret peace talks – revealed by our correspondent Sam Mednick – in October 2020 between the government and some jihadist groups. After last week’s attack, three days of national mourning were declared, while 7,000 people fled Solhan to nearby towns. Nearly 1.2 million people are now displaced across Burkina Faso – a number that will no doubt keep growing.

In case you missed it

CAMEROON: The clergy has called on both sides in the separatist conflict to end attacks on priests. In the past two weeks, at least six Roman Catholic priests and missionaries have been abducted and tortured – with two killed. Government soldiers and separatist fighters both accuse the clergy of taking sides in the four-year conflict.

DROUGHT: Migration is a last resort for Afghans hit by drought, but dry weather, poor crop yields, and water shortages are also hitting neighbouring Iran, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. Aid groups warn that drought, conflict, and poverty could add to Afghanistan’s displacement crisis if not enough is done to help rural Afghans stay home.

ETHIOPIA: More than 350,000 people are facing IPC Phase 5 “catastrophe” hunger levels – the highest number since the 2011 Somalia famine – as fighting rages in the northern Tigray region, according to a new food security assessment. A further escalation of conflict and hampering of humanitarian assistance, would tip most parts of Tigray into famine, the report states.

GREECE: On 7 June, Greece designated Turkey a “safe third country” for asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The decision aims to limit access to protection in Greece for those who have transited through Turkey, and pave the way for potential deportations. Human rights groups say Turkey is not a safe third country, and access to protection in the country – especially for non-Syrians – has eroded in recent years. 

HAITI: In just 72 hours, some 1,000 people were displaced in Haiti because of escalating gang violence around the capital, Port-au-Prince. In the past year, another 4,000 have also been forced to flee their homes because of armed clashes between gangs. The Caribbean country has been grappling with a dangerous confluence of challenges: rising COVID-19 cases, political chaos, and a spate of kidnappings and gang violence. Humanitarian groups are calling for emergency assistance for those displaced by the recent violence. 

LEBANON/CYPRUS: Lebanese authorities deported 15 Syrian refugees who tried to reach Cyprus by boat. The refugees were pushed back from Cyprus by Cypriot authorities and subsequently forcibly repatriated to Syria from Lebanon in what human rights groups say is a flagrant violation of the principle of international protection. 

MYANMAR: Authorities have forced Médecins Sans Frontières to suspend operations in Dawei in the country’s southeast, which could be “life-threatening” for some 2,000 HIV and tuberculosis patients, the aid group said. MSF said it was unclear why it has been told to stop. Myanmar’s public health system has largely collapsed since a February coup.

NICARAGUA: Five months ahead of elections, President Daniel Ortega’s government is making it clear that opposition to his rule will not be tolerated. Half a dozen leading critics were arrested this week, and journalists were “interviewed” by authorities after Cristiana Chamorro – a key challenger to the president – was placed under house arrest. Since a bloody crackdown on national protests in 2018, more than 108,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country, two thirds of them seeking asylum in neighbouring Costa Rica, where many have struggled under COVID-19 lockdown measures.

POLICY: Over 90 aid agencies and donor countries say the humanitarian community needs to sort out “confusion” over the coordination of cash. Unlike health, water, or other sectors, there is no agency designated to coordinate cash-based aid. In an open letter, they said the problem has lingered for years, and the Grand Bargain reform process couldn’t resolve it. 

SOUTH SUDAN: Two aid workers were killed in an ambush on 7 June outside Rumbek in conflict-hit Lakes State. They worked for the Italian charity Doctors with Africa CUAMM. A total of four aid workers have been killed in the last month alone. The UN has warned the attacks “will have a serious impact on humanitarian operations”.

Weekend read

On COVID vaccinations for refugees, will the world live up to its promises?

In our weekend read by Migration Editor-at-large Eric Reidy, rising COVID-19 infections at a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh – as well as interviews with refugees in other settings – spotlight vulnerability and vaccine inequity among displaced people around the world. According to the UN’s refugee agency, 150 of 157 countries have committed to include refugees in their vaccination campaigns. But less than one percent of refugees have actually received vaccines so far. This is despite the best efforts of COVAX, a UN-backed global initiative to ensure equitable COVID-19 vaccine access. The programme is behind schedule and low on immediate supplies, due in part to hoarding by wealthy nations and a global shortage of the raw materials needed to produce the vaccines. But there are other factors too, including the logistical challenges of reaching people in remote areas and conflict zones, vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, and a lack of trust in authorities. Could humanitarian organisations be doing more to help? Another story this week by The New Humanitarian reveals a major problem with going down that route: the risk of potential lawsuits.

And finally…

The refugee team for Tokyo

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has announced the athletes who will be competing on the Refugee Olympic Team in the 2021 summer olympics in Tokyo. The 29-person team includes a badminton player from Syria, a road cyclist from Afghanistan, and a long distance runner from Sudan. The Refugee Olympic Team was launched for the 2016 summer olympics to give refugee athletes who cannot join a national team the opportunity to compete, but also to raise awareness about the experiences of refugees around the world and highlight their positive contributions to societies. Five of the athletes on the team are competing for the second time, including Yusra Mardini, whose story of swimming in the Rio Olympics in 2016 after saving the lives of fellow refugees in the Aegean Sea with her sister Sarah while fleeing the Syrian civil war a year earlier is being made into a film by Netflix. 

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