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North Korean hunger, Ethiopian elections, and Rohingya data misuse: 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

Hunger on the horizon in North Korea

The threat of food shortages is growing in North Korea. “The people’s food situation is now getting tense,” its leader, Kim Jong-un, said this week in a meeting of senior leaders, according to state-run media. As always, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on in North Korea, but the rare admission aligns with ground reports of volatile food prices and grain deficits. Floods and storms during 2020 depleted crop yields to “well below the five-year average”, according to new estimates from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The FAO warns the country has a “food gap” of about 860,000 tonnes – up to more than two months of food. North Korea shut its borders with its biggest trading partner and benefactor, China, as COVID-19 cases accelerated last year. Aid to North Korea has shrunk over the last decade. Humanitarian groups regularly apply for and receive permission to bypass sanctions to deliver relief, yet aid operations have “nearly come to a halt” due to closed borders and red tape, a UN rights watchdog warned in March.

Elections in a time of war

Ethiopians will head to the polls on Monday in national and regional elections, but not in Tigray where voting has been cancelled amid a conflict that has left hundreds of thousands facing famine. Security concerns and administrative issues have forced delays in other areas too: notably in western Oromia – where a rebel insurgency is bubbling away – and in the violence-wracked Benishangul-Gumuz region. With their leaders behind bars, some of Ethiopia’s main opposition parties have announced a boycott. And although a handful of constituencies are expected to be competitive, analysts predict an easy win for the ruling Prosperity Party headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Any claim to a popular mandate will of course ring hollow in Tigray, where the government and its allies have committed seemingly every crime imaginable: massacres, mass rape, ethnic cleansing, and now starvation as a weapon of war.

UNHCR denies data mishandling

The UN’s refugee agency helped Myanmar get the detailed biometric records of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who had not given their informed consent, according to Human Rights Watch. Rohingya people who live as refugees in Bangladesh have their photos taken, eyes scanned, and fingerprints recorded digitally by UNHCR, along with the government of Bangladesh, as part of overlapping record-keeping and ID schemes, which have long caused alarm among data protection analysts. HRW interviewed refugees who said they had no idea their details were going to be sent off to the same government that expelled them in a violent campaign in 2017. Many were told they had to register for a speciaI lD card to receive aid, refugees said. Some, HRW reports, feared being forced to return, or being profiled for retaliation. HRW alleges UNHCR did not follow its own data protection guidelines, including advice against sharing case information with refugees' countries of origin. The UN refugee agency denies the charges, saying refugees could consent – or not – to the data-sharing after being briefed that it would not affect their entitlements as refugees. Answering a question from The New Humanitarian, UNHCR said only one Rohingya family had declined to have their data shared with Myanmar.

A harsh sentence in Greece

A Greek court sentenced four Afghan asylum seekers to 10 years in prison on 12 June for allegedly playing a role in starting the fire that burned Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesvos to the ground last September. Moria was the largest refugee camp in Europe, housing more than 10,000 people in squalid conditions. In March, two other Afghans were sentenced to five years in prison in connection to the case. Defence lawyers say the sentence handed down last week was a “parody of justice” because mitigating circumstances were not taken into account, including that three of the defendants were 17 at the time of the fire but were tried as adults. Meanwhile, work on a new camp has yet to begin, despite pledges to have one built before the coming winter, raising fears that asylum seekers and migrants will have to endure another season of harsh weather in the temporary facility currently in use.

Some aid progress in Sudan

Life is getting easier for aid groups in Sudan. Blocked from distributing assistance in conflict hotspots by former president Omar al-Bashir, restrictions have eased under the transitional government. This week, UN agencies said they had accessed communities in parts of South Kordofan and Blue Nile for the first time in a decade. The breakthrough comes as a rebel leader from the area – Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu – engages in peace talks with the government. Aid groups have also recently reached Darfur’s cut-off Jebel Marra mountains, where residents are living without even the most basic health facilities. Some access challenges remain, however. Individuals associated with al-Bashir’s regime still staff government bodies and still obstruct humanitarian work from time to time. Gaining access also means little if you don’t have the means to respond: While millions of people are in need across Sudan, last year’s response plan was just 50 percent funded.

More violence, less healthcare for displaced women

We know that violence against women has soared and healthcare access has dropped across the globe during pandemic lockdowns. But it’s even worse for the millions of women and girls forced to leave their homes by conflict or disasters. New research by CARE, the international NGO, attempts to put some numbers to the scale of the problem. Surveys with displaced women in Afghanistan, Ecuador, and Turkey found half the women interviewed reported less or no access to basic health services or maternity care since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The risk of abuse and violence had also jumped, many women reported; in Afghanistan, the majority said “male unemployment” was fuelling this rise. Read our reporting on the links between Afghanistan’s economic crisis and violence against women.

Ban opens fresh wounds for Haiti cholera victims

It took years for the UN to admit that the cholera outbreak that killed nearly 10,000 people after the 2010 earthquake was linked to UN peacekeepers – widely believed to have reintroduced the disease to Haiti. For Haitians, the matter is anything but resolved. In his book, “Resolved: United Nations in a Divided World”, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said the UN’s “delayed and insufficient” response to the outbreak made the tragedy worse. But he also lamented class action lawsuits that were brought seeking damages. “I was incensed every time I thought about this attempt to extort money from the United Nations,” he wrote, noting the UN’s immunity from prosecution. The lawsuits failed largely because of the immunity issue, and although the UN moved to establish a $400 million fund for victims, only five percent of that has been raised. Ban also noted that the cholera outbreak damaged the UN’s reputation in Haiti, but he barely mentioned the sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers that had occurred years before the earthquake. Although cholera has now declined in Haiti, the Caribbean nation is facing a wave of new crises: coronavirus cases are rising, thousands have been displaced by recent gang violence, and childhood malnutrition is surging.

In case you missed it

CANARY ISLANDS: At least 481 asylum seekers and migrants have reportedly disappeared en route to the Spanish Canary Islands after departing in small boats from the West African coast in just the past two weeks. Since last year, an increasing number of people have been taking the Atlantic maritime route, considered the most dangerous sea passage for asylum seekers and migrants trying to reach Europe.

CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN: Around 270 asylum seekers and migrants rescued in international waters by an offshore supply boat, the Vos Triton, were handed over to the Libyan Coast Guard on 16 June. UNHCR and the UN’s migration agency, IOM, condemned the returns, and NGOs said the transfer constituted participation in an illegal pushback. More than 13,000 people have been intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard already this year, compared to around 11,000 in all of 2020.

COLOMBIA/VENEZUELA: Colombian authorities and the FBI are investigating a 15 June car bombing at a military base in Cúcuta, a city and major migration hub near the border with Venezuela. The explosion, which injured 36 people, is suspected to have been carried out by either the ELN rebel group or a dissident faction of the FARC that doesn’t accept Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement. The ELN has denied involvement.

GAZA: Israel launched air raids on the 16-17 June on the Gaza Strip that Palestinian sources said hit facilities used by armed groups as well as civilian buildings. The strikes were reportedly retaliation for the launching of incendiary balloons by Palestinian acitivists. A tenuous ceasefire is otherwise holding in the wake of Israel’s 11-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip last month. For more on Palestinian reconstruction efforts, read our story.

GRAND BARGAIN: At the Grand Bargain’s three-day annual meeting, participants from the over 60 signatory groups reflected on progress and setbacks since its launch in 2016, and committed to a new, leaner agenda – the Grand Bargain 2.0. Priorities for the next two years include localisation and more flexible, long-term funding for aid organisations. Read more in our Q&A with the Grand Bargain’s new supremo, Jan Egeland, and check out our two-part series exploring the successes and challenges facing this important reform process.

HORN OF AFRICA/YEMEN: A boat carrying between 160 and 200 migrants from the Horn of Africa to Yemen capsized on 12 June. Twenty-five bodies have been recovered and up to 175 are still missing. Just over 5,100 people have made the journey from the Horn to Yemen this year, a sharp drop from around 138,000 in 2019, but returns of African migrant workers from Gulf states attempting to transit through Yemen appear to be increasing.

MYANMAR: Violence continues to build after Myanmar’s 1 February coup. Two mass graves containing 25 bodies were discovered in southeast Karen State. The military regime has blamed an ethnic armed group, the Karen National Defence Organisation, which denies the dead were civilians, according to The Irrawaddy newspaper. In central Myanmar’s Magway region, security forces reportedly burned down a village, killing at least two, after clashes with coup opponents.

NIGERIA: The bodies keep piling up in the northwest. A total of 53 people were killed on 11 June in a string of attacks on villages in Zamfara State by “bandits” – a catch-all term for criminals and Fulani militia. Locals were so scared of the armed men sheltering in the adjacent Zurmi Forest that funerals had to be moved to a nearby town.

OXFAM: Oxfam has fired three staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo following allegations of sexual misconduct, bullying, and nepotism. A fourth person’s contract was not renewed. The investigation, which began in November and is still underway, followed multiple whistleblower complaints that went as far back as 2015. Some complaints occurred during the Ebola outbreak – an investigation by The New Humanitarian found more than 70 women who said they were abused or exploited by aid workers. One woman said she was raped by an Oxfam worker. In 2018, Oxfam staff were accused of exploiting victims of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

THE PHILIPPINES: Police likely killed “between several thousand and tens of thousands of civilians” in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called drug war, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said on 14 June, as she asked judges to launch a full investigation into alleged crimes against humanity. Rights groups called the move a “landmark step” for justice; Duterte’s office said it would not cooperate with any eventual probe.

UNITED STATES: Attorney General Merrick Garland has reversed two controversial Trump-era policies, paving the way for people fleeing domestic violence and gang violence to once again receive protection in the United States. Gang and gender-based violence are major drivers of migration in Central America.

Weekend read

Uncovering the civilian toll of France’s anti-jihadist war in Mali

A French airstrike in January that killed 19 Malian civilians attending a wedding celebration made headlines around the world. But it’s not the only transgression committed by Operation Barkhane, the French anti-jihadist mission active in the Sahel since 2013. While France admits to accidentally killing seven civilians in Mali over the past eight years, our weekend read – a joint investigation by The New Humanitarian and Der Spiegel – puts the number at over 50. The killing of civilians is fuelling local anger and anti-French protests, and could be helping build support for jihadist groups. Though Emmanuel Macron announced a drawdown of French forces on 10 June – part of a wider overhaul of its Sahel operation – the war in the sky could increase as the country leans more on its air assets. During a tour of West Africa last week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for countries in the region to step up the fight against jihadist groups – a fight that more civilians will likely pay for.

And finally…

Disaster cooking

Spanish-American celebrity chef José Andrés received a new accolade on 17 June: the Goodermote Humanitarian award from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Andrés has become a recognisable figure in the humanitarian space since founding World Central Kitchen in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The non-profit sets up kitchens in disaster settings – from Indonesia to Lebanon to Mozambique – with the aim of both providing immediate relief and also helping communities establish resilient food systems. “We are leaving behind … teams and systems, [so when the] next hurricane comes, we are ready to respond very quickly, but also networks of farming [and] food production, [to] grow and be in a better place 1-2 years after the event,” he said at the on-line award ceremony. WCK has been active during the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting restaurants in more than 400 cities across America to safely distribute individually packaged, fresh meals for children and families to pick up and take home, as well as to deliver to elderly people who can’t venture outside.

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