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Taliban gains, Tigray escalation, and Africa’s COVID surge: 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

Taliban gains while Afghan peace talks flounder

Dozens of Afghanistan’s districts have fallen over the last two months as Taliban fighters encircle provincial capitals, a UN envoy told the Security Council this week in a blunt assessment that warns of escalating bloodshed. The Taliban have seized more than 50 of roughly 370 districts nationwide since May, said Deborah Lyons, who is Secretary-General António Guterres’s envoy for Afghanistan. The Afghan government’s control of areas outside its cities has always been tenuous. But rapid international troop withdrawals – the majority of soldiers have already left ahead of a September deadline – have sent “a seismic tremor through the Afghan political system”, Lyons said. “Most districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn,” she said. Last year’s US-Taliban treaty was meant to pave the way for direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but “actions on the battlefield have been far greater than progress at the negotiating table”, Lyons said.

Airstrike kills 64 people in Tigray

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had dubiously billed this week’s elections in Ethiopia (see our story) as the country’s first free and fair polls after decades of one-party rule. But any celebrations were overshadowed by a week of escalating violence in the northern Tigray region – one of several places where voting was cancelled. At least 64 people were killed when an Ethiopian army plane bombed a busy marketplace in the town of Togoga. A military spokesman said the targets were combatants from the rebel Tigray Defence Forces. But health workers said the dead and wounded were civilians, and that soldiers blocked them from reaching the scene. The strike came as the TDF reportedly retook territory and captured thousands of Ethiopian soldiers, who are now being held as prisoners of war. Some hope a popular mandate for Abiy after the polls may convince him to enter negotiations with Tigray’s ousted leaders. But after this week’s events, that seems a faraway prospect.

Alarming conditions for migrant children in Texas camp

More than 2,000 migrant children are living in dire conditions in a camp in the Texas desert used to house unaccompanied minors waiting to be reunited with family members already in the United States. A BBC investigation uncovered allegations of sexual abuse, COVID-19 and lice outbreaks, a lack of clean clothes, cramped conditions, and cases of self-harm among the children. The United States has seen a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing its southern border this year amid an uptick in migration – mainly from Central America – as natural disasters, economic fallout from the pandemic, violence, and corruption push people to head north. Vice President Kamala Harris, leading the Biden administration’s effort to address the ‘root causes’ of migration, is making her first trip to the US-Mexico border on 25 June. A pandemic-related public health order, known as Title 42, has essentially blocked access to asylum at the border since last March. The Biden administration carved out an exception for unaccompanied minors earlier this year and is reportedly considering lifting the rule entirely by the end of the summer.

Africa’s third wave

Africa is facing a new fast-moving third wave of COVID-19 that is outpacing vaccinations and threatening an infection peak higher than previously recorded. Cases on the continent have risen for five consecutive weeks. South Africa, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are among the hardest hit, with health systems close to being overwhelmed. The World Health Organization blames the new surge on a mix of public fatigue and the Delta variant, now dominant in Congo and Uganda. The virus spread is happening in the midst of a vaccine supply squeeze. Eighteen African countries have used over 80 percent of their COVAX-delivered vaccines, and eight have exhausted their stocks. Out of 2.7 billion doses administered globally, just under 1.5 percent have been administered in Africa. The fear is that a two-track pandemic will lead to a two-track economic recovery. As the rest of the global economy rebounds energetically, growth in Africa – partly as a result of the slow vaccine rollout – is expected to be “fragile”.

Vaccine doubts aren’t set in stone

Vaccine scepticism is frustrating COVID-19 immunisation plans around the globe, but there’s nuance behind the doubt. Hesitancy about vaccines is high in Papua New Guinea, for example, despite outbreaks that triggered a national emergency and aid pledges. One June survey suggested most respondents wouldn’t take a vaccine. Rather than clear opposition, however, many are still making up their minds. A separate poll of university students allowed respondents to choose “unsure” rather than simply “yes” or “no”, and nearly half did so. Many said they were influenced by social media debates and a shortage of clear information from the government. This suggests that opposition to vaccines isn’t so clear cut – and that better information and public health campaigns that build trust can put a dent in the hesitancy: “Many minds are not made up on the issue of vaccination,” researcher Rohan Fox said, writing on the Pacific-focused Devpolicy Blog.

Slow change in Burundi

It has been a year since Burundi’s new president was inaugurated after the sudden death of longtime leader, Pierre Nkurunziza. But talk of change by Évariste Ndayishimiye has not been followed by meaningful reform, according to a report from the Burundi Human Rights Initiative. There have been some improvements: Abuses by the ruling party’s youth militia – the Imbonerakure – have decreased; some officials implicated in corruption and human rights violations have been arrested; and four imprisoned journalists were released in December. But police and intelligence agents continue to arbitrarily arrest and torture individuals accused of collaborating with armed opposition groups. Dead bodies are still turning up in the countryside. And there’s been next to no accountability for abuses committed since Nkurunziza’s 2015 third term bid that triggered years of political chaos and an ongoing refugee crisis.

Doubts over regional Mozambique intervention

Southern African leaders have agreed – in theory – to military intervention to combat a jihadist insurgency in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. The 16-member SADC region fears potential contagion, but the 22 June summit in Maputo failed to provide clarity on the composition and role of the proposed “standby force” – and who will pay for it. A technical committee had recommended a 3,000-strong mix of infantry, special forces – plus helicopters, warships and a submarine. But Mozambique, uncomfortable with the scale of the plan, balked. Instead, it floated the idea of inviting Rwanda to intervene – a clear snub to neighbouring countries – and is training 2,000 of its own special forces with the help of Portugal and a UK-linked security firm. “Mozambique’s government and SADC are in a holding pattern when it comes to a regional deployment, which is by no means a given,” Dino Mahtani, deputy Africa director at the International Crisis Group, told The New Humanitarian. Meanwhile, the three-year insurgency in Cabo Delgado has forced 730,000 people from their homes – nearly a third of the province’s population – and a wary Tanzania continues to block asylum seekers.

In case you missed it

AID FINANCE: COVID-19 has exacerbated both growing humanitarian needs and the persistent underfunding of aid response. That’s according to Development Initiatives’ annual flagship review of the financing landscape. Humanitarian needs reached an all-time peak last year, with the UN estimating 243.8 million people requiring humanitarian assistance across 75 countries in crisis. Funding requirements (assessed in a UN-led process) grew by 27 percent to a record $38.8 billion, with donors (public and private) coughing up $30.9 billion. Despite increased needs, UN-led response plans were left at least $18 billion short.* The Yemen response was the worst-hit: It saw a drop of $1.9 billion in funding from 2019, or 46 percent.

CANADA: A month after the remains of 215 children were discovered in British Columbia at what was formerly Canada’s largest Indigenous school, 751 more were found at the site of another former Catholic residential school in Saskatchewan. The government had just announced nearly 4 million USD in funding to a group of First Nation communities to search for children missing from other schools. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that roughly 4,100 children died while attending the schools, where Native-American children were forcibly assimilated, but the leader of that commission now says he believes the number was “well beyond 10,000”.

CLIMATE CRISIS: A draft report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – obtained by the AFP news agency – warns of dire consequences if humans fail to cut carbon emissions, saying: “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans cannot.” A lead author stressed the leak is from a partial, preliminary version of the report.

DISPLACEMENT: 82.4 million – that was the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people in the world as of the end of 2020, according to the annual global trends report released by the UN’s refugee agency on 18 June. Despite the pandemic, the number of people displaced globally increased by four percent from 79.5 million in 2019.

GREECE: Pushbacks and violence against asylum seekers and migrants have become Greece’s de facto border policy, according to a new report from Amnesty International. Greece denies summarily expelling asylum seekers and migrants from its territory – a practice that is against international law. But since a border crisis with Turkey last March, human rights groups have documented extensive evidence of pushbacks at Greece’s land and sea borders – including people rounded up deep inside Greek territory.

MADAGASCAR: More than a million people in southern Madagascar are “marching toward” starvation, and some 14,000 are already in famine-like conditions, according to the World Food Programme. Successive climate-change induced droughts – increasing in frequency – have worsened the region’s poverty and neglect. Emergency responses do not resolve those deep-seated problems, analyst Tim Healy told The New Humanitarian.

NEPAL: Early monsoon season floods and landslides killed at least 17 people in parts of Nepal’s hill regions, the UN reported. One landslide in Sindhupalchowk District blocked a river, unleashing floods that submerged 500 homes.

RACISM: Almost 90 percent of people of colour working for British aid groups say their employer isn’t committed to diversity. A survey from UK NGO alliance BOND found that 68 percent of respondents experienced or witnessed workplace racism in the last year. The report warns against superficial “recreational anti-racism”, which doesn’t aim for structural change.

SUDAN: Thousands of people who fled recent clashes in Darfur’s rebel-held Jebel Marra mountain range lack food and shelter, according to Médecins Sans Frontières. Rebels based in the remote area have refused to sign a peace agreement with Sudan’s transitional government. See our recent story for more.

Weekend read

Libya fails to stop migrant detention abuses, as EU-backed returns soar

A fresh spotlight was put on inhumane conditions in Libyan migration detention centres this week following reports of minors being sexually assaulted by guards at a facility in the capital, Tripoli. Meanwhile, EU leaders were in Brussels for a two-day summit on 24 and 25 June to discuss migration – among other topics. Following the accusations of sexual assault, the European Commission said migration detention centres in Libya must close. But since a new government took office in March, a steady stream of European leaders have visited Tripoli to reaffirm the importance of Europe’s migration partnership with the country while reiterating calls to improve the human rights situation in detention centres. At the same time, the EU is facing increasing scrutiny over its support for the Libyan Coast Guard, which has intercepted over 13,000 people at sea so far this year – already more than in all of 2020. Critics argue that the EU’s support for the interceptions makes it complicit in the cycle of extortion, torture, and trafficking taking place in the facilities where people inevitably end up. In our weekend read, Sara Creta uses her in-depth reporting of the closing of one facility – Dhar el-Jebel, in the town of Zintan – to show just how ineffective EU efforts to encourage the Libyan authorities to improve human rights conditions in the centres have been. The piece raises a timely and nagging question: As returns soar, will the EU re-evaluate its policies in Libya?

And finally…

A ‘bulletproof’ bitcoin solution

It tops the world’s homicide rankings; and poverty, climate change, and political repression continue to drive thousands of its citizens northward. But El Salvador has decided that by September it will be the first country to have bitcoin as legal tender. Its baseball cap-donning president, Nayib Bukele, who in the space of just two years has gone from social media star to budding authoritarian, says the plan is “bulletproof”. Bukele claims it will allow for “millions of dollars” in savings in transaction fees on an estimated $5.9 billion in remittances sent by 1.5 million Salvadorans working abroad. Despite the World Bank refusing to help with the transition, the cryptocurrency – known for its volatility – is already being widely used in one Salvadoran beach town after a local NGO received bitcoin contributions from an anonymous donor. Venezuelans, meanwhile, are also seeing the potential of cryptocurrencies in navigating problems caused by their country’s rapidly depreciating bolívar.

*(This story was corrected on 28 June 2021 to clarify that the shortfall was at least $18 billion for UN-led response plans.)

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