Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
The new man in Mali
He’s only 38 years old, but Assimi Goïta is making a lot of enemies. The Malian military officer became president last week after leading a second coup in the West African nation in just nine months. His actions saw the country suspended from the African Union and the regional ECOWAS bloc, while France said it would temporarily halt joint operations against jihadist groups operating in the region. Previous coups in Mali have all followed periods of civil unrest and received some level of popular support. But last week's events – triggered by a power struggle within the former transitional administration – were widely condemned by Malian civil society groups, from rights organisations to trade unions. What happens next remains unclear. Goïta has promised to hold elections in February 2022 – a key demand of the international community – but after his latest antics, will anybody trust him?
What are Haiti’s real coronavirus numbers?
COVID-19 infections are surging in parts of the Americas and the Caribbean, with 1.1 million new cases and more than 25,000 deaths reported last week alone, according to the Pan American Health Organization. Panama, Belize, and El Salvador are seeing spikes, and in South America, new cases have nearly tripled in certain regions, with Argentina and Colombia reporting the highest rate of infections. The real numbers in some places, however, could be even higher. Peru, for example, revised its official death toll from 69,342 to 180,000 after a review of data, making it by far the worst-hit country per capita in the world. And health workers in Haiti are warning that the situation is far worse there than what the numbers are showing. Hospitals are reporting a lack of beds, oxygen, and other supplies as hospitalisations rise – all while Haiti has yet to administer any vaccines (that is set to change this month). Reported cases and deaths were low for the first year of the pandemic in Haiti, but the country is now seeing the more contagious strains of the virus first identified in the United Kingdom and Brazil. Those strains – along with a weakened healthcare system, misinformation, and lack of trust in the government – are setting off red flags for health officials. “The situation we’re seeing in Haiti is a cautionary tale in just how quickly things can change with this virus,” said PAHO’s director, Dr. Carissa Etienne.
The scale of Afghan displacement
New research paints a stark picture of Afghanistan’s displacement crisis. In 10 of the country’s 34 provinces, one in three people are internally displaced or a returnee from abroad, according to estimates released this week by the UN’s migration agency, IOM. More than 280,000 displaced people or returnees live in tents or under open skies. In provinces like Farah and Zabul, the equivalent of half the population were estimated to have fled their homes (both also had high numbers of people who returned from abroad or sought shelter there after fleeing elsewhere). The numbers are a snapshot of the volatile cycle of Afghan migration, which has seen semi-permanent settlements proliferate, fed by a constant stream of displacement and returns. Some 1.2 million people were on the move in Afghanistan last year, and aid groups fear a looming drought could add to these tallies.
Ethiopia’s information battlefield
The Eritrean army might be pulling out of Tigray. Or it might not. The Ethiopian prime minister may have made an inflammatory speech to a closed party gathering. Or the recording may be a fake. The human rights and humanitarian crisis in Tigray is reportedly severe and deepening, and the UN on 3 June announced a new appeal to limit the war’s impact on millions of people. But it then deleted the tweet. Meanwhile, the government briefed journalists on “recovery” and the “return of normalcy”. A hyper-partisan information battlefield makes getting impartial information about the Tigray situation hard, and leaves little space for peacemaking. What we do know is that a coordinated diplomatic call for a ceasefire and the opening up of humanitarian access has been rejected by Addis Ababa. And we know people are getting hungrier: Famine watchdog FEWS NET said some parts of eastern, central, and northwestern Tigray are already experiencing the worst “catastrophic” level of food insecurity.
‘Abusive behaviour’ by Nigeria’s president
A single tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari this week not only got him kicked off the messaging platform for 12 hours but triggered a surge of protest in an already dangerously divided country. In the offending message, labelled “abusive behaviour” by Twitter, Buhari warned that pro-Biafra secessionists in the southeast – blamed for escalating attacks on security forces and government offices – would meet the same fate as their parents during the Biafra war five decades ago. That conflict left around one million people dead, and is regarded by some as a “genocide”. In the renewed separatist agitation, Buhari is portrayed as a reflexive authoritarian still harbouring a grudge against the region. The government’s long-running militarised response helps fuel the discontent in the southeast, and the violence is growing. It’s one more region that seems to be slipping beyond the grasp of the authorities. That includes much of the north. In the latest in a series of abductions by bandits, 150 school children were kidnapped on 31 May in north-central Niger state.
The US diplomatic offensive in Central America
Under pressure to stem migration across the southern US border, President Joe Biden’s policy reset on Central America is gaining traction, at least in terms of diplomatic roadshows. On 1-2 June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with eight senior regional officials in San José, Costa Rica at a meeting of the Central America Integration System, or SICA. With the foreign ministers of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – the so-called Northern Triangle countries – as well as Nicaragua and Mexico, on hand, Blinken touched upon governance and rule of law. These issues have already caused tensions, particularly with two of the three future recipients of a four-year, $4 billion aid package aimed at addressing the root causes of migration to the United States from Central America. Meanwhile, US Vice President Kamala Harris, tasked with leading the policy drive, and expected in Guatemala and Mexico 6-8 June, received support from some major US companies to invest in the region.
In case you missed it
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC/CHAD: Both countries have agreed to conduct a joint investigation after a deadly border skirmish on 30 May. N'Djamena said six of its soldiers were killed and accused CAR’s army of committing “war crimes”. Bangui said the firefight happened accidentally as their troops were pursuing rebels near the border.
COLOMBIA/VENEZUELA: More than a year after shutting the border due to the pandemic, Colombian authorities announced on 31 May that crossings with Venezuela would “gradually” re-open. But not long after the first few people crossed at official checkpoints, the Venezuelan government sent police to block the border, saying the “untimely” decision had been made unilaterally. Colombia is currently facing record COVID-19 infection rates. For Venezuelans fleeing their country’s humanitarian crisis, dangerous informal crossings will remain their only option.
THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: More than 50 people were killed this week in overnight attacks on displacement camps in the villages of Boga and Tchabi, in eastern Congo. The UN’s refugee agency said the violence was perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces militia, but local officials suggested other groups were involved.
DENMARK: A law passed by the Danish parliament on 3 June paves the way for asylum seekers to be sent to third countries outside of Europe to have their claims processed. The law might not be practicable, unless third countries agree to accept asylum seekers from Denmark, but it’s the latest in a string of harsh migration moves – including a decision to revoke the residency permits of hundreds of Syrian refugees – aimed at bringing the number of people seeking asylum in the country to zero.
FOOD SECURITY: Plant pests already destroy up to 40 percent of crops globally and cost $220 billion in losses, but climate change will worsen the damage, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Plant munching pests like fall armyworm are spreading due to warmer temperatures, while desert locusts – the most destructive of all – are also expected to expand their range.
GAZA: The World Health Organization has warned of “staggering health needs” across the occupied Palestinian territory after UN and Red Cross officials toured the destruction from 11 days of Israeli bombardment. “Over 77,000 people were internally displaced and around 30 health facilities have been damaged,” the WHO said.
TIMOR-LESTE: A UN-backed appeal calls for $32 million in aid, two months after April floods hit roughly 10 percent of the Pacific nation’s population and killed 44 people. Aid workers have said the early flood response was delayed and underfunded. The government says the new money will boost recovery and help families still stuck in evacuation centres.
UK: More than 600 asylum seekers and migrants reached the UK by boat last week, putting a fresh spotlight on continued crossings in the English Channel and the UK’s controversial efforts to deter arrivals. Meanwhile, calls are growing to close down a former military barracks used to house hundreds of asylum seekers who crossed the Channel following a UK high court ruling that living conditions in the facility fail to meet a minimum standard.
VACCINES: Beset by shortages and delays, the COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme received a boost this week when the WHO approved the Sinovac vaccine for emergency use. It’s the second Chinese-made jab to get the green light. A Chinese government spokesperson said the first batch of Sinopharm, the other vaccine, “rolled off production” on 31 May, though neither Sinopharm nor Sinovac have distribution deals with COVAX. Meanwhile, the United States announced it would share 19 million vaccine doses through COVAX.
WHO: The World Health Organization is coming under increasing pressure to tackle sexual abuse and exploitation following widespread allegations against WHO workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak. In a joint statement, 53 countries – including the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada – pressed the WHO to do more to address the issue. The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed more than 70 women who said they were sexually abused by aid workers during the outbreak – 44 of them accused workers from the WHO. A recent news report also alleged the health agency covered up sexual abuse allegations against two of its doctors during the outbreak.
In our weekend read by Stefania D’Ignoti, fishermen in the Sicilian port of Mazara del Vallo, some 550km from Libya, face a Catch-22. Once celebrated in Europe for helping rescue thousands of migrants stranded at sea, they are now harassed, shot at, and kidnapped by the Libyan Coast Guard, which is funded, trained, and equipped by their own government. The fishermen have had a front row seat to the hardening of EU migration policies in the central Mediterranean over the past decade. European governments have largely withdrawn their navies from rescuing asylum seekers and migrants at sea, while cracking down on the NGOs that stepped in to try to fill the gap, and empowering the Libyan Coast Guard. Unsurprisingly, the death toll in the central Mediterranean has increased, rising from one person drowned or missing for every 42 who survived the crossing to Italy in 2017 to one dead for every 22 arrivals so far this year. Against this backdrop, the fishermen of Mazara del Vallo find themselves increasingly alone, bearing witness to what they say is a crisis of humanity on Europe’s doorstep. Now, they are speaking out, hoping their voices can sway opinions as the tragedy around them continues to unfold.
How much do Rohingya people from Myanmar get bullied and ripped off in refugee camps in Bangladesh? The answer depends on who's asking. In a survey, only one percent of Rohingya refugees said they had observed extortion by aid providers. That’s when they were asked by Bangladeshi interviewers. When asked by one of their own, the “yes” response jumped to 17 percent. This polling phenomenon is explained – at least in part – by “social desirability bias” – a.k.a. saying what you think the interviewer wants to hear. According to a report based on 1,300 interviews by aid survey specialists Ground Truth Solutions, the ethnicity of the questioner made a particularly big difference in questions about the quality and quantity of aid, and about the behaviour of aid workers. Language differences were also a factor. Ground Truth Solutions’s Meg Sattler commented: “Understanding honest perceptions is as difficult as it is important.”
We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do
We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.
Our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation triggered this probe, demonstrating the impact our journalism can have.
But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking.
We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.
The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and do more of this.