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Afghan refugees, COVID-19 surges, and a new phase in Tigray: 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

Afghanistan’s brewing displacement crisis

The UN’s refugee agency is warning of an impending humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as escalating conflict has displaced 270,000 people since the beginning of the year. In recent weeks, a Taliban offensive in the north of the country, coinciding with the withdrawal of US and NATO troops, has sent thousands fleeing from their homes. Neighbouring countries’ economies are battered by COVID, and aid programmes for refugees underfunded. The ripple effects of a new Afghan displacement crisis will likely be widespread. Pakistan and Iran host close to 90 percent of the more than 3.5 million refugees who have fled Afghanistan during decades of conflict. Afghanistan’s neighbours are wary of taking more people in – and have pushed hundreds of thousands to return in recent years. Pakistan has said it will not accept any more Afghan refugees. Meanwhile, the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation has asked European countries to halt deportations of rejected Afghan asylum seekers due to the deteriorating security situation. Finland has announced a temporary suspension, but Germany has said it has no plans to end deportations. 

COVID-19 spikes in Middle East, North Africa 

As Muslims prepare for the holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins next week, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Tunisia’s health ministry has described its situation as “catastrophic”, with hospitals packed, oxygen in short supply, and doctors working overtime. Neighbouring Libya is also seeing an uptick in cases, although its limited testing capacity makes it hard to know just how bad this wave is. In Iraq, a Monday night fire at a hospital that was treating COVID-19 patients in the southern city of Nasiriya killed at least 92 people, in a tragedy that is becoming all too familiar. The World Health Organization is also expecting an “exponential rise” in cases in Lebanon and Morocco. A 13 July statement from the UN’s health agency expressed concern that as people gather for the holiday, “the current upsurge may continue to peak in the coming weeks, with catastrophic consequences.”

Fears of Tigray conflict spread

The war in Tigray entered a dangerous new phase this week as Addis Ababa rowed back on a unilateral ceasefire, and ethnic militias began mobilising from across Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had pulled federal troops out of the northern region last month amid a string of battlefield losses to the rebel Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). But he appeared to reverse course as the TDF launched a fresh offensive to recapture western lands annexed by the neighbouring Amhara region during the eight-month conflict. Amhara officials believe the land belongs to their region and are now mobilising en masse, risking a widening ethnic conflict. Also entering the fray are forces from Oromia – Abiy’s home region; Sidama; and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' (SNNP) region. More suffering seems inevitable in a war that’s already left hundreds of thousands facing famine. See our latest for more.

Foreign troops deploy in Mozambique

Mozambique's President Filipe Nyusi is usually wary of foreign military intervention. But the grim situation in Cabo Delgado seems to have forced his hand. Last week Rwanda began deploying a 1,000-strong police and military force to the extremist-hit northern province. And troops from the Southern African Development Community regional bloc are also set to arrive in the coming days. It’s unclear what the new troops will get up to on the ground, though some reports suggest the Rwandans will set up around the Afungi peninsula, where a multi-billion dollar gas project is located. Their battlefield enemy – known locally as al-Shabab – is certainly no pushover, as Mozambique's army and its erstwhile mercenary allies know well. Lost in the military chatter is much mention of Cabo Delgado’s worsening humanitarian crisis: More than 700,000 people have been uprooted – 68,000 since late March – and close to a million are now facing severe hunger.

An eruption of violence in South Africa

The violence and looting that left at least 117 people dead in South Africa may have diminished after thousands of troops were deployed onto the streets of the main hotspot provinces. But the unrest is among the worst seen since the end of apartheid, and has disrupted a stuttering vaccination programme amid a Delta-driven COVID-19 third wave that is straining health services. Protests erupted after the 7 July imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, who had refused to appear before a corruption inquiry into the “state capture” allegations that blighted his premiership. But the unrest reflects broader frustrations as pandemic restrictions trigger job losses and deepen poverty in one of the world’s most unequal countries. As one bystander in Johannesburg told a television crew: “The matter is not about Zuma. People are hungry.”

In case you missed it

CUBA: Days after thousands of people protested food and medicine shortages, the Cuban government said it was lifting duties on essential items imported by travellers into the country. After initially framing the island’s biggest protests in 30 years as US-orchestrated, and having locked up dozens of protesters, President Miguel Díaz-Canel admitted to shortcomings in the government’s handling of shortages.

EU: Deaths along maritime migration routes to Europe more than doubled in the first six months of this year compared to 2020, according to a report from the UN’s migration agency, IOM. At least 1,146 people have died, most of them in the central Mediterranean. There have also been hundreds of cases of “invisible shipwrecks”, where family members and NGOs have lost contact with people at sea and have not been able to verify their fate. 

LEBANON: UNICEF has begun distributing cash aid in US dollars to the families of 70,000 Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian children, in an effort to stop assistance losing its value in currency exchange as inflation soars. 

LIBYA: Thousands of asylum seekers and migrants intercepted at sea by the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard are being sent to two detention centres in Tripoli where guards rape and sexually abuse women, according to a new report from Amnesty International. Despite vows to improve conditions, Libyan authorities have failed to stop abuses in detention centres

LITHUANIA/BELARUS: Asylum seekers and migrants are again being used as bargaining chips in a spat between the EU and a neighbouring country. More than 1,700 have crossed the border from Belarus into Lithuania, an EU member state, in recent weeks after reportedly being flown in from Baghdad and Istanbul by the Belarussian government. The EU alleges the opening of the new route is retaliation for sanctions imposed after the Belarussian government intercepted a Ryanair flight carrying a prominent dissident last month. 

SYRIA: Syria’s government raised prices for food and diesel in parts of the country controlled by President Bashar al-Assad this week, in an attempt to tackle an ongoing economic crisis. The Syrian pound has been falling since late 2019.

UK: An attempt to reverse the UK’s decision to cut its international aid budget by £4 billion was defeated by MPs. A rebellion among ruling party parliamentarians was stemmed by assurances of benchmarks for reinstating aid to the 0.7 percent of national income level in future.

UN: Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, will step down later this year due to a family health issue. The UN children’s agency, which spent $6 billion in 2020, has been headed by Americans since its foundation in 1946. The Biden administration is expected to nominate a replacement. 

VENEZUELA: Gangs battled police as they pushed to expand control in Caracas’ shantytowns not far from the presidential palace, leaving dozens dead and children unable to access essential medical care. The country’s economic crisis has created a void in government services in many neighbourhoods, allowing criminal groups to command with impunity as de facto authorities.

WESTERN EUROPE: At least 100 people have been killed by flooding across Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands after two months’ of rain fell in just two days. European Commission President and former German minister Ursula von der Leyen said the flooding was a “clear indication of climate change” that “shows the urgency to act”.

Weekend read

Weeks of rioting fail to force reform in Eswatini

The pro-democracy movement in Africa’s last absolute monarchy of Eswatini is not new, but the scale of last week’s deadly protests – and the fierceness of the response – is unseen since widespread unrest in 2011 dubbed the “Swazi spring”. As our weekend read explains, the recent agitations were fuelled by alleged police involvement in the death of a student and a ban on dissent after protests in June turned violent. Already battling high unemployment, poverty, and malnutrition, mobs of people hijacked the latest protests, looting and torching stores, and telling journalists they were hungry and without hope. The government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, blocked the internet, and deployed the military, which used live ammunition against civilians. The government says soldiers killed 27 people, but pro-democracy groups put the number higher. The government has announced a “national dialogue”, but opposition figures are sceptical. As one activist told The New Humanitarian: “The government has no desire to give up its power. The royal family would not think of giving up its privileges, or the keys to the treasury.”

And finally…

The aid drivers’ championship

Drivers employed by humanitarian agencies have a rare chance of international recognition in a global contest, backed by the UPS Foundation. Applications are open for aid agencies in any country to nominate their staff in a Driver Recognition Programme, run by the vehicle logistics alliance Fleet Forum. Rounds of online tests and on-the-job monitoring will produce finalists to be put through special exercises and tracking with Fleet Forum’s tracking app, Driver’s Seat. Fleet Forum’s senior consultant Rob McConnell told The New Humanitarian that drivers are entrusted with aid agencies’ most valuable assets – their staff and vehicles. And despite having responsibilities for safe driving, navigating through conflict areas, maintaining the reputation of their employer, and mitigating environmental pollution, they rarely get recognition or reward for doing a good job. “They are the bottom of the hierarchy, yet huge responsibility is put on their shoulders,” he said.

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