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Asia COVID waves, new Sudan protests, and ‘anti-gay’ clinics: 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

Variants take hold in Asia as vaccine shortages continue

Coronavirus waves are sweeping across parts of Asia and the Pacific, fuelled by the contagious Delta variant and vaccine shortfalls. Indonesia is lurching toward a “catastrophe” as the COVID-19 surge overwhelms hospitals, aid groups warn. Bangladesh has plunged back into lockdowns, and cases are also rising in the Rohingya refugee camps, where vaccine plans have been on hold since March. New weekly cases have doubled in Myanmar, where the Delta variant is suspected but the health system is on life support since a 1 February coup. In Afghanistan, locked in turmoil as international forces withdraw, cases have risen to “alarming levels”, according to the UN. The Delta variant is even gaining a foothold in a part of the Pacific, where closed borders and long distances had shielded island nations through much of the pandemic. As of early July, Fiji had one of the world’s highest weekly caseloads per capita, according to WHO statistics. The warnings are dire, and the solution is familiar: “We must focus on getting vaccinations into the arms of those most at-risk and all adults everywhere,” said Jan Gelfand, who heads the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Indonesia.

Protests anew in Sudan

Sudan has been approved for debt relief and new funding by the International Monetary Fund. Some hope this will help ease an economic crisis that is derailing the country’s transition to democratic rule. But the reforms required by the IMF have proved unpopular with many Sudanese: Thousands took to the streets of major cities on 30 June protesting against the lifting of bread and fuel subsidies that has seen prices soar. Demonstrators also called for full civilian rule amid increasing anger at the outsized role military generals are playing in the power-sharing transitional administration. A dispute between the army and the powerful Rapid Support Forces militia – which refuses to be integrated into the regular military – has, meanwhile, emerged as another tension point in the transition. The paramilitary group grew out of the former Janjaweed militias responsible for much of the carnage in Darfur, where violence has escalated in recent months.

Who’s asking? Female staff shortages and emergency needs surveys

It’s hard to piece together an inclusive emergency response if you don’t hear from half the population. In Afghanistan, aid agencies are trying to counter a shortage of female staff by looking at policies that might help more women participate. One idea being floated: Letting female staff travel with a “mahram” – often a male relative who accompanies a woman outside the home. Of course, this raises a slew of other issues, from consent, to the would-be mahram’s knowledge of humanitarian principles, to extra travel costs. A June guidance note by aid coordinators in Afghanistan spells out some of the pitfalls and opportunities. Female staff shortages have direct impacts on aid in Afghanistan and beyond. Emergency response plans are built from the info learned in basic “needs assessments”, but there aren’t enough women working on these crisis surveys – meaning women are less likely to be heard if cultural norms stop them from speaking to male enumerators. One country-wide assessment acknowledged that the perspectives of women were “under-represented” because interviews were mostly held with male heads of households. Yet these assessments are the backbone of annual response plans; this year’s Afghanistan plan is priced at $1.3 billion.

Historic abuse uncovered at SOS Children’s Villages

Children were sexually exploited and whistleblowers abused in centres run by international orphanage charity SOS Children's Villages, according to details of an investigation published last week. An independent review commissioned by the NGO found evidence of multiple cases of child abuse, “grave and prolonged organisational failings”, as well as “functional impunity”. The report looked into past operations in four countries – mostly before 2008 – and found “all types of physical, sexual and emotional abuse (resulting in girls becoming pregnant), sexual exploitation, grooming, neglect (including delay or failure to report missing children), child to child abuse, and other rights violations”. Some children who reported abuse had been thrown out (“exited”) from the collective orphanages as retribution. Responding to the report on 25 June, CEO Ingrid Maria Johansen apologised and said the organisation, which cares for 65,000 children, would investigate cases, hold those accountable responsible, and continue to strengthen its safeguarding. 

LGBTQI+ discrimination at donor-funded African clinics

Clinics in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania are pushing anti-gay messages and harmful and discredited “gay conversion therapy” while receiving funding from international donors that support LGBTQI+ equality, an investigation has found. In one of 12 clinics investigated, a staff member told an undercover reporter that being gay is a “trend” or something men are “trapped” into by others. Another reporter was told homosexuality was “evil”. Other centres recommended “conversion”. MSI Reproductive Choices, formerly known as Marie Stopes, is among the NGOs backing the clinics visited by reporters in an investigation published by Open Democracy. The United States and the Global Fund give grants to some of the NGOs involved. The US embassy in Uganda told Open Democracy, “USAID does not fund or promote anti-LGBTQI+ conversion therapy and will investigate any report that a USAID funded partner is doing so.” MSI and the Global Fund said they would also investigate. 

Vital Syria aid vote looms

Negotiations on the fate of the UN’s last remaining aid passage to Syria’s rebel-held northwest are going down to the wire, with a Security Council resolution that allows shipments over the border with Turkey set to expire on 10 July. As tends to be the case with all things diplomacy and Syria, what becomes of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing will largely be decided by President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, Russia. But there’s still plenty of haggling to be done before the Security Council finally votes on a matter that UN officials and aid groups agree is a vital channel for assistance to millions. Ireland and Norway drafted a resolution that would keep the Turkey-Syria gate open and restart UN aid to northeast Syria via Iraq, but this week Russia’s envoy to the UN called the bid a “non-starter.” Read this for more on what’s at stake, and what Moscow might be thinking as the vote approaches. Meanwhile, for an update on the situation in the northeast, where Syria’s economic collapse is driving people back into aid camps, check out our latest reporting from the ground.

In case you missed it

BRAZIL: Still in the grips of the pandemic, which has claimed more than 500,000 Brazilian lives, the country is now facing its worst drought on record. The water shortages are driving up food prices, as farmers lose crops to the dry conditions, prompting concerns over both rising inflation and worsening levels of malnutrition.

CANADA/US: An unprecedented heatwave is believed to have killed hundreds of people in Canada’s westernmost province of British Columbia and the American states of Oregon and Washington, with temperatures reaching a record 49.6 degrees Celsius in the Canadian town of Lytton.

COVID FUNDING: The MasterCard Foundation has pledged $1.3 billion to support COVID-19 response in Africa. The money will pay for 50 million vaccinations and build vaccine production capacity, in partnership with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. By way of comparison, the amount is larger than any country’s donation to the COVAX facility so far, apart from the United States.

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Three separate rebel attacks in less than a week have rocked the eastern city of Beni. Nine people were killed in an attack on 1 July, which followed two bomb explosions on 27 June that hit a Catholic church and a local market. The security forces blamed the jihadist-linked Allied Democratic Forces for all three attacks. 

EL SALVADOR: Three months after solidifying its control over El Salvador’s Congress, lawmakers from President Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party nominated five more judges to the Supreme Court, bringing the total number of new court appointments since 1 May to 10 – double what is allowed by the constitution within a three-year period.

ESWATINI: Anti-government demonstrations in landlocked eSwatini spiralled into “anarchy” this week, with shops looted and burnt, kilometre-long queues outside those remaining open, and trucks from neighbouring South Africa and Mozambique stuck at the border. What began as demands for political reform by banned opposition parties in sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy degenerated into violence, with the security forces reportedly killing eight people. The government responded with a curfew on 29 June and an internet blackout. South Africa has called for “total restraint” from the army and police.

EU: The European Parliament and Council agreed on 29 June to create a bloc-wide asylum agency after years of stalled negotiations between EU member states over forming a common approach to migration and asylum. The new agency will seek to make asylum procedures throughout the EU more efficient and uniform, and will have 500 officials to help member states facing a high asylum caseload. 

LEBANON: The Lebanese parliament approved $556 million in assistance to half a million families on 30 June, but it’s not clear where the money will come from, given the country’s ongoing economic collapse

RUSSIA: A UN Security Council report has documented accusations of atrocities by Russian mercenaries in Central African Republic. Among the report’s details are that Russian security operatives – believed to be from Kremlin-backed security firms – killed civilians, looted homes, and shot dead worshippers at a mosque during military operations earlier this year. The government called on Russian assistance in its battle with rebel forces in 2017. For more details, read this investigation by The New Humanitarian.

YEMEN: Fighting over the central Yemeni province and city of Marib is flaring up after several weeks of relative calm and negotiation between Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia-backed coalition that is allied with Yemen’s government. Airstrikes and shelling reportedly killed fighters on both sides, and government officials said a child was among the dead from Houthi missile attacks on the city. 

Weekend read

Death threats and sleepless nights: The emotional toll of reporting Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict

The humanitarian catastrophe facing civilians in Tigray has received widespread coverage since war erupted in November. But how are the journalists themselves coping? In our weekend read, Ethiopian reporter Lucy Kassa offers a deeply moving account of the emotional burden and personal risks she has faced covering a conflict marked by massacres and widespread sexual violence. In February, government security officers raided her house and threatened to kill her shortly before she published a story about Tigrayan women being gang-raped. Other journalists have also been questioned, harassed, and arrested by the government since November. In this raw essay, Kassa describes feeling numbed by the horrific videos and stories of atrocities she documented: from a four-year-old boy shot dead by Eritrean soldiers in front of his mother, to a woman whose uterus was burned with a hot metal rod. This week, Ethiopia’s government announced a unilateral ceasefire as the rebel Tigray Defence Forces retook the regional capital, Mekelle. But much remains uncertain for the millions displaced by conflict, and Kassa says her work is far from complete: “I am not satisfied with reporting the crimes I have uncovered so far,” she writes. “I know that what I have exposed is just the tip of the iceberg.”

And finally…

City solidarity for migrants

While European migration policies have hardened in recent years, cities across the continent are banding together to advocate for a more welcoming approach. Thirty-three cities signed a declaration establishing an “International Alliance of Safe Harbours” in a ceremony hosted in Palermo, Italy and online on 25 June. Members of the alliance include cities in France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. Instead of confining asylum seekers to camps and areas near the EU’s external borders, the alliance is advocating for people rescued at sea or entering the EU seeking protection to be relocated to cities throughout the bloc that are willing to take them in. The idea addresses a long-standing disagreement between EU member states over who should be responsible for hosting asylum seekers, which has driven policies with drastic humanitarian and human rights impacts on people seeking protection. To become a reality, the alliance’s proposals would need the support of national governments, but the initiative highlights a global trend of local leaders organising internationally to push for more welcoming and humane immigration and asylum policies. 

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