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Tunisian protests, Asian floods, and the Refugee Convention at 70: 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

Protests and a presidential ‘coup’ in Tunisia

Tunisia, the country whose uprising sparked the “Arab Spring” and has been hailed as the success story of that heady time, is in turmoil once again. On 25 July, after the eruption of protests across the country, President Kais Saied used the constitution’s emergency powers to suspend parliament and sack the prime minister in a move denounced by opponents and critics as a coup. Saied, who says the drastic measures are necessary to tackle corruption, a failing economy, and a serious surge in COVID-19 cases, has since fired more government officials. What happens next is anybody’s guess (we suggest you read this Q&A from Crisis Group for a helpful explanation of the factors at play), but tensions are running high and democracy is at stake. Many are likely wondering whether Saied can deliver on his promise to address the country’s dire economic situation – one prompting more and more Tunisians to take to the Mediterranean in search of better lives across the sea. 

Disaster losses build as heavy rains inundate Asia

Typhoon-fuelled floods in the Philippines and China; heavy rains in Myanmar’s conflict-hit southeast; deadly landslides in the Rohingya refugee camps – extreme weather is causing havoc across parts of the globe and in humanitarian hotspots. At least 13,000 people were displaced as heavy rains inundated the Rohingya camps this week, where at least 17 people died in landslides or floods. It’s especially concerning as there have been more than 100 cases of acute watery diarrhoea in or around the camps since May, and cholera is suspected. After months of deteriorating conditions, 32 international NGOs called on Bangladesh’s government to cut aid restrictions and axe long-standing rules preventing the use of sturdier construction material. In southeast Myanmar’s Mon and Karen states, heavy rains forced the evacuation of some 32,000 people over the last week. Record rains triggered widespread floods along India’s western coast. Water-related hazards are driving the world’s biggest economic disaster losses of the last half-century, the UN’s meteorological agency, WMO, said this week: “Increasingly, heavy rainfall episodes also bear the footprint of climate change,” said the WMO’s secretary-general.

A fraught anniversary

The UN Refugee Convention turned 70 this week amidst an unmistakable sense that the principles it layed out are under threat. The Convention was signed on 28 July, 1951 in the aftermath of World War II, establishing the definition of who qualifies for international protection and the rights of asylum seekers. Its scope has been expanded over the years, and today there are 26.4 million refugees and 4.1 million asylum seekers in the world, 86 percent of whom are hosted by developing countries. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has expressed concern that governments are violating the convention’s principles by pushing people back from their borders, eroding protections, and seeking to outsource their responsibilities. Meanwhile, refugee resettlement numbers have dropped off and conflicts are dragging on for longer, leaving people in protracted limbo. Some experts argue that the refugee definition needs to be revised to account for contemporary causes of displacement – such as climate change – while others fear changing the definition will result in narrower grounds for protection, reflecting current anti-migration sentiment in many countries. 

Rare meeting in Côte d'Ivoire

An opportunity for reconciliation arose this week in Côte d'Ivoire, a decade after a civil war that cost some 3,000 lives. The conflict’s main belligerents – President Alassane Ouattara and opposition leader Laurent Gbagbo – met for the first time since hostilities erupted and promised to finally put the crisis behind them. Gbagbo had returned to Côte d'Ivoire last month after International Criminal Court judges acquitted him of charges related to the conflict, which followed a disputed election. While Gbagbo stood trial, Ouattara – whose forces won the brief war – oversaw a period of strong economic growth. But critics say the boom did not translate into much social reconciliation between communities that support the septuagenarian rivals. Prosecutions for crimes committed during the conflict, meanwhile, focused on Gbagbo’s camp, fuelling a perception of victor’s justice. And political tensions remain high after Ouattara won a contested third term last year amid an opposition boycott. Few think this week's pleasantries will be enough to address such deep-seated issues.

Cameroon conflict heats up

An under-reported conflict in Cameroon’s Far North Region is heating up. Five soldiers and a civilian were killed this week in a raid on an army post – a few kilometres from the Nigerian border – by heavily-armed insurgents believed to be from the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP). The group has “regained strength following internal restructuring”, according to the Cameroonian defence ministry – a reference to the death in May of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, and the absorption of his forces by ISWAP. That’s also led to a change in targets. While Boko Haram indiscriminately killed and kidnapped civilians, ISWAP has preferred to focus on the security forces. As ISWAP consolidates and reaches out to Boko Haram commanders in the area, attacks on the military are on the rise, with eight separate incidents reported in the first three weeks of July. Attacks on civilians have dropped sharply, in line with ISWAP’s “hearts and minds” strategy. Meanwhile, the government has appealed to refugees sheltering in Nigeria to return to the Far North Region – promising economic reconstruction and protection.

Food fight: Pre-summit exposes divisions on how to fix hunger

The message at this week’s Food Systems “Pre-Summit” was one of urgency. “Poverty, income inequality, and the high cost of food continue to keep healthy diets out of the reach of some 3 billion people,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told participants at the three-day meeting. Although most would agree something has to be done – 118 million more people went hungry last year compared to 2019 – reaching agreement on how exactly to reform global agriculture, distribution chains, economic policies, and waste is another story entirely. Some scientists, small farmers, and Indigenous groups plan to boycott the UN’s main summit in September, saying multinational corporations have too much power. They also blame big agribusinesses for much of the climate change linked to the food supply chain. Climate change has amplified food needs, but it has also become worse because of global agriculture – and everything that goes with that. One third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and up to 80 percent of biodiversity loss already come from the global food system itself. Keep following our coverage for more.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: At least 652,000 Afghans returned from Iran in 2021 as of late July, outpacing humanitarian planning projections for the entire year, according to statistics from the UN’s migration agency, IOM. They’re returning to surging violence as the Taliban vie for control. UN figures show civilian conflict casualties neared record highs in the first half of the year, with a sharp spike in May as international troop withdrawals sped up. 

DARIEN GAP: A record 42,000 asylum seekers and migrants – including many from Cuba and Haiti – have crossed the perilous Darien Gap this year from Colombia into Panama, up from a previous high of 25,000 in 2016. An area of dense jungle straddling the border, the Gap is often travelled by people from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia trying to reach the US southern border.

EDUCATION: Hosted by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government recently announced aid cuts, and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, a global fundraising conference stopped a billion dollars short of its goal to raise $5 billion in response to the education crisis left by COVID-19. Aid groups were disappointed by the outcome, representing a fraction of the $150 billion UNESCO says would be needed annually to offer children quality education. More than 600 million children are still out of school due to the pandemic. 

ETHIOPIA: The UN’s new emergency relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, arrived in Ethiopia this week amid a new push to increase access to millions of people in need of urgent assistance in Tigray. Conflict also flared in the country’s eastern Somali region, where officials said a militia attack left hundreds of people dead.

IRAQ: President Joe Biden announced that the United States would end its combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year, with American troops shifting their focus towards training and advising the Iraqi army. But this move seems unlikely to change much for the 2,500 US troops in Iraq, who no longer accompany Iraqi fighters as they fight the remnants of the so-called Islamic State group.

ISRAEL/PALESTINE: Human Rights Watch said Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza carried out attacks during this May’s fighting that “violated the laws of war and apparently amount to war crimes”. The watchdog investigated three airstrikes in Gaza that it says killed 62 Palestinian civilians “where there were no evident military targets in the vicinity”.

MOZAMBIQUE: Rwandan forces that deployed to Cabo Delgado earlier this month have already been involved in “major fighting” against extremists, according to the Cabo Ligado conflict observatory platform. Dozens of militants were killed in operations in the northern province, where more than 700,000 people are currently displaced.

MYANMAR: The military coup and a severe, unchecked COVID-19 wave will shrink Myanmar’s economy by 18 percent this year, according to projections from the World Bank, which warns the proportion of people living in poverty could double by 2022. 

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Russia may soon be drawn deeper into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has asked that Russian forces be deployed along the country’s border with Azerbaijan after three Armenian soldiers were killed in deadly clashes. Another Russian-backed ceasefire was signed on 28 July, but both sides accuse each other of breaking it. During fighting last year between September and November, Azeri troops drove Armenian forces out of territory they had controlled since the 1990s.

SOMALIA: Senior US lawmakers this week slammed the Biden administration for relaunching the air war in Somalia after a nearly six-month hiatus. Top Democrats questioned the legal justification for two strikes made in support of an ongoing and “intense” government offensive against al-Shabab insurgents in northern Galmudug state.

Weekend read

Syria’s ‘bread crisis’ in graphs

As this week’s fierce fighting in the southern province of Daraa demonstrates, Syria’s brutal civil war is still not over. But after more than 10 years of conflict, for many of the 17.5 million people in Syria, securing basics like food, shelter, and work can be a greater daily challenge than avoiding violence. The World Food Programme says hunger is on the rise, with a record 12.4 million Syrians now food insecure. Syria’s economic collapse has been brought on by several factors, including the financial meltdown in neighbouring Lebanon, the COVID-19 pandemic, and, some argue, the impact of US sanctions. Prices of wheat have shot up, leading to long lines outside subsidised bakeries in parts of the country President Bashar al-Assad’s forces control. But because the country is split (rebels run the northwest, there’s a Kurdish administration in the northeast, and other groups and countries have sway and zones of control too), not everyone is feeling the pinch in the same way. In our weekend read, Senior Editor Ben Parker and Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod use interactive maps and graphs to show how prices of fuel, bread, flour, and cooking gas have changed across Syria. While the severity of the crisis differs depending on location, it’s clear the economic devastation spreads far and wide. 

And finally…

A winning story

Ethiopian-American author Meron Hadero has won the 2021 Ako Caine Prize for African Writing. Set in Addis Ababa, Hadero’s short story “The Street Sweep” deals with themes of displacement, international aid, and hope, by exploring the friendship and power dynamics between a foreign aid worker, and Getu, an 18-year-old street sweeper. The judges praised the author’s ability to “turn the lens on the clichéd, NGO story in Africa to ‘do good and do it well’”. Hadero is the first Ethiopian to win the Caine Prize. Read the story here.

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