Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Racism in the EU’s approach to refuge
While countries in the EU have laudably opened their doors to welcome Ukrainian refugees, people from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia attempting to seek refuge in Europe continue to suffer the consequences of policies designed to keep them out. In the Aegean Sea, the bodies of six asylum seekers washed ashore on the Greek island of Lesvos on 1 March. Rights groups and journalists have documented thousands of instances of Greek authorities pushing asylum seekers and migrants back from the country’s land and sea borders. In the central Mediterranean, nearly 2,500 people have already been intercepted this year by the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard and returned to a cycle of detention and abuse in Libya. Overall, 216 asylum seekers and migrants have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since January. Most of the deaths have occurred off the coasts of Libya and Tunisia, where European countries have withdrawn their naval and coast guard assets from search-and-rescue activities in recent years and obstructed the work of NGOs that stepped in to fill the gap. And just a couple hundred kilometres north from where Ukrainian refugees are moving freely across the border, Poland is building a $400 million wall along its border with Belarus, where politics created a humanitarian crisis for asylum seekers and migrants late last year. The stark difference in treatment is a sad and powerful reminder of how the response to those seeking refuge is shaped by racism.
One week of war in Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is taking a brutal humanitarian toll. In one week, more than one million people have fled the country. “I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one,” the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said in a statement. It’s difficult to track how many people have been displaced inside the country, and the number of civilians injured and killed is similarly unclear. As of 3 March, the UN recorded 802 civilian casualties, including 249 deaths, but said the total was likely much higher. After encountering stiff Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces have shifted tactics to accelerate their bombardment of civilian areas and are attempting to lay siege to major cities – cutting off water, food, electricity, and heat in some areas – which will almost certainly lead to higher casualties and spiralling humanitarian needs. Towns in the east of Ukraine, where conflict had been simmering since 2014, have been “all but completely devastated”, according to a UN update. In a small bright spot, however, Russia and Ukraine agreed on the need to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians trapped in cities under constant attack and deliver medical supplies and food to people living on the front lines.
Eight years of war (and counting) in South Sudan
South Sudan’s warring parties were supposed to have settled their differences after signing a 2018 peace accord that led to a unity government two years later. But things haven’t panned out well, as a UN report from the western county of Tambura laid bare this week. At least 440 civilians were killed in the area – close to the border with Central African Republic – between June and September 2021, while some 80,000 people were displaced. The report blames the violence on government and opposition troops as well as affiliated militias – echoing the findings of our correspondent Sam Mednick, who travelled to Tambura late last year. “[When the civil war ended], we felt happy we survived it, but unfortunately war erupted [here],” one resident told Mednick. The conflict in Tambura is no aberration: Across South Sudan, fighting has escalated as politicians compete for positions in the country’s transitional unity government – a bleak situation that researcher Joshua Craze analysed for us last month.
Call for aid in Indonesia’s neglected Papuan regions
Indigenous Papuans face “shocking abuses” in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, three UN human rights watchdogs warned as they called for urgent humanitarian access to a region mostly off limits to journalists, international aid groups, and rights monitors. Low-level conflict has simmered for decades since Indonesia absorbed the region in the 1960s. But violence has climbed since late 2018, when pro-independence fighters allegedly killed workers building a controversial highway. At least 60,000 people are displaced, rights groups say. “Thousands of displaced villagers have fled to the forests where they are exposed to the harsh climate in the highlands without access to food, healthcare, and education,” the UN special rapporteurs said. Papuans say they are the target of racism, and marginalised in broader Indonesian society. A measles outbreak in 2018 underscored what rights groups called the “government’s neglect of Papuans’ basic human rights”. A statement issued by Indonesia’s Geneva mission called the UN rapporteurs’ warnings “unconstructive and baseless”, instead attributing displacement to disasters, “armed criminal groups, tribal conflicts” and election violence. But bloodshed continues in the heavily militarised region. Rights groups are calling for a probe after soldiers allegedly tortured a child accused of theft, while a military spokesman accused pro-independence fighters of killing technicians fixing a telecoms tower.
UN report details climate injustice and warns time is running out
The world must act before the decade ends to slow the devastating effects of climate change, a new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns. Poorer countries with the lowest carbon emissions are paying the heaviest price, while wealthier countries have been slow to tackle their own emissions or help the most vulnerable nations adapt to rapid changes that are disrupting food supplies, forcing new migration, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people, the report said. Much of the $100 billion that wealthier nations pledged to vulnerable countries in 2020 has yet to materialise or has been funnelled toward tackling emissions, rather than to adaptation measures. Roughly 85 percent of the world’s emissions come from Canada, EU countries, Japan, the US, and Russia. For some countries, the most urgent need has been to adapt to the increasing frequency of cyclones, floods, rising sea levels, droughts, and deadly heat waves – not reduce their relatively small carbon footprint. The IPCC report reviewed some 34,000 studies, looking at the latest impacts of climate change and adaptation measures. It follows the first part of the report published in August 2021 that looked at the science behind climate change.
Fewer deaths from terrorism? It’s not that simple…
The total number of terrorism deaths dipped slightly in 2021, the latest edition of the Global Terrorism Index says. That means fatalities have remained fairly static for the fourth straight year. But pause the back-slapping: Attacks globally are actually up by 17 percent, it's just that they’re not so deadly. There’s also a regional discrepancy. The steepest fall in deaths has been in the West (although Ukraine might mean a rethink) with attacks dropping by 68 percent. But pity the Sahel – home to the fastest-growing and most violent terrorist groups. So-called Islamic State is one of them, supplanting the Taliban (yes, the index includes them, noting 64 percent of those killed by the Taliban in 2021 were civilians) as the world’s most deadly. The GTI data also shows a shift in the dynamics of terrorism: It’s becoming more concentrated in countries facing existing instability rather than spreading to new countries and regions. But what the index doesn’t count are killings by the security forces – arguably even more prejudicial to good order. So, in the case of Myanmar, which has rocketed up the GTI rankings, what’s calculated are attacks by anti-junta gunmen on the army, not the violence of a military accused of genocide.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: The World Bank may unlock $1 billion in aid funds, frozen since the Taliban’s takeover, to support essential services on the edge of collapse. The freezing of development funds, and restrictions on Afghanistan’s banking sector and foreign reserves, have fuelled an economic implosion that has plunged nearly the entire population into crisis.
ANGOLA: A drought “catastrophe” is looming in southern Cunene province, and the government is being urged by local NGOs to declare a state of emergency – but has so far refused. Poor rains are again forecast for this season, on the back of last year’s scorching drought. More than 1.5 million people are estimated to be facing severe food shortages, according to nutrition monitors.
AUSTRALIA: Widespread floods that have 500,000 people facing evacuation orders along Australia’s east coast are another urgent sign of climate change’s impacts, the Australian Medical Association warned. Beyond the immediate damage and displacement, climate-fuelled disasters bring hidden health risks, from infectious diseases to interrupted medical services.
ECUADOR: Gruesome scenes reminiscent of scare tactics used by Mexican drug cartels have become increasingly common in Ecuador, which till now has been spared from such violence. In January and February, 468 people were killed by drug violence, topping 277 over the same period in 2021. Wedged between the world’s top cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador’s ports have become battlegrounds between an array of criminal groups and local gangs.
LEBANON: Lebanese officials say they’re asking international donors for help purchasing wheat in bulk, as concerns rise about a potential shortage, given that the vast majority of the country’s grain supply comes from Ukraine and Russia. Lebanon subsidises bread by paying private importers, but the country has been struggling to sustain these payments amidst its economic crisis, and market prices of wheat are up following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
LIBYA: Libya’s eastern-based parliament officially swore in a new administration and prime minister on 3 March, while the head of a Tripoli-based government still refuses to step down. The UN has expressed concern about the vote of confidence that preceded the swearing in, and concerns are growing that a power struggle between the two administrations will lead to renewed violence.
MADAGASCAR: More than 420,000 people have been affected by Tropical Cyclones Batsirai and Emnati that both hit southeast Madagascar in February. The cumulative death toll from extreme weather since January has reached more than 200 people. The World Food Programme estimates 90 percent of food production has been lost in some areas.
MARSHALL ISLANDS: Parts of the northern Marshall Islands are sweltering amid an extreme drought. Some atolls and islands may only have weeks of water left without new rainfall, the Red Cross reported. Rains are expected by mid-March, but drought conditions could last, as it may take months to replenish water sources and lost crops. A previous El Niño-infused drought, which began in 2015 and lasted through 2016, may have forced families to move.
MOZAMBIQUE: For weeks, people have been glued to their televisions for the “trial of the century”, a case that involves some of the country’s most powerful people. The $2 billion “tuna bond” scam – which bankrupted the country – features, among others, former president Armando Guebuza, and his wealthy son. President Filipe Nyusi, who was a minister at the time, has escaped testifying, thanks to a judge’s ruling.
VACCINES FOR REFUGEES: Included on paper but often neglected in practice, the majority of the world’s displaced are still waiting for their first COVID-19 vaccine doses. Some 8.3 million jabs have gone to refugees and other displaced people worldwide, according to tallies from the UN’s refugee agency – enough for roughly 10 percent of the population UNHCR considers to be forcibly displaced. Some 162 states include refugees in vaccine policies, but red tape, logistics, or practices that deprioritise non-citizens are among the barriers.
YEMEN: The UN Security Council has renewed its sanctions on Yemen’s Houthi rebels for one year, expanding an arms embargo from its leaders to the entire movement, and describing its leaders (in new language) as a “terrorist group”. Accusations of diplomatic horse-trading followed the vote, given that Russia voted for the sanctions after abstaining last year, while the United Arab Emirates (co-leader of an anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen) opted not to vote on resolutions about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In order to receive life-saving humanitarian assistance, a person may be asked to provide not just their name but their address, phone number, or names of family members. As a result, aid organisations end up with a trove of personal data that is highly susceptible to cyberattacks, as the recent data breach of the International Committee of the Red Cross in January showed. In our weekend read, The New Humanitarian speaks to Olivia Williams, a former aid worker now specialising in information security who just completed research involving more than 180 aid workers in 28 countries. Williams details how sensitive data is haphazardly passed from person to person, from computer to computer, with little attention paid to privacy; and how current organisational policies to protect data are impractical and/or ignored. She also questions whether aid recipients can consent to data sharing if the alternative is not getting the assistance they so desperately need. In this Q&A, find out why impact-focused donors spur the collection of unnecessary data, and what aid organisations should do to protect the people they help.
Also, if you’ve worked in a humanitarian response, we’d like to hear from you about your experience with data security. There’s a secure and anonymous response form inside the article.
‘People in need know what they need most, but most humanitarian organisations don’t consult with the community.’
Welcome to a new six-part podcast series by The New Humanitarian looking at innovations across the aid sector. In the first episode, host Alae Ismail explores the hurdles people living in humanitarian crises face when they want to report a problem or even if they just want to offer feedback. Loop is one organisation trying to change that. We hear from aid recipients who received the wrong kind of aid, the founder of technology platform Loop, and one of their implementing partners in the Philippines.
And look out for the second episode soon: We’ll be exploring how to get lifesaving items such as food and blankets to Afghans whose world has been turned upside down, and at an e-commerce platform that went from selling arts and crafts to helping provide emergency aid.
Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.
We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant.
But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced.
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