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Ukraine’s civilians, Philippines’ survivors, and COVID’s 2-year toll: 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

Hundreds of thousands trapped, millions displaced in Ukraine

Two weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, diplomatic talks to end the war are stalled, and efforts to open humanitarian corridors have in many cases failed. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people are trapped without water, electricity, and heat in freezing temperatures in cities, towns, and villages. Access and security constraints are preventing humanitarian organisations from reaching those most affected, and attacks on health facilities and ambulances have been increasing rapidly. With the international aid effort still gearing up, the humanitarian response has so far been led by volunteers and local organisations, but there are questions about how long that can go on amid dwindling resources, dangers posed by the conflict, and fatigue. More than 2.5 million people have fled to neighbouring countries, and an estimated 1.85 million are internally displaced. The UN has confirmed more than 1,500 civilian casualties from the fighting, including 549 deaths, as of 9 March. The true count is undoubtedly much higher: In the southeastern city of Mariupol – one of the hardest hit – dozens of people are being buried in mass graves as morgues run out of room and bodies remain uncollected in homes.

‘No-build zones’ may exclude Philippine typhoon survivors

Philippine communities battered by December’s Typhoon Rai are trying to move from disaster response to early recovery, but government rebuilding policies could exclude thousands of families. Rai, known as Odette in the Philippines, damaged some two million homes – more than 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan, which was one of the strongest ever recorded. Most who evacuated have returned home, but at least 41,000 people are still displaced, according to government figures. Land rights are emerging as a core problem, according to a report by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Government authorities have declared “no-build zones” in areas they see as high risk, which is preventing some residents from returning. In other areas, families from newly declared no-build zones are reportedly excluded from shelter assistance. Displaced communities need to be consulted about these “no-build zones”, the UNHCR report cautions, adding: “The imposition of such policy, without due process… may constitute forced eviction where restrictions or accompanying relocations render individuals with no choice but to leave their lands.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, two years on

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared the spread of the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic. Since then, governments around the world have reported nearly half a billion cases and six million deaths, but the true toll could be around three times higher, meaning some 18 million people have likely died due to the pandemic. There have been other far reaching humanitarian consequences as well: violence against women has soared; children’s educations have been derailed; hundreds of million have been pushed into extreme poverty; and pandemic malaise has helped fuel social unrest. Meanwhile, public health concerns have been used as an excuse for hardline migration policies, overlapping with other factors to push some asylum seekers and migrants to try longer, more dangerous routes. While the direct health impacts of the pandemic appear to be receding in some countries, vaccine inequality is laying the groundwork for an uneven global recovery. Vulnerable and marginalised populations – such as refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants – are at risk of being left behind. While some progress has been made, “not enough doses are making it into the arms of those who need them most”, according to UNHCR.

Back to reality after military gains in Mali

Last month, the UN’s independent human rights expert for Mali, Alioune Tine, said there had been a tangible improvement in security in the jihadist-hit country. But the death of at least 27 soldiers on 4 March in central Mali, and the killing this week of UN peacekeepers in the north, reinforces the continued risk posed by extremist groups. Tine’s comments came as the Malian army has been conducting high-profile operations against jihadists – a way of asserting itself as a long-running French military mission withdraws. The army operations have had some success, galvanising support for the country’s ruling junta, which came to power in an August 2020 coup. But familiar accusations of human rights abuses by troops have been reported, and the respite some communities are enjoying is likely to only be temporary. As a religious leader told The New Humanitarian on a recent trip to central Mali: “When the army is present, the jihadists disappear. But afterwards, they come back again.”

The twists and turns of the Thomas Sankara murder trial

Relatives and supporters of Burkina Faso’s slain revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara have waited 35 years for answers. But the suspension last week of a high-profile trial into his killing means they will have to wait a little bit longer. Fourteen men stand accused of assassinating Sankara, including ex-president Blaise Compaoré, who took charge after the murder but is now exiled in Côte d'Ivoire. The trial was initially put on hold in late January after a military coup resulted in the suspension of the country’s constitution. In early February, the case was paused again, this time for the defence to prepare their closing arguments. The latest suspension comes after the constitutional court approved the presidential inauguration of coup leader Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. The new twist: Defence attorneys argue that if the January coup was legal then one of the main charges against Compaoré and co – committing a crime against national security – must now be dropped.

A day to celebrate women, but also for concern 

Millions marked International Women’s Day this week, celebrating some victories but also protesting a raft of setbacks, including a growing wave of anti-feminist movements. While Colombia joined Argentina and Mexico in decriminaliseing abortion, it became harder for women in Guatemala and the United States to safely terminate pregnancies. The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen a spike in gender-based violence. Equally, the number of femicides has grown in Mexico and Peru, while the lack of consistent data collection in Latin America makes an accurate regional assessment difficult. The pandemic deepened inequalities for women and girls, who already suffer disproportionately when it comes to war and the spiralling effects of climate change. The increasing frequency of droughts, floods, and other disasters has exacerbated inequalities and stolen economic and educational opportunities from women and girls in the countries most vulnerable to climate change. And what would International Women’s Day be without mentioning men (and some women) who are fanning a growing backlash against feminism? South Korea’s newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol has gone so far as to blame his country’s low birth rates on feminism. He also has vowed to do away with the Gender Equality Ministry, fuelling a gender war in South Korea that has been spreading to other countries. Anti-feminist and misogynistic rhetoric has also increased amid online hate groups such as “incel”, which has been linked to several violent attacks in Canada and the United States. So, not all good news then.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Veteran humanitarians and former senior UN officials in Afghanistan are among those calling for the US and other governments to release some $9 billion in Afghan foreign reserves frozen since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover. “Humanitarian aid is vital… but it is not an alternative to the normal functioning of the economy and banking system,” the campaigners said in an 8 March letter.

THE AMAZON: The Amazon rainforest may be under even more pressure from climate change than previously thought. Satellite images taken over decades, used in a study published in Nature Climate Change, show that longer and more frequent dry spells are impacting the rainforest’s resilience and ability to regenerate itself.

BANGLADESH: At least one child is dead and some 2,000 people have been newly displaced after another fire tore through a part of the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh on 8 March. Aid groups say it’s at least the sixth blaze this year. Last year, a massive fire displaced at least 45,000 people in the packed camps.

CHINA: The UN’s top rights official could visit China – including the Xinjiang region – in May. “We have recently reached an agreement with the government of China for a visit,” Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on 7 March, amid criticism that her office has delayed the release of a report examining abuses in Xinjiang. Rights groups say abuses against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang amount to crimes against humanity.

SYRIA: A new report by UN experts points to an uptick in violence and deepening humanitarian crisis in Syria, with 14.6 million people dependent on emergency aid. "The population is enduring crushing poverty inflicted on Syrians everywhere, in particular the internally displaced. These are the abysses faced by the Syrian people, caught between warring parties and everywhere being repressed and exploited by armed actors,” said Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry.

UN PEACEKEEPERS: President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree on 8 March recalling peacekeeping troops and equipment from six UN missions to aid the war effort following Russia’s invasion. The most impacted mission will be MONUSCO in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where 250 Ukrainian soldiers have been serving.

UNITED STATES: The days might be numbered for a pandemic-related public health order that has been used to carry out more than 1.5 million expulsions at the US-Mexico border since March 2020. Last week, a US court barred families from being expelled under Title 42 to countries where they could be harmed, Democratic lawmakers are ramping up pressure for the policy to be struck from the books, and the administration of US President Joe Biden is reportedly leaning toward ending it.

VANUATU: Health authorities confirmed community transmission of COVID-19 in the capital, Port Vila, in early March, and raised its highest alert levels across the country. Vanuatu is the latest Pacific nation to tighten restrictions as coronavirus surges across a vast region that had kept the virus at bay through most of the pandemic.

VENEZUELA: US officials met with President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on 5 March to discuss the easing of US sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports. The talks came days ahead of Washington’s ban on Russian oil imports in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine, and the release of two Americans detained In Venezuela. More than three years after Maduro broke off diplomatic relations – following US recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó – the US still does not recognise his presidency. A key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Maduro said he nonetheless agreed to an agenda for future talks with the US, whose sanctions have been blamed for worsening Venezuela’s ongoing humanitarian crisis.

YEMEN: The UN has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Houthi rebels aimed at warding off an environmental and humanitarian disaster. However, the MoU makes clear that efforts to remove more than a million barrels of crude from the FSO Safer oil tanker off the coast of Yemen are contingent on the UN’s ability “to mobilise the necessary funds”.

Weekend read

Military intervention hasn’t stopped Mozambique’s jihadist conflict

‘Right now, all I want is to be with my family so we can cry together.’

When reinforcements from neighbouring southern African countries helped fight off jihadist insurgents in June, some thought the conflict in Mozambique was nearing its end. But as Africa Editor Obi Anyadike discovered on his recent reporting trip, the insurgency in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, now in its fifth year, endures. Prone to executing, abducting, and enslaving civilians, a shadowy group known as al-Shabab continues to terrorise communities, and its activities are now spreading to the adjoining province of Niassa. The conflict emerged in 2017, fuelled by poverty, corruption, and the fact that local citizens see little to nothing of their region’s natural gas riches. Around a third of Cabo Delgado’s entire population is now displaced, fleeing their homes for those of family and friends or for government-run camps. “They must send the military to my village and then tell us that the war is over before we can go back,” said Augusto Jamal, who now lives with 16 others in a three-room house on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Pemba. “Otherwise, it’s better to stay here – at least you’ll be alive.”

To hear more from Anyadike, including about how the jihadists may have been "scattered" but are still able to operate in smaller groups, listen to him being interviewed about his reporting in Cabo Delgado on the BBC’s Africa Today podcast.

And finally…

War, invasion, or military offensive?

This week, the UN was forced to deny it had urged staff to avoid using the words “war” or “invasion” to describe Russia’s military action in Ukraine, for fear of “reputational risk”. UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric admitted the 7 March memo, reported by The Irish Times, had been sent but denied it was ever the UN’s official policy to prefer the terms “conflict” or “military offensive”. The Irish Times then reported, citing anonymous UN staff, that the missive – sent to a staff mailing list by the director of the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe – was just one of several instructions to staff to moderate their language over Ukraine. For more on why terms such as “invasion” and “resistance” should be used more often in conflict reporting, and on the risks of letting impartiality go too far, here’s a thought-provoking Al Jazeera opinion from Zahera Harb.

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