Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Ethiopia offers a Tigray truce, but will aid trucks start rolling?
Ethiopia's government has declared a unilateral truce with rebellious Tigrayan forces, promising to facilitate aid into the northern region after imposing a months-long blockade that has led to famine-like conditions. Yet efforts to end the siege and wider war will also depend on the calculations of political leaders and militias from other northern regions still locked in conflict with forces aligned to the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which said it is willing to accept the truce should aid be ramped up. An offensive by Tigrayan forces against militias in the neighbouring Afar region is ongoing, with 300,000 people displaced, according to Afar officials. The fighting has complicated efforts to truck relief supplies into Tigray via the sole operational humanitarian land corridor (which runs through Afar). Tensions are also high between Tigray and the adjoining Amhara region, which will likely muddle attempts to secure a back-up corridor should the Afar route remain blocked. One thing for certain is that Tigrayans need urgent assistance. As World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus put it last week: “There is nowhere on Earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat than in Tigray.”
A month of war in Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a quickly escalating humanitarian disaster and one of the largest and fastest moving displacement crises in decades. More than 10 million people – or nearly one quarter of Ukraine’s population – have been displaced, including half the country’s children. More than 3.6 million people have sought refuge outside the country, while around 6.5 million are internally displaced. Almost one million people are without access to electricity, and hundreds of thousands are cut off from gas supplies and have limited access to clean water, food, and medicine. The World Health Organization has recorded 72 attacks on medical facilities and workers, and Ukraine has accused Russia of abducting 15 humanitarian workers and seizing the vehicles from an aid convoy that was blocked from reaching the southeastern coastal city Mariupol, which has been under siege since 1 March. An international aid response is beginning to get off the ground but facing significant logistical barriers and safety concerns. In the meantime, local organisations and volunteers are shouldering the burden of humanitarian needs. As aid funds pour in for Ukraine, there are concerns that much needed assistance may be diverted from other crises that are receiving less attention. For more on that, check out our data dive that crunches the numbers and speaks to aid insiders.
Will the Taliban’s reversal on girls’ education have aid consequences?
Taliban authorities backtracked on promises to allow girls to return to secondary school just as a new school year began in Afghanistan. The reversal comes days before a 31 March pledging summit, which aims to raise some of the $4.4 billion (or more) in emergency funds that the UN says is needed to avert catastrophe. The Taliban U-turn drew widespread condemnation: UN Secretary-General António Guterres said it was “deeply damaging”; aid groups pronounced themselves “appalled”; governments including the US said it would “have an inevitable impact on the Taliban’s prospects of gaining political support”. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, fresh from launching its own, separate humanitarian fund, also declared “deep frustration with this reversal”. Yet the economic implosion driving Afghanistan’s present-day crises is fuelled in no small part by the policies of its biggest traditional donors. These donors are still grasping for aid levers that distinguish between the Taliban in charge and everyday Afghans. As Human Rights Watch noted, aid is desperately needed “not by the Taliban, but by Afghans who are hungry”.
Wheat woes: The far-reaching food effects of the Russian invasion
The pinch on wheat supplies caused by the war in Ukraine is being felt by consumers around the world. In Indonesia, packets of beloved instant noodles have vanished from supermarket shelves. In Lebanon, there has been panic buying of flour. In Tunisia, people are queueing for bread – and the list goes on. From Brazil to South Africa, consumers are literally paying the price for the disruption to Ukrainian and Russian wheat deliveries, which together account for a quarter of the world’s supply. Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has stopped 20 million tonnes of grain from last year’s harvest reaching the market. Much of that was destined for North Africa and the Middle East. The new planting season is about to begin, but Ukraine’s rich soils have been torn up by tanks, young men have joined the army, and rocketing fuel and fertiliser costs will also take their toll on the harvest. Russia is finding it difficult to fill the gap. Although wheat is exempted from Western sanctions, shipping goods from Russia is now tricky – insurance is hard to come by, and payments can fall foul of financial restrictions.
One rule for them…
On 21 March, Poland said it prevented 134 people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere from entering the country from neighbouring Belarus. Eight people – from Italy, Ukraine, and Poland – were also detained for helping people cross the border and could face up to eight years in prison. The numbers are a far cry from last year when a showdown between the EU and Belarus led to a humanitarian crisis on the Poland-Belarus border as thousands of people from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa – used as pawns in a geopolitical dispute – ended up stuck between security forces on either side. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, there have been concerns that Belarus – a Russian ally – could once again use migration to try to exert pressure on the EU over its support for Ukraine. Poland is building a $400 million wall along its border with Belarus and has been accused of violently pushing asylum seekers out of its territory. The treatment of those attempting to cross from Belarus contrasts sharply with the warm welcome being extended to Ukrainian refugees further south along the same border.
Somalia rocked by string of al-Shabab attacks
More than 40 people were killed in twin suicide bombings in central Somalia on 23 March. The first attack killed Amina Mohamed Abdi – a local MP and staunch government critic – and several of her guards as she was campaigning in the city of Beledweyne. A powerful car bomb then detonated at the main hospital, where casualties were being rushed. The jihadist group al-Shabab claimed both attacks. Its gunmen had earlier that day raided the heavily guarded international airport in Mogadishu; eight people died in the assault. The airport complex is the base of the United Nations, aid agencies, foreign diplomatic missions, and the African Union’s military mission, AMISOM. Al-Shabab has ramped up its attacks ahead of indirect elections for the lower house, due to be completed by the end of the month. Lawmakers will then pick the new president.
Rebel groups barred from CAR’s national dialogue
Long-awaited national talks aimed at fostering peace in Central African Republic got underway this week. But the agenda is unclear, rebel groups aren’t invited, and opposition politicians have announced a boycott. The dialogue was promised by President Faustin-Archange Touadéra shortly after disputed elections in December 2020 triggered a major rebel offensive. A counter-insurgency campaign involving Russian mercenaries and Rwandan troops has since beaten back the rebels, though violence persists and the majority of Central Africans remain in need of humanitarian assistance. Opposition leaders said the dialogue’s programme – designed in part to appease international donors – skirts over issues related to the post-election crisis, while civil society leaders in attendance called proceedings “a monologue of power”. Discussions are set to conclude on Sunday: The crisis in CAR is not.
In case you missed it
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Médecins Sans Frontières has stopped humanitarian operations in two villages in northeastern Ituri province – Nizi and Bambu – due to increasingly violent attacks that targeted aid workers. Last year, the government declared a “state of siege” across the eastern region in response to militia violence, and appointed military governors. But attacks have continued, driving further displacement and food insecurity, as have human rights violations.
GLOBAL POVERTY: UN experts announced a sharp downgrade of their outlook for the global economy due to the war in Ukraine. UNCTAD, the UN’s trade and development arm, dropped its expectation for global growth in 2022 to 2.6 percent from 3.6 percent. “The global economy is… staring down the barrel of a gun,” the report said. Particularly at risk, it warned, are developing countries heavily burdened by debt incurred during the pandemic, while sustainable growth and managing the climate crisis will become even less attainable.
INDONESIA: A proposed gold mine in Indonesia’s Papua province could worsen conflict and fuel abuses, Amnesty International warned in a new report. The rights group said it has documented killings and security build-ups around the Wabu Block site, in Intan Jaya regency. Rights groups draw a direct line from resource exploitation and infrastructure development to abuses and conflict, in a region where authorities continue to crack down on a long-standing Papuan independence movement.
IRAQ: A new 86-page report from Human Rights Watch accuses the police and a powerful militia of attacking LGBTQI+ people with impunity, and catalogues a long list of abductions, rape, torture, and murder. The Iraqi government denied any such attacks by its security forces.
MOZAMBIQUE: The death toll from Tropical Cyclone Gombe – which hit coastal Mozambique on 11 March – has risen to 61, with a further 82 wounded and nearly 500,000 people affected. Gombe is the strongest storm to hit the country since back-to-back cyclones displaced millions in 2019. Read our in-depth piece on climate mitigation strategies in Mozambique for more.
MYANMAR: The $826 million aid appeal for Myanmar is “desperately underfunded”, warns an update from the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm, OCHA. Mental health, nutrition, and emergency education are among the services scraping by. Some sectors were still at $0 in mid-March, though some money has since emerged. Less than 4 percent of the total appeal has been funded – below average compared to other emergencies (though not by much).
NORTH KOREA: The US has slapped new sanctions on North Korea following recent missile tests. But more isolation isn’t the solution for a “dire” rights crisis and spiralling food insecurity, the UN’s rights watchdog for North Korea told the Human Rights Council on 21 March. Tomás Ojea Quintana says North Korea must allow in international humanitarian and development aid. World Food Programme deliveries have been on hold since at least March 2021, which is also the last time international UN staff (the WFP’s country director) were in the country.
ROHINGYA: After years of equivocation, the US declared that Myanmar’s military committed genocide against the Rohingya population. Notably, the declaration fingers the military but not the now-deposed civilian government, which previously rejected genocide accusations. Rohingya civil society groups, stuck in deteriorating camps in Bangladesh, say the US and the international community must now turn words into action.
UNITED STATES: On 24 March, President Joe Biden’s administration pledged to admit up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees into the US and to donate $1 billion to European countries housing the vast majority of the 3.6 million Ukrainians who have fled their country. The news was welcomed by many in Europe, but the practical details of how 100,000 Ukrainians will reach the US remain fuzzy and will likely face significant logistical barriers in an already overburdened system.
Sieges, sanctions, and soaring hunger: Mali’s humanitarian crisis deepens as foreign forces withdraw
‘If you are fighting against jihadists and against the world, it is difficult for you to succeed.’
In our weekend read, Africa Editor Philip Kleinfeld explores why French and allied European forces are withdrawing from Mali and looks at the humanitarian crisis they are leaving behind. France arrived in 2013, and while its presence was initially deemed successful, its troops soon got bogged down in an unwinnable war. Diplomatic relations then soured with Mali’s ruling junta, which has reportedly welcomed in hundreds of mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group. Meanwhile, conflict between jihadist fighters and self-defence militias is creating record numbers of displaced people and aggravating food insecurity – farmers are struggling to access their fields and herders can’t move their livestock. The junta is trying to galvanise public support through military operations, but this has led to a new wave of human rights abuses. For more, check out Kleinfeld’s briefing, based on interviews with residents in several hard-hit regions.
A royal trip to the Caribbean to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne took a wrong turn this week, as ill-chosen antics by her grandson and his wife stoked a regional debate over independence from the crown. After hitting the dance floor with locals in Belize, Prince William and Kate Middleton’s charm offensive appeared increasingly out of step with their hosts’ criticism of Britain’s colonial legacy. A photo op of the couple greeting Jamaican children behind a fence, and protests by an Indigenous village in Belize that said it was not consulted on plans to land the royals’ helicopter, didn’t help dispel discourse over slavery and reparations. Neither did images of Kate and Prince William, in a white military uniform, being driven through a military parade in Jamaica – widely panned for echoing Britain’s colonialist past. It came as no real surprise, then, that Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the queen’s grandson he wanted his country to be “independent”. In November, Barbados became a republic, removing the 95-year-old as head of state. Prince William did express “profound sorrow” for slavery, but stopped short of offering a full apology for the legacy of the slave trade.