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Asia’s heat waves, US abortion alarm, and the Kremlin’s other conflicts: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

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

Access denied: Fallout of a potential US reversal on abortion 

Could abortion really become illegal in half of the United States? No matter the country, restricting abortion access disproportionately impacts women and girls of colour and those who are poverty stricken or affected by humanitarian crises. Unsafe abortions in countries like Haiti, where the practice is illegal, already contribute to even higher maternal mortality rates. 

This week’s leaked US Supreme Court brief on abortion (written by Justice Samuel Alito Jr.) makes for grim reading. Not only does it signal that women in the United States may lose their right to have abortions, but it also raises questions about what it could mean for women around the world. Let’s start with the United States. If the court overturns Roe vs. Wade – a legal precedent that protects abortion rights – roughly half of US states may move to restrict or ban abortion. This doesn’t bode well for poor women or women of colour, many of whom already struggle to access health care. Maternal mortality rates among US women of colour are already high, and a recent study estimated a 20 percent rise in pregnancy-related deaths in states that restrict or ban abortion. True, compared to many countries, the United States is an outlier when it comes to making abortion legal and safe. Yet that doesn’t mean a US Supreme Court ruling won’t trigger repercussions elsewhere. Some abortion rights advocates worry it will embolden other “illiberals” seeking to roll back an array of hard-won liberties, including gay and trans rights. Others fear it could strip broad funding for reproductive health in the US and abroad.  

Heat waves prompt an aid re-think  ​

Climate change is making heat waves more frequent and intense, which has repercussions for humanitarian planners. More than a tenth of the world’s population have been suffering under extreme temperatures as heat waves continue to suffocate India and Pakistan. While May and June are typically the hottest months in South Asia, temperatures began rising in March and continued to reach record highs in parts of the region throughout April. Areas of Pakistan topped 48 degrees Celsius. In North India, satellites recorded land temperatures above 60 degrees Celsius. The scorching temperatures have led to dozens of deaths (almost certainly an undercount), as well as school closures and crop damage. Surging energy use has led to an accompanying spike in coal production, highlighting India’s dangerous dependence on the very fossil fuels leading to this rise in temperatures. Analysts say heat stress is an emerging and largely overlooked hazard that requires “re-imagining” aid responses. Beyond direct casualties from extreme heat, this could also mean wider adaptation – no tin roofs for temporary shelters, for example. In this sense, South Asian jurisdictions have taken some of the first steps, setting up city-level responses for heatwaves and integrating extreme heat into state and national disaster management plans.

This isn’t home, Turkey tells Syrians – again

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned this week to a subject familiar to those who have been watching the region for a while: How to get the 3.7 million Syrians in his country to go home. In a Tuesday announcement, Erdogan said Turkey has built 57,000 of 77,000 planned homes in the rebel-held northwest Syrian province of Idlib. He added that he plans to construct enough housing across the north – plus schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure – to enable one million people to return. While anti-refugee sentiment is running high (also nothing new) as the Turkish currency continues to fall, it is not clear how many Syrians really want to go back to Syria, at least as it is today. While it may not make the front pages anymore, the 11-year war is still not over. And the conflict in Ukraine has made a long-running economic crisis in Syria even worse, as prices for food and cooking oil rise. Hospitals and clinics are struggling to serve millions of displaced people in and around Idlib because of aid shortfalls: A donor conference will ask for more money next week.  

Humanitarian corridors too little, too late in Ukraine’s Mariupol? 

Over 100 civilians were evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant and other areas of the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol by 3 May. Another 300 people from Mariupol and nearby towns were evacuated two days later to Ukrainian-held territory via humanitarian corridors brokered by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Russia has since launched an assault against Azovstal, the last holdout of Ukrainian troops in the city, and where more than 200 civilians may still be trapped. Efforts to open humanitarian corridors have frequently failed, leading to anger in Ukraine with the ICRC over its approach of engaging with all sides in the conflict. Mariupol has become emblematic of the destruction and humanitarian suffering caused by Russia’s invasion since it began in late February. The city was quickly surrounded, and then indiscriminately bombarded, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents trapped without access to food, water, medical care, and other essential supplies and services. More than 20,000 civilians may have been killed, according to the city’s mayor.  

Wagner Group’s suspected toll, from CAR to Mali 

Russia’s heavy losses in Ukraine have led to reports it has pulled out some of its mercenaries operating in other conflict theatres. But the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group certainly hasn’t abandoned its missions in Africa, where abuses by its fighters are getting increasing attention. Around a dozen civilians were allegedly killed by Wagner contactors and local solidiers in Central African Republic last month, while Human Rights Watch documented summary executions and torture by mercenaries in CAR in a 3 May report. In Mali, Russians have been accused of burying bodies near the base of departed French forces as part of an attempted smear campaign. And they were reportedly involved in the recent massacre of hundreds of civilians in the central Malian town of Moura. Still, Moscow officially denies ties to Wagner, and it's worth noting that Russians aren’t the only hired guns in Africa. Missing in Western censure, meanwhile, is much reflection on how its own policy failings (and abuses) bolstered Russian influence.

Event: Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (or three)

The humanitarian sector isn’t known for being concise, and neither are its conferences. Take the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week, which begins in-person sessions in Geneva on 9 May. The summit gathers together aid workers, aid experts, and the aid-adjacent for a gabfest so sprawling that it has outgrown even its own name: It now lasts a full three weeks (including two weeks of online meetings). It’s a forum for exchanging new ideas (and kvetching about old problems) in crisis response. A sampler of the many issues covered by the 250-plus (!) sessions: Funding, cybersecurity, reforming logistics, cash aid in conflict, and the climate crisis. But we’re quite partial to the 11 May panel on communicating amid misinformation: The New Humanitarian’s policy editor-at-large, Jessica Alexander, will be taking part.

In case you missed it

BANGLADESH: Government authorities have quietly shuttered around 30 Rohingya schools within the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps since last December. Built by volunteers, the community schools offer much-needed education for thousands of children and youths who have aged out of the learning centres run (often poorly) by aid agencies and the government. Rohingya teachers, students, and rights groups have urged a restoration of this most basic of rights. 

EU: Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU’s border agency, Frontex, resigned following an investigation into the agency by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog. Frontex, which has seen its budget and operations expand significantly since the 2015 migration crisis, has been embroiled in scandals for the past year over its alleged involvement in pushbacks and other human rights violations at the EU’s external borders, as well as allegations of financial mismanagement and workplace harassment. 

FOOD: Close to 193 million people in 53 countries are acutely food insecure and in need of urgent assistance, warns a new report by a coalition of food security agencies. It’s an increase of nearly 40 million people compared to the previous high reached in 2020. The cost of food, fuel, and fertiliser is soaring, with many already struggling households spending at least double what they were paying before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to feed their families, according to the development NGO, ActionAid.

INDIA: Revised global COVID-19 estimates from the World Health Organization have found a death toll almost three times higher than previously reported. Of the 14.9 million excess deaths due to COVID-19, 4.7 million of those were in India — where the government had recorded just over half a million deaths. 

IRAQ: Clashes between the Iraqi military and a Kurdish militia have forced more than 3,000 people to flee the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar. Most of the people were reportedly Yazidi, a group that has already been slow to return to its historic homeland due to violence and persecution by the so-called Islamic State, slow reconstruction, and Turkish airstrikes

IRAQ: Some 5,000 people have reportedly been admitted to hospitals across the country with breathing problems after the seventh dust storm in a month. One person has died. Climate change has increased the frequency of such storms in Iraq.

LIBYA: A report from Amnesty International says a militia funded and backed by Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Unity is responsible for a litany of crimes, including unlawful killings, torture, rape, forced labor, and the interception and return of migrants and refugees to the country’s notorious detention centres.

SOMALIA: The jihadist group al-Shabab claims to have carried out the deadliest attack to date on an African Union base. The al-Qaeda-linked insurgents said they stormed and captured the al-Baraf base, 160 kilometres northeast of Mogadishu on 3 May, killing 170 mainly Burundian soldiers. Some reports say at least 30 soldiers died in the fighting, while the AU denies al-Baraf fell.

SUDAN: The security forces have detained hundreds of anti-government protesters and “disappeared scores” more, Human Rights Watch said in a new report. Prisoners have been beaten, child detainees stripped naked, and women threatened with sexual violence. Families of those being held have appealed to the military-led government for their release. 

US-MEXICO BORDER: A database documenting two years of abuse of migrants by US border officials has been released by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The advocacy group’s report details over 200 incidents that took place since 2020. Many of the abuses – including confiscations of essential personal belongings ahead of expulsions; separation of families; and expulsions of children and women to dangerous Mexican border towns in the middle of the night – were committed in the context of Title 42, a health regulation introduced under president Donald Trump aimed at keeping asylum seekers in Mexico. The regulation is expected to be lifted later this month.

WESTERN SAHARA: Algeria has threatened to cut off its supply of natural gas to Spain, after Madrid switched its position on what should happen to the long-disputed territory of Western Sahara. Most countries consider the area – home to tens of thousands of refugees – to be occupied by Morocco. Morocco and Algeria support opposite sides in the decades-old conflict.

Weekend read

‘We accept to save our lives’: How local dialogues with jihadists took root in Mali

‘Nowhere in the world do wars end without negotiation.’

Fed up with a years-long jihadist insurgency, communities in central Mali are trying something new: dialogue. Instead of relying on military operations – or rural self-defence militias – for protection, communities that initially resisted the jihadists’ presence are now striking verbal accords that have brought about fragile ceasefires, though often at the cost of conceding to strict sharia law. The so-called “survival pacts” offer rare insights into how Sahelian jihadists approach conflict resolution, and demonstrate a local appetite for dialogue that suggests national talks might be worth trying despite opposition from foreign powers and their War on Terror agendas. For more, take a look at our weekend read, which is the third instalment in a series on dialogues with jihadists in Burkina Faso and Mali. Africa editor  Philip Kleinfeld and Malian journalist Mamadou Tapily spoke with 34 local leaders, aid workers, and public officials, whose testimonies are brought to life by illustrations from Bamako-based Malian artist Dramane Diarra.

And finally…

Dark days for press freedom

“Journalism is in peril”, warns the UN’s annual flagship report to mark World Press Freedom Day, 3 May. It’s not new news, but the challenges to the business model sustaining a free and independent media are multiplying – with the economic impact of COVID-19 the latest blow. While soaring advertising revenues make social media platforms ever-richer, newspapers have seen a 50 percent fall over the past five years. We are risking an “extinction level event” for independent journalism outlets, the UN says. It fears the notion of “journalism as a public good” is being lost. Instead, “information chaos” is undermining public trust and social order, says Reporters Without Borders. It blames the spread of the “Fox news model” of opinion media, twinned with the dangerous “disinformation circuits” of social media. And don’t forget that journalism remains a deadly profession – with new surveillance and legal tools making it all the more dangerous. Online threats of violence disproportionately target women journalists and those from minority groups. Yet so many brave reporters refuse to be silenced. The New Humanitarian showcases some of their work here.

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