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Broken food systems, Cuban exiles, and a deadly Uzbek crackdown: 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

 

A ‘broken’ food system and a hunger gender disparity

 

Global hunger levels are rising, and the food security gap between women and men continues to widen, a new UN report warns. Nearly 10 percent of the world’s population – more than 800 million people – were hit by hunger last year, according to the annual State of Food Security and Nutrition report. There has been a backslide during the COVID-19 pandemic – the proportion of people affected by hunger had been about 8 percent and holding in 2019. The gender gap is also expanding: A greater proportion of women than men went hungry last year. The report doesn’t factor in the strains on the global food system caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The climate crisis, conflict, economic shocks, and inequality are threatening global goals to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030. The sobering stats are a reminder to address a “broken” food system, said Hanna Saarinen of the anti-poverty NGO Oxfam. “It is easy to blame today’s food crisis on the war in Ukraine, but a longstanding political failure to address how we feed all the people in the world has made our food system susceptible to fragility and failure,” she added.

Uzbek republic goes dark after deadly protests

 

A month-long state of emergency has been declared in Uzbekistan’s republic of Karakalpakstan following deadly protests over a planned constitutional change that would affect its autonomy. Thousands took to the street on 1 July – a rare outbreak of protests in a country where spontaneous demonstration is illegal. On 2 July, the protests were quashed by security forces, with at least 18 people reportedly killed and as many as 1,000 injured, prompting the UN to call for an independent investigation. More than 500 people were reportedly arrested. Internet and mobile communications have been cut off as well, according to Amnesty International, which warned that rights activists arrested are in danger of “torture and other ill-treatment”. Uzbekistan’s president has since backed down from the proposed amendment – which would have removed Karakalpakstan’s right to hold a referendum on secession. 

 

What a difference a year makes (or not) in Cuba

 

On 11 July 2021, nationwide protests erupted in Cuba over food and medicine shortages – before being crushed by a brutal government crackdown. A year after the largest demonstrations since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, the streets of Havana are quiet, but the root causes of the protests persist: long food lines, electricity cuts, and fuel and medicine in short supply. As the economic conditions worsen and dissent is more ruthlessly dealt with, over 140,000 Cubans have left the island since October, the highest numbers in decades. Recently, Cuba’s government sentenced 381 people involved in the 11 July protests to long prison terms, while many other activists have been forced to leave the country. Most Cubans head to the United States, often embarking on the dangerous route through the Darién Gap, a gang-riddled jungle region between Colombia and Panama. For more, check out this interactive story by The New Humanitarian showing the different challenges one Cuban asylum seeker faced as he made the 6,000-kilometre journey overland from Venezuela to Houston, Texas over four long and perilous months.

 

A military concession (of sorts) in Sudan

 

Eight months after leading a coup that derailed Sudan’s political transition – and deepened a humanitarian and economic crisis – army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan this week said the military would step back from government. The country’s civilian political movements are sceptical of the pledge, while pro-democracy activists have continued their street protests, defying a violent crackdown. Since the October coup, international actors have tried to broker talks between the military and civilian groups who were part of a fragile pre-putsch power-sharing arrangement. Al-Burhan said the military would now withdraw from those talks, leaving it up to civilians to form a new administration. But the general said the military would still maintain responsibility for security and defence, and it is thought they want to keep charge of foreign policy and the central bank too. This would allow them to usurp a civilian executive and maintain their stranglehold over the country’s economy – both unacceptable to Sudan’s street activists, who you can read more about in our profile here.

 

COVID’s oversized impact on refugees

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound and potentially lasting consequences on the rights of refugees, despite strong efforts by international and local protection actors, according to a new study by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and others. Border closures to contain the pandemic’s spread had severe repercussions for refugees: In 2020, there were approximately 1.5 million fewer arrivals of refugees and asylum seekers than expected. Deportations, pushbacks, and expulsions continue, with dozens of countries maintaining restrictive measures purported to protect public health. The humanitarian response to COVID-19 initially recognised the special needs of refugees, but deprioritised protection and was inadequate to mitigate rising risks to refugees – from gender-based violence to worsening educational inequalities, child protection issues, and xenophobia. Although most countries included refugees in their national vaccination plans, vaccine nationalism has impeded procurement and distribution in low- and middle-income countries, which hosted 84 percent of refugees in 2021.

 

More breathing room for Mali junta

 

The Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS, has lifted economic and financial sanctions imposed on Mali, after its ruling junta agreed to hold elections in March 2024. The sanctions – introduced in January after the junta announced plans to prolong its time in power by four years – blocked all but essential goods from entering the country. This negatively impacted an economy already weakened by a jihadist conflict, and affected traders in neighbouring countries too. West African leaders had hoped the sanctions would politically weaken the junta, but it remains popular in Mali (unlike ECOWAS, which is now seen as a meddling nuisance). The regional bloc – meeting in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, last weekend – also accepted a proposal from Burkina Faso’s junta for a 24-month transition there (down from 36 months). Ouagadougou is also facing a jihadist insurgency that elected officials proved unable to contain. Read our recent briefing on the country here, and another on the Mali crisis here

 

In case you missed it

 

AUSTRALIA: For the fourth time in two years, severe flooding has hit New South Wales, Australia. Record-breaking rainfall has pummelled the southeastern Australian state – in the course of a few days, some parts of Sydney have seen eight months’ worth of rainfall. At least 85,000 people have been ordered to evacuate or to prepare for doing so. 

 

COLOMBIA: President-elect Gustavo Petro has proposed a bilateral ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN) and other armed groups as he looks to try to shore up Colombia’s faltering peace process. Unlike the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the ELN did not sign a landmark peace accord in 2016. The group, largely funded through drug trafficking, has a vast network of fighters in urban centres, as well as on the border with Venezuela and along the Pacific coast. Dealing with Colombia’s resurgence of armed violence will likely be atop Petro’s bulging humanitarian inbox once the former rebel assumes office on 7 August and becomes the country’s first leftist leader.

 

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: President Félix Tshisekedi and Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame agreed to de-escalate tensions related to the M23 insurgency in eastern DRC following an Angola-hosted summit. Kinshasa accuses Kigali of backing the M23 – as UN investigators did in a 2012 M23 rebellion – though Rwanda denies involvement. Clashes continued straight after the summit. See our background briefing for more context.

 

LAOS: As the economic crisis worsens in Laos, rare public anger is erupting online. Inflation last month hit a two-decade high, sending food and gas prices skyrocketing and leaving many in the poor, landlocked Southeast Asia nation struggling to get by. With the economy on the verge of collapse, migration to neighbouring Thailand appears to be on the rise. 

 

LEBANON: The Lebanese government says it plans to begin sending 15,000 Syrian refugees home each month. Rights groups say forced returns – in this case carried out without the involvement of UNHCR – are illegal under international law. Activists say they have documented a raft of abuses against refugees who have chosen to go back to Syria in recent years. Lebanon is home to some 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

 

LIBYA: Shortly after UN-backed talks failed to get rival powers on the same page about when and how to hold national elections, Libyans began protesting against power cuts, rising prices of imported food, and the political stalemate. Meanwhile, the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya said it had uncovered “previously undiscovered mass graves” in Tarhouna, a town ruled for years by a notoriously brutal militia. 

 

MONKEYPOX: As cases rise, an emergency committee will reconvene by 18 July to debate whether the monkeypox outbreak now meets the threshold of a public health emergency of international concern”, World Health Organization (WHO) head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. There were more than 6,000 confirmed global cases as of 4 July – a 77 percent jump in a week – but testing is inadequate and vaccine supplies are scarce

 

POLAND: After completing construction of a wall along 187 kilometres of its border with Belarus, Poland has lifted a state of emergency that barred journalists, aid groups, and civil society activists from entering a strip of land along the frontier. The state of emergency was declared last year during a political showdown between the EU and Belarus that led to a sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers and migrants attempting to enter Poland. Human rights groups are cautioning that the wall move doesn’t mean that restrictions to seeking asylum in Poland along the border have ended. 

 

SYRIA: A Security Council resolution that lets the UN bring aid across Turkey’s border into northwest Syria without President Bashar al-Assad’s permission is set to expire on 10 July, and negotiations are going down to the wire. Read this or watch this to catch up on what’s at stake and who wants what, and/or hear directly from the official who heads the UN’s cross-border aid operation.

 

UNITED STATES: A recent Supreme Court ruling has cleared the way for the Biden administration to end the Migration Protection Protocols, a controversial Trump-era policy also known as “Remain in Mexico”. The policy saw tens of thousands of people from Central America and elsewhere sent to wait in northern Mexico for the duration of the asylum process. Human rights groups have hailed the decision as a victory for the right to seek asylum in the US, but with Title 42 – a pandemic-related public health order that has severely restricted access to protection – still on the books, most people will still be turned away. 

 

Weekend read

 

How the focus on Ukraine is hurting other humanitarian responses

 

Back in March, during the early days of the Russian invasion, we highlighted the risk that the war in Ukraine could suck the oxygen out of other aid responses by flagging eight more emergencies around the world that demanded the attention of donors and decision-makers. A couple of weeks later, we followed up with an in-depth analysis exploring whether the unusually generous outpouring for Ukraine might be pulling resources away from other vulnerable populations. Four months into the war, Corinne Redfern’s reporting shows the extent to which those early fears have now become a reality. Even as the fallout from Russia’s invasion drives up needs in many of the world’s worst hunger hotspots, it is also diverting much-needed money and personnel away from them, according to Redfern’s interviews with more than two dozen aid workers. From the Horn of Africa to Haiti, the message from the front lines of global crises is clear: They are increasingly unable to assist those in desperate need, and donors are looking the other way.

 

And finally…

 

The sexual abuse scandal that keeps on growing

 

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says it has found more cases of sexual abuse involving its workers during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A 2020 investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation exposed widespread abuse among aid workers, as well as flaws in mechanisms used to report such abuse. After a full-scale inquiry, MSF found 13 reports of sexual abuse, with most involving sex-for-work schemes. Another 15 reports of personal abuse – sexual or otherwise – had already been investigated. Three were found to be admissible and led to sanctions; one was well-founded, but the alleged perpetrator could not be positively identified; two were unfounded; seven were closed due to lack of information or because complainants asked them to be closed; and two involved other organisations. Most cases unearthed in the investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation were linked to WHO workers. The scandal triggered a public apology from Tedros and the WHO launched an independent inquiry. MSF, meanwhile, said vulnerable employees needed more protection, and there needs to be a better gender and diversity split on teams – especially with those in positions of power. “We are not infallible, but the efforts we have made for close to 20 years – and continue to make – are proof of our commitment to prevent unacceptable behaviour.”

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