Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Humanitarian crises spiral in Pakistan and Afghanistan
Pakistan’s historic floods have inundated a third of the country, affecting some 33 million people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. The UN and Pakistan launched a $160 million emergency appeal this week, with the money aimed at delivering aid and preventing disease outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of “significant public health threats”, including malaria, dengue, and waterborne illnesses. With half a million people now crowded into emergency relief camps, communicable diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea are likely to spread. Heavy rains have also impacted neighbouring Afghanistan, where at least 8,000 people have been displaced by flash floods in recent weeks. The UN humanitarian chief called on donors to give $770 million to Afghanistan to address a slew of interlinking crises. He said some six million Afghans are now at risk of famine.
Somalia’s worst-kept secret
An official famine declaration for parts of southern and central Somalia is expected next week. A two-year drought, rocketing food prices, and a sluggish aid response means over seven million people – 45 percent of Somalis – are chronically hungry, with famine threatening the most vulnerable. In May, at least 213,000 people in the Bay region were already in “catastrophe” – a technical term for starving. Yet aid has been slow to arrive, even though the hard lesson learnt is that it should be anticipatory. In April, the $1.5 billion response plan was only 17 percent funded, finally jumping to 67 percent in August. For years, millions of people have been at “emergency” levels of need, which by definition means some hunger-related deaths. “That was already a disaster and required a strong response,” a senior UN official told The New Humanitarian. “Famine is a failure of the system.” Conflict complicates the picture. Some 900,000 people live in areas controlled by the insurgent group al-Shabab. Rather than granting large-scale humanitarian access, it has preferred to trumpet its own, limited, relief efforts.
Militia clashes erupt in Tripoli
The 27 August saw Libya’s deadliest outbreak of violence in two years, as militias loyal to the country’s two governments fought it out in the capital city, Tripoli, killing at least 32 people and injuring more than 150. Civilians were among the casualties, and in some parts of the city ambulances were unable to reach the wounded. Migrants and refugees in the city’s notorious detention centres were also caught in the crossfire, and the International Rescue Committee reported that some had taken flight “with nowhere safe to go”, and “many now find themselves on the streets and at heightened risk should fighting commence again”. Tripoli was calm again by the following day, but in a country that has two rival prime ministers, multiple militias backing them, several other contenders for power, and no clear timeline for long-promised elections, the respite may only be temporary.
Iraq’s political power struggle turns deadly
The popular and powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced he was resigning from Iraqi politics on 29 August, triggering violent clashes between his supporters, their rivals, and security forces in Baghdad’s Green Zone that left at least 30 people dead. Al-Sadr’s move came amidst rising tensions over a deadlock that has left politicians unable to form a government since last October’s elections. Candidates who support the cleric won more seats than any other political bloc, but not a majority. Al-Sadr and his followers say that Iran-backed militias and parties, who are also Shia, are interfering in Iraqi politics. Scholar, militia leader, and politician, al-Sadr’s influence in Iraq is complicated and has changed over time. Even now, it’s not clear if he’s really stepping away from politics for good (he has quit before), or if some other strategic ploy is in play. But after this week’s events, including more deadly clashes between rival groups in the southern city of Basra, concern over the possibility of prolonged intra-Shia violence is growing.
Report sheds light on Wagner crimes
The conflict monitoring organisation ACLED has a new report out on Wagner Group’s activities in Central African Republic and Mali, and it makes for chilling reading. The Russian mercenary group has targeted civilians in more than half of its operations in CAR (where it began operating in 2018) and over 70% in Mali (where it arrived last year). Its CAR deployment was initially limited to training national armed forces, but it took on a direct combat role in late 2020 as rebels threatened the capital. It won local plaudits for helping the state capture major towns, but abuses have now angered large parts of the civilian population. In jihadist-hit Mali, the mercenaries have also been involved in a number of high-profile abuses – mostly notably in the central town of Moura. Wagner has engaged in dozens of countries in recent years (and has stepped out of the shadows in Ukraine) yet its operations remain hard to scrutinise, and the Kremlin denies formal ties. Though Western nations have rightly called out Wagner crimes, they rarely reflect on how their own policy failings (and abuses) bolstered Russian influence.
A peacebuilding landmark three years late in South Sudan
A graduation ceremony this week saw the first batch of fighters integrated into South Sudan’s unified national army – a key part of the peace deal signed in 2018. More than 20,000 troops (including former rebels) were told by President Salva Kiir that they now represent the South Sudanese people (rather than rival military parties). Graduation was initially planned for 2019, but stalled along with much of the peace deal. Delays meant the post-war transition – due to end next year – was extended by the government on 4 August. Kiir said the two-year elongation was necessary to avoid rushed elections and civil war relapse. The president blamed funding gaps and climate disasters for the hold up. Donors blamed the government. UN experts say the peace process has become a motor for violence, while research suggests army unification efforts have negatively impacted the security situation and military landscape.
In case you missed it
AFGHAN REFUGEES: Iran and Turkey routinely push Afghans escaping their country’s economic, humanitarian, and human rights crises back from their borders, according to a new report from Amnesty International, released a year after the end of the chaotic Western withdrawal from the country. Security forces – especially in Iran – sometimes open fire at Afghans attempting to cross the border, and those who do manage to reach Iran or Turkey are routinely detained, tortured, and forcibly returned to Afghanistan, the report said.
DROUGHT AID: A first grain shipment from Ukraine has arrived at the port of Djibouti to help feed 20 million drought- and conflict-affected people in the Horn of Africa. The World Food Programme said the food aid will be trucked to northern Ethiopia, with further grain shipments booked under a UN-brokered deal.
ETHIOPIA:Fighting in the northern Tigray region is continuing to spread after a five-month truce broke down last week. Tigrayan officials say Ethiopian and Eritrean government forces have launched a multi-pronged offensive in a northwestern part of the region, while clashes continue further south.
INDIGENOUS RIGHTS: The death of the last member of an uncontacted Indigenous tribe has been announced by Brazilian officials. Known as “The Man of the Hole” for the deep ditches he dug to protect his territory, he apparently died of natural causes. His death – after living alone for decades, as the rest of his community had been killed by ranchers and loggers who invaded their land – has thrown a renewed spotlight on Indigenous rights. Since 2020, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government has registered a quarter of a million hectares of land on Indigenous territories as private property.
ISRAEL/PALESTINE: An Israeli court has sentenced Mohammad al-Halabi, former head of operations for the aid group World Vision, to 12 years in prison, including the six years he has already served. The Palestinian aid worker was convicted in June of diverting millions in dollars of aid funds to Hamas, but the evidence against him is being kept secret and rights groups say the trial was deeply flawed.
LEBANON: Internet shutdowns hit several parts of Lebanon this week as employees of the state-owned telecoms company went on strike, demanding higher wages. The company says it doesn’t have the money to adjust salaries to deal with hyperinflation and massive price hikes. For more on the humanitarian fallout of the country’s economic meltdown, see our WhatsApp Lebanon interactive.
NETHERLANDS: Amsterdam will temporarily house 1,000 asylum seekers on a cruise ship, according to a plan approved on 30 August. The Netherlands is facing an overcrowding crisis at migration reception centres that has seen hundreds left to sleep outside in unsanitary conditions. The dutch arm of Médecins Sans Frontières sent a team to provide medical assistance at a reception centre where a three-month-old baby died last week – the first time the NGO has deployed in the Netherlands.
UN RACE PANEL: A UN panel set up to examine race relations in the United States has raised concerns over abortion access for minorities, voting restrictions, and an “increasingly militarised approach” to immigration. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has urged US authorities to protect abortion access for ethnic and racial minorities, as well as low-income people who are disproportionately affected. It has also spoken out against increasing moves to restrict voting amongst Black and other minorities, and against heavily militarised immigration pushbacks.
UN-UIGHURS. The UN’s human rights office has accused China of serious human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity relating to the mass detention of Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim groups. The report was released on the eve of Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, leaving office.
YEMEN: Yemen’s internationally recognised government said 10 of its soldiers were killed this week in a Houthi rebel attack on the city of Taiz. A nationwide ceasefire has been in place since April, although violations have been reported. Rights groups called on the Houthis to end their siege on Taiz. Opening roads in and out of the city has proved a sticking point in negotiations.
‘These people are victims of the system.’
In 2015, a 27-year-old Moroccan man named Badr was arrested for allegedly piloting a boat from the Libyan coast toward Italy. He was accused of facilitating irregular migration and causing the deaths of 53 people who died of asphyxiation in the ship’s engine room. By the time judges decided he was being wrongfully held, he had spent three and a half years behind bars in pre-trial detention. Cases like Badr’s have proliferated across Europe since the 2015 migration crisis. European countries say the prosecutions are meant to break the business models of smugglers who put asylum seekers and migrants in danger. But lawyers and human rights groups argue that they ensnare vulnerable people in European legal systems where structural inequalities prevent them from having fair trials. In our weekend read – based on six months of reporting and more than 50 interviews – we take a look at how these prosecutions play out in Greece, Italy, and the UK.
An emperor’s heart returns to Brazil
Two centuries after a Portuguese royal refused to return home from Brazil – instead declaring independence of the colony and installing himself as emperor – his heart, which had been kept in a church in Porto, Portugal, is on a “state visit”. Dom Pedro I, who reigned as a despot for 10 years before heading home to lead liberalist forces in a civil war, asked that his heart be buried separately from his body, in Porto, “close to those who stood by me”. Since arriving in a golden urn to military honours in the capital, Brasilia, on 22 August, the organ has stirred controversy. Bolsonaro, who is trailing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a predecessor, in opinion polls ahead of the 2 October presidential election, ordered its return to mark Brazil’s bicentenary, in the hope of gaining the support of conservatives and monarchists. Dom Pedro’s body had already been returned for burial in São Paulo in 1972 to commemorate 150 years since Brazil’s independence.