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Iran’s crackdown, Syria’s cholera outbreak, and US jobs for refugees: The Cheat Sheet

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Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

‘Modesty’ death sparks protests, crackdown in Iran

Iranians took to the streets, TikTok, and Twitter this week in an outburst of anti-government sentiment prompted by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian Mahsa Amini following her arrest by the “morality police” in Tehran for wearing immodest clothing. Officials say Amini (whose Kurdish name was Zhina) died after suffering a heart attack in custody. Her family disputes this account, saying there’s evidence she was beaten by the officers who enforce the country’s laws on modesty, including the requirement that women cover their hair. In response, women have been burning their headscarves and cutting off their hair in public squares and online, and leading protesters in demonstrations that began in Iran’s Kurdish areas but have now spread across the country. The government has tried to quell the unrest by restricting access to the internet and cracking down with violence, reportedly killing at least 17 people (one rights group put the toll as high as 31) and injuring hundreds.

Cholera outbreak reaches vulnerable northwest Syria

Rebel-held northwest Syria reported its first confirmed case of cholera, leading to fears the country’s rapidly spreading outbreak could spiral out of control. There have been 39 reported deaths and thousands of suspected cases so far. The outbreak – Syria’s first since 2009 – has been linked to the use of untreated water from the Euphrates River, which is highly polluted with raw sewage and at particularly low levels now due to climate change-related drought and alleged increased damming by Turkey. Diminished water flow can lead to a higher concentration of bacteria like the one that causes cholera. The World Health Organization (WHO) said on 21 September that medications and other supplies had landed in Damascus and would be sent where needed, with more on the way. Cholera is relatively easy to treat if and when care is available. But it can also kill quickly in environments – like parts of northern Syria – where years of war have crippled health infrastructure. Millions of people in the region live in crowded displacement camps where it’s hard to get clean water, and hygienic sanitation facilities are few and far between.

UNGA: Politics on top, policy on the side

Food pledges, pushing back on pandemic complacency, and a shift in climate policy: The fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have dominated the politics of leaders’ meetings at the UN General Assembly, but there was plenty of space on the sidelines for a crowded policy agenda. At a summit it convened, the US announced $2.9 billion in funding to combat global food insecurity (while also lobbing a couple of pot shots at Russia). Humanitarians say aid pledges for dire crises like the emergency in Somalia and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa are a fraction of what’s needed. With COVID-19 a noticeable afterthought at this UNGA (exhibit A: “The pandemic is over,” US President Joe Biden recently declared), health experts used one event to warn against complacency and to call for reforming the global preparedness system. Similarly, The Global Fund’s pledging conference piggybacked off UNGA to the tune of $14 billion. Denmark, meanwhile, unveiled a significant bit of climate policy: It became the first country to announce it would contribute so-called loss and damage funding. Wealthy countries are accused of thwarting loss and damage at the annual COP climate summits. High-level meetings are scheduled to last through 26 September, but diplomats and technocrats will continue to hash things out as the broader UNGA session continues

Eritrea’s return signals a new escalation in Tigray

It has been a month since renewed clashes broke out in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, and there are few signs of de-escalation. A new airstrike hit Tigray’s capital of Mekelle on 23 September, while the region’s ruling party (the Tigray People's Liberation Front, or TPLF) accused Eritrea of launching a full-scale offensive in support of the Ethiopian government. There were reports that Eritrea (which has a historical enmity against the TPLF) has been mobilising army reservists, with notices handed out in Asmara, the capital. The return to combat came after a five-month truce that saw back-channel meetings between Mekelle and Addis Ababa but no formal talks. The risk that fresh fighting poses to civilians was underscored by UN investigators, who submitted their first report on the two-year conflict. The investigators accused Ethiopia’s government of war crimes in Tigray and of using starvation as a counterinsurgency tool. Tigrayan forces were also accused of serious human rights abuses.

Asylum seekers used as political pawns in US bussing stunts

Last week, without alerting local authorities, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, arranged to have 48 Venezuelan asylum seekers who recently crossed the US southern border flown to Martha’s Vineyard – a small island off the coast of Massachusetts known as a destination for elites of the Democratic party. The stunt has cast a spotlight on the country’s contentious and dysfunctional immigration and asylum policies ahead of midterm elections in November. The US border patrol has carried out more than two million apprehensions this fiscal year (which ends on 30 September) – an alltime high. The increase is being driven by record numbers of Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans seeking to cross the border, in addition to longer-term movements of people from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Biden administration is still deporting people to Mexico from the US without allowing them to apply for asylum under a pandemic-era public health order it vowed to overturn. But Mexico does not accept some nationalities, including Venezuelans, and the US doesn’t carry out direct deportations to Venezuela. For months, the Republican governor of Texas has also been bussing asylum seekers to liberal cities, such as New York, overwhelming reception capacity. Meanwhile, climate-related disasters, spiralling violence, political repression, and economic hardship are pushing more and more people to take dangerous journeys north. For more, read our briefing on the challenging situation for the growing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers transiting through – or trapped in – Mexico.

‘One [life under 70] every two seconds’

The risk of dying prematurely from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular or respiratory problems is two to three times higher in low to middle-income countries (which account for 86 percent of deaths) than richer ones, according to the WHO. On 21 September, world leaders gathered at the UN’s general assembly to discuss a landmark WHO report on the long-neglected issue. According to the report, roughly two thirds of people in Africa die prematurely of such diseases, compared to less than a third in Europe. “The data paint a clear picture,” it says. “The problem is that the world isn’t looking at it.” The silver lining, according to the WHO, is that relatively small investments in prevention and treatment in poorer countries could make the world of difference. “This report is a reminder of the true scale of the threat of NCDs and their risk factors: every year, NCDs claim the lives of 17 million people under the age of 70 – one every two seconds,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Air pollution was cited as one key risk factor, contributing to NCDs.

In case you missed it

HAITI: According to Save the Children, some 2.2 million Haitian children require assistance due to rampant gang violence, which has sent humanitarian needs in the Caribbean country soaring. Haiti has been in a state of political limbo since the July 2021 assassination of president Jovenel Moïse, with protesters demonstrating against the rising costs of food and petrol, calling for new elections, and decrying the growing sense of anarchy.

HURRICANE FIONA: Five years after Hurricane Maria caused thousands of deaths and widespread damage in Puerto Rico and decimated Dominica’s economy, yet another category 4 hurricane, Fiona, hit the region, displacing thousands of people and leaving islands without power. In the US territory of Puerto Rico, 90 percent of electricity was knocked out. In the Dominican Republic, more than 13,000 people were displaced amid landslides, flooding, and blackouts, which also affected the British-controlled Turks and Caicos Islands. After skirting Bermuda, Fiona barrelled on towards northeastern Canada as a rare major hurricane for that region.

LEBANON: Banks in Lebanon announced that they would remain closed “indefinitely” after a spate of holdups by account holders demanding access to their own money. There were at least eight such incidents last week, including one in Beirut where a woman carrying what she later said was a toy gun made out with $13,000 of her money, which she said she needed to pay for her sister’s cancer treatment.

MYANMAR: At least 13 people, including 11 children, were killed after Myanmar military helicopters opened fire on a school on 16 September. The bombing in Let Yet Kone village was just the latest junta attack in the Sagaing Region, which has seen extreme violence that has seen at least 10,000 residents fleeing this week alone. Cross-border shelling is also raising tensions on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

NIGERIA: The worst flooding in a decade has cost more than 300 lives this year, including at least 20 in the past few days, according to Nigeria’s disaster management agency. Over 100,000 people have been displaced since the rainy season commenced several months ago and the situation could worsen with more heavy rainfall predicted.

PAKISTAN: For a real-time exhibit of the devastating climate change effects being discussed in relation to loss and damage (see UNGA item above), look no further than Pakistan, where – after the worst flooding on record – the first deaths from water-borne diseases are being counted and gender-based violence and child protection concerns are on the rise.

SYRIA: More than 70 people drowned after a boat that departed from crisis-hit Lebanon carrying refugees and asylum seekers capsized off the coast of Syria. Some 20 survivors are being treated at a hospital in the Syrian city of Tartous. The shipwreck is one of several deadly incidents involving Syrians, Palestinians, and Lebanese trying to reach Europe by boat from Lebanon in recent weeks.

UGANDA: A 24-year-old man has died from the Sudan strain of Ebola and seven other cases have been confirmed by health officials. The outbreak is thought to have started in early September in the central Mubende district, which is two hours by car from Kampala, the capital. The country’s last outbreak of the rare Sudan strain – for which there is no vaccine – was in 2012.

YEMEN: The UN says it has raised enough money for the first stage of a plan to move one million barrels of oil from a decaying oil tanker off the Red Sea coast of Yemen, with salvage set to begin within a few weeks. Yemen’s warring parties disagree on who owns the oil, but there does, thankfully, appear to be a consensus on the likelihood that a spill or explosion would be a massive catastrophe.

Weekend read

EXCLUSIVE: Alleged sex abuse by aid workers unchecked for years in UN-run South Sudan camp

‘The people sexually exploiting and abusing women… are the very people meant to serve and protect them.’

Another sex abuse scandal involving aid workers has been uncovered, just as world leaders are meeting at the UN’s General Assembly. In a joint investigation by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera, reporters Sam Mednick and Joshua Craze chronicled a litany of failures by the aid sector at the UN-run camp in Malakal, South Sudan. Reports of abuse emerged as early as 2015, but despite the creation of a UN task force, attempts to stop it were ineffective: Allegations have continued over the past seven years and recently increased. Some of the alleged victims were children. UN chief António Guterres called for an “urgent report” on what actions were being taken to ensure accountability. In some cases, women in the UN camp said they were raped. Others said they kept having sex with male aid workers out of desperation and in exchange for money and gifts – South Sudan is one of the poorest nations in the world. Read our separate analysis to understand how gender disparities, power dynamics, and a lack of support contributed to the abuse at the camp. 

And finally…

US companies investing in refugee futures

Refugee resettlement is looked at as one solution to the issue of forced displacement. In reality, though, it is often the midway point in a longer journey. Globally, less than one percent of refugees are resettled each year. Those who are still face daunting challenges: learning new languages, dealing with past traumas, integrating into new communities, and becoming financially self-sufficient. Now, 45 major US companies – including Amazon, Pepsi, Pfizer, and Hilton – have committed to helping with this process by hiring more than 20,000 refugees in full-time positions in the US over the next three years. It is the biggest ever commitment by businesses to support refugees. The pledges were collected by the Tent Partnership for Refugees, an NGO established by Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of Chobani yoghurt. The US refugee resettlement programme has long been a world leader – although it was gutted by the Trump administration and the process of rebuilding has been slow. Fewer than 20,000 refugees have been resettled to the US this fiscal year (which ends on 30 September), but nearly 200,000 Afghans and Ukrainians have entered the US outside the official resettlement programme. “Companies must recognise that hiring refugees is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do,” Ulukaya said

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