Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Fuelling, then funding, Afghanistan’s crises
The price of averting “a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe” in Afghanistan? About $5 billion, according to UN aid officials, who this week launched a record-setting appeal aiming to help 22 million people in Afghanistan. The $4.44 billion earmarked for Afghanistan (another $600 million targets neighbouring countries) is the largest-ever UN-led appeal. To put this into perspective, it exceeds the cost of all global appeals launched in 2002 (the first full year of what would become annual appeals in post-9/11 Afghanistan). Today’s Afghanistan is mired in a severe crisis. Diets are shrinking amid soaring prices and dwindling cash; some 95 percent of the population aren’t eating enough, the World Food Programme says. Provinces like Khost and drought-hit Herat have seen rapid rises in severe malnutrition among children, the International Rescue Committee warns. As this year’s massive appeal was launched, the US announced $300 million in emergency funding. But sanctions and funding freezes on healthcare and other programmes, following the Taliban takeover, are a big reason why Afghanistan is at the brink today: Western donors continue to withhold funding with one hand, while diverting smaller amounts to respond to the ensuing crises with the other.
‘Culmination of a disastrous situation’ in Libya
More than 600 asylum seekers and migrants were detained on 10 January when Libyan security forces cleared a protest encampment in front of a community centre run by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in the capital city of Tripoli. The protesters – who were asking for protection, and evacuation from Libya – had been camped out since last October, when Libyan security forces violently rounded up more than 5,000 asylum seekers and migrants, forcing them into notoriously grim detention centres. Before the raid on 10 January, UNHCR permanently closed the centre in Tripoli because of the ongoing protest. The Norwegian Refugee Council said the most recent arrests were the “culmination of a disastrous situation”, and Médecins Sans Frontières called on the EU to “stop supporting the perpetration of an unending system of detention, abuse, and violence in Libya”. The EU backs the Libyan Coast Guard, which intercepted more than 32,000 asylum seekers and migrants at sea last year, returning them to detention centres. Libya was supposed to hold parliamentary elections last month, but the polls were postponed and no new date has been set.
Hunger warnings for 20 million in the Horn of Africa
It’s not just in Afghanistan that the new year brings with it growing food insecurity. A 29 December report by US-funded famine monitor FEWS NET warned that 20 million people across Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya will require urgent food aid in 2022. Needs are driven by drought in the eastern Horn of Africa and by conflict in northern Ethiopia – and compounded by sharp rises in the prices of basic staples and dire livestock losses. FEWS NET particularly highlighted the dearth of livestock milk production in pastoralist zones as a huge hit both in terms of food and income. On 8 January, four leading academics, including a member of the respected Famine Review Committee, warned that action in Somalia must come now if a repeat of the 2011 famine that left more than 250,000 people dead is to be avoided. “We are extremely concerned that the humanitarian system will be too slow to respond,” they wrote. Even if a famine isn’t declared – this is sometimes only down to data access/collection difficulties – millions of families are struggling to survive. For more on the worsening situation in northern Kenya, read our recent report from Senior Africa Editor Obi Anyadike.
A tale of two typhoons
In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan brought widescale destruction as it tore across the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people and landing in the record books as one of the strongest storms ever recorded. Last month, Typhoon Rai cut a similar path, but with far less global attention. One reason may be that Rai caused fewer deaths (about 400 people lost their lives). But as a recent UN infographic shows, Rai “damaged houses, infrastructure, and livelihoods on a comparable scale” – destroying or damaging more homes than Haiyan (about 1.3 million compared to 1.1 million). A month after Rai’s landfall, some 200,000 people are still displaced, according to government figures, and aid groups warn of a growing health crisis. The government is accepting international help, while local humanitarian groups are looking for support. Today’s displaced will be hoping for a swifter rebuild than after Haiyan: Some survivors of the 2013 typhoon are still waiting for permanent housing.
Journalists killed in Haiti
It has been a tumultuous few weeks for Haiti. Two reporters covering the gang violence that has paralysed the Caribbean country were captured and shot dead by gang members on 6 January in Laboule 12, a district outside the capital of Port-au-Prince where several rival groups have been jockeying for control. Wilguens Louissaint and Amady John Wesley were on assignment for Radio Écoute FM and tasked with interviewing gang members accused of killing a police inspector earlier this month. A third reporter managed to escape. Last year, there were more than 950 kidnappings in Haiti, a trend that has worsened since President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in July 2021. Prime Minister Ariel Henry, now the acting president, was recently linked to a suspect in that killing, but he has denied involvement. Haiti, meanwhile, marked a grim milestone this week: the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake – one of the deadliest on record, with estimated tolls ranging from 100,000 to 300,000 people. On the same day as the 12 January anniversary, three planes with Haitian deportees landed from the United States. Some of those who were deported escaped Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, but more recent drivers have included the worsening gang violence and the lack of government assistance following another deadly earthquake in August 2021.
Djokovic row throws spotlight on immigration detention
When Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic was released after four nights from an Australian hotel turned immigration detention centre, other involuntary guests were left behind. Djokovic landed in the facility on 5 January after not meeting Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination requirements when he arrived in the country to compete for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title. More than 30 asylum seekers have been held in the same facility since December 2020. They were transferred under a short-lived medical exemption programme from offshore detention centres on the Pacific Islands of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Since 2013, Australia has sent more than 3,000 asylum seekers to offshore detention facilities – where human rights groups have documented abuse, inhumane treatment, and medical neglect – to try to deter boat migration. The attention raised by Djokovic’s brief stay raised hopes among human rights advocates that Australia might be pressured to release the longer-term detainees. That hope is fading, and advocates now see it as an example of the harsher treatment meted out to those in need of humanitarian protection compared to the wealthy and powerful. While Djokovic will be free to move on and continue his stellar career regardless of the visa outcome, thousands seeking new lives – but enduring indefinite detention and alleged abuses due to Australia’s immigration policies – will not.
In case you missed it
BANGLADESH: Another fire in the Rohingya camps is spurring renewed calls for safer housing and the removal of barbed-wire fencing. A 9 January fire destroyed hundreds of tent homes in the overcrowded refugee camps. A massive March 2021 blaze made 45,000 people homeless. Bangladesh’s government generally limits shelter materials to non-permanent (and highly flammable) bamboo and tarpaulin.
BRAZIL: Two weeks after flooding left at least 20 people dead and forced more than 50,000 from their homes in the northeastern state of Bahia, heavy rains have caused more devastation and death in neighbouring Minas Gerais. A state of emergency was declared in the region as some 17,000 people had to be evacuated and roads became impassable. But in spite of climate change’s heavy toll on the country, Mongabay reported that a key deforestation monitoring programme may shutter due to a lack of government funding.
LEBANON: The Lebanese government increased the price of partially subsidised bread from bakeries by about 30 percent this week, in the first hike of 2022. Prices have been steadily increasing, alongside hyperinflation, since the country’s economy began to crash in late 2019.
MALI: After deciding to delay elections until 2026, the ruling Malian junta has been slapped with new sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), followed by similar moves from the EU. The military government has condemned the measures and recalled ambassadors, while Mali's regional neighbours have closed borders, imposed a trade embargo, cut off financial aid, and frozen the country's assets at the Central Bank of West African States.
MYANMAR: Hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians lack food and other assistance as post-coup conflict flares across Myanmar, aid groups warn. At least 377,000 people remain displaced since the February 2021 coup, but aid access is as constrained as ever. For example, the UN says half the population in southeastern Loikaw township have been displaced in recent weeks, but several aid groups have suspended operations there as well.
NICARAGUA: President Daniel Ortega began his fourth term on 10 January after being re-elected in a poll devoid of opposition leaders, many of whom were detained on his orders in 2021. The United States and the EU imposed sanctions on government officials and the president’s relatives in response to the “fraudulent national elections”. Independent news outlet Confidencial, whose founder, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, went into exile in June after its offices were raided, reported that some 100,000 Nicaraguans migrated in 2021, due largely to rising poverty and the political crisis.
NIGERIA: About 200 people were killed and 10,000 displaced by armed bandits in the northwestern state of Zamfara last week after airstrikes on their forest hideouts by the Nigerian military reportedly killed around 100 militants, including two of their leaders. To understand the complex roots of the unrest, check out this in-depth reporting from Senior Africa Editor Obi Anyadike.
RUSSIA/UKRAINE: A trio of meetings between Western and Russian diplomats in various European capitals this week failed to ease tensions over Russia’s military build-up on its border with Ukraine. Russia has been steadily amassing troops and military equipment since October and issued a list of demands in December it says must be met to lower tensions – including a ban on Ukraine entering NATO and the rollback of the US military presence in Eastern Europe.
SYRIA: A Syrian aid worker was killed on 11 January in a medical facility at the northeastern camp of al-Hol, which is home to tens of thousands of former supporters and victims of the so-called Islamic State. The UN said that there have been 90 reported murders of residents at the notoriously dangerous camp, including at least two aid workers, since January 2021.
SYRIA/GERMANY: A German court sentenced a former Syrian intelligence officer to life in prison for crimes against humanity on 13 January in a verdict hailed as a “historic” moment for efforts to seek justice for atrocities committed by President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
What happens when the humanitarian mission of an NGO and the politics of its government partner (and funder) begin to sharply diverge? That’s the question at the heart of this week’s weekend read. In 2019, Denmark became the first European country to tell a large number of Syrian refugees to go home, citing a decline in armed conflict in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Its main piece of evidence? A report co-authored by Denmark’s largest NGO, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). The choice to collaborate on the report sparked controversy inside DRC over whether to maintain the NGO’s close relationship with the government or to distance itself to avoid being implicated in policies that run counter to the organisation’s mission. The story also has wider resonance: If news out of the UK last week is any indication, it appears there is a risk more countries may try to follow Denmark and focus on a reduction in armed conflict – while overlooking the ongoing human rights abuses committed by the Syrian government – to justify rolling back protections for Syrian refugees.
The passing of Magawa, the life-saving rat
Sometimes, the best person for the job happens to be a rat. Sadly, however, Magawa – an African pouched rat who was awarded a gold medal for sniffing out more than 70 landmines in Cambodia – died earlier this month after a long and storied career. Born in Tanzania and trained by the Belgium-registered charity, Apopo, Magawa weighed 1.2 kilograms and was 70 centimetres long. Towering above his Manhattan subway cousins, he was still small enough to avoid triggering the mines when sniffing for chemical compounds left behind in the explosives. Unlike humans, the rats have been able to search an area the size of a tennis court in just 20 minutes. That would take a person one to four days to accomplish. “Magawa was in good health and spent most of last week playing with his usual enthusiasm, but towards the weekend he started to slow down, napping more and showing less interest in food in his last days,” Apopo said in a statement. It is thought there are as many as six million landmines still in Cambodia. Only one state, Myanmar, was confirmed to still be using them as of October 2021, according to the Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor. Four Cambodians, including three deminers, were killed on 10 January by anti-tank mines, becoming the latest victims of the scourge. Read our 2019 briefing – and reporting roundup – for more.