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‘Contactless’ aid, deadly snow days, and a doomsday reset: The Cheat Sheet

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(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

The Red Cross data hack: The latest, but not the last

The fallout is just beginning after what data privacy researchers say could be the biggest-ever breach of humanitarian data. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on 19 January said a cyber-attack compromised the data of more than 515,000 of the world’s most vulnerable – including people uprooted by conflict and disasters. The exposed data reportedly includes names, locations, and contact information collected by at least 60 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the globe. The ICRC said it wasn’t clear if the data was shared (though a user on one hackers’ forum claimed to be ransoming it). While the ICRC is urging hackers not to release the data, some analysts also said the group itself should be held accountable: “Humanitarian organisations should not get a free pass. They are responsible to safeguard the data they collect,” tweeted Stefan Soesanto, a cybersecurity researcher. Will this high-profile hack spark long-demanded improvements to information security across the aid sector? Experts have long urged aid groups to prioritise the issue, but the list of poor practices grows ever longer: unreported breaches, insecure systems, security lapses, ransomware attacks, poor data-handling, questionable partnerships, or simply collecting too much data in the first place. For a sobering deep dive on these examples and more, check out our ongoing collection of reporting on humanitarian technology.

COVID-free Tonga seeks a ‘contactless’ aid response

Securing safe drinking water is the priority as Tonga weighs the damage from the 15 January volcano eruption that blanketed parts of the Pacific island nation in ashfall and sent tsunami waves ricocheting across the globe. Tonga’s government estimates nearly all of the country’s population of roughly 100,000 is impacted in some way and has asked for international help. Long distances to outer islands and communications cuts – the eruption damaged an underwater fibre optics cable – have slowed assessments and aid. The pandemic is another roadblock, as international governments and several aid groups gear up to help: Remote Tonga is essentially free of COVID-19, having recorded only a single confirmed case, and the government has asked that all help be “contactless” for now. The government says there’s an “urgent” need for clean drinking water. There are also longer-term concerns as the agricultural sector is badly hit: The UN reports dead livestock, damage to grazing land, and contaminated water supplies, and the government has reportedly advised against fishing. 

Deadly snow days for Syria’s displaced kids

Heavy rains, wind, and snow hit displaced people living across northern Syria hard this week, as camps flooded and tents collapsed. Forecasts predict even lower temperatures in the coming days. Three children are already reported to have died: One when snow caused their tent to collapse; two more when a heater set their tent on fire. These deaths have become a tragically predictable feature of the Syrian war, as a large number of the country’s 6.7 million internally displaced people live in shelters that can’t withstand winter weather. The same is true for many refugees in places like neighbouring Lebanon, who are forced to brave the cold in makeshift settlements. Fuel is costly and can be hard to come by, so some people take dangerous steps to stay warm. As Sherine Ibrahim, country director of CARE Turkey, said in a statement on 18 January: “During the cold winter, mothers are usually the last ones to eat, and children are usually the first ones to freeze.”

Sudan military targets peaceful protests and media

The UN human rights office, known as OHCHR, this week called on the authorities in Sudan to “immediately cease” the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters. At least 72 people have been killed and over 2,000 injured by the military using live ammunition to crush rolling pro-democracy demonstrations, aimed at forcing them from power in the wake of an October coup. In the clampdown, the security forces have arrested wounded protesters in hospitals and reportedly assaulted healthcare workers, an OHCHR spokesperson said on 18 January. The media has also been a target, with journalists detained and their offices raided. The broadcasting licence of Al Jazeera Live – the Arabic-language news channel – was revoked this week. An international initiative to try and resolve the political crisis is under way. Led in Sudan by the UN, it involves consultations with the main players to prepare the ground for negotiations. But street-based activists, and political parties ousted in the overthrow of the civilian-led transitional government, have so far refused direct talks with the military. A donor aid freeze imposed after the coup on the stumbling economy remains in place.

Economic sanctions aggravate Mali’s humanitarian crisis

The sanctions slapped on Mali earlier this month by the Economic Community of West African States risk aggravating the country’s humanitarian crisis, a group of international NGOs working in the country said this week. Border closures could worsen food insecurity – which has almost tripled over the past 12 months. Financial sanctions may make it harder for aid groups to transfer funds into the country, which is battling extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. The restrictions were introduced after Mali’s military junta proposed to extend its stay in power by five years, having previously promised elections this month. The junta took charge in August 2020 through a coup that ousted recently deceased President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Diplomatic relations between Mali and its main Western donors have since plummeted as Russian military instructors have entered the country. The instructors are said to include mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, which has a track record of rights abuses from Libya and Syria to Central African Republic.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Facing widespread restrictions, Afghan women are bearing the brunt of job losses since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover. Women’s employment levels shrunk by 16 percent after the Taliban resurgence (compared to about 6 percent for men), according to estimates by the International Labor Organization. The organisation projects “huge” overall job losses of 900,000 by mid-year – a 14 percent contraction – as the economy spirals.

BRAZIL: Days after police officers killed three members of the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) gang during a raid on a favela north of Rio de Janeiro, a massive military police operation launched in the city’s notorious Jacarezinho neighbourhood. Some 1,200 police were deployed as part of a government plan to transform poor and gang-controlled inner-city communities and provide access to public services such as health and education. Last May, a raid on the same favela ended with 28 deaths, making it Rio’s deadliest police operation.

DENMARK: Members of the European Parliament criticised Denmark for pushing to externalise asylum processing and for revoking protections from some Syrian refugees who fled homes in and around Damascus, saying hundreds of Syrians in Denmark would be forced to seek protection in other EU countries. Denmark countered that it was creating a “fairer and more humane” asylum system. For more on Denmark’s controversial asylum policies, read our recent coverage: How Denmark’s hard line on Syrian refugees is an aid group’s ethical dilemma.

DRUG-RESISTANT INFECTIONS: A new study published in the Lancet shows that in 2019 more than 1.2 million deaths resulted directly from infections caused by bacteria resistant to antibiotics. The estimate was based on an analysis of 204 countries. The toll eclipsed the 860,000 AIDS deaths and 640,000 malaria deaths that year. Poorer countries where antibiotics are often overused to treat minor infections were the worst affected by Antimicrobial Drug Resistance (AMR). 

ETHIOPIA: UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on 19 January that there is “now a demonstrable effort to make peace” in Ethiopia following 14 months of conflict between the federal government and forces from the northern Tigray region. The statement followed a call between Guterres and the African Union’s Horn of Africa envoy, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was recently in Ethiopia to mediate between the conflict parties. Read our latest for more.

GREECE: The Greek Coast Guard says it rescued more than 29,000 asylum seekers and migrants last year, but a UN count notes only around 4,000 sea arrivals in the country – raising questions about why the maths doesn’t add up. Migration experts were quick to suggest that if both numbers are correct, the approximately 25,000 “missing” people were likely pushed back to Turkey. Greece has long denied involvement in border pushbacks, although human rights groups and journalists have documented strong evidence of asylum seekers and migrants pushed back from its borders.

ISRAEL/PALESTINE: Israeli police evicted a Palestinian family from the flashpoint occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah and demolished their home at dawn on 19 January, in a move that has been condemned by the European Union and human rights groups. Jerusalem says it needs the land for a school and the house was built illegally; most of the international community considers the east to be occupied, with such evictions and demolitions illegal under international law. 

MYANMAR/THAILAND: Aid from the Thai government alone “may not be sustainable nor sufficient” for civilians fleeing military airstrikes and attacks in southeast Myanmar, the UN’s refugee agency warned. At least 9,500 people have fled to Thailand since a mid-December surge in violence. Most have returned, but aid groups warn the situation is volatile. Most international aid groups don’t have official access to new arrivals.

NIGERIA: The authorities have lifted a seven-month Twitter ban imposed in a row over the social media platform’s decision to delete a post by the president. The government said the company had agreed to conditions on the management of “unlawful content”, registering its operations in Nigeria, and a new tax arrangement. There are concerns that Twitter’s “capitulation” may embolden other governments keen to regulate the internet.

THE PHILIPPINES: Health facilities are overstretched and some women are having trouble finding vital care as parts of the Philippines tackle another COVID-19 surge alongside the damage from December’s Typhoon Rai. Amid reports that women in labour have been turned away from full hospitals, health officials and a UN agency are calling for help to ensure reproductive health services are available.

UKRAINE/RUSSIA: Some analysts are warning that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could spark a humanitarian crisis and an exodus of refugees. US and Russian diplomats are continuing talks in Geneva to avert a potential clash. US President Joe Biden warned recently of a “severe and coordinated economic response” if Russia invades. Russia denies such plans but has amassed some 100,000 troops at the border.

Weekend read

First Person | ‘I will not leave my family to die here’: A photojournalist in Yemen’s Marib

Yemen’s war has been dangerous and often deadly for civilians for seven years now, but the last few weeks have seen violence ramp up at a disturbing pace. Aid agencies warn that a recent airstrike in the northern province of Sa’ada hit a reservoir, cutting off 120,000 people from safe water. Airstrikes on Sana’a reportedly killed more than a dozen people on 17 January. And fighting continues to creep in on the central city of Marib, where around a million people took refuge earlier in the war. Photojournalist Nabil Alawzari is one of them, and in this frank and moving interview he discusses why he feels connected to the displaced people living in a nearby camp, what he will do if the war draws even closer, and what his young kids think of his job. He describes worried late-night phone calls with his family when bombs hit Sana’a, and the same sort of calls when rockets land near Marib. He talks about crying while filming. This sort of honesty is rare. It not only gives a picture of what life is like near the front lines of a major battle, it is also an important reminder that many journalists are documenting the destruction of their own communities and can’t simply hop on a plane to leave the places they report on.

And finally…

It doesn’t have to be the end of the world as we know it

Regular readers of the Cheat Sheet could be forgiven for more than occasionally thinking that the world is about to end. But the panel of scientists and security experts that runs the Doomsday Clock is here to remind you that there’s a little time left, because we are actually 100 seconds to midnight (at least as of 20 January). If that leaves you feeling fine and ready to celebrate – and the keepers of the clock, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, offer a doomsday playlist and a drinking guide to help with that – consider that 2022 (the clock’s 75th anniversary) is tied with the past two years for the closest we’ve ever been to the apocalypse. You can see the whole thing as very Dr. Strangelove, but the idea behind the clock is no joke. Designed when nuclear attacks were the threat du jour to “convey how close humanity is to destroying itself,” today the great powers are still arming up, we’ve failed to distribute COVID-19 vaccines across the world, and there’s been much talk and little action on the climate crisis. As both art and (slightly dated) pop culture, the Doomsday Clock is a reminder that the world is in a bad way, but also that there are things we can do to reset the clock and push the hands a bit further away from midnight. Here's a little something to help you contemplate that (and maybe kick off your weekend). 

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