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Tigray’s civilian toll, Rohingya security fears, and cholera vaccine cuts: 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

Fears over civilian atrocities as conflict rages in Tigray

Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict has taken yet another turn for the worse in the past two weeks as the federal army and its allies make major territorial gains and the UN warns of an “utterly staggering” toll on civilians. Half a million combatants are thought to be engaged in fighting and tens of thousands of people may have been killed since a five-month truce ended in August. Tigrayan fighters could be forced into another guerrilla-style insurgency as their ammunition stocks dwindle and their movements are restricted by federal drones. Pro-government forces, meanwhile, have captured a string of towns in recent days – including Shire, which hosts thousands of displaced Tigrayans – and they appear set on taking the regional capital, Mekelle. There are fears these troops will commit atrocities against Tigrayans, as they did in a previous offensive in late 2020 and early 2021. Peace talks are supposed to take place early next week in South Africa, but diplomatic efforts have failed to avert violence so far and seem likely to flop again.

Killings in Rohingya refugee camps

A Rohingya teenager was murdered on 18 October, just days after two Rohingya community leaders were hacked to death by a mob in another of the sprawling camps in Bangladesh that are home to more than 1 million Rohingya refugees. Earlier this month, men opened fire at a market in another refugee camp, killing an 11-year-old girl and injuring a woman. Local police say the murders reflect a worsening security situation in the camps, where most refugees came to from Myanmar following a wave of military-led ethnic cleansing in 2017. While the camps were meant to be a temporary measure, the military coup that took place in 2021 has made the already difficult possibility of return all but impossible. Bangladeshi police, as well as family members, blamed the community leader killings on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has been fighting Myanmar’s military junta and has in the past reportedly targeted those pushing for repatriation. However, police also noted a rise in gang warfare amid those trying to control the methamphetamine market. 

Flood toll adds to food and fuel woes in Nigeria and Chad

Both Nigeria and neighbouring Chad have been swamped by the worst flooding in decades. In Nigeria, more than 600 people have been killed, and over 1.4 million made homeless, after exceptionally heavy rains hit 33 of the country’s 36 states – compounded by the release of water from a dam in next-door Cameroon. In Chad, where the government has declared a state of emergency, more than a million people have been affected. The situation is particularly bad in the country’s south, where the Chari and Logone rivers broke their banks, inundating homes in the capital, N’Djamena. With farmland destroyed, and roads and other infrastructure washed away, both countries are facing a long-term crisis. Chad was already struggling after three consecutive poor harvests. In Nigeria, rice production is expected to fall by 21 percent, and maize by 12 percent. That will affect food prices, at a time when inflation is already at 23 percent – a 17-year high. Fuel shortages are forcing people to use the black market – at triple the price per litre – and gas suppliers have declared force majeure, which will affect sales to Europe, worsening the government’s existing cash crunch. 

A ‘last-resort’ cholera vaccine stopgap

Emergency health officials are rationing the cholera vaccine – hoping to avoid having to choose who gets access if supplies run out amid a global surge. The two-dose oral cholera vaccine will be halved due to a “dire shortage”, the World Health Organization announced on 19 October. The WHO is part of a coordinating group that manages global stockpiles. Cutting back to a single dose will allow the vaccine to cover more people, but health experts say immunity is likely reduced or shortened compared to a full two doses. The stopgap is a sign of the growing concern as cholera outbreaks rise – fuelled by a mix of conflict, violence, and poverty, and turbocharged by climate change. At least 29 countries have reported cholera cases this year, including many already facing overlapping emergencies such as Haiti, Lebanon, and Syria. The five previous years averaged fewer than 20 countries reporting outbreaks. “This last-resort decision is a way to avoid making the impossible choice of sending doses to one country over another,” said Daniela Garone of Médecins Sans Frontières, part of the vaccine coordinating group. Kenya is one of the latest countries to confirm an outbreak (and health officials warned it will likely be worsened by drought). Pakistan had already reported cases, but weeks of severe flooding will amp up the risks.

Cholera vaccine: By the numbers

Of 36 million doses to be produced in 2022:

  • 24 million have already been shipped
  • 8 million are earmarked for emergency vaccination in just 4 countries
  • At least 29 countries are reporting cholera cases

More promises, and uncertainty, for global health funding

Health experts converged on Berlin for the 16-18 October World Health Summit in a conference meant to spark ideas and carve out a clearer political focus on global health. The results were decidedly uneven. More money was pledged for polio, and parliamentarians did promise to prioritise health. But there were questions about Britain’s next round of foreign aid cuts: UK announcements were conspicuously missing from the summit’s polio pledges, as they were from September’s funding free-for-all to top up the Global Fund’s coffers. There were also new signs of health setbacks. A WHO report showed a “staggering backsliding” for women’s and children’s health due to the combined effects of conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change. Also missing from congratulatory press releases were the unfortunate optics of yet another conference held in the so-called Global North, discussing issues and making decisions that have lopsided impacts in the Global South. And at least one dignitary said he had trouble attending the summit. The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ahmed Ogwell, tweeted that he was mistreated by immigration personnel at Frankfurt’s airport. Even with a visa, he wrote, “Africa is on its own. Same as for vaccines and health emergencies.”

Questions mount for Frontex over EU pushbacks

The EU’s border agency, Frontex, has admitted wrongdoing following a leaked report from an investigation into the agency’s involvement in – and cover up of – illegal pushbacks from Greece to Türkiye. The investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud office contributed to the resignation of Frontex’s executive director earlier this year. In a 14 October statement acknowledging the findings, Frontex said, “these were practices of the past”. Still, as a rebuke, the European Parliament voted on 18 October to not endorse Frontex’s 2020 budget – the largest of any EU agency. Critics now question how Frontex – which often deploys personnel to work alongside EU member states’ border forces – can operate without being complicit in pushbacks and other violations, which have become commonplace. For example, Frontex drones surveil the central Mediterranean to spot boats departing from North Africa before they reach European waters. And just this week, Malta faced scrutiny for directing a merchant vessel to return people rescued at sea to Egypt – a possible violation of international law – instead of allowing them to be disembarked in a closer, safe European port. 

Contributor to The New Humanitarian detained in Somalia

Somali journalist and contributor to The New Humanitarian Abdalle Ahmed Mumin was detained by the authorities – for the second time in eight days – on 18 October as he was about to leave the country for medical treatment. Abdalle, the secretary-general of the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS), was first held on 11 October for challenging the government’s blanket ban on quoting the insurgent group, al-Shabab. The SJS argues that the order not only undermines media freedom, but also endangers the lives of journalists. Abdalle was released on bail by a magistrate’s court on 16 October but detained again at the airport on 18 October, as he was about to leave for treatment in Kenya for a kidney ailment. Abdalle has since been prevented from visiting a local hospital, and is now on hunger strike, according to the SJS. His lawyers have not yet been able to lodge an appeal. Rights groups and journalist unions have condemned Abdalle’s continued detention. They argue that the government – in its determination to crush al-Shabab – is also taking aim at independent media.

In case you missed it

AUSTRALIA/VIETNAM FLOODS: Flooding across two states in Australia led to the evacuation of thousands and at least three deaths. Meanwhile, the worst-ever floods in Vietnam’s Da Nang City caused more than $60 million in damage, while also killing at least 10 people in central Vietnam.

CHAD ROCKED BY DEADLY PROTESTS: Dozens were killed in protests around the country on 20 October as police violently cracked down on demonstrations calling for a faster transition to democratic rule. The military-led government put the toll at around 50, but this couldn’t be independently verified. Chad has faced 18 months of turmoil since the death of then-president Idriss Déby in April 2021.

HAITI CHOLERA: Children face increasing risks as Haiti battles endemic gang violence and a new cholera outbreak. UNICEF says some 1.2 million children in and around the capital, Port-au-Prince, are at risk of contracting cholera. Some 100,000 children under the age of 5 and experiencing severe malnutrition are especially vulnerable. More than half of the 357 suspected cholera cases reported since 2 October have been children under 14. 

SOMALI CHILDREN DYING OF HUNGER: The UN has warned that a child is being admitted to a health facility with severe acute malnutrition “every single minute of every single day”. A UNICEF spokesperson said that without a more urgent response to the record drought and looming famine, “we are facing the death of children on a scale not seen in half a century”. 

SUDAN CLASHES LEAVE SCORES DEAD: Renewed fighting in Sudan’s southern Blue Nile state has left at least 151 people dead, according to Reuters, though other reports put the death toll lower. The fighting involves the Hausa and Hamaj groups, though blaming clashes on “inter-communal” or “tribal” tensions can overlook the complexity of conflict in Sudan.

TÜRKIYE-GREECE MIGRANT PUSHBACKS: The UN refugee agency is calling for an investigation after 92 people – mostly from Syria and Afghanistan – were found stripped naked along the Greek-Turkish border on 14 October. Greece and Türkiye have publicly traded accusations of responsibility. Türkiye frequently uses migration to exert pressure on Greece and the EU while journalists and human rights groups accuse Greece of systematically pushing asylum seekers and migrants back from the country’s borders. 

UK PRESSURES TAMIL REFUGEES: A group of Tamil asylum seekers who landed on a British military base on the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia have reportedly been told they will be transferred to an undisclosed third country if they cannot be repatriated to Sri Lanka, where many fear persecution. Diego Garcia is a legal grey space where the UN Refugee Convention doesn’t apply, as we reported last month. 

WHO OFFICIAL ACCUSED OF SYRIA FRAUD: The WHO’s top official in Syria has been accused of mismanaging millions of dollars and lavishing government officials with gifts, according to an investigation by The Associated Press. Dr. Akjemal Magtymova told the AP the accusations were “defamatory”. It is the latest bad press for the WHO, which is still reeling from a sex abuse scandal involving aid workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Weekend watch

Video | Meet the DIY humanitarians changing it up

The multi-billion-dollar aid system isn’t just about UN agencies and the big international NGOs. And in a world where the gap between donor funding and humanitarian needs seems to be forever growing, it’s also not about simply accepting the status quo. The sector needs independent thinkers who aren’t afraid to shake things up and find better ways of working. For our new interview series, DIY Humanitarians, we went looking for aid disruptors tackling challenges head-on. In our first instalment, we spoke to Mayuri Bhattacharjee, Eric James, Natasha Freidus, and James Thuch Madhier about their innovative work across a wide range of endeavours. Bhattacharjee is the founder of Dignity in Disasters, which provides menstrual products to women affected by crises. James is co-founder of Field Ready, sourcing urgently needed humanitarian items locally, quickly, and inexpensively. Freidus created NeedsList to bridge the information gap between users and suppliers of aid. While Madhier launched the Rainmaker Enterprise, an initiative that uses solar power to provide water and mechanised farming services to communities in South Sudan. Watch them explain what kickstarted their novel ideas, and how their fresh approaches are improving aid. 

And finally…

TikTok vows action over Syria child begging

Last week, we highlighted an investigation by the BBC that found that hundreds of internally displaced people (IDPs) – including children – in northern Syria were begging on TikTok while the platform and so-called “TikTok middlemen” were pocketing most of the money donated. The investigation raised concerns about child exploitation, and TikTok vowed to take action to address the issue. This week, the social media company announced that it will raise the minimum age for livestreaming on the app from 16 to 18 – although it is unclear how the age restrictions will be enforced. Around 1.7 million IDPs live in overcrowded camps in northwest Syria, where food insecurity is on the rise, economic opportunities are minimal, and concerns are growing about a deadly cholera outbreak. 

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