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Syria’s water woes, slivers of climate hope, and Yemen’s mercenaries: 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

No surprise: Syria’s water and winter woes 

Syria’s cholera outbreak has now spread to every one of the country’s 14 provinces, with 24,000 suspected cases and more than 80 deaths since early September. Severe water shortages – exacerbated by war, politics, and climate change – have forced people to drink unsafe water and allowed cholera bacteria to spread in the extremely low Euphrates River. There are other dangerous impacts from what the UN calls an “already dire water crisis” that is likely to get worse: Pastures dry up, and farmers have to sell their livestock. Crop yields are low, prices go up, and more families are forced to skip meals. It’s almost as predictable as what happens when winter comes to northern Syria: Many can’t afford heating and resort to burning whatever they can find, tents collapse under the weight of storms, and the temperatures can be deadly. Aid groups are working on what’s known as “winterisation”, but this week a UN representative called the response “grossly underfunded”, warning that if more money doesn’t come in, “families will not receive the heating, fuel, blankets, and winter clothes they desperately need to keep warm.”

Why Myanmar’s neighbours (and the UN) are worried

At least 80 people were killed and hundreds injured after a 23 October airstrike by the Myanmar military on a celebration in Kachin state – an act that rights groups termed a war crime. The attack was the latest by Myanmar’s junta, which has been merciless in its attempt to stamp out both peaceful pro-democracy protests and armed rebellion since coming to power in a February 2021 coup. On 25 October, the UN special envoy to Myanmar warned the UN General Assembly of a humanitarian crisis, noting that more than 13 million people don’t have enough to eat while over 1 million have been displaced. Southeast Asian foreign ministers held a special meeting in Jakarta later in the week to discuss the rising violence.

Türkiye and Lebanon amp up calls for Syrians to leave

Amid tough economic times and rising xenophobia, Syrian refugees in Türkiye and Lebanon are facing pressure to return to Syria as politicians in both countries talk about sending people back en masse. Türkiye and Lebanon host around 3.7 million and 800,000 registered Syrian refugees respectively. The UN and advocacy groups warn that Syria is still not safe, and forcibly returning refugees to a country where their lives or rights are threatened is against international law. 

This week, Lebanon restarted a programme to facilitate the return of refugees to neighbouring Syria that had run from 2018 to 2020. Several hundred Syrians joined the first convoy on 26 October. Many cited Lebanon’s dire economic crisis as the reason they decided to leave. The returns are supposed to be voluntary, but rights groups have raised concerns about people being coerced into going back. Meanwhile, returning refugees to Syria has become a major political issue in Türkiye, as we reported this week. Hundreds of Syrians – including many with protected status – have been detained and deported this year, according to a new Human Rights Watch report

Another thing a shift from fossil fuels could help: global health 

The climate emergency is also a health crisis – worsening the reach of infectious diseases, driving up heat-related mortality, threatening crop yields and food security, and intensifying humanitarian emergencies. It’s an issue we flagged as part of our 10 crises and trends to watch and one that health experts will be pushing heavily at the imminent COP27 climate summit in Egypt. A new report published by The Lancet warns of the consequences of fossil fuels on human health. It analyses a range of key indicators – exposure to extreme heat, added healthcare costs, lost earnings – to measure the costs and global trends. “Climate change is undermining every dimension of global health,” the report’s authors write. The overarching solution? A rapid shift away from fossil fuel dependence – the very message that has failed to stick over years of climate advocacy. The Lancet report authors do note a few small “glimmers” of hope: Clean energy generation reached record highs in 2020 and total employment in clean energy now tops fossil fuel extraction.

Criticism and obstacles in Uganda’s Ebola response

The Ugandan government has been criticised for its allegedly slow response to an Ebola outbreak that reached the capital, Kampala, this week. Confirmed cases nationwide have risen to 109, with 30 deaths – six of those fatalities have been health workers. So far, 15 Ebola cases have been detected in Kampala, just days after the government said there were none. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organisation director-general, warned in a Tweet that tackling Ebola in urban areas is complex and “requires coordinated & sustained efforts to interrupt transmission”. But Uganda’s effort has reportedly been hamstrung by logistical failures, people’s distrust of the state, and hesitancy over imposing restrictions in the wake of a long and economically damaging COVID-19 lockdown. However, the African Union’s Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said in a briefing that the outbreak was “still under control” and “not getting out of hand”. The virus circulating in Uganda is the Sudan strain of Ebola, for which there is no proven vaccine. Uganda will evaluate the efficacy of three candidate Ebola Sudan vaccines in the coming weeks.

‘War footing’ in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso's new military government said this week the country was on a “war footing”, and launched a drive to recruit 50,000 civilian defence volunteers to help the overstretched army fight jihadist insurgents. The recruits receive two weeks of basic training and then join the Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland (VDP), a commune-based militia. Fifteen thousand of the new militia members will be deployed nationwide. Created in 2020, the VDP was supposed to represent each “region, ethnicity, political opinion, and religious denomination”. But the reality is few recruits have been drawn from the pastoralist Fulani, and the community – accused by some in the security forces of siding with the jihadists – has been targeted in extra-judicial killings. The poorly equipped volunteers, who work alongside ethnic-based militia, are both perpetrators and victims of the violence; they are accused of abuses but are also easy targets for the battle-hardened jihadists. In August, the government “fiercely condemnedhate speech spread largely on social media that described all Fulani as “terrorists” – even though they are also the victims of jihadist attacks.

 

Weekend read

Indigenous neglect, hunger, and police violence: Brazil’s presidential in-tray

Polls have tightened, but Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist two-time former leader, is still favoured to complete a stunning political resurrection and unseat far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s 30 October presidential run-off. But many who want a Lula victory see it as a matter of life and death more than just a question of political taste. For our weekend read, Brazilian journalist Amanda Magnani travelled to the Indigenous territory of Tabalascada, where COVID ripped through communities that largely blame Bolsonaro for downplaying the virus and leaving them unprotected and unassisted. The pandemic’s legacy can be seen too in Brazil’s favelas, where more than 17 million people – around 8% of the population – are struggling with unemployment and hunger. Maria Dalva Correia da Silva lost her 19-year-old son during a police operation in Rio de Janeiro’s Borel favela in 2003, when Lula was in power. But she says she will still vote for him, having witnessed growing impunity for police violence under Bolsonaro: “Today, we fight for the memory and dignity of our deceased; but we also fight to prevent more young people from dying.”

In case you missed it

AID SECTOR, DECOLONISATION: Five international NGOs have signed up to yet another set of commitments to make the aid system more equitable and locally led. The Pledge for Change lays out adjustments to the way these organisations will partner with local groups, portray people on the receiving end of aid in pictures and words, and push for larger change within the system. While they have yet to iron out the specific metrics to meet these goals, signatories are hopeful this is a step towards long overdue transformation of the sector. Read more about where the pledge began and how these groups got to this point. 

AID SECTOR, SEXUAL ABUSE AND EXPLOITATION: The US government has released a set of commitments on prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation within the aid sector. Some of those include holding the UN and international NGOs to the “highest standard” to prevent and mitigate risks; expecting accountability and transparency on investigations and other efforts; supporting organisational culture changes to make leadership accountable; and empowering local initiatives and communities – particularly those efforts led by women and girls.

ETHIOPIA: The first formal peace talks between the warring sides in the two-year conflict in the Tigray region opened in South Africa on 25 October. Convened by the African Union, the talks begin as the government has been making significant gains on the battlefield. They are seen by some as a last-ditch effort to halt a humanitarian catastrophe.

HAITI: Talk of another armed international intervention continues, along with concern over who will lead it. The United States has proposed sending a force but has stopped short of volunteering US troops. Canada has sent a team to the Caribbean country to assess the security situation and growing humanitarian crisis. Canadians were part of an international force that arrived in 2004, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted. 

IRAN: At least eight people were killed by security forces in less than 24 hours, Amnesty International reported on 27 October. In total, more than 234 people have been killed since protests began last month, after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody days after being arrested for wearing her hijab improperly. Police have escalated their violence against both protesters and mourners in recent days, using live rounds at memorials for others who have been killed by security forces. 

IRAQ: Farming communities across the country have seen decreasing harvests for the second year in a row, the result of the country’s ongoing climate and water crisis, a new survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council has found. 

LIBYA: The UN’s new envoy to Libya told the Security Council on 24 October that “political deadlock persists with no clear end in sight” to ongoing disagreements about who controls the country, which has two rival governments and prime ministers. A presidential election scheduled for December 2021 was postponed indefinitely over disagreements about the rules, including who was eligible to run.

MALI: Jihadist armed groups have killed hundreds of people and forced tens of thousands to flee their villages in coordinated attacks since March, according to Human Rights Watch. The insurgents, aligned with the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, have systematically attacked dozens of villages in the northeast regions of Ménaka and Gao. These attacks have largely targeted ethnic Dawsahak, a Tuareg ethnic group.

PAKISTAN: A police officer escorting a polio vaccination health worker was shot dead on 25 October in Balochistan, raising concerns for the country’s vaccination drive – even as polio cases are on the rise. Due to the CIA’s use of a fake vaccination campaign in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Pakistan has long contended with violence against health workers, with at least 100 people associated with vaccine campaigns killed in the past decade, according to Al Jazeera. 

SUDAN: At least 200 people were killed in two days of ethnic clashes in Sudan’s southern Blue Nile state. The violence broke out last week, after reported disputes over land between members of the Hausa people and rival communities. The regional government declared a state of emergency. Intercommunal violence flared in the same area in July and killed around 65 people.

UKRAINE: A government minister is urging refugees who have sought safety outside the country to remain abroad at least until spring, citing concerns about disruption to heating systems and other critical infrastructure during winter due to Russian attacks. Meanwhile, several EU countries are grappling with a shortage of space in their asylum reception systems as the challenges of attending to the longer-term needs of some 4.4 million Ukrainians who have registered for temporary protection in the bloc begin to set in. 

And finally…

Two German ex-soldiers, a fortune teller, and the urge to fight in Yemen

Yemen’s six-month ceasefire expired earlier this month after the warring sides failed to agree on the terms of a renewal. While there have been some clashes, the country has so far not seen a return to all-out fighting. But that’s not for a lack of fighters. During the past eight years of war, a variety of countries and armed groups have shown up. Some have done so officially, as part of the Saudi Arabia and United Emirates-backed coalition that supports the country’s internationally recognised government. Others have slipped in more quietly, including a group of Colombian mercenaries or the child soldiers from Darfur – who may have had little choice in the matter. Many lost their lives; it is estimated that at least 150,000 people have died as a direct result of the violence

Just this week, a German court sentenced two men who tried to get involved in the conflict… and failed. They were charged with attempt to form a terrorist organisation. The two former German soldiers, aged 61 and 53, reportedly wanted to build a force of up to 150 mercenaries to fight Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Prosecutors said the failed plotters were motivated by both Christian fundamentalist beliefs and instructions from a fortune teller to go forward with their plan. They are also said to have tried to contact Saudi officials for funding, who did not respond to their entreaties. 

Suffice it to say that while nobody knows exactly how many soldiers support the Houthis, who now control most of north Yemen, including the capital city of Sana’a, it is far more than 150. The men received suspended prison sentences, and the presiding judge concluded on 24 October that “the defendants have achieved nothing at all.”

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