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South Sudan conflicts, Syrian discontent, and an execution in Iran: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

Louise O'Brien/TNH

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


On our radar


Thousands flee worsening South Sudan clashes


A long list of ostensibly local conflicts has broken out in South Sudan since a national peace deal was inked in 2018. But analysts say the current violence involving Nuer and Shilluk militias in Upper Nile state ranks among the deadliest. Thousands of people have been uprooted since mid-November and there are concerns of an imminent attack on Kodok – a town hosting more than 10,000 displaced Shilluk. The UN’s peacekeeping mission has been encouraged to step up protection duties, but Nuer forces have reportedly encircled Kodok and cut off escape routes, including to the nearby UN protection camp in Malakal. Though clashes are occurring along communal lines, they were triggered by internal tensions within a splinter group of the country’s main opposition movement, the SPLA-IO. Simon Gatwech (a Lou Nuer) and Johnson Olony (a prominent Shilluk) defected from the group last year before turning on each other. President Salva Kiir has said he “cannot stop” the fighting, though experts say his regime benefits from pitting feuding elites against each other. 


Economic woes drive simmering discontent in Syria


In its latest effort to deal with a growing fuel crisis, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says it will close all state agencies for two extra days this month, as employees struggle to get to work on a public transport system that doesn’t have enough petrol. Sports tournaments have been put on hold, and government workers have seen their own fuel allowances slashed. Most of Syria’s oil fields currently lie out of the government’s direct control, leaving it dependent on imports that are increasingly expensive due to the war in Ukraine. Prices of diesel used for heating have nearly doubled in regime-controlled areas, and subsidised petrol for cars is both hard to find and often prohibitively expensive on the black market. Anger over Syria’s economic woes, including the fuel shortages, broke out into protests in the southern city of Sweida on 4 December; at least two people were reportedly killed. With temperatures dropping for winter, people across Syria are seeking new ways to heat their homes or tents: Some are trying new kinds of fuel made out of pistachio shells, but others without any resources will be forced to try riskier methods to stay warm.

Iran condemnation grows after first protester executed

On 8 December, Iranian authorities hanged a 23-year-old man accused of stabbing and wounding a paramilitary officer, marking the first protest-related execution. The execution of Mohsen Shekari, who was reportedly convicted of “waging war against God”, comes as nationwide anti-government protests near the third-month mark. The protests were sparked by the 16 September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being arrested for improperly wearing her hijab. Since then, they have morphed into a broad call for regime change that has shown little sign of abating despite extreme violence by security forces. At least 458 people have been killed in the protests, and at least 11 protesters have been sentenced to death, according to Iran Human Rights. The protests have generated unusual allies, with the estranged sister of Iran’s Supreme Leader issuing an open letter calling for the overthrow of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his “despotic caliphate”. Former president Mohammad Khatami has also urged the government to accept the protesters’ demands. For more, watch this clip from an Iranian activist in London urging Western powers to bring what pressure they can to bear on Tehran to make concessions and stop its brutal crackdown:


The dark side of ‘Fortress Europe’


Thousands of illegal expulsions. Beatings. Forced undressings. Sexual assaults. These are among the litany of abuses perpetrated against asylum seekers and migrants at EU borders documented in a new, sprawling report by the Border Violence Monitoring Network. Called The Little Black Book of Pushbacks, the report spans four volumes and 3,000 pages of testimony drawn from more than 1,600 people who detail their experiences of being pushed back from the borders of 15 European countries. Despite pushbacks being illegal under EU and international law, testimony in the report covers the collective expulsion of some 25,000 people since 2017. More than 16,000 of those have taken place since 2021. Human rights groups and journalists have widely documented pushbacks at European borders in recent years. But many EU countries still deny they engage in the practice. Separately, several European media outlets published an investigation into video footage apparently showing Bulgarian border guards shooting a 19-year-old Syrian refugee with live ammunition as he attempted to enter Bulgaria from Turkey. Bulgaria has rejected the report. 


The disaster-debt cycle unfolds in real time


Developing countries are piling on massive new debt as emergencies multiply, a UN body warned, in the latest call to reform how global finance works amid a debt crisis. In 100 countries, public debt as a share of GDP rose by some $2 trillion between 2019 and 2021, according to figures released by UNCTAD, the UN’s trade and development body. A greater share of public funds that could be going to social services and reducing disaster risks is instead paying off debt. And the cost of servicing these loans has also climbed amid high interest rates and a strong US dollar. This is why countries like Barbados are pushing to reform the global financial system. The issue of debt relief and restructuring is also squarely on the aid radar, amid signs that the debt crisis is bleeding into humanitarian emergencies. In flood-besieged Pakistan, for example, the UN-backed appeal is one of this year’s least-funded response plans. Instead, Pakistan has taken on hundreds of millions more in repurposed loans, according to UK-based aid analysts Humanitarian Outcomes: “Instead of humanitarian aid, the global response to the current crisis… appears to be primarily through debt-based financing,” researchers said.


UNGA shout-out for less rigid crisis funding


Newly adopted humanitarian-tinged resolutions at the UN General Assembly place a heavy emphasis on redirecting more flexible funding within the cash-strapped emergency aid system. Member states tend to wrangle over each word of resolutions that reach the UNGA. So while the yearly adoption of the humanitarian resolutions isn’t unusual (they were passed by consensus this year), they can signal where donor policy is headed. This year, the text clearly stresses the use of more flexible ways to direct humanitarian money, including to the UN-run Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and smaller so-called pooled funds. There have been nods to these funds in past resolutions, but this year’s text frames it as a matter of “transformation”. Donor funding is often earmarked for specific crises and programmes, leaving relatively small amounts available to respond more nimbly. Humanitarians are increasingly using pooled funds and other more flexible pots to power more responsive aid. For now, however, the value of these funding buckets is a fraction of humanitarian budgets – a half-billion given to CERF in 2022, for example, compared to a global response bill that will top $51.5 billion next year.

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In case you missed it

COLOMBIA MURDERS: More civil society leaders and human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia this year than in any year since the country started keeping track of such killings in 2016, according to Colombia’s human rights ombudsman. The total number of slain activists in 2022 was 199, while there were 145 killings in 2021 and 182 in 2020. The spike is thought to correlate with the rise in the production of illegal crops by armed groups involved in the drug trade. 

DR CONGO MASSACRE: The M23 armed group has said it’s ready to withdraw from occupied positions in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and abide by a ceasefire agreement that followed talks between regional leaders. But clashes have reportedly continued, and the alleged killing by M23 of over 130 civilians in late November indicates an escalation in the conflict

ECOWAS: West African leaders have agreed to form a regional force to counter both jihadist groups and military coups. The Economic Community of West African States has a track record in promoting regional peace and security initiatives, but it’s unclear how a new force would fit alongside existing interventions already combating militancy.

GERMAN MIGRATION ARRIVALS: More than 1.2 million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants are expected to enter Germany by the end of the year. That’s a 35% increase over the 890,000 who entered during the height of the Mediterranean migration crisis in 2015. More than one million of those who have arrived are Ukrainians who have fled Russia’s invasion. Asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iraq account for a significant amount of the remainder. 

HONDURAN GANGS: President Xiomara Castro’s government has announced a raft of measures aimed at cracking down on criminal gangs in Honduras. The measures curb some constitutional rights related to association, freedom of movement, searches, and arrests in the two largest cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. Other parts of the strategy include tighter restrictions on the use of SIM cards and motorcycles, which are often used by gangs or their middlemen. The measures have drawn comparisons to El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele has maintained a state of emergency since March in response to rampant gang violence and extortion.  

LEBANESE REMITTANCES:new study by Mercy Corps says Lebanon is now the most remittance-dependent country in the world, with money sent home from abroad accounting for 53.8% of GDP in 2021.  

NIGERIA BOKO HARAM ABORTIONS:bombshell investigation has accused the Nigerian military of running a secret mass abortion programme in its war against Boko Haram in the northeast. The Reuters report alleged that since 2013, the army has been involved in terminating at least 10,000 pregnancies among women and girls that had lived with the jihadist group. The programme is in line with a notion, prevalent in the region, that the children of insurgents are predestined to one day take up arms. The Nigerian military has condemned the report, describing it as “evil”.

REFUGEE TORTURE TRIAL IN LEBANON: In a rare move, a Lebanese judge has indicted five members of the country’s state security agency for the alleged torture of a Syrian refugee who died in custody. Bashar Abdel-Saud, 30, was arrested in late August in Beirut and died shortly after from injuries allegedly inflicted by torture. 

TIGRAY ELECTRICITY: Power has been restored in Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, for the first time in over a year. But electricity and communications remain limited in much of the region, and humanitarian aid is still short of meeting needs despite last month’s ceasefire agreement. 

UKRAINE/RUSSIA: Ukraine has carried out its deepest attacks inside Russian territory, using drones to strike three military bases more than 500 kilometres from the Ukrainian border. The attacks were an apparent attempt to damage long-range Russian bombers that have been used to cripple Ukraine’s power grid. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the fighting in Ukraine might be a “long process”, while reiterating his commitment to the territorial ambitions underpinning the invasion.

Weekend read


Who paid the price for Uganda’s refugee fraud scandal (and who didn’t)?


Where’s the accountability? This question crops up time and time again during The New Humanitarian’s reporting, especially in our investigative work. Whether it’s sexual abuse or aid diversion, there seems to be a common playbook: a scandal breaks, damage limitation statements are issued, a lengthy investigation is launched, some low-level people are made an example of, let’s move on. This is exactly what researcher Kristof Titeca found as he spent years investigating the aftermath of the huge fraud scandal that erupted in Africa’s largest refugee-hosting country, Uganda, in 2018: Some 300,000 “ghost refugees” turned out to be on the aid roster, and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, had squandered tens of millions of dollars of donor money in 2017 alone. So, what happened next? In this damning Q&A with Africa Editor Philip Kleinfeld, Titeca demonstrates just how little accountability there has been since, both for Ugandan officials and UNHCR. Did the international community’s investment in “role model” Uganda make it too big to fail?

And finally…

Keeping Haitian culture alive

Haitian migration has spiked since the explosion of gang warfare in the Caribbean country and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last year. With greater numbers of Haitians leaving their homeland amid the escalating violence and humanitarian crisis, one Haitian woman living in the United States is on a mission to make sure Haitians don’t forget about the “Pearl of the Antilles”. Stephanie Dorcius told The New Humanitarian via an email that the idea behind her new Creole YouTube channel, YOUPI TV, is to teach the language and keep the Haitian culture alive. Although the channel is aimed at children, it’s a good starting point to “pale kreyòl”. The Biden administration said this week it would extend temporary legal status for Haitians already living in the States after it determined it was too dangerous to return Haitians to the Caribbean country. The neighbouring Dominican Republic, however, continues to deport thousands. Rampant gang violence is amplifying humanitarian needs – all while cholera continues to spread. Haiti and the international community remain at odds over whether an armed intervention might help or risks simply repeating past foreign interventions and meddling that have eroded the country’s self-determination.

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