Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
A reminder of Ukraine’s existing humanitarian crisis
Amid the fog of military drills in Belarus and apparently faltering diplomatic efforts to prevent a Russian invasion, one thing is clear: Any incursion will worsen the dire humanitarian situation in Ukraine. The latest overview from the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, published on 11 February, makes for sobering reading: 2.9 million in need, 54 percent of them women and girls, 13 percent children, 13 percent with disabilities. This includes almost 300,000 people still displaced by an eight-year war that has claimed more than 13,000 lives. Particularly affected are the elderly in the separatist-occupied, Russian-backed east. Since March 2020, when COVID-19 effectively rendered the so-called “contact line” impassable, they’ve been unable to cross to access their pensions and social services. On 8 February, eight trucks delivered the latest crossline international aid – COVID-19 prevention equipment, medicines, and construction materials – but how long these humanitarian convoys will be able to continue remains to be seen. For more on how the war has changed lives on both sides of the front line, read this personal account from Ukrainian journalist Alisa Sopova, with photographs from Anastasia Taylor-Lind.
What’s missing: Disability data in crises
Are people with disabilities included in crisis planning? The data is missing when it comes to measuring how disasters or pandemics impact people with disabilities, advocates say. They’re calling for governments to fill these gaps by improving data collection – one of the themes of this year’s Global Disability Summit, slated for 16-17 February. About 15 percent of the world’s population have some form of disability, but their needs are often ignored during conflict and crises. One key step to addressing this is with better data: A recent survey by the UN Population Fund, for example, found only a quarter of countries surveyed in Asia could even monitor disability inclusion indicators for healthcare access. “Without accurate, timely, and disaggregated data, countries are unable to develop effective policies and programmes,” the report states. Other advocates say state militaries, armed groups, and humanitarian agencies can do much more to include people with disabilities.
Biden advised against Houthi ‘terrorist’ tag
US President Joe Biden is said to be considering re-designating Yemen’s Houthi rebels (officially called Ansar Allah) as a terrorist group, a possibility he also mentioned last month after the group claimed responsibility for a deadly missile attack inside the United Arab Emirates. The UAE leads an anti-Houthi coalition fighting in Yemen with Saudi Arabia, which said its air defence system intercepted a Houthi drone near its southern border on 10 February. Aid groups – part of a successful lobbying campaign that saw Biden remove the label shortly after he took office last January – warn that a redesignation would have “catastrophic consequences for Yemeni civilians”. Not only, they say, would it hit the economy hard, making it even more difficult to import food, fuel, and medicine, but it would also decrease the flow of much-needed aid at a time when “organisations like ours are already struggling to keep pace with immense and growing needs”. Violence is also growing, not just around the battlefields of the contested province and city of Marib: Between early October and early February, 1,535 civilians were reportedly injured or killed, more than double the previous four months.
Renewed warnings over Horn drought
The Horn of Africa is facing one of its worst droughts in recent history, with 13 million people struggling with severe food shortages in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. After three back-to-back seasons of poor rains, conflict-troubled Somalia has been the hardest hit, with 4.3 million people affected by crop and livestock losses – up by a million since January. Cereal prices are already at a level not seen since the 2011 famine. In Ethiopia, the driest conditions in 40 years have compounded the humanitarian disaster of the war in the country’s north, causing over 260,000 livestock deaths. In neighbouring Kenya, 1.4 million animals have perished, undermining an already fragile rural economy. The government is buying weak livestock and delivering meat to 766,000 households as part of its response plan. Across the region, seasonal rains expected from March to May should start a gradual recovery, but signals are mixed over how plentiful they will be. With yet another drought, the number of people in need could rise to 20 million.
Food aid to Tigray dwindles, as fighting continues
There was hope for some let-up in Ethiopia’s civil war when Tigrayan rebels retreated back to their northern region in late December. But fighting has continued and food distributions in Tigray have reached an all-time low, according to the UN. On 25 January, the Tigray People's Liberation Front announced a new offensive against pro-government forces in the neighbouring Afar region. Both sides blame each other for instigating the clashes, which the UN says have blocked aid deliveries into Tigray via the sole operational land corridor (which runs through Afar). Even before the current hostilities, however, Addis Ababa was accused of preventing trucks from entering the famine-threatened region. Dozens of Tigrayans have, meanwhile, been killed this year in airstrikes that have hit civilian areas including a displacement camp and a flour mill. Accountability seems far off, though a complaint issued this week to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights by lawyers representing Tigrayan victims may be a start.
Libya’s two prime ministers
On 10 February, Libya’s eastern-based parliament chose a new prime minister for the country. The only problem… Libya already has an interim prime minister: Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who was chosen by a UN-led backed process to head up the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Dbeibah’s government was supposed to guide the fractured country through presidential elections in late December, but they were postponed after confusion and debate over the rules governing the process. Among the issues: Dbeibah, who promised not to run for president but put his hat in the ring anyway, would apparently have to step away from his duties for three months before the polls, which he did not do. Parliament says the December deadline means Dbeibah’s time is up, but he says he won’t hand over power until elections take place. He also reportedly survived an assasination attempt shortly before the parliament’s move to replace him, but details on what really happened are few and far between. Nobody seems sure about what happens now, but none of this appears to bode well for Libyans’ long and winding quest for a calm, peaceful, and united country.
Was the EU right to lift Burundi sanctions?
The EU has lifted financial sanctions on Burundi, citing reforms put in place since President Évariste Ndayishimiye took office in 2020. Rights groups say the decision is premature and that Ndayishimiye’s government is responsible for killing and disappearing its political opponents. The sanctions – which included direct support to the Burundian government – were introduced in 2016, a year after former president Pierre Nkurunziza won a disputed third term in office, triggering waves of political violence that forced hundreds of thousands to flee abroad. Roughly half of Burundi’s annual budget was funded by European states at the time. The EU says refugees are now returning and that progress has been made on human rights, governance, and the rule of law. But recent accounts of state violence detailed by organisations like the Burundi Human Rights Initiative paint a different picture.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: Concern is growing for women’s rights activists missing in Afghanistan. At least six activists have disappeared in recent weeks (including several who had participated in peaceful demonstrations) in what the UN’s rights office calls “a pattern of arbitrary arrests and detention” since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover. Meanwhile, the UN’s refugee agency said on 11 February that two journalists and several Afghan nationals working on a UNHCR assignment had been detained in the capital, Kabul. “We are doing our utmost to resolve the situation, in coordination with others,” it said in a tweet.
COLOMBIA: A section of hillside above the town of Pereira in central Colombia collapsed on 8 February after heavy rains, engulfing part of a poor neighbourhood. At least 16 people were killed, and 34 others injured.
HAITI: The Caribbean country is facing a new crisis. The government’s term has expired with no elected successor, and no election date set. Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who is refusing to step aside, took over after the July assassination of Jovenel Moïse. A group of professional and civil society groups has challenged his leadership, suggesting a two-year transitional government be implemented. Humanitarian needs are escalating, meanwhile, as rampant gang violence has thwarted aid delivery and compounded food and fuel shortages.
KASHMIR: The arrest of a Kashmiri journalist continues to draw global concern. Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla, was arrested on 4 February and faces a range of accusations, including under India’s controversial anti-terror laws. Press freedom groups are calling for Shah’s release. Journalists say authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir are increasingly targeting reporters.
MADAGASCAR: The death toll from Cyclone Batsirai has risen to close to 100 people, as reports continue to emerge of the storm’s impact after battering the country’s eastern and central regions on 5 February. At least 75,000 people were forced from their homes and urgently need safe water, sanitation, medicine, and food.
MSF: Médecins Sans Frontières has released a progress report on its pledges to address internal racism and discrimination. In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement helped cast a spotlight on racism in the aid sector, and MSF was one of the more prominent groups to fall under the microscope. Its international president and a board member acknowledged MSF had “failed people of colour” and “failed to tackle institutional racism”.
SYRIA: One child was killed on 7 February when guards at northeastern Syria’s al-Hol camp opened fire at residents who an official said had attacked them with rocks and knives. More than 60,000 people, including supporters and victims of the so-called Islamic State, are being held at the camp. Many are foreigners whose home countries do not want them back.
TIMOR-LESTE: A surge in dengue is forcing Timor-Leste to use former COVID-19 isolation facilities as cases overwhelm the health system. Though dengue is endemic, cases this year have been “unusually high”, according to the World Health Organization: The country recorded more dengue cases in January than during all of last year.
TURKEY: Three Iranian refugees in Turkey are facing deportation to Iran after attending a demonstration over Turkey's decision last March to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. Police tracked the refugees down at their homes after they were photographed protesting in the southern Turkish city of Denizli. Despite having been granted conditional refugee status, a Turkish court ruled that the group could be deported, adding to concerns that Turkey is becoming less safe for Iranian refugees and asylum seekers.
UGANDA/DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The International Court of Justice has ruled Uganda must pay $325 million in reparations to Congo for its military intervention in Ituri province in the late 1990s. The court’s verdict was based on assessed costs for “loss of life and other damage to persons” that included rape, displacement, and conscription of child soldiers, as well as the looting of natural resources.
Out of the 76,000 Afghans who arrived in the United States after the Taliban retook power in August, 12,500 still lived in US military bases five months later, waiting to be matched with resettlement organisations. This number has since shrunk to 4,000, but even evacuees who made it off the bases have not had access to the services they need. The vast network of resettlement agencies that provide such services has struggled to rebuild after suffering major cuts to federal funding during the Trump administration. Between 2017 and 2020, 40 percent of US resettlement sites closed and many others lost essential staff members. Even with renewed funding and a higher resettlement ceiling, agencies are finding it difficult to scale up their operations after cutting back so drastically. Without the professional, social, and mental health services these organisations typically provide, refugees like Qassim Rahimi – a member of the Hazara minority persecuted by the Taliban – are left to start their new lives on their own. “Right now, I am safe,” Rahimi, who was placed in Kansas City, said. “But in terms of my psychological situation, I am not happy.”
And the winner is…
The jury is still out on how this year’s Oscar nominations scored on diversity and inclusion, but Academy members chose musicals over real-life experiences when it came to Latin American migration. Encanto, an animated Disney film about the resilience of a displaced family in Colombia – celebrated in a statement by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) – and West Side Story, a remake of the original 1961 film about migrant communities in New York, took several nominations each. However, The Facility, a short documentary revealing appalling conditions at an ICE detention centre during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Prayers for the Stolen, about the impact of narco violence on girls in Mexico, were both snubbed from an earlier shortlist. Meanwhile, a Danish mixed-media documentary, Flee, telling the story of an Afghan refugee who relives his childhood trauma and difficulties starting over, made history with nominations in three film categories.
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