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A US raid in Syria, deadly pushbacks, and FIFA’s own goal: 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

IS leader dies in US raid in Syria

US President Joe Biden said a special operations raid in northwest Syria on 3 February resulted in the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, leader of the so-called Islamic State. Biden said al-Qurayshi died when he detonated a bomb that also killed members of his family in a house near the border with Turkey in rebel-held Idlib province. Thirteen people were reportedly killed in the operation, including six children. While IS no longer controls any significant territory, there’s increasing concern that loyalists are regrouping to stage large-scale attacks like last month’s Ghwayran prison break. The well-planned assault led to a week of fighting around the detention centre in Kurdish-run northeast Syria that held thousands of suspected IS fighters (and some of their children). Questions linger over the White House’s narrative of the raid that killed al-Qurayshi, particularly over the number and manner of civilian deaths.

Deaths put Greek pushbacks in the spotlight

The bodies of 19 asylum seekers who froze to death near the Greek-Turkish border were found this week by Turkish authorities, who accuse Greek security forces of stripping the people of their clothes and shoes before forcing them back across the border into Turkey. The deaths have drawn renewed attention to Greece’s use of pushbacks to prevent people from entering its territory to claim asylum. The practice – illegal under international law – has long been an open secret along the Greece-Turkey border, but its scale and pace accelerated following a border crisis manufactured by Turkey in February 2020. Since then, rights groups and journalists have documented thousands of instances of asylum seekers and migrants being pushed back from Greece’s land and sea borders, and arrivals to Greece have since fallen sharply. Despite the evidence, the Greek government denies it has a policy of pushing people back. It called the deaths this week a tragedy, and said Turkey’s accusations amounted to “false propaganda”. 

Death sentences but no full disclosure over UN Congo killings

More than 50 people have been sentenced to death in connection with the 2017 killings of two UN experts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan were investigating an insurgency in the country’s central Kasaï region when they were executed by armed men. The trial into their deaths dragged on for nearly five years, during which several defendants died in custody. The convicted will serve lifetime sentences since DRC has a moratorium on the death penalty. Rights groups said the court case failed to uncover the full truth about what happened, ignoring the possible involvement of high-level state agents who may have sought to prevent the experts from exposing army atrocities. An earlier UN inquiry into the killings was criticised for victim-blaming and kowtowing to Kinshasa. The Kasaï conflict erupted in 2016, costing thousands of lives and displacing 1.4 million people at its peak.

WHO faces more allegations of sex abuse and harassment

The World Health Organization says it is seeing an increase in allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation, and harassment since it vowed to tackle the problem and overhaul its culture. Three new complaints surfaced in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Congo-Brazzaville, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, told the organisation’s executive board meeting on 28 January. The New Humanitarian and the Thompson Reuters Foundation were first to uncover dozens of cases of aid worker sexual abuse during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority of those cases were against WHO workers, prompting Tedros to order an independent investigation that confirmed some 80 allegations. The WHO is still investigating whether any senior officials failed to report the abuse. “We have started to strengthen and streamline our reporting systems and have also scaled up our investigative capacity for allegations of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment,” a WHO spokesperson told The New Humanitarian. “We’re now seeing an increase in the numbers of reported SEAH (sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment) allegations, and this is an indication that the system is beginning to work better, and that victims and community members are more willing to come forward.”

Still overlooked: Male GBV survivors

The scale of sexual and gender-based violence against men and boys in crises is “severely underestimated”, new research warns. Humanitarian agencies “completely overlook men, boys, and sexual minority groups as sexual and gender-based violence survivors”, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross report, which calls on aid agencies to create programmes that include these groups, and to ”address harmful service-provider attitudes” (including among aid staff). What does the problem look like on the ground? Read our reporting from Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps, which found that male rape survivors were practically uncounted by aid agencies, and neglected in humanitarian programmes as a result. “It happened to men too,” a survivor said. While aid agencies must get better at assessing and addressing the needs of male survivors, the ICRC report warns that this should not come at the expense of women and girls, “for whom comprehensive services remain largely insufficient”.

Au revoir to France’s ambassador in Mali 

France is rethinking its presence in Mali following the expulsion of the former colonial power’s ambassador earlier this week. The diplomat was dismissed after Paris described Mali’s military junta as “illegitimate” – a response to Bamako’s decision to send home Danish forces who had joined a European counter-jihadist taskforce known as Takuba. Tensions between Bamako and Paris have been escalating since mid-2021 when France announced plans to end its regional Barkhane operation and contribute a slimmed-down military force to Takuba. Malian authorities – claiming they had been abandoned – welcomed in Russian trainers. Western countries say these include mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group. Relations deteriorated further last month when the junta announced plans to prolong its time in power by several years, prompting West African states to impose a punishing sanctions regime that France aligned itself to. Malians are already feeling the pinch, though the sanctions appear to have strengthened support for the junta, whose anti-French, pro-sovereignty rhetoric has strong populist appeal.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Stripped of stable donor funding and teetering on collapse since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover, Afghanistan’s health system faces multiple disease outbreaks in the midst of the country’s wider humanitarian crisis: acute watery diarrhoea, dengue fever, and malaria, all on top of COVID-19.

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: At least 60 people were killed in an attack on a displacement camp in northeastern Ituri province on 1 February. The attack was blamed on a militia known as CODECO. 1.7 million people have been displaced in Ituri since 2017 when fighting began.

ECUADOR: At least 24 people were killed in Ecuador’s worst flooding in nearly 20 years. The deaths occurred in the capital, Quito, after 75 litres of rain per square metre fell in a short time, setting off landslides. Elsewhere, in the coastal province of Guayas, families had to be evacuated to safety from an overflowing river. Despite repeated natural disasters, the government and opposition lawmakers have failed to approve a new response law.

GUINEA-BISSAU: Eleven people died on 1 February during a foiled coup attempt in the West African country. It is not yet clear who was behind the attack – which comes amid a spate of military takeovers in the region – but President Umaro Sissoco Embalo suggested it was linked to anti-drug trafficking operations.

ISRAEL/PALESTINE: A new report from Amnesty International says Israel is committing the international crime of apartheid against Palestinians, through a “system of oppression and domination” that includes massive land and property seizures, restrictions on movement, and unlawful killings. Apartheid is a crime against humanity under the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute and the 1973 Apartheid Convention. 

MADAGASCAR: Tropical Cyclone Batsirai is on track to hit eastern Madagascar with wind speeds of over 200 k/ph – the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane. A state of emergency has been declared, with flooding and landslides expected to affect close to 600,000 people. Batsirai is making landfall in the same region as tropical storm Ana, which killed at least 58 people in Madagascar last month, before tearing through Mozambique and Malawi.

MYANMAR: Displacement keeps rising by the thousands each week, a year into Myanmar’s military coup. New UN-compiled figures show at least 441,000 people have been internally displaced since 1 February 2021. Frontline aid groups believe the numbers are an undercount. As one aid worker explained: “People have to flee every day.”

THE PHILIPPINES: The scale of damage is still emerging even weeks after December’s Typhoon Rai cut across the Philippines. A UN-backed appeal, revised on 2 February, now targets aid to 840,000 people – a nearly 60 percent rise over initial plans. At least 110,000 people were still displaced as of 3 February.

SRI LANKA: Prices of cereals and other imports are reaching record highs in Sri Lanka, sparking hunger worries. The price of rice, the country’s main staple, is 50 percent higher than a year ago. The depreciation of the currency, the rupee, is the main driver. Fuel and fertiliser shortages, as well as higher production costs, are expected to hurt upcoming crop yields, keeping domestic prices high and straining food affordability.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES/YEMEN: US officials said on 2 February that they were sending a warship and fighter jets to help the United Arab Emirates defend itself against increasing drone and missile attacks from Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The UAE and Saudi Arabia-led anti-Houthi coalition has responded to the attacks with a series of bombings inside Yemen.

UNITED STATES: Under a new and controversial policy, the Biden administration is deporting Venezuelans who irregularly enter the United States to Colombia. The policy applies to those who previously resided in Colombia and comes in response to a sharp increase in Venezuelans crossing the US-Mexico border to claim asylum. To try to curb the crossings, Mexico recently ended visa-free entry for Venezuelans, leading to a subsequent spike in Venezuelans crossing the treacherous Darién Gap from South America into Panama.

Weekend read

Can Haiti rebuild a food system broken by disaster, historical injustice, and neglect?

With more than one in three of its citizens in need of urgent food assistance, Haiti is facing one of the world’s 10 worst hunger crises. Gang violence makes it difficult for farmers to access markets, while hyperinflation sends food prices soaring and reminders of the country’s colonial roots remain potent. Haitian farmers struggle to compete against imports, provoking a vicious cycle of national poverty and foreign reliance. Still reeling from the most recent of a long history of earthquakes, the agricultural sector is also susceptible to frequent natural disasters and the increasing gravity of climate change. Droughts, floods, and storms will intensify and demand urgent climate-smart solutions. In our weekend read, local journalists describe a food system broken by sustained political turmoil, environmental vulnerability, and trade policies that have crippled the country’s agricultural sector. Hope might lie in a stalled national food strategy, local business alliances, and the next generations of Haitians. Look out for more coverage of Haiti’s humanitarian crises in our ongoing series.

And finally…

FIFA’s tone-deaf pitch

The idea that a biennial World Cup could prevent African asylum seekers and migrants from dying in the Mediterranean is ridiculous. But that didn’t stop FIFA president Gianni Infantino from including it in his pitch to European politicians during a parliamentary session of the Council of Europe – a transnational organisation founded after World War II to uphold human rights. Infantino was talking up his vision to double the frequency of FIFA’s flagship tournament – currently held every four years – saying it could help create opportunities for Africans so they “don’t need to cross the Mediterranean in order to find maybe a better life but, more probably, death in the sea”. Unsurprisingly, the comment – which Infantino later said had been taken out of context – drew swift condemnation. Nearly 23,500 asylum seekers and migrants are known to have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since 2014, when IOM started keeping track. It’s no surprise that Infantino’s comments were seen as a tone-deaf trivialisation of the powerful factors pushing people to undertake dangerous journeys and of the harsh European border policies that contribute to the deaths at sea.

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