Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Earthquake response efforts hit geopolitical buffers
The death toll from the 6 February earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria was past 22,000 and rising when Cheat Sheet went to press. Hopes were fading, but some survivors were still being pulled from the rubble. The catastrophe struck a region where millions of people with insufficient food or shelter were already struggling to get through the winter. To many, it has felt like the wheels of the international response are turning far too slowly, especially in rebel-held northwest Syria, which was hit hard and relies on just one UN border crossing from Türkiye for much of its aid (read this to get up to speed on how all that works). Concern that the parties in Syria’s war are playing politics with aid – a problem that has never really gone away – is coming to the fore once again. The US Department of the Treasury announced on 9 February that it was issuing a 180-day “general license” for earthquake relief in Syria, which is effectively a suspension on sanctions. How and if this will work in the northwest, which is mostly run by a group many countries have designated as a terrorist organisation, is yet to be seen. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, has been accused of preparedness failings and of sidelining minorities in the initial relief effort. Local communities in both countries have stepped up to do their bit where possible, but first responders and aid workers have themselves been caught up in a humanitarian crisis that will be felt by millions for a long time to come.
Nigeria’s lesson on how not to change your currency
Nigeria's Supreme Court has temporarily suspended today’s deadline to stop using old banknotes – but that hasn’t halted the chaos a rushed currency change has caused. Brawling, fainting, and naked protests have trailed the shortage of new notes – and in some areas banks have been forced to shut to protect staff. The currency redesign, launched in November, was aimed at tackling inflation and denting terrorism financing. But not enough of the new notes have been provided countrywide (despite an extension of an original 31 January deadline), resulting in mayhem at banks and ATMs. One of the main contenders in this month’s presidential election, multi-billionaire Bola Tinubu, believes the policy (and a crippling fuel shortage) has been deliberately crafted to hurt his campaign – even though he is the ruling party’s flagbearer. Fingers have also been pointed at bank managers, accused of hoarding the new currency to supply “special” customers. Adding to the rage, a notorious bandit leader in the northwest was recently filmed wafting wads of the new notes.
Fighting dents Somaliland’s independence bid
Scores of people have died in heavy fighting in Somalia's northeastern city of Las Anod after local clan elders declared their intention to cut ties with the breakaway republic of Somaliland and re-join Somalia. Somaliland security forces, who alleged they had come under militia attack, began shelling the city on 5 February, hitting hospitals and mosques. Tension has been mounting since December, when Somaliland troops killed more than 20 civilians protesting the death of an opposition politician. Las Anod is in the contested Sool region, claimed by both Somaliland and Somalia’s northern state of Puntland. At the heart of the unrest is a perception that the Somaliland government in Hargeisa is sidelining clans that don’t support the independence it declared in 1991 – including the Sool region’s Dhulbahante clan. Dhulbahante elders, meeting the weekend of 4-5 February, rejected control by either Somaliland or Puntland, calling instead for a new state within a federal Somalia. The mounting violence is denting Hargeisa’s long-fought campaign to win international recognition of Somaliland as a sovereign independent state.
Key towns under rebel threat in eastern DR Congo
Thousands of civilians are again being displaced in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as fighting between the government and M23 rebels nears the town of Sake. If the M23 captures the town, it may be able to encircle close-by Goma, which is the main city in the east and a hub for aid operations. Troops from a newly deployed East African force are stationed in Goma, but residents accused them of inaction during demonstrations this week. A convoy of UN peacekeepers also ran into protests in a town near Goma hosting people displaced by the conflict. The UN said its forces killed three people as the convoy was attacked, while local officials said eight died in the latest in a series of incidents involving blue helmets opening fire on civilians. The Rwanda-backed M23 was thought to have been defeated after its last rebellion a decade ago, but resumed fighting in late 2021. A new Human Rights Watch report accuses the group of summary executions and forcibly recruiting civilians. The Congolese army, meanwhile, is accused of using abusive militias as proxy forces. Half a million people have been uprooted.
The glaring gulf between promise and reality in US migration/refugee policy
During a recent interview, US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said 40,000 refugees from Africa would be brought to the United States this year. Last fiscal year, the US set a refugee resettlement ceiling of 125,000 but only admitted around 25,400. Rebuilding of the resettlement programme has been slow after, it was decimated by the Trump administration. The ceiling for this fiscal year (which started in October) remains 125,000, but only 6,750 arrived in the first quarter. The US recently launched a private refugee sponsorship programme, but that only aims to bring in around 5,000 people this year. Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden’s government announced $1 billion in corporate investments – building on about $3 billion pledged earlier – aimed at addressing “the root causes” of migration in Latin America. Critics doubt the approach will have an impact on the number of people attempting to cross the US-Mexico border, where the Biden administration is facing criticism from human rights groups and some members of his own party for embracing policies that limit access to asylum.
The WHO says it needs a new funding bucket
Major reforms intended to bolster funding to the World Health Organization could be in the pipeline. One proposal is the creation of a “replenishment fund” modelled after high-profile donor fundraising drives at the Global Fund and elsewhere, Health Policy Watch reported. During executive board meetings that ended on 7 February, countries agreed that reform proposals will be taken to May’s World Health Assembly – the WHO’s yearly ministerial-level meetings. The health agency says it needs more reliable and flexible funding, especially with emergency needs soaring across the globe. Roughly 14% of the WHO’s funding comes from member states’ mandatory contributions – leaving the bulk of the budget dependent on voluntary donations often earmarked for short-term projects. While discussions at the executive board showed cautious support for the replenishment fund, there were also pointed questions about the WHO’s priorities and accountability. Lower-income countries are pushing the WHO to shift spending closer to the ground.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: More humanitarians say it’s harder to reach women with aid since the Taliban ordered a ban on women working for NGOs, according to updated surveys. A rising percentage of the 125 humanitarians surveyed said their organisations are now operating – suggesting some are returning to work with male-only staff.
BURKINA FASO: Médecins Sans Frontières has suspended operations in the northwestern Boucle du Mouhoun region following the killing of two staff members by armed assailants in an ambush on their vehicle. The attack happened on 8 February on the road between Dédougou and Tougan. The clearly marked vehicle carried a four-person medical team.
ETHIOPIA: The authorities have banned parallel rallies by supporters of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a rival breakaway synod planned for the capital, Addis Ababa. The Oromia-based breakaway group, which alleges the mainstream church is not inclusive enough, is believed to be supported by the government. The orthodox church accuses the government of persecution. Three people died in a 4 February attack by security forces on an orthodox church in the Oromia city of Shashemene.
HAITI: Attacks by armed groups against schools in Haiti have increased ninefold in a year, from 8 to 72, according to UNICEF. They have included shootings, kidnappings, and looting of school equipment and food. At least one student was killed, two teachers kidnapped, and one school set on fire since October 2022. Most of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, is controlled by armed groups.
HUNGARY: The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ordered the Hungarian government to pay nearly 40,000 euros to the brother of a Syrian refugee who died while trying to cross into the country from Serbia in 2016 and was pushed back by Hungarian border guards. The ruling is being viewed as only a partial victory by asylum advocates because the court failed to address all the charges brought against Hungary. For more, read: The legal battle to stem the EU’s border pushback boom.
IRAQ: The Iraqi government agreed to revalue the dinar in a bid to stabilise its floundering currency and foreign exchange market. The United States has been restricting Baghdad’s access to its own dollars for the past few months, reportedly to crack down on money laundering on behalf of Iran and Syria.
PAKISTAN: Six months after floods devastated Pakistan, UNICEF warned of an “alarming rise” in respiratory ailments among children, 4 million of whom still lack adequate shelter despite the winter weather. A long-negotiated bailout deal with the IMF was approved on 9 February, raising hopes the country may stave off economic collapse amid a moment of dire humanitarian need.
UKRAINE: A substantial Russian offensive may already be underway in eastern Ukraine, according to local officials. Russian military activity has been ramping up ahead of the one-year anniversary of the invasion on 24 February. Civilians near the front lines are already bearing the brunt of the increased fighting and once again facing difficult decisions about whether to stay or flee.
UN HUMAN RIGHTS: The Ugandan government has said it will not renew the mandate of the UN’s human rights office in the country, promoting criticism from campaigners that the current regime is seeking to evade international scrutiny. Elsewhere, the ruling junta in Mali expelled the head of the human rights division of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the war in Sudan’s Darfur region. Once a global cause célèbre, it rarely makes international headlines nowadays. The conflict began when rebels took arms against the government of ex-president Omar al-Bashir. He responded by contracting a Darfuri Arab militia – known as the Janjaweed – to do his dirty work on the cheap. The decision had devastating consequences: The Janjaweed killed vast numbers of civilians from non-Arab groups associated with the rebels, leading to accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Two decades on, al-Bashir is out of the picture but Janjaweed forces are not. They now form the backbone of a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces that has troops across the country as part of Sudan’s security apparatus. RSF fighters are implicated in continued abuses in Darfur, often targeting the same groups the Janjaweed did. The RSF’s leader – a former Janjaweed commander called Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo ‘Hemedti’ – has climbed the rungs of Sudanese politics, even while presenting himself as a peacemaker. Last summer, he visited Darfur to oversee a peace drive amid new conflicts involving Arab and non-Arab groups. But his initiative was widely seen as a form of image laundering that entrenched RSF power and disenfranchised its long-suffering victims. Dive into our weekend read – reported from the ground by journalist Mat Nashed – for more.
Africa’s generous response to the earthquake disaster
The surge in international support for earthquake survivors in Türkiye and Syria has included African countries – keen to demonstrate solidarity over the tragedy. Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia have sent aid and technical assistance to the Turkish-Syrian border. Kenya has called on trained medical workers to volunteer their services and is planning to send food. Africa’s largest NGO, the South African-based Gift of the Givers – already present in Syria – has also dispatched teams of rescue workers to the earthquake zones. Other countries reportedly providing aid are Mauritania and Sudan. Türkiye, in particular, has made friends on the African continent. Ankara’s outreach, originally focused on North Africa, has expanded to include trade, aid, and security ties with much of the rest of the continent. And it has been a two-way street. The numbers of African students (and footballers) caught up in the earthquake disaster in southern Türkiye – and the support they have received from the local population – hasn’t gone unnoticed.