Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
UN launches earthquake appeals
Less than two weeks after successive earthquakes struck southern Türkiye and northern Syria on 6 February, the death toll has risen to nearly 44,000. Several people were found alive in Türkiye on 16 February, but hope of finding more survivors is quickly dwindling. The UN has launched a $1 billion appeal to help 5.2 million affected people in Türkiye and a $397 million appeal to help 5 million in Syria*, including in the opposition-held northwest, which was already reeling from conflict, economic, and health crises. Trucks carrying UN aid have been crossing into northwest Syria from Türkiye since 9 February, carrying food, tents, blankets, and cholera testing kits, among other items. Despite an intense economic crisis, Syrian civilians have mobilised grassroots efforts to provide aid to survivors. In Türkiye, survivors are sleeping in tents, factories, train cars, and greenhouses amid freezing winter weather that some fear could lead to more deaths. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are among those affected in Türkiye, where there has reportedly been a spike in anti-refugee sentiment – which was already running high ahead of elections later this year – following the earthquakes.
Sahel militancy spreads southwards into West Africa
After a decade of failed counter-terrorism campaigns, jihadist groups are expanding southwards from the Sahel to the northern fringes of coastal West Africa. A 10 February attack in Togo reportedly claimed 31 lives, while incursions in Benin are morphing into what might be the start of a homegrown insurgency. Security analysts say new militant bases have been set up just north of Côte d'Ivoire – hit by a string of attacks in 2020 and 2021 – and Ghanaians have been targeted for recruitment by militants too. Still, it is far from clear what jihadists are planning for these countries, and response efforts may already be making matters worse. Security forces in border areas are harassing and profiling civilians – moves that stand to benefit jihadists. And coastal states may leverage the war on terror fixation of their Western partners to clamp down on opponents and resist pressure for democratisation. Development efforts are starting in some northern areas, but such initiatives rarely address structural economic and political issues.
Can Canadian warships help restore order in Haiti?
Canada is sending warships to Haiti as the country faces rising gang violence, hunger, a deadly cholera outbreak, and a breakdown of government, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced after meeting with Caribbean leaders in the Bahamas. It wasn’t immediately clear what role the ships may play in tackling the unrest. Canada’s move falls short of a UN-recommended armed force to help tackle the violence. So far, no country has volunteered to lead such a force. Gangs control most of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Although many have demanded a “Haitian-led” solution to halt the violence and put Haiti on track to holding elections, a recent survey found that seven out of 10 Haitians support the deployment of an international force. Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who has ruled the country by decree since the 2021 assassination of Jovenel Moïse, has also appealed to the international community for an armed force to tackle the violence. Canada, along with the United States, has sanctioned more than a dozen members of the Haitian elite suspected of arming and supporting the gangs. Killings in Haiti increased by 35% last year – 2,183 victims – compared to the previous year, according to UN figures. Some 4.7 million Haitians, almost half the population, face crisis levels of hunger, while food insecurity in some communities meets the technical definition of famine.
Biya’s birthday – what does Cameroon have to celebrate?
President Paul Biya of Cameroon – the world’s oldest head of state – turned 90 on 13 February. Not to be ageist, but the years seem to be catching up with the man (caution: this clip is sad). Then again, after four decades in power, how significant are the failing faculties of a comfortably wealthy leader who spends as much time as he can in Swiss hotels? A well-rehearsed playbook runs Cameroon. It includes the suppression of political dissent, and the murder of investigative journalists. Corruption whistleblower Martinez Zogo was the latest victim. The mutilated body of the radio host was found last month, and accusing fingers are pointing at the intelligence services. Other recent opponents have been arrested and detained without charge. Meanwhile, a seven-year separatist conflict seems no closer to resolution. A coterie of hardliners around Biya shot down (at least publicly) the idea of a political deal with the anglophone secessionists. The same group is believed to be actively jockeying for power for when the lights finally go out on Biya’s presidency.
Old tropes and new questions as climate climbs up the agenda
The UN Security Council on 14 February held its first ever debate on sea-level rise and its “implications for international peace and security”. Meanwhile, in Geneva, the UN’s emergency education fund, Education Cannot Wait, called for $1.5 billion to fund a strategic plan it says is geared toward “the defining crisis of our time”. These are more examples of how climate change is increasingly taking centre stage in policy discussions and on the agendas of global bodies. The Security Council debate featured the usual warnings – the threat to coastal communities and low-lying states, projections for displacement and people on the move – while also zeroing in on the practicalities of what this means for international security, including new legal questions on shifting borders and national identity as rising seas redraw the map. “Climate change remains the single greatest existential threat facing the Blue Pacific,” said Tonga’s Viliami Va’inga Tone, representing the regional Pacific Islands Forum. Some old narratives are still at the forefront: UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned of “a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale”. Experts say these kinds of warnings can lead to more damaging border policies rather than stronger climate action.
Somali journalist released in ‘press freedom’ case
Somali journalist Abdalle Ahmed Mumin was freed from jail on 13 February, just hours after a court handed down a two-month sentence on security charges. Mumin, a contributor to The New Humanitarian, was arrested in October after the government announced a crackdown on media publishing any comments made by the jihadist group al-Shabab. Mumin and other journalists argued the ruling could restrict legitimate expression – and put their lives at risk. After his fifth court appearance, Mumin was found guilty of defying the order and was taken to Mogadishu central prison. He was however released by prison authorities on the grounds that he had already served his sentence under his strict five-month bail conditions. Media campaigners in Somalia have characterised the case as political persecution and a deliberate assault on free speech. On his release, Mumin tweeted: "I went straight to my office to conduct my daily routine. I will continue to be at the forefront of defending press freedom.”
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In case you missed it
CHAGOS ARCHIPELAGO: Human Rights Watch is calling for “full reparations” from the United States and the United Kingdom to the Chagossian people, including their right to return to their homeland. British forces displaced the entire population of the Chagos Archipelago in the 1960s and 1970s in order to make way for a US military base. Now known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, the islands have been off limits to Chagossians ever since.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The Rwanda-backed M23 armed group killed at least 20 people and raped at least 66 women and girls in November 2022, according to a report by Amnesty International. The alleged atrocities mainly occurred in the town of Kishishe and targeted civilians accused of being supporters of rival armed groups.
ETHIOPIA: Eritrean soldiers are still in northern Tigray and continuing to commit rape, despite a peace deal ending the two-year conflict. Eritrean forces made an alliance with the federal government to battle rebels in Tigray – and have not fully withdrawn. Women interviewed by the BBC in Tigray said the November peace agreement has not ended the sexual violence they have faced throughout the conflict. Read our report on Ethiopia’s continued unrest.
HORN-YEMEN MIGRATION: Movement along a dangerous migration route from countries in the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries through Yemen increased by 64% in the past year, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM. Pushed by ongoing drought, hunger, and the effects of climate change, more than 53,000 people made the crossing last year. The route “is an underserved crisis easily forgotten amidst other global crises,” IOM Director General António Vitorino said as he launched a new funding appeal.
LEBANON: Lebanon’s currency hit a new low, part of the economic collapse that has been tearing through the country since late 2019. At least six banks were reportedly set on fire as part of ongoing protests against the country’s embattled financial institutions. For more, check out WhatsApp Lebanon?
LIBYA: At least 73 asylum seekers and migrants are presumed dead following a shipwreck off the Libyan coast on 14 February – the latest in a long run of similar incidents that has cost almost 26,000 lives in the Mediterranean since 2014. Meanwhile, on 15 February, Italy’s parliament voted a decree into law that critics say will further hamper the ability of NGOs to carry out search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean. This came days after EU leaders agreed new measures to tighten control of the bloc’s external borders. For more, read: The European approach to stopping Libya migration.
MARBURG: Equatorial Guinea has confirmed its first ever outbreak of Marburg, a severe haemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola. There have been 16 suspected cases of the disease, which has a fatality ratio of up to 88% and no approved vaccines or therapeutics.
NORTH KOREA: Food shortages appear to be worsening, with soldiers’ rations cut for the first time in 20 years, according to a South Korean report. That follows a rare special meeting earlier this month on agricultural development in North Korea, a sign the isolated nation is likely facing significant challenges. US-based monitoring group 38 North reported last month that rising prices and dropping availability of food have resulted in the worst food insecurity levels since the famines of the 1990s.
PALESTINE/ISRAEL: This week saw more lethal Israeli army raids in the West Bank, another deadly attack by a Palestinian on Israelis in East Jerusalem, and Israel’s demolition of the Hebron home of a Palestinian who opened fire at an Israeli settlement last year. Amid the ongoing violence, Israel’s parliament passed a new law that allows the state to strip some Palestinians of their Israeli citizenship or East Jerusalem residency permits. The law, which applies to convicted attackers who receive stipends from the Palestinian Authority for their acts, has been condemned by rights groups.
THAILAND: The World Uyghur Congress has called on the Thai government to investigate the death of Aziz Abdullah, a 49-year-old Uyghur asylum seeker who spent the last nine years in Thai immigration detention. He had reportedly been denied treatment for years. An estimated 49 Uyghur asylum seekers are still being held incommunicado in Thai immigration detention.
TUNISIA: Police in Tunisia arrested journalists, politicians, judges, and activists in a crackdown against critics of President Kais Saied. The latest wave of detentions, which has drawn criticism from the US State Department, is the latest violation in what rights watchdogs have called an “alarming backsliding on human rights” since Saied closed parliament, dismissed his government, and rewrote the constitution in 2021.
One year on, Ukraine exposes the limits of well-funded international aid
As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion approaches, Moscow is ramping up an offensive in eastern Ukraine while continuing to bombard cities and infrastructure across the country. Russia has faced repeated battlefield setbacks since its troops first crossed the border on 24 February last year. But the war has still taken a devastating human toll. Thousands of civilians have been killed, 18 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, 14 million have been displaced – including 8 million as refugees – and millions are living in sub-zero temperatures without access to heating, electricity, or other essential services. The international community has responded with an outpouring of humanitarian aid, but as Corinne Redfern reports in this in-depth analysis, local organisations working on the front lines say they are still struggling to access funding while pressing needs are going unmet. The scale of the devastation is immense, but rigid funding conditions, unrealistic deadlines, and a focus on statistics is pushing some NGOs to prioritise faster, less impactful activities rather than focusing on what Ukrainians really need.
Happy belated World Radio Day!
After more than a century of radio broadcasting, the medium still enjoys strong popularity. It remains the most powerful mass media on the African continent, while also retaining a huge influence and large audiences in many countries around the globe, from the United States to Germany, from Australia to Sweden. The theme of this year’s World Radio Day, on 12 February, was Radio and Peace. As UNESCO noted in promoting the day, radio has unfortunately been used to fuel conflict. For example, radio broadcasts played an important role in inciting violence during the Rwanda genocide. But, as UNESCO also noted, used wisely, it can also help forge peace and reconciliation. Community stations are uniquely placed to empower and inform, as the Bush Radio did during the apartheid struggle in South Africa. And the power of radio has re-emerged in the last decade through podcasting, which has grown to a $20 billion industry. On which note, don’t forget to listen to the latest episode of our flagship podcast, Rethinking Humanitarianism!
(*The original story incorrectly stated that this part of the UN appeal was just for northwest Syria. It was actually for 5 million people affected across Syria. This corrected version was published on 25 February 2023.)