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Somalia’s drought deaths, Vanuatu’s climate justice bid, and UN offices in rebel-held Syria? The Cheat Sheet

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Graphic of a television that reads 'breaking news'. Louise O'Brien/TNH

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


On our radar


Hunger in drought-hit Somalia claimed 43,000 lives in 2022: study

As many as 43,000 drought-related "excess deaths" may have occurred in Somalia in 2022, according to a new study. Half of the fatalities were among children under the age of five. The study, conducted by the government and UN agencies, forecasts that 135 people may still die daily from January to June 2023. The study’s predictive model projects total deaths at between 18,100 and 34,200 people over the period. Large as that toll is, it suggests a long-feared famine may have been averted – although the overall crisis is far from over, with 6.5 million people in Somalia still facing acute hunger or worse. The Bay, Banadir, and Bakool regions in the south and centre of the country have been the worst hit. Interestingly, the study notes that most drought-related deaths occurred “over protracted periods” in zones categorised as crisis or emergency level (IPC 3 and 4 in the food insecurity classification system), rather than in the smaller pockets regarded as close-to-famine, or IPC 5. Somalia has already suffered five consecutive drought seasons. The March-June 2023 rains could still fail, bringing a sixth drought and worse fatality predictions to follow.


100+ killed each week as gang violence pushes Haiti closer to collapse

More than 530 people were killed in Haiti because of gang violence between the start of the year and 15 March, as clashes became more frequent and violent, according to new figures released this week by the UN. At least 208 of the killings, which were mostly in the capital of Port-au-Prince, happened in the first two weeks of March alone. In addition to the killings, another 300 people were injured, and 277 kidnapped. Teachers and students have been hit by stray bullets, forcing some schools to close. Amid the mayhem, the United States is urging Canada to intervene, but the spectre of another armed intervention or UN peacekeeping mission is anathema to some in the Caribbean nation who recall abuses and misguided attempts to help in the past. Others argue that only homegrown solutions can lead to the fundamental changes and fresh start that Haiti needs. Humanitarian needs, meanwhile, are reaching critical levels. Famine levels of food insecurity were recorded for the first time in Haiti in October. Some 5.2 million people, almost half the 11 million population, now require humanitarian assistance. At least 160,000 people have also been displaced in the gang violence, with at least 40,000 of them living in makeshift shelters. Sexual violence has also reached unprecedented levels, with women being raped, kidnapped, recruited into gangs, or killed for their affiliation – perceived or real – with rival groups.


Ten years on, CAR’s troubles continue outside the spotlight

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the rebel takeover that kick-started a civil war in Central African Republic. The rebels were part of a northern coalition known as the Séléka, and were mostly Muslim. They ousted former president François Bozizé but faced resistance from local militias known as Anti-balaka, which indiscriminately targeted Muslims. One in four Central Africans were displaced in the turmoil that followed. Séléka fighters eventually withdrew from the capital, Bangui, and split into different factions. In recent years, they have lost ground amid operations by the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and allied Russian mercenaries. Still, the CAR crisis is far from over and humanitarian needs remain stubbornly high. Peace deals have failed, and a new rebel offensive is now reportedly underway in the countryside. Political instability is rising too in Bangui as an increasingly authoritarian Touadéra tries to change CAR’s constitution and run for a third term. To better understand what this all means for ordinary people, we’ll be launching a special project in the coming weeks, working with local reporters from across the country. Do stay tuned.


UK sends Tamil asylum seekers to Rwanda after attempted suicides

Five Sri Lankan asylum seekers attempted suicide earlier this month on the British-held Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and have been sent to Rwanda for medical treatment. This is the second round of medical transfers from Diego Garcia to Rwanda since asylum seekers first arrived on the island 18 months ago, raising concerns that the UK is moving forward with plans to use Rwanda for offshore migration processing. The asylum seekers say the lack of food, clothes, sanitation, and the prevalence of mental and physical illness among the 94 asylum seekers living in a fenced camp on Diego Garcia have made life there unbearable. One said she decided to end her life because a visiting UK government official on the island said she would be sent back to Sri Lanka, where she had been sexually abused by security forces who accused her of having links to Tamil separatists. This week, a lawyer for the asylum seekers said five more attempted suicide, and 62 went on hunger strike for four days in protest against the possibility of being sent back to Sri Lanka, which prompted British authorities on the island to cut off their communications. Various UK law firms are working to have the group brought to the UK for asylum processing. For more, read our exclusive.



Myanmar aid authorisation move raises eyebrows

Myanmar’s National Unity Government, effectively an opposition-in-exile, has asked local and international NGOs to “seek prior authorisation” before travelling through territory under its control. These areas, which amount to about half the country, are run by a range of civilian and ethnic resistance groups and other movements, many of them locked in intense fighting with the ruling military junta. The military has razed villages, bombed schools, and brutalised civilians, displacing more than a million people and leaving 17.6 million in need of humanitarian assistance – as many as in Ukraine. Aid access in Myanmar was already restricted by the Organisation Registration Law, enacted by the junta last October. The law requires local and international NGOs to disclose their funding sources and locations of operation, and prohibits the delivery of aid to areas outside the junta’s control. Although there was an acceptance that better coordination might be good, the NUG move met some immediate scepticism from aid and rights groups. “The general feeling was that it was unhelpful, especially in light of the junta’s NGO registration act,” Patrick Phongsathorn, senior advocacy specialist at Fortify Rights, told The New Humanitarian. “It’s just kind of meeting fire with fire, and that doesn’t really make any sense in this situation, and it might hamper their activities, which are obviously vital right now.”



The EU shuffles forward on local aid

You can teach an old donor new tricks, it seems. The humanitarian sector has long promised (and mostly failed) to revamp emergency aid by making it locally driven. One of several core issues: giving funding directly to local groups. But the European Union’s humanitarian funds can only go to EU-based groups and UN agencies – meaning one of the world’s biggest aid donors can’t fund most local groups directly. On 20 March, the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department, ECHO, used its annual forum to launch what one EU diplomat called “the next best thing”: new guidelines on “promoting equitable partnership with local responders”, aimed mostly at the big international NGOs and UN agencies that get the bulk of EU humanitarian funds. On paper at least, there’s much that local groups have long demanded: language on meaningful relationships instead of subcontracting, multi-year funding, recognising local skills, and supporting local leadership. There was cautious optimism from heads of local aid groups at the Brussels launch, but also a glaring roadblock: Separate EU regulations place a cap of 60,000 euros on what can be re-allocated, which one ECHO official agreed was a “ridiculously low amount”. International NGOs, meanwhile, worry that they bear all the burden – and the financial risk – of making the EU’s local aid vision a reality. These are merely guidelines for now. Like the localisation agenda itself, the proof will be in the practice


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In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN/PAKISTAN: A 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan on 21 March, killing at least 19 people and injuring 200. While the epicentre was in the Hindu Kush mountains, tremors were felt as far away as India and at least one building in Islamabad was evacuated after cracks appeared. 


CHAD: A court has sentenced 441 rebels to life in prison following the death of long-time former president Idriss Déby. The rebels are members of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, which launched an offensive in early 2021. Déby was killed while visiting troops on the front line. A political transition led by his son is currently underway, though hopes for democratisation are waning.


COLOMBIA: President Gustavo Petro called off a ceasefire with Clan del Golfo, the country’s largest drug cartel, accusing the group – also known as the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) – of repeated infringements. It comes as a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) found that forced displacement had risen to levels unseen since 2015. 


ETHIOPIA: Getachew Reda, a senior figure within the former rebel TPLF, has been appointed president of the northern Tigray region’s interim administration – a step in cementing last November’s peace deal. Getachew’s appointment followed the Ethiopian parliament’s lifting of its “terrorist” designation of the TPLF. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused the armed forces on all sides of the two-year conflict in Tigray of having committed war crimes. He urged the governments of Ethiopia, Eritrea – and the TPLF leadership – “to hold those responsible for these atrocities accountable”.


MALAWI: The death toll from last week’s tropical cyclone Freddy has risen to 507. The record-breaking storm displaced more than 550,000 people, and 543 camps have been set up to accommodate them. The impact of Freddy is also being felt in rising food prices: The staple crop, maize, is 300% higher than last year due to the inaccessibility of markets. Damage has also been done to this season’s harvest, deepening the poverty of subsistence farmers in the country’s southern regions, hit in recent years by successive climate-related disasters.


TANZANIA: An outbreak of the haemorrhagic Marburg Virus has killed five people in the northwestern Kagera region, including a health worker. Eight cases have so far been confirmed – a case fatality rate of 63% – and 161 contacts are being monitored. Kagera borders Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, posing a risk of the virus’s wider spread. The outbreak is the first time Marburg has been detected in Tanzania.


UGANDA: Uganda’s parliament passed a law on 21 March making it illegal to identify as LGBTQ, banning not just same-sex intercourse, but also the promotion of homosexuality or “conspiring” to engage in homosexuality. It included the death penalty for a range of offences – one of them being, nonsensically, for sexual abuse when the perpetrator is HIV-positive.


VENEZUELA: Governments and financial institutions pledged millions of dollars for humanitarian aid for Venezuelans at a conference in Brussels. Funding commitments reached $855 million, and are meant to address needs both inside the country and abroad. Up to December 2022, poverty and hunger had driven more than 7 million people to migrate. Meanwhile, the NGO Fundaredes reported that 9% of children in Venezuela’s Amazonian state of Bolívar are at risk of dying from malnutrition.


WATER: Between two and three billion people face water shortages for at least one month per year, posing severe risks to their livelihoods, food security, and electricity access, according to the UN’s latest World Water Development Report. With water scarcity expected to rise, the UN is calling for better international cooperation on water management, and touting the hidden benefits of sanitation solutions.


YEMEN: Clashes in Marib province reportedly left at least 16 people dead, renewing fears of a return to conflict after the expiry last October of a largely successful ceasefire, and despite the recent restoration of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran – the international powers seen as backing the two main sides.

Weekend read

EXCLUSIVE: UN discussing plans to open aid offices in rebel-held northwest Syria

Is the UN about to open aid coordination offices, warehouses, or a monitoring mission in rebel-held northwest Syria? The simple answer is we don’t know, but there have certainly been discussions. Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod spoke to several sources involved in – or familiar with – those conversations, and not everyone seems that happy about them. Delivering humanitarian aid into rebel-held territory has long been fraught with political difficulty, and yet the importance of getting large amounts of assistance into those areas as quickly as possible was supercharged by the 6 February earthquakes that killed more than 5,900 people and displaced an estimated 350,000 in Syria. Following a Brussels donor conference that raised almost one billion euros in pledges for Syrian quake recovery, UN relief chief Martin Griffiths was in Damascus on 21-22 March for high-level meetings with humanitarian partners and Syrian government officials. Could change be afoot?


And finally…


Crunch point ahead in Vanuatu’s climate fight

The push to bring climate change to the UN’s top court is nearing the finish line. On 29 March, states at the UN General Assembly will debate Vanuatu’s resolution asking the International Court of Justice to weigh in on countries’ legal obligations to address climate change. This follows months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. The campaign – started as an idea by university students from the Pacific Islands – survived COVID-19 lockdowns and a change of government in Vanuatu, and endured multiple COP climate summits where small signs of progress were tempered by bigger-picture setbacks. On the way, Vanuatu has quietly bolstered its chances by asking other countries to help draft the resolution. Some 119 states are now co-sponsors, meaning it’s likely to pass. While Vanuatu’s resolution is debated, its reasons for backing the campaign will be on full display. The country is locked in a state of emergency after two powerful cyclones (followed by earthquakes) struck within days of each other in early March. Cynthia Houniuhi, one of the students who helped start the campaign, told reporters at a press conference why she decided to get involved: ”The environment that sustained us is disintegrating before our eyes,” said the Solomon Islander. “I don’t want to show a picture to my child, one day, of my island. I want my child to be able to experience the same environment.”

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