Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Niger’s coup shakes up West Africa – again
Mutinous soldiers in Niger have declared a military coup against President Mohamed Bazoum, citing a worsening security and economic situation in the country. Niger's army command has backed the coup plotters. Bazoum has not yet resigned and vowed to safeguard “hard-won” democratic gains in a social media post, but an army general, Abdourahamane Tiani, appeared on state television as the country’s new leader on 28 July. The African Union and West African ECOWAS bloc condemned the takeover, and the UN has paused humanitarian operations. The putsch follows recent coups in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali. All three countries are fighting destabilising jihadist insurgencies. Niger has positioned itself as a strategic ally of Western nations seeking to fight militants and combat migration. The country hosts US drone bases and became the main hub for French anti-jihadist troops booted out of Burkina Faso and Mali. The increased French military presence led to recent protests (see our reporting) from civil society groups that question the motives of the country's former colonial power. International actors have threatened to revise ties with Niger in light of the coup, though they have long turned a blind eye to the authoritarian tendencies of local politicians and to army abuses.
Sri Lankan rupee: from first to worst
The Sri Lankan rupee earned the dubious distinction of becoming Asia’s worst performing currency this week, replacing the Pakistani rupee at the bottom of the list following a precipitous decline. After being Asia’s best performing currency for the first six months of this year, the Sri Lankan rupee has tanked over the past month, depreciating by 6%. The decline is forecast to continue. Sri Lanka has faced economic and political turmoil since 2019 and has been struggling to make foreign debt payments as inflation has risen and fiscal deficits have grown. The nation’s health sector has been especially affected. Over the last year, at least 1,000 medical specialists have left the country, and stocks of 150 essential medications – including blood thinners, antibiotics, and chemotherapy drugs – have run out. Residents have cut back spending on basic items, including food, and more than 250,000 people have left the country, leading to fears of a brain drain. With no fiscal recovery in sight, there are concerns that the humanitarian effects of the current crisis will only intensify.
Mediterranean deaths soar, along with worries over more EU clampdowns
Nearly 1,800 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Tunisia and Libya to Europe so far this year — already the highest yearly total since 2017, with five more months left in 2023. Tunisian authorities alone have recovered more than 900 bodies. Fewer than half have been identified, leaving hundreds of families without information about their loved ones. The true number of deaths is almost certainly higher, as many deaths go undetected or unreported. European countries try to avoid taking responsibility for rescuing asylum seekers and migrants at sea and obstruct the work of NGOs that have stepped in to fill the gap. Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has been at the forefront of these efforts in recent months. On 23 July, she convened a conference in Rome of leaders from the Middle East, Africa, and Europe to address irregular migration. Human rights groups worry that her leadership on the issue means that Europe will lean even more heavily on African and Middle Eastern states to keep asylum seekers and migrants out.
Russia’s grain-for-influence gambit
Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged free grain to six African nations. The announcement comes one week after Russia withdrew from the Black Sea grain deal, triggering a spike in global prices. Opening the Africa-Russian summit in St Petersburg on 27 July, Putin promised to send 25,000 to 50,000 tons of free grain to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic, and Eritrea. The countries are among Moscow’s closest allies on the continent, but they are not all the most food-import dependent. UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned a “handful of donations” would not correct the market impact of Russia’s termination of the year-long deal, which had cut cereal prices by more than one third. The African Union echoed Guterres’ criticism. The St Petersburg summit was supposed to mark Moscow’s growing influence in Africa. But only 17 heads of state made it, compared to 43 at the last meeting in 2019. Putin blamed Western pressure for the disappointing turnout. However, in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, many African nations have chosen to remain non-aligned.
Visualising El Niño’s humanitarian risks
More displacement, more pressure on food security, and new health risks from disease outbreaks and extreme heat: With El Niño under way, analysts are sorting through the forecasts to anticipate how the climate phenomenon will affect already strained humanitarian emergencies. ACAPS, the Geneva-based analysis outfit, has a new briefing that tries to spot where El Niño’s impacts might be most severe. The group has compiled a list of 27 countries where the typically higher temperatures and more volatile weather brought on by El Niño could lead to – or significantly worsen – humanitarian needs. The calculation factors in forecasts from various agencies, risk indexes, and current conflicts and emergencies. Here’s a quick visual overview:
New (controversial) strategies to tackle Latin American gangs
Hit by a new wave of violence, Latin American countries are looking to new – often controversial – strategies to try to stop gangs from disrupting the daily life of millions. Ecuador declared a 60-day state of emergency across the country’s prison system on 24 July. The move followed a gang fight in a prison in the city of Guayaquil that saw 31 people killed and a shooting in Manta, a port city, that killed the mayor and one other victim. In El Salvador, a new law that allows mass trials of alleged gang members is the latest in a series of tough-on-crime policies that have raised human rights concerns internationally. And in Honduras, authorities announced plans to build an island prison colony to hold gang members. A prison massacre and shooting in a pool hall in the country left dozens dead last month. For more on the impact of gang violence in Latin America, read our series: Gangs out of control.
In case you missed it
AID WORKERS: There was a “significant surge” in kidnappings of aid workers in 2022, according to a new report. The analysis by the Aid Worker Security Database tallied 439 total attacks against aid workers last year, including 185 kidnappings. Also, 115 aid workers were killed, and 139 were wounded in attacks. National staff accounted for the vast majority of victims.
GABON: Gabon will launch what would reportedly be Africa’s first debt-for-nature swap, trading $450 million in government debt for capital intended to fund conservation, Reuters reported. Debt swaps are becoming a key lever pushed by climate-vulnerable countries, who say they’re saddled with debt amid an historically imbalanced global financial system and escalating weather extremes.
INDIA: A high court in India has partially lifted a two month internet ban that was imposed in the state of Manipur after fighting broke out between two tribal groups in late May. At least 100 people have been killed and 75,000 displaced in the clashes between the Kuki-Zo and Meitei people. In its ruling, the court said that broadband access should be allowed in public organisations. However, mobile data has yet to be restored to the northeastern state. Last month, Human Rights Watch and the Internet Freedom Foundation reported that India has “shut down the internet more than any other country”.
LATIN AMERICA: The EU is disbursing new funds for humanitarian assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean. ECHO, the EU’s humanitarian agency, granted UNICEF 10.7 million euro to help migrant and refugee children and strengthen disaster preparedness in target countries. Earlier this month, Commissioner Janez Lenarčič announced the release of 43 million euro to address urgent humanitarian needs in the region overall in 2023.
MALI: Military forces and their allies from the Russian mercenary Wagner Group have summarily executed and forcibly disappeared dozens of civilians in central Mali in recent months, according to Human Rights Watch. The killings took place during operations against jihadist groups and follow a series of military-Wagner massacres against civilians in 2022.
ROHINGYA: Anti-terrorist police arrested 74 Rohingya Muslims in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on 24 July. Police accused the 55 men, 14 women, and five minors, who came from Bangladesh and Myanmar, of entering the country illegally. A Rohingya rights group says the people had been living in India for 10 years. India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, and activists say Rohingya often face arbitrary arrests in the country.
SUDAN: Kenya is spearheading a regional mediation initiative to end Sudan’s civil war between the army and rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). But Kenya’s president, William Ruto, was snubbed by a senior Sudanese general this week, who accused Ruto of favouring the RSF and warned that a Kenyan-led East African peacekeeping force would be resisted if it was deployed to Sudan.
TUNISIA/LIBYA: The bodies of five people thought to have been expelled from Tunisia during a recent crackdown on Black African asylum seekers and migrants were found by Libyan authorities in the remote border region between the two countries, according to a statement released on 25 July. Hundreds of Black Africans were rounded up by Tunisian authorities and deposited in no man’s land along the border without supplies, following an escalation of tensions and violence earlier this month.
YEMEN: More than 40 Yemeni civil society organisations released a declaration on 26 July laying out a vision for how to achieve justice and reconciliation post-conflict. They highlight the importance of addressing past human rights violations to prevent future violence and call for accountability, reparations, and reconciliation through a gender-equal and victim-centred process. The war, which started in 2014, has led to one of the world’s most acute crises, with more than 20 million people requiring humanitarian assistance and 80% of the population facing hunger.
Living with a decade of war, fuel shortages, and rising prices, some Syrians in the rebel-held northwest are risking it all to cross the heavily guarded Turkish border in search of better lives. Some never make it, as journalists Mahmoud Abu Ros and Melissa Pawson found in their reporting for the Weekend Read. One attempt ended on 11 March, when eight Syrians were reportedly apprehended by Turkish guards. Two of them were killed, and the six others were returned to Syria with serious injuries. One of the dead was 18-year-old Abdo al-Sayah. Survivors of the incident told his mother, Salma al-Hassan, that he was beaten with electric cables, tortured for hours, and forced to drink diesel fuel before being shot dead by officers. So far, the public prosecutor’s office in Reyhanli – the town where the incident took place – has kept details of the investigation under wraps. Human Rights Watch says the incident is far from isolated. “[Abdo] was the breadwinner in our family,” al-Hassan told The New Humanitarian. “His father is unable to work, and his brother can’t work because he is blind.” The family is among an estimated 1.9 million people who live in displacement camps. A growing hunger crisis has been compounded by recent cuts to aid, inflation of the Turkish lira (used as currency in parts of northern Syria), and deadly earthquakes earlier this year.
MSF’s mea culpa and the ‘commodification of suffering’
Médecins Sans Frontières says it’s in the middle of a conversation about how people who use aid are photographed. The agency’s biggest critics say they’re not asking the right questions. Last May, MSF came under heavy criticism after the aid group, and a photo agency it partnered with, published images of a 16-year-old girl who had been raped and was under medical care. Dozens of people, including MSF staff and contributors, signed an open letter pointing out that the photo agency was selling numerous other images of patients in distress: “It represents the commodification of suffering on an industrial scale, almost always of vulnerable Black people,” they wrote. In a July note published on its website, MSF acknowledged questions over how its practices “contributed to normalising the pain of others”, and said a panel of advisors is reviewing how it collects and uses images. Critics like Monica Mukerjee, who formerly worked with MSF, and signed last year’s letter, say there are still a “cascade of unaddressed issues”. Big aid groups rely on stark imagery to publicise their work and fundraise; journalists use them to tell stories from crises. But rarely do they grapple with the issues of race, power imbalances, and double standards inherent to aid itself and how it’s portrayed – people largely from the Global North, working in vulnerable communities, mostly in the Global South. MSF says it’s on a pathway to change. For international aid and media alike, there’s a long road ahead.