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Gaza breaking point, Myanmar needs, and the big aid squeeze: the Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

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

Gaza’s ‘point of no return’ 

In the two months since Israel began bombarding and laying total siege to Gaza, around 85% of the 2.3 million people who live in the coastal enclave have been displaced from their homes, according to the UN. More than 17,000 people have been killed – around 70% of them women and children – and many others are missing and presumed to be trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings, according to the Gaza Health Ministry; the enclave’s healthcare system is barely functional; and a rapid food security assessment found that nearly everyone went to bed hungry and most went entire days without food. Israel began its assault after Hamas – the Palestinian political and militant group that governs Gaza – launched an attack into Israel on 7 October, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people, most of them civilians who were intentionally killed, according to Israeli officials. An Israeli ground invasion, which began on 27 October and is expanding into southern Gaza, is squeezing hundreds of thousands of displaced into smaller and smaller areas. Humanitarian relief efforts in Gaza have essentially ground to a halt, and UN officials have repeatedly warned that nowhere is safe. Amid these extreme conditions, “civil order is breaking down”, the Gaza director of the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, warned, while Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, said: “We are reaching the point of no return”. UN Secretary-General António Guterres invoked a rarely used article of the UN charter to push the Security Council to demand an immediate ceasefire, but the United States was expected to block the effort. For an intimate first-hand account of the situation in the enclave, read: ‘What can I do?’: Reflections of a Gaza aid worker.

Aid needs soar in Myanmar, as resistance forces make gains

The dynamic of Myanmar’s civil war appears to have changed. It had long been held that the country’s many different armed ethnic groups posed little threat to the junta as they’re too disparate and under-resourced individually. But their combined actions in recent months, making simultaneous gains in parts of Shan, Rakhine, Kayah, Chin and Kachin states have some analysts and media outlets predicting that the military leadership may be on its way out. Regardless, the fighting is already taking a major toll on civilian lives, with more than 500,000 people estimated to have been forced from their homes since 26 October, taking the total number now displaced in the country to more than 2.5 million. Particularly concerning is the fact that the fighting, which had been largely confined to remote rural areas, is now encroaching on major cities like Mandalay and Sittwe. As international aid continues to face considerable access challenges, calls are growing for the international community to step up its support for local groups assisting those on the front lines. For more, read our full report.

End of the road for UN mission in Sudan

The UN’s political mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) has closed down after its mandate was terminated by the Security Council. The decision followed a November request by Sudan’s army-controlled government to dissolve the mission, which was established in 2020 to support a democratic transition after the ouster of Omar al-Bashir. Authorities said conditions in the country had changed since UNITAMS was established, though military generals – currently locked in conflict with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – were likely irked by the mission’s documentation of the appalling human rights situation in the country. Civilian politicians said the army has no legitimacy to request a termination, while rights groups said the warring parties will now face less scrutiny. That said, UNITAMS faced sharp criticism over the past two years from Sudan’s pro-democracy groups. They accused the mission of being soft on military and RSF generals – whose conflict has displaced nearly seven million people since April – centring them in political negotiations in a way that undermined grassroots demands for full civilian rule.

For more on the situation in Sudan's Darfur region, where RSF militias are accused of ethnic cleansing, check out the latest in our Snapshots series from Sudanese journalist Ahmed Gouja.

Niger junta pivots from the EU to Russia

The ruling junta in Niger has ended a military partnership with the EU, pulling the plug on a mission that provided training and equipment for Nigerien security forces battling jihadists. Authorities have also repealed a 2015 law – adopted under EU pressure – that sought to curb migration to Europe. The diplomatic rupture is linked to the EU’s refusal to engage with the junta, which toppled the bloc’s close partner, Mohamed Bazoum, in July. Russian officials have visited Niamey in recent days, signing documents to strengthen military cooperation. Russian support for other Sahelian armies has led to massive rights abuses, yet the EU’s track record is hardly glowing. The bloc spent large sums on the Nigerien security forces but lacked programmes to prevent army abuses (see our investigation) – an oversight that played into the hands of jihadists. Its migration policies, meanwhile, resulted in Niamey criminalising the economy of a northern smuggling hub (read our 2018 report for more on that), all while endangering migrant lives.

Next year’s humanitarian price tag

Humanitarian aid’s biggest government donors are tightening their belts, and so is the sector itself. On 11 December, the UN will launch its estimates for what emergency responses will cost in 2024. After months of hints – or outright warnings – that donor budgets are squeezed, aid groups have been under pressure to keep their demands in check. That’s no easy task for a sector that has grown used to record budgets each year – or a world facing longer, more complicated crises. There’s always behind-the-scenes wrangling about the figures. But donors have been pushing aid groups to prioritise, and to spend their money more efficiently. The end result may mean fewer people targeted for aid, or a focus on core life-saving work. Some have worried that aid groups may be overly restrained – not asking for enough money for gender-related programmes or education, for example.

Crunch time looms as fossil fuel divisions thwart COP28

COP28’s early and much-praised approval to launch a new loss and damage fund already feels like a long time ago. As the second week of the UN climate summit gets underway in Dubai, the UAE presidency has just a few more days to shepherd a divisive group of 197 countries into a unanimous agreement. As government ministers fly in to push along the highly complex talks, dominated in the first week by technical negotiators, an agreement on phasing out fossil fuels is the overarching goal for those with the highest climate ambitions: Experts say this is needed if the 1.5C global warming limit is not to be breached by 2050. And as is normal at this stage of COP, divisions have become stark, particularly between high-income, high-polluting countries and lower-income, lower-emitting countries. Other negotiations include talks on: the first Global Stocktake, a twice-a-decade measure and roadmap of progress; the Global Goal on Adaptation, to improve climate resilience; and, of course, the ever-thorny topic of climate finance. Meanwhile, COP29 could well be held in Azerbaijan, after the oil-rich country received the surprise endorsement of Armenia, with whom – until recently – it was warring with over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

For more COP-related coverage from those whose lives are most affected by the climate crisis, read our just-published story on the threat to the pastoralist way of life in northern Kenya, by Africa Editor Obi Anyadike.

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In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: In the two years since it has returned to power, the Taliban says at least 200 new schools have been opened across the country, mostly in rural areas – a positive development considering the so-called ‘ghost school’ scandal under the former Western-backed government. Despite this announcement, however, more than three million children remain out of school and girls are still not allowed to study beyond the sixth grade.

BRITAIN/RWANDA: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s bid to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda has caused chasms in the government. His immigration minister resigned this week saying he didn’t believe the proposed emergency legislation went far enough. The latest attempt to revive the beleaguered plan declares Rwanda a safe country and could bypass some sections of the Human Rights Act. Although no asylum seekers have been sent to Rwanda (more on that here), the plan has already cost the UK government £240 million.

EU: In a statement this week, a group of 17 human rights organisations warned that a pending overhaul of the EU’s migration and asylum policies risks undermining the international refugee protection system and cementing into place abusive practices at the bloc’s external borders – including illegal pushbacks and racial profiling. The EU is expected to soon adopt a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which was first proposed in 2020. 

IFRC: The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies elects a new president in a closed-door vote on 11 December. The incumbent, Francesco Rocca, announced he would resign following conflict-of-interest accusations and a public controversy over his dual role as IFRC president and a politician in Italy.

IRAN: Iranian security forces used rape and sexual violence to torture and punish protesters, some as young as 12, during the country’s nationwide protests last year, according to a new report By Amnesty International. The protests erupted after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police. Since the protests began, over 19,000 people have been arrested, and at least 500 protesters, including children, have been killed. The report describes sexual violence as a “key weapon” in the Iran’s repression.

KENYA: Amid calls from some politicians to sanction Israel over the bombardment of the Gaza Strip, Kenya, which historically bucked attempts to isolate apartheid South Africa, plans to send 1,500 farm workers to the Middle Eastern nation, which is accused of committing crimes of apartheid against Palestinians.

NIGERIA: The Nigerian military says it is investigating an army drone attack on a religious gathering in Tudun Biri village in northwest Nigeria that killed 85 civilians and wounded more than 60 others. Since 2017, hundreds of civilians have been killed by airstrikes carried out by the Nigerian military that it said were targeting armed groups, according to monitors.

PAKISTAN: Health officials in Pakistan say the last month has seen a 50% rise in the number of children seeking treatment for pollution-related illnesses in Lahore: 24 of the last 30 days have seen the city dealing with “hazardous” or “very unhealthy” air, which is leading to health problems for its 11 million residents, particularly children.

US/ISRAEL: In a rare move, the United States said this week that it will impose a travel ban on Israeli settlers who have been involved in a sharp rise in violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. Belgium also announced a similar measure. Since the Hamas-led attack into Israel on 7 October, violence by the Israeli military and settlers – already a fixture of life in the West Bank – has increased dramatically, according to human rights groups. 

VENEZUELA/GUYANA: Disregarding an International Court of Justice ruling, President Nicolás Maduro has ordered the annexation of the Guyana-controlled Essequibo region, after Venezuelans supported the move in a controversial and low-turnout referendum. Tensions over the disputed region – which constitutes about two thirds of Guyana’s territory – surged after oil was discovered in waters off its coast.

YEMEN: A cholera outbreak has rapidly spread across six governorates in south and east Yemen, with 917 suspected cases and eight deaths reported since late October. Migrants constitute around 80% of cases. Yemen has a history of cholera outbreaks, with 2.5 million cases and 4,000 deaths reported from 2016 to 2021.

Weekend read

In Burkina Faso's blockaded towns, war crimes and mutual aid

Around a million people in Burkina Faso are living under suffocating blockades imposed by jihadist groups – a tool of war designed to punish localities supportive of the army. Our weekend read investigates how the blockades are impacting people and the adaptation strategies that communities are using to survive them. Four residents of blockaded towns spoke with our reporters, offering rare insights into a conflict that topped the Norwegian Refugee Council’s annual list of neglected crises. Affected residents said their health services are collapsing; infrastructure, including water systems, are being attacked; and food is lacking because fighters prevent their access to farm and pasture spaces on the outskirts of towns. People are pooling resources and doing urban farming to manage the blockades, and they are also reliant on aid flown in on UN helicopters. Check out the full report for more, and have a look through our accompanying briefing to understand why Burkina Faso’s conflict is worsening.

And finally…

Putting a price tag on slavery

The demand by Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley for nearly $5 trillion in reparations for her country from former slave-owning nations has renewed the impetus to address the legacy of centuries slavery and colonialism. A report released by the Brattle Group in June suggested that reparations due to Barbados from enslaving and destination countries would amount to at least $3.5 trillion. In a 2019 report to the UN General Assembly, the then-UN special rapporteur on racism, Tendayi Achiume, noted that under the international human rights system, victims of abuses have a right to reparations and urged a structural approach that “accounts for the persisting structures of racial inequality, discrimination and subordination that have slavery and colonialism as their root causes”. Previous reparations programmes have tended to compensate former slave owners rather than those they enslaved. In 1833, the UK paid the equivalent of 40% of its annual budget to families freeing enslaved Africans, and Haiti, the first nation to permanently ban slavery, was forced to pay up to $30 billion to French slave-owners and their descendants.

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