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Gaza’s endless suffering, unpacking COP28, and refugee power: The Cheat Sheet 

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

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

On our radar

Girding for a long war in Gaza

Globally, there have been resounding calls for a long-term ceasefire to bring an end to more than two months of bloodshed and a spiralling humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip. On 13 December, 153 member states voted to support a resolution in the UN General Assembly demanding a humanitarian ceasefire in the enclave. Twenty-three states abstained, and only 10 voted against the measure, including the United States. General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, but the overwhelming support for the measure shows the increasing global isolation of Israel and the United States – which vetoed a similar measure at the UN Security Council last week – as the death toll continues to climb and living conditions deteriorate even further in Gaza. Nearly 19,000 people have now been killed by Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion, according to the health ministry in the enclave, and over 80% of the 2.3 million people who live in Gaza have been displaced from their homes. Israel’s military campaign began after Hamas, the Palestinian political and militant organisation that governs Gaza, launched a deadly raid into Israel on 7 October that Israeli officials say killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. While the United States has continued to support Israel’s war effort (including through weapons sales), cracks have emerged as Israel has apparently paid little heed to US calls to try to limit civilian casualties and allow more access for humanitarian aid. Israel has said it’s fighting against Hamas could last months. With aid agencies already struggling to operate, the impact of a prolonged war on a population squeezed into a sliver of southern Gaza – and suffering from food shortages and outbreaks of disease – is hard to imagine.

COP28: Landmark deal, or messy compromise?

In the time-honoured tradition of climate summits, COP28 wrapped up in overtime in Dubai on 13 December after frantic late-night horse-trading secured a deal that divided opinion. For some, the so-called “UAE Consensus” that agrees to “transition away from fossil fuels” is a historic first commitment (albeit vague and non-binding) to eliminate the main cause of climate change. For many climate activists and other sceptics, however, it represents a baby step on a marathon that requires a flat-out sprint. Arguably of greater import, was the agreement to launch a loss and damage fund, after a hard year of talks. COP28 also agreed on a first Global Stocktake: an assessment of climate progress to date, and a roadmap for what still needs to be done – it calls, for example, for a tripling of renewable energy capacity. But significant holes remain. One of the biggest shortcomings of COP28 was its lack of finance commitments, reinforcing a long-running sore that has greatly contributed to global mistrust in climate talks. The money lower-income countries need to adapt is way behind what’s needed. Rich countries promised in 2009 to deliver $100 billion per year by 2020 – an annual target that may be met for the first time this year. A New Collective Quantified Goal for Climate Finance – a larger one – is set to be decided at COP29, to be held in Azerbaijan.

For more on the festival-like atmosphere, and for some tidbits that couldn’t find a way into his other reporting, read this behind-the-scenes take from policy editor Will Worley.

Sudanese face catastrophic hunger, UN agency warns

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is warning of catastrophic, famine-like hunger in Sudan next year if it cannot expand access and regularly deliver food aid to people trapped in Khartoum, Darfur, and other parts of the country. Fighting between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces began in April, and has created one of the most difficult places in the world for aid groups to operate. In its latest situation report, WFP said it had reached 116,000 people in Khartoum this month but only after four months with no access to the city. Meanwhile, a 10 December attack on an ICRC convoy in Khartoum has underscored the danger aid groups face trying to work in the capital. Convoys of assistance have now successfully reached West and Central Darfur, but needs are far outstripping supply. The humanitarian response remains significantly underfunded with just 39% of the requested $2.57 billion received so far. Local mutual aid groups known as emergency response rooms remain the backbone of the response.

Humanitarians in 2024: Doing less with less

New estimates for what humanitarian response will cost in 2024 are the sector’s roadmap for restraint. The UN says humanitarians will need $46 billion next year for crisis response. It’s the first time in years the sum of its annual appeals has dropped (last year’s initial ask: $51.5 billion) – reflecting months of warnings from the small pool of donor governments that their aid budgets are shrinking, and that humanitarians need to rein in their asks. This means fewer people targeted (180 million compared to 230 million this year) and a tighter focus on life-saving work. Humanitarian appeals are alway aspirational – a lofty target few expect to hit. Next year’s 10% scale-back reflects donor pressure, and signals the sector’s new willingness to admit its own limits. But that means others – longer-term development aid, and the donors that cut this funding when crises escalate – need to step up, UN relief chief Martin Griffiths told reporters in Geneva. “Let's be very clear: If we do this, first of all, you need to respond as well,” he said. “You need to make an effort just as much as we have.”

MINUSMA lowers its flag in Mali

The UN’s peacekeeping operation in Mali (MINUSMA) has formally ended its 10-year mission after being requested to leave by the ruling junta. A liquidation phase will continue into the new year, but the flag at the mission headquarters in Bamako has now been lowered. The junta called for the departure in June, citing MINUSMA’s failure to deal with security challenges. Military officials also resented its human rights sleuthing, and had severely curtailed its access and mobility, including to areas where soldiers and their Wagner Group allies perpetrated massacres. MINUSMA first deployed to Mali in 2013 following an uprising by jihadist and separatist armed groups. Yet it never had an offensive counter-insurgency mandate and was powerless as jihadists spread across the country and into neighbouring states. It became the deadliest active UN mission in the world, with more than 300 fatalities. Most Malians saw it as ineffective, though job opportunities and development projects did bring benefits, while its withdrawal has led to significant tensions between the government and former separatists.

Shifting power at the Global Refugee Forum

With everything else happening in the world, the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) may have flown in under the radar, but more than 3,000 people gathered in Geneva for what the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) dubbed “the world's largest international gathering on refugees”. This is only the second-ever GRF, which convenes every four years to take stock of progress towards objectives laid out in the Global Compact on Refugees – adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2018. Governments, international organisations, and other stakeholders make pledges to improve the global response to international forced displacement, and then progress is assessed at the next gathering. One of the hot topics this week has been refugee representation and participation in decision-making. At the first GRF, there were around 70 refugee delegates; this time, there were more than 300. That is certainly progress, but are refugees being allowed to have a meaningful impact on decision-making or are they still being tokenised by governments and institutions that remain hesitant to delegate power? That was the topic of “From refugee inclusion to shifting power: Building a global refugee sector that puts refugees first”, an event The New Humanitarian organised with Refugees International and Asylum Access on the sidelines of the GRF. Watch a recording of the powerful and challenging conversation here, and stay tuned for follow-up coverage in the new year.

For related coverage, check out our Flipping the narrative series.

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In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN/PAKISTAN: More than 450,000 Afghans have returned to Afghanistan since mid-September, after Islamabad issued an ultimatum for all those without the right documentation to leave the country by November or risk detention and deportation, according to a consortium of NGOs operating in Afghanistan. The majority of returnees – 80% – are women and children; especially worrying given the fact that the Taliban-led government has severely limited the employment opportunities for women and still doesn’t allow girls above the sixth grade to continue formal education.

ANTHRAX: The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed an outbreak of anthrax disease across five countries in east and southern Africa, with 1,100 suspected cases and 20 deaths recorded since January. Zambia has the highest number of cases, and Uganda the highest death toll. People can catch the bacterial infection after contact with infected animals or animal products, but WHO says it generally isn’t contagious between humans.

ARMENIA-AZERBAIJAN: In a step towards potentially normalising relations and signing a peace deal, Armenia and Azerbaijan exchanged prisoners of war on 13 December. The countries have fought two wars in the past 30 years. Azerbaijan seized the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh – which had been governed by Armenian separatists for more than three decades – in a September offensive, touching off a refugee exodus of nearly the entire Armenian population of the enclave.

EAST AFRICA: Harvest season across the Horn of Africa has been disrupted by fighting and El Niño-related flooding, leaving millions in dire need. Floodwaters have devastated one fifth of harvests in South-Central Somalia, destroyed 21,000 acres of farmland in Kenya, and contributed to livestock losses in southern Ethiopia; while conflict has led to significantly reduced harvests in northern Ethiopia as well as Sudan.

GUATEMALA/HONDURAS: We may have missed it at the time, but an investigation published last month reveals the extent to which Guatemala and Honduras have entered the cocaine production scene, with drug-trafficking networks dispatching teams from Colombia to assess suitable land for cultivating coca, and training locals to manufacture the paste.

HAITI: A human rights group, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), has accused de facto prime minister Ariel Henry of deliberately enabling the deterioration of security in the Caribbean country. The UN says almost 4,000 people were killed between January and November this year amid paralysing gang violence.

IFRC: The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies chose its second-ever female president on 11 December, after a cantankerous election that saw sexual harassment allegations surface against one candidate, an attempted delay, and a split vote. It was, said the eventual winner, American Kate Forbes, a “strange day”.

MYANMAR: Myanmar has officially replaced Afghanistan as the world’s largest opium producer, according to the UN. Analysts credit the switch largely to a Taliban ban that has seen Afghanistan’s poppy production reduced by 95%. But production has still risen by more than a third In Myanmar, prompting fears the increased drug trade will fuel already escalating conflict.

RWANDA/UK: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's bill to legalise the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda squeaked through parliament on 12 December. Dozens of Conservative Party members abstained, either over concerns about its legality or because they didn’t believe it went far enough towards stopping Channel crossings. Almost 20,000 migrants and asylum seekers have crossed from France this year, down from 45,755 in 2022. At least 64 have died attempting the crossing since 2018. The UK Supreme Court ruled last month that deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful because the country is not safe. The bill will be up for another vote in January.

YEMEN: Yemen’s Houthi rebels have escalated their recent attacks on ships in the Red Sea they see as linked to Israel, warning that they will now target all ships headed towards Israel or scheduled to dock in Israeli ports, regardless of nationality. On 12 December, a Houthi missile hit a Norwegian-flagged tanker after the rebels said it “rejected all warning calls”.

Weekend read

What WFP cuts mean for people in hunger crises around the world

The warnings from WFP have been coming thick and fast: hunger is worsening in West and Central Africa and will affect almost 50 million people between June and August 2024; there’s a “looming hunger catastrophe” facing 18 million people across civil war-torn Sudan (see above), not to mention particular starvation risks in Palestine, Mali, and Burkina Faso. At the same time, WFP is having to make extremely tough choices about who it prioritises for food aid, as donors reduce funding. “Today, WFP is facing a 60% funding shortfall,” a WFP spokesperson tells The New Humanitarian in our weekend read. “Nearly half of 86 WFP country operations have already implemented, or plan to shortly implement, significant reductions in the size and scope of life-saving food, cash and nutrition assistance programmes.” Several months ago, we set out to find out how these snowballing cuts were affecting vulnerable communities around the world. Find out how here, or for a more detailed look at what refugees and aid officials describe as a disastrous situation in Uganda, read our in-depth investigation.

And finally…

Monetary union in the Sahel?

Niger’s new military junta has had a busy few weeks. It has pulled out of a French-backed anti-jihadist regional force; ended a military partnership with the EU; and repealed a destructive 2015 law (adopted under EU pressure) that sought to curb migration to Europe. This week it set its sights on forging a monetary alliance with the neighbouring juntas in Burkina Faso and Mali. No further details or timelines were given, but could a new alliance mean dropping the CFA franc, a colonial currency once tied to the French franc and now to the euro? The CFA has two separate currency zones and currently circulates in 14 west and central African countries. There have been growing protests against it in recent years, and plenty of criticism from African intellectuals and economists. They say the currency is beneficial to French companies but not to African states, which can’t use exchange rates to boost the competitiveness of their exports.

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