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Gaza hospital raid, aid sector budget cuts, and soaring arms sales: The Cheat Sheet

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

Louise O'Brien/TNH

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

On our radar

Israel raids Gaza’s main hospital as world warns against Rafah assault

The Israeli military raided Nasser Hospital on 15 February following a three-week siege. Until recently, Nasser was the largest still-functioning hospital in Gaza. Thousands of displaced people sheltering in the facility were forced to evacuate, and five patients have reportedly died since the raid began due to power cuts. Israel said it had intelligence that Hamas had held hostages in the hospital and that their remains might still be there, but it has yet to provide evidence to back this up. Following the raid, the UN criticised what it called a “pattern of attacks” by Israel on medical facilities. Meanwhile, international alarm about an impending Israeli assault on Rafah is growing, with world leaders warning of catastrophic humanitarian consequences. The southernmost region – once home to around 300,000 people – is now hosting some 1.2 million people who are already living in dire conditions after being forced from their homes in other parts of Gaza by Israel’s military campaign. With nowhere left for people to go in Gaza, Egypt is reportedly building a wall and clearing land to prepare for the possibility of mass displacement across the border stemming from an assault on Rafah. Egypt has not acknowledged the construction and previously said any such displacement across the border would threaten its longstanding peace deal with Israel.

Check here for our latest coverage, including today’s interview with Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, on what lies next for the agency as funding freezes begin to bite.

Yemenis, and Sudanese, suffer fallout from Red Sea tensions

The battle for the Red Sea continues, with Yemen’s Houthi rebels claiming more attacks on shipping, and the United States conducting “self-defence” strikes to protect the same ships, whilst saying that late last month its forces seized weapons from Iran on their way to the Houthis via a vessel in the Arabian Sea. The UN’s special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, has told the UN Security Council that despite past progress in negotiations towards ending Yemen’s war, “rising regional tensions linked to the war in Gaza, and in particular the military escalation in the Red Sea, are slowing down the pace of the peace efforts in Yemen”. Grundberg also warned about “the growing din of public threats to return to fighting” inside the country. Hunger monitor FEWS NET says food is continuing to enter Yemen despite the disruptions to shipping, although prices are likely to rise. It predicts that given a pause in regular World Food Programme aid to people in Houthi-controlled areas, a growing number of people are likely to slide into “emergency” levels of food insecurity, or worse, over the next four months. But it’s not just Yemenis suffering the fallout. The Guardian reports that the disruption to Red Sea shipping is also driving up the cost of aid operations in Sudan, further imperilling relief efforts there.

DR Congo aid operations impeded by rebel advances

Advances by the M23 armed group are posing a major threat to the humanitarian system in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, aid groups warn. The Rwanda-backed rebels are accused of trying to encircle the city of Goma, which is the main hub for aid operations in the east, and is home to more than two million people. The Norwegian Refugee Council said the city is being “isolated” and that efforts to assist displaced people in the region are at risk. Recent fighting has concentrated on the town of Sake, which lies just west of Goma on a crucial road that links the aid hub to other parts of the east. An estimated 135,000 people have escaped Sake for Goma in recent days, placing a major strain on the under-serviced and overcrowded displacement camps in the city. Protests have, meanwhile, taken place against the UN (which is accused of ineffectiveness) and against Western embassies including France and Britain that are politically supportive of Rwanda.

Conflict lingers in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado

Mozambique’s military said last year that more than 90% of Cabo Delgado had been secured from jihadist insurgents known locally as al-Shabab, yet attacks this year indicate that the conflict is far from over. After seizing a strategic village last month, fighters killed more than 20 soldiers in an attack on 9 February. Cases of beheadings, kidnappings, and ambushes are still being reported by conflict monitors, even as the jihadists (who began their insurgency in 2017) reportedly try to win civilians’ hearts and minds. More than half a million displaced people have gone back to their homes amid improvements in the security situation, but the returnees face the risk of unexploded ordnance as well as renewed violence. Despite the recent attacks, a southern African military force is set to end its three-year mission in the coming months after a mixed record, and humanitarian funding has also been cut, according to aid groups.

ICRC’s slimmer budget in a sector feeling the squeeze

Leaner, and chastened by a year of difficult cuts, the International Committee of the Red Cross has launched its appeal to fund a 2024 budget weighing in at 2.1 billion CHF (about $2.3 billion). It’s a 25% drop from last year’s 2.8 billion CHF ask, which was abruptly reduced amid warnings of tight donor budgets. The ICRC says it has “sharpened its areas of focus, streamlined its operations, and redefined its engagements with its partners”. It has also lost 5,700 staff positions (a quarter of its workforce) and several delegations. The ICRC was one of the first big aid groups to feel the squeeze so publicly, but the pain has spread throughout the aid sector as months-long warnings of shrinking donor budgets become a reality. Cutbacks at the World Food Programme have directly hit people who rely on food aid around the globe; the agency is also in an “organisational restructure” at headquarters that is reshaping director-level departments. Other agencies are also cutting staff or costs, and even famine analysts are feeling the pinch. 

What will Bukele’s popularity mean for Latin America?

Nayib Bukele’s landslide victory in 4 February elections showed that cracking down on gangs can bear political fruit. The 42-year-old baseball cap-wearing president has managed to significantly reduce his country's murder rate by imposing an ongoing state of emergency, building a megaprison, and detaining more than 70,000 alleged gang members, regardless of criticism from human rights organisations. In Latin America, where spreading gang violence has driven up humanitarian needs – from internal displacement and migration to hunger – several countries are looking at Bukele as a potential model. Last year, Honduran President Xiomara Castro adopted hardline Bukele-like policies after a gang fight killed 48 female inmates. This year, President Daniel Noboa deployed the military in streets and prisons after a series of gang-related attacks and amid rapidly disintegrating security in Ecuador. As murder rates rise across the region, disrupting the life of millions, other leaders may follow. However, there’s another side to El Salvador’s experiences: So-called mano dura (iron-fist) policies lead to authoritarian drifts and can cause violence to spiral. How much liberty are Latin Americans willing to give up for security remains to be seen. Fore more on the humanitarian fallout of gang violence in the region, read our ongoing Gangs Out of Control series. And for more insights on Bukele’s wave of popularity in El Salvador, watch the clip below from photojournalist Fritz Pinnow, who covered the elections:

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In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Human Rights Watch says the healthcare system in Afghanistan is suffering due to funding cuts and restrictions imposed by the Taliban government. “Donors’ decisions to reduce humanitarian aid have further weakened healthcare access, destabilised the economy, and worsened food insecurity,” the report said. Responding to the HRW report, a government spokesman said healthcare had improved under Taliban rule.

ETHIOPIA: Government troops killed at least 45 civilians in a massacre in the restive Amhara region in late January, according to the state-linked Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The killings occurred in the town of Merawi following months of clashes between the military and the Fano, an Amhara militia. Some reports put the death toll at over 80.

EU: Ahead of a key committee vote, over 80 civil society organisations called on MEPs to reject the EU's new pact on migration and asylum, saying it will have “devastating implications” on the right to international protection and “greenlight abuses” across Europe. The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs nevertheless endorsed the pact, which is expected to be adopted later this year. 

HAITI: Representatives of the Haitian and Kenyan police held meetings with the US State Department and the Pentagon in Washington to plan the deployment of a Kenya-led Multinational Security Force in Haiti – part of an attempt to bypass a ruling from Kenya’s High Court blocking the country’s police from being sent to the Caribbean nation.

MEXICO: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) issued an alert about kidnapping and sexual violence against migrants in northeastern Mexico, reporting that the number of consultations for sexual violence in the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros rose by 70% between the third and fourth quarters of 2023. 

MYANMAR: The military junta has enacted mandatory conscription, saying it hopes to draft 60,000 men and women each year into the nation’s armed forces, starting in April. It comes after armed opposition groups wrested back significant territory from the junta.

SYRIA: A new report from the UN’s human rights office says many Syrians returnees have been subjected to “gross human rights abuses” including arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual and gender-based violence by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as by armed groups that run parts of Syria he does not control.  

SYRIA: The Syrian government has extended permission for UN agencies to deliver aid into the rebel-held northwest via two border crossings from Türkiye – re-opened after last February’s earthquakes – for an additional three months. In January, the government said the UN could keep using the main border crossing into the region, Bab al-Hawa, for six months.

THE PHILIPPINES: 92 people have been killed by a landslide in a gold mining village in the Philippines. At least 36 more people are missing since the 6 February disaster in Davao de Oro province, which suffered weeks of flooding and torrential rain.

VENEZUELA: Fears are growing of a new era of repression as President Nicolás Maduro cracks down on opponents and NGOs ahead of elections later this year. Security expert and rights activist Rocío San Miguel disappeared for four days before turning up, along with family members, in a notorious detention centre. Then, on 15 February, the government gave the UN’s human rights agency 72 hours to shut down its operations and leave the country.

Weekend read

‘When will we be next?’: A dispatch from Rafah

A Mercy Corps staff member describes life in the sliver of southern Gaza where 1.2 million people are sheltering in desperate conditions.

And finally…

Arms sales soar as conflicts proliferate

Global ‘defence’ spending has reached the highest level in 65 years amid fears over spiralling conflicts. Around $2.2 trillion was spent on defence in 2023, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) – the biggest figure the think tank has ever recorded. “This year’s figure will likely be higher again,” said IISS chief executive Bastian Giegerich, pointing to a “volatile global security landscape” characterised by “strategic instability and a new era of contested power”. The conflicts IISS analysed – such as in Ukraine and Gaza – have already caused massive humanitarian suffering.

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