The New Humanitarian | Afghan aid, Salvadoran gangs, and a fading US vow: The Cheat Sheet


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

On our radar

Kabul airport blast adds to aid worries

An already volatile emergency is now even more complex: Dozens of civilians were killed in the 26 August attacks outside Kabul’s airport, where Afghans have gathered in a chaotic rush to evacuate following the Taliban takeover. The attacks were claimed by fighters linked to an offshoot of so-called Islamic State – often called Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) – which has opposed both the Taliban and the now-deposed Afghan government, and has specifically targeted aid operations and humanitarian workers in the past. For Afghan civilians, it’s a sign that conflict violence isn’t over, even with the Taliban’s military victory. Local and international aid groups are used to navigating relations with the Taliban, but ISKP is another matter. Fighters claiming allegiance to the group have attacked schools, hospitals, NGO offices, and polio vaccinators. A shocking attack on a maternity ward in Kabul last year pushed Médecins Sans Frontières to suspend its services there. The new violence comes as aid groups try to negotiate with the Taliban to continue or restart operations. The aim is to hammer out rules governing aid delivery nationwide, rather than relying on local negotiations that vary wildly by location. “It’s not a unified practice that the [Taliban] have right now,” an aid worker told The New Humanitarian.

Drought without borders

There’s no shortage of concern about basic rights with the Taliban at the helm in Afghanistan: women’s rights, education for girls, safety for religious minorities, reprisal killings. It can be easy to forget that Afghanistan already faces a daunting list of humanitarian crises, all amplified by conflict and upheaval. A severe drought, for example, is fuelling emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity for a third of the population. But climate extremes don’t stop at international borders. From Pakistan to Afghanistan, and Iran to Iraq and Syria, drought and water shortfalls are triggering emergency conditions across the region. In Iran, water shortages in Khuzestan Province, bordering Iraq, have spurred relief operations, along with crackdowns that killed eight protesters. Previous economic turmoil in Iran helped drive migration and refugee pushbacks. With record low rainfalls, Iraq and Syria may be facing their worst droughts in decades: More than 12 million people are losing access to water and food, aid groups warned this week. Climate change makes extreme conditions, including drought, more frequent and intense – as outlined this month in the latest stark assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Eritrean troops returning to Tigray

Eritrean troops have re-entered the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray in support of the Ethiopian government – a region they had largely vacated in June under military pressure from the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The new Eritrean deployment is reportedly to the contested western part of Tigray, around the towns of Adi Goshu and Humera – a target for the TPLF. The United States, meanwhile, has demanded the withdrawal of all Eritrean forces from Ethiopia and on 23 August imposed sanctions on Eritrea’s top general, Filipos Woldeyohannes, for “despicable acts” of rights violations. While much of Tigray is now ”fully” accessible for aid deliveries, fighting in Afar – a key supply route – between the government and the TPLF has blocked aid getting into Tigray itself. Since 15 July to date, only 321 trucks have entered the region, a fraction of the cargo required to meet the humanitarian needs of at least 5.2 million people, according to the UN relief coordination office, OCHA.

Biden’s fading vow on migration and asylum policy 

Seven months after taking office, US President Joe Biden’s pledge as a candidate to put in place more humane migration and asylum policies has run into difficult realities. On 24 August, the US Supreme Court ordered the Biden administration to reinstate a controversial Trump-era programme – the Migrant Protection Protocols, or Remain in Mexico – that sent tens of thousands of people seeking protection to wait in Mexico for the duration of the asylum process. The White House said it will continue to challenge the policy. In reality, the Supreme Court order won’t change much on the ground. Barring a few exceptions, access to asylum at the US southern border remains on hold due to Biden’s extension of Title 42, a pandemic-related public health order that allows people entering the country irregularly to be expelled without being able to apply for protection. July was the busiest month for irregular crossings at the US-Mexico border in 21 years, and Biden is facing pressure over migration from political opponents. Following several promising early moves, he now seems ready to trade-off other policy goals in favor of stopping migration. 

El Salvador: The government and the gangs

Details of an investigation into negotiations between the government of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and violent gangs, which involved trading fewer murders and electoral support for improved prison conditions, were revealed this week by El Faro, an online news site. In efforts carried out by a special unit created by the former attorney general – who was ousted in May – officials conducted discussions with Mala Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios, and Barrio 18 Sureños, which the government considers terrorist groups. El Faro published audio files and text messages showing what took place over at least a year beginning in June 2019. Gang violence has been one of the main drivers of migration from El Salvador to the United States. The US State Department recently accused several Bukele officials of corruption, which has cooled efforts to engage bilaterally on migration strategy.

In case you missed it

BANGLADESH: At least 11 Rohingya died trying to leave Bangladesh’s Bhasan Char island refugee camp when their boat capsized on 14 August, Human Rights Watch said. The government wants aid agencies to scale up relief operations on Bhasan Char, but rights groups and many Rohingya say the disaster-prone island is too dangerous.

BRAZIL: Thousands of Indigenous people have been protesting in Brasília ahead of an expected Supreme Court decision that could have far-reaching implications for land rights. Judges will consider a lower court ruling to accept a cut-off date of 1988 for land claims by Indigenous groups, which is backed by the powerful agricultural sector. President Jair Bolsonaro has regularly said Indigenous communities occupy too much land and is encouraging legislation that would facilitate mining and farming in the Amazon.

CHAD: Former president Hissene Habre, who was serving a life term in Senegal for war crimes and crimes against humanity, has died. He was 79. He seized power in 1982, ruling with an iron fist until he was toppled in 1990. Some 40,000 people are estimated to have been killed by his regime. See a film by The New Humanitarian on the victims who have demanded justice.

CYPRUS: Eighty-eight Syrians who set out from Lebanon in two boats for Cyprus, which hosts the highest number of asylum seekers in the EU, have been returned to Lebanon by Cypriot authorities. Lebanon – currently in the midst of overlapping crises causing a near total collapse of public and private services – signed an agreement last year to take back anyone trying to reach Cyprus by boat. Human rights groups have criticised the agreement for blocking access to asylum. 

HAITI: Two weeks after a deadly earthquake in the southern peninsula was followed by pelting rain from tropical storm Grace, residents there are now under threat of waterborne diseases due to the lack of potable water. People in affected areas have largely had to fend for themselves and have grown increasingly wary of the international aid response.

MALARIA: A new study suggests that giving very young children in sub-Saharan Africa a vaccine in combination with anti-malarial drugs at the worst time of year for infections could reduce deaths and illness from malaria by 70 percent. The findings, based on a 17-month trial involving 6,000 children in Burkina Faso and Mali, were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

SOUTH SUDAN: East African lorry drivers are on strike over the insecurity they face on the road from the Uganda border to the South Sudan capital, Juba. About 1,000 lorries were parked this week at the main crossing point, refusing to move until the South Sudanese government offered them protection. At least 30 traders and lorry drivers from across East Africa have been killed this year on the road to Juba. South Sudan is heavily import-dependent for even the most basic of goods. Government officials said they had sent a security team to ”map out” the bandits’ hideout.

SYRIA: Government forces have tightened their grip in the flashpoint southern province of Daraa, where the UN says their clashes with former rebels have displaced more than 38,000 people over the past month. Some rebels were reportedly seen leaving the province on 24 August under a fledgling truce.

Weekend read

Does neutrality still hold water when one side is advancing extreme human suffering? In our weekend read, Emily Fishbein speaks with five current or former local staff at UN agencies or international NGOs in Myanmar about the debate over how aid workers should position themselves following the February coup. The local aid workers express solidarity with the Myanmar public, and they also want the international aid organisations they work for to take a stand and speak out more candidly about the military’s attacks on civilians, healthcare, aid workers, and relief supplies. International NGOs are holding fast to their neutrality, even at the risk of losing credibility amid continued suffering – made worse by military blockades of important relief goods. The local aid workers say they sometimes struggle to understand the value of neutral aid that focuses on symptoms, not causes. As one told Fishbein: “Without talking about this root cause, trying to feed people when they are hungry is kind of meaningless for many national staff.” With the situation for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh worsening – as the world marks the fourth anniversary of their exodus – the time feels right to consider this dilemma. 

Have your say: Can aid groups choose sides in Myanmar? Can they deal with the military junta and still build credibility with the public? What are some other ways forward? Send us your thoughts here or tweet us @newhumanitarian.

And finally…

A contrast in welcomes for Afghan evacuees

Racially charged protests in at least one country, open arms in others – Afghans who were evacuated from their homeland after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan are finding vastly different welcomes depending on where they land. In the Netherlands this week, about 250 people protested outside a military base serving as a temporary centre for about 800 Afghans. Protesters shouted extreme racist slogans referring to Auschwitz while throwing fireworks and burning car tires, local media reported. Dutch officials denounced the protest. In Mexico, on the other hand, the country’s foreign relations secretary greeted the first Afghan arrivals at the airport, saying “welcome to your home”, and Uganda is offering temporary asylum to 2,000 Afghans. The latter is the result of a political deal struck with the US, but the stark contrast in refugee burdens is always worth a reminder. The number of air arrivals to European countries is in the thousands (despite the alarm about huge migration outflows in some countries), while the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, reported no large-scale land migration. Uganda, on the other hand, already hosts some 1.5 million refugees. “We have the capacity, we have the area, we have the land,” Uganda’s foreign minister said this week.


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