The New Humanitarian | Yemen escalation, COVID in the Pacific, and community asylum in the UK: The Cheat Sheet


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

On our radar

Yemen breaks more bad records

January will “almost certainly be a record-shattering month for civilian casualties in Yemen,” UN officials said this week, warning of an uptick in violence, including multiple airstrikes and missile attacks, one of which knocked out internet access across the country for four days. Another bombing hit a detention centre for migrants in the Houthi-held northern province of Sa’ada, killing at least 80 people. The Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition that is fighting with Yemen’s government against the Houthis said the rebels failed to put the site on a no-strike list. While the air war has long been a hallmark of the conflict, this escalation follows a deadly drone attack on an oil facility in Abu Dhabi, claimed by the Houthis. Meanwhile, the battle for Marib – which has put hundreds of thousands of civilians in harm’s way – rattles on, with UAE-backed forces reportedly making gains in the central district. 

Change of the guard in Burkina Faso

Mutinous soldiers ousted Burkina Faso’s President Roch Kaboré on 24 January – the fourth Sahelian coup in under 18 months. The army takeover follows a period of rising discontent at the government’s handling of a jihadist insurgency – extensively reported by The New Humanitarian – that has spread across the country, costing the lives of thousands of cilivans and many ill-equipped troops. Burkina Faso is now led by Paul-Henri Damiba, a 41-year-old lieutenant-colonel who has authored a book examining the region’s fight against local militancy. Damiba has promised a return to constitutional order “when the conditions are right”, though the lengthy transition sought by the junta in neighbouring Mali suggests that could be a while. First elected in 2015, a year after popular protests toppled longtime dictator Blaise Compaoré, Kaboré failed to satisfy the demands of those who put him in power, even as foreign nations pumped large sums into counter-terrorism efforts. Regional powers announced some punitive measures on Burkina Faso on 28 January in response to the coup, but it’s unclear if they’ll go as far as the hefty sanctions and border closures slapped on Mali.

Ana batters Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi

Tropical Storm Ana battered three southern African countries this week, killing more than 70 people, washing away houses and infrastructure, and leaving around 350,000 people homeless and without public services. Ana began over Madagascar’s eastern Analamanga region on 24 January, with wind speeds of up to 100 kmph, causing flooding and landslides that killed more than 40 people and forced 72,000 from their homes. It then made landfall in Mozambique, causing significant damage to the central provinces of Zambezia, Nampula, and Tete, and leaving at least 15 people dead. Next hit was Malawi on 25 January, where 19 people were killed and more than 217,000 people fled their homes. The storm downed power lines and forced the closure of the country’s main hydropower plant. That also affected water pumping stations, resulting in water shortages in the main cities of Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe, and Mzuzu. A new storm, Batsirai, is brewing in the Indian Ocean and may follow a similar path.

COVID-19 reaches remote Pacific countries

Pacific nations that had largely kept COVID-19 at bay are imposing lockdowns and declaring emergencies as the virus reaches remote countries with limited health systems. Solomon Islands recorded hundreds of cases through January, and its first deaths this week. “There is no hiding the fact that only a day or two after confirming… community transmissions, that resources are pretty much stretched,” the health ministry said in a statement. Kiribati has announced a state of disaster as cases rise, and Samoa has also declared a national emergency, warning that the “day dreaded by authorities for COVID-19 to invade Samoa is here”. Another Pacific nation, Tonga, is desperately trying to maintain its COVID-free status in the aftermath of the violent volcanic eruption that blanketed parts of the island nation in ash – jeopardising water and food sources. Tonga has asked for international help, but aid must be “contactless” and even cargo goes through a 72-hour quarantine.

EU doubles down on Libya Coast Guard support

A leaked European Union military report suggests the bloc is doubling down on its backing of the Libyan Coast Guard despite mounting concerns about the Coast Guard’s excessive use of force and failure to follow human rights training in its treatment of asylum seekers and migrants. Between August and November last year (the period of time covered by the document), the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted 30 percent of all asylum seekers and migrants who attempted to depart from Libya, demonstrating an increased capacity compared to previous years. Since 2016, the EU has trained, equipped, and provided operational support to the Libyan Coast Guard, helping perpetuate a cycle of detention and abuse in Libya while thousands drown at sea. A coalition of European NGOs recently asked the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes against asylum seekers and migrants in Libya and decide whether officials in Italy and Malta – the EU countries most directly involved in providing support to Libya – could be culpable in those violations. 

Measuring Myanmar’s coup

Myanmar is worse off by any metric, a year into a destructive military coup. But here’s a particularly telling indicator: Since 1 February 2021, more than a third of recorded attacks on healthcare – abductions, killings, confiscations – were in Myanmar, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) database. “Today, Myanmar is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a healthcare worker,” a new Physicians for Human Rights report states, describing attacks on doctors and nurses, raids on COVID-19 clinics, and shrinking access to healthcare as the military’s now-nationwide crackdown continues. The humanitarian situation has worsened on every front over the last year: 400,000 more displaced, 14 times the number of people who need aid, new conflict zones, attacks on civilians, blockaded aid, and rising hunger.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Aid groups are asking for nearly $5 billion in emergency funding for Afghanistan this year, but sanctions and other economic measures imposed after the Taliban takeover make it “impossible” to transfer or receive money on a large scale, the Norwegian Refugee Council warns in a new report. 

BAHAMAS/UNITED STATES: Thirty-nine people have likely died after a boat carrying would-be migrants from the Caribbean island nation of the Bahamas capsized off the coast of Florida on 22 January. The wreck is drawing attention to an increase in the number of people – especially Haitians and Cubans – attempting to reach the US by sea driven by economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, rising political instability, displacement caused by hurricanes, and hardline policies at the US southern border

GREECE: Around 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers living in camps in Greece do not have access to food aid after the Greek government decided to stop providing cash assistance to people who have been recognised as refugees or had their protection claims rejected, according to a number of NGOs. The move is part of a broader approach aimed at deterring asylum seekers and migrants from attempting to reach Greece, the aid groups said.

HAITI: Still reeling from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that killed 2,200 people in August, Haiti’s southern peninsula was struck again by a 5.3-magnitude earthquake on 24 January. At least two people were killed, dozens were injured, and more than 800 homes and buildings were either damaged or destroyed. The Caribbean country is grappling with numerous overlapping humanitarian crises – problems compounded by escalating gang violence that has hampered aid delivery. Some 4.9 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

THE PHILIPPINES: More than 1.5 million homes were damaged or destroyed during December’s Typhoon Rai, known as Odette in the Philippines, according to updated assessments. The toll exceeds that of 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan – one of the strongest storms ever recorded. Affected areas face a long recovery, with livelihoods disrupted and some $261 million in damages to the agriculture sector. Reproductive health and gender-based violence are still “under-assessed”.

RUSSIA/UKRAINE: US President Joe Biden has warned of the “distinct possibility” of a Russian invasion into Ukraine in February, as diplomatic efforts to avert a new conflagration amid a massive Russian troop build-up flounder. And it’s not just Ukrainians that need be concerned. Food experts warn that disruption to Ukraine’s vital cereal exports could affect millions in countries like Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen.

SOUTH SUDAN: At least 32 people were killed in eastern Jonglei state on 23 January after armed Murle youth carried out attacks on the Dinka Bor community. Recent violence in the state has been framed as inter-communal but is often closely connected to national political dynamics.

SYRIA: Kurdish-led forces say they have taken back control of a prison that held an estimated 3,500 alleged members of the so-called Islamic State in northeastern Syria, after a car bomb that may have been intended to free them, an attempted jailbreak, and days of fighting, including airstrikes and ground support from US troops. UNICEF said some 850 children, some as young as 12, were inside the Hassakeh prison during the clashes. Local authorities have severely limited aid access, and around 45,000 people were forced to flee the violence.

SYRIA: After last week’s deadly weather, which destroyed hundreds of tents and damaged thousands more, another round of snow and freezing temperatures has created dangerous conditions in northern Syria’s displacement camps, as well as in places like neighbouring Lebanon, where many refugees live in flimsy shelters. 

WHO: WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was approved as the nominee for another term at this week’s annual Executive Board meeting in Geneva. Tedros called for a more sustainable funding model for the persistently underfunded organisation – which primarily relies on assessed fees of member states based on their income and population size. Voluntary contributions from private institutions or governments top that up, but are earmarked for certain projects, limiting its flexibility. The WHO faced a significant drop in US funding under the Trump administration. It’s still unclear if that will be reversed under Biden.  

Weekend listen (a change of pace for our loyal Weekend read followers)

Take some time this weekend to listen in on a chat with the UN’s top humanitarian, Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths, as he discusses climate change, conflict resolution, and cash aid, among other topics on the last episode of this season’s Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast. Griffiths has a different pedigree to his predecessors – aid response/conflict mediation rather than politics/diplomacy – but he is still, like most before him, a white British male. So, what is his take on encouraging diversity and changing power dynamics in the sector? Hardly transformative is the answer: “It’s going to be a generational change,” he suggests. Griffiths did offer a bolder vision on the role of humanitarians – one focused on resolving crises rather than simply responding to them. The goal, he explains, involves greater engagement with the different actors on the ground, negotiating more access, and growing the space for humanitarians to operate in. With the gulf between what donors are willing to fund and unmet emergency needs expanding by the year, his rationale for focusing on resolution is simple: “We are compelled to do it by the costs.”

Make sure you never miss an episode of season two by subscribing on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or searching “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.

And finally…

A more humane UK asylum system?

Supporting asylum seekers in communities while their claims are processed is more humane and less expensive than holding people in detention centres. Shocking? Perhaps not, but that’s what a pilot project in the UK recently confirmed. For the project, the refugee assistance NGO Action Foundation supported 20 female asylum seekers who had previously been held in a detention centre. The women lived in the city of Newcastle in northeastern England and experienced more stability and better health during the pilot than they had in detention. More surprising, perhaps, is that the project was funded by the UK home office, which has recently garnered attention for pushing hardline migration policies – including a heavily criticised proposed overhaul of the UK asylum system – to try to curb an uptick in the number of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in the past two years. The pilot project – as well as other research – points towards the efficacy of taking a more humane approach rather than doubling down on harsh, expensive, often ineffective deterrent policies.

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