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COVID in the Pacific, a Frontex first, and Latin America’s reopening: The Cheat Sheet

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

Louise O'Brien/TNH

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

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Virus tests Pacific nations, but some are better prepared

Solomon Islands’ health system is buckling under the weight of its first COVID-19 outbreak – one of several Pacific Island nations struggling after largely keeping the virus at bay. Two years into the pandemic, Solomon Islands is seeing what countless other countries faced in early outbreaks: congested isolation centres, testing shortages, and transmission rates that have “overwhelmed” its health system. “Our health system cannot cater for all persons tested positive or showing symptoms,” a government press release stated. Across the Pacific, remote nations like Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Palau are also seeing their first major outbreaks – long distances and closed borders no longer an airtight barrier. But vaccination status also varies. Countries like Samoa and Tonga have relatively high rates, and haven’t recorded any confirmed COVID-19 deaths. In Solomon Islands, only 11 percent of the population are fully vaccinated. Among its 68 recorded deaths, most have been unvaccinated people, the government said. This reflects a clear vaccination divide in the Pacific, according to forecasts by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank: Some Pacific nations are world leaders, but others are lagging behind due to a combination of misinformation and weak health systems. At its current rate, Solomon Islands won’t be fully vaccinated until 2026 at least, according to the forecasts

EU looks to expand migration controls to Senegal

The EU has proposed deploying its border agency Frontex to Senegal to help prevent migration from the West African coast to the Spanish Canary Islands. If agreed to by Senegal, it would be the first Frontex deployment outside Europe, and the plan could see drones, vessels, and personnel sent to Senegal as soon as this summer. Since 2020, the Atlantic maritime migration route to the Canary Islands has seen a sharp uptick in movement driven by economic fallout from the pandemic and EU-backed migration control efforts in North Africa that have constricted other routes. Nearly 1,200 deaths were recorded on the Atlantic maritime route last year, although the true toll could be over 4,000. The proposal to deploy Frontex to Senegal was made by EU commissioners during a visit to Dakar ahead of this week’s EU-AU summit in Brussels, and signals the EU’s intentions to continue to double down on border externalisation policies that have trapped tens of thousands of people in cycles of detention and abuse in countries such as Libya. Human rights watchdogs and journalists also accuse Frontex of being complicit in the illegal pushback of asylum seekers and migrants at the EU’s external borders. 

Interpol cracks down on aid worker sexual abuse

Interpol has launched a five-year initiative to tackle sexual abuse and exploitation within the aid sector. Funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the 16-person team will help dig into the backgrounds of aid workers, share available data, and provide support on investigations. Daniel Coelho, operational coordinator for “Project Soteria” (named after the Greek goddess of safety), told The New Humanitarian that aid sector data shared with Interpol will be checked against global police databases. Current checks are often limited to local and regional databases, he said. Aid groups will also be able to cross-check information found in “green notices” that warn of potential threats. When it comes to justice, however, it will still be up to law enforcement agencies and governments to prosecute. The UK, for example, chose not to prosecute a British national attached to a UN peacekeeping mission and accused of raping a Congolese girl in 2017. The current pilot scheme is being informed by experts in the aid sector and victims themselves, Coelho said. The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation broke the story about World Health Organization workers sexually abusing and exploiting women and girls during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Opening borders = more migration in Latin America

Nearly two years after COVID-19 shut down most land crossings in South America, several countries have announced the reopening of borders. Ecuador said its international crossing with Peru was expected to open on 18 February, while Peru has already opened its Amazon border with Brazil, which serves as an alternative route for many migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, and Haiti heading southward. The government in Lima said it was also coordinating with Bolivia and Chile to open those borders too. Colombia, which has continued to allow access to its territory for citizens of neighbouring countries for humanitarian reasons during the pandemic, is expected to reopen crossings to all traffic on 1 March. Amid growing poverty (Latin America is forecast to see the slowest economic growth globally in 2022), as well as ongoing violence and political instability in countries like Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela, these border reopenings are expected to further propel migration, including record numbers of children. As well as higher death rates along dangerous routes, the pandemic has also seen rising xenophobia in some countries. Meanwhile, in Chile, there are growing tensions in the northern town of Colchane. Migrants there are in a state of limbo, unable to really enter Chile nor return to Bolivia.

Renewed concern over Yemen aid funding

The UN is warning that as Yemen’s nearly seven-year war escalates – the last few months have seen a serious increase in airstrikes, shelling, fighting, and civilian casualties – low levels of funding are forcing programmes to close their doors. UN relief chief Martin Griffiths told the UN Security Council on 15 February that nearly two thirds of “major UN aid programmes had already scaled back or closed altogether”, with the World Food Programme having reduced rations and more assistance soon on the chopping block. When The New Humanitarian first double-checked the figures from OCHA, the body Griffiths leads, donors had given $2.27 billion of the $3.85 billion the UN requested to help 16 million people in Yemen in 2021 (no plan for 2022 has yet been released). At 58.9 percent, that was the lowest level of funding for a UN-coordinated plan since the war began in 2015. As the Cheat Sheet headed to press, it looked like a bit more money had trickled in, with the 2021 total sitting at $2.33 billion. This may prevent 2021 from now being the lowest percentage, but dangerous aid cuts look unavoidable unless such numbers continue to rise.

“Emergency” ends in Ethiopia, but not the war

Ethiopia's parliament voted on 15 February for an early end to a six-month state of emergency, reflecting, the government said, its improved military position. The measure – introduced as Tigrayan rebel forces threatened Addis Ababa in November – gave the government power to detain citizens without charge, and thousands of Tigrayan civilians were rounded up. Tigrayan forces have since withdrawn to their stronghold in the country's north. Before doing so, they committed atrocities, including gang rapes, in the contested Amhara region, according to a report this week by Amnesty International (government forces and their Eritrean allies are also accused of widespread abuses). Both sides are under international pressure to find a political solution to the war – with the release of detainees held under the state of emergency seen as an important step to dialogue. But although the UN believes that international mediators are making some progress, fighting continues in Tigray and Afar, and the humanitarian situation remains dire. Medical supplies have reached Tigray for the first time since July 2021, but there is no fuel for distribution. The last time the government allowed in fuel for humanitarian operations was in August.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: A March pledging summit will aim to raise the record $4.4 billion the UN says is needed for humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, the host UK said. But aid alone won’t address the economic collapse that’s driving today’s dire emergency: Read our rundown exploring the numbers behind the crises

BRAZIL: At least 117 people were killed after mudslides buried homes and flooded streets in Petrópolis, a city located in a mountainous area north of Rio de Janeiro. The disaster was the latest in a series of deadly floods that have hit northeastern and southern Brazil since December. 

DENGUE: Weeks after Peru began dropping COVID-19 restrictions after recording the world’s highest death rate from the virus, an alert for dengue has been announced for the capital and other regions. Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Paraguay have also reported cases of the mosquito-borne disease.

ICRC: Hackers first breached Red Cross servers in November – two months before a major attack was discovered and revealed in mid-January, according to new information from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The personal data of more than 515,000 people was exposed – including people displaced by conflict and disaster, the missing, and detainees – in what security experts believe may be the biggest-ever breach of humanitarian data. The ICRC also said the hackers used “highly sophisticated” techniques and tools used mainly by states or state-sponsored groups, as earlier reported by Devex.

LEBANON: The Norwegian Refugee Council has warned that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are facing eviction as they find themselves unable to pay rent amidst the country’s economic collapse. The aid group said it received 56 requests for help from refugees facing eviction in January alone, and 800 eviction cases in 2021, although the actual numbers are likely higher. 

MALAWI: The World Health Organization announced the first case of wild poliovirus in Africa in more than five years, in Malawi. “As an imported case from Pakistan, this detection does not affect the African region's wild poliovirus-free certification status,” the WHO said.

MALI: France is withdrawing from Mali after almost a decade fighting jihadists. French and European counter-insurgency operations will now be based in Niger. France’s presence has become increasingly unpopular, which accelerated as diplomatic relations soured between Paris and Mali’s governing military junta. The “forever” war – in which the jihadists continue to make gains – has also been a hard political sell in France.

MYANMAR: Violence since the February 2021 military coup has displaced more than 480,000 people in Myanmar, according to tallies from the UN’s refugee agency. This includes at least 450,000 new internally displaced – more than doubling pre-coup IDP numbers – and some 29,000 people who fled to India. Read more on how local aid groups are dealing with rising threats and dwindling access.

SOUTH SUDAN: The UN’s humanitarian coordinator has condemned continuing attacks on aid workers and civilians. So far this month, three aid workers have been killed and several injured in Warrap and Unity states, caught in fighting between rival political groups that is also limiting humanitarian action. In 2021, a total of five aid workers were killed.

TONGA: January’s volcanic eruption in Tonga caused $90 million in damages – equivalent to 18 percent of the Pacific nation’s GDP, according to a World Bank assessment. The volcanic ashfall caused extensive crop damage, which may jeopardise food security in the coming months. After two years of being mostly COVID-19 free, meanwhile, Tonga’s first outbreak is spreading.

UGANDA: Opposition MPs stormed out of parliament this week to protest torture and arbitrary arrest by security agencies. Doctors quickly added to the government’s embarrassment by asking for permission to access detention centres and known torture sites to provide specialised care. The controversy began when award-winning novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija publicly revealed his treatment by soldiers, showing the scars that criss-crossed his back.

UKRAINE/RUSSIA: Reports of shelling and gunfire increased in towns and villages along the so-called “contact line” between government-run and separatist-occupied Ukraine as Russia and Western nations continued to trade accusations of war-mongering, amid a massive Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border.

YEMEN: Five UN workers were abducted by armed men last week in southern Yemen, including, according to reports, four Yemeni nationals. The UN says it is “working urgently to secure their immediate relief”.

Weekend watch

Stolen future: Haiti's gangs and its children

Almost half of Haiti’s population is under the age of 24, but without consistent education, economic opportunities, or a stable government, some Haitian youth are turning to gangs for money and power. Gangs have increasingly dominated neighbourhoods in the capital, Port-au-Prince, with the violence displacing tens of thousands of people and making it harder for humanitarians to deliver aid to the millions in need in the Caribbean country. Rather than a weekend read, this week we urge you to watch this short film in which The New Humanitarian gains rare access to current and former gang members to explore the cycle of recruitment and stolen futures. “I had no one to help me, and so I had to look out for myself,” one young man recalls, serving his third year inside a juvenile detention centre. Haiti has also been battered by frequent natural disasters – most recently an earthquake in August that killed more than 2,200 people. On 16 February, a UN-backed pledging conference raised $600 million for rebuilding and recovery efforts, but that’s well short of the $2 billion the government says is needed.

And finally…

Promoting African languages

The African Union summit held in Ethiopia this month adopted KiSwahili as one of its official languages. It’s one of the most-spoken languages on the continent, with an estimated 100 million speakers across mostly East African countries.

The UN has now also dedicated a special day, 7 July, as World Kiswahili Language Day. The Bantu language spread along the East African coast through Arab traders, and was formalised as an official language in the late 19th century. 

Efforts to preserve and promote African languages are also being pushed forward in other ways: Workshops are being held in different African countries to edit and create hundreds of Wikipedia pages to increase African-language webpages. It’s reported that “Swahili Wikipedia has about 69,000 articles, the most of any African-language edition, compared to 6.45 million for the top-ranked English Wikipedia”.

And for the real KiSwahili fans, Das Kapital by Karl Marx will soon be published in Swahili for the first time after its translation by Joachim Mwami, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. 

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