Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
UN hit by more sex abuse allegations in CAR; 60 Tanzanian peacekeepers to be sent home
More sex abuse allegations have surfaced against UN peacekeepers in Central African Republic. The UN said Friday 60 Tanzanian troops will be repatriated. Guy Karema, a spokesperson with the UN peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSCA, told The New Humanitarian that 11 members of the unit were accused of sexually abusing and exploiting four victims. Some of the victims are believed to have been minors at the time, he said. The contingent has been confined to their barracks pending the investigation. Tanzanian troops were also accused of abuse and paternity cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2016. The recent allegations are the latest in a string of peacekeeping scandals in CAR since 2014, when blue helmets were deployed to quell instability after rebels ousted then-president Francois Bozizé. As of this year, some 3.4 million people in CAR were in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. The country has one of the highest proportions of critically food insecure people in the world.
USAID and WFP suspend all Ethiopia food aid over mass diversion scheme
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has suspended all food aid to Ethiopia after the discovery of “widespread and coordinated” theft. USAID is the country’s largest food donor, and the pause will impact more than 20 million aid-dependent people. USAID’s decision was followed a day later by a World Food Programme (WFP) announcement on 9 June that it was also temporarily halting countrywide assistance – although feeding schemes for the vulnerable, and drought resilience schemes, would continue. The aid freeze by both agencies follows a probe by USAID into food aid diversions. It identified systematic theft orchestrated at the federal and regional level, involving the military and private grain traders. An initial investigation by USAID and WFP had focused solely on northern Tigray. That triggered a food aid pause – reportedly beginning as early as March – for a region struggling to recover from a two-year war. But USAID has now determined that diversions have been ongoing in seven of Ethiopia’s nine regions, and has called for reforms of the “humanitarian architecture”. The Ethiopian government has vowed to cooperate with the continuing probe. For more, read The New Humanitarian’s reporting here and here.
Over 100 million in US impacted by Canada wildfire smog
Wildfires raging across Canada since March are a stark reminder that climate change is not just an immediate problem for poor countries, despite how it is often portrayed. The fires have displaced over 20,000 people and smothered large swathes of the central and eastern US with a hazardous pall this week, impacting over 100 million people across 16 states. Over 400 fires are burning within Canada’s 362 million hectares of forest – the third-largest forest area in the world. And it is still early in a fire season – supercharged by record high temperatures and drought – that could become Canada’s worst ever. The country has mobilised its military and appealed for international help. No deaths or injuries have been reported yet, but a study published in 2021 calculated that short-term exposure to wildfire smoke was responsible for around 440 deaths annually in Canada, and air pollution has been estimated to contribute to the deaths of over 11,000 people annually in the United States. Although the blazes temporarily caused air quality in US cities like New York to rank as the worst in the world, pollution levels are a perennial hazard for hundreds of millions of people in the Global South.
Dam collapse adds to humanitarian crisis on Ukraine’s front lines
The destruction of a hydroelectric dam on the Dnieper river in southern Ukraine on 6 June unleashed massive floodwaters that have displaced tens of thousands of people, created a likely ecological disaster, and caused shortages in the water supply used to cool Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Moscow and Kyiv traded blame over who was responsible for the dam’s collapse, with the Ukrainian government saying it was blown up from the inside by Russian forces – who were occupying it – and the Kremlin saying it was hit by a Ukrainian missile strike. The Dnieper river forms part of the front line in Russia’s 15-month war in Ukraine. Shelling and fighting had already displaced many people from villages downstream from the dam, but about 16,000 people have been affected by the collapse on the Ukrainian-controlled western bank, and around 25,000 have been affected on the Russian-controlled eastern bank. Rescue and aid efforts are taking place despite on-going Russian shelling. And some residents of Russian-controlled towns have accused Russian forces of not doing enough to help. Ukraine also appears to have launched a long anticipated counteroffensive in the country’s southeast, opening a new phase in the war.
Top UN official kicked out of Sudan
Sudan’s foreign affairs ministry – controlled by the military, which is fighting a brutal civil conflict with the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – has declared the country’s top UN official persona non grata. Volker Perthes, who leads a UN mission set up to support Sudan’s thwarted democratic transition, has been accused by the army of stoking the conflict, though UN chief António Guterres has defended his record. The mission itself was renewed on 2 June for a further six months despite facing sharp criticism from pro-democracy groups, who argue it has been soft on the military generals that are now at war. Nearly two million people have been displaced since conflict erupted on 15 April, and there have been increased reports of sexual violence against women. Representatives of the army and the RSF have agreed to a new 24-hour ceasefire beginning on 10 June, but a string of previous truces – brokered by the US and Saudi Arabia – have been poorly observed, and only a limited amount of aid has so far reached conflict affected areas.
Drones deployed as Libyan parties crack down on migrants
Libyan politicians have wrapped up nearly three weeks of talks in Morocco meant to set a framework for the country’s long-delayed elections. Back at home, the country’s rival sides were cracking down hard on migrants and refugees. The Tripoli-based Government of National Unity has been using drones to target what it says are migrant traffickers bringing people from Tunisia, although some argue it is really targeting political rivals. In eastern Libya, authorities have reportedly rounded up between 4,000 and 6,000 Egyptian migrants, deporting some to Egypt and holding others in a customs hangar near the border. Some suspect that this, too, has been driven by domestic and international political calculations by General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army that controls much of eastern Libya. Giorgia Meloni – Italy’s far-right prime minister – visited Haftar last month to talk migration control amidst an increase in people crossing the central Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Médecins Sans Frontières Sea said that on 8 June it witnessed the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard intercept a boat carrying around 50 people in international waters, forcibly returning those on board to Libya. Nearly 7,000 people have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to a cycle of detention and abuse in the country so far this year.
Protests in Senegal over trial of opposition leader
At least 16 people have been killed and hundreds injured in protests that erupted in Senegal on 1 June after a popular opposition leader on trial for rape charges was sentenced to two years in prison for “corrupting” youth. Ousmane Sonko’s sentence almost certainly rules him out of next February’s presidential election. Amid rumours that President Macky Sall intends to change the constitution to run for a third term, Sonko and his supporters insist his trial is politically motivated. Young people have been at the forefront of the demonstrations sweeping the country, while the government has also closed down some consulates abroad after they were targeted, presumably by opposition supporters. A populist, Sonko denounces corruption among the elite and the influence of France, the former colonial power. A lack of jobs has added to the demands for change he champions. Senegal’s reputation as a stable democracy has slipped under Sall, with courts barring two prominent poll challengers in 2019. In the past few months, security forces have cracked down on perceived opponents, and the government has imposed restrictions on social media. Tensions have eased somewhat since influential Muslim brotherhoods reportedly urged restraint.
In case you missed it
AFGHAN EDUCATION: Afghanistan’s Taliban government has given NGOs, particularly international ones, one month to shut down their education programmes across the country. The move – relayed to NGO leaders, but not yet public – comes just two months after the government ordered a similar closure in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Those closures were supposed to be the last until the government could assess the curriculums being taught at non-governmental facilities.
BRAZIL: Infant mortality in Indigenous communities in Brazil rose by 16% in the past year, reaching its highest rate since 2010, The Guardian reported. The trend stems from the expansion of deforestation and extractive industries – such as legal and illegal mining and logging – that are leading to a surge of infectious diseases, mercury contamination, and other preventable health issues. This week, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced a plan to eliminate deforestation by 2030.
EL NIÑO: The US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that an El Niño weather event started in May in the Pacific Ocean, saying it will likely make 2024 the hottest year on record. Temperatures may even rise temporarily to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. El Niño occurs every two to seven years when warm waters off the South American coast rise to the surface and heat the atmosphere. The weather event is expected to cause drier conditions in Australia and parts of Asia and may contribute to drought in Africa.
EUROPEAN UNION: After years of wrangling and division, EU countries reached an agreement on a major overhaul of the bloc’s asylum system on 8 July. Based on proposals made by the European Commission in 2020, the new rules include a system of “mandatory solidarity” to distribute the responsibility for hosting asylum seekers – either in the form of relocations or financial contributions – when arrivals are high. Rights groups say the agreement, which has yet-to-be finalised, reduces protection standards and primarily aims to keep people out of the EU.
HAITI DEATHS: Relief efforts are underway in Haiti, where at least four people were killed in a 4.9-magnitude earthquake, following floods that killed at least 42 people and displaced more than 13,000 people. The earthquake occurred in the southwestern Grand’Anse department, the same region where more than 2,200 people were killed by another earthquake two years ago. The floods happened when three rivers burst their banks near the city of Léogâne. The UN said relief efforts are being hampered by gang violence in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
ITALY: Two search and rescue vessels operated by German NGOs have been detained by Italian authorities for violating a controversial new law passed in February. The law requires NGOs to immediately sail to a port after conducting a rescue, effectively prohibiting them from carrying out multiple rescues. More than 1,000 people have died attempting to cross from Libya and Tunisia to Europe already this year.
IRAN/SAUDI ARABIA: Iran reopened its embassy in Saudi Arabia this week, another step in the re-establishment of ties between the regional rivals. The two countries officially severed diplomatic ties seven years ago, but some hope that a March deal, brokered by China, will defuse some tensions in the region.
LEBANON: French President Emmanuel Macron has appointed his former foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian as his personal envoy to Lebanon in the hopes that he can help end the country’s long political deadlock. In his ministerial role, which ended in 2022, Le Drian failed to make headway on the same issue. Lebanon has been without a president since October 2022 and has been governed by a caretaker cabinet since May 2022.
MYANMAR: Lily Naing Kyaw, a singer who supported Myanmar’s military, has died in a Yangon hospital one week after being shot in the head by gunmen due to her support for the junta that overthrew the country’s elected government in 2021. Two men were arrested for the shooting – the latest attack on people who publicly support the junta. Days before the attack on Kyaw, Tint Lwin, a famous nationalist, was also killed in Yangon after a previous attempt on his life failed last year.
NICARAGUA: A new report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) says that Nicaragua is one of 18 hunger hotspots where conditions look poised to worsen. In Central America, the list also includes El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, while Haiti registers the highest alert level in the Americas. In January, the FAO said that, between 2019-2021, Nicaragua was the Latin American country most affected by malnutrition.
RED CROSS: Francesco Rocca, the International Federation of the Red Cross’ president since 2017 and right-wing governor of Italy’s Lazio region, is taking heat for pulling out of a gay pride event planned for 10 June because of its support for surrogacy, which is illegal in Italy. In an email to staff, IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain reaffirmed the organisation’s support for the LGBTQ+ community and surrogacy. But the incident has spurred internal debate about the conflict of interest and ethical grey zone of Rocca’s affiliation with a right-wing party while serving as president of the oldest global humanitarian network.
SOMALIA: At least 54 Ugandan soldiers were killed in an al-Shabab attack on their base in southwestern Lower Shabelle region on 26 May. Video footage suggests about a dozen soldiers were also captured by al-Shabab. It took Ugandan forces, part of an African Union military intervention in support of the government, a week to fully regain control of the base and surrounding area.
Back in 2020, we published two investigations showing how fraud networks had embedded themselves within humanitarian organisations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, resulting in the theft of large amounts of aid. Efforts have been made to improve the integrity of the humanitarian response in the past three years, but a new fraud case involving the NGO GiveDirectly shows that organised corruption remains a major problem in DRC. First reported by our investigations team, the GiveDirectly scam saw staff members and former workers divert at least $900,000 that was supposed to be transferred via mobile money to households in South Kivu province. Staff from every department of the nonprofit’s country office colluded, and the fraud was also enabled by external mobile money agents. More than 1,700 families were impacted by the scheme – which started in late August 2022 – though GiveDirectly said it is still hoping to distribute the money. While corruption involving aid is common in DRC, perpetrators we spoke to in 2020 justified it as a way of getting by in a dysfunctional state – one distorted by decades of external intervention and exploitation.
Why are Rohingya refugees risking their lives and taking to the sea?
A desperate woman on a foundering boat calls her husband. “Our boat has sunk,” the woman cries, before the line cuts. Her husband – hundreds of kilometres away – can do nothing but try calling back, to no avail. Thus begins the AP’s newly published, wrenching reconstruction of a shipwreck that took place in the sea south of Bangladesh last December, claiming the lives of around 180 Rohingya refugees. Five years after a campaign of ethnic cleansing pushed over one million Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh, conditions in the camps where they live are dismal. Around 40% of people have scabies because of lack of access to decent hygiene. On 2 June, the World Food Programme announced it was once again slashing food rations, now to just $8 per person per month, sparking protests. Fires regularly break out – or are set – and violence from gangs and militias has become commonplace. With no right to work and unable to return home, an increasing number of Rohingya are turning to the sea to try to make it out. But even there, governments ignore desperate calls for help, leaving hundreds to drown. “The Rohingya are a people nobody wants,” as the AP article poignantly states.