Geneva — Taliban anniversary, Gaza flare-up, and a telling defeat for al-Shabab
Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Afghanistan, one year later
The Taliban returned to power in Kabul on 15 August last year. Since then, an already dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has gone from bad to worse, and Afghans seeking safety from Taliban persecution and reprieve from the country’s dire economic crisis have mostly been met by closed borders, deportations, and unkept relocation pledges. If there’s one sliver of good news it’s that armed violence has significantly decreased throughout the country, although the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province has continued to attack members of ethnic and religious minorities. The Taliban has also executed, arbitrarily detained and tortured critics, curtailed media freedom, and severely restricted the rights of women and girls, according to a new Human Rights Watch report. Afghanistan’s economy is in a tailspin: 70 percent of households can’t provide for their basic needs, and nearly 23 million people – some 60 percent of the population – are at risk of malnutrition. Meanwhile, aid pledges are lagging far behind projected needs, $9.1 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves have been frozen overseas, and the knock-on effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are distracting attention and pushing inflation and the costs of living ever higher.
Ceasefire holds, but Gaza’s cycle continues
A ceasefire in Gaza has been holding since the night of 7 August, after three days of Israeli airstrikes – and rocket fire in return from the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Gaza health officials said at least 44 Palestinians were killed, reportedly including 12 children, in the worst flare-up of violence since a devastating 11-day war in May 2021. Initial figures from Gaza’s shelter cluster, which coordinates aid groups working on housing, said 21 homes were “totally destroyed”, 77 “severely damaged”, and another 1,793 have some degree of damage. Some in Israeli-occupied Gaza have still not rebuilt or restored their homes after last May’s bombing. More than two million people live in the densely populated strip of territory, where unemployment is high, most people are forced to depend on aid, and Israel subjects residents to tight restrictions on movement (both people and goods). As UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, said in a 7 August statement, “the profound psychosocial impact of recurrent conflicts on the residents of Gaza, especially children, is palpable.”
Foreigners blamed for South Africa’s growing lawlessness
Fed up with police inaction over crime, furious communities last week turned on “zama zamas” – illegal miners, largely from neighbouring countries – that have terrorised areas around abandoned gold mines. The vigilante action follows the horrific gang rape of eight women shooting a video outside Johannesburg, allegedly by zama zamas. Public anger has fed into a bubbling “Afrophobia”. A senior ruling African National Congress official warned this week that the government could no longer guarantee the safety of foreign nationals – a political mainstreaming of xenophobic attitudes long championed by a social media-savvy anti-foreigner Dudula movement; orthodox populist parties on the right; and factions within the ANC. But zama zamas are the lowest rung in a violent, homegrown multi-million-dollar gold business run by criminal syndicates – a fact that corrupted and out-gunned police are keen to ignore. It’s also part of a wider lawlessness spurred by the government’s failure to tackle unemployment and “transformation“, analysts say. Last month, former president Thabo Mbeki said he feared the consequence would be an Arab Spring-style revolt. In a leaked memo this week, the army said it was on “standby” should growing unrest become more widespread.
Al-Shabab’s failed new front
A large-scale incursion by the Somali jihadist group al-Shabab into eastern Ethiopia has been defeated. The government claims to have killed more than 800 al-Qaeda-linked militants in heavy fighting that began at the end of July, and continued up until last week. It was not only a military defeat but also a political failure. Although some of al-Shabab’s leaders are from the area, ideologically the Somali region is known for its religious tolerance. Local community and religious leaders rallied to reject the group, and have pledged to resist future infiltration. Some reports suggested Al-Shabab was looking to open a new front in Ethiopia – its old enemy – to take advantage of the government’s preoccupation with conflicts in Tigray and Oromia. But analyst Harun Maruf believes the goal was more modest – to set up a base in the mountainous area bordering the Somali and Oromia regions. He believes that between 50 to 100 militants managed to escape the fighting and reach the zone, where it has been trying to develop a local cell.
Argentina’s economic decline and rising hunger
With the third-highest GDP per capita in South America, Argentina is considered an upper middle-income country. It is also seeing the beginnings of a hunger crisis. With inflation of over 70 percent in the past year – one of the highest rates globally – many Argentinians are having to resort to coping mechanisms to feed their families. As Amy Booth reported recently for The New Humanitarian, Indigenous communities in the drought-ridden north are particularly hard hit and suffering alarming levels of childhood malnutrition. A new “super-minister”, Sergio Massa, is responsible for Argentina’s economy, production, and agriculture, but he said he was neither a magician nor a saviour who could resolve the ever-deepening and ever-politicised economic crisis. Last year, Argentina produced nearly as much wheat as Ukraine. But it has been unable to help meet rising global demand due to strict export quotas imposed by the government of President Alberto Fernández, and its farmers aren’t shielded from rising fuel and fertiliser costs either. Look out for more on the country’s food woes in our Emerging hunger hotspots series (see the weekend read below).
You’re more likely to go hungry if you’re a woman
Staying with the topic of hunger, a new report from CARE International shows a strong link between gender inequality and food insecurity. 150 million more women than men went hungry in 2021 – more than eight times the gap in 2018. “The more gender inequality there is in a country, the hungrier and more malnourished people are,” said Christine Campeau, CARE’s global advocacy director. In Sudan, 65 percent of women reported being food insecure, versus 49 percent of men. In Somalia, while men reported eating smaller meals, women reported skipping meals altogether, the report said, noting a lack of global data on food security and gender. Four major global datasets, including the World Bank’s Gender Data Portal, overlook questions of food security and women’s roles in reproduction and providing nutrition to their families. The data gaps have impacted policy response, CARE said. Of 84 food policies in December of 2021, only four percent refer to women as leaders who can play a role in food security, while 39 percent of those policies overlook women entirely.
In case you missed it
COLOMBIA/VENEZUELA: The historic inauguration of Colombia’s first leftist president has also seen a thaw in strained relations with neighbouring Venezuela. On 11 August, the two countries appointed new ambassadors ahead of an expected reopening of the border. Thousands flocked to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, on 7 August for the investiture of Gustavo Petro, a former rebel fighter, and Francia Márquez, the first female Afro-Colombian to accede as vice-president.
CUBA: A fire following a lightning strike at Cuba’s largest fuel port was finally brought under control after five days. At least two people were killed and 130 injured, while 14 firefighters were missing and more than 4,900 residents evacuated from their homes. The disaster prompted the closure of one of the island’s biggest electrical plants, compounding an ongoing energy crisis. It comes a year after major nationwide protests against food and medicine shortages and amid a migrant exodus.
EGYPT: At least 70 Eritrean refugees have been deported from Egypt since October 2021 after being arrested by Egyptian authorities in cooperation with the Eritrean embassy in Cairo, according to a local refugee advocacy organisation. In April, UN human rights experts said the deportations violated international law and that people forcibly returned to Eritrea face “torture, ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, trafficking in persons, and arbitrary detention”.
GREECE: Up to 50 people are feared dead following a shipwreck carrying asylum seekers and migrants in the Aegean Sea. Twenty-nine people were rescued by a nearby merchant vessel and the Greek Coast Guard. The boat was en route from southern Turkey to Italy – a route that has become more popular because of Greek pushbacks elsewhere.
LEBANON: There are increasing reports of violence and discrimination against Syrians in Lebanon, as the country deals with rising bread prices and shortages due to its ongoing economic collapse and the war in Ukraine. Rhetoric has spread blaming Syrian refugees for the bread crisis, and Syrians have been attacked whilst waiting in bakery queues.
MALI: At least 42 Malian soldiers died at the weekend in a “complex and coordinated” jihadist attack in the central Tessit region. It comes as the government took delivery of a new package of Russian combat aircraft and a helicopter. As jihadist gains continue, some analysts are beginning to think through what the fall of Bamako could look like.
RWANDA: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue of Rwanda’s support for M23 rebels battling the government in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo during a visit to Kigali on 11 August. He also outlined his “serious concerns” about Rwanda’s human rights record – a reference, in part, to the jailing of Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda.
SIERRA LEONE: At least six protesters and six police officers were killed in demonstrations sparked by anger over the government’s failure to cushion the impact of rising prices. Relative calm returned to the capital, Freetown, after a curfew was imposed on 11 August.
US: The Biden administration has ended the Migration Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico”, following a Supreme Court ruling that drew the curtain on lengthy legal battles. The programme – one of many controversial Trump-era policies at the US-Mexico border – saw around 70,000 asylum seekers sent back to wait in often dangerous situations in northern Mexico for the duration of their asylum procedures.
YEMEN: Heavy rains and flash floods swept through large parts of Yemen this week, killing a reported 38 people, damaging homes, and destroying tents that are the only shelter for many displaced people. According to one report, more than 3,400 people were impacted in the central province of Marib alone.
Our focus at The New Humanitarian is on those at the sharp end of crises. This typically involves people in countries that have seen long-term humanitarian needs over several years, often decades – from Afghanistan and Myanmar to Ethiopia and Syria. However, we live in a rapidly changing world. And against the backdrop of the pandemic and increasing climate shocks, we’re launching a new series that sounds the alarm on fast-growing hunger in several countries that traditionally haven’t needed food aid. Demanding our attention first in this Emerging hunger hotspots series is Sri Lanka, where revenue from its key tourism and remittance streams has plunged. Amid political upheaval at home and the war in Ukraine abroad, the prices of basic staples are soaring out of reach of many, especially those who have lost their jobs. “We can’t even imagine when this crisis will end,” says one woman, who has had to lay off all her farm employees. “We don’t feel confident in our lives.” Look out every month for these new in-depth analyses on emerging crises around the globe from specialist food journalist Thin Lei Win.
Should UN agencies team up with Big Oil to provide aid?
That’s the underlying question in a New York Times investigation that looks at how the UN Development Programme (UNDP) partnered with GeoPark, a multinational petroleum company, to provide some $1.9 million in aid to Colombian villages in the Amazon. The problem was that GeoPark also had drilling rights on the Indigenous Siona people’s land. The deal has since been scrapped after continuous protests and bad press, but it was just one of many that development organisations have forged with big oil companies in recent years. It wasn’t just the deal that was put under a spotlight, however. The newspaper’s investigation also found that UNDP worked to compile dossiers on drilling opponents – all at a time when UN officials have been warning of the disastrous effects of climate change, and environmental activists have been targeted and killed. UNDP’s head, Achim Steiner, told The New York Times that bringing people out of poverty sometimes means working in countries with coal, oil, and gas. UNDP has also previously said that the oil and gas sector has the capability of making positive contributions to global development. This isn’t the first time the UN has been called out for its questionable practices when it comes to climate change. Take a look at our previous coverage on the ways in which the UN calculates (or not) its carbon footprint.