Red Cross warns of big post-Covid-19 migration

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The coronavirus crisis could spark huge waves of fresh migration once borders reopen, the head of the Red Cross has warned. The head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Jagan Chapagain, said he was deeply concerned about the secondary effects of the pandemic, as border closures and Covid-19 restrictions have driven millions into poverty.

Many people are already faced with the choice of risking exposure to the novel coronavirus or going hungry, Chapagain said, warning that the desperation being generated could have far-reaching consequences.

“…Many people who are losing livelihoods, once the borders start opening, will feel compelled to move,” he said. “We should not be surprised if there is a massive impact on migration in the coming months and years.”

Chapagain also condemned efforts in some countries to secure vaccines for their own people first: “The virus crosses the border, so it is pretty short-sighted to think that I vaccinate my people but leave everybody else without vaccination, and we will still be safe,” he said.

The warnings came as the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus,strongly criticized the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo’s comment that the WHO health agency chief having been bought by China. “The comments are untrue and unacceptable, and without any foundation for that matter,” Tedros said. “If there is one thing that really matters to us and which should matter to the entire international community, it’s saving lives. And WHO will not be distracted by these comments.”

[The Guardian]

Global surge in coronavirus cases is being fed by the developing world—and the United States

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When the United States began shutting down this spring, a virus that emerged months earlier as a mysterious outbreak in a Chinese provincial capital had infected a total of fewer than 200,000 people worldwide.

So far this week, the planet has added an average of more than 200,000 cases every day.

The novel coronavirus has now crept into virtually every corner of the globe and is wreaking havoc in multiple major regions at once. But the impact is not being felt evenly. Poorer nations throughout Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia and Africa are bearing a growing share of the caseload, even as wealthier countries in Western Europe and East Asia enjoy a relative respite after having beaten back the worst effects through rigorously enforced lockdowns.

And then there’s the United States, which leads the world in new cases and, as with many nations that possess far fewer resources, has shown no sign of being able to regain control.

[Washington Post]

WHO chief: Lack of unity is a bigger threat than coronavirus

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The COVID-19 pandemic is testing the world – and humanity is failing because of a lack of leadership and unity, the head of the World Health Organization declared in a passionate speech Thursday.

“How is it difficult for humans to unite and fight a common enemy that is killing people indiscriminately?” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked at a briefing in Geneva, his voice rising with emotion. “Are we unable to distinguish or identify the common enemy?” he asked.

The world’s lack of solidarity — not the coronavirus — is the biggest threat we face, Tedros said, adding that divisions among countries and people give an advantage to a virus that has been holding the world hostage for months.

The WHO director-general spoke about the lack of leadership two days after President Trump began the formal process of pulling the U.S. out of the World Health Organization. That move is expected to become final next June.

Last April, Tedros had pleaded, “Please don’t politicize this virus.” Using a pandemic to score political points, he said, would only result in “many more body bags.”

In the months since, Tedros has repeatedly called for countries to fight the pandemic with unity and common cause. He has also criticized governments for failing to take measures to stop the spread of the virus.

[NPR]

Trump administration sends formal notification of US withdrawal from the WHO

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The Trump administration has formally notified the United Nations that the United States is withdrawing from the World Health Organization, cutting off one of the organization’s biggest sources of aid amid a global pandemic that has infected more than 11.6 million people, killed more than a half a million, and upended life around the world.

“The United States’ notice of withdrawal, effective July 6, 2021, has been submitted to the UN Secretary-General, who is the depository for the W.H.O.,” said a senior administration official. By law the United States must give the organization a year’s notice if it intends to withdraw, and meet all the current financial obligations in the current year.

The biennial budget for the W.H.O. is about $6 billion, which comes from member countries around the world. In 2019, the last year for which figures were available, the United States contributed about $553 million.

[The New York Times]

Americans can’t travel to Europe

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We’re used to thinking of our blue US passports as keys to almost anywhere. Due to Covid19 spread in the US, we are now forced to experience travel as others do.

We now find ourselves in the uncomfortable position more familiar to the Syrian, Nigerian and Iranian citizens who are routinely, unilaterally denied entry to the US and other countries, no matter their individual actions, belief systems or political persuasions.

Being stuck on the sidelines while the rest of the world gets to experience the joy of travel also provides us with a rare opportunity to think critically about the meaning of global citizenship. An awareness of and compassion for the kinds of challenges other people and communities face is a cornerstone of global citizenship.

{Might this be a time to reflect on making] visitors to the US – from tourists to refugees – feel more welcome and accepted.

Another change should involve never again taking our own sense of welcome and acceptance for granted, in Europe or anywhere else. After all, this sense of entitlement has often led to bad behaviors like insulting Spanish ticket sellers for not speaking English, carving names into Rome’s Colosseum, and bathing in the Trevi fountain. Such actions not only cast a negative light on Americans but result in penalties that affect all tourists, such as barricades around major attractions. They also put a wedge between visitors and residents that threatens to cut off the kinds of cross-cultural exchanges that are such important elements of global citizenship. How can we build connections to other people when they – often rightly – believe we don’t respect their homes?

It’s also time to think more critically about global travel. We must acknowledge its costs in terms of both climate change and “overtourism”, which encompasses the diverse environmental, social and cultural impacts of tourism to already heavily trafficked areas. If we want to bequeath any elements of our current world to future generations, we must reduce our carbon footprints and overall impact on the locales we visit. This may mean forgoing trips to bucket-list destinations in favor of lesser-trod locales or simply exploring closer to home.

[Excerpts of an Opinion piece in The Guardian by Tamara J. Walker]

What does a humanitarian crisis look like?

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By the end of April this year in one of the countries hardest-hit by COVID-19, more than one in five households did not have enough to eat. Even prior to the pandemic, the situation had been dire with nearly 14 percent of the population dependent on food aid, one in every six children not having consistent access to food and nearly a million suffering from chronic malnutrition. The situation is today complicated not just by disease which has claimed tens of thousands of lives but also by tribally driven, political unrest and fears of bloodshed should the results of the fast-approaching November presidential elections be disputed. Following violent clashes between protesters and police as well as reports of looting, the military has been called out into the streets to preserve order. Journalists have been especially targeted by authorities in the crackdown and thousands of demonstrators across the country have been arrested. The political unrest also appears to have been inflamed by the fact that the pandemic has mostly devastated historically poor and marginalised communities including ethnic minorities and immigrants.

What does a humanitarian crisis look like? The Humanitarian Coalition, a grouping of Canadian aid agencies, defines a humanitarian emergency as “an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area”. By this definition, would you say the situation in the United States over the last few weeks described above qualifies?

It can be a bit disconcerting to think about how humanitarian crises around the world are reported on and the stereotypes embedded in the language that is used. When events happen in certain parts of the world, the media is apt to use particularly colorful descriptions and adjectives – for example, you rarely hear the United Kingdom described as an oil-rich, island nation presided over by an ageing monarch.

This is partly because many journalists still produce reports utilizing tropes that exoticise parts of the world and that are aimed at “home” audiences, but which will be published online and seen by people across the world which generates unnecessary dissonances and controversies.

But the descriptions also reflect a less innocent attribute of the current world order – that it is based on a … white Europe (and her diaspora in North America and Australia) at the top, and Black Africa at the bottom. The “global north” are the custodians of wealth and civilization and the “global south” is the site of poverty, natural maladies and crises. It is the humanitarian duty, so the story goes, of the enlightened West to help out her less fortunate neighbors who are cursed by incompetent and kleptocratic governance as well as a proclivity to have too many babies. This is what American author Teju Cole called the White Savior Industrial Complex.

This framing is evident in how the media reports other stories. For example, when authoritarian presidents in the developing countries appoint close relatives with no experience to senior government positions, use their offices to enrich themselves and their cronies, use police forces to clobber peaceful protesters and meddle with voter registration to prevent opposition supporters from casting their ballots, they are normally called out for what they are: Brutal, nepotistic, corrupt, power-hungry regimes. When it happens in the US, much softer language is employed. Elections, for example, may be interfered with or voting suppressed, but are not actually rigged or stolen. Nepotistic, corrupt and brutal are not constant adjectives that are welded to descriptions of the Trump administration (which is also almost never referred to using the evil-sounding descriptor, “regime”).

Portraying the world like this has real-life consequences. Using consistent language when reporting on humanitarian crises is critical to helping audiences recognize them wherever they occur in the world, and especially in their own backyards. Charity, after all, is meant to begin at home.

[Excerpt of an Opinion piece by Patrick Gathara] 

$7.7bn in humanitarian aid pledged for war-ravaged Syria

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International donors have pledged $7.7bn in humanitarian aid for war-ravaged Syria at a virtual conference hosted by the United Nations and the European Union.

While less than the almost $10bn sought by UN agencies, the funding promises were higher than expected, given the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic and shortfalls in other aid appeals, notably for Yemen earlier this month.

Pledges came from countries including Germany, which offered 1.58 billion euros ($1.78bn), in what Berlin said was the single biggest country donation, and Qatar, which promised $100m.

The money pledged will be used to finance food, medical aid and schooling for the millions of Syrians displaced or forced into exile – many of whom are living with food insecurity.

Now in its tenth year, the war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions, sparking a major refugee exodus.

U.S. given low marks in global poll

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A new poll suggests the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic has not gone unnoticed around the world.

The poll, by the Alliance of Democracies Foundation asked 120,000 people in 53 countries to assess country responses to the pandemic.

Over 60 percent of respondents said China had handled it well, while only a third said the United States had.

During the past two months, Europe has succeeded at staying the virus, while the U.S. has not. The combined death count (about 121,000) in those 16 European countries, with a similar combine population as the U.S., is higher than in the U.S. (about 117,000). But at the current pace, the U.S. toll will be higher by next week.

[Foreign Policy / New York Times]

Yemen hanging on by a thread

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More than five years of conflict have left Yemenis “hanging on by a thread, their economy in tatters” and their institutions “facing near-collapse”, the chief of the UN told a virtual pledging conference, calling for a demonstration of solidarity with some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. 

“Four people out of every five [Yemenis] — 24 million people in all — need lifesaving aid in what remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “Two million Yemeni children are suffering from acute malnutrition, which could stunt their growth and affect them throughout their lives”. 

Moreover, since the start of the year, some 80,000 more people were forced from their homes, bringing the total displaced to almost four million. Cholera continues to threaten lives with 110,000 people contracting it so far this year; and recent floods have raised the risk of malaria and dengue fever.  And then there’s COVID 19.

On Tuesday, international donors promised $1.35 billion in humanitarian aid to Yemen, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock told a pledging conference to help the war-torn country.

Fighting intensified across Yemen in 2015 between a Saudi-led coalition backing the internationally-recognized Government, and the Houthi armed movement.

[UN News / Reuters]

Trump announces end of US relationship with World Health Organization

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President Donald Trump announced on Friday that the United States will terminate its relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms, we will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving, urgent global public health needs,” Trump said.

The President had previously announced a temporary halt of funding to the WHO and sent a letter to the agency earlier in May saying that the US would permanently pull funding if the WHO did not “commit to major substantive improvements in the next 30 days.”

Health experts and world leaders have expressed concern over defunding the organization amid a pandemic. In April, more than 1,000 organizations and individuals including charities, medical experts and health care companies from around the world signed a letter urging the Trump administration to reverse course and maintain funding.

Trump’s decision to permanently terminate the US relationship with the WHO follows a years-long pattern of skepticism of world organizations, with the President claiming in nearly every circumstance that the US was being taken advantage of.

The President has also questioned US funding to the United Nations and the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization, withdrawn from the Paris climate accords and repeatedly criticized the World Trade Organization.

[CNN]

For the world’s poor, the nutritional crisis of covid-19 will be even worse than the disease

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Even though they may not have yet been directly ravaged by the virus, the world’s poorest people may yet suffer some of the pandemic’s greatest losses—in the form of growing hunger.

“There’s a huge covid impact which is economic, and that is drowning out the disease itself,” Mark Lowcock, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said an interview last week.

The global economy is now expected to shrink this year by at least 3 percent, delivering a direct hit to the primary goods exports, remittances and tourism on which many poor countries subsist.

According to Lowcock, for the first time in 30 years, the percentage of the world’s population in extreme poverty—those living on less than $1.90 a day—will increase.

At the beginning of 2020, the United Nations reckoned that 130 million people would be at risk of starvation. “Now we think there will be 265 million,” Lowcock said. “We could have mass hunger and multiple famines.”

[Washington Post]

COVID killing far more young people in the developing world

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As the coronavirus escalates its assault on the developing world, the victim profile is beginning to change. The young are dying of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, at rates unseen in wealthier countries—a development that further illustrates the unpredictable nature of the disease as it pushes into new cultural and geographic landscapes.

In Brazil, 15 percent of deaths have been people under 50—a rate more than 10 times greater than in Italy or Spain.

In Mexico, the trend is even more stark: Nearly one-fourth of the dead have been between 25 and 49.

In India, officials reported this month that nearly half of the dead were younger than 60.

In Rio de Janeiro state, more than two-thirds of hospitalizations are for people younger than 49. “This is new terrain compared to what’s happened in other countries,” said Daniel Soranz, the former municipal health minister in Rio de Janeiro.

[Washington Post]

Travel restrictions hamper COVID-19 response

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The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an unprecedented shutdown of borders and airlines, with 90% of commercial passenger flights grounded, all of which is severely restricting the movement of essential medical personnel and supplies that are vital to save lives.

At least 90% of the world’s population, or 7·1 billion people, live in countries with restrictions on people arriving from other countries who are neither citizens nor residents, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) gives the example of Africa where the delivery of equipment and personnel is vital for the COVID-19 response. “There are 47 countries not allowing any airlines to land and we need to support them with equipment, especially as we cannot send any experts to give technical support, for example, with contact tracing or analysis”, Michel Yao, head of WHO’s emergency operations in Africa, told The Lancet. “There is a big shortage of ventilators and also intensive care unit capacity. There are only about 3000 doctors who have intensive care unit expertise in all of Africa.”

“What people don’t realize is that passenger planes also carry a large bulk of the world’s cargo, and [so the major reduction in regular commercial flights] poses a huge problem for us”, Amer Daoudi, head of logistics for World Food Programme (WFP), told The Lancet. As a result of the restrictions, the WFP has an ambitious network of air bridges that will act like a humanitarian airline for fighting COVID-19 around the world, with WHO as the lead partner for sourcing medical supplies and personnel.

“WFP is committed to getting vital medical supplies to front lines and shielding medical workers as they save lives”, said David Beasley, WFP’s executive director. “Our air bridges need to be fully funded to do this and we stand ready to transport frontline health and humanitarian workers as well as medical cargo.”

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) received exemption from the EU’s ban on exports of personal protective equipment (PPE), said Brice de le Vingne, head of MSF’s COVID-19 task force. MSF needs PPE for its own personnel who work around the world as well as for training on infection prevention and control measures it provides, for example, in Iraq.

Issues of deployment and repatriation of experts have also hit the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the WHO regional office for the Americas. “A recent example of this occurred when we deployed an expert to Guayaquil [Ecuador], which we were only able to do by hiring a charter flight from Colombia”, Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of PAHO, told The Lancet. Restrictions on commercial flights had also caused widespread disruption to deliveries of medical supplies, he said. “Shipments, including PPE, lab supplies, etc, have to wait for space on cargo planes and as demand for these planes increases, there have been challenges.”

[The Lancet]

China steps up to the plate with $2B in funding

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China will provide 2 billion U.S. dollars over two years to help with COVID-19 response and with economic and social development in affected countries, especially developing countries.

So announced  Chinese President Xi Jinping via video link on Monday at the opening of the 73rd session of the World Health Assembly.

Xi added that when a vaccine for the disease is available, it “will be made a global public good.” A number of Chinese companies are at the forefront of development and testing for a Covid-19 vaccine.

Xi also emphasized how China would work in particular to support Africa in virus prevention and control efforts.

Major implications for the world’s most vulnerable if America cuts funding to WHO

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The head of emergencies at the World Health Organization, Michael Ryan, warned Wednesday that any end to sizable U.S. funding for the U.N. health agency will have a “major implication for delivering essential health services to the most vulnerable people in the world.”

“Replacing those lifesaving funds for front-line health services to some of the most difficult places in the world: we’ll obviously have to work with other partners to ensure that those funds can still flow,” Ryan said. “We trust that other donors will, if necessary, step in to fill that gap.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “We have of course received the letter [from President Donald Trump] and we are looking into it.”

Trump has criticized the WHO for its early response to the outbreak and what he considers its excessive praise of China, where the outbreak began, at a time when his administration’s response in the U.S. has come under scrutiny.

Trump has already ordered a pause in U.S. funding, which totaled nearly $900 million to the WHO’s budget for 2018-19, according to information on the agency’s website. That represented one-fifth of its total $4.4 billion budget for those years.

[AP]

On President Trump’s letter to the World Health Organization

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NPR spoke to global health experts in the U.S., Canada and Switzerland regarding some of the assertions in President Trump’s letter to the WHO:

An excerpt from Trump’s letter reads: “The International Health Regulations require countries to report the risk of a health emergency within 24 hours. But China did not inform the World Health Organization of Wuhan’s several cases of pneumonia, of unknown origin, until December 31, 2019, even though it likely had knowledge of these cases days or weeks earlier. Even now, China continues to … refusing to share accurate and timely data, viral samples and isolates, and by withholding vital information about the virus and its origins.

Lawrence Gostin, a global health professor at Georgetown University Law Center, agrees China was not transparent early on in the outbreak. “China was anywhere from two to even up to six weeks’ late in reporting to the World Health Organization,” noting there’s evidence that Chinese health authorities knew the coronavirus was circulating in December.

Second, while China quickly shared the genome sequence for the coronavirus, “it has not been as forthcoming with sharing biological samples which are needed for epidemiology and also for vaccines and treatments,” Gostin adds.

But Gostin said blaming the WHO for China’s reporting delays and sample hoarding is misdirected. Of these charges by Trump, he said: “They’re valid critiques of China but not the World Health Organization.”

Trump’s letter also states: “The World Health Organization consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal. The World Health Organization failed to independently investigate credible reports that conflicted directly with the Chinese government’s official accounts, even those that came from sources within Wuhan itself.

The Lancet, a respected medical journal, said of this statement: “This statement is factually incorrect.” The journal said it published its first papers on the novel coronavirus on Jan. 24. In two papers published that day, researchers from China and Hong Kong described the first 41 patients in Wuhan and provided scientific evidence for human-to-human transmission.

On Jan. 24, Trump tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

Yet in his letter to the WHO dated May 18, Trump writes: “The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China. My Administration has already started discussions with you on how to reform the organization. But action is needed quickly.

This demand comes with no specifics, global health observers said. “What exactly does the Trump administration want WHO to do?” asks Kelley Lee, a global health professor at Simon Fraser University. It’s not clear what “action” the U.S. is asking for, or how WHO could demonstrate “independence from China,” because no solutions are outlined in the letter.

“For the United States to blame the World Health Organization for its own months and months and months of inaction seems factually untrue and designed to divide the world at a moment when global solidarity is needed most,” said Benjamin Mason Meier, associate professor of global health policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It undercuts the World Health Organization‘s efforts to provide a collective response to this common threat [of the COVID-19 pandemic].”

[Read full NPR article]

Lancet urges “replace Trump and bolster the CDC”

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Americans should oust President Trump from the White House and elect a leader who will support – rather than undermine – public health experts who are battling the COVID-19 pandemic, British medical journal The Lancet says in a newly published editorial.

The unsigned editorial sharply criticizes the Trump administration, saying it has marginalized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to a degree that is dangerous for both the U.S. and the world. “Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics,” the medical journal says.

“The Administration is obsessed with magic bullets — vaccines, new medicines, or a hope that the virus will simply disappear,” the journal states. “But only a steadfast reliance on basic public health principles, like test, trace, and isolate, will see the emergency brought to an end, and this requires an effective national public health agency.”

Seeking to lay a pile of critical failings at Trump’s feet, the editorial says a federal agency that was once “the gold standard for global disease detection and control” has devolved into an “ineffective and nominal adviser” on the U.S. response to a disease that poses a public health threat of historic proportions.

The Trump administration has “chipped away at the CDC’s capacity to combat infectious diseases” in a number of ways, The Lancet says, citing the reduction of CDC staff in China and the withdrawal of the last American CDC expert from the Chinese CDC campus last July – moves that left an “intelligence vacuum” when the novel coronavirus was detected in Hubei province in late 2019.

The Lancet is a weekly journal that has become one of the world’s leading medical periodicals since its founding in 1823.

[NPR]

Angelina Jolie Mother’s Day Tribute to refugee moms

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On Mother’s Day 2020, Angelina Jolie recognized women with children who are refugees, acknowledging their marked strength and sacrifices.

Her essay, published by the New York Times on Saturday, spoke to the challenges faced by refugee mothers caring for families without economic resources or physical security.

“This Mother’s Day, I think of refugee mothers I have met, living in poverty and displacement,” wrote the actor, filmmaker and activist, who became a Special Envoy to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in 2012. “Every one began her journey of motherhood with a promise to do all she could to protect her child. To lay down her life if necessary. And if she is defeated and silenced, few things are more tragic.”

Continuing, Jolie shared lessons she has learned about motherhood from interactions with women living as refugees. “I’ve come to believe that a mother is the strongest person on earth,” she said, referencing the elevated incidence of gender-based violence against women in areas of conflict. As human rights organizations like UNHCR have noted, many women refugees have experienced abuse, with some seeking asylum specifically to escape it. According to a report from the Migration Policy Institute, it is not uncommon for women and girls pursuing refugee status to encounter continued threats to their physical safety along the way.

Jolie paid reverence to women refugees and others who have survived gender-based violence, calling particular attention to the prioritization of their children’s safety. “Women who are abused aren’t ‘weak women,’ they are often mothers. They are often trying to manage danger with no way out. They will stand between their child and harm. They will face isolation and criticism.

“But their only thought will be: ‘Hurt me, not my child. Insult and ignore me, not my child. Take away my food, but not my child’s,'” she wrote, adding, “to the mothers everywhere who feel helpless — yet who still give every last bit of energy, every last bite of food and the only blanket to their children — I honor you.”

[Newsweek]

Allies despair as Trump abandons America’s leadership role at a time of global crisis

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The United States has scaled back its role on the world stage, taken actions that are undermining efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic and left the international community without a traditional global leader, according to experts, diplomats and analysts.

The US — usually at the head of the table helping to coordinate in global crises — has declined to take a seat at virtual international meetings convened by the World Health Organization and the European Union to coordinate work on potentially lifesaving vaccines. Former world leaders warn that the Trump administration risks alienating allies by politicizing the deadly pandemic with its push to punish China and have other nations choose sides.

The administration’s decision to halt funding for the WHO, the world body best positioned to coordinate the global response to the raging pandemic, has appalled global health officials. Then on Friday, the US blocked a vote on a UN Security Council resolution that called for a global ceasefire aimed at collectively assisting a planet devastated by the outbreak. The US has similarly blocked expressions of global unity at G7 and G20 meetings due to anger about China and the WHO.

And where US presidents have in the past offered a steadying voice, observers from the Asia Pacific to Europe expressed incredulity, amusement and sadness at President Donald Trump’s briefings on the virus, saying they are deeply damaging to the US image abroad.

At a time when nearly 4 million people worldwide have been infected with the virus, diplomats say many countries are yearning for the firm US leadership they’ve seen at historic moments and in prior epidemics, citing President Barack Obama’s response to Ebola and President George W. Bush’s work on HIV/AIDS.

Thomas Gomart, director of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations, said that Europe was watching Trump’s response to the pandemic in amazement, calling his behavior “stranger than fiction.” “He provides for us a very mixed balance of amusement and a sadness, which is just not what is expected from a US president.”

[CNN]

Coronavirus traps migrants in mid-route limbo

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Thousands of desperate migrants are trapped in limbo and even at risk of death without food, water or shelter in scorching deserts and at sea, as governments close off borders and ports amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Migrants have been dropped by the truckload in the Sahara Desert or bused to Mexico’s desolate border with Guatemala and beyond.

They are drifting in the Mediterranean Sea after European and Libyan authorities declared their ports unsafe.

And about 100 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are believed to have died in the Bay of Bengal, as country after country pushes them back out to sea.

[AP]

WHO’s members owe it more than $470 million

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Two countries account for over half the unpaid membership dues at the World Health Organization: As of 31 March, the United States owed $196 million, while China’s outstanding bill stood at $57 million

They’re not alone: 151 members collectively owed $473 million in unpaid dues – about 20 percent of the WHO’s annual budget – and a quarter of it was more than a year late.

But the size of the US and Chinese debts highlight the WHO’s reliance on its largest members.

The WHO’s coffers are nevertheless filling up with extra funding for COVID-19 – it is set to comfortably meet a funding target of $450 million in additional earmarked funds – the pandemic, criticism from the White House, and geo-strategic rivalries have all generated fresh interest in the financing of the global health body. 

The WHO relies on two types of funding: about 20 percent comes from membership dues or “assessed contributions” from its member countries. The rest comes as voluntary payments from member countries, foundations, and the private sector. (Assessed funding has the advantage, for the WHO’s management, of not being tied to specific projects, unlike funds for polio vaccination, Ebola control, or COVID-19.)

The United States is the largest contributor to the WHO’s core budget ($115 million a year). But it pays much more – an average of $450 million per year, according to a WHO fact sheet – as the largest voluntary contributor as well. Prior to suspending its funding for the WHO in reaction to what it alleges as weaknesses in the UN agency’s COVID-19 response, … the United States had paid $316 million in voluntary funding in 2020 before the freeze.

Countries that don’t pay eventually lose the right to vote in the WHO’s assembly. In 2019, Central African Republic, Comoros, Guinea-Bissau, South Sudan, The Gambia, Ukraine, and Venezuela were all barred from voting. A state can get back its voting privileges by agreeing to a gradual repayment plan, one example being Somalia whose annual fee is set at the minimum rate: $4,790.

The United States owes 1.7 times its annual obligatory contributions, not enough to pose a risk to its voting rights in 2020.

[The New Humanitarian]

Coronavirus could kill more than 3 million people in vulnerable and poor countries

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The International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian non-governmental organization, said Tuesday in a new report:

  • The coronavirus could infect up to one billion people and kill 3.2 million people in 34 “crisis-affected countries” as the pandemic exacerbates humanitarian crises.
  • “These numbers should serve as a wake-up call: the full, devastating and disproportionate weight of this pandemic has yet to be felt in the world’s most fragile and war-torn countries,” CEO David Miliband said.
  • The IRC warned that some of the countries included, such as Bangladesh, host the largest and most densely populated refugee camps in the world, where the virus could spread even more rapidly. 

“While COVID-19 is a novel virus and much is still unknown, it is clear that its impact in these settings will be different than in the wealthier countries first hit by the pandemic,” the report says.

[Read full CNBC article]

Cuts in American aid deepens misery for Yemen

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Dozens of U.N. programs that assist millions of ­impoverished Yemenis could be shut down by the end of the month largely because of major cuts in U.S. aid, humanitarian officials warn, just as the country has seen its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus.

The warnings come after the Trump administration canceled tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid last month after accusing Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are aligned with Iran, of diverting and disrupting the aid. President Trump then followed that up by withdrawing funding for the World Health Organization, which plays an outsize role in Yemen.

Critics say the U.S. funding cuts are politically motivated and reflect American animosity toward Iran. International aid groups are now urging the administration to restore the funding for Yemen. They argue that the United States has a moral responsibility to help the country because U.S.-supplied fighter jets, bombs and other weapons have been used by the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen to destroy scores of hospitals, clinics and other civilian facilities.

After more than five years of war, Yemen has earned the label of the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis with about 80 percent of the population now relying on aid. The war has shattered the health infrastructure. The immune systems of millions of Yemenis have been weakened by widespread hunger and malnutrition, as well as diseases such as cholera, dengue and diphtheria.

“Epidemiologists warn that covid-19 in Yemen could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences than in many other countries,” Mark Lowcock, the United Nations’ top official for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, told the Security Council. “We are, in other words, running out of time.”

[The Washington Post]

Drones delivering COVID-19 tests in Ghana

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Ghana is the first nation in the world to use drone technology to test for COVID-19, paving the way for drone technology to play a new role in the fight against COVID-19.

Ghana has one of the highest testing rates in Africa, despite having thousands of far-flung rural clinics, and only two places in the entire country where the swabs can be analyzed. Until last week, all the tests had to be transported to the laboratories by road, a journey that can take up to six hours. Some remote clinics, loath to dispatch an ambulance for just one test, would wait a few days in order to collect enough samples to make the trip worthwhile, prolonging patients’ anxiety and delaying the contact tracing protocols necessary to stop the virus’s spread. Now, the whole round-trip journey takes under 30 minutes.

Now, Zipline, an American health care logistics company, is flying samples from difficult-to-reach rural areas into the capital with its fleet of red and white drones. Once collected, either in local clinics or by health workers out in the field, the test swabs are packaged with ice in specially designed bio-safe containers, fitted with a parachute, and placed into the bellies of the drones. The zips, as they are called, won’t actually land at the laboratories. Instead they swoop down to release their payloads at designated drop zones, where attendants, alerted to the pending arrival via SMS, are waiting to collect them. The whole round-trip journey, which could take up most of a day by car, takes under 30 minutes.

Zipline’s fleet in Ghana is equipped to transport up to 15,000 tests a day, in 300 flights, from their two collection points. The company has two other drone ports that could be brought online as well. Further down the line it could start delivering routine medications as well, keeping vulnerable patients with chronic conditions away from hospitals where they risk exposure to the virus.

[TIME]

Coronavirus pandemic will cause global famines of ‘biblical proportions,’ UN warns

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The world is facing multiple famines of “biblical proportions” in just a matter of months, the UN has said, warning that the coronavirus pandemic will push an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation.

Famines could take hold in “about three dozen countries” in a worst-case scenario, David Beasley the executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP) said in a stark address. The agency identified 55 countries most at risk of being plunged into famine in its annual report on food crises, released this week, warning that their fragile healthcare systems will be unable to cope with the impact of the virus.

Ten countries were singled out as particularly at-risk, after housing the worst food crises last year; Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti.

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, food supplies in some of the most vulnerable regions in the world were being directly affected by impacts such as crop failures and locust swarms. Exceptional drought followed by extremely heavy rainfall markedly decreased the seasonal crop yield in the Horn of Africa during 2019. These irregular weather and climate patterns also contributed to the worst desert locust invasion in 25 years, which further threatened the crop supply in the region.

[CNN]

10 African countries have no ventilators. And that’s only part of the problem.

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South Sudan, a nation of 11 million, has more vice presidents (five) than ventilators (four).

The Central African Republic has three ventilators for its five million people.

In Liberia, which is similar in size, there are six working machines–and one of them sits behind the gates of the United States Embassy.

In all, fewer than 2,000 working ventilators have to serve hundreds of millions of people in public hospitals across 41 African countries, the World Health Organization says, compared with more than 170,000 in the United States.

Ten countries in Africa have no ventilators at all.

Many experts are worried about chronic shortages of much more basic supplies needed to slow the spread of the disease and treat the sick on the continent – things like masks, oxygen and, even more fundamentally, soap and water. Clean running water and soap are in such short supply that only 15 percent of sub-Saharan Africans had access to basic hand-washing facilities in 2015, according to the United Nations.

In Liberia, it is even worse – 97 percent of homes did not have clean water and soap in 2017, the U.N. says.

“The things that people need are simple things,” said Kalipso Chalkidou, the director of global health policy at the Center for Global Development, a research group. “Not high-tech things.”

[New York Times]

WHO warns Africa could be next COVID-19 epicenter

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Africa could become the next epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned. UN officials also say it is likely the pandemic will kill at least 300,000 people in Africa and push nearly 30 million into poverty.

More than a third of Africa’s population lacks access to adequate water supplies and nearly 60% of urban dwellers live in overcrowded slums – conditions where the virus could thrive.

The fragile health infrastructure in the continent means that it will be doubly strained by an increasing number of new Covid-19 infections. There are only around five intensive care beds available for every one million people in most African countries, compared with around 4,000 beds for every million people in Europe. The WHO has also highlighted that the continent lacks ventilators to deal with a pandemic.

Dr Moeti told BBC Global Health correspondent Tulip Mazumdar that international travel played a part. “If you look at the proportion of people who travel, Africa has fewer people who are traveling internationally,” she said. But now that the virus is in within Africa, she says that her organization is acting under the assumption that it will spread just as quickly as elsewhere.

The WHO has witnessed the virus spreading from big cities to “the hinterland” in South Africa, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Ghana, Dr Moeti said.

[BBC]

Funding of the World Health Organization WHO

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COVID-19 funding and money for much of the WHO’s work comes from voluntary contributions from states, international organizations, and the private sector.

Its core budget, however, is raised from membership dues. The United States has not paid its dues to the organization for 2020, nor has it paid most of 2019’s bill. The United States paid 12.5 of the organization’s voluntary revenue in 2018. This is funding donors can choose to withhold.

Mandatory – or “assessed’ – contributions to the WHO, on the other hand, are part of a member’s obligations and cannot be indefinitely skipped. Percentages are calculated and assigned to members proportional to their national wealth. The US share is 22 percent of the annual core budget. 

Ahead of the US funding boycott, the WHO already had commitments amounting to 94 percent of its $450 million COVID-19 funding target for this year. As of 9 April, it had received $365 million (about four percent of which was from the United States), and recorded pledges for a further $61 million, including an unknown US amount. 

So Trump’s funding cut announcement would appear to have a limited impact on the WHO’s COVID-19 response in 2020, with Kuwait, Japan, and the European Commission being the largest donors. The US contribution, recorded at $14 million, puts it in seventh place as a country donor.

While the WHO should be able to weather a US funding freeze for COVID-19, its long term prospects may be of greater concern.

[The New Humanitarian]

Trump halts US funding to World Health Organization WHO

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President Donald Trump announced Tuesday he is halting funding to the World Health Organization while a review is conducted. Trump said the review would cover the WHO’s “role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus.”

Trump’s announcement comes in the middle of the worst global pandemic in decades and as he angrily defends his own handling of the outbreak in the United States. Amid swirling questions about whether he downplayed the crisis or ignored warnings from members of his administration about its potential severity, Trump has sought to assign blame elsewhere, including at the WHO and in the news media.

The US funds $400 million to $500 million to the WHO each year, Trump said, noting that China “contributes roughly $40 million.”

His decision to withdraw funding from the WHO follows a pattern of skepticism of world organizations that began well before the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has questioned US funding to the United Nations, withdrawn from global climate agreements and lambasted the World Trade Organization — claiming all were ripping off the United States.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said earlier Tuesday that while the WHO and China “made mistakes,” Trump is also looking to deflect blame from his own administration. “Right now, there is a very coordinated effort amongst the White House and their allies to try to find scapegoats for the fatal mistakes that the President made during the early stages of this virus,” he said. Murphy added: “It is just wildly ironic that the President and his allies are now criticizing China or the WHO for being soft on China when it was in fact the President who was the chief apologist for China during the early stages of this crisis.”

Just days before Trump instituted his ban on travelers from China, he also was praising the country. On January 24, Trump tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

Tuesday’s announcement about the halting of funding came days after a major US ally — the United Kingdom — announced an additional £65 million contribution to the WHO.

[CNN]

The poor losing vital remittance payments

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Osigan Caseres lost her job as a maid and no longer sends home $300 each month to her daughters in the Philippines to buy food for her eight grandchildren.

In Somalia, Asha Mohamed Ahmed no longer receives the $400 her daughter used to provide from working at a Minneapolis hotel to cover the family’s monthly bills. And in Mexico, Rosy worries how she will afford to buy medicine for her diabetic mother without the money her brother used to send before being furloughed at an Idaho ranch.

They are all economic victims of the novel coronavirus. As hundreds of millions of people around the world grapple with job losses, business closures and lockdowns, many are no longer able to help poorer relatives in developing nations whose lives can hinge on these payments. Billions of dollars in remittances from wealthier nations to poorer ones may be vanishing, threatening the welfare of millions of families globally and the health of their countries in the months ahead, economists say.

[The Washington Post]

Twitter CEO donates $1 Billion to coronavirus relief

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Billionaire Jack Dorsey is joining a growing list of celebrities and business leaders who are using their wealth to help in the battle against coronavirus.

The 43-year-old, who is CEO of both Twitter and digital payments service Square, announced that he will be transferring $1 billion to focus on providing relief for victims of coronavirus, and then shift to girls’ health and education when the disease is finally tamed.

“I’m moving $1B of my Square equity (~28% of my wealth) …to fund global COVID-19 relief,” Dorsey wrote on Twitter.

“After we disarm this pandemic, the focus will shift to girl’s health and education, and [universal basic income].”

[People]

Virus could push half a billion people into poverty

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The economic fallout from coronavirus could increase global poverty by up to half a billion, Oxfam has warned. “The economic crisis is potentially going to be even more severe than the health crisis,” said their report. It estimates a 400-600 million rise in poverty numbers globally.

Using research by the Australian National University (ANU) and Kings College, London, the charity says it will be the first time poverty has risen globally in 30 years.

The report says the potential impact of the virus poses a real challenge to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty by 2030. By the time the pandemic is over, half of the world’s population of 7.8 billion people could be living in poverty. About 40% of the new poor could be concentrated in East Asia and the Pacific, with about one third in both Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB’s chief executive, said: “For billions of workers in poor countries who were already scraping by, there are no safety nets such as sick pay or government assistance.

“Next week’s World Bank and G20 meetings are an important opportunity for world leaders to collaborate on a joint economic rescue package to protect the most vulnerable people.”

Earlier this week, more than 100 global organizations called for debt payments to be waived this year for developing countries, which would free up $25bn (£20bn) in cash to support their economies.

[BBC]

Putin sending medical supplies to help U.S. fight coronavirus

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Russia is sending the United States medical equipment to help fight the coronavirus outbreak, the Interfax news agency reported on Tuesday, citing the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

President Vladimir Putin made the proposal in a phone conversation with President Donald Trump on Monday.

“Trump gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid,” Interfax quoted Peskov as saying. A Russian plane with medical and protective equipment may leave for the United States on Tuesday, he added.

Confirmed U.S. cases have surged to nearly 180,000 with 16,000 new positive tests reported on Tuesday. For a second day in a row, the United States recorded more than 500 new deaths as the total climbed to nearly 3,600, according to a Reuters tally of officially reported data.

The state of relations between Moscow and Washington has been complicated in recent years due to U.S. sanctions on some of Russian companies in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, among other strains.

“It is important to note that when offering assistance to the U.S. colleagues, the president (Putin) assumes that when U.S. manufacturers of medical equipment and materials gain momentum, they will also be able to reciprocate if necessary,” he added.

He also said that Russia and China cooperated in a similar way now as “at a time when the current situation affects everyone without exception …, there is no alternative to working together in a spirit of partnership and mutual assistance”.

[Reuters]

Social distancing is a privilege of the middle class

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Social distancing is a privilege of the middle class. For India’s slum dwellers, it will be impossible.

For two days, Jeetender Mahender, a 36-year-old Dalit sanitation worker, has dared not leave his family’s shanty in the Valmiki slum of northern Mumbai, India, except to go to the toilet. Mahender is trying to comply with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-day nationwide lockdown, His situation is desperate. The tiny home has no running water or toilet, his family is low on food — and when he doesn’t go to work, he doesn’t get paid. 

Social distancing might work for India’s middle and upper classes, who can hunker down in their condos and houses, preen their terrace gardens, eat from their well-stocked pantries and even work from home, using modern technology. But for the 74 million people — one sixth of the population — who live cheek by jowl in the country’s slums, social distancing is going to be physically and economically impossible.

“The lanes are so narrow that when we cross each other, we cannot do it without our shoulders rubbing against the other person,” said Mahender. “We all go outdoors to a common toilet and there are 20 families that live just near my small house. We practically all live together. If one of us falls sick, we all will.”

In Dharavi slum in Mumbai, there is only one toilet per 1,440 residents, according to a recent CFS study — and 78% of community toilets in Mumbai’s slums lack a water supply, according to 2019 Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation survey.

Water is one of the biggest reasons India’s poor need to leave home every day. Sia, a slum dweller and migrant construction worker in Gurugram, near New Delhi, wakes up at 5 a.m. and defies the call to stay indoors. The reason? She needs to walk 100 meters (328 feet) to a water tank that serves her slum of 70 migrant construction workers. Most women from the construction site slum wash together there every morning and collect water for the day. With no showers or bathrooms in their homes, this communal tap is their only water source.

[CNN]

Locked down Indian migrants who want to go home

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As Coronavirus panic grows among India’s most vulnerable, thousands of migrant workers tried to flee the slums for their rural homes, by bus and even by foot, sparking fears they will import the virus to the countryside. 

Over the weekend, tens of thousands of India’s 45 million economic migrant workers began long, arduous journeys back to their rural villages. With India’s rail network temporarily shut, many had no choice but to try walking hundreds of miles home.

There was little reason to stay. Most had lost their jobs in the cities due to the lockdown, and the slums have the potential to feed the spread of the virus.

As the slum exodus began, on Saturday the state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana arranged for hundreds of buses to ferry migrants home, causing chaotic scenes as thousands descended upon stations trying to claw their way onto buses.

On Sunday, however, Indian Prime Minister Modi urged all states to seal their borders to stop the virus being imported into rural areas. Officials are now scrambling to find millions of migrant workers who had already returned to small towns and villages across the country, in order to quarantine them for 14 days. 

Researchers from the Center For Sustainability said last week that while the reproductive ratio for Covid-19 globally is between two and three, in India’s slums it could be 20% higher due to the dense living conditions. 

[CNN]

The dilemma of migrant workers during the coronavirus lockdown

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Daily wage migrant workers generally live hand-to-mouth, earning between 138-449 Indian rupees ($1.84-$5.97) per day, according to the International Labour Organization. 

Such workers are faced with an agonizing dilemma: go out to work and risk infection, or stay home and face extreme hunger.

Some workers have no choice. Cleaners, for example, are considered to provide an essential service, and are therefore exempted from the lockdown. “Some even collect hospital waste and then come back and live in these crowded chawls (slums),” said Milind Ranade, the founder of Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh, a Mumbai-based organization focused on labor issues.

They are not given any protective gear, such as masks or gloves, said Ranade, and there has not been an awareness campaign to educate them of the dangers of coronavirus transmission. “What will happen when they fall sick?” Ranade asks.

Mahender is a cleaner for a residential community in Mumbai, earning 5,000 rupees ($66) a month, which he uses to support his wife, three children and his 78-year-old father. “The residents of the building where I clean have been calling me back to work,” he said. “But I have to go into the building, outside each person’s house and collect their trash. I have not been given a mask or gloves, not even a soap to wash my hands before my meals. But I know if I don’t go today, they will hire someone else?” 

As of today, India had conducted 34,931 tests, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research — or 19 tests per million people.

[CNN]

The capacity for innovation in Africa and the Indian Subcontinent

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South Africa put its 57 million citizens into lockdown starting Thursday evening as cases there grew to 709 — the highest of any nation on that continent. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa deployed police and the military to enforce the measure.

The West African nation of Senegal — which was among the countries hit by the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak — also declared a state of emergency earlier this week and imposed a curfew after more than 80 cases of the coronavirus were confirmed.

“The rapid evolution of COVID-19 in Africa is deeply worrisome,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization‘s regional director for Africa, said. “We can still change the course of this pandemic,” she added, but said that “governments must draw on all their resources and capabilities and strengthen their response.”

“The need of the hour as countries like India … and now parts of Africa enter a lockdown phase is to consider these kinds of scenarios and maybe build temporary quarantine facilities for those living in shantytowns,” said Dr. Priya Balasubramaniam, a senior public health scientist for the Public Health Foundation of India.

There is a silver lining to the emergency, Balasubramaniam added. How these countries ultimately cope with the pandemic could be a lesson to the rest of the world. Already, many low-income countries experiment using technology and community health workers to improve access to health care where there had been none.

“There is a lot of capacity for innovation in these countries,” she said.

[Reuters/NBC News]

Lockdowns are fine for the rich, but millions are too poor to shelter from coronavirus

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Lockdowns are being championed as a way to help contain the coronavirus, but experts warn this will not be easily achieved in developing countries, where crowded cities and slums could see the virus spread “like fire.”

Questions over how the world’s poorest will survive the coronavirus pandemic surged Wednesday, a day after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown of its population of 1.3 billion people. Around 50 million Indians are thought to be living in extreme poverty.

“It’s a disease that makes disparity seem more obvious than any other,” Dr. Angela Chaudhuri, director of the nonprofit Swasti Health Catalyst, which works in slums and rural poor communities across India, told NBC News in a telephone interview. “We’re saying wash your hands with soap and water or sanitizers and keep at a distance — none of these are available in the slums.” “If there is just one case, it’s going to be a flash fire,” Chaudhuri said, but the economic and social repercussions for the poor will be severe in a nation of stark wealth disparities.

It is estimated that with the clampdown in India, around a third of the world’s population is living under some form of lockdown. But across the world, for millions living in shantytowns with access to only the most basic sanitation, there is no way to self-isolate.

“The need of the hour as countries like India, the Philippines and now parts of Africa enter a lockdown phase is to consider these kinds of scenarios and maybe build temporary quarantine facilities for those living in shantytowns,” said Dr. Priya Balasubramaniam, a senior public health scientist for the Public Health Foundation of India.

[Reuters/NBC News]

What keeps humanitarian aid workers up at night

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With borders now closing around the world and health services coming under huge strain as COVID-19 spreads, the humanitarian sector is scrambling to adapt to new challenges while continuing to provide assistance in ongoing emergencies and disasters.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has emphasized that “humanitarian needs must not be sacrificed.” But many worry this is exactly what might happen, as attention and resources could shift away from some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, even as COVID-19 presents a new threat to them.

Top of mind for most organizations is how to carry on deploying staff to keep existing operations going, as well as making sure the aid itself could still be made accessible to those who need it.

 ICRC President Peter Maurer said the new travel bans would hurt. Around half of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff coming from abroad to work on international projects are from Europe, where most countries have put checks on foreign travel due to the pandemic.

Christos Christou, the president of MSF, said he was now worried he wouldn’t be able to deploy enough specialist medical staff to the places where they are needed. “Our human resources have been trapped in their own countries,” he said. “We need these people to go back to the field.”

Even within the EU, migrant centres in places like Greece are filled beyond capacity. “The idea of self-isolation is a luxury,” explained Christou, adding that, in addition to the Greek camps, he had “extreme concerns” about the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and those currently in the Syrian frontline region of Idlib.

Meanwhile, Matthias Schmale, UNWRA’s operations director in Gaza, expressed his frustration that political paralysis and geopolitical preoccupations among donor countries were already leading to a reduction in funds that is affecting those most in need, particularly in the Middle East. “Even before corona, Gaza was collapsing,” Schmale said, complaining that while the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territory is becoming increasingly dire, “no one talks about it anymore”.

Carola Rackete, a German ship captain arrested in Italy in June 2019 for her work for the Mediterranean rescue organization Sea-Watch, said she feared that border closures may feed growing nationalism, to the detriment of poor and vulnerable migrants.

[The New Humanitarian]

An aid worker’s letter from coronavirus-stricken Italy

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Two weeks ago, I flew from one crisis to another, in my pajama top, praying the plane would take off and I would make it to my family in Italy. (I work for an aid agency that supports Libya, where fighting is forcing people to flee their homes, and more and more people rely on international assistance to get by.)

I wanted to get to my aunt, the fierce and infinitely gentle woman who raised me, and who still smacks sense into me when I do something silly (which is often). She is 94 years old. I don’t need to tell you what that means in terms of COVID-19; how vulnerable that makes her. I made it to Rome but couldn’t get close for fear of exposing her; but it was a relief to see that she was there, and she was alright, and she was asking why I was wearing my pajama top. The world was falling apart around me, but I was home.

But not everyone gets to be with their loved ones. What about the people who never get to have a home, who live day to day fleeing conflict or poverty?

I see, even in an outing to buy food, people being either incredibly kind or completely dismissive of others.

I understand why some people are turning inwards right now. At first, my aunt’s age made me feel the same, and vulnerability almost always brings along its friend: fear. There’s an urge to stop thinking clearly, and just protect what you fear losing the most.

But I get to choose how I respond right now, and so does the rest of the world. We can choose whether we disregard the pleas… whether we send medical supplies and assistance where they are needed; whether we want to be the kind of society that shields its vulnerable and embraces that we are all, truly, inextricably linked; whether this will make us kinder.

Borders mean nothing to this virus, so perhaps it’s time that we too define ourselves by them less. We can push past that initial urge to protect only that which immediately surrounds us, and apply that feeling outwards so that this renewed sense of identity we’re feeling now encompasses everyone. As a global community, when we eventually see the back of COVID-19, will we remember what it was like to feel unwanted? Will it change how we treat each other, first from day to day, and then from country to country?

[The New Humanitarian]

Ten-minute coronavirus test for $1 could be a game changer

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Already exhausted from testing for monkeypox and Lassa fever, Nigerian molecular bio-engineer Nnaemeka Ndodo had to work well past midnight earlier this month to find out if six Chinese construction workers were infected with the coronavirus. Ndodo had to collect samples from a hospital an hour away in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, then wait for six hours to get the results in what’s one of only five laboratories able to test for the virus in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.

In about three months’ time, U.K.-based Mologic Ltd., in collaboration with Senegalese research foundation Institut Pasteur de Dakar, could shorten that wait to 10 minutes with a test that will help a continent with the world’s most fragile healthcare system cope with the pandemic.

With few resources and staff, authorities are racing to contain the spread of the disease in Africa, which accounts for 1% of global health expenditure but carries 23% of the disease burden, including hundreds of thousands of deaths each year from malaria, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis.

Thirty-six of 54 countries on the continent have the capacity to test for the coronavirus, but a spike in cases could overwhelm laboratories. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Sunday he struck a partnership with Chinese billionaire Jack Ma to distribute between 10,000 and 20,000 test kits and 100,000 masks per African country, as well as newly developed guidebooks for treatment.

Separately, the Ethiopia-based Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention expects to distribute 200,000 tests across the continent next week, mostly from Berlin-based TIB Molbiol GmbH, according to the group’s head of laboratory, Yenew Kebede.

“There is no shortage of lab tests in Africa, but what we want is the faster, cheaper test to quickly confirm if there is an outbreak and contain it before it gets bigger,”said Rosanna Peeling, chair of diagnostics research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Using technology from home pregnancy and malaria tests, Mologic’s saliva and finger-prick kit could be ready for sale by June for less than $1 apiece.

“We are ensuring that these tests are made accessible at the cost of manufacture,” said Joe Fitchett, medical director of Mologic, which received a $1.2 million grant from the U.K. government to develop the test.

The current Covid-19 tests, known as PCR tests, detect the genetic material of the pathogen in a laboratory process that can take several hours and cost over $400 in some private facilities.

[Bloomberg]

African countries confirm coronavirus cases as Jack Ma pledges aid

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More African nations confirmed their first cases of the coronavirus and shut borders amid fears of the disease’s impact on fragile health systems, as Chinese billionaire and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma pledged to donate to the continent.

Thirty African countries – more than half the continent – are now treating nearly 400 patients with coronavirus, after Tanzania, Liberia, Benin and Somalia said they registered their first cases. Health experts are concerned the continent’s often dilapidated health infrastructure will struggle to cope as cases mount.

“We cannot ignore the potential risk to Africa and assume this continent of 1.3 billion people will blissfully escape the crisis. The world cannot afford the unthinkable consequences of a COV-19 pandemic in Africa,” Ma’s foundation said in a statement.

The foundation will send 1.1 million testing kits, 6 million masks and 60,000 protective suits and face shields to Ethiopia for distribution to Africa’s 54 nations, it said.

Many African nations, including some without reported cases, have ordered tougher control measures, including bans on public gatherings, halting flights and closing schools and universities.

[Reuters]

Poor nations may see higher coronavirus deaths, warns UN official

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Governments and health systems in wealthy nations are struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting the poorest countries may be hit far harder if the virus gains a foothold there, a top U.N. official warned.

Mami Mizutori, head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), said even in developed countries, health services were under stress and did not have enough equipment to treat people in need as the numbers infected rose rapidly.

“It is easily imaginable that if this becomes the case in a country where the health system is not as sophisticated, then that could lead to possibly higher mortality,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Geneva.

People living in poverty and lacking health insurance or secure employment cannot afford to be sick or miss work, she said, pointing to the virus as an “equity issue”.

If coronavirus expanded in poor countries, the economic impact on individuals would likely be greater as economic losses would be a bigger share of gross domestic product, she added.

The slower spread of the virus to Africa, however, may have bought the continent valuable time to take preventive measures. Some African countries, like Rwanda and Uganda, are implementing strict controls at airports as well as simple hygiene practices such as setting up public sinks to wash hands.

[Reuters]

Coronavirus emergency aid funding

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The costs of responding to coronavirus are challenging healthcare systems and governments in some of the world’s richest countries. In poorer countries and war zones, as well as host countries for refugees and other people on the move, the costs could be overwhelming.

In the most vulnerable countries, where public healthcare is weak at the best of times, adding to public debt is not an attractive solution. The numbers that really matter are for grants – to governments, aid groups, or service providers. Aid funding can pay for more staff, treatment facilities, drugs, and protective equipment.

Some of that money will have to be redirected from existing pots of funding: for example in Afghanistan, a contingency fund managed by the UN has allocated $1.5 million for corona preparedness. The Global Fund for HIV, TB and malaria – a large multi-donor aid pool – will allow some funds to be redirected to coronavirus. The UN’s global emergency response fund, the CERF, has put up $15 million. Aid budgets may have to be adjusted in the coming months more radically as the pandemic evolves, potentially diverting spending from other priorities.

It’s likely to become a major area of international aid spending.

The WHO had, as of 1 February, estimated new global spending requirements of $675 million for three months of “priority public health measures”, uses a three-step process:

  • It ranks 194 countries on five elements of preparedness and response needs: community transmission, localized transmission, imported cases, high risk of imported cases, preparedness.
  • On average, it proposes a country would need roughly $65 million in extra expenditure. 
  • Then, the document tabulates the amount of foreign aid needed proportional to the country’s readiness: “category 5” countries would need 100 percent of the spending package and “category 1” countries can look after themselves. 

As for its own role, the biggest donors to the WHO are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US and UK governments – all three paying over $7 million.

[The New Humanitarian]

Canada’s new humanitarian and refugee envoy has a background in Myanmar

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Bob Rae, who spent seven months in 2017 and 2018 examining the forces that drove over 600,000 Rohingya from their homes in Myanmar to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, is being named Canada’s special envoy for humanitarian and refugee issues.

In 2017, Rae was appointed as a special envoy to Myanmar. In April 2018, Rae delivered a report that made 17 recommendations for Canada’s response, including ramping up humanitarian aid and welcoming more refugees from the region. Rae’s report was welcomed by Amnesty International, but the Trudeau government did not meet his call for $600 million over four years to help hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims affected by the violence.

However, in September 2018, Canada’s House of Commons voted to unanimously declare the actions of the Myanmar military against the Rohingya Muslims a genocide. Two weeks later, Parliament formally stripped Myarmar’s civilian leader, Nobel Prize winnter,Aung San Suu Kyi, of her honorary Canadian citizenship for her refusal to condemn Myanmar’s military or to take action to stop atrocities–including rape and murder–committed against the Rohingya. She became the first person ever to be stripped of honorary Canadian citizenship.

The announcement of Rae’s latest appointment comes as the Trudeau government has provided financing for police training and surveillance equipment to at least seven Southeast Asian countries with histories of human rights violations — Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand — to intercept irregular migrants and smugglers.

[RCI]

“Zero hunger” remains a distant reality

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“Realizing the right to food requires more than just eliminating hunger and malnutrition; it also requires guaranteeing access to nutritious, adequate food and promoting the survival of smallholder farmers and rural communities,” said Hilal Elver, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

Ms. Elver recommended a holistic, coordinated and rights-based approach to the elimination of hunger and malnutrition with increased participation and involvement of those most affected. “We need robust protections for human rights defenders and members of the scientific community who are facing increased attacks in the face of emerging nationalism, populism and predatory global capitalism.”

In her report, the expert notes that countries must avoid the adoption of economic policies that deregulate food markets, as well as austerity measures that impose hardships on vulnerable communities and accentuate inequality. “These policies can lead to economic, social and political instability,” she said.

During the six years of her mandate, the Special Rapporteur witnessed increased hunger worldwide and sought to draw particular attention to the fate of populations living on the brink of starvation that now threatens 113 million people. Severe conflicts and emergency situations, including those linked to geopolitical tensions and climate change, are exacerbating these conditions.

[UN HRC]

The coronavirus hubs driving cross-border infections

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For two months, the world watched as efforts to contain the coronavirus focused on China. But new outbreak epicentres thousands of miles away have been driving cross-border infections since mid-February – including to a handful of countries already hit with humanitarian crises.

Over the last two weeks, more than three dozen countries or territories have reported new coronavirus infections linked to people travelling from two hubs: Italy or Iran. Outbreaks in both countries have surged. A growing list stretches from European and Middle East nations to as far away as New Zealand, the Caribbean, and South America.

Cases have also risen dramatically in South Korea, but cross-border infections have not been widely reported.

In some countries – like France, Germany, and Malaysia – the new infections add to an existing caseload traced to patients who travelled in Asia. Other nations are seeing cases emerge for the first time.

The quality of health systems varies greatly from country to country, but some are especially unprepared to respond to epidemics in part due to long distances and poor infrastructure, according to the Global Health Security Index published last year.

Many countries have ratcheted up border closures or travel restrictions, but the WHO says this has delayed but not prevented infections. Public health experts say border closures can exacerbate outbreaks by driving migration underground – away from public health systems.

The WHO has launched a $675 million response plan aimed at helping countries with weaker health systems prepare for outbreaks. As of Monday, only $2.5 million had been received (though some $31 million was also pledged), according to the WHO. The UN’s humanitarian aid arm, OCHA, said it would dip into its Central Emergency Response Fund – more often used to kickstart disaster relief – to help contain the virus.

[The New Humanitarian]

How community banking empowers women in Tanzania

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In Tanzania, many urban and rural areas still function under traditional customs that put women at a social and economic disadvantage. Women often lack economic freedom and access to decision-making opportunities at all levels. They continue to experience poverty and illiteracy at higher rates than men and are more likely to be subjected to gender-based violence. Women also tend to have less access than men to property ownership, credit, training, and employment. Fortunately, those discriminatory traditions, norms, and stereotypes are being challenged. Below, Sijali Kipuli from Somanga Village in Tanzania shows us how a social system in savings and credits can economically liberate the poorest people and empower women.

I was born in 1966 in the village of Nyamwage, in Rufiji Delta. My parents divorced when I was young, so my mother and I moved in with my grandparents. With little education, we were poor and felt helpless. But we had to persist and began farming rice, cashew nuts, cassava, maize, millet, and legumes.

Between 1983 and 2003, I married twice and had five children. I moved to a fishing village, where I rented a room and started a business as a food vendor selling chicken soup, rice and ugali—a stiff porridge made from maize or cassava flour. This business enabled me to buy a piece of land where I built my first house.

In 2006, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) came to our village to introduce Village Community Banking—a way for people to get loans without needing conventional banks that often make such an exercise difficult in Tanzania. Here’s how it works: a group of community members form one by agreeing to deposit a certain amount of money into a group savings fund. Members can then request loans from the group for income-generating activities and educational purposes. These community banks can also provide funds for healthcare and social concerns.

I attended WWF’s meeting on community banking with many other women and just a few days later, we formed four village banking groups of 30 people each. I received training on savings and loan skills, small business skills, making profits, finding markets, separating personal and business expenditures, and maintaining capital. After a year and a half, my group ended the first savings and loaning cycle, and we divided our money. With my share, I managed to build my first modern house with six rooms, concrete bricks, and iron sheet.

In 2012, Aga Khan Foundation, which brings together human, financial, and technical resources to address some of the challenges faced by the poorest and most marginalized communities in the world, came to Kilwa, Tanzania, to introduce a similar project. They were looking for residents who had worked with village community banks to train others. With the experience gained from WWF, I was selected as a community-based trainer, working in four wards and 16 villages to form and organize 84 banking groups. In 2013, WWF expanded its activities to two new areas, and I helped to form an additional 76 groups and became a leader of other community-based trainers for WWF projects.

Since I joined a village community bank, I have managed to shift my food vending business to my eldest daughter for her to manage. The other two girls are still in school. In 2019, I bought a big farm for planting simsim, a marketable crop for Indian communities. And I still continue as a trainer to teach women to work hard to support their family’s education, health, and other developments. I also own a mobile money transfer shop worth TZS 40 Million (US$17,391) and most of my clients are fishermen and traders. I am now empowered financially.

[WorldWildlife.org]

Clashes at Greece-Turkey border as migrants continue push attempt into Europe

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Clashes broke out along the Greece-Turkey land border Wednesday morning as Greek authorities fired tear gas and stun grenades to push back hundreds of migrants trying to illegally cross into their country.

The fracas near the border village of Kastanies comes after Turkey made good on its threat to open its borders and send migrants into Europe last week. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose action triggered days of violent clashes along the border, said his country is unable to cope with a new wave of Syrian migrants and refugees, and demands Europe’s support. “…The gates are open,” he said Monday. “You will have your share of this burden now.”

On Wednesday, Turkey’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Umit Yalcin, accused the European Union of “betrayal, hypocrisy and selfishness” for failing to uphold its agreement to stem the flow of Syrian refugees and migrants into Europe. “We did our fulfillment of our commitment and they did not do anything,” Yalcin told Sky News, referring to the accusation by Ankara that Brussels failed to meet the terms of the migration deal struck in March 2016. “And because of that – enough is enough. We are overloaded. We cannot control millions and millions of people.” He continued: “We only ask for fair and equal responsibility-sharing and burden-sharing. We only want to see the fulfillment of that deal, not more.”

During the clashes earlier Wednesday, reporters on the Greek side of the border heard what sounded like gunfire, though it was unclear whether this was live ammunition. A group of people could be seen carrying something which could have been a person between them and running to the Turkish border post. Shortly afterward, an ambulance was heard leaving. Reporters on the Turkish side of the border saw at least four ambulances leave the area.

The head of emergency services at Edirne’s Trakya University Hospital, Burak Sayhan, told journalists six people had been admitted to the emergency department Wednesday, including one who was dead on arrival. He said one person had been shot in the head, two had gunshot wounds to their lower and upper extremities and one had a broken nose.

The mass movement of migrants and refugees to Greece’s borders, the majority of who appeared to be from Afghanistan, has appeared organized. Buses, minibusses, cars, and taxis were organized in Istanbul to ferry people to the border, while some of those who managed to cross have said they were told by Turkish authorities to go to Greece and that the border was open.

Greek authorities said there were about 15,000 people along the Greek-Turkish land border on Wednesday. They said that between Saturday morning and Wednesday morning, they had blocked 27,832 attempts to cross the border, and had arrested a total of 220 people who managed to cross.

[AP]

UN ‘determined to stand by the people of Syria’

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Speaking from Hatay, along the Turkish side of the border with Syria, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, said that displaced civilians were “struggling to survive in horrific conditions”.

Military activity in the region has displaced nearly one million people since December, mostly women and children. Mr. Lowcock painted a picture of traumatized, cold people, many of whom forced to sleep in the open. “Despite extraordinary efforts by humanitarian organizations, aid is not reaching everyone who needs it”, the UN relief chief stated. “What civilians need is a ceasefire. What civilians need is for international humanitarian law to be respected”, he spelled out.

Lowcock said that the UN is sending hundreds of trucks from Turkey into northwest Syria loaded with food, water and shelter each month. “This is saving lives”, he maintained, adding, “it must continue, and it must be scaled up”.

With an estimated 2.8 million people in northwest Syria need humanitarian assistance, Mr. Lowcock explained that $500 million would help 1.1 million of the most vulnerable.

He noted that the United States had just pledged $108 million and that an additional $300 million has been received or pledged by donors.

“We are determined to stand by the people of Syria”, concluded the Emergency Relief Coordinator.

[UN News]

Millions of Syrian civilians face humanitarian catastrophe

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U.N. investigators say millions of civilians in Idlib under siege by Syrian forces are facing a humanitarian catastrophe and are in urgent need of emergency assistance. 

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria finds the military onslaught by Russian-backed Syrian forces to retake Idlib from the terrorist group Hay’at Tahris al-Sham has led to unprecedented levels of displacement of civilians. Of the three million civilians trapped in Idlib, it says about one-third have fled their homes.

The Commission has been tracking attacks on what international humanitarian law calls protected civilian objects. These include hospitals, schools and places of worship. Commission member Hanny Megally told VOA hospitals have been attacked with the purpose of forcing people to leave. “There is a war crime of intentionally terrorizing the population to force it to move. And, I think we are seeing that picture emerging very clearly. For example, in Idlib where because these places are being bombed, people are having to move out of the areas that they are living in because they cannot sustain living in those areas,” said Megally.  

The United Nations reports nearly one million displaced people are stranded at the Turkish border, which is closed to them. Megally said those who have newly arrived have no shelter. They are forced to live outside in the freezing cold weather, with no blankets or other cover.  

“Politics seems to get in the way there.  I think the real question is if they cannot move from where they are, why is humanitarian assistance not being provided to them,” said Megally.  He said civilians are in desperate need of shelter, food, water, medical aid and protection. The report will be submitted to the U.N. human rights council March 10.

[VoA]

The world’s refugee system is broken

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We are in an age of mass displacement. Yet the powerful and stable nations of the world have not figured out a humane way to handle the influx of people claiming persecution while balancing domestic concerns about security and cultural change. Instead, doors are simply closing, with asylum protections rolled back seemingly everywhere.

In Italy, where the former interior minister denounced “fake refugees,” boats of Africans have been blocked from docking. The European Union pays handsomely to keep asylum seekers away, while Turkey considers sending Syrian refugees back to their homeland, which is still at war. In the US, the indefinite detention of asylum-seeking children prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to say she was appalled. Thousands of asylum seekers are sent from the U.S. to dangerous sections of Mexico and even to countries they’re not from.

The leaders who created international refugee policy never envisioned today’s refugees, with violent flash points rooted in all kinds of new phenomena—police corruption, climate change, gang warfare—that now dot the Earth, creating the conditions for the worst protracted migration crisis since World War II.

The problem is that the refugee system set forth in United Nations documents signed by most of the world’s countries does not apply to many refugees—at least not how it is currently enforced. The 1951 and 1967 agreements were drafted to specifically address European displacement from World War II while more broadly setting rules to protect people from persecution going forward: Anyone who is “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

To get refugee status and a pathway to permanent residency, asylum seekers generally must prove that they were personally targeted by documenting their persecution with paperwork—ostensibly from the very same authorities they are fleeing from. The irony, says David Slater, an American anthropology professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University who works with asylum seekers in Japan, is that those who appear to have the most straightforward cases of persecution “are the ones who are least likely to have documentation” to prove that it happened. “You don’t stop off at the local police station, especially when the police are part of the people who are persecuting you, to try to get a police report,” he said.

More to the point, those arriving are eyed suspiciously as mere economic migrants; poverty and hunger, though defining features of persecution, are not accepted reasons for being granted asylum.

“I would say that the system is broken,” Slater says. “The amount of conflict in the world and the number of people who are fleeing are so disproportionately larger now. For us to try to use a framework that was designed under a particular set of conditions and under a particular scale is no longer feasible.”

[The Atlantic]

Migrants head west after Turkey opens border

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Hundreds of migrants in Turkey started arriving on the borders with Greece and Bulgaria on Friday after a senior Turkish official said Ankara would no longer abide by a 2016 EU deal and stop refugees from reaching Europe.

Greece and Bulgaria, both European Union member states, said they were beefing up frontier controls to prevent the migrants crossing illegally. Bulgaria said it was sending 1,000 extra troops to its border with Turkey.

Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle any more.

[Reuters]

Underfunded and at war, Afghanistan scrambles to contain coronavirus

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This week, Afghanistan confirmed its first case of coronavirus; at least 10 further cases are suspected, all traced to neighboring Iran. Afghanistan finds itself moving from preparing for an outbreak to containing one at the same time.

“We will need more of everything,” said Dr. Mohammed Khan, one of the head physicians at the Afghan-Japan Communicable Disease Hospital on the outskirts of Kabul, which has been designated the main treatment facility for coronavirus patients in the capital.

Khan’s lengthy list includes protective medical gear, machines to diagnose the virus, more ventilation machines – and training to keep staff safe. The intensive care unit has a few beds, and the 60-bed clinic has just been boosted to accommodate 100 patients. The World Health Organization and others have been helping the country get ready for the coronavirus since January, but there’s a funding gap of at least $3.5 million, the WHO said.

One clear sign of the shortfalls: Khan’s hospital, Kabul’s main treatment center for coronavirus patients, cannot yet diagnose the disease. The country’s only three devices capable of diagnosing the coronavirus disease from test kits are located in a separate laboratory in Kabul. This is where samples from other provinces are being sent for diagnosis; each test takes between four to six hours.

It’s not an ideal scenario for a country separated by vast distances and often-inaccessible conflict areas. For now, the hallways at Khan’s hospital are empty. But there’s a nervous undertone when staff here speak of what may come. “Of course it’s scary,” said Ahmedi. “There’s been a lot of fear-mongering and the health system in our country is largely underfunded.”

Afghanistan’s health system is a casualty of its decades-long conflict, and local and international aid groups are often relied on to fill the gaps in care. The Global Health Security Index, an analysis of countries’ epidemic preparedness published last year, lists Afghanistan as one of the world’s least prepared countries.

[The New Humanitarian]

Idlib schools and hospital hit by airstrikes

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At least 21 civilians, including nine children and three teachers, were killed when 10 schools and a hospital were hit by “airstrikes and ground attacks” in Idlib province in northwestern Syria on Tuesday, said the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations said in a statement.

Save the Children and its partner Hurras Network confirmed some schools were in class, some had broken up for the day and some were being used as shelters. According to Hurras Network, this is the highest number of schools hit by attacks in Idlib in a single day since at least the start of 2019. Twenty-two schools have now been hit since the start of 2020 – almost half of them today.

Bill Chambers, President and CEO of Save the Children said: “Schools must be safe havens for children, even in a conflict zone. Today’s attacks are another sign that fighting in North West Syria has reached catastrophic levels of violence against children and civilians which go far beyond what is acceptable in conflict. Vast numbers of families have been forced from their homes many times in search of some semblance of safety and stability. And still they face daily and nightly terror as bombs rain down. Nowhere is safe, not even school.”

The United Nations launched a revised response plan for Northwest Syria with a funding requirement of US$336 million to help 800,000 newly displaced people over the next six months.

[CNN/Relief Web]

The window of opportunity to contain the international spread of coronavirus

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The World Health Organization has warned that the window of opportunity to contain the international spread of the new coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 2,600 people was closing, as the virus has spread to some 26 countries with a large cluster in South Korea and recent outbreaks in Iran, Lebanon and Italy.

“If we do well, we can avert any serious crisis, but if we squander the opportunity then we will have a serious problem on our hands,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

The United States currently has 13 cases of people diagnosed with the virus within the country and 21 cases among Americans repatriated on evacuation flights from Wuhan, China, and from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, CDC said. Of 329 Americans evacuated from the cruise ship, 18 tested positive for the virus.

The United States has yet to see community spread of the virus that emerged in central China in late December. Nevertheless, U.S. health officials said they are preparing for the possibility of the spread of the new coronavirus through U.S. communities that would force closures of schools and businesses.

Nancy Messonnier, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told reporters if the virus begins to spread through U.S. communities, health authorities want to be ready to adopt school and business closures like those undertaken in Asian countries to contain the disease.

The CDC is taking steps to ensure frontline U.S. healthcare workers have supplies they need, she added, by working with businesses, hospitals, pharmacies and provisions manufacturers and distributors on what they can do to get ready.

[Reuters]

Companies explore giving humanitarian assistance to Iran

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U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said on Thursday the United States was in talks with at least two more companies that would like to send food and medicine to Iran through the Swiss humanitarian channel.

Hook told reporters there was a lot of interest in the Swiss network, intended to supply goods to struggling sectors of Iran’s population without tripping over U.S. sanctions.

Food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are exempt from the sanctions that Washington reimposed on Tehran after President Donald Trump walked away from a 2015 international deal over Iran’s nuclear program. But the U.S. measures targeting everything from oil sales to shipping and financial activities have deterred several foreign banks from doing business with the Islamic Republic — including humanitarian deals.

The Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) seeks to ensure that Swiss-based exporters and trading companies in the food, pharmaceutical and medical sectors have a secure payment channel with a Swiss bank, through which payments for their exports to Iran are guaranteed.

[Reuters]

UN official calls Syrian refugee crisis “cruel beyond belief”

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The United Nations’ human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, on Tuesday called the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria “cruel beyond belief.”

Since December, 900,000 civilians have been forced to flee Syrian and Russian bombs in the northwest. Most are women and children.

This is a war that never ends. Nine years of terror, and in Idlib, where there are more than three million people crammed into Syria’s last major rebel stronghold, they still live powerlessly and impotently as their own government bombs them out of their homes.

The regime’s latest offensive, which is backed by its ally Russia, has forced hundreds of thousands of them to flee for their lives and left people homeless in the middle of a bitter winter.

“I’m begging for a place to shelter my kids,” Fared Alhor told CBS News. “The bombs didn’t kill them, and I don’t want them to die of the cold.”

The children of Idlib have grown up in a time of bloodshed and don’t know what it means to feel safe. One video apparently shows a father trying to protect his 3-year-old daughter from the reality of war. She thinks the bombs and mortars are part of a game.

[CBS]

Desert locust plague in Horn of Africa

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Locusts are the world’s oldest and most destructive migratory pest. 

And today, the locust infestation in Kenya is the worst in 70 years. Somalia and Ethiopia are experiencing their worst outbreaks in 25 years, putting crop production, food security and millions of lives at risk. Swarms crossed into Uganda overnight, and Tanzania and South Sudan are now “on the watch list”, the UN’s top humanitarian official reported. 

An average swarm, which contains up to 40 million insects, can travel up to 150 km in a single day and can devour enough food to feed 34 million people within that time. 

Somalia and Sudan faced a famine threat in 2017, and communities have also weathered poor rains, drought, and floods in the past two years. 

The current infestation is threatening food security in Kenya and other African countries, according to the country’s UN Ambassador, Lazarus O. Amayo. “It is also a challenge for pasture, especially our communities that keep livestock,” he added. 

“Without rapid action, we will be facing a rapidly-expanding humanitarian crisis. The Desert Locust swarms are growing exponentially”, FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu warned in a video message.   More on the subject

[UN News]

Freezing weather compounds crisis for displaced in Syria

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A military offensive on an opposition-controlled region of northwestern Syria has created one of the worst catastrophes for civilians in the country’s long-running war, and a bitter winter has compounded the pain.

The weather has contributed to at least 10 deaths, including four who suffered hypothermia, a family of four that died of suffocation in their tent and two who burned to death when their tent caught fire, according to Mohammed Hallaj, a coordinator for the area’s Response Coordination Group.

“The temperatures was no less than -8 or -9 degrees Celsius (15 degrees Fahrenheit) and this is rare in Syria,” a survivor said, speaking to The Associated Press from the Idlib town of Binnish.

The government’s Russian-backed assault on Idlib, the Syrian opposition’s last stronghold, has uprooted more than 830,000 people since Dec. 1, most of them fleeing toward safer areas near the border with Turkey, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. “Humanitarian needs are increasing exponentially,” Dujarric said. “The ongoing emergency compounds the already dire humanitarian situation for people in the northwest, who have been made vulnerable by years of crisis, violence, economic downturn and, of course, multiple displacements,” Dujarric said.

Around half the territory’s population had already been displaced from other parts of Syria, so formal camps are full.

“It’s cold, it’s snowing and our life is terrible, we can’t take this cold and neither can the kids,” said a woman, who identified herself by her nickname Um Muhammad, who recently fled and was staying at a tent camp near the Turkish border.

[Associated Press]

Mexican migrants sent record $36B in remittances in 2019

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Migrant workers sent a record amount of remittances to their home countries in 2019. 

Mexico’s Central Bank reported that Mexican migrants working overseas sent home a record-high $36 billion in remittances in 2019, a 7 percent increase from 2018.

States with the largest population of Mexican-born immigrants rank highest in remittance transfers. The states with the highest transfers include California ($8.84 billion), Texas ($4.3 billion), Illinois ($1.4 billion), New York ($1.8 billion), Florida ($1.15 billion), and Georgia ($1.0 billion).

Comparatively, Mexico receives about $25 billion from foreign tourism, and $22.4 billion in annual petroleum exports.

Remittance flows could remain high with Mexico’s economy projected to remain sluggish. The International Monetary Fund predicts meager economic growth for Mexico at 1 percent in 2020.

Across the wider Latin America region, remittances grew by 4.7 percent in 2019, according to a study published by Manuel Orozco, director of the Migration, Remittances, and Development Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. Mass protests and civil unrest across Central and Latin America were a primary factor in the rise of remittances.

[Fox News]

Syrians fleeing government offensive ‘humanitarian catastrophe’

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Nearly 600,000 Syrians are surging toward the Turkish border to escape unexpectedly swift Syrian government advances into the country’s last opposition-held enclave, amid warnings that the exodus could mushroom into the worst humanitarian crisis of the nearly nine-year war.

More than 200,000 people have fled their homes in the past week alone, according to U.N. figures. They are streaming north along clogged roads toward the relative safety of the Turkish border, as Syrian troops, backed by Russian airstrikes, slice through opposition-held towns and villages in the northwestern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.

They have joined more than 300,000 people displaced from ­areas farther south since the launch of a government offensive in early December, bringing to 586,000 the number of people now on the move in a shrinking pocket of territory hugging the Turkish border.

More than half are children, most of the rest are women, and they are sleeping on roadsides or camping under trees in muddy fields because there is no accommodation to be had, the United Nations says. The existing camps are full, local homes have taken in all the people they can hold, and there is an acute shortage of tents to provide shelter from harsh winter temperatures, which are projected to drop to 19 degrees Fahrenheit over the weekend.

[The Washington Post]

Refugee resettlement flattens off

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For refugees who can’t go home, starting over in a new country is a life-changing opportunity – for generations. But the chances of that, even for the most deserving cases, are less than one in 20, according to new data from the UN.

The UN refugee agency reported on Wednesday that 63,696 refugees were offered resettlement in 2019, slightly more than in 2018. Those were placed from an estimated 1.4 million potential cases – just 4.5 percent.

Every year, UN refugee case-workers prepare files of candidates eligible for “resettlement” – those who are most vulnerable in the country they have taken asylum in, or who face special threats back home. Once accepted by the receiving country, resettlement usually means not just an air ticket and accommodation, but a clear path to permanent residency and citizenship.

The United States under the Trump administration slashed the number of permanent places it offers refugees. Unfortunately, other countries have not filled the gap.

While the US quota for permanent resettlement has been slashed, the United States still took one third of the 63,696 refugees resettled in 2019.

The total number of available places has dropped almost half from a peak of over 120,000 in 2016, due largely to a change in the US quota.

[The New Humanitarian]

Unprecedented locust invasion in Africa and Asia

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Locust swarms of biblical proportions are threatening crops across a wide swath of Africa and southwest Asia—spurring alarm among top international officials.

A major concern is famine. The United Nations is warning that mass swarms of desert locusts are endangering food supplies in eastern Africa. Officials in Rome noted the situation has a high potential to devolve into a full-blown crisis. Dominique Burgeon, an emergency services director at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, said the locust infestation in Africa is now FAO’s top priority.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres took to Twitter in an effort to draw global attention to the worsening outbreak. The swarms are now threatening farms in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia but are expected to spread to neighboring countries and India soon.

The U.N. chief pinned blame for the crisis squarely on global warming. Cyclones that struck the driest parts of the Arabian Peninsula last year triggered the current crisis, creating ideal conditions for the desert locust species to multiply. “Desert locusts are extremely dangerous,” Guterres wrote. “Triggered by the climate crisis, the outbreak is making the dire food security situation in East Africa even worse.”

The desert locust is a particularly ravenous species that can eat its own weight in food every day. Swarms easily consume entire fields and form mass clouds large enough to block out the sun. They’re quick, too, moving up to 150 kilometers in a day. More breeding cycles are expected. The swarms increase in size twenty-fold with each successive generation and could reach India by June.

“It’s certainly the most dangerous migratory pest in the world, desert locust,” said Keith Cressman, FAO’s senior agriculture officer. “A swarm the size of Rome can eat enough food in one day as everybody in Kenya.” Cressman said FAO is now classifying the situation as “an upsurge, which is one step before a full plague.”

[Scientific American]

UN health agency highlights ‘critical health threats’ facing Idlib civilians

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Fighting in Idlib, the last area in Syria under opposition-control, has intensified in recent weeks. Since December 1, nearly 520,000 Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, many for the second time.

On average, WHO and its partners reach 800,000 in northwest Syria every month – but the agency said the situation on the ground is changing by the hour. This has further limited access to basic healthcare, an increasing lack of basic medicine, and less protection against communicable diseases as a fragile immunization network, put in place by WHO and partners, is now disrupted. An estimated 2.9 million people in Syria’s northwest are in need of healthcare.

A senior official said it was “striking” that in the case of Idlib, where Syrian Government forces plus their allies Russia and others are battling the last remaining rebel fighters, “the enormous humanitarian needs are being largely ignored by the international media and governments.

“Northwest Syria represents one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises, where civilians are suffering on an extraordinary level.  Humanitarian agencies can only do so much. What we need is a renewed international commitment to bring an end to this protracted and devastating crisis”, he said.

[UN News]

Turkey and Syria clash as Idlib violence escalates

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Shelling by Syrian government forces early Monday killed five Turkish soldiers in Syria’s northwest Idlib province, according to Turkey’s Defense Ministry, which said its forces carried out retaliatory strikes on Syrian military positions.

The violent escalation between Turkey and Syria, which are neighbors but bitter adversaries, amounted to some of the most serious clashes between the two governments in years.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are pursuing a military offensive in Idlib, a province in northwestern Syria that hosts more than 3 million people, including residents and civilians displaced from other parts of the country. The Syrian offensive has killed hundreds of civilians and caused an exodus of displaced people from towns caught up in the fighting, according to humanitarian aid groups.

The latest violence appeared certain to further test Turkey’s complicated partnership with Russia. The relationship rests on strengthening commercial and military ties but has recently been strained as the two governments have backed opposing sides in conflicts throughout the Middle East, including in Syria and Libya. Russia is also Assad’s most important military ally and has backed Syria’s Idlib offensive as part of Moscow’s overarching goal of restoring all of Syria’s territory to government control.

[The Washington Post]

MacKenzie Bezos sells $400M in stock after pledge to give away billions

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, MacKenzie Bezos, has divested herself of about $400 million worth of the Amazon stock she received as part of the couple’s divorce settlement — potentially providing the wherewithal for the charitable activities she’s planning.

There’s no indication what the proceeds were used for, but shortly after the divorce was announced, MacKenzie Bezos said she signed the Giving Pledge, which commits her to giving half her fortune to philanthropic causes.

[Yahoo News]

Africa’s under-reported humanitarian crises

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In Madagascar, three-quarters of the country’s population is living on less than $3 per day. Recent drought has meant people have resorted to eating cassava leaves and the fruits from cactuses that grow locally.

The Suffering in Silence report released on Tuesday by aid agency CARE found the severe drought in Madagascar was the least-reported major humanitarian crisis of 2019, with the United Nations estimating a global humanitarian funding gap of $28.8 billion, showing a correlation between under-reported crises in Africa and a lack of humanitarian funding.

The report found nine of the 10 most under-reported humanitarian crises are located in Africa, many of which have been caused or worsened by climate change.

The brutal conflict in the Central African Republic is the second-least reported crises on the list, followed by climate change issues causing drought in Zambia.  Other crises in Burundi, Lake Chad Basin, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have all been reoccurring more than once over the last four years of CARE‘s reports.

Nairobian writer and award-winning political cartoonist Patrick Gathara believes the under-reporting of Africa in Western media in general is an important but complex issue. Paying attention to crises in Africa can often be about charity rather than justice, Gathara believes, which he said also raises issues with the media’s portrayal of the region. “There is little money to be made in reminding Western audiences that their privileged lifestyles are underwritten by the suffering in other parts of the world,” he told the ABC.

[ABC.net.au]

The spread of the coronavirus beyond China

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Coronavirus cases have spread to at least a dozen countries around the world, now confirmed on 4 continents: Asia, North America, Europe and Australia.

A leading Hong Kong researcher, Gabriel Leung, warned on Monday that the outbreak “may be about to become a global epidemic”, as he released new unofficial estimates of between 12,000 and 44,000 current infections in Wuhan.

While China has imposed unprecedented city-wide quarantines and travel restrictions in hotspot areas, including Wuhan, the city’s mayor on Monday said five million people had likely left the city before the quarantines were in place.

Thailand’s health ministry reported eight cases as of Monday – the most of any jurisdiction outside mainland China.

Vietnam is investigating if one of its confirmed cases became sick after a family member returned from Wuhan. This would be the first known case of human-to-human transmission outside China, the World Health Organization says. The other global cases so far are among people who had traveled to China.

Taiwan announced moves that would essentially shut its borders to many mainland Chinese. North Korea has also reportedly closed its borders to foreign tourists, the vast majority of whom come through agencies based in China.

The United Kingdom and the United States have stepped up health screenings at major airports.

But there’s disagreement among public health professionals about whether screenings and border shutdowns are effective – or even counterproductive. “Evidence shows that temperature screening to detect potential suspect cases at entry may miss travelers incubating the disease or travelers concealing fever during travel,” the WHO said in its 24 January advisory for containing the outbreak.

A study published in The Lancet medical journal also on 24 January suggested the virus can spread through patients who aren’t showing symptoms.

[The New Humanitarian]

Chinese leadership calls situation grave as China scrambles to contain virus

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China’s leader Xi Jinping called the accelerating spread of a new virus a grave situation, as cities from the outbreak’s epicenter in central China to Hong Kong scrambled to stop the spread of an illness — coronavirus — that has infected more than 2,800 people and killed more than 80.

Travel agencies have also been told to halt all group tours.

The city of Wuhan, where the outbreak started and its 11 million residents are already on lockdown, banned most vehicle including private cars in downtown areas, state media reported. Only authorized vehicles to carry supplies and for other needs would be permitted after that, the reports said.

The U.S. government is said to be arranging a flight to the U.S. to evacuate Americans from Wuhan.

[AP]

Sanctions on Iran are helping fuel a new refugee crisis – in Turkey

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Decades ago, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted thousands of people to flee to neighboring Iran.

Now, many of these refugees are once again seeking a new home in a new land –Turkey– desperate to escape the dire economic conditions fueled by U.S. sanctions on Tehran.

Tens of thousands made the dangerous, cross-border trek last year into Turkey, a U.S. ally that is already heaving under the burden of refugees fleeing unrest on its borders. Turkish authorities are grappling with nearly 4 million refugees.

[Washington Post]

America has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and Asia since 2001

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A report from the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University concludes that the United States has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and Asia since 2001, and more than 801,000 people have died as a direct result of fighting.

The study also finds that:

  • In addition to 801,000 people who have died due to direct war violence, indirectly this number multiplies several times
  • Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting
  • 21 million — the number of war refugees and displaced persons
  • The US government is conducting counterterror activities in 80 countries
  • The wars have been accompanied by violations of human rights and civil liberties, in the US and abroad

Aid to vulnerable Iraqis may come to a complete halt

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The UN’s humanitarian chief in Iraq, Marta Ruedas, said aid to vulnerable people in Iraq risks being completely blocked within weeks, as a result of the suspension of government documents allowing humanitarians to carry out critical missions.

On Thursday Ms. Ruedas declared that “our operations are at risk. Without predictable, continual access authorization, humanitarian aid is in danger of rotting in warehouses, putting lives in jeopardy and wasting badly-needed donor funds”.

Prior to November 2019, humanitarian organizations based in Iraq, including the UN and its NGO partners, were granted monthly letters, allowing them to pass through checkpoints unhindered. As of January 2020, almost all of these letters had expired and, with no alternative measures in place, the flow of aid deliveries in Iraq had slowed considerably.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) says that, unless partners are allowed to immediately resume full, unimpeded movement of their personnel and supplies, humanitarian operations in Iraq “may come to a complete halt within a matter of weeks”, leading to the possibility of hundreds of thousands of people in conflict-affected areas going without food, medicine and materials to get them through the coldest months of the year.

[UN News]

Climate change: Last decade confirmed as warmest on record

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The 10 years to the end of 2019 have been confirmed as the warmest decade on record by three global agencies.

According to NASA, NOAA and the UK Met Office, last year was the second warmest in a record dating back to 1850. The Met Office says that 2020 is likely to continue this warming trend.

The past five years were the hottest in the 170-year series, with the average of each one more than 1C warmer than pre-industrial. The Met Office says that 2019 was 1.05C above the average for the period from 1850-1900.

2016 remains the warmest year on record, when temperatures were boosted by the El Niño weather phenomenon.

Last year saw two major heat waves hit Europe in June and July, with a new national record of 46C set in France on 28 June. New records were also set in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and in the UK at 38.7C.  In Australia, the mean summer temperature was the highest on record by almost a degree.

“Each decade from the 1980s has been successively warmer than all the decades that came before. 2019 concludes the warmest ‘cardinal’ decade (those spanning years ending 0-9) in records that stretch back to the mid-19th century,” said Dr Colin Morice, from the Met Office Hadley Centre.

Researchers say carbon emissions from human activities are the main cause of the sustained temperature rise seen in recent years.

[BBC]

Lava gushes from volcano near Manila

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Red-hot lava spewed from a volcano near the Philippine capital of Manila on Monday as tens of thousands of people fled through heavy ash and frightening tremors, and authorities made plans to evacuate hundreds of thousands more for fear of a bigger eruption.

Clouds of ash from the Taal volcano reached Manila, 65 kilometers (40 miles) to the north, on Sunday, forcing the shutdown of the country’s main airport, with more than 500 flights canceled. The airport partially reopened Monday after the ashfall eased.

[AP]

EU’s Green Deal sets out trillion euro plan to avert ‘climate crash’

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EU budget chief Johannes Hahn said the bloc needs to invest dedicated funds to avert a “climate crash” as Brussels detailed how it planned to pay for a trillion euro push to cut net C02 emissions to zero by 2050 and protect member countries dependent on coal. The financial challenge for Europe is huge: Halving emissions by 2030 would require 260 billion euros of investment a year.

Hahn unveiled details using public and private money for this flagship project, the European Green Deal: Of the 1 trillion euros of the EU’s 10-year investment plan, roughly half is to come from the EU long-term budget. This will trigger more than 100 billion in co-financing from governments. Some 300 billion would come from private sources and another 100 from the EU’s Just Transition Fund.

All EU countries except Poland agreed last month they should transform their economies over the next 30 years to not emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb, so as to limit global warming and resulting climate changes. The deal came amid overwhelming support from Europeans who see irreversible climate change as the biggest challenge they are facing, more so than terrorism, access to healthcare or unemployment.

“I’m doing this in my grandson’s future interest,” Hahn, 62, said about his work on financing the EU’s shift to a green economy.

The Fund is to “benefit territories with high employment in coal, lignite, oil shale and peat production, as well as territories with carbon-intensive industries which will be either discontinued or severely impacted by the transition”, the Commission proposal said. The money will go to areas producing the most CO2 industrial emissions, where job losses and the need for teaching new skills and will take into account the overall wealth of the country so that a region in need of transition in the EU’s poorest Romania would get more money than a comparable region in Germany.

[Reuters]

Fires in Australia serve as wake-up call to climate crisis

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A new reality is taking place for Australians as catastrophic bushfires upend the lives of millions. Projections from climate scientists are now becoming the harsh reality and should serve as a wake-up call to other countries around the world to take action. 

Up to now, the climate crisis has been felt primarily by the most vulnerable, predominantly living in the Global South, while richer countries … have largely continued fueling the crisis. The impacts are now hitting the Global North, and the bushfires in Australia are just a glimpse of the future that the entire world will face if climate inaction continues.

International aid agency CARE calls on governments around the world to take more seriously their international responsibilities and increase efforts to fight the global climate crisis.

Louise Gray, Interim Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officer, CARE Australia, stated: “Our country is in flames. Drought and increased temperatures have contributed to catastrophic bushfire conditions. The scientific evidence is indisputable – there is a link between the tragedy we are now experiencing and climate change. If a country like Australia can experience this scale of disaster, what risks are faced in countries with less capacity to respond and recover? We must take collective responsibility and action.”

“What starts as a decade on fire must become the decade of decisive and rapid climate action. Anything less than halving global CO2 emissions by 2030 may lead to a runaway climate crisis. The suffering of the Australian people and environment is a stark reminder for all signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change that achieving its goals is a matter of survival and justice,” says Sven Harmeling, CARE’s Global Policy Lead on Climate Change and Resilience.

[CARE]

Yemen heads list of countries facing worst humanitarian disasters in 2020

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Yemen has topped an annual watchlist of countries most likely to face humanitarian catastrophe in 2020, for the second year running.

Continued fighting, economic collapse and weak governance mean that more than 24 million Yemenis – about 80% of the population – will be in need of humanitarian assistance this year, according to analysis by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which found that another five years of conflict could cost $29 billion.

Yemen has been facing a tragic and complex political military crisis since uprisings broke out in 2011, with grave implications for the country’s future and the whole region. The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen was launched in 2015, in response to calls from the pro-Saudi president of Yemen for military support after he was ousted by the Houthi movement due to economic and political grievances, and fled to Saudi Arabia.

[The Guardian/Wikipedia]

Syrian civilians face ‘daily nightmare’ in Idlib

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Following a sharp escalation of hostilities in southern Idlib, “at least 300,000 civilians have fled their homes” since mid-December, the UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria crisis said on Tuesday, voicing concern for their well-being.

“I am alarmed at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Idlib, northwest Syria, where over three million civilians remain trapped in a war zone – the vast majority of them women and children”, Mark Cutts said.

The downward spiraling situation is occurring in bitter winter temperatures that pose further risks to those who fled with little more than the clothes on their backs.  Moreover, many are currently living in tents and makeshift shelters, exposed to the elements in inhospitable places. 

This latest wave of displacement “compounds an already dire situation in Idlib – a densely populated governorate already hosting displaced people from all over Syria”, informed the official from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“Every day we receive more disturbing reports of families caught up in the violence, seeking refuge and access to essential services in overcrowded camps and urban areas”, he continued, adding that many are sheltering in schools, mosques and other public buildings. In tandem, critical shortages of food, shelter, health and other basic survival services are being reported across Idleb. 

And humanitarian organizations are struggling to cope with the increased needs. According to Mr. Cutts, “at least 13 health facilities in Idlib have recently been forced to suspend their operations due to the security situation”, exacerbating the suffering of the local population and heightening levels of vulnerability. 

“This is but one example of the daily nightmare being faced by the civilian population of Idleb”, Mr. Cutts spelled out. “Airstrikes and shelling are now taking place in many towns and villages on a near daily basis”, he lamented.

[UN News]

Syrian civilians see no future in Idlib

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With nearly 300,000 people fleeing bombing and fighting in and around Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province since mid-December, civilians in the area told The New Humanitarian they had taken everything they own with them. Fearing the rebels will be unable or unwilling to resist the approaching forces, some said they had even torched their homes after emptying them, to deny President Bashar al-Assad’s fighters any extra benefits of taking over the territory.

This latest wave of displacement has been especially difficult. It has coincided with heavy winter rains that have drenched the already overcrowded camps that dot Idlib.

Abu Ghadir – a father of six displaced several times and now staying in the village of al-Bira in northern Idlib – saw no future for himself or the other three million people who find themselves increasingly trapped in Syria’s northwest. “This is our end; the end for Idlib and its people,” he said.

Accompanied by heavy aerial bombing, the Syrian army and Russian forces have been accelerating a months-long ground offensive on Idlib. The only adjacent border – with Turkey – is closed, and while more and more people are trying to smuggle themselves across it, others, particularly minors, are joining rebel ranks to fight what they see as a struggle for existence.

Tahrir al-Sham is listed as a terrorist organization in the United States, UK, Canada, and Turkey. Thus concerns about resources reaching the extremist rebels severely limit available social services and emergency aid to the region. Videos produced by a recruitment and fundraising campaign organized by clerics working for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham show children rushing the stage as preachers rouse locals to join the ranks of the “holy warriors”.

Minors are currently training in several locations in Idlib, according to an official with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.  The official said that training camps were underground, due to fear of coalition airstrikes. He said there were special training camps for “cubs”, meaning youth or teenage boys, but would not provide additional details. Another official with the group confirmed that children as young as 17 can join and undergo training.

There are various international prohibitions against the use of soldiers under 18. The International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute defines “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities” as a war crime. 

[The New Humanitarian]

Flash floods leave dozens dead and missing in Indonesia’s capital

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Indonesian rescuers mounted a desperate search Friday for those missing after flash floods and landslides sparked by torrential rains killed at least 43 people across the Jakarta region. Health authorities were racing to prevent disease outbreaks.

Record rains which started on New Year’s Eve pounded the capital and left swathes of the megalopolis, home to some 30 million, under water and thousands homeless. Around 192,000 residents have been evacuated to temporary shelters, according to authorities, with many unable to return to waterlogged homes in neighborhoods turned into wastelands of debris and overturned cars. In hard-hit Bekasi, on the outskirts of the city, swampy streets were littered with debris and crushed cars lying on top of each other — with waterline marks reaching as high as buildings’ second floors. Using inflatable boats to evacuate residents trapped in their homes, including children and seniors, rescuers said they were targeting the hardest-hit areas of the city.

Indonesia’s health ministry said it deployed some 11,000 health workers and soldiers to distribute medicine, disinfectant hygiene kits and food in a bid to stave off outbreaks of Hepatitis A, mosquito-borne Dengue fever and other illnesses, including infections linked to contact with dead animals.

This week’s disaster marked Jakarta’s worst flooding since 2013 when dozens were killed after the city was inundated by monsoon rains.

[CBS]

Thousands flee fires in Australia, navy helps evacuate the stranded

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Tens of thousands of holiday makers fled seaside towns on Australia’s east coast on Thursday as bushfires approached, and military ships and helicopters began rescuing thousands more trapped by the blazes.

Fueled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, threatening several towns.

“It is hell on earth. It is the worst anybody’s ever seen,” Michelle Roberts said by telephone from the Croajingolong Cafe she owns in Mallacoota, a southeastern coastal town where 4,000 residents and visitors have been stranded on the beach since Monday night.

Authorities urged a mass exodus from several towns on the southeast coast, an area popular with tourists during the summer holiday season, warning that extreme heat forecast for the weekend will further stoke the fires. A navy ship, The HMAS Choules, is expected to make two or three voyages over the coming days, state authorities said. Elsewhere, long queues formed outside supermarkets and petrol stations as residents and tourists sought supplies to either bunker down or escape the fires, emptying shelves of staples like bread and milk. More than 50,000 people were without power and some towns had no access to drinking water.

“The priority today is fighting fires and evacuating, getting people to safety,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Sydney. “There are parts of both Victoria and New South Wales which have been completely devastated, with a loss of power and communications.”

Temperatures are forecast to soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) along the south coast, bringing the prospect of renewed firefronts to add to the around 200 current blazes.

[Reuters]

What will 2020 bring?

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20/20 vision means one can see clearly without lenses.

Let us hope for the same sort of clear perspective in this country, and around the world, in this New Year.

And to borrow from the words of Rev. Stephen Harding, let us pray that:
– the dignity of every human being will be respected;
– those in want will have their needs met.
– our elected officials will put the greater good of the nation/state before their own personal interest;
– our current level of hyper-partisanship and rhetoric will be replaced by civility and understanding; that while there will be disagreement, everyone will work to advance the common good;
– relations between the nations will improve and that trust will be restored;
– each person on this earth will do her/his/their part to reduce and repair humanity’s impact on our planet.

Sub-Saharan Africa faces grave hunger challenges in 2020

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At the dawn of the next decade, a new World Food Programme (WFP) forecast of global hunger hotspots has revealed that escalating hunger will challenge sub-Saharan Africa in the first half of 2020.

According to the WFP 2020 Global Hotspots Report, millions of people in Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central Sahel region will require life-saving food assistance in the coming months – the sheer scale and complexity of which will stretch the UN food relief agency’s capacity to the limit.

WFP Executive Director David Beasley spelled out: “WFP is fighting big and complex humanitarian battles on several fronts at the start of 2020. In some countries, we are seeing conflict and instability combine with climate extremes to force people from their homes, farms and places of work”, he elaborated. “In others, climate shocks are occurring alongside economic collapse and leaving millions on the brink of destitution and hunger.”

Against the backdrop of an imploding economy and when Zimbabwe is entering the peak of its lean season and food is at its most scarce, WFP observed that the country has more hungry people now than it has had over the past decade. WFP is planning assistance for some four million people in Zimbabwe.

“Last year, WFP was called upon to bring urgent large-scale relief to Yemen, Mozambique after Cyclone Idai, Burkina Faso and many other crises to avert famine,” said Margot Van Der Velden, WFP Director of Emergencies. “But the world is an unforgiving place and as we turn the page into 2020, WFP is confronting new, monumental humanitarian challenges that we need to address with real urgency.”

[UN News]

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s wealth doubles in a decade despite generous giving

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Bill Gates and Warren Buffett may have pledged to give most of their wealth away to charity but the billionaire philanthropists appear to be engaged in a losing battle with that as latest figures show their wealth over the last decade has in fact doubled.

In August 2010, Gates and Buffett spearheaded a movement of the U.S.’ richest people to promise to give away most of their wealth to address problems in society. Known as the Giving Pledge, it now includes 200 people around the world with the aim of setting a “new standard of generosity among the ultra-wealthy.”

But The Bloomberg Billionaires Index released on Friday shows that the Microsoft co-founder can’t outrun the growth of his fortune, which is worth $22.7 billion more than it was last year, putting his total net worth at $113 billion. (Back in 2010, he was listed as having a net worth of $53 billion.)

Meanwhile, Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, according to the latest Bloomberg list, is worth $89 billion. (In 2010, he was listed as having a net worth of $47 billion.)

That the billionaires have been generous is indisputable. According to one estimate by Vox, published in April 2019, the founder of Microsoft had given away more than $45 billion through The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, mostly to causes working to combat global poverty.

Buffett had made charitable contributions of $27.54 billion in the 10 years to 2017, according to USA Today.

[Newsweek]

More than 235,000 people fled their homes in northwest Syria in the past two weeks

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Nearly a quarter of a million people in northwest Syria have been displaced over the past two weeks due to an escalation of violence in Idlib province, the country’s last major opposition bastion, the United Nations has announced.

“As a result of hostilities, tens of thousands of families fled their homes in an effort to reach safety,” the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Thursday. “Between 12 and 25 December, more than 235,000 people have been displaced in northwest Syria.”

The Syrian army, with support from Russian air power, has stepped up its attacks on the northwest province of Idlib, home to more than 3 million Syrians. The Syrian government has said that it is targeting terrorists in Idlib. But if the violence continues, even more civilians could be displaced in the coming weeks, international aid organizations have warned.

The mass displacement over the last two weeks has led to people being housed in mosques, garages, wedding halls, UNOCHA said. But it warned that “the capacity to absorb people in need may surpass available places” and their displacement in the height of winter “is further exacerbating” the humanitarian situation.

“People are leaving forcibly, you look at them and they look almost dead, they don’t know where to go,” Laith Al Abdullah, a White Helmets volunteer, told CNN in a phone call. “It is crowded now to the point where people are sleeping on the streets and under trees … People are terrified by the winter, we are getting a polar cold storm in few days, kids and women won’t be able to stand it,” he said.

[CNN]

Foot note from Refugee Aid team: Between 12 and 25 December, more than 235,000 people were displaced in northwest Syria, and many of them have fled to the border area where we work. We have been sending more and more clothing, blankets, and jackets to these refugees fleeing war. We do appreciate your prayers for continued safety and supply for those suffering. The pictures people are sending are horrific.

Uptick in violence and displacement in Syria

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In a statement issued this week, the UN chief expressed alarm over the scale of the military operation and reported attacks on evacuation routes as civilians try to flee north to safety. The military escalation has yielded dozens of civilian casualties and displaced 80,000 citizens, including 30,000 in the last week alone.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday that more than 500 children were injured or killed in the first nine months of this year, and at least 65 have been killed or injured in December alone. “Children are bearing the brunt” of the intensifying violence, said Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Since December 11, escalating fighting has displaced more than 130,000 people, including over 60,000 children, from southern Idlib, northern Hama and western Aleppo, with many families sleeping out in the open. And making matters even worse, as temperatures drop – some nights falling to zero and below – fuel shortages have emerged as a key challenge, compounded by heavy rains that increase protection, health and other risks.

Nine years into the war, children in Syria continue to experience unspeakable violence, trauma and distress. And those living in camps are exhausted from multiple displacements and being exposed to the cold, illness and, in extreme cases, death.

Echoing the UN chief’s sentiment, UNICEF called on all parties to the conflict to “cease hostilities and put children first once and for all.”

[UN News]

Christmas celebrates the birth of a refugee

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Jesus was born in a dirty, stank manger because there was no room in the inn. Shortly after, Joseph and Mary are forced to flee to Egypt with their young child. In other words, our scriptures say Jesus came to us as a refugee.

As a homeless rabbi he said, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus was homeless.

After a short 33 years, he is arrested and tortured, charged with all sorts of things, and eventually executed by the state, a victim of state-sanctioned murder dying on a cross with a condemned man on his left and another on his right. From the cradle to the grave, Jesus felt the pain of the human condition.

The world we live in, like the world Christ lived in, is ravaged with violence and poverty. Being a Christian in the current era should mean preaching good news to the poor … The Christmas story teaches that God is with us — if we are with the poor.

That is what Christmas should be … but it is easy to forget the story. Read more

Takeaways from the first Global Refugee Forum

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3,000 representatives of governments, the development and aid sectors, and civil society organizations gathered in Geneva this past week for the invitation-only Global Refugee Forum attempting to address what “burden-sharing and responsibility-sharing” look like when it comes to the needs of more than 25 million refugees and their host communities around the world. This is a tall order at a time when the numbers of displaced are swelling worldwide, fatigue and outright rejection among some donors and host countries is increasing, and some wealthy countries – notably the United States – are dramatically scaling back resettlement and asylum programs.

“Sharing responsibly, the foundation of our modern system for protecting refugees, is being replaced in countries with more resources by pushing responsibility on those countries less able to cope, and so refugees are pushed aside too,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi noted in the opening session.

Steps taken in Geneva included pledges of about $3 billion from states, $250 million from the private sector – with companies promising some 15,000 jobs to refugees – and several billion dollars from development banks, officials said.

Non-monetary pledges ranged from increased resettlement spots to giving refugee groups more input in policy-making. At the request of the refugee network, several states — including Australia, Canada, and Denmark — committed to giving refugees a more participatory role in policy-making.

[The New Humanitarian]

Life for civilians in Syria ‘worse than when the year began’

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OCHA’s Assistant Secretary General Ursula Mueller painted an “alarming” picture of Syrian Government forces attacking areas controlled by non-State armed groups, as they in turn, escalated assaults against Government-controlled parts of southern Idleb and Aleppo.

“Civilians on both sides of the frontline suffer the consequences”, she lamented, adding that “medical personnel and facilities have also suffered”.

Since March 2011, Syria has been in the throes of a conflict that has caused untold suffering for women, men and children and forced more than half of the country to leave their homes.

Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations are continuing to do everything possible to assist the most vulnerable, including with food assistance to newly displaced households and health and emergency protection services.

Across the region, costs projected at $5.2 billion will be required to assist some 5.6 million Syrian refugees, more than 70 per cent of whom live in poverty.

[UN News]

The ‘Christian left’ in America

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Holding pictures of migrant children who have died in U.S. custody and forming a cross with their bodies on the floor of the Russell Senate Office Building, 70 Catholics were arrested in July for obstructing a public place, which is considered a misdemeanor. They are visibly joining the growing ranks of progressive Christians who oppose President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and federal agencies’ negligent, occasionally deadly treatment of immigrants on his orders.

American Christianity is most often associated with right-wing politics, who have conducted extremely visible campaigns to outlaw abortion, keep gay marriage illegal and encourage study of the Bible in schools.

But there’s always been progressive Christian activism in the United States. Black churches were central in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and black Christians have continued to engage in advocacy and civil disobedience around poverty, inequality and police violence. American pastors and parishioners protested state-sponsored injustices like slavery, segregation, the Vietnam War and mass deportation.

The primary reason Christian groups are now focusing on immigration, I’d argue, is simply that the notion of welcoming strangers and caring for the vulnerable are embedded in the Christian tradition. In the Biblical text Matthew 25, the “Son of Man” – a figure understood to be Jesus – blesses people who gave food to the hungry, cared for the sick and welcomed strangers. And in Leviticus 19:34, God commands: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you.” They point out that Jesus often criticized the oppression of foreigners, widows and orphans by those in authority.

Faith-based support for immigrants is not limited to Christian groups. Jewish and Muslim organizations have both provided humanitarian aid to Central American asylum seekers and protested a federal ban on travel from Muslim countries. And 40 Jewish leaders were arrested in New York City on Aug. 12 for protesting the Trump administration’s detention policies.

[The Conversation]

Afghanistan attacks spur fresh concerns over aid worker safety

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Dr. Tetsu Nakamura was driving through Jalalabad, a vibrant city in eastern Afghanistan, when gunmen opened fire on his vehicle last week, killing his driver and four bodyguards and fatally wounding him. The Japanese doctor’s killing – and that of an American UN employee in Kabul a week earlier – has rattled the aid sector in Afghanistan.

Some 10 million people in Afghanistan need aid; yet local and foreign humanitarians are themselves a target in a conflict now killing or injuring more than 10,000 civilians a year.

At least 24 aid workers were killed between January and November this year, according to the International NGO Safety Organisation, which advises humanitarian groups on security. Of the 56 aid worker deaths the group has counted this year in 13 hotspot countries, more than 40 percent were in Afghanistan. There were also 37 abductions and 42 aid workers injured.

Some aid groups have kept their headquarters far from Kabul in provinces believed to be safer. Humanitarian groups are often relied on to provide basic services in rural areas.

For foreign aid workers in the capital, Kabul, life is spent in compounds and armored vehicles. In some organizations, workers are not allowed to set foot outside.

As in most conflict zones, aid groups rely on principles of humanitarian neutrality and behind-the-scenes negotiations with armed groups to ensure access and safety. But it’s not always guaranteed. There are also multiple factions and different armed groups vying for control.

A Taliban commander with strong links to al-Qaeda who didn’t want to be named, told The New Humanitarian that relationships between militants and aid groups are often “just fine” on the ground. “The command to attack an NGO comes from much higher,” he said in an interview.

[The New Humanitarian]

Top UN Envoy hails ‘shift’ towards peace in Yemen

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Will there be a historic outcome from the talks which marked the first time in two years that the internationally-recognized Yemeni Government and Houthi opposition leaders had come to the negotiating table to talk face-to-face? The Stockholm Agreement resulted in a ceasefire in the rebel-held but contested port of Hudaydah, on the Red Sea, vital for the flow of food and humanitarian aid into Yemen.  

At the time, the World Food Programme (WFP) called it “key” to importing roughly 70 per cent of humanitarian needs. 

Martin Griffiths, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, stated just ahead of a closed-door Security Council meeting on Yemen in New York on Thursday:  “People’s lives have been saved, the humanitarian programme has been protected, and I think it also showed that the parties could actually agree on a different way out of a crisis.” 

However, he reported that negotiations are still ongoing over re-deployments to “de-militarize” Hudaydah, where pro-Government and Houthi forces have continued to largely observe the fragile ceasefire throughout the year. The Special Envoy also expressed grave disappointment over lack of progress on prisoner exchange, one of the key elements under the Agreement.  

The conflict in Yemen has generated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and has pushed the country to the edge of economic decline. Roughly 24 million people, or 80 per cent of the population, require assistance, according to the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) further reports that two million children are out of school, including nearly half a million who had dropped out since the fighting began in March 2015. 

These are reasons why peace is so desperately needed in Yemen, Mr. Griffiths told UN News. “If there is any argument in favor of the need for speed towards a political solution to this war, it is those people, those families, who daily suffer from the effects of conflict: families whose children haven’t been to school for five years; families who have struggled to get food on their plates on a daily basis”, he said.  

[UN News]

Namibia rushes to drill boreholes as worst drought in a century bites

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Namibia’s dam water levels have almost halved from already low levels as the worst drought in more than 100 years pushes the desert nation closer to famine.

Dams nationwide were at 19.3% of capacity compared to 35.6% this time last year, water utility Namwater said, a drop officials blame on climate change and a five-year drought ripping through southern Africa.

On Thursday, the environment ministry told Reuters that drought had caused a third of Namibia’s 2.5 million population to go hungry, and that hundreds of wild animals in conservation parks as well cattle on farms were dying. The department is rehabilitating existing water points and drilling new boreholes as quickly as it could.

Minister of Environment Pohamba Shifeta said at a climate change conference in Madrid on Tuesday 700,000 Namibians were food insecure, and that the agricultural sector had contracted for the last half-decade, with rural households and small-scale farmers hardest hit.

In neighboring Zambia and Zimbabwe, plunging water levels at the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi have resulted in power cuts. South Africa has introduced rationing.

Namibia’s economy is set to shrink by 1.5% in 2019 after contracting 0.1% last year due largely to severe drought, the finance ministry said in October.

[Reuters]

Engaged youth = renewed hope for the future

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Excerpt of a report from a FCF Project Manager who works with Syrian refugees:

Last year while visiting Southern California to spend time with my family, I met 10 year old Trisha. Some friends had told me the family was interested in refugees and wanted to meet me.

After I presented a power point at her family’s home, Little Trish went upstairs, emptied her piggy bank savings, and brought it to us to give to the refugees. We were so touched.

While visiting the States again this summer, we looked forward to meeting Trisha and her family again. Shortly after arriving, Trisha brought us a pile of five and ten dollar bills. She had earned money to help the refugees by selling her art and coasters (ebru-style painted tiles to use as coasters under cups and glasses). She also had asked her friends, parents, and grandparents to not give her any birthday or Christmas presents, but to just give her money instead, so she could save up for the refugees. Her dad and mom then matched the same amount that Trisha gave, as they want their children to experience the joy of giving.

We asked if they would like us to direct these gifts to Tariq, to enable him to move his family to Turkey so his younger brothers can receive needed medical treatment. They had read his blog post on our Safe Haven website and were thrilled to have the opportunity to help with this. They went on to ask how much was still needed, and within minutes had gathered together enough for the remaining 40% of the total funds still needed!

I was overwhelmed by the generosity of these people I barely knew. To add icing to the cake, shortly after, someone else gave a gift for me to deliver to Tariq’s parents for when they arrive in Turkey, to help them get started.

Things like this help to restore faith in humanity, after absorbing news of so many children dying in Idlib, the continued mass shootings in the US, and other events which had been somewhat depressing. –Yet when you meet a 10 year old like Trish, you remember that behind the scenes God is sending little angels into this world to give us renewed hope for the future!

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is TIME’s Person of the Year

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Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swede who inspired millions of young people to take action against climate change, has been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019.

Thunberg launched a grassroots campaign aged 15 by skipping school every Friday to demonstrate outside Swedish parliament, pushing for her government to meet its ambitious goals to curb carbon emissions. Her actions quickly captured people’s imagination, and in September this year millions of people took to the streets in cities across the world to support her cause.

“In the 16 months since (her protests began), she has addressed heads of state at the U.N., met with the Pope, sparred with the President of the United States and inspired 4 million people to join the global climate strike,” the magazine said.

She is the youngest individual to have won the accolade.

Thunberg, who turns 17 in January, is currently in Madrid at a United Nations climate summit where world leaders are wrangling over how to implement a 2015 Paris agreement designed to avert potentially catastrophic global warming. She was typically blunt in her assessment of politicians’ efforts. “It seems to have turned into some kind of opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes and to avoid raising their ambition,” she said on stage, drawing applause from an audience that included dozens of her supporters.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, a longtime environmentalist, said the magazine made a “brilliant choice” in choosing the reluctant celebrity. “Greta embodies the moral authority of the youth activist movement demanding that we act immediately to solve the climate crisis. She is an inspiration to me and to people across the world,” Gore said.

[Reuters]

UN chief urges governments to engage with young human rights activists

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Excerpts from UN Secretary‑General António Guterres’ remarks on Human Rights Day:

We are here today to celebrate the role of young people in advancing and protecting human rights. As someone who grew up under a dictatorship, I am deeply inspired by the energy and passion young people bring to the struggle for human rights. I know young people can lead movements that change hearts and minds and make history. That is an indelible part of my own past.

Throughout history and across the world, young people have been at the forefront of standing up for what is right. From Harriet Tubman’s antislavery activism, to the White Rose campaign in Nazi Germany, young people have risked everything to struggle against oppression and discrimination and affirm fundamental rights and freedoms. They have played a key role in the civil rights movement, the anti‑apartheid movement, the women’s rights movement and many anti‑colonial and liberation struggles. Today’s young human rights leaders are continuing this tradition. They are powerful torch‑bearers for a better future, and we all owe them our support.

The Universal Declaration established a special responsibility for the United Nations: to advance all rights — civil, cultural, economic, political and social — for all people. Human rights are at the core of the United Nations and inform all our work. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, there has been massive progress. Billions of people around the world live safer, longer lives, with access to opportunities and hope for a better future.

But there is much more to do.

Our shared human values offer a way through; and once again, young people are in the lead. Everywhere, they are marching against corruption, repression and inequality and for human rights and human dignity. Young people are on the front lines of action against the climate emergency, which poses a serious threat to human rights and to human life. Young women are at the forefront, making the link between the denial of their rights and rising populism, xenophobia and discrimination of all kinds. Young people are rightly demanding that Governments listen to them and respect them. Their voices must be heard.

[UN]

UN emergency fund is one of the ‘most effective investments’ in humanitarian action

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The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), is “one of the most effective investments you can make in humanitarian action”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told a high-level pledging event at UN Headquarters in New York on Monday.

“It is the only global emergency fund that is fast, predictable and flexible enough to reach tens of millions of people each year”, according to the UN chief, who maintained that the fund supports a “well-coordinated global humanitarian response system with an enormous network of partners to help the most vulnerable”.   

Since its creation 13 years ago, the fund has allocated over $6 billion to support life-saving assistance in 104 countries, protecting millions of people, sometimes within hours of the onset of an emergency.

Noting that the climate crisis is causing more frequent and deadly hurricanes, cyclones and droughts around the world, the UN chief spelled out: “CERF is on the frontline of our response”. He said  “CERF provides funding without the bureaucracy that can slow down our work, so the money is available within days, sometimes hours, of disaster striking”, flagged the UN chief, citing lifeline support to food insecurity-plagued Mali and Sudan, as well as helping children to stay in school in Cameroon, Chad, the occupied Palestinian Territories, Ukraine and elsewhere. 

With the contributions of 52 Member States “CERF truly a fund for all, by all”, upheld the UN chief, while noting that today it is “contending with a far greater scale of suffering” than when it was created in 2005.

Chairing the event, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said that this year’s “unprecedented demand” for emergency funding enabled responses to “time-critical, life-threatening needs” for millions of crises-affected people across 46 countries.  Lowcock admitted that “significant challenges” lie ahead, saying “I fear the outlook for the year ahead is bleak:  One person in 45 around the world are expected to need our help. The highest number ever”, he said, which would require nearly $29 billion in funding.

[UN News]

Activist Greta Thunberg warns governments in Madrid that ‘change is coming’

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Teen activist Greta Thunberg took her call for bold action to tackle climate change to a U.N. summit in Spain on Friday, warning world leaders that a growing youth-led protest movement meant they could no longer hide.

 “The current world leaders are betraying us and we will not let that happen anymore,” Thunberg said in a brief speech to 15,000 protesters in Madrid. “Change is coming whether you like it or not because we have no other choice,” she said. Thunberg had earlier told an event at a cultural centre that she and her fellow activists would ensure that world leaders “cannot just hide away anymore.”

“We are really gaining momentum, we are getting bigger and bigger and our voices are being heard more and more, but of course that does not translate into political action,” she said. Unwilling to fly because of the pollution it causes, Thunberg had sailed the Atlantic to attend a U.N. summit in September, before returning to Europe by catamaran.

“We are in one of the most critical moments in history and it seems for the first time we are speaking with one voice,” added actor Javier Bardem, who also addressed the marchers.

The annual summit opened on Monday with a call from U.N. chief Antonio Guterres not to be the “generation … that fiddled while the planet burned”. By this meeting’s close on Dec. 13, negotiators hope to resolve remaining disagreements on how to implement an accord struck in Paris in 2015 to avert catastrophic global warming.

[Reuters]

American music producer travels to Lebanon to record an album with refugees

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When Souzda fled the deadly shelling in northern Syria, she thought she was leaving behind more than just her home. The 22-year-old was studying music and had hopes of one day becoming a singer, but the bombs that drove her to escape also threatened to lay waste to her dreams. In Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, Souzda not only found safety but also the chance to rekindle her musical ambitions. Since early this year, she has been writing, composing and recording songs with American producer and singer Jay Denton.

Denton, a musician who studied international relations and has traveled the world, believes music has the power to connect people from all walks of life. Equipped with a mobile recording studio that he typically travels with, he came to Lebanon to make an album with refugees.

“When I sat down with them the first time, they said one of the hardest things about life here is that they don’t feel like they have a voice,” says Denton. He is now working with a group of more than 10 Syrians and an Iraqi refugee, composing and recording various songs.

Souzda has written and recorded a Kurdish-language song about her hometown, Afrin, where an escalation in fighting uprooted more than 150,000 people from their homes. The song tackles themes of war and sorrow, but also of hope. “I wanted people, my people, when they heard us to feel that life has not ended, there is still hope and as long as you have a will you can produce something anywhere you go,” she explains. “Music is… the language I can express myself in.”

As soon as he finishes recording the music with the refugees in Beirut, Denton will go back to Los Angeles, where he is now based, to finish the album in collaboration with a number of American artists. He plans to release the record early next year.

Souzda says music has kept her going through conflict and displacement. “Music is life, the language I can express myself in. I can express my pain, my joy, I can speak in music. It’s the closest language to people’s hearts.”

Lebanon is currently host to around 920,000 registered refugees from the conflict in neighboring Syria, as well as more than 14,000 refugees from Iraq.

[UN High Commissioner for Refugees]

Technology could promote growth in African countries

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Africa is closely watched as the next big growth market. There are many reasons for optimism: the African continent is home to some of the youngest populations in the world, it promises to be a major consumption market over the next three decades, and it is increasingly mobile phone-enabled. An emerging digital ecosystem is particularly crucial as multiplier of that growth.

Despite these reasons for optimism, the promise remains unfulfilled. Growth in Africa has stalled; both the IMF and the World Bank have cut their 2019 economic growth projections for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The World Bank projects that if poverty reduction measures and growth remain sluggish, Africa could be home to 90% of the world’s poor by 2030.

Despite these sobering statistics, the rapid spread of mobile digital technology [can] help various countries “leapfrog” ahead in economic development. Based on size (of economy and population), economic growth, median age, quality of governance, and digital momentum :

South Africa – South Africa is a regional leader buoyed by strong consumer demand for digital businesses and an institutional environment that offers supportive regulations, comparing favorably against key emerging market nations in Latin American and Asian/Southeast Asian regions. South Africa is also a regional leader in the deployment of several emerging technologies, such as biometric data and payment cards to deliver social security, drones in mining, which helps keep it at the innovative edge.
Kenya – Home to what’s known as a “Silicon Savanah” in Nairobi, Kenya has a growing, tech-savvy ecosystem. Thanks to the popularity of M-Pesa, the mobile payments capability, over 70% of Kenyans have a mobile money account.
Rwanda – Rwanda has been moving to transform itself into a digital hub.
Egypt – The digital technology sector is Egypt’s second-fastest growing sector. The country is also producing a large number of skilled graduates.
Nigeria – Nigeria has a powerful entrepreneurial climate, with innovative ventures, and Africa’s leading startup investment destination in 2018.
Ethiopia – While it has the most ground to cover among the six countries studied, Ethiopia is experiencing positive developments in several areas that can facilitate digitally enabled growth. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, has a background in and understanding of the tech sector and has been implementing reform in a number of sectors.

[Harvard Business Review]

Three-country crisis across central Sahel puts whole generation at risk, warns UN food agency

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Violent attacks by extremists “almost every day” in the Sahel nations of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have displaced nearly one million people and caused emergency levels of malnutrition, the UN has said.

Burkina Faso is worst hit, with one-third of the country now a conflict zone, where extremists exploit ethnic tensions and poor infrastructure. According to Government data, nearly half a million people have been displaced in Burkina Faso in less than a year, but that figure is likely to reach 650,000 before the end of 2019.

“A dramatic human crisis is unfolding in Burkina Faso that has disrupted the lives of millions. Close to half a million people have been forced from their homes and a third of the country is now a conflict zone,” said WFP’s Executive Director, David Beasley. “Our teams on the ground are seeing malnutrition levels pushed well past emergency thresholds – this means young children and new mothers are on the brink. If the world is serious about saving lives, the time to act is now.”

David Bulman, WFP Country Director in Burkina Faso, said with extremists moving freely across borders, it was now a “three-country crisis” leading civilians to flee. “And for those populations that don’t particularly notice the border, they just see their safest route away from insecurity and they take it…When they’re displaced it means that they basically leave everything behind, and most of them are doing farming and some animal raising so they are really very dependent.“

While WFP has helped some 2.6 million people with food and nutrition assistance in the three Sahel countries, it has warned that in some areas, severe acute malnutrition is skyrocketing and affecting “thousands” of children, Mr. Bulman said. Among those displaced in Burkina Faso, levels of severe acute malnutrition are more than three times the emergency threshold, he explained.

[UN News]

So little aid money goes to preventing violence against women and girls

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Some 14 million refugees and displaced women and girls were subjected to sexual violence in 2019, according to a new report from the International Rescue Committee.

Still, gender-based violence is often seen as a “second-tier priority” during a humanitarian response, and the lack of funding to prevent it bolsters that reality. Of the $41.5 billion spent on humanitarian responses between 2016 and 2018, just $51.7 million – less than 0.2 percent – was spent on GBV prevention for women and girls.

Research shows that disasters and displacement exacerbate violence against women and girls. A 2017 study conducted in South Sudan found that 65 percent of women and girls had experienced violence in their lifetimes. Another 2014 study found that one in five women who had been displaced had experienced sexual violence.

Violence against women and girls in humanitarian or displacement settings is often used as a tool to push people out of their homes and communities; it’s used as a tool of warfare, and unfortunately is a very successful tool to break down communities and families.

It can also be a result of the way humanitarian aid is provided. For example, water and sanitation services may be set up in a way where women and girls may not use the toilet or shower facilities because they have to walk down a path that makes them walk by large groups of men. It could be that they don’t have locks on the facilities, so women and girls can’t secure themselves when they’re bathing.

Lots of food distributions are not set up in a way where women and girls are protected. Distributions may be too heavy for them to carry, and they may have to rely on men with carts to carry them to the place where they’re staying – there could be heightened levels of exploitation just in that moment.

[Read more at The New Humanitarian]

Charity to airdrop aid using fleet of drones

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A Dutch organization has successfully tested the technology for delivering aid. Wings For Aid has just used a test aircraft to drop 18 boxes from a height of 100m, including two boxes containing raw eggs – all of which survived intact. The test took place at an airbase in the Netherlands, as part of the charity’s development of the concept of providing essential aid to people cut off from terrestrial supplies.

Barry Koperberg, general manager of Wings For Aid, said his organization plans to “bridge the last mile” to reach people beyond the reach of conventional aid logistics. At the heart of the concept is a specially designed all-cardboard “delivery box” that can be dropped from a height of up to 500m without a parachute.  “We have developed a cargo drone with eight boxes of 20kg carrying humanitarian aid,” he said.  The boxes can contain food, water, shelter kits or medical supplies.

“With pinpoint precision we can deliver it anywhere worldwide. Anyone worldwide will be in reach of such a system. Think of Haiti, think of Somalia, think of the Nepal earthquake, where you are out of touch for a couple of days or a couple weeks.”

Wings For Aid, whose start-up has been co-funded by the Dutch government, calculates that while 100 million people involved in crises were provided with emergency supplies last year, an estimated 20 million in need did not. In past humanitarian disasters, essential infrastructure has been destroyed by floods or earthquakes. In some parts of the world, those in need may be located deep inside conflict zones, beyond the reach of aid trucks. While helicopters can sometimes be used, they are expensive and have limited capacity. In addition, pilots will not fly in areas where they believe they may be targeted.

Mr Koperberg said: “We hope launch our first aircraft, which is now being built, in 2020. Meanwhile we are testing the whole system. A very good application of modern technology, I think.”

[The Independent]

Powerful quake kills 13 in Albania as buildings bury residents

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At least 13 people were killed when the most powerful earthquake to hit Albania in decades shook the capital Tirana and the country’s west and north on Tuesday, tearing down buildings and burying residents under rubble. Residents, some carrying babies, fled apartment buildings in Tirana and the western port of Durres after the quake struck shortly before 4 a.m. (0300 GMT).

The 6.4 magnitude quake was centered 30 km (19 miles) west of Tirana, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said, and was also felt across the Balkans and in the southern Italian region of Puglia. Hours later a magnitude 5.4 earthquake hit Bosnia, with an epicentre 75 km (45 miles) south of Sarajevo, monitors said.

In the northern Albanian town of Thumane, Marjana Gjoka, 48, was sleeping in her apartment on the fourth floor of a five-storey building when the quake shattered the top floors. “The roof collapsed on our head and I don’t know how we escaped. God helped us,” said Gjoka, whose three-year-old niece was among four people in the apartment when the quake struck.

Five people were found dead in the rubble of apartment buildings in Thumane, and a man died in the town of Kurbin after jumping out of a building, a Defence Ministry spokeswoman said. Seven bodies were pulled from collapsed buildings in Durres, the main port and tourism destination, the Defence Ministry said, adding 39 had been pulled out alive from under the ruins. Defence Minister Olta Xhacka said 135 people were injured.

Firefighters, police and civilians were removing the debris from collapsed buildings in Thumane. Most of the buildings that collapsed were built of bricks, a Reuters reporter said. Rescuers there used a mechanical digger to claw at collapsed masonry and remove a tangle of metal and cables. Others groped with bare hands to clear rubble.

Greece had sent emergency services for search and rescue operations, its premier’s office said. Albania is the poorest country in Europe, with an average income of less than a third of the European Union average, according to Eurostat data.

On September 21, an earthquake of 5.6 magnitude had previously shook the country, damaging around 500 houses and destroying some.

[Reuters]

Aid groups condemn Greece over ‘prison’ camps for migrants

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Greece is being criticized for adopting legislation in contravention of basic human rights. Under the new approach, land and sea borders will be reinforced with about 1,200 more guards, and extra patrol vessels and deportations stepped up, and closed installations will replace open-air camps. International aid groups have overwhelmingly condemned the measures. After criticizing asylum legislation also passed this month, they predicted the remodeled facilities would only exacerbate the humanitarian disaster unfolding on Europe’s frontiers.

Martha Roussou, senior advocacy officer for the International Rescue Committee in Greece, said: “The creation of closed facilities will simply mean that extremely vulnerable people, including children, will be kept in prison-like conditions, without having committed any crime.”

The Greek branch of Amnesty International called the plans “outrageous”. Likening Lesbos’s infamous Moria refugee camp to a “human rights black hole”, it said: “In reality, we are talking about the creation of contemporary jails with inhumane consequences for asylum seekers, and more widely, negative consequences for the Aegean islands and their inhabitants.”

With Greece being lashed by rainstorms as winter intensifies, groups have increasingly raised the alarm over what many are calling a humanitarian disaster. Officially, reception facilities on Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Kos and Leros have a capacity to accommodate about 5,400 people. About 37,000 asylum seekers are on the islands.

The number of men, women and children making the treacherous sea crossing from Turkey has risen by 73% this year, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. It said the vast majority are refugees fleeing persecution and war.

After visiting the camps last week, Médecins Sans Frontières’ international president, Christos Christou, said: “I’ve been truly shocked and devastated by the extent of the emergency. Men, women and children are trapped in endless drama … In Moria on Lesbos there’s one latrine per 200 people. In Samos, one latrine per 300. This human tragedy needs to end now and it can if Greece and Europe choose to enact a responsible migration system and end these containment policies.”

[The Guardian]

Arizona activist who gave migrants humanitarian aid acquitted in second trial

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Activist Scott Warren has been acquitted on charges he illegally harbored two Central American migrants, after facing two trials over what he insisted was simply helping people in need.

It was the second trial for Warren; a mistrial was declared last June after a jury deadlocked on harboring charges.

Warren was arrested in January 2018 by US agents who were staking out a humanitarian aid station in Arizona known as The Barn, where two Central American men had been staying for several days. The camp is run by a group No More Deaths that tries to prevent immigrants from dying in the desert.

Warren, 37, says the group’s training and protocol prohibit advising migrants on how to elude authorities. The group drops off water for migrants in the desert and runs a camp to aid injured migrants. He said his interest is in saving lives.

He and his supporters say Donald Trump’s administration has increasingly scrutinized humanitarian groups that leave water in the desert. The federal judge overseeing the trial barred Warren from mentioning the president.

[The Guardian]

Weighed down by economic woes, Syrian refugees head home from Jordan

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According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, 34,000 registered Syrian refugees have returned from Jordan since October 2018, when a key border crossing was reopened after years of closure. It’s a fraction of the 650,000 registered Syrian refugees remaining in Jordan, but a dramatic jump from previous years, when annual returns hovered at around 7,000.

Syrian refugees from the other main host countries – Turkey and Lebanon – are making the trip too. UNHCR has monitored more than 209,000 voluntary refugee returns to Syria since 2016, but the actual figure is likely to be significantly higher.

Many refugees in Jordan say they are simply fed up with years spent in a dead-end job market with a bleak economic future. Syrian refugees need a permit to work in Jordan but they are limited to working in a few industries in designated economic zones. Many others end up in low-paying jobs, and have long faced harsh economic conditions in Jordan.  Thousands of urban refugees earn a meagre living either on farms or construction sites, or find informal work as day laborers.

“I’m not returning because I think the situation in Syria is good,” said Farah, a mother of three who spoke to TNH in September – about a month before she packed up her things to leave. “But you don’t enter into a difficult situation unless the one you’re currently in is even worse.” 

Asked whether it is safe for refugees to go back to Syria, Francesco Bert, a UNHCR spokesperson in Jordan, said the agency “considers refugees’ decisions as the main guideposts”, but gives refugees considering or planning to return “information that might inform their decision-making”, to help ensure it is truly voluntary.

[The New Humanitarian]

One-third of Afghans need urgent humanitarian aid, millions suffer ‘acute food insecurity’

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Over the last three months, around one-third of the Afghan population required urgent humanitarian action, according to the United Nations, which declares that some 10.23 million people are living in a state of “severe acute food insecurity”.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), which is monitoring a number of key food security indicators in Afghanistan, estimates that the situation is likely to get worse heading into next year, with the numbers of those experiencing severe acute food insecurity set to rise to 11.29 million (with 2.7 million in an Emergency situation, and 8.6 million in a Crisis situation), between November 2019 and March 2020.

A lack of opportunity in the labor market could, says the report, impact the livelihoods of vulnerable groups; as could the uncertain political climate and security situation, with upcoming elections affecting the outlook; food prices, which could rise in the Winter months; and extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods.

The November Alert from the IPC includes several recommendations to alleviate the food insecurity problems faced by the population. Providing humanitarian food assistance, in cash or kind, is one such proposal, as well as helping farmers to obtain quality seeds for the forthcoming season (most farmers do not have the capability to obtain seeds from any source).

Afghanistan has seen record-high levels of civilian casualties in the third quarter of 2019, stemming mainly from the violence between pro- and anti-Government elements. July documented the country’s bloodiest month on record, with the highest number of civilian casualties in a single month since the UN began systematic documentation in the country, in 2009.

[UN News]

Hurricane Dorian inflicted $3.4B losses on Bahamas

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Hurricane Dorian inflicted losses of about $3.4 billion on the Bahamas, an amount equal to one-quarter of the Caribbean archipelago’s GDP, according to a report released Friday.

The report by the Inter-American Development Bank also said there were 67 confirmed deaths and that 282 people were still missing as of late October. Nearly 29,500 people lost homes or jobs, or were temporarily displaced by the Category 5 storm that hit Grand Bahama and Abaco islands in early September, the report said.

The development bank said reconstruction will require big investments and will take many years. Dorian was one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever to make landfall, unleashing a storm surge of up to 7.6 meters (25 feet).

Destruction of homes and other buildings as well as infrastructure caused damage amounting to $2.5 billion, with 87% reported in Abaco and the remainder in Grand Bahama, according to the development bank. Some 9,000 homes were damaged and seven schools destroyed, leading to the reassignment of 1,500 displaced students, the report said. It described damage to some tourism facilities as “catastrophic.”

Another $717 million in losses was caused by the storm’s impact on the production of goods and services provided, with the private sector sustaining 84% of that total, the report said. It estimated another $221 million in costs for the cleanup of an oil spill in Grand Bahama and debris removal and demolition.

Atisha Kemp, an activist in the capital of Nassau, said Bahamians are frustrated with the government and that many of the displaced are still living in tents, with power and water lacking in some areas.

[AP]

More than half the population of Syria in need of humanitarian aid

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Over 11 million people across Syria need aid — more than half the country’s estimated population — and the U.N. and other organizations are reaching an average of 5.6 million people a month, the U.N. humanitarian chief said Thursday.

Mark Lowcock told the Security Council that across northern Syria 4 million people are supported by U.N. cross-border deliveries including 2.7 million in the northwest, the last major opposition-held area in the country.

With the resolution authorizing cross-border aid expiring in December, Lowcock stressed to the council that “there is no alternative to the cross-border operation” and its renewal is “critical. He warned that without a cross-border operation, “we would see an immediate end of aid supporting millions of civilians” which would cause “a rapid increase in hunger and disease. A lot more people would flood across the borders, making an existing crisis even worse in the region,” he added.

Lowcock said he remains very concerned about the situation in the northwest, pointing to an increase in airstrikes and ground-based strikes mostly in parts of southern and western Idlib in recent weeks. “In the last two days there have been reports of over 100 airstrikes in Idlib and surrounding areas,” he said. More than half the people in Idlib moved there from other parts of the country, and hundreds of thousands are living in camps and informal shelters near the Turkish border, he said.

[AP]

I’m a humanitarian. Don’t prosecute me for doing my job.

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In 2011, I negotiated in Afghanistan with the Taliban and the United States to establish a trauma hospital in the northern city of Kunduz that would care for the wounded and sick, regardless of who they were. Between 2012 and 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières treated thousands of patients – mostly civilians, but also Taliban and Afghan army patients. This we celebrated as a win for impartial humanitarian action.  

But front lines changed, and during a fateful week in October 2015 when the Taliban took control of the town, US and Afghan counter-terrorism forces declared the entire area, and the people in it, as hostile territory. Arguing that Taliban fighters had “taken over” our hospital, the United States bombed it five times over the span of two hours, until it burned to the ground, with everyone in it. The only Taliban inside were patients – hors combat. I would return to Afghanistan shortly after to mourn the lives of 48 staff and patients who died that day, some scorched to death in their hospital beds.

The bombing of our hospital in Kunduz was condemned around the world, and the United States ultimately financially compensated the families of the victims. But an independent investigation to determine why the hospital was bombed was denied. It is an extreme example of what can go wrong when the impartiality of humanitarian action is not respected.

A new bill before the Dutch government threatens to make the same mistake. The law proposes to criminalize citizens’ travel – without Dutch government permission – to areas it designates as controlled by ‘terrorist’ organizations. The criteria upon which such permission will be granted are not clear. Aimed originally at preventing Dutch citizens from joining the so-called Islamic State, this broad new law has serious inadvertent effects on me and many others in many other places around the world.

As a Dutch aid worker regularly travelling to such areas to deliver lifesaving medical assistance, this new law, if adopted, essentially obliges me to prove I have no terrorist intentions prior to saving lives. This remarkable reversal of the burden of proof not only restricts and endangers my own profession, but violates the humanitarian principle of impartiality that populations trapped in conflict rely on. This principle guarantees that their needs, not which side of the front line they find themselves, determines their access to assistance.

Impartiality is the core tenet of humanitarianism relief. For a medical organization such as ours, the consequences of such legislation are even more dire. Under international law, both civilians and combatants have a right to medical care. This was one of the main purposes of the Geneva Conventions, which allow special protection under IHL for an impartial humanitarian body that collects the wounded and sick. Combatants receiving medical care are considered hors combat and have the same status as civilians. This means MSF has the legal right – and responsibility – to treat everyone, even ‘terrorists’ and even in ‘designated areas’. 

Saving lives is not a crime. Under international law, preventing me from doing so is.

[Excerpts of article by Michiel Hofman, Senior humanitarian specialist with Médecins Sans Frontières]

Don’t call it the ‘refugee crisis’, it’s a humanitarian crisis

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In recent months across Europe, a dramatic spike in refugee arrivals to Greece and 39 dead bodies of Vietnamese citizens discovered in an abandoned lorry in Essex provoked a return of “the migration crisis” in news coverage. When the almost five-year-long “migration crisis” in Europe began, publications and politicians were tentative about referring to it as such.

The differences between the ways we describe emergencies are incredibly important. Declaring a “humanitarian crisis” shifts responsibility and focus to states and their leaders, whereas placing “migrant” before the crisis, suggests that the fault of the crisis is, at least in part, theirs.

Between 2014 and 2019, at least 17,428 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Still, people continue to reach Europe, though European policies have radically exacerbated the risks to their lives and health:
– Italy has pursued a series of policies of shutting down ports and arresting those who operate rescue missions. In 2018, less people crossed the Mediterranean than the year before but of those who did, six drowned every day.
– The Greek islands have essentially become open-air holding prisons, as well as collectively being nearly five times over capacity. 
– Even prior to the recent Turkish incursion in Northern Syria, the numbers arriving in Greece had spiked where conditions are infamously inhumane: Fires regularly destroy areas of camps and remaining belongings; coupled with self-harm and suicide attempts, increasingly by children too.

The number of people arriving may have reduced but their suffering has multiplied.  And the fact that arrivals have suddenly increased proves this crisis is far from over.

As many critics posit, Europe may not be responsible for the conflicts that force people from their homes. However, there should absolutely be no doubt as to who is responsible for destroying key humanitarian protections; a Draconian border regime; criminalizing rescue ships; refusing to create safe routes to asylum and in many cases deliberately making life unliveable for vulnerable people.

Labeling it a “refugee” or “migration crisis”, however, indicates that refugees and migrants are different to those we associate with traditional humanitarian emergencies and less deserving of the assumed response.

[The Independent]

Hundreds of thousands of civilians at risk in Syria amid ongoing violence

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At least 92 people have been killed in northeastern and northwestern Syria in the weeks following 9 October, when Turkish forces invaded Kurdish-held border areas in the northeast, according to the UN human rights office OHCHR.

Noting that victims had come under fire from airstrikes and ground-based strikes, OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville said people are increasingly being targeted by the “indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in populated areas, including in local markets”.

On Thursday, Najat Rochdi, Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, warned that hundreds of thousands of people in northeast Syria have been left vulnerable following the Turkish military incursion. “Of the more than 200,000 people who fled the fighting in recent weeks, close to 100,000 people have not yet been able to return home and are dispersed across improvised camps and collective shelters,” she said in a statement. These recent displacements have compounded an already dire situation in which 710,000 people were already displaced, and approximately 1.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, Ms. Rochdi’s statement explained.

In a related warning, Mr. Colville said that people recently displaced during the military offensive have been “subsequently…subjected to arbitrary detention, in addition to enforced disappearances, after returning to their homes. This is occurring both in areas controlled by Turkish forces and Turkish-affiliated armed groups and in areas controlled by Kurdish armed groups.”

The OHCHR spokesperson added that attacks using improvised explosive devices in the formerly Kurdish-controlled north-east “have noticeably escalated in recent days, mainly in areas under the control of Turkish-affiliated armed groups, which suggests they have most likely been carried out by groups opposing the Turkish military offensive”.

UN humanitarians meanwhile warned that a serious funding crisis risks leaving hundreds of thousands of Syrians vulnerable to deteriorating weather conditions.

[UN.org]

Geography professor Dr Scott Warren faces retrial in Arizona, with possible ten-year jail sentence

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Dr Scott Warren, a geography professor and volunteer with the humanitarian group No More Deaths, is charged with “harboring” two migrants after providing them with food, water and clean clothing in his hometown of Ajo, 43 miles from the Mexican border.

Warren, who faces a possible ten-year jail sentence, is being prosecuted for a second time after an earlier trial was declared a mistrial in July.

Amnesty International is calling on the US Department of Justice to drop the spurious criminal charges. Amnesty believes the volunteer activities of Warren and No More Deaths provide vital humanitarian aid directed at upholding the right to life and preventing the deaths of migrants and people seeking asylum in the highly-dangerous Sonoran Desert. Last week, Amnesty wrote to Arizona’s Attorney, Michael Bailey, calling on him to do this.

Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said: “The Trump administration’s second attempt to prosecute Scott Warren is a cynical misuse of the justice system, intended to criminalize compassion and lifesaving humanitarian aid. This is a dark hour for the USA when the government is seeking to send a man to prison for ten years simply for providing food, water and clean clothes to people in need.
 
“The US authorities must stop harassing Dr Warren and other human rights defenders who have simply shown kindness to fellow human beings.”

Arizona has the deadliest border area in the USA, accounting for more than a third (38%) of the 7,242 border deaths recorded by US border authorities over the last 20 years.

[Amnesty.org]

600 US-bound refugees resettled

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More than 600 refugees landed in the United States this week, marking the first arrivals of US fiscal year 2020.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) welcomed the refugees who come from a variety of countries. IOM works closely with the US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to provide case processing support, pre-departure health assessments and cultural orientation, as well as transportation support for refugees.

Almost half of the refugees resettled in the US in fiscal year 2019 were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

On Tuesday, a group of 25 Congolese refugees were the first to arrive on Tuesday morning at Washington Dulles International Airport before continuing to their final destinations. Due to ongoing violence, the families fled to neighboring Rwanda where they remained in limbo for years.

[IOM]

What is a war crime?

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Whether in conflicts in Syria, Yemen or Iraq, civilians bear the brunt of war. The protection of civilians lies at the foundation of international humanitarian law (IHL), the law that regulates the conduct of war. According to the United Nations, a war crime is a serious breach of international law committed against civilians or “enemy combatants” during an international or domestic armed conflict.

A war crime occurs when superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is inflicted upon an enemy. In spite of the outrage caused by the bombing of a school or a country’s TV station, such actions do not necessarily amount to war crimes. Such bombing will only be a war crime if the extent of civilian casualties resulting from the attack is excessive compared to the military advantage gained from the attack. And in contrast with genocide and crimes against humanity, war crimes have to occur in the context of armed conflict.

Although the concept of war crimes has ancient roots, rules on war crimes started to develop at the end of the 19th century. The meaning of war crimes was clarified in the four 1949 Geneva Conventions.

Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention defines war crimes as “wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including … willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person … taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly”.

But in spite of the near-universal ratification of the Geneva Conventions, war crimes often go unpunished. According to Mark Drumbl, professor of law at Washington and Lee University, this can be attributed to several factors, including difficulties in obtaining evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, high requirements such as proving intention and, most importantly, power politics.

Thousands of Filipinos in need of humanitarian assistance after Mindanao earthquakes

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Mindanao has been shaken by three consecutive earthquakes within the same location on 16, 29 and 31 October 2019, each compounding the effect of the previous one.

According to authorities, the death toll from the last two earthquakes is now at 21 with over 400 people injured and an estimated more than 35,000 people displaced. Many families have been left homeless due to the destruction of their houses

More than 180,000 people are affected with many families requiring humanitarian assistance.

Philippine Red Cross Chairman Richard Gordon said: “People are left anxious by the earthquakes and the ongoing aftershocks. Families do not feel safe returning to their homes. Since the first earthquake hit, our volunteers and staff have been working around the clock to provide not only relief items and safe drinking water, but also psychosocial support to help families cope with their fears.”

[International Red Cross]

British aid to help vaccinate more than 400 million children a year against polio

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UK International Development Secretary Alok Sharma has pledged new aid support to help vaccinate more than 400 million children a year against polio.

  • UK support will help vaccinate more than 750 children a minute against polio in developing countries around the world
  • The UK package of up to £400 million will help support 20 million health workers and volunteers, via the Global Polio Eradication Initiative
  • Three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – are still not officially polio free

This funding which runs from 2020 to 2023 will help buy tens of millions doses of polio vaccine every year. Without this new support, tens of thousands of children would be at risk of paralysis from the disease, which leaves many unable to walk for the rest of their lives.

Sharma said: “We have made tremendous progress to fight this debilitating disease, but our work must continue if we are to eradicate it forever. … If we were to pull back on immunizations, we could see 200,000 new cases each year in a decade. This would not only be a tragedy for the children affected and their families, but also for the world. We cannot let this happen.”

Thanks to global efforts, backed by the UK, more than 18 million people are currently walking who would otherwise have been paralyzed by the virus.

[ReliefWeb]

Sex-for-food: girls face impossible choices in Southern Africa

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A food crisis is especially acute in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia, which account for 75% of the people needing food assistance. The ongoing food crisis is compounded by a number of factors including drought, the effects of cyclone Idai and its related flooding, conflict and economic downturn.

“We are extremely concerned at the increasing number of adolescent girls caught up in food insecurity, especially where they are being traded off by family members in an effort to earn the next meal,” says Stuart Katwikirize, Plan International Regional Head of Disaster Risk Management.

From sex-for-food to forced marriage, girls are caught between impossible choices for survival as severe food shortages sweep across the southern continent.

In Mozambique multiple and consecutive incidents have left almost 10 per cent of the country’s population in need of lifesaving and resilience-building assistance.

“Adolescent girls and women are typically more affected by drought because it is usually their job to find water and food for the family, ” says Anne Hoff, Country Director, Plan International Mozambique.

“Children are increasingly dropping out of school because of hunger issues which remains a serious concern,” said Angela Muriithi, Country Director, Plan International Zimbabwe. “An estimated 2.2 million people in urban areas are facing food and economic insecurity, with 53% of households in Harare reporting inability to pay school fees.”

[Plan International]

Floods in Somalia displace more than 250,000 people

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Heavy rains have killed at least 10 people and displaced more than 270,000 in Somalia, destroying infrastructure and livelihoods in the Horn of Africa nation, the United Nations said on Friday.

East Africa has been experiencing heavy rains with the Indian Ocean’s equivalent of the Pacific Ocean-based El Nino, at its strongest since 2006.

A tropical storm next week is expected to worsen the floods. Rains are forecast to continue until the end of the year and humanitarian organizations are warning of waterborne diseases and mass displacement.

“Higher than usual rains are expected to continue through November and December, leading to more floods and conditions for disease,” the International Rescue Committee said in a statement. “Recovery from these weather conditions may take years.”

[Reuters]

Local citizens become frontline aid workers in Syria

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In the past few weeks, Zozan Ayoub has gone from running a small primary school in northeast Syria to recording the names of people fleeing war, coordinating aid deliveries, and tending to the needs of the families now sheltering in her classrooms.

Her transformation from headteacher to citizen aid worker happened fast. Some 22,000 of the 180,000 people the UN says fled the violence, went to Hassakeh. Local authorities sent word to Ayoub, who lives and works in the city, some 80 kilometres from the Turkey-Syria border, to cancel classes and prepare for their arrival.

In a matter of hours, Ayoub and other staff members at the two-floor school had cleaned up and replaced desks with rugs and mattresses. “Students will miss lessons,” Ayoub acknowledged. “But we have to provide for these people.”

Even though aid agencies, both local and international, are on the ground too, many have had to evacuate staff, and all are operating in a precarious situation.

That’s where people like Ayoub come in. Across northeast Syria, local people have become temporary aid workers, collected food and clothes, or opened their homes to those in need.

Despite the efforts of citizens who have stepped up, the lion’s share of aid work in the northeast is still being carried out by established NGOs. But it is the local groups, often partnering with international NGOs, who are actually bringing water, food, and other necessities to people who need it. Read more

More on local citizens becoming frontline aid workers in Syria

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Kadar Sheikhmous, director of Shar for Development, a Syrian NGO that works in the northeast, said regular people in displacement hotspots like Hassakeh or the nearby town of Tel Tamer were the first to step up and help. Before aid agencies had even started their emergency response, residents came out to offer support in any way they could, he added.

In the city of Qamishli, near the border with Turkey, 34-year-old Helin Othman has been doing her part, working overtime to deliver food baskets and diapers to displaced people. Two years ago, the young Kurdish woman set up a Facebook group aimed at helping those affected by Syria’s ongoing conflict. These days, she is rallying the support of almost 50,000 online followers. Many regularly donate money and supplies.

Othman helped 250 displaced families in Qamishli and Hassakeh with food last week. She is reaching out to those who are staying with friends or family, rather than those in shelters like the Hassakeh schools, because even though these people are fortunate to have found a home to stay in, they are often off the radar of aid organizations.

In the Assyrian Christian village of Tel Nasri, some 40 kilometres northwest of Hassakeh, 150 mostly Sunni Muslim families from the border town of Ras al-Ayn have taken refuge in homes abandoned by the area’s persecuted Christian community. According to three sources from the Assyrian community, the owners of the houses, the local council in exile, and Syria’s Assyrian bishop, agreed to temporarily open their doors to those in need.

Sami returned to the Assyrian Christian village after it was emptied out by IS. He welcomes the newly displaced people, mostly Sunni Muslims: “We’ve been helping the families who came… We eat together, keep each other company.”

“Lots and lots of people have invited people into their homes. It has been inspiring; everyone is hosting someone,” said one aid worker familiar with the situation in the northeast who wished to remain anonymous so they could continue working in the area. “People are trying so hard to do anything they can, and that should be commended.”

[The New Humanitarian]

EU boosts humanitarian assistance following floods in Horn of Africa

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As heavy flooding in the Horn of Africa region continues to put the lives of many vulnerable communities at risk, the European Commission is providing an additional €3 million in emergency aid.

The funding will be provided through humanitarian organizations in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan, and will provide emergency shelter for displaced people, food, logistics support for access as well as water, hygiene and sanitation assistance aimed at preventing the outbreak of cholera and other water-borne diseases.

[ReliefWeb]

Bernie Sanders wants to cut military aid to Israel, give it to Gaza as humanitarian relief

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2020 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders says if elected, he would take the $3.8 billion in annual military financing the US gives to Israel and instead give it to Gaza in the form of humanitarian aid.

The Vermont senator said he would use the military assistance to pressure Israel to take steps towards a two-state solution.

“My solution is to say to Israel: you get $3.8 billion every year, if you want military aid you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza, in fact, I think it is fair to say that some of that should go right now into humanitarian aid”

The US has agreed to give Israel a massive military aid package called the Memorandum of Understanding MOU. The latest aid package was approved by the Obama administration and agrees to give Israel $38 billion – $3.8 billion per year –  in military aid to Israel over 10 years. The MOU covers the years 2019-2028.

Several Democrats have proposed withholding some aid to push Israel into peace talks with the Palestinians. However, he is the first to suggest the US should give it to Gaza as humanitarian relief.

“It is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government, or for that matter to any government at all. We have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy,” Sanders said. “What is going on in Gaza right now, for example, is absolutely inhumane. It is unacceptable. It is unsustainable.”

[CBN News]

UN welcomes efforts to de-escalate crisis in northeast Syria

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The United Nations welcomes efforts to de-escalate the crisis in northeastern Syria in the wake of Turkey and Russia agreeing to a deal that would allow Russian military police and Syrian border guards into the area, among other measures.

UN Assistant Secretary-General, Khaled Khiari, noted that while the situation remains volatile and uncertain, there has been “an encouraging surge of diplomatic activity” in recent weeks. “The United Nations takes note of these agreements and welcomes any efforts to de-escalate the situation in line with the UN Charter and to protect civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law,” said Mr. Khiari. “The United Nations also takes note of Turkey’s announcement that ‘at this stage, there is no further need to conduct a new operation outside the present operation area.’

In the last two weeks alone, nearly 180,000 people fled the border areas between Turkey and Syria. A reduction in fighting means some have begun to return. “As the situation evolves, a critical challenge facing humanitarian actors is the need to scale up operations from within Syria,” said Ursula Mueller, the number two official in the UN humanitarian affairs coordination office, OCHA. “To achieve this, we will need all parties to facilitate safe, rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access via land and air routes to transport humanitarian supplies, along with an expansion of humanitarian capacity in the northeast.”

Another challenge are explosive hazards such as mines which also impede humanitarian access in Syria, in addition to injuring and killing civilians. Agnes Marcaillou, Director of the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) reported that so far this year, Syria has recorded an average of 184 explosive incidents per day. “The contamination severely impacts the lives and livelihoods of the population and further amplifies the social and economic crisis,” she said.

[UN News]

Africans caught in US-Mexico migration limbo

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For months, hundreds of African migrants and asylum seekers from conflict-ridden countries like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been camped out in tents in front of the main immigration detention facility in the town of Tapachula, in southern Mexico.

Most flew halfway around the world to Brazil, then made the dangerous journey north through the Darien Gap – a remote, roadless swathe of jungle – before traversing Central America into Mexico in the hope of finally reaching the United States to claim asylum.

On reaching Tapachula, they found themselves corralled into a detention center and told they couldn’t progress further without a permit that protects them for deportation and allows them to stay legally – permits that are harder to come by since Mexico agreed in June to help the United States limit the number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border.

Fearing deportation or that the permits will never come, a frustrated group of migrants – including hundreds of Africans – set off north this week only to be stopped shortly afterwards by Mexican national guard and police and returned to a holding facility. Even if the Africans were to reach the US border and get to the front of the long queue, a recent policy – pushed by President Donald Trump and known as “Remain in Mexico” – means migrants hoping to seek asylum in the United States must await their fate in Mexico. 

The US administration is also set to enforce a series of bilateral agreements that will bar people from applying if they don’t first apply for asylum in the Central American countries they travelled through: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The asylum seekers could be deported back to the so-called “safe third country”, which critics say are not safe at all and would put many at renewed risk. 

Pressure is growing on many of the Africans to claim asylum in Mexico, but several told The New Humanitarian they didn’t want to because of the lack of economic opportunities and a perception they could struggle with racist attitudes. Even if they were to pursue asylum in Mexico, the system is already overwhelmed. According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, asylum applications in Mexico rose from 2,100 in 2014 to 48,000 for the first eight months of 2019.

According to the Mixed Migration Centre, an independent resource for data on migrants and asylum seekers, some 4,799 Africans were apprehended in Mexico between January and July this year – a fourfold increase over the same period in 2018. “Somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 [Africans] are currently stranded in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula,” it said.

[The New Humanitarian]

Alleviating poverty “a slow deliberative process of discovery – no miracle cure”

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Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their on-the-ground experiments on how best to alleviate poverty. This award recognizes their more than a quarter of a century’s work in showing how randomized control trials can help to alleviate poverty.

Esther Duflo  states that alleviating poverty, is “a slow deliberative process of discovery – no miracle cure.” 

The need for context, the fact that one size does not fit all, and the essential nature of detailed and deliberate communication and engagement is all part of this continual process of investigation.

Duflo’s TED Talk reiterates the importance of identifying the right problem. She provides a reminder for us to battle against our assumptions and best guesses and eliminate those things that, although part of the problem, are not in themselves the answer to making the biggest impact and creating the possibility of taking solutions to scale.  She nicely demonstrates how getting this right means we can really get change as well as value for money.

[International Institute for Environment and Development]

End to Syrian ceasefire threatens new round of civilian flight

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As the end of a five-day ceasefire approaches in Syria’s northeast, thousands of civilians who have fled their homes – many of them several times already during the country’s eight and a half year war – face the prospect of having to do so once again.  Both humanitarians and the people they help are worried about what will happen if the violence kicks off again.

Hedinn Halldorsson, a spokesperson for OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body said, explains that the dangers civilians face rise every time their lives are upended. “The risk of gender based violence against women and children… increases. There is also a considerable psychological impact; distress, caused by [each] displacement.”

“They’ve lost everything; their homes, their income. They are terrified of everything, even of people asking them their names,” said Zozan Ayoub, the headmistress of an elementary school in Hassakeh who is now running the building as a shelter. “They have no psychological support. They are five families to one room, and they lack electricity, food, and gas for cooking.”

In 2013, Omar and her family fled their hometown of Tel Abyad when clashes broke out between Kurdish fighters and ISIS. They traveled westwards to Kobani, where they stayed until ISIS advanced on the city in late 2014, then forcing them to flee into Turkey. When Tel Abyad was liberated from the militants in 2015, she and her family returned to their hometown, only to flee home once again when Turkish airstrikes began with the new offensive.

“We are civilians; what do they want from us?” she asked angrily.

The UN warns that this cycle of displacement translates into extreme physical and mental stress. People are unable to hold down jobs, ultimately forcing more families to depend on aid to get by. This is compounded by the fact that unlike refugees, displaced people have not crossed a border for sanctuary, and largely remain close to the conflict they are trying to escape from.

[The New Humanitarian]

US restores aid to Central America after reaching migration deals

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The United States restored economic aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that had been cut off after the Trump administration complained the three Central American countries had done too little to halt a surge in migration.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday announced that some “targeted assistance” would resume as they praised governments of the three countries for reaching immigration agreements with the United States.

The three countries from the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America have sent record numbers of migrants toward the United States in recent years, fueling Trump’s rhetoric as part of his “zero tolerance” anti-immigration policy. Pompeo said in a statement that he had cut off the aid earlier this year on Trump’s direction “until the governments of these countries took sufficient action to reduce the overwhelming number of migrants coming to the U.S. border.”

Neither Trump nor Pompeo said how much of the hundreds of millions of dollars of suspended aid would be released. The Washington Post, citing an unnamed person familiar with the decision, reported it amounted to $143 million.

The Trump administration requires asylum-seekers to first seek safe haven in a third country they pass through on the way to the United States. The administration contends the majority of asylum-seekers are really economic migrants who will stay home if their only option is to seek asylum somewhere else.

[Reuters]