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.


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.


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]