Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Burkina Faso clamps down on civil society and journalists
For a glimpse into the conditions facing civil society and opposition voices under Burkina Faso’s military junta, consider the case of Boukaré Ouédraogo. After questioning the security situation in his hometown of Kaya earlier in March, Ouédraogo was allegedly arrested by Burkinabé soldiers. Local rights groups say the man was then forcibly enrolled into a civilian volunteer militia that supports the army in its perilous fight against jihadists. Two other civil society activists may have suffered the same fate in the past few days. The junta – which took power in September – is also clamping down on the media. On 27 March, communication minister Jean Emmanuel Ouédraogo (no relation to Boukaré) announced the suspension of France 24 for airing a short interview clip with the leader of al-Qaeda’s Sahel-focused branch. Embarrassingly for the minister, another clip then surfaced on social networks showing him as a journalist interviewing a jihadi spokesperson 10 years earlier. Abuses during counter-jihadist operations are also continuing under the junta. The French newspaper Libération published a chilling investigation into the execution of children at a military camp in the north. See our archival coverage for more background context.
Afghanistan deals another blow to girls’ education
Afghan education rights activist Matiullah Wesa was arrested 26 March at a Kabul mosque on unknown charges. The 30-year-old founder of Penpath, an organisation that seeks to bring education opportunities to Afghans in remote areas, had been a staunch defender of education long before the Taliban returned to power. In recent months, he had also been an outspoken critic of Taliban policies that shut down high schools to adolescent girls and banned women from universities. Wesa's brother, Attaullah, who is now in hiding, said in a video posted to social media that their home was later raided and that two of his other brothers were also briefly arrested. In an interview with Voice of America, Zabihullah Mujahid, chief spokesman for the Islamic Emirate, defended the arrest and denied any wrongdoing on the part of authorities. Though the reason for the Wesa brothers' detention has not been made public, online supporters of the Islamic Emirate claim that Wesa was involved in “suspicious” activity and criticised his recent meetings with foreign officials. Wesa’s supporters suggest that claims of foreign influence are meant to discredit him. “He could have easily left Afghanistan and lived somewhere else, but his mission and his aim has always been to work towards the enlightenment and education of his people, nothing else,” Negeen Kargar, an academic who lives in the UK and who had recently been in touch with Wesa, told The New Humanitarian. The UN estimates that a record 28.3 million Afghans will require humanitarian assistance in 2023.
The deadly impact of US-Mexico migration policies
A fire at an immigration detention centre in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico on 27 March that left 38 dead is putting a spotlight on the desperate situation faced by tens of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants in northern Mexico’s border cities. People held in the facility – who were mainly from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, and El Salvador – put mattresses against the bars of their cell and lit them on fire as a protest after learning they would be deported, according to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. A video from the centre shows two guards quickly walking away from the cell after the fire began, apparently making no effort to open the door. On 30 March, a Mexican court issued arrest warrants for six people on charges that include homicide. Guatemala declared three days of national mourning and El Salvador's government condemned the actions of the migration centre’s staff, demanding a thorough investigation. Humanitarian agencies and NGOs also expressed outrage, calling to strengthen policies for asylum seekers and for a shift in migration policies. Policies introduced since 2018 have made it difficult for people escaping rampant violence, persecution, disasters, and failing states in Latin America and elsewhere to seek protection at the US southern border, leaving people stuck in often dangerous Mexican border cities and in precarious living situations for months or even years. A recent Human Rights First report noted more than 13,000 cases of murder, torture, kidnapping, rape, and other violent attacks on migrants or asylum seekers blocked in Mexico since US President Joe Biden took office.
The New Humanitarian’s migration editor, Eric Reidy, is currently in south Texas and northern Mexico reporting on the humanitarian situation for asylum seekers and migrants. Watch for his coverage in the coming weeks.
Military tensions threaten Sudan’s transition deal
Sudan’s military and civilian factions have agreed to form a new transitional government on 11 April, ending the deadlock that followed an October 2021 military coup. But consultations being held ahead of that date are proving thorny, especially on the sensitive subject of security sector reform. Pro-democracy groups want the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to be integrated into the Sudanese army, and for all troops to be placed under civilian authority. But the army and RSF both have economic interests and fear accountability should they be forced to reform. The two forces are also increasingly at odds with each other, with talks breaking down over a proposed timeline for integration. The army reportedly wants to fuse with the RSF in two years, while the RSF (which has up to 100,000 fighters) wants a decade. Open fighting between the two sides has been long feared, and reports suggest both are embarking on a recruitment race in the long-suffering western Darfur region. Humanitarian needs are, meanwhile, at record levels across the country, with some 15.8 million people – a third of the population – requiring relief this year.
The slow, awkward race to lead the IOM
The United States has a famously long election campaign cycle, and that model is also playing out at the UN’s migration agency. In October, the US announced its preferred candidate for the top job at the IOM. But the election was months away, setting up a slow-motion, intra-office showdown between the sitting director general, Portugal’s António Vitorino, and his challenger and current deputy, Amy Pope. It’s an unusually public race between candidates who are technically still co-workers. PassBlue, which covers the UN, has an article exploring some of the awkwardness. “How do they maintain relations with each other?” asked Jeff Crisp, a former official with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and wielder of one of humanitarian Twitter’s spicier feeds. The US appears intent on re-exerting its sway at the migration agency – IOM leadership has usually gone to Americans under oft-criticised conventions that see Western powers dominate key UN roles. The fundamental differences between Vitorino and Pope’s policies are less clear, the PassBlue piece points out. For now, Pope appears to have taken well to politicking, armed with a campaign-style website and a defiantly polite Twitter timeline filled with pics from whirlwind visits with diplomats and government ministers. There’s ample time for more handshakes: The leadership vote isn’t until mid-May.
In case you missed it
CLIMATE JUSTICE: It’s being called a milestone moment for climate justice: the UN General Assembly on 29 March adopted a resolution, years in the making, to bring the climate emergency to the UN’s top court. The resolution, spearheaded by Vanuatu, asks the International Court of Justice to weigh in on countries’ obligations on combatting climate change, and the legal consequences for causing climate harms.
HAITI: “Haiti can’t wait” is the message the World Food Program (WFP) country director for Haiti gave to donors this week, urging them to step up. Facing catastrophic levels of hunger, the country needs $125 million in the next six months to address the food crisis, the WFP said. Nearly half the population suffers from acute hunger.
INDONESIA: Almost 200 Rohingya asylum seekers landed in Aceh on 27 March, and the dangerous boat journeys show little sign of stopping. Escaping oppressive conditions both in Myanmar and in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, Rohingya have been fleeing by boat in record numbers; 2022 was the deadliest year for Rohingya sea journeys in nearly a decade.
LIBYA: European Union states were complicit in crimes against humanity by Libyan forces targeting migrants trying to reach Europe, a new report by a UN-appointed fact-finding mission charged. Legally barred from deporting migrants to Libya, EU governments instead gave funding and technical aid to the Libyan Coast Guard, which has been accused of widespread “arbitrary detention, murder, torture, rape, enslavement and enforced disappearance” against migrants since 2016.
MOZAMBIQUE: Health officials are beginning a massive cholera vaccination campaign in Quelimane, a seaport city hit hard by Cyclone Freddy. The two-week drive is aimed at bringing down soaring cholera cases in the aftermath of the record-breaking storm that made a double landfall and cumulatively killed 173 people and forced 184,000 from their homes.
RWANDA: Paul Rusesabagina, a former hotel manager who was portrayed as a hero of the 1994 Rwanda genocide in the film Hotel Rwanda, has been reunited with his family in the US after being freed from prison. A vocal critic of the Rwanda government, he was sentenced to 25 years on terrorism charges in 2021. His release came after diplomatic pressure and talks brokered by Qatar.
RWANDA/DIEGO GARCIA: Two Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were transferred to Rwanda earlier this month after attempting suicide on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia were approved by UK authorities this week to receive asylum in a third country. Dozens of Sri Lankan asylum seekers still stranded on Diego Garcia have had their asylum claims rejected by UK authorities, prompting successive hunger strikes and at least 10 suicide attempts. The lawyer for the two asylum seekers in Rwanda said the opinions of medical experts in Rwanda were instrumental in securing asylum.
SYRIA: The UN is calling for the creation of an international body that would investigate some 100,000 missing persons in Syria. Families often can’t access intelligence material, or facilities where people are detained. “People in every part of the country and across all divides have loved ones who are missing, including family members who were forcibly disappeared, abducted, tortured and arbitrarily detained,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the General Assembly this week.
ZIMBABWE: The Gold Mafia, a four-part documentary by Al Jazeera, has exposed how huge amounts of gold are smuggled each month from Zimbabwe to Dubai through a web of shell companies and paid-off officials. Uebert Angel, presidential envoy and “ambassador-at-large” to Europe and the Americas since 2021, was secretly filmed bragging he could move $1.2 billion easily, due to his diplomatic immunity. Other senior officials have also been implicated. The revelations have caused uproar in Zimbabwe.
What if UN sex abuse survivors in the Global South were afforded the same remedies as those in the Global North, no matter whether they were staff or temporary employees? Is $250 enough to rebuild a life after abuse, which sometimes makes you a pariah in your own community? Where does “duty of care” fall into the discussions if victims were also workers? These are among many questions posed in our latest story looking at the hurdles for women seeking justice and accountability in the Ebola sex abuse scandal. Take Ketsia* as an example. She was working as a part-time cleaner for the World Health Organization during the 2018 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when a doctor invited her to his house and offered her a promotion in exchange for sex. He tried to rape her, but she managed to escape. Weeks later, her contract was terminated. Had she been a UN staffer, she would have had access to the UN’s own internal justice mechanisms, where workers have been awarded judgments equalling two years of salary – sometimes as much as $200,000. Similarly, had she taken such a case to US courts, settlements for workplace sexual abuse and harassment have reached tens of millions of dollars. Instead, she and other women lured into sex-for-work schemes in DR Congo by WHO personnel and other aid workers received one-off payments of $250, toiletry bundles, short training courses, and counselling sessions. The New Humanitarian isn’t in the business of making judgements. You can do that on your own by reading the facts in our coverage of such scandals and this week’s Weekend Read.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the survivor.
The real cost of your electric vehicle
It’s hard being righteous. You’ve bought your electric car to save the planet, maybe feel a little smug. Then along comes news that has the neighbourhood sneering and your cred in tatters. New research on the “living wage” shows that Congolese workers at the world’s largest industrial cobalt mines, who dig up the stuff that goes into the batteries that power your vehicle, are being cruelly exploited. Over 70% of the world’s cobalt is extracted in Kolwezi, in the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet a new calculation for the cost of living in Kolwezi shows mine worker salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation. The price of staple crops like cassava and maize has increased six-fold since 2021, but wages are largely static. UK-based corporate watchdog RAID and Kolwezi-based CAJJ, a Congolese legal aid centre, estimate the annual cost of paying a living wage to workers employed at the largest cobalt mine run by Glencore, the Swiss mining giant, would be less than 0.1% of the company’s profits last year.