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Humanitarian crisis looms in Madagascar amid drought and pandemic

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A child undergoes a malnutrition test in Madagascar. WFP/Tsiory Andriantsoarana

In southern Madagascar, “famine-like conditions” have doubled the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance compared with last year, to more than 1.3 million. Successive droughts and a lack of jobs linked to COVID-19 restrictions are to blame, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday.

“We have seen the doubling of the numbers of food-insecure between the data we had in July 2020 and November 2020; we moved from 700,000 people food-insecure in the Grand South or Grand Sud of Madagascar, to 1.3 million”, said Lola Castro, WFP Regional director for Southern Africa and Indian Ocean States.

Speaking by video link to journalists during a scheduled briefing in Geneva, Ms. Castro appealed for $35 million.

She insisted that urgent action was needed to stave off a humanitarian crisis, with a third of those in Southern Madagascar struggling to put food on the table.

Climate vulnerable

Part of the current crisis is linked to Madagascar’s vulnerability to climate shocks, a problem it shares with the southern African region, the WFP official said.

“The rains that normally come November-December, we only had one day of rain in December in the whole region. And the thunderstorms have been blasting…and destroying and burying the crops that were there”, she added. “The result is famine-like conditions”, with 1.3 million people food insecure, 135,000 children moderately, severely or acutely malnourished.

With markets closed because of COVID-19 restrictions and people forced to sell their possessions to survive, the UN agency warned that drought conditions are set to persist well into 2021, with many forced to leave their homes in search of food and work. 

“In 2020 the population of the South relies on casual labour and goes to urban areas or to the fields to really have additional funds that will allow them to survive during the lean season, that is normally between November and April every year”, Ms. Castro explained. “But this year there was no labour, they moved around without finding any labour anywhere, both in urban areas or in the rural areas, due to the drought and due to the COVID lockdown.” 

Eating mud, roots and leaves

The situation has forced people to eat “whatever they can find”, Ms. Castro continued. “Cactus mixed with mud, roots, whatever they can find, leaves, seeds, whatever is available. And the situation really is more dramatic because this year also the funds have not arrived enough on time to really be able to procure food or to provide cash transfers to these people.” 

Children have been worst affected by the food crisis, WFP warned, with global acute malnutrition (GAM) in children under five, in the three most affected regions (Androy, Anôsy and Atsimo Andrefana), faced by 10.7 per cent of youngsters.

“This is the second highest rate in the East and Southern Africa region. The most recent projections put the number of children likely to suffer from acute malnutrition at more than 135,000, with more than 27,000 of these classified as severe”, the agency said in a statement.

75 per cent ‘foraging for food’

“Children have abandoned schools. 75 per cent of the children in this area are either begging or foraging for food”, Ms. Castro said, before highlighting the extraordinary nature of the current emergency.

“What we are saying here is that the situation we’re facing in southern Madagascar is not normal. It’s very different to any normal year of crisis and that we really need to act immediately; 300,000 people need at the moment safe-living support.” 

In a bid to promote resilience among the most vulnerable communities, WFP and partners have worked with women’s groups “to change, diversify the food they produce, try to produce different type of nutrients for the children”, Ms. Castro said, noting that it cost around $45 a month to feed a family of five. “But we haven’t reach everybody and it’s not enough.” 

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Africa Today

CAR: Displacement reaches 120,000 amid worsening election violence

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Poll workers carry ballot boxes during the 27 December 2020 presidential elections in the Central African Republic. MINUSCA/Leonel Grothe

“Worsening” election violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) has forced 120,000 people from their homes, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Friday. 

In an appeal for an immediate end to all bloodshed – which has included deadly clashes with UN peacekeepers – UNHCR also said that mass displacement has continued outside the country since the 27 December Presidential poll, reversing a trend of people returning to CAR in recent years. 

“What is clear is the situation has evolved, it has worsened, we have seen that the number of refugees has doubled in just one week”, said spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov, during a scheduled press briefing in Geneva. 

Despite attempts by rebel groups to obstruct presidential and legislative elections, on 27 December, nearly two million Central Africans successfully cast their votes. 

UNHCR and partners in CAR “are gathering reports of abuses by armed groups, including of sexual violence, attacks on voters and pillaging”, Mr. Cheshirkov continued, underscoring the agency’s call “for an immediate return of all parties to meaningful dialogue and progress towards peace”. 

“We were reporting 30,000 refugees last Friday, today it’s already 60,000, and much of that is the increase we’ve seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This is coming with reports of intensified violence, people are being forced to move from their home and the situation has not calmed down for the moment.” 

‘Fear and dread’ 

Echoing concerns for the deteriorating situation, the UN-appointed independent rights expert for CAR called on Friday for the arrest and prosecution of all those “who continue to fuel violence” there. 

Because of them, the country’s people live in “fear and dread”, said Yao Agbetse, before deploring the fact that Central Africans “were unable to exercise their right to vote and that many were victims of torture or ill-treatment and death threats for exercising their right to vote in the first round of elections”.  

Calling out the so-called Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), Mr Agbetse alleged that the group  had “obstructed the country’s electoral campaign in December, prevented the deployment of election materials, disrupted the mobilisation of voters to carry out their democratic right and burned polling stations”. 

The CPC had also recruited children for its work, the rights expert maintained, “a crime under international law”. 

Several localities were targeted, including Kaga Bandoro, Bossangoa, Batangafo, Bozoum, Bocaranga, Koui, Carnot “and other locations in the centre, west, and east of the country”, along with the capital, Bangui on 13 January, said the rights expert, who reports to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.   

In his statement, Mr Agbetse noted that CAR’s “already fragile humanitarian situation” had worsened, with “more than half of the population in vital need of humanitarian assistance”.  

Prices soaring 

The premises of some humanitarian organisations had been ransacked, he added, while basic necessities “are becoming scarcer and their prices are soaring in Bangui because of insecurity on the supply routes to the capital”. 

Today, schools and training centres are closed outside the capital “and pastoralists and farmers can no longer carry out their activities because of insecurity and fear. Ultimately, food insecurity and extreme poverty are likely to worsen,” Mr. Agbetse said. 

10,000 cross in just 24 hours 

On Wednesday alone, 10,000 people crossed the Ubangui river that separates the two countries, UNHCR’s Mr. Cheshirkov said. 

He added that in addition to the 50,000 refugees in DRC, another 9,000 have reached Cameroon, Chad and the Republic of Congo in the past month. 

In an appeal for funds, the spokesperson said the inaccessible terrain and poor infrastructure along the Ubangui river where people have sheltered, has complicated aid access. 

“UNHCR was already seeking $151.5 million this year to respond to the CAR situation. The needs of the recently displaced Central Africans are mounting, and we will soon face a substantial funding shortfall,” Mr. Cheshirkov explained 

Inside the Central African Republic, another 58,000 people remain displaced.

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Ethiopia: Safe access and swift action needed for refugees in Tigray

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Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

The head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on Wednesday expressed his deep concern over the humanitarian situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, including its impact on Eritrean refugees hosted there. 

The conflict between the Ethiopian Government and regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began in early November, when the Prime Minister ordered a military offensive after rebels attacked a federal army base. Government forces reported that the region had been secured at the end of November, but TPLF resistance has continued amid accusations of extrajudicial killings and rights abuses. 

Despite some positive developments in accessing and assisting vulnerable populations, since the start of the Government operation, UNHCR’s repeated requests to access the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps have gone unanswered. 

“I am very worried for the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in those camps”, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “They have been without any aid for many weeks”.  

UNHCR continues to receive many reliable reports and first-hand accounts of ongoing insecurity and allegations of grave and distressing human rights abuses, such as killings, targeted abductions and forced return of refugees to Eritrea, said Mr. Grandi. 

Moreover, the agency has learned of additional military incursions over the last 10 days that are consistent with open-source satellite imagery showing new fires and other fresh signs of destruction at the two camps.  

“These are concrete indications of major violations of international law”, the High Commissioner spelled out. 

Doubly distressed 

Ethiopia has long given refuge to people fleeing conflict and persecution.  

The federal Government has provided assurances of measures are to minimize the impact of the conflict on civilians.  

“I have impressed upon the Ethiopian leadership, the urgency of ensuring the protection of refugees, preventing forced return and keeping refugee camps safe from attacks and other threats from armed actors”, said Mr. Grandi.  

Equally distressing, he said, is that UNHCR teams have been unable to assist the thousands of Eritrean refugees who continue to flee the camps in search of safety and support.  

“Refugees arriving on foot to Shire town in Tigray are emaciated, begging for aid that is not available”, recounted the High Commissioner.  

Against the backdrop that refugees who had reached Addis Ababa are being returned to Tigray, some against their will, he reiterated the UN-wide call for “full and unimpeded access” to explore “all options to safely provide desperately needed assistance”. 

Unwavering commitment 

In line with the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality, UNHCR stands committed to work with the Ethiopian Government in protecting and assisting those forced to flee.  

“We remain available to seek solutions – together – to the current humanitarian problems in a spirit of collaboration and constructive partnership”, said the UNHCR chief. “Safe access and swift action are needed now to save thousands of lives at risk”.

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Africa Today

Insecurity and bureaucracy hampering aid to Ethiopia’s Tigray region

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photo: UNFPA/Sufian Abdul-Mouty

Nearly three months after the start of conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, hundreds of thousands of people have yet to receive assistance, the United Nations reported on Wednesday, citing information from its humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA.

“Humanitarian assistance continues to be constrained by the lack of full, and safe, unhindered access to Tigray, caused by both insecurity and bureaucratic delays”, UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told journalists

“The UN and its humanitarian partners in Ethiopia urgently call on all parties to allow the immediate safe passage of humanitarian personnel and their supplies to the Tigray Region to be able to reach all people who desperately need assistance.” 

Over two million in need 

Mr. Dujarric said the UN continues to receive alarming reports of civilians being injured and killed in rural areas in Tigray, as well as of violations against civilians, though verification remains a challenge.  

“Aid workers have been able to deliver assistance in some areas, mainly in cities, where access has been granted by the authorities. However, the number of people reached is extremely low compared to the 2.3 million people we estimate are in need of life-saving assistance”, he said. 

The situation is particularly critical for newly displaced people and refugees, especially those who were living in two camps that remain inaccessible, according to OCHA

Humanitarians further warn that the majority of the 270,000 people receiving benefits through the Government’s Safety Net Programme have also been without assistance as banks in most rural areas have been closed since before the crisis began. 

“These are extremely vulnerable people who rely on monthly cash transfers to meet their basic needs,” said Mr. Dujarric.

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