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By Kristy Siegfried | 16 October, 2020

THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES

Mounting civilian death toll in Burkina Faso as new attacks kill 20 people. Militants killed at least 20 people in attacks on three villages in northern Burkina Faso on Wednesday, according to government officials, taking the civilian death toll to over 1,000 this year. A tally reported previously by the New York Times found that, in the first nine months of 2020 alone, militant raids killed 982 civilians. Militant Islamic violence in the country has skyrocketed since 2015 and the number of people forced from their homes has doubled in the past year to over one million, according to UNHCR which warned today that the Central Sahel region, which includes Mali and Niger as well as Burkina Faso, is at the epicentre of the world’s fastest growing displacement and protection crisis. The agency warned of “disastrous consequences” unless humanitarian efforts are urgently supported. Spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov described “ghastly and systemic” brutality against civilians at the hands of armed groups, including widespread sexual and gender-based violence and attacks on schools affecting tens of thousands of schoolchildren. Humanitarian agencies are struggling to meet the fast-growing needs of displaced people and the communities hosting them. A donor pledging conference for the Central Sahel is due to take place in Copenhagen on 20 October.

Thousands flee fighting in southern Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province fled their homes this week following days of heavy fighting between the Taliban and government forces that began on Sunday night when Taliban fighters launched a series of attacks in and around the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. By Wednesday, local authorities estimated that 40,000 people had fled their homes. An official told AFP that some families were staying in the open without shelter while staff at local hospitals told the BBC they had admitted dozens of casualties. A number of health facilities have had to close due to threats to staff, according to an update by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The fighting is the most severe since peace talks between the government and the Taliban opened in Doha last month.

Refugee women across Africa report rise in domestic violence during COVID-19. Nearly three-quarters of refugee and displaced women in 15 African countries reported an increase in domestic violence since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report published on Thursday by the International Rescue Committee. The findings are based on a survey of 850 women living in East Africa, West Africa and the Great Lakes region. They also reported a 51 per cent increase in sexual violence while 32 per cent said they had observed a growth in early or forced marriage. Interviewees said the knock-on effects of COVID-19 on family income had increased stress and worsened violence within households and communities as well as forcing them to spend more time with their abusers. In her annual address to UNHCR’s Executive Committee meeting last week, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, expressed concern about spikes in gender-based violence during the pandemic, noting that some UNHCR offices had received 10 times the usual number of calls asking for protection.


ONE QUESTION FOR…

Gabriela Cunha Ferraz, a sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) officer with UNHCR at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya

How have you adapted services for refugee survivors of gender-based violence and women at risk of violence since the start of the pandemic?   

“Normally, we’re in the field every day and see up to 120 refugees a day. But in March, we realized we weren’t able to do our normal activities, so it forced us to think about different ways of reaching people. One thing we came up with was a WhatsApp account on the SGBV helpline number. If someone doesn’t have the privacy to talk to us on the phone, they can chat with a case worker on WhatsApp.

“Another thing we’ve done is radio shows. We have a community radio station at Kakuma with a very large audience among the refugees. With our partners, FilmAid and the Danish Refugee Council, we organized a monthly show with case workers to talk about gender violence, covering different topics each time. The idea is to deliver clear information on how refugees can access our services during the pandemic.

“We’re also relying a lot nowadays on our community workers. They’re refugees who live in the camps and know everyone in their zone and have been trained to safe identify cases of SGBV, respecting the needed confidentiality. So if there’s a report of gender violence, they can go and check on the survivor and refer cases to us.”


STORIES TO WATCH

Venezuelans once again brave route made tougher by pandemic. After months of COVID-19 lockdowns that slowed the movement of people fleeing hardships in Venezuela to other countries in the region, PRI reports that thousands of Venezuelans are again hitting the roads through Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The pandemic has made their route tougher. Border closures are forcing them to use informal pathways that are controlled by criminal groups. Meanwhile, many of the shelters that previously offered respite for those making long journeys on foot through mountainous terrain have been shut down to prevent potential infections and truck drivers are less willing to offer rides to weary walkers. Despite the challenges, Colombian immigration officials said in September that they expect 200,000 Venezuelans to arrive in the country before the end of the year.

Evacuations of refugees and asylum-seekers from Libya resume. A group of 153 vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers were evacuated from Libya on Thursday night on a UNCHR-chartered flight to Niger. It was the first such flight since March when all humanitarian flights were put on hold due to the closure of global borders because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly all the evacuees had been arbitrarily held in detention centres in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in dire conditions, some for as long as two years. They all tested negative for COVID-19 prior to the flight and are now undergoing a two-week quarantine in Niger. The agency estimates that more than 3,400 migrants and asylum-seekers remain in government-run detention centres where they are at risk of serious abuse. An unknown number are also held in unofficial centres or warehouses controlled by smugglers and traffickers.

Jump in climate-related disasters taking heavy human toll. The last two decades saw the number of disasters caused by extreme weather nearly double, according to a report issued ahead of International Day of Disaster Risk Reduction on 13 October. Worsening floods and storms accounted for about fourth fifths of 7,348 major disasters from 2000 to 2019, but major increases were also recorded for droughts, wildfires, and heatwaves. Mami Mizoutori, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative for disaster risk reduction, said countries had made progress in evacuating people to safety and cutting death tolls from floods and cyclones, but that the odds “continue to be stacked against them” as the climate emergency expands. She called for governments to invest in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.


GET INSPIRED

Ghaith, 13, dreams of playing football for his favourite team – Real Madrid. As a Syrian refugee living in an impoverished neighbourhood of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where he worked with his father and brother selling vegetables, the dream seemed impossibly far-fetched. But this week Ghaith and his family flew to Madrid as part of a group of Syrian refugees whose resettlement to Spain had been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I feel like we have been reborn,” said his father, Samer, shortly before their departure.


DID YOU KNOW?

More than 1.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and 365,000 refugees have fled violence in the Central Sahel, including over 600,000 this year alone.