The UN has appealed for record levels of funding to help those whose lives have been torn apart, but the gap between the funding needs and the funding available continues to grow.
And what makes the outlook especially bad for 2018 is that the political will needed to resolve conflicts, welcome refugees, and address climate change also appears to be waning. What a difference a year, a new US president, and a German election make.
Here’s our insider take on 10 crises that will shape the humanitarian agenda in 2018 (See 2017’s list here):
1. Syria’s sieges and displacement
As Syria heads towards seven years of war and Western governments quietly drop their demands for political transition, it has become increasingly clear that President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power, at least in some capacity.
But that doesn’t mean the violence or suffering is over: pockets of resistance are still being starved into submission and being denied aid – nearly three million Syrians still live in areas the UN defines as besieged or “hard to reach” (see: eastern Ghouta right now), while chemical weapons are deployed to horrifying effect.
There’s talk of reconstruction where the fighting has fizzled out, be it in areas brought under the government’s control or in cities like Raqqa, which is now controlled by Kurdish forces but has a mixed population that is beginning to come home, to utter destruction.
Investors are lining up for a slice of the rebuilding pie. But an average of 6,550 Syrians were displaced by violence each day in 2017. So what of the 6.1 million and counting displaced inside Syria – many sheltering in tents or unfinished buildings and facing another long winter – not to mention the 5.5 million refugees abroad? Will they have a say in how Syria is rebuilt? With reconstruction already a major bone of contention in peace talks and the EU planning to get involved in 2018, how this plays out is important and worth watching.
2. Congo unravels
You know the situation is bad when people start fleeing their homes, and it doesn’t get much worse than the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Here, violence in its eastern provinces has triggered the world’s worst displacement crisis – for a second year in a row. More than 1.7 million people abandoned their farms and villages this year, on top of 922,000 in 2016. The provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Kasai, and Tanganyika are the worst affected and the epicentres of unrest in the country.
New alliances of armed groups have emerged to take on a demoralised government army and challenge President Joseph Kabila in distant Kinshasa. He refused to step down and hold elections in 2016 when his constitutionally mandated two-term limit expired – and the political ambition of some of these groups is to topple him. These rebellions are a new addition to the regular lawlessness of armed groups and conflict entrepreneurs that have stalked the region for years. It is a confusing cast of characters, in which the army also plays a freelance role and, as IRIN reported this month, as an instigator of some of the rights abuses that are forcing civilians to flee.
As we enter 2018, more than 13 million people require humanitarian assistance and protection – that’s close to six million more people than at the start of 2017. Over three million people are severely food insecure in the Kasai region alone, their villages and fields looted. Aid is only slowly trickling in. The $812 million appeal for Congo is less than 50 percent funded. That lack of international commitment represents the single largest impediment to the humanitarian response.
3. Yemen slips further towards famine
If we repeat the words “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” so often that they starting to lose gravity, here are a few numbers that might help hammer home just how grim life has become after more than two and a half years of war in Yemen, a country of more than 29 million: 8.4 million people are on the verge of starvation; 400,000 children have severe acute malnutrition (that’s as bad as it gets), and more than 5,500 civilians have been killed.
Last January, we warned Yemen was at serious risk of sliding into famine. That now seems a near-certainty and may be unfolding right now, with the Saudi Arabian-led coalition continuing to restrict or at least delay commercial imports of food and fuel (among other goods), causing prices to shoot up and meaning those on the margin no longer have enough cash to buy the bare necessities.
And what of that cholera epidemic that killed 2,226 and infected nearly a million since April before receding? Nobody has been vaccinated, fuel shortages mean less clean water, and the rainy season is coming. All of this combines to create a real risk that the disease will make a comeback. Diphtheria is on the rise, too. None of this happens in a vacuum: without proper nutrition, Yemenis are increasingly susceptible to illness.
4. South Sudan – it could get even worse
A much-anticipated ceasefire in South Sudan didn’t last long.
It came into effect at midnight on Christmas Eve, and a few hours later government and rebel forces were fighting around the northern town of Koch in Unity State. The violence hasn’t derailed the peace talks underway in Addis Ababa, but it does point to how difficult it will be for the internationally-backed diplomatic process to shape events on the ground.
The ceasefire is between President Salva Kiir and several rebel groups, but confidence is low that negotiations can bring a quick and decisive end to a war entering its fifth year.
South Sudan has fragmented, with a host of ethnic militias emerging with shifting loyalties. The various members of this so-called “gun class” all want a seat at the table, in the belief that any future agreement will be based on a power-sharing deal and a division of the country’s resources along the lines of the last failed settlement.
The international community lacks leverage and neighbouring countries don’t have the unity of purpose necessary to achieve a broad-based and sustainable peace agreement.
What that means is that more refugees – on top of an existing two million – will continue to pour across the country’s borders as the fighting season resumes.
It also means some seven million people inside the country – almost two thirds of the remaining population – will still need humanitarian assistance; hunger will also continue to threaten millions as a result of the war, displacement, and collapse of the rural economy. And yes, there will be the threat of renewed famine
One final ingredient in the brew of despair is that the humanitarian community’s access to those in need will be constrained by both the prevailing insecurity and the government’s cynical taxation of aid operations.
5. CAR – where humanitarians fear to tread
There are many reasons why Central African Republic was officially the unhappiest country in the world in 2017.
You can start with the 50 percent increase in the number of displaced, bringing the total to 633,000 people. Then there are the more than two million hungry people, and the half a million who have figured it’s just too hard to stay and have left for neighbouring countries.
It’s not much fun being an aid worker either. In November another humanitarian worker was killed in the north of the country, bringing to 14 the number to have died this year. The level of violence has forced aid agencies to repeatedly suspend operations as their personnel, convoys, and bases are deliberately targeted.
Behind the insecurity is a four-year conflict between competing armed groups that neither a weak government nor an under-staffed UN peacekeeping mission can contain. It pits mainly Muslim ex-Séléka rebels against Christian anti-Balaka, but some of the worst fighting has its roots in the splintering of the Séléka coalition and a feud between former allies
The violence across the country boils down to the lucrative control of natural resources and the taxes the groups raise from checkpoints. Such is the insecurity that the government’s writ doesn’t even cover all of the capital, Bangui.
6. Rohingya refugees in limbo; forgotten conflicts simmer elsewhere in Myanmar
After a catastrophic year in which more than 655,000 people were driven out of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, it’s hard to imagine 2018 could go any worse for the Rohingya minority.
But, with nearly a million Rohingya refugees crowded into overloaded settlements in southern Bangladesh, the new year brings a host of new questions.
The sudden exodus of refugees captured the world’s attention, but as the crisis shifts from emergency response to long-term survival, will the focus – and funding – keep pace with the pressing needs on the ground? Can the fragile settlements withstand a significant storm, or even the seasonal monsoon rains that will fall in a few short months? And will the Bangladeshi and Myanmar authorities try to make good on a plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees despite warnings from any number of aid groups, rights monitors, and UN agencies, and a troubling history of less-than-voluntary returns?
While Rakhine State smoulders, long-simmering conflicts continue to fly under the radar elsewhere in Myanmar. Clashes between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups in the country’s north have escalated, largely out of the public spotlight. In northern Kachin and Shan states, some 100,000 people have been uprooted since 2011, when a government ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army collapsed. Roughly 40 percent of these people live in areas outside government control. But Myanmar has also put limits on aid access to areas even under its authority, mirroring the more publicised restrictions in place in Rakhine. Buried somewhere is Myanmar’s long-stalled peace process involving myriad ethnic armed groups operating across the country. A new round of talks is set for later in January. But with only a handful of armed groups on board with a tenuous ceasefire agreement and other key players excluded entirely, a politically negotiated peace remains elusive.
7. Afghans return to flaring conflict
Afghanistan begins 2018 facing another volatile year.
Conflict has displaced more than one million Afghans over the last two years. But added to this are the ever-growing numbers of Afghans returning from (or rather kicked out of) Europe and neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran. They’re coming back to a country that the UN in August concluded was no longer in “post-conflict” mode but in active conflict once again, one where a resurgent Taliban and emboldened Islamic State-aligned militants vie for control as the government’s grasp weakens.
The problem can be summarised in one ominous chart, which shows US military estimates that the Afghan government has influence in less than 57 percent of the country’s districts.
The raging conflict has had disastrous impacts on Afghan civilians. Last year saw civilian casualties soar to near record-high levels, and an escalating number of people were killed in attacks targeting places of worship – something the UN has called a “disturbing” new element to the violence. Healthcare continues to come under siege, with skirmishes severing access to hospitals and clinics, and aid workers caught in the crossfire.
The next 12 months could prove an even greater challenge. January is the start of Afghanistan’s food “lean season”, which will hit those already uprooted by conflict particularly hard. It’s now begrudgingly accepted that a viable peace settlement must include the Taliban – a once unthinkable suggestion – but there has been “no meaningful progress”. With parliamentary elections scheduled for July 2018, the battle for control of Afghanistan will continue on multiple fronts as the snows melt and the fighting resumes in earnest.
8. Venezuelan exodus to strain neighbours
The descent of Venezuela from oil-rich powerhouse to economic basketcase has been well chronicled.
Less thoroughly reported, partly due to media restrictions under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Hugo Chávez’s successor, President Nicolas Máduro, has been the extent of the humanitarian crisis. Shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation have led to growing reports of severe childhood malnutrition in addition to a general healthcare crisis, and to more than a million Venezuelans fleeing the country.
If 2017 was the year when the scale of crisis within Venezuela began to reveal itself, 2018 is set to be when the full effects are felt beyond its borders. The political situation underpinning this crisis is only likely to worsen. Elections, slated for December 2018, are expected to be brought forward and foisted upon a weary, hungry, and increasingly desperate electorate that is sharply divided. Unrest or government crackdowns will only send more Venezuelans pouring over the border. There are already signs that regional hospitality is wearing thin and of emergency camps being prepared. The International Monetary Fund predicted that Venezuela’s triple-digit inflation could soar to more than 2,300 percent in 2018. As the year closed out, opposition parties were barred from the election, a main opposition leader was banned from political activity for 15 years, and violent pro-democracy protests rocked the capital, Caracas. None of this augurs well.
9. Libya: Africa’s giant holding cell
An AU-EU summit at the end of 2017 seemed to offer a glimmer of hope for the 700,000 to one million migrants stuck in the nightmare that is Libya.
It produced a plan to repatriate those who want it, and to move others from squalid detention centres into better conditions.
Some flights home did subsequently take off, and a first group (of 162 refugees and migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen) was even evacuated by the UN on 22 December from Libya to Italy. But we’ve yet to see how this scheme will play out, and there are some serious obstacles. Many migrants have nowhere safe to return to, and it’s not clear how a UN-backed government that controls little in the way of territory or popular support will manage to move and protect migrants in a country with multiple governments, militias, and tribes.
That the meeting even got press (in large part thanks to a CNN film of what appeared to be a slave auctions) in an oft-ignored country is a sign of how little the world cares about the mostly sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya, for whom kidnapping, extortion, and rape have become the norm.
European policy has largely focused on keeping migrants from boarding boats in the Mediterranean or reaching their shores – creating a situation that is bad enough for Libyans and shockingly worse for Africans. At the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron mooted a military and police initiative inside Libya, plus UN sanctions for people-smugglers. How this could actually work is anyone’s guess, and it seems unlikely to get at the source of many migrants’ woes: the lack of legal avenues to get out of the desperate situations that brought them to Libya’s hell in the first place.
10. A year of turmoil in Cameroon
It’s taken just over a year for political agitation in Cameroon’s anglophone region to turn into armed opposition against the government of President Paul Biya.
Separatism was only a fringe idea until the government cracked down hard on protesters demanding greater representation for the neglected minority region. Now, government soldiers are being killed, Biya is promising all-out war, and thousands of refugees are fleeing into neighbouring Nigeria.
Anglophone Cameroon is becoming radicalised. Refugees recounting experiences of killings by the security forces talk of revenge, and commentators worry that the opportunity for negotiations with more moderate anglophone leaders – those pursuing a policy of civil disobedience and diplomatic pressure on Yaoundé – may be rapidly shrinking.
If the government believes there is a military solution to the activists’ demands for an independent “Ambazonia”, made up of the two anglophone regions of western Cameroon, they may well be mistaken. Where the separatists’ training camps are being established, next to the Nigerian border, is a remote and heavily forested zone – ideal for guerrilla warfare.
Biya, 85 in February and in power for the past 35 years, is standing in elections once again in 2018. The “anglophone crisis” and the potential of an even larger refugee exodus will not only leave him politically damaged but could be regionally destabilising, especially as Nigeria faces its own separatist challenge.