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Let’s remember all humanitarian crises

The situation in Ukraine is dire; no one disputes this. It understandably warrants outrage and action, but in manifesting our concern for those in need in Eastern Europe we would do well to understand both the broader ramifications of this conflict and to extend our outrage and efforts to those in need in equally horrendous wars and conflicts elsewhere. The threat of starvation in Afghanistan has not gone away because the world is looking at Ukraine nor has the daily suffering of Yemenis suddenly improved, nor the lives of millions of others around the world living through conflict and instability.

We have been speaking to our members, including the Linda Norgrove foundation about Afghanistan. They said:

“There was a sense of being caught unaware, of disbelief, when the Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021 and the coalition troops rapidly withdrew. Since then, the political upheavals, huge societal shifts, and the collapse of the banking system have pushed many Afghan families well below the poverty line. The situation has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, drought across many parts of the country, and the harsh weather conditions over the winter months. The UN has recently announced that it believes that 97% of Afghans could be below the poverty line by mid-2022 unless international trade and aid resumes. 

“We now find ourselves funding emergency aid – food parcels, distribution of stoves and firewood, clothes for orphans and poor children. These are now essential, life-saving initiatives and only time will give us the clarity to understand how best to move forward with the more proactive on the ground project work.” 

We also spoke to Islamic Relief operating in Yemen, and they said:

“In Yemen, more than 17 million people face acute hunger, with an estimated 2.3 million children under the age of five currently suffering from acute malnutrition – 400,000 of these are severely malnourished and at risk of death unless they get urgent aid.

“Seven years of conflict have destroyed millions of lives and left the country’s infrastructure and economy in ruins, with the country facing catastrophe. Hospitals and schools have been bombed and half of the country’s health facilities have shut down. Unemployment is rising and the cost of food and essential supplies has spiralled out of reach for poor families.” 

Citizens of Europe have been generous in their offer of support to fleeing Ukrainians, and the speed of events has been overwhelming but this should not distract us from the large numbers of refugees in different countries around the world, including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Uganda as well as the number of Venezuelans now present in Colombia. 

We spoke with Tony Collins from Mishwar, a Scottish charity working in Akkar, Lebanon who said:

“We sympathise deeply with those suffering in Ukraine and we ask the world not to forget our communities still suffering, or the many others throughout our region and across the world.

“We work in refugee communities in the most neglected region of Lebanon – Akkar-, on Lebanon’s norther border with Syria. Many of our friends and colleagues fled the war in Syria between 5 and 10 years ago and in our region we also have close contact with many Palestinian friends and colleagues, still struggling for justice more than 70 years after the initial terror. On a weekly basis we still have women, children and whole families fleeing the destruction in Syria, coming to our communities, seeking safety and protection – despite the war having diminished in recent times. Our daily experience reminds us that the initial violence which causes vast numbers of people to flee is only the first stage in a brutal and prolonged refugee struggle for so many millions.”

Some of these host countries – and many others across the world with live conflict zones – are about to be hit by one of the other consequences of this war for the world’s poorest:  the massive hike in the cost of wheat, corn and sunflower oil as well as the sudden need to find new suppliers.   

Until now the World Food Programme (WFP) has bought more than 50% of its grain stocks from Ukraine. According to WFP, with Ukrainian ports closed and Russian grain deals on pause because of sanctions, 13.5 million tons of wheat and 16 million tons of maize are currently frozen in Russia and Ukraine.1 In fact, according to the WFP, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has major implications for food security across the world

Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Syria are particularly vulnerable to any hold-up on wheat imports, on which millions of people are heavily dependent. These countries, where WFP is running emergency operations, are already reeling from the combined effect of conflict, climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and rising costs.   

Graeme McMeekin, Head of Tearfund Scotland said:

“Whilst it is devastating to see the events taking place in Ukraine and the surrounding region, we are acutely aware of the impact that this will have on other humanitarian crises. As Ukraine and Russia export almost a third of the world’s wheat, recent events have and will continue to cause a sharp increase in its global price. This will have a catastrophic impact on many low-income countries who are already struggling. 

“Across the Horn of Africa – a region comprising Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda – a hunger crisis of colossal proportions has been building for months. Three rainy seasons in a row have failed, with below-average rainfall forecast for a fourth. This on top of the devastation caused by the locust swarms of 2019-2021, as well as violence such as the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. More than 13 million people are waking up severely hungry every day. Alarmingly, cuts to the UK aid budget, combined with attention being turned to Ukraine, means that this crisis could miss out on life-saving funding.” 

Will our screens be equally full of pictures of the struggles facing people in Ethiopia as of those fleeing Ukraine? It is unlikely, not least because of the limited presence of ‘independent’ journalists on the ground.  But the reality of conflict goes on for civilians in Tigray in Ethiopia, Marib in Yemen, and elsewhere in the world. 

We also spoke to Mercy Corps, who operate in over 40 different countries around the world, and see firsthand the difficulties facing many communities:

“Mercy Corps is on the ground in Ukraine, Poland and Romania urgently responding to the devastating humanitarian crisis unfolding in the region. But whilst the world’s eyes are on Ukraine, it is vital that other crises are not forgotten in its wake. 

“Our global team of 5,400 humanitarians work in over 40 countries around the world. We work side by side with people living through poverty, disaster, violent conflict, and the acute impacts of climate change. From Syria to Yemen to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Somalia, Mercy Corps helps people meet their urgent needs, whether that is access to clean water or nutritious food, rebuild their livelihoods and create a more peaceful future where communities can better prepare for and withstand future crises.” 

Until a few weeks ago people talked about compassion fatigue; there were real concerns that response to humanitarian appeals would stalemate. The response to the DEC appeal for Afghanistan seemed to belie this – the overwhelming response to Ukraine has gone further. The generosity of ordinary citizens donating scarce funds, baby clothes and opening up their homes apparently knows no limit when refugees are from closer to home.   

That reality is true across the world. It remains true that most refugees take refuge close to home and that means the worlds poorest countries are still hosting most refugees in the world. As we open our hearts to those suffering in Ukraine, let us also remember all the others suffering throughout the world.

Campaigns mentioned throughout this article:

Islamic Relief – Yemen Emergency Appeal

Linda Norgrove Foundation – Afghanistan

Tearfund Scotland – Ethiopia Crisis Appeal

Mercy Corps – Syria

Mishwar – Lebanon

1 Ukraine war: More countries will ‘feel the burn’ as food and energy price rises fuel hunger, warns WFP
Cover photograph: families and refugees from the area of Al Minsalah in Yemen, found refuge in informal settlments or in camps in nearby Haddjah governorate. ECHO/H. Veit

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