The eyes of the world’s press in 2017 were mostly focused on the high-profile controversies of the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency in the US; China’s rise to global leadership — following the retreat of the US under Trump — in key fields like international trade and climate action; and a number of global crises including North Korea’s provocative nuclear tests, the Rohingya humanitarian catastrophe in Myanmar, and the dangerous scattering of Islamic State fighters following the rout of their strongholds in Iraq and Syria. 2017 also witnessed several other major humanitarian crises which, given the scale of the human suffering involved, were underreported by the world’s press. The following is a survey of just three of these underreported crises.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is notable for suffering more than one such major humanitarian crisis in 2017. In mid-2017, a rebellion in the Kasai region in south-central DRC witnessed over 3,000 deaths and the displacement of 1.4 million people, including almost 850,000 children. In December, a separate crisis in eastern DRC flared up with the killings of at least 14 UN peacekeepers in North Kivu province. This attack was “the second deadliest ever on UN blue helmets — the highest toll since 26 Pakistani peacekeepers were killed in Somalia in 1993.” The attack on the UN base was intense, “involving scores of heavily armed attackers and lasting several hours,” and apart from the fatalities, the attack also left over 50 peacekeepers injured.
The crisis in eastern DRC, like the Kasai rebellion, has its roots in the local discontent with the leadership of DRC President Joseph Kabila, who has ignored the constitutional term limits on the presidency and refused to step down from office. In the eastern DRC, the surge in activity of the anti-government militias has been exacerbated by the concurrent activity of “criminal gangs that engage in kidnapping and banditry,” as well as their clashes with the DRC military which itself “has regularly been accused of carrying out attacks on civilians,” including the recently-documented campaign of rape and sexual violence committed by DRC troops in South Kivu province.
Even before the attack on the UN peacekeepers, the escalating violence in eastern DRC had “displaced a million people in the first half of this year, on top of 922,000 in 2016,” and in October the UN had declared the DRC a Level 3 emergency, “its highest level of crisis.” The attack on the UN base will exacerbate the crisis by reducing the number of UN patrols and reducing the availability of UN escorts for “humanitarians who rely on them to help provide access.” This will be devastating for the local people, as the general absence of DRC government services in the east has left the civilian population in that region dependent on the humanitarian services provided by “outside actors such as UN agencies and NGOs.”
The crisis in South Sudan erupted in December 2013 when civil war broke out between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. The conflict had an ethnic character which escalated the violence: “Soldiers from the Dinka ethnic group, one of the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, aligned with President Kiir and those from the Nuer ethnic group, the other largest ethnic group, supported Riek Machar … Since the outbreak of conflict, armed groups have targeted civilians along ethnic lines, committed rape and sexual violence, destroyed property and looted villages, and recruited children into their ranks.”
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has described the refugee crisis triggered by the South Sudanese civil war as a “children’s refugee crisis,” as “63 per cent of all South Sudanese refugees are under 18.”
As with the crisis in the DRC, the UN has declared South Sudan to be a Level 3 emergency. The violence has killed over 50,000 people and led to the displacement of over 4 million — consisting of 1.9 million internally displaced people and 2.1 million refugees who have fled the DRC, including a million who have sought refuge in Uganda. A food crisis has also been triggered by the civil war, as farmers have been prevented from “planting or harvesting crops, causing food shortages nationwide. In July 2014, the UN Security Council declared South Sudan’s food crisis the worst in the world. It warned that some four million people—a third of South Sudan’s population—could be affected and up to fifty thousand children could die of hunger.” The situation is poised to become worse in 2018, as “an earlier than normal start of the lean season will result in an estimated 5.1 million people, or 48 per cent of the population, being classified as severely food insecure between January-March 2018.”
As the civil war enters its fifth year, UNICEF has warned of the conflict’s dreadful toll on South Sudan’s children, with over a million being acutely malnourished, while three million others are severely food insecure. Over 2,300 children have been killed or been injured in the war, 2.4 million others have been displaced, and almost 900,000 “suffer from psychological distress.” The rival armed groups have recruited 19,000 child soldiers into their ranks, and human rights workers have reported “hundreds of incidents of rape and sexual assault against children.”
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has described the refugee crisis triggered by the South Sudanese civil war as a “children’s refugee crisis,” as “63 per cent of all South Sudanese refugees are under 18,” and “many children are arriving unaccompanied, separated and deeply traumatised.” In addition, “refugee women arriving in neighbouring countries have also reported repeated rape, the killing of their husbands, and abduction of their children.” Indeed, South Sudan has created “the largest refugee crisis on the African continent,” and “the refugee population could exceed three million by December 2018.”
In early November 2017, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock warned that a blockade imposed on Yemen by a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia threatened to plunge the country into “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades.” The Saudi-led coalition has been battling Yemen’s Houthi insurgency for the past 3 years, leaving 10,000 dead and over 2 million displaced, and the conflict has left Yemen dependent on imports which provide “up to 90 per cent of its daily needs,” while “millions in the country are being kept alive by humanitarian aid,” especially since the destruction from the war has “collapsed the country's health, and water and sanitation systems.”
While the Saudi-led coalition did partially ease the blockade in late November, Lowcock warned that this was still grossly insufficient. Millions of Yemenis remained “right on the brink of famine,” and only a full lifting of the blockade would be sufficient to avoid the looming disaster. Indeed, in late November the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs noted that famine — “excess mortality as a cause and consequence of undernourishment” — could already have begun in parts of Yemen. In addition, the weakened health of the people, and the damage inflicted on the country’s healthcare, sanitation, and water systems, have together created the dangerous conditions that have led to the outbreak of deadly epidemics, including a cholera outbreak that has killed over 2,000 people this year.
While the artificial scarcity imposed by the conflict would be resolved by the conflict’s peaceful resolution, such a resolution seems even further away given the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency’s recently intensified belligerence, as seen in their firing of ballistic missiles at the Saudi capital Riyadh on November 4 and December 19. Indeed, should the intensified fighting spread to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, the humanitarian catastrophe would become “unthinkable,” as the heavily-populated port city — which hosts over 100,000 internally displaced people — is the gateway for “the majority of Yemen’s staple food and fuel” to enter the country. A battle at Hodeidah would not only plunge the country into famine, it would also force the displacement of up to half a million people.
Childhood under attack: The staggering impact of South Sudan’s crisis on children. (2017, December 15). UNICEF.
Civil war in South Sudan. (2017, December 19). Council on Foreign Relations.
Clowes, W. (2017, December 20). Kabila crisis fuels conflict in eastern Congo as UN targeted. Bloomberg.
Famine may be unfolding ‘right now’ in Yemen, warns UN relief wing. (2017, November 17). UN News Centre.
Kleinfeld, P. (2017, December 18). Inside the Congolese army’s campaign of rape and looting in South Kivu. IRIN.
Mahamba, F. (2017, December 15). UN base attack ramps up security fears for vulnerable civilians in eastern Congo. IRIN.
Miles, T. (2017, December 1). U.N. aid chief appeals for full lifting of Yemen blockade. Reuters.
Lim, A. C. H. (2017, August 7). The Kasai crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. IPP Review.
Oakford, S. (2017, December 8). What one of the deadliest ever attacks on UN peacekeepers means for Congo. IRIN.
Slemrod, A. (2017, December 14), World’s worst humanitarian crisis about to get worse… again. IRIN.
Uganda receives one million South Sudan refugees. (2017, August 17). BBC News.
UNHCR’s Grandi appeals for urgent action as South Sudan crisis enters fifth year. (2017, December 13). UNHCR.
With ‘so much at stake’ in crisis-torn South Sudan, UN and partners launch $1.72 billion appeal. (2017, December 13). UN News Centre.
Yemen facing largest famine the world has seen for decades, warns UN aid chief. (2017, November 9). UN News Centre.
Yemen rebel ballistic missile ‘intercepted over Riyadh.’ (2017, December 19). BBC News.