9 humanitarian crises we can't ignore this year

February 20, 2015

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  • People all around the world, like these young Syrian refugees, are struggling to overcome conflict, displacement and a lack of resources. We're looking ahead to the biggest challenges we'll tackle this year. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Every day there seems to be a different country in the news with a new tragic headline: Nigeria. Ukraine. Afghanistan. Yemen. And of course, Syria.

Last year, we saw an unprecedented number of humanitarian crises around the world, and thanks to supporters like you, we've been on the ground helping people survive and continue working toward a better future despite unimaginable circumstances.

While we continue to address the crises around Syria and in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, we're also looking ahead at the new challenges we must address in 2015 — and what new ways we can make a lifesaving and lasting difference for millions of people facing displacement, hunger, violence and disease.

We recently spoke with Mercy Corps’ Senior Vice President of Programs, Craig Redmond, about what ongoing and emerging global situations pose the biggest threats and how we're responding.


Syria Crisis & Iraq


Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

The Situation: The war in Syria is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. After nearly four years, more than three million people have fled to safety in neighboring countries, but more than seven million are displaced and still trapped inside the besieged country. Two-thirds of the population is now in need of urgent humanitarian assistance — they have no homes, no jobs, no school, no security, no ability to meet their basic needs.

The insecurity and conflict in neighboring Iraq has blurred the lines of war, creating new and unpredictable risks at every turn. In all, such massive displacement of both Syrians and Iraqis, and unpredictable violence, threatens to destabilize the entire region.

Severe winter storms are the most recent threat, with snow and freezing rain putting families without warm clothes or proper shelter at risk.

How We're Helping: Basic resources are scarce and transportation is difficult in the unstable environment, but our teams in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria continue to provide food, water, warm clothes, heaters and other necessities to 2.5 million people, including reaching 1.7 million people displaced inside Syria.

With seemingly no end to this conflict in sight, refugees have no idea when they'll be able to return home, so we must help them cope and settle for the time being where they have found refuge. We are working to rehabilitate Jordan's water infrastructure to increase access to clean water and are repairing shelters for refugees in both Jordan and Lebanon.

At the same time, as the strain on host countries creates tensions between Syrians, Jordanians and Lebanese communities, we've spearheaded a program that brings people together to mediate their issues and collaborate on community development projects that jointly solve their problems: expanding schools and building playgrounds and sports fields, for example.

The work to help young people — who make up half of all Syrian refugees — overcome their trauma and continue with their healthy development is key to ensure that we don't lose an entire generation to this crisis.

In order to fill the gap in critical education and life milestones they are missing, we implement several programs that give children a safe place to play and learn in refugee camps, as well as leading group activities in communities for adolescents to build friendships and develop leadership skills that will help them create a better future for themselves — and ultimately, for their country.

READ THE LATEST: Refugees brace for more harsh weather ▸


Ukraine


Photo: Courtesy of U.N. Ukraine

The Situation: Since early 2014, government and rebel forces have been fighting for control of the eastern region of Ukraine. The conflict has thus far killed thousands of civilians and left more than one million people displaced within the country.

While a cease-fire agreement was recently signed during peace talks in Belarus, it’s unclear whether any end to the fighting will hold. The future of eastern Ukraine still hangs in the balance.

Many people in the east are hiding from violence where they can and have little or no access to electricity, water, food or health care. Large swaths of the eastern region now lack any functional economy, and shelling has caused massive infrastructure damage. Children and the elderly have been particularly vulnerable during the fighting, and the humanitarian needs are mounting.

There has been sporadic fighting for nearly a year, but a recent swell in conflict in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk has caused a surge of new and large displacements.

How We're Helping: “It’s suddenly a huge crisis,” says Redmond. “So we’re going to do an immediate response.”

Mercy Corps’ emergency response team is currently determining the most urgent needs of displaced people in the area — and preparing to quickly respond with essential supplies and programs that will support the recovery of the region.


South Sudan


Photo: Lindsay Hamsik/Mercy Corps

The Situation: The world’ youngest nation has been battered by civil war since political violence erupted in the capital of Juba in December 2013. The conflict soon spread across the country, destabilizing markets and forcing more than one million people to flee their homes. Many ran into the bush with nothing on their backs but their children.

This is only the latest conflict, after decades of another civil war that ultimately led to South Sudan's independence in 2011. For a couple years it looked as though this most underdeveloped country in the world would have a chance at peaceful growth, but “The roots of the conflict are well in place and haven’t been dealt with,” says Redmond.

Now, the entire country is in the grips of a massive hunger crisis — the U.N. warned recently that more than 2.5 million people are at risk of famine. In a country where most people have been dependent on subsistence farming, families are unable to grow food after being forced to leave their own land behind, and markets are barren because traders do not want to risk being attacked en route.

How We're Helping: “We’re trying to focus on food security and look at markets. That’s what needs to happen because food security is an ongoing problem,” says Redmond. But the challenges are steep. “How do we do it within a conflict? How do we do it on a big enough scale to matter?”

Mercy Corps is working in remote villages in South Sudan to help displaced people grow more food to feed their families. We’re also providing cash assistance to the most vulnerable people so that they can purchase food in local markets.

Our work helping traders maintain their businesses is helping keep South Sudan’s markets alive, and our team in South Sudan is continually looking for new ways to help the people of this young country survive and recover in the delicate and constantly changing environment.

READ THE LATEST: Escape to safety — one staff member's journey ▸


Nigeria


Photo: Fatima K. Mohammed for Mercy Corps

The Situation: Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and is, in many ways, a model of prosperous development in Africa. But stark economic inequalities remain — roughly 70-percent of the population lives in poverty, and women and girls have especially-limited access to education and resources.

Ethnic and religious conflict is still seen in pockets across the country, and now, the rise of extremist violence by Boko Haram in the north of the country is putting millions of people at risk and threatening neighboring countries. Nearly one million people are now displaced in Nigeria, creating new humanitarian needs. “That’s a serious one to watch,” says Redmond.

How We're Helping: Our emergency response teams are on the ground and assessing the areas of most urgent need and how best to respond.

Despite the potential for more serious conflict, Mercy Corps’ ongoing programs to support young women's education and job training continue. Their safety and security is our top priority in the insecure environment, but we believe we cannot give up on addressing the root causes of inequality and poverty here.

By helping girls stay in school longer, and providing tutoring and economic and business skills lessons, they will be empowered to make better decisions for their families and contribute to the peaceful development of their communities.


Central African Republic


Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

The Situation: The Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the world’s poorest countries, and has long been plagued by marauding bands of rebel fighters. A violent coup in 2013 only made things worse for struggling citizens. Since then, the country has descended into lawlessness, and basic services like clean water, education and health care are minimal.

Unpredictable violence has displaced more than 500,000 people and continues to threaten any sense of recovery. People don’t feel safe — and women and girls are especially vulnerable to incidents of gender-based violence.

How We're Helping: “The presence of organizations like Mercy Corps is really important to communities, because we represent civility,” says Redmond. “When there’s nothing they can rely on, we’re a stability that they otherwise don’t have.”

Mercy Corps is providing much-needed clean water and sanitation services to people living in crowded displacement camps. Our work within communities promotes peaceful conflict resolution and teaches mediation techniques.

In the absence of consistent governance, supporting victims of gender-based violence is one of our top priorities. We operate listening centers across the country where women can access confidential counseling, learn about their medical and legal options after an incident, and get the support they need to reintegrate into their communities and move forward.

READ THE LATEST: Working with communities to stop gender-based violence ▸


Afghanistan


Photo: Toni Greaves for Mercy Corps

The Situation: With a newly-elected government in place and most American military forces leaving the country, Afghanistan’s future is uncertain as the Taliban may look to make a resurgence. The past year has seen an increase in violence and conflict-related displacement, with more than 150,000 people forced to flee their homes.

How We're Helping: Even with cultural tensions running high, Mercy Corps is encouraging gender equality in some of the country’s most conservative areas in the south of the country. Our pioneering vocational training program that began in Helmand province, where women are scarcely seen in public, offers education for the first time in decades to young women in culturally-acceptable trades like sewing and embroidery.

Women in the program also learn how to start small businesses, and a revolutionary all-women’s market allows program participants to begin selling their goods and services to other women in their community. Mercy Corps is now looking to expand the vocational training program into the southern Kandahar province, where educational opportunities for girls and women have been all but non-existent. “It’s very tough,” says Redmond of the region.

We have been active in Afghanistan for nearly 30 years and have built deep ties with the communities that we work with. Our extensive knowledge of the region and Mercy Corps' long history of helping the Afghan people allows us to work in some of the country's most difficult places.

Nationwide, our programs are helping people in Afghanistan learn skills and trades that will help them build more prosperous futures for themselves and their families. With greater access to education and the opportunity to build successful livelihoods, the hope is that Mercy Corps' work will lead to a more stable and peaceful Afghanistan.


Liberia


Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

The Situation: The Ebola epidemic that began nearly a year ago has taken a serious toll on the people of Liberia, and the fight still isn’t over. Cases of the deadly disease have dropped to just a small number, but it only takes one new case to potentially spark another outbreak. Awareness about the disease, along with its causes and symptoms, has increased greatly, but communities must remain vigilant to eradicate Ebola completely.

While some parts of life are slowly returning to normal — students returned to school this week after a six-month closure — Ebola has had a huge effect on the country’s economy. With many people unable to work or farm, and restrictions placed on transportation and trade in an effort to contain the disease, rising prices and lack of income all contributed to the economic slow-down.

How We're Helping: Our team in Liberia has helped trained 15,000 community educators who have been working tirelessly to bring important information about Ebola to some of Liberia’s most remote areas. Now, they will also focus on community education about the stigma that Ebola survivors face on a daily basis in order to help communities reconcile and trust one another again.

Our team is also focused on the country's economic recovery and is working to support the most vulnerable families with food and cash assistance that will help stimulate local markets.

READ THE LATEST: Ebola prevention in action ▸


Somalia


Photo: Lindsay Hamsik/Mercy Corps

The Situation: While the northern area of Somalia has remained fairly calm in recent years, the south has seen increasing insurgent attacks and instability. The country is still recovering from more than two decades of strife and the 2011 drought and famine, which was the worst that the region has seen in 60 years.

Insurgents have been weakened substantially, but they are still able to cause enough fear and damage to keep the region destabilized. Because of long-term conflict and a lack of infrastructure, education has not been a priority, especially for girls. Enrollment of young girls and women in school is the worst in the world.

How We're Helping: Mercy Corps is working to change that statistic by encouraging girls to stay in school and teaching communities about the benefits of educating their young women. “We’re doing that work in very tough places,” says Redmond. “There’s so much need for education infrastructure there.”

Part of the program also offers teacher-training to female students so that future generations of young girls will have role models in their classrooms. The program has been so successful that it is now expanding into the south central region of the country.


Yemen


Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

The Situation: Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East — and one of the hungriest and most malnourished in the world, since it is almost entirely dependent on imports. Economic issues sparked uprisings in 2011, and the country has been dealing with continued tensions ever since, threatening to cause a more dire humanitarian situation.

Social services are few and far between for everyday people, job opportunities are limited, and food prices are soaring out of reach for most citizens. The volatile political dynamic has the potential to trigger further violence that would disrupt vital humanitarian aid to the country.

The Houthi rebels overran the country's capital of Sanaa last September, and life there is now extremely tense for civilians. Many fear that the conflict between government and rebel groups may soon boil to the surface and cause full-scale sectarian fighting.

How We're Helping: Mercy Corps continues to help the most vulnerable communities by improving their access to food and water and teaching people to recognize and cope with future food crises. To combat hunger and malnutrition, our emergency food program is providing healthy, nutritious meals to 63,000 people. Health education classes also teach people how to make the best choices to feed their families. We are also helping small farmers grow more food.

In the capital of Sanaa, we are reaching school-aged children with vital psychosocial support to help them deal with the instability around them. Child-friendly spaces help them learn and make friends in a peaceful setting.

To inspire a new generation of peaceful and engaged citizens, we are encouraging young people to dream big with leadership, conflict-management and civic engagement trainings. We are also supporting them in their efforts to develop business plans and start successful small businesses.

How you can help

Make a gift to support Mercy Corps' work in some of the world's toughest places. You'll help families survive conflict and disaster and give them the support they need to improve their lives. Donate today ▸