Wednesday, 19 November 2008

How the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis goes uncovered

The world’s biggest humanitarian disaster today is in Somalia. In an unprecedented move recently, 52 international NGOs (including Oxfam and the Danish Refugee Council) called for immediate action to avert a colossal disaster. They reported that almost half of Somalia’s population, or 3.25 million people, were in need of emergency aid. This was a 77 per cent increase since the beginning of the year, having increased dramatically over the past year due to the destructive combination of extreme insecurity, drought and record-high food prices. Fighting in Mogadishu had displaced approximately 37,000 civilians from their homes. Over the previous nine months, 870,000 had fled for their lives while a total of 1.1 million people were currently displaced in Somalia.

One in six children under five (approximately 180, 000) were thought to be acutely malnourished in Southern and Central Somalia; 26,000 were severely malnourished needing immediate treatment. Over the past 18 months, hyperinflation had led to price increases for food and basic non-food items by up to 1,000 per cent. Among the coping mechanism identified in reports to UNHCR in August was forced prostitution. Thousands are desperately fleeing the country on small boats across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. Countless numbers never make it.

Yet all this is hardly covered in the corporate media. In recent days Somalia has been big in the news: but the focus has been on the threat to big international oil companies’ tankers from Somali-based pirates. The Times of 18 November is typical: a double-page spread is devoted to the seizure of a ‘supertanker’ carrying $100m of Saudi oil by Somali pirates. A large, detailed graphic of the Sirius Star highlights its specifications: tonnage 318 dead weight tones; length 330m; crew size 25 and so on. None of the five stories in the feature package mention the famine.

Similarly, in the Guardian of the same day, a big double page spread manages to cover the ‘tanker seizure’ story without mentioning the imminent humanitarian disaster. The Daily Telegraph covers the event and describes Somalia as a war-torn country ‘which Western intelligence services have long seen as a safe have for Islamist terrorist groups’: so no mention of the famine. The Sun highlights the capture of ‘two Brits’ by the pirates: again no mention of the humanitarian disaster.

To his credit, Simon Tisdall, in his column in the Guardian, on 18 November, highlighted the concern of leading nations about safeguarding sea lanes rather than the lives of 3.25 million Somalis. For media and politicians, he concluded, ‘chasing cut-throat pirates is sexier than helping starving Somalis’. Indeed.

And Martin Fletcher, in an interesting piece in The Times, examines the disastrous results of America’s backing for Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in December 2006 and the removal of the Islamic Courts’ government – which had brought some stability to the country. Fletcher does mention the current humanitarian crisis – but it’s buried in paragraph 12 towards the end of the feature.

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