Hard Numbers: Education crisis in Burkina Faso, Chinese formalizes ties with the Taliban, NASA unveils UFO study, Russian oligarchs off the hook
1,000,000: In Burkina Faso, where violence has raged unabated for five years, more than a quarter of schools are closed due to a sharp increase in fighting. The number of closed schools has risen by thirty percent since a coup last year, affecting more than 1,000,000 students and creating a looming education crisis in the country.
2: China appointed a new ambassador to Afghanistan on Wednesday, reopening diplomatic relations two years after the Taliban took control of Kabul. Analysts say the move is meant to give China a bigger role in helping to stabilize Afghanistan – Beijing has energy and mineral investments in the country, and also fears that if the Taliban government falters, the country could become a haven for anti-Chinese extremists and terrorists.
800: The galaxy waited with baited breath Thursday morning as NASA unsealed its official study of UFOs– or UAPs as they are called these days (Unidentified aerial phenomena). The takeaway: NASA doesn’t know what most of the 800 reported UAP sightings are, but it knows for sure that most of them aren’t extraterrestrials. The report attributes most UAP run-ins to natural phenomena, and announced that UAP research and data collection is now a top priority– on par with space exploration and Earth science.
3: The EU removed 3 Russian oligarchs from its sanctions list, citing concerns that the sanctions would not withstand legal challenges in international courts. At the same time, ordinary Russians who cross into the EU by car are now subject to having their vehicles and valuables confiscated on the spot by Baltic border guards.
In 2017, the Trump administration declared that the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq had been defeated. But a new UN report released this week claims that there are between 5,000-7,000 fighters across the Levant. And many more – around 11,000 – are ready to fight but remain locked up in northern Syria, according to the UN.
At the group’s peak around 2015, it’s estimated that there were around 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. Still, the latest report suggests that the group has been able to regroup and recruit.
Crucially, however, it’s in Afghanistan that the capabilities and scope of the Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-K are expanding at the fastest clip, with estimates that the group now commands up to 6,000 fighters.
Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan exactly two years ago, ISIS-K has terrorized the Afghan population and repeatedly attacked Taliban positions. (For more on the ongoing beef between the Taliban and ISIS-K, both extremist Sunni groups, see our explainer here.)The Taliban says it has been strengthening regional security, but Western intelligence agencies are increasingly concerned that a group that was once seemingly confined to the dustbins of history is slowly making a comeback.
Hard Numbers: Afghan women protest, gunman kills two in New Zealand, Eastern Europe seeks import ban extension, Phoenix melts
50: In Afghanistan, where women’s rights have been increasingly restricted since the Taliban returned to power in 2021, 50 women dared to protest in Kabul on Wednesday. The demonstrations were a response to the Taliban closing beauty salons, further restricting the public spaces accessible to women.
2: Two people were shot dead in Auckland, New Zealand, early Thursday, just hours before the launch there of the ninth Women’s World Cup. The gunman is also dead, and six others were injured in the incident. Authorities do not believe it was an act of terror, and the soccer tournament is set to continue as planned.
5: The five countries closest to Ukraine – Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia – are asking the EU to continue allowing them to ban the sale of Ukrainian grain until the end of the year. These countries serve as critical ground transport routes and will continue to allow for the transfer of grain, but selling it domestically was proving catastrophic for local markets and farmers. This led to an import ban in April that was set to end in September.
20: As of Wednesday, Phoenix, AZ, has endured 20 straight days of temperatures at or above 110 degrees, beating its previous record of 18 days in 1974. Wednesday also marked nine consecutive days where the low temperature was in the 90s, another record.
The US government has an over-classification problem. Too many documents are marked "secret" that shouldn't be. And according to this week's guest, the over-classification problem has also created an over-clearance problem. Jane Harman, a former nine-term Congresswoman who led high-level intelligence committees, says that the two problems are closely related. "We over-classify, we over-clear. Our clearance problem is very cumbersome" Harman tells Ian. As a result, many people with clearance tend to err on the side of classifying information rather than risking their position by making public the wrong document.
"I argued we needed a tiered classification system where you can clear people only up to a certain amount. In other words, a person who speaks a regional dialect could be given papers to read, but not told the context of the papers, so that person would just translate the language. "
But, Harman says, we're still a long way from solving this problem.
To see the full interview with Jane Harman, watch GZERO World with Ian Bremmer at gzeromedia.com/gzeroworld or on US public television. Check local listings.
But how do they get there? Most Afghans have taken a flight to Brazil, which offers humanitarian visas for Afghans, before making their way through a host of countries – Panama, Colombia, Nicaragua – and the dangerous Darien Gap, to reach Mexico. The roughly 16,000-mile route is rife with crime, but that hasn’t deterred Afghans from taking the leap.
The numbers are stark. Consider that only 100 Afghans crossed this perilous route from 2010-2019, but that number has jumped to 3,600 since the start of 2022. And while many are apprehended in Mexico or arrested by Colombian or Guatemalan authorities on the way, those who do make it to the US border still face steep challenges to resettlement.
Though roughly 52,000 Afghans have applied for humanitarian parole – a Biden administration policy that allows refugees to work in the US for two years while their asylum claims are being processed – just 760 of these claims have been approved to date.
Indeed, this messy dynamic gets to the heart of Biden’s biggest political pains – the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was the beginning of the end of his approval rating, and the ongoing migration crisis, which is a boon for Republicans ahead of the 2024 presidential race.
Fox News & Dominion settle defamation suit
It could’ve been the “Super Bowl of libel law,” but the trial was canceled before it began on Tuesday. Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems reached a deal that includes Fox paying $787.5 million for their on-air claims that Dominion rigged the 2020 election for Joe Biden, reportedly the largest single media defamation settlement in US history.
(Alex Jones’s $1.5 billion in damages to the Sandy Hook families he smeared was separated into three lawsuits. Gone are the days of coughing up merely $177 million for this stuff to go away, like Disney/ABC did in 2017 over the "pink slime" report scandal.)
Fox recognized in the settlement agreement that "certain claims" about Dominion aired on its shows were found to be “false” — a rare and high-profile admittance of wrongdoing in conservative media and America's most popular cable network by viewership. Settling saves the network — and its parent company, News Corp — weeks of headlines about testimony and possible reputational damage. It also spares Fox hosts and execs from testifying about their internal emails and texts, which reportedly revealed they did not believe former President Donald Trump’s voter fraud claims.
But Fox is not out of the woods yet. The cable giant still faces a similar lawsuit from Smartmatic, another voting tech company that was also called out by name on Fox after the 2020 election. That case is still in the discovery process, and a trial isn’t expected anytime soon.
UN on its way out of Afghanistan
The United Nations might withdraw from Afghanistan as early as next month, officials said Tuesday. Donor funding is drying up after the ruling Taliban recently decreed that UN programs operating in the country can no longer employ women.
The consequences would be catastrophic, to put it mildly. Consider that 90% of Afghans live under the poverty line, and two-thirds don't know where their next meal is coming from. NGOs and local aid agencies can't pick up the slack because almost all of them have either suspended or curtailed work over the female employment ban.
Unsurprisingly, the Taliban are playing hardball. The fundamentalist Islamic regime wants to keep all women at home. They claim to have eradicated corruption and to have fixed the economy since returning to power in Aug. 2021.
But UN Development Program data show that the economic “recovery” has been mostly fueled by rising aid money. A 30% drop this year in international assistance could see Afghanistan’s GDP shrink by as much as a tenth in 2024.
The dangerous debt ceiling fight is on
Democrats and Republicans are again moving toward a legislative showdown over whether (and for how long) to increase the limit on US federal debt to allow continued spending. It appears Congress will reach its current spending limit in the first week of August, and if it’s not extended, the US could default on its debt, creating a global crisis. Similar showdowns in 2011 and 2013 were resolved only at the last minute and not without damage.
US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy used a speech at the New York Stock Exchange on Monday to detail his plan to cut $2 trillion in federal spending and extend the debt ceiling to May 2024, but he hasn’t yet sold his ideas to the House Republicans he leads. That sales process begins this week.
Eurasia Group, our parent company, forecasts that failure to unite Republicans around a single bargaining position with the White House would likely allow Congress to approve a short-term increase that pushes the debt limit fight to December. But if the narrow Republican House majority soon agrees on a set of budget cuts the Biden administration will reject, this summer could produce a dangerous political fight at a time when US economic recovery remains fragile – and just as the 2024 election season kicks into high gear.
“There had been landings but never a tragedy like this,” the mayor of Cutro, a southern Italian town, said after a boat carrying an estimated 200 migrants splintered into pieces on Sunday after hitting rocky terrain.
At least 63 people, including children and at least one newborn, were found dead, while 80 migrants, all adults, survived. Dozens remain missing. Most of the migrants came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, having crossed the tumultuous sea from Turkey.
This week’s tragedy comes amid a steep increase since 2022 in the number of asylum-seekers from North Africa and South Asia attempting to cross the Mediterranean in hopes of reaching Europe. Indeed, the Italian coast has emerged as the first point of entry for many would-be migrants fleeing economic hardship, oppression, and political implosion.
What’s causing the uptick, and how are Italy and the European Union responding?
A post-COVID surge. The pandemic years saw a lull in migrants from North Africa crossing the Mediterranean, largely due to border closures. But that all changed in 2022 when a significant number of migrants from Afghanistan, Tunisia, Libya, Eritrea, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere resumed attempts to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. Though the influx has not reached crisis levels seen in 2015-2016, when 1.3 million people sought refuge in Europe, roughly 100,000 people crossed the Mediterranean into Italy alone last year. Migration levels have also steadily risen due to an influx of refugees from the eastern flank of Ukraine, as well as the Western Balkan route, which accounted for 45% of all illegal entry attempts into the EU last year.
There has been a “build-up of migration pressure because of people who needed to leave during the pandemic but did not have the access,” says Eric Reidy, a reporter for The New Humanitarian focused on migration. This dynamic is also interacting with specific factors, Reidy notes, including the “Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan and the deteriorating situation for Syrian refugees in Turkey.”
Shipwrecked in Italy. Many refugees leaving Turkey or northeast Libya, two of the main points of embarkation, are opting to take a longer and more perilous journey to Italy to avoid disembarking in Greece, where authorities have been known to push back boats. Meanwhile, prison-like conditions at Greek refugee camps have been a boon for people smugglers promising to help would-be migrants reach the Italian coast.
But the Italian government isn’t keen to absorb the influx. Since coming to power last fall, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy Party has sought to position herself as an anti-immigrant firebrand. While Meloni, a nationalist, has surprisingly avoided many of the anticipated confrontations with the European Union, her government has introduced sweeping anti-immigrant legislation and antagonized fellow member states into sharing the load.
“Italy wants more redistribution where they [migrants] can submit their asylum request elsewhere – but this is a non-starter in Europe,” says Luca Barana, a research fellow at Italy's Institute for International Affairs in Rome, pointing to bloc-wide rules requiring member states to process refugees who arrive first in their territorial waters. Rome, however, says the status quo is unsustainable.
Meloni takes on NGOs. In a move broadly condemned by rights groups, the Meloni government has focused on making it harder for humanitarian vessels to rescue migrants at sea by assigning boats to disembarkation ports in northern Italy. Essentially, this means that after conducting a rescue operation, vessels must return to their designated port – even ignoring subsequent distress calls – limiting their time on the sea. Those who ignore the order could have their vessels confiscated by Italian authorities.
Indeed, the anti-NGO push was largely championed by deputy PM and longtime anti-immigrant advocate Matteo Salvini, who has long argued that the presence of charity rescue vessels in the Mediterranean incentivizes migrants to risk the journey.
Unsurprisingly, this policy is causing deep rifts within the EU. Back in November, France and Italy were at loggerheads after Rome refused to accept the Ocean Viking, a ship carrying 230 migrants, claiming – in what France said was an act of bad faith – that Paris had agreed to take in the vessel (it had not). After three weeks of bobbing around on the waters, France ultimately accepted the NGO vessel but suspended an earlier goodwill gesture to take in 3,500 refugees from Italy.
What’s Europe doing about it? In recent years, both Italy and the EU have been trying to direct resources to countries of origin to try and stop the boats. Just last month, Italy delivered another ship to the Libyan coast guard, while Meloni also recently visited Libya to strengthen cooperation arrangements.
However, refugee advocates have long said that Europe’s ability to absorb refugees is simply a matter of political will. Many now point to the absorption of Ukrainian refugees over the past year as a case in point. “Around 4.8 million Ukrainians registered for protection in the EU in the past year,” Reidy says, while comparatively, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean to Europe is in the 120,000-150,000 range. For Reidy, this reinforces the “division of refugees into deserving and undeserving refugees” that pervades Europe.
As part of this effort to augment North African coast guards, intercepted migrants are often put in indefinite detention by Libyan authorities. They are “detained in horrendous conditions where forced labor, torture, extortion, and sexual abuse” are rife, Reidy says. Their only way out is to pay a hefty fine or, for women, to sexually exploit themselves. Otherwise, they risk languishing there indefinitely.What now? It’s easy to blame the bureaucracy in Brussels for policy stagnation, but that’s not what’s really going on here. Rather, the problem is that 27 member states with competing domestic priorities simply can’t agree on a possible solution. Italy, playing for a domestic audience that backs its tough-on-migration play, remains committed to employing cynical tactics to get the EU to play ball. But as crises mount around the world, would-be-migrants still calculate that risking their lives at sea is safer than staying put.