News highlights: 85% of arrivals from Libya report subjection to torture, Concerns about refugee camp closure amid COVID-19, Commercial ships used in Libya returns

In this week’s news highlights: Human rights group urge Ethiopia not to close Hitsats refugee camp; COVID-19 reaches Eritrea; Ethiopia takes measures against COVID-19;  64 Ethiopian migrants found dead in a container in Mozambique; African flower sector looses jobs; African nations prepare for their battle against COVID-19; African experts team up to research the novel Coronavirus; 85% of refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy report they were tortured in Libya; Commercial ships increasingly used in Libya returns; HRW reports Egyptian security forces  torture children; UNHCR temporarily closes two facilities in Libya; UN High Commissioner for Refugees urges countries keep asylum procedures open; UN Special Rapporteur wants Greece to stop rights violations; Unaccompanied minors often disappear from Dutch asylum seeker centers; and Ireland calls upon medically trained refugees and migrants. 

Horn of Africa 

Ethiopia: Human rights group urges Ethiopia not to close Hitsats refugee camp
In an open letter to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed, Chairman of human rights organization Eritrea Focus, Habte Hagos, has urged the Ethiopian government to reconsider their plan to close down the Hitsats refugee camp and reintroduce the right of Eritrean refugees to apply for refugee status, reports Eritrea Hub. The letter was signed by six other Eritrean diaspora organisations. Hagos argues that as long as the situation in Eritrea does not improve, Eritrean refugees will keep coming to Ethiopia. Furthermore, the closure of the Hitsats camp, which according to the letter holds 18.000 Eritrean refugees, is especially dangerous now with the COVID-19 outbreak because the refugees have to be relocated to other camps that are already overcrowded and do not possess the necessary infrastructure to house and protect the people.

Eritrea: Eritrea confirms first COVID-19 case
Eritrea has confirmed its first Coronavirus case on March 21, reports The New York Times. It regards a 39-year-old Eritrean national with a permanent residence in Norway who arrived at the Asmara International Airport from Norway. In an open letter the Eritrean Healthcare Professionals Network (EHPN) urges the government of Eritrea to properly inform the population and take preventive measures to protect them, referring to the inadequacy of the Eritrean healthcare system against a COVID-19 pandemic. Eritrea has suspended commercial passenger flights to and from Eritrea to combat the virus.  

Ethiopia: Ethiopia response to COVID-19 includes closing the land border
Ethiopia has closed its land border and deployed security forces to limit the spread of COVID-19; only essential goods are allowed through the border. People arriving in Ethiopia are submitted to a fourteen day quarantine.  Further measures include limitations of public transport, work-from-home plans and social distancing protocols. The government has allocated $151 million to combat the virus. How the measures will affect newly arriving refugees remains to be seen.    

Ethiopia/Mozambique: 64 found dead in a shipping container in Mozambique
64 people were found dead and 14 severely injured in a shipping container on the back of a lorry crossing into Mozambique from Malawi, reports the BBC. The victims were Ethiopian who likely suffocated on a well-known trafficking route to South Africa. Authorities were alerted when some of the 14 survivors started hitting the container and started shouting, reports Observador

Kenya/Ethiopia: African flower sectors taking a big hit due to COVID-19
Ethiopia and Kenya are likely both losing tens of thousands of jobs due to the flight restrictions and lack of demand in flowers. In Kenya, the flower industry raked in $1.13 billion dollar in 2019, with more than 500.000 people in the country dependent on the trade, reports Pulse. Two-thirds of the exports are destined for The Netherlands, Europe’s flower hub. With the flower demand in countries like The Netherlands crashing, Africa’s flower export countries are taking a big hit, reports Martin Plaut. Flower prices have nearly halved and on March 20 roughly 20% of the Dutch flower supply had been destroyed, a percentage likely to go up in the coming weeks.

Africa: African experts team up to combat COVID-19
The Kampala International University, the Go FAIR Foundation and the Phillips Foundation have teamed up to connect Africa to the global effort to fight COVID-19, reports ABNewsWire. Through the cooperation they seek to better map the pattern of the outbreak in order to find correlations, relations, dependencies and build evidence-based insights to prevent and contain the spread of the virus in Africa.

Africa: With COVID-19 spreading, African nations are taking steps to combat the virus
COVID-19 is confirmed in 43 African countries with more than 2.400 confirmed cases as of March 25, although World Health Organization officials have argued the number is likely significantly higher, reports The Guardian. African countries have taken measures to limit human movement and contact. Borders are being closed, flights are being suspended and restaurants, bars, shops, cafes and casinos are being closed with curfews installed and gatherings banned.

North Africa

Libya: 85% of migrants and refugees who arrive in Italy were tortured in Libya
Doctors for Human Rights (MEDU) released a report titled “The Torture Factory” which shows that 85% of migrants and refugees who reached Italy from Libya had been subjected to “torture, violence, and inhumane and degrading treatment” in Libya. In the report, MEDU gathered information from more than 3.000 migrants and refugees who arrived in Italy, coming from Libya, between 2014 and 2020. Two-thirds had reportedly been detained, almost 50% had been kidnapped or nearly died and nine out of ten said they had watched someone die, be killed or tortured, Infomigrants reports.

Libya: Commercial ships increasingly being used to bring migrants back to Libya
The number of commercial ships that are used to pick up migrants in the Mediterranean has significantly increased, reports The New York Times. Between 2011 and 2018 only one commercial ship returned migrants to Libya, but since 2018 there have been 30 returns according to data collated by Forensic Oceanography and The New York Times, although the number is probably higher. Libyan authorities call upon commercial ships rather than humanitarian rescue ships for the rescue and return operations because commercial ships must follow instructions from officials while humanitarian rescue ships often take the migrants to Europe. According to an expert on maritime law at the University of Haifa in Israel, Dr. Itamar Mann, this is a “blatantly illegal policy.” While merchant ships must obey the orders of country officials, country officials are not permitted to pick and choose who helps during an emergency.  

Egypt: HRW reports Egyptian security forces torture children
Egyptian officials and police arbitrarily arrest, forcefully disappear and torture children as young as twelve while its judicial system turns a blind eye, reports Human Rights Watch together with human rights group Belady. In interviews with 20 children between the ages of 12 and 17, 15 said they were tortured. Children are being waterboarded, electrocuted, beaten and tortured in other ways while being held in overcrowded prisons without access to proper food or medical care. In none of the cases were the children lawfully arrested,  and many were held for extended periods of time without a trial and without the ability to keep contact with their family. Some were even forcefully disappeared for months while no information was given to their family.

Libya: Two UNHCR facilities were closed in Libya due to COVID-19 pandemic
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) closed two of its facilities in the Libyan capital Tripoli from March 18 until March 24 “in response to the COVID-19 pandemic”. In a statement, the UNHCR said it took this decision to “protect the health of people of concern to UNHCR as well as that of its staff and partners” and that the measures are “in line with guidance provided by Libyan Authorities”. The spokesperson for UNHCR Libya, Caroline Gluck, told Infomigrants French that they had “to take precautions because of the weak health system in Libya”. On March 25, UNHCR Libya announced it resumed part of its activities, providing emergency assistance such as medical and psychological support, cash aid and registration for urgent cases. 


UN: UN High Commissioner for Refugees urges countries to continue asylum procedures
In a statement published on March 19, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, calls upon countries to not “close avenues to asylum” or  “forcing people to return to situations of danger” as part of the measures taken by countries to control the COVID-19 crisis. Grandi is “increasingly worried by measures adopted by some countries that could block altogether the right to seek asylum”. Grandi says that the arrival of asylum seekers can be handled in a safe way by screening arrangements, testing, quarantine and other measures. 

Greece: UN Special Rapporteur calls on Greece to end violence against asylum-seekers
On March 23, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe Gonzalez Morales, said that Greece must take immediate action to end the violence against migrants and asylum seekers at the Turkey-Greece border and to enhance their protection. Morales said that he is “very concerned about the reported pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants, which constitutes a violation of the prohibition of collective expulsions and the principle of non-refoulement”.  

Greece: The European Parliament calls for the evacuation of 42.000 asylum seekers
The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs urged to evacuate 42.000 people from the Greek islands as “an urgent preventive” measure to avoid “many deaths” from coronavirus. Facilities on all five Aegean isles opposite the Turkish coast are currently six times over capacity, The Guardian reports. A Spanish socialist Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Juan Fernando López Aguilar, said that “[t]here is no chance of isolation or social distancing, nor is it possible to ensure appropriate hygienic conditions” in the camps. The MEP states that “[i]f the EU fails to take immediate action, the situation on the Greek islands will become unmanageable with the risk of many deaths”. 21 human rights groups and humanitarian organizations called upon the Greek government to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 and enact a response plan once the first corona case is detected in a reception centre. According to Infomigrants, the general manager of SolidarityNow said that “[t]here is a window of opportunity to address this issue while the situation is still manageable, but we fear this window may be closing fast.”

The Netherlands: Report raises concern about disappearance of unaccompanied refugee minors from reception centers
Over 1.750 unaccompanied minors have disappeared from Dutch reception centers between 2015 and 2018 concludes a report from the Ministry of Justice and Security. Especially Moroccan (260) Eritrean (240) and Afghan (170) minors disappeared. Special attention went out to the disappearance of Vietnamese unaccompanied minors, 97% of whom disappeared. Many left within six months upon arriving in the Netherlands, even before their status of residency was decided. Report argues that minors may end up with family members in third countries, but fears also exist they may fall into the hands of human traffickers.

Ireland: Medical Council calls upon refugees and asylum seekers with medical training
The Irish Medical Council said that refugees and asylum seekers who are trained as doctors or nurses in their home countries, but not registered to work in Ireland, could help during the COVID-19 pandemic. The council’s spokesman, Alan Gallagher, said that those medical trained migrants and asylum seekers could provide “essential support” and that there are “set requirements in place and standards which must be met and verified” for those who want to register with the council. 

Belgium: Report shows that Belgium could do better in the treatment of migrants
A new report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) shows that Belgium could do better in its treatment of migrants without papers. The report says that “[p]rogress has been made in a number of areas” but it also cautions that “despite the progress achieved, some issues continue to give rise for concern”. According to the report, Belgium needs to increase the protection of the rights of the migrants, it needs to work harder on the monitoring of anti-discrimination and it needs to solve problems with integration and education.

EU: The pressure on Europe’s borders is still high, according to Frontex
The chief executive of the EU’s border agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, said that the pressure from migrants hoping to reach the European Union, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, “remains high”. According to Infomigrants, Leggeri said that there are more than four million Syrian refugees in Turkey and that more may arrive due to the instability in the Syrian province Idlib near the Turkish border. On March 21, Frontex tweeted that it shipped more protection helmets to its forces on the Greek-Turkish border.

Germany: Germany halts asylum interviews due to coronavirus
The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) stopped conducting asylum applications in person because of the coronavirus. BAMF said exceptions are possible and written applications are still being processed, Welt reports.