News highlights: Ethiopia to limit Eritrean refugee registration, Ethiopia elections postponed, COVID-19 hits Greek refugee camp, Commercial ships may face prosecution for Libya returns

In this week’s news highlights: Ethiopia reduces Eritrean refugee registration by lifting prima facie status; Ethiopia postpones elections due to COVID-19; New Sudanese government needs international support to curb COVID-19; Uganda closes its borders to refugees; Eritrea called upon to release prisoners of conscience; First COVID-19 cases in Greek refugee camp; Cyprus pushes boat with refugees back to sea; Experts call upon the EU to revise migration policy; Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic broke EU law; EU to monitor arms-embargo Libya; Merchants ships returning refugees to Libya may be prosecuted; New NGO rescue mission in the Mediterranean; 1.600 attacks targeting refugees and asylum seekers in Germany; Germany considers asking refugee help; Stateless people could be denied healthcare; UN agencies urge protection of migrants and refugees; North Africa has most reported COVID-19 cases in Africa; Forcibly displaced people and migrants priority to curb COVID-19; And people leave big African cities due to coronavirus.

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: Ethiopia lifting the prima facie recognition of Eritrean refugees
Ethiopia has adopted exclusionary criteria for Eritreans seeking refugee status and asylum, reports EritreaHub. Whereas before, Eritrean refugees received their refugee status ‘prima facie’, this is no longer the case for unaccompanied and separated minors, persons within the age of conscription to the national service, persons who seek medical care, persons who have crossed the border previously and persons wishing to reunite with family in a third country. With conscription to the national service in Eritrea being indefinite, the five criteria of exclusion practically encompass all Eritreans. If Ethiopia chooses to enforce the criteria, it will be a reversal of its open arms refugee policy of many decades, as well as a potential violation of international conventions if refugees seeking international protection are not given full access to their rights.

Ethiopia: Elections postponed due to COVID-19
The electoral commission of Ethiopia announced that the country will postpone parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for August due to the coronavirus outbreak. The August vote was seen as an important test of the reformist agenda of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia said that it will announce a new timeline “when the pandemic is over”, Aljazeera reports. Abiy promised to organize free and fair elections but his party would have faced rough opposition from many revived regional and ethnically-based parties, according to France 24.

Sudan: Sudan needs international support to combat COVID-19
Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said that Sudan’s new government shows readiness to provide for people in need and rebuild the country but international support is needed to realize this. Egeland warns that “[a] huge opportunity to cement positive change and defend vulnerable communities from the unfolding health crisis [the coronavirus pandemic] may be lost if they don’t”. NRC reports that the first corona cases are confirmed in Sudan, with numbers probably increasing exponentially in coming weeks.

Uganda: Uganda closes its borders to all refugees
Uganda closed its border for all new refugees due to COVID-19, reports Reuters. Traditionally, Uganda has an open door policy for refugees and hosts around 1.4 million refugees mostly from neighboring countries. Uganda’s government says that refugees already in the country will continue to receive support.  This support includes freedom of movement, employment and access to public services like free healthcare and education, while some refugee families receive land plots. Some of the refugee camps, however, are very overcrowded which means that efforts like social distancing are hard to implement.

Eritrea: Eritrea urged to release prisoners of conscience amidst COVID-19
The human rights group Release Eritrea calls upon the Eritrean government to release all prisoners of conscience, including those detained for their faith, amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, reports EritreaHub. The conditions of the people incarcerated in the detention centers makes them extra vulnerable to the virus. Some people are detained in shipping containers or deserts camps and many are without access to medical care, proper diet or basic sanitation, reports the organisation.

Africa: Protection of migrants is key in combat against COVID-19
The Africa Center for Strategic Studies states that the high density of internally displaced populations (IDP) and the mobility of migrants make them highly vulnerable to COVID-19 and therefore a priority for reducing the spread of the coronavirus in Africa. The center believes that protecting displaced persons and migrants will be key in decreasing the global rates of transmission of COVID-19. By prioritizing IDP and migrant populations, those involved in trying to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Africa can help flatten the curve of transmission and in the process reduce the overall impacts of the disease. The Africa Center for Strategic Studies believes that this requires informed and efficient policy arrangements as well as reducing stigma and fear-based xenophobia towards IDP and migrants.

Africa: People flee from big African cities due to the coronavirus
Many inhabitants flee from large African cities and go back to their home villages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the North Africa Post, a movement like this has never been witnessed in Africa in peacetime. Several countries like Niger quickly became aware of the risks of such migration and locked down their largest cities, reports the North Africa Post.


Greece: First 20 reported Coronavirus cases in refugee camp
On March 30, Greece reported its first recorded coronavirus case out of the thousands of refugees and migrants kept in overcrowded camps. The person came from the Ritsona camp in Greece which hosts up to 2.500 people. It concerned a female asylum seeker who gave birth in a hospital in Athens. 63 residents of the Ritsona camp were tested immediately after and 20 of them tested positive for COVID-19. Nobody is allowed in or out of the camp for the next 14 days under the quarantine rules.

Cyprus: Cypriot authorities push boat with refugees back to sea
A heavily overcrowded boat with 175 refugees, including 69 children, was turned back and driven to the Turkish side of the island after a several hour-long standoff with Cypriot authorities, reports Aljazeera. The boat upturned near the northern shore of (Turkish) Cyprus where local authorities rescued the refugees. After medical examination, they were moved into flats. Cyprus closed its border on March 15 for all except Cypriots, those with special permits and European workers to curb the Coronavirus.

Europe: Experts call upon the EU to revise migration policy
In an open letter to members of the European Commission, a team of experts hired by the European Union (EU) to research the migration and refugee situation have expressed their concern and criticism on the way the EU handles migration. The securitization, externalization and marketization of the border combined with ill-treatment and violence against asylum seekers with a neglect for the right to asylum has pushed the EU “on the brink of a humanitarian disaster that may unnecessarily cost many lives” especially now with COVID-19. The experts argue that the EU has disregarded the research for which tax-payers have paid in favor of questionable populist policies that “fail to meet minimal human rights standards”.

Europe: Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic broke EU law by not accepting refugees
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic breached their obligations under EU law by refusing to relocate their share of asylum seekers from Italy and Greece. Poland and the Czech Republic initially agreed to accept 100 and 50 asylum seekers respectively, but Poland took in none and the Czech Republic only twelve; Hungary also took in none.

EU/Libya: New EU mission to enforce arms-embargo Libya
The European Union (EU) will launch sea and air missions in the Mediterranean in April to monitor the UN-arms embargo on Libya, reports Reuters. After three weeks of discussion the negotiations have concluded. Rescue of refugees and migrants is no longer at the core of the mission, but Greece agreed to accept any that will be found during boat checks and the EU agreed to cover part of the costs. The new mission is named Irini (Greek for peace) and will be replacing EU’s current mission, Operation Sophia, which already stopped deploying ships a year ago after Italy said it would no longer take in rescued migrants because of the domestic anti-immigration backlash. Under Irini the EU starts to patrol the Mediterranean, from which most arms are smuggled in; it cannot, however, patrol the Libya- Egypt land border from which most artillery is still being smuggled.

Germany/Libya: Merchant ships may be persecuted for Libyan returns
Captains of commercial German-flagged ships can be prosecuted in Germany if they bring asylum seekers to countries such as Libya, reports the Scientific Services of the Bundestag, in a study requested by European policy spokesman for the Left Party in the Bundestag, Andrej Hunko. While the Regulation on the Safety of Seafaring requires merchant ships to comply with the instructions of state officials – which includes the Libyan coastguard – the principle of non-refoulement is regarded as a higher-ranking law that must be followed by non-state actors. Using commercial ships (who have to follow the instructions of officials) for rescue operations rather than humanitarian NGO ships (who often ignore these instructions and bring migrants to Europe) is a new tactic by Libyan and European officials to ensure migrants and refugees are returned to Libya, according to research by The New York Times and Forensic Oceanography. The Bundestag study concluded that merchant captains must ignore the corresponding order from the Libyan coast guard or they might face persecution in Germany.

Germany: Sea-Eye launched a new rescue mission in the Mediterranean
Sea-Eye, a German humanitarian organization, announced the launch of a new migrant rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea. On March 30, the migrant rescue ship Alan Kurdi left Spain and is expected to arrive in the Libyan search-and-rescue zone by April 4. According to Sea-Eye, no civil sea rescue organization has been able to send a rescue vessel to the Mediterranean for weeks due to COVID-19. The organization established an “outbreak management plan” to decrease the risks of the coronavirus.

Germany: Over 1.600 crimes targeting refugees and asylum seekers in 2019
German authorities have recorded 1.620 attacks on refugees and asylum seekers – including children – in 2019, reports Deutsche Welle. Many of the attacks were carried out by right-wing extremists. In 128 of the cases the attack happened in refugee centers and in 260 cases the attack led to dangerous bodily harm. In 2018, authorities reported 1.775 attacks, and 2016 was the peak year with 2.500 reported cases.

Germany: Migrants and refugees could help as medical staff or farm workers
Germany looks at the migrant and refugee communities for help during the COVID-19 pandemic. Expected shortages in medical personnel and farm workers to do the harvest can be filled by migrants and refugees who are normally not allowed to work. According to Infomigrants, the regional medical board in Saxony said that: “[f]oreign doctors who are in Saxony but do not yet have a license to practice medicine can help with coronavirus care”. Hamburg also launched an appeal for people with medical or nursing training. The German state’s Ministry of Health told Infomigrants that qualified migrants and refugees can apply, despite their residency or work status. Due to the closure of German borders for seasonal laborers, the Minister of Agriculture Julia Klöchner believes that migrants and refugees could also help during this year’s harvest period.


World: Stateless people will be unable to access healthcare in case of COVID-19
On March 31, human rights campaigners warned that millions of people worldwide will be unable to access healthcare the moment they become infected with COVID-19 because they have no nationality, which may aggravate the spread of the disease, reports Reuters. Joshua Castellino, the executive director of Minority Rights Group International, said that  “[o]ur healthcare systems are all based on nationality. If you are stateless you are invisible to the state, but you are not invisible to the virus”. Castellino also stated that the problem could be particularly acute in Africa, where millions of people live without documentation. The campaigners asked all countries to ensure that all stateless people can receive free medical help.

World: UN agencies stress that migrant’s rights and health must be protected
On March 31, The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that the rights and health of migrants, refugees and stateless persons must be protected in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The four agencies said that “[i]n the face of the COVID-19 crisis, we are all vulnerable. The virus has shown that it does not discriminate – but many refugees, those forcibly displaced, the stateless and migrants are at heightened risk”. They state that the situation for migrants and refugees living “in cramped and unsanitary conditions, is particularly worrying”. The UN agencies explained that countries may need additional financial support to ensure that migrants and refugees are able to access healthcare services.

North of Africa 

North Africa: Most African COVID-19 cases reported in North Africa
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that North Africa continues to be the part of the African continent hit worst by the COVID-19 pandemic with 2,167 infections recorded and 118 deaths. According to the most recent figures released by the technical institute of the African Union on March 31, most of the infections in North Africa are seen in heavily populated Egypt (656 cases and 41 dead), Algeria (582 and 35), and Morocco (556 and 33). Fears grow that an outbreak in Libya, affected severely by civil war, could collapse the healthcare system and particularly affect thousands of refugees and migrants.