News highlights: NGOs call for change in EU-Libya relations amidst ECA complaint, Migrant returns to Ethiopia continue despite COVID-19, Greece to close Vathy migrant camp on island of Samos

This week’s news highlights: UK withdraws embassy staff from Eritrea; Rumours about the situation in Eritrea; Ethiopia destroying homes leaving hundreds of people homeless; Thousands of migrants returned to Ethiopia amidst COVID-19; Inadequate preparedness slows COVID-19 response in Somalia; Record of internally displaced persons in 2019; NGOs state that EU policies facilitate the abuse of migrants and refugees in Libya as organisations launch ECA complaint; EU to bolster Libya’s coastguard amidst MEP backlash; WFP says 104.793 people assisted in March amidst COVID-19; Migrants and refugees discriminated in Tunisia; Announcement closure Greek migrant camp; German experts advise on migrant working permit scheme; Asylum seeker in Germany wins court case; Bosnian minister proposes migrants and refugees should be deported; Proposal to map undocumented migrants south Italy; Less people granted Asylum in Europe 2019; Migrants and refugees first victims of COVID-19 containment; And Refugees and migrants provide support in medical and agricultural sectors to curb labour shortages.

Greater Horn of Africa

Eritrea: UK pulls embassy staff from Eritrea and calls for all UK citizens to leave
Due to the “rapidly changing situation in Eritrea” the United Kingdom’s government has temporarily withdrawn its UK embassy staff from Eritrea. It is advising against non-essential travel within Eritrea and advises against all travel within 25km of Eritrea’s land border, reports the Foreign Common Wealth Office (FCO). The embassy will continue to carry out its essential work including providing 24/7 support and consular assistance to British nationals in Eritrea, although consular support is “severely limited” in parts of Eritrea due to the travel restrictions. There may be a shortage of drinking water due to the Eritrea’s closure of water purification and bottling plants while the possibility of terrorist attacks “can’t be ruled out”  according to the FCO.

Eritrea: Rumours rampant around Eritrea’s political situation
There are many unsubstantiated rumours and a “blizzard of speculation on social media” about the situation in Eritrea, reports Martin Plaut on EritreaHub. While Asmara is under a complete lock-down due to COVID-19, there are reports of security forces on the deserted streets, and permission is required to buy necessities. Meanwhile, patients have been moved across hospitals with no reasons given; speculations on social media argue this may not just be due to COVID-19. Asmara residents speak of two aircrafts landing in the night, despite the closed airports, that some guess may have carried arms from Saudi Arabia or the UAE or Sudanese mercenaries. There are also rumours that  President Isaias Afwerki is in bad health or even dead. Members of the Eritrean diaspora warn that the Eritrean government has deployed rumours to combat opposition previously, so the situation remains uncertain as the Eritrean government released no official communications.

Ethiopia: Demolition of homes leaves at least thousand homeless amid COVID-19 pandemic
On April 29, Amnesty International stated that the authorities in Addis Ababa started mid-February with the demolition of dozens of homes belonging to day labourers, rendering at least 1.000 people homeless amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those whose homes were destroyed recently lost their job due to the ongoing COVID-19 shutdown in Ethiopia. Deprose Muchena, Director for East and Southern Africa, said that “[s]tranded families have told us harrowing stories of how their children are sleeping out in the open, exposed to the drenching rain and cold”. Muchena stated that “[h]aving a home is critical to protecting oneself from COVID-19, stopping its spread and recovering from it. The authorities must ensure that no one is put in a position of increased vulnerability to COVID-19 including by rendering them homeless”. After the demolitions of their permanent homes, the affected families attempted to rebuild temporary shelters made from canvas and tarpaulin, but these too were pulled down.

Ethiopia: Thousands of migrants are returned to Ethiopia amidst COVID-19
Ethiopia continues to receive thousands of migrants that are returned from the Middle East and Africa, reports the UN Migration Agency (IOM). The IOM is assisting over 9.400 migrants held in Ethiopia’s quarantine facilities with medical care, shelter and food. The migrants are held mainly at converted university campuses. According to IOM’s Chief of Mission to Ethiopia Maureen Achieng the “return of migrants during this crisis threatens already stretched capacities in Ethiopia and to this end, IOM is responding to the direct needs of returnees, ensuring facilities are run efficiently, and bolstering the national response, in line with government needs.” After the quarantine period, IOM looks to reunite the migrants with their families.

Somalia: Significant gaps in preparedness slow COVID-19 response
On April 26, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) released a report stating that, despite progress in scaling up preparedness and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in Somalia, significant gaps remain. Lack of funding, limited numbers of skilled health workers, insufficient testing capacity, inadequate supplies of necessary equipment and limited isolation facilities are hampering the progress to curb COVID-19. “In addition, access to people living in hard-to-reach areas or areas controlled by non-state actors, which was already an issue, remains difficult” reports UNOCHA. UNOCHA remains concerned about the spread of COVID-19 among “some 2.000 congested internally displaced persons (IDPs) settlements where social distancing is impossible” and control measures are challenging.

Horn of Africa: Record number of internally displaced persons in 2019
A recent report published by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), shows that a record of 50.8 million people globally are displaced within their own countries due to conflict, violence and natural disasters. According to the report, an estimated 33.4 million people were newly displaced in 2019, the highest annual figure since 2012. Alexandra Bilek, Director of IDMC, told VOA that much of the displacement in 2019 was driven by ongoing local conflicts in Central Africa and the Horn of Africa. Conflict and violence triggered 8.5 million new displacements in 50 countries in 2019, of which Ethiopia is at the third place with more than 1 million new displacements.

North of Africa

Libya: NGOs stress abuse of migrants and refugees in Libya by EU
On April 28, 13 international NGOs published a joint statement in which they are calling on EU institutions to stop any actions keeping migrants and refugees in Libya, where they are in constant danger. The call comes as three organisations have submitted a complaint on the EU’s Libya cooperation before the European Court of Auditors. The NGOs state that during the past three years, the EU institutions have facilitated the containment of tens of thousands of women, men and children in Libya where they have been exposed to appalling abuse. EU member states and institutions responded to the arrival of refugees and migrants by cooperating with Libyan authorities to stop departures and ensuring that people rescued or intercepted at sea would be disembarked in Libya. The contained people have become victims of human rights violations and abuse, including indefinite, arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Libya/EU: EU to further bolster Libya’s coast guard amidst MEP criticism
The European Union (EU) is realigning its budget to bolster Libya’s coast guard and assist the country against COVID-19, reports EU Observer. Although exact numbers are still being finalized, the fund is set to be around €100 million with €15 million being earmarked for the Libyan coastguard and  €20 million to fight COVID-19 together with the UN Migration Agency (IOM). However, in an April 27 debate in the Civil Liberties Committee with representatives of the Commission, Frontex, UN Refugee Agency, the Council of Europe and NGOs, a majority of Members of European Parliament insisted that Libya is not a “safe country” for disembarkation of people rescued at sea and demanded that the cooperation with the Libyan coastguard stops.

Libya: WFP assisted 104.793 Libyans in March amidst COVID-19
The World Food Programme (WFP) assisted 104.793 people in Libya March 2020, reports the WFP. Besides food and water assistance the WFP produced and handed out COVID-19 awareness leaflets while cooperating with other institutions to ensure the application of precautionary measures like social distancing, preventive hygiene and sanitation. The WFP notes that food prices have risen and that some types of food are unavailable. Internally displaced people, migrants and refugees are expected to be the first to be impacted by this scarcity.

Tunisia: Migrants and refugees discriminated against in Tunisia
In a survey with 178 migrants and refugees in Tunisia many said that they fear for COVID-19 and that they experience racism and xenophobia, reports the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC). 95.5% strongly agreed or agreed with the statement: “I am worried about contracting coronavirus and its impact on my health,” nearly 90% cited obstacles to accessing healthcare in Tunisia and 58% cited discrimination against foreigners as a factor impeding their access. Apart from a lack of access to healthcare, many migrants and refugees said that they experienced increased xenophobia in their daily lives as well.


Greece: Closure of Vathy migrant camp on Greek island of Samos announced
On April 28, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis announced the closure of the Greek overcrowded Vathy migrant camp on the island of Samos by the end of 2020. The announcement by Mitarakis was made on Greek state television ERT in which Mitarakis said that the situation on Samos is “very difficult, it will be closed”. A new camp is being constructed on the same island, just 7 kilometres away, reports InfoMigrants. The announcement came after two fires destroyed buildings and shelters at the Vathy camp on April 26, leaving around 200 people homeless.

Germany: Migrant expert panel suggest work permits in exchange for cash
On April 28, the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR) proposed, in their latest annual report, that African migrants and refugees should be offered temporary work permits in exchange for cash deposits. The panel argue that the measure would reduce illegal immigration and encourage migrants and refugees to return home. The German expert panel suggested that such a policy would allow migrants and refugees from Africa to work temporarily in Germany, where they could save money and gain skills and contacts, while also incentivizing them to return home when their visas expire. All individuals who leave Germany on time would receive their deposit back, DeutscheWelle reports. The African states would benefit from this because, once home, migrants could use their savings and new contacts to start companies, enter the workforce or invest in agriculture.

Germany: Asylum seeker wins right to leave German asylum centre
A Leipzig court has ruled that an asylum seeker should be allowed to leave his asylum centre when it is too crowded to respect COVID-19 distancing rules, reports Reuters. The Refugee Council of Saxony said that it is a “ground-breaking decision” and the first of its kind as asylum seekers are required to stay in an appointed reception centre when they first arrive in Germany until their application has been processed. The man who filed the case told the court he had to share a four square meters room with another man and share a kitchen and bathroom with 49 others, making social distancing impossible.

Bosnia: Security minister proposes migrants and refugees should be deported
Security minister Fahrudin Radoncic of Bosnia-Herzegovina suggested that migrants and refugees should be deported from the country due to their alleged economic burden and security threat during the COVID-19 outbreak, reports InfoMigrants. Under his plan, in addition, migrants and refugees who cannot properly identify themselves are to be imprisoned rather than accommodated in migrant camps. Radoncic said that they “will go straight to jail. And we will keep them there for one to five years until we can establish their identity”. The idea is another effort to “psychologically discourage new migrants from coming” says Radoncic, previous measures included using the military to fortify borders, turning off the water supply to makeshift camps and police roundups.

Italy: Proposal to map undocumented migrants in Southern Caserta province
On April 24, the president of the southern province of Caserta, Giorgio Magliocca, sent a letter to Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte and to coronavirus procurement commissioner, Domenico Arcuri, urging the Italian government to identify undocumented migrants in the area of Caserta in order to assist them amid the COVID-19 emergency. InfoMigrants reports that between 15.000 and 20.000 undocumented migrants without access to health care are estimated to live in the area. Magliocca said that “[s]ervices for foreigners should be provided at local healthcare facilities” in agreement with local administrations and volunteer groups.

EU: Number of people granted asylum in Europe in 2019 fell slightly
On April 27, the European statistics office’s (Eurostat) latest report shows that the number of people granted asylum in Europe in 2019 decreased by 6% compared with the previous year. Almost 300.00 people were granted asylum within the EU in 2019, while in 2018 316.200 people were granted asylum. 48% of all asylum cases were granted refugee status, 28% received subsidiary protection and 25% humanitarian protection. InfoMigrant reports that recognition rates of asylum differ from country to country and are dependent on the nationality of the asylum seeker.

EU: Migrants and refugees first victims of containment measures amid COVID-19
Claude Calame, Director of Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris,  stated that the containment measures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic form a new excuse, not only for closing the EU borders to migrants and refugees, but also for locking them up in Europe in camps that are unsanitary and contribute to the spread of the pandemic. With the confinement of migrants and refugees in the camps in Greece and the closure of Italian and Maltese ports while the number of shipwrecks of boats taking migrants trying to reach Europe is increasing, migrants and refugees are the first victims of the containment measures required by the pandemic and they are unable to comply with, according to Calame. Confinement, repression, rejection, death, Calame asks if the EU is preparing to commit a new crime against humanity against migrant and refugee women and men.

EU: Call to grant refugees and migrants working permits to fill labour shortages
The Council of Europe and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) encourage European member states to benefit from the support refugee and migrant health professionals can provide to national health systems that struggle with the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. In addition, countries like Germany, Italy, UK, Belgium and Ireland are exploring the opportunity to grant working permits to migrants and refugees to make up for the shortage of seasonal workers due to the closure of internal borders.