News highlights: Appeal to extend mandate UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, Maltese PM implicated in illegal pushbacks, TPLF announces election plans

This week’s news highlights: Appeal to renew UN Special Rapporteur mandate on Eritrea; Tigray region plans to hold elections; Increased vulnerability of women and children in Kenya to domestic and sexual violence; Desert locust and COVID-19 devastating for malnourished children; Eritrean President meets Ethiopian Prime Minister in surprise visit; Eritrean-Ethiopean border divides families; Maltese prime minister implicated in illegal pushback operation; Malta uses private ships for pushback;  Armed Forces of Malta ignore ship in distress; Quarantine ends for migrants and refugees on Italian ship; Italian union supports migrants on labour day; UNHCR distributes Ramadan food packages in Libya; UNHCR calls for more EU solidarity; And IOM guidance to curb anti-migration rhetoric.

  Greater Horn of Africa 

Eritrea: Appeal to extend the UN Special Rapporteur mandate on Eritrea
24 human rights groups have written an appeal to the Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) to renew the UN Special Rapporteur mandate on Eritrea, reports EritreaHub. The appeal notes that as Eritrea has entered its second year of its HRC membership, its domestic human rights situation “remains dire”. Ongoing and widespread violation of human rights in the forms of indefinite national service, forced labour, torture, sexual violence, absence of free press, jailed journalists and arbitrary arrests in incommunicado detention have not improved. Furthermore, Eritrea still refuses to cooperate with Special Rapporteur Daniela Kravetz, rejecting findings from ongoing violations and calls for reform and recommendations. A renewed mandate, according to the human right groups, would signal a “willingness to offer Eritrea a constructive way forward” while improving human rights for Eritreans. 

Ethiopia: Political crisis looms as Tigray region plans election
Ethiopia’s Tigray regional party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), plans to hold elections, reports Reuters. This puts the TPLF on a collision course with the federal government’s Prosperity Party headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which had indefinitely postponed the August elections because of COVID-19.  According to a TPLF statement, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has no interest in holding the election and uses COVID-19 as “an excuse to establish a one-man dictatorship”. A Prosperity Party spokesman rebuffed that the “TPLF’s stand has no constitutional basis. They have no mandate to hold elections. They are trying to destabilize the country in an attempt to grab power”. With the constitutional uncertainty of postponed elections and a major political party politically revolting, a political crisis looms in ethnic-tension plagued Ethiopia.     

Kenya: Women and children extra vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence amidst COVID-19
Kenyan women and children are extra vulnerable to abuse amid COVID-19, with rising reports of domestic and sexual violence in what the United Nations Sustainable Development Groups (UNSDG) calls the “shadow pandemic”.  Financial hardship, home confinement  and heightened levels of stress produce an unsafe environment and precipitate violence for Kenya’s women and children in particular. Removed from protective environments such as schools and with families in highly pressured situations, children are increasingly exposed to child labor, sexual exploitation, child marriage, female genital mutilation as well as other forms of physical and emotional abuse. The UN and Kenyan government seek $267 million to respond to COVID-19, $4.2 million of which is needed to provide protection, legal representation, psycho-social support and medical treatment for women and children.

Horn of Africa: Return of desert locusts and COVID-19 disastrous for malnourished children
The organisation  Save the Children warns that malnourished children in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia are in great danger amidst of COVID-19 and flood season, due to the expected return of desert locust swarms.  The vast swarms are likely to impact essential crops during harvest season in June and July. “Save the Children is working closely with local and national governments, the UN and partners across the Horn of Africa to ensure nutrition screening and health programs continue, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19”.

Eritrea/Ethiopia: Eritrean President makes surprise visit to Ethiopia
Eritrean President Isaisas Afwerki visits Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, reported several news outlets. The leaders of the two countries met to discuss bilateral ties, regional matters, the locust infestation and the fight against COVID-19. The meeting is the fifth of its kind and comes when both countries are in a state of emergency. Eritrean media reported that Eritrean President Isaias had an “extensive discussion with Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed” but did not go into details.  

Ethiopia/Eritrea: Closed border between Ethiopia and Eritrea affects families
In 2018, the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea reopened after being closed for 20 years, but the border closed again after a few months with no explanation. The border has divided communities and families that live along it. Among the people who are impacted are Zeray and Zefer who live in Ethiopia near the Eritrean border. Less Eritreans were present during the baptism of their child because people are afraid to make the foot journey across the border, Zeray and Zefer report to BBC. Zeray and Zefer are concerned by the situation and the closure of the checkpoints at the border because they cannot work freely, it affects their ability to do business and they have the feeling they cannot move forward. 


Malta: Former Maltese government official implicates prime minister in illegal pushback operation
Former Maltese government official, Neville Gafà, said under oath that he had coordinated the pushback of 51 migrants  to Libya in a tragedy that took place over Easter, reports the Times of Malta. He was following the instructions of the Office of the Prime Minister, Gafà states. Gafà repeated his claim to the media as the ongoing inquiry is not open to the public, also confirming that he had been coordinating these operations for the past three years to prevent migrants and refugees from entering the Maltese search and rescue area. His declaration means that the prime minister ordered actions which violate Malta’s obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights by participating in an illegal operation in coordination with actors that have been documented to use torture, rape, extortion and inhumane detention. An official statement from the Maltese government is expected.

Malta: Malta uses private ships to push back migrants and refugees to Libya
Malta has enlisted three privately owned fishing ships to intercept migrants and refugees and force them back to Libya, reports the New York Times. The information was provided by the captain of one of the ships, a senior commander in the Libyan Coast Guard, and former Maltese official, Neville Gafà. The ships act on the instructions of the Armed Forces of Malta. They “did not submit any paperwork to the immigration police and switched off their satellite tracking devices soon after leaving port” reports the New York Times. The clandestine operation is considered illegal under international law by many experts. Itamar Mann, an expert in maritime and refugee law at the University of Haifa in Israel said that Malta’s “methods chillingly resemble organized crime, and indeed the operations of people smugglers, which European policymakers so adamantly denounce,” an action that “may even put Maltese state officials in danger of criminal liability, at home or abroad.”

Malta: Malta ignores calls from ship in distress
The Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) risked the lives of 66 migrants and refugees onboard a distressed ship, argues Alarm Phone in their reconstruction of the event that occurred between 8 and 10 April. Despite being informed many times via phone and email, with regular GPS position updates from Alarm Phone, the AFM failed to rescue the people for about 40 hours, choosing to observe the situation instead. According to Alarm Phone, this put the people on board at unnecessary risk and prolonged suffering as the overcrowded boat could have easily capsized.  In addition, the AFM sabotaged the vessel in distress by cutting the cable of the boat’s engine and verbally and physically threatening the people on board, concluded Alarm Phone after contact with people on the ship.

Italy: End of quarantine for migrants aboard Italian ferry
A 14-day quarantine period ended for the migrants and refugees aboard the Rubattino ferry off the coast of Palermo. On May 4, the migrants and refugees all tested negative for COVID-19 and were allowed off the ship, Sea-eye reports. The 183 migrants and refugees were put in isolation on the ship ‘Raffaele Rubattino’ . 146 of them came from Alan Kurdi and the remaining refugees and migrants came from the Aita Mari rescue ship. The Red Cross was also present on the ferry and took care of the migrants and refugees. The relocation of people saved still remains unclear. On May 3, the Italian Federal Minister of the Interior announced that so far, only Germany has agreed to take in rescued people. 

Italy: Italian labor unions support 300 stranded migrants and refugees at Italian tent camp
On May 1, International Workers’ Day, two Italian labor unions Flai and CGIL organized an initiative to support 300 foreign workers who are stranded at a tent camp in the town of Cassibile in Sicily, InfoMigrants reports. The migrants and refugees cannot go to work because they are undocumented or without a legal job contract and therefore cannot obtain a permit under lockdown measures. The aim of the initiative organized by the unions is to regularize farmhands, half of whom are migrants. The unions ask “for legal job contracts so that workers can, when necessary, get the aid provided during the period of emergency and are safe with healthcare protection”.The Italian minister for agricultural policies, Teresa Bellanova, wants to introduce a measure regularizing undocumented foreign workers in the ‘May decree’ which should be approved by the council of ministers this week.

North of Africa

Libya: UNHCR distributes packages to help refugees and migrants during Ramadan
On May 3, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced it will start “a series of extra emergency distributions in Tripoli” to help the most vulnerable, migrants and refugees during Ramadan “as war and COVID-19 present new threats”, InfoMigrants reports. On May 3, the first distribution to 100 people took place in a deprived area of Tripoli where many live without sufficient water or sanitation. Each package contains “a food parcel designed to sustain someone for one month, water purification tablets – from fellow UN Agency UNICEF –  and a hygiene kit”. The UNHCR aims to reach 500 people by the end of the first week and to have provided aid to about 4.000 by the end of the Ramadan.

Mediterranean: UNHCR calls for greater responsibility-sharing in search and rescue
On May 1, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called for greater coordination, solidarity and responsibility-sharing, due to the increased movements of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the difficult circumstances faced by many countries due to COVID-19, the protection of lives and fundamental human rights must remain at the forefront, UNHCR states in its news comment. UNHCR says that no one should be returned to Libya after being rescued at sea due to the ongoing conflict and the routine detention of disembarked migrants and asylum-seekers, who often face overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, abuse, and other human rights violations. UNHCR is urging stronger solidarity between the EU member states and the EU Mediterranean coastal states who receive refugees and migrants and call for other member states to show greater responsibility-sharing in the form of relocation support. 


World: IOM launches communication guidance to stem anti-migration rhetorics due to COVID-19
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) issues a practical guidance on producing factual communication campaigns during the COVID-19 pandemic and in other migration contexts. IOM does this due to the spread of misinformation and hate speech with disastrous consequences for migrants, refugees and other vulnerable groups. IOM Director General António Vitorino said there is “an alarming increase in anti-migrant rhetoric, in particular the scapegoating of migrants and others in the public domain and on-line”.  The online toolkit helps in getting rapid and accurate information to those most in need.