News highlights: European Union sued over forced labor in Eritrea in two courts, Election concerns cause political turmoil in Ethiopia, Call for suspension of forced returns

This week’s news highlights: Dutch Foundation sues European Union over forced labor; Lawyers and UK organisation challenge UK funding to EU project in Eritrea; Advisory Committee urges The Netherlands to provide one billion EUR for Africa amid COVID-19; 1.600 unaccompanied minors in Greece to be relocated; Migrants and refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina threatened; Hungary illegally held asylum seekers in camps;  Malta urged to join operation Irini; Italy to introduce special work permits for migrants; UNICEF steps up preparations to curb COVID-19 in Eritrea; Ruling party in Ethiopia states it will remain in power until next election; Flood and conflict threaten internally displaced people in Somalia; Number of internally displaced people in Horn of Africa drops; UN Network on Migration urges to suspend forced returns; UNHCR raises awareness for stateless people worldwide; UNHCR needs $745 million to protect displaced populations against COVID-19; Joint IGO statement on the threats in Libya; And 53% of migrants lost jobs in Tunisia due to COVID-19 lockdown.


The Netherlands: Dutch Foundation sues the European Union for funding forced labor in Eritrea
A Foundations of Eritrean refugees, Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans, has filed a lawsuit against the European Union (EU) for its role in financing a road building project in Eritrea that uses forced labor, reports The New York Times and various other media. The EU has spent 80 million euro so far and is looking to spend an additional 120 million for upcoming phases. The EU has no direct oversight or a proper monitoring scheme safeguarding the Eritrean national conscripts forced to work on the project, nor the ability to monitor how the money is spent. The lawsuit brings up a difficult question of jurisdiction and accountability. The Eritrea fund is part of the larger European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, but this fund is technically separate from the EU budget. Furthermore, the Dutch foundation sues on behalf of the Eritrean conscripts who can for safety and practical reasons not sue on their own. This makes it difficult to handle the case in European courts. Meanwhile the Dutch Lawyer representing the Foundation, Emiel Jurjens, notes that the European Commission is likely to argue that a European Case cannot be handled in a National court of an individual Member State, the Netherlands in this instance. This would mean that a problematic EU human-right violating fund has no real oversight or accountability.

United Kingdom: Lawyers announce lawsuit in UK court over Eritrea road building project
Lawfirm Duncan Lewis announced in a press release that they are launching a challenge of the United Kingdom’s funding that goes towards the EU road building project in Eritrea. The Department of International Development of the UK contributes to the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which finances the controversial project. Lawyers Toufique Hossain and Isabella Kirwan are representing the organisation Eritrea Focus. The lawyers state that “according to UK law, the Eritrean National Service constitutes forced labour; a form of modern slavery, and the conditions conscripts are subjected to amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment. It is against UK domestic law, European law and international law for the UK Government to be supporting the use of forced labour on the road-building project in Eritrea. The UK Government support must therefore cease forthwith.”

The Netherlands: The Netherlands should provide one billion euro to COVID-19 efforts in Africa
The Netherlands should provide one billion euro to curb COVID-19 in Africa, argues the independent Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV), report various Dutch media. COVID-19 threatens to cause an economic and humanitarian catastrophe in Africa, warns the advice to the Dutch government. Besides  solidarity and humanity considerations, the Netherlands, as well as other European countries, should invest much more in Africa for the global interest, as well as the interest of African countries.  If COVID-19 is rampant in Africa, it could spread to Europe again,  notes the AIV. Furthermore, the Netherlands profits from a well functioning global economy. COVID-19 could also trigger more migration and refugee flows towards the European borders, especially in combination with the devastating effects of locust plagues and climate change across Africa.

EU: 1.600 unaccompanied minors to be relocated from Greece
The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) will start relocating 1.600 unaccompanied minors from Greece to other EU Member States, reports EASO. The relocation follows the Greek government’s agreement to an amendment to the so-called Greek Operating Plan on May 12. Two pilot relocation efforts of 12 unaccompanied minors to Luxembourg and 55 to Germany have already taken place; now the EASO is looking to match other minors to Member States based on cultural, linguistic and family criteria. Although COVID-19 is posing challenges, the EASO is looking to double its operations capacity to 2.0000 personnel in Malta, Italy, Cyprus and Greece while relocating the minors as soon as possible.

Bosnia/Herzegovina: Migrants and refugees face major threats in Bosnia and Herzegovina
International aid organization CARE has expressed its concern about the health and safety of the 7.000 migrants and refugees living in  Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over 75% do not have access to proper drinking water, sanitation and basic hygiene while even minimum standards of nutrition and shelter are not being met. The migrant and refugee camps are overcrowded; one camp houses over 3.000 people with only a 1.600 capacity, meaning that people have to share beds, a major risk increase for transmission of COVID-19. Especially vulnerable are the women and girls inside and outside of the camps due to insufficient protection and sexual and gender-based violence. For many of the migrants and refugees outside the camp, the situation is even more dire as access to food, sanitation and proper shelter is further limited.

Hungary: ECJ rules that Hungary illegally held asylum seekers in border camp
On May 14, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) stated that asylum-seekers at the Roszke camp, a Hungarian border camp near the Serbian border, were held in unlawful detention under EU law, DeutscheWelle reports. The court ruled that “[t]he conditions prevailing in the Roszke transit zone amount to a deprivation of liberty,” and that “[t]he persons concerned cannot lawfully leave that zone of their own free will in any direction whatsoever”. Four migrants from Iran and Afghanistan launched the case and Hungary is now obliged to reconsider their applications.

Malta: EU’s Foreign Minister urges Malta to rejoin the military operation Irini
On May 12, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Josep Borell urged Malta to rejoin the new Mediterranean Sea naval mission “Irini”, InfoMigrants reports. The military operation aims at preventing the inflow of weapons to Libya. Borell said that operation Irini “was conceived to stop the fighting in Libya and political stabilization is a precondition to stop the migrants’ wave. So to stop the migration push, we need to politically stabilize Libya, and this depends on (Irini)”. According to MaltaToday, the Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela stated he will not shift from his hardline position out of protest against the EU migration policy.

Italy: Italy introduces temporary work permits for migrants
After weeks of discussion, Italy’s four governing parties have agreed to changes in employment permits for migrants, reports InfoMigrants. The new legislation will allow for temporary work permits for farm laborers and caretakers in an effort to benefit migrants and the sectors hit by COVID-19. One coalition party, the 5-Star Movement, expressed opposition to the permits to the very end because it argued that the access to cheap foreign labour would benefit exploitative companies who have perpetuated illegal labor practices in the past. The other coalition parties favored the legislature because work permits would protect the migrants by giving them access to healthcare and offer more protection to undocumented laborers. Italy has over 560.000 migrants without work permits or residency papers.

Greater Horn of Africa

Eritrea: UNICEF ramps up its COVID-19 response in Eritrea
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization made major preparations in Eritrea to curb COVID-19, reports UNICEF. 12.000 bottles of hand sanitizer and 86.000 bars of soap were produced locally for health facilities, schools and those most vulnerable. UNICEF has also set up technical support for radio and television education and created 270 public service announcements on radio and television and over two million posters and pamphlets about COVID-19 safety measures. Eritrea announced a three week stay at home order, which was extended. UNICEF is working to help healthcare professionals while also implementing a nutrition programme for those malnourished. However, much remains unknown about the numbers and care for COVID-19 patients in Eritrea, as human rights organisations fear the capacity for care is limited, due to Catholic health center closures last year.

Ethiopia: Political turmoil as ruling party decides it stays in power until next election
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced that the ruling party will remain in power until the next election, because COVID-19 would put those who vote at risk, reports the Addis Standard. The decision put Ethiopia in a constitutional gridlock and divided the county on how to proceed further. If the August elections are postponed and the sitting government has not formed an interim ‘caretaker’ government or made amendments to the constitution, the Ethiopian government would be unconstitutional. However, changing the constitution or forming an interim caretaker government in the divided Ethiopia is difficult. Especially so since many Ethiopians and opposition politicians have condemned the decision to postpone elections, arguing that the threat of COVID-19 is used to excuse a power grab.

Somalia: Multiple emergencies threaten safety of IDPs in Somalia, warns UNHCR
On May 8, the spokesperson of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Charlie Yaxley, said in a press briefing that the safety and welfare of 2.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Somalia is threatened due to heavy flooding, conflict, a poor economy, increasing locust swarms and the growing spread of COVID-19. Unless there is a strong and coordinated response from the international community, the Somali government and humanitarian organizations, UNHCR worries that the various emergencies will have disastrous consequences. The briefing states that “UNHCR and the Government of Somalia airlifted emergency assistance, including jerrycans, soap, blankets, sleeping mats, kitchen sets and plastic sheets, […] to reach a total 37,000 individuals.” UNHCR asks “the international community to come forward with further funding for humanitarian agencies and the Government of Somalia in this time of crisis”.

Horn of Africa: Drop in number of internally displaced persons
A new report ‘Region on the Move’ from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) shows that the amount of internally displaced people (IDP) in East Africa and the Horn of Africa dropped considerably in the first months of 2020. Midst 2019, the East and Horn of Africa region had 8.1 million IDPs. Today, there are only 6.3 million IDPs, a drop of 22%.  According to the report, the main reason is that 1.3 million Ethiopians displaced by communal violence in 2019 went home. The Regional Director of IOM East & Horn of Africa, Mohammed Abdiker, stated that the “overall drop in the number of internally displaced persons in East & Horn of Africa means peace and security has returned and migrants feel safe to return home”. However, the report found that new displacements continue being triggered by climate and environmental hazards. Abdiker adds that IOM is “concerned about climate-induced displacement, particularly as it affects some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities who risk their lives on dangerous journeys”.


World: UN Network on Migration calls for suspension of forced returns
In a May 13 press release, the United Nations Network on Migration, formed to support the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, expresses its concern that states in many regions use forced return of migrants and refugees as a measure in response to COVID-19. The Network urges states to “suspend forced returns during the pandemic, in order to protect the health of migrants and communities, and uphold the human rights of all migrants, regardless of status”. Forced returns can “intensify public health risks for migrants, public officials, health workers, social workers and both host and origin communities” and place additional pressure on health systems that already lack capacity to protect the returnees. The network says that temporary border closures and movement restrictions must be implemented in a non-discriminatory way, should include health protocols and guarantee fundamental rights.

World: UNHCR urges for more attention for stateless people worldwide
On May 11, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urged governments globally to pay more attention to the difficult situation of millions of stateless people and to accept a set of recommendations to ensure the protection and inclusion of stateless people in the public health response in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stated that “exclusion does not benefit anyone, least of all the global effort to contain the virus. The pandemic can only be beaten if everyone, regardless of their legal status, is included in the response, and that means including often invisible, stateless populations”. In many countries across the world, stateless people live in inadequate and unsanitary conditions which can increase the risk of outbreaks.

World: UNHCR appeal for $745 million to protect displaced populations amid COVID-19
On May 11, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urged governments, the private sector and individual donors to provide 745 million USD to prepare for and prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 among migrants, refugees and other displaced populations around the globe. The UNHCR will use the funds to further strengthen national health and sanitation systems through increased supplies of personal protective equipment, medicine, soap and other hygiene supplies. This is part of the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan, appealing for 6.7 billion USD. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said that “the UN is determined to stay the course and deliver for people forced to flee and their hosts, to ensure their inclusion in public health responses and access to social safety nets”. Many of the forcibly displaced populations live in camps or densely populated urban areas, often with inadequate health conditions with limited sanitation facilities and social protection systems.

North of Africa

Libya: Joint statement on the threat on health and safety in Libya due to COVID-19
On May 13, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN World Food programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) published a joint statement in which they state that the health and safety of Libya’s entire population is at risk due to conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic. Particularly, migrants and refugees are at risk. Since the start of 2020, over 3.200 people have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya of which many end up in official detention centers or other unofficial facilities. In the statement the organizations say that the COVID-19 pandemic “poses another strain on the already overstretched Libyan health system, and further threatens the most vulnerable people in the country”. The organizations state that the “international community must not turn a blind eye to the conflict in Libya and its catastrophic effect on civilians, including migrants and refugees, across the country” and asks for funds.

Tunisia: 53% of migrants in Tunisia lost their job during COVID-19 lockdown
The Tunis office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated that 53% of migrants in Tunisia lost their jobs during the lockdown period imposed by the government as part of attempts to curb the spread of COVID-19, InfoMigrants reports. According to the IOM, the employment rate for migrants in Tunisia dropped from 64% to 11% from when the general quarantine was imposed, March 22. The IOM stated it is working together with the Tunisian government to offer social and economic assistance to migrants in Tunisia. Meanwhile, migrants continue attempts to leave the country on boats towards Europe despite the COVID-19 pandemic.