News highlights: Flooding in East Africa brings more health risks, EU to announce new migration pact, COVID-19 restrictions increase human smuggling and trafficking

This week’s news highlights: Reports – Eritrean refugees as political pawns in Ethiopia; Flooding in Horn of Africa may increase hunger and health crisis; Floods in Somalia; Eritrea says all COVID-19 patients recovered; Eritrea used as base to run illegal arms to Libya; Eritrea to celebrate independence day; COVID-19 measures lead to more smuggling and trafficking; IOM urges mental health response for migrants and refugees; New EU migration pact to be revealed in June; Shift in global smuggling routes, says Europol; Germany in favour of halt on cooperation with Eritrea; Residents of refugee home in Germany tested positive for COVID-19; Switzerland and UK accept a small number of unaccompanied refugee minors from Greek camps; Serbia deploys troops to the border with Croatia to ‘secure’ migrant camps; Greece reopens asylum services; Documentary shows hardship of unaccompanied minors in Greek camps; Over quarter of a million children at risk in Libya due to vaccine shortages; Libyan Prime Minister and NATO Secretary General discuss situation in Libya; And shelling in displaced people’s shelter in Tripoli kills two people

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: Reports – Eritrean refugees caught in a political game in Ethiopia
Africa Confidential and The Africa Report note the political situation that Eritrean refugees find themselves in in Ethiopia. Eritrean refugees are no longer given automatic refugee status when they enter Ethiopia and the 12.000 Eritrean housing Hitsats refugee camp is set to close, although closure was halted amid COVID-19. The media state the decisions were made so as to warm relations between Ethiopia and the Eritrean regime, but has drastic consequences for Eritrean refugees who can no longer access the protection and services of Ethiopia. Some suspect that the decision is also to undermine the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), report the media. The TPLF is Tigray’s largest political party and a political opponent of both Prime Ministers Abiy Ahmed’s coalition government as well as Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki. The Tigray region hosts many of the Eritrean refugees, but the decisions are made at Federal level. Eritrean refugees are encouraged to integrate into the local Tigrayan communities. However, the lack of national government support makes them very vulnerable to exploitation, crime and poverty. 

Greater Horn of Africa: Floods in East Africa bring risk of hunger and health crisis
Floods in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda threaten the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people, especially vulnerable elderly, reports HelpAge International. People are forced from their homes to overcrowded facilities, which exposes them to the risks of COVID-19, pneumonia and malaria while people are unable to access healthcare and medicines like HIV/AIDS antiretrovirals. Malnutrition and a lack of clean water are also risks as farmlands and infrastructure are destroyed by the floods, making humanitarian access even more difficult in certain regions.    

Somalia: Flooding in Somalia brings additional health concerns
Flooding in Somalia affected over 700.000 people, displacing almost 283.000, reports the World Health Organization (WHO). The displaced people are extra vulnerable to COVID-19, but their movement also means that they might spread the virus to the densely populated areas to which they flee. Furthermore, the flooding threatens the access to safe water and sanitation. The lack of clean water also brings the risk of cholera and other diseases. Despite the health threats and the largest locust infestation of the past 25 years funding for humanitarian operations remains low; only 16% ($200 million), of the necessary funds have been collected, states WHO.    

Eritrea: All COVID-19 patients recovered in Eritrea
On May 16, The Eritrean Ministry of Health informed through a statement that all 39 COVID-19 patients in Eritrea have recovered from the virus. The Eritrean Ministry of Health stressed that it still “is vital that every citizen continue to fully adhere to, and diligently implement, the government of Eritrea guidelines in force until the ongoing task of detailed and comprehensive assessment to gauge the spread of the pandemic in the entire country with full certainty is accomplished”. The task force overseeing the pandemic response in Eritrea said in the statement that random and extensive testing is the next phase in the Eritrean authorities’ efforts, Africanews reports. The task force stated that “the first phase of tests will be carried out in several sections of Asmara from Sunday, 17th May onwards. Towns and villages in border areas, as well as front-line employees in the Ministry of Health and other relevant institutions will also be part and parcel of this first phase testing”.

Eritrea: Eritrea used as a basis to run illegal arms to Libyan Haftar rebels
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is using Eritrea to illegally transport arms to Libyan rebel leader Khalifa Haftar, despite an United Nations (UN) arms embargo, reports Bloomberg based on a report from the UN. The UAE has an airbase in Eritrea, which is used to transport a high volume of weapons from UAE to Haftar-controlled airports in Libya. The UAE has also urged Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to send an additional 1200 soldiers to Libya, via Eritrea, under threat of cutting off financial aid if the RSF leader does not comply, reports the Libyan Observer. Besides the UAE, who deny the UN findings, other countries are involved as well. Russia and Turkey have both hired Syrian mercenaries to fight on opposing sides.      

Eritrea: Independence day approaches
The 29th Eritrean independence day approaches, with the theme announced as “Resilience and Progress”. It will take place under conditions of lockdown. Outside the country, those who have fled Eritrea are also preparing to celebrate independence day. Under #yiakl, human rights defenders are wondering what has become of independence fighters that are now imprisoned for criticising the government. 


World: COVID-19 measures likely lead to more human smuggling and trafficking
Closed borders and restrictive movement in the context of COVID-19 will likely lead to more smuggling and human trafficking of migrants and refugees, reports the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Though the borders are closed, the need to flee from conflict and poverty is not reduced, which means that migrants and refugees rely increasingly on smugglers and traffickers across riskier routes and in worse conditions. This exposes them to increased exploitation and abuse without access to basic health and hygiene. With less Search and Rescue operations across the Mediterranean, migrants and refugees in distress at sea are also less likely to be rescued. Due to the global restrictions and economic consequences of the virus many people lose their income and are reduced to poverty, which makes forced movement more likely. Vulnerability makes people easier to exploit, warns UNODC. To mitigate these effects the UNODC urges for investment in the affected economies and provide safe and legal avenues for migration.

World: IOM calls upon governments to include migrants and refugees in mental health response
On May 15, The International Organization for Migration (IOM) urged all governments worldwide to take proactive measures and take into consideration the mental health and psychosocial needs of migrants, refugees and displaced persons in their governments’ responses to COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic is having a deep impact on the mental health of migrants, refugees and displaced people globally, reports IOM. The IOM Director-General, António Vitorino, stated that the “most vulnerable including migrants, mobile populations, and seasonal workers, face a unique set of challenges. We must ensure everyone is included in our mental health response, especially during COVID-19.” 


EU: New pact on migration and asylum to be revealed in June
On May 18, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said that the European Commission plans to reveal its new pact on migration and asylum sometime in June, according to EUObserver. Johansson said that she hopes “that we will be able to present it in the beginning of the summer”. In a video conference organised by the think tank Friends of Europe, Johansson stated that the most controversial aspects of asylum in the new pact have yet to be resolved. Including aspects dealing with the distribution of arriving asylum seekers across member states. Johansson is tasked to come up with new ideas and plans to create the so-called Common European Asylum System. Johansson explained that in her new proposal “there is a big distinction between those who are eligible to stay and those who are not,” and added that the returns of failed applicants have to be swifter and more efficient.

EU: Europol report shows shift in smuggling routes
The new report of the European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) at Europol shows new ways in which the vulnerability of migrants and refugees who want to enter Europe is abused. The report says that the closure of external EU borders and travel restrictions to curb COVID-19 led to an increased shift in smuggling routes from air to land and sea routes, and the abuse of economic vulnerabilities. Migrants and refugees are smuggled while hidden in freight vehicles and cargo trains which can still cross borders. There could be an increase in sexual exploitation due to the closing of establishments offering sexual services and an increase in the trafficking of migrants and refugees to fill the gap of seasonal workers in the agricultural sector. Europol’s Executive Director, Catherine De Bolle, states in the report that, to fight this threat, “we have to use the great advantage of shared intelligence to target these types of international organised crime and Europol plays a key role”. 

Germany: Germany debates stopping co-operation with Eritrea
The German Federal Government sees no chance for bilateral development cooperation with Eritrea, report multiple news outlets. Norbert Barthle (CSU), Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development , says that German “leadership rejects any cooperation […] Unlike in Ethiopia, progress has stopped in Eritrea.” Germany will no longer take  effort to improve trade relations or discuss human rights due to Eritrea’s lack of cooperation, transparency and improvements in human rights. Only the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party wants to increase cooperation with Eritrea, citing that investment  and economic development might foster improvements in human rights. Their application for cooperation with Eritrea was, however, rejected. Other parties were critical of AfD, stating that the AfD’s aim is not for the welfare of Eritreans but for German openings in Eritrea’s mining sector and access to new markets.

Germany: Residents tested positive for COVID-19 at refugee home in Germany
At least 70 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and around 300 other residents are tested at a refugee home near Bonn, DeutscheWelle reports. The residents who tested positive have been isolated and 60 residents who tested negative were transferred to another home. The news of the outbreak prompted criticism of politicians with calls for better protection for asylum seekers and more testing at the often crowded facilities. 

Switzerland/UK: Switzerland and UK take in refugee minors from Greek camps
Switzerland and the United Kingdom (UK) have respectively taken in 23 and 16 unaccompanied refugee children on May 16, reports InfoMigrants. Switzerland and the UK are the third and fourth European countries to take in unaccompanied minors from the overcrowded camps on the Greek Islands. In mid-April Germany took in 47 children and Luxembourg 12. There are 5.500 unaccompanied minors on the Greek island and several European countries have pledged to take in 1.600 of these children, although relocation has been slow.

Serbia: Serbia deploys troops at Croatian border to “protect” citizens from migrants
On May 16, the Serbian authorities announced its decision to deploy troops to the border with Croatia in order to “protect” residents near three migrant camps – Principovac, Sid-Stanica and Adasevci, InfoMigrants reports. The order to “secure” the camps comes from the commander in chief of the armed forces, President Aleksandar Vucic. The minister of defence, Aleksandar Vulin stated that the troops would be “taking responsibility for the external security of migrant camps in the Municipality of Sid”. Vulin added that they “do not expect that anyone here will have to use force,” and stresses that the aim is to “help our citizens feel better, calmer, and safer, and we especially want to prevent migrants who are possibly out of camps to cause any problems”. According to Vulin “all the needs of migrants who are in the reception centers will be met”. Refugee workers have responded with confusion, as they note no incidents have recently taken place.

Greece: Greece to resume asylum services again
After eleven weeks Greece is opening up asylum services again to receive asylum applications. The eleven month freeze was introduced during the Greece-Turkey asylum dispute along the border, a decision that was met with much criticism and arguments that it violated European and international law. COVID-19 prolonged the freeze from the initially planned four-week period. Due to COVID-19, asylum services are limited and social distancing measures are in place. To prevent overburdening of the system the Greek government has decided to automatically renew expiring residency permits. 

Greece: documentary about unaccompanied minors in the Greek refugee camps
In a documentary Greek filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki shows the hardship of the unaccompanied minors living in one of the refugee camps on Lesbos, reported and watchable in the New York Times. The camp, which houses 3000 refugees despite its 700 people capacity, feels more like a prison. Barbed wire fences surrounded the shabby huts and improvised tents that are huddled together in the mud; in the cold and pouring rain people dressed in summer clothing and flip flops huddle together in lines for food or application processing. Camp facilities are not built to house this many people for such a long duration, and as a result the people do not get the physiological and physical care they require. Young orphaned boys tell their harrowing stories of detention, torture and the murder of their families along their route to that led them to the Greek camps. One child said: “[s]ince I opened my eyes to the world it has been all war. I saw nothing in my life. When I was 13 ISIS came and…,” he breaks down crying. Another boy says that he felt so lonely in the camp at first he tried to commit suicide. These are two of the stories from the 5500 unaccompanied minors living in Greek refugee camps. 

North of Africa 

Libya: Vaccine shortages put over quarter of a million children at risk in Libya
On May 18, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Word Health Organization (WHO) raised the alarm in a joint press release over “severe vaccine shortages in Libya that are putting more than 250,000 children at severe risk”. The continued armed conflicts, COVID-19 pandemic, bad health care services, shortages of water supplies and the closure of schools and child-friendly places are worsening the situation. UNICEF and the WHO are worried that numerous migrant, refugee or internally displaced children are at particular risk and “may not have received their basic vaccination doses in their country of origin or may have missed the required doses in Libya”. UNICEF Special Representative, Abdel-Rehman Ghandour, said that there is “an urgent need to ensure an uninterrupted flow of funds for vaccine procurement to cater for the current shortfall”. 

Libya: Libyan Prime Minister and NATO Secretary General discuss latest developments
On May 16, the internationally recognized Prime Minister of Libya, Faiez Serraj, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg held a phone call to discuss the latest military and security developments in Libya. Stoltenberg expressed his deep concern over the recent escalation of violence in Libya and stressed that there is no military solution to the situation. Stoltenberg emphasized the importance to respect the UN arms embargo. The Secretary-General stated that NATO wants to help Libya in building up its defence and security institutions and calls upon all parties in Libya and members of the international community to support the work of the United Nations to find a peaceful political solution in the country. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) states that over 46.000 refugees and asylum seekers are registered in Libya where many face life-threatening insecurity, instability and the threat of exploitation and abuse by armed groups. 

Libya: Two people killed in shelling of displaced people’s shelter in Tripoli
On May 16, shelling caused a fire at a displaced people’s shelter in Fornaj district, Tripoli, and killed two people, Reuters reports. The district has been under bombardment by the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA)  who want to capture Tripoli. The shelter is located near a frontline and home to people forced from their homes after earlier fighting, stated the spokesman for Tripoli’s emergency and ambulance service, Usama Ali.