News highlights: Hundreds intercepted by Libyan coastguard, Greece implicated in illegal pushback of refugees, Eritrea celebrates independence amid criticism

This week’s news highlights: Eritrean prisoners defenseless against COVID-19; Eritrea celebrates 29 years of independence amid criticism; Urban refugees face increased struggle for basic needs in East Africa; Ethiopian migrants not aware of risks moving to Saudi Arabia, says IOM; Renewed intercommunal violence South Sudan; Eritrean refugee dies in migrant detention centre in Libya; Hundreds of people intercepted by Libyan coastguard in matter of days; Mercenaries from all over the world keep pouring in Libya despite UN embargo; The story of a boat that left Libya for Europe but disappeared; Greece accused of illegal pushbacks; Malta rescues 140 migrants and refugees in Mediterranean Sea but holds them offshore; France planning to relocate 750 asylum seekers from Greece; Story of how Eritrean child refugee survived shipwreck; EPP launches migration group; Webinar on Sea Rescue; And Oxfam withdraws from 18 countries.

Greater Horn of Africa

Eritrea: Detained Eritreans are defenseless against COVID-19
Due to overcrowding, poor healthcare, lack of sanitation and hygiene options, the thousands of Eritreans in official and unofficial prisons are left defenseless against COVID-19, reports Amnesty International. Prisons are overcrowded and lack basic infrastructure to accommodate people, there are no or hardly any toilets, showers or options to wash clothes and detainees need to sleep on bare floors because beds or mattresses (as well as shoes or slippers) are prohibited. Detainees and their families largely pay for their own medication, meals and hygiene products, but the COVID-19 lockdown has cut off this supply.  Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa said that with “overcrowding and general lack of adequate sanitation, healthcare and food, conditions in these detention facilities are inhumane and a cause of major concern in the face of COVID-19. No one should be held in conditions that can have disastrous consequences on their mental and physical health.”

Eritrea: Eritrea celebrates 29 years of independence as its population remains in shackles
On May 24 Eritrea celebrated its 29 years of independence, a day celebrated extensively as widely shown in videos on Twitter. Yet Eritreans themselves are not free, note many of the Tweets as well as Human Rights Concern  Eritrea (HRCE). Freedom of movement, employment, religion, and political opinion are severely limited, while slavery, oppression and mass incarceration persist, voice critics. Each month around 5000 young Eritreans risk their lives to flee the oppressive regime and their impending conscription into indefinite National Service, states HRCE. As an independent state, Eritrea’s government has neglected basic government services for their population living in poverty while systematically and violently violating human right laws, according to the human rights activists.

Horn/East Africa: Urban refugees struggle to meet basic needs due to COVID-19
On May 26, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Charlie Yaxley expressed his concerns at a press briefing that “refugees in urban areas across the East, Horn and Great Lakes region of Africa are struggling to meet their most basic needs as the economic impact of COVID-19 begins take hold”. The UNHCR works together with governments and partners to search for solutions for urban refugees but expresses its fear that without more support, the refugees will become vulnerable to “exploitation, risk falling into significant levels of debt and may be forced into desperate situation to survive, such as transactional sex or child labour”. Many urban refugees are daily wage workers in the informal sector who were already living hand-to-mouth. They live in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions often with little access to clean water.

Ethiopia: Ethiopian youth not aware of risks on the way to Saudi Arabia, IOM reports
On May 22, a new study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) states that many young Ethiopian migrants and refugees on the Eastern Route to the Middle East are unaware of the dangers of the journey. These risks include “the likelihood of experiencing hunger, dehydration, or contacting waterborne and gastrointestinal diseases in transit, along with the possibility of being abused”. IOM interviewed over 2.000 young Ethiopian people in Djibouti who were trying to reach Saudi Arabia. The IOM Regional Director for East & Horn of Africa Mohammed Abiker stated that the report “shows us just how misinformed many Ethiopian youth are. They are ill-prepared, ill-equipped, and often put their lives in harm’s way”. Abiker said that this report helps IOM to “better target its work with this community to dispel some of the myths of irregular migration”.

South Sudan: Renewed intercommunal violence kills hundreds of people
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has condemned the renewed intercommunal violence in South Sudan and has called for swift justice on behalf of the hundreds of people that have been killed. While political violence is in decline in South Sudan, communal violence is on the rise, with hardly any intervention from national authorities. Between January and April of 2020, 658 people were killed, 452 injured, 65 subjected to sexual violence and 592 were abducted with most of the victims not yet released. In May alone, 300 more people were killed. The reasons for the violence are decades of tensions over access to natural resources like water and grazing lands with cycles of retaliatory violence. The violence has become increasingly militarized due to the increase of small arms and better organized attacks.

North of Africa 

Libya: Eritrean refugee dies in Libyan detention centre
Mid-May, a 39 year old Eritrean man, Tewelde Andom, died in a remote migrant detention centre in Libya, The Irish Times reports. Andom tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in early 2018 but was caught by the Libyan coastguard, which receives  support  from the EU to intercept migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe. According to Médecisns Sans Frontières, the cause of death appeared to be a heatstroke; temperatures in the detention centre reached 42 degrees on the day Andom died. His name is added to a growing list of refugees and migrants who die after being forced back to Libya; and conditions have worsened due to COVID-19, warns the UN.

Libya: Libya’s coastguard intercepts hundreds of migrants and refugees
From May 23 to May 25, Libya’s coastguard intercepted around 400 migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in five boats, reports The Associated Press. According to Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Libyan coastguard brought the migrants and refugees to the al-Nasser detention facility, west of Tripoli. Mselhi stated that departures from Libya increase, which is “especially worrying amid a sharp decrease in … search and rescue capacity” due to COVID-19. Two people died of the 315 that were intercepted on May 25; their bodies were recovered from sea, the UN Refugee Agency in Libya (UNHCR) reports. This brings the total of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe to about 1.000 people in May.

Libya: Mercenaries from all over the world keep pouring in
Despite the United Nation’s (UN) embargo for Libya, mercenaries and equipment from all over the world keep pouring in without impunity, reports The New York Times based on a UN investigation. The UN investigation gains a glimpse into the complicated web of illegal international arms trade with falsified papers, shadow operations, shell companies and private firms such as the infamous U.S. Blackwater, which is in turn connected to an international web of Western arms dealers and smugglers. Besides Western interests and operations The United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Egypt, Russia and ISIS have their own mercenary groups fighting in the oil-rich country, explains the UN. Despite the arms embargo and evidence, only two non-Libyans have been sanctioned, and UN officials have called the embargo “a joke.”

Libya: Story of a boat that left Libya for Europe but never received help
The BBC’s Population correspondent Stephanie Hegarty attempted to find out what happened to one boat that left Libya in February – when it called for help that never came. People on the boat were in great distress but were able to contact AlarmPhone, who tried to contact various authorities from the Libyan coastguard, Italy and Malta many times. After several hours, AlarmPhone received no answers and the connection with the sinking boat was lost. From the moment the line dropped, none of the people on the boat were heard from again. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) warned that the current situation in the Mediterranean could mean more people will disappear at sea. The number of boats leaving Libya for Europe increased, even as there are less search and rescue missions. NGO boats are struggling due to COVID-19 restrictions while European countries have shifted responsibility for rescues to the Libyan coastguard, BBC reports.


Greece: Greek authorities implicated in illegal pushback operations
Findings from an international research team from Deutsche Welle, Trouw, Lighthouse Reports and Bellingcat suggest Greek authorities illegally deported refugees across the Turkish border. In doing so, the Greek government violates international treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights. The research team identified and interviewed ten of the victims of the force-back operation and interviewed multiple other eyewitnesses. Their separate testimonies established a “clear pattern,” which was confirmed by Greek police documents, documents of the refugees, time-stamped and geolocatable social media posts, video analysis and data from official sources and other human rights organizations. A 22-year-old from Afghanistan, for example, had registered with the Greek police, with evidence of official documents, before he was lured into a van to supposedly take him to a police station for new papers. Instead all the belongings of the man were confiscated, he was beaten, driven to a river close to the Turkish border and forced upon boats with dozens of others to be illegally transported into Turkey. Once in Turkey no facilities or persons were waiting for the refugees.

Malta: Malta rescues 140 people in the Mediterranean but refuses disembarkation
On May 22, a Maltese patrol boat rescued 140 migrants and refugees from a sinking dinghy in the Maltese search and rescue zone but refused to bring them to land. The migrants and refugees were transferred to a chartered tourist cruise boat and joined another two tourist boats chartered for the same purpose – carrying an additional 160 migrants, Reuters reports. However, 19 migrants and refugees including children, their parents and pregnant women have been brought to Malta for humanitarian reasons. The Maltese authorities emphasized it will not allow any migrants or refugees to Malta because they state that the EU did not keep its promise to take migrants already brought to Malta.

France: 750 asylum seekers will be relocated from Greece to France
On May 25, the Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, met with the French Ambassador to Greece Patrick Maisonnave and announced that 750 asylum seekers will be relocated to France, FR24 News reports. This follows an agreement with the French Minister of State for Interior, Laurent Nunez, in January. Among the 750 people are 350 unaccompanied minors. The first group is expected to leave in July, according to the Greek ministry. The resettlement was originally planned at the beginning of 2020 but due to COVID-19, all processing of asylum applications was temporarily halted. Maisonnave and Koumoutsakos want to resume the processing of asylum claims as soon as possible and start with the relocation.

United Kingdom: The story of an Eritrean refugee
Senay Guzai was just 11 when he and his cousin fled Eritrea 8 years ago. Senay traveled through Libya, where together with around 500 migrants and refugees he was crammed into an overcrowded ship destined for Europe. The ship, however, would become one of the deadliest and widely reported tragedies of the ‘migrant crisis’ on the Mediterranean. In the middle of the night the ship caught on fire and started to sink just off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy. Inside the pitch-black ship many could not escape the rising water and many could not swim at all. More than 350 people were killed or missing, including Senay’s two friends and cousin. Senay was able to reach the United Kingdom where with the help of the Foster Plus organization he was connected to his foster parents in Chellaston. Now, at 19 Senay is a competitive runner, studying at Derby College and hopes to become a firefighter.

European Parliament: EPP launches migration group
The European People’s Party, a centre-right group in the European Parliament, launched an expert group on Migration and Integration to discuss reform of the EU asylum system and the situation in Africa. The meeting, announced on Twitter, was held online.

Europe: Webinar on Sea Rescue in the Mediterranean
In a webinar organized by Transform Europe, speakers from Watch the Med- Alarmphone, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Sea-eye discussed the European Union’s renunciation of its responsibility for migrants and refugees in distress in the Mediterranean. The context of COVID-19 is used by European countries to no longer respect their obligation to help people in EU’s search-and-rescue zones, or to push boats back to North Africa where the human rights of migrants and refugees are systematically and consistently violated. The NGO speakers explain the necessity and difficulty of their work in these conditions. The full webinar is available in the link below.


World: Oxfam withdraws from 18 countries due to lack of funding
Oxfam International has announced it will withdraw from 18 countries due to lack of funding, reports The Guardian. The announcement has other NGOs, politicians and local populations worried that those most vulnerable will be abandoned amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, especially because Oxfam helped those in rural areas outside the reach of other NGOs. The closure will result in the loss of 1.450 staff members around the world.  Like Oxfam, other NGOs are suffering from COVID-19 related losses due to lockdowns and governments, businesses and individuals economically affected are less likely to donate as well.