News highlights: COVID-19 confirmed in Ethiopian refugee camp, EU takes no more roads approach in Eritrea, Dramatic drop in granting of refugee status for Eritreans in Germany

In this week’s news highlights: COVID-19 infections confirmed in Ethiopia’s largest refugee camp; No further EU funding for roads in Eritrea; Eritrea requested aid from the EU for COVID-19; Eritrea starves Red Sea region under guise of COVID-19; Mixed Migration Centre updates; Locust plague keeps threatening Horn of Africa;  Greek coastguard neglects 32 refugees in distress for hours; Pressure against Greece for illegal pushback operations; Immense decline of Eritreans granted refugee status in Germany; Allegations of torture of migrants and refugees by Croat officials; Migrant crossings into Europe on the rise again; Information campaign for MEPs on Mediterranean migration routes; Court case against the EU for forced labour in Eritrea kicks off; 12 people missing after boat capsized off Libyan coast; Libyan Emergency food project by UNHCR and WFP; MSF says COVID-19 exposes failed politics of aid in Libya; HRW urges investigation of war crimes in Libya; COVID-19 impact on migrant smuggling and human trafficking; And IDPs at all time high.

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: First confirmed COVID-19 case in largest Ethiopian refugee camp
On June 9, the Ethiopian government confirmed that a girl and two men from Eritrea, living in the country’s largest refugee camp, the Adi-Harush camp, tested positive for COVID-19. This puts tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees at risk as people in the camps live close to each other in confined spaces. The Ethiopian government is playing catch-up to improve health facilities and water levels at the 26 refugee camps in the country. Ann Encontre, the country representative for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Ethiopia said that the containment of the spread of COVID-19 will be challenging due to the living conditions at the camps, but they will continue their efforts. 

Eritrea: ‘No more roads’ approach taken by EU as it rejects new funding request
The European Union explained to the European Parliament in a meeting of the Development Committee on 14 June that it would give no further funding to road building in Eritrea. However, implementation of the current road projects worth 80 million EUR will continue. The European Commission (EC) further stated that it would transfer around 30 million EUR out of Eritrea’s budget to Sudan. A further 20 million EUR package was presented by the EC four other projects, which still need to be approved by the member states. Members of the European Parliament expressed disappointment with the EC’s continued lack of explanation of how it was monitoring that its work in Eritrea actually assisted people on the ground, instead of harming them.

Eritrea: Eritrea requested the EU for aid to curb COVID-19
On June 15, Lothar Jaschke, an official within the European External Action Service (EEAS) stated at the meeting of the Committee on Development (DEVE) on the EU’s development cooperation with Eritrea that the recent request to the EU for millions of euros made by Eritrea to fight COVID-19 is a ‘sign of improved bilateral relations’, EUobserver reports. Jaschke said that “[w]hen Covid came to Eritrea the leader turned to the European Union and asked for support, forgetting the proud policy of self-sufficiency and rejecting humanitarian aid from the past”. This follows the launch of the second phase of an EU-funded road building project in Eritrea which received much criticism from human rights campaigners due to the use of forced labour. 

Eritrea: COVID-19 restrictions starve Eritreans
COVID-19 restrictions severely hamper the access to food across the Red Sea regions, which are normally already short on food, multiple Eritrean voices warn. These regions lack rich agricultural lands and depend mostly on fishing and import of foods via other areas and counties. COVID-19 border closures have constrained trade with other countries, and marinas, fisheries and ports have been closed by Eritrean authorities, according to human rights activist Ibrahim Ahmed in Al-Istiklal. In addition, Petros Tesfagiorgis, founding member of Eritrea Focus, states that the Eritrean government is using the COVID-19 pandemic “to starve its people”. The lockdown imposed by the Eritrean authorities left already poor people starving because Eritrea does not provide help to the Eritrean population to sustain their day to day living, Tesfagiorgis reports in Assenna. United Kingdom parliamentarian lord Alton of Liverpool has submitted parliamentary questions concerning the reports of the seemingly deliberate widespread starvation of the region under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions.

East Africa: Updates on mixed migration in East Africa and Yemen by MMC
In its latest report the Mixed Migration Center (MMC) discussed the new trends and dynamics related to mixed migration and relevant policy developments in the East Africa and Yemen region. The MMC states that the restrictions in relation to COVID-19 impacted people in mixed migration flows. The Center adds that “[b]order closures […] and increased surveillance activities to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have made movement nearly impossible for people across East Africa”. The MMC stresses that East Africa hosts 11.200.000 internally displaced people (IDP) and 3.400.000 refugees who face “protection, health and legal challenges, as well as difficulties meeting basic needs”.

Horn of Africa: Locusts keep threatening the Horn
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) urges increased surveillance and control operations or the desert locust could develop into a plague in the Horn of Africa. FAO anticipates increased breeding and a second wave flying over from the Arabian Peninsula. In May FAO already requested an additional $78.4 million to increase its operations in ten countries, which brings the total request for support to $231.6 million. With the funds FAO seeks to purchase pesticides, provide livelihood assistance for 1 million affected people  and contract aircrafts and flight crews. The desert locust combined with COVID-19 and floodings in the area exacerbate the socio-economic crisis for many people across the Horn region. According to USAID 26.2 million people are already facing severe acute food insecurity in the region while the locusts could cause up to $8.5 billion in damages in 2020. 


Greece: Greek coast guard picks up 32 refugees in distress after Alarm Phone pressure
On June 13 NGO Alarm Phone raised the alarm about 32 refugees that were in distress near Lesvos. With the boat taking in water for hours, the distressed refugees feared the lack of response would result in their death. Among the 32 people were 11 children and 11 women, one of whom was in active labour and in bad health. The Hellenic Coast Guard was next to the distressed ship in their own vessels for hours but initially refused to rescue people, even though the distressed ship was in Greek waters. It was not until 23.35 CEST that the Greek coastguard confirmed it had rescued the refugees, almost 17 hours after first being notified by Alarm Phone.

Greece: UNHCR urges Greece to investigate reports on pushbacks to Turkey
In a June 12 press briefing, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Babar Baloch calls upon Greece to investigate multiple reports of pushbacks to Turkey by the Greek government at the sea and land borders. The reporting of pushbachs increased since March and originate from various media, many of which are confirmed by NGOs and direct testimonies. The UNHCR urges states “to manage border restrictions in ways that also respect international human rights and refugee protection standards, including through quarantines and health checks”. A joint investigation by Der Spiegel, Lighthouse Reports and Report Mainz confirms this account by analyzing and geolocating dozens of videos and speaking with eyewitnesses. A video from a refugee shows how a Greek Coast Guard ship drags rafts back to Turkey as the boats are taking in water. 

Germany: Recognition rates for Eritrean refugees in Germany dropped to just 5.5%
Despite the lack of improvements in the suppressive political system of Eritrea, German recognition of Eritrean refugees significantly dropped, report Pro Asyl and Connection e.V. In 2015 95.5% of Eritrean asylum seekers were recognized as refugees, which dropped over the years to only 5.5% in 2019. As a result Eritrean asylum seekers have a worse legal status that makes them dependent on the Eritrean regime. They have to obtain their passports from the Eritrean embassy, which requires them to sign a letter of repentance which states that “I regret having committed an offence by not complying with my national obligations […] I (am) prepared to accept the appropriate measures still to be decided.” By signing this letter the subject surrenders his or herself to imprisonment and punishment in Eritrea without any legal basis. Furthermore, they are required to pay 2% of their income to the Eritrean regime. Germany upholds this blackmail which in the Netherlands has led to the deportation of an Eritrean diplomat.  

Croatia: EC intends to monitor Croat border due to allegations of torture
On June 12, a European Commission (EC) spokesperson told EUobserver that the EC wants to send officials to monitor the Croat border following new allegations of torture of migrants and refugees. The spokesperson stated the monitoring is planned “to ensure that the activities of the Croatian border guards remain fully compliant with the respect of fundamental rights”. The monitoring will start as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic calms down. Amnesty International researcher Jelena Sesar told EUobserver that the abuse is carried out by a special unit that “are certainly part of the official law enforcement of Croatia”. The Croatian authorities deny everything and claim that the injuries are most likely due to fighting among the migrants and refugees themselves. 

Europe: Migrant crossings into Europe rebounds
After record low migratory crossings in April, crossings rebounded in May to nearly 4300 migrants and refugees, reports European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). This brings the number of crossings between January and June this year to 31.600 people, which is still 6% lower than the same period in 2019. However, several routes saw steep inclines. Especially the Central Mediterranean via Libya and Tunisia saw more traffic with a 40% rise in May compared to April. This brings the total number who travel via this route up to 5.500 people in the first five months of 2020, which is three times more than the same period in 2019 for this route. Crossings via the Western Mediterranean route in May nearly quadrupled to 650 compared to April, with many coming from Algeria. Frontex told German media that the COVID-19 pandemic, food shortages and political insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa will likely trigger more migrants and asylum seekers.

EU: EU institutions and Sea Eye inform MEPs on Mediterranean migration route
In a June 15 press release, the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) states that the European Commission (EC), the Europe External Actions Service (EEAS), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the German NGO Sea-Eye informed the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) on the migration situation in the Central Mediterranean in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, MEPs expect to receive information on the activities of the EU naval operation IRINI, whose task it is to ensure that the arms embargo imposed on Libya is enforced. LIBE follows new developments in the area closely after several reports of ships in distress in the Mediterranean were refused help.

Mediterranean: Sunderland puts focus on deaths in the Mediterranean
Judith Sunderland, deputy director of Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, states in Politico that “since 2014, more than 20.000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea”. In light of the protests against racism in Europe in the wake of the US protests, Sunderland stresses that “it’s important not to forget the victims of modern indifference and hate” in Europe. Black and brown people are crowded into  ships for frightening journeys. She states that thousands of people “never make it” because they “drown or die of dehydration or exposure or simply disappear”. Sunderland said that the EU focused mainly on stopping the ships from reaching Europe rather than saving lives. To save lives in the Mediterranean, Sunderland states the EU has to come up with a different approach to human mobility.

The Netherlands: Interview regarding the court case against the EU for Eritrean forced labour
In a radio interview on the Dutch radioprogramma NOS Met het Oog op Morgen, member of the Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans Ms. Belay, lawyer Emiel Jurjens and member of the European Parliament Jeroen Lanaers (CDA) discussed the lawsuit against the European Union (EU) in the Amsterdam court. The EU is sued because it funds forced labour in Eritrea through an aid project that aims to build roads in the country. In the project, labour from the national service system will be used, a system notorious for its widespread human rights violations and slavery. While the EU requested that no national service conscripts were used, it relented when Eritrean officials insisted on the use, says Jurjens. The court case was started on 17 June.  

North Africa

Libya: 12 migrants and refugees missing after ship capsized off Libyan coast
12 people are still missing after a ship carrying more than 30 migrants and refugees capsized off the Libyan coast on June 13, InfoMigrants reports. 20 migrants and refugees were rescued but there are concerns the 12 missing people drowned. Alarmphone stated that the “Libyan coastguard was not present” despite the fact that they are “being paid by the EU to patrol the coasts to prevent people fleeing”. Meanwhile, the number of bodies that have been recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Tunisia has risen to 53 people. The number of recorded sea departures from Tunisia between January and May have quadrupled compared to last year. The Tunisian coast guard prevented several departures and rescued multiple people suffering shipwrecks in the last weeks, reports InfoMigrants 

Libya: UNHCR and WFP help out refugees and asylum seekers with emergency food
On June 16, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP) announced that they will work together in a Libyan project that aims to reach up to 10.000 refugees and asylum seekers with emergency food this year. The project was launched due to the severe impacts of COVID-19 as well as the ongoing conflict in Libya. UNHCR states that regular food support helps to meet the basic needs of people and “allows for limited income to be used for other needs”. According to the UNHCR, most refugees and asylum seekers can not support themselves and are only able to eat one meal a day as food prices and the cost of basic goods have dramatically risen. Jean-Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR’s Chief of Mission in Libya, stated that the aid they provide “has come at a critical time and will be a lifesaver for some of the most vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in urban areas”.

Libya: COVID-19 exposes failed politics of aid in Libya says MSF
In a report Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) argues that “COVID-19 lays bare failed politics of aid to help migrants stranded in Libya.” COVID-19, a collapsing healthcare system, escalating armed conflict and indiscriminate attacks on civilians have created a crisis within a crisis which could become a humanitarian catastrophe according to Sacha Petiot, Head of Mission in Libya. For months calls for a ceasefire and pleas for COVID-19 preparations were neglected. Moreover, conflict has intensified in the country. While the situation is dire for the Libyan population, the situation is especially miserable for the migrants and refugees trapped in the country who are even more vulnerable and dependent on organizations that cannot reach them anymore. Petiot argues that the migrants and refugees trapped in Libya should be “an international priority,” that requires immediate attention and “humanitarian evacuation”.

Libya: War crimes should be urgently investigated says Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urges the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF, formerly known as the Libyan National Army (LNA)) to “urgently investigate evidence that fighters affiliated with it apparently tortured, summarily executed, and desecrated corpses of opposing fighters.” The crimes  committed by troops under General Khalifa Haftar were recorded and posted on social media in May. According to Hanan Salah, HRW’s senior Libya researcher, Haftar should hold his forces accountable for the undertaking and advertising of war crimes while senior LAAF leadership should be held responsible by national and international courts. The United Nations also called for an investigation after the discovery of mass graves. 


World: Interpol assesses impact COVID-19 on human trafficking and smuggling
On June 11, Interpol published an assessment about COVID-19’s short and long-term effects on migrant smuggling and human trafficking and the measures taken by countries to control its spread. Interpol notes that smugglers and traffickers, as well as their victims, have found ways to overcome some of the preventive measures that have hindered certain criminal opportunities in the short-term. The agency states that “with deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Libya due to ongoing conflict, it is almost certain that attempts to migrate to Europe will continue in spite of the pandemic” and adds that with the “access to desired destinations being increasingly difficult, smuggling networks will be likely seeking new means of entry and charging premium prices for their so-called services”.

World: Displaced persons at an all time high, says IOM
On June 11, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) participated in the virtual panel discussion about “mobilizing action to improve humanitarian assistance for internally displaced persons and achieve durable solutions”. The panel discussion is part of the week-long Humanitarian Affairs Segment, organized by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). IOM reports that, by the end of 2019, the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to conflict, violence and disaster reached a record, namely 50 million people among which 33 million were newly displaced in 2019. The IOM Director General António Vitorino said that the dire circumstances in which IDPs live – particularly the overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions and the shortage of jobs and services – have worsened due to the health risks and socio-economic impact of COVID-19.