News highlights: IOM’s voluntary return initiative under fire, Eritreans raise alarm over food shortages amid COVID-19 restrictions, EU accused of cover-up amid Croatia migrant abuse

Photo by Óglaigh na hÉireann

In this week’s news highlights: EU-IOM Joint Initiative fails to support migrants, Euronews reports; Eritrean refugees mistreated in voluntary return programme; Shipwreck off Libyan coast kills several people; Refugees released from detention in Libya; Bangladesh arrests 50 people following migrant murders in Libya; OHCHR to vote on extension mandate of Eritrea Special Rapporteur; Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki visits Sudan for 3-day meeting; African governments urged to reopen borders; Over a thousand migrants stranded in Djibouti due to COVID-19; BBC Tigrinya: People in Eritrea are starving; Violence and child malnutrition worsen in South-Sudan; Focus on sexual and gender-based violence against women; Refugee rights violated, says Human Rights Commissioner; EU officials accused of Croatian migrant abuse cover-up; Family reunification obstacles for Eritrean refugees in Germany; Data leak threatens hundreds of asylum seekers in the Netherlands; Greek journalist alienated due to migration investigation; UK questions human rights situation Eritrea; Austria backs Germany’s hardline migration policy; UNHCR statement in World Refugee Day; Resumption of resettlement flights; And Refugee groups call for more attention for COVID-19 in refugee camps.

North Africa

IOM/EU: Joint Initiative on protection and return fails in support to migrants in Africa
A Euronews investigation across 7 African countries reveals failings in the €357 million Joint Initiative between the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the European Union for migrant protection and reintegration. Since 2017, 81.000 African migrants and refugees were sent back to their home country, among which 50.000 were transported from Libya. Migrants and refugees were promised cash, support and counselling to allow them to reintegrate in their home countries, however, dozens of them  told Euronews that none or insufficient support was provided once they arrived in their home country. In cases of return to countries like Eritrea, returnees only applied out of desperation and they report being arrested and interrogated upon return (details in the next summary). The IOM responded to Euronews that “only one-third of the migrants who have started reintegration assistance have completed the process”. IOM stresses that the Joint Initiative is voluntary and “migrants can decide to pull out at any time, or not to join at all”. Due to the lack of assistance, many women and girls who were victims of sexual violence in Libya turn to prostitution after returning to their home country.

IOM/EU: Flaws in EU’s voluntary return programme for Eritreans
The Joint Initiative between the European Union and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) voluntary return programme cannot be seen as voluntary for Eritrean refugees, reports Euronews. Despite well-documented and widespread human rights abuses in Eritrea and a violent reception of returnees by a country that sees refugees as traitors, the programme has facilitated the return of at least 61 Eritreans from Libya since 2018. IOM is unable to sufficiently follow up on their conditions. The most recent group of 16 Eritreans were detained in desperate conditions in a Libyan prison for eight months before an IOM staff member offered them a way out of the prison via repatriation. The repatriants said that they were not sure what they were signing due to the language barrier and resisted once they arrived at the airport. Elizabeth Chyrum, an Eritrean human rights activist, wrote to IOM director-general Antonio Vitorino that the programme takes advantage of the desperate and horrific conditions of Libyan detention situation while not informing them enough on the process of repatriation.

Libya: Migrants and refugees die in a shipwreck near the Libyan capital
On the weekend of June 20-21, several migrants and refugees died following a shipwreck along the Libyan coast. The exact number of victims is unknown but according to initial reports 3 bodies washed up on the beach near Al-Zawiya, a town 50 km from Tripoli, InfoMigrants reports. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 19 people that survived, were picked up by a fishing boat and were taken to an unofficial detention center.

Libya: 200 refugees released from Libyan detention centers
Some 200 refugees have been released from the Azzawiya al-Nasr detention center in north-west Libya, reports the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The refugees have experienced poor conditions during their years of detention; overcrowding, diseases, abuse, food and water shortages, and no contact with family. While glad to be released, some of the refugees expressed fear of renewed arrest and detention by Libyan authorities. Around 50.000 refugees still remain in Libya, many of them “face arbitrary detention, gender-based violence, forced labour, extortion and exploitation,” especially in the centers in conflict-affected areas, writes Jennifer Bose Ratka from OCHA. Many in detention centers cannot be reached by humanitarian organisations.

Libya: 50 arrests in crackdown human trafficking following migrant murders in Libya
Bangladesh police arrested over 50 people accused of extortion and false promises of jobs overseas in a crackdown on human trafficking following the murder of 30 migrants in Libya, reports Reuters. Bangladesh is a notorious trafficking county with a conviction rate of arrested alleged traffickers of only 0.4% between 2013-2019, according to the U.S. Trafficking in Persons report. The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates 21.000 Bangladeshi migrants are residing in Libya, who paid on average $3.200 per person for their travel. Last month, when crossing the desert, the group of migrants were taken hostage and tortured for ransom by an armed group before being murdered.

Greater Horn of Africa

Eritrea: OHCHR to vote on renewal mandate of Special Rapporteur on Eritrea
From June 30 until July 21, the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) is taking place. Among other issues, the Council will discuss the human rights situation in Eritrea and the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz. The states leading the mandate renewal resolution are Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands. In May, more than 20 humanitarian organizations wrote a letter to the OHCHR stressing the importance of the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur  because there still is no concrete evidence of progress in Eritrea’s human rights situation.

Sudan/Eritrea: Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki visits Sudan
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki started his three-day working trip to Sudan June 25, tweets the Eritrean minister of Information Yemane G. Meskel. According to the Eritrean Ministry for Information the visit will “focus on enhancement of bilateral ties as well as consolidation of ongoing endeavours for regional cooperation and integration.” The Eritrean regime supported last year’s popular uprising in Sudan and hailed the Sundanese Minister’s role in the movement, reported the Ethiopian newspaper Borkena last year. Prior to that, Eritrean-Sudanese relations had been tense.

East Africa: Call for East and Central African governments to reopen borders for asylum seekers
On June 22, a group of international, national, and refugee-led organizations in the Horn, East and Central Africa (HECA) urged authorities in the region to reopen borders for asylum seekers, Amnesty International reports. HECA countries host around 4.6 million refugees and asylum seekers but closed their borders in March as a measure against COVID-19, due to which  tens of thousand of migrants and refugees are stuck in makeshift camps along the borders. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, states that “governments, with support from international partners, must find solutions that respect international human rights and refugee law commitments, including the right to seek asylum”.  Muchena adds that measures as “medical screening or testing and preventive and time-bound quarantine facilities” should be established.

Djibouti: Over a thousand migrants stuck in Djibouti due to COVID-19
Over 1.200 migrants are stranded in Djibouti due to border closures and movement restrictions implemented to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports. The migrants, who are mainly Ethiopians, want to go to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries through Djibouti to find work. Stéphanie Deviot, IOM Djibouti’s Chief of Mission, stated that IOM continues “to work hand in hand with the Government of Djibouti to provide life-saving assistance to these migrants”. The route through Djibouti and Yemen presents acute dangers for migrants and refugees, including trafficking for ransom, abuse and hunger.

Eritrea: Shortage of basic food items in Eritrea causes starvation
BBC Tigrinya reports that shortages of food and basic items such as sorghum, sugar, and oil cause hunger all over Eritrea and particularly in Gash Barka, located in the Western Lowlands and border with Sudan. Eritreans raised the alarm about the dire situation they are facing due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the border closures and the Eritrean Government confiscating their goods. According to the BBC, there is a shortage of basic items including fuel  and the prices of goods have doubled all over the country. The Government shops can be accessed only with a valid ration card for which not all residents can qualify.

South Sudan: Violence and child malnutrition worsen in complex crisis
COVID-19, political instability, violence, poor economic conditions and natural disasters have caused a complex crisis in South Sudan which will likely trigger the acute malnourishment of 1.3 million children, reports Tearfund. The statistics for children under 5 suggest that stunting and wasting (low weight-for-height ratio) rates are much higher than in other developing countries and the children are more prone to life threatening diseases. Cattle raiders and intercommunal violence threaten the livelihoods of many people, villages are destroyed and people forcefully displaced. This exposes people to the dangers of diseases, extreme poverty and makes it more difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach them. On top of the COVID-19 hardship and full hospitals, the International Committee of the Red Cross fears for a likely third wave of armed violence.

Greater Horn of Africa: Attention for sexual and gender-based violence against women
Humanitarian and rights organizations have drawn attention to the needs of survivors and those vulnerable to conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), especially as governments and healthcare institutions are preoccupied with COVID-19, in the context of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on 19 June. The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) has observed an increase in SGBV in the Horn of Africa in both conflict and non-conflict areas. SIHA draws attention to Somalia, South Sudan, and the Darfur region in Sudan. Weaponized rape to subjugate a population by government officials and non-state groups remains common; as does SGBV inside and outside of their homes. There is no strong government response towards protection and justice in any of the three countries and health services are lacking. With COVID-19 lockdowns the situation further declined, as domestic violence has increased.

Ethiopia: The stories of many Ethiopan migrants on their way to a better life
Staff of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) portrays the story of several Ethiopian people who “undertake dangerous journeys in search of a better life”. Safa Msehli and Musa Mohammed aim to tell the untold stories of the faces behind the large number of people fleeing poverty, violence, conflict and abuse often crossing deserts on foot, in overcrowded smuggling trucks or embark on deadly sea journeys.


EU: Commissioner for Human Rights accuses EU of violating the European Convention
On June 22, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe Dunja Mijatovic stated in her speech that the “rights of refugees under the [European] Convention [on Human Rights] are all too often violated”. Mijatovic particularly focuses on the role of member states and how their “actions are challenging the important protections it provides to refugees”. The Commissioner said that member states try to bypass their obligations under the Convention. According to Mijatovic, anti-migrant rhetorics are on the rise in some European countries and politicians “feed the suggestion that human rights are not an essential element of border control, but a hindrance to it. And that human rights must thus be sacrificed for the sake of protecting […] borders”.

EU: EU officials accused of covering up migrant abuse by Croatian government
Internal emails from the European Commission suggest that EU officials, fearful of a backlash,   withheld evidence that the Croatian government failed to supervise its police force, which abused  refugees and migrants, reports The Guardian. Croatian police has been accused repeatedly of violence and abusing, torturing, humiliating and robbing migrants and refugees along its border. A monitoring mechanism funded by the EU hardly received  any Croatian commitment, so EU officials decided to “cover-up” the information from Members of European Parliament to avoid a “scandal”, The Guardian writes. Croatian ministers claimed last year that the €6.8 million EU fund for the monitoring mechanism was divided between the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Croatian Law Centre, both of whom deny receiving the money.  EU officials withheld information on this underspending to window dress the under spending and faltering monitoring mechanism.

EU: EU planes operating in the Mediterranean criticized by humanitarian groups
Alarm Phone, Borderline-Europe, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Sea-Watch claim that the European Union uses planes operating over the Mediterranean Sea to spot migrants and refugees for the purpose of contacting Libya’s coast guards, InfoMigrants reports. The four associations state that the EU planes “spot migrant boats in distress and contact only the Libyan authorities to de facto prevent other ships from engaging and from disembarking the rescued at a safe port”. The humanitarian groups stress that these actions are in violation of international law, as migrants and refugees do not have the opportunity to have their asylum claims heard and assessed on an individual basis.

Germany: Family reunification increasingly difficult for Eritrean refugees in Germany
Many Eritreans are denied the German and international right to family reunification, Deutsche Welle reports. As the German Embassy in Eritrea does not have a visa office, Eritreans need to risk their lives to cross the borders and arrange visa applications in one of the neighboring countries. According to parliamentary questions asked in the German Bundestag by Die Linke, only 48% of the visa applications were approved. Ulla Jelpke, member of the German parliament, said that German consular officials are “systematically suspicious” of marriage certificates issued by churches in Eritrea being fake. Germany’s Foreign Office stated that because of “the variety of documents formats that exist, there is no reliable way for German embassies abroad to verify […] Eritrean religious marriage certificates”. This forces the refugees to ask officials in Eritrea from which they fled for documents recognized by the German authorities. Jelpke stresses that these requirements are “unbearable” and this “need to be changed as soon as possible”.

The Netherlands: Severe data leaks affects hundreds of victims of human trafficking.
Last week, the Dutch Central Organisation for Asylum Seekers (COA) exposed documents on their website containing sensitive information including names, dates of birth, phone numbers and license plate numbers, reports NRC. The two consecutive data leaks of the sensitive information could disrupt the criminal investigations against human traffickers and threaten the victims. A spokesperson for COA says the leak never should have happened and they are not yet sure what went wrong. The leaked data contains 1.200 detailed police reports from COA personnel concerning the extortion, threaths, human trafficking and prostituting of  asylum seekers by human traffickers, the mafia, abusers and IS recruiters. NRC warned COA after the first document was put online that the privacy-sensitive information needed to be anonymized. In the second document the COA put online, even more detailed information was included.

Greece: Greek journalist under fire for reporting on migrants
Retired journalist Ioannis Stevis faces criticism of his online news service Astraparis, which reports on  the refugee crisis, reports The Guardian. On 4 May, he reported on 14 asylum seekers arriving at the Greek Island of Chios – a report which was denied by local police, coast guards and authorities. It is suspected the arrivals were subjected to illegal pushback to Turkish waters. Other news outlets also reported the story, but deleted it under pressure. With his refusal to give in to authorities to remove the story, Stevis shines a light on the illegal pushback operations. Multiple news outlets and investigations found that Greek authorities are towing away boats from the Greek shores, forcing people over the Turkish border, and that arriving asylum seekers disappear.

United Kingdom: Parliamentarians renew attention on human rights situation in Eritrea
United Kingdom (UK) parliamentarians have renewed their attention towards the human rights situation in Eritrea, especially with regard to Patriarch Abune Antonios, reports Human Rights Without Frontiers. Antonios, born in 1929, has been detained since 2006 despite his severe diabetes and high age, for refusing to excommunicate 3000 members of his church that were critical of the Eritrean government. On June 3, Lord Hylton inquired what the UK government was doing about the detention of Patriarch Antonios and on June 15, Baroness Sugg answered that the UK raised the question multiple times, but that there has been no response from the Eritrean government.

Austria: Austria supports Germany’s hardline migration plan
Germany and Austria propose migrants being stopped and checked at Europe’s external border and turned away if they lack a strong claim for asylum, reports InfoMigrants and WELT. Federal Interior Minister of Germany, Horst Seehofer, recommends that the decision of asylum rejection or acceptance would be made at the border of Italy, Greece, Malta or Spain before the migrant or asylum seeker enters Europe. It is unclear how Germany proposes to execute this plan in accordance with the right to a fair asylum process.  According to Austria’s interior minister, Karl Nehammer, the plan “requires binding, but also flexible solidarity,” as well as ‘stronger’ borders with the thirds countries such as Tunisia. It is unclear whether the proposal will be part of the new European Asylum policy which will be spearheaded by the presidency of the European Council of Germany.


World: UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ statement on World Refugee Day
On June 19, World Refugee Day 2020, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, published a statement in which he states that a “record numbers of people [are] forced to flee their homes” and the COVID-19 pandemic forms a “dramatic global crisis”. Grandi stresses that “what started  as a health crisis has expanded, and today many of the most vulnerable – refugees and the displaced amongst them – face a pandemic of poverty”. On World Refugee Day, Grandi urged more global solidarity and action to “include and support refugees, internally displaced and stateless people as well as their hosts”.

World: Resumption of resettlement departures for migrants and refugees
On June 18, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced the resumption of resettlement travel for migrants and refugees. Some 10.000 departures of migrants and refugees to resettlement countries were delayed due to COVID-19 air travel restrictions. According to UNHCR, numerous resettlement countries “established or expanded their capacities to apply flexible processing modalities, to adapt and ensure the continuity of their resettlement programs in unpredictable circumstances”.

World: Joined statement from refugee camps call for grassroots approach to COVID-19
27 refugee groups living in camps across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia delivered a joint statement calling for a more grassroots approach and more attention for COVID-19 in refugee camps, reports the Knowledge Platform Security and Rule of Law. In the statement the groups say that COVID-19 has recently been detected in many camps, and that the camps do not have the accommodations to foster social distancing, tests and personal protection like masks, soap and water. On top of the COVID-19 threats, hunger and poverty also become more prominent as many have lost their job or business due to declining economics and lockdown regulations. Refugees and community leaders have been ignored by both governments and organizations combating the virus in the camps. They are not asked for input towards solutions nor are they trained to help, wasting local knowledge and labour that could be life-saving.