News highlights: Political reshuffle in Ethiopia, 45 people drown in largest 2020 shipwreck off Libya’s coast, Report on Greece’s refugee expulsions

In this week’s news highlights: Ethiopian political prisoners arbitrarily held since end of June; Political reshuffle in Ethiopia; Uncertainty over closing of Hitsats refugee camp in Ethiopia; More attention for ‘deliberate starvation’ in Eritrea; Unconfirmed reports state Eritrea releases religious prisoners due to crowded prisons and COVID-19 fears; Tribal conflict in Sudan kills 25 people; Violence and flooding threaten South Sudanese displaced people;  45 migrants and refugees killed in largest shipwreck of 2020 off the Libyan coast; Greece accused of illegally expelling over 1000 refugees; Italy gives Tunisia 11 million euros to curb migration; Refugee relocation ban sparks political stand-off in Germany; and First island COVID-19 cases in Greek refugee camp Vial.

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: Government opposition and critics still held without charge
Dozens of opposition members, critics and journalists are still being detained without charges, without access to a lawyer and without being able to communicate with their relatives since the end of June;  meanwhile, local police have ignored court orders for their bail, reports Human Rights Watch (HRW). The arrests were made during the violence following Oromo’s popular artist and activist Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, which sparked large protests and  ethnic and religious unrest which left at least 178 people dead. Some 9000 people were arrested for violence or promoting communal violence. HRW condemns the arbitrary and political arrests and calls for proper justice and the protection of basic rights.

Ethiopia: Major political reshuffle in Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has replaced ten top officials in a major political reshuffle, reports the Ethiopian Embassy and Reuters. Among those replaced is Lemma Megersa, defense minister and previously trusted ally of the Prime Minister before he criticized Abiy Ahmed’s decision to allow ethnically-based parties into Ethiopia’s ruling Prosperity Party.  Although the criticism cost  Megersa his membership of the Prosperity Party and now his position as minister, he is still very powerful and more popular than PM Ahmed in Ethiopia’s largest Oromia region, writes Reuters. His replacement  will likely diminish PM Ahmed’s already eroding popular support. PM Ahmed promised to hold Ethiopia’s first free and fair elections, following years of democratic reform. Nevertheless, he has been accused by critics for centralizing power away from regions, is in a standoff with Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region over postponed regional elections and he is facing increased ethnic tension and violence throughout the country.

Ethiopia: Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia worry over camp closure
Four months after the announcement that Hitsats refugee camp in the Tigray region of Ethiopia would be closed, there have been no relocations, adding to the confusion and tension of its inhabitants and humanitarian agencies, reports The New Humanitarian.  Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) cited a lack of funding from co-funder United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as a reason for the decision to close the camp. UNHCR, who has only raised 30% of its 2020 Ethiopia budget so far, says that the 14% decrease in ARRA’s funding does not justify the closing of Hitsats. No expansions have so far been made in the two already overcrowded refugee camps that are supposed to house the refugees from Hitsats. Ethiopia’s ‘out of camp’ policy to relocate refugees from camps to cities and towns is troublesome for Hitsats as well, as it is 45 kilometers away from the nearest town and its inhabitants do not have the means and connections to relocate. The closing of Hitsats is especially worrying since the other refugee camps are already overcrowded and water, sanitation and shelter infrastructure are already overwhelmed.

Eritrea: Increased international attention for weaponized starvation in Eritrea
Demonstrations, petitions, discussions and publications around the globe help raise international attention to what critics refer to as the deliberate starvation of Eritreans under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions, writes Petros Tesfagiorgis for Asena TV. Extreme COVI-19 measures like completely sealed off borders and bans on farming, fishing and trade have resulted in malnourishment and starvation, warns Petros. The Eritrean regime provided no nutritional alternatives for the population living hand to mouth, and has reportedly declined aid from the multiple donors. Due to the ban on independent media and the barring of many international  organizations, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur, the starvation is described as a “hidden famine.”

Eritrea: Unconfirmed report of release of religious prisoners Eritrea
In a Facebook post, Eritrean Press says that a source told them that Eritrea has started to release thousands of religious prisoners since August 13, although this remains unconfirmed. The allegedly released prisoners belong to the Pentecoastal Christian, Jehovah’s witnesses and Muslim Wahhabi religions – political prisoners are not being released, the source reports. The unnamed source cites the overcrowded and poor infrastructure of the prisons amid COVID-19 as the reason for release. With 2.500 people held in Adi Abeto, designed for 800 people, those detained cannot properly wash and keep distance to protect themselves from COVID-19.

Sudan: Tribal violence in eastern Sudan leaves 25 dead
At least 25 people have been killed and 90 wounded in ethnic violence in Port Sudan, reports AlJazeera.  Several houses and shops have also been burned down. Tensions between two tribal groups, the Bani Aarem and Nuba tribes, have escalated over water, other resources and territory since May 2019. In August 2019, 30 people were killed and in January of this year an additional 9 were slain. Authorities have responded by putting the city with 500.000 inhabitants under complete lockdown.

South Sudan: Thousands of South Sudanese people are at risk amid violence and flooding
Thousands of South Sudanese people are displaced, homeless and at risk of disease and malnourishment following ethnic violence and flooding, reports the International Committee of the Red Cross. Violence, heavy flooding and COVID-19 have made it more difficult, sometimes even impossible, for humanitarian organizations, aid and medical care to reach certain areas. Driven from the protection of home and community, many are at increased risk of waterborne and mosquito-borne diseases and food insecurity while humanitarians and medical professionals struggle with the influx of people wounded by violence. Due to this situation, many families have become completely reliant on the humanitarian aid that has become increasingly difficult to deliver.

Somalia: AU and UN meet over deteriorating situation Somalia
Members of the Security Council, African Union and UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) met to discuss the renewal of the UNSOM mandate and the dire situation of the country, reports What’s in Blue. In the past weeks Somalia has been in increased turmoil due to political, humanitarian, security and natural disasters.  The country does not have the resources to properly deal with COVID-19 while floods caused by heavy rains have displaced 100.000 people since June; driving the number of total Somali people displaced by floods in 2020 to 650.000. In July and August multiple terrorist attacks and an attempted prison escape by members of Al-Shabaab killed multiple civilians and government officials. Meanwhile, there is disagreement in Somalia’s political circles about the postponement of elections due to COVID-19. Further topics under discussion include the removal of prime minister Hassan Ali Khaire by a parliamentary no-confidence vote which took place on July 25 and the relationships between Federal level and states.

North Africa

Libya: 45 people die in largest recorded shipwreck off the coast in Libya in 2020
45 migrants and refugees, including 5 children, have died in the largest recorded shipwreck off the Libyan coast in 2020 after the engine of their vessel exploded, reports the International Organization for Migration (IOM). 37 survivors were rescued by fishermen. Alarm Phone had tried to contact Libyan, Tunisian and European authorities for over 8 hours in an attempt to organize a rescue effort after receiving a distress call, but reports that they were ignored by all. With regard to the deaths, Alarm Phone Tweeted: “Europe, this is the result of your policies – another mass murder in the Mediterranean Sea.”  IOM together with the UN Refugee Agency also link the tragic deaths to “sharp reduction in European state-led efforts” combined with an EU policy to prevent humanitarian vessels from carrying out search and rescue operations. The organisations emphasized that this policy is “unacceptable and puts lives at avoidable risk” and that Libya is not a safe port for disembarking migrants and refugees as they face “severe human rights violations” in arbitrary detention in the country ravaged by civil conflict.


Greece: Greece secretly expelled over 1000 refugees by sailing them to international waters
Greece has secretly expelled at least 1.072 refugees in 31 separate expulsion since March 2020, reports The New York Times. The New York Times draws this conclusion after triangulation of photo and video evidence and interviews with victims underpinned by the research of two academics, three independent watchdogs and the Turkish coast guard. The data shows a systematic method that is regarded as illegal under international law; a method in which boats carrying refugees, often very unsafe and overcrowded, are towed back to international waters by Greek authorities. Despite the collected evidence, Greek authorities deny the accusation. Commissioner for Home Affairs at the EU, Ylva Johansson, who oversees migration policy, says that she does not have the power to investigate the case.

Italy/ Tunisia: Italy offers Tunisia 11 million euros for border control
Italy has pledged 11 million euros for Tunisian border control projects, but it expects concrete results in the form of a reduction in migrants, report ANSAmed and EURACTIV. An Italian delegation, together with the European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Oliver Varhelji  and the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson met with Tunisian President Kais Saied and his ministers to discuss the 150% rise in migration from Tunisia to Italy compared to last year.

Germany: Political turmoil over refugee relocations
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer’s decision to block individual German states  from offering to relocate refugees from the overcrowded Greek refugee camps has sparked political controversy that could evolve into a complex legal dispute, reports Deutsche Welle (DW). Berlin State and Thuringia State are considering challenging the block in court but also look for more speedy political solutions to assert their state rights, citing the inhumane conditions in the camps.  Seehofer states that the migration problem is too big for one country and that it requires a solution from the European Union (EU); a process which he states would be undermined if individual German states make unilateral migration decisions. Lawyer Ulrich Karpenstein told DW that while the approval of Seehofer is needed for states, states have the right to grant residency in case of “emergency humanitarian situations.” This is the case as the refugees are selected from lists drawn up by the United Nations Refugee Agency and  Médecins Sans Frontières based on humanitarian necessity.

Greece: Five people test positive for COVID-19 in Chios camp
Four asylum seekers and one employee of the European Asylum Support Office have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Vial refugee camp on Chios, report InfoMigrants and Deutsche Welle. The refugee camp, housing 3000 people, has been quarantined and health checks are being carried out. While the virus has been recorded in mainland refugee camps, Vial is the first island camp to document an outbreak. Vial, like the other island camps, is overcrowded and characterized by poor housing and sanitary conditions that makes those kept in the camp vulnerable to COVID-19 and other diseases.