News Highlights: Alarm Phone’s reconstruction of deadly shipwreck week, refugee food rations cut amid funding shortages in East Africa, Italy convicts three men for crimes in Libyan detention center

In this week’s news highlights: Alarm Phone’s reconstruction of deadly week of shipwrecks off Libya’s coast; 15-fold increase in Libyan COVID-19 cases; IOM resumes migrant repatriation flights from Libya; Major food ration cuts for refugees in East Africa amid funding shortages; Many missing persons from Horn countries and Libya; Eritrean activist missing for over two years in Ethiopia; Italy convicts three men to twenty years in prison for crimes in Libyan detention centre; NGO Mediterranea to resume search-and-rescue operations; France relocates 49 unaccompanied children from Greece; Bosnia and Herzegovina’s restrictions on asylum seekers “discriminatory and reckless”; And Greece continues to claim ‘fake news’ as evidence of abuse and illegal pushbacks mount.

North Africa

Libya/EU: Reconstruction of four shipwrecks off the Libyan coast last week
Between 13 and 20 August, Alarm Phone received distress calls from 14 boats with combined nearly 900 people on board, reports Alarm Phone. Over 100 of the people on board died or went missing in a shipwreck, of 160 people the fate remains completely unknown as it is not certain whether their boat sank. Meanwhile Alarm Phone was contacted by the relatives of people on an additional 5 boats with about 200 persons on board who were in distress but did not call Alarm Phone. After analyzing the flow of information Alarm Phone concludes that there were at least four shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean between 17 and 20 August. In two of the shipwrecks, Libyan authorities were notified of the distressed vessel by Alarm Phone, but they ignored the distress calls. Last week’s ‘largest  2020 shipwreck’ in which 45 people lost their lives was caused by 5 armed men shooting at the boat, after which the boat caught fire and sank. In three of the four shipwreck cases there was no search-and-rescue and those that survived were saved by local fishermen. Alarm Phone criticizes the systematic lack of response by the Libyan Coastguard to distressed boats off the Libyan shores while it is eager to attend to distressed boats in and near European search-and-rescue zones: “This is what Europe and Italy support with millions of Euros. Europe, these deaths are your responsibility,” states Alarm Phone

Libya: Increase in COVID-19 and violence deepen Libya’s humanitarian crisis
As the conflict in Libya rages on, COVID-19 cases have increased fifteen-fold in less than two months from 571 in June to over 9.000 on August 20, reports the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The humanitarian crisis deepens as over 500.000 people are in need of healthcare assistance. Economic collapse threatens hundreds of thousands more. Nine years of conflict and frequent bombings have taken their toll on Libya’s economic, healthcare, sanitation, electricity,  housing, food and oil infrastructure. With food supply and fuel shortages, rising prices and lack of shelter especially threaten the many migrants, refugees and daily wage earners residing in Libya.

Libya: IOM resumes migrant repatriation flights after 5 month hiatus
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has resumed its repatriation flights for migrants stranded in Libya under the Voluntary Humanitarian Return Programme, which was suspended for five months due to COVID-19. The first flight carried 118 Ghanaians, including two newborns, three children and seven women. IOM says that due to COVID-19 restrictions and intensification of conflict in Libya, migrants in 93% of the assessed locations have been negatively affected while an estimated 33% experience food insecurity. As a result more migrants have requested repatriation, states IOM; over 2.300 migrants since March 2020. The programme, which is funded by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) and contributions from Germany and Italy, returned 9.800 people from 35 African and Asian countries in 2019 and 1.466 in the first quarter of 2020.

Greater Horn of Africa

Greater Horn of Africa: WFP forced to cut food rations for refugees in East Africa
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) says it is forced to cut food and cash transfers between 10% to 30% for the 2.7 million refugees in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Djibouti due to less donor funding. The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 in combination with cuts in rations increases the vulnerability of millions of people to hunger and malnutrition. Malnourishment impacts the immune system, which in turn increases the risk of infections and diseases including COVID-19.  According to Michael Dunford, WFP’s Eastern Africa Regional Director, “[r]efugees are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 because they are crowded together in camps with weak or inadequate shelter, health services and access to clean water and sanitation.” Furthermore, less economic opportunity means many have lost income necessary to buy food. With the closing of schools many children miss out on school meals and education while being increasingly exposed to exploitation and abuse like forced marriage, forced labour, violence and sexual abuse or teenage pregnancy.

Horn of Africa/Libya: Horn countries and Libya prominent in ICRC’s missing persons report
Over 44.000 Africans are still registered as missing through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); 45% of them were children at time of disappearance. The country with the most missing persons is Nigeria, with 23.000 missing people. Together with Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon, they make up 82% of missing persons in Africa. Conflict is an important element to explain the rising number of missing persons, says ICRC. Ethnic and intercommunal conflict and violence are largely responsible for the 3.300 registered missing persons in Ethiopia, 64% of whom are women and children, for the 5.000 missing persons in South Sudan and the 3.200 persons missing in Somalia, 75% of whom were women and children. In Libya migrants stranded on route to Europe make up a significant part of the 1.600 cases, many of them children. While 44.000 is a significant number, the number is likely far higher as ICRC counts only the registered cases.

Ethiopia/Eritrea: Eritrean activist still missing in Ethiopia after 2 years
In May 2018, 38-year-old Eritrean-born Swedish citizen Ermias Tekie went missing in Ethiopia. His family has been searching for him ever since, reports New Frame. Tekie was a prominent activist and member of a refugee-led movement against Afwerki’s dictatorship in Eritrea before he went missing while visiting family in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. The family’s lawyer Mussie Ephrem, an Eritrean-born Sweed based in Stockholm, states that Ethiopian authorities launched a “totally incompetent” police investigation following Tekie’s disappearance. The police did not look into suspicious leads, nor took any evidence from the hotel room. Tekie’s friend, who was with him hours before he disappeared, was not questioned; he would disappear without a trace a week later. Tekie’s brother went to Ethiopia to launch his own investigation and learned from several Ethiopian officials and a former UN diplomat that Tekie’s laptop had been confiscated and that he was detained in the semi-autonomous Tigray Region for political reasons.


Italy: Italy convicts three men for rape, torture and murder in Libyan detention centers
A Sicillain court sentenced three men between the ages of 23 and 27 to twenty years in prison for torture, rape, murder and kidnapping for the purpose of extortion in Libyan prisons, reports Mediapart. This is the first time Italy convicts foreign people for crimes they committed abroad against foreign victims. The three were caught after migrating to Lampedusa in 2019, after investigation into the identity of migrants and refugees to unearth alleged smugglers and human traffickers. The three convicted men worked in Libyan migrant detention centers, where migrants and refugees are arbitrarily detained in inhumane conditions while being systematically beaten, tortured, raped, murdered and exploited for ransom or forced (sexual) labour. One of the convicted men was a vice-chief of the Zawiya prison outside Tripoli in charge of surveillance and collecting ransom in said prison, two others were Egyptians.

Italy: Search-and-rescue NGO Mediterranea to resume operations
Search-and-rescue NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans says it is almost ready to resume operations, report multiple news outlets. Mediterranea described the multiple shipwrecks and 200 deaths over last week as “tragic” an “umpteenth in an unending slaughter […] a situation of dramatic inhumanity.” NGO search-and-rescue operations have been vital in saving lives following the decrease in European and Italian vessels. However, NGOs state that they are severely hindered by the European Union and Member States up to the point that only one NGO rescue ship is currently patrolling the Mediterranean, the Sea Watch 4. Mediterranea also criticized the Italian “local administrations competing to become the most efficient at closing borders, refusing reception, building walls to defend themselves against men, women, and children guilty of fleeing hell and surviving the crossing at sea.”

France: France takes in an additional 49 unaccompanied minors from Greece
49 unaccompanied children were relocated from Greek refugee camps to France between 21 and 24 August, reports The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). France has taken in 204 of its pledged 400 people under a EU-wide programme to relocate 1.600 unaccompanied minors from the “insecure and unsanitary reception centres on Greek islands” writes Matthew Mpoke Bigg for UNHCR. UNHCR representatives praise the solidarity of EU countries that is beneficial to the unaccompanied children while it relieves pressure from the overburdened Greek asylum system. Nevertheless, only 11 EU states have made a commitment so far for 1.100 of the 1.600 children. In total, Greece houses 4.558 unaccompanied children – 25% of whom reside in Aegean island camps.

Bosnia/Herzegovina: Bosnian and Herzegovinian migrant restrictions “discriminatory and reckless”
The movement restrictions for migrants and asylum seekers, adopted on August 19th by Bosnia and Herzegovina, are “discriminatory and reckless” as it leaves people stranded and vulnerable, reports Amnesty International. While new arrivals into the official reception centres in Una-Sana Canton are banned, authorities raid and forcefully remove migrants and refugees from squats and private houses without any alternatives for shelter. Furthermore, transportation of migrants and asylum seekers via private or public transportation is banned and enforced by checkpoints and roadblocks; this has resulted in families left stranded by authorities and vigilante groups, states Amnesty. The measures also include a ban on gatherings in public spaces or private accommodations. The persecution of already vulnerable and marginalised people is “disproportionate and discriminatory”, as Bosnia faces an “imminent humanitarian crisis” says Jelena Sesar, Amnesty International’s Balkans researcher.

Greece: Greece continues fake news narrative as evidence of abuse and illegal pushbacks mounts
Amidst mounting evidence of Greek Coast Guard and Border Police abuse, and secret and illegal pushbacks of migrants and refugees, Greek authorities are still denying allegations, reports Human Rights Watch. Instead, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis suggests it is  Turkish fake news, with Greeks as “victims of a significant misinformation campaign.” Human Rights Watch, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and Bellingcat conducted individual investigations including many different witness testimonies, interviews, geolocated photo and video evidence. Those reports all point to Greek abuse and illegal pushbacks. International media also offer substantial evidence that counters the Greek allegations that Tukish troops are responsible for the killing of a migrant.