News Highlights: South Sudan at risk of famine, Refugees under threat in Tigray camps, Call to make COVID-19 vaccines available for all

In this week’s news highlights: International concern about human rights in Tigray; Continuation of GERD Dam talks remains difficult amid regional tensions; Increased risk of famine in South Sudan; Report Eritrean troops in Tigray occupy refugee camp area; Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia still largely cut off from aid; 265 migrants and refugees rescued at Mediterranean Sea and land in Italy; At least 20 deaths and more missing after Christmas boat sinking off the coast of Tunisia; Destroyed camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina leaves thousand of migrants and refugees unsheltered; EU-funded refugee camp near Athens provides insufficient conditions; EU plans to fund refugee aid in Turkey; Between 400 and 800 migrants and refugees forced to leave from makeshift camps in Calais, France; Italy pays tribute to the life of an Ethiopian refugee; World leaders are urged to make COVID-vaccine globally available; COVID-19 pandemic worsened the global refugee crises.

For frequent updates about the situation in the Horn, please see the EEPA Horn situation reports. 

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: International concern over the situation in Tigray
With the current conflict and reports of mass killings in the Tigray region, concern has grown inside the international community over the situation of civilians and refugees. The United Nations and other international organisations continue to ask for unimpeded access to Tigray, both for humanitarian aid and to investigate abuses and killings. Despite agreements, this access has not yet been realised. According to UN News, there have been reports of artillery strikes on civilians and mass killings in the Tigray region, which need to be further investigated. For this to happen, access to the area needs to be granted. The attacks have led to increased concern among international institutions and human rights groups who urge to access the area, to verify the allegations and provide aid. Concern was also raised on the AU peace process in Ethiopia; one of the leading African Constitutional and Human rights law experts, Paulos Tesfagiorgis, has argued that the peace process that the AU initiated to solve the conflict in Tigray was undermined by the AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, from the beginning. According to Tesfagiorgis, Mahamat was “blatantly partisan”.

Sudan/Ethiopia/Egypt: Resumption on GERD Dam talks remain difficult
The resumption talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on the Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam (GERD) is set to take place on January 10th but the situation remains unsure as Sudan stands firm on not taking part in the negotiations, reports Arab News. At the previous meeting of January 4, Sudan did not partake, as Sudan’s request was refused to give African Union (AU) experts and observers a more significant role to facilitate negotiations and reconcile opinions. Amidst the region’s challenges and conflicts, the three countries seek to discuss regional developments and the GERD dam negotiations. However, it remains challenging as all participants have specific concerns and demands. Egypt has urged for an agreement to “achieve the common interests of the three countries” but which also “secure[s] Egypt’s rights and water interests.” Sudan is concerned about water levels and flooding risks, and Ethiopia “requires the power for economic growth and to satisfy the country’s energy demand”, states ESI Africa. Sudan’s Water Minister, Paul Mayom Akec, states that “[this week’s meeting] will be devoted to bilateral talks between the three countries, the experts, and the observers” in the hope to find an agreement by the end of the month.

South Sudan: Increased food insecurity risks famine for millions amidst pandemic
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is highly concerned about the risk of famine in South Sudan. Food insecurity is rising amidst the large-scale displacement of civilians caused by various crises within the region. According to the IRC’s 2021 Watchlist, the risk of famine will escalate further in 2021. With more than 60% of South Sudan’s population facing food insecurity, there is a dire need for international financial support and improvements in food assistance access to prevent famine in South Sudan. As stated by Caroline Sekyewa, South Sudan Country Director at the IRC, “people in South Sudan were already struggling to access food. […] an economic crisis, flooding and COVID-19 is forcing more people to go hungry as they lose their livelihoods and ability to feed their families.”

Ethiopia: Report Eritrean troops in Tigray occupy refugee camp area
Eritrean soldiers have reportedly entered in Hitsats town and control the area, including Hitsats refugee camp, in Tigray. Earlier last year, according to The New York Times, the Eritrean soldiers burst into the camp on November 19. On that occasion, Eritrean soldiers looted medical supplies, stole vehicles and set fire to fields of crops as reported by aid workers interviewed by The NYT. Currently, satellite images again show evidence of fires around the refugee camps. It is reported that Eritrean troops have fought against Tigrayan forces after an ambush east of Wukro, Tigray. In the same city, in mid-December, the Eritrean troops are reported to have looted the Catholic Church of St. Mary and the ancient Mosque of Al Nejashi, which were damaged by bombing. 

Ethiopia: Refugees in Tigray region still largely cut off from aid
At the end of December, the refugee camps of Mai Aini and Adi Harush in Tigray, not accessible since mid-October, received the first food aid by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugees and Returnee Affairs (ARRA). According to Ann Encontre, the UNHCR Representative in Ethiopia, many were “cut off from supplies and essential services for many weeks, so this distribution was urgently needed.” The Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps are still unreachable by humanitarian support, as reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). Sporadic reports from the camps show medical conditions in Adi Harush and Hitsats camp are worsening. On 24 December one refugee was attacked by unknown assailants in the Adi Harush refugee camp. He reported several injuries. Meanwhile, in the Hitsats camp, at least 9 Eritrean refugees have been killed, and another one committed suicide, while women and children who did not flee the camp are suffering from starvation. On 30 December, a statement released by the Dutch Charity Association ZOA said that a 52-year-old employee had been killed in the Hitsats refugee camp. 

North Africa

Libya/Mediterranean Sea: 265 refugees rescued at sea and disembarked in Sicily
On Saturday 2 January, the Spanish humanitarian boat Open Arms finalised a rescue operation in international waters, where a wooden boat with 96 migrants and refugees was sinking. On 31 December the boat departed from the shore at Zuwarah, Libya; they were intercepted two days later by the rescue boat. Most of the persons on board were Eritreans, including two women and 17 minors. Many were suffering from hypothermia and malnutrition. In a previous operation on Thursday 30 December, Open Arms saved 169 migrants and refugees that departed from the Libyan coast. All people rescued were disembarked on 4 January in Porto Empedocle, in Sicily, assisted by the Italian coast guard. The firsts to land were 50 unaccompanied minors in total, followed by all other refugees.

Tunisia/Mediterranean Sea: At least 20 persons died off the Tunisian coast
On 24 December, a boat with migrants and refugees on board sank off the Tunisian east coast while trying to reach Italy. Among the 20 confirmed deaths, there were 19 women, of which 4 were pregnant. The Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Hayouni said the boat left from Sidi Mansour, in the Tunisian region of Sfax. According to the Independent, the ship was carrying 37 migrants and refugees, most of them from the Sub-Saharan region. Five persons were rescued, and 13 others were still missing on Friday 25 December when the search continued. Strong winds and rough waves made the search difficult and today there are no updates about the missing people since.


Bosnia and Herzegovina: A destroyed camp leaves thousands without shelter
The Lipa Emergency Tent Camp that housed about 1,400 migrants and refugees has been badly damaged due to a fire. According to the International Organization for Migration, due to the devastation caused by the fire, the number of people in need of assistance has rapidly increased, requiring an immediate solution. Dozens of individuals had to stay the night at a damaged metal container while smoke was still coming from burned areas. Peter Van der Auweraert, IOM Chief of Mission, stated: “This is a nightmare scenario: these people should be inside in warm conditions.” The European Commission has planned to allocate €3.5 million in humanitarian aid to help the refugees and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They are living in “unacceptable” conditions after the fire destroyed the camp, states Josep Borell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission.

Greece: Asylum seekers face harsh conditions in an EU-funded camp
According to the EUobserver, around 1,000 refugees, including  283 children who do not attend school, live in dire conditions in the EU-funded migrant camp new Malakasa, near Athens in Greece. Most asylum seekers are from Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The NGO Refugee Support Aegean collected their testimonies in a report. It describes how the refugee centre’s construction started in March 2020 and the European Union-funded it by  €4.7 million, but the report points out deficiencies in the camp create harsh conditions. The NGO and the refugee shelter inhabitants state there is no running water and no electricity with most people living in tents not designed for winter conditions. The European Commission stated to have signed a grant agreement for the camp with the Greek ministry of migration and asylum on 23 November. The release of a second grant agreement is dependent on the replacement of tents with containers.

EU/Turkey: The EU is planning to extend refugee funds to Turkey
On Wednesday 23 December, the European Commission declared its commitment to extend two refugee aid programs in Turkey. One programme provides cash assistance and basic needs for refugees located in shelters; the second one focuses on improving the education of children. The funds will be extended until early 2022, amounting to 485 million euros. The EU Commission stated that the grants would help more than 1.8 million refugees, of which 700,000 children. The programmes will be managed by the Turkish Red Crescent, the Red Cross and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The European Union created the EU-Turkey, intended to keep migrants and refugees in Turkey, in 2016, granting up to 6 billion euros plus promises of benefits such as visa-free travel. The deal has since come under strain as both parties accuse the other of not keeping to the deal. In March 2020 Turkish authorities opened borders and thousands of migrants started to enter Europe. In response, the EU leaders accused Turkey of extortion, but still planned to review the deal.

France: Removal of migrants and refugees continue in Calais
In the first days of January,  the French police removed between 400 and 800 migrants and refugees in Calais. Most of them were from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and lived in makeshift camps around Calais. In recent weeks, humanitarian organisations reported several cases of hypothermia, without being offered alternative accommodation. The association Utopia 56 underlines the case of 30 unaccompanied minors left without tents or any form of protection when the Storm “Bella” approached the region of North-Pas-de-Calais, on 26 December 2020.

Italy: Tributes paid to Ethiopian immigrant, a symbol of integration in Italy
Tributes are being paid to Agitu Ideo Gudeta, an Ethiopian farmer who was killed, known as a successful business owner by raising goats and making cheese in a secluded valley in northern Italy, reports The New York Times. According to the Guardian, tributes have been paid as she became a symbol of integration in Italy, a country that became her adopted home. A friend of Agitu Ideo Gudeta told the Guardian that “in Italy, many people have described her enterprise as a model of integration. […] for her it also symbolised struggle against class divisions and the conviction that living in harmony with nature was possible.”


World: Global humanitarian actors and NGOs call to make COVID vaccine accessible to everyone
Global humanitarian actors and NGOs call for world leaders to make the COVID-19 vaccine available to refugees, reports the Guardian. As the pandemic continues, concerns are being raised that “a scheme to deliver Covid vaccines to poorer countries faces a high risk of failure and could leave at least half the planet without vaccinations for at least the next three years” states the Guardian. António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, has declared that the vaccines should be made available to all people and that the distribution must be viewed as a “global public good.”

World: In 2020 the pandemic worsened the global refugee crisis
2020 has been marked by an unprecedented pandemic and a global refugee crisis. The deaths of at least 3,200 migrants and refugees have been recorded en route, most of them drowning at sea. Migration deaths remain under-recorded, particularly in the desert. New refugee crisis arose in the Spanish Canary Islands, due to overcrowded reception centres. In Sudan, refugee shelters were hastily erected for thousands of refugees from Ethiopia in a few weeks. Also, while refugees escaped the physical threats of war, the pandemic has been used as a political justification to close borders. According to AlJazeera, the COVID-19 emergency has drastically reduced refugees’ chances of accessing asylum procedures, while many governments refused to welcome refugees for months. Migrants and refugees have been stuck in unsanitary shelters risking hunger, dehydration, COVID-19 and death.