News Highlights: Border tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan rise, Refugees in dire conditions after snowstorm, Report on Central Mediterrenean Route

In this week’s news highlights: Tensions rise amid border dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan; Ethiopian federal army reports it apprehended TPLF leaders; GERD dam talks come to a halt again; Concerns continue over humanitarian situation in Tigray; New rescue missions in the Mediterranean as other boats remain confined; Over 11,000 migrants and refugees rescued at sea and returned to Libya in 2020; Tunisia’s democracy challenged by “nostalgia of the past”; Sweden will not pursue case against Eritrea over Dawit Isaak; Blizzard in Bosnia and Herzegovina leaves migrants and refugees in dire conditions; Commissioner for Human Rights publishes observations on maltreatment of migrants and refugees in Croatia; Over 150 migrants attempted to cross the English Channel; 7,000 asylum applications in the Netherlands remain to be processed despite 2020 deadline; A fight in an overcrowded Cyprus camp led to more than 24 injures among migrants and refugees; Human Rights Watch’s annual human rights report published; New Humanitarian reports on seven years of shipwrecks on the Central Mediterranean Route.

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

Greater Horn of Africa 

Ethiopia/Sudan: Border dispute tensions rise
According to various media, at least five women and a child died in the village of Algiraish, in Eastern Sudan on the border with Ethiopia. The attack was attributed to an Ethiopian armed group called ‘Shifta’. The subject of the dispute is the area of al-Fashqa, formally in Sudanese territory, but long inhabited by Ethiopian farmers. On 31 December 2020, Sudan declared that it had regained total control of the area. On Tuesday, 12 January, Ethiopia issued a statement accusing the Sudanese army of continuing to “encroach” on its borders, using this as justification for air raids along the border. On Wednesday, Sudan accused an Ethiopian military airplane of violation of its airspace. Sudan’s information minister and government spokesperson Feisal Mohamed Saleh said the country does not want to start a war but is ready to respond to any attack. In regard to this, the Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti told the press: “[i]s Ethiopia going to start a war? Well, we are saying let’s work on diplomacy.”

Ethiopia: TPLF leaders captured by Ethiopian federal army
According to a television statement and reported by Reuters, Ethiopian federal troops said that they have killed 15 members of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) and captured eight others. Reported among them are the Tigray region’s former president and former TPLF chairman Abay Weldu, and the Tigray region’s former deputy president and former federal minister of finance, Abraham Tekeste. The victims reportedly include the region’s former deputy police commissioner. This news follows the announcement of Friday 8 January, in which the Ethiopian federal army reported the capture of Sebhat Nega, a founding member of the TPLF, who was then transported on  Saturday 9 January to Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia/Sudan/Egypt: Interruption of talks on GERD Dam
According to Aljazeera, negotiations over the GERD Dam suffered a new setback. Sudan expressed qualms about Ethiopia’s 8 January letter to the African Union (AU) announcing they would fill the dam’s reservoir with 13.5 million cubic metres of water in July 2021, regardless of whether an agreement is reached with the other two countries. This would be the second time that Ethiopia would fill the reservoir without agreement. Sudan proposed AU experts to settle the issue. Egypt and Ethiopia disagree with Sudan’s proposal. Sudan left the table, thus the talks resulted in an impasse. Egypt’s foreign ministry said in a statement that: “Sudan insisted on the assigning of African Union experts to offer solutions to contentious issues … a proposal which Egypt and Ethiopia have reservations about”. The Ethiopian foreign minister recalls how Sudan had previously requested the intervention of AU experts, but then failed to respect their opinions. The chair of the African Union, Naledi Pandor, regrets the repeated failure of the dialogues.

Ethiopia: Ongoing concerns over the humanitarian situation in Tigray
According to Reuters and ETV, women were raped in Mekelle after the Ethiopian National Defence Force took over the city at the beginning of December. Aid agencies, residents and the United Nations remain concerned about repeated violence, instability and supply shortages. The team of Médecins Sans Frontières has stated that “tens of thousands of displaced people live in abandoned buildings and on construction sites in western areas around Shire, Dansha, and Humera towns, while others found refuge in host communities in the east and south of the region.” The people in the region continue to have limited access to food, clean water, shelter, supplies, and healthcare, even though aid agencies and local authorities can distribute supplies in some areas. Unimpeded access has not yet been realised, as many areas remain unreachable for aid and assessment.

North Africa

Mediterranean: New missions in the Mediterranean, while ships remain confined
The sea rescue organization SOS Méditerranée is planning a new rescue mission in the Mediterranean with its ‘Ocean Viking’ ship, reports Migazin. The organisation’s policy advisor, Jana Ciernioch, shared: “We are happy and relieved that we can save people from drowning again after a five-month blockade.” A rescue mission is urgently needed on the central Mediterranean route, as stated by Ciernioch: “people continue to flee across the Mediterranean, even in winter.” Additionally, the Sea-Eye rescue group is suing for the release of their ‘Alan Kurdi’ ship from where it is being held in Sardinia. Finally, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is set to decide on the appeals lodged against the confinement of the rescue ship ‘Sea-Watch 4’, which is still detained in Palermo and cannot begin a new mission more than three months after it was held back.

Libya: Over 11,000 migrants and refugees rescued at sea and returned to Libya in 2020
The National Commission for Human Rights in Libya (NCHRL) declared that over 11,000 migrants and refugees rescued at sea were returned to Libya in 2020, reports The Libya Observer. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has indicated that there are 44,725 migrants and refugees registered with the agency and more than 300 have died trying to cross from Libya to Europe in 2020.

Tunisia: Economic crisis recalls “nostalgia of the past” over the democracy of Tunisia
AP News
reports an analysis of the resurgence of nostalgia that Tunisia’s current government faces. Symbols from the past era are still present in daily life, such as at the Monastir rally, where a portrait of the ex-leader Habib Bourguiba was held up, or in songs recalling the Ben Ali dictatorship. According to the PDL parliamentarian Mohammed Krifa, before the fall of Ben Ali’s regime in 2011, the national growth was at 7%. Nowadays, the economic crisis, worsened by the pandemic, has raised the unemployment rate up to 18%, sunk wages and is pushing migrants to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Michaël Bechir Ayari, a senior analyst of Tunisia at the International Crisis Group, stated that: “[i]t’s not nostalgia for a dictator — Tunisians still hate this fallen regime — it’s the nostalgia for the certainty that has been lost.”


Sweden: No case against Eritrea over the imprisonment of journalist Dawit Isaak
Swedish prosecutors have announced that they will not conduct a case against top Eritrean officials over the imprisonment of Swedish-Eritrean journalists Dawit Isaak, reports The Local. In October 2020, Sweden’s Reporters Without Borders (RSF) chapter filed a complaint with Swedish authorities over Dawit Isaak’s imprisonment in Eritrea without charge. The complaint was directed at Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki and seven other high-ranking political leaders, accusing them of “crimes against humanity, enforced disappearance, torture and kidnapping.” The public prosecutor, Karolina Wieslander, has decided not to open an investigation stating that in her assessment “there are in practice no prospects that such an investigation would get to the point where I could bring charges against one or more people.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Migrants and refugees moved into heated shelters after blizzard
Bosnian authorities started to move migrants and refugees into heated tents on January 8 after a snowstorm hit the Lipa camp, reports Deutsche Welle. Previously, the camp was destroyed by a fire on December 23, which has left hundreds of migrants and refugees without shelter. Bosnian authorities prepared 20 tents to provide accommodation for some 900 people, some of whom are not wearing socks or jackets, states France 24. The migrants and refugees remain stuck in miserable conditions as the European Union keeps the borders closed reports, Deutsche Welle. Many migrants and refugees say that the tents are inadequate. Ashfaq Ahmed, from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, shares that “this is no place to live – especially not at this time of year.”

Croatia: Commissioner publishes observations on maltreatment
The Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe intervenes as a third party before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) concerning three Syrian asylum-seeker applicants who have been pushed back from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The information provided in the report points “to the existence of an established practice of collective returns of migrants from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina” that are achieved outside of any formal procedure and without proper identification or evaluating their individual situation. The Commissioner also points to “widespread ill-treatment of migrants by Croatian law enforcement officers in the context of collective returns.”

UK: Over 150 asylum seekers attempt to cross the Channel over the weekend
Between 9 and 10 January, around 150 people tried to reach the English coasts on small boats. Six boats with 103 people in total were intercepted in the Channel by English Border Force, while three other ships were stopped by French vessels. On Sunday 9 January, 57 more asylum seekers were rescued in four different operations by British coastguards. The Minister for Immigration Compliance Chris Philp said that: “[l]egislative changes to the law are being made to enable cases to be treated as inadmissible if they have travelled through a safe country.” Therefore, each person rescued will be assessed by the government if they have the right to reside in the UK.

The Netherlands: 7,000 asylum applications remain unprocessed
There are currently 7,000 overdue asylum applications to be handled by the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND), which should have been processed last year, reports Het Parool. The delay in applications became apparent in a letter sent by State Secretary of Justice and Protection Ankie Broekers-Knol to the Dutch Parliament. Additional officials were selected in March 2020 to deal with the IND’s backlog of more than 15,000 applications. The Minister states that “the aim was to provide clarity to all applicants before the end of 2020”, but this goal was not achieved.

Cyprus: More than 24 persons injured in a fight in an overcrowded camp
On Tuesday 12 January, a brawl between refugees caused more than 24 injuries. Around 1,500 migrants and refugees, of which 600 are submitted to quarantine protocols, are currently hosted in an overcrowded reception centre near Cyprus’s capital, Nicosia. A witness stated that the fight started among persons that were not allowed to leave the camp during the one-month national lockdown of January. Only police intervention stopped the seven-hour brawl. An interior ministry official said Cyprus could not handle such large numbers of migrants and refugees and call for a “fairer” redistribution of migrants among EU member states. He also accused Turkey of managing the influx, aiming “to alter Cyprus’ demographic character” by sending migrants to Cyprus.


World: Human Rights Watch’s 31st annual review of human rights practices and trends
The World Report 2021 published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reviews the human rights practices and developments in more than 100 countries. The report showcases investigative work that HRW staff undertook in 2020 with humanitarian groups in the respective countries. Furthermore, the report demonstrates the advocacy work conducted by HRW, which monitors policy developments and “strives to persuade governments and international institutions to curb abuses and promote human rights.” The report presents a chapter on Eritrea stating that according to HRW, Eritrea’s government remains one of the world’s most repressive governments and that the ongoing rights crisis leads thousands of Eritreans to flee into exile. A chapter on Ethiopia highlights the increased concerns by humanitarian actors of the risk to vulnerable groups in the Tigray region.

Mediterranean Sea: Report on seven years of shipwrecks in Central Mediterranean
Two journalists report on the timeline of the worst shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Europe for The New Humanitarian. They point out that although the number of migrants and refugees who attempted to cross the sea in 2020 (36,400) is well below the record of 2016 (180,000), the death rate remains exceptionally high. This is due to several factors, including limitation of rescue operations at sea. The authors state that some European politicians view rescue as a form of incitement to cross the sea. Some member states have suspended or hindered NGO rescue boats and have not provided the necessary support for the search at sea. As a result of these policies, many deaths may not have been recorded. The decrease in NGOs at sea has not been adequately replaced by member state operations. Malta and Italy are accused of failing to provide timely help to migrants and refugees in distress, leaving small boats adrift for days. Finally, the EU-funded Libyan coast guard, when intercepting boats, return them to the North African coast and send asylum seekers to detention centres. According to the journalists, the economic crisis resulting from COVID-19 situation, together with on-going conflicts and shortages of humanitarian aid, will significantly increase the number of people attempting to cross the sea in 2021. The authors further warn of an increase in human trafficking as border crossings are made increasingly difficult.