News Highlights: Renewed offensive from Eritrea feared in Tigray, More refugees face unsafe Mediterranean routes, Frontex fails to provide information

In this week’s news highlights: Fear for civilians, refugees and forced conscripts as threats emerge of renewed offensive from Eritrea on Tigray; Allegations of mass sexual violence in Tigray; Tigray’s population in severe humanitarian crisis; Renewed violence in Darfur, Sudan; Ethiopian journalist found dead in Tigray; UNHCR warns of acute risks for refugees and migrants on Mediterranean routes; Departures from Tunisia overtake departures from Libya in 2020; 80 migrants and refugees returned to Libya, 300 returned so far this year; Frontex fails to provide information in internal pushback investigation; More than 370 rescued refugees land in Sicily; EU-Turkey meeting on migration; Two smugglers jailed over the deaths of Vietnamese people locked in a lorry truck; Danish Prime Minister wants zero refugees; Lowest number of refugee resettlement in twenty years.

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

Greater Horn of Africa

Eritrea/Ethiopia: Concern for civilians and refugees as threats emerge of ‘final offensive’
Reports have emerged that Eritrea is mobilising 200.000 additional troops from its national service conscripts for a ‘final offensive’ on Tigray as international pressure for access to Tigray mounts. The conscripts are said to include previously exempt persons, including women with young children, minors and retired soldiers. Stop Slavery In Eritrea states that the indefinite conscription under the national service is slavery, and that the conscripts are now forced to wage war on Tigray. The organisation calls upon Eritrea to suspend the use of forced conscripts and withdraw from Tigray. In addition, concern is expressed over the forced return of and attacks on Eritrean refugees in Tigray. Human Rights Concern Eritrea reported forced returns, killings and other abuses of Eritrean refugees in the two camps in Tigray that have remained inaccessible for humanitarian aid and assessment, Shimelba and Hitsats. In Shimelba, the eye-witness accounts relay “the killing of unarmed civilians and refugees […] and forced removal of all the camp’s inhabitants.”

Ethiopia: Reports of sexual violence in Tigray region
In a statement on January 21 by Pramila Pattern, the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, she is “greatly concerned by serious allegations of sexual violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, including a high number of alleged rapes in the capital, Mekelle.” In refugee camps within Ethiopia, women and girls seem to have been particularly targeted, and medical centers are under demand for emergency contraception and sexually transmitted infection tests, Reuters reports. Pattern called for complete humanitarian access to Tigray, including camps for displaced people and refugee camps where suspected cases of sexual abuse have been reported by new arrivals, states Arab News.

Ethiopia: Tigray’s population in critical condition
Various media sources report that local people in Tigray are facing a severe humanitarian crisis, with a shortage of food, water and sanitary supplies reported that has led to pneumonia, malnutrition and a high death rate among children. NGOs that managed to visit the rural area of central Tigray describe a population terrified and unable to provide for basic needs. People are suffering from physical and psychological health issues due to the recent conflict. Furthermore, clean water is compromised by serious damage of the infrastructure of the Gereb Geba dam. An estimated 4.5 million people are in need of urgent care and aid, while communication and humanitarian aid still does not reach rural areas among the hardest hit. Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief, expressed concern over the critical conditions and stated that “for more than two months there has been essentially no access to Tigray. There are 450 tonnes of supplies we’ve been trying to get in that are stuck.”

Sudan: Refugees flee after new clashes in Darfur
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released a statement expressing concern over the resurgence of violence in Sudan’s Darfur region. Fights started on 15 January in West Darfur and expanded to South Darfur on 16 January. Due to the clashes, more than 250 people lost their lives and over 100.000 were displaced. Around 3.500 Sudanese displaced persons fled to eastern Chad, in Ouaddaï province. Sanitary conditions for the refugees in Chad are dire and people are forced to shelter under trees. Chad authorities transferred refugees to temporary centres because of the COVID-19 situation where asylum seekers have to quarantine, before being relocated to other refugee camps in the inner regions. UNHCR is providing food and sanitary supplies. Chad was already hosting more than 360.000 Sudanese refugees before the beginning of January’s clashes.

Ethiopia: Ethiopian journalist killed in northern Tigray region
The Ethiopian journalist, Dawit Kebede, and his friend have been killed last week in the northern Tigray region’s capital Mekelle, reports Reuters. An aid worker said that Dawit Kebede, who worked for Tigray regional state TV, and Bereket Berhet, a lawyer, were killed on the night of January 19 while in a car with friends. On January 20, their bodies were discovered by people who were on their way to church and who called the Red Cross, states Reuters. The Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, calls for an inquiry into the killing of journalist Dawit Kebede. She has condemned the killing and calls on the authorities to investigate this crime and bring the perpetrators to justice.

North Africa

Mediterranean Route: UNHCR calls for safer routes towards the Mediterranean
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international community should do more to save the lives of refugees on the dangerous routes to the Mediterranean. On January 27, the UNHCR and Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) released its 2021 strategic action and funding plan that highlights the multiple risks that refugees and migrants face along the route and where those risks are the most acute. The UNHCR is seeking just over US$100 million to improve the security of refugees and migrants along the central Mediterranean route, as there is a deep concern about the worsening of conflicts and “the migration in the Sahel, the new displacement in the East and Horn of Africa, the rise in sea arrivals to the Canary Islands and the 1,064 deaths reported in the Central and Western Mediterranean in 2020.”

Tunisia: Departures of refugees from Tunisia surpass departures from Libya
According to the latest Mixed Migration Centre’s (MMC) update on North Africa,  between January and November 2020, migrants and refugees who departed from Tunisia (45%) have surpassed those from Libya (36%). The report shows that migrants following the Central Mediterranean Route in 2020 were mainly leaving from the coastal area of Sfax, Mahdia and Zarzis. Furthermore, Tunisians are the top nationality that reached Italy, representing 38% of total arrivals in 2020.

Libya: More than 80 Europe-bound migrants and refugees returned to Libya
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) shares that Libya’s coast guard has intercepted more than 80 migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, reports InfoMigrants. The migrants and refugees have been returned to Libyan soil to be returned to detention centers under desperate conditions, shares the IOM. IOM states that “so far this year, some 300 people, including women and children, were returned to the country and ended up in detention. We reiterate that no one should be returned to Libya.”


Europe: Frontex chief fails to provide details on 3 migrants pushback claims
On January 22, the internal investigation by the Frontex working group into thirteen cases of illegal pushback closed eight cases of alleged pushbacks as reportedly there was not enough evidence to establish fundamental rights violations, states Euronews. The executive director of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, stated on January 22 that he was “closely cooperating and promised to provide all additional elements needed to finalise the report.” However, the board’s working group was “very concerned” that in three remaining cases, Frontex has failed to provide timely information for their investigation. The working group has called on Leggeri to immediately give the information and implement its recommendations to strengthen the Agency’s system for reporting violations of rights.

Italy/Libya: Over 370 migrants disembark in Sicily, Italy
On Monday 25 January, more than 370 refugees disembarked in the Sicilian port of Augusta, after being refused in Malta. They were rescued by the NGO Ocean Viking in three different operations between 21 and 22 January. Among the refugees there are 165 minors, most of them unaccompanied, 21 newborns and four pregnant women. Four rubber boats left the Libyan coast within a few days of each other trying to reach Italy before being attended to by the Ocean Viking rescue boat. As reported by SOS Mediterranee: “Several other boats reported in distress were intercepted by the Libyan coastguards as reported by civil airborne operations.” Asylum seekers landed in Sicily reported horrible stories of abuse in Libya. Many had already tried to cross the sea before, but were intercepted and returned by Libyan coastguards. Kylian, a witness of inhumane conditions in Libyan detention centres, stated that: “[…] I wanted to run in to warn the others. When they shot me, I fell to the ground. They thought I was dead, they just left me there. Honestly, I also thought I would die.”

EU/Turkey: New talks about migration management between Turkey and the EU
On Thursday 21 January, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, visited Brussels for new talks about migration and for planning a series of meetings with EU member states. The meeting with the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was set to relaunch dialogue about among others visa liberalisation and ‘modernisation’ of the customs union. This meeting occurred only one month after the EU statement planning to spend around 485 million euros in Turkey over 2021-2022. The EU fund would help refugees living in Turkey, by providing cash assistance and money transfers for children’s education. Cavusoglu stated that it is the moment “to create a positive atmosphere and a positive agenda. But in order for that agenda to be sustainable. We need concrete steps by both sides.” From his side, Borrell was pleased by the recent “improvement in the overall atmosphere” related to the Turkey-Greek agreement for further dialogues and for boosting the EU-Turkey “mutual strategic interest”.

UK: Human smugglers sentenced to prison due to migrant deaths
According to various media, two human smuggling chiefs have been condemned to 27 and 20 years of imprisonment due to the deaths of Vietnamese refugees. The victims were stuck in a lorry, which departed from the French coast of Calais and travelled to the UK through the English Channel. Victims were 28 men, 8 women and 3 children. People tried to escape through the roof of the lorry, but the high temperatures prevented them from fleeing and they died of asphyxia and hyperthermia, or overheating. As reported by The Guardian, the judge stated that they died “excruciatingly slow deaths”. The trial showed the men ran a complex and lucrative operation where each passenger was obliged to pay smugglers between £10,000 and £13,000 to be brought from Calais to the UK.

Denmark: Danish Prime Minister aims to accept zero asylum-seekers
The Danish Prime Minister aims to see an end to applications for asylum in the country. The Social Democrat leader made the statement to reinforce Denmark’s conservative position on immigration, reports InfoMigrants. Last year, Denmark saw the lowest number of asylum-seekers since 1998, with 1,547 applicants. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told the Parliament on January 22 that she wanted to reduce asylum applications in Denmark to zero. The Prime Minister stated: “We cannot promise zero asylum seekers, but we can set up that vision, as we did before the elections. We want a new asylum system, and we will do what we can to introduce it.”


World: After 2020, refugee resettlement lowest in two decades
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) calls on states to step up their resettlement efforts after 2020 has seen the lowest refugee resettlement numbers witnessed in almost two decades. The decline results from the low quotas put out by the UN member states and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has deferred departures and service. Despite an estimated 1.44 million refugees globally in need of resettlement, only 22,770 have been resettled by the UNHCR in 2020. Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, states: “we urgently call on governments to boost their programmes this year, offer more places, expedite the processing of cases and help save us lives of those most in need and at greatest risk.”