News Highlights: UN: Up to 20.000 missing from Tigray refugee camps, Many refugees returned to Libya, Kent barracks housing scrutinised in UK

In this week’s news highlights: UN states 20.000 refugees in Tigray are missing and needs are high, after UN visit to Tigray refugee camp; People face starvation and epidemics in Tigray; South Sudanese refugees start returning, but conditions not yet safe; Libyan coast guards return more than 493 migrants and refugees to detention centres; Libyan Interim Prime Minister to be chosen; UK Home Affairs accused of giving in to public pressure in case of inadequate housing in Kent; Frontex stops activities in Hungary; MEPs blocked at Croatian borders with Bosnia; UNHCR considers the EU borders as dangerous for migrants and refugees; IOM estimates the need of USD 3$ billions for refugees support in 2021.

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

Greater Horn of Africa 

Ethiopia: The UN calls for an urgent alleviation of  conditions for refugees in Tigray, admitting 20.000 are missing
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visited the Mai Aini refugee camp in Tigray. After an inspection of the critical situation of refugees in the Tigray region and after talks with various ministers of PM Abiy Ahmed’s government, Grandi released a statement in which he summarised his main findings. He voiced his urgent concern for the refugees outside of reach, stating that: “[t]hose that we spoke to that were coming from the two other camps [Hitsats and Shimelba] reported issues of very much concern to us. They reported that they had been cut off, as we know, from support and assistance for several weeks.” DX Open Network reports on the basis of satellite images that the camps, Hitsats and Shimelba,  have been systematically targeted and destroyed. VICE reports this included infrastructure like schools and clinics. Grandi and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres call for urgent humanitarian intervention and international support, aiming to “alleviate the humanitarian situation and extend the necessary protections to those at risk”. Furthermore, the UN reported that in November, fights destroyed Hitsats and Shimelba camps and forced 20.000 refugees to flee. Grandi stated that migrants “were caught in crossfire, abducted and forced to return to Eritrea under duress by Eritrean forces”, as reported by one of the 3.000 refugees who reached the Mai Aini camp. Between 15.000 and 20.000 refugees under recognised international protection are currently missing. 

Ethiopia: Shortage of food and damage to hospitals are worsening the starvation
Local administrators in Tigray have estimated that more than 4.5 million people are in urgent need of food aid, while people are already dying of starvation. Parts of Tigray have reached emergency phase 4, one step below famine. This comes amid the statement from the Federal Government that ‘normalcy’ has returned to Tigray. The observations of acute starvation are supported by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) emergency coordinator, Albert Vinas, stating that: “we are very concerned about what may be happening in rural areas,” not easily reachable by humanitarian aid, but that information from third parties confirms the severity of starvation. Vinas added that in Adigrat the tension is palpable as food and water supplies are not operational, while hospital infrastructures have been severely damaged by fights of previous weeks and months. A similar situation is present in Mekelle, Aksum and other main cities in the north of the Tigray region, where almost 90% of health centres are out of order. Furthermore, vaccinations are not currently carried out and doctors fear the potential rise of various epidemics. Transportation disruptions also cause issues for critical patients to be transported. 

South Sudan: Some refugees return, but challenges remain
Around 350.000 South Sudanese refugees have returned from abroad since 2017, where many of them were hosted as asylum seekers in refugee centres. Large numbers of people fled South Sudan in previous years, due to an internal conflict that restarted in 2013. The returns follow a renewed agreement on the resolution of the conflict signed in September 2018 by warring parties. The resolution included clauses about long-term stability, a necessity for lasting solutions to displacement, including return and local integration. However, a non-return advisory from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) remains in place, warning that conditions for a safe and lasting return are not yet in place. Furthermore, UNHCR is unable to support or assist South Sudanese refugees in their plan to return home, as UNHCR cannot operate until all the main causes of conflict are resolved permanently. More than 2.2 million of people are still refugees in another country or are internally displaced. Even so, the returns were welcomed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who visited the country for observing the opportunities and challenges of the fragile peace process, meeting government officials, refugees, internally displaced people, hosting communities and those who have recently returned. 

North Africa

Libya: Multiple rescue operations off Libya coast, many returned to detention centres
The rescue boat Ocean Viking and the Libyan coastguard intercepted various boats off the Libyan coast in a few days. The three main operations occurred between Wednesday 3 February and Thursday night and involved respectively 140, 121 and 493 migrants and refugees. Sara Msehli, spokesperson at UN Migration in Geneva, Tweeted: “In 24 hours, more than 1,000 people attempted to flee the country, [and] at least 820 of them were returned and taken to detention.” Asylum seekers saved by the Ocean Viking rescue boat describe harrowing stories of violence and abuse experienced in Libya, and are afraid of being returned to detention centres. The NGOs Alarm phone as well as SOS Mediterranee raise the alarm on illegal detention and return of refugees to Libya. As reported by InfoMigrants: “Rights groups and international organizations have repeatedly said that Libya cannot be considered a “Place of Safety” under any international standards.” 

Libya: Meeting in Geneva for voting the new Libyan prime minister at interim
On Monday 1st of February, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, including envoys from Libya’s opposition parties, started a five-day meeting under U.N. mediation, in Geneva. The aim of the talks was to choose an interim prime minister and a three-person presidency council before holding elections on 24 December 2021. The 21-person shortlist of candidates for the prime minister role includes Fathi Bashaga, the powerful interior minister in Tripoli, and Ahmed Meitig, deputy prime minister of the U.N.-supported government. The future PM and presidency will have to stabilise the country not only for the elections, but also for combating foreign fighters and managing the inner conflict that permitted the further rise in human trafficking activities and other abuses of migrants and refugees, as well as internally displaced people. 


UK: Home Affairs accused of choosing unfit housing for asylum seekers under public pressure
A report by The Independent states that the Napier military barracks in Kent were chosen by the UK Home Office as a location for hosting asylum seekers following fears that a better accommodation would “undermine confidence” of the general public in the system. The information, written down in internal documents, comes amidst reports by humanitarian organisations of very poor conditions in the barracks. Critical voices stated that the document shows ministers “pandering to prejudice” and jeopardising health for “political ends”. Local NGOs and asylum seekers raised the attention several times on the unhealthy conditions that refugees have to face in the centre. Furthermore, around 100 refugees were tested COVID-19 positive and they have been isolated from other inhabitants only in a second instance, and only after protests arose from asylum seekers. In addition, on Friday 29 January, a fire occured in some of the barracks and refugees reported a lack of electricity and hot water since then. Kent Police arrested five men after disorder was reported at the camp. 

Hungary: EU border agency stops operations
Frontex announced it has suspended operations in Hungary after the ruling of the European Court of Justice. This decision was supported by the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson. The suspension occurred after allegations were raised against Hungary’s government, accusing them of not providing international protection for asylum seekers. Furthermore, the European Court of Justice added that Hungary was not following EU obligations on accepting and evaluating asylum seeker procedures, as illegal pushbacks have been noted at the border with Serbia. This is the first time that Frontex decided to suspend activities in an EU member state and it occurred amidst allegations of Frontex involvement in illegal expulsions. A local NGO reported around 50.000 instances of illegal push-backs carried out by Hungarian border guards since July 2016, 4.400 of them done since December 2020, when the EU Court of Justice expressed its judgment.

Croatia:  MEPs blocked at the border between Croatia and Bosnia
In the Lipa refugee camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina, around 1000 migrants are forced to live in dire conditions after the camp burnt down on 23 December 2020. The incident gave rise to great interest among Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), and a delegation of four Socialist & Democrat (S&D) MEPs was supposed to investigate the situation on the ground. A visit to the camp was planned for 30 January. However, MEPs Brando Benifei, Pietro Bartolo, Alessandra Moretti and Pierfrancesco Majorino encountered serious difficulties before being able to see the field: they were blocked by the Croatian police at the border and forced to return to Croatia. At the second attempt, they reached the camp on Saturday 31 January and they observed migrants and refugees stuck in tents without running water, electricity and humanitarian assistance. They expressed concern and they called for an urgent intervention from the European Parliament.


Europe: Refugee rights in peril at the EU borders
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), refugee and asylum seeker rights are in serious danger due to many illegal pushbacks reported at EU borders. An increasing number of expulsions have raised the attention of the UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, noting that: “[t]he push backs are carried out in a violent and apparently systematic way. Boats carrying refugees are being towed back. People are being rounded-up after they land and then pushed back to sea. Many have reported violence and abuse by state forces.” She underlines that respect of human and refugee rights are not optional for the EU member states, and he calls for urgent inquiries into alleged violations based on reliable testimonies collected by NGOs, media and open-source reports.

World: In 2021 refugee crisis will require USD 3$ billion in funds
As reported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a document released by the UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) shows that over 229 million people will need humanitarian aid and protection in 2021, an increase of 40% compared to 2020. This is due to the persistence of conflicts, natural disaster and instability, but numbers are worsened also by the COVID-19 pandemic. IOM’s Director General, António Vitorino, stated that: “COVID-19 has tragically exacerbated the suffering and insecurity facing hundreds of millions of people around the world.” IOM has calculated that a fund of USD 3$ billion will be necessary to provide humanitarian assistance in the face of the current global crisis. Vitorino added that: “IOM remains steadfast in our commitment to provide relief and recovery to communities affected by crises and calls on the international community to step up their efforts by supporting our 2021 Crisis Response Plans.”