News Highlights: 100 days of war in Tigray, missing boat found after 5 days, EP debates humanitarian situation in Ethiopia

In this week’s news highlights: 100 days of war in Tigray, Ethiopia, leaves millions of people in urgent need of assistance; Refugee camps have been systematically targeted and destroyed in Tigray; 3.8 million people in Tigray face starvation and malnutrition diseases; EU envoy visits Ethiopia and Sudan; Undeclared famine in South Sudan regions; UN Security Council national reconciliation in Libya; 20 Algerians safely disembark in Italy after going missing in the Mediterranean for 5 days; EP debate: MEPs express concern on the humanitarian crises and urge access and investigation; EU Commission voices deep concern on the humanitarian and political crisis in Tigray, calls for withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers; IOM calls on the EU to stop pushbacks at its external borders; 422 migrants and refugees disembark in Sicily; Delays in application and prison conditions for asylum seekers in Cyprus; UNHCR and IOM urge states to improve protection of climate refugees. 

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

Greater Horn of Africa 

Ethiopia: 100 days of war
As of today, Friday 12 February, it has been 100 days since the start of the conflict in Tigray, as it officially started on 4 November 2020. The urgency of access for humanitarian aid and investigation of crimes is growing, but access is limited by ongoing insecurity and the presence of Eritrean troops. The fighting has left the vast majority of people in Tigray in serious need of humanitarian assistance. The Ethiopian Red Cross announced that 80% of the region is unreachable. The majority of Tigray is not under control of the government-appointed interim Tigray administration. Since the beginning of clashes, at least 52.000 civilians have died, while  large scale massacres of civilians, among others in Aksum and Mai Kadra, have been reported. Cultural heritage, churches and mosques, including the UNESCO heritage site of the al-Nejashi mosque, have been damaged and have been looted. As reported by the testimony of a witness over two months of war: “The sadism is very disturbing. I don’t know how humans – let alone trained, professional soldiers – can become this barbaric.” Meanwhile, it is feared that most human rights violations such as rape, kidnapping, looting and killings in rural areas have not yet been reported due to the lack of communications. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch released a report covering the  first weeks of the conflict, stating that at least 83 civilians were killed and thousands displaced because of heavy shelling of populated areas. An extensive article in African Arguments looks at how the war has developed. 

Ethiopia: refugees camps systematically destroyed
Analysis of satellite images of refugee camps under international protection in the Tigray region highlights that refugee camps, including schools, clinics and residential areas, have been systematically targeted and destroyed with the purpose of hindering their future usage. In particular, the Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps, which hosted refugees coming from Eritrea, have been under attack. 20.000 refugees are missing, with an estimated 10.000 refouled to Eritrea. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been denied access to these camps, previously under its care and now put under military guard. An uncertain number of Eritrean refugees have been killed by being targeted or getting caught in the crossfire. The Ethiopian government has allowed UNHCR and private agencies to provide aid to two other camps in southern Tigray, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, but UNHCR warns that thousands of Eritrean refugees are still in need of urgent assistance. UNHCR renewed its call to the Ethiopian government to grant full access to support refugees. 

Ethiopia: 3.8 million people in Tigray face starvation
According to the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, the amount of people in a condition of serious starvation is higher than previously estimated. At the moment, 3.8 million out of a population of six million people in Tigray are suffering from starvation and malnutrition diseases. Furthermore, the head of Ethiopian Red Cross, Abera Tola, has calculated that 80 percent of the Tigray region has been cut off from humanitarian assistance since the start of the conflict on 4 November. Due to the lack of access, tens of thousands Tigryans are now at risk of death by starvation. During a press conference, Tola stated that: “[s]ome starvation deaths have already been reported and the figures could climb fast.” Meanwhile, on Tuesday 9 February, the United Nations released a statement expressing concern about the current humanitarian situation in Tigray. A “first step” by the Ehiopian government led to the approval for 25 international staff who had been on standby for weeks to provide humanitarian assistance inside the Tigray region. 60 others are still awaiting approval in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia/Sudan: Special EU envoy, Pekka Haavisto, visits Sudan and Ethiopia
On 7 February, Mr. Pekka Haavisto, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland, was sent to Sudan and Ethiopia as a Special EU envoy. His aim is to secure humanitarian aid in Tigray, relieve tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia on recent border clashes, the GERD Dam and for visiting refugee camps. Haavisto was in Khartoum on 7 and 8 February, before moving to Ethiopia. In Sudan he met the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, the Lieutenant General, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and other high-level officials. In Ethiopia, he reported that he had two days of intensive meetings with prime minister Abiy Ahmed, the President and other key ministers. 

South Sudan: People from Jonglei and Pibor regions in peril of starvation
The New Humanitarian reports that local officials and experts believe a famine is ongoing in South Sudan, particularly in the Jonglei and Pibor regions, even though food experts have not collected enough information to officially declare one. Recent torrential floods and fighting between community militias, which have been intensifying since last year to an extent not seen in years, have forced tens of thousands to displace, rendering them vulnerable to extreme hunger. There are reports of kidnapping of children sexual assaults. The New Humanitarian visited Lekuangole village and surrounding villages in December last year, where locals stressed they need food, so that their children do not die. The New Humanitarian adds that fewer people are receiving humanitarian and food assistance than the last time South Sudan declared a famine in 2017. Relief efforts are being hindered by a nationwide decrease in humanitarian funding, despite hundreds of millions of dollars being requested by organizations from international donors to help the village residents. 

North Africa

Libya: UN Security Council weighs in on Libyan elections
On 10 February, the United Nations released a statement on the selection of an interim president and prime minister of Libya. Last week the UN-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), held in Geneva, decided about the formation of an interim government for holding elections on 24 December. As reported by UN News, the UN representative of the United Kingdom, Security Council President for February, welcomed the agreement: “as an important milestone in the Libyan political process” and urged the interim leadership “to improve services and launch a comprehensive national reconciliation process”. This includes a formal and efficient Libyan-led ceasefire monitoring mechanism, under the supervision of the United Nations, and a new government able to fight human trafficking of refugees. Furthermore, on Monday 8, Ján Kubiš was appointed as the new Special Envoy on Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in the country (UNSMIL).

Algeria: missing boat arrives in Italy after 5 days
On February the 6th, Alarm Phone, a hotline number that offers support to refugee rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, launched an alarm on the disappearance of a boat carrying 20 people who left from Skikda, Algeria, on the 4th of February and were headed towards Sardinia, Italy. Alarm phone denounced the inaction of the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), which according to Alarm Phone, was aware of the situation but was refusing to provide useful information for the organization to keep the relatives of the disappeared informed. After 5 days, on February the 9th, the boat was found in distress by a merchant vessel and brought to safety in Sardinia.


European Union: EP plenary session on the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia
On Thursday 11 February, the European Parliament met in a plenary session discussing the current humanitarian situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) expressed deep concern about the restrictions for humanitarian aid and investigation of crimes for organisations such as UNHCR and WPF. MEPs called for free access to Tigray, restoration of communications and withdrawal of Eritrean troops. The dabate highlighted the high risk of starvation and disease and renewed the call for action in supporting the local population and refugees located in Tigray and neighbouring countries. MEPs condemned the destruction of refugee camps [Shimelba and Hitsats] and underlined that these attacks are criminal under international law. MEPs as well as the EU Commission underlined the importance for the EU and the international community to speak with one voice and to continue pressure through tools such as withdrawal of budget support. According to the Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, the EU will continue supporting refugees and IDPs, as well as host communities, through the implementation of programmes financed by the EU Trust Fund for Africa. 

European Union: EU Commission releases joint statement on Ethiopia situation
On Monday 8 February, the European Commission released a joint statement by High-Representative Josep Borrell and Commissioners Jutta Urpilainen and Janez Lenarčič on the current situation in Ethiopia. The EU expresses concern on the humanitarian and political crises in the Tigray region. The statement raises the attention on the high risk of famine and disease for the population and calls for free access to humanitarian aid in Tigray as well as in border areas of Afar and Amhara regions “[…] in line with the humanitarian principles of impartiality, humanity, neutrality and independence.” This protection must be guaranteed also to Eritrean refugees in Tigray refugee camps, including the prevention of any act of refoulement or ethnical targeting on them, state the EU representatives. Furthermore, the EU calls for the Eritrean troops to immediately withdraw from the region, as atrocities and ethnic violence on civilians and refugees have been reported.

European Union: IOM urges the EU to end pushbacks and violence against migrants at its borders
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) calls on the European Union (EU) to take immediate action to end pushbacks and collective expulsions, prohibited under EU and international law, of migrants and refugees at its land and maritime borders. IOM has received evidence of violation of human rights, violation of the principle of non-refoulement and violence being used against migrants occurring at the EU’s external borders. According to IOM, these episodes underline the necessity to strengthen migration governance and asylum policy. The IOM states it is available for providing the EU with assistance to improve its migration governance and foster a right-based border management integration in order to ensure the respect of all migrants’ human rights.  

Italy: Rescue boat with 422 migrants and refugees on board land in Sicily
On Sunday 7 February the Ocean Viking rescue boat disembarked at the Sicilian port of Augusta, Italy. The ship was carrying 422 migrants and refugees, after a pregnant woman and her companion were transferred to Malta by helicopter. Migrants and refugees were rescued in different operations between Thursday 4 and Friday 5 February, all found on overcrowded ships. In a statement released by SOS Mediterranee, Luisa Albera, search and rescue coordinator aboard the Ocean Viking, said that: “[s]ome of the [121] passengers fell into the sea during [a] rescue operation but were brought to safety.” All refugees saved have been tested for COVID-19, and eight people were found positive by the first rapid-test administered by the Ocean Viking’s crew. On Monday 8 February, at least 49 passengers were found positive to COVID-19. On the same day, 261 people were taken off the ship, 102 of whom were unaccompanied minors. 71 of them were transferred to a reception centre in Pozzallo, near Ragusa. Adults, both positive and negative, were moved to the quarantine ship Rhapsody, in Augusta port.

Cyprus: Asylum-seekers denounce dire living conditions and delays
Asylum-seekers living in Pournara camp, in Cyprus, denounce their living conditions, aggravated by overcrowding. Pournara is an emergency reception centre designed to accommodate 1,000 asylum-seekers at the most while they wait for their applications to be processed and  people should be released after 3 days. Nonetheless, 1,500 asylum-seekers are currently accomodated in Pournara, the majority of whom have been there for months. Delays in the application processes are mainly caused by COVID-19 restrictions, which together with overcrowding are causing ethnic frictions.  Many asylum-seekers, already tested negative to COVID-19 more than once, are asking the authorities to accelerate their claims and release them, feeling trapped in Pournara camp described as a “prison”. Corina Droushiotou, head of the Cyprus Refugee Council, stated that the migrants’ “de facto detention” at Pournara is “completely unnecessary”, and that those who already found a place to live outside the camp should be allowed to leave. Droushiotou added that “[t]he situation in Pournara signals a failure by the authorities to effectively address ongoing issues related to migrants and refugees”, underlying that the Cyprus government lacks a comprehensive migration and integration strategy.


World: UNHCR and IOM jointly call on States to protect  climate refugees
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) call on UN member states to improve protection and assistance of people displaced because of climate change. The joint statement was issued ahead of a virtual event to note the 5-year progress since the establishment of three key frameworks to address displacement due to disasters and climate change.  IOM Director General, António Vitorino, said that “the UN Network on Migration, established to support the implementation of the Global Compact for Migration, has determined climate change and migration issues as a key priority for 2021”. This was further underlined by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who stated that “[f]rom South Sudan, to the Sahel […], refugees, internally displaced and stateless people are often among the first to be affected by the climate emergency”, adding that “[w]e need to invest now in preparedness to mitigate future protection needs and prevent further climate caused displacement. Waiting for disaster to strike is not an option.”