News Highlights: Witnesses speak about massacre in Aksum, Rescue boat lands in Sicily, Frontex called to suspend operations in Greece

In this week’s news highlights: Eritrean refugees detained in Addis Ababa; Fighting reported around Mekelle; Witnesses speak to AP about massacre in Aksum, Ethiopia; Sudanese refugees given go-ahead by US court for case against BNP Paribas for complicity in genocide through financing; Human trafficker reported to have escaped from prison in Ethiopia; President of Rwanda urges the UN Security Council to intervene in the Tigray conflict; UAE is dismantling Assab base, in Eritrea; Front-LEX and the Legal Centre Lesvos call Frontex to suspend its operations in the Aegean; Open Arms rescued 146 migrants in Central Mediterranean, 22 missing in other boat accident; Asylum seekers face difficulties in northern Europe welfare states; Libyans leaving for Europe on the rise; UNDP increases focus on digital projects; Young people to be involved in crisis management and humanitarian aid. 

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

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: Eritrean refugees detained in Addis Ababa
Eritrean refugees that fled the conflict in Tigray and managed to reach Addis Ababa’s periphery have been captured by Ethiopian forces. EritreaHub reports that 68 refugees registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that were previously hosted in the four UNHCR camps in Tigray are now incarcerated. They are currently detained near a checkpoint called Tilu Dimtu, in the suburb of Gelan, south of Addis Ababa. They are afraid to be forcibly taken back to Eritrea and ask to be allowed to live in the capital together with the local Eritrean community. Previous groups of Eritrean refugees, who were hosted in UNHCR camps in Tigray and that managed to reach Addis Ababa, were taken back to the camps. Currently, UNHCR is denied access to two of the four refugee camps in Tigray, namely the northern camps of Hitsats and Shimelba. UNHCR reports it has re-established regular presence in the camps of Adi Harush and Mai Aini, and that 5,000 refugees from the destroyed camps have now settled there. A further 15.000 are missing. 

Ethiopia: Fighting reported around Mekelle
Increased fighting is reported around Mekelle in Tigray, as well as interruptions of power in the Tigray region. The Ethiopian government announced on Wednesday, 17th of February, that Tigray is without electricity, blaming the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). TPLF denies the accusation, indicating it needs power for its communications. Amidst reports of fighting, Antonov airplanes were seen flying above the Mekelle area. The activity comes after reports earlier this week of trenches and barricades being set up on the outskirts of the city by ENDF soldiers. The reports come amidst the celebration of the TPLF anniversary, which is celebrated as a holiday. 

Ethiopia: Massacre in Aksum
The Associated Press has spoken to witnesses that confirmed  the massacre in Aksum that was first reported in late December. The massacre occurred the last weekend of November in and around the Church of St. Mary of Zion, in Aksum, the witnesses report. An anonymous deacon AP spoke to who helped to collect and identify some bodies estimated 800 deaths in the nearby vicinity of the church, while further thousands may have been killed in the city. Furthermore, he thinks that in rural areas the situation could be worse and that the number of people killed there is higher. On 28 November, Eritrean troops engaged in heavy fighting with local fighters based in Aksum. soldiers targeted civilians and anyone who was escaping in the streets, including young people of 12 years-old. Only after the withdrawal of troops, inhabitants could bury deaths in mass graves. As witnesses express their testimonies, the foreign ministry has recently stated that “rape, plunder, callous and intentional mass killings” where “many are illegally armed,” which is an acknowledge of atrocities occurred along 4-months of conflict. In addition, international media is reporting on the bombing and looting of the ancient Debre Damo monastery. A researcher in Ethiopic texts and ancient manuscripts at Hamburg University, Alessandro Bausi, underlined how main important cultural sites were being targeted and “irreplaceable” artefacts were destroyed or pillaged, as confirmed to him by various sources.  

Sudan/US: Refugees in US given go-ahead for class action against BNP Paribas
On Tuesday, 16th of February, United States (US) District Judge Alison Nathan ruled that Sudanese refugees can proceed with a class action aiming at holding the French bank BNP Paribas responsible for financing the Sudanese regime of Omar al-Bashir, which committed genocide. In 2016, 21 Sudanese refugees living in the US claimed BNP Paribas had relationships with former President al-Bashir, allowing him to evade international sanctions and have access to the US financial market. In this way, al-Bashir had been able to sell Sudan’s oil and the revenues were used to buy weapons which were then employed against Sudanese population. Therefore, BNP Paribas, the main bank in Sudan from 1997 to 2007, is accused of complicity in the crimes al-Bashir is accused of. Refugees also allege that the bank benefitted from al-Bashir grabbing lands rich in oil. The US District Judge found on Tuesday that there are links between the bank and the atrocities committed in Sudan, paving the way for the Sudanese refugees to go ahead with the class action.

Ethiopia: Human trafficker Kidane escapes from prison
Meron Estafanos has reported on Twitter that notorious human trafficker Kidane Zekarias, involved in the human trafficking and extortion of many refugees in the Horn of Africa and North Africa, has fled the compound where he was held. He reportedly changed clothes in the toilets, then disappeared. Kidane was arrested with five others a little less than a year ago.

Ethiopia: President of Rwanda calls for the UN Security Council to act on Tigray
President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has voiced his concern over the conflict in Tigray. He stressed that the situation cannot be dealt with exclusively by Ethiopia and the African Union, calling for the United Nations (UN) Security Council to intervene. According to President Kagame, the internationalization of the civil conflict, due to the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, gives the UN Security Council the possibility to intervene. Furthermore, there are reports of violations of the Geneva Conventions and other International Humanitarian Laws. Some reports suggest that there are acts that could be considered as ethnic cleansing. Moreover, the conflict in Tigray draws Ethiopian forces away from peacekeeping operations and obligations, increasing the instability of the entire Horn of Africa. President Kagame has also underlined that there is high food insecurity and potential risk of famine, and that there are more than 2 million people internally displaced. He concluded highlighting that when a state is not able to stop atrocities on its territory, the UN has a duty to intervene. 

Eritrea/UAE: military base in Eritrea being dismantled
According to satellite images analysed by The Associated Press, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is dismantling a naval military base in Assab, along the Eritrean coast. The military base was built in 2015 as a strategic place to ferry heavy weaponry and Sudanese troops into Yemen, while it was fighting with a Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters. The UAE has been accused by the Tigray forces of providing drones to Eritrea through Assab, which were then used by Eritrea in Tigray in November 2020. The Libyan government, backed by the United Nations (UN), and UN experts have also claimed that the Assab base had been used by the UAE to smuggle weapons into Libya. Despite the deconstruction of the base, Emirati attack helicopters have still been spotted in Assab.


Frontex: Front-LEX and the Legal Centre Lesvos request Frontex operations suspension in the Aegean
On 15 February 2021, Front-LEX and the Legal Centre Lesvos sent a formal appeal to the Executive Director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), Fabrice Leggeri, calling for the immediate suspension or termination of operations of Frontex in the Aegean Sea Region, in pursuance of Article 265 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Front-LEX and the Legal Centre Lesvos call Frontex to suspend its activities, stating the European Agency has systematically failed to act in compliance with European Law. Frontex is accused of failure to act to prevent violations of human rights, monitor obligations and investigate reports of fundamental rights infringements. Furthermore, according to Front-LEX and the Legal Centre Lesvos, these failures are intrinsic to the management, direction and functioning of Frontex, which has not been held accountable. 

Italy/Tunisia: 146 refugees and migrants rescued by Open Arms, 22 from other boat missing
The Spanish rescue boat Open Arms, after having saved 40 migrants on Friday 12 February, has rescued 106 other refugees and migrants from a shipwreck in the Central Mediterranean between the coasts of Tunisia and Italy. Alarm Phone had received a call to rescue and the only ship available in the nearby area was Open Arms, even though the people from the previous rescue were still on board. On Tuesday 16, Open Arms landed in Porto Empedocle, Sicily, where persons rescued will be put in mandatory quarantine. According to Tunisian coastguards, another shipwreck occurred between Friday 12 and Saturday 13 February. As reported by witnesses, the boat carried 48 migrants and refugees of different African nationalities, including six women, and sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The ship capsized due to the bad weather and all passengers fell in the cold water: 25 were rescued, also with the help of fishermen who were in the area, another 22 were reported missing while one body was recovered.

Europe: New book analyses bureaucratic hurdles for refugees in Northern Europe
In the new book Refugees and the Violence of Welfare Bureaucracies in Northern Europe, authors describe the bureaucratic obstacles for refugees in Northern Europe. The authors state that the book explains how migrants and refugees arriving in Sweden or Germany face multiple bureaucratic obstacles, such as long-time procedure for the asylum application. Germany, UK, Sweden, Denmark and Norway are the case-studies and the authors illustrate how the border control measures of these countries are causing stress and long-term disorders in refugees. According to their analysis, many refugees face frustration, mobility restrictions, and unfit relocation centres which are considered the main factors of exclusion from society. Wendy Pearlman, one of the authors, stated that: “[w]e saw how welfare states maintain a high level of discipline and control over people’s daily lives, especially newly arrived refugees. We refer to these as different forms of violence to illustrate how they cause struggle, harm and cruelty.”

North Africa

Libya: Increase in Libyans leaving for Europe
The number of Libyans leaving for Europe is increasing. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported 386 Libyans arriving in Italy by sea in 2020, which is almost double the number of Libyans arriving in 2019. Among the causes of the increase, there is COVID-19 pandemic, which has damaged Libya’s economy, limiting its export of oil and gas. Restrictions and border closures have also negatively impacted livelihoods of Libyans. Furthermore, corruption and security concerns push Libyans to leave for Europe. According to Mousa Algunaidi, from the Nedaa Organization for Human Rights and Community Development in Misrata, “[i]f there’s a full political agreement […], [t]his would definitely decrease the number of Libyans leaving by sea. It could even stop emigration completely. But if there’s a new conflict like what we saw in 2019, we’ll see the shores full of Libyans”. 


World: UNDP to scale up digital initiatives for refugees
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) states it will increase support to digital initiatives that help refugees and migrants in building businesses and livelihoods. The UNDP was inspired by Aspire to Innovate (a2i), a digital services-provider project in Bangladesh, and developed a similar programme for refugees in Turkey. Given that these programmes “have measurably improved the lives of many refugees and migrants”, says Asaka Okai, head of the UNDP’s Crisis Bureau, the UNDP wants to develop similar programmes applicable internationally. The 2019 UNDP report “Migrant Union: Digital Livelihoods for People on the Move” underlined the importance of employing digital tools to facilitate migrants in making a living. The shift towards a digital world has been accelerated by COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased the necessity of scaling up digital opportunities for refugees. 

UN: Young people as ambassadors of humanitarian action
On Tuesday 16 February, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), composed of 18 key UN and non-UN humanitarian actors, introduced new guidelines for working with young people at the forefront of humanitarian action. The UN humanitarian affairs chief, Mark Lowcock, said during a conference that: “[t]oo often the energy and talents of young people are squandered when crises hit, and the guidelines that we’re publishing today will help prevent that from happening”. The aim of the guidelines is to connect young people with humanitarian daily work, as they become a link between humanitarian aid organisations and their communities. Henrietta Fore, the UNICEF Executive Director, stated that the guidelines give both power to the young people, and help them to invest in their futures after being affected by humanitarian crises.