News Highlights: Report on massacre in Aksum by Amnesty, EU Envoy warns Tigray situation “out of control”, Illegal pushback in the Aegean

In this week’s news highlights: Amnesty International reports on massacre in Aksum; EU Special Envoy warns situation in Tigray is out of control, urges for mandate to negotiate humanitarian access; Witness report on events in Shimelba refugee camp; Refugees from Benishangul-Gumuz flee to Sudan; Tigrayan peacekeepers in South Sudan fear ethnic targeting; Migration from the HoA to Gulf countries down 73%; Human traffickers arrested in Kufra; Press remarks from the EU High Representative on the situation in Ethiopia; At least 41 deaths in a shipwreck, while 45 others rescued in Central Mediterranean; Illegal pushbacks from Greek island reported; Scrutiny over private contractor hotels hosting asylum seekers in the UK; MSF calls to ensure vaccinations for undocumented migrants in EU; New UN Network centre on migration in Turkey; Open letter to G20 for financial support to developing countries amidst COVID-19.

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

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: Amnesty International report on Aksum massacre
On Thursday 25 February, Amnesty International published a report documenting the killing of civilians in Aksum, Ethiopia, between 19 and 29 November 2020. Amnesty states that the shelling of Aksum by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces may amount to war crimes, and that looting and killing by Eritrean troops may amount to crimes against humanity. Witnesses sketch the picture that Eritrean troops committed “a series of human rights and humanitarian law violations, including killing hundreds of civilians”. The main systematic killing of civilians appears to have taken place over a 24-hour period, in retaliation of an earlier attack of a militia. According to Deprose Muchena, Director for East and Southern Africa of Amnesty International, Eritrean troops “went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity.” Furthermore, Eritrean soldiers engaged in broad looting, and mass-detained residents. Amnesty International calls for an international investigation over the events in Aksum, which should be led by the United Nations (UN). The investigation should also cover war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the broader conflict of Tigray since 4 November. 

Ethiopia: EU Special Envoy warns Tigray crisis is out of control
Foreign Minister of Finland, Pekka Haavisto, warns that the crisis in Tigray is “out of control”. Minister Haavisto carried out a mission to the Horn of Africa as Special European Envoy from 7 to 10 February, with the purpose of finding peaceful solutions to the Tigray conflict. According to Special Envoy Haavisto, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed failed to provide a “clear picture” of the conflict in Tigray, in particular he avoided providing details about the involvement of Eritrean troops. Mr. Haavisto also urged the Ethiopian government to grant full access to international humanitarian aid, including in those areas that it does not control, stating that “[w]hat we need from the Ethiopian government is the greenlight to the humanitarian community to negotiate access to the Eritrean-controlled areas, to the opposition-controlled areas.” Furthermore, Mr. Haavisto stressed that Sudan is unable to fully address the influx of Ethiopians, warning that this could trigger a new wave of refugees coming in Europe. He stated that “[w]e are seeing the beginning of one more potentially big refugee crisis in the world.” 

Ethiopia: Witness from Shimelba refugee camp reports on events in November
An Eritrean refugee from the Shimelba refugee camp in Tigray, Ethiopia, has confirmed the presence of Eritrean soldiers, entering the camp on 17 November 2020. The witness stated that he and other young refugees were separated from women and children for a meeting. Eritrean soldiers informed refugees that they were not allowed to leave the camp, otherwise they would be killed. Eritrean troops claimed control of the refugee camp area. Furthermore, after entering Shimelba, Eritrean troops asked young refugees who would return to Eritrea: as refugees remained in silence, Eritrean soldiers started to knock door to door to ask each of the refugees. The witness said since 23 November people were systematically arrested, including women and children. From 17 December, the situation worsened for refugees: “[on that day] there was fighting between Eritrean troops and the Tigray troops. […] They killed many animals and also people. We saw corpses on the way on the ground. […] Near Shemelba they threw many bodies,” as reported by the witness. Meanwhile refugees were carried to Eritrea by soldiers, fights occurred and the witness escaped and reached Mekelle on 28 December.

Ethiopia/Sudan: Ethiopians seek refuge in Sudan as ethnic violence escalates
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that around 7,000 people fled to Sudan after ethnic violence escalated in Benishangul-Gumuz region in western Ethiopia. UNHCR stated that this displacement is not related to the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region. Tensions in the Metekel Zone of the Benishangul-Gumuz region arose in 2019, but in the last 3 months the situation has  escalated. Between December and January, more than 180 people were killed in different massacres in Metekel, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission stated. On 21 January 2021, the Government of Ethiopia declared a state of emergency in the region. In order to solve the situation, the Ethiopian government created a multi-ethnic self-defence militia, but “[a]rming unarmed groups is like encouraging revenge, and puts the area into an endless conflict trap,” stated a researcher to The New Humanitarian. While some displaced reached Sudan, more remain in Benishangul-Gumuz and Amhara, where according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 100,000 people sought shelter. 

Ethiopia/South Sudan: Tigrayan peacekeepers refuse to go home
On Monday 22 February, 15 United Nations (UN) peacekeepers of Tigrayan origin who were working in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, refused to board the flight that would have brought them home and asked to stay in South Sudan. 169 Ethiopian staff employed in the UN peacekeeping operation in Juba were due to rotate out of the capital, but 15 of them asked to remain in South Sudan, highlighting they were afraid of going back to Ethiopia. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric stated that “[t]hey are receiving support from the South Sudanese Ministry of Refugee Affairs”, adding that “any person in need of international protection has the right to seek asylum [and] cannot be returned to their countries of origin if they feel their lives or freedom could be threatened.”

Horn of Africa/Gulf Countries: Drop in departures from Horn of Africa in 2020
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) published data showing that in 2020 there was a drop of 73 percent in migrants leaving the Horn of Africa region and heading towards the Gulf countries, passing through Yemen. The main reason for this drop would be COVID-19 and related restrictions, but there was also a surge in risks of detention, exploitation, torture and forced movements. In the past 4 years, large numbers of African migrants have reached the Gulf countries through Yemen, despite security threats there. The COVID-19 pandemic and consequent border closures left many migrants and workers blocked in the Gulf countries, forcing them to turn to smugglers and traffickers and risk exploitation to get back home. IOM stated that it is working together with East and Horn of Africa countries to implement regional approaches in order to provide for migrants and other vulnerable groups’ necessities. Migrants in the region face barriers in accessing medical treatment for COVID-19, and are also at risk of xenophobia and discrimination. 

North Africa

Libya: Six human traffickers arrested in Kufra city
On 16 February, Libyan authorities entered a secret warehouse in the  Libyan southeastern city of Kufra and arrested human traffickers, reports Aljazeera. The Kufra security bureau states they have freed 156 migrants and refugees, including 15 women and five children. Refugees were mainly from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan. The news was released to international press only a week later, as reported by Aljazeera’s article. Libyan security forces raided the prison after a refugee escaped from a warehouse based in Kufra and reported imprisonment and tortureby human traffickers of migrants and refugees. During the operations, six human traffickers were arrested by Libyan authorities and brought to prosecutors. 


European Union: Josep Borrell remarks on the situation in Tigray
The EU High Representative, Josep Borrell  reported on the visit of the EU Special Envoy, Pekka Haavisto, to Sudan and Ethiopia between 7 and 10 February, in his press remarks at the end of the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday 22 February. Borrell underlined that the humanitarian situation remains critical, as 80% of the Tigray population of 6 million people is still unreachable after four months of conflict. Humanitarian access is hindered in some areas, as fights between Ehiopian Army and local militias continue. Borrell called for: “a full and immediate humanitarian access to Tigray, the need to investigate allegations of severe human rights violations”. The EU also stresses that Eritrean troops should leave Tigray immediately. 

Italy/Central Mediterranean: 41 people drowned, 45 others rescued
On Saturday night, the 20th of February, the Italian Coast Guard rescued 45 migrants and refugees after their boat capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy. According to witnesses, the boat was carrying around 50 people. The Italian authorities launched a search and rescue operation, looking for those missing, together with the Italian tax police, which investigates possible smuggling. On the same day, at least 41 people died in a shipwreck in the Central Mediterranean. The boat capsized 15 hours after it had departed from Libya coasts on 18 February, with 120 people on board. Witnesses rescued by a merchant ship stated that many people died during the rescue operations. All refugees saved were carried to the Sicilian port of Porto Empedocle, Italy.

Greece: Aegean Boat Report denounces illegal pushback of migrants by Greek authorities
Aegean Boat Report accuses Greece of illegal deportation and violation of international law. The night of February the 17th, 13 asylum seekers were removed from Megala Therma camp, in Lesvos, which is managed by the Greek Ministry of Migration, and forced back on the sea, states the NGO. The migrants and refugees, among them women and children, had arrived the same night in northern Lesvos by boat. They asked Aegean Boat Report for help and then walked to Megala Therma camp, where they were told to wait inside the camp by the police officer on duty. Residents of the camp provided them with blankets and food. Shortly after, the migrants were taken by the police officer, who told them they needed to be tested for COVID-19. They were instead locked inside a container where they were later beaten and deprived of their belongings by men in uniforms. The refugees were then taken to a port and forced onto a boat, which, according to the testimonies Aegean Boat Report put together, resembles the Hellenic Coast Guard vessels used to patrol the border area. They were then forced onto an inflatable life raft without life jackets. The Turkish coast guard later reported it had picked up 13 people on a boat.  

UK: asylum seekers threatened in Home Office private contractor hotels
The Observer and ITV News launched a joint investigation over a network of hotels run by UK Home Office private contractors, hosting thousands of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom (UK). The investigation found that asylum seekers have been threatened, intimidated and possibly sexually exploited. Current chairperson of the home affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper, has called on the Home Office of the UK to establish whether or not private firms managing the hotels are “fit for purpose”. Claims over possible sexual exploitation of asylum seekers residing in these hotels have also been reported by Humans for Rights Network, which investigates violations against asylum seekers. Furthermore, the investigation highlighted some movement restrictions under which asylum seekers are put. According to Georgia Banks, a caseworker for Duncan Lewis Solicitors, these policies could be seen as “unlawful deprivation of liberty for individuals who are already vulnerable as a result of a history of torture and/or trafficking prior to their arrival in the UK”. A spokesperson from the Home Office stated that they will investigate these allegations fully.

Spain: 41 migrants found hidden in waste containers
As reported by various media, on Friday 19 February, 41 migrants were found by Spanish authorities inside waste containers, including one hidden in a plastic bag with toxic ash, in the Spanish exclave of Melilla. Migrants were trying to reach the continental Spain by the Melilla’s port via containers. Passengers were found in life-threatening conditions, and the man hidden in the plastic bag was unconscious, while others were found in a container full of recycling and broken glass. All migrants and refugees were stopped after seven hours of transport. 

Europe: Refugees and undocumented migrants should be vaccinated
According to Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), refugees are 3 times more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus, because they live in hazardous conditions where social distancing is difficult or impossible. Undocumented migrants are included in vaccination plans of the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom (UK), while Germany and Serbia stated that refugees and asylum seekers will be prioritized in their vaccination strategies. However, according to Gianluca Cesaro from the Platform for the International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), “[i]t is one thing to include undocumented people in the vaccination strategies on paper. It is another to actually grant them meaningful, practical access to the vaccines”. Furthermore, Cesaro stated that undocumented migrants need to be able to trust health authorities without fearing deportation. “This means governments and authorities need to enact effective outreach strategies to get to these communities,” he added.   


UN/Turkey: UN Network centre on migration in Turkey
The United Nations will place a new network centre in Turkey, aiming to provide assistance through ad hoc programmes for migrant and refugee communities based in the host country. Turkey has been chosen because it is the world’s largest refugee-hosting country and a dedicated network on managing migrations was needed, as a Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) was already placed in Turkey since 2013. The United Nations Network on Migration (UNNM) will be held in the framework of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), which will help the development of the UNNM on the ground. The UN Resident Coordinator in Turkey, Alvaro Rodriguez, stated that: “The formation of the UNNM in Turkey is an opportunity for the UN to strengthen the existing migration management system in Turkey in a coordinated and strategic way. The GCM provides us with a roadmap to making migration work for the benefit of all.”

World: Open letter to G20 for the allocation of a special fund for developing countries
An open letter to the attention of G20 members and Finance Ministers and to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was promoted by Jubilee USA and signed by nearly 230 NGOs and researchers in a few days. The letter comes ahead of the  G20 finance ministers today, 26 February. The aim of the letter is to urge allocation of part of the global reserve funds to support developing countries in the fight against COVID-19. The letter calls for a multilateral solution with the aim of helping developing countries to not go into debt. For this reason, civil society organisations ask G20 Finance Ministers and the IMF to provide US$3 trillion through the Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) fund. This allocation would: “[…] enable countries to boost reserves and stabilize economies, helping to minimize other economic losses.” as underlined in the letter. Furthermore, the fund would set up emergency funds for the pandemic response, including improving gender-responsive public health systems, universal social welfare and it would aid governments to complete vaccine coverage.