News Highlights: Violations in Tigray may lead to further sanctions, EU migration policies endanger lives,  Trafficking victims freed in Libya

In this week’s news highlights: War in Tigray regional seemingly pre-planned; Updates about human traffickers at Addis Ababa court; Displaced Tigrayans and Eritreans forcibly relocated; Christian prisoners released in Eritrea amidst Eritrean involvement in Tigray war; IDPs in Somalia relocated by IOM; UNHCR says it should have full access to Tigray as long as it alerts authorities; Migrants drowned off Djibouti coast on the way to Yemen; A fire in a migrant detention facility claims lives; 120 refugees held by human traffickers freed in Bani Walid; Migrants and refugees dead after two shipwrecks off the coast of Tunisia; EU and UK float further sanctions to Ethiopia over human rights violations; ActionAid investigates Italian and European migration responses; Migrant dead after stepping on a mine along the Bosnian border; UK anti-migrant rhetoric prevents undocumented migrants from getting vaccines; EU migration policies endanger lives; Surge of anti-migration rhetoric worries academics; and COVID-19 socio-economic pressures impact refugee women especially. 

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

Greater Horn of Africa

Briefing on the War in Tigray points to pre-planned and regionalised conflict
EEPA released its 100th situation report on war in Tigray region, Ethiopia, together with a briefing on the war analysing events since its beginning. The briefing has been published in English, Russian and Mandarin Chinese. The report analyses the situation around the commencing of the conflict and its impact so far. A picture is emerging that regional actors, notably Eritrea, were involved in the conflict from the start and pre-planned it. Eritrean soldiers were already in Gerhu-Serenay, a town near the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, before the conflict started; a speech by President Isayas indicates preparations started long before that. The conflict has now led to an estimated 52.000 civilians in the Tigray region, say Tigray opposition parties. While some larger killings of civilians and serious cases of sexual violence are reported, many more are feared hidden.

Ethiopia: Kidane and Welid trials: verdicts scheduled
Despite the escape of Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, a notorious human trafficker, the court of Addis Ababa will proceed with a verdict in his case. Kidane broke out of  the Addis prison where he was detained on 23 February. According to official rules, he has to present himself in court on 22 March and the sentence will be determined on 16 April. Meanwhile, another human trafficker arrested alongside Kidane, Welid, is to be tried on 9 April. According to Sally Hayden, a journalist focused on migration, conflict and humanitarian crises for the IrishTimes: “[l]ast week he [Welid] presented three defence witnesses who backed up his story that he worked as a farm supervisor in Sudan, before going to Libya as a migrant himself & trying to cross the sea, then getting a job in construction.”  

Ethiopia: Territorial disputes and forced relocations
Over 131,000 people have been displaced in the Tigray region and neighboring Afar and Amhara regions since last November, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) survey. A documented 91,046 internally displaced persons (70%) are in Tigray, 34,091 (26%) are in Afar and 6,453 (5%) are in Amhara. This week, between 3,500-5,000 people have been relocated from Western Tigray to a separate woreda in the north western town of Shire. The town of Shire is a gathering point for thousands of displaced Tigrayans and Eritreans. Gebremeskel Kassa, chief of staff of Tigray’s interim government, blamed the recent forced relocations on the neighbouring Amhara region. “It’s clear that the Amhara regional forces are forcibly removing people of Tigrayan origin from (the western) region,” Gebremeskel said. “We strongly condemn the forced removal of Tigrayan residents from western Tigray […] They have to stop immediately,” he added. The Amhara region has been reportedly involved in seizing and securing western and southern Tigray lands since the conflict emerged last November. 

Eritrea: Christian prisoners released as military campaign expands
Twenty-one female Christian prisoners have been released in Eritrea, marking the total of Christian releases to 171 since August last year. The 21 women were arrested in a series of raids on underground churches in 2017 and held in Dahlak Archipelago, an island prison on the Red Sea. An estimated 130 Christian prisoners are still left to be released in state jails in Eritrea and a further 150 Christian prisoners are believed to be held by the Eritrean army. Several instances of spontaneous releases of Christian prisoners have taken place over the past six months. In February, 70 Christians were released from prison and before that 27 Christian prisoners were set free in September (2020). The prisoners were not charged with any crime. At the same time, Eritrean forces have been reported to be attacking churches in the Tigray region. In the city of Axum, around 800 people were killed in one attack around the Maryam Tsion Church, including many priests and church members. Eritrea has denied involvement in the Tigray fighting, however international organisations and local witnesses to the attacks confirm their presence. Paul Robinson, CEO of Release International, stated that “the latest prisoner releases may be to curry favour with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who is a Christian [..] Eritrea has joined forces with Ethiopia in its fight against Tigrayan rebels in the north of the country. Our partners believe Eritrea is trying to extend its influence in the Horn of Africa.” Eritrea is ranked sixth on the Open Doors World Watch List for the religious persecution of Christians.

Somalia: IOM relocates 7,000 IDPs in Baidoa area
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), on Sunday 7 February, around 7,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were relocated to the relocation centre in Barwaaqo near Baidoa, in the South-West of Somalia. IOM, in collaboration with the Danwadaag Durable Solutions Consortium, contributed to the building of infrastructure, shelters, roads and medical and food supply for the installation of the centre. There are around 360,000 IDPs in Somalia, forced to relocate due to “[p]ersistent drought, flooding and conflict” as said by Mohamed Abdelazim, IOM Somalia’s Head of Operations and Emergencies. Barwaaqo will be a long-term facility and accommodation centre and can host nearly 13,000 people coming from spots located on private land sites. Habiba Mohamed, an IDP, welcomed the news of the relocation: “I would like to stay here (in Baidoa) because we have access to land, education and better services for all of us including my children”.

Ethiopia: UNHCR to give three days notice to authorities to travel in Tigray
Spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Ethiopia, Chris Melzer, stated that UNHCR has been granted permission to travel throughout Tigray as long as it notifies the authorities 3 days in advance. Melzer added that the UNHCR carries out several missions in Tigray and is now able to provide for refugees that it could not reach before. He stated that the agency’s highest priority “right now […] is to go to the refugees”. UNHCR works in Mekelle and Shire, where, according to the agency, there are over 1000 Eritrean refugees who have been registered and are waiting to travel to two southern camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, where more than 6,000 refugees have already been transferred. 

Djibouti/Yemen: 20 migrants dead after being forced to overboard in Aden Gulf
On Thursday 4 March, as reported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 20 migrants and refugees drowned off the Obock coast, Djibouti, while they were trying to reach Yemen. The boat left Djibouti coast on 3 March and was carrying around 200 people. After half an hour, 80 migrants and refugees were forced to overboard by human smugglers, leaving them in the sea. This is the third consecutive accident occurring in the Gulf of Aden in six months.  Increasing number of shipwrecks is raising concern among IOM officers. The IOM Djibouti Chief of Mission, Stephanie Daviot, stated that: “[…] Wednesday’s tragedy is further proof that criminals continue to exploit people desperate to improve their lives for profit regardless of the consequences”, asking for the prosecution of smugglers and human traffickers. So far, 5 bodies, as well as survivors reached, Djibouti’s shores. Victims have not been identified yet, but as reported by Aljazeera, most of them probably came from Ethiopia and Somalia, as main countries of origin for migrants along the migration route from Djibouti to the Gulf states.

Ethiopia/Yemen: Deadly migrant facility fire
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a fire at a migrant detention facility in Sanaa has killed more than 40 people and injured over 170 with many in critical condition. The casualties were predominantly Ethiopian as the majority of migrants in Sanaa are Ethiopians who have been detained in the northern province of Saada whilst trying to cross into Saudi Arabia. The fire was believed to have started during a protest. Earlier this month hundreds of migrants went on a hunger strike to object to alleged ill-treatment and abuses. Carmela Godeau, IOM’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa stated that the fire “[…] is just one of many dangers the migrants have faced during the past six years of the crisis in Yemen.”

North Africa

Libya: 120 victims of human trafficking rescued from Bani Walid
The Libyan army freed 120 migrants and refugees who were kept by human traffickers in Bani Walid town in Libya. Rescued victims, mostly Egyptians, have been released on Wednesday 10 March, after the military carried out raids on suspected hideouts of traffickers.  According to the statement of the elite 444th combat brigade, migrants and refugees were subjected to “torture and extortion” by human traffickers. The brigade has been carrying out anti-trafficking operations since last week, rescuing at least 70 victims and arresting a number of human traffickers on 5 March.  

Tunisia: Two boats carrying migrants and refugees capsized off the coast of Tunisia
On 9 March, two boats carrying migrants and refugees capsized off the coast of Tunisia. The first shipwreck took place off Kerkennah island, where Tunisia’s Coast Guard picked up 134 survivors, while at least 39 people drowned. The second shipwreck happened  off the coast of Jebeniana city in Sfax, where all the 70 people who were carried by the boat were rescued. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) stated they are saddened by the loss of lives. IOM’s Chief of Mission in Tunisia, Azzouz Samri, stated that IOM “commend[s] the search and rescue efforts of the Tunisian authorities and will continue to support them in providing urgent humanitarian assistance to those rescued at sea.” He added that “[t]he Central Mediterranean continues to claim lives as thousands of people embark on these perilous journeys, whether fleeing extreme poverty, conflict, or in search of a better life. […] We continue to call for proactive search and rescue in the most dangerous sea crossing in the world, and the establishment of clear and safe disembarkation for people rescued at sea.” In 2021, an average of 3 deaths per day happened in the effort of crossing the Central Mediterranean Sea. 


EU/UK/Ethiopia: Ethiopia risks sanctions by the EU and the UK government
EUObserver reports that EU crisis commissioner Janez Lenarčič floated the idea of imposing further sanctions on Ethiopia in relation to human rights violations. “We will strengthen our efforts also by what I refer to as the possibility to introduce sanctions against individuals and or entities, which are responsible for grave violations of international humanitarian law,” Lenarčič stated during a wider conversation on humanitarian aid. EU Council conclusions, meanwhile, stressed the strategic partnership with Ethiopia, while on the other hand reiterating “great concerns” over the situation in Tigray. The British Government also discussed  reported violations of human rights in the Tigray region, including the massacre of Aksum, and the possibility of sanctions against the Ethiopian government. Various lords expressed concern on the current humanitarian crisis and famine that are affecting the civilian population, as well as presence of the Eritrean troops in Tigray  and the destruction of refugee camps. Suggestions included  deepening international negotiations with the aim to push the conflict to end, and the possibility of imposing sanctions, including economic cuts to aid funds to Ethiopia. On 9 March, the Chamber of Lords answered to some written questions by the British government about these previous topics, including the: “assessment they [Lords] have made of the decision by the EU to suspend budget support to the government of Ethiopia whilst humanitarian aid workers are unable to access Tigray”. In particular, whether they have the plan to suspend the provision of Official Development Assistance to the Ethiopian government. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon replied that: “We are keeping the provision of aid to Ethiopia under constant review.”

Italy: ActionAid’s investigation into European and Italian responses to migration
ActionAid investigated how Italy used European Union (EU) funds to stop migrants and refugees coming from Africa. The investigation called “The big wall”, zooms in on obstacles created by Italy – and more generally the EU – preventing people from Africa from arriving in Europe. According to ActionAid, starting from January 2015,  Italy increased funds – co-financed by the EU –  for projects and programs to be run in Africa or in the Mediterranean to hamper migration to Europe. The funding resulted in “an increasingly militarized Mediterranean” and was used to “support […] security forces, […] repatriation, information campaigns on the risks of irregular migration.” All of them being part of the European “comprehensive approach”, which created the bricks of “the big wall”, states ActionAid. Furthermore, the investigation shows how much Italy spent to gain control of the Mediterranean Sea and to curb migration from Africa.  ActionAid concludes that the European and Italian approach to migration is based on “an emergency stance that has disastrous results for everyone, including European citizens.” 

Croatia: Migrant steps on an unexploded mine leaving one dead and four injured
As reported by The Guardian, one migrant is dead and four have been injured in central Croatia due to an unexploded anti-personnel mine from the 1990’s conflict. The incident occurred on Thursday 4 February in the forest near Saborsko, along the Bosnian border, where migrants and refugees have been trying to cross. As noted by Agence France-Presse, one migrant  died after having stepped on the ordnance, another one is in extremely serious condition at the hospital, while 10 more migrants have been escorted from the minefield area by police. The Danish Refugee Council’s country director for Bosnia, Nicola Bay, stressed how this tragic episode: “[…] highlights how EU policies, focused on limiting irregular arrivals, are putting people at risk and bringing unnecessary suffering to people on the move. […] Faced with systematic and often violent deterrence practices, people in need of international protection, or simply seeking a better life in the EU, are forced to resort to increasingly dangerous routes.” Nicola Bay advocates for a different application of the EU pact on migration and asylum, ensuring safety procedures on international protections for refugees and asylum seekers. Furthermore he called for: “strengthening human rights compliance at the EU’s external and internal borders” 

UK: Fear of deportation prevents undocumented migrants from accessing COVID-19 vaccine
British anti-migration policies have resulted in hundreds of thousands of migrants being reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine due to fears of deportation. Last month, according to The Independent, the government announced that they would cease inspections for migration status at vaccination centres allowing undocumented migrants in the UK to receive the vaccine. However, longstanding anti-migrant policies and hostile environments have limited the effectiveness of the government’s outreach. Approximately 1.3 million undocumented migrants live in Britain and their nonvaccination could pose a risk to the ongoing success of the UK’s vaccine rollout. The Minister for COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment Nadhim Zahawi has faced mounting pressure from politicians, government watchdog groups and charities to provide more support to GP surgeries to register everyone and to ensure that undocumented migrants are properly reached by their ongoing public information campaign. Last month, more than 140 charities, religious communities, local authorities and medical organisations called for a suspension of migrants incurring National Health Service debt during the pandemic, as well as a strong network security to prevent patient data from being shared with the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes.

EU: Migration policies endangering migrants crossing the Mediterranean
On 9 March, The Council of Europe (CoE) published a report reprimanding Europe’s response to migration and highlighting the member states’ failures in implementing the previous recommendations. Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said that “European countries are failing to protect refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean”. “Backsliding in the protection of the lives and rights of refugees and migrants is worsening and causing thousands of avoidable deaths each year” she continued. The main concerns of the report are centered on the frequency of search and rescue missions which, the paper stressed, has been ‘regressing’. European states’ response rates described in the report ranged from ‘slow’ to completely ‘unresponsive’. Privately funded search and rescue missions run by NGOs are defined as being systematically ‘limited’ by the EU. Furthermore certain EU member states are depicted as being in full cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard to return migrants and refugees to Libya where they are then subjected to grave human rights violations. Mijatović implored the EU to “[..] put an end to this shameful tragedy and to adopt human rights compliant migration policies. Member states must no longer delay taking action to save lives. It is a matter of life or death – and of the credibility of European countries’ commitment to human rights.”

Europe: Migration policy academics worry about anti-migration rhetoric
As Europe begins to ease movement restrictions, migration policy academics are concerned about European political parties blaming migrants for spreading the COVID-19 virus. An anti-migration rhetoric has been used by English politicians, while Greek politicians justified migrant camps closures as a way to prevent the spread of the virus. Marina Fernandez-Reino, senior adviser at Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, stated that “[a]nti-migrant sentiments might increase during economic downturns”, but she added that so far “negative attitudes towards migrants do not seem to have increased during the current crisis.” However, Sarah de Lange, professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, stated that she “[…] can see a narrative emerging where many European citizens are vaccinated but countries where high numbers of migrants come from are not and new variants are spreading. […] That will help the populists, who could use it to influence the debate around migration and border control more broadly.” 


World: Women refugees are main victims of COVID-19 socio-economic impacts
On International Women’s Day, 8 March, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned that the COVID-19 pandemic has particularly impacted the lives and rights of refugee, displaced and stateless women. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stated that “[w]e are seeing extremely worrying increases in reports of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, forced marriages, [and] child labour.” Worsening situation is aggravated by COVID-19 pandemic, which forced schools to close, increased tensions at home and worsened socio-economic pressures. Many refugee families, who found themselves in a graver state of poverty because of the pandemic, resorted to child marriage, while refugee women are required to provide extra care at home. Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s protection chief, stated that “[i]n addition to the mounting risks of violence, abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking, all of which are consequences of gender inequality, the effects of the pandemic are also proving catastrophic on refugee girls’ education.” Grandi called for the international community to “step up and help protect the rights of forcibly displaced and stateless women and girls.” Triggs added that “[u]nless concerted efforts are made to mitigate the gendered impacts of COVID-19, we risk leaving refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls behind.”