News Highlights: UN and EHRC agree on joint war crime probe in Tigray, EU proposes visa pressure to force returns to Africa 

In this week’s news highlights: UN agrees to joint probe on possible war crimes in Tigray with Ethiopian Human Rights Commission; NRC says situation in Sheraro “beyond dire”; Funding needed to tackle humanitarian crisis in South Sudan; Intentional attacks on health facilities in Tigray;  Returns of stranded Ethiopians from Yemen resume; Police raid migrant and refugee camp in Melilla; EU considering rejecting visas to African countries not cooperating with returns; EU-Turkey migration deal should not be used as “blueprint”, says Amnesty International; EU’s Frontex Agency under investigation by Parliament and OLAF for possible violation of human rights and misconduct; UK criticised for spending on  “unnecessary” anti-migrants policies; UK plans to process asylum seekers abroad; Father on trial for his son’s death while crossing the Aegean; Women refugees marginalized in humanitarian system.

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

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: Ethiopia and the UN agree to a joint probe of Tigray war crimes
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, has assented to a joint investigation with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) on possible war crimes committed in the Tigray region. Public spokesman at the OHCHR, Jonathan Fowler, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that Bachelet “[…]  responded positively to the EHRC’s request for joint investigations on Monday [14 March].” The OHCHR and the EHRC are currently “[…] developing an investigation plan […] in order to launch the missions as soon as possible” Fowler added. Critical responses to the UN’s decision stated that the international community should organise an independent investigation.

Ethiopia: Norwegian Refugee Council warns of ‘beyond dire’ situation in Sheraro
Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) reported on the situation in the northwest as NRC emergency teams managed to visit the area. NRC warns that 37.000 Internally Displaced Persons have arrived in the area, among whom pregnant women and children. Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the NRC, warns that the situation is “[…] beyond dire. Despite families arriving every day, no aid has been delivered for weeks.” Many parts of Tigray have not been visited by humanitarian workers. NRC was the first to visit the Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps, finding no refugees. Instead, 3,000 IDPs had taken limited shelter there. 

South Sudan: UN calls for funding to deal with humanitarian crisis
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other organizations are calling for 1.2 billion US dollars to support more than 2.2 million South Sudanese displaced people, either internally or in neighboring countries. On 16 March, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched the “2021 South Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan”. The plan identifies 8.3 million people, including refugees, in need of humanitarian assistance, and asks for 1.7 billion US dollars to provide lifesaving assistance and protection to around 6.6 million South Sudanese. Spokesperson for OCHA, Jens Laerke, stated that “South Sudan is facing its highest levels of food insecurity and malnutrition since independence 10 years ago”, adding that “[v]iolence and localized conflicts in many parts of the country also drive up humanitarian needs, and the impact again of COVID-19 on markets, services and people’s ability to move around have increased their vulnerability”. Furthermore, Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Robert Mardini, stated that the crisis in South Sudan is “one of the most complex humanitarian crises anywhere”. He warned that “[t]here is little doubt that the current crisis is on the verge of slipping into something much more frightening”.

Ethiopia: Attacks on healthcare negatively impact Tigray population
According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), health facilities have been looted and destroyed in Tigray, intentionally hampering healthcare. MSF General Director, Oliver Behn, states that “[t]he attacks on Tigray’s health facilities are having a devastating impact on people,” adding that “[h]ealth facilities and health staff need to be protected during a conflict, in accordance with international humanitarian law. This is clearly not happening in Tigray.” MSF teams visited 106 health facilities between mid-December 2020 and early March 2021, of which 70 percent had been looted, and more than 30 percent had been damaged. MSF underlines that looting and destruction of health facilities across Tigray is still ongoing. MSF teams noted that every fifth health facility was occupied by soldiers. MSF emergency coordinator, Kate Nolan, stated that the army used the hospital in Abiy Addi in central Tigray “as a military base and to stabilise their injured soldiers. […] During that time, it was not accessible to the general population.”

Ethiopia/Yemen: Ethiopian refugees return after being stranded in Yemen for months
On 16 March, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that 140 Ethiopians were returned to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, after having been stranded in Yemen for months. The flight was the first IOM facilitated Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) trip since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The temporary cessation of the popular transit route between Yemen and the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia has left Ethiopian migrants and refugees stranded lacking food, water and shelter or forced them to attempt the hazardous smuggler-run boat journeys back to the Horn of Africa. Since the pandemic began, IOM has recorded over 6,000 migrants stranded in Aden who wish to return to Ethiopia. Thousands more are believed to still be stranded elsewhere in Yemen where IOM hopes to extend its VHR programme soon. Last October (2020), IOM’s Return Task Force estimated that at least 3 million migrants and refugees around the world have been stranded due to mobility restrictions caused by COVID-19.

North Africa

Morocco: Police raids against migrants along Mellilla’s border
As reported by The Guardian on Friday 12 March, Spanish police raided migrant and refugee camps along the border with the Spanish enclave of Melilla, in Morocco. The incursion took place after 150 people tried to scale the fence, of which 59 successfully jumped into the Spanish territory, on Monday 8 March. During the police raids of the following days, shelters and tents were burnt, causing migrants and refugees to sleep on the ground, frightened of being caught at night. An Alarm phone employee said that: “[t]hey [the policemen] were burning and destroying people’s belongings, both the tent-like structures they construct but also their personal belongings. People were really cold and distressed and slept rough because they didn’t have anything else to construct with”. He added that raids and arrests against refugees often occur after someone attempts to scale the fence, as well as transferring women and children away from the border.


EU: African countries to be denied EU visas if migrants are not readmitted
The European Union (EU) is considering restricting access to European visas for those African countries that do not cooperate in taking back their nationals after asylum status is denied. Discussions on how to improve channels of regular migration and ensuring repatriation for those migrants denied access in the EU States took place on Monday 15 March. High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, stated that the EU “[has] to put together incentives in order to make third countries accept the people who have to go back, and to create a flow of regular migration.” EU Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson, stated that it is “important that we use this new tool, together with member states,” referring to hampering access to EU visas, and added that  “[i]t’s time not only to talk but also to act.” Margaritis Schinas, EU Commission Vice-President, said that “tailor-made, comprehensive and mutually beneficial, win-win partnerships with key countries of origin and transit” have to be developed, and in order to do so the EU shall work  “beyond [its] borders”, added Schinas. The EU is considering taking the agreement it made with Turkey to prevent migrants leaving for Greece as a model to arrange deals with departure or transit African countries.

EU/Turkey: Amnesty International urges EU leaders not to use EU-Turkey migration deal as “blueprint”
On the 5th anniversary of  the European Union (EU)-Turkey deal on migration on 18 March, Amnesty International calls for European leaders to avoid making the agreement with Turkey a “blueprint for future migration deals with other countries”, said Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s EU office. She stated that “[t]his deal has been corrosive for the EU’s human rights record and exposed the EU’s willingness to enter into deals to limit migration, based purely on political convenience with little regard for the inevitable human cost.” Geddie also accused the EU and its member states of “[having] failed to take responsibility for people seeking safety in Europe. They have failed to respect the rights of refugees and migrants and failed to provide alternative safe passage to Europe for people seeking protection”, adding that “Ministers must prioritize viable solutions that would save lives.”

EU: EU border and coastguard agency scrutinised for human rights abuses
Frontex, the European Union’s border and coastguard agency, has recently come under heavy criticism following a series of allegations that the agency was involved in numerous human rights abuses. Frontex was alleged to have failed to prevent, and/or have been complicit in, the violation of the rights of migrants and refugees by illicitly returning them to Turkish waters as well as illegally denying their right to apply for asylum. An official investigation has cleared Frontex of the migrant pushback charges but an inquest has been made by the European Parliament to further investigate the concerns of human rights violations. The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) is also investigating claims of misconduct by senior managers in the agency. In the next seven years, Frontex is planning to encompass a ten thousand strong standing force with a €5.6 billion budget, but MEPs question the unclear chain of command and inner workings of the agency. Birgit Sippel, Member of the European Parliament, stated that the European Commission is on the Frontex Management Board but is not a part of “[…] a direct supervisory body […] only receiv[ing] Frontex’s reports” but not “[…] supervis[ing] Frontex’s operations.” On 16 March Frontex executive director Fabrice Leggeri reported that Frontex had reached an agreement with Greece to allow Frontex guards to carry arms. Leggeri justified the move stating “we are a fully-fledged EU agency, no doubt about that, but we are also more a fully-fledged European law enforcement force.”

UK: £1 billion spent on superfluous anti-migrant measures
On 12 March The Civil Fleet reported that, in spite of the fact that there has not been a record of a migrant successfully crossing the English Channel, the British government still spent up to £1 billion (€1.1bn) on surveillance drone equipment to oversee migrant activity in the Channel in 2019 and 2020. The HM Coastguard told The Civil Fleet that in 2020 the total number of migrants who attempted to cross the Channel was 8,319 and not one single person managed to evade the coastguards. While the 8,319 figure represents a steep increase in the number of attempts since 2019 (which was 1,844 persons) the amount is much less than the number of migrants who have successfully entered continental Europe, which the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates to be 99,583. Many authors and organisations have questioned the necessity and purpose of using military technology to monitor migrant crossings arguing that such actions have negative implications for human rights. 

UK: Asylum seekers may be sent abroad for processing
Priti Patel, the United Kingdom’s home secretary, is set to publish a new plan next week, related to deterring migrants from attempting to arrive in the UK by sending asylum seekers abroad for processing. Numerous islands under the domain of the UK, such as Gibraltar and the Isle of Man, are being considered by government officials as possible locations for processing. There have also been discussions of locating processing and ‘migrant reception’ centres in the third, and as of yet, unnamed countries. Last year the UK Foreign Office researched the possibility of establishing asylum seeker detention centres in countries like Moldova, Morocco or Papua New Guinea but those locations were rejected as ‘unrealistic’ according to The Irish Times. The Labour party stated that the new legislation was “inhumane, completely impractical and wildly expensive.” Other critics of the proposed policy argue that the decision to move asylum seekers to a third country may pose an infringement of human rights laws and the UN Refugee Convention. An immigration expert told The Times that “there is no law that explicitly prevents people from being removed to a third country […] but it is arguable and there’s bound to be a court case about it.”

Greece: Greek authorities charge migrant father for son’s death in migrant crossing
On 18 March, the Associated Press (AP) reported that Greek authorities have charged a migrant father with the death of his son who drowned whilst crossing the Aegean Sea. Ebrahim Haidari, the grieving father, has been arrested for bringing his child on a hazardous sea journey which has been classified as child endangerment. Haidari attempted the journey when his asylum application had been rejected twice and he feared his family would be deported to Afghanistan. If convicted, Haidari could be sentenced to 10 years in prison. Migrant activists question the actions of Greek authorities as this is thought to be the first time the European Union has prosecuted a surviving migrant parent for the death of their child. Activists believe this recent turn of pace could indicate a toughening of Greece’s already constrictive migration policies or it could be an attempt to distract the public from recent scandals of human rights abuses against the Greek coastguard and the European coastguard Frontex. Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi downplayed such accusations arguing that “if there is the loss of human life, it must be investigated […].” However, Haidari remains unconvinced as he believes that the Greek coastguard was apathetic in saving his son’s life. “[The Greek coastguard] didn’t help,” Haidari said. “They were going around and coming back, going around and coming back,” he added.


World: Refugee women face discrimation by humanitarian system
As reported by an in-depth analysis of The New Humanitarian, refugee women face difficulties in being assisted by humanitarian aid. This leads to marginalisation and discrimitation within the humanitarian system, as Shima Bahre, Executive Director of the Sudanese Women for Peace and Development Association (SWPDA), noted about Sudanese refugee women in Uganda. Bahre, after recalling her own experience as IDP in Kalma, a 120.000-refugees camp in the Darfur region of South Sudan, focused on the high risk of rape and taboos that woman faced there. Following her personal story as an activist and refugee, she arrived in Kampala, Uganda, in 2012. Here, she found women struggling with language, raising children alone and lack of medical care, while their husbands were in jail or dead. Bahre argues there is a lack of attention to women’s professional development and when international organisations offer positions to women, they are not well paid.