News Highlights: UNHCR concern over ‘scattered’ refugees in Tigray, 1000 refugees returned to Libya, EU visa restrictions proposed over returns

In this week’s news highlights: UNHCR confirms destruction of refugee camps in Ethiopia; Reports of forced displacement of Tigrayans in western Tigray region by Amhara troops; Report of meeting between Eritrean and Ethiopian senior officials and foreign experts in Tigray; Kenya aims to close two refugee camps housing Somali refugees; Joint EU-IOM plan for returning migrants from Libya to Horn of Africa and other countries; IOM appeals for $99 million for migrants stranded in Yemen; Around 1000 migrants intercepted and forced to return to Libya; Spanish NGO rescues more than 200 migrants and refugees at sea; IOM report on high number of deaths at sea; EU to consider visa restrictions for 13 African and Middle East countries; EU Commissioner calls on Greece to investigate allegations of illegal pushbacks; Drones used for surveillance on migrants and refugees at EU external borders; Angela Merkel approves the EU-Turkey deal on migration; and IOM analysis on benefits of migration on communities.

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

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: UNHCR confirms Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray destroyed, thousands displaced
On Friday 26 March, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) confirmed that two Eritrean refugee camps in the Tigray had been “completely destroyed”. The refugee camps, Shimelba and Hitsats, had been “looted and vandalized” while the refugees from the camp were “scattered” and “in urgent need of safety and support”. Last Friday had been the first time that UNHCR had gained access to the two refugee camps since the fighting began in November 2020. Prior to the conflict, the two camps had been a home for over 20,000 refugees. UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov said that  the UNHCR had “[…] already started to deploy more staff in the Tigray region.”

Ethiopia: Amhara regional forces are allegedly displacing Tigryans over land dispute
Reuters and other media reports that according to witnesses and aid workers, people in west Tigray are being displaced by Amhara regional forces and militias. The disputed land from which Tigrayans are displaced amounts to about a quarter of Tigray, which, Amhara officials claim, was taken from Amhara by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Many are fleeing towards Shire, in estern Tigray. Here, Reuters interviewed some displaced western Tigrayans, who stated that Amhara forces threatened to kill them if they stayed, and that they did not belong there. Reuters underlines how this exodus aggravates an already fragile humanitarian situation driven by the conflict between the TPLF and the federal government, and states that it was unable to determine the exact number of displaced people coming from west Tigray. However, the Norwegian Refugee Council stated that between 140,000-185,000 came from west Tigray over just a two-week period in March.

Ethiopia/Eritrea: Foreign military experts and senior army officers have clandestine meeting in Tigray village
On 31 March Martin Plaut reported that two helicopters landed in the Tigrayan village of Miraqk hosting several reportedly European foreigners and a few senior Eritrean and Ethiopian officers on board. General Berhanu Jula, Chief of General Staff of Ethiopia was identified as one of the senior Ethiopian officers. The foreigners have not been identified but “[…] appear to be military experts.” Possible reasons for foreign involvement include “[…] monitoring Tigrayan military movements, using satellite imaging and other equipment to scan the area.” 

Kenya: Kenya pushes for resettlement of Somali refugees
Capital FM reported that Kenya has put a deadline of 14 days to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide a strategy plan to close Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi stated that this is the time for UNHCR to provide a roadmap for the two camps, which Matiangi states to be “a security threat and strain [on] the country’s resources”. According to Kenya’s government, there are fears that the two camps can be host to radicalisation movements. There are allegations that the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi was supposedly planned in Dadaab refugee camp. Closing the refugee camps would affect thousands of Somali refugees and the plans raised concerns from the international community, as the previous attempt to relocate refugees concluded into a repatriation program to Somalia. This pilot return program is planned to be replicated for about 12 areas which include Mogadishu, Beletweyne, Afgooye, Balad, Jowhar and Wanylaweyn.

Horn of Africa: EU-IOM Joint Initiative for returning refugees to Horn of Africa countries
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a deal between IOM and the European Union is the making to return around 12.000 migrants through a voluntary return programme in Libya. Over half of them, 6,300 of migrants that have been detained in Libya, including women and children, have been pre-selected to return to their countries of origin: Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. The programme regards specifically migrants from the Horn of Africa, as they are some of the most vulnerable to be imprisoned in Libya. This programme, the ‘EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration’ (the EU-IOM Joint Initiative) will be funded with over EUR 56 million for the next four years with the aim to provide assistance, rehabilitation of infrastructure as well as medical and food supplies for those who are to be returned to their country of origin.

Horn of Africa: IOM four year plan to return migrants home requires $99 million
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), along with 38 humanitarian and development organisations and a number of regional governments, appealed on 25 March for a 99 million USD fund that would provide “life-saving assistance” to over 500,000 Horn of Africa migrants stranded in Yemen. The appeal is a part of a four year plan known as the “Regional Migrant Response Plan 2021-2024″ (MRP). Once funding is raised the MRP aims to assist local migrant communities from Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia who are currently in Yemen. The project aims to give migrants the opportunity to return to their country of origin and be reintegrated back into their communities. The MRP would also aim to assist local governments, humanitarian organisations, and communities of origin to address the causes of irregular migration, strengthen their capacity to provide humanitarian support, and improve their coordination and migration management.

North Africa

Libya: Nearly 1,000 people brought back after being intercepted at sea
On 29 March, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that in the past 48 hours, “nearly 1,000 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya by the coast guard and coastal security.” IOM reported that around 310 people were intercepted off the coast of Libya on Saturday, while 173 were returned on Sunday. According to Safa Msehli, IOM’s spokesperson in Geneva, around 500 migrants and refugees were intercepted on Sunday night. The NGO Sea Watch International stated that Open Arms rescued 200 migrants fleeing Libya, but that the majority of the 1,000 intercepted were brought back. It also stated that “in the Maltese SAR zone, a push-back coordinated by Malta was documented.” IOM called for the end of arbitrary detention in Libya. 

Libya: Open Arms rescued around 200 people off the Libyan coast
As reported by La Stampa, on the morning of 27 March, the Spanish NGO Open Arms, rescued a boat in difficulty with 38 people on board, including 7 women and 14 children, two of them very young. The ship raised an alarm through the platform Alarm Phone, after requesting support from Malta and Italy. The boat was off Libyan coast, not far from Tunisian waters. The ship was carrying 122 migrants and refugees and some of them were in dire conditions. On 29 March, Open Arms rescued another ship overcrowded and in danger. On 1st April, after five days at sea, the rescue boat received the green light to land in Pozzallo, Sicily.


Europe: Migrant deaths at sea remain high despite decrease in crossings
Over 2,000 people died at sea attempting to reach Europe last year and a further 300 have lost their lives this year, despite the number of people attempting crossings being at the lowest point in a decade. A new report from International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports this, further stating that the actual number of maritime migrant and refugee deaths is much higher than the documented numbers. The report issued on Friday 26 March by IOM’s Missing Migrants Project (MMP) detailed that many shipwrecks are “invisible” as they are not able to be verified and are therefore not mentioned in official reports. The MMP states that there were at least twenty cases of invisible shipwrecks in the Atlantic and Mediterranean in 2020 with nearly 600 people reported missing. Julia Black, author of the report, said that “the true crisis on maritime routes to Europe is the thousands of deaths recorded every year due to the lack of safe, legal and dignified mobility options […] Improved search-and-rescue capacities on all maritime routes to Europe are urgently needed.”

Europe: EU to impose visa restrictions on 13 countries over repatriation non-compliance
According to Die Welt, the European Commission drafted a list of 13 African and Middle Eastern countries that have not fully cooperated in repatriation of their nationals, in particular of rejected asylum seekers. Because of lack of cooperation, stated Die Welt, the European Union (EU) has threatened visa restrictions on these countries, including fee increases and longer times for visa application processing. Even though a spokeswoman for the European Commission told the German news agency DPA that it is not possible to confirm which countries are on the list, according to Die Welt EU officials plan to “start a dialogue” with Iraq, Iran, Libya, Senegal, Somalia, Mali, Gambia, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Guinea-Bissau.

EU/Greece: EU Commissioner calls on Greece to investigate illegal pushbacks
On 29 March, European Union (EU) Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, visited Lesbos (Greece) with Greek Migration and Asylum Minister, Notis Mitarachi, and called on Greece to look into the alleged pushbacks of asylum seekers towards Turkey that the Greek coast guard is implicated in. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it has received reports that Greek authorities are pushing back migrants and refugees while at sea or immediately after having reached Greek coasts. Commissioner Johansson stated that she is “very concerned about the UNHCR report” and that “the Greek authorities can do more when it comes to investigating these alleged pushbacks.” Greek Minister denied such accusations, stating that “the Greek coastguard has ever been involved in pushbacks”. He added that no violations have been found by independent investigations carried out by the Greek judiciary and Frontex, the EU’s border agency. Commissioner Johansson pledged 276 million euros to build new refugee camps on the Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros islands, where almost 14,000 migrants are sheltered. However, an open letter to the Commissioner by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) stated “this isn’t the first time [Commissioner Johansson] attempt[s] a positive spin on what is, in reality, a disastrous situation”, accusing the Commissioner of “playing with words to brush over the same harmful policy”. MSF asked for “dignified alternatives to camps, […] access to a fair and dignified asylum procedure, and […] adequate and tailored healthcare adapted to the needs of people fleeing violence, conflict and trauma.” 

EU borders: Refugees intercepted by border police with drones
On 26 March, an in-depth analysis by The Guardian shows how new technologies are used by EU police at the borders of the Western Balkans. The report describes how migrants and refugees are stuck at the Serbian border with Hungary, trying to play “the game” and successfully go beyond the border. In this context, border police use thermal cameras, drones and other high-tech surveillance. An asylum seeker from Afghanistan, Khaled, said that: “They can see us in the dark – you just walk, and they find you, […] Sometimes they send them in this area to watch who is here.” It has been reported that between 2005 and 2016 funding for enhancing border controls at the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, has increased from €6.3 million to €420.6 million now. Operational and technical assistance has been provided especially to Eastern borders countries, such as Croatia, where, according to The Guardian: “Between 2014 and 2017, with EU funding, Croatia bought 13 thermal-imaging devices for €117,338 that can detect people more than a mile away and vehicles from two miles away.” Furthermore, witnesses reported that when they have been caught by police at night they have been beaten Simon Campbell, field coordinator for the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), stated that since 2018, the use of firearms, tasers and knives by border police have significantly increased.

Europe: Merkel supports continuation of EU-Turkey Migrant deal
On Thursday 26 March German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated her support for extending the 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal and for closer cooperation between the EU and Turkey. “The [EU-Turkey Migration Deal] has proven its worth,” Merkel stated. “It has reduced illegal migration. It has made it more difficult for people smugglers to operate. And above all it has helped many, many refugees” she added. The 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey is centered on preventing migrants from reaching Europe and is heavily criticised by many humanitarian organisations. Imogen Sudbery, director of International Rescue Committee said that the deal was a “[…] stain on the European Union’s human rights record […]”. Apostolos Veizis, executive director of Intersos Hellas, said that “the EU-Turkey Statement is an inhumane agreement that has brought pain, death and suffering to thousands of human lives […] [and] represents the persistent will of European governments to continue to pursue containment measures, rather than finding practicable humanitarian solutions.”


World: IOM launched a campaign to show positive impact of migration on communities
On 29 March, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) launched the “It Takes a Community” campaign to highlight how migrants positively impact the community they live in. For 12 months, real stories of migrants will be shared to show how migrants enrich communities, which, according to IOM, are made more resilient and inclusive thanks to diversity. The project is part of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) framework, and is led jointly by IOM, the government of Canada, the government of Ecuador and the GFMD Mayors Mechanism. Marco E. L. Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship of Canada, stated that “[i]t is important to recognize the many ways that migrants and refugees are giving back and contributing positively to their communities, both in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond”. The Coordinator of the GFMD Mayors Mechanism, Sophie van Haasen, added that “COVID-19 has reminded us how important it is that all of us play a role in making our communities resilient, regardless of where we come from.”