News Highlights: “No proof of Eritrean withdrawal,” states UN,  Alleged trafficker Bija freed, Italian prosecutors wiretapped journalists 

In this week’s news highlights: UN states there is “no proof of Eritrean withdrawal” from Tigray in UNSC meeting; Doctors report rapes of women in Tigray committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean armies; Reporters Without Borders seeks higher review in case of Dawit Isaak; Alex de Waal argues that the World Bank should stop funding Ethiopia; World Food Program halves South Sudan refugee food rations due to funding issues; Kenya’s High Court temporarily suspends the shutting down of refugee camps; Rising violence in Sudan leaves thousands of refugees displaced; Over 40 refugees drowned near Djibouti; Libya releases alleged human trafficker from prison; One dead and two injured in Libyan migrant facility centre shooting; CEAR warns of new ‘containment policy for migrants’ in Canary Islands; Four deaths recorded off Canary Islands; Italian prosecutors wiretapped journalists and human rights organisations in migration-related investigation; Spanish rights activist accuses Spain and Morocco of harassment; International Organization for Migration calls for international support for the families of missing migrants.

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

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: “No proof of Eritrean withdrawal”, states the UN
On 15 April, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a closed-door meeting to discuss the situation in Tigray. Al Jazeera has seen the speech text of Mark Lowcock, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in which he stated that “neither the UN nor any of the humanitarian agencies we work with have seen proof of Eritrean withdrawal.” He added that “[t]he humanitarian situation in Tigray has deteriorated” and that “[t]he conflict is not over and things are not improving.” Lowcock called the “reports of systematic rape, gang rape and sexual violence […] especially disturbing and alarmingly widespread”. He stated that civilians have been experiencing “targeted violence, mass killings and executions, and systematic sexual violence as a weapon of war”. According to Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor, James Bays, “[t]he Security Council has listened to these reports,” but “Security Council members have not managed to agree to a single statement on the situation.”

Ethiopia: Regional health officer and doctors report rape against women in Tigray
Reuters released a special report on sexual assault and gender-based violence against women by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops in the Tigray region. Reports have been made by doctors, including Dr. Fasika Amdeselassie, public health officer of the region, who stated that: “[w]omen are being kept in sexual slavery,” calling for investigations of perpetrators. At least 829 women were treated after rape in five public hospitals since the beginning of the war. Public allegations also come from other health specialists, such as 8 doctors from five hospitals who reported testimonies of women raped mainly by Eritrean soldiers. Reuters reporters interviewed various women who were raped and are in need of physical and psychological support. According to Reuters, when Ethiopian and Eritrean officials were questioned about rapes, they denied any responsibility, while they reaffirmed their willingness to “have zero tolerance for sexual violence.” Furthermore, Ethiopian Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, said that a special international commission, which includes the United Nations, the African Union and Ethiopia’s human rights commission, has been allowed by Ethiopia government to investigate gender based violence committed by all parties in the conflict.

Eritrea: RSF calls for higher prosecutor to review “the world’s longest detained journalist” case
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) are appealing to higher prosecutors to review the case of Dawit Isaak, a journalist of Eritrean origin but dual Eritrean-Swedish citizen since 1992 who has been imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001 without being tried.  Swedish prosecutors decided not to open an investigation on crimes allegedly committed by Eritrea by holding Dawit Isaak sequestered. RSF described Dawit Isaak as one of the world’s longest detained journalists. In October 2020, RSF submitted a complaint with the office of the Swedish prosecutor for international crimes, claiming that Eritrea’s President, Isaias Afwerki, and seven other senior Eritrean officials were committing crimes against humanity by holding journalists, including Dawit Isaak, isolated. Recently, states Reporters Without Borders, Swedish prosecutor decided not to open the investigation, stating that it likely will not have Eritrea’s permission to investigate such allegations, and that an investigation would harm any further action the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs may take with Eritrea to ensure Dawit’s freedom. Reports Without Border states that “[the prosecutor] thinks an investigation would be made difficult by Eritrea and thus rewards a dictatorial regime by giving up without trying to battle impunity. And she hopes for some magic to happen on the diplomatic front while acknowledging that diplomatic efforts have been in vain,” and ask for a “review higher up in the prosecution authority.”

Ethiopia: World Bank should stop funding Ethiopian atrocities, argues De Waal
Alex de Waal, Director of the World Peace Foundation and a professor at Tufts University, has written an article in the Financial Times arguing that the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should not continue to fund Ethiopia while the country is committing mass human rights violations against people in the Tigray Region. De Waal writes crimes committed against the Tigray people include a “war of starvation”, mass rape, mass destruction and numerous massacres. De Waal attests that the IBRD and the IMF “should not fund Ethiopia’s self-destruction, but instead use their leverage to insist on an end to war and starvation.”

South Sudan: WFP forced to halve refugee food rations because of lack of funding
Country director of the World Food Program (WFP) in South Sudan, Matthew Hollingworth, stated that the WFP has been forced to halve food rations for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in South Sudan due to lack of funding. Country director Hollingworth said that around 700,000 people will see their rations drop to half the recommended daily amount of food, stating that “[w]ith the worsening food insecurity this year, where we expect around 7.2 million people to suffer from severe food insecurity in this lean season coming, we have to prioritize the most needy, knowing that these who will lose some of their assistance will suffer because of the decision.” Hollingworth stressed that “[t]he World Food Program in South Sudan immediately needs some $125 million for the assistance operations just for the next six months,” and called on “partners, donor governments and wealthy individuals around the world to step up and support the people of the world’s newest nation so that we can prevent starvation, we can sustain our food assistance program to vulnerable refugees and the displaced and we can reinstate the rations we had to cut as soon as possible”.

Kenya: High Court temporarily suspends government shutdown of refugee camps
On 8 April, Kenya’s High Court ordered a temporary suspension of the government’s decision to shut down two refugee camps, Dadaab and Kakuma, giving the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) 30 more days to present a roadmap to the Kenyan government to close the camps. Peter Gichira, a lawyer that filed a legal challenge against the closure of the refugee camps, states that “[t]he threatened closure of camps and forced repatriation offends all those international legal instruments protecting refugees as well as those prohibiting torture, cruelty, degrading and inhuman treatment,” adding that “return to their places of origin [should be] voluntarily and without any undue influence or pressure.” Human Rights Watch reports a testimony aired on a podcast from a journalist and Somali refugee raised in Dadaab, Moulid Hujali, in which he states that refugees in Dadaab, who voluntary repatriated to Somalia after having experienced pressure in Kenya, have ended up in internally displaced camps in Somalia with less resources and worse security situations. 

Sudan: Rising violence in West Darfur forces nearly 2,000 refugees to leave
The recent resurgence of violence between the Masalit and Arab tribes in Sudan’s West Darfur region has forced 1,860 refugees to enter the neighbouring country of Chad in the past week. The violent clashes have reportedly left at least 144 people dead and more than 230 injured with thousands internally displaced. On 9 April the UN Human Rights Office expressed their ‘appalment’ at the violence and asked for an independent and impartial investigation to be opened regarding the atrocities. The recent clashes are a part of a longer history that stems from a civil war in 2003 that resulted in 300,000 deaths and 2.5 million displacements.

Djibouti: 42 drowned refugees in Aden Gulf trying to reach Obock coast
On 13 April, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that at least 42 migrants and refugees died while they were attempting to cross the Aden Gulf from Yemen to Obock, Djibouti. The boat capsized on the morning of 12 April and it was carrying around 60 people. According to IOM, even though the number of migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia who try to cross the sea towards Yemen is high, there are also high numbers of migrants coming from Yemen to Djibouti. In this case, refugees were trying to reach Djibouti in order to escape Yemen’s conflict. Despite the COVID-19 emergency, the total number of people who attempt to return to African countries is increasing. As reported by the IOM: “In March, over 2,343 migrants arrived from Yemen, compared to 1,900 in February.” IOM Djibouti Chief of Mission, Stephanie Daviot, stated that: “IOM is working with the Djiboutian authorities, the humanitarian community, and donors to end this suffering and save lives.”

North Africa

Libya: Human trafficker Bija released from prison
Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, a Libyan human trafficker better known as Bija, has been cleared of all charges by the Libyan authorities – citing lack of evidence – and has been released from prison. Bija, who was the chief of the Zawiyah Coast Guard, was arrested last October on charges of human trafficking and fuel smuggling. Fabio Albanese from La Stampa writes that he is considered to be one of the most ruthless and dangerous human traffickers operating in Zawiyah, a north-western coastal town in Libya. In 2017, the United Nations (UN) Security Council released a report in which Bija was identified as a facilitator of illegal migration and human trafficking, and a year after, the UN imposed sanctions on him over his involvement in the sinking of migrant boats. In 2020, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant that led to his imprisonment. He was accused of being in charge of organizing departures of refugees and migrants from Zawiyah towards Europe through the Mediterranean Sea and sending those that remained in Libya to detention centres. Refugees and migrants have testified on mistreatment and violence suffered in the hands of Bija. Fabio Albanese writes that according to local sources, Bija could be readmitted in the Libyan Coast Guard and promoted to a higher rank. 

Libya: One dead and two injured in Tripoli migrant facility centre
On 8 April, one person died and two others were injured at the al-Mabani detention centre in Tripoli after shots were indiscriminately fired into the centre’s holding cells. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) operational manager for Libya, Ellen van der Velden, stated that “this shooting demonstrates the grave risks that people face while locked up in these detention centres for an indefinite period of time” and that “this latest act of violence is a clear corroboration that detention centres are dangerous places for people to be.” The al-Mabani detention centre had experienced mounting tensions between refugees and guards due to the centre’s “deplorable conditions” which, according to MSF, included minimal natural light, inadequate ventilation, insufficient food and water, lack of hygiene facilities and severe overcrowding. An investigation is being opened by Al-Mabani authorities regarding this incident and MSF have asked Al-Mabani authorities “to share the outcome of this investigation with the humanitarian community and to hold accountable those found responsible”. 


Spain: CEAR warns of ‘containment policy’ in Canary Islands
The Spanish Commission for Aid to Refugees (CEAR) released a report in which it warned that the Canary Islands are turning into “a new stage for migrant containment policy.” The organization compares it to the containment policy in Greece, where migrants are based in a restricted area. This method has the aim of discouraging migration and managing deportation. CEAR’s statement comes amidst increasing numbers of migrants and refugees landing in Canary Islands, particularly over the last months of 2020. This led to “[…] lack of legal aid to migrants and, as a result, lack of attention for children travelling alone, who are potential victims of trafficking or possible asylum seekers.” Furthermore, inhumane conditions and violations of human rights have been systematically reported by CEAR, because of inappropriate crisis management and inefficient migration policy by local authorities. CEAR made proposals for improving living conditions and changing the strategy for managing migration. These proposals include better equipment and infrastructures for hosting migrants and refugees, the promotion of transfers to the mainland, providing assistance to minors and the improvement coordination between different levels of authorities.

Spain: 4 deaths and 23 migrants rescued off Canary Islands coasts
Aljazeera reported that at least 4 migrants were found dead on a boat off the coasts of the Canary Islands on 10 April. The boat was intercepted by fishermen and a rescue operation saved 23 people on board. 16 of them were in dire condition, of which three were transported to Tenerife’s hospital. According to the United Nations migration agency’s Missing Migrants Project, the number of migrants and refugees arriving on Canary coasts during the first three months of 2021 is estimated at 3,400 people, which is more than double the number over the same period in 2019. This is probably due to COVID-19 restrictions on tourism and industries in North and sub-Saharan African countries, which has caused high unemployment rates, provoking a rising demand to cross the Mediterranean sea.

Italy: Wiretapped journalists denounce serious attack on Italian press
Italian prosecutors in Trapani, Sicily, have recorded and revealed private conversations of journalists and human rights lawyers allegedly connected to NGO rescue boats operating in the Mediterranean Sea, which had been accused of complicity with migrant smugglers. Trapani prosecutors began an official investigation into humanitarian organizations saving migrants and refugees at sea, including Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 2017, when claims of complicity between the NGOs and Libyan smugglers led to the seizure of a former fishing vessel run by the German NGO Jugend Rettet, the Iuventa. In March 2021, the prosecutors charged a total of 21 rescuers from Save the Children, MSF and Jugend Rettet accusing them of facilitating illegal migration when they rescued migrants and refugees at sea between 2016 and 2017. To carry out the investigation against the NGOs, in the last years Trapani prosecutors had been recording conversations of Italian and foreign journalists with the suspects or other humanitarian workers. Names and details of sources and transcript of conversations have not been made private, therefore confidential sources were revealed. This was described as a grave attack on the press in the Italian history by the Italian Federation of Journalists. Journalists were also recorded while talking with their lawyers about legal strategies for ongoing trials. Michele Calantropo, one of the lawyers captured on the recordings, told The Guardian that “[the wiretaps] have no relevance in their [Trapani prosecutors] investigation, not to mention that they are totally outlawed and violate the European convention on human rights.”

Morocco/Spain: Spanish rights activist accuses Spain and Morocco of systematic harassment
Helena Maleno, a Spanish rights activist and founder of a migrant rights NGO called Walking Borders, has accused Morocco of “violently deporting” her as part of larger campaign between Spanish and Morocccan authorities to “silence” her and other activists like her so they do not “explain the murky business that is ongoing at the border and that allows people to die.” Maleno argues that recent developments are a part of an administrative offensive to end her activism. “Since April 2020 I and my family have suffered 37 attacks and I hold the Spanish and the Moroccan government responsible,” Maleno stated. The Spanish Ministry of the Interior and Moroccan Minister of Justice and Liberties have denied any involvement in Maleno’s return to Spain. Maleno has been previously subjected to numerous investigations by Spanish and Morocccan authorities on the basis of Maleno’s supposed connections with human trafficking gangs but all charges have been dropped. Front Line Defenders (FLD) has stated that although Maleno’s criminal case was closed in 2019 Morocccan authorities have continued to monitor, physically attack, arrest, conduct home raids on and discriminate against Maleno. 


IOM: IOM calls for international support to families of missing migrants
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), tens of thousands of people do not have any kind of information about their relatives who started a trip along migration routes. Relatives at home face economical, psychological and legal consequences of these disappearances, while the lack of information prevents them from any contact or obtaining details about missing people. Because of this, IOM calls for an urgent action by the international community in the framework of the Objective 8 of the Global Compact on Migration, which “[…] specifically calls on states to identify those who have died or gone missing, and to facilitate communication with affected families. This is applicable regardless of migration status of the missing person or the situation of their families” as Frank Laczko, Director of IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) stated. The lack of a centralized or official mechanism which reports missing migrants affects families in many African countries, such as Ethiopia, where families face scams, fraud and extortion while they are looking for their relatives. Due to these reasons, Kate Dearden, one of the IOM coordinators said that: “[…] state-funded tools and services are urgently needed to report and resolve cases of migrants who have gone missing in other countries, as well as to help families with the impacts of this situation. This requires a humanitarian approach to this issue and sustained cooperation between countries.”