News Highlights: Eritrea admits its soldiers are in Tigray, Trafficker Kidane sentenced in absentia, 41 dead off the coast of Tunisia

In this week’s news highlights: Eritrea acknowledges presence of its soldiers in Tigray – UN indicates no sign of withdrawal; “A Tigrayan womb should never give birth” – a report by Al Jazeera; CARE warns of “potentially catastrophic levels” of food insecure people in Tigray; Escaped human trafficker tried in absentia, leaving survivors disillusioned; MSF reports testimonies of victims from Adwa bus station attack; 41 dead off the coast of Tunisia;  Smugglers in Greece used torture to extract payment; Illegal refugee deportations in EU acknowledged by Serbian court ruling; EU pledges humanitarian aid to Tigray and Ethiopia; An investigation found over 18,000 unaccompanied child migrants disappeared in Europe; Recent wiretap leaks show Libyan indifference in saving migrants and Italy knew, says The Guardian; Salvini to stand trial; and IOM and the Netherlands “COMPASS initiative” partnering with 12 African countries.

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


Greater Horn of Africa

Eritrea: Eritrea admits presence of Eritrean soldiers in the Tigray region
On 17 April, Reuters reported that the Eritrean government said to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that they would withdraw troops from the Tigray region. This is the first time that Eritrea acknowledged the presence of its soldiers on Tigray soil. The acknowledgement was provided by Eritrea’s Ministry of Information with a letter to UNSC on Friday 16 April, one day after the UN aid chief Mark Lowcock cited reports of Eritrean troops wearing Ethiopian Defence Army uniforms. Furthermore, Lowcock told the Security Council that “[n]either the U.N. nor any of the humanitarian agencies we work with have seen proof of Eritrean withdrawal”. In regard to these allegations, the Eritrean UN Ambassador Sophia Tesfamariam wrote that: “As the looming grave threat has been largely thwarted, Eritrea and Ethiopia have agreed – at the highest levels – to embark on the withdrawal of Eritrean forces and the simultaneous redeployment of Ethiopian contingents along the international boundary.” Tesfamariam denied any involvement of Eritrean soldiers in massacres and rape against civilians in Tigray. 

Ethiopia: Amhara forces caused infertility after rape, Al Jazeera reports
On 21 April, Al Jazeera published a report in which it disclosed stories of displaced people from Western Tigray who were victims of rape, looting and extrajudicial killing allegedly perpetrated by Amhara forces. A woman told Al Jazeera that Amhara soldiers forced her to leave her house empty-handed, and that when she reached the bridge that the Amhara forces use as an informal border between Amhara and Tigray, she was singled out from her family members by Amhara soldiers and raped. Al Jazeera states that “the militiamen inserted into her genitals a hot metal rod that burned her uterus.” The woman told Al Jazeera that when she asked why they were doing this, they answered: “[o]ur problem is with your womb. Your womb gives birth to Woyane [derogative term used to refer to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front]. A Tigrayan womb should never give birth.” The doctor that treated her told Al Jazeera that she was made infertile. Doctors at the Ayder Referral Hospital, in Tigray’s capital Mekelle, said the number of rape cases on April 1 stood at 272, and that in one week it jumped to 330. The United Nations says sexual violence is being used as weapon of war in Tigray region. UNICEF’s James Elder stated on CNN that the impact on women is devastating: “Some of these were groups of soldiers over multiple days in front of a child, or in front of a husband. What it does, is it shatters them.” 

Ethiopia: Malnutrition numbers could rise to “potentially catastrophic levels”, says CARE
CARE has released an assessment in which it underlines the alarming food situation in several areas of Eastern Tigray. CARE Ethiopia Country Director, Esther Watts, stated that “this is an area that was already suffering from food security issues before the conflict, with amongst the worst malnutrition and stunting rates in the country even beforehand. On top of this, northern and central parts of Tigray were also hit by the locust swarms last year. All this means that people in the region have no harvests to live off and nothing to plant during the upcoming planting season, leaving them in a truly dire situation. These impacts are compounded by the psychological trauma and fear faced by household members on a daily basis.” CARE adds that without immediate intervention, “the numbers of people suffering from hunger and children and mothers suffering from malnutrition are likely to increase even further, to potentially catastrophic levels.” The Economist details that evidence is growing of starvation being used as a weapon of war in Tigray.

Ethiopia/Libya: Escaped human trafficker Kidane pronounced guilty in absentia
On 16 April, an Ethiopian court pronounced Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, the fugitive head of a human trafficking ring who, according to reports, raped, murdered and extorted hundreds of migrants and refugees, guilty of human trafficking charges. The sentence will be delivered in absentia as the Eritrean trafficker Kidane escaped custody during a scheduled hearing at the Addis Ababa federal court last year. According to Middle East Eye, Kidane is believed to have successfully bribed his way out of custody. Ethiopian trafficking survivor, Fuad Bedru, attests that Kidane is guilty of “every kind of atrocity. Kidane and his gang are bathed in blood. Killing is nothing for them.” Witnesses at the trial described Kidane engaging in rape, extreme violence and willful starvation of migrants and refugees. The witnesses also detailed harrowing conditions such as “being bound with rope, savagely whipped, and having melted plastic poured on their bodies.” Kidane’s operation included Ethiopian and Eritrean “enforcers” who “met[ed] out the brutal treatment” and Libyan guards who “protected Kidane’s warehouses and prevented captives from escaping”. Human trafficking survivors who spoke out against Kidane are afraid of retaliation. One survivor said “I have no confidence in the officials of the Ethiopian judicial system. They betrayed their own countrymen […] If he [Kidane] returns to Libya, you can imagine how aggressive he will be towards Ethiopians.”

Ethiopia: MSF reports testimonies of witnesses of recent Adwa attack
On 20 April, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released a report providing further information on mass killings in Adwa, in the Tigray region, on 12 April. The report collected testimonies of more than 20 injured witnesses who were transferred to Adwa’s Kidane Meheret hospital and Axum hospitals, some of them in critical condition. Witnesses reported how Eritrean soldiers started to shoot people near the bus station, causing many victims. Regarding this event, Maricarmen Viñoles, the head of MSF’s emergency unit, stated that: “[t]he indiscriminate shooting of people far from a front line is shocking – in a public place, in a big town, in a busy moment of the day.” 

North Africa

Tunisia: At least 41 dead after shipwreck, UNHCR calls for enhanced search and rescue operations
In the evening of 15 April, a shipwreck was reported off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said they have retrieved 41 bodies, but there may be more victims. UNHCR states that according to its local teams, the Tunisian National Coast Guard rescued 3 survivors. UNHCR also states that “[s]o far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.” UNHCR calls for an improvement of search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea, “where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year.” UNHCR also says that “[s]olidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority,” and together with IOM, it calls for cooperation of all coastal states.


Greece: Persons arrested for torturing migrants and refugees
On 17 April, police in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki arrested 13 people accused of smuggling and torturing migrants and refugees. Greek authorities have alleged that the detainees smuggled 22 people between mid-March and mid-April of this year and imprisoned at least two migrants to ensure their families paid the price of €2,500 per person for the ‘services’. One of the captives stated that a smuggler tried to rape him. The possessions seized during the raid included torture devices such as electric irons and sticks used to torment migrants and refugees. 

Serbia: Top court makes landmark ruling acknowledging illegal refugee deportations
The Constitutional Court of Serbia released a verdict confirming that in 2017, Serbian border police illegally pushed back refugees to Bulgaria. The top court ordered Serbian border authorities to pay 17 Afghanistan asylum seekers 1,000 EUR each in compensation. According to the lawyer who represented the refugees, Nikola Kovacevic, the implications of the landmark ruling are “immense” and “hard to overestimate” as it is an official admission that European countries conduct deportations in direct contravention of European Union and international laws which prohibit forced returns before individuals are assessed and allowed to apply for asylum. According to Kovacevic, the court case is also a “clear message to state authorities to harmonize their border practices with domestic and international law.” The Seberbian UN Refugee Agency office reported that over 25,000 refugees were pushed back into Serbia from Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary and Romania last year.

EU/Ethiopia: EU announces over 50 million EUR in aid for Ethiopia
On 19 April, the EU pledged €53.7 million to be spent on humanitarian aid, including for people in the Tigray region, internally displaced persons and those affected by “natural shocks, such as drought, floods, and epidemics” in Ethiopia. European Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, expressed his concern over the “severe” situation in Tigray and stressed the importance of allowing humanitarian access while ensuring the safety and security of humanitarian personnel. Finnish Minister for Foreign Affairs and EU Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Pekka Haavisto, stated that the Tigray conflict could increase migration towards Europe and create “a new migration crisis if it is not tackled soon.”  Last year the total amount spent on EU humanitarian assistance for Ethiopia was over €63 million. The funding goes to humanitarian partners of the EU in Ethiopia.

EU: Over 18,000 unaccompanied children have gone missing – report
The Guardian and Lost in Europe led an investigation that found that 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants disappeared in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020, which is equivalent to nearly 17 children a day. The investigation was based on data collected from all 27 European Union (EU) countries and from Norway, Moldova, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. However, The Guardian says that the investigation “found the information provided was often inconsistent or incomplete, meaning the true numbers of missing children could be much higher.” Missing Children Europe’s head of advocacy and migration, Federica Toscano, stated that “[t]he high number of missing children is a symptom of a child-protection system that doesn’t work,” adding that “[c]riminal organisations are increasingly targeting migrant children, especially unaccompanied ones and many of them become victims of labour and sexual exploitation, forced begging and trafficking.” Toscano also stated that “cross-border collaboration on these cases is practically nonexistent.” According to the Dutch National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking, Herman Bolhaar, the investigation highlighted the urgent need for cooperation at the European level to deal with the disappearance of children. 

Italy/Libya: Leaked transcripts of conversations show Libya’s indifference to saving migrants, Italy being aware
Lorenzo Tondo, journalist for The Guardian, states that the transcripts of wiretaps on Libyan Coast Guard officials which the Sicilian prosecutors produced as a result of their investigation on the alleged complicity between NGOs and Libyan smugglers, contain evidence of the “indifference of individuals on the Libyan side to the plight of migrants and to international law.” The wiretaps contain revelations that are being published as part of a joint investigation led by The Guardian, the Italian public broadcaster Rai News, and the Italian newspaper Domani. Tondo states that the revelations “appear to show that Italian authorities knew that Libyan authorities were either unwilling or incapable of looking after migrant boats at sea, even as Italy launched investigations into the role of nongovernmental organisation boats at sea that prevented NGOs from carrying out private rescue operations.” Tondo reports examples of incidents in which people died at sea off the coasts of Libya, during which the Italian officials unsuccessfully made contact with Libyan authorities to send help. The Guardian reached Libyan Coast Guard Col Massoud Abdalsamad, who acknowledged that “communications with his Italian counterparts do not always work well” and that there were “telecommunication problems in Libya that cause frequent interruptions”. A transcript of a conversation between Italian officials and Abdalsamad, recorded by the Sicilian prosecutors in 2017, shows that the Italian Coast Guard requested Abdalsamad intervention to rescue people in distress off the coast of Libya. Abdalsamad answered that “It’s a day off. It’s a holiday here. But I can try to help […] Perhaps we can be there tomorrow.”

Italy: Salvini trial planned for 15 September
As reported by various media, the former Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, will stand trial on 15 September, in Palermo. Charges regard the kidnapping of 116 migrants in 2019. Allegations concern the prevention of rescue operations, evacuations and assistance to refugees from the NGO Open Arms. People remained on board for several days without medical and technical support, until prosecutors ordered the landing of the rescue boat in Lampedusa. Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, welcomed the Italian role in providing asylum to refugees in need of protection during COVID-19 pandemic. He stated that Italy hosted and supported a high number of migrants and refugees, despite the challenges of the sanitary emergency and in accordance with the EU Pact on migration and asylum. In conclusion of his visit to Italy, Grandi said that: “I was encouraged to hear the government emphasizing that a common European approach to questions of asylum and migration is absolutely crucial; and that the proposed pact poses a unique opportunity for an approach that is more comprehensive, better managed and predictable.” Finally, Grandi called for a strengthening cooperation between EU member states and transit countries, with the aim of increasing and reinforcing safe and regular pathways to asylum procedure.


World: IOM and the Netherlands introduce COMPASS project
On 16 April, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that it has started a collaboration with the Dutch government to protect migrants and refugees along the routes. The project, the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions (COMPASS) initiative, has the aim of protecting people moving, combating human trafficking and smuggling and supporting the return of people with the promotion of sustainable reintegration. The initiative concerns 12 partner countries, in particular Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia. Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM, stated that: “One key component is […] undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Furthermore, another project goal is to: “[…] mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully.” The COMPASS initiative will collect information and data in order to improve migration management and to prevent illegal migration, with special regards for hosting countries such as the Netherlands, states IOM.