News Highlights: 130 people drown as rescues off Libya fail, long-term starvation feared in Tigray, EU cuts aid to Eritrea

In this week’s news highlights: The Tigray region faces famine in next years, states interim administration official; UNSC press statement expresses concern over human rights conditions in Tigray; AP report – Tigrayan non-combatants detained; IOM states at least 1 million IDPs in Tigray; MSF raises alarm over humanitarian needs of refugees in Sudan; UN expert report warns peace in South Sudan at risk amidst rising tensions; 130 people dead – EU authorities accused of non-intervention off Libyan coasts; EU to “de-commit” funds to Eritrea due to violation of human rights; EU reveals return strategy as part of migration reform; Greece taken to ECHR over illegal pushbacks accusation; 17 migrants and refugees died on route to  Spanish Canary Islands; Family reunification grinds to a halt in UK amidst Brexit; IOM and Galway University start a course on migration disinformation.

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

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: Risk of starvation in  the Tigray region for next years
On 27 April, the Addis Standard reported that the humanitarian crisis in Tigray could lead to a high rate of famine in the region in the next 3-4 years, as stated by Abadi Girmay, Head of the Tigray Interim Administration’s Bureau of Agriculture and Development. Much of Tigray’s agriculture has been affected during the conflict, as farmers were killed, displaced or were not able to manage their farmlands. This situation is compounded by the 2020 locust invasion, which affected a quarter of the Tigray agricultural sector. The situation is worsened by the limited access to the region by international aid, according to Addis Standard. Abadi called for more Ethiopian and international humanitarian support and for acknowledgement by Ethiopia’s Federal government of the high number of deaths by starvation among civilians in Tigray. Abadi said that there is an urgent need for seeds and infrastructure as: “[f]rom our studies, to establish woredas structures we need at least 200 million ETB, but to restore back structure in the whole of Tigray’s we need at least 120 billion ETB.” Meanwhile, Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, disclosed that his office is receiving reports of persons dying of starvation in Tigray. 

Ethiopia/UNSC: Human rights situation in Tigray deteriorating, UNSC requests bigger humanitarian response
On 22 April, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) released a press statement requesting “a scaled up humanitarian response and unfettered humanitarian access to all people in need, including in the context of the food security situation” for people in the Tigray Region. In the first public statement since the fighting began in November, members of the UNSC “expressed deep concern” over instances of human rights violations occurring in the region and “called for investigations to find those responsible and bring them to justice”. The UNSC also stressed that “humanitarian challenges remain”. Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated that “the humanitarian situation in Tigray has deteriorated” pointing to recent reports of starvation, including 150 deaths due to hunger in Ofla Wereda, as “a sign of what lies ahead if more action is not taken.” 

Ethiopia: Tigrayan non-combatants detained without charge amid military ethnic purge
Ethiopia has imprisoned thousands of Tigrayan non-combatant military personnel in an attempt to remove ethnic Tigrayans from state institutions and create a purely Ethiopian security force, according to the Associated Press. Witnesses have claimed that hundreds to possibly thousands of people are being detained on charges of traitorism. The majority of detainees are teachers, lawyers, state employees and nurses. The arbitrary arrest and detention of non-combatant military personnel is illegal under international law, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. AP author Cara Anna warns the mass incarcerations are an extension of the war in the Tigray region, which witnesses have claimed is a systematic effort to destroy the Tigrayan minority. One Ethiopian senior military official was reported as saying in regards to the Tigrayan people that “[w]e had to clean out our insides. … Even if there may be good people among them, we can’t differentiate the good from the bad. To save the country, we made it so they were excluded from doing work.” 

Ethiopia: Over 1 million IDPs across Tigray, according to IOM DTM
The International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) collected data from 2 March to 23 March 2021 through its Emergency Site Assessment, which has been in use since the beginning of the Tigray conflict, revealing that there are over 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) across Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions. However, this data includes only the locations accessible by IOM DTM surveyors, and IOM states areas in Northwestern, Central, Eastern and Southern zones in Tigray are still inaccessible due to security reasons. IOM states that the data collected suggests that “IDPs are fleeing to towns and cities to seek humanitarian assistance and gain access to essential services.” The majority of the IDPs, coming from Western and Northwestern Tigray, are residing in Shire, where there are 445,309 IDPs. IOM underlines that IDPs are in urgent need of food assistance, non-food items, access to water and healthcare services, and shelters. IOM highlights that 75 sites, of which 60 percent in Tigray, reported they have not been reached by food distribution since the beginning of the conflict.

Sudan/Ethiopia: Limited services for refugees in Sudan, MSF calls for help
On 22 April, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released its crisis update which highlighted that since the beginning of the Tigray conflict, hundreds of thousands of people had to flee, becoming internal displaced persons (IDPs), or seeking refuge in Sudan. MSF states that “the exact number of displaced people across Tigray is not known.” MSF also reports that its staff, together with other humanitarian organizations workers, have witnessed increasing “violence against civilians, including extra-judicial killings and sexual violence.” MSF states that as of 13 April, more than 62,500 Ethiopians have crossed to Sudan, and that new people arrive every day, even though the numbers of those crossing to Sudan has been decreasing in the last weeks due to the highly militarized border. MSF reports that refugees are being relocated to permanent camps inside Sudan, where services are very limited. The same is true for the nearly 14,000 refugees located in the transit and border area of Hamdayet, who have trouble accessing shelter, food, sanitation and drinking water. MSF adds that “We are particularly worried about the forthcoming rainy season and the situation in Al-Tanideba; the camp site is built on notorious black cotton soil, which doesn’t absorb water. This, in combination with the rains, could spell disaster for people living in tents, especially if the area floods.” The international NGO calls for all humanitarian organizations to speed up and increase their responses.

South Sudan: Political tensions put the 2018 peace agreement at risk
On 27 April, Aljazeera reported that a UN report sent to the Security Council warned of the risk of a large-scale conflict in South Sudan, due to tensions related to the 2020 ceasefire and the 2018 peace agreement. The 81-page UN report warns that the relations are deteriorating between President Salva Kiir, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and the Vice President Riek Machar, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Army in Opposition. The main points of contention are the slow speed and the means of implementation of the ceasefire and peace agreement. In addition, both leaders face opposition from within their respective parties about how they have handled the transition and peace process, and both are facing challenges to their leadership. The UN report warns that escalation of tensions among parties and population could lead to renewed war with famine as an additional consequence of the humanitarian crisis.  

North Africa

Libya: 130 people drown, NGOs accuse European authorities of refusing to save them
On 23 April, 130 migrants and refugees were found drowned off the coast of Libya. Alarm Phone stated that it had received a call on the morning of Wednesday 21 April from local fishermen, who warned about a boat in distress. The boat, which was carrying at least 120 people according to the fishermen, left Al-Khoms, in Libya, on the night of 20 April. Alarm Phone alerted the relevant authorities, including the Italian, the Maltese and Libyan Coast Guards, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other NGOs, warning them about the worsening of the weather. Alarm Phone stated that the Italian authorities told them to make contact with the Libyan Coast Guard, which said it was aware of 3 boats in distress and was already looking for them. In the meantime, Ocean Viking, NGO SOS Méditerranée’s boat, alerted Alarm Phone that it was heading towards the boat. On the night of 21 April, the Libyan authorities said to Alarm Phone they stopped looking for the people in distress due to bad weather. The morning after, Alarm Phone wrote to FRONTEX, which answered that they forwarded Alarm Phone’s message to the Italian and Maltese authorities. Ocean Viking found the capsized rubber boat that was carrying the migrants and refugees, and Alessandro Porro, who was on board the Ocean Viking, stated they were navigating among dead bodies. Sea Watch International and other NGOs accuse European authorities and FRONTEX of denying prompt assistance, stating that the countries refused to save people in distress. UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) state they are “deeply disturbed [by] this latest incident”, which they say it is the “largest loss of life recorded in the Central Mediterranean since the beginning of the year” and call on the “international community to take urgent steps to end avoidable loss of lives at sea.”


EU/Eritrea: EU “de-commits” over €100,000 for development projects due to human rights violations committed by Eritrea
Eritrea’s engagement in human rights abuses in the Tigray Region as well as the country’s use of conscripted labour in EU projects has prompted the European Commission (EC) to “de-commit” more than €100 million from eight upcoming Eritrean development projects. Only one project, valued at  €19 million, has been disbursed despite the fact that nine projects, worth €141.3 million, were initially approved by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). According to Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships, the decision to “de-commit” funds “reflects the lack of interest expressed by the Government of Eritrea on EUTF-funded projects and, more generally, on development co-operation with the EU”. This recent move has highlighted the friction within the EU’s “dual-track” approach to Eritrea which attempts to mix development assistance and political dialogue. Development aid to Eritrea has been heavily criticised by human rights groups and the European Parliament, noting the lack of improvements of human rights in Eritrea. Eritrea Hub reported that in 2014 Eritrean human rights groups had already predicted that Eritrea’s “lack of interest” was inevitable.

EU: New strategy to force countries of origin to take back rejected asylum seekers
On 27 April, the European Union (EU) presented its strategy to induce home countries to take back asylum seekers whose requests have been rejected by the EU. The EU strategy includes easier legal and operational procedures to deport rejected asylum seekers, and visa restrictions on home countries that are reluctant to take them back. This strategy is part of a broader reform on migration, which will also provide counseling for migrants unauthorized to enter, and that will put emphasis on return. EU Commission Vice-President, Margaritis Schinas, tweeted: “We are building a new ecosystem on returns – increasing cooperation with third countries on readmission, improving our governance framework, equipping @Frontex with a new mandate on returns, a new EU Return Coordinator. Voluntary returns are an important step.” The Commission Vice-President also told reporters that “[i]t is not a secret that the European Union did not do particularly well on returns so far,” adding that “Europe will remain an asylum destination for those fleeing persecution and war. However, those with no right to stay will have to be returned to their countries of origin. Not doing so undermines the credibility of our system and prevents us from protecting those who need it.” The Director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), Catherine Woollard, told DPA that the EU is focusing excessively on returning migrants, stating that “[t]his means that people are receiving rejections when they have protection needs and when it is not safe for them to be returned. Member states are returning people to places that are not safe.”

Greece: Government charged with violence and illegal pushbacks of refugees
On Monday 26 April, The Guardian reported the news that Greek government has been formally charged with violence and illegal pushbacks of refugees at the European Courts of Human Rights. The NGO Legal Centre Lesvos, which provides assistance to migrants and refugees in the Aegean Sea, summoned Greece after an incident which occurred in October 2020. On that occasion, a fishing boat departing from the coastal city of Marmaris in Turkey, and travelling in the direction of Italy, asked support of Greek authorities due to bad weather conditions along Crete’s coast. The boat was carrying more than 200 people, including 40 children. The fishing boat had to wait up to five hours before being assisted by appropriate authorities. Migrants and refugees on board reported violence by coast guards. A witness of the rescue stated that: “It was like watching a movie. The men from the speedboats jumped onboard screaming and shouting, they all had guns and knives and were wearing black and masks.” After the arrival of speedboats, those on board were forced to land in Turkey and they were led to the seaside without food, water or possibility to call assistance. Accusations of standardisation of illegal pushbacks by Greek authorities, since March 2020, have been reported to the ECHR. Furthermore, according to The Guardian, “[i]n at least one case, the EU border agency, Frontex, is accused of covering up evidence of a Greek pushback operation.”

Spain: 17 migrants found dead, attempts at crossing are increasing
On 26 April, local emergency services of the Canary Islands stated that 17 persons were found dead on a boat off the coast of the Canary Islands by the Spanish Coast Guard. A military helicopter brought the only 3 survivors found in a status of hypothermia to a hospital in Tenerife. The day before, 100 migrants left Morocco trying to reach Spain, while earlier this month, a boat was found south of El Hierro carrying 23 migrants, 4 of whom were dead. Deutsche Welle writes that the number of migrants and refugees trying to reach the Canary Islands is increasing. From January 1 to March 31, about 3,400 people successfully crossed the Atlantic from Africa to the Canary Islands.

UK: Home Office leaves refugees stranded and fails to reunite families
The British government has been criticised for failing to uphold family reunion law which states family members have the right to join refugees in the UK under EU law: this decision has left vulnerable refugees, including lone children and torture survivors, stranded. Since the UK left the EU, the British government stated it is no longer under obligation to reunite refugees with their family, and clear legal ways to arrange transfers have disappeared. The Home Office is already alleged to have stopped responding to requests to rearrange family reunions delayed by COVID-19. Bethany Gardiner-Smith the chief executive of Safe Passage, a migrant and refugee reunification organisation, said that “before Brexit, there was a clear process for children to join their families in the UK, but since then the government has failed to communicate effectively with European authorities.” A UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson stated that “without clear answers, minors often lose faith in the possibility of reuniting through a regular procedure and decide to try to reach their families on their own, risking abuse and exploitation.”


IOM/Ireland: GMMA initiative on fighting disinformation and fake news on migration
On 26 April, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), released the news of a partnership between IOM and National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway). The initiative’s goal is to provide university courses open to journalists and students, with the aim to: “encourage accurate reporting on migration and balance narratives that fuel the stigmatization and discrimination that migrants face around the world”. The collaboration has the objective to fight fake news and disinformation about migration issues. The Global Migration Media Academy (GMMA) initiative will focus on training journalists and university students about migration research, data journalism and fact-checking methods. Furthermore, the initiative will include framework courses on migration dynamics, with the aim to enhance accuracy of stories and narratives.