News Highlights: Famine and sexual violence “weapons of war” in Tigray, Tigray hospital raided in retribution, EU criticised over ‘chain pushbacks’

News Highlights: Famine and sexual violence “weapons of war” in Tigray, Tigray hospital raided in retribution, EU criticised over ‘chain pushbacks’

In this week’s news highlights: Alex de Waal says Tigray famine is systematic and used as weapon of war by Eritrean and Ethiopian troops; Famine in Tigray surges to highest emergency levels; Ethiopian soldiers stormed Aksum hospital in retaliation to CNN report; Rape used as an act of genocide in Tigray – Webinar; People in Tigray rural areas still cut off from essentials, says MSF; A religious humanitarian worker confirms atrocities in Tigray; NYT reporter expelled from Ethiopia; Eritrea diasporic communities have complex interaction with Eritrean politics – journal; Refugees die off Tunisian coast; Report heavily condemns “inhumane” prosed EU migration pact; Thousands illegally pushed back by EU states, including chain pushbacks, says DRC; Thousands of migrants and refugees enter in Spanish enclave of Ceuta; EU seeks a migration deal with Tunisia and Libya; New EU migration pact “inhumane” and Italian former Interior Minister will not stand to trial in Gregoretti inquiry; UNHCR warns against “externalisation” of refugees; The UNHCR High Commissioner asks not to abandon LGBTIQ+ refugees.

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

The Webinar on “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Against Women in Tigray” will take place on May 25th,14:00-16:00 EAT, 13:00 – 15:00 CEST, 07.00 – 09.00 USA East. The Webinar will be chaired by Hon. Julia Duncan-Casell, former Liberian Minister of Gender and Social Protection, and it will include testimonies from women in Tigray and other key contributions.
The registration link is: 

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: Tigray famine “systematic” and “used as weapon of war”
Alex De Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and expert of the Horn of Africa region, wrote an article in OpinioJuris about the political involvement of Eritrea in the current humanitarian crisis of Tigray and the failure of application of the UN Security Council resolution 2417. The resolution adopted in 2018 condemns forced famine and starvation as war weapons against civilians, including condemnation of prevention of humanitarian access, and assures the UNSC will give such cases its full attention.  De Waal warns that between 4.5 million and 5.2 million Tigrayans are in urgent need of humanitarian support, and that the coming months will see Tigrayans starving “on a scale rarely witnessed in the modern world”. According to the World Peace Foundation report Starving Tigray, “the coalition of Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Eritrean Defence Forces and Amhara militia have destroyed, removed or rendered useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” This “systematic use of starvation as a weapon of war” includes reports of Eritrean soldiers blocking planting of crops and last month’s decision of the Ethiopian government to classify the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as a terrorist organisation, which provides reason to stop relief workers from delivering aid. UNSC Resolution 2417 was designed to ensure such conflict-related famine could not be inflicted, but De Waal argues the UNSC instead “has been a bystander” so far. 

Ethiopia: Category 5 food emergency in Tigray
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) says that in Ethiopia, food assistance needs in 2021 are at their highest levels since 2016, while USAID warns that early warning systems are already detecting a category 5 food emergency in Tigray, the highest category. In addition, survey teams have been prevented by the federal government from entering large areas of the Tigray region, while international humanitarian aid reached 1 million people only recently. FEWS warns that in Tigray, “20 percent of surveyed children in 10 accessible, worst-affected areas are acutely malnourished.” FEWS expects the situation to worsen, with the most severe outcomes, including emergency levels 4 and 5, in Tigray. USAID warns Ethiopia needs to act now. Aljazeera reported on the dire situation for IDPs in Tigray in particular, who often survive on the limited support the local communities are able to offer. 

Ethiopia: Aksum hospital raided in retaliation by Ethiopian soldiers
Doctors said to CNN that Ethiopian soldiers armed with machine guns, sniper rifles and grenades raided the University Teaching and Referral Hospital in Aksum, Tigray, twice this week in retaliation, after CNN revealed that Eritrean and Ethiopian troops were blocking aid to patients. Troops stormed the hospital on Sunday the 16 May, but came back on Monday after the medical staff left, to look for people they accused of “tarnishing the country’s image” in news reports. The soldiers demanded a “list of the names of doctors who will not cooperate with the military’s investigation into the hospital.” “The soldiers removed bandages and intravenous fluids from some patients and pointed their guns at doctors and nurses who objected,” one doctor said. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) confirmed the incident to CNN, saying that several soldiers went “ward by ward looking for patients, intimidating caretakers and threatening health staff.” “I feel like I am living on an isolated planet, with no law or order. The world must open its eyes that people in Tigray are living in anarchy,” said a staff at Axum University Teaching and Referral Hospital. The soldiers appeared to be looking for pro-TPLF fighters. “If they see any wounded patient, they go to that patient and ask, ‘Are you a soldier with TPLF?” said one doctor.

Ethiopia: Webinar – Tigrayan women raped as part of ethnic cleansing
On 17 May, Lord Alton, the Coalition for Genocide Response and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea hosted a webinar discussing gender-based violence in Tigray and the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in what has been described as a genocide. Professor Mukesh Kapila, a professor in Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs at University of Manchester, stated during the webinar that the use of sexual violence against Tigrayan women was, in his opinion, becoming the distinctive “signature” of the genocidal acts occurring in Tigray. Kapila argued that the number of mass rapes being committed combined with the intentional and systematic obstruction of rape victims receiving medical care after the attack qualified as an act of genocide. Lucy Kassa, a journalist, recounted harrowing interviews with rape victims. Kassa discussed women being gang raped, killed, castrated and mutilated. HIV-infected Eritrean soldiers were reported to have been ordered to rape Tigrayan women and make them HIV positive. Victims recounted stories of Eritrean soldiers admitting that officers had ordered troops to rape women. Lord Alton of Liverpool, member of House of Lords of the United Kingdom, stressed the need for the international community to recognise the mass rape of Tigrayan women as an act of genocide. Former UK minister Sally Keeble talked about the pre-existing international mechanisms in place for Tigrayan women to achieve justice. Keeble stated that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has previously passed 5 resolutions prohibiting sexual violence in conflicts and clearly states that sexual violence can constitute a war crime or act of genocide. The 19th of June is the international day for elimination of sexual violence in conflict and Keeble is optimistic that this day could provide a rallying point for international action.

Ethiopia: MSF says people in rural areas of Tigray still cut off from essentials
On 17 May, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released a report that focuses on the Tigray conflict, in which it underlines that “huge numbers of people living in the region’s remote and mountainous rural areas have been cut off from essential healthcare for six months – almost invisible to the outside world.” Tommaso Santo, MSF emergency coordinator, stated that “[o]nce we had set up support in hospitals in big towns such as Adigrat, Axum and Shire, it seemed essential to us to reach the more remote areas where people’s needs are greater.” He added that “[w]e are finding people with very little access to drinking water and food distributions, and who cannot do commercial activity due to some markets being closed. Many people are still living in fear in a situation of insecurity.” The report also states that “moderate acute malnutrition has been on the rise across Tigray in the last months, with many families only able to eat one basic meal a day,” adding that “some areas are now showing levels of severe acute malnutrition well above the ‘emergency threshold’ such as in the outskirts of the city of Shire and in Sheraro.”

Ethiopia: A humanitarian worker describes atrocities from Tigray conflict
The Guardian reported an exclusive interview between the journalist Tracy McVeigh, and an anonymous nun that confirmed atrocities and rapes in the Tigray region, including the capital, Mekelle. The nun is a humanitarian worker who helps internally displaced persons (IDPs) in IDP camps and community centres. Despite difficulties in communicating news outside the area, the nun described dire hygienic and living conditions, with lack of food and medical supplies in IDP centres where she works. She stated that shelters host up to 40-60 people in one room and a few toilet facilities are used by 3,000-6,000 people. Local community members try to aid IDPs but the increasing number of new arrivals and the shortage of supplies makes it difficult for everyone to survive. The nun, working in the Tigray region before the start of the conflict, made a comparison between previous years and the current situation, highlighting how signs of ethic discrimination were evident since late last year. Furthermore, she reported systematic use of gender violence as a war weapon on women between 8-72 years of age by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers. Rapes were carried out on a daily basis and in front of the victim’s family. At the end of her testimony, the nun stated that called for “[e]veryone should stand up and loudly condemn what is happening in Tigray. Stop killing civilians, raping women”. 

Ethiopia: New York Times reporter expelled from Ethiopia
Simon Marks, a reporter at the New York Times (NYT) who chronicled among others human rights violations and conflict in the Tigray region, was expelled from Ethiopia on Thursday. According to the NYT, Marks had already had his press credentials suspended since March after returning from an approved reporting trip to Tigray. On Thursday Marks was detained by Ethiopian authorities for eight hours before being deported. The NYT stated that Marks had a valid residence permit to stay in the country until October and should not have been targeted for deportation. The Ethiopian officers who detained Marks did not provide a reason as to why they were expelling the reporter but did state that it was a “government decision.” Press freedom groups believe that Mark’s expulsion is an example of the Ethiopian government’s campaign to erode the country’s freedom of expression. “Journalists have become targets of authoritarian leaders” according to Michael Slackman, an editor at The Times, and this has been the case for Ethiopia where Ethiopian reporters have been arrested and intimidated since the Tigray war erupted in November.

Eritrea: Diaspora communities have high engagement in Eritrean politics
A journal published by the Economic and Social Research Council (ERSC) analysed Eritrea as a case study in an examination of diaspora populations and how diasporic communities form political engagement and belonging towards their lost homeland, their current place of residence, and their wider transnational social field. Eritrea is one of the largest diasporic states in the world with the diaspora amounting to an estimated third of the total population. Eritrea is described by the authors as a key case study, as there are both pre-independence and post-independence Eritreans in the diaspora, with the latter having been victims of the political crackdowns.The report details how Eritreans in the diaspora have a high level of political engagement with the country ranging from patriotism to opposition and “have been instrumental in nation-state building as well as in contemporary regime survival and regime resistance”. The report analyses the Eritrean diaspora community as a reconceptualisation of transnationalism and the “transnational lived citizenship” as well as the complexity of belonging. 

North Africa

Tunisia: Boats capsized off Sfax and Djerba coasts, more than 70 refugees die
Aljazeera reported that on 17 May, a boat carrying around 90 migrants and refugees capsized off the Sfax coast, in Tunisia, and at least 57 people died. Survivors reported that the ship departed from Libya the previous day and they were rescued by workers of an oil platform. A Red Crescent official, Mongi Slim, stated that 33 Bengalis were rescued, while nationalities of migrants drowned were not identified. Meanwhile, on the same afternoon, the Tunisian navy rescued more than 113 people from a sinking boat off the Djerba coast. Rescued persons came from Bangladesh, Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa countries. Furthermore, on 18 May, 17 migrants and refugees died off Tunisia’s coast, while two of them were rescued by coastguards. According to Aljazeera, at least 60 people died off Tunisian coasts in the last few weeks.


Spain: More than 6,000 refugees crossed to Ceuta from Morocco in one day
On Monday 17 May, more than 6,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave, from Morocco. Around 1,500 of them were minors. Some persons swam using inflatable swimming rings, others used inflatable boats, and according to a spokesman for the Spanish Guardia Civil: “[i]t was low tide and in some places, you could practically walk across.” However, at least one person was reported to have died while attempting to cross. The Spanish government has sent 2,700 people back to Morocco, and the Interior Minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, stated 200 extra police officers have been deployed in Ceuta to support the 1,200 officers who are already guarding the border with Morocco. Furthermore, Alarm Phone released its “Western Mediterranean and Atlantic Route Regional Analysis, 1 January – 31 March 2021” in which it underlines that the numbers of arrivals recorded by UNHCR in Spain increased in the period analysed (Q1) in comparison to the same period last year. It also denounces the dire conditions in which migrants and refugees are held once they arrive in the two Spanish enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, where they are “trapped with little or no attention paid to their physical or mental needs.”

EU: Commissioner Johansson seeks a deal with Tunisia and Libya over migration
On 20-21 May, European Union (EU) Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson, is visiting Tunisia together with the Italian Minister of the Interior, Luciana Lamorgese, to talk with the Tunisian government in order to strike a deal over migration management. Commissioner Johansson told La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, that an agreement with Tunisia would provide the country with “the resources to fight human traffickers” and for Tunisian authorities to “engage in managing the borders, to take back their citizens who have left for Europe and to repatriate foreigners in their country who are not refugees.” She said that “[t]he EU must work with partner countries to reduce irregular departures, manage migration and examine reasons that cause, particularly economic consequences of pandemic,” adding that “I am in contact with governments to set up a network of voluntary aid, of voluntary redistribution that can help Italy throughout the summer months until we approve the EU reform.” Johansson also told La Repubblica that she is confident that a new migration deal can be reached with Libya, and that she is open to talk with the Libyan Prime Minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibah. 

EU: EuroMed Rights report condemns new EU migration pact as “inhumane” and “worthless”
EuroMed Rights, an NGO supporting human rights and democracy in the Meditteranean, published a report arguing that the proposed EU Migration Pact is “not only unworthy but infeasible, doesn’t take into consideration the reality of migration policies and practices in the different EU countries, and won’t create any proper solidarity system among Member States.” EuroMed Rights condemns the new EU pact on asylum and migration for enforcing the principle that the first country of arrival is responsible for asylum procedures. The EuroMed Rights estimates that if the proposal was implemented as proposed , Italy would have to septuple their number of formal and informal detention facilities, Spain sextuple, while Greece would have to multiply their facilities by thirty four to cater to demand. Wadih Al-Asmar, President of EuroMed Rights, stated that “[t]he proposed implementation of the EU Pact on Asylum and Migration not only shows the inhumane disdain for the lives of migrants and asylum seekers but also the complete disregard for the situation faced by countries of first arrival. The Pact is nothing but a communication exercise which only worsen an already disastrous human rights situation.”

EU: Thousands of refugees pushed back through informal cooperation between EU states
The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) published a report showcasing European states informally cooperating to illegally push back thousands of vulnerable migrants and refugees trying to cross Europe’s borders in an effort to “avoid responsibility”. This year the Protecting Rights at Borders (Prab) initiative recorded over two thousand cases of pushbacks at Italian, Greek, Serbian, Bosnian-Herzegovinan, North Macedonian and Hungarian borders in circumvention of EU law through bilateral agreements between authorities in neighbouring countries. The DRC also stated that migrants and refugees were also subjected to “chain-pushbacks”, instances where refugees and migrants were forcefully sent across multiple borders in an effort to push individuals outside of the European Union’s purview. Charlotte Slente, Secretary General of DRC, stressed the need for an independent border monitoring mechanism to ensure that rights violations are monitored and effectively investigated.

Italy: Salvini will not face trial for Gregoretti inquiry
As reported by various media, the case “Gregoretti ” involving Italian former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has been dismissed by the Italian judges. Salvini was accused of kidnapping in a case where he prevented an Italian Coast Guard ship from disembarking for six days in July 2019. The allegations of kidnapping more than 100 refugees on the Italian coast guard ship Gregoretti are similar to another investigation: the Open Arms case. In the Open Arms inquiry, the judge of Palermo formally accused Salvini of kidnapping and sent him to trial. In contrast to the Open Arms investigation, the prosecutor of Catania (Sicily), called for dismissing the trial about Gregoretti’s inquiry. On this occasion, prosecutor stated that Salvini’s order to stop the coast guard boat from landing in Italy was not against the international treaties as he was only waiting for EU decision on relocation of migrants. Therefore, prosecutors asked not to sue Salvini for kidnapping of people. The judge followed this request with the motivation that the crime has not been committed. In reference to the Open Arms case, the trial is planned for 15 September 2021.


World: UNHCR warns against ‘externalization’ of asylum seekers
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urges States not to externalize their asylum and protection obligation. ‘Externalization’, says the UNHCR, usually refers to the practice of  transferring asylum seekers to third countries where their human rights protection may not be satisfactory. Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, says “UNHCR remains firmly opposed to externalization initiatives that forcibly transfer asylum seekers to other countries. Externalization simply shifts asylum responsibilities elsewhere and evades international obligations. Such practices undermine the rights of those seeking safety and protection, demonize and punish them and may put their lives at risk,” adding that “[e]xternalization exploits both the vulnerabilities of overstretched, developing nations and those of refugees.” Triggs also warned that “[t]he evidence is that externalization arrangements do not deter desperate refugees from taking perilous journeys to seek safety. Rather, they will magnify risks, prompt resort to alternative routes, and exacerbate pressures on frontline states.”

World: UN High Commissioner for Refugees calls on countries to “keep their doors open to LGBTIQ+” refugees
For the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, on 17 May, the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, released a message in which he called for “countries to keep their doors open to LGBTIQ+ people in need of refuge.” He stated that “[s]ame-sex relationships are criminalised in more than 70 countries, with six countries having classified them as punishable by death. In other countries, LGBTIQ+ people face discrimination that prevents them from going to school, getting jobs, or running their own businesses. LGBTIQ+ people often face similar stigma when they arrive in neighbouring countries. They are at high risk for sexual abuse and violence and often receive little or no police protection. They are often denied basic services, such as health care and legal aid.” He also said that “[w[e live in a world that is increasingly short on solutions for refugees. Resettlement in a third country – often the safest and only option for LGBTIQ+ refugees – is at an all-time low,” and called on “countries to step up for LGBTIQ+ people who are often at the greatest risk and in most urgent need of safety.”