News Highlights: Eritrean refugee situation of “grave concern”, 90% of people in Tigray need food aid, EU surveillance tech ramping up

In this week’s news highlights: United Nations Special Rapporteur states situation of Eritrean refugees of “grave concern”; UNICEF and Human Rights Watch state children severely affected by Tigray conflict; World Food Program reports that 90% of people in Tigray are in urgent need of food; Hundreds of detained people freed in Tigray after CNN report; Protests over US sanctions; 23 people drowned after a shipwreck off Tunisia; EU is developing and testing new surveillance digital technology that “dehumanise[s] people on the move”; Italy and France to collaborate on migration from Libya; New UK migration plan impacts the rights of refugees; Shift in migration to UK towards use of boats; and new UNHCR programme aims to enhance the education of refugees.

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

EEPA is holding its second Webinar “Brutalities against Religious leaders, Holy Places, and Heritage in Tigray”, which is part of the Webinar series “Voices From Tigray”. The Webinar will take place on June 8th, 14:00-16:00 EAT, 13:00-15:00 CET, 07.00-09.00 US Eastern. 

The registration link is: 

Greater Horn of Africa

Eritrea: UN report highlights human rights abuses by Eritrean forces
The United Nations Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on Eritrea has published a report on the human rights situation in Eritrea that details the indiscriminate violence used by Eritrean forces against the people in Tigray and the “horrifying” status of Eritrean refugees in Tigray. Eritrean forces are accused of participating “in cases of serious human rights violations, including abductions, extrajudicial killings and executions of civilians, widespread looting and pillage, the forced return of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers, and their imprisonment in unknown locations in Eritrea.” The UNSR recommends the international community thoroughly and independently investigates the allegations of human rights violations by Eritrea; exerts pressure on the Government of Eritrea to end the practice of mass incarceration of refugees, political prisoners, and others; imposes restrictive measures and sanctions on state and non-state actors who infringe on human rights and humanitarian law in Eritrea; and lastly, avoids financing projects that violate or have an adverse impacts on the human rights of the Eritrean people.

Ethiopia: UNICEF and Human Rights Watch warn of the Tigray conflict impact on children
UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, stated that “[t]he magnitude and gravity of child rights violations taking place across Tigray show no sign of abating. Over 6,000 unaccompanied or separated children have so far been identified and registered for protection and assistance.” She also said that “[a]t least 1.6 million people, including over 720,000 children, have been displaced by fighting across the region. Conditions in displacement sites and refugee camps are overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe, magnifying the risks of gender-based violence, abuse or exploitation, and water-borne diseases,” adding that “adolescent boys speak of fear of recruitment and use by parties to the conflict. UNICEF partners continue to report arbitrary arrests and detention.” Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), stated that “[t]he fighting in Tigray is depriving many children of an education and the warring factions are only making matters worse. Occupying and damaging schools ends up affecting the lives of Tigray’s future generations, adding to the losses that communities in Tigray have faced for the last six months.” HRW further said that government authorities are trying to reopen schools in Tigray, whereas about 25 percent of schools have been damaged. Bader added that “[t]he conflict in Tigray has taken a terrible toll on children and their education. International partners should now urge the Ethiopian government to take all necessary steps to ensure schools can reopen safely, including by ending the military use of schools and punishing military personnel responsible for abuses.”

Ethiopia: 90% of civil population in urgent need of food, WFP says
It has been estimated by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) that more than 91% of Tigray population are in urgent need of food, as a consequence of the war. Since March 2021, the WFP has provided food assistance to over a million people in northwestern and southern areas of Tigray, but there are still 5.2 million people in need. WFP was particularly concerned by the fact that almost half of pregnant or breastfeeding mothers in 53 villages that were visited were either moderately or acutely malnourished, while almost 25% of all children were found malnourished. In addition, the WFP is concerned about the high risk of famine if the current situation continues. Tomson Phiri, WFP spokesperson, stated that due to the high number of starving civilians as a consequence of the conflict, “[t]he WFP is calling for $203 million to continue to scale up its response in Tigray to save lives and livelihoods through to the end of the year.” Furthermore, Phiri asks for ceasefire and unimpeded access to humanitarian aid by parties in conflict, with the aim of letting WFP and international organisations provide support to the civilian population in Tigray.

Ethiopia: Hundreds of displaced people freed from mass detention
International outcry has prompted Ethiopian authorities to release hundreds of displaced people who had been indiscriminately taken from refugee camps in the Tigray region and then forcibly detained last week, as reported by CNN. Witnesses described to CNN that young men were being accused of joining the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) without evidence and then being tortured and severely beaten for hours by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. A spokesperson for the United States (US) State Department stated that the young men “should never have been detained in the first place” and stressed that Ethiopia should cease its practice of arbitrarily detaining displaced people. “We remind the government of Ethiopia of its obligations related to protection of civilians, in accordance with International Humanitarian Law,” the spokesperson added. On 17 May, Robert Godec, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, said that if the Tigray situation does not “reverse course” Ethiopia and Eritrea should anticipate “further action” from the US. “It cannot be business as usual in the face of the violence and atrocities in Tigray,” Godec further stated.

Ethiopia: Protests against US threats of sanctions
On 29 May, protestors took to the streets of Addis Ababa demonstrating against the United States (US), after the US imposed sanctions on Ethiopia. Cornelia Toelgyes, Africa ExPress author, writes that “obviously, all the participants were sympathizers of the government of Abiy Ahmed.” She writes that high-ranking officials took part in the demonstrations, and one of them stated they do not want foreign interference, but “African solutions to African problems.” The US imposed visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean high-ranking officials, as well as members of the TPLF, and stated financial sanctions will be implemented as well, which will target the security and economic sectors. Sanctions will be imposed to put an end to the widespread and systematic violations of human rights in Tigray. Cornelia Toelgyes underlines that after seven months of conflict, Tigray has reached a point of “exhaustion”. The writer says that according to the latest United Nations (UN) update, almost 90 percent of the Tigray population needs humanitarian assistance, and that famine is unfolding.

North Africa

Tunisia/Libya: 23 people drowned after a shipwreck
On 1 June, at least 23 migrants and refugees drowned after a shipwreck off the coast of Tunisia. The boat was carrying at least 90 people and set off from Libya towards Italy, said Red Crescent official Mongi Slim. The Tunisian Red Crescent stated that 70 migrants and refugees were rescued by the Tunisian navy. Infomigrants say that the Tunisian navy also rescued 39 people who were on another boat, which capsized off the coast of Sfax, 270 kilometers south of Tunis. Finally, the Tunisian Defence Ministry reported that on 28 May, 158 people were intercepted overnight, while the Tunisian navy said it rescued 104 people off the coast of Sfax that same day.


EU: New surveillance technology “dehumanise people on the move”
Al Jazeera talks about new physical and digital barriers that have been installed at the 200 km Greek border with Turkey since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to stop undocumented people from entering the European Union. A new steel wall has been erected at crossing points along the Evros River, and observation towers have been provided with long-range cameras, night vision and multiple sensors. Police Major Dimosthenis Kamargios, head of the region’s border guard authority, said “[w]e will have a clear ‘pre-border’ picture of what’s happening,” adding that “[o]ur task is to prevent migrants from entering the country illegally. We need modern equipment and tools to do that.” Al Jazeera says that university researchers have been developing and testing new surveillance technologies, such as artificial intelligence-powered lie detectors, virtual border-guard interview bots, palm scanners to biometrically identify a person and live camera reconstruction technology that erases foliage virtually, in order to expose people hiding near border areas. Human rights groups are worried about the emerging technology, which according to them will prevent migrants and refugees fleeing wars from finding safety. Ella Jakubowska, from the digital rights group EDRi, said that “[i]t is deeply troubling that, time and again, EU funds are poured into expensive technologies which are used in ways that criminalise, experiment with and dehumanise people on the move.”

Italy/France: Collaboration to stop migrants and refugees coming from Libya
In the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Tommaso Ciriaco and Anais Ginori write that the Italian Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, and French President, Emmanuel Macron, agreed to lay out a strategy to hinder migrants and refugees leaving from Libya towards Europe. Ciriaco and Ginori say this collaboration is a breakthrough, after years of disagreements between the two countries. The strategy would include at least two steps, the first one being strengthening the Libyan executive government in order to gain control of the whole Libyan territory and stabilize the country before the elections this December. The second step would be to substantially finance the Libyan government, write Ciriaco and Ginori. Funds would be aimed at helping Libya to be more stable, control its borders and also open humanitarian corridors. However, Ciriaco and Ginori write that other northern European Member States are holding back, as they do not trust the Libyan government. Italy and France will also strengthen their cooperation to tackle human trafficking and terrorism in the Sahel. 

UK: New migration plan puts rights of refugees at risk
The Guardian reports that thousands of refugees risk to lose their refugee status and rights, if the new immigration plan is passed at the UK Parliament. The plan would focus on arrival methods and not on the recognition of the asylum seeker status. A research analysis conducted by Together With Refugees, a coalition of more than 200 organisations, has estimated that two-thirds of women and children who have been accepted by the UK as refugees could be removed from this status, following the proposed changes to the asylum system. Together with Refugees used official government data in its analysis. Sabir Zazai, Together With Refugees spokesperson and chief executive of Scottish Refugee Council, stated that: “[a]bandoning people fleeing war and persecution, including women and children, is not who we are in the UK. These are mothers escaping war-torn Syria […] [and] children escaping lifelong conscription into the military in Eritrea.” Meanwhile, a Home Office official claimed that the government has the duty to implement the plan, in order to fix the current asylum system, provide help to people in need and to combat human trafficking. The official underlines that the UK government will continue to collaborate with UNHCR with the aim of ensuring aid to refugees.

UK: Record of migrants and refugees reaching the UK in small boats
On 2 June, The Guardian reported a shift in migration to the UK, as more small boats arrived in the UK across the English Channel in May 2021. According to data, in the last four days, 568 migrants and refugees have crossed the Channel, while in the last four months the number of people who left French coasts on small boats has been 2,108. This is more than double the number of departures via boats in the same period in 2020. Home Office officials reported that the methodology of vietnamese smugglers has changed in the last weeks, from hiding migrants in lorries and trucks to putting migrants and refugees in small boats, as a better way to land in the UK. It has been reported by a Home Office spokesperson that reaching the UK inside lorries needs between 8 and 10 attempts, while small boats require only 2.  Furthermore, another Home Office spokesperson said: “Criminal gangs are putting profits before people’s lives through these dangerous and unnecessary crossings. More than 3,500 people have been prevented from making the dangerous crossing so far this year and we are cracking down on the despicable criminal gangs behind people smuggling. Inaction is not an option whilst people are dying.” According to him, the New Plan for Immigration would stop smuggling and human trafficking networks, as well as providing support to migrants in need.


World: UNHCR new programme for higher education of refugees
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is promoting a new programme titled “Aiming Higher which aims to enhance  opportunities for refugees to have a higher standard of education through funds and scholarships for university and technical training. The programme has been launched on the 70th anniversary of both the UNHCR and the Refugee Convention. The campaign aims to bridge the gap between the need for financial aid and the lack of funds. This will be supplied through the involvement of private capital, which aims to help 1,800 refugee scholars to complete higher education. This funding should help UNHCR to achieve the overall target of providing complete higher education to 9,200 students by 2023. According to Kelly T. Clements, Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees: “ [a]ccess to higher education is life-changing. For refugees, it can be a chance to take control of their futures and give back to their communities. One of the most meaningful ways we can support young refugees is to help make those opportunities more widely available.”