News Highlights: Independent reports on chemical weapons entering Tigray, Mass starvation occurring in Tigray, Illegal pushbacks to Libya 

In this week’s news highlights: EEPA webinar discusses the widespread abuse of refugees happening in Tigray; Reports of chemical weapons entering Tigray; International community condemns widespread starvation in Tigray and warn of potential famine in Ethiopia; Ethiopia’s UN envoy stated that Eritrean soldiers will ‘leave soon’; BBC docu-film on the perilous journey of migrants from Ethiopia to Yemen; Human trafficker Tewelde Goitom (Welid) sentenced to 18 years in prison; Alarm Phone reports illegal pushbacks in Libya; Scotland’s Council extends ban on acceptance of refugees; Refugees sentenced to 10 years over Moria fire; Police bust human smuggling ring in North Macedonia; IOM project aims to make migration data more accessible.

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

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: EEPA webinar discusses widespread abuse of refugees in Tigray
On 15 June 2021, EEPA hosted a webinar on “Crimes against Refugees Committed in Tigray”. Keynote speakers included the Chair, ex-minister Julia Duncan-Cassell, human rights activist Abraham Tesfai, and priest Fr Mussie Zerai. The webinar broadcast testimonies speaking out about the mass violence, torture, kidnapping and rape inflicted on refugees and internally dispaced persons by Eritrean, Ethiopian and other soldiers. John Stauffer and Mike Slotznick of The America Team for Displaced Eritreans emphasised that the atrocities happening in Tigray were “unusual” due to the coordinated, strategic and sustained nature of the crimes inflicted on refugees in Tigray by Eritrean soldiers. Speakers spoke about the extremely precarious situation refugees live in, causing mass displacement. Klara Smits, PhD-student focusing on human trafficking, stated the emphasis of the international community on stopping migration has put the lives of refugees in danger as refugees have now become increasingly dependent on human smugglers and traffickers to cross restricted routes. All speakers mentioned that establishing protective measures for refugees should be the priority for international organisations to prevent the situation from further worsening. Mike Slotznick stressed that Eritrea will continue to attack, kill and abduct more Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia “sooner or later – and quite possibly sooner”.

Ethiopia: Chemical weapons enter in Tigray for “Final offensive”
Three independent reports have stated that chemical weapons entered Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. It is reported that on 6 June 2021, 42 tons of chemical weapons, including phosphorus, arrived at Mekelle airport on a flight from Addis Ababa. In addition to this, heavy artillery has also arrived in Djibouti in order to reach Ethiopia. According to internal sources, the artillery and chemical weapons would have been possibly purchased in Russia, Ukraine, and China. This large movement of weapons and vehicles throughout Tigray appears to be part of a “final” offensive. It is reported that drones may be used to deploy the chemical weapons. On 12 June 2021, it has been reported that over 130 military vehicles passed through the town of Wukro in the direction of Adigrat, while another 180 moved to Mekelle.

Ethiopia: International community condemns mass starvation happening in Tigray
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has released a joint statement made by USAID, the European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy detailing the “human rights atrocities and the full-blown humanitarian crisis” occuring in Tigray. The letter mentioned that “the stakes could not be higher” as over 5 million people in Tigray (of the 6 million population) need emergency food assistance. The joint statement condemned how the widespread starvation of civilians was being used as a “weapon of war” and put “millions of lives” at risk. In a separate statement, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia, called on the UN Security Council and the African Union to address the unfolding humanitarian and human rights crisis in Tigray. In another statement, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned that another Ethiopian famine may be on the horizon. “We cannot make the same mistake twice,” Thomas-Greenfield stated. “We cannot let Ethiopia starve.” Samantha Power, Administer for USAID, stated that “We know what is happening in Tigray… and with that knowledge comes a duty to do all we can to end it, for the sake of long-term peace and stability in the region, for the people of Tigray who have seen such suffering”.

Ethiopia: Ethiopia’s UN ambassador: “Eritrean troops will leave soon from Tigray”
Reuters reported the news that Ethiopia’s envoy at the United Nations said that Eritrean troops are planning to leave the Tigray region soon. This statement was released after a UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting on Tuesday 15 June 2021, where a top UN official told the Security Council that Eritrea’s soldiers were using starvation as a weapon of war. Furthermore, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock stated that there was evidence of systemic rape by Eritrean soldiers used as a weapon of war as well. On Tuesday, after the end of the UNSC meeting, Eritrea’s UN mission in New York did not comment on Lowcock’s allegations. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s UN ambassador, Taye Atske Selassie Amde, said the Eritrean withdrawal “is a matter of sorting out some technical and procedural issues, and our expectation is that they will definitely leave soon.”

Ethiopia/Djibouti: BBC documentary on the deadly journey from Ethiopia to Yemen
On 14 June 2021, BBC Africa released a documentary showing difficulties that Ethiopian migrants face when they travel for 2,000 km to Saudi Arabia, with the aim of finding a job and livelihood. Migrants interviewed in the documentary “We make it or we die” describe how people starting from Ethiopia have to illegally cross the border with Djibouti and arrive at the coast through the desert. If they find a boat to cross the Red Sea, they arrive in Yemen. In order to reach Saudi Arabia borders, they cross Yemen desert and war zones without food or any support but the ones provided by smugglers, who organise the journey. Testimonies of former smugglers describe how dozens of migrants die due to dehydration or get lost on the routes. According to the BBC narrator, around 1000 migrants land on the southern coast of Yemen each day. Once arrived in Yemen, migrants face kidnapping, robbery, extortion and torture for ransom by local militias and human traffickers. When arriving in Aden, most migrants have to stop the journey, as they do not have enough money to pay smugglers and they end up dying of starvation. Aljazeera reported that on 14 June 2021, 25 migrants were found dead in the Aden Gulf by fishermen. Local authorities stated that a boat departing a few days earlier from Djibouti and carrying more that 200 people capsized. One of the fishermen said:[w]e saw the bodies floating in the water 10 miles (16km) from the shores of Ras al-Ara.”

North Africa

Libya/Ethiopia: Human trafficker accused of torturing thousands sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Tewelde Goitom (also known as Welid), a human trafficker who has been  accused of extorting, kidnapping, ransoming and torturing thousands of people in Libya, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in Ethiopia this week. On 14 June, Tewelde Goitom was found guilty of five charges of trafficking individuals and was ordered to pay 200,000 ETB (4,608 USD), the largest fine allowed according to Ethiopian legislation, as well as being given a prison sentence. Shishay Godefay Demoz, an accomplice of Tewelde, was found guilty of two trafficking charges in April and was sentenced to 16 years and six months in prison and ordered to pay 50,000 ETB (1,152 USD). Victims of Tewelde expressed their dissatisfaction to Aljazeera about the light sentencing stating that the verdict was “too easy” and “very short”. One Eritrean victim stated “this sentence will motivate other smugglers to continue their work because it’s not that long, it’s not as we expected.” Eritrean journalist and activist Meron Estefanos tweeted that people like Tewelde an Shishay “have millions of dollars put away somewhere, many of their victims were tortured, raped, extorted of large some of money, hundreds drowned in the Mediterranean and many died of torture and starvation”. Estefanos further added that the verdict was “an insult to all the victims”.

Libya: Alarm Phone reports illegal pushbacks from Libyan coastguard
On 14 June 2021, the rescue system Alarm Phone denounced illegal pushbacks to Libya of around 200 migrants and refugees firstly rescued by VOS Triton. According to Alarm Phone, a Libyan coastguard stopped VOS Triton and forced people rescued to go on on a libyan ship, in order to be transferred into Libyan detention centres.


UK: Scotland’s City Council extends the stop on accepting asylum seekers
BBC News reported that the Glasgow City Council’s decision of July 2020 to temporarily ban the acceptance of asylum seekers through the UK system could be imposed for more years. This decision was originally taken in order to “ease pressures” on Scotland’s system, due to an increasing number of refugees hosted in hotels. Concerns had been raised over living conditions in the hotels, where  pregnant women, children and trafficking survivors lived in dire  conditions, without fresh air and no psychological support. The shooting of the asylum seeker Badreddin Abadlla Adam by police, after he stabbed and injured six people in a Glasgow hotel on 26 May, led the City Council to pay more attention to refugee conditions. According to Susan Aitken, Council leader, this event was the moment when the council realised the situation was “not manageable” and was “getting to the point of not safe”. Questioned on when the ban will end, Aitken stated: “I don’t think it’s this year and it’s possibly not next year – certainly while we still have asylum seekers accommodated in hotels in the city, which is something that we have always been very opposed to in Glasgow.”

North Macedonia: Police bust human smuggling ring in Skopje
Authorities in North Macedonia have arrested six people, aged between 26 and 56, who operated a migrant smuggling ring operating around Skopje. A statement  made by the National Unit for the Suppression of. Smuggling of Migrants and Human Trafficking said that the arrests were the result of a large-scale “coordinated police operation” that encompassed Skopje, Veles, Stip, Strumica, and Valandovo.

Greece: Four asylum seekers sentenced to 10 years for Moria fire
The Guardian reported that four Afghan refugees have been sentenced to 10 years of prison for the fire in Moria camp, in Greece, which occurred in September 2020. The four asylum seekers were found guilty after a court rejected a request by lawyers for the three to be put under a juvenile court, due to the fact that they were minors when the fire broke out. According to Greek authorities, the blaze was set by six Afghan refugees hosted in Moria camp. Two out of six were sentenced to five years of prison in March 2021. Greek police stated that the fire started when refugees were told by local authorities that quarantine measures would be imposed, due to the appearance of COVID-19 cases in the camp. Nine months after the destruction of Moria camp, reconstruction of health facilities has not yet begun. The new camp is planned to be built before the beginning of the winter and it would host up to 5,000 migrants and refugees. According to the Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi, who visited EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson on 9 June 2021, the tender process for choosing companies to build the new facility is still ongoing.


World: IOM digital project aims to make migration data more accessible
On 15 June, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) unveiled new dashboard features on the “The Migration Data Portal”, a website that aims to support policy makers, national statistics officers, journalists and the general public to gain access to the latest data on migration. The new features include options to visualise and compare international migration data from different sources and countries. The project’s national data section is scheduled to expand further in the next few years and include more regions and subregions from different countries.