News Highlights: Record 23,000 refugees returned to Libya in 2021, NGOs warn of mass surveillance of refugees, Tigray facing famine

In this week’s highlights: The Elders address UNSC on Tigray; Refugees in Ethiopia approved for resettlement refused departure in Addis, say witnesses; UN urges opening of Tigray for aid; 29 Tigrayan bodies found in the river between Sudan and Ethiopia; 5,000 Ethiopian migrants blocked in Yemen; Ethiopia’s competing alliances; Over 23,000 refugees returned to Libya this year; More than 10,000 refugees attempted to cross from Tunisia to Italy; NGOs warn that extension of fingerprint database is a threat to refugee privacy; UK may push back refugees crossing the Channel; Migrants stuck at the EU-Belarus border facing dire conditions; Migrants and refugees arrested on unlawful reentry charges in Italy; Asylum seekers in Lesbos living in precarious temporary camp; and Education of refugee children “now under threat”.

Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: Elders call on UNSC to take action
The Elders, a group of Independent global leaders working together for peace, justice and human rights and founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007, have told the UN Security Council in a  briefing on 7 september that it must “take action to incentivise the parties to negotiate a ceasefire” in Ethiopia. The group includes former leaders and Heads of State, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Former UN Sec Gen Ban Ki Moon, and former US president Jimmy Carter (emeritus member).  Former President of Ireland and chair of The Elders, Mary Robinson, said that “ending the fighting is the only way to cease the suffering” and called for the Council to incentivise a ceasefire. The Elders also suggested “[t]he Council could also consider making a visit to Ethiopia and Tigray, to focus attention on the conditions on the ground, and the urgent need for a political, not a military, solution.” The recommendations provided by The Elders were supported by US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Ethiopia: Refugees prevented from leaving
Witnesses state that some Eritrean refugees, who were processed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to go to the United States for resettlement, were refused departure to the US. The Ethiopian Immigration authorities stopped their departure at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Five families from the Shimelba refugee camp in Tigray were stopped on 31 August 2021. Witnesses understood that the Agency for Refugees and Returnees Administration (ARRA) stated that refugees were no longer allowed to leave when processed under the current circumstances in the country, due to Ethiopia’s fear that people on its ‘wanted’ list may use any opportunity to escape. The Eritrean refugees escaped from Shimelba camp in Tigray, which was taken over by Eritrean troops in December 2020.

Ethiopia: Tigray facing Famine
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has said that 150 people have died as a result of starvation in Tigray. This comes after the United Nations (UN) and other organisations have said that the situation in Tigray is worsening by the day. Both the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and USAID have said that foodstocks in Tigray are running low, and in some areas have run out. One World Food Programme staff member told Reuters that “we don’t have any food stocks at the moment to plan with or to distribute”. The UN estimates that 400.000 people are already facing famine-like conditions in the region. 90% of the population, or 5.2 million people, need urgent food assistance. The Ethiopian government continues to be accused of blocking aid coming into the region. The UN called on all parties last week to “allow the movement of aid into the region” and urged the government to end the de facto blockade of Tigray. The World Food Programme has said that 100 trucks had arrived in Mekelle for the first time in two weeks on 6 September. The convoy carried 3.500 metric tons of food and other supplies. The UN has also said that the situation is made worse by the 1.7 million people that need aid in Afar and Amhara as a result of the conflict expanding to those areas. 

Sudan/Ethiopia: 29 bodies of Tigrayans found in the Setit/Tekeze River
The bodies of 29 ethnic Tigrayan people have been discovered on the banks of a river bordering Sudan and Ethiopia. The bodies were found between 26 July to 8 August on the Sudanese side of the Setit/Tekeze River. CNN has spoken to witnesses who collect the bodies from the river in order to provide a burial. Sudanese authorities report that the bodies show signs of torture and execution. The bodies “tell a dark story of mass detentions and mass executions across the border in Humera, a town in Ethiopia’s Tigray region”, states CNN. Tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan have reportedly caused tens of thousands of people to flee into eastern Sudan which has led to military skirmishes along the border.

Ethiopia/Yemen: 5,000 Ethiopians blocked in Yemen waiting for safe travel back
About 5,000 Ethiopian migrants are blocked in Yemen due to COVID-19 travel limitations, and a total of around 32,000 migrants is estimated to be stranded in the country with poor access to water, food, hygienic facilities and medical care, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Continued fighting in Yemen increases the risk that people are in. The IOM records that nearly 18,200 migrants returned to Djibouti and Somalia through the same smugglers that brought them to the Arabian Peninsula and reports that many have lost their lives due to the capsizing of overcrowded boats. Voluntary Humanitarian Returns (VHR) are organized by the IOM, with which 300 Ethiopians will be brought back this week. The IOM aims to continue to do so in the next weeks but needs more funding to sustain this “crucial lifeline”, states John McCue, IOM Yemen’s Deputy Chief of Mission. 

Ethiopia: Ethiopia’s competing alliances
In a piece on Eritrea Hub, Ermias Teka asks what each coalition in the current conflict in Ethiopia wants. Since the start of the conflict, many questions and fears have been raised about the balkanisation of Ethiopia, and the many similarities between the conflict in Ethiopia and that in Yugoslavia in the 90s. Ermias argues that the conflict has become one of centre against periphery, with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attempting to rally many of the independence movements around Ethiopia to its cause, and the central government leaning heavily on ethno-nationalism to conduct the war. The core issue of the conflict is about whether Ethiopia will be governed Centrally or Federally. The author argues that in a prolonged conflict, Ethiopianist forces are more likely going to prevail. The author also argues Amhara will likely make negotiations more difficult, as they have large territorial ambitions in Western Tigray. 

North Africa

Libya: Record high of 23,000 refugees returned to Libya this year
Since the start of the year over 23,000 people have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya according to new data released by the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC has stated that this year’s figures have been the highest on record since interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard began. Tom Garofalo, the IRC’s Country Director in Libya, stated that refugees living in Libya are at “constant risk of a long list of abuses that can include kidnapping, sexual violence and even torture. They are not safe in Libya and they cannot go home or elsewhere.” Garofalo added that returning refugees back to Libya “is not only a violation of their human rights, it is also inhuman” as the conditions of Libyan detention centres are “too often deplorable”. The IRC is calling for the immediate release of all those arbitrarily detained in Libya, the cessation of the practice of arbitrary detention of migrants and refugees and the decriminalisation of irregular migration in Libya.

Tunisia: Sharp increase in the number of crossings to Italy
In 2021 more than 10,000 migrants and refugees have attempted to cross the sea route from Tunisia to Italy. One Tunisian migrant rights activist, Chamseddine Marzoug, talked to InfoMigrants about his wife and children attempting the “dangerous” crossing because his wife believed that their children had “no other solution than the sea.” Marzoug reported that his daughter could not bring her two children to Europe by legal means as her documentation was reportedly not approved. Marzoug stated that “[w]e had already spent 2,000 dinars (€600) to apply for official visas for the grandchildren, including the cost of travel to Tunis. Our request was rejected three times. That’s what pushed them to try the clandestine crossing”. Marzoug further added that he couldn’t “blame [his family] for leaving. The real problem was that they couldn’t get visas to leave in a regular manner.”


Europe: Database of refugees to be used for mass surveillance 
Campaigners from over thirty non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have warned that the European Union’s (EU) expanding the reach of the Eurodac fingerprint database of asylum seekers would turn it into a tool of mass surveillance. The changes, adopted in 2018 but not yet in force, include the addition of facial images, passport or ID card details, including details of minors, in the database. In an open letter to the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the 32 NGOs, which include EEPA, Amnesty International and the European Network Against Racism, called for MEPs to block the expansion of the fingerprint database. The inclusion of facial images in the database is described as “intrusive, disproportionate and privacy invasive” and the documentation of six-year-old children was labelled a “seriously invasive and unjustified infringement on the rights of the child”. Chloé Berthélémy, policy adviser at the European Digital Rights group, stated that “[a]sylum seekers’ and migrants’ digital rights are being sacrificed to reinforce Fortress Europe”. Berthélémy argued that the database expansion would be used to “push back, track and deport people seeking international protection”. 

UK: NGOs call for safe alternative routes as around 800 people attempt crossing
Approximately 785 migrants and refugees attempted to cross the English Channel last Monday (6 September). Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of the charity Refugee Action, stated that “[r]efugees feel there is little choice other than to cross the Channel in flimsy boats because the government refuses to open up alternative routes to safety.” Enver Solomon, chief executive of the national organisation Refugee Council, said that “while there is war, persecution and violence, people will be forced to take dangerous journeys to seek safety.” Solomon added that asylum seekers are “ordinary men, women and children who are forced to flee their home through no fault of their own. The odds are stacked against them but they struggle on to survive.” Rights activists and organisations have called for the Home Office to create safe routes for people to seek asylum. On 6 July British Prime Minister Boris Johonson stated that the Home Office was “working around the clock” to ensure that France would help prevent migrants and refugees from reaching Britain. “A large number of people want to come to this country, and we are doing everything we can to encourage the French to do the necessary and impede their passage”, the Prime Minister stated. Conservative MPs suggested UK Home Secretary Priti Patel to stop migrants by sending back boats, reports The Guardian. France MP for Calais, Pierre-Henri Dumont, condemned the proposal stating that it would be a flagrant violation of human rights law and erode the United Nations (UN) Geneva Convention that ensures the right of everyone to apply for asylum.

Belarus/EU: Poland authorises state of emergency as migrants face alarming conditions
While over 10,000 migrants are blocked at the Belarus border seeking to reach Europe with limited access to safe drinking water, food, medical facilities and shelter for weeks, the Polish government endorsed a 30-days state of emergency, banning non-residents from the country. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) states that Polish authorities are failing to ensure adequate access to asylum for people fleeing persecution. Since early August, Polish authorities blocked the passage of around 400 people attempting to enter from Belarus  and erected a 2.5-meter-high razor strand fence. The IOM states it is extremely concerned by the cross-border pushbacks of migrants and refugees, particularly families and unaccompanied children, and stresses the obligations of States under international law “to ensure that rule of law is upheld and applied at the borders, at any given time, and human rights and freedoms of all migrants are respected, regardless of immigration status”.  

Italy: Sicilian authorities investigate smuggling of new arrivals and arrest 161 for re-entry
161 migrants previously expelled or not granted leave to stay in Italy have been arrested in Sicily. The chief prosecutor responsible stated that the high number of arrests “put[s] to the test judicial structures”. Meanwhile, Italian authorities continue to carry out an investigation into 538 migrants and refugees coming from Libya in order to identify possible smugglers. Médecins sans frontières (MSF) have reported evidence of violence and inhuman treatment on many of the arrivals, which suggests the activity of a criminal organization behind this landing. This is further supported by the large number of migrants crammed into the boat, according to investigation authorities.

Greece: Asylum seekers still living in precarious conditions after Moria camp fire on Lesbos
After the fire that destroyed the Moria camp, refugees were moved to a temporary tent camp in Mavrovouni. One year later, refugees are still settled in the Mavrovouni camp, reports Deutsche Welle. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that about 3,5000 asylum seekers are living on Lesbos, the majority of them from Afghanistan. UNHCR spokesperson Stella Nanou urged to start equipping the Mavrovouni camp for the winter season, as today “[w]hen it rains, the makeshift camp is flooded”, stated Angeliki Dimitriadi from ELIAMEP think tank. The nearby Kara Tepe camp was closed by order of the authorities and the project for the Plati camp, supposed to be completed in autumn 2021, continues to slow down. Greek government priority remains “effective border protection”, says the Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis. Since 2017, multiple allegations have been made of Greek authorities committing illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers, some considered credible by the UNHCR, but denied by Greece. Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) denounced the intention of Greek authorities to impede the passage through the country for new Afghan refugees, stating that it “contradicts existing obligations to welcome those seeking safety.” The organisations also denounced the designation of Turkey as a safe third country for refugees by Greece.


World: 65% of refugee minors do not receive a secondary education
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has published a report stating that two-thirds of underaged refugees in over 40 countries are not receiving a secondary education. According to the report, from March 2019 to March 2020 the enrolment rate for refugees at a secondary school level was only 34 percent despite the fact that some minors lived in countries with compulsory education. The likelihood of refugee children receiving an education has been further worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic which was said to have had, and will continue to have, a “terrible” and “profound” impact on the educational lives of refugee children, according to the UNHCR report. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi stated that the “[r]ecent progress made in school enrolment of refugee children and youth is now under threat” and that “[c]onfronting this challenge requires a massive, coordinated effort, and it is a task we cannot afford to shirk.”