News Highlights: Offensive against Tigray forces starts, Shooting in Libyan detention centre kills 6, Increasing harassment of refugees in EU

In this week news highlights: Ethiopian government launches offensive against Tigray forces; US ponders sanctions; UN recalls two officials over audio recordings; High ministerial meeting on Ethiopia; Tigray interim government member seeks asylum; Sudan Tribune reports unconfirmed news that Salva Kiir would mediate in Tigray conflict; Eritrea re-elected to UN Human Rights Council – critics cry foul;  6 migrants shot and killed by Libyan detention centre guards following crackdown; 15 migrants bodies found off to shore of Libya; 1,100 migrants and refugees crossed the English Channel during the weekend; Migrants and refugees facing harassment in Northern France; NGO unable to operate in militarized Greece-Turkey border area; Greece and Croatia suspected of illegal pushbacks at the borders using EU funds; UNHCR urges greater access to mental health for refugees.

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: Government launches offensive against Tigray forces
Ethiopia has launched an offensive against Tigrayan forces on several fronts in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar. There has been a heavy use of jet fighters and drones during this newest offensive. Little is known about the progress of the offensive as journalists are not allowed in the area and phone lines are down. The Ethiopian government has not yet commented on the new offensive, however the Tigrayan officials are claiming that they are holding their ground. Getachew Reda, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) spokesperson, told Reuters that the fight is ongoing and the “number of casualties is staggering”. He later said in a tweet that the Tigrayans had captured  “commanding heights on all fronts”. Tigrayan General Tsadkan, who has previously commanded the Ethiopian armed forces said “The enemy has been preparing for months, and so have we”. He added that it would be a decisive moment for the country, with military and political ramifications. According to him the fight is unlikely to last very long, probably a matter of weeks. The offensive comes as UN officials are warning that the humanitarian situation is “spiraling out of control”. According to the UN, 400.000 people are facing famine-like conditions due to Ethiopia blocking humanitarian aid from reaching the region. 

Ethiopia: The UN recalls two senior officials 
The United Nations has recalled two senior UN officials in Ethiopia. While it has not been confirmed, it is believed the officials are the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Ethiopia and the UN Population Fund country representative in Ethiopia. The recall comes after audio was published online in which the officials were critical of senior UN officials. Both officials claimed that “top U.N. officials globally sympathise with forces from the northern Tigray region”. The head of the IOM said that a staff member had been recalled and put on administrative leave pending an investigation. He added that “The opinions attributed in the audio recordings to the staff member do not correspond to IOM’s principles and values”.

Ethiopia: United States to decide on sanctions soon
The US State department spokesperson Ned Price said that it was aware that “escalating fighting undermines critical efforts to keep civilians safe and the ability of international actors to deliver humanitarian relief to all those in need, and we know there are too many in need.” He added that the Biden administration is considering all the tools at its disposal, but declined to give any further details. According to previous accounts the administration is actively working on a series of sanctions on Ethiopian officials and businesses. Katherine Tai, the US global trade representative, said on Thursday that Washington would “soon” decide on Ethiopia’s status under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Tai raised concerns about the many reports of a humanitarian crisis unfolding in Tigray.  Ethiopia exported about $237 million worth of goods duty-free to the United States under AGOA in 2020.

Ethiopia: High Ministerial meeting on Ethiopia
High level ministerial representatives from Canada, Denmark, the European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States on Tuesday 12 October to discuss the situation in Ethiopia. They agreed that it is urgent to find solutions, and that a different approach may be required to meet these challenges. They also condemned the Ethiopian government’s expulsion of UN officials and called for the reversal of the decision. They also agreed that it was important for the Ethiopian government to prioritise “immediately reestablishing [of] communications, banking, and other vital services within Tigray, and fully restoring transport corridors and air linkages to Tigray.” To achieve this the countries discussed the possibility of augmenting road operations by expanding air operations to deliver relief supplies directly to the region. The US has added that it is providing an additional 26 million dollars in additional Humanitarian assistance in Northern Ethiopia. 

Ethiopia: Former Tigray interim government official seeks asylum
A top official from the Ethiopian government Interim Tigrayan government that was ousted in June has asked for asylum abroad. Gebremeskel Kassa, the chief of staff of the administration, has asked for asylum in a third country. He said he was fleeing as the Ethiopian government was blaming the interim administration for the military setbacks in Tigray. Abraha Desta, another senior official in the interim administration, was recently arrested after he called for negotiations to end the conflict. Gebremeskel has also accused the region of Amhara of relocating thousands of ethnic Tigrayans from Tigray.

Ethiopia: Sudan Tribune reports that Ethiopia accepted mediation from South Sudan
There has been confusion this week about whether or not Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia has accepted mediation by President Kiir of South Sudan. In September, Kiir was appointed by IGAD to mediate the GERD dam dispute and the conflict in Tigray. Kiir visited Ethiopia in August and met with Abiy. The SudanTribune reported last week that Ethiopia had accepted the mediation offer regarding the conflict in Tigray. It quoted the South Sudanese Presidential spokesperson saying that the President had been informed on Friday, and that the process would start as soon as Abiy had been sworn into office for his second term. This was, however, not confirmed anywhere else. Since then, President Kiir has said Ethiopia had promised to resume negotiations on the GERD dam, but that to his knowledge they have not done so. He also added that Abiy is not in a position to start negotiations due to internal opposition. It is thus unclear whether or not Ethiopia has accepted mediation. No comments have however been made by Ethiopia, and the government is in the middle of an offensive against Tigray.

Eritrea: HRW warns about non competitive re-election candidacy of Eritrea at Human Rights Council
Eritrea has been re-elected by the General Assembly for the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, the body tasked with promoting and defending human rights across the globe.  This despite Eritrea’s poor human rights record, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated. HRW said the Eritrean forces most recently carried out widespread violations of human rights in Tigray, including killing civilians and abusing Eritrean refugees, and imposing national military service on minors. Louis Charbonneau, UN Director at Human Rights Watch, said that “[t]he absence of competition in this year’s Human Rights Council vote makes a mockery of the word ‘election’”. 

North Africa

Libya: 6 migrants killed by Libyan detention centre authorities
UN officials state that at least 6 migrants and refugees were shot and killed by the Libyan Mabani detention centre guards on 8 October, and 15 others were injured. The victims were among the over 5,000 migrants and refugees rounded up in the violent crackdown conducted by Libyan authorities in the past weeks. According to video footage, hundreds of migrants and refugees attempted to flee the detention centre through a hole in the fence while others were recorded running in the streets of Tripoli, the Associated Press (AP) reports. According to Al Jazeera’s Malik Traina, the Ministry of Interior would not clarify whether the detainees had been released or escaped the detention centre. A Cameroonian former detainee said in a phone interview with AP “[the Libyan detention centre authorities] put us into crowded cells where we couldn’t even breathe. There was no food, no water, no oxygen” and explained that, during the escape, some of the migrants fell and were apprehended by Libyan authorities who beat them and several were shot. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) Head of Mission in Libya Federico Soda said that “[t]he use of excessive force and violence often resulting in death is a regular occurrence in Libyan detention centers” and that “[s]ome of our staff who witnessed this incident describe injured migrants in a pool of blood lying on the ground”. 

Libya: 15 bodies retrieved off Libyan coast
15 bodies were found on Monday after a shipwreck off the Libyan coast. Another 177 individuals were returned by Libyan coast guards, many of them in need of immediate medical assistance, the German news agency epd reports. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesperson Safa Msehli said that returning migrants and refugees to “the country’s squalid detention is a continuation, and often worsening, of the trauma migrants experience on this route”. 


UK: Over 1,000 migrants and refugees crossed the English Channel 
Over the weekend, over 1,100 migrants and refugees crossed the English Channel. 410 persons were prevented from crossing by French authorities while another 342 were intercepted. On Saturday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said that the money pledged by the UK to stop migrants from crossing the English Channel has not yet been paid. The agreement announced in July includes measures to raise the number of police guards on French coasts in order to deter illegal crossings, Infomigrants reports. In July, the UK Conservative government introduced a Nationality and Borders Bill that will impose harsher penalties on people traffickers. The Bill would also criminalize anyone entering the country by illegal means, such as with small boats, who may see their asylum application denied and face a four-year prison sentence, Infomigrants explains. According to The Guardian, migrants and refugees would also be denied access to public money and their family members would be prevented from joining them. According to the British news agency PA, since the beginning of the year more than 17,000 migrants attempted to cross from France to the United Kingdom (UK) in feeble boats, more than double the total for the entire year of 2020. 

France: Migrants and refugees harassed in Northern France
According to a newly published Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, migrants and refugees seeking to cross the English Channel from Calais face harassment and humiliation. Migrants and refugees face daily reprisals, seizing of personal items, and dismantling of tents as part of France’s “policy of dissuasion”, reports HRW. According to the evidence collected by HRW, police personnel conducted over 950 expulsion activities in Calais and 90 in Grande-Synthe, until December 2020. 5,000 tents and tarps, as well as sleeping bags and blankets, were reportedly seized by security officers. Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch, commented that “[s]ubjecting people to daily harassment is never justifiable” and added “[i]f the aim is to discourage migrants from gathering in northern France, these policies are a manifest failure and result in serious harm”.

Greece: Migrants and refugees unable to access NGO assistance as Greece militarises border with Turkey
NGOs are unable to provide migrants and refugees with first assistance as Greece placed barbed wire fences along the border with Turkey. NGOs warn that migrants and refugees who succeed to cross the border are unable to obtain assistance as everyone is prohibited from entering the military zone, Infomigrants reports. On 1 October, the Greek Minister for Migration Notis Mitarakis rejected the UN and European Commission’s request for the implementation of a monitoring system at the Greek border, claiming that it undermines the country’s sovereignty. The NGO Border Violence is concerned about the respect of migrant and refugee human rights and one of its spokespersons said that “[w]e, the activists, don’t even go near the area! We are afraid of being arrested and put in jail”. A retired former police officer talked to Infomigrants confirming pushbacks to Turkey. Since the beginning of the year, approximately 4,000 people have been illegally turned back, according to Border Violence. According to the New York Times, hidden detention centres are located in the region and Border Violence said that “[m]igrants have told us about torture in these hidden centers in Greece, electric shocks, simulated drowning”. However, the NGO stated they are not able to verify the violations perpetrated in these centres as they do not have access to the area, Infomigrants reports. 

Europe: Suspected illegal pushbacks in Greece and Croatia 
German media Der Spiegel and ARD documented Greek and Croatian officials carrying out unlawful migrant pushbacks. The European Union (EU) called for an inquiry on Thursday. According to the study, Greek and Croatian special forces hid their identities during the operations, which were at times violent. The report identifies individuals on the EU’s borders being systematically abused, the EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said, indicating that EU funds are being misappropriated to assist forces who perpetrate such “unacceptable” actions, the Commissioner continued. Meanwhile, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have enabled their border guards to execute pushbacks as a response to the increased crossing of migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Cameroon and Congo, Reuters reports. 


World: UNHCR calls for greater support for mental health services
On the occasion of the World Mental Health Day on 10 October, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urged the international community to improve mental health services for refugees, internally displaced persons, and stateless people. An increase in the number of persons seeking assistance for anxiety and despair has been reported by UNHCR, a trend which is worsened by the Covid-19 lockdowns. Sajjad Malik, Director of UNHCR’s Division of Resilience and Solutions, said that the effects of the pandemic “[…] exacerbat[e] the stress and anxiety felt by many of those displaced. As livelihoods and fragile social support systems crumble, they need help more than ever to cope through the crisis and rebuild their lives”.