News Highlights: Eritrean troops digging in, Asylum seekers pushed back to Greece in boat prisons; EU migration policy criticised

In this week’s News Highlights: Eritrean troops are digging in in Tigray; 600.000 estimated dead in Tigray after 2 years of war; Ethiopian PM and Eritrean President meet in UAE; UN Commission urges access to conflict areas; ENDF enters Adigrat peacefully; EU Special Representative meets Demeke Mekonnen; Ethiopian Supreme Court President replaced; France funds projects in Ethiopia; Fighting continues in Oromia; Christians arrested in Eritrea; Operations against al-Shabaab in Somalia; RSF and armed groups form ‘projection force’ in Sudan’s Darfur; Internal memo advises EU operation to continue amidst Libya instability; Report states asylum seekers in the EU are illegally pushed back in prisons below deck; New Frontex director pledges end to pushbacks; EU foreign council meeting on 23 January;  Report states Russia might ‘weaponise migration’; and EU migration policy a “cruel, myopic shambles”, states The Guardian.

Greater Horn of Africa

Tigray: Eritrean troops are digging in
Eritrean troops continue to be present in the central zone of Tigray, says an eye witness who travelled from Mekelle to Shire through Adwa on 18 January. According to the eyewitness, the Eritrean troops have established camps west of Maykinetal town on the way towards Adwa city. The eyewitness saw the troops in MayKinetal and Adwa cities. Troops seen by the eyewitness included Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), Federal Police, Addis Ababa police, Southern region’s Special Forces and Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF). According to the witness the civilians in the region were able to move around freely, but that there was a curfew in the evening. A Tigrayan humanitarian worker told The Globe that he witnessed Eritrean soldiers digging trenches around the Tigrayan town of Adigrat, showing the troops have no intention to leave. The humanitarian worker added that Eritrean troops are active in 16 Tigrayan towns. In The Globe, an Irob civil society organisation states that half of Irob is occupied by Eritrean forces who block humanitarian aid and access to markets. Getachew Aregawi, producer of a local magazine in Tigray, Wurayna, reported that on 14 January, Eritrean troops kidnapped 50 young Tigrayans around Adwa. The victims were reportedly travelling to Adwa to go to the market from locations Gedba, Hinzat, Adi Yiakoro, Alagsa, Kola Geble, and Sera. The whereabouts of the arrested people is unknown. Getachew Reda, the mediator from the Tigray government, responded to the remarks of Obasanjo, stating that Eritreans have not withdrawn and that they are “digging in their heels big time.” Tesfaselassie Medhin, Bishop of the Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat, stated: “It is not over yet, many of our faithful and our parishes are still besieged by foreign forces.”

Tigray: 600.000 deaths estimated, says the AU mediator
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union (AU)  mediator for the conflict in Northern Ethiopia, says that he estimated that at least 600.000 people died in the two years of war since the end of 2020, reports Financial Times. The Financial Times also cites an expert involved in the data collection by Ghent University, who says further research will be required to substantiate figures with more detail. Joyce Karam, a senior news editor of Almonitor and an adjunct professor at George Washington University, states that the AU’s envoy figure of the 600,000 death toll in Tigray exceeds the death toll of some of the world’s largest wars in the last decades, but receives much less attention. 

Ethiopia/Eritrea: Ethiopian PM and Eritrean President reportedly meet in UAE
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki met in Abu Dhabi, according to Reyot media. The two leaders reportedly met in United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the occasion of the event of ‘the sustainability week’ that took place in the country this week. According to Reyot media, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said it is “life threatening” for him to go to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan also received Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed separately, at Qasr Al Shati Palace, reports Gulf News. During the meeting, Dr. Sultan Bin Ahmed Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, and Ahmed Shide, Minister of Finance in Ethiopia, reportedly exchanged an agreement to develop solar power projects with a total capacity of 500 megawatts in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia: UN Commission urges access
The UN International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) is calling for the full cooperation of the Ethiopian government. It states that its investigators have so far failed to get access to the places where crimes have allegedly taken place. Meanwhile, sources state that the Ethiopian government is intended to defund the ICHREE. Ethiopia’s earlier request to defund the commission was, however, rejected by the majority of UN member states. The commission was granted a one-year extension of the mandate following this.

Ethiopia: ENDF enters Adigrat as some areas remain hard to reach for aid
Internal sources reported on 17 January the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) peacefully entered the city of Adigrat, Eastern zone of Tigray. Pictures of ENDF in the city are also being shared in social media. The Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) reportedly left the city a few days before, added the sources. The entry of ENDF follows the disengagement of TDF and its hand-over of heavy weapons. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that since mid-November 2022, 3,000 trucks carrying over 105,000 metric tons of food, health, shelter, water and other supplies had been dispatched into Tigray. Four road corridors were used, according to Stephane Dujarric, the chief spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Food has been delivered to 3 million people in Tigray. The spokesperson also said “However, some areas remain hard to reach, including some border areas in the north and areas off the main roads. Humanitarian needs remain extremely high in parts of Afar and Amhara that were impacted by the conflict.” 

Ethiopia: EU Special Representative meets Deputy PM
EU Special Representative to the Horn, Annette Weber, and deputy PM, and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen, discussed the implementation of the Pretoria Cessation of Hostilities Agreement and current affairs, reports EBC.Demeke Mekonnen briefed Annette Weber that basic services resumed, and humanitarian access increased in Tigray after the CoH Agreement. Demeke Mekonnen also stated to Annette Weber that his government established the National Rehabilitation Commission and appointed its Commissioner. The EU special representative said the recent visit of Foreign Ministers of Germany and France will play an important role in revitalising the relationship between Ethiopia and the EU. The special representative said the EU will have a series of engagements with Ethiopia to reestablish its multidimensional relationship with the country, adds the statement.

Ethiopia: Supreme Court president replaced
On 17 January, the Ethiopian parliament appointed Tewodros Mihret Debebe as president of the Federal Supreme court replacing Maaza Ashenafi who resigned the same day together with her deputy, Solomon Reda. Reasons for the resignation are not revealed, but sources indicate they may have been told to resign. The newly appointed president Tewodros Debebe is an assistant professor in the law school of Addis Ababa University according to Ethiopian Reporter. In addition, after a cabinet meeting on 14 January, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed relieved four ministers from their positions, according to Fana Broadcasting Corporation. This involves the ministers of transport (Dagmawit Moges), agriculture (Oumer Hussein), mining (Takelle Ouma) and cabinet affairs (Teferi Fikre). The reasons were not disclosed. On 20 January, the PM announced the names of eight new nominated individuals for positions, including minister positions. This includes Daniel Kibret as Minister of Social Affairs. 

Ethiopia: France funds projects in Ethiopia
While in Addis Ababa last week, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna signed two financing deals with Ethiopia, according to Addis Standard. Addis Standard reports the total amount is EUR 42 million. France confirms that two agreements were signed to support reconstruction in Ethiopia. The first project will support electricity equipment. The second project, co-funded with the EU, will support agricultural recovery in Amhara, Tigray and Afar.

Oromia: Fighting continues in Oromia
Sources state the fighting in Oromia is again escalating, as close as 25km east of Addis Ababa, as well as in Western Oromia. The Oromo Legacy Leadership & Advocacy Association (OLLAA), an Oromo advocacy group, calls on the UN and other investigatory bodies to investigate “crimes committed” in the Oromia region. OLLAA said access must be given in order to conduct “independent, impartial, thorough, and credible, investigations on allegations of human rights violations” committed throughout Oromia by security forces, says Addis Standard citing the association’s annual report. The Ethiopian government said that it will resolve its conflict with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) politically and peacefully, reports Legesse Tulu, minister for government communication services, said yesterday that the government has organised a task force in areas where OLA was active. The mission of the task force is to restore peace and economic activity in the Oromia region. The Minister also called on the public to press OLA to end the conflict peacefully.

Eritrea: Christians arrested
Eritrea reportedly arrested 44 believers while they were gathering in two private homes at new year, says Release International – Voice of Christians, on the basis of reports of its partners. The arrested believers were 39 women and five men and they are detained at Mai Serwa prison on the outskirts of the capital, Asmara, adds Release International.

Somalia: Operations against al-Shabaab
Somalia’s government-led forces state they have captured a strategic al-Shabaab location on the Indian Ocean, Harardhere and the nearby town of Galcad, the defence minister said on Monday. According to Aljazeera, Somali government government forces and allies fully control the al-Shabaab ‘’stronghold’’ on the Indian Ocean. However, Reuters reports that on Friday, an al-Shabaab attack on Galcad killed seven, including the deputy commander of the base. The attack was reportedly repelled. In addition, the Somali national army and foreign troops launched an operation that killed at least 25 al-Shabaab militants. The militants were reportedly killed at Hawadlay Village in the Shabelle region of the country. Somali police reported that a roadside bombing killed eight people on 14 January in Buloburde city in central Somalia. al Shabaab has reportedly taken responsibility, according to AFP.

Sudan: RSF and armed groups form ‘protection force’ in Darfur
Sudan Tribune reports that the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) formed a joint protection force in Darfur with the Sudan Liberation Army and the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces (GSLF). “We launched a special joint force to end insecurity and restore order in the Darfur region. It consists of 80 military vehicles (10 troops by vehicle) including the SLM-MM, the GSLF, and the RSF,” stated Ahmed Hussein Mustafa, military spokesman for the Sudan Liberation Army, in the Sudan Tribune. The West Darfur Governor and leader of Sudan Liberation Movement Transitional Council (SLM-TC), Hadi Idris, stated he had no knowledge of the ‘protection force’. 

North Africa

Libya/EU: Memo advises operation Irini to continue amidst instability
An internal memo by the EU foreign service’s military committee to member state ambassadors stated that operation Irini, which includes ships and airplanes to patrol the Mediterranean Sea, should continue until 2025 amidst worsening instability. The operation also shares surveillance data on migration with the border control agency Frontex. According to EUObserver, the memo expressed concern over increasing instability and the refugee situation in Libya. It also admitted that the attempts to increase the standards of the Libyan coast guard, who are tasked with returning refugees and migrants to Libya, has failed. 


Mediterranean Sea: Report states asylum seekers are illegally pushed back in secret prisons in boats
A Lighthouse Reports collaborative investigation states that asylum seekers are illegally pushed back between EU member states in secret prison boats. “We’ve found that asylum seekers, including children, are being detained in unofficial jails – in the form of metal boxes and dark rooms – for sometimes more than a day at a time in the bowels of passenger ships headed from Italy to Greece, as part of illegal pushbacks by the Italian authorities,” stated the report. The investigation collected photographs, videos and testimonies. Asylum seekers who travel from Greece to Italy are sent back before they have the chance to claim asylum in Italy. Detention places below deck observed in the investigation include metal boxes and former toilets. Some cases involve minors, states the investigation.

Frontex: New executive director pledges transparency and end to pushbacks
On Thursday, the new executive director of European Union border agency Frontex, Hans Leijtens, stated that illegal pushbacks of migrants and refugees would not take place under his watch. Frontex was accused of covering up pushbacks from Greece to Turkey last year. “We can’t do our work when we are not trusted,” stated Leijtens, who is set to take over from Fabrice Leggeri on 1 March. Frontex reported that in 2022, it had registered 330 000 irregular border crossings of EU’s external borders, which was said to be the highest since 2016. Not included in those figures are 13 million Ukrainian refugees.

European Union: EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting on 23 January
On 23 January, Foreign Affairs ministers will meet in Brussels for the Foreign Affairs Council meeting. The situation in Ukraine and in the Sahel and the coastal countries of West Africa are the key items on the agenda. The situation in Ethiopia is also on the agenda. 

European Union: Russia might ‘weaponise’ migration, states report
The migration outlook report of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) predicts that Russia will ‘weaponise’ migration from North Africa and the Middle East. ICMPD states that the Russian government has announced it will increase the number of flights from North Africa and the Middle East to Kaliningrad. This may lead to irregular border crossings into Poland. This will “agitate Europe’s migration worries,” states the report.

European Union: Migration policy acruel, myopic shambles”
A critical editorial by The Guardian criticises the EU’s migration policy, which is not likely to improve under the Swedish presidency, it states. “As idealistic young Europeans and former refugees are hauled into the dock for attempting to save lives at sea, Europe’s governments are pondering what more can be done to shore up the defences of a rich continent against the poor and the desperate,” states the editorial. It states that migration will likely take central stage in the EU Summit in February. However, the right-wing influence on Sweden makes it unlikely that the Swedish Presidency will push for progress.

Italy: Foreign Minister suggests deal with Tunisia to cut irregular migration
Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani suggested during a visit to Tunis, Tunisia, that Italy could provide more legal visas for Tunisians if Tunisia would cut irregular migration across the Mediterranean. It is not clear whether such a deal is officially on the table.