• The so-called Libyan Coast Guard has intercepted 338 people so far in 2024.
  • Migrants in Tunisia continue to call for better treatment and protection amid ongoing violence by the EU-funded Tunisian authorities.
  • European Commission Vice-President Josep Borrel reconfirmed to UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres that the EU would continue its essential aid to Palestinians in Gaza “unabated” while following on during the investigation against 12 individuals accused of participating in the 7 October attacks in Israel.
  • After striking a deal with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the externalisation of asylum in Europe is becoming popular despite legal concerns.

Violence against people on the move by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard has been continuous amidst ongoing European EU funding. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), six migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya between 21 and 27 January, bringing the total number of intercepted migrants so far this year to 338, including nine children. On 27 January, the crew of a Sea-Watch ship witnessed and documented another case of forced return. According to the crew, six people were taken from the water by the MARIDIVE supply vessel, leaving other survivors in distress. Meanwhile, the grassroots organisation Refugees from Libya shared footage on X of the Libyan Coast Guard intercepting a group of 53 people off the coast of Zuwara on 29 November 2023. “Survivors say that prior to their interception, live bullets were fired at the rubber dinghy causing havoc on the boat. While on board the Libyan coast guard vessel, they encountered another boat (wooden) which the coast guard violently crashed over and over again, causing 4 people to jump off. The driver of the wooden boat eventually stopped and all the passengers onboard were pulled back to Tripoli and imprisoned in Ainzara”, the organisation wrote, adding that most of the migrants had to pay a “minimum 500$ to the prison officers in order to be released”. According to InfoMigrants, over 300 migrants were repatriated under “voluntary return” the scheme that has been jointly coordinated by the IOM and Libyan authorities since 2015.

Sub-saharan migrants protested outside the office of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Zarzis on the weekend of 27-28 January. The migrants held banners asking for UN protection, protesting the long waiting periods. Another banner read ‘No handing the refugees to Libyan military’. One of the protestors,  a 16-year-old Gambian migrant called Ousman, reported the violent raids and inhumane treatment that the migrants had been enduring at the hands of Tunisian guards. “The day before yesterday there was a police raid. They attacked us, they arrested some of us, and they stole some of our belongings. Whether they stole them or not, we still don’t know where they are. They didn’t speak, they didn’t ask any questions, they just came and started catching people and if you didn’t escape, they took your belongings”, he said. Ousman also emphasised that he did not want to be sent to Libya, saying “When the police attack and arrest you they will hand you over to the Libyans, and those ones, they are very brutal”.

Following numerous governments’ alarming decisions to suspend financial support to the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) leading to a deterioration in the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, the European Commission (EC) stated in a press release that “Humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will continue unabated through partner organisations”. While “no additional funding to UNRWA is foreseen until the end of February”, the EC will determine upcoming funding decisions for UNRWA in light of the ongoing investigation against 12 individuals who were allegedly involved in the 7 October attacks in Israel. In a phone call with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, EC Vice-President Josep Borrell expressed “strong concern over the dramatic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and reconfirmed that “the EU will continue its essential aid to Palestinians in Gaza unabated, as one of the largest donors of aid, and through partner organisations capable of delivering assistance effectively”. Mr Borrell also echoed the UN Secretary-General’s words: “What happens in Gaza is a scar on our shared conscience”. In a statement, Mr Guterres urged European countries to reverse their decisions to suspend UNRWA funding. “2 million civilians in Gaza depend on critical aid from UNRWA for daily survival but UNRWA’s current funding will not allow it to meet all requirements to support them in February. While I understand their concerns – I was myself horrified by these accusations – I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations”, he stated. He added: “The abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences. But the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized”. Additionally, UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine, Francesca Albanese, wrote on X: “The day after International Criminal Court (ICJ) concluded that Israel is plausibly committing Genocide in Gaza, some states decided to defund UN Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), collectively punishing millions of Palestinians at the most critical time, and most likely violating their obligations under the Genocide Convention”. Moreover, in a statement released on 1 February, UNRWA reported: “Tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee to the south due to bombardment and fighting in Khan Younis over the last week, adding to more than 1.4 million people already crammed in the southern governorate of Rafah. Most are living in makeshift structures, tents, or out in the open, and now also fear they might no longer receive any food or other humanitarian assistance from UNRWA”. “As the war in Gaza is being pursued unabated, and at the time the International Court of Justice calls for more humanitarian assistance, it is the time to reinforce and not to weaken UNRWA”, said UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, adding “If the funding remains suspended, we will most likely be forced to shut down our operations by end of February not only in Gaza but also across the region”. 20 aid organisations published a joint statement to express their “concern” and “outrage” regarding the suspension of funding for UNRWA by its largest donors amid “a rapidly worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza”. “With approximately over one million displaced Palestinians taking shelter in or around 154 UNRWA shelters, the agency and aid organisations have continued to work in near impossible circumstances to provide food, vaccinations, and freshwater. The countries suspending funds risk further depriving Palestinians in the region of essential food, water, medical assistance and supplies, education and protection”, the NGOs said, urging donor states to “reaffirm support for the vital work that UNRWA and its partners do to help Palestinians survive one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of our times”. The director of ECRE member organisation the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, wrote on X: “All UN agencies, all NGOs, all groups striving to keep women and children alive in beleaguered and bombarded Gaza, agree it will be catastrophic for innocent civilians to cut aid money for and through our most important sister organisation, UNRWA”. He also told CNN: “All of us combined, other groups, are not even close to being what UNRWA is for the people of Gaza”.

Meanwhile, Europe is looking for new partners to externalise asylum processing in 2024 after a year of serious attempts to curb NGO search and rescue operations, and efforts to outsource its border management to other countries. Camille Le Coz, associate director for Europe at the Migration Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera that the increasingly popular idea of externalising asylum is “something we’re likely going to see more of moving forward despite shaky legal grounds”. According to the UNHCR, at least 264,371 asylum seekers entered Europe by boat and land in 2023. Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the IOM, said that these numbers were a far cry from those recorded in 2015 when more than a million people reached European shores via the sea. “There is no real emergency”, Di Giacomo told Al Jazeera, adding: “They are very manageable figures, and more should be done to give people who arrive by sea access to a system of protection”.

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