We Live in a State of Fear: Eritrean refugees keep bearing the brunt of the Ethiopian crisis

Cover photo by Markus Rudolf

by Markus Rudolf

For Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, the situation has changed drastically with the armed conflict between the central government and Tigray state that broke out on 4 November 2020. Human Rights Watch reported that different military units and militias repeatedly attacked camp residents between November 2020 and January 2021. Eritrean soldiers executed listed individuals and deported large numbers of refugees. Hitsats and Shimelba, the camps closest to Eritrea, were completely destroyed. The two remaining camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, were cut off from any support after national and international aid organisations left. At the same time, Tigray and oppositional Eritrean militias took revenge on those suspected of looting camp residents. According to encounters in summer 2022 with those who fled, only the disabled, the pregnant and the elderly remained in the camps.

Refugees staying outside the camps were attacked too. Dawit, a man in his forties, insists that he and his family literally got the last bus to escape from the Adi Harush camp, in a contested area close to the border between Tigray and Amhara state. “There was no food, no water in the camp. We were escaping with 5 children. It was very difficult. We had a clinic but no doctors, no treatment, no medicine. On the one side were the federals on the other the TPLF [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] – the Eritreans were in the middle. We did not have a choice. We had nothing. No money. We had left all in Shire. There was fighting and the other day they came back. It went on like this for two weeks. We escaped on foot. It was very, very difficult. It took us three days [to get out].”

In between contradictory narratives

Since the start of the armed conflict, a propaganda battle has been raging over the narrative of who plays which role in the conflict and who is responsible for which atrocities and massacres. Humanitarian aid has become a political issue and the civilian population a pawn in the battle for global public opinion. The TPLF has been claiming that humanitarian aid is blocked by the central government and speaks of a strategy to use famine as a weapon of war. Ethiopia’s central government, in turn, accuses Tigrinya militias of human rights violations such as past and present massacres of civilians (as the attacks in Mai Kadra in 2020). It claims that the TPLF wants to re-establish the old regime and discredit the new government internationally with fake news. These claims resonate with Ethiopians who reject the old (TPLF) leaders.

In between contradictory narratives, shifting political alliances, and an opaque state of negotiations, Eritrean refugees find themselves at the centre of the conflict. Prior to the current conflict, all refugee camps for Eritreans were located along Ethiopia’s northern border and thus in the areas most affected by the fighting. According to UNHCR, there were 96,000 Eritrean refugees in the four camps in Tigray before the conflict broke out. INGOs now estimate the number of Eritrean refugees who have escaped to Addis to be around 80,000. In Addis, Eritrean refugees have become everybody’s scapegoats: they are harassed as Eritreans by Tigrayans and as Tigrinya speakers by Ethiopian nationalists. Increased hostilities and attacks against them in the capital have left many searching for a means of escape once more.

The camp as a last resort

In July, videos circulated on social media showing passengers waiting and wailing close to buses at the outskirts of Addis Ababa. They were supposedly Eritreans rounded up by the Ethiopian police to be transported to a refugee camp in Northern Ethiopia. According to Bereket, a single man in his late thirties who had made his way from the north to Addis Ababa twice, there is little doubt about the insecurity in the area: “It is too close [to the front line]. They [armed groups] can come any time,” he explains. The new Alemwach refugee camp near Dabat was established in Amharic territory in June 2021. Shortly thereafter, UNHCR reported looting and attacks by different armed groups. Subsequent reports from refugee activist groups confirmed that refugees had nowhere to run. As of 2022, INGOs consider the conditions in the camp as desperate and report that intercommunal violence remains prevalent. International staff – off the record – describe conditions as “catastrophic” and speak of a general lack of services in Dabat.

Adi Harush refugee camp. Photo Markus Rudolf.

Those affected most by these events were refugees who had ended up in camps as their last resort due to a lack of alternatives, like the case of Hassan shows. After decades of a life as an irregular day labourer on the move in Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia, Hassan was deported back to Eritrea in 2019. Being in his late fifties, he was still not old enough to evade the obligatory and infamous draft to the army. He had to escape once again and made it to a camp in Sudan. There he founded a family and moved to Adi Harush, a camp for Eritrean refugees in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, where he decided to stay put and file for resettlement: “I had enough. Now I am waiting for my process here. I have a brother in the US,” he explained during an encounter in the camp in 2019.

Longing for resettlement

Before the conflict erupted, his neighbour in a shelter turned into a makeshift house was Bereket, who had moved over the nearby border without any similar detours. When he crossed in 2012, it was a heavily militarised zone. He crossed during the stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea that followed a bloody war in 1998-2000. During that time, he had no trouble being registered as a refugee. Ethiopia, just as the Western and the Eastern blocs in Europe during the Cold War, welcomed refugees as evidence of its own superiority. Ever since, however, Bereket has remained stranded in Ethiopia as a refugee awaiting resettlement, preferably to New Zealand or Scandinavia where his relatives live. Waiting for his process, he continues to worry about still living within reach of the Eritrean security forces. Even before politics changed and alliances shifted, he lamented a lack of protection: “They [Eritrean government] have their people here [inside the camp]. They abduct people from the camps. You never hear from them again.”

The bridge marking the disputed borderline between Tigray and Amhara. Photo by Markus Rudolf.

Dawit, on the other hand, had come with his wife and children after a peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018. The border had been reopened for the first time in decades. People from both sides took the opportunity to visit relatives, friends, and colleagues they had been separated from since the two countries partitioned in 1991. The Eritrean side of the border was officially closed soon again but many still made it across. They often passed through the camps to move on to urban centres in Tigray to join kin who served as guarantors. Tigrinya on both sides speak the same language and feel that they share a common culture. This made integration easier. Dawit just went to the camp for registration and proceeded to Shire, where the family rented an apartment. They lived on the rations from the camp, the income generated by family members working in the service sector in town, and some support from relatives in the diaspora. The children attended the local school.

Newly arrived refugees with financially well-off relatives move on to Addis to wait for their asylum or migration papers. Looking at the ease with which the new arrivals move in and out of the camp, and seeing the assets they bring, they are called “tourists on a stopover” by those who, like Bereket, have been worrying about their protection for years and those who, like Hassan, feel stuck due to a lack of alternatives. Many refugees have endured long periods of waiting for a durable solution. Even after the Ethiopian policy of encampment had changed to an out-of-camp-policy (OCP), most refugees staying in the camps saw no alternative but to stay put.

Adi Harush refugee camp. Photo by Markus Rudolf.

Without connections to the diaspora abroad capable of paying for the daily expenses of their family members in transit, life outside the camp was simply too expensive. “We stayed in Addis, but life is too expensive there. I had to bring my family back to the camp,” another of Bereket and Hassan’s neighbours explained. Like many other Eritrean refugees in Addis, Bereket is only able to pay his rent thanks to relatives abroad. Kin in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or Norway finance whole neighbourhoods of Addis where only Eritreans (and Ethiopians) with access to remittances can afford the high rents, exploding prices, and soaring inflation. Dawit had to move farther away to the outskirts of Addis even though his family can count on the support from his brother-in-law living in the US.

The risks of encampment

Many of the Eritrean refugees who fled on their own to Amhara or Addis Ababa were nevertheless forced to return to the camp at the behest of the central government. Bereket explains that Eritrean refugees were held by the IOM in a large hall with guards on all exits when they first arrived in Addis: “I told them – all of us told IOM – we do not want to go back. But they forced us – it was against our will”. Not only had armed conflict, violence and killings – the very conditions they fled from – caught up with the refugees at the very spot they had come for protection; on top of it they were forced to leave relative safety again.

“I told them – all of us told IOM – we do not want to go back.

But they forced us – it was against our will”

Bereket

Just as Bereket, Hassan had to leave the camp due to the conflict. He made it to Addis, but he could not shoulder the high costs of living there and chose to return to the newly established camp Dabat. A few days/weeks/months later, he disappeared. Bereket assumed that he was taken by Eritrean forces. “He disappeared. They took him. His wife does not know his whereabouts. They can come and sneak in and take you at night”. His worries are not unfounded, as an investigation by Reuters has documented. Some who have heard the story suspect that Hassan may have been mistaken for a Tigrayan due to speaking the same language and killed by the Amhara militia, while others believe that he simply got unlucky and was caught up in a shootout between the TPLF and Amhara militias (called FANO).

The mountains refugees had to pass. Photo Markus Rudolf.

Between a rock and a hard place

Since the conflict in Tigray started, Eritrean refugees – and Tigrinya speakers especially – remain trapped between a rock and a hard place. As Bereket recounts: “On one side was the TPLF and on the other the federal [soldiers]. They were shooting over our heads. We wanted to escape but they shot at us. Many refugees are dead. Those who escaped, they caught them and brought us back to the camp where they imprisoned us.” He continues: “Then they released us again. Everybody on his own. I walked through dead bodies. Soldiers were left at the side of the path. Both TPLF and federals … There was no water. We had to go through the mountains. My feet are still injured. In the mountains there were many others [refugees]. The mountains [close to Ethiopian highest peak Ras Dashen] were very high and steep. They attacked the women. They raped them. We could not do anything. They beat us.” Looking somewhere into the distance, he recalls these memories: “I saw terrible things on the way. They are in my head.” Refocusing on the here and now, his gaze becomes firm when he asks, “How to get them out?”

“On one side was the TPLF and on the other the federal [soldiers]. They were shooting over our heads. We wanted to escape but they shot at us. Many refugees are dead”

Bereket

The prospects for Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia do not hold much hope. They increasingly see only one option for escaping their enduring loss of access to rights and livelihoods – moving to more peaceful and stable countries outside the region. Dawit explains that he and his family have relied entirely on remittances for the past 18 months, since he is no longer able to work in Shire. His hopes now rest on resettlement in a country in the Global North: “Our children go to school here. It is peaceful. But we cannot work, because we have no work permit. Hopefully, in a few months, our family will be in the USA.” Bereket, in contrast, has managed to find work in Addis despite the formal hurdles. But he does not see any local prospects either and keeps hoping for resettlement: “Here there is not change. Corona is not the problem, but politics [is]. [In the] Horn of Africa – as its name indicates – [there is] always fighting. We live in a state of fear. What can we do – maybe it is our destiny.”

Disclaimer: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant No. 822453 and would not have been possible without the kindness and openness of those sharing their stories.

About the author

Markus Rudolf is a senior researcher at the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies with interest and experience in conflict management pertaining to humanitarian aid, crisis management and post-crisis assistance, Markus’ research focuses on forced displacement, human rights, youth at risk, gender-based violence, conflict management and the political economy of violent conflicts. He previously worked as a conflict researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (MPI) and as a consultant for humanitarian issues for various intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. He graduated in sociology, social psychology, and social anthropology from universities in Saarland, Colorado and Berlin.

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