Intense fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region for the past three weeks has raised humanitarian concerns over the safety of nearly 100 000 Eritrean refugees, who are living in overcrowded camps as aid workers warn of dwindling humanitarian supplies.
Abiy Ahmed – who is Ethiopia’s first prime minister of Oromo ethnicity and who received the Nobel Peace Prize last year in part for his efforts to end Ethiopia’s border dispute with Eritrea – began military operations on 4 November against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that governs the northern Tigray region bordering Eritrea. This was after Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking a federal army base and commandeering weapons.
The fighting, which has included aerial bombardments of locations in Tigray, has since spilled over into neighbouring Ethiopian state Amhara and the TPLF fired rockets at the airport in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.
Tensions between the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for three decades until Abiy’s rise to power in 2018, and Abiy’s central government in Addis Ababa have been simmering for some time but escalated dramatically in recent months.
Abiy dissolved the coalition of ethnic regional parties headed by the TPLF that had ruled Ethiopia until 2018 and merged them into a single, national party called the Prosperity Party last year. The TPLF alleged that the merger contradicted Ethiopia’s 1994 Constitution, which defines the country’s structure as a multicultural federation of semi-autonomous, ethnic-based territorial units.
The TPLF held regional parliamentary elections in Tigray in September, in defiance of Abiy postponing the national and regional elections that were scheduled for August because of the coronavirus pandemic. The TPLF accused Abiy of attempting to extend his time in office, while the central government said the Tigray elections were “unconstitutional”.
These tensions have now exploded into open warfare.
‘Life is impossible and unliveable’
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been killed in the conflict, and there are reports of ethnically motivated mass killings and numerous Tigrayan civilians being racially profiled, arrested and purged from their jobs. This has led to the United Nations warning of a heightened risk of “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.
Rights groups, aid workers and Eritrean advocates fear that Eritrean refugees in Tigray, scattered throughout four camps near the border, are becoming victims to this escalating political conflict.
Ann Encontre, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ethiopia, said the refugee agency is “extremely worried” about the impacts the conflict could have on the Eritrean refugees. The lack of humanitarian access to the Tigray region and its inability to bring in food and supplies is compounding concerns for the refugees, who are almost completely reliant on aid from the UNHCR and its partners, she said.
There has been a total internet and telecommunication blackout throughout Ethiopia since the start of the conflict, making it nearly impossible to communicate with individuals in Tigray or verify information. Journalists have reportedly been arrested and media outlets have had their press licences suspended over their coverage of the conflict.
“Life is impossible and unliveable in Eritrea,” said Gaim Kibreab, a professor at London South Bank University whose work centres on Eritrean refugees. “They have no future there, so they are running away in search of a better life.”
Now in Ethiopia “they are completely stuck”, added Kibreab. “There is no aid coming to them. There is a shortage of water and food. If the situation carries on like this, they will be in a very desperate situation.”
Many of those living in the four refugee camps in Tigray – Adi Harush, Hitsats, Mai-Aini and Shimelba – are political refugees who have fled human rights violations under the often brutal regime of Eritrea President Isaias Afwerki.
According to Human Rights Watch, about 6 000 Eritreans arrived in Ethiopia each month in 2019 and scores continue to flee Eritrea to escape the country’s indefinite national conscription, which the UN has equated to “mass enslavement”.
The TPLF has alleged that thousands of Eritrean troops have crossed the border and are involved in the fighting in Tigray on the side of the federal government, although the Eritrean government has denied this. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a brutal border war from 1998 to 2000 that left tens of thousands dead.
Abiy signed a peace deal with Afwerki in 2018. But enmity persists between Afwerki and the TPLF, while the human rights situation in Eritrea remains dire.
The conflict is a “major ongoing concern” for Eritrean refugees in Tigray, the UNHCR has said. “Potential for further displacement of refugees inside the country is increasingly a real possibility.”
Dwindling humanitarian supplies
According to the UNHCR, to escape the fighting, more than 36 000 Ethiopians have fled to neighbouring Sudan, some crossing a river by boat, in an influx unprecedented in the past two decades. The UN is preparing for about 200 000 refugees to arrive in Sudan over the next six months. Many Ethiopians have also been internally displaced.
The military operation does not seem to be subsiding, but Abiy has said the operation is now in its “final stage” as federal government forces move to take over Mekelle, the Tigray region’s capital. On Sunday 22 November, Abiy gave the TPLF a warning of 72 hours to surrender to federal forces before the military goes ahead with the offensive on Mekelle. He also urged civilians in the city of 500 000 to “save themselves”.
The UNHCR noted last week that the fighting in Tigray had moved close to the Shimelba refugee camp. Although closer to Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, refugees were fleeing from Shimelba into Hitsats about 50km away and further into Ethiopia’s interior.
Many Eritrean refugees from Shimelba have family members in Hitsats. So as Ethiopians flee over the border into Sudan, some Eritrean refugees appear to be moving further into the country to reach their families or seek refuge in Hitsats.
Hitsats, which the federal government had planned to close earlier this year, was already experiencing severe overcrowding, food supply shortages and poor access to water before the conflict broke out.
Shire, about 45km from Hitsats, had also been a site of fierce fighting between the TPLF and the federal troops and their allies, including unverified reports that Eritrean soldiers were involved. Shire has subsequently fallen to federal government forces. However, fighting continues to be reported in the area. The UNHCR has relocated a “large portion” of their staff from Shire owing to the fighting, Encontre said.
“Due to lack of communications it is extremely difficult to get any solid and verified information from Tigray, including the impact on refugees,” Encontre said. “But we have not received reports of any direct attacks on refugee camps or refugee communities.”
As of Sunday, Encontre said, “from the limited contact with staff we understand that the situation in the camps is currently calm. However, the situation remains very fluid and without the security conditions in place that allow safe access to the camps, services will cease to function.”
On Tuesday 24 November, however, reports emerged of fighting between TPLF and Ethiopian federal forces, along with an allied Amhara militia, at the Adi Harush camp, allegedly resulting in three refugees killed and several others injured. Encontre was unable to confirm this report or provide more information.
She said that while the UNHCR and Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (Arra) are still able to access the four Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray and basic services are functioning, their access has been “irregular”.
The main concerns for the UNHCR are security and a lack of basic amenities and food, Encontre said, as no food is entering the Tigray region. She warned that food stocks will run out by the end of November.
Movement restrictions, a lack of fuel and the communication blackout have prevented humanitarian organisations from reaching those in need. The dwindling fuel supply is of grave concern as the refugee camps in Tigray rely on generators to pump water.
According to the UNHCR, banks are closed and cash is extremely difficult to come by.
Aid organisations have appealed to the Ethiopian government to secure access for them to Tigray while urging an immediate ceasefire to allow them to help the thousands of civilians trapped amid the fighting.
‘It’s making us feel scared’
“It’s hard to say what will happen,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch, referring to what will happen next and in what direction the Eritrean refugees will move to escape the conflict, if they move at all. “Some have been in those camps for years, so these are also quite established communities, and the fear of everyone getting caught in the current crisis is one of being uprooted from what may be their temporary homes, but which are still their homes.”
Encontre said that as the fighting could intensify and be prolonged, the “interruption of protection and basic services in the camps may compel refugees to leave the camps to seek shelter and support elsewhere. This could be in the direction of Sudan or towards Addis Ababa … Many refugees may also be reluctant or simply unable to move. In any case, all of the 96 000 Eritrean refugees are already seriously affected.”
Selam Kidane, a psychotherapist and researcher who has done years of fieldwork in the camps in Tigray, said migration routes into Sudan are already well-established for Ethiopians and Eritreans, and most refugees will have known someone who has made the journey or have done so themselves.
The refugees are at risk of developing yet another layer of trauma, Kidane said. Many Eritrean refugees are suffering from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder linked to the torture, violence and abuse they experienced at home. This is often compounded by the difficulties and uncertainty of life in the camps.
During Kidane’s previous visits to the camps, the refugees “felt very unsafe even though at that time it was quite safe for them. But because they were so traumatised by their experiences in Eritrea, they couldn’t settle. They had a constant fear of something happening. Now that you have something like this that is actually a real danger, their trauma is only going to be made worse.”
Kidane said that throughout her previous field research, “nobody ever said they felt unsafe”. But since the start of this year, Eritrean refugees have been raising alarms over insecurities in and around the camp and increasing uncertainty over their future status in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia, which hosts more than a third of Eritrea’s global refugee population, had long granted all Eritreans fleeing persecution in their country prima facie status, or automatic asylum, when they crossed the border. But according to the UNHCR, since January the Arra has only registered some categories of new arrivals at the Eritrean border, excluding others such as unaccompanied and separated children, people seeking medical treatment and those seeking family reunions.
Rights groups had warned that Ethiopia’s withdrawal of blanket protections for Eritreans could “force them to return to abusive situations in violation of international law” or make them vulnerable to networks that smuggle Eritreans north through Libya towards Europe.
Encontre said that stripping the prima facie status for Eritrean refugees coupled with the fighting in Tigray has caused many Eritreans to “think twice” about seeking asylum in Ethiopia.
Communication with refugees in the Tigray region is impossible for now. But Abraham, an Eritrean refugee in Hitsats camp who asked for his identity to be protected, said several months ago that refugees feared for their safety in the Tigray region.
Armed members of an Eritrean opposition group allied with the TPLF, along with uniformed Tigrayans, allegedly entered the camp in March and coerced refugees to chant: “Down with Isaias! Down with Abiy!”
Abraham, who witnessed the incident, said the militants pointed guns at any refugees that refused until they joined the chant. He said the police did not protect the refugees.
“People are all the time very afraid since the incident,” said Abraham. He fled Eritrea after being imprisoned for years, where he was tortured and starved, for refusing national conscription. “We had never seen people come into the camp with guns before. It has frightened everyone.”
Refugees pleaded to be relocated to another region of Ethiopia or outside the country. “Now people with guns are coming into the camp. All of this has made us very worried,” Abraham said at the time.
“Most of us are political refugees who escaped prison or the national service, and now here in the camp we have no protections and these days there are very few people being resettled,” he added. “It’s making us feel scared and affecting our psychological state. We are feeling very vulnerable here.”