Eritreans have one of the hightest rates of emigration in the world: An estimated 5,000 Eritreans flee their country’s military dictatorship, forced conscription and bonded labor every month.
But contrary to popular portrayals of Eritreans fleeing to Europe, most Eritrean asylum seekers remain in neighboring Ethiopia, which has become the second largest refugee-hosting country in Africa.
Eritreans form the third largest refugee group in Ethiopia, after South Sudanese and Somalis, with over 155,000 living mainly in refugee camps, In contrast, 33,405 Eritreans registered as first-time asylum seekers in Europe in 2016, forming 3 percent of the over 1.2 million applications received by the E.U.
Our latest report for the Overseas Development Institute, “Journeys on Hold,” found that many Eritreans do aspire to move to Europe but are unable to do so.
The Eritreans we met cited safety as their first priority. Many simply cannot move forward, due to the financial costs and physical dangers associated with irregular migration. Others get drawn into the resettlement obsession, which provides one of the few legal channels available for Eritreans to restart their lives in the West.
However, the odds of being resettled are incredibly slim for refugees in Ethiopia – about one in 100. Despite being on the move, many Eritreans become immobile. These “immobile movers” hold out for resettlement and consider short-term solutions to survive in the meantime.
Lone women and single mothers with children are particularly affected by becoming indefinitely immobile.
We met 34-year-old Negesti, with two of her children, in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. She was hoping to be reunited with her husband, who left Eritrea before them. Unable to locate him, she is now hoping to live in the U.S., Canada or Europe, where her children can attend school, and has applied for resettlement. She cannot afford education for her children in Ethiopia as she is not allowed to legally work despite being registered as a refugee.
Women and children stranded without protection and support, especially in large cities like Addis Ababa, become susceptible to abuse and manipulation. Rita, an Eritrean woman living in Addis Ababa, described Eritrean girls ending up in the sex trade: “More and more women in Addis, Eritrean women, you see alone, young, they fall in prostitution circles. … they go from one house to another. They get around. They are 14, 15, 16 years old,” she told us.
A survey that Samuel Hall conducted in 2014 found that lack of schooling and livelihood opportunities increase Eritrean female refugees’ vulnerability. Formal employment often constitutes a small share of their livelihoods. About 76 percent of female refugees reported that they did not work at all in a year, compared to 30 percent of the men we interviewed.
Our findings go beyond gender and geography. Urban refugees and other Eritreans who do not live in camps feel unproductive and disillusioned while waiting for family reunification or resettlement. One 53-year old man told us, “I am enjoying the peace here, even if I don’t have enough food.”
But frustration at the limits of such an existence quickly turns it to a “negative peace.” A term coined by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, he describes a condition where refugees are now “free from persecution,” yet experiencing “underdevelopment, hunger, injustice, and human incapacity” in exile.
Incentives to Remain
International policies to support refugees in non-Western countries serve a dual purpose: Ensuring minimal standards of health, education, and opportunities, while also acting as deterrence measures to keep refugees from migrating onwards to a Western country.
Yet truly improving refugees’ lives and discouraging them from further journeys will require wider changes. For instance, skills building and loans for refugees should reflect the needs and capacities of the local economies. Legal pathways for migration should be clearly signposted, and resettlement options expanded.
While developing skills is beneficial in its own right, training people to do a job without allowing them the right to legally work prompts them to move on to places where they can put them to use. A 2014 report by Samuel Hall and the Norwegian Refugee Council found that one particular intervention in an Ethiopian camp designed to train young people with vocational skills actually strengthened their intention of onward migration.
Our research shows that enriching the skills of refugees living in camps, however noble the intent, does little besides further frustrating those living in limbo when they are not provided with viable livelihood options. There are only so many shops that can stay afloat, let alone make a profit, in a refugee camp with a closed economy that serves a small population with meager purchasing power.
Enabling the Host State
Ethiopia is a vital country of asylum, as the exodus from Eritrea will continue unabated. The Ethiopian government needs support in the form of protection measures and support that is tailored to men, women, youth and children. All refugees inside and outside the camps desperately need recognized labor rights. Primary and secondary education for their children is also crucial to avoid future generations from falling into the illiteracy-unemployment-poverty cycle.
Two solutions remain. The first is to facilitate a legal, safe and regular onward journey for refugees living in Ethiopia to a third country or to provide them with the rightful means in Ethiopia to resume their lives. The other measure must involve the granting of labor rights to which refugees are entitled under the Geneva Convention, alongside recognition that high unemployment and insecure jobs are problems affecting all Ethiopians too.
Waiting in limbo and working irregularly compounds the problems of both the displaced populations that are already living on the fringes of society and the stability of the countries hosting them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.
Never miss an update. Sign up here for our Refugees Deeply newsletter to receive weekly updates, special reports and featured insights on one of the most critical issues of our time.