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Fear Dampens Hope Among Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia

The sudden outbreak of peace in the Horn of Africa means an open border and new vulnerability. Researchers Jennifer Riggan and Amanda Poole capture the concerns of Eritrean refugees.

Written by Amanda Poole, Jennifer Riggan Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Long-separated families meet at Asmara International Airport on July 21, 2018, during the first week after Ethiopian airlines resumed flights to Asmara, Eritrea.MAHEDER HAILESELASSIE TADESE/AFP/Getty Images

In July this year, Ethiopia and Eritrea shocked the world, thrilled their people and upended politics as usual in the Horn of Africa by signing an agreement of peace and friendship that ended 20 years of conflict.

Change has happened remarkably fast since then. Phone lines and flights that hadn’t operated for two decades reconnected the two countries, which share a 567-mile (912km) border. Families separated by war reunited in ecstatic celebration. The Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa reopened and everyone expects land travel across the contentious border to resume soon.

But not everyone is excited about peace. On a recent research visit to Ethiopia, where we have been studying Eritrean refugee settlements for the past two years, we discovered that many refugees are afraid of what peace could mean for their safety and their future. Some refugees say that the end of conflict in the region may actually be more dangerous for them than war.

The Eritrean refugee camps in northern Ethiopia are unusual. Instead of being crowded with families who have fled conflict, like the camps along other borders housing refugees from Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, the camps in the north are filled with young men.

We discovered that many refugees are afraid of what peace could mean for their safety and their future. Some refugees say that the end of conflict in the region may actually be more dangerous for them than war.

Eritrean refugees are concerned for their safety in Ethiopia because the end of the border conflict does not guarantee political change in Eritrea, or peace along the border where the camps are located.

“Our problem is not the border,” a refugee named Kidane told us, repeating a common sentiment. He returned to the Ethiopian camps near the Eritrean border over five years ago after failing to reach Europe. “We came here not because of a border problem, but because of problems with the government.” Of the new peace agreement, he says, “It exposes us. It will harm us. It will not benefit us.”

They have good reason to be concerned. In Sudan, Eritrean refugees are vulnerable to capture and return by the Eritrean military, who operate across the Sudanese-Eritrean border. Refugees in Ethiopia fear that an open border will enable Eritrean operatives to target asylum seekers in the camps. If Ethiopia fails to enhance protections, refugees may choose to migrate onward.

Other Eritrean refugees we spoke to would like to celebrate their country’s newfound peace but fear for their safety in the border region that is becoming increasingly volatile. “Before, I was very comfortable with the ability of Ethiopia to protect refugees,” said one man living in Mai Aini, one of the refugee camps along the northern border. “Now, I am frustrated.”

The acceptance of the peace agreement has angered many local communities, as Ethiopian border towns will be torn apart when land is ceded to Eritrea. Much of the disputed border lies in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where many of the camps are located. For the past year, contentious domestic politics have pitted the Tigrayans against other ethno-national groups in Ethiopia, and peace is being brokered by regimes in both countries that are antagonistic to the main political party from that region, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Refugees in the camps fear a border that is increasingly both open and volatile.

Eritrean asylum seekers are also concerned about what peace could mean for their asylum claims. Some question whether the prima facie basis for granting Eritreans refugee status in Ethiopia will continue for Eritreans opposed to the regime in Asmara.

“Before, I was very comfortable with the ability of Ethiopia to protect refugees,” said one man living in Mai Aini, one of the refugee camps along the northern border. “Now, I am frustrated.”

In Europe, Eritreans have been at the center of debates about the legitimacy of asylum claims. In the wake of increased migration, European countries have asserted that Eritreans are fleeing poverty rather than human rights problems in their home country, and therefore can be denied asylum and safely returned.

Now, Israel is considering deporting Eritreans if Eritrea ends indefinite national service. But asylum seekers could be in danger unless Eritrea gives amnesty to those who have fled illegally.

Refugees need assurances in order to feel safe. They need assurances that the world understands that Eritrea has not yet changed. Eritrean law requires citizens to undergo 18 months of national military service, but the government used the war as a pretext to make national service permanent for most. The conditions for soldiers in Eritrea’s army are harsh, including physical punishments, forced labor, restrictions on freedom of movement and long periods of time spent away from family.

Some leave as children, before they are conscripted in grade 12 (the last year of secondary school). Others leave after their official service term ends when they realize that, even if officially demobilized, the government can still recall them.

Indefinite national service isn’t the only reason that the 160,000-plus Eritrean refugees currently hosted by Ethiopia have fled their country. President Isaias governs Eritrea with austere control. Movement within the country has required written permission for most of the past 20 years. It is illegal to leave without an exit visa, which is nearly impossible to obtain. The thousands who flee each month risk being shot or imprisoned. Any attempt at protest has been stanched. The constitution has never been implemented, and Eritreans may be arbitrarily arrested and detained in a prison system where torture is routine.

If the government of Eritrea would like Eritrean refugees to come home, they will need assurances that Eritrea is a different kind of place. They will also need stronger assurances that they can stay in Ethiopia and will be protected there, particularly if conflict occurs in Tigray. As one refugee stated, “The political situation is very tense and when it is tense, we feel worried. We don’t know what will happen.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.


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