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Ethiopia keeps the door open for Eritrean refugees

While the once flourishing trade between Eritrea and Ethiopia has long disappeared, the movement of peoples between the two countries is a daily, or, more precisely, nightly event.

“I crossed after hearing they were about to round people up for the military,” says 20-year-old Gebre, who crossed the 565-mile border into Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. “I wasn’t going to go through that – you’re hungry, there’s no salary, you’re not doing anything to help your country; you’re just serving officials.”

Refugees can remain marooned in Ethiopian territory for up to a decade, but in many regards, Ethiopia is the last place you might expect an Eritrean refugee like Gebre to be shown such hospitality. The two countries fought a devastating war between 1998 and 2000, and their respective governments still continually trade accusations in an atmosphere of mutual loathing.

“We differentiate between the government and its people,” says Estifanos Gebremedhin of Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA). “We are the same people, we share the same blood, even the same grandfathers.” Eritrea was Ethiopia’s most northern region before a referendum giving it independence in 1993. Hence on both sides of the border, many people share the same language, religion and cultural traditions.

It pays to host

In addition to such apparent comradeship, it also helps that European donors are increasingly providing Ethiopia with financial incentives to keep refugees within its borders, in a similar way to the approach taken with Turkey. Between 40,000 and 47,000 Eritreans applied for asylum in Europe each year in the 2014–16 period, according to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.

Many of them start that journey from Ethiopia. “Most say they faced military conscription, religious persecution, arbitrary detention, torture,” says Teshome Kasa, coordinator of a refugee screening centre in the town of Endabaguna.

A UN report released last year accused Eritrea’s leadership of crimes against humanity. Eritrea has been called one of the world’s fastest-emptying nations. Others, however, argue that there is a lack of nuance applied to the situation in Eritrea.

“Things aren’t as bad as the report claims,” Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the US-based Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, wrote in the New York Times, highlighting how Eritrea’s levels of education and healthcare are relatively impressive for such a poor country. “[The report] entrenches the skewed perspective long dominant in policy circles and the media in the West.”

Refugees typically tell a different story, though. “Nothing is exaggerated,” said Dawit, an Eritrean refugee living for eight years in Shimelba camp, the first of four dedicated to housing Eritrean refugees in Tigray. “We have the victims of rape, torture and imprisonment in our camp who can testify.”

Either way, Eritreans are coming to Ethiopia in droves. In February 2017, 3,367 Eritrean refugees arrived in Ethiopia, according to ARRA. Around 165,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers currently reside in Ethiopia, according to the UN.

Unique strategy

Ethiopia’s open-door policy is in marked contrast to the strategies of reducing and preventing migrant flows that are being increasingly adopted in many Western societies. “Ethiopia strongly believes that generous hosting of refugees will be good for regional relationships down the road,” said Jennifer Riggan, an associate professor of International Studies at Arcadia University in the US.

Having opened in 2013, Hitsats is the newest of the four camps, housing 11,000 Eritrean refugees, of whom about 80% are under 35. Camp coordinator Haftam Telemickael takes issue with debate in the West about whether refugees are political or economic migrants. “Even if they are seeking political asylum, there will be an economic side to it as they are young and need to generate income to live their lives,” Haftam says.

But despite the apparent welcome given to Eritrean refugees, frictions remain. “People recognise the shared culture and ethnic background, and that helps for many things, but there’s still distrust because of the 30-year-war [for independence],” said Milena Belloni, a researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, who is currently writing a book about Eritrean refugees. “There’s a double narrative.”

While both sides talk of the other as brothers, she explains, historically Eritreans looked down on Tigrayans – based on them working as migrant labourers in Eritrea during its heyday as an Italian colony during the first half of the 20th century – while Tigrayans viewed Eritreans as arrogant and aloof.

Furthermore, to add to such frictions, the heavily militarised border has been far from static since the war ended. Hundreds of soldiers were killed in June 2016 during a border clash between the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries. More recently there have been reports of increasing insurgent attacks launched over the border from Eritrea during Ethiopia’s current state of emergency.

Assimilation in the nation

Despite the frictions, Ethiopia is looking to further integrate Eritrean refugees by embracing the pledges of the 2016 Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, which called for better integration and education, employment and residency opportunities for refugees around the world. “Ethiopia is moving very seriously to implement the pledges which will have a profound, and potentially very positive, effect, not only on Eritrean refugees but on all refugees in Ethiopia,” Riggan says.

In addition to the camps, thousands more Eritreans live in Ethiopia outside the asylum system. In Addis Ababa, about 600km south of the camps, whole neighbourhoods of the capital are dominated by Eritreans. But even those fortunate refugees who make it to Addis Ababa and its Eritrean enclaves don’t escape the challenges of living in another country.

“Life is difficult here, it’s expensive, and people’s behaviour changes here,” said Yonathon, an Eritrean former journalist living in the Mebrat Hail suburb of Addis Ababa. “You can’t replicate home.” But that’s not stopping Eritreans taking a chance while Ethiopia keeps the door open.“Ethiopia’s response is to manage the gate, and figure out how it can benefit from these inevitable flows of people,” Riggan says. “I definitely think Ethiopia’s approach is the wiser and more realistic one.”


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Written by James Jeffrey

After completing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin in May 2012, James Jeffrey spent a year freelancing in US focusing primarily on business, including writing for the Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas Business Journals. In October 2013 he moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to write about business-related features primarily, while endeavouring to cover other topics of interest in a remarkable country.

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