Concern Grows For Safety Of Eritrean Refugees As Tigray War Rages

Eritrean refugees face threats of violence, harassment and food shortages amid conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.


Eritrean refugee woman in the Mai-Aini refugee camp near the Eritrean border in Tigray [File: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]


As fighting continues in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the United Nations is calling for the opening of routes to four refugee camps sheltering Eritreans, who are almost fully reliant on humanitarian aid.


Ann Encontre, UNHCR representative in Ethiopia, said that while refugees live “in harmony” with northern Ethiopians – with whom they share a language and similar culture – “any breakdown of normal life puts those in camps at higher risk, particularly in an area where stocks and access to services are dwindling”.


Eritreans often leave to escape mandatory, indefinite military service and repression or search for better opportunities out of what has long been one of the world’s most isolated dictatorships.


Approximately 507,000 people – almost one-tenth of Eritrea’s population – had fled by 2018, according to the UN.


Encontre said she is “deeply concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation in Tigray, which is compounded by the lack of access and our current inability to bring in food and supplies to those in need, including the 100,000 Eritrean refugees in the region”.


“While it is difficult to assess the situation on the ground – we have not been able to talk to our teams for the past 48 hours – we fear that civilians, including refugees, could get caught up in the crossfire.


“We need urgent access to the four refugee camps to be able to assist,” she said.

‘We never get peace’

In June, the first person in a refugee camp tested positive for COVID-19. Aid workers worry it will be difficult to monitor any spread of the virus going forward, with limited access.


Across Ethiopia, and the rest of the world, Eritrean refugees with relatives and friends in the camps were struggling to get any information about whether they were safe, due to the communications blackout across Tigray.


An Eritrean refugee, who has friends in the camps, but does not want to be named for security reasons, told Al Jazeera he was frightened about what could happen to them now.


“Because of this war all roads are closed,” he said.


Another Eritrean, who lives in Addis Ababa, said the camps were in “big trouble”.


Even before the conflict, people there were complaining about poor services, and a lack of food or electricity, which led many refugees in the Tigray region to move to cities to try and find work.


People who fled Tigray recently said banks had been closed, food had become expensive and they were terrified of air strikes.


Over the past two weeks, the Eritrean in Addis Ababa, who is in his 20s, said he had heard about multiple Eritreans getting arrested in the capital city, too.


Some who had bought fake Tigrayan ID cards, out of fear they could be deported back to Eritrea, threw them out, suddenly worried about being perceived as Tigrayan.


“The situation in Addis Ababa is very crazy,” he said. He said he had witnessed security forces taking “refugees from their houses at night time without any permission”, going door-to-door and asking for IDs.


The Ethiopian government denies ethnic profiling against Tigrayans is taking place.


Even before the conflict, people there were complaining about poor services, and a lack of food or electricity, which led many refugees in the Tigray region to move to cities to try and find work.


People who fled Tigray recently said banks had been closed, food had become expensive and they were terrified of air strikes.


Over the past two weeks, the Eritrean in Addis Ababa, who is in his 20s, said he had heard about multiple Eritreans getting arrested in the capital city, too.


Some who had bought fake Tigrayan ID cards, out of fear they could be deported back to Eritrea, threw them out, suddenly worried about being perceived as Tigrayan.


“The situation in Addis Ababa is very crazy,” he said. He said he had witnessed security forces taking “refugees from their houses at night time without any permission”, going door-to-door and asking for IDs.


The Ethiopian government