Peace for Whom? The situation of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia

Source: Swiss Peace

Tigray route to Hitsats Camp (2020). Picture: Andrea Grossenbacher 

Since the coming to power of Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in April 2018, the country has undergone significant political and economic changes. The promises of a unified and democratic Ethiopia have created high hopes for more peaceful times. At the same time, uncertainty arises as people ask themselves how peace might look like, at what cost it will come and for whom.

The Peace Deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia

One of the achievements of PM Abiy Ahmed’s on-going political reform was to put an end to two decades of ‘frozen war’ between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The signing of the peace agreement in July 2018 won PM Abiy Ahmed international and national recognition and the “2019 Peace Nobel Prize”. In September 2018, following the peace deal, the borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea were opened. Media outlets all around the world documented the joyous moment as families reunified after decades of separation. For many, the images of this historic moment highlighted the personal costs of conflict and the immediate possibilities of peace.

The peace deal with Eritrea had, and continues to have, an impact on the lives of Eritreans and Ethiopians living in the border area in northern Ethiopia. However, the immediate possibilities of peace seem to have faded as the deal has failed to translate into tangible and sustainable improvements for the people. On the contrary, for some, it has created more insecurity and new vulnerabilities. Despite Ethiopia’s history of hosting and maintaining good relationships with Eritrean refugees, a closer look at the current situation of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia suggests a gradual deterioration of their protection and safety following the peace agreement. In order to understand the implications of this situation for overall peace, we must look more closely into how the peace agreement directly or indirectly affects Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia.

Refugee Policy in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has a long history of hosting refugees. According to UNHCR, Ethiopia is currently sheltering 748,448  registered refugees and asylum seekers (as of 29 February 2020). The regions Tigray  and Afar host 139,281 registered Eritrean refugees (as of 31 December 2019). The country acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and has ratified the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Moreover, Ethiopia has maintained an open door policy for people seeking asylum in the country, allowing humanitarian access and protection to refugees. In recent years, the country has seen its refugee policy move from basic service provision to a more progressive and rights-based model. The development towards more progressive refugee policies ended in the adoption of a landmark framework on refugees in 2017: the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (This paves the way for the implementation of the nine pledges Ethiopia made at the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in September 2016 in New York and provides a solid political basis and direction for enhanced protection and provision of rights. Ethiopia has also been a key driver of the regional CRRF process. In January 2019, the national refugee proclamation was revised which is expected to enable refugees to become more independent, better protected and have greater access to local solutions, making it one of the most progressive in Africa.

Counter to this trend, policies that were in place to protect Eritrean refugees are currently undergoing changes, most likely because of the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. There have been shifts in practice to no longer recognize Eritreans as prima facie refugees. Consequently, Eritreans have to undergo individual refugee status determination. Further, there seems to be a faster process in place for Eritrean refugees to make use of the ‘Out of Camp Policy’, which allows Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia to live outside of camps, if finally, this month several Ethiopian newspapers announced the shutdown of the Hitsats camp, one of the four Eritrean refugee camps in northern Ethiopia, leaving about 18’000 Eritrean refugees with an uncertain future. These recent developments have created insecurity and challenges for refugee protection. Yet, given the peace declaration between Eritrea and Ethiopia it does not come as a surprise that some measures, such as the refugee status determination, are being introduced. However, a cause for concern is that measures might be put in place to actively reduce the attractiveness of the Tigray/Afar region for Eritrean refugees, impacting on their ability to get protection.

Peace & Displacement 

The peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia had a direct impact on movement as it resulted in the border opening in 2018, which lasted about two months. During this time, many people benefitted from the freedom of movement across the border, for personal and business purposes. However, not everyone was happy with this situation.

First, the uncontrolled movement across borders increased insecurity among Eritrean refugees in the camps in northern Ethiopia, as the end of the conflict with Ethiopia does not guarantee political change in Eritrea. Therefore, people in the camps who fled because of the Eritrean government feared that an opening of the border would allow Eritrean officials to enter the camps and that they would be forced to return to Eritrea. This insecurity has persisted until now and could have a negative impact on the relationships between and among refugees, national and international refugee protection agencies and the national government of Ethiopia, as it increases mistrust, a sense of helplessness and fear

Second, the opening of the border actually led to a subsequent complete closure of the border from the Eritrean side. Legal border crossing is no longer possible. In addition, today there are fewer entry points for Eritrean refugees to register themselves in Ethiopia than before. This, together with the change in prima facie refugee status recognition, has made it more difficult for Eritreans to seek refuge in Ethiopia.

Finally, the peace agreement has led to a change in approach towards Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, which is counter to the overall trend towards more progressive refugee policies in the country. This has created a lot of frustration among refugees, particularly young Eritreans who are well informed and have high expectations regarding the pledges that Ethiopia made to allocate more rights to refugees. Thus, unmet expectations of refugees regarding implementation of the pledges combined with more restrictive policies for Eritrean refugees that are perceived to be aimed at preventing Eritreans from entering Ethiopia and/or from staying in the border area could potentially increase frustration, mistrust and drive tensions between refugees, refugee agencies and the national government. Moreover, Tigrayans in northern Ethiopia have historically welcomed Eritrean refugees warmly, mainly due to the fact that they share the same ethnicity, culture and language. In many cases, host and refugee communities have developed peaceful and mutually benefitting relationships. Therefore – and keeping in mind the already tense relationship between the region’s main political party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and both the Eritrean and Ethiopian government – it is worth thinking about the potential impact tensions between Eritrean refugees and the Ethiopian government would have on the relationship between the Tigrayans and the national government.

The negative consequences of the peace deal for some Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia, and the potential impact they could have in terms of exacerbating pre-existing tensions or creating new conflict dynamics, shows the importance and relevance of a systematic integration of migration and displacement issues in peace processes and policies. This is a strong argument for an increased engagement on the peace and migration nexus as a means to prevent conflicts and sustain peace.

swisspeaceAndrea Grossenbacher andrea.grossenbacher@swisspeace.chProgram Officer

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