Refugees continue to flow in
Source: Africa Confidential
Ethiopia no longer automatically gives refugee status to fleeing Eritreans. Neither they nor their Tigrayan hosts are happy about it.
The Ethiopian federal government’s treatment of refugees from Eritrea is causing concern both in the Tigray regional government, with which it is already at odds, and among refugees. The national Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) is planning to close one of the refugee camps and is refusing to automatically grant asylum to Eritreans who cross the border fleeing unemployment, poverty and compulsory lengthy service in the armed forces.
ARRA plans to close Hitsats, one of the four refugee camps in northwestern Tigray, potentially displacing at least 12,000 Eritreans, although the closure has been pushed to June due to Covid-19. Residents are being encouraged to integrate in the local community or to move to nearby May-Ayni or Adi-Harush camps. If they stay where they are, they will have to fend for themselves when camp services end.
Tigray’s government is angry at deals being made behind its back. Until Abiy Ahmed took the premiership of the nation, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was prominent in Ethiopia’s government. The reclassification of the refugees does not suit TPLF leaders, who maintain their traditional hostility to President Issayas Afewerki. Equally, President Issayas has a special animus for the TPLF. Many feel that his warmth towards Abiy is motivated as much by the knowledge that the TPLF was dethroned by his ascendancy as to receptiveness to any of Abiy’s initiatives in their own right.
The TPLF is sending signals of its own to both Addis and Asmara by maintaining a clutch of anti-Issayas Eritrean exile organisations, some of them armed. A former deputy leader of Ethiopia’s top intelligence organisation, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Issayas Woldegiorgis, has been seen near the Tigray-Eritrea border trying to recruit newly arrived Eritrean military defectors for the anti- President Issayas cause, according to an Eritrean source in Tigray.
Refugees have been protesting to the government and to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) fearing revocation of their asylum status. However, the classing of all Eritreans as political asylees by Ethiopia was part of the hostility between the two nations. Ending the automatic classification of all Eritreans as victims of persecution is a logical consequence of warming relations between the two countries, observers commented.
The official justification for the new asylum policy was given to international partners in a 9 April letter which said there had been a ‘high influx of Eritrean minors, illegal migrants and others who do not fulfill the criteria of refugee status’.
Eritrean refugees are a political football of long standing. While Abiy may wish to normalise relations with Eritrea, the TPLF government is now one of the biggest obstacles to the process. Animosity between the TPLF veterans and President Issayas – former rebels comrades in the 1980s – is unabated since they fought in the late 1990s. Tigrayans believe Abiy stoked anti-Tigrayan prejudice to consolidate power. TPLF chairman Debretsion Gebremichael has publicly maintained the pre-Abiy political line of hostility towards President Issayas. The TPLF central committee recently addressed an open message to the ‘Esteemed People of Eritrea’, saying the people of Tigray and the TPLF have ‘never wavered or compromised on the quest of the Eritrean people for freedom.’
Woldegiorgis was sacked as deputy chief of the NISS in 2016. Now he is back in Tigray he’s assisting Eritrean opposition groups in exile as a foil to anti-TPLF activities by President Issayas and also to keep options open.
ARRA told international partners the new border policy might also be applied to Somalis, South Sudanese, and Sudanese who flee to Ethiopia, but the changes so far have only been in Tigray. One upshot, according to a local Tigray official, is that 500 Eritrean refugees have holed up at a school in Sheraro, being supported by the community after ARRA stopped border registrations. Refugees continue to flow in.
UNHCR and international NGOs that provide camp services cannot oppose Ethiopia’s policy shift, of which they had little warning, because it is in the political realm. ‘This is a big dilemma, a big debate’ the official told Africa Confidential. ‘People are worried about their life getting worse.’ The Eritreans in Ethiopia fear being mistreated as well as having their asylum status withdrawn.
The TPLF has been trying to show up the national government in other aspects of policy. It imposed a regional state of emergency over the Covid-19 pandemic ahead of Addis. It further signalled its differences with Addis when on 26 April the TPLF openly discussed the notion of holding the now- postponed vote within the province regardless of what was happening on the elections front elsewhere in the country.