The plight of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia – hunger, suffering and death

“Like the Tigrayan population, an estimated 25,000 Eritrean refugees subsisting in the two remaining UNHCR-supported camps in Tigray – Mai Ayni and Adi Harush – are suffering acutely from the Ethiopian government’s blockade of the region. Food and medicine have run out; relief organizations lack the cash and fuel they need to operate; and UNHCR itself has limited access to the camps.”

By Mike Slotznick, Counsel for The America Team for Displaced Eritreans

February 15, 2022


Like the Tigrayan population, an estimated 25,000 Eritrean refugees subsisting in the two remaining UNHCR-supported camps in Tigray – Mai Ayni and Adi Harush – are suffering acutely from the Ethiopian government’s blockade of the region. Food and medicine have run out; relief organizations lack the cash and fuel they need to operate; and UNHCR itself has limited access to the camps. In recent weeks, some camp residents have died from hunger, thirst, childbirth and treatable medical conditions. Some have died at the hands of federal forces or vengeful Tigrayan actors. As a consequence, some are fleeing south to new UNHCR facilities in Amhara. But the residents are reported as being held hostage within the camps by indeterminate Tigrayan actors. (Tigrayans are in control of the area). Their immediate evacuation from the two camps is essential.


At the beginning of the war, in late November 2020 and the weeks following, Eritrean forces invaded the two more northerly camps in Tigray for Eritrean refugees, known as Hitsats and Shimelba. UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations fled. Some refugees were killed in the crossfire among warring parties. The Eritrean forces also intentionally killed some of the refugees, and they forced or cajoled thousands of others to return to Eritrea. Their fate there is largely unknown. But observers fear that many were imprisoned or worse; and the conscription of some of the refugees by the Eritrean army – possibly to fight in the Tigray campaign – was reported. Just as shockingly, beginning in late December 2020, Eritrean forces entirely destroyed the two camps. The refugees who had been living there and who had not already fled scattered across Tigray, sought refuge in Mai Ayni and Adi Harush, or migrated to Addis. But occasional abductions by Eritrean forces were occurring in those two southern camps as well, continuing into the spring.

Two other UNHCR-supported camps exist for Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia: in the Afar region, at Berhale and Asayta. In the fall of 2021, after the war had progressed into Afar, reports emerged that the refugees there felt gravely insecure – fearing the fighting, or possibly being targeted by the local Afar population or the invading Tigrayan troops. For some weeks in September and October, UNHCR was unable to access Berhale, and it expressed deep concern for the refugees’ safety.

As for Addis, it was teeming with Eritrean security agents; and they were hunting Eritrean refugees there door to door – kidnapping some to Eritrea – as the Ethiopian government forced others back to Adi Harush. Reports of that abuse seem to have subsided in the summer of 2021. Indeed UNHCR undertook to re-register in Addis some thousands of those who had fled from the camps in Tigray, and thus to provide a semblance of protection for them. But deep feelings of peril continued to haunt the refugees there.

In all – applying a global view – the invasion, repatriation, punishment and destruction visited upon the Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, as perpetrated by forces from the very country from which they had fled, are seen as legally and morally extraordinary. Those events cemented the reputation of the Eritrean regime as one of the most vicious on the face of the earth. The events also established that the Ethiopian government, which had long protected the refugees, now would not or could not protect them from the Eritrean regime with which it had come to be allied since 2018; and thus that the refugees were simply not safe anywhere in Ethiopia.

But Eritrean forces were not the refugees’ only assailants. Although for many years they had felt tolerated and even welcomed by local Tigrayans in the neighborhoods of the camps there – they now felt Tigrayan wrath as well. Apparently seeking vengeance against even Eritrean refugees for the atrocities that Eritrean forces were committing across Tigray, from November 2020 through the spring of 2021 the refugees in the camps, and those fleeing the camps, suffered episodic killings, rapes and looting at the hands of largely indeterminate Tigrayans.

As a consequence of the refugees’ insecurity, UNHCR undertook to build a new camp for them at Alemwach, Amhara. The camp is still under construction, but several hundred refugees have found their way to the nearby Amhara towns of Dabat and Debark, where UNHCR has been able to provide for them.

Current Conditions in Tigray

As of January 2022, the combined population of Adi Harush and Mai Ayni was estimated at more than 25,000. But at that time reports emerged that the refugees there were suffering at the hands of both federal Ethiopian forces and Tigrayans. Tigrayan forces had retreated from Amhara and Afar and were now defending their home region. They had placed heavy military equipment, possibly cannons and the like, in the immediate camp vicinities, were firing them at federal and allied forces located in nearby Amhara, and were drawing reciprocating fire. Some refugees were killed and injured, including by way of a federal drone attack at Mai Ayni on January 5.

Meanwhile, by virtue of the blockade, the camps were without protection and outside communication; and indeterminate Tigrayans resumed episodic vengeance attacks against the refugees, including by way of killings, rapes and looting.

In addition, camp residents were dying of hunger and thirst – as UNHCR itself discovered, to its shock, upon returning to the camps after a three-week absence in January. Others were reduced to eating leaves to survive, and – through a near-total absence of medicine and medical services – deaths were occurring from malaria and during childbirth. Famished and terrified, some of the refugees have now tried to reach UNHCR protection in Dabat, and (as noted above) some hundreds of those have arrived safely. But others have been attacked by Tigrayans en route, with some of those fleeing having died or disappeared. Yet others have been prevented from fleeing the camps by Tigrayan threats to fine or imprison those who would make the attempt. The motives for that confinement are not apparent, but they may include such elements as using the refugees as human shields, or simply as targets for financial extortion.

Current conditions in Afar

In late January 2022, an organization representing the Eritrean refugees in Afar described the peril in which the refugees were finding themselves, and it urged the United Nations to quickly evacuate them all from the country.

Current conditions in Addis

In February 2022, a report emerged that the Eritrean embassy in Addis, in a menacing manner, had summoned some number of refugees to appear there. At the embassy they were interrogated – including about what they may have told UNHCR about the Eritrean regime – and they concluded that they had been the subjects of surveillance by the regime’s agents.

Current advocacy themes

Advocacy around these issues is mixed, particularly with respect to the refugees still in Tigray. Some voices urge a speed-up of the evacuation to UNHCR protection in Amhara; others urge an evacuation from Ethiopia altogether, whether immediately or in due course. (Even the Ethiopian government’s refugee agency, RRS, has urged their evacuation from Tigray.) Still others – certain refugees within the camps – reportedly maintain that the refugees are safest if they remain there. This last proposition is difficult to fathom, but it might be viewed within the context of several larger phenomena.

First, the global Eritrean diaspora is split as between those who seek to ally with the Tigrayans and who empathize with the Tigrayans’ suffering at the hands of federal, Eritrean and allied forces, versus those who cannot forgive the Tigrayans for the atrocities committed by a relative few of them against the refugees during the course of the war. Second, in the fog of war, one can expect vast realms of misinformation, disinformation, and even, on occasion, desperate individuals betraying their brethren in exchange for their own personal protection.


In the global scheme, elements of the atrocities committed against the Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia may be nearly without recent precedent. The humanitarian blockade of Tigray and the forced starvation there is likewise beyond extreme, and the Eritrean refugees are among the victims. But unlike the Tigrayan population, the refugees are defenseless and have no one to even attempt to protect or provide for them. Advocates for the refugees believe that extraordinary and immediate measures for their protection and sustenance – matching the extraordinary needs and injustices that have befallen them – are thus eminently in order.


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