The Tigray war: The plight of Eritrean refugees

This is a chapter from the report: Tigray War and Regional Implications, which you can The Tigray War and Regional Implications – Volume 1.

The plight of Eritrean refugees

By Mike Slotznick[1]


Within weeks after the start of the war in Tigray, Eritrean troops began invading United Nations-supported camps that sustained Eritrean refugees there. The camps, situated just inside the Ethiopian border, housed nearly 100,000 Eritreans who had fled the brutal Eritrean regime. The troops killed some of the refugees, obliterated two of the four camps, and forced several thousand refugees back into Eritrea, where they faced conscription into the invading army, or imprisonment and torture for having initially fled their home country. Eritrean refugees elsewhere in Ethiopia, particularly in the capital city Addis Ababa, also became subject to abduction. Armed Tigrayan actors also attacked some of the refugees in the camps. All of those activities constitute violations of international law.[2]

The atrocities committed against the Eritrean refugees occurred contemporaneously with those committed against Tigrayans and others. In many ways they were all of a piece, reflecting the overall ascendance of violence, demolition of societal order and erasure of human dignity. The author does not compare them, one to the next. Rather, he has attempted in this chapter to narrow his topic to its title.

8.1 Who are the refugees, and why are they in Ethiopia?


Eritrea is one of the most repressive countries on earth. It is widely referred to as “the North Korea of Africa” – due to its hermetic isolation, and to the government’s brutalization and enslavement of its own people, even as they suffer from malnourishment and destitution. Major human rights organizations have amply documented those conditions. In 2016 a United Nations investigatory panel – the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI) –accused the ruling regime of crimes against humanity.[3] But the regime has been impervious to its widespread condemnation, and the abuses have continued.


There has been no census of Eritrea in modern times, so there is no authoritative figure for its population. The Eritrean government provided an estimate of 3.65 million in 2015.[4] By contrast, the CIA estimate for 2021 is a population of 6.15 million.[5] Either way, it is extraordinary that by 2018 some 500,000 Eritreans had fled to other lands, including to the Tigray region of Ethiopia.[6]


To explain the flight, we should first describe its causes.


  1. Crimes against humanity.


After a 30-year war of secession from Ethiopia, Eritrea gained its independence – de facto in 1991 and officially in 1993. The secessionists had promised the Eritrean people democracy, and a democratic constitution was ratified in 1997. But the constitution was never implemented; the new state never became democratic; elections were never held; and, from the start, the country was ruled by the iron hand of the secessionist leader, Isaias Afwerki. The repression avalanched shortly after Eritrea’s 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia, in which over 100,000 combatants in the aggregate are estimated to have died.[7] The war had been waged nominally over a disputed boundary, but broader tensions had preceded it, and the armistice resolved nothing. In any event, the war was widely considered not only a defeat but a catastrophe for Eritrea, which had fired the first shots. Enraged, humiliated, possibly fearing an overthrow, and in any case bent on retaining control his country, Isaias moved to shutter all internal political dissent. What ensued was a near-total evisceration of personal freedoms and an acute violation of human rights, as documented by major governmental, inter-governmental and human rights organizations and as summarized in a paper posted by The America Team for Displaced Eritreans (hereafter, The America Team) in October 2016.[8] Since then, the regime’s human rights abuses have continued, and The America Team has continued to track and post reports of them.[9] A restatement of the core reporting in the October 2016 paper follows.


  • Authoritarian police state. The governing regime is authoritarian; no elections have been held for decades; only one political party is permitted; independent non-governmental associations are forbidden; public assemblies for all but recreational or government-sponsored purposes are outlawed; academic freedom is restricted; foreign organizations (and funding from them) are mostly banned; citizens are subjected to constant governmental surveillance and intimidation; the judiciary is not independent; justice is administered without rule of law; and the regime governs by sowing fear. (A documentary film entitled “Escaping Eritrea,” produced and directed by Evan Williams and released by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) on May 4, 2021, describes in horrific and graphic detail the conditions that have forced Eritreans to flee their homeland en masse.[10])


  • Throttling of press and political expression. No freedom of the press or political expression is permitted. Journalists and political opponents have frequently been jailed, often never to be heard from again.


  • Harsh imprisonment, including of family members. Any suspected dissent on the part of citizens is routinely punished by imprisonment, commonly in underground shipping containers, and commonly under intolerable, inhumane conditions – including starvation, overcrowding, lack of medical attention, rape of female prisoners, lack of sanitation, and extreme cold and heat – which conditions, separately or in the aggregate, often lead to death in detention. Arrests are commonly arbitrary, and prisoners are not informed of charges against them. Political prisoners are held incommunicado and are denied access to lawyers or family members. Family members for their part are often imprisoned or otherwise punished as well: sometimes for merely inquiring about the location or status of their imprisoned loved ones; for the failure of a loved one living overseas to pay the 2% income tax that the government imposes on Eritreans worldwide; or for a loved one’s desertion from the country’s slave-like military service (see below).


  • Religious persecution. The practice of only four religions is permitted, and Eritrean faith institutions are controlled by the government. The Orthodox Church’s freely chosen patriarch has been under house arrest for years, and in May 2021 he was deposed and replaced by the regime.[11] Sunni leaders have been imprisoned and tortured. Various Protestant sects are harshly persecuted: dissent by their followers and unauthorized religious practice are routinely punished by imprisonment. In prison, religious dissidents are often tortured until they renounce their faith.


  • Imprisonment for any of the above offenses commonly results in gruesome physical and psychological torture, from which many prisoners are believed to die. Many detention facilities are known to exist throughout the country, where tortuous conditions and mistreatment are likely to exist.


  • Travel restrictions. Entering and exiting the country is tightly controlled. Those who exit without visas – notably, to escape the regime overland in pursuit of refuge in another country – are in peril for their lives, in that government security forces have at times had orders to shoot-to-kill at the country’s borders. While those orders have been variously enforced in recent years, at a minimum, would-be escapees who are captured are frequently imprisoned and sometimes tortured.


  • Slave-like national service. All citizens are subject by conscription to mandatory national service, either military or civil. Children are routinely conscripted at age 17, and sometimes as young as 15. The service may last for an indefinite term of years, sometimes decades; follow-up reserve duty (or required participation for older citizens in a “people’s militia”) can also last indefinitely, and reservists are sometimes called up en masse; food is inadequate; wages are negligible, thus impoverishing the conscripts’ families; farms are left with inadequate labor; long-term conscripts are unable to form families or to fully participate in family life; conscripts are commonly forced to work for government and military officials in their private affairs or for government-controlled and even foreign enterprises, often in harsh conditions; female conscripts are commonly abused sexually by their commanding officers and others; and any dissent while in the national service (including the practice of prohibited religions and refusing sexual advances) is commonly punished by imprisonment and torture. In sum, the national service has been widely viewed, including by the COI, as amounting to forced labor, and even slavery.


  • Killings and disappearances. The regime has engaged in extrajudicial executions, arbitrary killings, forced disappearances, mass murders of ethnic minorities, and executions of military deserters.


  • The rape of Eritrean women in the military and in detention, as described above, has been characterized in and of itself by the COI as a crime against humanity.


Where to flee?


From the outbreak of the war of liberation in the 1960s, Eritreans had sought refuge in regions adjacent to their homeland – either in Sudan or in the non-Eritrean parts of Ethiopia (of which Eritrea was a part until 1991). Following independence and then the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia, Eritreans continued to flee to Sudan and Ethiopia. As a consequence, both countries came to hold large Eritrean populations. But refugee life in Sudan was (and remains) highly insecure, even in camps supported by the office of the UNHCR. Eritreans have at times been in danger of being robbed, murdered and kidnapped, then trafficked and tortured for ransom. While some older Eritrean communities in eastern Sudan have felt safer, newer arrivals often have not. The refugees in Sudan thus have often sought to move elsewhere. Ethiopia thus became a nearby, alternative haven of preference for many. And many of those refugees who fled to Ethiopia settled in UNHCR-supported camps in Tigray, just south of the Eritrean border.


Prior to 2018, Ethiopia and Eritrea were still bitter enemies, and the Ethiopian government could be generally relied upon for securing those camps. Ethiopia had welcomed and protected many thousands of refugees of many nationalities; plus, its government saw its protection of Eritrean refugees there as an embarrassment for the enemy Eritrean regime. Thus secured, genuine communities arose within the camps in Tigray, replete with education provided by international NGOs, former Eritrean teachers and the Ethiopian government. There were adequate (or barely adequate) food, water and sanitation, as provided by UNHCR and the NGOs; petty commercial enterprises run by refugees for refugees; and refugee civic councils interfacing between the refugees, on the one hand, and UNHCR, the NGOs and the Ethiopian government, on the other. In addition, the Tigrayan communities surrounding the camps acquiesced to or even affirmatively welcomed the Eritrean refugees – which is not always the case in refugee loci around the world. Why? Most Eritreans and the Tigrayans spoke Tigrinya. Many Eritreans also had family ties in Tigray, in that, until Eritrean independence, the border had been nominal and individuals had moved freely between the regions. Indeed, Eritreans and Tigrayans often expressed a general ethnic consanguinity and affinity with one another. Since the border war, in which Tigrayan-led Ethiopia was pitted against Eritrea, the Tigrayans also shared with the Eritrean refugees a hatred for and fear of the Eritrean regime. Tigrayans and encamped refugees enjoyed ongoing reciprocal trade, sometimes shared worship services and sometimes even shared the schooling of children.


But life in the Ethiopian camps was a dead-end for the residents. The living standard was rudimentary. As in refugee camps everywhere, one could not easily flourish as a vital participant in a nation, economy or fully constituted society. And there was little prospect in Tigray for any of the three ultimate destinies that UNHCR wishes for the refugees that it supports everywhere: safe return to one’s homeland, resettlement in a third country, or absorption by the host country (including full participation in its civic and economic institutions). As to the first, Eritrea remained an inhospitable dystopia. As to the second, only a small fraction of UNHCR-supported refugees are ever resettled anywhere. And as to the third, Eritrean refugees could live in Ethiopian cities, but (until 2019) they could not lawfully work there.[12] Forward migration thus beckoned, not only for the Eritreans in Sudan, but for those in Tigray as well.


Where then to migrate? Across the Middle East, Eritreans were unwelcome. Migrations to Israel by way of Egypt resulted in horrific rape, torture and extortion for cash at the hands of outlaw Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai desert. Even the initial Israeli tolerance of African migrants who reached that country beginning in 2007 devolved into a backlash as their numbers grew. The Eritreans were physically safe there. But by 2012, Israel had enacted an “anti-infiltration law” targeting African migrants; it had constructed a fence at the border with Sinai to keep additional African migrants out; and it had begun to sorely pressure its existing Africans to resettle elsewhere.[13]


Contemporaneously, with the collapse of the Libyan state and the onset of massive African migrations across the Mediterranean from that country to Europe, Eritreans joined in the flow – passing through Sudan to Libya, where smugglers set them afloat in unseaworthy boats. Those migrations, or attempted migrations, reached a peak between 2015 and 2017. Many Eritreans and other migrants drowned or otherwise died at sea.[14] Many of those who survived found themselves resented in Europe as part of what was widely referred to as a global migration crisis. In Libya itself they and other Africans were – and they continue to be – routinely enslaved, raped, tortured, extorted and otherwise savagely brutalized. Even the EU has participated in the tragedy, by funding and encouraging Libya’s militias and its coast guard to capture and detain those attempting to sail to Europe. The detentions in Libya are intended to keep the refugees from attempting the Mediterranean crossing again, and the conditions of detention are horrific. In sub-Saharan Africa, resentment and a dearth of economic opportunities also have greeted those Eritreans who have arrived. So small numbers of Eritreans (hundreds annually, not thousands) have chosen to head for the U.S.: they have undertaken a journey across Africa to South America and then northwards through the perilous jungles of Panama toward the U.S.-Mexico border. In America many have won asylum, but others have not.


In sum, outside of Tigray, there has been no ready haven for those on the run. A great many thus have remained concentrated in Ethiopia. On the eve of the Tigray conflict, UNHCR was supporting four Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray: Shimelba and Hitsats in the north – that is, closest to the Eritrean border – and Adi Harush and Mai Ayni further south. As of November 2020, UNHCR counted 8,702 refugees in Shimelba, 25,248 in Hitsats, 32,167 in Adi Harush, and 21,682 in Mai Ayni. In addition, the agency operated a reception center in Endabaguna for refugees first crossing the border into Ethiopia, where they would stay temporarily pending distribution to the various camps. It also counted 8,424 Eritrean refugees residing in towns in Tigray pursuant to the Ethiopian government’s Out of Camp Policy, bringing the total figure in Tigray to 96,223. In addition, some 51,800 Eritrean refugees were living in Ethiopia’s Afar region (many of those in UNHCR-supported camps), and 30,722 in Addis. The total number in Ethiopia was thus 178,745.[15]

As of 2015, around 100,000 Eritrean refugees were living in the camps in Tigray. When the war began in Tigray in 2020, the number was approximately the same. Yet for much of that time, thousands per month had been entering the camps from Eritrea. How to account for the relatively steady state of the camp population? Apparently as many as were arriving were moving on – whether to Ethiopian cities such as Addis; to Libya and then Europe (or the bottom of the Mediterranean); or elsewhere, wherever circumstances might permit, but not often with comfort or joy.


For its part, how did the Eritrean government view the refugees? Their having escaped the country was seen not merely as an embarrassment, but as likely to generate anti-regime narratives and agitation within whatever countries they landed in, including in the West. Regime operatives in Europe and the U.S. often harassed and occasionally assaulted refugees and asylees there. The regime particularly suspected refugees in Ethiopia of anti-Eritrea activities, and of being stoked in that by the Ethiopian government. In addition, the departure of refugees had bled Eritrea of both work force and military force. Not surprisingly, then, official Eritrean policy branded the refugees as traitors – particularly if they had escaped from or avoided military service, or if they had expressed opposition to Eritrea before or after fleeing. And for their treachery, if they were forcibly returned by another country, they stood to be imprisoned, tortured, and possibly killed. But in truth, the regime’s actual outlook seemed more nuanced, or more confused. For example, in some ways, the regime may have been pleased that malcontents had taken their heterodox opinions elsewhere. Refugees in the West had also become an essential source of remittances and foreign exchange, as they supported their families back home in Eritrea. Further, the surge of asylum seekers into Europe resulted in Europe making substantial grants of development assistance to Eritrea (and to other countries of origin), which Europe hoped would stanch the in-flow. In addition, Eritrean border guards often accepted bribes from escaping refugees, and some high-ranking officers appeared to be trafficking in refugees for profit. Overall, the attitudes within in Eritrea relative to those who had escaped thus were mysterious from the outside, and possibly also from within.


As for the families left behind, there too was a mix. They felt terrified for those who had gone off to the perils of Sinai, Libya and the Mediterranean. And they felt anguished when they were extorted for cash to free those who were tortured en route – exorbitant sums, that could ruin a family financially for a generation. But if and when the refugees found a safe destination in which they could work, their families at home took much comfort in the remittances. Some relatives also hoped to rejoin in the West those who had succeeded in gaining refugee or asylum status there.


8.2 The rapprochement

Beginning in June 2018 and formalized by agreement in July, the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments made peace.[16] The world thrilled to the development, and for that achievement Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Among the many hopes for the rapprochement were that Isaias – no longer at war – would demobilize his army and end the brutal servitude of its conscripts and of the Eritrean people at large. As the borders opened between the countries, cross-border commerce flowered, and separated families united. A new wave of refugees – Eritrea was still a horrific place to be – freely fled into Tigray. It seemed too good to be true.


In fact, it was. Within months the borders closed once again. Although various rationales for the closing were circulated – some by the Eritrean government, some by others – the actual reasons were unknown, as were the terms of the peace arrangement. The lockdown on information flow within Eritrea did not abate. Both in the camps and in Addis, Eritreans felt a foreboding, that the rapprochement foretold an ascendancy for Isaias within Ethiopian affairs and a marked peril for themselves. Out of fear, expatriate Eritreans linked to oppositionist activities stopped traveling to Ethiopia. Asylum seekers who faced expulsion from the U.S. likewise rejected opportunities to return to Ethiopia. In April 2020, Ethiopia announced that it would no longer grant prima facie refugee status to fleeing Eritreans.[17] It also made plain that it wished to close the northern camps and relocate the refugees.[18] It expressly announced that month that it planned to close Hitsats and move its residents to Mai Ayni and Adi Harush, despite the already crowded conditions there and concerns for the spread of the coronavirus in such circumstances.[19] By the summer of 2020, rumors were rife that Abiy and Isaias were plotting to target the refugees. What had begun as the realization of a dream of peace was now looking more like a nightmare.




8.3 The war in Tigray begins


The war began on 3 November [20] with an attack by Tigrayan forces on multiple bases in Tigray serving the federal government’s Northern Command,[21] followed by a counter-attack by federal forces on 4 November.


The Ethiopian federal government – which even before the war had been harassing and repressing the press – immediately banned international news outlets from the theater. They remained banned for several months. Unverified propaganda from warring factions filled the information void. As one consequence, the chronology of events that follows in this chapter often reflects piecemeal and sometimes uncorroborated information. Sometimes reports appeared weeks or months after the reported events; sometimes dates and details were murky; sometimes a particular event seemed to originate from multiple sources with somewhat differing detail, and thus to possibly consist of multiple events. Sorting it out was and remains challenging, and almost certainly imperfect. Another consequence of the ban on reliable media coverage were that international actors such as the United Nations, Western governments and major human rights organizations – lacking direct evidence of wrongdoing – were for months reluctant to accuse warring factions of specific human rights abuses.[22] Nevertheless, for The America Team, which has followed both published and unpublished reports continuously, the overall flow of events has seemed manifest. In this chapter, we have attempted to relate them more or less chronologically, and at the same time thematically, in our best attempt at coherence.


  • The first days. Already on November 5, UNHCR raised alarms about its ability to provide for the camp refugees.[23] The federal Ethiopian government cut telecommunications throughout Tigray, and Sudan (possibly with the acquiescence or encouragement of Ethiopia) closed its border, such that camp residents could neither communicate nor flee to the west.[24] At least one observer, a leading champion of Eritrean refugees, expressed fears that the refugees could become caught in the crossfire, could become pawns of the belligerents, could be driven out of the camps, or could be refouled to Eritrea where they might be arrested, imprisoned and tortured.[25] Eritrea was quickly suspected of being involved in the war.[26] By November 11, thousands of refugees – mostly Tigrayans, as opposed to Eritreans – had managed to flee to Sudan, notwithstanding the border closure.[27] As of November 13, as fighting approached the Shimelba camp, UNHCR was trying to remove the refugees living there to the Hitsats camp or elsewhere.[28]


  • Terrified at the camps. The war escalated. On November 14, Tigrayan forces launched a number of missiles at Asmara.[29] While they inflicted little damage, the pretext was laid for more overt participation by Eritrea in the war. But Eritrea was already reported to have been shelling the city of Humera in the northwest corner of Tigray.[30] The fighting was now reportedly furious across the region. On November 17, UNHCR reported military clashes near one of the camps.[31] Also on that date, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that UNHCR staff were cutting back their support for the camps due to security issues, and that they were especially concerned for the safety of those in Shimelba.[32] The Red Cross too voiced its concerns for the encamped refugees.[33] Basic sustenance at the camps was imperilled, and fuel for pumping water there was running dangerously low. Across Tigray, the provision of food and medicine and even access to banks were blocked by the federal government. Communications also remained blacked out. Aid workers in the region were reported to be frantic. Their organizations were negotiating with the federal government for a humanitarian corridor through Tigray, but that failed to materialize.[34] Soon international workers for UNHCR and the NGOs withdrew from the camps and from Endabaguna entirely.[35] By November 18, all four camps were reportedly experiencing incidental attacks, although the identity of the attackers was not widely known or immediately revealed.[36] On November 20, UNHCR reported that, having not heard from its local camp staff since November 16, it was “very worried.”[37]


  • Flight to Sudan. Some of the Eritrean refugees did flee to Sudan.[38] Why had more not done so? No survey of course was taken. But the author of this chapter speculated at the time that, first, the refugees did not fear federal Ethiopian forces, which historically had protected them. In addition, the flight to Sudan through the war zone was precarious, and the border was officially closed. What was more, at the camps in Tigray the refugees enjoyed infrastructure, community organization, international NGO support and ethnic coherence. In Sudan, by contrast – despite meritorious emergency responses by UNHCR and other international actors – at that point there was nothing but chaos. In retrospect, many of the Eritreans may have wished they had decided differently and risked flight to Sudan. But there too, no survey likely has been taken.


  • The Eritrean military moves in. By November 18, unconfirmed reports of Eritrean ground forces operating in theater had begun to emerge. Even acting from a distance, Eritrea’s involvement in the war was reported as being multi-form: hosting federal Ethiopian troops who then shelled and attacked Tigray from the north; forcing Eritrean locals – themselves underfed – to feed those Ethiopian troops; treating wounded Ethiopian soldiers at Eritrean medical facilities; and rounding up Eritrean conscripts in apparent preparation for deployment in Tigray.[39]


  • The worst unfolds. At that point, the atrocities against the refugees began to occur. On or around November 19 (as reported much later), Eritrean forces killed some Eritrean refugees in the town of Adigrat and removed others to Eritrea.[40] On November 20, a report appeared that Eritrean refugees were being arrested in Addis and Shimelba.[41] At approximately that time (also as reported much later), federal Ethiopian forces shot a refugee in Selekleka.[42] On November 20, another report appeared of sweeps of Eritrean oppositionists in Addis – possibly some of them well settled there, and thus not even living as refugees.[43] During a significant fire fight on November 24 at Adi Harush – involving Tigrayan militia, Amhara militia and regular Ethiopian federal forces – several refugees were killed, some of the Tigrayan guards were captured, and other guards fled for their lives.[44] Also on November 24, Eritrean forces were credibly reported to be engaged in heavy ground fighting,[45] as well as the shelling of Tigrayan targets from Eritrea and abductions from Endabaguna.[46] Additional reports of Eritrean ground force activities emerged on November 26.[47] According to one unpublished report, Eritrean forces took over Shimelba for several weeks during this period and disappeared five refugee council leaders; publicly executed five other refugees whom they perceived to be Eritrean oppositionists; and shot seven others dead as they attempted to flee the camp. Later, after Tigrayan forces had re-taken the camp, more refugee residents were killed during fighting between Eritrean and Tigrayan forces.[48] In Hitsats as well, the camp exchanged hands as between Eritrean and Tigrayan forces, now with Tigrayans – as reprisals for the savagery of Eritrean forces elsewhere in Tigray – persecuting, starving, disappearing and killing Eritrean refugees, and with Eritrean forces abducting them and looting.[49] On November 27, UNHCR predicted that the four camps would run out of food within days.[50] The same day, an additional attack on Adi Harush was reported, as well as abductions of refugees from Hitsats and Shimelba.[51] The level of panic, privation and displacement was now intense.[52] The Red Cross reported some 1,000 Eritrean refugees having fled the camps to Tigray’s capital, Mekelle.[53]


  • Mass abductions, mass flight, and the killing of aid workers. In the gravest of developments, on November 28 and the days following, multiple sources reported the abduction by Eritrean forces of thousands of refugees from Hitsats and Shimelba. Those who were able to flee had continued doing so. All humanitarian aid workers by then were long gone from the camps.[54] On December 1, UNHCR itself acknowledged the reports of abductions and conscriptions from the camps,[55] and many refugees were reported to be fleeing from even Adi Harush – one of the southerly (and thus seemingly safer) facilities.[56] On December 2, the flights were reported more categorically: many or most able-bodied residents were escaping several camps (probably the northern two), leaving behind mostly elderly and women with young children. Looting at some of the camps, by indeterminate actors, was reported as well.[57] On the same day, several Ethiopian aid workers were reported to have been killed at one of the camps in November.[58] Other reports of aid workers being killed ensued.[59] UNHCR acknowledged the same.[60]


  • The perpetrators. Who were the perpetrators in these episodes, and how concerted were the offenses? Plainly, Eritrean forces committed the abductions and conscriptions, and just as plainly those operations were purposeful, even strategic. Indeed, by early December, observers were beginning to speculate that Eritrea may have contemplated the abductions before the war began, and that abductees were being forced to fight against Tigrayans at the front.[61] As for the killings at the camps, some were attributed to identified forces acting deliberately. But others were of more varied or ambiguous nature. Some may have been accidental; others inspired by passion and indiscipline rather than tactic; yet others incidental to concerted criminal activity such as looting or abduction. In late November, Eritrean troops specifically were reported to have killed a number of refugees at Shimelba, possibly as those refugees had attempted to flee (reports varied considerably, ranging from seven to 100 victims).[62] But for the most part, no broad, deliberate massacre of camp residents appeared – in contrast to deliberate massacres that were befalling Tigrayans and other populations elsewhere.


  • Incidents in the south. Reportedly, reprisals by some Tigrayans against the refugees – for simply being Eritrean – now manifested themselves in the south. On or around December 2, Tigrayans confiscated agricultural produce headed for Mai Ayni and killed a refugee there.[63] Also on December 2, a refugee at Mai Ayni was killed in Tigrayan-Eritrean crossfire,[64] and more crossfire injuries there were reported on December 5.[65] On December 14, a rape by armed but ununiformed actors at Adi Harush was reported.[66] At this point, the widespread flight from the camps was attributable not only to the abductions by Eritrean forces (in the north) but to fear of Tigrayan cross-fire and vengeance (in the south).[67]


  • The UN stymied. UNHCR announced on December 2 that it had reached an agreement with the Ethiopian government to resume aid in areas that were under federal control. But as of December 4, the agency was still unable to access the refugee camps.[68] Indeed, on December 7, federal forces blocked and shot at a UN security team as it was traveling in the vicinity of Shimelba – a quite extraordinary event.[69]


  • At Hitsats and Shimelba: abductions confirmed, vengeance proceeds. As the weeks passed, reports of Eritrean forces abducting and killing refugees at the two northern camps in November and December became legion,[70] including reports by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees,[71] as well as by the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Eritrea[72] and by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.[73] One report, on December 9, held that Eritrean forces armed refugees at Hitsats and sent them out to pillage Tigrayan farms.[74] A report that 26 named abductees were seen in Eritrean prisons appeared on March 7.[75] But, as before, not just Eritrean forces were implicated. Reports that several women had been raped by Tigrayan militia as they were fleeing Hitsats appeared on March 9 and March 18.[76] A report that Tigrayan militia killed nine refugees at Hitsats on December 24 appeared much later.[77] Reports of severe privation at the northern camps continued into December as well,[78] as did additional reports of looting[79] and of refugees fleeing the camps.[80]


  • In Addis. Contemporaneously, a new alarm sounded. On December 8, reports emerged that refugees who had fled the camps and arrived in Addis were being arrested and detained;[81] and within days the Ethiopian government was reported to have forcibly transported them back to Adi Harush, to their considerable peril.[82] Some of those detained had also reportedly been threatened with deportation to Eritrea.[83] Some had reportedly been beaten in Addis as they had attempted to flee.[84] In subsequent weeks, the returns to Adi Harush were confirmed; and additional episodes appeared of Eritrean refugees fleeing the camps, being detained in Addis, and then being forcibly returned by federal actors to the camps.[85] Other reports emerged of Eritrean troops being encamped in Addis with the specific mission of rounding up and refouling Eritrean dissidents.[86] On January 7 and 10, Ethiopian authorities were reported to be denying exit permits to Eritrean refugees who had been approved by UNHCR to travel abroad for family reunification – thus trapping them in Ethiopia.[87]


  • At Adi Harush and Mai Ayni. At length, a small but life-saving bit of relief arrived: on or around December 15, UNHCR managed to deliver food to the southern camps.[88] But aid workers had not yet resumed significant operations at those camps, which remained devoid of security, sanitation items and medical care.[89] Sickness went untreated, looting by outsiders was continuous.[90] In one terrifying and debilitating episode, on or around December 21, five indeterminate assailants at Adi Harush confiscated some 180 to 200 cell phones at gunpoint.[91] On December 24, a man with a saw attacked and injured a refugee at Adi Harush.[92] Federal troops detained refugees from Mai Ayni and Adi Harush on or around Christmas Day as they travelled to a nearby town to retrieve money sent by their families to a bank.[93] On January 18, incidents of emaciation at the southern camps were reported. (Starvation had appeared across Tigray more generally.)[94] Beginning January 23, in multiple episodes, federal troops and militias robbed additional refugees traveling to banks from Adi Harush.[95] On January 27, unknown external assailants shot a refugee woman in Adi Harush.[96]


  • The destruction of Shimelba and Hitsats. Conditions in Shimelba and Hitsats remained largely opaque.[97] But on December 19, satellite images detected fires at Shimelba.[98] The next day, a journalist on the ground reported that that camp was empty.[99] As of January 7, humanitarian relief had still not arrived; indeed, there had been no international activity at the northern camps for almost two months: no food, medicine, security.[100] And then arose one of the starkest crimes of the war. On December 28, The New York Times posted satellite images of scorched earth around Hitsats.[101] AFP on January 2 and Bloomberg on January 9 reported that new images showed the systematic and widespread destruction of both camps.[102] On January 15 and January 19, Al Jazeera reported similarly.[103] As reported by the Associated Press on January 17, the images now showed even greater devastation.[104] By January 21, and in the weeks afterwards, published reports – following earlier unpublished ones from well-informed sources – emerged that nothing was left of the two camps, and that all residents had been conscripted, had been forced back to Eritrea or had fled into Tigray, eating leaves for their sustenance.[105] On February 1, UNHCR confirmed the mass exodus from the north.[106] But as of February 2, the northern camps were still inaccessible, even to the UN. [107]


  • Again at Adi Harush and Mai Ayni. On January 23 it was reported that Eritrean forces were telling Eritrean refugees in the Sheraro area (that is, likely including some of those who had fled Hitsats and Shimelba) not to attempt to reach the two southern camps – as though wishing to abduct more of them.[108] But as of January 24, the Ethiopian federal government was still returning scattered refugees to the southern camps.[109] On January 20-25, a second food shipment by UNHCR and the World Food Program arrived there.[110] On February 1, UNHCR’s High Commissioner nevertheless said that conditions in those camps were abysmal, that the residents were living in fear, and that, altogether, some 20,000 refugees were unaccounted for.[111]


  • Destruction of Shimelba and Hitsats confirmed. On February 9, the Ethiopian government announced, disingenuously, that it had decided to “close” Shimelba and Hitsats, and that it would seek to bring the refugees scattered about Tigray to the two southern camps.[112] Observers called out the deceit,[113] whereupon, on February 11, Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister acknowledged that the camps no longer existed.[114] The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a weak but reportedly well-meaning internal body, also acknowledged the destruction of the camps. The Ethiopian government’s refugee unit, the Agency for Returnees and Refugee Affairs (ARRA), claimed that the destruction was “overstated.”[115] But on March 18, the first international relief NGO to arrive in Shimelba and Hitsats confirmed their destruction.[116] On March 24, a British news outlet, reporting from the two camps, graphically described the ruin.[117] On March 26, UNHCR reported that it too had reached the camps, and had likewise found them obliterated, with the humanitarian facilities looted and vandalized.[118]
  • Continuing trauma and fear in the south. Nevertheless, the federal government’s undertaking to concentrate all Eritrean refugees in the two southern camps proceeded, and on February 18 UNHCR announced that it was anticipating receiving some 15,000 refugees from Hitsats and Shimelba there.[119] Yet – in addition to the previous Tigrayan attacks on those camps – on February 19 and 20 it was reported that Tigrayans were again threatening the refugees in Adi Harush, and on March 2 that they attacked and looted.[120] A comparable report emerged on February 27 from Mai Ayni, where the intimidation was accompanied by shootings, looting and a mutilation.[121] Residents of both camps pleaded with UNHCR for protection or evacuation, even as UNHCR was concentrating more Eritrean refugees there. UNHCR, itself under enormous pressure, appeared to have had no solutions to offer them.[122] Still the agency persisted in its mission to support the two camps: on March 31 it reported that it was gradually restoring relief services there.[123] As of April 9, it had received from elsewhere 3,633 Eritrean refugees at Adi Harush and 4,299 at Mai Ayni. (Others among the scattered were being accounted for in Mekelle, Adigrat and Addis.)[124] Yet the camps remained terrifying. On April 8, Adi Harush was attacked, and Eritrean refugees were abducted, at least some of them by Eritrean soldiers. [125] By April 10, Eritrean troops had abducted 17 Eritrean refugees from that camp.[126] In early April, Tigrayan militia seriously wounded a refugee in Mai Ayni.[127]


  • In Addis, again. On February 17, it was again reported that Eritrean oppositionists who had long resided in Addis and elsewhere in Ethiopia were facing harassment and intimidation at the hands of Eritrean and Ethiopian security operatives.[128] Similarly, the arrest of 156 Eritreans in Addis over the past three months was reported on February 22.[129] On April 16 and 19, Eritrean agents were reported to be sweeping Addis neighborhoods on foot and by car in search of Eritreans, with a view to abducting them.[130]


  • Most recently.[131] On May 14, OCHA reported that, of the approximately 20,000 Eritrean refugees who were previously residing in the northern camps of Hitsats and Shimelba (a number different from the 34,000 cited above in this chapter), UNHCR had now verified some 10,000 refugees who were in Adi Harush, Mai Ayni, Mekelle, Adigrat or Addis Ababa, but that 7,000-10,000 Eritrean refugees were still in hard-to-reach areas across the region.[132] On June 2, Relief Web posted a UNHCR report to the effect that nearly 8,100 refugees from Hitsats and Shimelba had arrived at Adi Harush and Mai Ayni; that many refugees continued to likely be scattered about Tigray; that many refugees outside of the camps were in need of life-saving assistance; that many refugees were likely moving to Addis, where they felt they would be safer; and that UNHCR was attempting to protect those in Addis.[133] On June 6, Relief Web posted another UNHCR report, to the effect that the Eritrean refugee count in Tigray was now 87,420, down from the pre-war count of 96,223; and that essential services, including primary education, had been restored in Mai Ayni and Adi Harush.[134] Separately, through mid-June, scattered episodes of Eritrean troops forcibly seizing Eritrean refugees in Tigray and returning them to Eritrea were reported to The America Team, as were episodes of violence by Tigrayans and possibly Eritrean forces against residents of the southern camps.[135] On June 29, the abduction, imprisonment and re-conscription of at least some of the refugees from Hitsats and Shimelba who had previously deserted the Eritrean military was confirmed.[136]


8.4 A Dark Future


  • The Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia have become victims of multiple violations of international law. The killing, wounding, robbery and rape of innocent civilians at the hands of organized military actors have amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the view of many observers. The invasion of refugee camps in a neighboring country, the abduction and refoulement of refugees there, and the obliteration of camp facilities – all as perpetrated by the Eritrean military – have abridged multiple principles involving the protection of refugees, such as have rarely occurred anywhere in recent decades. The return of refugees to the unsafe camps in Tigray by the Ethiopian government violates principles of refugee protection as well, as does Ethiopia’s failure to protect the refugees generally.[137] On January 28, February 24 and May 12, The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea expressly called out many of the above activities as potential violations of international principles and legal accords.[138]


As of this writing, the Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia appear to be trapped there. Those residing in UNHCR-supported camps at Mai Ayni and Adi Harush are highly vulnerable to attacks by both Eritrean forces and Tigrayan militias and individuals. Indeed, the federal government’s determination to concentrate Eritrean refugees in those two camps would appear to make even more of them vulnerable. The camps were never intended to withstand any material invasion, and they are not able to do so. Just as international relief workers fled the camps at the outset of the conflict, they would certainly flee again if circumstances again deteriorated.


Those refugees residing in and around IDP camps in the Sheraro, Shire and Mekelle areas are suffering acute privation, and they may also be vulnerable to attack. Those who had been in Addis when hostilities began, or who subsequently fled from Tigray to Addis, are vulnerable to removal to the refugee camps by the Ethiopian government and to abduction and refoulement by Eritrean security forces. Tigrayans and others who have fled to Sudan could remain there indefinitely – they appear to be barred from re-entering Tigray by Ethiopian and allied forces, who have shot some refugees who have attempted to do so.[139]


As described above, even if any of the refugees, wherever situated, were somehow able to move outside of their current confines, there are no welcoming countries that they could readily access. A fortunate few with international resources will probably escape – for example, to the West. The rest will probably not.


  • For how long these conditions will last will likely depend on such factors as the status of the war and of the Eritrean-Ethiopian alliance. But, in the view of the author, as long as that alliance continues to any extent, the refugees’ prospects for a secure future in Ethiopia remains grim. Even if Eritrean forces were to exit Tigray – as international actors have been demanding for months, and as Abiy has promised – they could seemingly re-enter at any time and pounce upon the refugees. And even short of fresh attacks on the camps by Eritrean forces, Ethiopian and Eritrean security personnel could continue to cherry-pick Eritrean refugees in Addis and elsewhere for refoulement or other harsh actions. Further, even short of such events, the federal government could deny sanctuary to the refugees (with unknowable implications) or otherwise make their lives even more miserable – in an effort to please the Eritrean regime, or otherwise.


One potential rescue operation could consist of removing the refugees to other countries altogether. But as stated above, permanent resettlement of individual refugees in third countries is statistically uncommon. Mass relocation to refugee camps in third countries, alternatively, would require not only host country consent but a major investment in infrastructure, logistics and re-deployment on the part UNHCR and its partner NGOs. Such a wholesale transplantation would possibly have little precedent; but it perhaps could be justified by the extraordinary and illegal attack on the camps in Tigray by Eritrean forces. A substantially more manageable variation might consist of moving the camps out of Tigray and further south into Ethiopia, rather than into another country. That could be faster, less expensive, and actually welcome by the Ethiopian government – which could tout the move as demonstrating its good faith in protecting the refugees. But, as stated above, it would not achieve full protection, as long as Ethiopia and Eritrea remain allied. Notably, on May 5, UNHCR reported that plans were proceeding to build a new camp in the Amhara region of Ethiopia – directly south of Tigray – to house some 20,000 Eritrean refugees.[140] But the number fell far short of the combined Mai Ayni and Adi Harush populations; and the plan did not appear to contemplate protection of either those camps or the new camp from future incursions by Eritrean forces.


To complicate matters, notwithstanding their current peril, some refugees in the camps in Tigray may not relish migrating from their established in-camp communities and their Tigrinya-speaking environs. Some in Addis may hold out hope for the safer, more open and more vital urban life there than can be offered by any refugee camp anywhere. So individual refugees too could have to confront difficult choices, even if choices were offered.


Other means for protecting the refugee camps could include a range of multinational military operations. But any such undertakings would almost certainly necessitate far broader diplomatic considerations and military operations – that is to say, relative to the direct, still raging conflict between Tigrayan forces, on the one hand, and Eritrean, Amhara and federal Ethiopian forces on the other – not just to refugee protection. Of course, a military approach would involve significant economic and strategic costs and risks for the intervening countries – not to mention political risks, both domestic and international.


Still, the potential for such interventions stands as a question. In Bosnia, Liberia, Rwanda and elsewhere in recent decades, international interventions – or earlier interventions than at length eventuated – were widely seen after the fact as having been tragically delinquent. But as compelling as the author finds the question, and as much as he has cogitated upon it, he lacks expertise in that area and thus will stand down from pursuing it here. He instead will conclude simply: by urging that the refugees be moved to safer locales, following due consideration by those with the means to do so, but otherwise expeditiously.

[1] Mike Slotznick is counsel to The America Team for Displaced Eritreans (hereafter, “The America Team”). . The America Team is an all-volunteer organization, based in Pennsylvania, that helps Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S. and around the world. Other members of The America Team contributed substantially to this chapter.

[2] and and at pages. 13-15 and and


[4] Eritrea: Initial National Report (1999-2016) Prepared on the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), 28 March 2017, The State of Eritrea, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, page 25, paragraph 89.

[5] CIA Factbook Eritrea, 2021

[6] Multiple sources indicate or suggest that the stated number of refugees pertains to those who have fled Eritrea during the current regime (that is, since 1991), and who still have refugee or similar status, as opposed to prior waves of refugees from Eritrea. See, e.g., and and at page 12


[8] . The paper contains many footnoted references, sourced to the major human rights reports that it summarizes.

[9] “Human Rights Have Not Improved in Eritrea Since the Rapprochement with Ethiopia”




[13] and  and


[15] and . The stated figures reflect the number of refugees who had affirmatively registered with UNHCR and who UNHCR believed to still be in the country. The actual totals, including de facto and unregistered refugees, could have been more or less than as were counted.



[17] and


[19] and

[20] Some sources report that the attack occurred in the early morning hours of November 4.

[21]  and and

[22] It seemed then to The America Team that a perfect means for avoiding accountability for atrocities was to simply ban the press from investigating and reporting on them – shrewd, but not the way that the international accords around human rights were intended to operate.


[24] and


[26]  and









[35] and



[38] and and




[42] Reported directly to The America Team, April 12, 2021. (The source for subsequent footnotes referencing such reports is likewise identified as “The America Team.”)


[44]; plus The America Team, November 24, 2020



[47] and

[48] The America Team, January 24-25, 2020.

[49] The America Team, January 28, 2021; also and .





[54] and and and and The America Team, December 3, 2020

[55] and


[57] The America Team, December 2, 2020.


[59] and and  and



[62] The America Team, December 11, 2020, January 4, 2021 and January 10, 2021.

[63] The America Team, December 2, 2020

[64] The America Team, December 2, 2020



[67] The America Team, December 2, December 4 and December 7, 2020

[68] and

[69] and and and

[70] and and and and!5736994/ and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and  and and and and ; also The America Team, on multiple dates

[71] and





[76] The America Team, March 9 and March 18, 2020

[77] The America Team, March 23, 2021

[78] and and and and

[79] and

[80]  and and and and and

[81] The America Team, December 8 and December 11, 2020; also

[82] and and and and and



[85] The America Team, December 31, 2020 and January 8 and January 24, 2021; also

[86] The America Team, December 31.

[87] The America Team, January 10, 2021; also

[88] and and ; also The America Team, December 15, 2020

[89] The America Team, December 19, 2020 and January 11, 2021

[90] The America Team, December 19, 2020 and January 11, 2021

[91] The America Team, December 21, 2020; also

[92] The America Team, January 1 and 2, 2021

[93] The America Team, December 25, 2020


[95] The America Team, January 27 and January 28, 2021

[96] The America Team, January 27, 2021

[97]  and The America Team, December 19, 2020


[99] and



[102] and

[103] and


[105] and  and and and and and and at page 46



[108] The America Team, January 23, 2021

[109] The America Team, January 24, 2021


[111] and




[115] and



[118] and


[120] The America Team, February 19, February 20 and March 2, 2021

[121] The America Team, February 27, 2021; also

[122] The America Team, February 27 and March 2, 2021



[125] The America Team, April 8, 2021

[126] The America Team, April 10, 2021

[127] The America Team, April 10, 2021



[130] The America Team, April 16, 2021 and April 19, 2021

[131] As this chapter goes to press in mid-June, 2021




[135] The America Team, on multiple dates.

[136] at page 4 and at pages 18 and 24


[138] at pages 13-15

[139],in%20the%20northern%20Tigray%20Region  and


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