Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia—Caught between all fronts

By Markus Rudolf


Forced displacement in Ethiopia is a complex issue with, in part, contradictory trends. In 2018, when the Eritrean–Ethiopian peace agreement laid the foundation for opening borders and the Nobel Peace Prize, between one and three million people were displaced by inter-ethnic conflicts and violence in Ethiopia. At the same time, just one country in Africa, Uganda, is sheltering more refugees than Ethiopia does. According to UNHCR, 800,000 refugees and asylum seekers were registered in 2020, including just under 22,000 in the capital Addis Ababa (75 per cent Eritreans). They all profited from the relaxation of the once strict encampment policy in Ethiopia.

Current situation

While the eyes of the world were on the US Presidential elections, an armed conflict erupted in Ethiopia on 4 November between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) regional government in Tigray and the central government in Addis Ababa. Since then, the situation has been extremely volatile: The front line separated the old and the new political and military elite; the fighting was a symptom and potential catalyst of rising ethnic tensions nationwide, the high number of soldiers and military equipment stationed there increased the risk of collateral damage in the civilian population. On top of it all, neighbouring Eritrea was drawn into the conflict. By mid-January 2021, more than 50,000 persons have fled from Tigray to Sudan. The number of Internally Dispalced Persons (IDPs) is now estimated at at least 2.2 million.

Shimelba Camp in Ethiopia, Photo: Markus Rudolfs, BICC

As a particularly exposed and vulnerable group, Eritreans sheltered in camps close to the border were caught between all fronts. Even before the conflict in Tigray erupted, refugees had become a bargaining chip in the political fighting between the central and regional governments. The central government refugee agency encountered more and more difficulties in cooperating with the authorities in Tigray. In 2020, the regional government finally resisted plans for the closure and the merging of camps. After armed fights broke out in November, reports emerged from the refugee camps that Tigray militias had initiated protests against the presidents of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Situation of the refugees

The Eritrean refugees find themselves in a tricky geographical situation: Four out of six official refugee camps for Eritreans in Ethiopia are located in the area of armed fighting. Two of them are in direct vicinity to the border with Eritrea, and two more are in an area contested between the federal states of Tigray and Amhara. The scant news available on the impact of the fighting on civilians come from refugees in Sudan. What is clear is that the area where the camps are located is a hotspot of military conflict. After the fighting broke out, Eritrean refugees reported that the administration of the camps had collapsed. Camp officials had fled, and food or humanitarian had failed to arrive.

Moreover, Eritrean refugees find themselves at the centre of an escalating ethnic conflict. Virtually all refugees in the camps in Tigray belong to the ethnic group of the Tigrinya, the very group whose interests the TPLF is claiming to defend within Ethiopia: It considers the current conflict a nationwide genocide of Tigrayans (Tigrinya speakers from Tigray state). The central government, in turn, blames Tigray militias for a massacre of mostly Amhara—the major ethnic group in the neighbouring state—in Mai Kadra. Eritrean Tigrinyans now fear that the lines of demarcation between them and Tigrayans might become increasingly blurred in the heat of the battle.

In actual fact, political infighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia had deeply divided the Tigrinya people on both sides of today’s border. Before Eritrean independence, they had cooperated closely in the civil war against the authoritarian Marxist regime known as the Derg. The growing alienation of their leaders after 1991 led to a war in 1998 and a military stalemate that lasted until 2018. The Ethiopian-Eritrean war killed just under 100,000 people between 1998 and 2000.

Further prospects

By 2018, the TPLF had lost its dominant position in the face of growing ethnic tensions throughout the country and handed over the reins of government to the current President, Abiy Ahmed, who reached a peace deal with Eritrea the same year. The TPLF nevertheless maintained its hostile stance and its support of Eritrea's opposition. In the current intra-Ethiopian conflict, Asmara is cooperating with the Ethiopian Army. The presence of Eritrean soldiers has been confirmed several times, though official Ethiopian statements on their role are contradictory. Addis only confirmed that Eritrea is providing logistical support to the Ethiopian military.

The refugees are thus exposed to forces they sought to escape. The unlimited military service in Eritrea, amongst others justified by the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, is the reason why many Eritreans have fled the country. Eritrea, therefore, considers the majority of the refugees deserters. The rapprochement between their country of origin and the country of reception is thus fraught with risks for them. UNHCR is still trying to ascertain the whereabouts of several thousand Eritreans who had fled and who, according to contradictory reports, have been abducted by the TPLF or forced to again cross the border.

In Tigray, the central government, having declared its victory, established humanitarian corridors. But, up to January 2021, the Ethiopian Army, however, continued to prevent UN staff from entering two of four refugee camps in the region. The situation of Eritrean refugees thus remains unclear. Some camp residents managed to escape the still ongoing fighting and made their way to the neighbouring Amhara region on their own. It is to be hoped that the international public will not lose sight of the IDPs’ need of protection and the special situation of Eritrean refugees in Tigray in view of the concerns about the political stability of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the TRAFIG Consortium or the European Commission (EC). TRAFIG is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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