The UN gave them permission to remain in Ethiopia, but Eritrean refugees report arbitrary arrests and forced transfers to war-torn parts of the country.
Five keys to understanding the war in the Ethiopian region of Tigray
Ethiopian government security agents have been accused of rounding up, ill-treating and illegally detaining Eritrean refugees who have legal permission to reside in the country, as well as Eritreans with a second nationality.
Berket*, a British citizen born in Eritrea, has spoken with Guardian about his experience during a recent vacation to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. In early July, she signed up for a day trip to a religious destination. After visiting a monastery, he was traveling by bus with 140 other Eritreans when Ethiopian police stopped them outside the capital.
“They only arrested those of us who spoke Tigrinya [lengua de eritreos y de la provincia etíope de Tigray]. In addition to the refugees, there were dozens of Eritreans who had second European, Canadian, American or British passports. They took our belongings from us and forced us to get on another bus,” says Berket.
“They didn’t tell us what ‘crime’ we had committed and they didn’t listen when they were shown UNHCR IDs and passports [Agencia de la ONU para los refugiados]”, Add. “We refused to get on the bus because the policemen did not give us any explanation. But the agents beat us and intimidated us. There was also a mob of people verbally abusing us. We got scared,” he recounts.
They moved the group to a camp in Debark, a city in the troubled Amhara region, where 10 days later Berket and 20 other people were released with a second passport. The others are still held in the Alemwach camp along with thousands of Eritrean refugees.
“It’s very hard,” says Berket. “[El campamento] It lacks basic things like water facilities. It’s scary because there are a lot of violent militias in the area. I have been arbitrarily detained and released. There is no order or law, ”he says.
In their testimonies to Guardian, Eritreans accused UNHCR of not asserting their rights as refugees. They also showed the British newspaper dozens of certificates showing that their UNHCR legal refugee status is still valid, as well as permission to reside in the Ethiopian capital.
Yekalom*, a father of three, says he had lived and worked in Addis Ababa since he fled Eritrea in 2013 and until this July 9, when he was taken to live in the camp, separating him from his wife and children, who are still in the city. “I built my life in Addis Ababa, trusting that UNHCR would protect my rights as a refugee, but now it seems that I have no rights. We have received no explanation as to why we are being held here, or how long it is going to last,” he says.
“No one from UNHCR has asked us. They have abandoned us. We have nowhere to go to assert our rights, there is nowhere to go for protection,” he adds.
According to the refugees, the camp is not a safe place. Although there has been no fighting since the Tigray rebels withdrew in December of the conflict they have with the Ethiopian government, those who live within it say they are terrified by the bandits and the armed groups that have been formed with local people.
“There are a lot of armed people. They loot and kidnap people. You don’t know who is going to attack you,” says Lewam*, another refugee who was forcibly transferred from Addis Ababa. “It’s not even safe for the locals. There is no water or food in the camp and the shelters are in poor condition,” he relates.
Lewam also said that he “had finished the visa process and hoped to travel to Norway last week. [la tercera semana de julio]”: “But now I am forced to live here, abandoned in an uncertain situation.”
Kidan*, who had lived in Addis Ababa for seven years, says UNHCR had failed them. “I fled to Ethiopia trusting the promises of UNHCR, but the organization is practically non-existent right now, it no longer protects our rights,” he explains. “I have all the legal documents, there is no reason to keep me here,” he says.
Dozens of refugees killed
At UNHCR’s Ethiopian offices they told Guardian be very worried about the incident. “After our intervention with the authorities, some of the people have been transferred back to Addis Ababa. We are also monitoring the remaining cases with the authorities. We are working to ensure people get the help they need,” a spokesperson said.
The Ethiopian prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment from Guardian.
Since the war in Ethiopia began, all sides have abused eritrean refugees. In December 2020, the Ethiopian government rounded up the refugees to forcibly relocate them.
Reports suggest that Tigray rebels and Eritrean forces fighting alongside the government have also attacked refugees. Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report in September claiming that between November 2020 and January 2021, Eritrean troops had killed, “disappeared”, detained or forcibly returned to Hitsats camp (in Tigray) Eritrean refugees.
HRW also documented indiscriminate killings and sexual violence by Tigray militias in the camp. Dozens of refugees have reportedly died.
UNHCR communicated in September Some 7,600 Eritreans relocated to the Hitsats and Shimelba camps in Tigray remain unaccounted for.
* Names have been changed as a protective measure.
Translation of Francisco de Zarate