Desperate Eritrean Refugees in Tigray and Afar Regions Need Safety, Protection and Urgent Humanitarian Supplies
29 July 2021
Eritrean Refugees are again in great danger in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which was a sanctuary for them prior to the outbreak of war.
From the outset of hostilities in November 2020, Eritrean refugees have been caught in the crossfire: Two camps in northern Tigray, Hitsats and Shimelba, were completely destroyed by Eritrean forces fighting alongside Ethiopian federal troops, and thousands of their inhabitants remain unaccounted for. Those who managed to flee the destroyed camps ended up in Mai Aini camp and Adi Harush camp in Southern Tigray.
As recently as 27th July, the UNHCR stated: “An estimated 24,000 Eritrean refugees in Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in Tigray are facing intimidation and harassment and living in constant anguish, cut off from humanitarian assistance. We have received disturbing and credible reports in recent days from Mai Aini camp that at least one refugee was killed by armed elements operating inside the camp.”
The UNHCR may well have been referring to events on 13th July, when according to reports by Agence France-Presse (AFP), the first volleys of gunfire were heard as a military offensive encircled Mai Aini camp. Over the next few hours, bullets and artillery fire rained down around the refugees in the camp. The violence in areas surrounding Mai Aini has greatly increased the refugees’ anxieties.
The UNHCR statement of 27th July expressed extremely serious concern about the safety of refugees in the two remaining camps: “Our staff have lost all access to the refugee camps for the last two weeks. Trapped refugees need urgent life-saving assistance. Clean drinking water is running out, no healthcare services are available, and hunger is a real danger. The last food distribution to both camps was done in late June, providing rations for one month.”
The Tigray conflict has pitted the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), against federal army and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed its allies, the Amhara militia, Somalian forces and Eritrean military contingents.
Since the start of the war, armed men have repeatedly entered Adi Harush and Mai Aini refugee camps during the night, physically harmed refugees, taking their cellphones and meagre belongings, and threatening to avenge the actions of Eritrean forces, who were implicated in looting, killing and raping of Tigrayan civilians.
Eritrean refugees in Tigray began to face serious dangers once again after the TPLF, fresh from retaking the Tigrayan capital Mekelle in late June, launched a new offensive to drive out of the federal forces and their allies from Tigray region and reclaim territory in southern and western Tigray, where Mai Aini and Adi Harush refugee camps are located. This month, two refugees were reportedly shot to death by armed militias inside the camps.
Eritrean refugees now fear they could come under fresh attack from the resurgent TPLF forces. Many fear being associated with the actions of Eritrean soldiers. There is growing mistrust between the Tigrayan host communities and Eritrean refugees, who are themselves victims and have nothing to do with the violations committed by the Eritrean regime and its troops in the war in Tigray.
The UNHCR also reports that: “Recent armed clashes have also displaced thousands of people in the Afar region to the East of Tigray, where an additional 55,000 Eritrean refugees are located, with reports of armed confrontations close to the locations where they live”. In addition, UNHCR reports that: “the main humanitarian supply road between Semera in Afar and Mekelle in Tigray has been completely blocked since 18 July. UNHCR supplies, like those of other UN and other agencies, are stranded in Semera.”
It would therefore appear that the Afar Region is also no longer safe for Eritrean refugees.
Human Rights Concern-Eritrea (HRCE) would like to emphasise and echo the appeal of the UNHCR to all concerned: “UNHCR implores all parties to the conflict to uphold their obligations under international law, including respecting the civilian character of refugee camps, and the rights of refugees and all civilians to be protected from hostilities…. UNHCR urges all parties to the conflict to give immediate humanitarian access and safety for aid workers attempting to provide life-saving assistance.”
HRCE firmly believes that Eritrean refugees are not safe nor protected in Tigray or in any part of Ethiopia. In December and January 2020, Eritrean forces were allowed to forcibly returned thousands of Eritrean refugees from Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps to Eritrea. The Ethiopian government was complicit in this crime against vulnerable people, whose cases had been determined to be genuine and who had been awaiting resettlement for many years. With Eritrean security forces operating throughout the country, there is no guarantee that such action will not be repeated in the case of refugees living in Mai Aini and Adi Harush or elsewhere.
We urge the UNHCR and the International community to come up with a plan to evacuate Eritrean refugees from Tigray and Afar regions through a safe and legal route and resettle them and all other Eritrean refugees in a third safe and less hostile countries.
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)firstname.lastname@example.org