Blog post by Samrawit Fesshaie, an Eritrean American graduate student at American University

The war on Tigray began in November of 2020 and quickly escalated into a full-blown genocide against Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Fighting broke out on November 3rd, 2020 between Tigray’s regional ruling party known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian National Defense Force after the Ethiopian Government decided to begin “militaryoperations” in Tigray. The Ethiopian Government declared the TPLF a terrorist organization and justified their attacks on Tigray as attempts to rid the country of terrorists. It wasn’t long before Eritrean troops and Amhara militias also joined the war on Tigray. During this period of time, the Ethiopian government cut off Tigray from the rest of the world by putting in place a telecommunication blackout and by blocking “virtually all food and medical shipments into Tigray, using food as a weapon of war”. It is estimated that around 600,000 people lost their lives during this conflict and it is believed that millions of Ethiopians have been displaced since the onset of this war. It is clear that several ethnic groups have experienced instances of ethnic cleansing and in the case of Tigrayans–a full blown genocide. Yet, there is one group of vulnerable people that have been all but forgotten during this conflict–Eritrean refugees.

Throughout this entire conflict, Eritrean refugees located in Ethiopia found themselves at the mercy of multiple armed groups with nowhere to run and no one to protect them. The instability and violence that Eritrean refugees experienced during the war on Tigray is one of the strongest examples of how refugees are often left completely unprotected and vulnerable to all types of human rights abuses. The war on Tigray not only highlighted the ways in which the world failed to protect the human rights of Tigrayans, but it also put a spotlight on the plight of Eritrean refugees in a world where virtually every single organization/humanitarian agency also failed to protect and uphold their human rights.

In May of 1991, Eritrea officially seceded from Ethiopia, gaining its independence as a sovereign country for the first time. There were a few years of peace before a border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia sparked for a second time from 1998 to 2000. This border war led to a ““no war, no peace” stalemate after Ethiopia refused to accept an international boundary demarcation ruling”. It was not long after this that Eritrea’s authoritarian ruler, Isiaias Afwerki, decided to isolate Eritrea from the rest of the world and institute “indefinite compulsory conscription”. The situation in Eritrea grew dramatically worse as it became clear that the constitution would no longer be upheld, independent media no longer existed and freedoms such as freedom of speech could not be exercised due to the fear of “reprisals against anyone who dares to speak to a human rights organization”. All of these factors contributed to the mass exodus that Eritrea has experienced since Afwerki’s rise to power. It is believed that thousands of Eritreans were fleeing from Eritrea to Ethiopia every single month leading to a significant decline in Eritrea’s population. When fleeing into Ethiopia, most Eritrean refugees would set up camp in one of the four major refugee camps: Shimelba, Mai Aini, Hitsats, and Adi Harush. It is believed that Ethiopia was hosting around 140,000 Eritrean refugees prior to the start of this war.

Soon after the war began, Eritrean refugees were left at the mercy of several different armed groups. None of which cared about the safety or the lives of these Eritrean refugees. Eritrean refugees were targeted by Eritrean soldiers for having fled from their home country and many were kidnapped and forcefully returned to Eritrea. They also experienced reprisal attacks at the hands of Tigrayan militias because of the war crimes that Eritrean soldiers were committing against Tigrayans during the conflict. In 2021, Eritrean soldiers completely destroyed two of the major Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray “dispersing approximately 20,000 Eritrean refugees”. By March of 2021, the UN was finally able to confirm that the camps had been completely destroyed and that both Tigrayan and Eritrean forces had participated in pillaging and vandalizing these camps. Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at the Human Rights Watch, explained that the “horrific killings, rapes, and looting against Eritrean refugees in Tigray are evident war crimes”. All of this is happening while Eritrean refugees in Tigray are also experiencing the effects of a telecommunication blackout as well as the de facto blockade that prevented “life-saving medicine and food from reaching millions”. Interviews with Eritrean refugees who survived these attacks show how dire the circumstances were and how Eritrean refugees were left to fend for themselves. One Eritrean refugee recounted how “[her] husband had [their] 4-year-old on his back and [their] 6-year-old in his arms. As he came back to help [her] enter the church, [Tigrayan militias] shot him”. Another Eritrean refugee said, “I am a double victim. Both in Eritrea, and now, here [in Ethiopia], I am not protected” after she and her 17 year old sister were raped by Tigrayan militia fighters. Her statement reflects a larger sentiment that many Eritrean refugees in Tigray feel–that they were left completely unprotected in the country they had sought refuge in.

International Refugee Law is premised on the human right “to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. This is found in Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Forty-eight countries signed this declaration with Ethiopia being one of them. Despite this, the Ethiopian government was more than okay with sitting back and allowing various armed groups to abuse and even kill the Eritrean refugees that Ethiopia was entrusted with protecting. One of the fundamental elements of the Refugee Convention calls for the principle of non-refoulement which is meant to “protect refugees from return to threats to life and freedom”. Let alone protecting Eritrean refugees from refoulement, the Ethiopian government was more than okay with allowing Eritrean soldiers to kidnap Eritrean refugees back into Eritrea so long as that meant that the Ethiopian government could continue to collaborate with Eritrea in its attack against Tigray. Another one of the fundamental elements of the Refugee Convention is “that refugees are to enjoy the widest possible exercise of their human rights”. Ethiopia is a party to the Refugee Convention and yet under their watch, Eritrean refugees’ fell victim to killings/rape and had their possessions looted and their encampments destroyed.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is defined as “the refugee agency of the United Nations (UN) mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide, and to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees”. Although this agency is charged with the responsibility of protecting refugees and safeguarding their rights, the UNHCR was often unable to even reach some of the Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray during this conflict, let alone ensure that Eritrean refugees were safe. The UNHCR did raise the alarm multiple times regarding the safety of Eritrean refugees in Tigray, but they ultimately had little power to actually ensure their safety due to the ongoing conflict and blockade. Many Eritrean refugees also did not feel that their concerns were being heard, especially regarding relocation. Many feel that there is nowhere within Ethiopia that is safe for them right now, because the conflict in the country leaves Eritrean refugees at risk of being attacked because they are misidentified as Tigrayan or attacked because they are “associated by vengeful Tigrayans with Eritrean soldiers, who have been implicated in massacres, mass rape, and other abuses in Tigray”.

Although a peace treaty was signed between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on November 2, 2022, the impact of this war on Eritrean refugees is still being felt today. To this day, no one knows exactly what has happened to many of the 20,000 Eritrean refugees that were displaced after the destruction of Hitsats and Shimelba. Attempts to relocate Eritrean refugees to other parts of Ethiopia have been met with many concerns and doubts from Eritrean refugees about the safety of such relocation efforts especially after this most recent conflict. If the international community wants to uphold their commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as to the Refugee Convention, the case of Eritrean refugees during this conflict needs to be studied in order to understand all of the ways in which these refugees were failed by the very agencies charged with protecting them. It is only after looking at the case of Eritrean refugees in Tigray and other refugees in conflict zones, that the international community can actually begin to pinpoint the ways in which they have failed to prioritize the safety and human rights of refugees. Countries such as Ethiopia must also maintain their commitment to the Refugee Convention and prioritize the safety of refugees even during times of conflict within their nation because unlike other human rights treaties, “the Refugee Convention does not contain a general derogation clause permitting rights to be suspended in a state of emergency”. Despite their recent failures, if Ethiopia is determined to remain committed to the Refugee Convention, then it must make a concerted effort to “uphold its obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law” by taking the concerns of Eritrean refugees seriously in order to better understand the dangers they are facing and work with the UNHCR to relocate them to areas where they do not have to worry about falling victim to such attacks again. The UNHCR must also work to “find and offer protection to missing Eritrean refugees” and to resettle Eritrean refugees (with the help of the Ethiopian government) in safer areas within Ethiopia if they hope to maintain their commitment to “protecting refugees and resolving refugee problems worldwide”. Because ultimately, the case of Eritrean refugees should not be thought of as a singular case. If anything, the plight of Eritrean refugees during the war on Tigray calls attention to the ways in which the international community has often failed and continues to fail to care about and protect the human rights of one of the most vulnerable populations–refugees. If the case of Eritrean refugees in Tigray is overlooked and the voices of Eritrean refugees are silenced, there will only be more instances of human rights violations against vulnerable groups like refugees and the international community’s “commitment” to human rights will only remain on paper.

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