The Eritrean Exodus to Ethiopia

Africa Monitors

September 22, 2018

Following the signing of peace and friendship agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia which ended the ‘No war, No peace’ status between the two countries new developments are unfolding in unprecedented manner. On the 11th of September 2018, the border opening between the two countries was officially celebrated in the presence of the leaders of the two countries, people and the armies of both countries. Since then there is free movements of people and goods between the countries in unorganized manner. Trade exchange started immediately. Goods that moved from and to each country are being transported without paying customs duties. People are trading goods such as food commodities, building materials. This trade has somehow contributed to easing the pressure of scarcity of goods in Eritrea.

 People on both sides of the border started crossing the border to visit family members, relatives and friends. But above all an exodus is taking place that can be compared to the biblical Era. Eritrea is fast emptying In a week’s time, things have moved dramatically. But the most dramatic and chaotic development is the flight of people from Eritrea to Ethiopia. The opening of the border in this way has come as a surprise to the Eritrean people. The road to Ethiopia is now crowded and congested mainly with traffic transporting people from Eritrea to Ethiopia and goods from Ethiopia to Eritrea.

 Without any official declaration of change of policy or communications to the public from the Eritrean government side, the Eritrean people were caught off guard to find out the border is open for people’s movement regardless of the age, Gender and Sex. The only procedure needed from the passengers to adhere to is just to register their name based on the information on their Eritrean ID (it can be school ID, or National ID) as they cross the border to Ethiopia. The paradox here is that there is no any announcement of demobilization and release of people who are in detention in allegation of attempting to flee the country. Surely, members of the national service are using this opportunity to flee the country. But those in detention are at a loss as they still remain locked behind bars even if the reason for which they are detained is invalid and irrelevant now. In regard to the demobilization, still no one is demobilized and any official announcement from the government of its good intention to do to so.

The opening of the border has enabled the people to turn the situation to their advantage to flee from the country without any payments to smugglers. Seeing many adults, children, and minors, mothers with infant babies and families flow to Ethiopia can give you the clue as to how people in Eritrea are desperate and reacting to the current situation.

 Most of those who cross to Ethiopia reside in Mekele city, Tigray region while others continue their journey to Addis Ababa. And those who travel to Ethiopia for visits or trading, they go back to Eritrea. Through the facilitation of human smugglers and traffickers already some people are further migrating to other countries such as Uganda and Sudan from Ethiopia. Already people have started arriving in Uganda. Unconfirmed information also indicates that human traffickers are kidnapping the unsuspecting Eritreans by enticing them that they would transport them from Tigray state to Addis -Ababa. Once on-board the vehicles the victims are transported to Sudan against their will and held hostage for ransom. The ransom demanded is 20, 000 USD per individual. Africa Monitors is still working to verify this information. This is a very dangerous development. The rumors that have been circulating in Eritrea that soon people would be required to apply for exit visas to cross the border to Ethiopia is contributing to the out flow of the people because people are worried that the may not be able to leave the country in the future.

The Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) administered refugee reception center in Endabaguna, Tigray state which receives and screens Eritrean refugees has temporarily stopped its operations. It is not yet known when it will resume its operations. Or even it is not clear if it is going to resume operations in the future. Hence those who are crossing to Ethiopia do not have legal status as there is no way they can apply for asylum or protection.

In regard to the Eritrean Refugees in camps they are allowed to travel to any place with the pass paper known as “menqesaqesi wereqet”. In this case nothing has changed to the way they have been treated and handled. Neither are there changes in the mindsets of the exiting Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia. As there are no any changes to the situation in Eritrea there appears that there is no any tendency for the Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia to return to Eritrea.

There are great excitements and jubilation in both Eritrea and Ethiopia for peace has come and the people who are racially, ethnically and culturally the same are able to meet after 20 years of separation. For this reason Eritreans in Ethiopia are received with warm welcome and in friendly manner. Particularly in Tigray people are doing their best to help the Eritreans and are exercising prudence not to disappoint them.

However, as the flow continues, it is heading to creating humanitarian crises. Majority of the people crossing to Ethiopia cannot afford to pay for their basic needs such as food, shelter and other necessities. As the result humanitarian crisis is in the making in the Tigray state. The likelihood of the unaccompanied children and minors being subjected to different types of exploitation that including sexual abuse are high. This situation is also going to create economic burden on the host communities and there is the possibility that this situation will create conducive grounds for crimes to thrive. As the Tigray state itself is suffering from high unemployment rate, there is little it can offer to the Eritreans in terms of employment. Besides children and minors are at loss as they are not being able to attend schools. As the pressure builds up this creates good grounds for human smugglers and traffickers to entice the people to fall in their traps. The pressure in the Tigray state could be eased if people move further to the Center of the country. However, given the current fragile security conditions in other parts of the country and the cultural and linguistic differences between Eritreans and other Ethiopians their movements further inland is likely to be restricted.

Therefore, following recommendations need to be taken into consideration to address the unfolding crisis.

Tigray state regional government

  1. The police and security forces should work hard to break human trafficking and smuggling networks which target the Eritreans and others. Human smuggling and trafficking activities and operations should be prevented.
  2. The Tigray regional government must work to raise the awareness of Eritreans about the risks of illegal further migrations,
  3. The Tigray regional government should design a strategy to mobilize resources to help Eritreans and create conducive conditions to live, work and get academic education and vocational skills.

The Ethiopian Federal Government

The Ethiopian government should reactivate the asylum granting process for Eritreans. Those who wish to apply for asylum should be given the right to seek asylum and get protection in Ethiopia.

The International community

As the saying goes “prevention is better than cure”, International and local NGOs, UN agencies and international organizations and concerned governments should work in partnership with the Ethiopian government and Tigray regional government in a concerted manner to address the situation before it develops into humanitarian and migration crises. They must negotiate with the Ethiopian government so that the Ethiopian government resumes granting Asylum to Eritreans. Also the parties should work with the Ethiopian government on integration, education and livelihoods strategic plan for Eritreans in Ethiopia.

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