Eritrean leader’s new friendship with Ethiopian leader threatens safety of Eritrean refugees

Africa Monitors

August 20, 2018

Two months after the elation and hope that accompanied the peace and friendship agreement between the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia, Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia remain worried about their future in Ethiopia. Their safety in Ethiopia was only ensured because of the enmity between the two countries, and the peace deal leaves them uncertain about their future. Their worries are compounded by the speedy, and sometimes unexpected, policy changes the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is trying to introduce as well as the suspiciously warm friendship between the leaders of both countries.  The rapid rapprochement between the governments has been unconventional, and the result of their meetings, which are rarely disclosed, are hard to predict. After his visit to Asmara to a mass reception, Abiy Ahmed personally put in a request to the UN to lift sanctions put on Eritrea since 2009, thanks to Ethiopia’s relentless diplomatic efforts at the time.

As the new Ethiopian government introduced a host of reforms within a period of a few weeks to show its trustworthiness to deliver its promises, the Eritrean government has not enacted any policy changes within Eritrea. The new Ethiopian government came to power amid widespread protests for change and has decided to cash in on populist trends which the continuous violent demonstrations seemed to respond to. As it tries to satisfy everyone, there are bound to be those who will be sacrificed because they matter too little. The first to be sacrificed will be Eritrean opposition groups based in Ethiopia and Eritrean refugees who risked their lives to avoid the horrors of life in their own country.

As exiled Ethiopian opposition groups go back to their country and sign peace agreements, the most recent of which is the peace agreement signed between the new Ethiopian government and the Asmara based Oromo Liberation Front, the Eritrean government has no pretensions or the incentive to recreating itself as an inclusive government. Members of opposition groups in Ethiopia have already been notified to stop all politics related activities, and promised safety to live freely as refugees.

Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia are seen as traitors and aligned with opposition groups that would like the present government in Eritrea removed. Therefore, the one sided openness to change, and the new Ethiopian government readiness to befriend the Eritrean government puts Eritreans who have sought asylum in Ethiopia at risk. The peace deal between both governments is a way for the government in Eritrea to be able to influence decisions the Ethiopian government takes without having to introduce any of the changes it is bringing.

Ethiopia has been the only country to accept Eritrean refugees’ claims for asylum prima facie. For any other country to accept all Eritrean refugees without regard to their specific reasons would mean declaring Eritrea a failed state without a viable government in the absence of any apparent natural or man-made disasters. However Ethiopia was in a position to accept all Eritrean refugees on a prima facie basis as it had no obligations towards the Eritrean government. Receiving those fleeing from an enemy state also gave a public relations advantage by presenting Ethiopia’s government as the most humane of the two. The country’s relentless campaign to announce the number of refugees was a public relations gain which was followed by hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and continues to receive. Ethiopia, which according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), hosted around 893,000 refugees at the beginning of 2018, received much more attention, praise and money for hosting Eritrean, Somali and South Sudanese refugees than Uganda, which hosts more than a million registered refugees.

At present Ethiopia doesn’t stand to benefit diplomatically from the presence of the Eritrean refugees. almost two hundred thousand young Eritrean refugees who are fundamentally opposed to their government by the fact of their absconding to an enemy country. Having recognized the Eritrean government as a friendly government, it would have no reason to provide prima-facie asylum to new refugees fleeing oppression at home or to even keep those who already live there. Continuing to provide the kind of open refuge which was given to Eritreans who escaped their government before the peace deal was signed would now sit crossly in the face of the appearances both sides are keeping.

Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia are right to worry about their safety. Until the recent breakup between the Eritrean and Sudanese governments, the Eritrean government virtually had free access to its citizens who had escaped to Sudan. Eritrean security agents could go to any Sudanese city or refugee camp and kidnap Eritrean refugees to be taken to Eritrea. The Sudanese government also did its best to make sure the remaining refugees didn’t feel safe, at times deporting hundreds of refugees, many of them legal visa holders and refugee card holders, in clear violation of non-refoulement agreements to which it is a signatory. Eritrean agents also roamed freely in South Sudan and are said to have kidnapped Eritreans on many occasions. They had the same intelligence access to Ethiopia until 20 years ago when the war erupted. At present, there is no reason to assume that the Ethiopian government will not make the life of refugees difficult in exchange for some small prize which it can show to its people as proof of its success.

From the 11th to 13th of July, authorities conducted meetings with Eritrean refugees in various areas of Addis Ababa. The refugees were assured that Ethiopia would continue to treat them as it treats refugees from other countries. However, in the context of past actions by the Ethiopian government and Eritrea’s track record of trying to influence the fate of its refugees, usually for the worse, Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia fear that they will be pawns in a new game of favor exchange.

Although the Eritrean government might not demand the Ethiopian government to make the life of the refugees difficult right now so as not to attract the kind of attention related to human rights violations at the moment it will surely not feel at ease when there are 200,000 of its citizens who fled its oppression and are clearly opposed to its rule in their country.  Upon the possibility of forced return to Eritrea, they have no reason to believe they will be accorded any different treatment than that which pushed them to leave the country. In fact they have every reason to fear they will be punished as traitors to the system.

To be able to return to Eritrea, if at all the Eritrean government allows it, the refugees would have to present themselves at one of the Eritrean missions in various Ethiopian towns and sign a regret form. The very few who legally settled in Ethiopia to invest will be forced to pay the mandatory 2 per cent income tax. The Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa, is rumored, to have already asked for the names and statuses of all Eritreans living in Ethiopia.

Perhaps one of the biggest dilemmas is how Ethiopia will reconcile politics and its international obligations to uphold human rights. The Eritrean government previously saw Ethiopia’s good reception of migrants as designed to weaken its army and show its intentions are to save the Eritrean people from the tyranny of their own government. Continuing the previous trend of receiving all Eritrean refugees, most of whom are there to avoid national service under the government cannot sit well in the face of the current developments.

Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia have been most active in opposition politics for more than 15 years now. Previous experience during the mass return of refugees from camps in Eastern Sudan says that the Eritrean government  will not welcome all of those refugees for fear that they might influence the population at home. In the early 1990s it had decided to stall the return from Sudanese camps of refugees which it thought were strongly associated with rival groups on security grounds, a favorite euphemism for fear of opposition.

Considering the various refugee rights violations that happened in Sudan before the severing of diplomatic ties with Sudan, it is clear that the Eritrean government sees refugees in neighboring countries as a threat to its continued rule. On various occasions, Eritrean refugees had also been forcefully returned to their country from Qaddafi’s Libya and from Egypt, both governments who had good diplomatic ties with the Eritrean government. Keeping in mind that Ethiopia had summarily deported around 70,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin at the start of the war between the two countries in 1998, it is hard to imagine the same country will find it difficult to treat these refugees in any way its new friendly government asks. Added to that is the leverage that the Eritrean government has on the new Ethiopian government through the influence it has on opposition groups. There is also more leverage through threatening announcements about details of the peace deal that might negatively influence maintaining the good public relations image the new government is relying on to rally support.

For the refugees who already feel the pressure of uncertainty, and who have been viewed with suspicion by the Ethiopian government even before the peace deal, any slightly negative move by the Ethiopian government will push them to migrate to Europe. Thousands are already flowing to Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. For those who do not have the financial means to wait years to be be resettled through UN agencies, the only choice is to collect whatever money they can put their hands on and continue the journey across the Sahara to the Mediterranean. Such a significant number moving northwards can give life to the crumbling trafficking networks in Sudan and Libya. It will cost thousands of lives and put unforeseen pressure on the EU and its member countries to handle a sudden trend.

International organisations like UNHCR and IOM, and other stakeholders like the EU and individual European states, and the AU would need to take action at present to ensure that the status of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia does not change either in policy or in actual execution. An official unified call from concerned organisations and states would go a long way in giving Ethiopia an acceptable reason not to give in to demands from the Eritrean government. It would also ensure that the Eritrean government abandons any such efforts considering the publicity such actions would attract. Publicizing the risks and demanding promises from the Ethiopian government is the best way to enable it to accommodate Eritrean refugees without any change in policy. Beyond the incentives that have been presented in the past, Ethiopia now needs to have an official diplomatic reason not to treat these refugees in any way designed to satisfy the government in Eritrea.

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