Eritrean Refugees Left Out in the Cold

Migration is still as a big concern in Eritrea. Youths, frustrated by the policies of the government, cross the border in droves, searching for a better life. Ethiopia hosts the highest number of refugees from Eritrea. The absence of rule of law, unlimited mandatory national service and absence of freedom of expression are reasons usually expressed by refuges for fleeing their home country. Even after entering Ethiopia, most of them are not able to join the workforce, partly because the law does not allow it. While the recent peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia renewed the hopes of a few Eritrean migrants, some still fear that the peace could endanger their lives. EBR’s Ashenfi Endale, reports.

On the afternoon of August 25, 2018, some fifteen Eritreans were gathered in the Catholic Orthodox Church around Concord Hotel, in Kirkos District. The hall, on the ground floor of a small building, can accommodate up to 200 people. They gathered outside the prayer service for a coffee ceremony at the back of the church. “We usually use the church as a social platform. We discuss how to solve the problems we are facing and help each other,” Selam Abraha, 28, who was hosting traditional coffee ceremony, told EBR. 

Selam crossed the Ethiopian border five years ago, after a challenging three-day walk, along with 22 other Eritrean refugees. They managed to cross to Ethiopia, leaving behind one of their crew members. “Our journey through border was the toughest part in my life.”

After crossing the border, her group was welcomed by the Ethiopian military around Shiraro, a border town. “Without Ethiopia, I would not have survived the joblessness, ups and downs and hopelessness,” says Selam, who was a teacher in Eritrea. 

She is just one of thousands of Eritreans who cross the border to enter Ethiopia, looking for better incomes and living conditions. Young Eritreans are not lucky enough to enjoy the right to be the part of the workforce and succeed in areas where they want to specialize. Particularly, the country’s laws oblige every youth to take part in compulsory military service, making their frustrations worse. 

Unfortunately, not wanting to go into the military means that some people are forced to do everything in their means not to reach eleventh grade.  “To do this, one has to fail once at each grade. But if you fail the same grade twice consecutively, your parents may go to jail,” says Hassen Salah, who came to Ethiopia 11 years ago. 

Selam, whose childhood dream was to own a barbershop or electronics shop, and support her family, also had similar experiences. “You must finish national service, or be the relative of an official to get a trade license,” she explained.

Such challenges push Eritreans like as Selam and Hassen to leave their country and migrate to western as well as neighboring countries like Ethiopia, regardless of the risk to their lives.

Ethiopia, which is also used as a transit point on the way to Europe, hosts the lion share of the Eritrean refugee population. Out of 700,000 refugees in Ethiopia, 100,000 are Eritreans, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

Europe is also a prominent destination for Eritreans, according to a report from the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance in 2017. For instance, Eritrean refugees were the single largest group of migrants in Italy two years ago, totaling 39,162 (25Pct) of all arrivals. On top of this, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 2016 estimated that close to 500,000 Eritreans lived abroad, which is 10Pct of the Eritrean population.  

For Eritrean refugees, there are two ways to come to Ethiopia. The first is through brokers, who charge USD400 to transport a person across Eritrea and drop them near to the border. However, Abraham, another refugee in Ethiopia, says using brokers is risky, especially for women. “They are sometimes raped because the brokers use risky routes,” he claims.  “They also abandon them in border areas to be captured by the military.”

The second option is trying to get closer to border areas, and then making a run for Ethiopian military bases. “The border on Eritrea’s side is heavily militarized. Once we got closer, we studied the open areas. We could walk only during the night. We slept in gorges during the day. It took two nights to cross from Rama to Ethiopia,” said Abraham.

Hassen described the difficulty he went through as a part of a group trying to cross over. “If they see a fleeing refugee, they shoot. But I recently heard that is improving. First, they fire into the sky and shout ‘stop’. If the refugees don’t stop, they fire at them.”

Cases are rarely taken to court, according to Hassen. “If the charge is minimal, only the police who put [the refugees] in prison can release them. Otherwise people just enter the court room, hear the sentence and leave. There is no hearing. Families cannot even attend their loved ones’ cases. ”

If an Eritrean is caught fleeing to Ethiopia, the sentence is four years, while fleeing to Sudan will get you two years, according to refugees EBR spoke with. If people go missing from Sawa [where military training is carried out], their family will be fined 50,000 Nakfa, or may even be poisoned, refugees claim. “If anyone is suspected of fleeing, it is considered treason, as it means fleeing to an enemy country,” explains Hassen. 

Many Eritrean refugees take the risk at the border and cross to Ethiopia, not only to flee from repression, but also to find more opportunities. As well as a bachelor’s degree in history, Abraham holds an automotive repair certificate and a driving license. “I can be a driver. However, the law does not allow us to hold jobs, run businesses or open bank accounts in Ethiopia. One of our friends started shoe shining, and the police immediately took him to the immigration office. Even if you can study and earn a master’s in Ethiopia, you cannot work,” he said.

About 80Pct of Eritreans in Ethiopia are estimated to be educated, which means they are in a position to contribute. “If the government allowed me, I would become an Ethiopian citizen without a second thought, and use my talents. But the law doesn’t entertain such demands, even for Eritrean refugees who have been living here for over ten years.”

As the result, life has been trying for Eritrea refugees in Ethiopia. Their only income comes from relatives, particularly those living abroad. As many as ten Eritreans live in a small studio room, especially around Mebrat Hail condominium complex, as they cannot afford the rent, which goes as high as ETB3,000 for a single room. “If my relatives send me money, I cover this month’s expenses, and someone else will cover the next month. Otherwise we share costs between us,” explained Selam, who lives with five other Eritreans, all of whom are from different parts of Eritrea and did not know each other before becoming refugees. 

Although there is hope that all these trials would become a thing of the past very soon, following the newly brokered peace agreement between the two countries, most Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia see no bright future. “The peace deal is great for Ethiopia. But on the Eritrean side, it only benefits the government,” argues Abraham.

On the other hand, Hassan says for many of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, especially those in the middle of the emigration process to join their families in third countries, the peace deal is a danger, explaining, “The process might suddenly stop if the two countries make a concrete peace agreement,”

6th Year . Sep 16  - Oct 15 2018 . No.66



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