Rights Groups Concerned Over Safety of Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia

24 December 2020

Reports of attacks on Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia's Tigray area are causing concern among human rights groups.

About 96,000 Eritrean refugees lived in four camps in Tigray before the conflict started in November. Many fled to Sudan or to other parts of the country including the capital Addis Ababa.

Sarah Miller is with Refugees International, an independent group working to support refugees. She said Eritreans are being picked up and returned to Tigray or to their homeland against their wishes.

"There's a lot of concern that Eritreans are being forced back to places where they would be in danger," she said. Miller added that could be inside Ethiopia, in Tigray or even in Eritrea.

Miller told VOA the reports are coming in from refugees, family members and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, that are active in Ethiopia.

Two Senators step in

Chris Melzer is part of UNHCR's emergency team in Ethiopia. He told VOA that his organization did not have permission to return to the four refugee camps in Tigray. However, there is once again food aid at two of the camps. He too is concerned about reports of violence against refugees.

"We are aware of many stories about killings and abductions from the camps," he said. He added that UNHCR cannot confirm the stories now, but if they are true, it would be a violation of international law.

The issue has gotten the attention of U.S. officials. In a joint statement, U.S. Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Todd Young of Indiana demanded that all parties in the conflict follow the law and protect civilians. They asked that Eritrean soldiers permit refugees to flee violence.

"We are deeply concerned by reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted and forcibly returned to Eritrea by Eritrean forces, as well as disturbing reports that some trying to reach safer areas are being prevented from leaving," the senators said.

File: Eritrean refugee children walk within Mai-Aini refugee camp near the Eritrean boarder in the Tigrai region in Ethiopia February 10, 2016.
File: Eritrean refugee children walk within Mai-Aini refugee camp near the Eritrean boarder in the Tigrai region in Ethiopia February 10, 2016.

Evidence of soldiers seen by satellite

Recent reports suggest that Eritrean soldiers have been involved in the Tigray conflict. Reuters says five diplomats have pointed to evidence of soldiers on the ground from satellite pictures, communications and reports from Tigray.

A State Department spokesperson told VOA there are believable reports of Eritrean forces harming refugees and preventing them from getting to safety.

"All parties must respect human rights and international humanitarian law," the spokesperson said.

But the Eritrean minister of information, Yemane Gebremeskel, said the United Nations is responsible for the difficulties of Eritrean refugees in the Tigray area.

Redwan Hussien is a spokesman for the Ethiopian government's task force in Tigray. After federal forces shot at a U.N. team, Hussein said that no one is permitted to move about in the region without the government's permission.

Bad conditions

Refugee International's Miller said the conditions in refugee camps in Tigray have become very bad and there are shortages of necessities.

"The U.N. has been reporting very low, low supply of food, medical supplies, fuel," she said. "There's very little resources that refugees would have to survive which is why we're seeing so many starting to leave the camps."

Miller said officials should permit those fleeing on foot to do so safely.

"There is a right to flee for your life no matter where you are." she said.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Salem Solomon and Cindy Saine reported on this story for VOA News. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

abduct – v. to take (someone) away from a place by force

disturbingadj. causing worry or upset

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