TIGRAY, Ethiopia — According to The Washington Informer, Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs announced its plans to close down the Hitsats Refugee camp in early March 2020. Hitsats Refugee camp is one of the four refugee camps located in the Tigray province of Ethiopia that holds up to 100,000 Eritreans. Government officials in Ethiopia state that the reasons behind the closure are budget constraints. However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notes that the Ethiopian government has already received the budget to oversee the camp and that the closure could be due to other reasons.
Expectations have determined that the Eritrean refugees living in the camp will either relocate to the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps, or they will receive a permit to live in the towns of Ethiopia. Eyob Awoke, the deputy director-general of the ARRA, states that the refugees in the camp are living in impoverished conditions, “suffering from a lot from a shortage of water, shelter and access to electricity.” Awoke is urging the relocation of the refugees as quickly as possible, as plans have already experienced a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, organizations have spoken out against this closure due to several factors.
Unfinished Business Between Ethiopia and Eritrea
According to BBC News, Ethiopia and Eritrea have been in conflict for decades. The dispute began in 1998 when the two countries fought for ownership over the border town of Badme. As the war started to become larger in scale, communities living alongside the border of Eritrea became displaced. When the war ended in 2000, it was not until six months later that the countries signed a peace agreement establishing the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission. The final ruling by the commission was that Badme would go to Eritrea. However, Ethiopia would not accept this ruling without establishing further negotiations with Eritrea. Thus, while no final decisions have emerged about the status of Badme, both countries are facing much bigger implications as a result of this crisis.
Eritrea established an indefinite military service in 1995 with the goal of utilizing a large army in order to better fight against the Ethiopians. Even though the system was only supposed to last for 18 months, Eritrea soon implemented it for the long-term. As a result, families who fear enlistment or separation from their loved ones flee Eritrea as refugees and choose to join others in camps around Ethiopia. Furthermore, government officials in Eritrea have enacted stricter laws, using the conflict with Ethiopia to justify suspending the Constitution and battling out against dissenters. Thus, Eritrean families who fear these punishments choose to flee in order to gain freedom.
Bereket Zemuy of the Eritrean Refugees University and Graduates and Students Association states that “every single Eritrean family is being affected by the dictator system.” In other words, those who are fleeing are trying to escape this system that the government put in place.
The Adversities Refugees Will Face with Camp Closure
According to Eritrea Hub, organizations, such as Eritrean National Front, United Eritreans for Justice and the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party, are speaking out against the closure of the Hitsats refugee camp for two main reasons. The first reason these organizations are speaking out against the closure is that relocating the refugees to the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps is dangerous. The organizations state that those camps already lack access to basic sanitation facilities and are overcrowded. In addition, due to the coronavirus pandemic, placing refugees in those conditions would make them more vulnerable to catching the virus and potentially spreading the disease to other refugees. Another reason that the organizations are speaking against the closure is because of the 1,600 unaccompanied children who currently reside in the camp.
In January 2020, Ethiopian government officials officially changed their asylum policy. Previously, all Eritrean asylum seekers automatically received refugee status as a group. However, the policy requires that authorities at Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs should review whether Eritrean asylum seekers receive refugee status on a case by case basis. Human Rights Watch states that because of this change in policy, a plethora of unaccompanied children are unable to gain refugee status and thus will likely have to go back to Eritrea. Human Rights Watch states that denying asylum seekers status is “inhumane” and “unlawful.”
Initiatives that Organizations Have Taken
According to Eritrea Hub, in May 2020, five organizations sent an urgent appeal letter to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, in an effort to reverse the decision to shut down the Hitsats Refugee camp. These five organizations included the Eritrean National Front, United Eritreans for Justice, Eritrean People’s Democratic Party, Organization of Unity for Democratic Change and Eritrean National Council for Democratic Change. The letter included these requests:
- Reestablish the policy that will help Eritrean asylum seekers gain access to registration with the idea that these asylum seekers can use their fear of persecution as a way to gain status.
- Reconsider plans to move the Eritrean refugees of the Hitsats camp, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Continue granting refugee status to asylum seekers on a prima facie basis.
While government officials have yet to make final decisions, organizations are taking their first steps towards making sure that Eritrean asylum seekers will continue to receive protection.
– Sudiksha Kochi