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The Threats Faced by Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia and their Implications

Ashliyn Burgos, Francesca Fiore, Natalie Weidenbach, AFRICOM Team

Maisie Beavan, Editor; Jennifer Loy, Chief of Staff

Week of Monday, March 07, 2022



Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) marching in a parade[1]



Eritrean refugees facing marginalization fled to Ethiopia only to confront similar treatment. The ongoing conflict involving the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) has likely worsened the treatment of Eritrean refugees. Refugees have been attacked and killed by multiple entities, likely indicating that they are deliberate targets. Due to difficulty in pinpointing a single source of violence against them, mitigation efforts are likely to include various humanitarian actors, such as powerful countries like the United States, and organizations. It is very likely, without developing a solution, Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia will continue to be victims of abuse and experience violations of their fundamental human rights.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported difficulties in conducting humanitarian assistance programs due to aid and telecommunications blockades imposed by the Ethiopian government, finding most refugee camps had no access to clean water, food, and other essential resources.[2] This dire humanitarian situation is very likely a result of the combined actions, motivations, and strategies of different parties to the currently expanding Tigray conflict.


Map of Ethiopia[3]


Since the beginning of the Tigray conflict, Eritrean refugees have been targets of numerous attacks, including airstrikes, arson, and theft of resources in refugee camps along the Eritrean border (particularly in the Tigray and Afar regions) by the EDF and Tigray militias.[4] It is very likely that local Tigray militias, who do not adhere to TPLF’s strategy and objectives, are perpetrating these attacks. Local Tigray militias are likely to attack Eritrean refugee camps as retaliation against the EDF’s involvement in the Tigray conflict. It is very likely that attacks in northern Ethiopia, bordering Eritrea, are perpetrated by the EDF due to its geographical proximity and involvement in the conflict. It is also likely that existing tensions between the Eritrean government and the refugees escaping its authoritarian rule lead to their targeting of refugees.


The tactics used during the attacks perpetrated by the EDF and local Tigray militias are likely to vary according to their desired objectives. The parties have likely used arson, and stealing for economic and retaliatory strategies: destroying camps and displacing their people to acquire the camps’ resources and control over territory. Resources and territory are likely the most optimal factors for both EDF forces and local Tigray militias to gain a tactical advantage over their counterparts through the acquisition of territory and resources.


Eritrean refugee camps are very unlikely to be a source of tactical interest to the Ethiopian government as they are neither parties to the conflict nor are likely to possess valuable enough economic resources. However, the Ethiopian government and the ENDF are likely to cause an increasingly threatful climate for Eritrean refugees. The Ethiopian government, through its blockade of aid and telecommunications, is likely to further disrupt access to humanitarian assistance necessary for the refugees. The ENDF, through its military airstrikes in the Tigray region, is likely to put them at risk of becoming casualties to Ethiopia’s wider security strategy against the TPLF and local militias.


The conflict in Ethiopia has likely altered the notion that the nation could serve as a refuge to displaced Eritreans. Refugee camps within Ethiopia are targets for armed groups and individuals due to the increased vulnerability of the populating group.[5] Eritrean citizens are not protected by the Ethiopian government, which puts them at a high security risk. The safety of Eritrean refugees is not always guaranteed, even when dealing with entities connected to the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian military has attacked refugees due to suspicions that they are conspiring with the enemy.[6] This can likely make it difficult for refugees to seek help from government or federally related entities if there is a negative bias working against them. The military attacking refugees is likely to become an additional security concern as they are meant to protect civilians instead of targeting them.


Eritrean citizens taking refuge in Ethiopia are likely to be attacked, raped, and imprisoned by those on both sides of the conflict with the TPLF.[7] The attacks against the Eritrean population in Ethiopia will likely make it more difficult for the refugee population to become stable within the area. These attacks will likely create a cycle that will continue to encourage groups to target them as continued conflict is likely to cut off access to humanitarian aid. The security landscape within Ethiopia makes it difficult for humanitarian organizations to get aid into the area or for refugees to seek out aid without fear of potential attack. Due to increased difficulty in accessing humanitarian aid, there will likely be a greater opportunity and fewer security risks for violent groups in the area to recruit new members. This difficulty could provide leverage and shift the distribution of humanitarian aid from non-governmental organizations such as USAID or UNHCR to violent groups in the area who could equally control the security landscape.


If violent groups took control of the humanitarian aid distribution in Ethiopia, it would likely leave populations, such as Eritrean refugees, extremely vulnerable. Added pressure on refugees to conform to the wants of violent groups in exchange for necessities like food or shelter could likely rise. This could likely increase the membership of violent groups, leading to a potential increase in manpower in various areas. Counterterrorism forces could possibly face more Eritrean refugees who are not willingly serving groups but instead forced into completing missions, whether bombings or other types of attack. The forced recruitment of Eritrean refugees by violent groups could likely raise a dilemma of whether to treat those under these circumstances as victims or combatants.


Security is likely at risk when considering the targeting of Eritrean refugees by armed groups and Ethiopian soldiers. The suspicions of some Ethiopian soldiers towards the Eritrean refugees are likely a factor for this heightened risk. The Ethiopian government could potentially use this to recruit Ethiopian citizens who are against the TPLF by spreading a pretense that an increase in Eritrean refugees equates to a rise in enemy conspirators. If the targeting of Eritrean refugees continues, it could likely lead to counter actions from the refugees towards their attackers. Refugees could potentially begin taking up arms within Ethiopia as self-defense, deterrence, or frustration, leading to an additional conflict.


In response to the increasing humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia, UNHCR issued millions to aid Eritrean refugees.[8] Aid packages include access to food, clean water, and medical assistance.[9] Ethiopia’s imposed aid and telecommunication blockades require the UNHCR to coordinate with local humanitarian agencies to access camps. However, the UN and other humanitarian actors cannot reach camps for weeks or months. Prolonged delivery periods and blockades to aid are very likely exacerbating the crisis. More refugees are likely to concentrate in camps in preparation of aid packages’ arrival, which has a roughly even chance of increasing the risk of an attack because more people are there. Additionally, aid workers have been among the victims targeted by the same perpetrators of the Eritrean refugee attacks.[10] Increased threats against aid workers are likely to deter other aid workers from fulfilling deliveries in the region, which decreases the effect of UNHCR humanitarian assistance. Increasing aid packages are unlikely to prevent these Eritrean refugee attacks, and it is very likely to be stopped by blockades or be caught in the crosshairs of attacks. Therefore, it is almost certain that protecting Eritrean refugees requires more than humanitarian support and likely involves various international actors, such as other countries and international organizations.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) and the AFRICOM Team recommend that the UNHCR refocus their assistance efforts towards relocating refugee camps from active conflict zones. The UNHCR should consider long term solutions as there is a roughly even chance conflict in this region will be prolonged. Short-term mitigation efforts like aid packages are unlikely to be sustainable and refugee relocation is likely a viable option. Locating new camps within easy access of transit can likely provide increased safety. Due to proximity and domestic circumstance, countries like Kenya and Sudan are likely considered qualified candidates. Neighboring countries providing these resettlement options are unlikely to offer the necessary resources for the influx of refugees, and the UNHCR should work with donor states and humanitarian actors, like the US, to guarantee safe passage and the appropriate resources. Relocating Eritrean refugee camps out of the current conflict zone is very likely to decrease Ethiopia’s attempts to cause collateral damage in the current conflict. Engaging other countries and actors in the transit of refugees is likely to draw these actors into the conflict, which has a roughly even chance of creating stakeholders committed to ending the violence.


CTG recommends that the UNHCR seek security measures for current refugee camps caught in active conflict zones. These should include security forces or an increase in actors dedicated to protection to prevent future attacks and ensure essential supplies like food and water reach their destination. These forces will likely have to be UNHCR sponsored, moving millions in aid from supplies to security. Police units have been included in past security packages, and it is almost certain refugee safety qualifies for specialized units. Specialized units are likely to include patrols around refugee encampments, which is almost certain to decrease risk of attacks. The UNHCR and other stakeholders have a roughly even chance of mitigating one issue, like attacks on Eritrean refugees, at the cost of redirecting funds from humanitarian aid addressing problems of famine in these camps.


Some internal conflicts impacting civilians require the force of the international community to address them. CTG recommends that neighboring countries, the World Bank, the African Union (AU), and countries like the US should pressure for an inclusive peace process and immediate protection of Eritrean refugees. Due to its position of financial authority and past aid agreements, both contributing to Ethiopia’s economic growth, the World Bank can likely make demands based on social conditions. The African Union is composed of other leaders of African countries and likely has a stance within the international community. Both actors can very likely push for peace talks and immediate ceasefire, which will directly mitigate the violation of Eritrean refugees’ human rights. In addition, this international cooperation will likely have the authority to pressure Ethiopia to protect refugees from its territory through the threat of investigations of human rights abuses and disappearances. Ethiopia is likely to see this as a form of deterrence, and armed groups operating within the northern territory will likely limit contact with Eritrean refugees.


CTG and AFRICOM recommendations for the UNHCR and international community are likely to reduce the effects of the current conflict on Eritrean refugees. However, this analysis is a current picture of the crisis therefore, it is recommended that close monitoring continues to determine the immediate action needed. Currently, the UNHCR and other humanitarian actors serve as the best source of intelligence for information on the ground. CTG’s AFRICOM Team will also continue to monitor the crisis. This information will likely shape the recommended policies of the international community.


________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Ethiopian soldiers marching in a military parade 2019 (cropped).jpg, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Deteriorating conditions putting Eritrean refugees at grave risk in Tigray, UNHCR, January 2022, https://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2022/1/61ea6fe74/deteriorating-conditions-eritrean-refugees-grave-risk-tigray.html

[3] Map of the regions and zones of Ethiopia, NordNordWest, licensed under Creative Commons.

[4] Attacks on Eritrean refugees in Tigray ‘clear war crimes’: HRW, Al Jazeera, September 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/16/ethiopia-attacks-eritrean-refugees-tigray-war-crimes-hrw

[5] Ibid

[6] In Ethiopia’s civil war, Eritrea's army exacted deadly vengeance on old foes, Reuters, November 2021, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/ethiopia-conflict-eritrea/

[7] Ibid

[8] UN plan to help 1.6 million displaced by Ethiopia war, France 24, March 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20220304-un-plan-to-help-1-6-million-displaced-by-ethiopia-war

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

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