Eritrean refugees caught between a rock and a hard place in Ethiopian conflict

The looming destabilisation of the country and neighbouring states has recently multiplied the efforts of political and humanitarian efforts to curb the year-long conflict in Ethiopia. Less attention has been given to the situation of the Eritrean refugees that were staying in the country. Their already precarious situation as refugees has been exacerbated in the current conflict as they are caught between all fronts and attacked from all sides.


In the current Ethiopian conflict, Eritrean refugees find themselves between a rock and a hard place on multiple levels. (1) They are, as long-time beneficiaries of humanitarian aid, severely affected by the current lack of access to the Northern regions lamented by the United Nations. (2) Mostly from the same ethnic group as one of the conflict parties, they risk being caught up in increasingly politically ethnicised fronts. (3) As Eritrean citizens inside Tigray, they are on the fence between trespassing Eritrean military forces, Tigrayan defense forces and militias who either want to use them as a pawn in the conflict or recruit them into their lines. (4) As non-Ethiopian citizens, they are branded and attacked as spying and conspiring with the enemy from all sides. (5) As victims of human rights violations, they are in the centre of the ongoing propaganda war, in which all parties try to discredit the other side as violating international law. (6) As refugees that are subject to limited mobility, they are deprived of the option to escape the aforementioned issues – up to the point of having been returned to camps in the conflict zone.

Since 4 November 2020, Ethiopia has been experiencing an armed conflict between the central and a regional government in which also neighbouring Eritrea is actively involved. It started in Ethiopia’s Northern Tigray region and features the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – and its military wing the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) – on one side and the central government in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian armed forces (ENDF), the Eritrean army (EDF), and militias from neighbouring regions on the other side. A year after it started, the conflict has now spread to three regions. While hardly any details about military operations are made public, their consequences, such as human rights violations, flight and hunger, have become the focus of diplomatic tensions. International organisations speak of about 400,000 people threatened by famine in Tigray and 2.5 million displaced people in Northern Ethiopia. A recent investigation by the UN confirmed gross human rights violation, yet details remain largely opaque. Experts keep warning of a destabilisation of the country and neighbouring states.


Historical developments

The historical background is complicated. When the Civil War ended in 1991 with the downfall of Mengistu Haile Mariam, ethnic Tigrinya emerged as the strongest military and political forces on both sides of the border that nowadays separates Eritrea and Ethiopia. Eritrea became an independent country and has since been ruled by President Isayas Afwerki. In Ethiopia, a Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-led alliance took power. In the wake of this seizure, both regimes in Eritrea and Ethiopia increasingly strengthened their grip on power through systemic violence, censorship, and repression. In the 1990s, the relationship between both  deteriorated in such a way that it triggered the Ethiopian-Eritrean war from 1998 to 2000, in which up to 100,000 people died. The conflict remained virulent until 2018 when peace was agreed on formally.

At that point, the TPLF had lost its dominant position in Ethiopia due to increasing discontent with the regime resulting in political protests across the entire country. Due to decades of TPLF’s human rights violations, large parts of the population had become opposed to the government. In 2018, a new government was formed; Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office, and the TPLF became constrained to its home region Tigray. Relations between the new president and the formerly ruling party have deteriorated steadily ever since. Today, many see the current violence between ethnic groups as a consequence of the TPLF’s longstanding divide-and-rule strategy, which elevated ethnic federalism to constitutional status. They believe that TPLF wants to reverse the political course taken since 2018.

On the one side, the current conflict President Abiy and his supporters try to overcome ethnic tension through centralism – and believe that this can only be achieved if the TPLF is eradicated. On the other side is the TPLF siding with groups such as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and other ethno-regional forces to re-establish its influence and a more federal state. The situation is complicated in the current conflict as Eritrea is cooperating with Ethiopia’s central government. In the beginning in November 2020 until summer 2021, the fighting was centred on the Tigrinya ethnic group, which is in power in both Eritrea and Tigray but bitterly hostile to each other at the political level.

Especially since the Eritrean-Ethiopian border war, President Afwerki saw the TPLF as an arch enemy and sought to use a chance to recover some stretches of territory that Ethiopia had occupied in 2000. Reports of Eritrean soldiers being actively engaged in the conflict in Tigray have been confirmed by now. Eritrean forces continue to hold territory in Northern Tigray and support the Amhara militias in control of Western Tigray around Humera. Tigray therefore remains cut off from the Sudan border – as from all other sides.


Propaganda war and its impact on humanitarian aid

Eritrean refugees are not only finding themselves politically between a rock and a hard place, but also because they depend on humanitarian aid. The TPLF claims that humanitarian aid is blocked and speaks of a strategy to use famine as a weapon of war. It is clear that recent events and fears of violence directed at the Tigray have closed ranks behind the TPLF. Ethiopia’s central government, in turn, accuses Tigrinya militias of human rights violation such as past and present massacres of civilians (e.g. Mai Kadra in 2020). Its claims that the TPLF wants to re-establish the old regime and discredit the new government internationally with fake news on human rights violations resonates with Ethiopians that reject the old (TPLF) leaders.

This explains the importance of the propaganda battle, which has been raging over the narrative of who plays which role in the conflict and who is responsible for which atrocities and massacres. Humanitarian aid has become a political issue and the civilian population a pawn in the battle for global public opinion. Since the beginning of the conflict in November 2020, the TPLF has portrayed the famine as deliberate and part of an attempted genocide by the Ethiopian central government. The Abiy government also blames the TPLF for the miserable conditions, the violence and the blocking of access routes – without admitting that a multitude of players are increasingly out of control.

The sharp dispute over the credibility and trustworthiness of opponents is not a by-product of the war but its actual starting point. Large sections of the population suspect that former political cadres of the TPLF were behind political unrests between 2018 and 2020 – the debate on the extent of conspiracy has been dominating Ethiopian social and public media. The parties involved in the  power struggle are former guerrilla fighters or see themselves as following this tradition. This means that the politicians in charge of the central and the regional governments see military conflict as the ultima ratio; they are willing to use all conventional and unconventional types of warfare to hit or to discredit their opponents. Any trust that the respective opponent – be it the political or armed wings of the regional or central government or their allies – will deal in good faith has been completely lost.

Reports of massacres, torture, mass rapes and other crimes by one side are consistently denounced as propaganda by the other. Those who condemn the acts automatically are seen as the mouthpiece of the opponents and thus reaffirm the belief in a conspiracy against one’s own camp. The central government denounces one-sided reporting by the West and refuses any outside intervention. Diplomatic relations with key allies and neighbouring countries are at an all-time low. Experts, politicians and journalists usually exacerbate the already deeply entrenched divisions. Ethiopia is threatened with ever-increasing isolation. The USA recently blocked a duty free trade deal and sent a special envoy to mediate amongst escalating clashes in November.


Eritrean refugees caught in the crossfire in Tigray

In the midst of all these already confusing, parallel and contradictory narratives, Eritrean refugees who find themselves at the centre of the conflict became a side-lined issue. According to UNHCR, there were 96,000 Eritrean refugees in the four camps in Tigray before the conflict broke out. All refugee camps for Eritreans were located along Ethiopia’s northern border to Eritrea and thus in the areas most affected by the fighting. In the meantime, two out of six camps have been completely destroyed; three camps were on different sides of shifting fronts several times; and two of them are in a disputed strip of land between the Amhara and Tigray Entities.

Already before the conflict broke out, refugees feared travelling South of the camps through Amhara state as they might have been mislabelled and attacked as Tigrayan by Amhara. Refugees had already then also expressed their unease of being located in camps close to the Eritrean border: they reported about Eritrean spies in the camps and feared abductions. Besides fearing reprisals from the side of the Eritrean government and of the Amhara, the refugees were also walking a thin line in regard to what observers called political games between regional and central state authorities. Camp policies and the question of closures or opening of new camp sites had become hotly disputed already before the current fighting. The Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) is a central state body. Yet the camps were situated in the regional state of Tigray, where TPLF functionaries blocked various of ARRA’s decisions.

The dispute over the closure of Hitsats between both sides in early 2020 can today be seen as a prelude to the current conflict. Also refugees outside camps found themselves caught between all fronts. They have often remained close to the border in the current conflict area because of close kinship, cultural and linguistic ties. Yet, since the conflict began they have been subjected to suspicion, discrimination, abductions and executions. The TPLF had tried to recruit Eritrean refugees for Eritrean opposition groups before November 2020 and to join TDF’s rank afterwards. When the population in Tigray came more and more under the sway of the Eritrean forces, the Tigrayans progressively started to indiscriminately blame and attack Eritrean refugees.

When the Ethiopian army, with the help of Eritrean troops, occupied large parts of Tigray at the end of 2020, the refugees found that their fears about still being within reach of the Eritrean government had become reality. They saw themselves facing the same Eritrean military whose forced recruitment practices they tried to escape. After the Eritreans consolidated control over the areas near the border, many of the refugees were brought back to Eritrea. Meanwhile, Hitsats and Shimelba, the camps closest to Eritrea, were completely destroyed. A Human Rights Watch report shows how from November 2020 to January 2021, different military units and militias repeatedly attacked and terrorised the camp residents.

Eritrean soldiers used lists to search for individuals who were then executed or disappeared. They first deported the sick and wounded, and then they took large parts of the remaining refugees over the border into Eritrea against their will. At the same time, Tigray militias, together with opposition Eritrean militias, took revenge on alleged collaborators and accomplices in the looting of the local population that had started from the camp. Many of the residents fled to the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps further south. These, however, lie beyond the Tekeze River, which was Tigray’s natural boundary before the redrawing of the borders of the individual federal states until 1991.


Current expansion of the humanitarian catastrophe

In November 2020, Eritrean and Ethiopian troops helped Amahara militias to occupy this area, whose population consist to 90% of Tigrinya speakers. Many of the Eritrean refugees who had in the meantime fled on their own to Amhara or Addis Ababa were then forced to return to the camps at the behest of the central government. UNHCR has only ever had short-term access to this region and has reported looting and attacks by different armed groups which further complicated the lives of those affected. In June 2021, the new Alemwach refugee camp was established near Dabat, in the Amhara region.  In July 2021, fighting intensified – and control of the two camps in Tigray changed several times. While UNHCR is demanding safe passage for the relocation of camp residents in Tigray, the front is also moving towards the new Alemwach camp.

As of August 2021, UNHCR counted 650,000 IDPs in Tigray, 100,000 in Amhara and 70,000 in Afar – in addition to 120,000 Ethiopian refugees in eastern Sudan. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Grandi condemned arrests, reprisal attacks, abductions, detentions and violence inside and outside the camps against Eritrean refugees because of their perceived affiliation to one side or the other. This is compounded by the deterioration of the overall situation. Currently (Nov 21), OCHA counts 870,000 people in northern Ethiopia (Tigray, Afar, Amhara) in need of food supplies.

Meanwhile, in Amhara, 5000,000 IDPs have to be cared for in the contested towns of Dessie and Kombolcha. Meanwhile, refugees themselves protested in Addis for more security for themselves and their relatives in the conflict area. They report hostility and attacks by supporters of the central government, who deem them Tigrayans, and Tigrayans, who brand and attack them as Eritreans. Many of their relatives in the camps will have been cut almost completely cut off from aid supplies and communication for months.

The current humanitarian situation is deteriorating day by day. Unaffiliated groups – such as Eritrean refugees – are hereby often paying the price for the ruling actors’ conviction that the conflict can only be solved militarily. Ethiopia had the largest number of newly internally displaced people in 2018 – prior to the ongoing conflict. The events in 2021 will add to the ongoing plight of those IDPs who remained displaced since.  The number of IDPs and the related suffering will multiply several times due to the current events. At the same time when the world is focusing on the political dimension of the Tigray – Addis conflict, a multitude of other internal conflicts in Ethiopia (e.g. Gedeo, West Guji, Oromia-Somali region) are intensifying day by day. Ethnicity becomes more and more politicised and ethnic hatred raises constantly. It will be the civilians that will bear the largest brunt.


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