The Life Awaiting Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia

Deporting Eritrean refugees in Israel to Ethiopia would condemn them to a life of misery - harrowing insights from a camp in northern Ethiopia.

Efrat Lachter
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Efrat Lachter

Sixteen kilograms of wheat, a kilogram and a half of lentils, 950 grams of cooking oil, one handful of salt, one handful of sugar.

No, this is not a recipe for a cheap meal. It is the monthly nutritional allowance for an Eritrean family living in a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia. Add to their allotment one bar of soap per month for hygiene and to wash clothes, and two pairs of new underwear for each member of the family every six months. That’s all that they will receive while in the camp.

For these families – nearly 70,000 individuals, according to Ethiopian officials – every day is the same as the day before. There is no opportunity for work. There is no variety. Each meal consists mostly of injera, the spongy, mildly sour flatbread that is a local staple.

There is safety in the camps, yes, but little more than that. People cluster and sit, doing nothing, looking tired and bored. Children in torn clothing wander the dirt paths, picking up stones and sticks to play with and mingling with the free-roaming goats and donkeys. It is possible to survive in these conditions, unless one needs serious medical care, which is beyond reach. They might live, but for them there is no real life. No freedom of movement. No ability to provide for their families. Living huddled together in tents or mud huts, they are totally dependent on handouts of aid from the government and relief organizations. How can a person live a life over which they have so little control?

It took some effort to get permission from the Ethiopian Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, but I was able to visit a cluster of these camps in June. We drove along a dusty, unpaved road to get to the place, stuck at one of the hottest, lowest points in northern Ethiopia, near the border with its neighbor and former enemy Eritrea. The refugees descend from the highlands of their home country, fleeing from the torture, forced conscription and labor, religious persecution and other human-rights abuses of their authoritarian government, to cross the border from Eritrea into Ethiopia and, accommodated by Ethiopia’s “open door” policy, they are immediately placed in the camps.

Unless they are among the lucky few with a family in Ethiopia to sponsor them, it is unlikely that a new refugee family will leave the camp any time soon. There, they may languish for years, under the watchful eyes of armed soldiers manning checkpoints to ensure their confinement.

Dismal conditions

As we neared the camps, signs of the peoples’ desperation became evident; the surrounding areas were nearly barren as a consequence of the refugees’ ceaseless hunt for wood to fuel their cooking fires. Once inside the first camp we visited, Mai-Aini, the air felt hotter and denser, and it was thick with dust. There was no running water.

A family that has been there for five years welcomed us upon our arrival. They invited us into their tiny hut, and Sheka, the father of the young family, dressed in a red button-down shirt and jeans, sat with us on the thin mattresses spread out on the floor. His wife, her head covered with a colorful shawl, went to the next room, a roofless space that is used as a kitchen, and continued with her cooking in the stone oven.

There was another pretty young woman in the living room – later we understood she was their cousin who is also living in the camp. She was in charge of preparing the coffee, boiling and stirring the brew over and over again for about 15 minutes. They were all warm and kind, but their only child, a sweet 3-year-old boy who was suffering from dysentery, cried incessantly. They told us there is no doctor available for the 70,000 people living in the three adjacent camps, only a few nurses with a very limited supply of medication. People are treated with the same medications, no matter from what disease they are suffering. “Death is a daily reality,” the refugees told us.

The ARRA manages the camps. It is under the authority of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Defense, and a few non-governmental organizations also operate in the camps. For example, The Norwegian Refugee Council has opened a primary school and The International Rescue Committee is focusing on health, environmental health, child and youth protection and development. The UN Refugee Agency provides financial support.

With the assistance of outside agencies, why do conditions in the camps remain so dismal?

“It is very complicated,” said Dr. Bereket Berhane, an Eritrean refugee living in Addis Ababa and chairman of the Eritrean Youth Global Movement, who was our guide for this visit. “Ethiopia is a poor East African country. I’m thankful for what they are doing. The refugees are being hosted in a safe area where they have water and firewood. There are tens of thousands of refugees, and the indigenous community itself is struggling from day to day. There is only so much a country can do.”

The international agencies, too, are stretched, he noted. “There are so many refugees, it’s problematic. It is hard to blame anyone. I’ve been living in Ethiopia for the past seven years, ever since I made a fateful decision to leave our sinking-ship of a country. Sometimes I regret the decision and sometimes I look to the West, but I’m still here precariously trying to help our just cause to bring about change and a return to normalcy in our homeland.”

Easy pray for human traffickers

The refugees themselves are tight-lipped when asked about their experiences. But at a crowded meeting in Mai-Aini’s council room, Ishmael Shita, a community leader, openly talked about one issue that dominates many of the refugees’ concerns: human trafficking. Shita is 30 years old, dressed in a white T-shirt and faded jeans, thin but rugged looking. He spoke in Tigrinya, the language of the region that he left behind, and his charismatic leadership was evident.

“In the camps we have only minimal conditions to exist and live,” he said, his words translated for us by Dr. Berhane. “We don’t expect to get more, and there is nothing to look forward to. All we have is the prospect of an unknown future, with no end to this refugee life. This reality is made in heaven for human traffickers.”

He sighed, and then continued: “Hopeless young people, caught in despair, frustrated with their situations, are an easy target for traffickers. They convince the children that there is a better life waiting for them outside the camps. And after the traffickers smuggle the refugees through the border to Sudan, they sell the refugees as slaves. The hijackers demand thousands of dollars in ransom, and in the meanwhile they do terrible things to the hostages. People who find their way back here are deeply traumatized.”

Human trafficking was also on the mind of Tikale Cabrayohones, the 27-year-old Ethiopian government-appointed protection officer of Mai-Aini. Smugglers sneak into the camps and “seduce people to go with them by offering promises of taking people quickly to Europe, and to freedom,” he said. “But then they are enslaved. It is a net that is spread from Sudan to the Sinai. Our biggest challenge is to prevent the traffickers from getting inside the camps, but it’s almost impossible. They are very sophisticated and take advantage of the situation here.”

The Sinai peninsula has, in fact, become a place of suffering and death for thousands of refugees from Eritrea. Many of them try to reach Israel but are kidnapped in the desert by Bedouin groups and then imprisoned. Their captors demand thousands of dollars in ransom from the victims’ families, and those whose families can’t pay are often tortured to death, and their organs are sold.

Women’s woes

Responsibility for protecting the refugees in the camps is divided between the ARRA and the refugees’ own community police. The camp is divided into five zones, each with six blocks, each with 20-40 dwellings that are home to up to 150 people. Overall, the system has proven fairly effective, Tikale says, and the incidence of crime and violence in the camps is relatively low. The situation for many women in the camps, however, does appear to be troubling as family structures break down over time.

Tanayt Weldesus is a beautiful 38-year-old refugee who has lived with her three children in the camp adjacent to Mai-Aini, Adi-Harush, for more than two years. She has been on her own since her husband left to make his way to Israel and, hopefully, find work. She founded the Women’s Empowerment Association in the camp, which aims to help women develop support networks. There now are 300 members; they opened a beauty shop and plan to also open a tailor shop.

“A lot of women in the camps are facing tough realities,” she said. “Many of them are single mothers. The men leave the camp searching for work, because they can’t stand this reality of not being able to provide for their families. The family structure is being ruined. Many men leave without even telling their wives. Children shouldn’t be growing up without both of their parents, but it’s unbearable to sit and wait for charity every month.”

Weldesus also tried to find a better future for herself and her children, and left the camp. Her eyes darkened as she began to recount her experience. “I was lost with my kids for a month in the Sahara Desert,” she said. “Finally, when we got to the border between Egypt and Israel, we were caught by Egyptian soldiers. We were imprisoned for two months in Ismailia prison.”

She stopped. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I just want to forget. The whole time I was chained to my kids and also to other refugees. Two months of torture. Our Egyptian guards were animals.”

Managing a household is another significant challenge for women in the camps. “As a woman, I am more aware of the household’s income,” said Dawit Ernaias, secretary of Mai-Aini’s community council. “Every day is a struggle to face another day, when there is only half a kilogram of flour and you have the difficult task to distribute what little food there is so there will be enough to eat through all parts of the day. When this is the daily reality, it creates frustration and depression and despair, and it’s hard to prevent smuggling.

“Once you leave your country, you lose your dignity and self-respect, and it no longer matters where you are,” she continued. “The only place you can have respect and dignity is in your own country.”

Our companion, Dr. Berhane, visits the camps regularly, and it was illuminating to hear his observations about how little has changed in the five years they have been operating. “The situation is just the same,” he said. “The refugees have no prospects for their future, just a life of transit in the camps. Most of the refugees have restless younger family members, and having come up from Eritrea, where there is a dictatorial policy, their desire to be free and work is an integral part of the refugee camp. That is why most of them tend to go further to Sahara, Sudan, Egypt, Israel and Europe.”

Their hope for freedom and a decent life is what continues to drive them on, he says.

At the end of our meeting with the community council in Mai-Aini, Shita concluded with these words: “The refugee camps are a huge prison. We live in tension, with no peace. People die every day. There is no future. It is necessary to bring international pressure to end the authoritarian regime in Eritrea. This can’t keep going on forever.”

Accepting refugees

Obtaining a permit to visit the refugee camps took almost superhuman effort. Once it was obtained, the way to the camps was strewn with obstacles involving hours of travel on unpaved roads and, every few kilometers, checkpoints manned with armed Ethiopian police officers who demanded to see our government-issued permits. This behavior led me to conclude, when I met a high-ranking official of the Security, Immigration and Refugee Affairs Authority in Addis Ababa, to expect to find a tough, cold officer who viewed journalists as a nuisance.

But when I mentioned to the official (who chose to remain anonymous) the possibility that the Eritrean refugees in Israel would be sent to Ethiopia and would become “his problem,” his emotional response surprised me. “How can you − a nation of persecuted refugees that was almost annihilated because no country would agree to grant you shelter within its borders − how can you, of all nations, even think about expelling tens of thousands of people in danger of their lives?” he asked. “Don’t you understand what a blot on your history this will be? Don’t you understand that one day Eritrea will be a free country, and its schools will teach that the State of Israel expelled all the helpless asylum-seekers who reached it? Yes, we will take them, because it is better that they come here than to Eritrea, where certain death awaits them. But that does not absolve you of your responsibility. They will never forget.”

The words were hard to hear precisely because he uttered them in a whisper, not in anger or reproach. This was all the more pertinent because the man who spoke was not a refugee, but rather one who reached a high position in his country. He too, like all the decision-makers in Israel, has to deal daily with decisions that have to do with the futures of the thousands of refugees flooding his country. But the Ethiopians chose an “open-door” policy − precisely the opposite of Israel’s. According to this policy, the Eritrean refugees, who are fleeing the high mountains of their country for their lives, escaping torture, forced army service, slavery, religious persecution and other violations of human rights by their government, cross the border into Ethiopia and are accepted immediately into the refugee camps.

Various reports say that recently, attempts have made to draft an agreement between Israel and Ethiopia and other African countries. According to a high-ranking official involved in the process who asked to remain anonymous, the agreement includes deporting the refugees to these countries in return for various forms of compensation, including money and arms. Add to this the fact that Ethiopia is not a democracy and is not committed to the welfare of its needy inhabitants, so it can “afford” to take the refugees into its territory, while countries that are committed to protecting the weaker segments of their populations are more restricted from this standpoint.

An easy target

In Israel, many refugees told me their stories. Those stories made a deep impression on me, but here in Africa I was surprised to discover that most of the refugees were afraid to tell why they had fled from Eritrea. When I asked dozens of people why they had left, I received evasive answers. Their physical proximity to their backward country of origin or their utter dependence on aid from outside − and the lack of confidence such dependence engenders − makes them keep silent. Instead of talking about their traumatic past, the refugee camp inhabitants speak repeatedly about human trafficking.

Community leaders take shifts of nighttime guard duty, trying to find young people who are “looking for trouble.” But they cannot stop the traffickers from sneaking into the camp, and this is yet another fight they feel they are losing. “The traffickers come up with new methods all the time. They are sophisticated and flexible,” Shita says.

On the other hand, he says that the ones who succeeded in reaching Israel and other Western countries and found work there send money back to the camp − money that is a lifeline in the conditions of shortage and enables the existence of a tiny black market where additional food items and medications are sold.

When I tell them about the plan that is taking shape in Israel, according to which Eritrean refugees will be deported from Israel back to Ethiopia, the air in the room thickens. The expressions of the people in the room become even more worried, and one after another they raise arguments against the plan. “It will increase suffering. If thousands more refugees come here, it will damage the delicate balance that exists with the local population,” says Kidan, the council secretary. “There are too many people here already, using the meager resources available here. If more come, there will be a war for survival that will lead to an explosion.”

Yunus Estefanos, the community’s liaison with the aid organizations, says: “As it is, the economic situation is on the verge of the abyss. If thousands of refugees are deported here from Israel, that will make the human trafficking even worse. People will be sold here like animals.”

Kidana, Shita’s deputy, mentions another aspect. “If refugees from Israel arrive here, that will be propaganda for the regime in Eritrea,” he says. “They will use it to sow even more terror and intimidate the people they are persecuting by saying that they will not find refuge anywhere.”

The refugees do not think they “deserve” shelter. They say again and again that they expect nothing. They lost hope long ago, and most of them no longer dare to dream of a better life. Yet human nature is stronger than despair, and the survival urge causes human beings to believe. The hopeful expressions that were raised toward me at the start of the meeting, just because I am Israeli, slowly fade ... and the refugees had thought for a moment that I would pass their voices on to more people, that their outcry would be heard, that perhaps this time, someone would care.

Their awakening to reality is painful, but very quick.

A woman raises her hands in resignation. “You know what?” she says. “Nothing matters anymore. The moment you leave your country you lose your respectability, your humanity, your honor as a human being. It no longer matters where you are. The only place where a person can live with honor is in his own country. What does the specific point on the globe where we are matter if we are human dust anyway?”

A typically forlorn scene in the Mai-Aini refugee camp.Credit: Efrat Lachter
A mother with her malnourished child in the Mai-Aini refugee camp.Credit: Efrat Lachter
A child sick with dysentery in the Mai-Ain refugee camp, where there is no doctor and limited medications. Credit: Efrat Lachte

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