Addis Ababa — Ethiopia is imposing tighter controls at its border with Djibouti after authorities noticed an unusual spike in the number of returning nationals from the Red Sea nation.
Officials said they were guarding against importation of the coronavirus from Djibouti, which has seen more than 1077 cases so far, the biggest tally in the Horn of Africa.
They also said the returnees tried to enter Ethiopian territory illegally.
In recent days, hundreds of Ethiopians residing in Djibouti have illegally crossed the border, raising concerns among Ethiopian health authorities.
The mass exodus from Djibouti comes after the small nation saw a rapid spike in Covid-19 cases.
Djibouti, by Tuesday, had only two deaths and 477 recoveries. But the rise in infection tally has jolted neighbouring Ethiopia which has 131 confirmed cases so far.
Those numbers are a result of a ban on international flights, tight quarantine conditions and restricted land border entry points.
Late in March, Ethiopia closed land borders with six neighbouring countries, affecting movement and border trade.
The illegal entry of migrants has become a new challenge for Ethiopia as it further complicates the country's efforts to contain the spread of the virus.
The migrants are entering Ethiopia through three adjacent regions without being screened and in breach to the mandatory two-week quarantine.
As a result, bordering regional states have started to establish quarantine centers at border crossings.
A report by state-affiliated media Fana Broadcasting Corporate (FBC) cited Lemlem Bezabih, Head of the Dire Dawa City Health Office, as saying that the office is working with community members to tackle the challenge.
According to Ms Bezabih, some of the illegal returnees have tested positive for Covid-19 and her office is tracing individuals who had contact with them.
The health official admitted that the illegal entry of migrants from Djibouti has negatively impacted prevention efforts taken so far.
Despite limitations in terms of controlling illegal entry to Ethiopia from Djibouti, regional health workers have intensified containment efforts and surveillance against individuals who had contact with Covid-19 patients.
Last week, Ethiopian authorities said that they had quarantined over 300 illegal migrants and are trying to trace others in a bid to prevent a potential community spread.
It is not yet clear if Ethiopia is trying to repatriate citizens stranded in countries hard-hit by the global pandemic.
Reached by phone, Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Nebiat Getachew said he couldn't comment as an outgoing spokesperson.
Ethiopian Ambassador to Djibouti Abdulaziz Mohammed declined to comment.
As Ethiopians in Djibouti take desperate measures to return home, crossing borders on foot, some residents of Addis Ababa stressed the need for the government to repatriate nationals.
"Ethiopian Airlines is transporting stranded passengers across the world in charter flights while ignoring own citizens including those next door in Djibouti," said Seyoum Tsadik, owner of a construction company.
"Ethiopian Airlines shouldn't only focus on its business. It has the responsibility to repatriate citizens during these difficult times."
Under charter flights, the airline has recently flown Americans and Canadians from Lagos in Nigeria to the US and Canada.
It has also flown peace corps from African countries to the US and cruise ship crews from the US to the Philippines.
"Ethiopian Airlines has to rescue every Ethiopians first," said Azeb Teka, who lived in Saudi for eight years as domestic worker.
"Ethiopian embassies across the globe should arrange repatriation for citizens in desperate need."
According to an Al Jazeera report last week, the jump in coronavirus cases in Djibouti is because of challenges in mass testing and defiance to precautionary measures including lockdowns.
Until Saturday, Djibouti, with a population of less than one million, had conducted about 11,431 Covid-19 tests, about the same number as Ethiopia, which has more than 100 million people.
In just two weeks, Djibouti has recorded a seven-fold increase in cases.
Last Thursday, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said that with 98.6 cases for every 100,000 people, Djibouti has the highest prevalence on the continent.
Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh has warned the public against defying the government's measures to contain the spread of the virus.
"The confinement has not been respected by everyone and unfortunately many of our compatriots still take this disease lightly," Mr Guelleh said in a televised address to the nation last week.
"You continue to circulate, not observing minimum distances, not isolating yourselves and spreading the disease. If this behaviour doesn't change, I will take even tougher measures. This could go as far as a curfew, which would be the only way to stop the spread of this virus."
Djibouti is a strategic location as it connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and hosts the military bases of several world powers.