East Africa: ERIPS Statement on Addressing the Conflict and Refugee Situation in Ethiopia's Tigray Region

The Shimelba refugee camp in the Tigray region of Ethiopia (file).

The war in Tigray region of Ethiopia is not just about Tigray or Ethiopia but also about Eritrea and the whole region.

First of all, the humanitarian catastrophe that has been perpetrated on the people of Tigray and Eritrean refugees, and still continuing as we write this letter, must stop. All parties to the war should unconditionally agree to ceasefire immediately. At the core of all the havoc that is being wreaked in the region is the unelected president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki. Action delayed in halting his military maneuvers and destructive adventures  will have grave consequences for the entire region of the Horn of Africa for a very long time to come.

As the international community struggles to resolve the calamitous war in Ethiopia's Tigray region, the plight of the 100,000+ Eritrean refugees living in the four camps in Ethio-pia is drowned out by the so many emergencies that are going on in the region. It is re-ported that about 20,000 Eritrean refugees have been forcibly repatriated to Eritrea and two of the four refugee camps are burned down. The war is causing limitations on movement and access in the region, thus putting the refugees who depend on the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies for their livelihood, at risk of hunger and dis-placement in addition to being made vulnerable to the dangers of being in the crossfire of the war. Concern for the human rights and humanitarian needs of Eritrean refugees must therefore be a high priority, but this matter will never be completely resolved without understanding and addressing the internal crisis in Eritrea that is partly responsible for driving this conflict and producing disproportionate number of refugees.

While calls for the Government of Eritrea to pull out of the conflict in Ethiopia increases, the international community must also consider the repercussions of Eritrean intervention in the Tigray war if a lasting solution is to be developed.  Since Isaias Afwerki took control of Eritrea in 1991, the country has not held elections to allow its citizens to choose the path on which their government manages the country, and the government has never implemented the 1997 constitution, which guarantees civil rights and limits executive power.

Eleven of the fifteen National Assembly members who called for the implementation of the 1997 ratified constitution were imprisoned on September 18, 2001 without due process and incommunicado to-date. Consequently, the Isaias regime has instituted a reign of terror on its own people.

Civil society groups, religious communities, independent journalists, and opposition political parties are marginalized, and often criminalized, imprisoned, and tortured. Military conscription is mandatory and indefinite beginning at the age of 18 as stipulated in the national service proclamation. However, reports are increasingly coming out that the government is rounding up children as young as 15 and 16 and sent to the war in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia with little or no training. In 2016, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the Human Rights in Eritrea reported that the way Eritreans were treated in detention facilities and military training camps amounts to crimes against humanity.

Eritrea is among countries with the highest prison population rates in the world, with prison conditions beneath human decency. Reliable sources put the number of prisoners in Eritrea in the tens of thousands. Many of them are prisoners of conscience who dared to express their views peacefully, and many others who tried to flee the country or escape from the indefinite conscription into the so-called National Service.

Eritrean authorities show no mercy; they are cruel to disabled veterans, underage boys and girls, expectant mothers and brides, respected elders, and religious leaders. These leaders include the Head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, His Holiness Abune Antonios, who has been under house arrest since 2007, and Hajj Musa Mohammed Nur, the Board President of Al Dia Islamic School in Asmara, who died in prison on March 1, 2018. The overcrowded prisons in Eritrea contain people who took part in the armed struggle, top military officers, ministers, journalists and religious leaders. It is also important to underscore that there are hundreds of thousands of Eritrean conscripts, many of whom are underage currently sent to the war in Tigray whose parents do not know whether their children are dead or alive.

It is no wonder, then, that so many Eritreans – both young and old – are desperate to leave Eritrea.  Unfortunately, their flight from Eritrea has been extraordinarily perilous.

Back during an April 18, 2018 hearing of the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Co-Chair Rep. Randy Hults described the hazards caused by the growing refugee crisis in Eritrea in the following manner: "For those that leave Eritrea, the dangers they face are almost unimaginable. Many of these asylum seekers are exploited by smugglers and human traffickers, or find them-selves in Libyan slave markets enduring detention, torture, and forced labor. Some, after gaining their freedom, expressed they would rather endure the experience of slavery over again than to be sent back to their native country. The question remains why are so many people leaving this country?"

The answer to this question lies in the horrific conditions with which Eritrean citizens have been forced to live, the indefinite national service, economic stagnation, lack of opportunity and absolute control of every aspect of life. Currently, for example, Eritrea is under a complete lock down, supposedly because of the pandemic, which is causing tremendous hardship and hunger, due to loss of livelihoods. On the other hand, the regime has refused to participate in the WHO vaccine distribution program, COVAX.

There is increasing evidence that the Federal Government of Ethiopia contrary to inter-national refugee law, is making it easier for the Isaias regime to kidnap Eritrean refugees and return them to what amounts to indentured servitude or prison.  In a December 16, 2020 statement, Refugees International explained the seriousness of this matter:
"Refugees International is concerned about reports that Ethiopian government forces and Eritrean soldiers have forced Eritrean refugees to return to Eritrea or other locations where they may be in danger. For example, Eritrean refugees who fled to Addis Ababa to avoid the fighting in Tigray have been rounded up and returned to camps in Tigray. This is unacceptable, as camps in Tigray are in the middle of an active conflict zone and have little access to food or medical supplies."

Human Rights Watch reported on April 21 of this year that the Ethiopian government quietly changed its asylum procedures for Eritrean refugees, undermining their access to the asylum process and denying the numerous unaccompanied minors necessary protections.  While it has for years provided asylum to Eritrean refugees as a group, the human rights agency said that in January of this year, the Ethiopian government began registering limited categories of Eritrean refugees, particularly eliminating minors and placing them in danger of being returned to abusive situations in violation of international refugee law.

During the past year, ERIPS has informed the U.S. Government of Isaias' designs of forcibly returning Eritrean refugees. It also explained that this aim is one of the factors in his government's decision to intervene in the Tigray conflict.  We continue to urge action to bring a peaceful, sustainable resolution to the ongoing crisis in Eritrea that has spread to the region.

The international community must give due consideration to the disastrous impact the Isaias Afwerki regime has had in the Horn of Africa.  This regime is known for instigating conflicts with neighboring countries (Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen) since the early 1990s. These wars have led to the unnecessary loss of lives, which in the eyes of Isaias Afwerki are expendable. The current war will inevitably devour the lives of Eritrean youth, who are forcibly conscripted to the army, and exposing the Eritrean civilian population to death, destruction, and displacement.  For these reasons alone, the international community should want to end Isaias' reign of terror in the Horn of Africa expeditiously.

To effectively address the conflict in Tigray and to bring upon a political settlement of the crisis, ERIPS calls again upon the international community to immediately act so that:
1.    All warring parties (the Federal Government of Ethiopia, the Tigray Regional Government, Amhara militia and the Eritrean regime) will enter a binding cease-fire immediately.
2.    The Eritrean regime of President Isaias Afwerki will stop interfering in the internal affairs of Ethiopia, cease and desist any war footing.
3.    The Federal Government of Ethiopia will lift any blockade and allow free access to all humanitarian agencies , to ameliorate the current humanitarian crisis of the civilian population in the Tigray region, for the UNHCR and all other agencies to have free access to all refugees and to relocate the refugees to third countries to ensure their safety.
4.    The Federal Government of Ethiopia will ensure that all Eritreans have the right to apply for and receive asylum and publicly announce any changes to its asylum and camp management policies.
5.    UN will lead an independent investigation of the atrocity crimes and crime against humanity in the Tigray region.

For the international community to play its role in bringing a lasting solution to the Horn of Africa, addressing the political and humanitarian situation in Eritrea will be critical. ERIPS recommends that the international community put significant pressure on Eritrea so that:
1.    Eritrea will make a transition to democracy.
2.    National service will be limited to 18 months.
3.    Eritrean prisoners of conscience and political prisoners will be released.
4.    Those responsible for the grave human rights violations and regional wars will be held accountable.

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