As conflict escalates in Tigray, Eritrean refugees are finding themselves caught in the middle, subject to increasing abuse and violence from armed forces. Refugees have reported that their camps are being targeted not only by Tigrayan militias, but also by the very military forces which caused them to flee Eritrea in the first place. According to Laetitia Bader at Human Rights Watch, the “horrific killings, rapes, and looting against Eritrean refugees in Tigray” are “evident war crimes.”
Before the conflict, around 50,000 Eritrean refugees lived in one of four camps in Tigray, according to the United Nations. Since conflict broke out in November 2020, hostile Eritrean and Tigrayan forces have alternatingly occupied several of these camps. Two of the camps, Hitsats and Shimelba, have been destroyed by the violence, scattering their residents to the surrounding areas. As of August 2021, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports, 7,643 of these camps’ 20,000 residents are still unaccounted for.
In mid-July, Tigrayan forces entered the remaining camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, while launching an offensive attack on the neighboring Amhara region. The Associated Press reported that Tigrayan forces abducted dozens of refugees, raided their homes and supplies, and subjected them to harassment and violence. According to U.N.H.C.R., this attack resulted in the death of at least one refugee and loss of access to vital supplies such as food, water, and medical supplies.
The crisis Eritrean refugees are facing in Tigray is dire. While limited humanitarian access to Mai Aini and Adi Harush has been restored as of August 5th, the international community must continue to press for unhindered access into Tigray. This access must be ensured and protected by all parties involved in the conflict.
Eritrea remains one of the most repressive governments in the world, according to Human Rights Watch, subjecting its population to “widespread forced labor and conscription” and restricting freedoms such as expression and religion. Most men and unmarried women are forced to join the military or civil service for an indefinite period, working for very low pay in inhumane conditions. As a result, thousands of Eritreans, including children and youth, have fled the country into Ethiopia to escape mandatory conscription and persecution.
Refugees are protected by international humanitarian law, which prohibits attacks against civilians and their property. As such, all parties involved in the conflict must cease all intimidation and violence towards Eritrean refugees. Specifically, as a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Ethiopia has a responsibility to ensure the safety of all Eritrean refugees and allow humanitarian aid from UNHCR and other international organizations to help these communities. If drastic measures are not taken, grave human rights violations and abuses will continue to be committed against the vulnerable Eritrean refugees, leaving them with nowhere else to go.
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