Ethiopia Shuts Down Two Tigray Camps Housing Eritrean Refugees

After a claim by the United Nations (UN) that two refugee camps, Shimelba and Hitsats, in northern Ethiopia had been attacked multiple times, authorities claimed on Thursday, February 11, that the camps have been shut down and its occupants relocated. The camps were located in Tigray, a state that shares a border with Eritrea and whose government engaged in a military confrontation with the Ethiopian federal government. The camps housed Eritrean refugees before their closure, and occupants have reported that the attacks against refugees came from Eritrean troops, a claim denied by both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, according to an Al Jazeera news report last week. The denial of the refugees’ claims from both national authorities comes after the aforementioned Ethiopian-Tigrayan conflict in which Eritrean forces intervened on the side of the federal government.

Referencing the Ethiopian-Tigrayan conflict prior to the closure of the camps, senior Ethiopia analyst William Davison of the International Crisis Group told the New York Times that it shattered near-future hopes of national unity and ushered in a more alarming form of political instability. Davison claims the Ethiopian intervention in Tigray paved the way for increased activity by rival ethnic militia groups. Fano fighters, for instance, double down on their activity in moments of regional insecurity that cannot be immediately addressed by authorities in time of catastrophe, Davison indicates. This violence unfortunately trickled into the refugee camps which were forced to shut down. Witnesses and occupants of the Shimelba and Hitsats camps report various tragedies, such as gender violence, ethnic violence, and abductions, in addition to the already occurring shortages in health access and food. The damaged camps, according to Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs Director-General, Tesfahun Gobezay, reflect a region that is “not conducive to livelihood.”

Davison’s claims, and the testimonies of those who were in the Simelba and Hitsats camps, reflect a common theme involving militaristic responses by a national government. The escalation towards violent military policy resulted in a multifaceted set of threats to the security and stability of hundreds of thousands of people’s lives, and it ushered it in a vicious cycle of ethnic militia empowerment, mass refugee displacement, and coronavirus risks. The Ethiopian government is even refusing UN humanitarian access to the region of Tigray. In an already destabilized region, the closures of Shimelba and Hitsats put refugees in search of better opportunities at further risk during their journey to Addis Ababa and other locations. Diplomatic solutions are of the utmost importance in such a crisis. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed must shift gears in order to save lives and proactively welcome humanitarian assistance by the UN and cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The American alliance with the Ethiopian government has attracted calls by refugee organizations for President Joe Biden to actively condemn the continuation of the conflict and refusal of international aid, and heeding these calls could mitigate the persistent risks that the displaced persons are facing. 

According to the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), the federal government has had a highly tense relationship with the Tigrayan regional government for the past several months due to sharp disagreements regarding the federal government’s new personnel and policy decisions, resulting in Tigray’s defiance of a federal election postponement. Prior to the region’s militarily enforced occupation by the federal government, the intervention involved “large deployments of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and aerial bombardments,” as indicated by the CRF. The conflict that ensued, in which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed defended the large-scale domestic intervention as a “law-and-order” operation, culminated in a humanitarian crisis that displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The camps, under siege by crises in shortages of vital material and conflict proliferation, were scheduled to be visited by a United Nations team, but the team was, according to the National Post, shot at by “uniformed troops from Eritrea.” Protests in the Tigrayan regional capital, Mekelle, have also broken out. Understanding of the humanitarian situation in Tigray is still relatively limited as communications in the region are murky as of now. 

Ethiopia’s military embroilment in Tigray is not unique in a region where violence is persistent and in a world where regional tensions become high-level risks for enormous groups of innocent people that have already undergone hardship. Solutions are now dependent on leaders of different countries and organizations, notably President Joe Biden with his potential to diplomatically encourage a de-escalation of the conflict and Prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s openness towards helping refugees receive international aid when they need it most.

Benjamin Fikhman