Thousands of Repatriated Tigrayans Detained and Mistreated in Ethiopia

After reaching an agreement with Saudi Arabia to repatriate several Tigrayans back to Ethiopia, Human Watch Rights (HWR) reported that thousands of repatriated Tigrayans are being detained and mistreated by Ethiopian authorities. Between December 2020 and September 2021, HRW interviewed job-seeking Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia and discovered that some detained deportees were physically abused. Others were accused of conspiring with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whom the government sees as a terrorist. The report further stated that upon returning, repatriated Tigrayans were selected and held in various locations against their will. Others were prevented from returning to Tigray and were transferred to detention facilities from where they were later transported to coffee farms by bus and forced to do unpaid work in harsh conditions with little food.

In response, the Ethiopian government dismissed the report by stating that it was “unsubstantiated and an irresponsible move that aimed to discredit the government’s efforts to help citizens returned by Saudi authorities.” Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti further stated that the government has committed its efforts in repatriating more than 40,000 Ethiopians from Saudi Arabia in a few months “regardless of which ethnic group that they belong to.” In other words, the Ethiopian government is denying any wrongdoings towards Tigrayans, despite internal reports indicating that authorities have been subjected ethnic Tigrayans to arbitrary detentions, dismissal from official positions, and travel restrictions.

The international community has responded positively to the conflict. The United States is sending a special envoy Jeffrey Feltman to visit Ethiopia for meetings with senior government officials to discuss peace talks. Meanwhile, HRW is demanding the immediate release of detained migrants and an end to the profiling of ethnic Tigrayans. Furthermore, HRW made the following statement: “Saudi Arabia should stop contributing to this abuse by ending the forced return of Tigrayans to Ethiopia and allowing them to seek asylum or resettlement in third countries.”

The efforts from the United States and the HRW to bring an end to the conflict should inspire other states and international bodies to do the same, particularly the African Union (AU). Most importantly, the mandate to find a political solution falls directly under the AU, which has been criticized for lack of movement over the conflict in Tigray. African states should be the first to condemn the mistreatment of the Tigrayan people and the violent conduct of the Ethiopian government. It is also important that all Ethiopians recognize that a political rather than military solution is what is now called for. The war between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF has gone long enough, displacing millions and causing the death of many. The war should end in a political rather than military solution.

The conflict began on 4 November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration ordered a military-led operation against the TPLF in hopes of “restoring law and order” by expelling “treasonous” elements of the TPLF. However, it only intensified tensions with TPLF and caused a humanitarian crisis. According to the crisis index, local organizations estimate about 52,000 deaths in the Tigray region, and 1 million people have been identified as internally displaced people by aid organizations. And now, according to a report from HRW, thousands of repatriated Tigrayans from Saudi Arabia are being forcibly detained, denied access to their home in Tigray, kept at detention facilities, forced to do unpaid work in harsh conditions, and prevented from contacting their families – this is a violation of international law.

Africa and the international community should not allow this to go any longer. What is happening to the Tigrayan people could lead to a repeat of the horrible events of the “1994 Rwanda genocide ” and the “nine-year civil war in West Africa” says Zeleke, professor of African studies at Columbia University, New York. With the Eritrean military already involved as a key actor in the conflict, this struggle shows potential to involve other countries and protract the war. The displacement of millions of Tigrayans will affect many neighboring states as they seek asylum and refuge. Therefore, political rather than military solutions should be pressured on both warring factions.

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