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Face to face with the Eritrean exodus into Ethiopia

IRIN NEWS: INDA SELASSIE/ETHIOPIA, 16 March 2017 Under the early morning sun in the most northern region of Ethiopia a motley group of Eritrean men, women and children arrive dusty and tired at the end of

Under the early morning sun in the most northern region of Ethiopia a motley group of Eritrean men, women and children arrive dusty and tired at the end of a journey – and at the start of another.

After crossing the border under cover of darkness (leaving Eritrea without authorisation is a crime punishable by up to five years in jail), they are found by Ethiopian soldiers and taken to Adinbried – a compound of modest buildings at one of the 12 so-called “entry points” dotted along this barren 910-kilometre border. This is where their long asylum process will begin.

“It took us four days travelling from Asmara,” a 31-year-old man tells IRIN of his trek from the Eritrean capital, about 80 kilometres north of the border. “We travelled for 10 hours each night, sleeping in the desert during the day.”

With him are another three men, three women, six girls and four small boys. The smuggler who guided them charged $2,500 each.

“He was good,” the man says. “He showed us the safe paths, and helped carry the children on his shoulders. He didn’t ask for more money like some do.”

He says they carried very little because of the distance and because they didn’t want to betray their intentions to Eritrean soldiers.

Asylum pipeline

From the 12 entry points, Eritreans are taken to a screening centre for registration in the town of Endabaguna, 60 kilometres west of the popular tourist destination of Aksum. Then, they are assigned to one of four refugee camps in the Tigray region, bordering Eritrea.

In February 2017, 3,367 Eritreans arrived in Ethiopia, according to Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs.

There are around 165,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in Ethiopia, according to the UN refugee agency. Thousands more Eritreans live in the country outside the asylum system.

“Sometimes we get more than 120 people a day,” says Luel Abera, the reception coordinator at Adinbried. “The stories I hear are very sad: pregnant women delivering on the way, people shot at or wounded, hungry and hurt children.”

Luel fought with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front when it was a rebel group (it is now the largest party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition), which, alongside the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, toppled Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorship in 1991. In May of that year, the EPLF marched into Asmara, reinstating Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia.

“The Eritrean people are good,” Luel says. “They fought for independence for 30 years. But from day one, [Eritrean President] Isaias [Afwerki] has ruled the country without caring about his people’s interests.”

Push factors

Among those dropped off at Adinbried when IRIN visits are three Eritrean soldiers – or deserters. Escaping poorly paid and protracted national service is one of the most common reasons cited by Eritrean migrants for fleeing their country.

“Living conditions in Eritrea are more dangerous than crossing the border,” says one of them, a 39-year-old who served 20 years in the military.

He explains that the three of them were farmers from the same village who, when drafted into national service, were posted to different locations along the Ethiopian border.

They decided to cross as it was getting harder to leave their duty stations for the month they needed to be on their farms for harvest time, and because the government recently introduced a new tax on each head of livestock.

The three soldiers weren’t allowed mobile phones, so, in planning their escape, they communicated by word of mouth and through letters using colleagues they trusted. Each left a wife and child behind.

“The wives didn’t want us to go and were too scared to come,” the 39-year-old says. “But they’re not angry with us. Whether we are in national service or Ethiopia, they still can’t see us.”

It’s just over 24 hours since they crossed the border and both groups have moved to the screening centre in Endabaguna. The place is jammed with migrants – mostly teenagers and young adults.

“Most say they faced military conscription, religious persecution, arbitrary detention, torture. Land division by the government is a new complaint,” says centre coordinator Teshome Kasa, adding that 1,008 new asylum seekers have arrived in the last seven days alone.


From the reception centre at Endabaguna, it is on to the camps.

Opened in 2004, Shimelba was the first Ethiopian camp for Eritrean refugees. Residents are allowed to construct their own dwellings here and now it looks like a small town. It is home to more than 6,000 people, mostly from the Kunama ethnic group, one of nine in Eritrea and historically the most marginalised.

Asked whether she would like to be resettled outside Ethiopia, Nagazeuelle, a Kunama who has been here for 17 years, tells IRIN: “I have no interest in going to other countries… My interest is in my country [Eritrea].

“I need my country,” she repeats. “We had rich and fertile land, but the government took it. We weren’t an educated people, so they picked on us. I am an example of the first refugees from Eritrea, but now people from all nine ethnic groups are coming.”

Haile, a Tigrayan Eritrean in his fifties who has been a refugee for five years, tells IRIN his father and brother died in prison in Eritrea.

“The world has forgotten us, apart from the US, Canada and Ethiopia,” he says. “The United Nations is too tolerant of Isaias. What is happening is beyond [words]. It is a deep crisis. So why is the international community silent?”

About 50 kilometres south of Shimelba lies Hitsats, the newest and largest of the four camps. It has 11,000 refugees and four in five of them are under the age of 35.

Outside camp coordinator Haftam Telemickael’s office, a group of Eritreans is meeting a staff member to renew ration cards. Each month, every Hitsats resident is entitled to 10kg of wheat, 1kg of palm oil, 1kg of protein powder, a quarter kilogramme of salt and sugar each, one piece of soap, and 60 Ethiopian birr ($2.75) spending money.

“At least here they get permission to move freely and visit family in places like Addis Ababa,” says Tesfaye, a refugee who also works as a camp social worker. “In Eritrea there are six zones and you can’t move to another zone without permission. Even in Asmara you have to get permission to move to different parts of the city.”

Sudan is the other main overland option for Eritrean asylum seekers. But around and even inside the refugee camps there, Eritreans are particularly vulnerable targets for gangs who kidnap migrants for ransom, often torturing them during phone calls to relatives to persuade them to send money.

“In Sudan, there are more problems. We can sleep peacefully here,” says 32-year-old Ariam, who came to Hitsats four years ago with her two children after spending four years in a Sudanese camp.

Ariam owned a small hotel in Asmara but couldn’t sell it before she left as that would have aroused government suspicion. She lost about 80,000 nakfa ($5,000) on it. Now she survives on rations and by making and selling flatbread injera, generating about 3,000 Ethiopian birr ($136) a month.


The common thread to everyone’s story here is the hardship they experienced in Eritrea, a country under semi-autocratic rule that is all but cut off to journalists.

“It was difficult to live in Eritrea because of my small salary,” says 23-year-old Samrawit after entering Ariam’s home for coffee. “My husband is in prison because he tried to cross the border. I want to go to another country. I don’t dislike it here, but from Ethiopia it’s difficult to communicate with my family. From other countries it would be easier.”

Worst of neighbours

Relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara soured not long after Eritrea regained independence and in 1998 degenerated into a two-year border war that cost thousands of lives. The neighbours remain bitter enemies to this day and their shared border is highly militarised.

One of the entry points is in the town of Badme, the war’s flashpoint, in a region still occupied by Ethiopia in defiance of an international adjudication attributing it to Eritrea.

“I crossed after hearing they were about to round people up for the military,” says 20-year-old Gebre. “I wasn’t going to go through that –you’re hungry, there’s no salary, you’re not doing anything to help your country; you’re just serving officials.”

With Gebre are another 14 young men ranging in age from 16 to 20 who also crossed to avoid military service, but there are plenty of young mothers too.

“Life was getting worse,” says 34-year-old Samrawit. “I had no work to earn money to feed my children.” Only her two youngest children are with her. “I would like to make sure coming here is worth it before the elder two come,” she explains.

She travelled with 22-year-old mother-of-two Yordanos, having met her at the Eritrean town of Barentua, about 50 kilometres north of the border – their rendezvous point with their smuggler. He took them by car to the Mereb River, where they crossed into Ethiopia.

Neither knows how much the smuggler was paid, payment having been organised by their husbands who now live in Switzerland and Holland.

An army truck pulls up while the women and young men are waiting at the Badme entry point. It hasn’t come to take them to the screening centre, rather to deposit another eight refugees picked up at the border.

“Our soldiers don’t get any sleep they are so busy at night collecting refugees,” says an Ethiopian major.

(TOP PHOTO: The rugged landscape of northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which lies on the Eritrean border. James Jeffrey/IRIN)


Review overview
  • k.tewolde March 18, 2017

    I never thought in my wildest dreams when I was in the field to see a proud Kunama making friends and living next door to a Navajo Indian in Montana or an Afari warrior from Irafale working as a stock man in Bass Pro Shops,somebody lied to us. The Eritrean saga continues…..

    • hilmi ab/tigray March 19, 2017

      what s wrong with the kunama and afar
      how did the goverment marginalized the two ethnic ?
      we know the kunama dwell around badime and the afar around assab and all costal erea
      so it s that a trick to reclaim our land ?

  • PH March 18, 2017

    ዝቀለለ ፍታሕ ኢንዳሃለወ ዓድኻ ገዲፍካ ህድማ ናብ ዝገደደ ገደልን ጥፊኣትን ኢዩ ዝመርሓና ዘሎ።ሲኣን ኢምቢ ንምልኪ ምባል ዘለካ ጸጋ ሃገርን ክብርን ራሕሪሕካ ምጽወታ ምጽባይ ሓደ ካብ’ቲ ዘሕፍር ኤርትራውነት ኮይኑ ኣሎ።ማዕረ-ክንድዚ፧? ሲኣን ሓደ ሙኹሕ ንሓደ ሉሕሉሕ ስርዓተ-ኢሰያስ ኣይጠቆናን።ኣበይ ከይዱ ኢቲ ኤርትራዊ ጅግንነት? ዶ’ወላስ ኢዚ ሓዲሽ ወለዶ ብወኸርያ ኣብ ሳሕል ዝተበልዐ መዳሕንቲ ኢዩ ዘለዎ? ይገርመኒ ኣሎ።

  • Hagherawi March 18, 2017

    “I crossed after hearing they were about to round people up for the military,” says 20-year-old Gebre.
    “I wasn’t going to go through that – you’re hungry, there’s no salary, you’re not doing anything to help your country; you’re just serving officials.”

    The above statement says it all. Eritrea under Higdef is hell..

  • Wedi Hagher March 18, 2017

    “I crossed after hearing they were about to round people up for the military,” says 20-year-old Gebre.
    “I wasn’t going to go through that – you’re hungry, there’s no salary, you’re not doing anything to help your country; you’re just serving officials.”

    The above statement says it all. Eritrea under Higdef is hell..

  • PH March 18, 2017

    ኣይ ካብ ህዝቢ፡ኣይ ካብ መንግስቲ ፡ሲኣን ሓንቲ ወስታ ሙኹዋና መጻወቲ በሉ ንኺድ. ……..

  • Mike March 18, 2017

    Simply disaster!
    Eritrean liberation fools many and the same people in power in Eritrea playing chess and board games with Eritrean lives.

    What is very critical and crucial to all these is the Eritrean people are nowhere to be found fighting for their own lives.

    Every Eritrean generation keeps silent and rides the brutality of the system in Eritrea then when he or she is in chain or feels the pain – either from having grown up children or an opportunity is taken away – then the morning and fleeing starts to take shape..

    When I think of the nature of Eritrea all I could think is – we are good pretenders and no actions. We blame mother Africa and take Eritrea as a crown jewel for and Africa. All that with empty stomach and barren land.

    Even those who come up and speak of setting up an organized party – are all show offs and nothing else. Very few are fighting and those who do fight are held back because they would not put their trust on any Eritrean! I would not either. In the process, generation is lost and no one is going back to Eritrea. Not one that is. My plea is to those inside Eritrea to take up arms to rescue your lives.

    Safe journey out of Eritrea to all who opted to leave Eritrea behind

    • PH March 19, 2017

      I simply tolerate your comment but the last frase you put in, make dubious your honesty to wards Eritrean cause. fighting back to stay at home is ours but not fleeing for emptying ..

  • Sol March 19, 2017

    ኤሰያስ ምስ መሳፍንቲ ሃይለ ስላሴ ክስራዕ ዝነበሮ ሕልሚ ሎሚ ክንዲ ንእሽተይ ልኡል ዓቢ ሃጼ ኾይኑ ውሑዳት ልኡላት ሸይሙ ንኤርትራ ኣብ ዲቕ ዝበለ መስፍንነት ሸሚምዋ ኣሎ

  • Tesfazgi March 20, 2017

    Eritreans in Tigray are home away from home” Nelson Mandela addressing the Canadian Parliament once said” Kebessan are Tigrian who has been sold by the leper ridden ugly Amhara king Menelik. with out their consent and in secret deal. So I totally reject any confinement in a refugee camp or the reference term “refugee”. I call to the authority to disband the refugee camps and let all Eritreans live freely where ever they want with in Tigray. There is a gross crime committed on Tigrigna speakers by the Amhara elites from 1880-1983 for 103 years and enough is enough. Tigray has received followers of prophet Mohamed, and let them live in dignity and respect and must do the same to the other ethnics of Eritrea.
    I will remain dedicated to reunite the Tigray people north and south of Mereb, to pre Menelik era. I do not care with the politics of Ethiopia or the Politics of Eritrea which intends to thrive at the expense and victimization of the family of Tigrigna speaking people. I call on all sane Tigrians from Kebessa and Tigray to Join me in the effort of formulating a formula to reuniting and reviving the great ethnic Tigrigna who are the heirs and owners of the Axumite Kingdom. I’m still analyzing for a workable solution totally unheard of before and disoriented from the traditional politics. If you have one, come out and lets hear it. Too late, but by now we know all politicians with out exception are for power!!!