It is clear that Eritreans who have fled from the dictatorship and are seeking sanctuary in Ethiopia are in danger.
As noted by the UN Refugee Agency yesterday, there have been attempts to close the camp.
But the threats do not end there. They have also been physically threatened by agents of the Tigrayan military and Eritrean opposition forces.
Below are letters from Eritreans living in Hitsats, followed by notes made by a researcher working with the refugees and a reply to their concerns from the UNHCR.
From Eritrean Refugees in Hitstsa camp
To all Eritrean refugees Agencies at Hitsats camp
Subject: The closing and displaced of hitsats refugee camp
It was on 27th of march 2020, there was meeting in ARRA office by [names removed] with RCC (refugee central committee).
In that meeting they continue to disturb the peace of the refugees, they gave three opportunities for Eritrean refugees at Hitsats . There are the following;
- We will relocate you to Adi-Harush and Mai-Ayni, and you will live with other refugees but we didn’t prepare for you any basically needs for you.
- You can use all OUT OF CAMP POLICY (OCP) to any Ethiopia city.
- If you stay choice to stay at the refugee’s camp of Hitsats, you will never have any service from ARRA and all other NGO’S like UNHCR, IRC, NRC, ZOA and DRC.
Above this the other opportunity are not allowed to choice and to give any other suggestion. Also they told us if we choice to go other camp they aren’t allow us to carry any asset that we have only to carry one bag, because the people of the host community to pay compensation, so you will not take anything from the refugees camp which means from our home.
And we have said there is shortage of budget; the budget isn’t belonging to refugees, to belong to ARRA officers that are ARRA monthly salary.
According the above, the representative Eritrean refugees at Hitsats, as some question that are
- Before the previous we asked you to give us official letter but until now it is oral information, so do you have the official letter with you from federal government?
- What about UNHCR, did this information know before or not?
- We came from Eritrea because of persecution of our right, and you do also the same, you precaution our rights why it is that?
- In the last day 21/03/2020, the militant came with guns and cars, why didn’t give us protection, because you are the one you give us a protection before, but at this time, why you left us without protection.
- The message you give us it is unclear, and the refuge may not accepted us so you go down to the refugees and tell by your self
The ARRA Representative also gives like this answer,
- We have formal letter from federal but we will not give that letter it isn’t belongs to you.
- UNHCR is under federal so, the one who has power is the federal, so UNHCR must do what we say, and so it is not important to know by UNHCR.
- They didn’t give answer for right persecution
- When the militant came here we were not here.
- We will not give any meeting at this time because of corona, so we tell them during ration food distribution time.
At the last we start to relocate you will be the first one to be going and you will support up for refugees to other camps. When we have finished the meeting, directly went to UNHCR, but the UNHCR told us they have never known about these things.
Because of that Eritrean refugees at Htsats are in bad situation, because of unclear displacement and relocate to other camps, all the refuges from underage up to old people are in stress of mentally and physically.
So at the last we would like to say UNHCR and other human organization, we Eritrean refugees at Hstats need emergence protection, and emergence supporting. And if Ethiopian federal government can’t give us refuges asylum as has agreement with United Nations, must communicate UNHCR, and can relocate out of Ethiopia, that can we have a good protection. If we continue like this situation in Ethiopia we may lose some life. Because of bad situation some people have became mental problem, and there is no any good hospital especial mental illness, like MSF before. So UNHCR all other humanitarian organization so give emergence response for us.
Eritrean refugee at Hitsats camp
From Eritrean Refugee at Hitsats Camp
To all Eritrean Refugees Agencies at Hitsats
Subject: The problem of the protection that we had
It was on 21st of march 2020,the Eritrean government opposites which is the the part of the against Eritrea government came to the camp at 5:00pm to Zone D, 6 person they wearing military with guns and other they wear civil cloth together by military car and started to threaten for underage and women to be join with them and to be out from their home and to follow them but the people that leave their zone (D) started to hidden their selves from that situation.
Then the party (the group with military clothes and guns) came to zone A by their cars. It was at 6:45pm the militant that consider as themselves as the operant of Eritrean government, also continued to threaten to all Eritrean refugees representatives at that time Administration of Refugees and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) was left us and out of the camp and they told us they will never give us any protection for refugees.
Because of that, when that bad situation happen to us, we called to hitsats polis station and told them all the things happened on us, the hitsats polis came to the camp and caught for them .when the polis checked to the group who threaten for Eritrean refugees ,they found three colts (gun) and kalashnikov (totally 4 guns)with them.
At the next day it is on 22/03/2020 we went to the polis station to give our accuse to the one whom that threaten for us, the polis sent us and told there are also some refugees were supporting them because of their profit but give your name that the militant pointed their guns and we give the name of that persons.
When we return to the refugee camp, we got for some refugees that have relation with the militant. we converse with them, they told us we have given different awareness to some people by the supporting of ARRA for three years ,even in those things what we have done is the knowledgeable tigray government region. Because of they released us from prison.
As we have mentioned what have had happened for us the main problem on us about the children that are below eighteen years old, the children at this time in bad situation, they afraid and lose their confidence, so please take care for those are not matured in their age, especially those are living at the camp without their parents even relatives.
At the last and conclusion we would like to inform that, at this time we are with out of any protection from ARRA and this are difficult for us to live at Ethiopia as refugees, because of the situation that persecuted for us as refugees.
IF there is possibility of transfer us to other countries that can give us a protection, please resettle us to other nearer countries to Ethiopia. We can’t live in we can’t live in Ethiopia because of the game that play on the refugees by different four parts, that are Ethiopian federal government Eritrean president, Militant and Tigray region ,so our life is in danger in this time.
Eritrean refugees in Hitsats camp
From: Eritrean Political refugees of Hitsats Camp
To: The Office of________________________________
Issue:-About Current affair’s of Eritrean refugee at Hitsats camp
Forwarding Our heartfelt regard’s, We are thankful for the service you giving to us.
On the 5th of March 2020,We (Refugee Central Committee-RCC of Hitsats) were told that all the Eritrean refugees at hitsats Camp (18000) population will be replaced to May-Ayni and Adi-Harush camps by [name removed], who is ARRA protection Officer at Shire. Since then we all are in crisis. He told us that the information is directly from the federal government of Ethiopia and hence. We the RCC are ordered to inform and convince our people as soon as possible.
However when we kindly requested why this order is given to us suddenly and it was orally not official letter. He responded that it was about a budget deficit and left us.
As the result we the RCC informed our people, the [name removed] information (order) as it is. However our people was at shocked and distributed to hear this. Then we tried to stabilize our people and selected committee to discuss about this issue to assess and to gather the reliable information.
Next we went to UNHCR Office on the 6th of march 2020, and met with [name removed] UNHCR protection officer in Shire. After we asked him about the issue, He responded that he didn’t have any information about it. He told us that he will request to UNHCR at Addis –Ababa and the officers of the Ethiopian government and as soon as, He got reliable information he will share us. Finally he told us that the [name removed]’s reason for replacement the camp to other camp was about budget deficient was not correct information, rather the budget of the four camps has been budgeted for the whole year 2020.
Besides even if there is a replacement of a refugees from a camp to other camps that could never happen suddenly, because it takes long time and carefully assessment and without acknowledge of the UNHCR Officer. Therefore, based on the above information, we kindly request the Following question for clarification.
01.So the UNHCR Office shall be concerned about the attempt of the Ethiopian government to move us to other camp without any acceptable reason ,because we are in a critical situation and hence the UNHCR have to negotiate with the federal government.
02.We are Eritrean political refugee in Hitsast camp of Ethiopia.We migrated from our country because of interference the of the government on our religious aspects, unstable peace ,unable to live where want at our country and absence of freedom to talk what we feel, due to these reasons we migrated here.
03.This sudden crisis in our camp is not more different from what has happened in our country before. Therefore this issue makes us to be psychologically violated and our status is becoming worse from time to time.
- We are in a deep fear, psychological stress and protection instability. For this heavy issue, we are kindly requesting the world to put it’s glance on us. First and foremost we are asking the different agency of the world including UNHCR to pass pond us to third country rather than making us to be confused and stressed.
05.The agreement and Diplomatic meeting of Ethiopian government with Eritrean government makes us to be in a critical protection instability, therefore all agency of the world have to attend and put their glance on us.
06.We need to announce the different agency of the world, UNHCR, Ethiopian government and others that we are really a refugee who asks for asylum but not the supporters and parts of any individual or organized political parts.
07.Finally as refugees we mentioned and asked more critical questions and requests. There fore we are waiting a valuable and sustainable feed back as soon as possible.
THANK’S FOR YOUR CO-OPERATION AND CONSIDERATION ON US.
Eritrean refugee of hitsats camp.
Hitsats interview by a researcher, 30.03.2020
6 people, 3 from various refugee associations in the camp
2 weeks ago the head of ARRA in Shire, [name removed]… informed refugee committee members that the camp will be closed down. The committee have subsequently issued 2 letters addressed to ARRA and UNHCR but at the time of writing haven’t received a reply. Refugees don’t know who made the decision and were only told that this is due to budget constraints although UNHCR said that their budget is secure. Refugees suspect there is less money in the pot for corrupted ARRA officials. They say that ARRA staff in Addis comes from Tigray anyway, and that ARRA does not represent the federal government.
Refugees were told to leave the camp immediately (that was before COVID state of emergency), and to leave any assets/ livestock in the camp. They were told to relocate to Adi Harush and Mai Ayni although the refugee committees there disagreed with the decision due to lack of space and services in both camps.
Some NGOs are still in the camp, but with limited staff members (2-3 people from ARRA, namely protection officers). Again, not clear if they left because of planned camp closure, or because of COVID-19. UNHCR on the ground is supportive of refugees.
On 21 March, a group of 20 Tigrayan and Eritrean opposition soldiers entered the camp with guns and pistols. They tried to forcibly recruit people to join the Eritrean military opposition. They also told them to chant ‘Down with Isaias’ and ‘Down with Abiy’. Some refugees were threatened with guns. Refugees managed to take the intruders to Hitsats police station, but they were released without charge after 4 hours. No aid agency has intervened.
People don’t know what is happening to refugees stuck at the border which is currently closed. Endabaguna reception centre was open until recently, and one interlocutor’s relative was asked to pay between 30-60,000 ETB to be registered as a refugee there.
There are 12,000 people now in the camp (I suspect more) and there is a sense of bitterness about reception of Eritrean refugees in Tigray. I was told that only 500 people were resettled since the camp’s opening in 2013, and many were allegedly Tigrayans, not Eritreans. People don’t know about the new Refugee Proclamation (only about the previous Out of Camp Policy) and said that they would feel more insecure in cities. They said if someone tries to kidnap them in the camp, there are other refugees around to protect them. I got a sense that refugees just want to leave Ethiopia in the long run and are not interested in local integration. They mentioned the urgency of resettlement.
Those who oppose the camp closure are afraid of repercussions – they sleep at a different shelter every night to ensure safety. They said that previously outspoken refugees were forced to give false testimony as ‘Eritrean spies’, and some ended up in prison for 6 years. Refugees are also afraid of deportations. A woman from women’s association said that they feel constantly persecuted, moved from one place to another.
In terms of services, ARRA hospital in the camp has only around 20 beds, it is poorly equipped and staffed with few Ethiopian nurses. The food ratios for refugees were reportedly given to IDPs; wheat was replaced with maize, and it decreased from 15kg to 7kg. Refugees were told to stay in the camp because of COVID-19, remain in their overcrowded shelters, and to wash their hands but the water is as scarce as before. There are no special provisions in case of an outbreak.
In conclusion, Eritrean refugees feel that they are used in a political game between Eritrean regime, Eritrean military opposition, Ethiopian federal government and Tigray regional state government. There is lots of confusion about which of those actors does what, and refugees were cautious to say that nobody really knows the truth behind the decision to close the camp.
Reply from UNHCR to camp residents