Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Eritrean Refugees Abandoned by International Community: Hostages in Tigray Refugee Camps

Refugees must not be held hostages in the conflict. Those are words we often hear from UN and UN agents for refugees and human rights. But yet Eritrean refugees in Tigray are treated as hostages, assaulted, raped and dying not only from boom shells but from hunger and shortage of medical treatment.

“10 refugees died when I was still in the camp.” said Tecklit one of the refugees who spoke to Setit Media journalist Abdu Ismail.  Tecklit made it safe last week from Adi Harush to  ­­­Dabat camp in the Amhara region. “A mother took her life, cause she didn’t have food to feed her kids, the next day another died while in labor due to lack of medical attention. In our camps there are stories also of children death attributed to trauma and hunger.”

The situation of Eritrean refugees is getting worse as they are running out of belongings that they can sell to buy food. We will sell one cloth and buy a half kilo onion or tomato and now refuges in camp are running out of cloths, and I don’t know what they will do, recalls one witness who made it to Dabat camp last week. Villagers from close area would stop on their way to town and buy clothes from the refugees.

N0Rtzl hDKDbK dGUNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov, had also echoed similar situation in the camps, in a virtual press briefing held at the end of January after UNCHR staff were able to reach camps of Mai Aini and Adi Harush in Tigray. Those two camps are home to over 25,000 Eritrean refugees. And despite the ongoing call for a safe passage and relocation to a safer region or third party, refugees find themselves entangled, vulnerable and prone to political exploitation. Neither the Ethiopia Federal government nor the Tigray regional government had taken measures to ensure safety, conducive human condition or facilitate their relocation.

Moreover, with ongoing conflict between Ethiopia’s regions of Tigray and Afar, many more Eritrean refugees are at risk. Despite talks on peace and reconciliation, all parties, including the Ethiopia government are engaged in blackmailing and pointing fingers, while innocent, unprotected civilians including refugees are left to deal with catastrophes owing to constant conflicts that keep ignited in regions of Ethiopia. One could argue Ethiopia PM Abiy “Leave no stone unturned” for lasting peace remarks during the 35th African Union Summit is merely rhetoric, giving the ongoing conflict in Afar region waged by TPLF. A shift in paradigm may be, but Ethiopia is still in civil war and safety, security and lasting peace seems a far cry. And for Eritrean refugees in Afar region and Tigray the situation is much worse.

UN staff members who visited Adi Harush and Mai Aini at the end of January reported deteriorating conditions of both camps and Eritrean refugees starving and barely getting enough to eat, lack of medicine and access to clean water. Refugee who spoke to Setit media point out it is much worse.

On top of shortage of food, water and medical supplies, Eritrean refugees in Tigray are constantly at fear for their lives. Armed forces target refugees for pity theft. “There is no security. In broad daylight armed young men had robbed refugees, they will empty whatever they find in our pockets, take our mobile phone, jewelry and anything they think valuable.” Says Tecklit.  At nights, the men will be on watch to protect the camp, but often met with armed predators. Unarmed, hungry and some even ill Eritrean refugees will take shifts at night to protect the most vulnerable, women and children and chase the robbers despite gun shots being fired at them. “We lost three men during those firing at night.” said Tecklit.

Every day Eritrean refugees in Tigray grapple with hunger, illness, and terror and there is no sign of end to the debacle.  And for many refugees who were able to escape the dire situation at the refugee camps in Tigray they feel they were abandoned by the international communities.

At times it is hard to distinguish between the aid staff and individuals from the regional government who visit the camps says Tecklit.  Aid staff in UN vehicles will pay refuges a visit , conduct interview, promising solution and report the situation to the international communities. Seldom do we hear back from the UN staff and living condition of refugees deteriorates further, and much worse, Tecklit recalls staff from Tigray administration will visit the camp and ask them to hold demonstrations along Tigrians but not independently. “We keep informing them that we are refugees, and we don’t want to get involved in politics. We did told we would rather  organize our own demonstration for refugees only. And I left the camp while this confrontation was going on.” he added.

Finding themselves at a crossfire, beyond the fear of violence, Eritrean refugees in Tigray have to deal with trauma involving rape of Eritrean women refugees said Tecklit . “Armed men would take our sisters from the camp and drop them late hours at night. Some of the women will scream helplessly gripped with fear. Sometimes women are left unconscious in dark alley.”

Constant fear, with no food, clean water and no more cloths left to sell for food, Tecklit and three others,  made it to Dabat camp in Amhara region.  It took them 4-5 days, walking at nights to avoid being caught by TDF.

If caught running away in search of a safe place, prison and harsh conditions awaits Eritrean refugees. As some are savagely beaten with sticks and transported to detention area, they also face verbal abuse. “ You shouldn’t have brough them here. You should have killed them on the spot” Tecklit  recalls the words of armed prison guards when 11 Eritrean refugees were caught and brough to the prison during his visit  – his friend was caught earlier trying to make it to safety.

This might be a story of those who survived the escape from refugee camps in Tigray and made it to safer refugee camp in Ethiopia. But their dangerous journey also uncovers the untold story of the many Eritrean refugees who vanished and are missing trying to reach a safe place. “We saw many identification cards scattered everywhere in the path.” Said Tecklit.

According to UN reports from last year, there are at least 20,000 refugees missing from camps in Tigray region. Despite news of peace talks, the civil war is still on. TDF has launched offensive attack in Afar region. People are dying, innocent civilians affected and caught in this prolonged crossfire, Eritrean refugees’ plight is getting worse with no hope in sight, their horrors continue.

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