Reportage. We traveled to Ethiopia, near the border with Eritrea, where tens of thousands of refugees live in miserable conditions — which they say are far preferable to being back home. The much-celebrated peace has stalled.

Between Ethiopia and Eritrea, nearly 1M refugees and an unresolved peace

Ethiopia is the second-most-populous African country after Nigeria, but also the second in terms of the number of refugees it hosts, after Uganda. 

The latest data from the UNHCR reports the presence of 905,831 asylum seekers, mainly Eritreans. The reasons go back to the war fought between 1998 and 2000, which caused the deaths of almost 100,000 people. The Algiers peace agreements put an end to the military conflict almost 20 years ago, but the situation has not been resolved. The armed conflict only morphed into a cold war. 

The main actor of this story is Isaias Afewerki, who has stayed in power all this time as the face of the dictatorial regime in Eritrea. There is not the faintest notion of democracy there (no elections have ever been held), while on the other hand there is unlimited mandatory military service for all Eritrean citizens (both men and women) between 18 and 50 years of age. All are sent off to protect the border with Ethiopia.

The situation changed in April 2018, when Ethiopia’s president, Abiy Ahmed Ali, made a friendly gesture toward Afewerki, expressing his willingness to renounce the claims to territories around the symbolic site of Badme. This gesture had been demanded by the EEBC (the Ethiopia Eritrea Boundary Commission, an international arbitration commission formed to resolve the dispute) immediately after the end of the war, but never actually carried out by the Ethiopians. This step allowed the two countries to turn over a new leaf: the border between them reopened in the summer of 2018, and a peace agreement was signed in Jeddah, highlighting the Saudi geostrategic interests in the region of the Horn of Africa.

However, the free movement between the two countries led to many thousands of Eritreans running away from their country, determined to escape permanent military service and the dictatorship, creating a large diaspora. The window of opportunity proved brief: on Dec. 26, 2018, Eritrea unilaterally closed all its borders, frightened by the mass exodus. 

Semhar, an Eritrean refugee working as a housekeeper at a hotel in Shire, is doing the same thing as everyone else who has managed to escape: she divides her salary into two, one half to send to her relatives left in Asmara, and the other half for her savings so she’d be able to go to Europe. She is considering turning to human traffickers, in the absence of prospects of a visa.

In the Tigray region on the border with Eritrea (a live minefield), there are four camps holding around 70,000 refugees. An average of 300 new refugees arrive every day. In the Adi Arush camp, there are over 15,000 people, well beyond its capacity. This excessive influx has led to the construction of improvised huts made of stone, sheet metal and wood, to serve as the new homes for the newcomers, just outside the perimeter of the camp. Sixty-three percent are unaccompanied minors.

The hygienic conditions are very poor: each person is allocated a maximum of around 15 liters of water per day. However, “it’s still better than in Eritrea,” said Jemal and Yusef, two 20-year-olds who escaped from Asmara a few months ago. “Nobody talks about the government in the streets, in the public places or in the schools. There’s so much fear.” The fear is something they haven’t been able to leave behind: “There might be Eritrean spies here as well.” There are also human traffickers who have infiltrated the camp, and who are advertising the possibility of reaching Italy, after setting off from Libya, for $5,000-6,000 per person.

What unites all Eritrean refugees is the reason for their escape: most of all, they are fleeing so they won’t be trapped in military service. One refugee managed to escape after 25 years in the army, and he recounts how he spent two years in prison for marrying in secret without official permission. He was imprisoned for “desertion,” and could not be there for the birth of his first daughter or his mother’s funeral.

Even though the situation has not been resolved at all, Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed Ali still received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Dec. 10. There is still so much left to be done, but the Nobel Committee is arguing its choice is justified “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.” The peace concluded between the two countries was the highlight of 2018 for African politics.

Ahmed belongs to the Oromo ethnic group, the majority ethnic group in Ethiopia, which has been marginalized for decades. With a Muslim father and a Christian mother, he speaks the three most common languages in the country: Oromo, Aramaic and Tigrin. In Addis Ababa, one can see his face everywhere, from posters on the streets to prayer cards in taxis. Why has he risen to such heights? Because he has put national reconciliation back at the center of the debate, as well as the release of political prisoners and the legalisation of opposition groups, which had been labelled “terrorists” for a long time. In short, he is the polar opposite of Afewerki, whom the Nobel Committee snubbed.

While giving Ahmed the credit he is due, one still gets the feeling that everything has remained stuck at the embryonic stage, that of good intentions—on both the Ethiopian and Eritrean sides. While Afewerki has every interest in maintaining the status quo in Eritrea, unwilling to risk letting go of the power he has concentrated into his own hands, Ahmed Ali must also face the problems in his own country in view of the upcoming national elections in 2020, with all the difficulties arising from an unstable coalition government, widespread ethnic unrest and several other difficult issues to be resolved. In essence, one gets the feeling that the Eritrean issue has been relegated to a lower spot on his list of priorities.

Even the international community seems to have looked away. For example, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are not interested in the details of the peace agreement. Europe is more concerned with the management of migrants, and is not putting any pressure on Eritrea to at least reform its national military service. Without a committed effort by all the actors involved, the regime will continue to harass the Eritreans, forcing them to risk their lives to escape to Libya and cross the Mediterranean.

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