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How the Ethiopian refugee policy and the mysterious “peace-deal” with Eritrea are driving fragility in Tigray Regional State?

How the Ethiopian refugee policy and the mysterious “peace-deal” with Eritrea are driving fragility in Tigray Regional State?

Tesfahun Abay (


As the data obtained from UNHCR indicates, Ethiopia hosts 905,831 registered refugees from 19 countries which is the second largest figure in Africa (after Uganda) as of 2018[1] of which Eritreans accounted for 19.2%. At the end of 2018, about 585,900 Eritreans (507,300 documented and 78,600 pending asylum seekers) were registered worldwide by UNHCR[2]. Adding the 1.2 million Diaspora community, the proportion of Eritreans who live outside the country is estimated at about 30% of their population.

Globally, about 34,000 people are forcibly displaced per day[3] due to various reasons of which Eritreans shared 3%. Studies indicate that Eritreans have increasingly been trafficked and held hostage by Bedouins in the Sinai Desert, where they are victims of organ harvesting, rape, extortion and torture[4]. Eritreans composed approximately 90% of the victims of Sinai trafficking from 2009-2013[5]. As the Global Slavery Index of 2018 indicates, Eritrea had the second highest prevalence of slavery in the world as of 2018 (following North Korea). Further, the country is ranked the lowest in the 2019 World Freedom Index and 177th out of 180 countries in the 2019 Index of Economic Freedom[6].In terms of ease of doing business rank, Eritrea stood 189 out of 190 countries in the world as of 2019.

Understanding the local context

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Eritrea has a population of 5.97 million (as of July 2018) with a median age of 19.9 years and its capital Asmara has 0.93 million residents (as of 2019)[7]. With an average of 4.13 births per woman, human fertility rate of the country is one of the highest in the world[8]

Ever since its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has remained isolated from the world. The border was highly militarized and hence the in and out movement of citizens have been prohibited. Despite this, Eritreans have been fleeing out of the countryacross all boardersfor various reasons: political persecution (fear of forced military recruitment, arbitrary arrest and detention without trial, religious persecution and other human rights violations) as well as severe and widespread poverty, and poor livelihood prospect[9].

At present, Eritrea is the first per capita refugee producing country and the fourth largest in absolute number of refugees in the world following Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan[10]. During the past several decades, Ethiopia mainly Tigray Region has remained as one of the prime destination and transit of Eritrean refugees. According to a survey made by the World Bank[11], 65 percent of Eritrean refugees arriving in camps in Tigray leave within the first year that many of them (including a large number of unaccompanied children) continue their migration to Europe via Sudan and Libya, often using smugglers. Such flight of large number of Eritreans has severely degraded the country’s young and most productive manpower.

Meanwhile, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement in June 2018 and both countries officially opened several crossing points on the 11th of September 2018 allowing free movement of people and goods. This intensified the exodus of the Eritreans andaccording to the data obtained from UNHCR as much as 1,500 Eritreans were fleeing out of the country daily and many were rushing for the fear that the border may close again. In just one month, i.e., September 11 to October 12 2018, as much as 60,000 Eritreans left the country and arrived at Tigray of which 14,107 were registered (a three fold surge compared to the pre-opening) at Endabaguna reception and registration center[12].For the Eritreans, the peace deal with Ethiopia has created a safe route to Tigray region of Ethiopia. Looking at the exodus of the youth, the Eritrean government blocked the roads again after a month of free mobility. If the boarder is re-opened again, there will no doubt Eritreans will start fleeing their country in mass.

No doubt, this “peace-time” exodus was directly related to the state of hopelessness of the Eritreans on the Isaya’s regime[13]. And, what is alarming is the fact that most Eritreans do not want to register at the entry points nor do they intend to settle in the refugee camps due to the fear of involuntary repatriation. Therefore, they hide their documents and enter to Tigray towns and search for jobs. The exact number of the refugees living in these towns are lacking and there has not been any tracking system to understand how they are living and how many of them transited and where, etc. are unknown. These together with the poor resilience capacity of the host community have posed a heavy threat to the security and wellbeing of the refugees and the host in the region.

The situation in Tigray region

Tigray’spopulation stands at about 5.6 million of whom 51% are on their working age. The region has 126 small and big towns of these 10 are swelling to over one hundred thousand residents each. The capital city, Mekelle, has about half a million residents.


At present, Tigray is heavily affected by a large number of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons that are estimated at about 130 thousand) from other regions of the country. Further, 28% of its population is below poverty line and over 20% of its population are severely food insecure which together with the large number of registered and un-registered Eritrean refugees put a heavy burden on the socio-economy of the regional state. Adding an insult to injury,recently, unconfirmed government sources indicate thatthe Eritrean and Ethiopian governments have agreed, among others, to close theEritrean refugee camps located in Tigray region and re-open the crossing points in the borders of the two countries and allow free movement of people that both have the potential of creating refugee crises in the region.


What is even more daunting is the fact that Tigray region has little resilience capacity to solve such major exodus by its own. On the other hand, if refugees do not get enough jobs and income, then it is natural that they will steal from people and disturb the security of the towns. Imagine the large number of these Eritrean refugees are ex-soldiers and at present there happens a noticeable rise of incidence of crimes including theft, murder etc., in the major towns of Tigray and the residents are already feeling less safe in their towns. All these have the potential of jeopardizing the development efforts of the region which the local government and development agents do not seem to have prepared well.

The reaction of the Tigray regional government and residents

The peace deal signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea in July 2018 has ended the two decades of a frozen war between the two countries and was followed by opening-up their border and surface roads on September 11, 2018. This allowed the re-union of the two Tigrigna speaking brothers and sisters residing to the south and north of the Mereb River. The host community understands that Eritreans are of their own sisters and brothers: speak the same languages (Tigrigna, Kunama, Saho, etc.),close geographic proximity and share same border, have the same culture (dressing, hair style, wedding and mourning services)family lineage as well as all the heritages of the Axumite monuments, rock hewn churches, the Geez alphabet, etc.

Because of all these, what ever costs to the host community, Eritrean refugees have been better off with much lower poverty rates[14] and enjoy more rights compared to other countries’ refugee groups hosted in other regions of the country with respect to standard of living, livelihood and employment as well as ties to host communities[15]. Moreover, UNHCR and WB surveys indicate that Eritrean refugees showed a higher degree of integration, from economic self-reliance and higher participation in the labor force to better housing condition and lower poverty incidence. Overall, Tigray has remained to bea genuine partner and a safe haven for Eritrean refugees and migrants and respect their dignity and wellbeing. By doing this, the regional government and the host community have proven to be cohesive and inclusive towards Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees.

Challenges faced

Over the past 30 years, Eritrea has remained as a one-man-state with no constitution, no multi-party system, no power sharing, no tolerance to different ideas andno prospect of political reform. Poverty is deep and pervasive.Once they flee, most Eritreans do not want to enter the refugee camps in Ethiopia because of the fear that existing good relationship between Isayas and Abiy’s government may lead to repatriation of the Eritreans.  So, after crossing the border and arrive at Tigray region, the Eritreans mix themselves with the locals and most are not voluntary to identify themselves as migrants. Such intention of the migrants together with the laissez-faire policy of the local and federal governments enable them to engage in various activities (as employed and self-employed) mainly in garage, shops, factories, hair dressing, waiters in cafeterias, street vendors and even as house maid that are all reserved for locals by law but competing with them for the limited job opportunities. All these have the potential of escalating unemployment, depressing wages and creating inflationary pressure including on food items and housing rent in the region.


Over the past two decades, the predatory state of the Eritrean government has been worsened: the governance situation has gone from bad to worse; political persecution has been pervasive; social and economic facilities and infrastructures have been deteriorated and the economy remained dismal. No signs of any form of political, social and economic reform in the country. Such desperate political and livelihood opportunities in Eritrea and the hopeless state of the Eritrean regime has led Eritreans to evacuate their country. Since many of the Eritrean asylum seekers are not willing to enter into the refugee camps, Tigray has been paying the heavy cost of hosting these hundreds of thousand refugees. In turn, this put additional socio-economic burdens such as access to food, healthcare, security, public admin, school, utilities, etc. as well as jobs and other livelihood opportunities.

Unless preceded with political and economic reform in Eritrea, the mysterious “peace deal” with Ethiopia and the envisaged re-opening of the boarders to Ethiopia will certainly lead to an intensified exodus of Eritreans to Tigray region. So far, Tigray region has received over 200 thousand refugees (i.e., about 67 thousand living in four camps and over 140 thousand of registered OCP beneficiaries and unregistered migrants). If we take the local population who are residing in the two woredas (Asgede-Tsimbila and Tselemti)[16] where the four refugee camps are located, the proportion of the locals to refugees is about 3:1. In fact, if this continues, Tigray would soon be the highest refugee concentration area in the world which put the socio-economic and security services under extreme burden.Hosting refugees/ migrants has its own socio-economic consequences. For instance, as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, by 2015 an estimated 170,000 Lebanese had fallen into poverty, unemployment had doubled to around 20 percent and economic losses of some US$7.5 billion had been incurred[17].Adding fuel to the fire, the federal expenditure on infrastructure (such as roads, agro-industrial parks, railway, power equipment, telecom, etc.) in the region was curtailed by the present federal government since last year with a groundless conviction that Tigray was benefited more than its share during the previous governments. Further,the two governments in Ethiopia and Eritrea together with other anti TPLF elements in and out of the country are solidifying their front to encircle TPLF and Tigray.

All in all, the existing influx and the envisaged re-opening of the Ethio-Eritrean boarder can have the potential of putting Tigray towns in to large slum areas with large number of unemployed workforce, acute poverty, etc.  Therefore the fight against all the socio-economic problems of Eritrean migrants have to be out of the refugee camps, i.e., in towns and other economic settings.  Over the past few years, the security situation in Tigray towns has been worsening: day time hanging, theft, begging have been widespread. And the Tigray government is trying to solve all these through tightening its police forces which is one side loped solution. Unless a concerted and adequate effort are undertaken to solve the socio-economic problems of the Eritrean refugees, IDPs and the host community, the situation would soon be worsened and lead to catastrophic. In such a situation, there should be an alternative way of engaging these economic actors through among others, adopting market systems approach through developing cross sector partnership of government, donors, private sector and development partners including financial institutions.


In light of the aforementioned realities and challenges, I propose the below recommendations.

1.      Despite the new Ethiopian refugee policy (Proclamation #: 1110/19) which pledges the full (socio-economic) integration of refugees with the host, current Ethiopian Federal Authorities including ARRA (Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs) have no or little appetite to implement refugee economic development programs in Tigray. This is clearly evident from the reaction of the senior officials for livelihoods development proposals that come from international development partners over the past two years. In addition, ARRA’s experience has been limited to refugee’s protection services, not on livelihoods development programs.Further, the federal government is seriouslycrippled in policy implementation. Therefore, Tigray should think of creating an agency that coordinates support from the local and international development partners and facilitates integration of refugeesand host communities in its region.

2.      Given the poor financial resource of the regional government and the influx of the Eritrean migrants, support from the international development partners is so critical and urgent.In addition, the international development partners should use other effective approaches (market led private sector development programs) and partners in the integration of Eritreans refugee and/ or creating economic opportunities for Eritreans and the host. REST, TWA, TDA as well as Adeday, Dedebit MFIs, etc. can serve as a potential partners to enhance the socio-economic integration of the Eritrean refugees in Tigray or other parts of Ethiopia. Particularly, REST has rich experience in mass repatriation and re-integration of Tegaru refugees back to Ethiopia/ Tigrayin the mid-1980s and has the potential toprevent existing crises efficiently.

3.      Eritrean Diaspora community should visit Tigray Region to witness about the exodus and grave situations of their citizens on the ground and do something to save their citizen and their beloved country. Side by side, the international community should work on alleviating the root causes of the influx and put its pressure on the Isayas’s government to undergo political and socio-economic reforms, improve domestic governance, provide freedom to its citizens, and abide by the rule of law as well as create an enabling environment for refugees to return home safely and in dignity.



1.       UNHCR Factsheet, May 2019.

2.       UNHCR (2018). Global Trends: Forced Displacement.

3.       SiddharthChatterjee, 2019.Sharing the Burden of Refugees; the World Can Do Better, IPS, NAIROBI, Kenya.

4.       CIA World Factbook, 2019.

5.       Ibid.

6.       Sources: Heritage Foundation for Economic Freedom Index and Freedom House for Global Freedom Index.

7.       World population review. Also available at https//

8.       Ibid.

9.       MuluGetachew(2018). Moving in the face of uncertainty: the life of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa University, October 2017.

10.    Eritrea Digest, Eritrea-state of the Nation, May 2019

11.    WB (2018). A skills survey for refugees in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

12.    UNHCR, Registration Unit Author: UNHCR Ethiopia, Information Management Feedback:

13.    Eritrea-state of the Nation,, May 22, 2019.

14.    WB (2018). A skills survey for refugees in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

15.    Samuel Hall Consulting (2014), Living out of Camp: Alternatives to Camp-based Assistance for Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia, commissioned by the NRC

16.    The total population of the two woredas is 314,272 as of 2017 (i.e., 155,741 in Asgede-Tsimbila and 158,531 in Tselemtiworedas. (Source: CSA, 2013. Population Projection of Ethiopia for All Regions AtWereda Level from 2014 – 2017, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia).

17.    WB (2013). Economic and social Impact of the Syrian Conflict. (Poverty reduction and economic management department Middle East and North Africa Region) as quoted by ILO Response to Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon, 2016.


















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