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Kneeling at the Altar of Isayas

Kneeling at the Altar of Isayas

By Elias Dawit 04-30-20


The Ethiopian Prime Minister’s decision to close Hitsas, one of four, Eritrean refugee camps located in northern Tigray, raises fundamental questions about the means and motives of all parties concerned—Prime Minister Abiy, Eritrean President Isayas and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Hitsas houses over 26,000 Eritreans who have fled Africa’s version of North Korea. Included in this number are over 1,600 Eritrean minors who have traded their childhood for a chance to escape the inevitable prison of indefinite national service. Hitsas, located in Tigray’s Shire district, is beset by conditions experienced by all four of the camps—lack of adequate food, water, sanitation and education. It is overcrowded and unaccompanied children are cared for by “refugee volunteers”—a cadre of people recruited to provide basic care for the children.

This is not a new plan. The Ethiopian government announced the closure in early January of this year and then again in March. According to the government’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), the purpose of the relocation is to consolidate the refugee camps given a decrease in funding at the beginning of the year.

But UNHCR disagrees, citing a 14% decrease in funds—too little to make a difference in providing services. Camp residents are given the option of transferring to one of the other camps in Tigray or requesting a permit to live and work outside of the camps.

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Why now, when the global COVID-19 pandemic has forced the government to declare a national emergency and cancel the upcoming elections, would the Prime Minister decide to close a refugee camp?

Context Matters

Ethiopia’s refugee population from Eritrea are housed in four camps located in Tigray. This has made strange bedfellows for the people of Eritrea and the people of Tigray. The break in the stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea has resulted in a peculiar, yet at the same time familiar, relationship between Eritreans and. Once family, neighbors and compatriots and thenlaterenemy combatants, the open border created a situation where the people in Tigray who bore the brunt of the war now bear the brunt of the peace.

In the beginning, Eritreans streamed across the border into Tigray to reunite with lost family and friends, to re-establish trade and, for many, simply to flee the confines of Eritrea’s police state. The euphoria of reconciliation was replaced by the realization that many Eritreans were not returning home. Tigray was now host to the neighbors they had fought twenty some years ago.

At the same time, the tensions between the regional government in Tigray and the federal government were at an all time high. The machinations that took place that led to the downfall of the TPLF leadership within the EPRDF and the subsequent formation of the Prosperity Party has led both sides to a state of siege. The federal government has accused the regional government of undermining its authority. The regional government has accused the federal government of attempting to destroy its leadership and choke its economy.

The “no war, no peace” situation may have ended between Ethiopia and Eritrea but is now a feature of the relationship between the regional state and the federal government.

President Isayas and the TPLF

President Isayas has made no secret of his disdain for the TPLF. In an interview that took place in February of this year, he said ““There never was a border dispute with Ethiopia, the war was orchestrated by TPLF Junta, bolstered up by external henchmen to further their agenda. “

Isayas has expressed time and time again that, despite the peace, the TPLF poses a grave threat to the people of Eritrea. In his view, the Tigrayans are building refugee camps in collaboration with UNHCR to lure Eritreans, particularly young people, to flee the country.

He has said, “Refugees [Eritrean refugees] should not come back if they don’t have money.” He could not have been any clearer.

Why would President Isayas want the camps closed?

Isayas Afewerki has made a Faustian bargain to trade Eritrea’s well-being for his quest to destroy the TPLF. It is a one-sided bargain. So, it comes as no surprise that the Eritrean President is using Eritreans, already viewed as detritus, as a weapon against his enemy. For Isayas, the disruption caused by tens of thousands of people released from the camps into Tigray is a win for him. Like the American President, he cannot see beyond himself—it is the move of a narcissist.

The fact that the country is threatened by the transmission of the COVIOD-19 virus is a bonus. If former camp residents can facilitate the transmission, so be it for Isayas. The stress on Tigray’s public health system along with the economic consequences of tens of thousands of people competing for food, shelter and public goods will have the desired effect of bringing down the TPLF—in the mind of Isayas.

Prime Minister Abiy and the TPLF

Why would Ethiopia’s Prime Minister make his own Faustian bargain with the Eritrean President? It seems very clear by now that opening the border with Tigray was meant to weaponize the peace against the TPLF with collateral damage directed at the Tigrayan people for their continued support of the party.

At this point, it appears as if Isayas is calling the shots in their shared goal of toppling the TPLF and weakening the Tigrayan regional government.

Ethiopia’s laws on refugees are some of the most humanitarian in the world—allowing camp residents to live outside, work and, for those eligible, attend the universities. Refugees are allowed to register births and receive drivers’ licenses.

It came as a surprise, then, that the Prime Minister’s decided to close the camp—except maybe it was no surprise given the relationship between the two leaders and their shared goal of dismantling the TPLF. 

The options for the residents of Hitsas are equally undesirable . The two camps where they could register, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, are beset by the very same conditions causing suffering for the people in Hitsas—inadequate food, shelter, water and sanitation. The option to leave the camp and find work and a place to live has its own set of formidable challenges far beyond the reach of anyone without a support system.

For the unaccompanied children, there has been no information forthcoming from the Prime Minister’s office about their fate. Will the children simply be transferred to another camp with inadequate food, shelter, water and sanitation? What is the longer-term solution to their situation? How long will they remain in these inadequate camps? At eighteen years old, will they be released from the camps with little education, no job training and no place to go?

In January, without any official announcement, the Prime Minister decided to stop automatically granting asylum to Eritrean refugees.

Here is what the Ethiopian Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs. (ARRA) had to say about the policy allowing Eritreans automatic asylum, according to the Voice of America, “[the policy resulted] in a high influx of unaccompanied minors, illegal migrants and others who do not fulfill the criteria for refugee status determination under the international instruments.”

This abrupt turnaround, lacking the same transparency as the alleged border agreement with Isayas, creates even more danger for unaccompanied children. With no documentation, unaccompanied children from Eritrea run the risk of human trafficking from the smugglers promising a route to Europe through Libya. 

A shift in the language—once refugees now unaccompanied minors, illegal migrants and others”—has simply erased decades of policy that recognized the persecution of the Eritrean people by their government.

A shift in the policy will have disastrous consequences for both Tigrayans and Eritreans—two groups of people that will suffer the collateral damage of this Faustian bargain.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

The UNHCR is caught in the middle of two leaders with nefarious motives. For years, Isayas Afewerki has accused UNHCR of colluding with the Ethiopian government to lure young Eritreans to flee the country. UNHCR is just another international organization identified by Isayas as the cause of Eritrea’s problems.

UNHCR, according to its mandate, is responsible for providing, on a non-political and humanitarian basis, international protection to refugees and seek permanent solutions for them.

So, what can UNHCR do when the government follows through on its decision to close Hitsas and maybe all four of the camps?

The former camp residents will need financial support until they become self-sufficient through employment. By supporting Eritreans while local people struggle, UNHCR could be creating tensions between refugees and host communities. This would make UNHCR into an unwitting partner with the two leaders in their attempt to destabilize Tigray. Moreover, this situation could last quite a while given the constraints in income generation activities in Tigray

UNHCR could press the case with the Ethiopian Prime Minister that Eritreans prima facie face persecution by their government. It is more than likely, however, that the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s political interests override the well-being of Eritreans and Tigrayans.


It is true that states hosting a significant number of refugees bear costs—security, economic stresses and their relationships with neighboring states. In Ethiopia, it is Tigray bearing the costs of Eritrean refugees, not the rest of Ethiopia. It is an open secret that Isayas has sent soldiers posing as refugees into Tigray. Tigray also bears the burden of providing public services for  those refugees residing in the towns and bears the risk of social discontent as well.

The lack of transparency in the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s policy change bears scrutiny both inside Ethiopia and outside Ethiopia. Neither Eritreans nor Tigrayans should be pawns in this political chess game based on an obsession of two people in leadership roles who fear—what do they fear?

What will be the status of refugees released from the camps? What kind of documents will they be issued? When this new policy is implemented, is there a phased approach or will it happen all at once? What are the obligations of the Ethiopian government once the camp is closed? What will happen to those denied asylum? Will they be sent back? Refoulement is against the convention signed by the Ethiopian government. These are all questions that are raised that have not been answered.

Prime Minister Abiy, once touted as a great reformer, now appears to kneel down at the altar of Isayas. He needs to stand up.




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