Ethiopia Refugee Agency Disregards Camp Closure Concerns

Early in March, Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) announced a planned closure of Hitsats refugee camp. Hitsats is a camp in Northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region near the border of neighboring Eritrea. It is home to 26,652 Eritrean refugees including 1,600 unaccompanied children, according to UNHCR.

ARRA has said those in the camp will be moved to two other camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, both also in the Tigray region. The government has also said they will offer them the possibility to live outside of the camps in towns. However, many do not want to live outside the camps as those that settle in places like Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa often become dependent on aid.

In a letter sent to the United Nations (UN) at the end of March, those within the camp expressed their apprehension with the move. Other organizations have expressed similar concerns and called for the relocation to be stopped because of fear it will lead to spread of COVID-19 The UNHCR has also expressed these concerns and asked the government to stop the relocation.

Considering how fast a disease like COVID-19 can spread among places like refugee camps, with confined populations, moving people to different camps at this time is extremely unwise. The head of ARRA is not heeding these concerns and has insisted they can start with small numbers of people at a time.

Additional Changes to Ethiopia’s Refugee Policy

This move comes at the same time as other changes to Ethiopia’s refugee policy. On April 9, ARRA communicated that it will no longer offer “prima facie” refugee status to Eritreans entering the country. This is in contrast to Ethiopia’s previous policy, which automatically allowed Eritrean refugees a right to stay in the country. The head of ARRA has stated that the criteria for accepting asylum claims is being narrowed and now claimants are required to demonstrate “a personal fear of persecution based on political or religious action or association or military position.” Human Rights Watch states this change happened in late January and has excluded many, including unaccompanied children.

Ethiopia’s 2019 Refugees Proclamation recognizes the definition of refugees under both he 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Union Refugee Convention and allows for revocation of group refugee determination under certain conditions. These conditions include consultation with the UNHCR and the release of a directive informing the new criteria for registration, appeals process, and reasons for the change. Both these measures have not been taken and Eritrean asylum seekers are left without clear information on whether they will be able to be registered as refugees in the country.

Human Rights Watch sent ARRA a request to respond to these changes, but this request was not answered. Not giving refugees and aid agencies clear knowledge of the process and changes being made is detrimental. ARRA needs to conduct itself with transparency to allow for adequate protection.

The refusal to register many of these refugees, including unaccompanied children, means they are not entitled to protection services or allowed to live in refugee camps. This puts these individuals at great risk. Unaccompanied children are especially at risk, having no family members to try to help them access resources. Human Rights Watch states that under international standards, governments need to prioritize the asylum claims of children and offer them special care and protection. This is not being done.

This change comes two years after the signing of a 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The signing of this agreement led to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Instead of this leading to improvements within Eritrea, much has remained the same.

There is a universal conscription program where everyone, even some under 18, are required to serve for 18 months. This term is often extended and will last over ten years.

Human Rights Concerns

There are also severe restrictions on freedom of the press and freedom of expression throughout the country. In 2019, after the signing of the agreement, about 6,000 Eritreans arrived in Ethiopia to claim asylum every month. The UNHCR also has not changed its guidelines on the assessment of Eritrean asylum seekers saying that “until there is concrete evidence that fundamental, durable, and sustainable changes have occurred these guidelines should be maintained.”

The ARRA deputy director has stated that the closure of Hitsats camp is to “ensure efficient and effective use of available resources,” but given the surrounding political situation and Ethiopia’s changes to its refugee policy, many are sceptical.  Ezega mentions that many believe this is being done to satisfy the Eritrean government. Hitsats is close to its border and the Eritrean government sees these refugee camps “as breeding grounds for opposition against its rule.”