(irinnews) ADDIS ABABA, 5 August 2011 (IRIN) – More and more Eritrean refugees, mostly educated young men, continue to arrive in Ethiopia, with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, expressing concern over the rising numbers.
“Most say they left their country [to avoid] a prolonged military conscription, but they also say they want to join their families on the road,” Moses Okello, UNHCR’s representative in Ethiopia, told IRIN.
Ethiopia hosts at least 61,000 Eritrean refugees.
UNHCR has described the latest Eritrean refugee influx as a “silent crisis”, coming at a time when the Horn of Africa has been gripped by the worst drought in 60 years.
Okello said those arriving were in good condition compared with thousands of Somali refugees in Ethiopia’s Dolo Ado area in the southeast.
On average, 1,300 Eritreans leave their country for Ethiopia every month, according to government statistics.
“The trend seems non-stop and yet increasing,” according to Ayalew Aweke, the deputy director of the government’s Administration for Refugees and Returnee Affairs (ARRA).
Ayalew said: “We are receiving additional refugees of between 1,200-1,500 every month. Most of them are unaccompanied youngsters.”
UNHCR, however, says about 800 to 1,000 Eritreans reached Ethiopian refugee camps in Shimelba, Maiaini and Adi-Harush in Tigray Regional state every month.
Ayalew said: “UNHCR’s figure does not include the number of refugees coming [through] other entry points from the usual 17 [official] ones.”
According to ARRA, some Eritreans come to Ethiopia after passing through other countries such as Sudan and Djibouti.
Kisut Gebregziabher, the UNHCR spokesman in Ethiopia, said: “At the moment, we are counting those that are screened and have refugee status in refugee centres. But we expect to have a relatively acceptable number, once they reach camps and get their status.”
However, Ayalew said to ascertain the exact number of Eritrean refugees was difficult because most of the refugees are nomadic and ethnic Afar. The Afar are also found in Ethiopia.
“They tend to live with the host community rather than coming to refugee centres,” Ayalew said.
Gebregziabher said UNHCR had noticed an “unusual trend” among the new arrivals of Eritrean refugees.
“We usually see women and children dominating when it comes to refugees; the case of Eritrean refugees is different, they are mainly young, educated, single men.”
“We are receiving additional refugees of between 1,200-1,500 every month”
He added that most of them came from an urban background, with high-school diplomas and above.
Gebregziabher attributed the shift to their trying to avoid conscription.
During a visit in July, the UN Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, Erika Feller, said she was “alarmed and shocked” to see “a sea of young faces” and “youth denied for so many people”.
According to ARRA statistics, more than 55 percent of these Eritreans are between 18 and 30 years old.
“Most of them are not ready to spend time in refugee camps and that is why we are working on an out-of-camp policy aggressively,” Ayalew said.
In 2010, the Ethiopian government allowed Eritrean refugees to live in urban areas, a move intended to improve their access to services. The policy allowed more than 200 Eritrean students to continue their studies in Ethiopian universities.
“For this year, the same chance will be given to 700 students, after taking a proper entrance exam,” Ayalew said.
Gebregziabher said some of the Eritrean students would be entering universities through a cost-sharing agreement supported by UNHCR.
According to UNHCR, voluntary repatriation is not an option at the moment. Gebregziabher said the agency would pursue “resettlement as the only durable solution for Eritrean refugees. In fact, those who came before 2008 are expected to benefit from the resettlement programme offered by the United States,” he said.
In 2008, the US government agreed to receive 6,800 Eritrean refugees from various camps in Ethiopia.
“Over 2,000 Eritrean refugees have been resettled in the US so far,” Gebregziabher said. “This programme is expected to continue operating.”
According to Feller, resettlement placements offered by different countries were limited. However, she said the refugee agency would continue to advocate for an increase in resettlement opportunities.
Apart from the US, Canada, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand and Australia have shown interest in resettling Eritrean refugees.