Ethio-Eritrea: Ethiopia: No Border Wall for Ethiopia, Rather an Open Door – Even for Its Enemy

11 mins read
Photo: James Jeffrey/IPS
Eritrean soldiers – now deserters – arriving at the Adinbried entry point.

Adinbried — It’s one thing to read about the exodus of souls flowing out of Eritrea, it’s quite another to look into the tired eyes, surrounded by dust and grime, of a 14-year-old Eritrean girl who’s just arrived on the Ethiopian side of the shared border.

She is carrying a scruffy plastic bag. Inside are a few clothes, an orange beaker, and a small torch whose batteries have nearly run out.

With her are four men, two women and five younger children, all of whom crossed the Eritrea-Ethiopia border the night before. Ethiopian soldiers found them and took them to the town of Adinbried.

The compound of simple government buildings where they were dropped off constitutes a so-called entry point, one of 12 along the border. It marks the beginning of the bureaucratic and logistical conveyor belt to assign asylum status to those arriving, before finally moving them to one of four refugee camps designated for Eritreans in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

“It took us four days traveling from Asmara,” a 31-year-man among the group says about their trek from the Eritrean capital, about 80 kilometres north of the border. “We travelled for 10 hours each night, sleeping in the desert during the day.”

In February 2017, 3,367 Eritrean refugees arrived in Ethiopia, according to the Ethiopian Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA). There are around 165,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in Ethiopia, according to the UN refugee agency.

Ethiopia’s open-door policy is in marked contrast to the strategies of migrant reduction increasingly being adopted in many Western societies.

But it appears the Ethiopian government is willing to treat ordinary Eritreans differently.

“We differentiate between the government and its people,” says ARRA’s Estifanos Gebremedhin. “We are the same people, we share the same blood, even the same grandfathers.”

Before Eritrea gained independence, it was Ethiopia’s most northern region. On both sides of today’s border many people still share the same language–Tigrinya–as well as Orthodox religion and cultural traditions.

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Shimelba was the first Eritrean refugee camp to open in 2004. It now houses more than 6,000 refugees. About 60 percent of its population come from the Kunama ethnic group, one of nine in Eritrea, and historically the most marginalised.

“I have no interest in going to other countries,” says Nagazeuelle, a Kunama who has been in Ethiopia for 17 years. “I need my country. We had rich and fertile land, but the government took it. We weren’t an educated people, so they picked on us. I am an example of the first refugees from Eritrea, but now people from all nine ethnic groups are coming.”

Discussion among refugees in Shimelba camp of governmental atrocities ranges from accusations of genocide against the Kunama, including mass poisonings, to government officials shopping at markets and then shooting stall owners due to disagreements over prices.

“The world has forgotten us, apart from the U.S., Canada and Ethiopia,” says Haile, an Eritrean in his fifties who has been a refugee for five years. He says his father and brother died in prison. “What is happening is beyond language, it is a deep crisis–so why is the international community silent?”

There are some, however, who argue the situation in Eritrea isn’t as bad as claimed. A UN report last year accusing Eritrea’s leadership of crimes against humanity has received criticism for being one-sided, failing to acknowledge Eritrea’s progress with the likes of providing healthcare and education, and thereby entrenching a skewed negative perspective dominant in policy circles and Western media.

“It is real, nothing is exaggerated,” says Dawit, a Shimelba resident of eight years. “We have the victims of rape, torture and imprisonment in our camp who can testify.”

About 50 kilometres south of Shimelba is Hitsats, the newest and largest of the four camps with 11,000 refugees, of whom about 80 percent are under 35 years of age.

“In Sudan there are more problems, we can sleep peacefully here,” says 32-year-old Ariam, who came to Hitsat four years ago with her two children after spending four years in a refugee camp in neighbouring Sudan.

Refugees say the Eritrean military launches missions into Sudan to capture refugees who have fled.

Ethiopia also hosts refugees from a plethora of other strife-torn countries. Its refugee population now exceeds 800,000–the highest number in Africa, and the 6th largest globally.

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“Ethiopia strongly believes that generous hosting of refugees will be good for regional relationships down the road,” says Jennifer Riggan, an associate professor of International Studies at Arcadia University in the US, and analyst of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia.

Others point out how there is also an increasing amount of money involved with refugees. The likes of the UK and Europe are providing Ethiopia with financial incentives to keep refugees within its borders–similar to the approach taken with Turkey–so they don’t continue beyond Africa.

Meanwhile, despite the apparent welcome given to Eritrean refugees, frictions remain.

“People recognise the shared culture and ethnic background, and that helps for many things, but there’s still distrust because of the 30-year-war [for independence],” says Milena Belloni, an anthropologist who is currently writing a book about Eritrean refugees. “There’s a double narrative.”

While both sides talk of the other as brothers, she explains, historically Eritreans have looked down on Tigrayans – based on them working as migrant labourers in Eritrea during its heyday as a semi-industrialised Italian colony – while Tigrayans viewed Eritreans as arrogant and aloof.

Either way, Ethiopia appears to be looking to better assimilate refugees by embracing the 2016 Leaders’ Summit on Refugees – pushed by former U.S. President Barack Obama – that called for better integration and education, employment and residency opportunities for refugees wherever they land around the world.

“Ethiopia’s response is to manage the gate, and figure out how it can benefit from these inevitable flows of people,” Riggan says. “I definitely think Ethiopia’s approach is the wiser and more realistic one.”

About 10 miles north of Adinbried the military forces of Ethiopia and Eritrea straddle the border, eying each other suspiciously through binoculars overlooking derelict military emplacements that serve as grim reminders of a former two-year war and ongoing fraught relations between the two countries.

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In 1998 Eritrea invaded the small and inconsequential-looking border town of Badme before pushing south to occupy the rest of Ethiopia’s Yirga Triangle, claiming it was historically Eritrean land.

Because despite the internationally brokered peace settlement that followed the 2000 ceasefire ruling Badme return to Eritrea, Ethiopia still occupies it – the government felt the Ethiopian public wouldn’t tolerate the concession of a now iconic town responsible for so many lost Ethiopian lives – and the rest of the Yirga Triangle jutting defiantly into Eritrea.

While Badme hasn’t changed much since those days – it remains a dusty, ramshackle town – it too is involved in current Eritrean migration.

“I crossed after hearing they were about to round people up for the military,” says 20-year-old Gebre at the entry point on the edge of Badme. “I wasn’t going to go through that – you’re hungry, there’s no salary, you’re not doing anything to help your country; you’re just serving officials.”

With Gebre are another 14 males ranging in age from 16 to 20 who crossed to avoid military service, as well as two mothers who crossed with two young children each.

“Life was getting worse, I had no work to earn money to feed my children,” says 34-year-old mother-of-four Samrawit, who left two older children in Eritrea.

She travelled with 22-year-old mother-of-two Yordanos, having met her at the Eritrean town of Barentua, about 50 kilometres north of the border, and the rendezvous point with their smuggler.

Neither knows how much the smuggler earned for driving them to the border and helping them across: payment was organised by their husbands living in Switzerland and Holland.

“I would like to make sure coming here is worth it before my elder two children come,” Samrawit says.


  1. Mr. James Jeffery! U schould know that ethiopia has not its own government but it has a black colonizer who schould be eliminated from east africa. Mr. Jefery you seem that you are paid by these backward tplf. Shame on u!!

  2. That ain’t surprise me!!! That is us, that glorious country of the Afars, Somalis, Oromos, Amharas, Tigrayans, a mosaic of more than 80 ethnic groups. You name one ethnic group that does not come to your aid if he/she sees you in dire need. Name one. I am not making this up. My unshakable claim is backed up by many outsiders who traveled through that country during the days of so-called ‘dark ages’. Didn’t those people just got declared the most welcoming people in the world, just or so ago? The ink has not dried up yet!!! Yes there were some stories of tragic improprieties happened in the past but those happened during civil wars and run away confusions associated with those destructive wars. That is why I am always proud of my people because they are the pride of the colored and there is nothing you can do about it. You hear me? Nothing, zilch, zero, goose egg, nada!!!! Case closed!!!!

  3. I think Ethiopia should give citizenship to Eritreans who apply as every where else in the world. Refugees are allowed to establish residence and eventually obtain citizenship in their adopted country and integrate to economic and social life. What’s the purpose of leaving Eritrea to live in a camp for ten or fifteen years? Waiting for change of government in Eritrea? What if it takes another twenty five years? Refugees resent lack of change in their lives and may not be good for Ethiopia if it does not do something on this issue.

  4. Eritrean refugee camps in Ethiopia are cash cow for the evil and tyrannical TPLF agents. For every dollar the international community such as UN and USAID spends on a refugee less than 5 cent goes to take care of the refugee’s need and more than 95 cents goes to the corrupt TPLF agents. That occurs in all refugee camps in Ethiopia including the newest for south sudan refugees. TPLF agents can’t wait to build another refugee camp. They want tension and instability to go on for a very long time in order to guarantee a constant flow of refugees (CASH COWS). The refugees are starved on a daily basic and live under one of the worst living conditions ever. Moreover, the identity of almost all the refugees is stolen at least once and given to relatives of TPLF agents or sold for the highest bidder. These well off and sometimes wealthy individual will use their new identity as a refugee in order to secure an immigrant visa to US and Europe. That is one of the main reason why the vast majority of the refugees stay in the camp for decades. Moreover, due to the cultured and linguistic affinity of Eritreans and tigray people, TPLF agents have an incentive to recruit them to their side since the tigray people are small in number and hated (especially the elite ones affiliated with the government) by every other ethnic group in Ethiopia.
    The vast majority of Eritrean refugees who come to Ethiopia are economic migrants. They leave Eritrea hoping to find better future in US or Europe. Ethiopia is just a stepping stone. Over 99% of them do not want to live in Ethiopia. Also, Ethiopia under the evil tyrannical TPLF which can’t feed over 20-30% of its people year after year for the past 26 year, does not have the resources, the economy and the ingenuity to handle not even a single refugee.
    Most of the economic and political problem in Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and South Sudan is due to the interference including military action in those countries by the evil tyrannical TPLF/EPDRF. Therefore, the solution to the eradication of refugee crisis in Ethiopia and the region is to completely destroy and overthrow the TPLF government.

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