Ethiopia: The Biggest African Refugee Camp No One Talks About
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Nov 29 2015 (IPS) – On a sunny November day in Addis Ababa the courtyard of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) centre is packed with people—some attend a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reception clinic, others get essential supplies, while students attend classes, and many simply play volleyball, table football or dominoes to pass the time.
Benyamin told IPS he came to Ethiopia from Yemen because practising his religion freely just wasn’t an option. After converting from Islam to the Jewish faith, he was put in a psychiatric hospital. “If I’d been sent to court I could have been put to death,” Benyamin adds phlegmatically.
Guilain, 35, from Guinea in West Africa, has lived in Ethiopia for 11 years, while two years ago his wife and daughter managed to enter the United States, where he hopes to join them—eventually.
“I miss them but I must keep my heart intact, so I can’t think about it too much,” Guilain told IPS. While he remains in Ethiopia, Guilain has formed a seven-member band of fellow Guineans who practise in the JRS’s small music room. “The music gives me hope. I am happy when I come here; you see people enjoying themselves—it helps you to forget.”
Now in its 20th year, the JRS compound resembles a microcosm of Africa’s—and even the Middle East’s—troubles, hosting refugees from South Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Somalia, Eritrea, Yemen, Burundi and more. It aims to assist 1,700 people in 2015, Hanna Petros, the centre’s director, told IPS.
While many European countries bemoan the arrival of refugees, developing countries host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees, according to a 2013 UNHCR Global Trends report. Ethiopia hosts about 680,000 refugees, the largest number of any African country.
Often these countries already struggle to respond to the needs of their own populations and are reluctant to allow refugees to study, work or move freely within their territories.
There is an increasing awareness in the international community that while global inequality continues, and failed states fester, refugees will continue moving to perceived better alternatives—with numbers quite possibly increasing, unless those inequalities and conditions that create refugees are dealt with effectively.
But there’s also increasing consensus that finding solutions to such complex and geographically dispersed problems could prove one of the world’s major vexations for the foreseeable future.
“You just have to accept you can’t help with everything,” a UNHCR worker at the JRS reception clinic, who has worked in Ethiopia for eight years, told IPS. “If you don’t accept that then you can easily get overwhelmed by it all. It’s basically like social work; you have to keep your emotions separate.”
Inside the JRS library, Ethiopian teacher Endrias Kacharo gives a lesson to teenage students on the values of leadership. “It helps them deal with their situations and being totally stuck, by thinking about what they can do and how to empower themselves,” Endrias told IPS.
Others, however, have clearly run out of patience, hence harsh words can accompany mention of Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, known as ARRA, and of the UNHCR.
“All they care about is their budgets; they don’t care about refugees,” a 33-year-old Congolese man, who fled to Ethiopia five years ago to escape fighting and government persecution of his minority Banyamulenge tribe, told IPS. “It’s a form of psychological killing living here because we aren’t allowed to work. We are hopeless.”
And there was more—talk of shady deals going on so Ethiopians can pose as refugees to get resettled in Europe, and doctors in Ethiopian hospitals told to give refugee patients limited medical assistance to preserve budgets.
Most refugees are more circumspect in their comments, visibly conscious of having to get by in a foreign land under the authority of another government, although such is the convoluted refugee system that even indigenous Ethiopians are caught up in it.
In a corner of the JRS compound is a small café run by Wude, one of her four grandchildren strapped to her back as she prepares numerous dishes for lunchtime. Outside, one of her eight children, 29-year-old Ababa, makes traditional Ethiopian coffee.
“I still want to go to America for the sake of my children,” Wube, an Ethiopian who was married to a Democratic Republic of Congo refugee who died after 40 years in Ethiopia awaiting resettlement, told IPS. Through the marriage, Wube and her children are still classed as refugees and therefore cannot be employed in Ethiopia due to current rules for refugees.
This conundrum is one example from many within the labyrinthine bureaucracy that refugees must attempt to navigate, and is why so many end up languishing in Ethiopia for years, if not decades.
Ethiopia’s little appreciated refugee situation is given an added twist by the fact that, despite glacial relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea never thawing since the end of their catastrophic 1998-2000 war, thousands of hosted refugees are Eritreans fleeing a country that a 2015 United Nations report describes as ruled by fear.
The May Aini, Adi Harush and Hitsats refugee camps, located in the northwest of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, close to the borders with Eritrea and Sudan, are some of the largest refugee camps in the country, housing thousands of Eritreans; others manage to get to Addis Ababa.
Mihret came to Addis Ababa after making a night-time border crossing from Eritrea into Ethiopia guided by her uncle, all the while hearing frightening sounds, she told IPS, that were likely Eritrean military border patrols who reportedly operate with a shoot-to-kill policy.
A qualified doctor, Mihret despaired of Eritrea’s enforced military service controlling her life. After two years in Addis Ababa she finally made it to a north European country by obtaining a legitimate visa—an exception to the rule.
Often young, highly skilled and entrepreneurial, what many refugees say they find unbearable is the hopelessness of their situation, which stems from an international asylum system structured around the assumption that most conflicts are short-term and refugees will eventually return home.
But the reality is often quite different. Rather than emergencies, it is chronic political and economic crisis in the likes of Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Palestine, Myanmar and Eritrea fueling primary global refugee flows, according to the 2013 UNHCR Global Trends report.
Such is the scale and diversity of challenges faced by many countries’ populations, that distinctions between refugees and economic migrants become blurred. Hence the argument for a new terminology of “survival migrant”, someone falling outside the internationally recognized definition of a refugee but, nevertheless, fleeing very serious socio-economic rights deprivations.
For now, many of these individuals, having no passport and coming from countries often labeled high risk for illegal migration, find themselves cut off from obtaining study visas and work permits for developed countries, and condemned by strict national migration rules to remain as refugees for years in the likes of Ethiopia.
Hence so many risk so much, with every February seeing an exodus of refugees, especially Eritreans, from Addis Ababa heading to Sudan in the hope of continuing northwest and eventually reaching Europe. March is the right month, according to popular wisdom here, to start the journey from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, to Libya. The Sahara desert is not too hot and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea will be calmer by April than during the winter.
But there’s no mitigating the dangers of dealing with human traffickers, rickety boats and the simple capriciousness of the elements. Eritreans accounted for the majority of the 3,000 people who drowned in the Mediterranean this year, humanitarian agencies estimate.
So not everyone takes the gamble, choosing to remain at the mercy of the international asylum system.
“At least I’m free to practice my faith here,” Samrawit, 30, a Pentecostal Christian who teaches English classes at the JRS, and who seven years ago also walked at night across the border from Eritrea into Ethiopia, told IPS. “But when you can’t even earn a living, such freedom really counts for nothing.”
(Note: names of Eritreans have been changed.)
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- In the Jesuit Refugee Service compound people, mainly women, cue to get allocations of blankets, rice and cooking oil. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS