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Young Eritreans in Ethiopia face future in limbo

News Stories, 21 July 2011

© UNHCR/K.Gebre Egziabher
Assistant High Commissioner Erika Feller and UNHCR Ethiopia Representative Moses Okello with a group of Eritrean unaccompanied minors in northern Ethiopia.

SHIRE, Ethiopia, July 21 (UNHCR) As the world focuses on the impact of the severe drought in East Africa, a silent crisis is brewing in a remote corner of Ethiopia. Hundreds of Eritreans are arriving here every month with claims of escaping open-ended military service and allegations of rights violations back home.

During a recent visit to the Eritrean refugee camps in northern Ethiopia, 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".

In addition to the large numbers of Somali and Sudanese refugees, Ethiopia is home to more than 48,000 Eritrean refugees mostly young, educated, single men. Between 800 and 1,000 more arrive every month. Among them are significant numbers of unaccompanied children. Some are as young as six years old, and are being taken care of by the oldest child in the group.

The continuous inflow of these highly vulnerable individuals far exceeds the coping capacity of existing facilities. Feller said the challenges were on a scale she had "never seen in my long years with UNHCR".

The Assistant High Commissioner and her delegation toured the registration centre last week and talked to new arrivals at Endabaguna, some 20 kilometres from the UNHCR office in northern Ethiopia's Shire area. Refugees at Maiaini and Adi-Harush camps pleaded with her to make their problems known to the world.

"We spent a quarter of our youth in an open-ended military service at home, and another quarter in a refugee camp," said a women's representative. "Should UNHCR allow our children to vegetate in a refugee camp like their parents?!"

Feller appreciated the frustrations of young refugees caught up in a situation that is in danger of being protracted. Eritrean refugees started coming to Ethiopia in the year 2000, which means that early arrivals have lived in a refugee camp for more than a decade.

"These are young people with a future who can't see their future," Feller said. "And here, the international community has to look at this problem imaginatively and invest in the future of these young people, not in their care and maintenance."

Voluntary repatriation is not an option at the moment and UNHCR has been using resettlement as the only durable solution for Eritrean refugees. Feller explained that resettlement placements offered by different countries were limited, but reassured them that UNHCR would continue to advocate to increase resettlement opportunities.

"Life in a refugee camp is tough," said an eight-year-old who arrived two months ago, adding that there is "not much incentive" for him to remain here for long.

Frustrated by the difficulties of camp life and the limited opportunities for self-reliance and post-secondary education, thousands of Eritrean refugees are moving on to third countries such as Sudan and Egypt en route to Europe or the Middle East, on often-dangerous journeys arranged by smugglers.

Urging consolidated action against this form of secondary movement, UNHCR's Feller said, "The international community should assist Ethiopia and international agencies like UNHCR to provide a real alternative to these people so that they don't put themselves at risk in the hands of smugglers."

By Kisut Gebre Egziabher in Shire, Ethiopia




UNHCR country pages

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Bonga camp is located in the troubled Gambella region of western Ethiopia. But it remains untouched by the ethnic conflicts that have torn nearby Gambella town and Fugnido camp in the last year.

For Bonga's 17,000 Sudanese refugees, life goes on despite rumblings in the region. Refugee children continue with school and play while their parents make ends meet by supplementing UNHCR assistance with self-reliance projects.

Cultural life is not forgotten, with tribal ceremonies by the Uduk majority. Other ethnic communities – Shuluks, Nubas and Equatorians – are welcome too, judging by how well hundreds of newcomers have settled in after their transfer from Fugnido camp in late 2002.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden


In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.


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