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Djibouti: AHC Morjane expresses UNHCR's "deep preoccupation" over Ethiopians

Briefing notes

Djibouti: AHC Morjane expresses UNHCR's "deep preoccupation" over Ethiopians

15 July 2005

Following repeated UNHCR requests, Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane has written to the government of Djibouti urgently seeking information on three Ethiopian airmen who reportedly defected to Djibouti in a helicopter in early June. We are increasingly concerned that the men may have been forcibly returned to Ethiopia.

In a letter this week to Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Mahamoud Ali Youssouf, Mr. Morjane expressed UNHCR's "deep preoccupation" over the fate of the three Ethiopians - two pilots and an engineer. They reportedly flew their Ethiopian military helicopter to Djibouti sometime around June 10.

After learning of the defection in the third week of June, UNHCR's Djibouti office sent an initial note verbale to the government on June 26 seeking access to the three Ethiopians to determine whether they wanted to seek asylum. After receiving no reply, a follow-up letter was sent on June 30 by the director of UNHCR's Africa Bureau seeking "access to the three asylum seekers to verify whether they are entitled to international protection." At the same time, several direct contacts with the authorities - including meetings yesterday - were also sought by UNHCR in a so far unsuccessful effort to get clarification on what happened to the men. Meanwhile, there has been contradictory information on their fate, with some officials saying they were returned to Ethiopia, and others saying at least two of them remain in Djibouti.

"I would like to reiterate UNHCR's deep preoccupation regarding the situation of the three Ethiopian pilots who may intend to seek asylum in Djibouti where they recently arrived," Mr. Morjane stated in his letter to the government. "I am very concerned to see that UNHCR still has had no clear reply regarding these asylum seekers. I would highly appreciate your assistance in this issue because it will be essential so that UNHCR, in collaboration with the government of Djibouti, can find an appropriate solution in conformity with international refugee law."

Despite earlier indications from some government officials that UNHCR would be able to meet the Ethiopians, we have still not seen them and we are growing increasingly concerned that the pilots might have been returned to Ethiopia against their will. If such is the case, we would like to draw the attention of the Djibouti government to the principle of non-refoulement which is established in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Djibouti is a signatory. The Convention clearly prohibits expulsion or return of a refugee to a country where his or her life or freedom may be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion. The principle of non-refoulement applies by definition to any person requesting asylum, pending the full examination of their refugee claim.

Given UNHCR's long and positive relationship with the government of Djibouti, we hope the government will respond immediately to Mr. Morjane's urgent request.

It is also worth noting that another eight Ethiopian air force personnel defected in Belarus in early June and are currently being dealt with under that country's asylum system.