Cleric Highlights Plight of Eritrean Refugees: Rejected, Exploited, Prostituted, Deprived

Eritrean refugees protest conditions in Libyan detention.

A Rome-based Eritrean Cleric known for his ministry with refugees and migrants crossing from North Africa to Europe has highlighted the plight of Eritrean refugees in neighboring Ethiopia who, he says, have been rejected and become “victims of exploitation, prostitution and deprivation.”

“Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia run the risk of being repatriated. The government of Addis Ababa no longer considers them in need of humanitarian protection,” Fr. Mussie Zerai has been quoted as saying in a September 10 report by Agenzia Fides.

Fr. Mussie, a native of Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara, adds, “Ethiopia no longer plans to welcome women, children and men fleeing the Asmara regime in refugee camps (unless they are somehow linked to the Eritrean armed forces).”

A landlocked country, Ethiopia is home to an estimated 769,000 Eritrean refugees fleeing persecution by the authoritarian regime of President Isaias Afewerki. The regime is characterized by indefinite forced national service, forced labor, and unlawful detention among other practices that manifest human rights violations.

A recent change of Ethiopia’s refugee policy has exacerbated the plight of Eritrean refugees in the country so that they seem no longer welcome to stay.

In April, Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) announced that it will no longer grant “prima facie” refugee status to Eritreans entering the country, contrary to previous policy, which granted them the right to stay.

The head of ARRA also announced the narrowing of criteria for offering asylum to Eritreans, with applicants expected to prove “a personal fear of persecution based on political or religious action or association or military position.”

Affected refugees, aid agencies as well as the UN have opposed the ongoing plans by the Ethiopian government to close Hitsats refugee camp. The camp, according to UNHCR, is home to 26,652 Eritrean refugees including 1,600 unaccompanied children.

The scheduled closure of the refugee camp, Fr. Mussie says, has produced many Eritrean urban refugees without any form of protection, rights or basic needs, thus exposing them “to all forms of exploitation and abuse.” 

The most vulnerable people “are women and minors, especially unaccompanied minors, many left to themselves, with the risk of ending up victims of sexual predators, reduced to slavery work,” the Priest nominated for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize says.

He further notes that the situation has increased desperation among the Eritrean refugees making them vulnerable to human trafficking, and at the same time increasing their exodus to Sudan and Libya in search of better opportunities.

“Eritreans are thus victims of exploitation, prostitution and deprivation,” Fr. Mussie who fled to Italy at the age of 14 says in the Agenzia Fides report.

In his considered opinion, the “delicate situation” facing the Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is a consequence of the 2018 peace agreement, which ended two decades of “frozen war” between the two Horn of Africa nations.

“What was hoped could be an agreement capable of guaranteeing peace and development in the region, is in fact turning into a nightmare for many Eritreans who cannot return to their homeland,” the Eritrean Cleric who was ordained a Priest in 2010 bemoans in the September 10 report.

On behalf of the Eritrean refugees, Fr. Mussie appeals to the Ethiopian government “to respect the international obligations deriving from its adherence to the conventions that protect the rights of children and the rights of refugees."

"We ask the European Union to invest resources in order to welcome these Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia with dignity. Otherwise the exodus to Europe will increase, with the sad death toll in the desert and in the Mediterranean Sea,” the Cleric cautions.


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ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
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