Interrupted Assistance Posing Multiple Threats to Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia: Cleric

The “sudden interruption” of assistance to Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia amid the ongoing violent conflict in Tigray region is posing multiple threats to hundreds of thousands of Eritreans, a Catholic Cleric known for his ministry with refugees and migrants crossing from North Africa to Europe has said.

In a news report published Thursday, December 3, Eritrean-born Fr. Mussie Zerai highlights two threats to which Eritrean refugees are currently exposed, that of repatriation and their very livelihood.

"Apart from armed clashes, two threats are looming in the refugee camps: that of forced repatriation to Eritrea and enormous livelihood difficulties due to the sudden interruption of all forms of assistance and supplies, including the most essential goods,” Fr. Mussie says.

Ethiopia is home to about 769,000 Eritrean refugees fleeing persecution by the authoritarian regime of President Isaias Afewerki.  Out of that number, 96,000 Eritreans are in the conflict-ridden Tigray region, which borders Eritrea.

According to reports, about 6,000 Eritrean refugees living in Shimelba and Hitsats, two of the four camps in Tigray’s Shire town, have been abducted at gunpoint and forcibly repatriated to their home country.


The operation was reportedly carried out by Eritrean forces who entered the region with permission from the Ethiopia’s army.

In the December 3 report by Agenzia Fides, Fr. Mussie describes the incident as "basically, a real mass deportation, whose victims risk becoming ‘desaparecidos’, impossible to find.”

During the abduction, the Rome-based Cleric explains, “all the registers of the UNHCR have been destroyed, so as not to leave any trace of the camp guests or in any case to make searches extremely difficult.”

“Ethiopia is obliged to guarantee the safety and freedom of these people,” Fr. Mussie says in reference to Eritrean refugees who were forcibly repatriated and adds, “All refugees are considered by the Eritrean government as 'traitors' and 'deserters'.”

Forcing the Eritrean refugees to return to Eritrea means exposing them to real reprisals including prison and death as punishment by the oppressive regime of President Afewerki, which interprets the refugees’ escape to Ethiopia as an accusation of dictatorship on the world stage, Fr. Mussie who is a native of Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, explains.

More in Africa

Difficult livelihoods for Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia because of the ongoing violent conflict in Tigray is another threat for his compatriots, Fr. Mussie says, adding that the crisis has halted the frequent supply of humanitarian aid to the semi-autonomous region where the refugees call home.

Since November 4 when the conflict pitting the federal government of Ethiopia against the local authorities of the country’s Tigray region started, access to the area (Tigray) has been blocked and communication cut off.

Various aid organizations and the UN have been appealing for humanitarian access to the city to enable them deliver relief supplies to the people who number about six million.

However, on Thursday, December 2, the leadership of the UN announced that it had reached an agreement with the Ethiopian government to allow “unimpeded, sustained and secure access” for humanitarian aid to parts of Tigray that are under its control.

In the wake of the additional threats, the Eritrean Cleric who was nominated for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize “strongly demands urgent interventions” from all the main international institutions particularly the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU) as well as the Addis Ababa government.


The “three priority objectives” of the interventions should be to verify the validity of the news of forced repatriation to Eritrea of thousands of refugees and, in this case, to intervene with the utmost speed and firmness, Fr. Mussie says in the December 3 report by Agenzia Fides, the information service of the Vatican's Propaganda Fide.

The interventions should also strive to organize humanitarian channels that allow the transfer to other states of the thousands of refugees who have found themselves involved in the war against their will, he says.

The Eritrean Cleric also calls for immediate reopening of the borders of Tigray to humanitarian aid.