Cleric Appeals for Safety of Missing Eritreans, Refugees in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia.

An Eritrean Cleric known for his ministry with refugees and migrants crossing from North Africa to Europe is appealing for the safety of arrested people and Eritrean refugees in conflict-ridden Ethiopia’s Tigray region amid reports of disappearance.

In a Tuesday, December 15 report obtained by ACI Africa, Rome-based Fr.Mussie Zerai says his local sources have confirmed that Eritrea forces on the border with Tigray have arrested and taken away around a hundred people of the Irob ethnic group, who live on both sides of the inter-State border.

“Their fate is not known nor the reason for their arrest. The only certainty is that of their disappearance even though they played no role in the context of the conflict in Tigray,” Fr. Mussie says referencing the members of the Irob ethnic group.

A similar fate has affected Eritrean refugees living in other Ethiopian cities including the capital, Addis Ababa, the Cleric who was ordained a Priest in 2010 bemoans in the December 15 report by Agenzia Fides, the information service of the Vatican's Propaganda Fide.

He explains, “The Ethiopian security forces have organized several bus convoys to take these people to refugee camps in Tigray. Hundreds of people who fled the oppressive regime of Asmara have been gathered in refugee camps in an area that is not yet fully pacified.”

“They are risking their lives, that is certain,” he says in reference to the Eritrean refugees and adds, “This is why we are launching an appeal so that they are taken to safety and, above all, not to be repatriated to Eritrea, where they would be exposed to reprisals and torture".

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

Fr. Mussie who is in contact with Tigrayan Priests says forcing the Eritrean refugees to return to Eritrea means exposing them to punishment by the oppressive regime of President Afewerki, which interprets the refugees’ escape to Ethiopia as an accusation of dictatorship on the world stage. 

As the conflict pitting the federal government of Ethiopia against the Northern Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) continues, the inhabitants of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle are still not safe despite the area being under the control of Ethiopian forces, the native of Eritrea’s capital, Asmara notes.

He explains, “Gangs of local criminals carry out raids by ransacking health centers, stores, and warehouses. The Ethiopian military themselves carry out continual searches. If they find valuable material (rings, necklaces, etc.) they seize them.”

“If they find weapons, photos or flags of the TPLF, arrests are carried out. People do not feel safe,” Fr. Mussie who was nominated for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize further says.

With reports indicating that TPLF forces have retreated to the region’s mountains, Fr. Mussie says that the fighting is far from over as "The Tigrayans are a proud people and will continue to fight.”

“Those in charge of the TPLF and the main body of their troops are surely hiding on the heights. They know these areas well. They fought there for years, first against the dictator Mengistu Hailè Mariam and then against the Eritreans,” the Cleric says in the December 15 report.

He continues, “I fear that the voice of arms will continue to resonate for years to come in these valleys."

Fr. Mussie’s appeal comes amid reports that the fate of Bishop Tesfaselassie Medhin, his Priests and over a hundred Religious from the Eparchy of Adigrat, which covers Tigray region, is still unknown due to the continued communication blackout in the region.

“The only indirect communication that can be attributed to the Bishop is a letter sent to some collaborators, which dates back to 23 November,” a December 14 report by Agenzia Fides indicates.

In the letter, Bishop Medhin referred to the difficult humanitarian situation in Tigray, where medicines, food, fuel and all essentials are lacking, the report adds.

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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
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]