Tiksa Negeri/ Reuters/ File
Eritrean refugees wait to get registered on arrival at the Indabaguna refugee reception and screening center in Tigrai region near the Eritrean border in Ethiopia in this February 9, 2016 file photo.

Instead of a wall, an open door: Why Ethiopia welcomes an enemy's refugees

Cultural similarities have helped Ethiopia absorb more than 160,000 refugees from Eritrea, despite a still-bitter border dispute. But the government has also put out the welcome mat for strategic reasons, at a time when many countries are doing the opposite.

When Yordanos and her two young children slipped safely across the Mereb riverbed between Eritrea and Ethiopia late one recent night, they thought the worst of their journey into exile was over. The smuggler had done his job, and they were safely over the border.

Then they heard the hyenas.

Yordanos and her children began to yell for help, their panicked calls fading into the solid darkness. Suddenly, she saw a group of Ethiopian soldiers coming towards them. The men comforted the young families, and then escorted them to the nearby town of Badme. “They were like brothers to us,” says Yordanos, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of reprisals from the Eritrean government against her relatives at home.  

In some regards, Ethiopia – and in particular this sliver of Ethiopia’s arid north – is the last place you might expect an Eritrean refugee like Yordanos to receive a warm welcome. In 1998, after all, an Eritrean invasion of this sleepy border town touched off a two-year war between the two countries that cost tens of thousands of lives and more than $4.5 billion, along with destroying most of the then-flourishing network of trade between the two countries. And before that conflict, Eritreans fought a 30-year civil war for independence from Ethiopia, which ended only in 1991.

Even today, the ashes of those conflicts still smolder. The internationally-brokered peace settlement ending the 1998-2000 war decreed that Ethiopia should give the town of Badme back to Eritrea, which claims it as historical land. But Ethiopia never did, and border clashes between the two countries’ militaries continue into the present. [Editor's note: This story has been edited to specify the area granted to Eritrea by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission in 2002.]

Still, Yordanos’ story is not uncommon. Fleeing enforced, indefinite military service, illegal imprisonment, and torture, about 165,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers currently live in Ethiopia, according to the United Nations. Upon arrival and registration, they are automatically granted refugee status, and the country continues to welcome more. In February of this year alone, 3,367 new Eritrean refugees arrived in the country, according to Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA).

“We differentiate between the government and its people,” says Estifanos Gebremedhin, the head of the legal and protection department at ARRA. “We are the same people, we share the same blood, even the same grandfathers.”

The reasons for that openness, indeed, owe much to shared history. As in many parts of Africa, colonialism sliced much of this region apart in illogical ways (though Ethiopia itself was never colonized), sowing political conflicts between members of the same community that have persisted to the present day. For much of the roughly 600-mile Ethiopian-Eritrean border, people on both sides share the same language – Tigrinya – as well as Orthodox religion and cultural traditions.

“It’s only the Eritrean government creating problems, not the people,” says Benyamin, a resident of Axum, a town in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, who didn’t give his last name. “I haven’t got relatives in Eritrea but many people here do. Some from the refugee camps go to the university here.”

But there may also be more strategic reasons for Ethiopia’s open-door policy, experts say.

“Ethiopia strongly believes that generous hosting of refugees will be good for regional relationships down the road,” says Jennifer Riggan, an associate professor of international studies at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, who studies Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia.

There’s also an increasing amount of money in hosting refugees, some highlight, as the international community tries to block secondary migration to Europe. One recent example was the joint initiative announced by Britain, the European Union, and the World Bank to fund the building of two industrial parks in Ethiopia to generate about 100,000 jobs, at a cost of $500 million, with Ethiopia required to grant employment rights to 30,000 refugees as part of the deal.

It might also be a way of countering international controversy about the Oromo protests and shoring up Ethiopia’s standing in the world, according to Milena Belloni, a researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, who is currently writing a book about Eritrean refugees. The protests, which roiled the country's largest region throughout 2016, have prompted a government crackdown that left hundreds of Ethiopians dead and sharply curtailed basic freedoms, according to human rights groups

Either way, Ethiopia’s approach is in marked contrast to the strategies of reducing migrant flows that are being adopted in much of the West, Dr. Riggan says.

“Ethiopia's response is to manage the gate, and figure out how it can benefit from these inevitable flows of people,” she notes. “I definitely think Ethiopia's approach is the wiser and more realistic one.”

After Yordanos, her children, and another mother and her two children who crossed with them were collected by the soldiers near Badme, they were taken into town and left at a so-called “entry point,” a cluster of disheveled government buildings. From there, refugees join the bureaucratic and logistic conveyor belt that assigns them asylum status and moves them to one of four refugee camps in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

There, relationships between refugees and locals do sometimes grow strained, particularly as both groups compete for scarce shared resources like firewood and cattle pastures. And many Eritrean refugees regard Ethiopia as only a stopover point on their journey to the West. In 2013, there was unrest in all four camps, with riots in two camps, Adi Harush and Mai Aini, when refugees demanded more opportunities for international resettlement and protested authorities' alleged corruption. 

“People recognize the shared culture and ethnic background, and that helps for many things, but there’s still distrust because of the 30-year-war [for independence], and mostly due to 1998-2000 border conflict and related mass displacement,” says Dr. Belloni. “There’s a double narrative.”

In addition to the camps, meanwhile, thousands more Eritreans live in Ethiopia outside the asylum system, both legally and illegally. About 650 miles south of the border, in the capital Addis Ababa, whole neighborhoods function as Eritrean enclaves, where the distinctive, guttural sounds of Tigrinya pour out of cafes with Italian-sounding names like Lattria Piccolo, a nod to Eritrea’s history as an Italian colony.

But even here, homesickness sometimes creeps in.

“Life is difficult here, it’s expensive, and people’s behavior changes here,” says Yonathon, an Eritrean former journalist living in the Mebrat Hail suburb of Addis Ababa, an Eritrean area. “You can’t replicate home.” 

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