ADDIS ABABA – Ethiopia has stopped granting automatic asylum to Eritreans entering the country. The United Nations and aid groups say the previously unannounced policy change, which went into place about three months ago, put Eritreans trying to flee the country at the mercy of unscrupulous human smugglers.
For years, Ethiopia had an “open-door” policy towards refugees from countries such as South Sudan and Eritrea, earning it widespread acclaim among international donors.
But according to the United Nations and humanitarian aid groups, Ethiopia changed its policy in late January without making an official announcement. The government no longer offers automatic asylum for Eritreans trying to flee their home country.
The Ethiopian Agency for Refugees and Returnee Affairs told donors and aid groups earlier this month that the previous approach resulted in a “high influx of unaccompanied minors, illegal migrants and others who do not fulfill the criteria laid [out] for refugee status determination under the international instruments,” according to a letter seen by VOA dated April 9.
Activists and aid groups say the new policy limits options for Eritreans trying to avoid forced conscription into Eritrea’s national service program.
Ann Encontre, country representative for the U.N. Refugee Agency in Ethiopia, said that in some cases, Eritreans could be forced into trafficking networks that smuggle Eritreans north through Libya towards Europe.
“The concern is really underage children, minors, who don’t have documentation. Those are the ones who are at risk because they get caught up in trafficking, in smuggling, in these illegal movements towards Europe and elsewhere. All persons who come and who can be heard and their status is determined, and they have legal documentation while they are here, then that really mitigates the risk for them to be caught up in these nefarious activities,” she spoke to VOA via a messaging app.
Officials at both the Agency for Refugees and Returnee Affairs and the Prime Minister’s office declined to comment.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki struck a deal in 2018 to end the decades-long conflict between the two nations. Since that accord, the two leaders have met on a regular basis to discuss enhancing their bilateral ties.
For Bereket Zemuy, a refugee from Eritrea and spokesperson for the Eritrean Refugees University Graduates and Students Association, anyone who is willing to flee their home in Eritrea is doing so because they feel their lives are at risk.
“Every single Eritrean family is being affected by the dictator system of the country. So whoever is trying to escape and flee their own home country, they are just coming in fear of their own lives, even those unaccompanied minors, even those families, whoever. Those unaccompanied minors, once they get back home they will be considered as traitors.”
Beyond its new refugee policy, Ethiopia also has a plan to shut down the Hitsats Refugee Camp in the Tigray region, which is home to 10,000 Eritrean refugees.
Encontre said closing the Hitsats cap during the coronavirus pandemic was not advisable, saying its residents could inadvertently spread the virus.
Despite Ethiopia having locked down all land borders to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the U.N. has seen around 2,000 asylum seekers enter Ethiopia from South Sudan in recent weeks.