‘Down with Issayas! Down with Abiy!’

Nizar Manek and Natalia Paszkiewicz

The refugee camp at Hitsats, an hour’s drive through the mountains from the town of Shire, in the Ethiopian province of Tigray, consists of simple block structures with corrugated iron roofs. Skinny cows congregate in the shade of the buildings, oblivious to the humanitarian agency traffic lumbering past. Tigray lies along Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea, and Hitsats now accommodates at least 12,000 Eritreans, fleeing the regime in Asmara. Last August, during the rainy season, the number stood at 34,000. New refugees were arriving daily, following a 2018 peace deal between the two countries, which threatened to choke off prospective Eritrean asylum seekers.

Abiy Ahmed, the new Ethiopian prime minister, had rolled out a policy conceived under his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to bring Issayas Afeworki’s Eritrean regime in from the cold, after years of intermittent war. The Ethiopians also wanted to guard against the activities of opportunistic outsiders who had established military bases on the Red Sea littoral, in Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea.

Ethiopia and Eritrea opened their border briefly in September 2018, but by December Eritrea had closed it again. Ostensibly this was an attempt to clamp down on unregulated cross-border trade. At the same time, the Tigrayan elite, which dominated politics in Ethiopia for 25 years, and now finds itself marginalised by Abiy, was in the process of expanding its local paramilitary capacity. The build-up, itself in part a symptom of Tigray’s misgivings about Issayas’s regime, fuelled reciprocal mistrust in Asmara.

Since February, and on through the Covid-19 pandemic, Addis Ababa has been trying to close the camp in Hitsats and relocate people to two other overcrowded camps in Tigray. (Hitsats was established seven years ago to deal with the lack of capacity in the existing camps around Shire.) But the peace deal in 2018, which earned Abiy a Nobel Prize, means that prima facie asylum status for Eritreans is no longer on the cards. That doesn’t mean they don’t need it. One young army defector we spoke with had been imprisoned as a 14-year-old for three years after trying to dodge military conscription; his father was being held by the regime. Another told us he was incarcerated in an underground prison for six months after being caught trying to flee to Ethiopia. His brother, also in Hitsats, said he had been imprisoned and tortured on three occasions for ‘prohibited business activities’.

Issayas is a recluse, and rumours were circulating that he had had a stroke and been flown to Saudi Arabia, or indeed that he was dead. But on 3 May he paid a surprise visit to Ethiopia (wearing a face mask) and met with Abiy and his entourage. The rapprochement has left Eritrean refugees miserably entangled in a game of political rivalry between Abiy’s federal government, which is cosying up to the Eritrean leadership, and the Tigray provincial administration, which is helping exiled Eritrean opposition groups unofficially operating in its territory.

Senior cadres of one of the groups, the Eritrean Movement for National Salvation, have told us of military training camps at Adwa, twenty miles from the border, where there are apparently hundreds of defectors from the Eritrean armed forces. A representative of the Eritrean Liberation Front, whose leadership split in January, told us that Tigray has promised several dissident groups a ‘special budget’ to deal with Covid-19. Eritrea has reported a total of 39 cases, of whom 30 have recovered and none have died. Ethiopia has reported 187 cases, of whom 93 have recovered and four have died. There are four cases in Tigray, according to the provincial health bureau; none of them came from Eritrea. The Ethiopian government recently announced that up to four hundred people who entered Ethiopia from Eritrea and Djibouti were being placed in quarantine.

In March, refugees in Hitsats told us, a group of Tigrayans in uniform and Eritrean opposition militants entered the camp with pistols, trying to press-gang refugees into one of the armed Eritrean opposition groups in Tigray. They were told to chant: ‘Down with Issayas! Down with Abiy!’ The Tigray provincial government, at odds with both Asmara and Addis, finds it opportune to speak of its ‘blood ties’ with Eritreans: it does not want to follow Abiy’s policy and shut its doors to refugees from Eritrea, but has instead introduced medical screening at the border. Tigray declared a state of emergency towards the end of March, before the federal government. Eritreans were told to remain in the camp and wash their hands, but water is as scarce as before. There are no special provisions in case of an outbreak.

Last month, divisions among refugee committee members emerged after the chairman and vice chairman were promised an expedited resettlement by camp staff to encourage support for closure of the camp. Fighting broke out and stones were thrown. Refugees who oppose the closure are afraid of reprisals, and sleep in a different shelter each night. Before the peace deal, especially outspoken refugees were often forced to make false confessions and declare themselves ‘Eritrean spies’. Several were imprisoned at the end of March but released after a few days. Some want to be relocated elsewhere in Ethiopia, as insecurity heightens, along with fear of deportations.