Eritrean Refugees

Shimelba 304

Eritrea: History, politics and displacement

Eritrea is a relatively small country in the north-eastern region of Africa. It is home to a population of about five million inhabitants and is socially and culturally diverse, comprising nine distinct ethnic groups. The main languages spoken in Eritrea are Tigre, Tigrinya and Arabic, and the people of Eritrea practice Christianity, Islam and Animism.

As with the rest of Africa, the modern nation-state of Eritrea came into being with the carving up of the continent into domains of influence by the European colonial empires. Eritrea was colonised by Italy in the late 1880s, and following the defeat of this colonial power in World War II, Britain assumed responsibility for administering Eritrea for a few years. Pending the implementation of a ruling on national self-determination, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia as an interim measure in 1952.

Insensitive to and dismissive of the wishes of the majority of the Eritrean people, Haile-Selassie’s imperial Ethiopia began to influence and exploit the federal arrangement to its own advantage. Ethiopia sought to tip the outcome of the approaching self-determination vote in favour of annexing Eritrea to Ethiopia. To achieve its ends, Ethiopia resorted to harassing, intimidating and perpetrating acts of violence against those who advocated for Eritrean independence. When Eritreans began to organise and challenge Ethiopia’s territorial ambitions, further repression and crackdowns followed. This culminated in the outbreak of the Eritrean armed struggle for independence on the 1st of September 1961.

Conflict and war triggered the first wave of Eritrean refugees. Initially, the displaced rural population swelled the ranks of refugees escaping the country. As the independence war intensified, more and more people from the urban centres joined the exodus. Flight mainly to the neighbouring country of Sudan, but also to the other surrounding countries, peaked in the late 1970s and during the entire 1980s, due both to the escalation of the war and natural disasters such as drought.

The experiences of refugees from the Eritrean War of Independence (1961-1991) were shaped differently depending on many factors, including the time and place of arrival and the asylum country’s prevailing political attitudes. In Sudan, for example, which has always been the “preferred” destination for the majority of Eritrean refugees, the fate of these refugees ranged significantly; many of the refugees ended up in the various refugee camps of eastern Sudan, others over time were granted permanent resettlement in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and still many more found ways of integrating into Sudan’s cities and towns. The greater number of Eritrean-Australian members of EAHA Inc. were former refugees who typically went through this refugee experience.

Following the end of the war, some Eritreans voluntarily returned to their country of origin (and in a very limited way through the UNHCR’s refugee repatriation schemes), whilst sizable portions of the refugees still remain scattered in the Sudan and other places.

Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1991 at the end of a costly thirty year war of independence. The first few years of Eritrean independence were marked by peace and national construction. During this period, Eritreans enjoyed a semblance of normal life and were hopeful and optimistic about the future. As allies who successfully fought against and prevailed over the brutal Mengistu Hailemariam dictatorship in Ethiopia, there was no doubt in most people’s minds as to the special and fraternal relationship that bound the former Ethiopian and Eritrean rebels, the post-1991 incumbent governments in Addis Ababa and Asmara respectively.

When Eritreans woke up in 1998 to the possibility of a looming war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, they could only dismiss the news of the military skirmish around the small border town of Badme as perhaps an unfortunate minor accident or development that would die out any minute. The last thing the people of Eritrea could think of now was renewed conflict with Ethiopia. They were to be proved wrong in their perceptions in the most tragic way. The border incident evolved into a serious conflict between the two neighbours. Over two years, military build-up on both sides of the border and non-stop saber rattling took place as both countries prepared and planned for what was to transpire as a final showdown and senseless display of military might.

In 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia launched a frightening war in which over 100,000 combatants from both sides perished in a matter of days, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Eritrean civilians who overnight became internally displaced or were forced to cross the border into Sudan as a second wave of refugees.

A third wave of refugees, which are still crossing the borders today, are a result of the Eritrean State’s subsequent repressions and abuse of power that further alienated the people from the government. In the last decade or so, countless numbers of Eritreans (in particular youth) were forced to flee their home country and entered Ethiopia and Sudan. In Ethiopia, a country which did not recognise Eritreans as refugees prior to the 1991 separation of Eritrea, new refugee camps were established to accommodate the new arrivals. In Sudan, on the other hand, the earlier story appears to be repeating as the new waves of refugees seem destined to endure a similar fate to their first generation cousins.

Current situation

Over the last forty years, more than one million Eritrean refugees have languished in exile abroad. In January 2010, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that there were 223,570 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.

The majority of Eritrean refugees have sought asylum in Sudan and Ethiopia (2005 UNHCR statistics estimate 88%), with the remainder in countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and Italy (UNHCR 2005).

Since 2000, there has been a steady increase in the number of Eritreans applying for refugee status under the UN Refugee Convention. Eritrea’s policy of indefinite military conscription, coupled with drought and poor economic opportunities, prompt some 1,800 people to cross into Sudan every month, according to UNHCR (IRIN 2009). Many more also cross into Ethiopia. The major refugee camps and centres where Eritreans have sought refuge are: Shagarab, Wadsherifey and Kassala in Sudan and Shimelba in Ethiopia. Due to the increasing numbers of Eritreans fleeing across the border, a new refugee camp at May’aini in Ethiopia was opened in 2008 to ease pressure on the more established camps.

Conditions in camps

The UN World Food Programme supplies the camps with food aid but refugees say it is not enough. In some camps, the small amount of maize given as food aid is further diminished by the lack of mills to grind this. Private mill operators charge almost half of the camp resident’s 15kg monthly ration to process the maize.

Education opportunities for children are also inadequate. According to UNHCR Africa Director George Okoth-Obbo, out of 15,000 children in the 12 camps in the east of Sudan, 6,000 do not get the chance for a primary education because schools lack the capacity to absorb them (IRIN 3 December 2009). In the remote border town of Kassala, home to many thousand Eritrean refugees, the schools have been in steady decline since the withdrawal of international NGOs and UNHCR. Teachers are paid a little as $22 a month, and schools are largely operating through community goodwill and donations from the Eritrean Diaspora.


Daniel S (2002). The Eritrean Refugee Crisis, MIT Student Essay and Photos.

UNHCR 2010 Regional Operations Profile – East and Horn of Africa: Eritrea

UNHCR 2005 Statistical Yearbook Country Data Sheet – Eritrea

IRIN (2009). Eritrea-Sudan: A forgotten refugee problem

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