Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia: Where benevolence meets pragmatism

April 7, 2015–Eritreans are the fastest growing refugee population in Africa. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that over 70 Eritreans cross the border into Ethiopia per day. Ethiopia is now hosting over 93,000 Eritrean refugees. Why are they fleeing? The International Crisis Group (ICG) argues that Eritrea’s national service is to blame, calling it “a source of free, forced labor for ‘parastatal’ farms or companies directly in the hands of individual generals”. The International Labor Office (ILO) has labelled national service in Eritrea “forced labor,” prohibited under numerous ILO conventions.

Many of those fleeing Eritrea are unaccompanied minors who are trying to avoid national service. Doing so is fraught with danger as Eritrean soldiers at the border are ordered “to shoot, to kill.” Detention and torture are for those suspected to be planning to flee the country. The families of those who make it across the border into Ethiopia or Sudan are forced to pay an enormous fine of 50,000 nakfa or face detention themselves. Those deported back to Eritrea are known to disappear.

Once a part of Ethiopia, Eritrea became independent after decades of struggle against the Ethiopian monarchy and later the military Marxist regime known as the Derg. The war ended with the takeover by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and in 1995 a referendum in Eritrea heralded in an independent state. In 1998, Eritrea attacked Ethiopia and two years later, Ethiopia soundly defeated the once mighty Eritrean military.

In a highly unusual turnabout, Ethiopia has shown remarkable grace and generosity towards Eritrea’s youthful refugees. Unlike most countries where refugees are confined to camps in a state of perpetual inertia, Ethiopia has opened its arms to embrace a generation of youth who, if they had stayed in their country, might one day face their neighbors on the battlefield.  Once they step foot on Ethiopian soil, Eritrean refugees:

1) are met at the border and escorted to a place of safety;

2) freely interact with their host communities, celebrating traditional and religious holidays together;

3) live “out-of-camp,” allowing them to reunite with families and lead fully productive lives in Ethiopian communities;

4) attend universities on full government scholarships; and,

5) be granted asylum in an accelerated process that may only take up to a few hours.

This kind of benevolent pragmatism can only benefit both Eritreans and Ethiopians. Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia can avoid the dilemma of perpetual inertia and move forward in their lives–get an invaluable education and begin to build their professional skills. Ethiopia is showing the new generation of Eritrea a different side of their neighbors–contrary to the propaganda they grew up with that demonized their cousins across the border.

Strathink invites you to read the following article, “Hosting Refugees in Ethiopia,” and make up your own minds. The article looks at refugees from Eritrean, South Sudan and Somalia. Let us know what you think.

Hosting Refugees in Ethiopia







One Response to “Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia: Where benevolence meets pragmatism”

  1. G.P says:

    Romans 12:20 “If your enemy is hungry feed him, if he is thirsty give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head.” Eritreans ungrateful people and shed so much blood–for over 30 years, but let The Most High God be the Judge!!!


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