Ethiopia Sends Refugees Who Fled Tigray War Back to Camps

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Ethiopia started forcibly returning hundreds of Eritrean refugees who had fled weeks of conflict in Tigray back to the northern region that borders Eritrea.

The refugees were rounded up at an Addis Ababa center belonging to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, put onto buses and driven to the Adi Harush and Mai Ani camps, which were home to about 50,000 people, according to Weldu Zeray, a representative of the exiles.

“Buses came and lined up last night and the refugees started panicking,” he said by phone on Friday, adding that at least 200 people were sent back to Tigray. “They refused to get onto the buses but were forced.”

Ethiopia Sends Refugees Who Fled Tigray War Back to Camps

Fighting between federal forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is in its sixth week, despite Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announcing an end to military operations on Nov. 28. Abiy declared war against the TPLF, which ran the country for nearly three decades prior to him coming to power, after months of tensions and when the government blamed the region’s leaders for an attack on a federal army base.

The Ethiopian government was “safely returning” refugees to their respective camps where there would be access to “service delivery systems” in order to process their cases properly, according to a statement on Friday.

“The procedure to apply for out-of-camp life needs to processed in the camps in the interest of accountability,” it said.

Humanitarian Crisis

The conflict in the Horn of Africa nation has created a humanitarian crisis, with the UN estimating tens of thousands of people have been displaced and an unknown number killed or injured. It comes at a time when the government is trying to lure foreign investors to the previously shuttered economy.

The IOM denied playing any role in the detention and subsequent removal of the Eritrean refugees from its center, it said in a statement Friday. The center was taken over by Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs on Dec. 3 and the organization has not been involved in “any activities undertaken by the authorities in the center since that time,” it said.

UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has said there was also information that some Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia had been sent back to their country against their will.

Girmay Gebremeskel, who arrived in Ethiopia as an Eritrean refugee in 2013, fled the Adi Harush refugee camp in Tigray three days ago to neighboring Amhara region after weeks of sustained fighting. He said a government agent had called him to say authorities would be taking him back to the camp.

“I don’t know why they would want to take me back,” he said, adding that he had witnessed a refugee shot dead and that there was no longer any food or water being distributed.

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