Refugees turn to Ethiopia for safety and asy­lum

Coun­try now hosts the largest num­ber of refugees in Africa

Africa Renewal - - Contents - By Su­laiman Mo­modu

As a 17-year-old boy, James Gaw Tot fled war in South Su­dan to the safety of Ethiopia. Lit­tle did he know he would call this coun­try his home for the next 23 years.

To­day, still a refugee, Tot lives in a camp with his refugee wife and their seven chil­dren. He longs for home.

“I want to re­turn home, but how can I?” he asks, gaz­ing out at the Pug­nido Refugee Camp in west­ern Ethiopia. “There is still in­se­cu­rity in my coun­try. Be­fore this, the war with the Arabs was about the strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence. South Su­dan is now in­de­pen­dent but the fight­ing con­tin­ues.” In the camp, Tot works as a so­cial worker, sen­si­tiz­ing fel­low refugees on HIV pre­ven­tion.

Tot is among the more than 665,000 refugees cur­rently living in Ethiopia, mak­ing it the largest refugee-host­ing coun­try in Africa, pass­ing Kenya in July 2014. Most of the refugees come from Eritrea, So­ma­lia, South Su­dan and Su­dan.

In mid-De­cem­ber 2013, thou­sands of South Su­danese were up­rooted from their coun­try when Pres­i­dent Salva Kiir ac­cused his ousted deputy, Riek Machar, of plan­ning a coup. The fight­ing in the world’s youngest na­tion soon took a tribal di­men­sion be­tween the Dinka eth­nic group of Pres­i­dent Kiir and Mr. Machar’s Nuer eth­nic group, trig­ger­ing a cy­cle of re­tal­ia­tory mas­sacres across the coun­try.

“My par­ents and my wife’s par­ents were flee­ing to­gether. They were killed,” said 27-year-old Biel Jock. He fled from Nyirol in South Su­dan’s Jon­glei State with five neph­ews aged be­tween nine and 14 years. They be­came his de­pen­dents af­ter their par­ents were ei­ther killed in South Su­dan’s con­flict or died from nat­u­ral causes. Mr. Jock and his fam­ily crossed into Ethiopia some­time in 2014 al­most empty handed af­ter walk­ing 16 days in the jun­gle feed­ing on wild fruits and drink­ing any wa­ter they could find along the way.

Re­solve con­flicts to end crises

“We are wit­ness­ing a quan­tum leap in forced dis­place­ment in the world,” said An­tónio Guter­res, the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees ( UNHCR), as fig­ures for 2013 showed a to­tal of 51.2 mil­lion refugees, asy­lum seek­ers and in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple. It is the high­est level of dis­place­ment since the Sec­ond World War. The spike has been driven mainly by the war in Syria. Con­flicts in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic and South Su­dan also con­trib­uted to the sky­rock­et­ing num­bers.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr. Guter­res, hu­man­i­tar­ian or­gan­i­sa­tions can only mit­i­gate the im­pact of con­flict on or­di­nary peo­ple. “There is no hu­man­i­tar­ian so­lu­tion. The so­lu­tion is po­lit­i­cal and the so­lu­tion is to solve the con­flicts that gen­er­ate th­ese dra­matic lev­els of dis­place­ment.”

Cur­rently, there are more than three mil­lion refugees in Africa, 12.5 mil­lion in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple and an­other 700,000 state­less peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to UNHCR.

Dire sit­u­a­tion in the Horn of Africa

Shar­ing bor­ders with So­ma­lia, South Su­dan, Su­dan and Eritrea which are grap­pling with con­flicts, Ethiopia has been host­ing refugees since the 1990s. In 2011, the coun­try had only eight refugee camps with some 90,000 refugees. But as of June

2014, the num­ber had spiked up­wards to 23 camps. South Su­danese make up the largest num­ber of refugees in Ethiopia at 253,030, fol­lowed by So­ma­lis (245,326), Eritre­ans (126,363), Su­danese (35,870) and other na­tion­al­i­ties ac­count­ing for al­most 5,300.

While the So­mali civil war has dragged on for over two decades, the on­go­ing con­flict in Su­dan be­tween the Su­danese gov­ern­ment and Su­dan Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Move­ment (SPLM)–North, con­tin­ues to force thou­sands of Su­danese to flee into Ethiopia.

Ato Ayalew Aweke, the deputy direc­tor of Ethiopia’s Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Refugee and Re­turnee Af­fairs, says there were more than 450,000 South Su­danese refugees in Ethiopia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most of the refugees were repa­tri­ated with about 20,000 re­main­ing by 2013.

“In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is a very peace­ful and sta­ble coun­try. We have eight camps for So­mali refugees alone. From Oc­to­ber to De­cem­ber 2014, we ex­pe­ri­enced an in­crease in the num­ber of Eritre­ans com­ing to seek refuge in Ethiopia,” says Mr. Aweke.

“When you see the fig­ures of refugees, for in­stance, which went up from 90,000 to over 600,000 in two or three years, the sit­u­a­tion clearly demon­strates the sever­ity of the dis­place­ment and suf­fer­ing in the coun­tries around the re­gion,” says the UNHCR Deputy Rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Ethiopia, Born­well Kan­tande. “Along the way, for the past two decades un­til now, not a sin­gle day has gone by with­out refugees in Ethiopia. No sin­gle day has passed with­out Ethiopia pro­vid­ing its sup­port to refugees,” he says.

Fund­ing gap

Fund­ing to sup­port refugees in Ethiopia re­mains a chal­lenge with con­firmed con­tri­bu­tions so far stand­ing at 12%.

In spite of the as­sis­tance from donors, the refugees con­tinue to strain lo­cal re­sources such as wa­ter, food, as well as ed­u­ca­tional and health fa­cil­i­ties. Th­ese fa­cil­i­ties in­vari­ably re­quire ex­pan­sion or im­prove­ment, the lack of which has the ten­dency to fuel ten­sion. To en­sure that refugees and lo­cals live peace­fully to­gether, the UN refugee agency has var­i­ous projects in host com­mu­ni­ties.

“We need more in­ter­na­tional as­sis­tance to pro­vide the ba­sic needs for the refugees such as shel­ter, food, wa­ter, san­i­ta­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and health,” says Mr. Aweke.

The refugees are in­volved in var­i­ous liveli­hood ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing small-scale an­i­mal hus­bandry and other agri­cul­tural projects. UNHCR pro­vides them with busi­ness grants and train­ing on co­op­er­a­tive devel­op­ment and busi­ness man­age­ment. The agency is also pi­lot­ing an agri­cul­tural project fo­cus­ing on im­prov­ing the liveli­hoods of more than 200,000 So­mali refugees in the Dollo Ado area.

In the Ji­jiga area where there are three camps host­ing more than 40,000 So­mali refugees, UNHCR en­gages the refugees and host com­mu­ni­ties in self-re­liance ac­tiv­i­ties un­der its Devel­op­ment As­sis­tance for Refugees project.

Early this year, for ex­am­ple, a liveli­hood and food se­cu­rity project was launched in Kule refugee camp in the Gam­bella re­gion. The project started with train­ing in busi­ness and in­come-gen­er­at­ing ac­tiv­i­ties for more than 800 refugees, who went on to de­velop their own busi­ness plans and form busi­ness groups. At the launch of the project, the refugees re­ceived seed money to start busi­nesses, and will con­tinue to re­ceive more train­ing.

Again, refugees with skills also serve as teach­ers, nurses, in­ter­preters, or so­cial work­ers with var­i­ous or­ga­ni­za­tions within the camps.

New chal­lenges are, how­ever, bound to come along the way. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing the South Su­danese refugee emer­gency last year, as hu­man­i­tar­i­ans were work­ing around the clock to pro­vide as­sis­tance, an un­prece­dented heavy down­pour in Au­gust 2014 and the over­flow­ing Baro River banks led to the flood­ing of Leitchuor and Nip Nip refugee camps, two of the four new camps es­tab­lished to host new ar­rivals.

“It was a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion. We had an emer­gency with waves of peo­ple cross­ing over the bor­der, and then the flood­ing cre­ated an­other emer­gency,” says UNHCR Rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Ethiopia Valentin Tap­soba. He com­mended Ethiopia for shar­ing its mea­gre re­sources with the refugees.

In re­sponse to the cri­sis, hu­man­i­tar­ian per­son­nel used boats and a UNHCR-hired he­li­copter to trans­port per­son­nel, refugees and some lo­gis­tics. A mass cholera vac­ci­na­tion ex­er­cise was also un­der­taken in the flood-af­fected camps.

“Our pri­or­ity right now is to re­lo­cate some 50,000 South Su­danese refugees from the two camps that were flooded last year be­fore the next rainy sea­son in a cou­ple of months,” says An­gele Djo­hos­sou, UNHCR’s head of the Gam­bella sub-of­fice, which is in west­ern Ethiopia and hosts more than 250,000 South Su­danese refugees. Refugees from Leitchuor Camp will be re­lo­cated to a new site that the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties have al­lo­cated while those from Nip Nip Camp will be re­lo­cated to Pug­nido Refugee Camp, which cur­rently hosts about 55,000 South Su­danese refugees. “We will con­tinue to search for new sites for the estab­lish­ment of camps as new ar­rivals con­tinue,” Ms. Djo­hos­sou added.


Newly ar­rived So­mali refugees board a bus to a tran­sit cen­tre in Dollo Ado, lo­cated one kilo­me­tre from the Ethiopia-So­ma­lia bor­der.

UN en­voy Princess Haya Bint Al Hus­sein, wife of the ruler of Dubai, ap­pealed for in­ter­na­tional aid to counter the suf­fer­ing she found when vis­it­ing refugees in Gam­bella, west­ern Ethiopia, which now hosts more than 252,000 South Su­danese who have fled...

UNHCR/R. Jul­liart

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