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An Ethiopian Refugee’s Voice of the Experience – Felix Rugira

Contrary to the international media’s and world leaders’ belief and understanding, Ethiopia’s policy for the protection of refugees is inhumane. Ethiopia is one of largest refugee-hosting nations in Africa and the fifth largest in the world. It is widely reported that Ethiopia has one of the most repressive regimes yet it has, nonetheless, creatively and sophistically fooled the international community with the commercialisation of its refugee crisis, turning it into one of the country’s most lucrative policies.

According to the United Nations High Commissions for Refugees (UNHCR),an unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced to leave their home – the highest level of displacement ever recorded. 51% of these people are under the age of 18. War-related violence has been the main driver of people fleeing to European countries: the ongoing conflict in Syria, violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses in Eritrea, as well as both Tigrayans People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) brutality and poverty in Ethiopia.

Many world leaders have repeatedly praised Ethiopia for ‘their leading role’ in hosting refugees from different African countries, and its tireless efforts ‘to improve humanitarian conditions experienced by those fleeing their homes’. Speaking at a panel of the 71th United Nations General Assembly meeting held in New York, the former US President, Barack Obama, recognised the role of Ethiopia in sheltering refugees and helping them to access relevant and adequate humanitarian assistance.

Another refugee camp has been opened in Ethiopia’s Benishangul Gumuz region for the increasing number of South Sudanese refugees in the country (Africanews)

In June 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, echoed Obama’s stance on Ethiopia, praising efforts made by the Ethiopian government in handling the regional refugee crisis. Grandi made his remarks during the World Refugee Day commemorative ceremony held in Ethiopia’s Gambella regional state, which housed most of the South Sudanese refugees. ‘Ethiopia,’ he said, ‘is a very good model’ of how a country with limited resources and a great challenge of its own keeps its doors open, its arms open to people from neighbouring countries that are in trouble and seek protection here.’

World leaders and the international media continue to speak highly about Ethiopia’s efforts in welcoming and settling refugees.

As a refugee living in Ethiopia, I am shocked to hear such daily reports and I argue that these euphoric speeches hide the shocking and appalling reality on the ground: in Ethiopia, there is a stark difference between the publicly-spoken policy and its application. Ethiopia’s government has for many years, sophistically, immorally and dishonestly, used the refugee crisis as a tool to advance its political and economic agenda.

On 24th February 2016, I was part of Ethiopia’s refugee delegation to meet with the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, to discuss the alarming humanitarian conditions faced by refugees in Ethiopia. We spoke clearly about ongoing extreme human rights abuses, inhumane conditions in the refugee camps, endemic corruption within the refugee protection system, bribery and the abuse of power by senior government officers in the Refugee Protection Programmes. As leader of the delegation, I was promised that positive changes would be forthcoming. One year later and nothing has been done. Desalegn has turned a blind eye to his country’s refugees yet continues to present to the world a positive image of Ethiopia’s treatment of them.

I have lived in Ethiopia refugee camps: we have no access to the basic rights to life. We are not allowed to work or move from one place to another. We are regularly subjected to various hate crimes, death threats and extreme abuses without government intervention or protection. I have witnessed fellow refugees dying from preventable situations such as pregnancy-related issues and still-births. Pregnant women are left to die and little is done to save their babies.

The Sherkole refugee camp which was built about 20 years ago hosting thousands of refugees from South Sudan.

For example a woman called Mwamikazi Aline in Sherkole refugee camp was pregnant. The doctor said that Aline needed cesarean but the administration for refugees and returnee affairs (ARRA) contradicted doctor’s assessment, as cesarean means  to be refereed to Addis Ababa which would have cost them 600 dollars. However Aline was agonizing, after four days we, refugees had to sell our monthly ration in order to get money which would have saved both Aline’s and her baby’s lives. But it was too late, having reached the private hospital, we were told that the baby had died in her mother’s womb. Instead ARRA’s staffs came after us, and ordered the hospital to bury the dead body’s without our consent, we didn’t even know that the baby was a boy nor a girl  that is how Refugees are denied access to fundamental health services and so die as a result.

Ethiopia continues to receive sizeable and generous funding from various international donors and western governments. In reality, we – the refugees – are given 16kg of wheat, 1.5kg of lentils, 950g of cooking oil, a handful of salt and a handful of sugar. No, this is not a recipe for a cheap meal: it is the monthly nutritional allowance for every refugee family living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Oh, and I forgot to mention the one bar of soap – per month – for hygiene and laundry. And just last month the above rations were decreased to 8kg of wheat and 15ETB – Ethiopian birr – ($0.7) to buy charcoal.

As a direct consequence, there have been uprisings and protests. In Sherkole refugee camp, four refugees were shot dead, twenty-five were seriously injured, and forty are still currently in jail for allegedly inciting havoc on 30th June 2017 as a result of the World Food Programme (WFP) ration cuts.

Victims of the Sharkole Refugee camp raid. Photo by Felix Rugira, a journalist refugee in Ethiopia

Refugees are begging to be repatriated to their home countries instead of dying of hunger, many are desperate to escape but are forcibly returned by the army. With the recent reduction in food rations, every refugee camp in Ethiopia now faces a crisis of starvation.

Victim of the Sharkole Refugee camp raid. Photo by Felix Rugira, a journalist refugee in Ethiopia

Life in one of Ethiopia’s refugee camps is one of psychological torture:  we cluster and sit, doing nothing, in one of the world’s most fragile physical environments and the conditions have caused many deaths. Children in torn clothing wander the dirt paths, picking up stones and sticks to play with and mingling with the free-roaming goats and donkeys.

It is difficult to keep going in such abject misery, especially when the need for serious medical care which is beyond reach: we are often told that there is no doctor available for the 12,000-people living in Sherkole. There are a few nurses and they have limited facilities and a limited supply of medication and medical equipment. People are treated with the same medications, no matter from what disease they are suffering. Death is a daily reality.

Refugees resettlement fraud
Corruption and fraud in the resettlement process continues to be endemic. The UNHCR office in Ethiopia is terribly afraid to challenge the unlawful and unethical practices throughout the refugee protection and resettlement programmes. Ethiopia’s government has been recognised and praised for its laudable initiative and decision to establish the ‘Out of Camp Policy’ (OCP) that has allowed Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia to live outside of the refugee camps in any part of the country, but little is known by external internal policy makers about this policy.

OCP refugees are predominantly Ethiopians falsely-labelled as Eritreans: they are resettled under the pretext that they live in the cities without any other support from either UNHCR or Ethiopia. OCP refugees are, therefore, resettled while genuine Eritreans continue to suffer.

There seems to be no fair process in providing resettlement and UNHCR continues to be a barrier in challenging the corrupted system: thousands of unknown and shamed refugees (mainly Ethiopians) are often screened for resettlement – but those who have fled real danger are forgotten.

UK and EU Global Strategy in response to the European migration crisis

The British government, the European Union and the World Bank on 21st September 2016 announced a plan to create 100,000 jobs in Ethiopia to help tackle the migrant crisis. Two industrial parks will be built in the country at a cost of $500m (£385m). Ethiopia, which proposed the plan, will be required to grant employment rights to 30,000 refugees and 70,000 local people.

The reality is that the plan is a waste of public funds: the Ethiopian government will accept the deal and manipulate its implementation with sham refugees to please or mislead British Prime Minister, Teresa May, and EU president, Jean Claude Junker.

The measures being considered to re-settle refugees in transit countries, including Ethiopia, will lead to a further refugee crisis in Europe, with refugees having to leave Ethiopia for Europe (just the opposite of what UK and EU trying to achieve).What the UK and the EU consider to be a solution will be counterproductive.

So, why do world leaders keep praising Ethiopia?

  • Firstly, the Ethiopian government continues to use the refugee crisis as resource to influence diplomacy and cooperation with western governments, allowing it to benefit enormously from humanitarian aid in the name of the refugee crisis.
  • Secondly, European donors hope that large-scale funding programmes provided to Ethiopia will put an end to the refugee crisis in Europe.
  • Thirdly, UNHCR has done very little to challenge the Ethiopian government and finally, increasing the number of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia helps to maintain the international mainstream view of the human rights situation in the ‘enemy’ country, Eritrea.

These ‘hidden’ interests make it difficult for journalists to tell a nuanced story about refugee experiences in Ethiopia. But the way journalists obtain stories about refugee policy is also part of the problem.

Refugees are, first of all, trained how to praise Ethiopia in order to be given an audience. On World Refugee Day for example, refugee leaders are requested to submit their speeches to ARRA (Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs) staff beforehand for checking and vetting.

Refugees in Ethiopia are treated as commodities: yet another kind of exploitation.

Much of the reporting on this issue is done through press trips organised by embassies or humanitarian organisations. This kind of hit-and-run reporting consists, mainly, of pre-arranged field visits and interviews, highlighting the positive work of the organisation and Ethiopia’s refugee policy.

So, presenting Ethiopia’s refugee policy as an exemplary model benefits all the actors concerned and makes journalists’ jobs a lot easier – but it makes the life of the refugee harder because it obscures the truth about what is really happening.

While Ethiopia boasts about its refugee policies, behind the scenes its draconian plans are more about the business of hosting refugees rather than taking care of those most in need. Sadly, UNHCR remains tight-lipped over these allegations. ARRA continues to routinely take bribes through the refugee resettlement process and justice and rights of refugees are inexistent.

****

The writer is “Felix Rugira,” a journalist refugee in Ethiopia. (You can contact him via his Facebook page)

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