E
thiopia
Land of Refuge
Eritrean refugees in the northern Ethiopia
The Horn of Africa is one of the most volatile areas in the world.  Due to this the countries in
the area host numerous refugees who are escaping turmoil and persecution in their home.  
With it’s central location, Ethiopia is an important host for refugees from Southern Sudan,
Eritrea, and Somalia.
For the last year I’ve been living in
Shimelba refugee camp which house
more than 12,000 Eritreans.  I’ve
been working with the International
Rescue Committee (IRC) as Gender-
Based Violence Coordinator.  It’s an
interesting time because I am the
only international living in the camp,
so I have an easy opportunity to
interact well with the refugees and
the my Ethiopian colleagues.  The
camp is run by the Ethiopian
Government who manages, secures
and provides health care for the
camp under the prevue of UNHCR.  
IRC and and another organization
called ZOA are the only other
agencies providing support.  IRC
helps supply clean water and
sanitation, education for children and
adults, HIV and reproductive health
awareness, support for the elderly,
disabled and youth, income
generation support / trainings as well
as assistance to women who’ve
suffered sexual or domestic
violence.  ZOA provides some
income generation trainings too.  
Between 1999-2000 Ethiopia and Eritrea
fought a bitter border dispute that killed
over 20,000 soldiers and countless
civilians.  After the war, both countries
began to deport citizens of Ethiopian or
Eritrean origin to their respective
background countries.  In Ethiopia, the
government went through the roster of
people who voted for Eritrea’s
independence in 1993 and stated that if
you want your own country you should live
there and promptly put them on buses
headed for the border.  Eritrea
reciprocated.  Those people who were
deported lost everything and and had to
start all over again.  Those forced back to
Eritrea have been treated, basically, as
2nd class citizens.  The Horn of Africa is
one of the most volatile areas in the
world.  Due this the countries in the area
host numerous refugees who are escaping
turmoil and persecution in their home.  
With it’s central location, Ethiopia is an
important host for refugees from Southern
Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia.
The camp is made up of Tigrinians
(60%) Kunamas (40%), and other
ethnicities such as Afar and Saho.  
The Kunama, who are pastoralists
living on the Ethiopian-Eritrean
border, have been blamed by the
Eritrean government for not fighting
the Ethiopians when they occupied
Eritrean land.  They’d been
traditionally treated as second class
citizens and felt that it didn’t matter
which government pushed them
around.  They had cows and sheep
to feed.  Since the end of the war,
many Kunama have fled their
territory to avoid persecution in
Eritrea.  The Kunamas have been
pushed around throughout their
history.  Ironically they are refugees
in lands that were once theirs and
still have towns named in Kunama,
like Shire, the western Tigray
regional hub, even though Kunamas
have not lived in the area for
generations.  As they say, Shimelba
“It’s nice.  It’s like we’ve return
home.”  Unfortunately, the Tigrinians
who live their don’t think it’s the
Kunama’s home and the chance of
gaining their land back when they
can return to Ertitrea is remote as
the government has started to send
people to occupy the land.  
Recognizing this, the Kunama have
been given the chance to resettle in
the US.  Many, however, want to
return and plan to wait until the
situation suffices.  
In essence, Eritrea is turning into a North Korea on
the Red Sea and people want out.   This is sad
because most of the Eritreans that I’ve met are
extremely innovative and take initiative to improve
their lives.  This is the first camp I’ve been to in which
there are barbers with swiveling barber chairs, pool
halls, generators that sell electricity, theaters with
multi-channeled satellite TV (I’ve got 3 channels),
bars, discos, restaurants, and cafes.  Half of the camp
we call little Asmara, because they’ve been able to
replicate a more urban lifestyle.   (It sounds and looks
amazing but when you scratch the surface, most of
the refugees are in a very vulnerable state in which
they peddle some of their 15kg of monthly wheat
ration to buy cloths for the children and other
household necessities.)   Sadly, the refugees could
be a great asset in developing their new nation, if the
government recognized that creativity and innovation
cannot be pushed and pulled but needs space and
encouragement to take off.