ADDIS ABABA, 30 August (IRIN) – Kibrom Sebhatu, 45, is among hundreds of Eritreans expected to benefit from a recent Ethiopian government ruling allowing Eritrean refugees to live outside the camps.
“I am happy that UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] and the government of Ethiopia agreed to let us live outside the camps. I hope this will open a new era in Ethiopia-Eritrea relations,” Sebhatu said. He joined the Shimelba Refugee camp, along the border with Eritrea, in 2006, after serving in the Eritrean army.
The new policy will allow Eritrean refugees to live in urban areas, improving their access to services and helping to build stronger ties with Ethiopians, the legal and protection officer at the agency for the Administration of Refugees and Returnees’ Affairs (ARRA), Estifanos Gebremedhin, told IRIN.
Under the “out-of-camp” scheme, Eritrean refugees can live in any part of the country, provided they are able to sustain themselves financially or have a relative or friend who commits to supporting them. Sebhatu is relying on support from relatives living in the US.
Critics have warned that the move may pose a risk to peace in Ethiopia but the government disagrees. “We are not worried that the Eritrean government will use the refugees to infiltrate Ethiopia for two reasons. Firstly, we will do proper screening of the refugees before we let them out of the refugee camps.
“Secondly, the infiltration of Ethiopia by Eritrean [refugees] is not the most cost-effective or efficient way to infiltrate Ethiopia and the Eritrean government knows that,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told journalists recently.
The UNHCR representative to Ethiopia, Moses Okello, said: “Refugees are not subversive people. The issue related to security is one for government to deal with.
“We look at refugees as persons who need international protection. There is no reason why Eritrean, Sudanese, or Somali refugees should be seen in any other light other than that they are refugees. Branding them in one way or another is not fair. We have lived with them, we know them; they are refugees and nothing else.”
Eritrean refugees in Ethiopian camps without a criminal record are eligible under the policy, which according to UNHCR [http://www.unhcr.org/4c6128339.html], “is also a response to refugees’ wishes and needs for strengthened. relations between the two countries”.
Eritrea and Ethiopia were a single political entity before a 1993 referendum in which Eritreans voted almost unanimously for independence. A 1998-2000 border conflict led to the displacement of thousands of civilians in both countries. Ethiopia expelled an estimated 77,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin it deemed to be a security risk, while Eritrea interned around 7,500 Ethiopians living there and deported thousands more.
At least 60,000 Eritrean refugees have crossed into Ethiopia since the border conflict, with more than 36,000 living in three camps and two community centres, according to UNHCR.
Sebhatu said: “Now my dream has come true, God is so gracious. We [Ethiopians and Eritreans] are relatives. We were brothers and sisters but we killed each other for nothing… Thanks to the government of Ethiopia and donors, I am enjoying life in Addis.”