The Refugee Crisis in Eritrea

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Eritrea: A Brief History

At the end of the 19th century, Italians colonized Eritrea, joining together loosely related people from nine ethnic groups. The original ratio of 50% Orthodox Christians and 50% Sunni Muslims still exists today. Their forced colonization disrupted already existing economic, social, and legal systems in these communities. The Italians developed Eritrea as a settler colony, setting up roads, plantations, seaports, and an army of 65,000 Eritreans that would fight in Italy's other colonies, Libya and Somalia.

In 1952, the UN combined Eritrea with neighboring Ethiopia under a federation, giving Eritrea two official languages and its own flag, constitution, and parliament. The United States, interested in the strategic Red Sea access from Eritrea, backed this pact, gaining several military and communication bases in Eritrea as a payback for the arrangement. No poll was ever taken asking the Eritrean people to vote on the matter.

Immediately after this federation was formed, the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, completely stripped Eritreans of all rights and autonomy as had been agreed upon in the pact, and banned all forms of public protest. Eritreans were met with silence when they petitioned the UN to at least uphold the terms of the federation pact. Further, Emperor Haile Selassie disbanded the Eritrean national assembly and annexed the territory, triggering a 30-year liberation war by Eritreans. It is widely believed among Eritreans and non-Eritreans alike that these events and the failure of the international community to act justly without underlying interests is the source of the current suffering in Eritrea.

The next thirty years of the liberation war are critical years in defining the Eritrean government's growing distrust with international agencies. Although Eritrea and Ethiopia share roughly the same geography and demographics, Eritrea was left to fend for itself in gaining its freedom and keeping its population from starving to death. Meanwhile, many of the world's great powers looked upon Ethiopia with mainly the political motivation of controlling this strategic geographic location, and contributed billions and billions of dollars in food and military aid. In fact, from 1952-1976, more than half of all U.S. Aid to Africa's 54 countries went to Ethiopia.

In the 1950's, in the midst of a war fought by civilians in rubber sandals with rifles, the United States introduced the first jet fighters to appear on the African continent. Their mission was to fight for Ethiopia to conquer Eritrea in return for prime land on the Red Sea's coast for communication and spy bases to monitor Europe and Asia. The jet fighters raised the level of military sophistication with U.S. Supplied F-86 Sabre Jets, and counterinsurgency tactics borrowed from the Vietnam War. Israel also sent military advisers and arms. When the reinforced Ethiopian army invaded Keren, a market center in the heart of the country, the first flow of Eritreans fled to Sudan.

In 1974, the Soviet Union became aligned with Ethiopia when a military junta overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. Quickly, the war escalated when $11 billion in new arms from Moscow were sent to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. The second wave of refugees fled to Sudan. Fighting had reached the heart of the Eritrean capital, Asmara, which changed the demographics of the refugees to also include urban as well as rural dwellers.

In 1978, fighting almost entirely with captured weapons, the Eritreans were able to secure the Sahil Mountains of Eritrea, occupying this area as a base for the next ten years.

In 1984 a massive famine, posed an even larger problem. Tens of thousands of Eritreans were forced to cross the border into Sudan in search of food and safety. It is estimated that the number of Eritrean refugees in Sudan had peaked at about 500,000.

For the next 13 years, thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians died as the war continued. In May 1991 the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (the current government of Eritrea) defeated the Ethiopian army and assisted in ousting the Marxist government of Ethiopia.

Eritrea: Current Refugee Situation

Over the last thirty years, more than one million Eritrean refugees have languished in exile abroad, more than half of them in urban slums and rural refugee camps in Sudan. Although several hundred thousand people have returned to Eritrea, there are still an estimated 142,000 Eritreans in Kassala and Gedaref in Sudan. The UNHCR has worked in collaboration with UNMEE (UN Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia) to repatriate a total of 36,500 Eritrean refugees from Sudan. An overwhelming majority of these refugees originally come from Gash-Barka, the western region of Eritrea.

Within Eritrea's own borders, another 50,000 are currently living in internally displaced (IDP) camps throughout the country. These IDPs have fled three times in the last 10 years, each time because of renewed military conflict. They lived in relatives' homes when lucky enough, but mostly, the fled to the mountains, where they attempted to do what Eritreans do best, survive. Currently there is no Ethiopian occupation in Eritrea, but landmines prevent the IDPs from finally going home. More than 70,000

Eritreans that lived in Ethiopia for several generations were expelled in 1998 when full scale fighting broke out again. In 2000, when Ethiopia captured about 1/3 of Eritrea's sands (the Gash Barka Zone), one million Eritreans fled, including tens of thousands of new refugees to Sudan. Thousands of Eritreans had been permanently disabled, tens of thousands dead. A third of the population was displaced, a third of those people being children. It is estimated that every Eritrean family lost two or three members to the war. It is the deep sacrifice of flesh and blood that makes the reality of the current emergency situation even more painful for Eritreans worldwide. Currently, the male population has been decreased dramatically, affecting the most fundamental socio-economic systems in the country. Among the refugee population, an overwhelming majority of families are female-headed, severely affecting agricultural production. For, IDPs in particular, 80% of households are female-headed.

Field Research

The meaning of the title of Dan Connell's "Getting Home is only Half the Challenge" really hit home to me in my recent trip to Eritrea. Over the course of three weeks I attempted to experience and photograph the refugee experience of the IDPs and repatriates of Eritrea. It was one thing to read reports and statistics. It was an entirely different thing to see the crisis through their eyes. Education One woman told me that she had chosen to settle in Gherset because it offered better schools for her children than the other resettlement camps in Gash Barka. Her three children attended school at the UNESCO funded facilities. In most areas, school is available until the 5th grade in both Tigrinia, the national language, and Arabic, a language spoken by most Eritrean Muslims, especially those returning from camps in Sudan. When possible, the schools are integrated to facilitate the full inclusion of refugees into society. The teacher of a temporary school in Gherset estimates that there are about 80 students per class. School is held 6 days a week, from 7am to noon. At the beginning of each school year, each pupil receives five exercise books to write in. The schools lack basic educational supplies: pencils, paper, books, maps, charts, and soccer balls. In other resettlement villages, especially in areas where IDPs have fled, school is being held in abandoned buildings, and under trees.

Health I visited Gherset on a very special day. It was the third day of a child's life, and the celebrations had just begun. She was born to a 27-year-old woman who had lived in a refugee camp in Sudan since the age of 3. She had grown up, married and given birth to her three other children in a refugee camp. She had lived in Gherset for 7 months where she lived with her mother, aunt, husband and children. The birth was her fourth. Each time her mother had been the midwife; the floor of the tent had been their maternity ward. I asked what would have happened if there had been complications with the birth. The Aunt stared at me blankly. The mother looked at the ground. The grandmother looked at her hands in her lap. I shifted uncomfortably. Outside, the translator/guide told me that there was absolutely no transportation to or from the camp. Since there was also no on-site health clinic, refugees could not take advantage of the free health care that their refugee I.D. cards granted them at any health clinic in the region. I asked the local guide when the last time had been since he had seen a doctor. He said it had been a few years- since the day he had left Sudan. Every repatriate undergoes a basic health screening for sicknesses that would allow them to sit in a bus rather than stand in a truck. There are not enough medical supplies to afford a follow up visit for the thousands of war-injured refugees. Malaria and polio are the most common sicknesses reported in the clinics. That afternoon, my host family prepared a very special dinner- ghat, a meal made from flour roasted on an open fire and mixed with boiling water and salt. As the women stirred the flour they made loud high-pitched jubilations, signaling the great miracle for the entire neighborhood to hear. Another child had been born in Gherset.

Food Aid Food is distributed once a month in Senafe to the 11,000 IDPs that reside in the area. Representatives from each family make the trip to the distribution site, sometimes walking for more than a day. Each person receives wheat, oil, salt, and kerosene. For repatriates, a two-month ration is given upon entry to Eritrea as well as a metal and canvas family shelter kit. The UNHCR also distributes hand tools for farming, or a cash equivalent for those who wish to resettle in the cities. After their first two months, they receive monthly food rations for one year. After one year, they are expected to have found means to survive. No training is provided, however, part of the aid package includes either farm tools or cash. In some areas, distribution of two hectares of farmland per refugee family has begun. For both groups, high calorie biscuits are given, when available, to malnutritioned children and pregnant or lactating mothers, but recent shortages have made this difficult.

Shelter Each family receives a rhonda structure (a metal dome-like frame of about 10 feet by 6 feet) and the mats needed to cover it- straw mats for summer, plastic mats for the rainy season. The locals say that even in the rainy season, it is often too hot to use the plastic mats, so they do their best to improvise with mud and straw, bending and shaping the Rhonda structure to better suit their needs. In the early 1990's corrugated metal was often donated by international agencies, but has been abandoned, as the heat makes the metal an unsuitable roof. Occasionally, fire breaks out in one hut, and several homes can quickly burn to the ground at once. Currently, there is a shortage of Rhonda structures all over the country, leaving families to live in plastic tents held up by branches and ropes. Often, a tent of about two hundred square feet, partitioned by a cloth to make separate rooms, houses a family of 7. If there the family keeps livestock such as feed chickens, they must also share the space, as there are no permanent materials with which to make sturdy fences. UN volunteers say it won't be long until the tents run out.

Water Drought has affected water supplies for both agriculture and drinking for the last 17 years. At the camps, water is either available by pump or is delivered by trucks once a month. Diseases are rampant, especially in those camps where water is kept in large storage tanks for extended periods of time. Widespread chlorination will not be possible until an organized water system has been developed for the entire country. Even in the capital city, residents are being forced to turn to bottled water as the Italian-built pipes are beginning to rust and release dangerous chemicals into the water supply. For the poorer residents, there is no way to avoid the risk of drinking these poisons. Sanitation is a concern, as these refugees have inhabited temporary housing for years. Long term human waste systems have not been developed. In some camps, makeshift latrines have been set up on the outskirts of town, but in many, people simply look for refuge in the mountains. For the stalls, there are sanitation workers who empty the large tanks of human waste when they are filled completely. Combine this lack of proper latrines with a poor water supply and poor handling at household-level and you have the potential for severe diarrhea outbreaks, especially among children.

Land Mines Four teenage boys were killed and three others seriously injured in a mine accident outside Senafe during my last week in Eritrea. According to the UN Mine Action Coordination Center (UNMACC), inhabitants of that area had been educated about land mine safety procedures, and the demarcations had been made. In the last few years, over 70 people have died in mine accidents, and over 150 more have been injured. Clearly, deactivation of landmines is a key factor in determining when many of the IDPs can safely return home.


While there is no definitive answer for the refugee crisis in Eritrea, there are a number of potential solutions worth investigation. A sustainable solution needs to be based on local methods, giving special attention to the refugees' exact circumstances; a cookie cutter approach will certainly not work Pressuring the local government to implement IMF/World Bank or any other donor organization's programs will not bear any meaningful outcomes besides a momentary handout. The problems are multi-tiered. There is the immediate need for the basic human needs such as food and shelter, but there is also the need for organization of health care and water systems and a long-term strategy for reintegrating these refugees into society. Among the many needs in Eritrea:

Training for repatriates in the areas of reintegrating with society outside of the camps. For many of these repatriates, it has been over 20 years since they have lived outside of a refugee camp. These people need training and counseling to guide them in independently supporting their families and also in adjusting to the changes that have occurred in their homeland over the past two decades.

Supplies for elementary and secondary schools in camps. The children in the camps are at a very vulnerable stage in their development and need access to complete education in the interim camps. These schools are the beginning of reintegration for the children and are currently lacking the most basic of supplies- pencils, books, globes, maps and physical education tools such as balls.

Medical supplies including landmine kits, malaria, and polio vaccinations. As a result of the war, there are thousands of disabled veterans and victims of landmines. Medical supplies are needed to treat these war injuries, but also to treat other sicknesses such as malaria and polio. There is also a shortage of medical professionals to administer care to the interim camps throughout the country.

Improved temporary housing structures that better suit Eritrea's geography and climate. Currently Rhonda structures and blue plastic sheeting and distributed, but the locals are often forced to improvise, as these materials are not designed for their conditions. For the semi-permanent housing (huts) a material alternative to the traditional wood and thatch is currently in short supply and is also dangerous in Eritrea's dry, sunny climate.

Water sanitation systems suitable for either individual homes or for entire camps to decrease the spread of dysentery in the camps. Also separate systems for agriculture and livestock are needed to allow these families to begin to support themselves despite drought conditions.

Land mind clearance teams to mark dangerous zones, and deactivate the more than 2 million mines that exist in Eritrea. Landmines are one of the biggest barriers besides military occupation that prevent many camp inhabitants from returning home. Landmine clearance is a very slow and tedious process but must be taken on so that the IDPs can return home.

Family Reunification programs to address the separation of families, in the aftermath of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict. Counseling and support services are also needed for the demobilized soldiers, many of whom have been in combat for over a decade.


I would like to express my deepest appreciation to MIT for providing this opportunity, and especially the MIT Public Service Center, Dean Kim Vandiver (Dean of Undergraduate Research), Tracy Purinton of Residential Life Student Life Programs, Chancellor Philip Clay and Dean Kirk Kolenbrander, and the Kelly Douglas Committee for their sponsorship. I also thank Professor B.D. Colen for sharing his expertise in the field of documentary photography and also to Professor Susan Slyomovics for her advice.

I also owe thanks to the government of Eritrea and especially the Eritrean Refugee Relief Commission (ERREC) for making available their materials on the refugees and also for unhindered access to all camps and materials and also transportation to not easily accessed areas.


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10. Background Note on Eritrean Refugees in Sudan by the UNHCR 29 Jan. 2002.

11. UNHCR Briefing Notes: Afghanistan, Liberia/Sierra Leone, Sudan/Eritrea, Russian Fed. Georgia 18 Jan 2002.

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14. ICC Humanitarian Update 28 Dec. 2001

15. Edited Transcript of UNMEE press briefing 25 Jan 2002.

16. ICC Humanitarian Update 28 Dec. 2001