(Nairobi) – The Somaliland authorities should cease forcibly returning refugees and asylum seekers to possible persecution in Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch said today. On December 28, authorities returned 20 Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers in violation of the fundamental international refugee law prohibition against “refoulement,” the forcible return of anyone to persecution or to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.
The Interior Ministry confirmed the deportations at a January 1 news conference. Shortly before they were deported, an international humanitarian worker met the group on December 28, at the immigration office in Wajale, on the border with Ethiopia.
“Somaliland should be protecting, not trampling on, the most basic rights of refugees,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately account for this group’s forcible return and issue a public reassurance that refugees and asylum seekers won’t be deported in the future.”
Local sources told Human Rights Watch that police arrested the group on December 22, during a meeting between refugee leaders and Somaliland officials at the Interior Ministry in Hargeisa. They were discussing the situation of about 1,000 Ethiopians camped on premises known as the Social Welfare Centre, run by an international nongovernmental organization for refugees and migrants in Hargeisa.
The group was initially detained at Hargeisa’s central police station. Local lawyers working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) visited the group in detention. On December 28, police told the lawyers the group had been transferred to an undisclosed location, UNHCR said.
UNHCR said that fifteen members of the group were registered refugees and five were registered asylum seekers.
At the January 1 news conference, Somaliland authorities threatened further deportations, saying that refugees and others currently occupying the Social Welfare Centre would be deported if they did not vacate the premises. No date was given for future deportations.
Somaliland ended all registration of asylum seekers in 2008. UNHCR estimates that at least 20,000 undocumented foreigners are in Somaliland, including unknown numbers of Ethiopians and others who want to claim asylum. International law prohibits the deportation of anyone seeking asylum prior to a fair determination of their status.
Large numbers flee Ethiopia to escape persecution every year. Previously returned refugees have been detained by the authorities. Torture is common in Ethiopia's prisons. Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, after the demise of Somalia’s last functioning government. No country has recognized Somaliland’s claim of statehood. Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether Somaliland should be internationally recognized as an independent country.