(Nairobi) – The Somaliland authorities should immediately stop deporting Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers to Ethiopia. On August 31, 2012, dozens of Ethiopians, mostly women and children, were forcibly returned to Ethiopia in violation of international legal prohibitions against sending people to places where they might face persecution or threats to their lives.
The Somaliland authorities deported Ethiopians arrested after police raids on August 30 and 31 on an informal settlement known as the Social Welfare Centre in Somaliland’s main city, Hargeisa, where several hundred asylum seekers and migrants from Ethiopia have lived for almost a year. The exact number and immigration status of those returned is unclear, but a witness estimated seeing around 100 people sent across the border. In late December 2011, Somaliland attempted to forcibly return 20 Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers and tried to close down the Social Welfare Centre.
“Rounding up and deporting asylum seekers is not the way to treat vulnerable people seeking Somaliland’s protection,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Somaliland authorities should instead ensure that Ethiopian asylum seekers are registered and given the protection and assistance to which they are entitled.”
Human Rights Watch said deporting registered refugees and asylum seekers constitutes refoulement, the unlawful return of anyone to persecution or to a place where their life or freedom is threatened. International law prohibits the deportation of anyone seeking asylum before they have received a fair determination of their claim.
Local sources told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of August 30 the owner of land surrounding the Social Welfare Centre told the Ethiopians living there to leave. When they refused, fighting broke out and police arrived. According to witnesses, police fired live ammunition during the ensuing struggle and wounded at least six Ethiopians, including one who was shot in the arm and the leg. The sources also said Ethiopians at the centre may have injured four police officers.
The police then arrested 56 of the Ethiopians, including the majority of those injured, and took them to different detention facilities in Hargeisa. 25 registered refugees and two asylum seekers were detained at the Central Police Station. One of those refugees told Human Rights Watch that six injured refugees had not received medical assistance for three days before they were released.
According to witnesses, police returned to the centre during the morning and early afternoon of August 31 and loaded dozens of people –mainly women and children –onto several trucks and drove them to the border town of Wajale. The same afternoon, the police drove 28 men they had detained on August 30 in Hargeisa to Wajale. The first two trucks, one carrying the men and another carrying primarily women and children, immediately crossed into Ethiopia and dropped the individuals off on Ethiopian territory.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, on the evening of August 31 staff members identified 72 refugees among the group still at Wajale, as well as one woman who had been driven across to the Ethiopian side of the border. The refugee agency returned them to Hargeisa.
However, Somaliland authorities prevented the UN refugee agency from assisting an unknown number of other individuals in Wajale, including registered asylum seekers, and the individuals who had already been brought across the border to Ethiopia. As of September 4, the location of the other Ethiopians returned to their country was unknown, Human Rights Watch said. An unconfirmed report said that 32 men were detained at the Ethiopian border post until the afternoon of September 1, when Ethiopian authorities transferred them to an unknown location.
“The Somaliland authorities should allow the UN refugee agency prompt access to Ethiopians facing deportation to give them a chance to seek asylum,” Lefkow said. “The ongoing deadlock in the asylum process in Somaliland is not an excuse for any abuses.”
Since October 2011, hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers from Ethiopia – as well as migrants who have been unable to claim asylum since the Somaliland authorities suspended registration in 2008 – have lived in the Social Welfare Centre, which was leased by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Since the lease ended in late December 2011, the centre’s owner has pressed the authorities to forcibly evict those living there. In March 2012, the authorities destroyed part of a makeshift camp set up on the edge of the centre, saying it was part of a wider urban “clean-up exercise.”
Somaliland ended all registration of asylum seekers in October 2008 following a series of suicide bombings in Hargeisa. UNHCR estimates that there are at least 20,000 undocumented foreigners in Somaliland, including unknown numbers of Ethiopians and others who want to claim asylum but cannot do so because they cannot register. Since March 2012, UNHCR and the minister of interior have been re-registering asylum seekers who registered before October 2008, although it appears asylum claims have not all been reviewed. UNHCR says registration of all non-registered migrants is scheduled to resume in September 2012.
Large numbers flee Ethiopia to escape persecution every year. Refugees who are returned by force have frequently been detained by the authorities. Torture is common in Ethiopia's prisons.