Shortly after the war broke out, Eritrea proclaimed that Ethiopians were welcome to stay and keep their jobs in the country, while offering the option of voluntary repatriation for those willing to depart. The Ethiopian government has, however, repeatedly charged that Eritrea violated the rights of Ethiopians residing in Eritrea. In particular, Ethiopia has charged Eritrea with arbitrarily expelling thousands of Ethiopian citizens and torturing others. Human Rights Watch documented a number of incidents in which Ethiopian residents were beaten by private individuals, and some incidents in which police apparently took part in mob attacks. Following the Ethiopian army's major May 2000 offensive, which drove deep inside Eritrea, Eritrea summarily expelled thousands of Ethiopians.
Following the outbreak of war, the Eritrean government repeatedly gave assurances that Ethiopian residents in Eritrea would not be negatively affected or scapegoated. Nonetheless, by the end of the war, a significant number of Ethiopian residents had left Eritrea. After the May 2000 offensive, the Eritrean government forcibly repatriated thousands of Ethiopian citizens.
The Eritrean government announced its intent not to retaliate against Ethiopian citizens in a June 26, 1998 resolution of the National Assembly:
Status of Ethiopians in Eritrea
As aliens, Ethiopians living in Eritrea were protected by a range of human rights instruments, and during the war they were also protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Although the Eritrean government acceded to the Geneva Conventions only in July 2000, it was previously bound to observe them as a successor state to Ethiopia by Ethiopia's standing as a party to the Geneva Conventions.
The Eritrean government did not set up special administrative or judicial institutions like the deportation committees in Ethiopia. During the initial phase of the war, diplomats, representatives of international organizations and agencies, and several independent observers concurred in interviews with Human Rights Watch in Asmara that there was no government-sponsored retaliation against Ethiopian residents in Eritrea.101 However, the situation gradually changed as the conflict unfolded, with Eritrean authorities forcibly interning and expelling increasing numbers of Ethiopian residents.
During a meeting with Human Rights Watch in New York on February 18, 1999, Fesseha Yimer, Ethiopia's ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations at Geneva, charged that the absence of an official policy and special judicial or administrative measures aimed at forcibly deporting Ethiopians from Eritrea was deceptive. He claimed that the Eritrean government made life in Eritrea impossible for Ethiopians by condoning their dismissals from public sector jobs as well as their eviction from rental residences.102
An estimated 100,000 Ethiopian citizens lived in Eritrea prior to the 1998 war, primarily migrant laborers from the neighboring Tigray region and longtime residents working in three main centers of economic activity in Eritrea: the capital Asmara and the two port cities of Massawa and Assab. In Assab, the port city through which the bulk of Ethiopian imports traveled before the war, Ethiopian citizens made up approximately 60 percent of the city's population of 35,000 in 1998. With the outbreak of war in May 1998, Ethiopia boycotted both Assab and Massawa, and diverted its maritime traffic to the port of Djibouti to the south. But even prior to the war, the flow of goods through Assab had been reduced due to souring relations between the two former allies over political and economic policy differences.103
Ethiopians wishing to return to their country initially faced bureaucratic and financial hurdles that made departure next to impossible for those with the least resources, including day laborers, domestic workers, and many who worked in restaurants and small businesses. For instance, the escalation of hostilities turned Assab into a ghost town in the second half of 1998. As the docks fell idle, all business slowed down to a crawl or simply stopped. Thousands lost their jobs as a result.104
In the weeks that followed the outbreak of war, departures of Ethiopians from Assab and Asmara took place in a tense and chaotic environment. Many Ethiopians reportedly left on their own even before the escalation of hostilities in early June 1998. Attaché Wondimu Degefa, at the embassy of Ethiopia in Asmara, characterized the early departures as motivated by "fear of dismissal by the government, and economic hardship."105 On June 3, Eritrean authorities started denying departing Ethiopians the required exit visas. The stranded travelers vainly appealed to different governmental departments for a reversal of the decision, and also turned to their embassy for assistance.
The Ethiopian bombardment of Asmara airport, on June 5, greatly increased anxiety within the Ethiopian community. For weeks after that, scores of Ethiopians began camping on the Ethiopian embassy's grounds and surrounding streets, apparently fearful of the hostility that the aerial raid had triggered. Many pleaded with the embassy officials to issue them with travel documents they did not have or with replacements for lost documents. "I want to go home. I'm afraid," an unnamed desperate young Ethiopian told a reporter on June 11, 1998, through the locked fence of the embassy.106 Another, a construction worker, told the reporter that he was hungry and sleeping in the streets because he had been dismissed from his work and evicted from his home at the beginning of the conflict.107
Some Ethiopians who slept in the vicinity of their embassy might have believed that the proximity would grant them added security. Instead, according to town residents, policemen routinely arrested and briefly detained many of the campers for sleeping in the streets, which is illegal under Eritrean law. According to the Chargé d'Affaires, the embassy fed and cared for those who camped within its compound, and intensified its contacts with the Eritrean government to diffuse the situation and allow the departure of these people.
Businessmen and other established members of the Ethiopian community in Eritrea formed or activated self-help associations to assist their distressed countrymen. The Axum Association, for example, provided shelter and food for some 480 women, many of them pregnant or accompanied by children. The Hawzea Association housed about eighty men until their departure.108
On July 8, 1998 Eritrean authorities waived the exit visa requirement, allowing the organized departure of thousands of Ethiopia citizens under the auspices of the ICRC in the early phase of the war. Nonetheless, Eritrean authorities initially appeared intent on delaying or preventing the departure of Ethiopian citizens through other bureaucratic hurdles.109
The first group of Ethiopians departed Asmara for the border under ICRC observation on August 10, 1998. The ICRC became involved in order to address the humanitarian consequences of the conflict under its mandate as defined in the Geneva Conventions. The agency sought to guarantee the security and the dignity of populations being transferred across international borders by insisting that both governments notify the ICRC four days in advance of any deportations or voluntary returns. Both governments accepted the notification arrangement and initially cooperated with the ICRC in facilitating its implementation. However, both governments also resorted at times to expulsions without prior notification. 110
During the war's early phase, departures occurred at midnight from an assembly point near the main campus of the University of Asmara. From early August through December 1998, between 18,000 and 19,000 Ethiopians left to Ethiopia under safe passage operations, about 75 percent of them from Assab, and the remainder from Asmara.111 The returnees entered Ethiopia through the border posts at Humera, Zala Anbessa, Mereb, and Rama, where the Ethiopian government made logistical and other preparations to ease their arrival. It is believed that an equal number of Ethiopian residents had left mainly from Assab and Asmara prior to the organization of safe passage operations, some of them on their own, others under duress or deported by Eritrea.112
The Ethiopian government charged in June 1998 that Eritrea had deported three thousand of its citizens since the beginning of the conflict about a month earlier. According to the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs, on June 9, 1998 in Asmara and its environs, "Eritrean security forces evicted over 3,000 Ethiopian civilians and interned about 600 others, confiscating their property... and inflicting inhuman suffering. Many of them were deported through a hostile border in an inhuman manner."113 In July 1999, Ethiopia maintained that some 41,000 Ethiopians had by then been deported from Eritrea.
According to press reports and individual testimonies compiled by the Ethiopian government, Ethiopian residents who had been deported from Assab, apparently prior to the first visits of the U.N. observers to the port city in mid July 1998, complained upon their arrival in Ethiopia of beatings and the confiscation of their property. "When things went well in Eritrea they treated us well, but when things went badly, they treated us like dogs. Now we don't know who we are, whether Eritreans or Ethiopians," complained a mother of four and former long time Assab resident to a reporter. 114 She said Eritrean authorities had confiscated her house, small grocery, and business videos. Others in the group complained about beatings prior to their deportation. The group also blamed Ethiopian authorities for being slow in coming to their assistance.115
Prior to Eritrea's battlefield losses of in the third round of fighting, in May and June 2000, there were relatively few reports of Ethiopian residents in Eritrea being interned by Eritrean authorities. Most reports of internment were published by the Ethiopian government. In June 1998, for example, the Ethiopian government reported that about 600 Ethiopians were interned in Eritrea.116 After Ethiopia recaptured the disputed area of Badme in late February 1999, the Ethiopian Attaché in Asmara said he registered the names of 183 civilian internees.117 He further raised the case of 1,836 Ethiopians whom he said were rounded up in March 1999 in the Tessanai and Barentu towns of the western Gash Barka region, and transferred to an internment camp in Aweshait, in the western lowlands of Eritrea. He said the internees, all males of military age, were separated from their wives and underage children prior to the transfer. The same official also said that Eritrean authorities immediately deported the 2,800 women and children to Ethiopia without guarantees of safe passage.
Human Rights Watch later obtained corroboration of the internment in Aweshait from independent NGO sources. After initially denying that the internment camp ever existed, Eritrean authorities reportedly allowed a journalist to visit the facility a month after the incident was publicized by Ethiopia. The journalist reportedly found evidence that many of the men had recently been detained at the camp, but had been released shortly before his visit.
Dozens of the former internees at Aweshait later turned up in different Eritrean towns, totally destitute and dependent on handouts for their survival. A statement of the office of the Ethiopian government's spokesperson on August 5, 1999, claimed that some 400 of the internees formerly held at Aweshait were released "on to the streets of Asmara," where they remained without the means to feed themselves and were subject to routine harassment by Eritrean security agents. The remainder of the group, according to the same statement, had been moved to an unknown location.118
The Ethiopian government regularly issued public statements about Ethiopians it claims were interned and abused in Eritrea it learned of their cases. During a reporting period from the recapture of Badme in late February 1999 to early June 1999, government lists published the names of some 2,500, including 1,836 internees once held at Aweshait.119
Human Rights Watch received a number of reports of beatings of Ethiopian residents, and Tigreans in particular, mainly committed by private individuals and policemen. According to independent sources in Asmara, a spate of such attacks occurred after the Ethiopian raid on Asmara's airport on June 5, 1998, and in the wake of Ethiopia's success in retaking the disputed Badme town in March 1999.120
The Ethiopian embassy officially protested to the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs about several incidents involving the random arrest and beating of Ethiopian residents by policemen.121 Some victims complained that police destroyed their Ethiopian identity papers, and asked the embassy for replacements. According to the attaché, the embassy's records showed that most attacks occurred in Asmara in the aftermath of the raid on its airport. Twenty incidents were reported, in the Geza Habesha, Gejeret, and Maichuet residential areas alone in the Eritrean capital. In all, the embassy registered about two hundred complaints of this type in the country following the raid on Asmara airport.122
Longtime residents of the port city of Massawa told Human Rights Watch that on March 9, 1999, shortly after Ethiopian forces retook Badme, a mob of several dozen civilians, mainly members of neighborhood watch groups, attacked the Amateri residential area where Tigrean day laborers live.123 In the ensuing rampage, Kiros Nigusie Meles, Hagos Mehari Bizu, and a third Tigrean construction worker, were killed, and some thirty other residents sustained injuries that required their treatment at a hospital. Local authorities acted quickly to diffuse the tension, according to our sources. The attackers were rounded up and their arms, originally issued to them by the government, were withdrawn from them. Some were briefly detained by the police for their role in the attack, although prosecutions are not known to have been brought.124
The Ethiopian attaché said that there were about three thousand permanent Ethiopian residents in Massawa who were registered at the embassy prior to the conflict, mainly businessmen, artisans, and professionals. He estimated that a few thousand more laborers also lived in the city. According to his information, many of the port and construction workers had returned to Ethiopia, and did so mostly through Asmara. Human Rights Watch received inconclusive answers to questions we put to officials of the Eritrean government as to whether any steps were taken to prosecute and punish those found responsible for the Massawa incident and attacks involving policemen. In mid-March 2002, Eritrea "amnestied" 122 former Ethiopia detainees who were held at Masawa naval base for more than two years. All were repatriated to Ethiopia shortly after their release.125
The Eritrean government's attitude towards residents of Ethiopian origin hardened considerably after the resumption of hostilities in May 2000. After interning thousands of them during and in the immediate aftermath of the fighting, the Eritrean government encouraged their repatriation to Ethiopia. A significant rise in the number of Ethiopians expelled from Eritrea occurred in the aftermath of the signing of the cease-fire agreement in mid-June 2000. The first to be forcibly expelled were among the 7,500 Ethiopians whom Eritrea rounded up as Ethiopian troops advanced deep into uncontested territory in May and June. Eritrean authorities claimed that their internment was for their protection from attacks by angry neighbors as well as from being caught in the fighting. However, while some Ethiopians said that they went to the camp voluntarily to avoid being attacked by hostile neighbors, some of those interviewed by international journalists at Shikete site, one of the internment camps, said they were detained there by force.126 The Ethiopian government for its part denounced the internment of its citizens as a measure of collective punishment and revenge for recent Eritrean setbacks in the war.
On June 16 the Eritrean government said it was "finalizing the necessary arrangements to expedite the voluntary departure of Ethiopians who have decided of their own free will to return to Ethiopia," and reserved the right "to repatriate Ethiopians on case by case basis."127 By the end of June, the ICRC had repatriated some 4,635 Ethiopian nationals, and announced that it was preparing to facilitate the return to Ethiopia of several thousand more.128
The pace of repatriations and forcible expulsions of Ethiopians from Eritrea dramatically accelerated in July and August 2000. Media reports in mid-July 2000 exposed the detention in Eritrea and subsequent expulsion to Djibouti of ninety-two Ethiopian women who were mostly domestic workers. The women arrived in Djibouti "wearing almost no clothes," according to one report.129 The official Addis Ababa Radio on July 30 accused Eritrea of expelling 550 Ethiopians, mostly women and children without notifying the ICRC, a report that the ICRC later confirmed.130 The ICRC also confirmed, in a statement issued by its office in Addis Ababa, the forcible deportation on August 2 of some 2,700 Ethiopians from an internment camp north of the capital Asmara to a location near the front line; it said the deportees had to walk eighteen hours before reaching Ethiopian positions. "These people were exposed to cold, rain, lack of food and water as well as the danger of minefields," noted the statement.131 At least five deportees perished as a result of the harsh conditions that accompanied their expulsion.132 All told, the ICRC said in its annual report 2000 on Eritrea that it had organized the safe return to Ethiopia during that year of 12,000 persons of Ethiopian origin, including former internees and detainees, who had been expelled or had expressed the wish to leave Eritrea.133
The exodus continued in 2001: in his December 13, 2001 progress report on the implementation of the peace agreement, the U.N. secretary-general informed the Security Council that since December 2000, a total of 21,255 persons of Ethiopian origin had been repatriated to their country.
Repatriations of people of Ethiopian origin to Ethiopia decreased dramatically in the first quarter of 2002, from a weekly average of 1,000 repatriations during the corresponding period in 2001, to a few dozens. On February 1 a group of 134 persons left for Ethiopia under the auspices of the ICRC, and the agency repatriated another group of 144 people on March 15.134 The latest repatriated group consisted of the 122 former detainees who had been held at Massawa for more than two years before being "amnestied" days ahead of their release and repatriation.135 A number of factors appeared to have contributed to the decrease, including the end of the conflict, and the fact that many who wanted to leave had already left. Repatriated persons claimed in interviews with U.N. human rights investigators that discrimination against Ethiopians with regard to access to employment and social services, and exposure to arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment during detention were the main factors that led them to decide to leave.
On July 29, 2000, Eritrea acceded to the four Geneva Conventions, and the ICRC was enabled as of August 2000 to begin discharging its treaty-based mandate to visit people protected by the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. In late August, ICRC delegates visited Ethiopian prisoners of war held in a camp at the town of Nacfa in northern Eritrea, and also visited and registered civilian internees held in three different locations.136
At the signing of the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea on December 12, 2000, the ICRC had registered and was visiting 2,600 Eritrean and 1,000 Ethiopian prisoners of war. Both parties agreed under the terms of the agreement to release prisoners of war unconditionally and without delay, and tasked the ICRC with supervising their release and repatriation. However, after promising initial exchanges of wounded and sick POWs, the process came to a halt in March 2001 when the parties sparred over the fate of a missing Ethiopian pilot. At the end of November 2002, the ICRC reported that all "registered" POWs had been released by both countries. Altogether, the ICRC said that 1,067 Ethiopian POWs and 5,055 civilian internees and 2,067 Eritrean POWs and 1,086 civilian internees had been repatriated since the end of the war. The ICRC announced, however, that it would work with both countries to obtain the release of individual POWs alleged to be held but who had not have been registered with it.137
100 Statement of the 11th Session of the National Assembly of Eritrea, Asmara, June 26, 1998.
101 Human Rights Watch interviews, Asmara, May 1999.
102 Meeting at Human Rights Watch with Ambassador Yimer and Counselor Berhanemeskel Nega, Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the U.N., February 18, 1999.
103 The Ethiopian weekly newspaper Beza reported that the TPLF radio, which is based in Tigray region, had predicted the imminent departure in mass of a "good part" of Ethiopian workers residing in Eritrea. Beza noted, "the radio gave no hint as to why Ethiopian laborers will have to be repatriated that soon. But observers believe that the decision may have been prompted by the Asmara government's Eritreanization policy and economic structural measures." As an example of economic decisions with adverse effects on the Ethiopian workforce in Eritrea, the newspaper cited the closure of the aging Assab refinery that immediately led to the layoff of some 1,300 workers, most of them Ethiopians. "Ethiopians to leave Eritrea," Beza, September 16, 1997, as reported in Press Digest, Vol. IV, No. 39, p.5.
104 A press report filed from Assab covered a demonstration on July 18, 1998 by more than three hundred Ethiopian residents pressing for assistance to return to Ethiopia. "We want food, we want work.... We are very angry, now we want to go to our country," one demonstrator told a Reuters' correspondent. Another explained, "there has been no work for three months. We have no money for food." "Unemployed Ethiopians demonstrate at Eritrean port," Reuters, Assab, July 18, 1998.
105 Human Rights Watch interview, Asmara, May 1999.
106 "Ethiopians trying to flee Eritrea," Associated Press, Asmara, June 11, 1998.
108 Human Rights Watch interview with the Ethiopian Chargé d'Affaires, Asmara, May 10, 1999. Human Rights Watch obtained corroborating information from independent sources and during a visit to the compound that had been used by Axum Association to house the women at the height of the crisis.
109 Human Rights Watch interviewed Ethiopian residents in Asmara who said that although they had fulfilled all the legal departure requirements, they had not received the final authorization from the department of immigration permitting them to register for departure. According to their account, Ethiopians citizens wishing to leave Eritrea were required to obtain an identity card or travel pass from their embassy. They were also required to collect statements from public utility agencies and banks certifying that they had no outstanding debts to the concerned institution. Holders of business licenses were required to obtain the clearance of the Ministry of Trade. After obtaining these certificates, would-be travelers had to go to the Ministry of Finance to pay all outstanding income and business tax due to the Eritrean state. The bureaucratic maze included eighteen steps, at each of which there were processing fees to pay, in addition to any outstanding dues. The Department of Immigration issued the final form authorizing the individual to depart, but only after the verifying payment receipts and clearances from these institutions. Provided that they had covered all their financial obligations, respondents said it took them in average about two weeks to complete the procedures and get all the clearances. For many, the Ministry of Finance's hurdle proved the most difficult to cross because the ministry calculated the income tax on the monthly salary or estimated income of the individual for the entire period of his or her stay in Eritrea.
110 Human Rights Watch interviews with officials of Eritrean Relief and Rehabilitation Commission and press reports, May 1999.
111 Human Rights Watch interviews with aid workers, Asmara, May 1999.
113 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Records Section, "Short synopsis of the loss of life, population displacement, and destruction of property caused by the unprovoked Eritrean aggression against Ethiopia since May 1998," Addis Ababa, June 1998.
114 "Ethiopians expelled from Eritrea complain of abuse," Reuters, Addis Ababa, June 27, 1998.
116 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Eritrea expels 3,000, detains 530 Ethiopians," Addis Ababa, June 9, 1999. In an effort to obtain a list of the names of these internees and to follow up on other similar reports, the United Nations in Eritrea sent a high level delegation to the Ethiopian embassy in the Eritrean capital. A member of the delegation later told Human Rights Watch that the Chargé d'Affaires had asked for time to conduct further investigations and two weeks later, submitted a list of fifty-seven Ethiopians who were in detention at the time to the U.N. When Human Rights Watch interviewed the Ethiopian Chargé d'Affaires in May 1999 about this, he maintained that about 600 were held at the beginning of the conflict. The embassy could not give a detailed list of their names, he said, because it had no access to them. Human Rights Watch interviews, Asmara, May 1999.
117 Human Rights Watch interview with Wondimu Degefa, attache, Ethiopian Embassy, Asmara, May 10, 1999.
118 "Ethiopian prisoners moved from Aweshait," release issued by the office of the government spokesperson on August 5, 1999. See also "Eritrea prevents Ethiopians from returning home," July 27, 1999.
119 "More Ethiopians arrested and abused in Eritrea," Office of the Government Spokesperson, June 7, 1999.
120 The Ethiopian governments charged the Eritrean government of encouraging violence against Ethiopians "as a matter of policy." See the statement from the Office of the Government's Spokesperson "Eritrea continues to imprison and torture Ethiopians," March 26, 1999.
121 Human Rights Watch interview with Wondimu Degefa, Ethiopian Embassy, Asmara, May 10, 1999.
123 These groups were reportedly activated by the Eritrean government after the war.
124 Human Rights Watch interview with a resident of Massawa, Asmara, May 12, 1999.
126 "Ethiopians feel safer in camps," Associated Press, Shikete, Eritrea, June 6, 2000.
127 "Response to the resolution of Ethiopia's Council of people's Representatives," Eritrean Foreign Ministry, June 16, 2000.
128 "ICRC repatriates Ethiopians from Eritrea," ICRC News, No.00/22, June 20, 2000.
129 "Eritrea deports Ethiopian women to Djibouti coast," Agence France Press, Paris, July 17, 2000.
130 "Ethiopia, Eritrea must settle on route for returning refugees-ICRC," Agence France Presse, Addis Ababa, August 8, 2000.
134 See "Eritrea-Ethiopia: 134 Ethiopians Repatriated from Eritrea," ICRC News, No. 02/06, February 1, 2002 and "Eritrea-Ethiopia: Close to 250 People Repatriated," ICRC News, No. 02/12, March 15, 2002.
135 "Eritrea-Ethiopia: Ethiopian Detainees Repatriated," ICRC News.
136 "ICRC visits Ethiopian prisoners in Eritrea," ICRC News, No.00/32, September 1, 2000.
137 ICRC press release, Nov. 29, 2002.