World Refugee Survey 2008 - Ethiopia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2008 - Ethiopia, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 19 September 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

ETH figures


Ethiopia hosted about 201,700 refugees and asylum seekers, including about 111,600 Somalis who fled the collapse of the Somali state in 1991 or more recent turmoil and about 55,400 Sudanese who fled the civil war in the south of Sudan.

Ethiopia also hosted some 23,900 Eritrean refugees. About 16,800 of them lived in Shimelba camp near the northern border: this group included some 4,000 ethnic Kunama, whom the Eritrean Government had accused of supporting Ethiopia in the 1998 to 2000 dispute; evangelical Christians fleeing religious persecution; and newer arrivals fleeing forced conscription. Most of the Kunama turned down the option of U.S. resettlement after guerrilla leaders who wanted to keep them in the camp showed them the movie Roots and violent American television police dramas and told them that Americans would steal their organs. Another 7,100 ethnic Afar Eritrean refugees lived in the remote Afar region of northern Ethiopia.

Some 17,000 Somalis lived in the Kebribeyah camp in the northeast. Around 50,000 more, mostly women and children, entered Ethiopia between August 2006 and early February 2007 and stayed with family and clan members. Between 30,000 and 45,000 unregistered Somali asylum seekers lived in and around Addis Ababa and other urban areas.

At the end of the year, more than 41,000 Sudanese refugees, who had fled the 21-year-war between Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, lived in four camps near the western border. Yarenja, a fifth refugee camp, closed in March. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) helped about 19,000 Sudanese return. Pursuant to the 2006 tripartite agreement, Ethiopia allowed refugees who did not wish to return to Sudan to remain in Ethiopia as refugees.

Between 300 and 600 ethnic Tigrinya Eritrean refugees entered per month as fear grew over the possibility of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea over their disputed border.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

There were no reports of refoulement.

According to the International Crisis Group, however, armed groups recruited refugees out of the refugee camps in Shiraro and Shimelba, near the border with Eritrea. According to a UN Population Fund (UNFPA) assessment, rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and sexual harassment were all prevalent in Kebribeyah camp near the Somali border, and sexual exploitation and abuse were "the biggest problem" in Shimelba camp.

Ethiopia was party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention), its 1967 Protocol – with reservations treating the 1951 Convention's rights to exemption from exceptional measures, to work, and to primary education as recommendations – and the 1969 Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (African Refugee Convention). The 1995 Constitution made international agreements "an integral part of the law of the land" and gave the executive and legislative branches specific authority to provide asylum. The 2004 Refugee Proclamation established a procedure for applying for asylum and incorporated the refugee definitions from both conventions, including Africans fleeing war and generalized violence. It prohibited the Government from refusing entry to refugees or asylum seekers and returning them to any country where they would be at risk of persecution. It also granted refugees some rights of both conventions, but made exceptions to those of movement and work.

The Security, and Immigration, and Refugee Affairs Authority's (SIRAA) Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) screened Eritrean refugees without UNHCR monitoring at Inda Abaguna near the border. The eligibility committee in Addis Ababa made up of ARRA and UNHCR staff made first instance decisions for refugees from countries other than Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan, and there was no appeal. SIRAA did not recognize any refugees prima facie during the year but, in practice, the Government did treat persons from southern Somalia as refugees. ARRA lacked trained staff and had hundreds of cases in its backlog. Some asylum seekers waited a year for hearings. According to UNHCR, "The quality of the decisions are solely based on the time and effort of UNHCR staff with the Government counterpart being unable to ensure quality decisions."

Detention/Access to Courts

There were no reports that Ethiopia detained refugees or asylum seekers for illegal entry, presence, work, or movement, but the Government kept several Eritreans in detention on national security grounds, allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit them.

Pre-trial detentions were lengthy because few judges were available in the remote border areas where the Government kept the camps. The Federal High Court had no permanent presence there but made circuit rides. Traditional courts prosecuted camp-based refugees who committed minor offenses and usually fined them. UNHCR and ICRC had access to detained refugees or asylum seekers.

The 2004 Refugee Proclamation required SIRAA to issue identity cards to refugees and asylum seekers and prohibited their prosecution for illegal entry or presence. The Government issued identity cards to asylum seekers and refugees in urban areas, but not to those in camps. The Government issued most Eritreans identity cards and six-month renewable residence permits.

The Constitution extended to all its rights to liberty from arbitrary detention, due process in criminal prosecutions, and access to justice in civil matters. According to UNFPA, however, "There appears to be little legal recourse for GBV issues" in Shimelba and Kebribeyah camps. UNHCR's 2006 Standards and Indicators Report indicated that refugee reporting of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) was less than 40 percent. According to UNHCR, there were no functioning SGBV referral systems in the Sudanese or Somali camps and no proper follow-up on incidents "unless exceptionally brutal or involving minors." In Kebribeyah camp for Somalis, UNHCR reported female genital mutilation, sexual violence, and denial of girls' education.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

Ethiopia required nearly all Eritrean, Sudanese, and Somali refugees to live in seven camps near their respective orders and required them to obtain permits to leave. The Government issued permits specifying the period of travel to camp residents for personal, medical, educational, or safety reasons. In general, Ethiopia restricted aid to refugees in camps or those with specific permission to live in urban areas. Some refugees from the Great Lakes area lived in Sherkole camp in the west because aid was available to them only there. In the north, refugees lived with local communities in 24 remote locations, but in February UNHCR, regional authorities, ARRA, and the World Food Programme limited aid to two distribution sites near Dubti and Berhale.

The 1995 Constitution provided that "any ... foreign national lawfully in Ethiopia has, within the national territory, the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence, as well as the freedom to leave the country at any time he wishes," but reserved the right of reentry to nationals. The 2004 Refugee Proclamation gave refugees the right to international travel documents, but authorized the head of SIRAA to designate areas where refugees and asylum seekers must live "provided that the areas designated shall be located at a reasonable distance from the border of their country of origin or of former habitual residence." Nevertheless, the Government made no such designation in 2007, making the residential restrictions of questionable legality.

The Government and UNHCR jointly adjudicated refugees' written applications for international travel documents for educational, work-related, or urgent personal reasons and issued four of them.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

In general, Ethiopia did not allow refugees to work. The Government granted work permits to foreigners only when there were no qualified nationals available and rarely issued permits to refugees. The Government also tolerated some refugees with special skills working illegally. Authorities tolerated refugee participation in the informal sector, including trading in markets or doing other piecemeal jobs.

The 1995 Constitution offered only citizens the right to work; and also granted them the right to join unions, to bargain collectively, and to strike, as well as to other labor rights generally. The 2004 Proclamation exercised Ethiopia's reservation to the 1951 Convention's right to work, placing the same restrictions on refugees as on other foreigners.

Authorities restricted kitchen gardens in Sherkole, Kebribeyah, and Shimelba camps to less than 15 percent of refugee households. Authorities banned the cutting of live wood in most camps, compelling residents to travel 4 to 10 km or more for deadwood, risking injury, attack, and rape. According to UNHCR, "Significant alterations have taken place in the landscapes of most camp areas. Soil erosion is rampant."

The Constitution offered only citizens the right to run enterprises and reserved other limited property rights to citizens. The state owned all land and all radio and television stations. Only permanent residents could operate newspapers. Refugees, however, could hold title to and transfer other types of property.

Guerrillas in the northern camps extracted war taxes from refugees.

Public Relief and Education

Only in Dimma camp did refugees receive the standard provision of 20 liters of water per person per day, and in Bonga and Kebribeyah refugees received only 11 liters. In Kebribeyah, global acute malnutrition was over 10 percent and trained staff attended fewer than 10 percent of births. Newly arrived refugees in Shimelba camp reportedly had to trade sex for shelter. Only about one in five of the Sudanese refugees in Bonga, Dimma, and Fugnido camps had blankets, jerry cans, and cooking sets. Most in these camps and Sherkole camp had not received such nonfood items in over six years.

Government clinics in camps provided health services, including drugs. In general, refugees and asylum seekers outside camps received services from Government hospitals on par with nationals, including free anti-retroviral treatment. UNHCR's implementing partner reimbursed Ethiopian hospitals for the treatment of refugees. Only Dimma and Sherkole camps had HIV/AIDS programs. New Eritrean arrivals received four eucalyptus poles and a plastic sheet for shelter. Most Eritreans could use hospitals and other public services, but some local government officials reportedly denied medical services to indigent Eritreans.

Girls' enrolment in primary school was less than 50 percent in all the camps. Government schools did not accept refugees, but UNHCR contributed to private primary school tuition, uniforms, transportation, and books for 350 students in Addis Ababa. In Kebribeyah, only 22 percent of school-aged children went to primary school. There was only one textbook for every four students and an average of 61 students per classroom and only 10 trained teachers. There were, however, over 800 children enrolled in 15 Koranic schools in the camp.

In urban areas, UNHCR gave refugees monthly subsistence allowances for food and rent and yearly allowances for clothing.

The 1995 Constitution limited its offer of equal access to publicly funded services to citizens. The 2004 Proclamation exercised Ethiopia's reservation to the 1951 Convention's right to primary education, placing the same restrictions on refugees and their children as on other foreigners. In June, the UN's Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern about refugee children's enjoyment of their right to education and recommended that Ethiopia "adopt adequate measures" to ensure their equal access.

Ethiopia generally cooperated with and granted access to UNHCR and other agencies aiding refugees, although the Government monitored and sometimes controlled the passage of relief supplies and humanitarian agencies in the Gambella Region, including to Bonga and Fugnido camps. Its 2002 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper for international donors included refugees, but only as an example of the "social crisis" affecting development and as a group to target for HIV/AIDS prevention.

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