Human Rights Watch said Eritrean government forces and Tigrayan militia committed murders, rapes and other grave violations against Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. All warring parties must stop attacks on refugees, stay away from refugee camps and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Between November 2020 and January 2021, belligerent Eritrean and Tigrayan forces occupied and committed numerous abuses, alternatively the Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps, which housed thousands of Eritrean refugees. Eritrean forces also targeted Tigrayans living in the communities surrounding the camps. The clashes that broke out in mid-July in the other two active refugee camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, have made refugees again in need of urgent protection and assistance.
“Eritrian refugees have been attacked both by the forces they fled to their homes and by Tigrayan fighters,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The horrific murders, rapes and looting of Eritrean refugees in Tigray are blatant war crimes.”
Since January, Human Rights Watch has interviewed 28 Eritrean refugees: 23 former residents of Hitsats camps and 5 former residents of Shimelba camps, and 2 residents of the town of Hitsats, who witnessed abuses by Eritrean forces and local Tigrayan militias. Human Rights Watch also interviewed aid workers and analyzed satellite images.
Human Rights Watch summarizes the findings and provides further information to Ethiopia’s Office of Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA), the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), Eritrea’s permanent mission to the United Nations, and other international organizations in Geneva. sent requesting letters. Responses from ARRA and UNHCR are included below. Eritrea did not respond.
On November 19, Eritrean forces arrived in the town of Hitsats and indiscriminately killed several residents. They invaded and looted the town and captured the refugee camp. Some refugees participated in the looting, adding to community tensions.
On November 23, Tigrayan militia entered the Hitsats camp and attacked refugees near the camp’s Orthodox church. Fighting broke out for hours between militia fighters and Eritrean soldiers in and around the camp. Nine refugees were killed and 17 seriously injured.
One refugee said that her husband was killed by Tigrayan militia fighters while her family was trying to take shelter in the church: “My husband was carrying our 4-year-old child on his back and our 6-year-old child in his arms. They shot him when he came back to help me get into the church.”
Two dozen residents of the town of Hitsats were also reported killed during and after the clashes that broke out that day. The Tigrayan militia withdrew from the Hitsats after the conflict.
Eritrean forces then detained about two dozen refugees in the camp and took them in military vehicles. Their whereabouts were not disclosed. Eritrean forces also removed 17 injured refugees from the camp and took at least one and possibly others back to Eritrea, ostensibly for treatment.
Eritrean forces withdrew from the camp in early December. Tigrayan’s forces returned on the evening of 5 December, setting fire to the camp and sending hundreds of refugees to flee. In the days that followed, the Tigrayan militia attacked, arbitrarily detained and sexually assaulted some refugees who had fled north of the Hitsats, especially around Zelazle and Ziban Gedena. They then took the refugees back to the Hitsats.
“I am a double victim,” said a 27-year-old woman, whom Tigrayan militia fighters raped along with her 17-year-old sister while fleeing the Hitsats. “Both in Eritrea and now here [in Ethiopia], I am not protected.”
In hitsats, Tigrayan militia and special forces and members of an unidentified armed Eritrean group arbitrarily detained hundreds of refugees, apparently to identify refugees who were collaborating with Eritrean forces or responsible for the looting in the town.
On January 4, after heavy fighting near the camp, Tigrayan forces withdrew from the Hitsats. Eritrean forces returned and ordered all remaining refugees to leave along the main road to Eritrea. Between 5 and 8 January, Eritrean forces destroyed and burned the camp’s shelters and humanitarian infrastructure, and devastated significant parts of the camp.
Most of the refugees then faced a grueling day-long march to the Ethiopian town of Sheraro and the disputed border town of Badme, then under Eritrean control. Refugees said that once they got there, many felt they had no choice but to return to Eritrea, despite the risks of facing detention and indefinite conscription. Eyewitnesses said hundreds of buses went to Eritrea in January.
Other refugees managed to flee to Ethiopia, some of them urban areas or the still functioning Eritrean refugee camps in southern Tigray, Mai Aini and Aid Harush. UNHCR reported that 7,643 of the 20,000 refugees known to be in the Hitsats and Shimelba camps in October 2020 had not been disclosed by the end of August 2021. Most of the refugees accounted for fled to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, but none of the Ethiopian government or international partners have provided any assistance to date. Human Rights Watch said refugees without assistance are more vulnerable to further abuse, including abuse.
“Tigray has been a haven for Eritrean refugees fleeing harassment for years, but many feel they are no longer safe,” Bader said. After months of fear, abuse and neglect, Ethiopia, with the support of its international partners, must ensure that all Eritrean refugees have immediate access to protection and assistance.”