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Ethiopia's New Stance on Eritrean Asylum-Seekers Criticized


A change in asylum procedure by Ethiopia's government is undermining neighboring Eritreans' access to asylum and denying unaccompanied children the necessary protection, Human Rights Watch asserted Tuesday.

The rights group said Ethiopia in January changed its refugee policy that had granted all arriving Eritrean asylum seekers refugee status.

"Ethiopia has long welcomed tens of thousands of Eritreans fleeing persecution each year," said Laetitia Bader, the group's Horn of Africa director. "With no letup in repression in Eritrea, the Ethiopian government shouldn't be denying protection to Eritrean nationals, particularly unaccompanied children."

Eritrea's system of forced military conscription leads thousands of people, mostly youth, to flee the country. Most go to Ethiopia, which currently hosts more than 170,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers.

Speaking to The Associated Press, the head of Ethiopia's Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs said a lack of individual refugee status determination in the past has resulted in a high number of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia.

"This uncontrolled practice has resulted in a high influx of unaccompanied minors, illegal migrants and others who do not fulfill the criteria laid out in international instruments," Eyob Awoke said. "As such, we have initiated a strict modus operandi whose implementation will be applied to all nationalities hosted by Ethiopia."

Eyob said that from now on, current conditions in countries of origin including human rights, security situations and socio-economic and humanitarian factors will be taken into account to ensure an "evidence-based process."

Eyob also cited a funding cut from international partners and donors.

Eritreans make up some 22% of the more than 750,000 refugees that Ethiopia currently hosts, according to U.N. data. Another 44% of refugees come from neighboring South Sudan and 26% from neighboring Somalia.

Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018 ended two decades of hostilities by agreeing to end a border conflict and restoring ties. But rights groups have noted little sign of repressive measures being loosened inside Eritrea.

Human Rights Watch said some 6,000 Eritreans arrived in Ethiopia every month in 2019. According to the United Nations refugee agency, 44% of Eritrean refugees based in northern Ethiopia were children as of December.

"The refusal to register unaccompanied children may compel them to return to abusive situations," Human Rights Watch said.

In March, Ethiopia announced it would close a refugee camp in the north that hosts more than 25,000 Eritreans, the group said, though the coronavirus pandemic has affected the timing.