Closure of Hitsats refugee camp in Ethiopia

Anonymous sources confirmed that the federal government of Ethiopia ordered the closure of Hitsats refugee camp in Tigray province of Ethiopia. All camp refugees have been asked to relocate to another camp which is already overpopulated and does not have a functioning infrastructure. The government justifies the closure as a ‘budget constraint’, however UNHCR argues that the budget for 2020 was already approved and allocated to the Administration for Refugee & Returnee Affairs (ARRA), a governmental agency which has the mandate over refugees in Ethiopia. Hitsats, as the youngest camp in Tigray region, is currently home to more than 10,000 Eritrean refugees.

The new decision has received pushback by refugees who have written a petition to the federal government condemning the order. The closure is therefore delayed as refugees are refusing to leave the camp. Several governmental agencies together with UNHCR are meeting in Addis Ababa to discuss the petition and give their final verdict. Neither refugees nor organisations working in the camp know what will happen next and whether government will use force or another strategy to move people out.

According to a source, the move is linked to the political games that are being played on the regional level since the peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been signed. On the national level, the regional government of Tigray has promised to support refugees in Hitsats and is ready to oppose the federal government. The Deputy President of Tigray said during a meeting of Tigray People’s Liberation Front party that “no force can close the refugee camps in Tigray region”.

Eritreans flee their country due to continuous oppression of the regime through indefinite national service. Ethiopia has kept its doors opened for Eritrean refugees for several years and Eritreans were granted prima facie refugee status. New asylum policy, however, does not allow newly arrived Eritreans to be registered or given asylum. The number of registered individuals decreased from 250-500 per day to only 30 per day. Those who are denied registration are settling illegally in nearby towns and host communities without any help or support from organisations.  According to analysts the government aims to frustrate the refugees and make conditions difficult for them so that they return back to Eritrea. This will allow the government to close all camps rather than openly sending refugees back which goes against international law.

The current situation brought uncertainty and concerns to the refugee population. According to a source “the situation is a bit tense [in Hitsats]. Refugees are vowing not to leave and openly said they would rather die than to leave the camp”. This adds to already high prevalence of traumatic experiences that refugees have undergone. The lack of clarity, information, and monitoring of the situation is exposing refugees to greater vulnerability. It has been observed that those refugees who have limited information are at high risk to fall in the hands of human traffickers.