(France 24) – More than 6,000 Eritreans reached neighboring Ethiopia in September, four times more than before the rapprochement between the regime of Addis Ababa and Asmara. Nearly 40 percent of the refugees who leave Eritrea flee every day are under 18 years old. It only takes a single bus ticket bought in Eritrea to reach Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, without fear of being stopped at the border. Only a few months ago, however, it was impossible for Eritreans to flee the repressive regime of Issayas Afewerki without being arrested at the border.
But since the normalization of relations between the two Horn of Africa countries, symbolized by the reopening of their land borders in September, Eritrean soldiers are now content to record the names of travelers at the crossing of the border.
As a result, the number of Eritrean refugees has increased dramatically from 53 per day to 390, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to the UN agency, the Ethiopian authorities have registered more than 6,700 arrivals since September. Ethiopia already hosts nearly 170,000 Eritrean refugees scattered in several camps throughout the country.
“We could well compare this new phenomenon to the fall of the Berlin Wall,” says Marc Lavergne, a specialist in Central Africa and research director at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). It’s quite logical that we are witnessing this massive influx, and Eritrea and Ethiopia are not foreign countries in the sense where we usually hear it. These are countries have many affinities, where families are often on both sides.”
A former Ethiopian province, Eritrea declared independence in 1993 after three decades of war. The two countries then fought a war between 1998 and 2000, which killed over 80,000 people, mainly because of a minor border conflict.
Relations have remained tense after Ethiopia’s regime refused to return Badme territory to Eritrea despite a ruling in favor of the latter by an independent international commission backed by the UN. 2002.
The “cold war” between Eritrean and Ethiopian regimes seemed to drag on, until the surprise promise in June of the new Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, to return the disputed territory to Eritrea. Abiy Ahmed and Issayas Afewerki then signed a peace agreement in July 2018, then visited Zalambessa together in September to reopen the border crossing.
Young Eritreans flee mainly military service, which is indefinite. Issayas Afewerki justified his decision by saying that a new war with Ethiopia could break out. According to Amnesty International, military service, which the United Nations likens to slavery, “tore apart many families and destroyed the country’s social fabric.”
“It is often the case that several family members are called together and sent to different parts of the country, girls are married early to avoid conscription, and many children are growing up without both parents,” in a statement issued in September by the organization for the defense of human rights explains.
If for the moment, the influx of refugees to Ethiopia could be beneficial for Ethiopia, according to Marc Lavergne, a researcher and specialist in the Horn of Africa. “The young people who come here are educated and speak Tigrigna or Amharic.”