Ethiopia: opening doors to mass influx of refugees
07 July 2015

Youth perform a salsa dance routine at World Refugee Day in Mai Aini refugee camp, northern Ethiopia. The overwhelming majority of Mai Aini refugee camp are minors, eager for opportunities to express themselves and learn (Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service).
We are all vulnerable to being displaced from our homes….Root causes must be addressed so we can reverse these situations.
Addis Ababa, 7 July 2015 – As World Refugee Day on 20 June was recognised by refugees and humanitarian agencies around the globe, an important fact also came to light: there have never been as many refugees in our history as there are today. Ethiopia hosts the largest refugee population in Africa with an influx of 100,000 new arrivals since last June.

In Addis Ababa as well as in Mai Aini refugee camp in the north of the country and Dollo Ado in the south, the Jesuit Refugee Service commemorated World Refugee Day as not only an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments and rich cultures of refugee communities, but also to advocate alongside partners for more humane treatment of the displaced.

Influx and death tolls rising. Integration and hospitality from host communities are crucial, leaders said, to allowing refugees to live dignified lives. With new crises in Yemen and South Sudan, as well as continued displacement of Somalis and Eritreans, the country is just 2,000 shy of hosting 700,000 refugees.

It is no surprise thousands of refugees waiting years in camps or trying to eke out a living in urban areas take dangerous risks to attempt journeys to Europe, traveling through deserts and across seas. As of April, the death toll in the Mediterranean was 30 times higher this year than in 2014. This does not account for those who have perished before reaching port towns while traveling through the Sahara desert. Eritrean and Somali refugees are among the top three nationalities to take these dangerous routes.

Responsibility to open doors. Ethiopia, a low income country struggling to provide for its own population, has done an admirable job opening up space for such refugees in their first country of asylum, yet more work needs to be done to save lives and dignity, said Atakelt Tesfay Hailu SJ, JRS Ethiopia Director.

"Never before in the history of humanity, have nations been faced by hundreds of thousands of immigrants looking for means of livelihood, in utter desperation. This situation has made host countries more protective of their space and resources, and less welcoming refugees. With this also comes the danger of xenophobia and false claims that refugees are the cause of their domestic problems. As a result, in many parts of the world, refugees are being pushed back and pushed out," he added.

In Addis Ababa, Ato Ayalew Aweke, Director for Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA), reminded the audience at the event in Addis Ababa that half of the world's refugees are children, and countries, like Ethiopia,  who have signed UN and African Union (AU) conventions and protocols regarding refugees, have a serious responsibility to leave their doors open.

Many Ethiopians have opened their doors on their own initiatives. In Mai Aini and Dollo Ado refugee camps, JRS invited members of the local host community to the celebration, who have historically been friendly neighbours to the Eritrean refugees in the camp.

Atakelt Tesfay Hailu SJ reiterated a call for this kind of solidarity stating that the struggles of refugees are "our struggles, and their success is our success. Refugees are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, who with our support can do extraordinary things. So, let's not push refugees back. Let us welcome refugees."

Similarly, the AU representative, Olbasi Dare, in Addis Ababa, said, "being a refugee is not a choice. We are all vulnerable to being displaced from our homes….Root causes must be addressed so we can reverse these situations."

Progress and challenges. He went on to praise Uganda and Tanzania for setting an admirable example in the region for their treatment and attempts to integrate refugees into their societies.

All representatives in Addis Ababa and Mai Aini expressed their gratitude to the Ethiopian government for making sure refugees in Ethiopia are well cared for in their borders.

This year, the Ethiopian government gave university scholarships to 2,000 refugees as well as promoted out-of-camp schemes allowing refugees to be sponsored by Ethiopian citizens to live and work outside of camps. ARRA continues to work with NGOs in Addis Ababa and manage camps across the country, where they oversee operations.

Despite the progress, challenges persist. Keeping youth who worry about their futures after living years in refugee camps from taking dangerous migration routes is a major struggle. What's more, restrictions to participating in the formal economy make building a sustainable life for their families difficult.

As the world marks World Refugee Day against a backdrop of some of the most serious conflicts of the century, it is important a holistic, sustainable and durable solution is soon reached for the displaced around the globe.

Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer

Press Contact Information
Angela Wells
+254 20 3874152