After the death of more than 300 refugees -- most from Eritrea -- when a boat carrying migrants sank near Lampedusa, Italy, Eritrean refugees living in camps in northern Ethiopia gathered to memorialize their compatriots.
Sadly, violence broke out during the memorial in two camps. At least one person was killed and some, including children, were injured.
Most people are unaware of the Eritrean refugee crisis. This small nation (a population under 6 million) is among the highest refugee-producing nations in the world. It is estimated that 2 million Eritreans live as refugees globally.
Decades of instability in Eritrea have led to the current situation. Many refugees have experienced horrific treatment, first at the hands of their government, then on the long, dangerous journey to escape. Up to 3,000 flee to Sudan or Ethiopia each month.
The Eritrean government's list of human rights violations is long: arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, forced labor, severe restrictions on freedom of expression, and religious persecution. Many refugees are young men fleeing forced and indefinite conscription into the military.
The Center for Victims of Torture recently began providing mental health care to Eritrean refugees in three camps in northern Ethiopia. We have over a decade's experience working in refugee camps and post-conflict countries. So we know what it is like to work in a situation where the need for our services overwhelms our ability to provide them.
But we have been surprised by the severe lack of basic services available in the camps, including employment and education.
Our staff visited a reception center in Endabaguna, Ethiopia. The center, intended to provide shelter for just a few days while people are registered as refugees and assigned space at a camp, ends up housing people for up to four months, especially the large numbers of youth under 18 who cross the border on their own, as there are limited space and resources in existing refugee camps.
The conditions of the compound for unaccompanied boys were especially bleak. Boys sleep in approximately 30 feet by 30 feet concrete rooms on foam mattresses spread out on the hard floor. There is no electricity, no mosquito nets. There is one social worker to address the needs of the hundreds of clients in the center at any given time. There are no organized activities, education, or recreational equipment of any kind available to these young people. Other than a very limited health clinic and basic provisions, there are essentially no services of any kind. Kids often go missing from the reception center, assuming that they can find better conditions on their own. They sometimes run away to the refugee camps, try to make the risky journey home to Eritrea, travel to other parts of Ethiopia, or try to go to other parts of the world. These children are vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and abuse including smuggling and trafficking.
Given the conditions, it's not difficult to imagine that refugees of any age would embark on dangerous and risky journeys to Europe or other parts of the world.
It is understandable that people feel a sense of fatigue over the toll of war, especially as we witness the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict in Syria. But it is simply not true that there is nothing more that can be done.
Frankly, this crisis deserves the attention of world leaders. Very little time and focus has been given to the current situation. We can and we should do more to provide for the basic human needs of Eritrean refugees, especially those in camps in Ethiopia and Sudan. We must also do this in coordination with the African Union and the host countries themselves.
Eritreans fleeing their country are extremely vulnerable to human smuggling and trafficking. Working with host countries, we should promote migration paths from Eritrea to reduce underground channels and promote intercountry cooperation while treating victims humanely.
Also important is that much more must be done to resettle Eritrean refugees. Given the scale of human rights atrocities in Eritrea, returning home is not an option. Recently the U.S. State Department announced it came very close to resettling the number of refugees authorized. But that number is still 10,000 lower than the number of refugees we have resettled in the past. The United States and the European Union could do a better job of resettling refugees and providing a long term solution.
CVT's work with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is made possible with funds from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.