the unceriaing future

The Uncertain Future Awaiting Refugees

Ethiopia hosts one of the largest refugee populations in Africa, and in the world. Right now, almost a million refugees live in Ethiopia. The majority of the refugees, especially those living in the states of Somali and Gambella, have lived in Ethiopia for over a decade. Yet, many of them remain unemployed and are in a situation where they are unable to change their future. To ease the problem, Ethiopia recently adopted a new law to allow refugees to get work permits and even citizenship. But many in the refugee community and the communities that host them don’t think the measure will work. EBR’s Samson Berhane reports.

Farahan Abdullahi (name changed upon request) was just 14 years old when he fled from Somalia, where he was born and raised, to Ethiopia. Escaping civilian-targeted attacks by Islamist group Al-Shabab, and harsh living conditions in a country where fighting, insecurity, lack of state protection and recurring humanitarian crises are common, his family brought him to Ethiopia five years ago.

Ethiopia hosts more than 253,000 refugees from Somalia. But upon their arrival at Sheder refugee camp, 690 kilometers away from Addis near the Ethio-Somalian border, what they faced was totally different from the refugees who came to the camp after the 2008 drought.
Situated in the arid southeastern region of Ethiopia, Sheder opened in 2008 and is home to more than 10,800 refugees, including Abdullahi. Although he and his family were able to live in the camp, they were unable to get a ration card, which deprived them of some of the privileges refugees had in the camp.

“No one gives us food. While other refugees with ration cards can access education and food aid, our family isn’t lucky enough to enjoy such rights,” says Abdullahi. “We were forced to buy a ration card to receive proper aid.”

For many refugees, nothing is more important than getting a ration card, which is essential to get the benefits provided by aid organizations and the Ethiopian government. But not everyone gets one, even though a few refugees make money by selling their extra ration cards. On top of being jobless and unable to make money, not having a ration card makes life very difficult for refugees.

Ethiopia has welcomed refugees for many years. In fact, the country hosts the second largest refugee population in Africa, accounting for close to one percent of its population, or close to a million refugees from over 20 countries, mainly from neighboring countries like South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan.

The demographics of the refugees differ. An estimated 420,000 South Sudanese reside along the Southwestern border, while 253,000 Somali refugees live along the Eastern border of Ethiopia. In addition, 169,000 Eritrean refugees live mainly along the Northern border, and other refugees live both in urban and rural areas of the country, according to the latest report from UNHCR. For instance, a total of 22,885 refugees live in Addis Ababa, mainly from Eritrea, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan, as well as from the Great Lakes region.

Many refugees live in the poorest areas. While one in four members of host communities live below the poverty line, according to a World Bank report published last year, two in three refugees live below the international poverty line, earning USD1.90 a day per person.

According to a report by the World Bank, refugees in Ethiopia, specifically from South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia, are in dire need of food aid to overcome high food insecurity in the camps. Close to 80pct and 57Pct of refugees from South Sudan and Somalia, respectively, are food insecure. It is no different for Eritrean refugees, although they have the lowest food insecurity rates among refugee groups. UNHCR is aware of this.

“We are working jointly with the World Food Program to raise the necessary funds so that refugees can at least have food that meets the minimum daily nutritional requirements. This is only an interim measure though,” says Kisut Gebreegziabher, communications officer at UNHCR, admitting that refugees are not receiving the amount of calories a day they should be given. “In the long run, in line with the new way of working, we are working to empower refugees to gradually become not only self-reliant but also to contribute to the economy of the host country”

The amount of general rations provided to refugees is less than the minimum requirement of 2,100 Kcal (equivalent to seven eggs) per person per day, ranging from 1,737 Kcal at Gambella, Melkadida, Assosa and Jijiga refugee camps to 1,920 Kcal in camps located in the states of Afar and Tigray.

UNHCR blames a funding gap for the rise in food insecurity in the refugee camps. While USD1.2 billion is needed to respond to the needs of refugees until the end of 2020, a funding gap amounting USD346 million was reported by the UNHCR two months ago.

Despite being constrained, many of the refugees, however, are still thankful to the Ethiopian government for being allowed to live in its territory. “It is great that our children can be educated. Various organizations, including UNHCR, work day and night to make our lives better,” says a refugee in Awbere, located in the state of Somali. “But our children are idle and unable to get jobs, although they have completed their education. We are also unable to improve our lives as we cannot move freely and generate income.”

According to the UNHCR, only 22Pct of working-age refugees are employed. The majority of employed refugees work in projects run by funders. Incentive teachers, refugees who are employed in schools run by Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA), are among those who are lucky enough to earn an income.

Although these teachers work the same hours as regular teachers, their earnings are very low. While regular teachers earn as much as ETB10,000, refugee teachers earn less than ETB1,000 per month. “This is very discouraging as we work the same hours as the other teachers. Many of us are frustrated by our salaries, and with the discriminatory policies adopted by ARRA,” says a refugee who spoke with EBR at Awbere Primary School, near Togo Challe town in the state of Somali.

Although the government pledged to allocate 10,000 hectares of land to refugees so they can engage in agricultural cultivation, and to offer jobs to refugees in the Dire Dawa Industrial Park, Ethiopia’s prolonged refugee crisis seems to defy the capacity of authorities and funders. One of the areas where a big gap observed is the provision of houses. A World Bank study last year showed that an overwhelming majority of the refugee population in Ethiopia (81Pct) live in unimproved housing, while 33Pct and 59Pct of the refugee population live in overcrowded housing. Among refugee groups, South Sudanese have the highest percentage of refugees living in both overcrowded and unimproved housing, according to the same report.

Usually, refugee housing demand is satisfied by the United Nations or non-profit organizations, which provide temporary shelters. Gatlok is one of the South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. He lives in overcrowded housing with his wife and six children. He says that the unimproved and crowded housing conditions in refugee camps increases the chance of disease transmission, including pneumonia, tuberculosis and many allergies.

A lack of safety is another issue that makes the life of refugees stressful. This is especially common in camps near the border with Eritrea. Fanuel Mulugeta, an Eritrean refugee who lived in a camp for three months before moving to Addis Ababa a month ago, witnessed the deteriorating security in camps near Shire. “Some local youths enter the camp and forcefully steal the refugees’ belongings. This is especially common in the women’s areas of the camps,” he says.

A 2018 World Bank study highlighted security concerns at refugee camps. It found that 30Pct of the refugees in Ethiopia feel neither safe nor unsafe. The sense of security varies significantly across gender. A higher percentage of refugees living in households headed by women feel unsafe, compared to refugees living in households headed by men. It also differs across nationalities. Based on the World Bank’s study, 26Pct of South Sudanese refugees feel unsafe. On the other hand, 77Pct of refugees from Somalia feel very safe in the camps.

Integrating refugees is one of the strategies adopted by the government to address these problems, leading Parliament to approve an amended refugee law on January 17th, which was hailed by the United Nations as the most progressive law governing refugees in Africa.
According to the law, refugees have the right to engage in income generating activities, and acquire and transfer property and assets. With respect to fiscal charges, refugees shall not be subjected to any duty, charge or tax higher than the imposed amount on Ethiopian nationals, the law says. What’s more, the law grants long-staying refugees the right to locally integrate into Ethiopian society, should they choose to do so, although it did not define any new rights applicable to refugees with regard to naturalization. Rather it references the existing Nationality Law of Ethiopia which allows foreign nationals, including refugees, to acquire Ethiopian nationality by fulfilling the necessary requirements.

“The approval of this refugee law represents a significant milestone in Ethiopia’s long history of welcoming and hosting refugees from across the region for decades,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “By giving refugees the opportunity to be better integrated into society, Ethiopia is not only upholding its obligations, but is serving as a model for other refugee hosting nations around the world.”

But not everyone welcomed the new law. Demonstrations were held by some Ethiopians, many of whom were Addis Ababa residents originally from the state of Gambella. They asserted that the law did not account for the reality on the ground. Mesay Girma, who has conducted various studies on refugees living in Ethiopia, agrees. He says the new law is not going to create the desired outcome, citing the case of refugees living in the state of Gambella where the relationship between refugees and the host communities has soured.

“Host communities still fear that their land will be misappropriated and their political dominance will be ended by the new law,” Mesay argues. “More than 90Pct of the refugees are from the Nuer ethnic group, whose numbers significantly increased in Gambella over the past decade. The Agnuaks fear that their dominance in the politics of the region will diminish if the refugees are given the opportunity to own land and integrated in Ethiopia.”

Chol Gatkot, a mother of three, and a refugee in Gambella, has similar concerns. “It seems like there is a misunderstanding about the new law amongst the host communities. They fear that we will evict them from their land if we are given the opportunity. It is also unclear how the new law is going to be implemented.”

Others, who have worked among the refugees and heard their concerns and their desires, also doubt the applicability of the new law. “Most refugees have no intention of staying in Ethiopia. Their aim is to stay in Ethiopia until they get the chance to go to Europe or the United States,” says a researcher who participated in a survey conducted by the World Bank last year. “Additionally, most are not interested in engaging in income generating activities.”

Mesay agrees. “The majority of refugees think that they will lose their chance of going to the United States or Europe if they integrate with the local community and start working in Ethiopia.”

Resettlement of refugees in third countries is one of the three traditional durable solutions that UNHCR is pursuing to address the refugee issue. The other two are voluntary repatriation and local integration. Resettlement as a durable solution is available only to those refugees who meet very precise criteria. Although over 65,000 refugees in Ethiopia satisfy these criteria, the quotas provided by countries of resettlement are far too low to meet the current need.

Meanwhile, Kisut says that refugees, like anyone else, are ready and willing to work and reduce their dependence on humanitarian assistance. “Ongoing assessments will give a clearer picture but practical evidence shows that refugees are very willing to work and become masters of their destinies,” she says.

8th Year • May.16 – Jun.15 2019 • No. 74


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