The Traffic Racket: The Pied Pipers in Tigray

News Opinions
Ethiopia's role in the promoting and trafficking of Eritreans?
What is the role of Ethiopia and its refugee agencies in the promoting and trafficking of Eritreans? Eritrean children as the hapless victims of Ethiopian foreign policy towards Eritrea.

By Red Sea Fisher,

PART two of our series on the “The Traffic Racket” investigated the shadowy syndicate behind Eritrean migration. This third piece will look into the role of Ethiopia and its refugee agency in promoting the escape of Eritrean children from Eritrea. 

Luring Eritrean Children to Death

German legend has it that a pipe-playing rat-catcher was hired by the city of Hamelin to draw rats out of town with his music. When the city reneged on its payments, the rat-catcher took his revenge by playing his pipe to lure children out the city, leading to their mass drowning in Weser river.

Today this tale is recounted around the world as the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, symbolizing the death of children at the hands of criminals.

David Kirkpatrick, writing in his May 5 article for the New York Times, brings to light the emergence of modern day pied pipers in Ethiopia’s Tigray Regional State luring Eritrean children to death in the Mediterranean Sea.

His piece, “Young African Migrants Caught in Trafficking Machine,” though checkered with some errors, is significant for raising two important issues: (1) the groundswell of unaccompanied minors from Eritrea in Ethiopian refugee camps and (2) the claim that the Eritrean smuggling/trafficking racket originates in Ethiopia.

We are told that unaccompanied minors in Ethiopia are unable to return to Eritrea. Kirkpatrick explains, “Most children who make the trek without telling their parents regret it as soon as they arrive, aid workers say. But Eritrea considers them defectors and criminals, barring any return.” Quoting Meron Estefanos, who he explains is “an Eritrean rights activist in Stockholm who works with migrants,” he notes that “They get stuck there in the camps….It is very common.”

Kirkpatrick and Meron put the blame on the Eritrean state for the children’s inability to return to Eritrea. This claim is unsubstantiated.

Both ignore the evidence that suggests that Eritreans are trapped in Ethiopia as a result of the Ethiopian state’s refugee agency, the Administration for Refugee & Returnee Affairs (ARRA), which has unprecedented control of refugee operations.

Unlike any other state in the world Ethiopia runs refugee operations in its own country—not the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This key fact must be firmly understood when we’re talking about the rise of Eritrean unaccompanied minors to Ethiopia and beyond.

No Escape

According to a May 2013 report on Eritrean unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) by the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) entitled Young and Astray, “Voluntary return is not possible for Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia. Having claimed asylum in Ethiopia, and thus having sought protection from the government of Ethiopia, ARRA would insist that return to Eritrea could not be in the best interest of any refugee…Geographically, the newer refugee camps are located far from the Eritrean border and simply walking back across is almost impossible.”

The report also goes on to highlight the nightmare for Eritrean children in the Mai-Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia:

UASC in Mai-Aini said that they have repeatedly asked UNHCR, IRC and ARRA to support their return to no avail. They expressed concern for children who had gone missing from the camps, some of whom new arrivals reported had arrived home safely, though the number of children missing, perhaps lost or deceased on the long journey through the desert-like plains, is unknown. All of the children under 13 involved in the focus group discussions in Mai-Aini expressed a desire to return home, in stark contrast to Sudan, where all but one member of the mixed under 13-years-old discussion group were waiting for family sponsorship to Switzerland, Germany and Canada.

In so many words, Eritrean children are trapped by the Ethiopian state apparatus with the complicity of UNHCR; a fact overlooked by Kirkpatrick.

Making the situation worse, UNHCR itself opposes voluntary repatriation of Eritrean migrants, arguing that conditions in Eritrea are so bad that their support for repatriation is impossible. UNHCR knows better than the Eritrean migrants themselves, apparently.

Such a position is unprecedented. Every refugee has the right to voluntarily return to their homeland if they so wish and UNHCR, in regards to repatriation, has a limited mandate to protect asylum rights by advocating against “forced” repatriation rather than those of a voluntary nature. For some reason, its mandate limitations do not apply to Eritreans.

According to a 2011 study, Getting Beyond Politics and Bad Blood: The Protection of Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia, by Sara Webster at American University in Cairo, “UNHCR refuses to support this repatriation [of Eritreans] due to the mass violation of human rights in Eritrea, as well as the danger to returnees. Due to the dangerous nature of the border crossing, these individuals rejected the possibility of attempting such repatriation on their own.”

Like the WRC, Webster also points out ARRA’s unusual level of control over refugee operations within Ethiopia:

“In contrast to the asylum systems of neighboring countries, the role that Ethiopia assumes is quite unique. Despite being one of Africa’s poorest countries with the third largest population, Ethiopia’s governmental refugee agency, the Association for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), performs most of the functions that UNHCR does in the rest of Africa…The Ethiopian government does not conduct individual refugee status determination per se. In the case of Eritrean refugees, ARRA conducts “screening” of individuals soon after crossing the border, at Inda Abaguna.”

Webster doesn’t stop there. She notes that even UNHCR itself, referring to its international staff, is almost entirely manned by Ethiopians (this means their international staff).

…Of those who complained of serious discrimination and those who expressed positive experiences with Ethiopians, there was a unanimous declaration of mistrust of Ethiopian officers at the various agencies responsible for refugees. ARRA, as an Ethiopian state agency, is staffed entirely by Ethiopian nationals. In addition to this, the vast majority of UNHCR staff members are Ethiopians.

Notably, this doesn’t even include all of the Ethiopians staffing UNHCR headquarters and crafting destructive policies towards Eritreans to ostensibly ensure Ethiopian “national security.”

It’s no secret that the EPRDF government of Ethiopia, the poster-child for the humanitarian-industrial complex financed by mostly by Western donors, has many of its nationals commanding humanitarian aid organs and developmental bodies.

Smuggling as Ethiopia’s Official Foreign Policy

It seems Eritrean children have become the hapless victims of Ethiopian foreign policy towards Eritrea.

Let us consider a 2015 report by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development entitled “Support for Refugees in Ethiopia: 2012-2015.” The report states, “there are concerns that ARRA at times dictates refugee policy and operations to UNHCR from a standpoint of national security as opposed to International Refugee Law, resulting in compromised levels of assistance and protection for some groups. Reporting and accountability for the majority of UNHCR funds that are channeled through ARRA for administration and operations has also been the subject of donor concern.”

US Chargé d’Affaires Deborah Malac, in a 2008 Wikileak went as far suggesting that ARRA was using its humanitarian operations to train an Eritrean opposition. Malac explained:

The presence of Eritrean opposition activity in the camps was not surprising. The defensive tone in EmbOffs discussions with UNHCR, ARRA, and international NGO officials suggests that they had a vested interest in denying any knowledge of it, otherwise they might be required to address opposition harassment of refugees. The visit was yet another reminder that a priority of ARRA’s refugee program was to address Ethiopia’s national security concerns with Eritrea. Post cannot confirm complicity between ARRA and the opposition groups, but we do note that ARRA, as an organization, falls under the purview of the Ethiopian National Intelligence Security Service.

One can hardly trust the Ethiopian state and ARRA with the wellbeing of Eritrean children. Given the long, tumultuous, and war-riddled history between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the ongoing, unresolved war between the two nations, and the ongoing Ethiopian occupation of sovereign Eritrea land, one can hardly trust the Ethiopian state to preserve the interests of the Eritrean peoples.

According to Kirkpatrick, Ethiopia seems to be primary launch pad for Eritrean smuggling.

The “Mastermind”

He indicates that Ermias Ghermay, an Ethiopian national, is behind the smuggling of Eritreans out of Ethiopia and across the Mediterranean. He writes, “From the refugee camps in Ethiopia near the Eritrean border, Mr. Ghermay’s crew packed the children in the back of a truck with a dozen other migrants to drive west to Sudan and then north to Libya, children and adult passengers said.”

The critical take away message from this revelation is that Ermias’ network stretches not only to Italy from Libya but also from the very source of the migrants: the Eritrean refugee camps located in the heart of Ethiopia’s Tigray Regional State. From this NYT article, it’s not quite clear whether or not his networks extend directly into Eritrea however other evidentiary sources now suggest this to be the case.

Although Kirkpatrick also mentions the involvement of Eritrean national Mered Medhanie, who goes by the nickname “The General,” he makes it clear that Eritreans like Mered fall under “Mr. Ghermay’s crew.”

According to Charlotte Alfred writing for the Huffington Post, “Sicilian prosecutors said they had busted an international smuggling ring and were issuing arrest warrants for 24 people, including 14 in Italy. They said the group’s mastermind is an Ethiopian man, Ermias Ghermay, believed to be currently in Libya. Ghermay has been wanted since the last major migrant tragedy in 2013, when some 366 people died in a shipwreck off Lampedusa.”

Thus, the alleged leader of Eritrean smuggling is Ethiopian. Working under him are Eritreans.

Simply being an Ethiopian national, however, does not necessarily equate to Ethiopian state involvement. One must look elsewhere for evidence to support this assertion.

Evidence from leaked diplomatic cables do shed some additional light on Ethiopian state involvement in smuggling Eritreans. According to a 2010 Wikileak from the US embassy in Addis Ababa, it seems the Ethiopian military is a central piece in the international racket:

Last year, 86 Eritrean nationals applied for immigrant visas in Addis Ababa…One F-1 immigrant visa applicant told Conoff he began his journey on August 8, 2009 and paid a smuggler 40,000 Nakfa (around USD 2,600) to cross the Ethiopian-Eritrean border near Rama, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. After a 10 hour night walk the applicant said he was met by members of the Ethiopian military, who took him to the Endabaguna transit camp. He stayed in the transit camp for three days before moving on to the My Ayni refugee camp, and eventually Addis Ababa….An Eritrean 2009 diversity visa lottery winner had a similar story. He told Conoff he met his smugglers at the Asmara bus station on August 15, 2009 and paid 50,000 Nakfa (around USD 3,300) for the 12-hour trek across the border. Nearly two weeks later, on August 29, 2009, the DV applicant crossed the border near Rama with his smuggler and another person fleeing Eritrea. Like the F1 applicant three weeks before, the DV winner stated he received assistance from the Ethiopian military.

The fact that the Ethiopian military is implicated in smuggling Eritreans, suggests possible state sponsorship of human trafficking, which, at the minimum, calls for an international investigation.

On the other side of the border, there seems to be the opposite response by the national government at large.

US Chargé d’Affaires in Eritrea, Matthew D. Smith, confessed in another leaked diplomatic cable from Asmara entitled “How To Escape From Eritrea” that “the GSE [Government of the State of Eritrea] is very keen to break these human smuggling rings and dispatches agents to pose as potential customers. Other agents pose as facilitators, making all of the supposed smuggling arrangements prior to having the unsuspecting person arrested.” He goes on to explain that “passage from Mendefera (30 miles south of Asmara) to Ethiopia costs $1,000 to $1,300/person.”

Smith’s cable certainly does not suggest the absence of trafficking in Eritrea but rather highlights the nature of the official Eritrean state response to the criminal enterprise. In light of the Ethiopian state’s alleged involvement in smuggling, it is not unreasonable to link the recent spike in Eritrean smuggling as a partial result of Ethiopian state organized, facilitated and financed trans-border smuggling that has made Eritrean smuggling a highly lucrative business.

Ethiopia’s Child Smuggling Industry

One cannot underestimate the scale of this illicit enterprise. It seems the Eritrean refugee industry has become a cash cow for Ethiopia. Though Ethiopia was not known for its refugee operations in the early 2000’s, the nation opened up its first of four camps targeted for Eritreans in 2004 (Shimelba) and went on to become the largest refugee hosting nation in Africa by 2014, beating both Sudan and Kenya. As a result, UNHCR has now earmarked Ethiopia with the highest budget for Africa in 2015.

That Eritrean refugees were at the heart of Ethiopia’s growing refugee empire was well known to diplomatic officials in Addis Ababa for quite some time. John M. Yates, US Ambassador to Ethiopia, wrote the following in a 2010 diplomatic cable:

“While it is commendable that the GOE [Government of Ethiopia] continues to be willing to host refugees, the GOE, particularly ARRA, has strong political and financial reasons for doing this. The GOE has long advocated for preferential treatment of Eritrean refugees as a part of its greater foreign policy towards Eritrea. In addition, ARRA is 100% funded by UNHCR and thus views the creation of new refugee camps as job security. UNHCR operates in Ethiopia at the invitation of GOE and ARRA and is very well aware that it is at the mercy of ARRA and cannot easily push back on such issues as the development of Adi-Harush if it wants any ability to effectively program activities in the other camps.”

Although the extent of trafficking within Ethiopia—of not only Eritreans but also Somalis and Ethiopians themselves—remains largely unexplored, there is strong evidence that the nation has become a premier hub for human traffickers and smugglers like Ermias Ghermay.

No other nation in the Horn of Africa region, including Sudan, which is thought to also be a hub for traffickers, has seen more trafficking-related rescues and arrests by the INTERPOL-supported Eastern Africa Police Chiefs Cooperation Organization (EAPCCO). In August 2013, EAPCCO’s “Operation Usalama” led to the rescue of more than 300 victims of human trafficking and the arrest of 38 suspects in Ethiopia.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the Ethiopian government restricts humanitarian agencies from visiting their refugee camps. According to the former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Yamamoto, the “ICRC is also currently prohibited…from accessing a number of sites in the north of the country including Shimelba refugee camp.”

What do they have to hide?

Another leaked US diplomatic cable from Addis Ababa sent in February 2010 and marked “confidential,” describes ARRA’s arrest and summary execution of Eritrean refugees in the camps and denial of UNHCR’s request to access the arrested. The cable concludes that the actions by ARRA “suggests an increase in targeting refugees in violation of the GoE obligations as party to the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 OAU Convention on Refugees.”

Following the fatal shooting of Eritrean refugee Yohana Gebreyohannis Kahsa near the My Ayni camp, the cable also highlights the continuing preoccupation with Eritrea by ARRA, which, according to a My Ayni staff member from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), “is very concerned and embarrassed about this incident as it has long advocated for preferential treatment of Eritrean refugees and does not want any negative publicity.”

In October 2013, Voice of America’s Amharic Service (VOA-Amharic) reported on a crackdown by ARRA security personnel against Eritreans refugees protesting in the Adi Harush and Adi Ayni camps located in the Tigray region, killing 3 and detaining another 150 Eritrean protestors. According to video footage posted online, protestors expressed that they were far worse off in Ethiopia than they were in Eritrea and demanded that ARRA provide better conditions for the marginalized Eritrean refugees.

Many of these marginalized refugees are adolescents that have been lured into the exploitative and politicized refugee industry by the piping of ARRA from their several camps in Ethiopia’s Tigray Regional State. Making matters worse, the international media and UNHCR have been joining in on the piping, failing to mention the role of ARRA and the Ethiopian government in smuggling Eritreans.

Meanwhile, Eritrean children are drowning in the Mediterranean. When will the world wake up and stop this madness?