Relations may be tense between the neighbouring countries but some Eritreans are crossing the disputed border.
James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera
Badme, on the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia – The disputed border town of Badme is where war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998. It lasted for two years and devastated both countries. In 2002, a Hague boundary commission ruled that Badme was part of Eritrea. It was a ruling that both countries initially accepted. But Ethiopian troops continue to occupy the town.
Nowadays an uneasy standoff exists between the two country’s armies along the still-contested border a few kilometres north of Badme, at the tip of Ethiopia’s Yirga Triangle, which juts into Eritrea.
But now there are others moving along the border: Eritreans who travel through the region’s hills, trying to keep out of sight of their own military, to escape into Ethiopia.
“After crossing at night we tried to sleep but could hear the hyenas around us,” said 22-year-old mother-of-two Yordanos. “We started shouting and then Ethiopian soldiers came for us.”
Once picked up by the Ethiopian army, Eritrean refugees are deposited at Badme’s so-called “entry point”, a compound of simple buildings that marks the start of their journey to gain asylum in Ethiopia.
With Yordanos is another mother-of-two, as well as 15 boys and young men aged between 16 and 20 who crossed to avoid enforced and indefinite military service.
“After receiving a letter to join up I hid for five months in the rural areas,” said one 18-year-old. “But then I heard the government was looking for me, so I crossed.”
There are 12 entry points along Ethiopia’s 910km border with Eritrea from where refugees are moved to a screening and registration centre in the town of Endabaguna. Afterwards they are assigned to one of four refugee camps in the Tigray region bordering Eritrea.
“We are brothers and sisters,” said Luel Abera, a reception coordinator at the entry point in the town of Adinbried, about 50km southeast of Badme. Most highland Eritreans from around the capital, Asmara, share the same language, the same Christian Orthodox religion and the same culture as Tigray’s Ethiopian inhabitants.
In February 2017, 3,367 Eritrean refugees arrived in Ethiopia, according to the Ethiopian Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs.
Ethiopia currently houses around 165,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers, according to the UN refugee agency. Thousands more Eritreans are thought to live in the country outside the asylum system.
“They even come through the Afar and the world’s lowest depression,” said Estifanos Gebremedhin from Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs.
In the Afar’s Danakil Depression, a desert straddling the Eritrean border to the east of the Tigray highlands, daytime temperatures frequently soar above 50 degrees Celsius, accompanied by a fierce gale known as the Gara (Fire Wind).
“They are using every chance they can,” Estifanos said.
Fifteen Eritrean teenagers and young men, aged from 16 to 20, wait at the Badme entry point to be moved to the screening and registration centre in the town of Endabaguna, 60km west of Aksum, a popular tourist destination. [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
‘It took us four days traveling from Asmara,’ a 31-year-man says of the trek from the Eritrean capital, about 80km north of the border, holding all the money he has left: 13 Eritrean nakfa ($0.8). ‘We travelled for 10 hours each night, sleeping in the desert during the day.’ [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
‘The Eritrean people are good,’ says Luel Abera, a reception coordinator at the Adinbried entry point who is keeping track of the number of Eritrean arrivals. ‘They fought for independence [from Ethiopia] for 30 years. But from day one, [Eritrean President] Isaias [Afwerki] has ruled the country without caring about his people’s interests.’ [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
In 2004, Shimelba became the first Eritrean refugee camp to open. It now houses more than 6,000 refugees. About 60 percent of its population come from the Kunama ethnic group, one of nine in Eritrea, and historically the most marginalised. [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
‘I have no interest in going to other countries,’ says Nagazeuelle, a Kunama who has lived in Ethiopia for 17 years. ‘I need my country. We had rich and fertile land, but the government took it. We weren’t an educated people, so they picked on us. I am an example of the first Eritrean refugees, but now people from all nine ethnic groups are coming.’ [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
‘The world has forgotten us, apart from the US, Canada and Ethiopia,’ says Haile, a Tigrinya Eritrean in his 50s who has been a refugee for five years. His father and brother died in prison in Eritrea. ‘What is happening is beyond words. It is a deep crisis. So why is the international community silent?’ [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
About 50km south of Shimelba is Hitsats, the newest and largest of Tigray’s four camps with 11,000 refugees, of whom about 80 percent are under 35. [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
Hitsats camp coordinator, Haftam Telemickael, takes issue with Western debate about whether Eritreans should be labelled political or economic migrants. ‘Even if they are seeking political asylum, there will be an economic side to it as they are young and need to generate income to live their lives,’ he says. [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
A small shack in Hitsats camp run by 18-year-old Haimanot which recharges mobiles for one Ethiopian birr ($0.04). [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
Refugees eat lunch in Hitsats camp. ‘I want to go to another country,’ says 23-year-old Samrawit. ‘I don’t dislike it here, but from Ethiopia it’s difficult to communicate with my family. From other countries it would be easier.’ [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
‘When I drink a cup of coffee among the flowers it feels good,’ says 40-year-old refugee John, proudly showing off the small garden around the Hitsats camp home he shares with his 10-year-old daughter. His wife is in the US. [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
Most Eritrean refugees in Hitsats camp are Christian (Muslim Eritreans tend to go to Sudan). Religious posters plaster the wall above a mosquito net under which a small child sleeps during the midday heat. [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
A list is posted of refugees who have been given permission to take time away from the camp in the likes of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, more than 600km to the south. [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]
The rugged landscape of Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, stretches away to the north and into Eritrea. Eritrea was once Ethiopia’s most northern region until it gained independence in 1991. [James Jeffrey/Al Jazeera]