Djibouti’s Refoulement: Sending Tigrayan Refugees to Their Death

Djibouti’s Refoulement: Sending Tigrayan Refugees to Their Death

In May 2014, Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh declared, “We believe that Ethiopia is Djibouti, and Djibouti is Ethiopia – no difference at all.” Today, this statement rings true in the most horrific sense. There is no difference in the two nations’ involvement in severe human rights violations against Tigrayans during the genocidal war on Tigray declared on November 4, 2020. 

Djibouti, a longtime ally of Ethiopia, has endorsed the current genocide in Tigray. The Djiboutian government has failed to condemn the Ethiopian government for the atrocities against the Tigrayan people, and they have even praised Abiy Ahmed for his horrific actions.

Beyond the public support of the Ethiopian government’s genocidal war, Djibouti is returning Tigrayan refugees and asylum seekers to Ethiopia, knowing that Tigrayans face persecution, ethnic cleansing, and death if they were to return to the country. By deciding to breach international law in this regard, Djibouti is a willful participant in genocide.

The relationship between Djibouti and Ethiopia is one of economic and political codependence. In 1993, after Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia, Ethiopia became a landlocked country without access to the Red Sea. The Ethiopia-Eritrea Border War in 1998 further exacerbated tensions between the two nations and left Ethiopia without access to ports for trading. As a result, Ethiopia has had no choice but to rely on Djibouti’s ports for imports and exports in the past two decades. Ethiopia imports 95 percent of its goods from Djibouti and spends around $2 billion per year on port services. However, the relationship is not one-sided. Djibouti is heavily reliant on Ethiopia for freshwater, electricity, and agricultural goods.   Ethiopia has contributed significantly to Djibouti’s economic growth. Around 90 percent of activity at Djibouti’s ports is due to Ethiopian import or export trade. As a result, any crisis in Ethiopia greatly affects Djibouti politically and economically. Djibouti’s reliance on Ethiopia has forced Djibouti to maintain a friendly relationship with Ethiopia even if that means bending their moral compass and ignoring international human rights law.

History of Djibouti’s Mistreatment of Ethiopian Refugees

Refugees are protected in Article 33 of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Conventions and the 1967 protocol. Djibouti succeeded to both the Convention and Protocol and also signed the 1969 OAU Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa which also protects refugees from being forced to return to their country of origin. Not only is Djibouti obliged to protect registered refugees, but Djibouti also agreed to the policy of non-refoulement which is the fundamental principle that prevents countries from returning asylum seekers back to a country were they are likely to face persecution, torture, or harm. 

Despite their legal obligations to refugees, the Djiboutian government has a history of returning asylum seekers and refugees from Ethiopia fleeing the tyrannical rule of their government. The involuntary repatriation that Djibouti practices today started in the late 1970s and early 1980s when many Ethiopians left their country in response to the repressive Derg military regime and the Ogaden conflict (Ethio-Somali war). During this time, there were 40,000 Ethiopian refugees in Djibouti, a country struggling economically  post-independence from the French in 1977. Ethiopia, desperate to hide the atrocious human rights violations committed by the Derg regime and determined to maintain good standing with the international community, wanted the refugees to return to the country to cover up their crimes. This led Ethiopia and Djibouti to form agreements and led to Djibouti turning a blind eye to gross human rights violations in Ethiopia. 

In 1980, Ethiopia and Djibouti signed Proclamation 183, ‘The Repatriation of Ethiopian Refugees in the Republic of Djibouti,’ while also convening with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to form the Tripartite Commission to examine a voluntary repatriation programme. These agreements were nothing but a cover that allowed the Djiboutian government to arrest, detain, intimidate, and forcibly repatriate both asylum seekers and refugees back to Ethiopia, despite the Djiboutian government being fully aware of the horror and imprisonment these individuals would face when they reentered the country. 

The UNHCR, an organization meant to supervise voluntary repatriation and protect the rights of refugees, not only stood by and allowed the Djiboutian and Ethiopian governments to commit these crimes, but it also made deals with the Djiboutian government. As the Djiboutian government was deporting asylum seekers and refugees, the UNHCR pleaded with the Djiboutian government to be consulted when they expelled individuals to prevent the removal of registered refugees from Djibouti. The Djiboutian government conceded to this proposition only if the UNHCR agreed to help with the removal of asylum seekers and refugees from Djibouti city to two refugee camps in Ali Sabieh and Dikh, cities a few kilometers north of the Ethiopian border. As a result, the UNHCR forced asylum seekers and refugees to go to these camps by telling them that food rations would no longer be distributed in the city. In these camps, the asylum seekers were deported back to Ethiopia before their asylum applications were processed, and sometimes registered refugees were deported as well. Additionally, over many Tripartite Commissions, the UNHCR allowed the Djiboutian government to launch disinformation campaigns informing asylum seekers and refugees that there would no longer be food in the camps to force them back to Ethiopia. They also watched asylum seekers and refugees who did not want to voluntarily leave the country be arrested, harassed, and eventually forced back to Ethiopia.

These practices during the 1980s have been repeated and were most recently observed in 2016 when Djiboutian police detained hundreds of Oromo and Amhara asylum seekers and refugees to return them back to Ethiopia. These deportations corresponded to a time of unrest in Oromo and Amhara regions of Ethiopia. These historical trends in how Djibouti has treated Ethiopian asylum seekers and refugees demonstrate Djibouti’s disregard for international law and its interest in pleasing the Ethiopian government to maintain its vital economic and political relationship at any cost. 

Djibouti’s Mistreatment of Tigrayan Refugees during the War on Tigray

Djibouti’s disregard for international law and interest in maintaining its political and economic relationship with the Ethiopian government has been most recently observed during the ongoing genocidal war on the Tigray region of Ethiopia. On November 4, 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched this genocidal war, in which Ethiopian forces, Eritrean forces, and Amhara regional militias have committed heinous war crimes to eliminate all Tigrayans. For eight months, the Ethiopian government has starved over 5.2 million Tigrayans, of which 900,000 are currently in famine conditions, allowed the use of sexual and gender-based violence as a weapon of war, indiscriminately killed Tigrayan civilians, used chemical weapons and airstrikes on civilians, restricted foreign aid, launched communication blackouts, and internally displaced over 2 million Tigrayans. The situation in Tigray is horrific. 

The genocidal war has also led to 70,000 Tigrayans having to flee to neighboring Sudan. Tigrayans have not only fled to Sudan to seek asylum, but they have also sought refuge in Djibouti. However, unlike Sudan, Djibouti has forcibly returned Tigrayan asylum seekers and refugees to Ethiopia, a country that has been globally condemned for their ethnic cleansing campaign and acts falling within the definition of genocide in Tigray. 

Refoulement of Tigrayan refugees and asylum seekers was first reported during the initial days of the genocide. Over 600 Ethiopian trucks were abandoned in Djibouti in December 2020, with 80 percent of the truck drivers being from Tigray. The truck drivers were part of Trans Ethiopia, a cargo transportation service that is a subsidiary of the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). EFFORT was administered by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a party which Abiy declared war on and labeled as a terrorist organization. 

“Djibouti has forcibly returned Tigrayan asylum seekers and refugees to Ethiopia, a country that has been globally condemned for their ethnic cleansing campaign and acts falling within the definition of genocide in Tigray.”

Since the launch of the war and even before the war began, the Ethiopian government purposely targeted Tigrayan civilians and Tigrayan businesses to weaken the region. In the early days of the war, Ethiopian authorities froze bank accounts of EFFORT companies, such as Trans Ethiopia, which they claimed was participating in ethnic-based violence fueled by the TPLF. Such claims were completely fabricated by the Ethiopian government and were part of the government’s techniques to economically weaken Tigray, in addition to completely cutting funding to the region. 

The truck drivers of Trans Ethiopia, who were majority Tigrayan, worked in Djibouti and transported goods between the two countries. When the Tigrayan truck drivers refused to return to Ethiopia due to the ongoing genocide, the Djiboutian authorities refused to allow the Tigrayans to apply for asylum and forced them into a military camp. The Djiboutian government, acting at the behest of the Ethiopian government, wanted to return the trucks as well as the truck drivers back to Ethiopia. The truck drivers were threatened with deportation if they did not return the trucks. However, these trucks were the property of the Tigrayan government and the Tigrayan people, not the Ethiopian government. The harassment, intimidation, and refoulement of these truck drivers completely violate the Geneva and OAU Conventions. The Ethiopian government also has no right to claim this property. 

It has been confirmed by the Red Cross that 165 truck drivers were able to receive asylum and were transferred to Hol Hol refugee camp. In addition, 179 trucks were returned back to Ethiopia. It is unclear what process or negotiations occurred between the Tigrayan truck drivers, the Djiboutian government, the Ethiopian government, and the UNHCR for the trucks to be returned and for the Tigrayans to be granted asylum.  

News of Tigrayan refugees in Djibouti has not been covered widely by the media, and their status and treatment is still largely unknown. It is also unclear how many drivers were forced to return to Ethiopia and what has happened to the drivers since December 2020.

The Djiboutian government again violated international law in May 2021 when three individuals, Habtom Gebreselassie Wolyu, Mesele Tamene Eshetu, and Mohammed Berihu were returned to Ethiopia from Djibouti after being arrested by the Djiboutian authorities. All three refugees were of Tigrayan origin, and two of the three men were officially registered and recognized as UNHCR refugees. The arrests of these men also corresponded to Abiy Ahmed’s official visit to Djibouti. 

Media reports from Ethiopia, Somalia, and other African news sites in the Horn of Africa have called these men TPLF agents and accused them of plotting attacks against the Ethiopian government to justify their illegal return to Ethiopia. With the Ethiopian government having declared the TPLF as a terrorist organization in May 2021, it became easy to classify these men as terrorists and cover-up the Ethiopian and Djiboutian governments’ disregard for international law on refugee protection.

Habtom Gebreselassie was a driver at the Ethiopian embassy in Djibouti and Mohammed Berihu is a retired senior diplomat who was in Djibouti to set up investment offices. In addition, news organizations referred to Mohammed Berihu as a colonel when he had no connection to the military or TPLF at the time. Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the African media changed the narrative and falsified the identity of these men to hide their actions. These men were returned to Addis Ababa to be tried and are currently held in prison. Their trials have already been postponed several times, and will not be fair nor legal.

Djibouti is well aware of the human rights violations currently occurring in Tigray and against Tigrayans across Ethiopia. Djibouti officials realize that all the asylum seekers and refugees forcibly returned to Ethiopia are bound to go to prison, be persecuted, tortured, or killed. The UNHCR is also aware of the situation, but like in previous conflicts, they remain idle. The UNHCR has stated that they approached Djiboutian police, yet they did not take meaningful action to protect the truck drivers or the three men when they were being returned to Ethiopia, a country that the UNHCR has previously stated has committed “serious violations of international law.” The UNHCR is equally guilty for allowing such gross violations of international law and failing in their own mission to safeguard and protect asylum seekers and refugees.

Turning a Blind Eye to International Laws and Human Rights Violations in Ethiopia

Djibouti is playing a geopolitical game at the expense of human lives and international law, all in hopes of maintaining its economic and political relationship with the Ethiopian government. Even amid international condemnation of Abiy’s genocidal war on Tigray, Djibouti has gone as far as publicly supporting the war in recent months. 

In June 2021, Djibouti agreed to scale up its military cooperation with Ethiopia, going so far as  awarding the country’s top military honor to General Berhanu Jula, Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) and one of the war criminals responsible for the Tigray Genocide. General Berhanu Jula was a former Derg soldier during Mengistu Hailemariam’s dictatorship, and has returned to killing and terrorizing civilians who oppose repressive regimes. The honor was given for General Berhanu Jula’s “effective military leadership in the law enforcement operation in Tigray that concluded on November 28.” Rewarding General Jula with full understanding that the ENDF he commands targets Tigrayan civilians in airstrikes and chemical attacks, horrifically raping Tigrayan women and girls, and indiscriminately killing civilians. 

Economically, Djibouti has always been dependent on Ethiopia, but currently Djibouti is in a very vulnerable position and is desperate to secure economic relations with Ethiopia, even if that means standing beside Ethiopia during its genocide campaign. Djibouti’s Finance Minister Ilyas Dawaleh has confirmed this when stating, “The speed of Djibouti’s economic recovery from a contraction last year hinges on how soon conflict ends in neighboring Ethiopia.” Last year, Djibouti’s economy shrank 1 percent, but has the potential to expand to 5 percent this year. However, this expansion greatly depends on Djibouti’s relationship with Ethiopia and, particularly, if the ports that Ethiopia depends on are upgraded and continuously invested in. 

The Djiboutian government representatives have been meeting with Ethiopian leaders, such as President Sahle-Worke and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, since the beginning of the genocide. On June 17, Djibouti and Ethiopia launched the Ground Breaking Ceremony for Construction of the Modjo Dry Port expansion, which has the potential to increase the capacity of the Ethiopia-Djibouti trade corridor. During this war on Tigray, the two countries continue to make economic deals to strengthen their relationship when Djibouti should be condemning the actions of Ethiopia. 

‘Djibouti’s support of Abiy, the war on Tigray, and the active participation of denying Tigrayans their right to asylum and guaranteeing their abuse and death in Ethiopia have shown the world that Djibouti has chosen to stand with genocide.”

The current genocide in Tigray has shown the world where certain African countries, especially those in the Horn of Africa, stand regarding human rights violations. Djibouti’s support of Abiy, the war on Tigray, and the active participation of denying Tigrayans their right to asylum and guaranteeing their abuse and death in Ethiopia have shown the world that Djibouti has chosen to stand with genocide.

Omna Tigray Contributor, July 2021