Djibouti - A Model for Repatriation?

One out of every two refugees today is African. The enormity of Africa's refugee crisis has incited international observers to take a hard took at how refugees are being handled by governments and international assistance agencies.

The following case study of Ethiopian refugees in Djibouti, based on information collected by CS's Refugee Research Project, raises issues vital to refugee situations in Africa as well as the rest of the world.

The Republic of Djibouti, one of the smallest and poorest countries of the world, is situated on the Red Sea in Africa's "Horn." The country consists of a rocky desert landscape straddling the most active strategic harbor in the region.

Djibouti's predominantly Muslim population is made up of two traditionally nomadic groups - Issa Somalis and Afars - with smaller numbers of Arabs and Europeans. The country has virtually no natural resources to support its own residents; less than one-half of the population is permanently employed. Djibouti City's port and its railway to Ethiopia are at the crux of Djibouti's import economy.

Following independence from France in June 1977, Djibouti accepted tens of thousands of Somali, Oromo, Eritrean, Afars, Tigrae and other refugees from Ethiopia. Djibouti is currently the reluctant host to over 30,000 refugees fleeing abuse in neighboring Ethiopia. Comprising 10% of Djibouti's population, the refugees confront a torrid environment (temperatures reach 120°F), a feeble economy, and increasingly hostile host residents.

Since 1977 the open policies of acceptance and treatment of refugees have been reversed. Most refugees interviewed since 1981 by the Refugee Research Project had waited one to two years to be granted official refugee status by Djibouti authorities. Bribes from (US) $50 to $300 to officials in charge of refugee applications were often required for files to be forwarded for proper reviewal. Consequently, access to refugee status was highly inequitable. And in the interim, individuals had no access to food or medical aid, let alone to resettlement in another country.

For lack of shelter, many urban refugees who routinely slept on verandahs or in mosques became targets of Djibouti police raids. Refugees arrested en masse were detained overnight and forced to work on municipal construction projects the next day. This practice, institutionalized in Djibouti, typifies the vulnerability of refugees to their host government.

By 1979 refugees had come to be reported by Ethiopia's ruling junta, the Derg, as a political liability. One out of two refugees in Africa is from Ethiopia, a fact which tarnishes Ethiopia's image abroad and jeopardizes international aid monies. Refugees from Ethiopia become a source for information about internal problems that the Ethiopian Derg otherwise conceals (wars, persecution, etc.) Furthermore, refugees' presence in states neighboring Ethiopia provides a base for resistance movements opposing Ethiopia's central government.

In 1980 Ethiopia began to apply pressures on Djibouti to stop accepting refugees and return those already there. Refugees point out that shifts in Djibouti policy toward refugees have often followed meetings between the two governments.

Official negotiations to effect repatriation were initiated in 1980, resulting in a proclamation offering amnesty to refugees for the crime of escaping the country. Refugees denounced the offer, charging that it was designed to divert attention from continued human rights violations leading to refugee flight. The Ethiopian Refugee Committee in Djibouti appealed to the UNHCR not to take the amnesty proclamation at face value, but to study the situation and to take action to protect refugees.

Djibouti has set a precedent in the Horn by deporting Ethiopia's exiles. Following a February 1982 visit to Ethiopia, Djibouti Interior Minister Idriis Farah Abaane announced that urban refugees would be moved to camps and illegal aliens expelled. Within days, thousands were arrested in a sweep of Djibouti City. On February 16, at least 87 recognized refugees (6 accepted for US resettlement) were handed over to Ethiopian troops at Dewelle. One refugee in that group later reported that the deportees were imprisoned in Dire Dawa from two to seven months, and forced to sign statements that they were "voluntarily interrogated." He told of meeting in the prison another 15 refugees forcibly repatriated from Djibouti.

Although such refoulements from Djibouti borders and camps had been reported earlier, this event initiated large-scale, regular deportations.

Following this incident, refugee associations in Djibouti again appealed to the UNHCR to prevent refoulements and protect refugees from such abuses.

Thousands of urban refugees were transported to camps within 11 km of Ethiopia, where they could not make their presence known to family, friends or the UNHCR - no telegram, telephone or mail services existed. Refugees were not allowed to leave the camps, even though claims for asylum could only be made in the capital. Consequently, there is no way to trace how many came to Djibouti or were deported.

Nomads and merchants who routinely traverse the desert between countries have been warned by Ethiopian authorities not to guide escapees to Djibouti. Several guides were reportedly killed with refugees in July 1981. More recently, refugees claim that local Ethiopian authorities pay nomads to return escapees.

Amidst reports of these conditions, Ethiopian and Djibouti government representatives have, together with the UNHCR, recently formed a Tripartite Commission to negotiate "effective accomplishment of durable solutions" to the refugee problem in Djibouti.

On January 31, 1983, the commission met in Djibouti City to plan a program to voluntarily repatriate refugees in Djibouti to relief and rehabilitation centers in Ethiopia. The commission met again April 15 to 16 in Addis Ababa to further discuss the program's implementation.

Although the UNHCR stresses that repatriation would be "absolutely voluntary" (through application procedures, signed statements and interviews), both governments have announced that all refugees will be returned.

The refugees themselves were neither involved nor consulted in these negotiations. They are afraid that they will be coerced to return under this agreement, particularly given that the UNHCR has been unable to prevent the refoulement of bona fide refugees from Djibouti in the last two years. By March, one month after the initial Tripartite meeting, 900 refugees had fled Djibouti to Somalia to again seek asylum; several sources indicate that more were preparing to leave. The Djibouti delegation to the Tripartite meetings agreed to inform refugees, through mass media, of the new program. They also offered to make available to the commission information on the number and places of origin of the refugees and "other relevant data" for the program implementation. From where does this information come?

In the past few months, there have been reports of misuse of information given in political asylum applications. Refugees report that on three occasions in November and December 1982, 145 refugees were deported from refugee transit camps established for political refugees. On December 21, 1982, all applications to the Djibouti Refugee Eligibility Commission were reportedly rejected. The UNHCR representatives allegedly walked out of the meeting and told the gathered refugees awaiting word on their applications to "run away." Asked if the UNHCR could protect them from refoulement, a UNHCR official said "no." Soon after, the arrests began. In jail, guards sought to identify 72 captured refugees using the list of asylum applicants denied that day, and even checking them against the application photos.

Given appropriate circumstances, repatriation can be an optimal solution. However, before embarking on such an ambitious program, the indications which caused the refugees to leave their homelands should be investigated. No such inquiry has yet been made.

The picture drawn by the Ethiopian government portrays an end of war in Ethiopia, a restoration of peace, and the revolutionary growth of a new society. According to the Tripartite meeting reports, the UNHCR and Djibouti have accepted Ethiopia's assertions.

These claims contradict accounts by refugees. Reports sent to the Refugee Research Project from Djibouti refugee organizations and interviews with 1982 arrivals to the US point to historical conflicts in the region as the fundamental cause of the refugee problem.

Refugees claim that the once independent nations of the region were colonized in the late 1800's by Abysinnians, and that the Derg is a continuation of that state. They cite seizure of land, a million persons sold as slaves, those remaining turned to serfs, and posting of armed garrisons as evidence of that original colonization. Several exile organizations claim that colonial strategies refined under Haile Selassie are applied today, some under the guise of internationally-funded relief projects.

Refugees in Djibouti claim that mass resistance movements caused a crisis in Ethiopia in 1977-78. The Derg retaliated by strafing the countryside, poisoning water holes, and ordering widespread repression through local officials. The Ethiopians turned to the USSR for help to beat back the gains of Eritreans and Tigres in the north, and of Oromos and Somalis in the south and east. This turbulence, however, was misrepresented to the world as a border war between Somali and Ethiopia.

Refugees' analysis has not been assessed by international observers, in part because verification is made difficult by the inaccessibility of the regions in question. Observation and documentation of human rights conditions in the countryside have all but ceased. Information conveyed through telephone or mail is censored; travel is controlled by a pass system; journalists are issued government-supplied itineraries, translators and even interviewers.

Refugees leaving these areas between 1979 and 1982 assert that the "Red Terror" thought by outsiders to have ended in 1978 continues today. People are afraid to report. Even when safe in the U.S., refugees often fear that if they divulge information about abuses they witnessed, their families will become the objects for retaliation.

There is a clear need to investigate human rights conditions in Ethiopia and to institute safeguards against what refugees claim is the flaw in the Tripartite program: that they will be handed over to the very officials who originally threatened their lives and caused them to flee.

Refugees have had ample opportunities to return from Djibouti. How many returned under the terms of the 1980 amnesty? What became of them? What opportunities not already available are offered by the Tripartite plan? Whose interests does this program serve?

The economic aspects of the repatriation program must also be evaluated. Though Ethiopia promised to take charge of the basic needs of 40,000 returnees, they made clear the program will depend on substantial UNHCR funding. It is noteworthy that in April/May 1983 Ethiopia issued a frantic appeal to UN agencies for assistance to drought victims of Eritrea, Gondar, Tigray and Wollo Provinces. With over (U.S.) $2 billion in arms debts due to the USSR, the mounting of expensive military campaigns, and local economies shattered by collectivization schemes and war conditions, Ethiopia's coffers are empty.

In 1981 the Derg sought economic development funds from Western nations, but international recognition of widespread human rights abuses in Ethiopia undermined their campaign. Now that violence in Ethiopia is not reported unverified claims of improved conditions are accepted by governments and assistance agencies.

Djibouti as a model?

The circumstances of the Djibouti case raise several issues related to international refugee protection. The basic infrastructure required by the UNHCR for effective operation does not exist in Djibouti. The UNHCR lacks a presence at the border (based in Djibouti City, they go to the camps several times a week). Lines of communication and authority with the local government are vague and unreliable. For example, in the February 16, 1982 refoulement, Mr. Bruno Theissbrummel, chief HCR Protection officer in Djibouti, was stopped en route to the border, told not to continue on his way, and was warned that local officials could not be responsible for his safety.

No safety zone exists in Djibouti to which refugees can seek temporary physical protection in the midst of police raids and subsequent refoulements.

There is no systematic line of communication between refugees and the UNHCR in Djibouti. Any information flow is one way - i.e., refugees are informed of policy changes by notices posted in front of the UNHCR offices.

The UNHCR does not monitor the host government's treatment of refugees. There have been no reports of inquiries into alleged violations of refugee conventions nor have any corrective measures taken.

The UNHCR needs to ask Ethiopia and Djibouti to account for refugees repatriated voluntarily or involuntarily to Ethiopia between 1981 and 1983.

It is assumed that sensitive information collected in asylum applications is kept confidential and not misused. Observers should check to make sure that that is indeed the case.

The mandate of the UNHCR is to protect refugees. The questions raised by the Djibouti/Ethiopia case is how the international community can protect refugees when they are used as bargaining chips between nations. Is the UNHCR mandate truly realistic when it is funded by, and ultimately is responsible to, the governments that in many cases are the cause of refugee flight?

Until this contradiction is resolved, refugees will pay a high price for its consequences.

The drama being enacted in Djibouti may well set a precedent for repatriation of refugee populations. When similarly powerful states apply pressure on economically vulnerable countries to return refugees, the UNHCR may be called upon to sanction and implement a repatriation program.

If the Djibouti case does become a model, refugees will never be asked to participate in the design, implementation or monitoring of such a program. Who, if not the UNHCR, can ensure that their voice will be heard?

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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