Children play in a destroyed house in Ethiopia's Tigray region

Refugee Camps in Ethiopia Appear to Have Been Systematically Destroyed

Satellite photos show military actors at the camps right after they were razed; the damage is far more extensive than previously reported.
February 3, 2021, 10:12pm

Two refugee camps in Ethiopia’s Tigray region were deliberately razed to the ground in attacks carried out between November and January, according to researchers who have been analyzing satellite images that highlight extensive destruction caused by the breakout of civil war in Ethiopia last year.

Previous reports of satellite images obtained by the DX Open Network, a UK-based research and analysis organization, appeared to depict scorched earth attacks at the Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps, which hosted over 25,000 refugees from neighboring Eritrea prior to the war. But recent analysis of the images indicates that the destruction was systemic, and residential areas, clinics, and schools were targeted in what appears to have been an attempt at preventing future use of the facilities. Further, a significant number of military vehicles and soldiers are visible in and around the camps soon after the time of the destruction, which appears to point to their complicity in the razing. While it is unconfirmed which military was present, signs also indicate it was the Ethiopian military, as the government continues to deny access to the camps. The damage also appears to now be much more extensive than originally reported, with over a thousand structures destroyed. 

The damage also appears to now be much more extensive than originally thought, with over a thousand structures destroyed.

“These cumulative damage assessments show a campaign to degrade, destroy both the Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps from November 24 to January 27,” the DX Open Network said in a statement yesterday. “There are clear and consistent patterns across both camps over a two month period demonstrating that these refugee camps were systematically targeted, despite their protected humanitarian status.”

The breakout of war between the former Tigray regional government and Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers has left thousands dead and internally displaced over 2.3 million people. Widespread destruction, the result of attacks targeting urban city centers, heritage sites, and refugee camps, has also been documented.

The Hitsats and Shimelba camps had come under attack soon after the breakout of war, and fighting at the Hitsats camp between allied Ethiopian and Eritrean troops and forces loyal to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was reported in November. Refugees have been reportedly targeted and killed by both Tigrayan and Eritrean forces, while others were abducted and taken back to Eritrea. At least four humanitarian aid workers have been killed at the camps.

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The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, operated a total of four refugee camps hosting almost 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray. Despite this, representatives have been denied access to the two camps despite appealing repeatedly. The camps remain under heavy military guard, with satellite images taken on January 25 appearing to show a heavy concentration of soldiers at a school compound at the Shimelba site.

“I am very worried for the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in those camps,” UNHCR head Filippo Grandi said in a January 14th statement. “The [Ethiopian] government has provided assurances that measures are being taken to minimize the impact of the conflict on civilians.”

But the recent findings indicate that despite Ethiopia’s reassurances to the UNHCR, the destruction continued even in the days following Grandi’s statement.

A satellite image with red and purple dots indicating damages.

The destruction from December 10 to January 27 left 721 structures destroyed at the Shimelba refugee camp. The purple markings indicate catastrophic damage and red indicates extensive damage. (Courtesy of PlanetLabs Inc)

By January 27, the Shimelba camp had a total of 721 structures destroyed, according to satellite imagery obtained on that date, over 300 more than previously thought. As has been reported, fires were set simultaneously across the camp’s residential areas, with clear visible darkening indicating the burning of hundreds of homes between January 13 and January 16. Visible destruction of a compound run by the World Food Program (WFP) and a clinic operated by the Ethiopian government run Administration for Refugee & Returnee Affairs (ARRA), took place in early January.

Two additional WFP structures were completely obliterated by January 5 as well. The landscape outside of an Ethiopian Orthodox Church Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission-run high school was set ablaze, and the aftermath is clearly visible from space.

A satellite map showing destruction of WFP warehouses.

The images show the destruction of two World Food Program-run warehouses in the Shimelba camp. The image on the left was taken on December 10, and the image on the right was taken on January 5. (Courtesy of PlanetLabs Inc)

“99 percent of [Shimelba’s damaged structures] were assessed as catastrophically or extensively damaged,” the organization said in a statement sent to VICE World News.

Prior to the war, the Hitsats camp had schools, colleges, youth recreational centers, and even a beauty salon, funded by a consortium of local and international aid organizations. The DX Open Network told VICE World News that a total of 531 destroyed structures were tallied for Hitsats. Previous reporting put the figure around 400. Extensive damage to facilities run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), have also been recorded. The surrounding area was set alight, as was the case at similar structures across both camps. Images of smoke billowing into the air over residential dorms appear to indicate arson attacks on those structures too.

Images of Hitsats refugee camp full of smoke and fire.

Smoke and active fires are visible over residential areas of the Hitsats refugee camp on the left image taken on January 5. The aftermath is depicted on the right. (Courtesy of PlanetLabs Inc)

Another compound also had the earth around it scorched, with at least eight identified cratering sites, consistent with damage caused by direct artillery rounds dating back to late November. The researchers indicated to VICE World News that this was evidence that the camp was shelled.

“The presence of military actors soon after the widespread razing of both camps raises questions as to whether these military actors are the same as the perpetrators of the fire-based attacks and other violence at and around the camps.”

“Also present in satellite imagery are groups of military-use vehicles, including a mechanised formation bivouacking in an elementary and secondary school compound within Shimelba Refugee Camp,” the DX Open Network told VICE World News. “The presence of military actors soon after the widespread razing of both camps raises questions as to whether these military actors are the same as the perpetrators of the fire-based attacks and other violence at and around the camps.” 

A satellite map showing military vehicles.

The satellite images show a military presence of soldiers, humvees, and trucks visible near an elementary school compound at the Shimelba camp on January 25th. (Courtesy of PlanetLabs Inc)

With the camp cut off from the outside world and out of food, survivors reportedly fled into the wilderness. At least 20,000 Eritrean refugees who had been at the two camps remain unaccounted for.

Last week, Grandi himself traveled to Ethiopia. During his four day visit, he met with President Sahlework Zewde and got the chance to tour two of the UNHCR’s camps in Tigray. But he was denied the chance to visit Shimelba and Hitsats. 

Perhaps even more worrying, an Ethiopian government representative spoke to state media last week, and seemed to rule out the possibility of the two camps being reopened. According to the unnamed official, the two camps were “substandard,” and “inhospitable,” and had been turned into militia training sites for members of the Eritrean political opposition. No evidence for the claim was included in the report.

“These events progressed in manner, timing, and consistency so similar to one another that it suggests that the same actor conducted the attacks on both camps with the same intent: to degrade both refugee camps’ ability to function, discourage any refugees from remaining, and ultimately prevent their use as refugee camps,” the DX Open Network told VICE World News. “In totality, these acts may constitute violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.”

Last year, the Ethiopian government announced that it intended to close the Hitsats refugee camp citing costs, much to the chagrin of the UNHCR, which has argued the refugees, mostly escapees from unending military conscription in Eritrea, would have nowhere else to go. Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki has long criticized the existence of the camps, claiming that western states were using them to lure away potential recruits for his army. With the camps now rendered inhospitable, he appears to have had the last laugh.