In what appears to be an unprecedented move, the Ethiopian government has taken control of a refugee processing center run by the International Organization for Migration, a UN organization, in the country’s capital city, Addis Ababa. Whether IOM willingly ceded the facility, or whether it was seized by force, is unclear.
The center in question had become a makeshift shelter for Eritrean refugees previously housed at camps in the Tigray region, which has since become a war zone. Multiple sources confirm that since the Ethiopian government’s takeover of the centre, Eritrean refugees have been forced aboard buses that have since left for Tigray. According to Bloomberg, refugees were gathered from the center yesterday and forced to return to camps in Tigray.
The International Organization for Migration, or IOM, issued a press release today that disputed it was involved in the forced removal. “The International Organization for Migration (IOM) strongly refutes allegations that a group of Eritrean refugees are being held by IOM and being processed for forced return in one of its transit centres in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa,” the statement read. “The organization equally rejects allegations that IOM buses have been used to transport the refugees to an unknown destination.”
Instead, according to the communique, activities at the center have been run by the Ethiopian Government’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) since December 3. “IOM has had no management authority, oversight or involvement in any activities undertaken by the authorities in the centre since that time,” the press release said.
“The government has taken over the management of the centre,” Safa Mseheli, an IOM spokesperson, confirmed to VICE World News in an email.
Mseheli said there was “no implication of the use of any force.” When asked to clarify if this meant the IOM willingly conceded control of its refugee centre to the Ethiopian government, Mseheli did not directly address the query.
“The Government of Ethiopia requested the IOM’s support to temporarily accommodate a small number of vulnerable refugees that were stranded in Addis while they review their individual out-of-camp options as per [Government of Ethiopia] out-of-camp policy,” Mseheli said. “The group in question has been under the management of the [Government of Ethiopia].”
Eritrean refugee and human rights advocate Meron Estifanos told VICE World News that the reports aren’t surprising. “I lost my respect for IOM a while ago,” she said.
The IOM has a history of similarly questionable conduct regarding Eritrean refugees; many Eritrean refugees voluntarily returned to their home countries from Libya after being promised financial assistance as part of an IOM-led reintegration program, but most reported receiving little to no assistance and it appears as though they were essentially tricked into returning home.
In Ethiopia, however, the government claims that a return to refugee camps is safe and an Ethiopian government statement issued Friday said the government is returning refugees to their camps in Tigray. According to the statement, the government concluded its “military operation” in Tigray, and it wasn’t a “direct threat to the Eritrean refugees who are living within and outside the camps.”
Still, violence in Tigray has not actually shown signs of abating. Since the conflict in Ethiopia began six weeks ago, tens of thousands of refugees have left Tigray. Sharing information has also been difficult, as the internet has been blocked in the region for weeks by the Ethiopian government. Other international aid organizations have also been impacted: The International Rescue Committee and the Danish Refugee Council have both confirmed the deaths of colleagues, one and four respectively, as a result of the conflict. Organizations have also struggled to deliver aid, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or UNOCHA, recently confirmed “food rations for displaced people in Tigray have run out.”