OPED Kenya must protect refugees who fled brutal military attacks in Ethiopia

Ayantu, a 53-year-old mother of seven, had just finished preparing lunch for her children when military personnel surrounded her village. They pulled everyone out of their homes and asked them to reveal members of ‘shiftas’ – the informal name for members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an opposition group outlawed in Ethiopia.

For residents of Argale, an Oromo village in Ethiopia’s Moyale District, this kind of terrifying harassment had become normal. But this time it was different. Just four days earlier, on 10 March 2018, nine people had been “mistakenly” shot dead – and 15 others injured – by military officers in the nearby Shawa Bare village. These attacks prompted the Oromo people in Tuka, Argale, Madiambo and Chamuq villages to flee into Kenya by the thousands.

In January, her husband was arrested, alongside three other men. She has no idea what happened to him, or where he is now.

53-year old Ethiopian mother of seven

For Ayantu and others, such attacks have been the order of the day for the last 20 years. Mid last year, she watched as military officers shot dead her uncle for challenging their attacks and harassment at a village meeting. And in January, her husband was arrested, alongside three other men. She has no idea what happened to him, or where he is now.

For Godana, a 52-year-old man from Tuka village, the scars from his encounter with the military are etched deep within his soul, and on his body. His abdomen and back have burn marks from attacks suffered, also for speaking up against the military harassment.

The military officers dug a hole in the ground, tied my hands and placed me in it, leaving me in the scorching sun for a whole day.

52 year old Ethiopian Refugee from Tuka Village

“The military officers dug a hole in the ground, tied my hands and placed me in it, leaving me in the scorching sun for a whole day,” he recounted painfully. His wife was kicked by the soldiers as she tried to prevent them from arresting him, resulting in the loss of a pregnancy.

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But in Kenya the peace and security they sought remains elusive.

Ethiopian government officials visited Moyale on 20th March, accompanied by local Kenyan leaders, to persuade the refugees to return home. Kenya’s Governor for Marsabit County also visited the makeshift refugee settlements in his county in April and urged the refugees to return home, or be relocated to the Kakuma refugee camp, more than 1,000km away. He claimed that refugees were stretching local security and health services. Local clan elders have also reported that they have received calls from their counterparts in Ethiopia urging them to tell refugees to go back home.

But in Kenya the peace and security they sought remains elusive.

Kenya’s national government is not acting any differently. Its Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS), the department that deals with refugees, withdrew its registration officers from Marsabit County in April, in effect denying new arrivals the opportunity to be registered as refugees. The deputy county commissioner also stopped coordinating humanitarian agencies, disrupting the provision of essential services.

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While about 4,000 refugees voluntarily returned home after the swearing in of the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the remaining 6,000 still fear for their safety if they return home. The Moyale District in Ethiopia continues to experience armed skirmishes that are causing refugees to fear for their safety and lives, therefore deterring them from returning home.

Having signed and ratified international treaties concerning refugees, the Kenyan government is obliged to continue providing asylum and protection to the Ethiopian refugees in Moyale until they feel that they can safely go back home. Kenya must not push refugee back by making life difficult for them in Kenya. The risk of serious human rights violations in Ethiopia is still very real.

The Kenya government must do all it can to support the Ethiopian refugees, including by facilitating their registration and coordinating humanitarian services to ensure they have access to adequate food, shelter and health services.

The Kenya government must also facilitate their social and economic integration to enable the refugees to live a normal life in safety and dignity.

This article was first published in the EastAfrican

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