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Ethiopia and Eritrea conflict

As noted, during the course of the war Ethiopian authorities forcibly expelled some 75,000 Ethiopians of Eritrean origin.

On June 11, 1998, approximately one month after the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia began, the Ethiopian government issued a "policy" statement. According to the statement, the "550,000 Eritreans residing in Ethiopia" could continue to live and work peacefully there. The Ethiopian government was committed to ensuring "good and brotherly relations and peaceful coexistence with Eritreans residing both in Ethiopia and Eritrea."However, as a "precautionary measure," the statement ordered members of Eritrean political and community organizations to leave the country on account of their suspected support of the Eritrean war effort. It ordered a mandatory leave of absence of one month for people of Eritrean origin occupying "sensitive" jobs. Those expelled would be allowed to appoint agents to administer their properties, the statement pledged, and their dependents would be given the choice of either staying behind or accompanying them.

The first wave of arrests and expulsions began the following day, on June 12, 1998. In this first wave, the Ethiopian government targeted people of Eritrean origin in Ethiopia who were prominent in business, politics, or community organizations.On June 18, 1998, the Ethiopian foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin, explained that the government planned to expel "a few individuals contributing financial and material support to the war efforts" of the Eritrean government. The foreign minister explained that while disloyal Ethiopian Eritreans would be expelled, those who supported the Ethiopian government would not be targeted.

In conjunction with this first wave of arrests and expulsions, people of Eritrean origin in Ethiopia who held jobs in what were deemed "security sensitive" sectors lost their jobs under a policy of "enforced leave." Although the enforced leave policy was announced as a temporary measure pending review of individual circumstances, such individualized reviews apparently never took place, and Human Rights Watch is unaware of any case in which a person subject to the enforced leave policy was later reinstated in his or her job.

During the early phase of the Ethiopian government's campaign against individuals of Eritrean origin (and against undisputed Eritrean nationals), Ethiopian authorities also sought to purge individuals of Eritrean origin and of Eritrean nationality from international and regional organizations based in Addis Ababa. Thus, Ethiopian authorities pressured the OAU, the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), and international aid organizations to arrange for the departure of employees who were Eritreans or of Eritrean origin. In some cases, Eritreans and individuals of Eritrean origin who worked for international and regional organizations were simply expelled by the Ethiopian government without notice or consultation with the employing organization. By June 1999, thirty-eight U.N. employees and dozens of employees of the OAU had been expelled.

The Ethiopian government also targeted people with experience or training in the Eritrean military. On June 13, 1998, the police were instructed to begin "selective questioning" of individuals who had undergone military training in Eritrea. Up to 1,500 former Eritrean soldiers and graduates of the national service in Eritrea were sent from these interrogations directly to internment camps where smaller numbers later joined them. A spokesperson for the Ethiopian government explained that the arrests were undertaken in order to safeguard national security and that individuals of Eritrean origin who led a "peaceful life" would not be affected.

However, despite the Ethiopian government's policy statement of June 11 that only individuals deemed to pose "a security risk to the state" faced expulsion, after June 1998, the Ethiopian government was expelling mostly ordinary people. The justification for these expulsions was simply the expellees' suspect status as "Eritreans"-a determination usually arrived at without input from the expellees and which they were not permitted to challenge administratively or judicially.

In many cases, people were identified to the local authorities as "Eritrean" by co-workers, neighbors or other informants. Lists of people identified as "Eritrean" were occasionally published in newspapers and other periodicals. For example, on June 10, 1998, the newspaper Fiameta published an article calling the U.N. ECA in Addis Ababa a second "Embassy of Eritrea" and naming people of supposed-Eritrean origin who were prominent within the organization. A letter to the editor published the following month in the same newspaper listed another fifteen "Eritreans" employed at ECA.

By the middle of 1999, the Ethiopian government no longer routinely justified the expulsions on national security grounds, but increasingly characterized the expulsions as part of a program of "family reunification" or "voluntary repatriation."Many of the first expellees were male heads of household; their wives and children were expelled subsequently. For some individuals, it was preferable to depart Ethiopia under these "programs" than to continue being forcibly separated from family members who had already been expelled or to continue being subject to governmental discrimination against people of Eritrean origin. The Ethiopian government's assertion that these programs were purely voluntary is untenable in light of the government's aggressive campaign of harassment, expulsion and discrimination against people of Eritrean origin.

Also framing the expulsion campaign was the Ethiopian government's contention within a month of the first expulsions that the targets of the campaign were not Ethiopian citizens. As early as July 1998, the Ethiopian prime minister used the term "foreigners" to characterize those destined for expulsion.

In July 1999, the strategy of expulsions crystallized: the government issued a press release declaring that those who had registered to vote in the 1993 referendum on Eritrean independence had thereby acquired Eritrean citizenship and that the Ethiopian Government was therefore justified in rescinding their citizenship rights. "The government of Ethiopia has a legal right to expel Eritreans deemed to be a risk to national security because they are citizens of a foreign country," concluded the July 9, 1999 statement, which argued:

The individuals that have been expelled by the Ethiopian government over the course of the past year are citizens of Eritrea. None of them are citizens of Ethiopia. They are Eritrean citizens because they registered to vote in Eritrea's 1993 referendum on independence. The Eritrean Referendum Proclamation of May 1992 clearly limits participation in the referendum to naturalized citizens of the State of Eritrea. In order to register, one had to provide proof of Eritrean citizenship, namely, an identification card issued by the Department of Internal Affairs, in accordance with the provisions of Eritrea's 1992 Nationality Proclamation. Individuals who are citizens of Eritrea cannot simultaneously be citizens of Ethiopia because there are no provisions for dual citizenship.

According to the Constitution of the FDRE, when an individual adopts foreign citizenship (e.g. Eritrean citizenship), s/he loses Ethiopian citizenship as a result. Both the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments recognized that voting in the 1993 referendum signified one's Eritrean citizenship long before the current conflict began. This understanding of Eritrean citizenship, which Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed on for purposes of the Ethio-Eritrean extradition treaty, is indistinguishable from the understanding of Eritrean citizenship that applies to Ethiopia's expulsion policy.

Finally, on August 14, 1999, the Ethiopian government ordered people of Eritrean origin aged eighteen and older, who had voted in the 1993 referendum on Eritrea's independence, as well as those who had formally acquired Eritrean citizenship, to register for alien residence permits with the Security, Immigration, and Refugee Affairs Authority within two weeks or face unspecified legal action. Prior to this time, the Ethiopian government had not applied the alien registration rule to Eritreans in Ethiopia. The order seems to have been motivated in part by the desire to justify after the fact the deportation of people of Eritrean origin by formally categorizing them as aliens, as well as to drive those of Eritrean origin who remained in Ethiopia to leave.

Daily life became more precarious for people of Eritrean origin in Ethiopia after the alien registration order went into effect. First, the registration gave the Ethiopian government an easily accessible record of the identities, addresses, and property of this population. Second, the alien identity card had to be renewed every six months, so that people of Eritrean origin remained uncertain of their ability to permanently reside in Ethiopia. Third, discrimination by local authorities and private individuals against people of Eritrean origin became more pervasive. Denied employment and business licenses, many were left without any means of support. Because of an intense climate of hostility towards people of Eritrean origin in Ethiopia, it was also dangerous even for their friends and neighbors to be seen to be assisting expellees or their families.

Expulsion Campaign Procedures in Urban Areas

The expulsion process for individuals from urban areas conformed to an established pattern. The vast majority were initially arrested at their homes; the rest were usually seized at their workplace. In most instances, local policemen accompanied by local government (kebele) officials conducted arrests of those to be expelled. The officials generally arrived at the expellee's home in the middle of the night or in the early hours of the morning and asked for one or more family member by name, indicating that such person or persons must accompany them immediately to the local police station "for questioning." No other reasons were usually given for the summons. Generally, the police did not produce arrest warrants as required by law. Few, if any, expellees resisted the police demands.

Interrogation by "Processing Committee" at Police Station
Once in the custody of the police and local officials, expellees were generally brought to the local police station where they were questioned by a "processing committee" of policemen, security agents, and political officials from the ruling party. The processing committee normally asked each detainee to state his or her name, address, occupation, and whether the individual had supported the ruling party in Eritrea or was a member of an Eritrean community organization. Expellees were also questioned about family members. The interrogation at the police station was the only formal procedural check of the identity and suspected affiliations of the expellees. During the interrogation, the expellees were not given a meaningful opportunity to refute the allegation that they were not Ethiopian citizens and that they were security risks. They were not informed of the legal basis for their detention, and were not able to avail themselves of regular judicial proceedings to challenge their treatment.

While the expellees were in custody at the police station, Ethiopian officials searched for and confiscated their Ethiopian identification documents, including identity cards, passports, work papers, driving licenses, and the like. Some expellees managed to retain some identification documents, either by hiding them, or because they had not had a chance to bring the documents with them when they were detained.

 Indeed, there were many expelled Eritrean, who endeavor to destroy Identity documents from Schools, Hospitals, Work place which gives clue of Eritrea origin for remained families member to keep save from Ethiopian security agents.


In conjunction with the expulsion campaign, the Ethiopian government revoked business licenses and ordered the freezing of assets of thousands of individuals of Eritrean origin. Those with bank accounts were informed that their accounts had been frozen and were inaccessible. The government did not provide any avenue for affected individuals to challenge or reverse these actions.

In its June 11, 1998 statement, the Ethiopian government had promised that expellees would be afforded an opportunity to appoint agents to oversee their assets. Frequently, however, expellees were not given an opportunity to appoint a personal representative.Those who did so were often required to assign power of attorney in a manner that did not conform to Ethiopian law. Some expellees refused to fill out power of attorney documents because of the irregularity of the procedures.

Generally, the appointment of personal representatives, when it took place, occurred while expellees were in custody at the local police station. Members of the "processing committees" asked detainees to declare whether or not they possessed any property or assets. Those who answered in the affirmative were generally given blank sheets of paper to list and dispose of their assets and were also told to fill in power of attorney forms. In the coercive environment of the interrogation, many expellees believed that they were being made to list their assets in order to facilitate the confiscation of their property by Ethiopian authorities, and some refused to list their belongings or assign their interests. Under duress, many expellees assigned powers of attorney to a person to whom they would not ordinarily have entrusted such authority. Although Ethiopian law requires that the appointment of an agent be formalized by filing papers with a court, expellees often were made to appoint agents without the opportunity to properly notarize their power of attorney documents.

Those in the first wave of expulsions had little or no prior notice of their detention and expulsion, and thus were not able to dispose of their property before being taken into custody by Ethiopian authorities. As a result, the only opportunity many had to make arrangements to protect their property was to cede power of attorney while they were in police custody as directed by the interrogation panel. The first wave of expulsions, in particular, targeted many successful businessmen in the areas of transport, construction, electronics, and food processing, many of whom incurred huge property losses as a result of seizures by the Ethiopian government or by ordinary Ethiopians taking advantage of their forced departure.

While many of those who were expelled in subsequent phases of the expulsion campaign were able to dispose of at least some of their property prior to being detained, wide-spread knowledge about the expulsions created an atmosphere of duress regarding the sale of property by individuals of Eritrean origin. As a result, many of those facing expulsion were forced to sell their businesses and other belongings for far less than market value.

During the expulsion campaign, Ethiopian authorities took steps to limit the ability of Ethiopians of Eritrean origin to dispose of their property before being expelled. For example, one expellee we interviewed was prevented from selling his car prior to his expulsion. The ministry of transport required him to renew his Ethiopian identity card at the local council office prior to formalizing the transfer of ownership, and the local council would not do so saying that it had been forbidden to renew the identity card of any "Eritrean.Another expellee reported that after his expulsion, police and local authorities tried to coerce his wife into canceling a contract to transfer the ownership of their house to a family friend; when she refused to cancel the contract, she was expelled.

The Ethiopian government also harassed and intimidated those suspected of assisting people of Eritrean origin who had been expelled or faced expulsion, further contributing to the financial and property loss of the expellees. As a result, many people assigned powers of attorney were too afraid for their own security to risk attempting to communicate with expellees or carry out any actions on their behalf. Finally, people who had been expelled from the country were powerless even to contact others in order to direct the disposition and management of their property in Ethiopia. Telephone and other communications lines from Eritrea, where most expellees landed, and Ethiopia were cut off and expellees had no access to the Ethiopian courts to enforce their claims there.

Almost all expellees from urban areas were interned, often under very harsh conditions, prior to being expelled. The majority of the expellees were held for days or weeks, although some were held for as long as several months. Prior to their expulsion, the Ethiopian authorities moved urban expellees through a series of increasingly centralized internment sites holding ever larger groups of detainees. The last detention site for most urban expellees from the capital city region was a large camp at the Shogole military barracks, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, which generally held several hundred expellees at a time, according to former detainees.
At the police lockups, most detainees had to rely on food provided by their families, but relatives were only sporadically and unpredictably allowed access to the detainees. While some expellees were able to receive food, medication, or clothes from family members, many others were denied contact with their families and thus were not able to obtain needed goods. Furthermore, many expellees were arrested, detained, and expelled without ever being able to bid their families goodbye.

The police lockups and detention camps had inadequate space and facilities for the expellees, endangering their health and safety. Many detention camps provided no toilets or washing facilities. The first expellees to be held at Shogole camp were housed in large hangars of sheet-metal which were full of human and animal feces that the detainees had to clean out. Detainees at police lockups and detention camps were also frequently made to sleep on the floor. The Ethiopian authorities provided little access to health care for the detained expellees. In both lockups and camps, food was also reportedly inadequate.

Some incidents of torture were reported, but many expellees described beatings in the detention camps and verbal abuse appears to have been widespread. Members of the first group held for expulsion at Shogole camp, in mid June 1998, said verbal abuse and beatings were common. Among the dozens interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Asmara, however, few reported that they themselves had been beaten. According to testimonies from former internees, incidents of ill-treatment and beatings had occurred in Fiche and Bilate camps for men of military age or background.


Coming after periods of days or months in harsh conditions of internment, the long bus trip to the northern border, where the majority of expellees crossed into Eritrea, was for many the hardest part of the expulsion ordeal. The expellees were transported in bus convoys. An average convoy from Addis Ababa took between three and five days to reach the border. Conditions during the trip to the border were extremely crowded and uncomfortable. Many of the most vulnerable, including breast-feeding mothers, small children, and the elderly, were on the verge of collapse by the time they crossed the border.

The bus convoys regularly stopped en route for hours at a time in order to coordinate with buses traveling from other points. During these periods, which routinely lasted for several hours, expellees were not allowed outside the buses. The Ethiopian authorities also limited the expellees' access to toilet facilities. Expellees were generally allowed to leave the bus only late at night to sleep in the courtyards of schools and other public buildings along the route to the border. The Ethiopian authorities supplied the expellees on the bus convoy with only limited water and food. After the first wave of forced departures, word of lack of food and water having spread, expellees tried to prepare themselves for the arduous journey by bringing their own provisions.

Like the initial arrests, the departures of the buses full of internees to collection centers and to the border occurred mostly at night or in the early morning hours. This appeared to be out of concern of possible public backlash against the expulsion process.The orchestration of bus movements indicated a centrally commanded and controlled operation. A convoy of five buses originating in Addis Ababa would generally be joined by twenty to twenty-five additional buses by the time it reached the border.  Ethiopian security personnel and policemen on each bus guarded the expellees throughout the trip. A team of three to five policemen and security agents which traveled in four-wheel drive vehicles at the head of the bus convoy maintained communication with the guards on the buses via radio.

During the first few months of the expulsion campaign, the convoys transported the expellees to border crossings with Eritrea at Assab, Zalembessa, Mereb, or Humera. By late 1998, Ethiopian authorities were transporting most expellees to the Assab border crossing, the most difficult and isolated of the four routes. Bus convoys traveled from Addis Ababa to the northern border crossings, including Assab, for days through the Danakil desert to reach the border. The expellees then were made to cross the border on foot before reaching the first Eritrean post on the other side of the border.

Not all expellees were bused to Ethiopia's common border with Eritrea. Hundreds fled or were expelled through Ethiopia's southern border with Djibouti. Early on in the expulsion campaign, Ethiopian authorities also expelled many people of Eritrean origin through the southern border with Kenya and many more fled to that country.A handful of individuals, including Eritrean exchange students, humanitarian workers, and on at least one occasion, an elderly disabled person, were expelled by plane via Bole international airport in Addis Ababa, usually after protracted international mediation and the cooperation of the International Red Cross.


In general, the expulsions were timed to coincide with periods of relative quiet in the military conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which was characterized by short periods of intense fighting alternating with longer periods of relative calm. Because of logistical limits on the number of buses, other equipment, and personnel available, the Ethiopian government could deport a maximum of 2,000 people at a given time. In most periods of quiet in the war, the Ethiopian authorities expelled several batches of between 1,600 and 2,000 people, in consecutive waves of expulsions. To date, the Ethiopian government has not permitted expellees from Ethiopia to return.