In recent years, 400,000 Eritreans, almost 10% of the population, have fled the country. Most cross borders into Djibouti, Ethiopia or Sudan, driven to leave for a myriad of reasons.

(ODI)―In a small classroom in the Adi Harush refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, a dozen or so young Eritrean refugees perform a play. It is a love story, drawing on elements of traditional Eritrean storytelling, with singing, dancing and physical comedy. Tesfay, 24, is the young Romeo. Though slight in stature, his blue jeans hanging from his hips, Tesfay fills the makeshift stage, belting out his longing in a high clear voice. Off stage Tesfay is shy, withdrawn as he explains why he left Eritrea, the country of his birth.

‘I was good in school but I was forced to go to the military,’ he said. ‘I came to Ethiopia because you cannot live in Eritrea, you cannot do nothing but go into the military. The system is oppressive.’ The army officers in charge promised him 15 days leave, but it never materialised. By the time he was 19 he had served two years and still not seen his family. And so like hundreds of thousands of Eritreans, in 2011 Tesfay escaped, taking the well-trodden route across the Marab River into Ethiopia.

In recent years, 400,000 Eritreans, almost 10% of the population, have fled the country. Most cross borders into Djibouti, Ethiopia or Sudan, driven to leave for a myriad of reasons. Last June the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea published more evidence of crimes against humanity committed in Eritrea by state officials. Witness statements suggest that enslavement, detention, rape, forced indefinite military conscription and other abuses are widespread. A restricted economy offers few opportunities.

When leaving Eritrea, refugees with connections or money often take established migratory routes from the horn of Africa to Libya and Europe. At the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, Eritreans were one of the biggest groups from Africa arriving by sea. Thousands drowned. Others survived and in the 12 months up to September 2016, 30,705 made first time applications for asylum in the European Union. Many others, of course, don’t get further than Ethiopia or Sudan.

‘They didn’t allow me to perform my work’

For Asmelash, a softly-spoken Eritrean actor, the UN’s findings confirmed what he knew already. Asmelash is 32 and has lived in the Adi Harush camp for more than a year. He recently began teaching drama classes to younger refugees, including Tesfay.

Born in Ethiopia, Asmelash was a child actor who appeared in TV commercials and films before the civil war. When the conflict ended 14-year-old Asmelash, his mother and two sisters, were deported to Eritrea during the mass displacement of people in 1998. ‘There was discrimination in Eritrea for us raised in Ethiopia,’ he said of life after the war. ‘They blame us for everything. If someone commits a crime, they blame us. The government wanted us to fight within our communities. They created a sort of hatred among us.’ Even so, Asmelash’s passion for acting grew and he continued to perform in films and plays, and eventually wrote his own scripts and directed films.

Continue reading this story on Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
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