The largest numbers of Eritrean refugees escape by land. When they first cross an overland border, their experiences differ, depending on whether they have fled to Ethiopia or to Sudan. Each of those two countries, working in concert with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), commonly accepts the arrivals as lawful, or at least “prima facie,” refugees. In addition, those who arrive in Ethiopia are relatively safe. But in recent years some in Sudan have been kidnapped en route to refugee camps, en route to or in major urban centers, or even within the camps themselves. The kidnappers are either traffickers who will sell the hostages for purposes of extortion and torture, or Eritrean agents who will drag the hostages back to Eritrea to be imprisoned, tortured or killed. In early 2015, UNHCR reported that almost all female survivors of the trafficking in Sudan whom it had identified in 2014 had been sexually assaulted or raped. Of great concern are continuing reports that the Sudanese government itself, sometimes through its notorious Janjaweed militias (now reconstituted and officially embraced by the government as the Rapid Security Forces), has been arresting Eritrean refugees and refouling, or deporting, them back to Eritrea, where a dire fate awaits them. In mid-2017, reports of significant numbers of Eritreans so arrested and refouled arose repeatedly.
A much smaller number of Eritreans escape their country overland into Djibouti and live as refugees there.
Some Eritreans have escaped their country by boat, across the Red Sea, to Yemen. In the spring of 2015, as the security of Yemen disintegrated due to that country’s sectarian civil war, Eritrean refugees came to be stranded there, at great peril to their lives. Many were and remain without work, without adequate food, endangered by the military hostilities, and unable to leave the country. Many are afraid to walk on the streets, for fear of kidnapping or of injury from military actions.
In many parts of the world, UNHCR administers — or it helps the governments of countries of refuge to administer — sizable camps for refugees fleeing from nearby countries in turmoil. UNHCR does that in Ethiopia and Sudan, and several of the camps in those two countries are populated mainly by Eritreans. UNHCR conducts a number of operations in the camps and elsewhere in those countries of refuge. First, it seeks to provide physical shelter to the refugees, to protect them from harm, and to otherwise provide for their social welfare there. Second, it processes their claims to being legitimate “refugees” – individuals who, according to international law, have a “well-founded fear” of harm or persecution in their home countries for political or social reasons. Third, it seeks to achieve for those whom it has officially determined to be “refugees” one of three ultimate outcomes: having them fully absorbed in the country of first refuge, finding a third country that will absorb them, or eventually returning them to their home country when security conditions there permit.
The resources of both UNHCR and the host countries are severely stretched. At the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, living and security facilities are rudimentary. Nutrition is basic and not always adequate; sanitation, health care and educational resources may be uneven; women are vulnerable to sexual abuse. While some refugees are able to work in-camp within medical, construction, educational, commercial and other professions, most spend their days idly, endlessly, in what are typically bleak landscapes. As a consequence, camp residents are often despondent – unable to work at a profession, restricted from or fearful of traveling outside of the camp, and feeling no hope for any of the three long-term resettlement outcomes that UNHCR seeks to achieve for them.