Crossing the Border: Into Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen

Seeking Refuge and Asylum

Crossing The Border

Into Ethiopia and Sudan


The largest numbers of Eritrean refugees have escaped by land. When they have first crossed an overland border, their experiences have differed, depending on whether they have fled to Ethiopia, Sudan or elsewhere.  Each of those two countries, working in concert with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for many years commonly accepted the arrivals as lawful, or at least as”prima facie,” refugees.  But the refugees’ circumstances have remained fragile, and shifting.


In recent years some refugees in Sudan were kidnapped en route to refugee camps, en route to or in major urban centers, or even within the camps themselves.  The kidnappers were either traffickers who would 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 were reports, continuing through at least 2017, that the Sudanese government itself, sometimes through its notorious Janjaweed militias (now reconstituted and officially embraced by the government as the Rapid Security Forces), had been arresting Eritrean refugees and refouling, or deporting, them back to Eritrea, where a dire fate awaited them.  In mid-2017, reports of significant numbers of Eritreans so arrested and refouled arose repeatedly. In 2022 and early 2023 (if not before), Sudanese police frequently arrested, detained and extorted for cash Eritrean refugees living in the capital, Khartoum, and sometimes in eastern Sudan. But in mid-2023, when the horrific conflict between the RSF and Sudanese government forces began, the police appeared to have stopped abusing the refugees, but the RSF – soon in control of Khartoum – picked up where the police had left off: robbing, raping and killing Eritrean refugees. Near the beginning of the war, meanwhile, Sudanese authorities appeared to be complicit in enabling Eritrean forces to kidnap Eritrean refugees in Eastern Sudan and return them to Eritrea, for an uncertain fate.


In June 2018, Ethiopia and Eritrea embarked on a radically new and hopeful peace initiative between the two countries.  In September 2018 their border was officially opened, which resulted in many thousands of Eritreans fleeing to Ethiopia. The border closed again, but it became more porous, and thousands have continued to flee.  Many of those fleeing appeared to wish to stay in Ethiopia, while others seemed bound for neighboring countries and Europe.  At least to an extent, the trafficking abuses occurring in Sudan have appeared to afflict those undertaking forward migration from Ethiopia as well.

Those who arrived in Ethiopia had long been relatively safe there. But following the rapprochement with Eritrea, many refugees came to fear that the Ethiopian government would refoule them to Eritrea through some arrangement with the Eritrean regime. In addition, beginning in January 2020, with some exceptions, Ethiopia stopped granting prima facie refugee status to newly arriving Eritreans. At least some of the new refugees did not have ready access to the refugee camps, and thus, reportedly, they had become homeless and destitute.

And then, in November, came the war in Tigray – when the Ethiopian government encouraged Eritrean forces to enter that Ethiopian province, wage barbaric war on the Tigrayans, and horrifically abuse the Eritrean refugees there and elsewhere in Ethiopia. The devastating impact on Eritrean refugees is described here.  During the war and since then, Ethiopia has stopped granting refugee status to newly arrived Eritreans.


A much smaller number of Eritreans escape their country overland into Djibouti and live as refugees there.

Into Yemen

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.

Rescue by the United Nations

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 or entirely 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 Trying Life in a Refugee Camp

campThe 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. Still, their lives have been relatively secure.

Beginning in November 2020, the war in Tigray, Ethiopia upended all of that in the four UNHCR camps in its Tigray province and one of the camps in its Afar province. Hunger and massacre were rife. In Tigray, Eritrean forces destroyed two of the camps, and all of the Eritrean refugees eventually fled to Sudan, to a new UNHCR facility south of Tigray in Amhara province, to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, or elsewhere. In Afar, as Tigrayan forces invaded, refugees fled the fighting and were scattered throughout the province, with the whereabouts of some of them long unknown.