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Tigrayans who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, start wood fires to prepare dinner, in front of their temporary shelters at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Nariman El-Mofty/The Associated Press

The 19-year-old refugee, wounded by gunfire and paralyzed from the waist down, was shocked to wake up in hospital and find himself back in the country that he had tried to escape: Eritrea.

Soldiers from Eritrea had swept into his refugee camp in northern Ethiopia last week, seized a number of Eritrean refugees and carried them on military vehicles across the nearby border to Eritrea, according to the young man’s family.

“Maybe they will kill him,” said his aunt, Berhan Okebasanbet, who lives in Sweden and spoke to her nephew by phone last week. “He is afraid,” she said. “It is not a free country.”

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Her account of abductions and forced returns is similar to many other reports emerging in the aftermath of Ethiopia’s month-long military offensive in the rebellious Tigray region, just across the border from Eritrea.

Eritrea, controlled by one of the world’s most repressive and secretive regimes, has supported the Ethiopian assault on Tigray and allegedly sent its own troops into the region. Among its key targets were the refugee camps, largely populated by Eritreans who have been there for many years, often to escape Eritrea’s military conscription rules.

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murat yükselir / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; eritreahub.org

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murat yükselir / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; eritreahub.org

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murat yükselir / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; eritreahub.org

The abduction reports are impossible to verify since Ethiopia has shut down communications networks and banned media from the war zone. But with the reports proliferating, analysts and aid agencies are taking the issue seriously.

The reports of forced returns are “deeply troubling if they are confirmed,” said Juliette Stevenson, senior external relations officer for the Ethiopia office of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

“UNHCR currently does not have access to the border areas between Ethiopia and Eritrea, nor to the refugee camps inside Tigray, so cannot confirm these reports of forced return,” Ms. Stevenson told The Globe and Mail on Monday.

“We call for the right to asylum to be respected for refugees. Any repatriation of refugees to their place of origin must be strictly voluntary and based on a well-informed and individual decision.”

The Ethiopian military captured Tigray’s capital, Mekele, in late November. But clashes between the military and Tigrayan forces have continued as the war shifts into a guerrilla phase. Thousands of civilians and combatants have been reported killed since early November, while about 49,000 refugees have fled from Tigray to Sudan. An estimated one million people in Tigray have been left homeless by the war.

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The Ethiopian government has not yet fulfilled its promise to open a humanitarian corridor into Tigray so that relief agencies can gain access to nearly 100,000 Eritreans in four refugee camps, who have been cut off from food and other aid for several weeks. Widespread fighting and looting is also deterring the aid agencies from sending convoys into Tigray.

A UN security team tried to visit one of the four Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray on Sunday, but the team was denied access and briefly detained, with gunshots fired at it, according to diplomats quoted by two news agencies on Monday. UNHCR cannot confirm the reports, Ms. Stevenson said.

Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean refugee activist, said she has talked to Eritrean refugees in the Hitsats refugee camp in Tigray who described military clashes, chaos, injuries and abductions by Eritrean soldiers who raided the camp. Some of the wounded refugees woke up in hospital to discover that they had been taken back to Eritrea, she said.

“It’s like sentencing the refugees to death,” she told The Globe.

“No Eritrean will be safe in Ethiopia any more, be it a refugee or anyone who criticizes the Eritrean regime. I have been crying, thinking about the refugees in the camp and imagining how scared they must be to see Eritrean soldiers inside Ethiopia.”

Ms. Okebasanbet says she is worried about her nephew and his mother, who were both taken from the Hitsats refugee camp to Eritrea. They don’t understand why they were taken to Eritrea and they want desperately to return to Ethiopia, she told The Globe. (The Globe is not revealing their identities because of risks to their lives in Eritrea.)

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For the nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees who still remain in Tigray, food supplies are running out.

“Everything from delivery of food, to water supplies, medicine – all of this is provided through UNHCR and its partners there. Without access or the ability to be able to move in any sort of goods or services over the last month … it is very likely the camps are severely impacted,” Ms. Stevenson said.

It’s difficult for the UN agencies to understand where people are sheltering or what their needs are because of the communications blackout, she said. There is no telephone signal and no internet.

“We did have unconfirmed reports of conflict very close in and around the camps, reports of casualties, but again, it is impossible to verify.”

Meanwhile, people fleeing Tigray continue to cross a river to reach Sudan. It is the biggest influx of refugees into that part of Sudan in the past 20 years, and most are arriving only with the clothes on their back, Ms. Stevenson said.

Arshad Malik, country director in Sudan for Save the Children, said more than 11,500 refugees have arrived in Um Rakuba camp where he is working. The children’s rights organization is particularly worried about children who have been separated from their parents and could be at risk of exploitation and abuse.

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According to the organization, at least 139 refugee children in Sudan have been separated from their parents. They’ve been showing up in shorts and sandals, exposing their bare limbs to insects and mosquitos, putting them at risk of malaria or parasitic diseases.

There are still many unregistered children in transit areas, so the number of separated children could be significantly higher than 139, Mr. Malik said. “There’s a risk that these kids can be exploited sexually or be exposed to child labour,” he said.

“Some people have managed to carry a small bag, but most of them are coming with basically nothing.”

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