Tariku Debela, in jeans, walks carefully through the streets of Eastleigh, Nairobi. Photo by Ebba Abbamurti.

Why Are Oromo Refugees Getting Sent Back to Ethiopia?

Oromos in Kenya claim refugees are being sent back to Ethiopia where they are subject to persecution.

On a warm evening last month, Tariku Debela was walking home from dinner in the immigrant enclave of Eastleigh, Nairobi, when he was jumped by four men who took his phone and more than $200 in cash. Getting mugged is bad enough, but what happened next is seared in Debela's memory.

Debela is an Oromo political leader residing in Kenya as a refugee. The men who robbed Debela delivered a message in Amharic—a verbal threat from across the border—"side with the Ethiopian government or only death awaits you."

When Debela decided to flee Ethiopia, after years of brutal political persecution, including torture and imprisonment, he expected to be protected as a refugee in Kenya. Indeed, under international law he is. But, Debela and thousands of other Ethiopian refugees who enter neighboring countries have found themselves still within reach of the Ethiopian state, resulting in mistreatment from local governments and neglect from the international organizations ostensibly meant to protect them.

Amnesty International confirmed from sources on the ground that in early January 2016, Kenyan security forces deported 25 Ethiopian refugees from Kenya. This is disputed by Stanley Mwango, spokesperson for the Kenyan government's Department of Refugee Affairs, who denies the deportations, telling Okayafrica that “Kenya is not sending away anyone who is legally seeking asylum."

But Amnesty's account corresponds to reports from Oromo community leaders in Nairobi that Ethiopian refugees are routinely subject to surveillance, harassment, violence and deportation from Kenyan police and border authorities, who they say work in close collaboration with the Ethiopian government.

The border crossing between Kenya and Ethiopia's Oromiya region. Creative Commons photo courtesy of Andrew Heavens.

The outgoing Oromo community leader in Nairobi, Shaga Arado, 38, says most of the Oromos forcibly returned to Ethiopia are detained in military barracks near the border where they are interrogated and in some cases tortured. There are also incidents of Oromo refugees in Kenya disappearing—such as the case of Dabassa Guyo Saffaro, a well known Oromo oral historical and cultural leader who vanished off Nairobi's streets in late September 2015. He has not been heard from since.

Although Ethiopians have consistently sought asylum for years on the basis of political persecution—UNHCR estimates there were 160,427 Ethiopian refugees in 2015—human rights organizations say they expect the number to grow in light of the ongoing Ethiopian government violence against Oromo protesters.

Peaceful protests began in November 2015 after the Ethiopian government announced plans to expand the municipality of Addis Ababa into the bordering Oromia region. The government has since abandoned the plan, but Human Rights Watch reports that over the past five months, Ethiopian security forces are suspected of killing over 200 protesters and detaining thousands without cause. Oromos, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, have consistently faced persecution and discrimination from the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party, which has been in power since 1991. The Ethiopian government did not respond to a request for comment.

Debela nostalgically shows off a photo of him with the OFC party leader—Merera Gudina at a past function.

Debela, 33, is a member of the Oromo Federalist Congress, a political party that is constantly monitored and harassed by the Ethiopian government. In 2005, following Ethiopia's disputed national elections, Debela was arrested and accused of inciting violence against the government. He spent nine months in prison. Debela was later released on conditions that he should support the government, withdraw his support for the opposition party and refrain from any political activities. But for Debela, abandoning his political activism wasn't a choice.

“It was hard for me to wrench my mind away from the reality," he says. “Seeing the Oromos being dispossessed and systematically impoverished while their land is stolen and dished out to politically correct individuals from the ruling class was what made me speak my mind."

Debela continued his political organizing, and in February 2009 he was arrested and taken to Maikelawi prison. Debela's second prison sentence was much worse than the first. In Maikelawi, Debela says he was regularly beaten and tortured. After some of the beatings, often with electrical wires, the prison guards poured ice-cold water over his bleeding body. The pain reverberated in his bones; he slept naked on his cell floor in the water. At times he was interrogated at gunpoint, blindfolded and threatened with execution. Other times bottles were tied on his penis and testicles. Debela lost track of his location, and of time.

Left: Debela showing some of the scars he acquired in Ethiopian detention. Right: Some of the documents and photos he carried with him. Photo Ebba Abbamurti

Human Rights Watch has documented political prisoners being taken to Maikelawi and tortured to try and coerce confessions. Since the recent Oromo protests, the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa issued a brief that Oromo activists arrested and imprisoned in Addis Ababa's Kalitti Jail have also experienced torture that lasted over ten hours and resulted in life-threatening injuries.

Debela was released in July 2009; he would later be again arrested and imprisoned three times. In October 2015, Debela decided he could no longer stay in Ethiopia and expect to survive—he was receiving death threats. In November 2015, Debela traveled from Mandi, Oromia to Addis and then onward to the border towns of Moyale and Hiddi Lola. He then crossed into Kenya and passed through Marsabit and Isiolo before reaching Nairobi.

Arado says other refugees who crossed into Kenya since the beginning of 2016 report paying smugglers to help them evade border guards and make it to Nairobi safely. But their safety is not guaranteed—at least two Ethiopian women refugees who recently arrived in Nairobi via smugglers said they were raped on the journey.

Debela is now registered with the UN Refugee Agency; he was given an appointment for a refugee status determination interview in November 2017. Although Debela has yet to make his case for asylum in Kenya, there are indications that many Ethiopians do not receive fair asylum hearings in other countries, making it more difficult for them to receive legal protection and putting them at risk. The United Oromo Refugees Association in Egypt staged a sit-in this month in front of UNHCR's office in Cairo to protest the low rate of asylum granted to Oromo refugees.

UNHCR, which normally produces guidance for decision-makers who are assessing asylum claims, has not issued guidance for Ethiopian asylum-seekers. As a result, countries may rely more heavily on information from their own sources, which experts say are often flawed. UNHCR's Kenya office did not respond to a request to comment.

“The biggest problem is that countries do not follow an asylum policy for Ethiopia based on reality," said Victor Nyamore, Amnesty International's Refugee Officer in Nairobi. “They prefer to believe the success stories of the Ethiopian government about development and human rights in the country."

In 2015, Ethiopia received $3 billion in development and aid funding, the majority from the U.S. and Europe, despite that some of its development programs have been documented violating the human rights of local communities. Despite these abuses, donors have not changed their levels of funding. Ethiopia remains a key Western ally in the region on counter-terrorism efforts, including against Al-Shaabab.

Transitional housing for Somali refugees in Dolo Ado, Ethiopia. Creative Commons Photo courtesy of UNICEF Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is also one of the largest refugee hosting nations in the world for over 700,000 Eritrean, Somali and South Sudanese refugees—which may explain why some governments and international organizations are hesitant to speak out on behalf of the plight of Ethiopian refugees for fear of jeopardizing their existing programming in Ethiopia.

For now, Debela must find a way to survive the waiting period until his case is reviewed. He says he cannot receive any social services for refugees, and he is afraid to call or visit friends in case it compromises their safety. In the meantime, Debela lives alone like a fugitive, skirting shadows on the street and watching for the Ethiopian security forces he believes are still watching him.

(Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100)

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