The Platform

Ethiopian refugees showing mobile banking numbers pleading for help in Galkayo, Puntland. (Ibrahim Sultan.)

Because of fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, thousands of Ethiopians fled to neighboring Somalia.

In 2020, when intense fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region broke out between government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), thousands of Ethiopians were forced to flee their country. While some Ethiopian refugees have decided to return home, many thousands still live in neighboring countries like Sudan and Somalia. While Sudan became a destination for nearly 60,000 refugees, thousands of Ethiopians also crossed into the Puntland region in northeastern Somalia.

One local, weaving through the city’s streets, shared with me, “Don’t you see Ethiopian refugees pouring into the city? I think there is a conspiracy and buses unload them on the outskirts.” On probing this rumor further, I found it echoed by other locals. A wizened local confided, “Someone is directing them via cell phone; take that road, live in that neighborhood.”

This begs an intriguing question: why are Somalis so taken aback by these refugees when many of them have known the tribulations of displacement and asylum for decades? Countless Somalis are refugees themselves, scattered across Ethiopia, Europe, and North America. The reason for their flight? It parallels why Ethiopians now seek shelter in Somalia: human suffering that needs no further philosophizing. Their exodus is a result of endless wars, famine, drought, climate change, and political repression. After all, asylum is a universal human right upheld by international law and customs.

Clutching her little girl close, one Ethiopian refugee, Fatima, recounted her arduous journey in a video interview. “If it were not for the war, I would not have come from my country,” she admitted. In the same video, the Somalis I interviewed were torn between those extending a warm welcome to refugees and those skeptical of their burgeoning numbers.

According to data from the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, “Somalia was host to 35,381 registered refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Ethiopia and Yemen.” However, the actual count likely exceeds this. Cities like Hargeisa, Bosaso, and the capital Mogadishu have harbored substantial Ethiopian communities for decades. The majority belong to Ethiopian Muslim ethnicities. While the UNHCR commends Somalia’s open-door policy for refugees, more work remains to be done.

What fuels Somali apprehension about Ethiopian refugees? The answer resides in the echoes of historical conflicts. Long before European colonization, Somali sultanates and tribes had battled Ethiopia’s expansion toward the Indian Ocean’s shores. Following independence, two fierce conflicts unfolded between the fledgling Somali Republic and Ethiopia.

To dissolve this air of distrust, strengthening community understanding and regional cooperation through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union, and other institutions, is crucial.

Concerning refugees from Ethiopia and beyond, what measures must be implemented?

Firstly, legal matters such as documentation should be settled. Secondly, basic services like shelter, healthcare, and education should be extended to refugees, in collaboration with international organizations. Thirdly, refugees and their representative committees must be given a platform to bring their issues and priorities into the limelight. Fourthly, fostering local community participation in volunteer work will aid refugees, welcome them, and help teach them the Somali language, facilitating their integration into society—since, physically, there’s little to distinguish the two peoples. Fifthly, caution is necessary against rhetoric stoking violence against refugees, particularly those exploited by political parties for their own ends. Sixthly, equipping refugees with job skills will enable them to contribute to Somalia’s economy.

Lastly, I believe the intertwining of Somali and Ethiopian societies—accelerated by urbanization, shared ideas, and intermarriages—can bloom, given a peaceful environment, public education, and robust law enforcement.

Ibrahim Sultan is a progressive Somali journalist, writer, and advocate for social justice. He is the Founder of the Somali Progressive Initiative.