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Young refugees face uncertain future in Ethiopia

As the media focuses on drought-stricken people pouring into camps in the horn of Africa, one region of Ethiopia has been coping with increasing numbers of refugees for many months.

The north of Ethiopia is now the home to many thousands of Eritrean refugees. These are mainly young men and boys who leave Eritrea because of open-ended military service there and human rights violations. Each month hundreds of young Eritreans cross into Ethiopia to find refuge, many unaccompanied and as young as six years old. The United Nations Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, Erika Feller, recently visited the region and was shocked by the “sea of young faces”.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) operate a camp at My Ayni in northern Ethiopia. And to cope with the flow of asylum-seeks from Eritrea, the agency opened a new camp at Adi Harush. Already, there are 48,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and the UNHCR expects this number to rise to around 62,000 by the end of this year. Camp dwellers pleaded with the Assistant High Commissioner to make their problems known to the world.

Workers and parents living at the camps are worried about the lack of opportunities for young people, who see no future for themselves. One eight-year old who had been in Ethiopia for two months told UNHCR that life in the camp was “tough” and there was “not much incentive” for him to remain there. Although the camps in Ethiopia provide safety, there are few opportunities for gainful employment in the region. And the Ethiopian government only allows refugees to settle in other parts of the country if they have proof of being able to look after themselves financially or sponsors who are willing to support them.

With little opportunity to find work or gain higher education and faced with the tough living conditions of camp life, many youngsters decide their only option is to move onto third countries such as Sudan and Egypt. These countries are seen as stepping stones into Europe or the Middle East.

Erika Feller worries about the dangerous journeys many young Eritreans decide to take, putting “themselves at risk in the hands of smugglers”. But the Assistant High Commissioner knows that unless young refugees are offered opportunities and can see a future, they will continue to put themselves in danger as they search for a better life.

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