Karen Hargrave (October 2021)
Current trends, history and policy context
Ethiopia hosted an estimated 1.1 million refugees and other migrants in 2020, representing 0.9% of the overall population. Refugees and asylum-seekers made up over two-thirds of all foreign nationals registered in the country. Currently, the number of refugees in Ethiopia stands at over 795,000, the third largest refugee population in Africa.
Ethiopia has a long history of mobility, spanning movements into, from and within the country.
This has included refugee movements, alongside individuals – many from the same countries of origin – seeking education, employment or to join family in Ethiopia, or moving as part of pastoralist traditions. Such mobility should be understood in the context of Ethiopia’s history of state formation, with many of the country’s border regions absorbed into the Ethiopian state within recent centuries. These regions therefore maintain historical and cultural ties to territories now outside Ethiopia and long-standing traditions of mobility across contemporary boundaries.
The country’s first major refugee inflows in recent history were seen in Gambella in the early 1960s, with the 1980s heralding the arrival of much larger refugee populations (from Sudan and Somalia). While refugee numbers declined throughout the next two decades, they increased sharply again in the 2000s as a result of worsening instability and famine in Somalia and South Sudan, alongside new arrivals from Eritrea.
Since 2012, Ethiopia has also seen increasing internal political instability and conflict, and high levels of internal displacement. Key areas of tension have included disputes over the balance of power as part of Ethiopia’s ethnic federalist system and contested notions of national identity.
These tensions have increased since November 2020 as part of an unpredictable and fastescalating conflict in Tigray, which has had significant impacts both for local communities and Eritrean refugees in the region.
Since the 1980s, Ethiopia’s dominant approach to refugee hosting has been one of encampment and care and maintenance, with limited formal opportunities for most refugees to work. However, recent years have seen commitments to move away from this model, including by expanding the Out of Camp Policy (OCP) (previously restricted to Eritreans) and reforms to refugees’ right to work. Since 2016 Ethiopia has been at the forefront of regional and global policy developments supporting refugees’ inclusion and self-reliance, co-hosting key international summits, announcing numerous pledges and, in 2017, becoming a pilot country for the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). In 2019 the government passed a new Refugee Proclamation, expanding refugees’ rights in relation to freedom of movement, rights to work and access to education and other key services.
However, despite some progress, significant work remains to translate recent commitments and legislation into meaningful changes in practice at local levels. Recent political turmoil in the country and the ongoing conflict in Tigray have also slowed momentum around the implementation of promised reforms, as political attention has turned to internal instability and deteriorating economic conditions, and the Covid-19 pandemic has had a similar impact on momentum.
Public and political narratives
Multiple, overlapping narratives concerning refugees and other migrants were identified in the research conducted for this study. Issues surrounding refugees – as well as other migrants – have greatest prominence in local discourse within refugee-hosting areas. Overall it is difficult to generalise, with distinct dynamics emerging with regard to different groups of refugees, as well as between regions, local communities and even individuals. While narratives have remained relatively consistent over time, more significant shifts were noted in the past year, particularly in narratives surrounding Eritreans.
Narratives around refugees and other migrants intersect with complex conceptions of national identity, which have become increasingly sensitive in recent years. The complex historical legacy in Ethiopia’s border regions means that distinctions based on ethnic and territorial identity – in particular, between Ethiopia’s ‘highland’ core and ‘lowland’ peripheries – are often felt to be more salient than those between refugees and their hosts, who in many cases share historical ties.
These dynamics play out differently in different parts of the country.
In terms of national-level narratives, proactive public engagement by Ethiopia’s federal government tends to be sporadic, and refugee issues are infrequently covered by national media outlets. However, as seen during the passage of the Refugee Proclamation through parliament, there is potential to cut through to national debate, particularly when these issues are connected to broader concerns and mobilised by influential actors. In contrast to its quieter domestic stance, the government has positioned itself internationally as a welcoming host to refugees and a key player in emerging approaches centred on refugees’ inclusion. Ethiopia has received enthusiastic international praise for its recent reforms, alongside significant financial and technical resources for the refugee response.
Public attitudes towards refugees and other migrants
Like other countries in sub-Saharan and East Africa, polling data on attitudes towards refugees and other migrants in Ethiopia is limited compared to high-income countries. Surveys tend to focus on attitudes towards ‘immigrants’ or ‘foreign workers’ in a broad sense, and do not specifically solicit attitudes towards refugees. While representing a key limitation, this data nonetheless presents various broader relevant insights:
Immigration and refugee-hosting do not appear to be salient issues for the Ethiopian public at the national level. Instead, polling suggests that respondents prioritise issues such as water supply, infrastructure and electricity provision, crime and security (although relevant polling was carried out prior to the conflict in Tigray).
Ethiopians demonstrate relatively high levels of tolerance towards immigrants, but also significant support for restrictive policy measures.
Ethiopians are split on whether immigration has had positive or negative impacts on the country’s development, with particularly high levels of concern about the impact of immigration on employment, as well as significant concerns around crime, terrorism and social conflict.
Views on immigration vary between demographic groups and across different parts of the country. Older Ethiopians and those with lower levels of education appear most positive. Perceptions of immigration are markedly positive in Somali region, compared to Oromia and Amhara.
This data can be supplemented with evidence from more geographically specific studies in refugee-hosting areas, which points to often positive social dynamics. Sporadic tensions are nevertheless noted across all refugee-hosting regions, often linked to access to natural resources, in particular land and firewood, and intersecting with broader ethnic discrimination and conflict.
However, tensions between communities have proved particularly severe only in Gambella.
Various studies have documented how, across many regions, shared cultural and ethnic ties between refugees and hosts have helped to foster positive relationships, as well as social and economic interactions. Efforts to support cohesion have often sought to build on connections between communities, creating more opportunities for refugees and local populations to come into contact.
Actors seeking to engage with narratives and attitudes towards migrants, including refugees, in Ethiopia can do so in several ways, including:
Investing in in-depth research exploring attitudes towards refugees. In particular, focusing on mixed methods approaches, and prioritising nationally representative polling, regionally specific studies and consistent research over time.
Addressing negative attitudes and tensions, drawing on existing evidence and good practice. For example, ensuring that initiatives are adapted to local contexts, prioritising humanitarian and development investments that address wider issues exacerbating negative perceptions, and undertaking projects aiming to strengthen social contact and promote social cohesion between refugees and hosts.
Strengthening dialogue around Ethiopia’s refugee response, informed by a more substantive discussion of the place of refugees and other migrants within the country and in local communities, including from the perspective of those communities and refugees themselves. This should be connected to, and reflected within, future initiatives and dialogue addressing the ongoing conflict in the country