Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, but since then has been ruled by an authoritarian regime that exerts strict control over all aspects of life. According to human rights reports, the Eritrean government is responsible for systematic human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, forced labor, severe restrictions on freedom of movement and expression, and persistent religious persecution.

Many Eritrean refugees are young men fleeing forced and indefinite conscription into the Eritrean military. As the government also targets the families of young men who flee to avoid military service, more women and children also are forced to leave.  Eritrean refugees are faced with horrifying experiences. They are routinely raped or held hostage. Many survived multiple persecutions, at the hands of the government as a result of a family member fleeing the country, then, forced themselves to flee, being accosted on the long and dangerous journey to the Ethiopian border.

Eritrean refugees that are returned face indefinite detention and torture. But those who flee also risk a perilous journey that includes risk of torture, capture, imprisonment and death. Human traffickers exploit the situation, profiting from Eritreans paying to be smuggled across the border.

Three refugee camps near Shire, Ethiopia are home to about 45,000 refugees, with as many as 1,000 Eritrean refugees arriving each month. The camps, in the northern part of Ethiopia not far from the Eritrean border, include Shimelba (established in 2004), Mai-Aini (2008) and Adi Harush (2010).

Most basic services are provided in the camps, including food, shelter, basic medical care and water and sanitation. But there are virtually no mental health services. CVT will help fill that gap by providing direct mental health care to refugees in the Mai-Aini and Adi Harush camps (pictured above) and provide training to psychiatric professionals in all three camps to improve their ability to care for traumatized refugees.

Torture and other violent forms of trauma can lead a number of disabling conditions that interfere with even the most basic functions of daily life.  Symptoms can include chronic pain in the muscles and joints, headaches, incessant nightmares and other sleep disorders, stomach pain and nausea, severe depression and anxiety, guilt, self-hatred, the inability to concentrate, thoughts of suicide and posttraumatic stress disorder.  Torture and war trauma survivors can become immobilized by their feelings and symptoms, unable to function within their communities or contribute to their family’s well-being.

CVT will model its delivery of care on other international healing initiatives. This includes an emphasis on high quality mental health care for survivors of torture and war trauma. It also includes training refugee and national staff to develop mental health resources that will benefit the community for the long term. CVT will:

  • Provide in-depth mental health counseling services in the first year of operation to 600 Eritrean refugees living in the camps who are severely traumatized as a result of torture or war trauma, including survivors of gender-based violence living in the Mai-Aini and Adi Harush camps;
  • Hire, train and supervise refugees from Mai-Aini and Adi Harush to work as  psychosocial  counselors  and masters-level psychologists to work as clinical supervisors;
  • Train local psychiatric professionals and mental health counselors on providing appropriate and effective psychiatric care to refugees in all three camps;
  • Engage and train staff at other agencies and organizations on mental health, mental health services and the effects of torture and war trauma on individuals, families and communities.

CVT began providing group counseling to men and women survivors this past February. 

CVT’s work with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

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