Article Review: “No Wall for Ethiopia, Rather an Open Door—Even for Its Enemy”

James Jeffrey's article Article review on Eritrean Migration
James Jeffrey’s biased and agenda driven stories about Eritrean migrants in Ethiopia warrants an article review by the New Africa Institute.


On June 22, 2017, Inter Press Service published James Jeffrey’s article, “No Wall for Ethiopia, Rather an Open Door—Even for Its Enemy.” Many facets of the article, particularly its potential negative impact on global understanding of the issue of Eritrean migration, warrant an article review by New Africa Institute. The notable claims made by Jeffrey are threefold:

  1. Ethiopia’s support for Eritrean refugees is worthy of continued international support;
  2. Worsening conditions in Eritrea are increasing migration; and
  3. Migration results from Eritrea’s belligerence and initiation of war with Ethiopia.

These three premises are not only false but also dangerous as they may worsen Eritrean migration, promote aid misappropriation by Ethiopia and stoke the flames of regional war in the Horn of Africa.


Jeffrey employs sensationalist language throughout the article. According to Oxford Dictionary, “sensationalism” is defined as “the presentation of stories in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy.”

As this review will reveal, Jeffrey’s article does indeed suffer from inaccuracy and, though his intent cannot be revealed with certainty, his nearly year-long, repetitive pattern of publishing similar articles with provocative flare suggests underlying bias and thus intent.

From the very opening sentence, one can get a feel for his overzealous imagery, using impassioned phrases like “exodus of souls” to describe migration of a spiritual nature and “tired eyes, surrounded by dust and grime” to describe Eritrean children living in despair. This style of reporting is provocative and of particular concern as it characterizes standard Western reporting on the African continent, marked by drive-by voyeurism, cynicism and orientalism that has done more harm than good for the continent and its development.

Jeffrey writes that Ethiopia maintains an “open-door policy” for Eritrean migrants, which he calls “striking due to the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments forever accusing the one of plotting against the other amid an atmosphere of mutual loathing. But it appears the Ethiopian government is willing to treat ordinary Eritreans differently.”

Jeffrey’s narration and investigation of the reasons as to why Eritreans are treated this way is superficial, limited to the perspective of a sole Ethiopian state official, which leads the reader to believe that Ethiopia’s migration policy towards Eritrea is entirely altruistic.

“We are the same people, we share the same blood, even the same grandfathers,” professes the official of Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) to Jeffrey.

Publishing this quote without question is dangerous as similar claims were made by former Ethiopian leaders, leading to Eritrea’s bloody 30-year war of liberation from Ethiopia.

Absent from Jeffrey’s narrative is the now obvious and deep, vested political and financial interests in promoting Eritrean migration. In 2010, US Ambassador to Ethiopia John M. Yates wrote:

“While it is commendable that the GOE [Government of Ethiopia] continues to be willing to host refugees, the GOE, particularly ARRA, has strong political and financial reasons for doing this. The GOE has long advocated for preferential treatment of Eritrean refugees as a part of its greater foreign policy towards Eritrea.

In addition, ARRA is 100% funded by UNHCR and thus views the creation of new refugee camps as job security. UNHCR operates in Ethiopia at the invitation of GOE and ARRA and is very well aware that it is at the mercy of ARRA…”

Thus, Jeffrey quoting an ARRA official and declaring that Ethiopia keeps an “open door” for Eritreans is akin to quoting the fox guarding the henhouse and declaring the henhouse is safe.

Though ARRA may provide a helpful humanitarian service to Eritrean migrants in the same way smugglers provide a service to those seeking asylum, ARRA’s political and financial exploitation of smuggled Eritrean migrants is, by definition, human trafficking and should warrant investigation.

Unfortunately, most of Jeffrey’s articles cite ARRA officials to explain why Eritreans migrate and, in fact, he often quotes cadres of the ruling regime (See: “Face to face with the Eritrean exodus into Ethiopia,” IRIN, March 16, 2017)

The article goes on to commit many more errors. Jeffrey explains that 60% of the population at Shimelba is ethnic Kunamas from Eritrea. According to a 2009 publication of the Cultural Orientation Resource Center (COR), funded by the US Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, 60% of the population is instead Tigrinya. Furthermore, about half of Shimelba’s population is not Eritrean but, conversely, Ethiopian:

“…about half the cases in the P2 group were born in present day Ethiopia” and “For some Kunama, being in Shimelba is akin to ‘returning home,’ excepting the irony that they now are refugees in their own homeland.”

To put things in perspective, this would be analogous to homeless US citizens dwelling in the exact same Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers as immigrants from across the border. Essentially, the Ethiopian government is sending its own poor and destitute internally displaced persons to “Eritrean” refugee camps. Given that refugee camps are funded by foreign donors, one can see the clear financial benefits of engaging in this sort of fraud.

Failure to consider the number of Ethiopians in the Eritrean camps in Ethiopia, may be one contributing reason for another reporting error by Jeffrey, namely that regarding numbers. Jeffrey explains that 3,367 Eritrean refugees arrived in Ethiopia in February 2017. He cites these numbers from ARRA without question, in spite of contradicting data.

A February 2017 publication by the European Commission Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations estimated that 700 Eritreans arrive in Sudan every month, which includes those crossing from Ethiopia and Eritrea (most Eritreans arriving in Ethiopia quickly move onwards to Sudan for the West). How is it that Ethiopia receives 3,000 – 3,500 migrants per month while Sudan, which absorbs both Ethiopia and Eritrea’s migrants, only receives 700? This data suggests inflation of migration numbers by roughly 500%. Why does Jeffrey fail to question these values?

His readers are led to believe that these large numbers emanate from a deteriorating situation in Eritrea. “Life was getting worse,” one migrant tells Jeffrey regarding her reasons for leaving. This comes in contrast to a February 9, 2017 article by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), which indicated that “while the total number of migrants and refugees arriving in Italy in 2016 hit a record, the number of Eritrean arrivals in Italy decreased significantly in the past year.” RMMS concluded that “there is a possibility that circumstances in Eritrea are improving and that fewer people are, therefore, leaving the country.” However, such a conclusion is not considered by Jeffrey.

YEARNumbers of Eritreans Arriving in Italy by Sea
Credit: UNHCR Monthly Data

Jeffrey also explains that Ethiopia’s “refugee population now exceeds 800,000—the highest number in Africa, and the 6th largest globally.” According to the latest UNHCR data available at the time of Jeffrey’s article, Uganda was and continues to be Africa’s largest refugee hosting nation, not Ethiopia. Uganda hosts 940,835 refugees (1.2 million total migrants) while Ethiopia hosts 791,631 (800,000 total migrants).

Refugees in Ethiopia and Uganda camps
Credit: UNHCR

The title of “largest refugee hosting nation” has allowed Ethiopia to attract humanitarian aid monies in the name of refugees that has likely been misappropriated by the Ethiopian state. In October 2016, Jeffrey himself reported in IRIN that the UK government, the European Union and the World Bank granted Ethiopia $500 million “to build two industrial parks in Ethiopia to generate about 100,000 jobs, with Ethiopia required to grant work to 30,000 refugees as part of the deal.” One cannot help but wonder, why not use this same money to directly develop and/or resolve conflict in the home nation of migrants? Would not industrial jobs in neighboring states promote and incentivize migration?

In the same October article, Jeffrey appeared more forthright on this issue:

“Many have harsh words for both the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, ARRA. There’s talk of thousands of dollars changing hands so Ethiopians can pose as refugees for resettlement in Europe, of scholarship funding meant for refugees being given to Ethiopians, and of the numbers of refugees in Ethiopia being inflated to ensure foreign funding keeps coming in.”

Since publication of this article, every one of Jeffrey’s articles covering Eritrean migration has represented a stark change of tune, wholeheartedly and unquestionably in support of ARRA and the Ethiopian state. The latest article appears no different. In fact, he goes as far as providing positive spin for the Ethiopian government’s misappropriation of aid, citing migration expert Jennifer Riggan who explains that “Ethiopia’s response is to…figure out how it can benefit from these inevitable flows of people. I definitely think Ethiopia’s approach is the wiser and more realistic one.”

Of all the false claims made by the article, the most egregious is his surprising assertion that “In 1998, Eritrea invaded the small and inconsequential-looking border town of Badme before pushing south to occupy the rest of Ethiopia’s Yirga Triangle, claiming it was historically Eritrean land.” His claim is made a priori, failing to cite any evidence in support and ignoring existing evidence contradicting his premise.

Although both countries blame the other for the 1998 war, any neutral and independent journalist covering the issue would have to give credence to the indisputable fact that a UN-sponsored independent commission, decided on April 13, 2002—by the mutual consent of both states and by “final and binding” ruling—that Badme was Eritrea’s. If Badme, the casus belli of the war, is indeed Eritrea’s, then how can one justify the claim—without question—that Eritrea started the war?


The timing of Jeffrey’s article is puzzling as it coincides with the publication of a growing number of reports that Eritrea’s migration numbers are not increasing but rather decreasing. If true, Ethiopia is less capable of using the pretext of Eritrean migration to solicit support for its own internal humanitarian operations. This is of great concern as Ethiopia faces a funding shortfall for a looming famine of potentially 16 million people with a large number of them likely to become internally displaced persons in search of food aid. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, 67 children have died of acute malnutrition in the month of June alone.

Jeffrey’s article, like many before it this past year, seems to be drawing preferential attention to Ethiopia’s Eritrean migrant burden rather than Ethiopia’s own looming famine, both of which require humanitarian funding to Ethiopia, with the only difference being the political cost to Ethiopia’s government, which recently has garnered praise for an economic boom.

Jeffrey’s article also fails to highlight why Eritreans migrate in the first place. Ethiopia currently occupies Eritrean territories and is at war with Eritrea, with the latest major flare up taking place in June 2016, initiated by Ethiopia along the Tsorona Central Front.

Ethiopia, a nation with a population 19 times that of Eritrea’s, creates immense military odds against Eritrea and, reasonably, necessitates heavy mobilization in that country. This is compounded by politicized UN sanctions that have served to isolate Eritrea as part of US-sponsored Ethiopian isolation strategy. As such, the Eritrean people have become victims of extraordinary military odds, facing extended military and civil service and harsh economic conditions that have come from isolation efforts. It is for this reason that most émigrés leave Eritrea.

Instead of addressing the roots causes of Eritrean migration—namely Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrea and UN sanctions—the international community, including the UN’s refugee agency, has chosen to give aid and support to Ethiopia in ways that increase migration. According to diplomats in Addis Ababa, entry visas to Europe and the US are more easily processed in Ethiopia than anywhere else in the world as the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service bears a “strategic depopulation” policy towards Eritrean migrants.

In 2015, the UK’s Department for International Development published Support for Refugees in Ethiopia: 2012-2015, indicating “there are concerns that ARRA at times dictates refugee policy and operations to UNHCR from a standpoint of national security as opposed to International Refugee Law, resulting in compromised levels of assistance and protection for some groups. Reporting and accountability for the majority of UNHCR funds that are channeled through ARRA for administration and operations has also been the subject of donor concern.”

Jeffrey’s article fails to highlight these realities, leaving one to look rashly toward humanitarian aid to Ethiopia in the name of “helping Eritrean refugees” as a solution while ignoring Ethiopia’s own internal humanitarian crisis, the long history of aid misappropriation and Ethiopia’s ongoing occupation of Eritrea.

While it is absolutely critical that aid get to Ethiopia, misrepresenting realities in Ethiopia and Eritrea is a disservice to all.

In journalism, honesty and accuracy are the best policy. With a better understanding of the realities behind Eritrean migration, in addition to Ethiopia’s active famine, the international community can better respond to the humanitarian concerns of Ethiopia and Eritrea. James Jeffrey’s latest article for IPS fails to do this and should be considered with healthy skepticism.