New American Series: Eritreans (Kunama and Tigrinya)

New American Series: Eritreans (Tigrinya and Kunama ethnic groups)

We continue a series on the five largest ethnic groups to be resettled to Sioux Falls in the last five years by the Refugee and Immigration Center (RIC).  Upcoming blog posts will focus on the following topics: Conflict History, Cultural Differences, and New American Success Stories.  Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories.

Conflict History


Eritrea is on the Horn of Africa (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Officially known as the State of Eritrea, the country’s strategic trade location on the Red Sea littoral has been the desire of many empires and countries throughout history, including Italy, who colonized the area in 1890.  Italy’s colonial rule ended in 1941 when British forces gained control of the region.  Following World War II, Eritrea was administered by Great Britain as a United Nations trust territory before the United Nations made it a federal component of Ethiopia in 1952.  Land-locked Ethiopia, desirous of Eritrean seaports, pushed for greater and greater federal and economical control of the area.  “The federal scheme was short-lived, mainly because the imperial government in Addis Ababa [Ethiopia’s capital] was unwilling to abide by its provisions.”[i] On November 14, 1962 Ethiopia annexed Eritrea sparking the Eritrean War of Independence that lasted thirty years. Following its long, armed struggle and a referendum in 1993, Eritrea gained independence and joined the United Nations. 

“Three decades of war had produced among Eritreans a sense of unity and solidarity that they had not known before.  Indeed, an entire generation had come of age during the struggle for independence, which was now to become a reality.  The new regime in Ethiopia supported Eritrea’s independence, and a separation was affected amicably.”[ii]


Isaias Afwerki (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Isaias Afwerki, secretary-general of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) during the war, was declared president of the transitional government.  Isaias’ government saw the drafting of the country’s constitution and the EPLF changed its name to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in preparation for a multi-party system in Eritrea.  General elections were slated for the summer of 1998.

A long-standing border dispute with Ethiopia erupted into full-scale war in May 1998.  This brief, but costly conflict in which tens of thousands died on both sides caused the displacement of thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians.

Though its constitution, ratified in 1997, stipulates Eritrea is a presidential democracy with a unicameral parliamentary democracy, Afwerki consolidated all political power and silenced or imprisoned all opposition.  Many believe Afwerki has used tensions with neighboring Sudan, a military conflict with Yemen, and continuing disputes with Ethiopia as excuses for cancelling presidential elections and refusing to implement the new constitution.  There is a ban on any political parties besides the PFDJ.

Today, Afwerki continues his totalitarian rule in Eritrea. 

“The Isaias government closed the independent press in 2001 by revoking their licenses and arrested its editors and publishers…All domestic media is controlled by the government…For the sixth year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 2012 named Eritrea ‘one of the world’s most censored countries.’”[iii]

The total lack of freedom of the press is indicative of the general lack of freedom for the average Eritrean as Afwerki tightens his grip on the country.  The government allows only four religious groups.  “Members of “unrecognized” religions are arrested, held in oppressive conditions, and sometimes tortured to compel them to recant their faith.”[iv]

Despite a “shoot-to-kill” policy at all international Eritrean borders, thousands of young Eritreans flee every month in order to escape the country’s harsh National Service, a compulsory military service lasting indefinitely where conscripts are also forced to act as government forced labor.  Eritrea grows more alienated and isolated from its neighbors and the international community.

Eritrean refugees who fled to Ethiopia during the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War are unable to return under the current government’s policies.

Whatever their reasons for fleeing Eritrea, refugees who repatriate risk persecution. In Eritrea, it is illegal to cross the border into an enemy country, and refugees who do so are viewed as collaborators with an enemy state.

According to the UNHCR, there is no acceptable alternative to third-country resettlement for the refugees in Shimelba [refugee camp in northern Ethiopia.] Those who return to Eritrea face persecution, and their politically sensitive presence in Ethiopia rules out local integration as an option. Moreover, there is no guarantee of safety in Shimelba. The renewal of conflict in the area remains a threat. Located in one of the most highly militarized regions in the Horn of Africa, the Shimelba Refugee Camp is near the border of Eritrea, within striking distance of artillery shells. Should a new war begin, the camp would not be safe for the refugee population.[v]

The first Eritrean refugees to be resettled to Sioux Falls were from the Kunama ethnic group and arrived September 2007.  Starting in 2010, the United States began the process of resettling 6,500 Tigrinya and Kunama refugees.  Upcoming blog posts will share helpful cultural information about these two ethnic groups and stories from our new neighbors.

[i] Charles, Geoffrey and John Markakis. “Eritrea” Encyclopeadia Britannica Online. Encyclopeadia Britannica Inc., 2013.  Web. 23 Dec. 2013 Accessed.

[ii] Charles, Geoffrey and John Markakis. “Eritrea” Encyclopeadia Britannica Online. Encyclopeadia Britannica Inc., 2013.  Web. 23 Dec. 2013 Accessed.

[iii] Human Rights Watch. “Eritrea” World Report 2013. Human Rights Watch © 2013 Web. 30 Dec. 2013 Accessed.

[iv] Human Rights Watch. “Eritrea” World Report 2013. Human Rights Watch © 2013 Web. 30 Dec. 2013 Accessed.

[v] Center for Applied Linguistics, CWS/OPE Nairobi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and the International Rescue Committee. “Eritrean Refugees from the Shimelba Refugee Camp” COR Center Refugee Backgrounder No. 5.  December 2010

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