Seven-year-old Maranatha Anibal and his mother Yeshi Wubet are stuck in limbo in Ethiopia. The Eritrean refugees have been waiting for more than a year to hear if their refugee application to relocate to Canada will be processed. It takes an average of 59 months to be processed through Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s Nairobi post. Photo by Michael Swan.

Refugees play the waiting game

By 
  • September 13, 2015

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA - Yeshi Wubet carries a scrap of hope around in her purse, folded and unfolded to the point of fragility. It’s a letter from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees office in Addis Ababa dated July 7, 2014 and signed by Assistant Representative (Protection) Milagros Leynes.

The letter says that her file, number 394-13C00189, was submitted to Canada’s visa post in Nairobi on June 26, 2014.

It’s the last thing she’s heard from either the UNHCR or Canada.

Where the form letter is marked with an X it says, “We will contact you with further information soon.”

For an urban refugee like Yeshi, that next contact is typically directly from Canadian officials, not from the UNHCR. The Government of Canada’s definition of “soon” would likely surprise Yeshi.

“As the next time the applicant is contacted is often for an interview, it is not unusual that a year or more can elapse between communications,” the media relations department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada told The Catholic Register via e-mail.

The last time Canada had immigration officers in Addis Ababa doing interviews was May. Yeshi heard nothing about that. They plan more trips “in the fall and early next year,” said the CIC media department. Yeshi has not yet been informed of any of these sessions.

Recently Citizenship and Immigration Canada has been sending officers from as far away as Accra, Ghana, on the other side of the continent, to conduct interviews in Addis Ababa. The department is trying to clear a massive backlog of East African refugees who have letters like Yeshi’s. CIC refuses to say just how large its inventory of unprocessed cases is, but it takes an average of 59 months for a refugee with a private sponsor waiting in Canada to be processed through the Nairobi visa post.

Major refugee sponsor agencies, including the Office for Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto, have been strictly limited in the number of refugees they may apply to sponsor from East Africa — home to 1.8 million UNHCR-registered refugees and three million internally displaced people. CIC claims the limits on new applications to sponsor African refugees are there to give it a chance to clear the backlog. For government-sponsored refugees, like Yeshi, CIC claims it manages to process 50 per cent of those cases within 25 months.

Thirty-four-year-old Yeshi has been a refugee five years, stuck in Addis Ababa four years. It’s almost the only existence her seven-year-old son Maranatha Anibal and 10-year-old daughter Raenna Said have ever known. But as far as CIC is concerned her case is only 15 months old, dating from the transfer of her file in June of 2014.

Yeshi knows she has it relatively good among Eritrean refugees. She’s been allowed out of the refugee camp and lives in a lower-middle class neighbourhood of Addis Ababa with her half sister Manwella Gudeta, a pharmacy student and a legal resident of Ethiopia because one of her grandfathers was Ethiopian. As a refugee Yeshi can’t legally work in Ethiopia and as a student Manuela is competing with 20 per cent of young people in Addis Ababa who are unemployed.

The two women have fallen several months behind on their 1,500 Birr per month ($95) rent for their single room with two beds and shared toilet and laundry facilities. A recent infusion of 800 Birr ($50) from the Jesuit Refugee Service community centre in emergency funds hasn’t removed the fear of homelessness that hangs over Yeshi and her family.

Like hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees, Yeshi is on the run from religious persecution in Eritrea. Yeshi was born Orthodox. But her first husband was Sunni Muslim. He was drafted into the Eritrean army and simply disappeared. There’s no limit on how long any young man may be kept in Eritrea’s army in virtual slavery. It’s hard to say whether there are more Eritrean refugees running from compulsory army service or religious persecution.

Yeshi’s second husband turned abusive. Yeshi began to wonder whether God had denied her any semblance of a life. A neighbour invited her to pray with a small circle of Pentecostal believers who followed the television preachers beamed in from Ethiopia. She found solace in the prayer and companionship with the group.

There are four authorized, tolerated religions in Eritrea — Orthodox Christians (30 per cent of the population), Sunni Muslims (36 per cent), Roman Catholics (13 per cent) and the Lutheran affiliated Evangelical Church of Eritrea (five per cent). The Orthodox and Muslims operate under direct government control. The Catholics and Evangelicals negotiate a maze of regulations and permissions under the constant gaze of police. But Pentecostals gathering in someone’s house to pray are definitely outside of the law and Yeshi ended up in jail. Canada’s religious freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett has met this summer with the new Canadian ambassador to Sudan, Nicholas Coghlan, who is also responsible for Eritrea. At last year’s review of Eritrea’s human rights record by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Canada called on Eritrea to protect religious minorities and respect the human rights of women and political opponents, allow free expression and end indefinite military service.

The Eritrean police let Yeshi out of prison with a warning, but Yeshi knew that a second arrest would mean a prison term with no end date. And it wouldn’t matter whether she was actually caught praying in somebody’s house with friends or not. She headed to the border with her children and the help of a smuggler, who charged her 120,000 Eritrean Nakfa (just over $1,000). She arrived at the border penniless and desperate, but will never forget the kindness of the Ethiopian soldier who greeted her and her children at the border.

Living in the camp, Yeshi was soon depressed and fearful, a circumstance Dr. Bereket Afewerki can attest. He regularly visits the refugee camps where Eritreans are gathered and is confronted with an epidemic of despair and trauma.

Bereket is a doctor and professor of internal medicine in Addis Ababa. But in 1991 he was a freedom fighter battling Ethiopian troops for the independence of Eritrea. Now he’s in exile from the government he helped install. The refugee camp visits are how he maintains contact with Eritrea, and the people’s long struggle for freedom.

“People are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, some of it going to extremes,” he told me.

He knows people who have escaped Eritrea four or five times and each time been sent back. Knowing the conditions in Eritrea, he doesn’t question the risk thousands of Eritreans are willing to make to get in leaky fishing boats headed for the Italian island of Lampedusa. After all, since 2012 more than 47,000 Eritreans have made it to Italy and the alternative is death whether you get in the boat or not.

His specialty may be internal medicine, but he’s enough of a doctor that he can diagnose florid hallucinations and paranoia, he said. There is only one qualified psychiatrist in all of Eritrea, but Dr. Fitsum Gebrengus has been in jail the last 12 years for the crime of wearing a cross on the outside of his hospital clothes and speaking to people about Jesus in his spare time.

Bereket has documented how Eritreans in the Shemelba refugee camp have organized themselves to care for the mentally ill in the camp, keeping them safe and making sure they don’t harm themselves.

In Addis Ababa Yeshi has had the advantage of regular, professional counselling from the Jesuit Refugee Service social worker at the community centre. There she meets and talks with other Eritrean refugees and her kids have the chance to play, take music lessons, get on the Internet. The JRS community centre is the central meeting place for Eritreans in Addis Ababa, but the CIC’s interview teams have never been there.

Canada has agreed to resettle 4,000 Eritrean refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia between 2014 and 2018.

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