16 Days: Fleeing ethnic persecution in Ethiopia

During 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, the Legal Resources Centre will be sharing the stories of survivors of gender based violence who fled their countries to seek asylum in South Africa. Many women, children and sexual and gender non-conforming persons endure horrific hardship, sexual persecution, assault, rape and discrimination in their countries. When they arrive in South Africa their hardship does not end. Some women experience sexual persecution while crossing the border, while others may experience oppression, intolerance and discrimination while trying to create a life in South Africa. When they enter the asylum seeker process, they often endure further persecution. These are their stories.

Fleeing ethnic persecution in Ethiopia

F was born in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which is on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Her mother was ethnic Eritrean and her father Ethiopian. Tensions between the two countries have been ongoing since 1961. When F was about 13 years old, her mother was expelled from the country; a fate inflicted on many Ethiopians during times of increased tensions. F lost all contact with her mother. During the same time, her father and the rest of her family were murdered and their house burnt down. She was physically and sexually assaulted by soldiers.

Her cousin took her to Addis Ababa where she enrolled in a technical college which would provide food and accommodation. While in college she witnessed soldiers from the Eritrean Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front forcing students to join them and arresting, beating and shooting those who refused them. Fearing for her life, she fled to Kenya and stayed with a family friend. Due to ongoing war and the fear of being discovered, F continued to move south and over two years, journeyed through Burundi, Tanzania and Mozambique, before arriving in South Africa in 2006.

F gave birth to a daughter in 2009 who was undocumented for many years, because she was unable to register the birth at the Department of Home Affairs. She fears going back to Ethiopia because she will be persecuted for being of mixed ethnicity. At the same time, she fears being deported to Eritrea due to civil tensions in the country, where religious and ethnic persecution is ongoing.

When F applied for asylum, she could not find someone to translate for her into her home language. This led to many misunderstandings and the asylum application was incorrectly recorded. Her second interview was again conducted through an interpreter who did not speak her language and again inaccurately recorded. Naturally, the two interviews appeared to be contradictory and her application was rejected. The Refugee Status Determination Officer concluded that F had left Ethiopia because there was, “no one to stay with”, ignoring the real reasons that F left. After seeking assistance from the Legal Resources Centre, F went to court where the judge found that she is entitled to Refugee Status.

F was persecuted based on her ethnicity and it led to terrible hardship and suffering. “Persecution” is normally related to actions by the authorities of a country. It can also emanate from sections of society that do not accept the standards established by the laws of the country. Where discrimination or offensive acts are committed by the local populace, they can be considered as persecution if they are knowingly tolerated by authorities, or where authorities refuse, or prove unable to offer effective protection.

Grounds for asylum in South Africa’s Refugee Act include persecution based on race, tribe, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. However, a 2012 study by Roni Amit of the African Centre for Migration and Society found that RSDOs often limit their definition of persecution to political grounds and only consider a history of persecution as evidence of future risk. This is an incorrect and dangerous application of the law and impacts on the lives of many asylum seekers who face a real risk of persecution in their home countries.


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The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law clinic established in South Africa in 1979

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