The refugees are among the most vulnerable groups in the Tigray conflict, which broke out in November between the region's forces and Ethiopian federal troops. This conflict has resulted in the deaths of thousands.
Both sides have claimed that the refugees were targeted. Troops from Eritrea, their native Eritrea sent troops over the border to Ethiopian soldiers. They are accused of abducting and destroying refugee camps. And the refugees say they have also come under attack as scapegoats from Tigrayans, who allege widespread abuses by Eritrean soldiers.
According to the United Nations, approximately 50,000 Eritrean refugees were living in Tigray before the conflict. Many of them fled their country's authoritarian government. Other 42,000 refugees were scattered throughout the region and in Ethiopia. Two camps were destroyed in the early stages of war. The fates of thousands of their inhabitants is not known.
Last week, Tigray forces captured the remaining two camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, after launching an offensive against forces from the neighboring Amhara region as they sought to take back more territory following the retreat of Eritrean and Ethiopian federal forces from the region last month.
The Associated Press was informed by Adi Harush camp residents that Tigray forces had taken more than a dozen refugees hostage and raided dozens homes, stealing food, mobile phones and other supplies. One resident said that there is "a lot of daily theft." He spoke under anonymity because he was afraid of reprisals.
Ann Encontre (UN refugee agency representative for Ethiopia), expressed concern last week and confirmed the death at least one Eritrean refugee. She stated that "tens of thousands of refugees are trapped right now, and cannot move because of the insecurity and continued movement of troops."
Ethiopia's refugee agency called it "tantamount of a hostage situation" in a statement released on Thursday.
Fighting continues south of the camps where Amhara forces are massing in preparation for a retake of the area. Adi Harush refugees claim that Tigray forces placed weapons in the camp in order to repel an attack.
Separately, Filippo Grandi, U.N. refugee chief, condemned recent arrests of "hundreds” of Shire refugees under Tigray forces' command. He cited "credible reports of reprisal actions, abductions and violence committed against Eritrean refugees because of their perceived affiliation with one or the other side" since November.
Tigray forces deny targeting Eritrean refugees. They issued a statement Thursday saying they are "gravely concerned about" reports of attacks. Getachew Reda (a spokesman for the force) could not be reached for comment.
According to the U.N., 9200 Eritrean refugees living in the two other camps, Hitsats or Shimelba are still missing. Fighting broke out in Hitsats when Eritrean troops seized the area from Tigray forces in November.
Later, the Eritreans withdrew their troops from the camp and Tigray forces reclaimed it. Many refugees claimed that the Tigray forces launched reprisal attacks against them and killed 10 people in front of the camp's Church.
One Hitsats resident said that they were afraid and left the camp. However, the Tigray militias continued to follow us." "They threw grenades when they caught us," said one Hitsats resident. Many people I know were killed that day. They wanted revenge for the Eritrean government's attack on them.
Others from Eritrea told similar stories of Tigray attacks on them after fleeing Hitsats. One of his companions claimed that 40 of 60 were killed in the vicinity of Zban Gedena.
Another refugee claimed that dozens of his friends who fled the area were also killed there. He said, "I've never felt so scared as that day."
Many of the residents were taken by Tigray troops and returned to Hitsats.
A refugee said, "That's when it started to get hard," and was taken into custody. "For one month, there was nothing to eat and drink. To survive, we ate leaves and grass.
Many residents claimed that Tigray forces beat them and stole their food in Shimelba camp while they were in control of Hitsats. Eritrean refugees from Shimelba described similar hardships and claimed 16 refugees were killed in the camp in January during fighting between Tigray forces, Eritrean troops and Shimelba.
The AP was able to see an internal U.N. assessment that confirmed deaths, abductions, and looting in Shimelba & Hitsats. However the U.N. concluded that the perpetrators were unknown armed groups.
Several refugees who witnessed the incident told the AP that Eritrean forces retook Hitsats camp in January and ordered its remaining residents to flee.
One Hitsats resident stated that all refugees were ordered by the Eritrean troops to return to Eritrea via Sheraro. "They ordered us to Sheraro on large trucks. But I was able to escape hiding in a house."
Others claimed that Eritrean troops forced thousands of refugees to cross the border. However, they suggested that some might have returned to Tigray to escape violence and continued persecution from the Eritrean government. The Information Ministry of Eritrea did not respond to questions.
One refugee currently in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa claimed that he witnessed Eritrean soldiers spraying petrol on buildings at Hitsats camp and lighting them on fire right after refugees were told to leave. Interviewees also claimed that troops had previously taken Shimelba and Hitsat residents.
U.N. estimates that 7,300 Eritrean refugee from Hitsats and Shimelba made it to Mai Aini or Adi Harush. The refugees are now in danger of being caught up again in hostilities as Tigray forces increase their offensive months later.
One Adi Harush resident wrote in a text message that he was in a dire situation and was subject to constant harassment from Tigray forces. He said, "By God please help us."