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Supporting Eritrean Refugees


February 28, 2017 • 3 min read

"I try to imagine what it would feel like in Fatimah’s position, battling the desert winds, lining up to receive monthly food rations, and constantly worrying about my children’s health, and what future they will have."


"Located in the north east of Ethiopia on the border with Eritrea, the Afar Region is one of the hottest places on earth. It’s a predominantly desert area where average summer temperatures can reach 50 degrees, and rainfall is infrequent. In mid-January 2017 I undertook a monitoring visit to Berhale refugee camp in northern Afar, and wouldn’t you know it? It was raining and cold!"

In contrast to my discomfort in my drenched clothes, the GOAL Ethiopia team based in Berhale are quite happy about the rain – it’s a bit of a novelty here. Berhale refugee camp, home to more than 10,000 Eritrean refugees, is located in the middle of a desert. Hot temperatures and lack of appropriate shelter are some of the main challenges the communities living here face. The high desert winds often destroy the very basic shelters people are living in, in the past even the GOAL compound has had parts of its roof blown off.

Since 2013, with funding from the European Commission, GOAL Ethiopia has been providing humanitarian support to Eritrean refugees located in Berhale camp. Refugees travelling across the border often arrive in desperate health, with high numbers of children and pregnant women suffering from acute malnutrition and water-related diseases. In collaboration with the Ethiopian government’s refugee agency, GOAL is working to ensure life-saving water supply, hygiene, and nutrition services are provided to these vulnerable communities.

One of the key elements of our programme is hygiene promotion. We implement a systematic approach to enable refugees to take action themselves to prevent water, sanitation, and hygiene-related diseases. The activities include providing education on appropriate hygiene and sanitation practices (such as handwashing, and using latrines) through community mobilisation across the camp, sanitation campaigns, and targeted messaging in the nutrition centres. GOAL provides basic hygiene materials such as soap, jerry cans to store water, brooms for home cleaning, and children’s potties. We also collect rubbish and waste, using our trusted donkeys – a local affordable form of transport – to cart the waste away to the landfills outside the camp.

While in the camp I visited the home of Fatimah* – one of the refugees – where she and her whole family live in one big tent, fortified with tree branches, metal poles, and a tin roof. Fatimah proudly showed off her home. I was impressed at how clean and organised it was (mentally comparing it to my own bedroom which could do with a bit of a tidy up). She explained to me that when she first arrived in the camp she didn’t know how important it was to maintain a clean home, and how important good hygiene practices were for her family’s health. Since she arrived, she explained that she has learned this information from GOAL’s outreach workers, who are community members trained by GOAL to provide key health, hygiene, and nutrition messages across the camps.

I congratulated Fatimah on the great job she was doing. I was humbled to see the pride in this woman’s face. Here, far away from her home, watching her children grow up in a refugee camp, she is taking what control she can to help ensure a healthy life for her family.

Ethiopia is currently hosting Africa’s largest refugee population, now totalling almost three quarters of a million people, predominantly from South Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea, who have fled conflict, human rights abuse, and extreme poverty. The Government maintains an open-door policy to refugees. With no income, and no improvement in their home situation, many spend years in camps depending on agencies like GOAL for their most basic necessities. I try to imagine what it would feel like in Fatimah’s position, battling the desert winds, lining up to receive monthly food rations, and constantly worrying about my children’s health, and what future they will have.

The field trip leaves me quiet and pensive. I am always grateful for my comfortable life in County Wicklow – but certainly more so after seeing the hardship that these communities face, with no solution on the horizon.

However, I am glad that GOAL is here to support and make what positive impact we can on the lives of people like Fatimah and her family. Someday, hopefully, there will be a solution for all refugees around the world. In the meantime I am as proud as always of my organisation and the hard work of our field teams in supporting these refugees to live dignified and healthy lives.

– Lesley-Ann Devereux, GOAL Ethiopia Desk Officer

* Not her real name