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Humanity before Ethnicity

Obang’s Address to Norwegian Politicians, Policy-Makers and Refugee Advocates Related to Ambiguous Status of Ethiopians in Norway.

March 25, 2011

I want to thank the Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers (NOAS) for inviting me to speak here today on the subject of " Human Rights and the Political Climate in Ethiopia. "It is a topic of significant importance to the 160 or more Ethiopian refugees now living in Norway whose fate will soon be decided as to whether or not they will be deported back to Ethiopia after living many years in Norway without clear resident status. I thank you for your dedicated work in helping these Ethiopians who are hoping to be granted permanent asylum status and protection in Norway.

From the Left Mr. Knut Holm, Mr. Gunther Schroder and Mr. Obang Metho

I must also thank the wonderful people of Norway for what you have done for the refugee; not only for Ethiopians, but for the diverse people of our world. Your warmth, generosity and gracious hospitality in your country are some of the reasons that many oppressed people have sought sanctuary here despite the fact that Norway is a small country, with a small population. In fact, in relation to many other countries in the free world, you are among the top leaders in the portion of your GNP that you contribute to aid refugees and other suffering and vulnerable people.

You have advanced the cause of peace and recognized peacemakers through awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to people like Martin Luther King, Jr and Nelson Mandela, who have given their lives or sacrificed greatly for the freedom and rights of others. You have earned an international reputation that has actually encouraged refugees to choose to come to Norway; also partially creating today’s dilemma.

Before I proceed further, please allow me to introduce myself and the organization which I represent. My name is Obang Metho and I am the executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), a social justice organization of diverse Ethiopians, committed to bringing truth, justice, freedom, the rule of law, equality, civility, accountability and respect for human rights to the people of Ethiopia and beyond. The SMNE has chapters throughout the world; including in Norway.

We in the SMNE believe that the future well being of the people of Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, Africa and our global society rests in the hands of those among us, like yourselves, who can put "humanity before ethnicity, " or any other distinctions that divide, devalue and dehumanize other human beings; while still appreciating the beauty of our diversity. This is a guiding principle of the SMNE as we attempt to bring about greater unity in Ethiopia through affirming the God-given value and dignity of each human being. Additionally, we believe that no one group in Ethiopia can find sustainable freedom as long as some among us are excluded, injured or aggrieved. In Africa, too often one tribe justifies the brutal domination of others as they claim, “It’s our turn to eat!” Ethiopians must fundamentally change their ideology for "no one will be free until all are free. "

We must care about the well being of each other; discarding a tribal-based system that simply replaces one dictator with another, who then proceeds to oppress, exploit and marginalize all but his own favored groups. The desire for freedom is universal and God given. As long as there are dictators, free countries like Norway will feel the impact.

Norwegian Politicians from four main political parties

Now, as Norwegians wrestle with new ways to deal with the influx of new asylum seekers and those living among you without approved status, I am here today to ask that you give special consideration to the case of these Ethiopians, who are relatively few in number. These people have been contributing members of Norwegian society for many years; some living here for up to sixteen years. Although the immigration authorities have never granted them permanent resident status; they have been living under a confused status of "semi-approval. "
They have been given legal working documents, held responsible jobs, raised families, purchased homes and paid taxes. This is reason enough to consider their cases as different from new refugees; however, the most powerful reason for providing permanent sanctuary for these Ethiopians rests on the potential danger to them should they be deported.


If their requests are denied and these people are deported, be assured that they will face serious potential risks from the current authoritarian regime under the leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his one-party minority government run by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front ‘(TPLF). Additionally, had there been greater exposure of the emerging repressive nature of this regime at the time these refugees arrived, I strongly believe most would have been given permanent status.

Many Ethiopians, like these in Norway, sought exile during the earlier and mid-years of this regime; a time period when students, journalists, intellectuals and the most vocal opponents were beaten, detained, tortured, imprisoned or killed in silence. At the same time as Ethiopians began to call Meles by the nickname, “silent killer,” those in the free world called Meles "a new breed of African leader" as he deceptively spoke the rhetoric of democracy; even becoming a strategic partner in the war on terror. Meles’ strongman tactics were overlooked in this “perpetually emerging democracy” and the true nature of this regime was underexposed to the outside world.

For this reason, the case for permanent asylum for these Ethiopian refugees when they first arrived may have been minimized, unknown, officially undocumented or not accepted. No longer is there a lack of convincing evidence as investigations, reports and testimony give compelling evidence of one of the most repressive regimes in all of Africa. The Ethiopian people have had ENOUGH of this regime and it is only a matter of time before the people rise up and demand regime change like is happening across North Africa and the Middle East. Until that happens, these people are not safe to return.

That lack of freedom in Ethiopia has now reached across continental and national borders and is impacting Norwegian society. None of us would be here today, seeking asylum for these Ethiopians, if freedom existed for them within Ethiopia. Who would choose the hard life of a refugee? The refugee issue before us today is a symptom of a much larger problem. Ethiopia has become a prison from which everyone wants to escape. There are more Ethiopians leaving Ethiopia today than ever before and they are encountering problems along the way.
Last May I traveled to Japan to help in the release of Ethiopian refugees in detention there; some for over two years. I just returned from Chiapas, Mexico where Ethiopians were in detention beyond the 90 day international limit. They were released and now all are seeking asylum status within the United States. Ethiopian refugees who were stuck in Libya, have now made it to Tunisia where I have been in contact with them as well as with authorities regarding gaining refugee status in Tunisia rather than returning to Ethiopia.

Young Ethiopian women seek jobs in the Middle East and are finding themselves in difficult and sometimes abusive situations. Ethiopian refugees are walking through the bush to Southern Sudan, languishing in refugee camps in Kenya, dying in the Red Sea as they try to get to Yemen, being shot in the deserts of Egypt as they try to reach Israel, losing their lives in flooded rivers of South America as they trek thousands of miles to the U.S. or are being killed by Meles’ security agents for peacefully protesting in front of the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa as these Ethiopian Jews attempt to gain entrance into Israel. As you consider the desperation required to undertake the perils of these dangerous journeys, the real question to answer is why does everyone want to leave this country?

I am coming to you today in response to hearing the cries for justice coming from all over Ethiopia; not from one ethnic group, one region, one political group or one religious group, but from Ethiopians of every background. As Africans say, the way to stop a stream from flooding your home is to go to the source and the source of these refugees is not just Ethiopia, a poor land that lacks opportunity. Instead, the greatest source of this overflow of human suffering comes from the iron-fisted grip of this regime.

Most people would never want to abandon their homes, loved ones, communities and country for the hard life of a refugee. If peace, security and some opportunity existed in Ethiopia, most of these Ethiopians would not have to be deported, they would go back willingly; yet, until freedom, justice and respect for human rights come to Ethiopia, the continued flow of refugees out of the country will persist.

Let me speak from personal experience. In 2003, I personally helped the former regional governor of the Gambella region of southwestern Ethiopia attain asylum after defecting from Ethiopia for his safety. I met with him in a refugee camp in southern Sudan and together we began looking for a safe haven for him. Guess who was the first to admit him? Norway! Now, he and his family permanently live here.

The Norwegian Relief Agency was among the first to accurately report on the horrific tragedy carried out by the Meles regime in the remote region of Gambella that suddenly thrust me into the world of human rights advocacy. The darkest days of my life have led me to now stand before you today; seeking justice on behalf of my fellow Ethiopians.

Those days began on December 13-15, 2003 when Ethiopian defense forces, accompanied by local militia groups they had incited and armed, brutally massacred 424 leaders from my own ethnic group—the Anuak. The perpetrators used a list of names of those Anuak who were most outspoken regarding providing local input, as per the Ethiopian Constitution, to the federal plan to drill for oil on Anuak indigenous land in the lowlands of the Upper Nile.

As the Anuak were killed, the perpetrators chanted, "Today there will be no more Anuak, " and, "Today, there will be no more Anuak land. " As women were raped in front of their families, they would taunt, "Today there will be no more Anuak babies. " At the same time, the drilling for oil began; which eventually resulted in two dry wells.

Following the massacre, human rights atrocities and destruction of the limited infrastructure of the region continued for the next two years; again specifically targeting this one ethnic group. Investigations by Genocide Watch, Human Rights Watch and others found evidence that the plans originated in the top offices of the country.

This is a region of abundant natural resources—gold, minerals, fertile land, forests and water and right now, the land of the Anuak and other indigenous people of Gambella is being given away for almost nothing to foreign investors for up to 99 years; literally fulfilling the threat uttered during the massacre that there will be no more Anuak land. The Meles government has released its intentions to resettle two-thirds of the people of Gambella; calling it voluntary and a way to increase services to the people, but in reality those who oppose it are threatened, beaten and sometimes killed. This is happening in many other places throughout the country as well.

As of today, no one has ever been held accountable for the massacre and other human rights crimes; however, the case has been accepted by the International Criminal Court, the African Union and has been referred to the High Commissioner for Human Rights for an investigation into the Ethiopian government’s perpetration of serial acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. This is the kind of government that exists today in Ethiopia. This is the kind of government to which these refugees would be deported back.

This is not my first time in Norway. The first time was in July of 2004 when I came to advocate for the protection of the Anuak, after presenting the case before the United Nations in Geneva and New York and to government officials in Ottawa and Washington D.C. The Norwegian authorities welcomed me and I was able to meet with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The second time I came to Norway was not only for the Anuak, but was for all Ethiopians as I realized that justice would never come to one group until it came to all. If Ethiopia is not livable for the Amhara, the Oromo, the Ogadeni, the Afar, for the Anuak or for any other group, it is not sustainably free, just or safe for any group.

For me to speak for my fellow Ethiopians, it does not matter to me as to their ethnicity, age, religion, gender, educational level, skin color, viewpoint, disability or any other distinctions as what counts is their shared humanity and their desire to live as God made them live—with freedom. Sadly, such thinking and the unity it builds is a real threat to this minority regime’s apartheid rule; particularly the threat of bringing unity that crosses ethnic lines. Instead, ethnic identities are used to divide. The entire system is built on ethnic federalism; requiring Ethiopians to register their ethnicity on identification cards and dividing the country into regions by ethnicity. Divide and conquer strategies have incited hatred and violence between groups.

At the same time, the Meles regime is not considered a legitimately elected government despite claiming a 99.6% victory after closing off all political space to opponents; even imprisoning opposition leaders, using humanitarian aid for political purposes and developing a spy system down to the village level to ensure loyalty to the regime.

The anger is spiraling to all time highs against this ethnic-based political party that rewards and empowers party loyalists; particularly family members and cronies who now control every sector of society—all political space, government positions, the justice system, the parliament, the election board, civic institutions, business, the military, the media, communications, banking and finance as well as access to land, resources, education and most every opportunity within the country.

New laws regarding civil society are among the most restrictive in the world while anti-terrorism laws prohibit assembly of three or more persons in public. Internet access and mobile phone use is among the lowest in the world and the only radio and TV station in the country is government-operated. There are no private newspapers in the country and more journalists have gone into exile from Ethiopia than from any other country in the world. An atmosphere of fear reigns even in the rural areas as dissent is criminalized.

Ethiopians remain among the poorest in the world with a recent Oxford study on multi-dimensional poverty determining that Ethiopia is the second poorest country in the world, with 90% of the people living in poverty. Despite the government’s claims to double-digit economic growth and development, it has only enriched a very few. Tensions are building; and with it, concerns that it is a time bomb ready to explode.

The fate of these Ethiopians before us today requires careful consideration of all of these facts. They know what it would mean to be deported and have responded to learning about their imminent deportation by going on a hunger strike; to which the church intervened and is also among those working on their behalf. If they were from Eritrea, they would be allowed to gain asylum, but Ethiopia is hardly different from their neighbor.

As we speak, the Ethiopian government is arbitrarily arresting any suspected of being activists who could promote a people’s uprising; especially targeting the Oromo in a new crackdown. If these people go to Ethiopia, there is a strong likelihood that they would also be subject to such intense scrutiny.

These refugees, who have been living here for ten to sixteen years, are now undergoing great emotional and psychological distress. After being detained in January of this year, they have lost jobs, sunk into financial debt and have become depressed, anxious and some even troubled with thoughts of suicide.

They are not in the same position as new refugees in that they have been independent; however, for the last three months, they have sitting doing nothing; forced to take government handouts while at the same time, seeing years of hard work disappear. If they are allowed to stay, they will have to start over in many ways; however, if they are deported, they lose everything and put their lives at risk.

The psychological pressure on them is becoming extremely difficult for them to cope with as they worry about their children, their futures and their powerlessness over the situation. Continuing to hold them indefinitely in this temporary detention state is taking a toll on their mental health.

I hope a solution will be found quickly and hopefully authorities will allow them permanent status in Norway now that the nature of this government has been clearly exposed over the last few years and months.

from Left is: Ms. Tseday Anbeso, Mr Adane Asres, the President of the Ethiopian Asylum Seekers in Norway, the boy is Azariah Dawit, Ms. Tseday’s son .

It appears that mistakes and oversights were made on both sides—on the part of these refugees who assumed they would be allowed to stay indefinitely and on the part of government officials who provided passive permission through other arms of the government until now; when this new law was passed that better clarified Norwegian immigration policies.

The solution to the Ethiopian problem is not about deporting 200 Ethiopians; but the solution is about bringing about better governance in Ethiopia that responds to the needs of its people; making Ethiopia a place where its citizens want to remain and can flourish rather than a place of such oppression, misery and pain from which everyone wants to run away.

To make Ethiopia a livable place and to bring lasting change will require investment in the people, the leadership and the institutions. The primary work must be done by Ethiopians, but it could be enhanced and hastened by the support of peace loving people like Norwegians. It is not only Norwegians who are starting to shut the doors on immigrants, but also other European and free countries who find it difficult to absorb the many oppressed people throughout the world.

With this in mind, we ask you to help us fix the root of the problem. Norwegians and other Europeans who believe that the freedom of our global neighbors enhances one’s own—that no one will be free until all are free—should support pro-democracy movements in Ethiopia like you have done in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe.

Norwegians, many who have relatives who immigrated to the United States in the 1800’s, have also done so much to relieve the pain and suffering of some of the most vulnerable people in our world today. Now, we invite you to work with us as we Ethiopians seek ways to make Ethiopia a real home to our own beautiful people.

May God provide the way and may He also bless you for what you have done for Ethiopians and other oppressed people. Thank you!


Please do not hesitate to e-mail your comments to Mr. Obang Metho, Executive Director of the SMNE, at: obang@solidaritymovement.org.You can click at the following link http://www.solidaritymovement.net/index.cfm and filling out the required fields to be adds on our mailing lists or to subscribe or to suggest material for inclusion. For a full archive and other resources, see http://www.solidaritymovement.org/. You can also join us on the Face book page.

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