Ethiopians in US shielded from deportation as war rages at home

Ethiopians living in the United States will get work permits and be shielded from deportation for 18 months, the Biden administration has announced, as the African nation is embroiled in a deadly armed conflict.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said on Friday that it was extending what’s known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Ethiopians due to the “extraordinary and temporary conditions” that make it too dangerous for them to return to their country safely.

Ethiopians residing in the US as of October 20, 2022, will be eligible to apply, DHS said.

“Ethiopian nationals currently residing in the US who cannot safely return due to conflict-related violence and a humanitarian crisis involving severe food shortages, flooding, drought, and displacement, will be able to remain and work in the United States until conditions in their home country improve,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.

This is the first time that Ethiopians will be eligible for TPS, which the US has extended to nationals from Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Somalia, Cameroon, and Ukraine, among other countries around the world.

Members of the Tigrayan community demand an end to violence in the region of Tigray, during a rally in Pretoria, South Africa [File: Themba Hadebe/AP Photo]

Washington grants TPS to nationals of countries where conditions temporarily make it too dangerous for citizens to return – such as in cases of armed conflict or after environmental disasters, including earthquakes and hurricanes.

The Ethiopian military and its allies, including troops from neighbouring Eritrea, have been battling forces from the northern region of Tigray on and off since late 2020.

The conflict has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and left hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine.

The Ethiopian government has repeatedly denied blocking humanitarian supplies to Tigray or targeting civilians, but earlier this week, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said food and healthcare were being used as weapons of war.

“There’s no other situation globally in which six million people have been kept under siege for almost two years,” said Tedros. “There is a very narrow window now to prevent genocide.”

Faisal Roble, a political analyst and an expert on the Horn of Africa, told Al Jazeera that the Biden administration’s move on Friday is one that many Ethiopians had been calling for.

“It’s about time,” Roble said. “I think the US finally recognises that it has to get into this issue and seek some resolution to the conflict.”

The TPS designation coincided with an African Union (AU) announcement that peace talks seeking to end the conflict will begin on Monday in South Africa, following earlier commitments by the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan forces to participate.

The two sides had committed to the talks earlier this month, but they were delayed for logistical reasons.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the resumption of AU-led negotiations, saying in a statement on Friday that Washington “is committed to continuing to actively participate in efforts to advance peace in northern Ethiopia”.

“We are deeply concerned by reports of significant loss of life, destruction, indiscriminate bombardment, and human rights abuses since the five-month humanitarian truce was broken on August 24. We are also alarmed by the risk of widespread atrocities,” Blinken said.

Meanwhile, migrant rights advocates in the US welcomed the administration’s TPS designation, which they said would protect approximately 27,000 Ethiopian nationals.

“The Biden administration’s designation is an important recognition that no Ethiopian on the safety of US soil should be returned to such dire circumstances,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

“The move is a potentially lifesaving reprieve for tens of thousands of Ethiopians who have already contributed so much to US communities,” O’Mara Vignarajah said.

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