Ethiopia Airlines accused of ethnic profiling over civil war with Tigray

Zecharias Zelalem
·4 min read
Ethiopian Airlines has moved to ban or place on leave those who are part of the ethnic Tigrayan minority 
Ethiopian Airlines has moved to ban or place on leave those who are part of the ethnic Tigrayan minority

Staff at Africa's largest airline are being ethnically profiled and excluded from work because they come from a region embroiled in a civil war with the Ethiopian government, employees have told the Telegraph.

Staff have claimed Ethiopian Airlines has moved to ban or place on leave those who are part of the ethnic Tigrayan minority after a brutal civil conflict broke out.

The alleged move is said to be part of a pattern of harassment targeting Tigrayan civilians across Ethiopia, following the breakout of war between rebellious forces in the north and government controlled forces based in Addis Ababa.

As fighting has intensified, so have reports of Tigrayans being fired from jobs and police searches of their properties. it is not known whether the alleged practices stem from official government advice.

Ethiopian Airlines, which the government sees as the jewel in the crown of the country's economy, appears to be among the most prominent companies to have been accused of discrimination.

Tigrayan refugees receive aid after fleeing into Sudan - AP
Tigrayan refugees receive aid after fleeing into Sudan - AP

Employees told The Telegraph that pilots, caterers, technicians and even security guards, were told by superiors in mid November to hand in their badges and not to return to work until further notice.

“Security officials took over our workplace and told me to leave,” says Kebede Girmay, who did not want to use their real name. “I love my job. I even rejected offers to go elsewhere. But I was treated like a foreign enemy.”

After Tigrayan troops launched a nighttime ambush on federal army installments in northern Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy declared all out war on November 4 and internet and phone services to the region have been cut ever since.

The fighting and bloodshed, including an alleged massacre of hundreds of civilians in the town of Maikadra on November 9, led to some 40,000 people fleeing to refugee camps in neighbouring Sudan where they largely remain.

After Ethiopian military advances led to the capture of the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, Abiy declared the war over. But ethnic Tigrayans, who make up 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s 110 million population, have complained of ethnic profiling since clashes began.

A number of Tigrayans at Ethiopian Airlines, a member of Star Alliance and Africa’s biggest airline, say they’ve been left in limbo, on indefinite leave for weeks now.

“They cleaned the company out,” Beyene Gebre, a staff member, alleged. “They identified us by our Tigrayan sounding names."

Around half a dozen employees of the airline, who used encrypted channels to communicate with The Telegraph, claimed they were victims of ethnic profiling. They estimate that the total number of colleagues forced out from Ethiopian Airlines may have reached over 200.

Kiros Alemu, another staff member, claims the alleged ban extends to traveling passengers. “I’ve seen Tigrayans be prevented from boarding flights. Intelligence officers are openly refusing to allow passengers with Tigrayan names on flights.”

Similar incidents across the country allegedly saw police and soldiers of Tigrayan descent ordered to surrender their arms and firms place staff members on leave. The World Food Program confirmed that police had showed up at one of the organisation’s branch offices in the country, asking for a list of staff information including places of birth, a request it did not comply with.

The government later denied claims of ethnic profiling and stated it had been searching for Tigrayan forces, not civilians.

But the state run Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has confirmed reports of institutionalised stigma in a communique on Monday, calling on authorities to address the issue.

The Telegraph put the allegations to Ethiopian Airlines but received no response. Attempts to reach Ethiopian Airlines’ CEO Tewolde Gebremariam by phone or email were also unsuccessful.

Temesgen Tiruneh, who on November 8 was appointed the head of Ethiopia’s intelligence service, also failed to respond to allegations that his institution oversaw the airliner dismissals.

The allegations come after The Telegraph revealed yesterday that Ethiopia wants to arrest a British academic who helped the country's Prime Minister win last year's Nobel Peace Prize, according to the country's state media. 

Awol Allo, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Keele, wrote to the Nobel Committee Members in Oslo nominating Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for the prize in January 2019.

Mr Allo, who was born in Ethiopia and is now a British citizen, has become increasingly critical of the prime minister since he penned his letter to the Nobel committee almost two years ago.

More recently, Mr Allo has publicly criticised Mr Abiy's decision to send the Ethiopia powerful federal army into the country's northern Tigray region to oust the regional government there on November 4.

The Telegraph contacted Ethiopia's attorney general for comment on the reported charge filed against Mr Allo but had not received a reply at the time of going to press.