Borderland communities are often a vibrant nexus of trade, culture, and power. These eclectic spaces offer opportunities to capitalise on diverse commodity flows and differences in currency exchange rates, trade regulations, and market patterns. People living in borderlands – often closer to foreign countries than their own capital cities – tend to share deep and longstanding familial, ethnic, and cultural connections.

But borderlands can also be sites of fierce contestation, violence, and suffering. Clashes between neighbouring states often play out in periphery regions – with devastating effect on communities caught in the crossfire. Decisions made thousands of miles away at the state centre can suffocate life at the border, and the threat of violent incursions, cross-border crime, and border closures wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods. This is particularly the case in regions where borders remain contested and state-building efforts raise complaints of disenfranchisement and neglect.

How war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region fractures frontier communities

Take the Horn of Africa. In the borderlands of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan – a region far from the bitter politics of their respective capital cities – the close-lying border towns of Humera (in contested Western Tigray, Ethiopia), Om Hajer (Eritrea), and Hamdayet (Sudan) have long relied on agriculture, pastoralism, and cross-border trade for their livelihoods. Each of these communities experienced dramatic changes following the outbreak of conflict in Tigray in northern Ethiopia in November 2020.

Further south lie the towns of Metema (Ethiopia) and Gallabat (Sudan), little more than a stone’s throw from each other on either side of the Ethiopia-Sudan border. Both communities gained significance as an indirect result of political upheaval in the Horn of Africa in the 1990s. Gallabat’s importance grew following Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia in 1991, which created a landlocked Ethiopia. The Ethiopian and Sudanese governments collaborated over the next few years to link fertile regions of Amhara via the trading town of Gondar by road through the border towns of Metema and Gallabat and the eastern Sudanese state of Gedaref, providing Ethiopia with an alternative connection to the Red Sea at Port Sudan. Metema, meanwhile, rose in significance as a source of agricultural labour for Sudan, following the loss of South Sudanese workers after that country’s independence in 2011.

In Tigray’s north-western tip, the displacement of Tigrayan populations has broken the cultural, social, and economic ties that used to span the Sudan-Ethiopia-Eritrea border. Since the outbreak of war in November 2020, the town of Humera has experienced dramatic demographic changes, as a result of the huge outflow of Tigrayans and the influx of Amhara to Western Tigray. An initial exodus in November 2020 saw many Tigrayans flee from Humera into Eastern Tigray, followed by a second exodus in July 2021. Many Tigrayans also made their way to the Sudanese border town of Hamdayet, which hosts UNHCR’s reception centre for refugees. By December 2020, it recorded over 20,000 arrivals from Tigray. These numbers have now fallen: in March 2022, only a few dozen Tigrayan refugees were recorded as having arrived at the centre. 

These flights transformed the ethnic makeup of Humera town, which is now predominantly Amhara – particularly people from the Amhara Special Forces and the youth movement Fano, who came north to annex Western Tigray. Remaining Tigrayans in Humera are mainly women, children, and the elderly, including some masquerading as ethnically Wolkait – an Amhara group living in Tigray close to the Amhara border – to avoid the risk of persecution on the grounds of ethnicity in this now predominantly Amhara town.

Further south, Metema also is becoming increasingly ethnically Amhara. Many Tigrayan residents moved  back to Tigray in 2016, with another exodus in 2020/21 due to the current conflict. Only a handful remain today, alongside other ethnic groups living in a strained co-existence, including a sizeable Sudanese population, who are acutely affected by border closures and political tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan. Politically, the growing preponderance of Amhara in Metema might explain why the hard-line National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) is gaining in popularity over Ethiopian President Abiy’s Prosperity Party in this region.

A shake-up in trade

The newly arrived Amhara populations in Western Tigray have forged new trade links between across regions of Ethiopia and across the border into Eritrea. These include links between Humera (in contested Western Tigray) and Metema (in Amhara), Ethiopian towns lying around 150 kilometres from each other: gold is smuggled between them based on ethnic links between Amhara traders. Sesame and other agricultural produce are also illicitly traded from Humera south to the Amhara region and north to Eritrea. Income streams are thus being transferred from Tigrayan to Amhara and Eritrean control, possibly providing a financial means to sustain their forces in the conflict.

The border between Om Hajer in Eritrea and Humera in Ethiopia – which had been closed for two decades following the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war – is now only safe for Eritreans and Amhara people to cross. There are reports that Tigrayans have returned to northern Ethiopia across this border, propelled by the desire to join the fight in Tigray or due to lack of livelihoods support in Sudan. Such a journey would have been highly risky and necessarily covert, given the area is controlled by forces opposing the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Tigrayan Defence Forces (TDF). 

A rise in illegal trade

The conflict has stifled licit trade across regional borders but increased opportunities for lucrative, albeit dangerous, illicit trade. For example, formal trade has completely evaporated between the Ethiopian town of Humera and to towns of Hamdayet in Sudan and Om Hajer in Eritrea. Daily boat journeys that used to carry goods across the Tekeze River between Hamdayet and Humera – the official border – have stopped.

Illicit trade routes here are now controlled by Amhara armed groups and the Eritrean Defence Forces manning the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. On the Sudanese side, smugglers from ethnic groups which straddle the Eritrean-Sudanese border work with authorities at the border. Illicit trade is more conflict-orientated, with both fighters and local communities buying weapons. Furthermore, hardened borders mean that the commodities and essential goods that do reach markets are sold at inflated prices, further plunging border communities into crisis.

The nature of trade has also changed dramatically at Metema-Gallabat, the main border crossing between Sudan and Ethiopia. Political tensions have led to frequent closures of the border since November 2020. This has had a devastating impact on local livelihoods on both sides of the border. Thousands of Ethiopian seasonal migrants who used to cross into Sudan at Metema and the town of Mai Khadra further north for agricultural work now remain at home. As a result, economic livelihoods are suffering in each town.

The lucrative trade in guns and people

Illicit trade has long been a significant source of income for border communities in this area. But the nature of smuggling has changed dramatically since the war, with a rise in arms and people smuggling. The Metema-Gallabat border is a long-established crossing on the migration route west and north through Sudan and Libya to Europe and a vibrant market for the movement of people – both trafficked against their will and smuggled by paid brokers. This crossing has seen the numbers on the move swollen by people forced to flee by war, and a rise in people smuggling.

Weapons smuggling has also surged due to the huge demand for guns created by the conflict. Trade in guns and people are both associated with increased criminal activity, making communities more fearful of their safety moving around and between the towns.

Repairing relations among periphery communities

Reports from these borderland communities, where some of the most violent fighting has occurred during the Tigray conflict, highlight the disruption of longstanding inter-ethnic relationships as a result of the fighting. “Now, there is no link or good relationship among Amhara and Tigrayans and no hope they will live together as before” cited one refugee Tigrayan farmer in Sudan. Another Tigrayan refugee described smooth relations between Ethiopia and Sudan and ethnic Amhara and Tigrayans prior to the conflict: “our town was where people lived together as a family; but the conflict broke the bond among the people”.

Restoring economic and community links across borders is key to security and stability in these areas, where the history of working together across ethnic divisions for mutual benefit runs deep. Repairing cross-border relations also would be a boon to governments, which stand to benefit from greater volumes of trade and attendant customs duties. But there are few signs to date of improving conditions. On the contrary, hardened borders are exacerbating community insecurity, constraining trade, driving smuggling, and enabling the proliferation of arms that sustain the conflict. As a result, links among the local communities could suffer for years to come.