Canadian Humanitarian, an Alberta-based NGO, said that a total of 13 Canadians are being detained at a police station in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, more than 600 kilometres north of Addis Ababa.
Spokesperson Justin Steed told Global News in a statement Saturday that three of the Canadians are staff members, while the other 10 are volunteers.
Originally, there were 18 Canadian detainees but five were released on Friday.
Two Ethiopian staff members are also being detained.
Steed says Ethiopian police are investigating allegations the group was handing out expired medication. Steed said the group is “vigorously defending” its actions.
“Just like all of our trips, our team and organization followed all necessary steps and protocols to ensure our group had all permits needed to provide medical support and care while in Ethiopia,” Steed said. “While we cannot comment on the specifics of the expiry of the medication, we can with confidence say that all medicine and care offered by our team was safe.”
According to its website, Canadian Humanitarian is a charity based in Medicine Hat, Alta., and obtained its licence as a charitable NGO in Ethiopia in 2012. It describes itself as a non-political humanitarian organization.
Volunteers for the NGO conduct medical, dental and educational humanitarian work in various communities in Ethiopia.
“The group of volunteers currently detained are in Ethiopia to offer these services to our various local partner communities, with whom we have had long-standing, positive and collaborative relationships for over 15 years,” he said.
Global Affairs Canada confirmed Thursday that it is “aware that Canadian citizens are detained in Ethiopia.”
Consular officials in the country are in touch with local authorities to “gather further information,” said a Global Affairs statement.
Parliamentary Secretary Rob Oliphant spoke with the Ethiopian ambassador about the situation on Friday, but Global Affairs said it could not disclose any further information, citing the Privacy Act.
While the group was detained at the station, Canadian Humanitarian said it was working with Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian embassy in Ethiopia to “resolve the situation as quickly as possible.”
Friday morning, the Ethiopian judge granted investigators an extension, and with this being a long weekend in Ethiopia, the situation isn’t expected to see any progress until at least Tuesday, March 3.
Michael Bociurkiw, a global affairs analyst and former communications officer for UNICEF, said he felt “shock” at the news.
“It sounds like these folks have been working in the country for quite some time and something went terribly wrong,” he said in an interview with Global News on Saturday.
When asked about how easily the matter could be resolved, he pointed out that Canada’s relations with Ethiopia are “very good.”
“Canada has quite a big presence there in a number of ways and not only diplomatically, but also in terms of the trade and investment. So I think it should be a fairly smooth process.”
He said that during his time working with UNICEF and WHO, he has seen expired medication used in remote areas.
“For example, in Papua New Guinea and parts of Nigeria, it does happen because of poor supply chains, because of broken health systems,” Bociurkiw said. “So it’s not unusual. And in most cases, it’s not lethal either.”
–With files from Maryam Shah and Kerri Breen, Global News