The UN has warned that Ethiopia is heading into a full-scale humanitarian crisis, after two weeks of fighting has seen over 30,000 people cross the border into Sudan. The UN estimates over 200,000 people could flee into Sudan in the next few months if the fighting in the Tigray region of Ethiopia continues.
The influx of people into Sudan is of grave concern, as the UN warns it could add to Sudan’s existing instability, given that they already support a million displaced people from other African countries.
At least 33,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed the border into Sudan, with hundreds of thousands predicted to come in the following months.
According to a UNHCR spokesperson, people have been crossing the border at a rate of 4,000 per day since 10 November. Aid agencies are pushing for a ceasefire, as well as a $50 million budget for food and shelter for new refugees. The UNHCR are on standby in the Tigray region, ready to provide assistance to the displaced population when security allows them to do so. UNHCR teams have already relocated 2,500 refugees from the border to Um Raquba, a settlement site in eastern Sudan, but stress a “critical need” for more sites to be identified so that more refugees can be relocated and seek assistance.
In a statement on 17 November, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said that the current situation is “heightening the needs and vulnerability of local people…and disrupting the work of the UN and other humanitarian organisations”.
“I call for full access to reach people in need wherever they are; safe passage for civilians seeking assistance; and the security of aid workers. Humanitarian workers must be able to deliver assistance without fear of attack”, he said.
Lowcock also said that the UN is engaging with the Ethiopian government and other authorities in order to get humanitarian assistance through.
Another major humanitarian concern is over Eritrean refugees who reside in Ethiopia. There are currently 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray, who are dependent on UNHCR and other aid organisations. The conflict risks further displacement of those refugees, especially as there is restricted access to aid and basic necessities. The distance between the fighting and the refugee camps in Tigray is shrinking. Refugee camps outside of Ethiopia are already overcrowded and unsanitary and have limited access to food and water, thus risking the spread of disease.
According to UNHCR data, there are 100,000 Eritrean refugees already in Sudan (2019 figures). Many live in camps in Kassala and Gedaref States in the east. Around 50% of new arrivals migrate onwards, but are then vulnerable to criminal networks and human trafficking, especially as so many are unaccompanied and separated children.
Two weeks ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whom he accused of attacking and occupying a military camp and attempting to seize hardware. The conflict has been brewing for months as there have been long-existing tensions between the government and TPLF, who deny the Prime Minister’s accusations. TPLF claimed the government has concocted the story to justify an offensive.
Earlier in November, the Ethiopian government declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray. There has been a telecommunications blackout, and also extreme limited fuel and cash. The communications blackout in the Tigray region has caused difficulties for aid organisations in getting humanitarian assistance to the region. It is estimated that 2.3 million children who are in need of humanitarian aid are out of reach. It also creates challenges for the media to accurately report the situation on the ground.
On 22 November, the Prime Minister gave the TPLF a 72 hour deadline to surrender. Government forces are advancing on the capital, as the Prime Minister says they are “at a point of no return”. He encouraged TPLF forces to “surrender peacefully”. Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF leader, told Reuters news agency that his forces managed to stall advancing government troops.
On 20 November, South African President Cyril Ramaophosa, who is also African Union chairman, announced three former Presidents will be appointed to broker the conflict. However, the Ethiopian government rejected this as they want to keep the conflict an “internal law enforcement” mission. Mamo Mihretu, senior aid to President Abiy, told the BBC that the government “do not negotiate with criminals… we bring them to justice, not to the negotiating table”.
The Ethiopian government should work with the UN and other aid organisations to allow humanitarian assistance to enter the region. The refugee crisis is overwhelming and resources are scarce, therefore it is of critical importance that aid workers are allowed to safely deliver much needed assistance to refugees and relocate people away from the border.