Last November, the Ethiopian government launched a military attack against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The escalating conflict has killed hundreds and displaced thousands from their homes into neighbouring Sudan.
The situation is now being described as a full-scale humanitarian crisis. Over 45,000 people have taken the perilous journey to Sudan and another 100,000 have been displaced from their homes but remain trapped inside the country.
Tensions escalated on the 4th of November last year when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive attack on regional forces in Tigray. For almost three decades the TPLF were in power until a wave of anti-government protests saw Mr Abiy take office in 2018. Since then the two powers have had an unsettled relationship, the turbulent atmosphere has only been made worse due to frequent spouts of political unrest and a long history of civil war.
The tensions between the two parties soured even further in 2019, when the federal government reconfigured the ruling coalition, consequently causing a series of serious human rights abuses. Controversially Abiy made the decision to merge three of its four ethnic-based parties into a single national one ahead of the 2020 elections.
Ethiopia’s citizens come from more than 80 ethnic groups, the original attempt by the Prime Minister to impose unity degenerated into conflict.
The Tigray region has a population of nearly six and a half million people, with the majority from farming villages. The conflict has destroyed thousands of acres of vital farmland, and consequently, families have watched as their livelihoods disappeared overnight.
The conflict has also blocked resources to the thousands of Eritrean refugees who were sheltering in the Tigray region. More than 96,000 Eritrean refugees are placed amongst four camps; Shimelba, MaiAinim, Adi-Harush and Hitsats- they now face airstrikes, conflict, and hunger.
The UN had already warned at the end of last year about 20 ‘hunger hotspots’; countries that are suffering ‘acute food insecurity’.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) highlighted the desperate situation. Spokesperson, Babar Baloch, says the Ethiopian government has not granted aid workers access to civilians or Eritrean refugees caught up in the crisis. He said: Supplies are ready to go pending the finalization of the security assessment.
“People on the ground after a month cut-off from humanitarian relief must be in a desperate situation and it is imperative that we reach them as early as possible.”
The unfolding situation has highlighted the lack of authority taken by the Ethiopian government. Under international human rights law, the government should meet the needs of people in its territory. Instead, the restrictions have led to a six-month state of emergency.
Fleeing to Sudan
“Little more than the clothes on their backs, fatigued and in weak conditions.” These are the words of Andrej Mahecic, another spokesperson from UNHCR who has witnessed the arrival of refugees into neighbouring Sudan. More than 30 percent of arrivals are estimated to be under 18 years old, and five percent over 60.
In the last month, 500 refugees a day have been desperately crossing the Sudanese border, a journey that takes more than two weeks.
Evading armed forces, checkpoints, and being robbed, many are making the dangerous journey through the Hamdayet border into Kassala state arriving not only displaced but extremely malnourished.
South Sudan is one of the top four countries in critical situations that could lead to famine, as reported by the UN. Key drivers of hunger included in the report are ‘expansion and intensification of violence, economic crises exacerbated by COVID-19 socioeconomic impact and lack of humanitarian access’, all factors in the Ethiopian crisis.
The Sudanese government continues to welcome refugees, efforts that are a lifeline for many. However, the overwhelming numbers have put a huge strain on resources, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Recurrent episodes of both social and political unrest have led to the displacement of nearly two million people since the start of 2020 alone. The latest conflict leading into 2021 has increased the discrimination and violence within the region, leaving thousands displaced and vulnerable.
The short-term solution for many is to flee to Sudan, but as numbers of refugees soar, conditions there are becoming just as dangerous. The heartbreaking situation has left many wondering how the Ethiopian government can continue to turn a blind eye to its people. Citizens who end up in Sudan have been left with no resolution and those still stranded in Ethiopia have not received any help from their own people.
Those who are responsible for the ongoing political turmoil need to do more to protect those caught up in the never-ending battle. The UN must step up to secure the basic human rights of those trapped in an impossible choice between conflict or starvation.
[Header Image: CAFOD/Norwegian Church Aid, Kirsten Berg]