Ethiopia’s unfolding humanitarian crisis, explained by a top aid official

Almost 50,000 refugees from Ethiopia have fled to Sudan in recent weeks, according to the United Nations. They cross the border into Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which has been engulfed in fighting and violence since early November, when the Ethiopian government deployed troops to the area.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, sent government forces to Tigray after claiming there had been an attack on a federal military base by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF ), the ruling party in the region which also controlled Ethiopian politics. until Abiy took power in 2018.

The TPLF denied having played a role in the attack, and accused Abiy of making up a story to bring the troubled region closer to his control. Tensions between Abiy’s government and the TPLF have been boiling for months, but Abiy’s offensive has escalated the conflict dramatically.

Abiy claimed that federal forces “fully” controlled Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital. But the TPLF vowed to keep fighting, threatening to become a full-fledged insurgency. It also risks becoming a regional conflagration, potentially drawing in neighboring Eritrea.

What is happening on the ground is extremely difficult to follow. A communication failure imposed by the government cut the Internet and telephone lines, limiting access for journalists and humanitarian groups.

But first-hand accounts of violence have spread among the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled across the border into Sudan – an average of 3000 per day, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The humanitarian situation in Tigray is also worrying: some 100,000 Eritreans living in long-standing refugee camps in the region have been cut off from food and other aids for weeks because of the fighting.

This is a humanitarian and refugee crisis unfolding in real time, in the midst of a pandemic and a hunger attack exacerbated by drought and locusts.

To find out more, I spoke to Jan Egeland, the general secretary of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which provides assistance to refugees who have fled to Sudan. Egeland had just visited A Rakuba, a refugee camp in the eastern part of Sudan, and – on a somewhat shaky connection – he shared what he had seen there and his concerns about the potential for a worsening disaster in the region .

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

How is it going?

Jan Egeland

I’m fine. I’m just leaving Um Rakuba.

Jen Kirby

Um Rakuba? Is this the refugee camp in Sudan?

Jan Egeland

Um Rakuba is the camp [in eastern Sudan] near the border [with Ethiopia’s Tigray region], where there are now 10,000 – I think we cultivate every day – 10,000 Tigrayans. And, of course, we’re overloaded and overloaded as one of the few operational aid groups here.

But there is a lot going on now. In just five days, my colleagues at NRC created an entire school with five classrooms, now 10. They go in two shifts, so two shifts, with students from grades 1 to 10. And it is very moving. I attended some of the classes because refugee teachers are now teaching refugee children in Tigrayan, and they are now re-creating the program with our help. They were doing subtraction, addition and multiplication today, it must have been the third year. This is a sign that there is hope for better times.

Jen Kirby

So there are about 10,000 people in this camp. And are more people coming?

Jan Egeland

People come every day, but less than two weeks ago, when there were more people coming to Sudan than a European country would receive in a year. Sudan has received more people in three weeks from Tigray than the United States is prepared to receive like its quota of refugees in a year.

It just goes to show that in our time almost all refugees come from one poor country to another poor country. It is the poor countries that provide protection, provide safe havens for refugees in our time.

Jen Kirby

And what do you hear from the people who arrived at the camp?

Jan Egeland

There is no doubt that the people in the camp have fled the violence or have fled because they fear the violence. The stories are uniform of that. Their towns, villages and communities are under attack.

I have never seen a camp with so many men. A normal refugee camp has around 80% women and children, with a maximum of 15-20% men. This one, the majority of people are male. This is because they are the target of murder and repression because they are supposed to be associated with the Tigrayan fighting forces. But most of the people I met were mechanical engineering students and even came from outside Tigray. They were teachers, nurses, farmers.

So it is very clear that the violence has to stop and that there has to be effective protection of civilians for people to consider returning. What we seem to have is another longer term refugee crisis – which we really shouldn’t have in Sudan, which already has 2 million people internally displaced by violence, and a million refugees, and one terrible economic crisis.

Jen Kirby

Are those in the camp who fear violence specifically targeted by Ethiopian government forces? It is very difficult to know what is going on with the communication failure.

Jan Egeland

Exactly, it is often not clear exactly who attacked, and I would be very careful to convey one of those allegations here. We are humanitarians, we are neutral and we are seeking access to Tigray. The NRC is one of the few organizations active in Tigray. We were serving the Eritrean refugees in Tigray. Now we can’t even communicate with our own staff there, many of whom have also fled. We have nearly 100 aid workers in southern Tigray, many of whom have also fled the fighting which has been fierce in many areas.

Jen Kirby

Is there a feeling that these Eritreans refugees in Tigray who have been here for a long time, since before this recent outbreak of violence, are also fleeing? Or an idea of ​​their security and their status in terms of access to resources?

Jan Egeland

It is likely that they are also moved. There are allegations of Eritrean forces in Tigray, and these are people who fled Eritrea. But again, the most important point here is that we need access. We need to be able to send supplies to our aid workers and supplies to the Eritrean refugees we serve, and we need to connect with our local aid workers in Tigrayan. We need access, and we haven’t gotten it yet.

We are not refugees waiting to come to us in Sudan for help. We want to have them in Tigray, and we are willing and able to step up our work inside Tigray.

Jen Kirby

How is Covid-19 taken into account? What kinds of additional precautions or concerns exist around the pandemic?

Jan Egeland

We are now providing cash assistance to every refugee family, with funding from the European Union. So they get the equivalent of $ 24 for a single person and $ 48 for a family, which is a very substantial donation that the family themselves can decide to use for what they need most.

Now, as we do, of course, we wear masks, my coworkers wear masks, social distancing, a lot of hand hygiene, and so on. The refugees do not have masks and there are so far few signs of Covid among the refugees. But there is a growing spread of the coronavirus in Sudan as a whole. So we have to be extremely careful ourselves not to spread the virus to vulnerable communities who live very crowded here.

Jen Kirby

Is there a risk now that it will become, as you say, a more permanent refugee crisis?

Jan Egeland

These children now in our school [at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan], you know, are they going [still] be there when they grow up? I sincerely hope not. So we will want to discuss with the Sudanese the possibilities of durable solutions so that they can have work opportunities in Sudan. But the long-term solution is of course that they can return voluntarily, assisted and protected safely, to Tigray. But that would require a peaceful settlement of the conflict.