Nearly 30,000 flee Ethiopia as UN warns ‘full-scale humanitarian crisis’ unfolding

Deepening war with Tigray region threatens ‘massive displacement’ and disruption of vital aid, UNHCR says

Andy Gregory
Thursday 19 November 2020 18:14 GMT
Ethiopia Massacre: UN concerned over disrupted humanitarian aid to more than two million people in Tigray

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A “full-scale humanitarian crisis is unfolding” in Ethiopia, the United Nations has warned, with some 27,000 people having already fled into Sudan in the two weeks since violent conflict erupted between the government and Tigray region.

With around 4,000 refugees now escaping across the northwestern frontier each day, the UN refugee agency warned that the scale of the exodus suggested a “massive” number of people may also be displaced within Tigray, where communications have been cut.

“UNHCR is warning that a full-scale humanitarian crisis is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in eastern Sudan,” UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said on Tuesday.

“People are coming out of Ethiopia really scared, afraid, with stories saying they have been fleeing heavy fighting and there’s no sign of the fighting stopping.” 

Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians and combatants have already been killed, according to observers and diplomats in the Tigray region, which roughly five million people call home.

With the growing conflict already serving to destabilise the tumultuous Horn of Africa region, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed announced that a three-day ultimatum given for rebel forces in the powerful northern region had expired.

Paving the way for a bloody military push to the region’s capital, Mr Abiy – who has said he will only negotiate once the “rule of law” is restored in Tigray – added: “The final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days.”

“Heavier fighting is likely to start” as Ethiopian forces advance into more mountainous terrain near the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, where rebel forces may launch a strong resistance, according to Matt Bryden, founder of Nairobi-based think tank Sahan.

And with hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans dependent on food aid even before the conflict, suffering is worsening fast. 

While hundreds of humanitarian workers are retreating to the capital Addis Ababa for security reasons, various UN agencies said efforts are under way to establish a humanitarian corridor and flights carrying aid packages.

The Nobel committee lent its voice to widespread calls for de-escalation on Tuesday, saying that “it is the responsibility of all the involved parties” to find a peaceful resolution – a rare apparent rebuke of a former laureate.

Mr Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his role in ending Ethiopia’s decades-long border dispute with Eritrea, and enacting sweeping democratic reforms.

However, these reforms have laid some of the grounds for the ethnic discontent now spilling into violence, with Tigray leaders accusing Mr Abiy – who comes from the largest ethnic group, the Oromo – of persecuting and purging them from government and security positions since taking office in 2018.

Furthermore, neighbouring Eritrea has already been dragged into the conflict, with Tigray claiming responsibility for multiple rocket strikes reported to have struck the airport in its capital Asmara.

Tigray president Debretsion Gebremichael, chair of the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has accused Eritrea of assisting the central government in its offensives, and claimed Asmara’s airport was a “legitimate military target” because it was being used by Ethiopian troops.

The first notable sign of unrest emerged in September, when the TPLF – previously the main partner in Ethiopia’s governing coalition for nearly 30 years – decided to push ahead with elections despite postponement across the rest of the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, prompting both governments to declare the other “illegitimate and unconstitutional”.

In October, central government voted to cut off contact with Tigray and to withhold budget support to the region.

The dispute turned violent a fortnight ago, with the Ethiopian government launching a military offensive on the Tigray capital in what it claimed was retaliation for a Tigray raid on a military base, which leaders in the arms-rich region denied.

Former US diplomat Payton Knopf previously said he doubted whether “anyone can credibly assert who attacked who first”, but questioned why the well-armed Tigray forces would initiate a conflict by raiding a command post, saying: “They’re not lacking for weaponry.”

While the Ethiopian armed forces comprise around 140,000 personnel, many battle-hardened from fighting Somali militants, rebels in border regions and Eritrea in the past, a significant number of senior officers are Tigrayan, and the region is well stocked in military supplies thanks to its proximity to Eritrea. 

The TPLF itself is a formidable rival with a proud history, having spearheaded the rebel march to Addis Ababa that ousted a Marxist dictatorship in 1991 and borne the brunt of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea.

Mr Abiy is insisting that the war will end quickly and that violence will not spread outwith Tigray to other regions, and has appealed for refugees to come home. 

However, experts fear a protracted conflict given the considerable military muscle on both sides, and Sudan – which already hosts nearly one million refugees, including those who have fled conflict and poverty in Chad, Eritrea, Central African Republic and South Sudan – is braced to receive as many as 200,000 refugees.

“There are lots of children and women,” Al-Sir Khalid, the head of the refugee agency in Sudan’s Kassala province, told the Associated Press last week. “They are arriving very tired and exhausted. They are hungry and thirsty since they have walked long distances on rugged terrain.”♠

Speaking on Tuesday, the UNHCR’s Mr Baloch also repeated concerns for tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees settled in Ethiopia, saying that clashes had occurred near to one of the settlements, but that poor communications were complicating aid efforts.

It came after the UN’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said that a reported massacre of civilians would amount to war crimes if confirmed, after Amnesty International reported possibly hundreds of civilians were stabbed and hacked to death in Tigray on 9 November, citing witnesses who blamed the TPLF. Mr Debretsion denied that to Reuters.

“There is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control,” Mr Bachelet said.

Additional reporting by agencies

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