World Food Programme responds as refugees from Ethiopia’s Tigray region seek sanctuary in Sudan

2020 Nobel Peace Prize laureate calls for funds – and peace – to avert a deepening humanitarian crisis

Peyvand Khorsandi
Thursday 10 December 2020 18:57 GMT
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A woman with her son aged four, in UM Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan—they have received a monthly ration from WFP, including sorghum, oil, salt and millet
A woman with her son aged four, in UM Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan—they have received a monthly ration from WFP, including sorghum, oil, salt and millet (WFP/Arete/Ed Ram)

As conflict continues in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, thousands of people are at risk of hunger and peace is critical to stop the situation deteriorating, says Michael Dunford, the World Food Programme’s regional director for eastern Africa.

Dunford has just returned to WFP’s regional base in Nairobi after a visit to Sudan where the organisation – which on Thursday received the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize in Rome – is scaling up to feed new refugees.

“Harvests need to come in now – this is a critical time for farmers in Ethiopia,” says  Dunford, who toured the Sudan border where Tigrayans are entering from Ethiopia seeking refuge from fighting. “If people in Tigray region miss their harvest, they will not have the resources to sustain themselves for the next year.”

Ethiopian refugees arrive in the Village 8 refugee settlement in Sudan – there are fears that the influx will continue
Ethiopian refugees arrive in the Village 8 refugee settlement in Sudan – there are fears that the influx will continue (WFP/Arete/Joost Bastmeijer)
The nutritional status of breastfeeding mothers and their children is among the key concerns at Um Rakuba camp in Sudan
The nutritional status of breastfeeding mothers and their children is among the key concerns at Um Rakuba camp in Sudan (WFP/Arete/Joost Bastmeijer)

Since 4 November, thousands of people are feared killed by the conflict in northwest Ethiopia. Some 100,000 people have fled their homes in Tigray, including over 48,000 who fled westwards and crossed the border into eastern Sudan, often with little more than the clothes that they fled in.

Thousands are at risk of hunger, and peace is vital to stop the situation in Tigray from worsening.

In Sudan, WFP has a  shortfall of $153 million (£115m) over the next six months to meet the food needs of the most vulnerable across the country, including $14.8m for the new refugees, $3.8m to increase the number of flights by the WFP-managed UN Humanitarian Air Service, and $750,000 for road repairs so assistance can reach remote refugee camps that are growing.

As well as erecting portable warehouses, WFP is moving essential supplies such as tents, pots, pans, and anything else that is needed including emergency telecommunications staff to support the response by WFP and partners to the now slowing influx of refugees from Ethiopia to eastern Sudan.

Up to 48,000 fled Tigray for eastern Sudan, often with little but the clothes they were wearing
Up to 48,000 fled Tigray for eastern Sudan, often with little but the clothes they were wearing (WFP/Arete/Joost Bastmeijer)
WFP requires $4.8m to assist newly arrived Ethiopian refugees in Sudan over the next six months
WFP requires $4.8m to assist newly arrived Ethiopian refugees in Sudan over the next six months (WFP/Leni Kinzli)
Where cooking facilities are not available, WFP supplies fortified high-energy biscuits
Where cooking facilities are not available, WFP supplies fortified high-energy biscuits (WFP/Arete/Ed Ram)

The Ethiopian government has agreed with the UN to guarantee humanitarian access to areas closed since early November, when the conflict in Tigray started. UN assessment missions including WFP are under way both to check access to affected areas and to estimate the scale of humanitarian needs.

“Our biggest fear is that this conflict spreads and becomes a regional issue,” Dunford says. “It’s vital that peace takes hold now in Ethiopia otherwise humanitarian needs will increase radically.”

He stresses the need for peace to stop hunger increasing so WFP can resume providing support to vulnerable people in Tigray – as it did before the conflict.  That means regaining access to 50,000 Eritrean refugees who received WFP food assistance in Shire in Tigray; 42,000 women and children in nutrition programmes and 200,000 people supported by smallholder farmer insurance schemes.

New arrivals receive a month’s worth of dry rations including lentils, sorghum, oil and salt, along with cooking utensils
New arrivals receive a month’s worth of dry rations including lentils, sorghum, oil and salt, along with cooking utensils (WFP/Leni Kinzli)
A boy finishes off a meal at the Um Rakuba camp
A boy finishes off a meal at the Um Rakuba camp (WFP/Arete/Joost Bastmeijer)
The people in Um Rakuba are among 48,000 who’ve fled westward in Ethiopia and into eastern Sudan
The people in Um Rakuba are among 48,000 who’ve fled westward in Ethiopia and into eastern Sudan (WFP/Leni Kinzli)

Dunford recently visited Um Rakuba camp in Sudan’s Gedaref state where WFP has just completed a distribution of food at the camp to more than 11,500 refugees.

“Fifty per cent of the population in Rakuba are women and children,” he says. “There’s also a very high proportion of young men in the camp. They say that they’re escaping Tigray because of fears that either they could be conscripted in Ethiopia or alternatively targeted because of their profiles.

“We have the supply chain in place. We have the warehousing in place. We have our partner in place. And we’re now extending our support to other agencies to help them mobilise.

WFP works with Unicef to ensure the needs of children are met
WFP works with Unicef to ensure the needs of children are met (WFP/Arete/Joost Bastmeijer)
Women prepare lunch for Ethiopian refugees in Um Rakuba refugee settlement in Sudan. WFP is providing food for hot meals but many people have come with nothing and there’s a lack of cooking facilities and utensils
Women prepare lunch for Ethiopian refugees in Um Rakuba refugee settlement in Sudan. WFP is providing food for hot meals but many people have come with nothing and there’s a lack of cooking facilities and utensils (WFP/Arete/Joost Bastmeijer)

“What’s important now is that UN agencies come together under the leadership of the UN High   Commissioner for Refugees to address issues regarding water, sanitation, shelter and protection.

“WFP is rolling out activities in conjunction with UNICEF to protect the nutrition status of women and children nutrition because we are concerned about the vulnerability of the refugees. Any incidents of disease or outbreaks of illness could deteriorate very quickly in these circumstances.”

Aerial shot of Um Rakuba
Aerial shot of Um Rakuba (WFP/Niema Abdelmageed)
In the refugee camp, young men are removed from the risk of being drawn into fighting
In the refugee camp, young men are removed from the risk of being drawn into fighting (WFP/Leni Kinzli)

Dunford says that a lot depends on how quickly the fighting inside Ethiopia ceases so that assistance can be provided and how soon people are able to resume their livelihoods, so they support themselves.

Praising the Sudanese authorities for their support for the refugees, he stresses how WFP and the United Nations in general must be completely impartial in any conflict, including the one in Ethiopia. “We do not take sides in a conflict,” he says. “What we are focusing on is meeting humanitarian needs, irrespective of where the people come from”.

Find out more about the World Food Programme here

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