Ethiopia: humanitarian fallout emerging from conflict zone

A girl looks over the Umm Rakouba refugee camp for people who fled the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, December 2020. (AP Photo / Nariman El-Mofty)

Joint UN and government teams report critical needs while humanitarian access and independent scrutiny remain limited.

Food shortages, widespread looting, and sexual violence were among the findings in the first on-the-ground look at the situation in Tigray by UN and Ethiopian officials. A report released last week by the UN's humanitarian department, OCHA, outlines an emerging humanitarian situation, with more than two million people in need of assistance due to recent fighting between federal government forces and troops loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

Overall access to the region and communications have been constrained by the central government, making first-hand assessments difficult. Speaking in Geneva on 6 January, at an online briefing hosted by the Geneva Press Club, Ethiopia’s human rights commissioner, Daniel Bekele, said greater access to media, human rights groups, and international organisations should be allowed. He said civilian-military coordination is needed to smooth out hurdles in humanitarian access.

The report also noted the difficulty of access for humanitarian agencies, as areas of armed conflict still persist and official responses to requests to visit or deliver supplies are often delayed or denied.

Daniel said the conflict has been a “sad development” in the country’s political transition, which started with the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. But he said the risky transition had “from the get-go” faced “complicated and deep-rooted” problems.

Local authorities estimate 4.5 million people in Tigray are in need of assistance, of whom 2.2 million are displaced, the report notes. Its authors settled on a lower figure of 1.3 million people who need help due to the conflict, plus 900,000 who were already in need. There are about five million people in Tigray, according to the Red Cross. The fighting has also driven over 56,000 Ethiopian refugees into Sudan since the conflict began in early November, according to the Geneva-based UN Refugee Agency.

“Food supplies are very limited, widespread looting is reported and insecurity is high”, the authors of the 6 January report noted, summarising the joint assessment by the UN and the Ethiopian government officials.

Extensive damage to water supplies and hospitals was also reported. The teams could not reach two of four camps of Eritrean refugees, where abuses have been reported.

Investigating a massacre: The Geneva briefing, organised by Ethiopia’s Geneva mission and an Ethiopian community group, Network of Ethiopians in Geneva for Action Taskforce, featured three main speakers, but none from the Tigrayan opposition. Daniel was joined by Ethiopia’s attorney-general and an Addis Ababa-based opposition veteran, Berhanu Nega.

In their remarks, all were broadly sympathetic to the Addis Ababa government, despite the recent fighting and associated allegations of human rights abuses and ethnic profiling, as well as the political uncertainty it has sparked in the country and the region. Clashes have been reported between Ethiopian and Sudanese forces over a disputed pocket of territory, while Eritrean troops have been accused of looting and abuses against refugees and civilians inside Tigray.

Daniel reiterated the preliminary findings of his commission on a massacre at Mai Kadra, in western Tigray near the start of the conflict, on 9 November. He said the events, ethnically targeted killings of civilians, “may amount to crimes against humanity or even war crimes.” The investigation found that responsibility lies with the Samri youth group, affiliated with the TPLF, the ruling Tigrayan party whose troops' clash with federal forces started the armed conflict days earlier. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has insisted the military efforts were a “law enforcement operation” targeting leaders of the TPLF - which he refers to as a “criminal clique” - and not the wider Tigrayan community.

Accounts of the situation at Mai Kadra by refugees now in Sudan differed, however. Speaking with the media, they have cited abuses by government forces and their allies, including indiscriminate killings of civilians. Daniel acknowledged that the refugees may have “credible stories,” but he noted that both victims and perpetrators were among those who had crossed the border. He said he would be “very careful of some of the narratives emerging”. The UN’s human rights body has called for Ethiopia to allow independent human rights groups to monitor and investigate.

Access headaches: International aid groups face difficulties in moving their staff and supplies into and around the region, despite signing two previous agreements with the central government since the start of the conflict to allow access. About a third of the requests for humanitarian visits or shipments are not approved, OCHA stated in the report, and those that are approved often require a 5-10 day wait for paperwork from the relevant government bodies.

In Western Tigray, aid groups have reported that permissions issued by Addis Ababa have been rejected by forces on the ground, requiring a further layer of negotiations for humanitarian access,  according to a restricted OCHA report, obtained by The New Humanitarian.

Aid work in the area is steered by the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, which falls under the Ministry of Peace. Opposition politician Berhanu Nega, when asked by The New Humanitarian if the Ministry of Peace was sufficiently neutral to be in charge of all aid for Tigray, said: “I just don't see the rationale behind deliberately stopping humanitarian supplies to the needy citizens of our country. ” Speaking at the Geneva event on 6 January, he added that he condemned any incidents of ethnic profiling and harassment of Tigrayans. “I don't think they [the Commission] deliberately would hurt their own citizens… just because of their ethnic background.”