The fighting between the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—an armed group and political party with control over the northern region of Tigray—has already claimed many lives and led to a major new displacement flow in the East Africa region. Estimates of the number of displaced people have been rising over the past few weeks, with current numbers indicating more than 50,000 people have fled Tigray for Sudan—a country itself in the midst of several political transitions. This is on top of the thousands that have been killed, according to United Nations and local government estimates.
As the conflict continues in Ethiopia, the UN Refugee Agency has called the situation a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.” Refugees seeking shelter threaten to overwhelm the refugee infrastructure in Sudan. Meanwhile, the Tigray region itself is already home to 96,000 refugees from Eritrea and 100,000 internally displaced people (IDPs). Ethiopians seeking shelter from violence in neighboring countries, and Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia moving in order to escape targeted attacks, have created double displacement flows that risk threatening regional stability.
The movement of new Ethiopian refugees and Eritreans already in Ethiopia into neighboring Sudan, as well as the targeted violence being faced by specific groups of displaced people (namely Eritrean refugees), has raised a number of immediate humanitarian concerns. While Sudan’s eastern border remains open to refugees arriving from Ethiopia, existing refugee camp infrastructure is inadequate for the impending need. New refugee camps are being planned, some further into Sudan than the existing camps along Sudan’s eastern border (one camp is planned for outside of Tenedba, Sudan). Between November 4 and December 17, Hamdeyat camp has taken in 35,762 new arrivals, al-Luqdi has taken in 12,602, and nearly 10,000 refugees have been transferred to the new camp of Um Rakuba from border crossings. Furthermore, refugees are arriving in remote areas of Sudan that lack the suitable infrastructure to support thousands of new arrivals.
The violence in Ethiopia is also having a particular effect on Eritrean refugees in the country. The nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray fled political persecution in Eritrea and are now reportedly facing attacks and abductions in their refugee camps. Reports of mistreatment of Eritrean refugees have been compounding since mid-November, gaining particular attention on December 11, when Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, issued a statement that UNHCR and has “had no access to the four Eritrean refugee camps inside Tigray, putting the safety and survival of the refugees at great risk.”
Other aid agencies have also not had access to the four main refugee camps (Adi Harush, Hitsats, Shimelba, and Mai-Ayni). The humanitarian situation in Tigray is dire, with reports of targeted killings, abduction, and forcible returns to Eritrea. Grandi’s remarks emphasize the need for Eritrean refugees to move to safe locations and receive protection “wherever possible, including outside of Tigray, given the traumatic events they report to have witnessed or survived.”
The situation in Tigray is also exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. The Red Sea crossing that leads into Yemen is the world’s busiest migration route and also one of the most dangerous. For those displaced people attempting to make the long journey, smugglers, kidnapping, and abuse are rife in Yemen. While pandemic border closings slowed migration into Yemen in 2020, aid organizations believe the conflict in Tigray will lead to a major new wave.
Those most vulnerable to deprivation are also facing worsened conditions due to the coronavirus pandemic. The UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, said that since the start of the violence “the civilian toll is mounting. Women and children arrive in Sudan with disturbing stories of violence, deprivation and abuse. Many have not made it out.”
Increasing movement across borders, as well as interactions between large groups of civilians, have raised public health concerns in the region. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) has sent $13 million dollars in emergency funds to people in Ethiopia, while $5 million has been released to refugees newly arrived in Sudan. Still, these measures provide only temporary relief in a conflict that will require serious political solutions.
The movement of thousands of newly displaced people and the underlying tensions between the government of Ethiopia and TPLF have implications for the region’s peace and security. Despite the potential regional impact of the violence, Ethiopia continues to show reluctance in working towards regional solutions—namely in regard to the African Union (AU)—about an operation that Prime Minister Ahmed has referred to as an “law enforcement” operation and an “internal affair.”
Prime Minister Ahmed completely ruled out dialogue with leaders of the TPLF during a meeting with three AU special envoys in early November when the possibility of a peaceful resolution was discussed. On December 18, the AU called Ethiopia’s actions in the Tigray province “legitimate” military action. The AU Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, concluded a meeting of regional leaders with remarks that emphasized the “legitimacy” of Ethiopia’s military campaign. Both the AU special envoy’s advice for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, and the AU’s recent position in support of Ethiopia’s rule of law operations, seem to be rooted in the same logic. While a diplomatic resolution to the dispute would have likely ensured the greatest degree of stability, the AU’s actions demonstrate a recognition that a divided AU and Ethiopia would bode poorly for regional and continental peace and security in the long run.
In an effort that could signal regional solutions to the conflict, Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok met with Prime Minister Ahmed about the possibility of an “emergency” meeting of the East African regional economic community, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), in mid-December. Hamdok’s visit indicated the possibility of a regional approach to the end of the conflict, which could slow the growth of displacement. The December 20 meeting of the 38th IGAD Extraordinary Summit, where heads of states from Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Djibouti were present, indicated regional support for Ethiopia. Still, the major humanitarian challenges as a result of the conflict were a major point of discussion as regional leaders emphasized the growing needs of refugees and IDPs throughout the region.
Double displacement, treatment of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, compounding humanitarian needs, weak infrastructure in nearby states, and the threat of increased violence, come together to ring loud warning bells for a worsening humanitarian crisis. With the UN estimating nine million people at risk for displacement, this reality must be faced with immediate and coordinated action.
Countries in the region and beyond have been responding to the humanitarian crisis and should continue to do so. Along with hosting over 50,000 new refugees from Ethiopia, Sudan has committed to enabling humanitarian access to refugees fleeing the violence in Tigray. The United Kingdom has sent funding to Ethiopia for emergency assistance, though more international support is imperative to meet the pressing needs of displaced people and to help mitigate some of the difficulties of forced migration within the pandemic.
While the AU and IGAD’s engagement with Ethiopia illustrates a regional commitment to a political resolution, more consistent engagement is necessary. An AU Peace and Security special heads of state meeting could be organized, as has been done to discuss other major peace and security instances on the continent, e.g., Libya and Sudan.
Among the major immediate priorities is the mobilization of humanitarian aid from all relevant UN agencies and international partners. Nearly 600,000 people in Tigray depend on food aid to survive, while a million others receive some form of support, all of which has been delayed. While mass mobilization of humanitarian aid is not a long-term solution, it is necessary to hold off the worst of the crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened humanitarian news in the region and will necessitate the delivery of personal protection accoutrements (e.g., masks and proper sanitation materials). While distancing and safety precautions must be taken by humanitarian actors, borders cannot be closed off to those seeking refuge and asylum.
Perhaps most importantly, Ethiopian authorities must open humanitarian corridors of aid into refugee camps in Tigray province. Restricted access to Tigray since the start of the conflict is having severe implications for vulnerable people within refugee camps in the region (access includes phone and internet communication, which should be returned across the region). Both aid and human rights monitors must be allowed into the camps. The conditions in refugee camps in Ethiopia as well as in Sudan are dire, made worse by COVID-19, a lack of basic necessities, harrowing migration corridors, and political uncertainty. Any delay in humanitarian aid or in work towards a political solution will only worsen an already desperate set of circumstances.