Aid agencies have reiterated urgent calls for immediate access to Ethiopia’s besieged Tigray region, warning of an “increasingly critical” situation more than a week after the United Nations announced an agreement with the United Nations. Ethiopian government to allow the delivery of food and other much-needed aid.
After months of mounting tensions, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a ground and air offensive in the northern region on November 4 in response to alleged attacks by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces on military camps federal.
Since then, trucks loaded with aid have waited at the borders of Tigray, a region of six million people, even as warnings have grown increasingly severe about the lack of food, fuel, clean water, etc. money and other necessities.
Abiy declared victory in Tigray on November 28 after the military captured the regional capital, Mekelle. On Monday, however, he said efforts were continuing to restore order, amid continued fighting and lawlessness that hamper relief efforts.
“Regaining access to refugees and other people in need is urgent and critical,” the head of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, tweeted on Tuesday.
Regaining access to refugees and other people in need is urgent and essential for UNHCR and humanitarian organizations.
– Filippo Grandi (@FilippoGrandi) December 8, 2020
In Geneva, UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch told reporters it was “very difficult” to establish what is going on inside Tigray, where communications have been closed and access restricted. since the beginning of the fighting.
Some 96,000 Eritrean refugees, many of whom fled the authoritarian government in neighboring Eritrea, lived in four camps in Tigray. Eritreans often depart to escape compulsory and unlimited military service and repression, or seek better opportunities in what has long been one of the most isolated countries in the world.
UNHCR has not had humanitarian access to the camps since the unrest began, and previously delivered stocks are believed to have run out.
Speaking to Al Jazeera last week, Baloch said there “worrying information about attacks, kidnappings and also recruitments in and around these refugee camps.” On Tuesday, he said some of those Eritrean refugees may now be on the move inside Tigray.
“Our hope is that once we have access to the area, we will be able to assess people and see what has happened,” he said. “This is a question that worries us a lot.”
An Eritrean who lives in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, told Al Jazeera last month that the camps were in “big trouble”.
Even before the conflict, people complained about poor services and a lack of food or electricity, which led many refugees from Tigray to settle in towns to try to find work.
Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace pact ending two decades of hostilities in 2018, which led to Ethiopia’s prime minister winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The TPLF accused the forces of longtime enemy Isaias of joining the conflict alongside Ethiopian federal troops and fired rockets across the border towards Asmara. Ethiopia and Eritrea deny Eritrea’s involvement in the fighting.
On Tuesday, the Reuters news agency quoted a US government source and five regional diplomats who said Washington believed Eritrean soldiers had entered Ethiopia and joined the war.
Separately, on Tuesday, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, said his organization was “deeply concerned that humanitarian access to the region was still severely limited”.
He added: “We can no longer keep these people waiting. Aid must not stand still. We’ve been on standby to provide food, emergency shelter and other essentials for weeks, and we expected this deal to lead the way. “
The UN announced the deal with the Ethiopian government last Wednesday, saying it was signed on November 29. The deal only allows access to areas under the control of the Ethiopian government, but even those areas are apparently not yet open.
Abiy’s office said Monday it was working with the UN and others to expand humanitarian assistance “with a well-coordinated framework led by the federal government.”
The UN, however, has stressed the importance of a neutral and unfettered humanitarian approach.
“Full access for humanitarian actors must be guaranteed,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also tweeted on Tuesday.
The fighting is estimated to have killed thousands of people and sent at least 49,000 refugees fleeing to neighboring Sudan.
The number of daily arrivals in Sudan generally fluctuates between 400 and 700.
“There are concerns about refugees who want to leave and flee and seek safety in Sudan and may have been prevented. Refugees arriving are reporting an increasing number of checkpoints, ”Baloch said. “Many of them hope that if peace is established they can return home.”
The TPLF dominated the Ethiopian government and military for nearly three decades before being sidelined after Abiy took office in 2018.
The Prime Minister rejected the idea of a dialogue with the TPLF. Both sides are heavily armed, raising fears of a protracted conflict that would destabilize Africa’s second most populous country and the Horn of Africa region.