Warnings intensify as badly wanted assist nonetheless not reaching Tigray | Eritrea
Humanitarian aid organizations have reiterated urgent calls for immediate access to the embattled Tigray region of Ethiopia and warned of an “increasingly critical” situation more than a week after the announcement of an agreement with the Ethiopian government on the consumption of much-needed food and other aid.
After months of mounting tensions, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a ground and air offensive into the northern region on November 4 to respond to alleged attacks by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) armed forces on the Bundeswehr camps there.
Since then, trucks loaded with relief supplies have been waiting at the borders of Tigray, a region of six million people, even as warnings of shortages of food, fuel, clean water, cash and other necessities have worsened.
Abiy declared victory in Tigray on November 28 after the army captured the regional capital, Mekelle. However, on Monday he said efforts to restore order would continue amid ongoing fighting and lawlessness that are hampering relief efforts.
“Restoring access to refugees and other people in need is urgent and critical,” tweeted the head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, on Tuesday.
Yesterday’s statement from @PMEthiopia said that those affected by military action in #Tigray, including Eritrean refugees, will be protected and supported.
Regaining access to refugees and other people in need is urgent and vital for UNHCR and humanitarian agencies.
– Filippo Grandi (@FilippoGrandi) December 8, 2020
In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters it was “very difficult” to determine what was happening in Tigray, where communications have been closed and access restricted since the fighting began.
Around 96,000 Eritrean refugees, many of whom fled the authoritarian government of neighboring Eritrea, lived in four camps in Tigray. Eritreans often leave the country to escape compulsory perpetual military service and oppression, or to look for better opportunities in one of the world’s most isolated countries for a long time.
The UNHCR has had no humanitarian access to the camps since the riots began and it is believed that the previously delivered stocks are now depleted.
In a conversation with Al Jazeera last week, Baluch said there were “worrying reports of attacks, kidnappings and also of recruitment in and around these refugee camps”. On Tuesday he said there were reports that some of these Eritrean refugees may now be in Tigray.
“We hope that once we have much-needed access to the region, we will be able to judge the people and see what happened,” he said. “This is a problem that we are very concerned about.”
An Eritrean man who lives in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa 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 in Tigray to move to the cities to find work.
Abiy and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace pact in 2018 that ended two decades of hostilities and resulted in the Ethiopian Prime Minister winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The TPLF has accused the armed forces of longtime enemy Isaias of joining the conflict on the side of the Ethiopian federal forces and fired rockets across the border into Asmara. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea deny the participation of the Eritreans in the fighting.
On Tuesday, Reuters news agency quoted a US government source and five regional diplomats as saying Washington believed Eritrean soldiers had come to Ethiopia and joined the war.
The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, said Tuesday that his organization was “deeply concerned that humanitarian access to the region is still severely restricted”.
He added, “These people can no longer be made to wait. Aid must not be brought to a standstill. We have been ready to deliver groceries, shelters and other vital supplies for weeks and we expected this deal to clear the way. “
The United Nations announced the agreement with the Ethiopian government last Wednesday, saying it was signed on November 29th. The agreement only allows access to areas under the control of the Ethiopian government, but even those areas appear to be not yet open.
Abiy’s office said Monday it was working with the United Nations and others to expand humanitarian assistance “with a well-coordinated framework under the direction of the federal government.”
However, the United Nations has emphasized the importance of a neutral and unqualified humanitarian approach.
“Unrestricted access for humanitarian actors must be guaranteed”, EU foreign policy expert Josep Borrell also tweeted on Tuesday.
The fighting has killed an estimated thousands of people and at least 49,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Sudan.
The number of daily arrivals in Sudan usually fluctuates between 400 and 700.
“There are concerns about refugees who are leaving Sudan and wanting to flee and seek safety and may have been prevented. Refugees who arrive are reporting more and more checkpoints, ”said Baloch. “Many of them have hoped that when peace is made they can return home.”
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s government and military for nearly three decades until it paused after Abiy took office in 2018.
The Prime Minister has rejected the idea of dialogue with the TPLF. Both sides are heavily armed, leading to fears of a protracted conflict that would destabilize the second most populous country in Africa and the Horn of Africa region.