Ethiopia fighting could drive 200,000 to Sudan in coming months, says UN

Kate Hodal and Jason Burke
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Marwan Ali/AP</span>
Photograph: Marwan Ali/AP

Violence in northern Ethiopia will probably drive 200,000 people into neighbouring Sudan over the coming months, UN agencies have warned, where food, shelter and medicine are urgently needed.

The number of refugees streaming across the border has already surpassed agency preparations by 11,000 people, a UN refugee agency official said.

“Together with all the agencies, we built a response plan for about 20,000 people and currently we are at about 31,000, so it has already surpassed that figure,” Axel Bisschop told a Geneva briefing. “The new planning figure is around 200,000.”

Fighting in the Tigray region has also left more than 2 million children in urgent need of assistance, with thousands more at risk in Sudanese refugee camps, Unicef said.

The agency is particularly worried over the possible spread of disease among the refugees, nearly half of whom are children.

“Inside the Tigray region, restricted access and the ongoing communication blackout have left an estimated 2.3 million children in need of humanitarian assistance and out of reach,” Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said.

An additional 12,000 children – some of them are without parents or relatives – are “among those sheltering in camps and registration centres and are at risk”, Fore added.

Earlier this month, the Ethiopian government announced a six-month state of emergency in Tigray where a telecommunications and electricity blackout, coupled with limited fuel and cash, has in effect blocked humanitarian access.

For those who fled to Sudan, life is not much easier. Camps are overcrowded and refugees have been struggling with unsanitary conditions, and limited access to water, and food, UNHCR said.

Unicef is trying to provide urgent assistance and life-saving support for children living in “extremely harsh” conditions in the camps. UN agencies are seeking $50m in immediate funding which will go towards providing food and setting up new camps.

Fore called on all parties to the conflict to allow humanitarian access. “Every effort should be made to keep children out of harm’s way, and to ensure that they are protected from recruitment and use in the conflict,” she said.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, launched military operations two weeks ago after he accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which runs Tigray, of attacking a military camp and attempting to seize military hardware. The TPLF denies the charge and has accused the prime minister of concocting the story to justify the offensive.

The open hostilities are the culmination of months, even years, of rising tensions between the TPLF’s leadership and the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa, the national capital.

Few observers believe there will be an end to hostilities soon and senior US diplomats said on Thursday evening that neither party was interested in mediation.

“Anybody who has worked with these two sides I think can appreciate the fact that they have very, very strong opinions on what they want to do and when they want to do it,” Tibor Nagy, the US assistant secretary for African affairs, told reporters. “Mediation, in fact, is a very good tactic, but it can only be used when the people involved or the sides involved are prepared for mediation.”

The US ambassador to Ethiopia, Michael Raynor, said his recent conversations with Abiy and with Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of the TPLF, had convinced him there was “a strong commitment on both sides to see the military conflict through”.

Ethiopia has long been a lynchpin of US policy in the fragile east African region and so far Washington has supported Ahmed.

“There is no equivalency here,” said Nagy “This is not two sovereign states fighting against each other. This is a faction of the government running a region in Ethiopia that has decided to undertake hostilities against the central government, and it has not … had the effect that they thought that they were going to get.”

Aid workers described pregnant women, separated families and sick elderly people among thousands of refugees continuing to arrive daily into Sudan from Ethiopia.

“People are sleeping out in the open. There are no tents, just blankets. There is some food, like porridge and water, but there are no toilets, showers or health services. Many families arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their back. They are essentially arriving with nothing, to nothing,” said Will Carter, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sudan.

“There are pregnant women in the camp, diabetics with no insulin, people living with HIV/Aids with no medical care, and children without parents. It’s a deeply traumatic and depressing time for many,” Carter added.

Agencies contributed to this report