Over 170,000 Eritrean refugees are living in refugee camps in Ethiopia, according to Human Rights Watch. Almost 100,000 of these refugees live in four camps in the Tigray region, along the northern border of Ethiopia. UNHCR reports that 44 per cent of refugees in these camps are children, many unaccompanied.
The United Nations claims that these refugee camps have been cut off from the outside world since the beginning of November because of fighting between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan leadership. These camps solely depend on humanitarian aid, and living conditions were largely inadequate before the region was shut down, says Al Jazeera. With communication and transportation blocked, refugees are running dangerously low on food, medicines, and supplies.
Lack of communication with the region restricts UNHCR from confirming reports of attacks, kidnappings, and forced returns to Eritrea by Eritrean forces. Fighting near refugee camps has displaced some Eritrean refugees, according to the U.N. The International Committee of the Red Cross claims that some refugees traveled to the regional capital of Mekele, now controlled by the federal government, to ask for assistance.
Years of fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea caused about 6,000 Eritreans to flee to Ethiopia each month in 2019, according to Human Rights Watch. For over two decades, Ethiopia vowed to protect and care for Eritrean refugees fleeing their home country because of political persecution and military conscription, claims BBC. However, amid the federal government’s brawl with Tigrayan leadership the past month, these Eritrean refugees have found themselves in yet another conflict.
Aside from the 100,000 Eritreans living in refugee camps in Tigray, the region is home to six million Tigrayans. The fighting and airstrikes have left two million Tigrayans in need of aid and created 1 million displaced Tigrayans, according to the Associated Press. An additional 45,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan.
Tensions between the federal and regional leadership stem from Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018, says the Wall Street Journal. For decades, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) held a majority of positions in the federal government yet only comprise six per cent of the country’s population. When Ahmed took power, he implemented major democratic reforms. This resulted in Tigrayans losing power, being accused of corruption, and feeling shunned by the new Ethiopian government, reports the Council on Foreign Relations.
This past summer, Ahmed postponed the country’s democratic elections because of COVID-19. Tigrayan leadership accused him of illegally lengthening his government’s term and called the government illegitimate. Because of this, Tigrayan leadership pushed ahead with their own elections, which the federal government claimed were illegitimate as well, according to the Associated Press. PBS claims that when TPLF occupied an Ethiopian military base in early November, Ethiopian forces retaliated, igniting this month-long conflict and forcing a shutdown of the Tigray region.
Essentially, thousands of Eritrean refugees are at risk of hunger and malnutrition, an issue that is undoubtedly problematic and inhumane on its own. The addition of COVID-19 further challenges proper living conditions in these refugee camps and humanitarian responses. UNHCR claims that conditions are worsening by the day. UNHCR pleaded for weeks with the Ethiopian government to allow humanitarian aid to the camps. Recently, an agreement was reached which granted the U.N. unimpeded access to federal government-controlled areas of the Tigray region, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Because he brought an official end to the war with Eritrea and initiated political reforms, Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. However, human rights violations still occur in Eritrea, according to Human Rights Watch, and NPR claims Ahmed is causing strife near the same area affected by the war. Eritrean refugees and Ethiopian civilians are suffering the most because of this conflict.
Open and effective dialogue is necessary between both parties to see this struggle come to an end. Both governments should acknowledge the other as legitimate and compromise for the peaceful future of the country. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft, and other world leaders expressed their concern for the dangers posed to these Eritrean refugees and pledged their support for peace in the region, according to the U.N.
Despite claims from Ahmed that the conflict is over, TPLF leaders are promising an insurgency, according to BBC. Continued fighting poses more challenges for Eritrean refugees in need of food and supplies. Ultimately, Ethiopia’s current social, economic, and ethnic challenges could further destabilize the country, causing even greater numbers of refugees or internally displaced people, reports the U.N. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, this conflict risks civilian security, threatens Sudanese peace because of an influx of refugees, and jeopardizes Ethiopia’s and Africa’s growing influence in international affairs