The Director of the World Health Organisation General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus suggests that the shortage of international interest in Tigray’s humanitarian crisis is due to skin colour. This came at a briefing during which the Tigray-born Chief questioned why there is not as much coverage of the crisis in Tigray as there is on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Dr Tedros elucidated how the current conflict in Tigray is the worse humanitarian crisis in the world, and a lack of Western interest is related to “the colour of the skin of the people”. This is not the first time Dr Tedros has made an observation of this kind – in April of this year, he questioned whether “the world really gives equal attention to black and white lives” in the context of a single conflict.
World Health Organisation Emergencies Director Mike Ryan criticised, at the same briefing as above, the indifference about the events unfolding in wider Eastern Africa, questioning why “No one seems to give a damn about what’s happening in the Horn of Africa.”
Ethiopia is experiencing a disproportionate number of crises; conflict, famine, and economic instability to name a few. In the northern region of Tigray alone, there are approximately 9 million people who are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 3.6 million people displaced. Last year, it was estimated that there were 4,000 Ethiopians seeking refuge in Sudan every day. In Tigray in particular, citizens are caught in the middle of a war between government forces, fighters from Eritrea and other militia and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. This comes on top of famine-like conditions, arising because people were forced out of their homes and have been cut off from the world since November 2020. Additionally, people have no access to basic services such as electricity, communications, or banking, as Dr Tedros pointed out in his earlier briefing. The World Food Programme estimates that 7.4 million people wake up hungry every day in Southern Ethiopia.
A United Nations investigation last year uncovered that acute human rights abuses and refugee violations were occurring in Tigray. UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet described these abuses as “extreme brutality”. All parties involved were found to have committed “violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, [which] may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
At the briefing previously mentioned, in April, Dr Tedros acknowledged the global consequences of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Critics are quick to disagree with a claim of racism, however it is important to note that Dr Tedros’ statements do not actually indicate any displeasure with the treatment of Ukrainian refugees and the international interest the crisis has accumulated. He purely seems to be questioning why this treatment and interest is not universal; why it is not the norm for all refugees of all countries. Syrian, Iranian and Afghani refugees did not, and do not, receive the media attention or aid from the West in the way that Ukrainian refugees have. The obvious and main difference in these refugees is that Ukrainian refugees are white, and Middle Eastern refugees are not, and we can draw parallels with Tigray and Ethiopian refugees as a result. It cannot be said with any amount of certainty that the British public, for example, would be willing to open their homes to Ethiopian refugees as they have done with the U.K. Government’s “Homes for Ukraine” scheme (is a “Homes for Ethiopia” scheme imaginable in the U.K?), and it would be interesting to hear the reasons why. It should go without saying that no one is blaming Ukrainian refugees for receiving more media coverage and better treatment. It is interesting in how this pertains to peace in the future: the West might have to hope that if we were ever in a similar situation, the rest of the world would treat us with more dignity and humanity than we are currently showing them.
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