As the conflict continues in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the provision of humanitarian aid is a continuous challenge. Thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed since November 2020 and over a million people are internally displaced. The necessity of humanitarian assistance is grave, but the ongoing conflict has made it difficult for organizations to reach those in need.
In November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Tigray’s ruling party. Militias from the Amhara region joined the fighting as well as troops from neighbouring Eritrea. In addition to the thousands of civilians killed, the conflict has resulted in mass human rights violations, including sexual violence against women and girls. Although Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced in March that Eritrean troops would withdraw from the region, the United Nations (UN) and other agencies have not seen proof of this withdrawal. Along with other human rights organizations, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s top humanitarian official, is still reporting ongoing atrocities.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) made its first statement addressing the Tigray conflict on April 22, 2021, voicing “deep concern” over the crisis. They called for investigations into the human rights violations, including the reports of widespread sexual violence. Moreover, the UNSC stressed the need for a scaled-up humanitarian response and unrestricted access for aid, particularly noting food insecurity.
Other agencies have also raised concern over the challenge of distributing humanitarian aid due to Tigray’s conflict. The Deputy UN Spokesperson said Tigray’s unpredictable security situation is obstructing life-saving assistance from reaching Ethiopia’s northern region. Many rural areas have been cut off from electricity and communications, affecting water supply and health services. The situation is further complicated by the more than 1 million internally displaced people in Ethiopia and the additional 62,000 refugees who have fled to Sudan.
Tigray’s food security is causing particular worry among aid workers. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has warned that Tigray could face a famine if aid organizations are not granted unrestricted access. Speaking to CNN, Emily Dakin, a top USAID official on the ground in Tigray, said they are tracking 4.5 million people who require humanitarian aid, 4 million of whom are in need of food. If the region’s hostilities continue without an immediate increase in life-saving assistance, Dakin warns of a critical tipping point after which famine is extremely likely. The World Food Programme has distributed a significant amount of food to hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray but there are millions more in need.
Dakin also told CNN that up to 1.25 million people are inaccessible to humanitarian workers. Aid workers rely on major roadways to reach those in need but the conflict in Tigray has made these routes less accessible and unsafe. Dakin’s USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team has been able to travel to parts of Tigray and have described the “significant amount of humanitarian need,” but many areas remain beyond their reach. USAID is providing medical supplies, psychosocial support and training to help sexual violence survivors, as well as protection and prevention measures.
Agencies are trying to expand their assistance and humanitarian aid is reaching some parts of Tigray. However, both state officials and humanitarian workers have stressed that unfettered access to humanitarian aid must be granted to prevent a worsening crisis. In addition to safe access, aid agencies need increased capacity and funding to facilitate a rapid response increase. The level of need is still far greater than the response thus far.
The Tigray conflict is far from over. Until there is a ceasefire and the human rights abuses stop, the humanitarian crisis will persist and is likely to get worse. While the conflict continues, humanitarian organizations must be given unrestricted access to reach the millions in need of food assistance and other services.
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