On April 20th, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that disturbing accounts of systematic persecution of civilians in Ethiopia’s Tigray region continue to emerge nearly six months since the conflict erupted in November.
The conflict is the culmination of months of escalating tensions between the Ethiopian government and the dominant regional force, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which led Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to order a military operation after rebels attacked a federal army base. As a result of the escalating conflict, over a million people have been displaced, and the vital institutions and facilities on which children depend have suffered “extensive destruction,” according to agency spokesperson James Elder, leading the Tigray region to enter a “protection crisis,” with women and youth particularly vulnerable.
According to government officials, the region was secured by the end of November, but TPLF resistance has persisted, and militias from the nearby Amhara region have joined the fray, allegedly accompanied by troops from neighboring Eritrea – Tigray’s long-time rival.
The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the conflict, has made it nearly impossible for children in Tigray to attend school. Since March 2020, 1.4 million children have been away from school and thus deprived of formal education for a little over a year. According to the Ministry of Education, the decision to reopen schools is contingent on security, rehabilitation efforts, and the relocation of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people currently sheltering inside school buildings. However, given the risks of continuing conflict in the region, such a prospect remains remote.
In addition to the education crisis, the Tigray region is experiencing a nutrition emergency as a result of pillaging and the loss of medical centres and expensive irrigation systems that farming communities count on. According to assessments, abuse and looting have rendered the majority of health care services in the area inoperable, with Mr. Elder noting that “everything – X-ray machines, oxygen, and mattresses for patients – are gone.” Moreover, operating beds and baby incubators have been destroyed, both of which are essential facilities for the survival and well-being of mothers and infants.
Another significant cause of concern is the terrible state of sanitation in displacement sites, which are becoming increasingly overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe. This issue should be of great urgency as congested areas are breeding grounds for COVID-19. Additionally, UNICEF estimates that there has been an average of three cases of reported gender-based violence per day since January. Most people, however, suspect that such figures are far higher due to security concerns and cultural stigma, which are likely to prevent people from reporting an assault.
Since November of last year, UNICEF has provided and continues to provide humanitarian aid to the Tigray region, including emergency supplies such as early childhood development kits, medical assistance, psychosocial support to IDPs in refugee camps, and the deployment of more than 160 social workers to provide child protection case management for affected children. Despite efforts, the fighting continues to contribute to the growing humanitarian crisis, as escalating violence has created a significant barrier for humanitarian organizations and actors to reach the approximately 4.5 million people in Tigray in need of humanitarian aid.
Those with influence over the military actors involved in the conflict must respond to UNICEF’s call to condemn human rights violations against civilians. Failure to do so would be a blatant disregard for human suffering, international law, and humanitarian organizations’ efforts to ensure consistent access throughout the Tigray region.