An old warehouse serves as housing for thousands of internally displaced people from the Somali region in Ethiopia. Photo by: Mulugeta Ayene / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia had more internally displaced people than any other country in the first half of 2018, but NGO workers are having a hard time talking about it.

Representatives from humanitarian aid and human rights organizations working in Ethiopia say they can’t speak about the internal displacement crisis without fear of backlash from the government.

“If you talk about this issue, either you will end up in jail, you will be beaten, or other bad things will happen to you.”

— Dan Yirga, senior human rights officer, Human Rights Council

When asked to comment on aid delivery, the situation inside the camps, and challenges to tackling the multiple drivers of displacement, eight representatives from aid organizations did not respond or said doing so would be “too sensitive.” Most of those who were interviewed asked to speak anonymously, citing potential consequences that ranged from being restricted in their access to deliver aid, to being beaten and arrested.

“If you talk about this issue either you will end up in jail, you will be beaten, or other bad things will happen to you,” said Dan Yirga, a senior human rights officer with the Human Rights Council — Ethiopia’s only remaining human rights monitoring and reporting NGO following the country’s 2009 CSO Proclamation, which criminalized most human rights work in the country at the time.

How to improve IDP aid delivery in Ethiopia

What steps need to be taken to tackle the multiple drivers of displacement in Ethiopia, and improve aid delivery for people who are internally displaced? Devex asks aid workers.

Without public reports and press releases, the issue remains less prominent in both the public and humanitarian sphere — impacting the amount of aid internally displaced people have received.

“The violence in Ethiopia this year has gone on unnoticed by the international community. While the government finds longer-term political and humanitarian solutions to the conflict, we urge donor governments to pay attention and increase funding,” said Evelyn Aero, regional adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaking specifically on the displacement in the Somali region of the country. NRC is operating in the area but claims few other aid groups are.

Between January-June 2018, about 1.4 million people were forced out of their homes in Ethiopia, making the second most populous country in Africa the world leader in terms of violence-related internal displacement during that period. Flooding in the east and south of the country, continuing border conflicts in the Oromia and Somali regions, and a persistent drought have been the main drivers behind the mass movement and development of over 600 camps [a][b]for internally displaced people.

Source: IOM

One Ethiopian NGO worker, headquartered in Addis Ababa, thinks the lack of awareness about these camps and the country’s displacement issues may have affected funding.

“I think better publicity would have elicited more funding than we have and probably made it easier for donor representatives here to make the case to their offices,” the NGO worker told Devex. “If the government is saying, ‘everything's OK,’ and the donor person here is saying, ‘we need more funding,’ it's not an easy sell to make.”

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, currently 8 million people are in need of food assistance in Ethiopia, and in 2017 $1.4 billion was required in funding assistance.

Many NGOs and government departments such as the Emergency Operation Centres, the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, and the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Bureau are working to provide food, water, and shelter in what one experienced aid worker described as “the worst situation I’ve ever seen … where people are starving to death.” Another aid worker called the situation “dire” due to a lack of shelter, food, and the number of people forced to sleep out in the rain on just a piece of tarp. But they are unable to talk openly without fear of reprisal that could ultimately hurt IDPs.

Ethiopia displacement crisis skyrockets

The latest figures show the number of new internally displaced people in Ethiopia has risen six-fold from last year, surpassing numbers in countries experiencing large-scale conflicts such as Syria and Yemen.

“You get in trouble with the federal government, coordinating bodies, and also the licensing of the nongovernmental organizations,” said the first NGO worker, who has spent time in the IDP camps. The staffer explained that talking publicly about the situation could also affect permissions NGOs have to operate in regions affected. “You fear that and you don't want to be singled out as the one criticizing.”

In the past, the government penalized organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was given seven days to leave the Somali regional state in 2007 and accused of involvement in a “smear campaign” against the regional government. In 2009, 42 NGOs were also prohibited from operating in southern regions for being involved in activities that were “out of their mandate.”

HRC’s Yirga, who has travelled across the country visiting the affected regions of displacement, refuses to stay silent. Inside his Addis Ababa office overlooking the Yidnekachew Tessema stadium, he said his organization is accustomed to the repercussions of producing reports and press releases on sensitive issues such as internal displacement.

“I have experienced lots of challenges including harassment, beatings, all of those brutalities.”

This has happened many times, he said, because organizations such as his are “acting as a voice for the voiceless.” Given HRC’s international ties, he said if staff get arrested, they are eventually released.

Why the Ethiopian government may not want the issue discussed

The Ethiopian NGO worker explained that the government’s efforts to limit public discussion about the IDP situation could be an attempt to protect the perception of the country worldwide. Ethiopia’s famine between 1983-1985 was well publicized and is still what some may associate with the country.

“As a country that has seen droughts and famine in the past and all that negative light, they're trying to move away from that so they can get more positive publicity for the country rather than “here we go again: another drought, another disaster,” the NGO worker said.

Yirga said the issue goes deeper. “There is mass displacement because of the government.” He says particularly in the Gambela region, the government has forced families to leave their homes so the land — which is state-owned in Ethiopia — can be used for other purposes. Yirga said the government doesn’t want to be blamed for the high numbers of people now living in underserved camps and this is more easily avoided if the issue isn’t in the spotlight.

Government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But earlier this year Ethiopia's Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen did urge for concerted actions among federal and regional governments, specifically to help those displaced by the Gedeo and West Guji conflict in the Oromia region, south of the country. The government also released a joint response plan in June detailing the $118 million needed to support the 818,000 people affected in this area.

In late November, the new regional Somali government also called for more aid agencies to enter the region. This includes the government facilitating and improving access for aid agencies. According to the latest Displacement Tracking Matrix, 700,000 have fled to this region alone as a result of intercommunal violence among the Oromia-Somali provincial borders.

Another NGO worker, a senior staffer for an international aid agency, suggested there was also a problem with government terminology and the naming of some IDPs as “returnees” and calling the secondary displacement of people as “recovery mode.” The staffer said in September, in the case of the West Guji-Gedeo conflict, the government had forced some IDPs to return to their homes without proper peace or reconciliation having been reached, leaving the areas still potentially unsafe. “They're saying it’s ‘recovery mode,’ and it's not the right terminology. Very few people are actually returnees, most people are secondarily displaced.”

Rather than a government imposed silence, some working in the region might just be keeping quiet because they remember Ethiopia’s violent communist history, explained another aid worker. From 1974-1987, the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army — otherwise known as Derg — was in power. The regime incarcerated and killed thousands for being so-called “enemies of the state.” Still quite recent, this aid worker working for an international organization explained the lasting effects are that of caution when it comes to speaking about anything that could affect the country’s reputation.

Looking ahead

However, recently the country has seen a more democratic shift in its government. In April, Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s prime minister and in just seven months, his leadership has brought positive change, the first NGO worker said. The state of war with neighboring Eritrea has ended, the state of emergency for the country has been lifted, exiled political personnel have been granted permission to return to the country, and bans have been removed from websites.

“They're willing to reform, do things a lot better, and they’re a lot more open than they were before,” the staffer said.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.