Humanitarians worry about limitations in Tigray agreement

People cross a river by boat from Ethiopia to Sudan near the Hamdeyat refugees transit camp, which houses Ethiopian refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region. Photo by: Baz Ratner / Reuters

NAIROBI — Over the past month, aid groups have not had access to people living in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray due to clashes between the national military and local forces. This has raised alarm over food, medicine, and fuel shortages, and lack of access to populations impacted by the violence.

No supplies have been allowed into the conflict zone and the government cut off communications in the region. Aid groups have not been able to fully account for the safety of their staff.

Following humanitarian pleas, an agreement between Ethiopia's government and the United Nations that will allow humanitarian access to Tigray, including the bordering regions of Amhara and Afar, was announced on Wednesday.

While humanitarians see this as a step toward alleviating a very difficult operating environment, some are concerned that the access will be limited to government-controlled areas and that it may come with heavy restrictions from the government.

"We do not understand why the most senior levels of the UN are not publicly calling out the government for what is going on."

— A humanitarian official

Humanitarians spoke to Devex on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivities around the situation.

“If we can do some assessments, we can talk to our staff, that’s a big step forward from a very bad place,” said one official. “Our immediate reaction is being skeptical but also understanding that this is an improvement on it being completely locked down, as was the case previously.”

The U.N. and the government are still hashing out the terms of the agreement, and a needs assessment began Wednesday. A spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it cannot confirm how quickly aid will reach people on the ground.

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"The missions are being prepared and will take place as soon as the operational details, including security conditions, are worked out. We are now finalizing risk assessments, establishing routes and it will be done as fast as possible," the spokesperson said.

In an emailed statement, UNOCHA said that the agreement is for "unimpeded, sustained and secure access."

Despite the progress made, humanitarians are frustrated with how this situation has been managed.

"We do not understand why the most senior levels of the UN are not publicly calling out the government for what is going on," a humanitarian official said.

Humanitarians have prepositioned stocks of supplies, many are ready to spring into action once given the go-ahead. Worst-case scenarios estimate that 1.98 million have been impacted by the violence inside Ethiopia, with about 1 million people displaced — although it’s still unclear where all of these people are located.

In a press briefing Tuesday, a UN Refugee Agency spokesperson said that refugee camps in the region have run out of food supplies, and there are unconfirmed reports of attacks, abductions, and forced recruitment at the camps.

Maria Soledad, the head of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ethiopia, said in a press release on Sunday that a hospital her team was able to visit is running “dangerously low” on sutures, antibiotics, anticoagulants, painkillers, and gloves, and has run out of body bags.

Existing communications on the newly signed agreement have indicated it will include access in government-controlled areas only, raising questions over whether the government will allow humanitarian actors to communicate with Tigray’s forces and access people in areas that are not under government control. Communication with all parties to the conflict would help ensure aid workers could move safely between government and non-government-controlled areas, humanitarian actors told Devex.

They said that ideally, they would want unembedded, unconditional access to communities in all areas where people are in need, with the ability to move supplies in and out.

“That’s the best case scenario. But right now, what we are trying to achieve is permission to move supplies of food to feed our staff, so they don’t starve. That’s where we are right now,” said a humanitarian official. “That best case scenario seems remote right now, but hopefully we can move towards it pretty soon.”

Given experiences over the past few weeks, there are concerns that the government will grant only limited permissions that are accompanied by delays.

One possibility is that the government could grant access only through military escorts, which is not ideal for delivering aid, humanitarian actors said, expressing concern over the need to remain impartial in the conflict. This is only done as a last resort because aid accompanied by military convoys can be misinterpreted as a threat and targeted with violence and can dissuade people in need from accessing aid, they said.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.