Humanitarian organizations must speak out against access constraints in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, despite the country’s history as a generous refugee host, said Jan Egeland, secretary-general at the Norwegian Refugee Council, on Monday.
“We need also to recognize Ethiopia’s been — and is still — extremely generous to refugees. … But it doesn’t mean that we have to excuse [it] when we see horrible suffering happening,” Egeland said during a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We still do not know what’s happening in Tigray,” he said, noting that while some access has been granted to Mekele, the region’s capital city, there is still “zero access” in western and central Tigray.
The background: The government of Ethiopia has failed to grant humanitarian access, even for organizations with experience operating in opposition-controlled areas, Egeland said.
“Why would they do that? I don’t know,” he said. “Is it to hide things? Is it because they don’t want us to be there to see what is happening?”
NRC had 100 staff members in Tigray assisting 25,000 refugees when the government’s military campaign began in November. The organization abruptly lost contact with its employees and was limited to delivering services to refugees across the border in Sudan.
The three biggest priorities are reestablishing the local administration of social and security services, ending media restrictions, and ensuring humanitarian access, said Daniel Bekele, chief commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
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Meanwhile, the government of Ethiopia should not use concerns about protecting humanitarian actors as “a facade for just continuing to deny access,” said Catherine Wiesner, head of external engagement with the UN Refugee Agency’s Regional Bureau for East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes.
Why it matters: Humanitarian agencies have long relied on Ethiopia as a relatively stable host during conflicts and refugee crises in neighboring countries. While the government has proved itself capable of delivering services to vulnerable populations, it is now showing itself capable of denying them.