Tensions in Ethiopia could lead to widespread displacement, access issues

A refugee camp in northern Ethiopia. Photo by: EU / ECHO / Anouk Delafortrie / CC BY-NC-ND

NAIROBI — Aid groups are raising the alarm over the humanitarian implications of a military campaign launched in Ethiopia this week, amid concerns of a possible civil war.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he had ordered military action against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the ruling party in the northern region of Tigray, saying it had attacked a federal military base.

There have been heightened tensions in recent months following TPLF’s rejection of the national Parliament’s decision to postpone August elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. TPLF has since declared it no longer recognizes Abiy’s administration as legitimate.

As federal troops and Tigray’s paramilitary forces clash, aid groups are concerned that the violence could lead to widespread displacement and inhibit access to services for the communities they were supporting. Organizations are also struggling to communicate with their staff members in Tigray after the government shut down internet and phone networks.

“We are deeply concerned that a military escalation in northern Ethiopia could trigger a wider humanitarian emergency in which people are displaced from their homes and unable to meet their basic needs,” said Katia Sorin, head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ethiopia, in a press release.

Increased displacement and prolonged restrictions

Ethiopia already has more than 1.8 million people who are displaced within their country; about 70% of these people were displaced by conflict. It also hosts nearly 800,000 refugees — with roughly 96,000 in the Tigray region, primarily from neighboring Eritrea.

According to the Danish Institute for International Studies, refugee camps in the region are already overcrowded, with harsh living conditions.

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Aid groups are concerned that the escalating tensions could increase displacement. This will in turn lead to an incredibly expensive undertaking at a time when humanitarian funding in the region is already stretched thin, said Nigel Tricks, regional director for East Africa and Yemen at the Norwegian Refugee Council. NRC is currently “massively underfunded” and is forced to divert resources from one country in the region to the next to fill gaps, Tricks said.

An increase in tensions could also decrease access for populations receiving assistance, including those living in the refugee camps in the Tigray region.

“Any ratcheting up of tensions inevitably leads to a closure of access, roads, permissions, or whatever it might be to travel to the areas that we're working in,” Tricks said.

In response to the violence, the International Rescue Committee said it is in the process of removing nonessential staff members from two of the camps where it works.

This week, the Ethiopian government shut off phone and internet networks in the Tigray region — a tactic it commonly uses in response to opposition. Movement in and out of, and around, the Tigray region has also been restricted.

This cut in communication complicates the operating environment for NGOs and United Nations agencies, which are struggling to get information from their teams on the ground.

The United Nations Refugee Agency said some of its staff members have not been able to access the refugee camps it operates because of movement restrictions and also are not able to communicate with people at the camps.

“We are advocating with the authorities to allow humanitarian staff to move to the camps on a daily basis,” said Kisut Gebre Egziabher, spokesperson for UNHCR.

Organizations said they worry that if these restrictions are not lifted soon, they could limit their ability to provide services in the region.

“A military escalation in northern Ethiopia could trigger a wider humanitarian emergency in which people are displaced from their homes and unable to meet their basic needs.”

— Katia Sorin, head of delegation in Ethiopia, International Committee of the Red Cross

IRC has one month’s supply of fuel on hand, which it can use to continue providing water to refugee camps.

“If movement continues to be disrupted beyond that month, and we're not able to bring in more fuel, then there's a real question about our ability to continue providing clean water in the camps,” said George Readings, crisis analyst at IRC.

NRC also emphasized the importance of removing restrictions as soon as possible so that the organization can maintain the supplies it needs to run its operations in the camps.

Organizations said they need to be able to move freely to respond to the violence. “Unimpeded access for Red Cross ambulances and teams to the wounded and those in need will be crucial if clashes escalate,” said ICRC’s Sorin.

The physical safety of the refugees and humanitarian personnel is also in question as the conflict is not far from the refugee camps, Gebre Egziabher said.

Threatening food security and undermining regional peace

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Aid groups said they are also concerned that the conflict could further weaken food security. The Food and Agriculture Organization said this week that the epicenter of the locust outbreak has now shifted to Ethiopia and Somalia, with swarms present in the Tigray region. Massive infestations of locusts have wreaked havoc on crops in the region since last year.

Aid groups said they worry that limitations on movement and escalating tensions could disrupt locust control activities, including aerial spraying campaigns. Keeping the locust swarms under control not only protects crops, but agriculture in the region more broadly, IRC’s Readings said.

IRC said its teams in Tigray have reported a second wave of locust swarms hitting the region in large numbers.

Conflict in Ethiopia is also concerning because of its role as a peacemaker. Abiy helped to end hostilities with Eritrea and mediated conflicts between neighboring countries, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The country also hosts important institutions, including the African Union.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.