Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 190, 19 November 2020

Ethiopia: Escalation in the Tigray conflict triggers a refugee crisis
Apoorva Sudhakar

In the news
On 17 November, the UNHCR spokesperson warned that a "full-scale humanitarian crisis" was emerging in Ethiopia after it launched a series of military attacks against Tigray on 4 November. The spokesperson said the pace of refugees fleeing to neighbouring Sudan was unseen in the last two decades. Meanwhile, the communications and road blockades in Tigray by Ethiopia have cut off access to food and essential supplies to the refugee camps in the region. Despite appeals by international aid groups, Ethiopia has not addressed the issue.

Further, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also announced that a final offensive would be launched against Tigray. He said Tigray's non-adherence to the three-deadline to surrender rebel forces has pushed Ethiopia to announce the crucial offensive. 

Issues at large
First, the scale of the refugee influx into Sudan. Since the military was deployed to Tigray on 4 November, Sudan prepared itself to receive refugees. However, since 10 November, at least 4,000 refugees have been crossing into Sudan daily. As of 17 November, Sudan received more than 27,000 refugees, and this unprecedented scale has undermined Sudan's efforts to avert a refugee crisis. For example, the refugee transit centre Hamdayet which has a capacity of 300 people is currently sheltering 12,000 persons. 

Second, the limitations of Sudan to host refugees. The transitional government in Sudan has been working towards stabilizing the economy, and the internal political scenario remains tense after the ousting of former leader Omar al Bashir. Further, the sanctions imposed by the US in the previous years has added to the worsening of economic conditions in Sudan. The country also has 1.4 million people exposed to food insecurity, and unless internal problems are addressed, Sudan is likely to face backlash if it diverts attention to the refugee influx.

Third, the issue of internally displaced persons in Ethiopia. Ethiopia also has 1.4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a result of internal ethnic conflicts and environmental disasters. In September, an International Organisation for Migration report said internal conflict alone had resulted in the displacement of 1.2 million persons. Currently, while the UN has not issued an estimate, it has confirmed that the number of IDPs has increased during the ongoing escalation. 

Fourth, the impact of the conflict on Eritrean refugees in the Tigray. Tigray shelters 96,000 Eritrean refugees reliant on the UN aid. The escalation in conflict could lead to a secondary displacement of the Eritrean refugees. Further, on 14 November, Tigray President confirmed that they had bombed the airport in Eritrea's capital. While the UN agency on the ground says there is no immediate threat to the Eritrean refugees, the current escalation could be a reason for Tigray to target Eritrea whom it considers its long-standing enemies. 

In perspective
On 16 November, Ahmed said the Ethiopian government was willing to "receive and reintegrate" refugees. This statement is a stark contradiction to his actions and his vow of a "final offensive" against the Tigray region. Further, Ahmed has rejected all mediation offers by neighbouring countries. Therefore, his reassuring words sound hollow as Ethiopians flee from the forces that he assures will protect them. 

Further, in 2019, Ethiopia had amended its refugee laws making it possible for refugees to avail services available to Ethiopian citizens, like school education, registering a drivers' license and the like. Ahmed was hailed as a progressive leader for Ethiopia which hosts around 7,50,000 refugees from Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen. Through the current conflict, Ahmed has displayed a disregard for his own citizens and contradicted the welcome initiative towards refugees by driving away from his countrymen. 

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