An ongoing conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region has stranded nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees without humanitarian assistance for a month and the United Nations warns that food supplies have now run out, the Associated Press reports.
Without immediate aid, those displaced in the region could face malnutrition and starvation. And the longer the conflict goes on, the more refugees and internally displaced people, as well as civilians, risk being harmed by attacks and other injustices.
Ethiopian officials struck a deal with the UN Wednesday to allow "unimpeded, sustained, and secure" access to the region, according to the BBC. The first mission to assess the needs of people in Tigray has already been launched, the AP reports.
"We are of course working to make sure assistance will be provided in the whole region and for every single person who needs it," Saviano Abreu, a UN spokesman, told the AP.
The aid community had been pleading with the Ethiopian government to allow aid workers to enter the region for the past month.
"We have been urging, waiting, begging for access,” Jan Egeland, an aid official with the Norwegian Refugee Council, told the AP. “We’re ready to go tomorrow ... It has been heartbreaking to be forced to wait.”
“We, as humanitarians, have lost access and contact with the refugees since the last month that this fighting has been ongoing, and now there are worrying reports of attacks, of abductions, and also of recruitments in and around these refugee camps,” Babar Baloch, global spokesperson for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
The conflict boils down to leaders in the Tigray region attempting to undermine the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed following recent elections, according to NPR. Abiy has since deployed troops to the region and unleashed air strikes. As of mid-November, hundreds of people had died amid the fighting.
Because it borders Eritrea, the Tigray region is home to a large number of Eritrean refugees. The conflict has left water infrastructure badly damaged and exposed refugees to a range of threats, the most pressing of which is the lack of food, the UN warns.
The UN has called for the opening of a safe and reliable humanitarian corridor so that it can deliver food, medicine, water, and other essential supplies to those affected by the conflict.
In addition to the refugees, tens of thousands of Ethiopians have been displaced by the conflict and need assistance. That’s why the UN insists on such an unrestricted and neutral humanitarian corridor — so that it can reach people in need, regardless of which side of the conflict they may be associated with.
The government recently had said it would open a corridor after it captured Mekele, the capital of Tigray, according to the AP.
The growing humanitarian conflict comes as the United Nations struggles to raise enough funds to address the knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Economies have been disrupted, food production systems derailed, schools closed, and public health systems overwhelmed. The World Food Programme, which recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, anticipates an additional 270 million people will need critical food aid by the end of the year.
Few populations are in as dire a situation as the refugees from Eritrea, however.
“With our concerns growing by the hour, we're appealing to the federal authorities of Ethiopia that access should be urgently provided to us in the Tigray region to reach the desperate people,” Baloch told journalists at a briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.
“The camps will have now run out of food supplies – making hunger and malnutrition a real danger,” he said.
This article was updated on Dec. 3 to reflect news of the aid deal reached by the UN to access Tigray.