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The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported on Tuesday that thousands of people have been forced to flee Ethiopia’s Tigray region to seek refuge in Sudan due to ongoing conflict.

The Ethiopian national government has been in the middle of a civil dispute with its northern regional government in Tigray. 

The Washington Post reported that the conflict began in early November, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated that Tigrayans had attacked the national military base. In response to the alleged attack, he sent troops to the region, and announced that the military had bombed Tigray and destroyed weaponry near the regional capital of Mekele.

These were the beginnings of the current ongoing national violence that has seen innocent people caught in the crossfire. As a result, citizens of northern Ethiopia have been fleeing the country in their thousands. 

According to UNHCR, more than 27,000 people have crossed into the neighbouring country in just over a week, and the scale of the refugees seeking aid in Sudan is the worst that part of the country has seen in over 20 years. 

Ethiopia-Tigray-Refugees-Humanitarian-Crisis-UNHCR-004.jpgEthiopian refugees are pictured near UNHCR's Hamdayet border reception in Sudan. A worsening crisis is unravelling in northern Ethiopia, where clashes between the Ethiopian army and forces from the Tigray region are driving thousands of people to flee.
Image: © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

“Women, men, and children have been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since Nov. 10, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground,” a UNHCR spokesperson, Babar Baloch, said at a press conference

“Refugees fleeing the fighting continue to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings,” he added. 

Although UN agencies and their relief partners have increased their assistance to refugees delivering food rations, clean water, and setting up temporary shelters among other things, the UNHCR says that the needs are continuing to grow. 

The UN has been working with Sudan on the response to the crisis, and from Saturday, the UNHCR began relocating 2,500 refugees from the border to Um Raquba settlement site, in eastern Sudan. 

Ethiopia-Tigray-Refugees-Humanitarian-Crisis-UNHCR-002.jpgA refugee from Ethiopia, who is fleeing clashes in the country's Tigray region, shades herself from the sun after crossing the border into Hamdayet, Sudan, with her family.
Image: © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

However Baloch went on to say that there is “critical need” to identify more sites so that refugees can be relocated away from the border and can access assistance and services.

Meanwhile in Tigray, the UNHCR has had difficulty accessing the region to provide humanitarian aid. Baloch explained that a lack of electricity, telecommunications, fuel, and cash continue to severely hamper any humanitarian response.

“After nearly two weeks of conflict, reports of larger numbers of internally displaced grow daily, while the lack of access to those in need, coupled with the inability to move in goods to the region, remain major impediments to providing assistance,” he said.

The UNHCR is currently on stand-by to assist those displaced in Tigray should they find an opportunity to do so. 

According to the UN, the civil conflict is also a major concern for the Eritrean refugee population of nearly 100,000 in Tigray, who rely on assistance from UNHCR and their partners.  

“Potential for further displacement of refugees inside the country is increasingly a real possibility... The humanitarian situation as a result of this crisis is growing rapidly,” Baloch warned. He went on to reiterate UNCHR’s call for peace and urged all parties to respect the safety and security of all civilians in Tigray.

Ethiopia-Tigray-Refugees-Humanitarian-Crisis-UNHCR-003.jpgEthiopian refugees cross the border into Hamdayet, Sudan. Since the violence began in early-November 2020, more than 14,500 children, women and men have fled into Sudan in search of safety, overwhelming the current capacity to provide aid.
Image: © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

In a statement released earlier this week, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, called for access to those who require assistance in Ethiopia and expressed that the UN is staying on stand-by and is committed to providing humanitarian aid. 

"The current situation is heightening the needs and the vulnerability of local people", he said. "It is disrupting the work of the UN and other humanitarian organisations. I call for full access to reach people in need wherever they are; safe passage for civilians seeking assistance; and the security of aid workers. Humanitarian workers must be able to deliver assistance without fear of attack."


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A ‘Full Scale’ Humanitarian Crisis Is Unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region: UNHCR

By Khanyi Mlaba