Alarm as Ethiopia says returning Eritrea refugees to Tigray camps

Gov’t says it is now safe to bring back refugees who fled monthlong fighting to the northern region’s camps but the UN calls the move ‘absolutely unacceptable’.

There are 96,000 Eritrean refugees registered in Ethiopia. Most live in Tigray, which borders Eritrea [File: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

Ethiopia’s government has said it is returning Eritrean refugees to camps in the northern Tigray region, a move criticised by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) as “absolutely unacceptable”.

In a statement on Friday asserting that the fighting in Tigray is over, the Ethiopian government said its military offensive against the now-fugitive regional government “was not a direct threat” to the nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees registered in Ethiopia – even as international aid groups said four of their staffers had been killed, at least one in a refugee camp in Tigray, which borders Eritrea.

The refugees are being taken from the capital, Addis Ababa, back to two camps they had fled from during the five weeks of fighting between federal troops and forces loyal to Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) because it is now safe and stable in Tigray, the statement said.

“A large number of misinformed refugees are moving out in an irregular manner,” it added. “The government is safely returning those refugees to their respective camps”, adding that “transportation of food to the camps is under way”.

The UN has expressed concern over reports of continued clashes in the region.

“We have not been informed by the government or any other authorities or other partners about a planned relocation,” Babar Baloch, a spokesman for UNHCR, said at a news conference in Geneva.

He called the reports “alarming” and said, “Any planned relocation would be absolutely unacceptable.”

Frustration remains among the UN and other humanitarian organisations as the Tigray region remains largely sealed off from the outside world since fighting began in early November.

Ethiopia’s government has made clear it intends to manage the process of delivering aid to Tigray, and it has rejected “interference” as fighting is reported to be continuing despite its declaration of victory. On Friday, Ethiopia said it had begun delivering aid to areas in Tigray under its control, including Shire and the Tigray capital, a city of half a million people.

“Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat in several cities and surrounding areas within the Tigray region is untrue and undermines the critical work undertaken by the National Defense Forces to stabilise the region,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said, adding that sporadic gunfire should “not be misconstrued as active conflict”.

The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s government for nearly 30 years before Abiy came to power in 2018 and sidelined it.

The central government accuses the Tigrayan leaders of revolting against central authority and of having attacked federal troops in the town of Dansha. The rebels say Abiy’s government has marginalised and persecuted Tigrayans since taking office.

Thousands of people are thought to have been killed in the fighting, and about one million are now thought to be displaced.

The effect on civilians has been “appalling”, the UN human rights chief said this week.

“We have hundreds of colleagues on the ground and urgently call on all parties to the conflict to protect all civilians in Tigray,” UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu tweeted after the announcement of the death of aid workers.

Supply-laden trucks have waited for weeks at Tigray’s border. Ethiopia’s government says it is responsible for ensuring the security of humanitarian efforts — though the conflict and related ethnic tensions have left many ethnic Tigrayans wary of government forces.

The UN has stressed the need for neutral, unfettered access to the region.

“Food rations for displaced people in Tigray have run out,” the UN humanitarian office tweeted. “We reiterate our urgent call for unconditional and safe humanitarian access to the affected regions.”

This week, Ethiopia’s government said its forces shot at and briefly detained UN staffers conducting their first security assessment in Tigray, a crucial step in delivering aid. Ethiopia said the staffers had broken through checkpoints in an attempt to go where they were not allowed.

Meanwhile, nearly 50,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan as refugees and now live in strained conditions in a remote region with limited resources.

“The recent groups coming from areas deeper inside Tigray are arriving weak and exhausted, some reporting they spent two weeks on the run inside Ethiopia as they made their way to the border,” Baloch said. “They have told us harrowing accounts of being stopped by armed groups and robbed of their possessions. Many have spent time hiding in fields and bushes to avoid being spotted.”

Without access in Ethiopia, he said, “we are unable to verify these disturbing reports”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies