As many as 20,000 refugees are missing after two camps in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region were destroyed, the United Nations said.
The refugees, most of whom are from neighbouring Eritrea, fled from the Hitsats and Shimelba shelters that were destroyed in fighting that erupted in Tigray in November.
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In January, satellite images showed the destruction of the two refugee camps sheltering thousands of Eritreans in the region.
About 3,000 people made it to another camp in Mai-Aini, which the United Nations has access to, according to Filippo Grandi, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
Many refugees “were caught in crossfire, abducted and forced to return to Eritrea under duress by Eritrean forces”, Grandi said, citing testimony presented to him at a visit to the camp while on a four-day trip for meetings with officials in Ethiopia.
Hundreds of thousands displaced
Ethiopian federal troops entered Tigray in response to an alleged attack on November 4 and toppled a dissident ruling party that set itself in opposition to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since he came to power in April 2018.
Though the government announced victory on November 28, the region’s leader has vowed to continue with the conflict.
Since fighting began, thousands of people have died and hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes. There are shortages of food, water and medicine across the region of more than five million people.
Grandi called on the Ethiopian government to do more to protect civilians in the Tigray region from the consequences of the conflict.
“Whilst it is not in my place to make [a] more political judgement, I have a responsibility to tell the government to help minimise and eliminate the impact on civilians of this situation,” Grandi said.
The situation in Tigray is extremely grave and urgent support is necessary to prevent the situation worsening, Grandi said. “Our main priority is to gain access to deliver aid and protection.”
A Mekelle-based regional caretaker administration has claimed life is returning to normal and Abiy’s government says it is sending aid.
Yet aid workers and some officials in Tigray have warned of a humanitarian disaster marked by widespread starvation.
Reports from all sides are difficult to verify since the government has largely sealed off Tigray from media and foreign aid workers. Telecommunications in many areas are not working.
Relief agencies including the International Committee of the Red Cross have said they are unable to access many areas to deliver humanitarian aid.
Grandi said the humanitarian situation in Tigray was “very grave, very urgent” and that “without further action, it will get worse”, adding the biggest barriers to getting aid to those in need are the security situation and permits from the authorities.
According to the UN report, an estimated 100,000 people are displaced in Tigray and some 60,000 people have taken refuge in Sudan.
Some countries have called for an investigation into reports of looting, sexual violence, and assaults in refugee camps as experts warn the window of opportunity to gather evidence is quickly closing.