Sudan struggles to cope with refugees of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

As many as 43,000 refugees crossed over from Tigray into Sudan during the two-and-a half week-long military conflict between November 4-28. They are mainly in the El Gedaref and Kassala States

December 02, 2020 by Peoples Dispatch
Ethiopian refugees in Sudan
Ethiopian refugees from Tigray cross Tekeze river into Sudan. (Photo: Radio Dabanga)

In a meeting with Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok on November 28, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, committed the UNHCR’s support to Sudan in coping with the refugee influx from the war-torn Tigray region in the north-end of Ethiopia.

The Sudanese State of El Gedaref, which shares a border with Tigray, and the State of Kassala to its north are hosting most of the estimated 43,000 refugees who have crossed over from Tigray during the two and a half week-long military conflict between November 4-28. 

The conflict started on November 4, when the Tigrayan State government’s troops attacked one of the largest military commands of the federal army in the region’s capital city, Mekele. On November 28, the federal government’s forces declared a victory against the state government of the region led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), after capturing Mekele.

Analysts, however, warn that the conflict might not yet have concluded, as the TPLF’s forces have withdrawn from the city, and are well-positioned to engage in a guerilla war.

Sudan’s undersecretary of the ministry of labor and social development, Mohamed El Shabek, paid a visit to the Um Rakouba camp in El Gedaref close to the Ethiopian border on November 27. He told reporters about the very poor conditions in the camp.

Under severe economic distress, Sudan, which is already hosting a large number of refugees from neighboring countries in addition to those internally displaced due to decades-long conflict within the county, is pressed for resources to cater to the fresh refugee influx from its eastern neighbor. The response from the UN and other international agencies has been lax, Shabek said.

Radio Dabanga reported that 181 women among the Ethiopian refugees are breast-feeding their infants, as per Wisal Hussein, secretary general of the National Population Council. There are not sufficient delivery rooms to cater to pregnant women, Amira El Gaddal, director of the El Gedaref ministry of health and social development, had warned on November 24.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “around 2 per cent of women among the refugees of reproductive age [around 7,500] are expected to experience sexual violence.” 

The organization estimates that “more than 700 are likely to be pregnant, and there may be around 150 survivors of gender-based violence in need of assistance.” According to a UN statement on November 23, the “nearest referral health facility able to provide post-rape treatment or emergency obstetric care is about 40 minutes from Um Raquba.”

“The situation for these women and girls is extremely difficult, and there is widespread trauma. We are working urgently with our partners to provide life-saving sexual and reproductive health services and psychosocial support, and to protect women and girls from harm,” said Natalia Kanem, executive director of the UNFPA. 

She added that 17,000 of the 39,000 who had crossed over from Tigray to Sudan up till then were children.  

Apart from suspected COVID-19 cases, several refugees are inflicted with HIV, hepatitis, and tuberculosis, besides other health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Calling for greater international assistance, Gaddal stressed on the need to upgrade healthcare facilities in order to be able to cater to the refugees. Health facilities in Gedaref are already stretched due to the high prevalence of malaria among the residents of the region.  

On November 24, the National Commission for Ethiopian Refugees, set up under the leadership of Abdallah Suleiman, held its first meeting to formulate a plan to deal with the crisis.