Demanding protection for Eritrean refugees who are coming under increasing attacks by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the civil war-torn northern Ethiopian state of Tigray, hundreds protested outside the office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in capital Addis Ababa on Thursday, July 29.
Most of the protesters were from among the 30,000 Eritrean refugees who were re-displaced from the camps of Hitsats and Shimbella in Tigray at the end of January 2021, after pro-TPLF militias attacked these camps and killed many.
The protesters are demanding the safe relocation of the estimated 24,000 other Eritrean refugees currently at risk in Tigray’s two remaining camps, Mai Anini and Adi Harush, located in Mai Tsebri town which fell under the TPLF’s control in mid-July.
“Following the TPLF’s control of the refugee-hosting areas, so far, at least six refugees have been reported to have been killed by the militants,” according to a statement by the Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) of Ethiopia last week.
“In violation of international humanitarian law, the rebels deployed heavy artillery in the refugee camps, and there appears continuous militant activity and sporadic shootings,” the statement added. “All efforts by the refugees to move out of the conflict zone have been prevented by the TPLF.”
ARRA – which is working on establishing a new camp in North Gondar Zone of Dabat district in the neighboring state of Amhara – added that “all efforts by the refugees to move out of the conflict zone have been prevented by the TPLF”. The agency called on international support “to avert the hostage situation.”
Looting of these camps, rape of women and abduction of children have been reported by the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA). TPLF’s atrocities are now also being recognized by the US, which had so far been selective in raising humanitarian concerns at the UN.
While holding the Ethiopian troops accountable for the war’s human toll and pushing for sanctions on the federal government, the US had largely remained quiet about multiple massacres and recruitment of child soldiers by the TPLF. The federal government unilaterally declared a ceasefire and withdrew its troops from Tigray on June 28.
However, on July 27, the US State Department spokesperson, Jalina Porter, told a press conference, “We are deeply concerned about credible reports of attacks by military forces affiliated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Tigrayan militias against Eritrean refugees in the Tigray region.”
Why are Eritrean refugees under attack?
Prior to the conflict, close to 100,000 Eritrean refugees had been registered in Tigray. They had not always invoked such hostility from the TPLF, which had ruled Ethiopia for three decades until 2018 when pro-democracy protests led to its marginalization and the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as a reformist PM.
However, the 2018 peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea changed the equation. Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the deal but the TPLF fiercely opposed it.
When the civil war broke out in November 2020 after the TPLF attacked a federal army base in Tigray’s capital Mekelle, Eritrea – concerned about the danger posed to this peace treaty by the rebellion in the border state – moved its troops into Tigray to assist the Ethiopian army which was ordered in by Ahmed.
The TPLF then turned on the Eritrean refugees in this region, attacking Hitsats and Shimbella camps in January. The UNHCR’s spokesperson, Babar Baloch, said on July 27 that the agency’s staff have not had access to the remaining two camps in Tigray, Mai Anini and Adi Harush, since Mai Tsebri town fell to the TPLF in mid-July.
“Trapped refugees need urgent life-saving assistance. Clean drinking water is running out, no healthcare services are available and hunger is a real danger. The last food distribution to both camps was done in late June, providing rations for one month,” he said.
Fighting alongside the federal troops against the TPLF, the Amharan militias had taken control of the southern and western regions of Tigray, where these camps are located, at the beginning of the civil war. However, following the withdrawal of federal troops by the end of June after the unilateral ceasefire, the TPLF quickly recaptured most of Tigray, and has since been fighting to wrest control of this region from the Amharan militias.
Thousands of Eritrean refugees in this region had fled the fighting east to the neighboring regional state of Afar, where 55,000 other Eritrean refugees were already located. But war was soon to follow on their heels, as the TPLF entered Afar on June 18, and has taken several towns since. In the fighting over the week that followed, over 20 people were killed, and 54,000 people were estimated to have been displaced in Afar.
Ibrahim Humede, Afar’s head of the peace and security bureau, told a press conference last week that the TPLF is “pushing very hard to control the Djibouti corridor which is the only sea outlet for the country. By doing so, they want to hold the government hostage and (force it to) accept the preconditions they set for negotiation.”
However, the likelihood of this strategy succeeding is quite low. The Ethiopian National Army, which is fighting the TPLF in Afar, is among the strongest armies in Africa. Further, in addition to Amhara and Afar, three other regional States, including the largest and the most populous Oromiya, have committed their militias to support the army in its campaign against the TPLF.
Moreover, the ban on free press and on political parties operating outside of the ruling coalition led by the TPLF until 2018 was lifted only after the pro-democracy protests ousted its rule and made way for the subsequent reforms by Abiy Ahmed. This has left TPLF with little political support beyond the ethnic Tigrayans, who make up only 6% of the population, mostly concentrated in Tigray.
Aid supply cut-off as famine expands in Tigray
TPLF’s attack on Afar has also adversely affected the Tigrayans by cutting off their aid supply route at a time when the WHO estimates that 3.8 million people are in need of medical assistance, 2.3 million of whom it had planned to reach out to in coordination with the Ethiopian government by the year end. Only 87,000 people in this State had been able to access the medical care they needed by the beginning of May.
“What we are most concerned with is the fact that it is the season for cholera and cholera is a problem in the region,” WHO’s spokesperson Fadela Chaib said. “Measles, malaria, providing health care for people who are injured from the current conflict, and also people who need help. For example, pregnant women, lactating women, children with vaccination. All are very urgent needs.”
Due to the severe food shortage as a result of a missed harvest when the war broke out in November 2020, 5.2 million people – 91% of Tigray’s population – are in immediate need of food aid. The re-escalation of the conflict may prevent farmers from planting seeds in time to prevent a full-blown famine
By the beginning of July, food security of 400,000 people in this state had already sunk below the famine threshold. An additional 1.8 million people were “on the brink of starvation,” Rami Rajashingham, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, had said at the first UN Security Council meeting on Tigray on July 2. “The lives of many people among them depend on our ability to reach them with food, with medicine… now. Not next week.”
A UN World Food Programme (WFP) convoy of nine trucks carrying food and other aid to Tigray’s Mekelle from Semera town in Afar was attacked on July 18, when the TPLF carried its offensive into the neighboring state. Since then, aid trucks of UN agencies and other organizations have halted at Semera, and will not be proceeding till the route to Mekelle is secure.
In a subsequent meeting with WFP Representative & Country Director, Mary Njoroge, Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Djibouti, Berhanu Tsegaye, condemned the TPLF, which he accused of starving the Tigrayans by fighting along the supply routes.
The WFP acknowledged the Ethiopian government’s efforts to reach Tigray with aid, and agreed to work closely with it, in coordination with relevant authorities in Djibouti to scale up the transportation of cargo carrying aid from the latter’s port to Ethiopia.
In the meantime, on July 29, Ethiopia’s foreign minister urged the international community to force the TPLF to cease its attacks and permit the safe passage of aid trucks.