Two months after conflict forced humanitarian workers to withdraw from the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), on Tuesday, stressed the need for “swift action” to restore safe access to “save thousands of lives at risk”.
Granted one-time admittance by the Ethiopian authorities to conduct a needs assessment, UNHCR led the first humanitarian mission to Mai Aini and Adi Harush refugee camps since the start of the conflict in November and found Eritrean refugees in “desperate need” of supplies and services, agency spokesperson Babar Baloch told journalists at a regular press briefing in Geneva.
“The assessment, which concluded last week, found help is urgently needed for the tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia”, he said.
Cut off from supplies and services for more than two months, Mr. Baloch explained that the refugees had run out of fuel for their water pumps, leaving them to fetch water from a nearby creek for washing, cooking and drinking – “resulting in diarrhea like illnesses”.
While the only assistance they had received since the start of the conflict was a one-time food distribution conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) almost a month ago, he said that “plans are underway for a second distribution”.
Threat from ‘armed gangs’
The UN teams “thankfully” found that in both Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps, buildings and structures remain intact, including refugee homes, schools and clinics, “with little damage observed”, according to the UNHCR spokesperson.
However, refugees told UNHCR staff that while they were not impacted directly by the fighting, they were threatened and harassed by various armed groups.
“The refugees told us they continue to have safety concerns, reporting that armed gangs roam the camps at night stealing and looting”, Mr. Baloch said.
“UNHCR is working with the Government and partners to re-establish a regular presence at the camps and launch a response based on the information collected”, he said, adding that the UN agency has also called on the Government to strengthen security in both camps.
Further north in Tigray, the UN refugee agency has not, since November, been able to access the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps.
As highlighted in High Commissioner Filippo Grandi’s statement last week, UNHCR continues to receive a number of reports of significant damage to those camps and indications that many refugees have fled in search of safety and food.
“We remain deeply concerned about them”, said Mr. Baloch.
Meanwhile, some 5,000 Eritrean refugees have made their way to the town of Shire where they are living in “dire conditions”, said Mr. Baloch, painting a picture of many sleeping in an open field on the outskirts of the town, ‘with no water and no food”.
“UNHCR reiterates the UN wide call for full and unimpeded access to all refugees in the Tigray region and remains committed to work with the Ethiopian government to seek solutions together”, he stated.
The conflict between the Ethiopian Government and regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began in early November, when the Prime Minister ordered a military offensive after rebels attacked a federal army base.
Government forces reported that the region had been secured at the end of November, but TPLF resistance has continued amid accusations of extrajudicial killings and rights abuses.