Tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees hosted in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region could be without food, with aid and communication blocked.

Refugees from Eritrea living in the region have been caught in the middle of conflict since early November, when violence escalated between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray forces.

Nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees live in settlements in Tigray, as well as another 100,000 people internally displaced in the area.

Inside the region, UNHCR is ready to resume humanitarian support as soon as the situation allows, following an agreement to restore access signed last week by the UN and the Ethiopian Government.

The agreement will allow aid to reach the region amid reports of food, medicines and other supplies running out. UNHCR is discussing logistical arrangements, and the need to assess the security situation with the Ethiopian Government’s refugee agency.

Water, food, clothes, mattresses, sleeping mats and blankets have already been distributed to around 5,000 internally displaced people in Tigray’s Shire town.

However, UNHCR does not yet have access to the Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray, where there are unconfirmed reports of attacks, abductions and recruitments in and around the refugee settlements.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who was on the ground at the Hamdayet border point in Kassala State where Ethiopian refugees have been fleeing to seek safety, said he is worried about the developing situation for the Eritrean refugees hosted in northern Ethiopia.

“Ethiopia is a very hospitable country for refugees, but now they [Eritrean refugees] are caught in this conflict and we do not have access to them,” the High Commissioner said.

 

Clashes between the Ethiopian army and forces from Tigray region are driving thousands of people to flee – more than half of them children. © UNHCR/H. Elhag

UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi and Regional Bureau Director Clementine Nkweta-Salami met with a refugee family from Ethiopia at the Um Rakuba camp in Al Qadarif state, Sudan. © UNHCR/W.Swanson

“I have asked many of them – what is your wish? Most of them, if not all of them want to go back, but only if peace prevails and their security is ensured.”

Since the fighting began in Tigray, more than 49,300 people have crossed the border into neighbouring Sudan. Ethiopian refugees continue to arrive in the hundreds per day, while a small number of Eritrean refugees have also arrived in recent days.

“Refugees are fleeing from conflict, they are afraid of violence, they are afraid also to an extent of intercommunal violence, and I have asked many of them – what is your wish? Most of them, if not all of them want to go back, but only if peace prevails and their security is ensured,” he said.

For many, the crisis has added to an already difficult year compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Geography teacher Berhane, 31, fled his home in the Tigrayan town of Humera last week and sought safety across the border in Sudan with his daughter.

“This year is a very stressful year because the coronavirus has its own impact on our daily life, on our economy, and on our mental health and then this war also broke out,” Berhane said.

“So those things mixed together makes us more stressed.”

Berhane’s wife, also a teacher, had lost her job when schools closed due to COVID-19 and was away visiting family when fighting broke out. The family lost touch with her and were very worried. They are hopeful that they will be reunited.

See also: Thousands forced to flee as violence erupts in Ethiopia

 

Family tracing services have been established and have already reunited many families.

UNHCR is also running relief flights from Dubai to Nairobi with essential items such as blankets, solar lamps, mosquito nets, plastic sheets, family tents and prefabricated warehouses.

To help with the influx of refugees at the Hamdayet border point in Kassala State, UNHCR has transferred 11,000 refugees to Um Rakuba, a new refugee site roughly 70 km from the border.

With more refugee arrivals expected, UNHCR is urgently working with governments and partners to put in place measures to respond to the influx of people as the situation evolves.

But we need your support. 

Please donate today to help the thousands of children, women and men who have been forced to flee because of escalating violence in Ethiopia.

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A UNHCR staff member activates a water pump for Ethiopian refugees to fill jerrycans at a transit site in Hamdayet, Sudan. © UNHCR/O. Jobard

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