Humanitarian agencies have reiterated urgent calls for immediate access to Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, warning of an “increasingly critical” situation more than a week after the United Nations announced a deal with the Ethiopian government to allow in desperately needed food and other aid.
Following months of rising tensions, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on November 4 ordered a ground and air offensive into the northern region in response to alleged attacks by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces on federal military camps there.
Since then, aid-laden lorries have waited at the borders of Tigray, a region of six million people, even as warnings have become increasingly dire about the lack of food, fuel, clean water, cash and other necessities.
Abiy declared victory in Tigray on November 28 after the army seized the regional capital, Mekelle. On Monday, however, he said efforts were continuing to restore order, amid continued fighting and lawlessness that is hampering relief efforts.
“Regaining access to refugees and others in need is urgent and critical,” the head of the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, tweeted on Tuesday.
In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters it was “very hard” to establish what is happening inside Tigray, where communications have been shut and access restricted since the start of the fighting.
Some 96,000 Eritrean refugees, many of whom have fled neighbouring Eritrea’s authoritarian government, were living in four camps in Tigray. Eritreans often leave to escape mandatory, indefinite military service and repression, or search for better opportunities out of what has long been one of the world’s most isolated countries.
The UNHCR has had no humanitarian access to the camps since the start of the unrest and it is thought that stocks delivered beforehand would now have run out.
Speaking to Al Jazeera last week, Baloch had said there “worrying reports of attacks, of abductions and also of recruitments in and around these refugee camps”. On Tuesday, he said there were reports that some of those Eritrean refugees may now be on the move inside Tigray.
“Our hope is that once we get the direly needed access to the region, we will be able to assess people and see what has happened,” he said. “This is an issue of great worry for us.”
An Eritrean who lives in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, told Al Jazeera last month the camps were in “big trouble”.
Even before the conflict, people there were complaining about poor services, and a lack of food or electricity, which led many refugees in Tigray to move to cities to try and find work.
AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES