By Alex Butler
As the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region continues, the number of internally displaced peoples and refugees increases as people seek safety from the violence. Fighting in the region has been ongoing since November 2020, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray. This military initiative follows months of tension between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government that arose when Prime Minister Ahmed attempted widespread governmental reforms with which the TPLF disagreed.
Tigray then defied the central government and opted to hold its own elections. The central government responded by suspending funding for Tigray and cutting ties with it in October 2020. As reported by the BBC, Tigray’s administration labeled this a declaration of war. When Tigrayian forces were accused of attacking army bases to steal weapons shortly after, Mr. Abiy decided to take military action against Tigray.
Photo by: Lesley Derksen
The fighting has only worsened in recent months, and there is currently no end in sight. Both sides of the conflict remain committed to war until they have achieved their goals. Those on the Tigray side are determined to take back western Tigray and all the territory it lost in the first phase of the war. They also want Addis Ababa to end aid restrictions, which seems unlikely as there is very little dialogue between the two sides. Federal authorities have indicated their intention to double down on their military strategy, including the blockade of aid to Tigray.
Through Addis Ababa, Tigray has been cut off from budget transfers, telecommunications, electricity, banking services, and aid trucks trying to reach the region . As the fighting continues, there is an increased chance that other parties will soon be drawn in. Very recently, the International Crisis Group, ICG, predicts that Sudan is notably at risk of joining the conflict if Tigrayan forces attempt to use its territory to open a supply route for aid and arms. If this happens, the entire region is at risk for destabilization.
The situation in Ethiopia is at risk of worsening. Already, the war has had highly damaging effects on the already COVID-19 stricken economy. The lack of electricity, telecommunications, and access to fuel and cash further worsens the situation and makes it hard for aid to get to the region. Alarmingly, millions of Tigrayans are suffering from food shortages. Many have fled the region in response to these deteriorating conditions. Stated in a UNICEF humanitarian report, many refugees have aimed for Sudan, where thousands remain in makeshift camps. The UNHCR reported that the closest towns are still hours from the border and tend to be in remote areas with minimal infrastructure and small chances of receiving timely aid. The transit centers at border crossing areas have been overcrowded due to the large influx of refugees, increasing the risk of contracting disease, including COVID-19.
Internal displacement also remains a serious problem within Ethiopia. Mass displacement has been a severe consequence of the ongoing conflict. The Tigray offensive in particular has uprooted at least 450,000 people in Afar and Amhara, while nearly two million people have been driven from their homes in Tigray.
As western Tigray has relatively flat terrain, fighting in that area could heighten the risk of civilian deaths. As of July 2021, 3.59 million people have been displaced across the country, of which 1.8 million are living in camps or camp-like settings. These areas have little access to water in addition to poor sanitation and hygiene.
They have received little aid as the government does not have the capacity to respond, and few NGOs are currently operating in the region. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, IDMC, reported that those who remain face many problems such as severe psychological distress, malnutrition, lack of educational settings, negative impacts on housing rights, and health problems.
Both sides of the conflict face pressure to start discussions to ameliorate the situation as the violence worsens. As of September 2021, the United States government imposed sanctions on those responsible for human rights abuses in northern Ethiopia. Those involved in the blockade of aid to the Tigray region are now at risk of being sanctioned. Mr. Abiy responded negatively to these sanctions, accusing the US of double standards and placing unwarranted pressure on Ethiopia’s federal government.
This response indicates that the sanctions are not likely to cause an immediate domestic policy change. In September of 2021, 24 Ethiopian civil organizations called for a cessation of hostilities and talks. Other countries in the region have also voiced their support for negotiations and peace talks. Sudan’s Prime Minister has offered to mediate the conflict, although this remains unlikely due to poor Ethiopian-Sudan relations. As the ICG reports the President of South Sudan has also offered his services in brokering a peace agreement.
Until some kind of dialogue opens up between the two sides, the situation will only produce more internally displaced people and refugees who will continue to suffer until either peace is achieved or aid can reach them once again.