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The surging humanitarian toll

The surging humanitarian toll

“Africa is a tragedy. It is the most backward of the inhabited continents. It is a continent in which nothing seems to go right,” wrote the late Mesfin Woldemariam (Prof), the acclaimed Ethiopian human rights activist, politician and scholar in his book The Horn of Africa: Conflict and Poverty published in 1999.

Even though the book deals with different matters related to the multifaceted challenges that the continent faces, its major concern is to elucidate the multiple problems in the sub-continent called the Horn of Africa. Hence, the author deals with the acute problems the region has faced including: lack of democratic and human rights, maladministration, security threats, and so on.

His explanation about the tragedy and the human suffering in the continent generally and the Horn specifically is enduring to date. The latest war in Ethiopia is yet another testament to the lingering tragedy and human suffering in the region. It has been more than two weeks since the war broke out in Tigray region following the announcement of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) that the government is taking military measures against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which he accused of attacking the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF). 

As the war intensifies, the suffering of civilians attains new heights with people living in the war zone forced to flee their homes. Reports by different humanitarian organizations indicate that the current influx of Ethiopian refugees to Sudan has not been witnessed at least in the past couple of decades. With more Ethiopian refugees expected, humanitarian organizations have repeatedly expressed their grave concern and called for the de-escalation of the war.

Apart from the large influx of refugees to neighboring Sudan, there are also reports of the massacre of civilians. Accordingly, Amnesty International confirmed the killing of numerous civilians; its report states: “Amnesty International can today confirm that scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra (May Cadera) town in the South West Zone of Ethiopia’s Tigray region of the night of 9 November.”

Amid all the international calls for de-escalation and addressing the difference between the federal government and the Tigray regional government through peaceful means, the PM, last Friday, gave Special Forces and militias loyal to TPLF an ultimatum to surrender to the ENDF. Earlier this week, the PM posted on his facebook page that the deadline for TPLF forces to lay down arms has expired and expressed his government’s readiness to conduct the final offensive.

Meanwhile, humanitarian partners are increasingly concerned about rising threats to civilian protection as the conflict intensifies and enters “the final and crucial” phase of the military operation.

In its latest statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned that a full-scale humanitarian crisis is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in Eastern Sudan – an influx unseen over the last two decades in this part of the country.

“Women, men and children have been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since 10 November, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground,” the UN agency underscored. “More than 30,000 have now crossed into Sudan through the Hamdayet border in Kassala State, the Lugdi in Gedaref State and a new location further South at Aderafi border where Ethiopian refugees started crossing over the weekend. Refugees fleeing the fighting continue to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings,” the UN Agency reported.

UNHCR, with its partners, is supporting the Sudanese government in its response, ramping up humanitarian assistance at the borders as the needs continue to grow. At Village 8, the transit center near the Lugdi crossing, refugees are able to access clean water in nearby communities and use 1,200 existing temporary shelters. Humanitarian agencies continue to distribute relief items including blankets and sleeping mats. The World Food Program is providing food and high protein biscuits.

Similarly, Sudan’s Ministry of Health with support from the Sudan Red Crescent have set up two clinics and are conducting health and nutrition screenings and medical consultations and referrals. Since last Saturday, UNHCR has so far relocated 2,500 refugees from the border to Um Raquba settlement site as renovation works continue. There is a critical need to identify more sites so that refugees can be relocated away from the border and access assistance and services.

A situation report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) on November 17, 2020 about the humanitarian situation in Tigray region revealed that the number of Ethiopians crossing the border to Sudan is increasing day by day.  

The situation report further stated that the displaced population is mainly crossing through three border entry points at a daily average arrival rate of 4000, including in Hamdayet (over 15,700 people), Lugdi (over 9,500 people) and Abderafi (at least 98 people).

More than 30,000 Ethiopian asylum seekers have fled into Sudan since 10 November, surpassing the UNHCR earlier projection of 20,000 asylum seekers expected to cross to Sudan in one month, which in turn is rapidly overwhelming the response capacity on the ground. The rapidly intensifying situation on the ground initiated a decision by the UNHCR to declare a “Level 2” emergency.

According to UN policy documents, the levels of emergency are systematically categorized into three major levels where emergency “Level 1” is called “proactive preparedness” level. This level is activated when a country operation must prepare actively for a likely humanitarian emergency but faces such significant gaps in resources.


Emergency “Level 2” is called “stepped-up Bureau support” level. This level is activated when an operation requires additional support and resources, mainly from the relevant regional bureau, in order to respond in a timely and effective manner. The plight of Ethiopians fleeing the war has triggered a UNHCR “Level 2” emergency in Sudan. The European Commission’s initial mobilization of a 4 million Euro emergency assistance to help support the displaced people arriving in Sudan would come in handy, considering the level of emergency includes raising additional support and resources.


Emergency “Level 3” is called whole-of-UNHCR response. This level is activated in exceptionally serious situations where the scale, pace, complexity or consequences of the crisis exceed the existing response capacities.

Despite repeated calls by international humanitarian organizations for the parties in the ongoing war in Ethiopia to pay humanitarian problems the due attention they deserve, the situation has worsened. War induced realities in Tigray regional state, such as frequent power outages, suspension of telecommunications services, lack of access to fuel and cash continue to severely hamper humanitarian response. After nearly two weeks of conflict, reports of larger numbers of internally displaced people grow daily, while the absence of a humanitarian corridor to reach those in need and provide them with assistance remains a major impediment to humanitarian endeavors.

Even before the current hostilities in the Tigray region and its neighboring areas, data from UNOCHA show that nearly 1 million people in the region, and millions more living close to its regional and national boundaries, needed humanitarian assistance.

The conflict is also a major ongoing concern for the Eritrean refugee population of nearly 100,000 in Tigray, who are reliant on assistance from UNHCR and partners. Further displacement of refugees inside the country has increasingly become a real possibility.

Despite repeated calls from the international community for the de-escalation of the conflict and resumption of negotiation between the two parties, the Ethiopian government has kept a firm stand against such calls. The government announced “the measure is to restore law and order in the country; hence, negotiation is futile without bringing those perpetrators to the court of justice.”

The government has, however, stated that it is prepared to repatriate citizens who fled to Sudan. In this regard, PM Abiy on Tuesday twitted “the Ethiopian government is ready to receive and reintegrate our fellow Ethiopians fleeing to neighboring counties. We vow to our innocent civilians that have fled to protect their property, enable humanitarian support by the ENDF and guarantee their peace upon return.”

Similarly, Spokesperson of the State of Emergency Command Post, Redwan Hussien also confirmed at a press conference on Thursday, November 19, 2020 that the government is working to repatriate Ethiopian citizens that have fled their homes in fear of the war in Tigray. He further revealed that the government, in collaboration with local and international humanitarian organizations, would provide humanitarian assistance to returnees. “There is an ongoing construction to accommodate willing returnees from Sudan and returnees will reside in the area called Dansha,” Redwan highlighted.

In a move that would further garner more attention to the humanitarian situation in the war zone, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission called for the establishment of a humanitarian body under the ENDF. Aaron Maasho, Senior Advisor and Spokesperson of the Commission, told The Reporter: "humanitarian assistance and access to basic services must be ensured to protect the human rights and security of civilians. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission calls on authorities to set up a humanitarian assistance desk at the level of ENDF and the federal government to facilitate swift deliveries in this regard.”

Although such measures help alleviate the humanitarian problems unfolding in the Tigray region, the immediate secession of hostilities or expedited completion of the war would ensure the end of the ongoing agony in the region and the repatriation of refugees who have fled the war.