UNHCR says staff, Eritrean refugees safe for now but fears remain high
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that the hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees who are currently taking shelter in Tigray region are not in immediate danger from the current fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
However, the agency is concerned that in a swiftly changing situation, if the fighting spreads closer and into areas where refugees are currently housed, this may cause a secondary displacement, alongside major disruptions to vital services.
In its latest situation report, the UNHCR Ethiopian Office indicated on Wednesday that Ethiopia is home to 178,315 Eritrean refugees across the country, equal to 22 percent of the total population of refugees in Ethiopia.
According to the report, 96,223 Eritrean refugees reside in Tigray, sheltered mainly in four refugee camps in the Western part of Tigray Region including Shimelba (population 8,702), Mai-Aini (21,682), Adi-Harush (32,167) and Hitsats (25,248) camps which were established between 2004 and 2013.
“There are also 8,424 refugees residing in Tigray region benefitting from the Government’s Out of Camp Policy, allowing refugees to live in communities rather than only in camps,” the report stated adding, “the remaining Eritrean refugees outside Tigray, 82,092, live predominately in the next-door regions of Afar (approximately 54,000) and in the capital Addis Ababa (approximately 28,000).”
With a Sub-Office in Shire, UNHCR has Field Offices in Embamadre - in proximity to the two camps of Mai-Aini and Adi-Harush - and Mekelle, and satellite offices in Shimelba and Hitsats camps. There is also a UNHCR Registration center at Endabaguna in central Shire.
Despite the escalation near the refugee sites, the UNHCR noted that its staff members are in a safe condition at least as of the day of the report [on Tuesday 10, 2020].
“As of 10 November, all UNHCR and partners’ staff in the region are well and accounted for. Currently, there are 83 UNHCR staff in Tigray, including staff who were on mission in Shire at the time of movement restrictions,” UNHCR Ethiopian office said.
UNHCR, in partnership with the Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), UN agencies and NGO partners, has been extending humanitarian assistance to over 96,000 Eritrean refugees who are mostly sheltered in refugee camps and in the community in Tigray.
The local authorities have given UNHCR permission, as of November 9, 2020, to facilitate staff movement to and from all camps, which will allow for monitoring of the situation and services. Refugees are receiving clean water in all camps.
“However, there is concern that this may be disrupted if power supply goes off completely and shortages of fuel is not addressed as most of the boreholes are connected to the national power grid, with the exception of Shimelba, where solar power is used,” it said, adding health and nutrition services are operational as the staff of ARRA now have full access to the camps.
It further announced that its partner, WFP, has distributed food for two months but needs to transfer food stocks from its warehouse in Adama, Oromia Region, if movement restrictions are lifted.
Citing the recent State of Emergency decree, UNHCR reported that its regular movement and operation had been affected even though its staff members and the residing refugees are safe for now.
It also highlighted enduring challenges, like the disruption in telephone and internet services, making communications impossible. Shortage of fuel and banking services has also been a challenge.
In addition, among the list of challenges are the dwindling supplies of food in the markets for over 8,400 refugees living outside camps, as well as the local population and aid workers.
Besides the communications blackout, flights as well as roads to and from Tigray have been blocked.