UN pleads with Ethiopia for refugee access as food runs out

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) – The United Nations (UN) on Tuesday pleaded with Ethiopia to allow aid for long-standing refugee camps in the northern Tigray region, where nearly 100,000 people from neighbouring Eritrea are thought to have run out of food.

The appeal came as Tigray’s dissident leaders claimed fresh fighting was taking place elsewhere in the region, potentially undercutting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s claim to have ended the conflict.

It also came as some Tigray residents reported that communications had been partially restored after a lengthy blackout.

Abiy, winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, announced military operations in Tigray on November 4, a move he said was a response to attacks by the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), against federal military camps.

After more than three weeks of fighting that left thousands dead and prompted tens of thousands to flee to neighbouring Sudan, Abiy declared victory last Saturday night – though the TPLF vowed to fight on.

Tigray refugees who fled the conflict in the Ethiopia’s Tigray ride a bus going to the Village 8 temporary shelter, near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan. PHOTO: AP

Since the conflict started, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has had no humanitarian access to four camps in Tigray which have been in place for more than a decade, sheltering some 96,000 Eritrean refugees.

Addressing reporters in Geneva on Tuesday, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said the Eritrean refugees were in “desperate need” of help.

“Concerns are growing by the hour,” Baloch said.

Food stocks on hand for the refugees, many of whom fled Eritrea’s authoritarian government, were not expected to last beyond the start of this week.

“The camps will have now run out of food supplies, making hunger and malnutrition a real danger — a warning we have been issuing since the conflict began,” Baloch said.

“UNHCR appeals to the government of Ethiopia to continue to fulfil its responsibility in hosting and protecting Eritrean refugees and allow humanitarians to access people who are now desperately in need.”

Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs believes there is a “buffer” of food supplies that would last through the week, deputy director-general Eyob Awoke told AFP on Tuesday.

But the agency has not had contact with the camps because of the communications outage and has yet to visit them, Eyob said.

UNHCR’s Baloch also voiced alarm at unconfirmed reports of attacks, abductions and forced recruitment at the camp.

These abuses were allegedly carried out by Eritrean soldiers fighting alongside Ethiopian federal troops. Ethiopia has denied enlisting Eritrean military support in the conflict.

Eyob said his agency did not have “detailed information” about the reported attacks.

Meanwhile in Sudan, nearly 46,000 refugees fleeing the Ethiopian conflict have now been registered, Baloch said, including more than 2,500 last Friday.