The Crisis Below the Headlines: Conflict Displacement in Ethiopia


Mark Yarnell

Since April 2018, the ascension of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister of Ethiopia has ushered in a wave of national optimism. The new prime minister has moved quickly to open political space, promote human rights, and negotiate peace with neighboring Eritrea. However, behind the positive headlines—and indeed positive measures that merit international support—a major humanitarian crisis has unfolded in the south of the country. Over the past year, intercommunal violence has displaced hundreds of thousands Ethiopians. At the outset of the crisis, Prime Minister Abiy’s administration took laudable action in collaborating openly with United Nations agencies and other humanitarian organizations to mobilize and coordinate a response to the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Unfortunately, however, it has more recently taken steps that have compounded IDPs’ suffering by pressing for their return home before conditions were suitable.

As political ground shifted at the federal level, long-standing grievances between ethnic groups over land, borders, and rights re-emerged in an explosion of violence in southern Ethiopia. Significant displacement occurred between April and June along the internal border of Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR).

In September, a team from Refugees International (RI) traveled to southern Oromia and SNNPR to assess the situation of the displaced and the response. The team found that while the government made a proactive effort to partner with international humanitarian organizations early on, this positive trend was soon upended. In late August, the government began to restrict the delivery of assistance, telling IDPs that they would only receive help if they returned home. However, because many return areas were destroyed in the violence and remained insecure, a number of IDPs who tried to return home now find themselves living in secondary displacement sites.

The government must take four key steps to address the crisis. First, it must refrain from carrying out additional premature, non-voluntary returns and allow aid organizations to provide assistance in both areas of displacement and areas of return. Second, it must establish a clear and transparent plan for voluntary and sustainable returns. Third, the government should implement this return plan in close coordination with relief organizations. And fourth, it must inform IDPs who have already been returned that they can live where they feel safest and that aid provision will be need-based. Donors and humanitarians must advocate for these changes while working with the government to support an overall improvement in its response to conflict IDPs.

Resolving ethnic disputes will be a long-term endeavor for the new government. Displacement due to intercommunal violence is therefore likely to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. Indeed, over the last few months, tensions on the outskirts of Addis Ababa caused thousands to flee while another 70,000 people were forced from their homes in the western state of Benishangul-Gumuz. The government’s push for premature returns in the south should not become the precedent for responding to ongoing and future displacement crises.



Refrain from carrying out premature, non-voluntary returns of internally displaced persons and allow aid organizations to provide humanitarian aid in IDP sites. The government must allow aid organizations to provide assistance in both areas of displacement and areas of return. This will ensure that IDPs who genuinely decide to return voluntarily will receive the support they still need while those who are unable to return will not feel compelled to do so.

Establish a clear and transparent plan for voluntary returns. This should include surveying the perspectives of IDPs on their intentions to return and facilitating more systematic ‘go-and-see’ visits so that IDPs can assess the conditions in areas of return. It must also include options for local integration or resettlement alternatives for those who feel they may never be able to return home.

Implement the return plan in close coordination with relief organizations. Aid and development agencies must be informed of potential population movements so that they can be in place to support people who choose to return.

Prioritize freedom of movement for all IDPs. Inform IDPs who have already been “returned” but are now living in secondary displacement sites that they can live where they feel safest. The government must commit to targeting assistance based on need.

Ratify the Kampala Convention. While the government has signed the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the Kampala Convention), it has not ratified the agreement. Prime Minister Abiy should therefore direct parliament to draft legislation that endorses ratification of the Convention as an affirmation of the rights of IDPs.

Increase internal capacity for responding to conflict IDPs. The government should establish a separate unit of the National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC) – which was created to address climate and natural disasters primarily – to specialize in assisting and protecting IDPs driven by conflict.


Promptly deploy a resident coordinator/humanitarian coordinator (RC/HC) with a strong humanitarian background to Ethiopia. The Humanitarian Country Team has been without a permanent RC/HC for several months. This critical position must be filled as soon as possible with an individual who has the skillset to respond to conflict displacement crises. Develop common guidelines with the government for ensuring that returns are voluntary. To this end, the Humanitarian Country Team must continue to promote guidance for organizations on providing life-saving assistance without contributing to policies and actions that may induce premature returns.


Provide more humanitarian funding for those most in need. Ethiopia’s humanitarian and disaster resilience plan has a gap of around $400 million for what is needed between now and the end of the year.

Continue to press the Ethiopian government to refrain from carrying out non-voluntary, premature returns and to maintain humanitarian access in areas of displacement. Convey to the country’s leadership that humanitarian aid cannot be used to promote returns to unsafe and unsustainable situations.

Provide financial support for Prime Minister Abiy to create a unit within the NDRMC that specializes in coordinating responses to conflict displacement. The U.S. government, specifically, should expand its existing support to the NDRMC to help establish this critical capacity.