Ethiopia + 1 more

Ethiopia: Border war and ethnic clashes leave over 150,000 internally displaced

This summary outlines the main findings of the newly updated country profile on internal displacement in Ethiopia. The profile was prepared by the Global IDP Project of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which monitors and analyses internal displacement in some 50 countries worldwide. The full country profile is available from the Project's Database (, or upon request by e-mail (
Executive summary

There is no available official number of people internally displaced by conflict in Ethiopia. This is mainly due to the fact that information on internal displacement provided by the federal government on the one hand and the local authorities on the other is contradictory. However, out of such confusion, estimates suggest that there might be between 151,000 and 168,000 people internally displaced by conflict in Ethiopia. This figure includes 62,000 people displaced in Tigray region by the 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, some 50,000 people uprooted by ethnic clashes in Gambella, as well as tens of thousands of people forced to leave their homes by inter-ethnic conflicts in the Bordode/Miesso areas of the Somali region and along the border between the Somali and Oromiya regions. At the root of the ethnic tensions leading to displacement in Ethiopia are the scarcity of resources and the government's policy of dividing the country's regions along ethnic lines without ensuring adequate minority protection. Attempts by the governments to resolve resulting disputes between ethnic groups over land and local power, such as the October 2004 referendum in the border areas of the Somali and Oromiya regions, only served to exacerbate tensions between communities. There is concern that many more people may be forced to abandon their homes in the future because of unresolved conflicts.

The humanitarian situation of IDPs is deteriorating as critical nutritional situations have been reported in displacement areas in the Somali region and among the displaced in Gambella region. Mortality and malnutrition rates among the children are at emergency levels. Many of those residing in IDP camps in the Somali region have received no assistance during the past months. The newly displaced are also in deplorable living conditions. Other areas in the Somali region have been hit by devastating floods which caused death and additional displacement. As of May 2005 most of the displaced were unable to return to their areas of origin due to ethnic tensions, floods, the presence of landmines, lack of resources and an inability to reconstruct their livelihoods in areas of return. Some of the main challenges for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the displaced are for the government to recognise them officially as internally displaced people (IDPs) and to draw up policy guidelines with the aim of addressing their needs.

Background and main causes of displacement

The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been the main cause of displacement in Ethiopia since the end of the 1990s. Despite a history of common struggle to overthrow the 1974-1991 dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, tensions between the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea - which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 - rose quickly during the 1990s. Contentious issues left unresolved, such as citizenship, commerce, access to the sea and border-delimitation, all became sources of discord (HRW, 30 June 2003). At this time, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border was that which the Italian colonial administration had established in 1890. However, Ethiopia's annexation of Eritrea in 1962 and the establishment of administrative boundaries had muddied the colonial demarcation. Between May 1998 and June 2000, tensions over a district under Ethiopian administration escalated into an all-out war, with Ethiopia accusing Eritrea of invading its territory. The area of bitterest fighting was Badme, but there were also intense clashes in the Tsorona-Zalambessa and Bure areas. About 100,000 people were killed in the conflict (HRW, 30 January 2003). At its height in May 2000, there were over 360,000 people internally displaced, of whom 90 per cent were in the Tigray Region and about 30,000 in Afar (GoE, 17 November 2000).

Finally a ceasefire in June 2000 halted the war and facilitated the return of many IDPs; they were further encouraged to go home by the signing of the Algiers Peace Agreement in December 2000, the establishment of a demilitarised 25-km-wide Temporary Security Zone along the1,000-km Eritrea-Ethiopia frontier, and the deployment of 5,000 peacekeeping troops under the auspices of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), mandated to monitor the ceasefire. An independent Boundary Commission based in The Hague issued a legally binding ruling on the border demarcation in April 2002. After rejecting significant parts of the ruling, Ethiopia unveiled a controversial peace plan in November 2004. This was immediately rejected by Eritrea, which is demanding Ethiopia's withdrawal from the territory awarded to it by the ruling. Due to lack of progress in the physical demarcation of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, the Boundary Commission is planning to close down its field offices (UN SG reports, 5 March 2004, 7 March 2005).

The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has produced substantial internal displacements of population, as well as the deportation of both Ethiopians and Eritreans. There are still some 62,000 people displaced in the Tigray region living in host communities (OCHA, December 2004, p.17).

In the whole country, consecutive years of drought, floods and scarcity of water and pastureland have forced people to move across traditional boundaries and the culture of sharing scarce resources is being tested to its limits, increasingly triggering conflicts. Since 1988, drought has occurred almost every year and conflicts over resources have been erupting with increasing regularity in Afar and neighbouring areas. Concern is mounting over the eventual long-term impact of poor rains in Afar region. There is a fear that the migration of the pastoral population of the region may exacerbate conflict with neighbouring ethnic groups, like the fighting of 2002 which led to the killing of dozens of people as a result of clashes between rival groups (IRIN, 12 January 2005; Oxfam International, February 2005; USAID, 1 April 2005; IRIN, 8 January 2003).

In other regions, tens of thousands of people have fled repeated ethnic clashes fuelled by tensions over land, political rights and power-sharing. Since the 1990s, the government's policy of dividing regions along ethnic lines has also served to exacerbate tensions as this has put control over regional administrations in the hands of the respective majority groups according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (IRIN, 15 January 2004). The policy does not appear to establish guarantees for the adequate protection of the interests of ethnic minorities. People had become more conscious and sensitive of their ethnicity. In the Gambella region, multiple ethnic conflicts between two main groups, the Anyuak and the Nuer, displaced tens of thousand of people (OCHA Ethiopia, May 2004). At least 15,000 people were forced to flee their homes due to the clashes between December 2003 and early 2004 alone (IRIN, 12 February 2004). Incursions of rebel groups from neighbouring Sudan have also caused some displacements along the border. Occasional incidents of violence causing further displacement are still occurring in the region. The security situation is worsening, as there are reported clashes in the west between different Nuer tribes. As of April 2005 there were still 50,000 people displaced as a result of the December 2003 violence. However, it is unknown how many people were newly displaced due to the latest round of violence because some western areas in the region remain inaccessible (UN CTE, 20 April 2005).

The government's regionalisation policy has also fuelled conflicts in some of the border areas between the Somali and Oromiya regions. In December 2003 in Somali region, fighting between Oromos and Somalis - claiming land ownership and rights - led to the displacement of 19,000 people (some 2,835 families), whereas 70,000 others were displaced by drought (OCHA Ethiopia, May 2004). In October 2004, the referendum held in the area by the government led to additional displacement of minorities from disputed districts. According to official results of the referendum, about 80 per cent of the disputed areas have fallen under Oromiya administration though irregularities in voting were reported in many of them. While confusion persists over the number of the displaced, it is believed that tens of thousands of people have been displaced in both regions. On the Somali side, some indicate that there are between 21,000 and 35,000 people from the Somali communities who were forced to flee their homes as a result of increased harassment and subjugation from the Oromo side in the post-referendum period rather than by direct confrontations. Some 10,000-15,000 of them are said to be sheltering in four camps in the Afder zone in the Somali region. Tensions are looming in areas that have not yet been transferred to Oromo administration. There are fears that more people might be forced to flee their houses given that the referendum strained relations and caused friction and uneasiness also in areas where no referendum was conducted (DPPB, email, 7 April 2005).

Confusion remains over the number of people displaced on the Oromiya side. However, a joint mission carried out in January to assess the situation in and around Doba Woreda identified some 16,600 IDPs in need of emergency food assistance. This number did not include the 2,100 displaced people who moved to a temporary camp in Miesso in late 2004, and those who were reported in Goro Woreda. Local authorities suggested that 21,520 people were displaced in the area, but the federal government indicated that the number was overstated by as much as 11,000 (OCHA, 4 February 2005; UN CTE, 20 April 2005).


Estimated no. of IDPs

* The higher number is reported by the local authorities, the lower by the federal government.

** This range includes 18,900 people who were displaced in 2003 added to between 10,000 and 15,000 IDPs living in six camps in southern districts of the Somali region

Sources: UN OCHA, December 2004, p.17; UN CTE, 20 April 2005

Acute humanitarian situation

A good harvest is expected in Ethiopia in 2005 following an increase in food production by 24 per cent in 2004. Despite this improvement, overall country figures indicate very poor living conditions and two-thirds of the population already live below the poverty line. As many as 3.2 million Ethiopians need emergency assistance and more than 5 million people are chronically food insecure and will require assistance throughout the rest of the year 2005 (Fews Net, 21 March 2005).

One of the worst affected areas is the Somali region in the south-eastern part of the country, now hit by the worst flooding for 40 years. The displaced have received no assistance since December 2004 due to the irregular and erratic general ration distribution and lack of other coping mechanisms in the Somali region's camps and districts. Some of those who fled after the referendum arrived in Afder, Liben and Shinile zones, posing a problem for the ongoing relief operation since they were not included in the food relief planning. A critical nutritional situation and shortage of food were reported in six IDPs camps. Concerns have been raised over the growing number of IDPs arriving in Guradamole district where there is no water at all (UN CTE, 20 April 2005; IRIN, 5 May 2005). Other people recently displaced following the referendum are also in deplorable and deteriorating livelihood conditions. Most of them are receiving no assistance (WFP, 1 April 2005, p.5; OCHA, 11 April 2005). The situation of some of them might be further aggravated as other areas in the Somali region have been hit by devastating floods, which caused death and more displacement and destroyed properties. In addition, some displaced with little option to return home in the Somali region have been taken off the assistance beneficiary lists after five years and the government is reluctant to continue to treat them as IDPs (OCHA, 18 April 2005, 3 May 2005).

In Gambella region, the displaced are urgently in need of shelter and health services. Many other displaced are in need of assistance but are living in areas currently inaccessible (UN CTE, 20 April 2005).

Obstacles to return

In the Tigray region in the border area with Eritrea, although many displaced people have returned, limited access to communal grazing areas and farming lands - due to the presence of landmines - and insecurity are still preventing some from starting agricultural activities. Many of the war-displaced people are unlikely to fully reintegrate into their communities and attain self-sufficiency unless the frontier is demarcated, their lands are de-mined, and security and long-term rehabilitation programmes ensured. The main protection concern for IDPs has been the extensive presence of mines and unexploded ordinance in areas close to the border, especially between the front lines, which is hindering the resettlement of the population of both countries. Since the UNMEE arrived in the country, there have been more than 400 casualties from landmine blasts in the Temporary Security Zone, including about 115 deaths. The field teams of the Mine Action Coordination Centre of the UNMEE are carrying out mine Risk Education, assistance and advice to people living in areas suspected to be dangerous (SG Report, 7 March 2005, para.17, 19; IRIN, 28 April 2005).

In other displacement areas, IDPs cannot return home due to fear of violence. In Gambella, the worsening security situation remains the major obstacle to IDP return. Intermittent ethnic clashes between communities and violence carried out by government troops against civilians have been reported. During the attacks between December 2003 and May 2004, the Ethiopian National Defence Force reportedly raided and looted homes, schools and clinics, they slaughtered and stole livestock in the Anuak neighbourhoods in Gambella town and in many other areas of the region. In September 2004, the military burned several houses in each of three Anuak villages in Powatalam Kebele (UN CTE, 20 April 2005; HRW, 24 March 2005, p.39-40; AI, 17 December 2004).

In Oromiya region, there is no information on whether Oromo communities who were forced to flee from the Somali region would like to resettle and reintegrate in their area of displacement. The option to return home seems unrealistic given persisting tensions between communities in the Somali region (UN OCHA-EUE, 21 February 2005).

Controversial resettlement scheme

Although not displaced by war, the 2.2 million people being resettled over a three-year period are a cause of serious concern. A somewhat controversial government Resettlement Scheme has exacerbated household vulnerability and displacement. Under the Scheme hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians from areas where food is often short have been relocated since 2002 to richer agricultural areas. The Resettlement Scheme is the government's response to food insecurity and local populations are expected to contribute to reintegrating those resettled. Past experience of resettlement programmes is fraught with problems. In 2001, 10,000 Amhara people were displaced when conflicts over land escalated between ethnic Oromo and ethnic Amhara, who had been forcibly resettled during the Mengistu dictatorship (USCR, 1 June 2003). NGOs and UN organisations have questioned the voluntary nature of some resettlements and criticised these schemes for being implemented without sufficient preparation. Concerns are raised over food, health, water, shelter, agriculture and the capacity of regional and local authorities to manage the programme. The government hit back at critics of the programme, saying that resettled farmers have been producing surplus harvests. However, several reports indicate that people are being "dumped" on infertile and malaria-infested lands, without shelter materials, access to drinking water, health or school facilities; levels of malnutrition are worrying and many families may face serious shortages of food. Whereas some of the resettlement sites country-wide have been praised, in Oromiya region (where 262,000 people have been resettled) access problems to the sites due to poor roads and high malnutrition rates arising out of crop failure and food shortage have been reported. There are calls for the establishment of a mechanism for monitoring and evaluation in order to streamline the programme (UNICEF, 13 April 2005; OCHA, December 2004, p.20).

National and international response

At the national level, the Federal Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) is the main government institution responsible for the emergency needs of conflict/war IDPs, in collaboration with relevant ministries such as Health, Agriculture and Water Resources. There is, however, no mechanism to coordinate activities dedicated particularly to IDPs. IDP issues are dealt with on an ad hoc basis unless it seems politically expedient to deal with them officially. The early-warning system maintained by the government to allow early response to drought-induced displacement does not cover conflict-induced displacement. The main obstacle to a more systematic and comprehensive national response to IDP needs is the absence of a government institution clearly mandated to coordinate development and reintegration assistance to IDPs (OCHA, 1 July 2004, p.13).

DPPC works in close cooperation with regional governments, local NGOs and IDP committees, UN agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) and international NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide protection and assistance to IDPs in Ethiopia (OCHA, 24 May 2004, p.5). The DPPC, in collaboration with the WFP, have been assisting people internally displaced by the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict in the Tigray region since 1999. The Relief Society of Tigray is the DPPC's main implementing partner in this region, and has been in charge of distributing WFP food aid to IDPs in Tigray. After its emergency operations specifically designed to provide food assistance to 62,000 IDPs in the region ended, the WFP recently launched a new programme focusing on development in emergency. The internally displaced persons are part of their target group.

Following the violence in the Gambella region of December 2003, the UN carried out a first assessment mission in October 2004, which highlighted the humanitarian needs of returnees and IDPs (OCHA, 22 October 2004). The government has announced that six soldiers would face trial for their role in the massacres which took place in the region (IRIN, 18 March 2005).

Sustainable and safe reintegration of IDPs will depend on the progress made in addressing the root causes of conflicts in Gambella and Somali/Oromiya regions, the physical demarcation of the boundary and the rehabilitation of basic public services. Ethnic tensions are likely to continue to cause displacement unless the protection of minority interests is improved at the regional level. The presence of mines and unexploded ordinance, natural disasters, insecurity and ethnic tensions continue to impede the socio-economic development of the country and the return to normal life for tens of thousands in rural communities, including IDPs whose survival mainly depends on agricultural activities.

The full country profile includes all references to the sources and documents used.