On 4 November 2020, military confrontations between federal and regional forces in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which borders both Sudan and Eritrea, led the Government to declare a State of Emergency. Since then, and despite the announcement of an official end to military operations at the end of November, Ethiopia’s Tigray region has continued to be affected by armed clashes and insecurity, with a serious impact on access and the provision of humanitarian assistance to refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
Due to the conflict, UNHCR and partners were forced to relocate most of their staff from the Tigray region in November 2020. Only a limited number of critical staff remained in the areas affected by the conflict. With limited access to cash, fuel and food, their operational capacity was severely hindered. This led to a drastic halt in the delivery of services to Eritrean refugees.
While access to Adi-Harush and Mai Aini refugee camps was regained since the beginning of the year, and some 30,000 Eritrean refugees sheltered in both camps have been receiving their monthly food rations since December, UNHCR and partners have still not been able to access Hitsats and Shimelba campssince November. By many accounts, conflict in and around these two camps has led to the flight of most, if not all the refugees, to other locations within Tigray, many of them still inaccessible for humanitarians, as well as to other regions of Ethiopia.
On 23rd January, Ethiopia’s Government officially announced their decision on the closure of Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps and initiated the process of relocating the refugees who had fled those camps to Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps. Most of these refugees had endured a dire lack of basic needs and experienced high levels of trauma. As of 2nd March, 5,810 refugees had relocated and some 1,100 refugees have registered in Shire with ARRA, the Ethiopian Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs, to be relocated. Planning estimates suggest that a total 15,000 refugees may arrive to Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in the next few weeks.
The number of newly internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Tigray, as well as those who have moved to Afar and Amhara regions of Ethiopia, grew steadily since the start of the conflict. OCHA and the Clusters indicate initial estimates for humanitarian planning figures at 521,200 newly internally displaced people, mainly concentrated around in Tigray (493,300), together with 23,680 in Afar and 3,850 in Amhara region. At the same time, to date 61,011 individuals have sought safety in Eastern Sudan from Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is home to 177,996 Eritrean refugees across the country, equal to 22% of the total refugee population in Ethiopia of 801,349. Before the conflict erupted in the Tigray region in November 2020, UNHCR had registered 96,223 Eritrean refugees in the Tigray region, sheltered mainly in four refugee camps in the western part of the region: Mai-Aini (21,682), Adi-Harush (32,167), Shimelba (8,702 refugees) and Hitsats (25,248).
There were also 8,424 refugees residing in the Tigray region benefitting from the Government’s Out of Camp Policy, allowing refugees to live in communities. The remaining Eritrean refugees outside Tigray lived predominately in the Afar region (approximately 51,800) and in the capital Addis Ababa (approximately 30.722).
In Tigray, UNHCR has a Sub-Office in Shire as well as a Field Office in Mekelle, where the Agency is scaling up its presence to meet the current protection and humanitarian needs of refugees and IDPs. Furthermore, UNHCR has recently set up a temporary operational hub in Debark and an operational presence in Mai Tsebri to support the re-establishment of services in Mai Aini and Adi Harush refugee camps and to build up capacity to contribute to efforts to assist IDPs in Tigray and Amhara regions.