In a development that the UN called “disruptive”, Ethiopia said on Friday that it was returning thousands of refugees who fled camps in the Tigray region when war swept through and put them on buses back to the border with Eritrea, the country the refugees originally fled from.
The news came when the United States said it believed Eritrean troops were active in Ethiopia, a “serious development.” A State Department spokesman in an email quoted credible reports as saying “we urge that such troops be withdrawn immediately.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said that “over the past month we have received an overwhelming number of alarming reports that Eritrean refugees in Tigray were killed, abducted and forcibly returned to Eritrea. If confirmed, these documents would constitute a major breach of international law. He said his agency had met some refugees in the capital, Addis Ababa, and reiterated its call for unrestricted humanitarian access to Tigray.
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Ethiopia said its recent military offensive against the now volatile Tigray regional government “was not a direct threat” to the 96,000 “misinformed” Eritrean refugees – even as aid groups said four workers had been killed in the fighting, at least one in a refugee camp. .
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said this week that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, “guaranteed me that (Eritrean forces) have not entered Tigray’s territory.” But Tigray residents have claimed that the shooting came from Eritrea when the conflict began.
Described by rights groups as one of the world’s most oppressive countries, Eritrea is a bitter enemy of the fleeting Tigray government.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it had not been informed in advance of the return of Eritrean refugees. “We received alarming messages from Eritreans living abroad and when we looked at them, we found that several hundred refugees had been put on buses this morning to be returned to the Tigray region,” it said.
Any forced return, it said, “would be absolutely unacceptable.”
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Given the trauma that refugees say they have witnessed in Tigray, they should be protected elsewhere, the agency said. It is said that the refugee camps have not had access to food or other necessities for more than a month.
The International Organization for Migration said it was “extremely concerned” about the “forced” return of refugees and denied involvement, saying that Ethiopia took over one of its transit centers in the capital Addis Ababa on December 3.
Aid groups say thousands of Eritrean refugees have fled to Addis Ababa and the capital, Tigray, Mekele. Ethiopia said their “unregulated movement” makes it difficult to ensure their security.
Their camps are now stable and under “full control,” Ethiopia said, adding that food delivery there is “ongoing.”
But communications and transportation links to Tigray are still so challenging that the International Rescue Committee said they were still trying to confirm details of the killing of a colleague at Hitsat’s refugee camp in Shire town, the base for aid operations.
Separately, the Danish Refugee Council said that three employees who worked as guards at a project site were killed last month. It was not clear where, but the group also supports the Eritrean refugees.
“Unfortunately, due to the lack of communication and ongoing insecurity in the region, it has not yet been possible to reach their families,” the group said.
“Now, more than ever, it is a matter of ceasing all hostilities,” said EU Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarcic, condemning the killings.
Tigray remains largely out of the world five weeks after clashes broke out between the Ethiopian government and Tigray after a month-long power struggle. Governments regard each other as illegal, the result of months of friction since Abiy took office in 2018 and renounced the once dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the fighting, which began on November 4 and has threatened to destabilize the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia rejects “interference” as fighting continues, while the UN has appealed for neutral, unrestricted access. “The food zones for displaced people in Tigray have run out,” the UN humanitarian office tweeted.
Ethiopia says it is responsible for ensuring the security of aid efforts – although the conflict and related ethnic tensions have led many Tigrayans to be wary of government forces.
On Friday, Ethiopia said it had begun delivering aid to areas in Tigray under its control, including Shire and Mekele, a city of half a million people.
“Suggestions that humanitarian aid is hampered by active military action in several cities and surrounding areas of the Tigray region are untrue and undermine the critical work of the National Defense Forces to stabilize the region,” the Prime Minister’s Office said, noting “sporadic shootings” left ”.
About 6 million people live in Tigray. About 1 million are now believed to be displaced. The impact on civilians has been “frightening”, the UN human rights chief said this week.
This week, Ethiopia said its forces fired on and briefly detained UN staff conducting its first security assessment in Tigray, a crucial step in delivering aid. Ethiopia said they were trying to go where they could not.
Meanwhile, almost 50,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan and more are still arriving.
“Recent groups coming from areas deeper inside Tigray are arriving weak and exhausted, and some report that they spent two weeks fleeing Ethiopia when they crossed the border,” UN refugee spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters. “They have told us disturbing stories that they have been stopped by armed groups and robbed of their belongings.”
Without access to Ethiopia, he said: “We can not verify these disturbing reports.”