As the conflict rages in Ethiopia’s deterred Tigray region, at least 33,000 refugees have crossed the border into neighboring Sudan, a challenge for Sudanese authorities already hosting one million people displaced by other conflicts in the region.
The Ethiopian military on Sunday threatened a “decisive” attack on Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region, as it seeks to overthrow the regional government controlled by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ethiopia warned the city’s half a million civilians to flee while they still could, saying the coming attack would show “no mercy”. A day earlier, Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed rejected an African Union mediation effort because his government said it had taken a major city in northern Tigray.
At least 33,000 Ethiopians have so far fled to Sudan, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). About 45 percent of these people are children under the age of 18, according to UNICEF’s representative for Ethiopia. Sudanese officials said on November 11 that they expect as many as 200,000 Ethiopian refugees to flee the violence.
Khartoum has so far kept its borders open, but it is a challenge to deal with the influx – Sudan is already hosting one million refugees from other conflicts in the surrounding region.
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“Sudan already has one of the highest numbers of refugees on its land in the world,” said Céline Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR.
“But the media’s attention is waning, so it’s becoming increasingly difficult to attract the necessary funds,” she said. “Although it currently hosts a large number of people from South Sudan, Eritrea, the Central African Republic and even Syria, Sudan is covered by our most underfunded programs.”
Civilians have little choice of where to go when fleeing fighting between federal forces and the TPLF. South of Tigray lies the Amhara region, an ally of the Abiy government that has had major ethnic and territorial rivalries with Tigray; in the east you have a very sparsely populated region without agricultural resources. to the north, you have Eritrea, historically Tigray’s main opponent, ”said Gérard Prunier, an expert on the Horn of Africa and a former researcher at the CNRS think tank in Paris.
“The only place to escape is in the west, across the border into Sudan.”
A transit camp was set up in the Sudanese border town of Hamdayet shortly after the Tigray conflict began on November 4. The area is remote; at least six hours drive from the nearest major city. “It is very difficult to get into equipment and infrastructure, especially when it comes to sanitation,” said UN coordinator Babacar Cissé.
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Cissé said the Sudanese authorities do not want to turn the transit camp into a real refugee camp where people can stay longer because they think it is too close to Ethiopia.
In addition, there is a fear that the fighting may spread.
“The Sudanese government is concerned that Amhara militias may be tempted to extend hostilities across their border and export the conflict to Sudan,” Prunier said.
“A race against time”
The trip from Tigray also risks straining resources for the Sudanese people who already live in this arid, poor area.
“Local communities contributed enormously to feeding the refugees before non-governmental organizations such as the World Food Program appeared,” an aid worker told Jowharreporters on the scene. NGOs are also concerned that the lack of infrastructure – especially sanitation – is spreading disease among both locals and refugees.
It is also very difficult to channel the influx of refugees across the border. There are already at least 17,000 people in the Hamdayet transit center, which has a capacity of just 300, according to the UNHCR. “We are in a race against time,” Schmitt said. “Our nearest office to the camp is six hours away; it is a bad road and it sometimes takes two days to take refugees to our reception centers. ”
The UNHCR originally planned for 20,000 refugees to arrive in Sudan but was soon forced to revise its forecasts drastically. “We have an average of 4,000 people arriving every day through the two main crossings,” Schmitt said. “Expectations of a massive influx have intensified because such a large number of people are fleeing Tigray – farmers, teachers, students, office workers, etc.”
More than four million people live in Tigray; about six percent of the Ethiopian population. With a view to continued emigration to Sudan, UN officials said on Friday that about $ 200 million (€ 169 million) would be needed to provide emergency assistance to the refugees.
This article was translated from the original in French.