In a development the United Nations calls “disturbing,” Ethiopia on Friday said it is returning thousands of refugees who ran from camps in its Tigray region as war swept through, putting them on buses back to the border area with Eritrea, the country the refugees originally fled.
The news came as the United States said it believes Eritrean troops are active in Ethiopia, which it called a “grave development.”
“We are aware of credible reports of Eritrean military involvement in Tigray,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email. “We urge that any such troops be withdrawn immediately.”
Ethiopia's government said its completed military offensive against the now-fugitive Tigray regional government “was not a direct threat” to the 96,000 “misinformed” Eritrean refugees — even as international aid groups said four of their staffers had been killed, at least one in a refugee camp there.
The United Nations refugee chief recently warned that the reported targeting of Eritrean refugees, if confirmed, “would be major violations of international norms." Tigray residents who fled into Sudan have asserted that gunfire came from the direction of Eritrea as the conflict began.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week said Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, had “guaranteed to me that (Eritrean forces) have not entered Tigrayan territory."
Eritrea, described by rights groups as one of the world's most repressive countries, has remained almost silent on the Tigray conflict and is a bitter enemy of the fugitive Tigray government.
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“We received alarming messages from Eritreans living abroad and when we looked into them, ascertained that several hundred refugees had been put on buses this morning to be returned to the Tigray region,” the UN refugee agency said Friday. “We had not been informed in advance by the government."
Given the trauma the refugees say they witnessed in Tigray, they should be protected outside the region, the agency said. It also noted that the refugee camps have had no access to services and supplies for more than a month.
Aid groups say thousands of the Eritrean refugees have fled to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, and the Tigray capital, Mekele. Ethiopia's government said their “unregulated movement” makes it difficult to ensure their security and provide them with aid.
Their camps are now stable and under Ethiopia's “full control,” the statement said, adding that “transportation of food to the camps is under way.”
But communications and transport links to Tigray remain so challenging that the International Rescue Committee said it was still trying to confirm the details around the killing of an employee in the Hitsats refugee camp in Shire town, the base of humanitarian operations for the refugee camps.
Aid workers killed
Separately, the Danish Refugee Council said three staffers who worked as guards at a project site were killed last month. It was not clear where they were killed, but the group also supports the Eritrean refugees.
“Sadly, due to the lack of communications and ongoing insecurity in the region, it has not yet been possible to reach their families,” it said.
“Now, more than ever, it is a matter of urgency to cease all hostilities,” the European Union's commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarcic, said while condemning the killings.
Frustration remains among humanitarian organizations as Tigray remains largely sealed off from the outside world five weeks after fighting erupted between Ethiopia’s government and the Tigray one following a months-long power struggle.
Ethiopia’s government has made clear it intends to manage the process of delivering aid, and it has rejected “interference” as fighting is reported to continue. On Friday, Ethiopia it said it had begun delivering aid to areas in Tigray under its control, including Shire and the Tigray capital, a city of a half-million people.
“Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat in several cities and surrounding areas within the Tigray region is untrue and undermines the critical work undertaken by the National Defense Forces to stabilize the region,” the prime minister's office said, adding that sporadic gunfire should “not be misconstrued as active conflict.”
The Ethiopian and Tigray governments each regard the other as illegitimate, the result of months of growing friction since Abiy took office in 2018 and sidelined the once-dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Thousands of people are thought to have been killed in the fighting, which began Nov. 4 and has threatened to destabilize the Horn of Africa.
Some 6 million people live in Tigray, and about 1 million are now thought to be displaced. The impact on civilians has been “appalling,” the UN human rights chief said this week.
Supply-laden trucks have waited for weeks at Tigray's border. Ethiopia’s government says it is responsible for ensuring the security of humanitarian efforts — though the conflict and related ethnic tensions have left many ethnic Tigrayans wary of government forces.
The UN has stressed the need for neutral, unfettered access. “Food rations for displaced people in Tigray have run out,” the UN humanitarian office tweeted.
This week, Ethiopia’s government said its forces shot at and briefly detained U.N. staffers conducting their first security assessment in Tigray, a crucial step in delivering aid. Ethiopia said they had broken through checkpoints in trying to go where they were not allowed.
Meanwhile, nearly 50,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan as refugees and now shelter in a remote region with few resources.
“The recent groups coming from areas deeper inside Tigray are arriving weak and exhausted, some reporting they spent two weeks on the run inside Ethiopia as they made their way to the border,” U.N. refugee spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters. “They have told us harrowing accounts of being stopped by armed groups and robbed of their possessions. Many have spent time hiding in fields and bushes to avoid being spotted.”
Without access in Ethiopia, he said, “we are unable to verify these disturbing reports.”