Forced Human Displacement in the Tigray Genocide

Forced Human Displacement in the Tigray Genocide

Nobody chooses to become a refugee, an internally displaced person (IDP), or an asylum seeker. Since the start of the genocidal war on Tigray in November 2020, over 2 million people in Tigray have been internally displaced, and tens of thousands have crossed borders into neighboring countries seeking refuge. Violations of human rights and international law by the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and allied forces such as air strikes on civilians, mass detentions and forced disappearances, sexual and gender-based violence, weaponized starvation, and a score of other atrocities amounting to genocide have caused a surge in the number of forcibly displaced people. Leaving one’s home is never an easy process, and the journey is often dangerous and sometimes deadly. For some forcibly displaced Tigrayans, buildings like elementary schools have become makeshift shelters, usually with insufficient space and resources to host the IDPs, and people end up sleeping out in the open. Refugee camps and IDP host communities have endured a significant amount of time with extremely limited or no assistance, leading to a rapid escalation in humanitarian needs. A harrowing man-made famine and widespread violence have uprooted millions of Tigrayans from their homes, some traveling for days and months by foot and crossing rivers to find safety — a term used lightly, given the menacing conditions faced by IDPs and refugees in their temporary shelters.

Forced Removal of Western Tigrayans

The people of Western Tigray, which is occupied by brutal invading forces, have faced a textbook example of ethnic cleansing through systematic killings, rape, and a complete destruction of society. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned what he called ethnic cleansing by invading forces in Western Tigray, amid “very credible reports of human rights abuses and atrocities that are ongoing.” Additionally, the U.S. Department of State issued a press release statement in December 2021 calling for an end to the mass killings and forcible expulsions in Western Tigray, which has resulted in 1.2 million forcibly displaced people from the area. Refugees told reporters that Amhara authorities and allied forces were ordering Tigrayans out of their homes or rounding them up. A refugee from Humera, located in northwestern Tigray, said he saw thousands of Tigrayans loaded into trucks not knowing what happened to them.

Attacks on IDP Sites and Refugee Camps

Safety is never guaranteed for Tigrayan IDPs and refugees, as these communities have been unlawfully attacked by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara military forces. In January 2022, the U.S. Department of State condemned a deadly airstrike on Tigrayan civilians at an IDP camp, stating “Ongoing airstrikes in Tigray resulting in civilian casualties are unacceptable. We redouble our call for an immediate end to hostilities, the prompt launch of an inclusive national dialogue, and unhindered access so aid can reach all Ethiopian communities in need.” The airstrike was launched on a camp in Dedebit, killing at least 57 civilians and injuring more than 42 others, including children. One of the aid workers said the camp hosts several older women and children. “They told me the bombs came at midnight. It was completely dark and they couldn’t escape,” he said. 

After the airstrike, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) suspended humanitarian activities “due to continued threats of drone strikes.” In the week prior to the attack, another deadly airstrike hit Mai Aini refugee camp in Tigray, killing three Eritrean refugees including two children who were hosted in the camp. Outside of aerial bombardments, other forms of attacks on IDPs and refugees are ongoing. In May 2021, Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers encircled Adi Wenfito and Tsehay camps that host Tigrayan civilians displaced by the genocidal war. The soldiers invaded the camps, beat, harassed, and kidnapped hundreds of young men, then took them to the outskirts of Shire, Tigray. Eyewitness accounts were corroborated by a statement released by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), “On Monday night, scores of people were forcibly taken by military from camps where internally displaced people are seeking refuge in Shire.” Other similar atrocities on IDPs and refugees have taken place, but have received little to no attention from the international community.

Protection of Children IDPs and Refugees

Children who are forcibly displaced are extremely vulnerable and are likely to suffer from disease, malnutrition, separation from family members, and severe poverty. These children are also at risk of exploitation and psychosocial distress. In May 2021, Save the Children reported that nearly 5,000 Tigrayan children had been separated from their families, but the true number is likely much higher, as many cases go unreported. Several of these children sleep in unfamiliar places with dozens of unrelated adults, leaving them at an increased risk for abuse, kidnapping, and sexual violence. One seven year-old IDP told Reuters, “Our neighbors came and said ‘Run, people may kill you.'” When she returned home to find her family, they were not there — a shared experience for large numbers of Tigrayan IDPs and refugees. 

Some children have become orphans after witnessing their parents and family members get raped and killed, leaving them alone, traumatized, and afraid. “Protection systems that would normally support separated children have been almost totally disrupted due to the conflict,” stated one protection advisor for Save the Children, in reference to the systematic destruction of Tigray. Family reunification has been extremely difficult to accomplish, one reason being because of the deliberate telecommunications blackout imposed on Tigray since the beginning of the war. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre refers to children IDPs as “twice invisible,” because internally displaced people in general are often unaccounted for and age-disaggregation data is further limited for IDPs. For some, displacement can last years and even decades, often resulting in a disrupted or terminated education, disintegration of the family structure, and children growing up without basic human necessities like shelter and food.

Displaced Children Missing School

Human displacement has long-lasting, intergenerational impacts. The children of Tigray who were living normal lives prior to the genocidal war have now missed up to 3 years of school, first due to COVID-19, then due to the genocidal war. This has several detrimental effects on the children, their families, and future generations. UNICEF reports that children and youth on the move with low levels of education are at increased risk of exploitation. In war and conflict, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys, and they are highly susceptible to becoming targets of sexual and gender-based violence. Because of unstable conditions, IDPs and refugees are constantly moving, and this is especially difficult for school-aged children. 

Before November 2020, the education system in Tigray was steadily improving. The Tigray Development Association was providing resources to support digital education programs in 160 primary schools around the region, and the Tigray Education Bureau was preparing to incorporate the ancient Ge’ez language into the education curriculum. It comes as no surprise that the Ethiopian government has not endorsed UNICEF’s Safe Schools Declaration, a commitment to protect students, teachers, schools, and universities during conflict. In fact, schools in Tigray have been attacked, intentionally occupied, looted, & damaged. Such atrocities have resulted in children missing out on their international human right to education. Related to education, some students who enter new countries lack documents, making it difficult to provide proof of their prior learning achievements. Further, school credits, certificates, and degrees are sometimes rejected or do not transfer to the new school system, leaving IDP and refugee students to start from scratch despite their previous education.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) has been rampant throughout the genocidal war in Tigray. The UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock asserted that Ethiopian soldiers are using sexual violence in Tigray “as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation.” Furthermore, USAID Administrator Samantha Power stated, “the scale of those crimes, and the reports of the soldier’s conduct and testimony, suggests that the Ethiopian military, together with their allies in the Eritrean military and forces from the Amhara region, have launched a campaign to shatter families and destroy the reproductive and mental health of their victims.” 

Doctors have reported a surge in demand at refugee camps for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Alongside sexual violence by military forces, sexual exploitation of forcibly displaced women and girls often occurs within IDP host communities and refugee camps. It has been reported that some male members of the host community, male IDPs and male refugees have coerced women and girls to engage in sexual acts in exchange for basic needs such as food or small amounts of cash as little as $1.25. Sexual exploitation and abuse in IDP host communities and refugee camps is extremely likely due to the dire humanitarian crisis. IDP focus groups have reported that “survival sex,” or sexually exploitative relationships in exchange for a basic necessity, has become a new and common practice since the start of the genocidal war. 

Refugees International was told by two humanitarian staffers that there are increased risks for sexual exploitation and abuse in these conditions, particularly by those with perceived power (e.g., IDP leaders, host community members, government representatives, or humanitarian staff) to take advantage of those in need. Women reported mental health consequences, due to the straining circumstances such as the burden of childcare and stigma associated with speaking on SGBV. In addition to sexual exploitation, intimate partner violence has been increasing in the refugee camps and IDP sites.

Diseases and Lack of Medicine

IDP sites and refugee camps oftentime suffer from disease outbreaks, as people are constantly moving in and out of the areas and healthcare access is limited. Because of overcrowding and insufficient space, communicable diseases such as COVID-19, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis are widespread. Chronic diseases and skin infections are prevalent, while medicine is scarce. IDP sites in Shire are seeing an escalation in scabies cases, and only 5% of affected IDPs in Shire received scabies cream through a house-to-house treatment campaign. Because of the blocking and looting of humanitarian aid by the Ethiopian government and military forces, people have been dying from easily treatable diseases. The lack of healthcare and access to medicine has especially impacted forcibly displaced Tigrayan women, as many were pregnant and died on the way to finding safety. Some women have given birth alone in bushes, while others are giving birth unattended in the camps. Infants are particularly susceptible to early mortality, as they are missing vital immunizations that would have been readily available prior to the genocidal war.

Other Impacts

Social isolation, discrimination, and even hostility upon arrival to the host communities can strain IDPs and refugees as they navigate asylum or relocation processes. Continuous fear of deportation, difficulty finding a job, or barriers accessing medical care add to a burdensome experience that comprises several losses: family and friends, career, language, community, culture, homeland, economic and social status, and overall identity. Trauma is experienced at all stages of the IDP and refugee experience and is responsible for a variety of mental health outcomes, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Several factors such as experiencing violence, torture, and survivor’s guilt play a role and may affect the rate of mental health conditions in this already vulnerable population. 

Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia have had to flee their homes to survive, and are faced with an immense amount of trauma that can be carried on across generations. The international community must take action to protect Tigrayan IDPs and refugees and ensure that the human rights that have been cruelly taken away from Tigrayans in Ethiopia are restored.

Semhal – Omna Tigray Contributor, April 2022