Humanitarian Crisis in Tigray
Since Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki waged war on the Ethiopian region of Tigray on November 4, 2020, Tigrayans have endured population displacement, weaponized starvation, healthcare emergencies, lack of access to essential needs, destruction and looting of private property and essential infrastructure, and other forms of war crimes.
Despite the reinstatement of the elected government of Tigray in Mekelle and the so-called “unilateral ceasefire” declared by the Abiy administration on June 28, 2021, parts of Tigray remain occupied by brutal invading forces and humanitarian assistance remains constrained as ground routes into the region are limited.
As a result, 5.2 million people remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance, at least 900,000 of which are facing famine conditions. They are also faced with extremely constrained access to healthcare services and water and sanitation.
More than 2 million children and adults have been displaced due to the conflict. Over 70,000 have fled to Sudan since the conflict began, of which over 18,000 are children. The hundreds of thousands not able to flee to Sudan found themselves at internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Mekelle, Shire, and Adwa, living in poor conditions and with extremely limited access to aid.
Living conditions for refugees in Sudan remain poor, with shelters being destroyed by heavy flooding and wind.
“Most refugees in Sudan still don’t have proper access to basic needs such as shelter, water and food.” —Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), June 2021
Thousands of children fleeing the conflict have been separated from their parents or lost their parents due to violence; these children are at high risk of physical and sexual violence.
“Two of my children are with my husband but I don’t know where they are. […] Some people tell me they are in Sudan and some have told me my husband was killed with my two girls.” —Atsede, Save the Children May 2021
Lack of Essential Goods and Services
In response to the shifting military dynamics and Ethiopian military losses in Tigray, the Ethiopian government responded with an “immediate, unilateral cease-fire,” which in reality was a return to a complete blackout of the region, attempting to completely isolate and suffocate the region: no access to power, phone, internet, banks, and running water.
In line with this strategy, the Ethiopian government continues to block unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray, preventing the UN and other aid agencies from moving personnel and goods in Tigray. Such hindrance of aid after the ceasefire declaration was described by U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, as “not an indication of a humanitarian ceasefire, but of a siege.”
“WFP runs out of food in #Tigray this Friday. It takes 100 trucks per day to reach everyone we are aiming to feed. 170 trucks bound for Tigray with food and other supplies are stuck right now in Afar and can’t leave. These trucks must be allowed to move NOW. People are starving.” — World Food Program, Tweet, July 27, 2021
Hunger and Malnutrition
Over 5.2 million Tigrayans are at risk of starvation. Over 2 million children remain cut off from necessary emergency humanitarian assistance.
As of April 2021, the WPF estimated that 50-100 starvation-caused deaths per day were occurring in central and eastern Tigray alone.
The UN Security Council estimates 33,000 children are severely malnourished and at high risk of death, and 1.8 million people are nearing famine. UN Officials say there is already a famine that is affecting 900,000 people.
“We are hearing of starvation-related deaths already,” stated UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock. “People need to wake up.”
An anti-farming campaign has also been in full effect to deliberately starve the people of Tigray. In May there were reports of vehicles transporting seeds being blocked from entering the region.
Crops have been burned, food supplies have been looted, and livestock have been stolen and slaughtered by the invading armed forces.
This anti-farming campaign and the weaponized hunger and famine are in the context of the historic locust infestation in 2020 that had already challenged food security in the region. The National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC) warned that Ethiopia will experience less than normal rainfall, potentially worsening water shortages in Tigray, and further impacting farming.
The impacts from the weaponized famine campaign as well as this specific anti-farming campaign will have an impact on future generations of Tigrayans.
“Efforts to prevent the entry of seeds and efforts to stop farming have no other message than perhaps, ‘’Let the people of Tigray perish with starvation.’”— Abebe Gebrehiwot, former Deputy Head of Tigray’s now dissolved Interim Government, May 2021
Over 80 percent of hospitals in Tigray are defunct because they have been looted, bombed, or now lack medical staff, according to an MSF report released in February 2021.
This destruction of the healthcare system has left millions of people without life-saving medication who are either dying at home or traveling for days on foot to reach Mekelle where there is a functioning hospital.
“[Hospitals are left with] medicines and needles dumped on the ground, examination beds flipped over, patient records pulled off their shelves, windows broken and ambulances burned or stolen.” —Joseph Belliveau, MSF Canada Executive Director, June 2021
The WHO warns that communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases can quickly spread in Tigray due to a lack of food, clean water, safe shelter and access to healthcare. Many children have not received proper vaccinations due to the un functional healthcare system, raising the risk of future outbreaks of infectious diseases.
“All these factors combine – are literally a recipe – for larger epidemics,” —WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic, June 2021
More War Crimes
Witnesses have accused Eritrean and Ethiopian troops of mass looting, killing, and sexual assaults. At least 11 humanitarian aid workers have been killed since the beginning of the conflict. Other aid workers have witnessed soldiers carrying out extrajudicial killings.
Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, founder of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies, described the killings of Tigrayans by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces as “literally genocide by decree.”
Sexual and gender-based violence is being used against Tigrayan women and young girls.
“There is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize, and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation,” — UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock April 2021
As a result of the widespread weaponized rape, there is a surge in demand for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections, as many women have contracted sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
The Ethiopian Government’s Denial and Inaction
The Ethiopian government has failed the people of Tigray. It continues to deny the extent of the crisis in Tigray.
In March 2021, the Ethiopian government admitted the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray after months of denial. Eritrean troops still remain in the region despite Ethiopia and Eritrea agreeing to withdraw them several months prior.
In an interview with BBC in June 2021, Abiy Ahmed stated, “There is no hunger in Tigray,” while USAID estimates that 900,000 people in Tigray are facing famine conditions.
In July 2021, the Ethiopian government stated there is unfettered access to humanitarian aid to Tigray, while the UN reports that movements in and out of the region remain restricted, impacting humanitarians’ capacity to sustain aid operations.
The situation in Tigray requires immediate action from the international community as it is one of the most catastrophic humanitarian disasters in modern history.