Amidst a humanitarian crisis in Tigray Regional State, the federal government has deployed a fact-finding mission that will be looking for corridors of safe transit for humanitarian aid to the people affected by the ongoing conflict between the federal and regional governments.
The team, which is drawn from the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Peace, the Agency for Refugee & Returnee Affairs and the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, departed to the Regional State on November 17, 2020. The team travelled using two routes: through Gonder Zone and Afar Regional State, two areas that share administrative borders with Tigray Regional State.
"The fact-finding missions have already started sending reports," Redwan Hussein, the spokesperson of the state of emergency task force, told Fortune. "We expect them to return in a few days with findings."
After receiving the reports, the government will work on providing support to the people in the area in collaboration with humanitarian aid agencies and overseeing humanitarian relief operations. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the United Nations Resident Coordinator are the agencies working with the government.
A crisis is looming in the area and the UNHCR described the situation as a "full-scale humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia." The conflict erupted at the beginning of this month after Prime Ministry Abiy Ahmed (PhD) ordered a military offensive against forces in the Regional State, accusing them of attacking the Northern Command of the National Defense Forces.
Since then, basic services such as water, electricity and telephone lines have been cut, banks are closed, and over 31,000 Ethiopians from Tigray Regional State have fled to Sudan. Reports indicate that nearly two million people need life-saving support, including food, water, shelter, health and protection services.
Humanitarian agencies in the Regional State are also reporting a shortage of food, fuel and cash exposing about 96,000 refugees to a lack of access to water due to a looming shortage of fuel to run water pumps. UNHCR runs four refugee camps in the Regional State.
About 800 people were internally displaced from Medebey Zana District, Tigray to Addi Adekay District in Gonder. New internally displaced people were also reported in Midre Genet District, Gonder and in Dalul District, Kilbati Zone of Afar Regional State.
"We'll come up with a plan before it becomes a crisis," said Redwan.
The federal government plans to provide the support through two routes. In the unfettered areas, the government itself will provide support. In the areas that are not controlled by federal forces, there has to be a safe corridor whereby UN agencies and other partners can supply humanitarian items like food and drugs for the people in the area, according to the spokesperson.
"This committee will also work ... to return and reintegrate back into their locales all citizens that have fled over the past days," posted Prime Minister Abiy on his Facebook page.
However, humanitarian agencies find the situation unraveling, since it is hard to get access to the area because of movement restrictions, safety issues and a communications cut-off.
Communications were only coming from the UN hubs in Meqelle and Shire, according to Malda Nadew, the strategic communications analyst at the UN-OCHA.
Yet the agencies and local NGOs are still trying to assist with the stock they have at hand, although no supply is going to the area for restocking. This has pushed them to renew calls for access to humanitarian aid.
"In some places, the stock is depleting," she said, "while it has already depleted in other areas."
The agencies are advocating for the opening of banks so that people can withdraw money to buy what they need. They also urged for the restoration of basic public services such as healthcare, telecommunications, water and electricity.
UN-OCHA is also currently recruiting conflict emergency response experts locally and overseas to replace the natural disaster experts that have been stationed in the area. It is returning natural disaster experts to Addis Abeba through Afar Regional State.
"In the meantime, we're mobilising resources and getting ready to enter the area when the corridors are opened," said Malda. "We'll also wait for the reports from the fact-finding mission."
There should be three scenarios to support the affected people with humanitarian support: helping people in free areas, those in the conflict areas and refugees that cross the border, according to Adane Tesfaye (PhD), director of the Institute of Disaster Risk Management & Food Security at Bahir Dar University.
In the areas that are free from war, the team should identify the level of the impact on the community, such as water and food, to assess how much the people are affected and estimate needs, according to Adane. After identifying the need, the agencies and the government can help people in non-war zone areas in the traditional way as long as there is a supply.
"However, in the areas where there is war, the two parties should respect international convention to let in aid agencies," he said. "They should respect the convention for the sake of their people."
If they do not do that, the place will not be safe for humanitarian agencies, according to him.
Two types of aid are needed in these areas, said Adane. The first one is humanitarian aid, including food along with the utensils to cook and eat the food, and the second one is healthcare along with hygiene and sanitary products, according to him.
Before returning the refugees to the country, there should be a well-organised plan by the government regarding where to settle them and how to provide them with food and water, as well as properly identifying the locations from where they fled, according to Adane.
"Returning them without addressing these needs could make the crisis worse for the refugees," said Adane.
Recovery and rehabilitation work should follow then, according to him.
There are people whose families have died, who have sustained physical injuries, whose properties have been damaged, and whose farmlands are ashes. They all need psychosocial support to help them get over the trauma they went through, according to the expert.
Roads should be rebuilt, water, electric and telephone lines need to be recovered, he stated.
"To move this process fast," he said, "incident command posts have to be formed and stationed in the areas, and the government should help this process by providing sufficient logistical support."