I am deeply alarmed about the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, who have been caught in the conflict in the Tigray region. For over a month, UNHCR and humanitarian partners have had no access to the four Eritrean refugee camps inside Tigray, putting the safety and survival of the refugees at great risk.
The government of Ethiopia has said it will guarantee humanitarian access to the Tigray region for the UN and its partners. While the signed agreement is one first step, it needs to be implemented in a way that ensures safe and unhindered access for humanitarian workers in accordance with the principles of neutrality and impartiality. Such access is urgently needed so we can provide desperately needed assistance to refugees and other vulnerable populations.
Over the last month we have received an overwhelming number of disturbing reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted and forcibly returned to Eritrea. If confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law.
Ethiopia has a long-standing tradition of welcoming and hosting refugees who were forced to flee. I am strongly urging the government of Ethiopia to continue to uphold their responsibility towards refugees under international law, and to ensure the protection and safety of all refugees in the country.
To find safety and basic means of survival, many Eritrean refugees are fleeing the camps to locations both within Tigray and other regions of Ethiopia. We have met with some who managed to reach Addis Ababa. It is vital that Eritrean refugees be able to move to safe locations, and receive protection and assistance wherever possible, including outside of Tigray, given the traumatic events they report to have witnessed or survived. We remain committed to supporting and working with the Ethiopian government in this regard.
Meanwhile, the government and people of Sudan have generously welcomed the nearly 50,000 Ethiopian refugees who have sought safety in their country since the beginning of the conflict. UNHCR and partners have joined with the government to provide life-saving aid to people who are arriving exhausted, often following dangerous journeys to reach the border. I call on the international community to increase its support for the humanitarian response.
Ethiopian refugees in Sudan have expressed a desire to return home and rebuild their lives, but only when they can be assured of their safety and security. UNHCR stands ready to provide full support to the refugees at such time as they express a free and informed decision to return. Any returns must be safe, voluntary and dignified and take place in line with well-established principles on voluntary repatriation.