The head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on Wednesday expressed his deep concern over the humanitarian situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, including its impact on Eritrean refugees hosted there.
The conflict between the Ethiopian Government and regional forces of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) began in early November, when the Prime Minister ordered a military offensive after rebels attacked a federal army base. Government forces reported that the region had been secured at the end of November, but TPLF resistance has continued amid accusations of extrajudicial killings and rights abuses.
Despite some positive developments in accessing and assisting vulnerable populations, since the start of the Government operation, UNHCR's repeated requests to access the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps have gone unanswered.
"I am very worried for the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in those camps", said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. "They have been without any aid for many weeks".
UNHCR continues to receive many reliable reports and first-hand accounts of ongoing insecurity and allegations of grave and distressing human rights abuses, such as killings, targeted abductions and forced return of refugees to Eritrea, said Mr. Grandi.
Moreover, the agency has learned of additional military incursions over the last 10 days that are consistent with open-source satellite imagery showing new fires and other fresh signs of destruction at the two camps.
"These are concrete indications of major violations of international law", the High Commissioner spelled out.
Ethiopia has long given refuge to people fleeing conflict and persecution.
The federal Government has provided assurances of measures are to minimize the impact of the conflict on civilians.
"I have impressed upon the Ethiopian leadership, the urgency of ensuring the protection of refugees, preventing forced return and keeping refugee camps safe from attacks and other threats from armed actors", said Mr. Grandi.
Equally distressing, he said, is that UNHCR teams have been unable to assist the thousands of Eritrean refugees who continue to flee the camps in search of safety and support.
"Refugees arriving on foot to Shire town in Tigray are emaciated, begging for aid that is not available", recounted the High Commissioner.
Against the backdrop that refugees who had reached Addis Ababa are being returned to Tigray, some against their will, he reiterated the UN-wide call for "full and unimpeded access" to explore "all options to safely provide desperately needed assistance".
In line with the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality, UNHCR stands committed to work with the Ethiopian Government in protecting and assisting those forced to flee.
"We remain available to seek solutions - together - to the current humanitarian problems in a spirit of collaboration and constructive partnership", said the UNHCR chief. "Safe access and swift action are needed now to save thousands of lives at risk".