Geneva — Three months into the conflict in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region, the humanitarian response remains severely constrained, and the biggest problem facing those seeking to provide food aid is access into the countryside, the United Nations said Friday.
"The main reason is that we simply cannot reach most of the people in need. Also, we have not yet received the clearances to move the necessary staff into Tigray," said Jens Laerke, Geneva spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), speaking at a Geneva press briefing.
Babar Baloch from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, added, "The situation is extremely grave in Tigray and hundreds of thousands of people need life-saving assistance." He added that many people have been caught in crossfire, especially those in two Eritrean refugee camps in the northern parts of Tigray which are to between 15,000 and 20,000 people.
"Some said they had resorted to eating leaves because there was no other food available. They also spoke about the infiltration of armed actors in the camps, of killings, abductions and also some forced returns to Eritrea at the hands of Eritrean forces present in the area," said Baloch.
The conflict began after heavy fighting in November between federal government troops and forces loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which is dominant in the region and was the main force in a previous government in Addis Ababa.
UN agencies, humanitarian groups and journalists have had their access to the Tigray region restricted or blocked since the fighting began.
Tigrayans make up just over seven per cent of some 114 million people in Africa's second-most populous nation.
Access to food
The main problem in Tigray currently is getting food to people whose crops were ravaged earlier this year by an invasion of locusts.
"The needs of those on the ground are dire and growing for about 2.3 million people. That includes those who needed assistance before the conflict," said Laerke.
"But access remains for the most part limited to people living in the towns along the main roads from the regional capital Mekelle towards Shire, which is controlled by federal government forces."
Laerke said that incoming cargo is less of a problem where it is warehoused in Mekelle, the Tigray regional capital.
"The problem is access, both to get into Tigray in the first place and also getting from Mekelle into the countryside where most of the people in need are," he said.
Laerke said the UN is encouraged that recent high-level visits have resulted in productive exchanges with the Ethiopian authorities.
"And they do understand the potential for further deterioration should humanitarian needs continue to go unmet."
On Friday, UN agencies such as OCHA and UNHCR renewed their appeals for aid access to all areas in Tigray.
High-level efforts to avert a humanitarian disaster in Tigray included a visit by UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi earlier this week, when he met Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, among others.