Ethiopia’s government said on Friday it was returning Eritrean refugees to camps they had fled in Tigray, a move that provoked alarm from the United Nations refugee agency after a month-long conflict that is believed to have killed thousands of people in the northern region.
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The United Nations and other aid agencies say they have been denied access to some 96,000 refugees in Tigray since fighting erupted on November 4 between the government and a rebellious regional force. They believe food is running out at refugee camps there, and have expressed concern about reports of continued clashes in some areas.
The government says it has now defeated forces loyal to Tigray’s former ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and it is safe for refugees who fled to the capital Addis Ababa to return to the region.
“A large number of misinformed refugees are moving out in an irregular manner,” the government said in a statement on Friday.
“The government is safely returning those refugees to their respective camps,” the statement said, adding that transportation of food to the camps was underway.
TPLF leaders say they are fighting back on various fronts. Claims by all sides in the conflict are near-impossible to verify because most communications to Tigray are down and the government tightly controls access.
“Given the traumatic events to which refugees say they were exposed in Tigray, we believe Eritrean refugees should have the opportunity to receive protection and assistance outside of the region,” Dana Hughes, regional spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), told Reuters.
She said several hundred refugees had been sent back to the camps from Addis Ababa on Friday.
Reuters received frantic calls from refugees in the capital who had been told they would be bussed back to Tigray but feared they were being taken back to Eritrea.
“Please come, please come, the buses are here!” one woman yelled as children wept in the background.
Another woman said Eritreans faced mounting hostility from Tigrayans who accuse her country of sending troops into Ethiopia to help Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government battle the TPLF.
Both countries deny this, although the US State Department said on Thursday it believes reports of Eritrean military involvement in the conflict in Ethiopia are “credible”.
“Some Tigrayan people beat up my husband,” the refugee said. “People there were saying – your country is coming here and attacking us. So you - we will kill you too. We were getting so scared.”
A Reuters witness saw three buses depart on Friday from a center where refugees were being housed in Addis Ababa. After the buses reached the outskirts of the city, one refugee jumped out the window of the moving vehicle, a passenger told Reuters.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said in text messages to Reuters this month that Eritrean soldiers deployed to Ethiopia to help its government had raided two camps in Tigray and abducted some residents, but provided no evidence. Eritrea denies this.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending two decades of hostilities with Eritrea, but the presence of Eritrean troops on Ethiopian soil would alarm Western allies and risk further inflaming the conflict.
Eritrea has for years faced accusations of large scale rights abuses, including jailing opponents and forcing citizens into lengthy military or government service. It accuses Western powers of smear campaigns and luring Eritreans abroad, which they deny.
Ethiopia hosts the African Union, its security services work with Western allies, and its troops serve in peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Somalia.
Food for refugees
There are four main camps for Eritrean refugees in Tigray - Shimelba, Hitsats, Mai-Ayni and Adi Harush.
UNHCR was not informed of any planned relocation of refugees in Ethiopia, Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the agency said at a news conference in Geneva. He called the reports “alarming.”
He added, “While we cannot speculate at this time, any refoulement would be absolutely unacceptable.”
Refoulement is a technical term that refers to forcing refugees to return to the country they fled from.
The United Nations has been unable to visit any of the camps since the conflict began; a UN security team trying to reach Shimelba was shot at and detained earlier this week. Ethiopian officials said the UN vehicle failed to stop at two checkpoints.
Four local aid workers were killed at Hitsats camp last month in unclear circumstances, the International Rescue Committee and Danish Refugee Council said on Friday.
Government officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the deaths.
However, the prime minister’s office issued a statement on Friday dismissing concerns that the war in Tigray was preventing aid reaching civilians.
“Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat ... within the Tigray region is untrue and undermines ... work to stabilize the region,” the statement said.