MS Risk Blog

Seven Months Later: The Humanitarian Crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray

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In November 2020, fighting between government troops and Tigrayans erupted in Ethiopia in an operation to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The move was presented by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as a “law enforcement operation” aimed at rounding up TPLF members, but ensuing fighting has killed thousands and left 5.2 million people in Tigray in need of food aid. Seven months since the start of the conflict, one of the world’s most senior humanitarian figures, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock spoke candidly about the conditions in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Ethiopia, where, only four decades ago, the modern world became aware of the scourge of hunger, which spawned charity supergroups, money-raising songs, ‘Band Aid’ concerts, and a slew of assurances that we – the world – would never allow it to happen again. Now, when speaking at the G7 summit, Lowcock states that “There’s famine now in Tigray.” Lowcock placed the responsibility squarely on forces from Eritrea, a neighbouring country.

Drawing on an authoritative assessment of the emergency by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (ICP), the ICP evaluated that around 353,000 people in Tigray are in phase 5 (catastrophe), with another 1.769 million in phase 4 (emergency). While the ICP did not use the word “famine”, by definition, Phase 5 indicates that famine applies to a population. The system has five levels from Phase One (food secure) through to Phase Four (emergency) and Phase Five (catastrophe or famine). Behind these figures is a horrific human tragedy. Hunger-related deaths in large numbers are inevitable. It is, in fact, already taking place. Young children are the first to perish in a famine, accounting for two-thirds of those who perish. According to the most recent data from Tigray, 300,000 children are expected to die. The figures are on the conservative side. Because the survey teams were unable to reach all locations, they had to rely on extrapolation from limited data.

The Ethiopian authorities would almost certainly contest the “famine” warning, citing the technicality that the “catastrophe” circumstances were dispersed across Tigray, with no single place having a proportion of people in phase five above 20%, the normal criterion for declaring famine.

Undoubtedly, the region has long been plagued by issues, having been destroyed by the effects of climate change, drought, and locusts, leaving swaths of the people living on the periphery of pervasive poverty. But unmistakeably, this current crisis that is currently unfolding in Tigray is the result of conflict. This crisis has emerged from the cumulative effects of violence, including population displacements, movement restrictions, limited humanitarian access, loss of harvest and livelihood assets, and dysfunctional or non-existent markets, as evidenced by the IPC system statistics.

Humanitarian services have been affected and the government’s largest emergency response apparatus – the “productive safety net programme,” – was shut down as a result of the war. Forces from the neighbouring Amhara region captured Tigray’s most fertile areas, depriving Tigrayans of their farms and shutting down the most lucrative seasonal labour options. The Eritrean soldiers who joined the fight have also been accused of massive pillage, as well as burning crops, demolishing health facilities, and stopping farmers from ploughing their land, together with the Ethiopian army.

Rape has become widespread – usually perpetrated by soldiers. The United Nations estimated that 22,000 rape survivors will require assistance. Furthermore, fear of sexual abuse keeps women and girls hidden, preventing them from seeking food. However, humanitarian organisations have been delayed in their response, hampered by insecurity as well as several procedural roadblocks erected by Ethiopian officials. According to the United Nations, 2.8 million individuals have received relief. Humanitarian workers privately believe that is way too optimistic. There are also regular reports that troops steal aid offloaded from trucks, with several Tigrayan people reporting that Eritrean forces arrive shortly after relief handouts and seize the food.

Aid workers have also been slain in this conflict, the most recent being on May 28. Aid workers are often stopped by the Ethiopian army as they travel deep into rural areas, alleging that they are aiding the rebels. Specifically, nine aid workers have been killed since the fighting broke out. Samantha Power, chief of USAID, believes that the attacks on humanitarian workers are clearly premeditated, and it is part of a worrying trend of harassment and violence directed against aid workers.

Lowcock has said  “Now, we are at a tipping point,”. While expressing his dissatisfaction with the UN Security Council’s lack of action, he also said “Despite all we have told you of the widespread and systematic scale of the rapes, we continue to receive horrific reports of widespread sexual violence,”. Moving forward, Lowcock emphasised three areas where immediate change is required: humanitarian access, money, and a quickening of relief delivery. The UN has also called for an inquiry into the  war crimes, and the US has halted Ethiopia’s economic and security help and barred anyone implicated in the violence or in blocking humanitarian relief from visiting the US. Similarly, on the 26th of May, in a statement, President Joe Biden said, “The large-scale human rights abuses taking place in Tigray, including widespread sexual violence, are unacceptable and must end.”

As US Special Envoy Jeff Feldman cautions, we “should not wait to count the graves” before proclaiming the crisis in Tigray as it is: a man-made famine. Ethiopia evidently does not want the outside world to know about the unchecked murder, rapes, abduction, and hunger that is taking place, thus journalists are not welcome, and the famine and extensive human rights abuses have mostly gone unnoticed. So, what are the options? Once more, diplomatic pressure must be applied on cruel authorities in order to bring about a cease of hostilities and allow humanitarian agencies urgent and unimpeded access.