Ethiopia’s government has said it is returning Eritrean refugees to camps in the northern Tigray region, a move criticised by the United Nations refugee agency as “absolutely unacceptable”.
In a statement on Friday asserting that the fighting in Tigray is over, the Ethiopian government said its military offensive against the now-fugitive regional government “was not a direct threat” to the nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees registered in Ethiopia – even as international aid groups said four of their staffers had been killed, at least one in a refugee camp in Tigray, which borders Eritrea.
“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 food was being transported to the camps.
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 are concerned about food and security in the camps, which they have not been permitted to visit since the conflict broke out.
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.
The UN has expressed concern over reports of continued clashes in the region.
“We have not been informed by the government or any other authorities or other partners about a planned relocation,” Babar Baloch, a spokesman for UNHCR, said at a news conference in Geneva.
He called the reports “alarming” and said, “Any planned relocation would be absolutely unacceptable.”
Ethiopia’s government has made clear it intends to manage the process of delivering aid to Tigray, and it has rejected “interference” as fighting is reported to be continuing despite its declaration of victory. On Friday, Ethiopia said it had begun delivering aid to areas in Tigray under its control, including Shire and the Tigray capital, a city of half a million people.
“Suggestions that humanitarian assistance is impeded due to active military combat in several cities and surrounding areas within the Tigray region is untrue and undermines the critical work undertaken by the National Defense Forces to stabilise the region,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said, adding that sporadic gunfire should “not be misconstrued as active conflict”.