The ongoing tragedy in Ethiopia’s northern region Tigray, has escalated into severe cases of famine and food insecurity. In early August this year, reports indicated that at least 5.2 million people were targeted for emergency food assistance to avoid the world’s worst famine situation in decades. This recent famine amid an unstable political transition has only worsened the unabated attacks against civilians, loss of livelihoods, massive displacement and refugee numbers as well sexual violence and kidnapping of women as sex slaves. Today there are Tigrayan accounts of remote areas where dead bodies are found scattered around having died from starvation days before. The numbers are horrifying with an estimated 2 million people internally displaced because of the conflict according to the UNHCR.
But what if refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were seen as part of the solution in enhancing the global refugee response system, rather than as by-product of humanitarian crises? Specifically in Tigray, is there a viable opportunity to meaningfully include the perspectives of refugees and former refugees, whose ideas for solutions are rooted in their experience of the realities of forced displacement?
The conflict began in November 2020 when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive in Tigray against the ruling party, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The attacks come after state leaders went against the federal government to hold elections, and has escalated into one of the worst humanitarian crises ever. Eight months later, the TPLF sieged the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, as government forces withdrew from the region. The government declared a unilateral ceasefire however after securing a landslide victory in the July 2021 national elections the rebel forces launched another military offensive .
At the outset of the crisis, UNHCR confirmed 59,759 refugees as the baseline for the refugee population known to be in Tigray. According to OCHA, the conflict in Tigray has displaced some 2.1 million people in Tigray region, 250,000 people in Amhara region and 112,000 in Afar region.
Tigray is now confronted with extreme famine and food insecurity concerns as a deliberate weapon of war. Last month the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that only 10% of humanitarian aid and relief measures were reaching the more than 5 million people in need of assistance. Access to the region is difficult as federal and regional authorities have imposed several restrictions and continue to block aid routes into Tigray. The only alternative land route is through Afar but is subject to TPLF attacks. This is the second famine in less than forty years to hit northern Ethiopia. Hitherto, Ethiopia’s famine from 1983 to 1985 was the worst famine to hit the country causing over a million deaths from starvation, also leaving many more forcibly displaced. For this kind of history to repeat itself, is certainly a shame.
Enfranchising Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)
Yet amidst the violence and chaos, Ethiopia has taken a bold step in recognizing the voting rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) during the June 2021 national elections. Aware of the dramatic and unprecedented spark in the number of IDPs leading up to the elections, The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) prepared the Human Rights Agenda for Election 2021 which calls upon political parties to address human rights protection of vulnerable groups including IDPs in their manifestoes.
By adopting enabling legislation, and ensuring IDPs’ participation in June 2021 election, Ethiopia has lived up to its commitment under international and regional human rights standards including the African Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (Kampala Convention). Article 9(2)(L) of the Kampala Convention expressly calls upon member states to take necessary measures to ensure that internally displaced persons who are citizens in their country of nationality can enjoy their civic and political rights, particularly public participation, the right to vote and to be elected to public office.
However, if the voting rights of displaced persons and refugees are vital to the development of the country, then it shouldn’t be much to ask for these same IDPs, refugees, and refugee led organizations to have a say in state responses and policies that affect them. As the situation escalates in Tigray, there is a unique opportunity to adopt meaningful refugee participation as some of the best ideas on how to respond to the needs of displaced persons and refugee communities across the globe come from those with lived experience of forced displacement.
Meaningful participation also requires a shift in how governments view forcibly displaced persons —not as beneficiaries of aid, but as rights-holders who already actively participate in shaping opportunities and outcomes in their lives and communities. With Ethiopia’s government recently supporting the enfranchisement of IDPs, Ethiopia could very well be on its own path to advancing meaningful refugee participation.
The global refugee crisis is getting worse and the displacement numbers from Tigray confirms the inefficiency of the global refugee response system. Ethiopia should not be experiencing massive displacement numbers at the hands of war and famine for the second time in less than forty years. -The system is not working for multiple reasons however IDPs and refugees being excluded from the decision processes that affect them is one of main reasons for this. There needs to be a wider focus on Tigray and meaningful refugee participation can facilitate better responses to Ethiopia’s displacement crisis. As such, the following needs to happen:
- An immediate and full ceasefire– The international community in collaboration with the African Union, should intensify efforts to ensure an immediate and full ceasefire rather than the nominal truce that has been adopted in Tigray. The efficiency of the proposed ceasefire can be enhanced by creating pathways to ensure unrestricted and safe access to aid routes in the region, to deliver relief efforts to the millions in need. In addition, these pathways should actively consider the voices and perspectives of those with lived experience in forced displacement as crucial to enhancing the global refugee response system.
- Formalizing refugee inclusion- The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC)should continue to facilitate further opportunities to institutionalize refugee inclusion especially in IDP and refugee policy. Following the recent achievements in ensuring the voting rights of IDPs in Ethiopia, the EHRC should continue stakeholder discussions, advocacy, and engagement with civil society groups with the aim of enhancing Ethiopia’s response to displacement and refugee concerns.
- Increased global awareness – There needs to be an increased global focus on the Tigray. As it stands the imposed blockade and constant violence is making it difficult to capture the reality of the situation on the ground, implying that displacement numbers and deaths could be worse than those reported. During the 76th UN General Assembly Meeting this year, as states evaluate their commitment to international peace and security, the displacement crises and famine in Tigray should not be marginalized. The forum should highlight this humanitarian crises to the full exposure it deserves and use that exposure to advance innovative solutions like meaningful refugee participation to the displacement and famine concerns in northern Ethiopia.