UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and partners are rushing life-saving aid to more than 20,000 refugees after they fled clashes in Ethiopia’s Benishangul Gumuz region, bordering Sudan and South Sudan.
Fighting broke out on 18 January in the town of Tongo – reportedly between unidentified armed groups and federal forces – and the nearby camp hosting 10,300 refugees was looted and burned.
“All humanitarian staff had to evacuate, and access to the area – including the two camps, Tongo and Gure-Shembola – remains impossible”, UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov told journalists at a regular press briefing in Geneva.
Exhausted and displaced
Since last December, the situation has been very tense in the Benishangul Gumuz region, which hosts more than 70,000 Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees and over 500,000 internally displaced Ethiopians.
The 20,000 refugees who fled, made their way over long distances to three sites closer to the regional capital, Assosa, arriving exhausted and in need of assistance.
“UNHCR is working with the Ethiopian Government’s Refugee and Returnees Service and partners to provide the most urgent assistance to displaced refugees, including hot meals, clean water, and medical care”, said Mr. Cheshirkov.
Benishangul Gumuz regional authorities have shown solidarity with the incoming refugees, said UNHCR, and identified a new temporary site, which can accommodate up to 20,000 people.
“UNHCR is working to install basic services including shelter, water points, and latrines and to begin relocating refugees to the site as soon as possible” the UN official said.
Mr. Cheshirkov added that UNHCR has also recorded the arrival of 70 Sudanese refugees, mostly women and children, who fled the camps and returned to Sudan’s Blue Nile State.
At the same time, UNHCR teams in Sudan, together with the Sudanese authorities and partners, are providing assistance to the returnees, and contingencies are being put in place in case of more arrivals.
Three other refugee camps in the Benishangul Gumuz region – Bambasi, Sherkole and Tsore – remain fully accessible and all services there are functioning.
Mr. Cheshirkov told journalists that the clashes in the region were unrelated to the conflict in Tigray and that refugees had been cohabiting in the same camps.
In addition to refugee support, the Government, UNHCR and partners, have been aiding the region’s internally displaced, reaching over 100,000 people throughout last year – particularly women and children – with clothing, shelter, psychosocial help, and other emergency items.
To avoid further threats to civilian lives in the region, the UNHCR spokesperson underscored the need for an end to the conflict.
“UNHCR urges the protection of civilians, including refugees and those forcibly displaced”, he said.
Meanwhile, some refugees who had sought and enjoyed safety and were rebuilding their lives have again, have tragically lost everything.
Having only received nine per cent of the countrywide requirements of $35 million for the year, UNHCR’s Ethiopia operation is in urgent need of more resources to respond to this and other emergency needs.