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UNHCR warns of full blown crisis in Ethiopia

After warning of "a full-scale humanitarian crisis" in Ethiopia, United Nations officials said 32,000 people fled Tigray region and 200,000 more may follow.

After warning of "a full-scale humanitarian crisis" unfolding in Ethiopia, United Nations officials said on Friday about 32,000 people have fled the Tigray region and up to 200,000 more may follow in coming months.

"We are very worried with the situation in Ethiopia and particularly because of the dramatic humanitarian impact of what's happening," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters at a press stakeout before a Group of 20 summit. "And we have been asking for the full respect of international humanitarian law and also for the opening of humanitarian corridors and the truces that might be necessary for humanitarian aid to be delivered in the areas of conflict."

The conflict erupted after an attack on a military base in Tigray on November 4. Ethiopia's government said its forces took control of the Tigray region towns, Adwa and Axum, and were headed towards Adigrat. Its forces already overpowered Shire, a humanitarian base where almost 100,000 Eritrean refugees live. Some of those Eritreans have also fled for neighboring Sudan.

The African Union's chairperson, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, appointed three envoys — Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, former Liberian president and Kgalema Motlanthe, former president of South Africa — who will try to defuse the crisis. “The ongoing conflict is a matter of great concern not only for countries in the region of the Horn of Africa, but for the continent as a whole," Ramaphosa said in a statement.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, said a widening armed conflict between Ethiopia's government and Tigray regional forces is choking off supplies of food and other basic items. UNHCR warned on Tuesday the crisis was escalating quickly as Ethiopia's prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, called for a "final and crucial" military offensive by Ethiopian armed forces against the local troops in Tigray that he accused of attacking federal troops. Hundreds have been killed, sending thousands each day across the border with eastern Sudan, while more than 1,000 foreigners are believed to be trapped in the area.

Babar Baloch, a spokesperson for UNHCR, told reporters his agency "is warning that a full-scale humanitarian crisis is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in eastern Sudan — an influx unseen over the last two decades in this part of the country."

He said women, men and children have been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since November 10, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground. "More than 27,000 have now crossed into Sudan," he said in a statement, "through the Hamdayet border in Kassala state, the Lugdi in Gedaref state and a new location further south at Aderafi border, where Ethiopian refugees started crossing over the weekend."

Abiy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for defusing tensions with neighboring Eritrea, has rejected international efforts to ease the conflict in Tigray — where almost 100,000 Eritrean refugees already rely on help from UNHCR and other aid groups — that also is spilling over into Eritrea.

'Famine can be prevented'

Baloch said UNHCR is helping Sudan's government, delivering clean water, soap and latrines. The World Food Program is handing out food and high protein biscuits. Muslim Aid also is providing hot meals. Sudan’s health ministry, backed by the local chapter of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, or IFRC, set up two clinics for health and nutrition screenings.

But the potential for growing numbers of people to flee Tigray and further worsen the humanitarian crisis "is growing rapidly," said Baloch.

"The lack of electricity, telecommunications and access to fuel and cash continue to severely hamper any humanitarian response," he said. "After nearly two weeks of conflict, reports of larger numbers of internally displaced grow daily, while the lack of access to those in need, coupled with the inability to move in goods to the region, remain major impediments to providing assistance."

Among landlocked Ethiopia's six neighbors, some such as Kenya have been calling on Abiy to make peace. But his government views Tigray's regional administration, which defied the government by holding an election in September, as unlawful. Tigray's administration, in turn, views Abiy's government as unlawful and protests his move to postpone national elections until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Abiy's government said it had carried out new "surgical" airstrikes outside the Tigray region's capital, Mekele. On Twitter, Abiy said he waging a campaign "to uphold rule of law" and said that "the Ethiopian government is ready to receive and reintegrate our fellow Ethiopians fleeing to neighboring countries. "

In response to the crisis, the United Nations released $20 million in emergency funding to fight hunger in Ethiopia, where it said droughts could worsen an already dangerous situation. Mark Lowcock, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said another $80 million also was being released to stave off famine in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen.

OCHA said the money is needed to help people feed themselves amid a growing hunger epidemic caused by conflict, economic decline, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The prospect of a return to a world in which famines are commonplace would be heart wrenching and obscene in a world where there is more than enough food for everyone,” Lowcock said in a statement. “No one should view a slide into famine as an inevitable side effect of this pandemic. If it happens, it is because the world has allowed it to happen. Famine can be prevented. But we have to act in time to make a difference."