UN prepares for up to 200,000 Ethiopian refugees in Sudan

Ethiopian refugees rest in Qadarif region, easter Sudan, Friday, Nov 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The United Nations refugee agency says about 32,000 people have fled Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region into neighboring Sudan, and it is preparing for up to 200,000 in the next six months if necessary.

Axel Bisschop, the agency’s representative in Sudan, told reporters Friday that “nobody at this stage can say exactly how many will come,” as deadly fighting continues between Ethiopian government and Tigray regional government forces.

Another crisis is growing inside the sealed-off Tigray region as food and other supplies run desperately low. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the opening of humanitarian corridors “and the truces that might be necessary for humanitarian aid to be delivered.”

Guterres added: “This is a matter of enormous concern to us.”

The Ethiopian refugees are arriving in a very remote area of Sudan, and humanitarians must create a crisis response virtually from zero even as up to 5,000 refugees continue to arrive every day.

“What definitely is clear is that fighting is ongoing and it is sporadic, you never know where it’s going to happen,” said Hameed Nuru, the Sudan country representative for the World Food Program. “So it is this anticipation and not-knowing which is causing a lot more fear and causing people now to cross.”

He noted reports that some fighters may have put down their arms and joined the flow of people crossing, which could add to tensions.

“This could unravel Ethiopia and also Sudan,” the UNICEF country representative in Sudan, Abdullah Fadil, said of the crisis. “Soon we will be overwhelmed ... if this rate continues.”

Children under 18 make up about 45% of the refugees, he said.

In the swelling Um Rakouba refugee camp, Taharsta Mahya and her family members found shelter with a local family.

“We took the baby and ran under the bombs,” Taharsta said. “People were hit by the bombs. We were covered in dust. We made it out, we had no food, we were hungry. People welcomed us here. We had no clothes, people who saw us threw clothes at us.”

Their host, Um Al-Hassan Khamis, confirmed it. “Every day I go to the camp and follow up, if there is someone who needs items, and try to provide them,” she said.

People left Ethiopia in a great hurry, the U.N. officials said, and most arrived in Sudan with nothing. “It’s a mix of medical doctors, professionals, bankers, to farmers,” Fadil said. “You could tell some people were actually well-off.”

Ethiopia’s government has been fighting the Tigray regional forces since a Nov. 4 attack on a military base there. Each side regards the other as illegal, the result of a falling-out between Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray leaders who once dominated the country’s ruling coalition.

The federal government on Friday asserted that its forces had taken control of the towns of Axum and Adwa in the Tigray region and were advancing east on Adigrat. Along the way, the government said, the soldiers “conquered” Shire - a community that humanitarians use as a base for working with nearly 100,000 refugees from neighboring Eritrea.

Now, some of those Eritrean refugees have fled again into Sudan, aid workers said.

With communications to the region severed, no one knows how many people have been killed, and verifying the warring sides’ claims is challenging.

“At this point, neither party, from what we hear, is interested in mediation,” the top U.S. diplomat to Africa, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy, told reporters Thursday evening.

Alarmed by the potential for disaster in Ethiopia and beyond, 17 U.S. senators urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a letter Thursday to engage Abiy directly to push for an immediate cease-fire.