‘A race against time’: Sudan struggles with refugee influx from Ethiopia’s Tigray region

france24– As conflict rages in Ethiopia’s breakaway Tigray region, at least 33,000 refugees have crossed the border into neighbouring Sudan, posing a challenge for Sudanese authorities who are already hosting a million people displaced by other conflicts in the region.

Ethiopia’s military on Sunday threatened a “decisive” assault on Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region, as it seeks to oust the regional government controlled by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ethiopia warned the city’s half a million civilians to flee while they still could, saying the coming onslaught would show “no mercy”. A day earlier, Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed rejected an African Union mediation attempt as his government said they had taken a major town in northern Tigray.

At least 33,000 Ethiopians have so far fled to Sudan, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates. Some 45 percent of these people are children under 18, according to UNICEF’s Ethiopia representative. Sudanese officials said on November 11 that they expect to see as many as 200,000 Ethiopian refugees fleeing the violence.

Khartoum has so far kept the borders open, but managing the influx will be a challenge – Sudan already hosts 1 million refugees from other conflicts in the surrounding region.

“Sudan already has one of the highest numbers of refugees on its soil in the world,” said Céline Schmitt, spokesperson for the UNHCR.

“But the media’s attention is fading, so it’s becoming more and more difficult to attract the necessary funds,” she said. “Even though it’s currently hosting large numbers of people from South Sudan, Eritrea, the Central African Republic and even Syria, Sudan is covered by our most under-funded programmes.”

Civilians have little choice of where to go when escaping fighting between federal forces and the TPLF. “To the south of Tigray is the Amhara region, an ally of Abiy’s government that has had major ethnic and territorial rivalries with Tigray; to the east you’ve got a very sparsely populated region without agricultural resources; to the north you’ve got Eritrea, historically Tigray’s chief adversary,” noted Gérard Prunier, an expert on the Horn of Africa and a former researcher at the CNRS think-tank in Paris.

“The only place to flee is to the west, across the border to Sudan.”

A transit camp was set up in the Sudanese border town of Hamdayet soon after the Tigray conflict started on November 4. The area is remote; at least a six-hour drive from the nearest major town. “It’s very hard to get in equipment and infrastructure, especially when it comes to sanitary needs,” said UN co-ordinator Babacar Cissé.

Cissé said Sudanese authorities do not want to transform the transit camp into an actual refugee camp where people could stay longer because they consider it too close to Ethiopia.

Moreover, there are fears the fighting could spread.

“The Sudanese government is worried that Amhara militias could be tempted to extend the fighting across their border, exporting the conflict to Sudan,” said Prunier.

‘A race against time’

The exodus from Tigray also risks straining resources for the Sudanese people already living in this arid, impoverished area.

“Local communities contributed enormously to feeding the refugees before NGOs such as the World Food Programme turned up,” an aid worker explained to FRANCE 24 reporters on the ground. NGOs are also worried that the lack of infrastructure – especially sanitation equipment – is spreading disease among local people as well as refugees.

It is also very difficult to channel the influx of refugees across the border. There are already at least 17,000 people in the Hamdayet transit centre, which has a capacity of just 300, according to the UNHCR. “We’re in a race against time,” Schmitt said. “Our closest office to the camp is six hours away; it’s a bad road and it sometimes takes two days to take refugees to our reception centres.”

The UNHCR initially planned for 20,000 refugees arriving in Sudan but soon had to revise its projections drastically upwards. “We’ve got an average of 4,000 people arriving every day through the two main crossing points,” Schmitt said. “Expectations of a massive influx have intensified because such a wide variety of people are fleeing Tigray – farmers, teachers, students, office workers, etc.”

More than four million people live in Tigray; around six percent of the Ethiopian population. Given a continued exodus to Sudan, UN officials said on Friday that around $200 million (€169 million) will be needed to provide emergency assistance to the refugees.

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