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On 4 November 2021, the long-simmering tensions between the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government escalated. Since then, the crisis in northern Ethiopia has changed from an open conflict to a complex crisis that is largely invisible in Switzerland.
The humanitarian situation in the province of Tigray, which borders on Eritrea, was already critical prior to the outbreak of the military conflict: The lack of rainfall and the locust plague led to a million people in Tigray needing help even before. The ongoing conflict has further worsened the situation and, according to the United Nations (OCHA), has driven more than two million people from their homes. Their flight meant leaving behind their jobs, their farmland and their cattle, and thus losing their only livelihood. While more than 60,000 people have so far sought shelter in Sudan, most of the displaced people fled within Tigray to larger cities such as Shire, Adwa, Adigrat and Mekelle.
Most precarious living conditions
Wherever they arrive, they are mainly dependent on the local population. This in turn increases the pressure on food security and local resources. More than 4.5 million people, or three quarters of the population in Tigray, are now affected by food insecurity. Large parts of the infrastructure such as water supplies, schools or hospitals have been destroyed by the acts of war or can no longer function due to a lack of staff and equipment.
The continuing unstable situation not only prevents the return of the refugees, but also the cultivation of the fields before the rainy season to reduce food shortages in the near future. There is a lack of basic provisions such as drinking water and personal hygiene products. The precarious sanitary conditions help the spread of infectious diseases such as cholera or COVID-19. Temporary emergency shelters, for example in schools, are overcrowded.
Support for refugees in Sudan
Since the beginning of 2021, Caritas Switzerland has supported the British aid agency CAFOD – a long-term partner of Caritas in Sudan – and the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) to improve access to essential sanitation for the refugees. This involves helping local clinics and pharmacies to ensure vital care and build up stocks. The project also works with local experts and networks to give psychological support to people traumatised by their experiences. In several locations, families who were displaced by the conflict and became homeless could be helped with supplies of materials for temporary shelters, blankets, sleeping mats, cooking utensils and hygiene sets.
First emergency relief measures started in Tigray
In June 2021, the slightly improved security situation also allowed direct involvement in individual Tigray regions. Together with the local partner, the diocese of Adigrat (ADCS), Caritas Switzerland initiated a first emergency relief measure: Displaced people who have found refuge in makeshift temporary shelters are provided with the most essential items for cooking, sleeping and personal hygiene. The focus of this first step is on particularly vulnerable groups such as women and children. In the medium term, it is planned to follow this with measures including the rehabilitation of the water supply, the erection of sanitary installations and the resumption of agriculture – if the security situation allows it. To mitigate long-term consequences, it is imperative to act now.