The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said it has received an “overwhelming” number of reports about Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted or forcibly returned to Eritrea since fighting in Ethiopia’s northernmost region began more than a month ago, Al Jazeera reported.
“If confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law,” UNHCR head Filippo Grandi said in a statement on Friday, adding his agency has met some refugees in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
“It is vital that Eritrean refugees be able to move to safe locations, and receive protection and assistance wherever possible, including outside of Tigray, given the traumatic events they report to have witnessed or survived,” he added.
UNHCR and other aid agencies have not had access to the four main camps hosting for Eritrean refugees – Shimelba, Hitsats, Mai-Ayni and Adi Harush – inside Tigray, since fighting erupted in early November between the government and the region’s former ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Ethiopia’s army has captured the regional capital Mekelle and declared victory, but TPLF leaders said they are fighting back on various fronts around the highland city. Most communications in Tigray are down and access to the area is severely restricted, making it hard to verify either side’s statements.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said in text messages to Reuters News Agency this month that Eritrean soldiers had raided two camps in Tigray and abducted some residents, but provided no evidence. Eritrea has denied this.
The refugees living in camps in Ethiopia near the border of their homeland are in an especially precarious position. Eritreans often leave to escape mandatory, indefinite military service and repression or search for better opportunities out of what has long been one of the world’s most isolated countries.
Earlier this week, Ethiopia’s government admitted federal troops fired at and briefly detained UN workers in Tigray region, blaming them for trying to reach areas where “they were not supposed to go”.
In his statement on Friday, Grandi called on the Ethiopian government to implement steps to ensure safe access for humanitarian workers in Tigray.
“Such access is urgently needed so we can provide desperately needed assistance to refugees and other vulnerable populations.”