Tigray crisis: famine risk soars while humanitarians remain targeted

EU humanitarian aid experts visited Wukro, a town 50 km away from Mekelle, Ethiopia’s capital city. During the fighting in November 2020, the hospital in Wukro was damaged by shelling. It normally serves a population of 1.2 million people. © European Union, 2021

Since the start of the conflict in Tigray 9 months ago, thousands of civilians have been killed or fled their homes, and most basic infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. There have been countless reports on serious human rights violations and systemic violence against civilians.

The EU’s team of humanitarian experts has been working tirelessly to support humanitarian partners to address the massive humanitarian needs of the affected population.

Yassine Gaba is the Head of the EU’s Humanitarian Aid Office in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. He has more than 20 years of experience in managing humanitarian assistance.

The EU, as a major humanitarian donor, has contributed over €53 million in funding to humanitarian actions in Ethiopia, including in Tigray. However, various humanitarian organisations such as the UN, the Red Cross and various international NGOs are struggling to access the region while the conflict continues.

The challenges and dangers that humanitarian workers face are demonstrated by the sad fact that 14 people, from Ethiopia and across the world, have already lost their lives, trying to provide life-saving assistance.

We spoke to Yassine Gaba about the challenges he and his colleagues have faced in the past nine months.

Yassine Gaba, Head of the EU’s Humanitarian Aid Office in Ethiopia. © UNHCR

Since the first weeks, our main priority has been to get as much information as possible on the humanitarian situation in Tigray and liaise with our implementing partners, such as the UN agencies and international NGOs, on the initial emergency needs of the civilian population.

After this information was collated, we were able to mobilise about €20 million in mid-December 2020 for immediate assistance and ensure some slight reprogramming of other ongoing projects toward Tigray.

In 2021, the European Union allocated over €53.7 million to humanitarian projects in Ethiopia, including €11 million specifically for Tigray region. The EU supports the provision of life-saving assistance to internally displaced people uprooted by conflict or natural hazards.

We are proactively following the evolving situation on the ground, engaging closely with various agencies and EU embassies but also visiting the region ourselves to assess humanitarian needs.

We must also not forget that this conflict is not the only source of displacement in Ethiopia where nearly 5 million people are internally displaced. Ethiopia also hosts 800,000 refugees from neighbouring countries.

Providing the necessary assistance has been extremely challenging given the scale, severity and complexity of humanitarian needs.

The international community, including the EU, has made some US$600 million available just to assist those affected by the conflict in Tigray. Tens of thousands of tonnes of food, medicines, shelter material and other items are desperately needed throughout Tigray.

The supplies are available but what we need are roads to be opened and bridges repaired for humanitarian supplies, and airports are ready to receive aid flights. Logistical and bureaucratic hurdles must be removed.

Millions of lives are at stake, with nearly half a million possibly facing a famine-like situation according to the latest IPC analysis.

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly affected communities all over Ethiopia. The urgency of addressing humanitarian needs remained and the pandemic only added more challenges.

Imposing strict hygiene measures in a displacement situation is extremely difficult. The pandemic also severely affected the national health system and made it even more difficult for those affected by the conflicts in Ethiopia to find adequate assistance.

The international aid community has been adapting its activities while following recommendations that help to stop the spread of the virus. Humanitarian workers have also been working with local health agencies to assist in the national response.

In order to help vaccines also reach vulnerable people, the European Commission is providing €100 million in humanitarian assistance to support the rollout of vaccination campaigns in African countries with critical humanitarian needs and fragile health systems. At least €14 million of this funding will support vaccination campaigns for the most vulnerable in the region of Eastern Africa.

The main challenge for us and our partners is safe, at scale and sustainable access to those affected by the conflict. Indeed, the EU stresses that it is essential to provide unconditional, unhindered, safe, and urgent access for humanitarian aid and aid workers.

The aim is to assist people in need in all affected areas, in line with the fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and operational independence.

More than 4.5 million people need food aid urgently, including nearly half a million facing potential famine, but currently there are significant obstacles on most access roads into Tigray. The health system has mostly collapsed. Despite a few necessary clinics operating for a few months, with recent changes, the meagre gains in bringing back access to primary and essential services seem to have evaporated again. Two million internally-displaced persons are in need of urgent life-saving assistance and protection.

The people of Tigray are facing a major catastrophe. Meanwhile, both international and national humanitarian workers have been falsely accused of siding with one or the other side. This has to stop as it can have dire consequences.

More than a dozen humanitarian workers, both international staff and Ethiopians, have already been killed in the conflict region. Humanitarian workers are not targets.

Humanitarian workers are working long hours, far away from their loved ones and under difficult conditions throughout Tigray to save lives. The security environment is very complex with numerous actors and regular skirmishes in multiple locations.

We should also remember that most humanitarian workers are Ethiopians helping their fellow Ethiopians, be it in Tigray or other regions affected by violence. They have been working day and night for the past nine months to try and bring relief to those who are suffering.

All our partners work according to the principles of Humanity, Neutrality, Impartiality and Independence. What our colleagues need is the support of all national and regional actors, parties, community organisations and politicians, through for instance, the removal of bureaucratic hurdles and the guarantee of security so that aid can reach those in need and lives are saved.

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