An estimated 20,000 refugees are missing from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region after two displaced persons’ camps in the war-torn area were destroyed in recent fighting, the United Nations (U.N.) said this week.
Most of the missing refugees are from neighboring Eritrea and are believed to have fled from the Hitsats and Shimelba shelters, destroyed by clashes that erupted in Tigray in November. Satellite images taken in January appeared to show that the two camps had sustained damage to an estimated 400 structures after recent regional fighting.
“[I]n Tigray, we have not had any access to the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps since November. … we continue to receive a number of reports of significant damage to those camps and indications that many refugees have fled in search of safety and food. We remain deeply concerned about them,” the United Nations Refugee Agency (U.N.H.C.R.) reported on January 19.
“Some 5,000 Eritrean refugees have made their way to the town of Shire and are living in dire conditions, many sleeping in an open field on the outskirts of the town, with no water and no food,” the U.N.H.C.R. added.
“About 3,000 people made it to another camp in Mai-Aini, which the United Nations has access to,” Filippo Grandi, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, said on February 2.
Many refugees “were caught in [the] crossfire, abducted, and forced to return to Eritrea under duress by Eritrean forces,” Grandi said, citing testimonies presented to him while on a recent trip to the Mai-Aini camp with Ethiopian government officials.
An estimated 100,000 people are currently displaced throughout the Tigray region, and roughly 60,000 people have fled to neighboring Sudan since November, according to the U.N.
Tigray’s latest military conflict began on November 4, 2020, after forces allied with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) allegedly attacked a federal military base in the northern region. Ethiopian federal forces responded by launching a military offensive against the TPLF, a Marxist separatist group, hours later.
Clashes between the two parties in Tigray have escalated since then, with reports of civilian massacres allegedly perpetrated by fighters on both sides emerging over the past several weeks. Reported incidents are difficult to verify, however, as fighting has damaged telephone lines and limited internet connections within Tigray. The Ethiopian federal government has also sporadically imposed communication blackouts on the region.
Ethiopia’s federal troops declared a victory against the TPLF’s forces on November 28, but the separatist militant group dismissed the announcement and vowed to continue fighting.