The Crisis Below the Headlines: Conflict Displacement in Ethiopia
Since April 2018, the ascension of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister of Ethiopia has ushered in a wave of national optimism. The new prime minister has moved quickly to open political space, promote human rights, and negotiate peace with neighboring Eritrea. However, behind the positive headlines—and indeed positive measures that merit international support—a major humanitarian crisis has unfolded in the south of the country. Over the past year, intercommunal violence has displaced hundreds of thousands Ethiopians. At the outset of the crisis, Prime Minister Abiy’s administration took laudable action in collaborating openly with United Nations agencies and other humanitarian organizations to mobilize and coordinate a response to the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Unfortunately, however, it has more recently taken steps that have compounded IDPs’ suffering by pressing for their return home before conditions were suitable.
As political ground shifted at the federal level, long-standing grievances between ethnic groups over land, borders, and rights re-emerged in an explosion of violence in southern Ethiopia. Significant displacement occurred between April and June along the internal border of Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR).
In September, a team from Refugees International (RI) traveled to southern Oromia and SNNPR to assess the situation of the displaced and the response. The team found that while the government made a proactive effort to partner with international humanitarian organizations early on, this positive trend was soon upended. In late August, the government began to restrict the delivery of assistance, telling IDPs that they would only receive help if they returned home. However, because many return areas were destroyed in the violence and remained insecure, a number of IDPs who tried to return home now find themselves living in secondary displacement sites.
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The government must take four key steps to address the crisis. First, it must refrain from carrying out additional premature, non-voluntary returns and allow aid organizations to provide assistance in both areas of displacement and areas of return. Second, it must establish a clear and transparent plan for voluntary and sustainable returns. Third, the government should implement this return plan in close coordination with relief organizations. And fourth, it must inform IDPs who have already been returned that they can live where they feel safest and that aid provision will be need-based. Donors and humanitarians must advocate for these changes while working with the government to support an overall improvement in its response to conflict IDPs.
Resolving ethnic disputes will be a long-term endeavor for the new government. Displacement due to intercommunal violence is therefore likely to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. Indeed, over the last few months, tensions on the outskirts of Addis Ababa caused thousands to flee while another 70,000 people were forced from their homes in the western state of Benishangul-Gumuz. The government’s push for premature returns in the south should not become the precedent for responding to ongoing and future displacement crises.
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