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Months of tension between the new government of Abiy Ahmed, in power since 2018, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who had dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991, came to a head in November 2020. Abiy ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray region, the powerbase of the TPLF.

Humanitarian situation

The UK Government, the UN and NGOs are calling for unfettered humanitarian access to the region for the estimated millions in need. The Ethiopian Government has restricted movement within and access to Tigay region. Despite an agreement on lifting some restrictions in early February (announced by the World Food Programme), and some clearances given for international staff, the UN continues to report that assistance remains limited because of the fluid security situation and bureaucratic restraints. Much of the region remains inaccessible. The Ethiopian Government has restricted media access to Tigray. 

Refugees 

The conflict between the Government and TPLF regional forces prompted an exodus of Tigrayans from the region. UNHCR now estimates there are over 60,000 Tigrayan refugees in Sudan (as of 20 February 2021). UNHCR says new arrivals are reporting incidents of rape and looting in Tigray.

Many more people are internally displaced, adding to the tens of thousands displaced before the conflict began.

Killings and sexual violence

The UK and UN officials are calling for an independent investigation of allegations of human rights violations in Tigray.

UN OCHA says “extremely concerning” reports of atrocities against civilians have emerged, including killings, lootings, and sexual violence. Senior UN officials are also raising concerns about ethnic-based violence across the region. 

Eritrean involvement

Despite denials by the Eritrean government, there have been many reports of Eritrean forces on the ground in Tigray in support of the Ethiopian Government.

The UK Government says it is “concerned by involvement of Eritrean forces in hostilities throughout the Tigray region… and the growing weight of credible evidence of their involvement in human rights violations”.

The US and EU are calling on Eritrea to withdraw its forces. The EU says Eritrean forces are “fuelling the conflict in Tigray, reportedly committing atrocities, and exacerbating ethnic violence“. The US State Department said there is evidence of Eritrean soldiers forcibly returning Eritrean refugees from Tigray to Eritrea.

UK Government response

The Government is calling for all parties to bring an end to the fighting, prioritise the protection of civilians, respect human rights, avoid civilian loss of life, and for authorities to allow unfettered humanitarian access. It is also calling for an independent investigation into allegations of human rights abuses. The Government has also emphasised the importance of media freedom.

This Commons Library briefing paper sets out the situation in Eritrea, the UK Government response and the background to the crisis.


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