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Tigray Crisis Threatens Regional Stability

By Clayton Barrington-Russell, BA Arabic and International Relations

20 years after its closure, the Um Raquba refugee camp in Eastern Sudan has re-opened its doors to an influx of refugees from Ethiopia. According to the United Nations, ‘up to 200,000’ Ethiopian refugees are expected to cross into Sudan, fleeing what could potentially be the latest devastating conflict in the region.

The recent skirmishes are between the Ethiopian Defence Forces and the regional government of the northern Tigray Region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Tigray make up only around 6% of Ethiopia’s population, but the TPLF have always been a powerful force across the country, including seizing control of Addis Ababa with Eritrean-backed forces on 28 May 1991. However, in recent years Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has tried to unify the state by giving more control to the National Government based in Addis Ababa.

The TPLF believes Ahmed is trying to take away their power. In August, he called for the postponement of regional elections due to the spread of Covid-19, which the TPLF ignored. In response to the National Government’s refusal to recognize these elections, the TPLF attacked an Ethiopian Army base in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region.

Following the attack, the Ethiopian Defence Forces have been trying to push the TPLF out of the northern cities and have recently seized numerous towns in the Tigray region, including Alamata and Igada Hamus. Meanwhile, Ahmed’s government has appointed their own leader of the Tigray state. The government has also issued arrest warrants for several Tigray politicians ‘trying to erode the constitution,’ as reported by state media.

Both the Ethiopian Army and the TPLF are accused of committing atrocities involving civilians. Amnesty International has reported that ‘hundreds of people were stabbed or hacked to death’ by the TPLF in the southern Tigray town of Mai-Kadra. The TPLF have hit back with accusations of Ethiopian forces ethnically profiling and killing Tigrayan civilians. 

Regional experts are worried that the recent escalations will turn into a damaging international conflict, just as peace was on the horizon. In 2018, Abiy Ahmed finally established relations with neighboring Eritrea and formed a friendship with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki. 

Despite the Tigray making up approximately 55% of Eritrea’s population, the TPLF accuse 16 divisions of the Eritrean Army of supporting Ethiopia. On 14 November they carried out a missile strike on Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, which was strongly condemned by the United States.

‘The recent conflict will only worsen existing food and water shortages

As a result of the recent tensions, the UN reports 30,000 civilians have fled Ethiopia to Sudan, with many more waiting at the border. Already heavily reliant on humanitarian aid, it is likely that the recent conflict will only worsen existing food and water shortages in refugee camps across the region. 

Life for those in Um Raquba and several other camps across Sudan’s Kassala province looks bleak and many refugees have arrived with no belongings. As the conflict shows no signs of ceasing, many are waiting in anguish, uncertain of when and how they will be allowed to return home.

Photo Caption: Refugee living in Sudanese camp (Credit: Frank Keillor).

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