Aid Groups Struggle to Access Ethiopian Tigray Region After Deal

Humanitarian agencies are struggling to access Ethiopia’s conflict-torn Tigray region, despite a government agreement last week to allow them into the area.

The United Nations estimates thousands of people have been displaced by fighting that began in Tigray on Nov. 4, with an unknown number of people dead or injured. Access to basic services has been disrupted because of insecurity and a lack of communications, especially for the more than 500,000 residents of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle.

Last week, the UN said it secured an agreement with Ethiopian authorities to provide “unimpeded, sustained and secure access” to deliver emergency relief to government-controlled parts of Tigray. The aid agencies have been unable to deploy because the government hasn’t restored telecommunications in some areas, Chris Melzer, a UN Refugee Agency spokesman, said by email.

“We are eager to go north to support the refugees and the IDPs, but no one, really no one, can say when this will happen,” Melzer said by email. “We want to go as fast as we can, but only in a responsible way for the life and health of refugees, IDPs and our staff.”

Lack of Access

Three UN missions conducting security assessments left last week to the Afar region, western Tigray and southeastern Tigray, where some of the worst fighting occurred, said a senior aid-agency official who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak to the media. No access has been granted to convoys conducting needs-assessments, the official said.

In addition, agencies are being encumbered by conditions including that they obtain clearance through a government coordinating commission for all goods being transported to Tigray.

European Union Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič said last week the agreement to allow aid workers access to Tigray doesn’t conform with international humanitarian norms.

“It doesn’t go far enough,” he said of the deal, citing shortcomings like its geographical scope -- it relates only to government-controlled areas -- and the administrative burdens put into place to gain access. “This is at odds with the fundamental principles of humanitarian aid such as impartiality, neutrality and independence.”

Ethiopia’s government said in a statement it’s focused on “bringing fugitives to justice, restoring law and order, guaranteeing our citizens in the affected areas have unfettered access to humanitarian assistance, resettling and rehabilitating those who have been forced to cross borders and restoring transport and communications services that have been destroyed and disrupted” in Tigray.

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