An Ethiopian child and young woman, who fled the ongoing fighting in the Tigray region, are seen at the al-Fashqa refugee camp in Sudan on Nov. 13. CNS photo/El Tayeb Siddig, Reuters

Ethiopian fighting could spark new refugee crisis

  • November 28, 2020

Church networks are getting ready for a humanitarian disaster and a massive wave of new refugees as the civil war in Ethiopia rages on.

“There are a lot of displaced (people) and there is going to be a lot of social impact, negative impact, once the dust settles,” said Catholic Near East Welfare Association Canada executive director Carl Hétu.

War broke out in Africa’s second largest country Nov. 4, after the Tigray Regional Paramilitary Police and militias loyal to the provincial government overran a federal army base in the town of Dansha west of the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle. As federal forces retook most of Tigray outside of Mekelle over weeks that followed, the war has sent over 30,000 civilian refugees into neighbouring Sudan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that up to 200,000 people could become refugees in eastern Sudan in the coming six months, unless the war is quickly wound down.

“We don’t want Ethiopia to fall here. That would be a severe, major catastrophe for the entire region, where Ethiopia was one of the most stable strongholds of northeast Africa,” Hétu said. “A lot of the good work in the Tigray region is done by the Church, by the Catholic Church, particularly with their school system, with the Catholic Secretariat.” 

CNEWA has been supporting the work of the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat for generations, helping to build schools and churches and funding social projects. Hétu has begun raising money in anticipation of new humanitarian needs in the coming year.

“People are being cut off from food, water, supplies,” Hétu said. “We know that Tigray region is a region that is totally dry. It’s been severely impacted by a lack of rain, many droughts. So a war is the last thing people need there.”

Canadian Jesuits International is co-ordinating with the European Xavier Network to help the Jesuit Refugee Service in Ethiopia. The JRS serves nearly 20,000 refugees in Ethiopia, a poor country that hosts more than 750,000 refugees.

Planning for the fallout from the war is proving difficult, said Canadian Jesuits International executive director Jenny Cafiso.

“Telephone and Internet communication have become difficult,” she said. “The blockage of air and road access to this region, communication blackout is significantly affecting humanitarian operations.”

Meanwhile the situation has degenerated into ethnic cleansing. Amnesty International has collected eyewitness accounts of a genocidal killing spree — believed to be at the hands of forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — in the town Mai-Kadra Nov. 9.

While there’s plenty of uncertainty about the war itself, there’s no doubt the Jesuits and other Church organizations are going to need help dealing with the fallout, Cafiso said.

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