Remarks by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi at the press conference in Addis Ababa.
Greetings everybody. I conclude tonight my fifth visit to Ethiopia as UN High Commissioner for Refugees and at the outset I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Government for having facilitated his visit, and for the exchanges that I have had with its members, starting with the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the President, the Minister of Peace and other officials. Ethiopia, as you probably know is one of UNHCR's most important partner countries, a country in which we have worked for decades, and more importantly a country, and that's the reason why we've been here for so long, that has hosted for those decades millions of refugees: 800,000 - 900,000 at the current count.
And not only that, but Ethiopia is a country that has been quite exemplary in many aspects of refugee assistance, and it is for this reason that have 2019, I came to Addis to invite the Prime Minister to be one of the five co-convenors of the Global Refugee Forum that we held in Geneva at the end of that year. That of course was due to some very innovative policies inaugurated by this Government here in Ethiopia in respect of refugees, both at the legislative level and the operational level.
The purpose of my visit of course here was to follow up on the very critical situation that has developed as we all know in the past couple of months in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, with the focus on the overall humanitarian situation in the region, but also in particular on the situation of Eritrean refugees that are hosted there. I think you have all seen statements that I have made in the past few months. I thought that the time had come, and the Ethiopian Government agreed, that the time had come for me to come and exchange frankly, as I did, views on the situation and looking at the way forward. I did not of course meet only the leadership of the country, but I also met my UN colleagues, NGOs international and national, Civil Society Organizations, refugees themselves, and other diplomats, donor partners and other important actors here on the ground.
I would like to add that I was also able to travel to the Mai Aini refugee camp in southern Tigray, together with the Minister of Peace and the Director General of ARRA. ARRA is the Ethiopian National Refugee Organization, our counterpart in the country. This took place on Saturday and I want to thank the Government for that.
My conclusion before I take off tonight. The humanitarian situation in Tigray, I think I will say something that everybody knows, but I think it's important to repeat it, is extremely grave. People need all possible forms of support: food items, non-food items, medicine, clean water, shelter. The closure of the banking system, of the telecommunication system has added to the hardship of thousands of people, so the restoration of services is a very big priority and the United Nations as you know also estimates that hundreds of thousands, figures are difficult put forward in this situation, have been displaced and continue to be displaced. There has been some progress in the security situation as we have heard from the government, although some isolated or scattered incidents continue to happen, but of course we have observed, and in some areas we continue to observe, violence carried out by various armed elements and militias, but also as often is the case in these military situations, by criminal elements and this has resulted in looting, in violence, sexual violence, in rape. Unfortunately, as you know, also six humanitarian workers have lost their lives in in recent weeks.
So, the first message that I have shared, I must say to receptive ears of the Prime Minister, to Deputy Prime Minister and other interlocutors is very important: conflicts impact severely on civilians and whilst it is not in my place to make more political judgments, this is not my role, I have a responsibility to tell the Government that we're here to help minimize and eliminate the impact on civilians of these situations.
There are many people, as we saw in Mai Aini, and other colleagues have seen in other places that have been very severely traumatized and need support, and what we have heard from the provisional authorities in Tigray, there was by the way another UN mission that visited Mekelle on the same day in which I was in Mai Aini, led by the Under Secretary General for Security of staff, and that mission focused on that particular aspect of our work and there was a very strong appeal by the temporary authorities for more help to come on the part of the international community to help address these needs. The same is heard by many colleagues of mine in the UN and among the NGOs from line ministries from the Health Ministry, the Water Ministry, that we need to step up assistance. The situation as I said is very grave is very urgent. Without further action it will get worse. I do want to appreciate what the government is already doing to address this situation, and reiterate that the UN and the international humanitarian community is ready to help and step up and I think that this step up, and they said this to the Prime Minister, is very important if we want to avoid a further widespread suffering of people. In my experience if you don't attend to this escalating humanitarian crisis the needs become so acute and so big and huge that it is much more difficult to address. We still have time, I guess, in spite of all the suffering that has already happened, to intervene now and this is why I really welcome the very constructive discussions in this respect that we've had with the Government.
It is very positive that clearances were obtained in recent days to deliver cargo to the warehouses in Tigray in particular in Mekelle. I think that the next step is really to make sure that these goods, this cargo, food in particular, but also non-food item gets out and gets to the people who need it in the civilian population in all parts of the country, and I was very happy to hear the Deputy Prime Minister talk about the need to make joint assessments between the UN, the NGOs and the Government so that we can further refine our intervention. We talked a lot about needs, relief, access. Now we need to become more specific, where it is possible to do it and most urgent, we need to go there and do it and this needs some assessment and needs movement.
This of course leads me to the very important issue that I have been discussing very frankly with the Government and that my colleagues here have been discussing with the Government for quite some time since the agreement in November: access is fundamental for the UN and NGOs. There are 16 UN agencies and 25 NGOs that have submitted requests for clearances. What I have discussed with all interlocutors, the Minister of Peace, Deputy Prime Minister but also the Prime Minister, is the importance to have an access management system, a clearance management system, that is fast, that is efficient and as close to the field operations as possible. I mean my experience in these situations is that the situation can be easily volatile, insecurity can move, so it is important that these procedures are very agile that they ensure the security of humanitarian workers. This is an important responsibility of the government and the government is taking it seriously, but that it does not limit access to the point where access is insufficient, as it is the case right now. So, we need to strike a balance there, and I think that we need to put in place, and I heard, clearly, from the Deputy Prime Minister a commitment that these access procedures will be very quickly made as flexible and effective as possible, and we will follow up on that.
On the specific issue of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, as I said on Saturday I visited the Mai Aini refugee camp. You know, I think everybody knows, but for the sake of those who don't know, there were four refugee camps, Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray before the beginning of November: two in the north Hitsats and Shimelba and two in the South of the region, Mai Aini and Adi Harush. We visited the southern ones in fact Mai Aini one of the southern ones, and we met and spoke together with the Minister of Peace and her delegation, we met and spoke to the refugees residing. Some, most of them have resided for many years, maybe up to ten years in Mai Aini, but we also were able to meet some of the almost 3000 refugees that have now been relocated or have relocated themselves from the other two camps Hitsats and Shimelba. Now we know that, everybody knows, that in those two camps they were theater of conflict they have suffered severe destruction of infrastructure and damage and also most likely severe abuse on the refugees that were caught in the crossfire especially at the beginning of the operation and that those refugees have fled. This was a very traumatic situation for them in particular but also for the refugees in Mai Aini and Adi Harush who expressed to us their fear for their future. They said we don't want to have the same situation happen here, and I was glad to hear the Minister of Peace assure them several times that the situation in these two southern camps was secure, they were welcome there and that they would be supported and assisted.
Those that we spoke to that were coming from the two other camps reported issues of very much concern to us. They reported that they had been cut off, as we know, from support and assistance for several weeks. Some of them told us and told the Minister that they had resorted to eating leaves because there was no other food, but they also spoke about, especially at the beginning as I said being caught in the crossfire that was at the beginning of the military operation, and they also spoke of infiltration of armed actors in the camps, of killings, abductions and also some forced return to Eritrea at the hands of Eritrean forces present in the areas. Others reported that other refugees had chosen themselves to return to Eritrea given the insecurity prevailing in the area.
We heard many reports, not just on Saturday but also on other occasions and of course this is a situation of great concern these abuses and the strong appeal that I made to the Government, and I think this came loud and clear during our visit, is that it is very important that these abuses if they still happen, it is very difficult to tell without access, must be put to an end. Especially deportations are of course as we know quite a violation of international law as I have flagged to the authorities.
Now the priorities therefore are as follows looking forward: first of all, I raised this and we had very frank constructive engagement with the government on this issue, it is urgent that we get back in touch with those refugees that are still dispersed from Hitsats and Shimelba. We estimate they might be somewhere between 15 and 20,000 people, perhaps a little less, that are dispersed in areas where we do not have access. Whilst relocation to the southern camps continues, I think that we need to accelerate that operation, and in order for that to be accelerated and bring people to safety away from the insecure areas it is important that we the ARRA, the Ethiopia Refugee Organization with our support that we have access to those areas.
The Prime Minister told me that he understood very well this important priority for us, that he would personally follow up to ensure that this would happen, and we discussed this in more detail with the Deputy Prime Minister. So, we will continue to follow up on this particular issue.
Meanwhile, another big priority is to scale up assistance in Mai Aini and Adi Harush because they will be receiving more people. ARRA has told us that they will negotiate with local authorities to find the space to accommodate a larger population and we will continue to work together to ensure that.
Now there is a broader issue of course, generated by these allegations of violence and abuse that refugees I would say Eritrean refugees all over the country as we heard in Mai Aini, as we hear here with urban refugees in Addis Ababa, all over the country are now in a situation of anxiety and fear. They fear that the hospitality and protection that Ethiopia has given them for a long time is going to shrink or diminish and I have raised this in all my meetings, and I am happy to have heard that this is not the case. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Peace, told me that the commitment of Ethiopia to protect Eritrean refugees continue to be undiminished and I think it is important that this is known and repeated to send a message to reassurance to all refugees around the country.
I want to add a few elements. As you know last November after the beginning of the military operation, I went to Sudan at the border with the Ethiopia to meet the Ethiopian refugees who were afraid of the situation in Tigray and that were crossing over into Sudan. That number by the way has now exceeded 60,000 refugees. What I heard there, and I spent quite some time, a couple of days, speaking to the refugees in a way mirrored what we heard from some of the Eritrean refugees but of course in a slightly different context.
We heard of course the fear of fighting, this is a very natural fear of any civilian population but we also heard the fear of abuse and violence not at the hands of the Federal forces but at the hands of militia, irregular militia, and I shared this view with the authorities today. Most of them, I have to tell you, most of them told me that they wanted to return to Ethiopia fairly quickly and of course UNHCR stands ready, and we discussed this today with the authorities, to support this return provided of course it is a free and voluntary choice of the refugees, something that Ethiopia fully respects but I also advised the government here that we must address this issue of abuse by individuals or by groups if we want to encourage these people to return. It is very important that the Government says and continues to say that people are welcome back. I think that if this issue of violence is addressed, the Deputy Prime Minister explained to me how a plan is being rolled out to diminish any irregular violence and reestablish law and order in the area, I think that this would constitute a good context for people, it will encourage at least some people to go back feeling safe feeling that they have the security and support that they need.
Let me repeat it again many people want to return. They are missing or have missed the harvest their left behind the houses belongings they have fled many times in haste, so it is important that this is addressed as a matter of urgency. It is also as part of the peacebuilding process which I heard the Government is intending to embark upon after the military operation or even now as the military operation continues, I think it is important also to address these allegations that we have heard of violence at the hands of militias, of foreign forces, of others. I was very pleased to hear even in the camp when I visited with the Minister of Peace and then from other authorities a commitment by the Ethiopian Government to investigate what has happened.
My main priority, our main priority, is to gain access to deliver aid and protection, ensure the safety of everybody now but it is also important, and I have seen it in so many conflict situations, that also what has happened might be addressed in full transparency. This is not my mandate, this is something more in the domain of human rights, but my strong recommendation having seen this over and over again, is that the Ethiopian government in full transparency conducts this investigation, this investigation needs to be as impartial and credible as possible, to fulfill what they need to fulfill, bring to accountability the people that may be accountable whichever side or whichever group they belong to, but also at the same time to ensure that there is a due process of redress for what has happened to reassure the civilian populations that have been impacted. By the way, you know, there is a lot of noise on social media in the public domain around these issues. When you visit like I did on Saturday, you realize that the situation is very complex, that there's been a lot of crossfire, a lot of violations on all sides, and all this needs to be impartially investigated by those who will do it, and I think it is very important as the impact of the conflict on civilians or of the operations on civilians is investigated that refugees are also included in this investigations.
My final point is that the Government is rightly concerned that we need resources to respond to this crisis, and I would like to flag and to continue to run all other operations humanitarian and development operations in this country. I remind you that UNHCR alone with ARRA is dealing with South Sudanese refugees in Gambella, with Somali refugees in the Somali region, with Sudanese refugees in Assosa, that although the IDP population in the country has decreased in other regions other than Tigray there are still areas of IDP operations that need to be supported and I think that for this of course international assistance is necessary. I told the Government that access to people in need, presence of international organizations in support of the national effort, all these will be very welcome sign of building costs and encouraging the international community to support also financially the operations of the Government, of the United Nations, and of NGOs. You know that the United Nations has appealed for one 170 million dollars specifically for operations in Northern Ethiopia, there has been a good response, 65% has been funded, but we need more to come through because the needs in my opinion will escalate as we go forward. In Sudan as well we have appealed for the refugees there for about $150 million, almost half of that amount has been contributed including a recent and very substantive American contribution but once again we need to have those efforts supported until we come to a solution of this crisis and hopefully we move forward along all the directions that I have outlined. Many thanks.