Ethiopia’s civil war could fuel a new EU refugee drama, amid “out of control” violence, Finland’s foreign minister has warned.
“We’re seeing the beginning of one more potentially big refugee crisis in the world,” Pekka Haavisto told press in Brussels on Tuesday (23 February), according to the AFP news agency.
“If you don’t influence it now, then the circumstances will build so that there are more and more refugees coming [toward Europe],” he added.
Haavisto spoke after visiting the Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan, near the Ethiopian border, as well as Addis Ababa between 7 and 11 February in his role as an EU special envoy.
He was not able to go to the epicentre of the conflict, in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Sudan was struggling to cope with the 60,000 Ethiopians who had already fled the fighting, Haavisto said.
“You have come to a situation which is militarily and human rights-wise, humanitarian-wise very out of control,” he said.
“This operation has lasted more than three months and we do not see an end to it,” he added, referring to the Ethiopian government’s military operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Force (TPLF), a local power.
Haavisto appealed to Ethiopia to let aid workers and monitors go to Tigray, amid reports of civilian massacres and sexual violence, including by Eritrean forces fighting on Ethiopia’s side against the TPLF.
But Ethiopia kept him in the dark, Haavisto said.
“The question of Eritrean troops is extremely sensitive, so we didn’t get a clear answer about the whereabouts or magnitude of Eritrean troops,” he said.
The Ethiopian government itself probably did not know what was going on, he added.
“My picture was that even the government themselves don’t have a clear picture, particularly [in] areas controlled by Eritreans … This is the problem: that the picture, even in Addis Ababa, on what has happened, is missing,” Haavisto said on Tuesday.
“In the public domain [in Ethiopia], there’s still also some kind of denial of the magnitude of the problems,” he said.
“When you’re in the middle of a crisis, people usually say things can’t get worse, but, unfortunately, they can get even worse,” Haavisto said.
Tigray is home to 6 million people and the UN estimates that 3 million of them now lack reliable access to water, food, and healthcare.
But Ethiopia as a whole is a tapestry of 110 million people from different ethnic groups and the EU fears the country might “unravel” if the civil war goes on, according to an internal analysis last year.
Things got worse on Tuesday when 7,000 people also fled from the Metekel region in western Ethiopia to Sudan due to violence between the Amhara and Gumuz Ethiopian ethnic groups.
The Metekel conflict was unrelated to Tigray, but flared up shortly afterward, highlighting the potential for instability.
“The [Metekel] situation has rapidly escalated in the past three months,” Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the UNHCR, a UN refugee agency, said in Geneva on Tuesday.
“The stories the refugees are bringing – they are fleeing attacks from their opponents,” he said, amid reports of civilian slaughter, including people burned alive
Ethiopia used to be a stabilising force in the Horn of Africa.
But more than 50 soldiers also died in a border clash between Sudan and Ethiopia two weeks ago, showing the risk of a wider unravelling.
Meanwhile, the number of refugees coming to Europe has steadily declined since 2015, when more than 1 million people came.
Some 7,679 people have come by sea to Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain so far this year, according to the UNHCR.
That compared to 95,301 in 2020 and 123,663 in 2019.
But the Syria war has also created millions of refugees in Turkey, who are being held back from Europe under a brittle EU-Turkey deal.
Haavisto briefed EU foreign ministers, EU aid commissioner Jutta Urpilainen, crisis-management commissioner Janez Lenarčič, and the UN, as well as media in the past two days.
“Implications for overall stability in the Horn [of Africa] remain … of concern,” Urpilainen said on Tuesday.
“Finland has always considered that it’s important to intervene in a crisis at an early phase,” Haavisto also told UN secretary-general António Guterres on Monday.
EU institutions have little leverage over Addis Ababa, except for freezing budgetary aid to the government.
They already held back €88m last year and Urpilainen said, last week, a further €100m due this year was in doubt.
But individual member states are adding weight.
Germany pledged €353m in aid to Ethiopia before the Tigray war broke out last year.
And that would be paid out on condition of “[launching] a political process to resolve the Tigray conflict and holding credible parliamentary elections” in June, a spokesman for Germany’s ministry for economic cooperation and development told the Deutsche Welle news agency on Tuesday.