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Tigray conflict: all combatants have the obligation to protect Eritrean refugees – UN expert

GENEVA (6 August 2021) – Eritrean refugees trapped in the midst of the armed conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region are being targeted by both sides to the conflict, a UN expert warned today, calling on all parties to take measures to protect refugees in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law.

Ethiopia was home to nearly 100,000 refugees from neighbouring Eritrea before fighting broke out in Tigray in November 2020. Since the onset of the conflict, Dr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, has continued to highlight the plight of Eritrean refugees and call for their protection through communications to the Ethiopian and Eritrean authorities, and during his interventions at the Human Rights Council in February and June.

“Since the conflict began, I have received many credible allegations of grave human rights and humanitarian law violations committed against Eritrean refugees, both by the Federal Government of Ethiopia and government-allied Eritrean troops, and by forces affiliated with the Tigray People's Liberation Front,” the expert said. “Eritrean refugees have been singled out, targeted and victimised by both sides for their perceived collaboration with the other side in the conflict.”

The situation has continued to deteriorate, with fighting spreading to new areas and a recent escalation of violence against Eritrean refugees. An estimated 80,000 refugees would now be at imminent risk in the Tigray and Afar regions. “I am extremely alarmed at reports of reprisal attacks and killings, sexual violence, beatings of Eritrean refugees and looting of camps and property. This violence directed at refugees must stop,” Babiker said.

At the end of July, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, expressed concern about the fate of some 24,000 Eritrean refugees in Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps, who it said have been cut off from humanitarian assistance and are facing intimidation and harassment.

Recent armed confrontations have also displaced thousands of people in the Afar region, which hosts an additional 55,000 Eritrean refugees. In January, Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps were destroyed. Some 20,000 refugees were displaced and hundreds went missing.

“International humanitarian law has long recognized the need to protect civilians caught in conflict,” Babiker said. “Today I specifically call on all sides to respect the 1951 Refugee Convention.”

“All armed actors must respect the neutrality of refugee camps, allow humanitarian actors to provide urgently needed assistance, and facilitate the relocation of refugees to safer areas,” he said. “This horror must stop. All civilians, including refugees must be protected from hostilities.”

ENDS

Dr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker (Sudan) was appointed as Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Eritrea by the UN Human Rights Council in September 2020. Dr. Babiker is an Associate Professor of International Law, Dean of the School of Law at the University of Khartoum, and founding Director of its Human Rights Centre. He is also a practicing lawyer and has conducted investigations in many countries in the Horn of Africa in the areas of human rights and international humanitarian law. He has extensive experience working with international human rights organizations and institutions, including the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU). In December 2017, he was appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General as Humanitarian Expert with the Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group. In December 2018, he was also appointed as the Humanitarian Expert with the Panel of Experts on Somalia. 

The Special Rapporteur raised his concerns regarding the situation of Eritrean refugees in Tigray in his annual report, which was presented at the 47th session of the Human Rights Council in June 2021. To read the full report: https://undocs.org/A/HRC/47/21.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Ainhoa Barrenechea (abarrenechea@ohchr.org/+41 22 917 8967).

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org).  
Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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