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East Ethiopia: the forgotten crisis

Supporting the Displaced Populations/Refugees
Ethiopia

The grazing regions of Oromia and Somali in southern and eastern Ethiopia have witnessed an escalation in inter-ethnic violence in recent months. Since last September, more than one million people have fled their villages and been displaced to hundreds of reception areas. HI is working to protect the most vulnerable individuals, primarily women and children. Fabrice Vandeputte, HI’s head of mission in Ethiopia, explains the causes of the crisis and how the organisation is responding to it.

Camp of displaced people in Oromia region where HI distributed non-food items last November

Camp of displaced people in Oromia region where HI distributed non-food items last November | © HI

How did the crisis start?

For years, ethnic groups have been fighting over natural resources, especially water and pasture land in the regions of Somali and Oromia in southern and eastern Ethiopia. But the conflict has intensified due to long periods of drought and the famines that have followed them. A disagreement over where the border lies between the two regions also recently turned violent, when hundreds of thousands of people from Oromia living in Somali and even in neighbouring Somaliland were forcibly removed to Oromia. The Oromia authorities expelled the Somali population in reprisal.

Where are the displaced people living?

More than one million displaced people - mostly women and children - are currently living in 400 reception areas, such as schools and public buildings, but also with families and the like, on a north-south line from the towns of Jigaga to Moyale, on the border between the Somali and Oromia regions. These population movements are putting a lot of pressure on host communities. For example, one woman we met recently has taken in 50 or so members of her close or extended family. You can imagine the day-to-day problems that causes in terms of sanitary facilities, food, and so on.

What are conditions like for displaced people?

They’re exhausted – both they and their host families. Think about it: you’re just walking down the street, minding your own business, when you’re suddenly surrounded by police who load you onto a lorry, and transport you hundreds of kilometres away from your home region. That’s what’s happened to most displaced people. They’ve lost everything they own. A lot of children even get separated from their parents. Many suffer serious psychological distress.

What are NGOs doing?

Unfortunately, very few humanitarian actors are supported by funding bodies or are able to implement emergency programmes. NGOs in the field are finding it hard to launch a response because displaced people are spread across lots of different sites, and you have to find them. Organising aid for people scattered over a large area is not easy.

What is HI doing?

We’ve set up a programme to protect women and children. When people are suddenly displaced in large numbers, and forced together in very poor conditions, it leads to tension and violence, and women and children are usually worst affected. There’s also a heightened risk of rape and child trafficking. In Babile and Kersaa, where we work, we’ve formed mobile teams whose job is to spot risky situations and vulnerable individuals and to refer them to the right services, such as health centres, social services, NGOs, and the like. We’re also opening areas for women and children where they can play or get psychosocial support.

How do you think the crisis will develop over the coming months? 

Some observers estimate the number of people who could need humanitarian assistance - displaced people and host communities included - at 5 to 7 million. Very few people are paying attention to this crisis and not enough money has been allocated to it. The basic need for water, food, hygiene and facilities are only just being met. The support provided by funding bodies falls far short of what’s needed.

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