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Tigray Crisis: Millions in Ethiopia At Risk

As the news cycle in the United States is dominated by the aftermath of the presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic, a humanitarian crisis is developing in Ethiopia.

Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s election in 2018, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have complained of unfair treatment with respect to corruption charges and removal from political appointments. These conflicts were compounded when the Ethiopian elections that were originally scheduled for August 2020 were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Tigray region responded by holding its own elections in September 2020, which PM Ahmed and his government deemed invalid. As a result, both sides came to see the other as governing illegally, and as tensions rose, the Tigray region withdrew its representatives from the federal government, and the federal government withheld funding for the Tigray region.

On November 4th, the Ethiopian federal government alleged that an attack on a military camp had been carried out by the TPLF and, in retaliation, declared a state of emergency. PM Ahmed announced that the federal government would soon begin taking military action against the TPLF.

On November 9th, according to Amnesty International, “likely hundreds” of civilians were killed in a massacre perpetrated by the TPLF, according to witnesses. The TPLF also began bombing the neighboring country of Eritrea, accusing it of supplying Ethiopia with soldiers and military supplies, an act that further destabilized the hostile peace between these two nations plagued by decades of conflict.

Amid international calls to de-escalate the conflict to prevent outright civil war, military action continued, including air strikes and fighting on the ground. Internet and telephone communications were blocked by the federal government, adding to the difficulty of verifying information. Transportation to the Tigray region was disallowed, cutting off the region’s access to food and other important supplies.

Within days, displaced people started pouring into neighboring Sudan by the thousands. As of November 24th, at least 40,000 displaced people had fled Ethiopia to Sudan, where 1 million refugees already reside. PM Ahmed continues to reject international calls for dialogue with the TPLF.

The conflict is occurring in a complex context. Along with other parts of East Africa, Tigray is currently suffering from desert locust infestations, which damage crops, livestock, pastures, and rangelands that are crucial sources of food and income. The region faces continued threats of new swarms in the coming weeks. Additionally, Tigray is affected by flooding and threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The overflow of refugees, involvement of Eritrea, and diversion of troops from Somalia are all potential repercussions of this conflict that could destabilize an already volatile region. Limited access to the region for assistance from international aid groups and the United Nations is exacerbating these issues. A lack of fuel and food resources puts the greatest strain on the most vulnerable, including the 96,000 Eritrean refugees already residing in the Tigray region.

The UN estimates that 1.1 million people will need aid in the coming months.

The Columbia Human Rights Initiative & Asylum Clinic is an organization of medical students and faculty members at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons based in New York, NY.


  1. Al Jazeera. Ethiopia: Tigray leader confirms bombing Eritrean capital. Al Jazeera English. Published November 15, 2020.

  2. Al Jazeera. Ethiopian parliament votes to cut ties with Tigray region leaders. Al Jazeera English. Published October 7, 2020.

  3. Al Jazeera. Ethiopian PM Abiy accuses TPLF of camp “attack”, vows response. Al Jazeera English. Published November 4, 2020.

  4. Amnesty International. Ethiopia: Investigation reveals evidence that scores of civilians were killed in massacre in Tigray state. %0D%0A %0D%0A.

  5. Daba ET, Wroughton L. Ethiopia sends troops into renegade northern province as long-simmering tensions explode. Washington Post. . Published November 4, 2020.

  6. International Committee of the Red Cross. Ethiopia: ICRC calls for respect of people’s lives and property amidst escalating tensions in Tigray and other regions in the country.

  7. International Rescue Committee. What is happening in Ethiopia’s Tigray region? .

  8. Marks S. Ethiopia Claims Victory in Tigray Conflict After Shelling Restive Region’s Capital. New York Times. Published November 28, 2020.

  9. Thomson Reuters. Ethopia’s Tigray conflict risks “spiralling out of control”: UN human rights chief. Canadian Broadcasting Company News. Published November 13, 2020.

  10. United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Ethiopian refugee numbers in Sudan cross the 40,000 mark.

  11. United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Global Focus: Sudan.


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