Officials in Sudan say Ethiopian forces have been seen closing border crossings and preventing people from escaping deadly conflict in Tigray, prompting unrest amongst refugees waiting on the Sudanese side.

Refugees who fled the conflict in the Ethiopia's Tigray at Hamdeyat Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border in eastern Sudan, December 3, 2020.
Refugees who fled the conflict in the Ethiopia's Tigray at Hamdeyat Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border in eastern Sudan, December 3, 2020. (AP)

Ethiopian forces have blocked people fleeing the country’s embattled Tigray region from crossing into Sudan at the busiest border crossing point for refugees, Sudanese forces have said.

Their account follows allegations by refugees in previous days of Ethiopian forces stopping people from fleeing the month-old deadly conflict in Tigray between Ethiopian forces and Tigray regional forces. Tigray is mostly under a communication blackout.

Members of the Sudanese forces, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to discuss the events, said on Thursday that people tried to cross from Ethiopia around 03:00 GMT (6 am) into Hamdayet in Sudan but were stopped. They said refugees waiting on the Sudan side became upset and began throwing rocks.

The Sudanese forces then cleared the area, and on Thursday evening they confirmed that the border crossing remained closed. The Associated Press around midday saw more than a dozen people waiting on the Ethiopian side of the border.

Tensions have been rising at the border in recent days as the flow of Ethiopians crossing has slowed to hundreds per day from several thousand. People continue to flee Ethiopia several days after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory in the conflict, and reports of fighting continue in the Tigray region, which remains largely cut off from the world.

READ MORE: Ethiopia agrees to give UN ‘unimpeded’ humanitarian access in Tigray

A senior Ethiopian government official who has served as spokesperson during the conflict did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Asked over the weekend about refugee allegations about blocked crossings, United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi said his team had not raised the issue with Ethiopia’s government. But refugees told him about the “many checkpoints” and pockets of insecurity they faced as they fled.

“We have not heard of any systematic sealing-off,” Grandi said.

“But certainly there are growing difficulties.”

READ MORE: Ethiopia's needless war

Almost half of refugees are children

More than 45,000 Ethiopians have fled into the remote area of Sudan, first straining the generosity of local communities and then challenging the capacity of humanitarian groups that have hurried to set up a system to feed, shelter and care for them from scratch.

Nearly half the refugees are children, the UN has said, and many people came with nothing. 

Refugees have recounted horrific journeys of fleeing attacks and arriving on foot after two or three days of walking in the heat.

Authorities have said they are preparing for as many as 100,000 refugees. But Ethiopia's government has said it welcomes the refugees to come home for reintegration and has vowed their protection.

'World is silent' on Tigray plight

Many of the refugees, mainly ethnic Tigrayans, have said it was Ethiopian forces they were fleeing.

“The world is silent. They are not doing anything for us. They are silent,” said one refugee, Geren Hawas. “Until now they didn’t do anything. It has been a month and they didn’t do anything. The world has its laws. People are dying from hunger, by guns, they are dying. Why are they being silent?”

With communications only now slowly returning to parts of the Tigray region said to be under Ethiopian forces' control, it's been difficult to verify the warring sides' claims or know the extent of the devastation.

“I’m hearing reports of thousands of deaths” of civilians and combatants, International Crisis Group analyst Will Davison told an online event on Thursday. But nothing's been proven, and there's “no idea what the conflict looks like on the ground ... there's just a huge amount that’s not known.”

“There's a very high risk we haven't seen the end of the violence,” Susan Stigant with the United States Institute of Peace told the event.
READ MORE: UN: Military’s victory in Tigray does not signify end of Ethiopia conflict

Tigray refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia take shelter at Hamdeyat Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border in eastern Sudan, December 3, 2020.
Tigray refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia take shelter at Hamdeyat Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border in eastern Sudan, December 3, 2020. (AP)

EU crisis envoy urges communications

The European Union's crisis management commissioner on Thursday urged the Ethiopian government to restore communications in Tigray and called on both sides to cease hostilities.

"I urge... the Ethiopian authorities to lift the communication blockade," Janez Lenarcic said at Um Raquba camp in neighbouring Sudan, where he spoke with Ethiopian refugees who had fled their homeland over the last month.

"I spoke with a number of refugees in this camp today and what is perhaps most painful to hear is that they have zero information... about their relatives and friends who stayed behind," Lenarcic said.

Lenarcic also urged Ethiopia's government to provide access for humanitarian workers and goods, while calling on both sides to "cease the hostilities".

READ MORE: Tigray conflict: Nearly 100,000 refugees have run out of food in Ethiopia

Concerns for Mekelle residents 

Earlier this week, Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael told the AP in an interview that fighting continued “on every front.”

The international community has pleaded for dialogue, something Abiy has rejected as the Ethiopian and Tigray governments consider each other illegitimate after a power struggle since he took office two and a half years ago.

The first images from the Tigray capital, Mekelle, aired by Ethiopian state media on Wednesday showed residents venturing into the calm streets patrolled by Ethiopian soldiers.

University student Aleme Menkussie told the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate that he arrived on campus the day before the fighting erupted on November 4.

“Then communication was shut down,” Aleme said. “And ever since then, we have been in fear and worry.”

The UN on Thursday said of Mekele: “concerns are growing for the safety of more than 500,000 people living in the city and the well-being of the people who are reportedly relying on untreated water to survive due to damage and destruction of water infrastructure, according to media and humanitarian sources.”

Humanitarian access is finally poised to return to parts of the Tigray region under Ethiopian government control, after a month of growing distress over dwindling supplies of food, medicines and fuel for the population of some 6 million people. 

Nearly 1 million have been displaced by the fighting.

However, it is not clear how quickly aid will begin to arrive, as assessments come first.

READ MORE: Why Ethiopia's Tigray conflict won't turn into a protracted insurgency

Source: TRTWorld and agencies