Tens of thousands of refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region are facing security risks and assistance shortfalls in camps in Sudan, according to a group of Western embassies and donors who have criticised the UN-led relief operation in a letter in or possession.
Addressed to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, the three-page letter dated June 17 accuses the organisation of a lack of leadership and failing to act on prior donor warnings about gaps and delays in providing aid at the camps.
The letter was shared by an aid official working in Sudan also concerned about UNHCR’s management of the response. We have confirmed the letter’s authenticity with two of the signatory governments.
Aid workers familiar with the relatively well-funded response said the unusual letter, which follows another that donors sent to UNHCR in January, is evidence of months of frustration and that it seems to have prompted a new urgency in the UN’s operation in the camps. The signatories called on UNHCR to make immediate improvements ahead of the upcoming rainy season.
The letter charges that almost eight months into the response, refugees lack safe and dignified sanitation facilities; are without sufficient access to health services; and are short of cooking fuel and grinding mills needed to process food provisions.
The alleged lack of services has left camp residents at risk of trafficking, armed recruitment and sexual violence, according to the letter, which describes the situation as at a stage where “the safety, security and dignity of refugees is at severe risk, and lives may be lost.”
Assadullah Nasrullah, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Sudan, said the agency has responded to the donors’ complaints – acknowledging challenges, explaining progress it says it has made, and providing information on plans to strengthen the response.
“We take all feedback and criticism of our work extremely seriously, and we are sparing no effort to help and protect refugees, including under difficult circumstances,” Nasrullah said, describing the influx of refugees since November as “massive and unexpected.”
Two senior aid officials working in the camps who spoke to The New Humanitarian over the past two weeks described the response as the worst they had seen in their careers. Both officials – and a third we also spoke to – said they were aware of the donor letter, although none were willing to be named in order to preserve working relationships with UNHCR and the donors.
The donors that signed the letter include ambassadors from Canada, Germany, Norway and Switzerland, and officials from the UK, US and EU. They say the situation in the camps has reached a “critical stage” with the onset of rains.
Around 4,000 of the 10,000 shelters in two official camps where refugees are living were damaged in recent weeks after severe storms, according to UNHCR.
Nasrullah said the government was responsible for choosing the camp sites despite weather risks that were pointed out by the agency. Recent winds and rains were heavier than anticipated, Nasrullah added, most likely due to worsening climate change.
Aid officials said UNHCR should have done more to convince the government to select alternative camp sites, and that weather mitigation measures should have been completed several months ago.
“There was a rush to find somewhere,” one of the three aid officials said about their work on the response. “[UNHCR] accepted very quickly despite partners challenging them.”
Around 40,000 refugees live in the two camps – previously used by Ethiopians fleeing famine in the 1980s. Another 8,500 are sheltering in transit centres close to the border with Ethiopia.
The Sudanese government has granted asylum to those who crossed the border, while UNHCR has played the leading role in setting up the camps, providing food, health care, clean water and sanitation along with around 40 other local government bodies, NGOs, and UN agencies.
After the Ethiopian government announced a ceasefire in Tigray last week – following heavy battlefield losses to the rebel Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) – some aid officials said camp residents may choose to leave the sites and return home in the coming weeks.
But officials also warned that new refugee flows are possible as the TDF seek to recapture parts of western Tigray, which border eastern Sudan and were annexed by militia from the neighbouring Amhara region during the eight-month conflict.
The refugee response is well-funded for what is considered a relatively small-scale operation. Donor countries – including those that signed the letter – have so far provided nearly half of the $182 million requested by UN agencies for 2021.
The relief effort has proved less challenging than the one inside Tigray, where aid groups have been blocked from delivering assistance by the Ethiopian government and its allies – as well as by general security concerns.
Hundreds of thousands of people currently face famine in Tigray and nearly two million have been displaced from their homes. Sexual violence has been used as a “weapon of war”, according to UN officials.
“The pace of refugee arrivals from the Tigray region had not been seen over the past two decades in eastern Sudan.”
Nasrullah, the UNHCR spokesperson, said the agency’s operation in eastern Sudan has faced several logistical difficulties in organising a response in a remote part of the country with little infrastructure.
“The situation at the onset of the emergency was really challenging,” Nasrullah said. “The pace of refugee arrivals from the Tigray region had not been seen over the last two decades in eastern Sudan.”
The first of the three unnamed aid officials said UNHCR is not the only organisation that should be blamed for problems that have arisen. They described the initial phases of the response as “chaotic” with dozens of humanitarian agencies failing to coordinate properly.
“It wasn’t clear who would help which parts of which camps, with which assistance, on which days or weeks,” they said. “It was a little bit of a circus.”
- The New Humanitarian