Humanitarian space in BGR has shrunk considerably in 2021, against a backdrop of hundreds of thousands of people displaced by violence and limited humanitarian response. In Metekel Zone, relief operations remained at a minimum while in Kamashi Zone the response has either stopped or reduced significantly as a result of insecurity. The scale and scope of hostilities between Unidentified Armed Groups (UAGs) and security forces has spread considerably, with large areas of the region affected by conflict and out-of-reach to relief partners.
In 2021, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and regional security forces from Amhara, Gambela,
Sidama and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s (SNNPR) regions have scaled-up security operations against UAGs. UAGs in Metekel have targeted government officials and security counterparts as well as other ethnic minorities, while Gumuz communities were attacked in Jawe zone (Amhara) and in urban centres such as Gilgel Beles town, prompting their displacement to rural isolated areas throughout the zone. UAGs are highly mobile and splintered into various factions, hampering any engagement for humanitarian purposes. UAGs have not perpetrated any attacks in Western Oromia, where active conflict between ENDF and Oromia Liberation Army (OLA) “Shane” also escalated in 2021, displacing some 135,000 people and forcing relief activities to stop or significantly reduce.
The humanitarian situation across the region is extremely dire with restricted or non-existent access to life-saving assistance for affected peoples, including food, health, shelter and protection services. The conflict has limited the populations’ access to essential services, with most rural communities receiving neither public services nor humanitarian assistance for many months. Most public services have been suspended in rural areas due to looting and vandalization by parties to the conflict, while public servants and government officials have vacated their posts. Dozens of schools and health centers have been destroyed, others are currently occupied by IDPs.
Meanwhile, partners have not been able to deliver aid to thousands of IDPs scattered through far-reaching areas due to insecurity. Currently, the only road to access Metekel zone is from Addis Ababa to Gilgel Beles, through Amhara, given insecurity on the roads from Assossa and Kamashi.
In May 2020 and June 2021, BGR and Amhara regional administrations relocated thousands of IDPs – who had fled violence in BGR by moving to Chagni town (Awi zone, Amhara) – back to Metekel. Following their relocation, these IDPs have received some support but it remains insufficient. At the time of writing, many ethnic Gumuz who fled ongoing violence in Metekel remain in unknown locations in the forest while some 6,000 people have sought asylum in Sudan, according to UNHCR.
Since June 2020, ongoing conflict has displaced some 384,000 people within BGR and an unknown number to neighboring Oromia, according to regional authorities. The number of IDPs is expected to increase as the conflict continues. Regional authorities and a few partners have mobilized assistance, but only close to urban areas and using armed escorts. This measure is considered a “last resort” to provide life-saving assistance to communities in dire need. However, there is a need to operationalize alternatives as armed escorts could impact the perception of “neutrality” of aid workers and compromise the safety of future relief operations. The security situation in Metekel Zone remains volatile and unpredictable. Access to Dangur, Debati, Bulen, Guba, and Wenbera woredas of Metekel Zone is heavily restricted, hindering assistance to 238,500 people.
The majority of Kamashi Zone is currently hard-to-reach for aid partners due to expanding UAG presence and ongoing clashes with security forces. Kamashi zone has experienced multiple situations of violence and forced displacement since 2018, when over 250,000 people were displaced along the Oromia-BGR regional border following violence between Gumuz and Oromo communities. In June 2019, Regional authorities supported the return of these IDPs back to their respective areas of origin in Kamashi Zone and Western Oromia. In 2021, UAG attacks in Kamashi have re-displaced over 100,000 Oromo IDP returnees to Western Oromia. Partners have relocated staff to safer locations in Western Oromia and most operations are halted.
In Assosa Zone, the presence of UAGs along the Bambasi - Tongo road has restricted access to some 22,000 refugees in two refugee camps in Mao Komo Special woreda (UNHCR), some 40,000 IDPs in Sherkole and Oda Bildigilu woredas, and 3,300 IDPs in Mao Komo Special woreda. Public transport along this route is reportedly nonfunctional due to insecurity. This has prompted, in exceptional cases, the use of “armed escorts” to secure relief convoys delivering aid, including food, to refugees.
Physical constraints due to limited road networks in Metekel and Kamashi Zones is a major impediment for partners’ access to affected populations. This is particularly acute in rural areas, where poorly maintained roads become inaccessible during the rainy season (June – September).