As crisis accelerates in Ethiopia, the US should provide a safe harbor
Last November, Ethiopia’s simmering internal conflicts erupted into a full-blown military campaign between the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the government of the state of Tigray, then led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The nightmare that has ensued is challenging regional and global actors to find a way to stop the conflict, address one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and prevent the country from completely imploding and putting millions of people in Ethiopia and in the Horn of Africa at risk.
The Biden administration has been at the forefront of international efforts to provide humanitarian assistance, resolve the crisis and protect lives but much more is needed. As the United States continues to press for unfettered humanitarian access to civilians caught in conflict, it is critical that the issue of accountability for war crimes remain a priority.
At the same time, the Biden administration has a ready solution that will help save lives now: designate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Ethiopians in the United States to protect them from forced return to dangerous conditions. The U.S. has the tools at hand to protect lives.
The toll of the Tigray crisis is staggering: in just eight months possibly as many as 52,000 people have been killed and over 5.2 million people are in need of food and urgent humanitarian assistance. Civilians in Tigray have endured months of fighting, serious human rights abuses and war crimes, by all sides. While there were hopes that a humanitarian corridor would open through Sudan, this is now looking increasingly unlikely. The crisis is expected to worsen as the Ethiopian Defense Forces, the Tigray Defense Forces and allied armed groups and militias continue to target civilians and general security is rapidly deteriorating. There are reports of people of Tigrayan descent in other parts of Ethiopia being detained.
A horrific aspect of this conflict is the sustained levels of gender-based violence committed against ethnic Tigrayan women and girls. Human rights groups and media outlets have documented terrible levels of abuses since the outbreak of the conflict for control of the Tigray region of Ethiopia in November 2020. Ethiopian forces and allied militias and Eritrean forces (which have been supporting the Ethiopian forces in the conflict with the Tigrayan rebels) have been committing widespread rape and other forms of sexual violence against ethnic Tigrayan women and girls in the Tigray region, often accompanied by other acts of torture, death threats and other abuses, as well as ethnic slurs. Some of the victims were kept in captivity by the perpetrators for days or weeks, in circumstances constituting sexual slavery. Given the scale and gravity of the sexual violence, these violations amount to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. There must be accountability for these heinous actions.
While the conflict and atrocities in Tigray have rightly drawn the world’s attention, the Ethiopian government’s abysmal human rights record is not new. Even before the Abiy era began in 2018, the Ethiopian government had a record of extrajudicial killings, torture and other ill-treatment, gender-based violence, and enforced disappearance among other serious human rights violations. In 2018, the House of Representatives condemned the “widespread human rights abuses” in Ethiopia. Amnesty International’s 2020 report, “Beyond Law Enforcement: Human Rights Violations by Ethiopian Security Forces in Amhara and Oromia,” documents these human right violations and how a persistence of familiar patterns of violence perpetrated by the security forces threatened to derail sustained long-term gain.
Which brings us to today, a state of entrenched human rights violations endangering millions of civilians. The abuses referred to in the congressional resolution and in the reports of many human rights groups highlight a country where impunity has reigned undeterred for decades while terrible abuses were committed by the Ethiopian security forces, by armed groups and by ethnically based militias.
Compounding this entrenched harm, recent famine conditions in Tigray are jeopardizing the lives of millions of people. According to the United Nations, more than 350,000 people in Tigray are experiencing “catastrophic” famine, with millions more at risk. Over 60 percent of the population, more than 5.5 million people, grapple with high levels of acute food insecurity in Tigray and the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar. Climate change is helping drive the famine, but the conflict is exacerbating acute food insecurity in Tigray, massive population displacement and destruction of livelihoods. Simply put, natural disasters and conflict are decimating the ability of people to protect and sustain themselves.
As with entrenched and horrific crises of this nature, the United States is responding to several things at the same time. As the Biden administration continues to press for unfettered humanitarian access to save lives and end the conflict, it must ensure it also takes two specific steps to ensure accountability for crimes and safe haven for people who have fled the conflict and abuses. It must prioritize the provision of assistance to support survivors of rape and other forms of gender-based violence and support the collection of testimony from survivors of abuses to help facilitate future efforts at accountability. And right now, here in the United States, designate TPS for Ethiopia as quickly as possible. This will help Ethiopian people in the U.S. by providing them with a safe haven right now. Designating TPS is a minimum step towards responding to this terrible crisis. No one should be forced to return to danger.
Denise Bell is the researcher for Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International USA. Adotei Akwei is deputy director of advocacy and government relations at Amnesty International USA.