A Silent Majority: Internally Displaced People in Ethiopia
By TASSC Advocacy Intern Matthew Diaz
Millions of people are forced to leave their homes each year because of natural disasters, armed conflict or other man-made plights. Persons who escape their country of origin by crossing internationally recognized borders are known as refugees. In 2018 alone, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that there are 25.9 million of this population around the world, the highest number ever seen. Yet there is an even larger group of people forced to escape from their homes who do not cross international borders and are thus not considered refugees. These individuals are known as internally displaced peoples (IDPs). The UNCHR says there are approximately 41.3 million IDPs worldwide. Although they make up nearly 60% of all displaced persons and suffer the same hardships as refugees, IDPs are discussed far less by the general public and in the mainstream press.
The Torture Abolition and Survivor’s Support Coalition International (TASSC) concerns itself with global human rights issues, especially in countries where many TASSC survivors flee from. As of today, over 70 percent of TASSC survivors come from Ethiopia; a country with more IDPs than any other nation in the world. By further understanding the circumstances that Ethiopian IDPs find themselves in, TASSC and its affiliates can provide a more informed service to our members and supporters.
To be an IDP is to be among some of the most unsafe populations worldwide. Not only do these individuals suffer higher rates of mortality, abduction, and sexual harassment, but they also must survive travelling long distances, without homes, and often without a source of income. Moreover, a large group of people displaced from their communities can result in overcrowding of new “host” communities. It is no surprise then that the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), a research organization under the Norwegian Refugee Council, reported in 2018 that high levels of displacement correlate with low rates of socioeconomic development. This fact, as well as the tragic personal effects of displacement, are well on display in Ethiopia today.
Various ethnic groups in Ethiopia have very recently been subjected to forced internal displacement, in what are still unfolding and complex tragedies. The country now has nearly 3 million new IDPs as a result of ethnic and communal conflict. With more than 80 ethnic groups, tensions between peoples has been a repeated theme in Ethiopian history, leading to a constant strain being placed on its citizens and the state.
The ascension of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in early 2018 was hailed as a turning point for the country that would loosen the oppressive state’s grip on its people. This new administration released political prisoners, legalized opposition parties, established peace with Eritrea, and renounced torture. Today, though, we know that some of these reforms also opened the pathway for conflict and displacement. According to a recent article in The Economist, “The main factor, perhaps surprisingly, was Ethiopia’s move towards democracy in April (2018). As the state loosened its grip, communal strife erupted and violence broke out over land and resources.” All of those hard-fought indicators of a bright future are now threatened by the tragic collapse of rule of law, stemming from an upsurge in ethnic violence and displacement.
Out of total of around 3 million IDPs in Ethiopia, approximately 20 percent are from just two ethnic groups, the Gujis and the Gedeos. The Guji are an Oromo tribe located in the southwest area of Oromia, close to the border with the Southern Nations, Peoples and Nationalities regions (SNPNR). The Gedeo are an ethnic group from the SNPNR. Most of these displacements occurred in the first half of 2018, along the border between Oromia and the SNPNR. On top of this, old conflicts were renewed along the border of the Oromia and Somali regions1. Later in the year, tensions in Addis Ababa, within the state of Benishangul-Gumuz, and within the Tigray region also saw tens of thousands of fleeing people7. Many of these disputes originated because of conflict over pasture and water resources between regions.
The displaced in Ethiopia are now living in inhumane conditions, crowded into cramp shelters, often with no home to return to. This can have dire psychological effects on IDPs who are often already at high-risk for violence and exploitation. According to personal interviews conducted by Refugees International, IDPs describe their new life as highly uncomfortable, where they live with dread and paranoia. Studies on displacement by the World Bank have made it clear that uprooting a person from their livelihood or social network and forcing them and their loved ones into heightened vulnerability is a mainspring for long-term psychological damage. In Ethiopia, we see that on a mass scale. Aside from the personal, the forced movement of IDPs in Ethiopia also creates additional burdens on host communities.
With such an influx of IDPs moving to new areas, the cost of their displacement has a high chance of outweighing even the costs brought on by physical damages. The overflow of young IDPs encumbers local schools, leading to a reduction in the quality of or access to education. Similarly, overcrowded healthcare facilities become significantly less efficient when faced with the onrush of a massive vulnerable population. Today, basic services in Ethiopian host communities are stretched beyond capacity, exacerbated by rapidly rising food insecurity.
This 2018 displacement crisis occurred right after the Ethiopian agricultural lean season, where food stocks were low or depleted1. Previous natural disasters had also caused IDPs to lose livestock and cash reserves, encumbering their transition to normalcy. These incidents are particularly worrying for school aged IDPs, who have, in most cases, been unable to complete the 2018 school year5. Instead, classrooms are reportedly being used as makeshift shelters, where desks and boards are burned for warmth or cooking5. Though resourceful, humanitarian groups worry that these practices of substandard sanitation, along with a lack of proper hygiene facilities, combined with overpopulated shelters, could lead to a catastrophic disease outbreak. However, without the proper resources or the option to safely return home, such standards seem unavoidable. The end result is individuals whose conditions cause stress, depression, and anxiety, 4 hindering their ability to contribute economically to the state, while the state struggles to provide for them.
In June of 2018, the Government of Ethiopia released a response plan5 to the rapidly increasing internal displacement which detailed the deployment of the Ethiopian Defense Force, the establishment of a commission to analyze and provide solutions to regional ethnic disputes, and the mobilization of food, water, and health resources to critical areas. This positive sign is worryingly undercut by a Refugee International report in October of 2018 that cited numerous cases where the Ethiopian government has been stealthily forcing IDPs back to areas of conflicts, reportedly being threatened to lose additional aid if they did not comply7. As a result, there are now many IDPs who live not in official shelters but in open fields, markets, and church grounds, often without any furniture or only those made by sticks and cloth. Though it is true that the presence of excessive numbers of IDPs create additional hardships for host communities in other Ethiopian regions, their violation of freedom of movement and security is a particularly harrowing human rights concern.
Today, numerous roadblocks still hinder Ethiopia’s progress. For example, the full magnitude of the crisis has not yet been fully analyzed, as many IDPs remain in insecure and inaccessible areas. Further, continued tensions and localized incidents of violence have hindered humanitarian response, most notably in West Guji. At the end of 2018, incidents such as these left approximately 85,000 households requiring immediate assistance and unable to obtain it.
The Ethiopian Government under Prime Minister Ahmed have made commendable strides, but cases such as those forced relocations indicate that the government or its agents have not always acted in pursuit of human rights. Moving forward, it is critical that Ethiopia commit itself to full transparency and accountability in ensuring that their internally displaced are no longer part of the silent majority.
Matthew Diaz is an Advocacy Intern at TASSC in the Summer of 2019. He is currently a student at University of Florida where he is majoring in Political Science with a minor in Latin American Studies.