The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has started relocating some 23,000 Eritrean refugees who had been stranded at camps in the conflict-ravaged Tigray region in Ethiopia.
In an exclusive interview with Nation.africa, UNHCR spokesperson Neven Crvenkovic said as of August 6, at least 126 Eritrean refugees had been moved to Dabat, a new site in the neighbouring Amhara region.
"While providing immediate support, UNHCR’s priority remains to facilitate the relocation of refugees to a new camp in Dabat, in the Amhara region," Mr Crvenkovic said.
The relocation comes weeks after the UN agency and its implementing partner, Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) were given a piece of land by the Ethiopian government for a new camp for the Eritrean refugees.
"On 26 June, land that had been identified nearby in the Amhara region was officially designated and handed over to ARRA and UNHCR for the construction of a permanent camp" Mr Crvenkovic said.
The new site, according to UNHCR, will accommodate some 25,000 Eritrean refugees who had long been sheltered at Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in the Tigray region.
Refugees who have been moved to the new emergency accommodation sites in Dabat have received basic relief items like jerry cans, mattresses, buckets, soap, blankets and food.
"On 29 July, UNHCR called parties to the conflict for a 30-day cessation of hostilities around the camps to allow for the safe relocation of refugees from Mai Tsebri area (where both camps are located) to the area of Dabat," Mr Crvenkovic told Nation.africa.
"In the meantime, we have put in place emergency measures to move the refugees from the Mai Tsebri area,” he added.
Eritrean refugees have been attacked by armed groups during the nine-month war between Tigrayan rebels and Ethiopia Defense Forces backed by Eritrean and regional troops.
“At the end of July, we received disturbing and credible reports from Mai Aini camp that a refugee was killed by armed elements operating inside the camp," Mr Crvenkovic said.
"In the recent past, UNHCR received reports of human rights abuses against Eritrean refugees," he added.
"We appealed to all parties in the conflict to uphold their obligations under international law, including respecting the rights of refugees and all civilians. We have also called on both the Federal Government and the Tigray regional authorities to launch formal investigations into all credible allegations received to date," he said.
Last month, hundreds of Eritrean refugees staged a protest in front of the UNHCR office in Addis Ababa, demanding the immediate relocation of Eritrean refugees from camps in the Tigray region.
The protesters called for protection and respect for the rights of refugees.
According to the UNHCR spokesperson, after Ethiopian forces withdrew from Tigray in June, there is a relative calm in camps hosting Eritrean refugees in the Tigray region.
“There is a relative calm in camps hosting Eritrean refugees in the Tigray region, however, refugees remain in dire need of water and healthcare," he added.
Access to camps
Despite the relative calmness, UNHCR staff cannot access the camps to provide humanitarian aid. On July 30, UNHCR and partners were able to access the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps since July 13.
As of August 5, UNHCR and partners have distributed food to 23,000 refugees in both camps. The delivery of aid resumed on August 5.
However, the UN refugee agency says access remains limited due "a complex and fluid security situation in the region. Basic services such as healthcare remain unavailable as well as clean water.