Twelve weeks since conflict erupted in Ethiopia's Tigray region, UNICEF is still having trouble reaching vulnerable children amid mounting risks to their health, safety and well-being.
Reports of widespread food insecurity — and refugees arriving at camps in eastern Sudan "emaciated" — are fueling fears that hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans could starve. The region, located in the northern part of the country, was already suffering food shortages before war broke out on Nov. 4, and since then many farmers' crops have been burned, decimating much of the year's harvest.
Thousands of people have been killed. Close to 60,000 have fled to Sudan's Kassala and Gedarif states, including 300 unaccompanied or separated children, according to UNICEF. The refugees are staying in camps, where UNICEF and partners are providing humanitarian aid, including nutrition, safe water, health care and other emergency supplies.
Hundreds of thousands more Ethiopians have been internally displaced inside Tigray, where access to aid remains limited amid continued violence and chaos. The potential for gender-based violence and exploitation of children is high. Critical infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed — including health facilities — and essential supplies looted. Vaccinations have ground to a halt. Continued violence and instability threatens to further erode health services and weaken defenses against the spread of COVID-19.
Access to vulnerable children and families inside Tigray is still "very limited" for UNICEF and other aid groups
“Our concern is that what we don’t know could be even more disturbing,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a Jan. 27 statement. “For 12 weeks, the international humanitarian community has had very limited access to conflict-affected populations across most of Tigray. The small but crucial opening that enabled UNICEF and partners to dispatch 29 trucks filled with emergency nutrition, health, and child protection supplies was a step in the right direction, but nowhere near the level of access and scale of support that is actually needed."
According to the most recent situation report, for example, UNICEF was able to deliver nearly 8,000 cartons of Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic Food (RUTF) inside Tigray, enough to meet 8,000 children’s nutrition needs for three months. UNICEF's response plan aims to reach over 2.8 million of the most vulnerable people — including some 1.3 million children — in Ethiopia's worst affected areas of Tigray and neighboring Amhara with a range of services and support.
Children in most of Ethiopia have returned to school following COVID-19 restrictions, Fore also noted – but not the 1.3 million school-aged children in Tigray.
"All parties to the conflict have a fundamental obligation to enable rapid, unimpeded and sustained access to civilians in need of assistance," Fore said. "Every additional day of waiting for help will only worsen children’s suffering."
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Top photo: A boy photographed at a refugee camp in eastern Sudan is one of over 25,000 children who have fled Ethiopia's Tigray region to escape violence since early November. © UNICEF/UN0403168/Abdalkarim