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There Is a Grave Humanitarian Need.’ U.N. Presses for Access to Ethiopia’s Embattled Tigray Region

TIME — The U.N. Security Council discussed the grave humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region on Wednesday as senior U.N. officials pressed the government for access to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of people that humanitarian workers have been blocked from reaching.

Diplomats said U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock called the situation “dire” and said it will get worse if aid and measures to protect civilians aren’t rapidly increased.

Lowcock said the U.N. has received reports that food is scarce in markets mainly because it was harvest time when the conflict between Ethiopian and allied forces and those of the Tigray region that dominated the government for almost three decades before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018, according to the diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the council meeting was closed. Each side in the conflict, which began in November, now views the other as illegitimate.

The humanitarian chief told the council that crops were not only left unharvested but main supply routes remain cut and in addition cash is scarce, malnutrition is reportedly rising, and some people are reportedly eating leaves to survive — and all of this is taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the diplomats said.

Before the conflict erupted, the U.N. said 1.6 million of Tigray’s 6 million people needed food aid, and it hosted tens of thousands of refugees who fled from neighboring Eritrea in four camps.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday “there is a grave humanitarian need in Tigray, and at this point, we’re not able to reach the people that need to be reached.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday underlined “the need for continued urgent steps to alleviate the humanitarian situation and extend protection to all those at risk in Tigray,” Dujarric said.

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward told reporters after Wednesday’s council meeting that all 15 council members “shared the view that the incremental progress we’ve seen so far is not enough.”

She noted that several senior U.N. officials including World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley and High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and senior humanitarian were just in Ethiopia meeting with government officials, which diplomats said was a sign of the urgency in gaining access to all areas of Tigray.

The diplomats said Lowcock told the council that Beasley, Grandi and U.N. security chief Gilles Michaud had “positive” meetings and emphasized the need for unimpeded access, protecting civilians and refugees and urgently restoring basic services including banking, communications, health services and paying salaries for civil servants.

Britain’s Woodward said the United Kingdom has condemned the destruction of the two northern refugee camps, Hitsats and Shimelba, “and we called for urgent assistance to those refugees displaced as a result.”

Diplomats said Lowcock told the council there are reports of some Eritrean refugees caught in the conflict being attacked, killed, abducted and taken back to Eritrea.

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