The plight of Ethiopia’s internally displaced persons

As the Ethiopian government and international donors struggle to tackle the humanitarian crisis caused by drought in the Horn of Africa, some of the country’s own citizens are those most at risk.


A woman drags by a limp leg the carcass of one of her few remaining prized black-headed sheep away from her family’s domed shelter fashioned out of sticks and fabric that stands alone amid the desiccated scrubland.

“Once they are all dead we will go to one of the settlements,” says the Somali-Ethiopian pastoralist who is dealing with the fallout of the latest drought afflicting the Horn of Africa. Last year, Ethiopia’s highland region was affected.

This year, the lowland Somali region in the southeast has been hit, devastating the herds of the pastoralists who live there. Across the region, whose ethnically Somali inhabitants are Ethiopian nationals, there are 264 sites containing around 577,711 internally displaced persons – also known as IDPs – according to a survey conducted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) between May and June 2017.

Most of them have spent all their reserves trying to keep their few remaining animals alive and are left with nothing. “For those who have lost everything, all they can now do is go to a government assistance site for food and water,” says Charlie Mason, humanitarian director at Save the Children Ethiopia until June this year. “They have no coping mechanisms left.”

But the scale of numbers means the government is overwhelmed – many sites have reported no access to food – hence international assistance is sorely needed. However, international aid is often more geared toward those who crossed international borders.  

Lack of attention

“Refugees get global attention – the issue has been around a long time, and it’s just how people look at it, especially if conflict is involved,” says Hamidu Jalleh, working for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the region. “Weather-induced IDPs haven’t reached that level.”

 IDPs are only one part of the humanitarian challenge for those tackling the drought in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Some 3.3m people are currently receiving food aid. The dilemma is made worse by the international humanitarian aid network already straining due to successive protracted global crises in countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria

“Due to a shortage of funding, we were only able to reach 1m out of 1.7m in the Somali region in June and July,” says Peter Smerdon, East Africa regional spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Programme. 

Drought does not recognise borders but international law divides people into refugees and IDPs. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, crossing a border entitles refugees to international protection, whereas IDPs remain the responsibility of national governments.

On the edge of the town of Dollo Odo, lines of corrugated iron roofs glint in the sun across a refugee camp housing 40,000 Somalis. Refugees complain of headaches and itchy skin with the heat, and a recent reduction in their monthly food allowance.

But at least that ration is guaranteed, along with water, health and education services – none of which are available to IDPs in a nearby settlement. “We don’t oppose support for refugees – they should be helped as they face bigger problems,” says 70-year-old Abiyu Alsow amid the settlement’s ramshackle shelters. “But we are frustrated as we aren’t getting anything from the government or NGOs.”

Touchy subject

Ethiopia’s Somali region contains the largest proportion of the total 1,056,738 IDPs identified by the IOM throughout Ethiopia. The existence of IDPs advertises the existence of internal conflict and disorder in a country. For this reason, governments often approach the topic too gingerly, with IDPs then falling through the gaps – especially in Ethiopia. 

“It’s only in the last year-and-a-half we’ve been able to start talking about IDPs,” says the director of a humanitarian agency working in Ethiopia, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But the government is becoming more open about the reality – it knows it can’t ignore the issue,” they add.

Many within the aid industry praise Ethiopia’s open-door refugee strategy, which has led to it hosting more than 800,000 people and contrasts markedly with the way Western countries are increasingly focusing on reducing migrant reduction. But questions remain about its handling of IDPs.

“This country receives billions of dollars in aid – there is so much bilateral support, but there is a huge disparity between aid to refugees and IDPs,” says the anonymous director. “How is that possible?” 

IDP camps in the Somali region’s northern Siti zone that sprang up during droughts in 2015 and 2016 remain full. “There’s no financial backing to tackle underlying vulnerabilities to get people back on their feet,” Mason says.

Shrinking purse

A major obstacle to helping those displaced by drought is the fact that donors too are facing depleted resources. In 2016 the Ethiopian government spent an unprecedented $700m, while the international community made up the rest of the $1.8bn needed, to assist more than 10m Ethiopians affected by an El Niño-induced drought.

“Last year we dodged a bullet, but now the funding gaps are larger on both sides,” says Edward Brown, World Vision’s Ethiopia national director. “Large donors are making hard choices as they are having to do more with less.”

The Ethiopian government and humanitarian partners have raised $553m of the $948m needed to help 7.8m drought-affected Ethiopians identified around the country. Aid agencies tackling the drought previously warned they would run out of funds for providing food by July unless additional donor funds were forthcoming.

Calamity avoided

It appears that calamity has been avoided, for now. The Ethiopian authorities say last minute donations from the UK, EU and US means they have enough money until October to keep up food shipments. But that’s a long way from securing long-term viability for those trying to live in this sun-scorched part of the world.  

James Jeffrey

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