The Crisis Below the Headlines: Conflict Displacement in Ethiopia

Since April 2018, the ascension of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister of Ethiopia has ushered in a wave of national optimism. The new prime minister has moved quickly to open political space, promote human rights, and negotiate peace with neighboring Eritrea. However, behind the positive headlines—and indeed positive measures that merit international support—a major humanitarian crisis has unfolded in the south of the country. Over the past year, intercommunal violence has displaced hundreds of thousands Ethiopians. At the outset of the crisis, Prime Minister Abiy’s administration took laudable action in collaborating openly with United Nations agencies and other humanitarian organizations to mobilize and coordinate a response to the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Unfortunately, however, it has more recently taken steps that have compounded IDPs’ suffering by pressing for their return home before conditions were suitable.

As political ground shifted at the federal level, long-standing grievances between ethnic groups over land, borders, and rights re-emerged in an explosion of violence in southern Ethiopia. Significant displacement occurred between April and June along the internal border of Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). 

In September, a team from Refugees International (RI) traveled to southern Oromia and SNNPR to assess the situation of the displaced and the response. The team found that while the government made a proactive effort to partner with international humanitarian organizations early on, this positive trend was soon upended. In late August, the government began to restrict the delivery of assistance, telling IDPs that they would only receive help if they returned home. However, because many return areas were destroyed in the violence and remained insecure, a number of IDPs who tried to return home now find themselves living in secondary displacement sites.  

The government must take four key steps to address the crisis. First, it must refrain from carrying out additional premature, non-voluntary returns and allow aid organizations to provide assistance in both areas of displacement and areas of return. Second, it must establish a clear and transparent plan for voluntary and sustainable returns. Third, the government should implement this return plan in close coordination with relief organizations. And fourth, it must inform IDPs who have already been returned that they can live where they feel safest and that aid provision will be need-based. Donors and humanitarians must advocate for these changes while working with the government to support an overall improvement in its response to conflict IDPs.

Resolving ethnic disputes will be a long-term endeavor for the new government. Displacement due to intercommunal violence is therefore likely to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. Indeed, over the last few months, tensions on the outskirts of Addis Ababa caused thousands to flee while another 70,000 people were forced from their homes in the western state of Benishangul-Gumuz. The government’s push for premature returns in the south should not become the precedent for responding to ongoing and future displacement crises.


The Ethiopian government must:

Refrain from carrying out premature, non-voluntary returns of internally displaced persons and allow aid organizations to provide humanitarian aid in IDP sites. The government must allow aid organizations to provide assistance in both areas of displacement and areas of return. This will ensure that IDPs who genuinely decide to return voluntarily will receive the support they still need while those who are unable to return will not feel compelled to do so.

Establish a clear and transparent plan for voluntary returns. This should include surveying the perspectives of IDPs on their intentions to return and facilitating more systematic ‘go-and-see’ visits so that IDPs can assess the conditions in areas of return. It must also include options for local integration or resettlement alternatives for those who feel they may never be able to return home.

Implement the return plan in close coordination with relief organizations. Aid and development agencies must be informed of potential population movements so that they can be in place to support people who choose to return.  

Prioritize freedom of movement for all IDPs. Inform IDPs who have already been “returned” but are now living in secondary displacement sites that they can live where they feel safest. The government must commit to targeting assistance based on need.  

Ratify the Kampala Convention. While the government has signed the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the Kampala Convention), it has not ratified the agreement. Prime Minister Abiy should therefore direct parliament to draft legislation that endorses ratification of the Convention as an affirmation of the rights of IDPs.

Increase internal capacity for responding to conflict IDPs. The government should establish a separate unit of the National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC) – which was created to address climate and natural disasters primarily – to specialize in assisting and protecting IDPs driven by conflict.

The United Nations must:

Promptly deploy a resident coordinator/humanitarian coordinator (RC/HC) with a strong humanitarian background to Ethiopia. The Humanitarian Country Team has been without a permanent RC/HC for several months. This critical position must be filled as soon as possible with an individual who has the skillset to respond to conflict displacement crises.

Develop common guidelines with the government for ensuring that returns are voluntary. To this end, the Humanitarian Country Team must continue to promote guidance for organizations on providing life-saving assistance without contributing to policies and actions that may induce premature returns.

Donor governments must:

Provide more humanitarian funding for those most in need. Ethiopia’s humanitarian and disaster resilience plan has a gap of around $400 million for what is needed between now and the end of the year.

Continue to press the Ethiopian government to refrain from carrying out non-voluntary, premature returns and to maintain humanitarian access in areas of displacement. Convey to the country’s leadership that humanitarian aid cannot be used to promote returns to unsafe and unsustainable situations.

Provide financial support for Prime Minister Abiy to create a unit within the NDRMC that specializes in coordinating responses to conflict displacement. The U.S. government, specifically, should expand its existing support to the NDRMC to help establish this critical capacity. 


Ethiopia is currently experiencing remarkable political change. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018 following the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn. Since then, he has ended the country’s state of emergency, released political prisoners, fired controversial cabinet members and civil servants, lifted bans on websites and social media, and forged a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea.

While in recent years the government actively repressed political dissent and confronted protesters with violent crackdowns, Ethiopia’s new leadership has invited formerly exiled opposition leaders back to the country. In September 2018, thousands of Ethiopians rallied on the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa, to welcome the return of the heads of opposition groups. The euphoria and sense of hope among ordinary Ethiopians for an open, inclusive society was palpable. As Abiy’s Chief of Staff Fitsum Arega tweeted last month in welcoming opposition leadership, “A peaceful contest of ideas will move us from a culture of conflict into a culture of peace.” It is difficult to overestimate the significance of these measures, which offer an opportunity for Ethiopians to move past decades of repressive rule and toward a government that promotes democratic reforms and actively defends human rights.

Secondary displacement site near Yirgacheffe, Gedeo Zone, the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ (SNNP) Region, Ethiopia. (Photo by Refugees International)

Behind these positive headlines, however, the government faces enormous humanitarian challenges. The country is still reeling from the impact of the 2015-16 drought induced by El Niño, its worst in 50 years. The impact of this drought was compounded by below-average rainfall throughout 2017, which forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, primarily in the south and southeastern parts of the country. At present, nearly 8 million people are food insecure and require humanitarian assistance. Flooding has also caused displacement in a number of regions, including Afar, Oromia, and Somali. Additionally, Ethiopia serves as a generous host to almost 900,000 refugees, primarily from neighboring South Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea.

To add to these challenges, intercommunal violence stemming from unresolved grievances has broken out in several parts of the country. One of the locations most impacted is in southern Ethiopia, in the border area between the Oromia region and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). Major clashes have erupted twice before in this area. In 1995 and 1998, fighting broke out between two ethnic groups: the Gedeo, a minority ethnic group based mainly in SNNPR, and the Guji, a sub-group of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. The Gedeo are primarily agriculturalists, and the Guji are traditionally pastoralists. Tensions between the two groups have centered around land, border demarcation, and ethnic minority rights.

A displaced family with a newborn baby. West Guji Zone, Oromia Region, Ethiopia. (Photo by Refugees International)

After two decades of relative quiet, fighting erupted in April 2018 across the neighboring Gedeo and West Guji administrative zones. Armed mobs and youth groups attacked villages, forcing around 300,000 people to flee their homes. While the precise trigger remains unclear, government authorities made some arrests after a brief investigation and declared the situation resolved, leaving people to begin returning home. A few months later, in June, violence erupted once again on an even more intense scale. Over 800,000 people were forced to flee. Tragically, many experienced horrific violence, including rape, gang rape, and murder. Entire villages were burned down.