Statement for the Record | “Ethiopia: Promise or Perils, The State of U.S. Policy”

Statement for the Record
House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing
“Ethiopia: Promise or Perils, The State of U.S. Policy
November 30, 2023

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this statement for the record.

Refugees International is a non-governmental organization that advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people in parts of the world impacted by conflict, persecution, and forced displacement. Refugees International does not accept government or United Nations (UN) funding, which helps ensure that our advocacy is impartial and independent.

While the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia officially came to an end a little over a year ago, the civilian population remains in the grip of massive humanitarian crisis with access to only a fraction of the aid and basic services required to survive, much less recover. On a recent research trip to Tigray, Refugees International witnessed extensive humanitarian suffering, a highly limited international relief effort, and widespread conflict-related sexual violence experienced by women in the region.

Among the most affected are Tigray’s internally displaced people (IDPs). While some have been able to return to parts of Tigray that have stabilized, many others are still displaced indefinitely, due to ongoing fighting or insecurity in some parts of Tigray, as well as destroyed infrastructure, clinics, and schools. Some displaced people remain with family or in IDP settlements, but many others are sheltering in local schools. These schools are crowded and lacking adequate food, water, sanitation, and medical services. Urgent scaling-up of assistance is needed in these locations, as well as other housing options. IDPs cannot remain indefinitely in schools. Besides being inadequate, students need to return to school after years in absence, and people need more stable and safe housing that addresses their protection and assistance needs.

In addition, the brutal violence perpetrated against women and girls across Tigray is shocking. Over the course of 2021 and 2022, hundreds of thousands of people were killed during the war between Tigrayan, Ethiopian, Amharan, and Eritrean forces. Women of all ages were raped by armed actors – some in front of family members. Others were brutalized in other sexually violent ways. Health experts estimate that between 40 and 50 percent of women experienced gender-based violence (GBV), with more than 80 percent of those who faced sexual violence having been raped, and nearly 70 percent of those having been gang raped. The real number is surely higher, as many women do not report their attacks for fear of social stigma. The impact and ongoing collective trauma of that violence was clear during Refugees International interviews, as was the lack of resources available to women suffering the physical and mental effects of sexual violence. Health experts noted that there are only three psychologists for the entire region of Tigray – a population of more than 7 million. The babies and toddlers born of rape are also in need; some women are unable to care for these children as they continue to deal with their trauma.

Hunger, which had been prevalent throughout the conflict and imposed blockade, became even more widespread during the recent USAID food aid pause in Ethiopia. Refugees International welcomes USAID’s recent announcement that food aid will be resuming. But many women have had to make difficult choices during this time. Some resorted to negative coping practices, such as survival sex. Others had to choose which children would get to eat. These desperate circumstances put women at far greater risk of exploitation. 

Local health officials, religious groups, and civil society groups, as well as a small contingent of international organizations are providing some services, but they need the ability to reach Tigray at scale. Mental health support is an urgent priority, especially for women.

Tigray needs peace to hold, and for the Pretoria Agreement to be upheld so displaced people can return home. Given the devastating ramifications of a return to conflict for Tigrayans and the broader region, the United States must push for the agreement’s implementation using every diplomatic lever available in the coming months, including engagement with the government of Ethiopia. For years, the United States has been a global leader in providing humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia. But with the UN Humanitarian Response Plan only 33.3 percent funded, scaling up food assistance and services for women and girls facing violence in Tigray specifically, and across the country, will be critical in maintaining stability and staving off humanitarian catastrophe in the region. 

Featured Image: Women who fled the violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in May Weyni secondary school, now an IDP camp, in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 23, 2021. (Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP via Getty Images)