The number of Ethiopian refugees at camps in Sudan is dropping, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has confirmed, without stating their whereabouts.
UNHCR issued a statement on the matter on Wednesday, two days after the Ethiopian government alleged that some Ethiopian refugee fighters from Sudan had entered the Amhara and Benshangul-Gumz regions where Ethiopia’s massive mega-dam is being built.
In a statement on Monday, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “[The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has tried to expand the conflict by entering the Benshangul-Gumz and Amhara regions, crossing borders from Sudan. Some TPLF soldiers infiltrating from the Sudanese side have already been captured carrying UNHCR ID cards. It is a clear violation of international law and UN conventions governing the handling of refugees.”
The UN refugee agency said it is aware of media reports that some Ethiopian refugees registered in Sudan have returned to Ethiopia and are allegedly involved in the conflict there.
“While there has been a modest decrease in the number of Ethiopian refugees in camps in recent months, UNHCR is not able to verify the whereabouts of those who have left, including those who may have returned to their country of origin”
UNHCR said it verifies, on a regular basis, if registered refugees are present at camps to receive humanitarian assistance and updates its database.
However, for protection reasons, it noted, it does not release information on individual cases.
“Refugee status is incompatible with active participation in armed conflict. Any registered refugees who may have returned to Ethiopia and joined the conflict are no longer considered refugees.”
UNHCR has repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum, which can be a challenge in conflict situations.
“We continue to work with the government of Sudan in support of their responsibility and commitment to uphold this key principle, which includes separating identified combatants from the civilian population seeking asylum,” the agency said.
Recently, UNHCR said that the agency has set up a system to separate militants seeking asylum from civilians.
The agency has also dismissed rumors of “military training” at Sudanese refugee camps.
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Tens of thousands of people have fled to Sudan after fighting between the TPLF and the federal government forces erupted in November last year.
Relations between Sudan and Ethiopia are increasingly deteriorating over a disputed border area of al-Fashaga.
Tensions along the common border flared in December last year, one month after the outbreak of conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
Sudan has taken control of most of the land, up to 60 kilometers deep inside Ethiopia, which it alleges had previously been annexed by its neighbor.
Disputes over the agricultural land of al-Fashaga, which falls within Sudan’s international boundaries, coupled with unsettled dispute over Ethiopia’s controversial Nile dam project have strained relations between the two neighbors.
A few weeks ago, Ethiopia filled the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) for a second time despite warnings from the downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt for the dam not to be filled before a legally binding agreement is reached .
On 6 August, Addis Ababa rejected Sudan’s initiative to mediate in the conflict with TPLF, saying Khartoum cannot be trusted with the role while illegally occupying Ethiopian territories.
Sudan’s President Abdalla Hamdok, who chairs regional bloc IGAD, says his mediation initiative within the bloc’s framework is still in place.