Refugee crises often seem to emerge out of nowhere. All of a sudden, people are streaming across borders, making the excruciating choice that is no choice at all: to flee home as danger closes in, with little more than the clothes on their backs.
But the full story is almost always more complicated and, sadly, more predictable. By the time a refugee is knocking at a foreign door, the international system designed to protect them has already failed many times over.
The refugee crisis today in Ethiopia — a strategically important partner for U.S. security interests with a large diaspora population living in the United States — is a case in point. Over the last few weeks, tens of thousands of people have fled across Ethiopia’s borders in search of safety amidst violence in the Tigray region. But the warning signs have been clear for months: nationwide protests over the summer had turned deadly, ratcheting up tensions across the country. Despite opposition from the central government, regional officials in Tigray held elections in September. In the weeks before the recent fighting began, each side accused the other of preparing to attack. The International Crisis Group had warned of the risks of election-related unrest and potential displacement as early as January of this year. When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a state of emergency and launched military operations in the Tigray region on Nov. 4, the warning lights had been blinking red for some time. The United Nations warned that up to 9 million people in the region were at risk of displacement, and weeks later, more than 4,000 people were fleeing into Sudan each day.
If this crisis was so clearly in the making, why did the international community get caught flatfooted? While U.S. officials may have been engaging on the margins or behind the scenes over the last few months, by the time Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Abiy in late November, the violent conflict was well underway. Efforts by the United Nations and the African Union to mediate notwithstanding, no parties in Ethiopia appear interested in coming to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, despite a preliminary agreement with the central government guaranteeing “unimpeded” aid access, the U.N. warned days later that relief is still being hampered by ongoing fighting “in many parts” of the Tigray region.
How to be Better Prepared for the Next Crisis
Rather than wait for these crises to boil over, the United States can take concrete steps to anticipate and prepare for the kind of forced displacement that is happening in Ethiopia today. In a new report, we suggest approaching these conflicts through a human rights lens — one that requires policymakers to engage before, during, and after people begin to move.
Experts have long recognized the conditions that can lead to forced displacement and can list the factors that might precipitate atrocities and force people from their homes. Key indicators include persecution of minority groups, widespread human rights violations, and a history of armed conflict or instability. In some respects, the situation in Ethiopia was improving under Abiy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. However, the necessary ingredients for conflict to erupt were still present in the country: unresolved political rivalries from the 2018 transition, regular intercommunal violence, and a history of rights violations.
Protecting refugees and preventing further human rights abuses must of course be the first priority in Ethiopia right now. The U.N. should facilitate the deployment of independent monitors to investigate reports of atrocities and help protect at-risk populations like the Eritrean refugees in Tigray. Moreover, the United States should push for independent and unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray for relief groups that can provide food and shelter to civilians affected by the fighting. U.S. officials should bring diplomatic pressure to bear on Abiy’s government to ensure that any “humanitarian corridor” for Tigray is not used to control or manipulate international aid. And the incoming U.S. administration should quickly assess whether to grant Temporary Protected Status to Ethiopian nationals in the United States on account of the “ongoing armed conflict” that would pose a “serious threat” to the lives and safety of individuals forced to return to the country.
These are all necessary steps. But going forward, the United States needs a better strategy for addressing situations likely to trigger mass displacement. The U.S. should adopt a new paradigm for protecting the forcibly displaced, one that starts at the center to address the root causes, gets ahead of migration flows, leads by example, and leans into global cooperation.
What Would This Look Like in Practice?
First, starting at the center means focusing on the drivers of forced displacement and investing U.S. assistance at scale in peace and democracy efforts that address its root causes. In the case of Ethiopia, U.S. foreign assistance could have been used to encourage more progress in resolving longstanding human rights grievances; instead, just 2 percent of U.S. aid to Ethiopia has gone to democracy, human rights, and governance programs and peace and security efforts over the past few years; the majority went to health programs and economic development. Had this been more of a priority, the United States and the international community may have been better positioned to prevent violence in the first place or support subsequent mediation efforts to stop the slide into conflict in Tigray. Instead, the Trump administration chose to cut off aid altogether in September over a “lack of progress” in negotiations with Egypt and Sudan over Ethiopia’s disputed Nile dam project.
Second, the United States can also get better at predicting forced displacement and building these considerations into foreign policy decision-making. The Biden-Harris State Department should invest in early warning efforts by training diplomats to look for the preconditions for forced displacement or by hiring experts from the atrocity prevention and peacebuilding fields and incorporating this expertise into policy decisions. Those blinking red signals in Ethiopia should have set off a U.S.-led process to prepare a humanitarian contingency plan for both the Tigray region and across the border in Sudan, where the U.S. and the international community knew people would flee in search for safety.
Third, the battered U.S. image after the Trump administration also requires humility and proof of action if America is to lead once again on these issues. Ethiopia’s neighboring states will support most of the refugees from this conflict, but President-elect Joe Biden should mobilize international support for refugees by following through on his campaign commitment to raise the refugee settlement ceiling at home and provide additional resources to support refugee-hosting states abroad. These moves could help breathe new life into global efforts to share the responsibility of providing refuge to those forced to flee their homes – especially countries like Sudan that are in the midst of their own fragile transition.
Finally, as in most forced-displacement incidents, global cooperation will be critical to finding a sustainable solution, and the United States should lean into it. A Biden-Harris administration should fill funding gaps for U.N. agencies and relief organizations supporting the crisis in Ethiopia and its neighboring states, and it should mobilize other states to step up with their own commitments towards the $147 million appeal by UNHCR.
In light of the risks of growing conflict and increased instability in the region, as well as more forced displacement from Ethiopia, it would be a mistake for the United States to look away or resign itself to failure in this situation or others in the future. In addition to the tragic impact on individuals, the long-term costs of failure could be devastating and cascading displacement, festering conflict, and rising tensions around the world that endanger global stability. Given Ethiopia’s location and large population, if wider conflict were to break out, it could threaten the stability of the entire Horn of Africa region. The United States should take a leading role in building a flexible, inclusive, and sustainable system to protect the forcibly displaced and work hard to deliver on the promise of protection for all.
IMAGE: Ethiopian refugee grade four pupils who fled the Tigray conflict attend class at a makeshift classroom set by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) at Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on December 7, 2020. According to the UN refugee agency, 45 percent of the refugees are children. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)