Two groups have cautioned the Ethiopian government against what they say are forced return of internally displaced people to unsafe homelands in parts of the country.
The Crisis Croup and Human Rights Watch, HRW, have voiced concerns after the latest round of returns which has been put at over a million and which the government has justified.
William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group told Reuters: “There is a risk of further violence that stems from the very ambitious return targets.”
“The problem is there may be lingering resentment and disputes over land and property if adequate work has not been done to assess the situation for returnees and ensure relations have improved,” he said.
For his part, HRW’s Ethiopia and Eritrea Researcher, Felix Horne, criticised the forced returns stressing that the said areas were unsafe and the PM’s public relations efforts could not change that.
“The only thing that will hurt Ethiopia PM’s image more than having the most new conflict related IDPs globally is forcibly returning those IDPs to unsafe areas. No Gedeo we’ve spoken to believes West Guji is safe for return yet. PR visits won’t change that.”
United States-based Refugees International sounded a similar caution in a statement this month in response to what it called the government’s “forced returns.” “Pushing people to return to their home communities prematurely will only add to the ongoing suffering,” the statement read in part.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in the company of Peace Minister Muferiat Kamil visited the Gedeo and West Guji areas in southern Ethiopia. It was his second such visit in the wake of the displacement crisis that happened under his watch.
The area was the site of brutal violence last year — Reuters spoke in August to the family of a coffee farmer whose limbs were chopped off by a mob of young men. About 700,000 people fled ethnic violence in the area last year.
Abiy’s delegation also provided the communities with building materials to rebuild their homes — razed last year during the violence — and the prime minister planted seedlings, according to a statement from his office.
PM Abiy Ahmed together with— Office of the Prime Minister - Ethiopia (PMEthiopia) May 30, 2019
ShimelisAbdisa, SNNPR President Million Matiwos and Minister of Peace Muferiat Kamil net & talked to Guji and Gedeo community members that recently returned to the area.
More: https://t.co/NUJcilm6Am#PMOEthiopia pic.twitter.com/BXzDvPW6Ni
Ethnic violence, a blot in Abiy’s reform agenda
Abiy Ahmed, who took office in April 2018, has won international plaudits for announcing bold reform pledges, but the blossoming of political freedoms over the past year has been accompanied by a surge in ethnic violence.
Rivalries between ethnic groups — once repressed by a state with an iron fist — have exploded into the open, and the United Nations says 2.4 million Ethiopians are currently displaced due to these conflicts.
More people were displaced last year in the Horn of Africa nation than in any other country, according to data published this month.
Earlier this month the government announced it was scaling up its plan to return displaced people to their homes as soon as possible. Abiy had in February 2019 reported the return of over a million people to their homes.
But months on, a report said Ethiopia had maintained its record of having the world’s biggest violence triggered internally displaced population.
Concerns by aid workers
An aid worker who spoke on condition of anonymity due to tensions between aid groups and the government over the plan said that displaced people “don’t have a voice” in the matter — contradicting the government’s repeated assertions.
The person said that in the past two weeks the government has deployed soldiers in the Gedeo area to dismantle camps, telling people who fled violence last year in the Guji area that they must bundle up their few belongings and head home or have them destroyed.
The Prime Minister’s office did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment on whether the army has been involved.