Refugees fleeing from Tigray in Ethiopia stretch Sudan's already scarce resources

10,000 people reside in and around 500-person capacity transit centre as coronavirus fears rise

More than 20,000 refugees have fled to Sudan since the beginning of fighting in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said.

With the conflict escalating in Ethiopia between the government and the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, Sudan is having to host thousands just weeks after declaring an economic emergency.

The fleeing men, women and children are being housed in so-called transit centres after crossing into Sudan from the Hamdayet border point in the Sudanese state of Kassala. One is close to Hamdayet; another, named Village 8, is about 35 kilometres from the Lugdi crossing point.

The situation is chaotic at the  Hamdayet centre, where 10,000 people are staying in and around a space designed for 500, UNHCR external relations officer Sophie Jessen told The National.

Water is being delivered in barrels and masks in large numbers, too, but maintaining social distancing to stop the spread of coronavirus among the refugees is an impossibility.

Beyond Hamdayet, at least 1,200 people have been relocated to another, betterequipped facility with a capacity of about 6,000 people.

“There’s still a critical need to identify and equip new settlement sites for refugees to ease pressure at the transit centres, which are overcrowded," Ms Jessen said.

"But for now – we’re just providing food and medical services – we have stationed protection staff at the entry points to identify high-risk cases and special needs."

Civilians are not the only group fleeing the violence. Also at the Hamdayet border, incoming combatants are being asked to disarm and are then relocated to a separate facility by the Sudanese government.

“This maintains the civilian characteristic of the refugees,” Ms Jessen said.

Sudan is already one of the world’s largest dependents on international aid to cover shortages in food and medicine and poor water sanitation. In September Sudan's transitional government, headed by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, declared an economic state of emergency.

In Hamdayet and at Lugdi, members of the Sudanese community have come together to provide food and shelter to the refugees, Ms Jessen said.

The conflict in Tigray between the separatist Peoples Liberation Front has escalated over the past few days with the group claiming a rocket attack on the Eritrean city of Asmara on Saturday.

The Front claims that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is using Eritreans in his attacks against them. Ethiopia denies the allegations.

Tigray is under a communications blackout since the conflict began in recent weeks, which has made the refugees essentially isolated from friends and family back home. It is still unclear what their fate is and what their long-term plans are.

The Peoples Liberation Front has had long-standing complaints over what they say is Mr Abiy's marginalisation of the group under political reforms and objects to any extensions of his rule after delays in Ethiopian national elections.

As an average of 2,500 displaced people per day continue to arrive, the situation on the border and in Tigray is one of flux – and civilians are once again left to suffer.