UN Refugee Camps in Sudan as Recruitment Centers for TPLF

A recent report by BBC Amharic citing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) revealed that forced military recruitment was taking place at refugee camps in eastern Sudan where Ethiopian refugees, mostly from the Tigray region, being sheltered.

The UNHCR told the BBC Amharic service that it had “credible reports” as far back as months ago of efforts to recruit fighters among the refugees. Based on previous allegations by Ethiopian officials and reports by Sudanese media the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an armed insurgency currently at war with the government of Ethiopia, had been actively recruiting fighters from these shelters.

The report of forced recruitment by the UN agency comes days after the resumption of fighting between the militants and Ethiopian government forces, ending a tacit humanitarian truce agreed to by both parties in April, 2022.

Officials of the UNHCR said they had reported their concerns to Sudanese authorities in Khartoum as well as locally. However, it is not clear exactly how many fighters had been recruited or when the recruitment was carried out.

Experts in Ethiopia had warned of the dangers of refugee camps becoming incubation grounds for insurgents. In the 1980s the TPLF had used similar tactics to recruit fighters among refugees that had encamped in eastern Sudan. The same patterns of using the region as a launching pad for the group’s fresh insurrection is thus likely to continue. Ethiopian authorities worry this could draw in other regional actors who seek to use Tigray’s rebels as proxy to attack Ethiopia’s central government.

Citing fears of an Ethiopian incursion to deal with the cross border TPLF militants, the Sudanese government recently announced closing down of the Hamdayet border reception center near Humera. Ethiopian authorities have made clear their desire to see refugee camps along the border relocate to other areas away from zones they view as threatening. Many officials believe the camps are too closely positioned, thus accommodate subversive actors.

On several occasions, authorities in Addis Ababa have accused the TPLF of disguising fighters as refugees registered in eastern Sudanese UNHCR shelters. Some of the purported refugees are members of the TPLF allied, Samre youth group, which was involved in the Mai Cadra massacre, in which several hundred Amhara civilians were brutally murdered, however, refrained from saying Sudanese officials were involved in facilitating military recruitment.

Young men at Uhm Rakuba refugee camp in eastern Sudan line up for lunch. Ethiopian officials says some of those mixed in with refugees are members of the Samre youth group responsible for the Mai Cadra Massacre. Here they are seen covering their faces from the photographer.

One week ago, Bloomberg reported that former Ethiopian UN-Peacekeepers in Abyei who had defected from the army at the outset of the Tigray war, were resettled in UNHCR refugee camps in eastern Sudan, where they joined up with TPLF militants. Ethiopian official says the bulk of these UN Peacekeepers had been “card carrying members” of the TPLF prior to the outbreak of the conflict on November 4, 2020.

Spokesperson for the TPLF, Getachew Reda, confirmed to Bloomberg the existence of Ex-UN Peacekeeper among the TPLF rank in eastern Sudan. Sudanese officials have neither confirmed nor denied this claim.

Following renewed clashes in northern Ethiopia, the UN refugee agency said it is concerned about the potential for more refugee arrivals and is monitoring the situation closely. This will threaten to immerse Sudan deeper into the conflict.

Given their history, TPLF leaders have a keen understanding of the use for such proximity refugee camps where recruitment and organizing for their cause can occur. Ethiopian authorities also fear the potential effects of these camps becoming military equipment smuggling centers, as was the case in the 1980s. 

The two main centers for Ethiopian refugees in eastern Sudan are Hamdayet to the north and the much larger Uhm Rakuba to the south.

As far as the Ethiopians are concerned, Sudan is quietly providing real-estate to the TPLF fighters disguised as UNHCR refugees, while Egypt continues to funnel weapons as well as training to the group, which aims to dislodge both the government of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Given the history of the region this is not all that outlandish

More troubling is the UNHCR’s lack of credible investigations into these serious allegations. Up until now, the UN institutions seem to have implicitly turned a blind eye to it. World Health Organization Director General, Tedros Adhanom, an Ethiopian himself and longtime senior member of the TPLF has repeatedly blamed the government of Ethiopia for atrocities, but has never shown the slightest concern about military recruitment at UNHCR camps based in Eastern Sudan.

In this regard, the UN, US, and EU seem to have implicitly expressed support for activities of the TPLF and their foreign sponsors. This is increasingly being interpreted as covert support for the armed insurgency, which portends to fester and widen.

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