Plan to return Ethiopians displaced by violence unveiled

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Ethiopia’s Prime Minister announced a plan to return displaced people to their homes following ethnic violence, meeting communities who recently went home, as relief workers voiced fears the initiative could provoke fresh violence.

Abiy Ahmed, who took office in April 2018, won international plaudits for announcing reform pledges, but blossoming political freedoms over the past year have been accompanied by a surge in ethnic violence.

Rivalries between ethnic groups — once repressed by a state with an iron fist — exploded into the open and the United Nations says 2.4 million Ethiopians are currently displaced due to conflict. 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 government announced a scaling up its plan to return displaced people to their homes as soon as possible, a message Abiy reinforced on Thursday when his office published photos of him with people from Gedeo and West Guji southern Ethiopia who recently went home.

The area was the site of brutal violence last year — in August Reuters spoke 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, which included Minister of Peace Muferiat Kamil, provided communities with building materials to rebuild homes — razed during violence — and the prime minister planted seedlings, according to a statement from his office.

The upbeat message contrasts with aid groups and experts who say many displaced people are terrified by the prospect of returning home before causes of violence along ethnic lines are resolved.

“Pushing people to return to their home communities prematurely will only add to ongoing suffering,” Refugees International said in a statement in response to what it called government’s “forced returns”.

“There is a risk of further violence stemming from the ambitious return targets,” said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“There may be lingering resentment and disputes over land and property if adequate work is not done to assess the situation for returnees and ensure relations improve,” he said.

An aid worker who spoke on condition of anonymity due to tensions between aid groups and government over the plan said displaced people “don’t have a voice” in the matter — contradicting repeated government assertions.

The person said in the past two weeks government deployed soldiers in Gedeo area to dismantle camps, telling people who fled violence last year in the Guji area they must bundle up belongings and head home or have them destroyed.

The Prime Minister’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment on whether the army is involved.