There have been major violations of international law at two refugee camps in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Thursday.
It said satellite imagery showed fires burning and fresh signs of destruction at the Shimelba and Hitsats camps for refugees from neighbouring Eritrea, who fled political persecution and compulsory military service before the conflict in Tigray.
“These are concrete indications of major violations of international law,” Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement.
Reuters published satellite images on Tuesday from California-based company Planet Lab Inc that showed destruction in the two camps during the first week of January.
Aid agencies say they have been unable to reach the camps since conflict erupted in Tigray in November between Ethiopian federal forces and the party that used to govern the region.
Spokespeople for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the government’s emergency task force for the Tigray crisis did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Reuters was unable to independently verify events in Tigray as the government is restricting access to the region.
In December, a UN team was shot at when it tried to reach the Shimelba camp. Two diplomatic sources told Reuters the UN team had encountered uniformed troops from neighbouring Eritrea.
At the time, Ethiopia and Eritrea denied there were Eritrean troops in Tigray. A senior Ethiopian general has since said they had crossed into the region uninvited.
Grandi said there had been reports of additional military incursions over the last ten days.
“I continue to receive many reliable reports and first-hand accounts of ongoing insecurity and allegations of grave and distressing human rights abuses, including killings, targeted abductions and forced return of refugees to Eritrea,” he said.
Eritrea’s information minister did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Grandi also said UNHCR teams had been unable to assist thousands of Eritrean refugees who continue to flee the camps.
“Refugees arriving on foot in Shire town in Tigray are emaciated, begging for aid that is not available,” he said.
“I have impressed upon the Ethiopian leadership the urgency of ensuring the protection of refugees, preventing forced return, and keeping refugee camps safe from attacks and other threats from armed actors,” he said.