The international community has finally woken up to the critical situation across the Horn of Africa. Conflict and drought have left millions at risk of famine. In the UK, an appeal has been launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for assistance for 16m people from Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan. To underline the gravity of the situation, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson visited Somalia on March 15 to observe conditions on the ground.
This is not just a British response. Turkey – with important links to Somalia – pledged to provide assistance for the region earlier in March. Germany also promised to help those in most need.
But in the rush to provide help to those facing starvation one community has been ignored: Eritreans.
There is no doubt about the scale of the need. A recent report from the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, detailed the critical situation facing Eritrea’s women and children. It said that since 2015, Eritrea has experienced drought that has led to cholera outbreaks. It said:
Malnutrition rates already exceeded emergency levels, with 22,700 children under five projected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2017 … Half of all children in Eritrea are stunted, and as a result, these children are even more vulnerable to malnutrition and disease outbreaks.
It’s not that aid agencies are reluctant to led a hand – but Eritrea rejects their support. As one humanitarian monitoring system – the Assessment Capacities Project – explained:
The Eritrean government severely restricts the access of humanitarian actors inside the country. Very little is known about humanitarian needs: UNICEF estimates that the total affected population is 1.5m.
Only a handful of UN organisations, and a few non-governmental organisations, are allowed to operate in the country. Even they find their hands tied behind their backs.
President Isaias Afwerki, one of Africa’s most ruthless dictators, has refused to recognise the plight of his people. This crisis has been building for years, yet in January 2016, when the first indications of the scale of the drought was becoming clear, the official media carried this message:
In view of the harvest shortfall that has affected the whole Horn of Africa region, President Isaias stated that the country will not face any crisis in spite of reduced agricultural output, the information ministry said, after he was interviewed by state-run media.
The president’s denial of the critical situation that was developing was extremely unfortunate. It has made aid agencies’ cooperation with the Eritrean government complex, and it is difficult for them to provide aid to the Eritrean people.
But this should not deter the international aid community. Information has been smuggled out of the worst-affected areas by Eritreans working with the victims of the drought. They are forbidden from taking their mobile phones or cameras into the feeding centres but some have managed to do so, sending them abroad illicitly at risk to themselves and their families. The photographs, taken in recent months, show children wasted from malnutrition and outbreaks of cholera.
How to get Eritreans help
What is required now is a two-pronged approach. First, assistance channelled through those UN agencies – UNICEF, the UN refugee agency and the World Health Organisation – that are currently operating on the ground.
Second, diplomatic pressure on the Eritrean government to allow the aid to get through. The European Union has already pledged €200m for the country’s long-term development – although this approach been criticised for its focus on stopping Eritrean refugees arriving in Europe. However, the channels that have been established should be used to persuade a reluctant regime to accept the hand of friendship in a time of need.
There is a good precedent for this. During the last great famine to hit the region in 1984-85, the Eritrean liberation movement – then fighting for independence from Ethiopia, and now governing Eritrea – accepted the assistance offered to it by charities and international donors. In 1984, $400,000 worth of food and other essentials was provided to the rebels. If the Eritreans could accept aid in the past then why not accept it now?