A combination of rapid urban expansion, conflict over land and resources and high levels of vulnerability to ongoing drought and seasonal floods triggers many thousands of new displacements every year in Ethiopia.
There was a significant fall in the number recorded in 2019 to just over a million, from 2.9 million in 2018. IDPs, however, tend to live in insecure areas with little or no access to basic services or humanitarian assistance, and many have been displaced more than once. Despite a number of positive political developments in 2018, old conflicts became more entrenched and new conflicts escalated along various state borders in 2019. Disasters triggered 504,000 new displacements, most of them associated with flooding and drought in the Somali region.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
Internal displacement in Ethiopia is a complex phenomenon, and it is difficult to distinguish between its numerous interlinked triggers and drivers. High levels of vulnerability among rural populations exposed to severe drought and floods, political and resource-based conflict and overstretched government capacity create a high-risk environment in which significant new displacements take place each year.
Eighty-five per cent of the country’s workforce depends on agriculture and pastoralism, and weather-related hazards regularly force large numbers of people to leave their homes in search of livelihoods, food, water and pasture for their livestock. Disasters triggered 504,000 new displacements in 2019. Around 190,000 were recorded during the first rainy season between April and June, and 177,000 during the second in October and November, when the rains were unusually heavy. Drought displacement was reported on a much larger scale in 2016 and 2017 than in previous years, primarily in the Somali region. Around 131,000 new drought displacements were recorded in 2019.
The impacts of Ethiopia’s worst drought in 30 years, which left about ten million people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2015, have also continued to aggravate other drivers of displacement by fuelling communal tensions and conflict. The seasonal movement of pastoralists has caused conflict over resources, as grazing becomes increasingly scarce. Tensions over access to resources in the Somali region, in particular, have morphed into conflict over resource ownership.
The proliferation of arms and political exploitation of the ethnic and cultural differences that fuel local struggles also help to drive conflict and displacement. The border dispute between the Oromia and Somali regions flared up again in 2017 and continued unabated into 2018, when it triggered hundreds of thousands of new displacements.
Despite positive political developments in 2018, almost 2.9 million new conflict displacements were recorded, the largest figure ever for the country and the highest number globally for the year. Conflict and displacement were recorded along three of Oromia’s regional borders, with the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s (SNNP) region in the south-west, the Benishangul-Gumuz region in the north-west and the Somali region in the east.
The number of new displacements fell significantly to just over a million in 2019. There were around 1.4 million people living in internal displacement as a result of conflict and violence as of the end of the year, also considerably fewer than in 2018. The decreases are the result of a national steering committee led by the Ministry of Peace approving a three-phase plan in March to return all IDPs to their places of origin in the following months. Implementation began almost immediately, and 1.2 million IDPs were thought to have returned by the end of the year. Most displacement sites in Gedeo, West Guji and East and West Wollegas were dismantled.
Not everyone returned voluntarily, however, and many returnees encountered significant obstacles in re-establishing their lives. Many found their homes damaged or destroyed or were confronted by other issues in trying to reclaim their property and land. Few have access to assistance or basic services, and farmers and small business owners whose livelihoods have been disrupted have received little support. Insecurity in some return areas has led to a significant number of secondary displacements. Some IDPs went into hiding or sought to relocate themselves to avoid having to return to their areas of origin.
Rapid urbanisation is also an issue. Almost one in five Ethiopians live in cities, and the country’s urbanisation rate of nearly five per cent is among the highest in the region. Rapid urban growth, both planned and unplanned, has displaced significant numbers of people. The government’s announcement in 2016 that it was to expand Addis Ababa into neighbouring farmland led to protests, arrests, killings and displacement.
Ethiopia also has large numbers of IDPs living in protracted displacement as a result of its wars with Somalia from 1977 to 1978 and Eritrea from 1998 to 2000, and years of internal conflict between government forces and insurgent groups in the Somali region and the south of the country.
Displacement is most pronounced along the regional borders, the result of scarce resources and land ownership disputes. The border between the Oromia and Somali regions in particular has been the scene of large-scale conflict and displacement since 2017. A number of other regional borders were newly affected by conflict and mass displacement in 2018.
Pastoralists, the demographic group most affected by drought and ensuing resource competition and conflict travel between rural regions in search of grazing land, but if their livestock dies because of lack of food and water they often move into displacement camps where they can access aid. Others move to urban centres in search of alternative livelihood opportunities and join the ranks of the urban poor.
Our probabilistic modelling of displacement risk suggests that Ethiopia will have to deal with significant disaster displacement in the future. Unless underlying drivers are addressed, the current overlapping patterns of displacement triggered by conflict and disasters can be expected to persist and the number of people affected to rise.
IDPs’ most pressing needs are for livelihoods, better access to food and safe water and sanitation and the restoration of adequate living standards. After consecutive periods of drought that have deprived many pastoralists and sedentary farmers of their livestock and traditional livelihoods, there is an overwhelming need for income-generating opportunities among IDPs and host communities.
Water and food shortages have also caused widespread malnutrition, and many IDPs are vulnerable to the spread of diseases. Few, however, have access to nutrition services or physical or mental healthcare. Many displaced children’s education has also been disrupted.
Our calculations are based on data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s displacement tracking matrix, its rapid response assessments and village assessment surveys, OCHA, the government, ECHO, ACLED and international media reports.
Internal displacement is clearly a major challenge for Ethiopia, but there were important policy developments intended to address the phenomenon in 2019. With support from the UN and the international community, the government launched a durable solutions initiative (DSI) in December. It provides a framework for coordinate efforts to support IDPs in bringing their displacement to a sustainable end, from the policy and legislative to the operational level.
Given its recent launch, 2020 will begin to reveal the extent to which putting the DSI into practice enables safe, voluntary and dignified returns. The government also organised a series of national consultations that culminated in Ethiopia ratifying the Kampala Convention in February 2020.
There were a number of positive political changes in 2018 as well, with a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, taking office in April. Ahmed created a Ministry of Peace (MoP) to tackle the country’s mounting intercommunal violence and has taken a number of initiatives to address displacement. These include the creation of an advisory group on IDPs made up of international organisations and NGOs, and a national steering committee to protect people displaced by conflict between the Somali and Oromia regions.
The government has, however, also been criticised for its handling of IDPs and for pushing for returns prematurely. In a positive step toward rectifying the problem, MoP and the National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC) presented a draft strategic plan to address internal displacement and a costed recovery and rehabilitation plan to donors and international agencies in April 2019. The plan includes provisions to ensure IDPs’ safe, dignified and voluntary return.
The country’s disaster risk management policy adopted in 2013 does not make specific provisions for IDPs. Following adoption of the Sendai framework in March 2015, the government created a standalone institution, the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, to lead and coordinate disaster risk reduction and management across the country. The commission has also been the focal point for all issues related to people displaced by disasters.