In 2018, Ethiopia recorded the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide according to a report by the International Displacement Monitoring Center and the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The report found that Ethiopia was home to 2.9m IDPs from a total of 28m new displacements across 148 countries.
Vastly outstripping its counterparts by over one million people, Ethiopia was followed by 1.9m IDPs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1.6m in Syria, 578,000 in Somalia and 541,000 in Nigeria.
The negative global ranking stands in stark contrast to the recent spate of good news emerging from East Africa’s most populous country since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power last year.
While Abiy has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his peace-making efforts with Eritrea, and praised for his democratic reforms, many local observers argue that the prime minister is neglecting serious issues in his backyard in favour of maintaining his positive international image.
Critics see Abiy’s decision to plant 350m trees in 12 hours as a deliberate strategy to divert attention from an ethnic secession bid by the Sidama people the week before and a regional coup attempt in Amhara before that.
In terms of IDPs, the bulk of last year’s displacements occurred in West Guji in the Oromia region where 800,000 ethnic Gedeos fled following intercommunal clashes with Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo.
After mounting international attention compelled the government to intervene, the government forced the Gedeo community to return home through what it called “voluntary” returns.
A recent statement in parliament claims that 94% of these IDPs have since been returned.
Aside from forced returns breaking international humanitarian law which require returns to be safe, voluntary, sustainable and dignified, many view the government’s response as a knee-jerk reaction designed to avoid further scrutiny.
“I think this government cares a lot about its international image and so when its image, which has largely been positive for the last year, starts to be targeted with a different kind of brush the IDP situation is seen as embarrassing,” says Felix Horne, Senior Ethiopia and Eritrea researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“What’s the easiest way to deal with it: to forcibly return people.”
Yet contrary to government claims, aid organisations say that some IDPs are living in makeshift shelters in areas of secondary displacement as they fear returning to their origin.
Though living conditions in the secondary displacement camps lack very little medical or food assistance, Horne says the government has pressured aid workers to offer assistance only at the original sites of displacement in order to incentivise the Gedeo population to return home.
While Abiy has ushered in a new era of cooperation with the international community, humanitarian organisations remain under pressure to keep on good terms with the government.
Forced returns also do little to address the underlying causes of the displacement, which leads to a greater chance of the disruption repeating itself.
“It’s not going to go away,” says Horne.
“I’ve been quite disappointed about the lack of public pressure from diplomats about these forced returns. There haven’t been many which have spoken out publicly and critically about this. There will continue to be conflicts and IDP flows. The government watches how the international government has responded and they [the government] have largely gotten away with it.”
Ethiopia will co-convene the first Global Forum on Refugees in December, organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva.
Mark Yarnell, senior advocate and UN liaison for Refugees International, doubts that Ethiopia’s IDP crisis will feature as a topic of discussion.
Instead, the focus will be on Ethiopia’s recently introduced progressive refugee law which allows refuges to obtain work permits, access primary education, obtain drivers licenses, legally register births and marriages and access financial services such as banking.
According to UNHCR, Ethiopia is home to the second largest refugee population in Africa at 900,000 along with Uganda, Chad, South Sudan and Sudan.
The majority of refuges are from South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.
Uganda is home to 1.2m refugees, the third largest number in the world after Turkey and Pakistan, and the country mirrors its East African neighbour by having one of the world’s most progressive refugee policies.
Introduced in January, Ethiopia’s well-reported refugee policy occurred shortly before the Gedeo-Guji crisis gathered international attention and the IDP situation made headlines.
Many Ethiopian commentators believe Abiy’s response to the IDP crisis reflects how the prime minister has devoted much of his time to cultivating a positive international image; at times to the detriment of domestic issues.
Along with planting trees and introducing a progressive refugee policy, Abiy has been keen to play an active role in regional politics including mediating a dispute between Kenya and Somalia over oil blocks in the Indian Ocean and helping to broker a deal between the military junta and protestors in Sudan.
Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele, professor at the Centre for Federal Studies, Addis Ababa University says that while these efforts boost Ethiopia’s and Abiy’s image they divert attention away from the sober realities of a country which is experiencing a spike in ethnic and regional tensions.
“People are fighting; there is conflict,” he says.
“It appears as if he is trying to build a positive international image while ignoring what is going on. Things are really bad in the country.”
Abiy’s reforms, which have included overhauling the security apparatus and opening up social media, have allowed entrenched inter-ethnic grievances which were repressed under the iron fist of the former regime to come to the fore.
Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups with nine federal regions.
The country is currently being tested by inter-ethnic fighting in many regions and secession bids in others.
The government delayed a census for the third time citing security concerns in the south and west regions.
Many are concerned that the underlying causes of Ethiopia’s 2.9m IDPs have not been addressed and worry about the prospect of further instability as the country approaches a 2020 general election.