KHARTOUM / WASHINGTON - The U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday it is working with Sudan's government to assist more than 7,000 Ethiopian refugees, who have crossed the border, fleeing clashes between forces of the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray regional government.
Refugees are being temporarily sheltered in transit centers located near the Sudanese border entry points of Ludgi and Hamdayet, according to a UNHCR statement. UNHCR and local authorities are jointly screening and registering people as well as providing water and meals to Ethiopian men, women and children, said the agency.
The UNHCR said it is stepping up emergency relief preparedness in the region, working with governments and partners to put in place measures to respond to more refugees "as the situation evolves."
"We are urging governments in the neighboring countries to keep their borders open for people forced from their homes," said UNHCR Regional Bureau Director Clementine Nkweta-Salami. The U.N. agency is also asking Ethiopian authorities to take steps that will allow aid to safely reach "refugees and internally displaced within Tigray," said Nkweta-Salami.
With thousands of refugees arriving at the Sudanese border within the last 24 hours, "and with the conflict appearing to escalate," the UNHCR said it expects those numbers "to rise sharply."
The situation will require the agency, governments and their partners to ramp up resources "to address the needs of those seeking asylum," said the UNHCR.
The Sudanese transitional government expressed concern over the escalating violence between Ethiopia's federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) earlier this week and called on all parties to resolve the conflict peacefully.
Calls for restraint
Following a security meeting Monday chaired by the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, Abdul Fatah Al Burhan, Sudanese Defense Minister Ibrahim Yasin urged Ethiopia's government and the Tigray regional forces to refrain from violence.
"We urge all the rivals to use wisdom and restraint and resort to a peaceful solution. The Sudanese government is also very concerned about the impact of the ongoing fighting in Ethiopia," Yasin told reporters.
"We also called on the regional and international community to carry out their moral duties to support peace and stability in the region and strengthen peace opportunities in the neighboring Ethiopia," he said.
Last Thursday, local authorities in Sudan's Kassala state closed its border at the Wed Al Hileo border crossing with neighboring Ethiopia.
Kassala state acting governor Feteh Arrahamn Al Amin said a local committee was formed to monitor the situation along the border and receive civilians who flee violence in the Tigray region.
Risk of humanitarian crisis
The escalation in violence in the Tigray region could affect Sudan's Kassala and Gadarif states and create insecurity along the border, leading to a humanitarian crisis, according to Abdul Muniem Abu Idris, a long-time political analyst and Sudanese journalist.
"There is already a tribal conflict in those two Sudanese states and the border between the two countries has been witnessing a series of smuggling of firearms and the area has been active in dealing with human trafficking, so any insecurity in neighboring Tigray could increase the level of these illegal practices," Abu Idris told VOA's South Sudan in Focus.
As chairman of the regional bloc IGAD, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is morally obliged to bring the two Ethiopian rivals to the negotiating table, said Abu Idris.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres also expressed concern about the escalating violence in Ethiopia. At U.N. headquarters Monday in New York, Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the secretary general, said Guterres spoke with Hamdok and the head of the African Union and expressed the U.N.'s readiness to support the IGAD and the AU "in any initiative to address the situation."
Dujarric warned the area could witness a humanitarian crisis because there are nearly nine million people at high risk living near the area of conflict.