Meeting with refugees in Ethiopia

Mary Robinson with refugees in Ethiopia in UNHCR tent
Image from the UNHCR
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Published on 13 June 2019

I wrote recently about a fascinating visit to Ethiopia with The Elders. The most moving part of the trip was going to see a refugee site near Gambela, where more than 80,000 of the 350,000 refugees living in Ethiopia are based. The situation was deeply humbling and dire, but the people living and working there were inspiring. 

Ethiopia has become a shining light to the world in its attitude to supporting refugees. The country has introduced a new Refugee Law, which offers more opportunities for work and integration, and has welcomed around one million refugees from South Sudan in the past two years.

The refugee camp we visited had lots of faults, as all refugee camps do, and the people there were suffering many hardships. However, the camp was very well run considering the circumstances. 

A group of people chatting together outside
Image from the UNHCR

The clinic we visited had no electricity, and nurses were working with torches as women gave birth to babies (around 10,000 babies per year are born at the refugee camp). All the services were very basic. Virgin Unite agreed to fund a generator for the local hospital, which also had no electricity, so that basic needs like boiling water and light could be provided for operations.

The Elders and I met with groups of refugees and listened to their issues. Mary Robinson kicked off the discussion by asking all the women to move to the front. During a heated debate about how unsafe it was when the women went to collect firewood, I delicately asked: “Why are the men not collecting the wood?” The men responded that they had other responsibilities and wouldn’t be able to do that – to much laughter from the women.

Woman speaking to group at UNHCR event in Ethiopia
Image from UNHCR

I felt so thankful for what Ethiopia’s government is doing to support refugees. But perhaps what struck myself and The Elders most was how overlooked the United Nations incredible work is. As President Zedillo said: “Whenever people criticise the UN, they should go to a refugee camp. Can you imagine how much worse off the world would be without the UN?”

Multilateralism is so important. When nations work together rather than retreat into insularity, then we can get on top of issues so much more effectively. The UN and many other agencies are doing an extraordinary job with little to no resources. We were completely inspired by the teams who are dedicating their lives to supporting the refugees.

Head over to The Elders to learn more about our visit to Ethiopia and the brilliant work they are doing around the world tackling issues from conflict resolution to the climate crisis.