London — Western governments and relief agencies are being flooded with protests against Ethiopia's policy of removing tens of thousands of families from famine-stricken areas to regions different from those of their ethnic origins.
On the face of it, lessening the weight of population in the devastated northern region of Ethiopia by transferring populations to the south, which is less prone to drought, makes sense.
But apart from the disruptive effects on communities, opponents of the regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam allege that it is using the drought for ulterior political purposes to evict people from the politically dissident regions.
These allegations have been made by the relief associations of the resistance movements in Eritrea, Tigre, and Oromo. Evidence submitted to the British parliamentary Select Committee on Famine Relief and Food Aid by the Oromo Relief Association alleges that people are being forced into resettlement areas against their will, that their selection is often arbitrary, and that in many cases they are dumped in new areas with no proper facilities to sustain them.
One result of this policy has been that up to 20,000 Oromos have fled into Sudan, a country which already has 900,000 officially registered Ethiopian refugees and an additional estimated 250,000 unregistered exiles.
This group of 20,000 refugees arrived in the Upper Nile province of Sudan, which is currently the scene of fighting between the Army and the Sudan National Liberation Army.
They are destined to move on to the camps in Kassala, hundreds of miles further north, where they receive Sudan government aid and are under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. But while in the Upper Nile, they are dependent on aid the Sudanese are able to scratch together and on the Oromo Relief Association's meager resources.
Evidence collected from these Oromo refugees indicate that most have fled from a work camp called Angolit near Nakmate in Walaga Province, where there are said to be no reception facilities or even shelter, virtually no medical supplies, and a scarcity of food, although work rations were distributed. Conditions in the labor camp were described by refugees as draconian.
Among other complaints noted by the association are that:
* In some cases, whole villages in Tigre Province were surrounded by troops at night and their inhabitants were forced onto lorries to be carted away to new places of settlement.
* In other cases, agricultural workers, shepherds, and other villagers were simply taken from where they were found and carried away without any attempt to ensure that whole families were kept intact.
* Because of the haphazard policy of forcible removals, the new agricultural settlements lack balanced populations; many consist of aged and very young people, and many don't have the family's male head.
The settlements in Walaga are intended to be converted into state farms producing teff, the local staple crop for bread, as well as wheat. Peasant villagers were cleared from these areas to create large landholdings suitable for large-scale operations on state farms. This has produced local antagonism toward the newcomers.
Thousands of hectares of forest and bush were also reported to have been cleared to provide additional land, thus opening up the prospect of further soil deterioration.
This policy of large-scale population removals first began under the Haile Selassie regime during the last great drought of 1973. But the removals have since been continued and intensified by the Mengistu regime.
According to one unsubstantiated report, over 2,400 settlers in Angolist had already died from starvation, disease and neglect between 1981-82.
A further serious allegation is that many of the Tigreans who were moved to the south came from areas that were not even afflicted by drought, and that many of them had some land of their own as well as cattle. They have been moved from the province where the armed opposition, the Tigre People's Liberation Front, claims to be in control of an estimated 80 percent of the area.
Apart from the hardship imposed on those being removed from the north, there are also grounds for concern about the effects on the peoples and land being used for resettlement - especially in Walaga, the province selected as an area for major resettlement.
The difficulties in Walaga have been compounded by the regime's persecution of the idiosyncratic Mekane Yesus Church on whose behalf European Protestants have lodged appeals.
Many of the pastors, teachers, and elders of the church have been imprisoned. An unknown number have been killed, and their institutions closed down. Until then, the church had been the only nongovernmental organization providing medical relief and social services in the province.
Western governments, relief agencies, the European Community, and the UNHCR are being asked to seek the cooperation of the Ethiopian regime to investigate the serious allegations made by the Eritrean, Tigrean, and Oromo relief associations.
They are also being asked to indicate their opposition to any further forcible removals of people from the afflicted areas until they are satisfied that the people wish to be moved voluntarily, and that proper facilities are provided for those who may wish to begin life anew in strange lands.