A devastating new drought and an escalation of the fighting in Ethiopia are causing a fresh torrent of refugees into neighboring Sudan. The situation threatens to destabilize the strategic Horn of Africa.
What is disturbing official sources in Washington and relief agencies in the area is that the Sudan, which has the reputation of being the most hospitable nation in Africa toward refugees, is apparently deciding that enough is enough.
Reports emanating from the region suggest that Sudanese troops have been dispatched to the Ethiopian border ostensibly to interdict the flow of refugees into the economically burdened country.
The drought affects up to 5 million people (the Ethiopian government says 2 million) in the northern Ethiopian provinces of Gondar, Wollo, and Tigre. Its effects are exacerbated by a renewal of heavy fighting in Tigre between the central government in Addis Ababa and the rebel Tigre National Liberation Front.
The severity of the drought and the new dislocation caused by fighting in Tigre cause jitters in a region already beset by political and military conflict and a rapidly deteriorating economic situation.
Sudan - which has already housed 625,000 African refugees and is one of the world's most refugee-jammed countries - is also one of the world's poorest countries and is virtually bankrupt. Sudan has an estimated foreign debt of more than $3 billion. In 1981 it was unable to make its scheduled military payments of $365 million to the United States because export earnings for that year were only $575 million.
Much of Sudan's military purchases are a reaction to increased militarization in Libya and in Ethiopia, its next-door neighbor. According to the Agency for International Development, Ethiopia was the highest-scoring country in Africa in terms of both the level and rate of increase in military imports and spending in the year 1979, the most recent year for which complete global statistics are available.
In 1980 Ethiopia's military expenditure constituted 9.7 percent of its GNP compared with 1.9 percent in 1974, according to the recently issued report on world military expenditures and arms transfers 1971-1980 by the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Meanwhile refugees who had been flowing out of Gondar Province in Ethiopia for the past two years at the rate of 15 a day are now reported to be crossing into Sudan at the rate of 200 a day, more than a 10-fold increase.
The United States Committee for Refugees, in urging the Senate Subcomittee on African Affairs to look into the the matter, last week reported as much as a 700 percent increase in the last month or so in the number of Tigreans crossing into Sudan. The committee reported that as many as 1,000 crossed the weekend before last, with several hundred crossings a day now being routine. So far, according to some relief agency reports, about 300,000 people have moved from the western tip of Tigre to the Sudan border.
Ethiopia's relief and rehabilitation commissioner, Shimelis Adugna, announced last week that 300,000 metric tons of emergency food supplies are needed to avert mass starvation.
''The situation in the central and northern regions of Wollo, Tigre, Gondar, and Eritrea has quickly gone from bad to worse. Unless desperately needed assistance is provided soon, up to 2 million people could starve.''
According to some sources familiar with the situation in Sudan, the Sudanese Cabinet has been split over what to do about additional refugees flowing into the region. Yet the border between Ethiopia and Sudan is so porous that any manning of the frontier is not expected to make a substantial impact on reducing the influx.
Aside from possible new friction with Sudan on the refugee issue, Ethiopia has other preoccupations. It has been waging a protracted war with Somalia over the disputed Ogaden region. It has also been unable to shake off the determined antigovernment guerrilla forces in Eritrea and in Tigre Province.
All of this has raised considerable doubt among Western governments that relief for drought victims, especially in such politically contentious areas as Eritrea and Tigre, is getting through to the people. There have been persistent reports that needed food supplies either have been used to feed the Ethiopian Army or are sold to the Soviet Union as payment for arms. The Soviet Union has been the principal arms supplier to the Marxist government of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Despite such reports, the European Community recently felt sufficiently reassured that supplies were getting through that it resumed food shipments to the area. EC official Maurice Foley said that despite allegations of an Ethiopian defector, ''We have no evidence of abuses with the food aid given to Ethiopia.'' He said that it was highly unlikely that the 48,000 tons of wheat sent by the Community last year had been sold to the Soviet Union.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization investigated the Community's Food for Work program twice last year. It concluded that the program was working satisfactorily and that food aid was getting to the population.
Dr. Joseph Kennedy of Africare in Washington also indicated that the Ethiopian government was not interfering with those Western relief agencies working inside the country.
The latest fighting in Tigre follows new outbreaks of military action in Eritrea, a former Italian colony situated between Ethiopia and the Red Sea that was given to Ethiopia as an autonomous territory by the United Nations in 1952. Ethiopia annexed it in 1962 and rival armies of Eritrean nationalists have been fighting a war for independence ever since.
Earlier this year three Eritrean groups fighting for independence - the Eritrean Liberation Front-People's Liberation Forces, the Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Council, and the Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Committee - signed an agreement to merge.