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Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?
Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?

The Balkan Refugee Crisis

The magnitude and complexity of the unfolding refugee crisis in the Balkans is hard to overstate.  One and a half million people have been forced to flee their homes in Kosovo since the start of this year. 

Executive Summary

The magnitude and complexity of the unfolding refugee crisis in the Balkans is hard to overstate.  One and a half million people have been forced to flee their homes in Kosovo since the start of this year.  These latest victims of Balkan conflict join the ranks of a further one and a half million other refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from earlier wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

While many of those expelled from Kosovo are anxious to return home as soon as possible, the obstacles in the way of their return are formidable.  Creating the conditions necessary for large scale return[fn]'Return' refers to all return back to place of origin, from exile as well as internal displacement.  'Repatriation' is only used for return from exile.Hide Footnote  will take a long time and require enormous resources.

This report argues in favour of providing temporary protection[fn]Refugee status was never intended to be permanent. The 1951 Refugee Convention gives room for granting of international protection on a temporary basis through its ‘cessation clause’.Hide Footnote  for refugees in the region, with the aim of them returning home at the earliest opportunity.  Temporary protection is necessary to maintain pressure on Belgrade and demonstrate our commitment to reverse the effects of ethnic cleansing.  But this report argues for more realism in relation to the length of time it will take to reverse the present refugee flow.  Lessons from Croatia and Bosnia have demonstrated that there is no such thing as fast voluntary return in the wake of war and ethnic cleansing[fn]Only 20% of the refugees and IDPs had returned to their homes in Bosnia-Herzogovina 16 months after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement. In the same period only 10 % of damaged houses were repaired. ICG report: "Going nowhere fast", 1 May 1997.Hide Footnote .  Perhaps induced, but most likely not voluntary.  Non-voluntary return of refugees is a very sensitive issue.  The international community can only try to circumvent it by striving to put in place the necessary conditions that would make return acceptable to Kosovo refugees.  This report discusses these key conditions and calls for the establishment of a comprehensive repatriation plan.  Strong regional management structures must be established by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in order to develop, co-ordinate and implement the strategy for the return process.

Specifically, the report recommends that the international community focus on the following action points:

  • Maintain and promote the temporary status of refugees;
  • Develop a comprehensive strategy for the return of all refugees and IDPs;
  • Keep the refugees in the region, in so far as possible;
  • Plan for the early return for refugees evacuated to third countries;
  • Prepare for spontaneous return;
  • Plan according to realistic time frame;
  • Keep refugees informed;
  • Give equal attention to short- and long-term needs;
  • Involve the local opulation in the return process;
  • Develop regional humanitarian solutions and structures;
  • Mobilise up-front funding of return efforts;
  • Include the whole region in economic recovery planning;
  • Keep the roles of humanitarian aid workers and the military separate;
  • Include binding return mechanisms in the future peace agreement; and
  • Synchronise European refugee policy.
Podcast / Africa

Can a “Humanitarian Truce” Help End Ethiopia’s Civil War?

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Crisis Group expert William Davison to discuss the Ethiopian federal government's offer of a humanitarian truce in its seventeen-month war against forces from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. 

After almost seventeen months of devastating civil war in Ethiopia, the federal government on 24 March announced what it called a humanitarian truce. The offer would ostensibly allow aid into Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, which has, in effect, been under a blockade for months and where millions face what the UN describes as a serious lack of food. The government’s unilateral truce declaration comes after its offensive in late 2021 pushed back Tigrayan forces, who had advanced to within striking distance of the capital Addis Ababa – the latest about-face in a war that has seen the balance of force between federal troops and Tigrayan rebels swing back and forth. It also comes alongside other signals that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed may have tempered his initial goal of crushing Tigray’s leadership. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood, Naz Modirzadeh and William Davison, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia, discuss the causes and significance of the government's proposal. They map out the military dynamics on the ground and the evolving calculations of Tigrayan leaders, Prime Minister Abiy, other Ethiopian protagonists in the conflict and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, whose forces were also fighting alongside the federal troops against the Tigrayans. They talk about the role of foreign powers in supporting President Abiy Ahmed and in pushing for peace and break down how regional relations are shaping the conflict. They ask how optimistic we should be that the truce eases Tigray’s humanitarian disaster or even serves as a foundation for peace talks and how such talks might surmount the thorniest obstacles – notably resolving a territorial dispute in Western Tigray – to a political settlement.  

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Ethiopia page.


Executive Vice President
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Ethiopia