UNHCR did not confirm presence of refugee fighters in Tigray conflict (SHAZLY Ashraf / AFP)

UNHCR did not issue statement confirming Tigray refugees returned to fight in Ethiopia conflict

Copyright AFP 2017-2021. All rights reserved.

A Facebook post shared hundreds of times claims that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a statement confirming that refugees from Ethiopia's northern Tigray region had returned home to fight in the ongoing conflict. However, the claim is misleading; the UN refugee agency has not released any statement confirming the presence of refugees amongst the fighters. Furthermore, the UNHCR previously told AFP that the agency is "not in a position to verify" whether refugees have returned to join the fight.

The post, archived here, has been shared more than 400 times since it was published on Facebook on September 8, 2021.

“The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement that refugees from the Tigray region who had taken refuge in Sudan have returned to Ethiopia to take part in the war,” the beginning of the post’s caption reads.

Screenshot of the false Facebook post, taken on September 13, 2021

This claim surfaced soon after Ethiopian officials announced the arrest of fighters in Tigray who allegedly were carrying refugee identity cards.

Tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees have crossed the border into Sudan since war broke out in November 2020 in Ethiopia's Tigray region, intensifying tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia.

The conflict began when the Ethiopian federal government announced that soldiers of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front attacked a military base. Although Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised a swift operation in the region, the conflict has lasted for nearly a year.

Map showing the Tigray region in Ethiopia

However, the claim that the UNHCR confirmed that refugees “returned to Ethiopia to take part in the war” is misleading.

UNHCR denies claim

In a press statement issued on September 7, 2021, the UNHCR announced a slight decrease of refugees in Sudanese camps; however, the agency stated that they were “not able to verify the whereabouts of those who have left, including those who may have returned to their country of origin”. 

Although the misleading Facebook post acknowledges that the UNHCR is unsure of the refugees’ whereabouts, it also falsely claims that the agency confirmed that refugees joined the conflict in Tigray. The UNHCR has issued no such statement to date.

The UNHCR noted that any person who decided to go back to Ethiopia to fight would no longer be considered a refugee.

“Refugee status is incompatible with active participation in armed conflict. Any registered refugees who may have returned to Ethiopia and joined the conflict are no longer considered refugees,” the statement reads.

A UNHCR official previously told AFP they are working to maintain "the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum" but it was not the agency's role to determine whether those returning home had participated in any fighting.