Hunger in the besieged region of Tigray is driving people to increasingly desperate measures as authorities systematically block and confiscate the money transfers that millions of people need.
Banking services and all communications with the state have been cut off by the Ethiopian government since last year, denying 6 million people access to their own money.
In the absence of aid and banking, people have largely depended on money from family and friends abroad to survive, but Tigrayan authorities have imposed restrictions on money transfers and action against smugglers bringing money in at checkpoints has intensified.
Reports from within Tigray say many women and girls are forced into sex work to survive, while others suggest suicide rates have increased.
Last week, EU and US envoys urged the Ethiopian government to quickly resume services and lift restrictions on fuel essential to aid distribution.
When Tigray’s rebel forces returned to power a year ago, after nearly eight months of fighting Ethiopian federal forces, Hewan* thought life would improve. Food had never before been a problem for the 16-year-old and her family, who had had a good life, she said.
“Now I’m hungry. My parents and siblings are hungry. For months we waited in vain for help,” says Hewan.
“Relatives abroad had sent us money through smugglers. But it’s hard to find money smugglers these days. The ones we knew don’t work anymore. We sold all the properties we had. There is nothing to eat at home. So I took to the streets to sell my body. What option do I have?”
Like Hewan, many women and girls in Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, engage in survival sex, including underage girls and women who once had promising careers.
Zufan* has a master’s degree in project management and before the war, the 27-year-old had a solid career with a good salary and a PhD plan. Today, she sells her body to survive the hunger that claimed her parents’ life.
“I saw my father die of malnutrition. He died in my hands. My mother is all bones. The warehouses are full of resources to feed the city. Fuel is not needed to distribute aid within Mekelle. But people die unable to get the help they deserve. After losing my father to starvation, I had to do something to save my own life and that of my mother. Hunger doesn’t give you time. I tried to beg. But it doesn’t work, because there are many beggars. I have become a prostitute’, Zufan does have money in her bank account, but banks in Tigray no longer give money, are cut off from the central federal system and have no more money.
For many desperate Tigrian women who had exhausted all alternatives, sex work offers the only lifeline.
Last month, news of an official who committed suicide in Mekelle after finding it unbearable to see his three children starving and his wife begging for food made the rounds in the city.
Araya*, 60, is a landlord and lived on the rental income from the houses he owns, but he has not been able to collect rent from his unemployed tenants who have no money to pay him.
What kept him alive was the wire transfer his children sent him through the smugglers.
Based on negotiations with the sender, the smugglers receive 30% to 50% of the transfer and arrange the delivery of the remaining amount to the recipient.
“Without remittance I would go begging or starve to death. I am so concerned to hear that many of the smugglers are being driven to shut down their operations. There is no other way to survive.” said Araya.
Smugglers accuse the Tigray authorities of systematically disabling them by setting up border crossings with agents who restrict, block and confiscate transfers already made illegal by the Ethiopian government.
“Trying to get money into Tigray is primarily frustrating and risky work. It is not allowed by the federal government. Transport to the region is blocked. We do this through connections and by bribing agents. That is why we take up to 50% of the payment. Otherwise it is impossible. And after passing many obstacles to reach Tigray, why take any risks if we don’t have any guarantee from the Tigray authorities to deliver the money to the hungry?” said Tsegay*, a former smuggler who quit in May. working after being stopped at the border by Tigrayan agents.
Smugglers described intimidation, criminalization, unpredictable restrictions on the amount of money one can take into Tigray, and confiscation of money intended for hungry people.
“This is a matter for us, but life-saving for the people who are starving. I don’t know why the authorities are putting such restrictions on us while millions are starving. Previously, the flow ran smoothly once it reached the border of Tigray. But after April it has become a nightmare. That’s why my colleagues and I left the company,” says Abadi*, another former smuggler. “We want at least free entry in Tigray. Otherwise it’s not worth it. After all, it is money for people suffering from famine. There should be no obstruction. This is cruel.”
Others accused Tigray authorities of confiscating the money at the checkpoints.
“There was 73,000 birr (1,147 pounds) that I tried to deliver. The money was sent to relatives in a sorry state without food. The Tigray authorities took the money. I got no valid reason from their officers. Of course they give publicly many apologies. But the reality is that they set up the posts to grab money at the expense of dying relatives. After that incident, I stopped the work. There was no guarantee to continue,” said Berket*, another former smuggler.
An internal decree seen by the Guardian confirms the testimonies. The decree states that it is illegal to carry more than 100,000 birr, and that cash flowing into the region must be reported to posts at the border. If someone is caught out there, the person will be charged with committing a crime and the Tigray government can immediately seize the money, based on the decision of a committee set up for the task.
The committee is chaired by Fetlework Gebregziabher, vice president of Tigray’s government. The decree was signed and stamped by Fetelework and has been in effect since April.
A spokesman for Tigray’s government has denied any money has been seized, telling the Guardian that there is not enough money coming in to justify such restrictions.
“We prefer to stimulate every possible flow of money. But illegal activities must be controlled,” he said.
*indicates name is changed.