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The Hitsats camp is one of four in the northern Tigray region that houses nearly 26,000 Eritreans, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR
Ethiopia plans to shut down a camp for Eritrean refugees and resettle thousands in other camps that the United Nations already considers full, an official said Sunday amid fears that COVID-19 could make them more vulnerable.
"We are ready to start. But we cannot start with a big number. We can start with a small number," Deputy Director-General of Ethiopia's Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs Eyob Awoke told AFP adding that relocations could begin by the end of April.
The Hitsats camp is one of four in the northern Tigray region that houses nearly 26,000 Eritreans, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. Currently, there are more than 170,000 Eritrean refugees nationwide.
In early March, Ethiopian officials informed UNHCR they intended to close Hitsats as part of a consolidation scheme, but it was delayed after Ethiopia confirmed its first COVID-19 cases in mid-March.
Eyob explained that the decision to close Hitsats is partly linked to funding cuts from UNHCR. While the agency’s Ethiopia representative Ann Encontre told AFP that Ethiopia began the year with a 14-percent reduction in funding from the organization but that this would not justify a camp closure.
The decision could not come at a worse time for the UNHCR official as the "the situation in the other two camps -- there's not enough water, there's not enough sanitation, there are not enough medical and health services.”
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera on Friday, the UNHCR urged the government to put on hold any relocation effort, saying it risked making refugees vulnerable to COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
"Any large-scale movement now will expose the refugees to the risk of COVID-19 outbreak in camps", the agency said.
Ethiopia has so far reported 108 COVID-19 cases, but none in refugee camps.