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Ethiopian refugee children who fled the Ethiopia's Tigray conflict run for a food distribution by Muslim Aid at the Um Raquba refugee camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref state on Dec. 12, 2020.YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of children have become separated from their parents amid the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and are in desperate need of protection, aid groups say.

Many have been forced to take refuge in informal camps and are at risk of abuse, sexual assault and rape. Children’s aid groups say the unaccompanied and separated children need mental-health support to help cope with the trauma they have endured. The International Organization for Migration has reported at least 917 unaccompanied and 4,056 separated children in the region.

A new report from Save the Children published Monday said that many of these children were separated from their parents while fleeing for their lives, while others have also lost their parents to the conflict.

The organization said many children are living in single rooms where more than 50 people sleep, increasing the risk of physical and sexual violence. Rape and sexual assault against women and girls – including against pregnant and elderly women – is on the rise, with more than 950 girls and women reporting being raped in the past two months.

The Ethiopian military captured Tigray’s capital, Mekele, in late November. But conflict between the military and Tigrayan forces has continued, with thousands of civilians and combatants killed since early November.

Elisabeth Arnsdorf Haslund, a UNCHR spokesperson based in Ethiopia, said the refugee agency is “deeply concerned” over the humanitarian situation in Tigray, where hundreds of thousands of people need lifesaving assistance amid the conflict.

Being separated from their families and being forced to leave home has a deep impact on children, said Matthew Sugrue, humanitarian director for Save the Children in Ethiopia. Many children have been living in empty schools, Mr. Sugrue added, which has taken a severe toll on their mental health.

“There’s no safety and security at these schools,” he said. “People are always concerned that someone could come in. They could be robbed – something could happen.”

Marc Bonomo, director of international programs and partnerships at SOS Children’s Villages Canada, which is working with unaccompanied and separated children in the region, said the organization is hearing “frightening and alarming” reports of sexual violence targeting women and girls across the Tigray region.

“And we’re hearing that there’s not a lot of assistance for the survivors of that violence to receive mental-health and psychosocial support or medical treatment and followup,” he said in an interview.

In schools where many have sought refuge, he said, there is limited access to water and proper hygiene facilities. And with families and community members living in tight quarters, there is heightened risk of sexual gender-based violence.

“We can provide them with temporary shelter, and make sure that they’re safe while we work to reunite them with their families,” he said.

Mr. Bonomo called on Canada’s federal government to provide more funding to help with humanitarian assistance in Tigray.

Guillaume Dumas, a spokesperson for Minister of International Development Karina Gould, said Canada has been concerned about the situation in Ethiopia from the start and responded promptly.

“In November, 2020, we announced new support of $3-million to help experienced humanitarian partners respond to the urgent needs in emergency health care, shelter and non-food items, water and sanitation, and protection arising from the crisis,” Mr. Dumas said in a statement.

Mr. Dumas said Ms. Gould also announced in March that Canada would contribute another $34-million in humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia this year. He said that includes funding to support health services, safe water and family reunification for conflict-affected people in Tigray, as well as health and nutrition, education and protection for mothers and children across Ethiopia impacted by the crisis.

“Canada continues to urge all parties to protect civilians, to ensure that human rights, humanitarian access and international law are respected, and that a peaceful resolution to the conflict is sought,” he said.

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