UNHCR declares cessation of refugee status for Eritreans

8 May 2002

GENEVA - UNHCR announced on Wednesday that it is ending refugee status for all Eritreans who fled their country as a result of the war of independence or the recent border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The world-wide cessation will take effect on December 31 and will affect hundreds of thousands of Eriteans in neighbouring countries.

The root causes of the Eritrean refugee problem no longer exist, as fundamental and durable changes have occurred with the end of the 30-year-old war with Ethiopia in 1991 and Eritrean independence in 1993. Similarly, peace has returned with the signing of a cease-fire agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in June 2000 and the establishment of a UN-supervised security buffer zone between the two countries. The acceptance of the recent decision of the International Border Commission by both countries has contributed further to confidence-building.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees left Eritrea for neighbouring countries as a result of the country's war of independence from Ethiopia, which started in the mid-1960s, and a harsh famine in 1984/85. In the wake of the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in May 2000, hundreds of thousands more fled their homeland.

"I believe that these two groups of refugees from Eritrea should no longer have a fear of persecution or other reasons to continue to be regarded as refugees," said Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "They will, therefore, cease to be regarded as refugees by my Office with effect from the end of this year."

Both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention, which is applied in Africa, stipulate that the convention shall cease to apply to any refugee " ... if he can no longer, because the circumstances in connection with which he was recognised as a refugee have ceased to exist, continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of the country of his nationality".

More than 100,000 Eritreans have already gone home, either on their own or under a voluntary repatriation operation that began in May 2001. That programme will continue. In addition, the agency will assess the claims of those individuals who come forward to seek continued asylum beyond 2002. Those found to be still in need of international protection will be able to remain in their current host country as refugees. Those who do not qualify for asylum after 2002 but do not wish to return home because of strong family, social or economic links with the host country will be expected to legalise their stay there.

The largest number of Eritrean refugees remains in neighbouring Sudan. Of these, UNHCR is assisting some 140,000 in camps in eastern Sudan while thousands more have spontaneously settled in urban centres. More than 44,000 Eritrean refugees from Sudan have returned home with UNHCR assistance. Some 5,000 Eritrean refugees also remain in Ethiopia and Yemen.