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Eritrea: first convoy of refugees return home after 30 years of exile

Briefing notes

Eritrea: first convoy of refugees return home after 30 years of exile

29 May 2001

Crowds of flag-waving and singing Eritreans on Sunday lined the road at the Talatasher border crossing to welcome the first convoy of refugees returning home after over 30 years of exile in neighbouring Sudan. Some 1,600 Eritreans, many of whom had sought refuge in Sudan's Shagarab in the late '60s, boarded the 75-truck convoy organised by UNHCR to return to their country only days after Eritrea celebrated its tenth year of independence. Senior government officials and donor representatives witnessed the return of the first group of refugees who fled to eastern Sudan during the Eritrean war of independence.

Several returnees on Sunday's convoy disembarked from the cross-border trucks at the transit centre in Tesseney, eastern Eritrea, with tears in their eyes. Others prayed as they stepped on Eritrean soil. The returnees, many of whom have no homes to return to, received a cash grant of up to US$ 200 per family, a two-month food package, household supplies and agricultural tools to help them start life anew. Early last year, some 9,000 refugees had registered with UNHCR to return home. Their voluntary repatriation was however halted by a border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia which erupted days before the return was scheduled to begin.

Some 6,000 Eritreans have returned to their homes since May 12 when UNHCR started a massive operation to return home one of UNHCR's oldest refugee groups. The refugees have returned primarily to areas of western Eritrea. More than 23,000 refugees from camps in Sudan have registered their intent to return. UNHCR plans to repatriate as many as 20,000 refugees before the rainy season in Eritrea begins in early July, and another 42,000 by the end of the year.

At the beginning of the operation, there were 174,000 Eritrean refugees in refugee camps in Sudan.