Eritrea: thousands fleeing to Sudan
Sudanese authorities, UNHCR staff and other sources report thousands of refugees are crossing the border to flee fighting in Eritrea. Estimates range from 6,000 new arrivals yesterday to more than 20,000. UNHCR staff based in El Showak in Eastern Sudan, as well as some of our Khartoum staff, are at the border area now. (As of 1300 hours Geneva time, one UNHCR team had reported no more than 4,000 new arrivals at one of the border crossing points and was on the way to inspect another crossing, so it appears the intitial numbers would tend to conform with the lower estimate.) In addition to getting a firmer idea of numbers, they are directing new arrivals to the existing UNHCR refugee camps for Eritreans in the area.
UNHCR is currently assisting some 160,000 Eritreans in 12 camps in Sudan. Many of them have been there for up to 25 years. According to the latest reports, new arrivals are coming from the area of Tssenei, adjacent to the Sudanese border. Among the arrivals are Eritrean soldiers who have been disarmed by the Sudanese army. UNHCR staff and humanitarian assistance - both food and non food items - had already been pre-positioned in Eastern Sudan for the previously announced repatriation operation that was scheduled to start next week. Obviously, that repatriation is now on hold and our efforts are being directed toward protecting and assisting new arrivals.
Following an attack of the town of Barentu, Eritrean authorities reported that more than 500,000 civilians have been forced to flee towards the north of the country.
UNHCR has a small presence in Eritrea and had been preparing for the repatriation. We are now working on redirecting the humanitarian assistance which had been pre-positioned for the repatriation exercise to places where populations have been displaced. We're prepared to take an active role in this relief operation.