Returns: Eritreans from Sudan and Somalis from Djibouti
Hundreds of Eritrean and Somali refugees returned home on Monday, as UNHCR restarted the repatriation of Eritrean refugees from Sudan and Somali refugees from Djibouti.
In Sudan, a first group of nearly 400 Eritrean refugees was assisted home from camps in the east, nearly one year after the voluntary repatriation operation was suspended. Return convoys were interrupted in July 2002 due to the rainy season, but did not resume as planned in October 2002 because of heightened border tensions between Eritrea and Sudan.
Under the terms of the resumed operation, Sudanese trucks will bring returnees to a transit point already identified on the border. From here, they will be transferred on to trucks from Eritrea. UNHCR and the authorities on both sides of the border have prepared a temporary stopover point at the border to facilitate the transfer. Sheltered areas, water, food and a site for medical care have been set up at the border location, now called "Checkpoint 14".
On Monday morning, eight buses and 42 luggage trucks picked up 394 refugees from a string of camps close to the Sudan/Eritrea border. One of the luggage trucks carried six donkeys which the refugees brought home with them. Upon arrival at Checkpoint 14, hired loaders immediately transferred refugees' luggage to the waiting Eritrean vehicles which took returnees to a transit centre in the Eritrean border town of Tesseney.
Apart from Monday's convoy, there was no other civilian traffic at the Sudan/Eritrea border that has remained closed for several months due to tensions between the two countries. An agreement was, however, reached between UNHCR and the two governments to open a humanitarian corridor that would enable return convoys to pass.
Returnees from Monday's convoy were expected to spend their first night back home at the transit centre in Tesseney before proceeding to their villages of origin. Many of the returnees, mainly the elderly, women and children, are returning to areas close to Tesseney. At the transit centre, returnees will receive an identity card and a reintegration package which consists of a cash grant, basic household supplies and a three-month food package supplied by World Food Programme.
Before the suspension of the return programme in July 2002, UNHCR had aided the return of more than 50,000 Eritreans out of a total 103,000 who have returned home since May 2001. UNHCR now hopes to assist the return of hundreds of Eritrean refugees before mid-July when the rainy season begins. Convoys would resume in September to assist thousands of Eritrean refugees in Sudan who have registered to return home.
In Djibouti, a five-truck convoy carrying 126 Somali refugees arrived at the border crossing between Djibouti and north-west Somalia, also known as Somaliland, Monday night at 7.00 p.m.
Refugees spent the night at Garbodadar, half-way between the border and the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa. They were scheduled to leave the overnight point before dawn, today, so as to arrive in Hargeisa before the weather gets too hot. Because of high temperatures of up to 44 degrees Celsius at this time of year, convoys from Djibouti to Somalia are expected to move in the evening and again at dawn. Weather conditions permitting, UNHCR expects to assist the return of 5,000 Somali refugees from Djibouti.