Lubbers leads Eritreans home; thanks hosts in Sudan
TESSENEY, Eritrea, Nov 13 (UNHCR) - UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers today led a convoy of nearly 900 Eritrean refugees home from Sudan after telling his Sudanese hosts that the agency would help rehabilitate some of the refugee-hosting areas in the east.
On Thursday, the High Commissioner joined 884 Eritreans as they crossed the border from eastern Sudan into western Eritrea. At one point, he boarded one of the buses and shook hands with the passengers to bid them goodbye.
Many of the returnees had come from Sudan's Shagarab and Wad Sharife camps, with a big group coming from further north in Port Sudan. Some said they were going home for the first time in 30 years.
These returnees were part of the hundreds of thousands of Eritreans who left their homeland for neighbouring countries as a result of Eritrea's war of independence from Ethiopia that started in the mid-1960s and a harsh famine in 1984/85. The border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in May 2000 displaced hundreds of thousands more people, some of them across the border into Sudan.
Since May 2001, some 103,000 Eritrean refugees have returned from Sudan, more than 50,000 of them with UNHCR assistance
Today's convoy took the returnees to Tesseney transit centre in western Eritrea, where they were to receive a cash grant, basic household items and a two-month supply of food from the UN World Food Programme. On their return to their home villages, mainly in the Gash-Barka region of south-western Eritrea, they receive a further 10 months of food rations as well land for house construction and farming.
In Eritrea, the High Commissioner went on to visit returnee projects in Gerset, where returns have boosted the local population from 40 to 5,000. He visited a health centre, a women's income generation project, and two schools.
"People coming home want to rebuild the country," said Lubbers, adding that repatriation is part of the peace-building process.
Eritrea marks the end of Lubbers' four-nation trip to Africa that also included Burundi, Tanzania and Sudan.
Before joining the return convoy this afternoon, the High Commissioner met and thanked state authorities in Sudan's refugee-hosting states of Gadaref and Kassala. He also opened two new wards at Gadaref hospital that UNHCR had recently rehabilitated and handed over to the state, and visited a former camp that is now the site of Gadaref University - both part of a camp consolidation and phase-out programme in Sudan.
"You're making very good use of what was made for refugees to now benefit the local community," said Lubbers.
"I am aware of the many problems you face - including the negative impact that substantial movements of people over time have made on the environment, and the need to rehabilitate these regions," he added, assuring them that "even if resources are very limited, UNHCR has reserved half a million dollars to rehabilitate Gadaref and Kassala states."