UNHCR looks at solutions for Eritrean refugees of eastern Sudan
KILO 26 CAMP, Sudan, August 22 (UNHCR) - While world attention has focused on the suffering in west Sudan's Darfur region in recent years, little has been heard about one of the world's most protracted refugee situations on the other side of the country.
Tens of thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees have sought sanctuary in the arid states of Kassala, Gedaref, Gezira, Sennar and Red Sea over the past 40 years. Many crossed to Sudan during the 30-year war between Ethiopia and its then province Eritrea, which gained independence in 1993.
Hostilities continued between the neighbours until 2000, when a peace treaty was signed and some 98,000 Eritreans returned home under a UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme. But the flow stopped and reversed amid a deteriorating political and human rights situation in Eritrea.
Scores of Eritrean asylum seekers now cross into Sudan every week, joining some 130,000 of their compatriots living in 12 refugee camps as well as urban and rural areas. These include some 22,000 asylum seekers who have crossed the border into Sudan since November 2003.
For many, repatriation is no longer a viable option and UNHCR is advocating for their local integration, while also discussing with Sudan and third countries the possibility of increasing resettlement referrals as a durable solution for some families. The agency is also working to make the refugees more self-reliant.
Amara Musa was elated when peace was signed in 2000 as it meant that she could return home to Eritrea after years as a refugee in Sudan. But Musa said she decided to flee back across the border last June with her seven children after her husband and brother disappeared. "It was then that I got scared," Musa told UNHCR visitors at Kilo 26 Camp in eastern Sudan's Gedaref state.
She sold her gold and bought two donkeys before setting out with her children on the tough three-day journey from her village in the Eritrean highlands to eastern Sudan. "I hope to enrol my children in school," Musa said while breast-feeding her youngest child.
Her case is not exceptional. An average of 120 Eritrean asylum seekers arrive every week at the Wad Sherife screening centre in the border state of Kassala. Those granted refugee status are transferred to Kilo 26 Camp, which hosts about 12,500 refugees.
Most of the new arrivals are young men in their late teens and early twenties who say they want to avoid military service in Eritrea. But lately, more women and children have been crossing into Sudan.
Those arriving in Sudan, or coming back for a second time like Musa, usually get a warm welcome from fellow Eritreans who have been living for decades in eastern Sudan. Tesfamariam, aged 17, arrived at Kilo 26 a month ago and has already been given work looking after the camp phone.
"I did not know anybody, when I first arrived here, but then the people saw that I was on my own and helped me to adjust," he said, adding: "I'm still scared and I don't like the feeling of being a refugee." He's missing his mother and sisters, but is already talking about continuing his studies in Sudan.
Local reintegration for refugees who have been living in Sudan for decades is under discussion between UNHCR and the government-run Office of the Commissioner for Refugees, but the refugee agency's long-term aim is to make refugees in the east more self-reliant and less dependent on aid.
Sudanese communities near the camps have long shared their scarce resources with the refugees. The most pressing needs include better health facilities and increased access to safe drinking water and education. The newer arrivals, meantime, still hope to return to Eritrea when peace and stability are restored.
By Annette Rehrl in Kilo 26 Camp, Sudan