Eritrea returns must go beyond crossing border, says Lubbers

Returning refugees must also receive reconstruction assistance to help them reintegrate in their home areas, said UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers, calling for other UN agencies to collaborate on returnee projects in Eritrea.

Building a new life in the returnee village of Meskerem in Eritrea.   © UNHCR/S.Boness

ASMARA, Eritrea, Nov 14 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers today assured Eritrean President Isiais Afewerki that UNHCR would step up efforts to conclude its repatriation programme from neighbouring Sudan, but called for more support for reintegration projects to ensure that the returns are sustainable.

Wrapping up his nine-day visit to four African countries, Lubbers stressed that while returnees need transport assistance back home, the next step of rehabilitating their home communities is also crucial. Reconstruction projects need to benefit both the returnees and their host communities, he added.

"The return operation needs to go beyond crossing the border," Lubbers said during his meeting Friday with the Eritrean leader in the capital, Asmara. "We need to give them (returnees) reconstruction assistance. We think this can also contribute to peace and make peace more sustainable."

The High Commissioner also sought the collaboration of other UN agencies on rehabilitation and reconstruction activities in Eritrea's returnee areas. Earlier on Friday, he told the heads of UN agencies based in Asmara that the implementation of the projects must be a joint UN effort.

"Our work has to link with reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction," the UNHCR chief said. "But UNHCR cannot do it alone. While it is a UNHCR initiative, it has to be a UN effort."

Eritrea is one of four countries that have been chosen for the pilot testing of a new initiative dubbed the 4Rs - Repatriation, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction - which is already being tested in Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The 4Rs project aims to ensure that the return of refugees and their reintegration is backed by solid rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes designed to create a conducive environment to facilitate and sustain return.

On Thursday, the High Commissioner experienced the programme first-hand when he led a return convoy of 884 Eritrean returnees across the border from the Sudanese town of Laffa into western Eritrea. Many of those on the convoy - the 107th since the start of voluntary repatriation - were from Sudan's Shagarab and Wad Sharife camps. Others came from Port Sudan further north.

The returnees were transported to a transit centre in Tesseney, close to Eritrea's western border, where they received 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 will receive a further 10 months of food rations as well as land to build homes and to farm.

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers with returnee girls at a school in Gerset, western Eritrea.  © UNHCR/W.Rappeport

In Gerset, western Eritrea, Lubbers also visited returnee programmes ranging from schools to a health centre and a women's income generation project.

More than 105,000 Eritrean refugees have returned home since July 2000, when UNHCR launched a major operation to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees in Sudan. Among the returnees are some 50,000 who were assisted back by the refugee agency. Another 36,000 refugees in camps in eastern Sudan have registered with UNHCR for assistance to go home.

Eritrea marks the end of the High Commissioner's mission that has also taken him to Sudan, Tanzania and Burundi.