Eritrea receives this year's biggest group of returnees

After more than 30 years in exile, some 1,700 Eritrean refugees have left their camps in eastern Sudan and crossed back into their homeland in the biggest return convoy assisted by the UN refugee agency this year.

Eritrean returnees at the border just inside their homeland. Many of them had been in exile for more than 30 years.   © UNHCR/K.Dahab

ES SHOWAK, Sudan, March 11 (UNHCR) - Some 1,700 Eritrean refugees have left their camps in eastern Sudan and crossed back into their homeland in the biggest return convoy assisted by the UN refugee agency this year, bringing UNHCR one step closer to resolving one of Africa's longest-running refugee situations.

On Wednesday, a convoy of 58 passenger buses and more than 30 luggage trucks carrying 1,770 Eritrean refugees and their belongings crossed into Eritrea under the escort of senior UNHCR and Sudanese officials.

At a desolate border crossing inside Eritrea, known as Check Point 14, the returnees were transferred to Eritrean vehicles and taken to the western town of Tesseney, where they were issued with assistance packages and new ID cards, pending their onward journey to their home areas.

The convoy was the biggest this year and the fourth out of 25 return movements planned up to the end of June. It is part of a UNHCR-organised voluntary repatriation operation designed to assist Eritrean refugees to return to their home country in safety and dignity after more than 30 years of exile in Sudan. So far, more than 118,000 refugees have returned home under this programme since it began in 2000, including more than 3,200 this year.

The repatriation has so far enabled UNHCR to close 10 of the 18 original camps established decades ago on the plains of eastern Sudan. Further convoys should enable the agency to close four more camps by May, and then consolidate the remaining Eritreans at Um Gargor and Kilo-26 camps in Gedaref and Kassala states, respectively.

Ensuring the reintegration of the returnees back in their homeland is an important challenge for the international community, delegates were told at a conference on voluntary repatriation and sustainable reintegration held in Geneva earlier this week.

Eritrea is one of several countries that have been chosen for UNHCR's 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.

In February 2002, the UN refugee agency announced that Eritreans would lose their refugee status after December 31, 2002, because the reasons for them fleeing Eritrea - the war of liberation and the more recent border conflict with Ethiopia - were no longer present. The first conflict ended when Eritrea gained its formal independence in 1993, while the second was resolved when both sides agreed to adhere to an international commission ruling on their border dispute.

The Khartoum government puts the total number of Eritreans remaining in Sudan at more than 200,000. About 35,000 people have signed up for voluntary repatriation to Eritrea this year. Another more than 29,000 families have registered to be screened in order to determine their eligibility for enjoying continued refugee status in Sudan.