Eritreans stream home ahead of rainy season

Sudan's Eritrean communities are progressively emptying as refugees take advantage of UNHCR's repatriation convoys to go back to their country ahead of the rains that will bring the return movements to a halt in June.

Eritrean refugees on their way home from eastern Sudan.   © UNHCR/K.Dahab

LAFFA, Sudan, April 29 (UNHCR) - The number of refugees returning to Eritrea passed more than 6,600 this week as the UN refugee agency and the Sudanese government sent off a convoy of more than 550 refugees on Wednesday as part of an effort to help as many Eritreans as possible to go home before the rainy season in June makes roads impassable.

Refugees taking part in the voluntary repatriation initiative had been packing for days and readying their affairs before bidding farewell to Sudan. Some had fled Eritrea more than 30 years ago and had accumulated numerous belongings in the meantime, while others had been born refugees and were going back to their homeland for the first time.

Wednesday's convoy, which consisted of 16 buses, 39 luggage trucks, additional escort vehicles and ambulances, carried refugees living in cities like Khartoum, Port Sudan and Kassala, as well as residents of Wad Sheriffe refugee camp, located not far from the border crossing at Laffa.

After completing departure formalities at this remote border crossing point, the convoy crossed the frontier and the returnees then transferred to Eritrean buses at the Checkpoint 14 post under the watchful eyes of Eritrean and UNHCR officials.

Most of the refugees returned to communities located near Haykota, Akordat and Barentu in western Eritrea's Gash Barka region, while others are going back to areas deeper inside the country, including Nakfa and Anseba.

The convoy was the 13th that UNHCR and Sudan's Commission on Refugees have organised this year to help Eritreans repatriate voluntarily to their country, bringing the total number of returnees so far this year to 6,631 people.

UNHCR and its Sudanese partners organise repatriation convoys every five days on average, with 12 more convoys planned up till the end of June, when the operation will halt with the start of the rainy season that makes roads in the border region impassable.

The UN refugee agency announced in early 2002 that Eritreans would lose their refugee status by the end of 2003. Following Eritrea's independence in 1993, and the resolution of its subsequent border conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia when both sides agreed to adhere to an international commission ruling on their border dispute, the need for continued blanket refugee protection was determined to be unnecessary.

Under the decision on cessation of refugee status, Sudan's Eritreans were asked to choose between returning home voluntarily with UNHCR assistance or undergoing screening by panels composed of international and Sudanese lawyers to determine their status as refugees. They could also seek to formalise their stay in Sudan by seeking proper immigration documents.

So far, 35,000 individuals have registered for voluntary repatriation, while more than 28,000 families representing some 150,000 individuals have signed up for screening to determine their refugee status.

Since the UN refugee agency started organising voluntary repatriation convoys in May 2000, more than 125,000 Eritreans have left Sudan.

The repatriation has so far enabled UNHCR to close 10 of the 18 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. 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. 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 positive environment to facilitate and sustain return.