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Horn of Africa: Asmara airlift starts

Briefing notes

Horn of Africa: Asmara airlift starts

9 June 2000

As of this morning, UNHCR Sudan had registered 72,993 refugees at four border crossings. There have been few new arrivals over the past few days. In fact, UNHCR staff along the border say that a few Eritreans appear to be moving back to Eritrea from Sudan. On Wednesday, the Eritreans sent eight trucks to the Sudanese crossing point at Lafa to return refugees to Eritrea. However, Sudanese authorities sent the trucks back to the Eritrean side. On Thursday, the eight trucks were deployed on the Eritrean side, 3 km from the border, and Eritrean authorities sent word to Lafa that they were going to help those who want to return. There was a water tanker parked in that area for travellers.

In Khartoum, the Eritrean ambassador on Thursday requested UNHCR to begin repatriating the refugees in Sudan. UNHCR's position is that we cannot organize voluntary returns until we are satisfied security conditions in Eritrea permit repatriation. UNHCR is discussing with Sudanese authorities how spontaneous, voluntary returns can be facilitated, however.

UNHCR staff from Sudan went inside Eritrea on Thursday to the town of Talatashar, 13 km from the border, facing Lafa. The staff saw a steady stream of returnees from Sudan in groups of 5 to 15, some on foot carrying bundles of belongings, others using tractors and donkey carts. Life was beginning to return to normal there, with some shops reopening. Some returnees were going beyond Talatasha, heading further east. Talatasha is on the road to Tesseney and other towns in the interior.

In the meantime, UNHCR on Thursday began transporting refugees at the makeshift Gergef border encampment to an existing camp at Shagarab, 70 km away. A total of 593 refugees went on a convoy of 20 trucks, including 10 trucks carrying their belongings. The transfer operation is expected to take a week, assuming all 11,000 people at Gergef will go. Most of the people in Gergef come from south-western areas of Eritrea, mainly Omhajer, which is reported to be under Ethiopian control.

UNHCR on Thursday brought more aid supplies to Kassala from Khartoum, including 700 bales of plastic sheeting , 108 bales of blankets and 400 bundles of rope. We continue to build infrastructure in the camps.

In Eritrea, a UNHCR mission from Asmara is assessing conditions along the border with Sudan, including Tesseney in the Gash-Barka zone, and Barentu. This mission will give UNHCR a better idea of the scale of the displacement problem in the parched western lowlands, where temperatures are hitting highs of 40 Celsius. Farmers urgently need to get back to their fields in the region, as some 60 per cent of Eritrea's harvest comes from the large farms near Tesseney. A staff member visited the Debat encampment for internal refugees near Keren, north-west of Asmara, on Thursday. The government says that 50,000 people are at the site. People are camped in the dry stream beds and under the trees. While some people who arrived at the site earlier are under canvas tents and some plastic sheeting has been distributed, many people still lack shelter. They simply lie on their sleeping mats in the open. Fights break out over water, which is delivered by tanker trucks to barrels, where the people come with their buckets and jerry cans for refills. No other water than what is trucked in is available at the parched site. Some clothing has been delivered, and people have WFP food stocks. Access to the Debat campsite will be very difficult once the rains start, as the access road runs along a river bed with many streams cutting the road as well. Limited health facilities are available, but sanitation is poor, and could become dangerous once the rains start.

Today UNHCR starts its airlift to Asmara with the delivery of 25,000 blankets aboard a UNHCR-chartered Airbus 300 arriving from Copenhagen at 1330 hrs local time. On Monday 12 June, twelve heavy vehicles will be flown into Asmara from Albania, including water tankers and tipper trucks aboard a giant Antonov 124 cargo aircraft. On Tuesday 13 June, a third UNHCR flight will bring 25,000 jerry cans, 5,000 plastic sheets and water pumps from stocks in Copenhagen. More blankets will be airlifted into Asmara next week, along with additional vehicles from Kosovo and Albania, and shelter material. The UNHCR airlift to Sudan also continues.