UNHCR joins mission to investigate exodus from Ethiopia
LOKICHOGGIO, Kenya, January 15 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency and other aid workers travelled today to the town of Pochalla in southern Sudan to investigate reports that thousands of Ethiopian and Sudanese Anuaks are fleeing across the border to escape violence in western Ethiopia.
Two UNHCR officials are part of a nine-person team that intends to spend two days in Pochalla on the Ethiopian border; UNHCR is to investigate the safety and protection needs of the recent arrivals - both refugees and returnees. Representatives of private aid agencies will look into the health, sanitation and water needs of the Anuaks, while the UN's World Food Programme will assess their food needs.
World Relief, a US-based Christian charity, is the only non-governmental organisation (NGO) operating in Pochalla, and has been the main source of information about the Anuak influx.
Myron Jesperson, the director of World Relief, told journalists earlier this week that between 100 and 300 Sudanese and Ethiopian Anuaks were arriving every day in Pochalla county in the Upper Nile region of southern Sudan. The total number of recent arrivals was reported to be 15,000, mostly in Pochalla town, where many were camped at a local school and church.
"They're not in a desperate condition, but the question is, what is going to happen to them in the long term," Jesperson told the UN's IRIN news agency earlier this week.
However, UN officials are cautious about accepting the figure of 15,000, which comes from local authorities. It is also unclear how many are Sudanese Anuaks who were refugees in Ethiopia and may now return to live with their relatives, and how many are Ethiopian Anuaks who have now become refugees in Sudan.
The Anuaks have reportedly been fleeing reprisals that followed killings in mid-December in the Gambella region of western Ethiopia. On December 13, eight people - including three officials of UNHCR's partner, the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) - were brutally murdered in an ambush of a vehicle headed to Odier-Bol, in the Gambella area. In Gambella town, rioting broke out after the bodies were brought back, targeting members of the Anuak community, who were blamed for the attacks. Some 58 people were confirmed killed, and some 400 huts of the Anuaks were burned to the ground.