The UN refugee agency reaches out to Eritrean refugees living in urban centres, helping them to register for voluntary repatriation before they lose their refugee status at year’s end. By Fernando Del Mundo, ed. Vivian Tan (image © UNHCR/S.Boness)
KHARTOUM, Sudan, July 30 2002 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency is extending its voluntary repatriation programme to Eritrean refugees in urban Sudan, giving these spontaneously settled people a chance to go home before they lose their refugee status at the end of the year. UNHCR has been assisting returns among Eritrean refugees in eastern Sudan’s camps for the last two years. And as of August 1, those living outside camps – in Sudan’s towns and cities – will be able to register for the voluntary repatriation programme as well.
Registration will take place in the greater Khartoum area in central Sudan and in the eastern cities of Kassala, Port Sudan, Gedaref and Medani. The exercise is targeted at Eritrean refugees living in urban centres in Sudan, believed to number several hundred thousand. So far, UNHCR has helped more than 50,000 return to Eritrea from eastern Sudan’s camps. Some 90,000 remain in 18 camps in the area.
The UN refugee agency is urging more Eritreans to register and join its voluntary repatriation programme before they lose their refugee status at the year’s end. In May, UNHCR announced that Eritrean refugees will cease to be refugees as of December 31 as the root causes of their problem no longer exist. Eritrea’s 30-year war for liberation ended in 1991 and it declared its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Both countries signed a cease-fire agreement in June 2000 and accepted the recent decision by the International Border Committee.
Registration for voluntary repatriation will continue till year end, with return convoys continuing until those registered have been transported home. For Eritrean refugees who choose not to return, UNHCR and the Sudanese government have agreed to set up a joint legal screening committee to determine their claims for continued asylum in Sudan.
This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Delphine Marie – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Following renewed tensions between Sudan and Eritrea, which have led to the closure of the border, UNHCR has been forced to suspend plans to restart voluntary repatriation operations for thousands of Eritrean refugees from Sudan to Eritrea. The return operation was temporarily suspended in June because of the rainy season.
By Friday last week, UNHCR had organised some 16 trucks ahead of the planned resumption of convoys for Eritrean refugees living in camps in and around the towns of Showak and Kassala, eastern Sudan. Convoy movements had been expected to resume on Saturday (Oct. 5). Following a rebel attack in the area by Sudanese rebels, however, authorities ordered the closure of the border.
UNHCR was also requested to halt information campaigns currently underway in several camps in the area. Since Friday, 10 Eritrean officials from the ministry which handles refugee/returnee matters have been expelled. Yesterday, five of them were asked to leave Gedaref state, while another five who were in Kassala state were expelled on Friday. The Eritrean officials had been working with UNHCR on information campaigns in the camps and on registration of refugees who wish to return home.
Restrictions on the movement of UNHCR staff in eastern Sudan, imposed over the weekend, have now been lifted. We have resumed registration for return in camps and in urban centres.
The rebels, believed to belong to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), captured the towns of Homoshakarieb, 95 km north-east of Kassala, and Sholalab, 25 km north-east of Kassala. Sudanese army troops are now believed to have recaptured both towns.
Sudan accused Eritrea of allowing the rebels to pass through their territory to launch the attack – an allegation immediately rejected by the Eritrean government.
The latest fighting in the region and the consequent decision to close the border impacts negatively on UNHCR’s plans to aid the voluntary return of more than 100,000 refugees still residing in camps in eastern Sudan – one of the oldest large-scale refugee situations in the world with which we are involved. Some of the refugees date back to 1967.
Many of those still living in Sudan will cease to be considered as refugees at the end of this year due to the fact that the original reasons for their flight – Eritrea’s war of liberation and a subsequent conflict with Ethiopia – are no longer valid. Those wishing to remain in Sudan must apply for an alternative status or present any claims for continued asylum to a joint UNHCR/Government of Sudan panel for review.
Since repatriations started in May 2001, UNHCR has facilitated the return home of more than 50,000 camp-based refugees. However, more than 100,000 still remain in the camps and several thousand more in urban centres.