UNHCR has been caring for Eritrean refugees in Sudan longer than for any other large group of exiles, with the first camp for present-day Eritreans opened by the agency in eastern Sudan in 1967.
Refugees began arriving in Sudan in the mid-1960s, after Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie annexed the territory in 1962 and people fled the first hostilities in the war of independence. The conflict and periods of drought would drive progressively larger numbers of civilians into neighboring Sudan, with the exodus marked by years when the rate of flight increased dramatically. Between 1975 and 1978 alone, for example, over 200,000 Eritreans sought safety in Sudan. In the years 1980 to 1985, during renewed struggles and crop failures, the refugee population climbed over 400,000. The number of exiles peaked in the mid-1980s at almost 500,000.
The majority of Eritreans living in Sudan has been there since well before May 1993, when Eritrea declared independence, but thousands of additional refugees crossed into the country in May and June of 2000 as additional camps were set up for those who fled fresh fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Of the estimated 95,000 new arrivals, most have since repatriated either spontaneously or with UNHCR help. Over 25,000 travelled home aboard UNHCR trucks between August and November, 2000, and a further 12,000 were assisted home in 2001.
Although several hundred thousand people went back after independence, there are still an estimated 142,000 Eritreans in refugee camps in Kassala and Gedaref States in Sudan. A large number of Eritreans also live in urban areas in Sudan, chiefly in Khartoum and towns in the east such as Kassala, Gedaref and Port Sudan.
More than two-thirds of the present caseload come from the western Eritrean zone of Gash-Barka. The next largest group comes from the Anseba area, further east.
Past repatriation efforts
Following Eritrean independence, UNHCR signed bilateral agreements in 1994 with the Governments of Eritrea and Sudan, laying the groundwork for the start of voluntary refugee repatriation. Convoys began moving in November of the same year in a pilot project for 25,000 volunteers. After this initial phase, however, organized repatriation was hindered for several years by political tensions in the region, even though many Eritreans were able to return on their own.
Four years after these first organized returns, a UNHCR survey found that around 90% of the refugees remaining in the camps wanted to repatriate. The refugees' desire was confirmed by a socio-economic study in 1999.
UNHCR, Sudan, and Eritrea took the first step towards re-starting the repatriation by signing a tripartite agreement in Geneva on April 7, 2000. The accord recognized the right of individuals to go home to areas of their choice, as well as the strictly voluntary nature of the return. It also included provisions for UNHCR to monitor the returns and the reintegration process. The April agreement spelled out the need for rehabilitation of refugee-affected areas in Sudan and for assistance to returnees.
In the weeks following the signing, UNHCR staff and representatives of the two governments distributed leaflets and held public sessions in the camps to inform refugees about the start and various components of the operation. Volunteers came forward and put their names down for repatriation. However, after a week in which 9,000 Eritreans signed up to go home, UNHCR was forced to halt the process and put the operation on hold when hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia erupted again into full-scale conflict in May, 2000.
The current operation
Building on the agreement and plans of 2000, UNHCR and the two governments met in Khartoum in late March 2001 to again prepare for the return of the remaining Eritrean refugees. The parties reaffirmed their commitment to voluntary repatriation, estimating that at least 160,000 refugees would take this opportunity to return home. To date, more than 37,000 refugees have taken this opportunity, choosing to settle mainly in the Gash Barka Region.
Last December, UNHCR asked donors for US$ 28.1 million for repatriation, reintegration, and care and maintenance activities (the latter for Somali and Sudanese refugees) during 2002.
Information campaign - The voluntary repatriation operation began with an information campaign in the camps. Thousands of leaflets printed in Tigrinya, Arabic and English that explain how refugees will be helped to return have been distributed to refugees. The pamphlets also give Eritreans information on procedures for return and the principles agreed between UNHCR and the two governments. In addition, two dozen members of the governmental Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC) and officials from the embassy in Khartoum visited camps to answer refugees' questions. After signing up for return, refugees will be de-registered by UNHCR Sudan, undergo a health screening, and get a two-month ration of food from the World Food Programme. The first convoy operated on May 12, 2001. As of 26 January 2002, more than 50 convoy movements have taken place.
The move home - Convoys carrying returnees and their belongings are escorted from camps in Sudan to the UNHCR reception center in Tesseney. Medical staff accompany each group. On arrival at the reception facilities, Eritreans are again registered and provided with documentation by the government. They receive information on the danger and presence of land mines, another health check, and are provided with meals. From Tesseney, returnees either go directly home or pass through transit centers in Hagaz and Barentu before reaching their final destinations.
Returning refugees are free to choose their final destinations within Eritrea.
Aid to returnees - UNHCR provides each returning family with a shelter structure, one blanket per person, two mosquito nets per family, a kerosene stove with kerosene and water barrel, agricultural tools, kitchen sets, soap and a carry-all bag. Families also receive a cash grant of up to US $200. Returnees to urban areas may choose additional cash in place of the shelter structure and tool sets.
UNHCR and its implementing partners are in the process of providing communities with assistance to help them absorb the returning population. These projects will concentrate on health care, education, agriculture and water/sanitation facilities.
Besides the initial two-month food package issued upon arrival by WFP, returnees are also eligible for a further ten months of food assistance once inside the country. Authorities provide land for returnees to build homes on and, depending on the area, up to two hectares of land to farm.
The assistance package will give returning Eritreans a better chance at a durable and successful homecoming after their exceptionally long exile. Other agencies and bilateral organizations are being called upon to aid the returnees through longer-term development and reconstruction projects.
Reintegration Strategy - As the refugees have begun to return, efforts are underway to engage medium to longer term development actors in including returnees in their plans. A key forum for the coordination and inclusion of all actors involved in relief and development work in the Gash Barka Region in particular is the Zonal Reintegration Committee, based in Barentu, the administrative capital of Gash Barka Zone, and chaired by the Regional Governor. Attended by the regional line ministry representatives, regional authorities, UNHCR, NGOs and other actors, the Zonal Reintegration Committee approves submitted projects based on assessments by a UNHCR technical team of specialists in the various sectors. These projects range from rehabilitation and reconstruction of health posts and digging of boreholes to life-skills training projects in the schools.
Cost of care and maintenance - The cost of the repatriation - and putting an end to one of Africa's longest-running refugee situations - should be compared to the expense of maintaining this large refugee population in Sudanese camps. UNHCR and WFP have had to spend many times the amount UNHCR is currently seeking for repatriation and reintegration assistance on camp-based care and maintenance programs during the last few years alone.