Eritrea + 1 more

Eritrea: border deadlock and underfunding perpetuate IDP plight

Situation Report
Originally published
This summary outlines the main findings of the newly updated country profile on internal displacement in Eritrea. The profile was prepared by the Global IDP Project of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which monitors and analyses internal displacement in some 50 countries worldwide. The full country profile is available from the Project's Database ( or upon request by e-mail (
Eritrean IDP crisis a result of border conflict

Eritrea was formally annexed by Ethiopia in 1962; as a consequence, an armed struggle against Ethiopian rule began. Ethiopian forces were finally expelled after a 30-year struggle and in 1993, following a referendum, Eritrea became an independent state. At this time, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border was that which Italian colonialists had established in 1890. However, the establishment of administrative boundaries by Ethiopia in 1962 had muddied the colonial demarcation and this has remained the subject of discord ever since (HRW, 30 January 2003).

Internal displacement in Eritrea started in May 1998, when fighting broke out between the two countries over disputed frontier zones in Debub, Gash-Barka and Southern Red Sea districts (IFRC, 1 January 2002). Out of a population of 3.8 million people, some 19,000 fighters and an unknown number of civilians were killed during the ferocious conflict, while more than one million were forced to flee their homes.

A large number of the displaced rapidly returned to the three regions following a ceasefire in June 2000, the partial withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from border areas, and the Algiers Peace Agreement that followed six months later. As provided by the agreement, a demilitarised Temporary Security Zone was established along the 1,000-km Eritrea-Ethiopia frontier in April 2001, and 5,000 peacekeeping troops were deployed under the auspices of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea to monitor the ceasefire. By the end of 2000, the total number of IDPs had fallen from 1.1 million at the height of the crisis, to about 210,000 (USCR 2001, p.77).

The independent Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) mandated to locate the border between the two countries released its legally-binding decision in April 2002 in The Hague. Ethiopia, however, promptly rejected it. The physical demarcation, which was first due to start in May 2003, was postponed several times and has now been indefinitely delayed. Ethiopia has been contesting elements of the EEBC ruling, such as the decision to place the symbolic town of Badme - where the conflict flared up - in Eritrea. In November 2004, Ethiopia unveiled a controversial peace plan; it was immediately rejected by Eritrea, which demanded Ethiopia's withdrawal from the territory awarded to it by the ruling. Due to lack of progress in the physical demarcation of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, the Boundary Commission was planning to close down its field offices (UN SG report, 7 March 2005).

As of May 2005, fewer than 45,400 persons remained displaced, out of which 38,000 lived in 16 camps in Gash-Barka, Debub and Northern Red Sea, and the rest outside camps in Gash-Barka (ICC, May 2005).


IDPs in camps (estimates)
Southern Red Sea
IDPs outside camps (estimates)
Source: ICC, May 2005

Obstacles to return

The political tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia that brought uncertainty over the border demarcation have had direct humanitarian implications for IDPs in Eritrea. As the border demarcation is supposed to involve de-mining and transfer of territory as well as movement of people, the current deadlock blocks any incentive for the remaining IDPs to return home. The prevalence of landmines and poor security constitute the major threats to the displaced. Indeed, 20 per cent of IDPs' places of origin are impacted by landmines and 83 per cent of mine-impacted communities report blocked access to pastureland which severely affects food security. Some IDPs' home areas remain inaccessible due to the presence of unexploded ordnance (OCHA, December 2004, p.3). The worst-affected area is the Gash-Barka region in the southwest, particularly around Shilalo and Shambuko, which are the "bread-basket" areas where some of the most fertile land of Eritrea is located. The continuing drought is another major obstacle to returns (IRIN, 24 May 2005).

Humanitarian situation

The humanitarian conditions of the internally displaced remain critical as many of their emergency needs are still unaddressed. They continue to live in adverse conditions in makeshift settlements in camps and with host communities. In order to rebuild their livelihoods, shelter is one of the basic needs, mainly for families headed by women and without any income support. Replacement of temporary shelter is needed for 8,000 IDP households living in camps. Serious water shortages are also a cause of concern; people, mainly women and children, have to spend hours a day to collect a few litres of water. The sanitary conditions are poor since the camps possess no functional latrines. School materials and clothing are needed for 11,000 IDP children. Most of the displaced lack alternative sources of income and continue to be completely dependent on relief assistance (OCHA, 5 May 2005, p.3; UNICEF, 27 May 2005).

Another concern is the low school attendance rates for IDP children. School enrolment in camps is just over 50 per cent with six per cent more boys in schools than girls.

In addition to IDPs, there are other categories of people to be reintegrated and whose livelihoods need to be reconstructed. Over one million Eritrean former IDPs, expellees from Ethiopia and refugees who have returned to their home villages since the end of the fighting are unable to resume their livelihoods and remain dependent on humanitarian assistance. These also include a total of 19,000 former IDP and expellees of the Adi Keshi camp returned in early 2005 and returnees from Sudan who require different levels of continued support for their complete reintegration. Most of those who have returned are in communities located near Goluj, Haykota, Tesseney and Barentu in the regions of Gash-Barka and Northern Red Sea, areas suffering both severe drought and the consequences of war. Host communities, equally affected by the ramifications of war and drought, are struggling to cope with the added burden of returns (OCHA, 11 November 2004, p.1; OCHA, 5 May 2005, p.3).

In war-destroyed villages in the Temporary Security Zone there is an urgent need to rehabilitate water and transportation systems, and to reconstruct homes, basic health care and education services. There is a limited pool of skilled labour in return areas and local and international development agencies are few.

Only further donor support for de-mining programmes, mine risk education for the returnees, the continued presence of peacekeepers and a continuation of the peace will facilitate the safe reintegration of all vulnerable groups, including IDPs (UN OCHA, December 2004, p.14-15; IRIN, 30 March 2005; UNICEF, 27 May 2005).

Declining capacity

Eritrea's capacity to cope with this unresolved situation has declined. Shortages of food aid compounded with the effects of five consecutive years of drought have caused widespread hunger, worsening the already difficult lives of the country's displaced population. Out of a population of 3.8 million, about 2.3 million - including IDPs, refugees, expellees, returnees, host communities and children - are threatened by hunger and extreme poverty (Few Net, 10 May 2005). This represents a steady upward trend compared to 1.7 million in 2003 and 1.9 million people in 2004 in need of assistance. Consequently, Eritrea faces the challenge of meeting the immediate needs of emergency humanitarian assistance and at the same time rebuilding infrastructure damaged during the war and assisting displaced populations living in and outside camps.

Drought is also having a significant impact on the humanitarian situation of IDPs. Insufficient rainfall has left reservoirs dry and wells empty, severely weakening household resilience and leaving many households extremely food insecure. The stalemate in the peace process has constrained the full realisation of demobilisation activities, thus creating a marked shortage of workforce in public and private sectors (OCHA, 11 November 2004, p.4; OCHA, 31 March 2005).

Scarcity of resources has prevented the government from meeting the enormous needs of its people and the country remains heavily dependent on food and non-food assistance. Deepening poverty and receding prospects for socio-economic improvement keep Eritrea in need of humanitarian help for the affected population, including IDPs (OCHA, December 2004, p.13; IRIN, 24 May 2005).

Constrained humanitarian response

The Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC) is the main government institution responsible for coordinating national and international humanitarian operations, including those targeting IDPs. ERREC has offices in all administrative zones in Eritrea and is present in each IDP camp. The institution works in close collaboration with UN agencies supported by a joint government/UN Information and Coordination Centre and international NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Recently, the UN - as part of an ongoing programme supporting the return and resettlement of IDPs and expellees - assisted the government in resettling over 14,000 IDPs and 4,600 expellees to 22 villages of origin within Gash-Barka. These returnees were provided with basic reintegration packages and each family was allotted one hectare of agricultural land for which UNDP is providing seeds and tractor service. They also received mine risk education through either the Eritrean De-mining Operations supported by UNICEF or UN Mine Action Centre teams. In addition, ICRC has also established water points around 12 of the return villages to benefit both communities and their livestock (UNMEE, 17 February 2005).

Nevertheless, the activities of the ERREC and international agencies are restricted by limited resources. Urgent funding is needed to continue the provision of reintegration assistance to returnees and support is necessary to boost receiving communities' absorption capacity. Concern has been expressed at the low funding level in the non-food sectors such as shelter, health, water and sanitation which implies that needs were not met. While the returnees continue to live in tents, planning for constructing permanent housing has been finalised but awaits funding; meanwhile funds are required to implement the joint government/UN programme planning to return or resettle an additional 10,000 IDPs and expellees (UNMEE, 17 February 2005; UN OCHA, 31 March 2005; IRIN, 24 May 2005 OCHA, 5 May 2005, p.3).

Within the framework of the 2005 UN Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) for Eritrea, UN agencies and participating NGOs in collaboration with the government requested $157 million. As of June 2005, just over 12 per cent of the CAP had been covered. Emergency activities targeting one of the most vulnerable groups - returned IDP children - in villages in the Temporary Security Zone and education programmes for IDP children in camps have not received any funds (UNICEF, 27 May 2005). Although malnutrition rates remain high, underfunding has led to a further reduction of food rations to vulnerable groups including IDPs living outside camps and returnees. Only IDPs in camps continue to receive food rations which cover their daily caloric requirement (UN OCHA, 11 February 2005).

Underfunding may cause deeper long-term damage to the fabric of Eritrean society, as the return of IDPs and refugees is taking place in the context of serious poverty and lack of long-term commitment by the international community. By and large, rehabilitation, reintegration and reconstruction programmes will depend on the progress made in the physical demarcation of the boundary and the degree to which programmes aimed at benefiting vulnerable groups, including returnees and IDPs, are implemented.

The full country profile includes all references to the sources and documents used.