Since they began their work in mid -- September, 33 teams of lawyers in five towns and several camps in eastern Sudan have assessed the claims of nearly 5,000 Eritrean applicants out of the 27,000 applications received by the end of 2002. The lawyers interview every applicant, who has the right to appeal if his or her application is rejected.
Some Eritreans say they cannot return home for fear of persecution because of their political affiliations or religious beliefs. Others say their marriage to non -- Eritreans, particularly to Ethiopians, will place them and their families at risk if they return home. Still others plead to be allowed to remain in Sudan because they have no jobs to return to in Eritrea or have no family there. There is also a large number of young people who want to avoid military service in Eritrea.
"Many of the refugees have integrated locally, married Sudanese, set up businesses... they do not want to go home," said a UNHCR official in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.
Khartoum hosts the largest number of applicants for continued asylum. Legal teams here have listened to the claims of more than 3,000 Eritrean refugee families out of the 7,800 applications that were received in the capital city by the December 31 cessation of status deadline, which was also the closing date for applications for continued asylum in Sudan. Other teams are in Port Sudan, on the shores of the Red Sea; Kassala, east of Khartoum; Gedaref and Wad Madani, to the south -- east.
The legal teams recently completed screening applications in Gedaref and Wad Madani, and have shifted the emphasis to remote refugee camps in eastern Sudan before these are rendered inaccessible by the rainy season. The teams are braving harsh conditions on the ground in order to screen applications more closely and quickly.
"At the height of the registration towards the end of 2002, screening centres in Khartoum were receiving 200 to 300 refugees daily," said a UNHCR official working with the legal teams. "They would take numbered coupons and await their turn for registration. The centres were very crowded then."
But once the refugees were all registered, they were given appointment dates and told to come back for an individual screening, when they can explain their need for continued asylum in Sudan to the legal team made up of a UNHCR -- hired lawyer and a government official. This appointment system has greatly decongested the screening centres.
Meanwhile, some 32,000 Eritreans who have registered to go home are still waiting for the return operation to resume. Repatriation was suspended last June due to the rainy season and was expected to start again in October. But this was delayed by the closure of the Sudan/Eritrea border. UNHCR is trying to negotiate with both governments to allow the stalled operation to resume.
More than 100,000 Eritrean refugees have already returned home, some 50,000 of them with UNHCR assistance. An estimated 223,000 Eritreans remain in Sudan, where many sought asylum more than 30 years ago. Some 92,000 of them are in refugee camps, while the rest are assumed to be in urban areas.
On December 31, 2002, UNHCR ended refugee status for Eritreans who had fled their country either because of the war of independence from Ethiopia, which ended in June 1991, or as a result of the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which ended in June 2000. Early last year, when the refugee agency announced the decision to end refugee status, the affected group of refugees was given three options: to return home, to apply for continued asylum backed by a valid reason, or to follow normal immigration channels in their country of asylum to regularise their stay.