By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
March 14, 2013 (ADDIS ABABA) – The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says it is preparing to relocate thousands of South Sudanese refugees stranded at Ethiopian border villages.
UNHCR’s spokesperson in Ethiopia, Kisut Gebreegziabher, told Sudan Tribune on Thursday that the agency is set to relocate some 16,000 South Sudanese refugees currently settled in the border Wanthowa district to the existing Pugnido camp in Ethiopia’s Gambella region.
According to the UNHCR official, the South Sudanese refugees have been living in host communities for about a year and it has been difficult to relocate them as most of them arrived with their livestock.
The relocation operation will be executed in collaboration with the Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA), an Ethiopian implementation partner of the UNHCR.
As part of preparations for the ultimate relocation operation, a multi-agency team drawn from UNHCR, ARRA, World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will be dispatched to the area to register the refugees.
Although 16,000 South Sudanese are estimated to currently reside at the border with host communities, their exact figures are not yet known as refugees in the area remain unregistered.
Thousands of South Sudanese have fled to Ethiopian border regions to escape inter-ethnic violence and a rebellion in South Sudan’s Jonglei state.
Many more continue to arrive in Ethiopia on a daily basis, including a recently arrived group of 200 South Sudanese.
Gebreegziabher told Sudan Tribune that on average 20 South Sudanese cross the border daily to Ethiopia’s southwest region due to ongoing conflicts in the new nation.
BLUE NILE CONFLICT
The UNHCR has also redoubled emergency preparations in Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz region, which borders Sudan, for a possible fresh influx to Ethiopia, after recent reports of renewed fighting in Blue Nile state.
Along with its partners, UNHCR says it is also investigating reports that an estimated 10,000 internally displaced persons along the Sudanese border from Gengen are planning to cross into Ethiopia.
The UN agency said although it is yet to receive any new arrivals, it has stepped up emergency preparedness around Ethiopia’s Assosa town where over 33,000 refugees who fled the conflict in Sudan’s Blue Nile state are currently being assisted.
Ethiopia is facing an increasing refugee population, mainly from strife-torn neighbouring countries, including Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan.
In January and February alone, the UNHCR registered over 10,170 new refugee arrivals in the East African nation.
To accommodate the growing refugee population, the UNHCR - together with ARRA and other partners - have established 17 refugee camps and two community support centres across the country, with more camps due to be built.
According to UNHCR refugee statistics provided to Sudan Tribune at the end of February, Ethiopia hosted a total of 388,805 refugees from 13 different countries, including refugees from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Yemen, Djibouti and the Democratic Republic of Congo.