Kassala and Gedaref states in eastern Sudan host about 136,000 refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia, with new arrivals from Eritrea arriving weekly. UNHCR's first refugee camp in eastern Sudan was established in 1968.
Upon arrival Thursday in Kassala, about 350 km east of Khartoum, Guterres met with local authorities and officials of UNHCR's governmental counterpart in Sudan - the Commissioner for Refugees. COR is UNHCR's main implementing partner for the 12 refugee camps in the east. The Sudanese noted that over the past four decades, eastern Sudan's infrastructure and environment had been severely affected by the presence of thousands of refugees from neighbouring Eritrea and Ethiopia. They asked for the High Commissioner's support in presenting their case to the international community.
"Today, the whole world focuses on Darfur and South Sudan and nobody thinks of the refugees in the east," said Guterres, who thanked the government and local community for sharing meagre resources. "People also forgot that Sudan has been one of the most generous countries hosting refugees for 40 years. Personally I believe this generosity is rooted in Islam."
From Kassala, Guterres travelled to Wad Sherif refugee camp, which opened in 1982 and today is home to 33,370 refugees. Upon arrival, he met with about 60 recently arrived male asylum seekers from Eritrea. Sitting in a small straw shelter, the young men recounted their experiences fleeing Eritrea.
"In my country there are too many problems", a young man in his early twenties explained. "There is impatience for peace. But we are tired of waiting. We want to go to school and college and continue our education."
The asylum-seekers claimed that they all came by foot, and that they had fled for their lives. Guterres assured them they would be screened and registered by COR and should not fear being sent back to their homeland against their will. UNHCR is currently working with COR on developing Sudan's national asylum system.
"We will make sure that you will be well treated", Guterres told the young men.
The refugee agency aims to move from a care and maintenance program in the east to programmes that will enhance the self-reliance of the refugees, particularly since voluntary repatriation is currently not an option.
"We have many vulnerable people here - old people and women with babies - and apart from better health facilities, we need more schools," said refugee leader Adam Berek, who fled to eastern Sudan in 1984.
After visiting the huts of a few families in Wad Sherif camp, the High Commissioner travelled south through the arid eastern Sudanese desert to Kilo 26 refugee camp, which opened in 1979 and currently hosts 12,500 refugees.
Guterres expressed shock over the deplorable living conditions in the camp, including poor water supplies, lack of adequate health facilities, bad sanitation and malnutrition.
"I have detected several very serious problems here," Guterres told refugees who had gathered to meet him. "We have not done enough in eastern Sudan and we want to do more. We have limited resources, but we are committed to do more. It is necessary, of course, that the international community assumes its responsibilities, too."
He told those gathered that UNHCR had an obligation to ensure that as many of its resources as possible went to those the agency is charged with helping - refugees and displaced people. This year, the eastern Sudan operation was receiving an additional $1.2 million from a special fund established by the High Commissioner to address urgent needs such as health and nutrition. The budget for the whole program in the east in 2007 is $13.7 million.
Guterres visited malaria patients in the camp's modest health centre, where he expressed concern over whether adequate medical supplies were available and the apparent lack of hygiene in the facility.
"The accumulation of difficulties has resulted in appalling conditions," Guterres said before leaving the camp. "And let's be honest, the conditions here are not good and need to be changed." He promised the refugees that UNHCR would try to solve the most urgent water and sanitation problems in 2007, and work with COR to further improve overall camp conditions next year.
Later in the evening, on the flight back to Khartoum, Guterres told journalists he was deeply concerned and irritated by what he had seen in the east.
"We have a huge refugee population here to whom nobody is paying attention," he said, pledging to put their plight back on the international agenda. "These are forgotten people."
By Annette Rehrl
in Kassala, Sudan