Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

ERITREA-POPULATION: Refugees Caught In Political Deadlock

Jennie Street

ASMARA, Jul 18 1996 (IPS) - Although there is now peace in Eritrea, over 110,000 Eritreans in refugee camps in Sudan and another several thousand who have been spontaneously settled in Sudanese urban areas, are unable to return home.

And on the other side of the fence here in Eritrea, several thousand Sudanese and Somali refugees are unable to acquire refugee status, because Eritrea is still not a signatory to the international conventions governing refugee status.

“It’s a political deadlock on the return of Eritrean refugees from Sudan,” said Arnulv Torbjornsen, the chief of mission here for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“The Sudanese government is now insisting on a new tripartite agreement and the Eritrean government says ‘no’, the previous bipartite agreements made in 1994 are valid. They will not meet with anyone from the NIF(National Islamic Front).” Eritrea broke off diplomatic relations with Sudan in 1995.

According to a March census conducted in the refugee camps in East Sudan, there are 110,000 Eritreans, far lower than either the Sudanese or Eritrean governments had claimed.

“We (UNCHR) created a monster in Sudan,” Torbjornsen admits. “We still support 2,000 jobs in the refugee business there, and there are vested interests in keeping the Eritrean refugees. If they repatriate, their refugee empire will collapse. We have to take a lot of responsibility for creating the situation in Sudan.”

The Eritrean Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (ERREC), which took over the functions of the Commission for Eritrean Refugee Affairs in late 1995, has conducted organised voluntary repatriation of about 25,000 refugees from Sudan. These people have received food rations and a proportion were given sites to live in the western lowlands of Eritrea.

ERREC estimates that about 155,000 Eritrean refugees have returned spontaneously, without assistance from Sudan and other countries. And those left behind, want to return home.

“I estimate that 80-90 percent of those in camps want to repatriate,” commented Torbjornsen. “Things are deteriorating in Sudan, and NGOs leaving, and as UNHCR is receiving less from donors, these will be push factors.

“UNHCR conducted a survey in the camps in August 1995, and all said they wish to go home. But perhaps only about 50 percent of those spontaneously settled want to return – they have shops, houses, children in schoosl, etc.”

Another problem facing the Eritrean government is that, without sufficient donor support through UNHCR, it will not be able to accommodate and support the returnees. This may also account for some reluctance to find a way round the political difficulty.

Despite the severed diplomatic relations between the two countries, Torbjornsen discovered at one border post in May that 20 to 30 families per month are still trickling back to Eritrea unofficially.

By June however, Eritreans trying to cross the border reported heavy taxes being levied on their property by Sudanese border patrols. This will deter many from returning.

Sudanese refugees in Eritrea face different problems.

In Asmara, over 100 people, mostly Southern Sudanese, including women and about 10 children, live in poor conditions in an old warehouse in HazHaz, Asmara. UNCHR provides them with meagre rations and occasional material support.

The UN agency estimates that about another 100 Sudanese are living among the population in Asmara and several thousand, mostly northerners, including military units of the recently-formed Sudanese Alliance Forces (SAF), also live outside established refugee camps. None of these are entitled to UNHCR help.

Torbjornsen says it is a matter of time before Eritrea signs the international conventions on refugees. It is the only African country that is not a signatory.

“The government is working on a national registration of refugees, and preparing their own law; UNHCR has helped by bringing comparable forms (registration) from other African countries like Malawi and Kenya, and we prepared unofficial eligibility criteria, but the Ministry of Interior want to do this by themselves before they are ready to sign the 1951 Convention(Relating to the Status of Refugees) and the 1969 OAU Convention (Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa).”

Alema Hailu, Head of Refugee Affairs in the Immigration Department at the Ministry of Interior, told IPS: “We do not yet have our own refugee law, and as the refugee caseload is not heavy, it is not a pressing issue in relation to other issues.

“We are studying it and for now, just working on humanitarian grounds. Many Eritreans have tasted refugee life, so we cannot be too far from signing the conventions, but firstly we must ask ourselves does the (1951) Convention work for us?”

Only refugees in camps are granted refugee ID cards by the Refugee Affairs Office, and the rest have to apply for residence permits. Those outside the camps are viewed as “illegal immigrants”.

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