Eastern Sudan hosts more than 66,000 registered Eritrean refugees, the first of whom arrived in 1968 during the early years of Eritrea’s war of independence against Ethiopia. Today, Eritrea’s policy of indefinite military conscription, coupled with drought and poor economic opportunities, prompt some 1,800 people to cross into Sudan every month, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. “It is as far as we know the longest-standing refugee situation in Africa that is still protracted,” said Peter de Clercq, the UNHCR representative in Sudan. “That is mostly because of the political situation inside Eritrea.”
On arrival at the reception center at Shagarab camp in Kassala state, near the Eritrean border, the refugges are not immediately provided with proper shelter. Only when their refugee status is confirmed, which can take four to six weeks, are they able to move into tents or huts, which they often have to build themselves.
Shagarab, with the worst conditions among the three biggest camps in eastern Sudan, houses more than 21,000 mostly Eritrean refugees, in addition to some Ethiopians and Somalis. The 1,800 monthly arrivals also include young men who flee forced conscription in the Eritrean army. Related one young refugee to the UN news service IRIN: “I worked in the army for more than 10 years. I left because my family is very poor. Not enough money to live in Eritrea. It is very hard. We four brothers were in the army, so nobody could feed our family.”
The UN World Food Programme supplies the camps with food aid but refugees say it is not enough. Education opportunities for children are also inadequate. Out of 15,000 children in the 12 camps in the east, 6,000 do not get the chance for a primary education because schools lack the capacity to absorb them, UNHCR Africa director George Okoth-Obbo said.
In 2002, the refugee status enjoyed by those who had fled the independence war was revoked, on the grounds that the circumstances that led to their exodus no longer pertained. Although thousands of refugees returned to Eritrea, some refused to do so. De Clercq said the UN is studying possible projects to encourage the refugees to become self-reliant, such as leasing irrigated land so they can provide for their own food needs and sell the excess produce.
With no clear end in sight, UNHCR says the refugee problem could be exacerbated as agencies expect a bigger influx of refugees to cross into Sudan in the next few months because of a drought and food shortages. “There are very clear indications both in Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as in eastern Sudan that this will be a very bad season,” De Clerq said. If drought does hit the region, the numbers of Ethiopians and Eritreans coming into Sudan in the next few months could be as high as “tens of thousands of people”, he said. (IRIN, Dec. 3)