Sudan: A Forgotten Refugee Problem

Published on allAfrica, 3 December 2009.

Kassala — 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. These days, 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 …

“Refugees have been here for the past 30-40 years, which is two to three generations, and that is quite unique,” said Peter de Clercq, the UNHCR representative in Sudan.  

“It is as far as we know the longest-standing refugee situation in Africa that is still protracted. That is mostly because of the political situation inside Eritrea,” he said.

As they planned for their big escape to Europe or Israel, asylum-seekers dreamed of a better life in Sudan. But instead, thousands woke up to the realities of the grim camp conditions, lacking food security or proper healthcare, and sharing scarce resources with Sudanese nationals. On arrival at the reception centre at Shagarab camp in Kassala state, near the Eritrean border, they 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 … //

… Refugee projects:

De Clercq said the UN agency was studying with the Sudanese government possible projects that would lead to the refugees’ self-reliance. Among the projects being discussed is leasing irrigated land to refugees so they can provide for their own food needs and sell the excess produce.

After formulating a comprehensive programme with the Sudanese government, UNHCR says it will present the suggested activities to international donors in 2010, which would require additional funds. UNHCR spent US$16 million this year on the camps.

With no clear end in sight, UNHCR says the refugee problem could be exacerbated as agencies expect a bigger influx of Eritrean and Ethiopian 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. It’s the coming season in the next few months that is going to be really crucial to see whether this will materialize,” De Clerq said.

If drought does hit those regions, 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. (full text).

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