|UNHCR: Repatriation of Eritrean refugees to end this year |
ASMARA, 2 Aug 2004 (IRIN) - The repatriation of one of Africa's oldest refugee populations from Sudan to Eritrea is expected to be completed by the end of this year, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said.
Many of the refugees have lived in eastern Sudan for more than 30 years, having fled fighting and famine during Eritrea's long independence war.
"As from January 2005, repatriation will continue based only on individual requests from the refugees," Pirjo Dupuy, the head of UNHCR in Eritrea told IRIN on Friday.
"All parties consider that there has been enough time and opportunity for people to return through convoys. We cannot maintain this expensive system indefinitely," she added.
Operating on a repatriation and reintegration budget of nearly US $10 million this year, UNHCR and its Sudanese and Eritrean partners, have returned almost 120,000 refugees home by convoy since the exercise was started four years ago.
On arrival in Eritrea, the returnees are provided with land by the government as well as financial assistance, materials for building shelters, non-food items like cooking utensils and are exempted from military service for a year.
According to UNHCR, tensions that had earlier risen between Eritrea and Sudan this year had not affected the repatriations. Refugee convoys had continued to cross the closed border twice a week until the start of the rainy season four weeks ago.
"We have been very pleased that the repatriations have been able to continue," she said. "UNHCR is doing lots of liaison work between two organisations [Eritrean and Sudanese refugee organisations] in order to maintain this humanitarian corridor."
Sudan had accused Eritrea of being sympathetic to rebels in its troubled western region of Darfur while Eritrea blamed Sudan for bomb attacks in the far west of the country. In August 2002 the refugee convoys were halted for almost a year after Sudan accused Eritrea of being behind rebel activity.
UNHCR said approximately 27,000 Eritreans in Sudan had registered for voluntary repatriations while 29,000 Eritrean families had applied for continued refugee status in Sudan. Some 8,275 Eritrean refugees have returned home this year.
UNHCR hopes to resume repatriation convoys in October after the rainy season.
In March, UNHCR organised the biggest single convoy that brought back 1,770 Eritrean refugees in 58 buses and more than 30 trucks. From a desolate border crossing inside Eritrea, known as Check Point 14, the returnees were taken to the western town of Tesseney, where they were issued with assistance packages and new ID cards, pending their onward journey to their home areas.
Eritrea is one of several countries chosen for UNHCR's pilot testing of a new initiative dubbed the 4Rs – Repatriation, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. The initiative aims to ensure that the return of the refugees and their reintegration is backed by "solid rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes".
Earlier this year, the Sudanese government said an estimated 200,000 Eritreans were living in its territory, of whom 35,000 had signed up for voluntary repatriation.