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Eritrea: UN's laxity in enforcing border ruling delays IDP return

Norwegian Refugee Council, 06 Aug 2004 - This summary outlines the main findings of the newly updated country profile on internal displacement in Eritrea. The profile was prepared by the Global IDP Project of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which monitors and analyses internal displacement in over 50 countries worldwide. The full country profile is available from the Project's Database (, or upon request by e-mail (

At the height of the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia there were 1.1 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Eritrea. This number has fallen sharply but there are still some 59,000 people who cannot return home because of the tensions that persist around the border demarcation process. The physical marking out of the frontier, originally scheduled to start in May 2003, has been delayed indefinitely. Ethiopia has refused to accept the ruling by an independent boundary commission set up under the 2000 Algiers peace deal, and its call for yet more talks has been rejected by Eritrea until demarcation takes place. The resulting stalemate is perpetuating the plight of the IDPs, as well as that of people expelled from Ethiopia and refugees returning from Sudan. Furthermore, delays in de-mining and rehabilitation activities are hampering the return of IDPs. The displaced are also facing the severe consequences of four consecutive years of drought in the Horn of Africa. They are located in the frontier zones in Debub, Gash-Barka, Southern Red Sea and Northern Red Sea regions. Moreover, Eritrea's declining capacity to cope with the humanitarian situation, and underfunding of reintegration and reconstruction programmes, are limiting relief and rehabilitation efforts. As a consequence, the humanitarian situation for the drought- and war-affected populations is worsening. Only a breakthrough in the demarcation process will allow the resumption of rehabilitation activities, and the return and permanent settlement of IDPs.

Eritrean IDP crisis a result of border conflict 

Internal displacement in Eritrea stems from a combination of war and drought. The conflict with Ethiopia has quietened down since the Algiers Peace Agreement was signed in 2000. However, Eritrea continues to face the residual effects of war due to the current stalemate in the border demarcation process, compounded by recurring droughts that are having devastating effects on reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts (OCHA, 15 June 2004).

Internal displacement in Eritrea started in May 1998, when fighting broke out between the two countries over disputed frontier zones in Debub, Gash-Barka and Northern Red Sea districts (IFRC, 1 January 2002). Eritrea was formally annexed by Ethiopia in 1962; as a consequence, an armed struggle against Ethiopian rule began. Ethiopian forces were finally expelled after a 30-year struggle; in 1993, and following a referendum, Eritrea became an independent state. At this time, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border was that which Italian colonialists had established in 1890. However, the establishment of administrative boundaries by Ethiopia in 1962 muddied the colonial demarcation, and this has remained the subject of discord ever since (HRW, 30 January 2003).

The June 2000 ceasefire which halted the war and the Algiers Peace Agreement that followed six months later facilitated the return of many IDPs. A demilitarised Temporary Security Zone was established along the 1,000-km Eritrea-Ethiopia frontier in April 2001, and 5,000 peacekeeping troops were deployed under the auspices of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea to monitor the ceasefire.

Out of a population of 3.5 million people, some 19,000 fighters and an unknown number of civilians were killed, while more than 1 million were forced to flee their homes during the ferocious border conflict with Ethiopia. A large number of the displaced rapidly returned to the regions of Gash-Barka, Debub and the Southern Red Sea following the June 2000 ceasefire and the partial withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from border areas. By the end of the year 2000, the total number of IDPs had fallen from 1.1 million at the height of the crisis, to about 210,000 (USCR 2001, p.77). The number of IDPs declined further and has remained fairly stable since 2001. As of May 2004, just under 60,000 persons remain displaced, out of which 51,000 live in camps in Gash Barka, Debub and Northern Red Sea, and the rest outside camps in Gash Barka and Southern Red Sea (OCHA, 31 May 2004, p.12).

In addition to IDPs, there are other categories of people to be reintegrated and whose livelihoods need to be reconstructed, including 8,000 people expelled from Ethiopia, 185,000 who have recently returned to their homes and at least 125,000 refugees repatriated from Sudan; during 2004, another 35,000 are expected to be repatriated (OCHA, 31 May 2004, p.12, 15 June 2004).

The decision of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) on the location of the border between the two countries was released in April 2002 in The Hague. The physical demarcation, however, which was first due to start in May 2003, and then postponed several times, has now been indefinitely delayed. Ethiopia is still contesting elements of the independent EEBC ruling, such as the decision to place the symbolic town of Badme - where the conflict flared up - in Eritrea. It has called for talks to resolve the dispute, but the Eritrean government has rejected this until demarcation takes place.

Obstacles to return 

The political tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia that brought uncertainty over the border demarcation have had direct humanitarian implications for IDPs in Eritrea. The displaced are unlikely to return home until the status of the border areas is clarified, the frontier properly demarcated and peace fully established.

As the border demarcation is supposed to involve de-mining and transfer of territory as well as movement of people, the current deadlock blocks any incentive for IDPs to return. Their physical security is threatened by the prevalence of landmines within their areas of origin in the border zones. Indeed, the initial conclusions of the Landmine Impact Survey's Draft Report show that 20 per cent of IDPs' places of origin are impacted by landmines and more than two-thirds of recent landmine victims were engaged in herding or farming at the time (OCHA, 16 July 2004). Some IDPs' home areas remain inaccessible due to the presence of unexploded ordnance, worsened by the drought. The Eritrean De-mining Authority is now operational and has effective teams clearing mines. However, the low number of teams will further delay the safe return of refugees and IDPs (OCHA, 15 June 2004).

The widespread destruction of businesses, homes, water and transportation systems within the border areas, and the absence of basic health care and education services in war-destroyed villages have also prevented the return of the internally displaced (USCR, May 2004). Recovery efforts are also stalled by Eritrea's limited pool of skilled labour in return areas and the presence of relatively few local and international development agencies. The main return areas of Debub and Gash Barka zones had traditionally generated more than 70 per cent of Eritrea's annual food production, but the aftermath of war and water shortages severely reduced crop yields. In areas of the Gash Barka zone, malnutrition rates exceeded 27 per cent. Some 90 per cent of households in Debub zone had no access to potable water during 2003 (USCR, May 2004).

Damaged infrastructures need to be rehabilitated and the pace of de-mining accelerated before all the vulnerable groups, including IDPs, refugees repatriated from Sudan, and those expelled from Ethiopia, can safely move in (OCHA, 31 May 2004, p.16, 15 June 2004).

Declining capacity 

Eritrea's capacity to cope with the situation has declined, with more than half of the total population threatened by hunger and extreme poverty. Consequently, Eritrea faces the challenge of meeting the immediate needs of emergency humanitarian assistance and at the same time rebuilding infrastructure damaged during the war and assisting displaced populations living in and outside camps. In the short term there are few prospects of any socio-economic programmes helping returning IDPs resume their economic activities or the reintegration of repatriated refugees. Drought is also having a significant impact on the humanitarian situation of IDPs. Insufficient rainfall has left dams dry and wells empty (USCR, May 2004). Since the beginning of 2004, out of 1.9 million persons who needed food assistance, only 1.3 million have received aid, covering only 60 per cent of their minimum needs (OCHA, 17 June 2004, 31 May 2004, pp.12-13). Deepening poverty and receding prospects for socio-economic improvement keep Eritrea in need of humanitarian help for the affected population, including IDPs.

Humanitarian situation

The humanitarian conditions of all internally displaced people remain critical as many of their emergency needs remain unaddressed. In order to rebuild and re-establish their livelihoods, shelter is one of the basic needs for IDPs, those expelled and people who have returned to their homes - mainly families headed by women and without any income support. Indeed, IDPs continue to live in adverse conditions in makeshift settlements in camps and with host communities. For instance, the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC) reported that 2000 IDP families living at Koronko camp in Gash Barka zone lost their shelter to a windstorm last July. A previous assessment carried out by OCHA in the same camp revealed that some 6,700 IDPs who had fled their homes in Badme, Deda, Anbors and Tsebra, were sheltering under worn-out tents and surviving entirely on relief rations (OCHA, 2 April 2004, 30 July 2004). It has been reported that emergency shelter is also needed in IDP camps in Bimbina and Shambuko, where out of a total of 19,699 households, 14,357 require urgent tent replacement, while 1,048 tents are in need of reinforcement (OCHA, 23 April 2004). All IDPs and those expelled will continue to remain in adverse conditions inside and outside camps unless their shelter needs are properly addressed by the humanitarian community (OCHA, 15 June 2004).

Serious water shortages are also a cause of concern; people have to spend hours a day to collect a few litres of water. The sanitary conditions are poor since the camps possess no functional latrines (OCHA, 2 April 2004).

Another group whose situation is a matter of concern are refugees repatriated from Sudan. Most of those who have returned are in communities located near Goluj, Haykota, Tesseney and Barentu in the regions of Gash Barka and Northern Red Sea, areas suffering both severe drought and the consequences of war (OCHA, 17 June 2004, 2 July 2004). As part of their reintegration package, tents and other supplies are required for this group to allow them to resume their livelihoods (OCHA, 23 April 2004).

A few agencies, such as the UN's World Food Programme and refugee body UNHCR, are providing food assistance to returnee households until they are able to obtain their first successful harvest. Nevertheless, urgent funding is needed to continue the provision of reintegration assistance to returnees and support necessary to boost receiving communities' absorption capacity (OCHA, 23 April 2004; USCR, May 2004).

Underfunding undermines post-war rehabilitation 

The Eritrean government has played an important role in coordinating humanitarian operations through the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC) although their activities are restricted by limited resources. For instance, ERREC was able to maintain normal food rations for IDPs in camps despite an overall shrinking of the food ration to the majority of food aid recipients (OCHA, 17 June 2004).

UN activities including those targeting IDPs are coordinated by OCHA, supported by a joint government/UN Information and Coordination Centre. Within the framework of the 2004 UN Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) for Eritrea, UN agencies in collaboration with the government requested $118 million. Separately, the UN is also appealing for $10 million to fund the return of IDPs and $1.8 million to resettle the 8,000 people expelled from Ethiopia. As of August 2004, only 29 per cent of the CAP had been covered, compared to 41 per cent at that time in 2003. As a consequence, the UN estimated that there has been little progress in addressing the priority needs for vulnerable groups in Eritrea, including IDPs. The lack of donors' response in sectors such as shelter, health, water and sanitation implies that needs were not met (OCHA, 15 June 2004, 30 July 2004; IRIN, 3 August 2004). Particularly serious concerns have been expressed at the low funding level in the non-food sector which by mid-June has received only 23 per cent of the amount requested in the CAP (OCHA, 18 June 2004; IRIN, 3 August 2004).

Underfunding may cause deeper long-term damage to the fabric of Eritrean society, as the return of IDPs and refugees is taking place in the context of serious poverty and major water shortages. By and large, rehabilitation, reintegration and reconstruction programmes will depend on the progress made in the physical demarcation of the boundary and the level of food and non-food aid received to implement the different programmes conceived for the vulnerable groups, including IDPs.

The full country profile includes all references to the sources and documents used.