Eritrea-Sudan: A forgotten refugee problem

by Rick

Founders Julian Kalmar and Rick Beneteau had a rather disturbing teleconference with Zebiba Shekhia, founder of Healing Bridges, discovering the tremendous challenges she was forced to overcome when trying to build her first girls high school near refugee camps in Eastern Sudan. We encourage you to read the article (and watch the video) she sent us which only begins to describe how grim things are in this part of the world and by all means click on the website in her byline and help if you can.

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.

“Living here is difficult. Hearing about it from afar, the camp sounded comfortable, but if you come here it seems like [an Eritrean] national service camp, because you can’t have any money,” said a 22-year-old Eritrean refugee. 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 UN World Food Program 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 later in Khartoum.

Eritrean refugees have been displaced in Eastern-Sudan since 1967 as a result of a long war. Over 500,000 Eritrean refugees living in makeshift camps in Eastern Sudan have fallen victim of the war and poverty for almost over 40 years now. They remain destitute and deprived of basic survival necessities such as food, water, shelter, medical care, education and much more. 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. The current plight of the Eritrean refugees in Eastern-Sudan has continued to rapidly deteriorate and has now become what many consider a humanitarian catastrophe. With no education facilities available illiteracy in the camps exceeds 80%.

Consequently, the conditions within the refugee camps have deteriorated to a state whereby the refugee camps in Eastern-Sudan are classed as being the world’s worst, such that they do not even conform to the minimum humanitarian standards that are provided to refugees in other parts of the world.

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. Aid agencies ceased their operations in the refugee camps when Eritrea was “liberated” but did not give any chance for the refugees to return to their homeland due to the ongoing internal conflict in Eritrea that started after the independence.

Although thousands of refugees returned to Eritrea, some refused to do so. A 24-year-old mother of three, born and raised in the Wad Sharifey camp close to the Eritrean border said: “I do not want to go back to Eritrea. The reasons for us leaving have not ended.” Most of the refugees stay inside the camps. However, many risk their lives trying to reach Europe or Israel. “We can indeed confirm reports that many people in fact do not make it – people do die in the desert, there is no doubt about that, and there are many dead bodies that wash up on the shore,” De Clercq said in Khartoum. Although UNHCR says the government has not rejected any Eritrean asylum-seekers, it does try to reduce the pull of the refugee camps to potential ones. Refugees are allowed to work in Sudan, but government policy is to keep them inside the camps, said Abdallah Soliman Mohamed, deputy commissioner of refugees. With no access to better education for refugee children, and after international donors have supported the camps for more than 40 years, UNHCR says it is looking into other ways for the refugees to become self-reliant.

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Posted by on Oct 12 2010 Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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