From IRIN KHARTOUM/KASSALA, 1 July 2011 (IRIN) – The first official Eritrean refugees arrived in Sudan in 1968; today, an estimated 1,600 cross the border every month to seek refuge in Shagarab, a large camp in the east of Sudan.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that northern Sudan has more than 100,000 Eritrean refugees but in 43 years, the profile of the refugees has changed.
“The new arrivals are generally young and well educated; they come from the highlands and have no cultural or ethnic ties with local populations,” said Mohamed Ahmed Elaghbash, Sudan’s Commissioner for Refugees. “Most of them take Sudan as a transit country. They stay here for some time until they get the opportunity to move northwards. Sometimes, they try to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa in order to reach Europe.”
In contrast, those who arrived in 1968, escaping the Eritrean war of independence (from 1961 to 1991), made a life in Sudan and some even managed to obtain Sudanese documents.
Of the Eritrean refugees in Sudan, about 40,000 live with the local community and belong to the same ethnic group. The Rashaida and Beja, for example, are found on both sides of the border.
However, the situation for newer Eritrean refugees is different.
Gideon Tesfazion told IRIN he fled his country in 2008 and spent a year in the camp before obtaining his refugee papers.
An opponent of the Eritrean administration, Tesfazion now lives in Khartoum and has worked a string of poorly paid jobs.
“As a refugee, a lot of jobs are forbidden to us, even in the international organizations based in Khartoum; we can only work in small private companies as a painter or a cleaner,” he said.
With the independence of Southern Sudan on 9 July, the Khartoum government is implementing a new citizenship law and Eritrean refugees fear the authorities will be stricter about their rights. They also fear the population will be tougher on them.
“After July, the situation will be worse and worse for Eritreans,” he said. “We look like them, we act like them. However, Sudanese are scared of us. Then, because we are refugees, some people in the administration ask us for money with no true reason.”
Tesfazion sees the effects of this discrimination on the new Eritrean refugees.
“We see them coming to Khartoum with no legal status; they are moving all the time in town from one friend’s house to another,” he said. “They are trying to cross the border quickly to reach Europe but you need at least US$5,000 for that.”
Eritrean refugees at Shagarab camp. About about 40,000 Eritreans live with local Sudanese communities Smuggling risk
In the 12 camps that flank the border of Eritrea and Sudan, UNHCR has set up workshops to warn the public about using smugglers.
“We explain to them that it is very dangerous, that they can die during the journey,” Boray Assadig, one of the lawyers for refugees in Shagarab camp, said. “For example, the boat can drown in the Mediterranean Sea. But it is not easy to convince them because it is almost impossible for them to get authorization to leave the camp for Khartoum and more difficult to leave the country.”
In partnership with the Sudanese Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR registers each new arrival using the refugee status determination protocol. Registration is supposed to make it easier for them to get refugee documents.
Many Eritrean men, for example, are soldiers fleeing military service, which, though officially limited to 18 months, can extend indefinitely. So the investigators question them on their unit and the weapons they carried to verify their identity.
During her visit to Shagarab on 20 June for the International Day of Refugees, Janet Lim, the operational assistant to the High Commissioner, focused on the integration of refugees into the local population, the only effective lever, in her opinion, to reduce the phenomenon of people smuggling and allow refugees a better life.
Lim also promised that UNHCR and various international organizations would install water pumps and distribute food to the local population on the condition that they allow new refugees to work and integrate into their communities.
Between toiling in the midst of local communities or moving to Khartoum to risk the perilous journey East, Mokonen Teolebrhomes, 60, does not know what to do any more.
A political dissident, Teolebrhomes fled his country for the first time for Shagarab in 1981. Thanks to sisters in Japan, he was able to live in exile in Asia for more than 20 years. In 1995, his homesickness led him back to Eritrea.
“When I was back in Eritrea, I was still registered as a political activist,” he said. So, I fled again two months ago. And here I am back in Shagarab. I can’t go to Japan again because my step-brother was my sponsor the first time. Now, he’s retired. He can’t sponsor me any more. I don’t know what to do. In Japan, it was paradise, here it is hell.”