Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2017, 16:28 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Eritrea

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Eritrea , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 16 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Nearly 290,000 Eritreans were refugees at the end of 2002, including some 280,000 in Sudan, nearly 5,000 in Ethiopia, fewer than 1,000 in Yemen, and more than 3,000 Eritrean asylum seekers in various Western countries.

Approximately 75,000 Eritreans were internally displaced at year's end. Nearly 20,000 Eritrean refugees repatriated during the year, primarily from Sudan.

Eritrea hosted some 3,000 refugees, including more than 2,000 from Somalia and fewer than 1,000 from Sudan.

Pre-2002 Events

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after three decades of deadly conflict. While Eritrea immediately received international recognition as a sovereign nation, the demarcation of its border with Ethiopia remained a matter of disagreement.

Between 1998 and 2000, war raged between Eritrea and Ethiopia over the 620-mile (1,000 km) frontier between the two countries, displacing hundreds of thousands of citizens from both nations.

After Ethiopia launched a military offensive into Eritrea and achieved a clear military advantage, the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a cease-fire agreement in June 2000.

The two countries signed a formal peace accord in December 2000, officially ending the two-year war that killed more than 100,000 Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers and an untold number of civilians, while leaving more than 1 million persons uprooted on both sides of the border.

In late 2000, the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea deployed peacekeeping troops and military observers to Eritrea to monitor the establishment of a Temporary Security Zone extending 15 miles (25 km) into Eritrea along the two countries' shared border. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, however, still occupied large areas of Eritrea within the buffer zone, impeding the return of uprooted Eritreans.

The peace agreement remained in effect during 2001, creating conditions that enabled more than 30,000 Eritrean refugees to repatriate from Sudan, and approximately 200,000 internally displaced Eritreans to return home.

The refugee returnee population consisted equally of long-term refugees who had fled Eritrea during its 30-year war for independence, and short-term refugees uprooted during the 1998–2000 border war with Ethiopia. Nearly all returnees resettled in southwest Eritrea's Gash Barka Zone.

Eritrean Repatriation

Approximately 305,000 Eritreans who fled violent conflict in their country during the past three decades remained refugees at the beginning of 2002.

In May, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declared that "the root causes of the Eritrean refugee problem no longer exist" and stated that most Eritrean refugees no longer had a "valid fear of persecution."

The UNHCR declaration, which became official on December 31, 2002, effectively withdrew automatic refugee status for Eritrean refugees. Eritreans who claimed to have "compelling reasons" for not wanting to return to Eritrea were required to submit to individual screening interviews in asylum countries to determine their legal status.

Between January and July 2002, nearly 20,000 Eritrean refugees repatriated from Sudan to their places of origin on UNHCR-chartered buses and trucks. Most returnees resettled in the war-destroyed border zones of Debub and Gash Barka.

The World Food Program (WFP) provided returnees with a two-month food supply. UNHCR provided blankets, water containers, agricultural tools, materials to construct traditional homes, and mosquito nets to each returnee family.

UNHCR also issued cash grants to help returnees start agricultural activities and small businesses. Returnees received medical assistance and information about the dangers of HIV/AIDS and landmines before reaching their final destinations.

Returnees also benefited from UNHCR-implemented community-based reintegration programs that included education, health, and water projects. The government's Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission allocated five-acre (2 hectares) plots of land, enabling returnee families to construct their homes and cultivate new crops.

Many returnees expressed concern that the government-issued land was not favorable for cultivation, and that development projects in returnee areas were virtually non-existent.

"Without substantial development in returnee areas, large populations could soon be at risk," UNHCR stressed in May.

Heavy seasonal rains suspended the repatriation exercise in July. Sudan indefinitely closed its border with Eritrea in October after accusing Eritrean authorities of supporting rebel incursions into eastern Sudan.

The border closure forced UNHCR to suspend refugee repatriation for the remainder of the year.

UNHCR estimated that more than 35,000 Eritreans willing to repatriate during 2002 had to remain in refugee camps in Sudan as a result of the border closure.

Internally Displaced Eritreans

Approximately 75,000 war-uprooted Eritreans remained displaced throughout the country at year's end.

The prevalence of landmines, poor security, and the widespread destruction of businesses, homes, and water and transportation systems within the Temporary Security Zone prevented the return of tens of thousands of internally displaced Eritreans.

The absence of basic health care and education services in war-destroyed villages also impeded large-scale return.

Nearly 50,000 internally displaced persons continued to live in some 20 camps in western Eritrea's Gash Barka and Debub Zones. An additional 10,000 resided in makeshift camps and host communities.

Eritrea's displaced population also included some 15,000 people of Eritrean descent who were deported from Ethiopia during the war.

Severe drought, food shortages, and Eritrea's depressed economy compounded the already difficult lives of the country's displaced population. Most lacked alternative sources of income and relied exclusively on relief organizations for their daily needs, including WFP food rations.

The two-thirds of internally displaced Eritreans who resided in camps were in urgent need of adequate shelter, according to UN relief agencies.

Displaced families living outside of camps struggled to survive on only 60 percent of the minimum daily food requirement, according to health workers. Insufficient rain caused near total crop failure for displaced persons who had access to farmland.

The continued presence of UN peacekeepers along the border enabled more than 15,000 displaced Eritreans to return to their villages of origin during 2002.

Reintegration Conditions

During 2002, Eritrea made little progress toward recovery from the destruction left behind by two years of warfare.

Eritrean authorities struggled to restore basic government services in the border region, and basic social services remained in a state of disrepair. UNHCR rehabilitated water systems and constructed schools and health care facilities in some returnee areas.

Jailing of government opponents and new Eritrean government decrees that restricted press and religious freedoms strained the government's relations with international donors and international aid agencies.

Government restrictions on international humanitarian agencies hampered development and reintegration programs. As in previous years, aid workers complained that Eritrean authorities imposed tight management and administration controls over their programs, slowing humanitarian efforts.

In mid-2002, Eritrean authorities restructured the country's demining operations and requested that international mine removal organizations terminate their work.

The government's actions effectively stopped the removal of tens of thousands of landmines from Eritrea's prime agricultural areas and adversely affected the return of thousands of refugees and internally displaced Eritreans.

Recovery efforts were further stalled by Eritrea's limited skilled labor pool in returnee areas and the presence of relatively few local and international development agencies.

The main returnee areas of Debub and Gash Barka Zones had traditionally generated more than 70 percent of Eritrea's annual food production, but the aftermath of war, fear of landmines, and water shortages severely curtailed crop yields during the year.

Agricultural output during 2002 sank to its lowest level in a decade. Poor crop yields forced nearly half of the population to rely on humanitarian agencies for food. Approximately 60 percent of Eritreans were chronically malnourished, according to WFP.

Nearly 100,000 livestock animals died during the last six months of the year because of drought, according to the government.

"The country faces a humanitarian crisis of serious proportions in terms of food supply and essential inputs for recovery for food protection," the UN reported in November.

UN relief agencies appealed to international donors for $92 million to assist Eritreans during 2002, but received less than half that amount by year's end.

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