Approximately 320,000 Eritreans were refugees at the end of 1998, including nearly 320,000 in Sudan and some 2,000 in Yemen. About 100,000 Eritreans were internally displaced.

Eritrea hosted an estimated 3,000 refugees from Somalia. Some 35,000 persons deported to Eritrea from Ethiopia during the year lived in Eritrea in refugee-like circumstances.

Seven years after Eritrea's war for independence ended successfully in 1991, the repatriation of Eritrean refugees remained stalemated in 1998.

War with Ethiopia

Warfare erupted between Eritrea andEthiopia in May over a small strip of disputed land along the countries' common border.

Eritrean troops seized a border town previously controlled by Ethiopia. Violence escalated in June when both sides launched air strikes. Ethiopian planes bombed a military target adjacent to Eritrea's main airport in the capital, Asmara. The violence quickly spread to three military fronts along the countries' mutual 1,000-km. (600-mile) border.

Violence diminished during a four-month rainy season, but artillery exchanges increased later in the year. Military build-ups continued on both sides. Efforts by the United States, the Organization of African Unity, and other diplomats to mediate the dispute failed.

Several hundred persons died on both sides – some analysts estimated a death toll of several thousand.

Internally Displaced Eritreans

The war forced an estimated 100,000 or more Eritreans to flee their homes near the border. Most were farmers and herders.

Local communities provided shelter, but "the disruption and displacement...due to the conflict have put the displaced and receiving communities at very serious risk," UN relief officials stated in September. "There is little chance that the displaced will be able to return to their homes in the immediate future."

In addition to the displaced populations, the war affected 150,000 people, hampering their ability to farm, closing school and health facilities, and forcing impoverished communities to share their limited resources with displaced families. UN agencies reported that they needed nearly $9 million to provide humanitarian assistance to areas of Eritrea affected by the war.

Arrival of Deportees from Ethiopia

The Ethiopian government deported some 45,000 people to Eritrea during the second half of 1998 because of the war.

About 80 percent of the deportees claimed that they were Ethiopian citizens of Eritrean heritage, according to a local survey. The other 20 percent identified themselves as Eritrean citizens with residence in Ethiopia. The deportees continued to arrive in Eritrea at the rate of 1,000 per week at year's end.

Many expellees arrived in Eritrea without papers to document their true citizenship, and many had never lived in Eritrea. The local population gave the new arrivals a rousing, supportive reception. Eritrean authorities and ICRC transported many new arrivals to urban areas, where they found lodging with friends and strangers. Others settled into temporary tent encampments in the border region.

Most expellees entered the country with virtually no possessions. International humanitarian assistance was "slow and inadequate," complained Eritrean officials. The Eritrean government provided initial cash grants equivalent to $200 per family and several months' food supply, as well as household items and tools for farming.

The government stated its hope to provide nearly $700 in adjustment assistance to each rural family deported to Eritrea, and up to $1,600 to resettle each urban professional deportee. "It is expected that the restoration of their livelihoods will require a long time," government officials stated in a $25 million funding appeal to international donors.

In addition to the 45,000 persons expelled from Ethiopia to Eritrea, some 20,000 Ethiopian residents of Eritrea returned to Ethiopia during 1998 because of the war. Ethiopian officials claimed that the Eritrean government expelled many of the returnees. Eritrean security forces reportedly harassed and mistreated some Ethiopian residents, including charges of rape. Eritrean officials and many European diplomats based in Eritrea insisted, however, that most of the 20,000 Ethiopians left Eritrea voluntarily, and that Eritrean officials did not engage in wholesale forcible deportations.

Repatriation of Eritrean Refugees

When Eritrea's war for independence from Ethiopia ended in 1991, most international observers anticipated that Eritrean refugees would repatriate rapidly. That did not occur.

Several factors have slowed refugee repatriation to Eritrea. During the early 1990s, the Eritrean government and UNHCR disagreed on the proper timing of repatriation and level of assistance to returnees. UNHCR was eager to end the refugee situation, while Eritrean officials said that their devastated country could not absorb hundreds of thousands of returnees without substantial international help.

Eritrean authorities also expressed concern that the mostly Muslim returnees might have adopted hardline religious and political views while living in Sudan. Such views, the government indicated, would potentially destabilize Eritrean society and create opposition to the ruling party. Eritrean officials called for a process to screen refugees to determine their suitability for repatriation.

Political tensions between the governments of Sudan and Eritrea have also obstructed repatriation in recent years. Insecurity along the Eritrea-Sudan border linked to Sudan's civil war has posed an additional impediment.

The Eritrean government's ambivalence toward repatriation led to a rupture between UNHCR and Eritrean officials in 1997. The government expelled international employees of UNHCR. In 1998, authorities allowed UNHCR to reinforce its staff in Asmara to lay the groundwork for an eventual repatriation program.

No significant repatriation occurred during 1998, however. An estimated 180,000 Eritreans have repatriated since 1991, including about 130,000 from Sudan. About 25,000 repatriated from Sudan during 1994 95 as part of a pilot return program. Virtually all other repatriations have occurred spontaneously, with little or no assistance. About 40,000 repatriations to Eritrea occurred in 1995, and 15,000 in 1996.

Nearly 90 percent of the Eritrean refugee population in Sudan wants to repatriate, according to a 1996 independent survey. A UNHCR survey of refugee camps in Sudan in 1998 found that the "overwhelming majority" of the refugees in the camps intend to repatriate.

About half of the refugees living near the EritreaSudan border have visited Eritrea to assess conditions. More than 80 percent of the refugees surveyed in 1996 said that devastation and underdevelopment in Eritrea were barriers to their return home.


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