More than 320,000 Eritreans were refugees at the end of 1999, including about 320,000 in Sudan and some 2,000 in Yemen. About 250,000 Eritreans were internally displaced.

Eritrea hosted some 2,000 refugees from Somalia.

Some 50,000 persons of uncertain nationality deported to Eritrea from Ethiopia during 1998-99, including most of the 22,000 persons deported in 1999, lived in Eritrea in refugee-like circumstances.

Eight years after Eritrea's war for independence ended successfully in 1991, the long-awaited repatriation of Eritrean refugees remained stalemated.

War with Ethiopia

A border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia stretched into its second year during 1999. Up to 50,000 soldiers have died on both sides combined, according to some estimates.

An Ethiopian military offensive in February pushed back Eritrean troops; a military stalemate dominated the rest of the year. Ethiopian planes bombed the main Eritrean port of Massawa in May and struck an Eritrean village 25 miles (40 km) from the border, killing five civilians, including uprooted persons sheltered there.

International mediation efforts failed to broker a peace agreement.

Deportees from Ethiopia

The Ethiopian government deported some 45,000 people to Eritrea during 1998, and 22,000 in 1999.

Ethiopian authorities claimed that the deportees were Eritrean citizens whose presence in Ethiopia posed a security risk. Most of the deportees had lived virtually their entire lives in Ethiopia and considered themselves to be Ethiopian citizens of Eritrean heritage. About one-fourth of the deportees, however, seemed to regard themselves as Eritrean citizens or possessed unclear documentation, according to interviews conducted by researchers in Eritrea.

As many as 3,000 expellees arrived in Eritrea during a two-day period in July. Deportees continued to arrive in Eritrea during the final weeks of 1999.

Eritrean officials complained that Ethiopian authorities "dumped" many of the deportees at the border without adequate food and water. Some required immediate hospitalization because of heat and stress suffered during their expulsion.

The Eritrean government and aid workers rushed to assist the new arrivals. They received Eritrean identity documents, grants equivalent to $200, up to six months of food aid, blankets, and kitchen utensils.

Authorities resettled about 39,000 new arrivals in urban areas in expectation that they would rapidly become economically self-reliant. Some 28,000 deportees with agricultural backgrounds settled into rural areas: about 15,000 moved into temporary rural camps with other displaced Eritreans, while 13,000 immediately integrated into small rural communities.

The deportees were "too numerous to be absorbed into the Eritrean economy without assistance," a joint report by the UN children's fund (UNICEF) and the Eritrean government concluded in September. Many had never before been in Eritrea, could not speak the language, were separated from family members left behind in Ethiopia, had been stripped of all assets during their expulsion, and struggled to adjust to Eritrean life, a UN report stated.

The Eritrean government demanded that the Ethiopian authorities compensate the deportees and assist more than 50 Eritrean villages struggling to absorb them, but to no avail. Authorities also appealed to international donors for $3 million to help integrate the deportee population.

Internally Displaced Eritreans

The war forced some 250,000 Eritreans to flee their homes. Most were impoverished farmers and herders living near the contested border.

Some families fled a second time, farther from the border, to escape potential air and artillery bombardments. Several thousand persons in other areas of the country, including in the capital, Asmara, and at the port town of Assab, also fled their homes.

About half of the displaced families settled into local communities that were hard-pressed to share their meager resources with the newcomers. The other half moved into 30 temporary displacement camps.

The large displaced population was "entirely dependent on emergency relief assistance," the government reported in a June appeal for funding. "The basic needs for food, shelter, and health care are not being fully met," a joint report by UNICEF and the government stated in September.

Shelter for many uprooted families was inadequate, although improvements did occur late in the year. About one-third of the displaced population in camps received weather-resistant tents, while two-thirds lived in makeshift huts covered with plastic sheeting or, in some cases, in the open without shelter despite the area's extreme heat and seasonal torrential rains. The Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission urged donors in August to provide 38,000 tents, 32,000 blankets, and more than 100,000 sleeping mats.

All camp residents required full food aid rations, and displaced persons living outside of camps required half-rations, according to a health assessment in late 1999. Nutrition levels improved during the year, but moderate malnutrition affected 11 percent of the displaced population and even larger percentages of the resident population at some sites.

Many families lacked adequate clothing. Aid workers expressed concern that uprooted populations and residents trying to accommodate them were susceptible to illnesses such as malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory infections. About 60,000 persons in camps lacked clean drinking water.

Some 27,000 displaced children had no access to primary school, a joint survey by the United Nations and the Eritrean government found in December. Areas with schools experienced high absenteeism among displaced students because of poor diets.

UN agencies appealed for $31 million to assist all war-affected populations in Eritrea. Response from international donors was modest, partially because of international disenchantment with the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia for pursuing a war that caused such humanitarian hardship. Eritrean officials complained in November that aid programs had received only about 15 percent of the funding needed.

Repatriation of Eritrean Refugees

Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans fled their homeland during Eritrea's long war for independence, which ended in 1991. Although an estimated 180,000 Eritrean refugees gradually repatriated during the 1990s, the majority of refugees remained in asylum, including some 320,000 in Sudan.

No significant repatriation occurred during 1999, for the third straight year. Several factors have slowed refugee repatriation to Eritrea. During the early 1990s, Eritrean officials said that their war-devastated country could not absorb hundreds of thousands of returnees without substantial international help. The government insisted that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the international community must supply more costly reintegration assistance than donors were prepared to give.

Eritrean authorities also expressed concern that the mostly Muslim returnees might have adopted hardline religious and political views while living in Sudan. Such views would potentially destabilize Eritrean society and create opposition to the ruling party, the government indicated. Eritrean officials called for a process to screen refugees to determine their suitability for repatriation. Political tensions between the governments of Eritrea and Sudan also obstructed repatriation during the late 1990s.

The Eritrean government's ambivalence about the refugees' eventual return led to a rupture between UNHCR and Eritrean officials in 1997. The government expelled international employees of UNHCR. Relations between UNHCR and the government appeared to improve during 1998-99, and modest preparations for repatriation resumed.

Warmer relations between Eritrea and Sudan in 1999 raised the prospects that an organized refugee return program might begin in mid-2000. Two surveys of Eritrean refugees during the late 1990s, one conducted by UNHCR, found that a substantial number in Sudan intend to repatriate.


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