Nearly 280,000 Eritreans were refugees at the end of 2003, including some 270,000 in Sudan, nearly 7,000 in Ethiopia, and some 3,000 Eritrean asylum seekers in various Western countries.

About 75,000 Eritreans were internally displaced at year's end. Fewer than 10,000 Eritrean refugees repatriated during the year, primarily from Sudan.

Eritrea hosted nearly 4,000 refugees, including more than 3,000 from Somalia and fewer than 1,000 from Sudan.

Aftermath of War

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.

From 1998-2000, 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.

The two countries signed a peace accord in December 2000, officially ending a 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.

The UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea that deployed to Eritrea in late 2000 to monitor the establishment of a Temporary Security Zone, which extended 15 miles (25 km) into Eritrea along the two countries' shared border, remained in place at the end of 2003. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, however, still occupied areas of Eritrea within the buffer zone, impeding the return of uprooted Eritreans.

An international commission appointed to demarcate the disputed border issued its ruling in April 2003, awarding the town of Badme to Eritrea, which prompted Ethiopia to reject the ruling. The commission postponed its work indefinitely in October.

Eritrean Repatriation

During 2003, political tensions between the governments of Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan severely hampered refugee repatriation. Fewer than 10,000 Eritrean refugees returned home during the year, far fewer than the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expected.

The returnee population consisted primarily of long-term refugees who had fled to Sudan during Eritrea's 30-year war for independence. Nearly all resettled in southwest Eritrea's war-destroyed Gash Barka Zone, where tens of thousands of landmines remain.

In 2002, 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," effectively withdrawing 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.

In January 2003, some 36,000 Eritrean refugees residing in Sudan registered to repatriate with UNHCR assistance. However, Sudan's border with Eritrea, which Sudanese officials closed in October 2002 after accusing Eritrean authorities of supporting rebel incursions into eastern Sudan, remained closed. In late June, both governments agreed to open their respective borders only to create a humanitarian corridor, enabling UNHCR to recommence repatriation operations. Heavy seasonal rains suspended the exercise from July to October. By year's end, some 9,000 Eritreans repatriated from Sudan. An additional several hundred Eritrean refugees repatriated from other countries.

The World Food Programme (WFP) provided returnees with a 1-year 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 returnees.

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.

UNHCR estimated that more than 27,000 Eritreans willing to repatriate during 2003 had to remain in refugee camps in Sudan as a result of the border closure and weather delays.

Internally Displaced Eritreans

About 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. As in previous years, the absence of basic health care and education services in war-destroyed villages also impeded large-scale return.

More than 55,000 internally displaced persons continued to live in camps in western Eritrea's Gash Barka and Debub Zones. An additional 8,000 resided in makeshift camps and host communities. Eritrea's displaced population also included some 15,000 people of Eritrean descent who Ethiopian authorities 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. Insufficient rainfall left rivers dry and dams and wells empty. Most war-uprooted internally displaced persons lacked alternative sources of income and continued to rely exclusively on relief organizations for their daily needs, including WFP food rations. "The emergency needs of internally displaced persons and expellees, living in and outside camps, has not improved," the UN reported.

Most camp-based war-uprooted internally displaced persons continued to live in temporary shelters. Nearly 75 percent of tents sheltering internally displaced persons required urgent replacement, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Reintegration Conditions

Basic government services in the border region, and basic social services remained in a state of disrepair at the end of 2003. UNHCR rehabilitated water systems, constructed schools and health care facilities, and implemented community-based agricultural and environmental projects in some returnee areas. Eritrean authorities continued to impose tight management and administration controls over their programs, slowing humanitarian efforts.

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 for the third consecutive year.

In areas of Gash Barka Zone, malnutrition rates exceeded 27 percent. Some 90 percent of households in Debub Zone did not have access to potable water during the year.

"Unless urgent steps are taken to stabilize at-risk populations and support return movements, the humanitarian crisis may deepen, jeopardizing future recovery and reconstruction," the UN reported in November.


This 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.