Sudan - Eritrea: Early Warning Note

  • Author: Gérard Prunier
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    1 April 1996


•                The large Eritrean refugee population now living in the Sudan has been there since it fled the fighting caused by the war of Eritrean independence.

•                Although the regime they fled is no longer in power in Ethiopia and Eritrea has been independent since April 1991, the present government does not belong to the same political shade of the independentist spectrum as the majority of the refugees. As a result, most of the refugees have not gone back.

•                Many of them are still concentrated in areas generally close to the Eritrean border.

•                Relations between the Islamist regime in Khartoum and the newly independent regime in Asmara, although initially good, have deteriorated to the point of severing diplomatic relations in 1995.

•                Accordingly Asmara now supports the armed Sudanese opposition.

•                Military operations, once located very far south of the refugee area, are now occurring increasingly closer.

If military operations against the Sudanese Government originating from Eritrea continue to take place, the refugee population could be at risk in three different ways occurring separately or together:

•                they could be held hostage against the "good behaviour" of the Eritrean Government;

•                they could become a recruiting ground for operations against their home country;[1]

•                they could simply be caught in the crossfire.


The large refugee population living in the Sudan is a product of the Eritrean war of independence.[2] Although historically in no way different from the mosaic of peoples which makes up the rest of Ethiopia, the inhabitants of Eritrea were for historical reasons subject to a different destiny, due to the fact that they had been colonized by Italy while the rest of Ethiopia remained independent.[3] The differences which resulted from this historical divide were further accentuated by the fact that, after the Italians were beaten by the British Army in 1941, Eritrea was not immediately given back to Ethiopia but rather occupied by the British for eleven years. This often overlooked episode contributed greatly to increasing the differences between Eritrea and Ethiopia, because the British occupation forces created a number of modern institutions (a free press, trade unions, a parliament)[4] which had no parallel in Ethiopia itself, still a feudal country in the 1950s.

The 1952 decision to give Ethiopia a UN Mandate over Eritrea was hasty and eventually led to catastrophe when Emperor Haile Selassie decided that the Mandate gave him a free hand to actually annex the country (1962). Annexation led to thirty years of war, contributed to the revolution which overthrew the Empire, served as justification for sixteen years of a Marxist-Leninist regime, and culminated in its fall and eventually in the full independence of Eritrea in April 1993.

The war between the Eritrean resistance movements and the various Ethiopian governments was quite violent and took a heavy toll of the civilian population. Accordingly civilians started to flee to the Sudan as early as 1965. The numbers grew rapidly, with two particularly violent periods leading to increased numbers of refugees, the revolutionary period (1975-1978) marked by a series of massacres committed by the Ethiopian Army, and the fratricidal struggles in 1980-1981 between the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF).

Number of Eritrean refugees in the Sudan[5]















In fact, these figures are a slightly understatement because they represent registered refugees. Given the cultural affinities between parts of the refugee population and parts of the Sudanese population, a certain number of refugees just "settled informally" in the Sudan.[6]

The problem was compounded by the fact that most of the refugees were not just refugees from the main Eritrean-Ethiopian struggle, but also from an intra-Eritrean civil war between the Moslem-dominated ELF and the Christian and secularist-dominated EPLF, who had clashed repeatedly between 1972 and 1978 and then again in 1980-1981. [7] As a result, the 1991 victory of the EPLF was perceived with mixed feelings among the refugee population. On the one hand they could not but rejoice at the fact that Eritrea was finally independent. But on the other hand they felt that this victory was also the victory of what they perceived as a mostly Christian Highland movement, with no sympathy for Muslim lowlanders. As a result refugee repatriation programs have yielded low results, and only about 110,000 people have gone back since the end of the war in 1991.[8] This means that around 400,000 Eritrean refugees are still in the Sudan, some dispersed among the Sudanese population but most settled in an area stretching from Gedaref to Kassala, near the Eritrean border.


For reasons of geopolitical antagonism during all of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s the governments of Ethiopia and the Sudan supported each other's guerrillas opponents, making the Horn of Africa one of the major fields of confrontation in the Cold War.[9] The situation did not change when an Islamist regime took power in Khartoum through a military coup in June 1989. So the EPLF struggle, although it was the struggle of a Christian-dominated movement, was strongly supported by the new Sudanese regime simply for geopolitical reasons. As a result in 1991 the relations between Khartoum and the newly independent regime were excellent and the Sudanese were very present at the Eritrean independence celebrations in Asmara in April 1993.[10] But the relationship soon deteriorated. For the fundamentalist Islamic regime in Khartoum, Eritrean independence was not an end in itself but the first part of a more global scenario, starting with the progressive dismemberment of Ethiopia and eventually leading to its complete break up into a mosaic of small Muslim-dominated states stretching all the way to Somalia.[11]

After Eritrean independence, the Sudanese regime started recruiting disenchanted youths in the refugee camps and incorporated them into an organization called Jihad Eritrea.[12] By late 1993 there were constant infiltrations into Eritrea and border skirmishes. After a major attack in December 1993, the Eritrean Government chose to go public with it and lodge a formal protest to Khartoum.[13] Being all the while confronted with double-faced diplomacy and continuing infiltrations and guerrilla attacks, the Eritrean regime participated in negotiations with the Sudan for about a year, but then decided to break diplomatic relations with Sudan and to support the Sudanese opposition in its attempts at overthrowing the fundamentalist regime.[14]

As a result, tension has grown on the border around and at (if we include recent instances of fighting around Humera) the triple (Eritrea-Ethiopia-Sudan) border junction.[15] In addition, Ethiopian-supported rebel forces have entered the Sudan from slightly further to the south and are now operating in the Kurmuk-Khor/Yabus area of Southern Blue Nile Province.[16]


We must repeat the warning placed at the beginning of this short paper. Eritrean refugees are often not particularly well-disposed towards the EPLF-dominated government and therefore not always willing to go back home. With growing military tension between their country of origin and their country of asylum they are now faced with an increasing risk of being caught in the crossfire, victimized if they sympathize with Asmara or recruited to fight if they sympathize with Khartoum as some do.


The views expressed in the papers are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of UNHCR.


[1] This has already been the case since 1993. (Author's interviews with members of the local Eritrean administration in Barentu and Umm Hagger in April 1993)

[2] There is still today no serious balanced historical study of the Eritrean independence struggle, most of the literature being, at least to some degree, of a propagandistic nature. The best studies are Stefano Poscia, Eritrea, colonia tradita (Rome: Edizioni Associate, 1989) and Ruth Iyob, The Eritrean Struggle for Independence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

[3] For this period see Irma Taddia, L'Eritrea Colonia (1890-1952) (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1986) and Tekeste Negash, Italian Colonialism in Eritrea (1882-1941), Acta Universitatis Uppsaliensis (Uppsala, 1987)

[4] For the British period in Ethiopia, see G.K.N. Trevaskis, Eritrea: A Colony in Transition (1941-1952) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960)

[5] These statistics are quoted from Gaim Kibreab, Refugees and Development in Africa: The Case of Eritrea (Trenton: The Red Sea Press, 1987), p. 72. Kibreab mainly derives his figures from UNHCR sources

[6] This author's estimate is that this category represented between 40,000 and 80,000 people or about 10 to 20 per cent of the official refugee population

[7] For a partial description of this "civil war within a civil war" see Poscia, Eritrea, and John Markakis, National and Class Conflicts in the Horn of Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

[8] For an evaluation of this problem see Manuela Pagliarecci, "Des retours manqués au pays: la question des réfugiés erythréens au Soudan", Université de Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne, unpublished DEA manuscript, 1995

[9] On these global geopolitical aspects, see Markakis, National and Class Conflict; Madan Sauldie, Super Powers in the Horn of Africa (London: Oriental Press, 1987); Paul Henze, The Horn of Africa from War to Peace (London: Mac Millan, 1991); Giampaolo Calchi Novati, Il Corno d'Africa nella storia e nella politica (Turin: Societa Editrice Internazionale, 1994)

[10] Author's field notes, Asmara, April 1993

[11] Interview with Mudawi al-Turabi, cousin of Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi. Paris, April 1992

[12] On the birth of this new anti-EPLF movement, see Tesfatsion Medhanie, Eritrea and its Neighbours in the New World Order: Geopolitics, Democracy and Islamic Fundamentalism (Hamburg: LIT Verlag, 1994)

[13] Agence France Presse [Nairobi], 1 January 1994

[14] See interview with President Issayas Afeworki in The Economist, 14 October 1995. For a more general discussion of the Khartoum regime's various geopolitical involvements, see Gérard Prunier, Identity Crisis and the Weak State: The Making of the Sudanese Civil War, WRITENET for UNHCR, January 1996, Section 10

[15] The Sudan Democratic Gazette, April 1996

[16] Reuters [Nairobi], 25 March 1996; La Lettre de l'Océan Indien, "Soudan: l'offensive de la SPLA reprend", 30 March 1996; Le Monde, Jean Hélène, "Les pays voisins du Soudan tentent de déstabiliser le régime islamiste", 3 April 1996


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