Eritrean exodus gathering speed: Aid agencies

August 30 2007 at 08:11PM

Kampala - A growing number of Eritreans are fleeing their authoritarian regime and joining in exile a previous generation who sought refuge from a long and deadly freedom war against Ethiopia, foreign groups say.

The young Red Sea state - which obtained its independence in 1993 - has an estimated population of 4.2 million but an estimated 850 000 Eritreans have sought refuge abroad.

One of the main destinations for those Eritreans who manage to slip through the regime's tight net is neighbouring Sudan.

"Scores of Eritrean asylum seekers now cross into Sudan every week, joining about 130 000 of their compatriots living in 12 refugee camps as well as urban and rural areas," the UN's refugee agency said in statement issued in late August.
"In 2000 we started voluntary repatriation, in which 98 000 Eritreans returned home," said Annette Rehrl, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Sudan.

"Due to the deteriorating political situation in Eritrea, the repatriation operation was stopped. Since November 2003, we have received about 23 000 new Eritrean asylum seekers," she added.

The new arrivals are "mainly young males in their late teens or early twenties. They claim to escape the brutal and life-long army service, mandatory in Eritrea," she explained.

The UNHCR pointed out that while much international attention was given to the crisis in Sudan's war-ravaged western Darfur region, little was being said about Eritrean refugees flocking into Sudan, in what it described as "one of the world's most protracted refugee situations."

"Spurred by the rigours and abuses of the national service system, draft-age Eritreans and high school seniors have been fleeing the country in the thousands over the past five years or have gone into hiding," Human Rights Watch said in a report released in January.

According to the World Bank, large Eritrean communities are also found in Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Italy, Britain, Germany, Canada, Sweden and Australia.

The UNHCR in Ethiopia said it receives between 400 and 500 new demands every month from Eritrean asylum seekers.

In Uganda, the flux of refugees is also intensifying.

The UNHCR's spokesperson in the Ugandan capital Kampala, Roberta Russo, said while 425 Eritreans had sought asylum there in 2006, 691 had sought asylum in the first six months of 2007 alone .

The Eritrean authorities have minimised the scale of the phenomenon.

Between 2005 and 2006, asylum application by Eritreans increased by 57 percent in industrialised countries, with Britian, Switzerland and Sweden on top, the UNHCR said.

Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans had already fled their country during the 30-year war with Ethiopia that kicked off in 1961.

Eritrea remains locked in a bitter border dispute with Ethiopia and the United Nations has warned of the potential for renewed fighting. - Sapa-AFP

Independent Online.