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Spotlight on East Sudan’s forgotten refugee crisis

UN casts spotlight on Sudan’s forgotten refugee crisis – not Darfur or South, but East

On the other side of Sudan from the headline-grabbing events of the Darfur conflict, tens of thousands of refugees are living on, as they have for years, in a silent crisis largely ignored by the world but sustained by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

“Like other refugees in protracted circumstances, the Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees are often forgotten – and they are living in a region of Sudan that is itself often overlooked,” WFP emergency coordinator Sarah Longford said of the more than 95,000 refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea who now live in 12 camps in eastern Sudan. “Attention tends to focus on people in Darfur and the south, but people in the east are also in dire need.”

Just last month, these refugees were included in the annual list of “Ten stories the World Should Hear More About” compiled by the UN Department of Public Information (DPI), under the rubric “Protracted refugee situations: Millions caught in limbo, with no solutions in sight.”

Though far less numerous than the refugees who have fled into Chad from the western Darfur region, where three years of fighting between the Government, pro-Government militias and rebels have killed scores of thousands, the Ethiopians and Eritreans have sought shelter in eastern Sudan for far longer, some up to 40 years, fleeing the conflict that led to Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia and then the 1998-2000 war between the two.

“Over the past several years, various dips in funding have meant rations have been delivered late or in reduced quantities, leaving families to cut down on meals to stretch out their food stocks,” WFP spokesman Mohamed Amasha said on a visit to the area. “The agency’s support depends on donor funding, but the refugees’ plight competes for attention with a multitude of other crises around the world requiring donations.”

Although a few of the camps are land-based, with refugee families allocated a small plot to cultivate, there is not enough land for everyone, and a cycle of poor seasons and droughts have meant low harvests. For new arrivals in particular, making their way in the camps can be a difficult and bewildering business. Many are young people, wanting to avoid military service.

A 2004 assessment found that 48 per cent of camp households were headed by women. Although divorce rates were relatively low, a high proportion of these women were widows, who had lost their husbands to the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. For them, earning an income to supplement food rations is vital.

Training programmes and other schemes that boost self-reliance and offer opportunities to access an income are a priority, Ms. Longford said.

“Together with our cooperating partners, including the Sudanese Red Crescent, we’re working on linking more of our food assistance to training programmes, and other similar measures, so that we also build self-sufficiency,” she explained. “Otherwise the outlook is extremely bleak for these people.

“At the same time, we are also working to assist Sudanese people in the eastern regions who are displaced or for other reasons can’t meet their families’ food needs.”

Eastern Sudan has been hit hard by repeated droughts and a long-term decline in rainfall, while sporadic conflict has also uprooted families and communities, leading to a chronic livelihoods crisis while malnutrition rates have soared. WFP is trying to encourage other agencies to focus on eastern Sudan to aid development, Ms. Longford said.

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