February 6, 2008 (KHARTOUM) — Thousands of Eritrean refugees, many fleeing mandatory military service or jail, have arrived in Sudan in the past year and need help, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Wednesday.
Erika Feller, U.N. assistant high commissioner for protection of refugees, said the new arrivals added to the 95,000 mostly Eritrean refugees already housed in camps in Sudan’s desert east, some for up to four decades. She said Sudan needed help from donors to continue to aid them.
Speaking to reporters after a trip to the region, she said 28,000 others from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia were also settled in the region. More than 10,000, mostly Eritreans, had arrived in 2007 alone.
"Sudan is a refugee-hosting country," she said. "This is a contribution which Sudan is making which is much under-appreciated."
Waves of refugees were driven into Sudan by Eritrea’s long separatist conflict with Ethiopia, culminating in Eritrea’s secession in 1993. The two countries went to war again between 1998 and 2000.
Feller said she met an Eritrean mother in Sudan who had been jailed in Eritrea because her son had dodged the draft in Asmara.
"A lot of it relates to the compulsory military service and the penalties for not doing the services and the penalties that are imposed on family members," she said.
Military service lasts a minimum 18 months but authorities can extend it to as much as 10 years, with wages less than $25 a month. Around 10 percent of Eritrea’s population is said to be in the army.
Feller said the refugees could not be returned to Eritrea. Rights group Amnesty International says any Eritrean who has avoided miltiary service is at risk of torture or imprisonment.
She added that those who had been on Sudan’s desert border with Eritrea for more than four decades could not return home and UNHCR would try to help them to be self-sufficient and to integrate into the host community.
Feller added Sudan had agreed to host 2,000 Palestinian refugees who have fled Iraq and were now living in "untenable" conditions on the Iraq-Syrian border.