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UNHCR Closes Two Refugee Camps in Ethiopia

The U.N. refugee agency says it is closing two of the four camps in western Ethiopia hosting refugees from southern Sudan, following a successful repatriation season in which about 23,000 refugees from Bonga and Dimma camps went home. Lisa Schlein reports from VOA the UNHCR says it is temporarily suspending its repatriation operation during the rainy season.

The closure of the two camps brings to three the number of camps, which have been emptied in western Ethiopia since last year. The UNHCR began returning Sudanese refugees from western Ethiopia two years ago. Since then, nearly 28,000 Sudanese refugees have gone back to the homes they fled in the early 1990s.

U.N. refugee spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis,tells VOA this past year has been particularly successful. She says the UNHCR helped 23,000 refugees return, mainly to Sudan's Blue Nile State and to a number of other states in southern Sudan. She says about 2,000 refugees went home on their own.

She says 3,000 refugees in the two camps that are being closed and are being transfered to other camps.

"And, we will probably transfer them to another couple of camps," Pagonis said. "There are in fact about three of them. They can go into those camps. Because some of the refugees who are waiting camp transfers said to us that they will be returning home to Sudan later in the year using their own means. So, we are really seeing a kind of consolidation of the camp situation in western Ethiopia."

Western Ethiopia has been home to tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees for nearly two decades. They fled Sudan's 21-year civil war. Since an agreement ending that conflict was signed more than two years ago, thousands of refugees living in camps in Ethiopia and elsewhere have gone home.

The UNHCR is temporarily suspending its repatriation operation during the rainy season when roads become impassable. But, Pagonis says these returns will resume in November when the rains stop.

She says the UNHCR keeps a close eye on how the refugees who have returned home are getting along.

"I think this is important to keep on stressing that you do not just take people home and leave them there and say get on with it," Pagonis said. "They need help. Basic kinds of things to get them started in their new life and that can continue for several years. The things that are really on their mind are education and health and being able to make a living. So, we have been certainly trying to ensure that people have the basics like clean water, schools and health clinics in the areas that they are returning to."

Since 2006, about 275,000 Sudanese refugees have returned to southern Sudan from various countries. These include Uganda, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. The UNHCR has helped nearly half of these refugees return.