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UNHCR Encouraging Return of Eritrean Refugees - 2002-02-05

The United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR has organized a "go-and-see" visit for Eritrean exiles living in refugee camps in the Sudan. The agency says it hopes the visit will encourage tens-of-thousands of refugees to go back to the homes they fled decades ago.

UNHCR says 60 Eritreans from each of the 23 camps in the east and north of Sudan arrived in the western Eritrea town of Tesseney on Monday. The group is composed of men, women and youth leaders.

UNHCR spokeswoman Millicent Mutuli says the group will visit towns and villages in the Gash Barka region throughout the week. She has said the UNHCR hopes that by showing the refugees the prevailing conditions, they will be encouraged to return.

"Many of these people have been away for decades, some of them as long as 30 years, and they may have some doubts about whether they would be able to reintegrate, whether they would be able to settle in Eritrea. And so, we thought it was important for people to go in and see that. Indeed, there are projects that would be able to help them to settle back in," she said.

The refugees fled during Eritrea's war of independence from Ethiopia. The conflict began in 1962 and ended in 1993.

The UNHCR has said, with the end of the war between the two Horn of Africa states, the reasons for the refugees' departure no longer exist. Ms. Mutuli says the refugee leaders will visit a variety of projects before they return to their camps in Sudan on Friday.

"We have planned for them to see water projects, health facilities, education facilities that have been set up in this region. They will be meeting with religious leaders who would be able to speak to them about what conditions are like. We have also arranged to have these people meet with returnees. A lot of these things are being done so they have a one-to-one experience with people who have come back, or with people who never left Eritrea," she said.

Upon their return, Ms. Mutuli said, the Eritrean refugees will receive assistance to help them get started in their new lives. She said they will receive food, hand tools for farming and up to two hectares of arable land from the government.

Last year, the UNHCR repatriated 38,000 Eritreans. Close to 140,000 refugees remain in Sudanese camps. The UNHCR hopes to help all of them go home by the end of the year, thus closing the chapter on one of Africa's oldest groups of refugees.