The United Nations agency for refugees announced Wednesday that it is ending refugee status for all Eritreans on December 31 because their country is now at peace.
UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers said Eritrean refugees should no longer have any fear of persecution. He said a peace agreement signed two years ago between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the establishment of a U.N. supervised security buffer zone between the two countries have brought stability to the Horn of Africa.
UNHCR spokeswoman Millicent Matuli said this stability was the key factor in the agency's decision to stop granting refugee status to Eritreans.
"UNHCR believes the root causes of the Eritrean refugee problem have changed fundamentally. This is because peace has returned with the signing of a cease-fire agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in June 2000," Ms. Matuli said.
Ms. Matuli has said the majority of Eritrean refugees are in Sudan, where UNHCR assists some 140,000 people, but there are thousands of others living in urban centers throughout the country. More than 44,000 Eritreans have returned from Sudan with UNHCR assistance. Some 5,000 Eritrean refugees are also in Ethiopia and Yemen.
Ms. Matuli said the UNHCR started a return program for Eritrean refugees last year and will continue to aid those wanting to go home until the end of the year. And she said there may be instances where some will continue to receive refugee status.
"We are asking anybody who still fears for their lives, should they go home, to approach UNHCR and there would be a new determination of their status. Should there be need for continued asylum beyond the end of this year, then certainly these people would continue to get refugee status," Ms. Matuli said.
More than 100,000 Eritreans have already gone home, either on their own or under the voluntary repatriation operation that began in May of last year.