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UNHCR Urges Eritrean Refugees in Sudan to Register - 2002-12-23

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is urging hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees in Sudan to register with the agency for voluntary repatriation by the end of the year, when their refugee status comes to an end.

The U.N. refugee agency says December 31 is the cutoff date for some 300,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan to register for voluntary repatriation. To date, the refugee agency has transported only about 50,000 refugees back to Eritrea.

In May, the UNHCR announced all Eritreans who fled the war of independence 30 years ago or the recent border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea would lose their refugee status at the end of the year. The agency says the conditions that forced them to flee their country no longer exist.

December 31 is also the deadline for those Eritrean refugees who fear going home to put in a claim for asylum.

UNHCR Spokeswoman Millicent Mutuli says Eritreans who want to apply for asylum can have their claims screened in centers which have been set up in at least five cities across Sudan. "Not all 300,000 are bound by this decision to return," she said. "If they feel that they continue to be at risk in Eritrea, then their claims will be listened to, adjudicated and a decision will be made whether or not they should get further international protection."

Ms. Mutuli said about 50,000 Eritreans have so far requested continued asylum. Although December 31 is the cutoff date for voluntary repatriation, Ms. Mutuli said the Sudanese authorities are willing to give the agency as much time as it needs to assist the refugees in getting home.

"We will help everyone who wants to go back until we complete that operation," said Ms. Mutuli. "We will also continue to assist those who are waiting for their applications for continued asylum. Until that decision is made, we will continue to help them. Those who do not wish to return for non-asylum reasons would have to legalize their stay in Sudan."

The UNHCR spokeswoman noted many people who do not qualify for asylum may have other pressing reasons for remaining in Sudan. She said many may not wish to return home because of strong family, social or economic ties with Sudan.