The U.N. refugee agency says it welcomes a decision by the Ethiopian government to relax restrictions on Eritrean refugees.  Agency officials say a new policy introduced by the government allows Eritrean refugees who can support themselves to live outside the camps.

The U.N. refugee agency says Ethiopia's newly introduced out-of-camp scheme - as it is known - for hosting refugees is good news for all involved.   

UNHCR spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says Eritrean refugees who are able to take advantage of the scheme will benefit in many ways.  For example, he says those who choose to live in cities will be able to improve their access to services and help build bridges with host communities.

"This new policy essentially allows Eritrean refugees to live outside camps and in any part of the country, provided they are able to sustain themselves financially or have a close or distant relative or a friend in Ethiopia who commits to support them," said Mahecic.  "This change in policy is a result of our work with the Ethiopian government, which was focused on enabling these refugees to live outside the camp settings."

More than 60,000 Eritrean refugees have crossed to Ethiopia since the Ethiopia-Eritrea border conflict erupted in the late 1990s.  The U.N. refugee agency believes the less restrictive policy will bring Ethiopian and Eritrean communities closer together.

Mahecic says it is likely the full rollout of the policy will significantly reduce the costs of looking after refugees.  This is because those who benefit from the plan will be able to support themselves and no longer have to depend on the government.

"Any Eritrean refugee living in a camp without a criminal record will be able to benefit from this scheme.  Many of the Eritreans are finding the work in the informal sector and the government is normally tolerating this phenomenon.  But, the new policy will also involve some skills training and educational opportunities, which should eventually better equip the refugees to cater for themselves," said Mahecic.

Mahecic says the refugees are reacting positively to the new policy, and there are indications many of them will take advantage of it.  He says the UNHCR hopes the government's decision eventually will include refugees from other countries, as well.  He says many Somali and other refugees already live in Ethiopian towns and cities with the knowledge of the authorities.

The agency says Ethiopia currently hosts some 138,000 refugees, including Somalis, Eritreans and Sudanese.