GAMBELLA, ETHIOPIA - The Ethiopian government wants to relocate at least 60,000 refugees, mostly from flooded camps in the country’s southwestern Gambella region, to safer accommodations farther south near the town of Dima.

As the country braces for another influx from South Sudan once the rainy season ends – and that could be any day – the move is getting urgent. But the refugees refuse to go out of fears of ethnic violence.

Most refugees in the region’s northern part are ethnic Nuers who fled the South Sudan fighting that began in December. Those already in Dima are ethnic Dinka, from just across the Ethiopian border.

Solomon Atsbeha works for the Ethiopian Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs in Leitchuor camp in the region’s north. Flooding has destroyed much of the camp’s infrastructure, he said, and its 48,000 Nuer refugees need to be relocated to Dima.

The Nuers are suffering and “will die by this flood” unless they’re moved, Atsbeha said. “We cannot get a Nuer zone without flood place.”

Dima has space, but it's feared

Dima has many facilities, he said. It’s home to the older camp of Okugo, where many South Sudanese sought refuge during the war of independence from Sudan. It can host up to 70,000 people.

It also would have room for the 10,000 to 15,000 refugees waiting near the Matar border crossing and another 2,700 at Pagak.

The refugee administration said that, unlike at Leitchuor, the Okugo camp has available tents, steady electricity, a working telecommunications network and better roads.

But James Gach, an elderly Nuer, is afraid to move to Dima from the refugee camp where he has lived since May. He said he doesn’t understand why he needs to go to a place where he and his family will risk being killed by Dinkas.

Others share Gach’s fear. Most Nuer refugees living in camps, or waiting by border points to be moved into a camp, say they will not go to Dima.

A survey conducted by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, showed that only five families were willing to go, according to Angele Djohossou, who heads the U.N. mission in Gambella.  

The Nuers have a range of concerns. Some have complained Dima is too far from their native homes, making it difficult to visit with relatives, Djohossou said. "Some of them raise security issues. The government is saying that they shouldn’t worry. But you know we have to do it on a voluntary basis; we can’t forcibly relocate refugees."

Awareness sessions

The Ethiopian refugee administration is in talks with refugee leaders and conducting awareness training, hoping to convince people that relocation is in their best interest.

The government and UNHCR see the approaching dry season as an opportunity to safely relocate refugees, as flooding is likely to occur again next year.