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Horn of Africa: 3 to 4 weeks before rains

Briefing Notes, 16 June 2000

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 16 June 2000, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Sudan

A total of 924 Eritrean refugees arrived yesterday in Sudan 704 at Lafa and 220 at Gulsa. Many of them are women and children, but there are also 104 soldiers among them. The arrivals appeared to be in good health. They said they escaped fighting in Tesseney two days earlier. Small numbers are also trickling into Gergef camp from the fighting in Guluj in Eritrea. We have been transporting refugees at Gergef to Shagarab, 70 km inside Sudan. Yesterday we moved 1,798 from Gergef to Shagarab, bringing the total moved to 10,201. We have so far registered nearly 80,000 arrivals from Eritrea since last month but there has been a lot of movement across the border.

In the meantime, the first rains fell last night in Kassala and we are very concerned that delivery of assistance to the encampments will be very difficult. A lot of the new arrivals want to go back home but with the uncertain situation in Eritrea UNHCR is attempting to improve conditions in the camps.

Eritrea

UNHCR's Mobile Field teams in western Eritrea report that thousands of persons who were making tentative steps home in the last two weeks were again sent into flight this week when fighting re-surged in the western lowlands as the Ethiopian army took Tesseney.

UNHCR is today (Friday) airlifting water tankers, tents and hygienic parcels into Asmara from stocks in Tirana aboard two IL-76 cargo planes, with a third IL-76 flight to arrive on Saturday. Funds for these costly airlift operations for Eritrea's IDPs are coming from UNHCR's operational reserve.

UNHCR located 7,500 displaced persons at Tamarat, south of Ghirmayka near the Sudanese border on Wednesday, and another 2,500 IDPs were found near Ghirmayka itself. The Eritrean government is opening a new IDP camp at Forto, south-east of Ghirmayka, and believes that very quickly the number of people at this site will reach 50,000. UNHCR is monitoring the site, as well as the existing camp serving some 56,000 people collected from the region at Debat, near Keren.

The shelter and water situation throughout Eritrea's western lowlands region is dramatic. People simply don't have proper shelter. Right now, without the rains, the malaria threat is low. But in a matter of weeks, the entire region will be rife with mosquitoes and malaria. A few people have tents, while others are sleeping under plastic sheeting stretched between trees, the majority of Eritrea's displaced are simply sitting under the trees. With the rains coming, health problems could explode across the region.

Relief agencies working in the country have a three- to four-week window of opportunity to mount life-saving programmes before the rains cut-off many areas and many hundreds of thousands of people. The recent fighting this week has sent people who were trying to return to their homes back on their heels towards IDP camps or the safety of isolated ravines.

Using UNHCR's 40 trucks and 20 trailers, the government's Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission is working to deliver food, shelter materials and non-food items to the IDPs in the Gash Barka zone, and elsewhere throughout the country. Many displaced people have been surviving on protein biscuits for days on end because there is not enough trucking capacity in Eritrea to deliver adequate food stocks to all the distribution points, much less move the IDPs from the war-affected zones and get the non-food items that are now coming into Asmara out to the western lowlands.

Access to the IDP encampments will also become a huge problem once the rains start. The dirt roads that access the remote region cross numerous dry riverbeds that will flood in a matter of weeks. Heavy trucks simply won't be able to pass, UNHCR's mobile teams report. Right now aid can be delivered, and we hope the weather will hold off for the next three to four weeks but the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

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