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Last Updated: Friday, 27 April 2007, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
The forgotten refugees of east Sudan
By Karen Allen
BBC News, eastern Sudan

Refugees at Wad Sharife camp, eastern Sudan
Will these refugee children ever see their parents' homes?
In eastern Sudan, some 20km from the border with Eritrea in an expanse of sand that stretches as far as the eye can see, is Wad Sharife camp.

It is home to some of the 130,000 refugees that have crammed into eastern Sudan over the decades.

Yet despite the raw beauty of the craggy Kassala Mountains that form a dramatic backdrop, this is possibly one of the loneliest places in the world.

What makes it even more tragic, is that many of the refugees who now call this part of the world "home," have languished here for more than 25 years, caught in a bureaucratic limbo and unable to work.

Many of the men, women and children have fled from regional conflicts in Eritrea and Ethiopia back in the 1980s.

A peace agreement in 2000 led to the repatriation of some 100,000 refugees but renewed clashes have meant that more than 8,000 asylum seekers fled to Sudan last year.

Many of them are young men trying to escape conscription into the Eritrean army, explaining that if they signed up, there is every chance they would be forced to serve indefinitely.

Bottom of the pile

The UN has now refined its policy, trying to integrate them into communities here. After all, many share the same ethnic identity. But it is a policy they are struggling to implement.

These refugees are hosted by a country emerging from more than two decades of a north-south civil war, and now wrapped up in a bitter conflict in Darfur. So they find themselves at the bottom of the pile.

Many have been waiting years for identification papers to confirm their status, allowing them to seek work, and they live in appalling conditions.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres at Wad Sharife camp, eastern Sudan
UN refugees commissioner Guterres has promised more aid
Visiting the camps at the end of his Sudanese tour, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres conceded the refugees had been "neglected" by the humanitarian community and pledged to address this urgently.

The hospitals in the camps are virtually bare and drugs are in short supply.

Medical assistant Ahmed Mohammed Ibrahim described how a lack of clean drinking water poses a huge health hazard.

"Because of the large population in the camp, there isn't enough water... so people go to the canal. And that creates problems - especially stomach problems."

Bleak prospects

One man who has endured these conditions for nearly 25 years is Haja Abdel Salam.

He is a tall proud man, dressed in white who as a peasant farmer fled from his native Eritrea during its bloody war with neighbouring Ethiopia.

Refugee in Wad Sharife camp, eastern Sudan
Many refugees have been born in the camps
It was a choice of either becoming a refugee, he says, or facing execution.

The old man has fathered nine children since arriving at the camp back in the early 1980s, but no child has ever made it to college from this place, so his family's prospects look bleak.

"Even though there are difficulties in the camp we will not go back so long as there is injustice there, we will not go back, we are better off here," he said.

So who is to blame for these refugees' plight, or are they simply "victims of circumstance?"

Certainly the local Sudanese do not appear to object to their presence. What meagre facilities there are for the refugees are shared with the local community.

But the Sudanese authorities who run the camp and the UN refugee agency UNHCR who fund it, have overlooked these people's plight for many years - largely distracted by events in Darfur.

In a frank admission by Mr Guterres described the conditions he witnessed first-hand as "intolerable".

He has now pledged to channel more UN resources into eastern Sudan and draw the world's attention to the plight of the tens of thousands of "forgotten refugees".

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