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Sudan conflict: The Eritrean refugees caught between two crises

It is the airport wait from hell.

Paloich Airport, which usually buzzes with the sound of well-heeled workers serving South Sudan’s oil fields, has turned into a camp for thousands of people fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Sudan – now more than a month old.

There are no toilet facilities, no running water, no kitchens – just crowds of people living around their bags, resting on luggage trolleys, or sleeping under makeshift tents while waiting to catch a flight.

They have ended up here, four hours from the border with Sudan, in the hope of finding a way out.

But there are few flights and little information about when people may be able to leave.

Among these refugees are Eritreans who have been uprooted for a second time after previously arriving in Sudan to escape the situation at home. And these people are stuck in limbo.

According to the UN, there were over 136,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in Sudan before this war.

Most Eritreans do not want to give their names to journalists because they are scared of retribution from the Eritrean authorities.

Eritrea is a highly restrictive state that controls almost all aspects of people’s lives, and many want to avoid the prospect of compulsory national service.

But Tesfit Girmay agreed to speak to me. He had arrived in Paloich five days earlier.

“The kind of life around here, you wouldn’t wish it for animals let alone humans,” he said looking at the tents around him.

As a single man he recognised that he was luckier than some.

“Maybe I can stand it. Sleeping outside, eating once a day, maybe I can stand it. But the biggest problem, there are people with children. There are people with four or five children,” Mr Tesfit told me.

He fled the deteriorating economy in Eritrea at the end of last year and headed to Sudan, hoping to find work and maybe travel on to another country.

But in South Sudan, Eritreans find themselves trapped.

Over 700 have arrived in the country.

Other nationals who fled the conflict in Sudan such as Kenyans, Ugandans and Somalis have been repatriated by their governments. But many Eritreans in Paloich said they were terrified to go back home, or see no future there.

Mr Tesfit said that Eritreans at the airport were banned from getting onto flights to South Sudan’s capital, Juba. At the same time they have refused to go to the designated refugee camps in the country.

A three-hour drive further north, and closer to the border with Sudan, is another temporary camp bursting at the seams.

The former grounds of the Upper Nile University in Renk, once abandoned, are now repopulated by more than 6,000 people. Even the bushes on the opposite side of the road are being cut down to make space for more arrivals.

This is where I met another refugee from Eritrea.

She was sat on the steps of a classroom with her three children and told me that her husband had gone to town to look for food.

“I couldn’t live in my country because I couldn’t worship my God the way I liked it. I couldn’t live there,” said the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous.

She explained that she was an evangelical Christian and had difficulties in Eritrea, where religion is heavily regulated and people from faiths that are not officially sanctioned have been sent to prison.

After fleeing Khartoum, she said she had hoped to go to South Sudan’s capital but that was proving to be a challenge.

“No-one can pass through to Juba. The road is closed only to Eritreans. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

South Sudan’s acting Minister for Foreign Affairs Deng Dau Deng told the BBC that his office had contacted all foreign embassies including Eritrea’s, to ensure their citizens were repatriated.

But he acknowledged that the situation with Eritreans was complicated by the fact that there are those who do not want to go back home and they do not want to be in touch with their embassy.

Mr Deng does not deny claims that some Eritreans who made it to Juba had been forced back to Paloich. As the Eritrean embassy was not going to fly them back to Asmara and there was no refugee camp in Juba for them, then they had to go elsewhere, he said.

For his part, Eritrea’s long-time President Isaias Afwerki told state television that his country would welcome anyone fleeing the conflict in its neighbour.

“Eritrea has open borders and without fanfare will continue to receive Eritrean and Sudanese civilians as well as others affected by the current conflict and share with them whatever it has,” the president said.

Here in South Sudan, the infrastructure is overwhelmed by the 60,000 people who have crossed into the country in just a month.

Back at Paloich Airport I met some South Sudanese desperate to get to other parts of the country.

Sandy Manyjeil had been stranded with her five children for two weeks.

“Yesterday evening they gave us a ticket. You wait at the gate, you show your ticket and after that they will take you or they won’t. It depends on your luck,” she said

“Sometimes they take your ticket and they take you or they don’t. Tomorrow, after tomorrow, no-one knows.”

The government is operating free flights on cargo planes from Paloich and has transported over 7,000 people. But it is a fraction of those entering.

Its strategy is to get everyone out of Renk and Paloich to areas where they can find food, medicine and try to rebuild their lives.

But South Sudan has barely any tarmacked roads, few domestic flights and parts of the country still face bouts of violence since the 2013-2018 civil war.

It is an overwhelming challenge for any country and as the war in its neighbour continues the number of people, both nationals and foreigners, entering South Sudan keeps rising.

Sudan Map
Sudan Map

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