The Staggering flow of underage Eritrean refugees to Sudan

On the 22nd of May 2018, I visited the Shagarab refugee camp in Sudan which hosts Eritrean refugees. The purpose of the visit was to assess to assess the living conditions of the refugees. I first visited the place where new arrivals have been sheltered to seek for information. Then I met some refugees living in the camp. Aware that refugees would decline to cooperate in providing information regarding their conditions for fear of reprisal [from the Sudanese authorities], I decided to conduct my research informally. I, therefore, approached three boys who appeared to between 14 to 16 years. After introducing my name, I asked for asked for their assistance pretending to be looking for someone from Keren town [a small town in Eritrea). Not very much surprised was I to notice their suspicion, that I used Tigrigna language (their mother tongue), as they thought I was one of the Sudanese people. No sooner had I captured their sense of relief embraced with the feeling of brotherhood, assured that I was one of them.

These boys left their families and dropped their studies seeking refuge and a better life. After a short introduction and greeting the boys escorted me to their house hoping to help in finding the person I claimed to be looking for, though three of them were from Asmara. I noticed that 6 to 8 refugees occupied a small house crammed.

Although the name ‘Semir wedi-Keren’ (Nassir from Keren) was a random pick, I deliberately emphasized the name hoping that they all could be indulged in to a meaningful conversation and asked them saying, “Do you know semir or anyone from Keren?” and one of them said “There could be and there are two people from Anseba (one of the regions in Eritrea), they might know him, but we all three are from Asmara [city].  Besides, we didn’t get to know one other properly because we are new to this camp”. While discussing on matters of the refugee camp I could see their unreserved effort to help me find Semir, asking every refugee by visiting the houses in the neighborhood, though I didn’t care to bother them much, as the aim of my visit was to know their conditions. Therefore I said, “Don’t worry! We could look for him [Semir] later” remembering Nassir was a disguise to win their confidence. We, therefore, talked about their conditions in the camp, conditions, and circumstance that caused them to flee Eritrea and the dangers they encountered on their way to Sudan. Our discussions continued for hours.

Although there are some adults, most of the refugees in this camp are underage. The underages are both females and males with males. Especially the boys are in age range of 14 to 17 years old. The newcomers make the majority of the refugees when compared to the settled ones, Besides, the underage refugees can put into categories, the ones who came escaping from the horrendous situation in Eritrea by themselves making the greatest share and the ones who fled their homeland along with their parents. I have tried to walk through the camp with these three boys, and it seems that the boys outnumber the girls in ratio.

Even though there are underage girls, but it is not comparable to that of the boys. Every refugee in this camp underlines the hardship being endured is literally beyond their expectations, having sustained the arduous journey and witnessed harrowing incidents, expected some kind of relieve. However, things have drastically changed, the aspiration of reaching Europe or any other third country is becoming unthinkable. The day-to-day rise of living conditions in Sudan added with the comprehensive agreement of the Sudanese government with the European Union(EU) on blocking the flow of refugees to Europe, has tremendously changed the overall trend and magnitude of difficulties facing Eritrean refugees living in the camps and the cities alike.

In the earlier days refugees used to pay for their escape [from the refugee camp] to Khartoum, but nowadays no such things are common and even if you make it to Khartoum, raids, the persecution and threatening that you face as undertaking by the Sudanese security forces, fueled by the sky-rocketing expenses of living conditions in Khartoum makes it unbearable. Hence, it is not surprising to see refugees in destitute and saying “Allas! This is it, there is no hope.” It is common knowledge that any refugee caught fleeing to Egypt or Libya is mercilessly deported to his/her country, and considering the grave danger awaiting in Eritrea if caught wouldn’t even deter most of these refugees as they are desperate and hopeless in all aspects of the camp life. Often enough have I heard them saying “Let’s just get to Khartoum, after that it is God’s will!” Ignoring the life threatening ordeal of the refuges in Khartoum. But it is very advisable to stay in their camps and be patient, as the life of their brothers and sisters living in Khartoum is immensely awful and they live in perpetual fear.

It is reported that famine has struck most of the villages near the borders, as a consequence of this, many families are seen to flee and seek refuge in the neighboring countries. Especially those families moving to Sudan don’t choosse to settle in the camps, as the adverse situation of these camps (Wed-Sherifey and Shegerab) wouldn’t support them to sustain their live. Therefore, lots of families from Northern Red Sea and Gash-Barka regions of Eritrea are noticed settling in Kassalla and the Sudanese Red Sea region in search of work. Such kinds of family journeys in search of livelihood opportunities are costing lives at some points. For instance, in the past few months a family (of four children along with their parents) was attacked by the Eritrean border control units, after they were spotted crossing the Eritrea- Sudanese border towards Kassala. It is reported that after this family neared to manage crossing the border, the Eritrean border control unit opened  fire at the family from behind, killing the mother of four children and causing immense psychological trauma on the children, who are living in Kassala with their father. Such kinds of inhumane acts and tragic loses of Eritrean lives are common nowadays.

Most of the refuges who couldn’t speak Arabic language are believed to settle in the ‘Shagarab’ refugee camp. On the other side majority of the refugees living in Khartoum are under age refugees, where the source of all these displacement and hardships is the indefinite national service in Eritrea (kind of national slavery) and the ill-treatment of youngsters, causing the biggest socio-economic problem ever occurred in the country.

It is also reported that Eritreans living in Um-Gurgur (one of the refugee camps in Sudan) and Shagarab refugee camps are suffering from acute shortage of potable water due to the prevailing shortage of petroleum for operating the water pumps. Therefore, refugees living in these camps have been obliged to buy water from the nearby manmade lakes for their daily use. Residents of these camps complain that, they had to buy dirty and unsafe water for 5 Jine (Sudanese pound and 1 USD =18 Jine) for a jerrycan. Life without the supply of water has become a great concern for the refugees and living in those places with a temperature of 40oc and above makes it even unimaginable. It is also to be recalled that, back in 2017, there had been a serious contagious diseases [cholera] in Um-Gurgur camp affecting the other settlements, which has caused serious health problems. Hence, it is feared that such catastrophe could happen again, unless the shortage water is handled quickly. Thus due action is demanded, lest last years’ tragedy repeated. Although these refugees have communicated their fears and concerns to authorities and UNHCR officials repeatedly, all they could get was “this is a nation-wide matter, there is nothing we can do, and we just have to wait!”



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