Full name: The State of Eritrea
Capital: Asmara
Head of State: Isaias Afewerki
Population: 4.9 million (UN, 2007)
Ethnic Groups: Tigrinya , Tigre and Kunama , Afar , Saho (Red Sea coast dwellers).
Languages: Tigrinya, Tigre, Arabic, English
Religion: Islam, Christianity

Why do people flee Eritrea?

Eritrea emerged from its long war of independence in 1993 only to plunge once again into military conflict, first with Yemen and then, more devastatingly, with its old adversary, Ethiopia. During the war between Ethiopia and its former province Eritrea tens of thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees have sought sanctuary in the arid states of Kassala, Gedaref, Gezira, Sennar and Red Sea over the past 40 years. Many crossed to Sudan during the 30-year war between Ethiopia and its then province Eritrea, which gained independence in 1993.

Hostilities continued between the neighbours until 2000, when a peace treaty was signed and some 98,000 Eritreans returned home under a UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme. But the flow stopped and reversed amid a deteriorating political and human rights situation in Eritrea.
Scores of Eritrean asylum seekers now cross into Sudan every week, joining some 130,000 of their compatriots living in 12 refugee camps as well as urban and rural areas. These include some 22,000 asylum seekers who have crossed the border into Sudan since November 2003.
For many, repatriation is no longer a viable option and UNHCR is advocating for their local integration, while also discussing with Sudan and third countries the possibility of increasing resettlement referrals as a durable solution for some families.

From a UNHCR news bulletin

When peace was signed in 2000 as it meant that she could return home to Eritrea after years as a refugee in Sudan. But Musa said she decided to flee back across the border last June with her seven children after her husband and brother disappeared. "It was then that I got scared," Musa told UNHCR visitors at Kilo 26 Camp in eastern Sudan's Gedaref state.

She sold her gold and bought two donkeys before setting out with her children on the tough three-day journey from her village in the Eritrean highlands to eastern Sudan. "I hope to enrol my children in school," Musa said while breast-feeding her youngest child.

Her case is not exceptional. An average of 120 Eritrean asylum seekers arrive every week at the Wad Sherife screening centre in the border state of Kassala. Those granted refugee status are transferred to Kilo 26 Camp, which hosts about 12,500 refugees.

Most of the new arrivals are young men in their late teens and early twenties who say they want to avoid military service in Eritrea. But lately, more women and children have been crossing into Sudan.

Historical overview (BBC)

A former Italian colony, Eritrea was occupied by the British in 1941. In 1952 the United Nations resolved to establish it as an autonomous entity federated with Ethiopia as a compromise between Ethiopian claims for sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. However, 10 years later the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, decided to annex it, triggering a 32-year armed struggle. This culminated in independence after an alliance of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and a coalition of Ethiopian resistance movements defeated Haile Selassie's communist successor, Mengistu Haile Mariam. In 1993, in a referendum supported by Ethiopia, Eritreans voted almost unanimously for independence, leaving Ethiopia landlocked.

Since then relations with Ethiopia have countinued to be tense. The issues of Ethiopian access to the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab and unequal trade terms souring relations. In 1998 border disputes around the town of Badme erupted into open hostilities. This conflict ended with a peace deal in June 2000, but not before leaving both sides with tens of thousands of soldiers dead. A security zone, patrolled by UN forces, separates the two countries. The unresolved border issue compounds other pressing problems. These include Eritrea's inability to provide enough food; two thirds of the population receive food aid. Moreover, economic progress is hampered by the proportion of Eritreans who are in the army rather than the workforce.

Timeline: Eritrea (BBC)

1941 - British forces occupy Eritrea.
1949 - Britain administers Eritrea as a United Nations trust territory.
1952 - UN decides to make Eritrea a federal component of Ethiopia.
1958 - Eritrean Liberation Front formed.
1962 - Ethiopia annexes Eritrea, turning it into a province; war of independence begins.
1970 - Leftist faction of the Eritrean Liberation Front splits to form the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.
1974 - Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie overthrown in a military coup.
1977-78 - Soviet advisers and Cuban troops help Ethiopian forces reverse significant advances made by Eritrean guerrillas.
1990 - Eritrean People's Liberation Front captures the Eritrean port of Massawa.
1991 - Eritrean People's Liberation Front captures the Eritrean capital, Asmara and forms a provisional government; the United Nations sets a date for a referendum on Eritrean independence with Ethiopian backing.
1993 - Eritreans almost unanimously vote for independence; Eritrea becomes independent and joins the United Nations.
1995 - Eritrean troops invade the Yemeni-held Hanish islands at the mouth of the Red Sea.
1998 - International arbitration panel awards the Greater Hanish island to Yemen and divides other smaller islands between the two countries; border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia escalates into large-scale fighting.
1999 - Eritrean-Ethiopian border clashes turn into a full-scale war.
2000 - May Ethiopia captures the strategic Eritrean town of Barentu.
2000 - June Eritrea, Ethiopia sign a ceasefire agreement which calls for a UN force to monitor compliance and oversee the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Eritrean land.
2000 - December Eritrea and Ethiopia sign a peace agreement in Algeria establishing commissions to mark the border, exchange prisoners, return displaced people and hear compensation claims.
2001 - February, Ethiopia says it has withdrawn its troops from Eritrea in accordance with the 2000 peace deal.
2001 - April Eritrea says its forces have pulled out of the border zone with Ethiopia in accordance with the 2000 peace agreement.
2001 - May - Eritrea and Ethiopia agree on a UN-proposed mediator to try to demarcate their disputed border.
2002 - October - Eritrea is accused by neigbouring Sudan of taking part in a rebel offensive in the east. Asmara denies the charge.
2003 - April - Boundary commission rules that the disputed border town of Badme lies in Eritrea. Ethiopia says the ruling is unacceptable.
2004 - November - Ethiopia says it accepts "in principle" a commission's ruling on its border with Eritrea. But a protracted stalemate over the town of Badme continues.
2005 - April - World Food Programme warns of a dire food situation after a series of droughts. It extends emergency operations to help more than 840,000 people.
2005 - October Eritrea bans UN helicopter flights in its airspace. UN says the restriction could force it to withdraw altogether.
2005 - November - UN Security Council threatens Eritrea and Ethiopia with sanctions unless they return to the 2000 peace plan.
2005 - December - Eritrea orders the expulsion of North American, European and Russian peacekeepers from the UN mission monitoring its border with Ethiopia.
2006 - September - Eritrea expels five UN staff as spies, in a move seen as a further deterioration of dire relations with the UN.
2006 - October - UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urges Eritrea to pull back the troops it has moved into the buffer zone on the Ethiopian border. The UN says the incursion is a major ceasefire violation.
2006 - November - A UN report says seven countries - including Eritrea - have been providing arms and supplies to the rival Islamist administration in Somalia. Eritrea denies the charge. Eritrea's arch foe Ethiopia was arming the interim government, the report says.
2007 - March - A group of British embassy workers and their Ethiopian guides are kidnapped in Ethiopia's northern Afar region bordering on Eritrea. They are eventually released in Eritrea. Eritrea pulls out of regional body IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) as IGAD member states back Ethiopian intervention in Somalia.
2007 - May - European Union Development Commissioner Louis Michel meets President Afwerki in Brussels. The commission's welcome is condemned by rights activists.
2007 - August - US secretary of state Jendayi Fraser says Washington is considering putting Eritrea on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
2007 - September - War could resume between Ethiopia and Eritrea over their border conflict, warns United Nations special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Kjell Bondevik.
2007 - November - Eritrea accepts border line demarcated by international boundary commission. Ethiopia rejects it.
2008 - January - UN extends mandate of peacekeepers on Ethiopia-Eritrea border for six months. UN Security Council demands Eritrea lift fuel restrictions imposed on UN peacekeepers at the Eritrea-Ethiopia border area. Eritrea declines, saying troops must leave border.

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