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Eritrea - Overview of ICRC actions - 31 May 2002



Executive Summary 

Following on from the December 2000 peace accord signed by Ethiopia and Eritrea, a new boundary between the two countries was announced in April 2002. Meanwhile, humanitarian needs persist in both countries.

The ICRC carries out visits to monitor the treatment and detention conditions of 326 Ethiopian POWs in Eritrea, as well as 1,583 prisoners of war (POWs) and 282 civilians of Eritrean origin interned in Ethiopia. Since the December 2000 peace accord, the ICRC has:

  • assisted in the repatriation of 703 Ethiopian and 937 Eritrean POWs;

  • provided safe passage during the voluntary repatriation of some 1,500 Eritrean and 21,000 Ethiopian civilians.

The ICRC and the Ethiopian and Eritrean Red Cross Societies help to re-establish contact between family members separated by the war. Over 30,000 Red Cross messages have been distributed in both countries since December 2000, and some 100 people reunited with their families in both countries.

The ICRC continues to assist Eritreans still affected and/or displaced by the conflict. The ICRC is one of the few remaining organisations dealing with shelter and non-food items and ensuring access to potable water for many IDPs remaining in the camps. It also continues to provide support in terms of access to water and health care to Eritrean communities.

The ICRC’s budget for the 2002 operation in Eritrea amounts to SFr 13,694,319 (USD 8,445,464 / EUR 9,379,669). The ICRC has received contributions amounting to SFr 2,574,500 for Eritrea. Outstanding needs amount to SFr 11,119,819.  

Eritrea today 

 Aftermath of the international conflict  

The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) announced its decision on the delimitation of the disputed border between the two countries on 13 April 2002 at The Hague, in accordance with the mandate conferred upon it in the 12 December 2000 peace accord. In spite of disagreement on specific issues, both Ethiopia and Eritrea have committed themselves publicly to backing the ruling.

In the coming months, the physical demarcation of the border should take place in accordance with the decision of the EEBC. This process will later involve a transfer of territory, the removal of mines and eventual return of people to the disputed border areas. A full-scale return of internally displaced people (IDPs) is unlikely until the status of these returned areas, and the procedures for the movements of populations, are clarified. On 15 March the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) was extended for another six months.

Humanitarian priorities 

Both former warring countries have signed a peace agreement and the demarcation of a new border will soon be underway. However, thousands of people, from prisoners of war (POWs) to homeless civilians, IDP s, and amputees, are still suffering the effects of the conflict. The ICRC’s priority in Eritrea is to protect and assist, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, the most vulnerable victims of the war as well as those most at risk from the internal conflicts and disturbances.

 People affected by the International Conflict  

The ICRC continues to conduct regular visits to POWs interned in connection with the international armed conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It monitors their treatment and detention conditions, in accordance with the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, and makes confidential reports to the authorities. As a neutral humanitarian intermediary, the ICRC has assisted in the release and repatriation of POWs. The ICRC has regularly reminded both Ethiopia and Eritrea to do everything necessary to ensure that all remaining POWs are released and repatriated as soon as possible in line with the relevant provisions of the Geneva Conventions.

Contrary to what was expected at the end of 2001, almost 60,000 IDPs in Eritrea have still not returned back home yet. This is due to a number of factors. IDPs are reluctant to go back before a conclusive boundary commission decision, or a physical demarcation of the border, since many villages or agricultural land are either located in or close to the disputed areas. The demining of many villages and agricultural areas is still ongoing in some areas. In view of the current situation, a massive return is not likely to happen within the next six to nine months. IDPs remaining in camps will continue to rely on humanitarian support (in particular the need for shelter and non-food items).

Approximately 48,000 IDPs continue to live in 11 camps in Debub, Gash Barka and Northern Red Sea zones, while over 9,000 IDPs remain outside camps in temporary settlements in Gash Barka, Southern Red Sea and Debub zones. Meanwhile, over 13,000 people expelled from Ethiopia live in three camps in Gash Barka zone. Others have taken refuge with host communities, burdening local coping mechanisms. So far, approximately 180,000 IDPs have already returned to their areas of origin.

According to UN sources, the implementation of the border decision may also result in the return of an increasing numbers of refugees from Sudan. Since May 2001, over 43,000 Eritrean refugees have been repatriated from the Sudan. In 2002, a minimum of 60,000 and up to 90,000 camp-based Eritrean refugees will be assisted to repatriate and in 2003 up to 62,000 will be repatriated.

In the confusion of war, families become separated. The ICRC, with Red Cross volunteers, delivers family news written on Red Cross messages (RCMs). Many of these messages are collected and distributed during detention visits to POWs, allowing them to keep in touch with their families. Through the combined efforts of the ICRC and the Eritrean Red Cross Society, the most vulnerable - children, the elderly, the disabled and the very sick- are reunited with their families.

Many people who were wounded in the war, in particular amputees, still need treatment, and landmines continue to take their toll.

ICRC action 
  • 27 expatriates and 71 national staff. 

  • ICRC delegation: Asmara; offices: Barentu and Assab

The ICRC endeavours to alleviate human suffering arising from the effects of the international armed conflict with Ethi opia. The priorities for the Eritrean delegation are twofold: to assist the population still affected and/or displaced by the conflict; and to ensure that prisoners of war and civilians of Ethiopian origin enjoy the protection due to them under the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions respectively. The ICRC supports the " Red Cross Society of Eritrea " in its efforts to develop its capacity in the areas of tracing, dissemination, conflict preparedness and emergency response.

People deprived of their freedom 

Prisoners of war and Ethiopian nationals in Eritrea 

In 2002, the ICRC continues to concentrate on the issues outstanding from the international conflict (i.e., the remaining POWs still interned and their repatriation). In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC carries out regular visits to follow up individually the treatment and detention conditions of POWs. At the time of the December 2000 peace accord, the ICRC had registered and visited some 1,041 Ethiopian POWs and 2,600 Eritrean POWs in Ethiopia. The ICRC makes regular visits to 326 POWs (April figure) who are still currently interned in Eritrea. After each visit, the ICRC makes a confidential report to the authorities. Since the December 2000 peace accord, the ICRC, with Red Cross volunteers, assisted in the repatriation of 937 Eritrean and 703 Ethiopian POWs. The ICRC works to ensure that protected persons are treated in accordance with the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law (IHL), in particular the regulations related to their release and repatriation. When required the ICRC also provide POWs with essential items such as high-energy biscuits, blankets, soap and cleaning materials. A medical expert frequently takes part in the vi sits to monitor the detainees’ health.


On 2 May one hundred and twenty-two Ethiopian civilians held in Eritrea were repatriated under ICRC auspices. The detainees had been held for more than two years at Massawa naval base.


 Restoring family links  

Communications such as postal services and telecommunications are still not functioning between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the RCM network remains a vital link for thousands of people separated from their families by the war. During 2001, 27,004 RCMs were exchanged between Eritrea and Ethiopia, including messages for POWs, detainees, internees and civilians. Between January and March 2002 the ICRC and the RCSE collected nearly 3,000 messages sent by Eritreans to their relatives in Ethiopia and other countries. More than 3,200 RCMs from Ethiopia and other countries were distributed in Eritrea.

The ICRC also reunited families where requested. From January 2001 to March 2002, under ICRC auspices, 62 people were reunited with their families. Of the 123 tracing cases opened during this period, 60 cases were successfully concluded with the persons sought being located. Eight children (including two unaccompanied minors) were reunited with their relatives.

Civilians, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)    

In view of the current situation and the developments connected with the physical demarcation of the border it is forseen that large numbers of IDPs will remain in the camps for a significant part of the year or even until 2003. The ICRC, as one of the few remaining organisations dealing with shelter and non-food items and ensuring access to potable water in the camps, is committed to assisting the remaining IDPs still in camps in Eritrea. (5,000 tents and 13,000 tarpaulins and non-food items will be distributed to 18,000 IDP families in 2002). The ICRC also continues to provide support in terms of access to water and health care to Eritrean communities during the rehabilitation phase.

Between January and March 2002, a total of 38,000 IDPs living in camps were also provided with soap, cooking pots and tents. The ICRC is also monitoring the shelter and water needs of IDPs who decide to leave the camps to return home.

During the same period clean water was guaranteed to over 31,000 IDPs and people expelled from Ethiopia through water trucking operations and the maintenance of water supply systems. In Zobas Debub, Gash Barka and Northern Red Sea, the ICRC continued water trucking in Mai Wuray, Korokon, Dembe Doran and Ghinda IDP camps, deploying 5 RCSE water trucks. In the same IDP camps and in Shelab camp, where Eritreans expelled from Ethiopia are living, 7 water points and 16 distribution systems have been maintained and improved with the supply of spare parts for electromechanical equipment and with installation and maintenance of bladders, reservoirs, hand pumps and water taps.


 Vulnerable residents  

The return of people to their homes in war-affected areas puts water supplies under severe pressure. The ICRC continues to support residents of towns and vil lages in the temporary security zone (TSZ) with the rehabilitation of water points and in the design, implementation and maintenance of water supply systems often damaged by the war. It has repaired and maintained hand pumps and water supply systems in Debub (at Senafe, Mai Ainy, Tsorona, Zeban Awale and Rokoito). A new water distribution system has been installed in Antore in Gash Barka zoba. In Bushuka, the ICRC is trucking water for the population while a new water supply system is under construction. The ICRC is also preparing the rehabilitation of two health centres in Antore and Awgaro to be implemented in the second quarter of 2002.

The ICRC plans to provide temporary shelter (tents and tarpaulins) and non-food items for approximately 1,000 families who have recently returned to their villages of origin from IDP camps and who have to wait for their homes to be fixed but cannot use their tents from the camps.


Some 4,000 families in the Debub and Gash Barka regions are also due to receive seeds and tools from the ICRC in 2002.

Wounded and Sick    

Among its medical activities in Eritrea, the ICRC focuses on organising trauma-management courses for doctors and war seminars for surgeons and general practitioners. Trauma Management Courses for emergency room doctors are being organised during the third and last quarters of the year. Each course will train 15-20 doctors who will return to their hospitals as trainers to share techniques learnt with the hospital staff. A war surgery seminar was held in collaboration with the Ministry of Health in March 2 002 and attended by approximately 130 military and civilian doctors, nurses and other health professionals.


Eritrea had a large number of disabled people, especially young amputees, requiring prostheses or orthotics and follow-up physiotherapy. The three Eritrean prosthetic/orthotic workshops are unable to meet the demand. Following an ICRC assessment in November 2001, the Eritrean authorities and the ICRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of a physical rehabilitation programme for disabled people in the country. Plans were made to upgrade the skills of the staff at the ICRC's Keren Prosthetic and Orthotic Centre in 2002, and to use the facility as a model for other centres.    


In March 2002 staff training and the production of orthopaedic appliances manufactured with the ICRC polypropylene technology started at the Keren centre. The ICRC had supplied and installed the appropriate machinery and materials. The first amputee was fitted and discharged at the end of March. By end of April, total number of people fitted with prostheses (17 ), orthoses (6).

Many war-wounded patients and mine victims require more long-term treatment, which is why the ICRC supports the Ministry of Health in running the first-ever training programme for physiotherapists in Eritrea. A first group of 12 students qualified in December as associate physiotherapists following an ICRC-supported 18-month training course. A second group of 20 students are enrolled in the second course.

Authorities, Armed Forces and other bearers of weapons, Civil Society    

Raising awareness of IHL is a key element of the ICRC’s mandate. IHL aims to minimise human suffering during armed conflict by protecting those who are not or are no longer taking part in the fighting. The ICRC works with different groups including the authorities, the security forces and academic institutions to make sure that IHL is known and respected.

In March, the ICRC delegation is Asmara further strengthened its relationship with the Eritrean Police Force by organising a ‘train the trainers’ workshop on topics such as good policing and ethical and legal police conduct. In Eritrea, the delegation has also developed contacts with the University of Asmara. A wide selection of books relating to IHL has been donated to the law department and the ICRC has been invited to make proposals as to how IHL can be integrated into the curriculum. The ICRC also gave a basic presentation on IHL to about 70 students at the school of journalism.

Cooperation with the Red Cross Society of Eritrea (RCSE)    

As an organisation with strong local roots, the RCSE plays an essential role in the ICRC’s activities to help war victims in Eritrea. For its part, by supporting the development of the RCSE the ICRC hopes to ensure that the humanitarian needs of vulnerable Eritreans are met in the long term. The RCSE is actively involved in many of the ICRC’s efforts to support people suffering because of the war. It has, for example, provided tanker trucks to ensure that IDPs living i n camps have sufficient access to water. RCSE branch and headquarters staff collects and distributes Red Cross Messages, helping families separated by the conflict to stay in touch. RCSE volunteers support ICRC operations to ensure the safe transfer of Eritreans and Ethiopians across the border.


Meanwhile, the ICRC has been building up the capacity of the RCSE, equipping it with the facilities and know-how needed to address current and future humanitarian problems. This included funding and technical advice to improve RCSE logistics and fleet management. Earlier this year, the ICRC also donated two fully equipped ambulances for the existing RCSE fleet, ahead of a planned full technical survey of the ambulance service. Moreover, the ICRC trains RCSE tracing and communication personnel.

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