martedì 15 luglio 2008

Horn of Africa refugees struggle for new life in Sudan

14/07/2008 01:54 KHARTOUM, July 14 (AFP) Zooming through the dusty streets of the Sudanese capital driving a motor rickshaw, illegal Eritrean immigrant Ahmed Abdu waves his hand at building sites lining the road. "The city is growing and growing," said Abdu, a former conscript soldier who fled to Sudan to look for work after a decade of forced national service in his native country across the border. "It's not easy here, but at least there are opportunities, " the 30-year-old added. Sudan is perhaps better known worldwide for the estimated four million internally displaced people (IDPs) within its own borders rather than as a destination for people seeking refuge from outside. But as many Sudanese flee the conflict in the western region of Darfur, thousands of people from neighbouring countries are also seeking refuge in Sudan, fleeing repression, poverty or fear of conflict in their own countries. There are at least 226,000 refugees in Sudan according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) -- 157,000 of them from neighbouring Eritrea. Life is tough in Eritrea, a small Red Sea state whose young people are swallowed up in decades-long national service because of years of stalemate with arch-foe Ethiopia since all-out war between the two ended in 2000. Eritrean border guards operate a shoot-to-kill policy along the frontier, but some 15,000 Eritreans still managed to flee to Sudan last year alone, according to UN estimates. "I'm not expecting big money because Khartoum is so expensive," said Abraham Ghebreselassie, once a teacher in an Eritrean military training camp and now a painter and decorator. "But at least now I have the opportunity to earn my own money," something he said was "impossible" when he was in the Eritrean army. Many refugee communities are well-established in Sudan, where for decades people have sought shelter from conflicts in their own nations. Others are attracted by the rapid growth of Khartoum since Sudan began exporting oil in 1999. The capital now hosts at least 30,000 refugees. While most of Sudan remains poor and chronically under-developed, Khartoum has a fast-growing economy backed by billions of dollars of rising oil revenue. -- 'It's so expensive here and so many are looking for work' -- Despite strict trade sanctions imposed by the United States, Khartoum is enjoying an infrastructure and housing construction boom fuelled by investment from China, Malaysia, India and the Gulf. Those coming to Khartoum dream of jobs in expensive hotels and top-end restaurants serving the growing number of business consultants, oil workers, foreign investors and an army of international aid workers. But they have to compete with an estimated 1.2 million Sudanese IDPs who are also trying to earn a living in the baking heat of Khartoum, where the summer temperature can exceed 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Earnings are basic and living standards often extremely low for many, but Sudan can still offer better opportunities than back home. Haile Tesfay, an Ethiopian, works as a cleaner and driver in Khartoum and earns around 300 Sudanese pounds (150 dollars, 96 euros) a month. It is a small salary in a high-price capital, but he counts himself lucky to have regular employment. "It is so expensive here and there are so many looking for work," he said. Life is hard and the impact of the fast-growing economy is trickling down slowly to ordinary Sudanese, let alone those new to the country. Many of the illegals have already spent their life savings on large fees to smugglers to ensure they reach Khartoum safely. "I walked eight days from Eritrea to reach Sudan," Ghebreselassie said. "I served a decade in the army and the life was terrible. I had to get out when I had a chance," he added. Some say they plan to use Sudan as a stepping stone for onward travel north to Egypt and from there to Europe or Israel. "I was arrested for a month when I arrived," Ghebreselassie added. "I didn't come to Sudan for money, but because I couldn't live any longer in Eritrea." Clampdowns by police have left many people fearful, however, and regular arrests are made to smash what Sudanese security forces say are well-organised smuggling rings. The United Nations is therefore working on a "major registration programme" with the Khartoum government to clarify the legal status of those living in the country illegally, UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Sinkoun Kabasaid said. "It's important to do because they are subject to arrest if they don't have the proper documentation, " she added. Eritreans previously repatriated by force have been jailed in tough punishment camps under brutal conditions, human rights groups say. On the streets of Khartoum, Abdu says he wants only to be allowed to make a living in peace. "I have only the small wish to earn enough to live, eat and to provide for when I have a family," he said.

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