The UN refugee agency UNHCR has said it is not aware of plans for the forced repatriation of Eritrean refugees from Sudan following assertions by Asmara that Eritreans are being "relocated" by the Sudanese authorities.
According to the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC), the Sudanese authorities have "started deviating" from agreed procedures on the repatriation of Eritrean refugees. In a statement, it said ERREC officials were "unjustifiably expelled" from Sudan and life for many Eritrean refugees in Sudan was "becoming increasingly unbearable".
"On top of that, the Sudanese authorities have decided to relocate Eritrean refugees from Kassala region further inland," the statement said. "According to the Sudanese authorities, the relocated refugees will again be 'repatriated' to Eritrea."
It accused Sudan of taking a "unilateral" decision to repatriate refugees, in violation of a tripartite commission agreement between Sudan, Eritrea and UNHCR.
Tension has been increasing in Sudan's eastern Kassala state following fighting in the area between government troops and rebels. The Khartoum government has also accused Eritrea of involvement in the rebel attacks, charges which Asmara denies.
The governor of Kassala has called for moving urban refugees into camps, but UNHCR says these refugees are "self-reliant" and should not be put in a position where they would again become dependent on humanitarian aid.
UNHCR spokesman Jonathan Clayton told IRIN on Friday that the agency's representative in Khartoum would be meeting the governor of Kassala state to discuss the issue. "In addition, we would prefer that the [urban] refugees be given some time to decide whether they want to repatriate or not," he said.
Clayton said the agency was closely monitoring the situation and discussions were still ongoing. He said the UNHCR representative would try and negotiate a "humanitarian corridor" for repatriating refugees from Kassala.
UNHCR confirmed that the governor of Kassala has also announced the relocation of an entire refugee camp situated near the border with Eritrea.
The repatriations have been put on hold, firstly because of the rainy season, and then because of the deteriorating security situation which led to the closure of the border between Sudan and Eritrea.
UNHCR also confirmed that 45 Eritrean refugees have been detained by the Sudanese authorities - reportedly for suspected links with Sudanese rebels - although some have been released. The agency is trying to gain access to those still detained.
It also said UNHCR staff and ERREC officials were expelled from the camps in Kassala. "However, this was due to security concerns, given the prevailing situation at the time," Clayton said.
Tens of thousands of Eritreans began fleeing war at home some 30 years ago. Earlier this year, UNHCR announced the cessation of refugee status for Eritreans, saying that conditions no longer warranted it. Refugees have until the end of this year to register to return home. Since the repatriation programme began in May 2001, over 50,000 Eritreans have gone home out of an estimated 90,000 camp-based refugees.