The repatriation of refugees

from Eastern Sudan to Humera, Tigray:

a situation report

Executive Summary

This report is the first in a series submitted by Laura Hammond, a cultural anthropologist currently doing research on the integration of Tigrayan returnees into the Humera area of Tigray (Region 1). The objectives of her study are to examine the economic activities in the returnee settlements in order to determine the requirements for successful integration and attainment of a level of economic sustainability that is commensurate with that of the local population in the area.

This report is divided into two parts. Part One discusses the conditions of the returnee settlements (particularly the largest one, Ada Bai) that were established in June 1993. The findings of this part show that despite the intentions and expectations of assistance providers, the approximately 12,000 people who returned last year have not become self-sufficient. Nor have they reached economic parity with the local population. It is argued, therefore, that it is premature to suspend the provision of relief to these three settlements.

Part Two is concerned with more than 2000 returnees who were brought to Humera at the end of February 1994. The conclusions of this part maintain that while many of the basic needs of the returnees were met, there has been a delay in the provision of some assistance, particularly medicines, health staff and building materials. Further investigation into the needs of the population, especially women, elderly and disabled people should be made.

In many respects, the two groups of repatriants should be considered as belonging to different projects. Those who have been living in the Humera area for the past eight months are at different stages in the integration process and therefore have some different needs. The structure of the assistance operation has changed dramatically since the completion of the first phase (June 1993 - January 1994). For the second phase, UNHCR has opened a Field Office in Humera, and REST has replaced the RRC as the sole implementing agency for the project.

Information about the research project

The author is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA), and this project on repatriation is the subject of her dissertation. The fieldwork period began in November 1993 and is expected to continue into the beginning of 1995. Funding for the first year is provided through a Fulbright Dissertation Research Grant.

Information has been solicited from representatives of the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), Ministry of Health (MoH), Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and woreda officials. Most of the information, however, has been taken from testimonies given by the returnees themselves.


Humera is an agricultural town located in the far northwestern corner of Ethiopia. It is bordered to the north by Eritrea and to the west by Sudan. It is a lowland area with large tracts of fertile farmland, on which sorghum, sesame and cotton are grown. While its permanent population has been estimated to be 13,000, the town's size can double during the harvest due to the large number of agricultural workers who come from Tigray, Gondar, and the Sudan.

With the newly drawn regional boundaries, Humera was made part of Region 1 (Tigray). While Tigrinya is the official language in the town, many of the residents are Amharic speakers. In addition, a large number of Sudanese traders participate in the economy of Humera town.


In June 1993, 12,033 Tigrayan refugees in Eastern Sudan were repatriated to the area around Humera. This repatriation took place with very little advance notice. Refugees in the Saffawa camp in eastern Sudan had been told that a large scale repatriation programme would be implemented to bring them back. In anticipation of their impending return, many sold their animals, businesses, and household belongings. The proposed operation was stalled by a breakdown in negotiations, but the refugees insisted that they could not wait to come home.

Without a great deal of lead time, a repatriation assistance programme was set up by the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), the regional bureau of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), Relief Society of Tigray (REST) and Ministry of Health (MoH). Resources were provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the international NGO community. Returnees were brought from the Sudan and resettled in three sites: Rawayan, Ada Bai and Mai Kadra (7, 17 and 30 km from Humera, respectively). Each of these sites had local people already living in them; the largest number of local residents (24% of the total population) is at Mai Kadra.

When the returnees arrived in June, they were given rations for nine months, including sorghum, pulses, oil, and sugar. Supplementary food in the form of American military meals-ready-to-eat (leftover from the Gulf War) was made available to pregnant women, malnourished children and tuberculosis patients. Other components of the initial assistance package included plastic sheeting, household utensils and blankets. Clinics were established and medicines and medical staff were provided.

Each household was given a plot of land 16 x 20 m to build their homes, and poles for house building were supplied. Efforts were made to give returnees plots of land for cultivation of sesame and sorghum, averaging 1.1 hectares per household, but due to a shortage of available cleared land, many people were not given land. Instead, those who did not receive land were given extra food to help them get through until the next season when they were promised that they would receive land.

The project rented tractors from one of the large farming companies in the area to plough and sow the fields for the returnees. Despite the provision of land and assistance with plowing and sowing, the returnees' first harvest was less than satisfactory, as will be explained below (Under Crop Conditions).

In January 1994, UNHCR established a field office in Humera. REST was designated to be the sole implementing agency for all UNHCR-funded activities included in the repatriation programme. All RRC staff were withdrawn from Humera. At the same time, preparations were begun for receiving 2,200 new returnees from the Umrakoba camp in Sudan to the Rawayan settlement outside Humera. At present the only organizations with representatives in Humera working specifically on the repatriation project are UNHCR, REST and MoH.


Nine months of food assistance has been distributed to returnees. The supply of supplementary food was exhausted in November 1993. At present no supplementary food is available for malnourished children or pregnant mothers. Patients enrolled in the tuberculosis treatment programme are given one kilogram of sugar each month (For more information about malnutrition and tuberculosis see the section on Health, below).

As of March this year, most people in Ada Bai reported that they were eating their last quintal (100 kgs) of sorghum. A minority of people who have animals will be able to sell them to buy grain. Others have saved the money they earned as agricultural workers in the Humera area and in Sudan. Most, however, will find it very difficult to get enough food to make it through to the next harvest.

People in the Humera area eat a diet that consists primarily of sorghum and lentils or chickpeas. Some vegetables are available from the Sudan, but they are very expensive. The lack of a balanced diet leads to micronutrient deficiency diseases (most notably anaemia) and protein energy malnutrition. No general nutritional or health assessment has been done in the area to compare the local and returnee populations, but UNHCR is exploring the possibility of conducting these studies in the near future.


One of the major problems faced by the returnee communities is the availability of water. In Rawayan, the smallest settlement, there is adequate water supply. In Mai Kadra, a borehole supplies water to both the returnee and local populations, but is not sufficient to meet the needs of the entire community. There are plans to dig an additional borehole there. In Ada Bai, a borehole was constructed in November 1993 which pumps 4.2 litres per second. At present it is the only source of clean water for the population of 7,000. Some people take water from wells in a nearby river bed, but these dry up frequently and the water is very dirty. A second borehole is under construction and is expected to be completed soon.

Experts who have visited the sites disagree as to whether the pumps being used for the boreholes are appropriate for the area. Some believe that the machinery is too difficult to maintain, and that it would be better to dig several smaller boreholes with pumps that are easier to maintain. This solution, it is argued, would also make people less reliant on one borehole pump. Others argue that the pumps presently being used are appropriate considering the amount of water required. They say that the only obstacles to making the pumps sustainable are adequate training for locally based (returnee) technicians and provision of enough spare parts to facilitate speedy repairs.


As stated earlier, each of the three settlements has a clinic. Each clinic is staffed by a supervising nurse and at least two health assistants. Medicines, supplied by the Ministry of Health and REST, are available to residents free of charge. For the first six months after their return home, many returnees who had worked for medical aid organizations in the Sudan as dressers, pharmacists, and aides volunteered their services in the settlement clinics. Most have since quit working in the clinics saying that they cannot afford to work without payment.

Patients with serious health problems (for the most part advanced or drug-resistant tuberculosis, severe anaemia, or problems requiring surgical treatment) are referred to Humera hospital. Transportation to and from the hospital, however, is in most cases too expensive for residents. As the only transportation is by tractor or overcrowded taxi, many people are too ill to travel to the hospital and therefore do not receive treatment. There is a need for at least one ambulance to carry people from the settlement areas to the hospital.

The Humera hospital lacks drugs and equipment. Most important is the need for blood transfusion facilities, as malaria, tuberculosis and anaemia patients are unable to recover without this form of treatment. The nearest such facilities are in Gondar (255 km from Humera) or Axum (350 km from Humera). The costs of travelling to and staying in these places is prohibitive for almost everyone.


In the Sudan, REST operated schools for elementary grades. Since coming back to Ethiopia, however, most children have not had the opportunity to attend school. Mai Kadra is the only settlement in which there is a school. A limited number of places are granted to returnees. Children are not supposed to attend school in Humera, but some have managed to enroll by claiming to be town dwellers. Plans are underway to construct schools in all of the settlements. Construction, however, has not begun. It had been thought that the schools would be opened in September 1994, but now local officials are saying that that will not be possible.

In January, an adult literacy programme was started in Ada Bai (possibly in Mai Kadra and Rawayan; the researcher only has experience with the Ada Bai programme). This programme is held everyday and interested people come as often as they are able to. The Women's Association has been particularly active in encouraging women to participate, with some success. The teachers in the project work without payment, hoping that when the schools open for children they may be given jobs.


The new settlements are intended to be agricultural communities, but it is evident that waged labor and trade play an important role in the economies of each of the settlements. Many returnees brought equipment with them from Sudan to start businesses. There are markets at all three settlements, and tradespeople include tailors, weavers, milliners, blacksmiths, carpenters, and house builders. There are also a large number of shops, tea and sewa (local beer) houses and restaurants. Returnees continue to go to the Sudan to trade and work. While the economies in the communities are still fragile, they are gaining strength as the people become more settled.

Land Allocation

Last year's allocation of land was an emergency measure, designed to give people access to some farmland. The land set aside to returnees was insufficient; 1,330 out of a total of 4309 households did not receive farmland. REST figures. In some cases the land was too far from the settlements to enable people to properly farm it. Most of the land that was allocated to Ada Bai residents, for example, was 51 km from the settlement. This was a full day's walk or a three hour tractor ride; people said they had to spend a week or more in their fields at a time to properly tend them.

This year the woreda has promised to assign land to the returnees that is closer to their homes. In order to do this they will have to displace some of the business enterprises that lease land from the woreda. It is not clear who is going to compensate these businesses for being displaced. Nor is it clear how much closer the land is going to be to the settlements than it was this year. Returnees are anxiously awaiting the allocation of land, which must be made soon if the first ploughing is to take place on time.

Land allocation is an especially important issue for women and the elderly, who are unable to travel far from their homes or to clear their own land to farm. Last year the returnees cleared a large tract of land near the Ada Bai settlement and the local leaders wanted to give first priority for that land to the women and elderly. The men who cleared it, however, refused to relinquish their rights to it, saying that as they had cleared it they should be allowed to farm it. Women who had land allocated to them in the distant fields reported that some people told them not to bother coming to harvest their fields as the crops had failed. They later discovered that the crops had not failed but that the harvest had been taken by those who had tried to dissuade them from coming to their fields. It is hoped that this year the land that is allocated to Ada Bai people will include enough cleared land that is near enough for women and elderly people to be able to farm it.

Ploughing and sowing is traditionally men's work, and all women said that they would not consider doing these tasks themselves. They say they are willing to do weeding and harvesting on their land if the clearing, ploughing and sowing is done for them. It is planned that tractors will be provided to plough and sow for 1994; beginning in 1995 people will be expected to be able to pay to plough their fields.

Crop Conditions

Last year's harvest was not as successful as had been hoped. Returnees' land was ploughed and sown for them in June, but the sorghum seeds were eaten by insects (some say locusts). The land was resown, but because of the delay in cultivation, the heaviest rains occurred just before the harvest and destroyed many of the crops. The sesame crops also suffered; farmers reported that the seeds were scattered by wind and eaten by termites.

Yields were highly variable, both from one area to another and even from one field to another. Farmers reported that in the farmland that was close to the settlement (7 km) a harvest of 7-9 quintals of sorghum was considered good, while in the furthest farmland (51 km from Ada Bai) a yield of 5-7 quintals was good. A member of the baito (local governing council) said that of the 2,500 households allocated land, 2,000 had total or near total crop failure.

Wage labour

In addition to their own agricultural work, many people work on the large sesame, sorghum and cotton farms for wages. The main seasons for paid agricultural work are in July and August for weeding and October to December for harvesting. Working on sesame harvest is much more profitable than the sorghum harvest. Workers are paid by piecework, most for about 40-60 birr a day. Work on the sorghum harvest is considered much harder work and pay is usually only 10 birr a day. Workers are mostly men, although some women heads of household who have no other source of income occasionally do agricultural work for wages.

Local Residents

Relations between returnees and local residents, at least in Ada Bai where interviews were conducted, appear to be friendly. The 67 households who lived in Ada Bai before the returnees were resettled there are given full access to the clinic. They attend the returnees' church services and feasts. They are also allowed to participate in the community political activities, although to date they say they have not done so.

Local residents say that before the arrival of the returnees (and more generally before the takeover of the EPRDF) they were frequently raided by Wolkait people, who would steal their animals, grain and jewelry. Some said that they did not have farmland because they did not consider it worthwhile to grow crops that would probably be stolen. Instead, they herded animals. Since the returnees have come to Ada Bai, the security situation has improved enormously and the local people are expressing interest in farming the land. As local residents they are entitled to use up to 10 hectares, but they say that they want to farm land that is close to the returnees' allotments because they believe it will be more secure, so they have applied to the Ada Bai baito to allocate them land along with the returnees.


When the reintegration programme was initiated in June 1993, it was hoped that the first group of returnees would reach a level of subsistence at least equal to that of the local population within the first year and that special relief provisions could be suspended. Nine months later, it is clear that this would be premature. The poor health of the returnee population and their level of poverty makes them dependent on the continued provision of free health care and medicines. The poor harvest last year and the large number of households who were not allocated farmland will require that assistance be given again this year for ploughing, provision of seed and sowing. It is also likely that people will need additional sorghum to be given to them to tide them over until the next harvest (in September). Finally, it is to be stressed that reintegration in Humera is a considerably more complicated and slow process than had been envisioned, and the need for continued assistance for at least one more year is great. In the words of one baito member at Ada Bai, "If there had been a good harvest, we should be self-sufficient after one year. Now, after this bad harvest, if one says we shouldn't get aid, they are being inhuman."



Between 23 and 28 February 1994, 2,255 refugees from the Umrakoba camp in eastern Sudan participated in a voluntary repatriation operation to the Humera area. Transport and initial assistance was provided for by a 4 million birr grant from UNHCR. REST was designated as the sole implementing agency for the operation.

Demographic information

The author spent two days observing the actual transport operation and the distribution of initial assistance, as well as interviewing the returnees themselves. She also compiled basic demographic statistics from the voluntary repatriation forms that accompanied each household. This data shows that single men comprise 42%, men with dependents 34%, single women 6%, and women with dependents 17% of the population. This combined figure of 23% matches the figures quoted by others working in with rural communities. In addition, 15% of the household heads are elderly (50 years of age or above). Further analysis of the data is currently being done to determine the breakdown of the entire population by age groups and ethnic background. (Unlike the previous group of returnees who are Tigrinya speakers, there are many people in this second group whose first language is Amharic).

Problems encountered upon arrival

Returnees to Rawayan were given the same aid package as those who repatriated in June 1993 (see above). While it would be naive to expect the operation to run completely smoothly, some problems are important to mention. First, the supply of plastic sheeting ran out after only about 2/3 of the population had arrived. No one was given building poles for building even basic structures; the only people who were able to build shelters for their families were those men who brought enough cash from the Sudan to buy materials locally. The woreda and REST officials have arranged to provide some building materials for houses, but two weeks after the returnees' arrival these had still not been delivered. People who were interviewed expressed disappointment that there had not been better preparation for their arrival. They claimed that in Sudan they had been promised tents, building materials for houses, oxen, food and kitchen utensils.

Women and elderly

Women and elderly expressed concern about needing help to build their houses and prepare their farmland. No information had been given to them about whether assistance would be made available. It appears from talking to people involved in the implementation of the operation that no special assistance is planned for these groups in building their houses, although they will probably have their land ploughed and sown along with everyone else.


The repatriants were given a health screening in the Sudan, but information concerning the medical needs of the population were not communicated prior to their arrival. Many of the returnees are undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. Patients who were interviewed and whose medical history cards were shown to the researcher received 16 days of tablets, but did not receive any of the medication needed for injections. When they went to the clinic at Rawayan, they were told that there was not even enough medication for the TB patients the clinic had been treating previously, and that they would have to secure the medicines from Humera to be treated. One man with tuberculosis said that he had been in the hospital in the Sudan for two years and was told by the doctors there that he would be better off if he went back to Ethiopia. He arrived in Rawayan with no family and no bed to sleep in; he was not well enough to build a house for himself. Similar cases were recorded of women with chronic anaemia who were sent back though they were too weak to walk. They were immediately referred to the Humera hospital.

Health officials at both the clinic and the hospital said that they lacked the staff to deal with this influx of people, particularly as so many of them have health problems. REST says that it had arranged for additional medicines and staff to be put in place for the new returnees, but these only came ten days after the returnees' arrival.


Delays in the provision of some basic items and lack of information about the health of the returnee population seem to be the biggest problems with the latest repatriation operation. These problems could have been avoided with improved communication on the part of the actors involved. In addition, there appears to be a lack of awareness of the special needs of vulnerable groups in the population (and this can be said for those who were previously repatriated as well). These problems could be remedied with increased staffing in the field, better monitoring, more attention paid to vulnerable groups, and improved coordination between actors at and between the local, regional, and national levels.

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    Editor: Ali B. Dinar, (aadinar@sas.upenn.edu)