Eritrean refugees arrive in Romanian emergency transit centre from Tunisia

Wednesday 20, April 2011

© UNHCR/M. Varzariu
Eritrean lady evacuated to Romania for future resettlement to the USA.

TIMISOARA, April 20 (UNHCR) - A first group of 30 Eritrean refugees arrive at a special centre in Romania ahead of resettlement. They spent weeks in Tunisia after fleeing Libya.

Thirty Eritrean refugees have arrived at an emergency transit centre in western Romania after fleeing Libya and spending weeks in a crowded camp in Tunisia as UNHCR and its partners sought a solution for them.

The Eritreans, including three women and a boy, will spend up to six months in the centre in Timisoara before being resettled in the United States and the Netherlands.

Unlike most of the foreigners who have fled from Libya since mid-February, hundreds of Eritreans and Somalis stuck on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders with Libya cannot return to their countries because their lives would be at risk.

This is the first group to be flown out of the country ahead of resettlement. Their evacuation was organized by the UN refugee agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Romanian government. UNHCR officials said more were expected.

The Eritreans said they fled their country to escape forced military recruitment and claimed that they had been detained and physically abused in Libya. People from sub-Saharan Africa have also been at risk in Libya because of rumours that the government was using them as mercenaries. Yonas Ali *, a 36 year old man, told UNHCR that he and his brothers had spent six years in prison in Libya. "I thank UNHCR for having saved my life. And that of my brothers", he said.

Others recounted having survived "five different prisons in Libya". UNHCR's Representative in Romania, Machiel Salomons, welcomed the group and thanked the authorities: "You open the door to a new life for these most vulnerable survivors of the Libyan crisis", he said at a press conference at the Emergency Transit Centre (ETC).

Eritreans who made it to Tunisia have had to remain in the Shoucha transit camp as tens of thousands of workers from other countries in Egypt and Asia were repatriated by their governments or UNHCR and the IOM. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has repeatedly urged resettlement countries to help solve their problem.

Meanwhile in Geneva, UNHCR on Wednesday presented its Global Resettlement Solidarity initiative to resettlement countries. This programme is aimed at addressing the resettlement needs in Egypt and Tunisia arising out of the Libya crisis. UNHCR called on the resettlement countries to provide 8,000 dedicated places for the refugees at the borders with Libya.

"We call on states to provide additional places [to their current resettlement quotas]," stressed Johannes van der Klaauw, UNHCR's senior resettlment coordinator. "The numbers of people in need of resettlement from Tunisia and Egypt increases by the day and may soon be in the thousands rather than the hundreds," he added.

Van der Klaauw also noted that resettlement out of the region could ensure that fewer of these vulnerable refugees risk taking dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. More than 500 people are known to have lost their lives attempting the crossing in recent weeks.

The Timisoara Emergency Transit Centre was set up in 2008 by the Romanian government, UNHCR and the IOM to house people in urgent need of international protection until their resettlement applications have been processed. It can accommodate up to 200 people and has hosted more than 600 refugees since opening, including Eritreans, Sudanese, Palestinians, Ethiopians, Sri Lankans, Iraqis and Nigerians.

*Name changed for protection reasons.

Roland Schönbauer in Timisoara, Romania

with Leo Dobbs in Geneva, Switzerland

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