Around 20,000 people have fled to western Ethiopia to escape fighting in Sudan's Blue Nile state over the past week and the number continues to rise. The refugee agency has started sending emergency aid to the area.
A UNHCR assessment team returned to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on Monday after visiting the Assosa region, where the refugees have been arriving.
They said the new arrivals had been crossing into Ethiopia mainly through Kurmuk and Gizen, near Sherkole, some 770 kilometres west of Addis Ababa. Others are crossing through Bamaza, further north.
"Generally, the physical state of the refugees appears good, but they need food, water and shelter. Some, in the Gizen area, are occupying schools while others are scattered in nearby villages with local families," a UNHCR spokesman said on Tuesday.
Members of the UNHCR assessment team said those willing to be relocated were being moved to an existing refugee camp at Sherkole. However, most are reluctant to go and prefer to stay near the border, hoping that fighting will die down soon and allow them to return home.
The first movements of people into the Sherkole camp started on Saturday. The camp was first opened in 1997 in response to the north-south Sudanese civil war, which formally ended in 2005. So far, 2,500 refugees have been transferred there. Blue Nile state lies on the border with the newly independent South Sudan.
UNHCR has dispatched emergency relief items to Assosa and more supplies are on the way from Addis Ababa to assist those at Sherkole and in villages along the border. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is providing water bladders and medical supplies while World Food Programme is sending food.
Sherkole, which already accommodates some 4,000 Sudanese, can take in a further 6,000 refugees. The Ethiopian government has allocated three new sites at Tongo, Bambasi and Gure, not far from Sherkole, to accommodate the new arrivals; each with a capacity to accommodate 10,000 refugees. UNHCR has started preparing the sites.
UNHCR has sent and is sending out additional staff to the area to more effectively respond to the emergency. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres called at the weekend for an immediate halt to the hostilities in Blue Nile state.
"We need, at all costs, to stop yet one more refugee crisis in a region of the world that has been witnessing in recent months so much suffering," said Guterres.
Before the latest emergency occurred, Ethiopia had been accommodating more than 26,000 Sudanese refugees in two camps. (Sourced from UNHCR website)