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Ethiopia: Before this, I’d never visited a refugee camp

Before this trip to Ethiopia, I’d never visited a refugee camp before. Now I’ve been to seven and I can still barely imagine how hard it must be to leave your home and everything you know and move somewhere completely foreign, not knowing when or if you may be able to return.

The first three camps I visited were in the Asosa Zone in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of western Ethiopia and are currently home to over 35,000 refugees.

I joined the Joint Assessment Mission or JAM which every two years looks to assess the situation of refugee camps across the country.

Our team was made up of members from all partners and organisations that work in the camps. These include the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Ethiopian Administration for Refugees and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), the World Food Programme (WFP) and organisations like Save the Children who are mandated to support particular elements of life in the camps.

The JAM assesses and reviews primary and secondary information on the provision of assistance to refugees and then makes recommendations for improvements.

Sherkole, Tongo and Bambasi

During the six-day mission in Asosa, we visited the three refugee camps in the region.

All three camps are remarkably different but the majority of refugees are from Sudan. Save the Children has been working in the region with refugees for 20 years.

Sherkole is the oldest camp – it was established in October 1997 and was the first camp I visited. It really feels more like a village than what I imagined a refugee camp would be, with most people living in houses built in a similar fashion to those in the surrounding communities.

But the age of the camp is clear in the dilapidated buildings that are no longer safe for children to play and learn in. More support is desperately needed.

Dilapidated buildings at one of Save the Children's pre-schools in Sherkole camp

Refugees have moved between Sudan and western Ethiopia in line with periods of peace and conflict in both countries.

Most recently, with the hope of peace, most of the refugees returned to Sudan by 2006.

Unfortunately, a new wave of Sudanese refugees has fled the country since 2011 and two new camps have had to be formed in addition to Sherkole camp.

Tongo camp was built very quickly in 2011 with the sudden influx of new refugees and most of the refugees live in UNHCR tents perched on the flat mountaintop of the western Ethiopia highlands.

Struggling with the cold

The scenery at this time of year is stunning – rich, green, cultivated valleys, but I’m told that the area will be a dust bowl in six months time.

Furthermore, the Sudanese refugees, predominantly pastoralists from Blue Nile State, are used to living in searing heat.

At a discussion held with the camp’s women’s association, I quickly notice that most of the women have colds and coughs. They’re not accustomed to this cold and they don’t have appropriate clothes for it either.

Young boys play in Tongo refugee camp

The newest camp, Bambasi, was established in July 2012 in order to house refugees who were being temporarily hosted at the transit centre on the border with Sudan.

As you approach the camp, you can see the neatly aligned plots with tents and then in some zones more permanent houses being built.

It seems extremely well organised. Similarly to Tongo though, there is still a desperate need for education facilities for children.

Save the Children plans to scale up its education and child protection work in all three camps.

The need is clear – thousands of refugee children have nowhere to go and play or learn and there are also hundreds of children who were separated from their families as they fled from Sudan.

These children need to be placed with foster families and given extra support. Save the Children is well placed to give this support but we urgently need extra funds in order to do so.

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