Paloich Airport, usually bustling with well-heeled workers servicing South Sudan’s oil fields, has been transformed into a camp for thousands of individuals fleeing the month-old conflict in neighboring Sudan.
The airport lacks essential facilities such as toilets, running water, and kitchens. People find themselves living amidst their bags, resting on luggage trolleys, or sleeping under makeshift tents while awaiting a chance to catch a flight out of the turmoil.
These displaced individuals have traveled to Paloich, located four hours from the Sudanese border, in the hopes of finding a way to escape the crisis. However, limited flights and scarce information leave them in a state of uncertainty regarding their departure.
Among the refugees are Eritreans, who have been uprooted for the second time after previously seeking refuge in Sudan. Unfortunately, these individuals find themselves stuck in limbo.
Before the outbreak of the conflict, the UN estimated that there were over 136,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in Sudan.
Due to fear of retribution from the Eritrean authorities, most Eritreans are reluctant to provide their names to journalists. Eritrea is a highly restrictive state that exercises control over almost all aspects of its citizens’ lives. Many Eritreans are keen to avoid compulsory national service and the associated challenges it brings.
Amid the dire conditions at the airport, Tesfit Girmay, a single man who arrived in Paloich five days earlier, expressed his perspective. Surveying the tents around him, he described the life there as unfit for humans, let alone animals. While he believed he could endure sleeping outside and having only one meal a day, he acknowledged that those with children faced greater hardships.
Having fled the deteriorating economy in Eritrea at the end of the previous year, Tesfit had hoped to find work in Sudan and potentially move on to another country. However, Eritreans in South Sudan now find themselves trapped with limited options for onward travel.
Although other nationals, such as Kenyans, Ugandans, and Somalis who fled the Sudanese conflict, have been repatriated by their governments, many Eritreans in Paloich expressed fear of returning home or saw no future prospects there.
Tesfit explained that Eritreans at the airport were prohibited from boarding flights to South Sudan’s capital, Juba. At the same time, they refused to go to the designated refugee camps within the country.
Further north, a three-hour drive closer to the Sudanese border, another temporary camp in Renk was overflowing with more than 6,000 people. Even the surrounding bushes were being cleared to accommodate more arrivals.
It was in this camp that another Eritrean refugee, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke about her experiences. Sitting on the steps of a classroom with her three children, she explained how she couldn’t live in her home country due to restrictions on practicing her faith. As an evangelical Christian, she faced difficulties in Eritrea, where religion is tightly regulated and individuals belonging to unsanctioned faiths have been imprisoned.
After fleeing Khartoum, she had hoped to reach South Sudan’s capital, but the journey proved challenging. Eritreans were prohibited from passing through to Juba, and the woman expressed uncertainty about what would happen next.
South Sudan’s acting Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deng Dau Deng, confirmed that his office had reached out to foreign embassies, including Eritrea’s, to facilitate the repatriation of their citizens. However, he acknowledged the complexities surrounding Eritreans who did not wish to return home or cooperate with their embassy.
Deng did not deny claims that some Eritreans who had reached Juba were forcibly sent back to Paloich. With the Eritrean embassy declining to fly them back to Asmara and no refugee camps available in Juba, alternative arrangements had to be made.
Eritrea’s President, Isaias Afwerki, stated on state television that his country would welcome anyone fleeing the conflict in Sudan. He emphasized that Eritrea maintained open borders and would continue to receive Eritreans, Sudanese civilians, and others affected by the ongoing conflict.
The influx of more than 60,000 people into South Sudan within just a month has overwhelmed the country’s infrastructure. At Paloich Airport, I encountered South Sudanese individuals desperate to reach other parts of the country. Sandy Manyjeil, stranded with her five children for two weeks, described the uncertainty surrounding ticket allocation and boarding procedures.
The South Sudanese government is providing free flights on cargo planes from Paloich and has transported over 7,000 people. However, this is only a fraction of the total number entering the country.