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UNHCR team lays groundwork for return to southern Sudan

News Stories, 5 January 2004

© UNHCR/S.Mann
Homecoming is in sight for Sudanese refugees in Kiryondongo camp, Uganda, once the Khartoum government and southern rebel groups agree on a power-sharing deal.

JUBA, Sudan, Jan 5 (UNHCR) Aid workers from the UN refugee agency are in Sudan to prepare for what UNHCR believes will be one of its largest refugee repatriation operations this year pending the signing of a peace agreement between the government and southern rebel groups.

Long-time Sudan watchers believe that the parties could reach an agreement shortly, after negotiations now underway in Kenya were prolonged through the end of 2003.

In anticipation that an accord ending two decades of war will finally be signed in 2004, UNHCR last month sent an eight-person team of aid workers to Sudan. Following meetings in Khartoum, the team travelled to Juba and other areas of southern Sudan and met with provincial officials and partner agency representatives to review the needs for a possible repatriation operation.

It is estimated that the 20-year civil war in Sudan has uprooted some 4 million people inside the country, while a further 570,000 are living in neighbouring states as refugees. The largest number are in Uganda (223,000), followed by Chad (95,000), Ethiopia (88,000) and Kenya (69,000).

The UN refugee agency believes that if a peace agreement is signed in the early part of 2004, thousands of refugees may opt to return home this year.

While visiting both Khartoum and southern Sudan last November, High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers told both Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) leader Dr. John Garang that UNHCR wanted to support the return of refugees.

Ahead of a possible repatriation operation, UNHCR is already looking into the need for agreements among concerned parties to ensure the safe and dignified return of refugees and include the necessary amnesties and commitments from both the government and the SPLM.

During his visit, Lubbers warned that the return of refugees must be sustainable, and that considerable help would be needed by a host of partners to establish rehabilitation and reconstruction activities throughout the impoverished country. Sudan is roughly five times the size of France.

In the event an agreement is signed, UNHCR plans to operate from several locations in southern Sudan. While in Juba, its team visited premises vacated in 1990, currently used by Sudan's Commissioner for Refugees, and a warehouse compound leased to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The refugee agency has already airlifted two vehicles from Khartoum into Juba, and is shipping four cars from Jordan and four trucks from Kosovo that are expected to reach Port Sudan shortly. Also flown into Juba was a UNHCR office kit containing computers and associated items, and other necessary equipment. Juba is held by government forces, but is largely surrounded by opposition fighters.

Returning refugees will need assistance, and the agency's team is looking at what the packages might contain, including food aid, water containers, shelter material, cooking utensils and farming tools. The aid workers were told that the packages will have to be carefully formulated to ensure that they are not out of proportion with assistance going to internally displaced persons and aid available to people living in areas of return.

Two decades of war and the region's economic collapse have left many parts of Sudan severely impoverished. Roads are in extremely poor condition throughout the south, a vast region with only the slow-moving Nile River forming a common artery.

Most national and international non-governmental organisations currently working in the region told UNHCR that they place considerable importance on peace-building and reconciliation projects to help bridge the gaps between groups. Inter-tribal differences are a source of significant tension, the UNHCR team was told.

Peace is also a vital ingredient. While much of the south appears poised to benefit from the agreement under discussion in Kenya, fighting in the west of the country has sent some 95,000 refugees fleeing into Chad since April 2003, creating a new refugee crisis.

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UNHCR country pages

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Bonga camp is located in the troubled Gambella region of western Ethiopia. But it remains untouched by the ethnic conflicts that have torn nearby Gambella town and Fugnido camp in the last year.

For Bonga's 17,000 Sudanese refugees, life goes on despite rumblings in the region. Refugee children continue with school and play while their parents make ends meet by supplementing UNHCR assistance with self-reliance projects.

Cultural life is not forgotten, with tribal ceremonies by the Uduk majority. Other ethnic communities – Shuluks, Nubas and Equatorians – are welcome too, judging by how well hundreds of newcomers have settled in after their transfer from Fugnido camp in late 2002.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

Ahead of South Sudan's landmark January 9, 2011 referendum on independence, tens of thousands of southern Sudanese in the North packed their belongings and made the long trek south. UNHCR set up way stations at key points along the route to provide food and shelter to the travellers during their arduous journey. Several reports of rapes and attacks on travellers reinforced the need for these reception centres, where women, children and people living with disabilities can spend the night. UNHCR has made contingency plans in the event of mass displacement after the vote, including the stockpiling of shelter and basic provisions for up to 50,000 people.

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

South Sudan: Preparing for Long-Awaited Returns

The signing of a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the army of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement on 9 January, 2005, ended 21 years of civil war and signaled a new era for southern Sudan. For some 4.5 million uprooted Sudanese – 500,000 refugees and 4 million internally displaced people – it means a chance to finally return home.

In preparation, UNHCR and partner agencies have undertaken, in various areas of South Sudan, the enormous task of starting to build some basic infrastructure and services which either were destroyed during the war or simply had never existed. Alongside other UN agencies and NGOs, UNHCR is also putting into place a wide range of programmes to help returnees re-establish their lives.

These programs include road construction, the building of schools and health facilities, as well as developing small income generation programmes to promote self-reliance.

South Sudan: Preparing for Long-Awaited Returns

South Sudan: Helping the Most VulnerablePlay video

South Sudan: Helping the Most Vulnerable

UNHCR comes to the assistance of older, disabled and sickly Sudanese refugees arriving in Yusuf Batil Camp.
Sudan: A Perilous RoutePlay video

Sudan: A Perilous Route

Kassala camp in eastern Sudan provides shelter to thousands of refugees from Eritrea. Many of them pass through the hands of ruthless and dangerous smugglers.
Sudan: Heading for a New HomePlay video

Sudan: Heading for a New Home

UNHCR is offering to help move hundreds of people from Sudan to newly independent South Sudan, where they will build new lives. Almost 250 families with ties to the south are waiting for a ride.