Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia clamour for repatriation to southern Sudan

UNHCR plans this year to assist the return of some 18,000 of the 57,000 Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. But growing numbers of Sudanese want to go back home immediately.

Sudanese refugees wave at buses taking returnees home to south Sudan. UNHCR is organising regular repatriation convoys from camps in western Ethiopia to South Sudan.   © UNHCR/M.Mutuli

BONGA REFUGEE CAMP, Ethiopia, April 5 (UNHCR) - Farida Mustafa Awad has decided it is time to go home after 14 years of exile in this windswept camp for Sudanese refugees in western Ethiopia. "We have been here for too long. There is peace at home. It is time to return," she told UNHCR visitors to the Bonga Refugee Camp last week as she waited for a medical check three days before boarding a bus back home.

She's not alone in her thoughts; more than 12,000 Sudanese refugees have returned home in the past year from a string of camps along Ethiopia's border with Sudan and many more plan to follow. The camps were set up in the 1990s to shelter tens of thousands of desperate Sudanese fleeing the long civil war in the south of their country that only ended in January 2005.

With more refugees jostling for places on repatriation convoys, UNHCR and its partners - the International Organization for Migration and the government of Ethiopia - have doubled to four the number of weekly convoys running to the border. More than 1,500 refugees are now returning home each week from Bonga, Fugnido and Dimma - three of four refugee camps hosting approximately 57,000 Sudanese refugees in western Ethiopia.

In Bonga camp, UNHCR is focusing on getting the majority Uduk community home to Blue Nile state before aiding the return of the minority Shilluk - some 300 of them - to areas around Malakal in Upper Nile state.

The tall, lanky Awad was just one of 600 refugees waiting for the weekly repatriation convoy that leaves Bonga every Monday for the border town of Kurmuk in Sudan. The ethnic Uduk squatted under a tree and waited for a medical check-up, needed to make sure she is fit enough for the four-day bus journey from Bonga camp to her remote village.

"Everyone wants to be on the next convoy," said Wella Kouyou, head of UNHCR's office in the nearby town of Gambella. "But repatriation is not only about convoys. There is need for capacity on the Sudan side to absorb those who are returning," he noted, adding that some villages in Sudan's Upper Nile region were not yet ready to receive returnees. In other areas the roads were mined or simply did not exist and water resources were in short supply.

In Sudan, the UN refugee agency is giving priority for repatriation to areas such as Pagak, Maiwut, Longochuk and Malakal in Upper Nile, taking into consideration security, mine clearance, availability of water and basic health services. UNHCR and its partners in Sudan continue to work to prepare other areas to receive refugees.

Despite regular information campaigns in the camps to tell refugees about the situation in their areas of origin, many seem oblivious to the challenges and continue to push for repatriation as soon as possible.

Bulus Nonko Maguik, chairman of the refugee committee in Bonga camp, said many of the refugees were simply tired of exile while others wanted to get home in time for the planting season. "They do not want to harvest their crops again in Ethiopia. They want their next harvest in Sudan," Maguik said, adding that the refugees were "physically here in Bonga, but their hearts are already in Sudan."

The urge to return home has been stoked by news filtering back to the camp from refugees who returned to southern Sudan last year. "Some returnees write back to say everything is good," said Maguik. The returnees write about new schools, health clinics and water outlets as well as the stable security situation. They tell of farming opportunities and job openings. For many refugees in Bonga the grass is looking increasingly greener on the Sudan side of the border.

Even refugee children who have lived all their lives in the camp, chant at passing UNHCR vehicles, "We want to go home to Sudan! We want to go home!"

Due to budgetary constraints, UNHCR plans to assist the return of only 18,000 of the 57,000 Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, according to Deputy Representative in Ethiopia Fernando Protti. But lack of money is not the only factor limiting UNHCR's programme; the refugee agency will soon have to suspend convoys for six months during the rainy season, when roads become impassable.

Meanwhile, some refugees in Bonga are making their own arrangements to return home. "They look for their relatives abroad and ask them to send them money," Maguik said. "They tell their relatives: 'You see UNHCR has organised this repatriation in a good way, but it is difficult to make it quick for all of us.'"

James Peter, from the minority Shilluk community in Bonga camp, would like to return home soon but he has to wait until UNHCR completes the assisted return of the Uduk community. He will probably get a place on a UNHCR convoy next year. "It is James who will close the gate to Bonga camp when the last convoy leaves," a friend teased.

By Millicent Mutuli in Bonga Refugee Camp, Ethiopia