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Deputy High Commissioner in southern Sudan

Briefing notes

Deputy High Commissioner in southern Sudan

15 February 2005

Deputy High Commissioner (DHC) Wendy Chamberlin is continuing her mission to look at UNHCR's south Sudan operation and the enormous needs that must be met if half a million Sudanese refugees in the region are to return home and begin rebuilding their lives. Chamberlin will today be heading from the town of Yei in southern Sudan across the border to Uganda, which hosts some 223,000 Sudanese refugees.

In southern Sudan, the Deputy High Commissioner visited the towns of Rumbek and Yei where she saw first hand some of the enormous rehabilitation needs facing this strife-torn region. She noted the lack of infrastructure - from roads to schools, clinics and buildings for the local civil authorities. She visited a hospital in Rumbek where UNHCR has provided some minor assistance for rehabilitation, but where much more work needs to be done. The hospital is the main health facility in the region, serving Rumbek and the surrounding communities. One of the priority needs for this hospital is clean water, particularly for the maternity ward.

She also met in Rumbek with a small group of displaced people - most of them women by themselves with their children - who have returned on their own from around Khartoum. The women and children travelled for as long as five months to reach the south, travelling most of the way by foot. They told the Deputy High Commissioner of the hardships they faced during their journey, including being attacked and robbed on the road. Several members of their group were killed. The women expressed their concerns about the future, particularly whether they will have access to land. UNHCR has helped set up a small school for the group, who are also receiving food from the World Food Programme and some assistance from other agencies.

In Rumbek, Chamberlin also visited a school for some 400 demobilized soldiers, mostly adolescent boys. The delegation handed over bicycles to help the teachers get to school every day. UNHCR plans to continue to assist the school, once the agency receives funding from donors.

From Rumbek, Chamberlin went to Yei, where she visited another health facility which suffered major damage in the conflict. She also visited a primary school which is in serious need of rehabilitation and lacks even basic furniture and supplies for the classrooms. She also met with the head of the women's association in Yei and discussed assistance to a secondary school for girls. This school also urgently needs repairs and supplies, as well as training for the teachers.

Another urgent need in the region is landmine clearance. Roads that refugees will use to return home must be cleared of mines, and the roads themselves are in poor condition. UNHCR is working with Germany's GTZ, which next week will start repair work on roads leading to southern Sudan from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Conditions such as these are some of the major challenges to the return of some 500,000 refugees from southern Sudan who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. UNHCR has plans in place for projects to improve conditions on the ground and continues to receive requests for assistance from communities in southern Sudan, but we urgently need funding to carry out these plans. We estimate we'll need more than $62 million this year to begin small-scale rehabilitation projects to lay the groundwork for refugee return. So far, UNHCR has not received any contributions for its 2005 programme.

The Deputy High Commissioner stressed that UNHCR and the international community have a window of opportunity now to put infrastructure in place so that people can begin returning home - and then stay home - after the rainy season ends in September. We are in a race against time to get adequate conditions in place within the next few months.

The DHC will spend two days in Uganda and then fly to Kenya to meet more Sudanese refugees in Kakuma camp before returning to Geneva on the weekend.