UNHCR suspends repatriation to parts of South Sudan in wake of increased insecurity
GENEVA, March 21 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency's repatriation of refugees to the Central and Western Equatoria regions of south Sudan has been suspended following fighting in Yambio on Saturday night near the compound of a non-governmental organization and a deadly attack on UNHCR in Yei last week.
A security review of the situation for returning refugees and refugee agency staff is underway.
"Even though UNHCR staff were not directly targeted in Yambio, in view of the extremely volatile situation we have decided to relocate two members of our staff who are based there," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told a regular briefing of journalists in Geneva.
Other humanitarian agencies were withdrawing their staff from Yambio. UNHCR is also relocating 24 international staff from its operations in Yei, Kajo Keji and Tambura to safer locations in south Sudan for two weeks.
The decision to suspend the repatriation has an immediate effect on refugees currently in the Central African Republic, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were expecting to return to the Yei, Yambio and Kajo Keji areas of South Sudan. From Wednesday onwards repatriation to Tambura will also be suspended.
The repatriation from Ethiopia to the Blue Nile region of eastern south Sudan due to start next week is unaffected by the decision. An agreement on refugee returns between Uganda, Sudan and UNHCR is still expected to be signed on March 27 in Kampala, although the first refugee movements from Uganda, scheduled to start the following day, are now on hold.
The fighting in Yambio follows a violent incident last Wednesday, when a guard was killed and a UNHCR staff member and guard seriously wounded in an attack by armed intruders on the refugee agency's compound in Yei. The two wounded were evacuated to Nairobi, Kenya for medical treatment.
"One of them, an international member of staff, remains in a critical but stable condition. The other, who was working as a guard, is now out of danger," Pagonis said.
Although a peace deal was signed in January 2005 which officially ended the 21-year-long civil war between the north and the south, security in the south remains precarious because of inter-ethnic tensions and rivalries.
On Tuesday, UNHCR sent a team from Geneva to assess the security situation in south Sudan and evaluate the measures needed to ensure the security and safety of staff. The director of UNHCR's Sudan operation, Jean-Marie Fakhouri arrived in Juba, south Sudan on Monday and will travel in the region over the next few days.
UNHCR only started its repatriation to south Sudan in December last year, with the first convoy from Kakuma camp in northern Kenya to Bor area, in Jongley state, and to Kapoeta area, in Eastern Equatoria. So far, approximately 1,400 refugees from south Sudan have been repatriated from CAR and Kenya.
Before the suspension UNHCR had expected some 58,000 refugees to return to the war-shattered south before the rainy season started mid-year.
There are still some 350,000 Sudanese refugees from south Sudan in neighbouring countries and some four million more displaced within Sudan as a result of the civil war.