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Backlog at Kenyan customs affects UNHCR missions

Backlog at Kenyan customs affects UNHCR missions

Relative calm has returned to Kenya but UNHCR still faces challenges supplying its operations in surrounding countries.
14 February 2008
Friends Reunited: A group of Sudanese refugees arrive home with UNHCR help. Sweden and Switzerland have donated trucks to help with the repatriation operation.

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 14 (UNHCR) - Three years ago, Bengt-Ake Johansson faced a risky road journey through rebel-infiltrated territory in northern Uganda as he prepared to set out from Kenya to deliver a gift of trucks from Sweden to UNHCR in South Sudan. He needed a police escort to get through.

Last week, Johansson returned to Kenya with other colleagues from the Swedish Rescue Services Agency (SRSA) to lead another convoy of trucks from Mombasa to South Sudan, some 2,000 kilometres away. This time the danger came from inside Kenya, where post-election violence has plagued parts of the country since the beginning of the year.

It is a problem that few would have imagined just a few weeks ago in a country that has long been regarded as an oasis of peace and development in East Africa. Insecurity has made travel difficult in certain areas and hampered customs operations at entry points to Kenya.

There are fears that if the security situation does not improve, UNHCR operations in surrounding countries, which receive vital supplies via Kenyan ports, highways and railways, could be affected.

In 2005, Johansson was concerned about fighting in northern Uganda between the government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). "We had a police escort in northern Uganda between Karuma, Kaya and Arua," the SRSA team leader recalled here. The area has been quiet since the rival sides signed a cessation of hostilities agreement in August 2006 after two decades of strife.

"This time we have to join a military escort at Mai-Mahiu [some 50 kilometres north-west of Nairobi]," said Johansson, before setting off with the convoy of 10 Scanier trucks and trailers, a gift from the Swedish government to support the UN refugee agency's operations in South Sudan.

He added that they no longer needed an escort in Uganda, but people travelling along many of Kenya's highways in recent weeks have had to navigate through barricades of burning tyres, boulders and felled electricity poles set up by marauding youths.

Since the beginning of February, the Kenyan government has been providing escort for commercial vehicles travelling to the border with Uganda from the western town of Gilgil in Rift Valley Province.

Last Thursday, confident about the security measures in place, the SRSA team set off from Nairobi on the second leg of their 12-day journey from Mombasa to South Sudan. They soon drove into heavy congestion as other vehicles also took to the road amid a lull in the inter-ethnic violence.

"There were very many trucks - about 400 - on the road," said Johansson, who was reached after crossing the border on Friday evening. He said most seemed to be heading for neighbouring countries, while adding that the massive convoy had slowed the progress of his trucks.

The Swedish trucks are expected to reach their destination in South Sudan's Central Equatoria province today, barring any delays at the Uganda-Sudan border. Johansson had spent six days getting customs clearance for the UNHCR truck consignment at Mombasa, Kenya's main seaport.

Customs officials at Mombasa are struggling to process a backlog of thousands of containers held up by the post-poll violence, which badly scared truck operators. The strategic port also serves several countries where UNHCR operates and which are either landlocked or far from the sea, including Burundi, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda.

By the end of last week, customs agents had succeeded in clearing a further consignment of 10 trucks and seven trailers donated by the Swiss government for UNHCR's South Sudan operation. But the situation is still dire.

"If the situation does not improve, we are concerned at potential difficulties in obtaining construction materials for reintegration projects as much of this comes from Kenya," Geoff Wordley, UNHCR's operations manager in Juba, South Sudan, said recently. He added that a shipment of basic commodities due in Mombasa this month could also be affected.

Goran Gunnarsson, director general of the Swedish Rescue Services Agency, hands over the trucks to UNHCR's Toshiro Odashima at the Yei sub-office in South Sudan on February 14.

The imminent delivery of the Swedish and Swiss trucks and spare parts will help ease some of the pressure on the UN refugee agency. The vehicles will support the repatriation of Sudanese refugees to their homeland after local drivers have been trained to use them.

To date, more than 175,000 Sudanese refugees and an estimated 1.9 million internally displaced Sudanese have returned home to the south since the signing of a peace agreement in January 2005. Some 260,000 Sudanese refugees remain outside Sudan. This year, UNHCR plans to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of 45,000 Sudanese refugees from Uganda, 17,000 from Kenya, 16,000 from Ethiopia and 2,000 from Egypt.

By Millicent Mutuli in Nairobi, Kenya