UNHCR plans for Sudan repatriation as peace talks inch forward
NAIROBI, Kenya, May 12 (UNHCR) - With the peace talks covering the decades-long conflict in south Sudan languishing somewhere between breakthrough and breakdown, UNHCR is pushing ahead - cautiously - with plans to repatriate people to war-ravaged south Sudan.
The challenge is to make progress that will allow the UN refugee agency to spring into action as soon as a peace deal is signed, without wasting donors' money on premature projects, said Daisy Buruku, head of UNHCR's South Sudan Team, who travels regularly into the region from neighbouring Kenya.
Despite launching an appeal last November for $8.8 million to begin planning and preparations for a south Sudan repatriation operation, the UN refugee agency has received only $3 million, from the United States and Canada. Due to the lack of support for the planning phase, Buruku said UNHCR has to be very careful with its resources. "We can't invest too much too soon," she said.
On the other hand, "we know we have to get into south Sudan, the train is already moving," she added. UNHCR left that part of the country in 1991, but has now drawn up plans to help more than 150,000 refugees return from neighbouring countries during the first 18 months after the signing of any peace plan.
UNHCR will have to be present with development agencies to ensure conditions are right for refugees to return. Because of years of fighting and neglect to infrastructure in the south, considerable investment will need to be made to bring roads, schools, water points and medical services up to a standard to support the refugees when they return home.
Progress earlier this year in the peace talks - called the Naivasha talks after the Kenyan town where they are being held - sparked hopes that two decades of war in Sudan are nearing an end. The Kenyan chief mediator at the talks, Lazarus Sumbeiywo, said this week that the two parties were still deep in discussion, although press reports had indicated that an agreement was imminent.
Unless there's a breakthrough, UNHCR has largely resigned itself to seeing 2004 as a year of planning, with the first actual returns to start in 2005. Buruku called the agency's approach one of "cautious but sure steps."
UNHCR has already opened its first office in Rumbek, and is working together with local authorities to identify sites for other offices in Yambio and Yei.
"We have to make certain commitments," said Buruku. "UNHCR has to be seen to be credible in the field."
The refugee agency also plans to train local authorities to help them deal with the influx of refugees and internally displaced people who will be returning to the south from other parts of Sudan. Seminars in the south will teach local authorities the concepts that any return should be voluntary, that refugees have the right to return anywhere they choose and that they have the right to claim lost property.
It is estimated that the 21-year civil war in Sudan has uprooted more than 3 million people inside the country, while a further 600,000 are living in neighbouring states as refugees. An estimated 110,000 refugees who fled the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region for safety in neighbouring Chad are not covered by the peace talks in Naivasha. The biggest numbers of south Sudanese refugees are in Uganda (223,000), Ethiopia (88,000), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (69,000) and Kenya (60,000).
"Even if the peace would be signed tomorrow, it will still be an uphill task to get the ground fully prepared to receive returnees and to absorb them into communities properly," Buruku said.
Despite the stop-and-go nature of the Naivasha peace talks - which at times have been rumoured on the brink of total breakdown - Buruku said she was not discouraged about the prospects for returning Sudanese refugees to their homes after decades in exile.
At the same time, she added, "I have no illusions about the fact that this is challenging."