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Help southern Sudanese go home and stay home, urges UNHCR


Help southern Sudanese go home and stay home, urges UNHCR

The UN refugee agency today appealed to states at the Oslo Donors' Conference on Sudan to take urgent action to ensure that at least minimal conditions are in place in southern Sudan so that millions of uprooted people can return to the devastated region later this year.
11 April 2005 Also available in:
Sudanese refugees learning how to tailor in Kenya's Kakuma camp. They are among thousands of refugees trained while in exile who can bring their skills home to rebuild southern Sudan.

OSLO, Norway, April 11 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today urged the international community to cement the peace and development process in southern Sudan by providing urgent support to help Sudanese refugees to go home and stay home.

Acting High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin made the appeal on Monday, the first day of the two-day Oslo Donors' Conference on Sudan. International support "will make the difference for hundreds of thousands, indeed, millions of people" who want to go home after more than two decades of conflict. But without that support, she warned, their reintegration may not be sustainable and - as UNHCR knows from past experience - refugees could once again take flight.

Chamberlin said uprooted Sudanese whom she met during a recent mission to the south and to refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya expressed both joyful anticipation as well as a deep sense of uncertainty over the prospect of finally going home.

"Many are cautious, even fearful," she said. "They may have left in a hurry and with little choice, but the decision to quit the security of a refugee camp for the unknown back in Sudan is a monumental one. When I met with refugees in Rhino camp in Uganda and Kakuma camp in northern Kenya, I randomly asked scores of them to tell me the three things that most concerned them about returning home. Their answers fit a tight pattern. Nearly all mentioned reliable food and water supply, return of their land, physical security, and schools for their children."

"They are right to be apprehensive," she added, noting that refugees will likely hold off on returning until they know these basic concerns will be met.

The decades-long conflict in southern Sudan officially ended with a peace deal between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army on January 9 this year. Some 600,000 spontaneous returnees - 200,000 non-registered refugees and 400,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) - have already gone back to southern Sudan on their own.

Another 550,000 refugees in neighbouring countries and 6.1 million IDPs remain uprooted in the devastated region.

UNHCR's approach in southern Sudan is two-pronged - to meet the immediate needs of the 600,000 Sudanese who have returned on their own, and to start the repatriation and reintegration programme for another 550,000 refugees and an equal number of IDPs expected to start returning as the rainy season ends in September.

The refugee agency has received only US$7 million of the $60 million it needs for its southern Sudan operations this year.

"What is needed? In a word, everything," said the Acting High Commissioner. "In Bor county, for example, where over 35,000 refugees originate, there is not a single secondary school. There are two doctors in the entire county of Yei, with some 180,000 inhabitants. Civil servants are underpaid and in short supply."

She added, "Everywhere, people have limited access to safe water. Sudanese farmers in the Rhino settlement in Uganda may be comfortably self-sufficient on land supplied by the Ugandan government, but they are worried that large tracts of their ancestral home are polluted with land mines. The international community has started to clear roads and public lands of dangerous ordnance, but farmers don't raise crops on roads. Women collecting firewood and little girls fetching water go off the path. Jobs must be created to ensure viable communities. The issue of land allocation must be addressed, and mechanisms put in place to resolve disputes stemming from displacement and exile."

UNHCR and its partners are currently running community projects in sectors like health care, water and sanitation, education and income generation in south Sudan to rehabilitate potential areas of return and pave the way for eventual refugee returns.

"The task is daunting given years of war and destruction of infrastructure. But we have an extraordinarily powerful tool for development - the refugees themselves," said Chamberlin, noting that thousands of Sudanese refugees in exile have received vocational training, skills they can use to rebuild their homes.

She added that girls who had grown up in refugee camps were particularly apprehensive about going back to a traditional society with few educational opportunities or other prospects for women. They, too, want to be agents of change in their country, she said.