High Commissioner's mission to Africa
UN High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers arrived in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, early Tuesday morning at the start of the third leg of his four-nation Africa visit which has already taken him to Burundi and Tanzania. This morning the High Commissioner is expected to meet with Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir, his Foreign Minister, Dr. Moustafa Osman Ismail and the Minister of Interior whose docket also covers refugee issues.
Ruud Lubbers is expected to discuss with the Sudan government the final stage of a voluntary return operation started by UNHCR in May 2001 to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees, some of whom had been in exile for more than 30 years, mainly in camps in eastern Sudan. The High Commissioner is also likely to discuss the Sudan peace talks and the much-awaited peace agreement between the Khartoum government and the Sudan's People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). The agreement, when signed, could pave the way for the possible return, in phases, of more than 570,000 Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries. UNHCR is currently drawing up a plan for the possible voluntary repatriation of the refugees in an operation which is likely to be one of the most challenging in recent times due to the level of destruction and poor state of infrastructure in south Sudan.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, the High Commissioner is scheduled to travel to South Sudan to a location called New Site where he is expected to meet with SPLM leader, Dr. John Garang. New Site which is close to the Kenyan north-western border town of Lokichokio is Dr. Garang's base in the south. Ruud Lubbers will hold further discussions with him about the possible return and reintegration of Sudanese refugees.
Lubbers' three-day Sudan visit comes on the heels of a similar visit to Burundi and Tanzania. While in Tanzania (8-10 Nov.) the High Commissioner appealed to the Tanzanian government to uphold its long-standing tradition of hospitality to refugees. He assured the Tanzanian government which is hosting more than 480,000 refugees, among them more than 360,000 Burundians, that UNHCR was looking at expanding its return operation to Burundi to include all other areas of the country. Until now, UNHCR's return operation has been limited to the relatively safe northern provinces of Muyinga and Ngozi. In his meetings, yesterday (Monday), with senior government officials, among them Tanzania's Foreign Minister, Jakaya Kikwete and the Minister for Home Affairs, Omar Mapuri, Ruud Lubbers stressed that UNHCR staff will be meeting next week in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, to plan a possible expansion of the return operation from Tanzania to Burundi. He said that a review of the security situation would also be undertaken in conjunction with the UN Security Co-ordination Office (UNSECOORD) in New York to allow for the deployment of UNHCR staff to possible areas of return, particularly in southern Burundi.