UNHCR plans to take 60,000 South Sudanese refugees home by May 2006
NAIROBI, Dec. 20 (UNHCR) - As the first group of official returnees to South Sudan began reaching their home villages, UNHCR announced plans Tuesday to take 60,000 South Sudanese refugees home by May.
The 131 refugees taken back to South Sudan by UNHCR on Saturday from Kakuma Refugee Camp in north-western Kenya were "the first of about 60,000 refugees we plan to bring home in the next five months as our organized repatriation gets underway," Jennifer Pagonis, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, told journalists in Geneva.
It could take up to five years to get more than half a million South Sudanese refugees back to their homes, Jean-Marie Fakhouri, the head of UNHCR's Sudan operations, told a press conference in Nairobi on Monday.
The official repatriation of 131 refugees - 67 of whom travelled by aircraft and the rest by bus - was "the first step and an important one" in helping some 550,000 South Sudanese refugees return from exile in neighbouring countries, Fakhouri said. There are a further four to six million people displaced within Sudan, including an estimated 2.5 million in the capital, Khartoum, alone.
Fakhouri pledged that in January, repatriation will start from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to 69,400 South Sudanese refugees, and from the Central African Republic, home to 36,000. Organized repatriation should begin in February from Ethiopia, where some 14,000 Sudanese refugees, out of 73,000 in five camps, have asked UNHCR to take them home immediately.
In South Sudan, an area larger than France and Germany combined, there are only 14 kilometres of paved roads, so movements by bus and truck are very much at the mercy of the weather. UNHCR's plans call for repatriation movements up to the start of the rainy season, likely in May next year, resuming again after the seasonal rains end.
The 131 returnees from Kakuma who crossed the border on Saturday took several more days to reach their home villages, in many cases walking four to six hours on foot from Bor, Kapoeta and Chukudum, where they were delivered by UNHCR.
"I am happy to be back here," Carlo, a 24-year-old who had spent exactly half his life in Kakuma, said on arrival in Chukudum after a bus journey that took seven hours to cover 60 kilometres. "The war is finished now," he said, referring to Sudan's 21-year civil war.
Following the signing of the Sudanese peace accord last January, UNHCR and other UN agencies spent much of this year helping communities in South Sudan prepare to receive returnees. (Some 75,000 have gone home on their own accord this year without waiting for UNHCR transportation.)
"Our role is that whenever refugees and internally displaced persons go back home, they will find someone to welcome them," Fakhouri said. To this end, the UN refugee agency has opened 10 offices, built schools, dug wells, and rebuilt hospitals to help entire communities better receive the returnees.
"Clearly it will take a long time for South Sudan to provide the same services to their people that were provided in refugee camps," Fakhouri said. "But at the same time it is important for refugees to go back home and build their country."
He echoed the words of welcome given to the refugees Saturday at the Sudan-Kenya border by Riek Machar, vice president of the South Sudan government - which the war-ravaged country needs the skills the refugees acquired in exile.
In addition to the first returnees, about 1,600 refugees in Kakuma have signed up for return to South Sudan - mainly the Upper Nile region - as soon as possible.
Fakhouri stressed that the UN refugee agency is not promoting return to South Sudan because of lack of services, but "we stand ready to provide assistance to anyone who wants to go home."
UNHCR's South Sudan repatriation operation was under-funded this year, with only US$50.16 million received for needs of US$76.3 million. "We hope with the repatriation now under way and refugees keen to return home, that donors will be generous with their support in 2006," Pagonis said in Geneva.
After UNHCR has cared for South Sudanese refugees for 15 years or more in exile, Fakhouri added, "we want to finish the job by bringing people back."
By Kitty McKinsey in Nairobi, Kenya
with Hélène Caux in Chukudum, South Sudan