Sudanese local officials meet refugees in Uganda; urge them to return home
ADJUMANI, Uganda, January 28 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has been helping local officials in South Sudan reach out to refugees in north-western Uganda who are considering returning home after years of enforced exile. And it seems to be working, with many of the refugees asking to go back.
Earlier this month, Emilio Igga Alimas, the commissioner of Magwi County in South Sudan's Eastern Equatoria state, visited the Adjumani and Moyo settlements and discussed the situation back home with several hundred refugees. He was accompanied by three village chiefs on the so-called "come-and-tell" visits, which were organized by UNHCR and the government of Uganda.
Alimas discussed the security situation and stressed how important it was for the future of South Sudan that people return home before elections due to be held in July under a January 2005 peace agreement, which ended the 21-year south-north war and allowed organized repatriation to begin. He also noted that UNHCR will downsize its assisted return programme from neighbouring countries during the course of this year.
The visit helped persuade people like Justine to return, but in some cases Alimas and the village chiefs were preaching to the converted. In Moyo, refugee representative Francis Igga told the visitors: "We have already made up our minds. Be ready to welcome us."
Justine, who works as a community health worker in Adjumani, fled South Sudan in 1989. She has endured her fair share of tragedy over the past 20 years - her father and first husband died. But she has been longing to return home ever since the fragile peace was signed between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
But until now, she was not sure that the time and conditions in South Sudan were right. The "come-and-tell visit" has helped her make up her mind. She told UNHCR that she would go home with her mother, six children and second husband because, "The time is right." She said that if they went now, they could build a house and sow crops before the rainy season began in April. They could also prepare the kids for school in April.
The refugees who met Commissioner Alimas and his delegation were mainly concerned about vital reintegration issues such as land, security, food and employment. The Magwi official assured them that peace had returned to South Sudan and that the government was taking action to address their other concerns.
"We need you to [help] rebuild our country," Alimas said, adding: "UNHCR is ready to assist you." But Kazuhiro Kaneko, head of the UNHCR office in the Sudanese border town of Nimule, warned the refugees that they would face some tough challenges back home. "It is your determination that starts a new life," he said.
Similar visits have also taken place recently at camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, and more are planned. "They are an excellent means of putting the South Sudan authorities in touch with their citizens," said Geoff Wordley, deputy head of UNHCR operations in South Sudan.
Eastern Equatoria was one of the hardest hit states during the long civil war, but it is now one of the highest return areas in the south. This year, UNHCR plans to expand projects aimed at easing and improving reintegration of the returnees in South Sudan, where infrastructure and services were devastated by the years of conflict and neglect. The agency has implemented almost 700 reintegration projects since 2005.
Some 300,000 refugees have returned to South Sudan since 2005, with about 140,000 of them helped back by UNHCR. Almost half of the latter were repatriated from Uganda. This year, the refugee agency plans to assist 54,000 voluntary returns. There are currently 22,000 Sudanese refugees in Adjumani and 12,000 in Moyo.
By Kazuhiko Shimizu in Adjumani, Uganda