UNHCR resumes repatriation of Sudanese refugees from Uganda's West Nile region
ADJUMANI, Uganda, March 28 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has recently resumed the repatriation of southern Sudanese refugees from the West Nile region of Uganda some six weeks after the programme was suspended due to an outbreak of meningitis.
The assisted return operation resumed on March 6, when 13 trucks carrying 600 refugees and their belongings left this district in north-west Uganda heading for southern Sudan's Eastern Equatoria state.
The process was suspended because of disease, but it faces other difficulties, acknowledged Stefano Severe, UNHCR representative in Uganda, during a recent visit to Adjumani to see how the repatriation programme was going.
"We are assisting the Sudanese with weekly convoys, however the pace is slow - just 1,200 people a week," he said, adding that the operation was being hampered by logistical problems in Uganda and by the amount of time it was taking UNHCR and others to build up the infrastructure and basic services needed in southern Sudan for sustainable repatriation.
"In the cities they have things, but in the countryside there are no schools, no dispensaries, no police," a refugee community spokeswoman told Severe as a crowd of Sudanese refugees milled around, keen to hear about the situation in Sudan and the possibility of going home.
UNHCR's operations in southern Sudan have been hampered by funding shortages, but Severe acknowledged that basic improvements were needed and it was imperative to pick up the pace of repatriation. "Uganda hosts around 170,000 Sudanese refugees assisted by UNHCR. We want to do much better," he said.
Although Sudan is not that far away, transporting the refugees is a difficult and time-consuming operation. For starters, the refugees in Adjumani must cross the Western Nile river in order to bypass bandit-ridden areas of eastern Sudan, but there is only one dilapidated ferry. The road on the other side eventually takes them to the border town of Moyo and then into southern Sudan.
When Severe visited, a truck was stuck on the ferry and the small vessel had to return to the river bank to sort out the problem, causing further delay to the operation. "We are looking into the possibilities to enhance the capacity of the crossing by using smaller boats for the refugees, leaving only their luggage with the ferry. We also need to ensure that the crossing is not blocking local transport," Severe said after crossing the river.
UNHCR also faces the fact that some Sudanese have grown used to Uganda and are happy to stay rather than face uncertainty in Sudan. "They settle freely, cultivate small plots of land and share schools and health care with us," said Peter Dolo, chairman of the local authorities in Moyo district.
With life good in Uganda, some Sudanese are worried about the lack of infrastructure and services after years of war back home. "We are afraid that there will be nothing when we return," another refugee representative told Severe. The refugees are also worried about security, educational facilities, health and food.
The 21-year war in southern Sudan ended in January 2005, when the Sudanese government and former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA) signed a comprehensive peace agreement. UNHCR has since assisted 6,911 Sudanese refugees return home from Uganda and registered another 16,383 who made it back on their own.
The UN refugee agency has also been organising voluntary repatriations from countries of asylum such as Ethiopia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. It has helped some 35,000 Sudanese refugees return home. Some 310,000 Sudanese refugees are still in camps in these neighbouring countries.
By Peter-Bastian Halberg in Adjumani, Uganda