Close to 30,000 Southern Sudanese who fled the country’s 21-year long north-south war are to return home from camps in neighbouring Ethiopia during 2008 as part of an agreement between the governments of the two countries and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), signed on 22 November in Khartoum.
“More than 41,000 Sudanese currently live in four camps in Ethiopia and we are repatriating refugees from all of them,” Ato Ayalew Aweke, deputy director of Ethiopia’s Administration of Refugee and Returnee Affairs, said at a press conference following the signing of the tripartite agreement. “We are hoping to have closed two camps in Gambella [region of western Ethiopia] by the end of 2008.”
The remaining 11,000 refugees are scheduled to be repatriated by the end of 2009.
Since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the north-south Sudan war, a total of 160,000 refugees – 18,000 from Ethiopia alone – and one million internally displaced persons (IDPs) have returned to their home areas in Sudan.
The agreement follows the first tripartite agreement on returns from Ethiopia, signed in February, which set out the legal framework under which the refugees would go home.
The returns, mainly to Blue Nile, Eastern Equatoria, Jonglei and Upper Nile states, will take place by road and air. Both the Sudanese and Ethiopian governments have agreed to provide trucks to transport the refugees and rehabilitate the various ‘corridors’ to be used. Severe flooding in Blue Nile and Upper Nile over the past few months has made roads in the region virtually impassable, slowing returns.
The agreement emphasised the importance of ensuring women and children were protected during the repatriation process; gender focal people are being trained across the South to ensure issues of sexual and gender-based violence are dealt with appropriately.
“UNHCR is also working with the Ministry of Justice and the [government of Southern Sudan’s] land commission to ensure that refugees get back land that was theirs and the people occupying the land are resettled elsewhere,” Fatoumata Sinkoun Kaba, UNHCR spokesperson, told IRIN.
She added that land disputes between returning refugees and occupying IDPs were common, but said the government was working through traditional mechanisms to ensure they did not result in serious conflicts.
UNHCR Sudan’s representative Chrysantus Ache said the agency would be working with the government of Southern Sudan through community-based projects to ensure the returning refugees had access to basic services such as water, healthcare and schools.
”More than 300,000 Sudanese refugees remain in the region, many of them in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda, according to UNHCR”
The meeting briefly veered off its agenda to address the issue of Sudanese refugees living in Egypt, many of whom have complained of abuse by Egyptian authorities. Some 27 Sudanese asylum seekers were killed by Egyptian troops in Cairo in 2005 during a protest against the suspension of UNHCR’s refugee status determination process that followed the signing of the CPA.
The actual numbers of Sudanese refugees in Egypt are not known, but many thousands of them have fled the four-year conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. A report by an American university in Cairo in 2006 found that Sudanese refugees in Egypt faced a pattern of unemployment, insecure housing, poor access to healthcare and education and widespread racial abuse.
“About 30,000 Sudanese refugees in Egypt have indicated a desire to return home,” Ache said. “It is important to develop an effective plan for their repatriation in a safe and dignified manner.”
According to UNHCR, more than 300,000 Sudanese refugees remain in the region, many of them in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda. The country has more than four million IDPs.