Sudanese Refugee Repatriation Faces New Challenges

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:17pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Efforts to repatriate war refugees from South Sudan, who fled to camps in Kenya and Uganda between 1982 and 2005, are facing new obstacles.

Many of those who returned home are now flocking back to Kenya and the other countries that hosted them, U.N. officials said.

They are returning to the refugee camps to escape tribal fighting, hunger, and a general lack of infrastructure (schools, shops, hospitals), said Emmanuel Nyabera, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Nairobi.

"Search for education and job opportunities are some of the main factors leading to this return," Nyabera said.

Others are coming to the camps just to collect the cash and material goods that the UNHCR gives to refugees as they head home.

Still others are coming to the camps to escape intra-tribal fighting within South Sudan, Nyabera said.

At this point, the number of people returning to the camps from South Sudan outnumbers the number of refugees who have been sent home from one refugee camp in northern Kenya, the U.N. agency said.

Statistics released by the agency say that since the war ended in January 2005 with a peace deal between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudanese government, more than 10,000 people from southern Sudan have flocked into that camp in northern Kenya. Yet, the agency has repatriated only 600 refugees from that camp through its voluntary program.

"We have received more than 10,000 refugees, mostly from the Upper Nile region. They are fleeing hunger, looking for educational opportunities, and others are fleeing insecurity," said Nyabera.

Humanitarian agencies operating in South Sudan say the Upper Nile region is plagued by militia activity and tribal clashes, including armed incursions by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group, which is fighting to overthrow the government of neighboring Uganda.

Officials with the relief agency Doctors Without Borders confirmed that clashes between armed groups and direct attacks on villages have occurred in the Upper Nile region since the beginning of April.

"We are concerned about the growing number of violent incidents," said the agency's coordinator Cristoph Hippchen. "This means humanitarian assistance to the people of Upper Nile is already far below what is needed and will be even less now."

South Sudan refugees who fled the two-decade war waged by Khartoum are spread across the greater Horn of Africa region, while others are in the West.

While some are housed in numerous refugee camps in the region, others fizzled out into the major regional cities where they survive mainly through money sent to them from relatives abroad.

Alex Kor, a 30-year-old former SPLA fighter now living in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, said it will be difficult to return back home because job and education opportunities are hard to come by.

Kor has already married a Kenyan wife, and is a student at a business management institute here.

"How can I go back when I cannot access education in South Sudan. Even when I finish my studies, I will most probably stay around and look for a job because life is just unbearable back home" he said.

The war in South Sudan effectively resulted in collapse of the infrastructure because facilities like schools, hospitals and towns were targeted by Khartoum's aerial bombing campaigns.

The war also resulted in social disintegration as fleeing families lost contact with their colleagues.

Ann Saprong, 18, a high school graduate, was born and raised in Kenya. She has never stepped on Sudanese soil.

"I would love to go back but that means most probably I would become somebody's wife because there is nothing else to do," she said.

Overall, only about 500,000 of the displaced 4 million refugees have returned home, according to Robert Turner, the head of the U.N. mission in Sudan's Return, Reintegration and Recovery unit.

Reports said the autonomous government of South Sudan had set itself a target of repatriating another half million displaced people during the dry seasons of 2006, but the U.N. has asked authorities to downscale the program in the face of serious logistical problems such as land mines, insecurity and obsolete infrastructure.

According to World Health Organization, poor sanitation in South Sudan has resulted in outbreaks of cholera and meningitis that have affected 15,000 people since the start of the year.

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