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Southern returnee deluge leaves aid workers in a quandary

Southern Sudanese returnees residing in school premises in Bentiu, Unity State
Une famille sud-soudanaise de retour installée dans une école (photo d’archives) (Paul Banks/UNMIS)

Build camps and run the risk of long-term dependence, or build nothing and watch basic needs grow: this is the dilemma facing aid workers in Southern Sudan amid an unexpectedly large deluge of people leaving the north of the country in the run-up to January’s secession referendum in the south.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), some 92,000 people of southern origin, many of them displaced during decades of civil war, had crossed from north to south between October and 22 December, and the rate of return was increasing.

The problem is that many are returning by bus, dropped off in major southern towns with no means of completing their journey to their area of origin.

When IRIN visited Aweil, capital of Northern Bahr al Ghazal State, recently, some 5,000 returnees were stuck in limbo there after spending a week on the road.

They were waiting for basic lifesaving assistance, such as water, emergency health services, and latrines, and also waiting for any word from the state government on what was in store for them next.

A week later, a UN official in the area told IRIN these returnees were still camped in the open air in a makeshift settlement that continued to swell with new arrivals.

“Establishing a formal camp means that people become used to the assistance that is given in the camp, [which] creates resistance to the closure and elimination of these camps,” said Giovanni Bosco, head of OCHA in Southern Sudan.

As Southern Sudan looks towards likely independence following its 9 January referendum, the prospect of multiple new camps outside towns in potentially volatile border states like Northern Bahr al Ghazal and Upper Nile is a significant concern, given the already low levels of infrastructure in the south and the imperative of beginning long-term development work after independence.

“It can take years to close a camp and to do a proper resettlement with durable solutions,” added Bosco.

Makeshift arrival settlements

The dire situation in the makeshift arrival settlements, however, is necessitating a response that the aid community admits could have long-term consequences.

“In an emergency environment and if a population is in need, regardless of where they are, we step in and try to provide them with assistance,” said Lise Grande, who coordinates UN humanitarian operations in the south.

“But we’re very clear that the reinsertion package, which is usually about three months worth of food and support to their households… needs to be delivered in points of final destination. The overall policy is not to have the transit sites become returnee camps,” she said. “But if people are in trouble in transit areas, of course we are going to respond.”

A day before the convoy of more than 600 families was expected to arrive in Aweil, Daniel Gar, the Northern Bahr al Ghazal State official in charge of facilitating their arrival through the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, said the government was expecting more than 87,000 to return before the referendum.

Allocation of land plots

Asked how the government planned to cope with the influx of new arrivals, Gar said his government “did not have much to give aside from plots [of land].”

“We are asking for the support of the UN agencies and aid groups,” he said.

When the Southern Sudanese government announced in August its plan to bring 1.5 million southerners home before the independence referendum, UN agencies including the International Organization for Migration decided that the organized returns programme proposed by the government could not be led by the international community given the time constraints and the likelihood that this particular returns effort could be interpreted as a political process, notably by the Khartoum government.

In the absence of significant international support for the process, the initial funds allocated by the southern government and by state governments have proven insufficient to support the high numbers of returns, particularly the final step of moving people from the urban centres where they arrive by bus to “points of final destination” in villages and rural areas.

According to OCHA in the southern capital, Juba, and to aid groups operating in towns like Aweil, the problems of funds for transport and the government’s lag in allocating plots for new arrivals in some areas is directly contributing to the threat of the creation of camps.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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