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Thousands still stranded despite airlifts

Elise Ekanga waiting for her husband and possessions at Kapuri Transit Camp outside Juba
(Tamara Leigh/IRIN)

Thousands of South Sudanese remain stranded in Sudan or internally displaced en route to their homes or relatives in South Sudan, following the final International Organization of Migration (IOM) airlift of people from Sudan to South Sudan on 6 June.

IOM airlifted 11,840 people in 24 days from Kosti transit station in Sudan to Juba in South Sudan after the government of Sudan decided that ethnic South Sudanese should formalize their status in the north or leave.

The latest estimates show that 38,000 South Sudanese are living in makeshift conditions at "departure points" around the Sudanese capital Khartoum, waiting for transport, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Thousands more are displaced within South Sudan in makeshift housing, temporary shelter, transit camps and way stations, with limited access to basic services, food and water.

Northern Bahr El-Ghazal State (in the western part of South Sudan) alone has received some 70,000 southerners, according to the UN Mission in South Sudan. The state currently has the highest rate of poverty in the country, with 76 percent of the population classified as “poor” by South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics.

The recently airlifted returnees are relieved to have arrived back in their “homeland” but are anxious about their future, with no guaranteed prospects of land, a job, or government support. Many of them have spent most or all of their lives in the north following a 22-year civil war, and have no known relatives left in the south.

Local authorities have also expressed concern about how these returnees will rebuild their lives in a new country burdened by high levels of unemployment, poverty and inadequate government capacity to assist internally and externally displaced people.

No relatives

"Hundreds of thousands of returnees have been integrating into South Sudan relatively well over the last two years, but those currently stranded do not have the means or family connections to do so," explains Latio Kudus, head of disaster management at the South Sudan Red Cross.

"We are now very concerned about the remaining returnees who were reluctant to move back to the south due to lack of transport and limited means… It’s still not clear how they will manage," he added.

The airlifted returnees were taken to Kapuri Transit Camp, 13km west of Juba, where they receive some assistance before continuing their onward journeys; many people remain in Kapuri, waiting for relatives or unsure about where to go.

An airlifted returnee, Elisa Ekanga, spent a year in Kosti, “Life was very hard for us in Kosti… We had hardly any access to food and I never thought we would get out… I am relieved to be here, but anxious about my future… I am from the Torit area, but have no relatives left there. We have not been told we have land or tools to cultivate,” she added.

"I'm still waiting for my husband and possessions… which could take weeks or months, but still don’t know how we will survive when we leave the camp."

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Limited land

The government of South Sudan only owns a limited amount of land in the country following the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) decision in 2005 to hand the land back to the people. It is now facing the time-consuming and challenging task of negotiating with host communities. It was hoped most returnees would go to rural areas and take up farming, but the vast majority are now expected to settle in urban areas, spurring the growth of slums and taxing public services.

"Many of these people have lived their lives on the move as a result of war. They are resilient and can adapt easily, but will also need more support," explained a South Sudan Red Cross volunteer working at Kapuri Transit Camp.

However, overstretched humanitarian agencies are shifting their efforts and resources to the ongoing refugee crisis in the border regions. Some 160,000 Sudanese refugees have moved into South Sudan in recent months as a result of conflict and food insecurity.

To fill this humanitarian assistance gap, the South Sudan Red Cross is providing basic support to returnees at a series of transit sites, helping with such things as tracing family members, emergency first aid, nutritional screening and immunizations. It is also assessing the needs of returnees.

The movements of refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons are proving to be a major challenge to South Sudan and its humanitarian partners.


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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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