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Spotlight on Southern Sudan: March 2008

Market in Kajo Keji, Southern Sudan.
Friday, March 28, 2008

March 28, 2008

by Mitzi Schroeder, Director of Policy

Steady progress in return of refugees to south Sudan but work of rebuilding has just begun

The signing of the Comprehensive Peach Agreement between the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the government of Sudan in January 2005 ending more than twenty years of civil war has at last allowed the return of substantial numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) to their homelands. As of this week, UNHCR announced that 100,000 refugees have been assisted to return. Since January, UNHCR has more than tripled the weekly rate of assisted repatriation, with movements of up to 6,000 persons per week planned for later this spring.

Despite some continued unrest, notably in the disputed oil region around Abyei, greatly accelerated returns should continue over the course of the next year, with UNHCR planning to facilitate the repatriation of 80,000 Sudanese refugees from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt. Returning refugees receive transportation assistance and packets of food and non-food items at way stations established along transportation corridors. Additional large numbers of refugees have also returned spontaneously, without waiting for such assistance. As of March 2008, some 169,000 refugees have returned home, with 260,000 still remaining outside Sudan's border.  

The steady progress on the return of refugees to south Sudan is, of course, good news, but the work necessary to reintegrate these refugees into Sudanese society has just begun. Southern Sudan is one of the least developed areas of Africa, with the building of basic infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals prevented by a generation of civil war. Returning refugees often find their ancestral lands occupied by displaced persons who fled from other areas during the fighting, creating tension between those returning and those left behind. 

Government administrative structures are still in the early stages of development, and security is poor. Economic activity is weak, and the lack of transportation makes access to markets problematic. On top of these problems, the delivery of assistance and development activities are hampered by a long rainy season, lasting from May to November.

In the face of such challenges, UNHCR launched a $63 million appeal in February to support protection and assistance activities. These operations, aimed at assisting both the IDP and returnee populations, are not funded as part of the regular annual budget but must be met by separate annual appeals. 

NGOs working in south Sudan note that UNHCR is presently stretched thin, with resources concentrated on meeting basic subsistence requirement at the expense of much needed protection activities.  With violent outbreaks still continuing, there is a danger that inadequate humanitarian assistance, or assistance that is discontinued too soon as donors seek to shift emphasis from relief to development on timelines that are unrealistic, could lead to further internal displacement or new refugee outflows, with disastrous consequences.

In southern Sudan JRS is supporting repatriations and aiding development efforts by programs centering on primary and secondary education. Refugees are often reluctant to consider return home unless they have assurance that their children can continue to go to school, and many refugees time their return to coincide with the school year. At present, JRS has educational projects in four locations, Yei, Kejo Keji, Nimule and Lobone. 

In addition to providing teacher training and support to local schools, these projects are involved in related activities such as community development, peace-building, adult literacy, and the expansion of educational opportunities for girls. A key goal of our programs is to promote good relations between the returnees and the local community, through activities for parents centered around the schools   A total of 35,000 students, including both refugee and local children, benefit directly from the JRS programs, but the positive effects of these programs reaches a far wider population.

For now, our work continues, but how long it can be sustained is a question. JRS funding comes from a variety of sources, public and private.  In the United States, JRS/USA has helped raise funds from American donors to support our work in south Sudan, and has assisted JRS East Africa to obtain partial funding from the US Department of State's Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration While JRS's ultimate goal is to turn over well-functioning schools to the management of the local government and community, it will be some time before this dream can be realized.

Will governments continue to support the work of UN agencies and NGO's like JRS when the initial period of repatriation comes to an end and the difficult period of readjustment and reintegration begins?  The track record of the international community in sustaining support during similar repatriations has not been good.  In the case of south Sudan, the ability to support the people through this critical period may mean the difference between success and failure, between war and peace. As the elections planned for 2009 and the referendum on southern independence scheduled for 2011 draw nearer, the stakes will become ever higher.  

JRS/USA calls on donor governments to support the UNHCR in its effort to accelerate returns and to support reintegration efforts at this critical time by fully funding the Consolidated Appeal.  Greater diplomatic and bilateral assistance support must also be provided to the government of south Sudan to help them to improve security through disarmament and demobilization programs and more adequate community policing.