• Ben Parker
Director, Irin News
+254 733 860082
Source: Irin News
Southern Sudanese living in the north of the country are on the move. More than 249 000 have left since October 2010, and thousands more continue the trek southwards, filled with hope and excitement at the prospect of starting life in their new country.
The mammoth task of moving so many people – by bus, on barges along the Nile and by rail – has not been easy, says the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC), tasked with coordinating the move with the support of UN and NGO partners.
“We moved more than 200 000 people between October and January with 60-million Sudanese pounds [about US$21.5 million] we got from the South Sudan government, but that money has now run out and we still have more than 120 000 who need to be moved,” said Rev William Chan Achuil, chair of the SSRRC.
The number of Southerners estimated to live in the North ranges from 1.5-million to 2-million, but many will choose to stay, worried about the difficult living conditions in the South.
Aid agencies projected that the number of returns before and after January’s referendum could reach 500 000.
According to the SSRRC, about 21 000 people are stranded in Khartoum, having left their homes and sold their property when the organisation announced it was moving people south. Many have been waiting for two months, living in makeshift shelters and struggling to feed their families.
“We are appealing that these people be assisted immediately,” Achuil said.
Jerome Ganago, a father of four, moved his family out of their house in Khartoum’s Mandela suburb to an open space in the same neighbourhood in December 2010. The area, about the size of a football field, now houses more than 1 000 people, all waiting to head back to their ancestral home in Wau, Western Bahr el-Ghazal state.
“My kids are not in school, we have no healthcare here and it’s a struggle to find casual work to support my family,” he said. “We need to go home and get on with life.”
Southerners who can afford to pay for transport have long left, but many cannot afford the whole journey and get halfway before camping out at Kosti Way Station, in White Nile state, about 350km south of Khartoum.
Rush of refugees
About 80% of people heading south go through Kosti. The way station is built to house 800 to 1 000 people, but by the end of February it held close to 6 000, some of whom had been there for up to three months.
“Overcrowding at the way station has led to several problems – one of the major issues is a shortage of medication for common illnesses such as respiratory and eye infections, and malaria,” said Melanie Murphy, Kosti operations director with Fellowship for African Relief, an NGO managing the way station with the support of the Sudanese government and other NGOs.
“The State Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation, Unicef and the UN Population Fund have provided drug kits, but there have been so many people that stocks get depleted quite quickly and with such a high volume of families living in such a small space, germs spread quite easily,” she added.
According to Nimeri Ali, programme unit manager for the NGO Plan Sudan, one of the major concerns at the way station has been the safety of the large number of children.
“We have child-friendly spaces, but there are too many children to fit there so they wind up just hanging around the site,” he said. “Another problem is food – sometimes it is four hours between meals for young children… it would be good to have energy biscuits for them.”
In an effort to clear the dangerous overcrowding, aid agencies decided to move most of the people in Kosti.
“Over the next week or so the SSRRC, supported by the International Organisation for Migration, will send 5 600 of these people home,” Murphy said. “The first group left on a barge to Malakal in Upper Nile state on 6 March and the second group, destined for Juba, capital of the South, will leave later this week.”
Need for clearer communication
While the exodus will bring relief to the people running the way station, there is concern that more will arrive from Khartoum, having heard that the barges have begun to move again. Aid workers estimate that as many as 150 people are arriving at the way station every day.
“Up to this point there has been no comprehensive communication strategy to let other potential returnees know that this is a one-off transportation initiative,” Murphy said. “So far no other funding for transportation has materialised, so we are running the risk of having the way station overcrowded again in the near future.”
There are plans to build new shelters to accommodate more returnees, but this is not expected until May.
Lack of effective communication has also added to the challenge, say people assisting the SSRRC. “There needs to be more involvement of the media, churches, tribal elders and chiefs who can pass on messages about the process to their communities,” said Don McPhee, Plan Sudan’s country director.
The returnees awaiting transportation in Khartoum said information from the SSRRC was scant, and they largely relied on rumours for details of the return process.
Unicef is providing information on conditions in areas of origin, basic rights of returnees, and access to education, water and sanitation and other public services.
The registration of returnees has also been imperfect, making it difficult for the people receiving and providing assistance to them in the South to properly assess and provide for their needs.
“The UN Refugee Agency has been working with the SSRRC to improve the registration process. We have created a new registration form which captures family composition and vulnerabilities, which the current system doesn’t,” said Philippa Candler of the agency.
“This ensures that from departure from the North to arrival in the South, people supporting the returnees have all the information they need regarding the needs of various families and communities.”
Determined to go home
“People have moved faster than we thought they would; we planned to have each family received in their payam a group of villages and ensure they have what they need to start life, but in many areas this has not been possible,” said SSRRC’s Achuil.
“Many people have not yet reached their original homes and many areas still do not have vital services such as water points, schools and health centres.”
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, large numbers of returnees remain in Aweil town, capital of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state, awaiting land allocations from the South Sudan giovernment.
Despite the tough conditions many will face, Achuil continues to encourage people to move back home. “Why stay in the North? A government is being set up in the South, jobs will become available through foreign and local investment and services will become available.”
Humanitarians have expressed concern about the ability of the South – already battling chronic poverty, threats of violence and a desperate need for basic infrastructure – to absorb so many returnees. But the people waiting for transport in Khartoum remain determined to go home, however tough conditions might be.
“I’m not worried, all I need is to reach there – I can sort out my family’s life … the most important thing is that I will be home,” said Ganago.