Return to South Sudan ahead of the referendum

© UNHCR/Y.Hassan

By the beginning of January, 120,000 southerners had left northern Sudan to return to their ancestral homes in the South ahead of this week’s landmark Sudan referendum – twice the number since mid-December. On average, 2,000 persons are crossing into the South each day. UNHCR anticipates that many more will return in the coming months following the referendum. Many of the returnees who have lived in the North for years say they have left for fear of the unknown and the opportunity to start afresh in their native South.

Following the referendum it will be essential that the status of those southern Sudanese who would prefer to remain in the North is established. There are an estimated 1.5 – 2 million southerners living in the North and UNHCR is concerned about the specter of a significant number of these having uncertain citizen status and possibly becoming stateless. We are actively supporting negotiations with officials to address this issue, which if left unresolved could result in an even larger movement south.

To date, approximately 30 per cent of returnees have gone to urban centres, while the reminder are going to rural areas. Most of the returnees come from the Khartoum area where some have lived for two or more generations. Consequently, they do not necessarily have a home village to return to. This puts additional pressure on the fragile infrastructure of the towns in South Sudan and has prompted UNHCR to focus its attention on these urban returns. For example, we are providing assistance to 35,000 returnees in and around the town of Abyei, with stocks in the South for more than 100,000, should they be needed.

Upper Nile is a region that has received a high number of returnees from the North.  Every day, buses and barges with returnees arrive in the state capital, Malakal. The returnees are laden with everything they own, leading the buses and barges to be packed with beds, sofa seats, chairs, tables, cooking pans and utensils, corrugated iron sheets and radio sets, while some have even come with TV sets, fridges and small generators. Once in Malakal, the returnees are registered and provided with reintegration packages by the state authorities before moving on to their home villages.

Since early last year UNHCR has established a presence in all the ten states of South Sudan to support returnees and the existing community. In addition, the organisation sets up eight way stations and a number of soup kitchens along the route to the principal areas of return. These way stations are providing a safe resting place for women, children and the elderly as they make the arduous journey home.

UNHCR’s community services and protection specialists in the region are monitoring and following up on cases of unaccompanied and separated children, survivors of gender based violence, and elderly and disabled people who need support.