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The impact of a future peace agreement on Sudan’s refugees and displaced


NAIROBI, Nov. 11, 2003 (IRIN) — Both the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) have said that once a peace agreement has been signed, the return of the country’s refugees and internally displaced to their homes will be a key priority.

Both sides are keen to see people move freely after 36 years of conflict out of 47 since independence.

But for the local authorities, donors, UN and aid agencies grappling with the prospect of 570,000 Sudanese refugees, and between 3 million and 4 million displaced returning home en masse, the challenges ahead are staggering.

With no reliable population statistics available for Sudan as a whole, and certainly no accurate statistics on the numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs), or whether and when they may choose to return, much of the necessary planning is based on assumptions.

Even the term IDP is misleading as a coverall for Sudan’s displaced southerners, many of whom fled for their lives from conflict, while many others - especially those in and around the capital, Khartoum - are economic migrants.

Nevertheless, agencies and NGOs are trying to prepare themselves, and some donors are granting project funding for areas in advance of returnees moving there.

But everyone involved agrees that the uncertainties are huge. "No one knows at all how many will return home," Stephen Houston, a senior IDP adviser in the office of the UN humanitarian coordinator in Khartoum, told IRIN.

The only certainty is that if people do move quickly, they will experience tremendous hardship as they walk for days across a country the size of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda combined. With practically no roads, health care, sanitation facilities or infrastructure of any kind to welcome them, they will be vulnerable to hunger and outbreaks of disease both en route and when they arrive.

Keeping their deaths to a minimum is one of the key challenges facing the international community.


"People are going to be induced to move for political reasons," Houston told IRIN.

Being able to return ’home’ will clearly send a positive message both home and abroad about a new, unified, peaceful Sudan. But it is clear that the movement of hundreds of thousands of people into southern Sudan before a referendum is held on self-determination will also have huge political consequences.

On top of this, elections will be held during the six-year interim period, as well as a population census after three years, which will determine southerners’ access to various sources of national funding and services.

It is considered "very important" to have as many southerners as possible physically in the south before the census, according to Luka Deng, the executive director of the New Sudan Centre for Research, Statistics and Evaluation.

"It is very important, because of the elections during the interim period, that these people are transported back to their homes so the results will be credible," Samson Kwaje, the SPLM/A spokesman told IRIN.

Muhammad Ahmad Dirdeiry, Sudan’s deputy ambassador to Kenya, agreed that within three years of signing a peace agreement the vast majority of the displaced should go home. "Definitely by then we would like to see them resettled," he said. "There is the political timetable of the referendum and elections. We want them to move well ahead of the schedule," he said.

Regional analysts argue that despite losing a cheap source of labour, not having up to two million southerners living in slum areas around the capital - jails are reportedly full of poor southern women who have been caught brewing alcohol - might also be a welcome peace dividend for Khartoum.

The governments of neighbouring Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, which have been hosting large Sudanese refugee populations for years, may also be keen to see them return home.

Trying to ensure that the movement of Sudan’s refugees and displaced is entirely voluntary, and that humanitarian assistance is not furthering the political agendas of either the Sudanese government, the SPLM/A, or the governments of neighbouring states will remain a key challenge.


The vast majority of Sudan’s refugees are currently living in Uganda (over 223,000), Ethiopia (over 88,000), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (almost 70,000), Chad (about 70,000) and Kenya (almost 60,000). There are also sizeable populations in the Central African Republic and Egypt.

Once a peace deal is signed, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, Sudanese authorities and the governments hosting the refugees will form tripartite commissions to map out transport arrangements for returnees.

Trips will be organised for refugee leaders who will go back to Sudan as a "confidence-building measure" and then report to their communities on the conditions there, Anoushiravan Daneshvar, head of technical support for UNHCR in the East, Horn and Great Lakes regions of Africa told IRIN. The largest numbers come from around Yei, Torit, and Kajo Keji in Equatoria, North Bor in Upper Nile, and southern Blue Nile.

Those who wish to return will then be bussed across the border to central locations and given a standard "reintegration package" of cooking utensils, blankets, mosquito nets and other items. Meanwhile, UNHCR will undertake "quick impact" projects with NGOs at home to fix schools, clinics, and water points in home villages, while other agencies will begin reconstruction and development projects.

The process will be voluntary, but the official camps hosting over 360,000 of the refugees will close within a few years, effectively forcing the refugees to return home, or apply to host governments for permission to remain - which may or may not be granted.

The first convoys will probably begin to move after the rainy season in November 2004 - if a peace agreement has been signed - but will be spread out to allow development projects to take root in home communities, said Daneshvar. "Because of the difficulties in the south, with food security, the lack of services and the time it takes to change that, the repatriation should be staggered," he emphasised.


The movement of Sudan’s displaced, which will be spontaneous, is far harder to control.

The possibility of establishing "way-stations" along key roads and the Nile is being discussed to provide food and medical care for them, and as the only means of registering who is moving where, Houston told IRIN. But the current thinking is that agencies and NGOs should improve conditions in the IDPs’ home areas - such as schools and health care - for everyone in the community, instead of singling them out for special treatment or assistance.

This also extends to not providing large-scale transport, which might facilitate the mass movement of people against their will.

Sudan’s displaced reportedly number up to 2 million in Khartoum, 700,000 in Darfur, with smaller numbers scattered around the south, the Nuba mountains, southern Blue Nile, and greater Kordofan, all adding up to between 3 million and 4 million.

But UN officials concede that official figures are often inaccurate, as there is no method of registration or monitoring. Figures provided by SPLM officials are often exaggerated, because over the last 10 years "the only way to get help was to yell IDP", Houston told IRIN. "We created that problem. We funded emergencies and the only way to get help in the south if you’re a local administrator is by crying IDP," he said.

Whether people will move quickly, or bide their time as they send family members to investigate conditions at home, is the other great uncertainty.

A CARE/International Organisation for Migration survey conducted in Khartoum indicated that about two-thirds of the IDPs there wanted to go home as soon as a peace agreement was signed.

The director of the SPLM’s humanitarian wing, Elijah Malok, told IRIN, "People are ready to go, they will go home. Once the guns are silent, they will go home. We just need the resources to resettle them."

But others say the Sudanese will need serious incentives to make them move. "The different reasons why they left will determine whether they go back," Stephen McDowell, information coordinator for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, told IRIN. For those with jobs and schools for their children in urban areas, returning to a rural area with no infrastructure is highly unlikely, he added.


The general uncertainty means that a series of potential problems lie ahead, according to Houston.

There may be sudden mass movements of people to areas unable to cope with them; the major towns in the south may fill up beyond their capacity; people may return en masse and then move away again, causing chaos; and conflict over land and cattle may escalate hugely with no land registration system in place and a weak southern government.

Rates of HIV infection, currently estimated by UNAIDS at 2.6 percent country-wide, are expected to increase dramatically with the return of the refugees from neighbouring countries with much higher rates.

Conflict with host communities which will see the refugees being assisted by the international community while they are not, coupled with increased competition for water, land, firewood, and food in certain areas, as well as the economic shocks of mass influxes of people into areas, are further potential sore points.

Policy makers who are presuming that IDPs will be happy to return to their rural homes may also be disappointed. "It is a challenge for the UN. The planning is rural-oriented - it might take everyone by surprise," Daneshvar told IRIN.

Many of the displaced have had to move so many times that it is extremely difficult to ascertain where they may return to. "In 1991 I went to Bor, but there was fighting against the Nuer. I ran to Torit and then to Kaya, moving in a big crowd. From there I went to Maridi to stay with a sister. Then Yambio, back to Kaya, then Nimule. I was always moving, because there were bombs or rumours that the Arabs were coming. Then I went to Lokichokio [northern Kenya] and Kakuma [refugee camp in northern Kenya]," said one woman.

Some may even travel northwards, not south, to cities in search of jobs and education. Already there are an estimated 22,000 people from the Nuba mountains in Port Sudan for economic reasons.


Despite the fact that women make up two-thirds of the general population in southern Sudan, and three-quarters in conflict areas like Bahr al-Ghazal, they suffer some of the poorest quality-of-life indices in the world.

With an estimated 90 percent illiterate, low self-esteem and very little if any protection offered to them by the legal system, they have little hope of being treated fairly when they return home, say observers.

"Let’s have liberation first, and then worry about women’s issues," is reportedly a common attitude among those in power, with some of the educated most vehemently opposing women’s empowerment.

"[Southern Sudanese] Women have literally no rights to land," Jennifer Nduku Kiiti, a consultant with UNICEF, told IRIN. "There are no laws in place giving them possession of anything. Customary law is relied on heavily that is very limited in terms of protecting women, very male-based," she said.

Statutory law and customary law operate in parallel in southern Sudan, but there are huge problems in making judgments that go against customary law, which was made by men for men, said Kiiti. Compounding this, analysts point out, is the fact that the Sudanese environment is ripe for corruption given its shattered economy, lack of transparency, and a tradition of loyalty and obedience to patriarchal military commanders.

What will happen when tens of thousands of widows descend into this environment to reclaim land and cattle may become one of the country’s future tragedies, they note. Many will have to choose between being "inherited" by their husband’s clan - land is owned communally - or start a losing battle to regain their former wealth through the village courts.

Many women who have gained a degree of autonomy living without their husbands for several years, or have been educated by NGOs in refugee camps, will find it difficult to revert back to the ’old way’ of living.

For those who refuse inheritance, the choices will be bleak. Many will be forced to gravitate towards towns and cities in search of work, with the inevitable exploitation that accompanies severe poverty.

"They will become susceptible to sexual abuse, because they’re trying to survive," says Kiiti. "Immediately it will make them vulnerable to exploitation by aid workers, nationals and internationals. They will be quite powerless," she says. "A lot of the aid workers will be Sudanese: it’s very easy to take advantage in your own community."


A peace deal between the government and the SPLM/A does not necessarily mean a peaceful Sudan, given the countless other rebel groups and militias which are not represented at the negotiating table, say analysts.

This will automatically prevent a large number of people returning to their homes, most notably in Darfur, where the conflict has steadily escalated despite a recent ceasefire agreement.

For areas that are peaceful, and can reasonably expect large influxes of returnees, detailed and coordinated planning is necessary to prevent large numbers of people from dying.

But whether or not that planning will take place in time remains to be seen. The Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SRRC), the SPLM’s humanitarian wing, is currently "sizing up the IDP population", "working on how to approach the matter," and in conjunction with the UN and NGOs will hold a conference on IDPs in early December in Rumbek, according to Malok.

But humanitarian observers say not enough is being done on time. "What is worrying me very much is that the SRRC should take the lead on the IDPs, but they are not proactive enough, there is a lack of detail," Deng told IRIN.

"The political agenda is so dominant in our thinking," he added. "Everyone is focusing on signing peace, not on the IDPs."

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