Basic infrastructure lacking as thousands return to the south - UNHCR

Thousands of displaced Sudanese have returned to the south following the signing in January of a comprehensive peace agreement, but the region totally lacks basic infrastructure, a UN official said.

"An estimated 600,000 Sudanese have already returned home spontaneously," Wendy Chamberlin, UNHCR deputy high commissioner, told reporters in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on Friday.

"Over 200,000 were non-registered refugees from Uganda, the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] and Kenya and perhaps as many as 400,000 were IDPs [internally displaced persons] who returned on their own," she said.

Thousands more, she added, were expected within the next few months.

The returnees were, however, arriving in an area lacking basic infrastructure - from roads, schools, clinics and buildings for the local civil authorities, to protection for the returnees.

"UNHCR does not encourage people to return without assistance or without information about the situation in their return destination," Chamberlin said. "UNHCR is trying to prepare the ground by implementing community-based programmes in the fields of water, health, education and landmine clearance."

She added: "UNHCR is in a race against time to get adequate conditions in place for the Sudanese refugees and IDPs who are anticipated to return within the next few months."

However, the agency said it needed more support. Of the nearly US $30 million it requested for operations in southern Sudan in 2004, only about $6 million was received. To create conditions conducive for the current returnees, UNHCR needs more than $40 million, but had only received $4-5 million so far, Chamberlin said.

"The international community has a window of opportunity [since the January peace agreement] to put infrastructure in place so that people could begin returning home," she told reporters.

The agreement was signed on 9 January in Nairobi between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), ending 21 years of war that devastated southern Sudan. It raised the hopes of hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese that they would be returning home soon.

Chamberlin, who was in Kenya as part of a weeklong mission that included Sudan and Uganda, said she aimed to focus attention on the impending repatriation of some 560,000 Sudanese refugees.

Demonstrating the complexities of facilitating the return of large groups of people after decades of war, Chamberlin said she had met young girls in refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya who were concerned about the lack of protection from early marriage when they would return.

"The issue has been raised with other UN and NGO partners, and UNICEF [UN Children's Fund] is currently working with the SPLM/A on child protection legislation," she said.

In southern Sudan, she visited the towns of Rumbek and Yei where she saw some of the enormous rehabilitation needed to rebuild this strife-torn region. Chamberlin said another urgent need she had identified in the region was landmine clearance. The roads themselves were in poor condition as well.

The conflict in the south has also displaced an estimated four million more people within Sudan and killed an estimated two million.

The war between the SPLM/A and the Sudanese government erupted in 1983 when the rebels took up arms against authorities based in the north to demand greater autonomy. The peace agreement was reached after more than two years of talks brokered by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development and hosted by Kenya.