One million IDPs planning to return south - report

One-third of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sudan plan to return to the south within six months, posing considerable humanitarian challenges to aid organisations, an interagency survey found.

Sudan has experienced the worst population displacement in the world, mainly due to prolonged conflict since 1983. Although it is difficult to determine the exact number of IDPs, the figure is commonly rounded to four million, the survey report noted.

"The number of returning IDPs is a little higher than expected, and a lot of places where people are returning to have very few services to sustain them," Tom Hockley, programme coordinator for the Nuba Mountains Programme for Advancing Conflict Transformation, said on Tuesday.

Since the ceasefire agreement in the Nuba Mountains two years ago, Hockley estimated that as many as 300,000 people had returned spontaneously to this region in southern Kordofan State.

"A lot of people have been absorbed by host communities over the past years, but to accommodate the large number of IDPs that is expected to return in the near future, more structural assistance in the areas of return is needed," he said.

Conducted between March and June 2005 by relief organisations at the request of the Sudanese government, the survey aimed to assess the intentions of IDPs to return home.

Led by the International Organisation for Migration, the organisations included the Sudanese Humanitarian Aid Commission, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Fellowship for African Relief, UN World Health Organization and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Various other partners were involved in data collection.

The survey was carried out in Khartoum and other IDP locations in north, east and central Sudan, as well as southern Kordofan State.

Some 7,020 households were interviewed, corresponding to 44,238 persons. Thirty-seven percent of the participants originated from the Nuba Mountains, while 33 percent came from south Sudan.

The IDPs most frequently considered food (73 percent), water (62 percent) and shelter (56 percent) as their primary concerns when returning home. Healthcare and education were mentioned by roughly half of the interviewees, according to the report.

Following the signing of a comprehensive peace accord between the government of Sudan and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) on 9 January, there had been relatively little time to understand where and how people would return and to make arrangements towards assisting them, Hockley noted.

Respondents often mentioned travel costs and lack of information on safe routes and on conditions at their place of origin as impediments to their return.

The majority of IDPs - 68 percent in total - said they would return at some point in the future, while 22 percent said they never would. Continuing education for one or more household members or availability of job and career opportunities were the most common reasons not to go home.

Hockley said he did not expect any substantial return movements in the immediate future.

"Since the end of May, we have seen quite a substantial decline in the number of people arriving in Southern Kordofan because of the rainy season," he noted.

The main return movements, he added, would start after the rainy season, which lasts until August or early September. By that time, the new transitional government would be in place and roads would become passable again.

The survey found that 67 percent of the households originating from South Sudan and 32 percent of those from the Nuba Mountains were living in camps and squatter areas around the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

Among the adult population, 48 percent had no formal education, while only eight percent had finished high school and 1.4 percent had a college degree.

The war between the SPLM/A and the Sudanese government in the south erupted in 1983 when rebels took up arms against authorities based in the north to demand greater autonomy.

The fighting has killed at least 2 million people, uprooted 4 million more and forced some 550,000 to flee to neighbouring countries.