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UN Official says Sudanese Refugees Reluctant to Go Home

  • Lisa Schlein

The U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, Wendy Chamberlin, says Sudanese refugees are reluctant to go home because they face an uncertain future upon their return.

Deputy High Commissioner, Wendy Chamberlin, says an enormous amount of work will have to be done before an estimated half million Sudanese refugees in the region are able to return home and begin rebuilding their lives. She says a large number of technicians are currently working to rehabilitate southern Sudan's shattered infrastructure.

She says schools and clinics will have to be rebuilt and roads will have to be de-mined before refugees, some of whom have lived in exile for more than 35 years, can return home.

She says she spoke to many refugees in camps in neighboring Uganda and Kenya who told her they were afraid of what life would be like when they returned. "They do not want to go back if there is no food. They do not want to go back if there is no land, land that is filled with landmines. They do not want to go back when they do not have access to health for their children and particularly because the south Sudanese have a very high value on education, they want to know their schools. So, I would not say there is a rush to return home," she said.

Ms. Chamberlin says there probably will not be any large-scale return movements until the rainy season ends in September. She notes the UNHCR's organized repatriation operation will depend upon how much of the infrastructure has been repaired. She says this is a potential problem because donors have not come up with the $62 million the agency needs to carry out its work.

The Deputy High Commissioner says girls and young women in the refugee camps are particularly worried about what will happen to them upon their return. She notes girls, who are well educated in the camps and have professional prospects, say they are worried they might be pushed into forced marriages when they go back to Sudan. She says it is not uncommon for girls to disappear from the camps.

"Many young girls, some of them as young as 12, are spirited across the border from Kenya back into Sudan for marriage. They bring a very high marriage price. Some of them, as was explained to me by local Kenyan law enforcement officials, have been kidnapped because the prices are so high that there is a factor of greed in this. So, it is not just local culture," said Ms. Chamberlin.

She says the girls are very worried they will have no control over their own lives when they return home.

The former High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, resigned a few days ago amid renewed controversy over accusations of sexual harassment, a charge he denies.

His Deputy, Wendy Chamberlin, will lead the organization until a new chief is appointed. She says she expects her work and that of her staff will continue as it has.

In assessing Mr. Lubbers performance during his four year tenure as high commissioner, she says he has left the organization on a much firmer financial footing than before. She praises his accomplishments in having put greater focus on the needs of women and children in refugee camps and on seeking durable and lasting solutions for refugees.