The U.N. refugee agency is beginning Saturday the first airlift to repatriate Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says three flights are scheduled to take a total of 150 Sudanese refugees from Gambella airport in Ethiopia to Juba, South Sudan. Lisa Schlein reports from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
The UN refugee agency says it plans to repatriate more than 1,000 Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia over the next 10 days. The refugees are mainly from the Dinka and Shuluk minority ethnic groups who have lived in exile for many, many years.
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says the refugees are being flown home because they are returning to areas that are extremely difficult to reach by road.
"It is more expensive than going by road. But, in some cases, it turns out to be actually more efficient because to take people back in trucks or buses in some of these areas is impossible. Roads are terrible," said Redmond. "We also have to start worrying about the rainy season in this region as well. So, the airlift really, for these people from extremely remote and distant places, is the best solution."
Redmond says these people will be going home to areas that were severely damaged during more than two decades of civil war. He says many of these places lack basic infrastructure. They lack schools, health clinics, roads and telecommunications.
Despite the difficulties, he says the Sudanese, like refugees anywhere in the world, want to go home. He says they are desperate to go home.
"They now have a situation where it is peaceful and they can do so. The United Nations, including UNHCR and other agencies will be with them on return. They will receive assistance packages. They get tools, seeds, shelter materials. These types of things from the United Nations," he added. "And so, they are able to at least get a start once they get back and many of them are agricultural or pastoral as well. So, they are going back to an area where they eventually can become self-sufficient."
UNHCR spokesman Redmond says the current airlift of refugees will have to be suspended during the rainy season. However, he says it will resume in September and October. He says the agency hopes to bring nearly 2,000 more Sudanese refugees home from Ethiopia by the end of the year.
UNHCR began a voluntary repatriation operation in Ethiopia in March 2006. Since then, it has returned more than 15,000 Sudanese by road. Some 55,000 Sudanese refugees are still sheltered in four camps in Ethiopia.