The United Nations refugee agency reports the number of southerners leaving northern Sudan ahead of Sunday’s independence referendum has doubled since mid-December. The UNHCR says the returnees are leaving because they are uncertain about what might happen to them should independence be declared.
Sudan soon could be split into two countries if enough people vote for independence on Sunday’s referendum. This prospect is causing a lot of excitement. It also is causing a lot of anxiety and prompting many southerners living in the North to return to their ancestral homes in the South.
The UNHCR reports about 120,000 Sudanese have returned to the South since mid-December. This, it says, is an average of around 2,000 people crossing into the south every day.
UNHCR spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, says the agency expects many more people currently living in the North will go south in the months following the referendum“Many of these returnees we note have lived in the North for years and say they have to leave for fear of the unknown and to start afresh in their native South. Following the referendum, we believe it will be essential that the status of those southern Sudanese who would prefer to remain in the north is established. We are concerned about the specter of a significant number of southerners in the north having uncertain citizen status and this potentially could leave them stateless if it is not resolved," she said.
Between 1.5 million and two million southerners live in the north. The UNHCR says it is actively negotiating with the Sudanese government to resolve the status issue to head off the prospect of large numbers of people returning to the south.
Fleming flags another potential problem. She notes most of the returnees have lived in the Sudanese capital Khartoum for many years, some as long as two generations. As a result, she says many do not have a home village to return to and are settling in South Sudan’s urban centers.
She says this puts additional pressure on the fragile infrastructure of South Sudan’s towns. She says the Upper Nile isanother region, which is receiving high numbers of returnees. She says they come daily on buses and barges with everything they own.
“One of the concerns we have noticed and we have set up way stations along the way…to help the people in their journey, particularly to provide a safe place for women and children and the elderly to rest. We are monitoring and following up on cases of unaccompanied and separated children. Unfortunately survivors of some gender-based violence that we have noticed along the way," she said.
Since early last year, the UNHCR has established a presence in South Sudan’s 10 states. It is running a number of activities to support returnees and the existing community.
In addition to the eight way stations it has established, Fleming says the UNHCR has set up a number of soup kitchens along the route to the principal areas of return.