News / Africa

Report: Refugees in Northern Sudan at Risk for Referendum Violence

Michael Onyiego

A report released Tuesday says nearly two million south Sudanese living in the north are in danger of statelessness and targeted attacks.  The report comes as south Sudan prepares for a January referendum on independence.  

In a new report, Washington-based Refugees International warns that Khartoum could be a potential hotspot for violence after the 2011 referendum through which the south is widely expected to vote for independence from the north.

According to the vice president for policy at Refugees International, Joel Charny, southerners living in the north face a litany of obstacles which may further marginalize them come January.

"They face great discrimination," he said. "Sharia law has been applied relentlessly to southerners living in the north, even though the Comprehensive Peace Agreement has built-in protections for non-Muslims.  The government in Khartoum has never worked to integrate the internally displaced into northern society.  Instead they have denied them government services, and they periodically round them up from the internally displaced persons camps where they were previously located, and they have been moved to ever more distant sites."

Charny says newspapers affiliated with the ruling National Congress Party has frequently quoted party officials who question the right of southerners to remain after the referendum.  While such remarks are often dismissed as empty political rhetoric, Charny believes they raise the possibility of violence.

According to the report, southerners living in the north are also at risk of losing legal protections and possible citizenship.  Without existing legal protections, many refugees who have rebuilt their lives in the north could be forced to return home and start over once more.  Students are also at risk.  Southern Sudan lacks comparable options for education and Refugees International fears many will be forced to cut their studies short.

The organization has called on the National Congress Party and the Southern People's Liberation Movement to address the refugee issues immediately.

Absent a coherent policy, the report urges international actors in Khartoum and Juba to conduct surveys on the desire of southerners to return home and to organize efforts to assist voluntary repatriation.

The people of south Sudan are widely expected to choose independence when the referendum is held in six months.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005 to end the 20-year civil war between the two sides, requires both the north and south to address issues of discrimination and refugee protection before the January referendum.  But negotiations have been slow, and larger issues such as border demarcation and oil-revenue sharing have dominated the talks.

Many observers worry that a lack of clarity on these issues could spur a return to violence.

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