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Agreement Reached on Return of Sudanese Refugees in Kenya

The U.N. refugee agency has signed an agreement with the governments of Kenya and Sudan to begin the voluntarily repatriation of Sudanese refugees living in Kenya. But many refugees say they are reluctant to return home until education, health, and other needs can be met in Sudan, where services are limited or non-existent.

Among other things, the agreement spells out the responsibilities of the two governments and the U.N. refugee agency in ensuring that the refugees return to Sudan safely, that their rights and dignity be respected, and that they be reintegrated back into the communities they left behind.

Senior U.N. official Jean-Marie Fakhouri says a key component of the agreement is that no one can be forced to return to Sudan.

"People will have to decide on their own when it is time for them to go back," he said. "Of course, they will be provided with information on the conditions of return and will be provided with data and so on, but the decision is up to them. It is incumbent upon us to enable them to reach an informed decision on the return back home. It is also important that we ensure that the return is orderly and it is phased."

Kenya hosts more than 70,000 Sudanese refugees, most of them living in Kakuma Camp in the north.

Sudan's most recent north-south civil war began in 1983, pitting rebels in the largely Christian and oil-rich south against the Arab-dominated northern government.

More than two million people died and several million were displaced during the conflict.

A two-year peace process between the rebels and government, held in neighboring Kenya, concluded when the two sides signed a comprehensive peace agreement in January of last year.

Two decades of warfare had virtually wiped out what little education, health, and other services and infrastructure existed in the impoverished south, leading many in exile to resist returning to their homes.

Southern Sudanese education worker Jacob Deng, who now lives in Canada but works on projects in southern Sudan, tells VOA he feels it is not the time to go back.

"My dreams are now to make sure my children get a better education than what I had before, and people are still struggling in my country," he said. "To bring my wife and whole family, I feel it is still not secure."

Other southern Sudanese attending Thursday's signing in the Kenyan capital Nairobi say the government and international donors need to build schools, clinics, roads, and other infrastructure, and must de-mine certain areas, before refugees can go back to their homes.

But Sudan's Minister of State for the Interior, Aleu Ayieny Aleu, rejects the arguments of some refugees that they cannot return because of a lack of basic services and infrastructure.

He says southern Sudanese, especially those who are educated and skilled, have an obligation to come back and fight what he says is the war against poverty and underdevelopment.

"The coming war needs the people who are within Kenya here, who are in the Diaspora, who are elsewhere," he said. "We need them back home to go and create the Nairobis and the Londons and the Oxfords. Nobody will create them, I don't know how to create them, it is you people who must go back. Let us go home. Come back home."

According to Mr. Aleu, most southern Sudanese who can best develop the south are living in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. He calls on the Kenyan government to convince southern Sudanese to return to their homeland.

He also accuses some donors of discouraging voluntary repatriation.

"Some of you are telling them, don't go home because there are no hospitals, there are no roads," he added. "When they left there were no roads and there were no schools. They should go home to go and construct those roads."

The U.N. refugee agency's representative in Kenya, George Okoth-Obbo, calls repatriation the "most vital phase" of the one-year-old peace deal, and that refugees need basic services when they reach home.

He says this year, the U.N. refugee agency is calling for a minimum $63 million to help resettle 70,000 southern Sudanese refugees living in Kenya and six other countries. But, he says, there is only $8 million to do so.

The first voluntary repatriation from Kenya took place on December 17, when about 150 Sudanese living in Kakuma Camp boarded buses and an airplane that took them to various places in the south.

Altogether, in the region, some 400,000 Sudanese refugees live in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, DRC, Central African Republic, and Egypt.