The first group of 53 Sudanese refugees living in Chad has returned home to North Darfur more than a decade after fleeing, the U.N. refugee agency reports.
The hope is that this first repatriation will trigger the voluntary return of thousands more, according to the UNHCR, which says the security situation in Darfur has greatly improved since February 2003, when rebel groups in the region began fighting the government of Sudan.
That war killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions, both inside Sudan and as refugees in neighboring countries.
The 53 refugees, who left the Iridimi camp in eastern Chad on Saturday, are among some 300,000 refugees from Darfur currently living in 12 UNHCR and government-run camps.
UNHCR spokesman Andrei Mahecic told VOA there has been a significant reduction in inter-ethnic tensions and displacement in Darfur, and the agency has provided proof of that to the returning refugees.
"It is important to understand that these people came first on a so-called go-and-see visit to see the conditions, to see what their homes look like and so on before making their decision," Mahecic said. "There is a growing interest in returns and we do expect, as I said earlier, thousands of people returning in the course of this year."
Mahecic said the refugees are given transportation and a return package to help them restart their lives. The aid includes a three-month supply of food rations provided by the World Food Program.
The UNHCR and its partners are working with the Sudanese government to improve services in North Darfur, Mahecic said, noting the importance of rehabilitating the depressed area to ensure returns are durable and sustainable.