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River Barges Return Thousands of S. Sudanese to Juba

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says a convoy of river barges began transporting more than 2,500 South Sudanese returnees to Juba, the capital of South Sudan on Friday. The IOM warns this may be the last group of thousands of stranded returnees it will be able to help to go home because it has run out of money.

The returnees who left for Juba Friday have been stranded in the town of Renk in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State for months. Their departure on the convoy will only slightly ease the problem of congestion in Renk, as more than 16,000 other South Sudanese returnees remain stranded there.

Spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, Jumbe Omari Jumbe, says their fate hangs in the balance because a shortage of funds puts their return home into question. He says the possibility of thousands of returnees remaining in Renk with little prospect of going home is creating great strains with the local population.

“The local people do not really favor this and the tension and tempers are flaring because of the lack of resources and we want to avoid these problems by trying to move these people as quick as possible," he said. "But, we may be forced to suspend the transport because of funds.”

Early this year, the IOM appealed for nearly $46 million. To date, it has received just over $5 million. More than 20,000 returnees are stranded throughout South Sudan. Most are located in Renk because it is the only way to get into South Sudan from the Republic of Sudan.

Sudan closed its border with South Sudan shortly after that country gained independence in July 2011 because of rising tensions and a military escalation. The Sudanese government also told the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese living in the capital, Khartoum, they had to choose to become nationals of Sudan or return home.

Thousands of South Sudanese were allowed to enter South Sudan through the Renk crossing for a limited time.

IOM Spokesman Jumbe says an estimated one-half million South Sudanese are still in Khartoum. He says most would probably like to return to South Sudan if given the chance. But, he says others would like to continue living in Sudan. Jumba says the Sudanese government has not, as yet, said whether they can remain or would have to leave.

“The government said that they will - these people have to regularize their stay, but without really explaining how," he said. "So, that is where we are. But, as you know, things are improving. There is a little hope after the signing of the agreement on oil and so-forth. We hope that we will go back to this agreement, when it was called a four-point agreement.”

One of the elements in that agreement deals with nationality and citizenship issues. It looks at regularizing the presence of South Sudanese who remain in the North. Other key issues concern the resolution of the disputed territory of oil-rich Abyei and ways of sharing those oil resources between the two countries.

Jumbe says the river barge journey is arduous and can take up to three weeks to reach Juba. He says roads throughout South Sudan are impassible because of heavy rains, so river barges along the Nile are the only means of transport right now.

This, he says, poses huge problems. He explains once the returnees enter South Sudan they can remain stranded at their points of entry for several months waiting for transport.

IOM reports an estimated 116,000 people have returned to South Sudan from Sudan since the beginning of the year. The agency says last year, it helped to transport 50,000 stranded returnees by river barges, boats, buses, trains and planes to their final destinations.