The U.N. refugee agency warns it may be forced to halt its repatriation operation to southern Sudan because it has run out of cash and donors are not responding to its appeals for funds. The UNHCR says it is facing a critical shortfall of more than $11 million.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

U.N. refugee spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, says the funding situation is so dire that the UNHCR may not be able to transport refugees in neighboring countries back to homes they fled long ago.

"The repatriation season is due to pick up speed shortly after the rainy season ends," Pagonis said. "And, it would be an enormous shame if we could not help refugees who want to go home, get home.  So, we are urgently calling on donors to come forward with funds to help keep this operation going."

Pagonis says the UNHCR is aiming to help more than 100,000 Sudanese refugees and about 25,000 Internally Displaced People return home this year.  But, without further funds, she says the target will not be reached.

"In September, as a direct result of not having enough money, we were forced to stop buying ahead basic items such as plastic sheeting, shelter, blankets - things we give to returnees when they return home," Pagonis said. "So, people who are still going home and getting these items now, but it just means we are relying on our stockpiles and we are not able to replenish those for those coming."

Pagonis says the UNHCR is planning to transport about 22,000 refugees to southeastern Sudan between October and December.  She says the returnees are scheduled to go back to Eastern Equatoria, Jonglei, Upper Nile and Blue Nile from Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.  But, the plan will only go ahead, she says, if donors quickly come up with the cash.

Sudan's Islamic government in the north and Christian and animist rebels in the south signed a peace treaty January 2005 ending more than two decades of civil war.

The UNHCR launched its voluntary repatriation operation in December 2005.  About 68,000 refugees have returned home with help from the agency.  Another 92,000 have returned on their own.

The U.N. refugee agency says southern Sudan's infrastructure is devastated and needs to be rebuilt.  The agency warns that people returning to the region will not remain if they are unable to find jobs and receive basic services.