The UN refugee agency says it is running out of money to help Southern Sudan refugees go home.  The UNHCR says it has a shortfall of $11.9 million.  It warns it will be forced to shut down the repatriation operation this year if it does not get the money.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The UN refugee agency says the voluntary repatriation program has been a huge success.  It reports nearly 290,000 Southern Sudanese refugees have gone home since the operation began three years ago.  

UNHCR spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, says repatriation to Southern Sudan could be completed by the end of 2009 or the first quarter of 2010, if the current return trend continues,  But, she says this depends on getting funding on time for the rest of this year and next.

"The rainy season will come to a halt around about October and there is a large number of refugees who have indicated that they want to come home as soon as the rainy season is over during which we normally suspend the return operation," said Pagonis. "Or it runs at a very slow rate.  So, we need to have that money in hand so we can get on with transporting them home and providing the basic services for them for when they arrive."

Nearly 130,000 refugees from southern Sudan remain in exile.  Most are from camps in neighboring Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.  They fled from Sudan's long-running civil war, which ended when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement or CPA was signed between the Muslim north and Christian and animist south in January 2005.

Pagonis says money is needed to provide services such as clean water, health and education facilities.  They also need agricultural assistance so returnees can grow their own food once they are back home.

"Conditions are tough back in southern Sudan," said Pagonis. "Nobody is saying that things are perfect, but there are still problems with water supply, with education and it is by no means easy for refugees to return there." 

"But, the thing is they overwhelmingly wish to return and are signing up. I think there is more confidence in the CPA. We saw a big surge toward the beginning of the year around April, that they wanted to be home to register for the census which means that they could vote in the elections that were coming up later," she added. 

Pagonis stresses it is the refugees' desire to go home which is driving the repatriation operation.  She says the UNHCR needs the funds to support them when they get there so they will stay home.