South Sudan unprepared for the flood of returning refugees
South Sudan's government has brought home hundreds of South Sudanese, but it seems unable to meet the needs of the people who arrived before that and are still trying to establish themselves.
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The latest round of population movements and displacement is related to the south’s long-awaited and hard-won independence vote earlier this month. Last August, the Southern Sudanese government unveiled its ambitious plan to bring southerners living in northern Sudan home en masse in advance of the referendum. At that time, the southern ministry in charge of the effort said it would bring home 1.5 million southerners before the vote. United Nations agencies and aid groups that had assisted the return of more than 2 million southerners since the war ended in 2005 quietly began panicking at the prospect of such an enormous population influx during the run-up to the south’s independence vote. Aid workers and UN officials would speak at length off-the-record about their reticence to participate in a returns process that would inevitably be viewed as politically motivated by the Khartoum government and the international community, but most refused to discuss their concerns publicly.Skip to next paragraph
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The southern government did not succeed in bringing home as many of its people as it had hoped, but it did kickstart a mass population movement that is continuing in the aftermath of the vote, through both “assisted” (government-sponsored) and “spontaneous” migration by bus and barge. During the weeklong referendum, returnees were streaming into the south at a rate of more than 2,000 people per day. While the flows have decreased slightly in the past couple weeks, the new arrivals are placing enormous stress on “host communities” across the south, where the vast majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day and there is already not enough sorghum or greens to go around.
In urban centers like Aweil, which has only a few kilometers of paved roads, local government officials are struggling to plan for the arrival of thousands more of their people while hardly managing to keep up with the demands of providing basic services like water and electricity to the population. Santino Deng, who was himself a “returnee,” can understand why his fellow southerners want to come home to be part of the new nation of South Sudan, which will declare independence this July if all goes to plan. But he seems skeptical of his government’s ability to provide for all of its peoples. “We as the people don’t have any power,” he says. “It’s up to the government,” he concludes dejectedly, watching as his neighbors break down their huts and prepare for their next journey and perhaps more time on the run.