Sudanese Refugees Face a Tough Decision: Is It Time to Go Home?
Sudan’s 20-year internal conflict ended in January 2006 when the southern Sudanese armies and the government of Sudan signed a peace agreement. Since then, UNHCR and other U.N. agencies, along with partner NGOs such as the International Rescue Committee, have been working with the Sudanese to receive returning populations. In Ethiopia, the IRC is helping refugees who must decide if they’re ready to go home.IRC’s Return Assistance Team
At the Sherkole Refugee Camp, one of five camps sheltering Sudanese refugees in western Ethiopia, the IRC operates the Return Assistance Project focusing on three areas: dissemination of information, civic education training and skills development. Just 50 kilometers from the border, Sherkole accommodates 14,000 people, 98 percent of whom are from southern Sudan.
“The responsibility to decide whether or not to return belongs to each refugee, and in order to make this decision, he or she needs to be well informed,” explains Zenebe Nigussie, IRC’s return assistance officer in Sherkole. “That’s why our objective is to provide as much relevant information as we can about Sudan.”
The return assistance team scours Sudanese newspapers and Web sites, trawls through U.N. reports and talks to IRC’s staff on the ground in southern Sudan to collect up-to-date data. “The refugees know there are lots of problems in their homeland, and they ask us, ‘What is really going on?’” says Zenebe. “Many of them want to go back and help reconstruct their country, even though they know there will be challenges. Our job is simply to communicate what we find out, and then they can choose if they wish to return or stay living as refugees.”Building a Future
The IRC also provides skills training in construction, auto mechanics and typing that should prove valuable for refugees when they arrive home. To identify the needs, Zenebe and his team did an assessment with the refugees and collected information from labor market surveys and IRC’s staff in Sudan. For refugees who are illiterate, the team offers a house-to-house information dissemination service.
In addition, the IRC provides civic education training for tribal leaders, teachers and representatives from women and youth associations in Sherkole. Instructors present overviews of citizenship, law, governance and specific topics such as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Sudanese constitution.
“One of the big challenges we face is ignorance,” says Carlo Moye, chairman of the Central Refugee Committee and a facilitator in the civic education trainings. “What we are learning is of great importance for when we return. These concepts are new for most of us. We need to know what our rights are and what it means to be a citizen of Sudan.”
Residents of Sherkole already are returning to Sudan. Nearly a thousand people from the Uduk tribe made the journey home to the Blue Nile state in April 2006. The operation was suspended in May due to the onset of the rainy season, which made roads impassable. When it recommences in early 2007, 2,500 Funj people hope to go home, followed by1,900 Dinka from the West Equatorial and Upper Nile regions.
“Some people are eager to go home, others are not because they’re aware of the lack of schools and health facilities and buried land mines” says Carlo. “For those returning now, they’re prepared to face the problems, despite the uncertainty.”Learn More
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