Visiting a camp in north-western Kenya, the chief of the United Nations refugee agency today promised that thousands of people driven from their homes in South Sudan by two decades of fighting could return to the region after the rainy season ends in October.
"You have the same rights as I do, the right to a home in your homeland," UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres told representatives of the 89,000 refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma camp, on the second to last leg of a 10-day mission that included stops in Sudan and Chad.
"I am going to be very clear. There will not be any kind of forced return. Return will only be voluntary. Nobody will be forced to go back. This is the first guarantee," Mr. Guterres said, pledging that UNHCR would help some of Kakuma's 66,000 South Sudanese refugees go home as soon as the rainy season ends.
He outlined measures the agency was taking to prepare for their return, including building schools, de-mining roads and rebuilding health facilities, and urged the refugees to work with the new South Sudanese authorities to consolidate peace in their homeland.
Representatives of 5,000 southern Sudanese who arrived in Kakuma after the signing of the January peace accords told Mr. Guterres they fled militia fighting that had continued after the agreement was signed.
Mr. Guterres also spoke to a group of 100 refugees from the western Darfur region, scene of a separate war between rebels, the Government and allied militia, who walked for nine months to reach the safety of Kakuma.
They said the Janjaweed militia had prevented them crossing over into Chad, where more than 200,000 Darfur refugees are in 12 camps. The Darfur conflict has killed scores of thousands of people and displaced some 2 million since it broke out over two years ago.