Elders, women and youth sang and danced, a cow was slaughtered and officials spoke as the United Nations refugee agency opened two new repatriation corridors from western Ethiopia to south Sudan at the weekend to pave the way home for thousands of Sudanese who fled two decades of civil war that uprooted some 4.5 million people overall.
“I am delighted that finally refugees from Upper Nile state are able to return home from Ethiopia and I applaud the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan and colleagues in both countries for their commitment [to the repatriation process],” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Sudan Chrysantus Ache said after the first 323 Sudanese arrived via the new Gambella-Pagak corridor.
The crossing serves Fugnido, the largest refugee camp in Ethiopia, which has a population of 27,000 Sudanese refugees.
A second convoy brought home 495 refugees from the small and isolated Yarenja camp through the new Yarenja-Bambodi-Damazin return corridor. UNHCR plans to organize three convoys this month to help repatriate Yarenja’s small population of 1,500.
The new corridors, bringing to three the number operating from Ethiopia, will help UNHCR repatriate most of the 37,000 refugees living in Fugnido, Dimma and Yerenja camps. There are now eight routes in all linking Sudan’s southern neighbours – the Central Africa Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia – with various locations inside south Sudan.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol praised UNHCR for its role. “With the opening of these new corridors we need more financial resources to sustain the movements, particularly from Ethiopia, as we strive to meet our planned return figure of 102,000 persons in 2007,” he said.
In 2007, UNHCR plans to help some 30,400 Sudanese to return from Ethiopia, nearly half the 66,000 Sudanese refugees living in the country. More than 6,500 have already returned home from Ethiopia with UNHCR assistance since the voluntary repatriation programme was launched in early 2006. Thousands more have returned using their own means.
Since the signing of a peace agreement between the Sudanese Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA) in January 2005, 102,000 refugees have returned to south Sudan from various countries, including 32,400 with assistance from UNHCR, which earlier this month launched a $56.1 million appeal for this year’s repatriation and reintegration operation.
During the brutal civil war, some 500,000 Sudanese are estimated to have fled to neighbouring countries while another 4 million were internally displaced. The separate, ongoing conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region has uprooted some 2.5 million people, of whom 230,000 have fled to neighbouring Chad.