ADDIS ABABA, 20 Dec 2005 (IRIN) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is to begin repatriating some 14,000 Sudanese refugees out of the 73,000 hosted in the five camps in Ethiopia next year, the head of the agency said on Monday.
The voluntary repatriation exercise is part of the planned return of some 500,000 refugees who fled southern Sudan during two decades of civil war that formally ended early in 2005 with the signing of a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army.
Refugees will return to southern Sudan from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. The repatriation exercise is expected to cost US $60 million and take about two to three years to complete.
"This will be entirely voluntary, because there is no government pushing us to say these refugees must go home," said Antonio Guterres, head of UNHCR.
He said the repatriation would be large and complex because of the total absence of infrastructure in southern Sudan. Landmines in the region would further complicate matters.
"We believe this will be one of the main elements to consolidate the comprehensive peace agreement and to create the conditions for the stabilisation of south Sudan," said Guterres. "The challenge faced by refugees returning home is a big one."
Civil war in southern Sudan claimed the lives of some 1.5 million people and displaced an estimated four million others.
Thus far some 15,000 Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia have asked to go home. They will return during the dry season which starts soon by road, while others will be flown home.
Guterres said UNHCR would have to build facilities like health centres and schools to facilitate the return of the refugees.
"Very little has been done in the last decades," Guterres told reporters at the end of a three-day visit to Ethiopia. During his visit, he held talks with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and visited some 16,000 Sudanese refugees at Sherkole refugee camp in western Ethiopia.
Some refugees have already started returning on their own to southern Sudan from Kenya. On Saturday, the first official voluntary repatriation by the UNHCR to southern Sudan from Kakuma camp in northeastern Kenya, started with the departure of some 150 refugees by road and air.
Guterres urged the international community to provide greater support to the African Union's (AU) efforts to maintain the peace in the strife-torn western Sudanese region of Darfur. The AU has 7,700 peacekeepers in Darfur.
Last week, the pan-African body said it only had funds to sustain its mission in Darfur for the next couple of months.
"For the continent it is absolutely crucial that Darfur is a success," Guterres said. "If the situation in Darfur worsens it will be a major factor of instability in the region."
The Darfur conflict erupted in February 2003 when rebels took up arms to fight "discrimination and oppression" by the Sudanese government. The government is accused of unleashing militia on civilians in an attempt to quash the rebellion. Some 3.4 million people have been affected by the conflict.
In a related development, the top UN humanitarian relief official urged the Security Council on Monday to take urgent political and security measures to stop the violence in Darfur.
"It cannot be right that we have twice as many humanitarian workers in Darfur as international security personnel," said Jan Egeland, UN humanitarian relief coordinator, calling for an expanded security presence on the ground in Darfur.
"So I appeal to you very strongly to show the sense of urgency and determination needed to achieve the objectives identified in your resolutions and help bring this crisis to an end," he added.
Some 13,000 international and national relief workers are assisting more than three million people affected by the conflict in Darfur and neighbouring Chad. They are under constant threat and bear witness to a terrible reality on the ground, including killings, rape, burning, looting and forced displacement.
Egeland also urged the Council to deal with the growing devastation by the Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in south Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He said LRA fighters were not only attacking local people and refugees and blocking humanitarian access but were targeting aid workers as well.