Bob Turner is the director of the Returns, Reintegration, and Recovery unit of the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). IRIN asked him to assess the return process over the past year, as well as his expectations for 2006. Below are excerpts from the interview.
QUESTION: The number of expected returns during the current dry season, from November to March, was estimated at 580,000. The anticipated number of returns over 2006 was forecast to be a half-million to 1.5 million. Are these estimates still accurate?
ANSWER: The estimate was a misinterpretation of the numbers. The 580,000 was for the calendar year of 2005 - it was misrepresented in some of our documentation. Our estimate for 2006 is 680,000. We expect to provide support to the spontaneous returnees in places of displacement, en route, and in areas of arrival.
Q: What are some of the key problems and concerns expected in 2006 regarding returnees?
A: We were supposed to, by this time, have 23 way stations [facilities to assist returnees en route], but there are only two. The information campaign, which has gone better than the other sectors, should have been much more extensive. Our protection-monitoring system should be more robust; our tracking-and-monitoring system should be working better. If you look at the interventions we had planned this season, we're behind on every one of our indicators. It is difficult to gauge whether the strategy is right because we haven't really implemented [it] well.
Some issues as a result of this are lack of proper information because we have fewer mechanisms in place for knowing what's happening. We are getting less information than we should.
We know that there are issues in areas of arrivals but those are primarily to do with service provision and competition for resources. That's why the information campaign is focusing on trying to inform the IDPs [internally displaced persons] about the conditions, to give the IDPs a better sense of what they are going to face when they return home.
Q: Protection, water, shelter and social services have been areas of concern for IDPs trekking from the north to the south, especially women and children travelling without men or their clans. What specific preparations are being done to ensure that they have access to basic services and protection?
A: The main reason for our assistance strategy en route is to provide protection - it’s less about providing assistance. The way stations are supposed to provide a temporary place for people to stop and regroup and for us to help identify vulnerable returnees so we can provide them specific assistance. We need to get those systems and mechanisms in place so we can do that more effectively.
Q: One of the reasons linked to the spontaneous return of IDPs in 2005 was the forced relocation and large-scale demolitions of IDP settlements in and around Khartoum. Has the UN been successful in intervening, or does this continue to be a concern?
A: My understanding is that the situation has improved fairly dramatically in the last half of , in the sense that there haven't been large-scale demolitions and relocations.
Relocation is not necessarily a bad thing. Everybody recognises the government’s authority, the government's right for urban planning, for urban renewal and that some of the locations where IDPs are currently located are not "recognized" or "legal" sites.
What they have been working with the government on is the way in which the relocations are carried out. They [the Sudanese authorities] need to make sure they are within the boundaries of basic IHL [international humanitarian law] and just general protection.
Q: What assistance will be provided to the estimated two million south-south returnees, and what problems are expected to arise amongst this population in 2006?
A: The biggest number I've seen is about 1.3 million, and that is more of an invisible movement. The one thing that we - the international community and the national authorities - are doing now is assisting the Dinka Bor move back from [the state of] Western Equatorial to Jonglei [in the southeast, bordering Ethiopia], where they were displaced in 1991.
That is actually going very well. It came together very quickly and I think the cooperation between the governments of Sudan, between the NGOs, both national and international, and the UN has been very good.
The vulnerable populations are currently in a way station in Juba - over 4,000 of them - while the men are taking the cattle back. Normally from a protection standpoint, you would want to keep families unified. But in this instance, because of the security issues that they knew the populations were going to face moving north from Juba, it was safer for the vulnerable returnees to be separated from the men, who were then moving with the cattle. The women and children and other vulnerable groups would be moved by barge to Bor and then reunited in Bor.
Q: What other populations are being encouraged or assisted to relocate at this particular point in time?
A: We are also looking at possibly moving approximately 10,000 IDPs from South Darfur to [the southwestern state of] Northern Bahr Al Ghazal. That decision has not been finalised yet. We are looking at that population because of insecurity in their place of displacement. It would be a relevant improvement for them to get back to their traditional homelands.
Q: What is needed from NGOs, the Sudanese government and the international community to ensure the effective and efficient return of IDPs and refugees?
A: The government is in the lead on this, and our cooperation with both the humanitarian aid commission here in Khartoum and the SRRC [Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission] in the south has been very good. I think that where we - both the government and the international community - are letting everyone down at the moment is on the implementation. That's what needs to accelerate. The plan is that near the end of this dry season we will have a larger group sit down and evaluate whether or not the strategy was appropriate. It's going to be difficult to evaluate the strategy if we haven't actually implemented it first.
Q: Currently there are 4 million IDPs displaced from the 21-year civil war in the south. What is the overall expected number of returns to the south, and what will be the future implementation plans and strategies of the UN, international community and NGOs beyond 2006?
A: This is an issue that is facing Sudan. It is a significant outcome of the conflict, and its resolution will be a significant component of the peace. There are over 4 million displaced from southern Sudan and the transitional areas. The expectation is not that all those people are going to go home.
Survey results consistently indicate probably 70 percent intend to go home. That may take years, but they don't have to all go home. They have three choices and this is clear in legal documentation between the two sides: they can return home if they choose to; they can choose to reside in a third location or move to a third location; or they can decide to stay where they are.
The biggest factor for returning home is not how much assistance we can provide them, but how quickly the south can recover and develop and be in a condition where they can effectively reintegrate these significant numbers of people - up to one-third of the population on top of what is already there. It's about the entire recovery and development of southern Sudan.
There was some progress last year [with regards to the reconstruction of the south] and significant progress is planned for 2006, which is going to be much simpler with government institutions starting to pick up, the infrastructure starting to improve. The road-building projects of WFP [World Food Programme], for example, made a huge impact of connecting communities and allowing people access to markets and services. But there is only so much to do. They need everything, and you can't do everything.
The government has resources that need to come into play, and they need to prioritise the investment of their resources in the most appropriate way. The international community plays a part, but we are not leading this, we shouldn't lead this, we can't lead this. We can support it.