UN News Service (New York)
In an important milestone, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has signed the first in a series of expected tripartite agreements that will clear the way for up to 70,000 refugees to return to South Sudan in the first half of this year.
The agreement was signed Thursday in the Kenyan capital between the Governments of Sudan, Kenya and UNHCR - exactly one year and three days after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended 21 years of North-South civil war in Sudan was also endorsed in Nairobi.
"It's very symbolic and very appropriate that this first tripartite for South Sudan should be signed in Kenya because Kenya played such a crucial role in bringing peace to South Sudan," said Jean-Marie Fakhouri, UNHCR's Director of Operations for the Sudan Situation.
"This gives the message to refugee communities in other countries that one year after the CPA, time has come to seriously think about return," he added.
The UN refugee agency plans to help some 70,000 refugees go back to South Sudan from their exile in neighbouring countries before the start of the rainy season in May or June. Mr. Fakhouri predicted that more may be able to go home during the second dry season towards the end of the year.
UNHCR has been working on projects in South Sudan - such as drilling wells, building schools and repairing health centres - to help communities better welcome returnees. There are some 550,000 South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries, and at least 5 million more Sudanese displaced within their own country. It is estimated that last year some 70,000 to 80,000 refugees have gone home to South Sudan on their own.
Thursday's tripartite agreement sets out the roles and obligations of each of the three partners in helping South Sudanese refugees go home from Kenya, primarily from Kakuma Camp in north-western Kenya, home to some 70,000 Sudanese refugees.
All sides agreed, for example, that any returns should be voluntary, and Sudan pledged to ensure that refugees can return in safety and dignity. Kenya pledged to continue to safeguard the rights of refugees who decide to stay in Kenya for now.
This agreement is to be followed by similar pacts between Sudan, UNHCR and other countries of asylum, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic.
Mr. Fakhouri said the agreements should send a signal to international donors about the need for more funding for repatriation. Last year, UNHCR's Sudan operations received only $42 million out of the $76 million needed. For 2006, the minimum requirement for funding for the repatriation is $63 million.