Sudan: Homeless, stateless and stranded

September 2013, Khartoum, Sudan: In 2011, thousands of South Sudanese gathered in Soba Kongour to await the transports that they believed would take them home. The trucks and barges never came. and in the years since, the neighbourhood and others like it have become informal settlements for about 40,000 people still hoping to return home. Credit: OCHA
An estimated 40,000 South Sudanese have been stranded in Khartoum since their country’s independence. UN agencies are desperately trying to help them get home, but funding appeals have not been answered.

Three years ago, when South Sudan’s independence looked certain, thousands of South Sudanese packed their belongings and gathered at departure points dotted around Khartoum. They assumed that they would only wait a few days or weeks for the promised buses, barges and trucks that would return them to their homelands.

Three years on, 40,000 people are still waiting, living in conditions that one senior aid official called “appalling”. UN agencies are desperately trying to help some of them finally return home, but funding appeals have so far gone unanswered.

Stranded and forgotten

Over time, when the buses and barges failed to arrive, the departure points slowly turned into squatter camps. The giddy expectations of a new, post-independence beginning were replaced by the reality of a life in limbo. Amid competing humanitarian needs, national and international budget constraints and continued instability on the Sudan-South Sudan border, the plight of the stranded Southerners was seemingly forgotten.

“The sick are left to feed themselves,” says one resident at the Soba Kongor departure point in south Khartoum. He tells the story of his neighbour, Malia. Despite suffering from an acute respiratory illness and enduring a difficult pregnancy, she received no medical assistance during her three-year wait at the departure point. It is, the resident says, a matter of “luck” that Malia and her newborn daughter are alive and well.

After the overwhelming vote in favour of secession in 2011, Malia, along with thousands of other South Sudanese, lost her rights as a Sudanese citizen. Her two young children, born and raised in Sudan, were suddenly ineligible for schooling. Malia now relies on the 50 cents a day she earns from domestic work to meet her family’s basic needs. Often this is not enough.

Floods hit hard

Recent flooding across Khartoum hit these communities hard. It has left people, such as Malia, vulnerable to a range of illnesses.

The departure points were swamped by mud and flood waters. Latrines overflowed, and houses hastily built out of mud, corrugated metal, plastic sheeting and cardboard provided little protection against the rising waters.
Twelve of the 48 people killed in the floods were South Sudanese waiting at departure points in Khartoum, including eight members of the same family.  They were killed as their house at the Ombada departure point collapsed.

A new plan for returnees

Despite the terrible impact of the floods and the misery of the past three years, there is now new hope for many of these communities. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has announced a new return operation.

Its focus is on helping the 20,000 most vulnerable people to get home quickly. A recent survey of South Sudanese in the Khartoum departure points found that 98 per cent want to return to South Sudan immediately.

“These people fell through the cracks when South Sudan seceded from the rest of Sudan,” said Mark Cutts, Head of OCHA in Sudan. “They have been living in appalling conditions, and we must do all we can to help them return to South Sudan without any further delays.”

IOM intends to fly people to South Sudan. At this scale, flights are cheaper than road or river alternatives. They are also safer, as they bypass the problem of establishing a secure humanitarian corridor through South Kordofan and the border areas, where fighting continues.

Funding urgently needed

IOM estimates that it will cost US$20 million to airlift the 20,000 people. Yet despite repeated pleas for funding, and despite the communities’ clear vulnerability, no funding has yet been made available.

“It is imperative that assistance starts soon,” said Mario Lito Malanca, IOM’s Chief of Mission.

“Given the start of the rainy season in South Sudan in April, there is a limited window of opportunity in which operations to transport people to South Sudan by air and then onward by land to their final destinations are practical.”

In late September the Governments of Sudan and South Sudan signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to facilitate the voluntary return of South Sudanese in Sudan. Aid agencies have welcomed this new consensus, but they have warned that, given the limited time frame as well as the precarious and desperate conditions of people in Khartoum, relocation needs to happen with greater urgency.

For families like Malia’s, immediate and concerted action is critical. Without it her children will face another year without education and other basic services, and they will be no closer to finding the place that they can truly call home.

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