Sudan: Kosti airlift helps thousands return to South Sudan

14 May 2012: South Sudanese refugees return to Juba. Credit: UNHCR
Humanitarian workers in Sudan have helped thousands of South Sudanese refugees stranded in Kosti to return home.

More than 4,500 of the 12,000 South Sudanese who were stranded at the Sudanese river port of Kosti have completed their journey home. This comes just over a week into the airlift operation to transport the refugees via Khartoum.

The Sudanese authorities gave South Sudanese residents nine months to regularize their status or return to South Sudan when South Sudan seceded last July. Thousands of people began to travel south and arrived in Kosti intending to travel on to South Sudan by barge. But the Government of Sudan suspended barge movements in February, and growing numbers of returnees have been stranded in Kosti since then.

Humanitarian workers in Sudan overcame several hurdles to help the stranded returnees to get back to South Sudan. Securing permission for the airlift via Khartoum airport was critical, given the logistical challenge of moving over 12,000 people. Obtaining assurances from Sudan and South Sudan that returnees would be allowed to leave Khartoum airport without passport documentation required agreements between the immigration and civil aviation authorities of both Sudan and South Sudan.

The Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, Mr. Ali Al-Za’tari, worked with his counterparts in the Sudan Government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission to negotiate the necessary concessions to allow returnee flights, the use of Khartoum airport and agreements on travel documents. Mr Al-Za’tari welcomed the cooperation between the Governments of Sudan and South Sudan to facilitate the airlift. This was particularly significant, given that just days earlier the two countries were fighting over a disputed border area.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) played a central role in helping to secure funding for the airlift through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and the Sudan Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF), in addition to funding from the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department of the European Commission.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is transporting 500 to 600 people per day by bus to Khartoum, after medical screening.  People who are transported in the morning convoy are flown to Juba on afternoon flights the same day. Those who arrive from Kosti in the afternoon stay overnight in a Khartoum transit camp and fly on to Juba the next day.

The NGO Fellowship for African Relief is providing water, sanitation and health care services in Kosti, while IOM, with support from the World Health Organization, is providing medical supplies for clinics at the Khartoum transit site and in Kosti.   

People being airlifted to Juba are only entitled to take 18 kilograms of luggage on the flight, but the Sudanese authorities agreed to transport additional luggage by road from Kosti across the border to Renk in South Sudan. The luggage will be transported from Renk to other parts of the country as necessary. One family member can accompany the luggage, but as 18,000 returnees are already in Renk, there are very limited resources for new arrivals. The volatile security situation in border areas also poses a threat to the continued use of this crossing point.

Working through these logistical issues with the authorities in Sudan and South Sudan has enabled thousands of returnees to begin a new life, with hundreds more joining them every day.

Reporting by OCHA Sudan

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