Kenya + 1 more

Kenya-Sudan: Mixed feelings about going home to southern Sudan

KAKUMA, 27 February 2007 (IRIN)

  • Arkanjilo has lived in Kakuma in northwest Kenya, one of the world's largest and oldest refugee camps, for more than 10 years and now considers it home.

"I fled Sudan with my family when I was a young boy. This place has become my home now. I go to school here. I still have two more years to go before completing my secondary education," Arkanjilo, 17, explained.

Asked if he would like to return to southern Sudan, he replied: "I do not want to go back at the moment. I have neither relatives nor friends there. There are no schools and job opportunities in southern Sudan."

Unlike Arkanjilo, however, Elizabeth Ayen was upbeat about leaving Kakuma and returning home to southern Sudan.

"I have been here a long time, since 1992. Together with my children we fled to Ethiopia because of fighting. We then had to leave Ethiopia and came to Kakuma," the mother of three sons explained. "Sudan is my native home. I will try to get some land and start a new life."

The two represent the dilemmas facing thousands of Sudanese refugees in Kakuma ever since a voluntary repatriation scheme was initiated in December 2005 for those interested in going home.

The scheme is based on a tripartite arrangement between the governments of Sudan and Kenya and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

It followed the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of Sudan and the southern Sudanese People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in January 2005. The accord ended hostilities and brought renewed hope that peace would finally return to southern Sudan.

Under the tripartite agreement, Sudan pledged to ensure that refugees could return in safety and dignity and Kenya pledged to continue to safeguard the rights of those who decided to stay for the time being.

The first returnees ventured back in January 2006. So far, about 2,000 people have returned to different villages in Eastern Equatoria, Upper Nile, Unity, Jongley and the Lakes States of southern Sudan by air and road.

"This year we are expecting 12,000 refugees to be assisted to return to southern Sudan. However, the programme is facing some limitations," Mohammed Arif, UNHCR senior operations officer in Kakuma, told IRIN.

Remote location

Kakuma is in a remote setting, 95km south of the Sudan border and about 1,000km from Kenya's capital Nairobi. The camp was established in 1992 after the arrival of 12,000 'lost boys and girls of Sudan' - young children, who, with their carers, had travelled for years to escape the civil war in Sudan to Ethiopia and Kenya.

Today, the camp accommodates about 90,000 refugees, mostly Sudanese. Others are from Somalia, Ethiopia and the troubled areas of the Great Lakes.

Because it has been existence for some time, the camp resembles more of an established town than a refugee camp.

On Mogadishu Street, named for its Somali influence, there are various colorful 'chai' shops and small internet cafés where connections are slow but reliable.

Across the camp, local Turkana women, wearing braided hair and bright, beaded jewellery, wander the narrow streets, mingling with the different ethnic groups and going about their daily trading.


According to UNHCR, the repatriation exercise has been slowed down by inadequate funds, poor infrastructure, lack of interest and insecurity.

"Limited funding is affecting the return operations by limiting absorption capacity," Arif said. "The road network is also in a poor state. Besides, there is insecurity."

UNHCR and its partners are conducting information campaigns in the camp, explaining the peace pact, the voluntary repatriation process and the changed situation in southern Sudan.

"Since the ceasefire agreement was signed, the donors and the international community are stepping down their funding operations in Kakuma, and stepping them up on the other side where they are mostly needed," Arif said.

Before leaving Kakuma, the returnees are given aid packages to help them restart their lives, including blankets, mosquito nets, soap, plastic mats, kitchen sets, jerry cans and sanitary items.

The slow pace of the process has elicited concern. "The idea of repatriating 70,000 refugees, including up to 10,000 from Kenya, in the course of 2006, as set by the three actors, has proved ambitious," Arif said.

On 26 February, the first tripartite commission meeting was held in Nairobi. Expressing the Kenyan government's concerns, Emmanuel Kisombe, permanent secretary in the ministry of immigration and registration of persons, said that while his country did not wish to chase refugees out of its territory, it was witnessing a growing number of asylum-seekers from neighbouring Somalia.

"Dadaab, on the Kenya-Somalia border, is overwhelmed with Somali refugees," he told the meeting. "The need to create more room for these people is becoming a reality. We need to create space in Kakuma for this scenario.

"The peace agreement signed in 2005 and the tripartite agreement represent historical events for the people of southern Sudan. It is time, for all who have been away following years of war, to finally go back and reconstruct their country."