The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has said it is impossible to meet a deadline to transport thousands of South Sudanese refugees stranded on the Sudan border to South Sudan.
An estimated 12,000-15,000 refugees are stranded at the river town of Kosti, 200 kilometers south of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Many have been in Kosti for months, unable to cross the river because of violence on the border. The governor of Sudan's White Nile State had earlier demanded that refugees leave Kosti by May 5, saying they posed a security threat.
The refugees are among an estimated 350,000 South Sudanese stuck in Sudan. Millions of Southerners fled to northern Sudan during a civil war which lasted more than two decades but many became stranded in the north after South Sudan became independent in July 2011. DW talked to IOM's Christopher Lom in Geneva about the situation in Kosti.
DW: Mr Lom, Sudan's deadline comes in less than a week. IOM says it can't meet it. Where do we go from here?
Christopher Lom: I think this is the moment at which the federal government in Sudan must step in and live up to its earlier commitment to enable South Sudanese who wish to leave Sudan to do so, and to give those who are unable to return or who are unable to regularize their position in Sudan more time. I think this is a time when the international community has to make it clear that both Sudan and South Sudan need to work together on allowing these people to return home in safety and dignity.
The 15,000 South Sudanese have been waiting for transport for months. Why is it not coming?
There are a number of reasons. Firstly, there is, as you know, a high level of distrust between the two sides and that is getting in the way of a smooth return operation. The IOM has moved fairly large numbers of people, about 25,000, mainly by barge and train from Sudan to South Sudan over the past year. Recently, Sudan has intervened for security reasons to stop those key barge movements down the Nile from places like Kosti. This is because they fear the barges will be used by the South to transport military assets towards the border. IOM has been asked to give assurances that these barges will not be used for any military purposes. Sudan has accepted those assurances but unfortunately the movements from Kosti have not resumed.
Was IOM warned in advance by Sudan about the May 5 deadline?
No. This is an initiative of the governor of White Nile State. I think as a result of the growing tension between the two sides, he wants the problem to go away. What's clear is that it's extremely complex to move that number of people. We need the logistics, we need the barges, and given the commitments by the government of Sudan, we're hoping that they will facilitate the movement of these people in a controlled manner to the south by allowing the barges to pick them up over the next few weeks and months. It can't be done in five days.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
Transport in general in Sudan is a challenge. There is very little road transport between Sudan and South Sudan and even less since the tension between the two states has risen in the past few weeks. Train access is extremely slow. Previously we have run trains from Khartoum down to the south but they require an enormous amount of organization. The best way to move people is by barge but in order to facilitate any of these movements between the two states, we need the support and approval of both governments.
The southerners caught up in this saga must feel as if no one really wants them?
I think there are very large numbers of people, like the 15,000 who are waiting in Kosti, who actually do want to go back to South Sudan and they are simply waiting for help from the international community and from the governments of Sudan and South Sudan. I think there is a real desire to go home and I think it's really up to the international community and the two governments concerned to help them do that.
But why isn't South Sudan's government doing anything? So far it's been very silent.
South Sudan's government has enormous domestic challenges and what it sees as unresolved border disputes which I think are perhaps distracting them from the situation of the up to half-a-million South Sudanese who are still in Sudan. It's essentially very important for both states and the international community to factor these southerners in Sudan into the equation, into their ongoing geopolitical relationship. Because these are very vulnerable people and currently South Sudan does not have sufficient resources or leverage to really do much for them, in which case it's really up to the international community to work with them and facilitate this return.
Interview: Chrispin Mwakideu
Editor: Asumpta Lattus