One of hundreds of thousands of people of South Sudanese origin living in Sudan, Paula*, a mother of four, has spent the last six months camped out in a church-owned compound in Hajj Yousif, a Khartoum suburb, waiting for promised transport to her homeland.
“My life has never been so unclear,” Paula, 54, told IRIN. “I’ve never felt so unsure of what’s to come or what our life will be two months from now”.
When South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, Khartoum issued a nine-month deadline for all southerners – vast numbers of whom moved north during a 1983-2005 civil war – to “regularize” their status or leave Sudan.
Paula used to work in the Ministry of Education, but after secession she lost her Sudanese citizenship, was laid off, and her children had to be taken out of school.
Now, both her money and options are running out.
“Neither of the two governments are helping. South Sudan doesn’t facilitate our return, and Sudan is extremely tough. I’ve been trying to get my pension for months now; I’ve lost hope I’ll get a penny from them,” Paula said.
“I sold everything months ago because I thought we were told you’ll go back to your homeland tomorrow, but here we are months later and nothing has changed.”
On 12 February, the neighbouring states agreed to cooperate in the transfer – via road, air and river barge – of 300,000 southerners living in Sudan. Released details of the deal were sketchy on the practicalities of the transfer.
The UN estimates there are still 500,000 people of southern origin living in Sudan and that most of them want to go back. Around 330,000 have already made the journey since October 2010, many with the assistance of international agencies, while 120,000 still in Sudan have registered with the UN Refugee Agency for assistance to go back.
On 7 February, rights group Refugees International described as “intolerable” what it said was Sudan’s plan to “round up and deport hundreds of thousands” of such people.
“First, the individuals targeted by this plan have a legitimate claim to Sudanese citizenship, since most have lived in Sudan their entire lives, and there is currently no way for them to apply for South Sudanese citizenship,” said the group’s Stateless Programme Manager Sarnata Reynolds.
“Second, forcing men, women and children into deportation camps and shipping them off to a country that many have never seen would be a legal and moral disaster,” Reynolds added.
Khartoum denied any such plan existed. “There are absolutely no deportation plans for Southerners after April,” said al-Obeid Murawih, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Given the efforts made by both governments along with the international community, by April all South Sudanese will be already transferred to the South. Those who would like to stay are welcome to stay according to laws regulating their presence as foreigners,” he added.
Murawih said it was “too early” to tell what would happen to those who remained without the necessary documentation.
For the likes of Paula, staying in the Hajj Yousif church grounds will soon be impossible.
“There’s a drop in the overseas donations for churches in Sudan now that the larger group of worshipers, administrators and teachers has moved to South Sudan,” said Jerpeth Mading Bui, the church’s priest.
“The Ministry of Religious Guidance and Endowments approaches us every now and then to see if there’s enough people [coming to church], otherwise they will take the church buildings back, and these people will no more find shelter,” he explained.
No clear procedures
This week even the barge option, already behind schedule, seemed to be ruled out entirely, as Khartoum was reported to have prevented Southerners travelling on the vessels, alleging they were being used to reinforce enemy positions in borderland conflict areas.
South Sudan’s Deputy Information Minister Atem Yaak Atem described the move as a “disaster waiting to happen”, while Humanitarian Affairs Minister Joseph Lual Achuil said none of four expected trains had left Khartoum since December and that a proposed road route passes through a heavily mined and conflict-plagued area.
According to Filiz Demir, who heads the return and reintegration sector at the International Organization for Migration, the process of moving south is far from straightforward.
“There’s no clear procedures for Southerners to apply for a visa or citizenship. They don’t have any form of IDs if they want to fly to the South, so the only option is either by train or bus, [or] suffering dangerous and poor conditions on barges that take weeks to reach Juba,” said Demir.
Speaking a few days before the cooperation agreement was signed, Demir stressed the need for “coordination between north and south on how to organize the return of southerners and accommodate them in transit camps.”
IOM has called for the April deadline to be extended, saying it was “logistically impossible to move half a million people in less than two months, in a vast country like Sudan with many infrastructural challenges.”
Such challenges have left some 11,000 would-be returnees stranded for months at Kosti, a way station in Sudan, just north of the border.
Borderland fighting between Sudan’s armed forces and rebels Khartoum says are backed by Juba add to the complications involved in the returns process.
Near Paula’s temporary home, some 35 students stay in a very small church. Although southerners enrolled in university have been allowed to stay in Sudan until they graduate, one student, Mario, said he sought refuge here to avoid militia groups forcibly recruiting young southerners into their fight against the Juba government.
He said in many cases people are picked up from the streets, universities and sometimes their homes by armed gangs.
“I had to skip night lectures, as I have to lock myself inside the church from 6pm,” said Mario. “Sometimes, I ask myself what kind of life I’m leading. I have to worry about my university fees, my security and my life; I’m only 19.”