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Comment Sudan

Sudanese refugees in Chad Voice concerns over repatriation

By Tajeldin Abdalla ADAM - A Sudanese journalist from Darfur, Taj has a special interest in topics relating to human rights, justice and humanitarian relief.

Darfur’s refugees in eastern Chad spoke about their fears that the Sudanese authorities are working with their Chadian counterparts to repatriate them despite lack of security and peace in the battered region. They say rapprochement between the two countries and signature of the Doha Peace Agreement between one rebel faction - Liberation and Justice Movement LJM - and the government of Sudan would give the latter the upper hand to push them home against their will.  The UN estimates the number of Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad to be about 250 000 to 300 000, most of whom fled in the peak of the government counter insurgency campaign in Darfur between 2003 and 2004.

The UN peacekeeping force in Chad known as MINURCAT left the country last year after the government of President Idriss Deby refused to extend its expired mandate.  Chad’s decision came at the backdrop of its improved bilateral relations with neighbouring Sudan after years of estrangement and hostile trading of accusations of supporting rebels opposed to the regimes in both countries. But the two sides have decided to end their differences since early 2010 and moved swiftly forward to deploy joint forces to patrol border areas and implement a security protocol they have signed.   

Refugee agencies and aid groups warned at the time that the absence of MINURCAT would leave Sudanese refugees unprotected from acts of banditry and attacks.

“Since the normalisation of ties between Chad and Sudan and deployment of troops in the border we started to face many difficulties. There are elements from the Sudanese intelligence and security forces imbedded with the joint forces that are working in collaboration with Chadian officials in order  to create an atmosphere of fear and insecurity in and around the camps to pressure us so that we return to Sudan” says  one camp leader from Farchana who asked to be named as ‘Haroun’.

The Sudanese government says it has already started “a process of voluntary return for refugees” from eastern Chad. In August this year, the Commander of the Joint Forces, Colonel Fatah Alraheem Abdullah Suleiman, has spoken to Sudan News Agency (SUNA) about coordination of efforts with UNCHR and the government of West Darfur State to repatriate refugees from Chad. “We will also coordinate with the traditional administration and tribal leaders to secure the border and help people to return from Chad” says Colonel Suleiman.

For people like Haroun and other fellow refugees, the Colonel’s version of voluntary return brings them no comfort. “Halima” a female resident from Abu Nabag camp calls on the international community to protect them from the government plan of “forced return”.

“On one occasion we were told by Sudanese and Chadian officials who visited the camp that these camps are no longer safe places and told us to be prepared to go home. They said the situation in Darfur is peaceful but we didn’t believe a word of it. There is no peace in Darfur and there is no place to return to; my village in west Darfur is currently occupied by settlers who are armed with machine guns. Before we speak about voluntary return we want disarmament of militias, compensation, and justice. The international community shouldn’t abandon us.  It should confront the Sudanese government’s destructive policies towards refugees and IDPs.  I call this forced return, not voluntary”

With the international community now largely focused on events in the Middle East and the famine in Somalia, Darfuri refugees have good reason to worry about undesirable repatriation. The Sudanese government has always considered displaced people’s camps as a marker of the war in Darfur and said repeatedly that it is keen to relocate their occupants elsewhere. West Darfur state governor Jaafar Abdel-Hakam recently held a meeting with the Minister of Interior Ibrahim, Mahmoud Hamid, to discuss the process of “spontaneous returns” of refugees from Chad. He revealed that 4000 families have already crossed into West Darfur as part of the implementation of the outcome of the Doha Forum for Peace in Darfur.

A UNDP worker who spoke on condition of anonymity from west Darfur however, contested the governor’s figures: “we cannot confirm if such a number of people did return from eastern Chad but there are certainly individuals, or call them small groups who decided to come back to benefit from the rainy season.  They were encouraged perhaps by the relative calm in some areas. But we must be very cautious about the situation.  A lot of work needs to be done to create conditions for voluntary return”.

The Doha Peace Agreement which was signed on July14 this year by the Government of Sudan and LJM remains a partial deal as the rest of the rebel groups rejected it and vowed to carry on fighting. Many internally displaced people and refugees also say the agreement falls short of their aspirations and would only consolidate the NCP’s position in the region.

“It is only the government who benefit from this agreement, they will use it to divide the people of Darfur further; they will make a campaign of propaganda to tell the world that they want peace in Darfur but we will not be fooled by the so called Doha Agreement to return to Darfur” says “Yacoub” from Al Jabal camp.

The UN, AU and other international stakeholders have welcomed the agreement but suggested that it is not inclusive.  The UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Herve Ladsous, briefed the Security Council on Tuesday 25 October, saying that the UN and the African Union are developing a new road map for comprehensive peace in Darfur. The US State Department and US Institute for Peace are also holding a workshop on Darfur in November to discuss comprehensive peace in the region.