GENEVA (AP) — A half-million South Sudanese people living in Sudan will have the choice to go home after a new deal was struck between the two countries, but a fast-approaching deadline leaves little time to make the difficult journey, an international migrant agency said Monday.
The agreement sets an April 8 deadline for South Sudanese to choose to return home or to risk staying on in Sudan, where they will be required to "regularize" their status — an unclear requirement that does not necessarily mean they will gain citizenship with equal standing, the International Organization for Migration said Tuesday.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in July to become the world's newest country, but it continues to struggle to contain violence that has been plaguing the region for years.
Already, some 120,000 South Sudanese have registered with the U.N. refugee agency seeking to depart Sudan.
Jumbe Omari Jumbe, a spokesman for the Geneva-based organization of 146 nations, said the April deadline leaves too little time for half a million people to travel in such a vast country without adequate roads or other transportation.
IOM had hoped that the nations might pick a more distant deadline in their agreement Sunday, he said.
There are already more than 11,000 South Sudanese stranded at Kosti, a city along the White Nile River south of Sudan's capital Khartoum, where they are waiting to be transported to the South.
"It is logistically impossible to move half a million people in less than two months, in a vast country like Sudan with many infrastructural challenges. We desperately need enough time to guarantee safe and dignified return of these people" said Mohammed Abdiker, IOM's director of operations and emergencies.
IOM said the agreement between the two nations specifies how security should be handled for people returning along the road and at borders, and even limits how much baggage they can carry.
The organization said it already has helped 23,000 South Sudanese return home from Khartoum and other Sudanese cities, using dozens of river barges along with trains, trucks and chartered aircraft.
But Khartoum, citing security concerns, has refused to allow humanitarian aid agencies into the region. A deepening food crisis also has been spurred by erratic rains in Sudan and instability due to the violence.
Sudan is battling the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, a branch of a guerrilla movement that has fought various regimes in Khartoum for decades. SPLM-North was once part of South Sudan's ruling party during a long running civil war between Sudan's north and south.
The World Food Program has estimated about 2.7 million people — around 30 percent of South Sudan — will need food aid this year, not including refugees fleeing from Sudan.