JUBA, Sudan—The government of Southern Sudan wants 1.5 million southerners who fled to the country's north during the country's long civil war to return home before a crucial referendum that could split the oil-rich south from the north.
The return of so many southern voters could help the referendum gain additional support if those southerners are not allowed to vote while living in the north. A commission is currently deadlocked on whether to allow such votes. But a southern official denied the plans to return southerners are linked to the January vote and said they are motivated by humanitarian concerns.
"We're not politicians. We're operating on humanitarian grounds. If they come to vote for unity, we don't care. If they come to vote for secession, we don't care," said the government's director of repatriation, Arop Mathiang Amiyock.
The government would use trains, trucks and buses to return citizens to the semiautonomous south, he said, and returning families would be directed to reception centers in towns where they would be fed and sheltered for three months.
"We are looking for resources from the government and from donors. That's why we haven't started the project yet," he said. "We are concerned about the resources we have to support the returnees. That's why we are appealing to the international community."
Southern Sudan is scheduled to hold an independence referendum in January, a condition agreed upon in a 2005 peace accord that formally ended the more than two-decade-long civil war between the country's north and south. Preparations for the referendum are running behind schedule, and officials have warned that little time remains to complete critical tasks.
Some southerners worry that the north is too dependent on revenues generated by southern oil to let the region become independent.
Aid organizations may be wary of a project that could be interpreted as having political overtones. A large influx of people needing aid in Southern Sudan could also tax aid agencies in a region where the humanitarian situation is already precarious.
If one of the next two harvests failed, 4.3 million vulnerable people in the south already requiring food assistance would need vastly increased support, said Lise Grande, the top humanitarian official in Southern Sudan.
More than 2 million people were killed in the 23-year north-south civil war, and an estimated 4 million more were forced to flee to neighboring countries and to northern Sudan. Much of the south's farmland is littered with land mines.
More than 2 million Sudanese refugees and people displaced within Sudan have already returned to the south. But many southerners stayed in the northern capital, Khartoum, after the war ended, either by choice or because they could not afford to return.