KHARTOUM, April 8 – Confusion about what to do next faced an estimated half a million ethnic South Sudanese on Sunday, the deadline for them to leave Sudan or formalise their status in the country.
Southern officials sent to Sudan have been reassuring their people and telling them not to panic, a non-governmental worker said.
The April 8 time limit ended a grace period after South Sudan separated last July in the wake of an overwhelming “yes” vote in an independence referendum that followed Africa’s longest civil war.
The 22-year conflict killed two million people and drove many more to the north.
While hundreds of thousands have already returned to the South, an estimated 500,000 remain in Sudan, waiting for clear direction on what to do.
“So far, we don’t know what’s next,” said Canon Sylvester Thomas, dean of All Saints Episcopal Cathedral in Khartoum.
He spoke by telephone from the South Sudanese capital Juba where he had flown on Saturday to obtain a passport from the new nation. After getting the document he plans to return to Khartoum to register his presence.
That, he said, is where the uncertainty lies.
His wife and university-student children had already obtained their documents and gone back to the Sudanese capital, but they had no information about what to do next to officially become resident in Sudan, Thomas said.
“We don’t know how we are going to regularise our status,” he said.
“There are so many Southerners who would like to stay,” either because they are still working in the north, are former civil servants waiting for severance pay or, like Thomas, have children in university or other schools, he said.
The Khartoum government fired ethnic Southern members of its civil service before the South’s independence.
Those seeking to apply for northern residence need documents from South Sudan.
Jill Helke, chief of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) mission in Sudan, confirmed that people do not know where to register.
Although it was unclear what would happen on the deadline, she said officials from the South have been in Sudan to tell their people: “Don’t panic.”
The deadline falls on Easter Sunday, one of the holiest days for the mostly Christian Southerners, and also comes during a period of high tension between Sudan and South Sudan.
Border clashes that erupted two weeks ago between the two neighbours in the most serious unrest since Juba’s independence have prompted international fears of a return to full-blown conflict.
African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki held talks late last week over the crisis with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir.
During the Khartoum meeting Mbeki and Bashir also discussed the future of the Southerners still in Sudan.
“President Bashir said Sudanese people are very hospitable and there are many Africans living in Sudan. For the Southerners, nothing negative will happen to them and there is no reason for fear among them”, Mbeki told reporters.
Under a “framework agreement” signed by negotiators from Khartoum and Juba last month, nationals of each country have freedom of residence, movement and economic activity in the other state.
Both countries agreed to “accelerate their cooperation” to provide identification and other documents for people, but the framework pact still requires higher-level endorsement from each nation.
More than 11,000 Southerners have been living for months in makeshift shelters at the Kosti way-station south of Khartoum, waiting for transport home.
Since last year the IOM, which is dependent on donor funding, has helped to move more than 23,000 southerners from Sudan to South Sudan, mostly by river barge.
Helke said the IOM is currently registering people for another barge journey from Kosti.
Sudan and South Sudan have also organised some transport themselves.