Interview with Dennis McNamara, head of UN's Internal Displacement Division

30 September (IRIN)

The Director of the Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Dennis McNamara, completed on 28 September a six-day mission to Sudan where he had a close look at what potentially might be the largest return operation of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in recent history.

During the mission, McNamara visited the areas of displacement around the capital Khartoum, transit areas along the Nile such as Kosti and Malakal, as well as areas of return, including the Nuba Mountains and the capital of southern Sudan, Juba. Below are excerpts from an interview with IRIN on 27 September in Juba:

Question: With the peace agreement signed between north and south Sudan, the new government of national unity in place and the rainy season ending in October, the international community is expecting - potentially - the largest displaced population in the world - an estimated 4 million people - to return in large numbers. How many people do you expect to return over the dry season from November to March 2006, and what are the kinds of problems you expect?

Answer: The United Nations' planning figure is about 580,000 returns to the south during this period, both from other areas within the south and from the north to the south. One of the largest displaced populations in the world is returning to one of the poorest areas in Africa and the world - after a prolonged war. One of the problems is always that - after a prolonged peace process - the expectations have been raised and that you get spontaneous movements regardless; that's inevitable and that's what's happening now. Even though conditions are not right in the south, and even while many people know they are not right.

It is also a country that never had a high level of development to begin with. It never had basic services in many of the villages. If you have less than 10 percent of the water supply in place for the resident population, historically underdeveloped, when you have got totally inadequate basic health and one percent - in some cases - of the children of the resident population going to school; if you superimpose on top of that another half a million, a million, or a million and a half, or a few million returnees - in a short time - you have a huge crisis. You essentially transfer the displacement problem from one part of the country to another.

So reconstruction is not really the right word. We are not recovering; we are starting. This country has been in a state of arrested development for 30 years. It's not rebuilding; it's building from scratch.

While we can't promote returns at this stage - because of the lack of services in the south - we also can't allow them to get out of control and very bad things to happen either in terms of protection or assistance. So we are not promoting, we are not organising, but we are trying to monitor and make sure that minimum protection and humanitarian assistance is available for those who need it. So it's rather a difficult balance.

The other major concern would have to be the donor focus on [the strive-torn western Sudanese region of] Darfur - which we asked for - and the agency focus. That has clearly detracted from some of the normal preparations and investments that one would expect in a peace process like this one.

Q: What are some of the key interventions that the UN is planning over the coming dry season?

A: One of the necessary interventions which is taking place already, is to stop the pressure in Khartoum on forcible relocations to unsuitable areas, which is a push-factor for returns. That is clear from the [UN] Secretary-General's report [on Sudan to the Security Council], and something the UN is very concerned about. Not that people are relocated, that's possible, but they need to be relocated properly with respect for their rights. That's a major issue and has to be linked to the return process.

The second thing would be to protect and monitor spontaneously returning IDPs by way-stations [points of transit] and other assistance measures that have been planned in these locations [such as shelter, sanitation, medical assistance]. Not to attract and encourage further returns, but to try and monitor and maintain minimum standards for those returning spontaneously.

Another effort is to get the US $55 million shortfall needed immediately for the returns currently taking place, and over the coming weeks and months. If we hope to have any impact during the peak of the return season, we need that money right now. We also try to get more involvement by agencies on the ground; the UN, but especially international NGOs. There is shortage of international agency presence in some of the key areas and key sectors. And that's crucial because they have to deliver at the community level.

The other factor would be starting up the new UN Mission in Sudan [UNMIS], which has a unique mandate and structure in terms of protection, for example, and directors for return and recovery as well as human rights. So starting that up and getting civilian personnel and to some extend the police and the military as well, to focus on securing the return process; which is referred to in the Security Council resolution [establishing UNMIS] to some extend: protection of civilians, but also supporting positions for sustainable return.

Q: Almost half of the IDPs are based in the Khartoum area; in settlements that are being destroyed on a regular basis, giving them little choice but to return. What is the international community planning to do about this?

A: There is a monitoring group, the Consultative Committee, chaired jointly with the EU and the government and with other donors and UN agencies, which is supposed to be the mechanism to make sure that any relocations are properly and fairly carried out to areas that are sustainable. That obviously did not have that much success because the most recent locations were not done properly and were not sustainable. But the idea is to reactivate that consultative committee and try and make sure there is a coordinated, agreed, proper process and there is no undue pressure on people to go to unacceptable conditions and maybe thereby, involuntarily return to the south.

Q: The UN doesn't want to encourage returns, but you are planning to assist people who are returning. How will the international community provide this assistance without encouraging returns? How will they strike the balance?

A: It is a delicate balance. We are essentially trying to provide minimum necessary protection and assistance on humanitarian ground, as opposed to providing incentives for return. If we were promoting returns, we would provide paid transport, we would organise convoys with escorts, with return packages, with post-return reintegration support. That would be a promotion of return. This is much more minimal assistance.

Q: The emphasis seems to be on assisting IDPs returning from the north to the south, but there is also a major component of south-south returns by people displaced within the south. Could estimate the kind of numbers you are expecting to return within the south and the kind of assistance this group would need?

A: I don't know the details but the break-up is approximately 50-50, about two million IDPs around Khartoum and two million mainly in the south. So presumably the assessment of returns are roughly similar in terms of magnitude.

The major obvious factor would be that the Khartoum returns are essentially bringing back many people who have been urbanised or grew up in an urban environment, even if they had rural backgrounds. Whereas the south-south returns will mainly be to rural areas from rural areas rather than from major urban areas. One of the concerns is that Khartoum returnees, even if they came form rural areas, maybe inclined to go to urban areas after twenty years in Khartoum; stretching the services to the limit in these areas.

Q: How large is the potential risk that a large influx of people in underserved communities in the south will - effectively - lead to a transfer of IDP camps in the north to the south?

A: We have learned from refugee return movements in the south that unless you prepare them well and receive them well you put them from refugee camps into IDP camps. They turn from being refugees outside the country to being displaced inside the country. No shelter, no basic services, inadequate protection and dependent on aid. If you don't invest in these areas now, you're going to have large dependent populations who will need assistance and maybe protection, instead of in Khartoum, in Juba. If you get 200,000 who are coming to Juba next week, you're going to have IDP camps or returnee camps, and they will effectively become the slums of Juba, rather than Khartoum, if you're not careful.

Q: What is your key concern for the coming dry season?

A: I would say, protection during and immediately after the return, particularly of women and other vulnerable categories and adequate return assistance and some early recovery: the basics, water, minimal health care, some access to education, some kind of livelihood possibility. Because, unless you have those bits and pieces, it's going to be very hard to sustain, except through a large transfer of aid; leading to dependency.

These are very vulnerable people with all their worldly assets on the move and often without men, for example, women and children, or without their clan, the normal structures of protection.

What we learned through monitoring was that people were subject to incidents along the route. In places like Kosti [a major transit point on the Nile, south of Khartoum], they were left exposed, without any shelter, water, and no services. And really, as a protection measure it was decided to do these return activities: all the way stations, emergency transport and basic return packages. They really came out of concern about people's basic dignity, protection and to ensure the voluntariness of their return. This is not a basic planning exercise. We are doing this because we saw what people were up against and that they were vulnerable.