March 23 2012

AUDIO - Preparing for South Sudan's returnees

23/03/2012 - South Sudan has a matter of days to provide food, shelter, medical facilities and various services to thousands of unaccompanied children who are due to cross the border from Khartoum before April 8th. In one of the world's poorest countries, a state minister responsible for child welfare outlines the challenges.

South Sudan April 8th 2012 Photo: Hilary Atkins
The scale of the problem is a worry to Minister Mboro as children's rights must come first -   © H. Atkins

“Some people say 35,000, others would say it is 2,000. Are they only coming from Khartoum state, or from all 15 states? We do not know how many are coming." For the Minister for Gender, Children and Social Development in Central Equatoria state, her job is to ensure that the rights of every child are addressed.

In her recent interview with Hilary Atkins from SOS Children's Villages, Minister Helen Mboro outlined the current challenges. "How are we going to keep small kids busy. Many of them were born in the north and do not speak English, even the classical Arabic they know is different to the ‘market’ Arabic spoken in the South,” she says.

In Juba and Malakal SOS Children’s Villages is preparing to provide shelter, care and psychosocial support to children under the age of twelve. Plans are also being made by SOS Children's Villages personnel to provide services to help prevent the separation of families and to unite families where possible. Both short and long-term plans are being made for a generation of children who will never forget April 8th, 2012 - the day they are obliged to leave Sudan and start a new life across the border in South Sudan.  

South Sudan is ranked among the poorest countries in the world -Photo: SOS Archives
Juba is ill equiped to facilitate a large influx of children -   © SOS Archives

Ms Moboro anticipates that some will not be able to cope with entering educational, especially if they have been living on the streets, and may have become disruptive. “We need to provide them with vocational training so that they are equipped in some skills”. She stresses that, while Khartoum is a sophisticated city, Juba, despite being the capital of the new state, is a small town.

The Minister wonders how the children will cope with that. Even those that come from the periphery of Khartoum, she says, will have trouble with the huge, deserted, sandy spaces of the South. And, how will they cope with water that has to be sterilised before drinking, rather than clear tap water? The possibility of disabled children arriving in Juba is something else that concerns Helen Mboro; “when we get kids with a disability, that brings another angle to the problem.”

Partners in childcare 

The imminent deadline is keeping the minister focused and she is consulting with development partners such as UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, and SOS Children’s Villages. She has been told to expect 500 children in Juba, but has no way of verifying that figure. In addition she does not know how they will be transported or when they will arrive. 

At the moment plans include caring for 200 children at the local state-run orphanage, 200 more on another plot of land (this is likely to be allocated to the temporary care of SOS Children’s Villages) and 100 (especially girls) in the ministry compound. A children’s home run by a church organisation has offered to help but its facilities are already overstretched.

Initially the children, among whom will be teenagers under 18, will be housed in tents until they have been health screened and their needs assessed, but the ultimate aim is to reunite as many as possible with their extended

According to estimates about 500,000 Southern Sudanese were displaced during the war, many of them, and their descendants have made or will make the long journey back to their ancestral home in the south. Included in these are an unspecified number of unaccompanied children. The Government of South Sudan, aware that the deadline is quickly approaching, is doing all possible to prepare for an influx of people, and in particular for the unaccompanied children - numbers and ages unknown – who are predicted to arrive in Juba, the country’s capital, and in Malakal in Upper Nile state, 300 km from the northern border.