The United Nations said more than 51,000 Sudanese had made the journey south to vote in the region’s independence referendum and said funds were needed urgently to provide food and shelter.
The semi-autonomous south Sudan is due to vote on its future on January 9, the climax of a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest civil war. The south is expected to choose secession.
In the last five weeks, thousands of people had made the journey south, many on government-organised trucks, others on foot or along the Nile river by barge, said Lise Grande, a senior U.N. official in the south, Reuters reports.
“We are looking for $32 million we need honestly right now in order to provide emergency assistance to the folks that are coming back,” Grande said.
“Top priorities at the moment are emergency shelter and water and sanitation,” she said, adding they expected another 150,000 people to arrive from the north by March.
The returns have been organised by the semi-autonomous southern government, but many found no provisions once they arrived. The government has encouraged southerners to return to register and vote in the referendum, fearing fraud in the north.
Registration ends on Wednesday with more than 3 million voters signed up in the south and 76,000 in the north.
Grande said there were security concerns with people returning to mined areas and reports of unaccompanied children crossing the volatile border.
The southern government has released 15 million pounds for the returns process, the UN said.
South Sudan’s budget, more than 98 percent of which derives from its oil, is under pressure with funding the referendum and supporting a massive inherited ghost bureaucracy and a huge army which has yet to be demobilised. Corruption scandals have also made dents in the government’s coffers.
Last year the United Nations said almost half the southern population was short of food. Some analysts say southerners are not just flooding home to vote but fear the fiery rhetoric by northern officials about expelling them should the south secede in 2011.
The United Nations has previously estimated up to 2 million southerners fled to the north during the war, which was fuelled by differences over religion, oil, ethnicity and ideology.