UNHCR braces for refugee influx in S. Sudan’s Upper Nile state
April 8, 2013 (KHARTOUM) - UN agencies in South Sudan’s Unity and Upper Nile states are stockpiling supplies of food and relief items, in preparation for a potential fresh influx of refugees from the Sudanese border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Cosmas Chanda, the representative for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in South Sudan, said the flow of new arrivals into Upper Nile state had continued - albeit at a reduced pace in comparison to mid-last year - with the Sudanese refugee population in South Sudan surpassing 190,000.
“The continuing conflict in Blue Nile and South Kordofan does not augur well for an imminent end to the exile of Sudanese refugees. More than ever, they need the support of the international community to meet their basic needs and enjoy safe asylum”, she said.
Chanda made the comments on a 4 April blog post for The Elders website, in which she provides an update on the refugee situation in South Sudan since her agency accompanied the human rights group on a visit to refugee camps in Upper Nile state last July.
The Elders was founded in 2007 by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who remains an honorary elder, with Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan also listed as active members.
South Kordofan and Blue Nile have been the scene of a violent power struggle between Southern-aligned rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation-North (SPLM-N) and the Sudanese army (SAF), which erupted following South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
The violence has triggered one of Africa’s largest refugee emergencies, with fighting in the region causing large-scale population displacements towards South Sudan.
As aid workers prepared to move refugees in the area last April to higher ground at the new Yusuf Batil camp ahead of the wet season, Chanda said Upper Nile state experienced an unprecedented influx of refugees.
In June, the population of the Yusuf Batil camp – the third of four refugee camps in Upper Nile state – swelled from 4,000 to more than 36,000 refugees over a four-week period, triggering a public health emergency in the remote area.
“The scale was unprecedented; Until then, refugees had arrived in unpredictable numbers, ranging each week from double-digit trickles to groups of several hundred to waves of several thousand”, said Chanda.
The timing of the new arrivals coincided with the onset of seasonal rains, with UNHCR staff and other agencies working around the clock to clear the site, erect tents and establish basic services while dealing with the various needs of refugees who “had endured the worst forms of trauma and hardship.”
Chanda said refugees had spent weeks travelling on foot and hiding in forests, mountains and caves as fighting raged in the Bau region of Blue Nile state. They carried whatever food they could or helped themselves to whatever they could find along the way.
“By the time they crossed the border, they had gone for long periods without proper food or clean drinking water. They skimmed water from open sources where livestock drank and even defecated. When food ran out, the refugees ate wild roots and boiled the bitter leaves of the lalob, or soap berry tree. People died or were abandoned on the gruelling journey, particularly children, older persons and the infirm. Livestock, a prime source of wealth, perished or had to be deserted, too. This is the state the refugees were in when The Elders visited Yusuf Batil in July 2012”, Chanda writes.
The combination of poor hygiene practices, crowded conditions and the new arrivals’ weakened immune systems became a catalyst for infection and spread of diseases following the refugee influx, says Chanda.
As the rains arrived aid workers had to contend with a malaria epidemic, alarming malnutrition rates, as well as a Hepatitis E outbreak last September that killed more than two dozen people.
With land routes cut off by the rains, goods had to be airlifted in, while daily resources had to be prioritised according to the most critical needs.
“Despite these logistical setbacks, aid workers went into battle to save refugees’ lives and prevent diseases spreading further”, said Chanda.
The massive presence of refugees in Maban county has also led to tensions with host communities in the remote and sparsely populated region, with anecdotal accounts suggesting that refugees outnumber locals by five-to-one.
With issues like competition for natural resources fuelling the conflicts, UNHCR has attempted to mitigate tensions by establishing services beneficial to both refugees and host communities.
These have included a surgical theatre at the county hospital in Bunj, health clinics, water tap stands and boreholes, which have been drilled in local villages. Seeds and tools have also been distributed to both local and refugee populations.
Chanda says while the UNHCR has observed improvements in the health and nutrition situation of refugees in recent months, it says the situation remains fragile.
“We anticipate that the refugee operation will continue to require massive investment by the international community in order to maintain access routes and camp infrastructure, deliver timely life-saving assistance and basic services, and provide the refugees with legal and social protection”, she said in the post.