South Sudan: Humanitarian agencies respond to refugee crisis

23 July, 2012
Sudanese refugees wait for food distribution at a refugee site in Upper Nile state, South Sudan. Credit: WFP/Anna Gudmunds
Sudanese refugees wait for food distribution at a refugee site in Upper Nile state, South Sudan. Credit: WFP/Anna Gudmunds

Sudanese refugees are entering South Sudan in large numbers as they flee fighting and food shortages in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states. At the start of July, up to 1,000 people were arriving at South Sudan’s biggest refugee site in Unity state every day. 

The refugee crisis began a year ago when fighting erupted between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North in Southern Kordofan in June and in Blue Nile in September. The crisis has worsened recently as most of the arrivals have been travelling for weeks through areas of armed conflict, on foot and with little food or water. When they arrive, many refugees are suffering from dehydration and malnutrition, and have only the few possessions they could carry.  
Humanitarian organizations in South Sudan are working around the clock to provide life-saving support to this growing influx, and they are scaling up to respond to increased needs. Some 170,000 Sudanese people are receiving emergency relief and assistance in South Sudan. 
When they arrive, refugees are registered and given a medical screening. They receive food rations designed to last until they are enrolled in the regular monthly food distribution programmes. Five refugee sites have been established in Upper Nile and Unity where the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and some 20 organizations are providing vital relief, such as emergency shelter, medical support, water, sanitation and hygiene. However, refugee numbers are growing as settlement sites are cut off by floods. To keep pace with this increase, household items including mosquito nets, plastic sheeting and blankets for some 50,000 people have been airlifted to the sites. 
“Humanitarian agencies are faced with enormous challenges,” says Chris Nikoi, acting Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan. “In Upper Nile state, which hosts about 105,000 refugees, critical water shortages are hampering relief efforts. There’s a risk of outbreaks of disease if we cannot source enough clean water for refugees.” 
Aid organizations are trucking water to refugee sites. Five rigs are operational in Upper Nile, and boreholes are being drilled while humanitarian agencies work with local authorities to identify new sites with reliable water sources. 
In Unity state, UNHCR warns of a looming health crisis as the surge in new arrivals overwhelms the main refugee site, Yida. The refugee population at Yida has more than doubled since the end of April this year, from 27,500 to over 55,000 people. 
“Sanitation and hygiene conditions at the site have worsened severely because of the rapid influx. Aid workers on the ground are racing to scale up health services to match the pace of refugee arrivals,” adds Nikoi.
The start of the rainy season and logistical demands, including a lack of basic infrastructure, are compounding the challenges. Access is extremely difficult; most of the area where the refugees are located in Upper Nile is prone to floods. Ground transport operations have been hampered significantly by floods caused by torrential rains. In Unity state, the roads linking two key refugee sites are only passable after three dry days.
The humanitarian operation to respond to the refugee crisis in South Sudan is severely underfunded, and this is preventing life-saving work. UNHCR is appealing for US$186 million to respond to the refugee influx. The Central Emergency Respond Fund has announced the release of $20 million to humanitarian organizations in South Sudan. The entire South Sudan Common Humanitarian Fund, currently at $10 million, will be allocated to the refugee operation. But more money is urgently needed to deal with this crisis, ease suffering and save lives.

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