Precarious humanitarian situation for Sudanese refugees in Maban, South Sudan

Article, 10.09.2013

Interview with Lukas Rüst, a member of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) who is working as a protection expert in Maban County, South Sudan on sec

Continued fighting in the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan in the south of Sudan has caused more than 200,000 people to flee to neighbouring South Sudan. Many were forced to leave all of their possessions behind when they fled. Since June 2012, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been providing emergency aid to more than 115,000 people in the north of South Sudan (Upper Nile state). The UNHCR and its partners are offering these displaced people protection in four refugee camps in Maban County. This emergency aid operation is taking place in a very remote region, which makes it very demanding from a logistical perspective. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is supporting this humanitarian operation through multilateral contributions and the secondment of experts. Protection is one of the priorities for the SDC in South Sudan.

Lukas Rüst discusses with refugees from Blue Nile State (Sudan) in a refugee camp in Maban County (South Sudan).

Lukas Rüst,what is yourassessment ofthe situationofthe Sudanese refugees in South Sudan?
I personally can only comment on therefugees in Maban County in the South Sudanese state of Upper Nile. On 9 July 2011, South Sudan declaredindependence from Sudan. That also led to moves towards autonomy in the Sudanese state of Blue Nile, which borders South Sudan. The Sudanese army responded by bombing the area. Following those attacks, around 110,000people fled from the state of Blue Nile to Maban County between November 2011 and June 2012. When the first 80,000 refugees arrived,there were only ahandful ofaid organisations on the ground. Although the UNHCR andthe UnitedNations World Food Programme managed, in the space of two months, to set up and expand their aid operations, they were not prepared for the arrival of another 30,000 refugees.

By the end of 2012,things had stabilised somewhat: the bulk of the refugees had sufficient access to drinking water and their nutritional statushad ceased to be acutely life-threatening. Nevertheless, the humanitarian situation remains unstable, particularly in view of the rainy season.

What risks are the refugees in the camps exposed to, and whatsteps are being taken to counter those risks?
Themost serious problems areinsufficient access to drinking water, poor hygiene in the camps and the associated risk of infection. We are also having to deal with a globally almost unprecedented outbreak of hepatitis E. This disease is oftenfatal when diagnosed too late or not treated correctly. We are attempting to raisegeneral hygiene levels through information campaigns and thereby improve the health of the refugees.

There are other problems, too: tensions between the local population and refugees, gender-based violence, and armed groups using the refugee camps for recruitment purposes. Inacute cases ofviolence, humanitariangroups seek to respond directly – for example, by acting as mediators. In the longer term, conflict resolution strategies are drawn up.

When you arrived, the refugee camp had just been newly established. Did that cause particular problems?
We had the usual teething problems, and our individual workloads werehuge. Buta lack of manpower is not unusual for emergency aid operations, and that often motivates the staff on the ground to do extraordinary things.

Emergency situations differ from "normal" missions in that all decisions have direct, existential consequences forpeople. For example, if a newcomer is not immediately registered and provided with food, he will suffer from acute hunger. This considerable responsibility can sometimescause stress.

What does a typical working day look like for a UNHCR protection expert in South Sudan?
Our task is primarily to develop and implement conflict-resolution and problem-solving strategies. However,we are often forced to drop everything and react at short notice. I can remember a particular day in March 2013. I discovered by chance that 25 refugee familieswouldbe arriving ina few hours' time. But whenthe timecame, I realised that it was actuallyover 200 people. I spent the rest of the day with an interpreter carrying out the initial registration of the refugees. Médecins Sans Frontières Belgium distributed emergency food rations.

How doescommunication take place within the camp?
In a situation where there are no media and the majority of people cannot read or write, communication is a major challenge. As a result, all camps have weekly meetings where tribal leaders and representatives of aid organisations share information and discuss relevant issues.The tribal leaders and the refugees understand our role and the associated challenges. They have acknowledged our achievements.

You've travelled to see the refugeesnear the border with Sudan. What is the aim ofsuch trips, and what does a border mission of that kind involve?
In addition to analysis of the security situation, the aim of border monitoringisprimarily to establish and foster information exchanges with authorities in the border region and to gatherinformationon new inflows of refugees. While there was a constant flow of refugees, border missions took place almost daily, above allso that the weak could be transported directly tothe reception camp.

South Sudan has been an independent state since 2011. What are themain challenges for the government of this young country as regards these inflows of refugees?
The country's civilian authorities themselveshave no informationat all on the border regions, which makes our border missions all the more important. The country hasnowhere near enough resources to be able to take the leadin a UNHCR-coordinated operation such as Maban County in the foreseeable future.For example, although there are now 118,000 refugees, the national refugee commission in Maban County has only three staff members.

So the government’s problems are similar to those of international partners. It's finding it very difficult to mobilise the materialresources and personnel that are so urgently required.

Additional Information and Documents

  • South Sudan
    Crisis in South Sudan On 15 December 2013 fighting erupted within the presidential guard in Juba be...
  • Sudan
    With the independence of South Sudan on 9 July 2011 two sovereign states were created: Sudan and Sou...
  • Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit
    Every year, millions of people are forced to flee their homes because of armed conflict or a food cr...
  • Refugees and IDPs