Dear colleagues and friends,
As PRM’s newest Deputy Assistant Secretary, I am pleased to join the tradition of writing periodic “letters to the community,” and use the opportunity to highlight a growing refugee crisis that was the focus of my recent visit to South Sudan.
On April 4, the White House announced that the President authorized the use of $26 million from the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund to respond to urgent refugee needs resulting from the conflicts in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states of Sudan. PRM will provide these additional emergency funds to UNHCR to support its efforts to provide life-saving protection and assistance to refugees fleeing these two areas. Since fighting broke out last year, over 140,000 refugees have arrived in South Sudan and Ethiopia. With violence continuing and humanitarian conditions deteriorating in the conflict zones, additional arrivals are expected in the coming months.
Last month I traveled to South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, where more than 88,000 Sudanese refugees from Blue Nile are congregated in two main sites, Doro and Jamam. The area is remote and sparsely populated, and much of it rests in a flood zone that becomes inaccessible by road for much of the six month rainy season. Fleeing aerial bombardment and traveling long distances, refugees are arriving exhausted, hungry, and sometimes in need of immediate medical attention.
One young woman in Jamam camp took me to see her modest shelter of plastic sheeting and thatch. She held a beautiful baby girl in her arms as she described her difficult journey to safety, fleeing bombing attacks near her village while heavily pregnant. The baby was born in the bush during her flight to South Sudan. And in a telling example of how life changing these refugees’ experiences have been, the young mother told me that the sweet sounding name she had given her baby was also another word for “bomb” in her native dialect.
The pace of the influx over the last few months has imposed enormous pressure on the capacities and resources of humanitarian actors who are already responding to multiple needs in South Sudan -- including hundreds of thousands of returnees, significant numbers of people displaced by internal conflict, and rising food insecurity across the country.
I spent time with UNHCR and partners, whose emergency teams have been working flat out in extremely challenging conditions to relocate refugees away from the border to safer areas, establish new camps to accommodate the growing numbers, and stockpile food and other relief supplies ahead of the rains. One of the biggest challenges has been providing clean water, which despite water trucking and ongoing efforts to drill additional boreholes remains in extremely short supply.
While obtaining water, food, shelter, and medicine were the immediate concerns for many refugees, those with whom I spoke were also passionate about the need for their children to attend school. In Doro, I visited one of the busy activity sites that had already been established to give children a safe place to play in the crowded camp, and was soon to be converted into a temporary school, often one of the most important early child protection interventions for children in refugee settings. Another high priority for UNHCR in Upper Nile is to understand better and initiate programs to address the specific protection needs of women and girls, including survivors of sexual assault.
Many South Sudanese have been refugees over the course of the long civil war that preceded the country’s independence. Although limited in its ability to offer direct assistance, the fledgling Government of South Sudan has welcomed the new refugees from Sudan, providing places for them to settle and even setting aside additional land for them to cultivate. With the fighting ongoing across the border, I used my conversations with government officials to commend these actions and encourage their continued efforts to maintain the civilian and humanitarian nature of the camps so that they become neither military targets, nor places for recruitment.
Ultimately, the refugees I met in Doro and Jamam need both Sudan and South Sudan to resolve their conflicts and coexist peacefully. The United States continues to call upon all parties engaged in the conflict to cease hostilities immediately and to resolve their differences through negotiation on the fundamental issues of security, oil exports, border demarcation, and nationality that would help them to do so.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration