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The Upper Nile refugee crisis - a view from the ground

Posted by Sultana Begum Humanitarian Policy Adviser

4th Apr 2013

Sultana BegumFor its size, the humanitarian response to the Upper Nile State refugee crisis was one of the most expensive in the world,  but what did it look like on the ground? Away from the chaos of flooding and  mismanagement that plagued the humanitarian agencies working there, what has it been like for the refugees themselves? From her point of view as Oxfam's Humanitarian Policy Adviser in Maban County, Sultana Begum gives us her take on the situation.

Beginning in November 2011, nearly 200,000 Sudanese refugees fled across the newly created border to seek refuge in Upper Nile and Unity, northern states in the world's newest country, South Sudan. I've spent the last few months based in Maban County, Upper Nile state, talking to refugees about their experiences and finding out about the situation in the refugee camps. They described harrowing journeys fleeing aerial bombings and ground fighting, walking for weeks on end, and only surviving by eating wild fruits, edible roots, and drinking dirty water.

The situation in the camps

There are currently over 115,000 refugees in Maban, concentrated in four main camps: Doro, Jamam, Yusuf Batil and Gendrassa. In the early stages of the emergency refugees arrived to find a shortage of tents, mosquito nets, blankets, plastic sheets and sleeping mats. Flooding in Jamam camp in the months that followed made conditions even worse, with tents collapsing and latrines overflowing. Refugees suffered unnecessarily as a result of the collective failings of the international community The refugee response has been one of the most expensive in the world. and the Government of South Sudan, who were poorly prepared to meet their needs and were unable to provide them with sufficient protection. Donors were also slow to come up with appropriate funding. The Government of South Sudan, crippled by a shortage of funds (the result of the shutdown of oil production due of an ongoing dispute with Sudan), was unable to play a significant part in leading the response.

A woman refugee in the Jamam Refugee Camp in Upper Nile state, South Sudan

During this period immense effort was required by all to drill for water, set up camps and to relocate people simultaneously, with few resources and under difficult conditions. This could have been managed more effectively with better planning, funding, leadership, co-ordination and decision making, as well as greater government capacity.

Women, children and young people account for 80 per cent of refugees living in the camps. Women and girls live under the threat of domestic violence, sexual harassment, beatings, and exploitation. Women described their fear of going out to collect firewood and water as they are often harassed or attacked, or their tools confiscated. Armed actors are also present in the camps and the threat of forced recruitment is undermining the civilian nature of the camps and further endangering refugees.

Maban County

Maban is a harsh environment; bone dry and dusty during the dry season with huge swathes inaccessible during the five-month rainy season. The area in which the refugee camps are located is extraordinarily remote with little infrastructure, creating huge logistical challenges for humanitarian agencies. Adding to this, 'black cotton' soil and poor ground water conditions have made the search for water incredibly difficult. As a result of this, the refugee response has been phenomenally expensive - one of the most expensive in the world. It has cost Oxfam $250 per person to provide water, sanitation and hygiene promotion to refugees in Maban, compared to most other contexts where the cost is less than $75.

Eighteen months on, the situation in the camps has improved, with greater access to food, water and health care.

The vast number of refugees dwarfs the widely dispersed host communities in Maban. Those I spoke to said that the arrival of refugees coincided with a period of drought, followed by flooding which destroyed their crops and left them without enough food to eat. The influx of large numbers of refugees put extra pressure on already vulnerable host communities living in extreme poverty, and greater pressure on limited water, natural resources and land for farming and grazing animals.
Until recently, humanitarian agencies have focused their efforts and attention on refugees, but this imbalance has increased tensions and hostility between refugees and host communities. What struck me most in my conversations with host communities was the frustration they felt at what they perceive as neglect of their needs by humanitarian agencies. Many expressed fear that the tensions may increase further if greater attention is not paid to their needs.

A woman waiting for water at the Jamam refugee camp, Maban County, South SudanEighteen months on, the situation in the camps has improved. Refugees describe much better conditions, with greater access to food, water and health care. However, their situation remains fragile. With one month to go until the rainy season, a Hepatitis E outbreak is ongoing, at least twenty-five thousand refugees need to be relocated, and a further influx of refugees is predicted. This is why Oxfam is calling for lessons to be learned from what went wrong in 2012 in our new paper on the refugee crisis in Upper Nile. We set out seven priority areas where concerted action is needed now from the Government of South Sudan, the UN and NGOs to ensure past mistakes do not repeat themselves and both refugees and host communities receive the assistance they need and deserve.

Most refugees I spoke to said that they would not return home until the end of the conflict; they want to make sure they will be safe and that there is a political process in place that will address their grievances. Whilst refugees must be supported to meet their immediate needs, humanitarian aid is not a substitute for political action. The international community must work harder to make sure aid is able to reach people inside Blue Nile and South Kordofan and to support an end to the conflict.

Read more

Oxfam's latest briefing on the Upper Nile Refugee Crisis

Evaluation report of Oxfam's response to the refugee crisis 

Oxfam's community approach to sanitation in the Jamam refugee camp


Blog post written by Sultana Begum

Humanitarian Policy Adviser

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