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Under critical strain: our visit to Yusuf Batil refugee camp

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“The camp, which did not exist two months ago, is remarkably well organised. And yet the international community is not doing enough to support them.” Exactly one year since South Sudan gained its independence, Mary Robinson blogs about the Elders' visit on Saturday to a refugee camp hosting 35,000 people who have fled from recent fighting in the Sudanese state of Blue Nile.

My fellow Elders, Desmond Tutu, Martti Ahtisaari and I were very concerned by our visit to Yusuf Batil refugee camp in South Sudan, near the border with Sudan, on Saturday 7 July.

It is only one example of the human tragedy currently unfolding in the world’s newest country, which is manifestly unable to cope. People often walk for several weeks to get to the camp, arriving exhausted and suffering from malnutrition and dehydration. The camp opened in May – just two months ago. It now hosts 35,000 people who have fled the fighting in the Sudanese state of Blue Nile, across the border. It is evidently under critical strain and under-resourced, due to a truly unconscionable case of donor fatigue.

It is so frustrating to know how rapidly this would be addressed if the whole world could see for themselves the distress of the people living there.

A growing refugee crisis

Nearly 180,000 people have now fled the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan in Sudan to half a dozen refugee camps in South Sudan, such as Yusuf Batil, as a result of the ongoing fighting between the Sudanese army and the SPLM-North. Several thousand more cross the border every week.

In addition, some 500,000 South Sudanese living in Sudan are now stateless, many in need of help, and there are hundreds of thousands of people displaced by inter-communal violence in South Sudan itself.

We arrived at Yusuf Batil as food distribution started. Thousands of refugees – mostly women – were patiently waiting for two-week family rations of sorghum, yellow split peas, salt and vegetable oil. The women then carried these heavy loads on wooden poles across their shoulders to distribute to their families. In that respect, we also found formidable resilience and kindness among the people. Oil, for example, was only available in small amounts, and yet everything was shared.

One young woman took a moment out of her day to show me how to grind sorghum. I cannot claim to have mastered a new skill but – and this was truly heartening – I did get a laugh.

Mary Robinson at Yusuf Batil refugee camp

Mary Robinson at Yusuf Batil refugee camp. Photo: Adriane Ohanesian | The Elders.

A severe funding shortfall

We were also impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the humanitarian workers that we met. The camp, which did not exist two months ago, is remarkably well organised. In the space of a few weeks, they have been able to launch a vaccination campaign, install a field hospital, two clinics, and ten rehydration sites to curb the spread of diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases.

And yet the international community is not doing enough to support them. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has received only one fifth of the 186 million US dollars needed in South Sudan for 2012, and has already exhausted the contributions it has received so far. Funding needs are likely to increase further as the outpouring of refugees and displaced people continues.

The situation is also difficult for the World Food Programme (WFP), which is operating with 75 percent of the funds that it needs for its country-wide operations. The humanitarian crisis is therefore diverting funds and manpower away from its primary focus on building resilience to food insecurity for the 4.7 million South Sudanese who may be at risk of extreme hunger this year, not to mention the 1 million who are food insecure already. In other words, the WFP is being forced to abandon the country’s long-term efforts to feed schoolchildren, improve agriculture and make the most of this very fertile land – a sad reflection on the short-sightedness of the leaders in Sudan and South Sudan that are allowing this human tragedy to happen.

It should be said here, loud and clear, that every penny given to UNHCR and WFP for South Sudan will be well and urgently spent.

Yusuf Batil is a worryingly fragile place. About half the population is under 18 yet there are no schools. Violence against girls and women is a serious problem and child marriage is very common. I spoke to several young women, no more than 20 years old, who had been bearing children since puberty. One 17-year old had four children aged four, three, two and a few months.

A moment to reinvigorate peace efforts, for the sake of the people

We left Yusuf Batil with a reinforced belief in what we told President Salva Kiir when we arrived in the country on Friday – that the first anniversary should be the moment to reinvigorate peace efforts, for the sake of his people – and that the 2 August deadline set by the African Union and United Nations for both parties to reach an agreement is an opportunity that should be seized.

The fighting needs to stop in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Unrestricted, independent humanitarian access should be granted to the populations trapped by the conflict. This is all the more urgent as the rainy season makes communications and transport very difficult. Indeed we saw the camp on a comparatively good day – when it was accessible.

Clearly the government in South Sudan should be urgently addressing the shortfalls in governance and extensive corruption that the President himself acknowledges. And there are broader governance issues that should be addressed, notably with respect to women’s rights. The peace negotiations and mediation talks are not representative of the suffering experienced by the wider population because women are largely absent from them. And sadly, even military barracks are identified by women’s groups as an unaddressed safety concern.

Exactly a year – to the day – since the optimism surrounding South Sudan’s independence, it is heart-breaking that these two neighbouring states are now allowing such misery to continue to unfold.

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