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South Sudan refugee exodus

Susan Houlton August 14, 2015

While a peace deal between the government and rebels in South Sudan hangs in the balance, thousands of refugees continue to turn their backs on the war-torn country. Their plight is worsened by the rainy season.

A woman with her child outside a UNHCR tent at a refugee camp
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Z. Abubeker

For many thousands of South Sudanese, home is now a camp where they live either as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in their own country or abroad, mainly inEthiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Kenya as refugees..

Latest figures from the UN's refugee agency UNHCR put the number of refugees outside South Sudan at more than 615,000. There are some 1.5 million people living as IDPs within the country.

Refugees cite the upsurge in fighting during the civil war which began in December 2013 and food insecurity as the main reasons for leaving their homes. About a third of South Sudan's population of 11 million do not have sufficient food. The situation is exacerbated by the current rainy season, Layal Horanieh, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told DW. "That grounds our planes. If the security situation in the areas where we are trying to go is unstable, then we also cannot go," she said. In general, "the humanitarian situation keeps deteriorating from day to day. There are serious needs – food, clean drinking water, access to health care."

Growing hunger in the country is a cause of great concern to the ICRC and other aid organizations active in South Sudan. "The hunger gap is massive – many people lack essential access to food. We have heard of people seeking refuge in swamps and who have survived by eating water lilies," Horanieh told DW.

Internally displaced persons being registered
IDPs being registered on arrival at Kuernynag in Jonglei StateImage: AFP/Getty Images/C. Lomodong

Increasing the pressure

Peace talks were in their final phase in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, but on Friday AFP reported that the government side was pulling out because of a split between rebel forces.

"We suspend the peace talks until the two rebel factions sort out their differences," top government official Louis Lobong was quoted as saying.

The civil war between forces of President Salva Kiir and his former ally, now rebel leader, Riek Machar, began in late 2013 and has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

International pressure had been mounting on the two sides to reach a deal before August 17, a date set by regional mediators and underlined by US President Barack Obama during a recent visit to Kenya and Ethiopia.

The talks were held under the mediation of regional bloc IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development). After the collapse of the last round of talks, an "IGAD-plus" group was created. In addition to the original eight regional members, this now includes 5 more African countries as well as China and the "Troika" of Britain, Norway and the US.

Refugee situation remains critical

While the uncertainty about a peace deal continues, for the thousands of South Sudanese who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, their main concern is simply to survive from one day to the next. Suleiman Amadu, head of location and relocation in the Gambella region in southwest Ethiopia, told DW that a camp is being set up so that some 17,000 refugees can be relocated from the entering points and transit centers where they are currently living."The UNHCR in Gambella is working in close collaboration with the government of Ethiopia and other partners so that we will be able to provide them with shelter, give them water, sanitation and health care. And they will get monthly food rations," Amadu told DW.

Salva Kiir after the breakdown of peace talks in March 2015
Salva Kiir (left) after the breakdown of peace talks in March 2015Image: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

Within South Sudan, the army has lifted a more than month-long blockade of rebel areas. The latest Humanitarian Bulletin for South Sudan, published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said: "The lifting of the restrictions has allowed humanitarian partners to start resupplying critical medicines, fuel, food and water treatment chemicals in Malakal (Upper Nile State)." More than 10,000 people had arrived at the Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Malakal since the beginning of August, bringing the total number of displaced people seeking refuge there to 46,500, OCHA said.

The suspension of the peace talks follows the making and breaking of several ceasefire deals in past months and comes as little surprise to observers. What remains is the logistical challenge of dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees.