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Notes from the Field on Yida Camp for Refugees, Unity State, South Sudan: Dereliction of duty by the

Shrapnel from a barrel bomb of the sort deliberately dropped on Yida refugee camp in November 2011; a piece of this size can easily slice a human being in half; one bomb, which did not detonate, landed immediately adjacent to a rudimentary schools. Such bombs are what the Nuba people fled.

The Yida refugee camp, near the northernmost point in Unity State (South Sudan), has for over four years been the home of tens of thousands of people from South Kordofan—overwhelmingly from the Nuba tribes that make up the Nuba people. The camp has been controversial for various reasons, and against the wishes of many humanitarians, the UN High Commission for Refugees has decided to compel the movement of people from Yida camp to other locations. Radio Dabanga reported yesterday:

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in South Sudan has started the registration procedures for the moving of refugees who have fled from South Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains. The 70,000 Sudanese have been residing in Yida camp, just over the border, since 2011. The UNHCR plans to move a large part of the refugee population to a camp in Pamir, 10 kilometres from the border between Sudan and South Sudan. The registration process began on the first of February and will last until June, when the agency plans to close Yida. (April 8, 2016 [Yida refugee camp], Radio Dabanga)

Yida refugee camp, northern Unity State, South Sudan

The implications of this move—which is quite against the will of the camp residents—are extraordinary. I have received notes from the field, originating with a humanitarian worker intimately familiar with the prevailing circumstances in Yida, as well as its history. My source emphasizes that UNHCR is “failing to fulfill its primary purpose ‘to safeguard the rights and well being of refugees’ in South Sudan.” Primary evidence is conspicuous:

Though UNHCR and the Government of South Sudan have made assurances that no one will be forced to leave, they have stated that all services currently being provided in Yida refugee camp—including nutrition and water—will end as of 30 June 2016.

Denying food and water to refugees that the UNHCR has long made clear it wishes to re-locate is tantamount to forced relocation. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous in the extreme.

The Nuba people in Yida can hardly be expected to return to South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains—not at a time when the Khartoum regime is expanding its massive, multi-pronged military offensive through much of the region. Khartoum has made its contempt for these people fully clear with its deliberate bombing of the camp (and other refugee camps in the Mabaan area of Upper Nile, South Sudan)—this in November 2011. One bomb, which failed to detonate, landed on the very edge of a rudimentary school in Yida camp.

What justification does UNHCR give for compelling the movement of refugees? One is that Yida is too close to the Sudan/South Sudan border. But one of the alternative camps—Ajuong Thok—is only a little more than a mile further from the border: insignificant if the issue is protection of refugees from assaults by Khartoum’s forces. Moreover, both Ajuong Thok and Pamir (another new camp location) are actually closer to armed groups—not only those of the Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), but to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/In Opposition (SPLA/IO). In December 2013, as violence exploded throughout South Sudan, insecurity and violence near Ajuong Thok increased.

UNHCR would also have us believe that “the layout of Yida is not in compliance with health and access standards of UNCHR.” But as my humanitarian source on the ground reports:

Due to thousands of refugees arriving in Yida in 2011, a spontaneous settlement emerged of people seeking shelter. It is true that the site was not pre-planned, but refusal by UNHCR to recognize Yida as a refugee camp and make appropriate preparations resulted in a critical opportunity being missed to resolve this problem in the early stages. However, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been able to provide assistance throughout the camp and refugees have been able to access necessary services without difficulty.

My source also reports that UNHCR has objected to continuing the Yida camp because it lacks educational facilities and programs, something of great value to the people of the Nuba Mountains. But here again, UNHCR itself is responsible:

UNHCR did not allow education to be provided in Yida and has withheld formal learning opportunities for youth in the camp for four years now. Furthermore, UNHCR has used education as bait to manipulate refugees into relocating to other refugee camps, creating protection concerns as unaccompanied minors have been forced to leave their families to attend school.

Nor is moving to Ajuong Thok an adequate alternative for educational purposes:

While Ajuong Thok does offer educational programs, there are not enough classrooms or teachers for the current number of school-aged youth residing in the camp. Many people in Ajuong Thok complain about the educational facilities and programs, stating the classrooms are so full that students are not able to see the teacher, impacting their ability to learn the material being presented. Further, the already full classrooms in Ajuong Thok do not take into account the thousands more youth that would need to be enrolled in the schools once Yida closes.

UNHCR also claims that Yida residents have “limited agricultural opportunities for the refugees, making them entirely dependent on foreign aid”:

The claim that refugees in Yida are not able to farm is also inaccurate, as the host community has given plots of land to refugees for agricultural activities. Land has also been allocated in Ajuong Thok for refugees to use for planting and harvesting. However, due to insecurity issued and tensions between the host and refugee communities, the refugee population in Ajuong Thok does not feel safe utilizing the land.

Even if refugees are compelled to move from Yida to new camps, there is inadequate capacity.

UNHCR and GOSS have stated that individuals residing in Yida camp who are willing to relocate will be transferred to Ajuong Thok and Pamir refugee camps. Ajuong Thok was initially designed to host a population of 20,000 and was recently expanded to hold a total of 40,000 people. However, the current population of Ajuong Thok has already reached 33,469, meaning the site only has the capacity to accommodate an additional 6,500 individuals. Once Ajuong Thok reaches capacity, the remaining people will be transferred to Pamir refugee camp.

According to UNHCR, Pamir will have the capacity to accommodate 20,000 people by June 30, though the camp has not yet been completed. If the entire population of Yida (70,000 people) agreed to relocate to Ajuong Thok and Pamir camps prior to June 30, as requested by UNHCR and GOSS, the proposed sites would not be able to fully support and accommodate all of the individuals being transferred, as the two camps will only have the capacity to hold a total of 26,500 people collectively, leaving 43,500 people without a place to access essential services.

Further, Pamir camp has not yet been completed. While UNHCR has indicated that three of four boreholes have been drilled and 14 kilometers of road has been completed within the camp, the health and educational facilities are currently in the initial stages of construction. To move a large population of more than 70,000 people without adequate services, including safe water, health facilities, and schools, would only create a humanitarian emergency among the refugee population and the host community.

Finally, the refugee population of Yida has serious concerns about security:

Despite the reality that Ajuong Thok and Pamir will likely not have the capacity to host the entire population of Yida by June 30, there are also many security concerns with relocating refugees to those locations.

In Ajuong Thok, numerous cases of gender-based violence have been reported when women go to gather firewood. In addition, tensions between the host and refugee communities are very high, and refugees in Ajuong Thok do not feel they can move freely outside of the camp.

Further, the refugees strongly believe Ajuong Thok and Pamir camps are [highly] insecure due to their close proximity to Liri, a nearby location to the north of both sites with a presence of SAF forces and nomadic Arab tribes believed to be hired by the Government of Sudan to attack people from the Nuba Mountains. Pamir is also located near a river that has traditionally been used by Falata herders, along with other nomadic tribes, during the dry season. The Falata have a history of violence, allegedly clashing with both the host community and government forces in the area recently. Additionally, Pamir is closer to locations of both the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA-IO, which creates a potential for insecurity should fighting resume between the two forces.

Not only are there various armed groups located close to the proposed relocation sites, the road that leads to Pamir refugee camp branches off and heads straight to Sudan, giving direct access to SAF forces and nomadic Arab groups, both of which are the very groups the refugees fled from [because of] targeted killings of the Nuba people. Already, Sudanese Arabs have been seen traveling along this road coming from Sudan. Because of these security concerns, refugees in Yida have clearly stated that they do not feel safe relocating to Ajuong Thok or Pamir, and would rather return to their homeland of the Nuba Mountains. Unconfirmed reports indicate some people have already left to go back to the Nuba Mountains, choosing to return to the war zone they fled rather than move to the insecurity they perceive in Ajuong Thok and Pamir.

Given the extraordinary efforts by UNHCR to respond to the refugee crisis generate by those fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq, Sudanese refugees seem to be the beneficiaries of only mediocre efforts, and indeed actual malfeasance. Misrepresentation of the situation in Yida has been ongoing for over four years; for UNHCR to act on these misrepresentations is a betrayal of the High Commission’s primary mandate.

And Eastern Chad—

Notably, the situation in eastern Chad—where some 350,000* Sudanese refugees from Darfur continue to live in wretched circumstances, some for thirteen years—also disgraces not only UNHCR, but the UN’s World Food Program and the UN generally. These people have essentially been abandoned, face growing hostility from the Déby regime in N’Djamena and declining food deliveries. Last August WFP announced that it had no budget in 2016 for the Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad. UNHCR shared in the announcement and has not updated its “2015 UNHCR country operations profile – Chad,” which indicates almost 380,000 Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad. We are over three months into 2016.

More recently, WFP has tried to offer a somewhat more accurate view of the crisis, but it is far from encouraging. A suspicious “re-calculation” of the number of refugees (from all countries) is used to justify a further cut (of 29 percent) in food rations—rations that interviewees make clear in the WFP dispatch are grossly inadequate:

FARCHANA – It has been more than 11 years since Hawaya Yaya Ismail arrived with her husband and two young daughters at the Farchana refugee camp in eastern Chad…

The rations she receives are not enough, says Hawaya. “This food will only last 5 or 6 days, not a full month,” she states as she removes dust from the grains of sorghum. She must set aside one-third of the grain to serve as payment to another refugee, the price of using his mill to grind her sorghum grain into flour.

Funding shortfalls forced WFP in 2013 to begin reducing the level of food assistance distributed in the refugee camps scattered along Chad’s border with Sudan. Currently, each refugee receives only about 39 percent of the generally recommended minimum daily intake of 2,100 calories. (January 6, 2016)

Yida refugee camp, northern Unity State, South Sudan

And various reports from the border region between Chad and Darfur indicate that many in and near camps are not even receiving this amount of food—39 percent of the minimum daily recommended calorie intake. This ensures widespread stunting among refugee children, especially those who have grown up on such meager rations. This is unconscionable.

And the question becomes inevitable: why are African refugees of less concern than the well-publicized refugees from Arab countries? Ultimately, we are asking about the politics of the UN and the African Union. Answers are not flattering.


[* This figure represents an estimate based on recent reports of returning refugees as well as UNHCR’s figure for 2015: almost 380,000. It is unclear why refugees are returning to Darfur, given the extreme levels of insecurity that continue to prevail; it may be a desperate effort to secure agricultural land despite the extremely great risks.

© 2016 · Eric Reeves

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