Sudanese Refugees in Upper Nile: Facing Perils – With Nowhere to Run

Issue No. 3, 2014

The security situation in Maban county of Upper Nile State, South Sudan, where refugees from Blue Nile are hosted, seriously deteriorated yesterday afternoon (March 3rd) when an unidentified armed group of people wearing military fatigues and reported as being from the Maban community attacked civilians twice near the Yosif Batil refugee camp. The exact numbers of those who lost their lives, suffered injuries or are missing is in not yet known, but at least one refugee is reported dead and over a dozen are unaccounted for. Numerous heads of cattle are also reported stolen. Hundreds of refugees have fled to a nearby NGO compound, and many refugees in the camps, including high numbers of women and children, are terrified of further violence.

Since the eruption of war in the Republic of South Sudan in mid-December, 2013, the security situation in Maban county, where more than 122,000 refugees from Blue Nile State of the Sudan are hosted in four refugees camps – namely Kaya (18,610), Yousif Batil (39,000), Doro (47,160) and Gindrassa (17,200) – has remained uncertain. Tensions surrounding the camps have steadly escalated due to frequent confrontations in the Supper Nile between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) who remained loyal to the government of President Salva Kiir, and the SPLM/A in Opposition forces, aligned to former Vice-President Riek Machar. Tensions rose again following the recent fierce fighting that took place for the control of Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state, and the push by forces loyal to Machar to take control of the oil fields, particularly Adar Yel, located in Maban county and in the immediate proximity to the refugee camps.

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2. Caught Between Two Crises

The ongoing war in South Sudan has aggravated simmering tensions between the host community and refugees in Maban, which surfaced when  the arrival of large numbers of refugees increased the competition for natural resources. With the eruption of the violent power struggle in South Sudan and the resulting deterioration  of livelihood options, and with both communities holding small arms from the two Sudans’ protracted civil war, it was only a matter of time before a serious incident happened. The cycle of violence has led to yesterday’s confrontation.

In addition to leaving tens of thousands of South Sudanese civilians dead and injured, and displacing over 900,000 more from their homes, the armed conflict between the SPLM/A and SPLM/A in Opposition forces has made the Sudanese refugees in Upper Nile and Unity states more vulnerable. These refugees depend heavily on humanitarian assistance provided by UHCHR and its partners. The conflict forced humanitarian agencies to evacuate their staff, blocked road and river supply routes, and caused remaining humanitarian agencies to limit services to emergency interventions only. The conflict also led to the suspension of critically needed services, including education and public health. Despite the resumption of most activities in the camps, the situation has deteriorated, particularly as stocks of food were consumed and the clean water systems operated by volunteers from local community disrupted, raising the risks of diseases particularly diarrhea and hepatitis. In early February, UNHCR reported serious concerns regarding the nutrition levels in the Maban camps, including an increase in kwashiorkor cases.

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3. The Perils Ahead

In recent weeks, civilians fleeing the fighting in Malakal and surrounding areas have started entering Maban county seeking protection. If this develops into a major influx, such arrivals would put further pressure on humanitarian services. UNHCR reports at least 4,5000 in the Beneshawa area in Maban county. The options for delivering food to the camps should the security situation deteriorate further, such as air-drops or opening routes from the Republic of Sudan or Ethiopia, are limited if not impossible. In fact, humanitarian operations across South Sudan face enormous challenges and are overstretched and underfunded, with the UN requesting $1.2 billion to respond to the crisis but only 20% funded to date.

The deteriorating security situation in South Sudan and the poor humanitarian situation in the camps have led some refugees to return to areas in Blue Nile, despite the ongoing violence and aerial bombardment there. Reports from Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile State, suggest that the Government of Sudan is preparing to launch new military attacks on SPLM-North areas in the state, mobilizing in preparation for the offensive more troops and members of local tribal militias aligned with the Khartoum government ,and deploying them along the front lines. There are reports that in Bot, the capital of Tadamon County in western of Blue Nile, fighters of the much feared government supported  South Sudanese and Maban-based militia, headed by Kamal Lomo and named the “Maban Heroes”, are gathering to join the campaign.

The invisible situation of these refugees who have escaped from one crisis into another already represents an enormous challenge to humanitarian actors. Should the violence spread to the areas near the camps the consequences would be catastrophic. Whilst aid workers struggle to provide basic services, politically the refugees are trapped between the lack of progress in the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel mediated negotiations between the Government of Sudan and the SPLM-N, which collapsed again last week, and the failure of the IGAD mediated talks between the Government of South Sudan and the rebels led by Machar.