As instability and violence persist in the world’s newest country, the number of South Sudanese seeking safety and shelter in neighbouring countries has passed the one million mark, the United Nations refugee agency said.
“Most of those fleeing South Sudan are women and children,” Leo Dobbs of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said at the UN Office in Geneva on Friday.
“They include survivors of violent attacks, sexual assault, children separated from their parents or travelling alone, the disabled, the elderly and people in need of urgent medical care,” he said noting more than 185,000 people fled the country since fresh violence erupted in the capital, Juba, in early July, just ahead of the fifth anniversary of the country’s independence.
With this sombre milestone, South Sudan is now the fourth country in the world with more than one million refugees. The other three are Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
In terms of numbers, Uganda (373,626) accounts for the largest share of South Sudanese refugees. More than a third of them arrived since the most recent violence broke out. Ethiopia (292,000) and Sudan (247,317) are the second and third largest hosts to people fleeing South Sudan.
Smaller numbers have also fled to Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR), since July. About 300 people a week have been crossing into Kenya, which now has over 90,000 South Sudanese refugees. Some 40,000 refugees are estimated to be in DRC.
The UNHCR spokesperson further reported new arrivals speaking of increased fighting and attacks by armed groups that kill civilians, loot villages, sexually assault women and girls and recruit young boys.
“Many refugees arrive exhausted after days walking in the bush and going without food or water. Many children have lost one or both of their parents, some forced to become primary caregivers to younger siblings,” he said.
Dobbs also said the recent violence was a major setback to peace efforts in the country, including a short-lived peace deal between supporters of President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President Riek Machar. The longstanding political rivalry between the two initially erupted into full blown conflict in late 2013.
“The fighting has shattered hopes for a real breakthrough and triggered new waves of displacement and suffering,” he added and said humanitarian organisations were finding it difficult to provide urgent protection and assistance to the hundreds of thousands in need, including 1.61 million internally displaced people, due to logistic, security and funding reasons.
As for the situation on the ground, he reported that according to UNHCR field staff, new arrivals are camped in schools and churches, but many have to sleep in the open.
Refugees also lack food and basic household items and earlier this month refuges near the city of Doruma, in DRC’s Haut-Uele province, were attacked by unknown assailants. They had food rations stolen and the health centre was also looted.
He also reported that insecurity in South Sudan’s Central Equatoria province has significantly affected the UN agency’s ability to access and assist thousands of refugees inside the country itself.
“Without further funding and support, we and our partners will struggle to assist the needy with even the most basic assistance,” said the UNHCR spokesperson, calling on donors to provide $701 million for South Sudan refugee operations, of which 20% has been funded.