The Never-Ending Tragedy of Sudanese Refugees

Sudanese refugees
Sudanese refugees are driven south by SAF bombers

The perennial political wrangling in the Sudans is forcing tens of thousands of people from Sudan into South Sudan, fleeing from a nasty bombing campaign orchestrated by the regime in Khartoum. Africa’s newest country is helpless to deal with the refugee crisis, and international agencies can’t cope either.

Doctors Without Borders (usually referred to by the acronym MSF), are worried about the Sudans. They’re always worried about those dangerous parts of the world, it’s their job; their commitment to providing emergency health care in places where there is none is what earned the relief organisation a Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

But they’re really, really worried about the Sudans. A flood of refugees across the border from Sudan into South Sudan has created a humanitarian disaster in Africa’s newest country, and MSF can’t keep up with the constant flow of humanity, most of whom are desperately poor and hungry.

They’re doing what they can to keep up, but they can’t do it on their own.

There are 170,000 people crammed into four emergency camps in South Sudan near the border with Sudan. More arrive every day. The camps were hastily-established to provide the most basic of facilities, and struggle to do even that due to the overwhelming numbers. The statistics are frightening: in a couple of the camps, mortality rates are double the emergency threshold. Nearly half of children under two are malnourished; 10% of all children suffer from acute malnourishment.

“Double the emergency level is catastrophically bad,” said Stefano Zannini, MSF’s head of mission in South Sudan, in an email. “It is very hard to compare one crisis to another, but there is one thing that makes this crisis almost unique.

The place where the refugees have gathered, Maban County, is simply not a place where large numbers of people can live. The area floods and so cultivation is not possible, access by road is exceptionally hard in the rainy season, there is virtually no naturally available clean drinkable water. More so than almost anywhere else you could imagine, these refugees are 100 percent reliant on humanitarian assistance. Without aid, it is hard to see how any of these 110,000 refugees in Maban County could survive.”

The gravity of the situation was echoed by Helen Ottens-Patterson, MSF’s medical coordinator in the area. “I have never really seen this anywhere before and I have been working for MSF since 1999. I am a nurse, this is my job, you have to cope with death and dying, you have to cope with disease, but normally it is more balanced. It’s tough for me as a human being and as a medical professional.”

The refugees are being driven out of their homes and villages by the Sudanese government in the border provinces of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The roots of the conflict go way back, and are inextricably linked with South Sudan’s own fight for independence, which was ultimately successful.

In drawing up the borders of the new country, however, some of South Sudan’s allies were left out in the cold. Most significant of these is the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), which has refused to give up its own struggle. The government, meanwhile, has taken out all its frustrations with the rebel movement on the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the political and military base of the SPLM-N.

These frustrations have been exacerbated by the government’s economic woes and lingering resentment about the loss of the south.

The tactics used against the civilian population – regardless of their political affiliation – are typical of the Sudanese regime’s response to any threat to its rule. The military campaign has been characterised by indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas, killing some, maiming others, and destroying crops and food supplies. To make things even worse, the Sudanese government prevents humanitarian agencies from freely accessing the affected area, making humanitarian assistance impossible.

“The refugee crisis in South Sudan was precipitated by the conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile,” said independent analyst Jens Pedersen. “This conflict was in turn precipitated by a governance crisis in Sudan. The reality is that this group of people, like others on Sudan’s periphery, have been marginalised.”

For the refugees, South Sudan, represents safety. But as conditions in the camp deteriorate this safety is very relative.

To solve the problem entirely requires a political solution to the problems in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, which is probably contingent on a solution to the higher-profile border and oil disputes between Sudan and South Sudan. This remains far off. “I find it difficult to be optimistic,” commented Pedersen, pointing out that the government of Sudan has never made a serious attempt to resolve the issues.

In the absence of a solution, the best that can be hoped for is that the refugee crisis is alleviated through effective provision of humanitarian aid. This requires a far greater financial commitment from the international community, as well as a concerted effort from humanitarian organisations to use the resources they have effectively.

“With most supplies having to be flown in, this is an extremely costly place to provide aid,” said Zannini. “MSF has a 2012 budget of more than 20 million euros for the five refugee camps in South Sudan, and we cannot reduce the budget because the malnourished children with diarrhoea cannot wait a few weeks for us to supply medicines via slower and cheaper methods. We are saving lives on a daily basis and so have to keep moving fast.”

Donors don’t move nearly as fast. Besides, given the financial crisis and the cost-cutting that is consuming the developed world, it is hardly in a position to be doling out cash. Expect conditions in South Sudan’s refugee camps to get worse before they get better.