Residents of Yida Camp Face Difficult Choices

By Caelin Briggs
Women in Yida camp carry food to their homes in May 2013.

Nila is tired. Two weeks ago, she arrived in Yida camp, South Sudan, with her three young children in search of safety and food. Like the many people that fled before her, Nila and her family escaped from their homes in the middle of the night after relentless bombings by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) made it impossible for them to harvest their crops. As they hid in the caves away from the bombs, hunger set in, and finally they were forced to flee.

But unlike those that fled before her, when Nila arrived in Yida she was told her family would not be given any food. A new government directive, designed to decongest the camp and combat the increasing militarization, mandated that new arrivals would only be given food if they agreed to move to a new refugee camp 45 kilometers to the east.

Rumors circulated through Yida that in the new camp, people would be attacked by nearby SAF soldiers or by a purportedly hostile host community. While thus far the rumors appear to be groundless, they are strong enough to prevent most people from agreeing to relocate – including Nila. This, combined with people’s desire to be able to go back across the border to tend to sick or elderly relatives, has meant that more and more people are making the tough choice to either stay in Yida without support, or return home to the areas they so recently fled.

Now, Nila and her three children are part of a growing population inside Yida without access to food. Neighbors share their small rations with Nila’s family, but as the number of people without food rises, there is increasingly not enough food to cover all the needs. Public health experts tell us that with Yida’s current population, the camp can only tolerate about 5,000 people without rations before incurring food security problems. Estimates show that that number is currently at about 4,500.

The bigger concern, however, is what happens once the rains start. Unless the road that connects Yida to the new camp is finished within the next few weeks (which appears altogether unlikely), these 4,500 people will be trapped in Yida for the next seven months without any access to food. If the food security situation is bad now, imagine how bad it will be in January. The camp is already experiencing rising levels of sexual exploitation, as desperate mothers look for any possible route to find food for their children.

RI has received assurances that if the road is not finished before the rains cut off access, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Program will issue temporary ration cards to last until the roads re-open. This will be a critical step to prevent the Yida population from experiencing unnecessary starvation.Unfortunately, having seen similar promises fall through in the past, it is vital that we monitor the implementation of this pledge to ensure that the assurances are turned into action.

Nila and her family will not survive for seven months without food. And as humanitarians, we have an obligation to make sure she doesn’t have to. Refugees International will be watching UNHCR closely over the coming weeks to make sure this important prevention measure is put in place.