South Sudan is on the verge of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Ongoing conflict since mid-December 2013 has forced mass displacement and limited humanitarian access to people in need. Tens of thousands of internally displaced people are living on United Nations’ compounds where conditions are poor.
At one site in the capital Juba, for example, the cramped living space and flood-prone land make for a disastrous scenario, especially as the seasonal rains begin. Throughout other parts of the country, aid workers are struggling to reach vulnerable populations and pre-position stocks before the rains begin in earnest.
A sustained cessation of hostilities is the most critical element to preventing the current situation from becoming worse. But there are also steps that donor governments, the UN Mission in South Sudan, and the aid community can and must take to improve both the protection of and support to the South Sudanese people.
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Recent violence in South Sudan has forced more than a million people from their homes. On December 15, 2013, fighting erupted in Juba between soldiers loyal to former Vice-President Riek Machar and those loyal to President Salva Kiir. President Kiir claims that Dr. Machar attempted to launch a coup, while Dr. Machar denies this. Regardless, the conflict quickly spread, causing tens of thousands of civilians to seek refuge at UN compounds throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands more are living outside of the compounds with either host communities or on their own in the country-side, and over 350,000 South Sudanese have crossed into neighboring countries as refugees. And the movements have not stopped. During a three day period in May, for instance, 11,000 South Sudanese crossed into Ethiopia for safety.
After the outbreak of violence in December, the UN Security Council authorized an increase of more than 5,000 peacekeepers (from 7,000 to 12,500) for the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). But these new troops have been slow to arrive.
Meanwhile, the violence and mass displacement is preventing many South Sudanese from planting this season. The conflict also has hindered aid organizations from prepositioning food and supplies ahead of the rainy season (May-October), a time when 60 percent of the country becomes inaccessible by road. The UN estimates that $1.8 billion in humanitarian funding is needed through 2014 and to preposition supplies for early 2015. But the current response falls hundreds of millions of dollars short, even after a major pledging conference in Oslo on May 20th.
Without delay, donor governments must deliver on their humanitarian pledges made at the Oslo Conference in May 2014.
Staff with protection of civilians expertise must be urgently deployed to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to support the mission’s stated re-focus on protecting civilians, and existing staff must prioritize their role in this effort.
UNMISS must increase patrols, both inside and outside of the UN compounds, as well as increase its communication with internally displaced people through the establishment of a community liaison unit to ensure better protection.
UNMISS senior leadership must work closely with aid organizations and representatives of troop contributing countries to ensure improved living conditions for the internally displaced population living at the UN compound near Juba International Airport (UN Tomping) until a viable alternative location is ready.
Mark Yarnell traveled to Juba, South Sudan in March 2014 to assess the situation of displaced people there.