International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Humanitarian crisis in Southern Sudan worsens ahead of referendum - Press Release

Increased attention and resources are needed to protect and aid civilians

Increasing displacement from violence and a steady stream of Southern Sudanese returning home ahead of the January 9 referendum on secession are straining communities already facing dire shortages of food, water, health care and sanitation.

“We have an unfolding humanitarian crisis, layered on top of an existing and forsaken one,” says Susan Purdin, the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) country director in Southern Sudan. “And then there’s the potential for mass displacement, an upsurge in political and ethnic violence and a larger scale humanitarian emergency.”

Hundreds of thousands of displaced Southern Sudanese have gradually returned home since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended a 22-year civil war between Sudan’s North and South. But the pace has dramatically accelerated in recent months, with some 106,000 returnees arriving from the North in the last three months.

The returnees are largely settling in former frontline states along the border that could be flashpoints again.  They arrive with little if any money and support. Thousands are camping out at makeshift transit centers, unable to reach their final destinations.  Some have nowhere to go.
The security situation has also been deteriorating.  Sporadic violence in the past year forced more than 220,000 people from their homes and attacks in the past few months in border regions have led to more displacement.  The IRC and other aid groups are also seeing increased violence against women.

“These regions are struggling to recover from the last war,” says Purdin.  “They lack basic services, infrastructure, food and the means to protect their civilians, and have little capacity to absorb returnees or displaced populations given the already bleak conditions.”
Southern Sudan remains one of the poorest and least developed places on earth.  Millions are dependent on food aid, less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water, maternal mortality rates are among the worst in the world and one in seven children dies before the age of five.
As needs continue to increase, humanitarian aid organizations and UN agencies in Southern Sudan have stepped up assistance for the newly displaced, and put coordinated plans in place to respond to emergencies before and after the referendum. 
The border state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal provides a good snapshot of the growing needs and challenges. There, International Rescue Committee health teams are currently providing medical assistance to 5,000 people, mostly women and children, who arrived in December to escape recent attacks, along with some 7,000 unsheltered returnees stuck in the state’s capital Aweil and unable to provide for themselves. 

In addition to aiding the newly displaced, the IRC has also been actively conducting contingency planning throughout the region–with teams in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan gearing up to provide lifesaving services in the event of greater instability and increased displacement, while aiming to continue current aid programs. The organization’s global Emergency Response Team has been put on standby to assist.

In Southern Sudan, the IRC is boosting staff numbers in key locations. The IRC has also delivered a three-month supply of Ministry of Health and IRC-procured medicines and supplies to 29 health centers in Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Unity states, while stocking other critical supplies like mosquito nets, plastic sheets and blankets, and items needed to carry out relief operations, including fuel and spare car parts.
“Amid all the international debate about various scenarios and the referendum’s outcome, there has been a stunning lack of attention to the current and long-term protection and humanitarian needs of vulnerable civilians,” says Purdin.

Regardless of the referendum’s outcome, the Government of Southern Sudan will be overstretched for a number of years, with limited capacity to respond to emergency, recovery and development needs.  The IRC urges the international community to fill in the gaps and offers these recommendations:

  • Press for Protection of Civilians and Humanitarian Access:  It is paramount that international donors maintain pressure on Sudanese parties to ensure a credible referendum and respect for the outcome, but this must go hand in hand with insisting on the protection of civilians. Amid deteriorating security and dwindling access to people in need, donors must press Sudanese actors to ensure the safety of civilians, respect humanitarian principles, allow the aid community unconditional access to vulnerable populations and take steps to prevent attacks on humanitarian staff.  UNMIS and UNAMID also must assertively safeguard civilians and humanitarian operations.
  • Meet UN Funding Appeal, Fund Basic Services, Increase Bilateral Support:  International donors must recognize that Southern Sudan cannot move forward without adequate relief and long term development funding.  US, European and other donors should quickly heed the UN’s request for an advance on the 2011 Consolidated Appeal Process, increase flexible funds for emergency, relief and development programs and consider direct funding to key Southern Sudanese ministries to address reintegration and other critical needs during the post-referendum period.
  • Protect Women and Girls:  Decades of war in Sudan have left a legacy of violence, especially against women and girls. With a rise in sexual assault ahead of the referendum and a historic spike in such attacks whenever there is increased conflict, there is an urgent need for heightened protection of women and girls, more and better programs to aid survivors and technical support for responsible government agencies.


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